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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 12

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Except for the low yet hysterical moaning of the woman in the chair and the distant whistle of a Hudson River boat, there was complete silence in the small room, while the man stood dumfounded and speechless.

Marian's evening gown was torn and one silk stocking sagged at the ankle. Stuart Farquaharson noted these things vaguely and at last he inquired, "How did you get here?"

Her answer came between sobs, "I walked."

"You have done an unspeakably mad thing, Marian," he said quietly. "You can't stay here. There is no one in this house but myself; even my servant is away to-night. Why didn't you go to 'The Crags'?"

She lifted a tear-stained face and shot her answer at him scornfully. "'The Crags'! I had to talk to some one who was _human_. They would have bundled me back with cynical advice--besides, they're off somewhere."

"You're in distress and God knows I sympathize with you. I shall certainly offer no cynical advice, but I mean to call your husband on the telephone and tell him that you're here."

He turned toward the side table and lifted the desk instrument, but with the impetuous swiftness of a leopardess she came to her feet and sprang upon him. For an instant he was borne back by the unexpected impact of her body against his own and in that moment she seized the telephone from his hand and tore loose its wires from the wall. Then she hurled it with a crashing violence to the stone flagging of the hearth where it lay wrecked, and stood before him a palpitating and disordered spirit of fright and anger.

He had sought in that brief collision to restrain her, but she had wrenched herself free so violently that she had torn the strap which held her gown over one shoulder. Then as she reeled back, with a wildly ungoverned gesture she ran her fingers through her hair until it fell in tangled waves about her shoulders. It was perhaps a full minute before she could speak and while she stood recovering her breath, Stuart Farquaharson looked helplessly down at the instrument which she had succeeded in rendering useless.

With blazing eyes and quivering nostrils, the woman rushed headlong into explanation, accusation and pleading.

"If you telephoned that I was here he'd try to kill me. I tell you I'm done with him! I hate him--hate him; don't you understand? He's been drinking again and he's a beast. That's why I came ... that's why I had to come.... I came to you because I thought you'd understand ... because I thought ... you ... cared for me."

"I care enough for you to try to prevent your ruining your life by a single piece of lunacy," he told her as he sought to steady her with the directness of his gaze. "You don't have to go on with Holbury if you choose to leave him, but this is the one place of all others for you to avoid." He cast a hasty glance about him and then, hurrying to the front of the room, closed the door and drew the blinds. For a half hour he argued with forced calmness, but the ears to which he spoke were deaf to everything save the wild instinct of escape.

"Here you are in a house that sits in full view from the road: doors and windows open: you with your hair streaming and your gown disordered; hairpins strewn about: the telephone dead. Now, I've got to walk to your house and tell him."

Under the level insistence of his eyes she had fallen back a pace and stood holding the unsupported gown over her bosom, but when he finished with that final announcement, which seemed to her a threat, she sprang forward again and threw her arms about him, not in an embrace but with the instinct of a single idea: to prevent his carrying out his announced intention.

Stuart attempted gently to disengage himself, but the soft arms clung and the figure was convulsed with its agitation. "No, no!" she kept repeating. "You sha'n't go. You sha'n't leave me here alone.... I couldn't stand it."

"You walked two miles to get here and that took you about forty-five minutes," he reminded her. "You've been here a half hour. Do you fancy your husband's jealousy won't tell him where you went?" But the idea terrified her into such renewed hysteria that he broke off and stood silent.

The gathering clouds had broken now into a wild spring storm and the rain was drumming like canister on the roof of Stuart's cottage, so they did not hear the purr of a motor which stopped outside. They were without warning when the door suddenly burst open, and across the bare shoulder of the woman, who still hung sobbing to him, Stuart saw the bloated and apoplectic face of Larry Holbury and at his back the frightened countenance of two servants.

The husband came unsteadily several steps into the room, and lifted a hand which shook as he pointed to the tableau. He addressed his retainers in a voice which trembled with drink and rage, but even in its thickness it was icy by virtue of a fury that had passed through all period of bluster.

"I want you to look well at that," he said. "Mark every detail in your memories, both of you. There they are--in each other's arms. Notice her condition well, because, by God--"

Marian's scream interrupted his sentence, and the scream itself died away in a quaver, as she faded into insensibility, and Farquaharson lifted her clear of the floor and carried her to the lounge.

After that he turned to face Holbury and addressed him with a quietness which the glitter in his eye contradicted. "This is a pity, Holbury. It seems that you frightened her with some brutality. She lost her head and came here. I was trying to persuade her to go back."

"Yes," Holbury's laugh rang with the uncontrolled quality of a maniac's. "Yes, I know. You tore the clothes off of her trying to persuade her to come back to me! Well, you needn't trouble about sending her back now--the door's locked. She's yours. Do what you like with her. Of course I ought to kill you, but I won't. I brought these men to establish beyond doubt the identity of the co-respondent. It's a gentle riddance--a crooked wife and a crooked paramour."

One of the men advanced into the room and ostentatiously gathered in a couple of hairpins and a bit of torn lace, while Farquaharson crossed and stood face to face with the irate husband.

"Do you mean that you believe that?" The question came with a deadly softness.

"I don't have to believe. I have seen."

"Then," Stuart's words ripped themselves out like the tearing of cloth, "send your damned jackals outside, unless you want them to see their master treated as such a cur deserves."

A moment later the two servants were assisting Holbury to his motor, one of them nursing a closed and blackened eye on his own account as a badge of over-impetuous loyalty; and most of that night, while Marian Holbury lay groaning on the couch, Stuart Farquaharson sat before his empty hearth with eyes which did not close.

The Holbury divorce suit, after filling advance columns of spicy print, was awarded with a sealed record and Farquaharson was given no opportunity to tell his story to the public. He saw nothing more of Marian and was widely accused of having compromised and then abandoned her. So Stuart closed the house on the Hudson, as he had closed the house in Virginia, and with a very bitter spirit went to Europe.

It was some time before this, perhaps several months, that Eben Tollman, the indispensable friend--serving hitherto without reward or the seeking of reward--ventured to aspire openly to more personal recognition. He had been building slowly, and if perseverance is a merit, he deserved success. Perhaps Conscience had changed. There had been many things to change her. She had lived long without a break in an atmosphere which she had dreaded and her father had not grown sunnier. A life of dogma had acidulated into so impossible a fanaticism that in contrast Tollman seemed to assume something like breadth of gauge.

The heart attacks which had been painted as such sure death had been a greater threat to the girl than to the man whose heart was physically involved. There had been two of them and both had been survived. William Williams was a man who was always dying, but who never died. Yet these seizures served their purpose since they kept the daughter freshly reminded that a sword of Damocles hung over her--and that her father must not be crossed. It became a thought with which she lived, with which she slept, until it carried her to more and more absurd lengths of self-effacement and ate out the heart of her independence. Of Eben Tollman she no longer thought as a man old enough to be her father and as impersonal as the Sphinx.

If he lacked the fire and buoyancy which had made association with Stuart Farquaharson a thing of light and color and sparkle, so did her whole life lack that fire in these gray days. So did she herself lack it, she told herself wistfully. At all events he came nearer being _fides Achates_ than any one else. Stuart was a memory and she was trying very hard to make him even less than that--only the gnawing ache in her heart wouldn't let her.

Yet when Tollman shifted her abstract acceptance of what he meant to her to a question of a concrete application, she felt the sudden sinking of despair.

All afternoon her father had been petulant and reminiscent. He had seemed perversely bent on committing a righteous suicide by forcing her to make him angry. He had cast into damnation all the "fads" and "isms" of an ungodly present and, since he judged the time had come to point a moral, he had buried Stuart Farquaharson at the bottom of the heap.

Even now Conscience winced under these tirades. The truth was that she was heart-broken; that the image of Stuart, despite his feet of clay, was still shrined in her life. But she was fighting that and she did not know that the fight was hopeless.

So to-night, as she sat with a sewing basket in her lap and Tollman sat across from her in the chair he had so often occupied of late, the surprise came.

"Conscience," he said, and something in the tone of his voice caused her to look suddenly up, "I've tried to be your friend because I've known that it was only that way I could be anything."

Suddenly his voice leaped with a fierceness of which she had never thought it capable. To her he had always been sort of extinct volcano, and now he broke into eruption. "Must it always be only that? Is there no hope for me?"

The piece of sewing in her hand dropped suddenly to her lap with the needle thrust half through. She sat as if in tableau--a picture of arrested motion.

She should have foreseen that the comfortable and platonic relation could not last--but she had not foreseen it. It came with a shock and in the wake of the shock came crowding pictures of all the rest of life, painted in these dun tints of New England lethargy from which she had prayed to be delivered. Then slowly and welling with disquiet, her eyes rose to his and she found them full of suspense.

"I suppose," she answered in a bewildered tone, "I ought to have known. But it's been so satisfying just as it was--that I didn't pause--to analyze."

"Couldn't it still be satisfying, dear?" He took an eager step forward. "Am I too much of a fossil?" He paused and then added with a note of hurt. "I have felt young, since I've been in love with you."

The middle-aged lover stood bending forward, his face impatiently eager and his attitude as stiffly alert as that of a bird dog when the quail scent strikes into its nostrils.

"I've accepted all you had to give," she said with the manner of one in the confessional, "and I never stopped to think that you might want something more than I was giving." Still he waited and she hurriedly talked on. "I must be honest with you. I owe you many debts, but that comes first of all. I've tried to forget--tried with every particle of resolution in me--but I can't. I still love him. I think I'll always love him."

Tollman bowed. He made no impassioned protest and offered no reminder that the man who still held her affection had proven himself an apostate, but he said quietly. "I had hoped the scar was healed, Conscience, for your own sake as well as mine. So long as I knew it hurt you, I didn't speak."

For the first time in months tears started to her eyes and she felt that she was wounding one who had practiced great self-sacrifice. He spoke no more of his hopes until some time after the news came of Stuart's participation in scandal.

At first Conscience instinctively refused that news credence, but in many subtle and convincing ways corroboration drifted in and her father, with his prosecutor's spirit, pieced the fragments together into an unbroken pattern. Until this moment there had lurked in Conscience's heart a faint ghost of hope that somehow the breach would be healed, that Stuart would return. Now even the ghost was dead. She was sick, unspeakably sick: with the heart-nausea of broken hope and broken faith.

Much of what she heard might be untrue, but it seemed established beyond doubt that from her and from his early ideals--like the oath of Arthur's knights--he had gone to careless living. He had played lightly with a woman's honor and his own, and had not come out of the matter unsoiled. Now nothing mattered much and if Tollman claimed the reward of his faithfulness and her father would died happier for it why should she refuse to consider them?

In these days the old man's urgency of Tollman's suit was rarely silenced, but one afternoon he pitched it to a new key, and the girl's habitual expression of weariness gave way to one of startled amazement.

"Of one phase of the matter," he said, "I have never spoken. I refrained because Eben was unwilling that you should know, but justice is justice--you should honor your benefactor."

"Honor my benefactor? I don't understand."

The old man shook his lion-like head and, out of the parchment of his bony face, his eyes burned grimly.

"This house--this farm--all of it--we have only by the sufferance of Eben's generosity, and yet I've heard men call him close."

Conscience thought that she had lost the possibility of being stunned, but now she sat speechless as her father continued.

"I never was a competent business man and I put affairs in Eben's hands too late. He concealed from me how dire my straits were--and our income continued--but it was coming out of his resources--not mine. If Tollman had chosen to demand payment, we would have been wiped out."

"How long have you known this?"

"Since shortly after my affliction came upon me."

Conscience moved over and stood by the window. She pressed her temples with her finger tips and spoke in a dead quiet. "You have known--all that time--and you never told me. You have urged his suit and you never let me guess that my suitor had already--bought me and paid for me."

With a low and bitter laugh--or the fragment of a laugh, she turned and left the room.

After weeks of patient silence, Tollman asked once more, "Conscience, is there still no hope for me?" To his surprise she met his questioning gaze very directly and answered,

"That depends on your terms."

"I make no terms," he hastened to declare. "I only petition."

"If you ask a wife who can be a real wife to you--who can give you all her love and life--then the answer must still be no," she went on steadily with something like a doggedness of resignation. "I can't lie to you. I have only a broken heart. Beyond friendship and gratitude, I have nothing to offer you. I can't even promise that I will ever stop loving--him. But--" her words came with the flatness of unending soul-fag--"I suppose I can give you the lesser things; fidelity, respect; all the petty allegiance that can go on without fire or spirit."

"I will take what you can give me," he declared, and at the sudden ring of autumnal ardor in his voice and the avid light in his eyes, she found herself shivering with fastidious distaste. She did not read the eyes with full understanding, yet instinctively she shrank, for they held the animal craving of a long-suppressed desire--the physical love of a man past his youth which can satisfy itself with mere possession. "I will take what you can give me, and I shall win your love in the end. I have no fear; no doubts. I lack the lighter charms of a youthful cavalier, but I believe I have still the strength and virility of a man." He swelled a little with the strutting spirit of the mating male. "You will learn that my heart is still the heart of a boy where you are conceded and that our life won't be a shadowed thing."

"I must have time to think," she said faintly. "I don't--don't know yet."

Driven by wanderlust and an unappeasable discontent, Stuart Farquaharson had been in many remote places. Around those towns which were Meccas for tourists he made wide detours. His family had jealously kept its honor untarnished heretofore and though he bore himself with a stiffer outward pride than ever, he inwardly felt that fingers of scandal were pointing him out, through no misdeed of his own. Now he was back in Cairo from the Sudan and the upper Nile, almost as brown and hard of tissue as the Bedouins with whose caravans he had traveled and for the first time in many weeks he could regain touch with his mail. That was a matter of minor importance, but his novel had come from the press on the day he sailed out of New York harbor and perhaps there awaited him at Shepheard's some report from his publisher. That gentleman had predicted success with an abundant optimism. Stuart himself had been sceptical. Now he would know.

He sent his luggage ahead and drifted on foot with the tide. What a place this would be, he reflected, to idle time away with the companionship of love. His eyes narrowed painfully with a memory of how Conscience and he had once talked of spending a honeymoon in Egypt. That seemed as long ago as the age of Egypt itself and yet not long enough to have lost its sting. Grunting and lurching along the asphalt, with bells tinkling from their trappings, went a row of camels and camel-riders. They threaded their unhurried way on cushioned hoofs through a traffic of purring roadsters and limousines. Drawn by undersized stallions, an official carriage clattered by. Its fez-crowned occupant gazed superciliously out as the gaudily uniformed members of his _kavasse_ ran alongside yelling to the crowds to make way for the Pasha! Fakirs led their baboons, magicians carried cobras in wicker trays, and peddlers hawked their scarabs and souvenirs. Against the speckless overhead blue, rose the graceful domes and minarets of mosques and the fringed tops of palms.

Farquaharson lightly crossed the terrace at Shepheard's Hotel and traversed the length of the hall to the office at its back where mail is distributed. For him there was a great budget and he carried it out to one of the tables on the awninged terrace which overlooks the street.

Yes, here was the publisher's note. He tore the envelope. "You have become famous," began his enthusiastic sponsor. "The thing has been a knockout--the presses are groaning."

He read that letter and turned to others. A dramatist wished to convert his book into a play ... several magazines wanted to know when his next story would be complete ... two or three clipping bureaus wished to supply him with the comments of the press ... many of the missives bore the marks of much forwarding. Some had followed him half way around the world. Then at the bottom of the pile he found a small but thickly filled envelope. As it peeped out at him from under others his heart leaped wildly and he seized it. It was addressed in the hand of Conscience Williams. She had written to him! Why should she write except to tell him he might come back? Cairo was a wonderful place! The entire world was a wonderful place! A street fakir thrust a tray of scarabs up from the sidewalk and grinned. Farquaharson grinned back and tossed him _backsheesh_. Then he opened his missive. A young British army officer looked on idly from the next table, amused at the boyish enthusiasm of the American. As the American read the officer saw the delight die out of his eyes and the face turn by stages to the seeming of a mummy.

Conscience had written a letter in which she suggested that, now at least, they might say farewell in all friendliness. She was going to marry Tollman, to whose great kindness she paid a generous tribute. The date was not set but it would be some time that winter.

"I've had a great deal of time to think and little else to do, Stuart," she wrote, and at this point the penmanship had suffered somewhat in its steadiness. "We have both had some troublesome times, but isn't there a great deal we can remember of each other with pleasure? Can't it be a memory which we need not avoid? I was bitterly rebellious and heart-broken when you ignored the note in which I asked you, as humbly as I could, to come back, but that is over now--"

_A note which asked him to come back!_ The letter fell from Farquaharson's fingers. His hands themselves fell limp to the table. He sat stupefied--staring and licking his lips.

The English officer rose and came over, dropping a kindly hand on his shoulder.

"I beg pardon, sir," he said, "but are you ill? Can't I get a nip of brandy?"

Stuart turned his head stupidly and looked up. Then slowly he pulled himself together, with a shamed realization that the eyes of a hundred pleasure-seekers had witnessed his collapse. He straightened and set his jaw. "No, thank you. I'm all right," he declared. "I've been in the desert, you see, and--" But the Englishman had nodded and gone back to his table.

Ten minutes later, scornful of over-sea tolls, Farquaharson was filing a cablegram. The letter had said she would be married "some time in the winter." It was now past mid-winter. Would there be time? His hand trembled with his haste as if the saving of a few seconds could avail.

"Received no note from you. Wrote to you that night begging a chance," he scribbled, as his head swam with the effort and frenzy of his suspense. "Horrible mistake has occurred. Matter of life and death and thousand times more than that that you take no step till I see you. Am sailing by first boat. Wait."

That afternoon he dashed across the gangplank of a P. and O. steamer at Alexandria just as the last whistle blew. While the propellers churned the Mediterranean waters into a restless wake at the stern, Stuart walked the decks like a man demented. Would there be time? His fingers itched for his watch, because his obsession was the flight of hours. But on the second day out a wireless message came, relaying from Cairo. The man did not dare open it on deck. He took it to his cabin and there with the slowness of deep fear, he unfolded the paper. _

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