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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 13

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Against the stupor of Stuart Farquaharson's brain, as he sat in the small stateroom of the P. and O. steamer, beat the fear of what he might read.

Subconsciously his senses recorded small and actual things as the vessel lurched through a heavy sea: the monotonous rat-tat of the brass door-hook against the woodwork, and the alternating scraps of sky and water as the circle of his port hole rose and fell across the line of the horizon.

He was thinking of the letter that had come to Cairo--and lain there so long unopened, but he was spared a knowledge of the suspense with which Conscience had awaited an answer.

She had written it early in the fall and had mailed it endorsed "please forward" in the care of his New York publishers, so that it had played tag with him, never catching him, over the length of Europe and, after that, had zig-zagged along the cities of the Levant and the fringes of Africa.

Meanwhile, the man to whom it was addressed was wandering from the upper Nile to Victoria Nyanza and beyond--where mail routes run out and end. Acknowledging in her thoughts, from the first frost on Cape Cod to the middle of winter, that temporizing only spelled weakness, Conscience had none the less temporized. She said to herself: "Nothing he wrote _now_ would alter matters." Still with a somewhat leaky logic she added: "But I'll give him a month to answer before I fix the date." When the month had passed without result she granted herself other continuances, facing alike, with a gentle obduracy, the pleas of her elderly lover and the importunities of a father who threatened to murder himself with the self-inflicted tortures of impatience.

At length she capitulated to the combined forces of entreaty, cajolery and insistence. The fight was lost.

Through the preparations for that wedding she went without even the simulation of joy or glamour. At least she would be honest of attitude, but days which filled the house with wedding guests brought to her manner a transformation. Her decision was made and if she was to do the thing at all she meant to do it gallantly and with at least the outward seeming of full confidence. She meant to betray to these visitors no lurking misery of spirit; no note of struggle; no vestige of doubt. The eyes which burned apprehensive and terror-stricken, throughout the darkness of interminable nights, were none the less serene and regally assured by day. The groom, too, seemed rejuvenated by such a spirit as sometimes brings to autumn a summer quality more ardent than summer's own. At the end of his _fiancee's_ doubtings, he fatuously told himself, had come conviction. She knew at last how much stauncher a thing was his own dependable strength and ripened manhood than the frothy charm of a half-fledged gallant who had crumpled under the test.

Among the guests who for several days filled both the manse and Tollman's house, were two who were not entirely beguiled by Conscience's gracious and buoyant demeanor. One pair of these observant eyes was violet blue and full of starry freshness. Intimate letters from Conscience, in the old days, had invested Stuart Farquaharson with a romantic guise for their possessor and Eben Tollman scarcely measured up to that standard.

The other pair of eyes was neither young nor feminine, but elderly and penetrating. Though Doctor Ebbett's temples were whitely frosted, he and Eben Tollman had been classmates at Harvard. Now he was to be best man at his friend's belated marriage. The work in which he had made his name distinguished had to do with the human brain--its vagaries as well as its normalities--and his thought was enough in advance of the general to be frequently misunderstood and sometimes a target for lay ridicule.

On the evening after his arrival he sat in Eben Tollman's study with two other men who were also classmates. Tollman himself was still at the manse, and his guests were beguiling themselves with cigars which he had furnished, and whiskey which he had not--and upon which he would have frowned.

Over his glass Carton, the corporation lawyer, irrelevantly suggested:

"Eben seems a boy again. It makes us chaps whose children are almost grown, feel relegated to an elder generation."

"Miss Williams," observed Henry Standing, "has a pretty wit and a prettier face. I wanted to say to her: 'Now, my dear child, if I were twenty years younger--' and then I caught myself up short. I chanced to remember that Eben _isn't_ twenty years younger himself."

Carton nodded thoughtfully. "I can't help feeling that a thing like that is always a bit chancy. Eben was a sober-sided kid in his cradle and the girl is all fire and bloom. Fortunately it doesn't seem to have occurred to her that there's any disparity." He paused, then demanded: "Ebbett, you're a psychologist. What do you think?"

Dr. Ebbett took his cigar from his lips and studied it with deliberation. When he spoke his words were laconic.

"I think it's as dangerous as hell."

"But a young wife will rejuvenate him and keep him young, won't she?"

"It's rarely been done before," retorted the doctor drily. "Moreover, it's not a question of making him young again. A man of our friend's type is born old."

"Oh, come now," protested Carton. "What's the matter with his type?"

Dr. Ebbett paused, listening to the blizzard's shrieking outside, then he replied evenly:

"He's too intensely a New Englander. The somber and narrow man represses one-half of his being and straightway sets up a Mr. Hyde in ambush to make war on his Dr. Jekyl. Our lunatic asylums are full of patients whose repressions have driven them mad. The whole Puritan code is a religion of repression--and it's viciously dangerous."

Dr. Ebbett paused and sent a cloud of cigar smoke outward. His voice abandoned the lecture-room professionalism into which it had fallen.

"But, as you say, that is all academic. Perhaps the bride has youth and humor enough to leaven the whole lump."

Much less abstruse were the thoughts of Eleanor Kent: she of the violet eyes, as she listened to Mary Barrascale's eulogy of Eben Tollman on the day before the wedding. Eleanor could not forget moments which had seemingly escaped Mary's observation: moments when Conscience, believing herself unnoticed, allowed a look of fright to come to her eyes and a line to circle her lips.

"When you told me in your letter that he was so much older than you," declared Mary, her enthusiasm bubbling as the three engaged themselves over the last details of packing, "I simply couldn't bear it,--but he isn't old at all. He's simply charming, and he has _such_ a rare distinction of manner. I feel as if I were talking to a Prime Minister whenever we have a chat."

"Thank you, dear," said Conscience, quietly, and the happy serenity of her eyes seemed genuine--except to Eleanor.

"Of course, at one time," Mary rushed on, "we all thought that you had decided to marry Mr. Farquaharson--and he sounded well worth while from what you told us. It only shows what an easy thing it is to make mistakes. How did you find out yourself, dear?"

Eleanor Kent thought she saw Conscience wince and close her eyes for an instant as though in a paroxysm of pain, but her question came gravely: "How did I find out what?"

"Why, that he was the sort of man that--well, that his mixing up in that Holbury scandal indicated."

The girl who was to be married rose from the trunk over which she had been bending and averted her face, but her voice was evenly calm as she answered:

"I fancy the reports we had of that were exaggerated."

A sudden fire snapped in the violet eyes of Eleanor Kent and her cheeks burned under a rosy gust of anger.

"Mary," she announced with spirit, "Mr. Farquaharson was a friend of Conscience's and I have no doubt he still is. I don't think either of us knows anything about him that gives us the right to criticize him. Have you read his book?"

"Why, no. Of course, I didn't mean to say anything--"

"Well, I advise you to read that book." Stuart's champion tossed her head with the positiveness of conviction. "It's not the kind of novel that a rake could write. It's straight and clean minded, and if what a man chooses to write, indicates what he thinks, he's that sort himself."

At this defense from an unexpected quarter, a light of gratitude kindled in the face of the bride-to-be.

When the day set for the wedding had worn to dusk, Conscience escaped from the guests and made her way slowly to her unlighted room. Her knees were weak and she told herself that this was the natural stage-fright of the altar--but she knew that it was more than that.

As she reached for matches the sound of voices beyond the door arrested her, and the challenge of her own name held her attention.

"She's _perfectly_ lovely," declared Mary Barrascale, whose speech ran to superlatives, "and she's _radiantly_ happy, too. To think that she's being married and we're still in college."

Conscience straightened where she stood near the window. She raised her palms to her temples and stepped back unsteadily until she could lean against the wall. Before her eyes rose a vision of the college campus--another of the care-free dormitory, then the picture dissolved into another and she found herself trembling. Memory was playing tricks and very softly a voice seemed to whisper in her ear, as it had actually whispered long ago in response to these same regrets, "Does it hurt as much as that, dearest?"

She became vaguely conscious of Eleanor's voice again, low pitched and tense.

"I should think, Mary, you would see the truth. You chatter about how happy she is--and she's almost going mad before your eyes. It's ghastly--positively ghastly."

"What in heaven's name do you mean?" Mary's question broke from her in amazement.

"I mean that anyone who wasn't deliberately trying to be deceived ought to see what all this radiant happiness is worth. She's sick with doubt and misgiving. If you ask me I believe it's because she still loves Stuart Farquaharson--and besides I don't believe he was ever given a fair chance." The girl halted and then broke into silent tears. "She's letting them make a sacrifice of her--and I'm utterly ill with the thought of it."

Conscience leaning weakly against the wall, let both hands drop nervelessly at her sides. "I don't believe ... he was ever given a fair chance." Her lips shaped the words she had just heard in a soundless echo.

Was that true? she asked herself, accusingly, and her brain was too confused for a just answer. An avalanche of new doubts rushed down upon her, crushing her reason. She saw in this ceremony a horrible travesty from which she must escape at all costs.... But how? She had no longer the strength to repudiate boldly her settled decision. Her courage was at ebb and she was caught in the grip of unreasoning panic. She would abandon everything and everybody ... she would slip away ... she would be true to herself first and then try afresh to be true to others. In short she was for the time distracted.

She slipped over noiselessly and closed her door. She selected a small traveling bag from the other pieces of luggage packed for her wedding trip.

Then, overcome by sheer emotional exhaustion, she threw herself on her bed where she sobbed quietly in the flickering of the candles. It was so that the bridesmaids found her when they came in their capacity of tire maidens to remind her that she must soon begin dressing for the ceremony.

At once Eleanor had her arms about her friend, while Mary stood by gasping and ineffectual.

Slowly Conscience raised her face and looked miserably from one to the other. Her voice was dead and colorless.

"I heard what you said, Eleanor," she declared. "It's all true.... I can't go through with it."

"But it's too late now, dear!" began Mary Barrascale's horrified voice which Miss Kent silenced with a glance of contempt.

"Thank God, it's _not_ too late--yet," she said calmly. "It's never too late while it's still _now_. But the bag, dear--what was that?"

Conscience rose and stood unsteadily with a trace of panic lingering in her eyes. She spoke faintly.

"I guess I was quite mad.... I had the impulse to--to run away."

"You can't do that, you know." Eleanor Kent was one of those diminutive and very feminine persons, who in moments of crisis can none the less assume command with the quiet assurance of an admiral on his bridge.

"You have still a perfectly good right to change your mind, but it mustn't be just on impulse. We're going to leave you now for thirty minutes. When the time is up I'll be back and if you want to begin dressing--all right." She paused a moment and then with a defiant stiffening of her slender figure she announced crisply. "And if you _don't_ want to, I'll go downstairs and tell them that you've decided not to be married."

"What will they think of you?" Mary Barrascale had reached a condition from which her contributions to the talk emerged in appalled gasps.

Eleanor wheeled on her. "They can think what they jolly well like," she announced with a fine abandon of recklessness.

Feeling like watchers beside a jury-room door, the two bridesmaids kept vigil, harboring contrary hopes.

Left alone in her room, the girl stood for a while gazing about her as if her wild eyes were seeking for some secret panel that might open in the walls and give her escape. She must think! There was little enough time at best to bring order out of this panic-ridden confusion of her thoughts. But her mind was like a stream in freshet. It could only race and swirl along one channel, and that was the spillway of memories.

Stuart Farquaharson the boy; Stuart the man, coming to her at Chatham; Stuart standing self-governed as her father scourged him with abuse; Stuart the lover; all those semblances passed before her until her world seemed peopled with them, and her old love grew clamorous in resurrection--and insurrection.

In a little while she would be--unless she halted here--holding up her hand for Eben's ring, and at the thought a sickness swept over her. It was impossible. Instead of victory it was, after all, an abject and hideous surrender. She could not face it and all that must come after it.

Then she heard a feeble rap on her door. At the threshold stood the wheelchair to which her father was confined like a slave chained to his seat in the galley. She caught a brief impression of a pair of eyes beyond him: the eyes of Eleanor Kent, full of the message of strength; eyes that seemed to be saying, "Stand firm. Be sure!" But nearer at hand was the face with skin drawn like parchment over its bony angles, deeply lined with suffering, and crowned with a great shock of snowy hair.

The features, though, were only details of setting for the spirit of the keen eyes that had always burned with an eagle fierceness and an unyielding aggressiveness. Now they were different, and as the guests who had brought the chair and its occupant up the stairs and into the room withdrew in silent respect, the daughter's gaze was held by them with a mesmeric force.

It was a face transfigured; a face in which the hardness of fight had died into the serenity of peace.

Angles and wrinkles had become only lines of emphasis for this new tranquillity of the eyes; eyes that might have seen a vision of divine accolade and were at peace.

"My daughter," he said, as soon as they were alone together, and his voice held the music of a benediction, "you are standing at the threshold of your life--and I am near the end of mine, but for the first time in many years, I am content and all my sorrows are paid for."

"Father!" she exclaimed brokenly, but he went on.

"I can now go, knowing that your life is secure on the rock of a stable marriage: all your dangers over. You are making of my poor life a success after all--and its end is a thing of peace. Eben is not as young as you, but his heart is great and his character sincere. In the shadow of his strength you will 'be secure and at peace beside still waters' and I can leave you without fear. In his blood is the steadfastness of Plymouth Rock--ay, and the Rock of Ages and the honor of our forefathers."

The old man broke off, and raised his thin hand to his lean face with a gesture of appealing physical weakness. His enthusiasm had tired him and now a smile came to his lips of unaccustomed sweetness and tenderness. When he spoke again it was in a different tone.

"But you know all that. My life has been one of stress, and you've not known a mother. What I came to tell you, my dear, is that I realize you may have missed that tenderness, and that whatever I may have seemed, I have always felt it."

She was kneeling by his chair now with her hands gently stroking his white mane.

"I know, Dad," she declared, and he reached up and took her fingers between his two palms.

"You are making me happy, my daughter, unspeakably happy," he said. "And I, who have long been old, feel young again. The Bible tells us that marriage means leaving father and mother and cleaving only to the one--but thank God, Eben insists that I shall spend my remaining days with you both, and I am very happy."

At last he was rolled out again, leaving behind him a memory of that exalted peace of countenance, and with a stifled groan the bride-to-be turned back to her room--her period of reflection almost consumed.

"It would kill him!" she moaned. "It would be murder. And that look! That happiness! I guess that will have to be my compensation." _

Read next: Chapter 14

Read previous: Chapter 12

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