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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 14

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When the bridesmaids entered it was a pale but firm face that greeted them. "It was panic," said Conscience slowly. "If I hadn't decided freely and fully and finally, I wouldn't have come this far. No one has forced me.... He, Eben, is worth a dozen of me.... Please believe me, never speak of this to anyone. It was sheer nerves and panic."

Of the wedding itself, Conscience had always a memory as confused and unreal as that of a dream in which logical events go mad. Through many faces, which at the moment seemed to be floating against black and leering at her, she had the sense of moving without the action of her muscles.... She saw the lion-like mane of her father's head and the ecstasy of his eyes and a voice in her but not of her whispered: "Well, I hope you're satisfied."... She was conscious of the heavy scent of flowers which reminded her of a funeral.... One face stood out distinct and seemed to be boring into her, reading secrets which, she felt through a great dizziness, she ought not to let him fathom. It was the face of Dr. Ebbett.... Then she heard a voice which sounded to her unduly loud saying: "I do," and realized that it was her own. Later she was reliably informed that she had appeared splendidly collected and regally happy. This blurred focus of realization left her only when she found herself in her own room and heard Mary Barrascale's voice speaking.

"I've never seen a bride who was lovelier, or a groom who was happier," announced Mary exuberantly as she began lifting the white veil from the dark hair. Then she added in afterthought:

"Oh, by the way, I guess this is a message of congratulation or something. One of the servants handed it to me a few minutes ago." She drew from the bosom of her gown an envelope bearing the imprint of a cable office.

As Conscience took the missive a sudden intuition hinted the contents and the waxy white of her cheeks became a dead pallor. Very slowly she tore the envelope and read Stuart's message frantically penned in Cairo on the way to the Alexandria train.

"Received no note from you. Wrote to you that night begging a chance. 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. Stuart."

The bride's heart stopped dead, then pounded madly. Stuart had received no note from her! Then he had not abandoned her. He still loved her and from that instant, whenever she told herself she did not love him, she must lie. Now she was Tollman's wife. It had almost come in time. Perhaps it _had_ come in time.

Conscience turned to the bridesmaid with a queer and unnatural ring in her voice.

"Mary," she asked, "just exactly when did this message arrive?"

"It must have been immediately before the ceremony," the girl answered with a puckered brow, striving for exactness. "One of the servants handed it to me just as we started down the steps--of course, I couldn't give it to you then."

"No," Conscience spoke as if her words came from a long distance and again she caught her lower lip between her teeth. She had to do that to keep from screaming or breaking into a bitter laugh. "No, of course, you couldn't give it to me then, and yet--" She broke off and Eleanor Kent's arms encircled her.

"Conscience, dear," she demanded, "was it anything you should have known?"

Conscience straightened slowly and shook her head. She even forced a stiff smile. "No," she lied with an effort of fulfilment for her first wifely duty. "It was just what Mary thought. A message about my marriage. I must write an answer."

Farquaharson, sitting in his stateroom, unfolded his cablegram with the feeling of a defendant who sees the door of the jury-room swing open.

With a stunned sense of despair he read:

"Don't hurry home to explain. It's too late for that.
We will be glad to see you when your trip ends.

Conscience Tollman! There was no longer a Conscience Williams then. He could only realize that some hideous mistake had made absolute a life-wrecking edict which--had he only known before--might, perhaps have been set aside. Now it was irrevocable and his own blindness and a stubbornness masquerading as pride were to blame.

Now she was the wife of Eben Tollman, the bigot whose narrowness would cramp her life into a dreary torture. His imagination eddied in bewildered wretchedness about that whirlpool of thought, bringing transient impulses of madness and self-destruction.

The thought of her as the wife of any man except himself must have meant to him a withering agony--but the idea of marital intimacy between Conscience and Eben Tollman, seemed an unthinkable desecration at which his flesh crawled. He vainly argued with himself that this was no sudden loss which had struck his life barren, but one to which he had already shaped his resignation. All that self-schooling had been swept away as fiercely as fragments of drift in the freshet of news that came with her letter. She had not exiled him but had asked him to return. She had spoken of a bitterness born of disappointment, which she had conquered: a bitterness for which he was responsible. Stark pictures shaped themselves across his brooding: pictures of the gray life to which his desertion had condemned her ... the gradually crushing tyranny of weakness ... the final surrender. It had been a surrender after years of siege, not because her courage had failed, but because she had waited in vain for the reinforcement of his loyalty. This was what he had done with his life and hers. For him there was an empty future: for her marriage with a coldly selfish sensualist who called his greed piety. Stuart Farquaharson sat in a chilled inertia of despair while the ship's bells recorded the passing of hours. From the decks above drifted little fragments of human talk and human laughter, but to him they were meaningless. Late in the evening he rose with an effort and went on deck where he sought out an unoccupied place. Phosphorescent gleams broke luminously in the wake. Clusters of great stars and the bright dust of star-spray sprinkled the sky, but whether he looked up or down Stuart Farquaharson could see only the light of victorious surrender in the eyes of the woman he loved, declaring her love for him. Now she was in the arms of another man--a man who had cunningly and patiently subordinated every lesser thing to his determination of possessing her.

The voice of impulse pleaded with him fiercely to go back and tax that man, panoplied though he was in the sanction of society and the church, with having won foully. Tollman would never kindle the fire that burned deep and blue-flamed in his wife's nature. Her life with him would be thirst and hunger. But Stuart's fever turned to chill again as he remembered. He had forfeited his rights and stood foresworn. His vows had been brave and his performance craven. He acknowledged with self-scorn that his eagerness to break through Tollman's force of possession went back to a motive more selfish than exalted. He was driven by a personal craving to hold another man's wife in his arms. He was tempted by the sense of insurmountable power which he knew he held upon her thoughts, her love and her imagination.

This must be the persuasiveness of some devil's advocate which whispered to him: "Go now! Despite all her stern allegiance to duty you can make her come into your arms. This marriage is all a hideous mistake. The bigots have trapped her with a bait of false martyrdom. Go while she is still sickened with the first bitterness of this profanation of youth in the custody of age." Then into this hot-blooded counsel crept the old, cold voice of logic, like a calm speaker quieting the incendiary passion of a mob.

It was her right to make the test unhampered, since--through his own delinquency--it was too late to avoid the test.

Two courses lay open to him now that the past was sealed. He might return to his own country, excusing himself on the shallow pretense that he meant only to "stand by" in case she needed rescue from the unendurable, or he might turn his face east and put between himself and temptation as much of space as lies between Cape Cod and the Ganges.

The two alternatives were, roughly, those of passion and reason, yet each was led by so many tributary problems that it was not easy to disentangle the threads of their elements.

Stuart Farquaharson's inheritance of fighting blood brought a red blindness which at times made the voice of reason seem contemptible and pallid with cowardice.

Could Eben Tollman, whom he had always distrusted, have engineered the thing?

Stuart, pacing the deck, halted at the thought and his fevered temples turned abruptly cold. His face set itself into malignant lines of vengeance. If such a thing could be proven--as there was a God in Heaven--Tollman was his to kill and he should die! He stood for a while, his chest heaving with the agitation of his resolve--and then he smiled grimly to himself. The calmer voice denounced him for a fool running amuck with passion. These were thoughts suited to a homicidal half-wit.

How could Eben have achieved such an end? It was absurd to seek such a reason for the fatality of his own senseless course. He had himself to blame.

Buffeted between the two influences, fighting a desperate duel with himself, Farquaharson paced the deck all night.

At times his face burned and his eyes smoldered with a fever only half sane. At times cold sweat stood on his temples and he trembled, with every muscle lax and inert. As dawn began to lighten the eastern sky-line no man could say--and least of all himself--which counsel would in the end prevail.

When the purser appeared on deck he gazed perplexedly at the haggard and distracted face which confronted him and the nervous pitch of the voice that put rapid questions. It was obvious that this solitary passenger had not been in his berth.

"What is our first port of call, and when do we reach it?" demanded Farquaharson.

"Brindisi. To-morrow."

"From Brindisi what are the most immediate connections respectively--for the States and--for India."

The officer replied with a directness that rose superior to personal curiosity.

"For the States the quickest course is to leave this vessel at Gibraltar. I can't tell you precisely what connection you could make there--but I dare say the delay would be only the matter of a day or two."

"And for the east?"

"You mean back-tracking over the route we've come?"


"We should anchor at Brindisi at two o'clock to-morrow afternoon. At two-thirty the _Mogul_ weighs anchor for Port Said ... and the Indian Ocean."

Upon the forehead of the passenger who stood in the freshness of the morning air were beads of sweat. His face was pale and drawn with the stress of one called upon for swift decision and terrifically shaken by irresolution. Knowing only that this seemed a stricken man, the purser pitied him.

Farquaharson let his eyes roam west and a momentary light of eagerness leaped in them. Then he wheeled eastward and the light paled into the deadness of despair. After a moment he straightened himself and braced his shoulders. At the end he spoke with a quiet decisiveness.

"Be good enough to send a wireless to Brindisi for me. Please do what you can to have the _Mogul_ held in the event of our being delayed. It's a matter of the utmost importance."

The purser nodded. "Very good, sir," was his ready reply. "It may be a near thing, but I fancy you'll make it."

* * * * *

Stuart Farquaharson's acknowledgment of the cablegram was brief. For the same reason which had made him so urgent in entreating Conscience to take no step until he arrived, it seemed better now that he should remain absent. He added assurances that he had never received any letter from her and mentioned the one he had written at the time of their parting. He wished her every conceivable happiness. As for himself, he would be indefinitely in the Orient where life was colorful enough to be diverting.

Of course, Conscience did not receive that letter until her return from the wedding trip, made brief because of her father's condition. The trip itself had seemed in many ways as unreal and distorted an experience as the ceremony had been. She had constantly reminded herself of how much she owed to the generous devotion of her husband, but no self-reproach could stir into life the more fiery sentiments of her heart. For his virtues she had the admiration of a daughter, a friend or a sister--but not the bright enthusiasm of a bride.

Tollman himself, the observer would have said, had left nothing to ask. Seemingly his one wish was to treat his life as a slate upon which every unacceptable word and line should be sponged out and rewritten.

The wife sat in the study of her husband's house a day or two after their return, when Tollman entered with a face full of apprehension. He had just suffered a fright which had made his heart miss a beat or two and had set his brain swirling with a fevered vision of all future happiness wrecked on a shoal of damnable folly. When he had presented his wife with the keys of his house he had not laid upon her any Bluebeard injunction that one door she must never open. Bluebeard lived in a more rudimentary age, and his needs included a secret chamber. The things which Eben Tollman earnestly desired to conceal from his wife's view could be adequately stored in the small safe of his study, since they were less cumbersome than the mortal remains of prior wives done to death. They were in fact only documents--but for him pregnant with peril--and what had stamped his face suddenly with terror was the realization that now for the only time in all his meticulously careful life--he had left them open to other eyes than his own.

The old minister had been moved bag, baggage and creed over to Tollman's larger house, and in these days of reaccommodated regime, the road between the two places was one busy with errand-running. On one of these missions Eben had been driving with the slow sedateness which was his wont, when upon pleasant reflections, like shrapnel disturbing a picnic, burst the sense of danger, and the realization of his folly. It struck the self-congratulation from his face as abruptly as a broken circuit quenches a lighting system.

He saw the table in his study as he had left it: the strongbox open--the safe, too, from which he had taken it, agape: papers lying in unprotected confusion. Among them were the two purloined letters which had made his marriage possible, and which if discovered would end it in the volcanic flames of his wife's wrath. There were also certain memoranda concerning the affairs of William Williams which might have raised an ugly implication of an estate wrecked at the hands of a trusted friend. His fear-inflamed imagination went a step further until it saw also his wife's figure halting in her task of tidying up the study and her eyes first widening in bewilderment, then blazing into an unspeakable fury--and scorn. How could he have done such a thing--he the martinet of business caution? It seemed to himself inconceivable and not to be accounted for merely by the explanation of a new husband's abstraction.

He remembered now. These particular papers had formerly been kept in a separate box--safe from confusion with others. In sorting things out prior to his wedding trip he had made several changes of arrangement--and had until this moment forgotten that change.

A sudden sweat broke out on his forehead and, snatching the whip from its stalk on the dashboard, he belabored his aged and infirm mare into a rickety effort at speed.

Ira Forman, standing by the green doors of his barn, watched the rich man go by with this unaccustomed excitement. Ira's small resources had, on occasion, felt the weight of Eben's hand and as he gazed, his observation was made without friendliness. "In a manner of speakin' Eben 'pears to be busier than the devil in a gale of wind. I wonder who he cal'lates to rob at the present time."

Eben had occasion to be busy. He had often told himself that it was the part of prudence to burn those documents, yet some jackdaw quality of setting store by weird trinkets had always saved them from destruction. In a fashion they were trophies of triumph. With indefinable certainty he felt that some time--somehow--their possession would be of incalculable value. They constituted his birth certificate in this new life.

While a frenzy of haste drove him, the realization of what he might find when he arrived made him wish that he dared postpone the issue, and the hand which fitted a key to his own front door trembled with trepidation. Once he had seen his wife's face he would know. Her anger would not burn slowly, in such a case, but in the conflagration of tinder laid to powder. Yet when he stole quietly to the study door and looked in, anxiety made his breath uneven. She was sitting there, within arm's length of the table--which, thank God, seemed to the casual glance, just as he had left it,--but in her fingers she held what appeared to be a letter, and as he watched, unobserved, she crumpled it and tossed it into the flames that cast bright flecks of color on her cheeks. Her face looked somewhat miserable and distraught--but that hardly comported with what should be expected had she learned the truth--unless possibly it was the exhaustion of wretchedness following the violence of a swiftly sweeping and cyclonic storm. On the whole, her attitude was reassuring, he thought, and in any event a bold course was best. So he entered the room, smiling. _

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