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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 15

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"You are looking very serious, dearest," he declared in a tone of assumed lightness, marred by a cumbersome quality which made it grotesque. As his voice broke on her reverie, his wife started, then sat gazing at him with a sphinx-like expression in her eyes, which he found it hard to endure. But he went boldly on: "Very serious indeed for a bride of a month's standing."

Still she did not answer and under the steadiness of her silent gaze, his momentary reassurance wilted. He had foreseen the possibility of encountering a woman turned Valkyrie, but was unaccoutred to face this enigmatical calm.

Standing here now with those cool eyes upon him, a new and cumulative apprehension tortured him. What if, with a swift determination, his wife had decided upon yet another course: that of simulating until her own chosen moment ignorance of what she knew: of drawing him more deeply into the snare before she confronted him with her discovery?

But as he was weighing these possibilities, Conscience broke the silence. She even smiled in a mirthless fashion--and the man began to hope again.

"I _was_ serious," she said. "I was reproaching myself."

"Reproaching yourself--" the husband arched his brows--"for what?"

She responded slowly as if weighing her words.

"For many things. You have devoted years of your life to my father and myself--and asked nothing. After a long while I consented to marry you--though I couldn't give myself freely or without reserve."

He bent over a little and spoke with a grave dignity.

"You have given me everything," he said quietly, "except the admission that you love me. I told you before we were married that I had no fear and no misgiving on that point. I shall win your love, and meanwhile I can be patient."

She let the implied boast of word and manner pass without debate and went on self-accusingly:

"You've treated yourself very much like an old house being torn to pieces and done over to satisfy the whims and eccentricities of a new tenant."

Tollman affected a manner meant to be debonair, but his thought was divided and uncontrollable impulse drew his glance shiftily to the table.

"Well, suppose that I have tried to change myself, why shouldn't I? I love you. I'm eager to demonstrate that I'm not too old a dog to learn new tricks."

She only shook her head, and, finding words more tolerable than silence, he proceeded:

"I've discovered the fountain which Ponce de Leon missed. Henceforth I mean to go on growing younger."

"And yet, Eben--" She was still looking at him with that directness which hinted at some thought foreign to her words--something as yet unmentioned which had left her unstrung. "It's not really a congenial role to you--this one of reshaping your life. At heart you hate it.... This house proves that. So does this room--and its contents."

The pause which separated the final words brought a sinking sensation at the pit of his stomach, and the discomfort of a fencer, dueling in the dark--a swordsman who recognizes that his cleverness is outmatched. His question came with a staccato abruptness.

"How is that?"

Conscience rose from her chair and for a moment stood letting her eyes travel about the walls, the furniture, the pictures. As they wandered, the husband's gaze followed them, and when they rested for an instant on the open strong box and the untidy papers, his alarm gained a brief mastery so that he stepped hurriedly forward, placing himself between her and the danger.

"What were you saying?" he questioned nervously.

"I was calling your attention to this room. Look at it. If you didn't, at heart, hate all change--all innovation, you couldn't have lived here this long without having altered it."

"Altered it--why?"

Conscience laughed. "Well, because it's all unspeakably depressing, for one thing. Outside of prisons, I doubt if there is anything drearier in the world than Landseer engravings in black frames and fantastically grained pine trying to be oak--unless it's hair-cloth sofas and portraits that have turned black."

The lord of the manor spoke in a crestfallen manner, touched with perplexity. To what was all this a preamble?

"That portrait is of an ancestor of mine," he said and his wife once more laughed, though this time his anxiety fancied there was irony in it. "All right," she said, "but wouldn't it have been quite as respectful and much more cheerful to send him on a visit to some painter who takes in dingy ancestors and does them over?"

"I hadn't thought of it," he acknowledged, but the idea did not seem to delight him.

"No." They were still standing, she facing the table and he facing her, making of his shoulders as wide a screen as possible.

Now she moved and stood with the fingers of one hand resting lightly on the spot where lay a profusion of scattered sheets and envelopes. These were papers which, should she see and recognize them--granting that she had not already done so--would spell divorce or separation. Tollman drew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead. At the price of any concession he must get her out of that room for five minutes!

"No," she went on. "It hadn't occurred to you, because you really dislike all change. You are a reactionary ... and I'm afraid I'm what you'd call a radical."

"But, dear--" he spoke eagerly, ready to sacrifice without combat even his cherished reverence for the unchanging order of his fathers: even his aversion to the wasting of money--"I haven't told you before because I wanted to surprise you. I've let all that wait until you should be here to direct it. I wanted the renovated house, like the renovated man, to bear the stamp of your designing."

The wife's eyes flashed with surprise and apparent pleasure. "Do you really mean it?" she exclaimed. "Do you really mean that I may do what I like with the place?"

"Yes, yes--" he hastened to assure her. "You are in supreme command here. You have _carte blanche_."

For a while she did not speak, but when she did her voice was very soft. "Eben," she said almost falteringly, "you give me everything--and I give you so little."

A few minutes later, with vast relief, he watched her go through the door, then collapsed, a limp creature, into the chair by the table, his arms going out and sweeping the papers into a pile close to his body. His face, relaxed from the strain of dissembling, looked old and his jaw sagged.

But before he had sufficiently recovered to investigate the documents he heard a rustle and looked around. Conscience was standing in the door--and he feared that even the slouch of his shoulders, seen from behind, might have been dangerously revealing. His wife's level tone as she spoke, no less than her words, intensified his conviction of defeat.

"The note that I asked you to mail to Stuart Farquaharson--that night when he left--never reached him."

So she had, after all, been playing with him as a cat plays with a mouse! She had left the room, only to return and confront him when he was unmanned. Something of cornered desperation came into his eyes, but with a final instinct of precaution he managed to assume a remnant of poise.

"Never reached him? That seems hardly possible."

She nodded. "Yes; doesn't it? I asked you at the time if you were certain you had mailed it. Do you remember?"

"Perfectly. I said I had never forgotten to mail a letter."

"Still, he never received it--and he wrote one to me--at the same time which I didn't get, either."

Eben Tollman licked his lips. It seemed useless to carry the fight further. He stood with one foot over the brink and momentum at his back. Then when another moment would have ended his campaign of dissimulation his wife spoke again, and the man's brain reeled--but this time with an incredulous reversal of emotion. Some miracle had saved him!

"I've just had a note from him. He's in India."

Eben Tollman straightened up, and shook from his shoulders the weight of a decade or two.

He had been dying the multiple deaths of the coward because he had let his imagination bolt and run away. The menace had passed, and straightway came a transformation. Once more he was full-panoplied in his assurance of self-righteousness. His voice was unctuously calculated, persuasively considerate.

"That is a very extraordinary story, but you aren't letting things that happened so long ago trouble you, are you, my dear?"

"A thing--which has caused bitterness between friends--even long ago, must trouble one."

"Yes, I quite concur in that sentiment." He nodded understandingly. It was the same gentleness of manner to which he had owed so much in the past. "And yet--I don't like to speak critically of a man who was once a rival--yet unhappily there are other things to be remembered. His experiences in New York seemed to prove him wanting of much that your friendship must demand."

Conscience did not answer, but she felt the justice of the criticism.

When his wife had again left him alone he lost no time in bending over memoranda and running through papers with fingers that trembled.

Then he straightened up again. All was as he had left it. The two intercepted letters were tied safely together and the dust which had gathered upon their wrapper was undisturbed.

For some minutes he abandoned himself to the satisfaction of a man whose escape has been narrow--but complete. Eventually, however, his brows drew together with an annoyance which had strayed into his thoughts and poisoned them. He had handled the situation ineptly and expensively.

He had given his young wife _carte blanche_ to do what she chose with his old house. She would waste money more lavishly even than he had wasted it when he had employed the services of the Searchlight Investigation Bureau. What, after all, were these cushion-footed sleuths but blackmailers of a legalized sort? He dismissed lightly the circumstance that such enterprises fatten upon the support of gentlemen who have work to do which more open methods fail to favor. This process of thought permitted his armor of self-righteousness to be worn in accord with thrift and the accomplishment of his wishes and to remain the while undented by self-accusation.

* * * * *

The first days of her wedding trip had been marked, for Conscience, by a numbed vagueness, which brought a kindly blunting of all her emotions. In that coma-like condition she could be outwardly normal while inwardly she was living a life of unrealities. She had fought that dangerous comfort as a surrender to phantasy until in a measure she had conquered it.

She had fought steadfastly against all the insurgent influences in her heart aroused by the belated telegram, as one fights the influence of a drug. It was not Eben Tollman's fault--ran her logic--that this message from Egypt had drawn Stuart Farquaharson dangerously close to his wife's inmost thoughts at a time when, she had told herself, he must henceforth be kept in the far background.

But there was no escaping the reality that the cablegram and the letter had brought definite results. They had lifted Stuart out of his place in the past and drawn him into the present. He had not been guilty of desertion, but was, like herself, the victim of a hideous and inexplicable mistake.

It had hurt when Tollman referred to Farquaharson's unfavorable record, even with the consideration of tone he had employed. But Conscience told herself that her duty lay less in defense of the man whom she had once loved and who had fallen from his pedestal than in the square facing of present facts.

Her husband had alluded to Stuart with neither rancor nor resentment but in kindliness and fair judgment. Now, at all events, she argued wildly, seeking to coerce her heart, it was to Eben and not to Stuart that she owed loyalty. So, while her husband sat in his study regretting that he had conceded too much to his fears of unmasking, she wrestled in her room with rebellious heart fires, kindled by the letter from the exile.

She shivered, though the room was warm. Assuredly, she told herself, she must keep burning before her mental vision the memory that, however much Stuart had been the victim of a mistake at the time of their parting, he had since forfeited all claims upon her love.

* * * * *

Stuart Farquaharson, the writer of best sellers, reflected that Life does not divide its chapters by the measure of the calendar, nor does it observe that rule of literary craftsmanship which seeks to distribute the drama of a narrative into a structural unity of form with the ascending stages of climax.

At this bruised cynicism an older man would have smiled, but to Stuart it was poignantly real.

He had lost the prize which to him seemed the only guerdon worth striving for, while every other recognition had come easily--almost without effort.

The success of his novel had been so extraordinary that Farquaharson fell to reviewing his literary experience with a somewhat impersonal amusement. He had not poured his soul into his work with a bitter sweat of midnight endeavor as the genius is said to do. He had wooed the muse about as reverently as a battered tramp might fondle an equally battered dog, seeking, without illusion, a substitute for better companionship.

One afternoon he sat alone in a Yokohama tea-house, reading the latest collection of newspaper reviews which had come to his hand.

"We have here a book," observed one commentator, "which irritates with a sense of undeveloped power while it delights with a too-facile charm. It would seem to come from a pen more gifted than sincere."

As Stuart slipped the collection of clippings into his pocket a hand fell on his shoulder and he rose to encounter a ruddy-faced young man in the undress uniform of the United States Navy.

"Why so solitary?" demanded the newcomer. "Surely a famous novelist needn't sit alone in the shadow of Fuji Yama. The place teems with charming Americans."

Farquaharson's face lighted with genuine pleasure as he grasped the outstretched hand in a grip of cramping heartiness.

"Jimmy Hancock!" he exclaimed. "Why, man, I haven't seen you since--" He paused, and Jimmy, seating himself, grinned back as he took up the unfinished sentence: "'Since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary--' I'll have Scotch and soda, thank you."

Farquaharson laughed. This was the same breezy Jimmy and the two had met rarely since the first academy days. That was a time which carried them both back almost to Conscience's visit in the Valley of Virginia.

A torrent of questions, many of them intrinsically inconsequential yet important to the exile, had to be put by the officer and answered by the author. Finally came one which Stuart had apprehended.

"When did you see Conscience Williams last? An unspeakably ancient letter from home mentioned your spending a summer up there on Cape Cod? There were even rosy prophecies." Farquaharson winced a little.

"She is married," he said evenly, though with an effort. "She quite recently married a gentleman by the name of Eben Tollman."

"Oh, then I was misinformed. Give me her address if you know it and I'll send my overdue congratulations."

Farquaharson complied with that obedience to social necessity which made him conceal the fact that, for him, this reunion with an old friend had been robbed of its savor and turned into a series of unhappy memories.

"This evening you are coming aboard to dine with me," announced Hancock when he had finished his drink and risen, "and after dinner a handful of people will arrive for an informal dance on deck."

But Farquaharson gave an excuse. He felt weary and shrank from those inevitable confidences which must ensue. This evening he was leaving for Tokyo and would reach Yokohama on his return only in time to make his steamer for Honolulu. Jimmy Hancock was full of regret. His own cruiser, he said, would sail to-morrow for Nagasaki.

Stuart's return from Tokyo and Nikko put him in Yokohama just before his steamer's sailing time. So it happened that he went over the gang plank of the _Nippon Maru_ as the whistle was warning visitors ashore.

Having no acquaintances among the figures that lined the deck rail behind a flutter of handkerchiefs, he went to the smoking-lounge where for two hours he busied himself with his author's routine of note books.

It was mid-afternoon when he emerged among those fellow passengers who had long ago claimed their steamer chairs and dedicated themselves to the idleness of the voyage.

Stuart began pacing the boat deck with the adequate companionship of his pipe. He was not lonely for the society of men and women. In his own mind he put a stress of emphasis on women. Two of them had touched his life closely enough to alter its currents. One, he had lost through his own folly and her inability to free herself from the sectionalism of an inherited code. The other had been foolish in the extreme and had drawn him into the whirlpool of her heedlessness.

In ways as far apart as east and west, each had been fascinating and each had been beautiful.

The orbit of his rounds carried him several times past a woman, who was standing unaccompanied at the rail astern. Her face and glance were turned outward where the propellers were churning up a lather of white spume and where little eddies of jade and lapis-lazuli raced among the bubbles.

He felt, at first, no curiosity for the averted face, but finally the length of time she had been standing there without change of posture, the unusual slenderness and grace of the figure, and the fact that he had _not_ seen her features awakened a tepid interest.

But when, for the seventh time, he rounded the white walls of the after cabin and she turned with a smile of seeming welcome on her lips, Farquaharson stopped dead. For just a surprised instant he forgot the requirements of courtesy and glanced about as if instinctively seeking escape. His jaw stiffened, then with a sense of chagrin for this gracelessness he stepped forward with a belated cordiality.

But in the brief interval he saw the exquisitely fair coloring of the woman's cheeks flush pinker, and the lower lip catch between her teeth.

Her eyes, which in the afternoon sun were golden amber, clouded with a swift shadow of pain which as swiftly vanished.

"I was wondering, Stuart," said Marian Holbury slowly, "whether you meant to speak to me at all."

"I didn't know you were on this side of the world," he responded with recovered equanimity.

She leaned against the rail and, while the breeze whipped the sash of her sweater and her white skirt about her, studied him gravely until he said: "Meeting you here was such a coincidence that it astonished me ... don't you find it surprising, too?"

She shook her head.

"No," she said, "I don't. You see I _did_ know that you were on this side of the globe. I even knew that you would be on board. Lieutenant Hancock told me." _

Read next: Chapter 16

Read previous: Chapter 14

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