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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 17

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She came to a stop and sat looking out at the phosphorescent sea and the star-filled skies. Farquaharson leaned forward, his words coming brokenly and in a heavy misery of embarrassment.

"Marian, I _have_ recognized the new you: I've seen the splendid development and fulfilment of you. It's only that ... that--" He broke off and began over impetuously. "I happened to fall in love with--Conscience before I met you. Of course, that's quite hopeless now ... but it seems permanent." He was struggling with a diffidence which, in such circumstances, a man must have been very callous to have escaped. On the lips of his characters, in fiction, words flowed with an ease of dialogue and broke often into epigram. Now they eluded him, leaving him in confusion. The situation was one for which he found himself unprepared. "I doubt if I shall ever feel otherwise--about her," he went on somewhat flounderingly. "You and she are women of almost opposite types in a way and yet--yet I've been realizing while you talked, that in many respects you are alike."

Marian's lips twisted themselves into a smile, stiff with tension of spirit, but a whimsical irony tinged her voice.

"The Colonel's lady and Rose O'Grady
Are sisters under their skins,

I suppose we have that kinship, Stuart."

The man's hands closed into a tight grip on the arms of his steamer chair. In his eyes were regret and sincerity, but his words came with the firmness of resolve:

"I have, as you say, been dense," he declared, speaking now in even sentences that had ceased to break disjointedly. "I haven't even done you the justice of recognizing your more genuine self. You spoke of drawing me into the web of your troubles--but you didn't say the thing which you might have mentioned. I was also an adult of supposedly human intelligence. I should have foreseen the dangers of even so innocent an affair as was ours. I should have protected you."

"Against myself?" she inquired.

"Against ourselves," he responded quickly. "I should, for instance, have told you that I was so much in love with one woman, that to me all others must remain--just others. Now you have done me the honor to say you love me."

"Please, Stuart!" Marian's face was momentarily drawn in a paroxysm of pain. "Please don't make me pretty speeches. It isn't necessary--and it doesn't help."

"I'm not making pretty speeches," he declared. "My love is a hopeless one, but I can't deny its force without lying. I've helped you spoil your life and if I can help you mend it--" He broke off there and then abruptly he said: "Marian, will you marry me?"

She carried her hands to her face and covered her eyes. For a moment she sat in a stunned attitude and her words came faintly:

"I understand your motive, dear. It's gallant--but it wouldn't do."

"Why?" he demanded and again her head came up with the bearing of pride.

"I've already told you that it's not rehabilitation in the eyes of the world I seek. For you it would be sacrifice--and for me a failure. If you asked me because you loved me, and I believed I could make you happy I think you know what my answer would be. But to marry you without your loving me--well, that would be--" She paused and then finished: "It would be sheer Hell."

Stuart leaned over and picked up the pipe. His face was rigid and self-accusing, and the woman laid her hand on his arm.

"You have ridden with me in the hunting field, Stuart," she irrelevantly reminded him. "I hope you'll testify that I can take my croppers when they come. Please don't think I'm whimpering."

"One could hardly think that," he declared.

A sudden thought brought a fresh anxiety to her eyes, as she vehemently demanded: "Was she--was Miss Williams, influenced by what people said about you and me?"

"I suppose," he said, "the only version she had was the public one, and I fancy there were those about her who made use of it, but I don't believe it affected her decision."

Marian's voice was very low, almost tender now. "It would mean a good deal to you, wouldn't it, to have her know the truth?"

His hand gripped her own feelingly for a moment and he nodded his head but, in words, he said only: "Yes--it would."

"I wish I knew her. I wish I could set you straight with her," she told him and after that she rose. "At all events it was worth the experiment," she commented. "Well, '_la comedia e finita_.' I think now I'll go to bed."

* * * * *

Conscience dealt relentlessly with herself in those storms of argument which arose in her mind and had to be fought out; storms involving the readjustment of her life to the partnership of marriage.

Yet she must not, if she placed value upon success, fall into the class of parasite wives who suffer their own independence of thought to languish.

One day she came into the study while Eben was engaged in those matters of business which brought the most unaffected pleasure to his eyes and his attitude was that of such absorption that she did not at once announce her presence. When he turned at length and saw her, he came instantly to his feet, but despite the smile of his welcome, Conscience caught the repressed reluctance with which he shoved back his papers and pencil.

"Eben," she hazarded, "why can't I make myself useful? Can't you delegate some part of your work to me?"

Instead of gratification his expression took on the cast of apprehension, though he laughed.

"What! Do you want to turn business woman, my dear?" he inquired. "Are you ambitious to come into the firm and have your name on the door?"

"I want to have a hand on the oar because I think you have a sort of financial genius and I'd like to share a thing which must come that close to your inner life," she explained, and under the pleasurable spell of her appreciation Tollman found himself expanding with responsive pride. To certain forms of flattery he was as susceptible as a schoolgirl.

"If I have ability," he made modest disavowal, "it's of a slight caliber."

"I don't know anything about your financial rating," went on his wife. "I've never asked any questions about that and I don't care so far as the mere figures go. But I believe you have a gift of business generalship which, in fields of wider opportunity, might have made you a millionaire."

Tollman broke unexpectedly into a peal of laughter. He complacently accepted the tribute to his powers, but would have preferred it laid on with greater lavishness. Quite casually he remarked:

"When I said slight caliber, I spoke comparatively. If the occasion arose, I fancy I could sign a check now--not only for a million but for several."

Conscience's dark eyes must have mirrored their amazement: an amazement which was entirely natural, and which concerned not only the revelation of wealth in itself, but more complex things as well.

The disturbing thought intruded itself that in a land of such sparse opportunities these returns could be wrung out only by a policy so tight-fisted as to be merciless. It must mean draining resources to their dregs. That was an unpleasant suspicion which she instantly expelled with the reminder that her husband had inherited wealth and that in supplementing it he had not been limited to a local field of operation.

The next unwelcome thought suggested that if Eben were so rich as that his generosity to her father and herself was discounted. Out of abundance he had given a moiety and because of it she had put her life into a yoke. But that idea, too, she met with the answer that his conduct must not be measured by a given cost but by its spirit and willingness.

"You are surprised?" His smiling inquiry called her back from her disturbing reverie with a sense of guilty criticism.

"Only at the degree of your success, Eben," she told him gravely; "I had not supposed it so large."

But as time went on, an intelligence less keenly edged than hers would have recognized that it was only to the anterooms of his financial interests that he admitted her.

This was inevitable, and obviously he could not explain what she felt to be a rebuff. To make full disclosure of certain transactions would have stripped Eben Tollman of disguise and brought results as parlous as those he had feared on the afternoon when he left his strong box unlocked. Structures of self-delusion might have fallen into shapeless debris under the batteries of her frank questioning. Eben Tollman could dismiss from thought the woman who has lost her way or the man who has succumbed to a destructive thirst. That required only the remembrance that the "wages of sin is death." But if real estate which he owned in poor, even disreputable sections of distant cities brought him in surprisingly large rentals, he did not conceive that his duty required an investigation of the characters of his tenants.

Of course should his agents tell him that his property was being prostituted to evil ends for gain he would have to sever relations with them, but he selected agents who troubled him with no such embarrassing details. This was a practical attitude, but something told him that in it Conscience would hardly see eye to eye with him.

It was late in May that Jimmy Hancock wrote a note to the girl with whom he had ridden horseback in the Valley of Virginia.

"I've just had a stroke of luck," he said, "in meeting our old friend Stuart Farquaharson, who is touring the world, crowned gorgeously with bays of literary fame. I ran into him yesterday in Yokohama and from him learned for the first time of your marriage. If I am the last to congratulate you, at least I am among the first in heartiness and sincerity....

"There are some charming Americans here--though I don't think of any others whom I should mention as common acquaintances. Or did you know Mrs. Larry Holbury? She has been reigning graciously over us, and I am among the smitten. However, since both she and Stuart are to sail on the _Nippon Maru_ I have no great modicum of hope."

Poor Jimmy! Never was man less bent on purveying morsels of deleterious gossip. Never was man, in effect, more stupidly blundering.

He wrote the day after the dance on his cruiser and he spoke of the things near his current thoughts.

When Conscience had read the note, her eyes wandered thoughtfully and at the end her lips curled. "So she followed him across the world, did she?" she said half aloud, since she was quite alone. Then she added quietly: "Still I guess she didn't pursue him without knowing that she would be welcome. It was just as well that the dream ended in time."

Until his stroke had disabled the Reverend William Williams, his congregation had thought of him less as an individual than as an institution. In their minds he had shared the permanence of the church steeple. Trained through two generations to his intensity and fiery earnestness they saw in other clergymen a tame half-heartedness. Exponents of more modern and liberal thinking had since come and gone leaving the men and women who had been reared on the thundered Word as expressed in his firstlies, secondlies, thirdlies and finalies unable to fill their pulpit to their satisfaction.

Then it was that Sam Haymond, D.D., came to them, as a visiting preacher for a single Sabbath. He came heralded by tidings of power in oratory and zeal of spirit beyond the ordinary. Report had it that his shoulders were above the heads of mediocrity and that, like Saul of Tarsus, he had entered upon his ministry, not through the easy stages of ecclesiastical apprenticeship, but with the warrior-spirit of a man wholly converted from the ranks of the scoffers. Accordingly it was appropriate that he should come as the guest of Eben Tollman, the keystone in the arch of the church's laity and of the old minister who still held power as a sort of director _emeritus_.

Eben being engaged by peremptory affairs in his study, Conscience drove to the station to meet him on a fine young Saturday morning at the beginning of June. She set out from the house which maintained a sort of lordly aloofness among pine-covered hills, more than usually conscious of the lilt of summer in air and landscape.

The Tollman farm had been one of goodly size when Eben had inherited it and outlying tracts had since augmented it by virtue of purchase and foreclosure, until the residence, which faced a lake-like cove, was almost isolated of site. On either side of the sandy road, as Conscience drove to the station, elms and silver oaks and maples were wearing new and tender shades of green. Among the sober pines they reminded her of fashionables flaunting their finery in the faces of staid conservatives.

Between the waxen profusion of bayberry bushes, wild-flowers sprinkled the carpet of pine needles and blackberry trailers crawled in a bright raggedness. _

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