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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 19

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About the churchyard, like sentinels of peace, stood ranks of elms and silver oaks. They had been old and gnarled of trunk, when the man whose life had just guttered out inside had come, young and militant, to preach the letter of that law, whose spirit was to his understanding a fourth dimension. Through the long windows of colored but artless glass, now partly raised, poured slanting panels of summer sun, mottling the interior and its occupants with dashes of red and blue.

Into the hush which had fallen there crept also those minors that seemed to belong rather to an exaggerated quiet than to sound: the trill of a bird, voicing an overflow of joy and the humming of bees among the vines of the church yard, where slanting headstones bore quaintly archaic names and life dates of sailors home from the sea. A wandering butterfly had drifted in and was winging its bright way about the place where the sermon had been interrupted. But the bated breath of awed amazement broke at the end of a long-held pause into a buzz of whispered exclamation.

Conscience rose unsteadily and started forward, her hands clutched to her breast, and the minister came hurriedly down the pulpit stairs.

Later in the day when the body still lay in the parlor of the Tollman house and Conscience sat almost as motionless near by, Eben Tollman paced the floor with features set in an expression unpleasantly suggestive of the undertaker's professional solemnity.

Possibly Tollman was not inconsolably cast down. So long as the old man's precarious life spark had been a danger signal, burning against the influence of Stuart Farquaharson, it was vital that he should live. Now he was entitled to the serenity of a holy man's reward.

It was near to sunset when the husband left the room and the eyes of Conscience kindled for the first time out of their lethargic quiet. Abruptly she rose from her seat and rebelliously demanded of the young minister, "What would you say if I should confess to you that just one thing has been clear and outstanding through all the confusion of my thoughts since this morning? I've been unspeakably sullen."

"I should say," he responded quietly, "that it is a guise which grief often assumes."

"No," she protested, disdaining the cajolery of self-delusion, "my sullenness isn't that sort. It's pure rebellion. I've been thinking of the abysmal failure of those who dedicate themselves most wholly. _His_ devotion to righteousness was implacably sincere and severe. It was the doctrine of the hair-shirt. He scorned to ride any wave ... he had to buffet every one head on ... until he battered out his life and wrecked himself."

"A man must serve as he reads his command," her companion reminded her. "He has done his work as he conceived it."

"And yet--" she looked into his face with a deep questioning which held no note of accusation--"if anything that you said to-day is true, his whole effort was not only wasted but perverted, and it was true. It was so terribly true that it killed him!"

"What do you mean?" Haymond's gaze searched her eyes with incredulous amazement. It seemed to be making an effort to steady her against the wild utterances of hysteria, but her response was convincingly calm.

"I mean just that. I myself had nothing in common with his views. To me they seemed narrow--pitifully narrow and uncomprehending--and he was my father. We were warned that in any sudden gust of anger his feeble life spark--would go out, so I put my own conceptions of what counted behind me and tried to shield him." Sam Haymond hardly heard the last words. He could realize only the dazing and crushing import of his own unwilling instrumentality. At last he inquired slowly, "You mean that my sermon--that the things I said--" There he broke off and the distress in his eyes was so poignantly genuine that Conscience replied softly, "No, it wasn't you. It was Fate, I guess. Even I can't blame you. It only proves that the thing I warped my own life to prevent was inevitable--that's all."

For a little while the minister stood silent and across his face passed a succession of bewildered shadows.

"It is hard for me to grasp this," he said at last with a grief-laden voice. "It is hard for me to realize that two men serving the same God; both preaching His Word with identical earnestness could be so at variance that the concept of one should give mortal hurt to the other."

They sat in silence until the sunset pageantry had dimmed to twilight. Then the man spoke again, guardedly.

"You said something about warping your life for your father's sake. I wonder if--well, I wonder if there's anything it would help you to talk about--not to the minister but to the friend."

She met his gaze with one of equal directness, and he could see an impulse, rather hungry and eager, dawn only to be repressed in her eyes. At last she shook her head. "No," she answered. "But it's good of you to ask me. No, there's nothing that talking about will mend."

* * * * *

Eben Tollman's effort at being young was not wholly successful. There were times when even he suspected that it lacked something of complete attainment. He had now been married six months and his wife, though undeniably loyal, was as far as ever from kindling into that eager fire of complete love which he had boasted he would awaken in her.

When Conscience had warned him that their marriage would be an incomplete relationship Tollman had inwardly smiled. Of her faithfulness he could be sure and she herself would be his. The rest was a somewhat gossamer and idealistic matter which her youth exaggerated in importance.

But after six months, possession was no longer enough--and it was all he had. Sometimes indeed it seemed to him that the thing he lacked was greater than the sum of the things he possessed.

He had boasted that in indulging her wishes he found his highest privilege and pleasure, but he was of those who take their pleasures sadly. He had given her unrestricted permission to remodel his house, yet in every fresh detail of the alteration he discovered an act of vandalism under which his spirit writhed.

To his mind everything gained in sanctity by its age: the moth-eaten furniture was hallowed by tradition. The rheumatic old dog of uncertain breed, to which he had never vouchsafed a caress became now, when banished to the stable, a tried and faithful companion relegated to exile.

Privacy, he conceived as a matter of being shut in, and a house without cobwebbed shadows became a place bereft of decent seclusion. About him, now, all this undesirable metamorphosis was taking place.

"What is this room, my dear?" he inquired one morning as he spread before him on the breakfast table blue prints, while Conscience was pouring his coffee.

A shaft of early light tilting obliquely through the window fell on her head, making a soft nimbus about her dark hair and bringing out the exquisite color of her face. As Tollman looked up, raising the plans with a finger indicating the spot in question, he recognized the radiance of youth which could, under such a searching brilliance, remain flawless. He felt in contrast old and sluggish of life current.

"That?" Conscience's brows were lifted in surprise. "Why, Eben, you've been over those plans a half-dozen times. Surely you're familiar with them. That's your bed-room."

"And this one?" He shifted his finger and his face clouded.

"That's mine."

"Separate apartments?" he inquired dryly, though he was, as she had said, discovering no new cause of displeasure.


"And three baths, and a garage and a car--and a terrace." He paused and his face fell into a sullen and stubborn expression. After a moment he added coldly, "That's all going to run into money."

Conscience set down the coffee cup and looked at him as she quietly asked, "Is there any reason why it shouldn't? If you were poor, I would share your poverty without complaint, but as you told me, unasked, we are not poor. Economy carried beyond the point of virtue becomes unlovely, I think."

Eben shifted his line of objection. Separate apartments hinted at that modern trend which he believed sought to rob marriage of its sacred intimacy.

"It is not only the expense," he announced stolidly. "Our people have always held close to a certain conception of home and marriage. From the days of the Mayflower these words have stood for a life fully shared. People who play lightly with sacred things are the sponsors for the other style of life: for houses where the husband and wife lead separate existences and substitute small dogs for children."

He felt, as he concluded, the deep eyes of his wife fixed on him with an expression which he could not quite fathom. Her lips were parted and the freshness of her cheeks colored with a tinge of indignation.

"Have I ever seemed to prefer small dogs to children?" she asked him in a still voice which bordered dangerously on anger. "You talk of a life fully shared. Have I failed to share anything except the business part of your life--which you closed to me?"

Eben Tollman did not wish to pursue that topic.

"I was only expressing general views," he hurriedly assured her, and again under her level scrutiny, he felt the contrast between her vibrant vitality and his own autumnal maturity. But Conscience went steadily on in the unmistakable manner of one who has no intention of being misunderstood.

"But I won't share any cramped delusion that things are good merely because they are dusty and immobile. I won't share the fallacy that to call a thing conservative sanctifies it. There is more virtue in a tiled bathroom than in a cob-webbed chapel. If we change this house at all we will do it thoroughly."

Eben Tollman rose and pushed back his chair. Conscience's face had taken on the glow of something like Amazonian defiance. To her beauty had come a new quality which stirred the senses of her husband like a roll of drums. It was an emotion which he believed to be love and coming around he caught her rather pantingly in his arms.

It was an intolerably wretched misfit, this union of Conscience and Eben Tollman, but so bent was the woman upon redeeming the hopeless experiment that she sought to brace the doomed and tottering structure with fictitious props. To be an "unimpeachable" wife was not to her thinking a sufficient meeting of her problem. Her own fastidiousness and cleanness of character would have made that less a duty to her husband than to herself. The more difficult requirement was to close, and keep closed the port of her thoughts against those dreams and yearnings that stole in like blockade-runners, but these buccaneer thoughts came insistently and impertinently invested with a colorful challenge to the imagination.

From every dream-ship that sailed in, looked out the face of Stuart Farquaharson.

This, she told herself, was a pure perversity. All memories should fade as distance widens, yet of late the banishment of Stuart had been less complete than heretofore.

Slowly she prosecuted Stuart Farquaharson in the court of her own judgment and condemned him to mental exile. The steps of his deteriorating course were clear enough. He had loved her sufficiently to do everything but stand firm in stress. When he thought her lost he had consoled himself with another woman. When the second lady, too, had come to grief through his devotion, he had withdrawn. Then with the reception of Conscience's letter at Cairo, the past had risen with Phoenix upblazing and he had recklessly cabled her to halt at the step of the altar. She confessed with deep humiliation that had the message come in time, she might have obeyed. But that, too, had failed--and now with his versatile capacity for the expedient, he was dallying again with the affections of Marian Holbury. It was, she admitted, not a pretty record. She told herself almost savagely that she hated Stuart Farquaharson as one can hate only where contempt succeeds love.

This was the bulwark of fallacy with which Conscience Tollman sought to safeguard her dwindling confidence in the ultimate success of her wifehood and she clung to it with a bitter determination.

* * * * *

Where the old iron urns, painted a poison green, had stood in the front yard of Tollman's house there was no longer any offense to the eye. Where an unsightly fence had confined a somewhat ragged yard, low stone walls, flower bordered, went around a lawn as trim as plush. The house presented to the eye of the visitor that dignity which should invest the home of a gentleman whose purse is not restricted. The spirit of the colonial had been preserved and amplified, and from the terrace one looked out on a landscape of hill view and water glimpse, as from a fitting and harmonious place.

One afternoon Conscience Tollman was walking among her flowers. They would be gone before long, for already the woods were beginning to burn with the colors of autumn and the bogs where cranberry-pickers worked were blazing into orange and claret. The road that came out of the pines, formerly deeply rutted and sandy, was now metaled and approached the house in a graded curve.

Looking off down the hill to where it turned from the highway into the farm, she saw a motor which she did not recognize and which even at the distance showed, dust-whitened, as from a long journey. It had entered between the stone gate pillars, and Conscience, with a glance at her garden apron, muddied from kneeling at the flower beds, turned and went hastily into the house. The car evidently brought visitors and as, from her bed-room window, she watched it round the nearer curve and draw up at the yard entrance, her perplexity grew.

It was a large machine of foreign make and, when the liveried chauffeur opened the tonneau door, a woman stepped out whose face was obscured by her dust veils.

When the maid appeared above stairs a few minutes later the mystery of the unknown visitor's identity remained unsolved.

"The lady said," announced the servant, "that she hoped you would see her for a few minutes."

"Who is the lady?"

"I don't know, ma'am. She said she had no card with her and would I please just deliver that message."

As Conscience came noiselessly and lightly down the stairs a few moments later her guest was standing by one of the pillars of the terrace, looking off across the breadth of landscape, but her figure and profile were revealed. The veil, thrown back, was faintly aflutter about a head crowned with red-brown hair and a face delicately chiseled. Her eyes held the clear luminosity of lighted amber, but, unconscious of being observed, they held a note of pain--almost of timidity. Conscience's first impression untinged by any bias of preconception expressed itself in the thought, "Whoever she is, she is very lovely." Then she stepped out onto the tiles and the lady turned. The eyes of the two met and the lips of the two smiled.

"You are Mrs. Eben Tollman?" inquired the visitor and Conscience nodded with that quick graciousness of expression which always brought to her face a quality of radiance.

"Yes, the maid didn't get your name, I believe."

The hint of pain and timidity had left the amber eyes now and in their place had come something more difficult to define.

"No, I preferred giving it to you myself. I am Marian Holbury." _

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