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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 20

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The visitor did not miss the sudden and instinctive change on the face of her hostess or the impulsive start as if to draw back in distaste. Conscience evidently saw in this visit a violation of all canons of good taste. At all events she remained standing as if letting her attitude express her unwillingness to prolong the situation.

"I suppose if I were diplomatic," went on Marian when it was evident that the other had no intention of making inquiries as to the cause of her coming, "I might say that I'd turned in to make inquiry about these bewildering roads--or to borrow gasoline."

"If there is any motoring assistance I can give--" began the hostess, but the other woman interrupted her with a short laugh and a glance of almost reckless straightforwardness.

"No, it isn't for that, that I came. You see I'm _not_ diplomatic. I'm said to be startlingly frank. I came to talk with you, if you'll let me, about Stuart Farquaharson. He is a common friend of ours, I believe."

A pale flush rose to Mrs. Tollman's cheeks and she volunteered no reply.

The two women, each unusual in her beauty and each the other's opposite of type, stood with the quiet repression of their breeding, yet with an impalpable spirit of enmity between them: the enmity of two women who at heart love one man. Mrs. Holbury spoke first.

"You are thinking that my coming here is an unwarrantable impertinence, Mrs. Tollman. Perhaps that's true, but I think my reason is strong enough to justify it. At all events I'm not doing this because it's easy for me, or because I have anything to gain. Do you think you can spare me ten minutes and reserve hostility of judgment until you hear what I came to say?"

Conscience was somewhat bewildered, but she answered quietly, "Of course, Mrs. Holbury. You must forgive me if I seemed discourteous.... I was so surprised. Won't you be seated?"

"Thank you." The visitor took a chair and for a moment sat gazing across the coloring hills where the maples were flaring with yellow and the oaks were russet-brown. "Stuart Farquaharson has been a friend ... more than a casual friend ... to both of us."

"Stuart Farquaharson," said Conscience quickly, "was one of my best friends. I hope he is still, but for a long while I haven't seen him. He drifted into another world ... a world of travel and writing ... and so I think of him as belonging to the past--a sort of non-resident friend."

Marian Holbury's face flushed. "My interest, on the contrary," she made candid declaration, "is not the sort that will ever be of the past, though I doubt if I shall see him again, either."

Even now under their composure they had the masked feeling of fencers and antagonists.

"I saw him last years ago," said Conscience, and Marion answered at once, "I have just returned from the Orient. Mr. Farquaharson was a fellow passenger."

"I had happened to hear of it." Eben Tollman's wife spoke casually and Marion countered with an equal urbanity.

"Yes, one does happen to hear of these things, doesn't one? He called the meeting a coincidence and was surprised."

"And you?"

"I could hardly be astonished because you see I had, without his knowledge, waylaid him."

The hostess may have indicated the astonishment she sought to conceal, for Mrs. Holbury laughed and again her eyes had that unmasked frankness which made surprisingly unconventional assertions seem quite normal.

"I am wondering, Mrs. Holbury," Conscience spoke now without any hint of hostility--disarmed by her visitor's candor, "why you are telling me this."

"When one has valued a friend and has had reports of him which are both deleterious and unfair it is quite conceivable, don't you think, that that person would wish to know the truth and to see the friend vindicated?"

Mrs. Eben Tollman met the direct eyes with a level glance almost of challenge.

"What reports do you mean?"

"Mrs. Tollman," said Marian earnestly, "you have agreed to listen. Please don't let us fence evasively. You had the same reports of Stuart that the rest of the world had; reports for which I feel largely responsible because many things which seemed most damaging, he might have explained to his own full credit. He refrained on my account." She paused a moment, then continued resolutely, "Incidentally he knows nothing of this effort I am making to have you understand the truth. Do you want to hear the unfalsified story of how I was discovered by my husband in his cottage and in his arms?"

Conscience nodded gravely and when, ten minutes later, her visitor had finished a narrative in which she had not spared herself, the hostess had an unpleasant feeling that her own attitude had been priggish while the other woman's had been astonishingly generous.

That conviction gave a softness to her voice as she put her next question softly. "Why should it mean anything to Mr. Farquaharson now--my opinion?"

"In the Philippines," said Marian Holbury, "the army officers have a name for a dishonorable discharge from the service. They call it the 'yellow furlough.' Do you imagine that Stuart Farquaharson could willingly retire in that fashion? Don't you see how greatly he would covet an honorable discharge?"

Conscience felt suddenly glad that Eben would not return to the house before evening. She had another thing yet to learn and she asked faintly, "But it must have been hard for you to come and tell this to a stranger. Why did you do it?"

"Hard!" For the first time the even control of Marian's voice broke into vehemence. "It was more than hard. It was all but impossible. But he couldn't tell you himself, without discrediting me and there was no one else to do it."

"Even so I don't quite see--"

But Mrs. Holbury cut her short with an imperious gesture and her voice held a vibrant thrill of feeling.

"You say that Stuart Farquaharson stands for a past chapter in your thoughts. I love him and I know him. If the good opinion of a woman to whom he is only a memory means more to his happiness than the possession of everything in life I can give--and would gladly give--" She broke off and added with regained composure, "Well, I love him enough to try to get him what he wants, that's all."

She wheeled and went hurriedly down the path toward her car, leaving Conscience standing on the terrace, with her lips parted and her hands nervously clenched.

* * * * *

Conscience did not mention to her husband the visit of Marian Holbury. To do so would not only have been the violation of a self-sacrificing confidence but the pleading of a cause for which Eben could feel no response except distaste. She knew that Eben thought of Marian as a light and frivolous woman who had been cashiered from matrimony.

During the next two years--which passed in labored slowness, she kept the matter to herself, though to her it was not merely a visit. It was a time from which she dated other times. It was the day upon which her dam had broken: the dam of her carefully reared fallacy. From that day on she could no longer fall back on the idea of a discredited Stuart in support of her efforts to exile him from her thoughts.

Thus disarmed, she asked herself, how was she to carry on the fight to find contentment; and to the question came two and only two answers. Children might fill the void of her existence or she might in time school herself into a tame acceptance by a sheer crushing of impulses.

In the responsibilities of motherhood there might be even now a fullness of compensation which would make of sacrifice an enthusiasm. The whole unsatisfied abundance of her nature could laugh at disappointment, striking out the past and living afresh in the lives of her children.

This was not a new thought and it held little hope. For two years she had prayed for its fulfillment and now her faith faltered.

So the one thing left seemed to be a vapid and colorless resignation.

Alone in her bedroom one night, which was typical of many nights, she pondered these matters. By her dresser mirror burned bayberry candles and in their faintly wavering illumination she caught an occasional glimpse of herself. She was not vain, but neither was she totally blind. She knew that God had given her a mind suitable for alert companionship. God had bestowed upon her, too, beauty of body and face, which might have been gifts for the glorification of love.

It was one of those midsummer nights when the air, no longer void, teems with an indefinable influence of restlessness. Like prisoners beating on their iron doors at night, the repressed longings were all awake, too--and clamorous. A sense of fear obsessed her, almost of panic gaining force of volume like an inrunning tide.

Eben, she knew, was slowly but very certainly reading an aversion to himself into every small manifestation of personal independence.

Suddenly her eyes grew wide and terrified. Was not her feeling, after all, if only she had the courage to admit it, one of aversion for him? Vehement denial rose at the thought, prompted by the discipline of fixed ideas.

"But why," whispered a small voice of inner mockery, "did you just now turn the key in your door? What was _that_ but an impulse of withdrawal--a barrier?"

There had been another night when she had felt such a nameless and restless fear. Then she had dreaded being left alone. Now she was afraid she might not be. Then a man had come to her and soothed her, but it had been another man.

Why should these thoughts of Stuart Farquaharson always obtrude themselves on every revery?... Was there no key she could turn against him, whom it was her duty to shut out?

If he were ever to return to her and find her in such a mood as possessed her now, she feared that she would throw herself into his arms. Thank God he would never come!

Something of the same restlessness that obsessed her was at work with her husband, too, that night, though it led him less into panic and self-questioning than into a brooding conviction of life's injustice.

Above the mantel of his study hung a portrait of an ancestor garbed in the blue and buff of the army of Independence. Until quite recently this portrait's features had been well-nigh extinguished under the accumulated soot and tarnish of many decades, but Eben had revered them with that veneration of ancestor-worship which is an egoism overflowing the boundaries of a single generation. Lately Conscience had had the picture restored and now the renovated forebear, almost jaunty in his refurbishing, looked down on his descendant and the descendant's pride was quickened.

To-night, however, the eyes of the portrait seemed full of grim accusation. In their cold depths Eben could fancy the question sternly put, "Where are your sons? Are you going to let the flame of our honorable line flicker out with your own death?"

Perhaps the root of ancestor-worship, in all forms, lies deep in the wish of the devotee to be, in his own turn, honored. Perhaps, too, the obsession of self-perpetuation grows rather than wanes as the line becomes less worth perpetuating.

At all events Eben Tollman had no children and his thoughts fell into brooding and bitterness. His present attitude needed only a spark, such as jealousy or suspicion might supply, to fire it into some quirk of mad and bitter resentment.

He turned out the lamp and went slowly up the stairs. Outside his wife's door he paused, and, without knocking, tried the knob--to find the door locked against him. A deep flush of resentment spread over his cheeks. He drew back his hand, being minded to rap peremptorily--then he refrained and went on to his own room. _

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Read previous: Chapter 19

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