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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 21

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Conscience was sitting on the terrace one day with a book, which she smilingly laid down as her husband joined her. Eben took up the small volume of Browning's verse and idly turned its pages, his eyes falling almost immediately on the old inscription, "Stuart to Conscience." His unfixed jealousy seized upon a frail mooring but he stifled the scowl that instinct prompted and turned the pages to the point where a narrow ribbon marked "The Statue and the Bust."

He had often wondered what people found to admire in Browning, but now he read with an unflagging interest. Here was a document in evidence: the narrative of a wife who dissembled her love and the ungodly moral of the thing was that the culpability of the lovers lay--not in their clandestine devotion but in their temporizing postponement of a guilty love:

"And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost ...
Is, the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin...."

Before Eben Tollman's eyes swam spots of red and in his heart leaped a withering flame of betrayed wrath.

Had Conscience, after all, through these months and years, deceived him? Had she surreptitiously kept in touch with the erstwhile lover who had already wrecked one home? Had she been letting memories kindle fires in her which all his faithful love had left unquickened?

The long incubating dourness had hatched from its egg and, like the young quail which runs while the shell still clings to its pin feathers, it was alive and seeking nourishment.

If such guilt existed, it called for condign punishment and as God's instrument he must mete it out. But he was a righteous man and must first be certain. Therefore, he would not let her suspect his own doubts. If she were dissembling he would dissemble, too, but to a better end. In her this deceit was a sinful hypocrisy, but in him it would be as virtuous as the care with which the prosecutor cajoles the criminal into self-conviction. So he inquired with a reserved and indulgent suavity, "Are you particularly fond of that poem, my dear?"

Conscience gazed pensively away beyond the hillside, where the heat waves played, to the cool blue of the cove. Her manner impressed him as preoccupied.

"It has beauty, I think, and in some respects a true psychology. It recognizes that even straight-forward sin may be less ugly than hypocritical virtue."

All the prejudices of the man's illiberal code arose snarling, but he stifled their expression and, abandoning the immediate subject, turned absently back to the title page. "'Stuart to Conscience,'" he read reminiscently. "This book must be quite an old keepsake."

The Virginian's name had not been recently mentioned between them. There had been no agreement, tacit or otherwise, to that effect, but the wife had inferred that this was a topic which he was willing to have drop with the lapse of time out of their conversation. If he recurred to it now it must indicate that any vestiges of animus once entertained for Farquaharson had died. That was rather pleasing and generous, she thought.

"Yes, quite old," she responded with a smile.

Tollman nodded understandingly. A short while before he had been reading his Providence newspaper and a brief paragraph, which would otherwise have escaped his eye, had caught his attention like the red lantern at a railroad crossing--because it contained the name of Stuart Farquaharson. The lines were these: "'The Longest Way Round,' a comedy in three acts, by Stuart Farquaharson, will have its premiere at the Garrick Theater on Monday evening. After a road engagement the piece will be presented to Broadway early in the fall. The cast includes--" But Eben had not troubled about the cast. He was speculating just now upon whether his wife had seen the item--and if so whether she would speak of it.

"I wonder what has become of him," he suggested speculatively, and Conscience shook her head as she answered, "It's been a long while since I've heard of him."

If she had read the morning paper--and she usually read it--she must be lying. This circumstance the husband duly noted in the case which he was building up against her.

"I dare say he rather dropped out, socially speaking, after his escapade with that New York woman," he volunteered. "It was a pity."

"The reports we had about his conduct," defended Conscience with a straightforward glance, "were grossly untrue. He suffered the effects of the circumstantial out of consideration for her."

"Indeed!" Tollman's voice was one of quickened interest, seemingly of pleased surprise. He was developing an excellent facility in the actor's art. "That is gratifying news. One likes to think well of an old friend, but how did you learn?"

The woman bit her lip. She had made her assertion in so categorical a form that to withhold her authority now meant to appear absurd, and she had not wished to betray the confidence of Marian Holbury. So she fell back on the alternative of a partial explanation.

"Mrs. Holbury herself explained the matter to me. It was a chapter of accidental appearances."

Tollman was gazing at his wife with brows incredulously arched but his scepticism appeared amused--almost urbane.

"But where in the world did you and Mrs. Holbury meet? Your orbits have no points of contact."

"She was driving to Provincetown--and stopped here."

"Ah!" Tollman might have been pardoned in making further inquiries, but already his plan of proceeding cautiously had seemed to supply him with such valuable points of evidence that he meant to continue the fruitful policy, so he contented himself with the casual inquiry, "Was this recently?"

"No, it was about two years ago."

Two years ago and until now she had never mentioned it! Then she _had_, through at least one ambassador, held communication with her lover. A moment ago she had declared herself without news of him. The woman whom he had trusted was at heart unfaithful. It was just as well that he had decided to assume the role of the blind man. Now he would proceed further and devise a trap into which she should unwittingly walk and from which there should be no escape.

A plan presented itself with the fully formulated swiftness of an inspiration. He would arrange a meeting between his wife and Farquaharson. He, himself, seemingly unsuspicious and fatuously trustful of demeanor, would observe them. He would throw them together--and when the truth was indisputably proven he would act.

Already the terrific force of the purely circumstantial was at work; a force which has sent innocent men by scores to prison and the scaffold. To the man who was to be both prosecutor and judge the links seemed to be joining nicely. Then with the force of a climax, a climax for which even he was unprepared, Conscience said, "Will you be using the car Monday?"

"I had meant to. Why?"

"I thought I'd go to Providence for some shopping. However, I can go by train."

Providence! Monday! The place and day of Stuart Farquaharson's opening with his comedy in three acts.

Yesterday such a suspicion would have seemed impossibly absurd. To-day he realized that yesterday he had been a blind fool.

"Do you mind my going with you?" He made the suggestion in a tentative, almost indifferent fashion. "I have some business with my bank there. I sha'n't be in your way."

That should give her pause, he thought, craftily pleased with himself. It should drive her back upon self-betrayal or a plausible objection. Incidentally it should indicate to her that he suspected nothing.

"I should be glad to have you go," she declared at once. "I want your opinion on hangings and furniture for the new guest room."

For an instant Tollman was bewildered. Her acquiescence seemed spontaneous and cordial, and since she was going for a clandestine meeting with her lover it should be neither. Perhaps, however, this only showed how swiftly her brain worked in intrigue.

Although Conscience had not, in fact, read the paper and knew nothing whatever of Stuart Farquaharson's presence in Providence, it must be confessed that, to a suspicious mind the circumstances built consistently to that conclusion.

In due time Eben wrote and mailed a brief note to Mr. Stuart Farquaharson at the Garrick Theater, Providence. It said:

"My Dear Mr. Farquaharson: My wife requests me to invite you to join us for lunch on Monday at one at the Crown Hotel. We know you will be extremely busy, but we hope that the principle of Auld Lang Syne will prevail and that you can spare us an hour."

On Sunday evening after Conscience had gone to her room, Eben Tollman sat in his study alone, except for his reflections, which were both numerous and active.

His note should reach the man to whom it was addressed on Monday morning. What would be the emotions of the recipient? He, of course, would already have an appointment with the wife, believing the husband to be totally deluded. The unwelcome discovery that instead of a tete-a-tete there was to be a censored meeting would in itself sadly alter matters, but what other construction would Stuart put upon the development? Would he assume that Conscience, fearing discovery, had sought to cover their plans under this excusing subterfuge? Would he imagine that the husband had possessed himself of the guilty secret and meant to confront him with an accusation? At whatever conclusion the lover arrived, Eben imagined Stuart pacing his room in a confused and thwarted anxiety. That was in itself a pleasurable reflection--but it was only the beginning. When the young Lothario met him he would find a man--to all seeming--childishly innocent of the facts and fondly incapable of suspicion. He, Eben Tollman, would lead them both slowly into self-conviction by as deliberate a campaign as that which had won him his wife in the first instance.

* * * * *

Stuart Farquaharson came into the hotel breakfast-room that Monday morning with dark rings under his eyes and an unaccustomed throb of pain in his temples. He wore the haggard aspect of one wrestling with a deep anxiety. Already about the tables were gathered a dozen or more men and women in whose faces one might have observed the same traces of fatigue. To Stuart Farquaharson they nodded with unanimous irritability, as though they held him responsible for their condition of unstrung exhaustion.

When the Virginian had ordered he sat gazing ahead of him with such troubled eyes that had he still been under the surveillance of the Searchlight Investigation Bureau, those keenly zestful observers would doubtless have reported the harrowed emotions of a guilty conscience. Soon, however, Stuart drew from his pocket a blue-bound and much-thumbed manuscript and fell to scribbling upon it with a stubby pencil. Into this preoccupied trance broke a somewhat heavy framed man whose smoothly-shaved face bore, despite traces of equal stress, certain remnants of an inexhaustible humor.

"Did you rewrite that scene in the third act?" he demanded briskly as he dropped into a vacant chair across the table and, with a side glance over his shoulder, added in the same breath, "Waiter, a baked apple and two eggs boiled three minutes--and don't take over two minutes on the job, see?"

As the servitor departed, grinning over the difficulties of his contract, Mr. Grady sent an appraising eye about the room and proceeded drily, "All present or accounted for, it seems--and Good Lord, how they love us! It's really touching--they're just like trained rattle-snakes."

"Can't say I blame 'em much," Farquaharson stifled a yawn. "Dress Rehearsal until two this morning followed by a call for line rehearsal again at eleven. When they get through that, if they ever do, there's nothing more except the strain of a first night."

Mr. Grady grinned. "That's the gay life of trouping. It's what girls leave home for. By the way, how much sleep did you get yourself?"

"About three hours."

"You'll feel fine by to-night when the merry villagers shout 'Author! Author!'" The heavy gentleman looked at his watch and added, with the producer's note of command, "When we finish here we'd better go to my room and see how the dialogue sounds in the rewritten scene."

Later Stuart sat in the empty auditorium of the theater where the sheeted chairs stretched off into a circle of darkness. The stage, naked of setting; the actors whose haggard faces looked ghastly beyond the retrievement of make-up; the noisy and belated frenzy of carpenters and stage crew: all these were sights and sounds grown so stale that he found it hard to focus his attention on those nuances of interpretation which would make or ruin his play. He was conscious only of a yearning to find some quiet place where there was shade along a sea beach, and there to lie down and die happily.

About noon Mr. Grady, who had for some purpose gone "back," resumed his seat at the author's side and, between incisive criticism shouted through his megaphone, suggested, in the contrast of a conversational tone, "Don't you ever look in your letter box? Here's mail for you."

Absently Stuart took the envelope and when the scene ended made his way to the light of the open stage door to investigate its contents. There, seeking asylum from the greater heat of the wings he came upon the ingenue, indulging in the luxury of exhausted tears.

Farquaharson glanced at the note carelessly at first and the signature momentarily baffled him. Eben Tollman signed his name with such marked originality that it was almost as difficult to decipher as to forge.

But that was a minor and short-lived perplexity. It was indubitably Eben Tollman who had sent this invitation and he said that he did so at the request of his wife.

The face of Stuart Farquaharson, which had a moment before seemed incapable of any expression beyond lethargic fatigue, underwent so sudden a transformation that the ingenue interrupted her weeping to watch it. There was a prefatory blankness of sheer amazement followed by an upleaping of latent fires into the eyes; fires that held hints of revived hopes and suppressed yearnings. Within the moment this fitful light died again into a pained gravity. What was the use of reopening the perilous issues?

Of course he wanted to see her. He wanted to see her so intensely that to do so would be both foolish and dangerous. He had spent these years drilling himself into a discipline which should enable him to think of Conscience as someone outside his personal world. To see her now would be to set into eruption a volcano which he had meant that the years should render extinct. No one but himself could know by what a doubtful margin he had won his fight that day on the P. and O. steamer. Could he do it again with the sight of her in his eyes and the sound of her voice in his ears?

Yet, how could he without utter gracelessness decline?

The fashion of the invitation, communicated through the husband, proved its motive. Conscience wished to show him that she could receive cordially and with no misgivings as to the outcome. She probably wished also to assure him that from all possible charges, he was now absolved. These motives were all gracious, but, he admitted with a queer smile of suffering, their result was rather akin to cruelty. He decided that he must meet her in the same spirit and allow her to feel that, through her, his life had suffered no permanent scar. It was palpably a case for gentlemanly lying.

Though Eben's note to Farquaharson had said that Conscience requested him to extend the invitation, he had not yet mentioned to her the circumstance of its sending. He wished to study an unwarned face when she met Farquaharson. If she attempted to flash a warning of any sort; if her words cleverly shaped themselves into forms of private meaning for the lover: he would be there to note and correlate.

During the morning's shopping Conscience had not seemed, to his narrow watching, impatient to separate from him, but shortly after noon she suggested, as though blaming herself for her previous remissness, "But you had business with your banker, didn't you? Doesn't that have to be seen to early?"

"There's an abundance of time," he hastened to assure her. "I can look after that matter after lunch. I expect a telephone call regarding it at one, which can reach me in the hotel dining-room--unless you prefer being alone."

But Conscience laughed.

"Prefer being alone? Why should I? It's something to have a man along who's willing to be bored and carry parcels."

As they entered the dining-room promptly on the hour, Conscience saw in the doorway the back and shoulders of a man who seemed to be searching the place for an acquaintance. In the bearing and erectness of the figure was something so familiar that it stabbed her with a sharp vividness of memory. She started and just then the man turned and she found herself face to face with Stuart Farquaharson.

The Virginian stepped promptly forward with hand extended and a smile of greeting, but for the moment Conscience neither advanced nor lifted her hand. She stood unmoving and wide-eyed as if she had seen a ghost and her cheeks went deadly pale.

"I only got your note a little while ago," he explained easily. "I am such a new hand at this theatrical game that I haven't learned yet to expect mail in the stage-door box. I hope I'm not inexcusably late."

But the woman still stood mystified and startled. When she did speak it was to repeat blankly, "My note? What note?"

Tollman had been standing a pace to the rear and his gaze, for all its schooling, was one of tense appraisal.

Now he smilingly interposed, "Let me explain, Mr. Farquaharson, I took the liberty of couching my invitation in my wife's name because I knew she shared my wish to have you with us--but for her I reserved the pleasure of a complete surprise."

There was for an instant an awkward tableau of embarrassment. A flush of instinctive anger rose to Farquaharson's temples. He had come because he thought Conscience wished to show him that she was happy and he forgiven. Now it appeared that her wishes had not been consulted, and she stood there with an expression almost stricken. Tollman had been impertinent--if nothing worse.

To Eben Tollman it was all quite clear. Here was a guilty pair too confounded for immediate recovery. Farquaharson, being warned, was attempting to carry it off smoothly enough for both.

But immediately the color swept back into the woman's face and cordiality came to her lips and eyes. Taking the Virginian's hand she smiled also on her husband. The very fact that Eben did not realize her reasons for dreading such an encounter was a proof of his complete trust in her, and this surprise had been planned by him in advance for her pleasure.

"This is wonderful, Eben," she declared impulsively. "I was so astonished that it took my breath away. I didn't know, Stuart, that you were on this side of the ocean."

"Such is fame," laughed Farquaharson with a mock disappointment, "with my name on every ash barrel and every alley fence in this delightful city!"

They were acquitting themselves rather adroitly, under the circumstances, thought Eben, though their assumption of innocence was, perhaps, a shade overdone. _

Read next: Chapter 22

Read previous: Chapter 20

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