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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 23

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Less in words than by a subtle though unmistakable manner, the husband made it clear to Stuart Farquaharson that his status in this establishment was to be as intimately free as if he had been the brother instead of the former lover of Conscience. It was difficult to reconcile this unqualified acceptance with every impression he had formed of Eben, and while he unpacked his bag in his bedroom a sense of perplexity lingered with him. But as he was changing into his bathing suit a solution presented itself which seemed to bear the stamp of four-square logic.

Eben Tollman was neither the ogre he had formerly seemed nor yet the utterly careless husband that his present conduct appeared to indicate. He had simply recognized in the days of Stuart's ascendancy something akin to disdain in the Virginian's attitude toward him. Now time had demonstrated which was the victor, and Tollman was permitting his pride the pardonable gratification of showing the younger man its security and confidence.

Conscience had not yet appeared when Stuart came down, and neither was Eben in evidence, so the visitor stood in the open door with the summer breeze striking gratefully against his bare arms and legs until he heard a laugh at the stair-head and wheeled to look quickly up. The picture he saw there made his heart beat fast and brought a sudden fire into his eyes.

Conscience stood above him with her arms lifted in an attitude of one about to dive and in the gay colors of her bathing dress and cap; in the untrammeled grace of slender curves she seemed the spirit of vivid allurement. With an answering laugh the man stepped to the lower landing and raised his own arms.

"Come on!" he challenged. "Jump, I'll catch you."

But as suddenly as though he had been struck, he dropped his arms at his sides, realizing the wild, almost ungovernable impulse which had swept him to take her in his arms in contempt of every consideration except the violence of his wish to do so. Moments like this were unsettling--and to be guarded against.

Then she had come down to the hall and he was on his knees, as he had been on that other day at Chatham, tying the ribbons of her bathing slippers with fingers that were none too steady.

But while they dived in water which was almost unbelievably blue and clear, they might have been two children as irresponsibly full of sheer zest and sparkle as the bubbles that leaped brightly up from their out-thrust and dripping arms. Forty minutes later Stuart was following her up the twisting path between pines and bayberry bushes while the salt water streamed from them.

Eben Tollman had not after all found time to join them at the float, and glancing up from his chair on the terrace where he sat almost completely surrounded by a disarray of daily papers, he was now somewhat disconcerted at their early return.

He had been inwardly writhing in a tortured frame of mind which their arrival brought a necessity for masking and the things which had made him so writhe had been the reviews in these papers of "The Longest Way Round."

Eben was not an habitual reader of dramatic comment. The theater itself he regarded as an amusement designed for minds more tinctured with childish frivolity than his own.

Yet since Conscience and Stuart had left the house he had been mulling over, with the fascination of a rising gorge and a bitter resentment, paragraphs of encomium upon his hated guest. Had he ever indulged himself in the luxury of profanity it would have gushed now in torrents of curses over Stuart Farquaharson, upon whom life seemed to lavish her gifts with as reckless a prodigality as that of a licentious monarch for an unworthy favorite.

"Nothing but applause!" exclaimed Eben to himself, with a quiet madness of vituperation--entirely unconscious of any taint of falsity or injustice. "He makes no effort beyond the easy things of self-indulgence, yet because he has a supercilious charm, he parades through life seizing its prizes! Women love him--men praise him--and every step is a forward step!"

He had, indeed, been reading no ordinary words of praise, bestowed with the critic's usual guardedness. In Providence last night the unusual had occurred and the reviewers had found themselves acclaiming a new luminary in the firmament of present-day playwrights. Later the men with New York reputations would be claiming Stuart Farquaharson's discovery, and here in the Rhode Island town they had recognized him first. They had no intention of relinquishing that distinction which goes with the first clear heralding of a rising genius.

As Eben Tollman read these details in cold type, each note of their eulogium scorched a nerve of his own jealous antipathy. Of course, Conscience would take all this flattery, spread before her lover, as a mark of genuine merit--as the conqueror's cloth of gold. It seemed that he himself had succeeded in bringing Stuart on the scene only that the woman might smell the incense being burned in his honor.

But Eben regulated his features into a calm and indulgent smile as the two of them came across the clipped lawn.

They made a splendid pair with the sun shining on their wet shoulders; the woman's neck and arms gleaming softly with the tint of browned ivory; the man's tanned and strong over rippling muscles. Their drenched bathing suits emphasized the delicacy of her rounded curves, and his almost Hellenic fitness of body.

"I've been reading what the critics say, and my congratulations are ready," announced the elder man calmly with a semblance of sincerity. "It would appear that last night was a triumph."

For the next few days Stuart Farquaharson surrendered himself to the _dolce far niente_ of salt air and sun and the joy of their reviving influences. All contingent dangers he was satisfied to leave to the future.

There was a new and spontaneous gayety in the woman's manner, but the Virginian did not know that it was new. Eben Tollman, however, marked the contrast and was at no loss in attributing it to its fancied cause. He gave no thought to the truth that she was splendidly striving to keep flying at the mast-head of her life the colors of artificial success.

So each in his own way, Eben and Stuart were deceived by Conscience, one believing her indubitably guilty and the other thinking her unquestionably happy.

In the elder man a ferment of bitterness was working toward the ends of deranged deviltry--and its influence was all secret so that its tincture of insanity left no mark upon his open behavior.

The difficulty of maintaining a surface guise of friendliness toward the man whom he believed to be successfully wrecking his home might have appeared insuperable. In point of the actual it was made easy--even a thing of zest--by virtue of a lapse into that moral degeneracy which was no longer sane. The growth of craftiness for the forwarding of a single idea became uncanny in its purposeful efficiency and a morbid pleasure to its possessor. Eben seemed outwardly to have lain aside his strait-jacket of bigotry and to have become singularly humanized.

One afternoon Stuart and Conscience went for an all-day sail. The husband had promised to accompany them, but at the last moment pleaded an excuse. It was in his plan to continue his seeming of entire trustfulness--and nothing better furthered that attitude than sending them away together in the close companionship of a sail boat--while, in reality, the presence of Ira Forman, tending tiller and sheet, was as effective as the watchfulness of a duenna or the guardianship of a harem's chief eunuch.

Ira Forman rose from his task of packing the luncheon paraphernalia on the white beach near a life-saving station. He had regaled them as they picniced with narratives of shipwreck and tempest, swelling with the prideful importance of a singer of sagas. Now he bit into a plug which looked like a chunk of black cake and spat into the sand.

"See that boat over yon in the norrer channal? You wouldn't never suspicion that a one-armed man was sailin' her now, would you?"

"No!" Stuart spoke with the rising inflection of a flattering interest. "Has he only one arm?"

Ira's nod was solemnly affirmative. "He shot the other one off oncet while he was a-gunnin' and, in a manner of speakin', it was the makin' of him. Until he lost his right hand an' had to figure out methods of doin' double shift with the left, he wasn't half as smart as what he is now. In a manner of speakin' it made a man of him."

The amused glance which flashed between Conscience and her companion at this bit of philosophy was quickly stifled as they recognized the gravity which sat upon the face of its enunciator, and Stuart inquired in all seriousness, "But how does he manage it? There's mains'l and jib and tiller--not to mention center board and boom-crotch--and sometimes the reef-points."

The boatman nodded emphatically. "But he does it though. He's educated his feet an' his teeth to do things God never meant 'em to." Then in a voice of naive emphasis he demanded, "Did either one of you ever lose anything that belonged to you? I mean somethin' that was a part of yourselves--somethin' that was just tore out by the roots, like?"

Stuart wondered uneasily if the stiffness of his expression was not a thing which Conscience could read like print; if the simple-minded clam-digger had not quite unintentionally ripped away the mask which he had, until now, worn with a reasonable success.

But Conscience had missed the moment of self-betrayal because an identical anxiety had for the instant blinded her intuition.

"Wa'al," continued Ira complacently, "I ain't never lost a leg nor yet an arm--but, in a manner of speakin', I cal'late I know just round about what it's like. A feller's life ain't never the same ag'in. That man that's handlin' that boat now--he wasn't worth much to hisself nor nobody else a'fore he went a-gunnin', that time."

He paused, wondering vaguely why his simple recital had brought a constrained silence, where there had been laughter and voluble conversation, then feeling that the burden of talk lay with him, he resorted to repetition.

"The reason I spoke the way I did just now was I wondered if either one of you ever had anything like that happen to you. Not that I presumed you'd ever lost a limb--but there's lots of other things folks can lose that hurts as much; things that can be hauled out by the roots, like; things that don't never leave people quite the same afterwards."

Stuart smiled, though with a taint of ruefulness.

"I guess, Ira," he agreed, "almost everybody has lost something."

Ira stood nodding like a China mandarin, then suddenly he came out of his preoccupation to announce:

"I'll begin fetchin' all this plunder back to the boat now. I cal'late to catch the tide in about half an hour. You folks had better forelay to come aboard by then."

Conscience and Stuart strolled along the stretch of beach until, around a jutting elbow of sand dunes, the woman halted by a blackened fragment of a ship's skeleton. She sat for a while looking out with a reminiscent amusement in her eyes--and something more cryptic.

The man turned his gaze inward to the green of the beach-grass beyond the sand where he could make out a bit of twisting road. There was something tantalizingly familiar about that scrap of landscape; something which stirred yet eluded a memory linked with powerful associations.

Then abruptly it all came back.

His car had been standing just at that visible stretch of road on the afternoon when Conscience had begged him not to criticize her father and he had retorted bitterly. He could see again the way in which she had flinched and hear again the voice in which she had replied, "You know why I listen to him, Stuart. You know that I didn't listen ... before his stroke. I didn't listen when I told him that if you went, I went, too, did I?"

That was long ago. Now she was studying him with a grave scrutiny as she inquired, "I've been wondering, Stuart, why you have never married. You ought to have a home."

The man averted his face quickly and pretended to be interested in the vague shape of a steamer almost lost in the mists that lay along the horizon. Those sweetly curved lips had been torturing him with their allurement. From them he wanted kisses--not dispassionate counsel--but he replied abstractedly:

"I'm a writer of fiction, Conscience. Such persons are under suspicion of being unstable--and temperamental. Matrimonially they are considered bad risks."

Her laughter rang with a teasing mockery, but, had he known it, she had caught and been startled by that absorption which had not been wholly banished from his eyes. It was not yet quite a discovery, but still it was something more than a suspicion--that he still loved her. In its breaking upon her was a strange blending of fright and elation and it directed her subsequent questions into channels that might bring revelations to her intuition.

"I've known you for some time, Stuart," she announced with a whimsical smile which made her lips the more kissable. "Much too long for you to attempt the pose of a Don Juan. I hate to shatter a romance, but the fact is, you are perfectly sane--and you could be reliably constant."

This constancy, he reflected, had already cost him the restlessness of a Salathiel, but his response was more non-committal than his thought.

"If my first reason is rejected," he said patiently, "I suppose I must give another. A writer must be absolutely unhampered--at least until his storehouse is well stocked with experience."

"Being unattached isn't being unhampered," she persisted with a spirited flash in her eyes. "It's just being--incomplete."

"Possibly I'm like Ira's one-armed man," he hazarded. "Maybe 'in a manner of speakin' I wouldn't be half as smart as what I am' if I didn't have to face that affliction."

But with her next question Conscience forced him from his defense of jocular evasiveness.

"Did you know, Stuart, that--that Mrs. Holbury came to see me?"

He feared that she had caught his flinch of surprise at that announcement but he replied evenly:

"Marian wrote to me that she had seen you. How you two happened to meet, I have never guessed."

"She came here, Stuart, to explain things which she thought put you in an unsightly light--and to say that whatever blame there was belonged to her."

"She did that?" Stuart Farquaharson's face reddened to the temples and his voice became feelingly defensive. "If Marian told you that she had been more to blame than I, she let her generosity do her a wrong. I can't accept an advantage gained at such a cost, Conscience. I think all of her mistakes grew out of an exaggerated innocence and she's paid high enough for them. Marian Holbury is a woman who needs no defense unless it's against pure slander."

"Stuart," Conscience's voice was deep with earnestness, "a woman only sets herself a task like that because she loves a man."

"Oh, no," he hastily demurred. "It may be from friendship, too."

But his companion shook her head. "With her it was love. She told me so."

"Told you so!" Farquaharson echoed the words in tones of almost militant incredulity, and Conscience went on thoughtfully:

"I was wondering if, after all, she might not make you very happy--and might not be very happy herself in doing it."

If she was deliberately hurting him it was not out of a light curiosity or any meanness of motive. Her own tranquillity was severely pressed, but she must know the truth, and if a love for herself, which could come to no fruition, stood between him and possible happiness, she must do what she could to sweep it away. This was a new thought, but a grave one.

For a while Stuart was silent, as he studied the high colors of the sea and sky, contracting his eyes as if the glare pained them, and in his face Conscience read, clear, the truth of her suspicion.

"Conscience," he said at last, "I asked Marian to marry me two years ago--and she refused. That's all I can say."

But for the woman it was enough. She needed no explanation of why Marian had refused an offer from the lips and unseconded by the heart. She came to her feet, and her knees felt weak. She was afraid to let this conversation progress. He loved her--and if he could read the prohibited eagerness of her heart he would come breaking through barriers as a charging elephant breaks its way through light timber.

"Ira is calling," she announced lightly, "and he speaks with the voice of the tide. We must hurry or we won't make it back across the shallows." _

Read next: Chapter 24

Read previous: Chapter 22

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