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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 24

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But that night it happened, as it had happened once before, that the stars seemed exaggerated in size and multiplied in number. On the breeze came riding the distant voice of the surf with its call to staring wakefulness and restlessness of spirit.

Conscience went early to her room, feeling that unless her taut nerves could have the relaxation of solitude, she must scream out. To-day's discovery had kindled anew all the fires of insurgency that burned in her, inflaming her heart to demand the mating joy which could make of marriage not a formula of duty and hard allegiance, but a splendid and rightful fulfillment.

As she sat by the window of her unlighted room, her eyes were staring tensely into the night and the pink ovals of her nails were pressed into the palms of her hands. Her gaze, as if under a spell of hypnosis, was following the glow of a cigar among the pines, where Stuart was seeking to walk off the similar unrest which made sleep impossible. "He still loves me," she kept repeating to herself with a stunned realization, "he still loves me!"

She hoped fervently that Eben was asleep. To have to talk to him while her strained mood was so full of rebellion would be hard; to have to submit to his autumnal kiss, would make that mood blaze into revulsion.

But at last she heard a footfall on the stair and in the hall and held her breath in a sort of terror as they ended just outside her threshold. She knew that Eben was trying her door--trying it first without knocking after his churlish custom. She hoped that he would pass on when darkness and silence were his answers, but after a moment came a rap and when it met with no reply it was repeated with a peremptory insistence. Conscience drew a long breath, and, shivering with distaste, she slowly lighted a candle. Then she went shudderingly to the door and opened it.

In the stress of the moment, as she shot back the bolt, she surrendered for just an instant to her feelings; feelings which she had never before allowed expression even in the confessional of her thoughts. She knew now how Heloise had felt when she wildly told herself that she would rather be mistress of Abelarde than wife to the King.

Eben standing in the doorway, smiling, seemed to her disordered mood the figure of a Satyr.

* * * * *

"I've had a letter from Ebbett," Tollman commented one day at luncheon. "Like Stuart here, he's been working too hard and he wants to know if he can run down for the week-end."

When Conscience had declared her approval the host turned to Farquaharson. "I shouldn't wonder if you'd like Ebbett. We were classmates at college, and he was my best man. Aside from that, he's one of the leading exponents, in this country, of the newer psychology--a disciple of Freud and Jung, and while many of his ideas strike me as extreme they are often interesting."

The prophecy proved more than true, for with Dr. Ebbett as a guide, Farquaharson gratified that avid interest which every sincere writer must feel for explorations into new fields of thought.

One evening the two sat alone on the terrace in the communion of lighted cigars and creature comfort long after their host and hostess had gone to their beds, and Ebbett said thoughtfully, and without introduction:

"It seems to have worked out. And God knows I'm glad, because I had my misgivings."

"What has worked out?" inquired the younger man and the neurologist jerked his head toward the house.

"This marriage," he said. "When I came to the wedding, I could not escape a heavy portent of danger. There was the difference in age to start with and it was heightened by Eben's solemn and grandiose tendencies. His nature had too much shadow--not enough sunlight. The girl on the other hand had a vitality which was supernormal."

He paused and Stuart Farquaharson, restrained by a flood of personal reminiscence, said nothing. Finally the doctor went on:

"But there was more than that. I'm a Massachusetts man myself, but Eben is--or was--in type, too damned much the New Englander."

Stuart smiled to himself, but his prompting question came in the tone of commonplace.

"Just what does that mean to you, Doctor--too much the New Englander?"

Ebbett laughed. "I use the word only as a term--as descriptive of an intolerance which exists everywhere, north and south, east and west--but in Eben it was exaggerated. Fortunately, his wife's exuberance of spirit seems to have brightened it into normality."

"But what, exactly, did you fear, Doctor?"

"I'm afraid I'd have to grow tediously technical to make that clear, but if you can stand it, I'll try."

"I wish you would," the younger man assured him.

Dr. Ebbett leaned back and studied the ash of his cigar. "Have you ever noticed in your experience," he abruptly demanded, "that oftentimes the man who most craftily evades his taxes or indulges in devious business methods, cannot bring himself to sanction any of the polite and innocent lies which society accepts as conventions?"

Stuart nodded and the physician went on:

"In short we encounter, every day, the apparent hypocrite. Yet many such men are not consciously dishonest. They are merely victims of disassociation."

"I'm afraid," acknowledged Stuart, "I'm still too much the tyro to understand the term very fully."

"None of us understand it as fully as we'd like," Dr. Ebbett assured him. "But we are gradually learning. In every man's consciousness there is a stream of thought which we call the brain content. Below the surface of consciousness, there is a second stream of thought as unrecognized as a dream, but none the less potent."

The speaker paused and Farquaharson waited in silence for him to continue.

"The broader a man's habit of thought," went on the physician slowly, "the fewer impulses he is called upon to repress because he is frank. The narrower his code, the more things there are which are thrust down into his proscribed list of inhibitions. The peril lies in the fact that this stream of repressed thought is acting almost as directly on the man's life and conduct, as the one of which he is constantly aware. He has more than one self, and since he admits but one, the others are in constant and secret intrigue, against him."

"And this makes for unconscious hypocrisy?"

"Undoubtedly. Such a man may be actively dishonest and escape all sense of guilt because he has in his mind logic-proof compartments in which certain matters are kept immured and safe from conflict with the reason that he employs for other affairs. It was this exact quirk of lopsided righteousness which enabled our grandsires to burn witches while they sang psalms."

"You think our host is of the type most susceptible to such a danger?"

"Yes, because the intolerant man always stands on the border of insanity."

"But, Doctor," Stuart put his question with a keenly edged interest, "for such a condition as you describe, is there a cure, or is it only a matter of analysis?"

"Ah," replied Ebbett gravely, "that's a large question. Usually a cure is quite possible, but it always depends upon the uncompromising frankness of the patient's confessions. He must strip his soul naked before we can help him. If we can trace back into subconsciousness and identify the disturbing influences, they resolve themselves into a sore that has been lanced. They are no longer making war from the darkness--and with light they cease to exist."

As the neurologist broke off the aged and decrepit dog for which Eben Tollman had discovered no fondness until it had been exiled to the garage, came limping around the corner of the terrace and licked wistfully at Stuart's knee.

"That dog," commented the physician, "ought to be put out of his misery. He's a hopeless cripple and he needs a merciful dose of morphine. I'll mention it to Eben."

"It would be a gracious act," assented the younger man. "Life has become a burden to the old fellow."

Dr. Ebbett rose and tossed his cigar stump outward. "We've been sitting here theorizing for hours after the better-ordered members of the household have gone to their beds," he said. "It's about time to say good night." And the two men climbed the stairs and separated toward the doors of their respective rooms.

Dr. Ebbett left just after breakfast the next day, but on the verge of his departure he remembered and mentioned the dog.

"I've been meaning to shoot him," confessed Tollman, "but I've shrunk from playing executioner."

"Shooting is an awkward method," advised the doctor. "I have here a grain and a half of morphine in quarter-grain tablets. They will cause no suffering. They are readily soluble, won't be tasted, and will do the work."

"How much shall I give? I don't want to bungle it."

"It's simply a question of dosage. Let him have a half grain, I shouldn't care to give that much to either a dog or a man--unless a drug habitue--without expecting death--but there's the car and it's been a delightful visit."

Possibly some instinct warned the superannuated dog of his master's design. At all events he was never poisoned--he merely disappeared, and for the mystery of his fading from sight there was no solution.

* * * * *

The case for the prosecution was going well, thought Eben Tollman, and building upward step by step toward a conviction. But step by step, too, was growing the development of his own condition toward madness, the more grewsomely terrible because its monomania gave no outward indication.

One evening as the three sat on the terrace, it pleased Eben Tollman to regale them with music. He was not himself an instrumentalist, but in the living-room was a machine which supplied that deficiency, and this afternoon had brought a fresh consignment of records from Boston. This, too, was a night of stars, but rather of languorous than disquieting influences, and the talk had flowed along in serenity, until gradually, under the spell of the music the two younger members of the trio fell musingly silent.

Tollman had chosen a program out of which breathed a potency of passion and allurement. Voices rich with the gold of love's abandon sang the songs of composers, wholly dedicated to love's own form of expression.

Stuart Farquaharson's cigar had gone out and he sat meditative in the shadows of the terrace--himself a shadowy shape, with his eyes fixed upon Conscience, and Conscience, too, remained quiet with that unstirring stillness which bespeaks a mood of dreams. Something in the air, subtle yet powerful, was working upon them its influence.

"Eben seems to be in a sentimental mood this evening," suggested Farquaharson at last, bringing himself with something of a wrench out of his abstraction and speaking in a matter-of-fact voice. He remembered belatedly that his cigar had gone out and as he relighted it there was a slight trembling of his fingers.

"Yes, doesn't he?" Mrs. Tollman's laugh held a trace of nervous tremor, too. "And I remember saying once that that was just as possible as the idea of Napoleon going into a monastery."

"Are we going to swim before breakfast to-morrow?" asked the man, distrusting himself just now with topics touching the past and sentiment.

"Suppose we walk down to the float and have a look at the state of the tide," she suggested. "Then as Ira would say we can 'fore-lay' for the morning." _

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