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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 25

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AS they went together down the steep path, there was no flaw in the woman's composure and no fault in the lightness of her manner, but when they reached the float, with the dark water fall of mirrored stars she turned abruptly so that she stood face to face with the man. In the light of the crescent moon he saw that her eyes were wide and full of a deep seriousness. For a moment she did not speak and recognizing the light of fixed resolve and the attitude of steeling herself for some ordeal, he also refrained from words until she should choose her moment.

There was an ethereal quality in the beauty of her pale face, jet-crowned in the starlight, and a Jeanne d'Arc gallantry in the straightness of her slender figure. When at last she began to speak it was in a low voice, vibrant with repression, but unwavering and full of purpose.

"Stuart," she said, "I am going to call on you to help me, by being all that a friend can be--by proving your loyalty and obeying a command that's very hard to give ... by obeying it without even asking why."

"Command me," he said quietly, and for just a moment there was a threat of faltering in her manner, as though the edict were indeed too hard, but almost at once she went on in a firm voice.

"You must go away. You must go to-morrow. That's what I brought you down here to tell you."

"Of course, I have no choice but obedience," he replied simply. "But I can't go without asking questions and having them answered."

"Yes, you must."

"Why are you sending me away?"

"I hoped it would be possible," she said as her dark eyes filled with pain and conflict, "for this visit to end without these things having to be said. I hoped you'd just go away without finding out.... I've done my best and tried to play the part ... but I can't keep it up forever.... Now I'm asking your help."

"Conscience," he reminded her, and his tone held a sympathy which discounted his stubbornness in demanding the full reasons for her decision, "I don't want to press you with questions when you ask me, in the name of friendship, not to do it ... but--" He paused a moment and continued with a shake of his head. "We must be honest with each other. Once before we let a failure to fully understand separate us. I can't make the same life-wrecking mistake twice. Don't you see that I must know why I am being banished?"

Slowly she nodded her head in reluctant assent. Her figure seemed to waver as with faintness, but when Stuart reached out his arms to catch her, she stepped back and stood with regained steadiness.

"I suppose ..." she acknowledged, "I must be fully honest with you.... I suppose I was only trying to make it easier for myself ... and that I must face it fully."

"Face just what, Conscience?"

"The facts. When you came, Stuart, I believed that you had been cured of the old heartbreak. I believed it until--the other day when we talked about Marian Holbury--then I knew--that you were still in love with me."

Farquaharson's face paled and his lips tightened.

"I had tried," he said slowly, "to let you think the things which might make you happier--but I don't seem to be a good actor."

"You were a splendid actor, Stuart, but you had a woman's intuition against you."

He remained looking across the water for a while before he replied, in a hurt tone.

"I understand. Now that you've discovered the truth ... I must go because you could entertain the friend ... but not the lover.... Even if the lover could maintain his attitude in everything but thought."

But Conscience shook her head.

"No, you don't understand yet ... must you still have the whole truth ... even if I tell you that you can serve me best by not asking it?"

"I must have it, because I am honest in believing that I can serve you best by knowing it all."

"Very well." She raised her hands in a half-despairing gesture and into her eyes welled a flood of passion as if a dam had broken and made concealment futile. Her words came with a low thrill, and the man's brain swam with an ecstatic sense of discovery which for the moment obscured all other thought.

"You must go, Stuart, because the basis we met on has been destroyed. You must go because--because it isn't just that you love me, but that we love each other."

"Conscience!" The name broke from his lips with the ringing triumph of a bugle-call, and he had almost seized her in instinctive embrace, but she put out her own hands and pressed them, at arms length, against his breast as though to hold him off. Her eyes met the burning eagerness of his gaze with a resolved and unshakable steadiness.

"Please--" she said very quietly. "Please don't make me fight you, too--just now."

Slowly with the dying of his momentary elation into misery Farquaharson stepped back and his arms fell at his sides.

"Forgive me," he murmured. "I can't touch you--here--now--with that look in your eyes. You are right."

"I must send you away," she continued, "because I want you to stay so terribly much--because it's all a false position for us both.... Do you remember what Ira said about losing something that was pulled out ... 'by the roots, like'?... The time has come for that Stuart, dear ... the roots are taking too strong a hold ... they must be torn out."

"Do I mean as much as that to you?"

"You mean so much--that everything else in life means nothing.... You mean so much that I compare all others with you to their injustice ... so much that I follow the glow of your cigar at night when you are walking ... that I watch the light in your window before I go to bed ... that I wake up with the thought that you are in the house ... that I think of you ... want you ... in a way I have no right to think and want."

"Conscience," he began, gripping his hands at his back and schooling his syllables so sternly that, in what seemed to him his hour of Gethsemane, he spoke with a sort of unedged flatness, "your semblance of success has been splendid, magnificent. Until to-night I believed absolutely that you no longer cared for me--and that you were happy.

"From the first I had seen in this marriage a certainty of disaster ... but when I came here I found a succession of bewildering surprises. These surprises entirely blinded me to the truth. Your serene bearing had every mark of genuineness, but there were other things, too--things beyond your control. The very place was transformed. Eben Tollman himself was really another man. His manner was no longer that of the bigot. He had learned the art of smiling."

Conscience shook her head.

"That is only another reason why you must go away, Stuart. Eben has always been the soul of generosity to me. He hates from the core of his heart these changes of which you speak. He has tolerated them only because I wanted them. With you here I can't be just to him. I contrast the little characteristics in him that grate on me and annoy me with the qualities in you that set me eagerly on fire. I tell you it's all unjust and it's all my fault."

She paused and then, because her knees still felt weak and her head was swimming, she dropped wearily down and sat on the small bench at the side of the float.

Stuart's senses were keyed to concert pitch. Some tempting voice whispered to his inner realization that, should he pitch the battle on the plane of passion's attack, he could sweep her from her anchorage. To his mind she was more beautiful and desirable than Circe must have seemed to Ulysses, but like the great wanderer he battled against that voluptuous madness. If he lost it would be the defeat of a man, but if he won, by that appeal, only the victory of an animal. His voice remained almost judicially calm.

"But this changed attitude--this positive urbanity where there used to be utter intolerance--how do you account for that?"

She looked very straight into his eyes and spoke steadfastly.

"I can only account for it in one way--and it's a thing which doesn't make me feel very proud of myself, Stuart. I think that he, too, has been deluded by what you call my splendid semblance. I believe he trusts me utterly. He has seen us together and thinks I've stood the acid test--and I've got to do it."

"But why did he ask me here, if he thought there was danger?"

"Because he had the courage to trust his happiness under fire."

"That implies that until now--at least--he was in doubt."

"Grave doubt. I think he was almost ready to call it all a failure."

After a long silence Stuart Farquaharson spoke with a quiet of resolution which held more feeling than could have been voiced by vehemence.

"You have told me enough, Conscience. I will _not_ go. _You_ have tried it with a desperate sincerity for three years--and it's a failure. You have fought splendidly to vindicate the whole monstrous travesty, but it can't be vindicated. It was doomed by every law of nature from the start. We have now not only the right but the duty to rectify it, and to rectify it together. You must divorce him."

"Divorce him!" The woman came to her feet and her eyes were starry with a light that held a momentary flicker of scorn. "Divorce him when his whole married life has been dedicated to the single purpose of trying to make me happy ... when his only fault is that he has failed to interest me?... Divorce him because we find too late that we still love each other? If that is your only counsel, Stuart, you have nothing to offer--but treason!"

"Conscience," he reminded her as a deep flush spread over the face that had been pale, "so long as there remained a chance for you to succeed, I made no suggestion that might unsettle you. My love for you has never changed or wavered. It has incalculably grown. But, until to-night, have I in any manner assumed the guise or asked the prerogatives of a lover?"

"Until to-night," she retorted, "I've never appealed to you for help. Now I tell you of fires I'm trying to control--and you are only setting matches to them."

"I am begging you to conquer this undertow of your heredity, and to see things as they are, without any spirit of false martyrdom. I am calling upon you to rouse yourself out of this fanatic trance--and to live! By your own confession you love me in every way that a woman of flaming inner fires can love. Under all your glacial reserve and perfect propriety you have deeps of passion--and you know that _he_ can never stir them. You say you will conquer this love for me. Have you overcome it in these three years? What has this travesty of a hopeless marriage given you, but a pallid existence of curbed emotions and a stifled life?"

He had begun speaking with a forced calmness that gave a monotony to his voice, but the sincerity of his plea had brought a fire into it that mingled persuasively with the soothing softness of the voice itself. Conscience felt herself perilously swept by a torrent of thoughts that were all of the senses; the stifled senses of which he had just spoken, straining hard for release from their curbing. His splendid physical fitness; the almost gladiatorial alertness of his body; the glowing eagerness of his face were all arguing for him with an urgency greater than his words. This was the man who should have been her mate.

Perhaps it would be better to end the interview; to tell him that she could no longer listen to assaults upon her beliefs and her marriage--but she had come out here with the militant determination to fight the matter out, and it was not yet fought out. She must let him make his attacks and meet them without flinching. Into the tones with which she began her reply came the softness and calmness of a dedication to that purpose. Stuart recognized the tone with something like despair. Against this antagonism of the martyr spirit he might break all his darts of argument, to no avail.

"Do you suppose you have to tell me," she asked, "what is lacking in my life or how hungry I am for it? I knew years ago what it was to love you ... and I've dreamed of it ever since. But all your appeal is to passion, Stuart--none of it to the sense of fair play. I'm neither sexless nor nerveless. When I held you off a little while ago, my hands on your breast could feel the beat of your heart--and the arms that kept us apart were aching to go round your neck. I've sat back there in the window of my room night after night and watched you walking in the pines, and I've wanted to go out and comfort you.... I've been hungry for the touch of your hand on mine ... for everything that love can give."

It was difficult for him to stand there under the curb of self-restraint and listen, but as yet he achieved it. And in the same quiet, yet thrilling voice she continued: "Your coming here brought a transformation. The fog lifted and I've been living the life of a lotus-eater--but now I've got to go back into the fog. Every argument you've made is an argument I've made to myself--and I know it's just temptation."

"Don't you see, dearest, that you are utterly deluding yourself?" The fervency of combat came with his words. "Don't you see that all that is finest and most vital in you, is that part that's in protest? Don't you see that you are just reacting in every crisis to the cramped puritanism you once denounced?"

"Puritanism!" she exclaimed, and the gentle manner of her speech stiffened suddenly into a timbre more militant.

"Call it what you like. Yes, I _am_ a puritan woman, Stuart, and I thank God for the heritage--if I am always to have to fight these battles against passionate rebellion. I know puritanism now for what it is. I guess Christ might have been called a puritan, when Satan took him up on the high mountain and offered him the world." She paused only a moment, then swept on with the fervor of an ultimatum. "And since you choose to put it that way," she looked at him with eyes full of challenge, "I mean to stay the puritan woman. You've come with your southern fire and the voluptuous voice of your southern pleading, to unsettle me and make me surrender my code. You can't do it, Stuart. I love you, but I can still fight you! If that's the difference between us--the difference between puritan and cavalier--there's still a line that mustn't be crossed. To cross it means war. If you fire on Fort Sumpter, Fort Sumpter can still fire back."

"How am I firing on Fort Sumpter?" he asked and she quickly responded. "You're assailing my powers of endurance. You're trying to make me take the easy course of putting desire above duty. You're trying to make me forget the ideals of the men at Valley Forge--the things that your ancestors and mine fought for when they went to war to build a nation: before they fought each other to disrupt one--loyalty and steadfastness!"

"Conscience," he said with the momentary ghost of a smile, "you are speaking from your father's pulpit. That is all an excellent New England sermon--and about as logical."

"At least it's sincere," she retorted, "and I think sincerity is what I need most just now."

The kindled glow of the woman turned fighter gave an enhanced beauty to the face into which the Virginian looked.

"Now certainly," he declared, "I shall not go. You say I have fired on Fort Sumpter--very well, I'll fight it out. You accuse me of assaulting your duty, but I'm trying to rouse you to a bigger conception of duty. I see in this idea to which you are sacrificing yourself as distorted a sense of honor as the suttee's, who ascends her husband's funeral pyre and wraps herself in a blanket of fire. I see in it, too, the dishonor of a woman's giving her body to one man while her heart belongs to another. By your own confession you are part Eben Tollman's and part mine. He holds only a pallid and empty allegiance: I hold, and held first, your heart, a splendid, vital heart.... I can offer you life ... and you belong to me!"

"Then you mean--that I must fight you, too--as well as myself?"

"I mean that you must, if that's the only way you can find yourself. I've asked you to divorce him--and let me be your husband. You refuse, but I have the right to take back what has been stolen from me, and I mean to do it. From this moment on I am avowedly and openly your lover--with all that that means. You have challenged me to attack. I mean to attack."

Conscience drew back a step and her hands came up to her bosom as she regarded him, at first with unbelief, and then with an anger that made her seem an incarnation of warring principle.

"I sought the wrong ally," was all she said, but she said it with such a cold ring of contempt that the man's answer broke out almost fiercely.

"You don't know it, Conscience, but you are still the deluded daughter of men who burned witches in the name of God; people who could sing psalms through their noses, but couldn't see beyond them; men who exalted a dreary bigotry above all else. I inherited traditions as well as you. My fathers have committed homicide on the field of honor and put woman on a pedestal. They made of her a being, half-angel and half-toy, but I refuse to be bound by their outworn ideas.

"Nowadays we prate less priggishly about honor because it is no longer a word with a single meaning." He paused a moment, then went on in a climax of vehemence. "From this moment on your New England code and my inherited chivalry may be hanged on the same gibbet! This revered temple of your marriage is just as sacred to me as a joss house--and I mean to invade it--and break its false idols--if I can!"

Conscience stood for a brief space with her hands clenched on the rail that guarded the edge of the float. She was almost hypnotically conscious of his eyes burning with a sort of wildness into her own, but when she spoke it was in a manner regally unafraid--even disdainful.

"You are quite welcome to break them if you can," she declared, and the next moment he saw her going with a superbly firm carriage up the path--and found himself alone and tremendously shaken. _

Read next: Chapter 26

Read previous: Chapter 24

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