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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 26

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For the best part of an hour Stuart sat confusedly looking out across the cove. Then with the wish for some stimulating fillip he stripped and plunged into the sobering coolness of the water. Even after that he did not return to the house, but struck out aimlessly across the hills with little realization of direction and small selection of course. Once or twice a blackberry trailer caught his foot and he lurched heavily, recovering himself with difficulty.

Led by the fox-fire of restlessness, he must have tramped far, for the moon went down and curtains of fog began to draw in, obscuring hills and woods in a wet and blinding thickness. From the saturated foliage came a steady dripping as though there had been heavy rain, and far away, from the life-saving station, wailed the hoarse, Cassandra voices of the sirens. At last physical fatigue began to assert itself with a clearing of the brain and he turned his steps back toward his starting point. He was trusting now to his instinctive sense of direction, because the woods and thickets were fog-choked and his course was groping and uncertain. A half mile from the house he set his foot on a treacherously shelving rock, and found himself rolling down a sharp embankment, with briars tearing his face and hands. Throwing out his right arm, in defense of his eyes, he felt his hand bend back at the wrist with so violent a pain that a wave of nausea swept over him and for a moment he was content to lie where he had fallen, listening to the sobbing drip of the pines. When he rose and started on again his right hand hung with fingers that he could not move and the fever of swollen pain in its wrist. But when he drew near the house he saw that there was still a light in the window of Conscience's room and that she herself sat, framed against, the yellow candle glow, in an almost trance-like attitude of stress. She was silhouetted there, no longer self-confident and defiant but a figure of wistful unhappiness. From the raw wetness, her bare shoulders and arms were unprotected. Her hair fell in heavy braids over the sheer silk of her night dress and her bosom was undefended against the bite of the fog's chill.

At breakfast the next morning Eben Tollman, who was usually the least talkative at table, found that the burden of conversation fell chiefly upon himself.

Conscience was pale and under her eyes were dark smudges of sleeplessness while Farquaharson kept his right hand in his lap and developed an unaccustomed taciturnity. But Eben appeared to notice nothing and stirred himself into an admirable and hospitable vivacity.

His concert of last night had borne fruit, he thought.

If his knowledge of actual occurrences was sketchy his imagination had filled all the blank spaces with colorful substitutes for fact.

"Stuart," he demanded suddenly, "what's happened to you? You've hurt your right hand and you're trying to conceal it."

"It's nothing much," explained Farquaharson lamely. "I went for a walk last night and when the fog came up I strayed over an embankment--and had a rather nasty fall."

"My dear boy!" exclaimed Eben Tollman in a tone of instant solicitude. "We must call the doctor at once. But you must have been out all night. The fog didn't gather until two o'clock this morning."

Farquaharson only nodded with an uncommunicative smile, and Conscience spoke in quiet authority.

"If it's a sprain, I can do as much for it as a doctor could. Wait for me on the terrace, Stuart, I'll be out in a few minutes with hot water and bandages."

A half hour later, grumbling remonstrances which were silently overruled, the Virginian found himself in efficient hands.

The fog had not lasted long and this morning the hills sparkled with a renewed freshness. A row of hollyhocks along the stone wall nodded brightly, and the sun's clarity was a wash of transparent gold.

Stuart Farquaharson studied the profile of the woman who was busying herself with bandages and liniments.

The exquisite curve of her cheek and throat; the play of an escaped curl over her pale temple and the sweet wistfulness of her lips: none of these things escaped him.

"It's not necessary, after all, that you should go away, Stuart," she announced with a calm abruptness to Farquaharson's complete mystification. "Last night I was in the grip of something like hysteria, I think. Perhaps I'm still young enough to be influenced by such things as music and moonlight."

"And this morning?"

"This morning," she spoke in a matter-of-fact voice as she measured and cut a strip of bandage, "I am heartily ashamed of my moment of panic. This morning I'm not afraid of you. Whether you go or stay, I sha'n't give way again."

"Conscience," protested the man with an earnestness that drew his brow into furrows of concentration, "last night I said many things that were pure excitement. After years of struggling to put you out of my life and years of failure to do it, after believing absolutely that it had become a one-sided love, I learned suddenly that you loved me, too. The summed-up spell of all those hungry times was on me last night. Can't you make allowances for me?"

"I have made allowances," she assured him steadily. "I've made so many--that I'm no longer angry with you. You see I spent most of last night thinking of it. We were both moon mad. Only now--we can't go on pretending to be Platonic friends any more. When war has been declared comradeships between enemies have to end."

"You are both very fair and very unfair, Conscience," suggested Stuart Farquaharson thoughtfully. "I said some wild things--out there in the moonlight--with my senses all electrified by the discovery of your love--and yet--"

He broke off, and Conscience, rising from her finished task, stood gazing out with musing eyes over the slopes of the hills. Suddenly she said:

"I realize now that if you'd gone away just because I asked it, we would always have felt that nothing was settled; that instead of winning my battle I'd just begged off from facing it."

"Among all the unconsidered things I said last night, Conscience," Stuart began again, "there were some that I must still say. It was like the illogical thread of a dream which is only the distortion of a waking thought-flow. The essence of my contention was sound."

"A soundness which advises me to divorce my husband and marry you," she demurred with no more anger than she might have felt for a misguided child, "though he and I both made vows--and he has broken none of them."

"You made those vows," he reminded her, "under the coercion of fears for your father. You distorted your life under what you yourself once called a tyranny of weakness."

"And to remedy all that you counsel an anarchy of passion." She seemed to be speaking from a distance and to be looking through rather than at the horizon.

"I believe that even now my father knows--and that he's no more willing to have me surrender my convictions--than when he was on earth."

"And I believe," the response came reverently but promptly, "that where he is now his eyes are no longer blinded by any scales of mistake. If he looks down on us from the Beyond, he must see life with a universal breadth of wisdom."

For an instant tears misted her eyes and then she asked in a rather bewildered voice, "Stuart, stripped of all its casuistry, what is your argument except a plea for infidelity?"

"Revolt against that most powerful and vicious of all autocracies," he confidently declared, "the tyranny of weakness over strength!"

But Conscience Tollman only shook her head and smiled her unconverted scepticism.

"Was it being true to such an ideal as that which made a certain king in Israel send a certain captain into the front of the battle, because he loved that captain's wife? I have listened to all this argument, because I wanted you to feel sure that I wasn't afraid to hear it. But it can never persuade me. And what have you to say of the trust of a husband who accepts you in his house as a member of his family--without suspicion?"

"I say that he has had his chance in all fairness and has failed. I say that during the years of this ill-starred experiment you have fought valiantly to make him win. I have, at least, not interfered by act or a word. If he had not arranged this meeting I should never have done so--and since he is responsible for our being brought together now he must face the consequences."

"Then your attitude of last night was not just moon madness, after all?"

"I mean to penetrate your life as far as I can and to recognize no inner sanctum from which I am barred. He is the usurper and my love is not tame enough to submit. I am your lover because, though your words deny me, your heart invites me. I'm coming to stay."

This time the woman's eyes did not kindle into furious or contemptuous fires, but her voice was so calmly resolute that Stuart felt his own had been a blustering thing.

"Then, Stuart, I'm still the puritan woman. I'm asking no quarter--and I have no fears. Attack as soon and as often and as furiously as you wish. I'm ready."

* * * * *

Eben Tollman noted that under the steady normality and evenness of his wife's demeanor there stirred an indefinable current of nervousness, since the evening of the tryst at the float and that the whole manner of the visitor toward himself was tinctured with a new brusqueness, as though the requirement of maintaining a cordial pretense were becoming over tedious.

These were mere bits of chaff in a light breeze and he flattered himself that it had taken his own perspicacity to detect them. A less capable diagnostician might have passed them by unobserved. But to him they marked a boundary.

Alone in his study, the husband ruminated upon these topics. Here he had sanctuary and the necessity of a hateful dissimulation was relaxed. He could then throw aside that mantle of urbanity which he must yet endure for a while before other eyes. He formed the habit of gazing up at the portrait of the ancestor who had died in the revolution and almost fancied that between his own eyes and those painted on the canvas there was an interchange of understanding.

He was in truth a man who had already parted company with reason while still invested in its perfect masquerade. His bitter and unfounded suspicions, denied all outer expression, had undermined his sanity--and any one who had seen him in these moments of sequestered brooding would have recognized the mad glitter in his eyes.

"The pair of them are as guilty as perdition," he murmured to himself, "and I am God's instrument to punish." Punish--but how? That was a detail which he had never quite thought out, but at the proper time the Providence which commanded him would also show him a way. But before punishment there must be an overt act--an episode which clinched, beyond peradventure, the sin of these two hypocrites before his hand could fall in vengeance.

These reflections were interrupted one afternoon by a rap on the study door to which, for the space of several seconds, Eben Tollman did not respond.

He was meanwhile doing what an actor does before his dressing-room mirror. Eben Tollman alone with his monomania and Eben Tollman in the company of others were separate personalities and to pass from one to the other called for making up; for schooling of expression and the recovery of a suave exterior. In this process, however, he had from habit acquired celerity, so the delay was not a marked one before, with a decorous face, unstamped of either passion or brooding, he opened the door, to find Conscience waiting at the threshold.

"Come in, my dear," he invited. "I must have inadvertently snapped the catch. I didn't know it was locked."

"There's a man named Hagan here who wants to see you, Eben," announced Conscience. "He didn't seem inclined to tell me his business beyond saying that it was important."

"Hagan, Hagan?" repeated the master of the house with brows drawn in well-simulated perplexity. "I don't seem to recognize the name. Do you know him?"

"I never saw him before. Shall I send him in?"

"I suppose it might be as well. Some business promoter, I fancy."

But as Conscience left, Tollman's scowl returned.

"Hagan," he repeated with a soft but wrathful voice to himself. "The blackmailer!"

His face bore a somewhat frigid welcome, when almost immediately the manager of the Searchlight Investigation Bureau presented himself.

Mr. Hagan had the appearance of one into whose lap the horn of plenty has not been recently or generously tilted, and the clothes he wore, though sprucely tailored, were of another season's fashion.

But his manner had lost none of its pristine assurance and he began his interview by laying a hand on the door-knob and suggesting: "The business I want to take up with you, Mr. Tollman, had best be discussed out of hearing of others."

Tollman remained unhospitably rigid and his eyes narrowed into an immediate hostility.

"Whatever business we may have had, Mr. Hagan," he suggested, "has for some time been concluded, I think."

But on this point the visitor seemed to hold a variant opinion. Momentarily his face abandoned its suavity and the lower jaw thrust itself forward with a marked hint of belligerency.

"So?" he questioned. "Nonetheless there is business that can be done at the present time in this house. It's for you to say whether I do it with you--or others."

Tollman's scowl deepened and the thought presented itself that he had been unwise in ever giving such a dishonest fellow the hold upon him of a prior employment. But he controlled himself and invited curtly, "Very well. Sit down."

Mr. Hagan did so, and this time it was Mr. Tollman himself who somewhat hastily closed and latched the door which protected their privacy of interview, while the guest broached his topic.

"The best way to start is with the recital of a brief story. You may already have read some of it in the newspapers but the portion that concerns us most directly wasn't published. It's what is technically called the 'inside story.'"

"The best way to start, Mr. Hagan," amended Tollman with some severity of manner, "is that which will most quickly bring you to the point and the conclusion. I'm a very busy man and can spare you only a short time."

But despite that warning the detective sat for a moment with his legs crossed and gave his attention to the deliberate kindling of a cigar. That rite being accomplished to his satisfaction, he settled back and sent a cloud of wreathed smoke toward the ceiling before he picked up again his thread of conversation. _

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