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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 28

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To Tollman's eyes familiar with content and superscription, it was all glaringly conspicuous. The initials seemed to stand out like headlines, but Farquaharson was without suspicion and he saw only one more paper in which his interest was most perfunctory. The whole issue had narrowed now, Eben realized with a tension of fear which brought out sweat beads on the pasty white of his face, to the hairbreadth narrowness of one question. Would Stuart see the initials or would they escape his notice?

But the Virginian was not yet broken to the habit of being a cripple. He could not remember that he must avoid the effort to use the right hand which he had always used. Now he reached down and picked up the envelope--still with the lettered surface turned up to sight--and rapping still swollen knuckles on the desk top, he let the envelope fall just as he raised it.

But this time it fell face down--and the perilous letters lay hidden.

Eben grabbed forward with such precipitate haste that Farquaharson looked up in astonishment and for the first time recognized something of the agitation which shook the other: the spasmodic panting of his breath and the outstanding arteries on his temples. "Why, you are ill, man!" he exclaimed. "What's the matter with you?"

Tollman made a supreme effort to rally his powers of self-control. The envelope lay between them--but out of his own reach and that spelled the wavering balance of suspense.

"This stooping after papers seems to have brought on a touch of vertigo," he explained and he had the sense, costly in self-restraint, to let his eagerly outstretched hand drop at his side, "Conscience, I think I'll have a little brandy."

After his wife had gone he spoke again.

"Didn't you--have another paper, Stuart?" The question came casually from the chair into which he had collapsed. "I might as well put it with the rest while I'm waiting for the brandy."

"Yes, I'd forgotten it. Here it is," and the younger man handed back the envelope--this time using his left hand.

Once more Tollman's luck had held good.

Later in the analysis of retrospect Stuart began to wonder at his host's strange behavior until of idle speculation suspicion was born, but as to that circumstance he held his counsel.

The last summer month brings to the Cape the August twister and the August tide. The twister seems to be a simultaneous rushing in of tornado-like winds from every quarter and a whirling bluster of elements gone mad. And in that month the high tide is the highest in the year.

For the household of Eben Tollman as well as for the weather the season seemed charged with the unquiet influences of equinox.

In the older man himself the currents of hatred and jealousy were rising to a danger line of unbalanced deviltry and as for the two who still responded to the nameless yet invincible clarion of youth, the elements of passion and insurgency were awake, ready for an August twister and an August tide.

Then there befell the household a series of coincidental labor problems that left them all at once without servants. The chauffeur, who hated his employer, was summarily discharged for drunken insolence. The cook was taken dangerously ill and her sister, the housemaid, went with her to her home at Provincetown. The gardener and outside man alone remained on duty and since both of these came and went from a distance, Conscience and Stuart found themselves promoted to kitchen and pantry.

* * * * *

A day of bluster and storm had ended in a sunset of brilliant color, which dyed the cloud-ramparted west with a victorious pageantry of crimson and gold. The night would be different, for in the east the moon, just climbing over the horizon, was a disc of pale tranquillity dominating a symphony of blue and silver.

In the pantry, with windows giving to the east and west, Conscience was washing dishes and Stuart, whose right hand was once more usable, stood nearby drying them. Pausing, with her eyes first on the changing fires of the west and then on the soft nocturne of the east, the woman spoke softly:

"The sun and the moon are the same size, and the same distance above the horizon. How differently they paint their pictures of the world."

Her companion only nodded.

While Eben Tollman contributed his part to the program of housekeeping without servants, by manipulating the phonograph from the living-room, Stuart had been studying the aproned figure at the sink.

Her face, in repose, held a pallid unrest of tried endurance, and occasionally she paused in her task to listen, with unexpressed nervousness, to the voluptuous swell of the music.

As he reached out for a rinsed plate their hands touched and she started.

"Conscience," said the man thoughtfully, "you've been very studiously avoiding me of late. I mean avoiding me when I could talk to you alone. For all your boasts of self-confidence, you're afraid of me. Isn't that true?"

"No," she said, "I'm only avoiding unnecessary battles." Suddenly her voice became almost querulous. "That phonograph is getting on my nerves. Aren't you sick of it?"

"Jack London wrote a story once," he replied calmly, "of a Klondike prospector and his dog. Between them there was a feud of long-treasured hatred."

Conscience glanced at him questioningly.

"What has that to do with Eben and the phonograph?" she inquired.

"The dog couldn't endure music. When a violin string spoke, he howled his misery. It was as if the bow were being drawn across the rawness of his own taut nerves.... That dish is ready for me, isn't it?"

She handed it to him, and he went on imperturbably: "The man would let the violin strings cry out until the beast's howls of sheer agony mingled with their strains. There came a time when the dog squared accounts. Eben's music reminded me of the story."

Conscience turned off a water faucet and faced her companion indignantly. She was inwardly trembling, with a nameless disquiet and anxiety.

"Stuart," she exclaimed, "this campaign of vague accusation isn't a very brave device and, in theory at least, you've always stood for fairness."

"I've ceased to believe in _his_ fairness," he told her promptly. "I believe that what he thinks isn't fit to print and he's trying to drive you, whether or no, into vindicating his rotten implications."

A piece of chinaware slipped from his hands and crashed on the floor and so tense were the woman's nerves that a low scream escaped her lips.

The mail wagon passed the tin box down by the edge of the pine thicket twice a day and the latest of these visits was between eight and nine o'clock in the evening.

The household duties were finished before that and the three were sitting on the terrace with a world of silver light and cobalt shadows about them. That is to say, two of them sat there in silence while the third came and went about his duties of changing records and needles and the winding of the machine--for he still dedicated himself to minstrelsy.

And in Conscience the germ of an idea which seemed trivial and foolish was beginning to grow into a sort of obsession. Her nerves like those of the dog in the story tightened into such rebellion under this music, singing always of love, that she, too, wanted to cry out. Her head was swimming with the untrustworthy sense of some cord of control snapped; of a power or reason become unfocused; of a hitherto staunch morale breaking.

At last, with the feeling that she could sit there no longer, she rose abruptly from her chair. "I'm going down to get the mail," she announced.

Both men rose, offering her escort, but she shook her head in determined negation.

"No, thank you both, I don't need either of you."

Stuart watched her figure following the twisting thread of the path among the apple trees, whose gnarled trunks made fantastic shapes in the moonlight. Then he glanced at the stolid and seated figure of her husband and his face darkened. When Eben essayed comment his visitor vouchsafed replies in monosyllables so that conversation languished. At last the younger man rose from his chair.

"I think, after all, I'll go down and walk back with her," he said and Eben Tollman only nodded.

Leaving the house behind him, Stuart had silence except for the occasional call of a whippoorwill, and as he drew nearer to the sleepy darkness at the pines a clear and fragrant scent of honeysuckle came to his nostrils.

He guessed that in this sudden withdrawal to the isolation of the firs, Conscience had followed the same instinct that takes a wounded animal off, to be alone with its pain. So he approached with a noiseless caution abetted by the sound-deadening carpet of pine needles, searching the shadows for her unannounced and at first vainly.

In the sea of moonlit brightness this strip of trees afforded a margin of soft, almost sooty obscurity, save where here and there darts of light fell through the raggedness of the foliage.

Finally he saw her. She was seated on a rounded bowlder and both her hands were pressed tightly against her face. Her pose was rigid and unmoving; an attitude of distress and high-keyed misery of spirit.

Her thoughts were her own and safe from penetration, but their tenor was as obvious as though, instead of sitting alone in a stunned silence, she were proclaiming her crisis in Hamlet's resonant soliloquy.

There was a droop of surrender in her usually gallant shoulders and a limpness in her whole body which even the darkness did not entirely conceal. Within herself she admitted that her resolution had come to the condition of a stronghold so long besieged that it is no longer strong: where only the grim spirit of holding out against odds is left to keep the colors flying.

But perhaps if she could have a half hour of relief from the pitiful counterfeit of strength she might develop a fresh power of resistance. In all sieges there must be moments like that: moments when, if the enemy only knew, a quick assault would end the fight. If the enemy did not discover them, they passed without defeat.

Her young and splendid body seemed to her a temple out of which she had driven the love god, the deity of motherhood and the glowing lights of wholesome sex ... and where she had set up instead a pale allegiance of soulless form. Her life seemed a thing of quenched torches and unlit lamps.

Conscience Tollman was in a dangerous mood, and some of her belligerency of spirit Stuart Farquaharson saw as he came quietly to her side and spoke her name, gently, as one might speak to a sleep walker.

"Why did you come?" She looked at him a little wildly and her voice shook. "I wanted to be alone."

"I was troubled about you," he said very gently. "You had been away so long."

Her courage was almost prostrate, but it still had that resilient power which rises from exhaustion for one effort more. There was in her the spirit of the Phoenix, and realizing how clearly he would read defeat in the limp droop of her shoulders, she straightened them, not abruptly, but as one who has been sitting at ease draws up into a less careless attitude upon the arrival of another. She even smiled and spoke with a voice no longer tremulous.

"Yes, I did stay longer than necessary. The music bored me and down here it was very quiet--and inviting."

"Conscience," he said seriously, "you were more than bored, you were distracted."

But at that, she laughed almost convincingly. "Must one be distracted to enjoy an occasional moment of solitude? It's the favorite recipe of philosophers."

"Your attitude wasn't that of enjoying solitude. It was that of despair."

"I was a little fagged. I'm all right now."

As if in demonstration of her assertion she rose with a dryad lightness and stepped forward for inspection into a spot of moonlight, where she stood illuminated--and smiling.

"Do I look like a victim of despair?" she challenged and the man, with a quick, almost gasping intake of his breath, leaned toward her and declared in a voice of passionate fervor, "To me you look like the incarnation of heart's desire."

Now, her mirth was less convincing, but for a time she fenced gallantly, adroitly, though with a waning remnant of resistance. It was a sword play of wills, but the man attacked with a saber of tempestuous love, and the woman defended herself with a weakening rapier of finesse. She was desperately tired and her heart was not in the fight, so she grew less lightning-like of thrust and less sure of parry as the play went on. _

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