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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 29

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When they had talked for ten minutes Stuart abruptly exclaimed, "Dearest, it was not far from this spot that you once told me you loved me in every way you knew how to love: that you wanted to be, to me, all that a woman could be to a man. Have you forgotten? I told you that my love was always yours ... have you forgotten that?"

Her hands went spasmodically to her breast and her eyes glowed with the fire of struggle. Suddenly the physical impulses, which she could not control, deserted the rallying strength of her mind, and she trembled visibly.

"The two men who say they love me," she broke out vehemently, "are succeeding between them in driving me mad."

"Because," he as emphatically answered, "you are trying to reconcile a true and a false allegiance--because--"

"This isn't a time," she broke in on him desperately, "for preaching theories to me. I'm hardly sane enough just now to stand that."

"I'm not preaching," he protested. "I'm asserting that no amount of bigotry can white-wash a living sepulcher."

"I told you I wanted to be alone.... I told you--" Her voice broke. "I told you that I _must_ be alone."

"You defied me to attack when and where and how I chose," came his instant rejoinder. "I'm fighting for your salvation from the undertow."

His eyes met hers and held them under a spell like hypnosis, and hers were wide and futile of concealment so that her heart and its secrets were at last defenseless.

"I--I will go back to the house," she said, and for the first time her voice openly betrayed her broken self-confidence.

"_Can_ you go?" he challenged with a new and fiery assurance of tone. "Don't you know that I can hold you here, without a word, without a touch? Don't you realize that I can stretch out my arms and force you, of your own accord, to come into them?"

She seemed striving to break some spell of lethargy, but she only succeeded in swaying a little as she stood pallid and wraith-like in the moonlight. Her lips moved, but she failed to speak.

"I will never leave you again." Farquaharson's voice leaped suddenly with the elation of certain triumph. "Because you are mine and I am yours. I said once with a boy's assurance that they might surround you with regiments of soldiers but that I would come and claim you. Now I've come. There is no more doubt. Husband or lover--you may decide--but you are mine."

Her knees weakened and as she tried to retreat before his advance she tottered, reaching out her hands with a groping uncertainty. It was then that he caught her in his arms and crushed her close to him, conscious of the wild flutter that went through her soft body; intoxicated by the fragrant softness of the dark hair which he was kissing--and at first oblivious to her struggle for freedom from his embrace.

"Stuart ... Stuart...!" she pleaded in the wildly agitated whisper of a half-recovered voice. "Don't--for God's sake, don't!"

But as she turned up her face to make her final plea, he smothered the words with his own lips upon hers.

For years she had dwelt for him on the most remote borderland of unattainable dreams. Now her heart was throbbing against his own and he knew exultantly that whatever her mind might say in protest, her heart was at home there. In his brain pealed a crescendo of passion that drowned out whispers of remonstrance as pounding surf drowns the cry of a gull.

But at last her lips were free again and her panting protests came to him, low but insistent. "Let me go--don't you see?... It's my last chance.... The tide is taking me." Then feebly and in postscript, "I'll call for help." But the man laughed. "Call, dearest," he dared her. "Then I can break silence and be honest again. Do you think I'm not willing to fight for you?"

The moment had come which she had faithfully and long sought to avoid: the moment which nature must dominate. Even as she struggled, with an ebbing strength of body and will she realized that in the wild moment of his triumph she was a sharer. If he were to release her now she would crumple down inertly at his feet. Almost fainting under the sweep of emotion, her muscles grew inert, her struggles ended. The tide had taken her.

Slowly, as if in obedience to a command from beyond her own initiative, she reached up the arms that had failed to hold him off and clasped her hands behind his head and when again their lips met hers were no longer unresponsive. Slowly she said in a voice of complete surrender, "Take me--my last gun is fired. I tried--but I lost--Now I can't even make terms."

"You have won," he contradicted joyously. "You've conquered the undertow. 'The idols are broken in the Temple of Baal.'"

She was still dependent upon the support of his arms: still too storm-tossed and unnerved to stand alone and her words came faintly.

"I surrender. I am at your mercy.... There is in all the world nothing you can ask that I can refuse you."

"You have chosen--finally?" he demanded and he spoke gravely, unwilling that she should fail to understand. "There will be no turning back?"

"You have chosen--not I," she replied, her eyes looking up into his. "But I accept ... your choice ... there will be no turning back."

"You are ready to repudiate, for all time this life ... Eben Tollman ... the undertow? You will be big enough and strong enough to break these shackles?"

"I am ready--" she said falteringly.

"And you will not feel that you have proven a traitor--to the memory of your father?"

That was a hard question to ask, but it must be asked. He felt a shiver run through her body and _he_ saw in her eyes a fleeting expression of torture.

"I am ready," she repeated dully. Somehow he remembered with a shudder hearing a newspaper acquaintance describe an execution. The poor wretch who was the law's victim went to the chair echoing in a colorless monotony words prompted into his ear by the priest at his side. Then he heard her voice again.

"Are you through questioning me, Stuart? Because if you are ... I have something to say."

"I am listening, dearest."

"You see you must understand. You have conquered. I have surrendered--unconditionally. But it's not a victory to be very proud of or a surrender to be proud of. Once I could have given you everything--with a glory of pride--but not now." He had to bend his ear to catch her words so faintly were they breathed. "I'm overwhelmed, but not convinced. I'm ready to choose because your will has proven the stronger--but I know that it's only a triumph of passion over right. Some day we may both realize that--and hate each other."

"But you have chosen! You've risen above the bigotry of your blood!"

"No. I'm just conquered--whipped into submission. I told you you might attack when you liked.... I thought I was strong ... and I wasn't. It isn't a victory over my strength--but over my weakness. To-night I was utterly helpless."

She seemed stronger now, and in a sudden bewilderment the man released her and she stood before him pale but no longer inert.

"Then--then," he spoke with a new note of misgiving, "your decision is not final after all?"

That word "helpless" was ringing like a knell over his late triumph. It tinged victory with a hideous color of rapacity and brutality.

"Yes--it's final." She spoke slowly and laboriously. "It's final because I've confessed my helplessness. If I rallied and resisted you to-night ... I know now ... that I'd surrender again to-morrow. There's only one way I can be saved now."

"Saved--but you've saved yourself. What do you mean?"

"No, I've lost myself. You've won me ... but that's over. I can't fight any more.... I tell you I'm helpless." After a moment she added with a ghost of new-born hopefulness: "unless you can do my fighting for me."

"What would you have me do?" His words came flatly and with no trace of their recent elation.

"It is for you to say, Stuart. I'm yours.... I have no right to ask mercy ... when I lost ... when I love you so that ... that I can't resist you."

"So, the code of your fathers still holds you," he said miserably. "The undertow."

"I believe in what I've always believed," she told him. "Only I can't go on fighting for it any longer. It's for you to decide now ... but you inherited a code, too ... a code that has honor for its cornerstone, and that might be able to put generosity above victory.... I wonder if it could ... or if I'm worth the effort."

"Honor!" he exclaimed with deep bitterness. "A word with a thousand meanings and no single meaning! A tyrant that smugly rides down thought and tramps on happiness!"

"Honor has a single meaning for a woman." She laid both hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes. Her own held a mute appeal stronger than words, and her voice was infinitely tender.

"Stuart, whatever you do, I love you. I love you in every way that I know how to love ... but in the name of my God and yours and of my love for you and your love for me ... I ask you--if you can--take me back to the house--and don't enforce your victory."

The man straightened up and stood for a while, very drawn of feature and pallid. He lifted a hand vaguely and the arm dropped again like dead weight at his side. Without seeing them, he looked at the mirrored stars in the fresh-water lake across the way and twice his lips moved, but succeeded in forming no words.

At last his head came up with a sudden jerk and his utterance was difficult.

"So you put it up to me, in the name of your God: to me who acknowledge no God. You ask it in the name of generosity."

"No," she corrected him. "I'm not in a position to ask anything.... I only suggest it. I'm too helpless even to plead."

She moved over a few paces and leaned for support against the gnarled trunk of a scrub pine, watching him with a fascinated gaze as he stood bracing himself against the inward storm under which his own world and hers seemed rocking.

With the heavy and dolorous insistence of a muffled drum two thoughts were hammering at his brain: her helplessness: his honor.

But he had never put honor underfoot, he argued against that voice; only an arbitrary and little conception of honor.... Yet she could not rid herself of that conception ... and she was helpless. If he took her now into the possession of his life, he must take her, not with triumph but as he might pick up a fallen dove, fluttering and wounded at his feet--as an exquisitely fashioned vase which his hand had shattered.

He remembered their first meeting in Virginia and his wrath when she had laughed at his narrative of the Newmarket cadets.

The Newmarket cadets!

His father had been one of them at fifteen. There came again to his ears, across the interval of years, the voice of the old gentleman, so long dead, telling that story in a house where traditions were strong and hallowed.

Across a wheat field lay a Union battery which must be stormed and taken at the bayonet's point. Wave after wave of infantry had gone forward and broken under its belching of death. The line wavered. There must be a steady--an unflinching--unit upon which to guide. The situation called for a morale which could rise to heroism. General Breckenridge was told that only the cadets from the Virginia Military Institute could do the trick: the smooth-faced boys with their young ardor and their letter-perfect training of the parade grounds. Appalled at the thought of this sacrifice of children, the Commander was said to have exclaimed with tears in his eyes, "Let them go then--and may God forgive me!"

And they had gone! Gone because there burned in their boyish hearts this absurd idea that honor is a word of a single meaning: a meaning of sacrifice. They had gone in the even unwavering alignment of a competitive drill, closing-up, as those who fell left ugly gaps in their formation, until those who did not fall had taken the gun which the veterans had not been able to take.

That had been the honor of his fathers, the honor which he had been declaring himself too advanced to accept blindly. Suddenly his boyhood ideals and his mature ideas fell into the parallel of contrast--and beside that which he had inherited, his acquired thought seemed tawdry. Of course, charging a field gun was an easy and uncomplicated thing in comparison with his own problem, but his father would have met the larger demand, too, with the same obedience to simple ideas of honor.

His own contention had been right and Conscience's wrong. That he still believed. So the spirit of the French Revolution had been perhaps a forward-moving colossus of humanity: a triumph of right over aristocratic decadence. And yet the picture of a slender queen going to the guillotine in a cart, with her chin held high under the jeers of the rabble, made the big thing seem small, and her own adherence to code magnificent.

Slowly Stuart went back and spoke in tones of level resolution.

"To make war on you when you defied me was one thing ... to fight you when you are helpless is another.... I wasn't fighting you then but the rock-bound bigotries of your ancestors." He paused, finding it hard to choose words because of the chaotic things in his mind.

She had confronted him with a splendid Amazonian spirit of war and a declaration of strength which he could never break, and the cause for which she had stood was the cause of a cramped standard which he repudiated. Now she no longer seemed a militant incarnation, but a woman, softly vibrant: a woman whom he loved and who was helpless.

He added shortly:

"You win, Conscience. I can't accept what you can't freely give."

"Stuart--" she exclaimed, and this time the ring of revived hope thrilled in her voice, but he lifted a hand, very wearily to stop her.

"I've complained that when the crisis comes we react to the undertow. If you are the exponent of your code, that code is good enough for me. I bow to a thing bigger than myself.... Your God shall be mine, too ... to-morrow I leave, and I won't come back."

"Now, Stuart, my love," she declared, "you can say it truly: 'The idols are broken in the Temple of Baal.'"

But the renewed life of her voice faltered with the sudden realization of the other thing: of the bleakness of her future when he had gone, and suddenly she broke out in undisguised terror.

"But even until you go, Stuart ... even until to-morrow, protect me against myself, because ... I am totally helpless, and I love you rather madly."

Instinctively her arms came out and her eyes burst once more into the fires of passion, but she made an effort and drew back, and as she did so the stress of the fight prevailed and, had he not caught her, she would have fallen. She had fainted.

Farquaharson picked her up in his arms, and, distrusting himself to remain there, started to the house, carrying her like a sleeping child.

The sight of the man going up the path with the woman in his arms was the only portion of the entire interview which Eben Tollman saw, but it served his imagination adequately as an index to the rest. He had, after a long wait on the terrace, followed them to the pines, but had not announced himself. His arrival had been too tardy to give him a view of their first--and only--embrace, and his distance had been too great to let him hear any of their words. When, after a circuitous return, he reached the terrace, his wife was sitting, pale, but with recovered consciousness, in a chair, and he himself went direct to his study. _

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