Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Charles Neville Buck > Tyranny of Weakness > This page

The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 30

< Previous
Table of content
Next >

It was a sleepless night for every one in the house of Eben Tollman. Conscience still felt that her long fight had ended in a total defeat and that she had been saved from worse than defeat only because her victor had risen to her plea for magnanimity. Now she lay staring at the ceiling with eyes that burned in their sockets. Self-pity warred with self-accusation.

She could not forget that moment of ecstasy in her lover's arms nor banish her wish for its repetition. With him the home of her dreams might have been a reality where men and women who made splendid successes and splendid failures came and talked of their deeds and their frustrations, and where children who were the children of love raised rose-bud lips to be kissed.

Ahead lay an indefinite future, of Stygian murk, peopled with melancholy shades.

Stuart himself did not attempt to sleep. He sat in a chair at his window and stared out. Once or twice he lighted a pipe, only to let it die to ashes between his teeth. He must not tarry here, beyond to-morrow. He had taken either a high and chivalrous ground or a sentimentally weak one. In either case it was an attitude to which he stood pledged, and one to which Conscience attached the importance of salvation. How long could he hold it?

But of the three minds prickled with insomniac activity, the operations of the elderly husband's were the strangest and most weirdly interesting. They had thrown off the halter of sanity and ranged into the imaginative unrestraint of fantastic deviltry.

Sitting alone in the study, Eben sipped brandy and indulged his abnormality. For him, weaving certainties out of the tenuous threads of hallucination, there developed the spaciousness and might of epic tragedies.

The brandy itself was a symptom of his quiet madness. Until recently he would as readily have fondled a viper as toyed with a bottle.

Now he had formed the habit of lifting a secret glass, as a rite and a toast to the portrait of the ancestor, with whose spirit he seemed to commune.

The things that had festered in the unclean soreness of his brain had tinctured every thought with their poison of monomania, leaving him without a suspicion of his own miserable deceit. He believed that he held the imperative commission of the Deity to act as a vicegerent and an avenger. God had designated him as a prosecutor, and to-night he was summing up the case against the transgressors.

"A sinful and an adulterous generation!" he breathed with curling lips.

Item by item he went over the evidence, and it fitted and jibed in every detail. From the first interrupted assignation at Providence to this evening when he had seen, silhouetted against a starry sky, the man carrying close to his breast the wife of another, no link failed to join into a perfect chain of guilt.

But above all he must remain just--as just as the Divinity whose commission he served. This essence of absolute and impersonal righteousness demanded an overt act of unquestionable guilt. "So saith the Lord."

When that deciding proof was established there should fall upon the sinning pair the wrath of an outraged heaven, and he, Eben Tollman, in whom every feeling of the heart had turned to the gall of hatred, would hurl the bolt.

But when he appeared at the breakfast table the next morning he brought the only untroubled face to be seen there.

"I am going to New York this afternoon," announced Stuart somewhat bluntly, and Eben looked quickly up, frankly surprised.

"Running down for a day or two? You'll be back, of course?" he inquired, and the guest shook his head.

"No. I sha'n't be back at all."

"But your Broadway opening doesn't take place until October? Didn't you tell us that?"

"Perhaps. I'm not going on that account."

"Then why not finish out your vacation?"

"I have finished it."

The host looked at his guest and read in his eyes a defiant dislike and a repressed ferocity, but he chose to ignore it. The long-fostered urbanity of his make-believe must last a little longer. But at that moment Stuart's eyes met those of Conscience and he acknowledged a sense of chagrin.

After all, he was leaving to-day and whatever his feelings, he had so far been outwardly the beneficiary of Tollman's hospitality. Nothing was to be gained, except a sort of churlish satisfaction, by assuming at the eleventh hour a blunt and open hostility of manner.

"I'm sorry," suggested Tollman evenly. "I had hoped that we might have you with us longer. You have brought a certain animation to the uneventfulness of our life here."

Stuart changed his manner with an effort.

"Thank you," he replied. "But I've already over-stayed the time I had allowed myself for a vacation. There are many neglected things to be taken up and finished."

"You hadn't spoken of leaving us before." The regret in Tollman's voice was sincere, because it was the regret of a trapper who sees game slipping away from the snare, and it made him perhaps a shade over insistent. "Do you really regard it as so important?"

For just an instant a gleam of anger showed in the visitor's eyes under this questioning, and his glance, leveled straight at his host, was that of a man who would prefer open combat to veiled hostility.

"Not only important," he corrected, "but vital."

"Of course, in that event," murmured Mr. Tollman, "there is nothing more to say."

But an hour later as Conscience and Farquaharson sat on the terrace, somewhat silent and constrained, Eben joined them with a deeply troubled face.

"I've just come from the telephone," he announced with the air of a man in quandary. "It was an imperative call from Boston--and it puts me in a most awkward position."

Farquaharson, sitting with the drawn brow of preoccupation, simulated for his host's assertion no interest and offered no response, but Conscience asked, "What is it, Eben?"

"It's a business matter but one that involves a duty to my associates. I don't see how I can ignore it or decline to go."

"But why shouldn't you go?" inquired his wife, and immediately Eben replied.

"Ordinarily I should, but Stuart says he must leave for New York to-day and there are no servants on the place. You can't stay here absolutely alone."

"I shall be all right," she declared, but her husband raised his hands in a gesture of reasonable protest.

"I couldn't think of it," he insisted. "Why, it's a half-mile to the nearest house. It wouldn't do."

Then with an urgency of manner he turned to Farquaharson.

"Stuart, I dislike greatly to ask you to change your plans--but you realize the situation. Can't you put off leaving until to-morrow?"

The younger man turned slowly and his gaze was disconcertingly piercing, as he asked, "Don't you regard that as a somewhat unconventional suggestion--leaving Conscience here with no one but me? What of Dame Grundy?"

Eben only laughed and arched his brows in amusement.

"Why, my dear boy, you're a member of the family, aren't you? Such a question is the height of absurdity."

"Your faith is touching," retorted the visitor dryly, then he added: "I'm sorry, but I must go this afternoon."

Before him rose the true proportions of the ordeal to which his host so casually invited him, and from facing them he flinched with the honesty of genuine apprehension.

After last night each hour spent here meant trusting under fire a resolution attained only in a moment of something like exaltation. Such an experiment seemed the rashness of sheer irresponsibility, and to underestimate its danger was only recklessness.

Then he saw Conscience's eyes fixed musingly upon him and in them brooded a confidence which he could not analyze or comprehend.

"I wouldn't urge it," went on Eben persistently, "if there were any other solution--but there doesn't seem to be. So in spite of your objections I believe you'll do as I ask, Stuart, even at the cost of some inconvenience to yourself. In a way you can't refuse, my boy, because until this morning you gave us no warning of this sudden flight."

And with a complacency which the younger man found as galling as an insult, the host turned and went into the house with an air of one who takes for granted compliance with his expressed wish.

Indeed, his line of reasoning admitted no doubt or shadow of doubt. He had construed Stuart's first refusal as a mere trick of intrigue, cloaking under the appearance of protest a situation eagerly welcomed. Refuse an uninterrupted opportunity to take to his embraces the woman he adored with a guilty passion! Eben laughed to himself at the thought. Does a hungry lion scorn striking down its prey? Does a thief repudiate an unwatched treasury?

But when he had gone, Stuart turned indignantly to Conscience.

"You see, don't you, that it's impossible?"

"Why?" she asked, and in his bewilderment he found himself answering excitedly:

"Why? Do you mean that, after last night, you would trust yourself here ... with me ... and no one else? Didn't we both admit that it was too much for us--unless we separated?"

"After last night," she responded, and the fearlessness of her voice utterly confounded him, "I would trust myself with you anywhere."

"God in Heaven!" he burst out. "Don't you realize that all strength is relative? Don't you know that any boiler ever made will explode if you give it enough pressure?"

"It's not a test I welcome either," she declared seriously. "But I do believe in you now--and there's another side to it." After a moment's hesitation she went on slowly: "After going through last night--and after trying to face the future ... there's comfort in feeling that he trusts me like that. I don't deserve it, but I'd like to ... and when he comes back to-morrow, if there's one day more of fight left in you, Stuart dear--I can."

His expression changed and he said dubiously: "It's going to be hard."

"Yes, but how can we tell him that?"

He nodded acknowledgment of the point. "There _is_ something in being trusted," he told her resolutely. "If you can feel secure with me one day more--I'll go through with it."

So Eben had his way and put his own damaging construction on the result.

"Good!" he announced when the visitor finally acceded; "I felt sure you wouldn't leave me in the lurch. I'll drive the buggy to the train and leave it at the livery stable until I get back--since we have no chauffeur."

When Tollman had gone Stuart came to Conscience on the terrace. "You'll be all right here for a while, won't you?" he asked. "I think I'll go for a tramp."

She said nothing, but her eyes were questioning, and the man answered their interrogation almost gruffly.

"We've got to walk close to the edge," he said with the quiet of restrained passion. "You trust me, you say, and even before you said it I read it in your eyes. I want that same trust to be in them to-morrow.... I don't know how you feel, but I'm like the reforming drunkard--tortured by his thirst." He paused, then added, "I think it's just as well to walk off my restiveness if I can."

It was five o'clock when he returned, hot and weary from fast tramping in the blistering heat, but when he presented himself, as dusty as a miller to Conscience, who received him among the flowers of her garden, the woman recognized, from his face and the smile of self-victory in his eyes, that he had come back a dependable ally and not a dangerous enemy. In his voice as he hailed her was the old ring of comradeship--and it was almost cheerful. "Hurry into your bathing suit," he invited tersely. "The water is bluer than water ever was before."

Her eyes met his dubiously. She had not, like himself, burned out her wretchedness of spirit in muscular fatigue.

"I feel rather tired, Stuart," she demurred. But he answered decisively, "That's exactly why you need a plunge. You'll go in the tired housekeeper and come out Aphrodite rising from the foam."

"To-morrow perhaps--" she began, but he shook his head.

"If I'm any judge of weather the furies are brewing something in the line of a tempest. To-morrow will probably be a day of storm."

Under his forced lightness of speech, she realized the tenderness of solicitude--and acquiesced, because he wished it.

From her window as she changed into bathing things she saw the cove, blue as the Bay of Naples. After to-morrow, she thought, she would hate that cove. After to-morrow she must begin making her life over, and it would be like poverty's task of turning thread-bare seams.

In a little while Stuart, waiting for her in the hall below, heard, as he had heard on the day of his arrival, a laugh at the stairhead and looked up to see her there, standing once more in the attitude of one about to dive.

Her bare arms were raised and her dark hair fell heavily about her face, for she had not yet gathered and bound it under her bathing cap.

Through the emptiness of after years, he knew that picture would haunt him with the ache of inexpressible allurement, but now he forced a laugh and, stretching up his own arms, said challengingly, "Jump; I'll catch you."

Each detail of that swimming excursion was a reminder; an emphasis of thought upon these little things which association had made unaccountably dear, and which must be relinquished, yet the physical stimulus of the cooling water and the rhythmic companionship of the long swim across the cove and back had their effect, too, and were healing.

As he followed her up the twisting path ... between pine and bayberry ... for the last time ... the sun shone on her until she sparkled as if the clinging silk of her dripping bathing dress were sea weed, and in his heart he cursed Eben Tollman.

When they sat alone at table, where shams refuse to survive, a silence of constraint fell upon them and each fresh effort at talk broke down in pitiful failure.

Later as the last plate was stored in the cupboard and Farquaharson hung his dish towel on its rack, he said whimsically, "And to-morrow your butler leaves your service. Are you going to give him references?"

With a sudden break in her voice she wheeled on him.

"Please, Stuart," she begged, "don't try to make jokes about it. It's ghastly."

Early in the evening Farquaharson's prophecy fulfilled itself and the storm broke with a premature ferocity of shrieking winds, and endless play of lightning and torrents of rain. Against the French windows of the living-room, where they sat, came a pelting like shot against the glass.

"Conscience," said Stuart gravely, when the talk had for a time run in uneven fits and starts, "I know your views by now, and you know mine. But I want you to realize this: it's not your cause that I obey or love--it's _you_."

He paused for a moment, then went on: "You told me last night that you were helpless. I want you to recognize that you have been splendidly victorious--all through: because you are splendid yourself. It's a victory that's costing us all the happiness out of life, perhaps, but it oughtn't to leave you any room for self-reproach. You stood a long siege and it was left for me to make the hardest and most cruel onslaught of all on your overtaxed courage. I am sorry--and I capitulate--and I love you."

The clock in the hall struck nine and Conscience rose from her chair. Her eyes filled with uncontrollable tears and her lips trembled at their corners. The man bent forward, but, catching himself, he drew back and waited.

"Stuart, Stuart," she told him, "it's all so bleak--ahead! There are things that I must say to you, too, but I can't say them now. We can't sit here talking like this. It's like talking over the body of our dead happiness."

"I know," he replied in a strained voice. "It's just like that."

"I'm going to my room," she declared. "Perhaps I can write it all more easily than I can say it. Do you mind?"

"No." He shook his head. "I think it's better--but you must sleep to-night. Have you anything to take?"

"I have trional--but maybe I won't need it."

He closed the windows and shot the bolt of the front door; then, at the head of the stairs, they both paused.

"I would like to kiss you good-night," he said with a queer smile, "but--"

"But what?" she asked, and with their eyes meeting in full honesty he answered: "But--I don't dare."

Conscience's own room was at the front and right of the house, overlooking the cove and the road. Stuart's was at the back and left, separated by the length of the hall and by several rooms now empty.

For a long while after she had switched on her lights the woman sat in an attitude of limp and tearless distress. She could not yet attack the task of that letter which was to explain so much.

But finally she made a beginning.

"Dearest," she wrote, "(because it would only be dishonest to call you anything else), I am trying to write the things I couldn't say to you. You know and I know that if we acknowledged loving each other, when I have no right to love you, at least it has been a love that has been innocent in everything except its existence. When we look back on it, and try, as we must, to forget it, there will be no ghosts of guilty remembrance to haunt us. We loved each other in childhood, almost, and we loved each other until we let a misunderstanding separate us. I'm afraid, dear, I shall always love you, and yet I shall be more proud than ashamed when I look back on this time here together. Perhaps I should be ashamed of loving you at all, while I am the wife of a man who is good and who trusts me. But I am proud that you proved big enough to help me when I needed you. I shall be proud that when I was too weak to fight for myself you fought for me. I am proud that there was never a moment which Eben might not have seen, or one which he would have resented.

"I am trying to think, and when one reaches the point of utter honesty with oneself, one sees things more clearly. I told you that I thought Eben himself had come to believe this marriage a failure. But now I see why more clearly.

"It was my fault. I have been absolutely true to him in act, but perhaps, if I had let myself, I could after all have been true in a larger sense: in the sense of a better understanding. Perhaps I can still--and I mean to try.

"I know that you distrust him, but since last night I have been thinking of his great generosity, and of what unfaltering trust he has had in me. A trust like that ought to have brought him an allegiance not only of form but of the heart itself.

"Had he been a mean or suspicious man there were many circumstantial things that might have aroused his jealousy, but he has always been above jealousy.

"We know that there has been no taint of guilt--that our love has been, by ordinary standards, entirely innocent. But to him it has all been giving--and receiving nothing.

"From first to last he has trusted me. Leaving me here with you is a final demonstration of that trust--and he loves me.

"I am writing about Eben because I want you, who are at heart so just, to be fair in your thought of him. In our decision to separate for all time--"

There the pen faltered and Conscience had to rest for a moment.

"--you would not think the more of me, if you did not believe that I meant to carry the effort through to the end. I am going to begin over with what you call the hopeless experiment--and even now I think I have a chance ... a fighting chance of winning. If I have, I owe it to you." _

Read next: Chapter 31

Read previous: Chapter 29

Table of content of Tyranny of Weakness


Post your review
Your review will be placed after the table of content of this book