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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 31

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In Boston Eben would have been safely housed against the storm, but Eben was not in Boston. He had driven to the village and put his horse and buggy in the livery stable. At the station he had bought a ticket for Boston, but when the express made its first stop he had dropped off to buy a paper and had intentionally allowed his train to go on without him.

To several acquaintances whom he met he confided the circumstance of his clumsy mistake, and one of them remembered in the light of after events that though he spoke with his ordinary reserve of manner his eyes had held a "queer glitter." Tollman told these persons that he would take the later train to his destination, but what he actually did was to board the afternoon local going in the direction of his home. As chance ordained, he paid his fare to a new conductor, who did not know him, and sat in the day coach unaccosted and unrecognized.

He did not remain on the local until it reached his own town of Tanner, but dropped off at West Tanner, one station short of the full distance, from which point he had a walk of four miles by a road sandy and little frequented, to his own house.

Even now Eben did not hurry, but when he had left the limits of the village he walked slowly and even paused occasionally to rest and reflect, consulting his watch on these halts as though his object was not so much the saving of time, as its killing.

In short, the Eben Tollman of this evening was not the same man that he had ever been before. To a superficial eye he was, as usual, sedately quiet, yet there was a new quality in his mood. This was the sort of quiet that might brood at the bottom of an ocean whose surface is being lashed into the destructive turmoil of tempest. Only since Eben Tollman was a madman--not a noisy and raving maniac but a homicidally dangerous and crafty one--his situation was inverted. It was the surface that was calm with him and the deeps that were frenzied.

To be sure, all these seeming vicissitudes of his journey were parts of a plan symmetrically ordered from the crazed compulsion of suspicion and jealousy and now ripe for its fruition, which was to be murder.

Of course the motive which actuated him, locked in its logic-proof compartment, would not have been, by him, called murder but obedience to a divine mandate. None-the-less it contemplated human sacrifice.

Just as the storm broke with its cannonading of winds and its fulmination of lightning he stopped at the edge of a small lake where an ice-house, now exhausted of supply, had been left accommodatingly unlocked.

He felt no hesitancy to taking refuge there because the place belonged to him. Quite recently he had foreclosed, the mortgage which gave him title to the small farm upon which it stood.

Eben's plan contemplated neither a premature nor an over-tardy arrival at his own house. The two malefactors who were, he felt absolutely certain, using his roof for their lustful assignation, had the night before them. They would avail themselves of it with that sybarite deliberateness which had characterized their epicurean guile and deceit from the beginning.

He consulted his watch. He judged that a quarter after nine, or perhaps nine-thirty, would be about the psychological time for his entry upon the scene, with his contribution of an unforeseen climax to the drama.

It was not yet seven, and it would be as well to wait here while the storm, which made the old ice-house tremble about his head, rode out its initial fury.

His judgment proved good for before it was necessary to start, the main violence of wind and rain had abated into gusts and desultory showers. Along the way he encountered evidences of its force, in fallen branches and broken trees; and in one place, as he crossed a road, he ran into a hanging strand of telephone wire pulled down by broken timber.

As he drew near his own house his wrath mounted to the cold and inflexible bitterness of arctic destruction, but his mind seemed to clarify into a preternatural alertness such as the absinthe-drinker fancies gives a razor edge to his thought functions. Like the keenness of absinthe it was hallucination. The tremendous thrill of a madness that had been cumulative through months and had finally reached the fulfillment of action, was vitalizing him.

When the walls of his house bulked at last before his eyes, he paused and began to take an accounting. One detail somewhat dismayed him. The entire lower floor was dark, and since it was yet early he had not expected that to be the case. The sudden fear attacked him that he was too late.

He made a complete and careful circuit of the grounds, noting with the fancied shrewdness of his mood every circumstance upon which a meaning might be placed.

The blankness of the first floor was merely indicative--but when he noted also the dark sash of Farquaharson's window indicativeness assumed a more sinister emphasis. It was reasonable to infer that unlighted rooms were unoccupied rooms and conversely, it was ominously significant that the wide window of his wife's bedroom gave the single frame of illumination that broke the darkness of the four walls.

For a better survey, he retreated to a bit of high ground at the right of the house which afforded a narrow glimpse into Conscience's room, though at an unsatisfactory range.

From this natural watch-tower he could make out the seated figure of his wife at her desk and from time co time she turned her head, as one might, who speaks to, or listens to, a companion within the same walls, though out of sight of a man who commands a circumscribed field of vision. Shortly he left that position and lurked for a time among the flowers and shrubbery that lined the stone wall of the yard.

From here he saw Conscience move into the zone of light framed by the window. Her hair had been loosened from its coils and fell in a heavy cascade of darkness over shoulders that were bare.

She seemed to wear a dainty negligee of ribboned silk, and as he watched she began slowly braiding her hair into two dusky ropes. After a little time she disappeared again from view.

The lunatic, now thoroughly frenzied, and imbued with the phantasy of suspicion, went back again to the higher ground and, after a time, saw her open the door of her room and disappear into the hall. That hall was the road that led to Stuart Farquaharson's room--and perdition!

Once more he, too, went to the rear of the house. There lay the best chance of viewing the next and most ominous scene of this drama of infamy and unfaithfulness.

But the hall at that angle was dark and told him nothing. Something else however told him everything--at least he so believed. The window of Stuart Farquaharson's room was no longer black but a frame of light.

Eben stood for a space with breath that came in hurried and panting excitement while the madness mounted in his veins and burned fiercely in his eyes.

Then, against the illuminated background he saw Stuart, the man whom God meant him to kill.

He was wrapped in a bathrobe and was calmly raising a match to his pipe-bowl.

The averted face was looking, Eben bitterly told himself, at the door which he could not see; was watching it open to admit Conscience Tollman.

Now was the appointed time! Now were the judgments loosened! Hastening his steps into an awkward trot, Tollman went around to the front door, his fingers trembling so that he had to stop and make an effort at calming himself before he could manage the key in the lock.

When at last it was fitted and stealthily turned with an attempt at noiselessness, the door refused to yield. That, he told himself furiously, he might have expected. For all their seeming sense of security they had reenforced it by shooting the bolt on the inside so that no one could enter without sending an alarm ahead of his coming. It was only one proof more of guilty concealment within. But it was far past time for needing such corroboration. He had seen enough and the problem raised by the present discovery was quite another. He went about the place trying side doors and windows, but everywhere his house was closed against him--and that meant a complete revision of plan, and the relinquishment of the tremendous force of climax to be gained by slipping in unannounced and holding over confounded evil-doers the irrefutable proof of demonstration.

He must knock on his door, and give them time to slip back into their disguise of hypocrisy. It meant that, in the principal feature, his whole carefully laid plan had failed, but at least now he knew the truth and was ready to let the avenging bolt fall. They would meet him with smiles of innocence: they with sinful kisses yet warm on their lips. They, fresh from their interrupted love, would talk casually. Very well, for a little while yet he could smile and be casual, too, meeting their guile with counter dissembling--until he was ready.

* * * * *

If Stuart Farquaharson had been sitting most of that evening in a darkened room, it was because his misery was so great that the light seemed to make clearer the wretchedness of his future. For a time he had tried to read; even to write, but that was before Eben had come. In all those efforts he had failed and now for more than an hour he had been gazing dejectedly out of the window, listening to the wind as it buffeted itself out and died in an exhausted moaning among the pines. He had heard the wailing of the harbor sirens but his eyes had been unseeing--at least unrecognizing.

And Conscience had been writing the letter which she meant to leave under the door of Stuart's room. He would find it there in the morning, and when he said good-by, he would understand the things which she had left unsaid before they parted in the hall.

She _had_ gone and left the letter at the door: had even listened there a moment, unknown to the room's occupant, and it was that crossing of her threshold which her husband saw.

Then Stuart had switched on his light, and thrown off his clothes. If he seemed calm as he lighted his pipe, it was a calm of spent emotion, and not the complacency of a man who awaits a tryst.

Through the stillness of the house the hammering of the brass knocker sounded loudly. Stuart Farquaharson in his room and Conscience in hers, both heard it, with a sense of astonishment. The man opened his door and hurried to the stairhead, where he found Conscience, arrived in advance of him.

But as he had crossed his threshold Farquaharson had seen an envelope lying in the light that flooded through, and he recognized Conscience's hand in the address as he picked it up. Remembering what she had said about writing to him he was not surprised, and wishing to save the missive until he should be alone again, he thrust it into the pocket of his bath robe.

"I wonder who it can be--on such a night?" murmured the woman, and the man suggested:

"Perhaps you had better let me investigate. I imagine some motorist has come to grief in the storm."

When he threw open the door, Eben Tollman stepped in.

The elder man stood for a moment glancing from his guest to his wife, and in that instant of scrutiny whatever of the inquisitorial might have lurked in his eyes left them for a bland suavity. Conscience had hastened forward and her lips were smiling. Farquaharson's eyes dared to meet his own with a level straightforwardness.

But Tollman read into both the smile and the straight-gazing eyes a hypocrisy which superlatively embittered the blood in his veins.

Conscience was standing before him with the exquisite clarity of her complexion unclouded; with the dark pools of her eyes unvexed by the weight of hideous perfidy that should be stifling her heart.

This capping off of infamy with an angelic pretext of innocence was the supreme insult not only to Eben Tollman, outraged husband and man, but to the Righteousness he served, the Righteousness which he now seemed to hear calling trumpet-tongued for the reprisal which was at hand.

"What in the world has happened to you?" he heard his wife exclaiming in an astonished voice, and he laughed as he responded:

"I came back. Haven't you a kiss for me, my dear?" Then when she raised her lips to his an inner voice, which spoke only madness, whispered viciously, "The Judas woman! The unspeakable infamy!"

He explained that he had missed his train, and that when he telephoned to Boston, he learned that the matter could after all be deferred. A man from Chicago had also failed to arrive.

"But the train has been in for hours," Farquaharson reminded him with a puzzled tinge in his voice. "It can't have taken you this long to drive from Tanner."

"No, I didn't drive. The idea struck me of getting off at West Tanner and walking over. The old mare went lame and I didn't want to give her any more work to-night.... Then the storm broke and I took refuge in an empty ice-house."

Conscience said suddenly: "But, Eben, you are soaked--and if you've been wandering about like that, you can't have had any supper."

"No," he shook his head. "I haven't and I'm starving."

Including them both, he suggested with a frank seeming of pleasure. "However, I'm glad to be back. Did I wake you both up? You seem to have made a short evening of it."

"I haven't been asleep," answered Stuart, and Conscience added: "Nor I."

"I noticed," went on the husband evenly, "that the lower floor was dark, as I came up ... your window, too, Stuart, when I first saw it."

"You must have come very slowly," replied the younger man with a calmness that struck the other as the acme of effrontery. "My light has been burning for ten minutes ... but I don't make out how you saw my window if you came from the front of the house."

Eben winced a little, but his smile only became more urbane.

"Quite true, my boy. You see I tried my latch key first, and finding the house dark, I sought to avoid disturbing the sleepers. I went to the back door and the side door. Finally I knocked. Since neither of you was asleep it's all right."

"Perhaps after being in the fog so long," Conscience suggested, "a little brandy might be advisable," but Eben Tollman laughed.

"My dear, for some unaccountable reason, I feel as if I'd been away from home as long as Enoch Arden--and I'm much happier to be back. I am in the mood for celebration. There's a bottle of old Madeira in the pantry. I don't think a little of it will harm any of us ... and I'm going to dissipate even farther. I'm going to smoke a cigar." Smoking a cigar was with Eben a rite which occurred with the frequency of a Christmas or a Thanksgiving dinner.

Something youthful had come into his manner, and Farquaharson, in spite of his misery, laughed.

"I'm afraid I'm hardly dressed for a party," he demurred, but Eben answered in a tone of aggrieved hospitality.

"My dear fellow, you are much more fully dressed than when you go bathing; both of you--and how can I celebrate alone?" So Stuart smilingly asserted:

"All right. We'll have a toast in your excellent Madeira to the return of Enoch Arden."

Possibly his voice held a meaning less light than his words. Perhaps he was thinking of it as a toast to his own departure into exile, but to Eben it had the ring of a sneer, as though the words "too late" had been added.

Conscience disappeared to return shortly with a tray containing cold meat and bread, and to her husband she said: "Eben, I can't find the famous Madeira. Where is it?"

He rose, and announced that he would bring it at once, disappearing beyond the swinging door of the pantry.

While he was absent, Conscience turned to the man in the bath robe. A smile half of amusement and half of self-accusation tilted the corners of her lips.

"You see," she said thoughtfully, "I've just let myself think of him as elderly until, to me, he's become elderly. Yet to-night he's younger than either of us, isn't he?"

"To-night neither one of us is very young, dear," he replied with a wry smile.

In the pantry Eben Tollman poured three glasses of Madeira, and placed them on a tray carefully noting their relative positions. With fingers that trembled violently for a moment Eben grew as abruptly steady; he drew from his waistcoat pocket a small envelope such as druggists use, and into two of the glasses he divided its supply of small tablets.

"Ebbett said they were tasteless and readily soluble," he reminded himself. "And that the amount should be enough for a dog or a man."

Then he patted his breast pocket, where lay an envelope yellowed with age, bearing the legend "S. F. & C. W."

Of that he meant also to make use later. _

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