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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 32

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The living-room held a glow of mellow light, but as Eben returned with the three brimming glasses, Conscience touched a button which darkened the wall sconces and left only the large lamp on the table, where she had placed her tray.

"Inasmuch as two members of this party are more or less gauzily appareled," she suggested, "it doesn't seem to be necessary to make an illumination of it."

Tollman, with a seeming of absent-mindedness set down his light burden on a small side table, somewhat remote, but it was with no want of certainty that he marked the relative positions of its contents. One glass was alone at the edge of the silver platter. Two others were closer together at the center.

Now he came over, empty-handed, and as he regarded the larger tray of food, he rubbed his palms appreciatively with a convincing relish.

"You have prepared a feast for the traveler on very short notice," he smilingly attested while inwardly and more grimly he added in apposition--"'a table in the presence of mine enemies!'"

His wife modestly disclaimed credit. "You are easy to please, Eben. There's only beef sandwiches and fruit and a little cake. Would you like me to make you some coffee?"

Eben raised his hand with a gesture of refusal. "No, indeed, I am more than satisfied--unless you want it yourself."

But she shook her head, "It would keep me awake. I haven't been sleeping well of late." This announcement of insomnia--twin sister to a troubled conscience, he thought--was a somewhat bold skirting of admission, but his words were reassuring.

"The Madeira is well timed then. A glass before bedtime should be soothing." Still standing, he bit into one of the beef sandwiches, and observed with an approach to the whimsy of gayety: "I've never been quite clear in my own mind as to what was meant by the stalled ox of scriptural fame and I've always subscribed to the text 'better a dinner of herbs where love is'--but I'm bound to say, it's very gratifying to have the stalled ox and the love as well."

For Farquaharson his air of celebration held an irony which accentuated his own exclusion and made participation difficult. He was the exile at the feast.

Eben who, alone of the three, had not seated himself wandered about with the restless volubility of a peripatetic philosopher, though his humor was genial beyond its custom. At last with the air of one too engaged with his own conversation to heed details of courtesy he took up his glass and sipped from it thoughtfully.

"Even if this is my own wine," he commented, "I can't withhold commendation. I sometimes think that only the very abstemious man can truly appreciate a good vintage. For him it is an undulled pleasure of the palate."

Stuart Farquaharson at last found it possible to laugh.

"I for one can't dispute the statement," he confessed. "I haven't tasted it yet--though I understood that both Conscience and I were invited."

"A thousand pardons!" exclaimed the host, shamefacedly. "I am a poor sort of Ganymede--drinking alone and leaving my guests unserved!"

He set down his own glass, and with tardy solicitude proffered to them the remaining two.

"Here's to the homecoming," he proposed with a jauntiness which sat upon him like foreign raiment as he took up his own wine again and Stuart, with a dolorous smile, suggested: "Why not include me in the toast, Eben? The arrival--and the departure."

"Ah," demurred the elder man easily. "But that's not to be celebrated, my boy. For us that is a misfortune."

The two men emptied and put down their glasses--and lighted cigars while Conscience sat thoughtfully, making slower work of her Madeira.

"And now shall we have a little music?" inquired the husband, while the younger man's face darkened, and Conscience said rather hastily:

"Not this evening, please, Eben. We've rather overworked the phonograph of late."

"Not even 'The Beautiful Night of Love'?" The inquiry held an insistent shade of regret.

But Eben, as his glance went shiftily to the face of the clock, was as steady and as cool as one may become under the temporary keying of a repressed and brain-wrecking excitement. To this inflexible composure he must hold until a certain moment arrived, and he must time himself to its coming with a perfection of nicety.

"At last, Eben," Farquaharson testified when a brief silence had fallen on the trio, "I am ready to praise your wine. I feel the glow in my veins and the glow is insidiously grateful."

"I was just thinking so, too," agreed Conscience. "It takes only a taste to go to my head." She was still holding between her fingers the stem of a glass half-full. "I was very tired and already I feel wonderfully restored."

Indeed the shadow had left her eyes and in them was a quiet glow as she smiled upon her husband whose nerves were as tautly strung as those of a sprinter crouched upon his mark and straining to be away at the pistol's crack. "The traitoress has the infamy to smile at me--whom she has betrayed," was the thought in his heart. "It will soon be time!"

These final minutes of necessary waiting and dissembling were the most unendurable of all--this damming back of a madman's thirst for vengeance. Ebbett had said that there is a prefatory period of excitation followed shortly by languor. They must realize their fate, otherwise punishment would be empty, but when he should launch his bolt, the power of the drug must have laid upon them both the beginnings of helplessness: the weight of its inertia. Now he said, acknowledging the praise of his wine:

"The glow comes first, and then the sedative influence--like the touch of velvet."

"You are almost poetic to-night, Eben," smiled Conscience, and he laughed. But abruptly he shivered, and became prosaic again.

"It seems chilly to me here--Perhaps I've taken cold. The day was hot enough, heaven knows, but the night has turned raw--Do you mind if I light the fire?"

Receiving permission, Eben turned his back and stooped to touch a match to the logs on the hearth. In a moment the flames were leaping and the man who had straightened up stood for a brief space watching them spread and broaden.

It was while he was so engaged that Conscience raised her hand and held out her glass, still not quite emptied, for Stuart to set down. She did so silently and the man rose from his chair and took it from her, but in the simple operation their fingers met and a sudden surging of emotions came to each in the moment of contact.

Without a word, save as his lips formed mutely the two syllables--"To you"--Stuart lifted the glass toward her and then drained it.

Then as he replaced it together with his own on the table Eben Tollman turned, and noted, with satisfaction, the emptiness of the miniature goblets.

The light of animation had died slowly from the dark eyes of the woman, until to the watching husband they seemed inky pools of languor. The leaping flames held her attention and her lips were parted in an inscrutable half-smile. Already her thoughts were becoming pleasantly languid, dwelling on such inconsequential things as how blue the water had been--and that after all to-morrow does not come--until to-morrow.

Shadows leaped and danced fantastically against the color of the crackling logs and in her hair shimmered a glow that ranged between the glint of darkened mahogany and jet. It was of this that Stuart thought, as, for a half hour, they listened to Tollman's talk, content with brief replies or none at all. Some magic had lulled him, too, into a quietened mood from which had been smoothed the saw-edged raggedness of despair. With a vague wonderment he recognized this metamorphosis. No such soothing potency lay in any wine ever pressed from the grapes of Funchal; but it was inexplicably pleasant, and surrender grew beyond any power of its questioning or combatting. Gradually, agreeably the two of them were sinking below the surface of consciousness. Soon they would be submerged.

Then in a moment of partial realization, Conscience said: "I think I had better go upstairs. I was almost napping in my chair." But she made no actual effort to move and her husband raised a smiling demurrer to the suggestion.

"It would be a pity to go just now. The fire has only begun to be cheerful and as for myself I am still chilly."

It was unaccountably pleasant there, with this strange, almost magical blurring of realities into a velvety ease ... with visions of blue water and contented thoughts hovering near in a waking and seductive sort of sleep.

A long silence fell upon the three--realized by only one.

The point where they drifted into the nebulous territory of dreams was undefined. The actual was dropping away into an impalpable mistiness as the earth drops from under a rising aeroplane.

Both Conscience and Stuart sought futilely to rouse themselves because the dream had now ceased to be pleasant, and yet it was only an ugly picture projected against a beautiful background deepening into a purple velvet stupor.

They knew the picture itself was not real because, in it, Eben's usually calm face was distorted into a demoniac frenzy and his voice quavered and ranted into a high-pitched incoherence.

The dream in spite of its fantastic wildness must have held some attribute of the comic for they smiled as if in confidential understanding. Eben seemed to be waving before their eyes an envelope and to be talking about intercepted letters which was all absurdly, impalpably funny.

There was also some grotesque eloquence about the vengeance of a Most High God, visited upon adulterers.

But the voice dropped sometimes to an inaudible pitch and rose sometimes like a scream because it came from an incalculable distance and the figure, distorted with meaningless gyrations of gesture, appeared and disappeared like a shade in a farce.

Eben Tollman stood declaiming on his hearth with his clenched hands stretched high above his head while his victims drowsed peacefully.

Mania raced and burned through him as a current travels through wire. The dam of repression which had only collected and stored up the elements of flood had burst into torrents and chaos. The wreck of his brain swirled furiously in a single whirlpool of idea, the monomania that he was called to be God's avenger.

But he had lost his audience and his victims had escaped him. Upon the lips of the two unspeakable malefactors dwelt a smile of obtuse tranquillity.

He raised his eyes, as if to heaven, and his voice in fulminating anathema.

"'Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication and going after strange flesh ... are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.... Likewise also these filthy dreamers defile the flesh ... despise dominion and speak evil of dignities.'"

The madman paused, but only for a moment, then again he thundered out his rabid and distorted prayer. "'Their throat is an open sepulcher: they flatter with their tongue.... Destroy them, O God: let them perish through their own imaginations.'"...

When Tollman's delirium had burned him into a temporary exhaustion he collapsed into a chair and at his feet, forgotten now, fell the envelope which he had flaunted vainly before the eyes of the transgressors. They had escaped, not scourged or harrowed according to their deserts, but smiling like sleepy children, through the door of unconsciousness and oblivion. Gropingly his fingers went again into his pocket and came out holding the envelope out of which he had taken the death tablets. They, too, had betrayed him. Instead of torture they had brought the peace of Nirvana.

From the limp fingers of the demented creature who sat gazing at his two victims, the envelope fluttered down. Except for the mad embers of the eyes, one might have said that the room held three dead bodies.

At least he had sent them on to a judgment from which they could not escape with iniquitous smiles.

Then a sudden doubt assailed him. Were they, after all, dead?

He came to his foot, moving with the spasmodic jerkiness of his condition, but with all the augmented strength of a madman's power.

To his crazed investigation their wrists betrayed no pulse and their lips, no breath. Then they were dead!

With an inarticulate exclamation, like the oath of a man devoid of speech, he ripped the sheer and ribboned silk from his wife's breast, as savagely as though he were tearing the flesh itself, and laid his hand upon the bared bosom. There, too, was the unfluttering stillness of a lifeless heart.

Then straightening up, he gazed down on her, loathing all the beauty which had once allured him and which now dedicated itself, in death, to the benediction of a smile turned toward her lover.

Already mad, his lunacy became a perversion of deviltry. He lifted the unstirring body and posed it in a relaxed attitude of ease upon the broad couch that stood at one side of the hearth. Back of the bared shoulders, he heaped cushions, so that she seemed the voluptuous figure of a woman who abandons herself to as irresponsible a gratification of sense as a purring tigress. The fire, playing on the ivory of her cheeks and the bosom more softly white than the checks, seemed to awaken a ghost of flickering mockery about her smiling lips.

Then, drawing upon his unwonted strength of the hour, Eben Tollman moved the other figure until what had been Stuart Farquaharson sat beside what had been Conscience Tollman in lover-like proximity.

As he staged this ghastly pantomime, he gloated wildly. That was the scene which a bolted door had prevented him from surprising! That was the inexpressible and iniquitous devotion which they had hidden in innocent smiles! Their eyes were closed, but each face was turned toward the other, and in death the woman's seemed to take on a deeper tenderness.

Tollman lifted one of her arms, from which the drapery fell back, and laid it across the shoulder of the man at her side, and about him the world rocked in the quake of mania.

He stood off and contemplated them from a greater distance--and having, in his madman's saturnalia, burned out even the augmented forces of his fever, a feeling of weakness overcame him. Then it was that his eyes caught the corner of an envelope protruding from the pocket of Stuart Farquaharson's bath robe. Hurriedly he tore it out and ripped off the end. It was in Conscience's hand--doubtless another proof of iniquity.

But as he read, the fires of his brain were swept back, under the quenching force of undeniable conviction. This letter had not been meant for his eyes. It could hold no motive of deceiving him.

Only treatment in confinement could ever again set up the fallen and shattered sanity of this man, but like rents in a curtain there came to him flashes of the rational. They came fitfully under the tremendously sobering effect of what he read. What Stuart Farquaharson had never read.

"It was my fault.... I have been absolutely true to him in act ... but perhaps ... I could ... have been true in a larger sense. I have been thinking of his great generosity and of what unfaltering trust he has in me ... he has always been above jealousy. We know that there has been no taint of guilt. Even now I think I have a fighting chance of winning. If I have I owe it to you...." These words spelled out a document which could not be doubted, which even the perversion of a jealousy gone mad could no longer doubt.

He, Eben Tollman, the righteous, had built the whole horrible structure of abomination--out of jealous fabrications! He had made the hideous mistake and capped it with murder!

A nausea of brain and soul swept him. Then again the half-sane interval darkened luridly into hallucination, but now it was a new hallucination.

The figure of the woman on the couch seemed to move. Instead of the filmy draperies torn by his own hand, she wore the habiliments of poverty and looked at him out of a face of plebeian prettiness; a face of dimly confused features. The apparition rose and stood waveringly upright. "You murdered me, too!" it said in a voice of vague simplicity. Eben Tollman tried to scream and could not.

He covered his eyes with his palms, but failed to shut out the image because it lay deeper than the retina's curtain.

"I'm one of the others you murdered," went on the voice. "I'm Minnie Ray."

Tollman straightened suddenly up. The vagary had passed--but on the couch the two immovable figures remained.

Tollman had never been a handsome man, but his face and carriage had held a certain stiff semblance of dignity. Now his cheeks flamed with the temperature which must, without the immediate administration of a powerful sedative, burn out his life with its crisping and charring virulence. His eyes were no longer human, but transformed into that kinship with those of wild beasts or red embers that comes with acute mania.

As the shadows wavered in the room which he had made a place of murder, there rose out of them taunting, accusing figures. He seemed to see Hagan, the detective, grotesquely converted into an executioner clad in red and Sam Haymond launching against him the anathema of the Church. There were shapes of strange things neither human, animal nor reptile--but wholly monstrous--emerging greedily from filthy lairs and creeping toward him with sinuous movements through a sea of slime.

For the furies that haunted Orestes, because of his classic crime, had come back to pursue Eben Tollman.

He laughed as maniacs laugh and screamed as maniacs scream, until the strange medley of insensate sounds went rocketing and skittering through the house and came back in echo, as the retort of the furies.

One human sense was left: the sense of flight: the impulse to leave the place where Death held dominion and Death's avengers came in unclean and rapacious hordes.

Turning, he fled with a speed born of his dementia, hurling himself through the door with a crash of shattered glass and a trail of incoherent ravings.

Without sense of direction or objective he raced here and there, doubling like a frightened rabbit, taking no account of paths or obstructions, seeing nothing but hordes of pursuing furies urged on by a parson and a hangman who led the chase.

The storm had begun anew, and out here in the darkness the cannonading of thunder and wind swelled the chorus of pursuit. When the refugee fell, he clawed and bit at the vines which had tripped him, in a fancied battle of Laocooen, until at last he saw the coolness of water ahead of him, and, dashing down the slope, hurled himself, shrieking, into its stillness.

There his outcry ended. His spread fingers clutched at a liquid emptiness and his fevered eyes showed once or twice briefly--and were quenched. _

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