THE TYRANNY OF WEAKNESS
CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK
"THE CALL OF THE CUMBERLANDS," "DESTINY," Etc.
Frontispiece by PAUL STAHR
NEW YORK W. J. WATT & COMPANY PUBLISHERS
COPYRIGHT, 1917, BY W. J. WATT & COMPANY
OTHER BOOKS BY CHARLES NEVILLE BUCK
THE KEY TO YESTERDAY THE LIGHTED MATCH THE PORTAL OF DREAMS THE CALL OF THE CUMBERLANDS THE BATTLE CRY THE CODE OF THE MOUNTAINS DESTINY
PRESS OF BRAUNWORTH & CO. BOOK MANUFACTURERS BROOKLYN. N. Y.
THE TYRANNY OF WEAKNESS
They were types in embryo, but of course they did not know it. No more would a grain of wheat and a poppy seed dropping side-by-side in a fallow place reflect upon their destinies, though one might typify a working world's dependence for bread; the other a dreaming world's reliance for opium.
They were a boy and a girl stepping artlessly into the wide chances of a brand-new and vastly interesting adolescence. Just now her young eyes were provocative with the starry light of mischief. His were smoldering darkly under her badgering because his pride had been touched to the quick. His forefathers had been gentlemen in England before they were gentlemen in the Valley of Virginia and his heritage of knightly blood must not be made a subject of levity. But the girl reflected only that when his dark eyes blazed and his cheeks colored with that dammed-up fury she found him a more diverting vassal than in calmer and duller moods. A zoo is more animated when the beasts are stirred into action.
"What was it that General Breckinridge said, Stuart?" She put the question innocently. "When the Newmarket cadets made their charge?"
"He said—" Suddenly the boy caught the riffled mockery of her eyes and abruptly his inspired recital broke off in exasperation, "May I ask just why you find that such a funny story?" he inquired with ironical dignity. "Most people seem to think it was rather pitiful than comic to send to their slaughter boys almost young enough to be in the nursery."
The eyes of Conscience Williams twinkled. "Maybe it isn't the story itself that's funny," she deigned to admit. "When your father told it, I cried—but when you tell it your face is so furious that—that you seem about to begin the war between the states all over again."
"Of course that makes it perfectly clear." Into the manner of young Mr. Stuart Farquaharson came now the hauteur of dignified rebuke. He enveloped himself in a sudden and sullen silence, brooding as he sat with his eyes fixed on his riding boots.
"What did General Breckinridge say?" She prompted persistently. Such sheer perversity maddened him. He had been reciting to her a story of exalted heroism—the narrative of how the boy cadets had hurled their young bodies against the Northern cannon and of how General Breckinridge had prayed for forgiveness as he gave the command which sent this flowering youth to its fate. And she found it amusing! He could not see how genuinely comic was his own unreconstructed ardor—how exaggerated was his cocksure manner—how thoroughly he spoke as though he himself had bled on the field of honor.
From her hammock she watched him with serene and inscrutable complacency, from under long, half-closed lashes. In his gaze was inarticulate wrath, but back of that—idolatry. He had from birth breathed an atmosphere of traditions in which the word "chivalry" was defined, not as an obsolete term, but as a thing still kept sacredly aflame in the hearts of gentlemen. To the stilted gallantry of his boyhood, ideals had meant more than ideas until Conscience Williams had come from her home on Cape Cod and turned his life topsy-turvy. Since her advent he had dreamed only of dark eyes and darker hair and crimson lips. He had rehearsed eloquent and irresistible speeches, only to have them die on a tongue which swelled painfully and clove to the roof of his mouth when he essayed their utterance. Then had come an inspiration. The stirring narration of how the Newmarket cadets had charged the Northern guns was to have been his cue, carrying him with the momentum of its intrinsic heroism over the ramparts of tongue-tied shyness. That was what he had essayed this morning, aided and abetted by the tuneful fragrance of June in Virginia. The stage had been set—his courage had mounted—and before he had reached his magnificent peroration, she had laughed at him. Ye Gods! She had affronted the erstwhile Confederate States of America and his spirit was galled.
Suddenly Conscience looked up and met his gaze penitently. It was a change from mockery so swift and complete that he should have suspected it, but he saw only a flash of sun through dark clouds.
"Do you like poetry?" she abruptly demanded.
"Like poetry!" Again the boy's countenance needed a twinkle of merriment to redeem it from a too serious acceptance of self. "Not to like poetry—if it's real poetry—is simply to be a plain clod." He spoke with an oracular and pedantic assurance which challenged the girl's mischief afresh.
"Shall I recite you something?" was her mild and seemingly placating suggestion, "just to see if it is real poetry?"
"Will you? I wish you would." He bent forward in eager anticipation. Verse should pave the way with music for the avowal which he had so far failed to force across the barrier between heart and lips.
She rose from the hammock and stood beside one of the broad verandah pillars, very straight and slender and flower-like, with the June sun on her hair. Stuart's heart was conscious of a sudden glow. A boy new to love, like a man new to drink, can recognize from a sip an elation that the jaded taste has forever forfeited. Then in a rich voice with a slightly exaggerated elocution, Conscience began:
"Up from the meadows, rich with corn, clear in the cool September morn, The clustered spires of Frederick stand, green-walled by the hills of Maryland."
Those schools wherein the last of the Farquaharsons had derived his primary education had not starred or featured the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier. Stuart's eyes dwelt devouringly on the elocutionist—as yet unruffled by suspicion. They were doing their best to say the things at which his lips balked. But as the recitation proceeded their light died from hope to misery and from misery to the anger of hurt pride. He stood very rigid and very attentive, making no effort to interrupt, but holding her gaze defiantly as she went on:
"Up the street came the Rebel tread, Stonewall Jackson riding ahead. Under his slouch hat left and right, he glanced and the old flag caught his sight."
At these lines the boy flinched, but still he said nothing. Like a soldier who stands at attention under the threat of a firing squad he listened to the end—or rather to the stanzas which recite:
"'Shoot, if you must at this old gray head, but spare your country's flag,' she said. A flush of manhood, a look of shame, into the face of their leader came...."
That was too much! The man of whom these impious words were spoken was that gallant knight, without reproach, whose name is hallowed in every Southern heart. Very slowly Stuart Farquaharson raised his hand.
"I think," he announced with a shake of repressed fury in his voice, "I'll have to go home now. Good afternoon."
"Then you don't like poetry?"
"I don't consider that poetry," he said with a dignity which an archbishop might have envied. "I consider it slander of a dead hero."
"You mean, then," Conscience seemed a little frightened now and her utterance was hurried and fluttering, "that you are mad and are going? You never go until later than this."
It was difficult to be both courteous and honest, and Stuart's code demanded both.
"I expect there wasn't ever the same reason before."
This time it was the girl's eyes that leaped into flame and she stamped a small foot.
"Did you ever have any fun in your life?" she demanded. "You know perfectly well that I teased you just because you were such a solemn owl that you're not far from being a plain, every-day prig. All right; go if you like and don't come to see me again until you get over the idea that you're a—a—" she halted for a word, then added scornfully—"a combination high priest and Prince of Wales."
Stuart Farquaharson bowed stiffly.
"All right," he said. "I won't forget. Good-by."
* * * * *
At the dinner table that evening Mrs. Farquaharson noted with concern the trance-like abstraction in which her son sat, as one apart. Later as she mixed for the General the night-cap toddy, which was an institution hallowed by long usage, she commented on it.
"I'm afraid Stuart isn't well," she volunteered. "He's not a moody boy by nature, and he doesn't seem himself to-day. Perhaps we had better send him to Doctor Heathergill. It wouldn't do for him to fall ill just when he's starting to college."
The General studied the toddy as though it held the secrets of a seer's crystal. "Your very good health, my dear." He raised the glass and about his gray eyes came the star-point wrinkles of an amused smile, "I noticed that Stuart didn't ride over to see the little Williams girl to-night. Wasn't that unusual?"
Mrs. Farquaharson nodded her head. "He must have been feeling positively ill," she declared. "Nothing less could have kept him away."
But the father, who had never before shown evidence of a hard heart, permitted his quizzical twinkle to broaden into a frank grin, "With every confidence in Dr. Heathergill, I doubt his ability to aid our declining son."
"Then you think—?"
"Precisely so. The little girl from the North has undertaken a portion of the boy's education which is as painful to him as it is essential."
"He's been perfectly lovely to her," defended the mother indignantly. "It's a shame if she's hurt him."
The General's face grew grave.
"It's a God's blessing, I think." He spoke thoughtfully now. "Stuart is a sentimentalist. He lives largely on dreams and poetry and ideals."
"Surely, General—" Sometimes in the moment of serious connubial debate Mrs. Farquaharson gave her husband his title. "Surely you wouldn't have him otherwise. The traditions of his father and grandfathers were the milk on which he fed at my breast."
"By which I set great store, but a child must be weaned. Stuart is living in an age of shifting boundaries in ideas and life.
"I should hate to see him lower his youthful standards, but I should like to see him less in the clouds. I should like to see him leaven the lump with a sense of humor. To be self-consciously dedicated to noble things and yet unable to smile at one's ego is to be censorious, and to be censorious is to be offensive."
"But he's just a child yet," argued Stuart's mother. "For all his height and strength he's hardly more than a boy after all."
"Quite true, yet to-night he's tossing in his bed and breathing like a furnace because his heart is broken for all time. It's all very well to swear:
"To love one maiden only, cleave to her And worship her by years of noble deeds,
but for him that day is still far off. Meanwhile he's got to have his baptism of fire. It's a mighty good thing for a boy like Stuart to begin taking a little punishment while he's young. Young hearts, not less than young bones, mend quicker and better. He's over intense and if he got the real before he's had his puppy loves it would go hard with him."
When Stuart presented himself at breakfast the next morning his eyes were black-ringed with sleeplessness, but his riding boots were freshly polished and his scarf tied with extra precision. It was in the mind of the youngest Farquaharson to attain so personable an appearance that the lady who had cast aside his love should be made to realize what she had lost as they passed on the highway.
Then he went to the stables to have Johnny Reb saddled and started away, riding slowly. When he came in view of the house which she sanctified with her presence, a gray saddle mare stood fighting flies and stamping by the stone hitching post in front of the verandah, and each swish of the beast's tail was a flagellation to the boy's soul. The mare belonged to Jimmy Hancock and logically proclaimed Jimmy's presence within. Heretofore between Stuart and Jimmy had existed a cordial amity, but now the aggrieved one remembered many things which tainted Jimmy with villainy and crassness. Stuart turned away, his hand heavy on the bit, so that Johnny Reb, unaccustomed to this style of taking pleasure sadly, tossed his head fretfully and widened his scarlet nostrils in disgust.
Ten minutes later the single and grim-visaged horseman riding north came upon a pair riding south. Johnny Reb's silk coat shone now with sweat, but his pace was sedate. The love-sick Stuart had no wish to travel so fast as would deny the lady opportunity to halt him for conversation. Conscience and Jimmy were also riding slowly and Stuart schooled his features into the grave dignity of nobly sustained suffering. No Marshal of France passing the Emperor's reviewing stand ever rode with a deeper sense of the portentous moment. With his chin high and his face calm in its stricken dignity he felt that no lady with a heart in her soft bosom could fail to extend proffers of conciliation. In a moment more they would meet in the narrow road. His face paled a shade or two under the tension—then they were abreast and his heart broke and the apple of life was dead sea fruit to his palate. She had spoken. She had even smiled and waved her riding crop, but she had done both with so superlative an indifference that it seemed she had not really seen him at all. She was chatting vivaciously with Jimmy and Jimmy had been laughing as raucously as a jackal—and so they had passed him by. The event which had spelled tragedy for him; robbed him of sleep and withered his robust appetite had not even lingered overnight in her memory. The dirk was in Stuart Farquaharson's breast, but it was yet to be twisted. Pride forbade his shaking Johnny Reb into a wild pace until he was out of sight. The funereal grandeur of his measured tread must not be broken, and so he heard with painful distinctness the next remark of Jimmy Hancock.
"What in thunder's eatin' on Stuty—" (sometimes, though not encouraged to do so, young Mr. Farquaharson's intimates called him by that shameful diminutive.) "He looks like a kid that's just been taken back to the barn and spanked."
"Did he?" asked the young lady casually, "I really didn't notice."
Ye Gods! He, wearing his misery like a Caesar's toga, compared by this young buffoon to a kid who had been spanked! She had not noticed it. Ye Gods! Ye Gods!
Ten days passed and the visit of Conscience Williams was drawing to an end. Soon she would go back to those rock-bound shores of New England where in earlier days her ancestors had edified themselves with burning witches. She would pass out of his life but never out of his memory. His heart would go with her, but though it killed him he would never modify the rigors of his self-appointed exile from her presence until an advance came from her.
Each night he secretly stole over to a point of ambuscade from which he could see the shimmery flash of her dress as she moved about the porch, cavaliered by the odious Jimmy and his fellows. On these nocturnal vigils he heard the note of her heedless laughter while he crouched embittered and hidden at a distance. There was in those merry peals no more symptom of a canker at her heart than in the carol of a bird greeting a bright day. She did not care and when the one maiden whom he wished to worship by years of noble deeds did not care—again the only answer was "Ye Gods!"
These were not matters to be alleviated by the comforting support of a confidant and he had no confidant except Cardinal Richelieu. The cardinal was more frequently addressed as Ritchy and his nature was as independent of hampering standards as his origin warranted. The Cardinal's face—a composite portrait of various types of middle-class dog-life—made pretense useless and early in his puppy career he seemed to realize it and to abandon himself to a philosophy of irresponsible pleasure. But Ritchy's eye had taken on a saddened cast since the blight had fallen on his master. He no longer frisked and devised, out of his comedian's soul, mirth-provoking antics. It was as though he understood and his spirit walked in sorrow.
A night of full-mooned radiance came steeping the souls of the young Knight and the young Cardinal in bitter yet sweet melancholy. Two days more and Conscience would be gone from the Valley of Virginia—returning to Cape Cod. Then Stuart would write over the door of his life "Ichabod, the glory is departed." To-night he would stalk again to his lonely tryst beneath the mock-orange hedge, which gave command of the yard and porch, and when she had gone to her room, he could still gaze upon the lighted window which marked a sacred spot. At a sedate distance in the rear proceeded the Cardinal, who had judiciously made no announcement of his coming. He knew that there was an edict against his participation in these vigils, based on a theory that he might give voice and advertise his master's presence, but it was a theory for which he had contempt and which he resented as a slur upon his discretion.
When Stuart Farquaharson crouched in the lee of heavily shadowed shrubbery the Cardinal sat on his haunches and wrinkled his unlovely brow in contemplative thought. Not far away masses of honeysuckle climbed over a rail fence festooned with blossom. Into the night stole its pervasive sweetness and the old house was like a temple built of blue gray shadows with columns touched into ivory whiteness by the lights of door and window. A low line of hills loomed beyond, painted of silver gray against the backdrop of starry sky and the pallor of moon mists. From the porch came the desultory tinkle of a banjo and the voices of young people singing and in a pause between songs more than once the boy heard a laugh—a laugh which he recognized. He could even make out a scrap of light color which must be her dress. Such were the rewards of his night watch, a melancholy and external gaze upon a Paradise barred to him by a stubbornness which his youth mistook for honorable pride.
At last two buggies rattled down the drive with much shouting of farewells and ten minutes later Jimmy's saddle horse clattered off at a gallop. The visitors were gone silence was left behind them. But Conscience did not at once turn into the house and close the door behind her. She stood by one of the tall pillars and the boy strained his gaze to make out more than the vague outline of a shadow-shape. Then slowly she came down the stairs and out onto the moonlit lawn, walking meditatively in the direction of Stuart Farquaharson's hiding place. The boy's heart leaped into a heightened tattoo and he bent eagerly forward with his lips parted. She moved lightly through the luminance of a world which the moon had burnished into tints of platinum and silver, and she was very lovely, he thought, in her child-beauty and slenderness, the budding and virginal freshness that was only beginning to stir into a realization of something meant by womanhood. He bent, half kneeling, in his ambuscade with that dream of love which was all new and wonderful: a thing of such untarnished romance as only life's morning can give to the young.
Then into the dream welled a futile wave of resentment and poisoned it with bitterness. She had played with him and mocked him and cast him aside and to her he was less than nothing. A few moments ago her voice had drifted to him in an abandonment of merriment though she was going away without seeing him. Night after night he had come here, merely for the sad pleasure of watching her move through the shadows and the distance.
Now, unconscious of his nearness, the girl came on until she halted beyond the fence, not more than ten yards away. Cardinal Richelieu fidgeted on his haunches and silenced, with a difficult self-repression, the puzzled whine which came into his throat. The tempered spot-light of the moon was on Conscience's lashes and lips, and the boy stiffened into a petrified astonishment, for quite abruptly and without warning she carried both slim hands to her face and her body shook with something like a paroxysm of sobs.
In a moment she took her hands away and her eyes were shining with a tearful moisture. A lock of hair fell over her face. She tossed it back, then she moved a few steps nearer and rested both arms on the top rail of the fence. In them she buried her cheeks and began to cry softly. Stuart Farquaharson could almost have touched her but he was quite invisible. He felt himself an eavesdropper, but he could not escape without being seen.
The case was different with Cardinal Richelieu. Repressed emotions have been said to kill strong men. They did not kill the Cardinal, but they conquered him. From his raggedly whiskered lips burst a growl and a yawp which, too late, he regretted.
The girl gave a little scream and started back and Stuart realized it was time to reassure her. He rose up, materializing into a tall shape in the shadows like a jinn conjured from empty blackness.
"It's only me—Stuart Farquaharson," he said, and Conscience gave a little outcry of delight in the first moment of surprise. But that she swiftly stifled into a less self-revealing demeanor as she demanded with recovered dignity, "What are you doing here?"
The boy vaulted the fence and stood at her side while the mollified Cardinal waved a stubby tail, as one who would say—"Now you see it took my dog sense to bring you two together. Without me you were quite helpless."
"Why were you crying, Conscience?" Stuart asked, ignoring alike her question and the rebuke in her voice, but she reiterated, "What are you doing here?"
The moon showed a face set with the stamp of tragedy which he imagined to have settled on his life, but his eyes held hers gravely and he was no longer hampered with bashfulness. The sight of her tear-stained faced had freed him of that.
"I come here every night," he acknowledged simply, "to watch you over there on the porch—because—" He balked a moment there, but only a moment, before declaring baldly what he had so often failed to announce gallantly—"Because I'm crazy about you—because I love you."
For a moment she gazed up at him and her breath came fast, then she suggested, a little shaken, "It isn't much farther on to the house. You used to come the whole way."
"You told me not to."
"If you had—had cared very much you would have come any way."
"I've cared enough," he reminded her, "to sit out here every night until you put out your light and went to sleep. If you had wanted me you'd have said so."
Impulsively she laid a trembling hand on his arm and spoke in rushing syllables. "I thought you'd come without being sent for—then when I knew you wouldn't, I couldn't hear it. I wrote you a note to-night.... I was going to send it to-morrow.... I'm going home the next day."
A whippoorwill called plaintively from the hillside. He had spoken and in effect she had answered. All the night's fragrance and cadence merged into a single witchery which was a part of themselves. For the first and most miraculous time, the flood tide of love had lifted them and their feet were no longer on the earth.
"But—but—" stammered the boy, moistening his lips, "you were singing and laughing with Jimmy Hancock and the rest ten minutes ago, and now—"
The girl's delicately rounded chin came up in the tilt of pride.
"Do you think I'd show them how I felt?" she demanded. "Do you think I'd tell anybody—except you."
Stuart Farquaharson had a sensation of hills and woods whirling in glorified riot through an infinity of moon mists and star dust. He felt suddenly mature and strong and catching her in his arms he pressed her close, kissing her hair and temples until she, fluttering with the wildness of her first embrace of love, turned her lips up to his kisses.
But soon Conscience drew away and at once her cheeks grew hot with blushes and maidenly remorse. She had been reared in an uncompromising school of puritanism. Her father would have regarded her behavior as profoundly shocking. She herself, now that it was over, regarded it so, though she wildly and rebelliously told herself that she would not undo it, if she could.
"Oh," she exclaimed in a low voice, "oh, Stuart, what were we thinking about!"
"We were thinking that we belong to each other," he fervently assured her. "As long as I live I belong to you—and to no one else, and you—"
"But we're only children," she demurred, with a sudden outcropping of the practical in the midst of romanticism. "How do we know we won't change our minds?"
"I won't change mine," he said staunchly. "And I won't let you change yours. You will write to me, won't you?" he eagerly demanded, but she shook her head.
"Father doesn't let me write to boys," she told him.
"At least you'll be back—next summer?"
"I'm afraid not. I don't know."
Stuart Farquaharson drew a long breath. His face set itself in rigid resolve.
"If they send you to the North Pole and stop all my letters and put a regiment of soldiers around you, and keep them there, it won't alter matters in the long run," he asseverated, with boyhood assurance, "You belong to me and you are going to marry me."
A voice from the house began calling and the girl answered quickly, "I'm just in the garden. I'll be right in." But before she went she turned to the boy again and her eyes were dancing incorrigibly.
"You won't go out and join any Newmarket cadets or anything and get killed meanwhile, will you?"
"I will not," he promptly replied. "And when we have a house of our own we'll have framed copies of Barbara Freitchie hanging all over the place if you want them."
To Stuart Farquaharson just then the future seemed very sure. He had no way of knowing that after to-morrow years lay between the present and their next meeting—and that after that—but of course he could not read the stars.
The sand bar rose like a white island beyond the mild surf of the shore, distant enough to make it a reservation for those hardier swimmers who failed to find contentment between beach and float. Outside the bar the surf boiled in spume-crowned, and went out again sullenly howling an in-sucking of sands and an insidious tug of undertow.
One head only bobbed far out as a single swimmer shaped his course in unhurried strokes toward the bar. This swimmer had come alone from the hotel bath-houses and had strolled down into the streaming bubbles of an outgoing wave without halting to inspect the other bathers. There was a businesslike directness in the way he kept onward and outward until a comber lifted him and his swimming had begun.
The young man might have been between twenty and twenty-five and a Greek feeling for line and form and rhythmic strength would have called his body beautiful. Its flesh was smooth and brown, flowing in frictionless ease over muscles that escaped bulkiness; its shoulders swung with a sort of gladiatorial freedom. But the Hellenic sculptor would have found the head suited to his use as well as the torso and limbs, for it was a head well shaped and well carried, dominated by eyes alert with intelligence, and enlivened with humor.
As he rocked between crest and trough, the swimmer's glance caught the shattered form of a breaker at the end of the bar. He liked things to be the biggest of their sort. If there was to be surf, he wanted it to be like that beyond, with a fierce song in its breaking and the foam of the sea's endless sweat in its lashings.
When at last he let himself down and his feet touched bottom, he wiped the brine out of his eyes and hurried up the shallow rise—then halted suddenly. The bar had appeared empty of human life, but now he caught a glimpse of a head and a pair of shoulders and they were feminine. A normal curiosity as to further particulars asserted itself. He had a distinct feeling of apprehension lest the face, when seen, should prove a disappointment, because unless it was singularly attractive—more attractive than wits warranted by any law of probability—it would be distressingly out of keeping with the charm and grace of the figure which came into full view as he waded ashore in spite of the masses of dark and lustrous hair which fell free. The unknown lady was sitting on the sand with her back half turned and, in the soaked and clinging silk of her bathing dress, she had an alluring lissomness of line and curve. If her face did match her beauty of body she would have rather more than one woman's share of Life's gifts, he philosophized, and by Nature's law of compensation she would probably be vapid and insipid of mind.
But while he was engaging himself in these personal speculations the lady herself was obviously quite serene in her ignorance of his presence or existence. She conceived herself to be in sole possession of her island kingdom of an hour and was complacently using it as an exclusive terrain.
She had removed her blue bathing cap and tossed it near by on the sand. She had let her hair out free to the sun, in whose light it glowed between the rich darkness of polished mahogany and the luster of jet.
After all perhaps he had better announce himself in some audible fashion since, secure in her supposed isolation, the other occupant of the bar proceeded to remove a silk stocking, which matched the cap in color, and to examine with absorbed interest what he supposed to be a stone-bruise on an absurdly small and pink heel. Discreetly he coughed.
The young woman looked quickly over her shoulder and their eyes met. A perfunctory apology for invasion shaped itself in his mind, but remained unuttered. He stood instead, his lips parted and his eyes brimming with astonishment. The face not only met the high requirements set for it by his idea of appropriateness, but abundantly surpassed the standard. Moreover, it was a face he recognized. He was not at first quite certain that her recognition of him had been as swift. A half dozen years, involving the transition from boyhood to manhood might have dimmed his image in her memory, so he hastened to introduce himself, striding across as she came a little confusedly to her feet—one silk shod and one bare.
"Heaven be praised, Conscience," he shouted with an access of boyish elation in his voice. "This is too lucky to believe. Don't say you've absolutely forgotten me—Stuart Farquaharson."
She stood there before him, dangling a stocking in her left hand as she extended her right. Dark hair falling below her waist framed a face whose curves and feature-modelings were all separate delights uniting to make a total of somewhat gorgeous loveliness. Her lips were crimson petals in a face as creamy white as a magnolia bloom, and her dark eyes twinkled with inward mischief. It was a face which in repose held that serenely grave quality which a painter might have selected for his study of a saint—and which, when her little teeth flashed and her eyes kindled in a smile, broke into a dazzling and infectious gayety. She was smiling now.
"'Up from the meadows rich with corn'?" she inquired, as though they had parted yesterday.
Stuart Farquaharson broke into a peal of laughter as he caught the extended hand in both his own and finished the quotation.
"Clear in the cool September morn, the clustered spires of Frederick stand, Green-walled by the hills of Maryland ...
By the way," his voice took on a note of sudden trepidation—"you aren't married, are you?"
It was a point upon which she did not at the moment resolve his doubts. She was standing at gaze herself, critically taking him in. She let her appraisal begin at the dark hair which the water had twisted into a curling lawlessness and end at his feet which were somewhat small for his stature. The general impression of that scrutiny was one which she secretly acknowledged to be startlingly, almost thrillingly, favorable. Then she realized that while one of her hands continued to dangle a wet stocking, the other was still tightly clasped in his own and that he was repeating his question.
"Why do you ask?" she naively inquired, as she quietly sought to disengage her imprisoned fingers.
"Why!" he echoed, in a shocked voice, pretending unconsciousness of her efforts at self-liberation. "Why does one ever ask a vital question? The last time I saw you I told you candidly that I meant to marry you. If you're already married—why, it might complicate matters, don't you think?"
"It might," the young woman conceded. "It might even alter matters altogether—but don't you think that even for a reunion we seem to have shaken hands almost long enough?"
With reluctance he released the captive fingers and reminded her that he was still unanswered.
"No," she told him, "I'm not married so far—of course I've tried hard, but the honest gander hasn't volunteered."
"Thank God!" was his instant and fervent comment.
Beyond her were the sands of the bar and the Atlantic Ocean stretching unbroken to the Madeiras and a flawless sky against which the gulls dipped and screamed.
She was straight and vivid, and his pulses quickened, taking fire. Sun, air and water; sparkle, radiance and color—these things were about him filling his senses with delight and she seemed to epitomize them all in a personal incarnation.
"Don't let me keep you standing," he begged her, belatedly remembering his manners. "You were taking your case when I came. Besides, Old Neptune in person will be along soon to claim this sandbar for himself. Meanwhile, 'The time has come,' the walrus said, 'to talk of many things.'"
"As for instance?"
"As for instance that there's less of the fortuitous in this meeting than appears upon the surface."
"Then you knew I was on the sandbar?"
Stuart Farquaharson shook his head. "I didn't even know that you were at Chatham. I just got here this morning driving through to Provincetown. But I did know that you were on Cape Cod, and that is why I'm on Cape Cod."
She dropped lightly to the sand and sat nursing her knees between interlocked fingers. Stuart Farquaharson spread himself luxuriantly at length, propped on one elbow. He could not help noting that the bare knee was dimpled and that the curved flesh below it was satin-smooth and the hue of apple blossoms. The warm breeze kept stirring her hair caressingly and, against the glare, she lowered her long lashes, half veiling her eyes. But at his avowal of the cause of his coming her lips curved with humorous scepticism.
"I'm afraid you acted very hastily," she murmured. "You've only known I was here for about six years."
He nodded, entirely unruffled.
"I have only recently been promoted to the high office of 'Master of my fate'—but before we get to that—where are you stopping?"
"Our party will be here at Chatham for several days. We're stopping at The Arms."
"You speak of a party, and that makes me realize the imperative need of improving this golden moment," Stuart Farquaharson announced urbanely, "because I have certain rude and elementary powers of deduction."
"Which lead you to what conclusion?" She turned eyes riffled with amusement from the contemplation of a distant sail to his face, and he proceeded to enlighten her.
"To two. First, that in Chatham, Massachusetts, as in the Valley of Virginia, there is probably a Jimmy Hancock buzzing about. Secondly, that since 'misfortunes come not single spies, but in battalions,' there are probably a flock of Jimmies. By the by, will you swim out here with me to-morrow morning?"
"To-morrow morning," she demurred. "I believe I have an engagement for a horseback ride with Billy Stirling. We're going to look at a wind mill or something."
The man shook his head in mock distress.
"I knew it," he sighed, then his tone grew serious and he began to speak rapidly. "You say I've known where you were for six years and that's true. It's also true that until this summer, I haven't in any genuine sense been the master of my movements. Four years were spent in college, and two in law school. There were vacations, of course, but my mother claimed them at home. She is dead now, and her last few years were years of partial invalidism—so she wanted her family about her."
"Oh," the girl's eyes deepened with sympathy. "I didn't know that. She was, I think, almost the loveliest woman I ever knew. She was everything that blue blood ought to be—and so rarely is."
"Thank you. Yes, I think my mother was just that—but what I meant to claim was that this summer is the first I have been free to use in whatever way I wanted: the first time I've been able to say to myself, 'Go and do whatever seems to you the most delightful thing possible in a delightful world.' What I did was to come to Cape Cod and why I did it I've already told you."
Conscience studied his expression and back of the whimsical glint in his eyes she recognized an entire sincerity. Perhaps he had retained out of boyhood some of that militant attitude of believing in his dreams and making them realities. She found herself hoping something of the sort as she reminded him, "After I had outgrown pigtails, you know, they would have let me read a letter from you—if it had arrived."
"Certainly. There were a good many times when I started to write; a good many times when I got as far as a half-finished letter. But I always tore it up. You see, it never appeared to me that that was the way. A letter from me, after a long absence would have been a shadowy sort of message. I couldn't guess how clearly you remembered me or even whether you remembered me at all. You were a child then, who was growing into a woman. Your life was an edifice which you were building for yourself. What niches it had for what saints and deities, I couldn't hope to know. I might have been scornfully thrust in among the cobwebs with other promiscuous rummage of outgrown days. I might have been hardly more important than the dolls that preceded me in your affections by only a couple of years. How could I tell?" He paused and questioned her with direct eyes. "No, I meant to come back into your life not as a ghost speaking from the past but as a man intent on announcing himself in person. It was no part of my scheme that you should say, 'Oh, yes, I remember him. A long, thin kid with a vile temper. I used to love to stir him up and hear him roar.' That's why I never wrote."
Her smile was still a little doubtful and so he went on.
"It would have been too easy for you to have simply dropped me cold. Now it happens that in life I am endowed with a certain india-rubber quality. I am practically indestructible. When you biff me into the corner I can come bouncing back for more. In short, I am not so easy to be rid of, when I'm on the ground."
Conscience laughed. They were still young enough to respond thrillingly to the remembered fragrance of honeysuckle and the plaintive note of the whippoorwill, and perhaps to other memories, as well.
She rose abruptly and went down to the water's edge where she stood with the breeze whipping the silk draperies of her blue bathing skirt against her knees and stirring her hair into a dark nimbus about her head. After retrieving from the sand the blue cap and the blue stocking, her companion followed her.
"Now that I'm here," he asseverated, "I hold that we stand just where we stood when we parted."
But at that she shook her head and laughed at him. "Quite the reverse," she declared. "I hold that by years of penitence I've lived down my past. We're simply two young persons who once knew each other."
"Very well," acceded he. "It will come to the same thing in the end. We will start as strangers, but I have a strong conviction that when we become acquainted, I'm going to dog your steps to the altar. I'm willing to cancel all the previous chapter, except that I sha'n't forget it.... Can you forget it?"
She flushed, but shook her head frankly, and answered without evasion, "I haven't forgotten it yet."
He was gazing into her face with such a hypnotism of undisguised admiration that she smilingly inquired, "Well, have I changed much?"
"You have. You've changed much and radiantly. Since you insist on regarding me as a new acquaintance I must be conservative and restrained, so I'll only say that you have the most flawless beauty I've ever seen."
"The tide is rising," she reminded him irrelevantly. "We'd better be starting back." She put her hands up to her wind-blown hair and began coiling it into abundant masses on her head, while he was kneeling on the sand and tying the ribbon of her bathing slipper.
They crossed the bar and went into the water, swimming side by side with easy strokes, and when the return trip was half completed they saw the head of another swimmer coming out.
"That's Billy Stirling," she told him. "He seems to have guessed where I was."
"I was right," sighed the Virginian. "He out-Jimmies Jimmy Hancock. I don't like this Stirling person."
"You don't know him yet, you know."
"Quite true, but I don't have to know him to dislike him. It's a matter of general principle."
But in spite of his announcement, Stuart did like Billy Stirling. He liked him from the moment that gentleman thrust a wet paw out of the water to shake hands and tossed the brine from a grinning face to acknowledge the girl's introduction. He liked him even better for the Puck-like irresponsibility of his good humor as, later on, he introduced Stuart to the others of the party.
"Now that you've met this crew, you are to consider yourself a member," declared Stirling, though he added accusingly, "I promoted this expedition and used great discrimination in its personnel. It struck me as quite complete before your intrusion marred its symmetry, but you're here and we've got to make the best of you."
The women differed with Mr. Stirling and scathingly told him so, to his immense delight.
"The difference between a party made up in handcuffed pairs, like this has been, and one equipped with an extra man or two is the exact difference between frugal necessity and luxury," protested Henrietta Raven, sententiously.
"I suppose you get the fact that these guileless kids over here are our venerated chaperons?" said the host with a pointed finger. "They are so newly-wed that they still spoon publicly—which is disgraceful, of course, but reduces the obnoxiousness of chaperons."
The week that followed in Chatham was a momentous time and a turning point for the young Virginian. In a way it was epochal in his life. Though he was assimilated into the party as if he had been one of them from childhood, he found little opportunity to be alone with Conscience. Indeed the idea came to him at first vaguely, then persistently, that she herself was seeking to avoid anything savoring of the quality of a tete-a-tete.
The realization haunted and troubled him because even in this general association, her personality had flashed varyingly and amazingly from many facets. The dream which had meant so much to his boyhood was swiftly ripening also into the dream of his manhood, or, as he would have expressed it, a fulfillment. His heart had been fallow when he had first known her. It had not been subjected to subsequent conquest and now its predisposed allegiance was ready to grow with tropical swiftness into a purposeful and fiery ardor.
Stuart Farquaharson had that habit of self-analysis which often compelled him to take his own life into the laboratory of reflection and study its reactions with an almost impersonal directness. That analysis told him that Conscience Williams, had she chosen to do so, might have imposed upon him the thrall of infatuation, even had there been no powerful appeal to his mentality. Every fiery element that had lain dormant in his nature was ready to leap into action, in response to a challenge of which she was herself unconscious—a challenge to the senses. And yet he recognized with an almost prayerful gratitude that it was something paramount to physical lure, which beckoned him along the path of love. Into the more genuine and intimate recesses of her life, where the soul keeps its aloofness, she had given him only keyhole glimpses, but they had been such glimpses as kindled his eagerness and awakened his hunger for exploration. There had been candid indications reenforced by a dozen subtler things that her liking for him was more than casual, and yet she denied him any chance to avow himself, and sometimes, when he came suddenly upon her, he discovered a troubled wistfulness in her face which clouded her eyes and brought a droop to the corners of her lips.
On one such occasion as he was passing an old house with a yard in which the grass was tall and ragged and the fruit trees as unkempt and overgrown as a hermit's beard he saw her standing alone by one of the tilting veranda posts. The sunshine was gone from her dark eyes, so that they seemed darker than ever—and haunted with an almost tragic wistfulness. She had the manner of one facing a ghost which she had vainly sought to lay. He came so close before he spoke her name that she turned toward him with a start, as though he wakened her suddenly out of somnambulism, but even as she wheeled, her face brightened and a bantering merriment sounded in her voice, countering all his solicitous inquiries with gay retorts.
When a week of charming but unsatisfying association had passed Stuart Farquaharson felt that the time had come when he must talk with her less superficially. It was as if they had only waded in the shallows of conversation—and he wanted to strike out and swim in deeper waters. The opportunity, when it came, was not of his own making. It was an evening when there was dancing in the large lounge of The Arms. Farquaharson and Conscience had gone, between dances, to the tiled veranda overlooking the sea. The moon was spilling showers of radiance from horizon to shore, and making of the beach a foreground of pale silver. The veranda itself was a place of blue shadows between the yellow splotches of the window lights. After a little she laid a hand lightly on Stuart's arm.
"Don't you want to take me for a stroll on the beach?" she asked a shade wearily. "I'm tired of so many people."
They followed the twisting line of the wet sands and at last halted by the prow of a beached row-boat, where the girl enthroned herself, gazing meditatively off to sea.
"Conscience," he asked slowly, "you have used a diplomacy worthy of a better cause, in devising ways to keep me from talking with you alone—why?"
"Have I done that?" she countered.
"You know you have. Of course you've known I wanted to make love to you. Why wouldn't you let me?"
"Because," she answered gravely, meeting his eyes with full candor, "I didn't want you to—make love to me. I'm not ready for that."
"I haven't said I wasn't willing to wait, have I?" he suggested quietly. "You don't appear to throw barriers of silence between yourself and Billy."
"No. That's different.... I'm not—" Suddenly she broke off and laughed at herself.
Then a little startled, at her own frankness, she admitted in a low voice, "I'm not afraid of Billy's unsettling me."
The man felt his temples throb with a sudden and intoxicating elation. He steadied himself against its agitation to demand,
"And you are—afraid that I might?"
She was sitting with the moonlight waking her dark hair into a somber luster and a gossamer shimmer on the white of her evening gown. Her hands lay unmoving in her lap and she slowly nodded her confession.
"You see," she told him, after another long pause, "it's a thing—falling in love—that I should do rather riotously—if I did it at all. I shouldn't be able to think of much else."
Stuart Farquaharson wanted to seize her in his arms and protest that she could never love him too riotously, but he instead schooled his voice to a level almost monotonous.
"I fell in love with you—back there in the days of our childhood," he said slowly. "Maybe it was only a boy's dream—then—but now it's a man's dream—a life dream. You will have to be won out of battle, every wonderful reward does—but victory will come to me." His voice rose vibrantly. "Because winning it is the one inflexible purpose of my life, dominating every other purpose."
She had not interrupted him and now she was a little afraid of him—and of herself. Perhaps it was only the moon—but the moon swings the tides.
"Stuart—" Her voice held a tremor of pleading. "If you do love me—like that—you can wait. Just now I need you—but not as a lover. I need you as a friend whom I don't have to fight."
The man straightened and bowed. "Very well," he said, "I can wait—if I must. Your need comes first."
She gave him a grateful smile, then suddenly came to her feet and began speaking with such a passionate earnestness as he had not before heard from her lips.
"I think it's the right of every human being to live fully—not just half live through a soul-cramping routine. I think it's the right of a man or a woman to face all the things that make life, to think—even if they make mistakes—to fight for what they believe, even if they're wrong. I'd rather be Joan of Arc than the most sainted nun that ever took the veil!"
The young man's face lighted triumphantly, because that was also his creed. "I knew it!" he exclaimed. "I didn't have to hear your words to know that marking time in an age of marching would never satisfy you."
"And yet every influence that means home and family seems bent on condemning me to the dreariness and mustiness of a life that kills thought. I've thought about it so much that I'm afraid I've grown morbid." Once more her voice rang with passionate insurgency. "I feel as if I were being sent to Siberia."
Stuart answered with forced composure through which the thrill of a minute ago crept like an echo of departing trumpets. "Of course, I came out here to declare my love. I had waited for this chance ... the sea ... the moon—well! It's rather like asking for a field-marshal's baton and a curveting charger—and getting instead a musket and place in the ranks. The man who doesn't serve where he's put isn't much good...." He paused and then went on calmly, "What is this thing that haunts you?"
"When I finished at the preparatory school," she began, "father thought I'd gone far enough and I knew I needed college. At last I won a compromise. I was to have one year by way of trial, and then he was to decide which idea was right—his or mine."
"So now the jury has the case—and I'm terribly afraid I know the verdict in advance. Father is a minister of the old school and the unyielding New England type. I don't remember my mother, but sometimes I think the inflammatory goodness at home killed her. In our house you mustn't question a hell where Satan reigns as a personal god of Damnation. To doubt his spiked tail and cloven hoofs, would almost be heresy. That's our sort of goodness."
"And colleges fail to supply a course in the Chemistry of Brimstone," he suggested.
"They don't even frown on such ungodly things as socialism and suffrage," she supplemented.
He nodded. "They offer, in short, incubation for ideas questionably modern."
Her voice took on a fiery quality of enthusiasm.
"Life was never so gloriously fluid—so luminous—before. Breadth and humanity are being fought for. Men and women are facing things open-eyed, making splendid successes and splendid failures." After a moment's pause she added, wearily, "My father calls them fads."
"And you want to have a part in all that. You don't want only the culture of reading the Atlantic Monthly at a village fireside?"
"I want to play my little part in the game of things. The idea of being shielded from every danger and barred off from every effort, sickens me. If I am to lead a life I can be proud of, it must be because I've come out of the fight unshamed, not just because no one ever let me go into a fight."
She was standing in an attitude of tense, even rapt earnestness, her chin high and her hands clenched. Her voice held the vibrance of a dreamer and her eyes were looking toward the horizon as if they were seeing visions off across the moonlit water.
"I might fail miserably, of course, but I should know that I'd had my chance. The idea at home seems to be that a woman's goodness depends on someone else keeping it for her: that she should stick her head into the sand like an ostrich and, since she sees nothing, be womanly. If I have a soul at all, and it can't sail beyond a harbor's breakwater, I have nothing to lose, but if it can go out and come back safe it has the right to do it. That's what college means to me: the preparation for a real life: the chance to equip myself. That's why the question seems a vital crisis—why it is a vital crisis."
"Conscience," he said thoughtfully, "you have described the exact sort of intolerant piety, which tempts one to admire brilliant wickedness. You can't accept another's belief unless it's your own. That is one of Life's categorical rules. It's not a problem."
"It's so categorical," she retorted quickly, "that there is no answer to it except the facts. My father is old. He has burned out his life in his fierce service of his God and his conscience. To tell him how paltry is the sum of his life's effort, in my eyes, would be like laughing aloud at his sermon."
"And yet you can't possibly take up the life of an outgrown age because he prefers the thought of yesterday."
"I'm afraid I'll have to—and—"
"And I think—it's going to break my heart. I've got to live a lie to keep a man, who regards a lie as a mortal sin, happy in the belief that he has never tolerated a lie."
"My God, Conscience," Stuart broke out, "this is the New England conscience seeking martyrdom. Life runs forward, not back. Rivers don't climb hills."
"I have said that to myself a thousand times," she gravely replied, "but it doesn't answer the question. There's no compulsion in the world so universal as the tyranny of weakness over strength. Haven't you seen it everywhere? Wherever people have to live together you find it. You find the strong submitting to all sorts of petty persecutions, and petty persecutions are the kind that kill, because the weak are nervous or easily wrought up and must have allowances made for them. And the person so considered always thinks himself strong beyond others and never suspects the truth. Only the weak and foolish can strut independently through life."
"And yet to draw the blinds and shut out the light of life because some one else chooses to sit in the dark is unspeakably morbid."
Conscience shrugged her shoulders. "Sitting in the dark or living righteously—there's no difference but point of view. My father has been true to his convictions. The fact that his goodness is no broader than his hymn book doesn't alter that." There was a pause, then suddenly the girl laughed and stretched both arms out to sea. "Oh, well," she said, "I don't often indulge in these jeremiads. Now it's over, and I've at least got the summer ahead of me. I guess we'd better go back. I promised Billy a dance."
She rose, but the Virginian stood resolutely in her path. "Just a moment more," he begged. "It won't be love-making. The day we drove down to Provincetown you were sitting on the sand dunes. For a background you had the sea and sky—and they were gorgeous. But while I looked at it I saw another picture, too. May I try to paint that picture for you?"
"Surely, if you will."
"Well, I'm rather leaving the sunlight now," he admitted. "I'm painting gray. I'm converting it into terms of winter storm and equinox. Last year a ship was pounded to pieces in the bay while the people on Commercial street looked helplessly on. It was the same sea, but it wasn't smiling then. It wore the vindictive scowl of death. That's the mood which has made this strip of coast a grave-yard of dead ships. That's the mood, too, which has given color to the people's thought—or taken the color out of it, leaving it stout and faded like weatherbeaten timbers—making of it the untrustworthy thought of melancholia."
"And am I the spirit of that picture, too?"
"You are the exact antithesis of all that, but you are threatening to fade into its grayness—and to deaden all the glow that was on the palette with which God painted you."
They walked slowly back to the verandah, but paused a space before going into the light and crowds where a waltz had just begun—and as they waited a hotel page came dodging between the smoking, chatting loungers calling her name—"Miss Conscience Williams—Miss Conscience Williams," and waving a yellow telegraph envelope.
The girl's face paled a little as she took the message from the urchin's hand and her eyes widened in an expression of fear. But she tore the covering and drew out the sheet deliberately, reading in the yellow light that flooded through a window. Then an almost inaudible groan came from her lips and she stood holding the paper so loosely that it slipped from her fingers and drifted to the floor. Stuart retrieved it and handed it to her, but she only commanded in a stunned voice, "Read it."
The man stepped from the shadow to the light and read:
"Your father had paralytic stroke. He wants to see you."
It was signed by initials which Stuart inferred to be those of the elderly aunt of whom she spoken. He laid his hand very gently on her arm and turned her a step to the side so that she passed out of the broad band of window-light and stood in the shadow. The blaze from the interior gave too much the effect of a spotlight playing on her eyes and lips and brow, for him to be willing that the idling crowds of strollers should read what he read there. He knew that in a moment she would regain control sufficiently to face even the fuller publicity inside, but during that moment she had the right to the limited privacy afforded by the dark shadow of the tiled veranda.
She stood leaning against the wall for a moment, then she straightened herself with an effort and pressed the tips of her fingers to her temples.
"What can you get out of your car?" she asked. And the man answered quickly, "As much speed as the roads let me—I have done sixty."
"Please take me home." The words came abruptly and with undisguised wretchedness, "and take me fast."
Twenty minutes later Stuart Farquaharson swung himself to the driver's seat of his low-hung roadster, and threw on the switch, while Billy Stirling and the others stood at the curb, waving farewells and finding nothing suitable to say.
The car went purring through the quiet streets where gabled houses slept under the moon, but having passed the town limits, leaped into a racing pace along the road for Orleans.
Stuart made no effort to talk and Conscience spoke only at long intervals. She was gazing ahead and her eyes were wide and wet with tears.
Once she leaned over to say: "If any of the things I said seemed disloyal, please try to forget them. Of course, I'm only too glad he wants me, and that I can help."
"I understand," he assured her. "I never doubted that."
The moon had set and it wanted only two hours of dawn when Conscience roused herself from her revery to say, "It's the next gate—on the right."
Wheeling the car into the driveway, he had a shadowy impression of an old and gabled place, inky except for the pallid light of a lamp turned low in an upper window.
As the girl hesitated on the verandah, he caught the complaining creak of an old plank, and while she waited for her bag there came to his ears the whining scrape of a tree branch against the eaves. The little voices of the hermitage were giving their mouselike welcome.
With her key fitted in the door, Conscience turned and held out both hands.
"You've been wonderful, Stuart," she said, with tears in her voice. "You've understood everything and I want to thank you while we're here alone. You'll come in, of course? I'm afraid it will be dismal, but the hotel is worse."
The man shook his head. "No," he answered, as he pressed her hands in his own, "I'll go back to the village and rouse up the hostelry, but I'm coming to-morrow—to inquire."
Many dogs were aroused to a noisy chorus before his hammering on the door of the old house which passed for a hotel received official response, and the east was breaking into a pallid rosiness before his thoughts permitted him to leave his seat by the window and stretch himself wearily on his uninviting bed.
But when the sun had waked him at eight o'clock the landscape framed by his window was a smiling one to which the youth in him responded and he dressed clear-eyed and ready for a new day. In the hope that Conscience had been able to sleep late, he meant to defer his visit of inquiry, and in the meantime he breakfasted at leisure and went out to search for a barber. The quest was not difficult, and while he awaited his turn he sat against the wall, mildly amused at the scraps of local gossip that came to his ears couched in homely vernacular.
"I heard that Eben Tollman cal'lates to jam Lige Heman with a foreclosure on his mortgage. It's move out and trust in Providence for Lige and Lige's." This comment came in piping falsetto from a thin youth who had just been shaven raw, but still lingered in the shop, and it met prompt reply from a grizzled old fellow with a wooden leg.
"Pshaw, Seth, that ain't no news. You can't scace'ly get folks excited by a yarn about a shark's bitin' a cripple—but if you was to give in a yarn about a cripple bitin' a shark—well, there'd be some point to that. If you told where somebody had got a dollar away from Eben, now, we'd call you a liar, I s'pose—and be right at that—but we'd listen."
"If you got a nickel from Tollman," retorted the first speaker, "you couldn't put it in a slot machine. It would be squeezed till it was bent double. Well, you can't blame him, I s'pose. He ain't got more'n a million."
Just at that moment the door was opened by a gentleman entering from the street, and Farquaharson was immensely diverted at the sudden hush in which that particular vein of conversation died. It was an easy guess that this was Eben Tollman himself.
The newcomer bore himself with a cold reserve of conscious superiority. He might have been forty, though the humorless immobility of his face gave him a seeming of greater age. In stature he was above the average height and his eyes were shrewd and piercing. To the salutations of those present, he responded with a slight, stiff inclining of his head—and appeared to withdraw into the shell of self-sufficiency.
When Stuart, later, presented himself at the old manse, he found it a venerable place, whose shingled roof was moss-green and whose gables were honorably gray with age and service. An elderly servant directed him to the garden, and elated at the prospect of a tete-a-tete among the hedge rows, he went with a light step along the mossy path, noting with what a golden light the sun filtered through the fine old trees and flecked the sod. But inside the garden he halted among the flower borders, for a glance told him that Conscience was not alone. She sat leaning toward a wheel-chair, reading aloud from a book which he divined, rather than recognized, to be a Bible. As he hurried forward the girl looked up and rose to meet him with a swift eagerness of welcome.
Because Stuart had catalogued Conscience's father, who was old enough to be her grandfather, as a bigot and an obstructionist standing between her and the sun, he was prepared to dislike him. Yet when he came up he confessed to a sort of astonished admiration. He stood looking at a head which suggested the head of a lion, full maned and white as a snow-cap, shaggy and beetling of brow, and indomitable of eye. Such a man, had he lived in another day, would have gone uncomplaining to the agonies of the Inquisition—or as readily have participated in visiting Inquisitional tortures on another. Yet it was a face capable of kindliness, too, since its wrath was only for sin—or what it regarded as sin.
He held out a hand in greeting.
"Conscience has told me how you rushed her home to me. It was very kind of you. I was hungry to see her, but I hadn't dared to hope for her so soon."
The old man spoke with a smile, but it was unconsciously pathetic. Stuart could see that he was stricken not only in his useless legs but also in his heart, though his eagle-like eyes were steady.
Conscience had been crying, but now she smiled and the two chatted with a forced vivacity, pretending to ignore the thing of which each was thinking and, though vivacity was foreign to his nature, the sufferer joined in their conversation with a grim sort of self-effacement. Soon they saw another figure approaching by the flagged path. It was the figure of Eben Tollman and his manner was full of solicitude—but as he talked with the father, Farquaharson saw him more than once steal covert glances at the daughter. Obviously he bore, here, the relationship of family friend, and though Conscience seemed to regard him as a member of an older generation, he seemed to regard her as a contemporary.
In the days that followed Stuart Farquaharson's car standing at the front of the old manse became a fixture in the landscape. The invalid minister, seeking to accustom himself stoically to a pitiful anticlimax of life, found in the buoyant vitality of this newcomer—of whom he thought rather as a boy than a man—a sort of activity by proxy. He, himself, moved only in a wheel chair, but Stuart could laughingly override his protests and lift him with an easy strength into the seat of the roadster to spin out across the countryside which he had told himself he should hardly see again.
Even the spinster aunt, who had begun by regarding him with suspicion, decided first that he was harmless, then that he was useful and finally that he was charming.
Yet the young Virginian was not altogether beguiled into the hope that this enviable status would be permanent. The talks and drives brought incidental glimpses into the thoughts that had habitation under the white mane and that came militantly out through the unyielding eyes even in silence. Stuart winced often under the sting and irritation of a bigotry which could, without question or doubt, undertake to rule offhand and with absolutism on every question of right or wrong.
He was keeping and meant to keep a constant rein on his speech and conduct, but he foresaw that, with all his restraint, a day might come when the old puritan would divine the wide divergence of their thought and have out upon him for one of the ungodly. Once he voiced something of this to Conscience herself in the question, "How long do you think your father will continue to welcome me here?"
Her eyes widened. "Welcome you? Why shouldn't he? He's leaning on you as if you were a son. He declared his liking for you from the first day."
Stuart shook his head in doubt and his eyes darkened with gravity. "It never pays to blind one's eyes to the chances of the future," he said slowly. "He won't continue to like me, I'm afraid. Just now he thinks of us both as children. I am only your overgrown playmate—but realization will come—and then—"
"You think that he will change?"
"I know it."
"Oh!" she exclaimed, and fell silent, but after a pause she spoke again impulsively, with a note of fear in her voice. "You won't go away and leave me here alone, will you—even if nobody else likes you?"
"No one but you can send me away—" he declared almost fiercely, "and before you can do it you must prove yourself stronger than I."
She gave a little sigh of relief and fell to talking of other things. It was when he rose to go and she walked to his car with him that he asked with seeming irrelevance, "Has this Mr. Tollman ever—made love to you?"
She burst, at that, into a gale of laughter more spontaneous than any he had heard since the telegram had sobered her. It was as though the absurdity of the idea had swept the sky clear of everything but comedy.
"Made love to me!" she mockingly echoed. "Honestly, Stuart, there are times when you are the funniest mortal alive—and it's always when you're most serious. Picture the Sphinx growing garrulous. Picture Napoleon seeking retreat in a monastery—but don't try to visualize Mr. Tollman making love."
"Perhaps I'm premature," announced Farquaharson with conviction. "But I'm not mistaken. If he hasn't made love to you, he will."
"Wherefore this burst of prophecy?"
"I don't have to be prophetic. I saw him look at you—and I didn't like the way he did it. That man thinks he loves you."
"If so, he hasn't mentioned it to me."
"He will—I say 'thinks' he loves you," Stuart persisted in a level and somewhat contemptuous voice, "because I don't believe he can really love anything but himself and his money. But in a grasping, avaricious way he wants you. His eyes betrayed him. He wants you in the fashion that a miser wants gold. He wants you in the way a glutton wants a peach which he has deliberately watched ripen until finally he says to himself, 'It's about ready to pick now.'"
A more intimate view of Eben Tollman failed to remove the initial dislike, and yet Farquaharson acknowledged that nothing concrete was added to the evidence of sheer prejudice. In his application to the business affairs of the minister, he was assiduous and untiring, and the invalid depended upon his advice as upon an infallible guidance. Stuart told himself that to attribute this service of friendship to a selfish motive was a meanness unworthy of entertainment, yet the suspicion lingered. When they met, Tollman was always courteous and if this courtesy never warmed into actual cordiality neither was it ever tinctured with any seeming of dislike.
The summer had spent its heat and already there was a hint of autumn in the air, but Stuart had kept his promise. There had been no lovemaking.
He and Conscience walked together one afternoon to a hill where they sat with a vista of green country spread before them, just beginning to kindle under the splendid torch of an incendiary autumn. Off beyond was the sea, gorgeously blue in its main scheme, yet varying into subtle transitions of mood from rich purple to a pale and tender green. The sky was cloudless but there was that smoky, misty, impalpable thing like a dust of dreams on the distance. The girl stood with one hand resting on the gnarled bole of a pine. She wore a blue sweater, and her carmine lips were more vivid because these months of anxiety had given to her checks a creamy pallor. The man, standing at her elbow, was devouring her with his eyes. She was gorgeous and wholly desirable and his heart was flaming with emotions that ran the whole gamut of love's completeness from clean passion to worship.
Yet he held his truce of silence and it was she herself who spoke at last.
"The girls are all meeting on the campus—under the big trees about now," she said, and her eyes held a far-away wistfulness. "They are chattering foolishly and delightfully about their summer adventures ... and the dormitories are being allotted. There'll be several new English readers, I guess."
"Does it hurt as badly as that?" he asked, and her answer was a low, rather hysterical little laugh, coming nearer bitterness than anything he had ever heard from her lips before.
"You've been here. You've seen it all. Haven't you stopped instinctively often when you broke into a sudden laugh with a moldy feeling around your heart as if you'd shouted out in church? Haven't you watched yourself and stultified yourself in every conversation, except when we were alone, to keep from treading on the toes of some inch-wide prejudice?"
"I've felt those things, of course—all of them." His reply was grave. "But then, you see, you've been here, and that made the whole thing lyric. The rest was just a somber background. It only made you stand out the more triumphantly in contrast. It's like a Sorolla picture hung against gray."
"We don't stand out against dull backgrounds—not for long," she declared. "We fade into them." But after a moment she wheeled with a sudden impulsiveness and gazed contritely into his face.
"Forgive me," she pleaded. "It's shameful and petty and mean to wreak all my protests against you. You've been splendid. I couldn't have borne it without you."
Stuart Farquaharson's cheeks paled under an emotion so powerful that instead of exciting him it carried a sense of being tremendously sobered—yet shaken and tried to the limit of endurance.
"You've forbidden me to make love to you," he said desperately, "and I'm trying to obey, but God knows, dear, there are times when—" He broke off with an abrupt choke in his throat.
Then Conscience said in a changed and very gentle voice, "You wouldn't have me until I could be utterly, unmistakably sure of myself, would you?"
"No," he replied uncompromisingly, "the very intensity of my love would make it hell for both of us unless you loved me—that way, too—but I wish you were certain. I wish to God you were!"
Again she turned her eyes seaward, and when she spoke her voice was impersonal, almost dead, so that he thought, with a deep misery, she was trying to make it merciful in tempering her verdict.
"I am certain now," she told him, still looking away.
He came a step nearer and braced himself. He could forecast her words, he thought—deep friendship but no more!
"Your mind is—definitely—made up?"
Very abruptly she wheeled, showing him a face transformed and self-revealing. Against her ivory white cheeks her parted lips were crimson and her eyes dilated and softly black. "I think I've known it from the first," she declared, and her voice thrilled joyously. "Only I didn't know that I knew."
There was no need to ask what she knew. Her eyes were windows flung open and back of them was the message of her heart.
"I don't know how you love me," she went on tensely, "but if you don't love me rather madly, it's all one sided."
As his arms closed about her, he knew that he was violently shaken, but he knew that she was trembling, too, through all the magnificent softness and slenderness of her. He knew that the lips against which he crushed his kisses were responsive.
Later he declared, with a ring of triumph, "I told you when you were a little girl that they might take you to the North Pole and surround you with regiments of soldiers—but that I'd come to claim you. I tell you that again. He wrote our two names in one horoscope and it had to be."
In the library at the old manse that afternoon there was less of sunlight and joy. Shadows hung between the walls and there were shadows, too, in the heart of one of the men who sat by a central, paper-littered table.
It was at best a cheerless room; this study where the minister had for decades prepared the messages of his stewardship—and sternly drawn indictments against sin. In the drawers of the old-fashioned desk those sermons lay tightly rolled and dusty. Never had he spared himself—and never had he spared others. What he failed to see was that in all those sheaves upon sheaves of carefully penned teaching, was no single relief of bright optimism, no single touch of sweet and gracious tolerance, not one vibrating echo of Christ's great soul-song of tenderness.
Now it was ended. He had dropped in the harness and younger men were taking up the relay race. They were men, he feared, who were not to be altogether trusted; men beguiled by dangerous novelties of trend. With worldliness of thought pressing always forward; with atheism increasing, they were compromising and, it seemed to him, giving way cravenly, step by step, to encroachment.
But the conversation just now was not of religion, or even dogma which in this room had so often been confused with religion. Eben Tollman was sitting in a stiff-backed chair across from his host. His face wore the immobile expression of a man who never forgets the oppressive fact that he is endowed with dignity.
"Eben," said the minister, "for years you have advised me on all money matters and carried the advice into effect. You have virtually annexed my business to your own and carried a double load."
"You have devoted your life to matters of greater moment, Mr. Williams," unctuously responded the younger man. "Your stewardship has been to God."
"I could have wished," the minister's face clouded with anxiety, "that I might have seen Conscience settled down with a godly husband and a child or two about her before I go. Those are restless days and a girl should have an anchorage."
There was a pause and at its end Tollman said hesitantly, almost tentatively, "There is young Mr. Farquaharson, of course."
"Young Mr. Farquaharson!" The minister's lower jaw shot out pugnaciously and his eyes flashed. "Eben, don't be absurd. The two of them are children. This boy is playing away a vacation. To speak of him as a matrimonial possibility is to talk irresponsibly. You astonish me!"
"Of course, in some respects it seems anomalous." Tollman spoke thoughtfully and with no resentment of his companion's temper. He was quite willing that any objections to Stuart which were projected into the conversation should appear to come from the other. "For example, his people are not our people and the two codes are almost antithetical. Yet his blood is blue blood and, after all, the war is over."
"If I thought that there was even a remote danger of this friendship ever becoming more than a friendship, I'd have Conscience send him away. I'd guard her from it as from a contagion." The announcement came fiercely. "Young Farquaharson's blood is blood that runs to license. His ideas are the ideas of a hard-drinking, hard-gaming aristocracy. But nonsense, Eben, he's a harmless boy just out of college. I like him—but not for my own family. What put such an absurdity into your head?"
"Possibly it is an absurdity." Tollman gave the appearance of a man who, having suggested a stormy topic, is ready to relinquish it. In reality he was making Williams say everything which he wished to have said and was doing it by the simple device of setting up antagonism to play the prompter. "What put it into my head was perhaps nothing more tangible than their constant companionship. They are both young. He has a vital and fascinating personality. There is a touch of Pan and a touch of Bacchus in him that—"
"Those are somewhat pagan advantages," interrupted the minister with a crispness which carried the bite of scorn.
"Pagan perhaps, but worth considering, since it is not upon ourselves that they operate." Tollman rose and went over to the window which gave off across the garden. He presented the seeming of a man whose thought was dispassionate, and because dispassionate impossible to ignore. "This young man has in his blood bold and romantic tendencies which will not be denied. To him much that we revere seems a type of narrowness. His ancestors have made a virtue of the indulgences of sideboard and card table—but the boy is not to blame for that."
Eben Tollman was playing on the prejudices of his host as he might have played on the keys of a piano. He maintained, as he did it, all the semblance of a fair-minded man painting extenuations into his portrait of the absent Farquaharson.
"And you call this predisposition to looseness and license a thing to be condoned, to be mixed with the blood of one's own posterity? Eben, I've never seen you make excuses for ungodliness before." The fierce old face suddenly cleared. "But there—there! This is all an imaginary danger. I'll watch them, but I'm sure that these two have no such reprehensible thought."
Mr. Tollman took up his hat and gloves. "I will see you again to-morrow," he said, as he passed out of the library, leaving the old puritan behind him immersed in a fresh anxiety.
It was not the intention of William Williams to act with unconscientious haste—but he would watch and weigh the evidence. He prided himself on his rigid adherence to justice, and escaped the knowledge that his sense of justice was a crippled thing warped to the shape of casuistry. If he had permitted the affliction, which God had visited upon him, to blind his eyes against duty to his daughter, he must rouse himself and remedy the matter. It was time to put such self-centered sin behind him and make amends. In this self-assumption of the plenary right to regulate the life of his daughter, or any one else, there was no element of self-reproach. He held God's commission and acted for God!
The gradual, almost imperceptible change of manner was observable first to the apprehensive eyes of Stuart Farquaharson himself. The Virginian's standards as to his bearing in the face of hostility were definite and could be summed up in the length of an epigram: Never to fail of courtesy, but never to surrender more than half of any roadway to aggression. Yet here was a situation of intricate bearings and a man whom he could not fight. A brain must be dealt with, too old for plasticity, like sculptor's clay hardened beyond amendment of form. A man whose fighting blood is hot, but whose spirit of sportsmanship is true, can sometimes maintain a difficult peace where another type would fail, and that was the task Stuart set himself. That same spirit of sportsmanship would have meant to Williams only a want of seriousness, a making play out of life. But to Stuart it meant the nearest approach we have to a survival of chivalry's ideals: a readiness to accept punishment without complaint: a willingness to extend every fair advantage to an adversary: a courage to strive to the uttermost without regard to the material value of the prize—and paramount to all the rest, a scorn for any meanly gained advantage, however profitable. If there was any value in his heritage of gentle blood and a sportsman's training, it should stand him in good stead now, for the sake of the girl he loved.
One evening in the garden Conscience asked him, "Do you think I over-painted the somberness of the picture? But it's a shame for you to have to endure it, too. I think the confinement is making Father more irritable than usual."
The man shook his head and smiled whimsically.
"It's not the confinement. It's me. He's discovered that you and I have grown up, and he's seeking to draw me into a quarrel so that he can tender me my passports."
Conscience laid her hands on his arm and they trembled a little.
"I'm sure it isn't that," she declared, though her words were more confident than her voice. "You've stood a great deal, but please keep it up. It won't"—her voice dropped down the key almost to a whisper—"it won't be for long."
* * * * *
The hills were flaming these days with autumnal splendor. Conscience and Stuart had just returned from a drive, laden with trophies of woodland richness and color. About the cheerless house she had distributed branches of the sugar maple's vermilion and the oak's darker redness, but the fieriest and the brightest clusters of leafage she had saved for the old library where the invalid sat among his cases of old sermons.
"Stuart and I gathered these for you," she told him as she arranged them deftly in a vase.
The old man's face did not brighten with enjoyment. Rather it hardened into a set expression, and after a moment's pause he echoed querulously, "You and Stuart."
His daughter looked up, her attention arrested by his tone. "Why, yes," she smiled. "We went for a drive and got out and foraged in the woods."
"How long has Mr. Farquaharson been here now?"
"Something over six weeks, I believe."
"Isn't it nearer two months?"
The girl turned very slowly from the window and in the dark room her figure and profile were seen, a silhouette against the pane with a nimbus about her hair.
"Perhaps it is. Why?"
For a while the father did not speak, then he said: "Perhaps it's time he was thinking of terminating his visit."
The girl felt her shoulders stiffen, and all the fighting blood which was in her as truly, if less offensively than in himself, leaped in her pulses. Defiant words rushed to her lips, but remained unsaid, because something grotesque about his attempted movement in his chair accentuated his helplessness and made her remember.
"What do you mean?" she asked in a level voice, which since she had suppressed the passion came a little faint and uncertain.
"I had no objection," he replied quietly enough but with that inflexible intonation which automatically arouses antagonism, since it puts into its "I want's" and its "I don't want's" a tyrannical finality, "to this young gentleman visiting us. I extended him hospitality. I even liked him. But it has come rather too much, for my liking, to a thing that can be summed up in your words of a minute ago—'Stuart and I.' It's time to bring it to an end."
"Why should it come to an end, Father?" she asked with a terrific effort to speak calmly.
"Because it might run to silly sentiment—and to such an idea I could never give consent. This young man, though a gentleman by birth, is not our sort of a gentleman. His blood is not the kind of blood with which ours can be mixed: his ideas are the loose ideas that put pleasure above righteousness. In short, while I wish to say good-by to him as agreeably as I said welcome, the time has come to say good-by."
She came over and sat by his chair and let one hand rest on his white hair. "Father," she said in a low voice, tremulously repressed, "you are undertaking to rule offhand on a question which is too vital to my life to be treated with snap judgment. I've tried to meet your wishes and I want to go on trying, but in this you must think well before you take a position so—so absolute that perhaps—"
He shook her hand away and his eyes blazed.
"I have thought well," he vehemently declared. "I have not only thought, but I have prayed. I have waited silently and watched in an effort to be just. I have asked God's guidance."
"God's guidance could hardly have told you that Stuart Farquaharson has loose ideas or that he's unrighteous or that his blood could corrupt our blood—because none of those things are true or akin to the truth."
For an instant the old man gazed at her in an amazement which turned quickly to a wrath of almost crazily blazing eyes, and his utterance came with a violence of fury.
"Do you mean that such an unspeakable idiocy has already come to pass—that you and this—this—young amateur jockey and card-player from the South—" He broke suddenly off with a contempt that made his words seem to curl and snap with flame.
The girl rose from her place on the arm of his chair. She stood lancelike in her straightness and her eyes blazed, too, but her voice lost neither its control nor its dignity.
"I mean," she said, "that this gentleman who needs no apologist and no defense, has honored me by telling me that he loves me—and that I love him."