"And his high courage has prevented him from admitting this to me and facing my just wrath?"
"His courage has been strong enough to concede to my wish that I might tell you myself, and in my own time."
The library door stood open and the hall gave out onto the verandah where Stuart Farquaharson sat waiting for Conscience to return.
The minister attempted to rise from his chair and fell back into it, with a groan, as he remembered his helplessness. That helplessness did not, however, abate his anger, and his voice rose as it was accustomed to rise when, pounding the pulpit pillow, he wished to drive home some impassioned utterance, beyond the chance of missing any sleepy ear.
"If what you say is true, this man has abused my hospitality and used my roof as an ambuscade to attack me. He is not, as you say, a man of honor or of courage, but a coward and a sneak! I have more to say, but it had better be said to him direct. Please send him to me."
The girl hesitated, then she wheeled with flaming face toward the chair. "I have been willing," she said, "to smother my life in an effort to meet your ideas, though I knew them to be little ideas. Now I see that in yielding everything one can no more please you than in yielding nothing. If he goes, I go, too. You may take your choice."
But as her words ended Conscience felt a hand laid gently on her shoulder, and a voice whispered in her ear, "Don't, dear; this will always haunt you. Leave it to me." Stuart turned her gently toward the door, then faced the irate figure in the chair. In a voice entirely quiet and devoid of passion he addressed its occupant. "I thought I heard you call for me, sir. I am here."
For a little while the study remained silent, except for the excited panting of the minister, whose face was a mask of fury. The passion in Conscience's eyes was gradually fading into an expression of deep misery. The issue of cruel dilemma had come in spite of every defensive effort and every possible care. It had come of her father's forcing and she knew that he would make no concession. When Williams spoke his voice came chokingly.
"Conscience, leave us alone. What I have to say to this man is a matter between the two of us."
But instead of obeying the girl took her place at Stuart's side and laid her hand on his arm.
"What you have to say to him, Father, is very much my affair," she replied steadily. "My action for the rest of my life depends upon it."
"Dear," suggested the Virginian in a lowered voice, "you can trust me. I'm not going to lose my temper if it's humanly possible to keep it. There's no reason why you should have to listen to things which it will be hard to forget."
"No," she declared with a decisiveness that could not be shaken, "I stay here as long as you stay. When you go, I go, too."
Farquaharson turned to the minister, "I believe you called for me, sir," he repeated, in a tone of even politeness. "You have something to say to me?"
The old man raised a hand that was palsied with rage and his voice shook.
"I fancy you heard what I said of you. I said that you had abused my hospitality and that you are a coward and a sneak. You are worse than that; you are an infamous scoundrel."
Conscience felt the muscles in the forearm upon which her fingers rested grow tense and hard as cables. She saw the face pale to lividness and the lips stiffen, but except for that, the man made no movement, and for some ten seconds he did not speak. They were ten seconds of struggle against an anger as fierce as it was just, but at the end of that time he inquired quietly, "Is that all you meant to say to me?"
"No! There's much more, but for most men that would be enough. To let it go unanswered is a confession of its truth."
"My invariable answer to such words," said Stuart Farquaharson slowly, "is made with a clenched fist. The triple immunity of your cloth, your age and your infirmity denies me even that reply."
"And what immunity makes a denial unnecessary?"
"A denial would dignify a charge which I can afford to ignore as I ignore vulgar talk that I hear in an alley."
The old man bent forward, glaring like a gargoyle, and his first attempts to speak were choked into inarticulate rumblings by his rage. His face reddened with a fever of passion which threw the veins on his temples into purple traceries.
"I repeat with a full responsibility—with the knowledge that the God whom I have tried to serve is listening, that you are what I have called you, because you have come into my house and practiced a continuous and protracted deceit. You have abused the freedom granted you as a guest to try to win my daughter away from everything worth holding to and everything she has been taught. I was a blind fool. I was a watchman fallen asleep at the gate—a sentry unfaithful at his post." The voice of the minister settled into a clearer coherence as he went on in deep bitterness. "You say I have accused you sternly. I am also accusing myself sternly—but now the scales have fallen from my eyes and I recognize my remissness. God grant I am not too late."
He paused for breath and his fingers clenched rigidly at the carvings of his chair arms. "You know that my daughter is young and inexperienced—an impressionable child not sufficiently seasoned in wisdom to repudiate the gauzy lure of dangerous modernisms."
"Father," broke in Conscience during his accusing pause, "you are starting out with statements that are unjust and untrue. I am not a child and no one has corrupted my righteousness. We simply have different ideas of life."
The minister did not take his eyes from the face of the young man and he ignored the interruption of his daughter.
"I could not blame her: it was the natural spirit of unthinking youth. You, however, did know the consequences. Here in my house—which you must never reenter—you have incited my family against me to serve your own covetous and lustful interests." Again he halted while the young man, still standing as rigid as a bronze figure, his flushed face set and his eyes holding those of his accuser with unblinking steadiness, made no attempt to interrupt him.
"What, indeed, to you were mere questions of right or wrong? You had a world of light and frivolous women to choose from, your own kind of women who could dance and fritter life away in following fads that make for license—but you must come into the household of a man who has tried to fight God's battles; standing against these encroachments of Satan which you advocate—and beguile my only daughter into telling me that I must choose between surrender or the wretchedness of ending my life in deserted loneliness."
Farquaharson, despite the storm which raged in his heart, answered with every outward show of calmness, even with dignity.
"You accuse me of having made love to your daughter. For that I have no denial. I have loved her since she was a child. I have told her so at every opportunity, but that love has been honorable and free of deceit and I know of no law which forbids a man of decent character to plead his cause. That I should win her love is a marvelous thing, but, thank God, I have it and hope to hold it till death."
"You have filched it! You have it as a thief has another man's purse or another man's wife. You have gained favor by arousing discontent for a Godly home: a home where she is sheltered and where she belongs."
There was a tense silence and Farquaharson's voice was almost gentle when he next spoke.
"There is more than one way of looking at life—and more than one may be right. Conscience wanted the wider scope which college would have given her. She wanted it with all the splendid eagerness of a soul that wishes to grow and fulfill itself. That rightful privilege you denied her—and she has not complained. Why shouldn't she want life's fullness instead of life's meagerness and its breadth instead of its bigotries? Is there greater nobility in the dull existence of a barnacle that hangs to one spot than in the flight of a bird? I have sought no quarrel and I have cruelly set a curb upon my temper, but I have no apologies to make and no intention of giving her up. I should be glad of your consent, but with it or without it I shall continue to urge my love. It would be a pity for you to force a breach."
"There is no question of my forcing a breach." The first words wore spoken sharply, but as they continued they began again to rush and mount into an access of passion. "You are as insolent as your words prove you to be reckless. You have tried to corrupt every idea of righteousness in my daughter's heart. It would almost appear that you have succeeded. But I believe God is stronger than Satan. I believe my prayers and the heritage of Godfearing forefathers will yet save her. As for you, you are to leave my house and henceforth never to cross my threshold."
"Very well," answered Stuart quietly; then he added: "To what extent am I indebted to Mr. Eben Tollman for your sudden discovery that I am a sneak and a coward?"
"That," shouted the invalid, "proves your meanness of spirit. Had Mr. Tollman held a brief for you he could not have defended you more stoutly. He, too, was deceived in you, it seems."
"Stuart," suggested the girl, "it's no use. You can't change him now. Perhaps when he's less angry—"
"Less angry!" screamed the old man. "For almost seventy years my wrath against the machinations of hell has burned hot. If God grants me strength to the end, it will never cool. You, too, have turned to my enemies in my last days. You would leave me for a young wastrel who has sung in your ears the song of a male siren. But before I will surrender my fight for the dictates of the conscience God has given me to be my mentor, I will see you go!"
"Father!" cried the girl. "You don't know what you're saying."
His face had become frenzied and purpled, his hands were shaking. His voice was a thunder, rumbling with its agitation. "I must have sinned deeply—but if the Almighty sees fit to take from me my health, my child, my last days of peace on earth—if He chooses to chastise me as He chastised Job—I shall still fight for His righteous will, and war on the iniquitous chil—"
The last word broke with a choke in his throat. The white head rocked from side to side and the hands clawed the air. Then William Williams hunched forward and lurched from his chair to the floor.
In an instant Farquaharson was at his side and bending over the unconscious form and a few minutes later, still insensible, the figure had been laid on a couch and the roadster was racing for a physician.
When Conscience came out into the yard later, where her lover was awaiting her, her lips were pale and her eyes tortured. She went straight into his outstretched arms and with her head on his shoulder sobbed out a misery that shook her. At last the man asked softly, "What did the doctor say?" And she answered brokenly.
"It seems that—besides the paralysis he has a weak—heart."
The man held her close. "I wish to God it could have been averted. I tried."
"You did all you could," she declared. "But, Stuart, when he came back to consciousness, his eyes were awful! I've never seen such terror in a human face. He couldn't speak at first and when he could ... he whispered in absolute agony, 'Has she gone?' He thought I'd left him lying there—and gone with you."
"Great God!" It was more a groan than an exclamation.
"And when he saw me he stretched out his hands like a child and began crying over me, but even then he said bitterly, 'That man's name must never be mentioned in this house.'... What are we to do?"
"There is only one thing to do," he told her. "We are young enough to wait. You can't desert a dying father."
While they talked the physician came out of the door.
"The patient will pull through this attack," he said briskly. "It's a leaky valve. There is only one rule that I have to lay upon you. It is absolutely vital that he shall not be excited. A blow with an ax would be no more fatal than another such stroke."
Conscience looked desperately about her, as Stuart with the doctor beside him started the car again down the drive. In a front window her eyes lighted on a flaming branch of maple leaves. Only two hours ago she and her lover had been watching the sunlight spill through the gorgeous filter of the painted foliage. They had carried in their hearts the spirit of carnival. Now the storm had broken and swept them.
She walked unsteadily to the veranda of the house and dropped down on the steps. Her head was swimming and her life was in a vortex.
The days that followed were troubled days and they brought to Conscience's cheeks an accentuated pallor. Under her eyes were smudges that made them seem very large and wistful. The minister was once more in his arm chair, a little more broken, a little more fiercely uncompromising of aspect, but the one normal solution of such a spent and burdensome life: the solution of death, stood off from him. Upon his daughter, whose lips were sealed against any protest by the belief that even a small excitement might kill him, he vented long and bigoted sermons of anathema. In these sermons, possibly, he was guilty of the very heresy of which his daughter had said he was so intolerant. He seemed to doubt himself, these days, that Satan wore a spiked tail and a pair of cloven hoofs. Of late he rather leaned to the belief that the Arch-tempter had returned to walk the earth in the guise of a young Virginian and that he had assumed the incognito of Stuart Farquaharson.
One refrain ran through every waking hour and troubled his sleep with fantastic dreams. God commanded him to strip this tempter of his habiliments of pretense and show the naked wickedness of his soul to the girl's deluded eye. To that fancied command he dedicated himself as whole-heartedly as a bloodhound gives itself to the man hunt.
To Stuart one day, as they walked together in the woods, Conscience confessed her fear that this constant hammering of persecution would eventually batter down her capacity for sane judgment and she ended with a sweeping denunciation of every form of bigotry.
"Dear," he answered with the gravity of deep apprehension, "you say that and you believe it and yet this same instinct of self-martyrdom is the undertow of your life flood. If your given name didn't happen to be Conscience your middle name would be just that."
"I suppose I have a conscience of a sort—but a different, sort, I hope. Is that such a serious fault?" she asked, and because the strain of these days had tired and rubbed her nerves into the sensitiveness of exhaustion, she asked it in a hurt and wounded tone.
"It's an indispensable virtue," he declared. "Your father's conscience was a virtue, too, until it ran amuck and became a savage menace. When you were a child," he went on, speaking so earnestly that his brow was drawn into an expression which she mistook for a frown of disapproval, "your most characteristic quality was an irrepressible sense of humor. It gave both sparkle and sanity to your outlook. It held you immune to all bitterness."
"And now?" She put the query somewhat faintly.
"Now, more than ever, because the life around you is grayer, it's vital that you cling to your golden talisman. To let it go means to be lost in the fog."
They were strolling along a woodland path and she was a few steps in advance of him. He saw her shoulders stiffen, but it was not until he overtook her that he discovered her eyes to be sparkling with tears.
"What is it, dearest?" he contritely demanded, and after a long pause she said:
"Nothing, except that I feel as if you had slapped me in the face."
"I! Slapped you in the face!" He could only reecho her words in bewilderment and distress. "I don't understand."
Laying a hand on her arm, he halted her in a place where the setting sun was spilling streams of yellow light through the woodland aisles and then her lips trembled; her eyes filled and she pressed both hands over her face. After a moment she looked up and dashed the tears contemptuously away.
"No, I know you don't understand, dear. It's my own fault. I'm a weak little fool," she said, "But it's all gotten horribly on my nerves. I can't help it."
"For God's sake," he begged, "tell me what I did or said?" And her words came with a weary resignation.
"I think you had better put me out of your life, Stuart. I've just realized how things really are—you've told me. I can't go because I'm chained to the galley. While Father lives my place is here."
She broke off suddenly and his face took on a stunned amazement.
"Out of my life!" exclaimed the man almost angrily. "Abandon you to all this abysmal bigotry and—to this pharisaical web of ugly dogmas! Conscience, you're falling into a melancholy morbidness."
As she looked at him and saw the old smoldering fire in his eyes that reminded her of his boyhood, a pathetic smile twisted the corners of her lips.
"Yes—I guess that's just it, Stuart," she said slowly, "You see, I may have to stay here until, as you put it, I'm all faded out in the fog. If I've changed so much already there's no telling what years of it will turn me into."
Stuart Farquaharson caught her impulsively in his arms and his words came in tumultuous fervor.
"What I said wasn't criticism," he declared. "God knows I couldn't criticize you. You ought to know that. This is the nearest we've ever come to a quarrel, dear, since the Barbara Freitchie days, and it's closer than I want to come. Besides, it's not just your laughter that I love. It's all of you: heart, mind, body: the whole lovely trinity of yourself. I mean to wage unabated war against all these forces that are trying to stifle your laughter into the pious smirk of the pharisee. There's more of what God wants the world to feel in one peal of your laughter than in all the psalms that this whole people ever whined through their noses. You're one of the rare few who can go through life being yourself—not just a copy and reflection of others. A hundred years ago your own people would probably have burned you as a witch for that. They've discontinued that form of worship now, but the cut of their moral and intellectual jib is, in some essentials, the same. Thank God, you have a different pattern of soul and I want you to keep it."
She drew away from him and slowly her face cleared of its misery and the eyes flashed into their old mischief-loving twinkle. "That's the first real rise I've had out of you," she declared, "since Barbara waved the stars and stripes at you. Then you were only defending Virginia, but now you've assumed the offensive against all New England."
But even in that mild disagreement they had, as he said, come nearer than either liked to a quarrel—and neither could quite forget it. Both felt that the thin edge of what might have been a disrupting wedge had threatened their complete harmony.
Because he could mark the transition of this thing called conscience into an obsession, and because he, too, was worn in patience and stinging with resentment against the injustice of the father, he fought hotly, and his denunciations of various influences were burning and scornful. So slowly but dangerously there crept into their arguments the element of contention. Hitherto Stuart had made no tactical mistakes. He had endured greatly and in patience, but now he was unconsciously yielding to the temptation of assailing an abstract code in a fashion which her troubled judgment might translate into attacks upon her father. Out of that attitude was born for her a hard dilemma of conflicting loyalties. It was all a fabric woven of gossamer threads, but Gulliver was bound into helplessness by just such Lilliputian fetters.
Late one night, when the moon was at two-thirds of fullness and the air touched with frost, Stuart abandoned the bed upon which he had been restlessly tossing for hours. He kindled a pipe and sat meditating, none too cheerfully, by the frail light of a bayberry candle. Through the narrow corridors and boxed-in stair wells of a ramshackle hotel, came no sounds except the minors of the night. Somewhere far off a dog barked and somewhere near at hand a traveling salesman snored. In the flare and sputter of the charring wick and melting wax shadows lengthened and shortened like flapping flags of darkness.
Then the jangle of the telephone bell in the office ripped the stillness with a discordant suddenness which Farquaharson thought must arouse the household, but the snoring beyond the wall went on, unbroken, and there was no sound of a footfall on the creaking stair. At last Stuart, himself, irritated by the strident urgency of its repetitions, reached for his bath robe and went down. The clapper still trembled with the echo of its last vibrations as he put the receiver to his ear and answered.
Then he started and his muscles grew taut, for the other voice was that of Conscience and it shook with terrified unevenness and a tremulous faintness like the leaping and weakening of a fevered pulse. He could tell that she was talking guardedly with her lips close to the transmitter.
"I had to speak to you without waiting for morning," she told him, recognizing his voice, "and yet—yet I don't know what to say."
Recognizing from the wild note that she was laboring under some unnatural strain, he answered soothingly, "I'm glad you called me, dear."
"What time is it?" she demanded next and when he told her it was well after midnight she gave a low half-hysterical laugh. "I couldn't sleep.... Father spent the afternoon exhorting me ... he was trying to make me promise not to see you again ... and I was trying to keep him from exciting himself." Her voice was so tense now as to be hardly recognizable. "Every few minutes it looked as if he were about to fly into a passion.... You know what that would mean ... and of course I—I—couldn't promise."
She paused for breath, but before he could speak, rushed on.
"It's been an absolute reign of terror. Every nerve in my body is jumping and quivering.... I think I'm going mad."
"Listen." The man spoke as one might to a child who has awakened, terrified, out of a nightmare and is afraid to be alone. "I'm coming out there. You need to talk to some one. I'll leave the car out of hearing in the road."
"No, no!" she exclaimed in a wildly fluttering timbre of protest. "If he woke up it would be worse than this afternoon—it might kill him!"
But Stuart answered her with a quiet note of finality. "Wrap up well—it's cool outside—and meet me on the verandah. We can talk more safely that way than by 'phone. I'm going to obey the doctor implicitly—unless you fail to meet me. If you do that—" he paused a moment before hanging up the receiver—"I'll knock on the door."
The moon had not yet set as he started on foot up the driveway of the manse and the bare trees stood out stark and inky against the silver mists. Before he was more than half-way to the house he saw her coming to meet him, casting backward glances of anxiety over her shoulder.
She was running with a ghostlike litheness through the moonlight, her eyes wide and frightened and her whole seeming one of unreasoning panic so that the man, who knew her dauntlessness of spirit, felt his heart sink.
"You shouldn't have done it," she began in a reproachful whisper. "You shouldn't have come!" But he only caught her in his arms and held her so close to his own heart that the wild palpitation of her bosom was calmed against its steadiness. Her arms went gropingly round his neck and clutched him as if he were the one stable thing that stood against an allied ferocity of wind and wave.
"You needed me," he said. "And when you need me I come—even if I have to come like a burglar."
The eyes which she raised to his face were tearless—but hardly sane. She was fear-ridden by ghosts that struck at her normality and she whispered, "Suppose he died by my fault?"
At all costs, the lover resolved, Conscience must leave this place for a time—until she could return with a stabler judgment. But just now he could not argue with her.
"We'll be very quiet," he said reassuringly. "If you hear any sound in the house you can go back. You're overwrought, dearest, and I've only come to be near you. Nobody will see me except yourself, but if at any time before daylight you want me, come to your window and raise the blind. I'll be where I can see."
For a while she clung to him silently, her breath coming fast. About them the moon shed a softness of pale silver and old ivory. The silence seemed to carry a wordless hymn of peace and though they stood in shadow there was light enough for lovers' eyes. The driven restlessness that had made Conscience doubt her sanity was slowly yielding to a sense of repose, as the tautened anguish of a mangled body relaxes to the balm of an anesthetic. Slowly the slenderly curved and graciously proportioned modeling of her lithe figure quieted from spasmodic unrest and the wild racing measure of her heart-beat calmed. Then she turned up her face. Her eyes cleared and her lips tilted their corners in a smile.
"I'm a horrid little demon," she declared in a voice freighted with self-scorn, but no longer panic-stricken. "I've always hated a coward, and I'm probably the most amazingly craven one that ever lived. I do nothing but call on you to fight my battles for me when I can't hold my own."
"You're an adorable little saint, with an absurd leaning toward martyrdom," he fervently contradicted. "Why shouldn't you call on me? Aren't you fighting about me?"
Her dark eyes were for a moment serene because she was treasuring this moment of moonlight and the respite of love against the chances of to-morrow.
"Anyhow you came—" she said, "and since you did there's at least one more fight left in me." Then her voice grew again apprehensive. "It was pretty bad before ... just hearing you preached against and being afraid to reply because ... of the warning. Now he wants my promise that I'll dismiss you forever ... and the worst of it is that he'll pound on it to the end. What am I to do?"
"Is there any question?" he gravely asked her. "Could you make that promise?"
"No—no!" He felt the figure in his arms flinch at the words, "There's no question of that, but how am I to keep him from raging himself to death?"
"Hasn't the doctor warned him that he mustn't excite himself?"
The dark head nodded and the fingers of the hands about his neck tightened. "Of course," she said. "But there you have the tyranny of weakness again. I must make the fight to keep him alive. He would regard it as going righteously to death for his beliefs. That's just the goodness-gone-wrongness of it all."
"Blessed are the self-righteous," mused Farquaharson half aloud, "for they shall supply their own absolution." To himself he was saying, "The wretched old hellion!"
"And then you see, after all," she added with the martyr's sophistry, "in the fight for you, I'm only fighting for myself and in doing what I can for him I'm trying to be unselfish."
"Listen," the man spoke carefully, "that, too, is the goodness-gone-wrongness as you call it; the sheer perversion of a duty sense. If it were just myself to be thought of, perhaps I couldn't fight you on a point of conscience. But it isn't just me—not if you love me."
"Love you!" He felt the thrilled tremor that ran through her from head to foot, and that made her bosom heave stormily. The moon had sunk a little and the shadow in which they were standing had crawled onward so that on her head fell a gleam of pale light, kindling her eyes and touching her temples under the sooty shadows of her hair. Her lips were parted and her voice trembled with the solemnity of a vow, too sacred to be uttered without the fullest frankness. "In every way that I know how to love, I love you! Everything that a woman can be to a man I want to be to you and all that a woman can give to a man, I want to give to you."
It was he who trembled then and became unsteady with the intoxication of triumph.
"Then I'll fight for you, while I have breath, even if it means fighting with you."
Suddenly she caught at his arm with a spasmodic alarm, and he turned his head as the screeching whine of a window sounded in the stillness. The effort to raise it cautiously was indicated not by any noiselessness but by the long duration of the sound. Then a woman's head with hair in tight pigtails stood out against the pallid light of a bedroom lamp, turned low, and the whispered challenge came out to them. "Who's out there?"
"Ssh!" cautioned the girl, tensely. "It's I, Auntie. Don't wake Father."
Grudgingly the window creaked down and for seconds which lengthened themselves interminably to the anxious ears of the pair in the shadows, they waited with bated breath. Then Stuart whispered, "You must go to sleep now."
The rest of the far-spent night Stuart stood guard outside the house. Once, a half hour after Conscience had gone in, her blind rose and she stood silhouetted against the lamp-light. The man stepped out of his shadow and raised a hand, and she waved back at him. Then the lamp went out, and he surrendered himself to thought and resolves—and mistakes. This submission to the tyranny of weakness had gone too far. She must go away. He must take up the fight aggressively. He did not realize that he who was fighting for her sense of humor had lost his own. He did not foresee that he was preparing to throw the issue on dangerous ground, pitting his stubbornness against her stubbornness, and raising the old duel of temperaments to combat—the immemorial conflict between puritan and cavalier.
Stuart Farquaharson had tempered a dignified strength with a gracious fortitude. He had endured slanderous charges and stood with the steadiness of a reef-light when Conscience was steering a storm ridden course, but the constant pressure on the dykes of his self-command had strained them until they might break at any moment and let the flood of passion swirl through with destructive power. He was being oppressed and seeing Conscience oppressed by a spirit which he regarded as viciously illiberal—and he accused Conscience, in his own mind, of blind obedience to a distorted sense of duty. Unconsciously he was seeking to coerce her into repudiating it by a form of argument in which the graciousness of his nature gave way to a domineering insistence. Unconsciously, too, that form of attack aroused in her an unyielding quality of opposition.
When he saw her next after the mid-night meeting she had seemed more normally composed and he had seized upon the occasion to open his campaign. They had driven over and stopped the car at a point from which they could look out to sea, and though the summer vividness had died out of wave and sky and the waters had taken on a touch of a leaden grimness, there was still beauty in the picture.
For awhile they talked of unimportant things, but abruptly Stuart said: "Dearest, I told you that I meant to fight for you even if I had to fight with you. That's the hardest form in which the battle could come, but one can't always choose the conditions of war." He paused and, seeing that his eyes were troubled, Conscience smiled encouragingly.
"At least," she laughed, "I believe you will wage war on me humanely."
The man went on hurriedly. "I've been talking with the doctor. He says that your father's condition holds no immediate danger—danger of death, I mean. Unless he suffers another stroke, he may live for years."
The girl nodded her head. "Yes, I know," she said wearily, "and for him life only means continuation of suffering." She did not add that it meant the same for her and Stuart, looking steadily into her face, said with decision, "For awhile you must go away."
"I!" Her eyes widened with an incredulous expression as if she thought she had misunderstood, then she answered slowly and very gently, "You know I can't do that, dear."
"I know that you must," he countered, and because he had keyed himself for this combat of wills he spoke more categorically than he realized. "At first thought, of course, you would feel that you couldn't. But your ability to stand a long siege will depend on conserving your strength. You are human and not indestructible."
She shook her head with a gentle stubbornness. "Stuart, dear, you're trying to make me do a thing you wouldn't do yourself. A sentry placed on duty can't go away until his watch is over—even if it's raw and gloomy where's he's stationed."
"No, but soldiers under intolerable stress are relieved and given breathing space whenever it's possible."
"Yes, whenever it's possible."
"It's possible, now, dearest, and perhaps it won't be later. You could visit some friend for a few weeks and come back the better able to carry on the siege. Otherwise you'll be crushed by the weight of the ordeal."
"Stuart," she began slowly, "who is there to take my place, even for a few weeks?"
"And the whole intolerable situation arises," he broke out with a sudden inflection of wrath, "from inert, thick-skulled bigotry. Thought processes that are moral cramps and mental dyspepsia threaten to ruin your entire life."
"Don't, dear—please!" She leaned toward him and spoke earnestly. "I know it's hard to endure without retort, but please don't make me listen to things like that about Father. It's bad enough without any more recriminations."
Then logic retreated from Stuart Farquaharson. He, the gracious and controlled, gave way to his first moment of ungenerous temper and retorted bitterly.
"Very well, but it seems you can listen to his abuse of me."
Conscience flinched as if lash-stung and for an instant indignation and anger kindled in her eyes only to die as instantly out of them, as she bit her lip. When she spoke it was in an even gentler voice. "You know why I listened to him, Stuart. You know that I didn't listen ... before his stroke. I didn't listen when I told him that if you went, I went, too, did I?"
The man's face paled and with a spasmodic gesture he covered it with his hands. "My God!" he exclaimed, "I don't think I've ever said such a damnably mean and caddish thing before—and to you!"
But Conscience bent over and drew his hands away from his face. "It wasn't you. It was just the strain. You could make allowances for me when I called you out to calm me in the middle of the night. I can make them, too. Neither of us is quite sane."
But having had that warning of Stuart's slipping control, Conscience kept locked in her own bosom certain fresh trials which discussion would have alleviated. She did not tell him how she spent sleepless nights devising plans to meet the grim insistence upon his banishment which she knew the morning would bring. But she felt that the comfort of a complete unburdening of her feelings had been curtailed and with a woman's genius for sacrifice she uncomplainingly assumed that added strain.
One afternoon Eben Tollman came out of the house, as she was walking alone under the bare trees of the driveway, and stopped, hat in hand, at her side.
"Conscience," he began thoughtfully, "Mr. Williams has just told me of his insistence that Mr. Farquaharson shall not only be denied the house, but sent away altogether. You must be carrying a pretty heavy load for young shoulders."
The girl stood regarding her father's counselor gravely. He had never appealed to her as a person inviting confidence, and she had thought of his mind as cut to the same austere pattern as the minister's own. Yet now his face wore an expression of kindliness and sympathy to which his manner gave corroboration. Possibly she had misjudged the man and lost his underlying qualities in her careless view of externals. Tollman seemed to expect no answer and went on slowly, "I tried to point out to your father the unwisdom of an insistence which must stir a spirit like yours to natural opposition. I suggested that under the circumstances it was scarcely fair."
"What did he say?" She put the inquiry with a level glance as if reserving her right to accept or reject his volunteered assistance.
"He could only see his own side. He must do his duty, however hard he found it."
Conscience remembered Stuart's warning that Tollman thought he loved her, and smiled to herself. This voluntary championing of another man's cause hardly seemed to comport with such a conception.
"I don't know what to do," she admitted wearily. "Obviously I can't make the promise he asks and no more can I let him fly into a rage that may kill him. I'm between the upper and nether mill-stones."
The man nodded with a grave and courteous comprehension.
"I hesitate to volunteer advice—and yet—" He came to a questioning halt.
"Yes," she prompted eagerly. "Please go on."
"I had thought," he continued, with the diffident manner of a man unaccustomed to proffering counsel before it was asked, "that, if you cared to use me, I might be of some help—as an intermediary of sorts."
"An intermediary?" she repeated. Then more impulsively, because she felt that her attitude had been wanting in graciousness, she added, "I know you're offering to do something very kind, but I'm afraid I don't quite understand."
"I think I am entirely in your father's confidence," he explained, "and because, on many subjects, we hold common opinions, I can discuss—even argue—matters with him without fear of antagonism or excitement to him. Still I hope I am not too old to be in sympathy with your more youthful and more modern outlook on life. If at any time I can help, please call on me."
They had been walking toward his buggy at the hitching post—it was not a new or particularly well-kept vehicle—and there they halted.
"This is good of you," she said, extending her hand cordially, and as he took it he suggested, "Meanwhile an old man is not speedily weaned from an idea which has taken deep root, and that brings me to another suggestion." Once more he paused deferentially as if awaiting permission, "if I may make it."
"I wish you would."
"It is the idea of Mr. Farquaharson's constant proximity and influence which keeps your father's animosity stirred to combat. With a temporary absence it would relax. I think it might even come to an automatic end.... When Farquaharson returned Mr. Williams's mind might have lost its inflammation."
He smiled and shook the reins over the back of the old horse and when he drove away he left Conscience standing with her lips parted and her gaze set.
Send Stuart away for a time! She had told that she could not stand it without him, and now Tollman had expressed the unbiased view of one whose personal desires were not blinding his judgment. She moved over to the side of the road and leaned heavily against a tree. She felt as if she were standing unprotected under the chilling beat of a cold and driving rain, and her lips moved without sound, shaping again the three words "send him away!"
She had been holding her lover at her side until she could see his nerves growing raw under the stress of his worry about herself and the temper which nature had made chivalric giving way to acerbity. Yes, Tollman was right—it required a sacrifice to save a wreck—and because he was right the sun grew dark and the future as black as the floor of the sea.
But the next time she saw Stuart she did not broach the suggestion, nor yet the next time after that. The man gave her no opportunity, so indomitably was he waging his campaign to have her go. And as her equally inflexible refusal stood impregnable against his assaults, he grew desperate and reenforced his arguments with the accusation of indifference to his wishes. In each succeeding discussion, his infectious smile grew rarer and the drawn brow, that bore close kinship to a frown, more habitual. His own talisman of humor was going from him, and two unyielding determinations settled more and more directly at cross odds.
When the breach came it was almost entirely the Virginian's fault, or the fault of the unsuspected Hyde who lurked behind his Jekyll.
"Conscience," he pleaded desperately on the afternoon which neither of them could ever remember afterwards without a sickness of the soul, "you're simply building a funeral pyre for yourself. You're wrecking your life and my life because of an insane idea. You're letting the pettiest and unworthiest thing in you—a twisted instinct—consume all that's vital and fine. You're worshiping the morbid."
"If I'm guilty of all that" she answered with a haunted misery in her eyes which she averted her face to hide, "I'm hardly worth fighting for. The only answer I have is that I'm doing what seems right to me."
"Can't you admit that for the moment your sense of right may be clouded? All I ask is that you go for a while to the home of some friend, where they don't rebuff the sunlight when it comes in at the window."
"Stuart," she told him gently but with conviction, "you have changed, too. Once I could have taken your advice as almost infallible, but I can't now."
The Virginian's face paled, and his question came with an irritable quickness, "In what fashion have I changed?"
"In a way, I think I've recovered my balance," she said with deep seriousness. "I couldn't have done it without you. You've taken my troubles on yourself, but at a heavy price, dear. They've preyed on you until now it's you who can't trust his judgment. All you say influences me, but it's no longer because of its logic, it's because I love you and you're talking to my heart."
Farquaharson paced the frosty path of the woods where they were talking. His face was dark and his movements nervous so Conscience would not let herself look at him. She had something difficult to say and of late she had not felt strong enough to spend vitality with wastefulness.
"You say I'm wrecking both our lives...." she went on resolutely. "I don't want to wreck either ... but yours I couldn't bear to wreck. I love you enough to make any sacrifice for you ... even enough to give you up."
Stuart wheeled and his attitude stiffened to rigidity. The woods raced about him in crazy circles, and before his eyes swam spots of yellow and orange.
"Do you mean—" he paused to moisten his lips with his tongue and found his tongue, too, suddenly dry—"do you mean that you've let this tyranny of weakness conquer you? Have you promised to exile me?"
She flinched as she had flinched on the one other occasion when he had accused her of a disloyalty which would have been impossible to her, but she was too unhappy to be angry.
"No," she said slowly, "I haven't even considered such a promise. I said just now that you had changed. The other Stuart Farquaharson wouldn't have suspected me of that."
"Then what in Heaven's name do you mean?"
"I mean that you must go away—for awhile. It's only selfishness that has blinded me to that all along. I'm killing all the best in you by keeping you here."
"You are strong enough to bear the direct strain, I suppose," he accused with a bitter smile. "But I'm too weak to endure even its reflection."
"It's always easier to bear trouble oneself," she reminded him with a gracious patience, "than to see the person one loves subjected to it."
"When did you think of this?"
"I didn't think of it myself," she told him with candid directness. "I guess I was too selfish. Mr. Tollman suggested it."
"Mr. Tollman!" The name burst from his lips like an anathema and a sudden gust of fury swept him from all moorings of control. "You love me enough to give me up—on the advice of my enemies! You are deaf to all my pleadings, but to the casual suggestion of this damned pharisee you yield instant obedience. And what he suggests is that I be sent away."
Her twisted fingers clenched themselves more tautly and had passion not enveloped Stuart in a red wreath of fog he must have refrained from adding to the acuteness of her torture just then.
"Why," she asked faintly, "should he be your enemy?"
"Because he wants you himself, because, with me disposed of, he believes he can get what his unclean and avaricious heart covets as a snake charms a bird, because—"
Conscience rose with an effort to her feet. Her knees were trembling under her and her heart seemed to close into a painful strangulation.
"Stuart," she faltered, "if you think that my love can only be held against any outsider by your being at hand to watch it, you don't trust it as it must be trusted—and it isn't worth offering you at all."
"You've fallen under the spell of these Mad Mullah prophets," he retorted hotly, "until you can't trust yourself any longer. You've been inflamed into the Mohammedan's spirit of a holy war and you're ready to make a burnt offering of me and my love."
"Now," she said with a faintness that was almost a whisper, "you must go, whether you agree or not. You distrust me and insult me ... and I don't think ... I can stand many ... interviews like this."
But Farquaharson's curb had slipped. His anger was a frenzied runaway which he, like a madman, was riding in utter recklessness.
"If I go now," he violently protested, "if I am sent into exile at the behest of Tollman, my enemy, I go for all time, knowing that the woman I leave behind is not the woman I thought I knew or the woman I have worshiped."
Their eyes met and engaged in a challenge of wills in which neither would surrender; a challenge which had built an issue out of nothing. His burned with the moment's madness. Hers were clear and unflinching.
"If you can go like that," she said, and the tremor left her voice as she said it, "the man who goes isn't the man to whom I gave all my love and to whom I was ready to give my life."
She straightened, sustained by a temporary strength, and stood clothed in a beauty above any which even he had before acknowledged; a beauty fired with the war spirit of a Valkyrie and of eyes regal in their affronted dignity. "If you can feel about me as your words indicate, we could never know happiness. The man whose love can make such accusations isn't the Stuart Farquaharson that made me willing to die for him. Perhaps after all I only dreamed that man. It was a wonderful dream."
She carried the fingers of one hand to her temple in a bewildered gesture, then shook back her head as one rousing oneself with an effort from sleep. "If it was a dream," she went on with a forced courage, "it's just as well to find it out in time."
"Then—" he made several attempts before he could speak—"then you are sending me away. If that's true—as there's a God in Heaven, I'll never come back until you send for me."
"As there's a God in Heaven," she answered steadily, almost contemptuously, "I'll never send for you. You'll never come back unless you come yourself—and come with a more absolute trust in your heart."
They stood under the leafless branches in a long silence, both white of cheek and supremely shaken, until at last the man said huskily: "I suppose I may take you to your gate?"
She shook her head. "No," she answered firmly, "I'm going across the field. It's only a step." She turned then and walked away and as he looked after her she did not glance backward. An erect and regal carriage covered the misery of her retreat—but when she reached her house she went up the stairs like some creature mortally wounded and as she closed the door of her room, there came from her throat a low and agonized groan. She stood leaning for a space against the panels with her hands stretched out gropingly against the woodwork. Her lips moved vacantly, then her knees gave way and she crumpled down and lay insensible on the floor.
After awhile her lashes trembled and rose flickeringly upon the vague perplexity of returning consciousness. Her head ached and her muscles were cramped, because she had crumpled down as she stood, so that she regained her feet falteringly and went with difficulty over to a chair before the mirror of her dressing-table. For awhile she sat gazing dully into her own reflected eyes. Under them were dark rings. Her cheeks were pale and her whole face was stricken with the bleak hopelessness of heartbreak. Her gaze fell on a framed photograph, just before her, and she flinched. It was an enlarged snapshot of Stuart Farquaharson. But other pictures more vitally near to her recent past were passing also before her. She felt again the muscles of his forearms snap into tautness as he stood silent under her father's insults. She felt the strength of his embrace calming the panic of her own heart; the touch of the kisses that had brought her both peace and ecstasy and wakened in her latent fires. Surely if, at last, the hot temper had broken through and blinded him with its glare of passion, it had not—could not—have burned to ashes all the chivalric record of these trying months. Surely it was a thing she could forgive. The man upon whom she had leaned so long and whom she had known so well must be more real than this alien revealed in an ungenerous half hour. The pale sunset died into the ashes of twilight. Her bureau clock ticked out a full hour—and a second hour while she sat almost immovable. She argued with herself that this conflict which had so impalpably gathered and so suddenly burst in storm was a nightmare coming out of the shadows and had no substance of reality.
At last she lighted a lamp and moved wearily to her writing desk. Her pen developed a mutinous trick of balking, and her eyes of staring, unseeing, at the wall. But at last when she had torn up sheet after sheet, she finished her task.
"Dear Stuart," she had written. "You told me once that no one should send you away—not even I—unless I proved myself stronger than you. To-day you accused me of being the dupe of your enemies—and you are going—not because I am strong enough to banish you, but because you think me too weak to be trusted with your love. Without absolute trust we could never hope for happiness. So this isn't a plea, Stuart. It's not even an apology—except that I freely acknowledge a large share of fault—but I can't let you go without thanking you for all the gallant sacrifices you have made and for all the ways in which you have sought to stand between me and distress. Until to-day you have, under fire, proven true to your code of knighthood, and to-day I could forget—but could you? Of all the things I have ever said to you, of love, I have no syllable to retract. Even now I repeat it. I love you absolutely. When I suggested your leaving for a time I did a desperately hard thing—and you misunderstood it. Unless you can understand it, dear, it would do no good to come back, it would only mean other humiliating memories. This is not an easy letter to write and it's not well done. If your attitude of this afternoon is anything more than the delusion of anger—in other words, if your love is not one of complete trust, it's better that we shouldn't see each other again. If you can come in the spirit that I can receive you, to-day can be erased as if it had never happened—but until I have your answer (given after you have searched your heart) I shall be—but that is neither here nor there."
Tollman, who was taking supper at the manse that evening, noted the pallor of her face, but made no comment. He had, in fact, already divined a lover's quarrel and that was a thing into which even the most friendly interference might well bring rebuff. But he was not surprised, on leaving, to find Conscience waylaying him at the front door with an envelope in her hand, which she asked him to post without fail in the morning when after his invariable custom he drove to the village post office. Within the last few days the invalid's irritability had taken the form of intense dislike for the jingle of the telephone and in deference to his whim it had been disconnected. Consequently the family friend had of late both mailed and delivered notes between the lovers and knew the handwriting of each.
That night Stuart slept not at all. For hours after he reached his room in the hotel he paced it frantically. First cumulative anger, long held in leash, swept him like a forest fire, charring his reason into unreason. He had fought for Conscience and lost her. She had thrown her lot with the narrow minds and cast him adrift. He had placed all his trust in her and she had failed to rise above her heritage. But as the night wore on a nauseating reaction of self-indictment followed. He saw that he had grossly affronted her and brutally accused her. The generosity and fairness he worshiped had had no part in his conduct. He, too, spent hours writing, destroying and rewriting letters.
At last he let one stand.
"But, dearest," he said at its end, "if you do let me come back, you must still let me fight—not with temper and accusation, but patiently—against the strangling of your life. After this afternoon there can be no middle ground. I stand before you so discredited that unless you love me enough to forgive me you must hate me wholly and completely. If it's hate, I have earned it—and more, but if it can still be love, I have a life to spend in contradiction of to-day. I shall remain here twenty-four hours waiting for my answer, and each hour until it comes will be a purgatory. I've forfeited my right to come to you without permission. I must wait for your verdict. I don't even claim the right to expect an answer—but I know you will give one. Not to do so would be to brand me, for life, not only with bitter hatred but bitter contempt as well."
At dawn, without having been to bed, he posted the letter and sat down to wait with the anxiety of a defendant who has seen the jury locked into its chamber of fateful decision.
When Eben Tollman came into the post office that morning, he called for his mail and that of the Williams household.
Conscience's note to Stuart he did not mail. Stuart's letter to Conscience he did not deliver, but later in the day he deposited both in a strong-box in which he kept his private papers.
Three days Stuart Farquaharson spent waiting for an answer and while he waited his face became drawn, and the ugly doubt of the first hours settled into a certainty. There would be no answer. He had told her that to ignore his plea would be the superlative form of scorn—and she had chosen it.
Conscience, too, who had humbled herself, was waiting: waiting at first with a trust which refused to entertain doubt, and which withered as the days passed into such an agony that she felt she must go mad. If Stuart had deliberately done that—she must make herself forget him because to hold him in her heart would be to disgrace herself. The man, in the hour of ugly passion, had been the real one after all; the other only a pleasing masquerade!
"Did you mail my letter?" she finally demanded of Tollman, and he smilingly responded. "I don't think I ever forgot to post a letter in my life."
In a final investigation she walked to the village and inquired at the hotel desk, "Is Mr. Farquaharson here?"
"No, Miss Conscience," the clerk smilingly responded, "he checked out last night. Said he'd send his address later."
One afternoon several days later a stranger left the train at the village and looked about him with that bored and commiserating expression with which city men are apt to regard the shallow skyline of a small town. He was of medium height and carefully groomed from his well-tailored clothes to the carnation in his buttonhole and manicured polish of his nails. His face, clean-shaven save for a close-cropped and sandy mustache, held a touch of the florid and his figure inclined to stoutness. At the livery stable where he called for a buggy, after learning that no taxis were to be had, he gave the name of Michael Hagan and asked to be directed to the house of Mr. Eben Tollman.
Mr. Tollman was obviously expecting his visitor, and received him upon arrival in his austere study. Yet the fact that there was no element of surprise in Mr. Hagan's coming failed to relieve Mr. Tollman of traces of nervousness as he inquired, "You are Mr. Hagan?"
"Yes, Mr. Tollman, I came up in answer to your letter."
The stranger had no roving eye. He seemed, indeed, steady of hearing to the verge of stolidity, yet in a few seconds he had noted and drawn rapid conclusions from the environment. The cheerlessness of the house had struck him and the somber room, decorated, if one calls it decoration, with faded steel engravings of Landseer hunting dogs guarding dead birds and rabbits, impressed him.
Mr. Tollman bowed coldly.
"The matter I wish to discuss with you is confidential," he began by way of introduction, and Hagan smiled as he replied, "Most matters which clients discuss with me, are confidential."
Even with this reassurance, Mr. Tollman appeared to labor under embarrassment and it was only after some thought that he suggested, "This business is so new to me that I hardly know how to approach it."
"A man should be extremely frank with his physician or his lawyer," volunteered the newcomer. "It's even truer in the case of a detective."
"In this instance," Mr. Tollman proceeded with the wariness of one wading into water of unknown depth, "I am acting for friends whose business interests I represent, and who do not care to appear in the matter. Therefore your dealings will be exclusively with me."
"Certainly, that's quite usual. Now, what's the nature of the case? Your letter didn't indicate."
"Well, the fact is I wish to have a somewhat searching investigation made into the personal character and conduct of a young gentleman, who for reasons unnecessary to state, is of interest to my friends."
"Let me understand you clearly," prompted Mr. Hagan, with a briskness that accentuated the other's air of secretiveness. "Is this man to be shown up? Is that what you mean?"
Mr. Tollman stiffened. "I should suppose," he said with cool dignity, "that would be dependent to a certain extent on the facts."
But Mr. Hagan had in his police-detective days made use of the third degree, and when he next spoke his voice was firm almost to sternness. "I thought," he reminded the other, "we were going to be frank."
Thus encouraged, Tollman proceeded slowly, "I'm not seeking to whitewash the character of the gentleman, if that's what you mean."
"Good! Now, we're going somewhere. There are very few people who have no skeletons in their closets."
The hand of the employer came up with fastidious distaste. "Let this be understood from the beginning, Mr. Hagan, I have no wish to hear anything but reports of results obtained. In the details of your work I have not the slightest interest."
Mr. Hagan nodded, and inquired, "Is it with a view to criminal prosecution, now, that this case is to be worked or—?" He paused interrogatively.
"It is not. It is only necessary to convince a young lady, whose family disapproves of the man, that their suspicions are based on fact. She is so prejudiced in his favor, however, that the facts must be substantial—and of a character calculated to weigh with a woman."
Hagan drew a cigar-case from his pocket, and proffered it, but his offer being declined with a cold shake of the head, he settled himself as comfortably as possible in his uncomfortable chair and engaged in reflection. After digesting the preliminaries, he began to speak musingly, as though to himself.
"Of course if the lady knew that detectives were working on the case, the force of any disclosure would be discounted."
His eyes were on his employer as he spoke and he saw Tollman start. Tollman's words, too, came with an impulsiveness which had been absent heretofore.
"Neither of them must know, of course, that this investigation is being made. Unless you can assure me on that point you mustn't undertake the business."
With some difficulty the detective repressed a smile. "That goes without saying, Mr. Tollman. Now if it could be shown that this man was mixed up in some sort of a scandal—with a married woman, or a shady one, for instance—that ought to fit the case, oughtn't it?"
"Precisely." Again Tollman's voice was tinged with an unaccustomed quickness of interest, but at once, as though he had made a mistake, he amended with a heavy gravity, "However, we can hardly forecast what you will learn. I understand that he has directed his mail forwarded to an apartment hotel near Washington Square in New York."
The two talked for perhaps forty minutes—though it must be admitted that a portion of that time was devoted to a discussion of the terms of employment. Mr. Tollman had never undertaken having a man shadowed before and he regarded the fees as needlessly large.
Back once more in his office in a building on Forty-second Street, Mr. Hagan cut the end from a cigar and gazed out across the public library and the park at its back. The frosted glass of his hall door bore the legend, "The Searchlight Investigation Bureau. Private."
"Well, what did you find out about this job?" inquired a member of the office force who had entered from a communicating room, and the chief wrinkled his brow a little as he studied his perfecto.
"It's a dirty business, Schenk," he replied crisply. "It's the kind of thing that gives knockers a license to put detectives in the same class as blackmailers—and the old Whey-face himself is a tight-wad. He wrangled over the price—but I made him come through."
"What does he want done?"
"He wants a guy framed. You remember what the bulls did for Big Finnerty, when Finnerty was threatening to squeal to the District Attorney's office about police graft?"
Schenk nodded. "They pulled the old stuff on him. Sent him to the Island a year for gun-toting."
"Sure, and he didn't have a gat at that—that is, not until the bulls planted it in his kick on the way to the station house." The dignity of Mr. Hagan's consultation manner had dropped from him, and he had relapsed into the gang argot with which police days had given him an intimate familiarity.
"Sure he didn't. That's the way they frame a man. It's the way they framed—"
"Can the reminiscence stuff," interrupted the head of the Searchlight Investigation Bureau. "The point is that it's just about the deal we're being hired to put over on this Farquaharson person. He wants to marry a girl and we've got to frame him up with a dirty past—or present. Our respected employer is a deacon and a pious hypocrite. He wants results and he wants us to go the limit to get 'em. But he must never know anything that soils the hem of his garment. He has no interest in the petty doings of detectives. His smug face must be saved. He didn't tell me this, but I wised myself to it right away. He's got his eye on that girl, himself."
The winter came close on the heels of a short autumn that year and it came with the bluster and roar of squalls at sea and the lashing of the woods inland. For some weeks Conscience followed the colorless monotony of her life with a stunned and bruised deadness about her heart. She had shed no tears and the feeling was always with her that soon she must awaken to a poignant agony and that then her mind would collapse. Mechanically she read to her father and supervised the duties of the attendant who had been brought on from Boston, but often when he spoke to her he had to repeat his question, and then she would come back to the present with a start.
The invalid had learned from Tollman that Farquaharson had gone away after a quarrel, and he piously told himself that his prayers were answered and his daughter had been snatched as a brand from the burning. But for once an instinct of mercy tinged his dealings with the frailities of humanity. He refrained from talking of Stuart and from the pointing of morals. That would come later.
Thinking through days when a cold and tortured moisture would burst out on her temples and through nights when she lay wide-eyed and sleepless, only one answer seemed to come to Conscience. All Stuart's love must have curled in that swift transition into indifference and contempt.
Admitting that conclusion, she knew that her pride should make her hate him, too, but her pride was dead. Everything in her was dead but the love she could not kill and that remained only to torture her.
The most paradoxical thing of all was that in these troubled days she thought of only one person as a dependable friend. Eben Tollman had evinced a spirit for which she had not given him credit. It seemed that she had been all wrong in her estimates of human character. Stuart, with his almost brilliant vitality of charm, had after a quarrel turned his back on her. Eben Tollman, who masked a diffident nature behind a semblance of cold reserve, was unendingly considerate and no more asked reward than a faithful mastiff might have asked it. It contented him to anticipate all her wishes and to invent small ways of easing her misery. He did not even seek to force his society and satisfied himself with such crumbs of conversation as she chose to drop his way in passing. If ever she should come out of this period of torpid wretchedness, she would owe Tollman a heavy debt of gratitude.
Three months after the day when Mr. Hagan returned from Cape Cod, that gentleman called into his private office a member of his staff, who responded to the name of Henry Rathbone, and put him through a brief catechism.
"What have you got on this Farquaharson party?" he inquired. "Tollman complains that you're running up a pretty steep expense account and he can't quite see what he's getting for his money."
Rathbone seated himself and nodded. "Mr. Tollman knows every move this feller's made. You gotta give him time. A guy that think's he's got a broken heart don't start right in on the gay life."
"Why don't he?" inquired Mr. Hagan with a more cynical philosophy. "I've always heard that when a man thinks the world's gone to the bow-wows he's just about ripe to cut loose. Don't this feller ever take a drink or play around with any female companions?"
"You ain't got the angle straight on Farquaharson," observed the sleuth who had for some time been Farquaharson's shadow. "He ain't that kind. I'm living in the same apartment hotel with him and my room's next door to his. I don't fall for the slush-stuff, Chief, but that feller gets my goat. He's hurt and hurt bad. It ain't women he wants—it's one woman. As for female companions—he don't even seem to have any male ones."
"What does he do with his time?"
"Well, he went down to the farm for a few weeks and closed up the place. He studied law, but he's passed it up and decided to write fiction stories. Every morning he rides horseback in the park, and, take it from me, those equestrian dames turn all the way round to rubber at him."
"What else does he do?"
"He walks miles, too. I fell in with him casual like one day and tagged along. Well, he hiked me till my tongue hung out. We started at the Arch and ended up at Dolrandi's cafe at the north end of the speedway—it ain't but only about a dozen miles.... During that whole chummy little experience he spoke just about a couple of times, except to answer my questions. Sometimes when he thought I wasn't looking his eyes would get like a fellow's I seen once in death-row up the river, but if he caught me peepin' he'd laugh and straighten up sudden."
"Well, I don't suppose you can get anything on him till he gives you a chance," said Mr. Hagan grudgingly, "but what this man Tollman wants is results. He ain't paying out good money that he's hoarded for years, just to get merit reports. He didn't wring it out of the local widows and orphans just for that."
"I get you, and I'll keep watching. Since Farquaharson got this bug about writing stories he's taken to rambling around town at night. I said he didn't seem to want companions, but when he goes out on these prowls he'll talk for hours with any dirty old bum that stops him and he always falls for pan-handling. Beggars, street-walkers, any sort of old down-and-outer interests him, if it's hard luck they're talking."
But the face which reminded Mr. Rathbone of the man who was awaiting the electric chair was the public face of Stuart Farquaharson. He did not see the same features during the hours when the door of his room was closed. The hotel he had selected, near Washington Square, was a modest place and his window looked out over roofs and chimney-pots and small back yards.
There, sitting before his typewriter, his sleeves rolled above his elbows, he sought to devote himself to his newly chosen profession: the profession which he had substituted for law. Through a near-by window he had occasional glimpses of a girl who was evidently trying to be an illustrator. Stuart imagined that she was poor and ambitious, and he envied her the zest of her struggle for success. He himself had no such incentives. Poverty was not likely to touch him unless he became a reckless waster, and he fancied that his interests were too far burned to ashes for ambition. It was with another purpose that he forced himself to his task. He was trying to forget dark hair and eyes and the memory of a voice which had said, "Love you! In every way that I know how to love, I love you. Everything that a woman can be to a man, I want to be to you, and everything that a woman can give a man, I want to give you."
And because he sought so hard to forget her, his fingering of the typewriter keys would fall idle, and his eyes, looking out across the chimney-pots, would soar with the circling pigeons, and he would see her again in every guise that he remembered—and he remembered them all.
She had been cruel to the point of doing the one thing which he had told her would brand him with the deepest possible misery—and which pledged him in honor not to approach her again by word or letter without permission. But that was only because the thing which he conceived to be her heritage of narrowness had conquered her.
On the floor below was a young man of about his own age, who was also a candidate for the laurels in literature. Stuart had met him by chance and they had talked a little. This man's enthusiasms had gushed forth with a vigor at which the Virginian marveled. For him ambition blazed like an oriflamme and he had dared to gamble everything on his belief in himself. With scant savings out of a reporter's salary in the West he had come to wrest success from the town where all is possible, but now a shadow of disappointment was stealing into his eyes. A fear was lurking there that, after all, he might have mistaken the message of the Bow Bells which had rung to him the Dick Whittington message that the city was his to conquer.
Perhaps because Louis Wayne desperately needed to succeed, while Stuart Farquaharson wrote only as an anodyne to his thoughts, Wayne vainly peddled his manuscripts and almost from the first Stuart sold his at excellent rates.
* * * * *
Mrs. Reinold Heath was rarely in a sunny mood at the hour when her coffee and rolls came to her, as she sat propped against the pillows of the elaborately hung bed in her French gray and old-rose room. The same hour which brought the breakfast tray brought Mrs. Heath's social secretary and those duties which lie incumbent upon a leader of society's most exploited and inner circles.
Mrs. Heath, kimono-clad in the flooding morning light, looked all of her fifty years as she nodded curtly to her secretary. It was early winter and a year had passed since Stuart had left Cape Cod.
"Let's get this beastly business done with, Miss Andrews," began the great lady sharply. "What animals have you captured this time? By the way, who invented week-ends, do you suppose? Whoever it was, he's a public enemy."
The secretary arranged her notes and ran efficiently through their contents. These people had accepted, those had declined; the possibilities yet untried contained such-and-such names.
"Why couldn't Harry Merton come?" The question was snapped out resentfully. "Not that I blame him—I don't see why any one comes—or why I ask them for that matter."
"He said over the 'phone that he was off for a duck-shooting trip," responded Miss Andrews.
"Well, I suppose we can't take out a subpoena for him. He's escaped and we need another man." Mrs. Heath drew her brow in perplexed thought, then suddenly demanded: "What was the name of that young man Billy Waterburn brought to my box at the horse show? I mean the one who rode over the jumps like a devil and blarneyed me afterward like an angel."
The secretary arched her brows. "Do you mean the Virginian? His name was Stuart Farquaharson."
"Do you know where he lives—or anything else about him?"
"Why, no—that is, nothing in the social sense." Miss Andrews smiled quietly as she added, "I've read some of his stories in the magazines."
"All right. Find out where he lives and invite him in Merton's place. Don't let him slip—he interested me and that species is almost extinct."
As Miss Andrew jotted down the name, Mrs. Heath read the surprised expression on her face, and it amused her to offer explanation of her whim.
"You're wondering why I'm going outside the lines and filling the ranks with a nobody? Well, I'll tell you. I'm sick of these people who are all sick of each other. The Farquaharsons were landed gentry in Virginia when these aristocrats were still grinding snuff. Aren't we incessantly cudgeling our brains for novelty of entertainment? Well, I've discovered the way. I'm going to introduce brains and manners to society. I daresay he has evening clothes and if he hasn't he can hire them."
Decidedly puzzled, Stuart Farquaharson listened to the message over the telephone later in the day, but his very surprise momentarily paralyzed his power of inventing a politely plausible excuse, so that he hung up the receiver with the realization that he had accepted an invitation which held for him no promise of pleasure.
It happened that Louis Wayne, who had by sheer persistency seized the outer fringes of success, had come up with a new manuscript to read and was now sitting, with a pipe between his teeth, in Stuart's morris chair.
"Sure, go to it," he exclaimed with a grin, as Stuart bewailed his lack of a ready excuse. "It'll be a bore, but it will make you appreciate your return to the companionship of genius."
"The Crags" was that palatial establishment up the Hudson where the Reinold Heaths hold court during the solstices between the months at Newport and the brief frenzy of the New York season, and the house party which introduced Stuart Farquaharson to Society with a capital S was typical. One person in the household still had, like himself, the external point of view, and her ditties threw her into immediate contact with each new guest.
"Miss Andrews," he laughed, when the social secretary met him shortly after his arrival, "I'm the poor boy at this frolic, and I'm just as much at my ease as a Hottentot at college. When I found that I was the only man here without a valet, I felt—positively naked."
The young woman's eyes gleamed humorously. "I know the feeling," she said, "and I'll tell you a secret. I took a course of education in higher etiquette from the butler. You can't do that, of course, but when in doubt ask me—and I'll ask the butler."
But it was Mrs. Heath's prerogative to knight her proteges with the Order of the Chosen, and Stuart Farquaharson would have graced any picture where distinction of manner and unself-conscious charm passed current.
"Who is the girl with the red-brown hair and the wonderful complexion and the dissatisfied eyes?" he asked Miss Andrews later, and that lady answered with the frankness of a fellow-countryman in foreign parts:
"Mrs. Larry Holbury. That's her husband over there—it's whispered that they're not inordinately happy."
Farquaharson followed the brief glance of his companion and saw a man inclining to overweight whose fingers caressed the stem of a cocktail glass, and whose face was heavy with surliness.
It subsequently developed, in a tete-a-tete with the wife, that she had read all of Mr. Farquaharson's stories and adored them. It leaked out with an air of resignation that her husband was a bit of a brute—and yet Mrs. Holbury was neither a fool nor a bore. She was simply a composite of flirtatious instinct and an amazing candor.
In the life of Stuart Farquaharson the acceptance of that invitation would have passed as a disconnected incident had it been altogether a matter of his choosing, but he had let himself be caught. Mrs. Reinold Heath had chosen to present him as her personal candidate for lionizing and whom she captured she held in bondage.
"Honestly, now, Miss Andrews," he pleaded over the telephone when that lady called him to the colors a second time, "entirely between ourselves, I came before because I couldn't think of an excuse in time. Let me off and I'll propose a substitute arrangement. Suppose we have dinner together somewhere where the hors d'oeuvres aren't all gold fish."
Her laugh tinkled in the telephone. "I wish we could," she said. "I knew you let yourself in for it the first time—but now you're hooked and you have to come." So he went.
On later occasions it was more flattering than satisfying to him that the beautiful Mrs. Holbury should drop so promptly into a sort of easy intimacy and treat him almost from the start with a proprietary manner. It soon became an embarrassment of riches. Stuart was thinking of himself as a woman-hater, these days, and he held a normal dislike for wagging tongues. Holbury, too, who was reputed to be of jealous tendency, seemed to regard him unfavorably and took no great pains to affect cordiality.
One day Wayne dropped, coatless, into Farquaharson's room and grinned as he tossed a magazine down on the table. "Sic fama est" was his comment, and Stuart picked up the sheet which his visitor indicated with a jerk of the thumb. The magazine was a weekly devoted ostensibly to the doings of smart society, but its real distinction lay in its innuendo and its genius for sailing so close to the wind of libel that those who moved in the rarified air of exclusiveness read it with a delicious and shuddering mingling of anticipation and dread. Its method was to use no names in the more daring paragraphs, but for the key to the spicy, one had only to refer back. The preceding item always contained names which applied to both.
Stuart found his name and that of Mrs. Holbury listed in an account of some entertainment—and below that:
"A young Southerner, recently arrived and somewhat lionized, is whispered to be complicating the already uneven balance of domesticity in the home of a couple whose status in society antedates his own. This gallant has all the attractiveness of one untouched with ennui. He rides like a centaur, talks like a diplomat and flatters as only a Virginian or an Irishman can flatter. The same whisper has it that the husband suffers in the parallel."
Farquaharson's face darkened and he reached for his discarded coat.
"Hold on; you have company," suggested Wayne placatingly. "Where do you think you're going in such hot haste?"
Stuart was standing with his feet well apart and his mouth set in a stern line.
"Wayne," he said with a crisp and ominous decisiveness, "I've never slandered any man intentionally—and I require the same decency of treatment from others."
"Go easy there. Ride wide! Ride wide!" cautioned the visitor. "That little slander is mild compared with many others in the same pages. Are the rest of them rushing to the office to cane the editors? They are not, my son. Believe me, they are not."
"They should be. Submission only encourages a scoundrel."
"In the first place they would find no one there but a rather fragile and extremely polite young lady. The editor himself doesn't sit around waiting to be horsewhipped. In the second, society tacitly sanctions and supports that sheet. Your fashionable friends would call you a barbarian and what is worse—a boob."
Farquaharson stood in a statuesque ire, and Wayne went philosophically on. "Take the advice of a singularly wise bystander. At least treat it with the contempt of silence until you've consulted the lady. Caning people in New York is attended with some degree of notoriety and she would have to share it. When you're in Rome, be as Romanesque as possible."
"For my part," declared Stuart, "I like another version better. When you're a Roman, be a Roman wherever you are."
Yet after some debate he took off his coat again and announced cryptically, "After all, the one unpardonable idiocy is sectionalism of code—damn it!"
He knew that Marian Holbury and her husband were near a break and that the husband's jealousy looked his way. But, conscious of entire rectitude, he gave no thought to appearances and treated the matter lightly. But the Searchlight Investigation Bureau, whose employment had been discontinued as not paying for itself, was now re-employed and instructed to send a marked copy of the weekly to Miss Conscience Williams. That copy was anonymously mailed, bearing a New York postmark, and its sending was a puzzle which its recipient never solved.
Spring came, and Stuart, who had begun the writing of a novel, took a small house in Westchester County, where he could work apart from the city's excitement. Had he been cautious he would not have selected one within two miles of the Holbury country house, yet the fact was that Marian Holbury had discovered it and he had taken it because of its quaintness. He had been there several weeks alone except for a man servant when, one night, he sat under the lamp of his small living-room with sheets of manuscript scattered about him. It was warm, with clouds gathering for a storm, and the scent of blossoms came in through the open doors and windows. There was no honeysuckle in the neighborhood, but to his memory there drifted, clear and strong and sweet, the fragrance of its heavy clusters.
He sat up straight, arrested by the poignancy of that echo from the past. The typewriter keys fell silent and his eyes stared through the open window, wide and full of suffering. He heard himself declaring with boyhood's assurance, "They may take you to the North Pole and surround you with regiments of soldiers—but in the end it will be the same."
Then without warning a wild sob sounded from the doorway and he looked up, coming to his feet so abruptly that his overturned chair fell backward with a crash.
"Marian!" he exclaimed, his voice ringing with shocked incredulity. "What are you doing here—and alone?"
Mrs. Holbury stood leaning limply against the door-frame. She was in evening dress, and a wrap, glistening with the shimmer of silver, drooped loosely about her gleaming shoulders.
"It's over," she declared in a passionate and unprefaced outburst. "I can't stand it! I'm done with him! I've left him!"
Stuart spread his hands in dumfounded amazement. "But why, in God's name, did you come here? This is madness—this is inconceivable!"
She went unsteadily to the nearest chair and dropped into it. "I came to stay—if you don't turn me out," she answered.
Except for the low yet hysterical moaning of the woman in the chair and the distant whistle of a Hudson River boat, there was complete silence in the small room, while the man stood dumfounded and speechless.
Marian's evening gown was torn and one silk stocking sagged at the ankle. Stuart Farquaharson noted these things vaguely and at last he inquired, "How did you get here?"
Her answer came between sobs, "I walked."
"You have done an unspeakably mad thing, Marian," he said quietly. "You can't stay here. There is no one in this house but myself; even my servant is away to-night. Why didn't you go to 'The Crags'?"
She lifted a tear-stained face and shot her answer at him scornfully. "'The Crags'! I had to talk to some one who was human. They would have bundled me back with cynical advice—besides, they're off somewhere."
"You're in distress and God knows I sympathize with you. I shall certainly offer no cynical advice, but I mean to call your husband on the telephone and tell him that you're here."
He turned toward the side table and lifted the desk instrument, but with the impetuous swiftness of a leopardess she came to her feet and sprang upon him. For an instant he was borne back by the unexpected impact of her body against his own and in that moment she seized the telephone from his hand and tore loose its wires from the wall. Then she hurled it with a crashing violence to the stone flagging of the hearth where it lay wrecked, and stood before him a palpitating and disordered spirit of fright and anger.
He had sought in that brief collision to restrain her, but she had wrenched herself free so violently that she had torn the strap which held her gown over one shoulder. Then as she reeled back, with a wildly ungoverned gesture she ran her fingers through her hair until it fell in tangled waves about her shoulders. It was perhaps a full minute before she could speak and while she stood recovering her breath, Stuart Farquaharson looked helplessly down at the instrument which she had succeeded in rendering useless.
With blazing eyes and quivering nostrils, the woman rushed headlong into explanation, accusation and pleading.
"If you telephoned that I was here he'd try to kill me. I tell you I'm done with him! I hate him—hate him; don't you understand? He's been drinking again and he's a beast. That's why I came ... that's why I had to come.... I came to you because I thought you'd understand ... because I thought ... you ... cared for me."
"I care enough for you to try to prevent your ruining your life by a single piece of lunacy," he told her as he sought to steady her with the directness of his gaze. "You don't have to go on with Holbury if you choose to leave him, but this is the one place of all others for you to avoid." He cast a hasty glance about him and then, hurrying to the front of the room, closed the door and drew the blinds. For a half hour he argued with forced calmness, but the ears to which he spoke were deaf to everything save the wild instinct of escape.
"Here you are in a house that sits in full view from the road: doors and windows open: you with your hair streaming and your gown disordered; hairpins strewn about: the telephone dead. Now, I've got to walk to your house and tell him."
Under the level insistence of his eyes she had fallen back a pace and stood holding the unsupported gown over her bosom, but when he finished with that final announcement, which seemed to her a threat, she sprang forward again and threw her arms about him, not in an embrace but with the instinct of a single idea: to prevent his carrying out his announced intention.
Stuart attempted gently to disengage himself, but the soft arms clung and the figure was convulsed with its agitation. "No, no!" she kept repeating. "You sha'n't go. You sha'n't leave me here alone.... I couldn't stand it."
"You walked two miles to get here and that took you about forty-five minutes," he reminded her. "You've been here a half hour. Do you fancy your husband's jealousy won't tell him where you went?" But the idea terrified her into such renewed hysteria that he broke off and stood silent.
The gathering clouds had broken now into a wild spring storm and the rain was drumming like canister on the roof of Stuart's cottage, so they did not hear the purr of a motor which stopped outside. They were without warning when the door suddenly burst open, and across the bare shoulder of the woman, who still hung sobbing to him, Stuart saw the bloated and apoplectic face of Larry Holbury and at his back the frightened countenance of two servants.
The husband came unsteadily several steps into the room, and lifted a hand which shook as he pointed to the tableau. He addressed his retainers in a voice which trembled with drink and rage, but even in its thickness it was icy by virtue of a fury that had passed through all period of bluster.
"I want you to look well at that," he said. "Mark every detail in your memories, both of you. There they are—in each other's arms. Notice her condition well, because, by God—"
Marian's scream interrupted his sentence, and the scream itself died away in a quaver, as she faded into insensibility, and Farquaharson lifted her clear of the floor and carried her to the lounge.
After that he turned to face Holbury and addressed him with a quietness which the glitter in his eye contradicted. "This is a pity, Holbury. It seems that you frightened her with some brutality. She lost her head and came here. I was trying to persuade her to go back."
"Yes," Holbury's laugh rang with the uncontrolled quality of a maniac's. "Yes, I know. You tore the clothes off of her trying to persuade her to come back to me! Well, you needn't trouble about sending her back now—the door's locked. She's yours. Do what you like with her. Of course I ought to kill you, but I won't. I brought these men to establish beyond doubt the identity of the co-respondent. It's a gentle riddance—a crooked wife and a crooked paramour."
One of the men advanced into the room and ostentatiously gathered in a couple of hairpins and a bit of torn lace, while Farquaharson crossed and stood face to face with the irate husband.
"Do you mean that you believe that?" The question came with a deadly softness.
"I don't have to believe. I have seen."
"Then," Stuart's words ripped themselves out like the tearing of cloth, "send your damned jackals outside, unless you want them to see their master treated as such a cur deserves."
A moment later the two servants were assisting Holbury to his motor, one of them nursing a closed and blackened eye on his own account as a badge of over-impetuous loyalty; and most of that night, while Marian Holbury lay groaning on the couch, Stuart Farquaharson sat before his empty hearth with eyes which did not close.
The Holbury divorce suit, after filling advance columns of spicy print, was awarded with a sealed record and Farquaharson was given no opportunity to tell his story to the public. He saw nothing more of Marian and was widely accused of having compromised and then abandoned her. So Stuart closed the house on the Hudson, as he had closed the house in Virginia, and with a very bitter spirit went to Europe.
It was some time before this, perhaps several months, that Eben Tollman, the indispensable friend—serving hitherto without reward or the seeking of reward—ventured to aspire openly to more personal recognition. He had been building slowly, and if perseverance is a merit, he deserved success. Perhaps Conscience had changed. There had been many things to change her. She had lived long without a break in an atmosphere which she had dreaded and her father had not grown sunnier. A life of dogma had acidulated into so impossible a fanaticism that in contrast Tollman seemed to assume something like breadth of gauge.