His hand gripped her own feelingly for a moment and he nodded his head but, in words, he said only: "Yes—it would."
"I wish I knew her. I wish I could set you straight with her," she told him and after that she rose. "At all events it was worth the experiment," she commented. "Well, 'la comedia e finita.' I think now I'll go to bed."
* * * * *
Conscience dealt relentlessly with herself in those storms of argument which arose in her mind and had to be fought out; storms involving the readjustment of her life to the partnership of marriage.
Yet she must not, if she placed value upon success, fall into the class of parasite wives who suffer their own independence of thought to languish.
One day she came into the study while Eben was engaged in those matters of business which brought the most unaffected pleasure to his eyes and his attitude was that of such absorption that she did not at once announce her presence. When he turned at length and saw her, he came instantly to his feet, but despite the smile of his welcome, Conscience caught the repressed reluctance with which he shoved back his papers and pencil.
"Eben," she hazarded, "why can't I make myself useful? Can't you delegate some part of your work to me?"
Instead of gratification his expression took on the cast of apprehension, though he laughed.
"What! Do you want to turn business woman, my dear?" he inquired. "Are you ambitious to come into the firm and have your name on the door?"
"I want to have a hand on the oar because I think you have a sort of financial genius and I'd like to share a thing which must come that close to your inner life," she explained, and under the pleasurable spell of her appreciation Tollman found himself expanding with responsive pride. To certain forms of flattery he was as susceptible as a schoolgirl.
"If I have ability," he made modest disavowal, "it's of a slight caliber."
"I don't know anything about your financial rating," went on his wife. "I've never asked any questions about that and I don't care so far as the mere figures go. But I believe you have a gift of business generalship which, in fields of wider opportunity, might have made you a millionaire."
Tollman broke unexpectedly into a peal of laughter. He complacently accepted the tribute to his powers, but would have preferred it laid on with greater lavishness. Quite casually he remarked:
"When I said slight caliber, I spoke comparatively. If the occasion arose, I fancy I could sign a check now—not only for a million but for several."
Conscience's dark eyes must have mirrored their amazement: an amazement which was entirely natural, and which concerned not only the revelation of wealth in itself, but more complex things as well.
The disturbing thought intruded itself that in a land of such sparse opportunities these returns could be wrung out only by a policy so tight-fisted as to be merciless. It must mean draining resources to their dregs. That was an unpleasant suspicion which she instantly expelled with the reminder that her husband had inherited wealth and that in supplementing it he had not been limited to a local field of operation.
The next unwelcome thought suggested that if Eben were so rich as that his generosity to her father and herself was discounted. Out of abundance he had given a moiety and because of it she had put her life into a yoke. But that idea, too, she met with the answer that his conduct must not be measured by a given cost but by its spirit and willingness.
"You are surprised?" His smiling inquiry called her back from her disturbing reverie with a sense of guilty criticism.
"Only at the degree of your success, Eben," she told him gravely; "I had not supposed it so large."
But as time went on, an intelligence less keenly edged than hers would have recognized that it was only to the anterooms of his financial interests that he admitted her.
This was inevitable, and obviously he could not explain what she felt to be a rebuff. To make full disclosure of certain transactions would have stripped Eben Tollman of disguise and brought results as parlous as those he had feared on the afternoon when he left his strong box unlocked. Structures of self-delusion might have fallen into shapeless debris under the batteries of her frank questioning. Eben Tollman could dismiss from thought the woman who has lost her way or the man who has succumbed to a destructive thirst. That required only the remembrance that the "wages of sin is death." But if real estate which he owned in poor, even disreputable sections of distant cities brought him in surprisingly large rentals, he did not conceive that his duty required an investigation of the characters of his tenants.
Of course should his agents tell him that his property was being prostituted to evil ends for gain he would have to sever relations with them, but he selected agents who troubled him with no such embarrassing details. This was a practical attitude, but something told him that in it Conscience would hardly see eye to eye with him.
It was late in May that Jimmy Hancock wrote a note to the girl with whom he had ridden horseback in the Valley of Virginia.
"I've just had a stroke of luck," he said, "in meeting our old friend Stuart Farquaharson, who is touring the world, crowned gorgeously with bays of literary fame. I ran into him yesterday in Yokohama and from him learned for the first time of your marriage. If I am the last to congratulate you, at least I am among the first in heartiness and sincerity....
"There are some charming Americans here—though I don't think of any others whom I should mention as common acquaintances. Or did you know Mrs. Larry Holbury? She has been reigning graciously over us, and I am among the smitten. However, since both she and Stuart are to sail on the Nippon Maru I have no great modicum of hope."
Poor Jimmy! Never was man less bent on purveying morsels of deleterious gossip. Never was man, in effect, more stupidly blundering.
He wrote the day after the dance on his cruiser and he spoke of the things near his current thoughts.
When Conscience had read the note, her eyes wandered thoughtfully and at the end her lips curled. "So she followed him across the world, did she?" she said half aloud, since she was quite alone. Then she added quietly: "Still I guess she didn't pursue him without knowing that she would be welcome. It was just as well that the dream ended in time."
Until his stroke had disabled the Reverend William Williams, his congregation had thought of him less as an individual than as an institution. In their minds he had shared the permanence of the church steeple. Trained through two generations to his intensity and fiery earnestness they saw in other clergymen a tame half-heartedness. Exponents of more modern and liberal thinking had since come and gone leaving the men and women who had been reared on the thundered Word as expressed in his firstlies, secondlies, thirdlies and finalies unable to fill their pulpit to their satisfaction.
Then it was that Sam Haymond, D.D., came to them, as a visiting preacher for a single Sabbath. He came heralded by tidings of power in oratory and zeal of spirit beyond the ordinary. Report had it that his shoulders were above the heads of mediocrity and that, like Saul of Tarsus, he had entered upon his ministry, not through the easy stages of ecclesiastical apprenticeship, but with the warrior-spirit of a man wholly converted from the ranks of the scoffers. Accordingly it was appropriate that he should come as the guest of Eben Tollman, the keystone in the arch of the church's laity and of the old minister who still held power as a sort of director emeritus.
Eben being engaged by peremptory affairs in his study, Conscience drove to the station to meet him on a fine young Saturday morning at the beginning of June. She set out from the house which maintained a sort of lordly aloofness among pine-covered hills, more than usually conscious of the lilt of summer in air and landscape.
The Tollman farm had been one of goodly size when Eben had inherited it and outlying tracts had since augmented it by virtue of purchase and foreclosure, until the residence, which faced a lake-like cove, was almost isolated of site. On either side of the sandy road, as Conscience drove to the station, elms and silver oaks and maples were wearing new and tender shades of green. Among the sober pines they reminded her of fashionables flaunting their finery in the faces of staid conservatives.
Between the waxen profusion of bayberry bushes, wild-flowers sprinkled the carpet of pine needles and blackberry trailers crawled in a bright raggedness.
Sam Haymond, D.D., gathering together his belongings, as the train whistled for the village, fancied that he could visualize with a fair accuracy the gentleman who had written, "You will be met at the station." Eben Tollman used, in his correspondence, a stilted formality which conjured up the portrait of one somewhat staid and humorless.
Conscience and her husband had, on the other hand, formed no mental portrait of the visiting minister, save that his reputation and accomplishment would indicate mature years.
When the train stopped, and only one stranger emerged upon the crushed-stone platform, Conscience thought that their guest had missed his train. Sam Haymond, D.D., in turn, seeing no elderly gentleman of sober visage, inferred that his host had failed to meet him. There was only a young woman standing alone by a baggage truck and for an instant the thoughts of the minister were fully occupied with the consideration of her arrestingly vivid beauty: a beauty of youth and slender litheness and exquisite color.
Then their glances met and the girl moved forward. It flashed simultaneously upon both of them that faulty preconceptions had caused a failure of recognition.
The tall, young man, whose breadth of shoulder and elasticity of step might have been a boy's, spoke first with an amused riffle in his eyes.
"My name is Sam Haymond. Are you, by any chance, Mr. Tollman's daughter?"
Under the challenge of his humorous twinkle, a sudden mischief flashed into Conscience's face. She was tempted to announce herself as William Williams' daughter and let it go at that, but with a swift reconsideration she laughed and told the whole truth.
"I am Mr. Tollman's wife."
The minister raised his brows in surprise. "Now I don't know why I pictured Mrs. Tollman as a delightful but maternal lady with a gift for mince pies—yet I did."
"I'm afraid I'm below par on my mince pies," she confessed with a mockery of humiliation. He could not, of course, know that the youth in her was leaping up to his bait of spontaneity as a trout leaps to the fly when flies are few. Conscience went on: "But you're below par, too—on ecclesiastical solemnity. I expected a grave-faced parson—"
Sam Haymond's laughter pealed out with a heartiness which seemed gauged to outdoor spaces rather than to confining walls.
"I haven't always been a minister," he acknowledged as he put down his suit-case. There was in his whole appearance an impression of physical confidence and fitness, which made Conscience's thoughts revert to Stuart Farquaharson.
"Once I preached a very bad sermon in a log meeting-house in the Cumberland mountains," he went on. "It is a country chiefly notable for feuds and moon-shining. I was introduced by a gentleman whose avocations were varied. He explained them to me in these words, 'I farms some; I jails some an' I gospels some.' Perhaps I'm cut to a similar pattern."
For both of them the drive proved short. Like a brook which has been running in the darkness of an underground channel, and which livens with sparkle and song as it breaks again into the sun—Conscience found herself in holiday mood and her companion was responsive and frankly delightful.
Haymond was, she understood, a preacher who could move men, but just now he was only a splendidly alive companion. If she thought of him as a preacher at all it was a preacher whose conception was rather that of a knight serving a divinely royal master than a prosecutor thinking in terms of dogma.
As an experiment in psychology, the luncheon was interesting because of the riffles and undercurrents that passed below the conversation's even tenor. The white-haired minister and his bronze-faced junior joined no issues of conflicting opinion and each saw only the admirable in the other—although two men so unlike in every quality except a common zeal might more easily have found points of disagreement than concord.
Tollman was rather the listener than the talker, but when his eyes met those of the visitor, Conscience fancied she detected an instinct of vague hostility in those of the host and a dubiousness in those of the guest. It was as if the waving antennae of their minds had touched and established a sense of antagonism.
Sam Haymond knew types as a good buyer knows his line of wares. Here, he told himself, was a nature cramped and bigoted. Such men had smirched the history of religion with inquisitions and tortures—and had retarded the progress of human thought.
Tollman's impression was less distinct. He fancied that in the penetrating quality of the other's gaze was an impertinence of prying.
Had the visiting clergyman carried his analysis far enough to discover that both men were bigots, he would still have drawn this distinction: the lion and the jackal have the same general motive in life, yet the jackal is hardly a lion.
Possibly it was a feeling of disquiet under silent observation which caused Tollman, after luncheon, to turn his guest over to his wife for entertainment, and Haymond acquiesced with enthusiasm to Conscience's suggestion that they go for a sail to the greater bay.
To Conscience this was all retrieving from monotony a little scrap of the life for which she had so eagerly yearned: the life of progress, stimulus and breadth.
And then they were in the tilting boat, racing before a wind which bellied the taut mains'l and drummed upon its canvas. She and Eben had, once or twice, taken this same sail, but he had endured in patience rather than enjoyed it.
On those occasions Ira had revealed a surly personality, which now expanded and mellowed into conversation as Haymond asked questions about the setting of eel traps and lobster pots and the management of fish weirs.
The wind toyed so persistently with Conscience's dark hair that she took it down from its coils and let it hang in heavy braids. The color rose in her cheeks and the gleam to her eyes making them starry, and a lilt sang in her voice.
There was a wealth of sapphire and purple in the water; there were thin shore lines of vivid green and dazzling sand. Sails bronzed and reddened in the sun and the distance. Gulls quarreled and screamed as they fished—and everything was young.
"Them's mackerel gulls," volunteered Ira as he pointed to two birds perched on a precariously buffeted buoy. "There's a sayin' that 'When the whippoorwills begin to call, the mackerel begins to run'—then the gulls come, too."
But as the sailboat drew near its landing stage again and the sunset was fading into twilight, the fires died slowly, too, in the eyes of Conscience Tollman and she felt that a vacation had ended.
There seemed to be in the sunlight of the following morning a tempered and Sabbath stillness.
Perhaps the sun itself remained pagan, but if so it only lent contrast to the slumberous restfulness where the shadows fell.
Over the countryside brooded the calm peacefulness of the day and when the church bell gave its first call, its notes floated out across silences disturbed by no noisier interruptions than bird notes and the distant voice of the surf.
When her father had expressed his determination of going, for the first time since he had been stricken, to the church where he had so long preached, Conscience had demurred without avail. She had been, at first, alarmed, lest the associations dwelling between those walls might excite him beyond his strength. He must feel that he was going back, broken, to a place where, in strength, he had been a mentor and potter whose clay was human thought. But he would listen to no objections and when the congregation gathered, his invalid's chair stood at the head of the center aisle and he looked directly up at the pulpit from which, since his youth, he had thundered the damnation of sinners.
When the tall young man took his place in the pulpit, the aged minister swung his finely shaped head around with something of pride as though he would say, "Here is my successor, in whom I am well pleased."
It was the revered elder who first engaged the interest of the congregation, but when Sam Haymond had announced his text: "Let him who is without sin amongst you cast the first stone," there came a shifting of attention. Here was a man gifted with that quality of voice without which there can be no oratory; endowed with that magic of force under which human emotion is a keyboard responsive to the touch; commanding that power which can sway its hearers at will between smile and tear. His reputation was already known to them, but within five minutes after his voice sounded reputation had become a pallid label for something flamingly real: something under which their feeling stirred; something that made their pulses leap like a bugle call; something that soothed them like sleep after weariness—and above all something so convincing that questioning was stilled as by the voice of a prophet who comes direct from the presence of God.
The Reverend William Williams had held their loyalty by virtue of vehemence and fire, and in that the visitor matched and surpassed him. The intensity was there, but much besides—and yet in all else this was a man as opposite to the aged veteran of the pulpit as east is far across from west. In all the fire of his words was no mention of the fires of hell. He seemed to know nothing of the avenging God, whose name had rung terribly from that rostrum for half a century: a God swift of anger and mighty to punish: an omnipotently jealous God. The Deity he served was one of infinite charity to whose forgiveness nothing was unforgivable—except unforgiveness.
He was expounding a doctrine of joy and aspiration: a splendid and uplifting message from a God of the onward and upward march. No suspicion came to him that, in effect, he was assailing the life work of the old man below him, whom he deeply revered, yet he breathed a conception of religion not only unlike, but contradictory to the set and riveted dogma of his listening predecessor.
Minds that had unquestioningly accepted the old and hard gospel of righteousness by duress of brimstone awoke to a new insurgency and eyes little given to the light of thought kindled to this new postulate of brotherhood and the service of brotherhood.
Conscience sat with her eyes hypnotically fixed on the face of the speaker. Yesterday afternoon he had gone sailing with her; to-day he was voicing her own beliefs from the pulpit whose former incumbent had strangled and throttled them with his tyranny of weakness.
Of her father and the influence this sermon might have on him she did not just then think at all. She like the others was being swept on a tide of rapt attention—and she had forgotten that William Williams was not at home in his study. But as that discourse progressed one might have followed the ebb and flow of a man's life-battle, had he watched only the face of the old man, in the wheel chair, crowned with a white mane.
First there was the expression of exaltation which mutely proclaimed: "A prophet is risen among us," but after it came swift doubt and foreboding. The eagle eyes, deep-set in the thin face, were clouded and hurt. Tho talon-like fingers clutched at their chair arms. Must he sit here constrained to silence, while another confounded his teachings?
After doubt came certainty under which the sunken eyes of the paralyzed man smouldered fiercely and his face blanched to the deadness of parchment. This was all a passionate and revolutionary appeal for liberality—or—by his interpretation—for license. It mounted into an indictment against the cramping evils of intolerance, it scathingly denounced the goodness of the strait-jacket until the old minister saw every effort of his life assailed and vilified. His mind, distorted by suffering and brooding, beheld a prophet indeed, but a prophet who carried Satan's commission and who dared to serve it in the house of God.
Would God himself remain silent and unavenging under such insult? He at least, the lifelong servant, would not sit voiceless while his Master was libeled. He who had spoken here many hundreds of times before would speak once more and his last message would be one of scourging from the temple desecrators more evil than money-changers.
But he shook with so palsied a fury that for a time he could only surrender to his physical weakness. With a mighty effort he braced his withered body and pulled himself forward. He knew he was killing himself, but he would fall at his sentry post, challenging the enemy.
Sam Haymond, himself oblivious until now to all but his own earnestness, brought his gaze back to the chair just below him—and suddenly the resonance of his swelling voice fell silent—snapped by astonishment with a word half spoken.
Of the tragedy which was acting itself before him he realized little. He saw only a venerable colleague stricken by some sudden and terrible ailment.
Then William Williams raised his thin arms above his head. Out of his eyes rained challenge, denunciation, anathema! Mutely he was hurling the curse of God's church. With the last ounce of his attenuated strength he was struggling for the voice which at this moment of supreme need had failed him. Over the body of the congregation, as the preacher halted, fell a deadly stillness.
From the throat of the old man came a strangled groan, which had sought to be a command for silence, and he crumpled forward. Life had gone out of him, and Sam Haymond, lifting both hands, spoke in a voice of hushed awe, "My brethren, the hand of God has fallen here."
About the churchyard, like sentinels of peace, stood ranks of elms and silver oaks. They had been old and gnarled of trunk, when the man whose life had just guttered out inside had come, young and militant, to preach the letter of that law, whose spirit was to his understanding a fourth dimension. Through the long windows of colored but artless glass, now partly raised, poured slanting panels of summer sun, mottling the interior and its occupants with dashes of red and blue.
Into the hush which had fallen there crept also those minors that seemed to belong rather to an exaggerated quiet than to sound: the trill of a bird, voicing an overflow of joy and the humming of bees among the vines of the church yard, where slanting headstones bore quaintly archaic names and life dates of sailors home from the sea. A wandering butterfly had drifted in and was winging its bright way about the place where the sermon had been interrupted. But the bated breath of awed amazement broke at the end of a long-held pause into a buzz of whispered exclamation.
Conscience rose unsteadily and started forward, her hands clutched to her breast, and the minister came hurriedly down the pulpit stairs.
Later in the day when the body still lay in the parlor of the Tollman house and Conscience sat almost as motionless near by, Eben Tollman paced the floor with features set in an expression unpleasantly suggestive of the undertaker's professional solemnity.
Possibly Tollman was not inconsolably cast down. So long as the old man's precarious life spark had been a danger signal, burning against the influence of Stuart Farquaharson, it was vital that he should live. Now he was entitled to the serenity of a holy man's reward.
It was near to sunset when the husband left the room and the eyes of Conscience kindled for the first time out of their lethargic quiet. Abruptly she rose from her seat and rebelliously demanded of the young minister, "What would you say if I should confess to you that just one thing has been clear and outstanding through all the confusion of my thoughts since this morning? I've been unspeakably sullen."
"I should say," he responded quietly, "that it is a guise which grief often assumes."
"No," she protested, disdaining the cajolery of self-delusion, "my sullenness isn't that sort. It's pure rebellion. I've been thinking of the abysmal failure of those who dedicate themselves most wholly. His devotion to righteousness was implacably sincere and severe. It was the doctrine of the hair-shirt. He scorned to ride any wave ... he had to buffet every one head on ... until he battered out his life and wrecked himself."
"A man must serve as he reads his command," her companion reminded her. "He has done his work as he conceived it."
"And yet—" she looked into his face with a deep questioning which held no note of accusation—"if anything that you said to-day is true, his whole effort was not only wasted but perverted, and it was true. It was so terribly true that it killed him!"
"What do you mean?" Haymond's gaze searched her eyes with incredulous amazement. It seemed to be making an effort to steady her against the wild utterances of hysteria, but her response was convincingly calm.
"I mean just that. I myself had nothing in common with his views. To me they seemed narrow—pitifully narrow and uncomprehending—and he was my father. We were warned that in any sudden gust of anger his feeble life spark—would go out, so I put my own conceptions of what counted behind me and tried to shield him." Sam Haymond hardly heard the last words. He could realize only the dazing and crushing import of his own unwilling instrumentality. At last he inquired slowly, "You mean that my sermon—that the things I said—" There he broke off and the distress in his eyes was so poignantly genuine that Conscience replied softly, "No, it wasn't you. It was Fate, I guess. Even I can't blame you. It only proves that the thing I warped my own life to prevent was inevitable—that's all."
For a little while the minister stood silent and across his face passed a succession of bewildered shadows.
"It is hard for me to grasp this," he said at last with a grief-laden voice. "It is hard for me to realize that two men serving the same God; both preaching His Word with identical earnestness could be so at variance that the concept of one should give mortal hurt to the other."
They sat in silence until the sunset pageantry had dimmed to twilight. Then the man spoke again, guardedly.
"You said something about warping your life for your father's sake. I wonder if—well, I wonder if there's anything it would help you to talk about—not to the minister but to the friend."
She met his gaze with one of equal directness, and he could see an impulse, rather hungry and eager, dawn only to be repressed in her eyes. At last she shook her head. "No," she answered. "But it's good of you to ask me. No, there's nothing that talking about will mend."
* * * * *
Eben Tollman's effort at being young was not wholly successful. There were times when even he suspected that it lacked something of complete attainment. He had now been married six months and his wife, though undeniably loyal, was as far as ever from kindling into that eager fire of complete love which he had boasted he would awaken in her.
When Conscience had warned him that their marriage would be an incomplete relationship Tollman had inwardly smiled. Of her faithfulness he could be sure and she herself would be his. The rest was a somewhat gossamer and idealistic matter which her youth exaggerated in importance.
But after six months, possession was no longer enough—and it was all he had. Sometimes indeed it seemed to him that the thing he lacked was greater than the sum of the things he possessed.
He had boasted that in indulging her wishes he found his highest privilege and pleasure, but he was of those who take their pleasures sadly. He had given her unrestricted permission to remodel his house, yet in every fresh detail of the alteration he discovered an act of vandalism under which his spirit writhed.
To his mind everything gained in sanctity by its age: the moth-eaten furniture was hallowed by tradition. The rheumatic old dog of uncertain breed, to which he had never vouchsafed a caress became now, when banished to the stable, a tried and faithful companion relegated to exile.
Privacy, he conceived as a matter of being shut in, and a house without cobwebbed shadows became a place bereft of decent seclusion. About him, now, all this undesirable metamorphosis was taking place.
"What is this room, my dear?" he inquired one morning as he spread before him on the breakfast table blue prints, while Conscience was pouring his coffee.
A shaft of early light tilting obliquely through the window fell on her head, making a soft nimbus about her dark hair and bringing out the exquisite color of her face. As Tollman looked up, raising the plans with a finger indicating the spot in question, he recognized the radiance of youth which could, under such a searching brilliance, remain flawless. He felt in contrast old and sluggish of life current.
"That?" Conscience's brows were lifted in surprise. "Why, Eben, you've been over those plans a half-dozen times. Surely you're familiar with them. That's your bed-room."
"And this one?" He shifted his finger and his face clouded.
"Separate apartments?" he inquired dryly, though he was, as she had said, discovering no new cause of displeasure.
"And three baths, and a garage and a car—and a terrace." He paused and his face fell into a sullen and stubborn expression. After a moment he added coldly, "That's all going to run into money."
Conscience set down the coffee cup and looked at him as she quietly asked, "Is there any reason why it shouldn't? If you were poor, I would share your poverty without complaint, but as you told me, unasked, we are not poor. Economy carried beyond the point of virtue becomes unlovely, I think."
Eben shifted his line of objection. Separate apartments hinted at that modern trend which he believed sought to rob marriage of its sacred intimacy.
"It is not only the expense," he announced stolidly. "Our people have always held close to a certain conception of home and marriage. From the days of the Mayflower these words have stood for a life fully shared. People who play lightly with sacred things are the sponsors for the other style of life: for houses where the husband and wife lead separate existences and substitute small dogs for children."
He felt, as he concluded, the deep eyes of his wife fixed on him with an expression which he could not quite fathom. Her lips were parted and the freshness of her cheeks colored with a tinge of indignation.
"Have I ever seemed to prefer small dogs to children?" she asked him in a still voice which bordered dangerously on anger. "You talk of a life fully shared. Have I failed to share anything except the business part of your life—which you closed to me?"
Eben Tollman did not wish to pursue that topic.
"I was only expressing general views," he hurriedly assured her, and again under her level scrutiny, he felt the contrast between her vibrant vitality and his own autumnal maturity. But Conscience went steadily on in the unmistakable manner of one who has no intention of being misunderstood.
"But I won't share any cramped delusion that things are good merely because they are dusty and immobile. I won't share the fallacy that to call a thing conservative sanctifies it. There is more virtue in a tiled bathroom than in a cob-webbed chapel. If we change this house at all we will do it thoroughly."
Eben Tollman rose and pushed back his chair. Conscience's face had taken on the glow of something like Amazonian defiance. To her beauty had come a new quality which stirred the senses of her husband like a roll of drums. It was an emotion which he believed to be love and coming around he caught her rather pantingly in his arms.
It was an intolerably wretched misfit, this union of Conscience and Eben Tollman, but so bent was the woman upon redeeming the hopeless experiment that she sought to brace the doomed and tottering structure with fictitious props. To be an "unimpeachable" wife was not to her thinking a sufficient meeting of her problem. Her own fastidiousness and cleanness of character would have made that less a duty to her husband than to herself. The more difficult requirement was to close, and keep closed the port of her thoughts against those dreams and yearnings that stole in like blockade-runners, but these buccaneer thoughts came insistently and impertinently invested with a colorful challenge to the imagination.
From every dream-ship that sailed in, looked out the face of Stuart Farquaharson.
This, she told herself, was a pure perversity. All memories should fade as distance widens, yet of late the banishment of Stuart had been less complete than heretofore.
Slowly she prosecuted Stuart Farquaharson in the court of her own judgment and condemned him to mental exile. The steps of his deteriorating course were clear enough. He had loved her sufficiently to do everything but stand firm in stress. When he thought her lost he had consoled himself with another woman. When the second lady, too, had come to grief through his devotion, he had withdrawn. Then with the reception of Conscience's letter at Cairo, the past had risen with Phoenix upblazing and he had recklessly cabled her to halt at the step of the altar. She confessed with deep humiliation that had the message come in time, she might have obeyed. But that, too, had failed—and now with his versatile capacity for the expedient, he was dallying again with the affections of Marian Holbury. It was, she admitted, not a pretty record. She told herself almost savagely that she hated Stuart Farquaharson as one can hate only where contempt succeeds love.
This was the bulwark of fallacy with which Conscience Tollman sought to safeguard her dwindling confidence in the ultimate success of her wifehood and she clung to it with a bitter determination.
* * * * *
Where the old iron urns, painted a poison green, had stood in the front yard of Tollman's house there was no longer any offense to the eye. Where an unsightly fence had confined a somewhat ragged yard, low stone walls, flower bordered, went around a lawn as trim as plush. The house presented to the eye of the visitor that dignity which should invest the home of a gentleman whose purse is not restricted. The spirit of the colonial had been preserved and amplified, and from the terrace one looked out on a landscape of hill view and water glimpse, as from a fitting and harmonious place.
One afternoon Conscience Tollman was walking among her flowers. They would be gone before long, for already the woods were beginning to burn with the colors of autumn and the bogs where cranberry-pickers worked were blazing into orange and claret. The road that came out of the pines, formerly deeply rutted and sandy, was now metaled and approached the house in a graded curve.
Looking off down the hill to where it turned from the highway into the farm, she saw a motor which she did not recognize and which even at the distance showed, dust-whitened, as from a long journey. It had entered between the stone gate pillars, and Conscience, with a glance at her garden apron, muddied from kneeling at the flower beds, turned and went hastily into the house. The car evidently brought visitors and as, from her bed-room window, she watched it round the nearer curve and draw up at the yard entrance, her perplexity grew.
It was a large machine of foreign make and, when the liveried chauffeur opened the tonneau door, a woman stepped out whose face was obscured by her dust veils.
When the maid appeared above stairs a few minutes later the mystery of the unknown visitor's identity remained unsolved.
"The lady said," announced the servant, "that she hoped you would see her for a few minutes."
"Who is the lady?"
"I don't know, ma'am. She said she had no card with her and would I please just deliver that message."
As Conscience came noiselessly and lightly down the stairs a few moments later her guest was standing by one of the pillars of the terrace, looking off across the breadth of landscape, but her figure and profile were revealed. The veil, thrown back, was faintly aflutter about a head crowned with red-brown hair and a face delicately chiseled. Her eyes held the clear luminosity of lighted amber, but, unconscious of being observed, they held a note of pain—almost of timidity. Conscience's first impression untinged by any bias of preconception expressed itself in the thought, "Whoever she is, she is very lovely." Then she stepped out onto the tiles and the lady turned. The eyes of the two met and the lips of the two smiled.
"You are Mrs. Eben Tollman?" inquired the visitor and Conscience nodded with that quick graciousness of expression which always brought to her face a quality of radiance.
"Yes, the maid didn't get your name, I believe."
The hint of pain and timidity had left the amber eyes now and in their place had come something more difficult to define.
"No, I preferred giving it to you myself. I am Marian Holbury."
The visitor did not miss the sudden and instinctive change on the face of her hostess or the impulsive start as if to draw back in distaste. Conscience evidently saw in this visit a violation of all canons of good taste. At all events she remained standing as if letting her attitude express her unwillingness to prolong the situation.
"I suppose if I were diplomatic," went on Marian when it was evident that the other had no intention of making inquiries as to the cause of her coming, "I might say that I'd turned in to make inquiry about these bewildering roads—or to borrow gasoline."
"If there is any motoring assistance I can give—" began the hostess, but the other woman interrupted her with a short laugh and a glance of almost reckless straightforwardness.
"No, it isn't for that, that I came. You see I'm not diplomatic. I'm said to be startlingly frank. I came to talk with you, if you'll let me, about Stuart Farquaharson. He is a common friend of ours, I believe."
A pale flush rose to Mrs. Tollman's cheeks and she volunteered no reply.
The two women, each unusual in her beauty and each the other's opposite of type, stood with the quiet repression of their breeding, yet with an impalpable spirit of enmity between them: the enmity of two women who at heart love one man. Mrs. Holbury spoke first.
"You are thinking that my coming here is an unwarrantable impertinence, Mrs. Tollman. Perhaps that's true, but I think my reason is strong enough to justify it. At all events I'm not doing this because it's easy for me, or because I have anything to gain. Do you think you can spare me ten minutes and reserve hostility of judgment until you hear what I came to say?"
Conscience was somewhat bewildered, but she answered quietly, "Of course, Mrs. Holbury. You must forgive me if I seemed discourteous.... I was so surprised. Won't you be seated?"
"Thank you." The visitor took a chair and for a moment sat gazing across the coloring hills where the maples were flaring with yellow and the oaks were russet-brown. "Stuart Farquaharson has been a friend ... more than a casual friend ... to both of us."
"Stuart Farquaharson," said Conscience quickly, "was one of my best friends. I hope he is still, but for a long while I haven't seen him. He drifted into another world ... a world of travel and writing ... and so I think of him as belonging to the past—a sort of non-resident friend."
Marian Holbury's face flushed. "My interest, on the contrary," she made candid declaration, "is not the sort that will ever be of the past, though I doubt if I shall see him again, either."
Even now under their composure they had the masked feeling of fencers and antagonists.
"I saw him last years ago," said Conscience, and Marion answered at once, "I have just returned from the Orient. Mr. Farquaharson was a fellow passenger."
"I had happened to hear of it." Eben Tollman's wife spoke casually and Marion countered with an equal urbanity.
"Yes, one does happen to hear of these things, doesn't one? He called the meeting a coincidence and was surprised."
"I could hardly be astonished because you see I had, without his knowledge, waylaid him."
The hostess may have indicated the astonishment she sought to conceal, for Mrs. Holbury laughed and again her eyes had that unmasked frankness which made surprisingly unconventional assertions seem quite normal.
"I am wondering, Mrs. Holbury," Conscience spoke now without any hint of hostility—disarmed by her visitor's candor, "why you are telling me this."
"When one has valued a friend and has had reports of him which are both deleterious and unfair it is quite conceivable, don't you think, that that person would wish to know the truth and to see the friend vindicated?"
Mrs. Eben Tollman met the direct eyes with a level glance almost of challenge.
"What reports do you mean?"
"Mrs. Tollman," said Marian earnestly, "you have agreed to listen. Please don't let us fence evasively. You had the same reports of Stuart that the rest of the world had; reports for which I feel largely responsible because many things which seemed most damaging, he might have explained to his own full credit. He refrained on my account." She paused a moment, then continued resolutely, "Incidentally he knows nothing of this effort I am making to have you understand the truth. Do you want to hear the unfalsified story of how I was discovered by my husband in his cottage and in his arms?"
Conscience nodded gravely and when, ten minutes later, her visitor had finished a narrative in which she had not spared herself, the hostess had an unpleasant feeling that her own attitude had been priggish while the other woman's had been astonishingly generous.
That conviction gave a softness to her voice as she put her next question softly. "Why should it mean anything to Mr. Farquaharson now—my opinion?"
"In the Philippines," said Marian Holbury, "the army officers have a name for a dishonorable discharge from the service. They call it the 'yellow furlough.' Do you imagine that Stuart Farquaharson could willingly retire in that fashion? Don't you see how greatly he would covet an honorable discharge?"
Conscience felt suddenly glad that Eben would not return to the house before evening. She had another thing yet to learn and she asked faintly, "But it must have been hard for you to come and tell this to a stranger. Why did you do it?"
"Hard!" For the first time the even control of Marian's voice broke into vehemence. "It was more than hard. It was all but impossible. But he couldn't tell you himself, without discrediting me and there was no one else to do it."
"Even so I don't quite see—"
But Mrs. Holbury cut her short with an imperious gesture and her voice held a vibrant thrill of feeling.
"You say that Stuart Farquaharson stands for a past chapter in your thoughts. I love him and I know him. If the good opinion of a woman to whom he is only a memory means more to his happiness than the possession of everything in life I can give—and would gladly give—" She broke off and added with regained composure, "Well, I love him enough to try to get him what he wants, that's all."
She wheeled and went hurriedly down the path toward her car, leaving Conscience standing on the terrace, with her lips parted and her hands nervously clenched.
* * * * *
Conscience did not mention to her husband the visit of Marian Holbury. To do so would not only have been the violation of a self-sacrificing confidence but the pleading of a cause for which Eben could feel no response except distaste. She knew that Eben thought of Marian as a light and frivolous woman who had been cashiered from matrimony.
During the next two years—which passed in labored slowness, she kept the matter to herself, though to her it was not merely a visit. It was a time from which she dated other times. It was the day upon which her dam had broken: the dam of her carefully reared fallacy. From that day on she could no longer fall back on the idea of a discredited Stuart in support of her efforts to exile him from her thoughts.
Thus disarmed, she asked herself, how was she to carry on the fight to find contentment; and to the question came two and only two answers. Children might fill the void of her existence or she might in time school herself into a tame acceptance by a sheer crushing of impulses.
In the responsibilities of motherhood there might be even now a fullness of compensation which would make of sacrifice an enthusiasm. The whole unsatisfied abundance of her nature could laugh at disappointment, striking out the past and living afresh in the lives of her children.
This was not a new thought and it held little hope. For two years she had prayed for its fulfillment and now her faith faltered.
So the one thing left seemed to be a vapid and colorless resignation.
Alone in her bedroom one night, which was typical of many nights, she pondered these matters. By her dresser mirror burned bayberry candles and in their faintly wavering illumination she caught an occasional glimpse of herself. She was not vain, but neither was she totally blind. She knew that God had given her a mind suitable for alert companionship. God had bestowed upon her, too, beauty of body and face, which might have been gifts for the glorification of love.
It was one of those midsummer nights when the air, no longer void, teems with an indefinable influence of restlessness. Like prisoners beating on their iron doors at night, the repressed longings were all awake, too—and clamorous. A sense of fear obsessed her, almost of panic gaining force of volume like an inrunning tide.
Eben, she knew, was slowly but very certainly reading an aversion to himself into every small manifestation of personal independence.
Suddenly her eyes grew wide and terrified. Was not her feeling, after all, if only she had the courage to admit it, one of aversion for him? Vehement denial rose at the thought, prompted by the discipline of fixed ideas.
"But why," whispered a small voice of inner mockery, "did you just now turn the key in your door? What was that but an impulse of withdrawal—a barrier?"
There had been another night when she had felt such a nameless and restless fear. Then she had dreaded being left alone. Now she was afraid she might not be. Then a man had come to her and soothed her, but it had been another man.
Why should these thoughts of Stuart Farquaharson always obtrude themselves on every revery?... Was there no key she could turn against him, whom it was her duty to shut out?
If he were ever to return to her and find her in such a mood as possessed her now, she feared that she would throw herself into his arms. Thank God he would never come!
Something of the same restlessness that obsessed her was at work with her husband, too, that night, though it led him less into panic and self-questioning than into a brooding conviction of life's injustice.
Above the mantel of his study hung a portrait of an ancestor garbed in the blue and buff of the army of Independence. Until quite recently this portrait's features had been well-nigh extinguished under the accumulated soot and tarnish of many decades, but Eben had revered them with that veneration of ancestor-worship which is an egoism overflowing the boundaries of a single generation. Lately Conscience had had the picture restored and now the renovated forebear, almost jaunty in his refurbishing, looked down on his descendant and the descendant's pride was quickened.
To-night, however, the eyes of the portrait seemed full of grim accusation. In their cold depths Eben could fancy the question sternly put, "Where are your sons? Are you going to let the flame of our honorable line flicker out with your own death?"
Perhaps the root of ancestor-worship, in all forms, lies deep in the wish of the devotee to be, in his own turn, honored. Perhaps, too, the obsession of self-perpetuation grows rather than wanes as the line becomes less worth perpetuating.
At all events Eben Tollman had no children and his thoughts fell into brooding and bitterness. His present attitude needed only a spark, such as jealousy or suspicion might supply, to fire it into some quirk of mad and bitter resentment.
He turned out the lamp and went slowly up the stairs. Outside his wife's door he paused, and, without knocking, tried the knob—to find the door locked against him. A deep flush of resentment spread over his cheeks. He drew back his hand, being minded to rap peremptorily—then he refrained and went on to his own room.
Conscience was sitting on the terrace one day with a book, which she smilingly laid down as her husband joined her. Eben took up the small volume of Browning's verse and idly turned its pages, his eyes falling almost immediately on the old inscription, "Stuart to Conscience." His unfixed jealousy seized upon a frail mooring but he stifled the scowl that instinct prompted and turned the pages to the point where a narrow ribbon marked "The Statue and the Bust."
He had often wondered what people found to admire in Browning, but now he read with an unflagging interest. Here was a document in evidence: the narrative of a wife who dissembled her love and the ungodly moral of the thing was that the culpability of the lovers lay—not in their clandestine devotion but in their temporizing postponement of a guilty love:
"And the sin I impute to each frustrate ghost ... Is, the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin...."
Before Eben Tollman's eyes swam spots of red and in his heart leaped a withering flame of betrayed wrath.
Had Conscience, after all, through these months and years, deceived him? Had she surreptitiously kept in touch with the erstwhile lover who had already wrecked one home? Had she been letting memories kindle fires in her which all his faithful love had left unquickened?
The long incubating dourness had hatched from its egg and, like the young quail which runs while the shell still clings to its pin feathers, it was alive and seeking nourishment.
If such guilt existed, it called for condign punishment and as God's instrument he must mete it out. But he was a righteous man and must first be certain. Therefore, he would not let her suspect his own doubts. If she were dissembling he would dissemble, too, but to a better end. In her this deceit was a sinful hypocrisy, but in him it would be as virtuous as the care with which the prosecutor cajoles the criminal into self-conviction. So he inquired with a reserved and indulgent suavity, "Are you particularly fond of that poem, my dear?"
Conscience gazed pensively away beyond the hillside, where the heat waves played, to the cool blue of the cove. Her manner impressed him as preoccupied.
"It has beauty, I think, and in some respects a true psychology. It recognizes that even straight-forward sin may be less ugly than hypocritical virtue."
All the prejudices of the man's illiberal code arose snarling, but he stifled their expression and, abandoning the immediate subject, turned absently back to the title page. "'Stuart to Conscience,'" he read reminiscently. "This book must be quite an old keepsake."
The Virginian's name had not been recently mentioned between them. There had been no agreement, tacit or otherwise, to that effect, but the wife had inferred that this was a topic which he was willing to have drop with the lapse of time out of their conversation. If he recurred to it now it must indicate that any vestiges of animus once entertained for Farquaharson had died. That was rather pleasing and generous, she thought.
"Yes, quite old," she responded with a smile.
Tollman nodded understandingly. A short while before he had been reading his Providence newspaper and a brief paragraph, which would otherwise have escaped his eye, had caught his attention like the red lantern at a railroad crossing—because it contained the name of Stuart Farquaharson. The lines were these: "'The Longest Way Round,' a comedy in three acts, by Stuart Farquaharson, will have its premiere at the Garrick Theater on Monday evening. After a road engagement the piece will be presented to Broadway early in the fall. The cast includes—" But Eben had not troubled about the cast. He was speculating just now upon whether his wife had seen the item—and if so whether she would speak of it.
"I wonder what has become of him," he suggested speculatively, and Conscience shook her head as she answered, "It's been a long while since I've heard of him."
If she had read the morning paper—and she usually read it—she must be lying. This circumstance the husband duly noted in the case which he was building up against her.
"I dare say he rather dropped out, socially speaking, after his escapade with that New York woman," he volunteered. "It was a pity."
"The reports we had about his conduct," defended Conscience with a straightforward glance, "were grossly untrue. He suffered the effects of the circumstantial out of consideration for her."
"Indeed!" Tollman's voice was one of quickened interest, seemingly of pleased surprise. He was developing an excellent facility in the actor's art. "That is gratifying news. One likes to think well of an old friend, but how did you learn?"
The woman bit her lip. She had made her assertion in so categorical a form that to withhold her authority now meant to appear absurd, and she had not wished to betray the confidence of Marian Holbury. So she fell back on the alternative of a partial explanation.
"Mrs. Holbury herself explained the matter to me. It was a chapter of accidental appearances."
Tollman was gazing at his wife with brows incredulously arched but his scepticism appeared amused—almost urbane.
"But where in the world did you and Mrs. Holbury meet? Your orbits have no points of contact."
"She was driving to Provincetown—and stopped here."
"Ah!" Tollman might have been pardoned in making further inquiries, but already his plan of proceeding cautiously had seemed to supply him with such valuable points of evidence that he meant to continue the fruitful policy, so he contented himself with the casual inquiry, "Was this recently?"
"No, it was about two years ago."
Two years ago and until now she had never mentioned it! Then she had, through at least one ambassador, held communication with her lover. A moment ago she had declared herself without news of him. The woman whom he had trusted was at heart unfaithful. It was just as well that he had decided to assume the role of the blind man. Now he would proceed further and devise a trap into which she should unwittingly walk and from which there should be no escape.
A plan presented itself with the fully formulated swiftness of an inspiration. He would arrange a meeting between his wife and Farquaharson. He, himself, seemingly unsuspicious and fatuously trustful of demeanor, would observe them. He would throw them together—and when the truth was indisputably proven he would act.
Already the terrific force of the purely circumstantial was at work; a force which has sent innocent men by scores to prison and the scaffold. To the man who was to be both prosecutor and judge the links seemed to be joining nicely. Then with the force of a climax, a climax for which even he was unprepared, Conscience said, "Will you be using the car Monday?"
"I had meant to. Why?"
"I thought I'd go to Providence for some shopping. However, I can go by train."
Providence! Monday! The place and day of Stuart Farquaharson's opening with his comedy in three acts.
Yesterday such a suspicion would have seemed impossibly absurd. To-day he realized that yesterday he had been a blind fool.
"Do you mind my going with you?" He made the suggestion in a tentative, almost indifferent fashion. "I have some business with my bank there. I sha'n't be in your way."
That should give her pause, he thought, craftily pleased with himself. It should drive her back upon self-betrayal or a plausible objection. Incidentally it should indicate to her that he suspected nothing.
"I should be glad to have you go," she declared at once. "I want your opinion on hangings and furniture for the new guest room."
For an instant Tollman was bewildered. Her acquiescence seemed spontaneous and cordial, and since she was going for a clandestine meeting with her lover it should be neither. Perhaps, however, this only showed how swiftly her brain worked in intrigue.
Although Conscience had not, in fact, read the paper and knew nothing whatever of Stuart Farquaharson's presence in Providence, it must be confessed that, to a suspicious mind the circumstances built consistently to that conclusion.
In due time Eben wrote and mailed a brief note to Mr. Stuart Farquaharson at the Garrick Theater, Providence. It said:
"My Dear Mr. Farquaharson: My wife requests me to invite you to join us for lunch on Monday at one at the Crown Hotel. We know you will be extremely busy, but we hope that the principle of Auld Lang Syne will prevail and that you can spare us an hour."
On Sunday evening after Conscience had gone to her room, Eben Tollman sat in his study alone, except for his reflections, which were both numerous and active.
His note should reach the man to whom it was addressed on Monday morning. What would be the emotions of the recipient? He, of course, would already have an appointment with the wife, believing the husband to be totally deluded. The unwelcome discovery that instead of a tete-a-tete there was to be a censored meeting would in itself sadly alter matters, but what other construction would Stuart put upon the development? Would he assume that Conscience, fearing discovery, had sought to cover their plans under this excusing subterfuge? Would he imagine that the husband had possessed himself of the guilty secret and meant to confront him with an accusation? At whatever conclusion the lover arrived, Eben imagined Stuart pacing his room in a confused and thwarted anxiety. That was in itself a pleasurable reflection—but it was only the beginning. When the young Lothario met him he would find a man—to all seeming—childishly innocent of the facts and fondly incapable of suspicion. He, Eben Tollman, would lead them both slowly into self-conviction by as deliberate a campaign as that which had won him his wife in the first instance.
* * * * *
Stuart Farquaharson came into the hotel breakfast-room that Monday morning with dark rings under his eyes and an unaccustomed throb of pain in his temples. He wore the haggard aspect of one wrestling with a deep anxiety. Already about the tables were gathered a dozen or more men and women in whose faces one might have observed the same traces of fatigue. To Stuart Farquaharson they nodded with unanimous irritability, as though they held him responsible for their condition of unstrung exhaustion.
When the Virginian had ordered he sat gazing ahead of him with such troubled eyes that had he still been under the surveillance of the Searchlight Investigation Bureau, those keenly zestful observers would doubtless have reported the harrowed emotions of a guilty conscience. Soon, however, Stuart drew from his pocket a blue-bound and much-thumbed manuscript and fell to scribbling upon it with a stubby pencil. Into this preoccupied trance broke a somewhat heavy framed man whose smoothly-shaved face bore, despite traces of equal stress, certain remnants of an inexhaustible humor.
"Did you rewrite that scene in the third act?" he demanded briskly as he dropped into a vacant chair across the table and, with a side glance over his shoulder, added in the same breath, "Waiter, a baked apple and two eggs boiled three minutes—and don't take over two minutes on the job, see?"
As the servitor departed, grinning over the difficulties of his contract, Mr. Grady sent an appraising eye about the room and proceeded drily, "All present or accounted for, it seems—and Good Lord, how they love us! It's really touching—they're just like trained rattle-snakes."
"Can't say I blame 'em much," Farquaharson stifled a yawn. "Dress Rehearsal until two this morning followed by a call for line rehearsal again at eleven. When they get through that, if they ever do, there's nothing more except the strain of a first night."
Mr. Grady grinned. "That's the gay life of trouping. It's what girls leave home for. By the way, how much sleep did you get yourself?"
"About three hours."
"You'll feel fine by to-night when the merry villagers shout 'Author! Author!'" The heavy gentleman looked at his watch and added, with the producer's note of command, "When we finish here we'd better go to my room and see how the dialogue sounds in the rewritten scene."
Later Stuart sat in the empty auditorium of the theater where the sheeted chairs stretched off into a circle of darkness. The stage, naked of setting; the actors whose haggard faces looked ghastly beyond the retrievement of make-up; the noisy and belated frenzy of carpenters and stage crew: all these were sights and sounds grown so stale that he found it hard to focus his attention on those nuances of interpretation which would make or ruin his play. He was conscious only of a yearning to find some quiet place where there was shade along a sea beach, and there to lie down and die happily.
About noon Mr. Grady, who had for some purpose gone "back," resumed his seat at the author's side and, between incisive criticism shouted through his megaphone, suggested, in the contrast of a conversational tone, "Don't you ever look in your letter box? Here's mail for you."
Absently Stuart took the envelope and when the scene ended made his way to the light of the open stage door to investigate its contents. There, seeking asylum from the greater heat of the wings he came upon the ingenue, indulging in the luxury of exhausted tears.
Farquaharson glanced at the note carelessly at first and the signature momentarily baffled him. Eben Tollman signed his name with such marked originality that it was almost as difficult to decipher as to forge.
But that was a minor and short-lived perplexity. It was indubitably Eben Tollman who had sent this invitation and he said that he did so at the request of his wife.
The face of Stuart Farquaharson, which had a moment before seemed incapable of any expression beyond lethargic fatigue, underwent so sudden a transformation that the ingenue interrupted her weeping to watch it. There was a prefatory blankness of sheer amazement followed by an upleaping of latent fires into the eyes; fires that held hints of revived hopes and suppressed yearnings. Within the moment this fitful light died again into a pained gravity. What was the use of reopening the perilous issues?
Of course he wanted to see her. He wanted to see her so intensely that to do so would be both foolish and dangerous. He had spent these years drilling himself into a discipline which should enable him to think of Conscience as someone outside his personal world. To see her now would be to set into eruption a volcano which he had meant that the years should render extinct. No one but himself could know by what a doubtful margin he had won his fight that day on the P. and O. steamer. Could he do it again with the sight of her in his eyes and the sound of her voice in his ears?
Yet, how could he without utter gracelessness decline?
The fashion of the invitation, communicated through the husband, proved its motive. Conscience wished to show him that she could receive cordially and with no misgivings as to the outcome. She probably wished also to assure him that from all possible charges, he was now absolved. These motives were all gracious, but, he admitted with a queer smile of suffering, their result was rather akin to cruelty. He decided that he must meet her in the same spirit and allow her to feel that, through her, his life had suffered no permanent scar. It was palpably a case for gentlemanly lying.
Though Eben's note to Farquaharson had said that Conscience requested him to extend the invitation, he had not yet mentioned to her the circumstance of its sending. He wished to study an unwarned face when she met Farquaharson. If she attempted to flash a warning of any sort; if her words cleverly shaped themselves into forms of private meaning for the lover: he would be there to note and correlate.
During the morning's shopping Conscience had not seemed, to his narrow watching, impatient to separate from him, but shortly after noon she suggested, as though blaming herself for her previous remissness, "But you had business with your banker, didn't you? Doesn't that have to be seen to early?"
"There's an abundance of time," he hastened to assure her. "I can look after that matter after lunch. I expect a telephone call regarding it at one, which can reach me in the hotel dining-room—unless you prefer being alone."
But Conscience laughed.
"Prefer being alone? Why should I? It's something to have a man along who's willing to be bored and carry parcels."
As they entered the dining-room promptly on the hour, Conscience saw in the doorway the back and shoulders of a man who seemed to be searching the place for an acquaintance. In the bearing and erectness of the figure was something so familiar that it stabbed her with a sharp vividness of memory. She started and just then the man turned and she found herself face to face with Stuart Farquaharson.
The Virginian stepped promptly forward with hand extended and a smile of greeting, but for the moment Conscience neither advanced nor lifted her hand. She stood unmoving and wide-eyed as if she had seen a ghost and her cheeks went deadly pale.
"I only got your note a little while ago," he explained easily. "I am such a new hand at this theatrical game that I haven't learned yet to expect mail in the stage-door box. I hope I'm not inexcusably late."
But the woman still stood mystified and startled. When she did speak it was to repeat blankly, "My note? What note?"
Tollman had been standing a pace to the rear and his gaze, for all its schooling, was one of tense appraisal.
Now he smilingly interposed, "Let me explain, Mr. Farquaharson, I took the liberty of couching my invitation in my wife's name because I knew she shared my wish to have you with us—but for her I reserved the pleasure of a complete surprise."
There was for an instant an awkward tableau of embarrassment. A flush of instinctive anger rose to Farquaharson's temples. He had come because he thought Conscience wished to show him that she was happy and he forgiven. Now it appeared that her wishes had not been consulted, and she stood there with an expression almost stricken. Tollman had been impertinent—if nothing worse.
To Eben Tollman it was all quite clear. Here was a guilty pair too confounded for immediate recovery. Farquaharson, being warned, was attempting to carry it off smoothly enough for both.
But immediately the color swept back into the woman's face and cordiality came to her lips and eyes. Taking the Virginian's hand she smiled also on her husband. The very fact that Eben did not realize her reasons for dreading such an encounter was a proof of his complete trust in her, and this surprise had been planned by him in advance for her pleasure.
"This is wonderful, Eben," she declared impulsively. "I was so astonished that it took my breath away. I didn't know, Stuart, that you were on this side of the ocean."
"Such is fame," laughed Farquaharson with a mock disappointment, "with my name on every ash barrel and every alley fence in this delightful city!"
They were acquitting themselves rather adroitly, under the circumstances, thought Eben, though their assumption of innocence was, perhaps, a shade overdone.
As they took their seats at the table reserved for them, a conflict of emotions made difficulty of conversation for two members of the trio.
Their prefatory talk ran along those lines of commonplace question and answer in which the wide gap between their last meeting and the present was bridged.
This, reflected Eben, was a part of the play designed to create and foster the impression that they had really been as completely out of touch as they pretended.
"And so you left us, an unknown, and return a celebrity!" Conscience's voice and eyes held a hint of raillery which made Stuart say to himself: "Thank God she has not let the fog make her colorless."—"When I saw you last you were starting up the ladder of the law toward the Supreme Court—and now you reappear, crowned with literary distinction."
A thought of those days when he had closed his law books and his house in Virginia to begin looking out on the roofs and chimney pots of old Greenwich village, rose to the Virginian's mind. It had all been an effort to forget. But he smiled as he answered.
"I'm afraid it's a little early to claim celebrity. To-morrow morning I may read in the Providence papers that I'm only notorious."
"You must tell me all about the play. You feel confident, of course?" she eagerly demanded. "It seems incredible that you were having your premiere here to-night and that I knew nothing of it—until now."
It not only seemed incredible, mused Eben: It was incredible. He was speculating upon what would have happened had he really been as blind as he was choosing to appear.
"They say," smiled Stuart, "that every playwright is confident at his first opening—and never afterwards."
It was hard for him to carry on a censored conversation, sitting here at the table with his thoughts falling into an insistent refrain. He had always known Conscience Williams and this was Conscience Tollman. He had told himself through years that he had succeeded ill in his determined effort of forgetting her; yet now he found her as truly a revelation in the vividness of her charm and the radiance of her beauty as though he had brought faint memories—or none—to the meeting. His blood was tingling in his arteries with a rediscovery which substituted for the old sense of loss a new and more poignant realization. It would have been better had he been brusque, even discourteous, replying to the morning's invitation that he was too busy to accept. But he had come and except for that first moment of astonishment Conscience had been gay and untroubled. She at least was safe from the perils which this reunion held for him. So, as he chatted, he kept before his thoughts like a standard seen fitfully through the smoke of battle the reminder, "She must feel, as she wishes to feel, that it has left me unscathed."
"But, Stuart," exclaimed Conscience suddenly, "all these night-long rehearsals and frantic sessions of rewriting must be positive deadly. You look completely fagged out."
Farquaharson nodded. His weariness, which excitement had momentarily mitigated had returned with a heavy sense of dreariness. He was being called upon now not to rehearse a company in the interpreting of his three-act comedy, but to act himself, without rehearsal, in a drama to which no last act could bring a happy ending.
"I am tired," he admitted. "But to-night tells the story. Whichever way it goes I'll have done all I can do about it. Then I mean to run away somewhere and rest. After all fatigue is not fatal."
But Mrs. Tollman was looking at the ringed and shadowed eyes and they challenged her ready sympathy. This was not the splendidly fit physical specimen she had known.
"Yes, you must do that," she commanded gravely, then added in a lighter voice: "I'd always thought of the first night of a new play as a time of keen exhilaration and promise for both author and star."
"Our star is probably indulging in plain and fancy hysterics at this moment," he said with a memory of the last glimpse he had had of that illustrious lady's face. "And as for the author, he is dreaming chiefly of some quiet spot where one can lie stretched on the beach whenever he isn't lying in his bed." He paused, then added irrelevently, "I was thinking this morning of the way the breakers roll in across the bay from Chatham."
Eben had been the listener, a role into which he usually fell when conversation became general, but now he assumed a more active participation.
"Chatham is quite a distance from us, Mr. Farquaharson," he suggested, "but it's only about two hundred yards from our terrace to the float in the cove. However, you know that cove yourself."
Into Farquaharson's face came the light of keen remembrance. Yes, he knew that cove. He and Conscience had often been swimming there. He wondered if, on a clear day, one could still see the schools of tiny fishes twelve feet below in water translucently blue.
"Yes," he acknowledged, "I haven't forgotten the cove. It opens through a narrow channel into the lesser bay and there used to be an eel pot near the opening. Is that eel pot still there?"
Eben Tollman smiled. His manner was frankly gracious, while it escaped effusiveness.
"Well, now, Mr. Farquaharson," he suggested, "I can't say as to that, but why don't you come and investigate for yourself? You can leave by the noon train to-morrow and be with us in a little over two hours—I wish we could wait and see your play this evening, but I'm afraid I must get back to-day."
An instinctive sense of courtesy alone prevented Stuart's jaw from dropping in amazement. He remembered Eben Tollman as a dour and illiberal bigot whom the community called mean and whom no man called gracious. Had Conscience, by the sunlight of her spontaneity and love wrought this miracle of change? If so she was more wonderful than even he had admitted.
"It's good of you, Mr. Tollman," he found himself murmuring, "but I'm afraid that's hardly possible."
"Hardly possible? Nonsense!" Tollman laughed aloud this time. "Why, you've just been telling us that you were on the verge of running away somewhere to rest—and that the only undecided point was a choice of destination."
Stuart glanced hurriedly toward Conscience as if for assistance, but her averted and tranquil face told him nothing. Yet under her unruffled composure swirled a whirlpool of agitation and apprehension, greater than his own.
In a spirit of amazement, she had heard her husband tender his invitation.
Now as Stuart sat across the table, she was rediscovering many little tricks of individuality which had endeared him as a lover, or perhaps been dear because he was her lover, and in the sum of these tremendous trifles lay a terrific danger which she did not underestimate. His presence would mean comparison; contrast between drab reality and rainbow longings.
But how could she hint any of these things to the husband who, by his very invitation, was proving his complete trust, or the lover to whom she must seem the confidently happy wife?
"I'm sure Conscience joins me in insisting that you come," went on Mr. Tollman persuasively. "You can wear a flannel shirt and do as you like because we are informal folk—and you would be a member of the family."
That was rather a long speech for Eben Tollman, and as he finished Conscience felt the glances of both men upon her, awaiting her confirmation.
She smiled and Stuart detected no flaw in the seeming genuineness of her cordiality.
"We know he likes the place," she announced in tones of whimsical bantering, "and if he refuses it must mean that he doesn't think much of the people."
Stuart was so entirely beguiled that his reply came with instant repudiation of such a construction.
"When to-morrow's train arrives," he declared, "I will be a passenger, unless an indignant audience lynches me to-night."
They had meant to meet surreptitiously, mused Eben Tollman, and being thwarted, they had juggled their conversation into an exaggeration of innocence. Conscience's face during that first unguarded moment in the dining-room had mirrored a terror which could have had no other origin than a guilty love. His own course of conduct was clear. He must, no matter how it tried his soul, conceal every intimation of suspicion. The geniality which had astonished them both must continue with a convincing semblance of genuineness. Out of a pathetic blindness of attitude he must see, eagle-eyed.
But Conscience, as they drove homeward, was reflecting upon the frequent miscarriage of kindness. Her husband had planned for her a delightful surprise and his well-meaning gift had been—a crisis.
Stuart sat that night in the gallery of the Garrick theater with emotions strangely confused.
Below him and about him was such an audience as characterizes those towns which are frequently used as experimental stations for the drama. It regarded itself as sophisticated in matters theatrical and was keenly alive to the fact that it sat as a jury which must not be too provincially ready of praise.
Yet the author, hiding there beyond reach of the genial Grady, and the possibility of a curtain call, was not thinking solely of his play. Stones had been rolled to-day from tombs in which he had sought to bury many ghosts of the past. With the resurrection came undeniable fears and equally undeniable flashes of instinctive elation. He was seeing Conscience, not across an interval of years but of hours—and to-morrow he was to see her again.
When the first act ended the man who had written the comedy became conscious that he had followed its progress with an incomplete absorption, and when the curtain fell, to a flattering salvo of applause, he came, with a start, back from thoughts foreign to the theater.
The conclusion of the second act, with its repeated curtain calls and its cries of "Author, Author!" assured him that his effort was not a failure, and when at last it was all over and he stood in the wings congratulating the members of his company, the wine of assured success tingled in his veins—and his thoughts were for the moment of that alone.
"They don't hate us quite so much now," said Mr. Grady as he clapped a hand on Stuart's shoulder. "The thing is a hit—and for once I've got a piece that I can take into town without tearing it to pieces and doing it over."
Yet in his room afterward he paced the floor restively for a long while before he sought his bed.
He was balancing up the sheets of his life to date. On the credit side were such successes as most men would covet, but on the debit side stood one item which offset the gratification and left a heavy balance.
This visit of to-morrow was a foolish thing. It might be wiser to telegraph Tollman that unexpected matters had developed, necessitating a change of plan.
It is a rash courage which courts disaster. From the small writing desk near his bed he took a telegraph blank, but when he had written, torn up and rewritten the message he halted and stood dubiously considering the matter. The hand which had been lifted to ring for a bell-boy fell at his side.
After all this was simply a running away from the forms of danger while the danger itself remained. Into such action Conscience must read his fear to trust himself near her—and he had undertaken to make her feel secure in her own contentment. It was too late to draw back now. He must go through with it—but he would make his stay brief and every moment must be guarded.
At noon the next day he dropped, clad in flannels, from the train at the station. It had been a hot trip, but even with a cooler temperature he might not have escaped that slight moisture which excitement and doubt had brought to his temples and his palms.
These miles of railway travel since he had reached the Cape had been so many separate reminders of the past and he had not arrived unshaken.
But there on the platform stood Conscience Tollman, with a serene smile of welcome on her lips, and as the chauffeur took his bags she led him to the waiting car.
"Come on," she said, as though there had been no lapse of years since they had stood here before, "there's just time to get into our bathing suits and have a swim before luncheon."
The main street of the village with the shade of its elms and silver oaks, and the white of tidy houses, setting among flowers, was a page out of a book long closed; a book in which had been written the most unforgettable things of life. Besides well-remembered features, there were details which had been forgotten and which now set free currents of reminiscence—such as the battered figurehead of an old schooner raised on high over a front door and a wind-mill as antique of pattern as those to which Don Quixote gave battle.
And when the winding street ran out into a sandy country road Stuart found himself amid surroundings that teemed with the spirit of the past.
But over all the bruising comparisons of past and present, the peace of the sky was like a benediction, and his weariness yielded to its calming influence. He had been away and had come back tired, and for the present, it was better to ignore all the revolutionary changes that lay between then and now.
They talked about trivial things, along the way, with a lightness of manner, which was none the less as delicately cautious as the footsteps of a cat walking on a shelf of fragile china. Each felt the challenge and response of natures keyed to the same pitch of life's tuning fork.
"Why are all the Cape Cod wagons painted blue and all the barn doors green?" asked the man, and Conscience demanded in return, "Why does everything that man controls in New England follow a fixed color of thought?"
When the car drew up before the house which he remembered as a miser's abode, his astonishment was freshly stirred. Here was a place transformed, with a dignified beauty of residence and grounds which could scarcely be bettered.
"How did the play go?" demanded Tollman from the doorway, with an interest that seemed as surprising as that of a Trappist Abbot for a matter of worldliness. "The papers came on the train with you, so we haven't had the verdict, yet."
And then while Stuart was answering Conscience enjoined him that, if they were to swim before lunch, time was scant and these amenities must wait.
"Aren't you going in?" demanded the visitor and the host shook his head with an indulgent smile.
"No," he answered. "That's for you youngsters. I may drop down to the float later, but, barring accident, I stay out of salt water."
Less in words than by a subtle though unmistakable manner, the husband made it clear to Stuart Farquaharson that his status in this establishment was to be as intimately free as if he had been the brother instead of the former lover of Conscience. It was difficult to reconcile this unqualified acceptance with every impression he had formed of Eben, and while he unpacked his bag in his bedroom a sense of perplexity lingered with him. But as he was changing into his bathing suit a solution presented itself which seemed to bear the stamp of four-square logic.
Eben Tollman was neither the ogre he had formerly seemed nor yet the utterly careless husband that his present conduct appeared to indicate. He had simply recognized in the days of Stuart's ascendancy something akin to disdain in the Virginian's attitude toward him. Now time had demonstrated which was the victor, and Tollman was permitting his pride the pardonable gratification of showing the younger man its security and confidence.
Conscience had not yet appeared when Stuart came down, and neither was Eben in evidence, so the visitor stood in the open door with the summer breeze striking gratefully against his bare arms and legs until he heard a laugh at the stair-head and wheeled to look quickly up. The picture he saw there made his heart beat fast and brought a sudden fire into his eyes.
Conscience stood above him with her arms lifted in an attitude of one about to dive and in the gay colors of her bathing dress and cap; in the untrammeled grace of slender curves she seemed the spirit of vivid allurement. With an answering laugh the man stepped to the lower landing and raised his own arms.
"Come on!" he challenged. "Jump, I'll catch you."
But as suddenly as though he had been struck, he dropped his arms at his sides, realizing the wild, almost ungovernable impulse which had swept him to take her in his arms in contempt of every consideration except the violence of his wish to do so. Moments like this were unsettling—and to be guarded against.
Then she had come down to the hall and he was on his knees, as he had been on that other day at Chatham, tying the ribbons of her bathing slippers with fingers that were none too steady.
But while they dived in water which was almost unbelievably blue and clear, they might have been two children as irresponsibly full of sheer zest and sparkle as the bubbles that leaped brightly up from their out-thrust and dripping arms. Forty minutes later Stuart was following her up the twisting path between pines and bayberry bushes while the salt water streamed from them.
Eben Tollman had not after all found time to join them at the float, and glancing up from his chair on the terrace where he sat almost completely surrounded by a disarray of daily papers, he was now somewhat disconcerted at their early return.
He had been inwardly writhing in a tortured frame of mind which their arrival brought a necessity for masking and the things which had made him so writhe had been the reviews in these papers of "The Longest Way Round."
Eben was not an habitual reader of dramatic comment. The theater itself he regarded as an amusement designed for minds more tinctured with childish frivolity than his own.
Yet since Conscience and Stuart had left the house he had been mulling over, with the fascination of a rising gorge and a bitter resentment, paragraphs of encomium upon his hated guest. Had he ever indulged himself in the luxury of profanity it would have gushed now in torrents of curses over Stuart Farquaharson, upon whom life seemed to lavish her gifts with as reckless a prodigality as that of a licentious monarch for an unworthy favorite.
"Nothing but applause!" exclaimed Eben to himself, with a quiet madness of vituperation—entirely unconscious of any taint of falsity or injustice. "He makes no effort beyond the easy things of self-indulgence, yet because he has a supercilious charm, he parades through life seizing its prizes! Women love him—men praise him—and every step is a forward step!"
He had, indeed, been reading no ordinary words of praise, bestowed with the critic's usual guardedness. In Providence last night the unusual had occurred and the reviewers had found themselves acclaiming a new luminary in the firmament of present-day playwrights. Later the men with New York reputations would be claiming Stuart Farquaharson's discovery, and here in the Rhode Island town they had recognized him first. They had no intention of relinquishing that distinction which goes with the first clear heralding of a rising genius.
As Eben Tollman read these details in cold type, each note of their eulogium scorched a nerve of his own jealous antipathy. Of course, Conscience would take all this flattery, spread before her lover, as a mark of genuine merit—as the conqueror's cloth of gold. It seemed that he himself had succeeded in bringing Stuart on the scene only that the woman might smell the incense being burned in his honor.
But Eben regulated his features into a calm and indulgent smile as the two of them came across the clipped lawn.
They made a splendid pair with the sun shining on their wet shoulders; the woman's neck and arms gleaming softly with the tint of browned ivory; the man's tanned and strong over rippling muscles. Their drenched bathing suits emphasized the delicacy of her rounded curves, and his almost Hellenic fitness of body.
"I've been reading what the critics say, and my congratulations are ready," announced the elder man calmly with a semblance of sincerity. "It would appear that last night was a triumph."
For the next few days Stuart Farquaharson surrendered himself to the dolce far niente of salt air and sun and the joy of their reviving influences. All contingent dangers he was satisfied to leave to the future.
There was a new and spontaneous gayety in the woman's manner, but the Virginian did not know that it was new. Eben Tollman, however, marked the contrast and was at no loss in attributing it to its fancied cause. He gave no thought to the truth that she was splendidly striving to keep flying at the mast-head of her life the colors of artificial success.
So each in his own way, Eben and Stuart were deceived by Conscience, one believing her indubitably guilty and the other thinking her unquestionably happy.
In the elder man a ferment of bitterness was working toward the ends of deranged deviltry—and its influence was all secret so that its tincture of insanity left no mark upon his open behavior.
The difficulty of maintaining a surface guise of friendliness toward the man whom he believed to be successfully wrecking his home might have appeared insuperable. In point of the actual it was made easy—even a thing of zest—by virtue of a lapse into that moral degeneracy which was no longer sane. The growth of craftiness for the forwarding of a single idea became uncanny in its purposeful efficiency and a morbid pleasure to its possessor. Eben seemed outwardly to have lain aside his strait-jacket of bigotry and to have become singularly humanized.
One afternoon Stuart and Conscience went for an all-day sail. The husband had promised to accompany them, but at the last moment pleaded an excuse. It was in his plan to continue his seeming of entire trustfulness—and nothing better furthered that attitude than sending them away together in the close companionship of a sail boat—while, in reality, the presence of Ira Forman, tending tiller and sheet, was as effective as the watchfulness of a duenna or the guardianship of a harem's chief eunuch.
Ira Forman rose from his task of packing the luncheon paraphernalia on the white beach near a life-saving station. He had regaled them as they picniced with narratives of shipwreck and tempest, swelling with the prideful importance of a singer of sagas. Now he bit into a plug which looked like a chunk of black cake and spat into the sand.
"See that boat over yon in the norrer channal? You wouldn't never suspicion that a one-armed man was sailin' her now, would you?"
"No!" Stuart spoke with the rising inflection of a flattering interest. "Has he only one arm?"
Ira's nod was solemnly affirmative. "He shot the other one off oncet while he was a-gunnin' and, in a manner of speakin', it was the makin' of him. Until he lost his right hand an' had to figure out methods of doin' double shift with the left, he wasn't half as smart as what he is now. In a manner of speakin' it made a man of him."
The amused glance which flashed between Conscience and her companion at this bit of philosophy was quickly stifled as they recognized the gravity which sat upon the face of its enunciator, and Stuart inquired in all seriousness, "But how does he manage it? There's mains'l and jib and tiller—not to mention center board and boom-crotch—and sometimes the reef-points."
The boatman nodded emphatically. "But he does it though. He's educated his feet an' his teeth to do things God never meant 'em to." Then in a voice of naive emphasis he demanded, "Did either one of you ever lose anything that belonged to you? I mean somethin' that was a part of yourselves—somethin' that was just tore out by the roots, like?"
Stuart wondered uneasily if the stiffness of his expression was not a thing which Conscience could read like print; if the simple-minded clam-digger had not quite unintentionally ripped away the mask which he had, until now, worn with a reasonable success.