But Conscience had missed the moment of self-betrayal because an identical anxiety had for the instant blinded her intuition.
"Wa'al," continued Ira complacently, "I ain't never lost a leg nor yet an arm—but, in a manner of speakin', I cal'late I know just round about what it's like. A feller's life ain't never the same ag'in. That man that's handlin' that boat now—he wasn't worth much to hisself nor nobody else a'fore he went a-gunnin', that time."
He paused, wondering vaguely why his simple recital had brought a constrained silence, where there had been laughter and voluble conversation, then feeling that the burden of talk lay with him, he resorted to repetition.
"The reason I spoke the way I did just now was I wondered if either one of you ever had anything like that happen to you. Not that I presumed you'd ever lost a limb—but there's lots of other things folks can lose that hurts as much; things that can be hauled out by the roots, like; things that don't never leave people quite the same afterwards."
Stuart smiled, though with a taint of ruefulness.
"I guess, Ira," he agreed, "almost everybody has lost something."
Ira stood nodding like a China mandarin, then suddenly he came out of his preoccupation to announce:
"I'll begin fetchin' all this plunder back to the boat now. I cal'late to catch the tide in about half an hour. You folks had better forelay to come aboard by then."
Conscience and Stuart strolled along the stretch of beach until, around a jutting elbow of sand dunes, the woman halted by a blackened fragment of a ship's skeleton. She sat for a while looking out with a reminiscent amusement in her eyes—and something more cryptic.
The man turned his gaze inward to the green of the beach-grass beyond the sand where he could make out a bit of twisting road. There was something tantalizingly familiar about that scrap of landscape; something which stirred yet eluded a memory linked with powerful associations.
Then abruptly it all came back.
His car had been standing just at that visible stretch of road on the afternoon when Conscience had begged him not to criticize her father and he had retorted bitterly. He could see again the way in which she had flinched and hear again the voice in which she had replied, "You know why I listen 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?"
That was long ago. Now she was studying him with a grave scrutiny as she inquired, "I've been wondering, Stuart, why you have never married. You ought to have a home."
The man averted his face quickly and pretended to be interested in the vague shape of a steamer almost lost in the mists that lay along the horizon. Those sweetly curved lips had been torturing him with their allurement. From them he wanted kisses—not dispassionate counsel—but he replied abstractedly:
"I'm a writer of fiction, Conscience. Such persons are under suspicion of being unstable—and temperamental. Matrimonially they are considered bad risks."
Her laughter rang with a teasing mockery, but, had he known it, she had caught and been startled by that absorption which had not been wholly banished from his eyes. It was not yet quite a discovery, but still it was something more than a suspicion—that he still loved her. In its breaking upon her was a strange blending of fright and elation and it directed her subsequent questions into channels that might bring revelations to her intuition.
"I've known you for some time, Stuart," she announced with a whimsical smile which made her lips the more kissable. "Much too long for you to attempt the pose of a Don Juan. I hate to shatter a romance, but the fact is, you are perfectly sane—and you could be reliably constant."
This constancy, he reflected, had already cost him the restlessness of a Salathiel, but his response was more non-committal than his thought.
"If my first reason is rejected," he said patiently, "I suppose I must give another. A writer must be absolutely unhampered—at least until his storehouse is well stocked with experience."
"Being unattached isn't being unhampered," she persisted with a spirited flash in her eyes. "It's just being—incomplete."
"Possibly I'm like Ira's one-armed man," he hazarded. "Maybe 'in a manner of speakin' I wouldn't be half as smart as what I am' if I didn't have to face that affliction."
But with her next question Conscience forced him from his defense of jocular evasiveness.
"Did you know, Stuart, that—that Mrs. Holbury came to see me?"
He feared that she had caught his flinch of surprise at that announcement but he replied evenly:
"Marian wrote to me that she had seen you. How you two happened to meet, I have never guessed."
"She came here, Stuart, to explain things which she thought put you in an unsightly light—and to say that whatever blame there was belonged to her."
"She did that?" Stuart Farquaharson's face reddened to the temples and his voice became feelingly defensive. "If Marian told you that she had been more to blame than I, she let her generosity do her a wrong. I can't accept an advantage gained at such a cost, Conscience. I think all of her mistakes grew out of an exaggerated innocence and she's paid high enough for them. Marian Holbury is a woman who needs no defense unless it's against pure slander."
"Stuart," Conscience's voice was deep with earnestness, "a woman only sets herself a task like that because she loves a man."
"Oh, no," he hastily demurred. "It may be from friendship, too."
But his companion shook her head. "With her it was love. She told me so."
"Told you so!" Farquaharson echoed the words in tones of almost militant incredulity, and Conscience went on thoughtfully:
"I was wondering if, after all, she might not make you very happy—and might not be very happy herself in doing it."
If she was deliberately hurting him it was not out of a light curiosity or any meanness of motive. Her own tranquillity was severely pressed, but she must know the truth, and if a love for herself, which could come to no fruition, stood between him and possible happiness, she must do what she could to sweep it away. This was a new thought, but a grave one.
For a while Stuart was silent, as he studied the high colors of the sea and sky, contracting his eyes as if the glare pained them, and in his face Conscience read, clear, the truth of her suspicion.
"Conscience," he said at last, "I asked Marian to marry me two years ago—and she refused. That's all I can say."
But for the woman it was enough. She needed no explanation of why Marian had refused an offer from the lips and unseconded by the heart. She came to her feet, and her knees felt weak. She was afraid to let this conversation progress. He loved her—and if he could read the prohibited eagerness of her heart he would come breaking through barriers as a charging elephant breaks its way through light timber.
"Ira is calling," she announced lightly, "and he speaks with the voice of the tide. We must hurry or we won't make it back across the shallows."
But that night it happened, as it had happened once before, that the stars seemed exaggerated in size and multiplied in number. On the breeze came riding the distant voice of the surf with its call to staring wakefulness and restlessness of spirit.
Conscience went early to her room, feeling that unless her taut nerves could have the relaxation of solitude, she must scream out. To-day's discovery had kindled anew all the fires of insurgency that burned in her, inflaming her heart to demand the mating joy which could make of marriage not a formula of duty and hard allegiance, but a splendid and rightful fulfillment.
As she sat by the window of her unlighted room, her eyes were staring tensely into the night and the pink ovals of her nails were pressed into the palms of her hands. Her gaze, as if under a spell of hypnosis, was following the glow of a cigar among the pines, where Stuart was seeking to walk off the similar unrest which made sleep impossible. "He still loves me," she kept repeating to herself with a stunned realization, "he still loves me!"
She hoped fervently that Eben was asleep. To have to talk to him while her strained mood was so full of rebellion would be hard; to have to submit to his autumnal kiss, would make that mood blaze into revulsion.
But at last she heard a footfall on the stair and in the hall and held her breath in a sort of terror as they ended just outside her threshold. She knew that Eben was trying her door—trying it first without knocking after his churlish custom. She hoped that he would pass on when darkness and silence were his answers, but after a moment came a rap and when it met with no reply it was repeated with a peremptory insistence. Conscience drew a long breath, and, shivering with distaste, she slowly lighted a candle. Then she went shudderingly to the door and opened it.
In the stress of the moment, as she shot back the bolt, she surrendered for just an instant to her feelings; feelings which she had never before allowed expression even in the confessional of her thoughts. She knew now how Heloise had felt when she wildly told herself that she would rather be mistress of Abelarde than wife to the King.
Eben standing in the doorway, smiling, seemed to her disordered mood the figure of a Satyr.
* * * * *
"I've had a letter from Ebbett," Tollman commented one day at luncheon. "Like Stuart here, he's been working too hard and he wants to know if he can run down for the week-end."
When Conscience had declared her approval the host turned to Farquaharson. "I shouldn't wonder if you'd like Ebbett. We were classmates at college, and he was my best man. Aside from that, he's one of the leading exponents, in this country, of the newer psychology—a disciple of Freud and Jung, and while many of his ideas strike me as extreme they are often interesting."
The prophecy proved more than true, for with Dr. Ebbett as a guide, Farquaharson gratified that avid interest which every sincere writer must feel for explorations into new fields of thought.
One evening the two sat alone on the terrace in the communion of lighted cigars and creature comfort long after their host and hostess had gone to their beds, and Ebbett said thoughtfully, and without introduction:
"It seems to have worked out. And God knows I'm glad, because I had my misgivings."
"What has worked out?" inquired the younger man and the neurologist jerked his head toward the house.
"This marriage," he said. "When I came to the wedding, I could not escape a heavy portent of danger. There was the difference in age to start with and it was heightened by Eben's solemn and grandiose tendencies. His nature had too much shadow—not enough sunlight. The girl on the other hand had a vitality which was supernormal."
He paused and Stuart Farquaharson, restrained by a flood of personal reminiscence, said nothing. Finally the doctor went on:
"But there was more than that. I'm a Massachusetts man myself, but Eben is—or was—in type, too damned much the New Englander."
Stuart smiled to himself, but his prompting question came in the tone of commonplace.
"Just what does that mean to you, Doctor—too much the New Englander?"
Ebbett laughed. "I use the word only as a term—as descriptive of an intolerance which exists everywhere, north and south, east and west—but in Eben it was exaggerated. Fortunately, his wife's exuberance of spirit seems to have brightened it into normality."
"But what, exactly, did you fear, Doctor?"
"I'm afraid I'd have to grow tediously technical to make that clear, but if you can stand it, I'll try."
"I wish you would," the younger man assured him.
Dr. Ebbett leaned back and studied the ash of his cigar. "Have you ever noticed in your experience," he abruptly demanded, "that oftentimes the man who most craftily evades his taxes or indulges in devious business methods, cannot bring himself to sanction any of the polite and innocent lies which society accepts as conventions?"
Stuart nodded and the physician went on:
"In short we encounter, every day, the apparent hypocrite. Yet many such men are not consciously dishonest. They are merely victims of disassociation."
"I'm afraid," acknowledged Stuart, "I'm still too much the tyro to understand the term very fully."
"None of us understand it as fully as we'd like," Dr. Ebbett assured him. "But we are gradually learning. In every man's consciousness there is a stream of thought which we call the brain content. Below the surface of consciousness, there is a second stream of thought as unrecognized as a dream, but none the less potent."
The speaker paused and Farquaharson waited in silence for him to continue.
"The broader a man's habit of thought," went on the physician slowly, "the fewer impulses he is called upon to repress because he is frank. The narrower his code, the more things there are which are thrust down into his proscribed list of inhibitions. The peril lies in the fact that this stream of repressed thought is acting almost as directly on the man's life and conduct, as the one of which he is constantly aware. He has more than one self, and since he admits but one, the others are in constant and secret intrigue, against him."
"And this makes for unconscious hypocrisy?"
"Undoubtedly. Such a man may be actively dishonest and escape all sense of guilt because he has in his mind logic-proof compartments in which certain matters are kept immured and safe from conflict with the reason that he employs for other affairs. It was this exact quirk of lopsided righteousness which enabled our grandsires to burn witches while they sang psalms."
"You think our host is of the type most susceptible to such a danger?"
"Yes, because the intolerant man always stands on the border of insanity."
"But, Doctor," Stuart put his question with a keenly edged interest, "for such a condition as you describe, is there a cure, or is it only a matter of analysis?"
"Ah," replied Ebbett gravely, "that's a large question. Usually a cure is quite possible, but it always depends upon the uncompromising frankness of the patient's confessions. He must strip his soul naked before we can help him. If we can trace back into subconsciousness and identify the disturbing influences, they resolve themselves into a sore that has been lanced. They are no longer making war from the darkness—and with light they cease to exist."
As the neurologist broke off the aged and decrepit dog for which Eben Tollman had discovered no fondness until it had been exiled to the garage, came limping around the corner of the terrace and licked wistfully at Stuart's knee.
"That dog," commented the physician, "ought to be put out of his misery. He's a hopeless cripple and he needs a merciful dose of morphine. I'll mention it to Eben."
"It would be a gracious act," assented the younger man. "Life has become a burden to the old fellow."
Dr. Ebbett rose and tossed his cigar stump outward. "We've been sitting here theorizing for hours after the better-ordered members of the household have gone to their beds," he said. "It's about time to say good night." And the two men climbed the stairs and separated toward the doors of their respective rooms.
Dr. Ebbett left just after breakfast the next day, but on the verge of his departure he remembered and mentioned the dog.
"I've been meaning to shoot him," confessed Tollman, "but I've shrunk from playing executioner."
"Shooting is an awkward method," advised the doctor. "I have here a grain and a half of morphine in quarter-grain tablets. They will cause no suffering. They are readily soluble, won't be tasted, and will do the work."
"How much shall I give? I don't want to bungle it."
"It's simply a question of dosage. Let him have a half grain, I shouldn't care to give that much to either a dog or a man—unless a drug habitue—without expecting death—but there's the car and it's been a delightful visit."
Possibly some instinct warned the superannuated dog of his master's design. At all events he was never poisoned—he merely disappeared, and for the mystery of his fading from sight there was no solution.
* * * * *
The case for the prosecution was going well, thought Eben Tollman, and building upward step by step toward a conviction. But step by step, too, was growing the development of his own condition toward madness, the more grewsomely terrible because its monomania gave no outward indication.
One evening as the three sat on the terrace, it pleased Eben Tollman to regale them with music. He was not himself an instrumentalist, but in the living-room was a machine which supplied that deficiency, and this afternoon had brought a fresh consignment of records from Boston. This, too, was a night of stars, but rather of languorous than disquieting influences, and the talk had flowed along in serenity, until gradually, under the spell of the music the two younger members of the trio fell musingly silent.
Tollman had chosen a program out of which breathed a potency of passion and allurement. Voices rich with the gold of love's abandon sang the songs of composers, wholly dedicated to love's own form of expression.
Stuart Farquaharson's cigar had gone out and he sat meditative in the shadows of the terrace—himself a shadowy shape, with his eyes fixed upon Conscience, and Conscience, too, remained quiet with that unstirring stillness which bespeaks a mood of dreams. Something in the air, subtle yet powerful, was working upon them its influence.
"Eben seems to be in a sentimental mood this evening," suggested Farquaharson at last, bringing himself with something of a wrench out of his abstraction and speaking in a matter-of-fact voice. He remembered belatedly that his cigar had gone out and as he relighted it there was a slight trembling of his fingers.
"Yes, doesn't he?" Mrs. Tollman's laugh held a trace of nervous tremor, too. "And I remember saying once that that was just as possible as the idea of Napoleon going into a monastery."
"Are we going to swim before breakfast to-morrow?" asked the man, distrusting himself just now with topics touching the past and sentiment.
"Suppose we walk down to the float and have a look at the state of the tide," she suggested. "Then as Ira would say we can 'fore-lay' for the morning."
AS they went together down the steep path, there was no flaw in the woman's composure and no fault in the lightness of her manner, but when they reached the float, with the dark water fall of mirrored stars she turned abruptly so that she stood face to face with the man. In the light of the crescent moon he saw that her eyes were wide and full of a deep seriousness. For a moment she did not speak and recognizing the light of fixed resolve and the attitude of steeling herself for some ordeal, he also refrained from words until she should choose her moment.
There was an ethereal quality in the beauty of her pale face, jet-crowned in the starlight, and a Jeanne d'Arc gallantry in the straightness of her slender figure. When at last she began to speak it was in a low voice, vibrant with repression, but unwavering and full of purpose.
"Stuart," she said, "I am going to call on you to help me, by being all that a friend can be—by proving your loyalty and obeying a command that's very hard to give ... by obeying it without even asking why."
"Command me," he said quietly, and for just a moment there was a threat of faltering in her manner, as though the edict were indeed too hard, but almost at once she went on in a firm voice.
"You must go away. You must go to-morrow. That's what I brought you down here to tell you."
"Of course, I have no choice but obedience," he replied simply. "But I can't go without asking questions and having them answered."
"Yes, you must."
"Why are you sending me away?"
"I hoped it would be possible," she said as her dark eyes filled with pain and conflict, "for this visit to end without these things having to be said. I hoped you'd just go away without finding out.... I've done my best and tried to play the part ... but I can't keep it up forever.... Now I'm asking your help."
"Conscience," he reminded her, and his tone held a sympathy which discounted his stubbornness in demanding the full reasons for her decision, "I don't want to press you with questions when you ask me, in the name of friendship, not to do it ... but—" He paused a moment and continued with a shake of his head. "We must be honest with each other. Once before we let a failure to fully understand separate us. I can't make the same life-wrecking mistake twice. Don't you see that I must know why I am being banished?"
Slowly she nodded her head in reluctant assent. Her figure seemed to waver as with faintness, but when Stuart reached out his arms to catch her, she stepped back and stood with regained steadiness.
"I suppose ..." she acknowledged, "I must be fully honest with you.... I suppose I was only trying to make it easier for myself ... and that I must face it fully."
"Face just what, Conscience?"
"The facts. When you came, Stuart, I believed that you had been cured of the old heartbreak. I believed it until—the other day when we talked about Marian Holbury—then I knew—that you were still in love with me."
Farquaharson's face paled and his lips tightened.
"I had tried," he said slowly, "to let you think the things which might make you happier—but I don't seem to be a good actor."
"You were a splendid actor, Stuart, but you had a woman's intuition against you."
He remained looking across the water for a while before he replied, in a hurt tone.
"I understand. Now that you've discovered the truth ... I must go because you could entertain the friend ... but not the lover.... Even if the lover could maintain his attitude in everything but thought."
But Conscience shook her head.
"No, you don't understand yet ... must you still have the whole truth ... even if I tell you that you can serve me best by not asking it?"
"I must have it, because I am honest in believing that I can serve you best by knowing it all."
"Very well." She raised her hands in a half-despairing gesture and into her eyes welled a flood of passion as if a dam had broken and made concealment futile. Her words came with a low thrill, and the man's brain swam with an ecstatic sense of discovery which for the moment obscured all other thought.
"You must go, Stuart, because the basis we met on has been destroyed. You must go because—because it isn't just that you love me, but that we love each other."
"Conscience!" The name broke from his lips with the ringing triumph of a bugle-call, and he had almost seized her in instinctive embrace, but she put out her own hands and pressed them, at arms length, against his breast as though to hold him off. Her eyes met the burning eagerness of his gaze with a resolved and unshakable steadiness.
"Please—" she said very quietly. "Please don't make me fight you, too—just now."
Slowly with the dying of his momentary elation into misery Farquaharson stepped back and his arms fell at his sides.
"Forgive me," he murmured. "I can't touch you—here—now—with that look in your eyes. You are right."
"I must send you away," she continued, "because I want you to stay so terribly much—because it's all a false position for us both.... Do you remember what Ira said about losing something that was pulled out ... 'by the roots, like'?... The time has come for that Stuart, dear ... the roots are taking too strong a hold ... they must be torn out."
"Do I mean as much as that to you?"
"You mean so much—that everything else in life means nothing.... You mean so much that I compare all others with you to their injustice ... so much that I follow the glow of your cigar at night when you are walking ... that I watch the light in your window before I go to bed ... that I wake up with the thought that you are in the house ... that I think of you ... want you ... in a way I have no right to think and want."
"Conscience," he began, gripping his hands at his back and schooling his syllables so sternly that, in what seemed to him his hour of Gethsemane, he spoke with a sort of unedged flatness, "your semblance of success has been splendid, magnificent. Until to-night I believed absolutely that you no longer cared for me—and that you were happy.
"From the first I had seen in this marriage a certainty of disaster ... but when I came here I found a succession of bewildering surprises. These surprises entirely blinded me to the truth. Your serene bearing had every mark of genuineness, but there were other things, too—things beyond your control. The very place was transformed. Eben Tollman himself was really another man. His manner was no longer that of the bigot. He had learned the art of smiling."
Conscience shook her head.
"That is only another reason why you must go away, Stuart. Eben has always been the soul of generosity to me. He hates from the core of his heart these changes of which you speak. He has tolerated them only because I wanted them. With you here I can't be just to him. I contrast the little characteristics in him that grate on me and annoy me with the qualities in you that set me eagerly on fire. I tell you it's all unjust and it's all my fault."
She paused and then, because her knees still felt weak and her head was swimming, she dropped wearily down and sat on the small bench at the side of the float.
Stuart's senses were keyed to concert pitch. Some tempting voice whispered to his inner realization that, should he pitch the battle on the plane of passion's attack, he could sweep her from her anchorage. To his mind she was more beautiful and desirable than Circe must have seemed to Ulysses, but like the great wanderer he battled against that voluptuous madness. If he lost it would be the defeat of a man, but if he won, by that appeal, only the victory of an animal. His voice remained almost judicially calm.
"But this changed attitude—this positive urbanity where there used to be utter intolerance—how do you account for that?"
She looked very straight into his eyes and spoke steadfastly.
"I can only account for it in one way—and it's a thing which doesn't make me feel very proud of myself, Stuart. I think that he, too, has been deluded by what you call my splendid semblance. I believe he trusts me utterly. He has seen us together and thinks I've stood the acid test—and I've got to do it."
"But why did he ask me here, if he thought there was danger?"
"Because he had the courage to trust his happiness under fire."
"That implies that until now—at least—he was in doubt."
"Grave doubt. I think he was almost ready to call it all a failure."
After a long silence Stuart Farquaharson spoke with a quiet of resolution which held more feeling than could have been voiced by vehemence.
"You have told me enough, Conscience. I will not go. You have tried it with a desperate sincerity for three years—and it's a failure. You have fought splendidly to vindicate the whole monstrous travesty, but it can't be vindicated. It was doomed by every law of nature from the start. We have now not only the right but the duty to rectify it, and to rectify it together. You must divorce him."
"Divorce him!" The woman came to her feet and her eyes were starry with a light that held a momentary flicker of scorn. "Divorce him when his whole married life has been dedicated to the single purpose of trying to make me happy ... when his only fault is that he has failed to interest me?... Divorce him because we find too late that we still love each other? If that is your only counsel, Stuart, you have nothing to offer—but treason!"
"Conscience," he reminded her as a deep flush spread over the face that had been pale, "so long as there remained a chance for you to succeed, I made no suggestion that might unsettle you. My love for you has never changed or wavered. It has incalculably grown. But, until to-night, have I in any manner assumed the guise or asked the prerogatives of a lover?"
"Until to-night," she retorted, "I've never appealed to you for help. Now I tell you of fires I'm trying to control—and you are only setting matches to them."
"I am begging you to conquer this undertow of your heredity, and to see things as they are, without any spirit of false martyrdom. I am calling upon you to rouse yourself out of this fanatic trance—and to live! By your own confession you love me in every way that a woman of flaming inner fires can love. Under all your glacial reserve and perfect propriety you have deeps of passion—and you know that he can never stir them. You say you will conquer this love for me. Have you overcome it in these three years? What has this travesty of a hopeless marriage given you, but a pallid existence of curbed emotions and a stifled life?"
He had begun speaking with a forced calmness that gave a monotony to his voice, but the sincerity of his plea had brought a fire into it that mingled persuasively with the soothing softness of the voice itself. Conscience felt herself perilously swept by a torrent of thoughts that were all of the senses; the stifled senses of which he had just spoken, straining hard for release from their curbing. His splendid physical fitness; the almost gladiatorial alertness of his body; the glowing eagerness of his face were all arguing for him with an urgency greater than his words. This was the man who should have been her mate.
Perhaps it would be better to end the interview; to tell him that she could no longer listen to assaults upon her beliefs and her marriage—but she had come out here with the militant determination to fight the matter out, and it was not yet fought out. She must let him make his attacks and meet them without flinching. Into the tones with which she began her reply came the softness and calmness of a dedication to that purpose. Stuart recognized the tone with something like despair. Against this antagonism of the martyr spirit he might break all his darts of argument, to no avail.
"Do you suppose you have to tell me," she asked, "what is lacking in my life or how hungry I am for it? I knew years ago what it was to love you ... and I've dreamed of it ever since. But all your appeal is to passion, Stuart—none of it to the sense of fair play. I'm neither sexless nor nerveless. When I held you off a little while ago, my hands on your breast could feel the beat of your heart—and the arms that kept us apart were aching to go round your neck. I've sat back there in the window of my room night after night and watched you walking in the pines, and I've wanted to go out and comfort you.... I've been hungry for the touch of your hand on mine ... for everything that love can give."
It was difficult for him to stand there under the curb of self-restraint and listen, but as yet he achieved it. And in the same quiet, yet thrilling voice she continued: "Your coming here brought a transformation. The fog lifted and I've been living the life of a lotus-eater—but now I've got to go back into the fog. Every argument you've made is an argument I've made to myself—and I know it's just temptation."
"Don't you see, dearest, that you are utterly deluding yourself?" The fervency of combat came with his words. "Don't you see that all that is finest and most vital in you, is that part that's in protest? Don't you see that you are just reacting in every crisis to the cramped puritanism you once denounced?"
"Puritanism!" she exclaimed, and the gentle manner of her speech stiffened suddenly into a timbre more militant.
"Call it what you like. Yes, I am a puritan woman, Stuart, and I thank God for the heritage—if I am always to have to fight these battles against passionate rebellion. I know puritanism now for what it is. I guess Christ might have been called a puritan, when Satan took him up on the high mountain and offered him the world." She paused only a moment, then swept on with the fervor of an ultimatum. "And since you choose to put it that way," she looked at him with eyes full of challenge, "I mean to stay the puritan woman. You've come with your southern fire and the voluptuous voice of your southern pleading, to unsettle me and make me surrender my code. You can't do it, Stuart. I love you, but I can still fight you! If that's the difference between us—the difference between puritan and cavalier—there's still a line that mustn't be crossed. To cross it means war. If you fire on Fort Sumpter, Fort Sumpter can still fire back."
"How am I firing on Fort Sumpter?" he asked and she quickly responded. "You're assailing my powers of endurance. You're trying to make me take the easy course of putting desire above duty. You're trying to make me forget the ideals of the men at Valley Forge—the things that your ancestors and mine fought for when they went to war to build a nation: before they fought each other to disrupt one—loyalty and steadfastness!"
"Conscience," he said with the momentary ghost of a smile, "you are speaking from your father's pulpit. That is all an excellent New England sermon—and about as logical."
"At least it's sincere," she retorted, "and I think sincerity is what I need most just now."
The kindled glow of the woman turned fighter gave an enhanced beauty to the face into which the Virginian looked.
"Now certainly," he declared, "I shall not go. You say I have fired on Fort Sumpter—very well, I'll fight it out. You accuse me of assaulting your duty, but I'm trying to rouse you to a bigger conception of duty. I see in this idea to which you are sacrificing yourself as distorted a sense of honor as the suttee's, who ascends her husband's funeral pyre and wraps herself in a blanket of fire. I see in it, too, the dishonor of a woman's giving her body to one man while her heart belongs to another. By your own confession you are part Eben Tollman's and part mine. He holds only a pallid and empty allegiance: I hold, and held first, your heart, a splendid, vital heart.... I can offer you life ... and you belong to me!"
"Then you mean—that I must fight you, too—as well as myself?"
"I mean that you must, if that's the only way you can find yourself. I've asked you to divorce him—and let me be your husband. You refuse, but I have the right to take back what has been stolen from me, and I mean to do it. From this moment on I am avowedly and openly your lover—with all that that means. You have challenged me to attack. I mean to attack."
Conscience drew back a step and her hands came up to her bosom as she regarded him, at first with unbelief, and then with an anger that made her seem an incarnation of warring principle.
"I sought the wrong ally," was all she said, but she said it with such a cold ring of contempt that the man's answer broke out almost fiercely.
"You don't know it, Conscience, but you are still the deluded daughter of men who burned witches in the name of God; people who could sing psalms through their noses, but couldn't see beyond them; men who exalted a dreary bigotry above all else. I inherited traditions as well as you. My fathers have committed homicide on the field of honor and put woman on a pedestal. They made of her a being, half-angel and half-toy, but I refuse to be bound by their outworn ideas.
"Nowadays we prate less priggishly about honor because it is no longer a word with a single meaning." He paused a moment, then went on in a climax of vehemence. "From this moment on your New England code and my inherited chivalry may be hanged on the same gibbet! This revered temple of your marriage is just as sacred to me as a joss house—and I mean to invade it—and break its false idols—if I can!"
Conscience stood for a brief space with her hands clenched on the rail that guarded the edge of the float. She was almost hypnotically conscious of his eyes burning with a sort of wildness into her own, but when she spoke it was in a manner regally unafraid—even disdainful.
"You are quite welcome to break them if you can," she declared, and the next moment he saw her going with a superbly firm carriage up the path—and found himself alone and tremendously shaken.
For the best part of an hour Stuart sat confusedly looking out across the cove. Then with the wish for some stimulating fillip he stripped and plunged into the sobering coolness of the water. Even after that he did not return to the house, but struck out aimlessly across the hills with little realization of direction and small selection of course. Once or twice a blackberry trailer caught his foot and he lurched heavily, recovering himself with difficulty.
Led by the fox-fire of restlessness, he must have tramped far, for the moon went down and curtains of fog began to draw in, obscuring hills and woods in a wet and blinding thickness. From the saturated foliage came a steady dripping as though there had been heavy rain, and far away, from the life-saving station, wailed the hoarse, Cassandra voices of the sirens. At last physical fatigue began to assert itself with a clearing of the brain and he turned his steps back toward his starting point. He was trusting now to his instinctive sense of direction, because the woods and thickets were fog-choked and his course was groping and uncertain. A half mile from the house he set his foot on a treacherously shelving rock, and found himself rolling down a sharp embankment, with briars tearing his face and hands. Throwing out his right arm, in defense of his eyes, he felt his hand bend back at the wrist with so violent a pain that a wave of nausea swept over him and for a moment he was content to lie where he had fallen, listening to the sobbing drip of the pines. When he rose and started on again his right hand hung with fingers that he could not move and the fever of swollen pain in its wrist. But when he drew near the house he saw that there was still a light in the window of Conscience's room and that she herself sat, framed against, the yellow candle glow, in an almost trance-like attitude of stress. She was silhouetted there, no longer self-confident and defiant but a figure of wistful unhappiness. From the raw wetness, her bare shoulders and arms were unprotected. Her hair fell in heavy braids over the sheer silk of her night dress and her bosom was undefended against the bite of the fog's chill.
At breakfast the next morning Eben Tollman, who was usually the least talkative at table, found that the burden of conversation fell chiefly upon himself.
Conscience was pale and under her eyes were dark smudges of sleeplessness while Farquaharson kept his right hand in his lap and developed an unaccustomed taciturnity. But Eben appeared to notice nothing and stirred himself into an admirable and hospitable vivacity.
His concert of last night had borne fruit, he thought.
If his knowledge of actual occurrences was sketchy his imagination had filled all the blank spaces with colorful substitutes for fact.
"Stuart," he demanded suddenly, "what's happened to you? You've hurt your right hand and you're trying to conceal it."
"It's nothing much," explained Farquaharson lamely. "I went for a walk last night and when the fog came up I strayed over an embankment—and had a rather nasty fall."
"My dear boy!" exclaimed Eben Tollman in a tone of instant solicitude. "We must call the doctor at once. But you must have been out all night. The fog didn't gather until two o'clock this morning."
Farquaharson only nodded with an uncommunicative smile, and Conscience spoke in quiet authority.
"If it's a sprain, I can do as much for it as a doctor could. Wait for me on the terrace, Stuart, I'll be out in a few minutes with hot water and bandages."
A half hour later, grumbling remonstrances which were silently overruled, the Virginian found himself in efficient hands.
The fog had not lasted long and this morning the hills sparkled with a renewed freshness. A row of hollyhocks along the stone wall nodded brightly, and the sun's clarity was a wash of transparent gold.
Stuart Farquaharson studied the profile of the woman who was busying herself with bandages and liniments.
The exquisite curve of her cheek and throat; the play of an escaped curl over her pale temple and the sweet wistfulness of her lips: none of these things escaped him.
"It's not necessary, after all, that you should go away, Stuart," she announced with a calm abruptness to Farquaharson's complete mystification. "Last night I was in the grip of something like hysteria, I think. Perhaps I'm still young enough to be influenced by such things as music and moonlight."
"And this morning?"
"This morning," she spoke in a matter-of-fact voice as she measured and cut a strip of bandage, "I am heartily ashamed of my moment of panic. This morning I'm not afraid of you. Whether you go or stay, I sha'n't give way again."
"Conscience," protested the man with an earnestness that drew his brow into furrows of concentration, "last night I said many things that were pure excitement. After years of struggling to put you out of my life and years of failure to do it, after believing absolutely that it had become a one-sided love, I learned suddenly that you loved me, too. The summed-up spell of all those hungry times was on me last night. Can't you make allowances for me?"
"I have made allowances," she assured him steadily. "I've made so many—that I'm no longer angry with you. You see I spent most of last night thinking of it. We were both moon mad. Only now—we can't go on pretending to be Platonic friends any more. When war has been declared comradeships between enemies have to end."
"You are both very fair and very unfair, Conscience," suggested Stuart Farquaharson thoughtfully. "I said some wild things—out there in the moonlight—with my senses all electrified by the discovery of your love—and yet—"
He broke off, and Conscience, rising from her finished task, stood gazing out with musing eyes over the slopes of the hills. Suddenly she said:
"I realize now that if you'd gone away just because I asked it, we would always have felt that nothing was settled; that instead of winning my battle I'd just begged off from facing it."
"Among all the unconsidered things I said last night, Conscience," Stuart began again, "there were some that I must still say. It was like the illogical thread of a dream which is only the distortion of a waking thought-flow. The essence of my contention was sound."
"A soundness which advises me to divorce my husband and marry you," she demurred with no more anger than she might have felt for a misguided child, "though he and I both made vows—and he has broken none of them."
"You made those vows," he reminded her, "under the coercion of fears for your father. You distorted your life under what you yourself once called a tyranny of weakness."
"And to remedy all that you counsel an anarchy of passion." She seemed to be speaking from a distance and to be looking through rather than at the horizon.
"I believe that even now my father knows—and that he's no more willing to have me surrender my convictions—than when he was on earth."
"And I believe," the response came reverently but promptly, "that where he is now his eyes are no longer blinded by any scales of mistake. If he looks down on us from the Beyond, he must see life with a universal breadth of wisdom."
For an instant tears misted her eyes and then she asked in a rather bewildered voice, "Stuart, stripped of all its casuistry, what is your argument except a plea for infidelity?"
"Revolt against that most powerful and vicious of all autocracies," he confidently declared, "the tyranny of weakness over strength!"
But Conscience Tollman only shook her head and smiled her unconverted scepticism.
"Was it being true to such an ideal as that which made a certain king in Israel send a certain captain into the front of the battle, because he loved that captain's wife? I have listened to all this argument, because I wanted you to feel sure that I wasn't afraid to hear it. But it can never persuade me. And what have you to say of the trust of a husband who accepts you in his house as a member of his family—without suspicion?"
"I say that he has had his chance in all fairness and has failed. I say that during the years of this ill-starred experiment you have fought valiantly to make him win. I have, at least, not interfered by act or a word. If he had not arranged this meeting I should never have done so—and since he is responsible for our being brought together now he must face the consequences."
"Then your attitude of last night was not just moon madness, after all?"
"I mean to penetrate your life as far as I can and to recognize no inner sanctum from which I am barred. He is the usurper and my love is not tame enough to submit. I am your lover because, though your words deny me, your heart invites me. I'm coming to stay."
This time the woman's eyes did not kindle into furious or contemptuous fires, but her voice was so calmly resolute that Stuart felt his own had been a blustering thing.
"Then, Stuart, I'm still the puritan woman. I'm asking no quarter—and I have no fears. Attack as soon and as often and as furiously as you wish. I'm ready."
* * * * *
Eben Tollman noted that under the steady normality and evenness of his wife's demeanor there stirred an indefinable current of nervousness, since the evening of the tryst at the float and that the whole manner of the visitor toward himself was tinctured with a new brusqueness, as though the requirement of maintaining a cordial pretense were becoming over tedious.
These were mere bits of chaff in a light breeze and he flattered himself that it had taken his own perspicacity to detect them. A less capable diagnostician might have passed them by unobserved. But to him they marked a boundary.
Alone in his study, the husband ruminated upon these topics. Here he had sanctuary and the necessity of a hateful dissimulation was relaxed. He could then throw aside that mantle of urbanity which he must yet endure for a while before other eyes. He formed the habit of gazing up at the portrait of the ancestor who had died in the revolution and almost fancied that between his own eyes and those painted on the canvas there was an interchange of understanding.
He was in truth a man who had already parted company with reason while still invested in its perfect masquerade. His bitter and unfounded suspicions, denied all outer expression, had undermined his sanity—and any one who had seen him in these moments of sequestered brooding would have recognized the mad glitter in his eyes.
"The pair of them are as guilty as perdition," he murmured to himself, "and I am God's instrument to punish." Punish—but how? That was a detail which he had never quite thought out, but at the proper time the Providence which commanded him would also show him a way. But before punishment there must be an overt act—an episode which clinched, beyond peradventure, the sin of these two hypocrites before his hand could fall in vengeance.
These reflections were interrupted one afternoon by a rap on the study door to which, for the space of several seconds, Eben Tollman did not respond.
He was meanwhile doing what an actor does before his dressing-room mirror. Eben Tollman alone with his monomania and Eben Tollman in the company of others were separate personalities and to pass from one to the other called for making up; for schooling of expression and the recovery of a suave exterior. In this process, however, he had from habit acquired celerity, so the delay was not a marked one before, with a decorous face, unstamped of either passion or brooding, he opened the door, to find Conscience waiting at the threshold.
"Come in, my dear," he invited. "I must have inadvertently snapped the catch. I didn't know it was locked."
"There's a man named Hagan here who wants to see you, Eben," announced Conscience. "He didn't seem inclined to tell me his business beyond saying that it was important."
"Hagan, Hagan?" repeated the master of the house with brows drawn in well-simulated perplexity. "I don't seem to recognize the name. Do you know him?"
"I never saw him before. Shall I send him in?"
"I suppose it might be as well. Some business promoter, I fancy."
But as Conscience left, Tollman's scowl returned.
"Hagan," he repeated with a soft but wrathful voice to himself. "The blackmailer!"
His face bore a somewhat frigid welcome, when almost immediately the manager of the Searchlight Investigation Bureau presented himself.
Mr. Hagan had the appearance of one into whose lap the horn of plenty has not been recently or generously tilted, and the clothes he wore, though sprucely tailored, were of another season's fashion.
But his manner had lost none of its pristine assurance and he began his interview by laying a hand on the door-knob and suggesting: "The business I want to take up with you, Mr. Tollman, had best be discussed out of hearing of others."
Tollman remained unhospitably rigid and his eyes narrowed into an immediate hostility.
"Whatever business we may have had, Mr. Hagan," he suggested, "has for some time been concluded, I think."
But on this point the visitor seemed to hold a variant opinion. Momentarily his face abandoned its suavity and the lower jaw thrust itself forward with a marked hint of belligerency.
"So?" he questioned. "Nonetheless there is business that can be done at the present time in this house. It's for you to say whether I do it with you—or others."
Tollman's scowl deepened and the thought presented itself that he had been unwise in ever giving such a dishonest fellow the hold upon him of a prior employment. But he controlled himself and invited curtly, "Very well. Sit down."
Mr. Hagan did so, and this time it was Mr. Tollman himself who somewhat hastily closed and latched the door which protected their privacy of interview, while the guest broached his topic.
"The best way to start is with the recital of a brief story. You may already have read some of it in the newspapers but the portion that concerns us most directly wasn't published. It's what is technically called the 'inside story.'"
"The best way to start, Mr. Hagan," amended Tollman with some severity of manner, "is that which will most quickly bring you to the point and the conclusion. I'm a very busy man and can spare you only a short time."
But despite that warning the detective sat for a moment with his legs crossed and gave his attention to the deliberate kindling of a cigar. That rite being accomplished to his satisfaction, he settled back and sent a cloud of wreathed smoke toward the ceiling before he picked up again his thread of conversation.
Even when he had comfortably settled himself Mr. Hagan's initial comment was irrelevant.
"Your place is decidedly changed, Mr. Tollman. Improved I should call it."
"Thank you. Please state your business."
"On one of the cross streets in the forties in New York City there's a hotel called the Van Styne with a reputation none too savory and downtown there's a sort of mission organization in which a minister, name of Sam Haymond, takes an interest. He's a live-wire reform worker."
"Indeed?" Eben Tollman's monosyllabic rejoinder conveyed the impression of an interest unawakened, but Mr. Hagan was not so soon discouraged.
"Doesn't interest you yet? Maybe it will later. Recently a girl by the name of Minnie Ray fell out of a window at the hotel I'm speaking of—the Van Styne. It killed her."
"I thought likely you'd read the item in the papers. The coroner's verdict was accident."
"Yes?" These brief, interrogatory replies might have proved dampening to some narrators. Not so with Mr. Hagan. He nodded his head, then he asserted briefly. "But as a matter of fact the Ray woman committed suicide."
"You disagree, it appears, with the coroner."
"I have the facts—and it was seen to that the coroner didn't."
"What bearing has this deplorable episode on our alleged business, Mr. Hagan?" asked Tollman, and the detective raised an index finger.
"That's what I'm coming to. The Ray woman is only incidental—like others that get adrift in New York and end up in places like the Van Styne. Anyhow I'm not starting out to harrow you with any heart-interest stories.... I'm here to talk business, but you know how it sometimes is, Mr. Tollman. A share or two of stock worth par or less may swing the control of a corporation ... and a piece of human drift like Minnie might turn out to be a human share of stock."
"I'm afraid I don't follow you, sir."
"Don't let that trouble you. You will. Minnie Ray didn't have much education when she came on east from Indiana and I expect she didn't have a very heroic character either. But until she went to the Van Styne, she seems to have been straight."
"There is always an 'until' in these cases," observed Mr. Tollman dryly and the head of the "Searchlight" nodded his acquiescence.
"Sure there is. She was young and what the rounders call a good-looking chicken. At first she was inclined to be haughty and upstage when men she worked for got fresh with her which didn't help her to get jobs—or hold them. So she hit the toboggan. She spent what little money she brought with her and after that it was the old story. So far as Minnie could figure prospects there wasn't a thing she had or a thing she could do that would bring in money—except the one asset that wasn't on the market: her virtue. As I said I didn't start out to tell a sob story, but in this business we see quite a few cases like that. It's usually just a question of how long these girls can hold out before they sell the one thing that's saleable. Maybe you can't blame them at that. If virtue is measured that way—and it's a practical way—the 'until,' as you call it, came to Minnie at the end of quite a siege."
Mr. Tollman's impatience grew into actual fretfulness as his visitor delayed coming to the point of his proposition.
"It seems to have been a case," went on the detective unhurriedly, "of dropping down the scale for her until she was up against the question of diving into East River—or hypothecating the one asset."
"How about this mission that you speak of? Didn't it help her?"
"All it could—but that wasn't enough. It got her one or two temporary jobs—but there were hundreds on its lists and it had to spread charity thin. So for the time being they were trying down there to keep her courage up, and that was about all they could do."
"I will take the address of this mission and send a contribution," announced Mr. Tollman benignly. "I suppose your business here is soliciting that—is it not?"
"Yes—it is not," exploded Mr. Hagan emphatically with a smile that savored of a snarl, "though I don't doubt they'd appreciate it. Well, there was a cold-blooded party laying siege to Minnie. He was one of the rat-faces that you can see any time you stroll along Broadway, and up to date she'd been refusing to play with him. But he had the chance to put money in her way—and all he asked was that she'd 'be nice to him.'"
"You put things very bluntly—I might almost say, vulgarly, Mr. Hagan," objected Eben Tollman with a fastidious shiver and his visitor flashed his answer back in a manner of menacing aggressiveness.
"It strikes you that way, does it? Perhaps you know a way to talk about things like this that isn't vulgar. Personally, I don't. Well, the long and the short of it is this, after so many weeks of fighting this thing out with herself Minnie Ray reached the point where she fell for a dinner with the rat-faced gentleman at the Van Styne, and after he'd opened some wine—" The raconteur shrugged his shoulders. "Well, you see she wasn't accustomed to drinking bubbles and topping it off with brandy and benedictine."
"The climax of your story lacks the full force of surprise," Eben reminded his guest. "You forecast the result at the commencement."
"No, I haven't, gotten to the result yet. This is only one stage of it. It happened that the Rev. Sam Haymond heard of a job as a lingerie model in a department store, that would fit Minnie nicely, and he rushed around to her room to carry the glad tidings. The landlady said that Minnie had gone to the Van Styne with a gentleman friend—so the dominie took a taxi and went there, too. You see he didn't know until he got into the lobby and saw all them red lights and heard some little of the conversation there, that it wasn't a regular hotel. But there he was—so he had her paged."
"Did he find her?"
"He did not. The clerk didn't mention that she was in the house and of course 'Jim Smith and wife' on a register didn't mean much to him.... So the Rev. Haymond didn't connect with Minnie—and Minnie didn't connect with the job. But the rat-faced gentleman who had left her there after a pleasant evening and was on his way out heard her real name paged. He beat it back to inquire what in the Sam Hill Haymond wanted with her? He found her in the sort of despair that would come to a girl like that at a time like that. What you call the 'until' Minnie probably called the 'too-late.' Maybe she guessed what the minister had cone for and what she had just missed. Anyhow her 'gentleman-friend' warned her that there had been a raid on a place nearby and that downstairs they were having a scare— He said that he himself was leaving and she'd better be careful. Well, she went clear out of her head—and she jumped out of the window. It was the fifth floor, you see."
Mr. Tollman's face was gravely serious as he put a question which might have seemed less near the kernel of the matter than several others, "Why did they fear a raid?"
"They sometimes happen, you know. The police get periodically active. The Van Styne has been pinched before." Mr. Hagan rose from his seat and added with the solicitude of one wishing to make the amende honorable, "However, Mr. Tollman, I believe that was before you owned the place."
The anxious anticipations of the host during the course of the story had not quite prepared him against the bluntness of this announcement, and his surprise vented itself in a sudden start. But immediately recovering his poise, he spoke coldly. He even smiled.
"Now that your story is ended, what is the real matter that brought you here?"
"I represent others," Mr. Hagan informed him evenly, "who, to quote your own words on a previous occasion, prefer remaining unnamed. If that hotel should happen to be raided and its record should be published—together with the name of the owner—it might prove an embarrassment to you. I'm authorized—under certain conditions—to offer you immunity against that unpleasant chance."
Eben Tollman rose from his seat. He stood for a moment gazing into the eyes of the portrait above the mantel and then he spoke with a measured dignity:
"Mr. Hagan, your proposition is just about what I fancied it would be—an attempt at blackmail. But it's abortive. I do own the property of which you speak, but in understanding so precisely the sort of business done there, you have the advantage of me. This renting has all been conducted through agents whom I seem to have trusted unduly. You have done me a service in acquainting me with the facts and I thank you for your information which, I take it is authentic. I shall at once rid myself of such a despicable property. I shall also place in the hands of the District Attorney of New York, the facts you have given me, and suggest that he call upon you to ratify them." The speaker paused impressively and then swept virtuously into his peroration:
"To the anonymous gentlemen who offer me immunity against a raid—for a consideration—you may say that I will conduct the matter through the District Attorney's office. As for yourself, Mr. Hagan, permit me to add that I regard you as a most extraordinary scoundrel with whom I could have nothing in common."
The detective, who had been thus conclusively defeated, continued to sit with an attitude of composure, and spoke without chagrin:
"Hard words ain't going to kill me, and as for the balance of it I don't most generally lay all my cards on the table at once. You say you'll rid yourself of this property and that you didn't know how it was being used. All right, but why didn't you know? You could of known, couldn't you, if you hadn't taken damned good care not to know? Do you think that story will stand scrutiny with the public or with your wife?"
"Be good enough," cautioned Tollman ominously, "to leave my wife's name out of this talk. It's hardly an appropriate combination."
"No," assented Hagan with readiness, "and it's going to be less so before I finish. How do you expect to rid yourself of the Van Styne? By selling it, at a profit, to somebody else that'll go on getting rich on other Minnie Rays? And when you've done that are you going to carry the same policy of high-minded reform through the rest of your property in New York find Boston? I've got a list of the lot."
"I'm through answering questions," asserted Tollman with finality. "You've made your bluff and it has failed."
"Just as you say." The detective rose and stretched himself luxuriously. "By the way as I came in, I passed your wife on the porch, and I happened to notice that Mr. Farquaharson was visiting you."
Eben Tollman had started toward the door, but this remark gave him pause.
"He didn't recognize me of course," mused Mr. Hagan, "but then in a way we are old acquaintances, I suppose—I shadowed that bird some time."
"What do you mean?"
Mr. Hagan's manner underwent an abrupt transformation. He wheeled and faced his host with a dangerous glint in his eye.
"This is what I mean! You called me a blackmailer and a scoundrel just now. Sure I'm a crook! We're both of us crooks, but I admit it and you don't. So to my thinking, I'm honester than you. I came to you first. Next I'm going to Stuart Farquaharson out there and to your wife.... Mr. Farquaharson might be interested to know that you hired me once to try to frame him. Your wife might be interested to know that you hired me to send her those scandal magazines that roasted him. They both might be interested to know where you got your money from. Now it's just a question of who I do business with, but before I leave here I do business with somebody."
As Mr. Hagan declared himself his lower jaw came more protuberantly forward and his eyes blazed with an increasing truculence. And in the exact degree of his growing aggression, Mr. Tollman quailed and became clammily moist of brow.
"Perhaps, Mr. Hagan," he tentatively suggested, "you had better sit down again. Possibly we aren't quite through yet after all."
The detective reseated himself and his composure returned.
"Frankness is always best," he vouchsafed complacently. "I thought when we once came to understand each other, we'd get along."
* * * * *
While Eben Tollman was entertaining his unwelcome guest in the study his wife and Stuart Farquaharson were having tea on the terrace. Upon the recent combat of their wills there seemed to have succeeded a calmness of aftermath. If Stuart had as Conscience expressed it "fired on Fort Sumpter" his subsequent conduct had in a fashion belied his vehemence of pronunciamento. Now his artillery of resource was silent. Perhaps the weariness and heightened pallor of the woman's face, which gave it an ethereal quality, made an appeal upon the chivalry his postulates denied.
This afternoon the entire landscape carried a tuneful message and a brilliant sparkle and play of colors. It was a day for peace and laughter, rather than for heart-bruising discussion—and they were still young enough to seize upon and avail themselves of such respites.
Farquaharson laid aside the manuscript of an unfinished novel, with which Conscience had been assisting him as critic and amanuensis, and let his eyes dwell on her face.
She was wearing a smock of rose-colored silk which fell like drapery, rather than mere clothing, about her and seemed to kindle a delicate echo of its pinkness in the ivory of her cheeks. For a little while the author forgot his work.
"Dearest," he said suddenly, and though he couched his words in form and voice of the whimsical they held the essence of entire sincerity, "I hate to seem unduly impressionable or sentimental—but there's something rather marvelous about you. You'd make a man—even a hardened one—want to go down on his knees before you in worship and at the same time you'd make a timid one want to dare hellfire to take you in his arms. In short, you're a secret and a riddle: an enticement and a sobering inspiration."
The woman's cheeks momentarily reflected more warmly the rosy color of her smock and to her eyes came a mischievous riffle.
"Or to say all that more briefly, Stuart," she replied in a disconcertingly matter-of-fact voice, "I'm a woman—and incidentally you mustn't drop into the habit of calling me dearest."
The old boyhood smoldering blazed briefly in the man's face, but cleared at once into a smile.
"You were criticizing the woman psychology of my heroine, I believe," he said calmly, lifting the neglected manuscript in his one good hand. "What's wrong with her?"
"She's mid-Victorian. She's not modern," ruled the critic. "Her virtue is just a sugary saintliness that doesn't ring true. Any real woman in her circumstances would feel more disgraced by her marriage than by a divorce."
Farquaharson raised his brows, then his laugh rang out with a somewhat satirical merriment.
"And this from you! You admit in fiction the exact truths that you deny in life."
"But your lady was tricked into marriage in the first place," responded Conscience with spirit. "You show me half the reason that woman had and I'll start my lawyer filing a petition the same day. I'll go further than that." Her eyes were twinkling since she meant to treat all these allusions so lightly as to disarm his own seriousness. "As a self-inflicted penalty I'll marry you."
"I wonder if you would."
"On my word of honor, and meanwhile our tea is getting cold. One lump, isn't it?"
He nodded; then, as he watched the deftness with which her hands made a pretty ceremony of pouring tea, he inquired: "Have I seen that ring before—the opal with diamonds?"
"I don't believe you have. Eben gave it to me last Christmas."
"And you're not afraid of the opal's ill-luck?"
"I love them enough to take the chance. Haven't I ever shown you my others—there's quite a collection of them."
"They're in the safe. I'll get Eben to open it as soon as Mr. Hagan leaves."
Teasingly the man inquired, "Doesn't your husband trust you with the combination?"
Conscience flushed. Her companion had touched a sensitive nerve. This was one of the details that went into the summary of Eben's excluding her from his business life, and it had hurt her.
"I can't ever master it somehow," she evaded, and as she spoke Eben Tollman ushered Mr. Hagan out upon the terrace.
As stranger and host passed out Stuart fancied that he detected in Tollman's manner a certain eagerness to speed the parting guest and when the visitor had gone, Eben withdrew at once to his sanctum, declining a cup of tea. The bad half hour had shaken him and sent his thoughts coursing in channels of apprehension. The past was refusing to lie dead and he found himself thinking of what might occur if two wisely intercepted letters should ever fall into the wrong hands.
They lay securely immured in the safe, but he had overheard the teasing reference to his withholding, from his wife, the combination—and it vexed his anxiety. He treasured these trophies of his acumen and victory, but palpably the time had arrived for their sacrifice.
He reconsidered an impulse to lock himself in. Once to-day he had apologized for inadvertently throwing on the catch and a repetition would seem pointed. The letters were in an envelope inscribed "S. F. & C. W." and there would be no difficulty in finding them.
So Eben Tollman opened the safe, and unlocked a certain strong box filled to overflowing with papers of divers sorts.
As he stood holding the tin dispatch case with its cover raised he heard Stuart's voice beyond the threshold and it was a voice couched in a tone of annoying and unthinking levity.
"Don't forget! If I prove a case as strong as my heroine's you will act as you say she should act."
"It's a bargain," came the quick and laughing response. "I'm ready to prove my faith by my works." Then as the pair appeared framed in the door, Conscience explained, "Eben, I want to show Stuart my opals."
To Tollman it seemed a most untimely interruption. Possibly that was why the fingers that held the box trembled, as he came around to his chair at the desk and said shortly, "They're in the larger drawer at the left."
As Conscience came over to the safe Stuart followed her until he stood across the width of the desk from his host whom he regarded absently. Then something quite unaccountable occurred. Mrs. Tollman, in putting down the somewhat heavy metal tray containing her trinkets, let it slip, so that it spilled its rings, and pins and necklaces on the desk top—and as if responsive to her clumsiness in handling her treasures, though really because of nervous tension, Eben started violently, and the box which he held fell from his quaking hands, scattering papers in a confused litter about the floor.
Instantly Tollman was on all fours retrieving, and the undignified posture had the advantage of serving to conceal the wild terror of his face; a terror such as may stamp itself upon the features of a man who cannot swim and who has twice gone down.
As he searched in a feverish panic, pretending an impartial interest in the generality of scattered documents, Eben was tortured by the knowledge that Stuart and Conscience were searching, too, and a conviction that if either of them found that envelope first, the legend "S. F. & C. W." would prove sufficiently illuminating to require an accounting.
Finally the elder man straightened up, and stood panting. The vital package was still unfound. Stuart Farquaharson tossed a sheaf of ancient bill receipts across the desk with the casual comment, "Well, that seems to be the crop."
Over the harrowed visage of the host swept an almost felicitous wave of relief and then, as abruptly, his cheeks changed color again, fading to an ashen pallor tinged with greenish sickliness. In his eyes the light appeared to die. He licked his lips and a palsy shook him like a violent chill. The Virginian's eyes were still searching the floor, but his left hand,—the uninjured one—rested lightly on the table, and as Mr. Tollman looked he saw that the fingers were spread upon a yellowed envelope, of which the exposed surface bore the clearly legible inscription "S. F. & C. W."
And while the victim of terror stood, transfixed with his premonition of crisis, Farquaharson also glanced down and, seeing the envelope, added: "No—here's one more. It must have been lying here all the time."
To Tollman's eyes familiar with content and superscription, it was all glaringly conspicuous. The initials seemed to stand out like headlines, but Farquaharson was without suspicion and he saw only one more paper in which his interest was most perfunctory. The whole issue had narrowed now, Eben realized with a tension of fear which brought out sweat beads on the pasty white of his face, to the hairbreadth narrowness of one question. Would Stuart see the initials or would they escape his notice?
But the Virginian was not yet broken to the habit of being a cripple. He could not remember that he must avoid the effort to use the right hand which he had always used. Now he reached down and picked up the envelope—still with the lettered surface turned up to sight—and rapping still swollen knuckles on the desk top, he let the envelope fall just as he raised it.
But this time it fell face down—and the perilous letters lay hidden.
Eben grabbed forward with such precipitate haste that Farquaharson looked up in astonishment and for the first time recognized something of the agitation which shook the other: the spasmodic panting of his breath and the outstanding arteries on his temples. "Why, you are ill, man!" he exclaimed. "What's the matter with you?"
Tollman made a supreme effort to rally his powers of self-control. The envelope lay between them—but out of his own reach and that spelled the wavering balance of suspense.
"This stooping after papers seems to have brought on a touch of vertigo," he explained and he had the sense, costly in self-restraint, to let his eagerly outstretched hand drop at his side, "Conscience, I think I'll have a little brandy."
After his wife had gone he spoke again.
"Didn't you—have another paper, Stuart?" The question came casually from the chair into which he had collapsed. "I might as well put it with the rest while I'm waiting for the brandy."
"Yes, I'd forgotten it. Here it is," and the younger man handed back the envelope—this time using his left hand.
Once more Tollman's luck had held good.
Later in the analysis of retrospect Stuart began to wonder at his host's strange behavior until of idle speculation suspicion was born, but as to that circumstance he held his counsel.
The last summer month brings to the Cape the August twister and the August tide. The twister seems to be a simultaneous rushing in of tornado-like winds from every quarter and a whirling bluster of elements gone mad. And in that month the high tide is the highest in the year.
For the household of Eben Tollman as well as for the weather the season seemed charged with the unquiet influences of equinox.
In the older man himself the currents of hatred and jealousy were rising to a danger line of unbalanced deviltry and as for the two who still responded to the nameless yet invincible clarion of youth, the elements of passion and insurgency were awake, ready for an August twister and an August tide.
Then there befell the household a series of coincidental labor problems that left them all at once without servants. The chauffeur, who hated his employer, was summarily discharged for drunken insolence. The cook was taken dangerously ill and her sister, the housemaid, went with her to her home at Provincetown. The gardener and outside man alone remained on duty and since both of these came and went from a distance, Conscience and Stuart found themselves promoted to kitchen and pantry.
* * * * *
A day of bluster and storm had ended in a sunset of brilliant color, which dyed the cloud-ramparted west with a victorious pageantry of crimson and gold. The night would be different, for in the east the moon, just climbing over the horizon, was a disc of pale tranquillity dominating a symphony of blue and silver.
In the pantry, with windows giving to the east and west, Conscience was washing dishes and Stuart, whose right hand was once more usable, stood nearby drying them. Pausing, with her eyes first on the changing fires of the west and then on the soft nocturne of the east, the woman spoke softly:
"The sun and the moon are the same size, and the same distance above the horizon. How differently they paint their pictures of the world."
Her companion only nodded.
While Eben Tollman contributed his part to the program of housekeeping without servants, by manipulating the phonograph from the living-room, Stuart had been studying the aproned figure at the sink.
Her face, in repose, held a pallid unrest of tried endurance, and occasionally she paused in her task to listen, with unexpressed nervousness, to the voluptuous swell of the music.
As he reached out for a rinsed plate their hands touched and she started.
"Conscience," said the man thoughtfully, "you've been very studiously avoiding me of late. I mean avoiding me when I could talk to you alone. For all your boasts of self-confidence, you're afraid of me. Isn't that true?"
"No," she said, "I'm only avoiding unnecessary battles." Suddenly her voice became almost querulous. "That phonograph is getting on my nerves. Aren't you sick of it?"
"Jack London wrote a story once," he replied calmly, "of a Klondike prospector and his dog. Between them there was a feud of long-treasured hatred."
Conscience glanced at him questioningly.
"What has that to do with Eben and the phonograph?" she inquired.
"The dog couldn't endure music. When a violin string spoke, he howled his misery. It was as if the bow were being drawn across the rawness of his own taut nerves.... That dish is ready for me, isn't it?"
She handed it to him, and he went on imperturbably: "The man would let the violin strings cry out until the beast's howls of sheer agony mingled with their strains. There came a time when the dog squared accounts. Eben's music reminded me of the story."
Conscience turned off a water faucet and faced her companion indignantly. She was inwardly trembling, with a nameless disquiet and anxiety.
"Stuart," she exclaimed, "this campaign of vague accusation isn't a very brave device and, in theory at least, you've always stood for fairness."
"I've ceased to believe in his fairness," he told her promptly. "I believe that what he thinks isn't fit to print and he's trying to drive you, whether or no, into vindicating his rotten implications."
A piece of chinaware slipped from his hands and crashed on the floor and so tense were the woman's nerves that a low scream escaped her lips.
The mail wagon passed the tin box down by the edge of the pine thicket twice a day and the latest of these visits was between eight and nine o'clock in the evening.
The household duties were finished before that and the three were sitting on the terrace with a world of silver light and cobalt shadows about them. That is to say, two of them sat there in silence while the third came and went about his duties of changing records and needles and the winding of the machine—for he still dedicated himself to minstrelsy.
And in Conscience the germ of an idea which seemed trivial and foolish was beginning to grow into a sort of obsession. Her nerves like those of the dog in the story tightened into such rebellion under this music, singing always of love, that she, too, wanted to cry out. Her head was swimming with the untrustworthy sense of some cord of control snapped; of a power or reason become unfocused; of a hitherto staunch morale breaking.
At last, with the feeling that she could sit there no longer, she rose abruptly from her chair. "I'm going down to get the mail," she announced.
Both men rose, offering her escort, but she shook her head in determined negation.
"No, thank you both, I don't need either of you."
Stuart watched her figure following the twisting thread of the path among the apple trees, whose gnarled trunks made fantastic shapes in the moonlight. Then he glanced at the stolid and seated figure of her husband and his face darkened. When Eben essayed comment his visitor vouchsafed replies in monosyllables so that conversation languished. At last the younger man rose from his chair.
"I think, after all, I'll go down and walk back with her," he said and Eben Tollman only nodded.
Leaving the house behind him, Stuart had silence except for the occasional call of a whippoorwill, and as he drew nearer to the sleepy darkness at the pines a clear and fragrant scent of honeysuckle came to his nostrils.
He guessed that in this sudden withdrawal to the isolation of the firs, Conscience had followed the same instinct that takes a wounded animal off, to be alone with its pain. So he approached with a noiseless caution abetted by the sound-deadening carpet of pine needles, searching the shadows for her unannounced and at first vainly.
In the sea of moonlit brightness this strip of trees afforded a margin of soft, almost sooty obscurity, save where here and there darts of light fell through the raggedness of the foliage.
Finally he saw her. She was seated on a rounded bowlder and both her hands were pressed tightly against her face. Her pose was rigid and unmoving; an attitude of distress and high-keyed misery of spirit.
Her thoughts were her own and safe from penetration, but their tenor was as obvious as though, instead of sitting alone in a stunned silence, she were proclaiming her crisis in Hamlet's resonant soliloquy.
There was a droop of surrender in her usually gallant shoulders and a limpness in her whole body which even the darkness did not entirely conceal. Within herself she admitted that her resolution had come to the condition of a stronghold so long besieged that it is no longer strong: where only the grim spirit of holding out against odds is left to keep the colors flying.
But perhaps if she could have a half hour of relief from the pitiful counterfeit of strength she might develop a fresh power of resistance. In all sieges there must be moments like that: moments when, if the enemy only knew, a quick assault would end the fight. If the enemy did not discover them, they passed without defeat.
Her young and splendid body seemed to her a temple out of which she had driven the love god, the deity of motherhood and the glowing lights of wholesome sex ... and where she had set up instead a pale allegiance of soulless form. Her life seemed a thing of quenched torches and unlit lamps.
Conscience Tollman was in a dangerous mood, and some of her belligerency of spirit Stuart Farquaharson saw as he came quietly to her side and spoke her name, gently, as one might speak to a sleep walker.
"Why did you come?" She looked at him a little wildly and her voice shook. "I wanted to be alone."
"I was troubled about you," he said very gently. "You had been away so long."
Her courage was almost prostrate, but it still had that resilient power which rises from exhaustion for one effort more. There was in her the spirit of the Phoenix, and realizing how clearly he would read defeat in the limp droop of her shoulders, she straightened them, not abruptly, but as one who has been sitting at ease draws up into a less careless attitude upon the arrival of another. She even smiled and spoke with a voice no longer tremulous.
"Yes, I did stay longer than necessary. The music bored me and down here it was very quiet—and inviting."
"Conscience," he said seriously, "you were more than bored, you were distracted."
But at that, she laughed almost convincingly. "Must one be distracted to enjoy an occasional moment of solitude? It's the favorite recipe of philosophers."
"Your attitude wasn't that of enjoying solitude. It was that of despair."
"I was a little fagged. I'm all right now."
As if in demonstration of her assertion she rose with a dryad lightness and stepped forward for inspection into a spot of moonlight, where she stood illuminated—and smiling.
"Do I look like a victim of despair?" she challenged and the man, with a quick, almost gasping intake of his breath, leaned toward her and declared in a voice of passionate fervor, "To me you look like the incarnation of heart's desire."
Now, her mirth was less convincing, but for a time she fenced gallantly, adroitly, though with a waning remnant of resistance. It was a sword play of wills, but the man attacked with a saber of tempestuous love, and the woman defended herself with a weakening rapier of finesse. She was desperately tired and her heart was not in the fight, so she grew less lightning-like of thrust and less sure of parry as the play went on.
When they had talked for ten minutes Stuart abruptly exclaimed, "Dearest, it was not far from this spot that you once told me you loved me in every way you knew how to love: that you wanted to be, to me, all that a woman could be to a man. Have you forgotten? I told you that my love was always yours ... have you forgotten that?"
Her hands went spasmodically to her breast and her eyes glowed with the fire of struggle. Suddenly the physical impulses, which she could not control, deserted the rallying strength of her mind, and she trembled visibly.
"The two men who say they love me," she broke out vehemently, "are succeeding between them in driving me mad."
"Because," he as emphatically answered, "you are trying to reconcile a true and a false allegiance—because—"
"This isn't a time," she broke in on him desperately, "for preaching theories to me. I'm hardly sane enough just now to stand that."
"I'm not preaching," he protested. "I'm asserting that no amount of bigotry can white-wash a living sepulcher."
"I told you I wanted to be alone.... I told you—" Her voice broke. "I told you that I must be alone."
"You defied me to attack when and where and how I chose," came his instant rejoinder. "I'm fighting for your salvation from the undertow."
His eyes met hers and held them under a spell like hypnosis, and hers were wide and futile of concealment so that her heart and its secrets were at last defenseless.
"I—I will go back to the house," she said, and for the first time her voice openly betrayed her broken self-confidence.
"Can you go?" he challenged with a new and fiery assurance of tone. "Don't you know that I can hold you here, without a word, without a touch? Don't you realize that I can stretch out my arms and force you, of your own accord, to come into them?"
She seemed striving to break some spell of lethargy, but she only succeeded in swaying a little as she stood pallid and wraith-like in the moonlight. Her lips moved, but she failed to speak.
"I will never leave you again." Farquaharson's voice leaped suddenly with the elation of certain triumph. "Because you are mine and I am yours. I said once with a boy's assurance that they might surround you with regiments of soldiers but that I would come and claim you. Now I've come. There is no more doubt. Husband or lover—you may decide—but you are mine."
Her knees weakened and as she tried to retreat before his advance she tottered, reaching out her hands with a groping uncertainty. It was then that he caught her in his arms and crushed her close to him, conscious of the wild flutter that went through her soft body; intoxicated by the fragrant softness of the dark hair which he was kissing—and at first oblivious to her struggle for freedom from his embrace.
"Stuart ... Stuart...!" she pleaded in the wildly agitated whisper of a half-recovered voice. "Don't—for God's sake, don't!"
But as she turned up her face to make her final plea, he smothered the words with his own lips upon hers.
For years she had dwelt for him on the most remote borderland of unattainable dreams. Now her heart was throbbing against his own and he knew exultantly that whatever her mind might say in protest, her heart was at home there. In his brain pealed a crescendo of passion that drowned out whispers of remonstrance as pounding surf drowns the cry of a gull.
But at last her lips were free again and her panting protests came to him, low but insistent. "Let me go—don't you see?... It's my last chance.... The tide is taking me." Then feebly and in postscript, "I'll call for help." But the man laughed. "Call, dearest," he dared her. "Then I can break silence and be honest again. Do you think I'm not willing to fight for you?"
The moment had come which she had faithfully and long sought to avoid: the moment which nature must dominate. Even as she struggled, with an ebbing strength of body and will she realized that in the wild moment of his triumph she was a sharer. If he were to release her now she would crumple down inertly at his feet. Almost fainting under the sweep of emotion, her muscles grew inert, her struggles ended. The tide had taken her.
Slowly, as if in obedience to a command from beyond her own initiative, she reached up the arms that had failed to hold him off and clasped her hands behind his head and when again their lips met hers were no longer unresponsive. Slowly she said in a voice of complete surrender, "Take me—my last gun is fired. I tried—but I lost—Now I can't even make terms."
"You have won," he contradicted joyously. "You've conquered the undertow. 'The idols are broken in the Temple of Baal.'"
She was still dependent upon the support of his arms: still too storm-tossed and unnerved to stand alone and her words came faintly.
"I surrender. I am at your mercy.... There is in all the world nothing you can ask that I can refuse you."
"You have chosen—finally?" he demanded and he spoke gravely, unwilling that she should fail to understand. "There will be no turning back?"
"You have chosen—not I," she replied, her eyes looking up into his. "But I accept ... your choice ... there will be no turning back."
"You are ready to repudiate, for all time this life ... Eben Tollman ... the undertow? You will be big enough and strong enough to break these shackles?"
"I am ready—" she said falteringly.
"And you will not feel that you have proven a traitor—to the memory of your father?"
That was a hard question to ask, but it must be asked. He felt a shiver run through her body and he saw in her eyes a fleeting expression of torture.
"I am ready," she repeated dully. Somehow he remembered with a shudder hearing a newspaper acquaintance describe an execution. The poor wretch who was the law's victim went to the chair echoing in a colorless monotony words prompted into his ear by the priest at his side. Then he heard her voice again.
"Are you through questioning me, Stuart? Because if you are ... I have something to say."
"I am listening, dearest."
"You see you must understand. You have conquered. I have surrendered—unconditionally. But it's not a victory to be very proud of or a surrender to be proud of. Once I could have given you everything—with a glory of pride—but not now." He had to bend his ear to catch her words so faintly were they breathed. "I'm overwhelmed, but not convinced. I'm ready to choose because your will has proven the stronger—but I know that it's only a triumph of passion over right. Some day we may both realize that—and hate each other."
"But you have chosen! You've risen above the bigotry of your blood!"
"No. I'm just conquered—whipped into submission. I told you you might attack when you liked.... I thought I was strong ... and I wasn't. It isn't a victory over my strength—but over my weakness. To-night I was utterly helpless."
She seemed stronger now, and in a sudden bewilderment the man released her and she stood before him pale but no longer inert.
"Then—then," he spoke with a new note of misgiving, "your decision is not final after all?"
That word "helpless" was ringing like a knell over his late triumph. It tinged victory with a hideous color of rapacity and brutality.
"Yes—it's final." She spoke slowly and laboriously. "It's final because I've confessed my helplessness. If I rallied and resisted you to-night ... I know now ... that I'd surrender again to-morrow. There's only one way I can be saved now."
"Saved—but you've saved yourself. What do you mean?"
"No, I've lost myself. You've won me ... but that's over. I can't fight any more.... I tell you I'm helpless." After a moment she added with a ghost of new-born hopefulness: "unless you can do my fighting for me."
"What would you have me do?" His words came flatly and with no trace of their recent elation.
"It is for you to say, Stuart. I'm yours.... I have no right to ask mercy ... when I lost ... when I love you so that ... that I can't resist you."
"So, the code of your fathers still holds you," he said miserably. "The undertow."
"I believe in what I've always believed," she told him. "Only I can't go on fighting for it any longer. It's for you to decide now ... but you inherited a code, too ... a code that has honor for its cornerstone, and that might be able to put generosity above victory.... I wonder if it could ... or if I'm worth the effort."
"Honor!" he exclaimed with deep bitterness. "A word with a thousand meanings and no single meaning! A tyrant that smugly rides down thought and tramps on happiness!"
"Honor has a single meaning for a woman." She laid both hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes. Her own held a mute appeal stronger than words, and her voice was infinitely tender.
"Stuart, whatever you do, I love you. I love you in every way that I know how to love ... but in the name of my God and yours and of my love for you and your love for me ... I ask you—if you can—take me back to the house—and don't enforce your victory."
The man straightened up and stood for a while, very drawn of feature and pallid. He lifted a hand vaguely and the arm dropped again like dead weight at his side. Without seeing them, he looked at the mirrored stars in the fresh-water lake across the way and twice his lips moved, but succeeded in forming no words.
At last his head came up with a sudden jerk and his utterance was difficult.
"So you put it up to me, in the name of your God: to me who acknowledge no God. You ask it in the name of generosity."
"No," she corrected him. "I'm not in a position to ask anything.... I only suggest it. I'm too helpless even to plead."
She moved over a few paces and leaned for support against the gnarled trunk of a scrub pine, watching him with a fascinated gaze as he stood bracing himself against the inward storm under which his own world and hers seemed rocking.
With the heavy and dolorous insistence of a muffled drum two thoughts were hammering at his brain: her helplessness: his honor.
But he had never put honor underfoot, he argued against that voice; only an arbitrary and little conception of honor.... Yet she could not rid herself of that conception ... and she was helpless. If he took her now into the possession of his life, he must take her, not with triumph but as he might pick up a fallen dove, fluttering and wounded at his feet—as an exquisitely fashioned vase which his hand had shattered.
He remembered their first meeting in Virginia and his wrath when she had laughed at his narrative of the Newmarket cadets.
The Newmarket cadets!
His father had been one of them at fifteen. There came again to his ears, across the interval of years, the voice of the old gentleman, so long dead, telling that story in a house where traditions were strong and hallowed.
Across a wheat field lay a Union battery which must be stormed and taken at the bayonet's point. Wave after wave of infantry had gone forward and broken under its belching of death. The line wavered. There must be a steady—an unflinching—unit upon which to guide. The situation called for a morale which could rise to heroism. General Breckenridge was told that only the cadets from the Virginia Military Institute could do the trick: the smooth-faced boys with their young ardor and their letter-perfect training of the parade grounds. Appalled at the thought of this sacrifice of children, the Commander was said to have exclaimed with tears in his eyes, "Let them go then—and may God forgive me!"
And they had gone! Gone because there burned in their boyish hearts this absurd idea that honor is a word of a single meaning: a meaning of sacrifice. They had gone in the even unwavering alignment of a competitive drill, closing-up, as those who fell left ugly gaps in their formation, until those who did not fall had taken the gun which the veterans had not been able to take.
That had been the honor of his fathers, the honor which he had been declaring himself too advanced to accept blindly. Suddenly his boyhood ideals and his mature ideas fell into the parallel of contrast—and beside that which he had inherited, his acquired thought seemed tawdry. Of course, charging a field gun was an easy and uncomplicated thing in comparison with his own problem, but his father would have met the larger demand, too, with the same obedience to simple ideas of honor.
His own contention had been right and Conscience's wrong. That he still believed. So the spirit of the French Revolution had been perhaps a forward-moving colossus of humanity: a triumph of right over aristocratic decadence. And yet the picture of a slender queen going to the guillotine in a cart, with her chin held high under the jeers of the rabble, made the big thing seem small, and her own adherence to code magnificent.
Slowly Stuart went back and spoke in tones of level resolution.
"To make war on you when you defied me was one thing ... to fight you when you are helpless is another.... I wasn't fighting you then but the rock-bound bigotries of your ancestors." He paused, finding it hard to choose words because of the chaotic things in his mind.