“If he’s a gentleman, he must stand to his word,” John repeated, “unless she releases him.”
I fumbled again for my letter. “That’s just about what he says himself,” I rejoined, sitting down. “He thinks he ought to take the consequences.”
“Of course!” John Mayrant’s face was very stern as he sat in judgment on himself.
“But why should she take the consequences?” I asked.
“Being married to a man who doesn’t want her, all her life, until death them do part. How’s that? Having the daily humiliation of his indifference, and the world’s knowledge of his indifference. How’s that? Perhaps having the further humiliation of knowing that his heart belongs to another woman. How’s that? That’s not what a girl bargains for. His standing to his word is not an act of honor, but a deception. And in talking about ‘taking the consequences,’ he’s patting his personal sacrifice on the back and forgetting all about her and the sacrifice he’s putting her to. What’s the brief suffering of a broken engagement to that? No: the true consequences that a man should shoulder for making such a mistake is the poor opinion that society holds of him for placing a woman in such a position; and to free her is the most honorable thing he can do. Her dignity suffers less so than if she were a wife chained down to perpetual disregard.”
John, after a silence, said: “That is a very curious view.”
“That is the view I shall give my friend,” I answered. “I shall tell him that in keeping on he is not at bottom honestly thinking of the girl and her welfare, but of himself and the public opinion he’s afraid of, if he breaks his engagement. And I shall tell him that if I’m in church and they come to the place where they ask if any man knows just cause or impediment, I shall probably call out, ’He does! His heart’s not in it. This is not marriage that he’s committing. You’re pronouncing your blessing upon a fraud.’”
John sat now a long time silent, holding his extinct cigar. The lamp was almost burned dry; we had blown out the expiring candles some while since. “That is a very curious view,” he repeated. “I should like to hear what your friend says in answer.”
This finished our late sitting. We opened the door and went out for a brief space into the night to get its pure breath into our lungs, and look to the distant place where the moon had sailed. Then we went to bed, or rather, I did; for the last thing that I remembered was John, standing by the window of our bedroom still dressed, looking out into the forest.