She said, “Teach me to be contemptible.”
In those words he had expressed his composition. What he had not revealed—that very vividness of sense of what was right (and what was wrong) in his conduct forbidding it—was the corroding struggle to preserve the path of his duty. Because of that struggle he kept locked the refuge that Nona was to him in his dismays. He would have no meetings with her save only such as thrice happy chance and most kind circumstance might apportion. That was within the capacity of his strength. He could “at least” (he used to think) prevent his limbs from taking him to her. But his mind—his mind turned to her; automatically, when he was off his guard, as a swing door ever to its frame; frantically, when he would abate it, as a prisoned animal against its bars. By day, by night, in Fortune’s company, in Mabel’s company, in solitude, his mind turned to her. This was the refuge he kept locked, using the expression and envisaging it.
He used to think, “Of course I fail. Of course she’s always in my mind. But while I make the effort to prevent it, while I do sometimes manage to wrench my mind away, I’m keeping fit; I’m able to go on putting up some sort of a fight. I’m able to help her.”
To help her! But helping her, unfolding before her in his own measured words, as one pronouncing sentence, rectitude’s austere asylum for their pains, watching her while she listened, hearing her gentle acquiescence,—these were most terrible to his governance upon himself.
He said one day, “You see, there’s this, Nona. Life’s got one. We’re in the thing. All the time you’ve got to go on. You can’t go back one single second. What you’ve done, you’ve done. It may take only a minute in the doing, or in the saying, but it’s done, or said, for all your life, perhaps for the whole of some one else’s life as well. That’s terrific, Nona.
“Nona, that’s how life gets us; there’s just one way we can get life and that’s by thinking forward before we do a thing. By remembering that it’s going to be there for always. What’s in our hearts for one another, Nona, is no hurt to to-morrow or to next year or to twenty years hence, either to our own lives or to any one else’s—no hurt while it’s only there and not expressed, or acted on. I’ve never told you what’s in my heart for you, nor you told me what’s in your heart for me. It must remain like that. Once that goes, everything goes. It’s only a question of time after that. And after that, again, only a question of time before one of us looks back and wishes for the years over again.”
She made the smallest motion of dissent.