He leaned heavily on the table, his arm rigid, looking down at the floor as he spoke.
“No right to hope. Others told me that I still possessed that right. I knew they were wrong; I do not mean that they persuaded me—I persuaded myself that, after all, perhaps my right to hope remained to me. I persuaded myself that I might be, after all, the substance, not the shadow.”
He looked up at her:
“And so I dared to love you.”
She gazed at him, scarcely breathing.
“Then,” he said, “came the awakening. My dream had ended.”
She waited, the lace on her breast scarce stirring, so still she stood, so pitifully still.
“Such responsibility cannot die while those live who undertook it. I believed it until I desired to believe it no longer. But a man’s self-persuasion cannot alter such laws—nor can human laws confirm or nullify them, nor can a great religion do more than admit their truth, basing its creed upon such laws. . . . No man can put asunder, no laws of man undo the burden. . . . And, to my shame and disgrace, I have had to relearn this after offering you a love I had no right to offer—a life which is not my own to give.”
He took one step toward her, and his voice fell so low that she could just hear him:
“She has lost her mind, and the case is hopeless. Those to whom the laws of the land have given care of her turned on her, threatened her with disgrace. And when one friend of hers halted this miserable conspiracy, her malady came swiftly upon her, and suddenly she found herself helpless, penniless, abandoned, her mind already clouded, and clouding faster! . . . Eileen, was there then the shadow of a doubt as to the responsibility? Because a man’s son was named in the parable, does the lesson end there—and are there no others as prodigal—no other bonds that hold as inexorably as the bond of love?
“Men—a lawyer or two—a referee—decided to remove a burden; but a higher court has replaced it.”
He came and stood directly before her:
“I dare not utter one word of love to you; I dare not touch you. What chance is there for such a man as I?”
“No chance—for us,” she whispered. “Go!”
For a second he stood motionless, then, swaying slightly, turned on his heel.
And long after he had left the house she still stood there, eyes closed, colourless lips set, her slender body quivering, racked with the first fierce grief of a woman’s love for a man.
Neergard had already begun to make mistakes. The first was in thinking that, among those whose only distinction was their wealth, his own wealth permitted him the same insolence and ruthlessness that so frequently characterised them.