Fort threw back his head. “No, no, I won’t accept that position. With or without your presence the facts will be the same. Either she can love me, or she can’t. If she can, she’ll be happier with me. If she can’t, there’s an end of it.”
Pierson came slowly up to him. “In my view,” he said, “you are as bound to Leila as if you were married to her.”
“You can’t, expect me to take the priest’s view, sir.”
Pierson’s lips trembled.
“You call it a priest’s view; I think it is only the view of a man of honour.”
Fort reddened. “That’s for my conscience,” he said stubbornly. “I can’t tell you, and I’m not going to, how things began. I was a fool. But I did my best, and I know that Leila doesn’t think I’m bound. If she had, she would never have gone. When there’s no feeling—there never was real feeling on my side—and when there’s this terribly real feeling for Noel, which I never sought, which I tried to keep down, which I ran away from—”
“Yes. To go on with the other was foul. I should have thought you might have seen that, sir; but I did go on with it. It was Leila who made an end.”
“Leila behaved nobly, I think.”
“She was splendid; but that doesn’t make me a brute.”.
Pierson turned away to the window, whence he must see Noel.
“It is repugnant to me,” he said. “Is there never to be any purity in her life?”
“Is there never to be any life for her? At your rate, sir, there will be none. I’m no worse than other men, and I love her more than they could.”
For fully a minute Pierson stood silent, before he said: “Forgive me if I’ve spoken harshly. I didn’t mean to. I love her intensely; I wish for nothing but her good. But all my life I have believed that for a man there is only one woman—for a woman only one man.”
“Then, Sir,” Fort burst out, “you wish her—”
Pierson had put his hand up, as if to ward off a blow; and, angry though he was, Fort stopped.
“We are all made of flesh and blood,” he continued coldly, “and it seems to me that you think we aren’t.”
“We have spirits too, Captain Fort.” The voice was suddenly so gentle that Fort’s anger evaporated.
“I have a great respect for you, sir; but a greater love for Noel, and nothing in this world will prevent me trying to give my life to her.”
A smile quivered over Pierson’s face. “If you try, then I can but pray that you will fail.”
Fort did not answer, and went out.