Miltoun rose from his seat. “I cannot discuss this,” he said; “I cannot.”
“For her sake, you must. If you give up your public work, you’ll spoil her life a second time.”
Miltoun again sat down. At the word ‘must’ a steely feeling had come to his aid; his eyes began to resemble the old Cardinal’s. “Your nature and mine, Courtier,” he said, “are too far apart; we shall never understand each other.”
“Never mind that,” answered Courtier. “Admitting those two alternatives to be horrible, which you never would have done unless the facts had been brought home to you personally—”
“That,” said Miltoun icily, “I deny your right to say.”
“Anyway, you do admit them—if you believe you had not the right to rescue her, on what principle do you base that belief?”
Miltoun placed his elbow on the table, and leaning his chin on his hand, regarded the champion of lost causes without speaking. There was such a turmoil going on within him that with difficulty he could force his lips to obey him.
“By what right do you ask me that?” he said at last. He saw Courtier’s face grow scarlet, and his fingers twisting furiously at those flame-like moustaches; but his answer was as steadily ironical as usual.
“Well, I can hardly sit still, my last evening in England, without lifting a finger, while you immolate a woman to whom I feel like a brother. I’ll tell you what your principle is: Authority, unjust or just, desirable or undesirable, must be implicitly obeyed. To break a law, no matter on what provocation, or for whose sake, is to break the commandment”
“Don’t hesitate—say, of God.”
“Of an infallible fixed Power. Is that a true definition of your principle?”
“Yes,” said Miltoun, between his teeth, “I think so.”
“Exceptions prove the rule.”
“Hard cases make bad law.”
Courtier smiled: “I knew you were coming out with that. I deny that they do with this law, which is altogether behind the times. You had the right to rescue this woman.”
“No, Courtier, if we must fight, let us fight on the naked facts. I have not rescued anyone. I have merely stolen sooner than starve. That is why I cannot go on pretending to be a pattern. If it were known, I could not retain my seat an hour; I can’t take advantage of an accidental secrecy. Could you?”
Courtier was silent; and with his eyes Miltoun pressed on him, as though he would despatch him with that glance.
“I could,” said Courtier at last. “When this law, by enforcing spiritual adultery on those who have come to hate their mates, destroys the sanctity of the married state—the very sanctity it professes to uphold, you must expect to have it broken by reasoning men and women without their feeling shame, or losing self-respect.”
In Miltoun there was rising that vast and subtle passion for dialectic combat, which was of his very fibre. He had almost lost the feeling that this was his own future being discussed. He saw before him in this sanguine man, whose voice and eyes had such a white-hot sound and look, the incarnation of all that he temperamentally opposed.