“Unfortunately,” said Miltoun, “I cannot, to fit in with a theory of yours, commit a baseness.”
Lord Dennis began pacing up and down. He was keeping his lips closed very tight.
“A man who gives advice,” he said at last, “is always something of a fool. For all that, you have mistaken mine. I am not so presumptuous as to attempt to enter the inner chamber of your spirit. I have merely told you that, in my opinion, it would be more honest to yourself, and fairer to this lady, to compound with your conscience, and keep both your love and your public life, than to pretend that you were capable of sacrificing what I know is the stronger element in you for the sake of the weaker. You remember the saying, Democritus I think: ’each man’s nature or character is his fate or God’. I recommend it to you.”
For a full minute Miltoun stood without replying, then said:
“I am sorry to have troubled you, Uncle Dennis. A middle policy is no use to me. Good-bye!” And without shaking hands, he went out.
In the hall someone rose from a sofa, and came towards him. It was Courtier.
“Run you to earth at last,” he said; “I wish you’d come and dine with me. I’m leaving England to-morrow night, and there are things I want to say.”
There passed through Miltoun’s mind the rapid thought: ‘Does he know?’ He assented, however, and they went out together.
“It’s difficult to find a quiet place,” said Courtier; “but this might do.”
The place chosen was a little hostel, frequented by racing men, and famed for the excellence of its steaks. And as they sat down opposite each other in the almost empty room, Miltoun thought: Yes, he does know! Can I stand any more of this? He waited almost savagely for the attack he felt was coming.
“So you are going to give up your seat?” said Courtier.
Miltoun looked at him for some seconds, before replying.
“From what town-crier did you hear that?”
But there was that in Courtier’s face which checked his anger; its friendliness was transparent.
“I am about her only friend,” Courtier proceeded earnestly; “and this is my last chance—to say nothing of my feeling towards you, which, believe me, is very cordial.”
“Go on, then,” Miltoun muttered.
“Forgive me for putting it bluntly. Have you considered what her position was before she met you?”
Miltoun felt the blood rushing to his face, but he sat still, clenching his nails into the palms of his hands.
“Yes, yes,” said Courtier, “but that attitude of mind—you used to have it yourself—which decrees either living death, or spiritual adultery to women, makes my blood boil. You can’t deny that those were the alternatives, and I say you had the right fundamentally to protest against them, not only in words but deeds. You did protest, I know; but this present decision of yours is a climb down, as much as to say that your protest was wrong.”