“Whatever I choose?” She made a slight gesture of deprecation. “Has it never occurred to you that I may conceivably choose to say nothing?”
Durham paused, conscious of the increasing difficulty of the advance. She met him, parried him, at every turn: he had to take his baffled purpose back to another point of attack.
“Quite conceivably,” he said: “so much so that I am aware I must make the most of this opportunity, because I am not likely to get another.”
“But what remains of your opportunity, if it isn’t one to me?”
“It still remains, for me, an occasion to abase myself—” He broke off, conscious of a grossness of allusion that seemed, on a closer approach, the real obstacle to full expression. But the moments were flying, and for his self-esteem’s sake he must find some way of making her share the burden of his repentance.
“There is only one thinkable pretext for detaining you: it is that I may still show my sense of what you have done for me.”
Madame de Treymes, who had moved toward the door, paused at this and faced him, resting her thin brown hands on a slender sofa-back.
“How do you propose to show that sense?” she enquired.
Durham coloured still more deeply: he saw that she was determined to save her pride by making what he had to say of the utmost difficulty. Well! he would let his expiation take that form, then—it was as if her slender hands held out to him the fool’s cap he was condemned to press down on his own ears.
“By offering in return—in any form, and to the utmost—any service you are forgiving enough to ask of me.”
She received this with a low sound of laughter that scarcely rose to her lips. “You are princely. But, my dear sir, does it not occur to you that I may, meanwhile, have taken my own way of repaying myself for any service I have been fortunate enough to render you?”
Durham, at the question, or still more, perhaps, at the tone in which it was put, felt, through his compunction, a vague faint chill of apprehension. Was she threatening him or only mocking him? Or was this barbed swiftness of retort only the wounded creature’s way of defending the privacy of her own pain? He looked at her again, and read his answer in the last conjecture.
“I don’t know how you can have repaid yourself for anything so disinterested—but I am sure, at least, that you have given me no chance of recognizing, ever so slightly, what you have done.”
She shook her head, with the flicker of a smile on her melancholy lips. “Don’t be too sure! You have given me a chance and I have taken it—taken it to the full. So fully,” she continued, keeping her eyes fixed on his, “that if I were to accept any farther service you might choose to offer, I should simply be robbing you—robbing you shamelessly.” She paused, and added in an undefinable voice: “I was entitled, wasn’t I, to take something in return for the service I had the happiness of doing you?”