"Not for five years then; for ten years; twenty years. It's the same thing."
"Do you find it so? It seems to me there's a great difference. I can imagine that at the end of ten years we might have a very pleasant correspondence. I shall have matured my epistolary style."
She looked away while she spoke these words, knowing them of so much less earnest a cast than the countenance of her listener. Her eyes, however, at last came back to him, just as he said very irrelevantly; "Are you enjoying your visit to your uncle?"
"Very much indeed." She dropped, but then she broke out. "What good do you expect to get by insisting?"
"The good of not losing you."
"You've no right to talk of losing what's not yours. And even from your own point of view," Isabel added, "you ought to know when to let one alone."
"I disgust you very much," said Caspar Goodwood gloomily; not as if to provoke her to compassion for a man conscious of this blighting fact, but as if to set it well before himself, so that he might endeavour to act with his eyes on it.
"Yes, you don't at all delight me, you don't fit in, not in any way, just now, and the worst is that your putting it to the proof in this manner is quite unnecessary." It wasn't certainly as if his nature had been soft, so that pin-pricks would draw blood from it; and from the first of her acquaintance with him, and of her having to defend herself against a certain air that he had of knowing better what was good for her than she knew herself, she had recognised the fact that perfect frankness was her best weapon. To attempt to spare his sensibility or to escape from him edgewise, as one might do from a man who had barred the way less sturdily — this, in dealing with Caspar Goodwood, who would grasp at everything of every sort that one might give him, was wasted agility. It was not that he had not susceptibilities, but his passive surface, as well as his active, was large and hard, and he might always be trusted to dress his wounds, so far as they required it, himself. She came back, even for her measure of possible pangs and aches in him, to her old sense that he was naturally plated and steeled, armed essentially for aggression.
"I can't reconcile myself to that," he simply said. There was a dangerous liberality about it; for she felt how open it was to him to make the point that he had not always disgusted her.
"I can't reconcile myself to it either, and it's not the state of things that ought to exist between us. If you'd only try to banish me from your mind for a few months we should be on good terms again."
"I see. If I should cease to think of you at all for a prescribed time, I should find I could keep it up indefinitely."
"Indefinitely is more than I ask. It's more even than I should like."
"You know that what you ask is impossible," said the young man, taking his adjective for granted in a manner she found irritating.
"Aren't you capable of making a calculated effort?" she demanded. "You're strong for everything else; why shouldn't you be strong for that?"
"An effort calculated for what?" And then as she hung fire, "I'm capable of nothing with regard to you," he went on, "but just of being infernally in love with you. If one's strong one loves only the more strongly."
"There's a good deal in that;" and indeed our young lady felt the force of it — felt it thrown off, into the vast of truth and poetry, as practically a bait to her imagination. But she promptly came round. "Think of me or not, as you find most possible; only leave me alone."
"Well, for a year or two."
"Which do you mean? Between one year and two there's all the difference in the world."
"Call it two then," said Isabel with a studied effect of eagerness.
"And what shall I gain by that?" her friend asked with no sign of wincing.
"You'll have obliged me greatly."
"And what will be my reward?"
"Do you need a reward for an act of generosity?"
"Yes, when it involves a great sacrifice."
"There's no generosity without some sacrifice. Men don't understand such things. If you make the sacrifice you'll have all my admiration."
"I don't care a cent for your admiration — not one straw, with nothing to show for it. When will you marry me? That's the only question."
"Never — if you go on making me feel only as I feel at present."
"What do I gain then by not trying to make you feel otherwise?"
"You'll gain quite as much as by worrying me to death!" Caspar Goodwood bent his eyes again and gazed a while into the crown of his hat. A deep flush overspread his face; she could see her sharpness had at last penetrated. This immediately had a value — classic, romantic, redeeming, what did she know? for her; "the strong man in pain" was one of the categories of the human appeal, little charm as he might exert in the given case. "Why do you make me say such things to you?" she cried in a trembling voice. "I only want to be gentle — to be thoroughly kind. It's not delightful to me to feel people care for me and yet to have to try and reason them out of it. I think others also ought to be considerate; we have each to judge for ourselves. I know you're considerate, as much as you can be; you've good reasons for what you do. But I really don't want to marry, or to talk about it at all now. I shall probably never do it — no, never. I've a perfect right to feel that way, and it's no kindness to a woman to press her so hard, to urge her against her will. If I give you pain I can only say I'm very sorry. It's not my fault; I can't marry you simply to please you. I won't say that I shall always remain your friend, because when women say that, in these situations, it passes, I believe, for a sort of mockery. But try me some day."