No undue indication of poverty disturbed him. He saw that the house had been improved in many ways since Mrs. Micklethwaite had taken possession of it; pictures, ornaments, pieces of furniture were added, all in simple taste, but serving to heighten the effect of refined comfort. Where the average woman would have displayed pretentious emptiness, Mrs. Micklethwaite had made a home which in its way was beautiful. The dinner, which she herself had cooked, and which she assisted in serving, aimed at being no more than a simple; decorous meal, but the guest unfeignedly enjoyed it; even the vegetables and the bread seemed to him to have a daintier flavour than at many a rich table. He could not help noticing and admiring the skill with which Miss Wheatley ate without seeing what was before her; had he not known her misfortune, he would hardly have become aware of it by any peculiarity as she sat opposite to him.
The mathematician had learnt to sit upon a chair like ordinary mortals. For the first week or two it must have cost him severe restraint; now he betrayed no temptation to roll and jerk and twist himself. When the ladies retired, he reached from the sideboard a box which Barfoot viewed with uneasiness.
‘Do you smoke here—in this room?’
‘Oh, why not?’
Everard glanced at the pretty curtains before the windows.
’No, my boy, you do not smoke here. And, in fact, I like your claret; I won’t spoil the flavour of it.’
‘As you please; but I think Fanny will be distressed.’
‘You shall say that I have abandoned the weed.’
Emotions were at conflict in Micklethwaite’s mind, but finally he beamed with gratitude.
’Barfoot’—he bent forward and touched his friend’s arm’there are angels walking the earth in this our day. Science hasn’t abolished them, my dear fellow, and I don’t think it ever will.’
’It falls to the lot of but few men to encounter them, and of fewer still to entertain them permanently in a cottage at South Tottenham.’
‘You are right.’ Micklethwaite laughed in a new way, with scarcely any sound; a change Everard had already noticed. ’These two sisters—but I had better not speak about them. In my old age I have become a worshipper, a mystic, a man of dream and vision.’
‘How about worship in a parochial sense?’ inquired Barfoot, smiling. ‘Any difficulty of that point?’
’I conform, in moderation. Nothing would be asked of me. There is no fanaticism, no intolerance. It would be brutal if I declined to go to church on a Sunday morning. You see, my strictly scientific attitude helps in avoiding offence. Fanny can’t understand it, but my lack of dogmatism vastly relieves her. I have been trying to explain to her that the scientific mind can have nothing to do with materialism. The new order of ideas is of course very difficult for her to grasp; but in time, in time.’