He laughed merrily.
‘Miss Nunn, I dare say, needs no protection against you.’
‘I had an odd thought whilst I was there.’ Everard leaned his head back, and half closed his eyes. ’Miss Nunn, I warrant, considers herself proof against any kind of wooing. She is one of the grandly severe women; a terror, I imagine, to any young girl at their place who betrays weak thoughts of matrimony. Now, it’s rather a temptation to a man of my kind. There would be something piquant in making vigorous love to Miss Nunn, just to prove her sincerity.’
Micklethwaite shook his head.
’Unworthy of you, Barfoot. Of course you couldn’t really do such a thing.’
’But such women really challenge one. If she were rich, I think I could do it without scruple.’
‘You seem to be taking it for granted,’ said the mathematician, smiling, ‘that this lady would—would respond to your lovemaking.’
’I confess to you that women have spoilt me. And I am rather resentful when any one cries out against me for lack of respect to womanhood. I have been the victim of this groundless veneration for females. Now you shall hear the story; and bear in mind that you are the only person to whom I have ever told it. I never tried to defend myself when I was vilified on all hands. Probably the attempt would have been useless; and then it would certainly have increased the odium in which I stood. I think I’ll tell cousin Mary the truth some day; it would be good for her.’
The listener looked uneasy, but curious.
’Well now, I was staying in the summer with some friends of ours at a little place called Upchurch, on a branch line from Oxford. The people were well-to-do—Goodall their name—and went in for philanthropy. Mrs. Goodall always had a lot of Upchurch girls about her, educated and not; her idea was to civilize one class by means of the other, and to give a new spirit to both. My cousin Mary was staying at the house whilst I was there. She had more reasonable views than Mrs. Goodall, but took a great interest in what was going on.
’Now one of the girls in process of spiritualization was called Amy Drake. In the ordinary course of things I shouldn’t have met her, but she served in a shop where I went two or three times to get a newspaper; we talked a little—with absolute propriety on my part, I assure you—and she knew that I was a friend of the Goodalls. The girl had no parents, and she was on the point of going to London to live with a married sister.
’It happened that by the very train which took me back to London, when my visit was over, this girl also travelled, and alone. I saw her at Upchurch Station, but we didn’t speak, and I got into a smoking carriage. We had to change at Oxford, and there, as I walked about the platform, Amy put herself in my way, so that I was obliged to begin talking with her. This behaviour rather surprised me. I wondered what Mrs. Goodall would think of it. But perhaps it was a sign of innocent freedom in the intercourse of men and women. At all events, Amy managed to get me into the same carriage with herself, and on the way to London we were alone. You foresee the end of it. At Paddington Station the girl and I went off together, and she didn’t get to her sister’s till the evening.