Having allowed exactly a week to go by, Everard Barfoot made use of his cousin’s permission, and called upon her at nine in the evening. Miss Barfoot’s dinner-hour was seven o’clock; she and Rhoda, when alone, rarely sat for more than half an hour at table, and in this summer season they often went out together at sunset to enjoy a walk along the river. This evening they had returned only a few minutes before Everard’s ring sounded at the door. Miss Barfoot (they were just entering the library) looked at her friend and smiled.
’I shouldn’t wonder if that is the young man. Very flattering if he has come again so soon.’
The visitor was in mirthful humour, and met with a reception of corresponding tone. He remarked at once that Miss Nunn had a much pleasanter aspect than a week ago; her smile was ready and agreeable; she sat in a sociable attitude and answered a jesting triviality with indulgence.
‘One of my reasons for coming to-day,’ said Everard, ’was to tell you a remarkable story. It connects’—he addressed his cousin— ’with our talk about the matrimonial disasters of those two friends of mine. Do you remember the name of Micklethwaite—a man who used to cram me with mathematics? I thought you would. He is on the point of marrying, and his engagement has lasted just seventeen years.’
‘The wisest of your friends, I should say.’
’An excellent fellow. He is forty, and the lady the same. An astonishing case of constancy.’
‘And how is it likely to turn out?’
‘I can’t predict, as the lady is unknown to me. But,’ he added with facetious gravity, ’I think it likely that they are tolerably well acquainted with each other. Nothing but sheer poverty has kept them apart. Pathetic, don’t you think? I have a theory that when an engagement has lasted ten years, with constancy on both sides, and poverty still prevents marriage, the State ought to make provision for a man in some way, according to his social standing. When one thinks of it, a whole socialistic system lies in that suggestion.’
‘If,’ remarked Rhoda, ’it were first provided that no marriage should take place until after a ten years’ engagement.’
‘Yes,’ Barfoot assented, in his smoothest and most graceful tone. ’That completes the system. Unless you like to add that no engagement is permitted except between people who have passed a certain examination; equivalent, let us say, to that which confers a university degree.’
’Admirable. And no marriage, except where both, for the whole decennium, have earned their living by work that the State recognizes.’
‘How would that effect Mr. Micklethwaite’s betrothed?’ asked Miss Barfoot.
‘I believe she has supported herself all along by teaching.’
‘Of course!’ exclaimed the other impatiently. ’And more likely than not, with loathing of her occupation. The usual kind of drudgery, was it?’