The small pub was nearly empty, and Everard Bone sat at one of the tables, in a slightly rumpled shirt with his hair in some disarray. It was nothing extreme - many men look the way he did every day - but usually he was quite fastidious, and people who knew him might not even recognize him like this.
There was a gin and lime in front of him, but he had not touched it yet. He was just staring at the table and hoping that meeting with Rocky would somehow help the situation he found himself in.
“You’re looking at that drink like you don’t know what you are supposed to do with it,” a voice said. Rockingham Napier had arrived.
Everard looked around the pub self-consciously and took a sip. Rocky looked Everard up and down and raised his eyebrows.
“Don’t say it,” Everard muttered. “I know I don’t look fit for polite society.”
“Good thing I’m not polite society!” said Rocky with a laugh. Rocky was always like that, Everard reflected. So jocular, trying to lighten any situation. He could be a bit annoying, really, because there wasn’t that much more to him than that, but Everard was still grateful to him for coming.
Rocky sat down in the opposite chair. “What’s happened?” he asked.
“It’s Mildred. She’s broken off our engagement,” Everard sighed.
“Surely not!” said Rocky. “Why would she do that? You’re quite a catch for a woman like her.”
“A woman like her?” asked Everard with warning in his tone.
“I like her, I really do, and she is pleasant to be with. There was a time I might have even... well, never mind that. But she’s always busy with silly things like jumble sales, and she looks a bit mousy,” said Rocky. He held up one hand. “But I would never say anything bad about her!” he concluded, as though he hadn’t just done exactly that.
Everard thought to himself that he liked how Mildred looked, especially on the rare occasions she wasn’t trying to look as close to perfect as possible, but that there was probably no point in arguing about it with Rocky. Perhaps seeking insight from someone as superficial as this was a mistake after all.
“I know it must be awful for you,” Rocky continued, “But you could meet someone else.”
Everard narrowed his eyes. “How would you have liked it if someone had said that to you all those months ago?” It was a sensitive topic between them, but Everard felt that Rocky deserved to be made uncomfortable. “Mousy” indeed.
“I didn’t ask you here to tell me there are other women out there,” Everard continued. “I asked you here because I want you to help me win Mildred back.”
Rocky raised his eyebrows. “Why pick me?”
“Who else could I ask?” Everard knew that sounded a bit rude but he honestly didn’t care. “I can’t tell anyone at the Learned Society,” said Everard. “Word would get around and people would whisper about me. And maybe some kind of unacceptable woman would think I was ripe for the picking.” Everard shuddered.
“You see, you have more women than you even want!” said Rocky.
When Everard glared at him, Rocky stopped smiling. Apparently even he had limits. “I suppose this is something much bigger than flowers or confectionary,” Rocky said contemplatively. “Perhaps poetry.”
Everard shook his head. He had studied the requisite amount of poetry in school and no longer indulged.
“What reason did Mildred give for wanting to end your engagement?” Rocky asked. “I can’t imagine there’s another man.”
“She said she wasn’t sure she was cut out for this kind of life after all.”
“Life as a proof-correcting drudge.” replied Everard, taking a large sip of his drink.
“She said that?” asked Rocky, sounding skeptical.
“Not in so many words. But she said there were so many things she hadn’t done. And when I pointed out that marrying was one of those things, she didn’t see my point.”
“What on earth does Mildred want from life? To become an aeroplane pilot? To dance on the stage? If there was ever a woman meant to marry an intellectual and help him in his work, it’s Mildred.”
“I don’t think she’s seeking adventure, exactly. Probably she just wants someone more interesting than me, and I can hardly blame her for that. But of course she didn’t say that. She just said she wasn’t certain she wanted to be a helpmeet,” said Everard.
“And you said?”
Everard winced. “I said that in the Bible it states that woman was created as a helpmeet for man.”
“For an anthropologist you’re really not very good with people,” said Rocky.
“I meant it as a joke!” Everard said defensively.
“I think you do not understand the concept of a joke.”
“It was just that the word reminded me of that verse in Genesis. I almost never quote scripture at her. We both have very reasonable attitudes toward religion.”
Even at the time he had realised that it was a mistake. Mildred had sat there and said nothing and Everard had honestly wished she would shout at him instead. Of course, he had tried assuring her of his affections, but he had stumbled on the words and Mildred had only shaken her head.
“I blame Dora for some of this,” said Everard.
“Mildred’s friend? You think she turned her against you?”
“I’m referring to her scandalous behavior, of which you are apparently not aware.”
“She resigned from her job without notice in the middle of the term, married a man she’d known for three weeks, and moved to Italy with him! And he was a Roman Catholic! Well, he’s not anymore. Dora got him to change. But he was one when she met him.”
“Your definition of ’scandalous behavior’ differs greatly from mine,” said Rocky. “And I’m always amazed that people like you can travel the world and witness any number of forms of ancient nature worship or what have you, then come home and still worry about the Pope.”
“Dora and her husband are running a restaurant in Milan!” said Everard, in a tone that implied that this was scarcely better than begging in the street. “It just reminded Mildred that there are more things in life than one finds working with gentlewomen and helping the Church.”
“Well, there are,” said Rocky bluntly.
Everard sighed and closed his eyes. How could he explain what Mildred had come to mean to him? At the beginning, perhaps, it had been about the proofs and cooking and other things he felt a man needed a woman to do. But now he would miss so much about her: her wry sense of humor, her humble nature, her unexpected cleverness. Mildred had turned out to be a very good companion for him and the whole thing went far beyond index-making, at least at this point.
“You do love her, don’t you?” Rocky asked.
He did really love her, he thought to himself, but he wasn’t sure Rocky would understand. It wasn’t a burning obsession, but one knew love when one found it. He loved the way Mildred was just herself, and people could accept it or not, as they chose. She always wanted to do what was polite, but she also wanted to do what was good, and he loved her for that too.
“I do,” said Everard.
“Then you must tell her that, and tell her you don’t even want her help with your silly book.”
“Well, someone does have to do it.”
Rocky laughed. “And if you want it to be Mildred, I suggest you pay her rather than marry her.”
“It’s not like that!” Everard insisted.
“Then tell her that,” said Rocky. “Better advice I cannot give you.”
The next day, Everard sat in Mildred’s kitchen, this time looking scrupulously presentable. He knew what he had to say but found it almost impossible to bring the words forth.
“Among the people of Alor, in the East Indies, marriage is not like it is here,” he said finally.
Mildred seemed bemused. “I daresay it isn’t, or no one would bother to go there and find out about it.”
“I didn’t go myself. There’s a famous book by an American. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. On Alor there is an elaborate system of bride-prices and dowries and complicated negotiations. And I always thought love and marriage in my own society was so much easier. One found someone suitable and pursued a relationship, and then married. But it’s not simple. It’s hard to speak honestly with someone, and easy to make a person think they aren’t loved.”
Mildred had a little smile on her face and Everard desperately hoped it was one of her real smiles and not just a polite one.
“And I know I’m not a very interesting person and my life isn’t so enthralling either. I reduce people to marks on paper and then wonder why I bothered. But I love you, Mildred. Maybe I don’t love you in a breathtaking exciting way, but I love you in the way I can.”
“Your work is more than that,” said Mildred.
That was not the part of the declaration that he had hoped she would address. “My work,” said Everard, “is not as important to me as you are.”
Mildred looked shocked and at a loss for words. He really had mistreated her, he thought, if she had doubted that so much.
“I can’t offer you anything but myself, and I know that isn’t worth much,” said Everard. “And I can’t make myself into a romantic hero. But I would like to offer something more interesting than an index. I suppose we could elope to Italy, if it would help?”
“We can’t elope to Italy,” said Mildred.
Everard’s face fell. He should have known it wouldn’t be that simple. Then Mildred took his hand.
“Julian would never forgive us if we didn’t let him perform the wedding.”
Everard laughed, a very rare sound. “And my mother would never forgive us if she couldn’t attend.” He felt an unaccustomed joy, sitting there opposite Mildred with their hands joined over the table.
“I’m glad everything is well now,” he said.
“Oh, everything isn’t ever well in this world,” Mildred replied. “But some things are, and that should be enough for anyone.”