‘Curse you,’ said Philip. ‘You’re the last person I wanted to see tonight. Who’s brought it?’
‘I think it’s the ‘usband, sir. Shall I tell him to wait?’
Philip looked at the address, saw that the street was familiar to him, and told the porter that he would find his own way. He dressed himself and in five minutes, with his black bag in his hand, stepped into the street. A man, whom he could not see in the darkness, came up to him, and said he was the husband.
‘I thought I’d better wait, sir,’ he said. ‘It’s a pretty rough neighbour’ood, and them not knowing who you was.’
‘Bless your heart, they all know the doctor, I’ve been in some damned sight rougher places than Waver Street.’
It was quite true. The black bag was a passport through wretched alleys and down foul-smelling courts into which a policeman was not ready to venture by himself. Once or twice a little group of men had looked at Philip curiously as he passed; he heard a mutter of observations and then one say:
‘It’s the ‘orspital doctor.’
As he went by one or two of them said: ‘Good-night, sir.’
‘We shall ‘ave to step out if you don’t mind, sir,’ said the man who accompanied him now. ‘They told me there was no time to lose.’
‘Why did you leave it so late?’ asked Philip, as he quickened his pace.
He glanced at the fellow as they passed a lamp-post.
‘You look awfully young,’ he said.
‘I’m turned eighteen, sir.’
He was fair, and he had not a hair on his face, he looked no more than a boy; he was short, but thick set.
‘You’re young to be married,’ said Philip.
‘We ‘ad to.’
‘How much d’you earn?’
Sixteen shillings a week was not much to keep a wife and child on. The room the couple lived in showed that their poverty was extreme. It was a fair size, but it looked quite large, since there was hardly any furniture in it; there was no carpet on the floor; there were no pictures on the walls; and most rooms had something, photographs or supplements in cheap frames from the Christmas numbers of the illustrated papers. The patient lay on a little iron bed of the cheapest sort. It startled Philip to see how young she was.
‘By Jove, she can’t be more than sixteen,’ he said to the woman who had come in to ‘see her through.’
She had given her age as eighteen on the card, but when they were very young they often put on a year or two. Also she was pretty, which was rare in those classes in which the constitution has been undermined by bad food, bad air, and unhealthy occupations; she had delicate features and large blue eyes, and a mass of dark hair done in the elaborate fashion of the coster girl. She and her husband were very nervous.
‘You’d better wait outside, so as to be at hand if I want you,’ Philip said to him.
Now that he saw him better Philip was surprised again at his boyish air: you felt that he should be larking in the street with the other lads instead of waiting anxiously for the birth of a child. The hours passed, and it was not till nearly two that the baby was born. Everything seemed to be going satisfactorily; the husband was called in, and it touched Philip to see the awkward, shy way in which he kissed his wife; Philip packed up his things. Before going he felt once more his patient’s pulse.
‘Hulloa!’ he said.
He looked at her quickly: something had happened. In cases of emergency the S. O. C.—senior obstetric clerk—had to be sent for; he was a qualified man, and the ‘district’ was in his charge. Philip scribbled a note, and giving it to the husband, told him to run with it to the hospital; he bade him hurry, for his wife was in a dangerous state. The man set off. Philip waited anxiously; he knew the woman was bleeding to death; he was afraid she would die before his chief arrived; he took what steps he could. He hoped fervently that the S. O. C. would not have been called elsewhere. The minutes were interminable. He came at last, and, while he examined the patient, in a low voice asked Philip questions. Philip saw by his face that he thought the case very grave. His name was Chandler. He was a tall man of few words, with a long nose and a thin face much lined for his age. He shook his head.
‘It was hopeless from the beginning. Where’s the husband?’
‘I told him to wait on the stairs,’ said Philip.
‘You’d better bring him in.’
Philip opened the door and called him. He was sitting in the dark on the first step of the flight that led to the next floor. He came up to the bed.
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked.
‘Why, there’s internal bleeding. It’s impossible to stop it.’ The S. O. C. hesitated a moment, and because it was a painful thing to say he forced his voice to become brusque. ‘She’s dying.’
The man did not say a word; he stopped quite still, looking at his wife, who lay, pale and unconscious, on the bed. It was the midwife who spoke.
‘The gentlemen ‘ave done all they could, ‘Arry,’ she said. ‘I saw what was comin’ from the first.’
‘Shut up,’ said Chandler.
There were no curtains on the windows, and gradually the night seemed to lighten; it was not yet the dawn, but the dawn was at hand. Chandler was keeping the woman alive by all the means in his power, but life was slipping away from her, and suddenly she died. The boy who was her husband stood at the end of the cheap iron bed with his hands resting on the rail; he did not speak; but he looked very pale and once or twice Chandler gave him an uneasy glance, thinking he was going to faint: his lips were gray. The midwife sobbed noisily, but he took no notice of her. His eyes were fixed upon his wife, and in them was an utter bewilderment. He reminded you of a dog whipped for something he did not know was wrong. When Chandler and Philip had gathered together their things Chandler turned to the husband.
‘You’d better lie down for a bit. I expect you’re about done up.’
‘There’s nowhere for me to lie down, sir,’ he answered, and there was in his voice a humbleness which was very distressing.
‘Don’t you know anyone in the house who’ll give you a shakedown?’
‘They only moved in last week,’ said the midwife. ‘They don’t know nobody yet.’
Chandler hesitated a moment awkwardly, then he went up to the man and said:
‘I’m very sorry this has happened.’
He held out his hand and the man, with an instinctive glance at his own to see if it was clean, shook it.
‘Thank you, sir.’
Philip shook hands with him too. Chandler told the midwife to come and fetch the certificate in the morning. They left the house and walked along together in silence.
‘It upsets one a bit at first, doesn’t it?’ said Chandler at last.
‘A bit,’ answered Philip.
‘If you like I’ll tell the porter not to bring you any more calls tonight.’
‘I’m off duty at eight in the morning in any case.’
‘How many cases have you had?’
‘Good. You’ll get your certificate then.’
They arrived at the hospital, and the S. O. C. went in to see if anyone wanted him. Philip walked on. It had been very hot all the day before, and even now in the early morning there was a balminess in the air. The street was very still. Philip did not feel inclined to go to bed. It was the end of his work and he need not hurry. He strolled along, glad of the fresh air and the silence; he thought that he would go on to the bridge and look at day break on the river. A policeman at the corner bade him good-morning. He knew who Philip was from his bag.
‘Out late tonight, sir,’ he said.
Philip nodded and passed. He leaned against the parapet and looked towards the morning. At that hour the great city was like a city of the dead. The sky was cloudless, but the stars were dim at the approach of day; there was a light mist on the river, and the great buildings on the north side were like palaces in an enchanted island. A group of barges was moored in midstream. It was all of an unearthly violet, troubling somehow and awe-inspiring; but quickly everything grew pale, and cold, and gray. Then the sun rose, a ray of yellow gold stole across the sky, and the sky was iridescent. Philip could not get out of his eyes the dead girl lying on the bed, wan and white, and the boy who stood at the end of it like a stricken beast. The bareness of the squalid room made the pain of it more poignant. It was cruel that a stupid chance should have cut off her life when she was just entering upon it; but in the very moment of saying this to himself, Philip thought of the life which had been in store for her, the bearing of children, the dreary fight with poverty, the youth broken by toil and deprivation into a slatternly middle age—he saw the pretty face grow thin and white, the hair grow scanty, the pretty hands, worn down brutally by work, become like the claws of an old animal—then, when the man was past his prime, the difficulty of getting jobs, the small wages he had to take; and the inevitable, abject penury of the end: she might be energetic, thrifty, industrious, it would not have saved her; in the end was the workhouse or subsistence on the charity of her children. Who could pity her because she had died when life offered so little?
But pity was inane. Philip felt it was not that which these people needed. They did not pity themselves. They accepted their fate. It was the natural order of things. Otherwise, good heavens! otherwise they would swarm over the river in their multitude to the side where those great buildings were, secure and stately. and they would pillage, burn, and sack. But the day, tender and pale, had broken now, and the mist was tenuous; it bathed everything in a soft radiance; and the Thames was gray, rosy, and green; gray like mother-of-pearl and green like the heart of a yellow rose. The wharfs and store-houses of the Surrey Side were massed in disorderly loveliness. The scene was so exquisite that Philip’s heart beat passionately. He was overwhelmed by the beauty of the world. Beside that nothing seemed to matter.