‘There’s a lady waiting to see you,’ she said.
‘Me?’ exclaimed Philip.
He was surprised. It would only be Norah, and he had no idea what had brought her.
‘I shouldn’t ‘ave let her in, only she’s been three times, and she seemed that upset at not finding you, so I told her she could wait.’
He pushed past the explaining landlady and burst into the room. His heart turned sick. It was Mildred. She was sitting down, but got up hurriedly as he came in. She did not move towards him nor speak. He was so surprised that he did not know what he was saying.
‘What the hell d’you want?’ he asked.
She did not answer, but began to cry. She did not put her hands to her eyes, but kept them hanging by the side of her body. She looked like a housemaid applying for a situation. There was a dreadful humility in her bearing. Philip did not know what feelings came over him. He had a sudden impulse to turn round and escape from the room.
‘I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,’ he said at last.
‘I wish I was dead,’ she moaned.
Philip left her standing where she was. He could only think at the moment of steadying himself. His knees were shaking. He looked at her, and he groaned in despair.
‘What’s the matter?’ he said.
‘He’s left me—Emil.’
Philip’s heart bounded. He knew then that he loved her as passionately as ever. He had never ceased to love her. She was standing before him humble and unresisting. He wished to take her in his arms and cover her tear-stained face with kisses. Oh, how long the separation had been! He did not know how he could have endured it.
‘You’d better sit down. Let me give you a drink.’
He drew the chair near the fire and she sat in it. He mixed her whiskey and soda, and, sobbing still, she drank it. She looked at him with great, mournful eyes. There were large black lines under them. She was thinner and whiter than when last he had seen her.
‘I wish I’d married you when you asked me,’ she said.
Philip did not know why the remark seemed to swell his heart. He could not keep the distance from her which he had forced upon himself. He put his hand on her shoulder.
‘I’m awfully sorry you’re in trouble.’
She leaned her head against his bosom and burst into hysterical crying. Her hat was in the way and she took it off. He had never dreamt that she was capable of crying like that. He kissed her again and again. It seemed to ease her a little.
‘You were always good to me, Philip,’ she said. ‘That’s why I knew I could come to you.’
‘Tell me what’s happened.’
‘Oh, I can’t, I can’t,’ she cried out, breaking away from him.
He sank down on his knees beside her and put his cheek against hers.
‘Don’t you know that there’s nothing you can’t tell me? I can never blame you for anything.’
She told him the story little by little, and sometimes she sobbed so much that he could hardly understand.
‘Last Monday week he went up to Birmingham, and he promised to be back on Thursday, and he never came, and he didn’t come on the Friday, so I wrote to ask what was the matter, and he never answered the letter. And I wrote and said that if I didn’t hear from him by return I’d go up to Birmingham, and this morning I got a solicitor’s letter to say I had no claim on him, and if I molested him he’d seek the protection of the law.’
‘But it’s absurd,’ cried Philip. ‘A man can’t treat his wife like that. Had you had a row?’
‘Oh, yes, we’d had a quarrel on the Sunday, and he said he was sick of me, but he’d said it before, and he’d come back all right. I didn’t think he meant it. He was frightened, because I told him a baby was coming. I kept it from him as long as I could. Then I had to tell him. He said it was my fault, and I ought to have known better. If you’d only heard the things he said to me! But I found out precious quick that he wasn’t a gentleman. He left me without a penny. He hadn’t paid the rent, and I hadn’t got the money to pay it, and the woman who kept the house said such things to me—well, I might have been a thief the way she talked.’
‘I thought you were going to take a flat.’
‘That’s what he said, but we just took furnished apartments in Highbury. He was that mean. He said I was extravagant, he didn’t give me anything to be extravagant with.’
She had an extraordinary way of mixing the trivial with the important. Philip was puzzled. The whole thing was incomprehensible.
‘No man could be such a blackguard.’
‘You don’t know him. I wouldn’t go back to him now not if he was to come and ask me on his bended knees. I was a fool ever to think of him. And he wasn’t earning the money he said he was. The lies he told me!’
Philip thought for a minute or two. He was so deeply moved by her distress that he could not think of himself.
‘Would you like me to go to Birmingham? I could see him and try to make things up.’
‘Oh, there’s no chance of that. He’ll never come back now, I know him.’
‘But he must provide for you. He can’t get out of that. I don’t know anything about these things, you’d better go and see a solicitor.’
‘How can I? I haven’t got the money.’
‘I’ll pay all that. I’ll write a note to my own solicitor, the sportsman who was my father’s executor. Would you like me to come with you now? I expect he’ll still be at his office.’
‘No, give me a letter to him. I’ll go alone.’
She was a little calmer now. He sat down and wrote a note. Then he remembered that she had no money. He had fortunately changed a cheque the day before and was able to give her five pounds.
‘You are good to me, Philip,’ she said.
‘I’m so happy to be able to do something for you.’
‘Are you fond of me still?’
‘Just as fond as ever.’
She put up her lips and he kissed her. There was a surrender in the action which he had never seen in her before. It was worth all the agony he had suffered.
She went away and he found that she had been there for two hours. He was extraordinarily happy.
‘Poor thing, poor thing,’ he murmured to himself, his heart glowing with a greater love than he had ever felt before.
He never thought of Norah at all till about eight o’clock a telegram came. He knew before opening it that it was from her.
Is anything the matter? Norah.
He did not know what to do nor what to answer. He could fetch her after the play, in which she was walking on, was over and stroll home with her as he sometimes did; but his whole soul revolted against the idea of seeing her that evening. He thought of writing to her, but he could not bring himself to address her as usual, dearest Norah. He made up his mind to telegraph.
Sorry. Could not get away, Philip.
He visualised her. He was slightly repelled by the ugly little face, with its high cheekbones and the crude colour. There was a coarseness in her skin which gave him goose-flesh. He knew that his telegram must be followed by some action on his part, but at all events it postponed it.
Next day he wired again.
Regret, unable to come. Will write.
Mildred had suggested coming at four in the afternoon, and he would not tell her that the hour was inconvenient. After all she came first. He waited for her impatiently. He watched for her at the window and opened the front-door himself.
‘Well? Did you see Nixon?’
‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘He said it wasn’t any good. Nothing’s to be done. I must just grin and bear it.’
‘But that’s impossible,’ cried Philip.
She sat down wearily.
‘Did he give any reasons?’ he asked.
She gave him a crumpled letter.
‘There’s your letter, Philip. I never took it. I couldn’t tell you yesterday, I really couldn’t. Emil didn’t marry me. He couldn’t. He had a wife already and three children.’
Philip felt a sudden pang of jealousy and anguish. It was almost more than he could bear.
‘That’s why I couldn’t go back to my aunt. There’s no one I can go to but you.’
‘What made you go away with him?’ Philip asked, in a low voice which he struggled to make firm.
‘I don’t know. I didn’t know he was a married man at first, and when he told me I gave him a piece of my mind. And then I didn’t see him for months, and when he came to the shop again and asked me I don’t know what came over me. I felt as if I couldn’t help it. I had to go with him.’
‘Were you in love with him?’
‘I don’t know. I couldn’t hardly help laughing at the things he said. And there was something about him—he said I’d never regret it, he promised to give me seven pounds a week—he said he was earning fifteen, and it was all a lie, he wasn’t. And then I was sick of going to the shop every morning, and I wasn’t getting on very well with my aunt; she wanted to treat me as a servant instead of a relation, said I ought to do my own room, and if I didn’t do it nobody was going to do it for me. Oh, I wish I hadn’t. But when he came to the shop and asked me I felt I couldn’t help it.’
Philip moved away from her. He sat down at the table and buried his face in his hands. He felt dreadfully humiliated.
‘You’re not angry with me, Philip?’ she asked piteously.
‘No,’ he answered, looking up but away from her, ‘only I’m awfully hurt.’
‘You see, I was so dreadfully in love with you. I did everything I could to make you care for me. I thought you were incapable of loving anyone. It’s so horrible to know that you were willing to sacrifice everything for that bounder. I wonder what you saw in him.’
‘I’m awfully sorry, Philip. I regretted it bitterly afterwards, I promise you that.’
He thought of Emil Miller, with his pasty, unhealthy look, his shifty blue eyes, and the vulgar smartness of his appearance; he always wore bright red knitted waistcoats. Philip sighed. She got up and went to him. She put her arm round his neck.
‘I shall never forget that you offered to marry me, Philip.’
He took her hand and looked up at her. She bent down and kissed him.
‘Philip, if you want me still I’ll do anything you like now. I know you’re a gentleman in every sense of the word.’
His heart stood still. Her words made him feel slightly sick.
‘It’s awfully good of you, but I couldn’t.’
‘Don’t you care for me any more?’
‘Yes, I love you with all my heart.’
‘Then why shouldn’t we have a good time while we’ve got the chance? You see, it can’t matter now"
He released himself from her.
‘You don’t understand. I’ve been sick with love for you ever since I saw you, but now—that man. I’ve unfortunately got a vivid imagination. The thought of it simply disgusts me.’
‘You are funny,’ she said.
He took her hand again and smiled at her.
‘You mustn’t think I’m not grateful. I can never thank you enough, but you see, it’s just stronger than I am.’
‘You are a good friend, Philip.’
They went on talking, and soon they had returned to the familiar companionship of old days. It grew late. Philip suggested that they should dine together and go to a music-hall. She wanted some persuasion, for she had an idea of acting up to her situation, and felt instinctively that it did not accord with her distressed condition to go to a place of entertainment. At last Philip asked her to go simply to please him, and when she could look upon it as an act of self-sacrifice she accepted. She had a new thoughtfulness which delighted Philip. She asked him to take her to the little restaurant in Soho to which they had so often been; he was infinitely grateful to her, because her suggestion showed that happy memories were attached to it. She grew much more cheerful as dinner proceeded. The Burgundy from the public house at the corner warmed her heart, and she forgot that she ought to preserve a dolorous countenance. Philip thought it safe to speak to her of the future.
‘I suppose you haven’t got a brass farthing, have you?’ he asked, when an opportunity presented itself.
‘Only what you gave me yesterday, and I had to give the landlady three pounds of that.’
‘Well, I’d better give you a tenner to go on with. I’ll go and see my solicitor and get him to write to Miller. We can make him pay up something, I’m sure. If we can get a hundred pounds out of him it’ll carry you on till after the baby comes.’
‘I wouldn’t take a penny from him. I’d rather starve.’
‘But it’s monstrous that he should leave you in the lurch like this.’
‘I’ve got my pride to consider.’
It was a little awkward for Philip. He needed rigid economy to make his own money last till he was qualified, and he must have something over to keep him during the year he intended to spend as house physician and house surgeon either at his own or at some other hospital. But Mildred had told him various stories of Emil’s meanness, and he was afraid to remonstrate with her in case she accused him too of want of generosity.
‘I wouldn’t take a penny piece from him. I’d sooner beg my bread. I’d have seen about getting some work to do long before now, only it wouldn’t be good for me in the state I’m in. You have to think of your health, don’t you?’
‘You needn’t bother about the present,’ said Philip. ‘I can let you have all you want till you’re fit to work again.’
‘I knew I could depend on you. I told Emil he needn’t think I hadn’t got somebody to go to. I told him you was a gentleman in every sense of the word.’
By degrees Philip learned how the separation had come about. It appeared that the fellow’s wife had discovered the adventure he was engaged in during his periodical visits to London, and had gone to the head of the firm that employed him. She threatened to divorce him, and they announced that they would dismiss him if she did. He was passionately devoted to his children and could not bear the thought of being separated from them. When he had to choose between his wife and his mistress he chose his wife. He had been always anxious that there should be no child to make the entanglement more complicated; and when Mildred, unable longer to conceal its approach, informed him of the fact, he was seized with panic. He picked a quarrel and left her without more ado.
‘When d’you expect to be confined?’ asked Philip.
‘At the beginning of March.’
It was necessary to discuss plans. Mildred declared she would not remain in the rooms at Highbury, and Philip thought it more convenient too that she should be nearer to him. He promised to look for something next day. She suggested the Vauxhall Bridge Road as a likely neighbourhood.
‘And it would be near for afterwards,’ she said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I should only be able to stay there about two months or a little more, and then I should have to go into a house. I know a very respectable place, where they have a most superior class of people, and they take you for four guineas a week and no extras. Of course the doctor’s extra, but that’s all. A friend of mine went there, and the lady who keeps it is a thorough lady. I mean to tell her that my husband’s an officer in India and I’ve come to London for my baby, because it’s better for my health.’
It seemed extraordinary to Philip to hear her talking in this way. With her delicate little features and her pale face she looked cold and maidenly. When he thought of the passions that burnt within her, so unexpected, his heart was strangely troubled. His pulse beat quickly.