He found two rooms for Mildred on the second floor of a house in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. They were noisy, but he knew that she liked the rattle of traffic under her windows.
‘I don’t like a dead and alive street where you don’t see a soul pass all day,’ she said. ‘Give me a bit of life.’
Then he forced himself to go to Vincent Square. He was sick with apprehension when he rang the bell. He had an uneasy sense that he was treating Norah badly; he dreaded reproaches; he knew she had a quick temper, and he hated scenes: perhaps the best way would be to tell her frankly that Mildred had come back to him and his love for her was as violent as it had ever been; he was very sorry, but he had nothing to offer Norah any more. Then he thought of her anguish, for he knew she loved him; it had flattered him before, and he was immensely grateful; but now it was horrible. She had not deserved that he should inflict pain upon her. He asked himself how she would greet him now, and as he walked up the stairs all possible forms of her behaviour flashed across his mind. He knocked at the door. He felt that he was pale, and wondered how to conceal his nervousness.
She was writing away industriously, but she sprang to her feet as he entered.
‘I recognised your step,’ she cried. ‘Where have you been hiding yourself, you naughty boy?’
She came towards him joyfully and put her arms round his neck. She was delighted to see him. He kissed her, and then, to give himself countenance, said he was dying for tea. She bustled the fire to make the kettle boil.
‘I’ve been awfully busy,’ he said lamely.
She began to chatter in her bright way, telling him of a new commission she had to provide a novelette for a firm which had not hitherto employed her. She was to get fifteen guineas for it.
‘It’s money from the clouds. I’ll tell you what we’ll do, we’ll stand ourselves a little jaunt. Let’s go and spend a day at Oxford, shall we? I’d love to see the colleges.’
He looked at her to see whether there was any shadow of reproach in her eyes; but they were as frank and merry as ever: she was overjoyed to see him. His heart sank. He could not tell her the brutal truth. She made some toast for him, and cut it into little pieces, and gave it him as though he were a child.
‘Is the brute fed?’ she asked.
He nodded, smiling; and she lit a cigarette for him. Then, as she loved to do, she came and sat on his knees. She was very light. She leaned back in his arms with a sigh of delicious happiness.
‘Say something nice to me,’ she murmured.
‘What shall I say?’
‘You might by an effort of imagination say that you rather liked me.’
‘You know I do that.’
He had not the heart to tell her then. He would give her peace at all events for that day, and perhaps he might write to her. That would be easier. He could not bear to think of her crying. She made him kiss her, and as he kissed her he thought of Mildred and Mildred’s pale, thin lips. The recollection of Mildred remained with him all the time, like an incorporated form, but more substantial than a shadow; and the sight continually distracted his attention.
‘You’re very quiet today,’ Norah said.
Her loquacity was a standing joke between them, and he answered:
‘You never let me get a word in, and I’ve got out of the habit of talking.’
‘But you’re not listening, and that’s bad manners.’
He reddened a little, wondering whether she had some inkling of his secret; he turned away his eyes uneasily. The weight of her irked him this afternoon, and he did not want her to touch him.
‘My foot’s gone to sleep,’ he said.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she cried, jumping up. ‘I shall have to bant if I can’t break myself of this habit of sitting on gentlemen’s knees.’
He went through an elaborate form of stamping his foot and walking about. Then he stood in front of the fire so that she should not resume her position. While she talked he thought that she was worth ten of Mildred; she amused him much more and was jollier to talk to; she was cleverer, and she had a much nicer nature. She was a good, brave, honest little woman; and Mildred, he thought bitterly, deserved none of these epithets. If he had any sense he would stick to Norah, she would make him much happier than he would ever be with Mildred: after all she loved him, and Mildred was only grateful for his help. But when all was said the important thing was to love rather than to be loved; and he yearned for Mildred with his whole soul. He would sooner have ten minutes with her than a whole afternoon with Norah, he prized one kiss of her cold lips more than all Norah could give him.
‘I can’t help myself,’ he thought. ‘I’ve just got her in my bones.’
He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her. He would rather have misery with the one than happiness with the other.
When he got up to go Norah said casually:
‘Well, I shall see you tomorrow, shan’t I?’
‘Yes,’ he answered.
He knew that he would not be able to come, since he was going to help Mildred with her moving, but he had not the courage to say so. He made up his mind that he would send a wire. Mildred saw the rooms in the morning, was satisfied with them, and after luncheon Philip went up with her to Highbury. She had a trunk for her clothes and another for the various odds and ends, cushions, lampshades, photograph frames, with which she had tried to give the apartments a home-like air; she had two or three large cardboard boxes besides, but in all there was no more than could be put on the roof of a four-wheeler. As they drove through Victoria Street Philip sat well back in the cab in case Norah should happen to be passing. He had not had an opportunity to telegraph and could not do so from the post office in the Vauxhall Bridge Road, since she would wonder what he was doing in that neighbourhood; and if he was there he could have no excuse for not going into the neighbouring square where she lived. He made up his mind that he had better go in and see her for half an hour; but the necessity irritated him: he was angry with Norah, because she forced him to vulgar and degrading shifts. But he was happy to be with Mildred. It amused him to help her with the unpacking; and he experienced a charming sense of possession in installing her in these lodgings which he had found and was paying for. He would not let her exert herself. It was a pleasure to do things for her, and she had no desire to do what somebody else seemed desirous to do for her. He unpacked her clothes and put them away. She was not proposing to go out again, so he got her slippers and took off her boots. It delighted him to perform menial offices.
‘You do spoil me,’ she said, running her fingers affectionately through his hair, while he was on his knees unbuttoning her boots.
He took her hands and kissed them.
‘It is nipping to have you here.’
He arranged the cushions and the photograph frames. She had several jars of green earthenware.
‘I’ll get you some flowers for them,’ he said.
He looked round at his work proudly.
‘As I’m not going out any more I think I’ll get into a tea-gown,’ she said. ‘Undo me behind, will you?’
She turned round as unconcernedly as though he were a woman. His sex meant nothing to her. But his heart was filled with gratitude for the intimacy her request showed. He undid the hooks and eyes with clumsy fingers.
‘That first day I came into the shop I never thought I’d be doing this for you now,’ he said, with a laugh which he forced.
‘Somebody must do it,’ she answered.
She went into the bed-room and slipped into a pale blue tea-gown decorated with a great deal of cheap lace. Then Philip settled her on a sofa and made tea for her.
‘I’m afraid I can’t stay and have it with you,’ he said regretfully. ‘I’ve got a beastly appointment. But I shall be back in half an hour.’
He wondered what he should say if she asked him what the appointment was, but she showed no curiosity. He had ordered dinner for the two of them when he took the rooms, and proposed to spend the evening with her quietly. He was in such a hurry to get back that he took a tram along the Vauxhall Bridge Road. He thought he had better break the fact to Norah at once that he could not stay more than a few minutes.
‘I say, I’ve got only just time to say how d’you do,’ he said, as soon as he got into her rooms. ‘I’m frightfully busy.’
Her face fell.
‘Why, what’s the matter?’
It exasperated him that she should force him to tell lies, and he knew that he reddened when he answered that there was a demonstration at the hospital which he was bound to go to. He fancied that she looked as though she did not believe him, and this irritated him all the more.
‘Oh, well, it doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘I shall have you all tomorrow.’
He looked at her blankly. It was Sunday, and he had been looking forward to spending the day with Mildred. He told himself that he must do that in common decency; he could not leave her by herself in a strange house.
‘I’m awfully sorry, I’m engaged tomorrow.’
He knew this was the beginning of a scene which he would have given anything to avoid. The colour on Norah’s cheeks grew brighter.
‘But I’ve asked the Gordons to lunch’—they were an actor and his wife who were touring the provinces and in London for Sunday—‘I told you about it a week ago.’
‘I’m awfully sorry, I forgot.’ He hesitated. ‘I’m afraid I can’t possibly come. Isn’t there somebody else you can get?’
‘What are you doing tomorrow then?’
‘I wish you wouldn’t cross-examine me.’
‘Don’t you want to tell me?’
‘I don’t in the least mind telling you, but it’s rather annoying to be forced to account for all one’s movements.’
Norah suddenly changed. With an effort of self-control she got the better of her temper, and going up to him took his hands.
‘Don’t disappoint me tomorrow, Philip, I’ve been looking forward so much to spending the day with you. The Gordons want to see you, and we’ll have such a jolly time.’
‘I’d love to if I could.’
‘I’m not very exacting, am I? I don’t often ask you to do anything that’s a bother. Won’t you get out of your horrid engagement—just this once?’
‘I’m awfully sorry, I don’t see how I can,’ he replied sullenly.
‘Tell me what it is,’ she said coaxingly.
He had had time to invent something. ‘Griffiths’ two sisters are up for the week-end and we’re taking them out.’
‘Is that all?’ she said joyfully. ‘Griffiths can so easily get another man.’
He wished he had thought of something more urgent than that. It was a clumsy lie.
‘No, I’m awfully sorry, I can’t—I’ve promised and I mean to keep my promise.’
‘But you promised me too. Surely I come first.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t persist,’ he said.
She flared up.
‘You won’t come because you don’t want to. I don’t know what you’ve been doing the last few days, you’ve been quite different.’
He looked at his watch.
‘I’m afraid I’ll have to be going,’ he said.
‘You won’t come tomorrow?’
‘In that case you needn’t trouble to come again,’ she cried, losing her temper for good.
‘That’s just as you like,’ he answered.
‘Don’t let me detain you any longer,’ she added ironically.
He shrugged his shoulders and walked out. He was relieved that it had gone no worse. There had been no tears. As he walked along he congratulated himself on getting out of the affair so easily. He went into Victoria Street and bought a few flowers to take in to Mildred.
The little dinner was a great success. Philip had sent in a small pot of caviare, which he knew she was very fond of, and the landlady brought them up some cutlets with vegetables and a sweet. Philip had ordered Burgundy, which was her favourite wine. With the curtains drawn, a bright fire, and one of Mildred’s shades on the lamp, the room was cosy.
‘It’s really just like home,’ smiled Philip.
‘I might be worse off, mightn’t I?’ she answered.
When they finished, Philip drew two arm-chairs in front of the fire, and they sat down. He smoked his pipe comfortably. He felt happy and generous.
‘What would you like to do tomorrow?’ he asked.
‘Oh, I’m going to Tulse Hill. You remember the manageress at the shop, well, she’s married now, and she’s asked me to go and spend the day with her. Of course she thinks I’m married too.’
Philip’s heart sank.
‘But I refused an invitation so that I might spend Sunday with you.’
He thought that if she loved him she would say that in that case she would stay with him. He knew very well that Norah would not have hesitated.
‘Well, you were a silly to do that. I’ve promised to go for three weeks and more.’
‘But how can you go alone?’
‘Oh, I shall say that Emil’s away on business. Her husband’s in the glove trade, and he’s a very superior fellow.’
Philip was silent, and bitter feelings passed through his heart. She gave him a sidelong glance.
‘You don’t grudge me a little pleasure, Philip? You see, it’s the last time I shall be able to go anywhere for I don’t know how long, and I had promised.’
He took her hand and smiled.
‘No, darling, I want you to have the best time you can. I only want you to be happy.’
There was a little book bound in blue paper lying open, face downwards, on the sofa, and Philip idly took it up. It was a twopenny novelette, and the author was Courtenay Paget. That was the name under which Norah wrote.
‘I do like his books,’ said Mildred. ‘I read them all. They’re so refined.’
He remembered what Norah had said of herself.
‘I have an immense popularity among kitchen-maids. They think me so genteel.’