‘It’s the simplest thing in the world to have an affair with a woman, he remarked sententiously, ‘but it’s a devil of a nuisance to get out of it.’
Philip felt a little inclined to pat himself on the back for his skill in managing the business. At all events he was immensely relieved. He thought of Mildred enjoying herself in Tulse Hill, and he found in himself a real satisfaction because she was happy. It was an act of self-sacrifice on his part that he did not grudge her pleasure even though paid for by his own disappointment, and it filled his heart with a comfortable glow.
But on Monday morning he found on his table a letter from Norah. She wrote:
I’m sorry I was cross on Saturday. Forgive me and come to tea in the afternoon as usual. I love you.
His heart sank, and he did not know what to do. He took the note to Griffiths and showed it to him.
‘You’d better leave it unanswered,’ said he.
‘Oh, I can’t,’ cried Philip. ‘I should be miserable if I thought of her waiting and waiting. You don’t know what it is to be sick for the postman’s knock. I do, and I can’t expose anybody else to that torture.’
‘My dear fellow, one can’t break that sort of affair off without somebody suffering. You must just set your teeth to that. One thing is, it doesn’t last very long.’
Philip felt that Norah had not deserved that he should make her suffer; and what did Griffiths know about the degrees of anguish she was capable of? He remembered his own pain when Mildred had told him she was going to be married. He did not want anyone to experience what he had experienced then.
‘If you’re so anxious not to give her pain, go back to her,’ said Griffiths.
‘I can’t do that.’
He got up and walked up and down the room nervously. He was angry with Norah because she had not let the matter rest. She must have seen that he had no more love to give her. They said women were so quick at seeing those things.
‘You might help me,’ he said to Griffiths.
‘My dear fellow, don’t make such a fuss about it. People do get over these things, you know. She probably isn’t so wrapped up in you as you think, either. One’s always rather apt to exaggerate the passion one’s inspired other people with.’
He paused and looked at Philip with amusement.
‘Look here, there’s only one thing you can do. Write to her, and tell her the thing’s over. Put it so that there can be no mistake about it. It’ll hurt her, but it’ll hurt her less if you do the thing brutally than if you try half-hearted ways.’
Philip sat down and wrote the following letter:
My dear Norah,
I am sorry to make you unhappy, but I think we had better let things remain where we left them on Saturday. I don’t think there’s any use in letting these things drag on when they’ve ceased to be amusing. You told me to go and I went. I do not propose to come back. Good-bye.
He showed the letter to Griffiths and asked him what he thought of it. Griffiths read it and looked at Philip with twinkling eyes. He did not say what he felt.
‘I think that’ll do the trick,’ he said.
Philip went out and posted it. He passed an uncomfortable morning, for he imagined with great detail what Norah would feel when she received his letter. He tortured himself with the thought of her tears. But at the same time he was relieved. Imagined grief was more easy to bear than grief seen, and he was free now to love Mildred with all his soul. His heart leaped at the thought of going to see her that afternoon, when his day’s work at the hospital was over.
When as usual he went back to his rooms to tidy himself, he had no sooner put the latch-key in his door than he heard a voice behind him.
‘May I come in? I’ve been waiting for you for half an hour.’
It was Norah. He felt himself blush to the roots of his hair. She spoke gaily. There was no trace of resentment in her voice and nothing to indicate that there was a rupture between them. He felt himself cornered. He was sick with fear, but he did his best to smile.
‘Yes, do,’ he said.
He opened the door, and she preceded him into his sitting-room. He was nervous and, to give himself countenance, offered her a cigarette and lit one for himself. She looked at him brightly.
‘Why did you write me such a horrid letter, you naughty boy? If I’d taken it seriously it would have made me perfectly wretched.’
‘It was meant seriously,’ he answered gravely.
‘Don’t be so silly. I lost my temper the other day, and I wrote and apologised. You weren’t satisfied, so I’ve come here to apologise again. After all, you’re your own master and I have no claims upon you. I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to.’
She got up from the chair in which she was sitting and went towards him impulsively, with outstretched hands.
‘Let’s make friends again, Philip. I’m so sorry if I offended you.’
He could not prevent her from taking his hands, but he could not look at her.
‘I’m afraid it’s too late,’ he said.
She let herself down on the floor by his side and clasped his knees.
‘Philip, don’t be silly. I’m quick-tempered too and I can understand that I hurt you, but it’s so stupid to sulk over it. What’s the good of making us both unhappy? It’s been so jolly, our friendship.’ She passed her fingers slowly over his hand. ‘I love you, Philip.’
He got up, disengaging himself from her, and went to the other side of the room.
‘I’m awfully sorry, I can’t do anything. The whole thing’s over.’
‘D’you mean to say you don’t love me any more?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘You were just looking for an opportunity to throw me over and you took that one?’
He did not answer. She looked at him steadily for a time which seemed intolerable. She was sitting on the floor where he had left her, leaning against the arm-chair. She began to cry quite silently, without trying to hide her face, and the large tears rolled down her cheeks one after the other. She did not sob. It was horribly painful to see her. Philip turned away.
‘I’m awfully sorry to hurt you. It’s not my fault if I don’t love you.’
She did not answer. She merely sat there, as though she were overwhelmed, and the tears flowed down her cheeks. It would have been easier to bear if she had reproached him. He had thought her temper would get the better of her, and he was prepared for that. At the back of his mind was a feeling that a real quarrel, in which each said to the other cruel things, would in some way be a justification of his behaviour. The time passed. At last he grew frightened by her silent crying; he went into his bed-room and got a glass of water; he leaned over her.
‘Won’t you drink a little? It’ll relieve you.’
She put her lips listlessly to the glass and drank two or three mouthfuls. Then in an exhausted whisper she asked him for a handkerchief. She dried her eyes.
‘Of course I knew you never loved me as much as I loved you,’ she moaned.
‘I’m afraid that’s always the case,’ he said. ‘There’s always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved.’
He thought of Mildred, and a bitter pain traversed his heart. Norah did not answer for a long time.
‘I’d been so miserably unhappy, and my life was so hateful,’ she said at last.
She did not speak to him, but to herself. He had never heard her before complain of the life she had led with her husband or of her poverty. He had always admired the bold front she displayed to the world.
‘And then you came along and you were so good to me. And I admired you because you were clever and it was so heavenly to have someone I could put my trust in. I loved you. I never thought it could come to an end. And without any fault of mine at all.’
Her tears began to flow again, but now she was more mistress of herself, and she hid her face in Philip’s handkerchief. She tried hard to control herself.
‘Give me some more water,’ she said.
She wiped her eyes.
‘I’m sorry to make such a fool of myself. I was so unprepared.’
‘I’m awfully sorry, Norah. I want you to know that I’m very grateful for all you’ve done for me.’
He wondered what it was she saw in him.
‘Oh, it’s always the same,’ she sighed, ‘if you want men to behave well to you, you must be beastly to them; if you treat them decently they make you suffer for it.’
She got up from the floor and said she must go. She gave Philip a long, steady look. Then she sighed.
‘It’s so inexplicable. What does it all mean?’
Philip took a sudden determination.
‘I think I’d better tell you, I don’t want you to think too badly of me, I want you to see that I can’t help myself. Mildred’s come back.’
The colour came to her face.
‘Why didn’t you tell me at once? I deserved that surely.’
‘I was afraid to.’
She looked at herself in the glass and set her hat straight.
‘Will you call me a cab,’ she said. ‘I don’t feel I can walk.’
He went to the door and stopped a passing hansom; but when she followed him into the street he was startled to see how white she was. There was a heaviness in her movements as though she had suddenly grown older. She looked so ill that he had not the heart to let her go alone.
‘I’ll drive back with you if you don’t mind.’
She did not answer, and he got into the cab. They drove along in silence over the bridge, through shabby streets in which children, with shrill cries, played in the road. When they arrived at her door she did not immediately get out. It seemed as though she could not summon enough strength to her legs to move.
‘I hope you’ll forgive me, Norah,’ he said.
She turned her eyes towards him, and he saw that they were bright again with tears, but she forced a smile to her lips.
‘Poor fellow, you’re quite worried about me. You mustn’t bother. I don’t blame you. I shall get over it all right.’
Lightly and quickly she stroked his face to show him that she bore no ill-feeling, the gesture was scarcely more than suggested; then she jumped out of the cab and let herself into her house.
Philip paid the hansom and walked to Mildred’s lodgings. There was a curious heaviness in his heart. He was inclined to reproach himself. But why? He did not know what else he could have done. Passing a fruiterer’s, he remembered that Mildred was fond of grapes. He was so grateful that he could show his love for her by recollecting every whim she had.