‘Don’t waste your time looking at me, silly. Go on with your work,’ she said.
‘Tyrant,’ he answered gaily.
He put aside his book when the landlady came in to lay the cloth for dinner, and in his high spirits he exchanged chaff with her. She was a little cockney, of middle age, with an amusing humour and a quick tongue. Mildred had become great friends with her and had given her an elaborate but mendacious account of the circumstances which had brought her to the pass she was in. The good-hearted little woman was touched and found no trouble too great to make Mildred comfortable. Mildred’s sense of propriety had suggested that Philip should pass himself off as her brother. They dined together, and Philip was delighted when he had ordered something which tempted Mildred’s capricious appetite. It enchanted him to see her sitting opposite him, and every now and then from sheer joy he took her hand and pressed it. After dinner she sat in the arm-chair by the fire, and he settled himself down on the floor beside her, leaning against her knees, and smoked. Often they did not talk at all, and sometimes Philip noticed that she had fallen into a doze. He dared not move then in case he woke her, and he sat very quietly, looking lazily into the fire and enjoying his happiness.
‘Had a nice little nap?’ he smiled, when she woke.
‘I’ve not been sleeping,’ she answered. ‘I only just closed my eyes.’
She would never acknowledge that she had been asleep. She had a phlegmatic temperament, and her condition did not seriously inconvenience her. She took a lot of trouble about her health and accepted the advice of anyone who chose to offer it. She went for a ‘constitutional’ every morning that it was fine and remained out a definite time. When it was not too cold she sat in St. James’ Park. But the rest of the day she spent quite happily on her sofa, reading one novel after another or chatting with the landlady; she had an inexhaustible interest in gossip, and told Philip with abundant detail the history of the landlady, of the lodgers on the drawing-room floor, and of the people who lived in the next house on either side. Now and then she was seized with panic; she poured out her fears to Philip about the pain of the confinement and was in terror lest she should die; she gave him a full account of the confinements of the landlady and of the lady on the drawing-room floor (Mildred did not know her; ‘I’m one to keep myself to myself,’ she said, ‘I’m not one to go about with anybody.’) and she narrated details with a queer mixture of horror and gusto; but for the most part she looked forward to the occurrence with equanimity.
‘After all, I’m not the first one to have a baby, am I? And the doctor says I shan’t have any trouble. You see, it isn’t as if I wasn’t well made.’
Mrs. Owen, the owner of the house she was going to when her time came, had recommended a doctor, and Mildred saw him once a week. He was to charge fifteen guineas.
‘Of course I could have got it done cheaper, but Mrs. Owen strongly recommended him, and I thought it wasn’t worth while to spoil the ship for a coat of tar.’
‘If you feel happy and comfortable I don’t mind a bit about the expense,’ said Philip.
She accepted all that Philip did for her as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and on his side he loved to spend money on her: each five-pound note he gave her caused him a little thrill of happiness and pride; he gave her a good many, for she was not economical.
‘I don’t know where the money goes to,’ she said herself, ‘it seems to slip through my fingers like water.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Philip. ‘I’m so glad to be able to do anything I can for you.’
She could not sew well and so did not make the necessary things for the baby; she told Philip it was much cheaper in the end to buy them. Philip had lately sold one of the mortgages in which his money had been put; and now, with five hundred pounds in the bank waiting to be invested in something that could be more easily realised, he felt himself uncommonly well-to-do. They talked often of the future. Philip was anxious that Mildred should keep the child with her, but she refused: she had her living to earn, and it would be more easy to do this if she had not also to look after a baby. Her plan was to get back into one of the shops of the company for which she had worked before, and the child could be put with some decent woman in the country.
‘I can find someone who’ll look after it well for seven and sixpence a week. It’ll be better for the baby and better for me.’
It seemed callous to Philip, but when he tried to reason with her she pretended to think he was concerned with the expense.
‘You needn’t worry about that,’ she said. ‘I shan’t ask YOU to pay for it.’
‘You know I don’t care how much I pay.’
At the bottom of her heart was the hope that the child would be still-born. She did no more than hint it, but Philip saw that the thought was there. He was shocked at first; and then, reasoning with himself, he was obliged to confess that for all concerned such an event was to be desired.
‘It’s all very fine to say this and that,’ Mildred remarked querulously, ‘but it’s jolly difficult for a girl to earn her living by herself; it doesn’t make it any easier when she’s got a baby.’
‘Fortunately you’ve got me to fall back on,’ smiled Philip, taking her hand.
‘You’ve been good to me, Philip.’
‘Oh, what rot!’
‘You can’t say I didn’t offer anything in return for what you’ve done.’
‘Good heavens, I don’t want a return. If I’ve done anything for you, I’ve done it because I love you. You owe me nothing. I don’t want you to do anything unless you love me.’
He was a little horrified by her feeling that her body was a commodity which she could deliver indifferently as an acknowledgment for services rendered.
‘But I do want to, Philip. You’ve been so good to me.’
‘Well, it won’t hurt for waiting. When you’re all right again we’ll go for our little honeymoon.’
‘You are naughty,’ she said, smiling.
Mildred expected to be confined early in March, and as soon as she was well enough she was to go to the seaside for a fortnight: that would give Philip a chance to work without interruption for his examination; after that came the Easter holidays, and they had arranged to go to Paris together. Philip talked endlessly of the things they would do. Paris was delightful then. They would take a room in a little hotel he knew in the Latin Quarter, and they would eat in all sorts of charming little restaurants; they would go to the play, and he would take her to music halls. It would amuse her to meet his friends. He had talked to her about Cronshaw, she would see him; and there was Lawson, he had gone to Paris for a couple of months; and they would go to the Bal Bullier; there were excursions; they would make trips to Versailles, Chartres, Fontainebleau.
‘It’ll cost a lot of money,’ she said.
‘Oh, damn the expense. Think how I’ve been looking forward to it. Don’t you know what it means to me? I’ve never loved anyone but you. I never shall.’
She listened to his enthusiasm with smiling eyes. He thought he saw in them a new tenderness, and he was grateful to her. She was much gentler than she used to be. There was in her no longer the superciliousness which had irritated him. She was so accustomed to him now that she took no pains to keep up before him any pretences. She no longer troubled to do her hair with the old elaboration, but just tied it in a knot; and she left off the vast fringe which she generally wore: the more careless style suited her. Her face was so thin that it made her eyes seem very large; there were heavy lines under them, and the pallor of her cheeks made their colour more profound. She had a wistful look which was infinitely pathetic. There seemed to Philip to be in her something of the Madonna. He wished they could continue in that same way always. He was happier than he had ever been in his life.
He used to leave her at ten o’clock every night, for she liked to go to bed early, and he was obliged to put in another couple of hours’ work to make up for the lost evening. He generally brushed her hair for her before he went. He had made a ritual of the kisses he gave her when he bade her good-night; first he kissed the palms of her hands (how thin the fingers were, the nails were beautiful, for she spent much time in manicuring them,) then he kissed her closed eyes, first the right one and then the left, and at last he kissed her lips. He went home with a heart overflowing with love. He longed for an opportunity to gratify the desire for self-sacrifice which consumed him.
Presently the time came for her to move to the nursing-home where she was to be confined. Philip was then able to visit her only in the afternoons. Mildred changed her story and represented herself as the wife of a soldier who had gone to India to join his regiment, and Philip was introduced to the mistress of the establishment as her brother-in-law.
‘I have to be rather careful what I say,’ she told him, ‘as there’s another lady here whose husband’s in the Indian Civil.’
‘I wouldn’t let that disturb me if I were you,’ said Philip. ‘I’m convinced that her husband and yours went out on the same boat.’
‘What boat?’ she asked innocently.
‘The Flying Dutchman.’
Mildred was safely delivered of a daughter, and when Philip was allowed to see her the child was lying by her side. Mildred was very weak, but relieved that everything was over. She showed him the baby, and herself looked at it curiously.
‘It’s a funny-looking little thing, isn’t it? I can’t believe it’s mine.’
It was red and wrinkled and odd. Philip smiled when he looked at it. He did not quite know what to say; and it embarrassed him because the nurse who owned the house was standing by his side; and he felt by the way she was looking at him that, disbelieving Mildred’s complicated story, she thought he was the father.
‘What are you going to call her?’ asked Philip.
‘I can’t make up my mind if I shall call her Madeleine or Cecilia.’
The nurse left them alone for a few minutes, and Philip bent down and kissed Mildred on the mouth.
‘I’m so glad it’s all over happily, darling.’
She put her thin arms round his neck.
‘You have been a brick to me, Phil dear.’
‘Now I feel that you’re mine at last. I’ve waited so long for you, my dear.’
They heard the nurse at the door, and Philip hurriedly got up. The nurse entered. There was a slight smile on her lips.