Suddenly his heart stood still. He saw Mildred. He had not thought of her for weeks. She was crossing over from the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and stopped at the shelter till a string of cabs passed by. She was watching her opportunity and had no eyes for anything else. She wore a large black straw hat with a mass of feathers on it and a black silk dress; at that time it was fashionable for women to wear trains; the road was clear, and Mildred crossed, her skirt trailing on the ground, and walked down Piccadilly. Philip, his heart beating excitedly, followed her. He did not wish to speak to her, but he wondered where she was going at that hour; he wanted to get a look at her face. She walked slowly along and turned down Air Street and so got through into Regent Street. She walked up again towards the Circus. Philip was puzzled. He could not make out what she was doing. Perhaps she was waiting for somebody, and he felt a great curiosity to know who it was. She overtook a short man in a bowler hat, who was strolling very slowly in the same direction as herself; she gave him a sidelong glance as she passed. She walked a few steps more till she came to Swan and Edgar’s, then stopped and waited, facing the road. When the man came up she smiled. The man stared at her for a moment, turned away his head, and sauntered on. Then Philip understood.
He was overwhelmed with horror. For a moment he felt such a weakness in his legs that he could hardly stand; then he walked after her quickly; he touched her on the arm.
She turned round with a violent start. He thought that she reddened, but in the obscurity he could not see very well. For a while they stood and looked at one another without speaking. At last she said:
‘Fancy seeing you!’
He did not know what to answer; he was horribly shaken; and the phrases that chased one another through his brain seemed incredibly melodramatic.
‘It’s awful,’ he gasped, almost to himself.
She did not say anything more, she turned away from him, and looked down at the pavement. He felt that his face was distorted with misery.
‘Isn’t there anywhere we can go and talk?’
‘I don’t want to talk,’ she said sullenly. ‘Leave me alone, can’t you?’
The thought struck him that perhaps she was in urgent need of money and could not afford to go away at that hour.
‘I’ve got a couple of sovereigns on me if you’re hard up,’ he blurted out.
‘I don’t know what you mean. I was just walking along here on my way back to my lodgings. I expected to meet one of the girls from where I work.’
‘For God’s sake don’t lie now,’ he said.
Then he saw that she was crying, and he repeated his question.
‘Can’t we go and talk somewhere? Can’t I come back to your rooms?’
‘No, you can’t do that,’ she sobbed. ‘I’m not allowed to take gentlemen in there. If you like I’ll met you tomorrow.’
He felt certain that she would not keep an appointment. He was not going to let her go.
‘No. You must take me somewhere now.’
‘Well, there is a room I know, but they’ll charge six shillings for it.’
‘I don’t mind that. Where is it?’
She gave him the address, and he called a cab. They drove to a shabby street beyond the British Museum in the neighbourhood of the Gray’s Inn Road, and she stopped the cab at the corner.
‘They don’t like you to drive up to the door,’ she said.
They were the first words either of them had spoken since getting into the cab. They walked a few yards and Mildred knocked three times, sharply, at a door. Philip noticed in the fanlight a cardboard on which was an announcement that apartments were to let. The door was opened quietly, and an elderly, tall woman let them in. She gave Philip a stare and then spoke to Mildred in an undertone. Mildred led Philip along a passage to a room at the back. It was quite dark; she asked him for a match, and lit the gas; there was no globe, and the gas flared shrilly. Philip saw that he was in a dingy little bed-room with a suite of furniture, painted to look like pine much too large for it; the lace curtains were very dirty; the grate was hidden by a large paper fan. Mildred sank on the chair which stood by the side of the chimney-piece. Philip sat on the edge of the bed. He felt ashamed. He saw now that Mildred’s cheeks were thick with rouge, her eyebrows were blackened; but she looked thin and ill, and the red on her cheeks exaggerated the greenish pallor of her skin. She stared at the paper fan in a listless fashion. Philip could not think what to say, and he had a choking in his throat as if he were going to cry. He covered his eyes with his hands.
‘My God, it is awful,’ he groaned.
‘I don’t know what you’ve got to fuss about. I should have thought you’d have been rather pleased.’
Philip did not answer, and in a moment she broke into a sob.
‘You don’t think I do it because I like it, do you?’
‘Oh, my dear,’ he cried. ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so awfully sorry.’
‘That’ll do me a fat lot of good.’
Again Philip found nothing to say. He was desperately afraid of saying anything which she might take for a reproach or a sneer.
‘Where’s the baby?’ he asked at last.
‘I’ve got her with me in London. I hadn’t got the money to keep her on at Brighton, so I had to take her. I’ve got a room up Highbury way. I told them I was on the stage. It’s a long way to have to come down to the West End every day, but it’s a rare job to find anyone who’ll let to ladies at all.’
‘Wouldn’t they take you back at the shop?’
‘I couldn’t get any work to do anywhere. I walked my legs off looking for work. I did get a job once, but I was off for a week because I was queer, and when I went back they said they didn’t want me any more. You can’t blame them either, can you? Them places, they can’t afford to have girls that aren’t strong.’
‘You don’t look very well now,’ said Philip.
‘I wasn’t fit to come out tonight, but I couldn’t help myself, I wanted the money. I wrote to Emil and told him I was broke, but he never even answered the letter.’
‘You might have written to me.’
‘I didn’t like to, not after what happened, and I didn’t want you to know I was in difficulties. I shouldn’t have been surprised if you’d just told me I’d only got what I deserved.’
‘You don’t know me very well, do you, even now?’
For a moment he remembered all the anguish he had suffered on her account, and he was sick with the recollection of his pain. But it was no more than recollection. When he looked at her he knew that he no longer loved her. He was very sorry for her, but he was glad to be free. Watching her gravely, he asked himself why he had been so besotted with passion for her.
‘You’re a gentleman in every sense of the word,’ she said. ‘You’re the only one I’ve ever met.’ She paused for a minute and then flushed. ‘I hate asking you, Philip, but can you spare me anything?’
‘It’s lucky I’ve got some money on me. I’m afraid I’ve only got two pounds.’
He gave her the sovereigns.
‘I’ll pay you back, Philip.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ he smiled. ‘You needn’t worry.’
He had said nothing that he wanted to say. They had talked as if the whole thing were natural; and it looked as though she would go now, back to the horror of her life, and he would be able to do nothing to prevent it. She had got up to take the money, and they were both standing.
‘Am I keeping you?’ she asked. ‘I suppose you want to be getting home.’
‘No, I’m in no hurry,’ he answered.
‘I’m glad to have a chance of sitting down.’
Those words, with all they implied, tore his heart, and it was dreadfully painful to see the weary way in which she sank back into the chair. The silence lasted so long that Philip in his embarrassment lit a cigarette.
‘It’s very good of you not to have said anything disagreeable to me, Philip. I thought you might say I didn’t know what all.’
He saw that she was crying again. He remembered how she had come to him when Emil Miller had deserted her and how she had wept. The recollection of her suffering and of his own humiliation seemed to render more overwhelming the compassion he felt now.
‘If I could only get out of it!’ she moaned. ‘I hate it so. I’m unfit for the life, I’m not the sort of girl for that. I’d do anything to get away from it, I’d be a servant if I could. Oh, I wish I was dead.’
And in pity for herself she broke down now completely. She sobbed hysterically, and her thin body was shaken.
‘Oh, you don’t know what it is. Nobody knows till they’ve done it.’
Philip could not bear to see her cry. He was tortured by the horror of her position.
‘Poor child,’ he whispered. ‘Poor child.’
He was deeply moved. Suddenly he had an inspiration. It filled him with a perfect ecstasy of happiness.
‘Look here, if you want to get away from it, I’ve got an idea. I’m frightfully hard up just now, I’ve got to be as economical as I can; but I’ve got a sort of little flat now in Kennington and I’ve got a spare room. If you like you and the baby can come and live there. I pay a woman three and sixpence a week to keep the place clean and to do a little cooking for me. You could do that and your food wouldn’t come to much more than the money I should save on her. It doesn’t cost any more to feed two than one, and I don’t suppose the baby eats much.’
She stopped crying and looked at him.
‘D’you mean to say that you could take me back after all that’s happened?’
Philip flushed a little in embarrassment at what he had to say.
‘I don’t want you to mistake me. I’m just giving you a room which doesn’t cost me anything and your food. I don’t expect anything more from you than that you should do exactly the same as the woman I have in does. Except for that I don’t want anything from you at all. I daresay you can cook well enough for that.’
She sprang to her feet and was about to come towards him.
‘You are good to me, Philip.’
‘No, please stop where you are,’ he said hurriedly, putting out his hand as though to push her away.
He did not know why it was, but he could not bear the thought that she should touch him.
‘I don’t want to be anything more than a friend to you.’
‘You are good to me,’ she repeated. ‘You are good to me.’
‘Does that mean you’ll come?’
‘Oh, yes, I’d do anything to get away from this. You’ll never regret what you’ve done, Philip, never. When can I come, Philip?’
‘You’d better come tomorrow.’
Suddenly she burst into tears again.
‘What on earth are you crying for now?’ he smiled.
‘I’m so grateful to you. I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you?’
‘Oh, that’s all right. You’d better go home now.’
He wrote out the address and told her that if she came at half past five he would be ready for her. It was so late that he had to walk home, but it did not seem a long way, for he was intoxicated with delight; he seemed to walk on air.