‘I say, you are industrious,’ he smiled. ‘What have you been doing with yourself all day?’
‘Oh, I gave the place a good cleaning and then I took baby out for a little.’
She was wearing an old black dress, the same as she had worn as uniform when she served in the tea-shop; it was shabby, but she looked better in it than in the silk of the day before. The baby was sitting on the floor. She looked up at Philip with large, mysterious eyes and broke into a laugh when he sat down beside her and began playing with her bare toes. The afternoon sun came into the room and shed a mellow light.
‘It’s rather jolly to come back and find someone about the place. A woman and a baby make very good decoration in a room.’
He had gone to the hospital dispensary and got a bottle of Blaud’s Pills, He gave them to Mildred and told her she must take them after each meal. It was a remedy she was used to, for she had taken it off and on ever since she was sixteen.
‘I’m sure Lawson would love that green skin of yours,’ said Philip. ‘He’d say it was so paintable, but I’m terribly matter of fact nowadays, and I shan’t be happy till you’re as pink and white as a milkmaid.’
‘I feel better already.’
After a frugal supper Philip filled his pouch with tobacco and put on his hat. It was on Tuesdays that he generally went to the tavern in Beak Street, and he was glad that this day came so soon after Mildred’s arrival, for he wanted to make his relations with her perfectly clear.
‘Are you going out?’ she said.
‘Yes, on Tuesdays I give myself a night off. I shall see you tomorrow. Good-night.’
Philip always went to the tavern with a sense of pleasure. Macalister, the philosophic stockbroker, was generally there and glad to argue upon any subject under the sun; Hayward came regularly when he was in London; and though he and Macalister disliked one another they continued out of habit to meet on that one evening in the week. Macalister thought Hayward a poor creature, and sneered at his delicacies of sentiment: he asked satirically about Hayward’s literary work and received with scornful smiles his vague suggestions of future masterpieces; their arguments were often heated; but the punch was good, and they were both fond of it; towards the end of the evening they generally composed their differences and thought each other capital fellows. This evening Philip found them both there, and Lawson also; Lawson came more seldom now that he was beginning to know people in London and went out to dinner a good deal. They were all on excellent terms with themselves, for Macalister had given them a good thing on the Stock Exchange, and Hayward and Lawson had made fifty pounds apiece. It was a great thing for Lawson, who was extravagant and earned little money: he had arrived at that stage of the portrait-painter’s career when he was noticed a good deal by the critics and found a number of aristocratic ladies who were willing to allow him to paint them for nothing (it advertised them both, and gave the great ladies quite an air of patronesses of the arts); but he very seldom got hold of the solid philistine who was ready to pay good money for a portrait of his wife. Lawson was brimming over with satisfaction.
‘It’s the most ripping way of making money that I’ve ever struck,’ he cried. ‘I didn’t have to put my hand in my pocket for sixpence.’
‘You lost something by not being here last Tuesday, young man,’ said Macalister to Philip.
‘My God, why didn’t you write to me?’ said Philip. ‘If you only knew how useful a hundred pounds would be to me.’
‘Oh, there wasn’t time for that. One has to be on the spot. I heard of a good thing last Tuesday, and I asked these fellows if they’d like to have a flutter, I bought them a thousand shares on Wednesday morning, and there was a rise in the afternoon so I sold them at once. I made fifty pounds for each of them and a couple of hundred for myself.’
Philip was sick with envy. He had recently sold the last mortgage in which his small fortune had been invested and now had only six hundred pounds left. He was panic-stricken sometimes when he thought of the future. He had still to keep himself for two years before he could be qualified, and then he meant to try for hospital appointments, so that he could not expect to earn anything for three years at least. With the most rigid economy he would not have more than a hundred pounds left then. It was very little to have as a stand-by in case he was ill and could not earn money or found himself at any time without work. A lucky gamble would make all the difference to him.
‘Oh, well, it doesn’t matter,’ said Macalister. ‘Something is sure to turn up soon. There’ll be a boom in South Africans again one of these days, and then I’ll see what I can do for you.’
Macalister was in the Kaffir market and often told them stories of the sudden fortunes that had been made in the great boom of a year or two back.
‘Well, don’t forget next time.’
They sat on talking till nearly midnight, and Philip, who lived furthest off, was the first to go. If he did not catch the last tram he had to walk, and that made him very late. As it was he did not reach home till nearly half past twelve. When he got upstairs he was surprised to find Mildred still sitting in his arm-chair.
‘Why on earth aren’t you in bed?’ he cried.
‘I wasn’t sleepy.’
‘You ought to go to bed all the same. It would rest you.’
She did not move. He noticed that since supper she had changed into her black silk dress.
‘I thought I’d rather wait up for you in case you wanted anything.’
She looked at him, and the shadow of a smile played upon her thin pale lips. Philip was not sure whether he understood or not. He was slightly embarrassed, but assumed a cheerful, matter-of-fact air.
‘It’s very nice of you, but it’s very naughty also. Run off to bed as fast as you can, or you won’t be able to get up tomorrow morning.’
‘I don’t feel like going to bed.’
‘Nonsense,’ he said coldly.
She got up, a little sulkily, and went into her room. He smiled when he heard her lock the door loudly.
The next few days passed without incident. Mildred settled down in her new surroundings. When Philip hurried off after breakfast she had the whole morning to do the housework. They ate very simply, but she liked to take a long time to buy the few things they needed; she could not be bothered to cook anything for her dinner, but made herself some cocoa and ate bread and butter; then she took the baby out in the gocart, and when she came in spent the rest of the afternoon in idleness. She was tired out, and it suited her to do so little. She made friends with Philip’s forbidding landlady over the rent, which he left with Mildred to pay, and within a week was able to tell him more about his neighbours than he had learned in a year.
‘She’s a very nice woman,’ said Mildred. ‘Quite the lady. I told her we was married.’
‘D’you think that was necessary?’
‘Well, I had to tell her something. It looks so funny me being here and not married to you. I didn’t know what she’d think of me.’
‘I don’t suppose she believed you for a moment.’
‘That she did, I lay. I told her we’d been married two years—I had to say that, you know, because of baby—only your people wouldn’t hear of it, because you was only a student’—she pronounced it stoodent—‘and so we had to keep it a secret, but they’d given way now and we were all going down to stay with them in the summer.’
‘You’re a past mistress of the cock-and-bull story,’ said Philip.
He was vaguely irritated that Mildred still had this passion for telling fibs. In the last two years she had learnt nothing. But he shrugged his shoulders.
‘When all’s said and done,’ he reflected, ‘she hasn’t had much chance.’
It was a beautiful evening, warm and cloudless, and the people of South London seemed to have poured out into the streets. There was that restlessness in the air which seizes the cockney sometimes when a turn in the weather calls him into the open. After Mildred had cleared away the supper she went and stood at the window. The street noises came up to them, noises of people calling to one another, of the passing traffic, of a barrel-organ in the distance.
‘I suppose you must work tonight, Philip?’ she asked him, with a wistful expression.
‘I ought, but I don’t know that I must. Why, d’you want me to do anything else?’
‘I’d like to go out for a bit. Couldn’t we take a ride on the top of a tram?’
‘If you like.’
‘I’ll just go and put on my hat,’ she said joyfully.
The night made it almost impossible to stay indoors. The baby was asleep and could be safely left; Mildred said she had always left it alone at night when she went out; it never woke. She was in high spirits when she came back with her hat on. She had taken the opportunity to put on a little rouge. Philip thought it was excitement which had brought a faint colour to her pale cheeks; he was touched by her child-like delight, and reproached himself for the austerity with which he had treated her. She laughed when she got out into the air. The first tram they saw was going towards Westminster Bridge and they got on it. Philip smoked his pipe, and they looked at the crowded street. The shops were open, gaily lit, and people were doing their shopping for the next day. They passed a music-hall called the Canterbury and Mildred cried out:
‘Oh, Philip, do let’s go there. I haven’t been to a music-hall for months.’
‘We can’t afford stalls, you know.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind, I shall be quite happy in the gallery.’
They got down and walked back a hundred yards till they came to the doors. They got capital seats for sixpence each, high up but not in the gallery, and the night was so fine that there was plenty of room. Mildred’s eyes glistened. She enjoyed herself thoroughly. There was a simple-mindedness in her which touched Philip. She was a puzzle to him. Certain things in her still pleased him, and he thought that there was a lot in her which was very good: she had been badly brought up, and her life was hard; he had blamed her for much that she could not help; and it was his own fault if he had asked virtues from her which it was not in her power to give. Under different circumstances she might have been a charming girl. She was extraordinarily unfit for the battle of life. As he watched her now in profile, her mouth slightly open and that delicate flush on her cheeks, he thought she looked strangely virginal. He felt an overwhelming compassion for her, and with all his heart he forgave her for the misery she had caused him. The smoky atmosphere made Philip’s eyes ache, but when he suggested going she turned to him with beseeching face and asked him to stay till the end. He smiled and consented. She took his hand and held it for the rest of the performance. When they streamed out with the audience into the crowded street she did not want to go home; they wandered up the Westminster Bridge Road, looking at the people.
‘I’ve not had such a good time as this for months,’ she said.
Philip’s heart was full, and he was thankful to the fates because he had carried out his sudden impulse to take Mildred and her baby into his flat. It was very pleasant to see her happy gratitude. At last she grew tired and they jumped on a tram to go home; it was late now, and when they got down and turned into their own street there was no one about. Mildred slipped her arm through his.
‘It’s just like old times, Phil,’ she said.
She had never called him Phil before, that was what Griffiths called him; and even now it gave him a curious pang. He remembered how much he had wanted to die then; his pain had been so great that he had thought quite seriously of committing suicide. It all seemed very long ago. He smiled at his past self. Now he felt nothing for Mildred but infinite pity. They reached the house, and when they got into the sitting-room Philip lit the gas.
‘Is the baby all right?’ he asked.
‘I’ll just go in and see.’
When she came back it was to say that it had not stirred since she left it. It was a wonderful child. Philip held out his hand.
‘D’you want to go to bed already?’
‘It’s nearly one. I’m not used to late hours these days,’ said Philip.
She took his hand and holding it looked into his eyes with a little smile.
‘Phil, the other night in that room, when you asked me to come and stay here, I didn’t mean what you thought I meant, when you said you didn’t want me to be anything to you except just to cook and that sort of thing.’
‘Didn’t you?’ answered Philip, withdrawing his hand. ‘I did.’
‘Don’t be such an old silly,’ she laughed.
He shook his head.
‘I meant it quite seriously. I shouldn’t have asked you to stay here on any other condition.’
‘I feel I couldn’t. I can’t explain it, but it would spoil it all.’
She shrugged her shoulders.
‘Oh, very well, it’s just as you choose. I’m not one to go down on my hands and knees for that, and chance it.’
She went out, slamming the door behind her.