Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
THE autumn passed into winter. Philip had left his address with Mrs. Foster, his uncle's housekeeper, so that she might communicate with him, but still went once a week to the hospital on the chance of there being a letter. One evening he saw his name on an envelope in a handwriting he had hoped never to see again. It gave him a queer feeling. For a little while he could not bring himself to take it. It brought back a host of hateful memories. But at length, impatient with himself, he ripped open the envelope.
7 William Street
Can I see you for a minute or two as soon as possible. I am in awful trouble and don't know what to do. It's not money.
He tore the letter into little bits and going out into the street scattered them in the darkness.
"I'll see her damned," he muttered.
A feeling of disgust surged up in him at the thought of seeing her again. He did not care if she was in distress, it served her right whatever it was, he thought of her with hatred, and the love he had had for her aroused his loathing. His recollections filled him with nausea, and as he walked across the Thames he drew himself aside in an instinctive withdrawal from his thought of her. He went to bed, but he could not sleep; he wondered what was the matter with her, and he could not get out of his head the fear that she was ill and hungry; she would not have written to him unless she were desperate. He was angry with himself for his weakness, but he knew that he would have no peace unless he saw her. Next morning he wrote a letter-card and posted it on his way to the shop. He made it as stiff as he could and said merely that he was sorry she was in difficulties and would come to the address she had given at seven o'clock that evening.
It was that of a shabby lodging-house in a sordid street; and when, sick at the thought of seeing her, he asked whether she was in, a wild hope seized him that she had left. It looked the sort of place people moved in and out of frequently. He had not thought of looking at the postmark on her letter and did not know how many days it had lain in the rack. The woman who answered the bell did not reply to his inquiry, but silently preceded him along the passage and knocked on a door at the back.
"Mrs. Miller, a gentleman to see you," she called.
The door was slightly opened, and Mildred looked out suspiciously.
"Oh, it's you," she said. "Come in."
He walked in and she closed the door. It was a very small bed-room, untidy as was every place she lived in; there was a pair of shoes on the floor, lying apart from one another and uncleaned; a hat was on the chest of drawers, with false curls beside it; and there was a blouse on the table. Philip looked for somewhere to put his hat. The hooks behind the door were laden with skirts, and he noticed that they were muddy at the hem.
"Sit down, won't you?" she said. Then she gave a little awkward laugh. "I suppose you were surprised to hear from me again."
"You're awfully hoarse," he answered. "Have you got a sore throat?"
"Yes, I have had for some time."
He did not say anything. He waited for her to explain why she wanted to see him. The look of the room told him clearly enough that she had gone back to the life from which he had taken her. He wondered what had happened to the baby; there was a photograph of it on the chimney-piece, but no sign in the room that a child was ever there. Mildred was holding her handkerchief. She made it into a little ball, and passed it from hand to hand. He saw that she was very nervous. She was staring at the fire, and he could look at her without meeting her eyes. She was much thinner than when she had left him; and the skin, yellow and dryish, was drawn more tightly over her cheekbones. She had dyed her hair and it was now flaxen: it altered her a good deal, and made her look more vulgar.
"I was relieved to get your letter, I can tell you," she said at last. "I thought p'raps you weren't at the 'ospital any more."
Philip did not speak.
"I suppose you're qualified by now, aren't you?"
"I'm no longer at the hospital. I had to give it up eighteen months ago."
"You are changeable. You don't seem as if you could stick to anything."
Philip was silent for another moment, and when he went on it was with coldness.
"I lost the little money I had in an unlucky speculation and I couldn't afford to go on with the medical. I had to earn my living as best I could."
"What are you doing then?"
"I'm in a shop."
She gave him a quick glance and turned her eyes away at once. He thought that she reddened. She dabbed her palms nervously with the handkerchief.
"You've not forgotten all your doctoring, have you?" She jerked the words out quite oddly.
"Because that's why I wanted to see you." Her voice sank to a hoarse whisper. "I don't know what's the matter with me."
"Why don't you go to a hospital?"
"I don't like to do that, and have all the stoodents staring at me, and I'm afraid they'd want to keep me."
"What are you complaining of?" asked Philip coldly, with the stereotyped phrase used in the out-patients' room.
"Well, I've come out in a rash, and I can't get rid of it."
Philip felt a twinge of horror in his heart. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
"Let me look at your throat?"
He took her over to the window and made such examination as he could. Suddenly he caught sight of her eyes. There was deadly fear in them. It was horrible to see. She was terrified. She wanted him to reassure her; she looked at him pleadingly, not daring to ask for words of comfort but with all her nerves astrung to receive them: he had none to offer her.
"I'm afraid you're very ill indeed," he said.
"What d'you think it is?"
When he told her she grew deathly pale, and her lips even turned, yellow. she began to cry, hopelessly, quietly at first and then with choking sobs.
"I'm awfully sorry," he said at last. "But I had to tell you."
"I may just as well kill myself and have done with it."
He took no notice of the threat.
"Have you got any money?" he asked.
"Six or seven pounds."
"You must give up this life, you know. Don't you think you could find some work to do? I'm afraid I can't help you much. I only get twelve bob a week."
"What is there I can do now?" she cried impatiently.
"Damn it all, you MUST try to get something."
He spoke to her very gravely, telling her of her own danger and the danger to which she exposed others, and she listened sullenly. He tried to console her. At last he brought her to a sulky acquiescence in which she promised to do all he advised. He wrote a prescription, which he said he would leave at the nearest chemist's, and he impressed upon her the necessity of taking her medicine with the utmost regularity. Getting up to go, he held out his hand.
"Don't be downhearted, you'll soon get over your throat."
But as he went her face became suddenly distorted, and she caught hold of his coat.
"Oh, don't leave me," she cried hoarsely. "I'm so afraid, don't leave me alone yet. Phil, please. There's no one else I can go to, you're the only friend I've ever had."
He felt the terror of her soul, and it was strangely like that terror he had seen in his uncle's eyes when he feared that he might die. Philip looked down. Twice that woman had come into his life and made him wretched; she had no claim upon him; and yet, he knew not why, deep in his heart was a strange aching; it was that which, when he received her letter, had left him no peace till he obeyed her summons.
"I suppose I shall never really quite get over it," he said to himself.
What perplexed him was that he felt a curious physical distaste, which made it uncomfortable for him to be near her.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked.
"Let's go out and dine together. I'll pay."
He hesitated. He felt that she was creeping back again into his life when he thought she was gone out of it for ever. She watched him with sickening anxiety.
"Oh, I know I've treated you shocking, but don't leave me alone now. You've had your revenge. If you leave me by myself now I don't know what I shall do."
"All right, I don't mind," he said, "but we shall have to do it on the cheap, I haven't got money to throw away these days."
She sat down and put her shoes on, then changed her skirt and put on a hat; and they walked out together till they found a restaurant in the Tottenham Court Road. Philip had got out of the habit of eating at those hours, and Mildred's throat was so sore that she could not swallow. They had a little cold ham and Philip drank a glass of beer. They sat opposite one another, as they had so often sat before; he wondered if she remembered; they had nothing to say to one another and would have sat in silence if Philip had not forced himself to talk. In the bright light of the restaurant, with its vulgar looking-glasses that reflected in an endless series, she looked old and haggard. Philip was anxious to know about the child, but he had not the courage to ask. At last she said:
"You know baby died last summer."
"Oh!" he said.
"You might say you're sorry."
"I'm not," he answered, "I'm very glad."
She glanced at him and, understanding what he meant, looked away
"You were rare stuck on it at one time, weren't you? I always thought it funny like how you could see so much in another man's child."
When they had finished eating they called at the chemist's for the medicine Philip had ordered, and going back to the shabby room he made her take a dose. Then they sat together till it was time for Philip to go back to Harrington Street. He was hideously bored.
Philip went to see her every day. She took the medicine he had prescribed and followed his directions, and soon the results were so apparent that she gained the greatest confidence in Philip's skill. As she grew better she grew less despondent. She talked more freely.
"As soon as I can get a job I shall be all right," she said. "I've had my lesson now and I mean to profit by it. No more racketing about for yours truly."
Each time he saw her, Philip asked whether she had found work. She told him not to worry, she would find something to do as soon as she wanted it; she had several strings to her bow; it was all the better not to do anything for a week or two. He could not deny this, but at the end of that time he became more insistent. She laughed at him, she was much more cheerful now, and said he was a fussy old thing. She told him long stories of the manageresses she interviewed, for her idea was to get work at some eating-house; what they said and what she answered. Nothing definite was fixed, but she was sure to settle something at the beginning of the following week: there was no use hurrying, and it would be a mistake to take something unsuitable.
"It's absurd to talk like that," he said impatiently. "You must take anything you can get. I can't help you, and your money won't last for ever."
"Oh, well, I've not come to the end of it yet and chance it."
He looked at her sharply. It was three weeks since his first visit, and she had then less than seven pounds. Suspicion seized him. He remembered some of the things she had said. He put two and two together. He wondered whether she had made any attempt to find work. Perhaps she had been lying to him all the time. It was very strange that her money should have lasted so long.
"What is your rent here?"
"Oh, the landlady's very nice, different from what some of them are; she's quite willing to wait till it's convenient for me to pay."
He was silent. What he suspected was so horrible that he hesitated. It was no use to ask her, she would deny everything; if he wanted to know he must find out for himself. He was in the habit of leaving her every evening at eight, and when the clock struck he got up; but instead of going back to Harrington Street he stationed himself at the corner of Fitzroy Square so that he could see anyone who came along William Street. It seemed to him that he waited an interminable time, and he was on the point of going away, thinking his surmise had been mistaken, when the door of No. 7 opened and Mildred came out. He fell back into the darkness and watched her walk towards him. She had on the hat with a quantity of feathers on it which he had seen in her room, and she wore a dress he recognized, too showy for the street and unsuitable to the time of year. He followed her slowly till she came into the Tottenham Court Road, where she slackened her pace; at the corner of Oxford Street she stopped, looked round, and crossed over to a music-hall. He went up to her and touched her on the arm. He saw that she had rouged her cheeks and painted her lips.
"Where are you going, Mildred?"
She started at the sound of his voice and reddened as she always did when she was caught in a lie; then the flash of anger which he knew so well came into her eyes as she instinctively sought to defend herself by abuse. But she did not say the words which were on the tip of her tongue.
"Oh, I was only going to see the show. It gives me the hump sitting every night by myself."
He did not pretend to believe her.
"You mustn't. Good heavens, I've told you fifty times how dangerous it is. You must stop this sort of thing at once."
"Oh, hold your jaw," she cried roughly. "How d'you suppose I'm going to live?"
He took hold of her arm and without thinking what he was doing tried to drag her away.
"For God's sake come along. Let me take you home. You don't know what you're doing. It's criminal."
"What do I care? Let them take their chance. Men haven't been so good to me that I need bother my head about them."
She pushed him away and walking up to the box-office put down her money. Philip had threepence in his pocket. He could not follow. He turned away and walked slowly down Oxford Street.
"I can't do anything more," he said to himself.
That was the end. He did not see her again.