Philip was surprised when he saw his uncle and aunt. He had never noticed before that they were quite old people. The Vicar received him with his usual, not unamiable indifference. He was a little stouter, a little balder, a little grayer. Philip saw how insignificant he was. His face was weak and self-indulgent. Aunt Louisa took him in her arms and kissed him; and tears of happiness flowed down her cheeks. Philip was touched and embarrassed; he had not known with what a hungry love she cared for him.
"Oh, the time has seemed long since you've been away, Philip," she cried.
She stroked his hands and looked into his face with glad eyes.
"You've grown. You're quite a man now."
There was a very small moustache on his upper lip. He had bought a razor and now and then with infinite care shaved the down off his smooth chin.
"We've been so lonely without you." And then shyly, with a little break in her voice, she asked: "You are glad to come back to your home, aren't you?"
She was so thin that she seemed almost transparent, the arms she put round his neck were frail bones that reminded you of chicken bones, and her faded face was oh! so wrinkled. The gray curls which she still wore in the fashion of her youth gave her a queer, pathetic look; and her little withered body was like an autumn leaf, you felt it might be blown away by the first sharp wind. Philip realised that they had done with life, these two quiet little people: they belonged to a past generation, and they were waiting there patiently, rather stupidly, for death; and he, in his vigour and his youth, thirsting for excitement and adventure, was appalled at the waste. They had done nothing, and when they went it would be just as if they had never been. He felt a great pity for Aunt Louisa, and he loved her suddenly because she loved him.
Then Miss Wilkinson, who had kept discreetly out of the way till the Careys had had a chance of welcoming their nephew, came into the room.
"This is Miss Wilkinson, Philip," said Mrs. Carey.
"The prodigal has returned," she said, holding out her hand. "I have brought a rose for the prodigal's buttonhole."
With a gay smile she pinned to Philip's coat the flower she had just picked in the garden. He blushed and felt foolish. He knew that Miss Wilkinson was the daughter of his Uncle William's last rector, and he had a wide acquaintance with the daughters of clergymen. They wore ill-cut clothes and stout boots. They were generally dressed in black, for in Philip's early years at Blackstable homespuns had not reached East Anglia, and the ladies of the clergy did not favour colours. Their hair was done very untidily, and they smelt aggressively of starched linen. They considered the feminine graces unbecoming and looked the same whether they were old or young. They bore their religion arrogantly. The closeness of their connection with the church made them adopt a slightly dictatorial attitude to the rest of mankind.
Miss Wilkinson was very different. She wore a white muslin gown stamped with gay little bunches of flowers, and pointed, high-heeled shoes, with open-work stockings. To Philip's inexperience it seemed that she was wonderfully dressed; he did not see that her frock was cheap and showy. Her hair was elaborately dressed, with a neat curl in the middle of the forehead: it was very black, shiny and hard, and it looked as though it could never be in the least disarranged. She had large black eyes and her nose was slightly aquiline; in profile she had somewhat the look of a bird of prey, but full face she was prepossessing. She smiled a great deal, but her mouth was large and when she smiled she tried to hide her teeth, which were big and rather yellow. But what embarrassed Philip most was that she was heavily powdered: he had very strict views on feminine behaviour and did not think a lady ever powdered; but of course Miss Wilkinson was a lady because she was a clergyman's daughter, and a clergyman was a gentleman.
Philip made up his mind to dislike her thoroughly. She spoke with a slight French accent; and he did not know why she should, since she had been born and bred in the heart of England. He thought her smile affected, and the coy sprightliness of her manner irritated him. For two or three days he remained silent and hostile, but Miss Wilkinson apparently did not notice it. She was very affable. She addressed her conversation almost exclusively to him, and there was something flattering in the way she appealed constantly to his sane judgment. She made him laugh too, and Philip could never resist people who amused him: he had a gift now and then of saying neat things; and it was pleasant to have an appreciative listener. Neither the Vicar nor Mrs. Carey had a sense of humour, and they never laughed at anything he said. As he grew used to Miss Wilkinson, and his shyness left him, he began to like her better; he found the French accent picturesque; and at a garden party which the doctor gave she was very much better dressed than anyone else. She wore a blue foulard with large white spots, and Philip was tickled at the sensation it caused.
"I'm certain they think you're no better than you should be," he told her, laughing.
"It's the dream of my life to be taken for an abandoned hussy," she answered.
One day when Miss Wilkinson was in her room he asked Aunt Louisa how old she was.
"Oh, my dear, you should never ask a lady's age; but she's certainly too old for you to marry."
The Vicar gave his slow, obese smile.
"She's no chicken, Louisa," he said. "She was nearly grown up when we were in Lincolnshire, and that was twenty years ago. She wore a pigtail hanging down her back."
"She may not have been more than ten," said Philip.
"She was older than that," said Aunt Louisa.
"I think she was near twenty," said the Vicar.
"Oh no, William. Sixteen or seventeen at the outside."
"That would make her well over thirty," said Philip.
At that moment Miss Wilkinson tripped downstairs, singing a song by Benjamin Goddard. She had put her hat on, for she and Philip were going for a walk, and she held out her hand for him to button her glove. He did it awkwardly. He felt embarrassed but gallant. Conversation went easily between them now, and as they strolled along they talked of all manner of things. She told Philip about Berlin, and he told her of his year in Heidelberg. As he spoke, things which had appeared of no importance gained a new interest: he described the people at Frau Erlin's house; and to the conversations between Hayward and Weeks, which at the time seemed so significant, he gave a little twist, so that they looked absurd. He was flattered at Miss Wilkinson's laughter.
"I'm quite frightened of you," she said. "You're so sarcastic."
Then she asked him playfully whether he had not had any love affairs at Heidelberg. Without thinking, he frankly answered that he had not; but she refused to believe him.
"How secretive you are!" she said. "At your age is it likely?"
He blushed and laughed.
"You want to know too much," he said.
"Ah, I thought so," she laughed triumphantly. "Look at him blushing."
He was pleased that she should think he had been a sad dog, and he changed the conversation so as to make her believe he had all sorts of romantic things to conceal. He was angry with himself that he had not. There had been no opportunity.
Miss Wilkinson was dissatisfied with her lot. She resented having to earn her living and told Philip a long story of an uncle of her mother's, who had been expected to leave her a fortune but had married his cook and changed his will. She hinted at the luxury of her home and compared her life in Lincolnshire, with horses to ride and carriages to drive in, with the mean dependence of her present state. Philip was a little puzzled when he mentioned this afterwards to Aunt Louisa, and she told him that when she knew the Wilkinsons they had never had anything more than a pony and a dog-cart; Aunt Louisa had heard of the rich uncle, but as he was married and had children before Emily was born she could never have had much hope of inheriting his fortune. Miss Wilkinson had little good to say of Berlin, where she was now in a situation. She complained of the vulgarity of German life, and compared it bitterly with the brilliance of Paris, where she had spent a number of years. She did not say how many. She had been governess in the family of a fashionable portrait-painter, who had married a Jewish wife of means, and in their house she had met many distinguished people. She dazzled Philip with their names. Actors from the Comedie Francaise had come to the house frequently, and Coquelin, sitting next her at dinner, had told her he had never met a foreigner who spoke such perfect French. Alphonse Daudet had come also, and he had given her a copy of Sappho: he had promised to write her name in it, but she had forgotten to remind him. She treasured the volume none the less and she would lend it to Philip. Then there was Maupassant. Miss Wilkinson with a rippling laugh looked at Philip knowingly. What a man, but what a writer! Hayward had talked of Maupassant, and his reputation was not unknown to Philip.
"Did he make love to you?" he asked.
The words seemed to stick funnily in his throat, but he asked them nevertheless. He liked Miss Wilkinson very much now, and was thrilled by her conversation, but he could not imagine anyone making love to her.
"What a question!" she cried. "Poor Guy, he made love to every woman he met. It was a habit that he could not break himself of."
She sighed a little, and seemed to look back tenderly on the past.
"He was a charming man," she murmured.
A greater experience than Philip's would have guessed from these words the probabilities of the encounter: the distinguished writer invited to luncheon en famille, the governess coming in sedately with the two tall girls she was teaching; the introduction:
"Notre Miss Anglaise."
And the luncheon during which the Miss Anglaise sat silent while the distinguished writer talked to his host and hostess.
But to Philip her words called up much more romantic fancies.
"Do tell me all about him," he said excitedly.
"There's nothing to tell," she said truthfully, but in such a manner as to convey that three volumes would scarcely have contained the lurid facts. "You mustn't be curious."
She began to talk of Paris. She loved the boulevards and the Bois. There was grace in every street, and the trees in the Champs Elysees had a distinction which trees had not elsewhere. They were sitting on a stile now by the high-road, and Miss Wilkinson looked with disdain upon the stately elms in front of them. And the theatres: the plays were brilliant, and the acting was incomparable. She often went with Madame Foyot, the mother of the girls she was educating, when she was trying on clothes.
"Oh, what a misery to be poor!" she cried. "These beautiful things, it's only in Paris they know how to dress, and not to be able to afford them! Poor Madame Foyot, she had no figure. Sometimes the dressmaker used to whisper to me: `Ah, Mademoiselle, if she only had your figure.' "
Philip noticed then that Miss Wilkinson had a robust form and was proud of it.
"Men are so stupid in England. They only think of the face. The French, who are a nation of lovers, know how much more important the figure is."
Philip had never thought of such things before, but he observed now that Miss Wilkinson's ankles were thick and ungainly. He withdrew his eyes quickly.
"You should go to France. Why don't you go to Paris for a year? You would learn French, and it would--deniaiser you."
"What is that?" asked Philip.
She laughed slyly.
"You must look it out in the dictionary. Englishmen do not know how to treat women. They are so shy. Shyness is ridiculous in a man. They don't know how to make love. They can't even tell a woman she is charming without looking foolish."
Philip felt himself absurd. Miss Wilkinson evidently expected him to behave very differently; and he would have been delighted to say gallant and witty things, but they never occurred to him; and when they did he was too much afraid of making a fool of himself to say them.
"Oh, I love Paris," sighed Miss Wilkinson. "But I had to go to Berlin. I was with the Foyots till the girls married, and then I could get nothing to do, and I had the chance of this post in Berlin. They're relations of Madame Foyot, and I accepted. I had a tiny apartment in the Rue Breda, on the cinquieme: it wasn't at all respectable. You know about the Rue Breda--ces dames, you know."
Philip nodded, not knowing at all what she meant, but vaguely suspecting, and anxious she should not think him too ignorant.
"But I didn't care. Je suis libre, n'est-ce pas?" She was very fond of speaking French, which indeed she spoke well. "Once I had such a curious adventure there."
She paused a little and Philip pressed her to tell it.
"You wouldn't tell me yours in Heidelberg," she said.
"They were so unadventurous," he retorted.
"I don't know what Mrs. Carey would say if she knew the sort of things we talk about together."
"You don't imagine I shall tell her."
"Will you promise?"
When he had done this, she told him how an art-student who had a room on the floor above her--but she interrupted herself.
"Why don't you go in for art? You paint so prettily."
"Not well enough for that."
"That is for others to judge. Je m'y connais, and I believe you have the making of a great artist."
"Can't you see Uncle William's face if I suddenly told him I wanted to go to Paris and study art?"
"You're your own master, aren't you?"
"You're trying to put me off. Please go on with the story." Miss Wilkinson, with a little laugh, went on. The art-student had passed her several times on the stairs, and she had paid no particular attention. She saw that he had fine eyes, and he took off his hat very politely. And one day she found a letter slipped under her door. It was from him. He told her that he had adored her for months, and that he waited about the stairs for her to pass. Oh, it was a charming letter! Of course she did not reply, but what woman could help being flattered? And next day there was another letter! It was wonderful, passionate, and touching. When next she met him on the stairs she did not know which way to look. And every day the letters came, and now he begged her to see him. He said he would come in the evening, vers neuf heures, and she did not know what to do. Of course it was impossible, and he might ring and ring, but she would never open the door; and then while she was waiting for the tinkling of the bell, all nerves, suddenly he stood before her. She had forgotten to shut the door when she came in.
"C'etait une fatalite."
"And what happened then?" asked Philip.
"That is the end of the story," she replied, with a ripple of laughter.
Philip was silent for a moment. His heart beat quickly, and strange emotions seemed to be hustling one another in his heart. He saw the dark staircase and the chance meetings, and he admired the boldness of the letters--oh, he would never have dared to do that--and then the silent, almost mysterious entrance. It seemed to him the very soul of romance.
"What was he like?"
"Oh, he was handsome. Charmant garcon."
"Do you know him still?"
Philip felt a slight feeling of irritation as he asked this.
"He treated me abominably. Men are always the same. You're heartless, all of you."
"I don't know about that," said Philip, not without embarrassment.
"Let us go home," said Miss Wilkinson.