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XX


SHE got out of her rickshaw in the Victoria Road and walked up the steep, narrow lane till she came to the shop. She lingered outside a moment as though her attention were attracted by the bric-a-brac* which was displayed. But a boy who was standing there on the watch for customers, recognizing her at once, gave her a broad smile of connivance. He said something in Chinese to some one within and the master, a little, fat-faced man in a black gown, came out and greeted her. She walked in quickly.

"Mr. Townsend no come yet. You go top-side, yes?"

She went to the back of the shop and walked up the rickety, dark stairs. The Chinese followed her and unlocked the door that led into the bedroom. It was stuffy and there was an acrid smell of opium. She sat down on a sandalwood chest.

In a moment she heard a heavy step on the creaking stairs. Townsend came in and shut the door behind him. His face bore a sullen look, as he saw her it vanished, and he smiled in that charming way of his. He took her quickly in his arms and kissed her lips.

"Now what's the trouble?"

"It makes me feel better just to see you," she smiled.

He sat down on the bed and lit a cigarette.

"You look rather washed out this morning."

"I don't wonder," she answered. "I don't think I closed my eyes all night."

He gave her a look. He was smiling still, but his smile was a little set and unnatural. She thought there was a shade of anxiety in his eyes.

"He knows," she said.

There was an instant's pause before he answered.

"What did he say?"

"He hasn't said anything."

"What!" He looked at her sharply. "What makes you think he knows?"

"Everything. His look. The way he talked at dinner."

"Was he disagreeable?"

"No, on the contrary, he was scrupulously polite. For the first time since we married he didn't kiss me good night."

She dropped her eyes. She was not sure if Charlie understood. As a rule Walter took her in his arms and pressed his lips to hers and would not let them go. His whole body grew tender and passionate with his kiss.

"Why do you imagine he didn't say anything?"

"I don't know."

There was a pause. Kitty sat very still on the sandalwood box and looked with anxious attention at Towns-end. His face once more was sullen and there was a frown between his brows. His mouth drooped a little at the corners. But all at once he looked up and a gleam of malicious amusement came into his eyes.

"I wonder if he is going to say anything." .

She did not answer. She did not know what he meant.

"After all, he wouldn't be the first man who's shut his eyes in a case of this sort. What has he to gain by making a row? If he'd wanted to make a row he would have insisted on coming into your room." His eyes twinkled and his lips broke into a broad smile. "We should have looked a pair of damned fools."

"I wish you could have seen his face last night."

"I expect he was upset. It was naturally a shock. It's a damned humiliating position for any man. He always looks a fool. Walter doesn't give me the impression of a fellow who'd care to wash a lot of dirty linen in public."

"I don't think he would," she answered reflectively, "He's very sensitive, I've discovered that."

"That's all to the good as far as we're concerned. You know, it's a very good plan to put yourself in somebody else's shoes and ask yourself how you would act in his place. There's only one way in which a man can save his face when he's in that sort of position and that is to pretend he knows nothing. I bet you anything you like that that is exactly what he's going to do."

The more Townsend talked the more buoyant he became. His blue eyes sparkled and he was once more his gay and jovial self. He irradiated an encouraging confidence.

"Heaven knows, I don't want to say anything disagreeable about him, but when you come down to brass tacks* a bacteriologist is no great shakes. The chances are that I shall be Colonial Secretary when Simmons goes home, and it's to Walter's interest to keep on the right side of me. He's got his bread and butter to think of, like the rest of us: do you think the Colonial Office are going to do much for a fellow who makes a scandal? Believe me, he's got everything to gain by holding his tongue and everything to lose by kicking up a row."

Kitty moved uneasily. She knew how shy Walter was and she could believe that the fear of a scene, and the dread of public attention, might have influence upon him; but she could not believe that he would be affected by the thought of a material advantage. Perhaps she didn't know him very well, but Charlie didn't know him at all.

"Has it occurred to you that he's madly in love with me?"

He did not answer, but he smiled at her with roguish eyes. She knew and loved that charming look of his.

"Well, what is it? I know you're going to say something awful."

"Well, you know, women are often under the impression that men are much more madly in love with them than they really are."

For the first time she laughed. His confidence was catching.

"What a monstrous thing to say."

"I put it to you that you haven't been bothering much about your husband lately. Perhaps he isn't quite so much in love with you as he was."

"At all events I shall never delude myself that you are madly in love with me," she retorted.

"That's where you're wrong."

Ah, how good it was to hear him say that! She knew it and her belief in his passion warmed her heart. As he spoke he rose from the bed and came and sat down beside her on the sandalwood box. He put his arm round her waist.

"Don't worry your silly little head a moment longer," he said. "I promise you there's nothing to fear. I'm as certain as I am of anything that he's going to pretend he knows nothing. You know, this sort of thing is awfully difficult to prove. You say he's in love with you; perhaps he doesn't want to lose you altogether. I swear I'd accept anything rather than that if you were my wife."

She leaned towards him. Her body became limp and yielding against his arm. The love she felt for him was almost torture. His last words had struck her: perhaps Walter loved her so passionately that he was prepared to accept any humiliation if sometimes she would let him love her. She could understand that; for that was how she felt towards Charlie. A thrill of pride passed through her, and at the same time a faint sensation of contempt for a man who could love so slavishly.

She put her arm lovingly round Charlie's neck.

"You're simply wonderful. I was shaking like a leaf when I came here and you've made everything all right."

He took her face in his hands and kissed her lips.

"Darling."

"You're such a comfort to me," she sighed.

"I'm sure you need not be nervous. And you know I'll stand by you. I won't let you down".

She put away her fears, but for an instant unreasonably she regretted that her plans for the future were shattered. Now that all danger was past she almost wished that Walter were going to insist on a divorce.

"I knew I could count on you," she said.

"So I should hope."

"Oughtn't you to go and have your tiffin?"

"Oh, damn my tiffin."

He drew her more closely to him and now she was held tight in his arms. His mouth sought hers.

"Oh, Charlie, you must let me go."

"Never."

She gave a little laugh, a laugh of happy love and of triumph; his eyes were heavy with desire. He lifted her to her feet and not letting her go but holding her close to his breast he locked the door.



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