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XXXVIII


IT was the day after this that Waddington, coming to the bungalow in the afternoon, when he had sat a little asked Kitty if she would not go for a stroll with him. She had not been out of the compound since their arrival. She was glad enough.

"There are not many walks, I'm afraid," he said. "But we'll go to the top of the hill."

"Oh, yes, where the archway is. I've seen it often from the terrace."

One of the boys opened the heavy doorway for them and they stepped out into the dusty lane. They walked a few yards and then Kitty, seizing Waddington's arm in fright, gave a startled cry.

"Look!"

"What's the matter?"

At the foot of the wall that surrounded the compound a man lay on his back with his legs stretched out and his arms thrown over his head. He wore the patched blue rags and the wild mop of hair of the Chinese beggar.

"He looks as if he were dead," Kitty gasped.

"He is dead. Come along; you'd better look the other way. I'll have him moved when we come back."

But Kitty was trembling so,violently that she could not stir.

"I've never seen any one dead before."

"You'd better hurry up and get used to it then, because you'll see a good many before you've done with this cheerful spot."

He took her hand and drew it in his arm. They walked for a little in silence.

"Did he die of cholera?" she said at last.

"I suppose so."

They walked up the hill till they came to the archway. It was richly carved. Fantastic and ironical it stood like a landmark in the surrounding country. They sat down on the pedestal and faced the wide plain. The hill was sown close with the little green mounds of the dead, not in lines but disorderly, so that you felt that beneath the surface they must strangely jostle one another. The narrow causeway meandered sinuously among the green rice-fields. A small boy seated on the neck of a water-buffalo drove it slowly home, and three peasants in wide straw hats lolloped* with sidelong gait under their heavy loads. After the heat of the day it was pleasant in that spot to catch the faint breeze of the evening and the wide expanse of country brought a sense of restful melancholy to the tortured heart. But Kitty could not rid her mind of the dead beggar.

"How can you talk and laugh and drink whisky when people are dying all around you?" she asked suddenly.

Waddington did not answer. He turned round and looked at her, then he put his hand on her arm.

"You know, this is no place for a woman," he said gravely. "Why don't you go?"

She gave him a sidelong glance from beneath her long lashes and there was a shadow of a smile on her lips.

"I should have thought under the circumstances a wife's place was by her husband's side."

"When they telegraphed to me that you were coming with Fane I was astonished. But then it occurred to me that perhaps you'd been a nurse and all this sort of thing was in the day's work. I expected you to be one of those grim-visaged females who lead you a dog's life when you're ill in hospital. You could have knocked me down with a feather when I came into the bungalow and saw you sitting down and resting. You looked very frail and white and tired."

"You couldn't expect me to look my best after nine days on the road."

"You look frail and white and tired now, and if you'll allow me to say so, desperately unhappy."

Kitty flushed because she could not help it, but she was able to give a laugh that sounded merry enough.

"I'm sorry you don't like my expression. The only reason I have for looking unhappy is that since I was twelve I've known that my nose was a little too long. But to cherish a secret sorrow is a most effective pose: you can't think how many sweet young men have wanted to console me."

Waddington's blue and shining eyes rested on her and she knew that he did not believe a word she said. She did not care so long as he pretended to.

"I knew that you hadn't been married very long and I came to the conclusion that you and your husband were madly in love with each other. I couldn't believe that he had wished you to come, but perhaps you had absolutely refused to stay behind."

"That's a very reasonable explanation," she said lightly.

"Yes, but it isn't the right one."

She waited for him to go on, fearful of what he was about to say, for she had a pretty good idea of his shrewdness and was aware that he never hesitated to speak his mind, but unable to resist the desire to hear him talk about herself.

"I don't think for a moment that you're in love with your husband. I think you dislike him, I shouldn't be surprised if you hated him. But I'm quite sure you're afraid of him."

For a moment she looked away. She did not mean to let Waddington see that anything he said affected her.

"I have a suspicion that you don't very much like my husband," she said with cool irony.

"I respect him. He has brains and character; and that, I may tell you, is a very unusual combination. I don't suppose you know what he is doing here, because I don't think he's very expansive with you. If any man single-handed can put a stop to this frightful epidemic he's going to do it. He's doctoring the sick, cleaning the city up, trying to get the drinking water pure. He doesn't mind where he goes nor what he does. He's risking his life twenty times a day. He's got Colonel Y #252; in his pocket and he's induced him to put the troops at his disposal. He's even put a little pluck into the magistrate and the old man is really trying to do something. And the nuns at the convent swear by him. They think he's a hero."

"Don't you?"

"After all this isn't his job, is it? He's a bacteriologist. There was no call for him to come here. He doesn't give me the impression that he's moved by compassion for all these dying Chinamen. Watson was different. He loved the human race. Though he was a missionary it didn't make any difference to him if they were Christian, Buddhist or Confucian; they were just human beings. Your husband isn't here because he cares a damn if a hundred thousand Chinese die of cholera; he isn't here either in the interests of science. Why is he here?"

"You'd better ask him."

"It interests me to see you together. I sometimes wonder how you behave when you're alone. When I'm there you're acting, both of you, and acting damned badly, by George. You'd neither of you get thirty bob a week in a touring company if that's the best you can do."

"I don't know what you mean," smiled Kitty, keeping up a pretence of frivolity which she knew did not deceive.

"You're a very pretty woman. It's funny that your husband should never look at you. When he speaks to you it sounds as though it were not his voice but somebody else's."

"Do you think he doesn't love me?" asked Kitty in a low voice, hoarsely, putting aside suddenly her lightness.

"I don't know. I don't know if you fill him with such a repulsion that it gives him goose-flesh to be near you or if he's burning with a love that for some reason he will not allow himself to show. I've asked myself if you're both here to commit suicide."

Kitty had seen the startled glance and then the scrutinizing look Waddington gave them when the incident of the salad took place.

"I think you're attaching too much importance to a few lettuce leaves," she said flippantly. She rose. "Shall we go home? I'm sure you want a whisky and soda."

"You're not a heroine at all events. You're frightened to death. Are you sure you don't want to go away?"

"What has it got to do with you?"

"I'll help you."

"Are you going to fall to my look of secret sorrow? Look at my profile and tell me if my nose isn't a trifle too long."

He gazed at her reflectively, that malicious, ironical look in his bright eyes, but mingled with it, a shadow, like a tree standing at a river's edge and its reflexion in the water, was an expression of singular kindliness. It brought sudden tears to Kitty's eyes.

"Must you stay?"

"Yes."

They passed under the flamboyant archway and walked down the hill. When they came to the compound they saw the body of the dead beggar. He took her arm, but she released herself. She stood still.

"It's dreadful, isn't it?"

"What? Death?"

"Yes. It makes everything else seem so horribly trivial. He doesn't look human. When you look at him you can hardly persuade yourself that he's ever been alive. It's hard to think that not so very many years ago he was just a little boy tearing down the hill and flying a kite."

She could not hold back the sob that choked her.



XXXVII | The Painted Veil | XXXIX