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7: Cards on the Table

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Author Topic: 7: Cards on the Table  (Read 30 times)
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« on: April 17, 2023, 12:18:29 pm »

THE bridge party at the Villa Paloma that Friday evening had been, from Nesta Hedderwick’s point of view, a great success. At the end of the evening’s play, after a shaky start, she and Bill had taken about ten thousand francs off the Malloys. The Colonel and his wife, a brisk, talkative little woman with faded ginger hair, had accepted their defeat with the indifference and sangfroid of a couple to whom ten thousand francs was mere chicken-feed. They departed in an aura of vociferous good will and Armagnac brandy, leaving Nesta and Bill to enjoy a complacent post-mortem on the game.

Bill was in no hurry to go up to bed. Kitty and Tony had left directly after dinner for a flutter at the local casino, and since it was then long past midnight they’d probably show up at any minute. Dilys and Miss Pilligrew, placing a proper value on their sleep, had long since retired for the night. It wasn’t Kitty that Bill was hoping to see. He felt pretty sure that when she did return to the villa and realized he was still in the lounge she’d go straight up to bed. It was Shenton he wanted to buttonhole. He was raring to have a private, straight-from-the-shoulder talk with ex-Flying Officer Tony Shenton.

Bill, in fact, was just having “one for the stairs” when he heard the Vedette swish up the drive en route for the garage at the rear of the villa. Nesta glanced at her watch.

“Twenty to one! Damned inconsiderate, Bill. This Linden girl’s a puss. I suppose you realize she’s crazy about Tony?”

Bill said bleakly:

“I . . . I rather suspected it.”

“The child’s a fool, of course. She’s too infatuated to see it, but, if you ask me, he’s already beginning to tire of her. He always does. Tony’s women are here today and gone tomorrow. There’s been a constant procession of disillusioned females in and out of this house ever since the heartless wretch came to live here. One fine day it’s going to get him into trouble.”

“Trouble? How do you mean, Mrs. Hedderwick?”

“Well, one of these rejected females is going to hit back and hit back hard. If Tony doesn’t watch out some sweet wench is going to pop a pinch of arsenic in his----” The door opened and Tony stood there blinking owlishly in the bright light. Nesta’s expression changed instantly. She said with a fond smile: “Well, Tony darling, did you break the bank? Had a lovely time? Where’s Kitty?”

“Gone to bed.” He nodded casually to Bill. “Oh, hullo, Dillon. What about a cognac?”

“I’ve already got a drink, thanks.”

“Bang on. I’ll join you.”

Nesta eased her fourteen stone from the chair in which she’d been practically wedged and swayed, yawning, to her feet.

“Well, if you men are going to make a night of it, I’m off to catch up on my beauty sleep. Good-night, Bill. Don’t let him drink too much.” She held out her arms to Tony. “Goodnight, you wretch. Not too late up. You look tired.”

With a dutiful air Tony kissed her on both cheeks and thrust her with playful familiarity towards the door. Nesta, almost cooing with gratitude for these little attentions, retaliated by tweaking the young man’s ear. Tony winced.

“Hey! That hurt.”

“Serve you right,” bridled Nesta. “You’ve behaved abominably towards me of late. Ever since that Linden minx turned up you’ve ignored me completely. You’re a brute, Tony. He is a brute, isn’t he, Bill? A nasty, thoughtless, self-centred brute!”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake----” began Tony irritably.

But Nesta had already stumped out, slamming the door conclusively behind her.

---

Bill said in subdued and level tones:

“I’ve been waiting for this chance, Shenton. You and I are going to have a talk.”

“Are we? That’s news to me, old boy. What about?”

“This affair of yours with Kitty Linden.”

Tony, who’d been sprawling with his legs over the end of the settee, scrambled hurriedly to his feet. His pale face flushed blotchily. He shot out:

“What the heck’s that got to do with you?”

“Quite a lot. I want to know just what you intend to do about Kitty.”

“Oh, you do, do you?” sneered Tony, shakily setting down his half-empty glass of cognac. “Well, let’s get this straight, Dillon. I’m not having you or anybody else poking their noses into my private affairs.”

He moved a step closer to Bill, thrust out his jaw and menacingly clenched his fists. For an instant, thinking he was about to unleash a punch, Bill altered his stance and tensed himself, ready to defend himself if the fellow ran amok. He realized that if it did come to a show-down the odds were all in his favour. Although there was nothing to choose between them in the matter of height or build, after all his recent exercise in the mountains he was as fit as a fiddle. Shenton, on the other hand, was out of condition, flabby as a wet sponge. Bill said bluntly:

“You’d better give me a straight answer, Shenton.”

“You think so?” Tony laughed sarcastically. “I suppose Nesta hasn’t put you up to this by any chance? God knows she’s a green-eyed old witch. But if that’s the set-up you can call it a day. I’m not answerable to Nesta for my----”

“It’s nothing to do with Mrs. Hedderwick,” cut in Bill shortly.

“Then what the hell . . . ? Don’t tell me you’ve fallen for her yourself? Damn it! You’ve only met her once.”

Bill said for the second time:

“I want to know what you intend to do about Kitty. I’ve a very good reason for asking.”

“Oh,” said Tony lightly, “what reason?”

She happens to be my wife!

He stared at Bill in blank astonishment. Then, reaching for his glass, he downed the remainder of his cognac in a single gulp and said with a sardonic chuckle:

“Are you crackers? Do you honestly expect me to swallow that one? Kitty your wife! Think again, old boy.”

“Well, you needn’t believe it if you don’t want to, but it happens to be true. Kitty’s had you on a string about this, Shenton. She guessed you’d get to hell out of her life if you knew she was married. So when you showed up in London about a couple of months back, she kept quiet about it and let you take her around until she’d angled an invitation to come down here. Smart of her, eh?”

“But what the----?”

“Hang on! I haven’t finished yet. Kitty thinks she’s in love with you. O.K.---if she is then there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve asked her to come back to me but she won’t. She’s quite determined about it. I don’t think there’s anything I can say or do that’ll shift her. But before I return home there’s one thing I can do . . . one thing I’m damn well going to do.”

“Really---what’s that?”

“See that Kitty gets a square deal.”

“By me?” sneered Tony.

“By you!” exclaimed Bill savagely. “Kitty’s going to have a baby. Your child, Shenton, not mine. There’s no possible doubt about the kid’s paternity so you can’t wriggle out of that one. Now do you see what I’m driving at?”

“You mean . . .” stammered Tony, dumbfounded, “that I----?”

“You’ll marry Kitty at once. Get me? God knows it’s the last thing in the world I could wish for her---to be married to a bounder like you. But as she happens to be in love with you and anxious to marry you----”

“You’ll divorce her, eh?”

“Just that.”

“And if I refuse your very generous offer to take on a wife you’ve no further use for?”

Bill grabbed Tony by the wrist, jerked him forward, and raised his clenched fist.

“By God, I could knock you cold for that! Kitty’s everything to me. I’d take her back tomorrow, child or no child, if she’d have me. And the sooner you get that into your damned head the better. I’ve been in love with Kitty ever since I first met her. I still am. I always shall be. But for her sake I’m asking you to do the right and decent thing and marry her.”

“And if I don’t?” asked Tony mockingly. “What then, eh?”

“Then, by heaven, I won’t be answerable for the consequences! I’m warning you, Shenton. You may have played fast-and-loose with other women, but I’m damned if you will with Kitty. So if you’ve got any sense, you’ll watch your step. That’s all.”

---

Kitty was sitting up in bed polishing her nails when the door stealthily opened and Tony came in. She was not particularly surprised. This was by no means the first time that Tony had slipped into her bedroom en route for his own. These lingering “Good-nights”, in fact, were now an accepted ritual in their easy, slipshod relationship. It wasn’t until Kitty noticed the set expression of his over-handsome features that she realized, with a quiver of apprehension, that something was wrong. This visit obviously had no connection with any form of amorous dalliance. Tony was in a mood and, by the look of it, a pretty ugly one.

She ventured nervously:

“Tony darling, what is it? Is there anything wrong?”

Shutting the door, quickly but cautiously behind him, he crossed to the bedside and rapped out with a scowl:

“I’ve just been having a talk with Dillon---that’s all.”

She caught her breath. “Really? What about?”

Tony said witheringly: “As if you didn’t know!”

“But, darling,” protested Kitty, with a little gesture of bewilderment, “why should I know? I wish you’d----”

He broke in sharply:

“Why the heck couldn’t you have been straight with me about this?”

“I . . . I don’t know what you mean, Tony. Honestly I don’t.”

“Oh for God’s sake don’t play the little innocent. Why didn’t you tell me when we met again in London that you were married to that blighter Dillon?”

“But Tony darling----”

He went on with ever-mounting resentment:

“O.K., I’ll tell you why you didn’t. Because you knew darn well that I wouldn’t have asked you down here if you had put me wise. You’d got your little story off pat enough, I’ll admit. The lonely little bachelor girl, eh?---broke to the wide, without a friend in the world. And I fell for it like a lamb!”

“Tony! That’s vile of you, and you know it is. I was going to tell you about Bill. Truly I was.”

“Maybe---now that the situation’s got too hot for you to hold.”

She pleaded desperately:

“But darling, you must listen for a moment. I never really meant to deceive you about Bill. I was going to tell you when I first arrived down here. And then . . . well, everything seemed so marvellous between us that I just couldn’t bring myself to . . . to . . .”

He broke in angrily: “And you expect me to swallow that after all the other damned lies you’ve told me?”

“Why not? It’s the truth.”

“The truth!” Tony laughed sardonically. “Unfortunately for you Dillon was in a pretty talkative mood tonight. He’s been telling me plenty. Pity you couldn’t have followed his example, eh?”

“About what?” asked Kitty faintly.

He said with brutal directness: “This brat you’re going to have.”

“Bill told you that?” gasped Kitty. “He told you I was going to have a baby?”

“Yes, and that’s only half of it. You told him I was responsible, didn’t you?”

“But Tony darling, it’s true. I was only waiting until I was quite sure before I told you. It’s our child, Tony. You realize that, don’t you?”

“I see. And now you’re planning for Dillon to divorce you, so that I can do the right thing and marry you myself. Oh for God’s sake, don’t trouble to deny it. Dillon’s got the same bright idea. Well, you’re crazy---both of you! I’m not falling for that one, so you may as well forget it.”

“You mean, even if Bill’s prepared to go through with a divorce, you won’t marry me?”

“I’m not marrying you or anybody else. And that’s flat.”

“But Tony, you can’t walk out on me now!” cried Kitty despairingly. “Not with our baby on the way.”

“Oh, can’t I! You watch!”

“But what shall I do? Where shall I go?”

“Ask me another. Why not go back to your high-minded husband. He’s falling over himself to get you back into the fold.”

“I’d rather die than go back to him!”

“O.K., if that’s how you feel about it . . .” He shrugged. “But don’t expect me to help you out of this mess. You walked into it with your eyes open. I didn’t force you to come down here, so you can’t blame me for what’s happened. By heaven, you can’t! If it hadn’t been for your own damned carelessness you wouldn’t have been in this jam.”

“Tony! That’s brutal of you.”

Again he lifted his shoulders.

“Well, I’ll give you a week to think out just what you’re going to do. After that . . . you’re out! Understand?”

And without giving her the chance to pursue the argument further, Tony turned on his heel, crossed quickly to the door and let himself out silently into the unlit corridor.

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