“I am sorry about the little one,” he said, looking through the cloud of tobacco smoke up towards the ceiling. “Nita has been very useful. She has been as faithful, too, as is possible for a woman.”
Li Wen bowed and waited. He knew better than to interrupt.
“It was through the information which Nita brought me,” his master went on, “that I have been able to check the truth of Immelan’s statement as to the French dispositions and the rapprochement with Italy. Nita has served me very well indeed. What she has done in this matter, she has done in a moment of caprice.”
“My lord,” Li Wen ventured, “a woman is of no account in the plans of the greatest. She is like a leaf blown hither or thither on the winds of love or jealousy. She may be used, but she must be discarded.”
“It is a strange world, this western world,” Prince Shan mused. “In our own country, Li Wen, we plot or we fight, we build the great places, climb to the lofty heights, and when we rest we pluck flowers, and women are our flowers. But here, while one builds, the women are there; while one climbs, the women are in the way. They jostle the thoughts, they disturb the emotions, not only of the poet and the pleasure seeker, but of the man who hews his way upwards to the goal he seeks. And it is very deliberate, Li Wen. An Englishman eats and drinks in public and places opposite him a flower he has plucked or hopes to pluck. He drugs himself deliberately. Half the time when he should be soaring in his thoughts, he descends of deliberate intent. Instead of his flower, he makes his woman the partner of his grossness.”
“The master speaks,” Li Wen murmured. “But what of the woman? She awaits your pleasure.”
“I shall hear what she has to say,” Prince Shan decided.
Walking backwards as nimbly as a cat, his head drooped, his hands in front of him, Li Wen left his master’s presence. A moment later he reappeared, ushering in La Belle Nita. Prince Shan waved him away. The girl came slowly forward, pale and trembling, smouldering fires in her narrow eyes. Not a muscle of Prince Shan’s face moved. He watched her approach in silence. She sank on to the floor by the side of his chair.
“What is my master’s will?” she asked.
Prince Shan looked downwards at her, and she began to tremble again. There was nothing threatening in his eyes, nothing menacing in his expression. Nevertheless, she felt the chill of death.
“You have done me many good and faithful services, Nita,” he said. “What evil spirit has put it into your brain that it would be a good thing to deceive me?”
Her scarlet lips opened and closed again.
“How have I deceived?” she faltered. “I gave the keys to the woman with the blue eyes, and I sent her to my lord. It was a hard thing to do that, but I did it. Was there any risk of evil? My lord was here to deal with her.”