The Painted Veil Chapter 11

But one afternoon when she was walking home from Harrod’s she chanced to meet Walter Fane in the Brompton Road, He stopped and talked to her. Then, casually, he asked her if she would take a turn with him in the Park. She had no particular wish to go home; it was not just then a very agreeable place. They strolled along, talking as they always talked, of casual things, and he asked her where she was going for the summer.

‘Oh, we always bury ourselves in the country. You see, father is exhausted after the term’s work and we just go to the quietest place we can find.’

Kitty spoke with her tongue in her cheek, for she knew quite well that her father had not nearly enough work to tire him and even if he had his convenience would never have been consulted in the choice of a holiday. But a quiet place was a cheap place.

‘Don’t you think those chairs look rather inviting?’ said Walter suddenly.

She followed his eyes and saw two green chairs by themselves under a tree on the grass.

‘Let us sit in them,’ she said.

But when they were seated he seemed to grow strangely abstracted. He was an odd creature. She chattered on, however, gaily enough and wondered why he had asked her to walk with him in the Park. Perhaps he was going to confide in her his passion for the flat-footed nurse in Hong-Kong. Suddenly he turned to her, interrupting her in the middle of a sentence, so that she could not but see that he had not been listening, and his face was chalk white.

‘I want to say something to you.’

She looked at him quickly and she saw that his eyes were filled with a painful anxiety. His voice was strained, low and not quite steady. But before she could ask herself what this agitation meant he spoke again.

‘I want to ask you if you’ll marry me.’

‘You could knock me down with a feather,’ she answered so surprised that she looked at him blankly.

‘Didn’t you know I was awfully in love with you?’

‘You never showed it.’

‘I’m very awkward and clumsy. I always find it more difficult to say the things I mean than the things I don’t.’

Her heart began to beat a little more quickly. She had been proposed to often before, but gaily or sentimentally, and she had answered in the same fashion. No one had ever asked her to marry him in a manner which was so abrupt and yet strangely tragic.

‘It’s very kind of you,’ she said, doubtfully.

‘I fell in love with you the first time I saw you. I wanted to ask you before, but I could never bring myself to it.’

‘I’m not sure if that’s very well put,’ she chuckled.

She was glad to have an opportunity to laugh a little, for on that fine, sunny day the air about them seemed on a sudden heavy with foreboding. He frowned darkly.

‘Oh, you know what I mean. I didn’t want to lose hope. But now you’re going away and in the autumn I have to go back to China.’

‘I’ve never thought of you in that way,’ she said helplessly.

He said nothing more. He looked down on the grass sullenly. He was a very odd creature. But now that he had told her she felt in some mysterious way that his love was something she had never met before. She was a little frightened, but she was elated also. His impassivity was vaguely impressive.

‘You must give me time to think.’

Still he did not say anything. He did not stir. Did he mean to keep her there till she had decided? That was absurd. She must talk it over with her mother. She ought to have got up when she spoke, she had waited thinking he would answer, and now, she did not know why, she found it difficult to make a movement. She did not look at him, but she was conscious of his appearance; she had never seen herself marrying a man so little taller than herself. When you sat close to him you saw how good his features were, and how cold his face. It was strange when you couldn’t help being conscious of the devastating passion which was in his heart.

‘I don’t know you, I don’t know you at all,’ she said tremulously.

He gave her a look and she felt her eyes drawn to his. They had a tenderness which she had never seen in them before, but there was something beseeching in them, like a dog’s that has been whipped, which slightly exasperated her.

‘I think I improve on acquaintance,’ he said.

‘Of course you’re shy, aren’t you?’

It was certainly the oddest proposal she had ever had. And even now it seemed to her that they were saying to one another the last things you would have expected on such an occasion. She was not in the least in love with him. She did not know why she hesitated to refuse him at once.

‘I’m awfully stupid,’ he said, ‘I want to tell you that I love you more than anything in the world, but I find it so awfully difficult to say.’

Now that was odd too, for inexplicably enough it touched her; he wasn’t really cold, of course, it was his manner that was unfortunate: she liked him at that moment better than she had ever liked him before. Doris was to be married in November. He would be on his way to China then and if she married him she would be with him. It wouldn’t be very nice to be a bridesmaid at Doris’s wedding. She would be glad to escape that. And then Doris as a married woman and herself single! Every one knew how young Doris was and it would make her seem older. It would put her on the shelf. It wouldn’t be a very good marriage for her, but it was a marriage, and the fact that she would live in China made it easier. She was afraid of her mother’s bitter tongue. Why, all the girls who had come out with her were married long ago and most of them had children; she was tired of going to see them and gushing over their babies. Walter Fane offered her a new life. She turned to him with a smile which she well knew the effect of.

‘If I were so rash as to say I’d marry you, when would you want to marry me?’

He gave a sudden gasp of delight, and his white cheeks flushed.

‘Now. At once. As soon as possible. We’d go to Italy for our honeymoon. August and September.’

That would save her from spending the summer in a country vicarage, hired at five guineas a week, with her father and mother. In a flash she saw in her mind’s eye the announcement in the Morning Post that, the bridegroom having to return to the East, the wedding would take place at once. She knew her mother well enough, she could be counted on to make a splash; for the moment at least Doris would be in the background and when Doris’s much grander wedding took place she would be far away.

She stretched out her hand.

‘I think I like you very much. You must give me time to get used to you.’

‘Then it’s yes?’ he interrupted.

‘I suppose so.’