The Painted Veil Chapter 14

Though Kitty had met his wife at various tea-parties she had been some weeks in Hong-Kong before she saw Charles Townsend. She was introduced to him only when with her husband she went to dine at his house. Kitty was on the defensive. Charles Townsend was Assistant Colonial Secretary and she had no mind to allow him to use her with the condescension which, notwithstanding her good manners she discerned in Mrs. Townsend. The room in which they were received was spacious. It was furnished as was every other drawing-room she had been in at Hong-Kong in a comfortable and homely style. It was a large party. They were the last to come and as they entered Chinese servants in uniform were handing round cocktails and olives. Mrs. Townsend greeted them in her casual fashion and looking at a list told Walter whom he was to take in to dinner.

Kitty saw a tall and very handsome man bear down on them.

‘This is my husband.’

‘I am to have the privilege of sitting next to you,’ he said.

She immediately felt at ease and the sense of hostility vanished from her bosom. Though his eyes were smiling she had seen in them a quick look of surprise. She understood it perfectly and it made her inclined to laugh.

‘I shan’t be able to eat any dinner,’ he said, ‘and if I know Dorothy the dinner’s damned good.’

‘Why not?’

‘I ought to have been told. Some one really ought to have warned me.’

‘What about?’

‘No one said a word. How was I to know that I was going to meet a raging beauty?’

‘Now what am I to say to that?’

‘Nothing. Leave me to do the talking. And I’ll say it over and over again.’

Kitty, unmoved, wondered what exactly his wife had told him about her. He must have asked. And Townsend looking down on her with his laughing eyes, suddenly remembered.

‘What is she like?’ he had inquired when his wife told him she had met Dr. Fane’s bride.

‘Oh, quite a nice little thing. Actressy.’

‘Was she on the stage?’

‘Oh, no, I don’t think so. Her father’s a doctor or a lawyer or something. I suppose we shall have to ask them to dinner.’

‘There’s no hurry, is there?’

When they were sitting side by side at table he told her that he had known Walter Fane ever since he came to the Colony.

‘We play bridge together. He’s far and away the best bridge player at the Club.’

She told Walter on the way home.

‘That’s not saying very much, you know.’

‘How does he play?’

‘Not badly. He plays a winning hand very well, but when he has bad cards he goes all to pieces.’

‘Does he play as well as you?’

‘I have no illusions about my play. I should describe myself as a very good player in the second class. Townsend thinks he’s in the first. He isn’t.’

‘Don’t you like him?’

‘I neither like him nor dislike him. I believe he’s not bad at his job and every one says he’s a good sportsman. He doesn’t very much interest me.’

It was not the first time that Walter’s moderation had exasperated her. She asked herself why it was necessary to be so prudent: you either liked people or you didn’t. She had liked Charles Townsend very much. And she had not expected to. He was probably the most popular man in the Colony. It was supposed that the Colonial Secretary would retire soon and every one hoped that Townsend would succeed him. He played tennis and polo and golf. He kept racing ponies. He was always ready to do any one a good turn. He never let red tape interfere with him. He put on no airs. Kitty did not know why she had resented hearing him so well spoken of, she could not help thinking he must be very conceited: she had been extremely silly; that was the last thing you could accuse him of.

She had enjoyed her evening. They had talked of the theatres in London, and of Ascot and Cowes, all the things she knew about, so that really she might have met him at some nice house in Lennox Gardens; and later, when the men came into the drawing-room after dinner, he had strolled over and sat beside her again. Though he had not said anything very amusing, he had made her laugh; it must have been the way he said it: there was a caressing sound in his deep, rich voice, a delightful expression in his kind, shining blue eyes, which made you feel very much at home with him. Of course he had charm. That was what made him so pleasant.

He was tall, six foot two at least, she thought, and he had a beautiful figure; he was evidently in very good condition and he had not a spare ounce of fat on him. He was well-dressed, the best-dressed man in the room, and he wore his clothes well. She liked a man to be smart. Her eyes wandered to Walter: he really should try to be a little better turned out. She noticed Townsend’s cufflinks and waistcoat buttons; she had seen similar ones at Cartier’s. Of course the Townsends had private means. His face was deeply sunburned, but the sun had not taken the healthy colour from his cheeks. She liked the little trim curly moustache which did not conceal his full red lips. He had black hair, short and brushed very sleek. But of course his eyes, under thick, bushy eyebrows, were his best feature: they were so very blue, and they had a laughing tenderness which persuaded you of the sweetness of his disposition. No man who had those blue eyes could bear to hurt any one.

She could not but know that she had made an impression on him. If he had not said charming things to her his eyes, warm with admiration, would have betrayed him. His ease was delightful. He had no self-consciousness. Kitty was at home in these circumstances and she admired the way in which amid the banter which was the staple of their conversation he insinuated every now and then a pretty, flattering speech. When she shook hands with him on leaving he gave her hand a pressure that she could not mistake.

‘I hope we shall see you again soon,’ he said casually, but his eyes gave his words a meaning which she could not fail to see.

‘Hong-Kong is very small, isn’t it?’ she said.