The Painted Veil Chapter 22

Next day when she was lying down after luncheon, dozing, she was aroused by a knock at her door.

‘Who is it?’ she cried irritably.

At that hour she was unaccustomed to be disturbed.


She recognised her husband’s voice and she sat up quickly.

‘Come in.’

‘Did I wake you?’ he asked as he entered.

‘In point of fact you did,’ she answered in the natural tone she had adopted with him for the last two days.

‘Will you come into the next room. I want to have a little talk with you.’

Her heart gave a sudden beat against her ribs.

‘I’ll put on a dressing-gown.’

He left her. She slipped her bare feet into mules and wrapped herself in a kimono. She looked in the glass; she was very pale and she put on some rouge. She stood at the door for a moment, nerving herself for the interview, and then with a bold face joined him.

‘How did you manage to get away from the Laboratory at this hour?’ she said. ‘I don’t often see you at this sort of time.’

‘Won’t you sit down?’

He did not look at her. He spoke gravely. She was glad to do as he asked: her knees were a little shaky, and unable to continue in that jocular tone she kept silent. He sat also and lit a cigarette. His eyes wandered restlessly about the room. He seemed to have some difficulty in starting.

Suddenly he looked full at her; and because he had held his eyes so long averted, his direct gaze gave her such a fright that she smothered a cry.

‘Have you ever heard of Meitan-fu?’ he asked. ‘There’s been a good deal about it in the papers lately.’

She stared at him in astonishment. She hesitated.

‘Is that the place where there’s cholera? Mr. Arbuthnot was talking about it last night.’

‘There’s an epidemic. I believe it’s the worst they’ve had for years. There was a medical missionary there. He died of cholera three days ago. There’s a French convent there and of course there’s the Customs man. Every one else has got out.’

His eyes were still fixed on her and she could not lower hers. She tried to read his expression, but she was nervous, and she could only discern a strange watchfulness. How could he look so steadily? He did not even blink.

‘The French nuns are doing what they can. They’ve turned the orphanage into a hospital. But the people are dying like flies. I’ve offered to go and take charge.’


She started violently. Her first thought was that if he went she would be free and without let or hindrance could see Charlie. But the thought shocked her. She felt herself go scarlet. Why did he watch her like that? She looked away in embarrassment.

‘Is that necessary?’ she faltered.

‘There’s not a foreign doctor in the place.’

‘But you’re not a doctor, you’re a bacteriologist.’

‘I am an M.D., you know, and before I specialised I did a good deal of general work in a hospital. The fact that I’m first and foremost a bacteriologist is all to the good. It will be an admirable chance for research work.’

He spoke almost flippantly and when she glanced at him she was surprised to see in his eyes a gleam of mockery. She could not understand.

‘But won’t it be awfully dangerous?’


He smiled. It was a derisive grimace. She leaned her forehead on her hand. Suicide. It was nothing short of that. Dreadful! She had not thought he would take it like that. She couldn’t let him do that. It was cruel. It was not her fault if she did not love him. She couldn’t bear the thought that he should kill himself for her sake. Tears flowed softly down her cheeks.

‘What are you crying for?’

His voice was cold.

‘You’re not obliged to go, are you?’

‘No, I go of my own free will.’

‘Please don’t, Walter. It would be too awful if something happened. Supposing you died?’

Though his face remained impassive the shadow of a smile once more crossed his eyes. He did not answer.

‘Where is this place?’ she asked after a pause.

‘Meitan-fu? It’s on a tributary of the Western River. We should go up the Western River and then by chair.’

‘Who is we?’

‘You and I.’

She looked at him quickly. She thought she had heard amiss. But now the smile in his eyes had travelled to his lips. His dark eyes were fixed on her.

‘Are you expecting me to come too?’

‘I thought you’d like to.’

Her breath began to come very fast. A shudder passed through her.

‘But surely it’s no place for a woman. The missionary sent his wife and children down weeks ago and the A.P.C. man and his wife came down. I met her at a tea-party. I’ve just remembered that she said they left some place on account of cholera.’

‘There are five French nuns there.’

Panic seized her.

‘I don’t know what you mean. It would be madness for me to go. You know how delicate I am. Dr. Hayward said I must get out of Hong-Kong on account of the heat. I could never stand the heat up there. And cholera: I should be frightened out of my wits. It’s just asking for trouble. There’s no reason for me to go. I should die.’

He did not answer. She looked at him in her desperation and she could hardly restrain a cry. His face had a sort of black pallor which suddenly terrified her. She saw in it a look of hatred. Was it possible that he wanted her to die? She answered her own outrageous thought.

‘It’s absurd. If you think you ought to go it’s your own lookout. But really you can’t expect me to. I hate illness. A cholera epidemic. I don’t pretend to be very brave and I don’t mind telling you that I haven’t pluck for that. I shall stay here until it’s time for me to go to Japan.’

‘I should have thought that you would want to accompany me when I am about to set out on a dangerous expedition.’

He was openly mocking her now. She was confused. She did not quite know whether he meant what he said or was merely trying to frighten her.

‘I don’t think any one could reasonably blame me for refusing to go to a dangerous place where I had no business or where I could be of no use.’

‘You could be of the greatest use; you could cheer and comfort me.’

She grew even a little paler.

‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’

‘I shouldn’t have thought it needed more than average intelligence.’

‘I’m not going, Walter. It’s monstrous to ask me.’

‘Then I shall not go either. I shall immediately file my petition.’