The Painted Veil Chapter 23

She looked at him blankly. What he said was so unexpected that at the first moment she could hardly gather its sense.

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ she faltered.

Even to herself her reply rang false, and she saw the look of disdain which it called forth on Walter’s stern face.

‘I’m afraid you’ve thought me a bigger fool than I am.’ She did not quite know what to say. She was undecided whether indignantly to assert her innocence or to break out into angry reproaches. He seemed to read her thoughts.

‘I’ve got all the proof necessary.’

She began to cry. The tears flowed from her eyes without any particular anguish and she did not dry them: to weep gave her a little time to collect herself. But her mind was blank. He watched her without concern, and his calmness frightened her. He grew impatient.

‘You’re not going to do much good by crying, you know.’

His voice, so cold and hard, had the effect of exciting in her a certain indignation. She was recovering her nerve.

‘I don’t care. I suppose you have no objection to my divorcing you. It means nothing to a man.’

‘Will you allow me to ask why I should put myself to the smallest inconvenience on your account?’

‘It can’t make any difference to you. It’s not much to ask you to behave like a gentleman.’

‘I have much too great a regard for your welfare.’

She sat up now and dried her eyes.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked him.

‘Townsend will marry you only if he is corespondent and the case is so shameless that his wife is forced to divorce him.’

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she cried.

‘You stupid fool.’

His tone was so contemptuous that she flushed with anger. And perhaps her anger was greater because she had never before heard him say to her any but sweet, flattering and delightful things. She had been accustomed to find him subservient to all her whims.

‘If you want the truth you can have it. He’s only too anxious to marry me. Dorothy Townsend is perfectly willing to divorce him and we shall be married the moment we’re free.’

‘Did he tell you that in so many words or is that the impression you have gained from his manner?’

Walter’s eyes shone with bitter mockery. They made Kitty a trifle uneasy. She was not quite sure that Charlie had ever said exactly that in so many words.

‘He said it over and over again.’

‘That’s a lie and you know it’s a lie.’

‘He loves me with all his heart and soul. He loves me as passionately as I love him. You’ve found out. I’m not going to deny anything. Why should I? We’ve been lovers for a year and I’m proud of it. He means everything in the world to me and I’m glad that you know at last. We’re sick to death of secrecy and compromise and all the rest of it. It was a mistake that I ever married you, I never should have done it, I was a fool. I never cared for you. We never had anything in common. I don’t like the people you like and I’m bored by the things that interest you. I’m thankful it’s finished.’

He watched her without a gesture and without a movement of his face. He listened attentively and no change in his expression showed that what she said affected him.

‘Do you know why I married you?’

‘Because you wanted to be married before your sister Doris.’

It was true, but it gave her a funny little turn to realise that he knew it. Oddly enough, even in that moment of fear and anger, it excited her compassion. He faintly smiled.

‘I had no illusions about you,’ he said. ‘I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty-headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and common-place. But I loved you. I knew that you were second-rate. But I loved you. It’s comic when I think how hard I tried to be amused by the things that amused you and how anxious I was to hide from you that I wasn’t ignorant and vulgar and scandal-mongering and stupid. I knew how frightened you were of intelligence and I did everything I could to make you think me as big a fool as the rest of the men you knew. I knew that you’d only married me for convenience. I loved you so much, I didn’t care. Most people, as far as I can see, when they’re in love with some one and the love isn’t returned feel that they have a grievance. They grow angry and bitter. I wasn’t like that. I never expected you to love me, I didn’t see any reason that you should, I never thought myself very lovable. I was thankful to be allowed to love you and I was enraptured when now and then I thought you were pleased with me or when I noticed in your eyes a gleam of good-humoured affection. I tried not to bore you with my love; I knew I couldn’t afford to do that and I was always on the lookout for the first sign that you were impatient with my affection. What most husbands expect as a right I was prepared to receive as a favour.’

Kitty, accustomed to flattery all her life, had never heard such things said to her before. Blind wrath, driving out fear, arose in her heart: it seemed to choke her, and she felt the blood-vessels in her temples swell and throb. Wounded vanity can make a woman more vindictive than a lioness robbed of her cubs. Kitty’s jaw, always a little too square, protruded with an apish hideousness and her beautiful eyes were black with malice. But she kept her temper in check.

‘If a man hasn’t what’s necessary to make a woman love him, it’s his fault, not hers.’


His derisive tone increased her irritation. She felt that she could wound him more by maintaining her calm.

‘I’m not very well-educated and I’m not very clever. I’m just a perfectly ordinary young woman. I like the things that the people like among whom I’ve lived all my life. I like dancing and tennis and theatres and I like the men who play games. It’s quite true that I’ve always been bored by you and by the things you like. They mean nothing to me and I don’t want them to. You dragged me round those interminable galleries in Venice: I should have enjoyed myself much more playing golf at Sandwich.’

‘I know.’

‘I’m sorry if I haven’t been all that you expected me to be. Unfortunately I always found you physically repulsive. You can hardly blame me for that.’

‘I don’t.’

Kitty could more easily have coped with the situation if he had raved and stormed. She could have met violence with violence. His self-control was inhuman and she hated him now as she had never hated him before.

‘I don’t think you’re a man at all. Why didn’t you break into the room when you knew I was there with Charlie? You might at least have tried to thrash him. Were you afraid?’

But the moment she had said this she flushed, for she was ashamed. He did not answer, but in his eyes she read an icy disdain. The shadow of a smile flickered on his lips.

‘It may be that, like a historical character, I am too proud to fight.’

Kitty, unable to think of anything to answer, shrugged her shoulders. For a moment longer he held her in his immobile gaze.

‘I think I’ve said all I had to say: if you refuse to come to Meitan-fu I shall file my petition.’

‘Why won’t you consent to let me divorce you?’

He took his eyes off her at last. He leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. He smoked it to the end without saying a word. Then, throwing away the butt, he gave a little smile. He looked at her once more.

‘If Mrs. Townsend will give me her assurance that she will divorce her husband and if he will give me his written promise to marry you within a week of the two decrees being made absolute, I will do that.’

There was something in the way he spoke which disconcerted her. But her self-respect obliged her to accept his offer in the grand manner.

‘That is very generous of you, Walter.’

To her astonishment he burst suddenly into a shout of laughter. She flushed angrily.

‘What are you laughing at? I see nothing to laugh at.’

‘I beg your pardon. I daresay my sense of humour is peculiar.’

She looked at him frowning. She would have liked to say something bitter and wounding, but no rejoinder occurred to her. He looked at his watch.

‘You had better look sharp if you want to catch Townsend at his office. If you decide to come with me to Meitan-fu it would be necessary to start the day after tomorrow.’

‘Do you want me to tell him to-day?’

‘They say there is no time like the present.’

Her heart began to beat a little faster. It was not uneasiness that she felt, it was, she didn’t quite know what it was. She wished she could have had a little longer; she would have liked to prepare Charlie. But she had the fullest confidence in him, he loved her as much as she loved him, and it was treacherous even to let the thought cross her mind that he would not welcome the necessity that was forced upon them. She turned to Walter gravely.

‘I don’t think you know what love is. You have no conception how desperately in love Charlie and I are with one another. It really is the only thing that matters and every sacrifice that our love calls for will be as easy as falling off a log.’

He gave a little bow, but said nothing, and his eyes followed her as she walked with measured step from the room.