The Painted Veil Chapter 24

She sent in a little note to Charlie on which she had written: ‘Please see me. It is urgent.’ A Chinese boy asked her to wait and brought the answer that Mr. Townsend would see her in five minutes. She was unaccountably nervous. When at last she was ushered into his room Charlie came forward to shake hands with her, but the moment the boy, having closed the door, left them alone he dropped the affable formality of his manner.

‘I say, my dear, you really mustn’t come her in working hours. I’ve got an awful lot to do and we don’t want to give people a chance to gossip.’

She gave him a long look with those beautiful eyes of her and tried to smile, but her lips were stiff and she could not.

‘I wouldn’t have come unless it was necessary.’

He smiled and took her arm.

‘Well, since you’re here come and sit down.’

It was a bare room, narrow, with a high ceiling; its walls were painted in two shades of terra cotta. The only furniture consisted of a large desk, a revolving chair for Townsend to sit in and a leather arm-chair for visitors. It intimidated Kitty to sit in this. He sat at the desk. She had never seen him in spectacles before; she did not know that he used them. When he noticed that her eyes were on them he took them off.

‘I only use them for reading,’ he said.

Her tears came easily and now, she hardly knew why, she began to cry. She had no deliberate intention of deceiving, but rather an instinctive desire to excite his sympathy. He looked at her blankly.

‘Is anything the matter? Oh, my dear, don’t cry.’

She took out her handkerchief and tried to check her sobs. He rang the bell and when the boy came to the door went to it.

‘If any one asks for me say I’m out.’

‘Very good, sir.’

The boy closed the door. Charlie sat on the arm of the chair and put his arm round Kitty’s shoulders.

‘Now, Kitty dear, tell me all about it.’

‘Walter wants a divorce,’ she said.

She felt the pressure of his arm on her shoulder cease. His body stiffened. There was a moment’s silence, then Townsend rose from her chair and sat down once more in his.

‘What exactly do you mean?’ he said.

She looked at him quickly, for his voice was hoarse, and she saw that his face was dully red.

‘I’ve had a talk with him. I’ve come straight from the house now. He says he has all the proof he wants.’

‘You didn’t commit yourself, did you? You didn’t acknowledge anything?’

Her heart sank.

‘No,’ she answered.

‘Are you quite sure?’ he asked, looking at her sharply.

‘Quite sure,’ she lied again.

He leaned back in his chair and stared vacantly at the map of China which was hanging on the wall in front of him. She watched him anxiously. She was somewhat disconcerted at the manner in which he had received the news. She had expected him to take her in his arms and tell her he was thankful, for now they could be together always; but of course men were funny. She was crying softly, not now to arouse sympathy, but because it seemed the natural thing to do.

‘This is a bloody mess we’ve got into,’ he said at length. ‘But it’s no good losing our heads. Crying isn’t going to do us any good, you know.’

She noticed the irritation in his voice and dried her eyes.

‘It’s not my fault, Charlie. I couldn’t help it.’

‘Of course you couldn’t. It was just damned bad luck. I was just as much to blame as you were. The thing to do now is to see how we’re going to get out of it. I don’t suppose you want to be divorced any more than I do.’

She smothered a gasp. She gave him a searching look. He was not thinking of her at all.

‘I wonder what his proofs really are. I don’t know how he can actually prove that we were together in that room. On the whole we’ve been about as careful as any one could be. I’m sure that old fellow at the curio shop wouldn’t have given us away. Even if he’d seen us go in there’s not reason why we shouldn’t hunt curios together.’

He was talking to himself rather than to her.

‘It’s easy enough to bring charges, but it’s damned difficult to prove them; any lawyer will tell you that. Our line is to deny everything, and if he threatens to bring an action we’ll tell him to go to hell and we’ll fight it.’

‘I couldn’t go into court, Charlie.’

‘Why on earth not? I’m afraid you’ll have to. God knows, I don’t want a row, but we can’t take it lying down.’

‘Why need we defend it?’

‘What a question to ask. After all, it’s not only you that are concerned, I’m concerned too. But as a matter of fact I don’t think you need be afraid of that. We shall be able to square your husband somehow. The only thing that worries me is the best way to set about it.’

It looked as though an idea occurred to him, for he turned towards her with his charming smile and his tone, a moment before abrupt and business-like, became ingratiating.

‘I’m afraid you’ve been awfully upset, poor little woman. It’s too bad.’ He stretched out his hand and took hers. ‘It’s a scrape we’ve got into, but we shall get out of it. It’s not...’ He stopped and Kitty had a suspicion that he had been about to say that it was not the first he had got out of. ‘The greatest thing is to keep our heads. You know I shall never let you down.’

‘I’m not frightened. I don’t care what he does.’

He smiled still, but perhaps his smile was a trifle forced.

‘If the worst comes to the worst I shall have to tell the Governor. He’ll curse me like hell, but he’s a good fellow and a man of the world. He’ll fix it up somehow. It wouldn’t do him any good if there was a scandal.’

‘What can he do?’ asked Kitty.

‘He can bring pressure to bear on Walter. If he can’t get at him through his ambition he’ll get at him through his sense of duty.’

Kitty was a little chilled. She did not seem able to make Charlie see how desperately grave the situation was. His airiness made her impatient. She was sorry that she had come to see him in his office. The surroundings intimidated her. It would have been much easier to say what she wanted if she could have been in his arms with hers round his neck.

‘You don’t know Walter,’ she said.

‘I know that every man has his price.’

She loved Charlie with all her heart, but his reply disconcerted her; for such a clever man it was a stupid thing to say.

‘I don’t think you realise how angry Walter is. You haven’t seen his face and the look of his eyes.’

He did not reply for a moment, but looked at her with a slight smile. She knew what he was thinking. Walter was the bacteriologist and occupied a subordinate position; he would hardly have the impudence to make himself a nuisance to the upper officials of the Colony.

‘It’s no good deceiving yourself, Charlie,’ she said earnestly. ‘If Walter has made up his mind to bring an action nothing that you or anybody else can say will have the slightest influence.’

His face once more grew heavy and sulky.

‘Is it his idea to make me correspondent?’

‘At first it was. At last I managed to get him to consent to let me divorce him.’

‘Oh, well, that’s not so terrible.’ His manner relaxed again and she saw the relief in his eyes. ‘That seems to me a very good way out. After all, it’s the least a man can do, it’s the only decent thing.’

‘But he makes a condition.’

He gave her an inquiring glance and he seemed to reflect.

‘Of course I’m not a very rich man, but I’ll do anything in my power.’

Kitty was silent. Charlie was saying things which she would never have expected him to say. And they made it difficult for her to speak. She had expected to blurt it out in one breath, held in his loving arms, with her burning face hid on his breast.

‘He agrees to my divorcing him if your wife will give him the assurance that she will divorce you.’

‘Anything else?’

Kitty could hardly find her voice.

‘And – it’s awfully hard to say, Charlie, it sounds dreadful– if you’ll promise to marry me within a week of the decrees being made absolute.’