The Painted Veil Chapter 26

She wiped her eyes. She tried to pull herself together.

‘Charlie, if you desert me I shall die.’

She was driven now to appeal to his compassion. She ought to have told him at once. When he knew the horrible alternative that was placed before her his generosity, his sense of justice, his manliness, would be so vehemently aroused that he would think of nothing but her danger. Oh, how passionately she desired to feel his dear, protecting arms around her!

‘Walter wants me to go to Meitan-fu.’

‘Oh, but that’s the place where the cholera is. They’ve got the worst epidemic that they’ve had for fifty years. It’s no place for a woman. You can’t possibly go there.’

‘If you let me down I shall have to.’

‘What do you mean? I don’t understand.’

‘Walter is taking the place of the missionary doctor who died. He wants me to go with him.’


‘Now. At once.’

Townsend pushed back his chair and looked at her with puzzled eyes.

‘I may be very stupid, but I can’t make head or tail out of what you’re saying. If he wants you to go to this place with him what about a divorce?’

‘He’s given me my choice. I must either go to Meitan-fu or else he’ll bring an action.’

‘Oh, I see.’ Townsend’s tone changed ever so slightly. ‘I think that’s rather decent of him, don’t you?’


‘Well, it’s a damned sporting thing of him to go there. It’s not a thing I’d fancy. Of course he’ll get a C.M.G. for it when he comes back.’

‘But me, Charlie?’ she cried, with anguish in her voice.

‘Well, I think if he wants you to go, under the circumstances I don’t see how you can very well refuse.’

‘It means death. Absolutely certain death.’

‘Oh, damn it all, that’s rather an exaggeration. He would hardly take you if he thought that. It’s no more risk for you than for him. In point of fact there’s no great risk if you’re careful. I’ve been here when there’s been cholera and I haven’t turned a hair. The great thing is not to eat anything uncooked, no raw fruit or salads, or anything like that, and see that your drinking water is boiled.’ He was gaining confidence as he proceeded, and his speech was fluent; he was even becoming less sullen and more alert; he was almost breezy. ‘After all, it’s his job, isn’t it? He’s interested in bugs. It’s rather a chance for him if you come to think of it.’

‘But me, Charlie?’ she repeated, not with anguish now, but with consternation.

‘Well, the best way to understand a man is to put yourself in his shoes. From his point of view you’ve been rather a naughty little thing and he wants to get you out of harm’s way. I always thought he never wanted to divorce you, he doesn’t strike me as that sort of chap; but he made what he thought was a very generous offer and you put his back up by turning it down. I don’t want to blame you, but really for all our sakes I think you ought to have given it a little consideration.’

‘But don’t you see it’ll kill me? Don’t you know that he’s taking me there because he knows it’ll kill me.’

‘Oh, my dear, don’t talk like that. We’re in a damned awkward position and really it’s no time to be melodramatic.’

‘You’ve made up your mind not to understand.’ Oh, the pain in her heart, and the fear! She could have screamed. ‘You can’t send me to certain death. If you have no love or pity for me you must have just ordinary human feeling.’

‘I think it’s rather hard on me to put it like that. As far as I can make out your husband is behaving very generously. He’s willing to forgive you if you’ll let him. He wants to get you away and this opportunity has presented itself to take you to some place where for a few months you’ll be out of harm’s way. I don’t pretend that Meitan-fu is a health resort, I never knew a Chinese city that was, but there’s no reason to get the wind up about it. In fact that’s the worst thing you can do. I believe as many people die from sheer fright in an epidemic as because they get infected.’

‘But I’m frightened now. When Walter spoke of it I almost fainted.’

‘At the first moment I can quite believe it was a shock, but when you come to look at it calmly you’ll be all right. It’ll be the sort of experience that not every one has had.’

‘I thought, I thought...’

She rocked to and fro in an agony. He did not speak, and once more his face wore that sullen look which till lately she had never known. Kitty was not crying now. She was dry-eyed, calm, and though her voice was low it was steady.

‘Do you want me to go?’

‘It’s Hobson’s choice, isn’t it?’

‘Is it?’

‘It’s only fair to you to tell you that if your husband brought an action for divorce and won it I should not be in a position to marry you.’

It must have seemed an age to him before she answered. She rose slowly to her feet.

‘I don’t think that my husband ever thought of bringing an action.’

‘Then why in God’s name have you been frightening me out of my wits?’ he asked.

She looked at him coolly.

‘He knew that you’d let me down.’

She was silent. Vaguely, as when you are studying a foreign language and read a page which at first you can make nothing of, till a word or a sentence gives you a clue; and on a sudden a suspicion, as it were, of the sense flashes across your troubled wits, vaguely she gained an inkling into the workings of Walter’s mind. It was like a dark and ominous landscape seen by a flash of lightning and in a moment hidden again by the night. She shuddered at what she saw.

‘He made that threat only because he knew that you’d crumple up at it, Charlie. It’s strange that he should have judged you so accurately. It was just like him to expose me to such a cruel disillusion.’

Charlie looked down at the sheet of blotting paper in front of him. He was frowning a little and his mouth was sulky. But he did not reply.

‘He knew that you were vain, cowardly and self-seeking. He wanted me to see it with my own eyes. He knew that you’d run like a hare at the approach of danger. He knew how grossly deceived I was in thinking that you were in love with me, because he knew that you were incapable of loving any one but yourself. He knew you’d sacrifice me without a pang to save your own skin.’

‘If it really gives you any satisfaction to say beastly things to me I suppose I’ve got no right to complain. Women always are unfair and they generally manage to put a man in the wrong. But there is something to be said on the other side.’

She took no notice of his interruption.

‘And now I know all that he knew. I know that you’re callous and heartless, I know that you’re selfish, selfish beyond words, and I know that you haven’t the nerve of a rabbit, I know you’re a liar and a humbug, I know that you’re utterly contemptible. And the tragic part is’ – her face was on a sudden distraught with pain – ‘the tragic part is that notwithstanding I love you with all my heart.’


She gave a bitter laugh. He had spoken her name in that melting, rich tone of his which came to him so naturally and meant so little.

‘You fool,’ she said.

He drew back quickly, flushing and offended; he could not make her out. She gave him a look in which there was a glint of amusement.

‘You’re beginning to dislike me, aren’t you? Well, dislike me. It doesn’t make any difference to me now.’

She began to put on her gloves.

‘What are you going to do?’ he asked.

‘Oh, don’t be afraid, you’ll come to no harm. You’ll be quite safe.’

‘For God’s sake, don’t talk like that, Kitty,’ he answered and his deep voice rang with anxiety. ‘You must know that everything that concerns you concerns me. I shall be frightfully anxious to know what happens. What are you going to say to your husband?’

‘I’m going to tell him that I’m prepared to go to Meitan-fu with him.’

‘Perhaps when you consent he won’t insist.’

He could not have known why, when he said this, she looked at him so strangely.

‘You’re not really frightened?’ he asked her.

‘No,’ she said. ‘You’ve inspired me with courage. To go into the midst of a cholera epidemic will be a unique experience and if I die it – well, I die.’

‘I was trying to be as kind to you as I could.’

She looked at him again. Tears sprang into her eyes once more and her heart was very full. The impulse was almost irresistible to fling herself on his breast and crush her lips against his. It was no use.

‘If you want to know,’ she said, trying to keep her voice steady, ‘I go with death in my heart and fear. I do not know what Walter has in that dark, twisted mind of his, but I’m shaking with terror. I think it may be that death will be really a release.’

She felt that she could not hold on to her self-control for another moment. She walked swiftly to the door and let herself out before he had time to move from his chair. Townsend gave a long sigh of relief. He badly wanted a brandy and soda.