The Painted Veil Chapter 29

On the steamer that took them up the Western River Walter read incessantly, but at meal-times he endeavoured to make some kind of conversation. He talked to her as though she were a stranger with whom he happened to be making the journey, of indifferent things, from politeness, Kitty imagined, or because so he could render more marked the gulf that separated them.

In a flash of insight she had told Charlie that Walter had sent her to him with the threat of divorce as the alternative to her accompanying him to the stricken city in order that she might see for herself how indifferent, cowardly and selfish he was. It was true. It was a trick which accorded very well with his sardonic humour. He knew exactly what would happen and he had given her amah necessary instructions before her return. She had caught in his eyes a disdain which seemed to include her lover as well as herself. He said to himself, perhaps, that if he had been in Townsend’s place nothing in the world would have hindered him from making any sacrifice to gratify her smallest whim. She knew that was true also. But then, when her eyes were opened, how could he make her do something which was so dangerous, and which he must know frightened her so terribly? At first she thought he was only playing with her and till they actually started, no, later, till they left the river and took to the chairs for the journey across country, she thought he would give that little laugh of his and tell her that she need not come. She had no inkling what was in his mind. He could not really desire her death. He had loved her so desperately. She knew what love was now and she remembered a thousand signs of his adoration. For him really, in the French phrase, she did make fine weather and foul. It was impossible that he did not love her still. Did you cease to love a person because you had been treated cruelly? She had not made him suffer as Charlie had made her suffer and yet, if Charlie made a sign, notwithstanding everything, even though she knew him now, she would abandon all the world had to offer and fly to his arms. Even though he had sacrificed her and cared nothing for her, even though he was callous and unkind, she loved him.

At first she thought that she had only to bide her time, and sooner or later Walter would forgive her. She had been too confident of her power over him to believe that it was gone for ever. Many waters could not quench love. He was weak if he loved her, and felt that love her he must. But now she was not quite sure. When in the evening he sat reading in the straight-backed blackwood chair of the inn with the light of a hurricane lamp on his face she was able to watch him at her ease. She lay on the pallet on which her bed presently would be set and she was in shadow. Those straight, regular features of his made his face look very severe. You could hardly believe that it was possible for them on occasion to be changed by so sweet a smile. He was able to read as calmly as though she were a thousand miles away; she saw him turn the pages and she saw his eyes move regularly as they travelled from line to line. He was not thinking of her. And when, the table being set and dinner brought in, he put aside his book and gave her a glance (not knowing how the light on his face threw into distinctness his expression), she was startled to see in his eyes a look of physical distaste. Yes, it startled her. Was it possible that his love had left him entirely? Was it possible that he really designed her death? It was absurd. That would be the act of a madman. It was odd, the little shiver that ran through her as the thought occurred to her that perhaps Walter was not quite sane.