The Painted Veil Chapter 31

It was a bungalow and she entered the sitting-room. She sat down while the coolies, straggling in one by one, brought in their loads. Walter in the courtyard gave directions where this or that was to be placed. She was very tired. She was startled to hear an unknown voice.

‘May I come in?’

She flushed and grew pale. She was overwrought and it made her nervous to meet a stranger. A man came out of the darkness, for the long low room was lit only by a shaded lamp, and held out his hand.

‘My name is Waddington. I am the Deputy Commissioner.’

‘Oh, the Customs. I know. I heard that you were here.’

In that dim light she could see only that he was a little thin man, no taller than she, with a bald head and a small, bare face.

‘I live just at the bottom of the hill, but coming in this way you wouldn’t have seen my house. I thought you’d be too fagged to come and dine with me, so I’ve ordered your dinner here and I’ve invited myself.’

‘I’m delighted to hear it.’

‘You’ll find the cook’s not bad. I kept on Watson’s boys for you.’

‘Watson was the missionary who was here?’

‘Yes. Very nice fellow. I’ll show you his grave tomorrow if you like.’

‘How kind you are,’ said Kitty, with a smile.

At that moment Walter came in. Waddington had introduced himself to him before coming in to see Kitty and now he said:

‘I’ve just been breaking it to your missus that I’m dining with you. Since Watson died I haven’t had anybody much to talk to but the nuns, and I can never do myself justice in French. Besides, there is only a limited number of subjects you can talk to them about.’

‘I’ve just told the boy to bring in some drinks,’ said Walter.

The servant brought whisky and soda and Kitty noticed that Waddington helped himself generously. His manner of speaking and his easy chuckle had suggested to her when he came in that he was not quite sober.

‘Here’s luck,’ he said. Then, turning to Walter: ‘You’ve got your work cut out for you here. They’re dying like flies. The magistrate’s lost his head and Colonel YĆ¼, the officer commanding the troops, is having a devil of a job to prevent them from looting. If something doesn’t happen soon we shall all be murdered in our beds. I tried to get the nuns to go, but of course they wouldn’t. They all want to be martyrs, damn them.’

He spoke lightly and there was in his voice a sort of ghostly laughter so that you could not listen to him without smiling.

‘Why haven’t you gone?’ asked Walter.

‘Well, I’ve lost half my staff and the others are ready to lie down and die at any minute. Somebody’s got to stay and keep things together.’

‘Have you been inoculated?’

‘Yes. Watson did me. But he did himself too, and it didn’t do him much good, poor blighter.’ He turned to Kitty and his funny little face was gaily puckered. ‘I don’t think there’s any great risk if you take proper precautions. Have your milk and water boiled and don’t eat fresh fruit or uncooked vegetables. Have you brought any gramophone records with you?’

‘No, I don’t think so,’ said Kitty.

‘I’m sorry for that. I was hoping you would. I haven’t had any for a long time and I’m sick of my old ones.’

The boy came in to ask if they would have dinner.

‘You won’t dress to-night, will you?’ asked Waddington. ‘My boy died last week and the boy I have now is a fool, so I haven’t been dressing in the evening.’

‘I’ll go and take off my hat,’ said Kitty.

Her room was next door to that in which they sat. It was barely furnished. An amah was kneeling on the floor, the lamp beside her, unpacking Kitty’s things.