The Painted Veil Chapter 32

The dining-room was small and the greater part of it was filled by an immense table. On the walls were engravings of scenes from the Bible and illuminated texts.

‘Missionaries always have large dining-tables,’ Waddington explained. ‘They get so much a year more for every child they have and they buy their tables when they marry so that there shall be plenty of room for little strangers.’

From the ceiling hung a large paraffin lamp, so that Kitty was able to see better what sort of a man Waddington was. His baldness had deceived her into thinking him no longer young, but she saw now that he must be well under forty. His face, small under a high, rounded forehead, was unlined and fresh-coloured; it was ugly like a monkey’s, but with an ugliness that was not without charm; it was an amusing face. His features, his nose and his mouth, were hardly larger than a child’s, and he had small, very bright blue eyes. His eyebrows were fair and scanty. He looked like a funny little old boy. He helped himself constantly to liquor and as dinner proceeded it became evident that he was far from sober. But if he was drunk it was without offensiveness, gaily, as a satyr might be who had stolen a wine-skin from a sleeping shepherd.

He talked of Hong-Kong; he had many friends there and he wanted to know about them. He had been down for the races a year before and he talked of ponies and their owners.

‘By the way, what about Townsend?’ he asked suddenly. ‘Is he going to become Colonial Secretary?’

Kitty felt herself flush, but her husband did not look at her.

‘I shouldn’t wonder,’ he answered.

‘He’s the sort that gets on.’

‘Do you know him?’ asked Walter.

‘Yes, I know him pretty well. We travelled out from home together once.’

From the other side of the river they heard the beating of gongs and the clatter of fire-crackers. There, so short a way from them, the great city lay in terror; and death, sudden and ruthless, hurried through its tortuous streets. But Waddington began to speak of London. He talked of the theatres. He knew everything that was being played at the moment and he told them what pieces he had seen when he was last home on leave. He laughed as he recollected the humour of this low comedian and sighed as he reflected on the beauty of that star of musical comedy. He was pleased to be able to boast that a cousin of his had married one of the most celebrated. He had lunched with her and she had given him her photograph. He would show it to them when they came and dined with him at the Customs.

Walter looked at his guest with a cold and ironic gaze, but he was evidently not a little amused by him, and he made an effort to show a civil interest in topics of which Kitty was well aware he knew nothing. A faint smile lingered on his lips. But Kitty, she knew not why, was filled with awe. In the house of that dead missionary, over against the stricken city, they seemed immeasurably apart from all the world. Three solitary creatures and strangers to each other.

Dinner was finished and she rose from the table.

‘Do you mind if I say good-night to you? I’m going to bed.’

‘I’ll take myself off, I expect the doctor wants to go to bed too,’ answered Waddington. ‘We must be out early to-morrow.’

He shook hands with Kitty. He was quite steady on his feet, but his eyes were shining more than ever.

‘I’ll come and fetch you,’ he told Walter, ‘and take you to see the Magistrate and Colonel YĆ¼, and then we’ll go along to the Convent. You’ve got your work cut out, I can tell you.’