The Painted Veil Chapter 35

The first time she was alone with Waddington she brought the conversation round to Charlie. Waddington had spoken of him on the evening of their arrival. She pretended that he was no more than an acquaintance of her husband.

‘I never much cared for him,’ said Waddington. ‘I’ve always thought him a bore.’

‘You must be very hard to please,’ returned Kitty, in the bright, chaffing way she could assume so easily. ‘I suppose he’s far and away the most popular man in Hong-Kong.’

‘I know. That is his stock in trade. He’s made a science of popularity. He has the gift of making every one he meets feel that he is the one person in the world he wants to see. He’s always ready to do a service that isn’t any trouble to himself, and even if he doesn’t do what you want he manages to give you the impression that it’s only because it’s not humanly possible.’

‘That is surely an attractive trait.’

‘Charm and nothing but charm at last grows a little tiresome, I think. It’s a relief then to deal with a man who isn’t quite so delightful but a little more sincere. I’ve known Charlie Townsend for a good many years and once or twice I’ve caught him with the mask off – you see, I never mattered, just a subordinate official in the Customs – and I know that he doesn’t in his heart give a damn for any one in the world but himself.’

Kitty, lounging easily in her chair, looked at him with smiling eyes. She turned her wedding-ring round and round her finger.

‘Of course he’ll get on. He knows all the official ropes. Before I die I have every belief that I shall address him as Your Excellency and stand up when he enters the room.’

‘Most people think he deserves to get on. He’s generally supposed to have a great deal of ability.’

‘Ability? What nonsense! He’s a very stupid man. He gives you the impression that he dashes off his work and gets it through from sheer brilliancy. Nothing of the kind. He’s as industrious as a Eurasian clerk.’

‘How has he got the reputation of being so clever?’

‘There are many foolish people in the world and when a man in a rather high position puts on no frills, slaps them on the back, and tells them he’ll do anything in the world for them, they are very likely to think him clever. And then of course, there’s his wife. There’s an able woman if you like. She has a good sound head and her advice is always worth taking. As long as Charlie Townsend’s got her to depend on he’s pretty safe never to do a foolish thing, and that’s the first thing necessary for a man to get on in Government service. They don’t want clever men; clever men have ideas, and ideas cause trouble; they want men who have charm and tact and who can be counted on never to make a blunder. Oh, yes, Charlie Townsend will get to the top of the tree all right.’

‘I wonder why you dislike him?’

‘I don’t dislike him.’

‘But you like his wife better?’ smiled Kitty.

‘I’m an old-fashioned little man and I like a well-bred woman.’

‘I wish she were well-dressed as well as well-bred.’

‘Doesn’t she dress well? I never noticed.’

‘I’ve always heard that they were a devoted couple,’ said Kitty, watching him through her eye-lashes.

‘He’s very fond of her: I will give him that credit. I think that is the most decent thing about him.’

‘Cold praise.’

‘He has his little flirtations, but they’re not serious. He’s much too cunning to let them go to such lengths as might cause him inconvenience. And of course he isn’t a passionate man; he’s only a vain one. He likes admiration. He’s fat and forty now, he does himself too well, but he was very good-looking when he first came to the Colony. I’ve often heard his wife chaff him about his conquests.’

‘She doesn’t take his flirtations very seriously?’

‘Oh, no, she knows they don’t go very far. She says she’d like to be able to make friends of the poor little things who fall to Charlie; but they’re always so common. She says it’s really not very flattering to her that the women who fall in love with her husband are so uncommonly second-rate.’