The Painted Veil Chapter 39

A few days later Waddington, sitting with Kitty, a long glass of whisky and soda in his hand, began to speak to her of the convent.

‘The Mother Superior is a very remarkable woman,’ he said. ‘The Sisters tell me that she belongs to one of the greatest families in France, but they won’t tell me which; the Mother Superior, they say, doesn’t wish it to be talked of.’

‘Why don’t you ask her if it interests you?’ smiled Kitty.

‘If you knew her you’d know it was impossible to ask her an indiscreet question.’

‘She must certainly be very remarkable if she can impress you with awe.’

‘I am the bearer of a message from her to you. She has asked me to say that, though of course you may not wish to adventure into the very centre of the epidemic, if you do not mind that it will give her great pleasure to show you the convent.’

‘It’s very kind of her. I shouldn’t have thought she was aware of my existence.’

‘I’ve spoken about you; I go there two or three times a week just now to see if there’s anything I can do; and I daresay your husband has told them about you. You must be prepared to find that they have an unbounded admiration for him.’

‘Are you a Catholic?’

His malicious eyes twinkled and his funny little face was puckered with laughter.

‘Why are you grinning at me?’ asked Kitty.

‘Can any good come out of Galilee? No, I’m not a Catholic. I describe myself as a member of the Church of England, which I suppose is an inoffensive way of saying that you don’t believe in anything very much.... When the Mother Superior came here ten years ago she brought seven nuns with her and of those all but three are dead. You see, at the best of times, Meitan-fu is not a health resort. They live in the very middle of the city, in the poorest district, they work very hard and they never have a holiday.’

‘But are there only three and Mother Superior now?’

‘Oh, no, more have taken their places. There are six of them now. When one of them died of cholera at the beginning of the epidemic two others came up from Canton.’

Kitty shivered a little.

‘Are you cold?’

‘No, it was only some one walking over my grave.’

‘When they leave France they leave it forever. They’re not like the Protestant missionaries who have a year’s leave every now and then. I always think that must be the hardest thing of all. We English have no very strong attachment to the soil, we can make ourselves at home in any part of the world, but the French, I think, have an attachment to their country which is almost a physical bond. They’re never really at ease when they’re out of it. It always seems to me very moving that these women should make just that sacrifice. I suppose if I were a Catholic it would seem very natural to me.’

Kitty looked at him coolly. She could not quite understand the emotion with which the little man spoke and she asked herself whether it was a pose. He had drunk a good deal of whisky and perhaps he was not quite sober.

‘Come and see for yourself,’ he said, with his bantering smile, quickly reading her thought. ‘It’s not nearly so risky as eating a tomato.’

‘If you’re not frightened there’s no reason why I should be.’

‘I think it’ll amuse you. It’s like a little bit of France.’