The Painted Veil Chapter 41

The door opened, to Kitty’s fancy not quite naturally but as though it swung back of itself on its hinges, and the Mother Superior entered the little room. She stood for an instant on the threshold and a grave smile hovered upon her lips as she looked at the laughing Sister and Waddington’s puckered, clownish face. Then she came forward and held out her hand to Kitty.

‘Mrs. Fane?’ She spoke in English with a good deal of accent, but with a correct pronunciation, and she gave the shadow of a bow. ‘It is a great pleasure to me to make the acquaintance of the wife of our good and brave doctor.’

Kitty felt that the Superior’s eyes held her in a long and unembarrassed look of appraisal. It was so frank that it was not uncivil; you felt that here was a woman whose business it was to form an opinion of others and to whom it never occurred that subterfuge was necessary. With a dignified affability she motioned to her visitors to take chairs and herself sat down. Sister St. Joseph, smiling still but silent, stood at the side but a little behind the Superior.

‘I know you English like tea,’ said the Mother Superior, ‘and I have ordered some. But I must make my excuses if it is served in the Chinese fashion. I know that Mr. Waddington prefers whisky, but that I am afraid I cannot offer him.’

She smiled and there was a hint of malice in her grave eyes.

‘Oh, come, ma mère, you speak as if I were a confirmed drunkard.’

‘I wish you could say that you never drink, Mr. Waddington.’

‘I can at all events say that I never drink except to excess.’

The Mother Superior laughed and translated into French for Sister St. Joseph the flippant remark. She looked at him with lingering, friendly eyes.

‘We must make allowances for Mr. Waddington because two or three times when we had no money at all and did not know how we were to feed our orphans Mr. Waddington came to our rescue.’

The convert who had opened the door for them now came in with a tray on which were Chinese cups, a teapot, and a little plate of the French cakes called Madeleines.

‘You must eat the Madeleines,’ said the Mother Superior, ‘because Sister St. Joseph made them for you herself this morning.’

They talked of commonplace things. The Mother Superior asked Kitty how long she had been in China and if the journey from Hong-Kong had greatly tired her. She asked her if she had been in France and if she did not find the climate of Hong-Kong trying. It was a conversation trivial but friendly, which gained a peculiar saviour from the circumstances. The parlour was very quiet, so that you could hardly believe that you were in the midst of the populous city. Peace dwelt there. And yet all round about the epidemic was raging and the people, terrified and restless, were kept in check but by the strong will of a soldier who was more than half a brigand. Within the convent walls the infirmary was crowded with sick and dying soldiers, and of the orphans in the nuns’ charge a quarter were dead.

Kitty, impressed she hardly knew why, observed the grave lady who asked her these amiable questions. She was dressed in white and the only colour on her habit was the red heart that burned on her breast. She was a woman of middle age, she might have been forty or fifty, it was impossible to say, for there were few wrinkles on her smooth, pale face, and you received the impression that she was far from young chiefly from the dignity of her bearing, her assurance, and the emaciation of her strong and beautiful hands. The face was long, with a large mouth and large, even teeth; the nose, though not small, was delicate and sensitive; but it was the eyes, under their thin black brows, which gave her face its intense and tragic character. They were very large, black, and though not exactly cold, by their calm steadiness strangely compelling. Your first thought when you looked at Mother Superior was that as a girl she must have been beautiful, but in a moment you realised that this was a woman whose beauty, depending on character, had grown with advancing years. Her voice was deep, low and controlled, and whether she spoke in English or in French she spoke slowly. But the most striking thing about her was the air she had of authority tempered by Christian charity; you felt in her the habit of command. To be obeyed was natural to her, but she accepted obedience with humility. You could not fail to see that she was deeply conscious of the authority of the church which upheld her. But Kitty had a surmise that notwithstanding her austere demeanour she had for human frailty a human tolerance; and it was impossible to look at her grave smile when she listened to Waddington, unabashed, talking nonsense, without being sure that she had a lively sense of the ridiculous.

But there was some other quality in her which Kitty vaguely felt, but could not put a name to. It was something that notwithstanding the Mother Superior’s cordiality and the exquisite manners which made Kitty feel like an awkward school-girl, held her at a distance.