The Painted Veil Chapter 42

‘Monsieur ne mange rien,’ said Sister St. Joseph.

‘Monsieur’s palate is ruined by Manchu cooking,’ replied the Mother Superior.

The smile left Sister St. Joseph’s face and she assumed an expression of some primness. Waddington, a roguish glance in his eyes, took another cake. Kitty did not understand the incident.

‘To prove to you how unjust you are, ma mère, I will ruin the excellent dinner that awaits me.’

‘If Mrs. Fane would like to see over the convent I shall be glad to show her.’ The Mother Superior turned to Kitty with a deprecating smile. ‘I am sorry you should see it just now when everything is in disorder. We have so much work and not enough Sisters to do it. Colonel Yü has insisted on our putting our infirmary at the disposal of sick soldiers and we have had to make the réfectoire into an infirmary for our orphans.’

She stood at the door to allow Kitty to pass and together, followed by Sister St. Joseph and Waddington, they walked along cool white corridors. They went first into a large, bare room where a number of Chinese girls were working at elaborate embroideries. They stood up when the visitors entered and the Mother Superior showed Kitty specimens of the work.

‘We go on with it notwithstanding the epidemic because it takes their minds off the danger.’

They went to a second room in which younger girls were doing plain sewing, hemming and stitching, and then into a third where there were only tiny children under the charge of a Chinese covert. They were playing noisily and when the Mother Superior came in they crowded round her, mites of two and three, with their black Chinese eyes and their black hair; and they seized her hands and hid themselves in her great skirts. An enchanting smile lit up her grave face, and she fondled them; she spoke little chaffing words which Kitty, ignorant though she was of Chinese, could tell were like caresses. She shuddered a little, for in their uniform dress, sallow-skinned, stunted, with their flat noses, they looked to her hardly human. They were repulsive. But the Mother Superior stood among them like Charity itself. When she wished to leave the room they would not let her go, but clung to her, so that, with smiling expostulations, she had to use a gentle force to free herself. They at all events found nothing terrifying in this great lady.

‘You know of course,’ she said, as they walked along another corridor, ‘that they are only orphans in the sense that their parents have wished to be rid of them. We give them a few cash for every child that is brought in, otherwise they will not take the trouble, but do away with them.’ She turned to the Sister. ‘Have any come to day?’ she asked.


‘Now, with the cholera, they are more than ever anxious not to be burdened with useless girls.’

She showed Kitty the dormitories and then they passed a door on which was painted the word infirmerie. Kitty heard groans and loud cries and sounds as though beings not human were in pain.

‘I will not show you the infirmary,’ said the Mother Superior in her placid tones. ‘It is not a sight that one would wish to see.’ A thought struck her. ‘I wonder if Dr. Fane is there?’

She looked interrogatively at the Sister and she, with her merry smile, opened the door and slipped in. Kitty shrank back as the open door allowed her to hear more horribly the turmult within. Sister St. Joseph came back.

‘No, he has been and will not be back again till later.’

‘What about number six?’

‘Pauvre gai¸on, he’s dead.’

The Mother Superior crossed herself and her lips moved in a short and silent prayer.

They passed by a courtyard and Kitty’s eyes fell upon two long shapes that lay side by side on the ground covered with a piece of blue cotton. The Superior turned to Waddington.

‘We are so short of beds that we have to put two patients in one and the moment a sick man dies he must be bundled out in order to make room for another.’ But she gave Kitty a smile. ‘Now we will show you our chapel. We are very proud of it. One of our friends in France sent us a little while ago a life-size statue of the Blessed Virgin.’