The Painted Veil Chapter 43

The chapel was no more than a long low room with whitewashed walls and rows of deal benches; at the end was the altar on which stood the image; it was in plaster of Paris painted in crude colours; it was very bright and new and garish. Behind it was a picture in oils of the Crucifixion with the two Marys at the foot of the Cross in extravagant attitudes of grief. The drawing was bad and the dark pigments were put on with an eye that knew nothing of the beauty of colour. Around the walls were the Stations of the Cross painted by the same unfortunate hand. The chapel was hideous and vulgar.

The nuns on entering knelt down to say a prayer and then, rising, the Mother Superior began once more to chat with Kitty.

‘Everything that can be broken is broken when it comes here, but the statue presented to us by our benefactor came from Paris without so much as the smallest chip. There is no doubt that it was a miracle.’

Waddington’s malicious eyes gleamed, but he held his tongue.

‘The altarpiece and the Stations of the Cross were painted by one of our Sisters, Soeur St. Anselme.’ The Mother Superior crossed herself. ‘She was a real artist. Unfortunately, she fell a victim to the epidemic. Do you not think that they are very beautiful?’

Kitty faltered an affirmative. On the altar were bunches of paper flowers and the candlesticks were distractingly ornate.

‘We have the privilege of keeping here the Blessed Sacrament.’

‘Yes?’ said Kitty, not understanding.

‘It has been a great comfort to us during this time of so terrible trouble.’

They left the chapel and retraced their steps to the parlour in which they had first sat.

‘Would you like to see the babies that came in this morning before you go?’

‘Very much,’ said Kitty.

The Mother Superior led them into a tiny room on the other side of the passage. On a table, under a cloth, there was a singular wriggling. The Sister drew back the cloth and displayed four tiny, naked infants. They were very red and they made funny restless movements with their arms and legs; their quaint little Chinese faces were screwed up into strange grimaces. They looked hardly human; queer animals of an unknown species, and yet there was something singularly moving in the sight. The Mother Superior looked at them with an amused smile.

‘They seem very lively. Sometimes they are brought in only to die. Of course we baptise them the moment they come.’

‘The lady’s husband will be pleased with them,’ said Sister St. Joseph. ‘I think he could play by the hour with the babies. When they cry he has only to take them up, and he makes them comfortable in the crook of his arm, so that they laugh with delight.’

Then Kitty and Waddington found themselves at the door. Kitty gravely thanked the Mother Superior for the trouble she had taken. The nun bowed with a condescension that was at once dignified and affable.

‘It has been a great pleasure. You do not know how kind and helpful your husband has been to us. He has been sent to us by Heaven. I am glad that you came with him. When he goes home it must be a great comfort to him to have you there with your love and your – your sweet face. You must take care of him and not let him work too hard. You must look after him for all our sakes.’

Kitty flushed. She did not know what to say. The Mother Superior held out her hand and while she held it Kitty was conscious of those cool, thoughtful eyes which rested on her with detachment and yet with something that looked like a profound understanding.

Sister St. Joseph closed the door behind them and Kitty got into her chair. They went back through the narrow, winding streets. Waddington made a casual remark: Kitty did not answer. He looked round, but the side curtains of the chair were drawn and he could not see her. He walked on in silence. But when they reached the river and she stepped out to his surprise he saw that her eyes were streaming with tears.

‘What is the matter?’ he asked, his face puckered into an expression of dismay.

‘Nothing.’ She tried to smile. ‘Only foolishness.’