The Painted Veil Chapter 50

Since the nuns were busy from morning till night with a hundred duties Kitty saw little of them but at the services in the bare, humble chapel. On her first day the Mother Superior, catching sight of her seated at the back behind the girls on the benches according to their ages, stopped and spoke to her.

‘You must not think it necessary for you to come to the chapel when we do,’ she said. ‘You are a Protestant and you have your own convictions.’

‘But I like to come, Mother. I find that it rests me.’

The Mother Superior gave her a moment’s glance and slightly inclined her grave head.

‘Of course you will do exactly as you choose. I merely wanted you to understand that you are under no obligation.’

But with Sister St. Joseph Kitty soon became on terms not of intimacy perhaps but of familiarity. The economy of the convent was in her charge and to look after the material well-being of that big family kept the Sister on her feet all day. She said that the only time she had to rest was that which she devoted to prayer. But it pleased her towards evening when Kitty was with the girls at their work to come in and, vowing that she was tired out and had not a moment to spare, sit down for a few minutes and gossip. When she was not in the presence of the Mother Superior she was a talkative, merry creature, fond of a joke, and she did not dislike a bit of scandal. Kitty stood in no fear of her, her habit did not prevent Sister St. Joseph from being a good-natured, homely woman, and she chattered with her gaily. She did not mind with her showing how badly she talked French and they laughed with one another over Kitty’s mistakes. The Sister taught her every day a few useful words of Chinese. She was a farmer’s daughter and at heart she was still a peasant.

‘I used to keep the cows when I was little,’ she said, ‘like St. Joan of Arc. But I was too wicked to have visions. It was fortunate, I think, for my father would certainly have whipped me if I had. He used often to whip me, the good old man, for I was a very naughty little girl. I am ashamed sometimes when I think now of the pranks I used to play.’

Kitty laughed at the thought that this corpulent, middle-aged nun could ever have been a wayward child. And yet there was something childlike in her still so that your heart went out to her: she seemed to have about her an aroma of the countryside in autumn when the apple trees are laden with fruit and the crops are in and safely housed. She had not the tragic and austere saintliness of the Mother Superior, but a gaiety that was simple and happy.

‘Do you never wish to go home again, ma soeur?’ asked Kitty.

‘Oh, no. It would be too hard to come back. I love to be here and I am never so happy as when I am among the orphans. They’re so good, they’re so grateful. But it is all very well to be a nun (on a beau être religieuse) still one has a mother and one cannot forget that one drank the milk of her breasts. She is old, my mother, and it is hard never to see her again; but then she is fond of her daughter-in-law, and my brother is good to her. His son is growing up now, I should think they will be glad of an extra pair of strong arms on the farm; he was only a child when I left France, but he promised to have a fist that you could fell an ox with.’

It was almost impossible in that quiet room, listening to the nun, to realise that on the other side of these four walls cholera was raging. Sister St. Joseph had an unconcern which conveyed itself to Kitty.

She had a naïve curiosity about the world and its inhabitants. She asked Kitty all kinds of questions about London and England, a country, she thought, where so thick was the fog that you could not see your hand at mid-day, and she wanted to know if Kitty went to balls and whether she lived in a grand house and how many brothers and sisters she had. She spoke often of Walter. The Mother Superior said he was wonderful and every day they prayed for him. How lucky Kitty was to have a husband who was so good and so brave and so clever.