The Painted Veil Chapter 51

But sooner or later Sister St. Joseph returned to the subject of the Mother Superior. Kitty had been conscious from the beginning that the personality of this woman dominated the convent. She was regarded by all that dwelt there with love certainly and with admiration, but also with awe and not a little dread. Notwithstanding her kindliness Kitty herself felt like a schoolgirl in her presence. She was never quite at her ease with her, for she was filled with a sentiment which was so strange that it embarrassed her: reverence. Sister St. Joseph with an ingenuous desire to impress, told Kitty how great the family was to which the Mother Superior belonged; she had among her ancestors persons of historic importance and she was un peu cousine with half the kings of Europe: Alphonso of Spain had hunted at her father’s, and they had chateaux all over France. It must have been hard to leave so much grandeur. Kitty listened smilingly, but not a little impressed.

‘Du Teste, you have only to look at her,’ said the Sister, ‘to see that, comme famille, c’est le dessus du paniei.’

‘She has the most beautiful hands that I have ever seen,’ said Kitty.

‘Ah, but if you only knew how she had used them. She is not afraid of work, notre bonne mère.’

When they had come to this city there had been nothing. They had built the convent. The Mother Superior had made the plans and supervised the work. The moment they arrived they began to save the poor little unwanted girls from the baby-tower and the cruel hands of the midwife. At first they had had no beds to sleep in and no glass to keep out the night air (‘and there is nothing,’ said Sister St. Joseph, ‘which is more unwholesome’); and often they had no money left, not only to pay the builders, but even to buy their simple fare; they lived like peasants, what was she saying? the peasants in France, tenez, the men who worked for her father, would have thrown to the pigs the food they ate. And then the Mother Superior would collect her daughters round her and they would kneel and pray; and the Blessed Virgin would send money. A thousand francs would arrive by post next day, or a stranger, an Englishman (a Protestant, if you please) or even a Chinaman would knock at the door while they were actually on their knees and bring them a present. Once they were in such straits that they all made a vow to the Blessed Virgin that they would recite a neuvaine in her honour if she succoured them, and, would you believe it? that funny Mr. Waddington came to see us next day and saying that we looked as though we all wanted a good plate of roast beef gave us a hundred dollars.

What a comic little man he was, with his bald head and his little shrewd eyes (ses petits yeux malins) and his jokes. Mon Dieu, how he murdered the French language, and yet you could not help laughing at him. He was always in a good humour. All through this terrible epidemic he carried himself as if he were enjoying a holiday. He had a heart quite French and a wit so that you could hardly believe he was English. Except for his accent. But sometimes Sister St. Joseph thought he spoke badly on purpose to make you laugh. Of course his morals were not all one could wish; but still that was his business (with a sigh, a shrug and a shake of the head) and he was a bachelor and a young man.

‘What is wrong with his morals, ma soeur?’ asked Kitty smiling.

‘Is it possible that you do not know? It is a sin for me to tell you. I have no business to say such things. He lives with a Chinese woman, that is to say, not a Chinese woman, but a Manchu. A princess, it appears, and she loves him to distraction.’

‘That sounds quite impossible,’ cried Kitty.

‘No, no, I promise you, it is everything that is most true. It is very wicked of him. Those things are not done. Did you not hear, when you first came to the convent and he would not eat the madeleines that I had made expressly, that notre bonne mère said his stomach was deranged by Manchu cooking? That was what she meant and you should have seen the head that he made. It is a story altogether curious. It appears that he was stationed at Hankow during the revolution when they were massacring the Manchus and this good little Waddington saved the lives of one of their great families. They are related to the Imperial Family. The girl fell violently in love with him and – well, the rest you can imagine. And then when he left Hankow she ran away and followed him and now she follows him everywhere, and he has had to resign himself to. keep her, poor fellow, and I daresay he is very fond of her; they are quite charming sometimes, these Manchu women. But what am I thinking of? I have a thousand things to do and I sit here. I am a bad religious. I am ashamed of myself.’