The Painted Veil Chapter 54

They sat on the steps of a little building (four lacquered columns and a high, tiled roof under which stood a great bronze bell) and watched the river flow sluggish and with many a bend towards the stricken city. They could see its crenellated walls. The heat hung over it like a pall. But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had still a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in that river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy.

‘Do you know Harrington Gardens?’ she asked Waddington, with a smile in her beautiful eyes.

‘No. Why?’

‘Nothing; only it’s a long way from here. It’s where my people live.’

‘Are you thinking of going home?’


‘I suppose you’ll be leaving here in a couple of months. The epidemic seems to be abating and the cool weather should see the end of it.’

‘I almost think I shall be sorry to go.’

For a moment she thought of the future. She did not know what plans Walter had in mind. He told her nothing. He was cool, polite, silent and inscrutable. Two little drops in that river that flowed silently towards the unknown; two little drops that to themselves had so much individuality and to the onlooker were but an undistinguishable part of the water.

‘Take care the nuns don’t start converting you,’ said Waddington, with his malicious little smile.

‘They’re much too busy. Nor do they care. They’re wonderful and so kind; and yet – I hardly know how to explain it – there is a wall between them and me. I don’t know what it is. It is as though they possessed a secret which made all the difference in their lives and which I was unworthy to share. It is not faith; it is something deeper and more – more significant: they walk in a different world from ours and we shall always be strangers to them. Each day when the convent door closes behind me I feel that for them I have ceased to exist.’

‘I can understand that it is something of a blow to your vanity,’ he returned mockingly.

‘My vanity.’

Kitty shrugged her shoulders. Then, smiling once more, she turned to him lazily.

‘Why did you never tell me that you lived with a Manchu princess?’

‘What have those gossiping old women been telling you? I am sure that it is a sin for nuns to discuss the private affairs of the Customs officials.’

‘Why should you be so sensitive?’

Waddington glanced down, sideways, so that it gave him an air of slyness. He faintly shrugged his shoulders.

‘It’s not a thing to advertise. I do not know that it would greatly add to my chances of promotion in the service.’

‘Are you very fond of her?’

He looked up now and his ugly little face had the look of a naughty schoolboy’s.

‘She’s abandoned everything for my sake, home, family, security and self-respect. It’s a good many years now since she threw everything to the winds to be with me. I’ve sent her away two or three times, but she’s always come back; I’ve run away from her myself, but she’s always followed me. And now I’ve given it up as a bad job; I think I’ve got to put up with her for the rest of my life.’

‘She must really love you to distraction.’

‘It’s a rather funny sensation, you know,’ he answered, wrinkling a perplexed forehead. ‘I haven’t the smallest doubt that if I really left her, definitely, she would commit suicide. Not with any ill-feeling towards me, but quite naturally, because she was unwilling to live without me. It is a curious feeling it gives one to know that. It can’t help meaning something to you.’

‘But it’s loving that’s the important thing, not being loved. One’s not even grateful to the people who love one; if one doesn’t love them, they only bore one.’

‘I have no experience of the plural,’ he replied. ‘Mine is only in the singular.’

‘Is she really an Imperial Princess?’

‘No, that is a romantic exaggeration of the nuns. She belongs to one of the great families of the Manchus, but they have, of course, been ruined by the revolution. She is all the same a very great lady.’

He said it in a tone of pride, so that a smile flickered in Kitty’s eyes.

‘Are you going to stay here for the rest of your life then?’

‘In China? Yes. What would she do elsewhere? When I retire I shall take a little Chinese house in Peking and spend the rest of my days there.’

‘Have you any children?’


She looked at him curiously. It was strange that this little bald-headed man with his monkey face should have aroused in the alien woman so devastating a passion. She could not tell why the way he spoke of her, notwithstanding his casual manner and his flippant phrases, gave her the impression so strongly of the woman’s intense and unique devotion. It troubled her a little.

‘It does seem a long way to Harrington Gardens,’ she smiled.

‘Why do you say that?’

‘I don’t understand anything. Life is so strange. I feel like some one who’s lived all his life by a duck-pond and suddenly is shown the sea. It makes me a little breathless, and yet it fills me with elation. I don’t want to die, I want to live. I’m beginning to feel a new courage. I feel like one of those old sailors who set sail for undiscovered seas and I think my soul hankers for the unknown.’

Waddington looked at her reflectively. Her abstracted gaze rested on the smoothness of the river. Two little drops that flowed silently, silently towards the dark, eternal sea.

‘May I come and see the Manchu lady?’ asked Kitty, suddenly raising her head.

‘She can’t speak a word of English.’

‘You’ve been very kind to me, you’ve done a great deal for me, perhaps I could show her by my manner that I had a friendly feeling towards her.’

Waddington gave a thin, mocking little smile, but he answered with good-humour.

‘I will come and fetch you one day and she shall give you a cup of jasmine tea.’

She would not tell him that this story of an alien love had from the first moment strangely intrigued her fancy, and the Manchu Princess stood now as the symbol of something that vaguely, but insistently, beckoned to her. She pointed enigmatically to a mystic land of the spirit.