The Painted Veil Chapter 55

But a day or two later Kitty made an unforeseen discovery.

She went to the convent as usual and set about her first work of seeing that the children were washed and dressed. Since the nuns held firmly that the night air was harmful, the atmosphere in the dormitory was close and fetid. After the freshness of the morning it always made Kitty a little uncomfortable and she hastened to open such windows as would. But to-day she felt all of a sudden desperately sick and with her head swimming she stood at the window trying to compose herself. It had never been as bad as this before. Then nausea overwhelmed her and she vomited. She gave a cry so that the children were frightened, and the older girl who was helping her ran up and, seeing Kitty white and trembling, stopped short with an exclamation. Cholera! The thought flashed through Kitty’s mind and then a deathlike feeling came over her; she was seized with terror, she struggled for a moment against the night that seemed agonisingly to run through her veins; she felt horribly ill; and then darkness.

When she opened her eyes she did not at first know where she was. She seemed to be lying on the floor and, moving her head slightly, she thought that there was a pillow under it. She could not remember. The Mother Superior was kneeling by her side, holding smelling salts to her nose, and Sister St. Joseph stood looking at her. Then it came back. Cholera! She saw the consternation on the nuns’ faces. Sister St. Joseph looked huge and her outline was blurred. Once more terror overwhelmed her.

‘Oh, Mother, Mother,’ she sobbed. ‘Am I going to die? I don’t want to die.’

‘Of course you’re not going to die,’ said the Mother Superior.

She was quite composed and there was even amusement in her eyes.

‘But it’s cholera. Where’s Walter? Has he been sent for? Oh, Mother, Mother.’

She burst into a flood of tears. The Mother Superior gave her hand and Kitty seized it as though it were a hold upon the life she feared to lose.

‘Come, come, my dear child, you mustn’t be so silly. It’s not cholera or anything bf the kind.’

‘Where’s Walter?’

‘Your husband is much too busy to be troubled. In five minutes you’ll be perfectly well.’

Kitty looked at her with staring, harassed eyes. Why did she take it so calmly? It was cruel.

‘Keep perfectly quiet for a minute,’ said the Mother Superior. ‘There is nothing to alarm yourself about.’

Kitty felt her heart beat madly. She had grown so used to the thought of cholera that it had ceased to seem possible that she could catch it. Oh, the fool she had been! She knew she was going to die. She was frightened. The girls brought in a long rattan chair and placed it by the window.

‘Come, let us lift you,’ said the Mother Superior. ‘You will be more comfortable on the chaise longue. Do you think you can stand?’

She put her hands under Kitty’s arms and Sister St. Joseph helped her to her feet. She sank exhausted into the chair.

‘I had better shut the window,’ said Sister St. Joseph. ‘The early morning air cannot be good for her.’

‘No, no,’ said Kitty. ‘Please leave it open.’

It gave her confidence to see the blue sky. She was shaken, but certainly she began to feel better. The two nuns looked at her for a moment in silence, and Sister St. Joseph said something to the Mother Superior which she could not understand. Then the Mother Superior sat on the side of the chair and took her hand.

‘Listen, ma chère enfant ...’

She asked her one or two questions. Kitty answered them without knowing what they meant. Her lips were trembling so that she could hardly frame the words.

‘There is no doubt about it,’ said Sister St. Joseph. ‘I am not one to be deceived in such a matter.’

She gave a little laugh in which Kitty seemed to discern a certain excitement and not a little affection. The Mother Superior, still holding Kitty’s hand, smiled with soft tenderness.

‘Sister St. Joseph has more experience of these things than I have, dear child, and she said at once what was the matter with you. She was evidently quite right.’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Kitty anxiously.

‘It is quite evident. Did the possibility of such a thing never occur to you? You are with child, my dear.’

The start that Kitty gave shook her from head to foot, and she put her feet to the ground as though to spring up.

‘Lie still, lie still,’ said the Mother Superior.

Kitty felt herself blush furiously and she put her hands to her breasts.

‘It’s impossible. It isn’t true.’

‘Qu’est ce qu’elle dit?’ asked Sister St. Joseph.

The Mother Superior translated. Sister St. Joseph’s broad simple face, with its red cheeks, was beaming.

‘No mistakes is possible. I give you my word of honour.’

‘How long have you been married, my child?’ asked the Mother Superior. ‘Why, when my sister-in-law had been married as long as you she had already two babies.’

Kitty sank back into the chair. There was death in her heart.

‘I’m so ashamed,’ she whispered.

‘Because you are going to have a baby? Why, what can be more natural?’

‘Quelle joie pour le docteur,’ said Sister St. Joseph.

‘Yes, think what a happiness for your husband. He will be overwhelmed with joy. You have only to see him with babies, and the look on his face when he plays with them, to see how enchanted he will be to have one of his own.’

For a little while Kitty was silent. The two nuns looked at her with tender interest and the Mother Superior stroked her hand.

‘It was silly of me not to have suspected it before,’ said Kitty. ‘At all events I’m glad it’s not cholera. I feel very much better. I will get back to my work.’

‘Not to-day, my dear child. You have had a shock, you had much better go home and rest yourself.’

‘No, no, I would much rather stay and work.’

‘I insist. What would our good doctor say if I let you be imprudent? Come to-morrow, if you like, or the day after, but to-day you must be quiet. I will send for a chair. Would you like me to let one of our young girls go with you?’

‘Oh, no, I shall be all right alone.’