The Painted Veil Chapter 56

Kitty was lying on her bed and the shutters were closed. It was after luncheon and the servants slept. What she had learnt that morning (and now she was certain that it was true) filled her with consternation. Ever since she came home she had been trying to think; but her mind was a blank, and she could not collect her thoughts. Suddenly she heard a step, the feet were booted so that it could not be one of the boys; with a gasp of apprehension she realised that it could only be her husband. He was in the sitting-room and she heard herself called. She did not reply. There was a moment’s silence and then a knock on her door.


‘May I come in?’

Kitty rose from her bed and slipped into a dressing-gown.


He entered. She was glad that the closed shutters shadowed her face.

‘I hope I didn’t wake you. I knocked very, very gently.’

‘I haven’t been asleep.’

He went to one of the windows and threw open the shutter. A flood of warm light streamed into the room.

‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘Why are you back so early?’

‘The Sisters said that you weren’t very well. I thought I had better come and see what was the matter.’

A flash of anger passed through her.

‘What would you have said if it had been cholera?’

‘If it had been you certainly couldn’t have made your way home this morning.’

She went to the dressing-table and passed the comb through her shingled hair. She wanted to gain time. Then, sitting down, she lit a cigarette.

‘I wasn’t very well this morning and the Mother Superior thought I’d better come back here. But I’m perfectly all right again. I shall go to the convent as usual to-morrow.’

‘What was the matter with you?’

‘Didn’t they tell you?’

‘No. The Mother Superior said that you must tell me yourself.’

He did now what he did seldom; he looked her full in the face; his professional instincts were stronger than his personal. She hesitated. Then she forced herself to meet his eyes.

‘I’m going to have a baby,’ she said.

She was accustomed to his habit of meeting with silence a statement which you would naturally expect to evoke an exclamation, but never had it seemed to her more devastating. He said nothing; he made no gesture; no movement on his face nor change of expression in his dark eyes indicated that he had heard. She felt suddenly inclined to cry. If a man loved his wife and his wife loved him, at such a moment they were drawn together by a poignant emotion. The silence was intolerable and she broke it.

‘I don’t know why it never occurred to me before. It was stupid of me, but... what with one thing and another ...’

‘How long have you ... when do you expect to be confined?’

The words seemed to issue from his lips with difficulty. She felt that his throat was as dry as hers. It was a nuisance that her lips trembled so when she spoke; if he was not of stone it must excite his pity.

‘I suppose I’ve been like this between two and three months.’

‘Am I the father?’

She gave a little gasp. There was just a shadow of a tremor in his voice; it was dreadful that cold self-control of his which made the smallest token of emotion so shattering. She did not know why she thought suddenly of an instrument she had been shown in Hong-Kong upon which a needle oscillated a little and she had been told that this represented an earthquake a thousand miles away in which perhaps a thousand persons had lost their lives. She looked at him. He was ghastly pale. She had seen that pallor on him once, twice before. He was looking down, a little sideways.


She clasped her hands. She knew that if she could say yes it would mean everything in the world to him. He would believe her, of course he would believe her, because he wanted to; and then he would forgive. She knew how deep was his tenderness and how ready he was, for all his shyness, to expend it. She knew that he was not vindictive; he would forgive her if she could but give him an excuse to, an excuse that touched his heart, and he would forgive completely. She could count on him never to throw the past in her teeth. Cruel he might be, cold and morbid, but he was neither mean nor petty. It would alter everything if she said yes.

And she had an urgent need for sympathy. The unexpected knowledge that she was with child had overwhelmed her with strange hopes and unforeseen desires. She felt weak, frightened a little, alone and very far from any friends. That morning, though she cared little for her mother, she had had a sudden craving to be with her. She needed help and consolation. She did not love Walter, she knew that she never could, but at this moment she longed with all her heart for him to take her in his arms so that she could lay her head on his breast; clinging to him she could have cried happily; she wanted him to kiss her and she wanted to twine her arms around his neck.

She began to weep. She had lied so much and she could lie so easily. What could a lie matter when it could only do good? A lie, a lie, what was a lie? It was so easy to say yes. She saw Walter’s eyes melt and his arms outstretched towards her. She couldn’t say it; she didn’t know why, she just couldn’t. All she had gone through during these bitter weeks, Charlie and his unkindness, the cholera and all these people dying, the nuns, oddly enough even that funny, drunken little Waddington, it all seemed to have changed her so that she did not know herself; though she was so deeply moved, some bystander in her soul seemed to watch her with terror and surprise. She had to tell the truth. It did not seem worth while to lie. Her thoughts wandered strangely: on a sudden she saw that dead beggar at the foot of the compound wall. Why should she think of him? She did not sob; the tears streamed down her face, quite easily, from wide eyes. At last she answered the question. He had asked her if he was the child’s father.

‘I don’t know,’ she said.

He gave the ghost of a chuckle. It made Kitty shudder.

‘It’s a bit awkward, isn’t it?’

His answer was characteristic, it was exactly what she would have expected him to say, but it made her heart sink. She wondered if he realised how hard it had been for her to tell the truth (at the same moment she recognised that it had not been in the least hard, but inevitable) and if he gave her credit for it. Her answer, I don’t know, I don’t know, hammered away in her head. It was impossible now to take it back. She got her handkerchief from her bag and dried her eyes. They did not speak. There was a syphon on the table by her bed and he got her a glass of water. He brought it to her and held the glass while she drank. She noticed how thin his hand was, it was a fine hand, slender, with long fingers, but now it was nothing but skin and bone; it trembled a little: he could control his face, but his hand betrayed him.

‘Don’t mind my crying,’ she said. ‘It’s nothing really; it’s only that I can’t help the water running out of my eyes.’

She drank the water and he put the glass back. He sat down on a chair and lit a cigarette. He gave a little sigh. Once or twice before she had heard him sigh like that and it always gave her a catch at the heart. Looking at him now, for he was staring with abstracted gaze out of the window, she was surprised that she had not noticed before how terribly thin he had grown during the last weeks. His temples were sunken and the bones of his face showed through the skin. His clothes hung on him loosely as though they had been made for a larger man. Through his sunburn his face had a greenish pallor. He looked exhausted. He was working too hard, sleeping little and eating nothing. In her own grief and perturbation she found room to pity him. It was cruel to think that she could do nothing for him.

He put his hand over his forehead, as though his head were aching, and she had a feeling that in his brain too those words hammered madly: I don’t know, I don’t know. It was strange that this moody, cold and shy man should have such a natural affection for very little babies; most men didn’t care much even for their own, but the nuns, touched and a little amused, had more than once spoken of it. If he felt like that about those funny little Chinese babies what would he have felt about his own? Kitty bit her lips in order to prevent herself from crying again.

He looked at his watch.

‘I’m afraid I must go back to the city. I have a great deal to do to-day ... Shall you be all right?’

‘Oh, yes. Don’t bother about me.’

‘I think you’d better not wait for me this evening. I may be very late and I’ll get something to eat from Colonel YĆ¼.’

‘Very well.’

He rose.

‘If I were you, I wouldn’t try to do anything to-day. You’d better take it easy. Is there anything you want before I go?’

‘No, thanks. I shall be quite all right.’

He paused for an instant, as though he were undecided, and then, abruptly and without looking at her, took his hat and walked out of the room. She heard him go through the compound. She felt terribly alone. There was no need for self-restraint now and gave herself up to a passion of tears.