The Painted Veil Chapter 57

The night was sultry and Kitty sat at the window looking at the fantastic roofs, dark against the starlight, of the Chinese temple, when at last Walter came in. Her eyes were heavy with weeping, but she was composed. Notwithstanding all there was to harass her she felt, perhaps only from exhaustion, strangely at peace.

‘I thought you’d be already in bed,’ said Walter as he came in.

‘I wasn’t sleepy. I thought it cooler to sit up. Have you had any dinner?’

‘All I want.’

He walked up and down the long room and she saw that he had something to say to her. She knew that he was embarrassed. Without concern she waited for him to summon up his resolution. He began abruptly.

‘I’ve been thinking about what you told me this afternoon. It seems to me that it would be better if you went away. I have spoken to Colonel YĆ¼ and he will give you an escort. You could take the amah with you. You will be quite safe.’

‘Where is there for me to go?’

‘You can go to your mother’s.’

‘Do you think she would be pleased to see me?’

He paused for a moment, hesitating, as though for reflection.

‘Then you can go to Hong-Kong.’

‘What should I do there?’

‘You will need a good deal of care and attention. I don’t think it’s fair to ask you to stay here.’

She could not prevent the smile, not only of bitterness but of frank amusement, that crossed her face. She gave him a glance and very nearly laughed.

‘I don’t know why you should be so anxious about my health.’

He came over to the window and stood looking out at the night. There had never been so many stars in the unclouded sky.

‘This isn’t the place for a woman in your condition.’

She looked at him, white in his thin clothes against the darkness; there was something sinister in his fine profile, and yet oddly enough at this moment it excited in her no fear.

‘When you insisted on my coming here did you want it to kill me?’ she asked suddenly.

He was so long answering that she thought he had refused to hear.

‘At first.’

She gave a little shudder, for it was the first time he had admitted his intention. But she bore him no ill will for it. Her feeling surprised herself; there was a certain admiration in it and a faint amusement. She did not quite know why, but suddenly thinking of Charlie Townsend he seemed to her an abject fool.

‘It was a terrible risk you were taking,’ she answered. ‘With your sensitive conscience I wonder if you could ever have forgiven yourself if I had died.’

‘Well, you haven’t. You’ve thrived on it.’

‘I’ve never felt better in my life.’

She had an instinct to throw herself on the mercy of his humour. After all they had gone through, when they were living amid these scenes of horror and desolation, it seemed inept to attach importance to the ridiculous act of fornication. When death stood round the comer, taking lives like a gardener digging up potatoes, it was foolishness to care what dirty things this person or that did with his body. If she could only make him realise how little Charlie meant to her, so that now already she had difficulty in calling up his features to her imagination, and how entirely the love of him had passed out of her heart! Because she had no feeling for Townsend the various acts she had committed with him had lost their significance. She had regained her heart and what she had given of her body seemed not to matter a rap. She was inclined to say to Walter: ‘Look here, don’t you think we’ve been silly long enough? We’ve sulked with one another like children. Why can’t we kiss and be friends. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be friends just because we’re not lovers.’

He stood very still and the lamplight made the pallor of his impassive face startling. She did not trust him; if she said the wrong thing he would turn upon her with such an icy sternness. She knew by now his extreme sensitiveness, for which his acid irony was a protection, and how quickly he could close his heart if his feelings were hurt. She had a moment’s irritation at his stupidity. Surely what troubled him most was the wound to his vanity: she vaguely realised that this is the hardest of all wounds to heal. It was singular that men attached so much importance to their wives’ faithfulness; when first she had gone with Charlie she had expected to feel quite different, a changed woman; but she had seemed to herself exactly the same, she had experienced only wellbeing and a greater vitality. She wished now that she had been able to tell Walter that the child was his; the lie would have meant so little to her, and the assurance would have been so great a comfort to him. And after all it might not be a lie: it was funny, that something in her heart which had prevented her from giving herself the benefit of the doubt. How silly men were! Their part in procreation was so unimportant; it was the woman who carried the child through long months of uneasiness and bore it with pain, and yet a man because of his momentary connection made such preposterous claims. Why should that make any difference to him in his feeling towards the child? Then Kitty’s thoughts wandered to the child which she herself would bear; she thought of it not with emotion nor with a passion of maternity, but with an idle curiosity.

‘I daresay you’d like to think it over a little,’ said Walter, breaking the long silence.

‘Think what?’

He turned a little as if he were surprised.

‘About when you want to go?’

‘But I don’t want to go.’

‘Why not?’

‘I like my work at the convent. I think I’m making myself useful. I should prefer to stay as long as you do.’

‘I think I should tell you that in your present condition you are probably more liable to catch any infection that happens to be about.’

‘I like the discreet way you put it,’ she smiled ironically.

‘You’re not staying for my sake?’

She hesitated. He little knew that now the strongest emotion he excited in her, and the most unexpected, was pity.

‘No. You don’t love me. I often think I rather bore you.’

‘I shouldn’t have thought you were the sort of person to put yourself out for a few stuffy nuns and a parcel of Chinese brats.’

Her lips outlined a smile.

‘I think it’s rather unfair to despise me so much because you made such a mistake in your judgment of me. It’s not my fault that you were such an ass.’

‘If you’re determined to stay you are of course at liberty to do so.’

‘I’m sorry I can’t give you the opportunity of being magnanimous.’ She found it strangely hard to be quite serious with him. ‘As a matter of fact you’re quite right, it’s not only for the orphans that I’m staying: you see, I’m in the peculiar position that I haven’t got a soul in the world that I can go to. I know no one who wouldn’t think me a nuisance. I know no one who cares a row of pins if I’m alive or dead.’

He frowned. But he did not frown in anger.

‘We have made a dreadful hash of things, haven’t we?’ he said.

‘Do you still want to divorce me? I don’t think I care any more.’

‘You must know that by bringing you here I’ve condoned the offence.’

‘I didn’t know. You see, I haven’t made a study of infidelity. What are we going to do then when we leave here? Are we going on living together?’

‘Oh, don’t you think we can let the future take care of itself?’

There was the weariness of death in his voice.