The Painted Veil Chapter 58

Two or three days later Waddington fetched Kitty from the convent (for her restlessness had induced her immediately to resume her work) and took her to drink the promised cup of tea with his mistress. Kitty had on more than one occasion dined at Waddington’s house. It was a square, white and pretentious building, such as the Customs build for their officials all over China; and the dining-room in which they ate, the drawing-room in which they sat, were furnished with prim and solid furniture. They had the appearance of being partly offices and partly hotel; there was nothing homelike in them and you understood that these houses were merely places of haphazard sojourn to their successive occupants. It would never have occurred to you that on an upper floor mystery and perhaps romance dwelt shrouded. They ascended a flight of stairs and Waddington opened a door. Kitty went into a large, bare room with whitewashed walls on which hung scrolls in various calligraphies. At a square table, on a stiff arm-chair, both of blackwood and heavily carved, sat the Manchu. She rose as Kitty and Waddington entered, but made no step forward.

‘Here she is,’ said Waddington, and added something in Chinese.

Kitty shook hands with her. She was slim in her long embroidered gown and somewhat taller than Kitty, used to the Southern people, had expected. She wore a jacket of pale green silk with tight sleeves that came over her wrists and on her black hair, elaborately dressed, was the head-dress of the Manchu women. Her face was coated with powder and her cheeks from the eyes to the mouth heavily rouged; her plucked eyebrows were a thin dark line and her mouth was scarlet. From this mask her black, slightly slanting, large eyes burned like lakes of liquid jet. She seemed more like an idol than a woman. Her movements were slow and assured. Kitty had the impression that she was slightly shy but very curious. She nodded her head two or three times, looking at Kitty, while Waddington spoke of her. Kitty noticed her hands; they were preternaturally long, very slender, of the colour of ivory; and the exquisite nails were painted. Kitty thought she had never seen anything so lovely as those languid and elegant hands. They suggested the breeding of uncounted centuries.

She spoke a little, in a high voice, like the twittering of birds in an orchard, and Waddington, translating, told Kitty that she was glad to see her; how old was she and how many children had she got? They sat down on three straight chairs at the square table and a boy brought in bowls of tea, pale and scented with jasmine. The Manchu lady handed Kitty a green tin of Three Castles cigarettes. Beside the table and the chairs the room contained little furniture; there was a wide pallet bed on which was an embroidered head rest and two sandalwood chests.

‘What does she do with herself all day long?’ asked Kitty.

‘She paints a little and sometimes she writes a poem. But she mostly sits. She smokes, but only in moderation, which is fortunate, since one of my duties is to prevent the traffic in opium.’

‘Do you smoke?’ asked Kitty.

‘Seldom. To tell you the truth I much prefer whisky.’

There was in the room a faintly acrid smell; it was not unpleasant, but peculiar and exotic.

‘Tell her that I am sorry I cannot talk to her. I am sure we have many things to say to one another.’

When this was translated to the Manchu she gave Kitty a quick glance in which there was the hint of a smile. She was impressive as she sat, without embarrassment, in her beautiful clothes; and from the painted face the eyes looked out wary, self-possessed and unfathomable. She was unreal, like a picture, and yet had an elegance which made Kitty feel all thumbs. Kitty had never paid anything but passing and somewhat contemptuous attention to the China in which fate had thrown her. It was not done in her set. Now she seemed on a sudden to have an inkling of something remote and mysterious. Here was the East, immemorial, dark and inscrutable. The beliefs and the ideals of the West seemed crude beside ideals and beliefs of which in this exquisite creature she seemed to catch a fugitive glimpse. Here was a different life, lived on a different plane. Kitty felt strangely that the sight of this idol, with her painted face and slanting, wary eyes, made the efforts and the pains of the everyday world she knew slightly absurd. That coloured mask seemed to hide the secret of an abundant profound and significant experience: those long, delicate hands with their tapering fingers held the key of riddles undivined.

‘What does she think about all day long?’ asked Kitty.

‘Nothing,’ smiled Waddington.

‘She’s wonderful. Tell her I’ve never seen such beautiful hands. I wonder what she sees in you.’

Waddington, smiling, translated the question.

‘She says I’m good.’

‘As if a woman ever loved a man for his virtue,’ Kitty mocked.

The Manchu laughed but once. This was when Kitty, for something to say, expressed admiration of a jade bracelet she wore. She took it off and Kitty, trying to put it on, found, though her hands were small enough, that it would not pass over her knuckles. Then the Manchu burst into childlike laughter. She said something to Waddington and called for an amah. She gave her an instruction and the amah in a moment brought in a pair of very beautiful Manchu shoes.

‘She wants to give you these if you can wear them,’ said Waddington. ‘You’ll find they make quite good bedroom slippers.’

‘They fit me perfectly,’ said Kitty, not without satisfaction.

But she noticed a roguish smile on Waddington’s face.

‘Are they too big for her?’ she asked quickly.


Kitty laughed and when Waddington translated, the Manchu and the amah laughed also.

When Kitty and Waddington, a little later, were walking up the hill together, she turned to him with a friendly smile.

‘You did not tell me that you had a great affection for her.’

‘What makes you think I have?’

‘I saw it in your eyes. It’s strange, it must be like loving a phantom or a dream. Men are incalculable; I thought you were like everybody else and now I feel that I don’t know the first thing about you.’

As they reached the bungalow he asked her abruptly:

‘Why did you want to see her?’

Kitty hesitated for a moment before answering.

‘I’m looking for something and I don’t quite know what it is. But I know that it’s very important for me to know it, and if I did it would make all the difference. Perhaps the nuns know it; when I’m with them I feel that they hold a secret which they will not share with me. I don’t know why it came into my head that if I saw this Manchu woman I should have an inkling of what I am looking for. Perhaps she would tell me if she could.’

‘What makes you think she knows it?’

Kitty gave him a sidelong glance, but did not answer. Instead she asked him a question.

‘Do you know it?’

He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

‘Tao. Some of us look for the Way in opium and some in God, some of us in whisky and some in love. It is all the same Way and it leads nowhither.’