The Painted Veil Chapter 59

Kitty fell again into the comfortable routine of her work and though in the early morning feeling far from well she had spirit enough not to let it discompose her. She was astonished at the interest the nuns took in her: sisters who, when she saw them in a corridor, had done no more than bid her good morning now on a flimsy pretext came into the room in which she was occupied and looked at her, chatting a little, with a sweet and childlike excitement. Sister St. Joseph told her with a repetition which was sometimes tedious how she had been saying to herself for days past: ‘Now, I wonder,’ or: ‘I shouldn’t be surprised’; and then, when Kitty fainted: ‘There can be no doubt, it jumps to the eyes.’ She told Kitty long stories of her sister-in-law’s confinements, which but for Kitty’s quick sense of humour would have been not a little alarming. Sister St. Joseph combined in a pleasant fashion the realistic outlook of her upbringing (a river wound through the meadows of her father’s farm and the poplars that stood on its bank trembled in the faintest breeze) with a charming intimacy with religious things. One day, firmly convinced that a heretic could know nothing of such matters, she told Kitty of the Annunciation.

‘I can never read those lines in the Holy Writ without weeping,’ she said. ‘I do not know why, but it gives me such a funny feeling.’

And then in French, in words that to Kitty sounded unfamiliar and in their precision a trifle cold, she quoted:

‘And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.’

The mystery of birth blew through the convent like a little fitful wind playing among the white blossoms of an orchard. The thought that Kitty was with child disturbed and excited those sterile women. She frightened them a little now and fascinated them. They looked upon the physical side of her condition with robust common sense, for they were the daughters of peasants and fishermen; but in their childlike hearts was awe. They were troubled by the thought of her burden and yet happy and strangely exalted. Sister St. Joseph told her that they all prayed for her, and Sister St. Martin had said what a pity it was she was not a Catholic; but the Mother Superior had reproved her; she said that it was possible to be a good woman – une brave femme, she put it– even though one was Protestant and le Bon Dieu would in some way or other arraneg all that.

Kitty was both touched and diverted by the interest she aroused, but surprised beyond measure when she found that even the Mother Superior, so austere in her saintliness, treated her with a new complaisance. She had always been kind to Kitty, but in a remote fashion; now she used her with a tenderness in which there was something maternal. Her voice had in it a new and gentle note and in her eyes was a sudden playfulness as though Kitty were a child who had done a clever and amusing thing. It was oddly moving. Her soul was like a calm, grey sea rolling majestically, awe-inspiring in its sombre greatness, and then suddenly a ray of sunshine made it alert, friendly and gay. Often now in the evening she would come and sit with Kitty.

‘I must take care that you do not tire yourself, mon enfant,’ she said, making a transparent excuse to herself, ‘or Dr. Fane will never forgive me. Oh, this British self-control! There he is delighted beyond measure and when you speak to him of it he becomes quite pale.’

She took Kitty’s hand and patted it affectionately.

‘Dr. Fane told me that he wished you to go away, but you would not because you could not bear to leave us. That was kind of you, my dear child, and I want you to know that we appreciate the help you have been to us. But I think that you did not want to leave him either, and that is better, for your place is by his side, and he needs you. Ah, I do not know what we should have done without that admirable man.’

‘I am glad to think that he has been able to do something for you,’ said Kitty.

‘You must love him with all your heart, my dear. He is a saint.’

Kitty smiled and in her heart sighed. There was only one thing she could do for Walter now and that she could not think how to. She wanted him to forgive her, not for her sake any more, but for his own; for she felt that this alone could give him peace of mind. It was useless to ask him for his forgiveness, and if he had a suspicion that she desired it for his good rather than hers his stubborn vanity would make him refuse at all costs (it was curious that his vanity now did not irritate her, it seemed natural and only made her sorrier for him); and the only chance was that some unexpected occurrence might throw him off his guard. She had an idea that he would welcome an uprush of emotion which would liberate him from his nightmare of resentment, but that, in his pathetic folly, he would fight when it came with all his might against it.

Was it not pitiful that men, tarrying so short a space in a world where there was so much pain, should thus torture themselves?