The Painted Veil Chapter 62

But she was awakened by a loud knocking. At first, since it was interwoven with the dream from which she was aroused, she could not attach the sound to reality. The knocking went on and she was conscious that it must be at the gateway of the compound. It was quite dark. She had a watch with phosphorised hands and saw that it was half past two. It must be Walter coming back – how late he was – and he could not awake the boy. The knocking went on, louder and louder, and in the silence of the night it was really not a little alarming. The knocking stopped and she heard the withdrawing of the heavy bolt. Walter had never come back so late. Poor thing, he must be tired out! She hoped he would have the sense to go straight to bed instead of working as usual in that laboratory of his.

There was a sound of voices, and people came into the compound. That was strange, for Walter coming home late, in order not to disturb her, took pains to be quiet. Two or three persons ran swiftly up the wooden steps and came into the room next door. Kitty was a little frightened. At the back of her mind was always the fear of an anti-foreign riot. Had something happened? Her heart began to beat quickly. But before she had time to put her vague apprehension into shape some one walked across the room and knocked at her door.

‘Mrs. Fane.’

She recognised Waddington’s voice.

‘Yes. What is it?’

‘Will you get up at once. I have something to say to you.’

She rose and put on a dressing-gown. She unlocked the door and opened it. Her glance took in Waddington in a pair of Chinese trousers and a pongee coat, the houseboy holding a hurricane lamp, and a little further back three Chinese soldiers in khaki. She started as she saw the consternation on Waddington’s face; his head was tousled as though he had just jumped out of bed.

‘What is the matter?’ she gasped.

‘You must keep calm. There’s not a moment to lose. Put on your clothes at once and come with me.’

‘But what is it? Has something happened in the city?’

The sight of the soldiers suggested to her at once that there had been an outbreak and they were come to protect her.

‘Your husband’s been taken ill. We want you to come at once.’

‘Walter?’ she cried.

‘You mustn’t be upset. I don’t exactly know what’s the matter. Colonel Yü sent this officer to me and asked me to bring you to the Yamen at once.’

Kitty stared at him for a moment, she felt a sudden cold in her heart, and then she turned.

‘I shall be ready in two minutes.’

‘I came just as I was,’ he answered. ‘I was asleep, I just put on a coat and some shoes.’

She did not hear what he said. She dressed by the light of the stars, taking the first things that came to hand; her fingers on a sudden were so clumsy that it seemed to take her an age to find the little clasps that closed her dress. She put round her shoulders the Cantonese shawl she had worn in the evening.

‘I haven’t put a hat on. There’s no need, is there?’


The boy held the lantern in front of them and they hurried down the steps and out of the compound gate.

‘Take care you don’t fall,’ said Waddington. ‘You’d better hang on to my arm.’

The soldiers followed immediately behind them.

‘Colonel Yü has sent chairs. They’re waiting on the other side of the river.’

They walked quickly down the hill. Kitty could not bring herself to utter the question that trembled so horribly on her lips. She was mortally afraid of the answer. They came to the bank and there, with a thread of light at the bow, a sampan was waiting for them.

‘Is it cholera?’ she said then.

‘I’m afraid so.’

She gave a little cry and stopped short.

‘I think you ought to come as quickly as you can.’ He gave her his hand to help her into the boat. The passage was short and the river almost stagnant; they stood in a bunch at the bow, while a woman with a child tied on her hip with one oar impelled the sampan across.

‘He was taken ill this afternoon, the afternoon of yesterday that is,’ said Waddington.

‘Why wasn’t I sent for at once?’

Although there was no reason for it they spoke in whispers. In the darkness Kitty could only feel how intense was her companion’s anxiety.

‘Colonel Yü wanted to, but he wouldn’t let him. Colonel Yü has been with him all the time.’

‘He ought to have sent for me all the same. It’s heartless.’

‘Your husband knew that you had never seen any one with cholera. It’s a terrible and revolting sight. He didn’t want you to see it.’

‘After all he is my husband,’ she said in a choking voice.

Waddington made no reply.

‘Why am I allowed to come now?’

Waddington put his hand on her arm.

‘My dear, you must be very brave. You must be prepared for the worst.’

She gave a wail of anguish and turned away a little, for she saw that the three Chinese soldiers were looking at her. She had a sudden strange glimpse of the whites of their eyes.

‘Is he dying?’

‘I only know the message Colonel Yü gave to this officer who came and fetched me. As far as I can judge collapse has set in.’

‘Is there no hope at all?’

‘I’m dreadfully sorry, I’m afraid that if we don’t get there quickly we shan’t find him alive.’

She shuddered. The tears began to stream down her cheeks.

‘You see, he’s been overworking, he has no powers of resistance.’

She withdrew from the pressure of his arm with a gesture of irritation. It exasperated her that he should talk in that low, anguished voice.

They reached the side and two men, Chinese coolies, standing on the bank helped her to step on shore. The chairs were waiting. As she got into hers Waddington said to her:

‘Try and keep a tight hold on your nerves. You’ll want all your self-control.’

‘Tell the bearers to make haste.’

‘They have orders to go as fast as they can.’

The officer, already in his chair, passed by and as he passed called out to Kitty’s bearers. They raised the chair smartly, arranged the poles on their shoulders, and at a swift pace set off. Waddington followed close behind. They took the hill at a run, a man with a lantern going before each chair, and at the water-gate the gate-keeper was standing with a torch. The officer shouted to him as they approached and he flung open one side of the gate to let them through. He uttered some sort of interjection as they passed and the bearers called back. In the dead of the night those guttural sounds in a strange language were mysterious and alarming. They slithered up the wet and slippery cobbles of the alley and one of the officer’s bearers stumbled. Kitty heard the officer’s voice raised in anger, the shrill retort of the bearer, and then the chair in front hurried on again. The streets were narrow and tortuous. Here in the city was deep night. It was a city of the dead. They hastened along a narrow lane, turned a corner, and then at a run took a flight of steps; the bearers were beginning to blow hard; they walked with long, rapid strides, in silence; one took out a ragged handkerchief and as he walked wiped from his forehead the sweat that ran down into his eyes; they wound this way and that so that it might have been a maze through which they sped; in the shadow of the shuttered shops sometimes a form seemed to be lying, but you did not know whether it was a man who slept to awake at dawn or a man who slept to awake never; the narrow streets were ghostly in their silent emptiness and when on a sudden a dog barked loudly it sent a shock of terror through Kitty’s tortured nerves. She did not know where they went. The way seemed endless. Could they not go faster? Faster. Faster. The time was going and any moment it might be too late.