The Painted Veil Chapter 63

Suddenly, walking along a blank long wall they came to a gateway flanked by sentry boxes, and the bearers set down the chairs. Waddington hurried up to Kitty. She had already jumped out. The officer knocked loudly on the door and shouted. A postern was opened and they passed into a courtyard. It was large and square. Huddled against the walls, under the eaves of the overhanging roofs, soldiers wrapped in their blankets were lying in huddled groups. They stopped for a moment while the officer spoke to a man who might have been a sergeant on guard. He turned and said something to Waddington.

‘He’s still alive,’ said Waddington in a low voice. ‘Take care how you walk.’

Still preceded by the men with lanterns they made their way across the yard, up some steps, through a great doorway and then down into another wide court. On one side of this was a long chamber with lights in it; the lights within shining through the rice paper silhouetted the elaborate pattern of the lattice. The lantern-bearers led them across the yard towards this room and at the door the officer knocked. It was opened immediately and the officer with a glance at Kitty stepped back.

‘Will you walk in,’ said Waddington.

It was a long, low room and the smoky lamps that lit it made the gloom ominous. Three or four orderlies stood about. On a pallet against the wall opposite the door a man was lying huddled under a blanket. An officer was standing motionless at the foot.

Kitty hurried up and leaned over the pallet. Walter lay with his eyes closed and in that sombre light his face had the greyness of death. He was horribly still.

‘Walter, Walter,’ she gasped, in a low, terrified tone.

There was a slight movement in the body, or the shadow of a movement,; it was so slight it was like a breath of air which you cannot feel and yet for an instant ruffles the surface of still water.

‘Walter, Walter, speak to me.’

The eyes were opened slowly, as though it were an infinite effort to raise those heavy lids, but he did not look, he stared at the wall a few inches from his face. He spoke; his voice, low and weak, had the hint of a smile in it.

‘This is a pretty kettle of fish,’ he said.

Kitty dared not breathe. He made no further sound, no beginning of a gesture, but his eyes, those dark, cold eyes of his (seeing now what mysteries?) stared at the whitewashed wall. Kitty raised herself to her feet. With haggard gaze she faced the man who stood there.

‘Surely something can be done. You’re not going to stand there and do nothing?’

She clasped her hands. Waddington spoke to the officer who stood at the end of the bed.

‘I’m afraid they’ve done everything that was possible. The regimental surgeon has been treating him. Your husband has trained him and he’s done all that your husband could do himself.’

‘Is that the surgeon?’

‘No, that is Colonel Yü. He’s never left your husband’s side.’

Distracted, Kitty gave him a glance. He was a tallish man, but stockily built, and he seemed ill at ease in his khaki uniform. He was looking at Walter and she saw that his eyes were wet with tears. It gave her a pang. Why should that man with his yellow, flat face have tears in his eyes? It exasperated her.

‘It’s awful to be able to do nothing.’

‘At least he’s not in pain any more,’ said Waddington.

She leaned once more over her husband. Those ghastly eyes of his still stared vacantly in front of him. She could not tell if he saw with them. She did not know whether he had heard what was said. She put her lips close to his ears.

‘Walter, isn’t there something we can do?’

She thought that there must be some drug they could give him which would stay the dreadful ebbing of his life. Now that her eyes were more accustomed to the dimness she saw with horror that his face had fallen. She would hardly have recognised him. It was unthinkable that in a few short hours he should look like another man; he hardly looked like a man at all; he looked like death.

She thought that he was making an effort to speak. She put her ear close.

‘Don’t fuss. I’ve had a rough passage, but I’m all right now.’

Kitty waited for a moment, but he was silent. His immobility rent her heart with anguish; it was terrifying that he should lie so still. He seemed prepared already for the stillness of the grave. Some one, the surgeon or a dresser, came forward and with a gesture motioned her aside; he leaned over the dying man and with a dirty rag wet his lips. Kitty stood up once more and turned to Waddington despairingly.

‘Is there no hope at all?’ she whispered.

He shook his head.

‘How much longer can he live?’

‘No one can tell. An hour perhaps.’

Kitty looked round the bare chamber and her eyes rested for an instant on the substantial form of Colonel Yü.

‘Can I be left alone with him for a little while?’ she asked. ‘Only for a minute.’

‘Certainly, if you wish it.’

Waddington stepped over to the Colonel and spoke to him. The Colonel gave a little bow and then in a low tone an order.

‘We shall wait on the steps,’ said Waddington as they trooped out. ‘You have only to call.’

Now that the incredible had overwhelmed her consciousness, like a drug coursing through her veins, and she realised that Walter was going to die she had but one thought, and that was to make his end easier for him by dragging from his soul the rancour which poisoned it. If he could die at peace with her it seemed to her that he would die at peace with himself. She thought now not of herself at all but only of him.

‘Walter, I beseech you to forgive me,’ she said, leaning over him. For fear that he could not bear the pressure she took care not to touch him. ‘I’m so desperately sorry for the wrong I did you. I so bitterly regret it.’

He said nothing. He did not seem to hear. She was obliged to insist. It seemed to her strangely that his soul was a fluttering moth and its wings were heavy with hatred.


A shadow passed over his wan and sunken face. It was less than a movement, and yet it gave all the effect of a terrifying convulsion. She had never used that word to him before. Perhaps in his dying brain there passed the thought, confused and difficultly grasped, that he had only heard her use it, a commonplace of her vocabulary, to dogs and babies and motor-cars. Then something horrible occurred. She clenched her hands, trying with all her might to control herself, for she saw two tears run slowly down his wasted cheeks.

‘Oh, my precious, my dear, if you ever loved me – I know you loved me and I was hateful – I beg you to forgive me. I’ve no chance now to show my repentance. Have mercy on me. I beseech you to forgive.’

She stopped. She looked at him, all breathless, waiting passionately for a reply. She saw that he tried to speak. Her heart gave a great bound. It seemed to her that it would be in a manner a reparation for the suffering she had caused him if at this last moment she could effect his deliverance from that load of bitterness. His lips moved. He did not look at her. His eyes stared unseeing at the white-washed wall. She leaned over him so that she might hear. But he spoke quite clearly.

‘The dog it was that died.’

She stayed as still as though she were turned to stone. She could not understand and gazed at him in terrified perplexity. It was meaningless. Delirium. He had not understood a word she said.

It was impossible to be so still and yet to live. She stared and stared. His eyes were open. She could not tell if he breathed. She began to grow frightened.

‘Walter,’ she whispered. ‘Walter.’

At last, suddenly, she raised herself. A sudden fear seized her. She turned and went to the door.

‘Will you come, please. He doesn’t seem to …’

They stepped in. The Chinese surgeon went up to the bed. He had an electric torch in his hand and he lit it and looked at Walter’s eyes. Then he closed them. He said something in Chinese. Waddington put his arm round Kitty.

‘I’m afraid he’s dead.’

Kitty gave a deep sigh. A few tears fell from her eyes. She felt dazed rather than overcome. The Chinese stood about, round the bed, helplessly, as though they did not quite know what to do next. Waddington was silent. In a minute the Chinese began to speak in a low tone among themselves.

‘You’d better let me take you back to the bungalow,’ said Waddington. ‘He’ll be brought there.’

Kitty passed her hand wearily across her forehead. She went up to the pallet bed and leaned over it. She kissed Walter gently on the lips. She was not crying now.

‘I’m sorry to give you so much trouble.’

The officers saluted as she passed and she gravely bowed. They walked back across the courtyard and got into their chairs. She saw Waddington light a cigarette. A little smoke lost in the air, that was the life of man.