The Painted Veil Chapter 68

A week went by. Kitty was sewing. The Mother Superior entered the room and sat down beside her. She gave Kitty’s work a shrewd glance.

‘You sew very well, my dear. It is a rare accomplishment for young women of your world nowadays.’

‘I owe it to my mother.’

‘I am sure that your mother will be very glad to see you again.’

Kitty looked up. There was that in the Mother Superior’s manner which prevented the remark from being taken as a casual politeness. She went on.

‘I allowed you to come here after the death of your dear husband because I thought occupation would distract your mind. I did not think you were fit at that moment to take the long journey to Hong-Kong by yourself, nor did I wish you to sit alone in your house with nothing to do but to remember your loss. But now eight days have passed. It is time for you to go.’

‘I don’t want to go, Mother. I want to stay here.’

‘There is nothing for you to stay for. You came to be with your husband. Your husband is dead. You are in a condition in which you will shortly need a care and attention which it is impossible for you to get here. It is your duty, my dear child, to do everything in your power for the welfare of the being that God has entrusted to your care.’

Kitty was silent for a moment. She looked down.

‘I was under the impression that I was of some use here. It has been a great pleasure to me to think that I was. I hoped that you would allow me to go on with my work till the epidemic had come to an end.’

‘We are all very grateful for what you have done for us,’ answered the Superior, with a slight smile, ‘but now that the epidemic is waning the risk of coming here is not so great and I am expecting two sisters from Canton. They should be here very shortly and when they arrive I do not think that I shall be able to make any use of your services.’

Kitty’s heart sank. The Mother Superior’s tone admitted of no reply; she knew her well enough to know that she would be insensible to entreaty. That she found it necessary to reason with Kitty had brought into her voice a note, if hardly of irritation, at leat of the peremptoriness which might lead to it.

‘Mr. Waddington was good enough to ask my advice.’

‘I wish he could have minded his own business,’ interrupted Kitty.

‘If he hadn’t I should all the same have felt obliged to give it to him,’ said the Mother Superior gently. ‘At the present moment your place is not here, but with your mother. Mr. Waddington has arranged with Colonel Yü to give you a strong escort so that you will be perfectly safe on the journey, and he has arranged for bearers and coolies. The amah will go with you and arrangements will be made at the cities you pass through. In fact, everything possible for your comfort has been done.’

Kitty’s lips tightened. She thought that they might at least have consulted her in a matter which only concerned herself. She had to exercise some self-control in order not to answer sharply.

‘And when am I to start?’

The Mother Superior remained quite placid.

‘The sooner you can get back to Hong-Kong and then sail to England the better, my dear child. We thought you would like to start at dawn the day after to-morrow.’

‘So soon.’

Kitty felt a little inclined to cry. But it was true enough; she had no place there.

‘You all seem in a great hurry to be rid of me,’ she said ruefully.

Kitty was conscious of a relaxation in the Superior’s demeanour. She saw that Kitty was prepared to yield and unconsciously she assumed a more gracious tone. Kitty’s sense of humour was acute and her eyes twinkled as she reflected that even the saints liked to have their own way.

‘Don’t think that I fail to appreciate the goodness of your heart, my dear child, and the admirable charity which makes you unwilling to abandon your self-imposed duties.’

Kitty stared straight in front of her. She faintly shrugged her shoulders. She knew that she could ascribe to herself no such exalted virtues. She wanted to stay because she had nowhere else to go. It was a curious sensation this, that nobody in the world cared two straws whether she was alive or dead.

‘I cannot understand that you should be reluctant to go home,’ pursued the Superior amiably. ‘There are many foreigners in this country who would give a great deal to have your chance!’

‘But not you, Mother?’

‘Oh, with us it is different, my dear child. When we come here we know that we have left our homes for ever.’

Out of her own wounded feelings emerged the desire in Kitty’s mind, malicious perhaps, to seek the joint in the armour of faith which rendered the nuns so aloofly immune to all the natural feelings. She wanted to see whether there was left in the Superior any of the weakness of humanity.

‘I should have thought that sometimes it was hard never to see again those that are dear to you and the scenes amid which you were brought up.’

The Mother Superior hesitated for a moment, but Kitty watching her could see no change in the serenity of her beautiful and austere face.

‘It is hard for my mother who is old now, for I am her only daughter and she would dearly like to see me once more before she dies. I wish I could give her that joy. But it cannot be and we shall wait till we can meet in paradise.’

‘All the same, when one thinks of those to whom one is so dear, it must be difficult not to ask oneself if one was right in cutting oneself off from them.’

‘Are you asking me if I have ever regretted the step I took?’ On a sudden the Mother Superior’s face grew radiant. ‘Never, never. I have exchanged a life that was trivial and worthless for one of sacrifice and prayer.’

There was a brief silence and then the Mother Superior, assuming a lighter manner, smiled.

‘I am going to ask you to take a little parcel and post it for me when you get to Marseilles. I do not wish to entrust it to the Chinese post-office. I will fetch it at once.’

‘You can give it to me to-morrow,’ said Kitty.

‘You will be too busy to come here to-morrow, my dear. It will be more convenient for you to bid us farewell tonight.’

She rose and with the easy dignity which her voluminous habit could not conceal left the room. In a moment Sister St. Joseph came in. She was come to say good-bye. She hoped that Kitty would have a pleasant journey; she would be quite safe, for Colonel Yü was sending a strong escort with her; and the sisters constantly did the journey alone and no harm came to them. And did she like the sea? Mon Dieu, how ill she was when there was a storm in the Indian ocean, Madame her mother would be pleased to see her daughter, and she must take care of herself; after all she had another little soul in her care now, and they would all pray for her; she would pray constantly for her and the dear little baby and for the soul of the poor, brave doctor. She was voluble, kindly, and affectionate; and yet Kitty was deeply conscious that for Sister St. Joseph (her gaze intent on eternity) she was but a wraith without body or substance. She had a wild impulse to seize the stout, good-natured nun by the shoulders and shake her, crying: ‘Don’t you know that I’m a human being, unhappy and alone, and I want comfort and sympathy and encouragement; oh, can’t you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion; not the Christian compassion that you have for all suffering things, but just human compassion for me?’ The thought brought a smile to Kitty’s lips: how very surprised Sister St. Joseph would be! She would certainly be convinced of what now she only suspected, that all English people were mad.

‘Fortunately I am a very good sailor,’ Kitty answered. ‘I’ve never been sea-sick yet.’

The Mother Superior returned with a small, neat parcel.

‘They’re handkerchiefs that I’ve had made for the nameday of my mother,’ she said. ‘The initials have been embroidered by our young girls.’

Sister St. Joseph suggested that Kitty would like to see how beautifully the work was done and the Mother Superior with an indulgent, deprecating smile untied the parcel. The handkerchiefs were of very fine lawn and the initials embroidered in a complicated cypher were surmounted by a crown of strawberry leaves. When Kitty had properly admired the workmanship the handkerchiefs were wrapped up again and the parcel handed to her. Sister St. Joseph, with an ‘eh bien, Madame, je vous quitte’ and a repetition of her polite and impersonal salutations, went away. Kitty realised that this was the moment to take her leave of the Superior. She thanked her for her kindness to her. They walked together along the bare, white-washed corridors.

‘Would it be asking too much of you to register the parcel when you arrive at Marseilles?’ said the Superior.

‘Of course I’ll do that,’ said Kitty.

She glanced at the address. The name seemed very grand, but the place mentioned attracted her attention.

‘But that is one of the châteaux I’ve seen. I was motoring with friends in France.’

‘It is very possible,’ said the Mother Superior. ‘Strangers are permitted to view it on two days a week.’

‘I think if I had ever lived in such a beautiful place I should never have had the courage to leave it.’

‘It is of Course a historical monument. It is scarcely intimate. If I regretted anything it would not be that, but the little château that we lived in when I was a child. It was in the Pyrenees. I was born within sound of the sea. I do not deny that sometimes I should like to hear the waves beating against the rocks.’

Kitty had an idea that the Mother Superior, divining her thought and the reason for her remarks, was slyly making fun of her. But they reached the little, unpretentious door of the convent. To Kitty’s surprise the Mother Superior took her in her arms and kissed her. The pressure of her pale lips on Kitty’s cheeks, she kissed her first on one side and then on the other, was so unexpected that it made her flush and inclined to cry.

‘Good-bye, God bless you, my dear child.’ She held her for a moment in her arms. ‘Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.’

The convent door closed for the last time behind her.