The Painted Veil Chapter 71

When the boat docked at Hong-Kong, Kitty, who had been standing on deck to look at the coloured, gay and vivacious traffic of the river, went into her cabin to see that the amah had left nothing behind. She gave herself a look in the glass. She wore black, the nuns had dyed a dress for her, but not mourning; and the thought crossed her mind that the first thing she must do was to see to this. The habiliments of woe could not but serve as an effective disguise to her unexpected feelings. There was a knock on her cabin door. The amah opened it.

‘Mrs. Fane.’

Kitty turned round and saw a face which at the first moment she did not recognise. Then her heart gave a sudden quick beat and she flushed. It was Dorothy Townsend. Kitty so little expected to see her that she knew neither what to do nor what to say. But Mrs. Townsend came into the cabin and with an impulsive gesture took Kitty in her arms.

‘Oh, my dear, my dear, I’m so dreadfully sorry for you.’

Kitty allowed herself to be kissed. She was a little surprised at this effusiveness in a woman whom she had always thought cold and distant.

‘It’s very kind of you,’ murmured Kitty.

‘Come on deck. The amah will look after your things and my boys are here.’

She took Kitty’s hand and Kitty, allowing herself to be led, noticed that her good-natured, weather-beaten face bore an expression of real concern.

‘Your boat’s early, I very nearly didn’t get down in time,’ said Mrs. Townsend. ‘I couldn’t have borne it if I’d missed you.’

‘But you didn’t come to meet me?’ exclaimed Kitty.

‘Of course I did.’

‘But how did you know I was coming?’

‘Mr. Waddington sent me a telegram.’

Kitty turned away. She had a lump in her throat. It was funny that a little unexpected kindness should so affect her. She did not want to cry; she wished Dorothy Townsend would go away. But Dorothy took the hand that was hanging by Kitty’s side and pressed it. It embarrassed Kitty that this shy woman should be so demonstrative.

‘I want you to do me a great favour. Charlie and I want you to come and stay with us while you’re in Hong-Kong.’

Kitty snatched her hand away.

‘It’s awfully kind of you. I couldn’t possibly.’

‘But you must. You can’t go and live all by yourself in your own house. It would be dreadful for you. I’ve prepared everything. You shall have your own sitting-room. You can have your meals there if you don’t care to have them with us. We both want you to come.’

‘I wasn’t thinking of going to the house. I was going to get myself a room at the Hong-Kong Hotel. I couldn’t possibly put you to so much trouble.’

The suggestion had taken her by surprise. She was confused and vexed. If Charlie had had any sense of decency he would never have allowed his wife to make the invitation. She did not wish to be under an obligation to either of them.

‘Oh, but I couldn’t bear the idea of your living at a hotel. And you’d hate the Hong-Kong Hotel just now. With all those people about and the band playing jazz all the time. Please say you’ll come to us. I promise you that Charlie and I won’t bother you.’

‘I don’t know why you should be so kind to me.’ Kitty was getting a little short of excuses; she could not bring herself to utter a blunt and definite no. ‘I’m afraid I’m not very good company among strangers just now.’

‘But need we be strangers to you? Oh, I do so want not to be, I so want you to allow me to be your friend.’ Dorothy clasped her hands and her voice, her cool, deliberate and distinguished voice, was tremulous with tears. ‘I so awfully want you to come. You see, I want to make amends to you.’

Kitty did not understand. She did not know what amends Charlie’s wife owed her.

‘I’m afraid I didn’t very much like you at first. I thought you rather fast. You see, I’m old-fashioned and I suppose I’m intolerant.’

Kitty gave her a passing glance. What she meant was that at first she had thought Kitty vulgar. Though Kitty allowed no shadow of it to show on her face in her heart she laughed. Much she cared for what any one thought of her now!

‘And when I heard that you’d gone with your husband into the jaws of death, without a moment’s hesitation, I felt such a frightful cad. I felt so humiliated. You’ve been so wonderful, you’ve been so brave, you make all the rest of us look so dreadfully cheap and second-rate.’ Now the tears were pouring down her kind, homely face. ‘I can’t tell you how much I admire you and what a respect I have for you. I know I can do nothing to make up for your terrible loss, but I want you to know how deeply, how sincerely I feel for you. And if you’ll only allow me to do a little something for you it will be a privilege. Don’t bear me a grudge because I misjudged you. You’re heroic and I’m just a silly fool of a woman.’

Kitty looked down at the deck. She was very pale. She wished that Dorothy would not show such uncontrollable emotion. She was touched, it was true, but she could not help a slight feeling of impatience that this simple creature should believe such lies.

‘If you really mean that you’d like to have me, of course I shall be glad to come,’ she sighed.