The Painted Veil Chapter 72

The Townsends lived on the Peak in a house with a wide view over the sea, and Charlie did not as a rule come up to luncheon, but on the day of Kitty’s arrival Dorothy (they were Kitty and Dorothy to one another by now) told her that if she felt up to seeing him he would like to come and bid her welcome. Kitty reflected that since she must see him she might just as well see him at once and she looked forward with grim amusement to the embarrassment she must cause him. She saw very well that the invitation to stay had arisen in his wife’s fancy and notwithstanding his own feelings he had immediately approved. Kitty knew how great his desire was always to do the right thing and to offer her a gracious hospitality was obviously very much the right thing. But he could hardly remember the last interview of theirs without mortification: to a man so vain as Townsend it must be galling like an ulcer that would not heal. She hoped that she had hurt him as much as he had hurt her. He must hate her now. She was glad to think that she did not hate, but only despised him. It gave her a sardonic satisfaction to reflect that whatever his feelings he would be obliged to make much of her. When she left his office that afternoon he must have hoped with all his heart that he would never set eyes on her again.

And now, sitting with Dorothy, she waited for him to come in. She was conscious of her delight in the sober luxury of the drawing-room. She sat in an armchair, there were lovely flowers here and there, on the walls were pleasing pictures; the room was shaded and cool, it was friendly and homelike. She remembered with a faint shudder the bare and empty parlour of the missionary’s bungalow; the rattan chairs and the kitchen table with its cotton cloth, the stained shelves with all those cheap editions of novels, and the little skimpy red curtains that had such a dusty look. Oh, it had been so uncomfortable! She supposed that Dorothy had never thought of that.

They heard a motor drive up, and Charlie strode into the room.

‘Am I late? I hope I haven’t kept you waiting. I had to see the Governor and I simply couldn’t get away.’

He went up to Kitty, and took both her hands.

‘I’m so very, very glad you’ve come here. I know Dorothy has told you that we want you to stay as long as ever you like and that we want you to look upon our house as your home. But I want to tell you so myself as well. If there’s anything in the world I can do for you I shall only be too happy.’ His eyes wore a charming expression of sincerity; she wondered if he saw the irony in hers. ‘I’m awfully stupid at saying some things and I don’t want to seem a clumsy fool, but I do want you to know how deeply I sympathise with you in your husband’s death. He was a thundering good chap, and he’ll be missed here more than I can say.’

‘Don’t, Charlie,’ said his wife. ‘I’m sure Kitty understands.... Here are the cocktails.’

Following the luxurious custom of the foreigners in China two boys in uniform came into the room with savouries and cocktails. Kitty refused.

‘Oh, you must have one,’ insisted Townsend in his breezy, cordial way. ‘It’ll do you good and I’m sure you haven’t had such a thing as a cocktail since you left Hong-Kong. Unless I’m very much mistaken you couldn’t get ice at Meitan-fu.’

‘You’re not mistaken,’ said Kitty.

For a moment she had a picture before her mind’s eye of that beggar with the tousled head in the blue rags through which you saw the emaciated limbs, who had lain dead against the compound wall.