The Painted Veil Chapter 73

They went in to luncheon. Charlie, sitting at the head of his table, easily took charge of the conversation. After those first few words of sympathy he treated Kitty, not as though she had just suffered a devastating experience, but rather as though she had come in from Shanghai for a change after an operation for appendicitis. She needed cheering and he was prepared to cheer her. The best way of making her feel at home was to treat her as one of the family. He was a tactful man. He began talking of the autumn race meeting, and the polo – by Jove, he would have to give up playing polo if he couldn’t get his weight down – and a chat he had had that morning with the Governor. He spoke of a party they had been to on the Admiral’s flag-ship, the state of affairs in Canton, and of the links at Lushan. In a few minutes Kitty felt that she might have been away for no longer than a weekend. It was incredible that over there, up country, six hundred miles away only (the distance from London to Edinburgh, wasn’t it?) men, women and children had been dying like flies. Soon she found herself asking about so and so who had broken a collar bone at polo and if Mrs. This had gone home or Mrs. That was playing in the tennis tournament. Charlie made his little jokes and she smiled at them. Dorothy with her faint air of superiority (which now included Kitty and so was no longer slightly offensive, but a bond of union rather) was gently ironic about various persons in the colony. Kitty began to feel more alert.

‘Why, she’s looking better already,’ said Charlie to his wife. ‘She was so pale before tiffin that I was quite startled; she’s really got some colour in her cheeks now.’

But while she took her part in the conversation, if not with gaiety (for she felt that neither Dorothy nor Charlie with his admirable sense of decorum would approve of that) at least with cheerfulness, Kitty observed her host. In all those weeks during which her fancy had been revengefully occupied with him she had built up in her mind a very vivid impression of him. His thick curling hair was a little too long and too carefully brushed, in order to hide the fact that it was greying there was too much oil on it; his face was too red, with its network of mauve veins on the cheeks, and his jowl was too massive: when he did not hold his head up to hide it you saw that he had a double chin; and there was something apelike in those bushy, grizzled eyebrows of his that vaguely disgusted her. He was heavy in his movements, and all the care he took in his diet and all his exercise did not prevent him from being fat; his bones were much too well covered and his joints had a middle-aged stiffness. His smart clothes, were a little tight for him and a little too young.

But when he came into the drawing-room before luncheon Kitty received quite a shock (this perhaps was why her pallor had been so marked), for she discovered that her imagination had played an odd trick on her: he did not in the least look as she had pictured him. She could hardly help laughing at herself. His hair was not grey at all, oh, there were a few white hairs on the temple, but they were becoming; and his face was not red, but sunburned; his head was very well placed on his neck; and he wasn’t stout and he wasn’t old: in fact he was almost slim and his figure was admirable – could you blame him if he was a trifle vain of it? – he might have been a young man. And of course he did know how to wear his clothes; it was absurd to deny that: he looked neat and clean and trim. Whatever could have possessed her to think him this and that? He was a very handsome man. It was lucky that she knew how worthless he was. Of course she had always admitted that his voice had a winning quality, and his voice was exactly as she remembered it: it made the falseness of every word he said more exasperating; its richness of tone and its warmth rang now in her ears with insincerity and she wondered how she could ever have been taken in by it. His eyes were beautiful: that was where his charm lay, they had such a soft, blue brilliance and even when he was talking balderdash an expression which was so delightful; it was almost impossible not to be moved by them.

At last the coffee was brought in and Charlie lit his cheroot. He looked at his watch and rose from the table.

‘Well, I must leave you two young women to your own devices. It’s time for me to get back to the office.’ He paused and then with his friendly, charming eyes on Kitty said to her: ‘I’m not going to bother you for a day or two till you’re rested, but then I want to have a little business talk with you.’

‘With me?’

‘We must make arrangements about your house, you know, and then there’s the furniture.’

‘Oh, but I can go to a lawyer. There’s no reason why I should bother you about that.’

‘Don’t think for a moment I’m going to let you waste your money on legal expenses. I’m going to see to everything. You know you’re entitled to a pension: I’m going to talk to H.E. about it and see if by making representations in the proper quarter we can’t get something extra for you. You put yourself in my hands. But don’t bother about anything just yet. All we want you to do now is to get fit and well: isn’t that right, Dorothy?’

‘Of course.’

He gave Kitty a little nod and then passing by his wife’s chair took her hand and kissed it. Most Englishmen look a little foolish when they kiss a woman’s hand; he did it with a graceful ease.