The Painted Veil Chapter 77

But next morning Kitty rose early and leaving a note for Dorothy to say that she was gone out on business took a tram down the hill. She made her way through the crowded streets with their motor cars, rickshaws and chairs, and the motley throng of Europeans and Chinese, to the offices of the P. & O. Company. A ship was sailing in two days, the first ship out of the port, and she had made up her mind that at all costs she must go on it. When the clerk told her that every berth was booked she asked to see the chief agent. She sent in her name and the agent, whom she had met before, came out to fetch her into his office. He knew her circumstances and when she told him what she wished he sent for the passenger list. He looked at it with perplexity.

‘I beseech you to do what you can for me,’ she urged him.

‘I don’t think there’s any one in the Colony who wouldn’t do anything in the world for you, Mrs. Fane,’ he answered.

He sent for a clerk and made enquiries. Then he nodded.

‘I’m going to shift one or two people. I know you want to get home and I think we ought to do our best for you. I can give you a little cabin to yourself. I expect you’d prefer that.’

She thanked him. She left him with an elated heart. Flight: that was her only thought. Flight! She sent a cable to her father to announce her immediate return; she had already cabled to him to say that Walter was dead; and then went back to the Townsends to tell Dorothy what she had done.

‘We shall be dreadfully sorry to lose you,’ the kind creature said, ‘but of course I understand that you want to be with your mother and father.’

Since her return to Hong-Kong Kitty had hesitated from day to day to go to her house. She dreaded entering it again and meeting face to face the recollections with which it was peopled. But now she had no alternative. Townsend had arranged for the sale of the furniture and he had found some one eager to take on the lease, but there were all her clothes and Walter’s, for they had taken next to nothing to Meitan-fu, and there were books, photographs, and various odds and ends. Kitty, indifferent to everything and anxious to cut herself off completely from the past, realised that it would outrage the susceptibilities of the Colony if she allowed these things to go with the rest to an auction-room. They must be packed and sent to her. So after tiffin she prepared to go to the house. Dorothy, eager to give her help, offered to accompany her, but Kitty begged to be allowed to go alone. She agreed that two of Dorothy’s boys should come and assist in the packing.

The house had been left in charge of the head boy and he opened the door for Kitty. It was curious to go into her own house as though she were a stranger. It was neat and clean. Everything was in its place, ready for her use, but although the day was warm and sunny there was about the silent rooms a chill and desolate air. The furniture was stiffly arranged, exactly where it should be, and the vases which should have held flowers were in their places; the book which Kitty had laid face downwards she did not remember when still lay face downwards. It was as though the house had been left empty but a minute before and yet that minute was fraught with eternity so that you could not imagine that ever again that house would echo with talk and resound with laughter. On the piano the open music of a foxtrot seemed to wait to be played, but you had a feeling that if you struck the keys no sound would come. Walter’s room was as tidy as when he was there. On the chest of drawers were two large photographs of Kitty, one in her presentation dress and one in her wedding-gown.

But the boys fetched up the trunks from the box-room and she stood over them watching them pack. They packed neatly and quickly. Kitty reflected that in the two days she had it would be easy to get everything done. She must not let herself think; she had no time for that. Suddenly she heard a step behind her and turning round saw Charles Townsend. She felt a sudden chill at her heart.

‘What do you want?’ she said.

‘Will you come into your sitting-room? I have something to say to you.’

‘I’m very busy.’

‘I shall only keep you five minutes.’

She said no more, but with a word to the boys to go on with what they were doing, preceded Charles into the next room. She did not sit down, in order to show him that she expected him not to detain her. She knew that she was very pale and her heart was beating fast, but she faced him coolly, with hostile eyes.

‘What is it you want?’

‘I’ve just heard from Dorothy that you’re going the day after to-morrow. She told me that you’d come here to do your packing and she asked me to ring up and find out if there was anything I could do for you.’

‘I’m grateful to you, but I can manage quite well by myself.’

‘So I imagined. I didn’t come here to ask you that. I came to ask if your sudden departure is due to what happened yesterday.’

‘You and Dorothy have been very good to me. I didn’t wish you to think I was taking advantage of your good nature.’

‘That’s not a very straight answer.’

‘What does it matter to you?’

‘It matters a great deal. I shouldn’t like to think that anything I’d done had driven you away.’

She was standing at the table. She looked down. Her eyes fell on the Sketch. It was months old now. It was that paper which Walter had stared at all through the terrible evening when – and Walter now was ... She raised her eyes.

‘I feel absolutely degraded. You can’t possibly despise me as much as I despise myself.’

‘But I don’t despise you. I meant every word that I said yesterday. What’s the good of running away like this? I don’t know why we can’t be good friends. I hate the idea of your thinking I’ve treated you badly.’

‘Why couldn’t you leave me alone?’

‘Hang it all, I’m not a stick or a stone. It’s so unreasonable, the way you look at it; it’s so morbid. I thought after yesterday you’d feel a little more kindly to me. After all, we’re only human.’

‘I don’t feel human. I feel like an animal. A pig or a rabbit or a dog. Oh, I don’t blame you, I was just as bad. I yielded to you because I wanted you. But it wasn’t the real me. I’m not that hateful, beastly, lustful woman. I disown her. It wasn’t me that lay on that bed panting for you when my husband was hardly cold in his grave and your wife had been so kind to me, so indescribably kind. It was only the animal in me, dark and fearful like an evil spirit, and I disown, and hate, and despise it. And ever since, when I’ve thought of it, my gorge rises and I feel that I must vomit.’

He frowned a little and gave a short, uneasy snigger.

‘Well, I’m fairly broadminded, but sometimes you say things that positively shock me.’

‘I should be sorry to do that. You’d better go now. You’re a very unimportant little man and I’m silly to talk to you seriously.’

He did not answer for a while and she saw by the shadow in his blue eyes that he was angry with her. He would heave a sigh of relief when, tactful and courteous as ever, he had finally seen her off. It amused her to think of the politeness with which, while they shook hands and he wished her a pleasant journey, she would thank him for his hospitality. But she saw his expression change.

‘Dorothy tells me you’re going to have a baby,’ he said.

She felt herself colour, but she allowed no gesture to escape her.

‘I am.’

‘Am I by any chance the father?’

‘No, no. It’s Walter’s child.’

She spoke with an emphasis which she could not pre-vent, but even as she spoke she knew that it was not the tone with which to carry conviction.

‘Are you sure?’ He was now roguishly smiling. ‘After all, you were married to Walter a couple of years and nothing happened. The dates seem to fit all right. I think it’s much more likely to be mine than Walter’s.’

‘I would rather kill myself than have a child of yours.’

‘Oh, come now, that’s nonsense. I should be awfully pleased and proud. I’d like it to be a girl, you know. I’ve only had boys with Dorothy. You won’t be able to be in doubt very long, you know: my three kiddies are absolutely the living image of me.’

He had regained his good humour and she knew why. If the child was his, though she might never see him again, she could never entirely escape him. His power over her would reach out and he would still, obscurely but definitely, influence every day of her life.

‘You really are the most vain and fatuous ass that it’s ever been my bad luck to run across,’ she said.