The Painted Veil Chapter 79

Kitty rang the bell at the house in Harrington Gardens. She was told that her father was in his study and going to the door she opened it softly: he was sitting by the fire reading the last edition of the evening paper. He looked up as she entered, put down the paper, and sprang nervously to his feet.

‘Oh, Kitty, I didn’t expect you till the later train.’

‘I thought you wouldn’t want the bother of coming to meet me so I didn’t wire the time I expected to arrive.’

He gave her his cheek to kiss in the manner she so well remembered.

‘I was just having a look at the paper,’ he said. ‘I haven’t read the paper for the last two days.’

She saw that he thought it needed some explanation if he occupied himself with the ordinary affairs of life.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘You must be tired out, I’m afraid mother’s death has been a great shock to you.’

He was older and thinner than when she had last seen him. A little, lined, dried-up man, with a precise manner.

‘The surgeon said there had never been any hope. She hadn’t been herself for more than a year, but she refused to see a doctor. The surgeon told me that she must have been in constant pain, he said it was a miracle that she had been able to endure it.’

‘Did she never complain?’

‘She said she wasn’t very well. But she never complained of pain.’ He paused and looked at Kitty. ‘Are you very tired after your journey?’

‘Not very.’

‘Would you like to go up and see her?’

‘Is she here?’

‘Yes, she was brought here from the nursing home.’

‘Yes, I’ll go now.’

‘Would you like me to come with you?

There was something in her father’s tone that made her look at him quickly. His face was slightly turned from her; he did not want her to catch his eye. Kitty had acquired of late a singular proficiency at reading the thoughts of others. After all, day after day she had applied all her sensibilities to divine from a casual word or an unguarded gesture the hidden thoughts of her husband. She guessed at once what her father was trying to hide from her. It was relief he felt, an infinite relief, and he was frightened of himself. For hard on thirty years he had been a good and faithful husband, he had never uttered a single word in dispraise of his wife, and now he should grieve for her. He had always done the things that were expected of him. It would have been shocking to him by the flicker of an eyelid or by the smallest hint to betray that he did not feel what under the circumstances a bereaved husband should feel.

‘No, I would rather go by myself,’ said Kitty.

She went upstairs and into the large, cold and pretentious bedroom in which her mother for so many years had slept. She remembered so well those massive pieces of mahogany and the engravings after Marcus Stone which adorned the walls. The things on the dressing-table were arranged with the stiff precision which Mrs. Garstin had all her life insisted upon. The flowers looked out of place; Mrs. Garstin would have thought it silly, affected and unhealthy to have flowers in her bedroom. Their perfume did not cover that acrid, musty smell, as of freshly washed linen, which Kitty remembered as characteristic of her mother’s room.

Mrs. Garstin lay on the bed, her hands folded across her breasts with a meekness which in life she would have had no patience with. With her strong sharp features, the cheeks hollow with suffering and the temples sunken, she looked handsome and even imposing. Death had robbed her face of its meanness and left only an impression of character. She might have been a Roman empress. It was strange to Kitty that of the dead persons she had seen this was the only one who in death seemed to preserve a look as though that clay had been once a habitation of the spirit. Grief she could not feel, for there had been too much bitterness between her mother and herself to leave in her heart any deep feeling of affection; and looking back on the girl she had been she knew that it was her mother who had made her what she was. But when she looked at that hard, domineering and ambitious woman who lay there so still and silent with all her petty aims frustrated by death, she was aware of a vague pathos. She had schemed and intrigued all her life and never had she desired anything but what was base and unworthy. Kitty wondered whether perhaps in some other sphere she looked upon her earthly course with consternation.

Doris came in.

‘I thought you’d come by this train. I felt I must look in for a moment. Isn’t it dreadful? Poor darling mother.’

Bursting into tears, she flung herself into Kitty’s arms. Kitty kissed her. She knew how her mother had neglected Doris in favour of her and how harsh she had been with her because she was plain and dull. She wondered whether Doris really felt the extravagant grief she showed. But Doris had always been emotional. She wished she could cry: Doris would think her dreadfully hard. Kitty felt that she had been through too much to feign a distress she did not feel.

‘Would you like to come and see father?’ she asked her when the strength of the outburst had somewhat subsided.

Doris wiped her eyes. Kitty noticed that her sister’s pregnancy had blunted her features and in her black dress she looked gross and blousy.

‘No, I don’t think I will. I shall only cry again. Poor old thing, he’s bearing it wonderfully.’

Kitty showed her sister out of the house and then went back to her father. He was standing in front of the fire and the newspaper was neatly folded. He wanted her to see that he had not been reading it again.

‘I haven’t dressed for dinner,’ he said. ‘I didn’t think it was necessary.’