The Painted Veil, p.20W. Somerset Maugham
‘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.’
‘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?’
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.
It was not till Kitty was fairly settled at the Townsends that she discovered that she was weary. The comfort and the unaccustomed amenity of this life broke up the strain under which she had been living. She had forgotten how pleasant it was to take one’s ease, how lulling to be surrounded by pretty things, and how agreeable it was to receive attention. She sank back with a sigh of relief into the facile existence of the luxurious East. It was not displeasing to feel that in a discreet and well-bred fashion she was an object of sympathetic interest. Her bereavement was so recent that it was impossible for entertainments to be given for her, but ladies of consequence in the Colony (His Excellency’s wife, the wives of the Admiral and of the Chief Justice) came to drink a quiet cup of tea with her. His Excellency’s wife said that His Excellency was most anxious to see her and if she would come very quietly to luncheon at Government House (‘not a party, of course, only ourselves and the A.D.C.’s!’), it would be very nice. These ladies used Kitty as though she were a piece of porcelain which was as fragile as it was precious. She could not fail to see that they looked upon her as a little heroine, and she had sufficient humour to play the part with modesty and discretion. She wished sometimes that Waddington were there; with his malicious shrewdness he would have seen the fun of the situation; and when alone they might have had a good laugh over it together. Dorothy had had a letter from him, and he had said all manner of things about her devoted work at the convent, about her courage and her self control. Of course he was skillfully pulling their legs: the dirty dog.
Kitty did not know whether it was by chance or by design that she never found herself for a moment alone with Charlie. His tact was exquisite. He remained kindly, sympathetic, pleasant and amiable. No one could have guessed that they had ever been more than acquaintances. But one afternoon when she was lying on a sofa outside her room reading he passed along the verandah and stopped.
‘What is that you’re reading?’ he asked.
She looked at him with irony. He smiled.
‘Dorothy’s gone to a garden-party at Government House.’
‘I know. Why haven’t you gone too?’
‘I didn’t feel I could face it and I thought I’d come back and keep you company. The car’s outside, would you like to come for a drive round the island?’
‘No, thank you.’
He sat down on the foot of the sofa on which she lay.
‘We haven’t had the chance of a talk by ourselves since you got here.’
She looked straight into his eyes with cool insolence.
‘Do you think we have anything to say to one another?’
She shifted her feet a little so that she should not touch him.
‘Are you still angry with me?’ he asked, the shadow of a smile on his lips and his eyes melting.
‘Not a bit,’ she laughed.
‘I don’t think you’d laugh if you weren’t.’
‘You’re mistaken; I despise you much too much to be angry with you.’
He was unruffled.
‘I think you’re rather hard on me. Looking back calmly, don’t you honestly think I was right?’
‘From your standpoint.’
‘Now that you know Dorothy, you must admit she’s rather nice?’
‘Of course. I shall always be grateful for her great kindness to me.’
‘She’s one in a thousand. I should never have had a moment’s peace if we’d bolted. It would have been a rotten trick to play on her. And after all I had to think of my children; it would have been an awful handicap for them.’
For a minute she held him in her reflective gaze. She felt completely mistress of the situation.
‘I’ve watched you very carefully during the week I’ve been here. I’ve come to the conclusion that you really are fond of Dorothy. I should never have thought you capable of it.’
‘I told you I was fond of her. I wouldn’t do anything to cause her a moment’s uneasiness. She’s the best wife a man ever had.’
‘Have you never thought that you owed her any loyalty?’
‘What the eye doesn’t see the heart doesn’t grieve for,’
She shrugged her shoulders.
‘I’m human. I don’t know why you should think me such a cad because I fell head over ears in love with you. I didn’t particularly want to, you know.’
It gave her a little twist of the heart-strings to hear him say that.
‘I was fair game,’ she answered bitterly.
‘Naturally I couldn’t foresee that we were going to get into such a devil of a scrape.’
‘And in any case you had a pretty shrewd idea that if any one suffered it wouldn’t be you.’
‘I think that’s a bit thick. After all, now it’s all over, you must see I acted for the best for both of us. You lost your head and you ought to be jolly glad that I kept mine. Do you think it would have been a success if I’d done what you wanted me to? We were dashed uncomfortable in the frying-pan, but we should have been a damned sight worse off in the fire. And you haven’t come to any harm. Why can’t we kiss and make friends?’
She almost laughed.
‘You hardly expect me to forget that you sent me to almost certain death without a shadow of compunction?’
‘Oh, what nonsense! I told you there was no risk if you took reasonable precautions. Do you think I’d have let you go for a moment if I hadn’t been perfectly convinced of that?’
‘You were convinced because you wanted to be. You’re one of those cowards who only think what it’s profitable for them to think.’
‘Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. You have come back, and if you don’t mind my saying anything so objectionable you’ve come back prettier than ever.’
He could not resist the facetious answer which came to his mind. Charlie smiled.
‘Nothing suits you so well as black.’
She stared at him for a moment. Tears filled her eyes and she began to cry. Her beautiful face was distorted with grief. She did not seek to hide it, but lay on her back with her hands along her sides.
‘For God’s sake don’t cry like that. I didn’t mean to say anything unkind. It was only a joke. You know how sincerely I feel for you in your bereavement.’
‘Oh, hold your stupid tongue.’
‘I’d give anything to have Walter back again.’
‘He died because of you and me.’
He took her hand, but she snatched it away from him.
‘Please go away,’ she sobbed. ‘That’s the only thing you can do for me now. I hate and despise you. Walter was worth ten of you and I was too big a fool to see it. Go away. Go away.’
She saw he was going to speak again and she sprang to her feet and went into her room. He followed her, and as he entered, with instinctive prudence, drew the shutter so that they were almost in darkness.
‘I can’t leave you like this,’ he said, putting his arms round her. ‘You know I didn’t mean to hurt you.’
‘Don’t touch me. For God’s sake go. Go away.’
She tried to tear herself from him, but he would not let her. She was crying hysterically now.
‘Darling, don’t you know that I’ve always loved you,’ he said in his deep, charming voice. ‘I love you more than ever.’
‘How can you tell such lies! Let me go. Damn you, let me go.’
‘Don’t be unkind to me, Kitty. I know I’ve been a brute to you, but forgive me.’
She was shaking and sobbing, struggling to get away from him, but the pressure of his arms was strangely comforting. She had so longed to feel them round her once more, just once, and all her body trembled. She felt dreadfully weak. It seemed as though her bones were melting, and the sorrow she felt for Walter shifted into pity for herself.
‘Oh, how could you be so unkind to me?’ she sobbed. ‘Don’t you know that I loved you with all my heart. No one has ever loved you as I loved you.’
He began to kiss her.
‘No, no,’ she cried.
He sought her face, but she turned it away; he sought her lips; she did not know what he was saying, broken, passionate words of love; and his arms held her so firmly that she felt like a child that has been lost and now at last is safe at home. She moaned faintly. Her eyes were closed and her face was wet with tears. And then he found her lips and the pressure of his upon them shot through her body like the flame of God. It was an ecstasy and she was burnt to a cinder and she glowed as though she were transfigured. In her dreams, in her dreams she had known this rapture. What was he doing with her now? She did not know. She was not a woman, her personality was dissolved, she was nothing but desire. He lifted her off her feet, she was very light in his arms, he carried her and she clung to him, desperate and adoring; her head sank on the pillow and his lips clung to hers.
She sat on the edge of the bed hiding her face with her hands.
‘Would you like a drop of water?’
She shook her head. He went over to the washing-stand, filled the tooth-glass and brought it to her.
‘Come along, have a little drink and you’ll feel better.’
He put the glass to her lips and she sipped the water. Then, with horrified eyes, she stared at him. He was standing over her, looking down, and in his eyes was a twinkle of self-satisfaction.
‘Well, do you think I’m such a dirty dog as you did?’ he asked.
She looked down.
‘Yes. But I know that I’m not a bit better than you. Oh, I’m so ashamed.’
‘Well, I think you’re very ungrateful.’
‘Will you go now?’
‘To tell you the truth I think it’s about time. I’ll just go and tidy up before Dorothy comes in.’
He went out of the room with a jaunty step.
Kitty sat for a while, still on the edge of the bed, hunched up like an imbecile. Her mind was vacant. A shudder passed through her. She staggered to her feet and, going to the dressing-table, sank into a chair. She stared at herself in the glass. Her eyes were swollen with tears; her face was stained and there was a red mark on one cheek where his had rested. She looked at herself with horror. It was the same face. She had expected in it she knew not what change of degradation.
‘Swine,’ she flung at her reflection. ‘Swine.’
Then, letting her face fall on her arms, she wept bitterly. Shame, shame! She did not know what had come over her. It was horrible. She hated him and she hated herself. It had been ecstasy. Oh, hateful! She could never look him in the face again. He was so justified. He had been right not to marry her, for she was worthless; she was no better than a harlot. Oh, worse, for those poor women gave themselves for bread. And in this house too into which Dorothy had taken her in her sorrow and cruel desolation! Her shoulders shook with her sobs. Everything was gone now. She had thought herself changed, she had thought herself strong, she thought she had returned to Hong-Kong a woman who possessed herself; new ideas flitted about her heart like little yellow butterflies in the sunshine and she had hoped to be so much better in the future; freedom like a spirit of light had beckoned her on, and the world was like a spacious plain through which she could walk light of foot and with head erect. She had thought herself free from lust and vile passions, free to live the clean and healthy life of the spirit; she had likened herself to the white egrets that fly with leisurely flight across the rice-fields at dusk and they are like the soaring thoughts of a mind at rest with itself; and she was a slave. Weak, weak! It was hopeless, it was no good to try, she was a slut.
She would not go in to dinner. She sent the boy to tell Dorothy that she had a headache and preferred to remain in her room. Dorothy came in and, seeing her red, swollen eyes, talked for a little in her gentle, commiserating way of trivial things. Kitty knew that Dorothy thought she had been crying on account of Walter and, sympathising like the good and loving wife she was, respected the natural sorrow.
‘I know it’s very hard, dear,’ she said as she left Kitty. ‘But you must try to have courage.
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.’
The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes