The Painted Veil

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham Page A

Book: The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham Read Free Book Online
Authors: W. Somerset Maugham
ceased. The bearers took it with a swinging stride. The hill was covered close with little green mounds, close, close to one another, so that the ground was ribbed like the sea-sand when the tide has gone out; and this she knew too for she had passed just such a spot as they approached each populous city and left it. It was the graveyard. Now she knew why the bearers had called her attention to the archway that stood on the crest of the hill: they had reached the end of their journey.
    They passed through the archway and the chair-bearers paused to change the pole from shoulder to shoulder. One of them wiped his sweating face with a dirty rag. The causeway wound down. There were bedraggled houses on each side. Now the night was falling. But the bearers on a sudden broke into excited talk and with a jump that shook her ranged themselves as near as they could to the wall. In a moment she knew what had startled them, for as they stood there, chattering to one another, four peasants passed, quick and silent, bearing a new coffin, unpainted, and its fresh wood gleamed white in the approaching darkness. Kitty felt her heart beat in terror against her ribs. The coffin passed, but the bearers stood still; it seemed as though they could not summon up the will to go on. But there was a shout from behind and they started. They did not speak now.
    They walked for a few minutes longer and then turned sharply into an open gateway. The chair was set down. She had arrived.

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    It was a bungalow and she entered the sitting-room. She sat down while the coolies, straggling in one by one, brought in their loads. Walter in the courtyard gave directions where this or that was to be placed. She was very tired. She was startled to hear an unknown voice.
    ‘May I come in?’
    She flushed and grew pale. She was overwrought and it made her nervous to meet a stranger. A man came out of the darkness, for the long low room was lit only by a shaded lamp, and held out his hand.
    ‘My name is Waddington. I am the Deputy Commissioner.’
    ‘Oh, the Customs. I know. I heard that you were here.’
    In that dim light she could see only that he was a little thin man, no taller than she, with a bald head and a small, bare face.
    ‘I live just at the bottom of the hill, but coming in this way you wouldn’t have seen my house. I thought you’d be too fagged to come and dine with me, so I’ve ordered your dinner here and I’ve invited myself.’
    ‘I’m delighted to hear it.’
    ‘You’ll find the cook’s not bad. I kept on Watson’s boys for you.’
    ‘Watson was the missionary who was here?’
    ‘Yes. Very nice fellow. I’ll show you his grave tomorrow if you like.’
    ‘How kind you are,’ said Kitty, with a smile.
    At that moment Walter came in. Waddington had introduced himself to him before coming in to see Kitty and now he said:
    ‘I’ve just been breaking it to your missus that I’m dining with you. Since Watson died I haven’t had anybody much to talk to but the nuns, and I can never do myself justice in French. Besides, there is only a limited number of subjects you can talk to them about.’
    ‘I’ve just told the boy to bring in some drinks,’ said Walter.
    The servant brought whisky and soda and Kitty noticed that Waddington helped himself generously. His manner of speaking and his easy chuckle had suggested to her when he came in that he was not quite sober.
    ‘Here’s luck,’ he said. Then, turning to Walter: ‘You’ve got your work cut out for you here. They’re dying like flies. The magistrate’s lost his head and Colonel Yü, the officer commanding the troops, is having a devil of a job to prevent them from looting. If something doesn’t happen soon we shall all be murdered in our beds. I tried to get the nuns to go, but of course they wouldn’t. They all want to be martyrs, damn them.’
    He spoke lightly and there was in his voice a sort of ghostly laughter so that you could not listen to him without

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