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Excerpt from

The Painted Veil  

- W. Somerset Maugham


SHE had known him but a little while and had never taken much notice of him. She had no idea when or where they had first met till after their engagement he told her that it was at a dance to which some friends had brought him. She certainly paid no attention to him then and if she danced with him it was because she was good-natured and was glad to dance with any one who asked her. She didn't know him from Adam when a day or two later at another dance he came up and spoke to her. Then she she remarked that he was at every dance she went to.

"You know, I've danced with you at least a dozen times now and you must tell me your name," she said to him at last in her laughing way.

He was obviously taken aback. "Do you mean to say you don't know it? I was introduced to you."

"Oh, but people always mumble. I shouldn't be at all surprised if you hadn't the ghost of an idea what mine was."

He smiled at her. His face was grave and a trifle stern, but his smile was very sweet. "Of course I know it."

He was silent for a moment or two.

"Have you no curiosity?" he asked then.

"As much as most women."

"It didn't occur to you to ask somebody or other what my name was?"

She was faintly amused; she wondered why he thought it could in the least interest her; but she liked to please, so she looked at him with that dazzling smile of hers and her beautiful eyes, dewy ponds under forest trees, held an enchanting kindness.

"Well, what is it?"

"Walter Fane."

She did not know why he came to dances, he did not dance very well, and he seemed to know few people. She had a passing thought that he was in love with her: but she dismissed it with a shrug of the shoulders: she had known girls who thought every man they met was in love with them and had always found them absurd. But she gave Walter Fane just a little more of her attention. He certainly did not behave like any of the other youths who had been in love with her. Most of them told her so frankly and wanted to kiss her: a good many did. But Walter Fane never talked of her and very little of himself. He was rather silent; she did not mind that because she had plenty to say and it pleased her to see him laugh when she made a facetious remark; but when he talked it was not stupidly. He was evidently shy.

It appeared that he lived in the East and was home on leave. One Sunday afternoon he appeared at their house in South Kensington. There were a dozen people there, and he sat for some time, somewhat ill at ease, and then went away. Her mother asked her later who he was.

"I haven't a notion. Did you ask him to come here?"

"Yes, I met him at the Baddeleys. He said he'd seen you at various dances. I said I was always at home on Sundays."

"His name is Fane and he's got some sort of job in the East."

"Yes, he's a doctor. Is he in love with you?"

"Upon my word, I don't know!"

"I should have thought you knew by now when a young man was in love with you."

"I wouldn't marry him if he were," said Kitty lightly.

Mrs. Garstin did not answer. Her silence was heavy with displeasure. Kitty flushed: she knew that her mother did not care now whom she married so long as somehow she got her off her hands.

During the next week she met him at three dances and now, his shyness perhaps wearing off a little, he was somewhat more communicative. He was a doctor, certainly, but he did not practise; he was a bacteriologist (Kitty had only a very vague idea what that meant) and he had a job at Hong Kong. He was going back in the autumn. He talked a good deal about China. She made it a practice to appear interested in whatever people talked to her of, but indeed the life in Hong Kong sounded quite jolly; there were clubs and tennis and racing and polo and golf.

"Do people dance much there?"

"Oh, yes, I think so."

She wondered whether he told her these things with a motive. He seemed to like her society, but never by a pressure of the hand, by a glance or by a word, did he give the smallest indication that he looked upon her as anything but a girl whom you met and danced with.

On the following Sunday he came again to their house. Her father happened to come in, it was raining and he had not been able to play golf, and he and Walter Fane had a long chat. She asked her father afterwards what they had talked of.

"It appears he's stationed at Hong Kong. The Chief Justice is an old friend of mine at the Bar. He seems an unusually intelligent young man."

She knew that her father was as a rule bored to death by the young people whom for her sake and now her sister's he had been forced for years to entertain.

"It's not often you like any of my young men, father," she said.

His kind, tired eyes rested upon her. "Are you going to marry him by any chance?" "Certainly not."

"Is he in love with you?"

"He shows no sign of it."

"D? you like him?"

"I don't think I do very much. He irritates me a little."

He was not her type at all. He was short, but not thickset, slight rather and thin; dark and clean-shaven, with very regular, clear-cut features. His eyes were almost black, but not large, they were not very mobile and they rested on objects with a singular persistence; they were curious, but not very pleasant eyes. With his straight, delicate nose, his fine brow and well-shaped mouth he ought to have been good-looking. But surprisingly enough he was not.

When Kitty began to think of him at all she was surprised that he should have such good features when you took them one by one. His expression was slightly sarcastic and now that Kitty knew him better she realized that she was not quite at ease with him. He had no gaiety. By the time the season drew to its end they had seen a good deal of one another, but he had remained as aloof and impenetrable as ever. He was not exactly shy with her, but embarrassed; his conversation remained strangely impersonal.

Kitty came to the conclusion that he was not in the least in love with her. He liked her and found her easy to talk to, but when he returned to China in November he would not think of her again. She thought it not impossible that he was engaged all the time to some nurse at a hospital in Hong Kong, the daughter of a clergyman, dull, plain, flat-footed, and strenuous; that was the wife that would exactly suit him.

Then came the announcement of Doris's engagement to Geoffrey Dennison. Doris, at eighteen, was making quite a suitable marriage, and she was twenty-five and single. Supposing she did not marry at all?

That season the only person who had proposed to her was a boy of twenty who was still at Oxford: she couldn't marry a boy five years younger than herself. She had made a hash of things. Last year she had refused a widowed Knight of the Bath with three children. She almost wished she hadn't. Mother would be horrible now, and Doris, Doris who had always been sacrificed because she, Kitty, was expected to make the brilliant match, would not fail to crow over her.

Kitty's heart sank.

About the book:

Kitty Fane is the beautiful but shallow wife of Walter, a bacteriologist stationed in Hong Kong. Unsatisfied by her marriage, she starts an affair with charming, attractive and exciting Charles Townsend. But when Walter discovers her deception, he exacts a strange and terrible vengeance: Kitty must accompany him to his new posting in remote mainland China, where a cholera epidemic rages.

A pure feminist fable, The Painted Veil is a classic tale of a woman's spiritual awakening.

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