William Somerset Maugham
The Painted Veil
“…the painted veil which those who live call Life.”
SHE gave a startled cry.
“What’s the matter?” he asked.
Notwithstanding the darkness of the shuttered room he saw her face on a sudden distraught* with terror.
“Some one just tried the door.”
“Well, perhaps it was the amah,* or one of the boys.”
“They never come at this time. They know I always sleep after tiffin.”*
“Who else could it be?”
“Walter,” she whispered, her lips trembling.
She pointed to his shoes. He tried to put them on, but his nervousness, for her alarm was affecting him, made him clumsy, and besides, they were on the tight side. With a faint gasp of impatience she gave him a shoe horn. She slipped into a kimono and in her bare feet went over to her dressing-table. Her hair was shingled and with a comb she
had repaired its disorder before he had laced his second shoe. She handed him his coat.
“How shall I get out?”
“You’d better wait a bit. I’ll look out and see that it’s all right.”
“It can’t possibly be Walter. He doesn’t leave the laboratory till five.”
“Who is it then?”
They spoke in whispers now. She was quaking. It occurred to him that in an emergency she would lose her head and on a sudden he felt angry with her. If it wasn’t safe why the devil had she said it was? She caught her breath and put her hand on his arm. He followed the direction of her glance. They stood facing the windows that led out on the verandah. They were shuttered and the shutters were bolted. They saw the white china knob of the handle slowly turn. They had heard no one walk along the verandah. It was terrifying to see that silent motion. A minute passed and there was no sound. Then, with the ghastliness of the supernatural, in the same stealthy, noiseless, and horrifying manner, they saw the white china knob of the handle at the other window turn also. It was so frightening that Kitty, her nerves failing her, opened her mouth to scream; but, seeing what she was going to do, he swiftly put his hand over it and her cry was smothered in his fingers.
Silence. She leaned against him, her knees shaking, and he was afraid she would faint. Frowning, his jaw set, he carried her to the bed and sat her down upon it. She was as white as the sheet and notwithstanding his tan his cheeks were pale too. He stood by her side looking with fascinated gaze at the china knob. They did not speak. Then he saw that she was crying.
“For God’s sake don’t do that,” he whispered irritably. “If we’re in for it we’re in for it. We shall just have to brazen it out.”
She looked for her handkerchief and knowing what she wanted he gave her her bag.
“Where’s your topee?”*
“I left it downstairs.”
“Oh, my God!”
“I say, you must pull yourself together. It’s a hundred to one it wasn’t Walter. Why on earth should he come back at this hour? He never does come home in the middle of the day, does he?”
“I’ll bet you anything you like it was the amah.”
She gave him the shadow of a smile. His rich, caressing voice reassured her and she took his hand and affectionately pressed it. He gave her a moment to collect herself.
“Look here, we can’t stay here for ever,” he said then. “Do you feel up to going out on the verandah and having a look?”
“I don’t think I can stand.”
“Have you got any brandy in here?”
She shook her head. A frown for an instant darkened his brow, he was growing impatient, he did not quite know what to do. Suddenly she clutched his hand more tightly.
“Suppose he’s waiting there?”