Times of Ukraine
Author: William Somerset Maugham
Book: "The Moon and Sixpence"
I confess that when first I made acquaintance with CharlesStrickland I never for a moment discerned that there was inhim anything out of the ordinary. Yet now few will be foundto deny his greatness. I do not speak of that greatness whichis achieved by the fortunate politician or the successfulsoldier; that is a quality which belongs to the place heoccupies rather than to the man; and a change of circumstancesreduces it to very discreet proportions. The Prime Ministerout of office is seen, too often, to have been but a pompousrhetorician, and the General without an army is but the tamehero of a market town. The greatness of Charles Stricklandwas authentic. It may be that you do not like his art, but atall events you can hardly refuse it the tribute of yourinterest. He disturbs and arrests. The time has passed whenhe was an object of ridicule, and it is no longer a mark ofeccentricity to defend or of perversity to extol him.
His faults are accepted as the necessary complement to his merits.
It is still possible to discuss his place in art, and theadulation of his admirers is perhaps no less capricious thanthe disparagement of his detractors; but one thing can neverbe doubtful, and that is that he had genius. To my mind themost interesting thing in art is the personality of theartist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse athousand faults. I suppose Velasquez was a better painterthan El Greco, but custom stales one's admiration for him:the Cretan, sensual and tragic, proffers the mystery of hissoul like a standing sacrifice. The artist, painter, poet, ormusician, by his decoration, sublime or beautiful, satisfiesthe aesthetic sense; but that is akin to the sexual instinct,and shares its barbarity: he lays before you also the greatergift of himself. To pursue his secret has something of thefascination of a detective story. It is a riddle which shareswith the universe the merit of having no answer. The mostinsignificant of Strickland's works suggests a personalitywhich is strange, tormented, and complex; and it is thissurely which prevents even those who do not like his picturesfrom being indifferent to them; it is this which has excitedso curious an interest in his life and character.
It was not till four years after Strickland's death thatMaurice Huret wrote that article in the <i Mercure de France>which rescued the unknown painter from oblivion and blazed thetrail which succeeding writers, with more or less docility,have followed. For a long time no critic has enjoyed inFrance a more incontestable authority, and it was impossiblenot to be impressed by the claims he made; they seemedextravagant; but later judgments have confirmed his estimate,and the reputation of Charles Strickland is now firmlyestablished on the lines which he laid down. The rise of thisreputation is one of the most romantic incidents in thehistory of art. But I do not propose to deal with CharlesStrickland's work except in so far as it touches uponhis character. I cannot agree with the painters who claimsuperciliously that the layman can understand nothing ofpainting, and that he can best show his appreciation of theirworks by silence and a cheque-book. It is a grotesquemisapprehension which sees in art no more than a craftcomprehensible perfectly only to the craftsman: art is amanifestation of emotion, and emotion speaks a language thatall may understand. But I will allow that the critic who hasnot a practical knowledge of technique is seldom able to sayanything on the subject of real value, and my ignorance ofpainting is extreme. Fortunately, there is no need for me torisk the adventure, since my friend, Mr. Edward Leggatt, anable writer as well as an admirable painter, has exhaustivelydiscussed Charles Strickland's work in a little book whichis a charming example of a style, for the most part, lesshappily cultivated in England than in France.
 "A Modern Artist: Notes on the Work of CharlesStrickland," by Edward Leggatt, A.R.H.A. Martin Secker, 1917.
Maurice Huret in his famous article gave an outline of CharlesStrickland's life which was well calculated to whet theappetites of the inquiring. With his disinterested passionfor art, he had a real desire to call the attention of thewise to a talent which was in the highest degree original;but he was too good a journalist to be unaware that the "humaninterest" would enable him more easily to effect his purpose.
And when such as had come in contact with Strickland in thepast, writers who had known him in London, painters who hadmet him in the cafes of Montmartre, discovered to theiramazement that where they had seen but an unsuccessful artist,like another, authentic genius had rubbed shoulders with themthere began to appear in the magazines of France and America asuccession of articles, the reminiscences of one, theappreciation of another, which added to Strickland'snotoriety, and fed without satisfying the curiosity ofthe public. The subject was grateful, and the industriousWeitbrecht-Rotholz in his imposing monograph has been ableto give a remarkable list of authorities.
 "Karl Strickland: sein Leben und seine Kunst," by HugoWeitbrecht-Rotholz, Ph.D. Schwingel und Hanisch. Leipzig, 1914.
The faculty for myth is innate in the human race. It seizeswith avidity upon any incidents, surprising or mysterious, inthe career of those who have at all distinguished themselvesfrom their fellows, and invents a legend to which it thenattaches a fanatical belief. It is the protest of romanceagainst the commonplace of life. The incidents of the legendbecome the hero's surest passport to immortality. The ironicphilosopher reflects with a smile that Sir Walter Raleigh ismore safely inshrined in the memory of mankind because he sethis cloak for the Virgin Queen to walk on than because hecarried the English name to undiscovered countries.
Charles Strickland lived obscurely. He made enemies ratherthan friends. It is not strange, then, that those who wrote ofhim should have eked out their scanty recollections with alively fancy, and it is evident that there was enough in thelittle that was known of him to give opportunity to the romanticscribe; there was much in his life which was strange and terrible,in his character something outrageous, and in his fatenot a little that was pathetic. In due course a legend aroseof such circumstantiality that the wise historian wouldhesitate to attack it.
But a wise historian is precisely what the Rev. RobertStrickland is not. He wrote his biography avowedly to"remove certain misconceptions which had gained currency" inregard to the later part of his father's life, and which had"caused considerable pain to persons still living." It isobvious that there was much in the commonly received accountof Strickland's life to embarrass a respectable family.
I have read this work with a good deal of amusement, and uponthis I congratulate myself, since it is colourless and dull.
Mr. Strickland has drawn the portrait of an excellent husbandand father, a man of kindly temper, industrious habits, andmoral disposition. The modern clergyman has acquired in hisstudy of the science which I believe is called exegesis anastonishing facility for explaining things away, but thesubtlety with which the Rev. Robert Strickland has"interpreted" all the facts in his father's life which adutiful son might find it inconvenient to remember must surelylead him in the fullness of time to the highest dignities ofthe Church. I see already his muscular calves encased in thegaiters episcopal. It was a hazardous, though maybe a gallantthing to do, since it is probable that the legend commonlyreceived has had no small share in the growth of Strickland'sreputation; for there are many who have been attracted to hisart by the detestation in which they held his character or thecompassion with which they regarded his death; and the son'swell-meaning efforts threw a singular chill upon the father'sadmirers. It is due to no accident that when one of his mostimportant works, <i The Woman of Samaria>, was sold at Christie's shortly after the discussion which followed thepublication of Mr. Strickland's biography, it fetched POUNDS235 less than it had done nine months before when it wasbought by the distinguished collector whose sudden death hadbrought it once more under the hammer. Perhaps CharlesStrickland's power and originality would scarcely havesufficed to turn the scale if the remarkable mythopoeicfaculty of mankind had not brushed aside with impatience astory which disappointed all its craving for theextraordinary. And presently Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz producedthe work which finally set at rest the misgivings of alllovers of art.
 "Strickland: The Man and His Work," by his son, RobertStrickland. Wm. Heinemann, 1913.
 This was described in Christie's catalogue as follows:"A nude woman, a native of the Society Islands, is lying onthe ground beside a brook. Behind is a tropical Landscapewith palm-trees, bananas, etc. 60 in. x 48 in."
Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz belongs to that school of historianswhich believes that human nature is not only about as bad asit can be, but a great deal worse; and certainly the reader issafer of entertainment in their hands than in those of thewriters who take a malicious pleasure in representing thegreat figures of romance as patterns of the domestic virtues.
For my part, I should be sorry to think that there was nothingbetween Anthony and Cleopatra but an economic situation; andit will require a great deal more evidence than is ever likelyto be available, thank God, to persuade me that Tiberius wasas blameless a monarch as King George V. Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholzhas dealt in such terms with the Rev. Robert Strickland'sinnocent biography that it is difficult to avoidfeeling a certain sympathy for the unlucky parson. His decentreticence is branded as hypocrisy, his circumlocutions areroundly called lies, and his silence is vilified as treachery.
And on the strength of peccadillos, reprehensible in anauthor, but excusable in a son, the Anglo-Saxon race isaccused of prudishness, humbug, pretentiousness, deceit,cunning, and bad cooking. Personally I think it was rash ofMr. Strickland, in refuting the account which had gainedbelief of a certain "unpleasantness" between his father andmother, to state that Charles Strickland in a letter writtenfrom Paris had described her as "an excellent woman," sinceDr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was able to print the letter infacsimile, and it appears that the passage referred to ran infact as follows: <i God damn my wife. She is an excellent woman.
I wish she was in hell.> It is not thus that the Churchin its great days dealt with evidence that was unwelcome.
Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was an enthusiastic admirer of CharlesStrickland, and there was no danger that he would whitewash him.
He had an unerring eye for the despicable motive inactions that had all the appearance of innocence. He was apsycho-pathologist, as well as a student of art, and thesubconscious had few secrets from him. No mystic ever sawdeeper meaning in common things. The mystic sees theineffable, and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable.
There is a singular fascination in watching the eagerness withwhich the learned author ferrets out every circumstance which maythrow discredit on his hero. His heart warms to him when hecan bring forward some example of cruelty or meanness, and heexults like an inquisitor at the <i auto da fe> of an hereticwhen with some forgotten story he can confound the filial pietyof the Rev. Robert Strickland. His industry has been amazing.
Nothing has been too small to escape him, and youmay be sure that if Charles Strickland left a laundry billunpaid it will be given you <i in extenso>, and if he foreboreto return a borrowed half-crown no detail of the transactionwill be omitted.
When so much has been written about Charles Strickland, it mayseem unnecessary that I should write more. A painter'smonument is his work. It is true I knew him more intimatelythan most: I met him first before ever he became a painter,and I saw him not infrequently during the difficult years hespent in Paris; but I do not suppose I should ever have setdown my recollections if the hazards of the war had not takenme to Tahiti. There, as is notorious, he spent the last yearsof his life; and there I came across persons who were familiarwith him. I find myself in a position to throw light on justthat part of his tragic career which has remained most obscure.
If they who believe in Strickland's greatness are right,the personal narratives of such as knew him in theflesh can hardly be superfluous. What would we not give forthe reminiscences of someone who had been as intimatelyacquainted with El Greco as I was with Strickland?
But I seek refuge in no such excuses. I forget who it wasthat recommended men for their soul's good to do each day twothings they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a preceptthat I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got upand I have gone to bed. But there is in my nature a strain ofasceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a moresevere mortification. I have never failed to read the LiterarySupplement of <i The Times>. It is a salutary discipline toconsider the vast number of books that are written, the fairhopes with which their authors see them published, and thefate which awaits them. What chance is there that any bookwill make its way among that multitude? And the successfulbooks are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows whatpains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he hasendured and what heartache suffered, to give some chancereader a few hours' relaxation or to while away the tedium ofa journey. And if I may judge from the reviews, many of thesebooks are well and carefully written; much thought has gone totheir composition; to some even has been given the anxiouslabour of a lifetime. The moral I draw is that the writershould seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and inrelease from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to aughtelse, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.
Now the war has come, bringing with it a new attitude.
Youth has turned to gods we of an earlier day knew not, and itis possible to see already the direction in which those who comeafter us will move. The younger generation, conscious ofstrength and tumultuous, have done with knocking at the door;they have burst in and seated themselves in our seats.
The air is noisy with their shouts. Of their elders some, byimitating the antics of youth, strive to persuade themselvesthat their day is not yet over; they shout with the lustiest,but the war cry sounds hollow in their mouth; they are likepoor wantons attempting with pencil, paint and powder, withshrill gaiety, to recover the illusion of their spring.
The wiser go their way with a decent grace. In their chastenedsmile is an indulgent mockery. They remember that they tootrod down a sated generation, with just such clamor and withjust such scorn, and they foresee that these brave torch-bearerswill presently yield their place also. There is no last word.
The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared her greatnessto the sky. These gallant words which seem so novel to thosethat speak them were said in accents scarcely changed a hundredtimes before. The pendulum swings backwards and forwards.
The circle is ever travelled anew.
Sometimes a man survives a considerable time from an era inwhich he had his place into one which is strange to him, andthen the curious are offered one of the most singularspectacles in the human comedy. Who now, for example, thinksof George Crabbe? He was a famous poet in his day, and theworld recognised his genius with a unanimity which the greatercomplexity of modern life has rendered infrequent. He hadlearnt his craft at the school of Alexander Pope, and he wrotemoral stories in rhymed couplets. Then came the FrenchRevolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the poets sang new songs.
Mr. Crabbe continued to write moral stories in rhymed couplets.
I think he must have read the verse of these youngmen who were making so great a stir in the world, and I fancyhe found it poor stuff. Of course, much of it was. But theodes of Keats and of Wordsworth, a poem or two by Coleridge, afew more by Shelley, discovered vast realms of the spirit thatnone had explored before. Mr. Crabbe was as dead as mutton,but Mr. Crabbe continued to write moral stories in rhymed couplets.
I have read desultorily the writings of the younger generation.
It may be that among them a more fervid Keats, a moreethereal Shelley, has already published numbers the worldwill willingly remember. I cannot tell. I admire theirpolish -- their youth is already so accomplished that it seemsabsurd to speak of promise -- I marvel at the felicity oftheir style; but with all their copiousness (their vocabularysuggests that they fingered Roget's <i Thesaurus> in theircradles) they say nothing to me: to my mind they know toomuch and feel too obviously; I cannot stomach the heartinesswith which they slap me on the back or the emotion with whichthey hurl themselves on my bosom; their passion seems to me alittle anaemic and their dreams a trifle dull. I do not like them.
I am on the shelf. I will continue to write moral stories inrhymed couplets. But I should be thrice a fool if I did it foraught but my own entertainment.
But all this is by the way.
I was very young when I wrote my first book. By a lucky chanceit excited attention, and various persons sought my acquaintance.
It is not without melancholy that I wander among myrecollections of the world of letters in London when first,bashful but eager, I was introduced to it. It is long since Ifrequented it, and if the novels that describe its presentsingularities are accurate much in it is now changed. Thevenue is different. Chelsea and Bloomsbury have taken theplace of Hampstead, Notting Hill Gate, and High Street, Kensington.
Then it was a distinction to be under forty, but now tobe more than twenty-five is absurd. I think in thosedays we were a little shy of our emotions, and the fear ofridicule tempered the more obvious forms of pretentiousness.
I do not believe that there was in that genteel Bohemia anintensive culture of chastity, but I do not remember so crudea promiscuity as seems to be practised in the present day.
We did not think it hypocritical to draw over our vagaries thecurtain of a decent silence. The spade was not invariablycalled a bloody shovel. Woman had not yet altogether comeinto her own.
I lived near Victoria Station, and I recall long excursions bybus to the hospitable houses of the literary. In my timidityI wandered up and down the street while I screwed up mycourage to ring the bell; and then, sick with apprehension,was ushered into an airless room full of people. I wasintroduced to this celebrated person after that one, and thekind words they said about my book made me excessivelyuncomfortable. I felt they expected me to say clever things,and I never could think of any till after the party was over.
I tried to conceal my embarrassment by handing round cups oftea and rather ill-cut bread-and-butter. I wanted no one totake notice of me, so that I could observe these famouscreatures at my ease and listen to the clever things they said.
I have a recollection of large, unbending women with greatnoses and rapacious eyes, who wore their clothes as thoughthey were armour; and of little, mouse-like spinsters, withsoft voices and a shrewd glance. I never ceased to befascinated by their persistence in eating buttered toast withtheir gloves on, and I observed with admiration the unconcernwith which they wiped their fingers on their chair when theythought no one was looking. It must have been bad for thefurniture, but I suppose the hostess took her revenge on thefurniture of her friends when, in turn, she visited them.
Some of them were dressed fashionably, and they said theycouldn't for the life of them see why you should be dowdy justbecause you had written a novel; if you had a neat figure youmight as well make the most of it, and a smart shoe on a smallfoot had never prevented an editor from taking your "stuff."But others thought this frivolous, and they wore "art fabrics"and barbaric jewelry. The men were seldom eccentric in appearance.
They tried to look as little like authors as possible.
They wished to be taken for men of the world, and couldhave passed anywhere for the managing clerks of a city firm.
They always seemed a little tired. I had never knownwriters before, and I found them very strange, but I do notthink they ever seemed to me quite real.
I remember that I thought their conversation brilliant, and Iused to listen with astonishment to the stinging humour withwhich they would tear a brother-author to pieces the momentthat his back was turned. The artist has this advantage overthe rest of the world, that his friends offer not only theirappearance and their character to his satire, but also their work.
I despaired of ever expressing myself with such aptnessor with such fluency. In those days conversation was stillcultivated as an art; a neat repartee was more highly valued thanthe crackling of thorns under a pot; and the epigram, not yeta mechanical appliance by which the dull may achieve a semblanceof wit, gave sprightliness to the small talk of the urbane.
It is sad that I can remember nothing of all this scintillation.
But I think the conversation never settled down socomfortably as when it turned to the details of thetrade which was the other side of the art we practised.
When we had done discussing the merits of the latest book,it was natural to wonder how many copies had been sold,what advance the author had received, and how much he was likelyto make out of it. Then we would speak of this publisher andof that, comparing the generosity of one with the meanness of another;we would argue whether it was better to go to one who gavehandsome royalties or to another who "pushed" a book for allit was worth. Some advertised badly and some well. Some weremodern and some were old-fashioned. Then we would talk ofagents and the offers they had obtained for us; of editors andthe sort of contributions they welcomed, how much they paid athousand, and whether they paid promptly or otherwise. To meit was all very romantic. It gave me an intimate sense ofbeing a member of some mystic brotherhood.
No one was kinder to me at that time than Rose Waterford.
She combined a masculine intelligence with a feminine perversity,and the novels she wrote were original and disconcerting.
It was at her house one day that I met Charles Strickland's wife.
Miss Waterford was giving a tea-party, and her small room wasmore than usually full. Everyone seemed to be talking, and I,sitting in silence, felt awkward; but I was too shy to breakinto any of the groups that seemed absorbed in their own affairs.
Miss Waterford was a good hostess, and seeing my embarrassmentcame up to me.
"I want you to talk to Mrs. Strickland," she said.
"She's raving about your book."
"What does she do?" I asked.
I was conscious of my ignorance, and if Mrs. Strickland was awell-known writer I thought it as well to ascertain the factbefore I spoke to her.
Rose Waterford cast down her eyes demurely to give greatereffect to her reply.
"She gives luncheon-parties. You've only got to roar alittle, and she'll ask you."
Rose Waterford was a cynic. She looked upon life as anopportunity for writing novels and the public as her rawmaterial. Now and then she invited members of it to her houseif they showed an appreciation of her talent and entertainedwith proper lavishness. She held their weakness for lions ingood-humoured contempt, but played to them her part of thedistinguished woman of letters with decorum.
I was led up to Mrs. Strickland, and for ten minutes wetalked together. I noticed nothing about her except that shehad a pleasant voice. She had a flat in Westminster, overlookingthe unfinished cathedral, and because we lived in the sameneighbourhood we felt friendly disposed to one another.
The Army and Navy Stores are a bond of union between all who dwellbetween the river and St. James's Park. Mrs. Strickland askedme for my address, and a few days later I received aninvitation to luncheon.
My engagements were few, and I was glad to accept. When Iarrived, a little late, because in my fear of being too earlyI had walked three times round the cathedral, I found theparty already complete. Miss Waterford was there and Mrs. Jay,Richard Twining and George Road. We were all writers.
It was a fine day, early in spring, and we were in a good humour.
We talked about a hundred things. Miss Waterford,torn between the aestheticism of her early youth, when sheused to go to parties in sage green, holding a daffodil, andthe flippancy of her maturer years, which tended to high heelsand Paris frocks, wore a new hat. It put her in high spirits.
I had never heard her more malicious about our common friends.
Mrs. Jay, aware that impropriety is the soul of wit, madeobservations in tones hardly above a whisper that might wellhave tinged the snowy tablecloth with a rosy hue.
Richard Twining bubbled over with quaint absurdities, andGeorge Road, conscious that he need not exhibit a brilliancy whichwas almost a by-word, opened his mouth only to put food into it.
Mrs. Strickland did not talk much, but she had a pleasant giftfor keeping the conversation general; and when there was apause she threw in just the right remark to set it going once more.
She was a woman of thirty-seven, rather tall and plump,without being fat; she was not pretty, but her face waspleasing, chiefly, perhaps, on account of her kind brown eyes.
Her skin was rather sallow. Her dark hair was elaborately dressed.
She was the only woman of the three whose face wasfree of make-up, and by contrast with the others she seemedsimple and unaffected.
The dining-room was in the good taste of the period. It wasvery severe. There was a high dado of white wood and a greenpaper on which were etchings by Whistler in neat black frames.
The green curtains with their peacock design, hung in straightlines, and the green carpet, in the pattern of which palerabbits frolicked among leafy trees, suggested the influenceof William Morris. There was blue delft on the chimney-piece.
At that time there must have been five hundred dining-rooms inLondon decorated in exactly the same manner. It was chaste,artistic, and dull.
When we left I walked away with Miss Waterford, and the fineday and her new hat persuaded us to saunter through the Park.
"That was a very nice party," I said.
"Did you think the food was good? I told her that if shewanted writers she must feed them well."
"Admirable advice," I answered. "But why does she want them?"
Miss Waterford shrugged her shoulders.
"She finds them amusing. She wants to be in the movement.
I fancy she's rather simple, poor dear, and she thinks we'reall wonderful. After all, it pleases her to ask us to luncheon,and it doesn't hurt us. I like her for it."
Looking back, I think that Mrs. Strickland was the mostharmless of all the lion-hunters that pursue their quarry fromthe rarefied heights of Hampstead to the nethermost studios ofCheyne Walk. She had led a very quiet youth in the country,and the books that came down from Mudie's Library brought withthem not only their own romance, but the romance of London.
She had a real passion for reading (rare in her kind, who forthe most part are more interested in the author than in his book,in the painter than in his pictures), and she invented aworld of the imagination in which she lived with a freedom shenever acquired in the world of every day. When she came toknow writers it was like adventuring upon a stage which tillthen she had known only from the other side of the footlights.
She saw them dramatically, and really seemed herself to live alarger life because she entertained them and visited them intheir fastnesses. She accepted the rules with which theyplayed the game of life as valid for them, but never for amoment thought of regulating her own conduct in accordancewith them. Their moral eccentricities, like their oddities of dress,their wild theories and paradoxes, were an entertainment whichamused her, but had not the slightest influence on her convictions.
"Is there a Mr. Strickland?" I asked
"Oh yes; he's something in the city. I believe he's astockbroker. He's very dull."
"Are they good friends?"
"They adore one another. You'll meet him if you dine there.
But she doesn't often have people to dinner. He's very quiet.
He's not in the least interested in literature or the arts."
"Why do nice women marry dull men?"
"Because intelligent men won't marry nice women."
I could not think of any retort to this, so I asked if Mrs.
Strickland had children.
"Yes; she has a boy and a girl. They're both at school."
The subject was exhausted, and we began to talk of other things.
During the summer I met Mrs. Strickland not infrequently.
I went now and then to pleasant little luncheons at her flat,and to rather more formidable tea-parties. We took a fancy toone another. I was very young, and perhaps she liked the ideaof guiding my virgin steps on the hard road of letters; whilefor me it was pleasant to have someone I could go to with mysmall troubles, certain of an attentive ear and reasonablecounsel. Mrs. Strickland had the gift of sympathy. It is acharming faculty, but one often abused by those who areconscious of its possession: for there is something ghoulishin the avidity with which they will pounce upon the misfortuneof their friends so that they may exercise their dexterity.
It gushes forth like an oil-well, and the sympathetic pour outtheir sympathy with an abandon that is sometimes embarrassingto their victims. There are bosoms on which so many tearshave been shed that I cannot bedew them with mine.
Mrs. Strickland used her advantage with tact. You felt that youobliged her by accepting her sympathy. When, in theenthusiasm of my youth, I remarked on this to Rose Waterford,she said:
"Milk is very nice, especially with a drop of brandy in it,but the domestic cow is only too glad to be rid of it.
A swollen udder is very uncomfortable."
Rose Waterford had a blistering tongue. No one could say suchbitter things; on the other hand, no one could do morecharming ones.
There was another thing I liked in Mrs. Strickland.
She managed her surroundings with elegance. Her flat was alwaysneat and cheerful, gay with flowers, and the chintzes in thedrawing-room, notwithstanding their severe design, were brightand pretty. The meals in the artistic little dining-room werepleasant; the table looked nice, the two maids were trim andcomely; the food was well cooked. It was impossible not tosee that Mrs. Strickland was an excellent housekeeper.
And you felt sure that she was an admirable mother. There werephotographs in the drawing-room of her son and daughter.
The son -- his name was Robert -- was a boy of sixteen at Rugby;and you saw him in flannels and a cricket cap, and again in atail-coat and a stand-up collar. He had his mother's candidbrow and fine, reflective eyes. He looked clean, healthy, and normal.
"I don't know that he's very clever," she said one day, when Iwas looking at the photograph, "but I know he's good. He hasa charming character."
The daughter was fourteen. Her hair, thick and dark like hermother's, fell over her shoulders in fine profusion, and shehad the same kindly expression and sedate, untroubled eyes.
"They're both of them the image of you," I said.
"Yes; I think they are more like me than their father."
"Why have you never let me meet him?" I asked.
"Would you like to?"
She smiled, her smile was really very sweet, and she blushed alittle; it was singular that a woman of that age should flushso readily. Perhaps her naivete was her greatest charm.
"You know, he's not at all literary," she said. "He's aperfect philistine."
She said this not disparagingly, but affectionately rather, asthough, by acknowledging the worst about him, she wished toprotect him from the aspersions of her friends.
"He's on the Stock Exchange, and he's a typical broker.
I think he'd bore you to death."
"Does he bore you?" I asked.
"You see, I happen to be his wife. I'm very fond of him."
She smiled to cover her shyness, and I fancied she had a fearthat I would make the sort of gibe that such a confessioncould hardly have failed to elicit from Rose Waterford.
She hesitated a little. Her eyes grew tender.
"He doesn't pretend to be a genius. He doesn't even make muchmoney on the Stock Exchange. But he's awfully good and kind."
"I think I should like him very much."
"I'll ask you to dine with us quietly some time, but mind, you comeat your own risk; don't blame me if you have a very dull evening."
But when at last I met Charles Strickland, it was undercircumstances which allowed me to do no more than just makehis acquaintance. One morning Mrs. Strickland sent me round anote to say that she was giving a dinner-party that evening,and one of her guests had failed her. She asked me to stopthe gap. She wrote:
"It's only decent to warn you that you will be bored toextinction. It was a thoroughly dull party from thebeginning, but if you will come I shall be uncommonly grateful.
And you and I can have a little chat by ourselves."
It was only neighbourly to accept.
When Mrs. Strickland introduced me to her husband, he gave mea rather indifferent hand to shake. Turning to him gaily,she attempted a small jest.
"I asked him to show him that I really had a husband. I thinkhe was beginning to doubt it."
Strickland gave the polite little laugh with which peopleacknowledge a facetiousness in which they see nothing funny,but did not speak. New arrivals claimed my host's attention,and I was left to myself. When at last we were all assembled,waiting for dinner to be announced, I reflected, while Ichatted with the woman I had been asked to "take in," thatcivilised man practises a strange ingenuity in wasting ontedious exercises the brief span of his life. It was the kindof party which makes you wonder why the hostess has troubledto bid her guests, and why the guests have troubled to come.
There were ten people. They met with indifference, and wouldpart with relief. It was, of course, a purely social function.
The Stricklands "owed" dinners to a number of persons,whom they took no interest in, and so had asked them;these persons had accepted. Why? To avoid the tedium ofdining <i tete-a-tete>, to give their servants a rest, becausethere was no reason to refuse, because they were "owed" a dinner.
The dining-room was inconveniently crowded. There was a K.C.
and his wife, a Government official and his wife,Mrs. Strickland's sister and her husband, Colonel MacAndrew,and the wife of a Member of Parliament. It was because the Memberof Parliament found that he could not leave the House that I hadbeen invited. The respectability of the party was portentous.
The women were too nice to be well dressed, andtoo sure of their position to be amusing. The men were solid.
There was about all of them an air of well-satisfied prosperity.
Everyone talked a little louder than natural in an instinctivedesire to make the party go, and there was a great deal ofnoise in the room. But there was no general conversation.
Each one talked to his neighbour; to his neighbour on theright during the soup, fish, and entree; to his neighbour onthe left during the roast, sweet, and savoury. They talked ofthe political situation and of golf, of their children and thelatest play, of the pictures at the Royal Academy, of theweather and their plans for the holidays. There was never apause, and the noise grew louder. Mrs. Strickland mightcongratulate herself that her party was a success.
Her husband played his part with decorum. Perhaps he did not talkvery much, and I fancied there was towards the end a look offatigue in the faces of the women on either side of him.
They were finding him heavy. Once or twice Mrs. Strickland's eyesrested on him somewhat anxiously.
At last she rose and shepherded the ladies out of one room.
Strickland shut the door behind her, and, moving to the otherend of the table, took his place between the K.C. and theGovernment official. He passed round the port again andhanded us cigars. The K.C. remarked on the excellence of thewine, and Strickland told us where he got it. We began tochat about vintages and tobacco. The K.C. told us of a casehe was engaged in, and the Colonel talked about polo. I hadnothing to say and so sat silent, trying politely to showinterest in the conversation; and because I thought no one wasin the least concerned with me, examined Strickland at myease. He was bigger than I expected: I do not know why I hadimagined him slender and of insignificant appearance; in pointof fact he was broad and heavy, with large hands and feet, andhe wore his evening clothes clumsily. He gave you somewhatthe idea of a coachman dressed up for the occasion. He was aman of forty, not good-looking, and yet not ugly, for hisfeatures were rather good; but they were all a little largerthan life-size, and the effect was ungainly. He was cleanshaven, and his large face looked uncomfortably naked.
His hair was reddish, cut very short, and his eyes were small,blue or grey. He looked commonplace. I no longer wonderedthat Mrs. Strickland felt a certain embarrassment about him;he was scarcely a credit to a woman who wanted to make herselfa position in the world of art and letters. It was obviousthat he had no social gifts, but these a man can do without;he had no eccentricity even, to take him out of the common run;he was just a good, dull, honest, plain man. One wouldadmire his excellent qualities, but avoid his company.
He was null. He was probably a worthy member of society, a goodhusband and father, an honest broker; but there was no reasonto waste one's time over him.
The season was drawing to its dusty end, and everyone I knewwas arranging to go away. Mrs. Strickland was taking herfamily to the coast of Norfolk, so that the children mighthave the sea and her husband golf. We said good-bye to oneanother, and arranged to meet in the autumn. But on my lastday in town, coming out of the Stores, I met her with her sonand daughter; like myself, she had been making her finalpurchases before leaving London, and we were both hot and tired.
I proposed that we should all go and eat ices in the park.
I think Mrs. Strickland was glad to show me her children,and she accepted my invitation with alacrity. They were evenmore attractive than their photographs had suggested, and she wasright to be proud of them. I was young enough for them not tofeel shy, and they chattered merrily about one thing and another.
They were extraordinarily nice, healthy young children.
It was very agreeable under the trees.
When in an hour they crowded into a cab to go home, I strolledidly to my club. I was perhaps a little lonely, and it waswith a touch of envy that I thought of the pleasant familylife of which I had had a glimpse. They seemed devoted to oneanother. They had little private jokes of their own which,unintelligible to the outsider, amused them enormously.
Perhaps Charles Strickland was dull judged by a standard thatdemanded above all things verbal scintillation; but hisintelligence was adequate to his surroundings, and that is apassport, not only to reasonable success, but still more tohappiness. Mrs. Strickland was a charming woman, and sheloved him. I pictured their lives, troubled by no untowardadventure, honest, decent, and, by reason of those twoupstanding, pleasant children, so obviously destined to carryon the normal traditions of their race and station,not without significance. They would grow old insensibly;they would see their son and daughter come to years of reason,marry in due course -- the one a pretty girl, future mother ofhealthy children; the other a handsome, manly fellow,obviously a soldier; and at last, prosperous in theirdignified retirement, beloved by their descendants, after a happy,not unuseful life, in the fullness of their age they wouldsink into the grave.
That must be the story of innumerable couples, and the patternof life it offers has a homely grace. It reminds you of aplacid rivulet, meandering smoothly through green pastures andshaded by pleasant trees, till at last it falls into the vastysea; but the sea is so calm, so silent, so indifferent, thatyou are troubled suddenly by a vague uneasiness. Perhaps itis only by a kink in my nature, strong in me even in those days,that I felt in such an existence, the share of the greatmajority, something amiss. I recognised its social values,I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for awilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in sucheasy delights. In my heart was a desire to live more dangerously.
I was not unprepared for jagged rocks and treacherous shoals ifI could only have change -- change and the excitement ofthe unforeseen.
On reading over what I have written of the Stricklands, I amconscious that they must seem shadowy. I have been able toinvest them with none of those characteristics which make thepersons of a book exist with a real life of their own; and,wondering if the fault is mine, I rack my brains to rememberidiosyncrasies which might lend them vividness. I feel thatby dwelling on some trick of speech or some queer habit Ishould be able to give them a significance peculiar to themselves.
As they stand they are like the figures in an old tapestry;they do not separate themselves from the background,and at a distance seem to lose their pattern, so that you havelittle but a pleasing piece of colour. My only excuse is thatthe impression they made on me was no other. There was justthat shadowiness about them which you find in people whoselives are part of the social organism, so that they exist init and by it only. They are like cells in the body, essential,but, so long as they remain healthy, engulfed inthe momentous whole. The Stricklands were an average familyin the middle class. A pleasant, hospitable woman, with aharmless craze for the small lions of literary society; arather dull man, doing his duty in that state of life in whicha merciful Providence had placed him; two nice-looking,healthy children. Nothing could be more ordinary. I do notknow that there was anything about them to excite theattention of the curious.
When I reflect on all that happened later, I ask myself if Iwas thick-witted not to see that there was in CharlesStrickland at least something out of the common. Perhaps.
I think that I have gathered in the years that intervene betweenthen and now a fair knowledge of mankind, but even if when I firstmet the Stricklands I had the experience which I have now,I do not believe that I should have judged themdifferently. But because I have learnt that man is incalculable,I should not at this time of day be so surprised by the newsthat reached me when in the early autumn I returned to London.
I had not been back twenty-four hours before I ran across RoseWaterford in Jermyn Street.
"You look very gay and sprightly," I said. "What's the matterwith you?"
She smiled, and her eyes shone with a malice I knew already.
It meant that she had heard some scandal about one of herfriends, and the instinct of the literary woman was all alert.
"You did meet Charles Strickland, didn't you?"
Not only her face, but her whole body, gave a sense of alacrity.
I nodded. I wondered if the poor devil had beenhammered on the Stock Exchange or run over by an omnibus.
"Isn't it dreadful? He's run away from his wife."
Miss Waterford certainly felt that she could not do hersubject justice on the curb of Jermyn Street, and so,like an artist, flung the bare fact at me and declared thatshe knew no details. I could not do her the injustice of supposingthat so trifling a circumstance would have prevented her fromgiving them, but she was obstinate.
"I tell you I know nothing," she said, in reply to my agitatedquestions, and then, with an airy shrug of the shoulders:"I believe that a young person in a city tea-shop has lefther situation."
She flashed a smile at me, and, protesting an engagement withher dentist, jauntily walked on. I was more interested thandistressed. In those days my experience of life at first handwas small, and it excited me to come upon an incident amongpeople I knew of the same sort as I had read in books.
I confess that time has now accustomed me to incidents of thischaracter among my acquaintance. But I was a little shocked.
Strickland was certainly forty, and I thought it disgustingthat a man of his age should concern himself with affairs ofthe heart. With the superciliousness of extreme youth, I putthirty-five as the utmost limit at which a man might fall inlove without making a fool of himself. And this news wasslightly disconcerting to me personally, because I had writtenfrom the country to Mrs. Strickland, announcing my return, andhad added that unless I heard from her to the contrary,I would come on a certain day to drink a dish of tea with her.
This was the very day, and I had received no word from Mrs.
Strickland. Did she want to see me or did she not? It waslikely enough that in the agitation of the moment my note hadescaped her memory. Perhaps I should be wiser not to go.
On the other hand, she might wish to keep the affair quiet,and it might be highly indiscreet on my part to give any sign thatthis strange news had reached me. I was torn between the fearof hurting a nice woman's feelings and the fear of being inthe way. I felt she must be suffering, and I did not want tosee a pain which I could not help; but in my heart was adesire, that I felt a little ashamed of, to see how she wastaking it. I did not know what to do.
Finally it occurred to me that I would call as though nothinghad happened, and send a message in by the maid asking Mrs.
Strickland if it was convenient for her to see me. This wouldgive her the opportunity to send me away. But I wasoverwhelmed with embarrassment when I said to the maid thephrase I had prepared, and while I waited for the answer in adark passage I had to call up all my strength of mind not to bolt.
The maid came back. Her manner suggested to my excitedfancy a complete knowledge of the domestic calamity.
"Will you come this way, sir?" she said.
I followed her into the drawing-room. The blinds were partlydrawn to darken the room, and Mrs. Strickland was sitting withher back to the light. Her brother-in-law, Colonel MacAndrew,stood in front of the fireplace, warming his back at an unlit fire.
To myself my entrance seemed excessively awkward. I imaginedthat my arrival had taken them by surprise, and Mrs. Stricklandhad let me come in only because she had forgotten to put me off.
I fancied that the Colonel resented the interruption.
"I wasn't quite sure if you expected me," I said, trying toseem unconcerned.
"Of course I did. Anne will bring the tea in a minute."
Even in the darkened room, I could not help seeing that Mrs.
Strickland's face was all swollen with tears. Her skin,never very good, was earthy.
"You remember my brother-in-law, don't you? You met at dinner,just before the holidays."
We shook hands. I felt so shy that I could think of nothingto say, but Mrs. Strickland came to my rescue. She asked mewhat I had been doing with myself during the summer, and withthis help I managed to make some conversation till tea wasbrought in. The Colonel asked for a whisky-and-soda.
"You'd better have one too, Amy," he said.
"No; I prefer tea."
This was the first suggestion that anything untowardhad happened. I took no notice, and did my best to engageMrs. Strickland in talk. The Colonel, still standing in frontof the fireplace, uttered no word. I wondered how soon I coulddecently take my leave, and I asked myself why on earth Mrs.
Strickland had allowed me to come. There were no flowers,and various knick-knacks, put away during the summer, had not beenreplaced; there was something cheerless and stiff about theroom which had always seemed so friendly; it gave you an oddfeeling, as though someone were lying dead on the other sideof the wall. I finished tea.
"Will you have a cigarette?" asked Mrs. Strickland.
She looked about for the box, but it was not to be seen.
"I'm afraid there are none."
Suddenly she burst into tears, and hurried from the room.
I was startled. I suppose now that the lack of cigarettes,brought as a rule by her husband, forced him back upon herrecollection, and the new feeling that the small comforts shewas used to were missing gave her a sudden pang. She realisedthat the old life was gone and done with. It was impossibleto keep up our social pretences any longer.
"I dare say you'd like me to go," I said to the Colonel,getting up.
"I suppose you've heard that blackguard has deserted her,"he cried explosively.
"You know how people gossip," I answered. "I was vaguely toldthat something was wrong."
"He's bolted. He's gone off to Paris with a woman. He's leftAmy without a penny."
"I'm awfully sorry," I said, not knowing what else to say.
The Colonel gulped down his whisky. He was a tall, lean manof fifty, with a drooping moustache and grey hair. He hadpale blue eyes and a weak mouth. I remembered from myprevious meeting with him that he had a foolish face, and wasproud of the fact that for the ten years before he left thearmy he had played polo three days a week.
"I don't suppose Mrs. Strickland wants to be bothered with mejust now," I said. "Will you tell her how sorry I am?If there's anything I can do. I shall be delighted to do it."
He took no notice of me.
"I don't know what's to become of her. And then there are thechildren. Are they going to live on air? Seventeen years."
"What about seventeen years?"
"They've been married," he snapped. "I never liked him.
Of course he was my brother-in-law, and I made the best of it.
Did you think him a gentleman? She ought never to havemarried him."
"Is it absolutely final?"
"There's only one thing for her to do, and that's to divorcehim. That's what I was telling her when you came in.
'Fire in with your petition, my dear Amy,' I said. 'You owe itto yourself and you owe it to the children.' He'd better not letme catch sight of him. I'd thrash him within an inch of his life."
I could not help thinking that Colonel MacAndrew might havesome difficulty in doing this, since Strickland had struck meas a hefty fellow, but I did not say anything. It is alwaysdistressing when outraged morality does not possess thestrength of arm to administer direct chastisement on the sinner.
I was making up my mind to another attempt at goingwhen Mrs. Strickland came back. She had dried her eyes andpowdered her nose.
"I'm sorry I broke down," she said. "I'm glad you didn't go away."
She sat down. I did not at all know what to say. I felt acertain shyness at referring to matters which were no concernof mine. I did not then know the besetting sin of woman,the passion to discuss her private affairs with anyone who iswilling to listen. Mrs. Strickland seemed to make an effortover herself.
"Are people talking about it?" she asked.
I was taken aback by her assumption that I knew all about herdomestic misfortune.
"I've only just come back. The only person I've seen is RoseWaterford."
Mrs. Strickland clasped her hands.
"Tell me exactly what she said." And when I hesitated,she insisted. "I particularly want to know."
"You know the way people talk. She's not very reliable, isshe? She said your husband had left you."
"Is that all?"
I did not choose to repeat Rose Waterford's parting referenceto a girl from a tea-shop. I lied.
"She didn't say anything about his going with anyone?"
"That's all I wanted to know."
I was a little puzzled, but at all events I understood that Imight now take my leave. When I shook hands with Mrs.
Strickland I told her that if I could be of any use to her Ishould be very glad. She smiled wanly.
"Thank you so much. I don't know that anybody can do anythingfor me."
Too shy to express my sympathy, I turned to say good-bye tothe Colonel. He did not take my hand.
"I'm just coming. If you're walking up Victoria Street,I'll come along with you."
"All right," I said. "Come on."
"This is a terrible thing," he said, the moment we got outinto the street.
I realised that he had come away with me in order to discussonce more what he had been already discussing for hours withhis sister-in-law.
"We don't know who the woman is, you know," he said. "All weknow is that the blackguard's gone to Paris."
"I thought they got on so well."
"So they did. Why, just before you came in Amy said they'dnever had a quarrel in the whole of their married life.
You know Amy. There never was a better woman in the world."
Since these confidences were thrust on me, I saw no harm inasking a few questions.
"But do you mean to say she suspected nothing?"
"Nothing. He spent August with her and the children in Norfolk.
He was just the same as he'd always been. We wentdown for two or three days, my wife and I, and I played golfwith him. He came back to town in September to let hispartner go away, and Amy stayed on in the country.
They'd taken a house for six weeks, and at the end of her tenancyshe wrote to tell him on which day she was arriving in London.
He answered from Paris. He said he'd made up his mind not tolive with her any more."
"What explanation did he give?"
"My dear fellow, he gave no explanation. I've seen theletter. It wasn't more than ten lines."
"But that's extraordinary."
We happened then to cross the street, and the trafficprevented us from speaking. What Colonel MacAndrew had toldme seemed very improbable, and I suspected that Mrs.
Strickland, for reasons of her own, had concealed from himsome part of the facts. It was clear that a man afterseventeen years of wedlock did not leave his wife withoutcertain occurrences which must have led her to suspect thatall was not well with their married life. The Colonel caught me up.
"Of course, there was no explanation he could give except thathe'd gone off with a woman. I suppose he thought she couldfind that out for herself. That's the sort of chap he was."
"What is Mrs. Strickland going to do?"
"Well, the first thing is to get our proofs. I'm going overto Paris myself."
"And what about his business?"
"That's where he's been so artful. He's been drawing in hishorns for the last year."
"Did he tell his partner he was leaving?"
"Not a word."
Colonel MacAndrew had a very sketchy knowledge of businessmatters, and I had none at all, so I did not quite understandunder what conditions Strickland had left his affairs.
I gathered that the deserted partner was very angry andthreatened proceedings. It appeared that when everything wassettled he would be four or five hundred pounds out of pocket.
"It's lucky the furniture in the flat is in Amy's name.
She'll have that at all events."
"Did you mean it when you said she wouldn't have a bob?"
"Of course I did. She's got two or three hundred pounds andthe furniture."
"But how is she going to live?"
The affair seemed to grow more complicated, and the Colonel,with his expletives and his indignation, confused rather thaninformed me. I was glad that, catching sight of the clock atthe Army and Navy Stores, he remembered an engagement to playcards at his club, and so left me to cut across St. James Park.
A day or two later Mrs. Strickland sent me round a note askingif I could go and see her that evening after dinner. I foundher alone. Her black dress, simple to austerity, suggestedher bereaved condition, and I was innocently astonished thatnotwithstanding a real emotion she was able to dress the partshe had to play according to her notions of seemliness.
"You said that if I wanted you to do anything you wouldn'tmind doing it," she remarked.
"It was quite true."
"Will you go over to Paris and see Charlie?"
I was taken aback. I reflected that I had only seen him once.
I did not know what she wanted me to do.
"Fred is set on going." Fred was Colonel MacAndrew. "But I'msure he's not the man to go. He'll only make things worse.
I don't know who else to ask."
Her voice trembled a little, and I felt a brute even to hesitate.
"But I've not spoken ten words to your husband. He doesn'tknow me. He'll probably just tell me to go to the devil."
"That wouldn't hurt you," said Mrs. Strickland, smiling.
"What is it exactly you want me to do?"
She did not answer directly.
"I think it's rather an advantage that he doesn't know you.
You see, he never really liked Fred; he thought him a fool; hedidn't understand soldiers. Fred would fly into a passion,and there'd be a quarrel, and things would be worse insteadof better. If you said you came on my behalf, he couldn'trefuse to listen to you."
"I haven't known you very long," I answered. "I don't see howanyone can be expected to tackle a case like this unless heknows all the details. I don't want to pry into what doesn'tconcern me. Why don't you go and see him yourself?"
"You forget he isn't alone."
I held my tongue. I saw myself calling on Charles Stricklandand sending in my card; I saw him come into the room,holding it between finger and thumb:
"To what do I owe this honour?"
"I've come to see you about your wife."
"Really. When you are a little older you will doubtless learnthe advantage of minding your own business. If you will be sogood as to turn your head slightly to the left, you will seethe door. I wish you good-afternoon."
I foresaw that it would be difficult to make my exit withdignity, and I wished to goodness that I had not returned toLondon till Mrs. Strickland had composed her difficulties.
I stole a glance at her. She was immersed in thought.
Presently she looked up at me, sighed deeply, and smiled.
"It was all so unexpected," she said. "We'd been marriedseventeen years. I sever dreamed that Charlie was the sort ofman to get infatuated with anyone. We always got on very welltogether. Of course, I had a great many interests that hedidn't share."
"Have you found out who" -- I did not quite know how toexpress myself -- "who the person, who it is he's gone awaywith?"
"No. No one seems to have an idea. It's so strange.
Generally when a man falls in love with someone people seethem about together, lunching or something, and her friendsalways come and tell the wife. I had no warning -- nothing.
His letter came like a thunderbolt. I thought he wasperfectly happy."
She began to cry, poor thing, and I felt very sorry for her.
But in a little while she grew calmer.
"It's no good making a fool of myself," she said, dryingher eyes. "The only thing is to decide what is the bestthing to do."
She went on, talking somewhat at random, now of the recentpast, then of their first meeting and their marriage;but presently I began to form a fairly coherent picture oftheir lives; and it seemed to me that my surmises had notbeen incorrect. Mrs. Strickland was the daughter of anIndian civilian, who on his retirement had settled in the depthsof the country, but it was his habit every August to take hisfamily to Eastbourne for change of air; and it was here,when she was twenty, that she met Charles Strickland.
He was twenty-three. They played together, walked on the fronttogether, listened together to the nigger minstrels; and shehad made up her mind to accept him a week before he proposedto her. They lived in London, first in Hampstead, and then,as he grew more prosperous, in town. Two children were bornto them.
"He always seemed very fond of them. Even if he was tired of me,I wonder that he had the heart to leave them. It's all soincredible. Even now I can hardly believe it's true."
At last she showed me the letter he had written.
I was curious to see it, but had not ventured to ask for it.
"MY DEAR AMY,
<i "I think you will find everything all right in the flat.
I have given Anne your instructions, and dinner will be readyfor you and the children when you come. I shall not be thereto meet you. I have made up my mind to live apart from you,and I am going to Paris in the morning. I shall post thisletter on my arrival. I shall not come back. My decision isirrevocable.
"Not a word of explanation or regret. Don't you think it's inhuman?"
"It's a very strange letter under the circumstances," I replied.
"There's only one explanation, and that is that he's not himself.
I don't know who this woman is who's got hold of him,but she's made him into another man. It's evidently beengoing on a long time."
"What makes you think that?"
"Fred found that out. My husband said he went to the clubthree or four nights a week to play bridge. Fred knows one ofthe members, and said something about Charles being a greatbridge-player. The man was surprised. He said he'd nevereven seen Charles in the card-room. It's quite clear now thatwhen I thought Charles was at his club he was with her."
I was silent for a moment. Then I thought of the children.
"It must have been difficult to explain to Robert," I said.
"Oh, I never said a word to either of them. You see, we onlycame up to town the day before they had to go back to school.
I had the presence of mind to say that their father had beencalled away on business."
It could not have been very easy to be bright and carelesswith that sudden secret in her heart, nor to give herattention to all the things that needed doing to get herchildren comfortably packed off. Mrs. Strickland's voicebroke again.
"And what is to happen to them, poor darlings? How are wegoing to live?"
She struggled for self-control, and I saw her hands clench andunclench spasmodically. It was dreadfully painful.
"Of course I'll go over to Paris if you think I can do any good,but you must tell me exactly what you want me to do."
"I want him to come back."
"I understood from Colonel MacAndrew that you'd made up yourmind to divorce him."
"I'll never divorce him," she answered with a sudden violence.
"Tell him that from me. He'll never be able to marry that woman.
I'm as obstinate as he is, and I'll never divorce him.
I have to think of my children."
I think she added this to explain her attitude to me, but Ithought it was due to a very natural jealousy rather than tomaternal solicitude.
"Are you in love with him still?"
"I don't know. I want him to come back. If he'll do thatwe'll let bygones be bygones. After all, we've been marriedfor seventeen years. I'm a broadminded woman. I wouldn'thave minded what he did as long as I knew nothing about it.
He must know that his infatuation won't last. If he'll comeback now everything can be smoothed over, and no one will knowanything about it."
It chilled me a little that Mrs. Strickland should beconcerned with gossip, for I did not know then how great apart is played in women's life by the opinion of others.
It throws a shadow of insincerity over their most deeplyfelt emotions.
It was known where Strickland was staying. His partner, in aviolent letter, sent to his bank, had taunted him with hidinghis whereabouts: and Strickland, in a cynical and humourousreply, had told his partner exactly where to find him. He wasapparently living in an Hotel.
"I've never heard of it," said Mrs. Strickland. "But Fredknows it well. He says it's very expensive."
She flushed darkly. I imagined that she saw her husbandinstalled in a luxurious suite of rooms, dining at one smartrestaurant after another, and she pictured his days spent atrace-meetings and his evenings at the play.
"It can't go on at his age," she said. "After all, he's forty.
I could understand it in a young man, but I think it'shorrible in a man of his years, with children who are nearlygrown up. His health will never stand it."
Anger struggled in her breast with misery.
"Tell him that our home cries out for him. Everything is justthe same, and yet everything is different. I can't livewithout him. I'd sooner kill myself. Talk to him about the past,and all we've gone through together. What am I to sayto the children when they ask for him? His room is exactly asit was when he left it. It's waiting for him. We're allwaiting for him."
Now she told me exactly what I should say. She gave meelaborate answers to every possible observation of his.
"You will do everything you can for me?" she said pitifully.
"Tell him what a state I'm in."
I saw that she wished me to appeal to his sympathies by everymeans in my power. She was weeping freely. I wasextraordinarily touched. I felt indignant at Strickland'scold cruelty, and I promised to do all I could to bring him back.
I agreed to go over on the next day but one, and tostay in Paris till I had achieved something. Then, as it wasgrowing late and we were both exhausted by so much emotion,I left her.
During the journey I thought over my errand with misgiving.
Now that I was free from the spectacle of Mrs. Strickland'sdistress I could consider the matter more calmly. I waspuzzled by the contradictions that I saw in her behaviour.
She was very unhappy, but to excite my sympathy she was ableto make a show of her unhappiness. It was evident that shehad been prepared to weep, for she had provided herself with asufficiency of handkerchiefs; I admired her forethought, butin retrospect it made her tears perhaps less moving. I couldnot decide whether she desired the return of her husbandbecause she loved him, or because she dreaded the tongue ofscandal; and I was perturbed by the suspicion that the anguishof love contemned was alloyed in her broken heart with thepangs, sordid to my young mind, of wounded vanity. I had notyet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not knowhow much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness inthe noble, nor how much goodness in the reprobate.
But there was something of an adventure in my trip, and myspirits rose as I approached Paris. I saw myself, too, fromthe dramatic standpoint, and I was pleased with my role of thetrusted friend bringing back the errant husband to hisforgiving wife. I made up my mind to see Strickland thefollowing evening, for I felt instinctively that the hour mustbe chosen with delicacy. An appeal to the emotions is littlelikely to be effectual before luncheon. My own thoughts werethen constantly occupied with love, but I never could imagineconnubial bliss till after tea.
I enquired at my hotel for that in which Charles Stricklandwas living. It was called the Hotel des Belges. But theconcierge, somewhat to my surprise, had never heard of it.
I had understood from Mrs. Strickland that it was a large andsumptuous place at the back of the Rue de Rivoli. We lookedit out in the directory. The only hotel of that name was inthe Rue des Moines. The quarter was not fashionable; it wasnot even respectable. I shook my head.
"I'm sure that's not it," I said.
The concierge shrugged his shoulders. There was no otherhotel of that name in Paris. It occurred to me thatStrickland had concealed his address, after all. In givinghis partner the one I knew he was perhaps playing a trick on him.
I do not know why I had an inkling that it would appealto Strickland's sense of humour to bring a furious stockbrokerover to Paris on a fool's errand to an ill-famed house in amean street. Still, I thought I had better go and see.
Next day about six o'clock I took a cab to the Rue des Moines,but dismissed it at the corner, since I preferred to walk to thehotel and look at it before I went in. It was a street ofsmall shops subservient to the needs of poor people, and aboutthe middle of it, on the left as I walked down, was the Hoteldes Belges. My own hotel was modest enough, but it wasmagnificent in comparison with this. It was a tall, shabbybuilding, that cannot have been painted for years, and it hadso bedraggled an air that the houses on each side of it lookedneat and clean. The dirty windows were all shut. It was nothere that Charles Strickland lived in guilty splendour withthe unknown charmer for whose sake he had abandoned honour and duty.
I was vexed, for I felt that I had been made a fool of,and I nearly turned away without making an enquiry. I went inonly to be able to tell Mrs. Strickland that I had done my best.
The door was at the side of a shop. It stood open, and justwithin was a sign: <i Bureau au premier.> I walked up narrowstairs, and on the landing found a sort of box, glassed in,within which were a desk and a couple of chairs. There was abench outside, on which it might be presumed the night porterpassed uneasy nights. There was no one about, but under anelectric bell was written <i Garcon.> I rang, and presently awaiter appeared. He was a young man with furtive eyes and asullen look. He was in shirt-sleeves and carpet slippers.
I do not know why I made my enquiry as casual as possible.
"Does Mr. Strickland live here by any chance?" I asked.
"Number thirty-two. On the sixth floor."
I was so surprised that for a moment I did not answer.
"Is he in?"
The waiter looked at a board in the <i bureau.>
"He hasn't left his key. Go up and you'll see."
I thought it as well to put one more question.
<i "Madame est la?">
<i "Monsieur est seul.">
The waiter looked at me suspiciously as I made my way upstairs.
They were dark and airless. There was a foul andmusty smell. Three flights up a Woman in a dressing-gown,with touzled hair, opened a door and looked at me silently asI passed. At length I reached the sixth floor, and knocked atthe door numbered thirty-two. There was a sound within, andthe door was partly opened. Charles Strickland stood before me.
He uttered not a word. He evidently did not know me.
I told him my name. I tried my best to assume an airy manner.
"You don't remember me. I had the pleasure of dining with youlast July."
"Come in," he said cheerily. "I'm delighted to see you.
Take a pew."
I entered. It was a very small room, overcrowded withfurniture of the style which the French know as LouisPhilippe. There was a large wooden bedstead on which was abillowing red eiderdown, and there was a large wardrobe,a round table, a very small washstand, and two stuffed chairscovered with red rep. Everything was dirty and shabby.
There was no sign of the abandoned luxury that Colonel MacAndrewhad so confidently described. Strickland threw on the floor theclothes that burdened one of the chairs, and I sat down on it.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
In that small room he seemed even bigger than I remembered him.
He wore an old Norfolk jacket, and he had not shaved forseveral days. When last I saw him he was spruce enough,but he looked ill at ease: now, untidy and ill-kempt,he looked perfectly at home. I did not know how he wouldtake the remark I had prepared.
"I've come to see you on behalf of your wife."
"I was just going out to have a drink before dinner.
You'd better come too. Do you like absinthe?"
"I can drink it."
"Come on, then."
He put on a bowler hat much in need of brushing.
"We might dine together. You owe me a dinner, you know."
"Certainly. Are you alone?"
I flattered myself that I had got in that important questionvery naturally.
"Oh yes. In point of fact I've not spoken to a soul for three days.
My French isn't exactly brilliant."
I wondered as I preceded him downstairs what had happened tothe little lady in the tea-shop. Had they quarrelled already,or was his infatuation passed? It seemed hardly likely if,as appeared, he had been taking steps for a year to make hisdesperate plunge. We walked to the Avenue de Clichy, and satdown at one of the tables on the pavement of a large cafe.
The Avenue de Clichy was crowded at that hour, and a livelyfancy might see in the passers-by the personages of many asordid romance. There were clerks and shopgirls; old fellowswho might have stepped out of the pages of Honore de Balzac;members, male and female, of the professions which make theirprofit of the frailties of mankind. There is in the streetsof the poorer quarters of Paris a thronging vitality whichexcites the blood and prepares the soul for the unexpected.
"Do you know Paris well?" I asked.
"No. We came on our honeymoon. I haven't been since."
"How on earth did you find out your hotel?"
"It was recommended to me. I wanted something cheap."
The absinthe came, and with due solemnity we dropped waterover the melting sugar.
"I thought I'd better tell you at once why I had come to see you,"I said, not without embarrassment.
His eyes twinkled. "I thought somebody would come alongsooner or later. I've had a lot of letters from Amy."
"Then you know pretty well what I've got to say."
"I've not read them."
I lit a cigarette to give myself a moment's time. I did notquite know now how to set about my mission. The eloquentphrases I had arranged, pathetic or indignant, seemed out ofplace on the Avenue de Clichy. Suddenly he gave a chuckle.
"Beastly job for you this, isn't it?"
"Oh, I don't know," I answered.
"Well, look here, you get it over, and then we'll have ajolly evening."
"Has it occurred to you that your wife is frightfully unhappy?"
"She'll get over it."
I cannot describe the extraordinary callousness with which hemade this reply. It disconcerted me, but I did my best not toshow it. I adopted the tone used by my Uncle Henry,a clergyman, when he was asking one of his relatives for asubscription to the Additional Curates Society.
"You don't mind my talking to you frankly?"
He shook his head, smiling.
"Has she deserved that you should treat her like this?"
"Have you any complaint to make against her?"
"Then, isn't it monstrous to leave her in this fashion,after seventeen years of married life, without a faultto find with her?"
I glanced at him with surprise. His cordial agreement withall I said cut the ground from under my feet. It made myposition complicated, not to say ludicrous. I was prepared tobe persuasive, touching, and hortatory, admonitory andexpostulating, if need be vituperative even, indignant andsarcastic; but what the devil does a mentor do when the sinnermakes no bones about confessing his sin? I had no experience,since my own practice has always been to deny everything.
"What, then?" asked Strickland.
I tried to curl my lip.
"Well, if you acknowledge that, there doesn't seem much moreto be said."
"I don't think there is."
I felt that I was not carrying out my embassy with any great skill.
I was distinctly nettled.
"Hang it all, one can't leave a woman without a bob."
"How is she going to live?"
"I've supported her for seventeen years. Why shouldn't shesupport herself for a change?"
"Let her try."
Of course there were many things I might have answered to this.
I might have spoken of the economic position of woman,of the contract, tacit and overt, which a man accepts by hismarriage, and of much else; but I felt that there was only onepoint which really signified.
"Don't you care for her any more?"
"Not a bit," he replied.
The matter was immensely serious for all the parties concerned,but there was in the manner of his answer such a cheerfuleffrontery that I had to bite my lips in order not to laugh.
I reminded myself that his behaviour was abominable.
I worked myself up into a state of moral indignation.
"Damn it all, there are your children to think of.
They've never done you any harm. They didn't ask to bebrought into the world. If you chuck everything like this,they'll be thrown on the streets.
"They've had a good many years of comfort. It's much morethan the majority of children have. Besides, somebody willlook after them. When it comes to the point, the MacAndrewswill pay for their schooling."
"But aren't you fond of them? They're such awfully nice kids.
Do you mean to say you don't want to have anything more to dowith them?"
"I liked them all right when they were kids, but now they'regrowing up I haven't got any particular feeling for them."
"It's just inhuman."
"I dare say."
"You don't seem in the least ashamed."
I tried another tack.
"Everyone will think you a perfect swine."
"Won't it mean anything to you to know that people loathe anddespise you?"
His brief answer was so scornful that it made my question,natural though it was, seem absurd. I reflected for a minuteor two.
"I wonder if one can live quite comfortably when one'sconscious of the disapproval of one's fellows? Are you sureit won't begin to worry you? Everyone has some sort of aconscience, and sooner or later it will find you out.
Supposing your wife died, wouldn't you be tortured by remorse?"
He did not answer, and I waited for some time for him tospeak. At last I had to break the silence myself.
"What have you to say to that?"
"Only that you're a damned fool."
"At all events, you can be forced to support your wife andchildren," I retorted, somewhat piqued. "I suppose the lawhas some protection to offer them."
"Can the law get blood out of a stone? I haven't any money.
I've got about a hundred pounds."
I began to be more puzzled than before. It was true that hishotel pointed to the most straitened circumstances.
"What are you going to do when you've spent that?"
He was perfectly cool, and his eyes kept that mocking smilewhich made all I said seem rather foolish. I paused for alittle while to consider what I had better say next. But itwas he who spoke first.
"Why doesn't Amy marry again? She's comparatively young, andshe's not unattractive. I can recommend her as an excellent wife.
If she wants to divorce me I don't mind giving her thenecessary grounds."
Now it was my turn to smile. He was very cunning, but it wasevidently this that he was aiming at. He had some reason toconceal the fact that he had run away with a woman, and he wasusing every precaution to hide her whereabouts. I answeredwith decision.
"Your wife says that nothing you can do will ever induce herto divorce you. She's quite made up her mind. You can putany possibility of that definitely out of your head."
He looked at me with an astonishment that was certainly notfeigned. The smile abandoned his lips, and he spoke quite seriously.
"But, my dear fellow, I don't care. It doesn't matter atwopenny damn to me one way or the other."
"Oh, come now; you mustn't think us such fools as all that.
We happen to know that you came away with a woman."
He gave a little start, and then suddenly burst into a shoutof laughter. He laughed so uproariously that people sittingnear us looked round, and some of them began to laugh too.
"I don't see anything very amusing in that."
"Poor Amy," he grinned.
Then his face grew bitterly scornful.
"What poor minds women have got! Love. It's always love.
They think a man leaves only because he wants others.
Do you think I should be such a fool as to do what I'vedone for a woman?"
"Do you mean to say you didn't leave your wife for another woman?"
"Of course not."
"On your word of honour?"
I don't know why I asked for that. It was very ingenuous of me.
"On my word of honour."
"Then, what in God's name have you left her for?"
"I want to paint."
I looked at him for quite a long time. I did not understand.
I thought he was mad. It must be remembered that I was veryyoung, and I looked upon him as a middle-aged man. I forgoteverything but my own amazement.
"But you're forty."
"That's what made me think it was high time to begin."
"Have you ever painted?"
"I rather wanted to be a painter when I was a boy, but myfather made me go into business because he said there was nomoney in art. I began to paint a bit a year ago. For thelast year I've been going to some classes at night."
"Was that where you went when Mrs. Strickland thought you wereplaying bridge at your club?"
"Why didn't you tell her?"
"I preferred to keep it to myself."
"Can you paint?"
"Not yet. But I shall. That's why I've come over here.
I couldn't get what I wanted in London. Perhaps I can here."
"Do you think it's likely that a man will do any good when hestarts at your age? Most men begin painting at eighteen."
"I can learn quicker than I could when I was eighteen."
"What makes you think you have any talent?"
He did not answer for a minute. His gaze rested on thepassing throng, but I do not think he saw it. His answer wasno answer.
"I've got to paint."
"Aren't you taking an awful chance?"
He looked at me. His eyes had something strange in them,so that I felt rather uncomfortable.
"How old are you? Twenty-three?"
It seemed to me that the question was beside the point.
It was natural that I should take chances; but he was a man whoseyouth was past, a stockbroker with a position ofrespectability, a wife and two children. A course that wouldhave been natural for me was absurd for him. I wished to bequite fair.
"Of course a miracle may happen, and you may be a great painter,but you must confess the chances are a million to oneagainst it. It'll be an awful sell if at the end you have toacknowledge you've made a hash of it."
"I've got to paint," he repeated.
"Supposing you're never anything more than third-rate, do youthink it will have been worth while to give up everything?After all, in any other walk in life it doesn't matter ifyou're not very good; you can get along quite comfortably ifyou're just adequate; but it's different with an artist."
"You blasted fool," he said.
"I don't see why, unless it's folly to say the obvious."
"I tell you I've got to paint. I can't help myself. When aman falls into the water it doesn't matter how he swims,well or badly: he's got to get out or else he'll drown."
There was real passion in his voice, and in spite of myself Iwas impressed. I seemed to feel in him some vehement powerthat was struggling within him; it gave me the sensation ofsomething very strong, overmastering, that held him, as it were,against his will. I could not understand. He seemedreally to be possessed of a devil, and I felt that it mightsuddenly turn and rend him. Yet he looked ordinary enough.
My eyes, resting on him curiously, caused him noembarrassment. I wondered what a stranger would have takenhim to be, sitting there in his old Norfolk jacket and hisunbrushed bowler; his trousers were baggy, his hands were notclean; and his face, with the red stubble of the unshavedchin, the little eyes, and the large, aggressive nose,was uncouth and coarse. His mouth was large, his lips were heavyand sensual. No; I could not have placed him.
"You won't go back to your wife?" I said at last.
"She's willing to forget everything that's happened and start afresh.
She'll never make you a single reproach."
"She can go to hell."
"You don't care if people think you an utter blackguard?You don't care if she and your children have to beg their bread?"
"Not a damn."
I was silent for a moment in order to give greater force to mynext remark. I spoke as deliberately as I could.
"You are a most unmitigated cad."
"Now that you've got that off your chest, let's go and have dinner."
I dare say it would have been more seemly to decline this proposal.
I think perhaps I should have made a show of theindignation I really felt, and I am sure that ColonelMacAndrew at least would have thought well of me if I had beenable to report my stout refusal to sit at the same table witha man of such character. But the fear of not being able tocarry it through effectively has always made me shy ofassuming the moral attitude; and in this case the certaintythat my sentiments would be lost on Strickland made itpeculiarly embarrassing to utter them. Only the poet or thesaint can water an asphalt pavement in the confidentanticipation that lilies will reward his labour.
I paid for what we had drunk, and we made our way to a cheaprestaurant, crowded and gay, where we dined with pleasure.
I had the appetite of youth and he of a hardened conscience.
Then we went to a tavern to have coffee and liqueurs.
I had said all I had to say on the subject that had brought meto Paris, and though I felt it in a manner treacherous to Mrs.
Strickland not to pursue it, I could not struggle against hisindifference. It requires the feminine temperament to repeatthe same thing three times with unabated zest. I solacedmyself by thinking that it would be useful for me to find outwhat I could about Strickland's state of mind. It alsointerested me much more. But this was not an easy thing to do,for Strickland was not a fluent talker. He seemed toexpress himself with difficulty, as though words were not themedium with which his mind worked; and you had to guess theintentions of his soul by hackneyed phrases, slang, and vague,unfinished gestures. But though he said nothing of anyconsequence, there was something in his personality whichprevented him from being dull. Perhaps it was sincerity.
He did not seem to care much about the Paris he was now seeingfor the first time (I did not count the visit with his wife),and he accepted sights which must have been strange to himwithout any sense of astonishment. I have been to Paris ahundred times, and it never fails to give me a thrill of excitement;I can never walk its streets without feeling myselfon the verge of adventure. Strickland remained placid.
Looking back, I think now that he was blind to everything butto some disturbing vision in his soul.
One rather absurd incident took place. There were a number ofharlots in the tavern: some were sitting with men, others bythemselves; and presently I noticed that one of these waslooking at us. When she caught Strickland's eye she smiled.
I do not think he saw her. In a little while she went out,but in a minute returned and, passing our table, very politelyasked us to buy her something to drink. She sat down and Ibegan to chat with her; but, it was plain that her interestwas in Strickland. I explained that he knew no more than twowords of French. She tried to talk to him, partly by signs,partly in pidgin French, which, for some reason, she thoughtwould be more comprehensible to him, and she had half a dozenphrases of English. She made me translate what she could onlyexpress in her own tongue, and eagerly asked for the meaningof his replies. He was quite good-tempered, a little amused,but his indifference was obvious.
"I think you've made a conquest," I laughed.
"I'm not flattered."
In his place I should have been more embarrassed and less calm.
She had laughing eyes and a most charming mouth.
She was young. I wondered what she found so attractive inStrickland. She made no secret of her desires, and I wasbidden to translate.
"She wants you to go home with her."
"I'm not taking any," he replied.
I put his answer as pleasantly as I could. It seemed to me alittle ungracious to decline an invitation of that sort,and I ascribed his refusal to lack of money.
"But I like him," she said. "Tell him it's for love."
When I translated this, Strickland shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
"Tell her to go to hell," he said.
His manner made his answer quite plain, and the girl threwback her head with a sudden gesture. Perhaps she reddenedunder her paint. She rose to her feet.
<i "Monsieur n'est pas poli,"> she said.
She walked out of the inn. I was slightly vexed.
"There wasn't any need to insult her that I can see," I said.
"After all, it was rather a compliment she was paying you."
"That sort of thing makes me sick," he said roughly.
I looked at him curiously. There was a real distaste in hisface, and yet it was the face of a coarse and sensual man.
I suppose the girl had been attracted by a certain brutality in it.
"I could have got all the women I wanted in London. I didn'tcome here for that."
During the journey back to England I thought much ofStrickland. I tried to set in order what I had to tell his wife.
It was unsatisfactory, and I could not imagine that shewould be content with me; I was not content with myself.
Strickland perplexed me. I could not understand his motives.
When I had asked him what first gave him the idea of being apainter, he was unable or unwilling to tell me. I could makenothing of it. I tried to persuade myself than an obscurefeeling of revolt had been gradually coming to a head in hisslow mind, but to challenge this was the undoubted fact thathe had never shown any impatience with the monotony of his life.
If, seized by an intolerable boredom, he had determinedto be a painter merely to break with irksome ties, it wouldhave been comprehensible, and commonplace; but commonplace isprecisely what I felt he was not. At last, because I wasromantic, I devised an explanation which I acknowledged to befar-fetched, but which was the only one that in any waysatisfied me. It was this: I asked myself whether there wasnot in his soul some deep-rooted instinct of creation, whichthe circumstances of his life had obscured, but which grewrelentlessly, as a cancer may grow in the living tissues,till at last it took possession of his whole being and forcedhim irresistibly to action. The cuckoo lays its egg in thestrange bird's nest, and when the young one is hatched itshoulders its foster-brothers out and breaks at last the nestthat has sheltered it.
But how strange it was that the creative instinct should seizeupon this dull stockbroker, to his own ruin, perhaps, and tothe misfortune of such as were dependent on him; and yet nostranger than the way in which the spirit of God has seized men,powerful and rich, pursuing them with stubborn vigilancetill at last, conquered, they have abandoned the joy of theworld and the love of women for the painful austerities ofthe cloister. Conversion may come under many shapes, and it maybe brought about in many ways. With some men it needs acataclysm, as a stone may be broken to fragments by the furyof a torrent; but with some it comes gradually, as a stone maybe worn away by the ceaseless fall of a drop of water.
Strickland had the directness of the fanatic and the ferocityof the apostle.
But to my practical mind it remained to be seen whether thepassion which obsessed him would be justified of its works.
When I asked him what his brother-students at the nightclasses he had attended in London thought of his painting,he answered with a grin:
"They thought it a joke."
"Have you begun to go to a studio here?"
"Yes. The blighter came round this morning -- the master,you know; when he saw my drawing he just raised his eyebrowsand walked on."
Strickland chuckled. He did not seem discouraged.
He was independent of the opinion of his fellows.
And it was just that which had most disconcerted me in mydealings with him. When people say they do not care whatothers think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves.
Generally they mean only that they will do asthey choose, in the confidence that no one will know theirvagaries; and at the utmost only that they are willing to actcontrary to the opinion of the majority because they aresupported by the approval of their neighbours. It is notdifficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world whenyour unconventionality is but the convention of your set.
It affords you then an inordinate amount of self-esteem.
You have the self-satisfaction of courage without theinconvenience of danger. But the desire for approbation isperhaps the most deeply seated instinct of civilised man.
No one runs so hurriedly to the cover of respectability as theunconventional woman who has exposed herself to the slings andarrows of outraged propriety. I do not believe the people whotell me they do not care a row of pins for the opinion oftheir fellows. It is the bravado of ignorance. They meanonly that they do not fear reproaches for peccadillos whichthey are convinced none will discover.
But here was a man who sincerely did not mind what peoplethought of him, and so convention had no hold on him; he waslike a wrestler whose body is oiled; you could not get a gripon him; it gave him a freedom which was an outrage.
I remember saying to him:
"Look here, if everyone acted like you, the world couldn't go on."
"That's a damned silly thing to say. Everyone doesn't want toact like me. The great majority are perfectly content to dothe ordinary thing."
And once I sought to be satirical.
"You evidently don't believe in the maxim: Act so that everyone of your actions is capable of being made into a universal rule."
"I never heard it before, but it's rotten nonsense."
"Well, it was Kant who said it."
"I don't care; it's rotten nonsense."
Nor with such a man could you expect the appeal to conscienceto be effective. You might as well ask for a reflectionwithout a mirror. I take it that conscience is the guardianin the individual of the rules which the community has evolvedfor its own preservation. It is the policeman in all ourhearts, set there to watch that we do not break its laws.
It is the spy seated in the central stronghold of the ego.
Man's desire for the approval of his fellows is so strong, his dreadof their censure so violent, that he himself has brought hisenemy within his gates; and it keeps watch over him, vigilantalways in the interests of its master to crush any half-formeddesire to break away from the herd. It will force him toplace the good of society before his own. It is the verystrong link that attaches the individual to the whole.
And man, subservient to interests he has persuaded himself aregreater than his own, makes himself a slave to his taskmaster.
He sits him in a seat of honour. At last, like a courtierfawning on the royal stick that is laid about his shoulders,he prides himself on the sensitiveness of his conscience.
Then he has no words hard enough for the man who does notrecognise its sway; for, a member of society now, he realisesaccurately enough that against him he is powerless. When Isaw that Strickland was really indifferent to the blame hisconduct must excite, I could only draw back in horror as froma monster of hardly human shape.
The last words he said to me when I bade him good-night were:
"Tell Amy it's no good coming after me. Anyhow, I shallchange my hotel, so she wouldn't be able to find me."
"My own impression is that she's well rid of you," I said.
"My dear fellow, I only hope you'll be able to make her see it.
But women are very unintelligent."
When I reached London I found waiting for me an urgent requestthat I should go to Mrs. Strickland's as soon after dinner asI could. I found her with Colonel MacAndrew and his wife.
Mrs. Strickland's sister was older than she, not unlike her,but more faded; and she had the efficient air, as though shecarried the British Empire in her pocket, which the wives ofsenior officers acquire from the consciousness of belonging toa superior caste. Her manner was brisk, and her good-breedingscarcely concealed her conviction that if you were not asoldier you might as well be a counter-jumper. She hated theGuards, whom she thought conceited, and she could not trustherself to speak of their ladies, who were so remiss in calling.
Her gown was dowdy and expensive.
Mrs. Strickland was plainly nervous.
"Well, tell us your news," she said.
"I saw your husband. I'm afraid he's quite made up his mindnot to return." I paused a little. "He wants to paint."
"What do you mean?" cried Mrs. Strickland, with the utmostastonishment.
"Did you never know that he was keen on that sort of thing."
"He must be as mad as a hatter," exclaimed the Colonel.
Mrs. Strickland frowned a little. She was searching among herrecollections.
"I remember before we were married he used to potter aboutwith a paint-box. But you never saw such daubs. We used tochaff him. He had absolutely no gift for anything like that."
"Of course it's only an excuse," said Mrs. MacAndrew.
Mrs. Strickland pondered deeply for some time. It was quiteclear that she could not make head or tail of my announcement.
She had put some order into the drawing-room by now,her housewifely instincts having got the better of her dismay;and it no longer bore that deserted look, like a furnished houselong to let, which I had noticed on my first visit after thecatastrophe. But now that I had seen Strickland in Paris itwas difficult to imagine him in those surroundings. I thoughtit could hardly have failed to strike them that there wassomething incongruous in him.
"But if he wanted to be an artist, why didn't he say so?"asked Mrs. Strickland at last. "I should have thought I wasthe last person to be unsympathetic to -- to aspirations ofthat kind."
Mrs. MacAndrew tightened her lips. I imagine that she hadnever looked with approval on her sister's leaning towardspersons who cultivated the arts. She spoke of "culchaw"derisively.
Mrs. Strickland continued:
"After all, if he had any talent I should be the first toencourage it. I wouldn't have minded sacrifices. I'd muchrather be married to a painter than to a stockbroker. If itweren't for the children, I wouldn't mind anything. I couldbe just as happy in a shabby studio in Chelsea as in this flat."
"My dear, I have no patience with you," cried Mrs. MacAndrew.
"You don't mean to say you believe a word of this nonsense?"
"But I think it's true," I put in mildly.
She looked at me with good-humoured contempt.
"A man doesn't throw up his business and leave his wife andchildren at the age of forty to become a painter unlessthere's a woman in it. I suppose he met one of your --artistic friends, and she's turned his head."
A spot of colour rose suddenly to Mrs. Strickland's pale cheeks.
"What is she like?"
I hesitated a little. I knew that I had a bombshell.
"There isn't a woman."
Colonel MacAndrew and his wife uttered expressions of incredulity,and Mrs. Strickland sprang to her feet.
"Do you mean to say you never saw her?"
"There's no one to see. He's quite alone."
"That's preposterous," cried Mrs. MacAndrew.
"I knew I ought to have gone over myself," said the Colonel.
"You can bet your boots I'd have routed her out fast enough."
"I wish you had gone over," I replied, somewhat tartly.
"You'd have seen that every one of your suppositions was wrong.
He's not at a smart hotel. He's living in one tinyroom in the most squalid way. If he's left his home, it's notto live a gay life. He's got hardly any money."
"Do you think he's done something that we don't know about,and is lying doggo on account of the police?"
The suggestion sent a ray of hope in all their breasts, but Iwould have nothing to do with it.
"If that were so, he would hardly have been such a fool as togive his partner his address," I retorted acidly.
"Anyhow, there's one thing I'm positive of, he didn't goaway with anyone. He's not in love. Nothing is fartherfrom his thoughts."
There was a pause while they reflected over my words.
"Well, if what you say is true," said Mrs. MacAndrew at last,"things aren't so bad as I thought."
Mrs. Strickland glanced at her, but said nothing.
She was very pale now, and her fine brow was dark and lowering.
I could not understand the expression of her face.
Mrs. MacAndrew continued:
"If it's just a whim, he'll get over it."
"Why don't you go over to him, Amy?" hazarded the Colonel.
"There's no reason why you shouldn't live with him in Parisfor a year. We'll look after the children. I dare say he'dgot stale. Sooner or later he'll be quite ready to come backto London, and no great harm will have been done."
"I wouldn't do that," said Mrs. MacAndrew. "I'd give him allthe rope he wants. He'll come back with his tail between hislegs and settle down again quite comfortably." Mrs. MacAndrewlooked at her sister coolly. "Perhaps you weren't very wisewith him sometimes. Men are queer creatures, and one has toknow how to manage them."
Mrs. MacAndrew shared the common opinion of her sex that a manis always a brute to leave a woman who is attached to him, butthat a woman is much to blame if he does. <i Le coeur a sesraisons que la raison ne connait pas.>
Mrs. Strickland looked slowly from one to another of us.
"He'll never come back," she said.
"Oh, my dear, remember what we've just heard. He's been usedto comfort and to having someone to look after him. How longdo you think it'll be before he gets tired of a scrubby roomin a scrubby hotel? Besides, he hasn't any money. He mustcome back."
"As long as I thought he'd run away with some woman I thoughtthere was a chance. I don't believe that sort of thing ever answers.
He'd have got sick to death of her in three months.
But if he hasn't gone because he's in love, then it's finished."
"Oh, I think that's awfully subtle," said the Colonel,putting into the word all the contempt he felt for a qualityso alien to the traditions of his calling. "Don't you believe it.
He'll come back, and, as Dorothy says, I dare say he'll benone the worse for having had a bit of a fling."
"But I don't want him back," she said.
It was anger that had seized Mrs. Strickland, and her pallorwas the pallor of a cold and sudden rage. She spoke quickly now,with little gasps.
"I could have forgiven it if he'd fallen desperately in lovewith someone and gone off with her. I should have thoughtthat natural. I shouldn't really have blamed him. I shouldhave thought he was led away. Men are so weak, and women areso unscrupulous. But this is different. I hate him.
I'll never forgive him now."
Colonel MacAndrew and his wife began to talk to her together.
They were astonished. They told her she was mad. They couldnot understand. Mrs. Strickland turned desperately to me.
"Don't <i you> see?" she cried.
"I'm not sure. Do you mean that you could have forgiven himif he'd left you for a woman, but not if he's left you for an idea?You think you're a match for the one, but against theother you're helpless?"
Mrs. Strickland gave me a look in which I read no greatfriendliness, but did not answer. Perhaps I had struck home.
She went on in a low and trembling voice:
"I never knew it was possible to hate anyone as much as I hate him.
Do you know, I've been comforting myself by thinkingthat however long it lasted he'd want me at the end? I knewwhen he was dying he'd send for me, and I was ready to go;I'd have nursed him like a mother, and at the last I'd have toldhim that it didn't matter, I'd loved him always, and I forgavehim everything."
I have always been a little disconcerted by the passion womenhave for behaving beautifully at the death-bed of those they love.
Sometimes it seems as if they grudge the longevity whichpostpones their chance of an effective scene.
"But now -- now it's finished. I'm as indifferent to him asif he were a stranger. I should like him to die miserable,poor, and starving, without a friend. I hope he'll rot withsome loathsome disease. I've done with him."
I thought it as well then to say what Strickland had suggested.
"If you want to divorce him, he's quite willing to do whateveris necessary to make it possible."
"Why should I give him his freedom?"
"I don't think he wants it. He merely thought it might bemore convenient to you."
Mrs. Strickland shrugged her shoulders impatiently. I thinkI was a little disappointed in her. I expected then people tobe more of a piece than I do now, and I was distressed to findso much vindictiveness in so charming a creature. I did notrealise how motley are the qualities that go to make up ahuman being. Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur,malice and charity, hatred and love, can find place side byside in the same human heart.
I wondered if there was anything I could say that would easethe sense of bitter humiliation which at present tormentedMrs. Strickland. I thought I would try.
"You know, I'm not sure that your husband is quite responsiblefor his actions. I do not think he is himself. He seems tome to be possessed by some power which is using him for itsown ends, and in whose hold he is as helpless as a fly in aspider's web. It's as though someone had cast a spell over him.
I'm reminded of those strange stories one sometimeshears of another personality entering into a man and drivingout the old one. The soul lives unstably in the body, and iscapable of mysterious transformations. In the old days theywould say Charles Strickland had a devil."
Mrs. MacAndrew smoothed down the lap of her gown, and goldbangles fell over her wrists.
"All that seems to me very far-fetched," she said acidly.
"I don't deny that perhaps Amy took her husband a little too muchfor granted. If she hadn't been so busy with her own affairs,I can't believe that she wouldn't have suspected something wasthe matter. I don't think that Alec could have something onhis mind for a year or more without my having a pretty shrewdidea of it."
The Colonel stared into vacancy, and I wondered whether anyonecould be quite so innocent of guile as he looked.
"But that doesn't prevent the fact that Charles Strickland isa heartless beast." She looked at me severely. "I can tellyou why he left his wife -- from pure selfishness and nothingelse whatever."
"That is certainly the simplest explanation," I said.
But I thought it explained nothing. When, saying I was tired,I rose to go, Mrs. Strickland made no attempt to detain me.
What followed showed that Mrs. Strickland was a womanof character. Whatever anguish she suffered she concealed.
She saw shrewdly that the world is quickly bored by therecital of misfortune, and willingly avoids the sight of distress.
Whenever she went out -- and compassion for her misadventuremade her friends eager to entertain her -- she bore ademeanour that was perfect. She was brave, but not too obviously;cheerful, but not brazenly; and she seemed moreanxious to listen to the troubles of others than to discussher own. Whenever she spoke of her husband it was with pity.
Her attitude towards him at first perplexed me. One day shesaid to me:
"You know, I'm convinced you were mistaken about Charles being alone.
From what I've been able to gather from certainsources that I can't tell you, I know that he didn't leaveEngland by himself."
"In that case he has a positive genius for covering up his tracks."
She looked away and slightly coloured.
"What I mean is, if anyone talks to you about it, please don'tcontradict it if they say he eloped with somebody."
"Of course not."
She changed the conversation as though it were a matter towhich she attached no importance. I discovered presently thata peculiar story was circulating among her friends. They saidthat Charles Strickland had become infatuated with a Frenchdancer, whom he had first seen in the ballet at the Empire,and had accompanied her to Paris. I could not find out howthis had arisen, but, singularly enough, it created muchsympathy for Mrs. Strickland, and at the same time gave hernot a little prestige. This was not without its use in thecalling which she had decided to follow. Colonel MacAndrewhad not exaggerated when he said she would be penniless, andit was necessary for her to earn her own living as quickly asshe could. She made up her mind to profit by her acquaintancewith so many writers, and without loss of time began to learnshorthand and typewriting. Her education made it likely thatshe would be a typist more efficient than the average, and herstory made her claims appealing. Her friends promised to sendher work, and took care to recommend her to all theirs.
The MacAndrews, who were childless and in easy circumstances,arranged to undertake the care of the children, and Mrs.
Strickland had only herself to provide for. She let her flatand sold her furniture. She settled in two tiny rooms inWestminster, and faced the world anew. She was so efficientthat it was certain she would make a success of the adventure.
It was about five years after this that I decided to live inParis for a while. I was growing stale in London. I wastired of doing much the same thing every day. My friendspursued their course with uneventfulness; they had no longerany surprises for me, and when I met them I knew pretty wellwhat they would say; even their love-affairs had a tedious banality.
We were like tram-cars running on their lines from terminusto terminus, and it was possible to calculate within smalllimits the number of passengers they would carry. Life wasordered too pleasantly. I was seized with panic. I gaveup my small apartment, sold my few belongings, and resolved tostart afresh.
I called on Mrs. Strickland before I left. I had not seen herfor some time, and I noticed changes in her; it was not onlythat she was older, thinner, and more lined; I think hercharacter had altered. She had made a success of herbusiness, and now had an office in Chancery Lane; she didlittle typing herself, but spent her time correcting the workof the four girls she employed. She had had the idea ofgiving it a certain daintiness, and she made much use of blueand red inks; she bound the copy in coarse paper, that lookedvaguely like watered silk, in various pale colours; and shehad acquired a reputation for neatness and accuracy. She wasmaking money. But she could not get over the idea that toearn her living was somewhat undignified, and she was inclinedto remind you that she was a lady by birth. She could nothelp bringing into her conversation the names of people sheknew which would satisfy you that she had not sunk in thesocial scale. She was a little ashamed of her courage andbusiness capacity, but delighted that she was going to dinethe next night with a K.C. who lived in South Kensington.
She was pleased to be able to tell you that her son was at Cambridge,and it was with a little laugh that she spoke of the rushof dances to which her daughter, just out, was invited.
I suppose I said a very stupid thing.
"Is she going into your business?" I asked.
"Oh no; I wouldn't let her do that," Mrs. Strickland answered.
"She's so pretty. I'm sure she'll marry well."
"I should have thought it would be a help to you."
"Several people have suggested that she should go on thestage, but of course I couldn't consent to that, I know allthe chief dramatists, and I could get her a part to-morrow,but I shouldn't like her to mix with all sorts of people."
I was a little chilled by Mrs. Strickland's exclusiveness.
"Do you ever hear of your husband?"
"No; I haven't heard a word. He may be dead for all I know."
"I may run across him in Paris. Would you like me to let youknow about him?"
She hesitated a minute.
"If he's in any real want I'm prepared to help him a little.
I'd send you a certain sum of money, and you could give it himgradually, as he needed it."
"That's very good of you," I said.
But I knew it was not kindness that prompted the offer. It isnot true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness doesthat sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes menpetty and vindictive.
In point of fact, I met Strickland before I had been afortnight in Paris.
I quickly found myself a tiny apartment on the fifth floor ofa house in the Rue des Dames, and for a couple of hundredfrancs bought at a second-hand dealer's enough furniture tomake it habitable. I arranged with the concierge to make mycoffee in the morning and to keep the place clean. Then Iwent to see my friend Dirk Stroeve.
Dirk Stroeve was one of those persons whom, according to yourcharacter, you cannot think of without derisive laughter or anembarrassed shrug of the shoulders. Nature had made him a buffoon.
He was a painter, but a very bad one, whom I had metin Rome, and I still remembered his pictures. He had agenuine enthusiasm for the commonplace. His soul palpitatingwith love of art, he painted the models who hung about thestairway of Bernini in the Piazza de Spagna, undaunted bytheir obvious picturesqueness; and his studio was full ofcanvases on which were portrayed moustachioed, large-eyedpeasants in peaked hats, urchins in becoming rags, and womenin bright petticoats. Sometimes they lounged at the steps ofa church, and sometimes dallied among cypresses against acloudless sky; sometimes they made love by a Renaissance well-head,and sometimes they wandered through the Campagna by the sideof an ox-waggon. They were carefully drawn and carefully painted.
A photograph could not have been more exact. One ofthe painters at the Villa Medici had called him <i Le Maitrede la Boite a Chocoloats.> To look at his pictures you wouldhave thought that Monet, Manet, and the rest of theImpressionists had never been.
"I don't pretend to be a great painter," he said, "I'm not aMichael Angelo, no, but I have something. I sell. I bringromance into the homes of all sorts of people. Do you know,they buy my pictures not only in Holland, but in Norway andSweden and Denmark? It's mostly merchants who buy them, andrich tradesmen. You can't imagine what the winters are likein those countries, so long and dark and cold. They like tothink that Italy is like my pictures. That's what theyexpect. That's what I expected Italy to be before I camehere."
And I think that was the vision that had remained with himalways, dazzling his eyes so that he could not see the truth;and notwithstanding the brutality of fact, he continued to seewith the eyes of the spirit an Italy of romantic brigands andpicturesque ruins. It was an ideal that he painted -- a poor one,common and shop-soiled, but still it was an ideal; and itgave his character a peculiar charm.
It was because I felt this that Dirk Stroeve was not to me, as toothers, merely an object of ridicule. His fellow-painters made nosecret of their contempt for his work, but he earned a fair amount ofmoney, and they did not hesitate to make free use of his purse. He wasgenerous, and the needy, laughing at him because he believed sonaively their stories of distress, borrowed from him with effrontery.
He was very emotional, yet his feeling, so easily aroused, had in itsomething absurd, so that you accepted his kindness, but felt nogratitude. To take money from him was like robbing a child, and youdespised him because he was so foolish. I imagine that a pickpocket,proud of his light fingers, must feel a sort of indignation with thecareless woman who leaves in a cab a vanity-bag with all her jewels init. Nature had made him a butt, but had denied him insensibility. Hewrithed under the jokes, practical and otherwise, which wereperpetually made at his expense, and yet never ceased, it seemedwilfully, to expose himself to them. He was constantly wounded, andyet his good-nature was such that he could not bear malice: the vipermight sting him, but he never learned by experience, and had no soonerrecovered from his pain than he tenderly placed it once more in hisbosom. His life was a tragedy written in the terms of knockaboutfarce. Because I did not laugh at him he was grateful to me, and heused to pour into my sympathetic ear the long list of his troubles.
The saddest thing about them was that they were grotesque, and themore pathetic they were, the more you wanted to laugh.
But though so bad a painter, he had a very delicate feelingfor art, and to go with him to picture-galleries was a rare treat.
His enthusiasm was sincere and his criticism acute.
He was catholic. He had not only a true appreciation of theold masters, but sympathy with the moderns. He was quick todiscover talent, and his praise was generous. I think I havenever known a man whose judgment was surer. And he was bettereducated than most painters. He was not, like most of them,ignorant of kindred arts, and his taste for music andliterature gave depth and variety to his comprehension of painting.
To a young man like myself his advice and guidance wereof incomparable value.
When I left Rome I corresponded with him, and about once intwo months received from him long letters in queer English,which brought before me vividly his spluttering, enthusiastic,gesticulating conversation. Some time before I went to Parishe had married an Englishwoman, and was now settled in astudio in Montmartre. I had not seen him for four years,and had never met his wife.
I had not announced my arrival to Stroeve, and when I rang thebell of his studio, on opening the door himself, for a momenthe did not know me. Then he gave a cry of delighted surpriseand drew me in. It was charming to be welcomed with so mucheagerness. His wife was seated near the stove at her sewing,and she rose as I came in. He introduced me.
"Don't you remember?" he said to her. "I've talked to youabout him often." And then to me: "But why didn't you let meknow you were coming? How long have you been here? How longare you going to stay? Why didn't you come an hour earlier,and we would have dined together?"
He bombarded me with questions. He sat me down in a chair,patting me as though I were a cushion, pressed cigars upon me,cakes, wine. He could not let me alone. He was heart-brokenbecause he had no whisky, wanted to make coffee for me,racked his brain for something he could possibly do for me,and beamed and laughed, and in the exuberance of his delightsweated at every pore.
"You haven't changed," I said, smiling, as I looked at him.
He had the same absurd appearance that I remembered. He was afat little man, with short legs, young still -- he could nothave been more than thirty -- but prematurely bald. His facewas perfectly round, and he had a very high colour, a whiteskin, red cheeks, and red lips. His eyes were blue and roundtoo, he wore large gold-rimmed spectacles, and his eyebrowswere so fair that you could not see them. He reminded you ofthose jolly, fat merchants that Rubens painted.
When I told him that I meant to live in Paris for a while, andhad taken an apartment, he reproached me bitterly for nothaving let him know. He would have found me an apartmenthimself, and lent me furniture -- did I really mean that I hadgone to the expense of buying it? -- and he would have helpedme to move in. He really looked upon it as unfriendly that Ihad not given him the opportunity of making himself useful to me.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Stroeve sat quietly mending her stockings,without talking, and she listened to all he said with a quietsmile on her lips.
"So, you see, I'm married," he said suddenly; "what do youthink of my wife?"
He beamed at her, and settled his spectacles on the bridge ofhis nose. The sweat made them constantly slip down.
"What on earth do you expect me to say to that?" I laughed.
"Really, Dirk," put in Mrs. Stroeve, smiling.
"But isn't she wonderful? I tell you, my boy, lose no time;get married as soon as ever you can. I'm the happiest man alive.
Look at her sitting there. Doesn't she make a picture?Chardin, eh? I've seen all the most beautiful womenin the world; I've never seen anyone more beautiful thanMadame Dirk Stroeve."
"If you don't be quiet, Dirk, I shall go away."
<i "Mon petit chou">, he said.
She flushed a little, embarrassed by the passion in his tone.
His letters had told me that he was very much in love with hiswife, and I saw that he could hardly take his eyes off her.
I could not tell if she loved him. Poor pantaloon, he was notan object to excite love, but the smile in her eyes wasaffectionate, and it was possible that her reserve concealed avery deep feeling. She was not the ravishing creature thathis love-sick fancy saw, but she had a grave comeliness.
She was rather tall, and her gray dress, simple and quitewell-cut, did not hide the fact that her figure was beautiful.
It was a figure that might have appealed more to the sculptorthan to the costumier. Her hair, brown and abundant, wasplainly done, her face was very pale, and her features weregood without being distinguished. She had quiet gray eyes.
She just missed being beautiful, and in missing it was noteven pretty. But when Stroeve spoke of Chardin it was notwithout reason, and she reminded me curiously of that pleasanthousewife in her mob-cap and apron whom the great painter hasimmortalised. I could imagine her sedately busy among herpots and pans, making a ritual of her household duties, sothat they acquired a moral significance; I did not supposethat she was clever or could ever be amusing, but there wassomething in her grave intentness which excited my interest.
Her reserve was not without mystery. I wondered why she hadmarried Dirk Stroeve. Though she was English, I could notexactly place her, and it was not obvious from what rank insociety she sprang, what had been her upbringing, or how shehad lived before her marriage. She was very silent, but whenshe spoke it was with a pleasant voice, and her mannerswere natural.
I asked Stroeve if he was working.
"Working? I'm painting better than I've ever painted before."
We sat in the studio, and he waved his hand to an unfinishedpicture on an easel. I gave a little start. He was paintinga group of Italian peasants, in the costume of the Campagna,lounging on the steps of a Roman church.
"Is that what you're doing now?" I asked.
"Yes. I can get my models here just as well as in Rome."
"Don't you think it's very beautiful?" said Mrs. Stroeve.
"This foolish wife of mine thinks I'm a great artist," said he.
His apologetic laugh did not disguise the pleasure that he felt.
His eyes lingered on his picture. It was strange thathis critical sense, so accurate and unconventional when hedealt with the work of others, should be satisfied in himselfwith what was hackneyed and vulgar beyond belief.
"Show him some more of your pictures," she said.
Though he had suffered so much from the ridicule of his friends,Dirk Stroeve, eager for praise and naively self-satisfied,could never resist displaying his work. He brought outa picture of two curly-headed Italian urchins playing marbles.
"Aren't they sweet?" said Mrs. Stroeve.
And then he showed me more. I discovered that in Paris he hadbeen painting just the same stale, obviously picturesquethings that he had painted for years in Rome. It was allfalse, insincere, shoddy; and yet no one was more honest,sincere, and frank than Dirk Stroeve. Who could resolvethe contradiction?
I do not know what put it into my head to ask:
"I say, have you by any chance run across a painter calledCharles Strickland?"
"You don't mean to say you know him?" cried Stroeve.
"Beast," said his wife.
<i "Ma pauvre cherie."> He went over to her and kissed bothher hands. "She doesn't like him. How strange that youshould know Strickland!"
"I don't like bad manners," said Mrs. Stroeve.
Dirk, laughing still, turned to me to explain.
"You see, I asked him to come here one day and look at mypictures. Well, he came, and I showed him everything I had."Stroeve hesitated a moment with embarrassment. I do not knowwhy he had begun the story against himself; he felt anawkwardness at finishing it. "He looked at -- at my pictures,and he didn't say anything. I thought he was reserving hisjudgment till the end. And at last I said: 'There, that'sthe lot!' He said: 'I came to ask you to lend me twenty francs.'"
"And Dirk actually gave it him," said his wife indignantly.
"I was so taken aback. I didn't like to refuse. He put themoney in his pocket, just nodded, said 'Thanks,' and walked out."
Dirk Stroeve, telling the story, had such a look of blankastonishment on his round, foolish face that it was almostimpossible not to laugh.
"I shouldn't have minded if he'd said my pictures were bad,but he said nothing -- nothing."
"And you <i will> tell the story, Dirk," Said his wife.
It was lamentable that one was more amused by the ridiculousfigure cut by the Dutchman than outraged by Strickland'sbrutal treatment of him.
"I hope I shall never see him again," said Mrs. Stroeve.
Stroeve smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He had alreadyrecovered his good-humour.
"The fact remains that he's a great artist, a very great artist."
"Strickland?" I exclaimed. "It can't be the same man."
"A big fellow with a red beard. Charles Strickland.
"He had no beard when I knew him, but if he has grown one itmight well be red. The man I'm thinking of only beganpainting five years ago."
"That's it. He's a great artist."
"Have I ever been mistaken?" Dirk asked me. "I tell you hehas genius. I'm convinced of it. In a hundred years, if youand I are remembered at all, it will be because we knewCharles Strickland."
I was astonished, and at the same time I was very much excited.
I remembered suddenly my last talk with him.
"Where can one see his work?" I asked. "Is he having any success?Where is he living?"
"No; he has no success. I don't think he's ever sold a picture.
When you speak to men about him they only laugh.
But I <i know> he's a great artist. After all, they laughedat Manet. Corot never sold a picture. I don't know where helives, but I can take you to see him. He goes to a cafe inthe Avenue de Clichy at seven o'clock every evening. If youlike we'll go there to-morrow."
"I'm not sure if he'll wish to see me. I think I may remindhim of a time he prefers to forget. But I'll come all the same.
Is there any chance of seeing any of his pictures?"
"Not from him. He won't show you a thing. There's a littledealer I know who has two or three. But you mustn't go without me;you wouldn't understand. I must show them to you myself."
"Dirk, you make me impatient," said Mrs. Stroeve. "How canyou talk like that about his pictures when he treated you ashe did?" She turned to me. "Do you know, when some Dutchpeople came here to buy Dirk's pictures he tried to persuadethem to buy Strickland's? He insisted on bringing them hereto show."
"What did <i you> think of them?" I asked her, smiling.
"They were awful."
"Ah, sweetheart, you don't understand."
"Well, your Dutch people were furious with you. They thoughtyou were having a joke with them."
Dirk Stroeve took off his spectacles and wiped them. Hisflushed face was shining with excitement.
"Why should you think that beauty, which is the most preciousthing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for thecareless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is somethingwonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of thechaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when hehas made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognizeit you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is amelody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your ownheart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination."
"Why did I always think your pictures beautiful, Dirk?I admired them the very first time I saw them."
Stroeve's lips trembled a little.
"Go to bed, my precious. I will walk a few steps with ourfriend, and then I will come back."
Dirk Stroeve agreed to fetch me on the following evening andtake me to the cafe at which Strickland was most likely to be found.
I was interested to learn that it was the same as thatat which Strickland and I had drunk absinthe when I had goneover to Paris to see him. The fact that he had never changedsuggested a sluggishness of habit which seemed to me characteristic.
"There he is," said Stroeve, as we reached the cafe.
Though it was October, the evening was warm, and the tables onthe pavement were crowded. I ran my eyes over them, but didnot see Strickland.
"Look. Over there, in the corner. He's playing chess."
I noticed a man bending over a chess-board, but could see onlya large felt hat and a red beard. We threaded our way amongthe tables till we came to him.
He looked up.
"Hulloa, fatty. What do you want?"
"I've brought an old friend to see you."
Strickland gave me a glance, and evidently did not recognise me.
He resumed his scrutiny of the chess-board.
"Sit down, and don't make a noise," he said.
He moved a piece and straightway became absorbed in the game.
Poor Stroeve gave me a troubled look, but I was notdisconcerted by so little. I ordered something to drink,and waited quietly till Strickland had finished. I welcomed theopportunity to examine him at my ease. I certainly shouldnever have known him. In the first place his red beard,ragged and untrimmed, hid much of his face, and his hair was long;but the most surprising change in him was his extreme thinness.
It made his great nose protrude more arrogantly;it emphasized his cheekbones; it made his eyes seem larger.
There were deep hollows at his temples. His body was cadaverous.
He wore the same suit that I had seen him in five yearsbefore; it was torn and stained, threadbare, and it hungupon him loosely, as though it had been made for someone else.
I noticed his hands, dirty, with long nails; they were merelybone and sinew, large and strong; but I had forgotten thatthey were so shapely. He gave me an extraordinary impressionas he sat there, his attention riveted on his game -- animpression of great strength; and I could not understand whyit was that his emaciation somehow made it more striking.
Presently, after moving, he leaned back and gazed with acurious abstraction at his antagonist. This was a fat,bearded Frenchman. The Frenchman considered the position,then broke suddenly into jovial expletives, and with animpatient gesture, gathering up the pieces, flung them intotheir box. He cursed Strickland freely, then, calling for thewaiter, paid for the drinks, and left. Stroeve drew his chaircloser to the table.
"Now I suppose we can talk," he said.
Strickland's eyes rested on him, and there was in them amalicious expression. I felt sure he was seeking for some gibe,could think of none, and so was forced to silence.
"I've brought an old friend to see you," repeated Stroeve,beaming cheerfully.
Strickland looked at me thoughtfully for nearly a minute.
I did not speak.
"I've never seen him in my life," he said.
I do not know why he said this, for I felt certain I hadcaught a gleam of recognition in his eyes. I was not soeasily abashed as I had been some years earlier.
"I saw your wife the other day," I said. "I felt sure you'dlike to have the latest news of her."
He gave a short laugh. His eyes twinkled.
"We had a jolly evening together," he said. "How long ago is it?"
He called for another absinthe. Stroeve, with voluble tongue,explained how he and I had met, and by what an accident wediscovered that we both knew Strickland. I do not know ifStrickland listened. He glanced at me once or twicereflectively, but for the most part seemed occupied with hisown thoughts; and certainly without Stroeve's babble theconversation would have been difficult. In half an hour theDutchman, looking at his watch, announced that he must go.
He asked whether I would come too. I thought, alone, I might getsomething out of Strickland, and so answered that I would stay.
When the fat man had left I said:
"Dirk Stroeve thinks you're a great artist."
"What the hell do you suppose I care?"
"Will you let me see your pictures?"
"Why should I?"
"I might feel inclined to buy one."
"I might not feel inclined to sell one."
"Are you making a good living?" I asked, smiling.
"Do I look it?"
"You look half starved."
"I am half starved."
"Then come and let's have a bit of dinner."
"Why do you ask me?"
"Not out of charity," I answered coolly. "I don't really carea twopenny damn if you starve or not."
His eyes lit up again.
"Come on, then," he said, getting up. "I'd like a decent meal."
I let him take me to a restaurant of his choice, but on theway I bought a paper. When we had ordered our dinner,I propped it against a bottle of St. Galmier and began to read.
We ate in silence. I felt him looking at me now and again,but I took no notice. I meant to force him to conversation.
"Is there anything in the paper?" he said, as we approachedthe end of our silent meal.
I fancied there was in his tone a slight note of exasperation.
"I always like to read the <i feuilleton> on the drama," I said.
I folded the paper and put it down beside me.
"I've enjoyed my dinner," he remarked.
"I think we might have our coffee here, don't you?"
We lit our cigars. I smoked in silence. I noticed that nowand then his eyes rested on me with a faint smile of amusement.
I waited patiently.
"What have you been up to since I saw you last?" he asked atlength.
I had not very much to say. It was a record of hard work and oflittle adventure; of experiments in this direction and in that;of the gradual acquisition of the knowledge of books and of men.
I took care to ask Strickland nothing about his own doings.
I showed not the least interest in him, and at last Iwas rewarded. He began to talk of himself. But with his poorgift of expression he gave but indications of what he had gonethrough, and I had to fill up the gaps with my own imagination.
It was tantalising to get no more than hintsinto a character that interested me so much. It was likemaking one's way through a mutilated manuscript. I receivedthe impression of a life which was a bitter struggle againstevery sort of difficulty; but I realised that much which wouldhave seemed horrible to most people did not in the leastaffect him. Strickland was distinguished from most Englishmenby his perfect indifference to comfort; it did not irk him tolive always in one shabby room; he had no need to besurrounded by beautiful things. I do not suppose he had evernoticed how dingy was the paper on the wall of the room inwhich on my first visit I found him. He did not want arm-chairsto sit in; he really felt more at his ease on a kitchen chair.
He ate with appetite, but was indifferent to what he ate;to him it was only food that he devoured to still thepangs of hunger; and when no food was to be had he seemedcapable of doing without. I learned that for six months hehad lived on a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk a day.
He was a sensual man, and yet was indifferent to sensual things.
He looked upon privation as no hardship. There was somethingimpressive in the manner in which he lived a life wholly ofthe spirit.
When the small sum of money which he brought with him fromLondon came to an end he suffered from no dismay. He sold nopictures; I think he made little attempt to sell any; he setabout finding some way to make a bit of money. He told mewith grim humour of the time he had spent acting as guide toCockneys who wanted to see the night side of life in Paris;it was an occupation that appealed to his sardonic temper andsomehow or other he had acquired a wide acquaintance with themore disreputable quarters of the city. He told me of thelong hours he spent walking about the Boulevard de laMadeleine on the look-out for Englishmen, preferably the worsefor liquor, who desired to see things which the law forbade.
When in luck he was able to make a tidy sum; but theshabbiness of his clothes at last frightened the sight-seers,and he could not find people adventurous enough to trustthemselves to him. Then he happened on a job to translate theadvertisements of patent medicines which were sent broadcastto the medical profession in England. During a strike he hadbeen employed as a house-painter.
Meanwhile he had never ceased to work at his art; but, soontiring of the studios, entirely by himself. He had never beenso poor that he could not buy canvas and paint, and really heneeded nothing else. So far as I could make out, he paintedwith great difficulty, and in his unwillingness to accept helpfrom anyone lost much time in finding out for himself thesolution of technical problems which preceding generations hadalready worked out one by one. He was aiming at something,I knew not what, and perhaps he hardly knew himself; and I gotagain more strongly the impression of a man possessed. He didnot seem quite sane. It seemed to me that he would not showhis pictures because he was really not interested in them.
He lived in a dream, and the reality meant nothing to him.
I had the feeling that he worked on a canvas with all the forceof his violent personality, oblivious of everything in his effortto get what he saw with the mind's eye; and then, havingfinished, not the picture perhaps, for I had an idea that heseldom brought anything to completion, but the passion thatfired him, he lost all care for it. He was never satisfiedwith what he had done; it seemed to him of no consequencecompared with the vision that obsessed his mind.
"Why don't you ever send your work to exhibitions?" I asked.
"I should have thought you'd like to know what people thoughtabout it."
I cannot describe the unmeasurable contempt he put into thetwo words.
"Don't you want fame? It's something that most artistshaven't been indifferent to."
"Children. How can you care for the opinion of the crowd,when you don't care twopence for the opinion of the individual?"
"We're not all reasonable beings," I laughed.
"Who makes fame? Critics, writers, stockbrokers, women."
"Wouldn't it give you a rather pleasing sensation to think ofpeople you didn't know and had never seen receiving emotions,subtle and passionate, from the work of your hands? Everyonelikes power. I can't imagine a more wonderful exercise of itthan to move the souls of men to pity or terror."
"Why do you mind if you paint well or badly?"
"I don't. I only want to paint what I see."
"I wonder if I could write on a desert island, with thecertainty that no eyes but mine would ever see what I hadwritten."
Strickland did not speak for a long time, but his eyes shonestrangely, as though he saw something that kindled his soul toecstasy.
"Sometimes I've thought of an island lost in a boundless sea,where I could live in some hidden valley, among strange trees,in silence. There I think I could find what I want."
He did not express himself quite like this. He used gesturesinstead of adjectives, and he halted. I have put into my ownwords what I think he wanted to say.
"Looking back on the last five years, do you think it wasworth it?" I asked.
He looked at me, and I saw that he did not know what I meant.
"You gave up a comfortable home and a life as happy as theaverage. You were fairly prosperous. You seem to have had arotten time in Paris. If you had your time over again wouldyou do what you did?"
"Do you know that you haven't asked anything about your wifeand children? Do you never think of them?"
"I wish you weren't so damned monosyllabic. Have you neverhad a moment's regret for all the unhappiness you caused them?"
His lips broke into a smile, and he shook his head.
"I should have thought sometimes you couldn't help thinking ofthe past. I don't mean the past of seven or eight years ago,but further back still, when you first met your wife, andloved her, and married her. Don't you remember the joy withwhich you first took her in your arms?"
"I don't think of the past. The only thing that matters isthe everlasting present."
I thought for a moment over this reply. It was obscure,perhaps, but I thought that I saw dimly his meaning.
"Are you happy?" I asked.
I was silent. I looked at him reflectively. He held mystare, and presently a sardonic twinkle lit up his eyes.
"I'm afraid you disapprove of me?"
"Nonsense," I answered promptly; "I don't disapprove of theboa-constrictor; on the contrary, I'm interested in his mentalprocesses."
"It's a purely professional interest you take in me?"
"It's only right that you shouldn't disapprove of me.
You have a despicable character."
"Perhaps that's why you feel at home with me," I retorted.
He smiled dryly, but said nothing. I wish I knew how todescribe his smile. I do not know that it was attractive,but it lit up his face, changing the expression, which wasgenerally sombre, and gave it a look of not ill-natured malice.
It was a slow smile, starting and sometimes ending inthe eyes; it was very sensual, neither cruel nor kindly,but suggested rather the inhuman glee of the satyr. It was hissmile that made me ask him:
"Haven't you been in love since you came to Paris?"
"I haven't got time for that sort of nonsense. Life isn'tlong enough for love and art."
"Your appearance doesn't suggest the anchorite."
"All that business fills me with disgust."
"Human nature is a nuisance, isn't it?" I said.
"Why are you sniggering at me?"
"Because I don't believe you."
"Then you're a damned fool."
I paused, and I looked at him searchingly.
"What's the good of trying to humbug me?" I said.
"I don't know what you mean."
"Let me tell you. I imagine that for months the matter nevercomes into your head, and you're able to persuade yourselfthat you've finished with it for good and all. You rejoice inyour freedom, and you feel that at last you can call your soulyour own. You seem to walk with your head among the stars.
And then, all of a sudden you can't stand it any more, and younotice that all the time your feet have been walking in the mud.
And you want to roll yourself in it. And you find somewoman, coarse and low and vulgar, some beastly creature inwhom all the horror of sex is blatant, and you fall upon herlike a wild animal. You drink till you're blind with rage."
He stared at me without the slightest movement. I held hiseyes with mine. I spoke very slowly.
"I'll tell you what must seem strange, that when it's over youfeel so extraordinarily pure. You feel like a disembodiedspirit, immaterial; and you seem to be able to touch beauty asthough it were a palpable thing; and you feel an intimatecommunion with the breeze, and with the trees breaking into leaf,and with the iridescence of the river. You feel like God.
Can you explain that to me?"
He kept his eyes fixed on mine till I had finished, and thenhe turned away. There was on his face a strange look, andI thought that so might a man look when he had died underthe torture. He was silent. I knew that our conversationwas ended.
I settled down in Paris and began to write a play. I led avery regular life, working in the morning, and in theafternoon lounging about the gardens of the Luxembourg orsauntering through the streets. I spent long hours in theLouvre, the most friendly of all galleries and the mostconvenient for meditation; or idled on the quays, fingeringsecond-hand books that I never meant to buy. I read a pagehere and there, and made acquaintance with a great manyauthors whom I was content to know thus desultorily. In theevenings I went to see my friends. I looked in often on theStroeves, and sometimes shared their modest fare. DirkStroeve flattered himself on his skill in cooking Italiandishes, and I confess that his <i spaghetti> were very muchbetter than his pictures. It was a dinner for a King when hebrought in a huge dish of it, succulent with tomatoes, and weate it together with the good household bread and a bottle ofred wine. I grew more intimate with Blanche Stroeve, and Ithink, because I was English and she knew few English people,she was glad to see me. She was pleasant and simple, but sheremained always rather silent, and I knew not why, gave me theimpression that she was concealing something. But I thought thatwas perhaps no more than a natural reserve accentuated by theverbose frankness of her husband. Dirk never concealed anything.
He discussed the most intimate matters with a completelack of self-consciousness. Sometimes he embarrassedhis wife, and the only time I saw her put out of countenancewas when he insisted on telling me that he had taken a purge,and went into somewhat realistic details on the subject.
The perfect seriousness with which he narrated hismisfortunes convulsed me with laughter, and this added toMrs. Stroeve's irritation.
"You seem to like making a fool of yourself," she said.
His round eyes grew rounder still, and his brow puckered indismay as he saw that she was angry.
"Sweetheart, have I vexed you? I'll never take another.
It was only because I was bilious. I lead a sedentary life.
I don't take enough exercise. For three days I hadn't ..."
"For goodness sake, hold your tongue," she interrupted, tearsof annoyance in her eyes.
His face fell, and he pouted his lips like a scolded child.
He gave me a look of appeal, so that I might put things right,but, unable to control myself, I shook with helpless laughter.
We went one day to the picture-dealer in whose shop Stroevethought he could show me at least two or three of Strickland'spictures, but when we arrived were told that Stricklandhimself had taken them away. The dealer did not know why.
"But don't imagine to yourself that I make myself bad blood onthat account. I took them to oblige Monsieur Stroeve, and Isaid I would sell them if I could. But really --" Heshrugged his shoulders. "I'm interested in the young men, but<i voyons>, you yourself, Monsieur Stroeve, you don't thinkthere's any talent there."
"I give you my word of honour, there's no one painting to-dayin whose talent I am more convinced. Take my word for it,you are missing a good affair. Some day those pictures will beworth more than all you have in your shop. Remember Monet,who could not get anyone to buy his pictures for a hundred francs.
What are they worth now?"
"True. But there were a hundred as good painters as Monet whocouldn't sell their pictures at that time, and their picturesare worth nothing still. How can one tell? Is merit enough tobring success? Don't believe it. <i Du reste>, it has stillto be proved that this friend of yours has merit. No oneclaims it for him but Monsieur Stroeve."
"And how, then, will you recognise merit?" asked Dirk, red inthe face with anger.
"There is only one way -- by success."
"Philistine," cried Dirk.
"But think of the great artists of the past -- Raphael,Michael Angelo, Ingres, Delacroix -- they were all successful."
"Let us go," said Stroeve to me, "or I shall kill this man."
I saw Strickland not infrequently, and now and then playedchess with him. He was of uncertain temper. Sometimes hewould sit silent and abstracted, taking no notice of anyone;and at others, when he was in a good humour, he would talk inhis own halting way. He never said a clever thing, but he hada vein of brutal sarcasm which was not ineffective, and healways said exactly what he thought. He was indifferent tothe susceptibilities of others, and when he wounded them was amused.
He was constantly offending Dirk Stroeve so bitterlythat he flung away, vowing he would never speak to him again;but there was a solid force in Strickland that attracted thefat Dutchman against his will, so that he came back, fawninglike a clumsy dog, though he knew that his only greeting wouldbe the blow he dreaded.
I do not know why Strickland put up with me. Our relationswere peculiar. One day he asked me to lend him fifty francs.
"I wouldn't dream of it," I replied.
"It wouldn't amuse me."
"I'm frightfully hard up, you know."
"I don't care."
"You don't care if I starve?"
"Why on earth should I?" I asked in my turn.
He looked at me for a minute or two, pulling his untidy beard.
I smiled at him.
"What are you amused at?" he said, with a gleam of anger inhis eyes.
"You're so simple. You recognise no obligations. No one isunder any obligation to you."
"Wouldn't it make you uncomfortable if I went and hangedmyself because I'd been turned out of my room as I couldn'tpay the rent?"
"Not a bit."
"You're bragging. If I really did you'd be overwhelmed withremorse."
"Try it, and we'll see," I retorted.
A smile flickered in his eyes, and he stirred his absinthe insilence.
"Would you like to play chess?" I asked.
"I don't mind."
We set up the pieces, and when the board was ready heconsidered it with a comfortable eye. There is a sense ofsatisfaction in looking at your men all ready for the fray.
"Did you really think I'd lend you money?" I asked.
"I didn't see why you shouldn't."
"You surprise me."
"It's disappointing to find that at heart you are sentimental.
I should have liked you better if you hadn't made thatingenuous appeal to my sympathies."
"I should have despised you if you'd been moved by it," he answered.
"That's better," I laughed.
We began to play. We were both absorbed in the game. When itwas finished I said to him:
"Look here, if you're hard up, let me see your pictures.
If there's anything I like I'll buy it."
"Go to hell," he answered.
He got up and was about to go away. I stopped him.
"You haven't paid for your absinthe," I said, smiling.
He cursed me, flung down the money and left.
I did not see him for several days after that, but oneevening, when I was sitting in the cafe, reading a paper,he came up and sat beside me.
"You haven't hanged yourself after all," I remarked.
"No. I've got a commission. I'm painting the portrait of aretired plumber for two hundred francs."
 This picture, formerly in the possession of a wealthymanufacturer at Lille, who fled from that city on the approachof the Germans, is now in the National Gallery at Stockholm.
The Swede is adept at the gentle pastime of fishing introubled waters.
"How did you manage that?"
"The woman where I get my bread recommended me. He'd told herhe was looking out for someone to paint him. I've got to giveher twenty francs."
"What's he like?"
"Splendid. He's got a great red face like a leg of mutton,and on his right cheek there's an enormous mole with longhairs growing out of it."
Strickland was in a good humour, and when Dirk Stroeve cameup and sat down with us he attacked him with ferocious banter.
He showed a skill I should never have credited him with infinding the places where the unhappy Dutchman was mostsensitive. Strickland employed not the rapier of sarcasm butthe bludgeon of invective. The attack was so unprovoked thatStroeve, taken unawares, was defenceless. He reminded you ofa frightened sheep running aimlessly hither and thither.
He was startled and amazed. At last the tears ran from his eyes.
And the worst of it was that, though you hated Strickland,and the exhibition was horrible, it was impossible not to laugh.
Dirk Stroeve was one of those unlucky persons whose mostsincere emotions are ridiculous.
But after all when I look back upon that winter in Paris,my pleasantest recollection is of Dirk Stroeve. There wassomething very charming in his little household. He and hiswife made a picture which the imagination gratefully dweltupon, and the simplicity of his love for her had a deliberate grace.
He remained absurd, but the sincerity of his passionexcited one's sympathy. I could understand how his wife mustfeel for him, and I was glad that her affection was so tender.
If she had any sense of humour, it must amuse her that heshould place her on a pedestal and worship her with such anhonest idolatry, but even while she laughed she must have beenpleased and touched. He was the constant lover, and thoughshe grew old, losing her rounded lines and her faircomeliness, to him she would certainly never alter.
To him she would always be the loveliest woman in the world.
There was a pleasing grace in the orderliness of their lives.
They had but the studio, a bedroom, and a tiny kitchen.
Mrs. Stroeve did all the housework herself; and while Dirk paintedbad pictures, she went marketing, cooked the luncheon, sewed,occupied herself like a busy ant all the day; and in theevening sat in the studio, sewing again, while Dirk playedmusic which I am sure was far beyond her comprehension.
He played with taste, but with more feeling than was alwaysjustified, and into his music poured all his honest,sentimental, exuberant soul.
Their life in its own way was an idyl, and it managed toachieve a singular beauty. The absurdity that clung toeverything connected with Dirk Stroeve gave it a curious note,like an unresolved discord, but made it somehow more modern,more human; like a rough joke thrown into a serious scene,it heightened the poignancy which all beauty has.
Shortly before Christmas Dirk Stroeve came to ask me to spendthe holiday with him. He had a characteristic sentimentalityabout the day and wanted to pass it among his friends withsuitable ceremonies. Neither of us had seen Strickland fortwo or three weeks -- I because I had been busy with friendswho were spending a little while in Paris, and Stroevebecause, having quarreled with him more violently than usual,he had made up his mind to have nothing more to do with him.
Strickland was impossible, and he swore never to speak to him again.
But the season touched him with gentle feeling, and he hatedthe thought of Strickland spending Christmas Day by himself;he ascribed his own emotions to him, and could notbear that on an occasion given up to good-fellowship thelonely painter should be abandoned to his own melancholy.
Stroeve had set up a Christmas-tree in his studio, and Isuspected that we should both find absurd little presentshanging on its festive branches; but he was shy about seeingStrickland again; it was a little humiliating to forgive soeasily insults so outrageous, and he wished me to be presentat the reconciliation on which he was determined.
We walked together down the Avenue de Clichy, but Stricklandwas not in the cafe. It was too cold to sit outside, and wetook our places on leather benches within. It was hot andstuffy, and the air was gray with smoke. Strickland did not come,but presently we saw the French painter who occasionallyplayed chess with him. I had formed a casual acquaintancewith him, and he sat down at our table. Stroeve asked him ifhe had seen Strickland.
"He's ill," he said. "Didn't you know?"
"Very, I understand."
Stroeve's face grew white.
"Why didn't he write and tell me? How stupid of me to quarrelwith him. We must go to him at once. He can have no one tolook after him. Where does he live?"
"I have no idea," said the Frenchman.
We discovered that none of us knew how to find him.
Stroeve grew more and more distressed.
"He might die, and not a soul would know anything about it.
It's dreadful. I can't bear the thought. We must find him at once."
I tried to make Stroeve understand that it was absurd to huntvaguely about Paris. We must first think of some plan.
"Yes; but all this time he may be dying, and when we get thereit may be too late to do anything."
"Sit still and let us think," I said impatiently.
The only address I knew was the Hotel des Belges, butStrickland had long left that, and they would have norecollection of him. With that queer idea of his to keep hiswhereabouts secret, it was unlikely that, on leaving, he hadsaid where he was going. Besides, it was more than five years ago.
I felt pretty sure that he had not moved far. If hecontinued to frequent the same cafe as when he had stayed atthe hotel, it was probably because it was the most convenient.
Suddenly I remembered that he had got his commission to painta portrait through the baker from whom he bought his bread,and it struck me that there one might find his address.
I called for a directory and looked out the bakers. There werefive in the immediate neighbourhood, and the only thing was togo to all of them. Stroeve accompanied me unwillingly.
His own plan was to run up and down the streets that led outof the Avenue de Clichy and ask at every house if Stricklandlived there. My commonplace scheme was, after all, effective,for in the second shop we asked at the woman behind thecounter acknowledged that she knew him. She was not certainwhere he lived, but it was in one of the three housesopposite. Luck favoured us, and in the first we tried theconcierge told us that we should find him on the top floor.
"It appears that he's ill," said Stroeve.
"It may be," answered the concierge indifferently. "<i Eneffet>, I have not seen him for several days."
Stroeve ran up the stairs ahead of me, and when I reached thetop floor I found him talking to a workman in his shirt-sleeveswho had opened a door at which Stroeve had knocked. He pointedto another door. He believed that the person who lived therewas a painter. He had not seen him for a week. Stroeve madeas though he were about to knock, and then turned to me witha gesture of helplessness. I saw that he was panic-stricken.
"Supposing he's dead?"
"Not he," I said.
I knocked. There was no answer. I tried the handle, andfound the door unlocked. I walked in, and Stroeve followed me.
The room was in darkness. I could only see that it wasan attic, with a sloping roof; and a faint glimmer, no morethan a less profound obscurity, came from a skylight.
"Strickland," I called.
There was no answer. It was really rather mysterious, and itseemed to me that Stroeve, standing just behind, was tremblingin his shoes. For a moment I hesitated to strike a light.
I dimly perceived a bed in the corner, and I wondered whetherthe light would disclose lying on it a dead body.
"Haven't you got a match, you fool?"
Strickland's voice, coming out of the darkness, harshly,made me start.
Stroeve cried out.
"Oh, my God, I thought you were dead."
I struck a match, and looked about for a candle. I had arapid glimpse of a tiny apartment, half room, half studio, inwhich was nothing but a bed, canvases with their faces to thewall, an easel, a table, and a chair. There was no carpet onthe floor. There was no fireplace. On the table, crowdedwith paints, palette-knives, and litter of all kinds, was theend of a candle. I lit it. Strickland was lying in the bed,uncomfortably because it was too small for him, and he had putall his clothes over him for warmth. It was obvious at aglance that he was in a high fever. Stroeve, his voicecracking with emotion, went up to him.
"Oh, my poor friend, what is the matter with you? I had noidea you were ill. Why didn't you let me know? You must knowI'd have done anything in the world for you. Were youthinking of what I said? I didn't mean it. I was wrong.
It was stupid of me to take offence."
"Go to hell," said Strickland.
"Now, be reasonable. Let me make you comfortable.
Haven't you anyone to look after you?"
He looked round the squalid attic in dismay. He tried toarrange the bed-clothes. Strickland, breathing laboriously,kept an angry silence. He gave me a resentful glance.
I stood quite quietly, looking at him.
"If you want to do something for me, you can get me somemilk," he said at last. "I haven't been able to get out fortwo days." There was an empty bottle by the side of the bed,which had contained milk, and in a piece of newspaper a few crumbs.
"What have you been having?" I asked.
"For how long?" cried Stroeve. "Do you mean to say you've hadnothing to eat or drink for two days? It's horrible."
"I've had water."
His eyes dwelt for a moment on a large can within reach of anoutstretched arm.
"I'll go immediately," said Stroeve. "Is there anything you fancy?"
I suggested that he should get a thermometer, and a fewgrapes, and some bread. Stroeve, glad to make himself useful,clattered down the stairs.
"Damned fool," muttered Strickland.
I felt his pulse. It was beating quickly and feebly. I askedhim one or two questions, but he would not answer, and when Ipressed him he turned his face irritably to the wall.
The only thing was to wait in silence. In ten minutes Stroeve,panting, came back. Besides what I had suggested, he broughtcandles, and meat-juice, and a spirit-lamp. He was apractical little fellow, and without delay set about makingbread-and-milk. I took Strickland's temperature. It was ahundred and four. He was obviously very ill.
Presently we left him. Dirk was going home to dinner, and Iproposed to find a doctor and bring him to see Strickland;but when we got down into the street, fresh after the stuffyattic, the Dutchman begged me to go immediately to his studio.
He had something in mind which he would not tell me, but heinsisted that it was very necessary for me to accompany him.
Since I did not think a doctor could at the moment do any morethan we had done, I consented. We found Blanche Stroevelaying the table for dinner. Dirk went up to her, and tookboth her hands.
"Dear one, I want you to do something for me," he said.
She looked at him with the grave cheerfulness which was one ofher charms. His red face was shining with sweat, and he had alook of comic agitation, but there was in his round, surprisedeyes an eager light.
"Strickland is very ill. He may be dying. He is alone in afilthy attic, and there is not a soul to look after him.
I want you to let me bring him here."
She withdrew her hands quickly, I had never seen her make sorapid a movement; and her cheeks flushed.
"Oh, my dear one, don't refuse. I couldn't bear to leave himwhere he is. I shouldn't sleep a wink for thinking of him."
"I have no objection to your nursing him."
Her voice was cold and distant.
"But he'll die."
Stroeve gave a little gasp. He wiped his face. He turned tome for support, but I did not know what to say.
"He's a great artist."
"What do I care? I hate him."
"Oh, my love, my precious, you don't mean that. I beseech youto let me bring him here. We can make him comfortable.
Perhaps we can save him. He shall be no trouble to you.
I will do everything. We'll make him up a bed in the studio.
We can't let him die like a dog. It would be inhuman."
"Why can't he go to a hospital?"
"A hospital! He needs the care of loving hands. He must betreated with infinite tact."
I was surprised to see how moved she was. She went on layingthe table, but her hands trembled.
"I have no patience with you. Do you think if you were ill hewould stir a finger to help you?"
"But what does that matter? I should have you to nurse me.
It wouldn't be necessary. And besides, I'm different;I'm not of any importance."
"You have no more spirit than a mongrel cur. You lie down onthe ground and ask people to trample on you."
Stroeve gave a little laugh. He thought he understood thereason of his wife's attitude.
"Oh, my poor dear, you're thinking of that day he came here tolook at my pictures. What does it matter if he didn't thinkthem any good? It was stupid of me to show them to him.
I dare say they're not very good."
He looked round the studio ruefully. On the easel was ahalf-finished picture of a smiling Italian peasant, holding abunch of grapes over the head of a dark-eyed girl.
"Even if he didn't like them he should have been civil.
He needn't have insulted you. He showed that he despised you,and you lick his hand. Oh, I hate him."
"Dear child, he has genius. You don't think I believe that Ihave it. I wish I had; but I know it when I see it, and Ihonour it with all my heart. It's the most wonderful thing inthe world. It's a great burden to its possessors. We shouldbe very tolerant with them, and very patient."
I stood apart, somewhat embarrassed by the domestic scene,and wondered why Stroeve had insisted on my coming with him.
I saw that his wife was on the verge of tears.
"But it's not only because he's a genius that I ask you to letme bring him here; it's because he's a human being, and he isill and poor."
"I will never have him in my house -- never."
Stroeve turned to me.
"Tell her that it's a matter of life and death.
It's impossible to leave him in that wretched hole."
"It's quite obvious that it would be much easier to nurse himhere," I said, "but of course it would be very inconvenient.
I have an idea that someone will have to be with him day and night."
"My love, it's not you who would shirk a little trouble."
"If he comes here, I shall go," said Mrs. Stroeve violently.
"I don't recognize you. You're so good and kind."
"Oh, for goodness sake, let me be. You drive me to distraction."
Then at last the tears came. She sank into a chair,and buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders shookconvulsively. In a moment Dirk was on his knees beside her,with his arms round her, kissing her, calling her all sorts ofpet names, and the facile tears ran down his own cheeks.
Presently she released herself and dried her eyes.
"Leave me alone," she said, not unkindly; and then to me,trying to smile: "What must you think of me?"
Stroeve, looking at her with perplexity, hesitated.
His forehead was all puckered, and his red mouth set in a pout.
He reminded me oddly of an agitated guinea-pig.
"Then it's No, darling?" he said at last.
She gave a gesture of lassitude. She was exhausted.
"The studio is yours. Everything belongs to you. If you wantto bring him here, how can I prevent you?"
A sudden smile flashed across his round face.
"Then you consent? I knew you would. Oh, my precious."
Suddenly she pulled herself together. She looked at him withhaggard eyes. She clasped her hands over her heart as thoughits beating were intolerable.
"Oh, Dirk, I've never since we met asked you to do anything for me."
"You know there's nothing in the world that I wouldn't do foryou."
"I beg you not to let Strickland come here. Anyone else you like.
Bring a thief, a drunkard, any outcast off the streets,and I promise you I'll do everything I can for them gladly.
But I beseech you not to bring Strickland here."
"I'm frightened of him. I don't know why, but there's somethingin him that terrifies me. He'll do us some great harm.
I know it. I feel it. If you bring him here it can only end badly."
"But how unreasonable!"
"No, no. I know I'm right. Something terrible will happen to us."
"Because we do a good action?"
She was panting now, and in her face was a terror which wasinexplicable. I do not know what she thought. I felt thatshe was possessed by some shapeless dread which robbed her ofall self-control. As a rule she was so calm; her agitationnow was amazing. Stroeve looked at her for a while withpuzzled consternation.
"You are my wife; you are dearer to me than anyone in the world.
No one shall come here without your entire consent."
She closed her eyes for a moment, and I thought she was goingto faint. I was a little impatient with her; I had notsuspected that she was so neurotic a woman. Then I heardStroeve's voice again. It seemed to break oddly on thesilence.
"Haven't you been in bitter distress once when a helping handwas held out to you? You know how much it means. Couldn't youlike to do someone a good turn when you have the chance?"
The words were ordinary enough, and to my mind there was inthem something so hortatory that I almost smiled. I wasastonished at the effect they had on Blanche Stroeve.
She started a little, and gave her husband a long look.
His eyes were fixed on the ground. I did not know why heseemed embarrassed. A faint colour came into her cheeks,and then her face became white -- more than white, ghastly;you felt that the blood had shrunk away from the whole surfaceof her body; and even her hands were pale. A shiver passedthrough her. The silence of the studio seemed to gather body,so that it became an almost palpable presence. I was bewildered.
"Bring Strickland here, Dirk. I'll do my best for him."
"My precious," he smiled.
He wanted to take her in his arms, but she avoided him.
"Don't be affectionate before strangers, Dirk," she said.
"It makes me feel such a fool."
Her manner was quite normal again, and no one could have toldthat so shortly before she had been shaken by such a greatemotion.
Next day we moved Strickland. It needed a good deal offirmness and still more patience to induce him to come, but hewas really too ill to offer any effective resistance toStroeve's entreaties and to my determination. We dressed him,while he feebly cursed us, got him downstairs, into a cab, andeventually to Stroeve's studio. He was so exhausted by thetime we arrived that he allowed us to put him to bed without a word.
He was ill for six weeks. At one time it looked asthough he could not live more than a few hours, and I amconvinced that it was only through the Dutchman's doggednessthat he pulled through. I have never known a more difficultpatient. It was not that he was exacting and querulous;on the contrary, he never complained, he asked for nothing,he was perfectly silent; but he seemed to resent the care thatwas taken of him; he received all inquiries about his feelingsor his needs with a jibe, a sneer, or an oath. I found himdetestable, and as soon as he was out of danger I had nohesitation in telling him so.
"Go to hell," he answered briefly.
Dirk Stroeve, giving up his work entirely, nursed Stricklandwith tenderness and sympathy. He was dexterous to make himcomfortable, and he exercised a cunning of which I shouldnever have thought him capable to induce him to take themedicines prescribed by the doctor. Nothing was too muchtrouble for him. Though his means were adequate to the needsof himself and his wife, he certainly had no money to waste;but now he was wantonly extravagant in the purchase ofdelicacies, out of season and dear, which might temptStrickland's capricious appetite. I shall never forget thetactful patience with which he persuaded him to take nourishment.
He was never put out by Strickland's rudeness;if it was merely sullen, he appeared not to notice it; if itwas aggressive, he only chuckled. When Strickland, recoveringsomewhat, was in a good humour and amused himself by laughingat him, he deliberately did absurd things to excite his ridicule.
Then he would give me little happy glances, so thatI might notice in how much better form the patient was.
Stroeve was sublime.
But it was Blanche who most surprised me. She proved herselfnot only a capable, but a devoted nurse. There was nothing inher to remind you that she had so vehemently struggled againsther husband's wish to bring Strickland to the studio.
She insisted on doing her share of the offices needful to the sick.
She arranged his bed so that it was possible to change thesheet without disturbing him. She washed him. When Iremarked on her competence, she told me with that pleasantlittle smile of hers that for a while she had worked in a hospital.
She gave no sign that she hated Strickland so desperately.
She did not speak to him much, but she was quick toforestall his wants. For a fortnight it was necessary thatsomeone should stay with him all night, and she took turns atwatching with her husband. I wondered what she thought duringthe long darkness as she sat by the bedside. Strickland was aweird figure as he lay there, thinner than ever, with hisragged red beard and his eyes staring feverishly into vacancy;his illness seemed to have made them larger, and they had anunnatural brightness.
"Does he ever talk to you in the night?" I asked her once.
"Do you dislike him as much as you did?"
"More, if anything."
She looked at me with her calm gray eyes. Her expression wasso placid, it was hard to believe that she was capable of theviolent emotion I had witnessed.
"Has he ever thanked you for what you do for him?"
"No," she smiled.
Stroeve was, of course, delighted with her. He could not doenough to show his gratitude for the whole-hearted devotionwith which she had accepted the burden he laid on her.
But he was a little puzzled by the behaviour of Blanche andStrickland towards one another.
"Do you know, I've seen them sit there for hours togetherwithout saying a word?"
On one occasion, when Strickland was so much better that in aday or two he was to get up, I sat with them in the studio.
Dirk and I were talking. Mrs. Stroeve sewed, and I thought Irecognised the shirt she was mending as Strickland's. He layon his back; he did not speak. Once I saw that his eyes werefixed on Blanche Stroeve, and there was in them a curious irony.
Feeling their gaze, she raised her own, and for a momentthey stared at one another. I could not quite understandher expression. Her eyes had in them a strange perplexity,and perhaps -- but why? -- alarm. In a moment Stricklandlooked away and idly surveyed the ceiling, but she continuedto stare at him, and now her look was quite inexplicable.
In a few days Strickland began to get up. He was nothing butskin and bone. His clothes hung upon him like rags on ascarecrow. With his untidy beard and long hair, his features,always a little larger than life, now emphasised by illness,he had an extraordinary aspect; but it was so odd that it wasnot quite ugly. There was something monumental in hisungainliness. I do not know how to express precisely theimpression he made upon me. It was not exactly spiritualitythat was obvious, though the screen of the flesh seemed almosttransparent, because there was in his face an outrageoussensuality; but, though it sounds nonsense, it seemed asthough his sensuality were curiously spiritual. There was inhim something primitive. He seemed to partake of thoseobscure forces of nature which the Greeks personified inshapes part human and part beast, the satyr and the faun.
I thought of Marsyas, whom the god flayed because he had daredto rival him in song. Strickland seemed to bear in his heartstrange harmonies and unadventured patterns, and I foresaw forhim an end of torture and despair. I had again the feelingthat he was possessed of a devil; but you could not say thatit was a devil of evil, for it was a primitive force thatexisted before good and ill.
He was still too weak to paint, and he sat in the studio,silent, occupied with God knows what dreams, or reading.
The books he liked were queer; sometimes I would find him poringover the poems of Mallarme, and he read them as a child reads,forming the words with his lips, and I wondered what strangeemotion he got from those subtle cadences and obscure phrases;and again I found him absorbed in the detective novels of Gaboriau.
I amused myself by thinking that in his choice of bookshe showed pleasantly the irreconcilable sides of hisfantastic nature. It was singular to notice that even in theweak state of his body he had no thought for its comfort.
Stroeve liked his ease, and in his studio were a couple ofheavily upholstered arm-chairs and a large divan.
Strickland would not go near them, not from any affectationof stoicism, for I found him seated on a three-legged stoolwhen I went into the studio one day and he was alone,but because he did not like them. For choice he sat on akitchen chair without arms. It often exasperated me to see him.
I never knew a man so entirely indifferent to his surroundings.
Two or three weeks passed. One morning, having come to apause in my work, I thought I would give myself a holiday,and I went to the Louvre. I wandered about looking at thepictures I knew so well, and let my fancy play idly with theemotions they suggested. I sauntered into the long gallery,and there suddenly saw Stroeve. I smiled, for his appearance,so rotund and yet so startled, could never fail to excite asmile, and then as I came nearer I noticed that he seemedsingularly disconsolate. He looked woebegone and yetridiculous, like a man who has fallen into the water with allhis clothes on, and, being rescued from death, frightened still,feels that he only looks a fool. Turning round, hestared at me, but I perceived that he did not see me. Hisround blue eyes looked harassed behind his glasses.
"Stroeve," I said.
He gave a little start, and then smiled, but his smile was rueful.
"Why are you idling in this disgraceful fashion?" I asked gaily.
"It's a long time since I was at the Louvre. I thought I'dcome and see if they had anything new."
"But you told me you had to get a picture finished this week."
"Strickland's painting in my studio."
"I suggested it myself. He's not strong enough to go back tohis own place yet. I thought we could both paint there.
Lots of fellows in the Quarter share a studio. I thought itwould be fun. I've always thought it would be jolly to havesomeone to talk to when one was tired of work."
He said all this slowly, detaching statement from statementwith a little awkward silence, and he kept his kind, foolisheyes fixed on mine. They were full of tears.
"I don't think I understand," I said.
"Strickland can't work with anyone else in the studio."
"Damn it all, it's your studio. That's his lookout."
He looked at me pitifully. His lips were trembling.
"What happened?" I asked, rather sharply.
He hesitated and flushed. He glanced unhappily at one of thepictures on the wall.
"He wouldn't let me go on painting. He told me to get out."
"But why didn't you tell him to go to hell?"
"He turned me out. I couldn't very well struggle with him.
He threw my hat after me, and locked the door."
I was furious with Strickland, and was indignant with myself,because Dirk Stroeve cut such an absurd figure that I feltinclined to laugh.
"But what did your wife say?"
"She'd gone out to do the marketing."
"Is he going to let her in?"
"I don't know."
I gazed at Stroeve with perplexity. He stood like a schoolboywith whom a master is finding fault.
"Shall I get rid of Strickland for you?" I asked.
He gave a little start, and his shining face grew very red.
"No. You'd better not do anything."
He nodded to me and walked away. It was clear that for somereason he did not want to discuss the matter. I did not understand.
The explanation came a week later. It was about ten o' clockat night; I had been dining by myself at a restaurant, andhaving returned to my small apartment, was sitting in myparlour, reading I heard the cracked tinkling of the bell,and, going into the corridor, opened the door. Stroeve stoodbefore me.
"Can I come in?" he asked.
In the dimness of the landing I could not see him very well,but there was something in his voice that surprised me. Iknew he was of abstemious habit or I should have thought hehad been drinking. I led the way into my sitting room andasked him to sit down.
"Thank God I've found you," he said.
"What's the matter?" I asked in astonishment at his vehemence.
I was able now to see him well. As a rule he was neat in hisperson, but now his clothes were in disorder. He lookedsuddenly bedraggled. I was convinced he had been drinking,and I smiled. I was on the point of chaffing him on his state.
"I didn't know where to go," he burst out. "I came hereearlier, but you weren't in."
"I dined late," I said.
I changed my mind: it was not liquor that had driven him tothis obvious desperation. His face, usually so rosy, was nowstrangely mottled. His hands trembled.
"Has anything happened?" I asked.
"My wife has left me."
He could hardly get the words out. He gave a little gasp, andthe tears began to trickle down his round cheeks. I did notknow what to say. My first thought was that she had come tothe end of her forbearance with his infatuation forStrickland, and, goaded by the latter's cynical behaviour, hadinsisted that he should be turned out. I knew her capable oftemper, for all the calmness of her manner; and if Stroevestill refused, she might easily have flung out of the studiowith vows never to return. But the little man was sodistressed that I could not smile.
"My dear fellow, don't be unhappy. She'll come back.
You mustn't take very seriously what women say when they'rein a passion."
"You don't understand. She's in love with Strickland."
"What!" I was startled at this, but the idea had no soonertaken possession of me than I saw it was absurd. "How can yoube so silly? You don't mean to say you're jealous of Strickland?"I almost laughed. "You know very well that shecan't bear the sight of him."
"You don't understand," he moaned.
"You're an hysterical ass," I said a little impatiently.
"Let me give you a whisky-and-soda, and you'll feel better."
I supposed that for some reason or other -- and Heaven knowswhat ingenuity men exercise to torment themselves -- Dirk hadgot it into his head that his wife cared for Strickland, andwith his genius for blundering he might quite well haveoffended her so that, to anger him, perhaps, she had takenpains to foster his suspicion.
"Look here," I said, "let's go back to your studio. If you'vemade a fool of yourself you must eat humble pie. Your wifedoesn't strike me as the sort of woman to bear malice."
"How can I go back to the studio?" he said wearily.
"They're there. I've left it to them."
"Then it's not your wife who's left you; it's you who've leftyour wife."
"For God's sake don't talk to me like that."
Still I could not take him seriously. I did not for a momentbelieve what he had told me. But he was in very real distress.
"Well, you've come here to talk to me about it. You'd bettertell me the whole story."
"This afternoon I couldn't stand it any more. I went toStrickland and told him I thought he was quite well enough togo back to his own place. I wanted the studio myself."
"No one but Strickland would have needed telling," I said.
"What did he say?"
"He laughed a little; you know how he laughs, not as though hewere amused, but as though you were a damned fool, and saidhe'd go at once. He began to put his things together.
You remember I fetched from his room what I thought he needed,and he asked Blanche for a piece of paper and some string tomake a parcel."
Stroeve stopped, gasping, and I thought he was going to faint.
This was not at all the story I had expected him to tell me.
"She was very pale, but she brought the paper and the string.
He didn't say anything. He made the parcel and he whistled a tune.
He took no notice of either of us. His eyes had anironic smile in them. My heart was like lead. I was afraidsomething was going to happen, and I wished I hadn't spoken.
He looked round for his hat. Then she spoke:
"'I'm going with Strickland, Dirk,' she said. 'I can't livewith you any more.'
"I tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come. Stricklanddidn't say anything. He went on whistling as though it hadnothing to do with him."
Stroeve stopped again and mopped his face. I kept quitestill. I believed him now, and I was astounded. But all thesame I could not understand.
Then he told me, in a trembling voice, with the tears pouringdown his cheeks, how he had gone up to her, trying to take herin his arms, but she had drawn away and begged him not totouch her. He implored her not to leave him. He told her howpassionately he loved her, and reminded her of all thedevotion he had lavished upon her. He spoke to her of thehappiness of their life. He was not angry with her. He didnot reproach her.
"Please let me go quietly, Dirk," she said at last. "Don'tyou understand that I love Strickland? Where he goes I shall go."
"But you must know that he'll never make you happy. For yourown sake don't go. You don't know what you've got to lookforward to."
"It's your fault. You insisted on his coming here."
He turned to Strickland.
"Have mercy on her," he implored him. "You can't let her doanything so mad."
"She can do as she chooses," said Strickland. "She's notforced to come."
"My choice is made," she said, in a dull voice.
Strickland's injurious calm robbed Stroeve of the rest of hisself-control. Blind rage seized him, and without knowing whathe was doing he flung himself on Strickland. Strickland wastaken by surprise and he staggered, but he was very strong,even after his illness, and in a moment, he did not exactlyknow how, Stroeve found himself on the floor.
"You funny little man," said Strickland.
Stroeve picked himself up. He noticed that his wife hadremained perfectly still, and to be made ridiculous before herincreased his humiliation. His spectacles had tumbled off inthe struggle, and he could not immediately see them.
She picked them up and silently handed them to him. He seemedsuddenly to realise his unhappiness, and though he knew he wasmaking himself still more absurd, he began to cry. He hid hisface in his hands. The others watched him without a word.
They did not move from where they stood.
"Oh, my dear," he groaned at last, "how can you be so cruel?"
"I can't help myself, Dirk," she answered.
"I've worshipped you as no woman was ever worshipped before.
If in anything I did I displeased you, why didn't you tell me,and I'd have changed. I've done everything I could for you."
She did not answer. Her face was set, and he saw that he wasonly boring her. She put on a coat and her hat. She movedtowards the door, and he saw that in a moment she would begone. He went up to her quickly and fell on his knees beforeher, seizing her hands: he abandoned all self-respect.
"Oh, don't go, my darling. I can't live without you; I shallkill myself. If I've done anything to offend you I beg you toforgive me. Give me another chance. I'll try harder still tomake you happy."
"Get up, Dirk. You're making yourself a perfect fool."
He staggered to his feet, but still he would not let her go.
"Where are you going?" he said hastily. "You don't know whatStrickland's place is like. You can't live there. It wouldbe awful."
"If I don't care, I don't see why you should."
"Stay a minute longer. I must speak. After all, you can'tgrudge me that."
"What is the good? I've made up my mind. Nothing that you cansay will make me alter it."
He gulped, and put his hand to his heart to ease its painful beating.
"I'm not going to ask you to change your mind, but I want youto listen to me for a minute. It's the last thing I shallever ask you. Don't refuse me that."
She paused, looking at him with those reflective eyes of hers,which now were so different to him. She came back into thestudio and leaned against the table.
Stroeve made a great effort to collect himself.
"You must be a little reasonable. You can't live on air,you know. Strickland hasn't got a penny."
"You'll suffer the most awful privations. You know why hetook so long to get well. He was half starved."
"I can earn money for him."
"I don't know. I shall find a way."
A horrible thought passed through the Dutchman's mind,and he shuddered.
"I think you must be mad. I don't know what has come over you."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Now may I go?"
"Wait one second longer."
He looked round his studio wearily; he had loved it becauseher presence had made it gay and homelike; he shut his eyesfor an instant; then he gave her a long look as though toimpress on his mind the picture of her. He got up and tookhis hat.
"No; I'll go."
She was startled. She did not know what he meant.
"I can't bear to think of you living in that horrible, filthyattic. After all, this is your home just as much as mine.
You'll be comfortable here. You'll be spared at least theworst privations."
He went to the drawer in which he kept his money and took outseveral bank-notes.
"I would like to give you half what I've got here."
He put them on the table. Neither Strickland nor his wife spoke.
Then he recollected something else.
"Will you pack up my clothes and leave them with the concierge? I'llcome and fetch them to-morrow." He tried to smile. "Good-bye, my dear.
I'm grateful for all the happiness you gave me in the past."
He walked out and closed the door behind him. With my mind'seye I saw Strickland throw his hat on a table, and, sitting down,begin to smoke a cigarette.
I kept silence for a little while, thinking of what Stroevehad told me. I could not stomach his weakness, and he sawmy disapproval. "You know as well as I do how Strickland lived,"he said tremulously. "I couldn't let her live in thosecircumstances -- I simply couldn't."
"That's your business," I answered.
"What would <i you> have done?" he asked.
"She went with her eyes open. If she had to put up withcertain inconveniences it was her own lookout."
"Yes; but, you see, you don't love her."
"Do you love her still?"
"Oh, more than ever. Strickland isn't the man to make a woman happy.
It can't last. I want her to know that I shall never fail her."
"Does that mean that you're prepared to take her back?"
"I shouldn't hesitate. Why, she'll want me more than ever then.
When she's alone and humiliated and broken it would bedreadful if she had nowhere to go."
He seemed to bear no resentment. I suppose it was commonplacein me that I felt slightly outraged at his lack of spirit.
Perhaps he guessed what was in my mind, for he said:
"I couldn't expect her to love me as I loved her.
I'm a buffoon. I'm not the sort of man that women love.
I've always known that. I can't blame her if she's fallenin love with Strickland."
"You certainly have less vanity than any man I've ever known,"I said.
"I love her so much better than myself. It seems to me thatwhen vanity comes into love it can only be because really youlove yourself best. After all, it constantly happens that aman when he's married falls in love with somebody else;when he gets over it he returns to his wife, and she takes himback, and everyone thinks it very natural. Why should it bedifferent with women?"
"I dare say that's logical," I smiled, "but most men are madedifferently, and they can't."
But while I talked to Stroeve I was puzzling over thesuddenness of the whole affair. I could not imagine that hehad had no warning. I remembered the curious look I had seenin Blanche Stroeve's eyes; perhaps its explanation was thatshe was growing dimly conscious of a feeling in her heart thatsurprised and alarmed her.
"Did you have no suspicion before to-day that there wasanything between them?" I asked.
He did not answer for a while. There was a pencil on the table,and unconsciously he drew a head on the blotting-paper.
"Please say so, if you hate my asking you questions," I said.
"It eases me to talk. Oh, if you knew the frightful anguishin my heart." He threw the pencil down. "Yes, I've known itfor a fortnight. I knew it before she did."
"Why on earth didn't you send Strickland packing?"
"I couldn't believe it. It seemed so improbable.
She couldn't bear the sight of him. It was more than improbable;it was incredible. I thought it was merely jealousy.
You see, I've always been jealous, but I trained myself neverto show it; I was jealous of every man she knew; I wasjealous of you. I knew she didn't love me as I loved her.
That was only natural, wasn't it? But she allowed me tolove her, and that was enough to make me happy. I forcedmyself to go out for hours together in order to leave themby themselves; I wanted to punish myself for suspicionswhich were unworthy of me; and when I came back I found theydidn't want me -- not Strickland, he didn't care if I wasthere or not, but Blanche. She shuddered when I went to kiss her.
When at last I was certain I didn't know what to do;I knew they'd only laugh at me if I made a scene.
I thought if I held my tongue and pretended not to see,everything would come right. I made up my mind to gethim away quietly, without quarrelling. Oh, if you onlyknew what I've suffered!"
Then he told me again of his asking Strickland to go.
He chose his moment carefully, and tried to make his requestsound casual; but he could not master the trembling of his voice;and he felt himself that into words that he wished toseem jovial and friendly there crept the bitterness of hisjealousy. He had not expected Strickland to take him up onthe spot and make his preparations to go there and then;above all, he had not expected his wife's decision to go with him.
I saw that now he wished with all his heart that he had heldhis tongue. He preferred the anguish of jealousy to theanguish of separation.
"I wanted to kill him, and I only made a fool of myself."
He was silent for a long time, and then he said what I knewwas in his mind.
"If I'd only waited, perhaps it would have gone all right.
I shouldn't have been so impatient. Oh, poor child,what have I driven her to?"
I shrugged my shoulders, but did not speak. I had no sympathyfor Blanche Stroeve, but knew that it would only pain poorDirk if I told him exactly what I thought of her.
He had reached that stage of exhaustion when he could not stoptalking. He went over again every word of the scene.
Now something occurred to him that he had not told me before;now he discussed what he ought to have said instead of what hedid say; then he lamented his blindness. He regretted that he haddone this, and blamed himself that he had omitted the other.
It grew later and later, and at last I was as tired as he.
"What are you going to do now?" I said finally.
"What can I do? I shall wait till she sends for me."
"Why don't you go away for a bit?"
"No, no; I must be at hand when she wants me."
For the present he seemed quite lost. He had made no plans.
When I suggested that he should go to bed he said he could notsleep; he wanted to go out and walk about the streets till day.
He was evidently in no state to be left alone.
I persuaded him to stay the night with me, and I put him into myown bed. I had a divan in my sitting-room, and could verywell sleep on that. He was by now so worn out that he couldnot resist my firmness. I gave him a sufficient dose ofveronal to insure his unconsciousness for several hours.
I thought that was the best service I could render him.
But the bed I made up for myself was sufficientlyuncomfortable to give me a wakeful night, and I thought a gooddeal of what the unlucky Dutchman had told me. I was not somuch puzzled by Blanche Stroeve's action, for I saw in thatmerely the result of a physical appeal. I do not suppose shehad ever really cared for her husband, and what I had takenfor love was no more than the feminine response to caressesand comfort which in the minds of most women passes for it.
It is a passive feeling capable of being roused for any object,as the vine can grow on any tree; and the wisdom ofthe world recognises its strength when it urges a girl tomarry the man who wants her with the assurance that love will follow.
It is an emotion made up of the satisfaction in security,pride of property, the pleasure of being desired,the gratification of a household, and it is only by an amiablevanity that women ascribe to it spiritual value. It is anemotion which is defenceless against passion. I suspectedthat Blanche Stroeve's violent dislike of Strickland had in itfrom the beginning a vague element of sexual attraction.
Who am I that I should seek to unravel the mysterious intricaciesof sex? Perhaps Stroeve's passion excited without satisfyingthat part of her nature, and she hated Strickland because shefelt in him the power to give her what she needed. I thinkshe was quite sincere when she struggled against her husband'sdesire to bring him into the studio; I think she wasfrightened of him, though she knew not why; and I rememberedhow she had foreseen disaster. I think in some curious waythe horror which she felt for him was a transference of thehorror which she felt for herself because he so strangelytroubled her. His appearance was wild and uncouth; there wasaloofness in his eyes and sensuality in his mouth; he was bigand strong; he gave the impression of untamed passion; andperhaps she felt in him, too, that sinister element which hadmade me think of those wild beings of the world's earlyhistory when matter, retaining its early connection with theearth, seemed to possess yet a spirit of its own. If heaffected her at all, it was inevitable that she should love orhate him. She hated him.
And then I fancy that the daily intimacy with the sick manmoved her strangely. She raised his head to give him food,and it was heavy against her hand; when she had fed him shewiped his sensual mouth and his red beard. She washed his limbs;they were covered with thick hair; and when she driedhis hands, even in his weakness they were strong and sinewy.
His fingers were long; they were the capable, fashioningfingers of the artist; and I know not what troubling thoughtsthey excited in her. He slept very quietly, without amovement, so that he might have been dead, and he was likesome wild creature of the woods, resting after a long chase;and she wondered what fancies passed through his dreams.
Did he dream of the nymph flying through the woods of Greece withthe satyr in hot pursuit? She fled, swift of foot anddesperate, but he gained on her step by step, till she felthis hot breath on her neck; and still she fled silently, andsilently he pursued, and when at last he seized her was itterror that thrilled her heart or was it ecstasy?
Blanche Stroeve was in the cruel grip of appetite.
Perhaps she hated Strickland still, but she hungered for him,and everything that had made up her life till then became ofno account. She ceased to be a woman, complex, kind andpetulant, considerate and thoughtless; she was a Maenad.
She was desire.
But perhaps this is very fanciful; and it may be that she wasmerely bored with her husband and went to Strickland out of acallous curiosity. She may have had no particular feeling forhim, but succumbed to his wish from propinquity or idleness,to find then that she was powerless in a snare of her owncontriving. How did I know what were the thoughts andemotions behind that placid brow and those cool gray eyes?
But if one could be certain of nothing in dealing withcreatures so incalculable as human beings, there wereexplanations of Blanche Stroeve's behaviour which were at allevents plausible. On the other hand, I did not understandStrickland at all. I racked my brain, but could in no wayaccount for an action so contrary to my conception of him.
It was not strange that he should so heartlessly have betrayedhis friends' confidence, nor that he hesitated not at all togratify a whim at the cost of another's misery. That was inhis character. He was a man without any conception ofgratitude. He had no compassion. The emotions common to mostof us simply did not exist in him, and it was as absurd toblame him for not feeling them as for blaming the tigerbecause he is fierce and cruel. But it was the whim I couldnot understand.
I could not believe that Strickland had fallen in love withBlanche Stroeve. I did not believe him capable of love.
That is an emotion in which tenderness is an essential part,but Strickland had no tenderness either for himself or for others;there is in love a sense of weakness, a desire to protect,an eagerness to do good and to give pleasure -- if notunselfishness, at all events a selfishness which marvellouslyconceals itself; it has in it a certain diffidence.
These were not traits which I could imagine in Strickland.
Love is absorbing; it takes the lover out of himself; the mostclear-sighted, though he may know, cannot realise that his lovewill cease; it gives body to what he knows is illusion, and,knowing it is nothing else, he loves it better than reality.
It makes a man a little more than himself, and at the sametime a little less. He ceases to be himself. He is no longeran individual, but a thing, an instrument to some purposeforeign to his ego. Love is never quite devoid ofsentimentality, and Strickland was the least inclined to thatinfirmity of any man I have known. I could not believe thathe would ever suffer that possession of himself which love is;he could never endure a foreign yoke. I believed him capableof uprooting from his heart, though it might be with agony, sothat he was left battered and ensanguined, anything that camebetween himself and that uncomprehended craving that urged himconstantly to he knew not what. If I have succeeded at all ingiving the complicated impression that Strickland made on me,it will not seem outrageous to say that I felt he was at oncetoo great and too small for love.
But I suppose that everyone's conception of the passion isformed on his own idiosyncrasies, and it is different withevery different person. A man like Strickland would love in amanner peculiar to himself. It was vain to seek the analysisof his emotion.
Next day, though I pressed him to remain, Stroeve left me.
I offered to fetch his things from the studio, but he insistedon going himself; I think he hoped they had not thought ofgetting them together, so that he would have an opportunity ofseeing his wife again and perhaps inducing her to come back to him.
But he found his traps waiting for him in the porter'slodge, and the concierge told him that Blanche had gone out.
I do not think he resisted the temptation of giving her anaccount of his troubles. I found that he was telling them toeveryone he knew; he expected sympathy, but only excitedridicule.
He bore himself most unbecomingly. Knowing at what time hiswife did her shopping, one day, unable any longer to bear notseeing her, he waylaid her in the street. She would not speakto him, but he insisted on speaking to her. He spluttered outwords of apology for any wrong he had committed towards her;he told her he loved her devotedly and begged her to return to him.
She would not answer; she walked hurriedly, with avertedface. I imagined him with his fat little legs trying to keepup with her. Panting a little in his haste, he told her howmiserable he was; he besought her to have mercy on him;he promised, if she would forgive him, to do everything shewanted. He offered to take her for a journey. He told herthat Strickland would soon tire of her. When he repeated tome the whole sordid little scene I was outraged. He had shownneither sense nor dignity. He had omitted nothing that couldmake his wife despise him. There is no cruelty greater than awoman's to a man who loves her and whom she does not love;she has no kindness then, no tolerance even, she has only aninsane irritation. Blanche Stroeve stopped suddenly, and ashard as she could slapped her husband's face. She tookadvantage of his confusion to escape, and ran up the stairs tothe studio. No word had passed her lips.
When he told me this he put his hand to his cheek as though hestill felt the smart of the blow, and in his eyes was a painthat was heartrending and an amazement that was ludicrous.
He looked like an overblown schoolboy, and though I felt so sorryfor him, I could hardly help laughing.
Then he took to walking along the street which she must passthrough to get to the shops, and he would stand at the corner,on the other side, as she went along. He dared not speak toher again, but sought to put into his round eyes the appealthat was in his heart. I suppose he had some idea that thesight of his misery would touch her. She never made thesmallest sign that she saw him. She never even changed thehour of her errands or sought an alternative route. I have anidea that there was some cruelty in her indifference. Perhapsshe got enjoyment out of the torture she inflicted.
I wondered why she hated him so much.
I begged Stroeve to behave more wisely. His want of spiritwas exasperating.
"You're doing no good at all by going on like this," I said.
"I think you'd have been wiser if you'd hit her over the headwith a stick. She wouldn't have despised you as she does now."
I suggested that he should go home for a while. He had oftenspoken to me of the silent town, somewhere up in the north ofHolland, where his parents still lived. They were poorpeople. His father was a carpenter, and they dwelt in alittle old red-brick house, neat and clean, by the side of asluggish canal. The streets were wide and empty; for twohundred years the place had been dying, but the houses had thehomely stateliness of their time. Rich merchants, sendingtheir wares to the distant Indies, had lived in them calm andprosperous lives, and in their decent decay they kept still anaroma of their splendid past. You could wander along thecanal till you came to broad green fields, with windmills hereand there, in which cattle, black and white, grazed lazily.
I thought that among those surroundings, with theirrecollections of his boyhood, Dirk Stroeve would forget hisunhappiness. But he would not go.
"I must be here when she needs me," he repeated. "It would bedreadful if something terrible happened and I were not at hand."
"What do you think is going to happen?" I asked.
"I don't know. But I'm afraid."
I shrugged my shoulders.
For all his pain, Dirk Stroeve remained a ridiculous object.
He might have excited sympathy if he had grown worn and thin.
He did nothing of the kind. He remained fat, and his round,red cheeks shone like ripe apples. He had great neatness ofperson, and he continued to wear his spruce black coat and hisbowler hat, always a little too small for him, in a dapper,jaunty manner. He was getting something of a paunch, andsorrow had no effect on it. He looked more than ever like aprosperous bagman. It is hard that a man's exterior shouldtally so little sometimes with his soul. Dirk Stroeve had thepassion of Romeo in the body of Sir Toby Belch. He had asweet and generous nature, and yet was always blundering;a real feeling for what was beautiful and the capacity to createonly what was commonplace; a peculiar delicacy of sentimentand gross manners. He could exercise tact when dealing withthe affairs of others, but none when dealing with his own.
What a cruel practical joke old Nature played when she flungso many contradictory elements together, and left the man faceto face with the perplexing callousness of the universe.
I did not see Strickland for several weeks. I was disgustedwith him, and if I had had an opportunity should have beenglad to tell him so, but I saw no object in seeking him outfor the purpose. I am a little shy of any assumption of moralindignation; there is always in it an element of self-satisfactionwhich makes it awkward to anyone who has a sense of humour.
It requires a very lively passion to steel me tomy own ridicule. There was a sardonic sincerity in Stricklandwhich made me sensitive to anything that might suggest a pose.
But one evening when I was passing along the Avenue de Clichyin front of the cafe which Strickland frequented and which Inow avoided, I ran straight into him. He was accompanied byBlanche Stroeve, and they were just going to Strickland'sfavourite corner.
"Where the devil have you been all this time?" said he.
"I thought you must be away."
His cordiality was proof that he knew I had no wish to speakto him. He was not a man with whom it was worth while wastingpoliteness.
"No," I said; "I haven't been away."
"Why haven't you been here?"
"There are more cafes in Paris than one, at which to trifleaway an idle hour."
Blanche then held out her hand and bade me good-evening.
I do not know why I had expected her to be somehow changed;she wore the same gray dress that she wore so often, neat andbecoming, and her brow was as candid, her eyes as untroubled,as when I had been used to see her occupied with her householdduties in the studio.
"Come and have a game of chess," said Strickland.
I do not know why at the moment I could think of no excuse.
I followed them rather sulkily to the table at which Stricklandalways sat, and he called for the board and the chessmen.
They both took the situation so much as a matter of coursethat I felt it absurd to do otherwise. Mrs. Stroeve watchedthe game with inscrutable face. She was silent, but she hadalways been silent. I looked at her mouth for an expressionthat could give me a clue to what she felt; I watched her eyesfor some tell-tale flash, some hint of dismay or bitterness;I scanned her brow for any passing line that might indicate asettling emotion. Her face was a mask that told nothing.
Her hands lay on her lap motionless, one in the other loosely clasped.
I knew from what I had heard that she was a woman ofviolent passions; and that injurious blow that she had givenDirk, the man who had loved her so devotedly, betrayed asudden temper and a horrid cruelty. She had abandoned thesafe shelter of her husband's protection and the comfortableease of a well-provided establishment for what she could notbut see was an extreme hazard. It showed an eagerness foradventure, a readiness for the hand-to-mouth, which the careshe took of her home and her love of good housewifery made nota little remarkable. She must be a woman of complicatedcharacter, and there was something dramatic in the contrast ofthat with her demure appearance.
I was excited by the encounter, and my fancy worked busilywhile I sought to concentrate myself on the game I was playing.
I always tried my best to beat Strickland, becausehe was a player who despised the opponent he vanquished;his exultation in victory made defeat more difficult to bear.
On the other hand, if he was beaten he took it with completegood-humour. He was a bad winner and a good loser. Those whothink that a man betrays his character nowhere more clearlythan when he is playing a game might on this draw subtleinferences.
When he had finished I called the waiter to pay for thedrinks, and left them. The meeting had been devoid ofincident. No word had been said to give me anything to thinkabout, and any surmises I might make were unwarranted.
I was intrigued. I could not tell how they were getting on.
I would have given much to be a disembodied spirit so that Icould see them in the privacy of the studio and hear what theytalked about. I had not the smallest indication on which tolet my imagination work.
Two or three days later Dirk Stroeve called on me.
"I hear you've seen Blanche," he said.
"How on earth did you find out?"
"I was told by someone who saw you sitting with them.
Why didn't you tell me?"
"I thought it would only pain you."
"What do I care if it does? You must know that I want to hearthe smallest thing about her."
I waited for him to ask me questions.
"What does she look like?" he said.
"Does she seem happy?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"How can I tell? We were in a cafe; we were playing chess;I had no opportunity to speak to her."
"Oh, but couldn't you tell by her face?"
I shook my head. I could only repeat that by no word, by nohinted gesture, had she given an indication of her feelings.
He must know better than I how great were her powers ofself-control. He clasped his hands emotionally.
"Oh, I'm so frightened. I know something is going to happen,something terrible, and I can do nothing to stop it."
"What sort of thing?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know," he moaned, seizing his head with hishands. "I foresee some terrible catastrophe."
Stroeve had always been excitable, but now he was besidehimself; there was no reasoning with him. I thought itprobable enough that Blanche Stroeve would not continue tofind life with Strickland tolerable, but one of the falsest ofproverbs is that you must lie on the bed that you have made.
The experience of life shows that people are constantly doingthings which must lead to disaster, and yet by some chancemanage to evade the result of their folly. When Blanchequarrelled with Strickland she had only to leave him, and herhusband was waiting humbly to forgive and forget. I was notprepared to feel any great sympathy for her.
"You see, you don't love her," said Stroeve.
"After all, there's nothing to prove that she is unhappy.
For all we know they may have settled down into a mostdomestic couple."
Stroeve gave me a look with his woeful eyes.
"Of course it doesn't much matter to you, but to me it's soserious, so intensely serious."
I was sorry if I had seemed impatient or flippant.
"Will you do something for me?" asked Stroeve.
"Will you write to Blanche for me?"
"Why can't you write yourself?"
"I've written over and over again. I didn't expect her to answer.
I don't think she reads the letters."
"You make no account of feminine curiosity. Do you think shecould resist?"
"She could -- mine."
I looked at him quickly. He lowered his eyes. That answer ofhis seemed to me strangely humiliating. He was conscious thatshe regarded him with an indifference so profound that thesight of his handwriting would have not the slightest effecton her.
"Do you really believe that she'll ever come back to you?" I asked.
"I want her to know that if the worst comes to the worst shecan count on me. That's what I want you to tell her."
I took a sheet of paper.
"What is it exactly you wish me to say?"
This is what I wrote:
DEAR MRS. STROEVE, <i Dirk wishes me to tell you that if atany time you want him he will be grateful for the opportunityof being of service to you. He has no ill-feeling towards youon account of anything that has happened. His love for you isunaltered. You will always find him at the followingaddress:>
But though I was no less convinced than Stroeve that theconnection between Strickland and Blanche would enddisastrously, I did not expect the issue to take the tragicform it did. The summer came, breathless and sultry, and evenat night there was no coolness to rest one's jaded nerves.
The sun-baked streets seemed to give back the heat that hadbeat down on them during the day, and the passers-by draggedtheir feet along them wearily. I had not seen Strickland for weeks.
Occupied with other things, I had ceased to think ofhim and his affairs. Dirk, with his vain lamentations, hadbegun to bore me, and I avoided his society. It was a sordidbusiness, and I was not inclined to trouble myself with it further.
One morning I was working. I sat in my Pyjamas. My thoughtswandered, and I thought of the sunny beaches of Brittany andthe freshness of the sea. By my side was the empty bowl inwhich the concierge had brought me my <i cafe au lait> and thefragment of croissant which I had not had appetite enough to eat.
I heard the concierge in the next room emptying my bath.
There was a tinkle at my bell, and I left her to open the door.
In a moment I heard Stroeve's voice asking if I was in.
Without moving, I shouted to him to come. He entered the roomquickly, and came up to the table at which I sat.
"She's killed herself," he said hoarsely.
"What do you mean?" I cried, startled.
He made movements with his lips as though he were speaking,but no sound issued from them. He gibbered like an idiot.
My heart thumped against my ribs, and, I do not know why,I flew into a temper.
"For God's sake, collect yourself, man," I said. "What onearth are you talking about?"
He made despairing gestures with his hands, but still no wordscame from his mouth. He might have been struck dumb. I donot know what came over me; I took him by the shoulders andshook him. Looking back, I am vexed that I made such a foolof myself; I suppose the last restless nights had shaken mynerves more than I knew.
"Let me sit down," he gasped at length.
I filled a glass with St. Galmier, and gave it to himto drink. I held it to his mouth as though he were a child.
He gulped down a mouthful, and some of it was spilt onhis shirt-front.
"Who's killed herself?"
I do not know why I asked, for I knew whom he meant. He madean effort to collect himself.
"They had a row last night. He went away."
"Is she dead?"
"No; they've taken her to the hospital."
"Then what are you talking about?" I cried impatiently. "Whydid you say she'd killed herself?"
"Don't be cross with me. I can't tell you anything if youtalk to me like that."
I clenched my hands, seeking to control my irritation.
I attempted a smile.
"I'm sorry. Take your time. Don't hurry, there's a goodfellow."
His round blue eyes behind the spectacles were ghastly withterror. The magnifying-glasses he wore distorted them.
"When the concierge went up this morning to take a letter shecould get no answer to her ring. She heard someone groaning.
The door wasn't locked, and she went in. Blanche was lying onthe bed. She'd been frightfully sick. There was a bottle ofoxalic acid on the table."
Stroeve hid his face in his hands and swayed backwards andforwards, groaning.
"Was she conscious?"
"Yes. Oh, if you knew how she's suffering! I can't bear it.
I can't bear it."
His voice rose to a shriek.
"Damn it all, you haven't got to bear it," I cried impatiently.
"She's got to bear it."
"How can you be so cruel?"
"What have you done?"
"They sent for a doctor and for me, and they told the police.
I'd given the concierge twenty francs, and told her to sendfor me if anything happened."
He paused a minute, and I saw that what he had to tell me wasvery hard to say.
"When I went she wouldn't speak to me. She told them to sendme away. I swore that I forgave her everything, but shewouldn't listen. She tried to beat her head against the wall.
The doctor told me that I mustn't remain with her. She kepton saying, 'Send him away!' I went, and waited in the studio.
And when the ambulance came and they put her on a stretcher,they made me go in the kitchen so that she shouldn't know Iwas there."
While I dressed -- for Stroeve wished me to go at once withhim to the hospital -- he told me that he had arranged for hiswife to have a private room, so that she might at least bespared the sordid promiscuity of a ward. On our way heexplained to me why he desired my presence; if she stillrefused to see him, perhaps she would see me. He begged me torepeat to her that he loved her still; he would reproach herfor nothing, but desired only to help her; he made no claim onher, and on her recovery would not seek to induce her toreturn to him; she would be perfectly free.
But when we arrived at the hospital, a gaunt, cheerlessbuilding, the mere sight of which was enough to make one'sheart sick, and after being directed from this official tothat, up endless stairs and through long, bare corridors,found the doctor in charge of the case, we were told that thepatient was too ill to see anyone that day. The doctor was alittle bearded man in white, with an offhand manner.
He evidently looked upon a case as a case, and anxious relativesas a nuisance which must be treated with firmness. Moreover,to him the affair was commonplace; it was just an hystericalwoman who had quarrelled with her lover and taken poison;it was constantly happening. At first he thought that Dirk wasthe cause of the disaster, and he was needlessly brusque with him.
When I explained that he was the husband, anxious toforgive, the doctor looked at him suddenly, with curious,searching eyes. I seemed to see in them a hint of mockery;it was true that Stroeve had the head of the husband who is deceived.
The doctor faintly shrugged his shoulders.
"There is no immediate danger," he said, in answer to ourquestioning. "One doesn't know how much she took. It may bethat she will get off with a fright. Women are constantlytrying to commit suicide for love, but generally they takecare not to succeed. It's generally a gesture to arouse pityor terror in their lover."
There was in his tone a frigid contempt. It was obvious thatto him Blanche Stroeve was only a unit to be added to thestatistical list of attempted suicides in the city of Parisduring the current year. He was busy, and could waste no moretime on us. He told us that if we came at a certain hour nextday, should Blanche be better, it might be possible for herhusband to see her.
I scarcely know how we got through that day. Stroeve couldnot bear to be alone, and I exhausted myself in efforts todistract him. I took him to the Louvre, and he pretended tolook at pictures, but I saw that his thoughts were constantlywith his wife. I forced him to eat, and after luncheon Iinduced him to lie down, but he could not sleep. He acceptedwillingly my invitation to remain for a few days in my apartment.
I gave him books to read, but after a page or twohe would put the book down and stare miserably into space.
During the evening we played innumerable games of piquet,and bravely, not to disappoint my efforts, he tried to appearinterested. Finally I gave him a draught, and he sank intouneasy slumber.
When we went again to the hospital we saw a nursing sister.
She told us that Blanche seemed a little better, and she wentin to ask if she would see her husband. We heard voices inthe room in which she lay, and presently the nurse returned tosay that the patient refused to see anyone. We had told herthat if she refused to see Dirk the nurse was to ask if shewould see me, but this she refused also. Dirk's lipstrembled.
"I dare not insist," said the nurse. "She is too ill.
Perhaps in a day or two she may change her mind."
"Is there anyone else she wants to see?" asked Dirk,in a voice so low it was almost a whisper.
"She says she only wants to be left in peace."
Dirk's hands moved strangely, as though they had nothing to dowith his body, with a movement of their own.
"Will you tell her that if there is anyone else she wishes tosee I will bring him? I only want her to be happy."
The nurse looked at him with her calm, kind eyes, which hadseen all the horror and pain of the world, and yet, filledwith the vision of a world without sin, remained serene.
"I will tell her when she is a little calmer."
Dirk, filled with compassion, begged her to take the messageat once.
"It may cure her. I beseech you to ask her now."
With a faint smile of pity, the nurse went back into the room.
We heard her low voice, and then, in a voice I did notrecognise the answer:
"No. No. No."
The nurse came out again and shook her head.
"Was that she who spoke then?" I asked. "Her voice soundedso strange."
"It appears that her vocal cords have been burnt by the acid."
Dirk gave a low cry of distress. I asked him to go on andwait for me at the entrance, for I wanted to say something tothe nurse. He did not ask what it was, but went silently. Heseemed to have lost all power of will; he was like an obedient child.
"Has she told you why she did it?" I asked.
"No. She won't speak. She lies on her back quite quietly.
She doesn't move for hours at a time. But she cries always.
Her pillow is all wet. She's too weak to use a handkerchief,and the tears just run down her face."
It gave me a sudden wrench of the heart-strings. I could havekilled Strickland then, and I knew that my voice was tremblingwhen I bade the nurse good-bye.
I found Dirk waiting for me on the steps. He seemed to seenothing, and did not notice that I had joined him till Itouched him on the arm. We walked along in silence. I triedto imagine what had happened to drive the poor creature tothat dreadful step. I presumed that Strickland knew what hadhappened, for someone must have been to see him from the police,and he must have made his statement. I did not knowwhere he was. I supposed he had gone back to the shabby atticwhich served him as a studio. It was curious that she shouldnot wish to see him. Perhaps she refused to have him sent forbecause she knew he would refuse to come. I wondered what anabyss of cruelty she must have looked into that in horror sherefused to live.
The next week was dreadful. Stroeve went twice a day to thehospital to enquire after his wife, who still declined to seehim; and came away at first relieved and hopeful because hewas told that she seemed to be growing better, and then indespair because, the complication which the doctor had fearedhaving ensued, recovery was impossible. The nurse was pitifulto his distress, but she had little to say that could consolehim. The poor woman lay quite still, refusing to speak, withher eyes intent, as though she watched for the coming of death.
It could now be only the question of a day or two;and when, late one evening, Stroeve came to see me I knew it wasto tell me she was dead. He was absolutely exhausted.
His volubility had left him at last, and he sank down wearilyon my sofa. I felt that no words of condolence availed, and Ilet him lie there quietly. I feared he would think itheartless if I read, so I sat by the window, smoking a pipe,till he felt inclined to speak.
"You've been very kind to me," he said at last. "Everyone'sbeen very kind."
"Nonsense," I said, a little embarrassed.
"At the hospital they told me I might wait. They gave me achair, and I sat outside the door. When she becameunconscious they said I might go in. Her mouth and chin wereall burnt by the acid. It was awful to see her lovely skinall wounded. She died very peacefully, so that I didn't knowshe was dead till the sister told me."
He was too tired to weep. He lay on his back limply, asthough all the strength had gone out of his limbs, andpresently I saw that he had fallen asleep. It was the firstnatural sleep he had had for a week. Nature, sometimes socruel, is sometimes merciful. I covered him and turned downthe light. In the morning when I awoke he was still asleep.
He had not moved. His gold-rimmed spectacles were still onhis nose.
The circumstances of Blanche Stroeve's death necessitated allmanner of dreadful formalities, but at last we were allowed tobury her. Dirk and I alone followed the hearse to the cemetery.
We went at a foot-pace, but on the way back we trotted,and there was something to my mind singularly horrible inthe way the driver of the hearse whipped up his horses.
It seemed to dismiss the dead with a shrug of the shoulders.
Now and then I caught sight of the swaying hearse infront of us, and our own driver urged his pair so that wemight not remain behind. I felt in myself, too, the desire toget the whole thing out of my mind. I was beginning to bebored with a tragedy that did not really concern me, andpretending to myself that I spoke in order to distractStroeve, I turned with relief to other subjects.
"Don't you think you'd better go away for a bit?" I said.
"There can be no object in your staying in Paris now."
He did not answer, but I went on ruthlessly:
"Have you made any plans for the immediate future?"
"You must try and gather together the threads again.
Why don't you go down to Italy and start working?"
Again he made no reply, but the driver of our carriage came tomy rescue. Slackening his pace for a moment, he leaned overand spoke. I could not hear what he said, so I put my headout of the window. He wanted to know where we wished to beset down. I told him to wait a minute.
"You'd better come and have lunch with me," I said to Dirk.
"I'll tell him to drop us in the Place Pigalle."
"I'd rather not. I want to go to the studio."
I hesitated a moment.
"Would you like me to come with you?" I asked then.
"No; I should prefer to be alone."
I gave the driver the necessary direction, and in renewedsilence we drove on. Dirk had not been to the studio sincethe wretched morning on which they had taken Blanche to the hospital.
I was glad he did not want me to accompany him, and whenI left him at the door I walked away with relief. I tooka new pleasure in the streets of Paris, and I looked withsmiling eyes at the people who hurried to and fro. The daywas fine and sunny, and I felt in myself a more acute delightin life. I could not help it; I put Stroeve and his sorrowsout of my mind. I wanted to enjoy.
I did not see him again for nearly a week. Then he fetched mesoon after seven one evening and took me out to dinner.
He was dressed in the deepest mourning, and on his bowler was abroad black band. He had even a black border to his handkerchief.
His garb of woe suggested that he had lost in onecatastrophe every relation he had in the world, even tocousins by marriage twice removed. His plumpness and his red,fat cheeks made his mourning not a little incongruous. It wascruel that his extreme unhappiness should have in it somethingof buffoonery.
He told me he had made up his mind to go away, though not toItaly, as I had suggested, but to Holland.
"I'm starting to-morrow. This is perhaps the last time weshall ever meet."
I made an appropriate rejoinder, and he smiled wanly.
"I haven't been home for five years. I think I'd forgotten it all;I seemed to have come so far away from my father's housethat I was shy at the idea of revisiting it; but now I feelit's my only refuge."
He was sore and bruised, and his thoughts went back to thetenderness of his mother's love. The ridicule he had enduredfor years seemed now to weigh him down, and the final blow ofBlanche's treachery had robbed him of the resiliency which hadmade him take it so gaily. He could no longer laugh withthose who laughed at him. He was an outcast. He told me ofhis childhood in the tidy brick house, and of his mother'spassionate orderliness. Her kitchen was a miracle of cleanbrightness. Everything was always in its place, and no wherecould you see a speck of dust. Cleanliness, indeed, was amania with her. I saw a neat little old woman, with cheekslike apples, toiling away from morning to night, through thelong years, to keep her house trim and spruce. His father wasa spare old man, his hands gnarled after the work of alifetime, silent and upright; in the evening he read the paperaloud, while his wife and daughter (now married to the captainof a fishing smack), unwilling to lose a moment, bent overtheir sewing. Nothing ever happened in that little town, leftbehind by the advance of civilisation, and one year followedthe next till death came, like a friend, to give rest to thosewho had laboured so diligently.
"My father wished me to become a carpenter like himself.
For five generations we've carried on the same trade, from fatherto son. Perhaps that is the wisdom of life, to tread in yourfather's steps, and look neither to the right nor to the left.
When I was a little boy I said I would marry the daughter ofthe harness-maker who lived next door. She was a little girlwith blue eyes and a flaxen pigtail. She would have kept myhouse like a new pin, and I should have had a son to carry onthe business after me."
Stroeve sighed a little and was silent. His thoughts dweltamong pictures of what might have been, and the safety of thelife he had refused filled him with longing.
"The world is hard and cruel. We are here none knows why,and we go none knows whither. We must be very humble. We mustsee the beauty of quietness. We must go through life soinconspicuously that Fate does not notice us. And let us seekthe love of simple, ignorant people. Their ignorance isbetter than all our knowledge. Let us be silent, content inour little corner, meek and gentle like them. That is thewisdom of life."
To me it was his broken spirit that expressed itself, and Irebelled against his renunciation. But I kept my own counsel.
"What made you think of being a painter?" I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"It happened that I had a knack for drawing. I got prizes forit at school. My poor mother was very proud of my gift,and she gave me a box of water-colours as a present. She showedmy sketches to the pastor and the doctor and the judge.
And they sent me to Amsterdam to try for a scholarship, and I wonit. Poor soul, she was so proud; and though it nearly brokeher heart to part from me, she smiled, and would not show meher grief. She was pleased that her son should be an artist.
They pinched and saved so that I should have enough to live on,and when my first picture was exhibited they came toAmsterdam to see it, my father and mother and my sister,and my mother cried when she looked at it." His kind eyes glistened.
"And now on every wall of the old house there is one of mypictures in a beautiful gold frame."
He glowed with happy pride. I thought of those cold scenes ofhis, with their picturesque peasants and cypresses and olive-trees.
They must look queer in their garish frames on the walls ofthe peasant house.
"The dear soul thought she was doing a wonderful thing for mewhen she made me an artist, but perhaps, after all, it wouldhave been better for me if my father's will had prevailed andI were now but an honest carpenter."
"Now that you know what art can offer, would you change yourlife? Would you have missed all the delight it has given you?"
"Art is the greatest thing in the world," he answered, after a pause.
He looked at me for a minute reflectively; he seemed to hesitate;then he said:
"Did you know that I had been to see Strickland?"
I was astonished. I should have thought he could not bear toset eyes on him. Stroeve smiled faintly.
"You know already that I have no proper pride."
"What do you mean by that?"
He told me a singular story.
When I left him, after we had buried poor Blanche, Stroevewalked into the house with a heavy heart. Something impelledhim to go to the studio, some obscure desire for self-torture,and yet he dreaded the anguish that he foresaw. He draggedhimself up the stairs; his feet seemed unwilling to carry him;and outside the door he lingered for a long time, trying tosummon up courage to go in. He felt horribly sick. He had animpulse to run down the stairs after me and beg me to go inwith him; he had a feeling that there was somebody in thestudio. He remembered how often he had waited for a minute ortwo on the landing to get his breath after the ascent, and howabsurdly his impatience to see Blanche had taken it away again.
To see her was a delight that never staled, and eventhough he had not been out an hour he was as excited at theprospect as if they had been parted for a month. Suddenly hecould not believe that she was dead. What had happened couldonly be a dream, a frightful dream; and when he turned the keyand opened the door, he would see her bending slightly overthe table in the gracious attitude of the woman in Chardin's<i Benedicite>, which always seemed to him so exquisite.
Hurriedly he took the key out of his pocket, opened, andwalked in.
The apartment had no look of desertion. His wife's tidinesswas one of the traits which had so much pleased him; his ownupbringing had given him a tender sympathy for the delight inorderliness; and when he had seen her instinctive desire toput each thing in its appointed place it had given him alittle warm feeling in his heart. The bedroom looked asthough she had just left it: the brushes were neatly placedon the toilet-table, one on each side of the comb; someone hadsmoothed down the bed on which she had spent her last night inthe studio; and her nightdress in a little case lay on the pillow.
It was impossible to believe that she would never come intothat room again.
But he felt thirsty, and went into the kitchen to get himselfsome water. Here, too, was order. On a rack were the platesthat she had used for dinner on the night of her quarrel withStrickland, and they had been carefully washed. The knivesand forks were put away in a drawer. Under a cover were theremains of a piece of cheese, and in a tin box was a crust ofbread. She had done her marketing from day to day, buyingonly what was strictly needful, so that nothing was left overfrom one day to the next. Stroeve knew from the enquiriesmade by the police that Strickland had walked out of the houseimmediately after dinner, and the fact that Blanche had washedup the things as usual gave him a little thrill of horror.
Her methodicalness made her suicide more deliberate.
Her self-possession was frightening. A sudden pang seized him,and his knees felt so weak that he almost fell. He went backinto the bedroom and threw himself on the bed. He cried outher name.
The thought of her suffering was intolerable. He had a suddenvision of her standing in the kitchen -- it was hardly largerthan a cupboard -- washing the plates and glasses, the forksand spoons, giving the knives a rapid polish on the knife-board;and then putting everything away, giving the sink a scrub,and hanging the dish-cloth up to dry -- it was there still,a gray torn rag; then looking round to see thateverything was clean and nice. He saw her roll down hersleeves and remove her apron -- the apron hung on a peg behindthe door -- and take the bottle of oxalic acid and go with itinto the bedroom.
The agony of it drove him up from the bed and out of the room.
He went into the studio. It was dark, for the curtains hadbeen drawn over the great window, and he pulled them quicklyback; but a sob broke from him as with a rapid glance he tookin the place where he had been so happy. Nothing was changedhere, either. Strickland was indifferent to his surroundings,and he had lived in the other's studio without thinking ofaltering a thing. It was deliberately artistic. It representedStroeve's idea of the proper environment for an artist.
There were bits of old brocade on the walls, and the pianowas covered with a piece of silk, beautiful and tarnished;in one corner was a copy of the Venus of Milo, andin another of the Venus of the Medici. Here and there was anItalian cabinet surmounted with Delft, and here and there abas-relief. In a handsome gold frame was a copy of Velasquez'Innocent X., that Stroeve had made in Rome, and placed so asto make the most of their decorative effect were a number ofStroeve's pictures, all in splendid frames. Stroeve hadalways been very proud of his taste. He had never lost hisappreciation for the romantic atmosphere of a studio, andthough now the sight of it was like a stab in his heart,without thinking what he was at, he changed slightly theposition of a Louis XV. table which was one of his treasures.
Suddenly he caught sight of a canvas with its face to the wall.
It was a much larger one than he himself was in thehabit of using, and he wondered what it did there. He wentover to it and leaned it towards him so that he could see thepainting. It was a nude. His heart began to beat quickly,for he guessed at once that it was one of Strickland'spictures. He flung it back against the wall angrily -- whatdid he mean by leaving it there? -- but his movement caused itto fall, face downwards, on the ground. No mater whose thepicture, he could not leave it there in the dust, and heraised it; but then curiosity got the better of him.
He thought he would like to have a proper look at it, so hebrought it along and set it on the easel. Then he stood backin order to see it at his ease.
He gave a gasp. It was the picture of a woman lying on a sofa,with one arm beneath her head and the other along her body;one knee was raised, and the other leg was stretched out.
The pose was classic. Stroeve's head swam. It was Blanche.
Grief and jealousy and rage seized him, and he criedout hoarsely; he was inarticulate; he clenched his fists andraised them threateningly at an invisible enemy. He screamedat the top of his voice. He was beside himself. He could notbear it. That was too much. He looked round wildly for someinstrument; he wanted to hack the picture to pieces; it shouldnot exist another minute. He could see nothing that wouldserve his purpose; he rummaged about his painting things;somehow he could not find a thing; he was frantic. At last hecame upon what he sought, a large scraper, and he pounced onit with a cry of triumph. He seized it as though it were adagger, and ran to the picture.
As Stroeve told me this he became as excited as when theincident occurred, and he took hold of a dinner-knife on thetable between us, and brandished it. He lifted his arm asthough to strike, and then, opening his hand, let it fall witha clatter to the ground. He looked at me with a tremulous smile.
He did not speak.
"Fire away," I said.
"I don't know what happened to me. I was just going to make agreat hole in the picture, I had my arm all ready for theblow, when suddenly I seemed to see it."
"The picture. It was a work of art. I couldn't touch it.
I was afraid."
Stroeve was silent again, and he stared at me with his mouthopen and his round blue eyes starting out of his head.
"It was a great, a wonderful picture. I was seized with awe.
I had nearly committed a dreadful crime. I moved a little tosee it better, and my foot knocked against the scraper.
I really felt something of the emotion that had caught him.
I was strangely impressed. It was as though I were suddenlytransported into a world in which the values were changed.
I stood by, at a loss, like a stranger in a land where thereactions of man to familiar things are all different fromthose he has known. Stroeve tried to talk to me about thepicture, but he was incoherent, and I had to guess at what he meant.
Strickland had burst the bonds that hitherto had held him.
He had found, not himself, as the phrase goes, but a newsoul with unsuspected powers. It was not only the boldsimplification of the drawing which showed so rich and sosingular a personality; it was not only the painting, thoughthe flesh was painted with a passionate sensuality which hadin it something miraculous; it was not only the solidity, sothat you felt extraordinarily the weight of the body; therewas also a spirituality, troubling and new, which led theimagination along unsuspected ways, and suggested dim emptyspaces, lit only by the eternal stars, where the soul, allnaked, adventured fearful to the discovery of new mysteries.
If I am rhetorical it is because Stroeve was rhetorical.
(Do we not know that man in moments of emotion expresses himselfnaturally in the terms of a novelette?) Stroeve was trying toexpress a feeling which he had never known before, and he didnot know how to put it into common terms. He was like themystic seeking to describe the ineffable. But one fact hemade clear to me; people talk of beauty lightly, and having nofeeling for words, they use that one carelessly, so that itloses its force; and the thing it stands for, sharing its namewith a hundred trivial objects, is deprived of dignity.
They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and when they areface to face with Beauty cannot recognise it. The falseemphasis with which they try to deck their worthless thoughtsblunts their susceptibilities. Like the charlatan whocounterfeits a spiritual force he has sometimes felt, theylose the power they have abused. But Stroeve, theunconquerable buffoon, had a love and an understanding ofbeauty which were as honest and sincere as was his own sincereand honest soul. It meant to him what God means to thebeliever, and when he saw it he was afraid.
"What did you say to Strickland when you saw him?"
"I asked him to come with me to Holland."
I was dumbfounded. I could only look at Stroeve in stupid amazement.
"We both loved Blanche. There would have been room for him inmy mother's house. I think the company of poor, simple peoplewould have done his soul a great good. I think he might havelearnt from them something that would be very useful to him."
"What did he say?"
"He smiled a little. I suppose he thought me very silly.
He said he had other fish to fry."
I could have wished that Strickland had used some other phraseto indicate his refusal.
"He gave me the picture of Blanche."
I wondered why Strickland had done that. But I made noremark, and for some time we kept silence.
"What have you done with all your things?" I said at last.
"I got a Jew in, and he gave me a round sum for the lot.
I'm taking my pictures home with me. Beside them I own nothingin the world now but a box of clothes and a few books."
"I'm glad you're going home," I said.
I felt that his chance was to put all the past behind him.
I hoped that the grief which now seemed intolerable would besoftened by the lapse of time, and a merciful forgetfulnesswould help him to take up once more the burden of life.
He was young still, and in a few years he would look back on allhis misery with a sadness in which there would be somethingnot unpleasurable. Sooner or later he would marry some honestsoul in Holland, and I felt sure he would be happy. I smiledat the thought of the vast number of bad pictures he wouldpaint before he died.
Next day I saw him off for Amsterdam.
For the next month, occupied with my own affairs, I saw no oneconnected with this lamentable business, and my mind ceased tobe occupied with it. But one day, when I was walking along,bent on some errand, I passed Charles Strickland. The sightof him brought back to me all the horror which I was notunwilling to forget, and I felt in me a sudden repulsion forthe cause of it. Nodding, for it would have been childish tocut him, I walked on quickly; but in a minute I felt a hand onmy shoulder.
"You're in a great hurry," he said cordially.
It was characteristic of him to display geniality with anyonewho showed a disinclination to meet him, and the coolness ofmy greeting can have left him in little doubt of that.
"I am," I answered briefly.
"I'll walk along with you," he said.
"Why?" I asked.
"For the pleasure of your society."
I did not answer, and he walked by my side silently.
We continued thus for perhaps a quarter of a mile. I began tofeel a little ridiculous. At last we passed a stationer's,and it occurred to me that I might as well buy some paper.
It would be an excuse to be rid of him.
"I'm going in here," I said. "Good-bye."
"I'll wait for you."
I shrugged my shoulders, and went into the shop. I reflectedthat French paper was bad, and that, foiled of my purpose,I need not burden myself with a purchase that I did not need.
I asked for something I knew could not be provided, and in aminute came out into the street.
"Did you get what you wanted?" he asked.
We walked on in silence, and then came to a place whereseveral streets met. I stopped at the curb.
"Which way do you go?" I enquired.
"Your way," he smiled.
"I'm going home."
"I'll come along with you and smoke a pipe."
"You might wait for an invitation," I retorted frigidly.
"I would if I thought there was any chance of getting one."
"Do you see that wall in front of you?" I said, pointing.
"In that case I should have thought you could see also that Idon't want your company."
"I vaguely suspected it, I confess."
I could not help a chuckle. It is one of the defects of mycharacter that I cannot altogether dislike anyone who makes me laugh.
But I pulled myself together.
"I think you're detestable. You're the most loathsome beastthat it's ever been my misfortune to meet. Why do you seekthe society of someone who hates and despises you?"
"My dear fellow, what the hell do you suppose I care what youthink of me?"
"Damn it all," I said, more violently because I had an inklingmy motive was none too creditable, "I don't want to know you."
"Are you afraid I shall corrupt you?"
His tone made me feel not a little ridiculous. I knew that hewas looking at me sideways, with a sardonic smile.
"I suppose you are hard up," I remarked insolently.
"I should be a damned fool if I thought I had any chance ofborrowing money from you."
"You've come down in the world if you can bring yourself to flatter."
"You'll never really dislike me so long as I give you theopportunity to get off a good thing now and then."
I had to bite my lip to prevent myself from laughing. What hesaid had a hateful truth in it, and another defect of mycharacter is that I enjoy the company of those, howeverdepraved, who can give me a Roland for my Oliver. I began tofeel that my abhorrence for Strickland could only be sustainedby an effort on my part. I recognised my moral weakness, butsaw that my disapprobation had in it already something of a pose;and I knew that if I felt it, his own keen instinct haddiscovered it, too. He was certainly laughing at me up his sleeve.
I left him the last word, and sought refuge in a shrug of theshoulders and taciturnity.
We arrived at the house in which I lived. I would not ask himto come in with me, but walked up the stairs without a word.
He followed me, and entered the apartment on my heels. He hadnot been in it before, but he never gave a glance at the roomI had been at pains to make pleasing to the eye. There was atin of tobacco on the table, and, taking out his pipe, hefilled it. He sat down on the only chair that had no arms andtilted himself on the back legs.
"If you're going to make yourself at home, why don't you sitin an arm-chair?" I asked irritably.
"Why are you concerned about my comfort?"
"I'm not," I retorted, "but only about my own. It makes meuncomfortable to see someone sit on an uncomfortable chair."
He chuckled, but did not move. He smoked on in silence,taking no further notice of me, and apparently was absorbed inthought. I wondered why he had come.
Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there issomething disconcerting to the writer in the instinct whichcauses him to take an interest in the singularities of humannature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it.
He recognises in himself an artistic satisfaction in thecontemplation of evil which a little startles him;but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feelsfor certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosityin their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical andcomplete, has a fascination for his creator which is anoutrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devisedIago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeamswith his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in hisrogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, whichthe manners and customs of a civilised world have forced backto the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving tothe character of his invention flesh and bones he is givinglife to that part of himself which finds no other means ofexpression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation.
The writer is more concerned to know than to judge.
There was in my soul a perfectly genuine horror of Strickland,and side by side with it a cold curiosity to discover his motives.
I was puzzled by him, and I was eager to see how heregarded the tragedy he had caused in the lives of people whohad used him with so much kindness. I applied the scalpelboldly.
"Stroeve told me that picture you painted of his wife was thebest thing you've ever done."
Strickland took his pipe out of his mouth, and a smile lit uphis eyes.
"It was great fun to do."
"Why did you give it him?"
"I'd finished it. It wasn't any good to me."
"Do you know that Stroeve nearly destroyed it?"
"It wasn't altogether satisfactory."
He was quiet for a moment or two, then he took his pipe out ofhis mouth again, and chuckled.
"Do you know that the little man came to see me?"
"Weren't you rather touched by what he had to say?"
"No; I thought it damned silly and sentimental."
"I suppose it escaped your memory that you'd ruined his life?"I remarked.
He rubbed his bearded chin reflectively.
"He's a very bad painter."
"But a very good man."
"And an excellent cook," Strickland added derisively.
His callousness was inhuman, and in my indignation I was notinclined to mince my words.
"As a mere matter of curiosity I wish you'd tell me, have youfelt the smallest twinge of remorse for Blanche Stroeve's death?"
I watched his face for some change of expression, but itremained impassive.
"Why should I?" he asked.
"Let me put the facts before you. You were dying, and DirkStroeve took you into his own house. He nursed you like a mother.
He sacrificed his time and his comfort and his money for you.
He snatched you from the jaws of death."
Strickland shrugged his shoulders.
"The absurd little man enjoys doing things for other people.
That's his life."
"Granting that you owed him no gratitude, were you obliged togo out of your way to take his wife from him? Until you cameon the scene they were happy. Why couldn't you leave them alone?"
"What makes you think they were happy?"
"It was evident."
"You are a discerning fellow. Do you think she could everhave forgiven him for what he did for her?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"Don't you know why he married her?"
I shook my head.
"She was a governess in the family of some Roman prince, andthe son of the house seduced her. She thought he was going tomarry her. They turned her out into the street neck and crop.
She was going to have a baby, and she tried to commit suicide.
Stroeve found her and married her."
"It was just like him. I never knew anyone with socompassionate a heart."
I had often wondered why that ill-assorted pair had married,but just that explanation had never occurred to me. That wasperhaps the cause of the peculiar quality of Dirk's love forhis wife. I had noticed in it something more than passion.
I remembered also how I had always fancied that her reserveconcealed I knew not what; but now I saw in it more than thedesire to hide a shameful secret. Her tranquillity was likethe sullen calm that broods over an island which has beenswept by a hurricane. Her cheerfulness was the cheerfulnessof despair. Strickland interrupted my reflections with anobservation the profound cynicism of which startled me.
"A woman can forgive a man for the harm he does her," he said,"but she can never forgive him for the sacrifices he makes onher account."
"It must be reassuring to you to know that you certainly runno risk of incurring the resentment of the women you come incontact with," I retorted.
A slight smile broke on his lips.
"You are always prepared to sacrifice your principles for arepartee," he answered.
"What happened to the child?"
"Oh, it was still-born, three or four months after they were married."
Then I came to the question which had seemed to me most puzzling.
"Will you tell me why you bothered about Blanche Stroeve at all?"
He did not answer for so long that I nearly repeated it.
"How do I know?" he said at last. "She couldn't bear thesight of me. It amused me."
He gave a sudden flash of anger.
"Damn it all, I wanted her."
But he recovered his temper immediately, and looked at me witha smile.
"At first she was horrified."
"Did you tell her?"
"There wasn't any need. She knew. I never said a word.
She was frightened. At last I took her."
I do not know what there was in the way he told me this thatextraordinarily suggested the violence of his desire. It wasdisconcerting and rather horrible. His life was strangelydivorced from material things, and it was as though his bodyat times wreaked a fearful revenge on his spirit. The satyrin him suddenly took possession, and he was powerless in thegrip of an instinct which had all the strength of theprimitive forces of nature. It was an obsession so completethat there was no room in his soul for prudence or gratitude.
"But why did you want to take her away with you?" I asked.
"I didn't," he answered, frowning. "When she said she wascoming I was nearly as surprised as Stroeve. I told her thatwhen I'd had enough of her she'd have to go, and she saidshe'd risk that." He paused a little. "She had a wonderfulbody, and I wanted to paint a nude. When I'd finished mypicture I took no more interest in her."
"And she loved you with all her heart."
He sprang to his feet and walked up and down the small room.
"I don't want love. I haven't time for it. It's weakness.
I am a man, and sometimes I want a woman. When I've satisfiedmy passion I'm ready for other things. I can't overcome mydesire, but I hate it; it imprisons my spirit; I look forwardto the time when I shall be free from all desire and can givemyself without hindrance to my work. Because women can donothing except love, they've given it a ridiculous importance.
They want to persuade us that it's the whole of life. It's aninsignificant part. I know lust. That's normal and healthy.
Love is a disease. Women are the instruments of my pleasure;I have no patience with their claim to be helpmates, partners,companions."
I had never heard Strickland speak so much at one time.
He spoke with a passion of indignation. But neither here norelsewhere do I pretend to give his exact words; his vocabularywas small, and he had no gift for framing sentences, so thatone had to piece his meaning together out of interjections,the expression of his face, gestures and hackneyed phrases.
"You should have lived at a time when women were chattels andmen the masters of slaves," I said.
"It just happens that I am a completely normal man."
I could not help laughing at this remark, made in all seriousness;but he went on, walking up and down the room likea caged beast, intent on expressing what he felt, but foundsuch difficulty in putting coherently.
"When a woman loves you she's not satisfied until shepossesses your soul. Because she's weak, she has a rage fordomination, and nothing less will satisfy her. She has asmall mind, and she resents the abstract which she is unableto grasp. She is occupied with material things, and she isjealous of the ideal. The soul of man wanders through theuttermost regions of the universe, and she seeks to imprisonit in the circle of her account-book. Do you remember my wife?I saw Blanche little by little trying all her tricks.
With infinite patience she prepared to snare me and bind me.
She wanted to bring me down to her level; she cared nothingfor me, she only wanted me to be hers. She was willing to doeverything in the world for me except the one thing I wanted:to leave me alone."
I was silent for a while.
"What did you expect her to do when you left her?"
"She could have gone back to Stroeve," he said irritably.
"He was ready to take her."
"You're inhuman," I answered. "It's as useless to talk to youabout these things as to describe colours to a man who wasborn blind."
He stopped in front of my chair, and stood looking down at mewith an expression in which I read a contemptuous amazement.
"Do you really care a twopenny damn if Blanche Stroeve isalive or dead?"
I thought over his question, for I wanted to answer ittruthfully, at all events to my soul.
"It may be a lack of sympathy in myself if it does not makeany great difference to me that she is dead. Life had a greatdeal to offer her. I think it's terrible that she should havebeen deprived of it in that cruel way, and I am ashamedbecause I do not really care."
"You have not the courage of your convictions. Life has novalue. Blanche Stroeve didn't commit suicide because I lefther, but because she was a foolish and unbalanced woman.
But we've talked about her quite enough; she was an entirelyunimportant person. Come, and I'll show you my pictures."
He spoke as though I were a child that needed to bedistracted. I was sore, but not with him so much as with myself.
I thought of the happy life that pair had led in thecosy studio in Montmartre, Stroeve and his wife, theirsimplicity, kindness, and hospitality; it seemed to me cruelthat it should have been broken to pieces by a ruthlesschance; but the cruellest thing of all was that in fact itmade no great difference. The world went on, and no one was apenny the worse for all that wretchedness. I had an idea thatDirk, a man of greater emotional reactions than depth offeeling, would soon forget; and Blanche's life, begun with whoknows what bright hopes and what dreams, might just as wellhave never been lived. It all seemed useless and inane.
Strickland had found his hat, and stood looking at me.
"Are you coming?"
"Why do you seek my acquaintance?" I asked him. "You knowthat I hate and despise you."
He chuckled good-humouredly.
"Your only quarrel with me really is that I don't care atwopenny damn what you think about me."
I felt my cheeks grow red with sudden anger. It wasimpossible to make him understand that one might be outragedby his callous selfishness. I longed to pierce his armour ofcomplete indifference. I knew also that in the end there wastruth in what he said. Unconsciously, perhaps, we treasurethe power we have over people by their regard for our opinionof them, and we hate those upon whom we have no suchinfluence. I suppose it is the bitterest wound to humanpride. But I would not let him see that I was put out.
"Is it possible for any man to disregard others entirely?"I said, though more to myself than to him. "You're dependent onothers for everything in existence. It's a preposterousattempt to try to live only for yourself and by yourself.
Sooner or later you'll be ill and tired and old, and thenyou'll crawl back into the herd. Won't you be ashamed whenyou feel in your heart the desire for comfort and sympathy?You're trying an impossible thing. Sooner or later the humanbeing in you will yearn for the common bonds of humanity."
"Come and look at my pictures."
"Have you ever thought of death?"
"Why should I? It doesn't matter."
I stared at him. He stood before me, motionless, with amocking smile in his eyes; but for all that, for a moment Ihad an inkling of a fiery, tortured spirit, aiming atsomething greater than could be conceived by anything that wasbound up with the flesh. I had a fleeting glimpse of apursuit of the ineffable. I looked at the man before me inhis shabby clothes, with his great nose and shining eyes, hisred beard and untidy hair; and I had a strange sensation thatit was only an envelope, and I was in the presence of adisembodied spirit.
"Let us go and look at your pictures," I said.
I did not know why Strickland had suddenly offered to showthem to me. I welcomed the opportunity. A man's work reveals him.
In social intercourse he gives you the surface that hewishes the world to accept, and you can only gain a trueknowledge of him by inferences from little actions, of whichhe is unconscious, and from fleeting expressions, which crosshis face unknown to him. Sometimes people carry to suchperfection the mask they have assumed that in due course theyactually become the person they seem. But in his book or hispicture the real man delivers himself defenceless.
His pretentiousness will only expose his vacuity. The lathepainted to look like iron is seen to be but a lathe.
No affectation of peculiarity can conceal a commonplace mind.
To the acute observer no one can produce the most casual workwithout disclosing the innermost secrets of his soul.
As I walked up the endless stairs of the house in whichStrickland lived, I confess that I was a little excited.
It seemed to me that I was on the threshold of a surprisingadventure. I looked about the room with curiosity. It waseven smaller and more bare than I remembered it. I wonderedwhat those friends of mine would say who demanded vaststudios, and vowed they could not work unless all theconditions were to their liking.
"You'd better stand there," he said, pointing to a spot fromwhich, presumably, he fancied I could see to best advantagewhat he had to show me.
"You don't want me to talk, I suppose," I said.
"No, blast you; I want you to hold your tongue."
He placed a picture on the easel, and let me look at it for aminute or two; then took it down and put another in its place.
I think he showed me about thirty canvases. It was the resultof the six years during which he had been painting. He hadnever sold a picture. The canvases were of different sizes.
The smaller were pictures of still-life and the largest werelandscapes. There were about half a dozen portraits.
"That is the lot," he said at last.
I wish I could say that I recognised at once their beauty andtheir great originality. Now that I have seen many of themagain and the rest are familiar to me in reproductions, I amastonished that at first sight I was bitterly disappointed.
I felt nothing of the peculiar thrill which it is the propertyof art to give. The impression that Strickland's picturesgave me was disconcerting; and the fact remains, always toreproach me, that I never even thought of buying any.
I missed a wonderful chance. Most of them have found their wayinto museums, and the rest are the treasured possessions ofwealthy amateurs. I try to find excuses for myself. I thinkthat my taste is good, but I am conscious that it has no originality.
I know very little about painting, and I wanderalong trails that others have blazed for me. At that time Ihad the greatest admiration for the impressionists. I longedto possess a Sisley and a Degas, and I worshipped Manet.
His <i Olympia> seemed to me the greatest picture of modern times,and <i Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe> moved me profoundly.
These works seemed to me the last word in painting.
I will not describe the pictures that Strickland showed me.
Descriptions of pictures are always dull, and these, besides,are familiar to all who take an interest in such things. Nowthat his influence has so enormously affected modern painting,now that others have charted the country which he was amongthe first to explore, Strickland's pictures, seen for thefirst time, would find the mind more prepared for them; but itmust be remembered that I had never seen anything of the sort.
First of all I was taken aback by what seemed to me theclumsiness of his technique. Accustomed to the drawing of theold masters, and convinced that Ingres was the greatestdraughtsman of recent times, I thought that Strickland drewvery badly. I knew nothing of the simplification at which he aimed.
I remember a still-life of oranges on a plate, and Iwas bothered because the plate was not round and the orangeswere lop-sided. The portraits were a little larger thanlife-size, and this gave them an ungainly look. To my eyes thefaces looked like caricatures. They were painted in a waythat was entirely new to me. The landscapes puzzled me even more.
There were two or three pictures of the forest atFontainebleau and several of streets in Paris: my first feelingwas that they might have been painted by a drunken cabdriver.
I was perfectly bewildered. The colour seemed tome extraordinarily crude. It passed through my mind that thewhole thing was a stupendous, incomprehensible farce.
Now that I look back I am more than ever impressed byStroeve's acuteness. He saw from the first that here was arevolution in art, and he recognised in its beginnings thegenius which now all the world allows.
But if I was puzzled and disconcerted, I was not unimpressed.
Even I, in my colossal ignorance, could not but feel thathere, trying to express itself, was real power. I was excitedand interested. I felt that these pictures had something tosay to me that was very important for me to know, but I couldnot tell what it was. They seemed to me ugly, but theysuggested without disclosing a secret of momentoussignificance. They were strangely tantalising. They gave mean emotion that I could not analyse. They said something thatwords were powerless to utter. I fancy that Strickland sawvaguely some spiritual meaning in material things that was sostrange that he could only suggest it with halting symbols.
It was as though he found in the chaos of the universe a newpattern, and were attempting clumsily, with anguish of soul,to set it down. I saw a tormented spirit striving for therelease of expression.
I turned to him.
"I wonder if you haven't mistaken your medium," I said.
"What the hell do you mean?"
"I think you're trying to say something, I don't quite knowwhat it is, but I'm not sure that the best way of saying it isby means of painting."
When I imagined that on seeing his pictures I should get a clue to theunderstanding of his strange character I was mistaken. They merelyincreased the astonishment with which he filled me. I was more at seathan ever. The only thing that seemed clear to me -- and perhaps eventhis was fanciful -- was that he was passionately striving forliberation from some power that held him. But what the power was andwhat line the liberation would take remained obscure. Each one of usis alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and cancommunicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have nocommon value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seekpitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but theyhave not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by sidebut not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. Weare like people living in a country whose language they know so littlethat, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, theyare condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Theirbrain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that theumbrella of the gardener's aunt is in the house.
The final impression I received was of a prodigious effort toexpress some state of the soul, and in this effort, I fancied,must be sought the explanation of what so utterly perplexed me.
It was evident that colours and forms had a significancefor Strickland that was peculiar to himself. He was under anintolerable necessity to convey something that he felt, and hecreated them with that intention alone. He did not hesitateto simplify or to distort if he could get nearer to thatunknown thing he sought. Facts were nothing to him, forbeneath the mass of irrelevant incidents he looked forsomething significant to himself. It was as though he hadbecome aware of the soul of the universe and were compelled toexpress it.
Though these pictures confused and puzzled me, I could not beunmoved by the emotion that was patent in them; and, I knewnot why, I felt in myself a feeling that with regard toStrickland was the last I had ever expected to experience.
I felt an overwhelming compassion.
"I think I know now why you surrendered to your feeling forBlanche Stroeve," I said to him.
"I think your courage failed. The weakness of your bodycommunicated itself to your soul. I do not know what infiniteyearning possesses you, so that you are driven to a perilous,lonely search for some goal where you expect to find a finalrelease from the spirit that torments you. I see you as theeternal pilgrim to some shrine that perhaps does not exist.
I do not know to what inscrutable Nirvana you aim. Do you knowyourself? Perhaps it is Truth and Freedom that you seek, andfor a moment you thought that you might find release in Love.
I think your tired soul sought rest in a woman's arms, andwhen you found no rest there you hated her. You had no pityfor her, because you have no pity for yourself. And youkilled her out of fear, because you trembled still at thedanger you had barely escaped."
He smiled dryly and pulled his beard.
"You are a dreadful sentimentalist, my poor friend."
A week later I heard by chance that Strickland had gone toMarseilles. I never saw him again.
Looking back, I realise that what I have written about CharlesStrickland must seem very unsatisfactory. I have givenincidents that came to my knowledge, but they remain obscurebecause I do not know the reasons that led to them.
The strangest, Strickland's determination to become a painter,seems to be arbitrary; and though it must have had causes inthe circumstances of his life, I am ignorant of them.
From his own conversation I was able to glean nothing. If I werewriting a novel, rather than narrating such facts as I know ofa curious personality, I should have invented much to accountfor this change of heart. I think I should have shown astrong vocation in boyhood, crushed by the will of his fatheror sacrificed to the necessity of earning a living; I shouldhave pictured him impatient of the restraints of life; and inthe struggle between his passion for art and the duties of hisstation I could have aroused sympathy for him. I should sohave made him a more imposing figure. Perhaps it would havebeen possible to see in him a new Prometheus. There was here,maybe, the opportunity for a modern version of the hero who forthe good of mankind exposes himself to the agonies of the damned.
It is always a moving subject.
On the other hand, I might have found his motives in theinfluence of the married relation. There are a dozen ways inwhich this might be managed. A latent gift might revealitself on acquaintance with the painters and writers whosesociety his wife sought; or domestic incompatability might turnhim upon himself; a love affair might fan into bright flamea fire which I could have shown smouldering dimly in his heart.
I think then I should have drawn Mrs. Strickland quitedifferently. I should have abandoned the facts and made her anagging, tiresome woman, or else a bigoted one with nosympathy for the claims of the spirit. I should have madeStrickland's marriage a long torment from which escape was theonly possible issue. I think I should have emphasised hispatience with the unsuitable mate, and the compassion whichmade him unwilling to throw off the yoke that oppressed him.
I should certainly have eliminated the children.
An effective story might also have been made by bringing himinto contact with some old painter whom the pressure of wantor the desire for commercial success had made false to thegenius of his youth, and who, seeing in Strickland thepossibilities which himself had wasted, influenced him toforsake all and follow the divine tyranny of art. I thinkthere would have been something ironic in the picture of thesuccessful old man, rich and honoured, living in another thelife which he, though knowing it was the better part, had nothad the strength to pursue.
The facts are much duller. Strickland, a boy fresh from school, wentinto a broker's office without any feeling of distaste. Until hemarried he led the ordinary life of his fellows, gambling mildly onthe Exchange, interested to the extent of a sovereign or two on theresult of the Derby or the Oxford and Cambridge Race. I think he boxeda little in his spare time. On his chimney-piece he had photographs ofMrs. Langtry and Mary Anderson. He read <i Punch> and the<i Sporting Times>. He went to dances in Hampstead.
It matters less that for so long I should have lost sight of him.
The years during which he was struggling to acquireproficiency in a difficult art were monotonous, and I do notknow that there was anything significant in the shifts towhich he was put to earn enough money to keep him. An accountof them would be an account of the things he had seen happento other people. I do not think they had any effect on hisown character. He must have acquired experiences which wouldform abundant material for a picaresque novel of modern Paris,but he remained aloof, and judging from his conversation therewas nothing in those years that had made a particularimpression on him. Perhaps when he went to Paris he was tooold to fall a victim to the glamour of his environment.
Strange as it may seem, he always appeared to me not onlypractical, but immensely matter-of-fact. I suppose his lifeduring this period was romantic, but he certainly saw noromance in it. It may be that in order to realise the romanceof life you must have something of the actor in you; and,capable of standing outside yourself, you must be able towatch your actions with an interest at once detached andabsorbed. But no one was more single-minded than Strickland.
I never knew anyone who was less self-conscious. But it isunfortunate that I can give no description of the arduoussteps by which he reached such mastery over his art as he everacquired; for if I could show him undaunted by failure, by anunceasing effort of courage holding despair at bay, doggedlypersistent in the face of self-doubt, which is the artist'sbitterest enemy, I might excite some sympathy for apersonality which, I am all too conscious, must appearsingularly devoid of charm. But I have nothing to go on.
I never once saw Strickland at work, nor do I know that anyoneelse did. He kept the secret of his struggles to himself.
If in the loneliness of his studio he wrestled desperately withthe Angel of the Lord he never allowed a soul to divine hisanguish.
When I come to his connection with Blanche Stroeve I amexasperated by the fragmentariness of the facts at my disposal.
To give my story coherence I should describe theprogress of their tragic union, but I know nothing of thethree months during which they lived together. I do not knowhow they got on or what they talked about. After all, thereare twenty-four hours in the day, and the summits of emotioncan only be reached at rare intervals. I can only imagine howthey passed the rest of the time. While the light lasted andso long as Blanche's strength endured, I suppose thatStrickland painted, and it must have irritated her when shesaw him absorbed in his work. As a mistress she did not thenexist for him, but only as a model; and then there were longhours in which they lived side by side in silence. It musthave frightened her. When Strickland suggested that in hersurrender to him there was a sense of triumph over Dirk Stroeve,because he had come to her help in her extremity, he openedthe door to many a dark conjecture. I hope it was not true.
It seems to me rather horrible. But who can fathom thesubtleties of the human heart? Certainly not those who expectfrom it only decorous sentiments and normal emotions.
When Blanche saw that, notwithstanding his moments of passion,Strickland remained aloof, she must have been filled withdismay, and even in those moments I surmise that she realisedthat to him she was not an individual, but an instrument ofpleasure; he was a stranger still, and she tried to bind himto herself with pathetic arts. She strove to ensnare him withcomfort and would not see that comfort meant nothing to him.
She was at pains to get him the things to eat that he liked,and would not see that he was indifferent to food. She wasafraid to leave him alone. She pursued him with attentions,and when his passion was dormant sought to excite it, for thenat least she had the illusion of holding him. Perhaps sheknew with her intelligence that the chains she forged onlyaroused his instinct of destruction, as the plate-glass windowmakes your fingers itch for half a brick; but her heart,incapable of reason, made her continue on a course she knewwas fatal. She must have been very unhappy. But theblindness of love led her to believe what she wanted to betrue, and her love was so great that it seemed impossible toher that it should not in return awake an equal love.
But my study of Strickland's character suffers from a greaterdefect than my ignorance of many facts. Because they wereobvious and striking, I have written of his relations towomen; and yet they were but an insignificant part of his life.
It is an irony that they should so tragically haveaffected others. His real life consisted of dreams and oftremendously hard work.
Here lies the unreality of fiction. For in men, as a rule,love is but an episode which takes its place among the otheraffairs of the day, and the emphasis laid on it in novelsgives it an importance which is untrue to life. There are fewmen to whom it is the most important thing in the world, andthey are not very interesting ones; even women, with whom thesubject is of paramount interest, have a contempt for them.
They are flattered and excited by them, but have an uneasyfeeling that they are poor creatures. But even during thebrief intervals in which they are in love, men do other thingswhich distract their mind; the trades by which they earn theirliving engage their attention; they are absorbed in sport;they can interest themselves in art. For the most part, theykeep their various activities in various compartments, andthey can pursue one to the temporary exclusion of the other.
They have a faculty of concentration on that which occupiesthem at the moment, and it irks them if one encroaches on theother. As lovers, the difference between men and women isthat women can love all day long, but men only at times.
With Strickland the sexual appetite took a very small place.
It was unimportant. It was irksome. His soul aimed elsewhither.
He had violent passions, and on occasion desire seizedhis body so that he was driven to an orgy of lust, buthe hated the instincts that robbed him of his self-possession.
I think, even, he hated the inevitable partner in his debauchery.
When he had regained command over himself, heshuddered at the sight of the woman he had enjoyed.
His thoughts floated then serenely in the empyrean, and he felttowards her the horror that perhaps the painted butterfly,hovering about the flowers, feels to the filthy chrysalis fromwhich it has triumphantly emerged. I suppose that art is amanifestation of the sexual instinct. It is the same emotionwhich is excited in the human heart by the sight of a lovelywoman, the Bay of Naples under the yellow moon, and the<i Entombment> of Titian. It is possible that Strickland hatedthe normal release of sex because it seemed to him brutal bycomparison with the satisfaction of artistic creation.
It seems strange even to myself, when I have described a man whowas cruel, selfish, brutal and sensual, to say that he was agreat idealist. The fact remains.
He lived more poorly than an artisan. He worked harder.
He cared nothing for those things which with most people makelife gracious and beautiful. He was indifferent to money.
He cared nothing about fame. You cannot praise him because heresisted the temptation to make any of those compromises withthe world which most of us yield to. He had no such temptation.
It never entered his head that compromise was possible.
He lived in Paris more lonely than an anchorite in thedeserts of Thebes. He asked nothing his fellows exceptthat they should leave him alone. He was single-hearted inhis aim, and to pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not onlyhimself -- many can do that -- but others. He had a vision.
Strickland was an odious man, but I still think he was a great one.
A certain importance attaches to the views on art of painters,and this is the natural place for me to set down what I knowof Strickland's opinions of the great artists of the past.
I am afraid I have very little worth noting. Strickland was nota conversationalist, and he had no gift for putting what hehad to say in the striking phrase that the listener remembers.
He had no wit. His humour, as will be seen if I have in anyway succeeded in reproducing the manner of his conversation,was sardonic. His repartee was rude. He made one laughsometimes by speaking the truth, but this is a form of humourwhich gains its force only by its unusualness; it would ceaseto amuse if it were commonly practised.
Strickland was not, I should say, a man of great intelligence,and his views on painting were by no means out of the ordinary.
I never heard him speak of those whose work had a certainanalogy with his own -- of Cezanne, for instance, or of Van Gogh;and I doubt very much if he had ever seen their pictures.
He was not greatly interested in the Impressionists.
Their technique impressed him, but I fancy thathe thought their attitude commonplace. When Stroeve washolding forth at length on the excellence of Monet, he said:"I prefer Winterhalter." But I dare say he said it to annoy,and if he did he certainly succeeded.
I am disappointed that I cannot report any extravagances inhis opinions on the old masters. There is so much in hischaracter which is strange that I feel it would complete thepicture if his views were outrageous. I feel the need toascribe to him fantastic theories about his predecessors, andit is with a certain sense of disillusion that I confess hethought about them pretty much as does everybody else.
I do not believe he knew El Greco. He had a great but somewhatimpatient admiration for Velasquez. Chardin delighted him,and Rembrandt moved him to ecstasy. He described theimpression that Rembrandt made on him with a coarseness Icannot repeat. The only painter that interested him who wasat all unexpected was Brueghel the Elder. I knew very littleabout him at that time, and Strickland had no power to explainhimself. I remember what he said about him because it was sounsatisfactory.
"He's all right," said Strickland. "I bet he found it hell to paint."
When later, in Vienna, I saw several of Peter Brueghel'spictures, I thought I understood why he had attractedStrickland's attention. Here, too, was a man with a vision ofthe world peculiar to himself. I made somewhat copious notesat the time, intending to write something about him, but Ihave lost them, and have now only the recollection of an emotion.
He seemed to see his fellow-creatures grotesquely,and he was angry with them because they were grotesque;life was a confusion of ridiculous, sordid happenings, a fitsubject for laughter, and yet it made him sorrowful to laugh.
Brueghel gave me the impression of a man striving to expressin one medium feelings more appropriate to expression in another,and it may be that it was the obscure consciousness of thisthat excited Strickland's sympathy. Perhaps both were tryingto put down in paint ideas which were more suitable to literature.
Strickland at this time must have been nearly forty-seven.
I have said already that but for the hazard of a journey toTahiti I should doubtless never have written this book. It isthither that after many wanderings Charles Strickland came,and it is there that he painted the pictures on which his famemost securely rests. I suppose no artist achieves completelythe realisation of the dream that obsesses him, and Strickland,harassed incessantly by his struggle with technique,managed, perhaps, less than others to express the visionthat he saw with his mind's eye; but in Tahiti thecircumstances were favourable to him; he found in hissurroundings the accidents necessary for his inspiration tobecome effective, and his later pictures give at least asuggestion of what he sought. They offer the imaginationsomething new and strange. It is as though in this farcountry his spirit, that had wandered disembodied, seeking atenement, at last was able to clothe itself in flesh. To usethe hackneyed phrase, here he found himself.
It would seem that my visit to this remote island shouldimmediately revive my interest in Strickland, but the work Iwas engaged in occupied my attention to the exclusion ofsomething that was irrelevant, and it was not till I had beenthere some days that I even remembered his connection with it.
After all, I had not seen him for fifteen years, and it wasnine since he died. But I think my arrival at Tahiti wouldhave driven out of my head matters of much more immediateimportance to me, and even after a week I found it not easy toorder myself soberly. I remember that on my first morning Iawoke early, and when I came on to the terrace of the hotel noone was stirring. I wandered round to the kitchen, but it waslocked, and on a bench outside it a native boy was sleeping.
There seemed no chance of breakfast for some time, so Isauntered down to the water-front. The Chinamen were alreadybusy in their shops. The sky had still the pallor of dawn,and there was a ghostly silence on the lagoon. Ten miles awaythe island of Murea, like some high fastness of the HolyGrail, guarded its mystery.
I did not altogether believe my eyes. The days that hadpassed since I left Wellington seemed extraordinary andunusual. Wellington is trim and neat and English; it remindsyou of a seaport town on the South Coast. And for three daysafterwards the sea was stormy. Gray clouds chased one anotheracross the sky. Then the wind dropped, and the sea was calmand blue. The Pacific is more desolate than other seas; itsspaces seem more vast, and the most ordinary journey upon ithas somehow the feeling of an adventure. The air you breatheis an elixir which prepares you for the unexpected. Nor is itvouchsafed to man in the flesh to know aught that more nearlysuggests the approach to the golden realms of fancy than theapproach to Tahiti. Murea, the sister isle, comes into viewin rocky splendour, rising from the desert sea mysteriously,like the unsubstantial fabric of a magic wand. With itsjagged outline it is like a Monseratt of the Pacific, and youmay imagine that there Polynesian knights guard with strangerites mysteries unholy for men to know. The beauty of theisland is unveiled as diminishing distance shows you indistincter shape its lovely peaks, but it keeps its secret asyou sail by, and, darkly inviolable, seems to fold itselftogether in a stony, inaccessible grimness. It would notsurprise you if, as you came near seeking for an opening inthe reef, it vanished suddenly from your view, and nothing metyour gaze but the blue loneliness of the Pacific.
Tahiti is a lofty green island, with deep folds of a darkergreen, in which you divine silent valleys; there is mystery intheir sombre depths, down which murmur and plash cool streams,and you feel that in those umbrageous places life fromimmemorial times has been led according to immemorial ways.
Even here is something sad and terrible. But the impressionis fleeting, and serves only to give a greater acuteness tothe enjoyment of the moment. It is like the sadness which youmay see in the jester's eyes when a merry company is laughingat his sallies; his lips smile and his jokes are gayer because inthe communion of laughter he finds himself more intolerably alone.
For Tahiti is smiling and friendly; it is like alovely woman graciously prodigal of her charm and beauty;and nothing can be more conciliatory than the entrance into theharbour at Papeete. The schooners moored to the quay are trimand neat, the little town along the bay is white and urbane,and the flamboyants, scarlet against the blue sky, flaunttheir colour like a cry of passion. They are sensual with anunashamed violence that leaves you breathless. And the crowdthat throngs the wharf as the steamer draws alongside is gayand debonair; it is a noisy, cheerful, gesticulating crowd.
It is a sea of brown faces. You have an impression ofcoloured movement against the flaming blue of the sky.
Everything is done with a great deal of bustle, the unloadingof the baggage, the examination of the customs; and everyoneseems to smile at you. It is very hot. The colour dazzles you.
HAD not been in Tahiti long before I met Captain Nichols.
He came in one morning when I was having breakfast on the terraceof the hotel and introduced himself. He had heard that I wasinterested in Charles Strickland, and announced that he wascome to have a talk about him. They are as fond of gossip inTahiti as in an English village, and one or two enquiries Ihad made for pictures by Strickland had been quickly spread.
I asked the stranger if he had breakfasted.
"Yes; I have my coffee early," he answered, "but I don't mindhaving a drop of whisky."
I called the Chinese boy.
"You don't think it's too early?" said the Captain.
"You and your liver must decide that between you," I replied.
"I'm practically a teetotaller," he said, as he poured himselfout a good half-tumbler of Canadian Club.
When he smiled he showed broken and discoloured teeth. He wasa very lean man, of no more than average height, with grayhair cut short and a stubbly gray moustache. He had notshaved for a couple of days. His face was deeply lined,burned brown by long exposure to the sun, and he had a pair ofsmall blue eyes which were astonishingly shifty. They movedquickly, following my smallest gesture, and they gave him thelook of a very thorough rogue. But at the moment he was allheartiness and good-fellowship. He was dressed in abedraggled suit of khaki, and his hands would have been allthe better for a wash.
"I knew Strickland well," he said, as he leaned back in hischair and lit the cigar I had offered him. "It's through mehe came out to the islands."
"Where did you meet him?" I asked.
"What were you doing there?"
He gave me an ingratiating smile.
"Well, I guess I was on the beach."
My friend's appearance suggested that he was now in thesame predicament, and I prepared myself to cultivate anagreeable acquaintance. The society of beach-combers alwaysrepays the small pains you need be at to enjoy it. They areeasy of approach and affable in conversation. They seldom puton airs, and the offer of a drink is a sure way to their hearts.
You need no laborious steps to enter upon familiarity withthem, and you can earn not only their confidence, but theirgratitude, by turning an attentive ear to their discourse.
They look upon conversation as the great pleasure of life,thereby proving the excellence of their civilisation, and forthe most part they are entertaining talkers. The extent oftheir experience is pleasantly balanced by the fertility oftheir imagination. It cannot be said that they are without guile,but they have a tolerant respect for the law, when thelaw is supported by strength. It is hazardous to play pokerwith them, but their ingenuity adds a peculiar excitement tothe best game in the world. I came to know Captain Nicholsvery well before I left Tahiti, and I am the richer for hisacquaintance. I do not consider that the cigars and whisky heconsumed at my expense (he always refused cocktails, since hewas practically a teetotaller), and the few dollars, borrowedwith a civil air of conferring a favour upon me, that passedfrom my pocket to his, were in any way equivalent to theentertainment he afforded me. I remained his debtor.
I should be sorry if my conscience, insisting on a rigidattention to the matter in hand, forced me to dismiss him in acouple of lines.
I do not know why Captain Nichols first left England. It wasa matter upon which he was reticent, and with persons of hiskind a direct question is never very discreet. He hinted atundeserved misfortune, and there is no doubt that he lookedupon himself as the victim of injustice. My fancy played withthe various forms of fraud and violence, and I agreed with himsympathetically when he remarked that the authorities in theold country were so damned technical. But it was nice to seethat any unpleasantness he had endured in his native land hadnot impaired his ardent patriotism. He frequently declaredthat England was the finest country in the world, sir, and hefelt a lively superiority over Americans, Colonials, Dagos,Dutchmen, and Kanakas.
But I do not think he was a happy man. He suffered fromdyspepsia, and he might often be seen sucking a tablet ofpepsin; in the morning his appetite was poor; but thisaffliction alone would hardly have impaired his spirits.
He had a greater cause of discontent with life than this.
Eight years before he had rashly married a wife. There are menwhom a merciful Providence has undoubtedly ordained to a singlelife, but who from wilfulness or through circumstances theycould not cope with have flown in the face of its decrees.
There is no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor.
Of such was Captain Nichols. I met his wife. She wasa woman of twenty-eight, I should think, though of a typewhose age is always doubtful; for she cannot have lookeddifferent when she was twenty, and at forty would look noolder. She gave me an impression of extraordinary tightness.
Her plain face with its narrow lips was tight, her skin wasstretched tightly over her bones, her smile was tight, herhair was tight, her clothes were tight, and the white drillshe wore had all the effect of black bombazine. I could notimagine why Captain Nichols had married her, and havingmarried her why he had not deserted her. Perhaps he had,often, and his melancholy arose from the fact that he couldnever succeed. However far he went and in howsoever secret aplace he hid himself, I felt sure that Mrs. Nichols,inexorable as fate and remorseless as conscience, wouldpresently rejoin him. He could as little escape her as thecause can escape the effect.
The rogue, like the artist and perhaps the gentleman, belongsto no class. He is not embarrassed by the <i sans gene> ofthe hobo, nor put out of countenance by the etiquette of theprince. But Mrs. Nichols belonged to the well-defined class,of late become vocal, which is known as the lower-middle.
Her father, in fact, was a policeman. I am certain that he wasan efficient one. I do not know what her hold was on theCaptain, but I do not think it was love. I never heard her speak,but it may be that in private she had a copious conversation.
At any rate, Captain Nichols was frightened to death of her.
Sometimes, sitting with me on the terrace of the hotel,he would become conscious that she was walking in the road outside.
She did not call him; she gave no sign that she was awareof his existence; she merely walked up and down composedly.
Then a strange uneasiness would seize the Captain;he would look at his watch and sigh.
"Well, I must be off," he said.
Neither wit nor whisky could detain him then. Yet he was aman who had faced undaunted hurricane and typhoon, and wouldnot have hesitated to fight a dozen unarmed niggers withnothing but a revolver to help him. Sometimes Mrs. Nicholswould send her daughter, a pale-faced, sullen child of seven,to the hotel.
"Mother wants you," she said, in a whining tone.
"Very well, my dear," said Captain Nichols.
He rose to his feet at once, and accompanied his daughteralong the road. I suppose it was a very pretty example of thetriumph of spirit over matter, and so my digression has atleast the advantage of a moral.
I have tried to put some connection into the various thingsCaptain Nichols told me about Strickland, and I here set themdown in the best order I can. They made one another'sacquaintance during the latter part of the winter following mylast meeting with Strickland in Paris. How he had passed theintervening months I do not know, but life must have been veryhard, for Captain Nichols saw him first in the Asile de Nuit.
There was a strike at Marseilles at the time, and Strickland,having come to the end of his resources, had apparently foundit impossible to earn the small sum he needed to keep body andsoul together.
The Asile de Nuit is a large stone building where pauper andvagabond may get a bed for a week, provided their papers arein order and they can persuade the friars in charge that theyare workingmen. Captain Nichols noticed Strickland for hissize and his singular appearance among the crowd that waitedfor the doors to open; they waited listlessly, some walking toand fro, some leaning against the wall, and others seated onthe curb with their feet in the gutter; and when they filedinto the office he heard the monk who read his papers addresshim in English. But he did not have a chance to speak to him,since, as he entered the common-room, a monk came in with ahuge Bible in his arms, mounted a pulpit which was at the endof the room, and began the service which the wretched outcastshad to endure as the price of their lodging. He andStrickland were assigned to different rooms, and when, thrownout of bed at five in the morning by a stalwart monk, he had madehis bed and washed his face, Strickland had already disappeared.
Captain Nichols wandered about the streets for an hour ofbitter cold, and then made his way to the Place Victor Gelu,where the sailor-men are wont to congregate. Dozing againstthe pedestal of a statue, he saw Strickland again.
He gave him a kick to awaken him.
"Come and have breakfast, mate," he said.
"Go to hell," answered Strickland.
I recognised my friend's limited vocabulary, and I prepared toregard Captain Nichols as a trustworthy witness.
"Busted?" asked the Captain.
"Blast you," answered Strickland.
"Come along with me. I'll get you some breakfast."
After a moment's hesitation, Strickland scrambled to his feet,and together they went to the Bouchee de Pain, where thehungry are given a wedge of bread, which they must eat thereand then, for it is forbidden to take it away; and then to theCuillere de Soupe, where for a week, at eleven and four,you may get a bowl of thin, salt soup. The two buildings areplaced far apart, so that only the starving should be temptedto make use of them. So they had breakfast, and so began thequeer companionship of Charles Strickland and Captain Nichols.
They must have spent something like four months at Marseillesin one another's society. Their career was devoid of adventure,if by adventure you mean unexpected or thrilling incident,for their days were occupied in the pursuit of enoughmoney to get a night's lodging and such food as would staythe pangs of hunger. But I wish I could give here the pictures,coloured and racy, which Captain Nichols' vivid narrativeoffered to the imagination. His account of their discoveriesin the low life of a seaport town would have made acharming book, and in the various characters that came theirway the student might easily have found matter for a verycomplete dictionary of rogues. But I must content myself witha few paragraphs. I received the impression of a life intenseand brutal, savage, multicoloured, and vivacious. It made theMarseilles that I knew, gesticulating and sunny, with itscomfortable hotels and its restaurants crowded with the well-to-do,tame and commonplace. I envied men who had seen with theirown eyes the sights that Captain Nichols described.
When the doors of the Asile de Nuit were closed to them,Strickland and Captain Nichols sought the hospitality of Tough Bill.
This was the master of a sailors' boarding-house, a hugemulatto with a heavy fist, who gave the stranded marinerfood and shelter till he found him a berth. They lived withhim a month, sleeping with a dozen others, Swedes, negroes,Brazilians, on the floor of the two bare rooms in his housewhich he assigned to his charges; and every day they went withhim to the Place Victor Gelu, whither came ships' captains insearch of a man. He was married to an American woman, obeseand slatternly, fallen to this pass by Heaven knows whatprocess of degradation, and every day the boarders took it inturns to help her with the housework. Captain Nichols lookedupon it as a smart piece of work on Strickland's part that hehad got out of this by painting a portrait of Tough Bill.
Tough Bill not only paid for the canvas, colours, and brushes,but gave Strickland a pound of smuggled tobacco into thebargain. For all I know, this picture may still adorn theparlour of the tumbledown little house somewhere near theQuai de la Joliette, and I suppose it could now be sold forfifteen hundred pounds. Strickland's idea was to ship on somevessel bound for Australia or New Zealand, and from there make hisway to Samoa or Tahiti. I do not know how he had come uponthe notion of going to the South Seas, though I remember thathis imagination had long been haunted by an island, all greenand sunny, encircled by a sea more blue than is found inNorthern latitudes. I suppose that he clung to CaptainNichols because he was acquainted with those parts, and it wasCaptain Nichols who persuaded him that he would be morecomfortable in Tahiti.
"You see, Tahiti's French," he explained to me. "And theFrench aren't so damned technical."
I thought I saw his point.
Strickland had no papers, but that was not a matter todisconcert Tough Bill when he saw a profit (he took the firstmonth's wages of the sailor for whom he found a berth), and heprovided Strickland with those of an English stoker who hadprovidentially died on his hands. But both Captain Nicholsand Strickland were bound East, and it chanced that the onlyopportunities for signing on were with ships sailing West.
Twice Strickland refused a berth on tramps sailing for theUnited States, and once on a collier going to Newcastle.
Tough Bill had no patience with an obstinacy which could onlyresult in loss to himself, and on the last occasion he flungboth Strickland and Captain Nichols out of his house withoutmore ado. They found themselves once more adrift.
Tough Bill's fare was seldom extravagant, and you rose fromhis table almost as hungry as you sat down, but for some daysthey had good reason to regret it. They learned what hunger was.
The Cuillere de Soupe and the Asile de Nuit were bothclosed to them, and their only sustenance was the wedge ofbread which the Bouchee de Pain provided. They slept wherethey could, sometimes in an empty truck on a siding near thestation, sometimes in a cart behind a warehouse; but it wasbitterly cold, and after an hour or two of uneasy dozing theywould tramp the streets again. What they felt the lack ofmost bitterly was tobacco, and Captain Nichols, for his part,could not do without it; he took to hunting the "Can o' Beer,"for cigarette-ends and the butt-end of cigars which thepromenaders of the night before had thrown away.
"I've tasted worse smoking mixtures in a pipe," he added,with a philosophic shrug of his shoulders, as he took a coupleof cigars from the case I offered him, putting one in his mouthand the other in his pocket.
Now and then they made a bit of money. Sometimes a mailsteamer would come in, and Captain Nichols, having scrapedacquaintance with the timekeeper, would succeed in getting thepair of them a job as stevedores. When it was an English boat,they would dodge into the forecastle and get a heartybreakfast from the crew. They took the risk of runningagainst one of the ship's officers and being hustled down thegangway with the toe of a boot to speed their going.
"There's no harm in a kick in the hindquarters when yourbelly's full," said Captain Nichols, "and personally I nevertake it in bad part. An officer's got to think about discipline."
I had a lively picture of Captain Nichols flying headlong downa narrow gangway before the uplifted foot of an angry mate,and, like a true Englishman, rejoicing in the spirit of theMercantile Marine.
There were often odd jobs to be got about the fish-market.
Once they each of them earned a franc by loading trucks withinnumerable boxes of oranges that had been dumped down on the quay.
One day they had a stroke of luck: one of the boarding-mastersgot a contract to paint a tramp that had come infrom Madagascar round the Cape of Good Hope, and they spentseveral days on a plank hanging over the side, covering therusty hull with paint. It was a situation that must haveappealed to Strickland's sardonic humour. I asked CaptainNichols how he bore himself during these hardships.
"Never knew him say a cross word," answered the Captain.
"He'd be a bit surly sometimes, but when we hadn't had a bitesince morning, and we hadn't even got the price of a lie downat the Chink's, he'd be as lively as a cricket."
I was not surprised at this. Strickland was just the man torise superior to circumstances, when they were such as tooccasion despondency in most; but whether this was due toequanimity of soul or to contradictoriness it would bedifficult to say.
The Chink's Head was a name the beach-combers gave to awretched inn off the Rue Bouterie, kept by a one-eyed Chinaman,where for six sous you could sleep in a cot and forthree on the floor. Here they made friends with others in asdesperate condition as themselves, and when they werepenniless and the night was bitter cold, they were glad toborrow from anyone who had earned a stray franc during the daythe price of a roof over their heads. They were not niggardly,these tramps, and he who had money did not hesitateto share it among the rest. They belonged to all thecountries in the world, but this was no bar to good-fellowship;for they felt themselves freemen of a country whosefrontiers include them all, the great country of Cockaine.
"But I guess Strickland was an ugly customer when he was roused,"said Captain Nichols, reflectively. "One day we raninto Tough Bill in the Place, and he asked Charlie for thepapers he'd given him."
"'You'd better come and take them if you want them,' says Charlie.
"He was a powerful fellow, Tough Bill, but he didn't quitelike the look of Charlie, so he began cursing him. He calledhim pretty near every name he could lay hands on, and whenTough Bill began cursing it was worth listening to him.
Well, Charlie stuck it for a bit, then he stepped forward and hejust said: 'Get out, you bloody swine.' It wasn't so muchwhat he said, but the way he said it. Tough Bill never spokeanother word; you could see him go yellow, and he walked awayas if he'd remembered he had a date."
Strickland, according to Captain Nichols, did not use exactlythe words I have given, but since this book is meant forfamily reading I have thought it better, at the expense oftruth, to put into his mouth expressions familiar to thedomestic circle.
Now, Tough Bill was not the man to put up with humiliation atthe hands of a common sailor. His power depended on his prestige,and first one, then another, of the sailors who lived inhis house told them that he had sworn to do Strickland in.
One night Captain Nichols and Strickland were sitting in oneof the bars of the Rue Bouterie. The Rue Bouterie is a narrowstreet of one-storeyed houses, each house consisting of butone room; they are like the booths in a crowded fair or thecages of animals in a circus. At every door you see a woman.
Some lean lazily against the side-posts, humming to themselvesor calling to the passer-by in a raucous voice, and somelistlessly read. They are French. Italian, Spanish,Japanese, coloured; some are fat and some are thin; and underthe thick paint on their faces, the heavy smears on theireyebrows, and the scarlet of their lips, you see the lines ofage and the scars of dissipation. Some wear black shifts andflesh-coloured stockings; some with curly hair, dyed yellow,are dressed like little girls in short muslin frocks.
Through the open door you see a red-tiled floor, a large wooden bed,and on a deal table a ewer and a basin. A motley crowdsaunters along the streets -- Lascars off a P. and O., blondNorthmen from a Swedish barque, Japanese from a man-of-war,English sailors, Spaniards, pleasant-looking fellows from aFrench cruiser, negroes off an American tramp. By day it ismerely sordid, but at night, lit only by the lamps in thelittle huts, the street has a sinister beauty. The hideouslust that pervades the air is oppressive and horrible, and yetthere is something mysterious in the sight which haunts andtroubles you. You feel I know not what primitive force whichrepels and yet fascinates you. Here all the decencies ofcivilisation are swept away, and you feel that men are face toface with a sombre reality. There is an atmosphere that is atonce intense and tragic.
In the bar in which Strickland and Nichols sat a mechanicalpiano was loudly grinding out dance music. Round the roompeople were sitting at table, here half a dozen sailorsuproariously drunk, there a group of soldiers; and in themiddle, crowded together, couples were dancing. Beardedsailors with brown faces and large horny hands clasped theirpartners in a tight embrace. The women wore nothing but a shift.
Now and then two sailors would get up and dance together.
The noise was deafening. People were singing, shouting,laughing; and when a man gave a long kiss to thegirl sitting on his knees, cat-calls from the English sailorsincreased the din. The air was heavy with the dust beaten upby the heavy boots of the men, and gray with smoke. It wasvery hot. Behind the bar was seated a woman nursing her baby.
The waiter, an undersized youth with a flat, spotty face,hurried to and fro carrying a tray laden with glasses of beer.
In a little while Tough Bill, accompanied by two huge negroes,came in, and it was easy to see that he was already threeparts drunk. He was looking for trouble. He lurched againsta table at which three soldiers were sitting and knocked overa glass of beer. There was an angry altercation, and theowner of the bar stepped forward and ordered Tough Bill to go.
He was a hefty fellow, in the habit of standing no nonsensefrom his customers, and Tough Bill hesitated. The landlordwas not a man he cared to tackle, for the police were on his side,and with an oath he turned on his heel. Suddenly hecaught sight of Strickland. He rolled up to him. He did not speak.
He gathered the spittle in his mouth and spat full inStrickland's face. Strickland seized his glass and flung itat him. The dancers stopped suddenly still. There was aninstant of complete silence, but when Tough Bill threw himselfon Strickland the lust of battle seized them all, and in amoment there was a confused scrimmage. Tables wereoverturned, glasses crashed to the ground. There was ahellish row. The women scattered to the door and behind the bar.
Passers-by surged in from the street. You heard cursesin every tongue the sound of blows, cries; and in the middleof the room a dozen men were fighting with all their might.
On a sudden the police rushed in, and everyone who could madefor the door. When the bar was more or less cleared, ToughBill was lying insensible on the floor with a great gash inhis head. Captain Nichols dragged Strickland, bleeding from awound in his arm, his clothes in rags, into the street.
His own face was covered with blood from a blow on the nose.
"I guess you'd better get out of Marseilles before Tough Billcomes out of hospital," he said to Strickland, when they hadgot back to the Chink's Head and were cleaning themselves.
"This beats cock-fighting," said Strickland.
I could see his sardonic smile.
Captain Nichols was anxious. He knew Tough Bill's vindictiveness.
Strickland had downed the mulatto twice, and the mulatto,sober, was a man to be reckoned with. He would bidehis time stealthily. He would be in no hurry, but onenight Strickland would get a knife-thrust in his back, and ina day or two the corpse of a nameless beach-comber would befished out of the dirty water of the harbour. Nichols wentnext evening to Tough Bill's house and made enquiries. He wasin hospital still, but his wife, who had been to see him, saidhe was swearing hard to kill Strickland when they let him out.
A week passed.
"That's what I always say," reflected Captain Nichols,"when you hurt a man, hurt him bad. It gives you a bit oftime to look about and think what you'll do next."
Then Strickland had a bit of luck. A ship bound for Australiahad sent to the Sailors' Home for a stoker in place of one whohad thrown himself overboard off Gibraltar in an attack ofdelirium tremens.
"You double down to the harbour, my lad," said the Captain toStrickland, "and sign on. You've got your papers."
Strickland set off at once, and that was the last CaptainNichols saw of him. The ship was only in port for six hours,and in the evening Captain Nichols watched the vanishing smokefrom her funnels as she ploughed East through the wintry sea.
I have narrated all this as best I could, because I like thecontrast of these episodes with the life that I had seenStrickland live in Ashley Gardens when he was occupied withstocks and shares; but I am aware that Captain Nichols was anoutrageous liar, and I dare say there is not a word of truthin anything he told me. I should not be surprised to learnthat he had never seen Strickland in his life, and owed hisknowledge of Marseilles to the pages of a magazine.
It is here that I purposed to end my book. My first idea wasto begin it with the account of Strickland's last years inTahiti and with his horrible death, and then to go back andrelate what I knew of his beginnings. This I meant to do,not from wilfulness, but because I wished to leave Stricklandsetting out with I know not what fancies in his lonely soulfor the unknown islands which fired his imagination. I likedthe picture of him starting at the age of forty-seven,when most men have already settled comfortably in a groove,for a new world. I saw him, the sea gray under the mistral andfoam-flecked, watching the vanishing coast of France, which hewas destined never to see again; and I thought there wassomething gallant in his bearing and dauntless in his soul.
I wished so to end on a note of hope. It seemed to emphasisethe unconquerable spirit of man. But I could not manage it.
Somehow I could not get into my story, and after trying onceor twice I had to give it up; I started from the beginning inthe usual way, and made up my mind I could only tell what Iknew of Strickland's life in the order in which I learnt the facts.
Those that I have now are fragmentary. I am in the positionof a biologist who from a single bone must reconstruct notonly the appearance of an extinct animal, but its habits.
Strickland made no particular impression on the people whocame in contact with him in Tahiti. To them he was no morethan a beach-comber in constant need of money, remarkable onlyfor the peculiarity that he painted pictures which seemed tothem absurd; and it was not till he had been dead for someyears and agents came from the dealers in Paris and Berlin tolook for any pictures which might still remain on the island,that they had any idea that among them had dwelt a man of consequence.
They remembered then that they could have bought fora song canvases which now were worth large sums, and theycould not forgive themselves for the opportunity which hadescaped them. There was a Jewish trader called Cohen, who hadcome by one of Strickland's pictures in a singular way.
He was a little old Frenchman, with soft kind eyes and a pleasantsmile, half trader and half seaman, who owned a cutter inwhich he wandered boldly among the Paumotus and the Marquesas,taking out trade goods and bringing back copra, shell, and pearls.
I went to see him because I was told he had a large blackpearl which he was willing to sell cheaply, and when Idiscovered that it was beyond my means I began to talk to himabout Strickland. He had known him well.
"You see, I was interested in him because he was a painter,"he told me. "We don't get many painters in the islands, and Iwas sorry for him because he was such a bad one. I gave himhis first job. I had a plantation on the peninsula, and Iwanted a white overseer. You never get any work out of thenatives unless you have a white man over them. I said to him:'You'll have plenty of time for painting, and you can earn abit of money.' I knew he was starving, but I offered him good wages."
"I can't imagine that he was a very satisfactory overseer,"I said, smiling.
"I made allowances. I have always had a sympathy for artists.
It is in our blood, you know. But he only remained a fewmonths. When he had enough money to buy paints and canvaseshe left me. The place had got hold of him by then, and hewanted to get away into the bush. But I continued to see himnow and then. He would turn up in Papeete every few monthsand stay a little while; he'd get money out of someone orother and then disappear again. It was on one of these visitsthat he came to me and asked for the loan of two hundredfrancs. He looked as if he hadn't had a meal for a week, andI hadn't the heart to refuse him. Of course, I never expectedto see my money again. Well, a year later he came to see meonce more, and he brought a picture with him. He did notmention the money he owed me, but he said: 'Here is a pictureof your plantation that I've painted for you.' I looked at it.
I did not know what to say, but of course I thanked him, andwhen he had gone away I showed it to my wife."
"What was it like?" I asked.
"Do not ask me. I could not make head or tail of it. I neversaw such a thing in my life. 'What shall we do with it?'I said to my wife. 'We can never hang it up,' she said.
'People would laugh at us.' So she took it into an attic andput it away with all sorts of rubbish, for my wife can neverthrow anything away. It is her mania. Then, imagine toyourself, just before the war my brother wrote to me fromParis, and said: 'Do you know anything about an Englishpainter who lived in Tahiti? It appears that he was a genius,and his pictures fetch large prices. See if you can lay yourhands on anything and send it to me. There's money to bemade.' So I said to my wife. 'What about that picture thatStrickland gave me?' Is it possible that it is still in theattic?' 'Without doubt,' she answered, 'for you know that Inever throw anything away. It is my mania.' We went up to theattic, and there, among I know not what rubbish that had beengathered during the thirty years we have inhabited that house,was the picture. I looked at it again, and I said:'Who would have thought that the overseer of my plantation onthe peninsula, to whom I lent two hundred francs, had genius?Do you see anything in the picture?' 'No,' she said, 'it does notresemble the plantation and I have never seen cocoa-nuts withblue leaves; but they are mad in Paris, and it may be thatyour brother will be able to sell it for the two hundredfrancs you lent Strickland.' Well, we packed it up and we sentit to my brother. And at last I received a letter from him.
What do you think he said? 'I received your picture,' he said,'and I confess I thought it was a joke that you had played on me.
I would not have given the cost of postage for the picture.
I was half afraid to show it to the gentleman whohad spoken to me about it. Imagine my surprise when he saidit was a masterpiece, and offered me thirty thousand francs.
I dare say he would have paid more, but frankly I was so takenaback that I lost my head; I accepted the offer before I wasable to collect myself.'"
Then Monsieur Cohen said an admirable thing.
"I wish that poor Strickland had been still alive. I wonderwhat he would have said when I gave him twenty-nine thousandeight hundred francs for his picture."
I lived at the Hotel de la Fleur, and Mrs. Johnson, theproprietress, had a sad story to tell of lost opportunity.
After Strickland's death certain of his effects were sold byauction in the market-place at Papeete, and she went to itherself because there was among the truck an American stoveshe wanted. She paid twenty-seven francs for it.
"There were a dozen pictures," she told me, "but they wereunframed, and nobody wanted them. Some of them sold for asmuch as ten francs, but mostly they went for five or six.
Just think, if I had bought them I should be a rich woman now."
But Tiare Johnson would never under any circumstances havebeen rich. She could not keep money. The daughter of anative and an English sea-captain settled in Tahiti, when Iknew her she was a woman of fifty, who looked older, and ofenormous proportions. Tall and extremely stout, she wouldhave been of imposing presence if the great good-nature of herface had not made it impossible for her to express anythingbut kindliness. Her arms were like legs of mutton, herbreasts like giant cabbages; her face, broad and fleshy, gaveyou an impression of almost indecent nakedness, and vast chinsucceeded to vast chin. I do not know how many of them there were.
They fell away voluminously into the capaciousness of her bosom.
She was dressed usually in a pink Mother Hubbard,and she wore all day long a large straw hat. But when she letdown her hair, which she did now and then, for she was vain ofit, you saw that it was long and dark and curly; and her eyeshad remained young and vivacious. Her laughter was the mostcatching I ever heard; it would begin, a low peal in her throat,and would grow louder and louder till her whole vastbody shook. She loved three things -- a joke, a glass ofwine, and a handsome man. To have known her is a privilege.
She was the best cook on the island, and she adored good food.
From morning till night you saw her sitting on a low chair inthe kitchen, surrounded by a Chinese cook and two or threenative girls, giving her orders, chatting sociably with alland sundry, and tasting the savoury messes she devised. Whenshe wished to do honour to a friend she cooked the dinner withher own hands. Hospitality was a passion with her, and therewas no one on the island who need go without a dinner whenthere was anything to eat at the Hotel de la Fleur. She neverturned her customers out of her house because they did not paytheir bills. She always hoped they would pay when they could.
There was one man there who had fallen on adversity, and tohim she had given board and lodging for several months.
When the Chinese laundryman refused to wash for him withoutpayment she had sent his things to be washed with hers. She couldnot allow the poor fellow to go about in a dirty shirt, she said,and since he was a man, and men must smoke, she gave him afranc a day for cigarettes. She used him with the sameaffability as those of her clients who paid their bills once a week.
Age and obesity had made her inapt for love, but she took akeen interest in the amatory affairs of the young. She lookedupon venery as the natural occupation for men and women, andwas ever ready with precept and example from her own wide experience.
"I was not fifteen when my father found that I had a lover,"she said. "He was third mate on the <i Tropic Bird>.
A good-looking boy."
She sighed a little. They say a woman always remembers herfirst lover with affection; but perhaps she does not alwaysremember him.
"My father was a sensible man."
"What did he do?" I asked.
"He thrashed me within an inch of my life, and then he made memarry Captain Johnson. I did not mind. He was older,of course, but he was good-looking too."
Tiare -- her father had called her by the name of the white,scented flower which, they tell you, if you have once smelt,will always draw you back to Tahiti in the end, however faryou may have roamed -- Tiare remembered Strickland very well.
"He used to come here sometimes, and I used to see him walkingabout Papeete. I was sorry for him, he was so thin, and henever had any money. When I heard he was in town, I used tosend a boy to find him and make him come to dinner with me.
I got him a job once or twice, but he couldn't stick toanything. After a little while he wanted to get back to thebush, and one morning he would be gone."
Strickland reached Tahiti about six months after he leftMarseilles. He worked his passage on a sailing vessel thatwas making the trip from Auckland to San Francisco, and hearrived with a box of paints, an easel, and a dozen canvases.
He had a few pounds in his pocket, for he had found work inSydney, and he took a small room in a native house outside the town.
I think the moment he reached Tahiti he felt himself at home.
Tiare told me that he said to her once:
"I'd been scrubbing the deck, and all at once a chap said to me:'Why, there it is.' And I looked up and I saw the outlineof the island. I knew right away that there was the place I'dbeen looking for all my life. Then we came near, and I seemedto recognise it. Sometimes when I walk about it all seems familiar.
I could swear I've lived here before."
"Sometimes it takes them like that," said Tiare. "I've knownmen come on shore for a few hours while their ship was takingin cargo, and never go back. And I've known men who came hereto be in an office for a year, and they cursed the place, andwhen they went away they took their dying oath they'd hangthemselves before they came back again, and in six monthsyou'd see them land once more, and they'd tell you theycouldn't live anywhere else."
I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place.
Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but theyhave always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They arestrangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they haveknown from childhood or the populous streets in which theyhave played, remain but a place of passage. They may spendtheir whole lives aliens among their kindred and remain aloofamong the only scenes they have ever known. Perhaps it isthis sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide in thesearch for something permanent, to which they may attachthemselves. Perhaps some deep-rooted atavism urges thewanderer back to lands which his ancestors left in the dimbeginnings of history. Sometimes a man hits upon a place towhich he mysteriously feels that he belongs. Here is the homehe sought, and he will settle amid scenes that he has neverseen before, among men he has never known, as though they werefamiliar to him from his birth. Here at last he finds rest.
I told Tiare the story of a man I had known at St. Thomas'sHospital. He was a Jew named Abraham, a blond, rather stoutyoung man, shy and very unassuming; but he had remarkable gifts.
He entered the hospital with a scholarship, and duringthe five years of the curriculum gained every prize that wasopen to him. He was made house-physician and house-surgeon.
His brilliance was allowed by all. Finally he was elected toa position on the staff, and his career was assured. So faras human things can be predicted, it was certain that he wouldrise to the greatest heights of his profession. Honours andwealth awaited him. Before he entered upon his new duties hewished to take a holiday, and, having no private means,he went as surgeon on a tramp steamer to the Levant.
It did not generally carry a doctor, but one of the seniorsurgeons at the hospital knew a director of the line,and Abraham was taken as a favour.
In a few weeks the authorities received his resignation of thecoveted position on the staff. It created profoundastonishment, and wild rumours were current. Whenever a mandoes anything unexpected, his fellows ascribe it to the mostdiscreditable motives. But there was a man ready to step intoAbraham's shoes, and Abraham was forgotten. Nothing more washeard of him. He vanished.
It was perhaps ten years later that one morning on board ship,about to land at Alexandria, I was bidden to line up with theother passengers for the doctor's examination. The doctor wasa stout man in shabby clothes, and when he took off his hat Inoticed that he was very bald. I had an idea that I had seenhim before. Suddenly I remembered.
"Abraham," I said.
He turned to me with a puzzled look, and then, recognizing me,seized my hand. After expressions of surprise on either side,hearing that I meant to spend the night in Alexandria, heasked me to dine with him at the English Club. When we metagain I declared my astonishment at finding him there. It wasa very modest position that he occupied, and there was abouthim an air of straitened circumstance. Then he told me his story.
When he set out on his holiday in the Mediterranean hehad every intention of returning to London and his appointmentat St. Thomas's. One morning the tramp docked at Alexandria,and from the deck he looked at the city, white in thesunlight, and the crowd on the wharf; he saw the natives intheir shabby gabardines, the blacks from the Soudan, the noisythrong of Greeks and Italians, the grave Turks in tarbooshes,the sunshine and the blue sky; and something happened to him.
He could not describe it. It was like a thunder-clap, hesaid, and then, dissatisfied with this, he said it was like arevelation. Something seemed to twist his heart, and suddenlyhe felt an exultation, a sense of wonderful freedom. He felthimself at home, and he made up his mind there and then, in aminute, that he would live the rest of his life in Alexandria.
He had no great difficulty in leaving the ship, and in twenty-fourhours, with all his belongings, he was on shore.
"The Captain must have thought you as mad as a hatter," I smiled.
"I didn't care what anybody thought. It wasn't I that acted,but something stronger within me. I thought I would go to alittle Greek hotel, while I looked about, and I felt I knewwhere to find one. And do you know, I walked straight there,and when I saw it, I recognised it at once."
"Had you been to Alexandria before?"
"No; I'd never been out of England in my life."
Presently he entered the Government service, and there he hadbeen ever since.
"Have you never regretted it?"
"Never, not for a minute. I earn just enough to live upon,and I'm satisfied. I ask nothing more than to remain as I amtill I die. I've had a wonderful life."
I left Alexandria next day, and I forgot about Abraham till alittle while ago, when I was dining with another old friend inthe profession, Alec Carmichael, who was in England on short leave.
I ran across him in the street and congratulated him onthe knighthood with which his eminent services during thewar had been rewarded. We arranged to spend an eveningtogether for old time's sake, and when I agreed to dine withhim, he proposed that he should ask nobody else, so that wecould chat without interruption. He had a beautiful old housein Queen Anne Street, and being a man of taste he hadfurnished it admirably. On the walls of the dining-room I sawa charming Bellotto, and there was a pair of Zoffanys that I envied.
When his wife, a tall, lovely creature in cloth of gold,had left us, I remarked laughingly on the change in hispresent circumstances from those when we had both been medicalstudents. We had looked upon it then as an extravagance todine in a shabby Italian restaurant in the Westminster Bridge Road.
Now Alec Carmichael was on the staff of half a dozen hospitals.
I should think he earned ten thousand a year, and hisknighthood was but the first of the honours which mustinevitably fall to his lot.
"I've done pretty well," he said, "but the strange thing isthat I owe it all to one piece of luck."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Well, do you remember Abraham? He was the man who had the future.
When we were students he beat me all along the line.
He got the prizes and the scholarships that I went in for.
I always played second fiddle to him. If he'd kept on he'd bein the position I'm in now. That man had a genius for surgery.
No one had a look in with him. When he wasappointed Registrar at Thomas's I hadn't a chance of gettingon the staff. I should have had to become a G.P., and youknow what likelihood there is for a G.P. ever to get out ofthe common rut. But Abraham fell out, and I got the job.
That gave me my opportunity."
"I dare say that's true."
"It was just luck. I suppose there was some kink in Abraham. Poordevil, he's gone to the dogs altogether. He's got sometwopenny-halfpenny job in the medical at Alexandria -- sanitaryofficer or something like that. I'm told he lives with an ugly oldGreek woman and has half a dozen scrofulous kids. The fact is, Isuppose, that it's not enough to have brains. The thing that counts ischaracter. Abraham hadn't got character."
Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal ofcharacter to throw up a career after half an hour'smeditation, because you saw in another way of living a moreintense significance. And it required still more characternever to regret the sudden step. But I said nothing, and AlecCarmichael proceeded reflectively:
"Of course it would be hypocritical for me to pretend that Iregret what Abraham did. After all, I've scored by it."He puffed luxuriously at the long Corona he was smoking.
"But if I weren't personally concerned I should be sorry at the waste.
It seems a rotten thing that a man should make such a hash of life."
I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life.
Is to do what you most want, to live under the conditions thatplease you, in peace with yourself, to make a hash of life;and is it success to be an eminent surgeon with ten thousand ayear and a beautiful wife? I suppose it depends on whatmeaning you attach to life, the claim which you acknowledge tosociety, and the claim of the individual. But again I held mytongue, for who am I to argue with a knight?
Tiare, when I told her this story, praised my prudence, andfor a few minutes we worked in silence, for we were shellingpeas. Then her eyes, always alert for the affairs of herkitchen, fell on some action of the Chinese cook which arousedher violent disapproval. She turned on him with a torrent of abuse.
The Chink was not backward to defend himself, and avery lively quarrel ensued. They spoke in the native language,of which I had learnt but half a dozen words, and it soundedas though the world would shortly come to an end;but presently peace was restored and Tiare gave the cook acigarette. They both smoked comfortably.
"Do you know, it was I who found him his wife?" said Tiaresuddenly, with a smile that spread all over her immense face.
"But he had one already."
"That is what he said, but I told him she was in England,and England is at the other end of the world."
"True," I replied.
"He would come to Papeete every two or three months, when hewanted paints or tobacco or money, and then he would wanderabout like a lost dog. I was sorry for him. I had a girlhere then called Ata to do the rooms; she was some sort of arelation of mine, and her father and mother were dead, so Ihad her to live with me. Strickland used to come here now andthen to have a square meal or to play chess with one of the boys.
I noticed that she looked at him when he came, and Iasked her if she liked him. She said she liked him well enough.
You know what these girls are; they're always pleasedto go with a white man."
"Was she a native?" I asked.
"Yes; she hadn't a drop of white blood in her. Well, afterI'd talked to her I sent for Strickland, and I said to him:'Strickland, it's time for you to settle down. A man of yourage shouldn't go playing about with the girls down at the front.
They're bad lots, and you'll come to no good with them.
You've got no money, and you can never keep a job formore than a month or two. No one will employ you now.
You say you can always live in the bush with one or other ofthe natives, and they're glad to have you because you're awhite man, but it's not decent for a white man. Now, listento me, Strickland.'"
Tiare mingled French with English in her conversation, for sheused both languages with equal facility. She spoke them witha singing accent which was not unpleasing. You felt that abird would speak in these tones if it could speak English.
"'Now, what do you say to marrying Ata? She's a good girl andshe's only seventeen. She's never been promiscuous like someof these girls -- a captain or a first mate, yes, but she'snever been touched by a native. <i Elle se respecte, vois-tu>.
The purser of the <i Oahu> told me last journey that he hadn'tmet a nicer girl in the islands. It's time she settleddown too, and besides, the captains and the first mates like achange now and then. I don't keep my girls too long. She hasa bit of property down by Taravao, just before you come to thepeninsula, and with copra at the price it is now you couldlive quite comfortably. There's a house, and you'd have allthe time you wanted for your painting. What do you say to it?"
Tiare paused to take breath.
"It was then he told me of his wife in England. 'My poorStrickland,' I said to him, 'they've all got a wife somewhere;that is generally why they come to the islands. Ata is asensible girl, and she doesn't expect any ceremony before theMayor. She's a Protestant, and you know they don't look uponthese things like the Catholics.'
"Then he said: 'But what does Ata say to it?' 'It appearsthat she has a <i beguin> for you,' I said. 'She's willing ifyou are. Shall I call her?' He chuckled in a funny, dry wayhe had, and I called her. She knew what I was talking about,the hussy, and I saw her out of the corner of my eyeslistening with all her ears, while she pretended to iron ablouse that she had been washing for me. She came. She waslaughing, but I could see that she was a little shy,and Strickland looked at her without speaking."
"Was she pretty?" I asked.
"Not bad. But you must have seen pictures of her. He paintedher over and over again, sometimes with a <i pareo> on andsometimes with nothing at all. Yes, she was pretty enough.
And she knew how to cook. I taught her myself. I sawStrickland was thinking of it, so I said to him: 'I've givenher good wages and she's saved them, and the captains and thefirst mates she's known have given her a little something nowand then. She's saved several hundred francs.'
"He pulled his great red beard and smiled.
"'Well, Ata,' he said, 'do you fancy me for a husband.'
"She did not say anything, but just giggled.
"'But I tell you, my poor Strickland, the girl has a<i beguin> for you,' I said.
"I shall beat you,' he said, looking at her.
"'How else should I know you loved me,' she answered."
Tiare broke off her narrative and addressed herself to mereflectively.
"My first husband, Captain Johnson, used to thrash meregularly. He was a man. He was handsome, six foot three,and when he was drunk there was no holding him. I would beblack and blue all over for days at a time. Oh, I cried whenhe died. I thought I should never get over it. But it wasn'ttill I married George Rainey that I knew what I'd lost.
You can never tell what a man is like till you live with him.
I've never been so deceived in a man as I was in GeorgeRainey. He was a fine, upstanding fellow too. He was nearlyas tall as Captain Johnson, and he looked strong enough. Butit was all on the surface. He never drank. He never raisedhis hand to me. He might have been a missionary. I made lovewith the officers of every ship that touched the island, andGeorge Rainey never saw anything. At last I was disgustedwith him, and I got a divorce. What was the good of a husbandlike that? It's a terrible thing the way some men treat women."
I condoled with Tiare, and remarked feelingly that men weredeceivers ever, then asked her to go on with her story of Strickland.
"'Well,' I said to him, 'there's no hurry about it. Take yourtime and think it over. Ata has a very nice room in theannexe. Live with her for a month, and see how you like her.
You can have your meals here. And at the end of a month, ifyou decide you want to marry her, you can just go and settledown on her property.'
"Well, he agreed to that. Ata continued to do the housework, andI gave him his meals as I said I would. I taught Ata to make oneor two dishes I knew he was fond of. He did not paint much. Hewandered about the hills and bathed in the stream. And he satabout the front looking at the lagoon, and at sunset he would godown and look at Murea. He used to go fishing on the reef. Heloved to moon about the harbour talking to the natives. He was anice, quiet fellow. And every evening after dinner he would godown to the annexe with Ata. I saw he was longing to get away tothe bush, and at the end of the month I asked him what heintended to do. He said if Ata was willing to go, he was willingto go with her. So I gave them a wedding dinner. I cooked it withmy own hands. I gave them a pea soup and lobster <i a la portugaise,>and a curry, and a cocoa-nut salad -- you've never had one of mycocoa-nut salads, have you? I must make you one before you go --and then I made them an ice. We had all the champagne we coulddrink and liqueurs to follow. Oh, I'd made up my mind to dothings well. And afterwards we danced in the drawing-room. I wasnot so fat, then, and I always loved dancing."
The drawing-room at the Hotel de la Fleur was a small room,with a cottage piano, and a suite of mahogany furniture,covered in stamped velvet, neatly arranged around the walls.
On round tables were photograph albums, and on the wallsenlarged photographs of Tiare and her first husband, CaptainJohnson. Still, though Tiare was old and fat, on occasion werolled back the Brussels carpet, brought in the maids and oneor two friends of Tiare's, and danced, though now to thewheezy music of a gramaphone. On the verandah the air wasscented with the heavy perfume of the tiare, and overhead theSouthern Cross shone in a cloudless sky.
Tiare smiled indulgently as she remembered the gaiety of atime long passed.
"We kept it up till three, and when we went to bed I don'tthink anyone was very sober. I had told them they could havemy trap to take them as far as the road went, because afterthat they had a long walk. Ata's property was right away in afold of the mountain. They started at dawn, and the boy Isent with them didn't come back till next day.
"Yes, that's how Strickland was married."
I suppose the next three years were the happiest ofStrickland's life. Ata's house stood about eight kilometresfrom the road that runs round the island, and you went to italong a winding pathway shaded by the luxuriant trees of thetropics. It was a bungalow of unpainted wood, consisting oftwo small rooms, and outside was a small shed that served as akitchen. There was no furniture except the mats they used asbeds, and a rocking-chair, which stood on the verandah.
Bananas with their great ragged leaves, like the tatteredhabiliments of an empress in adversity, grew close up to the house.
There was a tree just behind which bore alligator pears,and all about were the cocoa-nuts which gave the landits revenue. Ata's father had planted crotons round his property,and they grew in coloured profusion, gay and brilliant;they fenced the land with flame. A mango grew in frontof the house, and at the edge of the clearing were twoflamboyants, twin trees, that challenged the gold of thecocoa-nuts with their scarlet flowers.
Here Strickland lived, coming seldom to Papeete, on theproduce of the land. There was a little stream that ran notfar away, in which he bathed, and down this on occasion wouldcome a shoal of fish. Then the natives would assemble with spears,and with much shouting would transfix the great startledthings as they hurried down to the sea. Sometimes Stricklandwould go down to the reef, and come back with a basketof small, coloured fish that Ata would fry in cocoa-nut oil,or with a lobster; and sometimes she would make a savourydish of the great land-crabs that scuttled away under your feet.
Up the mountain were wild-orange trees, and now andthen Ata would go with two or three women from the village andreturn laden with the green, sweet, luscious fruit. Then thecocoa-nuts would be ripe for picking, and her cousins (likeall the natives, Ata had a host of relatives) would swarm upthe trees and throw down the big ripe nuts. They split themopen and put them in the sun to dry. Then they cut out thecopra and put it into sacks, and the women would carry it downto the trader at the village by the lagoon, and he would givein exchange for it rice and soap and tinned meat and a little money.
Sometimes there would be a feast in the neighbourhood,and a pig would be killed. Then they would go and eatthemselves sick, and dance, and sing hymns.
But the house was a long way from the village, and theTahitians are lazy. They love to travel and they love togossip, but they do not care to walk, and for weeks at a timeStrickland and Ata lived alone. He painted and he read, andin the evening, when it was dark, they sat together on theverandah, smoking and looking at the night. Then Ata had ababy, and the old woman who came up to help her through hertrouble stayed on. Presently the granddaughter of the oldwoman came to stay with her, and then a youth appeared -- noone quite knew where from or to whom he belonged -- but hesettled down with them in a happy-go-lucky way, and they alllived together.
"<i Tenez, voila le Capitaine Brunot>," said Tiare, one daywhen I was fitting together what she could tell me of Strickland.
"He knew Strickland well; he visited him at his house."
I saw a middle-aged Frenchman with a big black beard, streakedwith gray, a sunburned face, and large, shining eyes. He wasdressed in a neat suit of ducks. I had noticed him atluncheon, and Ah Lin, the Chinese boy, told me he had comefrom the Paumotus on the boat that had that day arrived.
Tiare introduced me to him, and he handed me his card, a largecard on which was printed <i Rene Brunot>, and underneath,<i Capitaine au Long Cours.> We were sitting on a littleverandah outside the kitchen, and Tiare was cutting out adress that she was making for one of the girls about thehouse. He sat down with us.
"Yes; I knew Strickland well," he said. "I am very fond ofchess, and he was always glad of a game. I come to Tahitithree or four times a year for my business, and when he was atPapeete he would come here and we would play. When hemarried" -- Captain Brunot smiled and shrugged his shoulders --"<i enfin>, when he went to live with the girl that Tiaregave him, he asked me to go and see him. I was one of theguests at the wedding feast." He looked at Tiare, and theyboth laughed. "He did not come much to Papeete after that,and about a year later it chanced that I had to go to thatpart of the island for I forgot what business, and when I hadfinished it I said to myself: '<i Voyons>, why should I notgo and see that poor Strickland?' I asked one or two nativesif they knew anything about him, and I discovered that helived not more than five kilometres from where I was. So I went.
I shall never forget the impression my visit made on me.
I live on an atoll, a low island, it is a strip of landsurrounding a lagoon, and its beauty is the beauty of the seaand sky and the varied colour of the lagoon and the grace ofthe cocoa-nut trees; but the place where Strickland lived hadthe beauty of the Garden of Eden. Ah, I wish I could make yousee the enchantment of that spot, a corner hidden away fromall the world, with the blue sky overhead and the rich,luxuriant trees. It was a feast of colour. And it wasfragrant and cool. Words cannot describe that paradise.
And here he lived, unmindful of the world and by theworld forgotten. I suppose to European eyes it would haveseemed astonishingly sordid. The house was dilapidated and nonetoo clean. Three or four natives were lying on the verandah.
You know how natives love to herd together. There was a youngman lying full length, smoking a cigarette, and he wore nothingbut a <i pareo>."
The <i pareo> is a long strip of trade cotton, red or blue,stamped with a white pattern. It is worn round the waist andhangs to the knees.
"A girl of fifteen, perhaps, was plaiting pandanus-leaf tomake a hat, and an old woman was sitting on her haunchessmoking a pipe. Then I saw Ata. She was suckling a new-bornchild, and another child, stark naked, was playing at her feet.
When she saw me she called out to Strickland, and hecame to the door. He, too, wore nothing but a <i pareo>.
He was an extraordinary figure, with his red beard and mattedhair, and his great hairy chest. His feet were horny andscarred, so that I knew he went always bare foot. He had gonenative with a vengeance. He seemed pleased to see me, andtold Ata to kill a chicken for our dinner. He took me intothe house to show me the picture he was at work on when I came in.
In one corner of the room was the bed, and in the middlewas an easel with the canvas upon it. Because I was sorry forhim, I had bought a couple of his pictures for small sums, andI had sent others to friends of mine in France. And though Ihad bought them out of compassion, after living with them Ibegan to like them. Indeed, I found a strange beauty in them.
Everyone thought I was mad, but it turns out that I was right.
I was his first admirer in the islands."
He smiled maliciously at Tiare, and with lamentations she toldus again the story of how at the sale of Strickland's effectsshe had neglected the pictures, but bought an American stovefor twenty-seven francs.
"Have you the pictures still?" I asked.
"Yes; I am keeping them till my daughter is of marriageableage, and then I shall sell them. They will be her <i dot>."Then he went on with the account of his visit to Strickland.
"I shall never forget the evening I spent with him. I had notintended to stay more than an hour, but he insisted that Ishould spend the night. I hesitated, for I confess I did notmuch like the look of the mats on which he proposed that Ishould sleep; but I shrugged my shoulders. When I wasbuilding my house in the Paumotus I had slept out for weeks ona harder bed than that, with nothing to shelter me but wildshrubs; and as for vermin, my tough skin should be proofagainst their malice.
"We went down to the stream to bathe while Ata was preparingthe dinner, and after we had eaten it we sat on the verandah.
We smoked and chatted. The young man had a concertina, and heplayed the tunes popular on the music-halls a dozen yearsbefore. They sounded strangely in the tropical nightthousands of miles from civilisation. I asked Strickland ifit did not irk him to live in that promiscuity. No, he said;he liked to have his models under his hand. Presently, afterloud yawning, the natives went away to sleep, and Stricklandand I were left alone. I cannot describe to you the intensesilence of the night. On my island in the Paumotus there isnever at night the complete stillness that there was here.
There is the rustle of the myriad animals on the beach, allthe little shelled things that crawl about ceaselessly, andthere is the noisy scurrying of the land-crabs. Now and thenin the lagoon you hear the leaping of a fish, and sometimes ahurried noisy splashing as a brown shark sends all the otherfish scampering for their lives. And above all, ceaselesslike time, is the dull roar of the breakers on the reef.
But here there was not a sound, and the air was scented with thewhite flowers of the night. It was a night so beautiful thatyour soul seemed hardly able to bear the prison of the body.
You felt that it was ready to be wafted away on the immaterial air,and death bore all the aspect of a beloved friend."
"Ah, I wish I were fifteen again."
Then she caught sight of a cat trying to get at a dish ofprawns on the kitchen table, and with a dexterous gesture anda lively volley of abuse flung a book at its scampering tail.
"I asked him if he was happy with Ata.
"'She leaves me alone,' he said. 'She cooks my food and looksafter her babies. She does what I tell her. She gives mewhat I want from a woman.'
"'And do you never regret Europe? Do you not yearn sometimesfor the light of the streets in Paris or London, thecompanionship of your friends, and equals, <i que sais-je?>for theatres and newspapers, and the rumble of omnibuses onthe cobbled pavements?'
"For a long time he was silent. Then he said:
"'I shall stay here till I die.'
"'But are you never bored or lonely?' I asked.
"'<i Mon pauvre ami>,' he said. 'It is evident that you donot know what it is to be an artist.'"
Capitaine Brunot turned to me with a gentle smile, and therewas a wonderful look in his dark, kind eyes.
"He did me an injustice, for I too know what it is to havedreams. I have my visions too. In my way I also am an artist."
We were all silent for a while, and Tiare fished out of hercapacious pocket a handful of cigarettes. She handed one toeach of us, and we all three smoked. At last she said:
"Since <i ce monsieur> is interested in Strickland, why do younot take him to see Dr. Coutras? He can tell him somethingabout his illness and death."
"<i Volontiers>," said the Captain, looking at me.
I thanked him, and he looked at his watch.
"It is past six o'clock. We should find him at home if youcare to come now."
I got up without further ado, and we walked along the roadthat led to the doctor's house. He lived out of the town,but the Hotel de la Fleur was on the edge of it, and we werequickly in the country. The broad road was shaded by pepper-trees,and on each side were the plantations, cocoa-nut and vanilla.
The pirate birds were screeching among the leaves of the palms.
We came to a stone bridge over a shallow river,and we stopped for a few minutes to see the native boys bathing.
They chased one another with shrill cries and laughter,and their bodies, brown and wet, gleamed in the sunlight.
As we walked along I reflected on a circumstance which allthat I had lately heard about Strickland forced on my attention.
Here, on this remote island, he seemed to have arousednone of the detestation with which he was regarded at home,but compassion rather; and his vagaries were acceptedwith tolerance. To these people, native and European, he wasa queer fish, but they were used to queer fish, and they tookhim for granted; the world was full of odd persons, who didodd things; and perhaps they knew that a man is not what hewants to be, but what he must be. In England and France hewas the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes wereany sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss.
I do not think he was any gentler here, less selfish or lessbrutal, but the circumstances were more favourable. If he hadspent his life amid these surroundings he might have passedfor no worse a man than another. He received here what heneither expected nor wanted among his own people -- sympathy.
I tried to tell Captain Brunot something of the astonishmentwith which this filled me, and for a little while he did notanswer.
"It is not strange that I, at all events, should have hadsympathy for him," he said at last, "for, though perhapsneither of us knew it, we were both aiming at the same thing."
"What on earth can it be that two people so dissimilar as youand Strickland could aim at?" I asked, smiling.
"A large order," I murmured.
"Do you know how men can be so obsessed by love that they aredeaf and blind to everything else in the world? They are aslittle their own masters as the slaves chained to the benchesof a galley. The passion that held Strickland in bondage wasno less tyrannical than love."
"How strange that you should say that!" I answered. "For longago I had the idea that he was possessed of a devil."
"And the passion that held Strickland was a passion tocreate beauty. It gave him no peace. It urged him hitherand thither. He was eternally a pilgrim, haunted by a divinenostalgia, and the demon within him was ruthless. There aremen whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it theywill shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such wasStrickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.
I could only feel for him a profound compassion."
"That is strange also. A man whom he had deeply wronged toldme that he felt a great pity for him." I was silent for a moment.
"I wonder if there you have found the explanation ofa character which has always seemed to me inexplicable.
How did you hit on it?"
He turned to me with a smile.
"Did I not tell you that I, too, in my way was an artist?I realised in myself the same desire as animated him.
But whereas his medium was paint, mine has been life."
Then Captain Brunot told me a story which I must repeat,since, if only by way of contrast, it adds something to myimpression of Strickland. It has also to my mind a beauty ofits own.
Captain Brunot was a Breton, and had been in the French Navy.
He left it on his marriage, and settled down on a smallproperty he had near Quimper to live for the rest of his daysin peace; but the failure of an attorney left him suddenlypenniless, and neither he nor his wife was willing to live inpenury where they had enjoyed consideration. During his seafaring days he had cruised the South Seas, and he determinednow to seek his fortune there. He spent some months in Papeeteto make his plans and gain experience; then, on money borrowedfrom a friend in France, he bought an island in the Paumotus.
It was a ring of land round a deep lagoon, uninhabited,and covered only with scrub and wild guava. With theintrepid woman who was his wife, and a few natives,he landed there, and set about building a house, and clearingthe scrub so that he could plant cocoa-nuts. That was twentyyears before, and now what had been a barren island was a garden.
"It was hard and anxious work at first, and we workedstrenuously, both of us. Every day I was up at dawn,clearing, planting, working on my house, and at night when Ithrew myself on my bed it was to sleep like a log tillmorning. My wife worked as hard as I did. Then children wereborn to us, first a son and then a daughter. My wife and Ihave taught them all they know. We had a piano sent out fromFrance, and she has taught them to play and to speak English,and I have taught them Latin and mathematics, and we readhistory together. They can sail a boat. They can swim aswell as the natives. There is nothing about the land of whichthey are ignorant. Our trees have prospered, and there isshell on my reef. I have come to Tahiti now to buy aschooner. I can get enough shell to make it worth while tofish for it, and, who knows? I may find pearls. I have madesomething where there was nothing. I too have made beauty.
Ah, you do not know what it is to look at those tall, healthytrees and think that every one I planted myself."
"Let me ask you the question that you asked Strickland.
Do you never regret France and your old home in Brittany?"
"Some day, when my daughter is married and my son has a wifeand is able to take my place on the island, we shall go backand finish our days in the old house in which I was born."
"You will look back on a happy life," I said.
"<i Evidemment>, it is not exciting on my island, and we arevery far from the world -- imagine, it takes me four days tocome to Tahiti -- but we are happy there. It is given to fewmen to attempt a work and to achieve it. Our life is simpleand innocent. We are untouched by ambition, and what pride wehave is due only to our contemplation of the work of ourhands. Malice cannot touch us, nor envy attack. Ah, <i moncher monsieur>, they talk of the blessedness of labour, and itis a meaningless phrase, but to me it has the most intensesignificance. I am a happy man."
"I am sure you deserve to be," I smiled.
"I wish I could think so. I do not know how I have deservedto have a wife who was the perfect friend and helpmate,the perfect mistress and the perfect mother."
I reflected for a while on the life that the Captain suggestedto my imagination.
"It is obvious that to lead such an existence and make sogreat a success of it, you must both have needed a strong willand a determined character."
"Perhaps; but without one other factor we could have achieved nothing."
"And what was that?"
He stopped, somewhat dramatically, and stretched out his arm.
"Belief in God. Without that we should have been lost."
Then we arrived at the house of Dr. Coutras.
Mr. Coutras was an old Frenchman of great stature andexceeding bulk. His body was shaped like a huge duck's egg;and his eyes, sharp, blue, and good-natured, rested now andthen with self-satisfaction on his enormous paunch. Hiscomplexion was florid and his hair white. He was a man toattract immediate sympathy. He received us in a room thatmight have been in a house in a provincial town in France, andthe one or two Polynesian curios had an odd look. He took myhand in both of his -- they were huge -- and gave me a heartylook, in which, however, was great shrewdness. When he shookhands with Capitaine Brunot he enquired politely after<i Madame et les enfants>. For some minutes there was anexchange of courtesies and some local gossip about the island,the prospects of copra and the vanilla crop; then we came tothe object of my visit.
I shall not tell what Dr. Coutras related to me in his words,but in my own, for I cannot hope to give at second hand anyimpression of his vivacious delivery. He had a deep, resonantvoice, fitted to his massive frame, and a keen sense of thedramatic. To listen to him was, as the phrase goes, as goodas a play; and much better than most.
It appears that Dr. Coutras had gone one day to Taravao inorder to see an old chiefess who was ill, and he gave a vividpicture of the obese old lady, lying in a huge bed, smokingcigarettes, and surrounded by a crowd of dark-skinned retainers.
When he had seen her he was taken into another roomand given dinner -- raw fish, fried bananas, and chicken --<i que sais-je>, the typical dinner of the <i indigene> --and while he was eating it he saw a young girl being drivenaway from the door in tears. He thought nothing of it, butwhen he went out to get into his trap and drive home, he sawher again, standing a little way off; she looked at him with awoebegone air, and tears streamed down her cheeks. He askedsomeone what was wrong with her, and was told that she hadcome down from the hills to ask him to visit a white man whowas sick. They had told her that the doctor could not bedisturbed. He called her, and himself asked what she wanted.
She told him that Ata had sent her, she who used to be at theHotel de la Fleur, and that the Red One was ill. She thrustinto his hand a crumpled piece of newspaper, and when heopened it he found in it a hundred-franc note.
"Who is the Red One?" he asked of one of the bystanders.
He was told that that was what they called the Englishman, apainter, who lived with Ata up in the valley seven kilometresfrom where they were. He recognised Strickland by thedescription. But it was necessary to walk. It was impossiblefor him to go; that was why they had sent the girl away.
"I confess," said the doctor, turning to me, "that Ihesitated. I did not relish fourteen kilometres over a badpathway, and there was no chance that I could get back toPapeete that night. Besides, Strickland was not sympatheticto me. He was an idle, useless scoundrel, who preferred tolive with a native woman rather than work for his living likethe rest of us. <i Mon Dieu>, how was I to know that one daythe world would come to the conclusion that he had genius?I asked the girl if he was not well enough to have come down tosee me. I asked her what she thought was the matter with him.
She would not answer. I pressed her, angrily perhaps, but shelooked down on the ground and began to cry. Then I shruggedmy shoulders; after all, perhaps it was my duty to go, and ina very bad temper I bade her lead the way."
His temper was certainly no better when he arrived, perspiringfreely and thirsty. Ata was on the look-out for him, and camea little way along the path to meet him.
"Before I see anyone give me something to drink or I shall dieof thirst," he cried out. "<i Pour l'amour de Dieu>, get me acocoa-nut."
She called out, and a boy came running along. He swarmed up atree, and presently threw down a ripe nut. Ata pierced a holein it, and the doctor took a long, refreshing draught.
Then he rolled himself a cigarette and felt in a better humour.
"Now, where is the Red One?" he asked.
"He is in the house, painting. I have not told him you werecoming. Go in and see him."
"But what does he complain of? If he is well enough to paint,he is well enough to have come down to Taravao and save methis confounded walk. I presume my time is no less valuablethan his."
Ata did not speak, but with the boy followed him to the house.
The girl who had brought him was by this time sitting on theverandah, and here was lying an old woman, with her back tothe wall, making native cigarettes. Ata pointed to the door.
The doctor, wondering irritably why they behaved so strangely,entered, and there found Strickland cleaning his palette.
There was a picture on the easel. Strickland, clad only in a<i pareo>, was standing with his back to the door, but heturned round when he heard the sound of boots. He gave thedoctor a look of vexation. He was surprised to see him, andresented the intrusion. But the doctor gave a gasp, he wasrooted to the floor, and he stared with all his eyes.
This was not what he expected. He was seized with horror.
"You enter without ceremony," said Strickland. "What can I dofor you?"
The doctor recovered himself, but it required quite an effortfor him to find his voice. All his irritation was gone, andhe felt -- <i eh bien, oui, je ne le nie pas> -- he felt anoverwhelming pity.
"I am Dr. Coutras. I was down at Taravao to see the chiefess,and Ata sent for me to see you."
"She's a damned fool. I have had a few aches and pains latelyand a little fever, but that's nothing; it will pass off.
Next time anyone went to Papeete I was going to send forsome quinine."
"Look at yourself in the glass."
Strickland gave him a glance, smiled, and went over to a cheapmirror in a little wooden frame, that hung on the wall.
"Do you not see a strange change in your face? Do you not seethe thickening of your features and a look -- how shall Idescribe it? -- the books call it lion-faced. <i Mon pauvre ami>,must I tell you that you have a terrible disease?"
"When you look at yourself in the glass you see the typicalappearance of the leper."
"You are jesting," said Strickland.
"I wish to God I were."
"Do you intend to tell me that I have leprosy?"
"Unfortunately, there can be no doubt of it."
Dr. Coutras had delivered sentence of death on many men, andhe could never overcome the horror with which it filled him.
He felt always the furious hatred that must seize a mancondemned when he compared himself with the doctor, sane andhealthy, who had the inestimable privilege of life.
Strickland looked at him in silence. Nothing of emotion couldbe seen on his face, disfigured already by the loathsomedisease.
"Do they know?" he asked at last, pointing to the persons onthe verandah, now sitting in unusual, unaccountable silence.
"These natives know the signs so well," said the doctor.
"They were afraid to tell you."
Strickland stepped to the door and looked out. There musthave been something terrible in his face, for suddenly theyall burst out into loud cries and lamentation. They lifted uptheir voices and they wept. Strickland did not speak.
After looking at them for a moment, he came back into the room.
"How long do you think I can last?"
"Who knows? Sometimes the disease continues for twenty years.
It is a mercy when it runs its course quickly."
Strickland went to his easel and looked reflectively at thepicture that stood on it.
"You have had a long journey. It is fitting that the bearerof important tidings should be rewarded. Take this picture.
It means nothing to you now, but it may be that one day youwill be glad to have it."
Dr. Coutras protested that he needed no payment for hisjourney; he had already given back to Ata the hundred-francnote, but Strickland insisted that he should take the picture.
Then together they went out on the verandah. The natives weresobbing violently. "Be quiet, woman. Dry thy tears," saidStrickland, addressing Ata. "There is no great harm.
I shall leave thee very soon."
"They are not going to take thee away?" she cried.
At that time there was no rigid sequestration on the islands,and lepers, if they chose, were allowed to go free.
"I shall go up into the mountain," said Strickland.
Then Ata stood up and faced him.
"Let the others go if they choose, but I will not leave thee.
Thou art my man and I am thy woman. If thou leavest me Ishall hang myself on the tree that is behind the house.
I swear it by God."
There was something immensely forcible in the way she spoke.
She was no longer the meek, soft native girl, but a determinedwoman. She was extraordinarily transformed.
"Why shouldst thou stay with me? Thou canst go back toPapeete, and thou wilt soon find another white man. The oldwoman can take care of thy children, and Tiare will be glad tohave thee back."
"Thou art my man and I am thy woman. Whither thou goest Iwill go, too."
For a moment Strickland's fortitude was shaken, and a tearfilled each of his eyes and trickled slowly down his cheeks.
Then he gave the sardonic smile which was usual with him.
"Women are strange little beasts," he said to Dr. Coutras.
"You can treat them like dogs, you can beat them till your armaches, and still they love you." He shrugged his shoulders.
"Of course, it is one of the most absurd illusions ofChristianity that they have souls."
"What is it that thou art saying to the doctor?" asked Atasuspiciously. "Thou wilt not go?"
"If it please thee I will stay, poor child."
Ata flung herself on her knees before him, and clasped hislegs with her arms and kissed them. Strickland looked at Dr.
Coutras with a faint smile.
"In the end they get you, and you are helpless in their hands.
White or brown, they are all the same."
Dr. Coutras felt that it was absurd to offer expressions ofregret in so terrible a disaster, and he took his leave.
Strickland told Tane, the boy, to lead him to the village.
Dr. Coutras paused for a moment, and then he addressed himselfto me.
"I did not like him, I have told you he was not sympathetic tome, but as I walked slowly down to Taravao I could not preventan unwilling admiration for the stoical courage which enabledhim to bear perhaps the most dreadful of human afflictions.
When Tane left me I told him I would send some medicine thatmight be of service; but my hope was small that Stricklandwould consent to take it, and even smaller that, if he did,it would do him good. I gave the boy a message for Ata thatI would come whenever she sent for me. Life is hard, and Naturetakes sometimes a terrible delight in torturing her children.
It was with a heavy heart that I drove back to my comfortablehome in Papeete."
For a long time none of us spoke.
"But Ata did not send for me," the doctor went on, at last,"and it chanced that I did not go to that part of the islandfor a long time. I had no news of Strickland. Once or twiceI heard that Ata had been to Papeete to buy paintingmaterials, but I did not happen to see her. More than twoyears passed before I went to Taravao again, and then it wasonce more to see the old chiefess. I asked them whether theyhad heard anything of Strickland. By now it was knowneverywhere that he had leprosy. First Tane, the boy, had leftthe house, and then, a little time afterwards, the old womanand her grandchild. Strickland and Ata were left alone withtheir babies. No one went near the plantation, for, as youknow, the natives have a very lively horror of the disease,and in the old days when it was discovered the sufferer was killed;but sometimes, when the village boys were scrambling aboutthe hills, they would catch sight of the white man, withhis great red beard, wandering about. They fled in terror.
Sometimes Ata would come down to the village at night andarouse the trader, so that he might sell her various things ofwhich she stood in need. She knew that the natives lookedupon her with the same horrified aversion as they looked uponStrickland, and she kept out of their way. Once some women,venturing nearer than usual to the plantation, saw herwashing clothes in the brook, and they threw stones at her.
After that the trader was told to give her the message that ifshe used the brook again men would come and burn down her house."
"Brutes," I said.
"<i Mais non, mon cher monsieur>, men are always the same.
Fear makes them cruel.... I decided to see Strickland, andwhen I had finished with the chiefess asked for a boy to showme the way. But none would accompany me, and I was forced tofind it alone."
When Dr. Coutras arrived at the plantation he was seized witha feeling of uneasiness. Though he was hot from walking, heshivered. There was something hostile in the air which madehim hesitate, and he felt that invisible forces barred his way.
Unseen hands seemed to draw him back. No one would gonear now to gather the cocoa-nuts, and they lay rotting on theground. Everywhere was desolation. The bush was encroaching,and it looked as though very soon the primeval forest wouldregain possession of that strip of land which had beensnatched from it at the cost of so much labour. He had thesensation that here was the abode of pain. As he approachedthe house he was struck by the unearthly silence, and at firsthe thought it was deserted. Then he saw Ata. She was sittingon her haunches in the lean-to that served her as kitchen,watching some mess cooking in a pot. Near her a small boy wasplaying silently in the dirt. She did not smile when she saw him.
"I have come to see Strickland," he said.
"I will go and tell him."
She went to the house, ascended the few steps that led to theverandah, and entered. &