“The Moon And Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham. Chapter LII-LIII-LIV.
I suppose the next three years were the happiest of Strickland’s life. Ata’s house stood about eight kilometres from the road that runs round the island, and you went to it along a winding pathway shaded by the luxuriant trees of the tropics. It was a bungalow of unpainted wood, consisting of two small rooms, and outside was a small shed that served as a kitchen. There was no furniture except the mats they used as beds, and a rocking-chair, which stood on the verandah. Bananas with their great ragged leaves, like the tattered habiliments 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 land its 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 front of the house, and at the edge of the clearing were two flamboyants, twin trees, that challenged the gold of the cocoa-nuts with their scarlet flowers.
Here Strickland lived, coming seldom to Papeete, on the produce of the land. There was a little stream that ran not far away, in which he bathed, and down this on occasion would come a shoal of fish. Then the natives would assemble with spears, and with much shouting would transfix the great startled things as they hurried down to the sea. Sometimes Strickland would go down to the reef, and come back with a basket of small, coloured fish that Ata would fry in cocoa-nut oil, or with a lobster; and sometimes she would make a savoury dish of the great land-crabs that scuttled away under your feet. Up the mountain were wild-orange trees, and now and then Ata would go with two or three women from the village and return laden with the green, sweet, luscious fruit. Then the cocoa-nuts would be ripe for picking, and her cousins (like all the natives, Ata had a host of relatives) would swarm up the trees and throw down the big ripe nuts. They split them open and put them in the sun to dry. Then they cut out the copra and put it into sacks, and the women would carry it down to the trader at the village by the lagoon, and he would give in 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 eat themselves sick, and dance, and sing hymns.
But the house was a long way from the village, and the Tahitians are lazy. They love to travel and they love to gossip, but they do not care to walk, and for weeks at a time Strickland and Ata lived alone. He painted and he read, and in the evening, when it was dark, they sat together on the verandah, smoking and looking at the night. Then Ata had a baby, and the old woman who came up to help her through her trouble stayed on. Presently the granddaughter of the old woman came to stay with her, and then a youth appeared -no one quite knew where from or to whom he belonged -but he settled down with them in a happy-go-lucky way, and they all lived together.
“Tenez, voila le Capitaine Brunot,” said Tiare, one day when 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, streaked with gray, a sunburned face, and large, shining eyes. He was dressed in a neat suit of ducks. I had noticed him at luncheon, and Ah Lin, the Chinese boy, told me he had come from the Paumotus on the boat that had that day arrived. Tiare introduced me to him, and he handed me his card, a large card on which was printed Rene Brunot, and underneath, Capitaine au Long Cours. We were sitting on a little verandah outside the kitchen, and Tiare was cutting out a dress that she was making for one of the girls about the house. He sat down with us.
“Yes; I knew Strickland well,” he said. “I am very fond of chess, and he was always glad of a game. I come to Tahiti three or four times a year for my business, and when he was at Papeete he would come here and we would play. When he married” -Captain Brunot smiled and shrugged his shoulders -“enfin, when he went to live with the girl that Tiare gave him, he asked me to go and see him. I was one of the guests at the wedding feast.” He looked at Tiare, and they both laughed. “He did not come much to Papeete after that, and about a year later it chanced that I had to go to that part of the island for I forgot what business, and when I had finished it I said to myself: ‘Voyons, why should I not go and see that poor Strickland?’ I asked one or two natives if they knew anything about him, and I discovered that he lived 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 land surrounding a lagoon, and its beauty is the beauty of the sea and sky and the varied colour of the lagoon and the grace of the cocoa-nut trees; but the place where Strickland lived had the beauty of the Garden of Eden. Ah, I wish I could make you see the enchantment of that spot, a corner hidden away from all the world, with the blue sky overhead and the rich, luxuriant trees. It was a feast of colour. And it was fragrant and cool. Words cannot describe that paradise. And here he lived, unmindful of the world and by the world forgotten. I suppose to European eyes it would have seemed astonishingly sordid. The house was dilapidated and none too clean. Three or four natives were lying on the verandah. You know how natives love to herd together. There was a young man lying full length, smoking a cigarette, and he wore nothing but a pareo.”
The pareo is a long strip of trade cotton, red or blue, stamped with a white pattern. It is worn round the waist and hangs to the knees.
“A girl of fifteen, perhaps, was plaiting pandanus-leaf to make a hat, and an old woman was sitting on her haunches smoking a pipe. Then I saw Ata. She was suckling a new-born child, and another child, stark naked, was playing at her feet. When she saw me she called out to Strickland, and he came to the door. He, too, wore nothing but a pareo. He was an extraordinary figure, with his red beard and matted hair, and his great hairy chest. His feet were horny and scarred, so that I knew he went always bare foot. He had gone native with a vengeance. He seemed pleased to see me, and told Ata to kill a chicken for our dinner. He took me into the 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 middle was an easel with the canvas upon it. Because I was sorry for him, I had bought a couple of his pictures for small sums, and I had sent others to friends of mine in France. And though I had bought them out of compassion, after living with them I began 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 told us again the story of how at the sale of Strickland’s effects she had neglected the pictures, but bought an American stove for twenty-seven francs.
“Have you the pictures still?” I asked.
“Yes; I am keeping them till my daughter is of marriageable age, and then I shall sell them. They will be her 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 not intended to stay more than an hour, but he insisted that I should spend the night. I hesitated, for I confess I did not much like the look of the mats on which he proposed that I should sleep; but I shrugged my shoulders. When I was building my house in the Paumotus I had slept out for weeks on a harder bed than that, with nothing to shelter me but wild shrubs; and as for vermin, my tough skin should be proof against their malice.
“We went down to the stream to bathe while Ata was preparing the dinner, and after we had eaten it we sat on the verandah. We smoked and chatted. The young man had a concertina, and he played the tunes popular on the music-halls a dozen years before. They sounded strangely in the tropical night thousands of miles from civilisation. I asked Strickland if it did not irk him to live in that promiscuity. No, he said; he liked to have his models under his hand. Presently, after loud yawning, the natives went away to sleep, and Strickland and I were left alone. I cannot describe to you the intense silence of the night. On my island in the Paumotus there is never at night the complete stillness that there was here. There is the rustle of the myriad animals on the beach, all the little shelled things that crawl about ceaselessly, and there is the noisy scurrying of the land-crabs. Now and then in the lagoon you hear the leaping of a fish, and sometimes a hurried noisy splashing as a brown shark sends all the other fish scampering for their lives. And above all, ceaseless like time, is the dull roar of the breakers on the reef. But here there was not a sound, and the air was scented with the white flowers of the night. It was a night so beautiful that your 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 of prawns on the kitchen table, and with a dexterous gesture and a 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 looks after her babies. She does what I tell her. She gives me what I want from a woman.’
“‘And do you never regret Europe? Do you not yearn sometimes for the light of the streets in Paris or London, the companionship of your friends, and equals, que sais-je? for theatres and newspapers, and the rumble of omnibuses on the 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.
“‘Mon pauvre ami,’ he said. ‘It is evident that you do not know what it is to be an artist.'”
Capitaine Brunot turned to me with a gentle smile, and there was a wonderful look in his dark, kind eyes.
“He did me an injustice, for I too know what it is to have dreams. 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 her capacious pocket a handful of cigarettes. She handed one to each of us, and we all three smoked. At last she said:
“Since ce monsieur is interested in Strickland, why do you not take him to see Dr. Coutras? He can tell him something about his illness and death.”
“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 you care to come now.”
I got up without further ado, and we walked along the road that 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 were quickly 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 all that I had lately heard about Strickland forced on my attention. Here, on this remote island, he seemed to have aroused none of the detestation with which he was regarded at home, but compassion rather; and his vagaries were accepted with tolerance. To these people, native and European, he was a queer fish, but they were used to queer fish, and they took him for granted; the world was full of odd persons, who did odd things; and perhaps they knew that a man is not what he wants to be, but what he must be. In England and France he was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss. I do not think he was any gentler here, less selfish or less brutal, but the circumstances were more favourable. If he had spent his life amid these surroundings he might have passed for no worse a man than another. He received here what he neither expected nor wanted among his own people -sympathy.
I tried to tell Captain Brunot something of the astonishment with which this filled me, and for a little while he did not answer.
“It is not strange that I, at all events, should have had sympathy for him,” he said at last, “for, though perhaps neither of us knew it, we were both aiming at the same thing.”
“What on earth can it be that two people so dissimilar as you and 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 are deaf and blind to everything else in the world? They are as little their own masters as the slaves chained to the benches of a galley. The passion that held Strickland in bondage was no less tyrannical than love.”
“How strange that you should say that!” I answered. “For long ago I had the idea that he was possessed of a devil.”
“And the passion that held Strickland was a passion to create beauty. It gave him no peace. It urged him hither and thither. He was eternally a pilgrim, haunted by a divine nostalgia, and the demon within him was ruthless. There are men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was Strickland, 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 told me that he felt a great pity for him.” I was silent for a moment. “I wonder if there you have found the explanation of a 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 my impression of Strickland. It has also to my mind a beauty of its own.
Captain Brunot was a Breton, and had been in the French Navy. He left it on his marriage, and settled down on a small property he had near Quimper to live for the rest of his days in peace; but the failure of an attorney left him suddenly penniless, and neither he nor his wife was willing to live in penury where they had enjoyed consideration. During his sea faring days he had cruised the South Seas, and he determined now to seek his fortune there. He spent some months in Papeete to make his plans and gain experience; then, on money borrowed from 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 the intrepid woman who was his wife, and a few natives, he landed there, and set about building a house, and clearing the scrub so that he could plant cocoa-nuts. That was twenty years before, and now what had been a barren island was a garden.
“It was hard and anxious work at first, and we worked strenuously, both of us. Every day I was up at dawn, clearing, planting, working on my house, and at night when I threw myself on my bed it was to sleep like a log till morning. My wife worked as hard as I did. Then children were born to us, first a son and then a daughter. My wife and I have taught them all they know. We had a piano sent out from France, and she has taught them to play and to speak English, and I have taught them Latin and mathematics, and we read history together. They can sail a boat. They can swim as well as the natives. There is nothing about the land of which they are ignorant. Our trees have prospered, and there is shell on my reef. I have come to Tahiti now to buy a schooner. I can get enough shell to make it worth while to fish for it, and, who knows? I may find pearls. I have made something where there was nothing. I too have made beauty. Ah, you do not know what it is to look at those tall, healthy trees 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 wife and is able to take my place on the island, we shall go back and finish our days in the old house in which I was born.”
“You will look back on a happy life,” I said.
“Evidemment, it is not exciting on my island, and we are very far from the world -imagine, it takes me four days to come to Tahiti -but we are happy there. It is given to few men to attempt a work and to achieve it. Our life is simple and innocent. We are untouched by ambition, and what pride we have is due only to our contemplation of the work of our hands. Malice cannot touch us, nor envy attack. Ah, mon cher monsieur, they talk of the blessedness of labour, and it is a meaningless phrase, but to me it has the most intense significance. 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 deserved to 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 suggested to my imagination.
“It is obvious that to lead such an existence and make so great a success of it, you must both have needed a strong will and 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.