“The Moon And Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham. Chapter LVII-LVIII.
At that moment we were interrupted by the appearance of Madame Coutras, who had been paying visits. She came in, like a ship in full sail, an imposing creature, tall and stout, with an ample bust and an obesity girthed in alarmingly by straight-fronted corsets. She had a bold hooked nose and three chins. She held herself upright. She had not yielded for an instant to the enervating charm of the tropics, but contrariwise was more active, more worldly, more decided than anyone in a temperate clime would have thought it possible to be. She was evidently a copious talker, and now poured forth a breathless stream of anecdote and comment. She made the conversation we had just had seem far away and unreal.
Presently Dr. Coutras turned to me.
“I still have in my bureau the picture that Strickland gave me,” he said. “Would you like to see it?”
We got up, and he led me on to the verandah which surrounded his house. We paused to look at the gay flowers that rioted in his garden.
“For a long time I could not get out of my head the recollection of the extraordinary decoration with which Strickland had covered the walls of his house,” he said reflectively.
I had been thinking of it, too. It seemed to me that here Strickland had finally put the whole expression of himself. Working silently, knowing that it was his last chance, I fancied that here he must have said all that he knew of life and all that he divined. And I fancied that perhaps here he had at last found peace. The demon which possessed him was exorcised at last, and with the completion of the work, for which all his life had been a painful preparation, rest descended on his remote and tortured soul. He was willing to die, for he had fulfilled his purpose.
“What was the subject?” I asked.
“I scarcely know. It was strange and fantastic. It was a vision of the beginnings of the world, the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve -que sais-je? -it was a hymn to the beauty of the human form, male and female, and the praise of Nature, sublime, indifferent, lovely, and cruel. It gave you an awful sense of the infinity of space and of the endlessness of time. Because he painted the trees I see about me every day, the cocoa-nuts, the banyans, the flamboyants, the alligator-pears, I have seen them ever since differently, as though there were in them a spirit and a mystery which I am ever on the point of seizing and which forever escapes me. The colours were the colours familiar to me, and yet they were different. They had a significance which was all their own. And those nude men and women. They were of the earth, and yet apart from it. They seemed to possess something of the clay of which they were created, and at the same time something divine. You saw man in the nakedness of his primeval instincts, and you were afraid, for you saw yourself.”
Dr. Coutras shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“You will laugh at me. I am a materialist, and I am a gross, fat man -Falstaff, eh? -the lyrical mode does not become me. I make myself ridiculous. But I have never seen painting which made so deep an impression upon me. Tenez, I had just the same feeling as when I went to the Sistine Chapel in Rome. There too I was awed by the greatness of the man who had painted that ceiling. It was genius, and it was stupendous and overwhelming. I felt small and insignificant. But you are prepared for the greatness of Michael Angelo. Nothing had prepared me for the immense surprise of these pictures in a native hut, far away from civilisation, in a fold of the mountain above Taravao. And Michael Angelo is sane and healthy. Those great works of his have the calm of the sublime; but here, notwithstanding beauty, was something troubling. I do not know what it was. It made me uneasy. It gave me the impression you get when you are sitting next door to a room that you know is empty, but in which, you know not why, you have a dreadful consciousness that notwithstanding there is someone. You scold yourself; you know it is only your nerves -and yet, and yet… In a little while it is impossible to resist the terror that seizes you, and you are helpless in the clutch of an unseen horror. Yes; I confess I was not altogether sorry when I heard that those strange masterpieces had been destroyed.”
“Destroyed?” I cried.
“Mais oui; did you not know?”
“How should I know? It is true I had never heard of this work; but I thought perhaps it had fallen into the hands of a private owner. Even now there is no certain list of Strickland’s paintings.”
“When he grew blind he would sit hour after hour in those two rooms that he had painted, looking at his works with sightless eyes, and seeing, perhaps, more than he had ever seen in his life before. Ata told me that he never complained of his fate, he never lost courage. To the end his mind remained serene and undisturbed. But he made her promise that when she had buried him -did I tell you that I dug his grave with my own hands, for none of the natives would approach the infected house, and we buried him, she and I, sewn up in three pareos joined together, under the mango-tree -he made her promise that she would set fire to the house and not leave it till it was burned to the ground and not a stick remained.”
I did not speak for a while, for I was thinking. Then I said:
“He remained the same to the end, then.”
“Do you understand? I must tell you that I thought it my duty to dissuade her.”
“Even after what you have just said?”
“Yes; for I knew that here was a work of genius, and I did not think we had the right to deprive the world of it. But Ata would not listen to me. She had promised. I would not stay to witness the barbarous deed, and it was only afterwards that I heard what she had done. She poured paraffin on the dry floors and on the pandanus-mats, and then she set fire. In a little while nothing remained but smouldering embers, and a great masterpiece existed no longer.
“I think Strickland knew it was a masterpiece. He had achieved what he wanted. His life was complete. He had made a world and saw that it was good. Then, in pride and contempt, he destroyed it.”
“But I must show you my picture,” said Dr. Coutras, moving on.
“What happened to Ata and the child?”
“They went to the Marquesas. She had relations there. I have heard that the boy works on one of Cameron’s schooners. They say he is very like his father in appearance.”
At the door that led from the verandah to the doctor’s consulting-room, he paused and smiled.
“It is a fruit-piece. You would think it not a very suitable picture for a doctor’s consulting-room, but my wife will not have it in the drawing-room. She says it is frankly obscene.”
“A fruit-piece!” I exclaimed in surprise.
We entered the room, and my eyes fell at once on the picture. I looked at it for a long time.
It was a pile of mangoes, bananas, oranges, and I know not what and at first sight it was an innocent picture enough. It would have been passed in an exhibition of the Post-Impressionists by a careless person as an excellent but not very remarkable example of the school; but perhaps afterwards it would come back to his recollection, and he would wonder why. I do not think then he could ever entirely forget it.
The colours were so strange that words can hardly tell what a troubling emotion they gave. They were sombre blues, opaque like a delicately carved bowl in lapis lazuli, and yet with a quivering lustre that suggested the palpitation of mysterious life; there were purples, horrible like raw and putrid flesh, and yet with a glowing, sensual passion that called up vague memories of the Roman Empire of Heliogabalus; there were reds, shrill like the berries of holly -one thought of Christmas in England, and the snow, the good cheer, and the pleasure of children -and yet by some magic softened till they had the swooning tenderness of a dove’s breast; there were deep yellows that died with an unnatural passion into a green as fragrant as the spring and as pure as the sparkling water of a mountain brook. Who can tell what anguished fancy made these fruits? They belonged to a Polynesian garden of the Hesperides. There was something strangely alive in them, as though they were created in a stage of the earth’s dark history when things were not irrevocably fixed to their forms. They were extravagantly luxurious. They were heavy with tropical odours. They seemed to possess a sombre passion of their own. It was enchanted fruit, to taste which might open the gateway to God knows what secrets of the soul and to mysterious palaces of the imagination. They were sullen with unawaited dangers, and to eat them might turn a man to beast or god. All that was healthy and natural, all that clung to happy relationships and the simple joys of simple men, shrunk from them in dismay; and yet a fearful attraction was in them, and, like the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they were terrible with the possibilities of the Unknown.
At last I turned away. I felt that Strickland had kept his secret to the grave.
“Voyons, Rene, mon ami,” came the loud, cheerful voice of Madame Coutras, “what are you doing all this time? Here are the aperitifs. Ask Monsieur if he will not drink a little glass of Quinquina Dubonnet.”
“Volontiers, Madame,” I said, going out on to the verandah.
The spell was broken.
The time came for my departure from Tahiti. According to the gracious custom of the island, presents were given me by the persons with whom I had been thrown in contact -baskets made of the leaves of the cocoa-nut tree, mats of pandanus, fans; and Tiare gave me three little pearls and three jars of guava-jelly made with her own plump hands. When the mail-boat, stopping for twenty-four hours on its way from Wellington to San Francisco, blew the whistle that warned the passengers to get on board, Tiare clasped me to her vast bosom, so that I seemed to sink into a billowy sea, and pressed her red lips to mine. Tears glistened in her eyes. And when we steamed slowly out of the lagoon, making our way gingerly through the opening in the reef, and then steered for the open sea, a certain melancholy fell upon me. The breeze was laden still with the pleasant odours of the land. Tahiti is very far away, and I knew that I should never see it again. A chapter of my life was closed, and I felt a little nearer to inevitable death.
Not much more than a month later I was in London; and after I had arranged certain matters which claimed my immediate attention, thinking Mrs. Strickland might like to hear what I knew of her husband’s last years, I wrote to her. I had not seen her since long before the war, and I had to look out her address in the telephone-book. She made an appointment, and I went to the trim little house on Campden Hill which she now inhabited. She was by this time a woman of hard on sixty, but she bore her years well, and no one would have taken her for more than fifty. Her face, thin and not much lined, was of the sort that ages gracefully, so that you thought in youth she must have been a much handsomer woman than in fact she was. Her hair, not yet very gray, was becomingly arranged, and her black gown was modish. I remembered having heard that her sister, Mrs. MacAndrew, outliving her husband but a couple of years, had left money to Mrs. Strickland; and by the look of the house and the trim maid who opened the door I judged that it was a sum adequate to keep the widow in modest comfort.
When I was ushered into the drawing-room I found that Mrs. Strickland had a visitor, and when I discovered who he was, I guessed that I had been asked to come at just that time not without intention. The caller was Mr. Van Busche Taylor, an American, and Mrs. Strickland gave me particulars with a charming smile of apology to him.
“You know, we English are so dreadfully ignorant. You must forgive me if it’s necessary to explain.” Then she turned to me. “Mr. Van Busche Taylor is the distinguished American critic. If you haven’t read his book your education has been shamefully neglected, and you must repair the omission at once. He’s writing something about dear Charlie, and he’s come to ask me if I can help him.”
Mr. Van Busche Taylor was a very thin man with a large, bald head, bony and shining; and under the great dome of his skull his face, yellow, with deep lines in it, looked very small. He was quiet and exceedingly polite. He spoke with the accent of New England, and there was about his demeanour a bloodless frigidity which made me ask myself why on earth he was busying himself with Charles Strickland. I had been slightly tickled at the gentleness which Mrs. Strickland put into her mention of her husband’s name, and while the pair conversed I took stock of the room in which we sat. Mrs. Strickland had moved with the times. Gone were the Morris papers and gone the severe cretonnes, gone were the Arundel prints that had adorned the walls of her drawing-room in Ashley Gardens; the room blazed with fantastic colour, and I wondered if she knew that those varied hues, which fashion had imposed upon her, were due to the dreams of a poor painter in a South Sea island. She gave me the answer herself.
“What wonderful cushions you have,” said Mr. Van Busche Taylor.
“Do you like them?” she said, smiling. “Bakst, you know.”
And yet on the walls were coloured reproductions of several of Strickland’s best pictures, due to the enterprise of a publisher in Berlin.
“You’re looking at my pictures,” she said, following my eyes. “Of course, the originals are out of my reach, but it’s a comfort to have these. The publisher sent them to me himself. They’re a great consolation to me.”
“They must be very pleasant to live with,” said Mr. Van Busche Taylor.
“Yes; they’re so essentially decorative.”
“That is one of my profoundest convictions,” said Mr. Van Busche Taylor. “Great art is always decorative.”
Their eyes rested on a nude woman suckling a baby, while a girl was kneeling by their side holding out a flower to the indifferent child. Looking over them was a wrinkled, scraggy hag. It was Strickland’s version of the Holy Family. I suspected that for the figures had sat his household above Taravao, and the woman and the baby were Ata and his first son. I asked myself if Mrs. Strickland had any inkling of the facts.
The conversation proceeded, and I marvelled at the tact with which Mr. Van Busche Taylor avoided all subjects that might have been in the least embarrassing, and at the ingenuity with which Mrs. Strickland, without saying a word that was untrue, insinuated that her relations with her husband had always been perfect. At last Mr. Van Busche Taylor rose to go. Holding his hostess’ hand, he made her a graceful, though perhaps too elaborate, speech of thanks, and left us.
“I hope he didn’t bore you,” she said, when the door closed behind him. “Of course it’s a nuisance sometimes, but I feel it’s only right to give people any information I can about Charlie. There’s a certain responsibility about having been the wife of a genius.”
She looked at me with those pleasant eyes of hers, which had remained as candid and as sympathetic as they had been more than twenty years before. I wondered if she was making a fool of me.
“Of course you’ve given up your business,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” she answered airily. “I ran it more by way of a hobby than for any other reason, and my children persuaded me to sell it. They thought I was overtaxing my strength.”
I saw that Mrs. Strickland had forgotten that she had ever done anything so disgraceful as to work for her living. She had the true instinct of the nice woman that it is only really decent for her to live on other people’s money.
“They’re here now,” she said. “I thought they’d, like to hear what you had to say about their father. You remember Robert, don’t you? I’m glad to say he’s been recommended for the Military Cross.”
She went to the door and called them. There entered a tall man in khaki, with the parson’s collar, handsome in a somewhat heavy fashion, but with the frank eyes that I remembered in him as a boy. He was followed by his sister. She must have been the same age as was her mother when first I knew her, and she was very like her. She too gave one the impression that as a girl she must have been prettier than indeed she was.
“I suppose you don’t remember them in the least,” said Mrs. Strickland, proud and smiling. “My daughter is now Mrs. Ronaldson. Her husband’s a Major in the Gunners.”
“He’s by way of being a pukka soldier, you know,” said Mrs. Ronaldson gaily. “That’s why he’s only a Major.”
I remembered my anticipation long ago that she would marry a soldier. It was inevitable. She had all the graces of the soldier’s wife. She was civil and affable, but she could hardly conceal her intimate conviction that she was not quite as others were. Robert was breezy.
“It’s a bit of luck that I should be in London when you turned up,” he said. “I’ve only got three days’ leave.”
“He’s dying to get back,” said his mother.
“Well, I don’t mind confessing it, I have a rattling good time at the front. I’ve made a lot of good pals. It’s a first-rate life. Of course war’s terrible, and all that sort of thing; but it does bring out the best qualities in a man, there’s no denying that.”
Then I told them what I had learned about Charles Strickland in Tahiti. I thought it unnecessary to say anything of Ata and her boy, but for the rest I was as accurate as I could be. When I had narrated his lamentable death I ceased. For a minute or two we were all silent. Then Robert Strickland struck a match and lit a cigarette.
“The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small,” he said, somewhat impressively.
Mrs. Strickland and Mrs. Ronaldson looked down with a slightly pious expression which indicated, I felt sure, that they thought the quotation was from Holy Writ. Indeed, I was unconvinced that Robert Strickland did not share their illusion. I do not know why I suddenly thought of Strickland’s son by Ata. They had told me he was a merry, light-hearted youth. I saw him, with my mind’s eye, on the schooner on which he worked, wearing nothing but a pair of dungarees; and at night, when the boat sailed along easily before a light breeze, and the sailors were gathered on the upper deck, while the captain and the supercargo lolled in deck-chairs, smoking their pipes, I saw him dance with another lad, dance wildly, to the wheezy music of the concertina. Above was the blue sky, and the stars, and all about the desert of the Pacific Ocean.
A quotation from the Bible came to my lips, but I held my tongue, for I know that clergymen think it a little blasphemous when the laity poach upon their preserves. My Uncle Henry, for twenty-seven years Vicar of Whitstable, was on these occasions in the habit of saying that the devil could always quote scripture to his purpose. He remembered the days when you could get thirteen Royal Natives for a shilling.