“The Moon And Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham. Chapter X-XI-XII.
A day or two later Mrs. Strickland sent me round a note asking if I could go and see her that evening after dinner. I found her alone. Her black dress, simple to austerity, suggested her bereaved condition, and I was innocently astonished that notwithstanding a real emotion she was able to dress the part she had to play according to her notions of seemliness.
“You said that if I wanted you to do anything you wouldn’t mind 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’m sure 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’t know 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; he didn’t understand soldiers. Fred would fly into a passion, and there’d be a quarrel, and things would be worse instead of better. If you said you came on my behalf, he couldn’t refuse to listen to you.”
“I haven’t known you very long,” I answered. “I don’t see how anyone can be expected to tackle a case like this unless he knows all the details. I don’t want to pry into what doesn’t concern 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 Strickland and 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 learn the advantage of minding your own business. If you will be so good as to turn your head slightly to the left, you will see the door. I wish you good-afternoon.”
I foresaw that it would be difficult to make my exit with dignity, and I wished to goodness that I had not returned to London 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 married seventeen years. I sever dreamed that Charlie was the sort of man to get infatuated with anyone. We always got on very well together. Of course, I had a great many interests that he didn’t share.”
“Have you found out who” -I did not quite know how to express myself -“who the person, who it is he’s gone away with?”
“No. No one seems to have an idea. It’s so strange. Generally when a man falls in love with someone people see them about together, lunching or something, and her friends always come and tell the wife. I had no warning -nothing. His letter came like a thunderbolt. I thought he was perfectly 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, drying her eyes. “The only thing is to decide what is the best thing to do.”
She went on, talking somewhat at random, now of the recent past, then of their first meeting and their marriage; but presently I began to form a fairly coherent picture of their lives; and it seemed to me that my surmises had not been incorrect. Mrs. Strickland was the daughter of an Indian civilian, who on his retirement had settled in the depths of the country, but it was his habit every August to take his family 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 front together, listened together to the nigger minstrels; and she had made up her mind to accept him a week before he proposed to her. They lived in London, first in Hampstead, and then, as he grew more prosperous, in town. Two children were born to 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 so incredible. 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 think you will find everything all right in the flat. I have given Anne your instructions, and dinner will be ready for you and the children when you come. I shall not be there to 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 this letter on my arrival. I shall not come back. My decision is irrevocable. Yours always, CHARLES STRICKLAND.
“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 been going on a long time.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Fred found that out. My husband said he went to the club three or four nights a week to play bridge. Fred knows one of the members, and said something about Charles being a great bridge-player. The man was surprised. He said he’d never even seen Charles in the card-room. It’s quite clear now that when 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 only came 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 been called away on business.”
It could not have been very easy to be bright and careless with that sudden secret in her heart, nor to give her attention to all the things that needed doing to get her children comfortably packed off. Mrs. Strickland’s voice broke again.
“And what is to happen to them, poor darlings? How are we going to live?”
She struggled for self-control, and I saw her hands clench and unclench 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 your mind 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 I thought it was due to a very natural jealousy rather than to maternal solicitude.
“Are you in love with him still?”
“I don’t know. I want him to come back. If he’ll do that we’ll let bygones be bygones. After all, we’ve been married for seventeen years. I’m a broadminded woman. I wouldn’t have minded what he did as long as I knew nothing about it. He must know that his infatuation won’t last. If he’ll come back now everything can be smoothed over, and no one will know anything about it.”
It chilled me a little that Mrs. Strickland should be concerned with gossip, for I did not know then how great a part is played in women’s life by the opinion of others. It throws a shadow of insincerity over their most deeply felt emotions.
It was known where Strickland was staying. His partner, in a violent letter, sent to his bank, had taunted him with hiding his whereabouts: and Strickland, in a cynical and humourous reply, had told his partner exactly where to find him. He was apparently living in an Hotel.
“I’ve never heard of it,” said Mrs. Strickland. “But Fred knows it well. He says it’s very expensive.”
She flushed darkly. I imagined that she saw her husband installed in a luxurious suite of rooms, dining at one smart restaurant after another, and she pictured his days spent at race-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’s horrible in a man of his years, with children who are nearly grown 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 just the same, and yet everything is different. I can’t live without him. I’d sooner kill myself. Talk to him about the past, and all we’ve gone through together. What am I to say to the children when they ask for him? His room is exactly as it was when he left it. It’s waiting for him. We’re all waiting for him.”
Now she told me exactly what I should say. She gave me elaborate 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 every means in my power. She was weeping freely. I was extraordinarily touched. I felt indignant at Strickland’s cold 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 to stay in Paris till I had achieved something. Then, as it was growing 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’s distress I could consider the matter more calmly. I was puzzled by the contradictions that I saw in her behaviour. She was very unhappy, but to excite my sympathy she was able to make a show of her unhappiness. It was evident that she had been prepared to weep, for she had provided herself with a sufficiency of handkerchiefs; I admired her forethought, but in retrospect it made her tears perhaps less moving. I could not decide whether she desired the return of her husband because she loved him, or because she dreaded the tongue of scandal; and I was perturbed by the suspicion that the anguish of love contemned was alloyed in her broken heart with the pangs, sordid to my young mind, of wounded vanity. I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, nor how much goodness in the reprobate.
But there was something of an adventure in my trip, and my spirits rose as I approached Paris. I saw myself, too, from the dramatic standpoint, and I was pleased with my role of the trusted friend bringing back the errant husband to his forgiving wife. I made up my mind to see Strickland the following evening, for I felt instinctively that the hour must be chosen with delicacy. An appeal to the emotions is little likely to be effectual before luncheon. My own thoughts were then constantly occupied with love, but I never could imagine connubial bliss till after tea.
I enquired at my hotel for that in which Charles Strickland was living. It was called the Hotel des Belges. But the concierge, somewhat to my surprise, had never heard of it. I had understood from Mrs. Strickland that it was a large and sumptuous place at the back of the Rue de Rivoli. We looked it out in the directory. The only hotel of that name was in the Rue des Moines. The quarter was not fashionable; it was not even respectable. I shook my head.
“I’m sure that’s not it,” I said.
The concierge shrugged his shoulders. There was no other hotel of that name in Paris. It occurred to me that Strickland had concealed his address, after all. In giving his 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 appeal to Strickland’s sense of humour to bring a furious stockbroker over to Paris on a fool’s errand to an ill-famed house in a mean 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 the hotel and look at it before I went in. It was a street of small shops subservient to the needs of poor people, and about the middle of it, on the left as I walked down, was the Hotel des Belges. My own hotel was modest enough, but it was magnificent in comparison with this. It was a tall, shabby building, that cannot have been painted for years, and it had so bedraggled an air that the houses on each side of it looked neat and clean. The dirty windows were all shut. It was not here that Charles Strickland lived in guilty splendour with the 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 in only 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 just within was a sign: Bureau au premier. I walked up narrow stairs, and on the landing found a sort of box, glassed in, within which were a desk and a couple of chairs. There was a bench outside, on which it might be presumed the night porter passed uneasy nights. There was no one about, but under an electric bell was written Garcon. I rang, and presently a waiter appeared. He was a young man with furtive eyes and a sullen 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 bureau.
“He hasn’t left his key. Go up and you’ll see.”
I thought it as well to put one more question.
“Madame est la?”
“Monsieur est seul.”
The waiter looked at me suspiciously as I made my way upstairs. They were dark and airless. There was a foul and musty smell. Three flights up a Woman in a dressing-gown, with touzled hair, opened a door and looked at me silently as I passed. At length I reached the sixth floor, and knocked at the door numbered thirty-two. There was a sound within, and the 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 you last July.”
“Come in,” he said cheerily. “I’m delighted to see you. Take a pew.”
I entered. It was a very small room, overcrowded with furniture of the style which the French know as Louis Philippe. There was a large wooden bedstead on which was a billowing red eiderdown, and there was a large wardrobe, a round table, a very small washstand, and two stuffed chairs covered with red rep. Everything was dirty and shabby. There was no sign of the abandoned luxury that Colonel MacAndrew had so confidently described. Strickland threw on the floor the clothes 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 for several 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 would take 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 question very 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 to the 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 his desperate plunge. We walked to the Avenue de Clichy, and sat down at one of the tables on the pavement of a large cafe.
The Avenue de Clichy was crowded at that hour, and a lively fancy might see in the passers-by the personages of many a sordid romance. There were clerks and shopgirls; old fellows who might have stepped out of the pages of Honore de Balzac; members, male and female, of the professions which make their profit of the frailties of mankind. There is in the streets of the poorer quarters of Paris a thronging vitality which excites 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 water over 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 along sooner 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 not quite know now how to set about my mission. The eloquent phrases I had arranged, pathetic or indignant, seemed out of place 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 a jolly 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 he made this reply. It disconcerted me, but I did my best not to show it. I adopted the tone used by my Uncle Henry, a clergyman, when he was asking one of his relatives for a subscription 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 fault to find with her?”
I glanced at him with surprise. His cordial agreement with all I said cut the ground from under my feet. It made my position complicated, not to say ludicrous. I was prepared to be persuasive, touching, and hortatory, admonitory and expostulating, if need be vituperative even, indignant and sarcastic; but what the devil does a mentor do when the sinner makes 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 more to 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 she support 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 his marriage, and of much else; but I felt that there was only one point 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 cheerful effrontery 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 be brought 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 more than the majority of children have. Besides, somebody will look after them. When it comes to the point, the MacAndrews will 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 do with them?”
“I liked them all right when they were kids, but now they’re growing 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 and despise you?”
His brief answer was so scornful that it made my question, natural though it was, seem absurd. I reflected for a minute or two.
“I wonder if one can live quite comfortably when one’s conscious of the disapproval of one’s fellows? Are you sure it won’t begin to worry you? Everyone has some sort of a conscience, 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 to speak. 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 and children,” I retorted, somewhat piqued. “I suppose the law has 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 his hotel 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 smile which made all I said seem rather foolish. I paused for a little while to consider what I had better say next. But it was he who spoke first.
“Why doesn’t Amy marry again? She’s comparatively young, and she’s not unattractive. I can recommend her as an excellent wife. If she wants to divorce me I don’t mind giving her the necessary grounds.”
Now it was my turn to smile. He was very cunning, but it was evidently this that he was aiming at. He had some reason to conceal the fact that he had run away with a woman, and he was using every precaution to hide her whereabouts. I answered with decision.
“Your wife says that nothing you can do will ever induce her to divorce you. She’s quite made up her mind. You can put any possibility of that definitely out of your head.”
He looked at me with an astonishment that was certainly not feigned. The smile abandoned his lips, and he spoke quite seriously.
“But, my dear fellow, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter a twopenny 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 shout of laughter. He laughed so uproariously that people sitting near 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’ve done 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 very young, and I looked upon him as a middle-aged man. I forgot everything 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 my father made me go into business because he said there was no money in art. I began to paint a bit a year ago. For the last year I’ve been going to some classes at night.”
“Was that where you went when Mrs. Strickland thought you were playing 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 he starts 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 the passing throng, but I do not think he saw it. His answer was no 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 whose youth was past, a stockbroker with a position of respectability, a wife and two children. A course that would have been natural for me was absurd for him. I wished to be quite fair.
“Of course a miracle may happen, and you may be a great painter, but you must confess the chances are a million to one against it. It’ll be an awful sell if at the end you have to acknowledge you’ve made a hash of it.”
“I’ve got to paint,” he repeated.
“Supposing you’re never anything more than third-rate, do you think it will have been worth while to give up everything? After all, in any other walk in life it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good; you can get along quite comfortably if you’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 a man 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 I was impressed. I seemed to feel in him some vehement power that was struggling within him; it gave me the sensation of something very strong, overmastering, that held him, as it were, against his will. I could not understand. He seemed really to be possessed of a devil, and I felt that it might suddenly turn and rend him. Yet he looked ordinary enough. My eyes, resting on him curiously, caused him no embarrassment. I wondered what a stranger would have taken him to be, sitting there in his old Norfolk jacket and his unbrushed bowler; his trousers were baggy, his hands were not clean; and his face, with the red stubble of the unshaved chin, the little eyes, and the large, aggressive nose, was uncouth and coarse. His mouth was large, his lips were heavy and 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 my next 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.”