“The Moon And Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham. Chapter XL-XLI-XLII.
For the next month, occupied with my own affairs, I saw no one connected with this lamentable business, and my mind ceased to be occupied with it. But one day, when I was walking along, bent on some errand, I passed Charles Strickland. The sight of him brought back to me all the horror which I was not unwilling to forget, and I felt in me a sudden repulsion for the cause of it. Nodding, for it would have been childish to cut him, I walked on quickly; but in a minute I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“You’re in a great hurry,” he said cordially.
It was characteristic of him to display geniality with anyone who showed a disinclination to meet him, and the coolness of my 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 to feel 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 reflected that 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 a minute came out into the street.
“Did you get what you wanted?” he asked.
We walked on in silence, and then came to a place where several 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 I don’t want your company.”
“I vaguely suspected it, I confess.”
I could not help a chuckle. It is one of the defects of my character 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 beast that it’s ever been my misfortune to meet. Why do you seek the society of someone who hates and despises you?”
“My dear fellow, what the hell do you suppose I care what you think of me?”
“Damn it all,” I said, more violently because I had an inkling my 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 he was 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 of borrowing 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 the opportunity to get off a good thing now and then.”
I had to bite my lip to prevent myself from laughing. What he said had a hateful truth in it, and another defect of my character is that I enjoy the company of those, however depraved, who can give me a Roland for my Oliver. I began to feel that my abhorrence for Strickland could only be sustained by an effort on my part. I recognised my moral weakness, but saw that my disapprobation had in it already something of a pose; and I knew that if I felt it, his own keen instinct had discovered it, too. He was certainly laughing at me up his sleeve. I left him the last word, and sought refuge in a shrug of the shoulders and taciturnity.
We arrived at the house in which I lived. I would not ask him to come in with me, but walked up the stairs without a word. He followed me, and entered the apartment on my heels. He had not been in it before, but he never gave a glance at the room I had been at pains to make pleasing to the eye. There was a tin of tobacco on the table, and, taking out his pipe, he filled it. He sat down on the only chair that had no arms and tilted himself on the back legs.
“If you’re going to make yourself at home, why don’t you sit in 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 me uncomfortable 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 in thought. I wondered why he had come.
Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognises in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which is an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilised world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of the subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. 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 he regarded the tragedy he had caused in the lives of people who had used him with so much kindness. I applied the scalpel boldly.
“Stroeve told me that picture you painted of his wife was the best thing you’ve ever done.”
Strickland took his pipe out of his mouth, and a smile lit up his 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 of his 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 not inclined to mince my words.
“As a mere matter of curiosity I wish you’d tell me, have you felt the smallest twinge of remorse for Blanche Stroeve’s death?”
I watched his face for some change of expression, but it remained impassive.
“Why should I?” he asked.
“Let me put the facts before you. You were dying, and Dirk Stroeve 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 to go out of your way to take his wife from him? Until you came on 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 ever have 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, and the son of the house seduced her. She thought he was going to marry 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 so compassionate a heart.”
I had often wondered why that ill-assorted pair had married, but just that explanation had never occurred to me. That was perhaps the cause of the peculiar quality of Dirk’s love for his wife. I had noticed in it something more than passion. I remembered also how I had always fancied that her reserve concealed I knew not what; but now I saw in it more than the desire to hide a shameful secret. Her tranquillity was like the sullen calm that broods over an island which has been swept by a hurricane. Her cheerfulness was the cheerfulness of despair. Strickland interrupted my reflections with an observation 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 on her account.”
“It must be reassuring to you to know that you certainly run no risk of incurring the resentment of the women you come in contact with,” I retorted.
A slight smile broke on his lips.
“You are always prepared to sacrifice your principles for a repartee,” 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 the sight 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 with a 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 that extraordinarily suggested the violence of his desire. It was disconcerting and rather horrible. His life was strangely divorced from material things, and it was as though his body at times wreaked a fearful revenge on his spirit. The satyr in him suddenly took possession, and he was powerless in the grip of an instinct which had all the strength of the primitive forces of nature. It was an obsession so complete that 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 was coming I was nearly as surprised as Stroeve. I told her that when I’d had enough of her she’d have to go, and she said she’d risk that.” He paused a little. “She had a wonderful body, and I wanted to paint a nude. When I’d finished my picture 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 satisfied my passion I’m ready for other things. I can’t overcome my desire, but I hate it; it imprisons my spirit; I look forward to the time when I shall be free from all desire and can give myself without hindrance to my work. Because women can do nothing except love, they’ve given it a ridiculous importance. They want to persuade us that it’s the whole of life. It’s an insignificant 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 nor elsewhere do I pretend to give his exact words; his vocabulary was small, and he had no gift for framing sentences, so that one 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 and men 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 like a caged beast, intent on expressing what he felt, but found such difficulty in putting coherently.
“When a woman loves you she’s not satisfied until she possesses your soul. Because she’s weak, she has a rage for domination, and nothing less will satisfy her. She has a small mind, and she resents the abstract which she is unable to grasp. She is occupied with material things, and she is jealous of the ideal. The soul of man wanders through the uttermost regions of the universe, and she seeks to imprison it 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 nothing for me, she only wanted me to be hers. She was willing to do everything 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 you about these things as to describe colours to a man who was born blind.”
He stopped in front of my chair, and stood looking down at me with an expression in which I read a contemptuous amazement.
“Do you really care a twopenny damn if Blanche Stroeve is alive or dead?”
I thought over his question, for I wanted to answer it truthfully, at all events to my soul.
“It may be a lack of sympathy in myself if it does not make any great difference to me that she is dead. Life had a great deal to offer her. I think it’s terrible that she should have been deprived of it in that cruel way, and I am ashamed because I do not really care.”
“You have not the courage of your convictions. Life has no value. Blanche Stroeve didn’t commit suicide because I left her, but because she was a foolish and unbalanced woman. But we’ve talked about her quite enough; she was an entirely unimportant person. Come, and I’ll show you my pictures.”
He spoke as though I were a child that needed to be distracted. I was sore, but not with him so much as with myself. I thought of the happy life that pair had led in the cosy studio in Montmartre, Stroeve and his wife, their simplicity, kindness, and hospitality; it seemed to me cruel that it should have been broken to pieces by a ruthless chance; but the cruellest thing of all was that in fact it made no great difference. The world went on, and no one was a penny the worse for all that wretchedness. I had an idea that Dirk, a man of greater emotional reactions than depth of feeling, would soon forget; and Blanche’s life, begun with who knows what bright hopes and what dreams, might just as well have 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 know that I hate and despise you.”
He chuckled good-humouredly.
“Your only quarrel with me really is that I don’t care a twopenny damn what you think about me.”
I felt my cheeks grow red with sudden anger. It was impossible to make him understand that one might be outraged by his callous selfishness. I longed to pierce his armour of complete indifference. I knew also that in the end there was truth in what he said. Unconsciously, perhaps, we treasure the power we have over people by their regard for our opinion of them, and we hate those upon whom we have no such influence. I suppose it is the bitterest wound to human pride. 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 on others for everything in existence. It’s a preposterous attempt to try to live only for yourself and by yourself. Sooner or later you’ll be ill and tired and old, and then you’ll crawl back into the herd. Won’t you be ashamed when you feel in your heart the desire for comfort and sympathy? You’re trying an impossible thing. Sooner or later the human being 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 a mocking smile in his eyes; but for all that, for a moment I had an inkling of a fiery, tortured spirit, aiming at something greater than could be conceived by anything that was bound up with the flesh. I had a fleeting glimpse of a pursuit of the ineffable. I looked at the man before me in his shabby clothes, with his great nose and shining eyes, his red beard and untidy hair; and I had a strange sensation that it was only an envelope, and I was in the presence of a disembodied spirit.
“Let us go and look at your pictures,” I said.
I did not know why Strickland had suddenly offered to show them to me. I welcomed the opportunity. A man’s work reveals him. In social intercourse he gives you the surface that he wishes the world to accept, and you can only gain a true knowledge of him by inferences from little actions, of which he is unconscious, and from fleeting expressions, which cross his face unknown to him. Sometimes people carry to such perfection the mask they have assumed that in due course they actually become the person they seem. But in his book or his picture the real man delivers himself defenceless. His pretentiousness will only expose his vacuity. The lathe painted 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 work without disclosing the innermost secrets of his soul.
As I walked up the endless stairs of the house in which Strickland lived, I confess that I was a little excited. It seemed to me that I was on the threshold of a surprising adventure. I looked about the room with curiosity. It was even smaller and more bare than I remembered it. I wondered what those friends of mine would say who demanded vast studios, and vowed they could not work unless all the conditions were to their liking.
“You’d better stand there,” he said, pointing to a spot from which, presumably, he fancied I could see to best advantage what 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 a minute or two; then took it down and put another in its place. I think he showed me about thirty canvases. It was the result of the six years during which he had been painting. He had never sold a picture. The canvases were of different sizes. The smaller were pictures of still-life and the largest were landscapes. 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 and their great originality. Now that I have seen many of them again and the rest are familiar to me in reproductions, I am astonished that at first sight I was bitterly disappointed. I felt nothing of the peculiar thrill which it is the property of art to give. The impression that Strickland’s pictures gave me was disconcerting; and the fact remains, always to reproach me, that I never even thought of buying any. I missed a wonderful chance. Most of them have found their way into museums, and the rest are the treasured possessions of wealthy amateurs. I try to find excuses for myself. I think that my taste is good, but I am conscious that it has no originality. I know very little about painting, and I wander along trails that others have blazed for me. At that time I had the greatest admiration for the impressionists. I longed to possess a Sisley and a Degas, and I worshipped Manet. His Olympia seemed to me the greatest picture of modern times, and 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. Now that his influence has so enormously affected modern painting, now that others have charted the country which he was among the first to explore, Strickland’s pictures, seen for the first time, would find the mind more prepared for them; but it must be remembered that I had never seen anything of the sort. First of all I was taken aback by what seemed to me the clumsiness of his technique. Accustomed to the drawing of the old masters, and convinced that Ingres was the greatest draughtsman of recent times, I thought that Strickland drew very badly. I knew nothing of the simplification at which he aimed. I remember a still-life of oranges on a plate, and I was bothered because the plate was not round and the oranges were lop-sided. The portraits were a little larger than life-size, and this gave them an ungainly look. To my eyes the faces looked like caricatures. They were painted in a way that was entirely new to me. The landscapes puzzled me even more. There were two or three pictures of the forest at Fontainebleau and several of streets in Paris: my first feeling was that they might have been painted by a drunken cabdriver. I was perfectly bewildered. The colour seemed to me extraordinarily crude. It passed through my mind that the whole thing was a stupendous, incomprehensible farce. Now that I look back I am more than ever impressed by Stroeve’s acuteness. He saw from the first that here was a revolution in art, and he recognised in its beginnings the genius 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 that here, trying to express itself, was real power. I was excited and interested. I felt that these pictures had something to say to me that was very important for me to know, but I could not tell what it was. They seemed to me ugly, but they suggested without disclosing a secret of momentous significance. They were strangely tantalising. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyse. They said something that words were powerless to utter. I fancy that Strickland saw vaguely some spiritual meaning in material things that was so strange that he could only suggest it with halting symbols. It was as though he found in the chaos of the universe a new pattern, and were attempting clumsily, with anguish of soul, to set it down. I saw a tormented spirit striving for the release 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 know what it is, but I’m not sure that the best way of saying it is by means of painting.”
When I imagined that on seeing his pictures I should get a clue to the understanding of his strange character I was mistaken. They merely increased the astonishment with which he filled me. I was more at sea than ever. The only thing that seemed clear to me -and perhaps even this was fanciful -was that he was passionately striving for liberation from some power that held him. But what the power was and what line the liberation would take remained obscure. Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house.
The final impression I received was of a prodigious effort to express 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 significance for Strickland that was peculiar to himself. He was under an intolerable necessity to convey something that he felt, and he created them with that intention alone. He did not hesitate to simplify or to distort if he could get nearer to that unknown thing he sought. Facts were nothing to him, for beneath the mass of irrelevant incidents he looked for something significant to himself. It was as though he had become aware of the soul of the universe and were compelled to express it.
Though these pictures confused and puzzled me, I could not be unmoved by the emotion that was patent in them; and, I knew not why, I felt in myself a feeling that with regard to Strickland 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 for Blanche Stroeve,” I said to him.
“I think your courage failed. The weakness of your body communicated itself to your soul. I do not know what infinite yearning possesses you, so that you are driven to a perilous, lonely search for some goal where you expect to find a final release from the spirit that torments you. I see you as the eternal pilgrim to some shrine that perhaps does not exist. I do not know to what inscrutable Nirvana you aim. Do you know yourself? Perhaps it is Truth and Freedom that you seek, and for a moment you thought that you might find release in Love. I think your tired soul sought rest in a woman’s arms, and when you found no rest there you hated her. You had no pity for her, because you have no pity for yourself. And you killed her out of fear, because you trembled still at the danger 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 to Marseilles. I never saw him again.