“The Moon And Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham. Chapter XXII-XXIII-XXIV.
I settled down in Paris and began to write a play. I led a very regular life, working in the morning, and in the afternoon lounging about the gardens of the Luxembourg or sauntering through the streets. I spent long hours in the Louvre, the most friendly of all galleries and the most convenient for meditation; or idled on the quays, fingering second-hand books that I never meant to buy. I read a page here and there, and made acquaintance with a great many authors whom I was content to know thus desultorily. In the evenings I went to see my friends. I looked in often on the Stroeves, and sometimes shared their modest fare. Dirk Stroeve flattered himself on his skill in cooking Italian dishes, and I confess that his spaghetti were very much better than his pictures. It was a dinner for a King when he brought in a huge dish of it, succulent with tomatoes, and we ate it together with the good household bread and a bottle of red wine. I grew more intimate with Blanche Stroeve, and I think, because I was English and she knew few English people, she was glad to see me. She was pleasant and simple, but she remained always rather silent, and I knew not why, gave me the impression that she was concealing something. But I thought that was perhaps no more than a natural reserve accentuated by the verbose frankness of her husband. Dirk never concealed anything. He discussed the most intimate matters with a complete lack of self-consciousness. Sometimes he embarrassed his wife, and the only time I saw her put out of countenance was 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 his misfortunes convulsed me with laughter, and this added to Mrs. Stroeve’s irritation.
“You seem to like making a fool of yourself,” she said.
His round eyes grew rounder still, and his brow puckered in dismay 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, tears of 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 Stroeve thought he could show me at least two or three of Strickland’s pictures, but when we arrived were told that Strickland himself had taken them away. The dealer did not know why.
“But don’t imagine to yourself that I make myself bad blood on that account. I took them to oblige Monsieur Stroeve, and I said I would sell them if I could. But really –” He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m interested in the young men, but voyons, you yourself, Monsieur Stroeve, you don’t think there’s any talent there.”
“I give you my word of honour, there’s no one painting to-day in whose talent I am more convinced. Take my word for it, you are missing a good affair. Some day those pictures will be worth 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 who couldn’t sell their pictures at that time, and their pictures are worth nothing still. How can one tell? Is merit enough to bring success? Don’t believe it. Du reste, it has still to be proved that this friend of yours has merit. No one claims it for him but Monsieur Stroeve.”
“And how, then, will you recognise merit?” asked Dirk, red in the 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 played chess with him. He was of uncertain temper. Sometimes he would sit silent and abstracted, taking no notice of anyone; and at others, when he was in a good humour, he would talk in his own halting way. He never said a clever thing, but he had a vein of brutal sarcasm which was not ineffective, and he always said exactly what he thought. He was indifferent to the susceptibilities of others, and when he wounded them was amused. He was constantly offending Dirk Stroeve so bitterly that he flung away, vowing he would never speak to him again; but there was a solid force in Strickland that attracted the fat Dutchman against his will, so that he came back, fawning like a clumsy dog, though he knew that his only greeting would be the blow he dreaded.
I do not know why Strickland put up with me. Our relations were 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 in his eyes.
“You’re so simple. You recognise no obligations. No one is under any obligation to you.”
“Wouldn’t it make you uncomfortable if I went and hanged myself because I’d been turned out of my room as I couldn’t pay the rent?”
“Not a bit.”
“You’re bragging. If I really did you’d be overwhelmed with remorse.”
“Try it, and we’ll see,” I retorted.
A smile flickered in his eyes, and he stirred his absinthe in silence.
“Would you like to play chess?” I asked.
“I don’t mind.”
We set up the pieces, and when the board was ready he considered it with a comfortable eye. There is a sense of satisfaction 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 that ingenuous 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 it was 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 one evening, 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 a retired plumber for two hundred francs.”5
5 This picture, formerly in the possession of a wealthy manufacturer at Lille, who fled from that city on the approach of the Germans, is now in the National Gallery at Stockholm. The Swede is adept at the gentle pastime of fishing in troubled waters.
“How did you manage that?”
“The woman where I get my bread recommended me. He’d told her he was looking out for someone to paint him. I’ve got to give her 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 long hairs growing out of it.”
Strickland was in a good humour, and when Dirk Stroeve came up and sat down with us he attacked him with ferocious banter. He showed a skill I should never have credited him with in finding the places where the unhappy Dutchman was most sensitive. Strickland employed not the rapier of sarcasm but the bludgeon of invective. The attack was so unprovoked that Stroeve, taken unawares, was defenceless. He reminded you of a 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 most sincere emotions are ridiculous.
But after all when I look back upon that winter in Paris, my pleasantest recollection is of Dirk Stroeve. There was something very charming in his little household. He and his wife made a picture which the imagination gratefully dwelt upon, and the simplicity of his love for her had a deliberate grace. He remained absurd, but the sincerity of his passion excited one’s sympathy. I could understand how his wife must feel for him, and I was glad that her affection was so tender. If she had any sense of humour, it must amuse her that he should place her on a pedestal and worship her with such an honest idolatry, but even while she laughed she must have been pleased and touched. He was the constant lover, and though she grew old, losing her rounded lines and her fair comeliness, 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 painted bad pictures, she went marketing, cooked the luncheon, sewed, occupied herself like a busy ant all the day; and in the evening sat in the studio, sewing again, while Dirk played music which I am sure was far beyond her comprehension. He played with taste, but with more feeling than was always justified, and into his music poured all his honest, sentimental, exuberant soul.
Their life in its own way was an idyl, and it managed to achieve a singular beauty. The absurdity that clung to everything 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 spend the holiday with him. He had a characteristic sentimentality about the day and wanted to pass it among his friends with suitable ceremonies. Neither of us had seen Strickland for two or three weeks -I because I had been busy with friends who were spending a little while in Paris, and Stroeve because, 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 hated the thought of Strickland spending Christmas Day by himself; he ascribed his own emotions to him, and could not bear that on an occasion given up to good-fellowship the lonely painter should be abandoned to his own melancholy. Stroeve had set up a Christmas-tree in his studio, and I suspected that we should both find absurd little presents hanging on its festive branches; but he was shy about seeing Strickland again; it was a little humiliating to forgive so easily insults so outrageous, and he wished me to be present at the reconciliation on which he was determined.
We walked together down the Avenue de Clichy, but Strickland was not in the cafe. It was too cold to sit outside, and we took our places on leather benches within. It was hot and stuffy, and the air was gray with smoke. Strickland did not come, but presently we saw the French painter who occasionally played chess with him. I had formed a casual acquaintance with him, and he sat down at our table. Stroeve asked him if he 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 quarrel with him. We must go to him at once. He can have no one to look 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 hunt vaguely about Paris. We must first think of some plan.
“Yes; but all this time he may be dying, and when we get there it 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, but Strickland had long left that, and they would have no recollection of him. With that queer idea of his to keep his whereabouts secret, it was unlikely that, on leaving, he had said where he was going. Besides, it was more than five years ago. I felt pretty sure that he had not moved far. If he continued to frequent the same cafe as when he had stayed at the hotel, it was probably because it was the most convenient. Suddenly I remembered that he had got his commission to paint a 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 were five in the immediate neighbourhood, and the only thing was to go to all of them. Stroeve accompanied me unwillingly. His own plan was to run up and down the streets that led out of the Avenue de Clichy and ask at every house if Strickland lived there. My commonplace scheme was, after all, effective, for in the second shop we asked at the woman behind the counter acknowledged that she knew him. She was not certain where he lived, but it was in one of the three houses opposite. Luck favoured us, and in the first we tried the concierge 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. “En effet, I have not seen him for several days.”
Stroeve ran up the stairs ahead of me, and when I reached the top floor I found him talking to a workman in his shirt-sleeves who had opened a door at which Stroeve had knocked. He pointed to another door. He believed that the person who lived there was a painter. He had not seen him for a week. Stroeve made as though he were about to knock, and then turned to me with a 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, and found the door unlocked. I walked in, and Stroeve followed me. The room was in darkness. I could only see that it was an attic, with a sloping roof; and a faint glimmer, no more than a less profound obscurity, came from a skylight.
“Strickland,” I called.
There was no answer. It was really rather mysterious, and it seemed to me that Stroeve, standing just behind, was trembling in his shoes. For a moment I hesitated to strike a light. I dimly perceived a bed in the corner, and I wondered whether the 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 a rapid glimpse of a tiny apartment, half room, half studio, in which was nothing but a bed, canvases with their faces to the wall, an easel, a table, and a chair. There was no carpet on the floor. There was no fireplace. On the table, crowded with paints, palette-knives, and litter of all kinds, was the end of a candle. I lit it. Strickland was lying in the bed, uncomfortably because it was too small for him, and he had put all his clothes over him for warmth. It was obvious at a glance that he was in a high fever. Stroeve, his voice cracking with emotion, went up to him.
“Oh, my poor friend, what is the matter with you? I had no idea you were ill. Why didn’t you let me know? You must know I’d have done anything in the world for you. Were you thinking 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 to arrange 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 some milk,” he said at last. “I haven’t been able to get out for two 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 had nothing 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 an outstretched arm.
“I’ll go immediately,” said Stroeve. “Is there anything you fancy?”
I suggested that he should get a thermometer, and a few grapes, 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 asked him one or two questions, but he would not answer, and when I pressed 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 brought candles, and meat-juice, and a spirit-lamp. He was a practical little fellow, and without delay set about making bread-and-milk. I took Strickland’s temperature. It was a hundred and four. He was obviously very ill.