“The Moon And Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham. Chapter XXV-XXVI-XXVII.
Presently we left him. Dirk was going home to dinner, and I proposed to find a doctor and bring him to see Strickland; but when we got down into the street, fresh after the stuffy attic, the Dutchman begged me to go immediately to his studio. He had something in mind which he would not tell me, but he insisted that it was very necessary for me to accompany him. Since I did not think a doctor could at the moment do any more than we had done, I consented. We found Blanche Stroeve laying the table for dinner. Dirk went up to her, and took both her hands.
“Dear one, I want you to do something for me,” he said.
She looked at him with the grave cheerfulness which was one of her charms. His red face was shining with sweat, and he had a look of comic agitation, but there was in his round, surprised eyes an eager light.
“Strickland is very ill. He may be dying. He is alone in a filthy attic, and there is not a soul to look after him. I want you to let me bring him here.”
She withdrew her hands quickly, I had never seen her make so rapid a movement; and her cheeks flushed.
“Oh, my dear one, don’t refuse. I couldn’t bear to leave him where he is. I shouldn’t sleep a wink for thinking of him.”
“I have no objection to your nursing him.”
Her voice was cold and distant.
“But he’ll die.”
Stroeve gave a little gasp. He wiped his face. He turned to me for support, but I did not know what to say.
“He’s a great artist.”
“What do I care? I hate him.”
“Oh, my love, my precious, you don’t mean that. I beseech you to let me bring him here. We can make him comfortable. Perhaps we can save him. He shall be no trouble to you. I will do everything. We’ll make him up a bed in the studio. We can’t let him die like a dog. It would be inhuman.”
“Why can’t he go to a hospital?”
“A hospital! He needs the care of loving hands. He must be treated with infinite tact.”
I was surprised to see how moved she was. She went on laying the table, but her hands trembled.
“I have no patience with you. Do you think if you were ill he would stir a finger to help you?”
“But what does that matter? I should have you to nurse me. It wouldn’t be necessary. And besides, I’m different; I’m not of any importance.”
“You have no more spirit than a mongrel cur. You lie down on the ground and ask people to trample on you.”
Stroeve gave a little laugh. He thought he understood the reason of his wife’s attitude.
“Oh, my poor dear, you’re thinking of that day he came here to look at my pictures. What does it matter if he didn’t think them any good? It was stupid of me to show them to him. I dare say they’re not very good.”
He looked round the studio ruefully. On the easel was a half-finished picture of a smiling Italian peasant, holding a bunch of grapes over the head of a dark-eyed girl.
“Even if he didn’t like them he should have been civil. He needn’t have insulted you. He showed that he despised you, and you lick his hand. Oh, I hate him.”
“Dear child, he has genius. You don’t think I believe that I have it. I wish I had; but I know it when I see it, and I honour it with all my heart. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. It’s a great burden to its possessors. We should be very tolerant with them, and very patient.”
I stood apart, somewhat embarrassed by the domestic scene, and wondered why Stroeve had insisted on my coming with him. I saw that his wife was on the verge of tears.
“But it’s not only because he’s a genius that I ask you to let me bring him here; it’s because he’s a human being, and he is ill and poor.”
“I will never have him in my house -never.”
Stroeve turned to me.
“Tell her that it’s a matter of life and death. It’s impossible to leave him in that wretched hole.”
“It’s quite obvious that it would be much easier to nurse him here,” I said, “but of course it would be very inconvenient. I have an idea that someone will have to be with him day and night.”
“My love, it’s not you who would shirk a little trouble.”
“If he comes here, I shall go,” said Mrs. Stroeve violently.
“I don’t recognize you. You’re so good and kind.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, let me be. You drive me to distraction.”
Then at last the tears came. She sank into a chair, and buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook convulsively. In a moment Dirk was on his knees beside her, with his arms round her, kissing her, calling her all sorts of pet names, and the facile tears ran down his own cheeks. Presently she released herself and dried her eyes.
“Leave me alone,” she said, not unkindly; and then to me, trying to smile: “What must you think of me?”
Stroeve, looking at her with perplexity, hesitated. His forehead was all puckered, and his red mouth set in a pout. He reminded me oddly of an agitated guinea-pig.
“Then it’s No, darling?” he said at last.
She gave a gesture of lassitude. She was exhausted.
“The studio is yours. Everything belongs to you. If you want to bring him here, how can I prevent you?”
A sudden smile flashed across his round face.
“Then you consent? I knew you would. Oh, my precious.”
Suddenly she pulled herself together. She looked at him with haggard eyes. She clasped her hands over her heart as though its beating were intolerable.
“Oh, Dirk, I’ve never since we met asked you to do anything for me.”
“You know there’s nothing in the world that I wouldn’t do for you.”
“I beg you not to let Strickland come here. Anyone else you like. Bring a thief, a drunkard, any outcast off the streets, and I promise you I’ll do everything I can for them gladly. But I beseech you not to bring Strickland here.”
“I’m frightened of him. I don’t know why, but there’s something in him that terrifies me. He’ll do us some great harm. I know it. I feel it. If you bring him here it can only end badly.”
“But how unreasonable!”
“No, no. I know I’m right. Something terrible will happen to us.”
“Because we do a good action?”
She was panting now, and in her face was a terror which was inexplicable. I do not know what she thought. I felt that she was possessed by some shapeless dread which robbed her of all self-control. As a rule she was so calm; her agitation now was amazing. Stroeve looked at her for a while with puzzled consternation.
“You are my wife; you are dearer to me than anyone in the world. No one shall come here without your entire consent.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, and I thought she was going to faint. I was a little impatient with her; I had not suspected that she was so neurotic a woman. Then I heard Stroeve’s voice again. It seemed to break oddly on the silence.
“Haven’t you been in bitter distress once when a helping hand was held out to you? You know how much it means. Couldn’t you like to do someone a good turn when you have the chance?”
The words were ordinary enough, and to my mind there was in them something so hortatory that I almost smiled. I was astonished at the effect they had on Blanche Stroeve. She started a little, and gave her husband a long look. His eyes were fixed on the ground. I did not know why he seemed embarrassed. A faint colour came into her cheeks, and then her face became white -more than white, ghastly; you felt that the blood had shrunk away from the whole surface of her body; and even her hands were pale. A shiver passed through her. The silence of the studio seemed to gather body, so that it became an almost palpable presence. I was bewildered.
“Bring Strickland here, Dirk. I’ll do my best for him.”
“My precious,” he smiled.
He wanted to take her in his arms, but she avoided him.
“Don’t be affectionate before strangers, Dirk,” she said. “It makes me feel such a fool.”
Her manner was quite normal again, and no one could have told that so shortly before she had been shaken by such a great emotion.
Next day we moved Strickland. It needed a good deal of firmness and still more patience to induce him to come, but he was really too ill to offer any effective resistance to Stroeve’s entreaties and to my determination. We dressed him, while he feebly cursed us, got him downstairs, into a cab, and eventually to Stroeve’s studio. He was so exhausted by the time we arrived that he allowed us to put him to bed without a word. He was ill for six weeks. At one time it looked as though he could not live more than a few hours, and I am convinced that it was only through the Dutchman’s doggedness that he pulled through. I have never known a more difficult patient. It was not that he was exacting and querulous; on the contrary, he never complained, he asked for nothing, he was perfectly silent; but he seemed to resent the care that was taken of him; he received all inquiries about his feelings or his needs with a jibe, a sneer, or an oath. I found him detestable, and as soon as he was out of danger I had no hesitation in telling him so.
“Go to hell,” he answered briefly.
Dirk Stroeve, giving up his work entirely, nursed Strickland with tenderness and sympathy. He was dexterous to make him comfortable, and he exercised a cunning of which I should never have thought him capable to induce him to take the medicines prescribed by the doctor. Nothing was too much trouble for him. Though his means were adequate to the needs of himself and his wife, he certainly had no money to waste; but now he was wantonly extravagant in the purchase of delicacies, out of season and dear, which might tempt Strickland’s capricious appetite. I shall never forget the tactful patience with which he persuaded him to take nourishment. He was never put out by Strickland’s rudeness; if it was merely sullen, he appeared not to notice it; if it was aggressive, he only chuckled. When Strickland, recovering somewhat, was in a good humour and amused himself by laughing at him, he deliberately did absurd things to excite his ridicule. Then he would give me little happy glances, so that I might notice in how much better form the patient was. Stroeve was sublime.
But it was Blanche who most surprised me. She proved herself not only a capable, but a devoted nurse. There was nothing in her to remind you that she had so vehemently struggled against her husband’s wish to bring Strickland to the studio. She insisted on doing her share of the offices needful to the sick. She arranged his bed so that it was possible to change the sheet without disturbing him. She washed him. When I remarked on her competence, she told me with that pleasant little smile of hers that for a while she had worked in a hospital. She gave no sign that she hated Strickland so desperately. She did not speak to him much, but she was quick to forestall his wants. For a fortnight it was necessary that someone should stay with him all night, and she took turns at watching with her husband. I wondered what she thought during the long darkness as she sat by the bedside. Strickland was a weird figure as he lay there, thinner than ever, with his ragged red beard and his eyes staring feverishly into vacancy; his illness seemed to have made them larger, and they had an unnatural brightness.
“Does he ever talk to you in the night?” I asked her once.
“Do you dislike him as much as you did?”
“More, if anything.”
She looked at me with her calm gray eyes. Her expression was so placid, it was hard to believe that she was capable of the violent emotion I had witnessed.
“Has he ever thanked you for what you do for him?”
“No,” she smiled.
Stroeve was, of course, delighted with her. He could not do enough to show his gratitude for the whole-hearted devotion with which she had accepted the burden he laid on her. But he was a little puzzled by the behaviour of Blanche and Strickland towards one another.
“Do you know, I’ve seen them sit there for hours together without saying a word?”
On one occasion, when Strickland was so much better that in a day or two he was to get up, I sat with them in the studio. Dirk and I were talking. Mrs. Stroeve sewed, and I thought I recognised the shirt she was mending as Strickland’s. He lay on his back; he did not speak. Once I saw that his eyes were fixed on Blanche Stroeve, and there was in them a curious irony. Feeling their gaze, she raised her own, and for a moment they stared at one another. I could not quite understand her expression. Her eyes had in them a strange perplexity, and perhaps -but why? -alarm. In a moment Strickland looked away and idly surveyed the ceiling, but she continued to stare at him, and now her look was quite inexplicable.
In a few days Strickland began to get up. He was nothing but skin and bone. His clothes hung upon him like rags on a scarecrow. With his untidy beard and long hair, his features, always a little larger than life, now emphasised by illness, he had an extraordinary aspect; but it was so odd that it was not quite ugly. There was something monumental in his ungainliness. I do not know how to express precisely the impression he made upon me. It was not exactly spirituality that was obvious, though the screen of the flesh seemed almost transparent, because there was in his face an outrageous sensuality; but, though it sounds nonsense, it seemed as though his sensuality were curiously spiritual. There was in him something primitive. He seemed to partake of those obscure forces of nature which the Greeks personified in shapes part human and part beast, the satyr and the faun. I thought of Marsyas, whom the god flayed because he had dared to rival him in song. Strickland seemed to bear in his heart strange harmonies and unadventured patterns, and I foresaw for him an end of torture and despair. I had again the feeling that he was possessed of a devil; but you could not say that it was a devil of evil, for it was a primitive force that existed before good and ill.
He was still too weak to paint, and he sat in the studio, silent, occupied with God knows what dreams, or reading. The books he liked were queer; sometimes I would find him poring over the poems of Mallarme, and he read them as a child reads, forming the words with his lips, and I wondered what strange emotion he got from those subtle cadences and obscure phrases; and again I found him absorbed in the detective novels of Gaboriau. I amused myself by thinking that in his choice of books he showed pleasantly the irreconcilable sides of his fantastic nature. It was singular to notice that even in the weak state of his body he had no thought for its comfort. Stroeve liked his ease, and in his studio were a couple of heavily upholstered arm-chairs and a large divan. Strickland would not go near them, not from any affectation of stoicism, for I found him seated on a three-legged stool when I went into the studio one day and he was alone, but because he did not like them. For choice he sat on a kitchen chair without arms. It often exasperated me to see him. I never knew a man so entirely indifferent to his surroundings.
Two or three weeks passed. One morning, having come to a pause in my work, I thought I would give myself a holiday, and I went to the Louvre. I wandered about looking at the pictures I knew so well, and let my fancy play idly with the emotions they suggested. I sauntered into the long gallery, and there suddenly saw Stroeve. I smiled, for his appearance, so rotund and yet so startled, could never fail to excite a smile, and then as I came nearer I noticed that he seemed singularly disconsolate. He looked woebegone and yet ridiculous, like a man who has fallen into the water with all his clothes on, and, being rescued from death, frightened still, feels that he only looks a fool. Turning round, he stared at me, but I perceived that he did not see me. His round blue eyes looked harassed behind his glasses.
“Stroeve,” I said.
He gave a little start, and then smiled, but his smile was rueful.
“Why are you idling in this disgraceful fashion?” I asked gaily.
“It’s a long time since I was at the Louvre. I thought I’d come and see if they had anything new.”
“But you told me you had to get a picture finished this week.”
“Strickland’s painting in my studio.”
“I suggested it myself. He’s not strong enough to go back to his own place yet. I thought we could both paint there. Lots of fellows in the Quarter share a studio. I thought it would be fun. I’ve always thought it would be jolly to have someone to talk to when one was tired of work.”
He said all this slowly, detaching statement from statement with a little awkward silence, and he kept his kind, foolish eyes fixed on mine. They were full of tears.
“I don’t think I understand,” I said.
“Strickland can’t work with anyone else in the studio.”
“Damn it all, it’s your studio. That’s his lookout.”
He looked at me pitifully. His lips were trembling.
“What happened?” I asked, rather sharply.
He hesitated and flushed. He glanced unhappily at one of the pictures on the wall.
“He wouldn’t let me go on painting. He told me to get out.”
“But why didn’t you tell him to go to hell?”
“He turned me out. I couldn’t very well struggle with him. He threw my hat after me, and locked the door.”
I was furious with Strickland, and was indignant with myself, because Dirk Stroeve cut such an absurd figure that I felt inclined to laugh.
“But what did your wife say?”
“She’d gone out to do the marketing.”
“Is he going to let her in?”
“I don’t know.”
I gazed at Stroeve with perplexity. He stood like a schoolboy with whom a master is finding fault.
“Shall I get rid of Strickland for you?” I asked.
He gave a little start, and his shining face grew very red.
“No. You’d better not do anything.”
He nodded to me and walked away. It was clear that for some reason he did not want to discuss the matter. I did not understand.