“The Moon And Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham. Chapter XXXVII-XXXVIII-XXXIX.
The circumstances of Blanche Stroeve’s death necessitated all manner of dreadful formalities, but at last we were allowed to bury her. Dirk and I alone followed the hearse to the cemetery. We went at a foot-pace, but on the way back we trotted, and there was something to my mind singularly horrible in the way the driver of the hearse whipped up his horses. It seemed to dismiss the dead with a shrug of the shoulders. Now and then I caught sight of the swaying hearse in front of us, and our own driver urged his pair so that we might not remain behind. I felt in myself, too, the desire to get the whole thing out of my mind. I was beginning to be bored with a tragedy that did not really concern me, and pretending to myself that I spoke in order to distract Stroeve, I turned with relief to other subjects.
“Don’t you think you’d better go away for a bit?” I said. “There can be no object in your staying in Paris now.”
He did not answer, but I went on ruthlessly:
“Have you made any plans for the immediate future?”
“You must try and gather together the threads again. Why don’t you go down to Italy and start working?”
Again he made no reply, but the driver of our carriage came to my rescue. Slackening his pace for a moment, he leaned over and spoke. I could not hear what he said, so I put my head out of the window. He wanted to know where we wished to be set down. I told him to wait a minute.
“You’d better come and have lunch with me,” I said to Dirk. “I’ll tell him to drop us in the Place Pigalle.”
“I’d rather not. I want to go to the studio.”
I hesitated a moment.
“Would you like me to come with you?” I asked then.
“No; I should prefer to be alone.”
I gave the driver the necessary direction, and in renewed silence we drove on. Dirk had not been to the studio since the wretched morning on which they had taken Blanche to the hospital. I was glad he did not want me to accompany him, and when I left him at the door I walked away with relief. I took a new pleasure in the streets of Paris, and I looked with smiling eyes at the people who hurried to and fro. The day was fine and sunny, and I felt in myself a more acute delight in life. I could not help it; I put Stroeve and his sorrows out of my mind. I wanted to enjoy.
I did not see him again for nearly a week. Then he fetched me soon after seven one evening and took me out to dinner. He was dressed in the deepest mourning, and on his bowler was a broad black band. He had even a black border to his handkerchief. His garb of woe suggested that he had lost in one catastrophe every relation he had in the world, even to cousins by marriage twice removed. His plumpness and his red, fat cheeks made his mourning not a little incongruous. It was cruel that his extreme unhappiness should have in it something of buffoonery.
He told me he had made up his mind to go away, though not to Italy, as I had suggested, but to Holland.
“I’m starting to-morrow. This is perhaps the last time we shall ever meet.”
I made an appropriate rejoinder, and he smiled wanly.
“I haven’t been home for five years. I think I’d forgotten it all; I seemed to have come so far away from my father’s house that I was shy at the idea of revisiting it; but now I feel it’s my only refuge.”
He was sore and bruised, and his thoughts went back to the tenderness of his mother’s love. The ridicule he had endured for years seemed now to weigh him down, and the final blow of Blanche’s treachery had robbed him of the resiliency which had made him take it so gaily. He could no longer laugh with those who laughed at him. He was an outcast. He told me of his childhood in the tidy brick house, and of his mother’s passionate orderliness. Her kitchen was a miracle of clean brightness. Everything was always in its place, and no where could you see a speck of dust. Cleanliness, indeed, was a mania with her. I saw a neat little old woman, with cheeks like apples, toiling away from morning to night, through the long years, to keep her house trim and spruce. His father was a spare old man, his hands gnarled after the work of a lifetime, silent and upright; in the evening he read the paper aloud, while his wife and daughter (now married to the captain of a fishing smack), unwilling to lose a moment, bent over their sewing. Nothing ever happened in that little town, left behind by the advance of civilisation, and one year followed the next till death came, like a friend, to give rest to those who had laboured so diligently.
“My father wished me to become a carpenter like himself. For five generations we’ve carried on the same trade, from father to son. Perhaps that is the wisdom of life, to tread in your father’s steps, and look neither to the right nor to the left. When I was a little boy I said I would marry the daughter of the harness-maker who lived next door. She was a little girl with blue eyes and a flaxen pigtail. She would have kept my house like a new pin, and I should have had a son to carry on the business after me.”
Stroeve sighed a little and was silent. His thoughts dwelt among pictures of what might have been, and the safety of the life he had refused filled him with longing.
“The world is hard and cruel. We are here none knows why, and we go none knows whither. We must be very humble. We must see the beauty of quietness. We must go through life so inconspicuously that Fate does not notice us. And let us seek the love of simple, ignorant people. Their ignorance is better than all our knowledge. Let us be silent, content in our little corner, meek and gentle like them. That is the wisdom of life.”
To me it was his broken spirit that expressed itself, and I rebelled against his renunciation. But I kept my own counsel.
“What made you think of being a painter?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“It happened that I had a knack for drawing. I got prizes for it at school. My poor mother was very proud of my gift, and she gave me a box of water-colours as a present. She showed my sketches to the pastor and the doctor and the judge. And they sent me to Amsterdam to try for a scholarship, and I won it. Poor soul, she was so proud; and though it nearly broke her heart to part from me, she smiled, and would not show me her grief. She was pleased that her son should be an artist. They pinched and saved so that I should have enough to live on, and when my first picture was exhibited they came to Amsterdam to see it, my father and mother and my sister, and my mother cried when she looked at it.” His kind eyes glistened. “And now on every wall of the old house there is one of my pictures in a beautiful gold frame.”
He glowed with happy pride. I thought of those cold scenes of his, with their picturesque peasants and cypresses and olive-trees. They must look queer in their garish frames on the walls of the peasant house.
“The dear soul thought she was doing a wonderful thing for me when she made me an artist, but perhaps, after all, it would have been better for me if my father’s will had prevailed and I were now but an honest carpenter.”
“Now that you know what art can offer, would you change your life? Would you have missed all the delight it has given you?”
“Art is the greatest thing in the world,” he answered, after a pause.
He looked at me for a minute reflectively; he seemed to hesitate; then he said:
“Did you know that I had been to see Strickland?”
I was astonished. I should have thought he could not bear to set eyes on him. Stroeve smiled faintly.
“You know already that I have no proper pride.”
“What do you mean by that?”
He told me a singular story.
When I left him, after we had buried poor Blanche, Stroeve walked into the house with a heavy heart. Something impelled him to go to the studio, some obscure desire for self-torture, and yet he dreaded the anguish that he foresaw. He dragged himself up the stairs; his feet seemed unwilling to carry him; and outside the door he lingered for a long time, trying to summon up courage to go in. He felt horribly sick. He had an impulse to run down the stairs after me and beg me to go in with him; he had a feeling that there was somebody in the studio. He remembered how often he had waited for a minute or two on the landing to get his breath after the ascent, and how absurdly his impatience to see Blanche had taken it away again. To see her was a delight that never staled, and even though he had not been out an hour he was as excited at the prospect as if they had been parted for a month. Suddenly he could not believe that she was dead. What had happened could only be a dream, a frightful dream; and when he turned the key and opened the door, he would see her bending slightly over the table in the gracious attitude of the woman in Chardin’s Benedicite, which always seemed to him so exquisite. Hurriedly he took the key out of his pocket, opened, and walked in.
The apartment had no look of desertion. His wife’s tidiness was one of the traits which had so much pleased him; his own upbringing had given him a tender sympathy for the delight in orderliness; and when he had seen her instinctive desire to put each thing in its appointed place it had given him a little warm feeling in his heart. The bedroom looked as though she had just left it: the brushes were neatly placed on the toilet-table, one on each side of the comb; someone had smoothed down the bed on which she had spent her last night in the studio; and her nightdress in a little case lay on the pillow. It was impossible to believe that she would never come into that room again.
But he felt thirsty, and went into the kitchen to get himself some water. Here, too, was order. On a rack were the plates that she had used for dinner on the night of her quarrel with Strickland, and they had been carefully washed. The knives and forks were put away in a drawer. Under a cover were the remains of a piece of cheese, and in a tin box was a crust of bread. She had done her marketing from day to day, buying only what was strictly needful, so that nothing was left over from one day to the next. Stroeve knew from the enquiries made by the police that Strickland had walked out of the house immediately after dinner, and the fact that Blanche had washed up the things as usual gave him a little thrill of horror. Her methodicalness made her suicide more deliberate. Her self-possession was frightening. A sudden pang seized him, and his knees felt so weak that he almost fell. He went back into the bedroom and threw himself on the bed. He cried out her name.
The thought of her suffering was intolerable. He had a sudden vision of her standing in the kitchen -it was hardly larger than a cupboard -washing the plates and glasses, the forks and spoons, giving the knives a rapid polish on the knife-board; and then putting everything away, giving the sink a scrub, and hanging the dish-cloth up to dry -it was there still, a gray torn rag; then looking round to see that everything was clean and nice. He saw her roll down her sleeves and remove her apron -the apron hung on a peg behind the door -and take the bottle of oxalic acid and go with it into the bedroom.
The agony of it drove him up from the bed and out of the room. He went into the studio. It was dark, for the curtains had been drawn over the great window, and he pulled them quickly back; but a sob broke from him as with a rapid glance he took in the place where he had been so happy. Nothing was changed here, either. Strickland was indifferent to his surroundings, and he had lived in the other’s studio without thinking of altering a thing. It was deliberately artistic. It represented Stroeve’s idea of the proper environment for an artist. There were bits of old brocade on the walls, and the piano was covered with a piece of silk, beautiful and tarnished; in one corner was a copy of the Venus of Milo, and in another of the Venus of the Medici. Here and there was an Italian cabinet surmounted with Delft, and here and there a bas-relief. In a handsome gold frame was a copy of Velasquez’ Innocent X., that Stroeve had made in Rome, and placed so as to make the most of their decorative effect were a number of Stroeve’s pictures, all in splendid frames. Stroeve had always been very proud of his taste. He had never lost his appreciation for the romantic atmosphere of a studio, and though now the sight of it was like a stab in his heart, without thinking what he was at, he changed slightly the position of a Louis XV. table which was one of his treasures. Suddenly he caught sight of a canvas with its face to the wall. It was a much larger one than he himself was in the habit of using, and he wondered what it did there. He went over to it and leaned it towards him so that he could see the painting. It was a nude. His heart began to beat quickly, for he guessed at once that it was one of Strickland’s pictures. He flung it back against the wall angrily -what did he mean by leaving it there? -but his movement caused it to fall, face downwards, on the ground. No mater whose the picture, he could not leave it there in the dust, and he raised it; but then curiosity got the better of him. He thought he would like to have a proper look at it, so he brought it along and set it on the easel. Then he stood back in order to see it at his ease.
He gave a gasp. It was the picture of a woman lying on a sofa, with one arm beneath her head and the other along her body; one knee was raised, and the other leg was stretched out. The pose was classic. Stroeve’s head swam. It was Blanche. Grief and jealousy and rage seized him, and he cried out hoarsely; he was inarticulate; he clenched his fists and raised them threateningly at an invisible enemy. He screamed at the top of his voice. He was beside himself. He could not bear it. That was too much. He looked round wildly for some instrument; he wanted to hack the picture to pieces; it should not exist another minute. He could see nothing that would serve his purpose; he rummaged about his painting things; somehow he could not find a thing; he was frantic. At last he came upon what he sought, a large scraper, and he pounced on it with a cry of triumph. He seized it as though it were a dagger, and ran to the picture.
As Stroeve told me this he became as excited as when the incident occurred, and he took hold of a dinner-knife on the table between us, and brandished it. He lifted his arm as though to strike, and then, opening his hand, let it fall with a clatter to the ground. He looked at me with a tremulous smile. He did not speak.
“Fire away,” I said.
“I don’t know what happened to me. I was just going to make a great hole in the picture, I had my arm all ready for the blow, when suddenly I seemed to see it.”
“The picture. It was a work of art. I couldn’t touch it. I was afraid.”
Stroeve was silent again, and he stared at me with his mouth open and his round blue eyes starting out of his head.
“It was a great, a wonderful picture. I was seized with awe. I had nearly committed a dreadful crime. I moved a little to see it better, and my foot knocked against the scraper. I shuddered.”
I really felt something of the emotion that had caught him. I was strangely impressed. It was as though I were suddenly transported into a world in which the values were changed. I stood by, at a loss, like a stranger in a land where the reactions of man to familiar things are all different from those he has known. Stroeve tried to talk to me about the picture, but he was incoherent, and I had to guess at what he meant. Strickland had burst the bonds that hitherto had held him. He had found, not himself, as the phrase goes, but a new soul with unsuspected powers. It was not only the bold simplification of the drawing which showed so rich and so singular a personality; it was not only the painting, though the flesh was painted with a passionate sensuality which had in it something miraculous; it was not only the solidity, so that you felt extraordinarily the weight of the body; there was also a spirituality, troubling and new, which led the imagination along unsuspected ways, and suggested dim empty spaces, lit only by the eternal stars, where the soul, all naked, adventured fearful to the discovery of new mysteries.
If I am rhetorical it is because Stroeve was rhetorical. (Do we not know that man in moments of emotion expresses himself naturally in the terms of a novelette?) Stroeve was trying to express a feeling which he had never known before, and he did not know how to put it into common terms. He was like the mystic seeking to describe the ineffable. But one fact he made clear to me; people talk of beauty lightly, and having no feeling for words, they use that one carelessly, so that it loses its force; and the thing it stands for, sharing its name with a hundred trivial objects, is deprived of dignity. They call beautiful a dress, a dog, a sermon; and when they are face to face with Beauty cannot recognise it. The false emphasis with which they try to deck their worthless thoughts blunts their susceptibilities. Like the charlatan who counterfeits a spiritual force he has sometimes felt, they lose the power they have abused. But Stroeve, the unconquerable buffoon, had a love and an understanding of beauty which were as honest and sincere as was his own sincere and honest soul. It meant to him what God means to the believer, and when he saw it he was afraid.
“What did you say to Strickland when you saw him?”
“I asked him to come with me to Holland.”
I was dumbfounded. I could only look at Stroeve in stupid amazement.
“We both loved Blanche. There would have been room for him in my mother’s house. I think the company of poor, simple people would have done his soul a great good. I think he might have learnt from them something that would be very useful to him.”
“What did he say?”
“He smiled a little. I suppose he thought me very silly. He said he had other fish to fry.”
I could have wished that Strickland had used some other phrase to indicate his refusal.
“He gave me the picture of Blanche.”
I wondered why Strickland had done that. But I made no remark, and for some time we kept silence.
“What have you done with all your things?” I said at last.
“I got a Jew in, and he gave me a round sum for the lot. I’m taking my pictures home with me. Beside them I own nothing in the world now but a box of clothes and a few books.”
“I’m glad you’re going home,” I said.
I felt that his chance was to put all the past behind him. I hoped that the grief which now seemed intolerable would be softened by the lapse of time, and a merciful forgetfulness would help him to take up once more the burden of life. He was young still, and in a few years he would look back on all his misery with a sadness in which there would be something not unpleasurable. Sooner or later he would marry some honest soul in Holland, and I felt sure he would be happy. I smiled at the thought of the vast number of bad pictures he would paint before he died.
Next day I saw him off for Amsterdam.