“The Moon And Sixpence” by William Somerset Maugham. Chapter XIII-XIV-XV.
I dare say it would have been more seemly to decline this proposal. I think perhaps I should have made a show of the indignation I really felt, and I am sure that Colonel MacAndrew at least would have thought well of me if I had been able to report my stout refusal to sit at the same table with a man of such character. But the fear of not being able to carry it through effectively has always made me shy of assuming the moral attitude; and in this case the certainty that my sentiments would be lost on Strickland made it peculiarly embarrassing to utter them. Only the poet or the saint can water an asphalt pavement in the confident anticipation that lilies will reward his labour.
I paid for what we had drunk, and we made our way to a cheap restaurant, crowded and gay, where we dined with pleasure. I had the appetite of youth and he of a hardened conscience. Then we went to a tavern to have coffee and liqueurs.
I had said all I had to say on the subject that had brought me to Paris, and though I felt it in a manner treacherous to Mrs. Strickland not to pursue it, I could not struggle against his indifference. It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest. I solaced myself by thinking that it would be useful for me to find out what I could about Strickland’s state of mind. It also interested me much more. But this was not an easy thing to do, for Strickland was not a fluent talker. He seemed to express himself with difficulty, as though words were not the medium with which his mind worked; and you had to guess the intentions of his soul by hackneyed phrases, slang, and vague, unfinished gestures. But though he said nothing of any consequence, there was something in his personality which prevented him from being dull. Perhaps it was sincerity. He did not seem to care much about the Paris he was now seeing for the first time (I did not count the visit with his wife), and he accepted sights which must have been strange to him without any sense of astonishment. I have been to Paris a hundred times, and it never fails to give me a thrill of excitement; I can never walk its streets without feeling myself on the verge of adventure. Strickland remained placid. Looking back, I think now that he was blind to everything but to some disturbing vision in his soul.
One rather absurd incident took place. There were a number of harlots in the tavern: some were sitting with men, others by themselves; and presently I noticed that one of these was looking at us. When she caught Strickland’s eye she smiled. I do not think he saw her. In a little while she went out, but in a minute returned and, passing our table, very politely asked us to buy her something to drink. She sat down and I began to chat with her; but, it was plain that her interest was in Strickland. I explained that he knew no more than two words of French. She tried to talk to him, partly by signs, partly in pidgin French, which, for some reason, she thought would be more comprehensible to him, and she had half a dozen phrases of English. She made me translate what she could only express in her own tongue, and eagerly asked for the meaning of his replies. He was quite good-tempered, a little amused, but his indifference was obvious.
“I think you’ve made a conquest,” I laughed.
“I’m not flattered.”
In his place I should have been more embarrassed and less calm. She had laughing eyes and a most charming mouth. She was young. I wondered what she found so attractive in Strickland. She made no secret of her desires, and I was bidden to translate.
“She wants you to go home with her.”
“I’m not taking any,” he replied.
I put his answer as pleasantly as I could. It seemed to me a little ungracious to decline an invitation of that sort, and I ascribed his refusal to lack of money.
“But I like him,” she said. “Tell him it’s for love.”
When I translated this, Strickland shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
“Tell her to go to hell,” he said.
His manner made his answer quite plain, and the girl threw back her head with a sudden gesture. Perhaps she reddened under her paint. She rose to her feet.
“Monsieur n’est pas poli,” she said.
She walked out of the inn. I was slightly vexed.
“There wasn’t any need to insult her that I can see,” I said. “After all, it was rather a compliment she was paying you.”
“That sort of thing makes me sick,” he said roughly.
I looked at him curiously. There was a real distaste in his face, and yet it was the face of a coarse and sensual man. I suppose the girl had been attracted by a certain brutality in it.
“I could have got all the women I wanted in London. I didn’t come here for that.”
During the journey back to England I thought much of Strickland. I tried to set in order what I had to tell his wife. It was unsatisfactory, and I could not imagine that she would be content with me; I was not content with myself. Strickland perplexed me. I could not understand his motives. When I had asked him what first gave him the idea of being a painter, he was unable or unwilling to tell me. I could make nothing of it. I tried to persuade myself than an obscure feeling of revolt had been gradually coming to a head in his slow mind, but to challenge this was the undoubted fact that he had never shown any impatience with the monotony of his life. If, seized by an intolerable boredom, he had determined to be a painter merely to break with irksome ties, it would have been comprehensible, and commonplace; but commonplace is precisely what I felt he was not. At last, because I was romantic, I devised an explanation which I acknowledged to be far-fetched, but which was the only one that in any way satisfied me. It was this: I asked myself whether there was not in his soul some deep-rooted instinct of creation, which the circumstances of his life had obscured, but which grew relentlessly, as a cancer may grow in the living tissues, till at last it took possession of his whole being and forced him irresistibly to action. The cuckoo lays its egg in the strange bird’s nest, and when the young one is hatched it shoulders its foster-brothers out and breaks at last the nest that has sheltered it.
But how strange it was that the creative instinct should seize upon this dull stockbroker, to his own ruin, perhaps, and to the misfortune of such as were dependent on him; and yet no stranger than the way in which the spirit of God has seized men, powerful and rich, pursuing them with stubborn vigilance till at last, conquered, they have abandoned the joy of the world and the love of women for the painful austerities of the cloister. Conversion may come under many shapes, and it may be brought about in many ways. With some men it needs a cataclysm, as a stone may be broken to fragments by the fury of a torrent; but with some it comes gradually, as a stone may be worn away by the ceaseless fall of a drop of water. Strickland had the directness of the fanatic and the ferocity of the apostle.
But to my practical mind it remained to be seen whether the passion which obsessed him would be justified of its works. When I asked him what his brother-students at the night classes he had attended in London thought of his painting, he answered with a grin:
“They thought it a joke.”
“Have you begun to go to a studio here?”
“Yes. The blighter came round this morning -the master, you know; when he saw my drawing he just raised his eyebrows and walked on.”
Strickland chuckled. He did not seem discouraged. He was independent of the opinion of his fellows.
And it was just that which had most disconcerted me in my dealings with him. When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves. Generally they mean only that they will do as they choose, in the confidence that no one will know their vagaries; and at the utmost only that they are willing to act contrary to the opinion of the majority because they are supported by the approval of their neighbours. It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self-esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger. But the desire for approbation is perhaps the most deeply seated instinct of civilised man. No one runs so hurriedly to the cover of respectability as the unconventional woman who has exposed herself to the slings and arrows of outraged propriety. I do not believe the people who tell me they do not care a row of pins for the opinion of their fellows. It is the bravado of ignorance. They mean only that they do not fear reproaches for peccadillos which they are convinced none will discover.
But here was a man who sincerely did not mind what people thought of him, and so convention had no hold on him; he was like a wrestler whose body is oiled; you could not get a grip on him; it gave him a freedom which was an outrage. I remember saying to him:
“Look here, if everyone acted like you, the world couldn’t go on.”
“That’s a damned silly thing to say. Everyone doesn’t want to act like me. The great majority are perfectly content to do the ordinary thing.”
And once I sought to be satirical.
“You evidently don’t believe in the maxim: Act so that every one of your actions is capable of being made into a universal rule.”
“I never heard it before, but it’s rotten nonsense.”
“Well, it was Kant who said it.”
“I don’t care; it’s rotten nonsense.”
Nor with such a man could you expect the appeal to conscience to be effective. You might as well ask for a reflection without a mirror. I take it that conscience is the guardian in the individual of the rules which the community has evolved for its own preservation. It is the policeman in all our hearts, set there to watch that we do not break its laws. It is the spy seated in the central stronghold of the ego. Man’s desire for the approval of his fellows is so strong, his dread of their censure so violent, that he himself has brought his enemy within his gates; and it keeps watch over him, vigilant always in the interests of its master to crush any half-formed desire to break away from the herd. It will force him to place the good of society before his own. It is the very strong link that attaches the individual to the whole. And man, subservient to interests he has persuaded himself are greater than his own, makes himself a slave to his taskmaster. He sits him in a seat of honour. At last, like a courtier fawning on the royal stick that is laid about his shoulders, he prides himself on the sensitiveness of his conscience. Then he has no words hard enough for the man who does not recognise its sway; for, a member of society now, he realises accurately enough that against him he is powerless. When I saw that Strickland was really indifferent to the blame his conduct must excite, I could only draw back in horror as from a monster of hardly human shape.
The last words he said to me when I bade him good-night were:
“Tell Amy it’s no good coming after me. Anyhow, I shall change my hotel, so she wouldn’t be able to find me.”
“My own impression is that she’s well rid of you,” I said.
“My dear fellow, I only hope you’ll be able to make her see it. But women are very unintelligent.”
When I reached London I found waiting for me an urgent request that I should go to Mrs. Strickland’s as soon after dinner as I could. I found her with Colonel MacAndrew and his wife. Mrs. Strickland’s sister was older than she, not unlike her, but more faded; and she had the efficient air, as though she carried the British Empire in her pocket, which the wives of senior officers acquire from the consciousness of belonging to a superior caste. Her manner was brisk, and her good-breeding scarcely concealed her conviction that if you were not a soldier you might as well be a counter-jumper. She hated the Guards, whom she thought conceited, and she could not trust herself to speak of their ladies, who were so remiss in calling. Her gown was dowdy and expensive.
Mrs. Strickland was plainly nervous.
“Well, tell us your news,” she said.
“I saw your husband. I’m afraid he’s quite made up his mind not to return.” I paused a little. “He wants to paint.”
“What do you mean?” cried Mrs. Strickland, with the utmost astonishment.
“Did you never know that he was keen on that sort of thing.”
“He must be as mad as a hatter,” exclaimed the Colonel.
Mrs. Strickland frowned a little. She was searching among her recollections.
“I remember before we were married he used to potter about with a paint-box. But you never saw such daubs. We used to chaff him. He had absolutely no gift for anything like that.”
“Of course it’s only an excuse,” said Mrs. MacAndrew.
Mrs. Strickland pondered deeply for some time. It was quite clear that she could not make head or tail of my announcement. She had put some order into the drawing-room by now, her housewifely instincts having got the better of her dismay; and it no longer bore that deserted look, like a furnished house long to let, which I had noticed on my first visit after the catastrophe. But now that I had seen Strickland in Paris it was difficult to imagine him in those surroundings. I thought it could hardly have failed to strike them that there was something incongruous in him.
“But if he wanted to be an artist, why didn’t he say so?” asked Mrs. Strickland at last. “I should have thought I was the last person to be unsympathetic to -to aspirations of that kind.”
Mrs. MacAndrew tightened her lips. I imagine that she had never looked with approval on her sister’s leaning towards persons who cultivated the arts. She spoke of “culchaw” derisively.
Mrs. Strickland continued:
“After all, if he had any talent I should be the first to encourage it. I wouldn’t have minded sacrifices. I’d much rather be married to a painter than to a stockbroker. If it weren’t for the children, I wouldn’t mind anything. I could be just as happy in a shabby studio in Chelsea as in this flat.”
“My dear, I have no patience with you,” cried Mrs. MacAndrew. “You don’t mean to say you believe a word of this nonsense?”
“But I think it’s true,” I put in mildly.
She looked at me with good-humoured contempt.
“A man doesn’t throw up his business and leave his wife and children at the age of forty to become a painter unless there’s a woman in it. I suppose he met one of your -artistic friends, and she’s turned his head.”
A spot of colour rose suddenly to Mrs. Strickland’s pale cheeks.
“What is she like?”
I hesitated a little. I knew that I had a bombshell.
“There isn’t a woman.”
Colonel MacAndrew and his wife uttered expressions of incredulity, and Mrs. Strickland sprang to her feet.
“Do you mean to say you never saw her?”
“There’s no one to see. He’s quite alone.”
“That’s preposterous,” cried Mrs. MacAndrew.
“I knew I ought to have gone over myself,” said the Colonel. “You can bet your boots I’d have routed her out fast enough.”
“I wish you had gone over,” I replied, somewhat tartly. “You’d have seen that every one of your suppositions was wrong. He’s not at a smart hotel. He’s living in one tiny room in the most squalid way. If he’s left his home, it’s not to live a gay life. He’s got hardly any money.”
“Do you think he’s done something that we don’t know about, and is lying doggo on account of the police?”
The suggestion sent a ray of hope in all their breasts, but I would have nothing to do with it.
“If that were so, he would hardly have been such a fool as to give his partner his address,” I retorted acidly. “Anyhow, there’s one thing I’m positive of, he didn’t go away with anyone. He’s not in love. Nothing is farther from his thoughts.”
There was a pause while they reflected over my words.
“Well, if what you say is true,” said Mrs. MacAndrew at last, “things aren’t so bad as I thought.”
Mrs. Strickland glanced at her, but said nothing.
She was very pale now, and her fine brow was dark and lowering. I could not understand the expression of her face. Mrs. MacAndrew continued:
“If it’s just a whim, he’ll get over it.”
“Why don’t you go over to him, Amy?” hazarded the Colonel. “There’s no reason why you shouldn’t live with him in Paris for a year. We’ll look after the children. I dare say he’d got stale. Sooner or later he’ll be quite ready to come back to London, and no great harm will have been done.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Mrs. MacAndrew. “I’d give him all the rope he wants. He’ll come back with his tail between his legs and settle down again quite comfortably.” Mrs. MacAndrew looked at her sister coolly. “Perhaps you weren’t very wise with him sometimes. Men are queer creatures, and one has to know how to manage them.”
Mrs. MacAndrew shared the common opinion of her sex that a man is always a brute to leave a woman who is attached to him, but that a woman is much to blame if he does. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas.
Mrs. Strickland looked slowly from one to another of us.
“He’ll never come back,” she said.
“Oh, my dear, remember what we’ve just heard. He’s been used to comfort and to having someone to look after him. How long do you think it’ll be before he gets tired of a scrubby room in a scrubby hotel? Besides, he hasn’t any money. He must come back.”
“As long as I thought he’d run away with some woman I thought there was a chance. I don’t believe that sort of thing ever answers. He’d have got sick to death of her in three months. But if he hasn’t gone because he’s in love, then it’s finished.”
“Oh, I think that’s awfully subtle,” said the Colonel, putting into the word all the contempt he felt for a quality so alien to the traditions of his calling. “Don’t you believe it. He’ll come back, and, as Dorothy says, I dare say he’ll be none the worse for having had a bit of a fling.”
“But I don’t want him back,” she said.
It was anger that had seized Mrs. Strickland, and her pallor was the pallor of a cold and sudden rage. She spoke quickly now, with little gasps.
“I could have forgiven it if he’d fallen desperately in love with someone and gone off with her. I should have thought that natural. I shouldn’t really have blamed him. I should have thought he was led away. Men are so weak, and women are so unscrupulous. But this is different. I hate him. I’ll never forgive him now.”
Colonel MacAndrew and his wife began to talk to her together. They were astonished. They told her she was mad. They could not understand. Mrs. Strickland turned desperately to me.
“Don’t you see?” she cried.
“I’m not sure. Do you mean that you could have forgiven him if he’d left you for a woman, but not if he’s left you for an idea? You think you’re a match for the one, but against the other you’re helpless?”
Mrs. Strickland gave me a look in which I read no great friendliness, but did not answer. Perhaps I had struck home. She went on in a low and trembling voice:
“I never knew it was possible to hate anyone as much as I hate him. Do you know, I’ve been comforting myself by thinking that however long it lasted he’d want me at the end? I knew when he was dying he’d send for me, and I was ready to go; I’d have nursed him like a mother, and at the last I’d have told him that it didn’t matter, I’d loved him always, and I forgave him everything.”
I have always been a little disconcerted by the passion women have for behaving beautifully at the death-bed of those they love. Sometimes it seems as if they grudge the longevity which postpones their chance of an effective scene.
“But now -now it’s finished. I’m as indifferent to him as if he were a stranger. I should like him to die miserable, poor, and starving, without a friend. I hope he’ll rot with some loathsome disease. I’ve done with him.”
I thought it as well then to say what Strickland had suggested.
“If you want to divorce him, he’s quite willing to do whatever is necessary to make it possible.”
“Why should I give him his freedom?”
“I don’t think he wants it. He merely thought it might be more convenient to you.”
Mrs. Strickland shrugged her shoulders impatiently. I think I was a little disappointed in her. I expected then people to be more of a piece than I do now, and I was distressed to find so much vindictiveness in so charming a creature. I did not realise how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being. Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find place side by side in the same human heart.
I wondered if there was anything I could say that would ease the sense of bitter humiliation which at present tormented Mrs. Strickland. I thought I would try.
“You know, I’m not sure that your husband is quite responsible for his actions. I do not think he is himself. He seems to me to be possessed by some power which is using him for its own ends, and in whose hold he is as helpless as a fly in a spider’s web. It’s as though someone had cast a spell over him. I’m reminded of those strange stories one sometimes hears of another personality entering into a man and driving out the old one. The soul lives unstably in the body, and is capable of mysterious transformations. In the old days they would say Charles Strickland had a devil.”
Mrs. MacAndrew smoothed down the lap of her gown, and gold bangles fell over her wrists.
“All that seems to me very far-fetched,” she said acidly. “I don’t deny that perhaps Amy took her husband a little too much for granted. If she hadn’t been so busy with her own affairs, I can’t believe that she wouldn’t have suspected something was the matter. I don’t think that Alec could have something on his mind for a year or more without my having a pretty shrewd idea of it.”
The Colonel stared into vacancy, and I wondered whether anyone could be quite so innocent of guile as he looked.
“But that doesn’t prevent the fact that Charles Strickland is a heartless beast.” She looked at me severely. “I can tell you why he left his wife -from pure selfishness and nothing else whatever.”
“That is certainly the simplest explanation,” I said. But I thought it explained nothing. When, saying I was tired, I rose to go, Mrs. Strickland made no attempt to detain me.