Moon and Sixpence
by Somerset Maugham
I confess that when first I made acquaintance with Charles
Strickland I never for a moment discerned that there was in him
anything out of the ordinary. Yet now few will be found to deny his
greatness. I do not speak of that greatness which is achieved by the
fortunate politician or the successful soldier; that is a quality
which belongs to the place he occupies rather than to the man; and a
change of circumstances reduces it to very discreet proportions. The
Prime Minister out of office is seen, too often, to have been but a
pompous rhetorician, and the General without an army is but the tame
hero of a market town. The greatness of Charles Strickland was
authentic. It may be that you do not like his art, but at all events
you can hardly refuse it the tribute of your interest. He disturbs
and arrests. The time has passed when he was an object of ridicule,
and it is no longer a mark of eccentricity to defend or of perversity
to extol him. His faults are accepted as the necessary complement to
his merits. It is still possible to discuss his place in art, and the
adulation of his admirers is perhaps no less capricious than the
disparagement of his detractors; but one thing can never be doubtful,
and that is that he had genius. To my mind the most interesting thing
in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am
willing to excuse a thousand faults. I suppose Velasquez was a better
painter than El Greco, but custom stales one's admiration for him:
the Cretan, sensual and tragic, proffers the mystery of his soul like
a standing sacrifice. The artist, painter, poet, or musician, by his
decoration, sublime or beautiful, satisfies the aesthetic sense; but
that is akin to the sexual instinct, and shares its barbarity: he
lays before you also the greater gift of himself. To pursue his
secret has something of the fascination of a detective story. It is a
riddle which shares with the universe the merit of having no answer.
The most insignificant of Strickland's works suggests a personality
which is strange, tormented, and complex; and it is this surely which
prevents even those who do not like his pictures from being
indifferent to them; it is this which has excited so curious an
interest in his life and character.
It was not till four years after Strickland's death that Maurice
Huret wrote that article in the Mercure de France which rescued
the unknown painter from oblivion and blazed the trail which
succeeding writers, with more or less docility, have followed. For a
long time no critic has enjoyed in France a more incontestable
authority, and it was impossible not to be impressed by the claims he
made; they seemed extravagant; but later judgments have confirmed his
estimate, and the reputation of Charles Strickland is now firmly
established on the lines which he laid down. The rise of this
reputation is one of the most romantic incidents in the history of
art. But I do not propose to deal with Charles Strickland's work
except in so far as it touches upon his character. I cannot agree with
the painters who claim superciliously that the layman can understand
nothing of painting, and that he can best show his appreciation of
their works by silence and a cheque-book. It is a grotesque
misapprehension which sees in art no more than a craft comprehensible
perfectly only to the craftsman: art is a manifestation of emotion,
and emotion speaks a language that all may understand. But I will
allow that the critic who has not a practical knowledge of technique
is seldom able to say anything on the subject of real value, and my
ignorance of painting is extreme. Fortunately, there is no need for
me to risk the adventure, since my friend, Mr. Edward Leggatt, an
able writer as well as an admirable painter, has exhaustively
discussed Charles Strickland's work in a little book which is a
charming example of a style, for the most part, less happily
cultivated in England than in France.
 "A Modern Artist: Notes on the Work of Charles Strickland,"
by Edward Leggatt, A.R.H.A. Martin Secker, 1917.
Maurice Huret in his famous article gave an outline of Charles
Strickland's life which was well calculated to whet the appetites of
the inquiring. With his disinterested passion for art, he had a real
desire to call the attention of the wise to a talent which was in the
highest degree original; but he was too good a journalist to be
unaware that the "human interest" would enable him more easily to
effect his purpose. And when such as had come in contact with
Strickland in the past, writers who had known him in London, painters
who had met him in the cafes of Montmartre, discovered to their
amazement that where they had seen but an unsuccessful artist, like
another, authentic genius had rubbed shoulders with them there began
to appear in the magazines of France and America a succession of
articles, the reminiscences of one, the appreciation of another, which
added to Strickland's notoriety, and fed without satisfying the
curiosity of the public. The subject was grateful, and the
industrious Weitbrecht-Rotholz in his imposing monograph has been
able to give a remarkable list of authorities.
 "Karl Strickland: sein Leben und seine Kunst," by Hugo
Weitbrecht-Rotholz, Ph.D. Schwingel und Hanisch. Leipzig, 1914.
The faculty for myth is innate in the human race. It seizes with
avidity upon any incidents, surprising or mysterious, in the career of
those who have at all distinguished themselves from their fellows, and
invents a legend to which it then attaches a fanatical belief. It is
the protest of romance against the commonplace of life. The incidents
of the legend become the hero's surest passport to immortality. The
ironic philosopher reflects with a smile that Sir Walter Raleigh is
more safely inshrined in the memory of mankind because he set his
cloak for the Virgin Queen to walk on than because he carried the
English name to undiscovered countries. Charles Strickland lived
obscurely. He made enemies rather than friends. It is not strange,
then, that those who wrote of him should have eked out their scanty
recollections with a lively fancy, and it is evident that there was
enough in the little that was known of him to give opportunity to the
romantic scribe; there was much in his life which was strange and
terrible, in his character something outrageous, and in his fate not
a little that was pathetic. In due course a legend arose of such
circumstantiality that the wise historian would hesitate to attack it.
But a wise historian is precisely what the Rev. Robert Strickland
is not. He wrote his biography avowedly to "remove certain
misconceptions which had gained currency" in regard to the later part
of his father's life, and which had "caused considerable pain to
persons still living." It is obvious that there was much in the
commonly received account of Strickland's life to embarrass a
respectable family. I have read this work with a good deal of
amusement, and upon this I congratulate myself, since it is colourless
and dull. Mr. Strickland has drawn the portrait of an excellent
husband and father, a man of kindly temper, industrious habits, and
moral disposition. The modern clergyman has acquired in his study of
the science which I believe is called exegesis an astonishing facility
for explaining things away, but the subtlety with which the Rev.
Robert Strickland has "interpreted" all the facts in his father's life
which a dutiful son might find it inconvenient to remember must surely
lead him in the fullness of time to the highest dignities of the
Church. I see already his muscular calves encased in the gaiters
episcopal. It was a hazardous, though maybe a gallant thing to do,
since it is probable that the legend commonly received has had no
small share in the growth of Strickland's reputation; for there are
many who have been attracted to his art by the detestation in which
they held his character or the compassion with which they regarded his
death; and the son's well-meaning efforts threw a singular chill upon
the father's admirers. It is due to no accident that when one of his
most important works, The Woman of Samaria, was sold at
Christie's shortly after the discussion which followed the
publication of Mr. Strickland's biography, it fetched POUNDS 235 less
than it had done nine months before when it was bought by the
distinguished collector whose sudden death had brought it once more
under the hammer. Perhaps Charles Strickland's power and originality
would scarcely have sufficed to turn the scale if the remarkable
mythopoeic faculty of mankind had not brushed aside with impatience a
story which disappointed all its craving for the extraordinary. And
presently Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz produced the work which finally set
at rest the misgivings of all lovers of art.
 "Strickland: The Man and His Work," by his son, Robert
Strickland. Wm. Heinemann, 1913.
 This was described in Christie's catalogue as follows: "A
nude woman, a native of the Society Islands, is lying on the ground
beside a brook. Behind is a tropical Landscape with palm-trees,
bananas, etc. 60 in. x 48 in."
Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz belongs to that school of historians which
believes that human nature is not only about as bad as it can be, but
a great deal worse; and certainly the reader is safer of entertainment
in their hands than in those of the writers who take a malicious
pleasure in representing the great figures of romance as patterns of
the domestic virtues. For my part, I should be sorry to think that
there was nothing between Anthony and Cleopatra but an economic
situation; and it will require a great deal more evidence than is ever
likely to be available, thank God, to persuade me that Tiberius was
as blameless a monarch as King George V. Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz has
dealt in such terms with the Rev. Robert Strickland's innocent
biography that it is difficult to avoid feeling a certain sympathy for
the unlucky parson. His decent reticence is branded as hypocrisy, his
circumlocutions are roundly called lies, and his silence is vilified
as treachery. And on the strength of peccadillos, reprehensible in an
author, but excusable in a son, the Anglo-Saxon race is accused of
prudishness, humbug, pretentiousness, deceit, cunning, and bad
cooking. Personally I think it was rash of Mr. Strickland, in
refuting the account which had gained belief of a certain
"unpleasantness" between his father and mother, to state that Charles
Strickland in a letter written from Paris had described her as "an
excellent woman," since Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was able to print the
letter in facsimile, and it appears that the passage referred to ran
in fact as follows: God damn my wife. She is an excellent woman.
I wish she was in hell. It is not thus that the Church in its
great days dealt with evidence that was unwelcome.
Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was an enthusiastic admirer of Charles
Strickland, and there was no danger that he would whitewash him. He
had an unerring eye for the despicable motive in actions that had all
the appearance of innocence. He was a psycho-pathologist, as well as
a student of art, and the subconscious had few secrets from him. No
mystic ever saw deeper meaning in common things. The mystic sees the
ineffable, and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable. There is a
singular fascination in watching the eagerness with which the learned
author ferrets out every circumstance which may throw discredit on his
hero. His heart warms to him when he can bring forward some example
of cruelty or meanness, and he exults like an inquisitor at the auto da fe of an heretic when with some forgotten story he can
confound the filial piety of the Rev. Robert Strickland. His industry
has been amazing. Nothing has been too small to escape him, and you
may be sure that if Charles Strickland left a laundry bill unpaid it
will be given you in extenso, and if he forebore to return a
borrowed half-crown no detail of the transaction will be omitted.
When so much has been written about Charles Strickland, it may
seem unnecessary that I should write more. A painter's monument is
his work. It is true I knew him more intimately than most: I met him
first before ever he became a painter, and I saw him not infrequently
during the difficult years he spent in Paris; but I do not suppose I
should ever have set down my recollections if the hazards of the war
had not taken me to Tahiti. There, as is notorious, he spent the last
years of his life; and there I came across persons who were familiar
with him. I find myself in a position to throw light on just that
part of his tragic career which has remained most obscure. If they who
believe in Strickland's greatness are right, the personal narratives
of such as knew him in the flesh can hardly be superfluous. What
would we not give for the reminiscences of someone who had been as
intimately acquainted with El Greco as I was with Strickland?
But I seek refuge in no such excuses. I forget who it was that
recommended men for their soul's good to do each day two things they
disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed
scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. But
there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my
flesh each week to a more severe mortification. I have never failed to
read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary
discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the
fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate
which awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its
way among that multitude? And the successful books are but the
successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been
at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache
suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours' relaxation or to
while away the tedium of a journey. And if I may judge from the
reviews, many of these books are well and carefully written; much
thought has gone to their composition; to some even has been given the
anxious labour of a lifetime. The moral I draw is that the writer
should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release
from the burden of his thought; and, indifferent to aught else, care
nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.
Now the war has come, bringing with it a new attitude. Youth has
turned to gods we of an earlier day knew not, and it is possible to
see already the direction in which those who come after us will move.
The younger generation, conscious of strength and tumultuous, have
done with knocking at the door; they have burst in and seated
themselves in our seats. The air is noisy with their shouts. Of their
elders some, by imitating the antics of youth, strive to persuade
themselves that their day is not yet over; they shout with the
lustiest, but the war cry sounds hollow in their mouth; they are like
poor wantons attempting with pencil, paint and powder, with shrill
gaiety, to recover the illusion of their spring. The wiser go their
way with a decent grace. In their chastened smile is an indulgent
mockery. They remember that they too trod down a sated generation,
with just such clamor and with just such scorn, and they foresee that
these brave torch-bearers will presently yield their place also.
There is no last word. The new evangel was old when Nineveh reared
her greatness to the sky. These gallant words which seem so novel to
those that speak them were said in accents scarcely changed a hundred
times before. The pendulum swings backwards and forwards. The circle
is ever travelled anew.
Sometimes a man survives a considerable time from an era in which
he had his place into one which is strange to him, and then the
curious are offered one of the most singular spectacles in the human
comedy. Who now, for example, thinks of George Crabbe? He was a
famous poet in his day, and the world recognised his genius with a
unanimity which the greater complexity of modern life has rendered
infrequent. He had learnt his craft at the school of Alexander Pope,
and he wrote moral stories in rhymed couplets. Then came the French
Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and the poets sang new songs. Mr.
Crabbe continued to write moral stories in rhymed couplets. I think he
must have read the verse of these young men who were making so great a
stir in the world, and I fancy he found it poor stuff. Of course,
much of it was. But the odes of Keats and of Wordsworth, a poem or
two by Coleridge, a few more by Shelley, discovered vast realms of the
spirit that none had explored before. Mr. Crabbe was as dead as
mutton, but Mr. Crabbe continued to write moral stories in rhymed
couplets. I have read desultorily the writings of the younger
generation. It may be that among them a more fervid Keats, a more
ethereal Shelley, has already published numbers the world will
willingly remember. I cannot tell. I admire their polish — their
youth is already so accomplished that it seems absurd to speak of
promise — I marvel at the felicity of their style; but with all
their copiousness (their vocabulary suggests that they fingered
Roget's Thesaurus in their cradles) they say nothing to me:
to my mind they know too much and feel too obviously; I cannot
stomach the heartiness with which they slap me on the back or the
emotion with which they hurl themselves on my bosom; their passion
seems to me a little anaemic and their dreams a trifle dull. I do not
like them. I am on the shelf. I will continue to write moral stories
in rhymed couplets. But I should be thrice a fool if I did it for
aught but my own entertainment.
But all this is by the way.
I was very young when I wrote my first book. By a lucky chance it
excited attention, and various persons sought my acquaintance.
It is not without melancholy that I wander among my recollections
of the world of letters in London when first, bashful but eager, I was
introduced to it. It is long since I frequented it, and if the novels
that describe its present singularities are accurate much in it is now
changed. The venue is different. Chelsea and Bloomsbury have taken
the place of Hampstead, Notting Hill Gate, and High Street,
Kensington. Then it was a distinction to be under forty, but now to
be more than twenty-five is absurd. I think in those days we were a
little shy of our emotions, and the fear of ridicule tempered the more
obvious forms of pretentiousness. I do not believe that there was in
that genteel Bohemia an intensive culture of chastity, but I do not
remember so crude a promiscuity as seems to be practised in the
present day. We did not think it hypocritical to draw over our
vagaries the curtain of a decent silence. The spade was not
invariably called a bloody shovel. Woman had not yet altogether come
into her own.
I lived near Victoria Station, and I recall long excursions by bus
to the hospitable houses of the literary. In my timidity I wandered
up and down the street while I screwed up my courage to ring the bell;
and then, sick with apprehension, was ushered into an airless room
full of people. I was introduced to this celebrated person after that
one, and the kind words they said about my book made me excessively
uncomfortable. I felt they expected me to say clever things, and I
never could think of any till after the party was over. I tried to
conceal my embarrassment by handing round cups of tea and rather
ill-cut bread-and-butter. I wanted no one to take notice of me, so
that I could observe these famous creatures at my ease and listen to
the clever things they said.
I have a recollection of large, unbending women with great noses
and rapacious eyes, who wore their clothes as though they were armour;
and of little, mouse-like spinsters, with soft voices and a shrewd
glance. I never ceased to be fascinated by their persistence in
eating buttered toast with their gloves on, and I observed with
admiration the unconcern with which they wiped their fingers on their
chair when they thought no one was looking. It must have been bad for
the furniture, but I suppose the hostess took her revenge on the
furniture of her friends when, in turn, she visited them. Some of
them were dressed fashionably, and they said they couldn't for the
life of them see why you should be dowdy just because you had written
a novel; if you had a neat figure you might as well make the most of
it, and a smart shoe on a small foot had never prevented an editor
from taking your "stuff." But others thought this frivolous, and they
wore "art fabrics" and barbaric jewelry. The men were seldom
eccentric in appearance. They tried to look as little like authors as
possible. They wished to be taken for men of the world, and could
have passed anywhere for the managing clerks of a city firm. They
always seemed a little tired. I had never known writers before, and I
found them very strange, but I do not think they ever seemed to me
I remember that I thought their conversation brilliant, and I used
to listen with astonishment to the stinging humour with which they
would tear a brother-author to pieces the moment that his back was
turned. The artist has this advantage over the rest of the world,
that his friends offer not only their appearance and their character
to his satire, but also their work. I despaired of ever expressing
myself with such aptness or with such fluency. In those days
conversation was still cultivated as an art; a neat repartee was more
highly valued than the crackling of thorns under a pot; and the
epigram, not yet a mechanical appliance by which the dull may achieve
a semblance of wit, gave sprightliness to the small talk of the
urbane. It is sad that I can remember nothing of all this
scintillation. But I think the conversation never settled down so
comfortably as when it turned to the details of the trade which was
the other side of the art we practised. When we had done discussing
the merits of the latest book, it was natural to wonder how many
copies had been sold, what advance the author had received, and how
much he was likely to make out of it. Then we would speak of this
publisher and of that, comparing the generosity of one with the
meanness of another; we would argue whether it was better to go to one
who gave handsome royalties or to another who "pushed" a book for all
it was worth. Some advertised badly and some well. Some were modern
and some were old-fashioned. Then we would talk of agents and the
offers they had obtained for us; of editors and the sort of
contributions they welcomed, how much they paid a thousand, and
whether they paid promptly or otherwise. To me it was all very
romantic. It gave me an intimate sense of being a member of some
No one was kinder to me at that time than Rose Waterford. She
combined a masculine intelligence with a feminine perversity, and the
novels she wrote were original and disconcerting. It was at her house
one day that I met Charles Strickland's wife. Miss Waterford was
giving a tea-party, and her small room was more than usually full.
Everyone seemed to be talking, and I, sitting in silence, felt
awkward; but I was too shy to break into any of the groups that seemed
absorbed in their own affairs. Miss Waterford was a good hostess, and
seeing my embarrassment came up to me.
"I want you to talk to Mrs. Strickland," she said. "She's raving
about your book."
"What does she do?" I asked.
I was conscious of my ignorance, and if Mrs. Strickland was a
well-known writer I thought it as well to ascertain the fact before I
spoke to her.
Rose Waterford cast down her eyes demurely to give greater effect
to her reply.
"She gives luncheon-parties. You've only got to roar a little,
and she'll ask you."
Rose Waterford was a cynic. She looked upon life as an
opportunity for writing novels and the public as her raw material.
Now and then she invited members of it to her house if they showed an
appreciation of her talent and entertained with proper lavishness.
She held their weakness for lions in good-humoured contempt, but
played to them her part of the distinguished woman of letters with
I was led up to Mrs. Strickland, and for ten minutes we talked
together. I noticed nothing about her except that she had a pleasant
voice. She had a flat in Westminster, overlooking the unfinished
cathedral, and because we lived in the same neighbourhood we felt
friendly disposed to one another. The Army and Navy Stores are a bond
of union between all who dwell between the river and St. James's Park.
Mrs. Strickland asked me for my address, and a few days later I
received an invitation to luncheon.
My engagements were few, and I was glad to accept. When I
arrived, a little late, because in my fear of being too early I had
walked three times round the cathedral, I found the party already
complete. Miss Waterford was there and Mrs. Jay, Richard Twining and
George Road. We were all writers. It was a fine day, early in spring,
and we were in a good humour. We talked about a hundred things. Miss
Waterford, torn between the aestheticism of her early youth, when she
used to go to parties in sage green, holding a daffodil, and the
flippancy of her maturer years, which tended to high heels and Paris
frocks, wore a new hat. It put her in high spirits. I had never heard
her more malicious about our common friends. Mrs. Jay, aware that
impropriety is the soul of wit, made observations in tones hardly
above a whisper that might well have tinged the snowy tablecloth with
a rosy hue. Richard Twining bubbled over with quaint absurdities, and
George Road, conscious that he need not exhibit a brilliancy which
was almost a by-word, opened his mouth only to put food into it. Mrs.
Strickland did not talk much, but she had a pleasant gift for keeping
the conversation general; and when there was a pause she threw in just
the right remark to set it going once more. She was a woman of
thirty-seven, rather tall and plump, without being fat; she was not
pretty, but her face was pleasing, chiefly, perhaps, on account of her
kind brown eyes. Her skin was rather sallow. Her dark hair was
elaborately dressed. She was the only woman of the three whose face
was free of make-up, and by contrast with the others she seemed
simple and unaffected.
The dining-room was in the good taste of the period. It was very
severe. There was a high dado of white wood and a green paper on
which were etchings by Whistler in neat black frames. The green
curtains with their peacock design, hung in straight lines, and the
green carpet, in the pattern of which pale rabbits frolicked among
leafy trees, suggested the influence of William Morris. There was
blue delft on the chimneypiece. At that time there must have been five
hundred dining-rooms in London decorated in exactly the same manner.
It was chaste, artistic, and dull.
When we left I walked away with Miss Waterford, and the fine day
and her new hat persuaded us to saunter through the Park.
"That was a very nice party," I said.
"Did you think the food was good? I told her that if she wanted
writers she must feed them well."
"Admirable advice," I answered. "But why does she want them?"
Miss Waterford shrugged her shoulders.
"She finds them amusing. She wants to be in the movement. I fancy
she's rather simple, poor dear, and she thinks we're all wonderful.
After all, it pleases her to ask us to luncheon, and it doesn't hurt
us. I like her for it."
Looking back, I think that Mrs. Strickland was the most harmless
of all the lion-hunters that pursue their quarry from the rarefied
heights of Hampstead to the nethermost studios of Cheyne Walk. She
had led a very quiet youth in the country, and the books that came
down from Mudie's Library brought with them not only their own
romance, but the romance of London. She had a real passion for reading
(rare in her kind, who for the most part are more interested in the
author than in his book, in the painter than in his pictures), and she
invented a world of the imagination in which she lived with a freedom
she never acquired in the world of every day. When she came to know
writers it was like adventuring upon a stage which till then she had
known only from the other side of the footlights. She saw them
dramatically, and really seemed herself to live a larger life because
she entertained them and visited them in their fastnesses. She
accepted the rules with which they played the game of life as valid
for them, but never for a moment thought of regulating her own conduct
in accordance with them. Their moral eccentricities, like their
oddities of dress, their wild theories and paradoxes, were an
entertainment which amused her, but had not the slightest influence on
"Is there a Mr. Strickland?" I asked
"Oh yes; he's something in the city. I believe he's a
stockbroker. He's very dull."
"Are they good friends?"
"They adore one another. You'll meet him if you dine there. But
she doesn't often have people to dinner. He's very quiet. He's not in
the least interested in literature or the arts."
"Why do nice women marry dull men?"
"Because intelligent men won't marry nice women."
I could not think of any retort to this, so I asked if Mrs.
Strickland had children.
"Yes; she has a boy and a girl. They're both at school."
The subject was exhausted, and we began to talk of other things.
During the summer I met Mrs. Strickland not infrequently. I went
now and then to pleasant little luncheons at her flat, and to rather
more formidable tea-parties. We took a fancy to one another. I was
very young, and perhaps she liked the idea of guiding my virgin steps
on the hard road of letters; while for me it was pleasant to have
someone I could go to with my small troubles, certain of an attentive
ear and reasonable counsel. Mrs. Strickland had the gift of sympathy.
It is a charming faculty, but one often abused by those who are
conscious of its possession: for there is something ghoulish in the
avidity with which they will pounce upon the misfortune of their
friends so that they may exercise their dexterity. It gushes forth
like an oil-well, and the sympathetic pour out their sympathy with an
abandon that is sometimes embarrassing to their victims. There are
bosoms on which so many tears have been shed that I cannot bedew them
with mine. Mrs. Strickland used her advantage with tact. You felt
that you obliged her by accepting her sympathy. When, in the
enthusiasm of my youth, I remarked on this to Rose Waterford, she
"Milk is very nice, especially with a drop of brandy in it, but
the domestic cow is only too glad to be rid of it. A swollen udder is
Rose Waterford had a blistering tongue. No one could say such
bitter things; on the other hand, no one could do more charming ones.
There was another thing I liked in Mrs. Strickland. She managed
her surroundings with elegance. Her flat was always neat and
cheerful, gay with flowers, and the chintzes in the drawing-room,
notwithstanding their severe design, were bright and pretty. The
meals in the artistic little dining-room were pleasant; the table
looked nice, the two maids were trim and comely; the food was well
cooked. It was impossible not to see that Mrs. Strickland was an
excellent housekeeper. And you felt sure that she was an admirable
mother. There were photographs in the drawing-room of her son and
daughter. The son — his name was Robert — was a boy of sixteen at
Rugby; and you saw him in flannels and a cricket cap, and again in a
tail-coat and a stand-up collar. He had his mother's candid brow and
fine, reflective eyes. He looked clean, healthy, and normal.
"I don't know that he's very clever," she said one day, when I was
looking at the photograph, "but I know he's good. He has a charming
The daughter was fourteen. Her hair, thick and dark like her
mother's, fell over her shoulders in fine profusion, and she had the
same kindly expression and sedate, untroubled eyes.
"They're both of them the image of you," I said.
"Yes; I think they are more like me than their father."
"Why have you never let me meet him?" I asked.
"Would you like to?"
She smiled, her smile was really very sweet, and she blushed a
little; it was singular that a woman of that age should flush so
readily. Perhaps her naivete was her greatest charm.
"You know, he's not at all literary," she said. "He's a perfect
She said this not disparagingly, but affectionately rather, as
though, by acknowledging the worst about him, she wished to protect
him from the aspersions of her friends.
"He's on the Stock Exchange, and he's a typical broker. I think
he'd bore you to death."
"Does he bore you?" I asked.
"You see, I happen to be his wife. I'm very fond of him."
She smiled to cover her shyness, and I fancied she had a fear that
I would make the sort of gibe that such a confession could hardly have
failed to elicit from Rose Waterford. She hesitated a little. Her
eyes grew tender.
"He doesn't pretend to be a genius. He doesn't even make much
money on the Stock Exchange. But he's awfully good and kind."
"I think I should like him very much."
"I'll ask you to dine with us quietly some time, but mind, you come
at your own risk; don't blame me if you have a very dull evening."
But when at last I met Charles Strickland, it was under
circumstances which allowed me to do no more than just make his
acquaintance. One morning Mrs. Strickland sent me round a note to say
that she was giving a dinner-party that evening, and one of her guests
had failed her. She asked me to stop the gap. She wrote:
"It's only decent to warn you that you will be bored to
extinction. It was a thoroughly dull party from the beginning, but
if you will come I shall be uncommonly grateful. And you and I can
have a little chat by ourselves."
It was only neighbourly to accept.
When Mrs. Strickland introduced me to her husband, he gave me a
rather indifferent hand to shake. Turning to him gaily, she attempted
a small jest.
"I asked him to show him that I really had a husband. I think he
was beginning to doubt it."
Strickland gave the polite little laugh with which people
acknowledge a facetiousness in which they see nothing funny, but did
not speak. New arrivals claimed my host's attention, and I was left
to myself. When at last we were all assembled, waiting for dinner to
be announced, I reflected, while I chatted with the woman I had been
asked to "take in," that civilised man practises a strange ingenuity
in wasting on tedious exercises the brief span of his life. It was
the kind of party which makes you wonder why the hostess has troubled
to bid her guests, and why the guests have troubled to come. There
were ten people. They met with indifference, and would part with
relief. It was, of course, a purely social function. The Stricklands
"owed" dinners to a number of persons, whom they took no interest in,
and so had asked them; these persons had accepted. Why? To avoid the
tedium of dining tete-a-tete, to give their servants a rest,
because there was no reason to refuse, because they were "owed" a
The dining-room was inconveniently crowded. There was a K.C. and
his wife, a Government official and his wife, Mrs. Strickland's sister
and her husband, Colonel MacAndrew, and the wife of a Member of
Parliament. It was because the Member of Parliament found that he
could not leave the House that I had been invited. The respectability
of the party was portentous. The women were too nice to be well
dressed, and too sure of their position to be amusing. The men were
solid. There was about all of them an air of well-satisfied
Everyone talked a little louder than natural in an instinctive
desire to make the party go, and there was a great deal of noise in
the room. But there was no general conversation. Each one talked to
his neighbour; to his neighbour on the right during the soup, fish,
and entree; to his neighbour on the left during the roast, sweet, and
savoury. They talked of the political situation and of golf, of their
children and the latest play, of the pictures at the Royal Academy, of
the weather and their plans for the holidays. There was never a
pause, and the noise grew louder. Mrs. Strickland might congratulate
herself that her party was a success. Her husband played his part with
decorum. Perhaps he did not talk very much, and I fancied there was
towards the end a look of fatigue in the faces of the women on either
side of him. They were finding him heavy. Once or twice Mrs.
Strickland's eyes rested on him somewhat anxiously.
At last she rose and shepherded the ladies out of one room.
Strickland shut the door behind her, and, moving to the other end of
the table, took his place between the K.C. and the Government
official. He passed round the port again and handed us cigars. The
K.C. remarked on the excellence of the wine, and Strickland told us
where he got it. We began to chat about vintages and tobacco. The
K.C. told us of a case he was engaged in, and the Colonel talked about
polo. I had nothing to say and so sat silent, trying politely to show
interest in the conversation; and because I thought no one was in the
least concerned with me, examined Strickland at my ease. He was
bigger than I expected: I do not know why I had imagined him slender
and of insignificant appearance; in point of fact he was broad and
heavy, with large hands and feet, and he wore his evening clothes
clumsily. He gave you somewhat the idea of a coachman dressed up for
the occasion. He was a man of forty, not good-looking, and yet not
ugly, for his features were rather good; but they were all a little
larger than life-size, and the effect was ungainly. He was clean
shaven, and his large face looked uncomfortably naked. His hair was
reddish, cut very short, and his eyes were small, blue or grey. He
looked commonplace. I no longer wondered that Mrs. Strickland felt a
certain embarrassment about him; he was scarcely a credit to a woman
who wanted to make herself a position in the world of art and letters.
It was obvious that he had no social gifts, but these a man can do
without; he had no eccentricity even, to take him out of the common
run; he was just a good, dull, honest, plain man. One would admire
his excellent qualities, but avoid his company. He was null. He was
probably a worthy member of society, a good husband and father, an
honest broker; but there was no reason to waste one's time over him.
The season was drawing to its dusty end, and everyone I knew was
arranging to go away. Mrs. Strickland was taking her family to the
coast of Norfolk, so that the children might have the sea and her
husband golf. We said good-bye to one another, and arranged to meet
in the autumn. But on my last day in town, coming out of the Stores,
I met her with her son and daughter; like myself, she had been making
her final purchases before leaving London, and we were both hot and
tired. I proposed that we should all go and eat ices in the park.
I think Mrs. Strickland was glad to show me her children, and she
accepted my invitation with alacrity. They were even more attractive
than their photographs had suggested, and she was right to be proud of
them. I was young enough for them not to feel shy, and they chattered
merrily about one thing and another. They were extraordinarily nice,
healthy young children. It was very agreeable under the trees.
When in an hour they crowded into a cab to go home, I strolled
idly to my club. I was perhaps a little lonely, and it was with a
touch of envy that I thought of the pleasant family life of which I
had had a glimpse. They seemed devoted to one another. They had
little private jokes of their own which, unintelligible to the
outsider, amused them enormously. Perhaps Charles Strickland was dull
judged by a standard that demanded above all things verbal
scintillation; but his intelligence was adequate to his surroundings,
and that is a passport, not only to reasonable success, but still more
to happiness. Mrs. Strickland was a charming woman, and she loved
him. I pictured their lives, troubled by no untoward adventure,
honest, decent, and, by reason of those two upstanding, pleasant
children, so obviously destined to carry on the normal traditions of
their race and station, not without significance. They would grow old
insensibly; they would see their son and daughter come to years of
reason, marry in due course — the one a pretty girl, future mother of
healthy children; the other a handsome, manly fellow, obviously a
soldier; and at last, prosperous in their dignified retirement,
beloved by their descendants, after a happy, not unuseful life, in the
fullness of their age they would sink into the grave.
That must be the story of innumerable couples, and the pattern of
life it offers has a homely grace. It reminds you of a placid
rivulet, meandering smoothly through green pastures and shaded by
pleasant trees, till at last it falls into the vasty sea; but the sea
is so calm, so silent, so indifferent, that you are troubled suddenly
by a vague uneasiness. Perhaps it is only by a kink in my nature,
strong in me even in those days, that I felt in such an existence, the
share of the great majority, something amiss. I recognised its social
values, I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for
a wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy
delights. In my heart was a desire to live more dangerously. I was
not unprepared for jagged rocks and treacherous shoals if I could only
have change — change and the excitement of the unforeseen.
On reading over what I have written of the Stricklands, I am
conscious that they must seem shadowy. I have been able to invest
them with none of those characteristics which make the persons of a
book exist with a real life of their own; and, wondering if the fault
is mine, I rack my brains to remember idiosyncrasies which might lend
them vividness. I feel that by dwelling on some trick of speech or
some queer habit I should be able to give them a significance peculiar
to themselves. As they stand they are like the figures in an old
tapestry; they do not separate themselves from the background, and at
a distance seem to lose their pattern, so that you have little but a
pleasing piece of colour. My only excuse is that the impression they
made on me was no other. There was just that shadowiness about them
which you find in people whose lives are part of the social organism,
so that they exist in it and by it only. They are like cells in the
body, essential, but, so long as they remain healthy, engulfed in the
momentous whole. The Stricklands were an average family in the middle
class. A pleasant, hospitable woman, with a harmless craze for the
small lions of literary society; a rather dull man, doing his duty in
that state of life in which a merciful Providence had placed him; two
nice-looking, healthy children. Nothing could be more ordinary. I do
not know that there was anything about them to excite the attention
of the curious.
When I reflect on all that happened later, I ask myself if I was
thick-witted not to see that there was in Charles Strickland at least
something out of the common. Perhaps. I think that I have gathered in
the years that intervene between then and now a fair knowledge of
mankind, but even if when I first met the Stricklands I had the
experience which I have now, I do not believe that I should have
judged them differently. But because I have learnt that man is
incalculable, I should not at this time of day be so surprised by the
news that reached me when in the early autumn I returned to London.
I had not been back twenty-four hours before I ran across Rose
Waterford in Jermyn Street.
"You look very gay and sprightly," I said. "What's the matter
She smiled, and her eyes shone with a malice I knew already. It
meant that she had heard some scandal about one of her friends, and
the instinct of the literary woman was all alert.
"You did meet Charles Strickland, didn't you?"
Not only her face, but her whole body, gave a sense of alacrity. I
nodded. I wondered if the poor devil had been hammered on the Stock
Exchange or run over by an omnibus.
"Isn't it dreadful? He's run away from his wife."
Miss Waterford certainly felt that she could not do her subject
justice on the curb of Jermyn Street, and so, like an artist, flung
the bare fact at me and declared that she knew no details. I could
not do her the injustice of supposing that so trifling a circumstance
would have prevented her from giving them, but she was obstinate.
"I tell you I know nothing," she said, in reply to my agitated
questions, and then, with an airy shrug of the shoulders: "I believe
that a young person in a city tea-shop has left her situation."
She flashed a smile at me, and, protesting an engagement with her
dentist, jauntily walked on. I was more interested than distressed.
In those days my experience of life at first hand was small, and it
excited me to come upon an incident among people I knew of the same
sort as I had read in books. I confess that time has now accustomed me
to incidents of this character among my acquaintance. But I was a
little shocked. Strickland was certainly forty, and I thought it
disgusting that a man of his age should concern himself with affairs
of the heart. With the superciliousness of extreme youth, I put
thirty-five as the utmost limit at which a man might fall in love
without making a fool of himself. And this news was slightly
disconcerting to me personally, because I had written from the country
to Mrs. Strickland, announcing my return, and had added that unless I
heard from her to the contrary, I would come on a certain day to drink
a dish of tea with her. This was the very day, and I had received no
word from Mrs. Strickland. Did she want to see me or did she not? It
was likely enough that in the agitation of the moment my note had
escaped her memory. Perhaps I should be wiser not to go. On the
other hand, she might wish to keep the affair quiet, and it might be
highly indiscreet on my part to give any sign that this strange news
had reached me. I was torn between the fear of hurting a nice woman's
feelings and the fear of being in the way. I felt she must be
suffering, and I did not want to see a pain which I could not help;
but in my heart was a desire, that I felt a little ashamed of, to see
how she was taking it. I did not know what to do.
Finally it occurred to me that I would call as though nothing had
happened, and send a message in by the maid asking Mrs. Strickland if
it was convenient for her to see me. This would give her the
opportunity to send me away. But I was overwhelmed with embarrassment
when I said to the maid the phrase I had prepared, and while I waited
for the answer in a dark passage I had to call up all my strength of
mind not to bolt. The maid came back. Her manner suggested to my
excited fancy a complete knowledge of the domestic calamity.
"Will you come this way, sir?" she said.
I followed her into the drawing-room. The blinds were partly
drawn to darken the room, and Mrs. Strickland was sitting with her
back to the light. Her brother-in-law, Colonel MacAndrew, stood in
front of the fireplace, warming his back at an unlit fire. To myself
my entrance seemed excessively awkward. I imagined that my arrival
had taken them by surprise, and Mrs. Strickland had let me come in
only because she had forgotten to put me off. I fancied that the
Colonel resented the interruption.
"I wasn't quite sure if you expected me," I said, trying to seem
"Of course I did. Anne will bring the tea in a minute."
Even in the darkened room, I could not help seeing that Mrs.
Strickland's face was all swollen with tears. Her skin, never very
good, was earthy.
"You remember my brother-in-law, don't you? You met at dinner,
just before the holidays."
We shook hands. I felt so shy that I could think of nothing to
say, but Mrs. Strickland came to my rescue. She asked me what I had
been doing with myself during the summer, and with this help I managed
to make some conversation till tea was brought in. The Colonel asked
for a whisky-and-soda.
"You'd better have one too, Amy," he said.
"No; I prefer tea."
This was the first suggestion that anything untoward had happened.
I took no notice, and did my best to engage Mrs. Strickland in talk.
The Colonel, still standing in front of the fireplace, uttered no
word. I wondered how soon I could decently take my leave, and I asked
myself why on earth Mrs. Strickland had allowed me to come. There
were no flowers, and various knick-knacks, put away during the summer,
had not been replaced; there was something cheerless and stiff about
the room which had always seemed so friendly; it gave you an odd
feeling, as though someone were lying dead on the other side of the
wall. I finished tea.
"Will you have a cigarette?" asked Mrs. Strickland.
She looked about for the box, but it was not to be seen.
"I'm afraid there are none."
Suddenly she burst into tears, and hurried from the room.
I was startled. I suppose now that the lack of cigarettes,
brought as a rule by her husband, forced him back upon her
recollection, and the new feeling that the small comforts she was
used to were missing gave her a sudden pang. She realised that the
old life was gone and done with. It was impossible to keep up our
social pretences any longer.
"I dare say you'd like me to go," I said to the Colonel, getting
"I suppose you've heard that blackguard has deserted her," he
"You know how people gossip," I answered. "I was vaguely told
that something was wrong."
"He's bolted. He's gone off to Paris with a woman. He's left Amy
without a penny."
"I'm awfully sorry," I said, not knowing what else to say.
The Colonel gulped down his whisky. He was a tall, lean man of
fifty, with a drooping moustache and grey hair. He had pale blue eyes
and a weak mouth. I remembered from my previous meeting with him that
he had a foolish face, and was proud of the fact that for the ten
years before he left the army he had played polo three days a week.
"I don't suppose Mrs. Strickland wants to be bothered with me just
now," I said. "Will you tell her how sorry I am? If there's anything
I can do. I shall be delighted to do it."
He took no notice of me.
"I don't know what's to become of her. And then there are the
children. Are they going to live on air? Seventeen years."
"What about seventeen years?"
"They've been married," he snapped. "I never liked him. Of course
he was my brother-in-law, and I made the best of it. Did you think him
a gentleman? She ought never to have married him."
"Is it absolutely final?"
"There's only one thing for her to do, and that's to divorce him.
That's what I was telling her when you came in. 'Fire in with your
petition, my dear Amy,' I said. `You owe it to yourself and you owe
it to the children.' He'd better not let me catch sight of him. I'd
thrash him within an inch of his life."
I could not help thinking that Colonel MacAndrew might have some
difficulty in doing this, since Strickland had struck me as a hefty
fellow, but I did not say anything. It is always distressing when
outraged morality does not possess the strength of arm to administer
direct chastisement on the sinner. I was making up my mind to another
attempt at going when Mrs. Strickland came back. She had dried her
eyes and powdered her nose.
"I'm sorry I broke down," she said. "I'm glad you didn't go away."
She sat down. I did not at all know what to say. I felt a
certain shyness at referring to matters which were no concern of
mine. I did not then know the besetting sin of woman, the passion to
discuss her private affairs with anyone who is willing to listen.
Mrs. Strickland seemed to make an effort over herself.
"Are people talking about it?" she asked.
I was taken aback by her assumption that I knew all about her
"I've only just come back. The only person I've seen is Rose
Mrs. Strickland clasped her hands.
"Tell me exactly what she said." And when I hesitated, she
insisted. "I particularly want to know."
"You know the way people talk. She's not very reliable, is she?
She said your husband had left you."
"Is that all?"
I did not choose to repeat Rose Waterford's parting reference to a
girl from a tea-shop. I lied.
"She didn't say anything about his going with anyone?"
"That's all I wanted to know."
I was a little puzzled, but at all events I understood that I
might now take my leave. When I shook hands with Mrs. Strickland I
told her that if I could be of any use to her I should be very glad.
She smiled wanly.
"Thank you so much. I don't know that anybody can do anything for
Too shy to express my sympathy, I turned to say good-bye to the
Colonel. He did not take my hand.
"I'm just coming. If you're walking up Victoria Street, I'll come
along with you."
"All right," I said. "Come on."
"This is a terrible thing," he said, the moment we got out into
I realised that he had come away with me in order to discuss once
more what he had been already discussing for hours with his
"We don't know who the woman is, you know," he said. "All we know
is that the blackguard's gone to Paris."
"I thought they got on so well."
"So they did. Why, just before you came in Amy said they'd never
had a quarrel in the whole of their married life. You know Amy. There
never was a better woman in the world."
Since these confidences were thrust on me, I saw no harm in asking
a few questions.
"But do you mean to say she suspected nothing?"
"Nothing. He spent August with her and the children in Norfolk.
He was just the same as he'd always been. We went down for two or
three days, my wife and I, and I played golf with him. He came back
to town in September to let his partner go away, and Amy stayed on in
the country. They'd taken a house for six weeks, and at the end of her
tenancy she wrote to tell him on which day she was arriving in London.
He answered from Paris. He said he'd made up his mind not to live
with her any more."
"What explanation did he give?"
"My dear fellow, he gave no explanation. I've seen the letter.
It wasn't more than ten lines."
"But that's extraordinary."
We happened then to cross the street, and the traffic prevented us
from speaking. What Colonel MacAndrew had told me seemed very
improbable, and I suspected that Mrs. Strickland, for reasons of her
own, had concealed from him some part of the facts. It was clear that
a man after seventeen years of wedlock did not leave his wife without
certain occurrences which must have led her to suspect that all was
not well with their married life. The Colonel caught me up.
"Of course, there was no explanation he could give except that
he'd gone off with a woman. I suppose he thought she could find that
out for herself. That's the sort of chap he was."
"What is Mrs. Strickland going to do?"
"Well, the first thing is to get our proofs. I'm going over to
"And what about his business?"
"That's where he's been so artful. He's been drawing in his horns
for the last year."
"Did he tell his partner he was leaving?"
"Not a word."
Colonel MacAndrew had a very sketchy knowledge of business
matters, and I had none at all, so I did not quite understand under
what conditions Strickland had left his affairs. I gathered that the
deserted partner was very angry and threatened proceedings. It
appeared that when everything was settled he would be four or five
hundred pounds out of pocket.
"It's lucky the furniture in the flat is in Amy's name. She'll
have that at all events."
"Did you mean it when you said she wouldn't have a bob?"
"Of course I did. She's got two or three hundred pounds and the
"But how is she going to live?"
The affair seemed to grow more complicated, and the Colonel, with
his expletives and his indignation, confused rather than informed me.
I was glad that, catching sight of the clock at the Army and Navy
Stores, he remembered an engagement to play cards at his club, and so
left me to cut across St. James Park.
A day or two later Mrs. Strickland sent me round a note asking if
I could go and see her that evening after dinner. I found her alone.
Her black dress, simple to austerity, suggested her bereaved
condition, and I was innocently astonished that notwithstanding a real
emotion she was able to dress the part she had to play according to
her notions of seemliness.
"You said that if I wanted you to do anything you wouldn't mind
doing it," she remarked.
"It was quite true."
"Will you go over to Paris and see Charlie?"
I was taken aback. I reflected that I had only seen him once. I
did not know what she wanted me to do.
"Fred is set on going." Fred was Colonel MacAndrew. "But I'm
sure he's not the man to go. He'll only make things worse. I don't
know who else to ask."
Her voice trembled a little, and I felt a brute even to hesitate.
"But I've not spoken ten words to your husband. He doesn't know
me. He'll probably just tell me to go to the devil."
"That wouldn't hurt you," said Mrs. Strickland, smiling.
"What is it exactly you want me to do?"
She did not answer directly.
"I think it's rather an advantage that he doesn't know you. You
see, he never really liked Fred; he thought him a fool; he didn't
understand soldiers. Fred would fly into a passion, and there'd be a
quarrel, and things would be worse instead of better. If you said you
came on my behalf, he couldn't refuse to listen to you."
"I haven't known you very long," I answered. "I don't see how
anyone can be expected to tackle a case like this unless he knows all
the details. I don't want to pry into what doesn't concern me. Why
don't you go and see him yourself?"
"You forget he isn't alone."
I held my tongue. I saw myself calling on Charles Strickland and
sending in my card; I saw him come into the room, holding it between
finger and thumb:
"To what do I owe this honour?"
"I've come to see you about your wife."
"Really. When you are a little older you will doubtless learn the
advantage of minding your own business. If you will be so good as to
turn your head slightly to the left, you will see the door. I wish
I foresaw that it would be difficult to make my exit with dignity,
and I wished to goodness that I had not returned to London till Mrs.
Strickland had composed her difficulties. I stole a glance at her.
She was immersed in thought. Presently she looked up at me, sighed
deeply, and smiled.
"It was all so unexpected," she said. "We'd been married
seventeen years. I sever dreamed that Charlie was the sort of man to
get infatuated with anyone. We always got on very well together. Of
course, I had a great many interests that he didn't share."
"Have you found out who" — I did not quite know how to express
myself — "who the person, who it is he's gone away with?"
"No. No one seems to have an idea. It's so strange. Generally
when a man falls in love with someone people see them about together,
lunching or something, and her friends always come and tell the wife.
I had no warning — nothing. His letter came like a thunderbolt. I
thought he was perfectly happy."
She began to cry, poor thing, and I felt very sorry for her. But
in a little while she grew calmer.
"It's no good making a fool of myself," she said, drying her eyes.
"The only thing is to decide what is the best thing to do."
She went on, talking somewhat at random, now of the recent past,
then of their first meeting and their marriage; but presently I began
to form a fairly coherent picture of their lives; and it seemed to me
that my surmises had not been incorrect. Mrs. Strickland was the
daughter of an Indian civilian, who on his retirement had settled in
the depths of the country, but it was his habit every August to take
his family to Eastbourne for change of air; and it was here, when she
was twenty, that she met Charles Strickland. He was twenty-three.
They played together, walked on the front together, listened together
to the nigger minstrels; and she had made up her mind to accept him a
week before he proposed to her. They lived in London, first in
Hampstead, and then, as he grew more prosperous, in town. Two
children were born to them.
"He always seemed very fond of them. Even if he was tired of me,
I wonder that he had the heart to leave them. It's all so
incredible. Even now I can hardly believe it's true."
At last she showed me the letter he had written. I was curious to
see it, but had not ventured to ask for it.
"MY DEAR AMY,
"I think you will find everything all right in the flat. I have
given Anne your instructions, and dinner will be ready for you and the
children when you come. I shall not be there to meet you. I have
made up my mind to live apart from you, and I am going to Paris in the
morning. I shall post this letter on my arrival. I shall not come
back. My decision is irrevocable.
"Not a word of explanation or regret. Don't you think it's
"It's a very strange letter under the circumstances," I replied.
"There's only one explanation, and that is that he's not himself.
I don't know who this woman is who's got hold of him, but she's made
him into another man. It's evidently been going on a long time."
"What makes you think that?"
"Fred found that out. My husband said he went to the club three
or four nights a week to play bridge. Fred knows one of the members,
and said something about Charles being a great bridge-player. The man
was surprised. He said he'd never even seen Charles in the card-room.
It's quite clear now that when I thought Charles was at his club he
was with her."
I was silent for a moment. Then I thought of the children.
"It must have been difficult to explain to Robert," I said.
"Oh, I never said a word to either of them. You see, we only came
up to town the day before they had to go back to school. I had the
presence of mind to say that their father had been called away on
It could not have been very easy to be bright and careless with
that sudden secret in her heart, nor to give her attention to all the
things that needed doing to get her children comfortably packed off.
Mrs. Strickland's voice broke again.
"And what is to happen to them, poor darlings? How are we going
She struggled for self-control, and I saw her hands clench and
unclench spasmodically. It was dreadfully painful.
"Of course I'll go over to Paris if you think I can do any good,
but you must tell me exactly what you want me to do."
"I want him to come back."
"I understood from Colonel MacAndrew that you'd made up your mind
to divorce him."
"I'll never divorce him," she answered with a sudden violence.
"Tell him that from me. He'll never be able to marry that woman. I'm
as obstinate as he is, and I'll never divorce him. I have to think of
I think she added this to explain her attitude to me, but I
thought it was due to a very natural jealousy rather than to maternal
"Are you in love with him still?"
"I don't know. I want him to come back. If he'll do that we'll
let bygones be bygones. After all, we've been married for seventeen
years. I'm a broadminded woman. I wouldn't have minded what he did
as long as I knew nothing about it. He must know that his infatuation
won't last. If he'll come back now everything can be smoothed over,
and no one will know anything about it."
It chilled me a little that Mrs. Strickland should be concerned
with gossip, for I did not know then how great a part is played in
women's life by the opinion of others. It throws a shadow of
insincerity over their most deeply felt emotions.
It was known where Strickland was staying. His partner, in a
violent letter, sent to his bank, had taunted him with hiding his
whereabouts: and Strickland, in a cynical and humourous reply, had
told his partner exactly where to find him. He was apparently living
in an Hotel.
"I've never heard of it," said Mrs. Strickland. "But Fred knows
it well. He says it's very expensive."
She flushed darkly. I imagined that she saw her husband installed
in a luxurious suite of rooms, dining at one smart restaurant after
another, and she pictured his days spent at race-meetings and his
evenings at the play.
"It can't go on at his age," she said. "After all, he's forty. I
could understand it in a young man, but I think it's horrible in a man
of his years, with children who are nearly grown up. His health will
never stand it."
Anger struggled in her breast with misery.
"Tell him that our home cries out for him. Everything is just the
same, and yet everything is different. I can't live without him. I'd
sooner kill myself. Talk to him about the past, and all we've gone
through together. What am I to say to the children when they ask for
him? His room is exactly as it was when he left it. It's waiting for
him. We're all waiting for him."
Now she told me exactly what I should say. She gave me elaborate
answers to every possible observation of his.
"You will do everything you can for me?" she said pitifully. "Tell
him what a state I'm in."
I saw that she wished me to appeal to his sympathies by every
means in my power. She was weeping freely. I was extraordinarily
touched. I felt indignant at Strickland's cold cruelty, and I
promised to do all I could to bring him back. I agreed to go over on
the next day but one, and to stay in Paris till I had achieved
something. Then, as it was growing late and we were both exhausted by
so much emotion, I left her.
During the journey I thought over my errand with misgiving. Now
that I was free from the spectacle of Mrs. Strickland's distress I
could consider the matter more calmly. I was puzzled by the
contradictions that I saw in her behaviour. She was very unhappy, but
to excite my sympathy she was able to make a show of her unhappiness.
It was evident that she had been prepared to weep, for she had
provided herself with a sufficiency of handkerchiefs; I admired her
forethought, but in retrospect it made her tears perhaps less moving.
I could not decide whether she desired the return of her husband
because she loved him, or because she dreaded the tongue of scandal;
and I was perturbed by the suspicion that the anguish of love
contemned was alloyed in her broken heart with the pangs, sordid to my
young mind, of wounded vanity. I had not yet learnt how contradictory
is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere,
how much baseness in the noble, nor how much goodness in the
But there was something of an adventure in my trip, and my spirits
rose as I approached Paris. I saw myself, too, from the dramatic
standpoint, and I was pleased with my role of the trusted friend
bringing back the errant husband to his forgiving wife. I made up my
mind to see Strickland the following evening, for I felt instinctively
that the hour must be chosen with delicacy. An appeal to the emotions
is little likely to be effectual before luncheon. My own thoughts
were then constantly occupied with love, but I never could imagine
connubial bliss till after tea.
I enquired at my hotel for that in which Charles Strickland was
living. It was called the Hotel des Belges. But the concierge,
somewhat to my surprise, had never heard of it. I had understood from
Mrs. Strickland that it was a large and sumptuous place at the back of
the Rue de Rivoli. We looked it out in the directory. The only hotel
of that name was in the Rue des Moines. The quarter was not
fashionable; it was not even respectable. I shook my head.
"I'm sure that's not it," I said.
The concierge shrugged his shoulders. There was no other hotel of
that name in Paris. It occurred to me that Strickland had concealed
his address, after all. In giving his partner the one I knew he was
perhaps playing a trick on him. I do not know why I had an inkling
that it would appeal to Strickland's sense of humour to bring a
furious stockbroker over to Paris on a fool's errand to an ill-famed
house in a mean street. Still, I thought I had better go and see.
Next day about six o'clock I took a cab to the Rue des Moines, but
dismissed it at the corner, since I preferred to walk to the hotel and
look at it before I went in. It was a street of small shops
subservient to the needs of poor people, and about the middle of it,
on the left as I walked down, was the Hotel des Belges. My own hotel
was modest enough, but it was magnificent in comparison with this. It
was a tall, shabby building, that cannot have been painted for years,
and it had so bedraggled an air that the houses on each side of it
looked neat and clean. The dirty windows were all shut. It was not
here that Charles Strickland lived in guilty splendour with the
unknown charmer for whose sake he had abandoned honour and duty. I was
vexed, for I felt that I had been made a fool of, and I nearly turned
away without making an enquiry. I went in only to be able to tell
Mrs. Strickland that I had done my best.
The door was at the side of a shop. It stood open, and just
within was a sign: Bureau au premier. I walked up narrow
stairs, and on the landing found a sort of box, glassed in, within
which were a desk and a couple of chairs. There was a bench outside,
on which it might be presumed the night porter passed uneasy nights.
There was no one about, but under an electric bell was written Garcon. I rang, and presently a waiter appeared. He was a young
man with furtive eyes and a sullen look. He was in shirt-sleeves and
I do not know why I made my enquiry as casual as possible.
"Does Mr. Strickland live here by any chance?" I asked.
"Number thirty-two. On the sixth floor."
I was so surprised that for a moment I did not answer.
"Is he in?"
The waiter looked at a board in the
"He hasn't left his key. Go up and you'll see."
I thought it as well to put one more question.
"Madame est la?"
"Monsieur est seul."
The waiter looked at me suspiciously as I made my way upstairs.
They were dark and airless. There was a foul and musty smell. Three
flights up a Woman in a dressing-gown, with touzled hair, opened a
door and looked at me silently as I passed. At length I reached the
sixth floor, and knocked at the door numbered thirty-two. There was a
sound within, and the door was partly opened. Charles Strickland
stood before me. He uttered not a word. He evidently did not know me.
I told him my name. I tried my best to assume an airy manner.
"You don't remember me. I had the pleasure of dining with you
"Come in," he said cheerily. "I'm delighted to see you. Take a
I entered. It was a very small room, overcrowded with furniture
of the style which the French know as Louis Philippe. There was a
large wooden bedstead on which was a billowing red eiderdown, and
there was a large wardrobe, a round table, a very small washstand, and
two stuffed chairs covered with red rep. Everything was dirty and
shabby. There was no sign of the abandoned luxury that Colonel
MacAndrew had so confidently described. Strickland threw on the floor
the clothes that burdened one of the chairs, and I sat down on it.
"What can I do for you?" he asked.
In that small room he seemed even bigger than I remembered him. He
wore an old Norfolk jacket, and he had not shaved for several days.
When last I saw him he was spruce enough, but he looked ill at ease:
now, untidy and ill-kempt, he looked perfectly at home. I did not
know how he would take the remark I had prepared.
"I've come to see you on behalf of your wife."
"I was just going out to have a drink before dinner. You'd better
come too. Do you like absinthe?"
"I can drink it."
"Come on, then."
He put on a bowler hat much in need of brushing.
"We might dine together. You owe me a dinner, you know."
"Certainly. Are you alone?"
I flattered myself that I had got in that important question very
"Oh yes. In point of fact I've not spoken to a soul for three
days. My French isn't exactly brilliant."
I wondered as I preceded him downstairs what had happened to the
little lady in the tea-shop. Had they quarrelled already, or was his
infatuation passed? It seemed hardly likely if, as appeared, he had
been taking steps for a year to make his desperate plunge. We walked
to the Avenue de Clichy, and sat down at one of the tables on the
pavement of a large cafe.
The Avenue de Clichy was crowded at that hour, and a lively fancy
might see in the passers-by the personages of many a sordid romance.
There were clerks and shopgirls; old fellows who might have stepped
out of the pages of Honore de Balzac; members, male and female, of the
professions which make their profit of the frailties of mankind.
There is in the streets of the poorer quarters of Paris a thronging
vitality which excites the blood and prepares the soul for the
"Do you know Paris well?" I asked.
"No. We came on our honeymoon. I haven't been since."
"How on earth did you find out your hotel?"
"It was recommended to me. I wanted something cheap."
The absinthe came, and with due solemnity we dropped water over
the melting sugar.
"I thought I'd better tell you at once why I had come to see you,"
I said, not without embarrassment.
His eyes twinkled. "I thought somebody would come along sooner or
later. I've had a lot of letters from Amy."
"Then you know pretty well what I've got to say."
"I've not read them."
I lit a cigarette to give myself a moment's time. I did not quite
know now how to set about my mission. The eloquent phrases I had
arranged, pathetic or indignant, seemed out of place on the Avenue de
Clichy. Suddenly he gave a chuckle.
"Beastly job for you this, isn't it?"
"Oh, I don't know," I answered.
"Well, look here, you get it over, and then we'll have a jolly
"Has it occurred to you that your wife is frightfully unhappy?"
"She'll get over it."
I cannot describe the extraordinary callousness with which he made
this reply. It disconcerted me, but I did my best not to show it. I
adopted the tone used by my Uncle Henry, a clergyman, when he was
asking one of his relatives for a subscription to the Additional
"You don't mind my talking to you frankly?"
He shook his head, smiling.
"Has she deserved that you should treat her like this?"
"Have you any complaint to make against her?"
"Then, isn't it monstrous to leave her in this fashion, after
seventeen years of married life, without a fault to find with her?"
I glanced at him with surprise. His cordial agreement with all I
said cut the ground from under my feet. It made my position
complicated, not to say ludicrous. I was prepared to be persuasive,
touching, and hortatory, admonitory and expostulating, if need be
vituperative even, indignant and sarcastic; but what the devil does a
mentor do when the sinner makes no bones about confessing his sin? I
had no experience, since my own practice has always been to deny
"What, then?" asked Strickland.
I tried to curl my lip.
"Well, if you acknowledge that, there doesn't seem much more to be
"I don't think there is."
I felt that I was not carrying out my embassy with any great skill.
I was distinctly nettled.
"Hang it all, one can't leave a woman without a bob."
"How is she going to live?"
"I've supported her for seventeen years. Why shouldn't she
support herself for a change?"
"Let her try."
Of course there were many things I might have answered to this. I
might have spoken of the economic position of woman, of the contract,
tacit and overt, which a man accepts by his marriage, and of much
else; but I felt that there was only one point which really signified.
"Don't you care for her any more?"
"Not a bit," he replied.
The matter was immensely serious for all the parties concerned,
but there was in the manner of his answer such a cheerful effrontery
that I had to bite my lips in order not to laugh. I reminded myself
that his behaviour was abominable. I worked myself up into a state of
"Damn it all, there are your children to think of. They've never
done you any harm. They didn't ask to be brought into the world. If
you chuck everything like this, they'll be thrown on the streets.
"They've had a good many years of comfort. It's much more than
the majority of children have. Besides, somebody will look after
them. When it comes to the point, the MacAndrews will pay for their
"But aren't you fond of them? They're such awfully nice kids. Do
you mean to say you don't want to have anything more to do with them?"
"I liked them all right when they were kids, but now they're
growing up I haven't got any particular feeling for them."
"It's just inhuman."
"I dare say."
"You don't seem in the least ashamed."
I tried another tack.
"Everyone will think you a perfect swine."
"Won't it mean anything to you to know that people loathe and
His brief answer was so scornful that it made my question, natural
though it was, seem absurd. I reflected for a minute or two.
"I wonder if one can live quite comfortably when one's conscious
of the disapproval of one's fellows? Are you sure it won't begin to
worry you? Everyone has some sort of a conscience, and sooner or
later it will find you out. Supposing your wife died, wouldn't you be
tortured by remorse?"
He did not answer, and I waited for some time for him to speak.
At last I had to break the silence myself.
"What have you to say to that?"
"Only that you're a damned fool."
"At all events, you can be forced to support your wife and
children," I retorted, somewhat piqued. "I suppose the law has some
protection to offer them."
"Can the law get blood out of a stone? I haven't any money. I've
got about a hundred pounds."
I began to be more puzzled than before. It was true that his
hotel pointed to the most straitened circumstances.
"What are you going to do when you've spent that?"
He was perfectly cool, and his eyes kept that mocking smile which
made all I said seem rather foolish. I paused for a little while to
consider what I had better say next. But it was he who spoke first.
"Why doesn't Amy marry again? She's comparatively young, and
she's not unattractive. I can recommend her as an excellent wife. If
she wants to divorce me I don't mind giving her the necessary
Now it was my turn to smile. He was very cunning, but it was
evidently this that he was aiming at. He had some reason to conceal
the fact that he had run away with a woman, and he was using every
precaution to hide her whereabouts. I answered with decision.
"Your wife says that nothing you can do will ever induce her to
divorce you. She's quite made up her mind. You can put any
possibility of that definitely out of your head."
He looked at me with an astonishment that was certainly not
feigned. The smile abandoned his lips, and he spoke quite seriously.
"But, my dear fellow, I don't care. It doesn't matter a twopenny
damn to me one way or the other."
"Oh, come now; you mustn't think us such fools as all that. We
happen to know that you came away with a woman."
He gave a little start, and then suddenly burst into a shout of
laughter. He laughed so uproariously that people sitting near us
looked round, and some of them began to laugh too.
"I don't see anything very amusing in that."
"Poor Amy," he grinned.
Then his face grew bitterly scornful.
"What poor minds women have got! Love. It's always love. They
think a man leaves only because he wants others. Do you think I should
be such a fool as to do what I've done for a woman?"
"Do you mean to say you didn't leave your wife for another woman?"
"Of course not."
"On your word of honour?"
I don't know why I asked for that. It was very ingenuous of me.
"On my word of honour."
"Then, what in God's name have you left her for?"
"I want to paint."
I looked at him for quite a long time. I did not understand. I
thought he was mad. It must be remembered that I was very young, and
I looked upon him as a middle-aged man. I forgot everything but my
"But you're forty."
"That's what made me think it was high time to begin."
"Have you ever painted?"
"I rather wanted to be a painter when I was a boy, but my father
made me go into business because he said there was no money in art. I
began to paint a bit a year ago. For the last year I've been going to
some classes at night."
"Was that where you went when Mrs. Strickland thought you were
playing bridge at your club?"
"Why didn't you tell her?"
"I preferred to keep it to myself."
"Can you paint?"
"Not yet. But I shall. That's why I've come over here. I
couldn't get what I wanted in London. Perhaps I can here."
"Do you think it's likely that a man will do any good when he
starts at your age? Most men begin painting at eighteen."
"I can learn quicker than I could when I was eighteen."
"What makes you think you have any talent?"
He did not answer for a minute. His gaze rested on the passing
throng, but I do not think he saw it. His answer was no answer.
"I've got to paint."
"Aren't you taking an awful chance?"
He looked at me. His eyes had something strange in them, so that
I felt rather uncomfortable.
"How old are you? Twenty-three?"
It seemed to me that the question was beside the point. It was
natural that I should take chances; but he was a man whose youth was
past, a stockbroker with a position of respectability, a wife and two
children. A course that would have been natural for me was absurd for
him. I wished to be quite fair.
"Of course a miracle may happen, and you may be a great painter,
but you must confess the chances are a million to one against it.
It'll be an awful sell if at the end you have to acknowledge you've
made a hash of it."
"I've got to paint," he repeated.
"Supposing you're never anything more than third-rate, do you
think it will have been worth while to give up everything? After all,
in any other walk in life it doesn't matter if you're not very good;
you can get along quite comfortably if you're just adequate; but it's
different with an artist."
"You blasted fool," he said.
"I don't see why, unless it's folly to say the obvious."
"I tell you I've got to paint. I can't help myself. When a man
falls into the water it doesn't matter how he swims, well or badly:
he's got to get out or else he'll drown."
There was real passion in his voice, and in spite of myself I was
impressed. I seemed to feel in him some vehement power that was
struggling within him; it gave me the sensation of something very
strong, overmastering, that held him, as it were, against his will. I
could not understand. He seemed really to be possessed of a devil,
and I felt that it might suddenly turn and rend him. Yet he looked
ordinary enough. My eyes, resting on him curiously, caused him no
embarrassment. I wondered what a stranger would have taken him to
be, sitting there in his old Norfolk jacket and his unbrushed bowler;
his trousers were baggy, his hands were not clean; and his face, with
the red stubble of the unshaved chin, the little eyes, and the large,
aggressive nose, was uncouth and coarse. His mouth was large, his
lips were heavy and sensual. No; I could not have placed him.
"You won't go back to your wife?" I said at last.
"She's willing to forget everything that's happened and start
afresh. She'll never make you a single reproach."
"She can go to hell."
"You don't care if people think you an utter blackguard? You don't
care if she and your children have to beg their bread?"
"Not a damn."
I was silent for a moment in order to give greater force to my
next remark. I spoke as deliberately as I could.
"You are a most unmitigated cad."
"Now that you've got that off your chest, let's go and have
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
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
Mrs. Strickland gave mt 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.
What followed showed that Mrs. Strickland was a woman of
character. Whatever anguish she suffered she concealed. She saw
shrewdly that the world is quickly bored by the recital of misfortune,
and willingly avoids the sight of distress. Whenever she went out —
and compassion for her misadventure made her friends eager to
entertain her — she bore a demeanour that was perfect. She was
brave, but not too obviously; cheerful, but not brazenly; and she
seemed more anxious to listen to the troubles of others than to
discuss her own. Whenever she spoke of her husband it was with pity.
Her attitude towards him at first perplexed me. One day she said to
"You know, I'm convinced you were mistaken about Charles being
alone. From what I've been able to gather from certain sources that I
can't tell you, I know that he didn't leave England by himself."
"In that case he has a positive genius for covering up his tracks."
She looked away and slightly coloured.
"What I mean is, if anyone talks to you about it, please don't
contradict it if they say he eloped with somebody."
"Of course not."
She changed the conversation as though it were a matter to which
she attached no importance. I discovered presently that a peculiar
story was circulating among her friends. They said that Charles
Strickland had become infatuated with a French dancer, whom he had
first seen in the ballet at the Empire, and had accompanied her to
Paris. I could not find out how this had arisen, but, singularly
enough, it created much sympathy for Mrs. Strickland, and at the same
time gave her not a little prestige. This was not without its use in
the calling which she had decided to follow. Colonel MacAndrew had
not exaggerated when he said she would be penniless, and it was
necessary for her to earn her own living as quickly as she could. She
made up her mind to profit by her acquaintance with so many writers,
and without loss of time began to learn shorthand and typewriting.
Her education made it likely that she would be a typist more
efficient than the average, and her story made her claims appealing.
Her friends promised to send her work, and took care to recommend her
to all theirs.
The MacAndrews, who were childless and in easy circumstances,
arranged to undertake the care of the children, and Mrs. Strickland
had only herself to provide for. She let her flat and sold her
furniture. She settled in two tiny rooms in Westminster, and faced
the world anew. She was so efficient that it was certain she would
make a success of the adventure.
It was about five years after this that I decided to live in Paris
for a while. I was growing stale in London. I was tired of doing
much the same thing every day. My friends pursued their course with
uneventfulness; they had no longer any surprises for me, and when I
met them I knew pretty well what they would say; even their
love-affairs had a tedious banality. We were like tram-cars running on
their lines from terminus to terminus, and it was possible to
calculate within small limits the number of passengers they would
carry. Life was ordered too pleasantly. I was seized with panic. I
gave up my small apartment, sold my few belongings, and resolved to
I called on Mrs. Strickland before I left. I had not seen her for
some time, and I noticed changes in her; it was not only that she was
older, thinner, and more lined; I think her character had altered.
She had made a success of her business, and now had an office in
Chancery Lane; she did little typing herself, but spent her time
correcting the work of the four girls she employed. She had had the
idea of giving it a certain daintiness, and she made much use of blue
and red inks; she bound the copy in coarse paper, that looked vaguely
like watered silk, in various pale colours; and she had acquired a
reputation for neatness and accuracy. She was making money. But she
could not get over the idea that to earn her living was somewhat
undignified, and she was inclined to remind you that she was a lady by
birth. She could not help bringing into her conversation the names of
people she knew which would satisfy you that she had not sunk in the
social scale. She was a little ashamed of her courage and business
capacity, but delighted that she was going to dine the next night with
a K.C. who lived in South Kensington. She was pleased to be able to
tell you that her son was at Cambridge, and it was with a little laugh
that she spoke of the rush of dances to which her daughter, just out,
was invited. I suppose I said a very stupid thing.
"Is she going into your business?" I asked.
"Oh no; I wouldn't let her do that," Mrs. Strickland answered.
"She's so pretty. I'm sure she'll marry well."
"I should have thought it would be a help to you."
"Several people have suggested that she should go on the stage,
but of course I couldn't consent to that, I know all the chief
dramatists, and I could get her a part to-morrow, but I shouldn't like
her to mix with all sorts of people."
I was a little chilled by Mrs. Strickland's exclusiveness.
"Do you ever hear of your husband?"
"No; I haven't heard a word. He may be dead for all I know."
"I may run across him in Paris. Would you like me to let you know
She hesitated a minute.
"If he's in any real want I'm prepared to help him a little. I'd
send you a certain sum of money, and you could give it him gradually,
as he needed it."
"That's very good of you," I said.
But I knew it was not kindness that prompted the offer. It is not
true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that
sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and
In point of fact, I met Strickland before I had been a fortnight
I quickly found myself a tiny apartment on the fifth floor of a
house in the Rue des Dames, and for a couple of hundred francs bought
at a second-hand dealer's enough furniture to make it habitable. I
arranged with the concierge to make my coffee in the morning and to
keep the place clean. Then I went to see my friend Dirk Stroeve.
Dirk Stroeve was one of those persons whom, according to your
character, you cannot think of without derisive laughter or an
embarrassed shrug of the shoulders. Nature had made him a buffoon.
He was a painter, but a very bad one, whom I had met in Rome, and I
still remembered his pictures. He had a genuine enthusiasm for the
commonplace. His soul palpitating with love of art, he painted the
models who hung about the stairway of Bernini in the Piazza de Spagna,
undaunted by their obvious picturesqueness; and his studio was full of
canvases on which were portrayed moustachioed, large-eyed peasants in
peaked hats, urchins in becoming rags, and women in bright petticoats.
Sometimes they lounged at the steps of a church, and sometimes
dallied among cypresses against a cloudless sky; sometimes they made
love by a Renaissance well-head, and sometimes they wandered through
the Campagna by the side of an ox-waggon. They were carefully drawn
and carefully painted. A photograph could not have been more exact.
One of the painters at the Villa Medici had called him Le Maitre
de la Boite a Chocoloats. To look at his pictures you would have
thought that Monet, Manet, and the rest of the Impressionists had
"I don't pretend to be a great painter," he said, "I'm not a
Michael Angelo, no, but I have something. I sell. I bring romance
into the homes of all sorts of people. Do you know, they buy my
pictures not only in Holland, but in Norway and Sweden and Denmark?
It's mostly merchants who buy them, and rich tradesmen. You can't
imagine what the winters are like in those countries, so long and dark
and cold. They like to think that Italy is like my pictures. That's
what they expect. That's what I expected Italy to be before I came
And I think that was the vision that had remained with him always,
dazzling his eyes so that he could not see the truth; and
notwithstanding the brutality of fact, he continued to see with the
eyes of the spirit an Italy of romantic brigands and picturesque
ruins. It was an ideal that he painted — a poor one, common and
shop-soiled, but still it was an ideal; and it gave his character a
It was because I felt this that Dirk Stroeve was not to me, as to
others, merely an object of ridicule. His fellow-painters made no
secret of their contempt for his work, but he earned a fair amount of
money, and they did not hesitate to make free use of his purse. He
was generous, and the needy, laughing at him because he believed so
naively their stories of distress, borrowed from him with effrontery.
He was very emotional, yet his feeling, so easily aroused, had in it
something absurd, so that you accepted his kindness, but felt no
gratitude. To take money from him was like robbing a child, and you
despised him because he was so foolish. I imagine that a pickpocket,
proud of his light fingers, must feel a sort of indignation with the
careless woman who leaves in a cab a vanity-bag with all her jewels in
it. Nature had made him a butt, but had denied him insensibility. He
writhed under the jokes, practical and otherwise, which were
perpetually made at his expense, and yet never ceased, it seemed
wilfully, to expose himself to them. He was constantly wounded, and
yet his good- nature was such that he could not bear malice: the viper
might sting him, but he never learned by experience, and had no
sooner recovered from his pain than he tenderly placed it once more
in his bosom. His life was a tragedy written in the terms of
knockabout farce. Because I did not laugh at him he was grateful to
me, and he used to pour into my sympathetic ear the long list of his
troubles. The saddest thing about them was that they were grotesque,
and the more pathetic they were, the more you wanted to laugh.
But though so bad a painter, he had a very delicate feeling for
art, and to go with him to picture-galleries was a rare treat. His
enthusiasm was sincere and his criticism acute. He was catholic. He
had not only a true appreciation of the old masters, but sympathy with
the moderns. He was quick to discover talent, and his praise was
generous. I think I have never known a man whose judgment was surer.
And he was better educated than most painters. He was not, like most
of them, ignorant of kindred arts, and his taste for music and
literature gave depth and variety to his comprehension of painting.
To a young man like myself his advice and guidance were of
When I left Rome I corresponded with him, and about once in two
months received from him long letters in queer English, which brought
before me vividly his spluttering, enthusiastic, gesticulating
conversation. Some time before I went to Paris he had married an
Englishwoman, and was now settled in a studio in Montmartre. I had
not seen him for four years, and had never met his wife.
I had not announced my arrival to Stroeve, and when I rang the
bell of his studio, on opening the door himself, for a moment he did
not know me. Then he gave a cry of delighted surprise and drew me in.
It was charming to be welcomed with so much eagerness. His wife was
seated near the stove at her sewing, and she rose as I came in. He
"Don't you remember?" he said to her. "I've talked to you about
him often." And then to me: "But why didn't you let me know you were
coming? How long have you been here? How long are you going to stay?
Why didn't you come an hour earlier, and we would have dined
He bombarded me with questions. He sat me down in a chair,
patting me as though I were a cushion, pressed cigars upon me, cakes,
wine. He could not let me alone. He was heart-broken because he had
no whisky, wanted to make coffee for me, racked his brain for
something he could possibly do for me, and beamed and laughed, and in
the exuberance of his delight sweated at every pore.
"You haven't changed," I said, smiling, as I looked at him.
He had the same absurd appearance that I remembered. He was a fat
little man, with short legs, young still — he could not have been
more than thirty — but prematurely bald. His face was perfectly
round, and he had a very high colour, a white skin, red cheeks, and
red lips. His eyes were blue and round too, he wore large gold-rimmed
spectacles, and his eyebrows were so fair that you could not see them.
He reminded you of those jolly, fat merchants that Rubens painted.
When I told him that I meant to live in Paris for a while, and had
taken an apartment, he reproached me bitterly for not having let him
know. He would have found me an apartment himself, and lent me
furniture — did I really mean that I had gone to the expense of
buying it? — and he would have helped me to move in. He really
looked upon it as unfriendly that I had not given him the opportunity
of making himself useful to me. Meanwhile, Mrs. Stroeve sat quietly
mending her stockings, without talking, and she listened to all he
said with a quiet smile on her lips.
"So, you see, I'm married," he said suddenly; "what do you think
of my wife?"
He beamed at her, and settled his spectacles on the bridge of his
nose. The sweat made them constantly slip down.
"What on earth do you expect me to say to that?" I laughed.
"Really, Dirk," put in Mrs. Stroeve, smiling.
"But isn't she wonderful? I tell you, my boy, lose no time; get
married as soon as ever you can. I'm the happiest man alive. Look at
her sitting there. Doesn't she make a picture? Chardin, eh? I've
seen all the most beautiful women in the world; I've never seen anyone
more beautiful than Madame Dirk Stroeve."
"If you don't be quiet, Dirk, I shall go away."
"Mon petit chou", he said.
She flushed a little, embarrassed by the passion in his tone. His
letters had told me that he was very much in love with his wife, and I
saw that he could hardly take his eyes off her. I could not tell if
she loved him. Poor pantaloon, he was not an object to excite love,
but the smile in her eyes was affectionate, and it was possible that
her reserve concealed a very deep feeling. She was not the ravishing
creature that his love-sick fancy saw, but she had a grave comeliness.
She was rather tall, and her gray dress, simple and quite well-cut,
did not hide the fact that her figure was beautiful. It was a figure
that might have appealed more to the sculptor than to the costumier.
Her hair, brown and abundant, was plainly done, her face was very
pale, and her features were good without being distinguished. She had
quiet gray eyes. She just missed being beautiful, and in missing it
was not even pretty. But when Stroeve spoke of Chardin it was not
without reason, and she reminded me curiously of that pleasant
housewife in her mob-cap and apron whom the great painter has
immortalised. I could imagine her sedately busy among her pots and
pans, making a ritual of her household duties, so that they acquired a
moral significance; I did not suppose that she was clever or could
ever be amusing, but there was something in her grave intentness which
excited my interest. Her reserve was not without mystery. I wondered
why she had married Dirk Stroeve. Though she was English, I could not
exactly place her, and it was not obvious from what rank in society
she sprang, what had been her upbringing, or how she had lived before
her marriage. She was very silent, but when she spoke it was with a
pleasant voice, and her manners were natural.
I asked Stroeve if he was working.
"Working? I'm painting better than I've ever painted before."
We sat in the studio, and he waved his hand to an unfinished
picture on an easel. I gave a little start. He was painting a group
of Italian peasants, in the costume of the Campagna, lounging on the
steps of a Roman church.
"Is that what you're doing now?" I asked.
"Yes. I can get my models here just as well as in Rome."
"Don't you think it's very beautiful?" said Mrs. Stroeve.
"This foolish wife of mine thinks I'm a great artist," said he.
His apologetic laugh did not disguise the pleasure that he felt.
His eyes lingered on his picture. It was strange that his critical
sense, so accurate and unconventional when he dealt with the work of
others, should be satisfied in himself with what was hackneyed and
vulgar beyond belief.
"Show him some more of your pictures," she said.
Though he had suffered so much from the ridicule of his friends,
Dirk Stroeve, eager for praise and naively self-satisfied, could
never resist displaying his work. He brought out a picture of two
curly-headed Italian urchins playing marbles.
"Aren't they sweet?" said Mrs. Stroeve.
And then he showed me more. I discovered that in Paris he had
been painting just the same stale, obviously picturesque things that
he had painted for years in Rome. It was all false, insincere,
shoddy; and yet no one was more honest, sincere, and frank than Dirk
Stroeve. Who could resolve the contradiction?
I do not know what put it into my head to ask:
"I say, have you by any chance run across a painter called Charles
"You don't mean to say you know him?" cried Stroeve.
"Beast," said his wife.
"Ma pauvre cherie." He went over to her and kissed both her
hands. "She doesn't like him. How strange that you should know
"I don't like bad manners," said Mrs. Stroeve.
Dirk, laughing still, turned to me to explain.
"You see, I asked him to come here one day and look at my
pictures. Well, he came, and I showed him everything I had." Stroeve
hesitated a moment with embarrassment. I do not know why he had begun
the story against himself; he felt an awkwardness at finishing it.
"He looked at — at my pictures, and he didn't say anything. I
thought he was reserving his judgment till the end. And at last I
said: `There, that's the lot!' He said: `I came to ask you to lend
me twenty francs.'"
"And Dirk actually gave it him," said his wife indignantly.
"I was so taken aback. I didn't like to refuse. He put the money
in his pocket, just nodded, said 'Thanks,' and walked out."
Dirk Stroeve, telling the story, had such a look of blank
astonishment on his round, foolish face that it was almost impossible
not to laugh.
"I shouldn't have minded if he'd said my pictures were bad, but he
said nothing — nothing."
will tell the story, Dirk," Said his wife.
It was lamentable that one was more amused by the ridiculous
figure cut by the Dutchman than outraged by Strickland's brutal
treatment of him.
"I hope I shall never see him again," said Mrs. Stroeve.
Stroeve smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He had already
recovered his good-humour.
"The fact remains that he's a great artist, a very great artist."
"Strickland?" I exclaimed. "It can't be the same man."
"A big fellow with a red beard. Charles Strickland. An
"He had no beard when I knew him, but if he has grown one it might
well be red. The man I'm thinking of only began painting five years
"That's it. He's a great artist."
"Have I ever been mistaken?" Dirk asked me. "I tell you he has
genius. I'm convinced of it. In a hundred years, if you and I are
remembered at all, it will be because we knew Charles Strickland."
I was astonished, and at the same time I was very much excited. I
remembered suddenly my last talk with him.
"Where can one see his work?" I asked. "Is he having any success?
Where is he living?"
"No; he has no success. I don't think he's ever sold a picture.
When you speak to men about him they only laugh. But I know
he's a great artist. After all, they laughed at Manet. Corot never
sold a picture. I don't know where he lives, but I can take you to
see him. He goes to a cafe in the Avenue de Clichy at seven o'clock
every evening. If you like we'll go there to-morrow."
"I'm not sure if he'll wish to see me. I think I may remind him
of a time he prefers to forget. But I'll come all the same. Is there
any chance of seeing any of his pictures?"
"Not from him. He won't show you a thing. There's a little
dealer I know who has two or three. But you mustn't go without me;
you wouldn't understand. I must show them to you myself."
"Dirk, you make me impatient," said Mrs. Stroeve. "How can you
talk like that about his pictures when he treated you as he did?" She
turned to me. "Do you know, when some Dutch people came here to buy
Dirk's pictures he tried to persuade them to buy Strickland's? He
insisted on bringing them here to show."
you think of them?" I asked her, smiling.
"They were awful."
"Ah, sweetheart, you don't understand."
"Well, your Dutch people were furious with you. They thought you
were having a joke with them."
Dirk Stroeve took off his spectacles and wiped them. His flushed
face was shining with excitement.
"Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious
thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless
passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange
that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment
of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know
it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It
is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own
heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination."
"Why did I always think your pictures beautiful, Dirk? I admired
them the very first time I saw them."
Stroeve's lips trembled a little.
"Go to bed, my precious. I will walk a few steps with our friend,
and then I will come back."
Dirk Stroeve agreed to fetch me on the following evening and take
me to the cafe at which Strickland was most likely to be found. I was
interested to learn that it was the same as that at which Strickland
and I had drunk absinthe when I had gone over to Paris to see him.
The fact that he had never changed suggested a sluggishness of habit
which seemed to me characteristic.
"There he is," said Stroeve, as we reached the cafe.
Though it was October, the evening was warm, and the tables on the
pavement were crowded. I ran my eyes over them, but did not see
"Look. Over there, in the corner. He's playing chess."
I noticed a man bending over a chess-board, but could see only a
large felt hat and a red beard. We threaded our way among the tables
till we came to him.
He looked up.
"Hulloa, fatty. What do you want?"
"I've brought an old friend to see you."
Strickland gave me a glance, and evidently did not recognise me.
He resumed his scrutiny of the chessboard.
"Sit down, and don't make a noise," he said.
He moved a piece and straightway became absorbed in the game. Poor
Stroeve gave me a troubled look, but I was not disconcerted by so
little. I ordered something to drink, and waited quietly till
Strickland had finished. I welcomed the opportunity to examine him at
my ease. I certainly should never have known him. In the first place
his red beard, ragged and untrimmed, hid much of his face, and his
hair was long; but the most surprising change in him was his extreme
thinness. It made his great nose protrude more arrogantly; it
emphasized his cheekbones; it made his eyes seem larger. There were
deep hollows at his temples. His body was cadaverous. He wore the
same suit that I had seen him in five years before; it was torn and
stained, threadbare, and it hung upon him loosely, as though it had
been made for someone else. I noticed his hands, dirty, with long
nails; they were merely bone and sinew, large and strong; but I had
forgotten that they were so shapely. He gave me an extraordinary
impression as he sat there, his attention riveted on his game — an
impression of great strength; and I could not understand why it was
that his emaciation somehow made it more striking.
Presently, after moving, he leaned back and gazed with a curious
abstraction at his antagonist. This was a fat, bearded Frenchman.
The Frenchman considered the position, then broke suddenly into
jovial expletives, and with an impatient gesture, gathering up the
pieces, flung them into their box. He cursed Strickland freely, then,
calling for the waiter, paid for the drinks, and left. Stroeve drew
his chair closer to the table.
"Now I suppose we can talk," he said.
Strickland's eyes rested on him, and there was in them a malicious
expression. I felt sure he was seeking for some gibe, could think of
none, and so was forced to silence.
"I've brought an old friend to see you," repeated Stroeve, beaming
Strickland looked at me thoughtfully for nearly a minute. I did
"I've never seen him in my life," he said.
I do not know why he said this, for I felt certain I had caught a
gleam of recognition in his eyes. I was not so easily abashed as I
had been some years earlier.
"I saw your wife the other day," I said. "I felt sure you'd like
to have the latest news of her."
He gave a short laugh. His eyes twinkled.
"We had a jolly evening together," he said. "How long ago is it?"
He called for another absinthe. Stroeve, with voluble tongue,
explained how he and I had met, and by what an accident we discovered
that we both knew Strickland. I do not know if Strickland listened.
He glanced at me once or twice reflectively, but for the most part
seemed occupied with his own thoughts; and certainly without Stroeve's
babble the conversation would have been difficult. In half an hour
the Dutchman, looking at his watch, announced that he must go. He
asked whether I would come too. I thought, alone, I might get
something out of Strickland, and so answered that I would stay.
When the fat man had left I said:
"Dirk Stroeve thinks you're a great artist."
"What the hell do you suppose I care?"
"Will you let me see your pictures?"
"Why should I?"
"I might feel inclined to buy one."
"I might not feel inclined to sell one."
"Are you making a good living?" I asked, smiling.
"Do I look it?"
"You look half starved."
"I am half starved."
"Then come and let's have a bit of dinner."
"Why do you ask me?"
"Not out of charity," I answered coolly. "I don't really care a
twopenny damn if you starve or not."
His eyes lit up again.
"Come on, then," he said, getting up. "I'd like a decent meal."
I let him take me to a restaurant of his choice, but on the way I
bought a paper. When we had ordered our dinner, I propped it against
a bottle of St. Galmier and began to read. We ate in silence. I felt
him looking at me now and again, but I took no notice. I meant to
force him to conversation.
"Is there anything in the paper?" he said, as we approached the
end of our silent meal.
I fancied there was in his tone a slight note of exasperation.
"I always like to read the
feuilleton on the drama," I
I folded the paper and put it down beside me.
"I've enjoyed my dinner," he remarked.
"I think we might have our coffee here, don't you?"
We lit our cigars. I smoked in silence. I noticed that now and
then his eyes rested on me with a faint smile of amusement. I waited
"What have you been up to since I saw you last?" he asked at
I had not very much to say. It was a record of hard work and of
little adventure; of experiments in this direction and in that; of
the gradual acquisition of the knowledge of books and of men. I took
care to ask Strickland nothing about his own doings. I showed not the
least interest in him, and at last I was rewarded. He began to talk
of himself. But with his poor gift of expression he gave but
indications of what he had gone through, and I had to fill up the gaps
with my own imagination. It was tantalising to get no more than hints
into a character that interested me so much. It was like making
one's way through a mutilated manuscript. I received the impression
of a life which was a bitter struggle against every sort of
difficulty; but I realised that much which would have seemed horrible
to most people did not in the least affect him. Strickland was
distinguished from most Englishmen by his perfect indifference to
comfort; it did not irk him to live always in one shabby room; he had
no need to be surrounded by beautiful things. I do not suppose he had
ever noticed how dingy was the paper on the wall of the room in which
on my first visit I found him. He did not want arm-chairs to sit in;
he really felt more at his ease on a kitchen chair. He ate with
appetite, but was indifferent to what he ate; to him it was only food
that he devoured to still the pangs of hunger; and when no food was to
be had he seemed capable of doing without. I learned that for six
months he had lived on a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk a day. He
was a sensual man, and yet was indifferent to sensual things. He
looked upon privation as no hardship. There was something impressive
in the manner in which he lived a life wholly of the spirit.
When the small sum of money which he brought with him from London
came to an end he suffered from no dismay. He sold no pictures; I
think he made little attempt to sell any; he set about finding some
way to make a bit of money. He told me with grim humour of the time
he had spent acting as guide to Cockneys who wanted to see the night
side of life in Paris; it was an occupation that appealed to his
sardonic temper and somehow or other he had acquired a wide
acquaintance with the more disreputable quarters of the city. He told
me of the long hours he spent walking about the Boulevard de la
Madeleine on the look-out for Englishmen, preferably the worse for
liquor, who desired to see things which the law forbade. When in luck
he was able to make a tidy sum; but the shabbiness of his clothes at
last frightened the sight-seers, and he could not find people
adventurous enough to trust themselves to him. Then he happened on a
job to translate the advertisements of patent medicines which were
sent broadcast to the medical profession in England. During a strike
he had been employed as a house-painter.
Meanwhile he had never ceased to work at his art; but, soon tiring
of the studios, entirely by himself. He had never been so poor that
he could not buy canvas and paint, and really he needed nothing else.
So far as I could make out, he painted with great difficulty, and in
his unwillingness to accept help from anyone lost much time in finding
out for himself the solution of technical problems which preceding
generations had already worked out one by one. He was aiming at
something, I knew not what, and perhaps he hardly knew himself; and I
got again more strongly the impression of a man possessed. He did
not seem quite sane. It seemed to me that he would not show his
pictures because he was really not interested in them. He lived in a
dream, and the reality meant nothing to him. I had the feeling that he
worked on a canvas with all the force of his violent personality,
oblivious of everything in his effort to get what he saw with the
mind's eye; and then, having finished, not the picture perhaps, for I
had an idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the
passion that fired him, he lost all care for it. He was never
satisfied with what he had done; it seemed to him of no consequence
compared with the vision that obsessed his mind.
"Why don't you ever send your work to exhibitions?" I asked. "I
should have thought you'd like to know what people thought about it."
I cannot describe the unmeasurable contempt he put into the two
"Don't you want fame? It's something that most artists haven't
been indifferent to."
"Children. How can you care for the opinion of the crowd, when
you don't care twopence for the opinion of the individual?"
"We're not all reasonable beings," I laughed.
"Who makes fame? Critics, writers, stockbrokers, women."
"Wouldn't it give you a rather pleasing sensation to think of
people you didn't know and had never seen receiving emotions, subtle
and passionate, from the work of your hands? Everyone likes power. I
can't imagine a more wonderful exercise of it than to move the souls
of men to pity or terror."
"Why do you mind if you paint well or badly?"
"I don't. I only want to paint what I see."
"I wonder if I could write on a desert island, with the certainty
that no eyes but mine would ever see what I had written."
Strickland did not speak for a long time, but his eyes shone
strangely, as though he saw something that kindled his soul to
"Sometimes I've thought of an island lost in a boundless sea,
where I could live in some hidden valley, among strange trees, in
silence. There I think I could find what I want."
He did not express himself quite like this. He used gestures
instead of adjectives, and he halted. I have put into my own words
what I think he wanted to say.
"Looking back on the last five years, do you think it was worth
it?" I asked.
He looked at me, and I saw that he did not know what I meant. I
"You gave up a comfortable home and a life as happy as the
average. You were fairly prosperous. You seem to have had a rotten
time in Paris. If you had your time over again would you do what you
"Do you know that you haven't asked anything about your wife and
children? Do you never think of them?"
"I wish you weren't so damned monosyllabic. Have you never had a
moment's regret for all the unhappiness you caused them?"
His lips broke into a smile, and he shook his head.
"I should have thought sometimes you couldn't help thinking of the
past. I don't mean the past of seven or eight years ago, but further
back still, when you first met your wife, and loved her, and married
her. Don't you remember the joy with which you first took her in your
"I don't think of the past. The only thing that matters is the
I thought for a moment over this reply. It was obscure, perhaps,
but I thought that I saw dimly his meaning.
"Are you happy?" I asked.
I was silent. I looked at him reflectively. He held my stare,
and presently a sardonic twinkle lit up his eyes.
"I'm afraid you disapprove of me?"
"Nonsense," I answered promptly; "I don't disapprove of the
boa-constrictor; on the contrary, I'm interested in his mental
"It's a purely professional interest you take in me?"
"It's only right that you shouldn't disapprove of me. You have a
"Perhaps that's why you feel at home with me," I retorted.
He smiled dryly, but said nothing. I wish I knew how to describe
his smile. I do not know that it was attractive, but it lit up his
face, changing the expression, which was generally sombre, and gave it
a look of not ill-natured malice. It was a slow smile, starting and
sometimes ending in the eyes; it was very sensual, neither cruel nor
kindly, but suggested rather the inhuman glee of the satyr. It was
his smile that made me ask him:
"Haven't you been in love since you came to Paris?"
"I haven't got time for that sort of nonsense. Life isn't long
enough for love and art."
"Your appearance doesn't suggest the anchorite."
"All that business fills me with disgust."
"Human nature is a nuisance, isn't it?" I said.
"Why are you sniggering at me?"
"Because I don't believe you."
"Then you're a damned fool."
I paused, and I looked at him searchingly.
"What's the good of trying to humbug me?" I said.
"I don't know what you mean."
"Let me tell you. I imagine that for months the matter never
comes into your head, and you're able to persuade yourself that
you've finished with it for good and all. You rejoice in your
freedom, and you feel that at last you can call your soul your own.
You seem to walk with your head among the stars. And then, all of a
sudden you can't stand it any more, and you notice that all the time
your feet have been walking in the mud. And you want to roll yourself
in it. And you find some woman, coarse and low and vulgar, some
beastly creature in whom all the horror of sex is blatant, and you
fall upon her like a wild animal. You drink till you're blind with
He stared at me without the slightest movement. I held his eyes
with mine. I spoke very slowly.
"I'll tell you what must seem strange, that when it's over you
feel so extraordinarily pure. You feel like a disembodied spirit,
immaterial; and you seem to be able to touch beauty as though it were
a palpable thing; and you feel an intimate communion with the breeze,
and with the trees breaking into leaf, and with the iridescence of the
river. You feel like God. Can you explain that to me?"
He kept his eyes fixed on mine till I had finished, and then he
turned away. There was on his face a strange look, and I thought that
so might a man look when he had died under the torture. He was
silent. I knew that our conversation was ended.
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
"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
"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
"Try it, and we'll see," I retorted.
A smile flickered in his eyes, and he stirred his absinthe in
"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
"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
"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."
 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
"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
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
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
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
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
fire-place. 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
"I'll go immediately," said Stroeve. "Is there anything you
I suggested that he should get a thermometer, and a few grapes,
and some bread. Stroeve, glad to make himself useful, clattered down
"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.
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"You know there's nothing in the world that I wouldn't do for
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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.
The explanation came a week later. It was about ten o' clock at
night; I had been dining by myself at a restaurant, and having
returned to my small apartment, was sitting in my parlour, reading I
heard the cracked tinkling of the bell, and, going into the corridor,
opened the door. Stroeve stood before me.
"Can I come in?" he asked.
In the dimness of the landing I could not see him very well, but
there was something in his voice that surprised me. I knew he was of
abstemious habit or I should have thought he had been drinking. I led
the way into my sitting room and asked him to sit down.
"Thank God I've found you," he said.
"What's the matter?" I asked in astonishment at his vehemence.
I was able now to see him well. As a rule he was neat in his
person, but now his clothes were in disorder. He looked suddenly
bedraggled. I was convinced he had been drinking, and I smiled. I
was on the point of chaffing him on his state.
"I didn't know where to go," he burst out. "I came here earlier,
but you weren't in."
"I dined late," I said.
I changed my mind: it was not liquor that had driven him to this
obvious desperation. His face, usually so rosy, was now strangely
mottled. His hands trembled.
"Has anything happened?" I asked.
"My wife has left me."
He could hardly get the words out. He gave a little gasp, and the
tears began to trickle down his round cheeks. I did not know what to
say. My first thought was that she had come to the end of her
forbearance with his infatuation for Strickland, and, goaded by the
latter's cynical behaviour, had insisted that he should be turned out.
I knew her capable of temper, for all the calmness of her manner; and
if Stroeve still refused, she might easily have flung out of the
studio with vows never to return. But the little man was so
distressed that I could not smile.
"My dear fellow, don't be unhappy. She'll come back. You mustn't
take very seriously what women say when they're in a passion."
"You don't understand. She's in love with Strickland."
"What!" I was startled at this, but the idea had no sooner taken
possession of me than I saw it was absurd. "How can you be so silly?
You don't mean to say you're jealous of Strickland?" I almost laughed.
"You know very well that she can't bear the sight of him."
"You don't understand," he moaned.
"You're an hysterical ass," I said a little impatiently. "Let me
give you a whisky-and-soda, and you'll feel better."
I supposed that for some reason or other — and Heaven knows what
ingenuity men exercise to torment themselves — Dirk had got it into
his head that his wife cared for Strickland, and with his genius for
blundering he might quite well have offended her so that, to anger
him, perhaps, she had taken pains to foster his suspicion.
"Look here," I said, "let's go back to your studio. If you've
made a fool of yourself you must eat humble pie. Your wife doesn't
strike me as the sort of woman to bear malice."
"How can I go back to the studio?" he said wearily. "They're
there. I've left it to them."
"Then it's not your wife who's left you; it's you who've left your
"For God's sake don't talk to me like that."
Still I could not take him seriously. I did not for a moment
believe what he had told me. But he was in very real distress.
"Well, you've come here to talk to me about it. You'd better tell
me the whole story."
"This afternoon I couldn't stand it any more. I went to
Strickland and told him I thought he was quite well enough to go back
to his own place. I wanted the studio myself."
"No one but Strickland would have needed telling," I said. "What
did he say?"
"He laughed a little; you know how he laughs, not as though he
were amused, but as though you were a damned fool, and said he'd go
at once. He began to put his things together. You remember I fetched
from his room what I thought he needed, and he asked Blanche for a
piece of paper and some string to make a parcel."
Stroeve stopped, gasping, and I thought he was going to faint.
This was not at all the story I had expected him to tell me.
"She was very pale, but she brought the paper and the string. He
didn't say anything. He made the parcel and he whistled a tune. He
took no notice of either of us. His eyes had an ironic smile in them.
My heart was like lead. I was afraid something was going to happen,
and I wished I hadn't spoken. He looked round for his hat. Then she
"`I'm going with Strickland, Dirk,' she said. `I can't live with
you any more.'
"I tried to speak, but the words wouldn't come. Strickland didn't
say anything. He went on whistling as though it had nothing to do
Stroeve stopped again and mopped his face. I kept quite still. I
believed him now, and I was astounded. But all the same I could not
Then he told me, in a trembling voice, with the tears pouring down
his cheeks, how he had gone up to her, trying to take her in his arms,
but she had drawn away and begged him not to touch her. He implored
her not to leave him. He told her how passionately he loved her, and
reminded her of all the devotion he had lavished upon her. He spoke
to her of the happiness of their life. He was not angry with her. He
did not reproach her.
"Please let me go quietly, Dirk," she said at last. "Don't you
understand that I love Strickland? Where he goes I shall go."
"But you must know that he'll never make you happy. For your own
sake don't go. You don't know what you've got to look forward to."
"It's your fault. You insisted on his coming here."
He turned to Strickland.
"Have mercy on her," he implored him. "You can't let her do
anything so mad."
"She can do as she chooses," said Strickland. "She's not forced
"My choice is made," she said, in a dull voice.
Strickland's injurious calm robbed Stroeve of the rest of his
self-control. Blind rage seized him, and without knowing what he was
doing he flung himself on Strickland. Strickland was taken by
surprise and he staggered, but he was very strong, even after his
illness, and in a moment, he did not exactly know how, Stroeve found
himself on the floor.
"You funny little man," said Strickland.
Stroeve picked himself up. He noticed that his wife had remained
perfectly still, and to be made ridiculous before her increased his
humiliation. His spectacles had tumbled off in the struggle, and he
could not immediately see them. She picked them up and silently handed
them to him. He seemed suddenly to realise his unhappiness, and
though he knew he was making himself still more absurd, he began to
cry. He hid his face in his hands. The others watched him without a
word. They did not move from where they stood.
"Oh, my dear," he groaned at last, "how can you be so cruel?"
"I can't help myself, Dirk," she answered.
"I've worshipped you as no woman was ever worshipped before. If in
anything I did I displeased you, why didn't you tell me, and I'd have
changed. I've done everything I could for you."
She did not answer. Her face was set, and he saw that he was only
boring her. She put on a coat and her hat. She moved towards the
door, and he saw that in a moment she would be gone. He went up to
her quickly and fell on his knees before her, seizing her hands: he
abandoned all self-respect.
"Oh, don't go, my darling. I can't live without you; I shall kill
myself. If I've done anything to offend you I beg you to forgive me.
Give me another chance. I'll try harder still to make you happy."
"Get up, Dirk. You're making yourself a perfect fool."
He staggered to his feet, but still he would not let her go.
"Where are you going?" he said hastily. "You don't know what
Strickland's place is like. You can't live there. It would be
"If I don't care, I don't see why you should."
"Stay a minute longer. I must speak. After all, you can't grudge
"What is the good? I've made up my mind. Nothing that you can say
will make me alter it."
He gulped, and put his hand to his heart to ease its painful
"I'm not going to ask you to change your mind, but I want you to
listen to me for a minute. It's the last thing I shall ever ask you.
Don't refuse me that."
She paused, looking at him with those reflective eyes of hers,
which now were so different to him. She came back into the studio
and leaned against the table.
Stroeve made a great effort to collect himself.
"You must be a little reasonable. You can't live on air, you
know. Strickland hasn't got a penny."
"You'll suffer the most awful privations. You know why he took so
long to get well. He was half starved."
"I can earn money for him."
"I don't know. I shall find a way."
A horrible thought passed through the Dutchman's mind, and he
"I think you must be mad. I don't know what has come over you."
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Now may I go?"
"Wait one second longer."
He looked round his studio wearily; he had loved it because her
presence had made it gay and homelike; he shut his eyes for an
instant; then he gave her a long look as though to impress on his mind
the picture of her. He got up and took his hat.
"No; I'll go."
She was startled. She did not know what he meant.
"I can't bear to think of you living in that horrible, filthy
attic. After all, this is your home just as much as mine. You'll be
comfortable here. You'll be spared at least the worst privations."
He went to the drawer in which he kept his money and took out
"I would like to give you half what I've got here."
He put them on the table. Neither Strickland nor his wife spoke.
Then he recollected something else.
"Will you pack up my clothes and leave them with the concierge?
I'll come and fetch them to-morrow." He tried to smile." Good-bye,
my dear. I'm grateful for all the happiness you gave me in the past."
He walked out and closed the door behind him. With my mind's eye
I saw Strickland throw his hat on a table, and, sitting down, begin to
smoke a cigarette.
I kept silence for a little while, thinking of what Stroeve had
told me. I could not stomach his weakness, and he saw my disapproval.
"You know as well as I do how Strickland lived," he said tremulously.
"I couldn't let her live in those circumstances — I simply
"That's your business," I answered.
you have done?" he asked.
"She went with her eyes open. If she had to put up with certain
inconveniences it was her own lookout."
"Yes; but, you see, you don't love her."
"Do you love her still?"
"Oh, more than ever. Strickland isn't the man to make a woman
happy. It can't last. I want her to know that I shall never fail
"Does that mean that you're prepared to take her back?"
"I shouldn't hesitate. Why, she'll want me more than ever then.
When she's alone and humiliated and broken it would be dreadful if
she had nowhere to go."
He seemed to bear no resentment. I suppose it was commonplace in
me that I felt slightly outraged at his lack of spirit. Perhaps he
guessed what was in my mind, for he said:
"I couldn't expect her to love me as I loved her. I'm a buffoon.
I'm not the sort of man that women love. I've always known that. I
can't blame her if she's fallen in love with Strickland."
"You certainly have less vanity than any man I've ever known," I
"I love her so much better than myself. It seems to me that when
vanity comes into love it can only be because really you love yourself
best. After all, it constantly happens that a man when he's married
falls in love with somebody else; when he gets over it he returns to
his wife, and she takes him back, and everyone thinks it very natural.
Why should it be different with women?"
"I dare say that's logical," I smiled, "but most men are made
differently, and they can't."
But while I talked to Stroeve I was puzzling over the suddenness
of the whole affair. I could not imagine that he had had no warning.
I remembered the curious look I had seen in Blanche Stroeve's eyes;
perhaps its explanation was that she was growing dimly conscious of a
feeling in her heart that surprised and alarmed her.
"Did you have no suspicion before to-day that there was anything
between them?" I asked.
He did not answer for a while. There was a pencil on the table,
and unconsciously he drew a head on the blotting-paper.
"Please say so, if you hate my asking you questions," I said.
"It eases me to talk. Oh, if you knew the frightful anguish in my
heart." He threw the pencil down. "Yes, I've known it for a
fortnight. I knew it before she did."
"Why on earth didn't you send Strickland packing?"
"I couldn't believe it. It seemed so improbable. She couldn't
bear the sight of him. It was more than improbable; it was
incredible. I thought it was merely jealousy. You see, I've always
been jealous, but I trained myself never to show it; I was jealous of
every man she knew; I was jealous of you. I knew she didn't love me
as I loved her. That was only natural, wasn't it? But she allowed me
to love her, and that was enough to make me happy. I forced myself
to go out for hours together in order to leave them by themselves; I
wanted to punish myself for suspicions which were unworthy of me; and
when I came back I found they didn't want me — not Strickland, he
didn't care if I was there or not, but Blanche. She shuddered when I
went to kiss her. When at last I was certain I didn't know what to do;
I knew they'd only laugh at me if I made a scene. I thought if I held
my tongue and pretended not to see, everything would come right. I
made up my mind to get him away quietly, without quarrelling. Oh, if
you only knew what I've suffered!"
Then he told me again of his asking Strickland to go. He chose his
moment carefully, and tried to make his request sound casual; but he
could not master the trembling of his voice; and he felt himself that
into words that he wished to seem jovial and friendly there crept the
bitterness of his jealousy. He had not expected Strickland to take
him up on the spot and make his preparations to go there and then;
above all, he had not expected his wife's decision to go with him. I
saw that now he wished with all his heart that he had held his tongue.
He preferred the anguish of jealousy to the anguish of separation.
"I wanted to kill him, and I only made a fool of myself."
He was silent for a long time, and then he said what I knew was in
"If I'd only waited, perhaps it would have gone all right. I
shouldn't have been so impatient. Oh, poor child, what have I driven
I shrugged my shoulders, but did not speak. I had no sympathy for
Blanche Stroeve, but knew that it would only pain poor Dirk if I told
him exactly what I thought of her.
He had reached that stage of exhaustion when he could not stop
talking. He went over again every word of the scene. Now something
occurred to him that he had not told me before; now he discussed what
he ought to have said instead of what he did say; then he lamented his
blindness. He regretted that he had done this, and blamed himself
that he had omitted the other. It grew later and later, and at last I
was as tired as he.
"What are you going to do now?" I said finally.
"What can I do? I shall wait till she sends for me."
"Why don't you go away for a bit?"
"No, no; I must be at hand when she wants me."
For the present he seemed quite lost. He had made no plans. When
I suggested that he should go to bed he said he could not sleep; he
wanted to go out and walk about the streets till day. He was evidently
in no state to be left alone. I persuaded him to stay the night with
me, and I put him into my own bed. I had a divan in my sitting-room,
and could very well sleep on that. He was by now so worn out that he
could not resist my firmness. I gave him a sufficient dose of
veronal to insure his unconsciousness for several hours. I thought
that was the best service I could render him.
But the bed I made up for myself was sufficiently uncomfortable to
give me a wakeful night, and I thought a good deal of what the unlucky
Dutchman had told me. I was not so much puzzled by Blanche Stroeve's
action, for I saw in that merely the result of a physical appeal. I
do not suppose she had ever really cared for her husband, and what I
had taken for love was no more than the feminine response to caresses
and comfort which in the minds of most women passes for it. It is a
passive feeling capable of being roused for any object, as the vine
can grow on any tree; and the wisdom of the world recognises its
strength when it urges a girl to marry the man who wants her with the
assurance that love will follow. It is an emotion made up of the
satisfaction in security, pride of property, the pleasure of being
desired, the gratification of a household, and it is only by an
amiable vanity that women ascribe to it spiritual value. It is an
emotion which is defenceless against passion. I suspected that
Blanche Stroeve's violent dislike of Strickland had in it from the
beginning a vague element of sexual attraction. Who am I that I should
seek to unravel the mysterious intricacies of sex? Perhaps Stroeve's
passion excited without satisfying that part of her nature, and she
hated Strickland because she felt in him the power to give her what
she needed. I think she was quite sincere when she struggled against
her husband's desire to bring him into the studio; I think she was
frightened of him, though she knew not why; and I remembered how she
had foreseen disaster. I think in some curious way the horror which
she felt for him was a transference of the horror which she felt for
herself because he so strangely troubled her. His appearance was wild
and uncouth; there was aloofness in his eyes and sensuality in his
mouth; he was big and strong; he gave the impression of untamed
passion; and perhaps she felt in him, too, that sinister element which
had made me think of those wild beings of the world's early history
when matter, retaining its early connection with the earth, seemed to
possess yet a spirit of its own. If he affected her at all, it was
inevitable that she should love or hate him. She hated him.
And then I fancy that the daily intimacy with the sick man moved
her strangely. She raised his head to give him food, and it was heavy
against her hand; when she had fed him she wiped his sensual mouth and
his red beard. She washed his limbs; they were covered with thick
hair; and when she dried his hands, even in his weakness they were
strong and sinewy. His fingers were long; they were the capable,
fashioning fingers of the artist; and I know not what troubling
thoughts they excited in her. He slept very quietly, without a
movement, so that he might have been dead, and he was like some wild
creature of the woods, resting after a long chase; and she wondered
what fancies passed through his dreams. Did he dream of the nymph
flying through the woods of Greece with the satyr in hot pursuit? She
fled, swift of foot and desperate, but he gained on her step by step,
till she felt his hot breath on her neck; and still she fled silently,
and silently he pursued, and when at last he seized her was it terror
that thrilled her heart or was it ecstasy?
Blanche Stroeve was in the cruel grip of appetite. Perhaps she
hated Strickland still, but she hungered for him, and everything that
had made up her life till then became of no account. She ceased to be
a woman, complex, kind and petulant, considerate and thoughtless; she
was a Maenad. She was desire.
But perhaps this is very fanciful; and it may be that she was
merely bored with her husband and went to Strickland out of a callous
curiosity. She may have had no particular feeling for him, but
succumbed to his wish from propinquity or idleness, to find then that
she was powerless in a snare of her own contriving. How did I know
what were the thoughts and emotions behind that placid brow and those
cool gray eyes?
But if one could be certain of nothing in dealing with creatures
so incalculable as human beings, there were explanations of Blanche
Stroeve's behaviour which were at all events plausible. On the other
hand, I did not understand Strickland at all. I racked my brain, but
could in no way account for an action so contrary to my conception of
him. It was not strange that he should so heartlessly have betrayed
his friends' confidence, nor that he hesitated not at all to gratify
a whim at the cost of another's misery. That was in his character.
He was a man without any conception of gratitude. He had no
compassion. The emotions common to most of us simply did not exist in
him, and it was as absurd to blame him for not feeling them as for
blaming the tiger because he is fierce and cruel. But it was the whim
I could not understand.
I could not believe that Strickland had fallen in love with
Blanche Stroeve. I did not believe him capable of love. That is an
emotion in which tenderness is an essential part, but Strickland had
no tenderness either for himself or for others; there is in love a
sense of weakness, a desire to protect, an eagerness to do good and to
give pleasure — if not unselfishness, at all events a selfishness
which marvellously conceals itself; it has in it a certain diffidence.
These were not traits which I could imagine in Strickland. Love is
absorbing; it takes the lover out of himself; the most clear-sighted,
though he may know, cannot realise that his love will cease; it gives
body to what he knows is illusion, and, knowing it is nothing else, he
loves it better than reality. It makes a man a little more than
himself, and at the same time a little less. He ceases to be himself.
He is no longer an individual, but a thing, an instrument to some
purpose foreign to his ego. Love is never quite devoid of
sentimentality, and Strickland was the least inclined to that
infirmity of any man I have known. I could not believe that he would
ever suffer that possession of himself which love is; he could never
endure a foreign yoke. I believed him capable of uprooting from his
heart, though it might be with agony, so that he was left battered and
ensanguined, anything that came between himself and that
uncomprehended craving that urged him constantly to he knew not what.
If I have succeeded at all in giving the complicated impression that
Strickland made on me, it will not seem outrageous to say that I felt
he was at once too great and too small for love.
But I suppose that everyone's conception of the passion is formed
on his own idiosyncrasies, and it is different with every different
person. A man like Strickland would love in a manner peculiar to
himself. It was vain to seek the analysis of his emotion.
Next day, though I pressed him to remain, Stroeve left me. I
offered to fetch his things from the studio, but he insisted on going
himself; I think he hoped they had not thought of getting them
together, so that he would have an opportunity of seeing his wife
again and perhaps inducing her to come back to him. But he found his
traps waiting for him in the porter's lodge, and the concierge told
him that Blanche had gone out. I do not think he resisted the
temptation of giving her an account of his troubles. I found that he
was telling them to everyone he knew; he expected sympathy, but only
He bore himself most unbecomingly. Knowing at what time his wife
did her shopping, one day, unable any longer to bear not seeing her,
he waylaid her in the street. She would not speak to him, but he
insisted on speaking to her. He spluttered out words of apology for
any wrong he had committed towards her; he told her he loved her
devotedly and begged her to return to him. She would not answer; she
walked hurriedly, with averted face. I imagined him with his fat
little legs trying to keep up with her. Panting a little in his
haste, he told her how miserable he was; he besought her to have mercy
on him; he promised, if she would forgive him, to do everything she
wanted. He offered to take her for a journey. He told her that
Strickland would soon tire of her. When he repeated to me the whole
sordid little scene I was outraged. He had shown neither sense nor
dignity. He had omitted nothing that could make his wife despise him.
There is no cruelty greater than a woman's to a man who loves her and
whom she does not love; she has no kindness then, no tolerance even,
she has only an insane irritation. Blanche Stroeve stopped suddenly,
and as hard as she could slapped her husband's face. She took
advantage of his confusion to escape, and ran up the stairs to the
studio. No word had passed her lips.
When he told me this he put his hand to his cheek as though he
still felt the smart of the blow, and in his eyes was a pain that was
heartrending and an amazement that was ludicrous. He looked like an
overblown schoolboy, and though I felt so sorry for him, I could
hardly help laughing.
Then he took to walking along the street which she must pass
through to get to the shops, and he would stand at the corner, on the
other side, as she went along. He dared not speak to her again, but
sought to put into his round eyes the appeal that was in his heart. I
suppose he had some idea that the sight of his misery would touch her.
She never made the smallest sign that she saw him. She never even
changed the hour of her errands or sought an alternative route. I
have an idea that there was some cruelty in her indifference. Perhaps
she got enjoyment out of the torture she inflicted. I wondered why
she hated him so much.
I begged Stroeve to behave more wisely. His want of spirit was
"You're doing no good at all by going on like this," I said. "I
think you'd have been wiser if you'd hit her over the head with a
stick. She wouldn't have despised you as she does now."
I suggested that he should go home for a while. He had often
spoken to me of the silent town, somewhere up in the north of
Holland, where his parents still lived. They were poor people. His
father was a carpenter, and they dwelt in a little old red-brick
house, neat and clean, by the side of a sluggish canal. The streets
were wide and empty; for two hundred years the place had been dying,
but the houses had the homely stateliness of their time. Rich
merchants, sending their wares to the distant Indies, had lived in
them calm and prosperous lives, and in their decent decay they kept
still an aroma of their splendid past. You could wander along the
canal till you came to broad green fields, with windmills here and
there, in which cattle, black and white, grazed lazily. I thought that
among those surroundings, with their recollections of his boyhood,
Dirk Stroeve would forget his unhappiness. But he would not go.
"I must be here when she needs me," he repeated. "It would be
dreadful if something terrible happened and I were not at hand."
"What do you think is going to happen?" I asked.
"I don't know. But I'm afraid."
I shrugged my shoulders.
For all his pain, Dirk Stroeve remained a ridiculous object. He
might have excited sympathy if he had grown worn and thin. He did
nothing of the kind. He remained fat, and his round, red cheeks shone
like ripe apples. He had great neatness of person, and he continued
to wear his spruce black coat and his bowler hat, always a little too
small for him, in a dapper, jaunty manner. He was getting something
of a paunch, and sorrow had no effect on it. He looked more than ever
like a prosperous bagman. It is hard that a man's exterior should
tally so little sometimes with his soul. Dirk Stroeve had the
passion of Romeo in the body of Sir Toby Belch. He had a sweet and
generous nature, and yet was always blundering; a real feeling for
what was beautiful and the capacity to create only what was
commonplace; a peculiar delicacy of sentiment and gross manners. He
could exercise tact when dealing with the affairs of others, but none
when dealing with his own. What a cruel practical joke old Nature
played when she flung so many contradictory elements together, and
left the man face to face with the perplexing callousness of the
I did not see Strickland for several weeks. I was disgusted with
him, and if I had had an opportunity should have been glad to tell him
so, but I saw no object in seeking him out for the purpose. I am a
little shy of any assumption of moral indignation; there is always in
it an element of self-satisfaction which makes it awkward to anyone
who has a sense of humour. It requires a very lively passion to steel
me to my own ridicule. There was a sardonic sincerity in Strickland
which made me sensitive to anything that might suggest a pose.
But one evening when I was passing along the Avenue de Clichy in
front of the cafe which Strickland frequented and which I now avoided,
I ran straight into him. He was accompanied by Blanche Stroeve, and
they were just going to Strickland's favourite corner.
"Where the devil have you been all this time?" said he. "I thought
you must be away."
His cordiality was proof that he knew I had no wish to speak to
him. He was not a man with whom it was worth while wasting
"No," I said; "I haven't been away."
"Why haven't you been here?"
"There are more cafes in Paris than one, at which to trifle away
an idle hour."
Blanche then held out her hand and bade me good-evening. I do not
know why I had expected her to be somehow changed; she wore the same
gray dress that she wore so often, neat and becoming, and her brow was
as candid, her eyes as untroubled, as when I had been used to see her
occupied with her household duties in the studio.
"Come and have a game of chess," said Strickland.
I do not know why at the moment I could think of no excuse. I
followed them rather sulkily to the table at which Strickland always
sat, and he called for the board and the chessmen. They both took the
situation so much as a matter of course that I felt it absurd to do
otherwise. Mrs. Stroeve watched the game with inscrutable face. She
was silent, but she had always been silent. I looked at her mouth for
an expression that could give me a clue to what she felt; I watched
her eyes for some tell-tale flash, some hint of dismay or bitterness;
I scanned her brow for any passing line that might indicate a
settling emotion. Her face was a mask that told nothing. Her hands
lay on her lap motionless, one in the other loosely clasped. I knew
from what I had heard that she was a woman of violent passions; and
that injurious blow that she had given Dirk, the man who had loved her
so devotedly, betrayed a sudden temper and a horrid cruelty. She had
abandoned the safe shelter of her husband's protection and the
comfortable ease of a well-provided establishment for what she could
not but see was an extreme hazard. It showed an eagerness for
adventure, a readiness for the hand-to-mouth, which the care she took
of her home and her love of good housewifery made not a little
remarkable. She must be a woman of complicated character, and there
was something dramatic in the contrast of that with her demure
I was excited by the encounter, and my fancy worked busily while I
sought to concentrate myself on the game I was playing. I always tried
my best to beat Strickland, because he was a player who despised the
opponent he vanquished; his exultation in victory made defeat more
difficult to bear. On the other hand, if he was beaten he took it with
complete good-humour. He was a bad winner and a good loser. Those
who think that a man betrays his character nowhere more clearly than
when he is playing a game might on this draw subtle inferences.
When he had finished I called the waiter to pay for the drinks,
and left them. The meeting had been devoid of incident. No word had
been said to give me anything to think about, and any surmises I might
make were unwarranted. I was intrigued. I could not tell how they
were getting on. I would have given much to be a disembodied spirit so
that I could see them in the privacy of the studio and hear what they
talked about. I had not the smallest indication on which to let my
Two or three days later Dirk Stroeve called on me.
"I hear you've seen Blanche," he said.
"How on earth did you find out?"
"I was told by someone who saw you sitting with them. Why didn't
you tell me?"
"I thought it would only pain you."
"What do I care if it does? You must know that I want to hear the
smallest thing about her."
I waited for him to ask me questions.
"What does she look like?" he said.
"Does she seem happy?"
I shrugged my shoulders.
"How can I tell? We were in a cafe; we were playing chess; I had
no opportunity to speak to her."
"Oh, but couldn't you tell by her face?"
I shook my head. I could only repeat that by no word, by no
hinted gesture, had she given an indication of her feelings. He must
know better than I how great were her powers of self-control. He
clasped his hands emotionally.
"Oh, I'm so frightened. I know something is going to happen,
something terrible, and I can do nothing to stop it."
"What sort of thing?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know," he moaned, seizing his head with his hands.
"I foresee some terrible catastrophe."
Stroeve had always been excitable, but now he was beside himself;
there was no reasoning with him. I thought it probable enough that
Blanche Stroeve would not continue to find life with Strickland
tolerable, but one of the falsest of proverbs is that you must lie on
the bed that you have made. The experience of life shows that people
are constantly doing things which must lead to disaster, and yet by
some chance manage to evade the result of their folly. When Blanche
quarrelled with Strickland she had only to leave him, and her husband
was waiting humbly to forgive and forget. I was not prepared to feel
any great sympathy for her.
"You see, you don't love her," said Stroeve.
"After all, there's nothing to prove that she is unhappy. For all
we know they may have settled down into a most domestic couple."
Stroeve gave me a look with his woeful eyes.
"Of course it doesn't much matter to you, but to me it's so
serious, so intensely serious."
I was sorry if I had seemed impatient or flippant.
"Will you do something for me?" asked Stroeve.
"Will you write to Blanche for me?"
"Why can't you write yourself?"
"I've written over and over again. I didn't expect her to answer.
I don't think she reads the letters."
"You make no account of feminine curiosity. Do you think she
"She could — mine."
I looked at him quickly. He lowered his eyes. That answer of his
seemed to me strangely humiliating. He was conscious that she
regarded him with an indifference so profound that the sight of his
handwriting would have not the slightest effect on her.
"Do you really believe that she'll ever come back to you?" I asked.
"I want her to know that if the worst comes to the worst she can
count on me. That's what I want you to tell her."
I took a sheet of paper.
"What is it exactly you wish me to say?"
This is what I wrote:
DEAR MRS. STROEVE,
Dirk wishes me to tell you that if at any
time you want him he will be grateful for the opportunity of being of
service to you. He has no ill-feeling towards you on account of
anything that has happened. His love for you is unaltered. You will
always find him at the following address:
But though I was no less convinced than Stroeve that the
connection between Strickland and Blanche would end disastrously, I
did not expect the issue to take the tragic form it did. The summer
came, breathless and sultry, and even at night there was no coolness
to rest one's jaded nerves. The sun-baked streets seemed to give back
the heat that had beat down on them during the day, and the passers-by
dragged their feet along them wearily. I had not seen Strickland for
weeks. Occupied with other things, I had ceased to think of him and
his affairs. Dirk, with his vain lamentations, had begun to bore me,
and I avoided his society. It was a sordid business, and I was not
inclined to trouble myself with it further.
One morning I was working. I sat in my Pyjamas. My thoughts
wandered, and I thought of the sunny beaches of Brittany and the
freshness of the sea. By my side was the empty bowl in which the
concierge had brought me my cafe au lait and the fragment of
croissant which I had not had appetite enough to eat. I heard the
concierge in the next room emptying my bath. There was a tinkle at my
bell, and I left her to open the door. In a moment I heard Stroeve's
voice asking if I was in. Without moving, I shouted to him to come.
He entered the room quickly, and came up to the table at which I sat.
"She's killed herself," he said hoarsely.
"What do you mean?" I cried, startled.
He made movements with his lips as though he were speaking, but no
sound issued from them. He gibbered like an idiot. My heart thumped
against my ribs, and, I do not know why, I flew into a temper.
"For God's sake, collect yourself, man," I said. "What on earth
are you talking about?"
He made despairing gestures with his hands, but still no words
came from his mouth. He might have been struck dumb. I do not know
what came over me; I took him by the shoulders and shook him. Looking
back, I am vexed that I made such a fool of myself; I suppose the last
restless nights had shaken my nerves more than I knew.
"Let me sit down," he gasped at length.
I filled a glass with St. Galmier, and gave it to him to drink. I
held it to his mouth as though he were a child. He gulped down a
mouthful, and some of it was spilt on his shirt-front.
"Who's killed herself?"
I do not know why I asked, for I knew whom he meant. He made an
effort to collect himself.
"They had a row last night. He went away."
"Is she dead?"
"No; they've taken her to the hospital."
"Then what are you talking about?" I cried impatiently. "Why did
you say she'd killed herself?"
"Don't be cross with me. I can't tell you anything if you talk to
me like that."
I clenched my hands, seeking to control my irritation. I attempted
"I'm sorry. Take your time. Don't hurry, there's a good fellow."
His round blue eyes behind the spectacles were ghastly with
terror. The magnifying-glasses he wore distorted them.
"When the concierge went up this morning to take a letter she
could get no answer to her ring. She heard someone groaning. The
door wasn't locked, and she went in. Blanche was lying on the bed.
She'd been frightfully sick. There was a bottle of oxalic acid on
Stroeve hid his face in his hands and swayed backwards and
"Was she conscious?"
"Yes. Oh, if you knew how she's suffering! I can't bear it. I
can't bear it."
His voice rose to a shriek.
"Damn it all, you haven't got to bear it," I cried impatiently.
"She's got to bear it."
"How can you be so cruel?"
"What have you done?"
"They sent for a doctor and for me, and they told the police. I'd
given the concierge twenty francs, and told her to send for me if
He paused a minute, and I saw that what he had to tell me was very
hard to say.
"When I went she wouldn't speak to me. She told them to send me
away. I swore that I forgave her everything, but she wouldn't listen.
She tried to beat her head against the wall. The doctor told me that
I mustn't remain with her. She kept on saying, `Send him away!' I
went, and waited in the studio. And when the ambulance came and they
put her on a stretcher, they made me go in the kitchen so that she
shouldn't know I was there."
While I dressed — for Stroeve wished me to go at once with him to
the hospital — he told me that he had arranged for his wife to have a
private room, so that she might at least be spared the sordid
promiscuity of a ward. On our way he explained to me why he desired
my presence; if she still refused to see him, perhaps she would see
me. He begged me to repeat to her that he loved her still; he would
reproach her for nothing, but desired only to help her; he made no
claim on her, and on her recovery would not seek to induce her to
return to him; she would be perfectly free.
But when we arrived at the hospital, a gaunt, cheerless building,
the mere sight of which was enough to make one's heart sick, and after
being directed from this official to that, up endless stairs and
through long, bare corridors, found the doctor in charge of the case,
we were told that the patient was too ill to see anyone that day. The
doctor was a little bearded man in white, with an offhand manner. He
evidently looked upon a case as a case, and anxious relatives as a
nuisance which must be treated with firmness. Moreover, to him the
affair was commonplace; it was just an hysterical woman who had
quarrelled with her lover and taken poison; it was constantly
happening. At first he thought that Dirk was the cause of the
disaster, and he was needlessly brusque with him. When I explained
that he was the husband, anxious to forgive, the doctor looked at him
suddenly, with curious, searching eyes. I seemed to see in them a
hint of mockery; it was true that Stroeve had the head of the husband
who is deceived. The doctor faintly shrugged his shoulders.
"There is no immediate danger," he said, in answer to our
questioning. "One doesn't know how much she took. It may be that
she will get off with a fright. Women are constantly trying to commit
suicide for love, but generally they take care not to succeed. It's
generally a gesture to arouse pity or terror in their lover."
There was in his tone a frigid contempt. It was obvious that to
him Blanche Stroeve was only a unit to be added to the statistical
list of attempted suicides in the city of Paris during the current
year. He was busy, and could waste no more time on us. He told us
that if we came at a certain hour next day, should Blanche be better,
it might be possible for her husband to see her.
I scarcely know how we got through that day. Stroeve could not
bear to be alone, and I exhausted myself in efforts to distract him.
I took him to the Louvre, and he pretended to look at pictures, but I
saw that his thoughts were constantly with his wife. I forced him to
eat, and after luncheon I induced him to lie down, but he could not
sleep. He accepted willingly my invitation to remain for a few days
in my apartment. I gave him books to read, but after a page or two he
would put the book down and stare miserably into space. During the
evening we played innumerable games of piquet, and bravely, not to
disappoint my efforts, he tried to appear interested. Finally I gave
him a draught, and he sank into uneasy slumber.
When we went again to the hospital we saw a nursing sister. She
told us that Blanche seemed a little better, and she went in to ask if
she would see her husband. We heard voices in the room in which she
lay, and presently the nurse returned to say that the patient refused
to see anyone. We had told her that if she refused to see Dirk the
nurse was to ask if she would see me, but this she refused also.
Dirk's lips trembled.
"I dare not insist," said the nurse. "She is too ill. Perhaps in
a day or two she may change her mind."
"Is there anyone else she wants to see?" asked Dirk, in a voice so
low it was almost a whisper.
"She says she only wants to be left in peace."
Dirk's hands moved strangely, as though they had nothing to do
with his body, with a movement of their own.
"Will you tell her that if there is anyone else she wishes to see
I will bring him? I only want her to be happy."
The nurse looked at him with her calm, kind eyes, which had seen
all the horror and pain of the world, and yet, filled with the vision
of a world without sin, remained serene.
"I will tell her when she is a little calmer."
Dirk, filled with compassion, begged her to take the message at
"It may cure her. I beseech you to ask her now."
With a faint smile of pity, the nurse went back into the room. We
heard her low voice, and then, in a voice I did not recognise the
"No. No. No."
The nurse came out again and shook her head.
"Was that she who spoke then?" I asked. "Her voice sounded so
"It appears that her vocal cords have been burnt by the acid."
Dirk gave a low cry of distress. I asked him to go on and wait
for me at the entrance, for I wanted to say something to the nurse.
He did not ask what it was, but went silently. He seemed to have
lost all power of will; he was like an obedient child.
"Has she told you why she did it?" I asked.
"No. She won't speak. She lies on her back quite quietly. She
doesn't move for hours at a time. But she cries always. Her pillow is
all wet. She's too weak to use a handkerchief, and the tears just run
down her face."
It gave me a sudden wrench of the heart-strings. I could have
killed Strickland then, and I knew that my voice was trembling when I
bade the nurse goodbye.
I found Dirk waiting for me on the steps. He seemed to see
nothing, and did not notice that I had joined him till I touched him
on the arm. We walked along in silence. I tried to imagine what had
happened to drive the poor creature to that dreadful step. I presumed
that Strickland knew what had happened, for someone must have been to
see him from the police, and he must have made his statement. I did
not know where he was. I supposed he had gone back to the shabby
attic which served him as a studio. It was curious that she should
not wish to see him. Perhaps she refused to have him sent for
because she knew he would refuse to come. I wondered what an abyss
of cruelty she must have looked into that in horror she refused to
The next week was dreadful. Stroeve went twice a day to the
hospital to enquire after his wife, who still declined to see him;
and came away at first relieved and hopeful because he was told that
she seemed to be growing better, and then in despair because, the
complication which the doctor had feared having ensued, recovery was
impossible. The nurse was pitiful to his distress, but she had little
to say that could console him. The poor woman lay quite still,
refusing to speak, with her eyes intent, as though she watched for the
coming of death. It could now be only the question of a day or two;
and when, late one evening, Stroeve came to see me I knew it was to
tell me she was dead. He was absolutely exhausted. His volubility had
left him at last, and he sank down wearily on my sofa. I felt that no
words of condolence availed, and I let him lie there quietly. I
feared he would think it heartless if I read, so I sat by the window,
smoking a pipe, till he felt inclined to speak.
"You've been very kind to me," he said at last. "Everyone's been
"Nonsense," I said, a little embarrassed.
"At the hospital they told me I might wait. They gave me a chair,
and I sat outside the door. When she became unconscious they said I
might go in. Her mouth and chin were all burnt by the acid. It was
awful to see her lovely skin all wounded. She died very peacefully,
so that I didn't know she was dead till the sister told me."
He was too tired to weep. He lay on his back limply, as though
all the strength had gone out of his limbs, and presently I saw that
he had fallen asleep. It was the first natural sleep he had had for a
week. Nature, sometimes so cruel, is sometimes merciful. I covered
him and turned down the light. In the morning when I awoke he was
still asleep. He had not moved. His gold-rimmed spectacles were still
on his nose.
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"It was just like him. I never knew anyone with so compassionate
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
"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
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
"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
"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,
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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.
Looking back, I realise that what I have written about Charles
Strickland must seem very unsatisfactory. I have given incidents
that came to my knowledge, but they remain obscure because I do not
know the reasons that led to them. The strangest, Strickland's
determination to become a painter, seems to be arbitrary; and though
it must have had causes in the circumstances of his life, I am
ignorant of them. From his own conversation I was able to glean
nothing. If I were writing a novel, rather than narrating such facts
as I know of a curious personality, I should have invented much to
account for this change of heart. I think I should have shown a
strong vocation in boyhood, crushed by the will of his father or
sacrificed to the necessity of earning a living; I should have
pictured him impatient of the restraints of life; and in the struggle
between his passion for art and the duties of his station I could have
aroused sympathy for him. I should so have made him a more imposing
figure. Perhaps it would have been possible to see in him a new
Prometheus. There was here, maybe, the opportunity for a modern
version of the hero who for the good of mankind exposes himself to the
agonies of the damned. It is always a moving subject.
On the other hand, I might have found his motives in the influence
of the married relation. There are a dozen ways in which this might
be managed. A latent gift might reveal itself on acquaintance with
the painters and writers whose society his wife sought; or domestic
incompatability might turn him upon himself; a love affair might fan
into bright flame a fire which I could have shown smouldering dimly in
his heart. I think then I should have drawn Mrs. Strickland quite
differently. I should have abandoned the facts and made her a
nagging, tiresome woman, or else a bigoted one with no sympathy for
the claims of the spirit. I should have made Strickland's marriage a
long torment from which escape was the only possible issue. I think I
should have emphasised his patience with the unsuitable mate, and the
compassion which made him unwilling to throw off the yoke that
oppressed him. I should certainly have eliminated the children.
An effective story might also have been made by bringing him into
contact with some old painter whom the pressure of want or the desire
for commercial success had made false to the genius of his youth, and
who, seeing in Strickland the possibilities which himself had wasted,
influenced him to forsake all and follow the divine tyranny of art. I
think there would have been something ironic in the picture of the
successful old man, rich and honoured, living in another the life
which he, though knowing it was the better part, had not had the
strength to pursue.
The facts are much duller. Strickland, a boy fresh from school,
went into a broker's office without any feeling of distaste. Until he
married he led the ordinary life of his fellows, gambling mildly on
the Exchange, interested to the extent of a sovereign or two on the
result of the Derby or the Oxford and Cambridge Race. I think he
boxed a little in his spare time. On his chimney-piece he had
photographs of Mrs. Langtry and Mary Anderson. He read Punch
and the Sporting Times. He went to dances in Hampstead.
It matters less that for so long I should have lost sight of him.
The years during which he was struggling to acquire proficiency in a
difficult art were monotonous, and I do not know that there was
anything significant in the shifts to which he was put to earn enough
money to keep him. An account of them would be an account of the
things he had seen happen to other people. I do not think they had
any effect on his own character. He must have acquired experiences
which would form abundant material for a picaresque novel of modern
Paris, but he remained aloof, and judging from his conversation there
was nothing in those years that had made a particular impression on
him. Perhaps when he went to Paris he was too old to fall a victim to
the glamour of his environment. Strange as it may seem, he always
appeared to me not only practical, but immensely matter-of-fact. I
suppose his life during this period was romantic, but he certainly saw
no romance in it. It may be that in order to realise the romance of
life you must have something of the actor in you; and, capable of
standing outside yourself, you must be able to watch your actions with
an interest at once detached and absorbed. But no one was more
single-minded than Strickland. I never knew anyone who was less
self-conscious. But it is unfortunate that I can give no description
of the arduous steps by which he reached such mastery over his art as
he ever acquired; for if I could show him undaunted by failure, by an
unceasing effort of courage holding despair at bay, doggedly
persistent in the face of self-doubt, which is the artist's bitterest
enemy, I might excite some sympathy for a personality which, I am all
too conscious, must appear singularly devoid of charm. But I have
nothing to go on. I never once saw Strickland at work, nor do I know
that anyone else did. He kept the secret of his struggles to himself.
If in the loneliness of his studio he wrestled desperately with the
Angel of the Lord he never allowed a soul to divine his anguish.
When I come to his connection with Blanche Stroeve I am
exasperated by the fragmentariness of the facts at my disposal. To
give my story coherence I should describe the progress of their tragic
union, but I know nothing of the three months during which they lived
together. I do not know how they got on or what they talked about.
After all, there are twenty-four hours in the day, and the summits of
emotion can only be reached at rare intervals. I can only imagine how
they passed the rest of the time. While the light lasted and so long
as Blanche's strength endured, I suppose that Strickland painted, and
it must have irritated her when she saw him absorbed in his work. As
a mistress she did not then exist for him, but only as a model; and
then there were long hours in which they lived side by side in
silence. It must have frightened her. When Strickland suggested that
in her surrender to him there was a sense of triumph over Dirk
Stroeve, because he had come to her help in her extremity, he opened
the door to many a dark conjecture. I hope it was not true. It seems
to me rather horrible. But who can fathom the subtleties of the human
heart? Certainly not those who expect from it only decorous sentiments
and normal emotions. When Blanche saw that, notwithstanding his
moments of passion, Strickland remained aloof, she must have been
filled with dismay, and even in those moments I surmise that she
realised that to him she was not an individual, but an instrument of
pleasure; he was a stranger still, and she tried to bind him to
herself with pathetic arts. She strove to ensnare him with comfort
and would not see that comfort meant nothing to him. She was at pains
to get him the things to eat that he liked, and would not see that he
was indifferent to food. She was afraid to leave him alone. She
pursued him with attentions, and when his passion was dormant sought
to excite it, for then at least she had the illusion of holding him.
Perhaps she knew with her intelligence that the chains she forged
only aroused his instinct of destruction, as the plate-glass window
makes your fingers itch for half a brick; but her heart, incapable of
reason, made her continue on a course she knew was fatal. She must
have been very unhappy. But the blindness of love led her to believe
what she wanted to be true, and her love was so great that it seemed
impossible to her that it should not in return awake an equal love.
But my study of Strickland's character suffers from a greater
defect than my ignorance of many facts. Because they were obvious
and striking, I have written of his relations to women; and yet they
were but an insignificant part of his life. It is an irony that they
should so tragically have affected others. His real life consisted of
dreams and of tremendously hard work.
Here lies the unreality of fiction. For in men, as a rule, love
is but an episode which takes its place among the other affairs of the
day, and the emphasis laid on it in novels gives it an importance
which is untrue to life. There are few men to whom it is the most
important thing in the world, and they are not very interesting ones;
even women, with whom the subject is of paramount interest, have a
contempt for them. They are flattered and excited by them, but have an
uneasy feeling that they are poor creatures. But even during the
brief intervals in which they are in love, men do other things which
distract their mind; the trades by which they earn their living engage
their attention; they are absorbed in sport; they can interest
themselves in art. For the most part, they keep their various
activities in various compartments, and they can pursue one to the
temporary exclusion of the other. They have a faculty of concentration
on that which occupies them at the moment, and it irks them if one
encroaches on the other. As lovers, the difference between men and
women is that women can love all day long, but men only at times.
With Strickland the sexual appetite took a very small place. It
was unimportant. It was irksome. His soul aimed elsewhither. He had
violent passions, and on occasion desire seized his body so that he
was driven to an orgy of lust, but he hated the instincts that robbed
him of his self-possession. I think, even, he hated the inevitable
partner in his debauchery. When he had regained command over himself,
he shuddered at the sight of the woman he had enjoyed. His thoughts
floated then serenely in the empyrean, and he felt towards her the
horror that perhaps the painted butterfly, hovering about the flowers,
feels to the filthy chrysalis from which it has triumphantly emerged.
I suppose that art is a manifestation of the sexual instinct. It is
the same emotion which is excited in the human heart by the sight of a
lovely woman, the Bay of Naples under the yellow moon, and the Entombment of Titian. It is possible that Strickland hated the
normal release of sex because it seemed to him brutal by comparison
with the satisfaction of artistic creation. It seems strange even to
myself, when I have described a man who was cruel, selfish, brutal and
sensual, to say that he was a great idealist. The fact remains.
He lived more poorly than an artisan. He worked harder. He cared
nothing for those things which with most people make life gracious and
beautiful. He was indifferent to money. He cared nothing about fame.
You cannot praise him because he resisted the temptation to make any
of those compromises with the world which most of us yield to. He had
no such temptation. It never entered his head that compromise was
possible. He lived in Paris more lonely than an anchorite in the
deserts of Thebes. He asked nothing his fellows except that they
should leave him alone. He was single-hearted in his aim, and to
pursue it he was willing to sacrifice not only himself — many can do
that — but others. He had a vision.
Strickland was an odious man, but I still think be was a great one.
A certain importance attaches to the views on art of painters, and
this is the natural place for me to set down what I know of
Strickland's opinions of the great artists of the past. I am afraid I
have very little worth noting. Strickland was not a
conversationalist, and he had no gift for putting what he had to say
in the striking phrase that the listener remembers. He had no wit.
His humour, as will be seen if I have in any way succeeded in
reproducing the manner of his conversation, was sardonic. His
repartee was rude. He made one laugh sometimes by speaking the truth,
but this is a form of humour which gains its force only by its
unusualness; it would cease to amuse if it were commonly practised.
Strickland was not, I should say, a man of great intelligence, and
his views on painting were by no means out of the ordinary. I never
heard him speak of those whose work had a certain analogy with his own
— of Cezanne, for instance, or of Van Gogh; and I doubt very much if
he had ever seen their pictures. He was not greatly interested in the
Impressionists. Their technique impressed him, but I fancy that he
thought their attitude commonplace. When Stroeve was holding forth at
length on the excellence of Monet, he said: "I prefer Winterhalter."
But I dare say he said it to annoy, and if he did he certainly
I am disappointed that I cannot report any extravagances in his
opinions on the old masters. There is so much in his character which
is strange that I feel it would complete the picture if his views were
outrageous. I feel the need to ascribe to him fantastic theories
about his predecessors, and it is with a certain sense of disillusion
that I confess he thought about them pretty much as does everybody
else. I do not believe he knew El Greco. He had a great but somewhat
impatient admiration for Velasquez. Chardin delighted him, and
Rembrandt moved him to ecstasy. He described the impression that
Rembrandt made on him with a coarseness I cannot repeat. The only
painter that interested him who was at all unexpected was Brueghel the
Elder. I knew very little about him at that time, and Strickland had
no power to explain himself. I remember what he said about him
because it was so unsatisfactory.
"He's all right," said Strickland. "I bet he found it hell to
When later, in Vienna, I saw several of Peter Brueghel's pictures,
I thought I understood why he had attracted Strickland's attention.
Here, too, was a man with a vision of the world peculiar to himself.
I made somewhat copious notes at the time, intending to write
something about him, but I have lost them, and have now only the
recollection of an emotion. He seemed to see his fellow-creatures
grotesquely, and he was angry with them because they were grotesque;
life was a confusion of ridiculous, sordid happenings, a fit subject
for laughter, and yet it made him sorrowful to laugh. Brueghel gave me
the impression of a man striving to express in one medium feelings
more appropriate to expression in another, and it may be that it was
the obscure consciousness of this that excited Strickland's sympathy.
Perhaps both were trying to put down in paint ideas which were more
suitable to literature.
Strickland at this time must have been nearly forty-seven.
I have said already that but for the hazard of a journey to Tahiti
I should doubtless never have written this book. It is thither that
after many wanderings Charles Strickland came, and it is there that he
painted the pictures on which his fame most securely rests. I suppose
no artist achieves completely the realisation of the dream that
obsesses him, and Strickland, harassed incessantly by his struggle
with technique, managed, perhaps, less than others to express the
vision that he saw with his mind's eye; but in Tahiti the
circumstances were favourable to him; he found in his surroundings
the accidents necessary for his inspiration to become effective, and
his later pictures give at least a suggestion of what he sought. They
offer the imagination something new and strange. It is as though in
this far country his spirit, that had wandered disembodied, seeking a
tenement, at last was able to clothe itself in flesh. To use the
hackneyed phrase, here he found himself.
It would seem that my visit to this remote island should
immediately revive my interest in Strickland, but the work I was
engaged in occupied my attention to the exclusion of something that
was irrelevant, and it was not till I had been there some days that I
even remembered his connection with it. After all, I had not seen him
for fifteen years, and it was nine since he died. But I think my
arrival at Tahiti would have driven out of my head matters of much
more immediate importance to me, and even after a week I found it not
easy to order myself soberly. I remember that on my first morning I
awoke early, and when I came on to the terrace of the hotel no one
was stirring. I wandered round to the kitchen, but it was locked, and
on a bench outside it a native boy was sleeping. There seemed no
chance of breakfast for some time, so I sauntered down to the
water-front. The Chinamen were already busy in their shops. The sky
had still the pallor of dawn, and there was a ghostly silence on the
lagoon. Ten miles away the island of Murea, like some high fastness
of the Holy Grail, guarded its mystery.
I did not altogether believe my eyes. The days that had passed
since I left Wellington seemed extraordinary and unusual. Wellington
is trim and neat and English; it reminds you of a seaport town on the
South Coast. And for three days afterwards the sea was stormy. Gray
clouds chased one another across the sky. Then the wind dropped, and
the sea was calm and blue. The Pacific is more desolate than other
seas; its spaces seem more vast, and the most ordinary journey upon it
has somehow the feeling of an adventure. The air you breathe is an
elixir which prepares you for the unexpected. Nor is it vouchsafed to
man in the flesh to know aught that more nearly suggests the approach
to the golden realms of fancy than the approach to Tahiti. Murea, the
sister isle, comes into view in rocky splendour, rising from the
desert sea mysteriously, like the unsubstantial fabric of a magic
wand. With its jagged outline it is like a Monseratt of the Pacific,
and you may imagine that there Polynesian knights guard with strange
rites mysteries unholy for men to know. The beauty of the island is
unveiled as diminishing distance shows you in distincter shape its
lovely peaks, but it keeps its secret as you sail by, and, darkly
inviolable, seems to fold itself together in a stony, inaccessible
grimness. It would not surprise you if, as you came near seeking for
an opening in the reef, it vanished suddenly from your view, and
nothing met your gaze but the blue loneliness of the Pacific.
Tahiti is a lofty green island, with deep folds of a darker green,
in which you divine silent valleys; there is mystery in their sombre
depths, down which murmur and plash cool streams, and you feel that in
those umbrageous places life from immemorial times has been led
according to immemorial ways. Even here is something sad and terrible.
But the impression is fleeting, and serves only to give a greater
acuteness to the enjoyment of the moment. It is like the sadness
which you may see in the jester's eyes when a merry company is
laughing at his sallies; his lips smile and his jokes are gayer
because in the communion of laughter he finds himself more intolerably
alone. For Tahiti is smiling and friendly; it is like a lovely woman
graciously prodigal of her charm and beauty; and nothing can be more
conciliatory than the entrance into the harbour at Papeete. The
schooners moored to the quay are trim and neat, the little town along
the bay is white and urbane, and the flamboyants, scarlet against the
blue sky, flaunt their colour like a cry of passion. They are sensual
with an unashamed violence that leaves you breathless. And the crowd
that throngs the wharf as the steamer draws alongside is gay and
debonair; it is a noisy, cheerful, gesticulating crowd. It is a sea of
brown faces. You have an impression of coloured movement against the
flaming blue of the sky. Everything is done with a great deal of
bustle, the unloading of the baggage, the examination of the customs;
and everyone seems to smile at you. It is very hot. The colour
HAD not been in Tahiti long before I met Captain Nichols. He came
in one morning when I was having breakfast on the terrace of the hotel
and introduced himself. He had heard that I was interested in Charles
Strickland, and announced that he was come to have a talk about him.
They are as fond of gossip in Tahiti as in an English village, and
one or two enquiries I had made for pictures by Strickland had been
quickly spread. I asked the stranger if he had breakfasted.
"Yes; I have my coffee early," he answered, "but I don't mind
having a drop of whisky."
I called the Chinese boy.
"You don't think it's too early?" said the Captain.
"You and your liver must decide that between you," I replied.
"I'm practically a teetotaller," he said, as he poured himself out
a good half-tumbler of Canadian Club.
When he smiled he showed broken and discoloured teeth. He was a
very lean man, of no more than average height, with gray hair cut
short and a stubbly gray moustache. He had not shaved for a couple of
days. His face was deeply lined, burned brown by long exposure to the
sun, and he had a pair of small blue eyes which were astonishingly
shifty. They moved quickly, following my smallest gesture, and they
gave him the look of a very thorough rogue. But at the moment he was
all heartiness and good-fellowship. He was dressed in a bedraggled
suit of khaki, and his hands would have been all the better for a
"I knew Strickland well," he said, as he leaned back in his chair
and lit the cigar I had offered him. "It's through me he came out to
"Where did you meet him?" I asked.
"What were you doing there?"
He gave me an ingratiating smile.
"Well, I guess I was on the beach."
My friend's appearance suggested that he was now in the same
predicament, and I prepared myself to cultivate an agreeable
acquaintance. The society of beach-combers always repays the small
pains you need be at to enjoy it. They are easy of approach and
affable in conversation. They seldom put on airs, and the offer of a
drink is a sure way to their hearts. You need no laborious steps to
enter upon familiarity with them, and you can earn not only their
confidence, but their gratitude, by turning an attentive ear to their
discourse. They look upon conversation as the great pleasure of life,
thereby proving the excellence of their civilisation, and for the
most part they are entertaining talkers. The extent of their
experience is pleasantly balanced by the fertility of their
imagination. It cannot be said that they are without guile, but they
have a tolerant respect for the law, when the law is supported by
strength. It is hazardous to play poker with them, but their
ingenuity adds a peculiar excitement to the best game in the world. I
came to know Captain Nichols very well before I left Tahiti, and I am
the richer for his acquaintance. I do not consider that the cigars
and whisky he consumed at my expense (he always refused cocktails,
since he was practically a teetotaller), and the few dollars, borrowed
with a civil air of conferring a favour upon me, that passed from my
pocket to his, were in any way equivalent to the entertainment he
afforded me. I remained his debtor. I should be sorry if my
conscience, insisting on a rigid attention to the matter in hand,
forced me to dismiss him in a couple of lines.
I do not know why Captain Nichols first left England. It was a
matter upon which he was reticent, and with persons of his kind a
direct question is never very discreet. He hinted at undeserved
misfortune, and there is no doubt that he looked upon himself as the
victim of injustice. My fancy played with the various forms of fraud
and violence, and I agreed with him sympathetically when he remarked
that the authorities in the old country were so damned technical. But
it was nice to see that any unpleasantness he had endured in his
native land had not impaired his ardent patriotism. He frequently
declared that England was the finest country in the world, sir, and he
felt a lively superiority over Americans, Colonials, Dagos, Dutchmen,
But I do not think he was a happy man. He suffered from
dyspepsia, and he might often be seen sucking a tablet of pepsin; in
the morning his appetite was poor; but this affliction alone would
hardly have impaired his spirits. He had a greater cause of discontent
with life than this. Eight years before he had rashly married a wife.
There are men whom a merciful Providence has undoubtedly ordained to
a single life, but who from wilfulness or through circumstances they
could not cope with have flown in the face of its decrees. There is
no object more deserving of pity than the married bachelor. Of such
was Captain Nichols. I met his wife. She was a woman of
twenty-eight, I should think, though of a type whose age is always
doubtful; for she cannot have looked different when she was twenty,
and at forty would look no older. She gave me an impression of
extraordinary tightness. Her plain face with its narrow lips was
tight, her skin was stretched tightly over her bones, her smile was
tight, her hair was tight, her clothes were tight, and the white drill
she wore had all the effect of black bombazine. I could not imagine
why Captain Nichols had married her, and having married her why he had
not deserted her. Perhaps he had, often, and his melancholy arose
from the fact that he could never succeed. However far he went and in
howsoever secret a place he hid himself, I felt sure that Mrs.
Nichols, inexorable as fate and remorseless as conscience, would
presently rejoin him. He could as little escape her as the cause can
escape the effect.
The rogue, like the artist and perhaps the gentleman, belongs to
no class. He is not embarrassed by the sans gene of the hobo,
nor put out of countenance by the etiquette of the prince. But Mrs.
Nichols belonged to the well-defined class, of late become vocal,
which is known as the lower-middle. Her father, in fact, was a
policeman. I am certain that he was an efficient one. I do not know
what her hold was on the Captain, but I do not think it was love. I
never heard her speak, but it may be that in private she had a copious
conversation. At any rate, Captain Nichols was frightened to death of
her. Sometimes, sitting with me on the terrace of the hotel, he would
become conscious that she was walking in the road outside. She did not
call him; she gave no sign that she was aware of his existence; she
merely walked up and down composedly. Then a strange uneasiness would
seize the Captain; he would look at his watch and sigh.
"Well, I must be off," he said.
Neither wit nor whisky could detain him then. Yet he was a man
who had faced undaunted hurricane and typhoon, and would not have
hesitated to fight a dozen unarmed niggers with nothing but a revolver
to help him. Sometimes Mrs. Nichols would send her daughter, a
pale-faced, sullen child of seven, to the hotel.
"Mother wants you," she said, in a whining tone.
"Very well, my dear," said Captain Nichols.
He rose to his feet at once, and accompanied his daughter along
the road. I suppose it was a very pretty example of the triumph of
spirit over matter, and so my digression has at least the advantage of
I have tried to put some connection into the various things
Captain Nichols told me about Strickland, and I here set them down in
the best order I can. They made one another's acquaintance during the
latter part of the winter following my last meeting with Strickland in
Paris. How he had passed the intervening months I do not know, but
life must have been very hard, for Captain Nichols saw him first in
the Asile de Nuit. There was a strike at Marseilles at the time, and
Strickland, having come to the end of his resources, had apparently
found it impossible to earn the small sum he needed to keep body and
The Asile de Nuit is a large stone building where pauper and
vagabond may get a bed for a week, provided their papers are in order
and they can persuade the friars in charge that they are workingmen.
Captain Nichols noticed Strickland for his size and his singular
appearance among the crowd that waited for the doors to open; they
waited listlessly, some walking to and fro, some leaning against the
wall, and others seated on the curb with their feet in the gutter; and
when they filed into the office he heard the monk who read his papers
address him in English. But he did not have a chance to speak to him,
since, as he entered the common-room, a monk came in with a huge
Bible in his arms, mounted a pulpit which was at the end of the room,
and began the service which the wretched outcasts had to endure as the
price of their lodging. He and Strickland were assigned to different
rooms, and when, thrown out of bed at five in the morning by a
stalwart monk, he had made his bed and washed his face, Strickland had
already disappeared. Captain Nichols wandered about the streets for an
hour of bitter cold, and then made his way to the Place Victor Gelu,
where the sailor-men are wont to congregate. Dozing against the
pedestal of a statue, he saw Strickland again. He gave him a kick to
"Come and have breakfast, mate," he said.
"Go to hell," answered Strickland.
I recognised my friend's limited vocabulary, and I prepared to
regard Captain Nichols as a trustworthy witness.
"Busted?" asked the Captain.
"Blast you," answered Strickland.
"Come along with me. I'll get you some breakfast."
After a moment's hesitation, Strickland scrambled to his feet, and
together they went to the Bouchee de Pain, where the hungry are given
a wedge of bread, which they must eat there and then, for it is
forbidden to take it away; and then to the Cuillere de Soupe, where
for a week, at eleven and four, you may get a bowl of thin, salt soup.
The two buildings are placed far apart, so that only the starving
should be tempted to make use of them. So they had breakfast, and so
began the queer companionship of Charles Strickland and Captain
They must have spent something like four months at Marseilles in
one another's society. Their career was devoid of adventure, if by
adventure you mean unexpected or thrilling incident, for their days
were occupied in the pursuit of enough money to get a night's lodging
and such food as would stay the pangs of hunger. But I wish I could
give here the pictures, coloured and racy, which Captain Nichols'
vivid narrative offered to the imagination. His account of their
discoveries in the low life of a seaport town would have made a
charming book, and in the various characters that came their way the
student might easily have found matter for a very complete dictionary
of rogues. But I must content myself with a few paragraphs. I
received the impression of a life intense and brutal, savage,
multicoloured, and vivacious. It made the Marseilles that I knew,
gesticulating and sunny, with its comfortable hotels and its
restaurants crowded with the well-to-do, tame and commonplace. I
envied men who had seen with their own eyes the sights that Captain
When the doors of the Asile de Nuit were closed to them,
Strickland and Captain Nichols sought the hospitality of Tough Bill.
This was the master of a sailors' boarding-house, a huge mulatto with
a heavy fist, who gave the stranded mariner food and shelter till he
found him a berth. They lived with him a month, sleeping with a dozen
others, Swedes, negroes, Brazilians, on the floor of the two bare
rooms in his house which he assigned to his charges; and every day
they went with him to the Place Victor Gelu, whither came ships'
captains in search of a man. He was married to an American woman,
obese and slatternly, fallen to this pass by Heaven knows what
process of degradation, and every day the boarders took it in turns
to help her with the housework. Captain Nichols looked upon it as a
smart piece of work on Strickland's part that he had got out of this
by painting a portrait of Tough Bill. Tough Bill not only paid for the
canvas, colours, and brushes, but gave Strickland a pound of smuggled
tobacco into the bargain. For all I know, this picture may still
adorn the parlour of the tumbledown little house somewhere near the
Quai de la Joliette, and I suppose it could now be sold for fifteen
hundred pounds. Strickland's idea was to ship on some vessel bound
for Australia or New Zealand, and from there make his way to Samoa or
Tahiti. I do not know how he had come upon the notion of going to the
South Seas, though I remember that his imagination had long been
haunted by an island, all green and sunny, encircled by a sea more
blue than is found in Northern latitudes. I suppose that he clung to
Captain Nichols because he was acquainted with those parts, and it was
Captain Nichols who persuaded him that he would be more comfortable
"You see, Tahiti's French," he explained to me. "And the French
aren't so damned technical."
I thought I saw his point.
Strickland had no papers, but that was not a matter to disconcert
Tough Bill when he saw a profit (he took the first month's wages of
the sailor for whom he found a berth), and he provided Strickland with
those of an English stoker who had providentially died on his hands.
But both Captain Nichols and Strickland were bound East, and it
chanced that the only opportunities for signing on were with ships
sailing West. Twice Strickland refused a berth on tramps sailing for
the United States, and once on a collier going to Newcastle. Tough
Bill had no patience with an obstinacy which could only result in loss
to himself, and on the last occasion he flung both Strickland and
Captain Nichols out of his house without more ado. They found
themselves once more adrift.
Tough Bill's fare was seldom extravagant, and you rose from his
table almost as hungry as you sat down, but for some days they had
good reason to regret it. They learned what hunger was. The Cuillere
de Soupe and the Asile de Nuit were both closed to them, and their
only sustenance was the wedge of bread which the Bouchee de Pain
provided. They slept where they could, sometimes in an empty truck on
a siding near the station, sometimes in a cart behind a warehouse; but
it was bitterly cold, and after an hour or two of uneasy dozing they
would tramp the streets again. What they felt the lack of most
bitterly was tobacco, and Captain Nichols, for his part, could not do
without it; he took to hunting the "Can o' Beer," for cigarette-ends
and the butt-end of cigars which the promenaders of the night before
had thrown away.
"I've tasted worse smoking mixtures in a pipe," he added, with a
philosophic shrug of his shoulders, as he took a couple of cigars from
the case I offered him, putting one in his mouth and the other in his
Now and then they made a bit of money. Sometimes a mail steamer
would come in, and Captain Nichols, having scraped acquaintance with
the timekeeper, would succeed in getting the pair of them a job as
stevedores. When it was an English boat, they would dodge into the
forecastle and get a hearty breakfast from the crew. They took the
risk of running against one of the ship's officers and being hustled
down the gangway with the toe of a boot to speed their going.
"There's no harm in a kick in the hindquarters when your belly's
full," said Captain Nichols, "and personally I never take it in bad
part. An officer's got to think about discipline."
I had a lively picture of Captain Nichols flying headlong down a
narrow gangway before the uplifted foot of an angry mate, and, like a
true Englishman, rejoicing in the spirit of the Mercantile Marine.
There were often odd jobs to be got about the fish-market. Once
they each of them earned a franc by loading trucks with innumerable
boxes of oranges that had been dumped down on the quay. One day they
had a stroke of luck: one of the boarding-masters got a contract to
paint a tramp that had come in from Madagascar round the Cape of Good
Hope, and they spent several days on a plank hanging over the side,
covering the rusty hull with paint. It was a situation that must have
appealed to Strickland's sardonic humour. I asked Captain Nichols
how he bore himself during these hardships.
"Never knew him say a cross word," answered the Captain. "He'd be
a bit surly sometimes, but when we hadn't had a bite since morning,
and we hadn't even got the price of a lie down at the Chink's, he'd be
as lively as a cricket."
I was not surprised at this. Strickland was just the man to rise
superior to circumstances, when they were such as to occasion
despondency in most; but whether this was due to equanimity of soul or
to contradictoriness it would be difficult to say.
The Chink's Head was a name the beach-combers gave to a wretched
inn off the Rue Bouterie, kept by a one-eyed Chinaman, where for six
sous you could sleep in a cot and for three on the floor. Here they
made friends with others in as desperate condition as themselves, and
when they were penniless and the night was bitter cold, they were glad
to borrow from anyone who had earned a stray franc during the day the
price of a roof over their heads. They were not niggardly, these
tramps, and he who had money did not hesitate to share it among the
rest. They belonged to all the countries in the world, but this was
no bar to good-fellowship; for they felt themselves freemen of a
country whose frontiers include them all, the great country of
"But I guess Strickland was an ugly customer when he was roused,"
said Captain Nichols, reflectively. "One day we ran into Tough Bill
in the Place, and he asked Charlie for the papers he'd given him."
"`You'd better come and take them if you want them,' says Charlie.
"He was a powerful fellow, Tough Bill, but he didn't quite like
the look of Charlie, so he began cursing him. He called him pretty
near every name he could lay hands on, and when Tough Bill began
cursing it was worth listening to him. Well, Charlie stuck it for a
bit, then he stepped forward and he just said: `Get out, you bloody
swine.' It wasn't so much what he said, but the way he said it. Tough
Bill never spoke another word; you could see him go yellow, and he
walked away as if he'd remembered he had a date."
Strickland, according to Captain Nichols, did not use exactly the
words I have given, but since this book is meant for family reading I
have thought it better, at the expense of truth, to put into his mouth
expressions familiar to the domestic circle.
Now, Tough Bill was not the man to put up with humiliation at the
hands of a common sailor. His power depended on his prestige, and
first one, then another, of the sailors who lived in his house told
them that he had sworn to do Strickland in.
One night Captain Nichols and Strickland were sitting in one of
the bars of the Rue Bouterie. The Rue Bouterie is a narrow street of
one-storeyed houses, each house consisting of but one room; they are
like the booths in a crowded fair or the cages of animals in a circus.
At every door you see a woman. Some lean lazily against the
side-posts, humming to themselves or calling to the passer-by in a
raucous voice, and some listlessly read. They are French. Italian,
Spanish, Japanese, coloured; some are fat and some are thin; and under
the thick paint on their faces, the heavy smears on their eyebrows,
and the scarlet of their lips, you see the lines of age and the scars
of dissipation. Some wear black shifts and flesh-coloured stockings;
some with curly hair, dyed yellow, are dressed like little girls in
short muslin frocks. Through the open door you see a red-tiled floor,
a large wooden bed, and on a deal table a ewer and a basin. A motley
crowd saunters along the streets — Lascars off a P. and O., blond
Northmen from a Swedish barque, Japanese from a man-of-war, English
sailors, Spaniards, pleasant-looking fellows from a French cruiser,
negroes off an American tramp. By day it is merely sordid, but at
night, lit only by the lamps in the little huts, the street has a
sinister beauty. The hideous lust that pervades the air is oppressive
and horrible, and yet there is something mysterious in the sight which
haunts and troubles you. You feel I know not what primitive force
which repels and yet fascinates you. Here all the decencies of
civilisation are swept away, and you feel that men are face to face
with a sombre reality. There is an atmosphere that is at once intense
In the bar in which Strickland and Nichols sat a mechanical piano
was loudly grinding out dance music. Round the room people were
sitting at table, here half a dozen sailors uproariously drunk, there
a group of soldiers; and in the middle, crowded together, couples were
dancing. Bearded sailors with brown faces and large horny hands
clasped their partners in a tight embrace. The women wore nothing but
a shift. Now and then two sailors would get up and dance together.
The noise was deafening. People were singing, shouting, laughing;
and when a man gave a long kiss to the girl sitting on his knees,
cat-calls from the English sailors increased the din. The air was
heavy with the dust beaten up by the heavy boots of the men, and gray
with smoke. It was very hot. Behind the bar was seated a woman
nursing her baby. The waiter, an undersized youth with a flat, spotty
face, hurried to and fro carrying a tray laden with glasses of beer.
In a little while Tough Bill, accompanied by two huge negroes,
came in, and it was easy to see that he was already three parts
drunk. He was looking for trouble. He lurched against a table at
which three soldiers were sitting and knocked over a glass of beer.
There was an angry altercation, and the owner of the bar stepped
forward and ordered Tough Bill to go. He was a hefty fellow, in the
habit of standing no nonsense from his customers, and Tough Bill
hesitated. The landlord was not a man he cared to tackle, for the
police were on his side, and with an oath he turned on his heel.
Suddenly he caught sight of Strickland. He rolled up to him. He did
not speak. He gathered the spittle in his mouth and spat full in
Strickland's face. Strickland seized his glass and flung it at him.
The dancers stopped suddenly still. There was an instant of complete
silence, but when Tough Bill threw himself on Strickland the lust of
battle seized them all, and in a moment there was a confused
scrimmage. Tables were overturned, glasses crashed to the ground.
There was a hellish row. The women scattered to the door and behind
the bar. Passers-by surged in from the street. You heard curses in
every tongue the sound of blows, cries; and in the middle of the room
a dozen men were fighting with all their might. On a sudden the police
rushed in, and everyone who could made for the door. When the bar was
more or less cleared, Tough Bill was lying insensible on the floor
with a great gash in his head. Captain Nichols dragged Strickland,
bleeding from a wound in his arm, his clothes in rags, into the
street. His own face was covered with blood from a blow on the nose.
"I guess you'd better get out of Marseilles before Tough Bill
comes out of hospital," he said to Strickland, when they had got back
to the Chink's Head and were cleaning themselves.
"This beats cock-fighting," said Strickland.
I could see his sardonic smile.
Captain Nichols was anxious. He knew Tough Bill's vindictiveness.
Strickland had downed the mulatto twice, and the mulatto, sober, was
a man to be reckoned with. He would bide his time stealthily. He
would be in no hurry, but one night Strickland would get a
knife-thrust in his back, and in a day or two the corpse of a nameless
beach-comber would be fished out of the dirty water of the harbour.
Nichols went next evening to Tough Bill's house and made enquiries.
He was in hospital still, but his wife, who had been to see him, said
he was swearing hard to kill Strickland when they let him out.
A week passed.
"That's what I always say," reflected Captain Nichols, "when you
hurt a man, hurt him bad. It gives you a bit of time to look about
and think what you'll do next."
Then Strickland had a bit of luck. A ship bound for Australia had
sent to the Sailors' Home for a stoker in place of one who had thrown
himself overboard off Gibraltar in an attack of delirium tremens.
"You double down to the harbour, my lad," said the Captain to
Strickland, "and sign on. You've got your papers."
Strickland set off at once, and that was the last Captain Nichols
saw of him. The ship was only in port for six hours, and in the
evening Captain Nichols watched the vanishing smoke from her funnels
as she ploughed East through the wintry sea.
I have narrated all this as best I could, because I like the
contrast of these episodes with the life that I had seen Strickland
live in Ashley Gardens when he was occupied with stocks and shares;
but I am aware that Captain Nichols was an outrageous liar, and I dare
say there is not a word of truth in anything he told me. I should not
be surprised to learn that he had never seen Strickland in his life,
and owed his knowledge of Marseilles to the pages of a magazine.
It is here that I purposed to end my book. My first idea was to
begin it with the account of Strickland's last years in Tahiti and
with his horrible death, and then to go back and relate what I knew of
his beginnings. This I meant to do, not from wilfulness, but because
I wished to leave Strickland setting out with I know not what fancies
in his lonely soul for the unknown islands which fired his
imagination. I liked the picture of him starting at the age of
forty-seven, when most men have already settled comfortably in a
groove, for a new world. I saw him, the sea gray under the mistral
and foam-flecked, watching the vanishing coast of France, which he
was destined never to see again; and I thought there was something
gallant in his bearing and dauntless in his soul. I wished so to end
on a note of hope. It seemed to emphasise the unconquerable spirit of
man. But I could not manage it. Somehow I could not get into my
story, and after trying once or twice I had to give it up; I started
from the beginning in the usual way, and made up my mind I could only
tell what I knew of Strickland's life in the order in which I learnt
Those that I have now are fragmentary. I am in the position of a
biologist who from a single bone must reconstruct not only the
appearance of an extinct animal, but its habits. Strickland made no
particular impression on the people who came in contact with him in
Tahiti. To them he was no more than a beach-comber in constant need
of money, remarkable only for the peculiarity that he painted pictures
which seemed to them absurd; and it was not till he had been dead for
some years and agents came from the dealers in Paris and Berlin to
look for any pictures which might still remain on the island, that
they had any idea that among them had dwelt a man of consequence. They
remembered then that they could have bought for a song canvases which
now were worth large sums, and they could not forgive themselves for
the opportunity which had escaped them. There was a Jewish trader
called Cohen, who had come by one of Strickland's pictures in a
singular way. He was a little old Frenchman, with soft kind eyes and a
pleasant smile, half trader and half seaman, who owned a cutter in
which he wandered boldly among the Paumotus and the Marquesas, taking
out trade goods and bringing back copra, shell, and pearls. I went to
see him because I was told he had a large black pearl which he was
willing to sell cheaply, and when I discovered that it was beyond my
means I began to talk to him about Strickland. He had known him well.
"You see, I was interested in him because he was a painter," he
told me. "We don't get many painters in the islands, and I was sorry
for him because he was such a bad one. I gave him his first job. I
had a plantation on the peninsula, and I wanted a white overseer. You
never get any work out of the natives unless you have a white man over
them. I said to him: `You'll have plenty of time for painting, and
you can earn a bit of money.' I knew he was starving, but I offered
him good wages."
"I can't imagine that he was a very satisfactory overseer," I
"I made allowances. I have always had a sympathy for artists. It
is in our blood, you know. But he only remained a few months. When
he had enough money to buy paints and canvases he left me. The place
had got hold of him by then, and he wanted to get away into the bush.
But I continued to see him now and then. He would turn up in Papeete
every few months and stay a little while; he'd get money out of
someone or other and then disappear again. It was on one of these
visits that he came to me and asked for the loan of two hundred
francs. He looked as if he hadn't had a meal for a week, and I
hadn't the heart to refuse him. Of course, I never expected to see my
money again. Well, a year later he came to see me once more, and he
brought a picture with him. He did not mention the money he owed me,
but he said: `Here is a picture of your plantation that I've painted
for you.' I looked at it. I did not know what to say, but of course I
thanked him, and when he had gone away I showed it to my wife."
"What was it like?" I asked.
"Do not ask me. I could not make head or tail of it. I never saw
such a thing in my life. `What shall we do with it?' I said to my
wife. `We can never hang it up,' she said. `People would laugh at
us.' So she took it into an attic and put it away with all sorts of
rubbish, for my wife can never throw anything away. It is her mania.
Then, imagine to yourself, just before the war my brother wrote to me
from Paris, and said: `Do you know anything about an English painter
who lived in Tahiti? It appears that he was a genius, and his pictures
fetch large prices. See if you can lay your hands on anything and
send it to me. There's money to be made.' So I said to my wife.
`What about that picture that Strickland gave me?' Is it possible
that it is still in the attic?' `Without doubt,' she answered, ` for
you know that I never throw anything away. It is my mania.' We went
up to the attic, and there, among I know not what rubbish that had
been gathered during the thirty years we have inhabited that house,
was the picture. I looked at it again, and I said: `Who would have
thought that the overseer of my plantation on the peninsula, to whom I
lent two hundred francs, had genius? Do you see anything in the
picture?' `No,' she said, `it does not resemble the plantation and I
have never seen cocoa-nuts with blue leaves; but they are mad in
Paris, and it may be that your brother will be able to sell it for the
two hundred francs you lent Strickland.' Well, we packed it up and we
sent it to my brother. And at last I received a letter from him.
What do you think he said? `I received your picture,' he said, `and I
confess I thought it was a joke that you had played on me. I would not
have given the cost of postage for the picture. I was half afraid to
show it to the gentleman who had spoken to me about it. Imagine my
surprise when he said it was a masterpiece, and offered me thirty
thousand francs. I dare say he would have paid more, but frankly I was
so taken aback that I lost my head; I accepted the offer before I was
able to collect myself.'"
Then Monsieur Cohen said an admirable thing.
"I wish that poor Strickland had been still alive. I wonder what
he would have said when I gave him twenty-nine thousand eight hundred
francs for his picture."
I lived at the Hotel de la Fleur, and Mrs. Johnson, the
proprietress, had a sad story to tell of lost opportunity. After
Strickland's death certain of his effects were sold by auction in the
market-place at Papeete, and she went to it herself because there was
among the truck an American stove she wanted. She paid twenty-seven
francs for it.
"There were a dozen pictures," she told me, "but they were
unframed, and nobody wanted them. Some of them sold for as much as
ten francs, but mostly they went for five or six. Just think, if I had
bought them I should be a rich woman now."
But Tiare Johnson would never under any circumstances have been
rich. She could not keep money. The daughter of a native and an
English sea-captain settled in Tahiti, when I knew her she was a woman
of fifty, who looked older, and of enormous proportions. Tall and
extremely stout, she would have been of imposing presence if the great
good-nature of her face had not made it impossible for her to express
anything but kindliness. Her arms were like legs of mutton, her
breasts like giant cabbages; her face, broad and fleshy, gave you an
impression of almost indecent nakedness, and vast chin succeeded to
vast chin. I do not know how many of them there were. They fell away
voluminously into the capaciousness of her bosom. She was dressed
usually in a pink Mother Hubbard, and she wore all day long a large
straw hat. But when she let down her hair, which she did now and
then, for she was vain of it, you saw that it was long and dark and
curly; and her eyes had remained young and vivacious. Her laughter
was the most catching I ever heard; it would begin, a low peal in her
throat, and would grow louder and louder till her whole vast body
shook. She loved three things — a joke, a glass of wine, and a
handsome man. To have known her is a privilege.
She was the best cook on the island, and she adored good food.
From morning till night you saw her sitting on a low chair in the
kitchen, surrounded by a Chinese cook and two or three native girls,
giving her orders, chatting sociably with all and sundry, and tasting
the savoury messes she devised. When she wished to do honour to a
friend she cooked the dinner with her own hands. Hospitality was a
passion with her, and there was no one on the island who need go
without a dinner when there was anything to eat at the Hotel de la
Fleur. She never turned her customers out of her house because they
did not pay their bills. She always hoped they would pay when they
could. There was one man there who had fallen on adversity, and to
him she had given board and lodging for several months. When the
Chinese laundryman refused to wash for him without payment she had
sent his things to be washed with hers. She could not allow the poor
fellow to go about in a dirty shirt, she said, and since he was a man,
and men must smoke, she gave him a franc a day for cigarettes. She
used him with the same affability as those of her clients who paid
their bills once a week.
Age and obesity had made her inapt for love, but she took a keen
interest in the amatory affairs of the young. She looked upon venery
as the natural occupation for men and women, and was ever ready with
precept and example from her own wide experience.
"I was not fifteen when my father found that I had a lover," she
said. "He was third mate on the Tropic Bird. A good-looking
She sighed a little. They say a woman always remembers her first
lover with affection; but perhaps she does not always remember him.
"My father was a sensible man."
"What did he do?" I asked.
"He thrashed me within an inch of my life, and then he made me
marry Captain Johnson. I did not mind. He was older, of course, but
he was good-looking too."
Tiare — her father had called her by the name of the white,
scented flower which, they tell you, if you have once smelt, will
always draw you back to Tahiti in the end, however far you may have
roamed — Tiare remembered Strickland very well.
"He used to come here sometimes, and I used to see him walking
about Papeete. I was sorry for him, he was so thin, and he never had
any money. When I heard he was in town, I used to send a boy to find
him and make him come to dinner with me. I got him a job once or
twice, but he couldn't stick to anything. After a little while he
wanted to get back to the bush, and one morning he would be gone."
Strickland reached Tahiti about six months after he left
Marseilles. He worked his passage on a sailing vessel that was
making the trip from Auckland to San Francisco, and he arrived with a
box of paints, an easel, and a dozen canvases. He had a few pounds in
his pocket, for he had found work in Sydney, and he took a small room
in a native house outside the town. I think the moment he reached
Tahiti he felt himself at home. Tiare told me that he said to her
"I'd been scrubbing the deck, and all at once a chap said to me:
`Why, there it is.' And I looked up and I saw the outline of the
island. I knew right away that there was the place I'd been looking
for all my life. Then we came near, and I seemed to recognise it.
Sometimes when I walk about it all seems familiar. I could swear I've
lived here before."
"Sometimes it takes them like that," said Tiare. "I've known men
come on shore for a few hours while their ship was taking in cargo,
and never go back. And I've known men who came here to be in an
office for a year, and they cursed the place, and when they went away
they took their dying oath they'd hang themselves before they came
back again, and in six months you'd see them land once more, and
they'd tell you they couldn't live anywhere else."
I have an idea that some men are born out of their due place.
Accident has cast them amid certain surroundings, but they have
always a nostalgia for a home they know not. They are strangers in
their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they have known from childhood
or the populous streets in which they have played, remain but a place
of passage. They may spend their whole lives aliens among their
kindred and remain aloof among the only scenes they have ever known.
Perhaps it is this sense of strangeness that sends men far and wide
in the search for something permanent, to which they may attach
themselves. Perhaps some deeprooted atavism urges the wanderer back
to lands which his ancestors left in the dim beginnings of history.
Sometimes a man hits upon a place to which he mysteriously feels that
he belongs. Here is the home he sought, and he will settle amid
scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as
though they were familiar to him from his birth. Here at last he
I told Tiare the story of a man I had known at St. Thomas's
Hospital. He was a Jew named Abraham, a blond, rather stout young
man, shy and very unassuming; but he had remarkable gifts. He entered
the hospital with a scholarship, and during the five years of the
curriculum gained every prize that was open to him. He was made
house-physician and house-surgeon. His brilliance was allowed by all.
Finally he was elected to a position on the staff, and his career was
assured. So far as human things can be predicted, it was certain that
he would rise to the greatest heights of his profession. Honours and
wealth awaited him. Before he entered upon his new duties he wished
to take a holiday, and, having no private means, he went as surgeon on
a tramp steamer to the Levant. It did not generally carry a doctor,
but one of the senior surgeons at the hospital knew a director of the
line, and Abraham was taken as a favour.
In a few weeks the authorities received his resignation of the
coveted position on the staff. It created profound astonishment, and
wild rumours were current. Whenever a man does anything unexpected,
his fellows ascribe it to the most discreditable motives. But there
was a man ready to step into Abraham's shoes, and Abraham was
forgotten. Nothing more was heard of him. He vanished.
It was perhaps ten years later that one morning on board ship,
about to land at Alexandria, I was bidden to line up with the other
passengers for the doctor's examination. The doctor was a stout man
in shabby clothes, and when he took off his hat I noticed that he was
very bald. I had an idea that I had seen him before. Suddenly I
"Abraham," I said.
He turned to me with a puzzled look, and then, recognizing me,
seized my hand. After expressions of surprise on either side,
hearing that I meant to spend the night in Alexandria, he asked me to
dine with him at the English Club. When we met again I declared my
astonishment at finding him there. It was a very modest position that
he occupied, and there was about him an air of straitened
circumstance. Then he told me his story. When he set out on his
holiday in the Mediterranean he had every intention of returning to
London and his appointment at St. Thomas's. One morning the tramp
docked at Alexandria, and from the deck he looked at the city, white
in the sunlight, and the crowd on the wharf; he saw the natives in
their shabby gabardines, the blacks from the Soudan, the noisy throng
of Greeks and Italians, the grave Turks in tarbooshes, the sunshine
and the blue sky; and something happened to him. He could not describe
it. It was like a thunder-clap, he said, and then, dissatisfied with
this, he said it was like a revelation. Something seemed to twist his
heart, and suddenly he felt an exultation, a sense of wonderful
freedom. He felt himself at home, and he made up his mind there and
then, in a minute, that he would live the rest of his life in
Alexandria. He had no great difficulty in leaving the ship, and in
twenty-four hours, with all his belongings, he was on shore.
"The Captain must have thought you as mad as a hatter," I smiled.
"I didn't care what anybody thought. It wasn't I that acted, but
something stronger within me. I thought I would go to a little Greek
hotel, while I looked about, and I felt I knew where to find one. And
do you know, I walked straight there, and when I saw it, I recognised
it at once."
"Had you been to Alexandria before?"
"No; I'd never been out of England in my life."
Presently he entered the Government service, and there he had been
"Have you never regretted it?"
"Never, not for a minute. I earn just enough to live upon, and
I'm satisfied. I ask nothing more than to remain as I am till I die.
I've had a wonderful life."
I left Alexandria next day, and I forgot about Abraham till a
little while ago, when I was dining with another old friend in the
profession, Alec Carmichael, who was in England on short leave. I ran
across him in the street and congratulated him on the knighthood with
which his eminent services during the war had been rewarded. We
arranged to spend an evening together for old time's sake, and when I
agreed to dine with him, he proposed that he should ask nobody else,
so that we could chat without interruption. He had a beautiful old
house in Queen Anne Street, and being a man of taste he had furnished
it admirably. On the walls of the diningroom I saw a charming
Bellotto, and there was a pair of Zoffanys that I envied. When his
wife, a tall, lovely creature in cloth of gold, had left us, I
remarked laughingly on the change in his present circumstances from
those when we had both been medical students. We had looked upon it
then as an extravagance to dine in a shabby Italian restaurant in the
Westminster Bridge Road. Now Alec Carmichael was on the staff of half
a dozen hospitals. I should think he earned ten thousand a year, and
his knighthood was but the first of the honours which must inevitably
fall to his lot.
"I've done pretty well," he said, "but the strange thing is that I
owe it all to one piece of luck."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Well, do you remember Abraham? He was the man who had the future.
When we were students he beat me all along the line. He got the
prizes and the scholarships that I went in for. I always played second
fiddle to him. If he'd kept on he'd be in the position I'm in now.
That man had a genius for surgery. No one had a look in with him.
When he was appointed Registrar at Thomas's I hadn't a chance of
getting on the staff. I should have had to become a G.P., and you
know what likelihood there is for a G.P. ever to get out of the
common rut. But Abraham fell out, and I got the job. That gave me my
"I dare say that's true."
"It was just luck. I suppose there was some kink in Abraham. Poor
devil, he's gone to the dogs altogether. He's got some
twopenny-halfpenny job in the medical at Alexandria — sanitary
officer or something like that. I'm told he lives with an ugly old
Greek woman and has half a dozen scrofulous kids. The fact is, I
suppose, that it's not enough to have brains. The thing that counts is
character. Abraham hadn't got character."
Character? I should have thought it needed a good deal of
character to throw up a career after half an hour's meditation,
because you saw in another way of living a more intense significance.
And it required still more character never to regret the sudden step.
But I said nothing, and Alec Carmichael proceeded reflectively:
"Of course it would be hypocritical for me to pretend that I
regret what Abraham did. After all, I've scored by it." He puffed
luxuriously at the long Corona he was smoking. "But if I weren't
personally concerned I should be sorry at the waste. It seems a rotten
thing that a man should make such a hash of life."
I wondered if Abraham really had made a hash of life. Is to do
what you most want, to live under the conditions that please you, in
peace with yourself, to make a hash of life; and is it success to be
an eminent surgeon with ten thousand a year and a beautiful wife? I
suppose it depends on what meaning you attach to life, the claim which
you acknowledge to society, and the claim of the individual. But
again I held my tongue, for who am I to argue with a knight?
Tiare, when I told her this story, praised my prudence, and for a
few minutes we worked in silence, for we were shelling peas. Then her
eyes, always alert for the affairs of her kitchen, fell on some action
of the Chinese cook which aroused her violent disapproval. She turned
on him with a torrent of abuse. The Chink was not backward to defend
himself, and a very lively quarrel ensued. They spoke in the native
language, of which I had learnt but half a dozen words, and it sounded
as though the world would shortly come to an end; but presently peace
was restored and Tiare gave the cook a cigarette. They both smoked
"Do you know, it was I who found him his wife?" said Tiare
suddenly, with a smile that spread all over her immense face.
"But he had one already."
"That is what he said, but I told him she was in England, and
England is at the other end of the world."
"True," I replied.
"He would come to Papeete every two or three months, when he
wanted paints or tobacco or money, and then he would wander about
like a lost dog. I was sorry for him. I had a girl here then called
Ata to do the rooms; she was some sort of a relation of mine, and her
father and mother were dead, so I had her to live with me. Strickland
used to come here now and then to have a square meal or to play chess
with one of the boys. I noticed that she looked at him when he came,
and I asked her if she liked him. She said she liked him well enough.
You know what these girls are; they're always pleased to go with a
"Was she a native?" I asked.
"Yes; she hadn't a drop of white blood in her. Well, after I'd
talked to her I sent for Strickland, and I said to him: `Strickland,
it's time for you to settle down. A man of your age shouldn't go
playing about with the girls down at the front. They're bad lots, and
you'll come to no good with them. You've got no money, and you can
never keep a job for more than a month or two. No one will employ you
now. You say you can always live in the bush with one or other of the
natives, and they're glad to have you because you're a white man, but
it's not decent for a white man. Now, listen to me, Strickland.'"
Tiare mingled French with English in her conversation, for she
used both languages with equal facility. She spoke them with a
singing accent which was not unpleasing. You felt that a bird would
speak in these tones if it could speak English.
"'Now, what do you say to marrying Ata? She's a good girl and
she's only seventeen. She's never been promiscuous like some of
these girls — a captain or a first mate, yes, but she's never been
touched by a native. Elle se respecte, vois-tu. The purser of
the Oahu told me last journey that he hadn't met a nicer girl
in the islands. It's time she settled down too, and besides, the
captains and the first mates like a change now and then. I don't keep
my girls too long. She has a bit of property down by Taravao, just
before you come to the peninsula, and with copra at the price it is
now you could live quite comfortably. There's a house, and you'd have
all the time you wanted for your painting. What do you say to it?"
Tiare paused to take breath.
"It was then he told me of his wife in England. 'My poor
Strickland,' I said to him, 'they've all got a wife somewhere; that
is generally why they come to the islands. Ata is a sensible girl,
and she doesn't expect any ceremony before the Mayor. She's a
Protestant, and you know they don't look upon these things like the
"Then he said: `But what does Ata say to it?' `It appears that
she has a beguin for you,' I said. `She's willing if you are.
Shall I call her?' He chuckled in a funny, dry way he had, and I
called her. She knew what I was talking about, the hussy, and I saw
her out of the corner of my eyes listening with all her ears, while
she pretended to iron a blouse that she had been washing for me. She
came. She was laughing, but I could see that she was a little shy,
and Strickland looked at her without speaking."
"Was she pretty?" I asked.
"Not bad. But you must have seen pictures of her. He painted her
over and over again, sometimes with a pareo on and sometimes
with nothing at all. Yes, she was pretty enough. And she knew how to
cook. I taught her myself. I saw Strickland was thinking of it, so I
said to him: 'I've given her good wages and she's saved them, and the
captains and the first mates she's known have given her a little
something now and then. She's saved several hundred francs.'
"He pulled his great red beard and smiled.
"`Well, Ata,' he said, 'do you fancy me for a husband.'
"She did not say anything, but just giggled.
"`But I tell you, my poor Strickland, the girl has a
for you,' I said.
"I shall beat you,' he said, looking at her.
"`How else should I know you loved me,' she answered."
Tiare broke off her narrative and addressed herself to me
"My first husband, Captain Johnson, used to thrash me regularly.
He was a man. He was handsome, six foot three, and when he was drunk
there was no holding him. I would be black and blue all over for days
at a time. Oh, I cried when he died. I thought I should never get
over it. But it wasn't till I married George Rainey that I knew what
I'd lost. You can never tell what a man is like till you live with
him. I've never been so deceived in a man as I was in George Rainey.
He was a fine, upstanding fellow too. He was nearly as tall as
Captain Johnson, and he looked strong enough. But it was all on the
surface. He never drank. He never raised his hand to me. He might
have been a missionary. I made love with the officers of every ship
that touched the island, and George Rainey never saw anything. At
last I was disgusted with him, and I got a divorce. What was the good
of a husband like that? It's a terrible thing the way some men treat
I condoled with Tiare, and remarked feelingly that men were
deceivers ever, then asked her to go on with her story of Strickland.
"`Well,' I said to him, `there's no hurry about it. Take your
time and think it over. Ata has a very nice room in the annexe.
Live with her for a month, and see how you like her. You can have
your meals here. And at the end of a month, if you decide you want to
marry her, you can just go and settle down on her property.'
"Well, he agreed to that. Ata continued to do the housework, and
I gave him his meals as I said I would. I taught Ata to make one or
two dishes I knew he was fond of. He did not paint much. He wandered
about the hills and bathed in the stream. And he sat about the front
looking at the lagoon, and at sunset he would go down and look at
Murea. He used to go fishing on the reef. He loved to moon about the
harbour talking to the natives. He was a nice, quiet fellow. And
every evening after dinner he would go down to the annexe with Ata. I
saw he was longing to get away to the bush, and at the end of the
month I asked him what he intended to do. He said if Ata was willing
to go, he was willing to go with her. So I gave them a wedding dinner.
I cooked it with my own hands. I gave them a pea soup and lobster a la portugaise, and a curry, and a cocoa-nut salad — you've
never had one of my cocoa-nut salads, have you? I must make you one
before you go — and then I made them an ice. We had all the
champagne we could drink and liqueurs to follow. Oh, I'd made up my
mind to do things well. And afterwards we danced in the drawing-room.
I was not so fat, then, and I always loved dancing."
The drawing-room at the Hotel de la Fleur was a small room, with a
cottage piano, and a suite of mahogany furniture, covered in stamped
velvet, neatly arranged around the walls. On round tables were
photograph albums, and on the walls enlarged photographs of Tiare and
her first husband, Captain Johnson. Still, though Tiare was old and
fat, on occasion we rolled back the Brussels carpet, brought in the
maids and one or two friends of Tiare's, and danced, though now to the
wheezy music of a gramaphone. On the verandah the air was scented
with the heavy perfume of the tiare, and overhead the Southern Cross
shone in a cloudless sky.
Tiare smiled indulgently as she remembered the gaiety of a time
"We kept it up till three, and when we went to bed I don't think
anyone was very sober. I had told them they could have my trap to
take them as far as the road went, because after that they had a long
walk. Ata's property was right away in a fold of the mountain. They
started at dawn, and the boy I sent with them didn't come back till
"Yes, that's how Strickland was married."
I suppose the next three years were the happiest of Strickland's
life. Ata's house stood about eight kilometres from the road that
runs round the island, and you went to it along a winding pathway
shaded by the luxuriant trees of the tropics. It was a bungalow of
unpainted wood, consisting of two small rooms, and outside was a small
shed that served as a kitchen. There was no furniture except the mats
they used as beds, and a rocking-chair, which stood on the verandah.
Bananas with their great ragged leaves, like the tattered habiliments
of an empress in adversity, grew close up to the house. There was a
tree just behind which bore alligator pears, and all about were the
cocoa-nuts which gave the land its revenue. Ata's father had planted
crotons round his property, and they grew in coloured profusion, gay
and brilliant; they fenced the land with flame. A mango grew in front
of the house, and at the edge of the clearing were two flamboyants,
twin trees, that challenged the gold of the cocoa-nuts with their
Here Strickland lived, coming seldom to Papeete, on the produce of
the land. There was a little stream that ran not far away, in which
he bathed, and down this on occasion would come a shoal of fish. Then
the natives would assemble with spears, and with much shouting would
transfix the great startled things as they hurried down to the sea.
Sometimes Strickland would go down to the reef, and come back with a
basket of small, coloured fish that Ata would fry in cocoa-nut oil,
or with a lobster; and sometimes she would make a savoury dish of the
great land-crabs that scuttled away under your feet. Up the mountain
were wild-orange trees, and now and then Ata would go with two or
three women from the village and return laden with the green, sweet,
luscious fruit. Then the cocoa-nuts would be ripe for picking, and
her cousins (like all the natives, Ata had a host of relatives) would
swarm up the trees and throw down the big ripe nuts. They split them
open and put them in the sun to dry. Then they cut out the copra and
put it into sacks, and the women would carry it down to the trader at
the village by the lagoon, and he would give in exchange for it rice
and soap and tinned meat and a little money. Sometimes there would be
a feast in the neighbourhood, and a pig would be killed. Then they
would go and eat themselves sick, and dance, and sing hymns.
But the house was a long way from the village, and the Tahitians
are lazy. They love to travel and they love to gossip, but they do
not care to walk, and for weeks at a time Strickland and Ata lived
alone. He painted and he read, and in the evening, when it was dark,
they sat together on the verandah, smoking and looking at the night.
Then Ata had a baby, and the old woman who came up to help her
through her trouble stayed on. Presently the granddaughter of the old
woman came to stay with her, and then a youth appeared — no one
quite knew where from or to whom he belonged — but he settled down
with them in a happy-go-lucky way, and they all lived together,
Tenez, voila le Capitaine Brunot," said Tiare, one day when
I was fitting together what she could tell me of Strickland. "He knew
Strickland well; he visited him at his house."
I saw a middle-aged Frenchman with a big black beard, streaked
with gray, a sunburned face, and large, shining eyes. He was dressed
in a neat suit of ducks. I had noticed him at luncheon, and Ah Lin,
the Chinese boy, told me he had come from the Paumotus on the boat
that had that day arrived. Tiare introduced me to him, and he handed
me his card, a large card on which was printed Rene Brunot,
and underneath, Capitaine au Long Cours. We were sitting on a
little verandah outside the kitchen, and Tiare was cutting out a
dress that she was making for one of the girls about the house. He
sat down with us.
"Yes; I knew Strickland well," he said. "I am very fond of chess,
and he was always glad of a game. I come to Tahiti three or four
times a year for my business, and when he was at Papeete he would come
here and we would play. When he married" — Captain Brunot smiled and
shrugged his shoulders — " enfin, when he went to live with
the girl that Tiare gave him, he asked me to go and see him. I was
one of the guests at the wedding feast." He looked at Tiare, and they
both laughed. "He did not come much to Papeete after that, and about
a year later it chanced that I had to go to that part of the island
for I forgot what business, and when I had finished it I said to
myself: ` Voyons, why should I not go and see that poor
Strickland?' I asked one or two natives if they knew anything about
him, and I discovered that he lived not more than five kilometres from
where I was. So I went. I shall never forget the impression my visit
made on me. I live on an atoll, a low island, it is a strip of land
surrounding a lagoon, and its beauty is the beauty of the sea and sky
and the varied colour of the lagoon and the grace of the cocoa-nut
trees; but the place where Strickland lived had the beauty of the
Garden of Eden. Ah, I wish I could make you see the enchantment of
that spot, a corner hidden away from all the world, with the blue sky
overhead and the rich, luxuriant trees. It was a feast of colour.
And it was fragrant and cool. Words cannot describe that paradise.
And here he lived, unmindful of the world and by the world forgotten.
I suppose to European eyes it would have seemed astonishingly sordid.
The house was dilapidated and none too clean. Three or four natives
were lying on the verandah. You know how natives love to herd
together. There was a young man lying full length, smoking a
cigarette, and he wore nothing but a pareo"
The pareo is a long strip of trade cotton, red or blue,
stamped with a white pattern. It is worn round the waist and hangs
to the knees.
"A girl of fifteen, perhaps, was plaiting pandanus-leaf to make a
hat, and an old woman was sitting on her haunches smoking a pipe.
Then I saw Ata. She was suckling a new-born child, and another
child, stark naked, was playing at her feet. When she saw me she
called out to Strickland, and he came to the door. He, too, wore
nothing but a pareo. He was an extraordinary figure, with his
red beard and matted hair, and his great hairy chest. His feet were
horny and scarred, so that I knew he went always bare foot. He had
gone native with a vengeance. He seemed pleased to see me, and told
Ata to kill a chicken for our dinner. He took me into the house to
show me the picture he was at work on when I came in. In one corner of
the room was the bed, and in the middle was an easel with the canvas
upon it. Because I was sorry for him, I had bought a couple of his
pictures for small sums, and I had sent others to friends of mine in
France. And though I had bought them out of compassion, after living
with them I began to like them. Indeed, I found a strange beauty in
them. Everyone thought I was mad, but it turns out that I was right.
I was his first admirer in the islands."
He smiled maliciously at Tiare, and with lamentations she told us
again the story of how at the sale of Strickland's effects she had
neglected the pictures, but bought an American stove for twenty-seven
"Have you the pictures still?" I asked.
"Yes; I am keeping them till my daughter is of marriageable age,
and then I shall sell them. They will be her dot." Then he
went on with the account of his visit to Strickland.
"I shall never forget the evening I spent with him. I had not
intended to stay more than an hour, but he insisted that I should
spend the night. I hesitated, for I confess I did not much like the
look of the mats on which he proposed that I should sleep; but I
shrugged my shoulders. When I was building my house in the Paumotus I
had slept out for weeks on a harder bed than that, with nothing to
shelter me but wild shrubs; and as for vermin, my tough skin should be
proof against their malice.
"We went down to the stream to bathe while Ata was preparing the
dinner, and after we had eaten it we sat on the verandah. We smoked
and chatted. The young man had a concertina, and he played the tunes
popular on the music-halls a dozen years before. They sounded
strangely in the tropical night thousands of miles from civilisation.
I asked Strickland if it did not irk him to live in that promiscuity.
No, he said; he liked to have his models under his hand. Presently,
after loud yawning, the natives went away to sleep, and Strickland
and I were left alone. I cannot describe to you the intense silence
of the night. On my island in the Paumotus there is never at night
the complete stillness that there was here. There is the rustle of the
myriad animals on the beach, all the little shelled things that crawl
about ceaselessly, and there is the noisy scurrying of the land-crabs.
Now and then in the lagoon you hear the leaping of a fish, and
sometimes a hurried noisy splashing as a brown shark sends all the
other fish scampering for their lives. And above all, ceaseless like
time, is the dull roar of the breakers on the reef. But here there was
not a sound, and the air was scented with the white flowers of the
night. It was a night so beautiful that your soul seemed hardly able
to bear the prison of the body. You felt that it was ready to be
wafted away on the immaterial air, and death bore all the aspect of a
"Ah, I wish I were fifteen again."
Then she caught sight of a cat trying to get at a dish of prawns
on the kitchen table, and with a dexterous gesture and a lively volley
of abuse flung a book at its scampering tail.
"I asked him if he was happy with Ata.
"`She leaves me alone,' he said. 'She cooks my food and looks
after her babies. She does what I tell her. She gives me what I
want from a woman.'
"`And do you never regret Europe? Do you not yearn sometimes for
the light of the streets in Paris or London, the companionship of your
friends, and equals, que sais-je? for theatres and newspapers,
and the rumble of omnibuses on the cobbled pavements?'
"For a long time he was silent. Then he said:
"`I shall stay here till I die.'
"`But are you never bored or lonely?' I asked.
"` Mon pauvre ami,' he said. `It is evident that you do
not know what it is to be an artist.'"
Capitaine Brunot turned to me with a gentle smile, and there was a
wonderful look in his dark, kind eyes.
"He did me an injustice, for I too know what it is to have dreams.
I have my visions too. In my way I also am an artist."
We were all silent for a while, and Tiare fished out of her
capacious pocket a handful of cigarettes. She handed one to each of
us, and we all three smoked. At last she said:
ce monsieur is interested in Strickland, why do you
not take him to see Dr. Coutras? He can tell him something about his
illness and death."
" Volontiers," said the Captain, looking at me.
I thanked him, and he looked at his watch.
"It is past six o'clock. We should find him at home if you care
to come now."
I got up without further ado, and we walked along the road that
led to the doctor's house. He lived out of the town, but the Hotel de
la Fleur was on the edge of it, and we were quickly in the country.
The broad road was shaded by pepper-trees, and on each side were the
plantations, cocoa-nut and vanilla. The pirate birds were screeching
among the leaves of the palms. We came to a stone bridge over a
shallow river, and we stopped for a few minutes to see the native boys
bathing. They chased one another with shrill cries and laughter, and
their bodies, brown and wet, gleamed in the sunlight.
As we walked along I reflected on a circumstance which all that I
had lately heard about Strickland forced on my attention. Here, on
this remote island, he seemed to have aroused none of the detestation
with which he was regarded at home, but compassion rather; and his
vagaries were accepted with tolerance. To these people, native and
European, he was a queer fish, but they were used to queer fish, and
they took him for granted; the world was full of odd persons, who did
odd things; and perhaps they knew that a man is not what he wants to
be, but what he must be. In England and France he was the square peg
in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no
sort of peg was quite amiss. I do not think he was any gentler here,
less selfish or less brutal, but the circumstances were more
favourable. If he had spent his life amid these surroundings he might
have passed for no worse a man than another. He received here what he
neither expected nor wanted among his own people — sympathy.
I tried to tell Captain Brunot something of the astonishment with
which this filled me, and for a little while he did not answer.
"It is not strange that I, at all events, should have had sympathy
for him," he said at last, "for, though perhaps neither of us knew it,
we were both aiming at the same thing."
"What on earth can it be that two people so dissimilar as you and
Strickland could aim at?" I asked, smiling.
"A large order," I murmured.
"Do you know how men can be so obsessed by love that they are deaf
and blind to everything else in the world? They are as little their
own masters as the slaves chained to the benches of a galley. The
passion that held Strickland in bondage was no less tyrannical than
"How strange that you should say that!" I answered. "For long ago
I had the idea that he was possessed of a devil."
"And the passion that held Strickland was a passion to create
beauty. It gave him no peace. It urged him hither and thither. He
was eternally a pilgrim, haunted by a divine nostalgia, and the demon
within him was ruthless. There are men whose desire for truth is so
great that to attain it they will shatter the very foundation of their
world. Of such was Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of
truth. I could only feel for him a profound compassion."
"That is strange also. A man whom he had deeply wronged told me
that he felt a great pity for him." I was silent for a moment. "I
wonder if there you have found the explanation of a character which
has always seemed to me inexplicable. How did you hit on it?"
He turned to me with a smile.
"Did I not tell you that I, too, in my way was an artist? I
realised in myself the same desire as animated him. But whereas his
medium was paint, mine has been life."
Then Captain Brunot told me a story which I must repeat, since, if
only by way of contrast, it adds something to my impression of
Strickland. It has also to my mind a beauty of its own.
Captain Brunot was a Breton, and had been in the French Navy. He
left it on his marriage, and settled down on a small property he had
near Quimper to live for the rest of his days in peace; but the
failure of an attorney left him suddenly penniless, and neither he nor
his wife was willing to live in penury where they had enjoyed
consideration. During his sea faring days he had cruised the South
Seas, and he determined now to seek his fortune there. He spent some
months in Papeete to make his plans and gain experience; then, on
money borrowed from a friend in France, he bought an island in the
Paumotus. It was a ring of land round a deep lagoon, uninhabited, and
covered only with scrub and wild guava. With the intrepid woman who
was his wife, and a few natives, he landed there, and set about
building a house, and clearing the scrub so that he could plant
cocoa-nuts. That was twenty years before, and now what had been a
barren island was a garden.
"It was hard and anxious work at first, and we worked strenuously,
both of us. Every day I was up at dawn, clearing, planting, working
on my house, and at night when I threw myself on my bed it was to
sleep like a log till morning. My wife worked as hard as I did. Then
children were born to us, first a son and then a daughter. My wife
and I have taught them all they know. We had a piano sent out from
France, and she has taught them to play and to speak English, and I
have taught them Latin and mathematics, and we read history together.
They can sail a boat. They can swim as well as the natives. There
is nothing about the land of which they are ignorant. Our trees have
prospered, and there is shell on my reef. I have come to Tahiti now
to buy a schooner. I can get enough shell to make it worth while to
fish for it, and, who knows? I may find pearls. I have made
something where there was nothing. I too have made beauty. Ah, you
do not know what it is to look at those tall, healthy trees and think
that every one I planted myself."
"Let me ask you the question that you asked Strickland. Do you
never regret France and your old home in Brittany?"
"Some day, when my daughter is married and my son has a wife and
is able to take my place on the island, we shall go back and finish
our days in the old house in which I was born."
"You will look back on a happy life," I said.
" Evidemment, it is not exciting on my island, and we are
very far from the world — imagine, it takes me four days to come to
Tahiti — but we are happy there. It is given to few men to attempt a
work and to achieve it. Our life is simple and innocent. We are
untouched by ambition, and what pride we have is due only to our
contemplation of the work of our hands. Malice cannot touch us, nor
envy attack. Ah, mon cher monsieur, they talk of the
blessedness of labour, and it is a meaningless phrase, but to me it
has the most intense significance. I am a happy man."
"I am sure you deserve to be," I smiled.
"I wish I could think so. I do not know how I have deserved to
have a wife who was the perfect friend and helpmate, the perfect
mistress and the perfect mother."
I reflected for a while on the life that the Captain suggested to
"It is obvious that to lead such an existence and make so great a
success of it, you must both have needed a strong will and a
"Perhaps; but without one other factor we could have achieved
"And what was that?"
He stopped, somewhat dramatically, and stretched out his arm.
"Belief in God. Without that we should have been lost."
Then we arrived at the house of Dr. Coutras.
Mr. Coutras was an old Frenchman of great stature and exceeding
bulk. His body was shaped like a huge duck's egg; and his eyes,
sharp, blue, and good-natured, rested now and then with
self-satisfaction on his enormous paunch. His complexion was florid
and his hair white. He was a man to attract immediate sympathy. He
received us in a room that might have been in a house in a provincial
town in France, and the one or two Polynesian curios had an odd look.
He took my hand in both of his — they were huge — and gave me a
hearty look, in which, however, was great shrewdness. When he shook
hands with Capitaine Brunot he enquired politely after Madame et
les enfants. For some minutes there was an exchange of courtesies
and some local gossip about the island, the prospects of copra and the
vanilla crop; then we came to the object of my visit.
I shall not tell what Dr. Coutras related to me in his words, but
in my own, for I cannot hope to give at second hand any impression of
his vivacious delivery. He had a deep, resonant voice, fitted to his
massive frame, and a keen sense of the dramatic. To listen to him
was, as the phrase goes, as good as a play; and much better than most.
It appears that Dr. Coutras had gone one day to Taravao in order
to see an old chiefess who was ill, and he gave a vivid picture of the
obese old lady, lying in a huge bed, smoking cigarettes, and
surrounded by a crowd of dark-skinned retainers. When he had seen her
he was taken into another room and given dinner — raw fish, fried
bananas, and chicken — que sais-je, the typical dinner of the indigene — and while he was eating it he saw a young girl being
driven away from the door in tears. He thought nothing of it, but
when he went out to get into his trap and drive home, he saw her
again, standing a little way off; she looked at him with a woebegone
air, and tears streamed down her cheeks. He asked someone what was
wrong with her, and was told that she had come down from the hills to
ask him to visit a white man who was sick. They had told her that the
doctor could not be disturbed. He called her, and himself asked what
she wanted. She told him that Ata had sent her, she who used to be at
the Hotel de la Fleur, and that the Red One was ill. She thrust into
his hand a crumpled piece of newspaper, and when he opened it he found
in it a hundred-franc note.
"Who is the Red One?" he asked of one of the bystanders.
He was told that that was what they called the Englishman, a
painter, who lived with Ata up in the valley seven kilometres from
where they were. He recognised Strickland by the description. But it
was necessary to walk. It was impossible for him to go; that was why
they had sent the girl away.
"I confess," said the doctor, turning to me, "that I hesitated. I
did not relish fourteen kilometres over a bad pathway, and there was
no chance that I could get back to Papeete that night. Besides,
Strickland was not sympathetic to me. He was an idle, useless
scoundrel, who preferred to live with a native woman rather than work
for his living like the rest of us. Mon Dieu, how was I to
know that one day the world would come to the conclusion that he had
genius? I asked the girl if he was not well enough to have come down
to see me. I asked her what she thought was the matter with him. She
would not answer. I pressed her, angrily perhaps, but she looked down
on the ground and began to cry. Then I shrugged my shoulders; after
all, perhaps it was my duty to go, and in a very bad temper I bade her
lead the way."
His temper was certainly no better when he arrived, perspiring
freely and thirsty. Ata was on the look-out for him, and came a
little way along the path to meet him.
"Before I see anyone give me something to drink or I shall die of
thirst," he cried out. " Pour l'amour de Dieu, get me a
She called out, and a boy came running along. He swarmed up a
tree, and presently threw down a ripe nut. Ata pierced a hole in it,
and the doctor took a long, refreshing draught. Then he rolled himself
a cigarette and felt in a better humour.
"Now, where is the Red One?" he asked.
"He is in the house, painting. I have not told him you were
coming. Go in and see him."
"But what does he complain of? If he is well enough to paint, he
is well enough to have come down to Taravao and save me this
confounded walk. I presume my time is no less valuable than his."
Ata did not speak, but with the boy followed him to the house. The
girl who had brought him was by this time sitting on the verandah, and
here was lying an old woman, with her back to the wall, making native
cigarettes. Ata pointed to the door. The doctor, wondering irritably
why they behaved so strangely, entered, and there found Strickland
cleaning his palette. There was a picture on the easel. Strickland,
clad only in a pareo, was standing with his back to the door,
but he turned round when he heard the sound of boots. He gave the
doctor a look of vexation. He was surprised to see him, and resented
the intrusion. But the doctor gave a gasp, he was rooted to the
floor, and he stared with all his eyes. This was not what he expected.
He was seized with horror.
"You enter without ceremony," said Strickland. "What can I do for
The doctor recovered himself, but it required quite an effort for
him to find his voice. All his irritation was gone, and he felt — eh bien, oui, je ne le nie pas — he felt an overwhelming pity.
"I am Dr. Coutras. I was down at Taravao to see the chiefess, and
Ata sent for me to see you."
"She's a damned fool. I have had a few aches and pains lately and
a little fever, but that's nothing; it will pass off. Next time anyone
went to Papeete I was going to send for some quinine."
"Look at yourself in the glass."
Strickland gave him a glance, smiled, and went over to a cheap
mirror in a little wooden frame, that hung on the wall.
"Do you not see a strange change in your face? Do you not see the
thickening of your features and a look — how shall I describe it? —
the books call it lion-faced. Mon pauvre ami, must I tell you
that you have a terrible disease?"
"When you look at yourself in the glass you see the typical
appearance of the leper."
"You are jesting," said Strickland.
"I wish to God I were."
"Do you intend to tell me that I have leprosy?"
"Unfortunately, there can be no doubt of it."
Dr. Coutras had delivered sentence of death on many men, and he
could never overcome the horror with which it filled him. He felt
always the furious hatred that must seize a man condemned when he
compared himself with the doctor, sane and healthy, who had the
inestimable privilege of life. Strickland looked at him in silence.
Nothing of emotion could be seen on his face, disfigured already by
the loathsome disease.
"Do they know?" he asked at last, pointing to the persons on the
verandah, now sitting in unusual, unaccountable silence.
"These natives know the signs so well," said the doctor. "They
were afraid to tell you."
Strickland stepped to the door and looked out. There must have
been something terrible in his face, for suddenly they all burst out
into loud cries and lamentation. They lifted up their voices and they
wept. Strickland did not speak. After looking at them for a moment,
he came back into the room.
"How long do you think I can last?"
"Who knows? Sometimes the disease continues for twenty years. It
is a mercy when it runs its course quickly."
Strickland went to his easel and looked reflectively at the
picture that stood on it.
"You have had a long journey. It is fitting that the bearer of
important tidings should be rewarded. Take this picture. It means
nothing to you now, but it may be that one day you will be glad to
Dr. Coutras protested that he needed no payment for his journey;
he had already given back to Ata the hundred-franc note, but
Strickland insisted that he should take the picture. Then together
they went out on the verandah. The natives were sobbing violently.
"Be quiet, woman. Dry thy tears," said Strickland, addressing Ata.
"There is no great harm. I shall leave thee very soon."
"They are not going to take thee away?" she cried.
At that time there was no rigid sequestration on the islands, and
lepers, if they chose, were allowed to go free.
"I shall go up into the mountain," said Strickland.
Then Ata stood up and faced him.
"Let the others go if they choose, but I will not leave thee. Thou
art my man and I am thy woman. If thou leavest me I shall hang myself
on the tree that is behind the house. I swear it by God."
There was something immensely forcible in the way she spoke. She
was no longer the meek, soft native girl, but a determined woman. She
was extraordinarily transformed.
"Why shouldst thou stay with me? Thou canst go back to Papeete,
and thou wilt soon find another white man. The old woman can take
care of thy children, and Tiare will be glad to have thee back."
"Thou art my man and I am thy woman. Whither thou goest I will
For a moment Strickland's fortitude was shaken, and a tear filled
each of his eyes and trickled slowly down his cheeks. Then he gave the
sardonic smile which was usual with him.
"Women are strange little beasts," he said to Dr. Coutras. "You
can treat them like dogs, you can beat them till your arm aches, and
still they love you." He shrugged his shoulders. "Of course, it is
one of the most absurd illusions of Christianity that they have
"What is it that thou art saying to the doctor?" asked Ata
suspiciously. "Thou wilt not go?"
"If it please thee I will stay, poor child."
Ata flung herself on her knees before him, and clasped his legs
with her arms and kissed them. Strickland looked at Dr. Coutras with
a faint smile.
"In the end they get you, and you are helpless in their hands.
White or brown, they are all the same."
Dr. Coutras felt that it was absurd to offer expressions of regret
in so terrible a disaster, and he took his leave. Strickland told
Tane, the boy, to lead him to the village. Dr. Coutras paused for a
moment, and then he addressed himself to me.
"I did not like him, I have told you he was not sympathetic to me,
but as I walked slowly down to Taravao I could not prevent an
unwilling admiration for the stoical courage which enabled him to bear
perhaps the most dreadful of human afflictions. When Tane left me I
told him I would send some medicine that might be of service; but my
hope was small that Strickland would consent to take it, and even
smaller that, if he did, it would do him good. I gave the boy a
message for Ata that I would come whenever she sent for me. Life is
hard, and Nature takes sometimes a terrible delight in torturing her
children. It was with a heavy heart that I drove back to my
comfortable home in Papeete."
For a long time none of us spoke.
"But Ata did not send for me," the doctor went on, at last, "and
it chanced that I did not go to that part of the island for a long
time. I had no news of Strickland. Once or twice I heard that Ata
had been to Papeete to buy painting materials, but I did not happen to
see her. More than two years passed before I went to Taravao again,
and then it was once more to see the old chiefess. I asked them
whether they had heard anything of Strickland. By now it was known
everywhere that he had leprosy. First Tane, the boy, had left the
house, and then, a little time afterwards, the old woman and her
grandchild. Strickland and Ata were left alone with their babies. No
one went near the plantation, for, as you know, the natives have a
very lively horror of the disease, and in the old days when it was
discovered the sufferer was killed; but sometimes, when the village
boys were scrambling about the hills, they would catch sight of the
white man, with his great red beard, wandering about. They fled in
terror. Sometimes Ata would come down to the village at night and
arouse the trader, so that he might sell her various things of which
she stood in need. She knew that the natives looked upon her with the
same horrified aversion as they looked upon Strickland, and she kept
out of their way. Once some women, venturing nearer than usual to the
plantation, saw her washing clothes in the brook, and they threw
stones at her. After that the trader was told to give her the message
that if she used the brook again men would come and burn down her
"Brutes," I said.
" Mais non, mon cher monsieur, men are always the same.
Fear makes them cruel.... I decided to see Strickland, and when I
had finished with the chiefess asked for a boy to show me the way.
But none would accompany me, and I was forced to find it alone."
When Dr. Coutras arrived at the plantation he was seized with a
feeling of uneasiness. Though he was hot from walking, he shivered.
There was something hostile in the air which made him hesitate, and
he felt that invisible forces barred his way. Unseen hands seemed to
draw him back. No one would go near now to gather the cocoa-nuts, and
they lay rotting on the ground. Everywhere was desolation. The bush
was encroaching, and it looked as though very soon the primeval forest
would regain possession of that strip of land which had been snatched
from it at the cost of so much labour. He had the sensation that here
was the abode of pain. As he approached the house he was struck by
the unearthly silence, and at first he thought it was deserted. Then
he saw Ata. She was sitting on her haunches in the lean-to that
served her as kitchen, watching some mess cooking in a pot. Near her
a small boy was playing silently in the dirt. She did not smile when
she saw him.
"I have come to see Strickland," he said.
"I will go and tell him."
She went to the house, ascended the few steps that led to the
verandah, and entered. Dr. Coutras followed her, but waited outside
in obedience to her gesture. As she opened the door he smelt the
sickly sweet smell which makes the neighbourhood of the leper
nauseous. He heard her speak, and then he heard Strickland's answer,
but he did not recognise the voice. It had become hoarse and
indistinct. Dr. Coutras raised his eyebrows. He judged that the
disease had already attacked the vocal chords. Then Ata came out
"He will not see you. You must go away."
Dr. Coutras insisted, but she would not let him pass. Dr. Coutras
shrugged his shoulders, and after a moment's rejection turned away.
She walked with him. He felt that she too wanted to be rid of him.
"Is there nothing I can do at all?" he asked.
"You can send him some paints," she said. "There is nothing else
"Can he paint still?"
"He is painting the walls of the house."
"This is a terrible life for you, my poor child."
Then at last she smiled, and there was in her eyes a look of
superhuman love. Dr. Coutras was startled by it, and amazed. And he
was awed. He found nothing to say.
"He is my man," she said.
"Where is your other child?" he asked. "When I was here last you
"Yes; it died. We buried it under the mango."
When Ata had gone with him a little way she said she must turn
back. Dr. Coutras surmised she was afraid to go farther in case she
met any of the people from the village. He told her again that if she
wanted him she had only to send and he would come at once.
Then two years more went by, or perhaps three, for time passes
imperceptibly in Tahiti, and it is hard to keep count of it; but at
last a message was brought to Dr. Coutras that Strickland was dying.
Ata had waylaid the cart that took the mail into Papeete, and
besought the man who drove it to go at once to the doctor. But the
doctor was out when the summons came, and it was evening when he
received it. It was impossible to start at so late an hour, and so it
was not till next day soon after dawn that he set out. He arrived at
Taravao, and for the last time tramped the seven kilometres that led
to Ata's house. The path was overgrown, and it was clear that for
years now it had remained all but untrodden. It was not easy to find
the way. Sometimes he had to stumble along the bed of the stream, and
sometimes he had to push through shrubs, dense and thorny; often he
was obliged to climb over rocks in order to avoid the hornet-nests
that hung on the trees over his head. The silence was intense.
It was with a sigh of relief that at last he came upon the little
unpainted house, extraordinarily bedraggled now, and unkempt; but here
too was the same intolerable silence. He walked up, and a little boy,
playing unconcernedly in the sunshine, started at his approach and
fled quickly away: to him the stranger was the enemy. Dr. Coutras had
a sense that the child was stealthily watching him from behind a tree.
The door was wide open. He called out, but no one answered. He
stepped in. He knocked at a door, but again there was no answer. He
turned the handle and entered. The stench that assailed him turned
him horribly sick. He put his handkerchief to his nose and forced
himself to go in. The light was dim, and after the brilliant sunshine
for a while he could see nothing. Then he gave a start. He could not
make out where he was. He seemed on a sudden to have entered a magic
world. He had a vague impression of a great primeval forest and of
naked people walking beneath the trees. Then he saw that there were
paintings on the walls.
" Mon Dieu, I hope the sun hasn't affected me," he muttered.
A slight movement attracted his attention, and he saw that Ata was
lying on the floor, sobbing quietly.
"Ata," he called. "Ata."
She took no notice. Again the beastly stench almost made him
faint, and he lit a cheroot. His eyes grew accustomed to the
darkness, and now he was seized by an overwhelming sensation as he
stared at the painted walls. He knew nothing of pictures, but there
was something about these that extraordinarily affected him. From
floor to ceiling the walls were covered with a strange and elaborate
composition. It was indescribably wonderful and mysterious. It took
his breath away. It filled him with an emotion which he could not
understand or analyse. He felt the awe and the delight which a man
might feel who watched the beginning of a world. It was tremendous,
sensual, passionate; and yet there was something horrible there, too,
something which made him afraid. It was the work of a man who had
delved into the hidden depths of nature and had discovered secrets
which were beautiful and fearful too. It was the work of a man who
knew things which it is unholy for men to know. There was something
primeval there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to his
mind vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and
" Mon Dieu, this is genius."
The words were wrung from him, and he did not know he had spoken.
Then his eyes fell on the bed of mats in the corner, and he went
up, and he saw the dreadful, mutilated, ghastly object which had been
Strickland. He was dead. Dr. Coutras made an effort of will and bent
over that battered horror. Then he started violently, and terror
blazed in his heart, for he felt that someone was behind him. It was
Ata. He had not heard her get up. She was standing at his elbow,
looking at what he looked at.
"Good Heavens, my nerves are all distraught," he said. "You nearly
frightened me out of my wits."
He looked again at the poor dead thing that had been man, and then
he started back in dismay.
"But he was blind."
"Yes; he had been blind for nearly a year."
AT that moment we were interrupted by the appearance of Madame
Coutras, who had been paying visits. She came in, like a ship in full
sail, an imposing creature, tall and stout, with an ample bust and an
obesity girthed in alarmingly by straight-fronted corsets. She had a
bold hooked nose and three chins. She held herself upright. She had
not yielded for an instant to the enervating charm of the tropics, but
contrariwise was more active, more worldly, more decided than anyone
in a temperate clime would have thought it possible to be. She was
evidently a copious talker, and now poured forth a breathless stream
of anecdote and comment. She made the conversation we had just had
seem far away and unreal.
Presently Dr. Coutras turned to me.
"I still have in my
bureau the picture that Strickland
gave me," he said. "Would you like to see it?"
We got up, and he led me on to the verandah which surrounded his
house. We paused to look at the gay flowers that rioted in his
"For a long time I could not get out of my head the recollection
of the extraordinary decoration with which Strickland had covered the
walls of his house," he said reflectively.
I had been thinking of it, too. It seemed to me that here
Strickland had finally put the whole expression of himself. Working
silently, knowing that it was his last chance, I fancied that here he
must have said all that he knew of life and all that he divined. And
I fancied that perhaps here he had at last found peace. The demon
which possessed him was exorcised at last, and with the completion of
the work, for which all his life had been a painful preparation, rest
descended on his remote and tortured soul. He was willing to die,
for he had fulfilled his purpose.
"What was the subject?" I asked.
"I scarcely know. It was strange and fantastic. It was a vision
of the beginnings of the world, the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve
— que sais-je? — it was a hymn to the beauty of the human
form, male and female, and the praise of Nature, sublime, indifferent,
lovely, and cruel. It gave you an awful sense of the infinity of
space and of the endlessness of time. Because he painted the trees I
see about me every day, the cocoa-nuts, the banyans, the flamboyants,
the alligator-pears, I have seen them ever since differently, as
though there were in them a spirit and a mystery which I am ever on
the point of seizing and which forever escapes me. The colours were
the colours familiar to me, and yet they were different. They had a
significance which was all their own. And those nude men and women.
They were of the earth, and yet apart from it. They seemed to
possess something of the clay of which they were created, and at the
same time something divine. You saw man in the nakedness of his
primeval instincts, and you were afraid, for you saw yourself."
Dr. Coutras shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"You will laugh at me. I am a materialist, and I am a gross, fat
man — Falstaff, eh? — the lyrical mode does not become me. I make
myself ridiculous. But I have never seen painting which made so deep
an impression upon me. Tenez, I had just the same feeling as
when I went to the Sistine Chapel in Rome. There too I was awed by the
greatness of the man who had painted that ceiling. It was genius, and
it was stupendous and overwhelming. I felt small and insignificant.
But you are prepared for the greatness of Michael Angelo. Nothing had
prepared me for the immense surprise of these pictures in a native
hut, far away from civilisation, in a fold of the mountain above
Taravao. And Michael Angelo is sane and healthy. Those great works
of his have the calm of the sublime; but here, notwithstanding beauty,
was something troubling. I do not know what it was. It made me
uneasy. It gave me the impression you get when you are sitting next
door to a room that you know is empty, but in which, you know not
why, you have a dreadful consciousness that notwithstanding there is
someone. You scold yourself; you know it is only your nerves — and
yet, and yet... In a little while it is impossible to resist the
terror that seizes you, and you are helpless in the clutch of an
unseen horror. Yes; I confess I was not altogether sorry when I heard
that those strange masterpieces had been destroyed."
"Destroyed?" I cried.
" Mais oui; did you not know?"
"How should I know? It is true I had never heard of this work; but
I thought perhaps it had fallen into the hands of a private owner.
Even now there is no certain list of Strickland's paintings."
"When he grew blind he would sit hour after hour in those two
rooms that he had painted, looking at his works with sightless eyes,
and seeing, perhaps, more than he had ever seen in his life before.
Ata told me that he never complained of his fate, he never lost
courage. To the end his mind remained serene and undisturbed. But he
made her promise that when she had buried him — did I tell you that I
dug his grave with my own hands, for none of the natives would
approach the infected house, and we buried him, she and I, sewn up in
three pareos joined together, under the mango-tree — he made
her promise that she would set fire to the house and not leave it
till it was burned to the ground and not a stick remained."
I did not speak for a while, for I was thinking. Then I said:
"He remained the same to the end, then."
"Do you understand? I must tell you that I thought it my duty to
"Even after what you have just said?"
"Yes; for I knew that here was a work of genius, and I did not
think we had the right to deprive the world of it. But Ata would not
listen to me. She had promised. I would not stay to witness the
barbarous deed, and it was only afterwards that I heard what she had
done. She poured paraffin on the dry floors and on the pandanus-mats,
and then she set fire. In a little while nothing remained but
smouldering embers, and a great masterpiece existed no longer.
"I think Strickland knew it was a masterpiece. He had achieved
what he wanted. His life was complete. He had made a world and saw
that it was good. Then, in pride and contempt, he destroyed, it."
"But I must show you my picture," said Dr. Coutras, moving on.
"What happened to Ata and the child?"
They went to the Marquesas. She had relations there. I have
heard that the boy works on one of Cameron's schooners. They say he
is very like his father in appearance."
At the door that led from the verandah to the doctor's
consulting-room, he paused and smiled.
"It is a fruit-piece. You would think it not a very suitable
picture for a doctor's consulting-room, but my wife will not have it
in the drawing-room. She says it is frankly obscene."
"A fruit-piece!" I exclaimed in surprise.
We entered the room, and my eyes fell at once on the picture. I
looked at it for a long time.
It was a pile of mangoes, bananas, oranges, and I know not what.
and at first sight it was an innocent picture enough. It would have
been passed in an exhibition of the Post- Impressionists by a careless
person as an excellent but not very remarkable example of the school;
but perhaps afterwards it would come back to his recollection, and he
would wonder why. I do not think then he could ever entirely forget
The colours were so strange that words can hardly tell what a
troubling emotion they gave. They were sombre blues, opaque like a
delicately carved bowl in lapis lazuli, and yet with a quivering
lustre that suggested the palpitation of mysterious life; there were
purples, horrible like raw and putrid flesh, and yet with a glowing,
sensual passion that called up vague memories of the Roman Empire of
Heliogabalus; there were reds, shrill like the berries of holly — one
thought of Christmas in England, and the snow, the good cheer, and the
pleasure of children — and yet by some magic softened till they had
the swooning tenderness of a dove's breast; there were deep yellows
that died with an unnatural passion into a green as fragrant as the
spring and as pure as the sparkling water of a mountain brook. Who
can tell what anguished fancy made these fruits? They belonged to a
Polynesian garden of the Hesperides. There was something strangely
alive in them, as though they were created in a stage of the earth's
dark history when things were not irrevocably fixed to their forms.
They were extravagantly luxurious. They were heavy with tropical
odours. They seemed to possess a sombre passion of their own. It was
enchanted fruit, to taste which might open the gateway to God knows
what secrets of the soul and to mysterious palaces of the imagination.
They were sullen with unawaited dangers, and to eat them might turn a
man to beast or god. All that was healthy and natural, all that clung
to happy relationships and the simple joys of simple men, shrunk from
them in dismay; and yet a fearful attraction was in them, and, like
the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil they were
terrible with the possibilities of the Unknown.
At last I turned away. I felt that Strickland had kept his secret
to the grave.
" Voyons, Rene, mon ami," came the loud, cheerful voice of
Madame Coutras, "what are you doing all this time? Here are the aperitifs. Ask
Monsieur if he will not drink a little
glass of Quinquina Dubonnet."
" Volontiers, Madame," I said, going out on to the verandah.
The spell was broken.
The time came for my departure from Tahiti. According to the
gracious custom of the island, presents were given me by the persons
with whom I had been thrown in contact — baskets made of the leaves
of the cocoa-nut tree, mats of pandanus, fans; and Tiare gave me three
little pearls and three jars of guava-jelly made with her own plump
hands. When the mail-boat, stopping for twenty-four hours on its way
from Wellington to San Francisco, blew the whistle that warned the
passengers to get on board, Tiare clasped me to her vast bosom, so
that I seemed to sink into a billowy sea, and pressed her red lips to
mine. Tears glistened in her eyes. And when we steamed slowly out of
the lagoon, making our way gingerly through the opening in the reef,
and then steered for the open sea, a certain melancholy fell upon me.
The breeze was laden still with the pleasant odours of the land.
Tahiti is very far away, and I knew that I should never see it again.
A chapter of my life was closed, and I felt a little nearer to
Not much more than a month later I was in London; and after I had
arranged certain matters which claimed my immediate attention,
thinking Mrs. Strickland might like to hear what I knew of her
husband's last years, I wrote to her. I had not seen her since long
before the war, and I had to look out her address in the
telephone-book. She made an appointment, and I went to the trim
little house on Campden Hill which she now inhabited. She was by this
time a woman of hard on sixty, but she bore her years well, and no one
would have taken her for more than fifty. Her face, thin and not much
lined, was of the sort that ages gracefully, so that you thought in
youth she must have been a much handsomer woman than in fact she was.
Her hair, not yet very gray, was becomingly arranged, and her black
gown was modish. I remembered having heard that her sister, Mrs.
MacAndrew, outliving her husband but a couple of years, had left money
to Mrs. Strickland; and by the look of the house and the trim maid who
opened the door I judged that it was a sum adequate to keep the widow
in modest comfort.
When I was ushered into the drawing-room I found that Mrs.
Strickland had a visitor, and when I discovered who he was, I guessed
that I had been asked to come at just that time not without intention.
The caller was Mr. Van Busche Taylor, an American, and Mrs.
Strickland gave me particulars with a charming smile of apology to
"You know, we English are so dreadfully ignorant. You must
forgive me if it's necessary to explain." Then she turned to me.
"Mr. Van Busche Taylor is the distinguished American critic. If you
haven't read his book your education has been shamefully neglected,
and you must repair the omission at once. He's writing something
about dear Charlie, and he's come to ask me if I can help him."
Mr. Van Busche Taylor was a very thin man with a large, bald head,
bony and shining; and under the great dome of his skull his face,
yellow, with deep lines in it, looked very small. He was quiet and
exceedingly polite. He spoke with the accent of New England, and
there was about his demeanour a bloodless frigidity which made me ask
myself why on earth he was busying himself with Charles Strickland. I
had been slightly tickled at the gentleness which Mrs. Strickland put
into her mention of her husband's name, and while the pair conversed I
took stock of the room in which we sat. Mrs. Strickland had moved
with the times. Gone were the Morris papers and gone the severe
cretonnes, gone were the Arundel prints that had adorned the walls of
her drawingroom in Ashley Gardens; the room blazed with fantastic
colour, and I wondered if she knew that those varied hues, which
fashion had imposed upon her, were due to the dreams of a poor painter
in a South Sea island. She gave me the answer herself.
"What wonderful cushions you have," said Mr. Van Busche Taylor.
"Do you like them?" she said, smiling. "Bakst, you know."
And yet on the walls were coloured reproductions of several of
Strickland's best pictures, due to the enterprise of a publisher in
"You're looking at my pictures," she said, following my eyes. "Of
course, the originals are out of my reach, but it's a comfort to have
these. The publisher sent them to me himself. They're a great
consolation to me."
"They must be very pleasant to live with," said Mr. Van Busche
"Yes; they're so essentially decorative."
"That is one of my profoundest convictions," said Mr. Van Busche
Taylor. "Great art is always decorative."
Their eyes rested on a nude woman suckling a baby, while a girl
was kneeling by their side holding out a flower to the indifferent
child. Looking over them was a wrinkled, scraggy hag. It was
Strickland's version of the Holy Family. I suspected that for the
figures had sat his household above Taravao, and the woman and the
baby were Ata and his first son. I asked myself if Mrs. Strickland had
any inkling of the facts.
The conversation proceeded, and I marvelled at the tact with which
Mr. Van Busche Taylor avoided all subjects that might have been in
the least embarrassing, and at the ingenuity with which Mrs.
Strickland, without saying a word that was untrue, insinuated that her
relations with her husband had always been perfect. At last Mr. Van
Busche Taylor rose to go. Holding his hostess' hand, he made her a
graceful, though perhaps too elaborate, speech of thanks, and left us.
"I hope he didn't bore you," she said, when the door closed behind
him. "Of course it's a nuisance sometimes, but I feel it's only right
to give people any information I can about Charlie. There's a certain
responsibility about having been the wife of a genius."
She looked at me with those pleasant eyes of hers, which had
remained as candid and as sympathetic as they had been more than
twenty years before. I wondered if she was making a fool of me.
"Of course you've given up your business," I said.
"Oh, yes," she answered airily. "I ran it more by way of a hobby
than for any other reason, and my children persuaded me to sell it.
They thought I was overtaxing my strength."
I saw that Mrs. Strickland had forgotten that she had ever done
anything so disgraceful as to work for her living. She had the true
instinct of the nice woman that it is only really decent for her to
live on other people's money.
"They're here now," she said. "I thought they'd, like to hear
what you had to say about their father. You remember Robert, don't
you? I'm glad to say he's been recommended for the Military Cross."
She went to the door and called them. There entered a tall man in
khaki, with the parson's collar, handsome in a somewhat heavy fashion,
but with the frank eyes that I remembered in him as a boy. He was
followed by his sister. She must have been the same age as was her
mother when first I knew her, and she was very like her. She too gave
one the impression that as a girl she must have been prettier than
indeed she was.
"I suppose you don't remember them in the least," said Mrs.
Strickland, proud and smiling. "My daughter is now Mrs. Ronaldson.
Her husband's a Major in the Gunners."
"He's by way of being a pukka soldier, you know," said Mrs.
Ronaldson gaily. "That's why he's only a Major."
I remembered my anticipation long ago that she would marry a
soldier. It was inevitable. She had all the graces of the soldier's
wife. She was civil and affable, but she could hardly conceal her
intimate conviction that she was not quite as others were. Robert was
"It's a bit of luck that I should be in London when you turned
up," he said. "I've only got three days' leave."
"He's dying to get back," said his mother.
"Well, I don't mind confessing it, I have a rattling good time at
the front. I've made a lot of good pals. It's a first-rate life. Of
course war's terrible, and all that sort of thing; but it does bring
out the best qualities in a man, there's no denying that."
Then I told them what I had learned about Charles Strickland in
Tahiti. I thought it unnecessary to say anything of Ata and her boy,
but for the rest I was as accurate as I could be. When I had narrated
his lamentable death I ceased. For a minute or two we were all
silent. Then Robert Strickland struck a match and lit a cigarette.
"The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small,"
he said, somewhat impressively.
Mrs. Strickland and Mrs. Ronaldson looked down with a slightly
pious expression which indicated, I felt sure, that they thought the
quotation was from Holy Writ. Indeed, I was unconvinced that Robert
Strickland did not share their illusion. I do not know why I suddenly
thought of Strickland's son by Ata. They had told me he was a merry,
light-hearted youth. I saw him, with my mind's eye, on the schooner
on which he worked, wearing nothing but a pair of dungarees; and at
night, when the boat sailed along easily before a light breeze, and
the sailors were gathered on the upper deck, while the captain and the
supercargo lolled in deck-chairs, smoking their pipes, I saw him dance
with another lad, dance wildly, to the wheezy music of the concertina.
Above was the blue sky, and the stars, and all about the desert of
the Pacific Ocean.
A quotation from the Bible came to my lips, but I held my tongue,
for I know that clergymen think it a little blasphemous when the
laity poach upon their preserves. My Uncle Henry, for twenty-seven
years Vicar of Whitstable, was on these occasions in the habit of
saying that the devil could always quote scripture to his purpose. He
remembered the days when you could get thirteen Royal Natives for a