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