Moon and Sixpence, by Somerset Maugham
Part 1 out of 5
The Moon and Sixpence
by W. Somerset Maugham
Author of "Of Human Bondage"
THE MOON AND SIXPENCE
The Moon and Sixpence
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
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, , 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: 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 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 , 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 . 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 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 quite real.
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 mystic brotherhood.
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 decorum.
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 her convictions.
"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,
"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 very uncomfortable."
Rose Waterford had a blistering tongue. No one could say such
bitter things; on the other hand, no one could do more
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 character."
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
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 , to give their servants a rest, because
there was no reason to refuse, because they were "owed" a dinner.
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 prosperity.
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
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
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
"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,
"I suppose you've heard that blackguard has deserted her,"
he cried explosively.
"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
"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
"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
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 the street.
I realised that he had come away with me in order to discuss
once more what he had been already discussing for hours with
"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 Paris myself."
"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
"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 you good-afternoon."
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
"Have you found out who" -- I did not quite know how to
express myself -- "who the person, who it is he's gone away
"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
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
"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 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
"Not a word of explanation or regret. Don't you think it's inhuman?"
"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 business."
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
"And what is to happen to them, poor darlings? How are we
going to live?"
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 my children."
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
"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
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 reprobate.
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: 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 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 carpet slippers.
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.
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 pew."
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
"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 unexpected.
"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
"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 Curates Society.
"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 everything.
"What, then?" asked Strickland.
I tried to curl my lip.
"Well, if you acknowledge that, there doesn't seem much more
to be said."
"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 moral indignation.
"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 schooling."
"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
"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
"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
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
"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 own amazement.
"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
"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
"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
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