I had not announced my arrival to Stroeve, and when I rang the bell of his studio, on opening the door himself, for a moment he did not know me. Then he gave a cry of delighted surprise and drew me in. It was charming to be welcomed with so much eagerness. His wife was seated near the stove at her sewing, and she rose as I came in. He introduced me.
"Don't you remember?" he said to her. "I've talked to you about him often." And then to me: "But why didn't you let me know you were coming? How long have you been here? How long are you going to stay? Why didn't you come an hour earlier, and we would have dined together?"
He bombarded me with questions. He sat me down in a chair, patting me as though I were a cushion, pressed cigars upon me, cakes, wine. He could not let me alone. He was heart-broken because he had no whisky, wanted to make coffee for me, racked his brain for something he could possibly do for me, and beamed and laughed, and in the exuberance of his delight sweated at every pore.
"You haven't changed," I said, smiling, as I looked at him.
He had the same absurd appearance that I remembered. He was a fat little man, with short legs, young still—he could not have been more than thirty—but prematurely bald. His face was perfectly round, and he had a very high colour, a white skin, red cheeks, and red lips. His eyes were blue and round too, he wore large gold-rimmed spectacles, and his eyebrows were so fair that you could not see them. He reminded you of those jolly, fat merchants that Rubens painted.
When I told him that I meant to live in Paris for a while, and had taken an apartment, he reproached me bitterly for not having let him know. He would have found me an apartment himself, and lent me furniture—did I really mean that I had gone to the expense of buying it?—and he would have helped me to move in. He really looked upon it as unfriendly that I had not given him the opportunity of making himself useful to me. Meanwhile, Mrs. Stroeve sat quietly mending her stockings, without talking, and she listened to all he said with a quiet smile on her lips.
"So, you see, I'm married," he said suddenly; "what do you think of my wife?"
He beamed at her, and settled his spectacles on the bridge of his nose. The sweat made them constantly slip down.
"What on earth do you expect me to say to that?" I laughed.
"Really, Dirk," put in Mrs. Stroeve, smiling.
"But isn't she wonderful? I tell you, my boy, lose no time; get married as soon as ever you can. I'm the happiest man alive. Look at her sitting there. Doesn't she make a picture? Chardin, eh? I've seen all the most beautiful women in the world; I've never seen anyone more beautiful than Madame Dirk Stroeve."
"If you don't be quiet, Dirk, I shall go away."
"Mon petit chou", he said.
She flushed a little, embarrassed by the passion in his tone. His letters had told me that he was very much in love with his wife, and I saw that he could hardly take his eyes off her. I could not tell if she loved him. Poor pantaloon, he was not an object to excite love, but the smile in her eyes was affectionate, and it was possible that her reserve concealed a very deep feeling. She was not the ravishing creature that his love-sick fancy saw, but she had a grave comeliness. She was rather tall, and her gray dress, simple and quite well-cut, did not hide the fact that her figure was beautiful. It was a figure that might have appealed more to the sculptor than to the costumier. Her hair, brown and abundant, was plainly done, her face was very pale, and her features were good without being distinguished. She had quiet gray eyes. She just missed being beautiful, and in missing it was not even pretty. But when Stroeve spoke of Chardin it was not without reason, and she reminded me curiously of that pleasant housewife in her mob-cap and apron whom the great painter has immortalised. I could imagine her sedately busy among her pots and pans, making a ritual of her household duties, so that they acquired a moral significance; I did not suppose that she was clever or could ever be amusing, but there was something in her grave intentness which excited my interest. Her reserve was not without mystery. I wondered why she had married Dirk Stroeve. Though she was English, I could not exactly place her, and it was not obvious from what rank in society she sprang, what had been her upbringing, or how she had lived before her marriage. She was very silent, but when she spoke it was with a pleasant voice, and her manners were natural.
I asked Stroeve if he was working.
"Working? I'm painting better than I've ever painted before."
We sat in the studio, and he waved his hand to an unfinished picture on an easel. I gave a little start. He was painting a group of Italian peasants, in the costume of the Campagna, lounging on the steps of a Roman church.
"Is that what you're doing now?" I asked.
"Yes. I can get my models here just as well as in Rome."
"Don't you think it's very beautiful?" said Mrs. Stroeve.
"This foolish wife of mine thinks I'm a great artist," said he.
His apologetic laugh did not disguise the pleasure that he felt. His eyes lingered on his picture. It was strange that his critical sense, so accurate and unconventional when he dealt with the work of others, should be satisfied in himself with what was hackneyed and vulgar beyond belief.
"Show him some more of your pictures," she said.
Though he had suffered so much from the ridicule of his friends, Dirk Stroeve, eager for praise and naively self-satisfied, could never resist displaying his work. He brought out a picture of two curly-headed Italian urchins playing marbles.
"Aren't they sweet?" said Mrs. Stroeve.
And then he showed me more. I discovered that in Paris he had been painting just the same stale, obviously picturesque things that he had painted for years in Rome. It was all false, insincere, shoddy; and yet no one was more honest, sincere, and frank than Dirk Stroeve. Who could resolve the contradiction?
I do not know what put it into my head to ask:
"I say, have you by any chance run across a painter called Charles Strickland?"
"You don't mean to say you know him?" cried Stroeve.
"Beast," said his wife.
"Ma pauvre cherie." He went over to her and kissed both her hands. "She doesn't like him. How strange that you should know Strickland!"
"I don't like bad manners," said Mrs. Stroeve.
Dirk, laughing still, turned to me to explain.
"You see, I asked him to come here one day and look at my pictures. Well, he came, and I showed him everything I had." Stroeve hesitated a moment with embarrassment. I do not know why he had begun the story against himself; he felt an awkwardness at finishing it. "He looked at—at my pictures, and he didn't say anything. I thought he was reserving his judgment till the end. And at last I said: 'There, that's the lot!' He said: 'I came to ask you to lend me twenty francs.'"
"And Dirk actually gave it him," said his wife indignantly.
"I was so taken aback. I didn't like to refuse. He put the money in his pocket, just nodded, said 'Thanks,' and walked out."
Dirk Stroeve, telling the story, had such a look of blank astonishment on his round, foolish face that it was almost impossible not to laugh.
"I shouldn't have minded if he'd said my pictures were bad, but he said nothing—nothing."
"And you will tell the story, Dirk," Said his wife.
It was lamentable that one was more amused by the ridiculous figure cut by the Dutchman than outraged by Strickland's brutal treatment of him.
"I hope I shall never see him again," said Mrs. Stroeve.
Stroeve smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He had already recovered his good-humour.
"The fact remains that he's a great artist, a very great artist."
"Strickland?" I exclaimed. "It can't be the same man."
"A big fellow with a red beard. Charles Strickland. An Englishman."
"He had no beard when I knew him, but if he has grown one it might well be red. The man I'm thinking of only began painting five years ago."
"That's it. He's a great artist."
"Have I ever been mistaken?" Dirk asked me. "I tell you he has genius. I'm convinced of it. In a hundred years, if you and I are remembered at all, it will be because we knew Charles Strickland."
I was astonished, and at the same time I was very much excited. I remembered suddenly my last talk with him.
"Where can one see his work?" I asked. "Is he having any success? Where is he living?"
"No; he has no success. I don't think he's ever sold a picture. When you speak to men about him they only laugh. But I know he's a great artist. After all, they laughed at Manet. Corot never sold a picture. I don't know where he lives, but I can take you to see him. He goes to a cafe in the Avenue de Clichy at seven o'clock every evening. If you like we'll go there to-morrow."
"I'm not sure if he'll wish to see me. I think I may remind him of a time he prefers to forget. But I'll come all the same. Is there any chance of seeing any of his pictures?"
"Not from him. He won't show you a thing. There's a little dealer I know who has two or three. But you mustn't go without me; you wouldn't understand. I must show them to you myself."
"Dirk, you make me impatient," said Mrs. Stroeve. "How can you talk like that about his pictures when he treated you as he did?" She turned to me. "Do you know, when some Dutch people came here to buy Dirk's pictures he tried to persuade them to buy Strickland's? He insisted on bringing them here to show."
"What did you think of them?" I asked her, smiling.
"They were awful."
"Ah, sweetheart, you don't understand."
"Well, your Dutch people were furious with you. They thought you were having a joke with them."
Dirk Stroeve took off his spectacles and wiped them. His flushed face was shining with excitement.
"Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination."
"Why did I always think your pictures beautiful, Dirk? I admired them the very first time I saw them."
Stroeve's lips trembled a little.
"Go to bed, my precious. I will walk a few steps with our friend, and then I will come back."
Dirk Stroeve agreed to fetch me on the following evening and take me to the cafe at which Strickland was most likely to be found. I was interested to learn that it was the same as that at which Strickland and I had drunk absinthe when I had gone over to Paris to see him. The fact that he had never changed suggested a sluggishness of habit which seemed to me characteristic.
"There he is," said Stroeve, as we reached the cafe.
Though it was October, the evening was warm, and the tables on the pavement were crowded. I ran my eyes over them, but did not see Strickland.
"Look. Over there, in the corner. He's playing chess."
I noticed a man bending over a chess-board, but could see only a large felt hat and a red beard. We threaded our way among the tables till we came to him.
He looked up.
"Hulloa, fatty. What do you want?"
"I've brought an old friend to see you."
Strickland gave me a glance, and evidently did not recognise me. He resumed his scrutiny of the chess-board.
"Sit down, and don't make a noise," he said.
He moved a piece and straightway became absorbed in the game. Poor Stroeve gave me a troubled look, but I was not disconcerted by so little. I ordered something to drink, and waited quietly till Strickland had finished. I welcomed the opportunity to examine him at my ease. I certainly should never have known him. In the first place his red beard, ragged and untrimmed, hid much of his face, and his hair was long; but the most surprising change in him was his extreme thinness. It made his great nose protrude more arrogantly; it emphasized his cheekbones; it made his eyes seem larger. There were deep hollows at his temples. His body was cadaverous. He wore the same suit that I had seen him in five years before; it was torn and stained, threadbare, and it hung upon him loosely, as though it had been made for someone else. I noticed his hands, dirty, with long nails; they were merely bone and sinew, large and strong; but I had forgotten that they were so shapely. He gave me an extraordinary impression as he sat there, his attention riveted on his game—an impression of great strength; and I could not understand why it was that his emaciation somehow made it more striking.
Presently, after moving, he leaned back and gazed with a curious abstraction at his antagonist. This was a fat, bearded Frenchman. The Frenchman considered the position, then broke suddenly into jovial expletives, and with an impatient gesture, gathering up the pieces, flung them into their box. He cursed Strickland freely, then, calling for the waiter, paid for the drinks, and left. Stroeve drew his chair closer to the table.
"Now I suppose we can talk," he said.
Strickland's eyes rested on him, and there was in them a malicious expression. I felt sure he was seeking for some gibe, could think of none, and so was forced to silence.
"I've brought an old friend to see you," repeated Stroeve, beaming cheerfully.
Strickland looked at me thoughtfully for nearly a minute. I did not speak.
"I've never seen him in my life," he said.
I do not know why he said this, for I felt certain I had caught a gleam of recognition in his eyes. I was not so easily abashed as I had been some years earlier.
"I saw your wife the other day," I said. "I felt sure you'd like to have the latest news of her."
He gave a short laugh. His eyes twinkled.
"We had a jolly evening together," he said. "How long ago is it?"
He called for another absinthe. Stroeve, with voluble tongue, explained how he and I had met, and by what an accident we discovered that we both knew Strickland. I do not know if Strickland listened. He glanced at me once or twice reflectively, but for the most part seemed occupied with his own thoughts; and certainly without Stroeve's babble the conversation would have been difficult. In half an hour the Dutchman, looking at his watch, announced that he must go. He asked whether I would come too. I thought, alone, I might get something out of Strickland, and so answered that I would stay.
When the fat man had left I said:
"Dirk Stroeve thinks you're a great artist."
"What the hell do you suppose I care?"
"Will you let me see your pictures?"
"Why should I?"
"I might feel inclined to buy one."
"I might not feel inclined to sell one."
"Are you making a good living?" I asked, smiling.
"Do I look it?"
"You look half starved."
"I am half starved."
"Then come and let's have a bit of dinner."
"Why do you ask me?"
"Not out of charity," I answered coolly. "I don't really care a twopenny damn if you starve or not."
His eyes lit up again.
"Come on, then," he said, getting up. "I'd like a decent meal."
I let him take me to a restaurant of his choice, but on the way I bought a paper. When we had ordered our dinner, I propped it against a bottle of St. Galmier and began to read. We ate in silence. I felt him looking at me now and again, but I took no notice. I meant to force him to conversation.
"Is there anything in the paper?" he said, as we approached the end of our silent meal.
I fancied there was in his tone a slight note of exasperation.
"I always like to read the feuilleton on the drama," I said.
I folded the paper and put it down beside me.
"I've enjoyed my dinner," he remarked.
"I think we might have our coffee here, don't you?"
We lit our cigars. I smoked in silence. I noticed that now and then his eyes rested on me with a faint smile of amusement. I waited patiently.
"What have you been up to since I saw you last?" he asked at length.
I had not very much to say. It was a record of hard work and of little adventure; of experiments in this direction and in that; of the gradual acquisition of the knowledge of books and of men. I took care to ask Strickland nothing about his own doings. I showed not the least interest in him, and at last I was rewarded. He began to talk of himself. But with his poor gift of expression he gave but indications of what he had gone through, and I had to fill up the gaps with my own imagination. It was tantalising to get no more than hints into a character that interested me so much. It was like making one's way through a mutilated manuscript. I received the impression of a life which was a bitter struggle against every sort of difficulty; but I realised that much which would have seemed horrible to most people did not in the least affect him. Strickland was distinguished from most Englishmen by his perfect indifference to comfort; it did not irk him to live always in one shabby room; he had no need to be surrounded by beautiful things. I do not suppose he had ever noticed how dingy was the paper on the wall of the room in which on my first visit I found him. He did not want arm-chairs to sit in; he really felt more at his ease on a kitchen chair. He ate with appetite, but was indifferent to what he ate; to him it was only food that he devoured to still the pangs of hunger; and when no food was to be had he seemed capable of doing without. I learned that for six months he had lived on a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk a day. He was a sensual man, and yet was indifferent to sensual things. He looked upon privation as no hardship. There was something impressive in the manner in which he lived a life wholly of the spirit.
When the small sum of money which he brought with him from London came to an end he suffered from no dismay. He sold no pictures; I think he made little attempt to sell any; he set about finding some way to make a bit of money. He told me with grim humour of the time he had spent acting as guide to Cockneys who wanted to see the night side of life in Paris; it was an occupation that appealed to his sardonic temper and somehow or other he had acquired a wide acquaintance with the more disreputable quarters of the city. He told me of the long hours he spent walking about the Boulevard de la Madeleine on the look-out for Englishmen, preferably the worse for liquor, who desired to see things which the law forbade. When in luck he was able to make a tidy sum; but the shabbiness of his clothes at last frightened the sight-seers, and he could not find people adventurous enough to trust themselves to him. Then he happened on a job to translate the advertisements of patent medicines which were sent broadcast to the medical profession in England. During a strike he had been employed as a house-painter.
Meanwhile he had never ceased to work at his art; but, soon tiring of the studios, entirely by himself. He had never been so poor that he could not buy canvas and paint, and really he needed nothing else. So far as I could make out, he painted with great difficulty, and in his unwillingness to accept help from anyone lost much time in finding out for himself the solution of technical problems which preceding generations had already worked out one by one. He was aiming at something, I knew not what, and perhaps he hardly knew himself; and I got again more strongly the impression of a man possessed. He did not seem quite sane. It seemed to me that he would not show his pictures because he was really not interested in them. He lived in a dream, and the reality meant nothing to him. I had the feeling that he worked on a canvas with all the force of his violent personality, oblivious of everything in his effort to get what he saw with the mind's eye; and then, having finished, not the picture perhaps, for I had an idea that he seldom brought anything to completion, but the passion that fired him, he lost all care for it. He was never satisfied with what he had done; it seemed to him of no consequence compared with the vision that obsessed his mind.
"Why don't you ever send your work to exhibitions?" I asked. "I should have thought you'd like to know what people thought about it."
I cannot describe the unmeasurable contempt he put into the two words.
"Don't you want fame? It's something that most artists haven't been indifferent to."
"Children. How can you care for the opinion of the crowd, when you don't care twopence for the opinion of the individual?"
"We're not all reasonable beings," I laughed.
"Who makes fame? Critics, writers, stockbrokers, women."
"Wouldn't it give you a rather pleasing sensation to think of people you didn't know and had never seen receiving emotions, subtle and passionate, from the work of your hands? Everyone likes power. I can't imagine a more wonderful exercise of it than to move the souls of men to pity or terror."
"Why do you mind if you paint well or badly?"
"I don't. I only want to paint what I see."
"I wonder if I could write on a desert island, with the certainty that no eyes but mine would ever see what I had written."
Strickland did not speak for a long time, but his eyes shone strangely, as though he saw something that kindled his soul to ecstasy.
"Sometimes I've thought of an island lost in a boundless sea, where I could live in some hidden valley, among strange trees, in silence. There I think I could find what I want."
He did not express himself quite like this. He used gestures instead of adjectives, and he halted. I have put into my own words what I think he wanted to say.
"Looking back on the last five years, do you think it was worth it?" I asked.
He looked at me, and I saw that he did not know what I meant. I explained.
"You gave up a comfortable home and a life as happy as the average. You were fairly prosperous. You seem to have had a rotten time in Paris. If you had your time over again would you do what you did?"
"Do you know that you haven't asked anything about your wife and children? Do you never think of them?"
"I wish you weren't so damned monosyllabic. Have you never had a moment's regret for all the unhappiness you caused them?"
His lips broke into a smile, and he shook his head.
"I should have thought sometimes you couldn't help thinking of the past. I don't mean the past of seven or eight years ago, but further back still, when you first met your wife, and loved her, and married her. Don't you remember the joy with which you first took her in your arms?"
"I don't think of the past. The only thing that matters is the everlasting present."
I thought for a moment over this reply. It was obscure, perhaps, but I thought that I saw dimly his meaning.
"Are you happy?" I asked.
I was silent. I looked at him reflectively. He held my stare, and presently a sardonic twinkle lit up his eyes.
"I'm afraid you disapprove of me?"
"Nonsense," I answered promptly; "I don't disapprove of the boa-constrictor; on the contrary, I'm interested in his mental processes."
"It's a purely professional interest you take in me?"
"It's only right that you shouldn't disapprove of me. You have a despicable character."
"Perhaps that's why you feel at home with me," I retorted.
He smiled dryly, but said nothing. I wish I knew how to describe his smile. I do not know that it was attractive, but it lit up his face, changing the expression, which was generally sombre, and gave it a look of not ill-natured malice. It was a slow smile, starting and sometimes ending in the eyes; it was very sensual, neither cruel nor kindly, but suggested rather the inhuman glee of the satyr. It was his smile that made me ask him:
"Haven't you been in love since you came to Paris?"
"I haven't got time for that sort of nonsense. Life isn't long enough for love and art."
"Your appearance doesn't suggest the anchorite."
"All that business fills me with disgust."
"Human nature is a nuisance, isn't it?" I said.
"Why are you sniggering at me?"
"Because I don't believe you."
"Then you're a damned fool."
I paused, and I looked at him searchingly.
"What's the good of trying to humbug me?" I said.
"I don't know what you mean."
"Let me tell you. I imagine that for months the matter never comes into your head, and you're able to persuade yourself that you've finished with it for good and all. You rejoice in your freedom, and you feel that at last you can call your soul your own. You seem to walk with your head among the stars. And then, all of a sudden you can't stand it any more, and you notice that all the time your feet have been walking in the mud. And you want to roll yourself in it. And you find some woman, coarse and low and vulgar, some beastly creature in whom all the horror of sex is blatant, and you fall upon her like a wild animal. You drink till you're blind with rage."
He stared at me without the slightest movement. I held his eyes with mine. I spoke very slowly.
"I'll tell you what must seem strange, that when it's over you feel so extraordinarily pure. You feel like a disembodied spirit, immaterial; and you seem to be able to touch beauty as though it were a palpable thing; and you feel an intimate communion with the breeze, and with the trees breaking into leaf, and with the iridescence of the river. You feel like God. Can you explain that to me?"
He kept his eyes fixed on mine till I had finished, and then he turned away. There was on his face a strange look, and I thought that so might a man look when he had died under the torture. He was silent. I knew that our conversation was ended.