The Moon and the Sixpence (5 of 5)

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The Moon and Sixpence
by W. Somerset Maugham
Chapter LII
I suppose the next three years were the happiest of
Strickland's life. Ata's house stood about eight kilometres
from the road that runs round the island, and you went to it
along a winding pathway shaded by the luxuriant trees of the
tropics. It was a bungalow of unpainted wood, consisting of
two small rooms, and outside was a small shed that served as a
kitchen. There was no furniture except the mats they used as
beds, and a rocking-chair, which stood on the verandah.
Bananas with their great ragged leaves, like the tattered
habiliments of an empress in adversity, grew close up to the house.
There was a tree just behind which bore alligator pears,
and all about were the cocoa-nuts which gave the land
its revenue. Ata's father had planted crotons round his property,
and they grew in coloured profusion, gay and brilliant;
they fenced the land with flame. A mango grew in front
of the house, and at the edge of the clearing were two
flamboyants, twin trees, that challenged the gold of the
cocoa-nuts with their scarlet flowers.
Here Strickland lived, coming seldom to Papeete, on the
produce of the land. There was a little stream that ran not
far away, in which he bathed, and down this on occasion would
come a shoal of fish. Then the natives would assemble with spears,
and with much shouting would transfix the great startled
things as they hurried down to the sea. Sometimes Strickland
would go down to the reef, and come back with a basket
of small, coloured fish that Ata would fry in cocoa-nut oil,
or with a lobster; and sometimes she would make a savoury
dish of the great land-crabs that scuttled away under your feet.
Up the mountain were wild-orange trees, and now and
then Ata would go with two or three women from the village and
return laden with the green, sweet, luscious fruit. Then the
cocoa-nuts would be ripe for picking, and her cousins (like
all the natives, Ata had a host of relatives) would swarm up
the trees and throw down the big ripe nuts. They split them
open and put them in the sun to dry. Then they cut out the
copra and put it into sacks, and the women would carry it down
to the trader at the village by the lagoon, and he would give
in exchange for it rice and soap and tinned meat and a little money.
Sometimes there would be a feast in the neighbourhood, and a pig would be killed. Then they would
go and eat themselves sick, and dance, and sing hymns.
But the house was a long way from the village, and the
Tahitians are lazy. They love to travel and they love to
gossip, but they do not care to walk, and for weeks at a time
Strickland and Ata lived alone. He painted and he read, and
in the evening, when it was dark, they sat together on the
verandah, smoking and looking at the night. Then Ata had a
baby, and the old woman who came up to help her through her
trouble stayed on. Presently the granddaughter of the old
woman came to stay with her, and then a youth appeared — no
one quite knew where from or to whom he belonged — but he
settled down with them in a happy-go-lucky way, and they all
lived together.
Chapter LIII
"," said Tiare, one day
when I was fitting together what she could tell me of Strickland.
"He knew Strickland well; he visited him at his house."
I saw a middle-aged Frenchman with a big black beard, streaked
with gray, a sunburned face, and large, shining eyes. He was
dressed in a neat suit of ducks. I had noticed him at
luncheon, and Ah Lin, the Chinese boy, told me he had come
from the Paumotus on the boat that had that day arrived.
Tiare introduced me to him, and he handed me his card, a large
card on which was printed , and underneath,
We were sitting on a little
verandah outside the kitchen, and Tiare was cutting out a
dress that she was making for one of the girls about the
house. He sat down with us.
"Yes; I knew Strickland well," he said. "I am very fond of
chess, and he was always glad of a game. I come to Tahiti
three or four times a year for my business, and when he was at
Papeete he would come here and we would play. When he
married" — Captain Brunot smiled and shrugged his shoulders —
", when he went to live with the girl that Tiare
gave him, he asked me to go and see him. I was one of the
guests at the wedding feast." He looked at Tiare, and they
both laughed. "He did not come much to Papeete after that,
and about a year later it chanced that I had to go to that
part of the island for I forgot what business, and when I had
finished it I said to myself: ', why should I not
go and see that poor Strickland?' I asked one or two natives
if they knew anything about him, and I discovered that he
lived not more than five kilometres from where I was. So I went.
I shall never forget the impression my visit made on me.
I live on an atoll, a low island, it is a strip of land
surrounding a lagoon, and its beauty is the beauty of the sea
and sky and the varied colour of the lagoon and the grace of
the cocoa-nut trees; but the place where Strickland lived had
the beauty of the Garden of Eden. Ah, I wish I could make you
see the enchantment of that spot, a corner hidden away from
all the world, with the blue sky overhead and the rich,
luxuriant trees. It was a feast of colour. And it was
fragrant and cool. Words cannot describe that paradise.
And here he lived, unmindful of the world and by the
world forgotten. I suppose to European eyes it would have
seemed astonishingly sordid. The house was dilapidated and none
too clean. Three or four natives were lying on the verandah.
You know how natives love to herd together. There was a young
man lying full length, smoking a cigarette, and he wore nothing
but a ."
The is a long strip of trade cotton, red or blue,
stamped with a white pattern. It is worn round the waist and
hangs to the knees.
"A girl of fifteen, perhaps, was plaiting pandanus-leaf to
make a hat, and an old woman was sitting on her haunches
smoking a pipe. Then I saw Ata. She was suckling a new-born
child, and another child, stark naked, was playing at her feet.
When she saw me she called out to Strickland, and he
came to the door. He, too, wore nothing but a .
He was an extraordinary figure, with his red beard and matted
hair, and his great hairy chest. His feet were horny and
scarred, so that I knew he went always bare foot. He had gone
native with a vengeance. He seemed pleased to see me, and
told Ata to kill a chicken for our dinner. He took me into
the house to show me the picture he was at work on when I came in.
In one corner of the room was the bed, and in the middle
was an easel with the canvas upon it. Because I was sorry for
him, I had bought a couple of his pictures for small sums, and
I had sent others to friends of mine in France. And though I
had bought them out of compassion, after living with them I
began to like them. Indeed, I found a strange beauty in them.
Everyone thought I was mad, but it turns out that I was right.
I was his first admirer in the islands."
He smiled maliciously at Tiare, and with lamentations she told
us again the story of how at the sale of Strickland's effects
she had neglected the pictures, but bought an American stove
for twenty-seven francs.
"Have you the pictures still?" I asked.
"Yes; I am keeping them till my daughter is of marriageable
age, and then I shall sell them. They will be her ."
Then he went on with the account of his visit to Strickland.
"I shall never forget the evening I spent with him. I had not
intended to stay more than an hour, but he insisted that I
should spend the night. I hesitated, for I confess I did not
much like the look of the mats on which he proposed that I
should sleep; but I shrugged my shoulders. When I was
building my house in the Paumotus I had slept out for weeks on
a harder bed than that, with nothing to shelter me but wild
shrubs; and as for vermin, my tough skin should be proof
against their malice.
"We went down to the stream to bathe while Ata was preparing
the dinner, and after we had eaten it we sat on the verandah.
We smoked and chatted. The young man had a concertina, and he
played the tunes popular on the music-halls a dozen years
before. They sounded strangely in the tropical night
thousands of miles from civilisation. I asked Strickland if
it did not irk him to live in that promiscuity. No, he said;
he liked to have his models under his hand. Presently, after
loud yawning, the natives went away to sleep, and Strickland
and I were left alone. I cannot describe to you the intense
silence of the night. On my island in the Paumotus there is
never at night the complete stillness that there was here.
There is the rustle of the myriad animals on the beach, all
the little shelled things that crawl about ceaselessly, and
there is the noisy scurrying of the land-crabs. Now and then
in the lagoon you hear the leaping of a fish, and sometimes a
hurried noisy splashing as a brown shark sends all the other
fish scampering for their lives. And above all, ceaseless
like time, is the dull roar of the breakers on the reef.
But here there was not a sound, and the air was scented with the
white flowers of the night. It was a night so beautiful that
your soul seemed hardly able to bear the prison of the body.
You felt that it was ready to be wafted away on the immaterial air,
and death bore all the aspect of a beloved friend."
Tiare sighed.
"Ah, I wish I were fifteen again."
Then she caught sight of a cat trying to get at a dish of
prawns on the kitchen table, and with a dexterous gesture and
a lively volley of abuse flung a book at its scampering tail.
"I asked him if he was happy with Ata.
"'She leaves me alone,' he said. 'She cooks my food and looks
after her babies. She does what I tell her. She gives me
what I want from a woman.'
"'And do you never regret Europe? Do you not yearn sometimes
for the light of the streets in Paris or London, the
companionship of your friends, and equals,
for theatres and newspapers, and the rumble of omnibuses on
the cobbled pavements?'
"For a long time he was silent. Then he said:
"'I shall stay here till I die.'
"'But are you never bored or lonely?' I asked.
"He chuckled.
"',' he said. 'It is evident that you do
not know what it is to be an artist.'"
Capitaine Brunot turned to me with a gentle smile, and there
was a wonderful look in his dark, kind eyes.
"He did me an injustice, for I too know what it is to have
dreams. I have my visions too. In my way I also am an artist."
We were all silent for a while, and Tiare fished out of her
capacious pocket a handful of cigarettes. She handed one to
each of us, and we all three smoked. At last she said:
"Since is interested in Strickland, why do you
not take him to see Dr. Coutras? He can tell him something
about his illness and death."
"," said the Captain, looking at me.
I thanked him, and he looked at his watch.
"It is past six o'clock. We should find him at home if you
care to come now."
I got up without further ado, and we walked along the road
that led to the doctor's house. He lived out of the town,
but the Hotel de la Fleur was on the edge of it, and we were
quickly in the country. The broad road was shaded by pepper-trees,
and on each side were the plantations, cocoa-nut and vanilla.
The pirate birds were screeching among the leaves of the palms.
We came to a stone bridge over a shallow river, and we stopped for a few minutes to see the
native boys bathing. They chased one another with shrill cries
and laughter, and their bodies, brown and wet, gleamed in
the sunlight.
Chapter LIV
As we walked along I reflected on a circumstance which all
that I had lately heard about Strickland forced on my attention.
Here, on this remote island, he seemed to have aroused
none of the detestation with which he was regarded at home,
but compassion rather; and his vagaries were accepted
with tolerance. To these people, native and European, he was
a queer fish, but they were used to queer fish, and they took
him for granted; the world was full of odd persons, who did
odd things; and perhaps they knew that a man is not what he
wants to be, but what he must be. In England and France he
was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were
any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss.
I do not think he was any gentler here, less selfish or less
brutal, but the circumstances were more favourable. If he had
spent his life amid these surroundings he might have passed
for no worse a man than another. He received here what he
neither expected nor wanted among his own people — sympathy.
I tried to tell Captain Brunot something of the astonishment
with which this filled me, and for a little while he did not
"It is not strange that I, at all events, should have had
sympathy for him," he said at last, "for, though perhaps
neither of us knew it, we were both aiming at the same thing."
"What on earth can it be that two people so dissimilar as you
and Strickland could aim at?" I asked, smiling.
"A large order," I murmured.
"Do you know how men can be so obsessed by love that they are
deaf and blind to everything else in the world? They are as
little their own masters as the slaves chained to the benches
of a galley. The passion that held Strickland in bondage was
no less tyrannical than love."
"How strange that you should say that!" I answered. "For long
ago I had the idea that he was possessed of a devil."
"And the passion that held Strickland was a passion to
create beauty. It gave him no peace. It urged him hither
and thither. He was eternally a pilgrim, haunted by a divine
nostalgia, and the demon within him was ruthless. There are
men whose desire for truth is so great that to attain it they
will shatter the very foundation of their world. Of such was
Strickland, only beauty with him took the place of truth.
I could only feel for him a profound compassion."
"That is strange also. A man whom he had deeply wronged told
me that he felt a great pity for him." I was silent for a moment.
"I wonder if there you have found the explanation of
a character which has always seemed to me inexplicable.
How did you hit on it?"
He turned to me with a smile.
"Did I not tell you that I, too, in my way was an artist?
I realised in myself the same desire as animated him.
But whereas his medium was paint, mine has been life."
Then Captain Brunot told me a story which I must repeat,
since, if only by way of contrast, it adds something to my
impression of Strickland. It has also to my mind a beauty of
its own.
Captain Brunot was a Breton, and had been in the French Navy.
He left it on his marriage, and settled down on a small
property he had near Quimper to live for the rest of his days
in peace; but the failure of an attorney left him suddenly
penniless, and neither he nor his wife was willing to live in
penury where they had enjoyed consideration. During his sea
faring days he had cruised the South Seas, and he determined
now to seek his fortune there. He spent some months in Papeete
to make his plans and gain experience; then, on money borrowed
from a friend in France, he bought an island in the Paumotus.
It was a ring of land round a deep lagoon, uninhabited,
and covered only with scrub and wild guava. With the
intrepid woman who was his wife, and a few natives,
he landed there, and set about building a house, and clearing
the scrub so that he could plant cocoa-nuts. That was twenty
years before, and now what had been a barren island was a garden.
"It was hard and anxious work at first, and we worked
strenuously, both of us. Every day I was up at dawn,
clearing, planting, working on my house, and at night when I
threw myself on my bed it was to sleep like a log till
morning. My wife worked as hard as I did. Then children were
born to us, first a son and then a daughter. My wife and I
have taught them all they know. We had a piano sent out from
France, and she has taught them to play and to speak English,
and I have taught them Latin and mathematics, and we read
history together. They can sail a boat. They can swim as
well as the natives. There is nothing about the land of which
they are ignorant. Our trees have prospered, and there is
shell on my reef. I have come to Tahiti now to buy a
schooner. I can get enough shell to make it worth while to
fish for it, and, who knows? I may find pearls. I have made
something where there was nothing. I too have made beauty.
Ah, you do not know what it is to look at those tall, healthy
trees and think that every one I planted myself."
"Let me ask you the question that you asked Strickland.
Do you never regret France and your old home in Brittany?"
"Some day, when my daughter is married and my son has a wife
and is able to take my place on the island, we shall go back
and finish our days in the old house in which I was born."
"You will look back on a happy life," I said.
", it is not exciting on my island, and we are
very far from the world — imagine, it takes me four days to
come to Tahiti — but we are happy there. It is given to few
men to attempt a work and to achieve it. Our life is simple
and innocent. We are untouched by ambition, and what pride we
have is due only to our contemplation of the work of our
hands. Malice cannot touch us, nor envy attack. Ah, cher monsieur>, they talk of the blessedness of labour, and it
is a meaningless phrase, but to me it has the most intense
significance. I am a happy man."
"I am sure you deserve to be," I smiled.
"I wish I could think so. I do not know how I have deserved
to have a wife who was the perfect friend and helpmate,
the perfect mistress and the perfect mother."
I reflected for a while on the life that the Captain suggested
to my imagination.
"It is obvious that to lead such an existence and make so
great a success of it, you must both have needed a strong will
and a determined character."
"Perhaps; but without one other factor we could have achieved nothing."
"And what was that?"
He stopped, somewhat dramatically, and stretched out his arm.
"Belief in God. Without that we should have been lost."
Then we arrived at the house of Dr. Coutras.
Chapter LV
Mr. Coutras was an old Frenchman of great stature and
exceeding bulk. His body was shaped like a huge duck's egg;
and his eyes, sharp, blue, and good-natured, rested now and
then with self-satisfaction on his enormous paunch. His
complexion was florid and his hair white. He was a man to
attract immediate sympathy. He received us in a room that
might have been in a house in a provincial town in France, and
the one or two Polynesian curios had an odd look. He took my
hand in both of his — they were huge — and gave me a hearty
look, in which, however, was great shrewdness. When he shook
hands with Capitaine Brunot he enquired politely after
. For some minutes there was an
exchange of courtesies and some local gossip about the island,
the prospects of copra and the vanilla crop; then we came to
the object of my visit.
I shall not tell what Dr. Coutras related to me in his words,
but in my own, for I cannot hope to give at second hand any
impression of his vivacious delivery. He had a deep, resonant
voice, fitted to his massive frame, and a keen sense of the
dramatic. To listen to him was, as the phrase goes, as good
as a play; and much better than most.
It appears that Dr. Coutras had gone one day to Taravao in
order to see an old chiefess who was ill, and he gave a vivid
picture of the obese old lady, lying in a huge bed, smoking
cigarettes, and surrounded by a crowd of dark-skinned retainers.
When he had seen her he was taken into another room
and given dinner — raw fish, fried bananas, and chicken —
, the typical dinner of the
and while he was eating it he saw a young girl being driven
away from the door in tears. He thought nothing of it, but
when he went out to get into his trap and drive home, he saw
her again, standing a little way off; she looked at him with a
woebegone air, and tears streamed down her cheeks. He asked
someone what was wrong with her, and was told that she had
come down from the hills to ask him to visit a white man who
was sick. They had told her that the doctor could not be
disturbed. He called her, and himself asked what she wanted.
She told him that Ata had sent her, she who used to be at the
Hotel de la Fleur, and that the Red One was ill. She thrust
into his hand a crumpled piece of newspaper, and when he
opened it he found in it a hundred-franc note.
"Who is the Red One?" he asked of one of the bystanders.
He was told that that was what they called the Englishman, a
painter, who lived with Ata up in the valley seven kilometres
from where they were. He recognised Strickland by the
description. But it was necessary to walk. It was impossible
for him to go; that was why they had sent the girl away.
"I confess," said the doctor, turning to me, "that I
hesitated. I did not relish fourteen kilometres over a bad
pathway, and there was no chance that I could get back to
Papeete that night. Besides, Strickland was not sympathetic
to me. He was an idle, useless scoundrel, who preferred to
live with a native woman rather than work for his living like
the rest of us. , how was I to know that one day
the world would come to the conclusion that he had genius?
I asked the girl if he was not well enough to have come down to
see me. I asked her what she thought was the matter with him.
She would not answer. I pressed her, angrily perhaps, but she
looked down on the ground and began to cry. Then I shrugged
my shoulders; after all, perhaps it was my duty to go, and in
a very bad temper I bade her lead the way."
His temper was certainly no better when he arrived, perspiring
freely and thirsty. Ata was on the look-out for him, and came
a little way along the path to meet him.
"Before I see anyone give me something to drink or I shall die
of thirst," he cried out. ", get me a
She called out, and a boy came running along. He swarmed up a
tree, and presently threw down a ripe nut. Ata pierced a hole
in it, and the doctor took a long, refreshing draught.
Then he rolled himself a cigarette and felt in a better humour.
"Now, where is the Red One?" he asked.
"He is in the house, painting. I have not told him you were
coming. Go in and see him."
"But what does he complain of? If he is well enough to paint,
he is well enough to have come down to Taravao and save me
this confounded walk. I presume my time is no less valuable
than his."
Ata did not speak, but with the boy followed him to the house.
The girl who had brought him was by this time sitting on the
verandah, and here was lying an old woman, with her back to
the wall, making native cigarettes. Ata pointed to the door.
The doctor, wondering irritably why they behaved so strangely,
entered, and there found Strickland cleaning his palette.
There was a picture on the easel. Strickland, clad only in a
, was standing with his back to the door, but he
turned round when he heard the sound of boots. He gave the
doctor a look of vexation. He was surprised to see him, and
resented the intrusion. But the doctor gave a gasp, he was
rooted to the floor, and he stared with all his eyes.
This was not what he expected. He was seized with horror.
"You enter without ceremony," said Strickland. "What can I do
for you?"
The doctor recovered himself, but it required quite an effort
for him to find his voice. All his irritation was gone, and
he felt — — he felt an
overwhelming pity.
"I am Dr. Coutras. I was down at Taravao to see the chiefess,
and Ata sent for me to see you."
"She's a damned fool. I have had a few aches and pains lately
and a little fever, but that's nothing; it will pass off.
Next time anyone went to Papeete I was going to send for
some quinine."
"Look at yourself in the glass."
Strickland gave him a glance, smiled, and went over to a cheap
mirror in a little wooden frame, that hung on the wall.
"Do you not see a strange change in your face? Do you not see
the thickening of your features and a look — how shall I
describe it? — the books call it lion-faced. ,
must I tell you that you have a terrible disease?"
"When you look at yourself in the glass you see the typical
appearance of the leper."
"You are jesting," said Strickland.
"I wish to God I were."
"Do you intend to tell me that I have leprosy?"
"Unfortunately, there can be no doubt of it."
Dr. Coutras had delivered sentence of death on many men, and
he could never overcome the horror with which it filled him.
He felt always the furious hatred that must seize a man
condemned when he compared himself with the doctor, sane and
healthy, who had the inestimable privilege of life.
Strickland looked at him in silence. Nothing of emotion could
be seen on his face, disfigured already by the loathsome
"Do they know?" he asked at last, pointing to the persons on
the verandah, now sitting in unusual, unaccountable silence.
"These natives know the signs so well," said the doctor.
"They were afraid to tell you."
Strickland stepped to the door and looked out. There must
have been something terrible in his face, for suddenly they
all burst out into loud cries and lamentation. They lifted up
their voices and they wept. Strickland did not speak.
After looking at them for a moment, he came back into the room.
"How long do you think I can last?"
"Who knows? Sometimes the disease continues for twenty years.
It is a mercy when it runs its course quickly."
Strickland went to his easel and looked reflectively at the
picture that stood on it.
"You have had a long journey. It is fitting that the bearer
of important tidings should be rewarded. Take this picture.
It means nothing to you now, but it may be that one day you
will be glad to have it."
Dr. Coutras protested that he needed no payment for his
journey; he had already given back to Ata the hundred-franc
note, but Strickland insisted that he should take the picture.
Then together they went out on the verandah. The natives were
sobbing violently. "Be quiet, woman. Dry thy tears," said
Strickland, addressing Ata. "There is no great harm.
I shall leave thee very soon."
"They are not going to take thee away?" she cried.
At that time there was no rigid sequestration on the islands,
and lepers, if they chose, were allowed to go free.
"I shall go up into the mountain," said Strickland.
Then Ata stood up and faced him.
"Let the others go if they choose, but I will not leave thee.
Thou art my man and I am thy woman. If thou leavest me I
shall hang myself on the tree that is behind the house.
I swear it by God."
There was something immensely forcible in the way she spoke.
She was no longer the meek, soft native girl, but a determined
woman. She was extraordinarily transformed.
"Why shouldst thou stay with me? Thou canst go back to
Papeete, and thou wilt soon find another white man. The old
woman can take care of thy children, and Tiare will be glad to
have thee back."
"Thou art my man and I am thy woman. Whither thou goest I
will go, too."
For a moment Strickland's fortitude was shaken, and a tear
filled each of his eyes and trickled slowly down his cheeks.
Then he gave the sardonic smile which was usual with him.
"Women are strange little beasts," he said to Dr. Coutras.
"You can treat them like dogs, you can beat them till your arm
aches, and still they love you." He shrugged his shoulders.
"Of course, it is one of the most absurd illusions of
Christianity that they have souls."
"What is it that thou art saying to the doctor?" asked Ata
suspiciously. "Thou wilt not go?"
"If it please thee I will stay, poor child."
Ata flung herself on her knees before him, and clasped his
legs with her arms and kissed them. Strickland looked at Dr.
Coutras with a faint smile.
"In the end they get you, and you are helpless in their hands.
White or brown, they are all the same."
Dr. Coutras felt that it was absurd to offer expressions of
regret in so terrible a disaster, and he took his leave.
Strickland told Tane, the boy, to lead him to the village.
Dr. Coutras paused for a moment, and then he addressed himself
to me.
"I did not like him, I have told you he was not sympathetic to
me, but as I walked slowly down to Taravao I could not prevent
an unwilling admiration for the stoical courage which enabled
him to bear perhaps the most dreadful of human afflictions.
When Tane left me I told him I would send some medicine that
might be of service; but my hope was small that Strickland
would consent to take it, and even smaller that, if he did,
it would do him good. I gave the boy a message for Ata that
I would come whenever she sent for me. Life is hard, and Nature
takes sometimes a terrible delight in torturing her children.
It was with a heavy heart that I drove back to my comfortable
home in Papeete."
For a long time none of us spoke.
"But Ata did not send for me," the doctor went on, at last,
"and it chanced that I did not go to that part of the island
for a long time. I had no news of Strickland. Once or twice
I heard that Ata had been to Papeete to buy painting
materials, but I did not happen to see her. More than two
years passed before I went to Taravao again, and then it was
once more to see the old chiefess. I asked them whether they
had heard anything of Strickland. By now it was known
everywhere that he had leprosy. First Tane, the boy, had left
the house, and then, a little time afterwards, the old woman
and her grandchild. Strickland and Ata were left alone with
their babies. No one went near the plantation, for, as you
know, the natives have a very lively horror of the disease,
and in the old days when it was discovered the sufferer was killed;
but sometimes, when the village boys were scrambling about
the hills, they would catch sight of the white man, with
his great red beard, wandering about. They fled in terror.
Sometimes Ata would come down to the village at night and
arouse the trader, so that he might sell her various things of
which she stood in need. She knew that the natives looked
upon her with the same horrified aversion as they looked upon
Strickland, and she kept out of their way. Once some women,
venturing nearer than usual to the plantation, saw her
washing clothes in the brook, and they threw stones at her.
After that the trader was told to give her the message that if
she used the brook again men would come and burn down her house."
"Brutes," I said.
", men are always the same.
Fear makes them cruel.... I decided to see Strickland, and
when I had finished with the chiefess asked for a boy to show
me the way. But none would accompany me, and I was forced to
find it alone."
When Dr. Coutras arrived at the plantation he was seized with
a feeling of uneasiness. Though he was hot from walking, he
shivered. There was something hostile in the air which made
him hesitate, and he felt that invisible forces barred his way.
Unseen hands seemed to draw him back. No one would go
near now to gather the cocoa-nuts, and they lay rotting on the
ground. Everywhere was desolation. The bush was encroaching,
and it looked as though very soon the primeval forest would
regain possession of that strip of land which had been
snatched from it at the cost of so much labour. He had the
sensation that here was the abode of pain. As he approached
the house he was struck by the unearthly silence, and at first
he thought it was deserted. Then he saw Ata. She was sitting
on her haunches in the lean-to that served her as kitchen,
watching some mess cooking in a pot. Near her a small boy was
playing silently in the dirt. She did not smile when she saw him.
"I have come to see Strickland," he said.
"I will go and tell him."
She went to the house, ascended the few steps that led to the
verandah, and entered. Dr. Coutras followed her, but waited
outside in obedience to her gesture. As she opened the door
he smelt the sickly sweet smell which makes the neighbourhood
of the leper nauseous. He heard her speak, and then he heard
Strickland's answer, but he did not recognise the voice.
It had become hoarse and indistinct. Dr. Coutras raised his
eyebrows. He judged that the disease had already attacked the
vocal chords. Then Ata came out again.
"He will not see you. You must go away."
Dr. Coutras insisted, but she would not let him pass. Dr. Coutras
shrugged his shoulders, and after a moment's rejection turned away.
She walked with him. He felt that she too wanted to be rid of him.
"Is there nothing I can do at all?" he asked.
"You can send him some paints," she said. "There is nothing
else he wants."
"Can he paint still?"
"He is painting the walls of the house."
"This is a terrible life for you, my poor child."
Then at last she smiled, and there was in her eyes a look of
superhuman love. Dr. Coutras was startled by it, and amazed.
And he was awed. He found nothing to say.
"He is my man," she said.
"Where is your other child?" he asked. "When I was here last
you had two."
"Yes; it died. We buried it under the mango."
When Ata had gone with him a little way she said she must turn
back. Dr. Coutras surmised she was afraid to go farther in
case she met any of the people from the village. He told her
again that if she wanted him she had only to send and he would
come at once.
Chapter LVI
Then two years more went by, or perhaps three, for time passes
imperceptibly in Tahiti, and it is hard to keep count of it;
but at last a message was brought to Dr. Coutras that
Strickland was dying. Ata had waylaid the cart that took the
mail into Papeete, and besought the man who drove it to go at
once to the doctor. But the doctor was out when the summons
came, and it was evening when he received it. It was
impossible to start at so late an hour, and so it was not till
next day soon after dawn that he set out. He arrived at
Taravao, and for the last time tramped the seven kilometres
that led to Ata's house. The path was overgrown, and it was
clear that for years now it had remained all but untrodden.
It was not easy to find the way. Sometimes he had to stumble
along the bed of the stream, and sometimes he had to push
through shrubs, dense and thorny; often he was obliged to
climb over rocks in order to avoid the hornet-nests that hung
on the trees over his head. The silence was intense.
It was with a sigh of relief that at last he came upon the
little unpainted house, extraordinarily bedraggled now,
and unkempt; but here too was the same intolerable silence.
He walked up, and a little boy, playing unconcernedly in the
sunshine, started at his approach and fled quickly away:
to him the stranger was the enemy. Dr. Coutras had a sense that
the child was stealthily watching him from behind a tree.
The door was wide open. He called out, but no one answered.
He stepped in. He knocked at a door, but again there was no
answer. He turned the handle and entered. The stench that
assailed him turned him horribly sick. He put his
handkerchief to his nose and forced himself to go in. The
light was dim, and after the brilliant sunshine for a while he
could see nothing. Then he gave a start. He could not make
out where he was. He seemed on a sudden to have entered a
magic world. He had a vague impression of a great primeval
forest and of naked people walking beneath the trees. Then he
saw that there were paintings on the walls.
", I hope the sun hasn't affected me," he muttered.
A slight movement attracted his attention, and he saw that Ata
was lying on the floor, sobbing quietly.
"Ata," he called. "Ata."
She took no notice. Again the beastly stench almost made him
faint, and he lit a cheroot. His eyes grew accustomed to the
darkness, and now he was seized by an overwhelming sensation
as he stared at the painted walls. He knew nothing of
pictures, but there was something about these that
extraordinarily affected him. From floor to ceiling the walls
were covered with a strange and elaborate composition. It was
indescribably wonderful and mysterious. It took his breath away.
It filled him with an emotion which he could not
understand or analyse. He felt the awe and the delight which
a man might feel who watched the beginning of a world. It was
tremendous, sensual, passionate; and yet there was something
horrible there, too, something which made him afraid. It was
the work of a man who had delved into the hidden depths of
nature and had discovered secrets which were beautiful and
fearful too. It was the work of a man who knew things which
it is unholy for men to know. There was something primeval
there and terrible. It was not human. It brought to his mind
vague recollections of black magic. It was beautiful and obscene.
", this is genius."
The words were wrung from him, and he did not know he had spoken.
Then his eyes fell on the bed of mats in the corner, and he
went up, and he saw the dreadful, mutilated, ghastly object
which had been Strickland. He was dead. Dr. Coutras made an
effort of will and bent over that battered horror. Then he
started violently, and terror blazed in his heart, for he felt
that someone was behind him. It was Ata. He had not heard
her get up. She was standing at his elbow, looking at what
he looked at.
"Good Heavens, my nerves are all distraught," he said.
"You nearly frightened me out of my wits."
He looked again at the poor dead thing that had been man, and
then he started back in dismay.
"But he was blind."
"Yes; he had been blind for nearly a year."
Chapter LVII
AT that moment we were interrupted by the appearance of
Madame Coutras, who had been paying visits. She came in,
like a ship in full sail, an imposing creature, tall and stout,
with an ample bust and an obesity girthed in alarmingly by
straight-fronted corsets. She had a bold hooked nose and three chins.
She held herself upright. She had not yielded for an instant
to the enervating charm of the tropics, but contrariwise was
more active, more worldly, more decided than anyone in a
temperate clime would have thought it possible to be. She was
evidently a copious talker, and now poured forth a breathless
stream of anecdote and comment. She made the conversation we
had just had seem far away and unreal.
Presently Dr. Coutras turned to me.
"I still have in my the picture that Strickland
gave me," he said. "Would you like to see it?"
We got up, and he led me on to the verandah which surrounded
his house. We paused to look at the gay flowers that rioted
in his garden.
"For a long time I could not get out of my head the
recollection of the extraordinary decoration with which
Strickland had covered the walls of his house," he said
I had been thinking of it, too. It seemed to me that here
Strickland had finally put the whole expression of himself.
Working silently, knowing that it was his last chance, I
fancied that here he must have said all that he knew of life
and all that he divined. And I fancied that perhaps here he
had at last found peace. The demon which possessed him was
exorcised at last, and with the completion of the work, for
which all his life had been a painful preparation, rest
descended on his remote and tortured soul. He was willing to
die, for he had fulfilled his purpose.
"What was the subject?" I asked.
"I scarcely know. It was strange and fantastic. It was a
vision of the beginnings of the world, the Garden of Eden,
with Adam and Eve — — it was a hymn to the
beauty of the human form, male and female, and the praise of
Nature, sublime, indifferent, lovely, and cruel. It gave you
an awful sense of the infinity of space and of the endlessness
of time. Because he painted the trees I see about me every
day, the cocoa-nuts, the banyans, the flamboyants, the
alligator-pears, I have seen them ever since differently, as
though there were in them a spirit and a mystery which I am
ever on the point of seizing and which forever escapes me.
The colours were the colours familiar to me, and yet they
were different. They had a significance which was all their own.
And those nude men and women. They were of the earth, and yet
apart from it. They seemed to possess something of the clay
of which they were created, and at the same time something divine.
You saw man in the nakedness of his primeval instincts,
and you were afraid, for you saw yourself."
Dr. Coutras shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
"You will laugh at me. I am a materialist, and I am a gross,
fat man — Falstaff, eh? — the lyrical mode does not become me.
I make myself ridiculous. But I have never seen painting
which made so deep an impression upon me. , I had just
the same feeling as when I went to the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
There too I was awed by the greatness of the man who
had painted that ceiling. It was genius, and it was
stupendous and overwhelming. I felt small and insignificant.
But you are prepared for the greatness of Michael Angelo.
Nothing had prepared me for the immense surprise of these
pictures in a native hut, far away from civilisation, in a
fold of the mountain above Taravao. And Michael Angelo is
sane and healthy. Those great works of his have the calm of
the sublime; but here, notwithstanding beauty, was something
troubling. I do not know what it was. It made me uneasy.
It gave me the impression you get when you are sitting next door
to a room that you know is empty, but in which, you know not
why, you have a dreadful consciousness that notwithstanding
there is someone. You scold yourself; you know it is only
your nerves — and yet, and yet... In a little while it is
impossible to resist the terror that seizes you, and you are
helpless in the clutch of an unseen horror. Yes; I confess I
was not altogether sorry when I heard that those strange
masterpieces had been destroyed."
"Destroyed?" I cried.
"; did you not know?"
"How should I know? It is true I had never heard of this work;
but I thought perhaps it had fallen into the hands of a
private owner. Even now there is no certain list of
Strickland's paintings."
"When he grew blind he would sit hour after hour in those two
rooms that he had painted, looking at his works with sightless
eyes, and seeing, perhaps, more than he had ever seen in his
life before. Ata told me that he never complained of his
fate, he never lost courage. To the end his mind remained
serene and undisturbed. But he made her promise that when she
had buried him — did I tell you that I dug his grave with my
own hands, for none of the natives would approach the infected
house, and we buried him, she and I, sewn up in three
joined together, under the mango-tree — he made her
promise that she would set fire to the house and not leave it
till it was burned to the ground and not a stick remained."
I did not speak for a while, for I was thinking. Then I said:
"He remained the same to the end, then."
"Do you understand? I must tell you that I thought it my duty
to dissuade her."
"Even after what you have just said?"
"Yes; for I knew that here was a work of genius, and I did not
think we had the right to deprive the world of it. But Ata
would not listen to me. She had promised. I would not stay
to witness the barbarous deed, and it was only afterwards that
I heard what she had done. She poured paraffin on the dry
floors and on the pandanus-mats, and then she set fire. In a
little while nothing remained but smouldering embers, and a
great masterpiece existed no longer.
"I think Strickland knew it was a masterpiece. He had
achieved what he wanted. His life was complete. He had made
a world and saw that it was good. Then, in pride and
contempt, he destroyed it."
"But I must show you my picture," said Dr. Coutras, moving on.
"What happened to Ata and the child?"
"They went to the Marquesas. She had relations there. I have
heard that the boy works on one of Cameron's schooners.
They say he is very like his father in appearance."
At the door that led from the verandah to the doctor's
consulting-room, he paused and smiled.
"It is a fruit-piece. You would think it not a very suitable
picture for a doctor's consulting-room, but my wife will not
have it in the drawing-room. She says it is frankly obscene."
"A fruit-piece!" I exclaimed in surprise.
We entered the room, and my eyes fell at once on the picture.
I looked at it for a long time.
It was a pile of mangoes, bananas, oranges, and I know not what
and at first sight it was an innocent picture enough. It would
have been passed in an exhibition of the Post-Impressionists by a
careless person as an excellent but not very remarkable example
of the school; but perhaps afterwards it would come back to his
recollection, and he would wonder why. I do not think then he
could ever entirely forget it.
The colours were so strange that words can hardly tell what a
troubling emotion they gave. They were sombre blues, opaque
like a delicately carved bowl in lapis lazuli, and yet with a
quivering lustre that suggested the palpitation of mysterious
life; there were purples, horrible like raw and putrid flesh,
and yet with a glowing, sensual passion that called up vague
memories of the Roman Empire of Heliogabalus; there were reds,
shrill like the berries of holly — one thought of Christmas
in England, and the snow, the good cheer, and the pleasure of
children — and yet by some magic softened till they had the
swooning tenderness of a dove's breast; there were deep
yellows that died with an unnatural passion into a green as
fragrant as the spring and as pure as the sparkling water of a
mountain brook. Who can tell what anguished fancy made these
fruits? They belonged to a Polynesian garden of the Hesperides.
There was something strangely alive in them, as though
they were created in a stage of the earth's dark history
when things were not irrevocably fixed to their forms.
They were extravagantly luxurious. They were heavy with
tropical odours. They seemed to possess a sombre passion of
their own. It was enchanted fruit, to taste which might open
the gateway to God knows what secrets of the soul and to
mysterious palaces of the imagination. They were sullen with
unawaited dangers, and to eat them might turn a man to beast
or god. All that was healthy and natural, all that clung to
happy relationships and the simple joys of simple men, shrunk
from them in dismay; and yet a fearful attraction was in them,
and, like the fruit on the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and
Evil they were terrible with the possibilities of the Unknown.
At last I turned away. I felt that Strickland had kept his
secret to the grave.
"," came the loud, cheerful voice of
Madame Coutras, "what are you doing all this time? Here are
the . Ask if he will not drink a
little glass of Quinquina Dubonnet."
", Madame," I said, going out on to the verandah.
The spell was broken.
Chapter LVIII
The time came for my departure from Tahiti. According to the
gracious custom of the island, presents were given me by the
persons with whom I had been thrown in contact — baskets made
of the leaves of the cocoa-nut tree, mats of pandanus, fans;
and Tiare gave me three little pearls and three jars of
guava-jelly made with her own plump hands. When the mail-boat,
stopping for twenty-four hours on its way from Wellington to
San Francisco, blew the whistle that warned the passengers to
get on board, Tiare clasped me to her vast bosom, so that I
seemed to sink into a billowy sea, and pressed her red lips
to mine. Tears glistened in her eyes. And when we steamed
slowly out of the lagoon, making our way gingerly through the
opening in the reef, and then steered for the open sea,
a certain melancholy fell upon me. The breeze was laden still
with the pleasant odours of the land. Tahiti is very far
away, and I knew that I should never see it again. A chapter
of my life was closed, and I felt a little nearer to
inevitable death.
Not much more than a month later I was in London; and after I
had arranged certain matters which claimed my immediate
attention, thinking Mrs. Strickland might like to hear what I
knew of her husband's last years, I wrote to her. I had not
seen her since long before the war, and I had to look out her
address in the telephone-book. She made an appointment, and I went
to the trim little house on Campden Hill which she now inhabited.
She was by this time a woman of hard on sixty, but she
bore her years well, and no one would have taken her for
more than fifty. Her face, thin and not much lined, was of
the sort that ages gracefully, so that you thought in youth
she must have been a much handsomer woman than in fact she was.
Her hair, not yet very gray, was becomingly arranged,
and her black gown was modish. I remembered having heard that
her sister, Mrs. MacAndrew, outliving her husband but a couple
of years, had left money to Mrs. Strickland; and by the look
of the house and the trim maid who opened the door I judged
that it was a sum adequate to keep the widow in modest comfort.
When I was ushered into the drawing-room I found that Mrs.
Strickland had a visitor, and when I discovered who he was,
I guessed that I had been asked to come at just that time not
without intention. The caller was Mr. Van Busche Taylor,
an American, and Mrs. Strickland gave me particulars with a
charming smile of apology to him.
"You know, we English are so dreadfully ignorant. You must
forgive me if it's necessary to explain." Then she turned to
me. "Mr. Van Busche Taylor is the distinguished American
critic. If you haven't read his book your education has been
shamefully neglected, and you must repair the omission at
once. He's writing something about dear Charlie, and he's
come to ask me if I can help him."
Mr. Van Busche Taylor was a very thin man with a large, bald
head, bony and shining; and under the great dome of his skull
his face, yellow, with deep lines in it, looked very small.
He was quiet and exceedingly polite. He spoke with the accent
of New England, and there was about his demeanour a bloodless
frigidity which made me ask myself why on earth he was busying
himself with Charles Strickland. I had been slightly tickled
at the gentleness which Mrs. Strickland put into her mention
of her husband's name, and while the pair conversed I took
stock of the room in which we sat. Mrs. Strickland had moved
with the times. Gone were the Morris papers and gone the
severe cretonnes, gone were the Arundel prints that had
adorned the walls of her drawing-room in Ashley Gardens; the
room blazed with fantastic colour, and I wondered if she knew
that those varied hues, which fashion had imposed upon her,
were due to the dreams of a poor painter in a South Sea
island. She gave me the answer herself.
"What wonderful cushions you have," said Mr. Van Busche Taylor.
"Do you like them?" she said, smiling. "Bakst, you know."
And yet on the walls were coloured reproductions of several of
Strickland's best pictures, due to the enterprise of a
publisher in Berlin.
"You're looking at my pictures," she said, following my eyes.
"Of course, the originals are out of my reach, but it's a
comfort to have these. The publisher sent them to me himself.
They're a great consolation to me."
"They must be very pleasant to live with," said Mr. Van Busche Taylor.
"Yes; they're so essentially decorative."
"That is one of my profoundest convictions," said Mr. Van
Busche Taylor. "Great art is always decorative."
Their eyes rested on a nude woman suckling a baby, while a
girl was kneeling by their side holding out a flower to the
indifferent child. Looking over them was a wrinkled, scraggy hag.
It was Strickland's version of the Holy Family. I suspected
that for the figures had sat his household above Taravao,
and the woman and the baby were Ata and his first son.
I asked myself if Mrs. Strickland had any inkling of the facts.
The conversation proceeded, and I marvelled at the tact with which
Mr. Van Busche Taylor avoided all subjects that might have been
in the least embarrassing, and at the ingenuity with which
Mrs. Strickland, without saying a word that was untrue, insinuated
that her relations with her husband had always been perfect.
At last Mr. Van Busche Taylor rose to go. Holding his
hostess' hand, he made her a graceful, though perhaps too elaborate,
speech of thanks, and left us.
"I hope he didn't bore you," she said, when the door closed
behind him. "Of course it's a nuisance sometimes, but I feel
it's only right to give people any information I can about Charlie.
There's a certain responsibility about having been the
wife of a genius."
She looked at me with those pleasant eyes of hers, which had
remained as candid and as sympathetic as they had been more
than twenty years before. I wondered if she was making a fool of me.
"Of course you've given up your business," I said.
"Oh, yes," she answered airily. "I ran it more by way of a
hobby than for any other reason, and my children persuaded me
to sell it. They thought I was overtaxing my strength."
I saw that Mrs. Strickland had forgotten that she had ever
done anything so disgraceful as to work for her living.
She had the true instinct of the nice woman that it is only
really decent for her to live on other people's money.
"They're here now," she said. "I thought they'd, like to hear
what you had to say about their father. You remember Robert,
don't you? I'm glad to say he's been recommended for the
Military Cross."
She went to the door and called them. There entered a tall
man in khaki, with the parson's collar, handsome in a somewhat
heavy fashion, but with the frank eyes that I remembered in
him as a boy. He was followed by his sister. She must have
been the same age as was her mother when first I knew her, and
she was very like her. She too gave one the impression that
as a girl she must have been prettier than indeed she was.
"I suppose you don't remember them in the least," said
Mrs. Strickland, proud and smiling. "My daughter is now
Mrs. Ronaldson. Her husband's a Major in the Gunners."
"He's by way of being a pukka soldier, you know," said
Mrs. Ronaldson gaily. "That's why he's only a Major."
I remembered my anticipation long ago that she would marry a soldier.
It was inevitable. She had all the graces of the soldier's wife.
She was civil and affable, but she could hardly conceal her intimate
conviction that she was not quite as others were. Robert was breezy.
"It's a bit of luck that I should be in London when you turned
up," he said. "I've only got three days' leave."
"He's dying to get back," said his mother.
"Well, I don't mind confessing it, I have a rattling good time
at the front. I've made a lot of good pals. It's a first-rate life.
Of course war's terrible, and all that sort of thing;
but it does bring out the best qualities in a man,
there's no denying that."
Then I told them what I had learned about Charles Strickland
in Tahiti. I thought it unnecessary to say anything of Ata
and her boy, but for the rest I was as accurate as I could be.
When I had narrated his lamentable death I ceased. For a
minute or two we were all silent. Then Robert Strickland
struck a match and lit a cigarette.
"The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small,"
he said, somewhat impressively.
Mrs. Strickland and Mrs. Ronaldson looked down with a slightly
pious expression which indicated, I felt sure, that they
thought the quotation was from Holy Writ. Indeed, I was
unconvinced that Robert Strickland did not share their illusion.
I do not know why I suddenly thought of Strickland's son by Ata. They had told me he was a merry,
light-hearted youth. I saw him, with my mind's eye, on the
schooner on which he worked, wearing nothing but a pair of
dungarees; and at night, when the boat sailed along easily
before a light breeze, and the sailors were gathered on the
upper deck, while the captain and the supercargo lolled in
deck-chairs, smoking their pipes, I saw him dance with another lad,
dance wildly, to the wheezy music of the concertina. Above was the blue sky, and the stars, and
all about the desert of the Pacific Ocean.
A quotation from the Bible came to my lips, but I held my tongue,
for I know that clergymen think it a little blasphemous when the
laity poach upon their preserves. My Uncle Henry, for
twenty-seven years Vicar of Whitstable, was on these occasions in
the habit of saying that the devil could always quote scripture
to his purpose. He remembered the days when you could get
thirteen Royal Natives for a shilling.
End of The Moon and Sixpence
by W. Somerset Maugham �