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 jolly evening.”
“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 with them?”
“I liked them all right when they were kids, but now they’re growing up I haven’t got any particular feeling for them.”
“It’s just inhuman.”
“I dare say.”
“You don’t seem in the least ashamed.”
I tried another tack.
“Everyone will think you a perfect swine.”
“Won’t it mean anything to you to know that people loathe and despise you?”
His brief answer was so scornful that it made my question, natural though it was, seem absurd. I reflected for a minute or two.
“I wonder if one can live quite comfortably when one’s conscious of the disapproval of one’s fellows? Are you sure it won’t begin to worry you? Everyone has some sort of a conscience, and sooner or later it will find you out. Supposing your wife died, wouldn’t you be tortured by remorse?”
He did not answer, and I waited for some time for him to speak. At last I had to break the silence myself.
“What have you to say to that?”
“Only that you’re a damned fool.”
“At all events, you can be forced to support your wife and children,” I retorted, somewhat piqued. “I suppose the law has some protection to offer them.”
“Can the law get blood out of a stone? I haven’t any money. I’ve got about a hundred pounds.”
I began to be more puzzled than before. It was true that his hotel pointed to the most straitened circumstances.
“What are you going to do when you’ve spent that?”
He was perfectly cool, and his eyes kept that mocking smile which made all I said seem rather foolish. I paused for a little while to consider what I had better say next. But it was he who spoke first.
“Why doesn’t Amy marry again? She’s comparatively young, and she’s not unattractive. I can recommend her as an excellent wife. If she wants to divorce me I don’t mind giving her the necessary grounds.”
Now it was my turn to smile. He was very cunning, but it was evidently this that he was aiming at. He had some reason to conceal the fact that he had run away with a woman, and he was using every precaution to hide her whereabouts. I answered with decision.
“Your wife says that nothing you can do will ever induce her to divorce you. She’s quite made up her mind. You can put any possibility of that definitely out of your head.”
He looked at me with an astonishment that was certainly not feigned. The smile abandoned his lips, and he spoke quite seriously.
“But, my dear fellow, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter a twopenny damn to me one way or the other.”
“Oh, come now; you mustn’t think us such fools as all that. We happen to know that you came away with a woman.”
He gave a little start, and then suddenly burst into a shout of laughter. He laughed so uproariously that people sitting near us looked round, and some of them began to laugh too.
“I don’t see anything very amusing in that.”
“Poor Amy,” he grinned.
Then his face grew bitterly scornful.
“What poor minds women have got! Love. It’s always love. They think a man leaves only because he wants others. Do you think I should be such a fool as to do what I’ve done for a woman?”
“Do you mean to say you didn’t leave your wife for another woman?”
“Of course not.”
“On your word of honour?”
I don’t know why I asked for that. It was very ingenuous of me.
“On my word of honour.”
“Then, what in God’s name have you left her for?”
“I want to paint.”
I looked at him for quite a long time. I did not understand. I thought he was mad. It must be remembered that I was very young, and I looked upon him as a middle-aged man. I forgot everything but my 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 no answer.
“I’ve got to paint.”
“Aren’t you taking an awful chance?”
He looked at me. His eyes had something strange in them, so that I felt rather uncomfortable.
“How old are you? Twenty-three?”
It seemed to me that the question was beside the point. It was natural that I should take chances; but he was a man whose youth was past, a stockbroker with a position of respectability, a wife and two children. A course that would have been natural for me was absurd for him. I wished to be quite fair.
“Of course a miracle may happen, and you may be a great painter, but you must confess the chances are a million to one against it. It’ll be an awful sell if at the end you have to acknowledge you’ve made a hash of it.”
“I’ve got to paint,” he repeated.
“Supposing you’re never anything more than third-rate, do you think it will have been worth while to give up everything? After all, in any other walk in life it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good; you can get along quite comfortably if you’re just adequate; but it’s different with an artist.”
“You blasted fool,” he said.
“I don’t see why, unless it’s folly to say the obvious.”
“I tell you I’ve got to paint. I can’t help myself. When a man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.”
There was real passion in his voice, and in spite of myself I was impressed. I seemed to feel in him some vehement power that was struggling within him; it gave me the sensation of something very strong, overmastering, that held him, as it were, against his will. I could not understand. He seemed really to be possessed of a devil, and I felt that it might suddenly turn and rend him. Yet he looked ordinary enough. My eyes, resting on him curiously, caused him no embarrassment. I wondered what a stranger would have taken him to be, sitting there in his old Norfolk jacket and his unbrushed bowler; his trousers were baggy, his hands were not clean; and his face, with the red stubble of the unshaved chin, the little eyes, and the large, aggressive nose, was uncouth and coarse. His mouth was large, his lips were heavy and sensual. No; I could not have placed him.
“You won’t go back to your wife?” I said at last.
“She’s willing to forget everything that’s happened and start afresh. She’ll never make you a single reproach.”
“She can go to hell.”
“You don’t care if people think you an utter blackguard? You don’t care if she and your children have to beg their bread?”
“Not a damn.”
I was silent for a moment in order to give greater force to my next remark. I spoke as deliberately as I could.
“You are a most unmitigated cad.”
“Now that you’ve got that off your chest, let’s go and have dinner.”