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.”