I settled down in Paris and began to write a play. I led a very regular life, working in the morning, and in the afternoon lounging about the gardens of the Luxembourg or sauntering through the streets. I spent long hours in the Louvre, the most friendly of all galleries and the most convenient for meditation; or idled on the quays, fingering second-hand books that I never meant to buy. I read a page here and there, and made acquaintance with a great many authors whom I was content to know thus desultorily. In the evenings I went to see my friends. I looked in often on the Stroeves, and sometimes shared their modest fare. Dirk Stroeve flattered himself on his skill in cooking Italian dishes, and I confess that his spaghetti were very much better than his pictures. It was a dinner for a King when he brought in a huge dish of it, succulent with tomatoes, and we ate it together with the good household bread and a bottle of red wine. I grew more intimate with Blanche Stroeve, and I think, because I was English and she knew few English people, she was glad to see me. She was pleasant and simple, but she remained always rather silent, and I knew not why, gave me the impression that she was concealing something. But I thought that was perhaps no more than a natural reserve accentuated by the verbose frankness of her husband. Dirk never concealed anything. He discussed the most intimate matters with a complete lack of self-consciousness. Sometimes he embarrassed his wife, and the only time I saw her put out of countenance was when he insisted on telling me that he had taken a purge, and went into somewhat realistic details on the subject. The perfect seriousness with which he narrated his misfortunes convulsed me with laughter, and this added to Mrs. Stroeve’s irritation.
“You seem to like making a fool of yourself,” she said.
His round eyes grew rounder still, and his brow puckered in dismay as he saw that she was angry.
“Sweetheart, have I vexed you? I’ll never take another. It was only because I was bilious. I lead a sedentary life. I don’t take enough exercise. For three days I hadn’t …”
“For goodness sake, hold your tongue,” she interrupted, tears of annoyance in her eyes.
His face fell, and he pouted his lips like a scolded child. He gave me a look of appeal, so that I might put things right, but, unable to control myself, I shook with helpless laughter.
We went one day to the picture-dealer in whose shop Stroeve thought he could show me at least two or three of Strickland’s pictures, but when we arrived were told that Strickland himself had taken them away. The dealer did not know why.
“But don’t imagine to yourself that I make myself bad blood on that account. I took them to oblige Monsieur Stroeve, and I said I would sell them if I could. But really—” He shrugged his shoulders. “I’m interested in the young men, but voyons, you yourself, Monsieur Stroeve, you don’t think there’s any talent there.”
“I give you my word of honour, there’s no one painting to-day in whose talent I am more convinced. Take my word for it, you are missing a good affair. Some day those pictures will be worth more than all you have in your shop. Remember Monet, who could not get anyone to buy his pictures for a hundred francs. What are they worth now?”
“True. But there were a hundred as good painters as Monet who couldn’t sell their pictures at that time, and their pictures are worth nothing still. How can one tell? Is merit enough to bring success? Don’t believe it. Du reste, it has still to be proved that this friend of yours has merit. No one claims it for him but Monsieur Stroeve.”
“And how, then, will you recognise merit?” asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.
“There is only one way—by success.”
“Philistine,” cried Dirk.
“But think of the great artists of the past—Raphael, Michael Angelo, Ingres, Delacroix—they were all successful.”
“Let us go,” said Stroeve to me, “or I shall kill this man.”