I saw Strickland not infrequently, and now and then played chess with him. He was of uncertain temper. Sometimes he would sit silent and abstracted, taking no notice of anyone; and at others, when he was in a good humour, he would talk in his own halting way. He never said a clever thing, but he had a vein of brutal sarcasm which was not ineffective, and he always said exactly what he thought. He was indifferent to the susceptibilities of others, and when he wounded them was amused. He was constantly offending Dirk Stroeve so bitterly that he flung away, vowing he would never speak to him again; but there was a solid force in Strickland that attracted the fat Dutchman against his will, so that he came back, fawning like a clumsy dog, though he knew that his only greeting would be the blow he dreaded.
I do not know why Strickland put up with me. Our relations were peculiar. One day he asked me to lend him fifty francs.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I replied.
“It wouldn’t amuse me.”
“I’m frightfully hard up, you know.”
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t care if I starve?”
“Why on earth should I?” I asked in my turn.
He looked at me for a minute or two, pulling his untidy beard. I smiled at him.
“What are you amused at?” he said, with a gleam of anger in his eyes.
“You’re so simple. You recognise no obligations. No one is under any obligation to you.”
“Wouldn’t it make you uncomfortable if I went and hanged myself because I’d been turned out of my room as I couldn’t pay the rent?”
“Not a bit.”
“You’re bragging. If I really did you’d be overwhelmed with remorse.”
“Try it, and we’ll see,” I retorted.
A smile flickered in his eyes, and he stirred his absinthe in silence.
“Would you like to play chess?” I asked.
“I don’t mind.”
We set up the pieces, and when the board was ready he considered it with a comfortable eye. There is a sense of satisfaction in looking at your men all ready for the fray.
“Did you really think I’d lend you money?” I asked.
“I didn’t see why you shouldn’t.”
“You surprise me.”
“It’s disappointing to find that at heart you are sentimental. I should have liked you better if you hadn’t made that ingenuous appeal to my sympathies.”
“I should have despised you if you’d been moved by it,” he answered.
“That’s better,” I laughed.
We began to play. We were both absorbed in the game. When it was finished I said to him:
“Look here, if you’re hard up, let me see your pictures. If there’s anything I like I’ll buy it.”
“Go to hell,” he answered.
He got up and was about to go away. I stopped him.
“You haven’t paid for your absinthe,” I said, smiling.
He cursed me, flung down the money and left.
I did not see him for several days after that, but one evening, when I was sitting in the cafe, reading a paper, he came up and sat beside me.
“You haven’t hanged yourself after all,” I remarked.
“No. I’ve got a commission. I’m painting the portrait of a retired plumber for two hundred francs.”
This picture, formerly in the possession of a wealthy manufacturer at Lille, who fled from that city on the approach of the Germans, is now in the National Gallery at Stockholm. The Swede is adept at the gentle pastime of fishing in troubled waters.
“How did you manage that?”
“The woman where I get my bread recommended me. He’d told her he was looking out for someone to paint him. I’ve got to give her twenty francs.”
“What’s he like?”
“Splendid. He’s got a great red face like a leg of mutton, and on his right cheek there’s an enormous mole with long hairs growing out of it.”
Strickland was in a good humour, and when Dirk Stroeve came up and sat down with us he attacked him with ferocious banter. He showed a skill I should never have credited him with in finding the places where the unhappy Dutchman was most sensitive. Strickland employed not the rapier of sarcasm but the bludgeon of invective. The attack was so unprovoked that Stroeve, taken unawares, was defenceless. He reminded you of a frightened sheep running aimlessly hither and thither. He was startled and amazed. At last the tears ran from his eyes. And the worst of it was that, though you hated Strickland, and the exhibition was horrible, it was impossible not to laugh. Dirk Stroeve was one of those unlucky persons whose most sincere emotions are ridiculous.
But after all when I look back upon that winter in Paris, my pleasantest recollection is of Dirk Stroeve. There was something very charming in his little household. He and his wife made a picture which the imagination gratefully dwelt upon, and the simplicity of his love for her had a deliberate grace. He remained absurd, but the sincerity of his passion excited one’s sympathy. I could understand how his wife must feel for him, and I was glad that her affection was so tender. If she had any sense of humour, it must amuse her that he should place her on a pedestal and worship her with such an honest idolatry, but even while she laughed she must have been pleased and touched. He was the constant lover, and though she grew old, losing her rounded lines and her fair comeliness, to him she would certainly never alter. To him she would always be the loveliest woman in the world. There was a pleasing grace in the orderliness of their lives. They had but the studio, a bedroom, and a tiny kitchen. Mrs. Stroeve did all the housework herself; and while Dirk painted bad pictures, she went marketing, cooked the luncheon, sewed, occupied herself like a busy ant all the day; and in the evening sat in the studio, sewing again, while Dirk played music which I am sure was far beyond her comprehension. He played with taste, but with more feeling than was always justified, and into his music poured all his honest, sentimental, exuberant soul.
Their life in its own way was an idyl, and it managed to achieve a singular beauty. The absurdity that clung to everything connected with Dirk Stroeve gave it a curious note, like an unresolved discord, but made it somehow more modern, more human; like a rough joke thrown into a serious scene, it heightened the poignancy which all beauty has.