Presently we left him. Dirk was going home to dinner, and I proposed to find a doctor and bring him to see Strickland; but when we got down into the street, fresh after the stuffy attic, the Dutchman begged me to go immediately to his studio. He had something in mind which he would not tell me, but he insisted that it was very necessary for me to accompany him. Since I did not think a doctor could at the moment do any more than we had done, I consented. We found Blanche Stroeve laying the table for dinner. Dirk went up to her, and took both her hands.
“Dear one, I want you to do something for me,” he said.
She looked at him with the grave cheerfulness which was one of her charms. His red face was shining with sweat, and he had a look of comic agitation, but there was in his round, surprised eyes an eager light.
“Strickland is very ill. He may be dying. He is alone in a filthy attic, and there is not a soul to look after him. I want you to let me bring him here.”
She withdrew her hands quickly, I had never seen her make so rapid a movement; and her cheeks flushed.
“Oh, my dear one, don’t refuse. I couldn’t bear to leave him where he is. I shouldn’t sleep a wink for thinking of him.”
“I have no objection to your nursing him.”
Her voice was cold and distant.
“But he’ll die.”
Stroeve gave a little gasp. He wiped his face. He turned to me for support, but I did not know what to say.
“He’s a great artist.”
“What do I care? I hate him.”
“Oh, my love, my precious, you don’t mean that. I beseech you to let me bring him here. We can make him comfortable. Perhaps we can save him. He shall be no trouble to you. I will do everything. We’ll make him up a bed in the studio. We can’t let him die like a dog. It would be inhuman.”
“Why can’t he go to a hospital?”
“A hospital! He needs the care of loving hands. He must be treated with infinite tact.”
I was surprised to see how moved she was. She went on laying the table, but her hands trembled.
“I have no patience with you. Do you think if you were ill he would stir a finger to help you?”
“But what does that matter? I should have you to nurse me. It wouldn’t be necessary. And besides, I’m different; I’m not of any importance.”
“You have no more spirit than a mongrel cur. You lie down on the ground and ask people to trample on you.”
Stroeve gave a little laugh. He thought he understood the reason of his wife’s attitude.
“Oh, my poor dear, you’re thinking of that day he came here to look at my pictures. What does it matter if he didn’t think them any good? It was stupid of me to show them to him. I dare say they’re not very good.”
He looked round the studio ruefully. On the easel was a half-finished picture of a smiling Italian peasant, holding a bunch of grapes over the head of a dark-eyed girl.
“Even if he didn’t like them he should have been civil. He needn’t have insulted you. He showed that he despised you, and you lick his hand. Oh, I hate him.”
“Dear child, he has genius. You don’t think I believe that I have it. I wish I had; but I know it when I see it, and I honour it with all my heart. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world. It’s a great burden to its possessors. We should be very tolerant with them, and very patient.”
I stood apart, somewhat embarrassed by the domestic scene, and wondered why Stroeve had insisted on my coming with him. I saw that his wife was on the verge of tears.
“But it’s not only because he’s a genius that I ask you to let me bring him here; it’s because he’s a human being, and he is ill and poor.”
“I will never have him in my house—never.”
Stroeve turned to me.
“Tell her that it’s a matter of life and death. It’s impossible to leave him in that wretched hole.”
“It’s quite obvious that it would be much easier to nurse him here,” I said, “but of course it would be very inconvenient. I have an idea that someone will have to be with him day and night.”
“My love, it’s not you who would shirk a little trouble.”
“If he comes here, I shall go,” said Mrs. Stroeve violently.
“I don’t recognize you. You’re so good and kind.”
“Oh, for goodness sake, let me be. You drive me to distraction.”
Then at last the tears came. She sank into a chair, and buried her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook convulsively. In a moment Dirk was on his knees beside her, with his arms round her, kissing her, calling her all sorts of pet names, and the facile tears ran down his own cheeks. Presently she released herself and dried her eyes.
“Leave me alone,” she said, not unkindly; and then to me, trying to smile: “What must you think of me?”
Stroeve, looking at her with perplexity, hesitated. His forehead was all puckered, and his red mouth set in a pout. He reminded me oddly of an agitated guinea-pig.
“Then it’s No, darling?” he said at last.
She gave a gesture of lassitude. She was exhausted.
“The studio is yours. Everything belongs to you. If you want to bring him here, how can I prevent you?”
A sudden smile flashed across his round face.
“Then you consent? I knew you would. Oh, my precious.”
Suddenly she pulled herself together. She looked at him with haggard eyes. She clasped her hands over her heart as though its beating were intolerable.
“Oh, Dirk, I’ve never since we met asked you to do anything for me.”
“You know there’s nothing in the world that I wouldn’t do for you.”
“I beg you not to let Strickland come here. Anyone else you like. Bring a thief, a drunkard, any outcast off the streets, and I promise you I’ll do everything I can for them gladly. But I beseech you not to bring Strickland here.”
“I’m frightened of him. I don’t know why, but there’s something in him that terrifies me. He’ll do us some great harm. I know it. I feel it. If you bring him here it can only end badly.”
“But how unreasonable!”
“No, no. I know I’m right. Something terrible will happen to us.”
“Because we do a good action?”
She was panting now, and in her face was a terror which was inexplicable. I do not know what she thought. I felt that she was possessed by some shapeless dread which robbed her of all self-control. As a rule she was so calm; her agitation now was amazing. Stroeve looked at her for a while with puzzled consternation.
“You are my wife; you are dearer to me than anyone in the world. No one shall come here without your entire consent.”
She closed her eyes for a moment, and I thought she was going to faint. I was a little impatient with her; I had not suspected that she was so neurotic a woman. Then I heard Stroeve’s voice again. It seemed to break oddly on the silence.
“Haven’t you been in bitter distress once when a helping hand was held out to you? You know how much it means. Couldn’t you like to do someone a good turn when you have the chance?”
The words were ordinary enough, and to my mind there was in them something so hortatory that I almost smiled. I was astonished at the effect they had on Blanche Stroeve. She started a little, and gave her husband a long look. His eyes were fixed on the ground. I did not know why he seemed embarrassed. A faint colour came into her cheeks, and then her face became white—more than white, ghastly; you felt that the blood had shrunk away from the whole surface of her body; and even her hands were pale. A shiver passed through her. The silence of the studio seemed to gather body, so that it became an almost palpable presence. I was bewildered.
“Bring Strickland here, Dirk. I’ll do my best for him.”
“My precious,” he smiled.
He wanted to take her in his arms, but she avoided him.
“Don’t be affectionate before strangers, Dirk,” she said. “It makes me feel such a fool.”
Her manner was quite normal again, and no one could have told that so shortly before she had been shaken by such a great emotion.