The explanation came a week later. It was about ten o’ clock at night; I had been dining by myself at a restaurant, and having returned to my small apartment, was sitting in my parlour, reading I heard the cracked tinkling of the bell, and, going into the corridor, opened the door. Stroeve stood before me.
“Can I come in?” he asked.
In the dimness of the landing I could not see him very well, but there was something in his voice that surprised me. I knew he was of abstemious habit or I should have thought he had been drinking. I led the way into my sitting room and asked him to sit down.
“Thank God I’ve found you,” he said.
“What’s the matter?” I asked in astonishment at his vehemence.
I was able now to see him well. As a rule he was neat in his person, but now his clothes were in disorder. He looked suddenly bedraggled. I was convinced he had been drinking, and I smiled. I was on the point of chaffing him on his state.
“I didn’t know where to go,” he burst out. “I came here earlier, but you weren’t in.”
“I dined late,” I said.
I changed my mind: it was not liquor that had driven him to this obvious desperation. His face, usually so rosy, was now strangely mottled. His hands trembled.
“Has anything happened?” I asked.
“My wife has left me.”
He could hardly get the words out. He gave a little gasp, and the tears began to trickle down his round cheeks. I did not know what to say. My first thought was that she had come to the end of her forbearance with his infatuation for Strickland, and, goaded by the latter’s cynical behaviour, had insisted that he should be turned out. I knew her capable of temper, for all the calmness of her manner; and if Stroeve still refused, she might easily have flung out of the studio with vows never to return. But the little man was so distressed that I could not smile.
“My dear fellow, don’t be unhappy. She’ll come back. You mustn’t take very seriously what women say when they’re in a passion.”
“You don’t understand. She’s in love with Strickland.”
“What!” I was startled at this, but the idea had no sooner taken possession of me than I saw it was absurd. “How can you be so silly? You don’t mean to say you’re jealous of Strickland?” I almost laughed. “You know very well that she can’t bear the sight of him.”
“You don’t understand,” he moaned.
“You’re an hysterical ass,” I said a little impatiently. “Let me give you a whisky-and-soda, and you’ll feel better.”
I supposed that for some reason or other—and Heaven knows what ingenuity men exercise to torment themselves—Dirk had got it into his head that his wife cared for Strickland, and with his genius for blundering he might quite well have offended her so that, to anger him, perhaps, she had taken pains to foster his suspicion.
“Look here,” I said, “let’s go back to your studio. If you’ve made a fool of yourself you must eat humble pie. Your wife doesn’t strike me as the sort of woman to bear malice.”
“How can I go back to the studio?” he said wearily. “They’re there. I’ve left it to them.”
“Then it’s not your wife who’s left you; it’s you who’ve left your wife.”
“For God’s sake don’t talk to me like that.”
Still I could not take him seriously. I did not for a moment believe what he had told me. But he was in very real distress.
“Well, you’ve come here to talk to me about it. You’d better tell me the whole story.”
“This afternoon I couldn’t stand it any more. I went to Strickland and told him I thought he was quite well enough to go back to his own place. I wanted the studio myself.”
“No one but Strickland would have needed telling,” I said. “What did he say?”
“He laughed a little; you know how he laughs, not as though he were amused, but as though you were a damned fool, and said he’d go at once. He began to put his things together. You remember I fetched from his room what I thought he needed, and he asked Blanche for a piece of paper and some string to make a parcel.”
Stroeve stopped, gasping, and I thought he was going to faint. This was not at all the story I had expected him to tell me.
“She was very pale, but she brought the paper and the string. He didn’t say anything. He made the parcel and he whistled a tune. He took no notice of either of us. His eyes had an ironic smile in them. My heart was like lead. I was afraid something was going to happen, and I wished I hadn’t spoken. He looked round for his hat. Then she spoke:
“‘I’m going with Strickland, Dirk,’ she said. ‘I can’t live with you any more.’
“I tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. Strickland didn’t say anything. He went on whistling as though it had nothing to do with him.”
Stroeve stopped again and mopped his face. I kept quite still. I believed him now, and I was astounded. But all the same I could not understand.
Then he told me, in a trembling voice, with the tears pouring down his cheeks, how he had gone up to her, trying to take her in his arms, but she had drawn away and begged him not to touch her. He implored her not to leave him. He told her how passionately he loved her, and reminded her of all the devotion he had lavished upon her. He spoke to her of the happiness of their life. He was not angry with her. He did not reproach her.
“Please let me go quietly, Dirk,” she said at last. “Don’t you understand that I love Strickland? Where he goes I shall go.”
“But you must know that he’ll never make you happy. For your own sake don’t go. You don’t know what you’ve got to look forward to.”
“It’s your fault. You insisted on his coming here.”
He turned to Strickland.
“Have mercy on her,” he implored him. “You can’t let her do anything so mad.”
“She can do as she chooses,” said Strickland. “She’s not forced to come.”
“My choice is made,” she said, in a dull voice.
Strickland’s injurious calm robbed Stroeve of the rest of his self-control. Blind rage seized him, and without knowing what he was doing he flung himself on Strickland. Strickland was taken by surprise and he staggered, but he was very strong, even after his illness, and in a moment, he did not exactly know how, Stroeve found himself on the floor.
“You funny little man,” said Strickland.
Stroeve picked himself up. He noticed that his wife had remained perfectly still, and to be made ridiculous before her increased his humiliation. His spectacles had tumbled off in the struggle, and he could not immediately see them. She picked them up and silently handed them to him. He seemed suddenly to realise his unhappiness, and though he knew he was making himself still more absurd, he began to cry. He hid his face in his hands. The others watched him without a word. They did not move from where they stood.
“Oh, my dear,” he groaned at last, “how can you be so cruel?”
“I can’t help myself, Dirk,” she answered.
“I’ve worshipped you as no woman was ever worshipped before. If in anything I did I displeased you, why didn’t you tell me, and I’d have changed. I’ve done everything I could for you.”
She did not answer. Her face was set, and he saw that he was only boring her. She put on a coat and her hat. She moved towards the door, and he saw that in a moment she would be gone. He went up to her quickly and fell on his knees before her, seizing her hands: he abandoned all self-respect.
“Oh, don’t go, my darling. I can’t live without you; I shall kill myself. If I’ve done anything to offend you I beg you to forgive me. Give me another chance. I’ll try harder still to make you happy.”
“Get up, Dirk. You’re making yourself a perfect fool.”
He staggered to his feet, but still he would not let her go.
“Where are you going?” he said hastily. “You don’t know what Strickland’s place is like. You can’t live there. It would be awful.”
“If I don’t care, I don’t see why you should.”
“Stay a minute longer. I must speak. After all, you can’t grudge me that.”
“What is the good? I’ve made up my mind. Nothing that you can say will make me alter it.”
He gulped, and put his hand to his heart to ease its painful beating.
“I’m not going to ask you to change your mind, but I want you to listen to me for a minute. It’s the last thing I shall ever ask you. Don’t refuse me that.”
She paused, looking at him with those reflective eyes of hers, which now were so different to him. She came back into the studio and leaned against the table.
Stroeve made a great effort to collect himself.
“You must be a little reasonable. You can’t live on air, you know. Strickland hasn’t got a penny.”
“You’ll suffer the most awful privations. You know why he took so long to get well. He was half starved.”
“I can earn money for him.”
“I don’t know. I shall find a way.”
A horrible thought passed through the Dutchman’s mind, and he shuddered.
“I think you must be mad. I don’t know what has come over you.”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Now may I go?”
“Wait one second longer.”
He looked round his studio wearily; he had loved it because her presence had made it gay and homelike; he shut his eyes for an instant; then he gave her a long look as though to impress on his mind the picture of her. He got up and took his hat.
“No; I’ll go.”
She was startled. She did not know what he meant.
“I can’t bear to think of you living in that horrible, filthy attic. After all, this is your home just as much as mine. You’ll be comfortable here. You’ll be spared at least the worst privations.”
He went to the drawer in which he kept his money and took out several bank-notes.
“I would like to give you half what I’ve got here.”
He put them on the table. Neither Strickland nor his wife spoke.
Then he recollected something else.
“Will you pack up my clothes and leave them with the concierge? I’ll come and fetch them to-morrow.” He tried to smile. “Good-bye, my dear. I’m grateful for all the happiness you gave me in the past.”
He walked out and closed the door behind him. With my mind’s eye I saw Strickland throw his hat on a table, and, sitting down, begin to smoke a cigarette.