I did not see him again for nearly a week. Then he fetched me soon after seven one evening and took me out to dinner. He was dressed in the deepest mourning, and on his bowler was a broad black band. He had even a black border to his handkerchief. His garb of woe suggested that he had lost in one catastrophe every relation he had in the world, even to cousins by marriage twice removed. His plumpness and his red, fat cheeks made his mourning not a little incongruous. It was cruel that his extreme unhappiness should have in it something of buffoonery.
He told me he had made up his mind to go away, though not to Italy, as I had suggested, but to Holland.
“I’m starting to-morrow. This is perhaps the last time we shall ever meet.”
I made an appropriate rejoinder, and he smiled wanly.
“I haven’t been home for five years. I think I’d forgotten it all; I seemed to have come so far away from my father’s house that I was shy at the idea of revisiting it; but now I feel it’s my only refuge.”
He was sore and bruised, and his thoughts went back to the tenderness of his mother’s love. The ridicule he had endured for years seemed now to weigh him down, and the final blow of Blanche’s treachery had robbed him of the resiliency which had made him take it so gaily. He could no longer laugh with those who laughed at him. He was an outcast. He told me of his childhood in the tidy brick house, and of his mother’s passionate orderliness. Her kitchen was a miracle of clean brightness. Everything was always in its place, and no where could you see a speck of dust. Cleanliness, indeed, was a mania with her. I saw a neat little old woman, with cheeks like apples, toiling away from morning to night, through the long years, to keep her house trim and spruce. His father was a spare old man, his hands gnarled after the work of a lifetime, silent and upright; in the evening he read the paper aloud, while his wife and daughter (now married to the captain of a fishing smack), unwilling to lose a moment, bent over their sewing. Nothing ever happened in that little town, left behind by the advance of civilisation, and one year followed the next till death came, like a friend, to give rest to those who had laboured so diligently.
“My father wished me to become a carpenter like himself. For five generations we’ve carried on the same trade, from father to son. Perhaps that is the wisdom of life, to tread in your father’s steps, and look neither to the right nor to the left. When I was a little boy I said I would marry the daughter of the harness-maker who lived next door. She was a little girl with blue eyes and a flaxen pigtail. She would have kept my house like a new pin, and I should have had a son to carry on the business after me.”
Stroeve sighed a little and was silent. His thoughts dwelt among pictures of what might have been, and the safety of the life he had refused filled him with longing.
“The world is hard and cruel. We are here none knows why, and we go none knows whither. We must be very humble. We must see the beauty of quietness. We must go through life so inconspicuously that Fate does not notice us. And let us seek the love of simple, ignorant people. Their ignorance is better than all our knowledge. Let us be silent, content in our little corner, meek and gentle like them. That is the wisdom of life.”
To me it was his broken spirit that expressed itself, and I rebelled against his renunciation. But I kept my own counsel.
“What made you think of being a painter?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“It happened that I had a knack for drawing. I got prizes for it at school. My poor mother was very proud of my gift, and she gave me a box of water-colours as a present. She showed my sketches to the pastor and the doctor and the judge. And they sent me to Amsterdam to try for a scholarship, and I won it. Poor soul, she was so proud; and though it nearly broke her heart to part from me, she smiled, and would not show me her grief. She was pleased that her son should be an artist. They pinched and saved so that I should have enough to live on, and when my first picture was exhibited they came to Amsterdam to see it, my father and mother and my sister, and my mother cried when she looked at it.” His kind eyes glistened. “And now on every wall of the old house there is one of my pictures in a beautiful gold frame.”
He glowed with happy pride. I thought of those cold scenes of his, with their picturesque peasants and cypresses and olive-trees. They must look queer in their garish frames on the walls of the peasant house.
“The dear soul thought she was doing a wonderful thing for me when she made me an artist, but perhaps, after all, it would have been better for me if my father’s will had prevailed and I were now but an honest carpenter.”
“Now that you know what art can offer, would you change your life? Would you have missed all the delight it has given you?”
“Art is the greatest thing in the world,” he answered, after a pause.
He looked at me for a minute reflectively; he seemed to hesitate; then he said:
“Did you know that I had been to see Strickland?”
I was astonished. I should have thought he could not bear to set eyes on him. Stroeve smiled faintly.
“You know already that I have no proper pride.”
“What do you mean by that?”
He told me a singular story.