The Favorite Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham
“Stop that noise,” he cried. “I won’t have him play the piano in my house.”
Muriel rang for a servant and gave him a message.
“Will you tell Mr Bland that her ladyship has a bad headache and would he mind not playing the piano.”
Ferdy, the man of the world, was deputed to have a talk with George. He was authorized to make him certain promises if he would give up the idea of becoming a pianist. If he did not wish to go into the diplomatic service his father would not insist, but if he would stand for Parliament he was prepared to pay his election expenses, give him a flat in London, and make him an allowance of five thousand a year. I must say it was a handsome offer. I do not know what Ferdy said to the boy. I suppose he painted to him the life that a young man could lead in London on such an income. I am sure he made it very alluring. It availed nothing. All George asked was five pounds a week to be able to continue his studies and to be left alone. He was indifferent to the position that he might some day enjoy. He didn’t want to hunt. He didn’t want to shoot. He didn’t want to be a Member of Parliament. He didn’t want to be a millionaire. He didn’t want to be a baronet. He didn’t want to be a peer. Ferdy left him defeated and in a state of considerable exasperation.
After dinner that evening there was a battle royal. Freddy was a quick-tempered man, unused to opposition, and he gave George the rough side of his tongue. I gather that it was very rough indeed. The women who sought to restrain his violence were sternly silenced. Perhaps for the first time in his life Freddy would not listen to his mother. George was obstinate and sullen. He had made up his mind and if his father didn’t like it he could lump it. Freddy was peremptory. He forbade George to go back to Germany. George answered that he was twenty-one and his own master. He would go where he chose. Freddy swore he would not give him a penny.
“All right, I’ll earn money.”
“You! You’ve never done a stroke of work in your life. What do you expect to do to earn money?”
“Sell old clothes,” grinned George.
There was a gasp from all of them. Muriel was so taken aback that she said a stupid thing.
“Like a Jew?”
“Well, aren’t I a Jew? And aren’t you a Jewess and isn’t daddy a Jew? We’re all Jews, the whole gang of us, and everyone knows it and what the hell’s the good of pretending we’re not?”
Then a very dreadful thing happened. Freddy burst suddenly into tears. I’m afraid he didn’t behave very much like Sir Adolphus Bland, Bart, M.P., and the good old English gentleman he so much wanted to be, but like an emotional Adolf Bleikogel who loved his son and wept with mortification because the great hopes he had set on him were brought to nothing and the ambition of his life was frustrated. He cried noisily with great loud sobs and pulled his beard and beat his breast and rocked to and fro. Then they all began to cry, old Lady Bland and Muriel, and Ferdy, who sniffed and blew his nose and wiped the tears streaming down his face, and even George cried. Of course it was very painful, but to our rough Anglo-Saxon temperament I am afraid it must seem also a trifle ridiculous. No one tried to console anybody else. They just sobbed and sobbed. It broke up the party.
But it had no result on the situation. George remained obdurate. His father would not speak to him. There were more scenes. Muriel sought to excite his pity; he was deaf to her piteous entreaties, he did not seem to mind if he broke her heart, he did not care two hoots if he killed his father. Ferdy appealed to him as a sportsman and a man of the world. George was flippant and indeed personally offensive. Old Lady Bland with her guttural German accent and strong common sense argued with him, but he would not listen to reason. It was she, however, who at last found a way out. She made George acknowledge that it was no use to throw away all the beautiful things the world laid at his feet unless he had talent. Of course he thought he had, but he might be mistaken. It was not worth while to be a second-rate pianist. His only excuse, his only justification, was genius. If he had genius his family had no right to stand in his way.
“You can’t expect me to show genius already,” said George. “I shall have to work for years.”
“Are you sure you are prepared for that?”
“It’s my only wish in the world. I’ll work like a dog. I only want to be given my chance.”
This was the proposition she made. His father was determined to give him nothing and obviously they could not let the boy starve. He had mentioned five pounds a week. Well, she was willing to give him that herself. He could go back to Germany and study for two years. At the end of that time he must come back and they would get some competent and disinterested person to hear him play, and if then that person said he showed promise of becoming a first-rate pianist no further obstacles would be placed in his way. He would be given every advantage, help, and encouragement. If on the other hand that person decided that his natural gifts were not such as to ensure ultimate success he must promise faithfully to give up all thoughts of making music his profession and in every way accede to his father’s wishes. George could hardly believe his ears.
“Do you mean that, Granny?”
“But will daddy agree?”
“I vill see dat he does,” she answered.
George seized her in his arms and impetuously kissed her on both cheeks.
“Darling,” he cried. “Ah, but de promise?”
He gave her his solemn word of honour that he would faithfully abide by the terms of the arrangement. Two days later he went back to Germany. Though his father consented unwillingly to his going, and indeed could not help doing so, he would not be reconciled to him and when he left refused to say good-bye to him.
I imagine that in no manner could he have caused himself such pain. I permit myself a trite remark. It is strange that men, inhabitants for so short a while of an alien and inhuman world, should go out of their way to cause themselves so much unhappiness.
George had stipulated that during his two years of study his family should not visit him, so that when Muriel heard some months before he was due to come home that I was passing through Munich on my way to Vienna, whither business called me, it was not unnatural that she should ask me to look him up. She was anxious to have first-hand information about him. She gave me
George’s address and I wrote ahead, telling him I was spending a day in Munich, and asked him to lunch with me. His answer awaited me at the hotel. He said he worked all day and could not spare the time to lunch with me, but if I would come to his studio about six he would like to show me that and if I had nothing better to do would love to spend the evening with me. So soon after six I went to the address he gave me. He lived on the second floor of a large block of flats and when I came to his door I heard the sound of piano-playing. It stopped when I rang and George opened the door for me. I hardly recognized him. He had grown very fat. His hair was extremely long, it curled all over his head in picturesque confusion; and he had certainly not shaved for three days. He wore a grimy pair of Oxford bags, a tennis shirt, and slippers. He was not very clean and his finger-nails were rimmed with black. It was a startling change from the spruce, slim youth so elegantly dressed in such beautiful clothes that I had last seen. I could not but think it would be a shock to Ferdy to see him now. The studio was large and bare; on the walls were three or four unframed canvases of a highly cubist nature, there were several arm-chairs much the worse for wear, and a grand piano. Books were littered about and old newspapers and art magazines. It was dirty and untidy and there was a frowzy smell of stale beer and stale smoke.
“Do you live here alone?” I asked.
“Yes, I have a woman who comes in twice a week and cleans up. But I make my own breakfast and lunch.”
“Can you cook?”
“Oh, I only have bread and cheese and a bottle of beer for lunch. I dine at a Bierstube.”
It was pleasant to discover that he was very glad to see me. He seemed in great spirits and extremely happy. He asked after his relations
“That’s a change,” I said.
“Daddy said I was born tired. I wasn’t really lazy. I didn’t see the use of working at things that bored me.”
I asked him how he was getting on with the piano. He seemed to be satisfied with his progress and I begged him to play to me.
“Oh, not now, I’m all in, I’ve been at it all day. Let’s go out and dine and come back here later and then I’ll play. I generally go to the same place, there are several students I know there, and it’s rather fun.”
Presently we set out. He put on socks and shoes and a very old golf coat, and we walked together through the wide quiet streets. It was a brisk cold day. His step was buoyant. He looked round him with a sigh of delight.
“I love Munich,” he said. “It’s the only city in the world where there’s art in the very air you breathe. After all, art is the only thing that matters, isn’t it? I loathe the idea of going home.”
“All the same I’m afraid you’ll have to.”
“I know. I’ll go all right, but I’m not going to think about it till the time comes.”
“When you do, you might do worse than get a haircut. If you don’t mind my saying so you look almost too artistic to be convincing.”
“You English, you’re such Philistines,” he said.
He took me to a rather large restaurant in a side street, crowded even at that early hour with people dining, and furnished heavily in the German medieval style. A table covered with a red cloth, well away from the air, was reserved for George and his friends and when we went to it four or five youths were at it. There was a Pole studying Oriental languages, a student of philosophy, a painter (I suppose the author of George’s cubist pictures), a Swede, and a young man who introduced himself to me, clicking his heels, as Hans Reiting, Dichter, namely Hans Reiting, poet. Not one of them was more than twenty-two and I felt a trifle out of it. They all addressed George as du and I noticed that his German was extremely fluent. I had not spoken it for some time and mine was rusty, so that I could not take much part in the lively conversation. But nevertheless I thoroughly enjoyed myself. They ate sparingly, but drank a good deal of beer. They talked of art and women. They were very revolutionary and though gay very much in earnest. They were contemptuous of everyone you had ever heard of, and the only point on which they all agreed was that in this topsy-turvy world only the vulgar could hope for success. They argued points of technique with animation, and contradicted one another, and shouted and were obscene. They had a grand time.
At about eleven George and I walked back to his studio. Munich is a city that frolics demurely and except about the Marienplatz the streets were still and empty. When we got in he took off his coat and said:
“Now I’ll play to you.”
I sat in one of the dilapidated arm-chairs and a broken spring stuck into my behind, but I made myself as comfortable as I could. George played Chopin. I know very little of music and that is one of the reasons for which I have found this story difficult to write. When I go to a concert at the Queen’s Hall and in the intervals read the programme it is all Greek to me. I know nothing of harmony and counterpoint. I shall never forget how humiliated I felt once when, having come to Munich for a Wagner festival, I went to a wonderful performance of Tristan und Isolde and never heard a note of it. The first few bars sent me off and I began to think of what I was writing, my characters leapt into life and I heard their long conversations, I suffered their pains and was a party to their joy; the years swept by and all sorts of things happened to me, the spring brought me its rapture and in the winter I was cold and hungry; and I loved and I hated and I died. I suppose there were intervals in which I walked round and round the garden and probably ate Schinken-Brodchen and drank beer, but I have no recollection of them. The only thing I know is that when the curtain for the last time fell I woke with a start. I had had a wonderful time, but I could not help thinking it was very stupid of me to come such a long way and spend so much money if I couldn’t pay attention to what I heard and saw.
I knew most of the things George played. They were the familiar pieces of concert programmes. He played with a great deal of dash. Then he played Beethoven’s Appassionata. I used to play it myself when I played the piano (very badly) in my far distant youth and I still knew every note of it. Of course it is a classic and a great work, it would be foolish to deny it, but I confess that at this time of day it leaves me cold. It is like Paradise Lost, splendid, but a trifle stolid. This too George played with vigour. He sweated profusely. At first I could not make out what was the matter with his playing, something did not seem to me quite right, and then it struck me that the two hands did not exactly synchronize, so that there was ever so slight an interval between the bass and the treble; but I repeat, I am ignorant of these things; what disconcerted me might have been merely the effect of his having drunk a good deal of beer that evening or indeed only my fancy. I said all I could think of to praise him.
“Of course I know I need a lot more work. I’m only a beginner, but I know I can do it. I feel it in my bones. It’ll take me ten years, but then I shall be a pianist.”
He was tired and came away from the piano. It was after midnight and I suggested going, but he would not hear of it. He opened a couple of bottles of beer and lit his pipe. He wanted to talk.
“Are you happy here?” I asked him.
“Very,” he answered gravely. “I’d like to stay for ever. I’ve never had such fun in my life. This evening, for instance. Wasn’t it grand?”
“It was very jolly. But one can’t go on leading the student’s life. Your friends here will grow older and go away.”
“Others’ll come. There are always students here and people like that.”
“Yes, but you’ll grow older too. Is there anything more lamentable than the middle-aged man who tries to go on living the undergraduate’s life? The old fellow who wants to be a boy among boys, and tries to persuade himself that they’ll accept him as one of themselves-how ridiculous he is. It can’t be done.”
“I feel so at home here. My poor father wants me to be an English gentleman. It gives me gooseflesh. I’m not a sportsman. I don’t care a damn for hunting and shooting and playing cricket. I was only acting.”
“You gave a very natural performance.”
“It wasn’t till I came here that I knew it wasn’t real. I loved Eton, and Oxford was a riot, but all the same I knew I didn’t belong. I played the part all right, because acting’s in my blood, but there was always something in me that wasn’t satisfied. The house in Grosvenor Square is a freehold and daddy paid a hundred and eighty thousand pounds for Tilby; I don’t know if you understand what I mean, I felt they were just furnished houses we’d taken for the season and one of these days we’d pack up and the real owners would come back.”
I listened to him attentively, but I wondered how much he was describing what he had obscurely felt and how much he imagined now in his changed circumstances that he had felt.
“I used to hate hearing great-uncle Ferdy tell his Jewish stories. I thought it so damned mean. I understand now; it was a safety valve. My God, the strain of being a man about town. It’s easier for daddy, he can play the old English squire at Tilby, but in the City he can be himself. He’s all right. I’ve taken the make-up off and my stage clothes and at last I can be my real self too. What a relief! You know, I don’t like English people. I never really know where I am with you. You’re so dull and conventional. You never let yourselves go. There’s no freedom in you, freedom of the soul, and you’re such funks. There’s nothing in the world you’re so frightened of as doing the wrong thing.”
“Don’t forget that you’re English yourself, George,” I murmured.
“I? I’m not English. I haven’t got a drop of English blood in me
“You’ll break your father’s heart,” I said.
“It’s his or mine. Why can’t he let me go? There’s Harry. Harry would love to be squire of Tilby. He’d be an English gentleman all right. You know, mummy’s set her heart on my marrying a Christian. Harry would love to. He’ll found the good old English family all right. After all, I ask so little. I only want five pounds a week, and they can keep the title and the park and the Gainsboroughs and the whole bag of tricks.”
“Well, the fact remains that you gave your solemn word of honour to go back after two years.”
“I’ll go back all right,” he said sullenly. “Lea Makart has promised to come and hear me play.”
“What’ll you do if she says you’re no good?”