William S. Maugham
The lives of most men are determined by their environment. They accept the circumstancesamid which fate has thrown them not only with resignation but even with good will. They arelike streetcars running contentedly on their rails and they despise the sprightly flivver thatdashes in and out of the traffic and speeds so jauntily across the open country. I respectthem;they are good citizens, good husbands, and good fathers, and of course somebody hasto pay the taxes; but I do not find them exciting. I am fascinated by the men, few enough in allconscience, who take life in their own hands and seem to mould it to their own liking. It may bethat we have no such thing as free will, but at all events we have the illusion ofit. At acrossroad it does seem to us that we might go either to the right or the left and, the choiceonce made, it is difficult to see that the whole course of the world's history obliged us to takethe turning we did.
I never met a more interesting man than Mayhew. He was a lawyerin Detroit. He was an able anda successful one. By the time he was thirty-five he had a large and a lucrative praaice, he hadamassed a competence, and he stood on the threshold of a distinguished career. He had ana cute brain, anattractive personality, and uprightness. There was no reason why he shouldnot become, financially or politically, a power in the land. One evening he was sitting in his clubwith a group of friends and they were perhaps a little worse (or the better) for liquor. One ofthem had recently come from Italy and he told them of a house he had seen at Capri, a houseon the hill, overlooking the Bay of Naples, with a large and shady garden. He described to themthe beauty of the most beautifulisland in the Mediterranean.
"It sounds fine," said Mayhew. "Is that house for sale?"
"Everything is for sale in Italy."
"Let's send'em a cable and make an offer for it."
"What in heaven's name would you do with a house in Capri?"
"Live in it," said Mayhew.
He sent for a cable form, wrote it out, and dispatched it. In a few hours the reply came back.The offer was accepted.
Mayhew was no hypocrite and he made no secret of the fact that he would never have done sowild a thing if he had been sober, but when he was he did not regret it. He was neither animpulsive nor an emotional man, but a very honest and sincere one. He would never havecontinued from bravado in a course that he had come to the conclusion was unwise. Hemade up his mind to do exactly as he had said. He did not care for wealth and he had enoughmoney on which to live in Italy. He thought he could do more with life than spend it oncomposing the trivial quarrels of unimportant people.
He had no definite plan. He merely wanted to get away from a life that had given him allit hadto offer. I suppose his friends thought him crazy; some must have done all they could todissuade him. He arranged his affairs, packed up his ffirniture, and started.
Capri is a gaunt rock of austere outline, bathed in a deep blue sea; but its vineyards, greenand smiling, give it a soft and easy grace. It is friendly,remote, and debonair. I find it strangethat Mayhew should have settled on this lovely island, for I never knew a man more insensibleto beauty I do not know what he sought there: happiness, freedom, or merely leisure; I knowwhat he found. In this place which appeals so extravagantly to the senses he lived a life entirelyof the spirit. For the island is rich with historic associations and over it broods always theenigmatic memory of Tiberius the Emperor. From his windows which overlooked the Bay ofNaples, with the noble shape of Vesuvius changing colour with the changing light, Mayhew saw ahundred places that recalled the Romans and the Greeks. The past began to haunt him. All thathe saw for the first time, for he had never been abroad before, excited his fancy; and in his soulstirred the creative imagination. He was a man of energy. Presently he made up his mind towrite a history. For some time he looked about for a subject, and at last decided on the secondcentury of the Roman Empire. It was little known and it seemed to him to offer problemsanalogous with those of our own day.
He began to collect books and soon he had an immense library. His legal training had taughthim to read quickly. He settled down to work. At first hehad been accustomed to foregather inthe evening with the painters, writers,and such like who met in the little tavern near the Piazza,but presently hewithdrew himself, for his absorption in his studies became more pressing. Hehad been accustomed to bathe in that bland sea and to take long walks among the pleasantvineyards, butlittle by little, grudging the time, he ceased to do so. He worked harder than hehad ever worked in Detroit. He would start at noon and work all through the night till thewhistle of the steamer that goes every morning from Capri to Naples told him that it was fiveo'clockand time to go to bed. His subject opened out before him, vaster and more significant,and he imagined a work that would put him forever beside the great historians of the past. Asthe years went by he was to be found seldom in the ways of men. He could be tempted to comeout of his house only by agame o' chess or the chance of an argument. He loved to set hisbrain against another's. He was widely read now, not only in history, but in philosophy andscience; and he was a skilful controversialist, quick, logical, and incisive.
But he had good-humour and kindliness; though he took a very human pleasure in victory, hedid not exult in it to your mortification.
When first he came to the island he was a big, brawny.fellow, with thick black hair and a blackbeard, of a powerful physique; but gradually his skin became pale and waxy; he grew thin andfrail. It was an odd contradiction in the most logical of men that, though a convinced andimpetuous materialist,he despised the body; he looked upon it as a vile instrument which hecould force to do the spirit's bidding. Neither illness nor lassitude prevented him from going onwith his work. For fourteen years he toiled uluemittingly. He made thousands and thousands ofnotes. He sorted and classified them. Hehad his subjea at his finger ends, and at last was readyto begin. He sat down to write. He died.
The body that he, the materialist, had treated so contumeliously took its revenge on him.
That vast accumulation of knowledge is lost for ever. Vain was that ambition,surely not anignoble one, to set his name beside those of -Gibbon and Mommsen . His memory is treasuredin the hearts of a few friends, fewer,alas! as the years pass on, and to the world he isunknown in death as he was in life.
And yet to me his life was a success. The pattern is good and complete. Hedid what he wanted,and he died when his goal was in sight and never knew the bitterness of an end achieved.