TEXT. A FRIEND IN NEED by William Somerset Maugham (abridged)
Maugham, William Somerset (1874-1965): an English writer. He achieved a great success as a novelist with such novels as "Of Human Bondage", "The Razor's Edge" and others, as a dramatist with Ms witty satirical plays "Our Betters", "The Circle", etc., but he is best known by his short stories.
At the beginning of his literary career Maugham was greatly influenced by French naturalism. Later on, his outlook on life changed. It became cool, unemotional and pessimistic. He says that life is too tragic and senseless to be described. A writer can't change life, he must only try to amuse his reader, stir his imagination. And this is where Maugham achieves perfection: his stories are always fascinating. Maugham's skill in depicting scenes and characters with a few touches is amazing and whether he means it or not his novels, stories and plays reveal the vanity, hypocrisy and brutality of the society he lives in. So does thestory "A Friend in Need". Burton, a prosperous businessman, is not.in the least concerned about the troubles and needs of those who have failed in life. Without a moment's hesitation he sends a man to death just because his presence bores him, and later on he remembers the fact with a "kindly chuckle".
When Maugham described people and places in his short stories, he did it mostly from his personal experience.
"It's rather a funny story," he said. "He wasn't a bad chap. I liked him. He was always well-dressed and smart-looking. He was handsome in a way, with curly hair and pink-andwhite cheeks. Women thought a lot of him. There was no harm in him, you know, he was only wild. Of course he drank too much. Those sort of fellows always do. A bit of money used to come in for him once a quarter and he made a bit more by card-playing. He won a good deal of mine, I know that."
Burton gave a kindly little chuckle. I knew from my own experience that he could lose money at bridge with a good grace.
"I suppose that is why he came to me when he went broke, that and the fact that he was a namesake of mine. He came to see me in my office one day and asked me for a job. I was rather surprised. He told me that there was no more money coming from home and he wanted to work. I asked him how old he was.
"Thirty-five," he said.
"And what have you been doing hitherto?" I asked him.
"Well, nothing very much," he said.
I couldn't help laughing.
"I'm afraid I can't do anything for you just yet," I said. "Come back and see me in another thirty-five years, and I'll see what I can do."
He didn't move. He went rather pale. He hesitated for a moment and then told me that he had had bad luck at cards for some time. He hadn't been willing to stick to bridge, he'd been playing poker, and he'd got trimmed. He hadn't a penny. He'd pawned everything he had. He couldn't pay his hotel bill and they wouldn't give him any more credit. He was down and out. If he couldn't get something to do he'd have to commit suicide.
I looked at him for a bit. I could see now that he was all to pieces. He'd been drinking more than usual and he looked fifty. The girls wouldn't have thought so much of him if they'd seen him then.
"Well, isn't there anything you can do except play cards?" I asked him.
"I can swim," he said.
I could hardly believe my ears; it seemed such an insane answer to give.
"I swam for my university."
I got some glimmering of what he was driving at. I've known too many men who were little tin gods at their university to be impressed by it.
"I was a pretty good swimmer myself when I was a young man," I said.
Suddenly I had an idea.
Pausing in his story, Burton turned to me.
"Do you know Kobe?" he asked.
"No," I said, "I passed through it once, but I only spent a night there."
"Then you don't know the Shioya Club. When I was a young man I swam from there round the beacon and landed at the creek of Tarumi. It's over three miles and it's rather difficult on account of the currents round the beacon. Well, I told my young namesake about it and I said to him that if he'd do it I'd give him a job. I could see he was rather taken aback.
"You say you're a swimmer," I said.
"I'm not in very good condition," he answered.
I didn't say anything. I shrugged my shoulders. He looked at me for a moment and then he nodded.
"All right," he said. "When do you want me to do it?"
I looked at my watch. It was just after ten.
"The swim shouldn't take you much over an hour and a quarter. I'll drive round to the creek at half past twelve and meet you. I'll take you back to the club to dress and then we'll have lunch together,"
"Done," he said.
We shook hands. I wished him good luck and he left me. I had a lot of work to do that morning and I only just managed to get to the creek at Tarumi at half past twelve. But I needn't have hurried; he never turned up."
"Did he funk it at toe last moment?" I asked.
"No, he didn't funk it. He started all right. But of course he'd ruined his constitution by drink and dissipation. The currents round the beacon were more than he could manage. We didn't get the body for about three days."
I didn't say anything for a moment or two, I was a trifle shocked. Then I asked Burton a question.
"When you made him that offer of a job, did you know he'd be drowned?"
He gave a little mild chuckle and he looked at me with those kind and candid blue eyes of his. He rubbed his chin with his hand.
"Well, I hadn't got a vacancy in my office at the moment."