The Light That Failed, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter I

  So we settled it all when the storm was done
  As comf’y as comf’y could be;
  And I was to wait in the barn, my dears,
  Because I was only three;
  And Teddy would run to the rainbow’s foot,
  Because he was five and a man;
  And that’s how it all began, my dears,
  And that’s how it all began.

  — Big Barn Stories.

‘WHAT do you think she’d do if she caught us? We oughtn’t to have it, you know,’ said Maisie.

‘Beat me, and lock you up in your bedroom,’ Dick answered, without hesitation. ‘Have you got the cartridges?’

‘Yes; they’re in my pocket, but they are joggling horribly. Do pin-fire cartridges go off of their own accord?’

‘Don’t know. Take the revolver, if you are afraid, and let me carry them.’

‘I’m not afraid.’ Maisie strode forward swiftly, a hand in her pocket and her chin in the air. Dick followed with a small pin-fire revolver.

The children had discovered that their lives would be unendurable without pistol-practice. After much forethought and self-denial, Dick had saved seven shillings and sixpence, the price of a badly constructed Belgian revolver. Maisie could only contribute half a crown to the syndicate for the purchase of a hundred cartridges. ‘You can save better than I can, Dick,’ she explained; ‘I like nice things to eat, and it doesn’t matter to you. Besides, boys ought to do these things.’

Dick grumbled a little at the arrangement, but went out and made the purchase, which the children were then on their way to test. Revolvers did not lie in the scheme of their daily life as decreed for them by the guardian who was incorrectly supposed to stand in the place of a mother to these two orphans. Dick had been under her care for six years, during which time she had made her profit of the allowances supposed to be expended on his clothes, and, partly through thoughtlessness, partly through a natural desire to pain — she was a widow of some years anxious to marry again — had made his days burdensome on his young shoulders.

Where he had looked for love, she gave him first aversion and then hate.

Where he growing older had sought a little sympathy, she gave him ridicule. The many hours that she could spare from the ordering of her small house she devoted to what she called the home-training of Dick Heldar. Her religion, manufactured in the main by her own intelligence and a keen study of the Scriptures, was an aid to her in this matter. At such times as she herself was not personally displeased with Dick, she left him to understand that he had a heavy account to settle with his Creator; wherefore Dick learned to loathe his God as intensely as he loathed Mrs. Jennett; and this is not a wholesome frame of mind for the young. Since she chose to regard him as a hopeless liar, but an economical and self-contained one, never throwing away the least unnecessary fib, and never hesitating at the blackest, were it only plausible, that might make his life a little easier. The treatment taught him at least the power of living alone — a power that was of service to him when he went to a public school and the boys laughed at his clothes, which were poor in quality and much mended. In the holidays he returned to the teachings of Mrs. Jennett, and, that the chain of discipline might not be weakened by association with the world, was generally beaten, on one account or another, before he had been twelve hours under her roof.

The autumn of one year brought him a companion in bondage, a long-haired, gray-eyed little atom, as self-contained as himself, who moved about the house silently and for the first few weeks spoke only to the goat that was her chiefest friend on earth and lived in the back-garden. Mrs. Jennett objected to the goat on the grounds that he was unChristian — which he certainly was. ‘Then,’ said the atom, choosing her words very deliberately, ‘I shall write to my lawyer-peoples and tell them that you are a very bad woman. Amomma is mine, mine, mine!’ Mrs. Jennett made a movement to the hall, where certain umbrellas and canes stood in a rack. The atom understood as clearly as Dick what this meant. ‘I have been beaten before,’ she said, still in the same passionless voice; ‘I have been beaten worse than you can ever beat me. If you beat me I shall write to my lawyer-peoples and tell them that you do not give me enough to eat. I am not afraid of you.’ Mrs. Jennett did not go into the hall, and the atom, after a pause to assure herself that all danger of war was past, went out, to weep bitterly on Amomma’s neck.

Dick learned to know her as Maisie, and at first mistrusted her profoundly, for he feared that she might interfere with the small liberty of action left to him. She did not, however; and she volunteered no friendliness until Dick had taken the first steps. Long before the holidays were over, the stress of punishment shared in common drove the children together, if it were only to play into each other’s hands as they prepared lies for Mrs. Jennett’s use. When Dick returned to school, Maisie whispered, ‘Now I shall be all alone to take care of myself; but,’ and she nodded her head bravely, ‘I can do it. You promised to send Amomma a grass collar. Send it soon.’ A week later she asked for that collar by return of post, and wa not pleased when she learned that it took time to make. When at last Dick forwarded the gift, she forgot to thank him for it.

Many holidays had come and gone since that day, and Dick had grown into a lanky hobbledehoy more than ever conscious of his bad clothes. Not for a moment had Mrs. Jennett relaxed her tender care of him, but the average canings of a public school — Dick fell under punishment about three times a month — filled him with contempt for her powers. ‘She doesn’t hurt,’ he explained to Maisie, who urged him to rebellion, ‘and she is kinder to you after she has whacked me.’ Dick shambled through the days unkempt in body and savage in soul, as the smaller boys of the school learned to know, for when the spirit moved him he would hit them, cunningly and with science. The same spirit made him more than once try to tease Maisie, but the girl refused to be made unhappy. ‘We are both miserable as it is,’ said she. ‘What is the use of trying to make things worse? Let’s find things to do, and forget things.’

The pistol was the outcome of that search. It could only be used on the muddiest foreshore of the beach, far away from the bathing-machines and pierheads, below the grassy slopes of Fort Keeling. The tide ran out nearly two miles on that coast, and the many-coloured mud-banks, touched by the sun, sent up a lamentable smell of dead weed. It was late in the afternoon when Dick and Maisie arrived on their ground, Amomma trotting patiently behind them.

‘Mf!’ said Maisie, sniffing the air. ‘I wonder what makes the sea so smelly? I don’t like it!’

‘You never like anything that isn’t made just for you,’ said Dick bluntly. ‘Give me the cartridges, and I’ll try first shot. How far does one of these little revolvers carry?’

‘Oh, half a mile,’ said Maisie, promptly. ‘At least it makes an awful noise. Be careful with the cartridges; I don’t like those jagged stick-up things on the rim. Dick, do be careful.’

‘All right. I know how to load. I’ll fire at the breakwater out there.’

He fired, and Amomma ran away bleating. The bullet threw up a spurt of mud to the right of the wood-wreathed piles.

‘Throws high and to the right. You try, Maisie. Mind, it’s loaded all round.’

Maisie took the pistol and stepped delicately to the verge of the mud, her hand firmly closed on the butt, her mouth and left eye screwed up.

Dick sat down on a tuft of bank and laughed. Amomma returned very cautiously. He was accustomed to strange experiences in his afternoon walks, and, finding the cartridge-box unguarded, made investigations with his nose. Maisie fired, but could not see where the bullet went.

‘I think it hit the post,’ she said, shading her eyes and looking out across the sailless sea.

‘I know it has gone out to the Marazion Bell-buoy,’ said Dick, with a chuckle. ‘Fire low and to the left; then perhaps you’ll get it. Oh, look at Amomma! — he’s eating the cartridges!’

Maisie turned, the revolver in her hand, just in time to see Amomma scampering away from the pebbles Dick threw after him. Nothing is sacred to a billy-goat. Being well fed and the adored of his mistress, Amomma had naturally swallowed two loaded pin-fire cartridges. Maisie hurried up to assure herself that Dick had not miscounted the tale.

‘Yes, he’s eaten two.’

‘Horrid little beast! Then they’ll joggle about inside him and blow up, and serve him right. . . . Oh, Dick! have I killed you?’

Revolvers are tricky things for young hands to deal with. Maisie could not explain how it had happened, but a veil of reeking smoke separated her from Dick, and she was quite certain that the pistol had gone off in his face. Then she heard him sputter, and dropped on her knees beside him, crying, ‘Dick, you aren’t hurt, are you? I didn’t mean it.’

‘Of course you didn’t, said Dick, coming out of the smoke and wiping his cheek. ‘But you nearly blinded me. That powder stuff stings awfully.’ A neat little splash of gray led on a stone showed where the bullet had gone. Maisie began to whimper.

‘Don’t,’ said Dick, jumping to his feet and shaking himself. ‘I’m not a bit hurt.’

‘No, but I might have killed you,’ protested Maisie, the corners of her mouth drooping. ‘What should I have done then?’

‘Gone home and told Mrs. Jennett.’ Dick grinned at the thought; then, softening, ‘Please don’t worry about it. Besides, we are wasting time.

We’ve got to get back to tea. I’ll take the revolver for a bit.’

Maisie would have wept on the least encouragement, but Dick’s indifference, albeit his hand was shaking as he picked up the pistol, restrained her. She lay panting on the beach while Dick methodically bombarded the breakwater. ‘Got it at last!’ he exclaimed, as a lock of weed flew from the wood.

‘Let me try,’ said Maisie, imperiously. ‘I’m all right now.’

They fired in turns till the rickety little revolver nearly shook itself to pieces, and Amomma the outcast — because he might blow up at any moment — browsed in the background and wondered why stones were thrown at him. Then they found a balk of timber floating in a pool which was commanded by the seaward slope of Fort Keeling, and they sat down together before this new target.

‘Next holidays,’ said Dick, as the now thoroughly fouled revolver kicked wildly in his hand, ‘we’ll get another pistol — central fire — that will carry farther.’

‘There won’t b any next holidays for me,’ said Maisie. ‘I’m going away.’

‘Where to?’

‘I don’t know. My lawyers have written to Mrs. Jennett, and I’ve got to be educated somewhere — in France, perhaps — I don’t know where; but I shall be glad to go away.’

‘I shan’t like it a bit. I suppose I shall be left. Look here, Maisie, is it really true you’re going? Then these holidays will be the last I shall see anything of you; and I go back to school next week. I wish ——’

The young blood turned his cheeks scarlet. Maisie was picking grass-tufts and throwing them down the slope at a yellow sea-poppy nodding all by itself to the illimitable levels of the mud-flats and the milk-white sea beyond.

‘I wish,’ she said, after a pause, ‘that I could see you again sometime.

You wish that, too?’

‘Yes, but it would have been better if — if — you had — shot straight over there — down by the breakwater.’

Maisie looked with large eyes for a moment. And this was the boy who only ten days before had decorated Amomma’s horns with cut-paper ham-frills and turned him out, a bearded derision, among the public ways! Then she dropped her eyes: this was not the boy.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said reprovingly, and with swift instinct attacked the side-issue. ‘How selfish you are! Just think what I should have felt if that horrid thing had killed you! I’m quite miserable enough already.’

‘Why? Because you’re going away from Mrs. Jennett?’

‘No.’

‘From me, then?’

No answer for a long time. Dick dared not look at her. He felt, though he did not know, all that the past four years had been to him, and this the more acutely since he had no knowledge to put his feelings in words.

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I suppose it is.’

‘Maisie, you must know. I’m not supposing.’

‘Let’s go home,’ said Maisie, weakly.

But Dick was not minded to retreat.

‘I can’t say things,’ he pleaded, ‘and I’m awfully sorry for teasing you about Amomma the other day. It’s all different now, Maisie, can’t you see? And you might have told me that you were going, instead of leaving me to find out.’

‘You didn’t. I did tell. Oh, Dick, what’s the use of worrying?’

‘There isn’t any; but we’ve been together years and years, and I didn’t know how much I cared.’

‘I don’t believe you ever did care.’

‘No, I didn’t; but I do — I care awfully now, Maisie,’ he gulped — ‘Maisie, darling, say you care too, please.’

‘I do, indeed I do; but it won’t be any use.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I am going away.’

‘Yes, but if you promise before you go. Only say — will you?’ A second ‘darling’ came to his lips more easily than the first. There were few endearments in Dick’s home or school life; he had to find them by instinct. Dick caught the little hand blackened with the escaped gas of the revolver.

‘I promise,’ she said solemnly; ‘but if I care there is no need for promising.’

‘And do you care?’ For the first time in the past few minutes their eyes met and spoke for them who had no skill in speech. . . .

‘Oh, Dick, don’t! Please don’t! It was all right when we said good-morning; but now it’s all different!’ Amomma looked on from afar.

He had seen his property quarrel frequently, but he had never seen kisses exchanged before. The yellow sea-poppy was wiser, and nodded its head approvingly. Considered as a kiss, that was a failure, but since it was the first, other than those demanded by duty, in all the world that either had ever given or taken, it opened to them new worlds, and every one of them glorious, so that they were lifted above the consideration of any worlds at all, especially those in which tea is necessary, and sat still, holding each other’s hands and saying not a word.

‘You can’t forget now,’ said Dick, at last. There was that on his cheek that stung more than gunpowder.

‘I shouldn’t have forgotten anyhow,’ said Maisie, and they looked at each other and saw that each was changed from the companion of an hour ago to a wonder and a mystery they could not understand. The sun began to set, and a night-wind thrashed along the bents of the foreshore.

‘We shall be awfully late for tea,’ said Maisie. ‘Let’s go home.’

‘Let’s use the rest of the cartridges first,’ said Dick; and he helped Maisie down the slope of the fort to the sea — a descent that she was quite capable of covering at full speed. Equally gravely Maisie took the grimy hand. Dick bent forward clumsily; Maisie drew the hand away, and Dick blushed.

‘It’s very pretty,’ he said.

‘Pooh!’ said Maisie, with a little laugh of gratified vanity. She stood close to Dick as he loaded the revolver for the last time and fired over the sea with a vague notion at the back of his head that he was protecting Maisie from all the evils in the world. A puddle far across the mud caught the last rays of the sun and turned into a wrathful red disc. The light held Dick’s attention for a moment, and as he raised his revolver there fell upon him a renewed sense of the miraculous, in that he was standing by Maisie who had promised to care for him for an indefinite length of time till such date as —— A gust of the growing wind drove the girl’s long black hair across his face as she stood with her hand on his shoulder calling Amomma ‘a little beast,’ and for a moment he was in the dark — a darkness that stung. The bullet went singing out to the empty sea.

‘Spoilt my aim,’ said he, shaking his head. ‘There aren’t any more cartridges; we shall have to run home.’ But they did not run. They walked very slowly, arm in arm. And it was a matter of indifference to them whether the neglected Amomma with two pin-fire cartridges in his inside blew up or trotted beside them; for they had come into a golden heritage and were disposing of it with all the wisdom of all their years.

‘And I shall be ——’ quoth Dick, valiantly. Then he checked himself: ‘I don’t know what I shall be. I don’t seem to be able to pass any exams, but I can make awful caricatures of the masters. Ho! Ho!’

‘Be an artist, then,’ said Maisie. ‘You’re always laughing at my trying to draw; and it will do you good.’

‘I’ll never laugh at anything you do,’ he answered. ‘I’ll be an artist, and I’ll do things.’

‘Artists always want money, don’t they?’

‘I’ve got a hundred and twenty pounds a year of my own. My guardians tell me I’m to have it when I come of age. That will be enough to begin with.’

‘Ah, I’m rich,’ said Maisie. ‘I’ve got three hundred a year all my own when I’m twenty-one. That’s why Mrs. Jennett is kinder to me than she is to you. I wish, though, that I had somebody that belonged to me — just a father or a mother.’

‘You belong to me,’ said Dick, ‘for ever and ever.’

‘Yes, we belong — for ever. It’s very nice.’ She squeezed his arm. The kindly darkness hid them both, and, emboldened because he could only just see the profile of Maisie’s cheek with the long lashes veiling the gray eyes, Dick at the front door delivered himself of the words he had been boggling over for the last two hours.

‘And I— love you, Maisie,’ he said, in a whisper that seemed to him to ring across the world — the world that he would tomorrow or the next day set out to conquer.

There was a scene, not, for the sake of discipline, to be reported, when Mrs. Jennett would have fallen upon him, first for disgraceful unpunctuality, and secondly for nearly killing himself with a forbidden weapon.

‘I was playing with it, and it went off by itself,’ said Dick, when the powder-pocked cheek could no longer be hidden, ‘but if you think you’re going to lick me you’re wrong. You are never going to touch me again.

Sit down and give me my tea. You can’t cheat us out of that, anyhow.’

Mrs. Jennett gasped and became livid. Maisie said nothing, but encouraged Dick with her eyes, and he behaved abominably all that evening. Mrs. Jennett prophesied an immediate judgment of Providence and a descent into Tophet later, but Dick walked in Paradise and would not hear. Only when he was going to bed Mrs. Jennett recovered and asserted herself. He had bidden Maisie good-night with down-dropped eyes and from a distance.

‘If you aren’t a gentleman you might try to behave like one,’ said Mrs.

Jennett, spitefully. ‘You’ve been quarrelling with Maisie again.’

This meant that the usual good-night kiss had been omitted. Maisie, white to the lips, thrust her cheek forward with a fine air of indifference, and was duly pecked by Dick, who tramped out of the room red as fire. That night he dreamed a wild dream. He had won all the world and brought it to Maisie in a cartridge-box, but she turned it over with her foot, and, instead of saying ‘Thank you,’ cried —‘Where is the grass collar you promised for Amomma? Oh, how selfish you are!’

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38