The Light That Failed, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter X

 What’s you that follows at my side? —
 The foe that ye must fight, my lord. —
 That hirples swift as I can ride? —
 The shadow of the night, my lord. —
 Then wheel my horse against the foe! —
 He’s down and overpast, my lord.

 Ye war against the sunset glow;
 The darkness gathers fast, my lord.

 — The Fight of Heriot’s Ford.

‘THIS is a cheerful life,’ said Dick, some days later. ‘Torp’s away; Bessie hates me; I can’t get at the notion of the Melancolia; Maisie’s letters are scrappy; and I believe I have indigestion. What give a man pains across the head and spots before his eyes, Binkie? Shall us take some liver pills?’

Dick had just gone through a lively scene with Bessie. She had for the fiftieth time reproached him for sending Torpenhow away. She explained her enduring hatred for Dick, and made it clear to him that she only sat for the sake of his money. ‘And Mr. Torpenhow’s ten times a better man than you,’ she concluded.

‘He is. That’s why he went away. I should have stayed and made love to you.’

The girl sat with her chin on her hand, scowling. ‘To me! I’d like to catch you! If I wasn’t afraid o’ being hung I’d kill you. That’s what I’d do.

D’you believe me?’

Dick smiled wearily. It is not pleasant to live in the company of a notion that will not work out, a fox-terrier that cannot talk, and a woman who talks too much. He would have answered, but at that moment there unrolled itself from one corner of the studio a veil, as it were, of the flimsiest gauze. He rubbed his eyes, but the gray haze would not go.

‘This is disgraceful indigestion. Binkie, we will go to a medicine-man. We can’t have our eyes interfered with, for by these we get our bread; also mutton-chop bones for little dogs.’

The doctor was an affable local practitioner with white hair, and he said nothing till Dick began to describe the gray film in the studio.

‘We all want a little patching and repairing from time to time,’ he chirped. ‘Like a ship, my dear sir — exactly like a ship. Sometimes the hull is out of order, and we consult the surgeon; sometimes the rigging, and then I advise; sometimes the engines, and we go to the brain-specialist; sometimes the look-out on the bridge is tired, and then we see an oculist. I should recommend you to see an oculist. A little patching and repairing from time to time is all we want. An oculist, by all means.’

Dick sought an oculist — the best in London. He was certain that the local practitioner did not know anything about his trade, and more certain that Maisie would laugh at him if he were forced to wear spectacles.

‘I’ve neglected the warnings of my lord the stomach too long. Hence these spots before the eyes, Binkie. I can see as well as I ever could.’

As he entered the dark hall that led to the consulting-room a man cannoned against him. Dick saw the face as it hurried out into the street.

‘That’s the writer-type. He has the same modelling of the forehead as Torp. He looks very sick. Probably heard something he didn’t like.’

Even as he thought, a great fear came upon Dick, a fear that made him hold his breath as he walked into the oculist’s waiting room, with the heavy carved furniture, the dark-green paper, and the sober-hued prints on the wall. He recognised a reproduction of one of his own sketches.

Many people were waiting their turn before him. His eye was caught by a flaming red-and-gold Christmas-carol book. Little children came to that eye-doctor, and they needed large-type amusement.

‘That’s idolatrous bad Art,’ he said, drawing the book towards himself.

‘From the anatomy of the angels, it has been made in Germany.’ He opened in mechanically, and there leaped to his eyes a verse printed in red ink —

 The next good joy that Mary had,
 It was the joy of three,
 To see her good Son Jesus Christ
 Making the blind to see;
 Making the blind to see, good Lord,
 And happy we may be.

 Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
 To all eternity!

Dick read and re-read the verse till his turn came, and the doctor was bending above him seated in an arm-chair. The blaze of the gas-microscope in his eyes made him wince. The doctor’s hand touched the scar of the sword-cut on Dick’s head, and Dick explained briefly how he had come by it. When the flame was removed, Dick saw the doctor’s face, and the fear came upon him again. The doctor wrapped himself in a mist of words. Dick caught allusions to ‘scar,’ ‘frontal bone,’ ‘optic nerve,’ ‘extreme caution,’ and the ‘avoidance of mental anxiety.’

‘Verdict?’ he said faintly. ‘My business is painting, and I daren’t waste time. What do you make of it?’

Again the whirl of words, but this time they conveyed a meaning.

‘Can you give me anything to drink?’

Many sentences were pronounced in that darkened room, and the prisoners often needed cheering. Dick found a glass of liqueur brandy in his hand.

‘As far as I can gather,’ he said, coughing above the spirit, ‘you call it decay of the optic nerve, or something, and therefore hopeless. What is my time-limit, avoiding all strain and worry?’

‘Perhaps one year.’

‘My God! And if I don’t take care of myself?’

‘I really could not say. One cannot ascertain the exact amount of injury inflicted by the sword-cut. The scar is an old one, and — exposure to the strong light of the desert, did you say? — with excessive application to fine work? I really could not say?’

‘I beg your pardon, but it has come without any warning. If you will let me, I’ll sit here for a minute, and then I’ll go. You have been very good in telling me the truth. Without any warning; without any warning.

Thanks.’

Dick went into the street, and was rapturously received by Binkie.

‘We’ve got it very badly, little dog! Just as badly as we can get it. We’ll go to the Park to think it out.’

They headed for a certain tree that Dick knew well, and they sat down to thin, because his legs were trembling under him and there was cold fear at the pit of his stomach.

‘How could it have come without any warning? It’s as sudden as being shot. It’s the living death, Binkie. We’re to be shut up in the dark in one year if we’re careful, and we shan’t see anybody, and we shall never have anything we want, not though we live to be a hundred!’ Binkie wagged his tail joyously. ‘Binkie, we must think. Let’s see how it feels to be blind.’ Dick shut his eyes, and flaming commas and Catherine-wheels floated inside the lids. Yet when he looked across the Park the scope of his vision was not contracted. He could see perfectly, until a procession of slow-wheeling fireworks defiled across his eyeballs.

‘Little dorglums, we aren’t at all well. Let’s go home. If only Torp were back, now!’

But Torpenhow was in the south of England, inspecting dockyards in the company of the Nilghai. His letters were brief and full of mystery.

Dick had never asked anybody to help him in his joys or his sorrows. He argued, in the loneliness of his studio, henceforward to be decorated with a film of gray gauze in one corner, that, if his fate were blindness, all the Torpenhows in the world could not save him. ‘I can’t call him off his trip to sit down and sympathise with me. I must pull through this business alone,’ he said. He was lying on the sofa, eating his moustache and wondering what the darkness of the night would be like. Then came to his mind the memory of a quaint scene in the Soudan. A soldier had been nearly hacked in two by a broad-bladed Arab spear. For one instant the man felt no pain. Looking down, he saw that his life-blood was going from him. The stupid bewilderment on his face was so intensely comic that both Dick and Torpenhow, still panting and unstrung from a fight for life, had roared with laughter, in which the man seemed as if he would join, but, as his lips parted in a sheepish grin, the agony of death came upon him, and he pitched grunting at their feet. Dick laughed again, remembering the horror. It seemed so exactly like his own case.

‘But I have a little more time allowed me,’ he said. He paced up and down the room, quietly at first, but afterwards with the hurried feet of fear. It was as though a black shadow stood at his elbow and urged him to go forward; and there were only weaving circles and floating pin-dots before his eyes.

‘We need to be calm, Binkie; we must be calm.’ He talked aloud for the sake of distraction. ‘This isn’t nice at all. What shall we do? We must do something. Our time is short. I shouldn’t have believed that this morning; but now things are different. Binkie, where was Moses when the light went out?’

Binkie smiled from ear to ear, as a well-bred terrier should, but made no suggestion.

‘“Were there but world enough and time, This coyness, Binkie, were not crime. . . . But at my back I always hear ——”’ He wiped his forehead, which was unpleasantly damp. ‘What can I do? What can I do? I haven’t any notions left, and I can’t think connectedly, but I must do something, or I shall go off my head.’

The hurried walk recommenced, Dick stopping every now and again to drag forth long-neglected canvases and old note-books; for he turned to his work by instinct, as a thing that could not fail. ‘You won’t do, and you won’t do,’ he said, at each inspection. ‘No more soldiers. I couldn’t paint ’em. Sudden death comes home too nearly, and this is battle and murder for me.’

The day was failing, and Dick thought for a moment that the twilight of the blind had come upon him unaware. ‘Allah Almighty!’ he cried despairingly, ‘help me through the time of waiting, and I won’t whine when my punishment comes. What can I do now, before the light goes?’

There was no answer. Dick waited till he could regain some sort of control over himself. His hands were shaking, and he prided himself on their steadiness; he could feel that his lips were quivering, and the sweat was running down his face. He was lashed by fear, driven forward by the desire to get to work at once and accomplish something, and maddened by the refusal of his brain to do more than repeat the news that he was about to go blind. ‘It’s a humiliating exhibition,’ he thought, ‘and I’m glad Torp isn’t here to see. The doctor said I was to avoid mental worry.

Come here and let me pet you, Binkie.’

The little dog yelped because Dick nearly squeezed the bark out of him.

Then he heard the man speaking in the twilight, and, doglike, understood that his trouble stood off from him —‘Allah is good, Binkie. Not quite so gentle as we could wish, but we’ll discuss that later. I think I see my way to it now. All those studies of Bessie’s head were nonsense, and they nearly brought your master into a scrape. I hold the notion now as clear as crystal — “the Melancolia that transcends all wit.” There shall be Maisie in that head, because I shall never get Maisie; and Bess, of course, because she knows all about Melancolia, though she doesn’t know she knows; and there shall be some drawing in it, and it shall all end up with a laugh. That’s for myself. Shall she giggle or grin? No, she shall laugh right out of the canvas, and every man and woman that ever had a sorrow of their own shall — what is it the poem says? —

 ‘Understand the speech and feel a stir
 Of fellowship in all disastrous fight.

“In all disastrous fight”? That’s better than painting the thing merely to pique Maisie. I can do it now because I have it inside me. Binkie, I’m going to hold you up by your tail. You’re an omen. Come here.’

Binkie swung head downward for a moment without speaking.

‘Rather like holding a guinea-pig; but you’re a brave little dog, and you don’t yelp when you’re hung up. It is an omen.’

Binkie went to his own chair, and as often as he looked saw Dick walking up and down, rubbing his hands and chuckling. That night Dick wrote a letter to Maisie full of the tenderest regard for her health, but saying very little about his own, and dreamed of the Melancolia to be born. Not till morning did he remember that something might happen to him in the future.

He fell to work, whistling softly, and was swallowed up in the clean, clear joy of creation, which does not come to man too often, lest he should consider himself the equal of his God, and so refuse to die at the appointed time. He forgot Maisie, Torpenhow, and Binkie at his feet, but remembered to stir Bessie, who needed very little stirring, into a tremendous rage, that he might watch the smouldering lights in her eyes.

He threw himself without reservation into his work, and did not think of the doom that was to overtake him, for he was possessed with his notion, and the things of this world had no power upon him.

‘You’re pleased today,’ said Bessie.

Dick waved his mahl-stick in mystic circles and went to the sideboard for a drink. In the evening, when the exaltation of the day had died down, he went to the sideboard again, and after some visits became convinced that the eye-doctor was a liar, since he could still see everything very clearly.

He was of opinion that he would even make a home for Maisie, and that whether she liked it or not she should be his wife. The mood passed next morning, but the sideboard and all upon it remained for his comfort.

Again he set to work, and his eyes troubled him with spots and dashes and blurs till he had taken counsel with the sideboard, and the Melancolia both on the canvas and in his own mind appeared lovelier than ever. There was a delightful sense of irresponsibility upon him, such as they feel who walking among their fellow-men know that the death-sentence of disease is upon them, and, seeing that fear is but waste of the little time left, are riotously happy. The days passed without event.

Bessie arrived punctually always, and, though her voice seemed to Dick to come from a distance, her face was always very near. The Melancolia began to flame on the canvas, in the likeness of a woman who had known all the sorrow in the world and was laughing at it. It was true that the corners of the studio draped themselves in gray film and retired into the darkness, that the spots in his eyes and the pains across his head were very troublesome, and that Maisie’s letters were hard to read and harder still to answer. He could not tell her of his trouble, and he could not laugh at her accounts of her own Melancolia which was always going to be finished. But the furious days of toil and the nights of wild dreams made amends for all, and the sideboard was his best friend on earth.

Bessie was singularly dull. She used to shriek with rage when Dick stared at her between half-closed eyes. Now she sulked, or watched him with disgust, saying very little.

Torpenhow had been absent for six weeks. An incoherent note heralded his return. ‘News! great news!’ he wrote. ‘The Nilghai knows, and so does the Keneu. We’re all back on Thursday. Get lunch and clean your accoutrements.’

Dick showed Bessie the letter, and she abused him for that he had ever sent Torpenhow away and ruined her life.

‘Well,’ said Dick, brutally, ‘you’re better as you are, instead of making love to some drunken beast in the street.’ He felt that he had rescued Torpenhow from great temptation.

‘I don’t know if that’s any worse than sitting to a drunken beast in a studio. You haven’t been sober for three weeks. You’ve been soaking the whole time; and yet you pretend you’re better than me!’

‘What d’you mean?’ said Dick.

‘Mean! You’ll see when Mr. Torpenhow comes back.’

It was not long to wait. Torpenhow met Bessie on the staircase without a sign of feeling. He had news that was more to him than many Bessies, and the Keneu and the Nilghai were trampling behind him, calling for Dick.

‘Drinking like a fish,’ Bessie whispered. ‘He’s been at it for nearly a month.’ She followed the men stealthily to hear judgment done.

They came into the studio, rejoicing, to be welcomed over effusively by a drawn, lined, shrunken, haggard wreck — unshaven, blue-white about the nostrils, stooping in the shoulders, and peering under his eyebrows nervously. The drink had been at work as steadily as Dick.

‘Is this you?’ said Torpenhow.

‘All that’s left of me. Sit down. Binkie’s quite well, and I’ve been doing some good work.’ He reeled where he stood.

‘You’ve done some of the worst work you’ve ever done in your life. Man alive, you’re ——’

Torpenhow turned to his companions appealingly, and they left the room to find lunch elsewhere. Then he spoke; but, since the reproof of a friend is much too sacred and intimate a thing to be printed, and since Torpenhow used figures and metaphors which were unseemly, and contempt untranslatable, it will never be known what was actually said to Dick, who blinked and winked and picked at his hands. After a time the culprit began to feel the need of a little self-respect. He was quite sure that he had not in any way departed from virtue, and there were reasons, too, of which Torpenhow knew nothing. He would explain.

He rose, tried to straighten his shoulders, and spoke to the face he could hardly see.

‘You are right,’ he said. ‘But I am right, too. After you went away I had some trouble with my eyes. So I went to an oculist, and he turned a gasogene — I mean a gas-engine — into my eye. That was very long ago. He said, “Scar on the head — sword-cut and optic nerve.” Make a note of that. So I am going blind. I have some work to do before I go blind, and I suppose that I must do it. I cannot see much now, but I can see best when I am drunk. I did not know I was drunk till I was told, but I must go on with my work. If you want to see it, there it is.’ He pointed to the all but finished Melancolia and looked for applause.

Torpenhow said nothing, and Dick began to whimper feebly, for joy at seeing Torpenhow again, for grief at misdeeds — if indeed they were misdeeds — that made Torpenhow remote and unsympathetic, and for childish vanity hurt, since Torpenhow had not given a word of praise to his wonderful picture.

Bessie looked through the keyhole after a long pause, and saw the two walking up and down as usual, Torpenhow’s hand on Dick’s shoulder.

Hereat she said something so improper that it shocked even Binkie, who was dribbling patiently on the landing with the hope of seeing his master again.

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