The Light That Failed, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter XI

 The lark will make her hymn to God,
 The partridge call her brood,
 While I forget the heath I trod,
 The fields wherein I stood.

 ’Tis dule to know not night from morn,
 But deeper dule to know
 I can but hear the hunter’s horn
 That once I used to blow.

 — The Only Son.

IT WAS the third day after Torpenhow’s return, and his heart was heavy.

‘Do you mean to tell me that you can’t see to work without whiskey? It’s generally the other way about.’

‘Can a drunkard swear on his honour?’ said Dick.

‘Yes, if he has been as god a man as you.’

‘Then I give you my word of honour,’ said Dick, speaking hurriedly through parched lips. ‘Old man, I can hardly see your face now. You’ve kept me sober for two days — if I ever was drunk — and I’ve done no work.

Don’t keep me back any more. I don’t know when my eyes may give out.

The spots and dots and the pains and things are crowding worse than ever. I swear I can see all right when I’m — when I’m moderately screwed, as you say. Give me three more sittings from Bessie and all — the stuff I want, and the picture will be done. I can’t kill myself in three days. It only means a touch of D. T. at the worst.’

‘If I give you three days more will you promise me to stop work and — the other thing, whether the picture’s finished or not?’

‘I can’t. You don’t know what that picture means to me. But surely you could get the Nilghai to help you, and knock me down and tie me up. I shouldn’t fight for the whiskey, but I should for the work.’

‘Go on, then. I give you three days; but you’re nearly breaking my heart.’

Dick returned to his work, toiling as one possessed; and the yellow devil of whiskey stood by him and chased away the spots in his eyes. The Melancolia was nearly finished, and was all or nearly all that he had hoped she would be. Dick jested with Bessie, who reminded him that he was ‘a drunken beast’; but the reproof did not move him.

‘You can’t understand, Bess. We are in sight of land now, and soon we shall lie back and think about what we’ve done. I’ll give you three months’ pay when the picture’s finished, and next time I have any more work in hand — but that doesn’t matter. Won’t three months’ pay make you hate me less?’

‘No, it won’t! I hate you, and I’ll go on hating you. Mr. Torpenhow won’t speak to me any more. He’s always looking at maps.’

Bessie did not say that she had again laid siege to Torpenhow, or that at the end of our passionate pleading he had picked her up, given her a kiss, and put her outside the door with the recommendation not to be a little fool. He spent most of his time in the company of the Nilghai, and their talk was of war in the near future, the hiring of transports, and secret preparations among the dockyards. He did not wish to see Dick till the picture was finished.

‘He’s doing first-class work,’ he said to the Nilghai, ‘and it’s quite out of his regular line. But, for the matter of that, so’s his infernal soaking.’

‘Never mind. Leave him alone. When he has come to his senses again we’ll carry him off from this place and let him breathe clean air. Poor Dick! I don’t envy you, Torp, when his eyes fail.’

‘Yes, it will be a case of “God help the man who’s chained to our Davie.” The worst is that we don’t know when it will happen, and I believe the uncertainty and the waiting have sent Dick to the whiskey more than anything else.’

‘How the Arab who cut his head open would grin if he knew!’

‘He’s at perfect liberty to grin if he can. He’s dead. That’s poor consolation now.’

In the afternoon of the third day Torpenhow heard Dick calling for him.

‘All finished!’ he shouted. ‘I’ve done it! Come in! Isn’t she a beauty? Isn’t she a darling? I’ve been down to hell to get her; but isn’t she worth it?’

Torpenhow looked at the head of a woman who laughed — a full-lipped, hollow-eyed woman who laughed from out of the canvas as Dick had intended she would.

‘Who taught you how to do it?’ said Torpenhow. ‘The touch and notion have nothing to do with your regular work. What a face it is! What eyes, and what insolence!’ Unconsciously he threw back his head and laughed with her. ‘She’s seen the game played out — I don’t think she had a good time of it — and now she doesn’t care. Isn’t that the idea?’

‘Exactly.’

‘Where did you get the mouth and chin from? They don’t belong to Bess.’

‘They’re — some one else’s. But isn’t it good? Isn’t it thundering good? Wasn’t it worth the whiskey? I did it. Alone I did it, and it’s the best I can do.’ He drew his breath sharply, and whispered, ‘Just God! what could I not do ten years hence, if I can do this now! — By the way, what do you think of it, Bess?’

The girl was biting her lips. She loathed Torpenhow because he had taken no notice of her.

‘I think it’s just the horridest, beastliest thing I ever saw,’ she answered, and turned away.

‘More than you will be of that way of thinking, young woman. — Dick, there’s a sort of murderous, viperine suggestion in the poise of the head that I don’t understand,’ said Torpenhow.

That’s trick-work,’ said Dick, chuckling with delight at being completely understood. ‘I couldn’t resist one little bit of sheer swagger. It’s a French trick, and you wouldn’t understand; but it’s got at by slewing round the head a trifle, and a tiny, tiny foreshortening of one side of the face from the angle of the chin to the top of the left ear. That, and deepening the shadow under the lobe of the ear. It was flagrant trick-work; but, having the notion fixed, I felt entitled to play with it — Oh, you beauty!’

‘Amen! She is a beauty. I can feel it.’

‘So will every man who has any sorrow of his own,’ said Dick, slapping his thigh. ‘He shall see his trouble there, and, by the Lord Harry, just when he’s feeling properly sorry for himself he shall throw back his head and laugh — as she is laughing. I’ve put the life of my heart and the light of my eyes into her, and I don’t care what comes. . . . I’m tired — awfully tired. I think I’ll get to sleep. Take away the whiskey, it has served its turn, and give Bessie thirty-six quid, and three over for luck. Cover the picture.’

He dropped asleep in the long chair, hid face white and haggard, almost before he had finished the sentence. Bessie tried to take Torpenhow’s hand. ‘Aren’t you never going to speak to me any more?’ she said; but Torpenhow was looking at Dick.

‘What a stock of vanity the man has! I’ll take him in hand tomorrow and make much of him. He deserves it. — Eh! what was that, Bess?’

‘Nothing. I’ll put things tidy here a little, and then I’ll go. You couldn’t give the that three months’ pay now, could you? He said you were to.’

Torpenhow gave her a check and went to his own rooms. Bessie faithfully tidied up the studio, set the door ajar for flight, emptied half a bottle of turpentine on a duster, and began to scrub the face of the Melancolia viciously. The paint did not smudge quickly enough. She took a palette-knife and scraped, following each stroke with the wet duster. In five minutes the picture was a formless, scarred muddle of colours. She threw the paint-stained duster into the studio stove, stuck out her tongue at the sleeper, and whispered, ‘Bilked!’ as she turned to run down the staircase. She would never see Torpenhow any more, but she had at least done harm to the man who had come between her and her desire and who used to make fun of her. Cashing the check was the very cream of the jest to Bessie. Then the little privateer sailed across the Thames, to be swallowed up in the gray wilderness of South-the-Water.

Dick slept till late in the evening, when Torpenhow dragged him off to bed. His eyes were as bright as his voice was hoarse. ‘Let’s have another look at the picture,’ he said, insistently as a child.

‘You — go — to — bed,’ said Torpenhow. ‘You aren’t at all well, though you mayn’t know it. You’re as jumpy as a cat.’

‘I reform tomorrow. Good-night.’

As he repassed through the studio, Torpenhow lifted the cloth above the picture, and almost betrayed himself by outcries: ‘Wiped out! — scraped out and turped out! He’s on the verge of jumps as it is. That’s Bess — the little fiend! Only a woman could have done that!-with the ink not dry on the check, too! Dick will be raving mad tomorrow. It was all my fault for trying to help gutter-devils. Oh, my poor Dick, the Lord is hitting you very hard!’

Dick could not sleep that night, partly for pure joy, and partly because the well-known Catherine-wheels inside his eyes had given place to crackling volcanoes of many-coloured fire. ‘Spout away,’ he said aloud.

‘I’ve done my work, and now you can do what you please.’ He lay still, staring at the ceiling, the long-pent-up delirium of drink in his veins, his brain on fire with racing thoughts that would not stay to be considered, and his hands crisped and dry. He had just discovered that he was painting the face of the Melancolia on a revolving dome ribbed with millions of lights, and that all his wondrous thoughts stood embodied hundreds of feet below his tiny swinging plank, shouting together in his honour, when something cracked inside his temples like an overstrained bowstring, the glittering dome broke inward, and he was alone in the thick night.

‘I’ll go to sleep. The room’s very dark. Let’s light a lamp and see how the Melancolia looks. There ought to have been a moon.’

It was then that Torpenhow heard his name called by a voice that he did not know — in the rattling accents of deadly fear.

‘He’s looked at the picture,’ was his first thought, as he hurried into the bedroom and found Dick sitting up and beating the air with his hands.

‘Torp! Torp! where are you? For pity’s sake, come to me!’

‘What’s the matter?’

Dick clutched at his shoulder. ‘Matter! I’ve been lying here for hours in the dark, and you never heard me. Torp, old man, don’t go away. I’m all in the dark. In the dark, I tell you!’

Torpenhow held the candle within a foot of Dick’s eyes, but there was no light in those eyes. He lit the gas, and Dick heard the flame catch. The grip of his fingers on Torpenhow’s shoulder made Torpenhow wince.

‘Don’t leave me. You wouldn’t leave me alone now, would you? I can’t see. D’you understand? It’s black — quite black — and I feel as if I was falling through it all.’

‘Steady does it.’ Torpenhow put his arm round Dick and began to rock him gently to and fro.

‘That’s good. Now don’t talk. If I keep very quiet for a while, this darkness will lift. It seems just on the point of breaking. H’sh!’ Dick knit his brows and stared desperately in front of him. The night air was chilling Torpenhow’s toes.

‘Can you stay like that a minute?’ he said. ‘I’ll get my dressing-gown and some slippers.’

Dick clutched the bed-head with both hands and waited for the darkness to clear away. ‘What a time you’ve been!’ he cried, when Torpenhow returned. ‘It’s as black as ever. What are you banging about in the door-way?’

‘Long chair — horse-blanket — pillow. Going to sleep by you. Lie down now; you’ll be better in the morning.’

‘I shan’t!’ The voice rose to a wail. ‘My God! I’m blind! I’m blind, and the darkness will never go away.’ He made as if to leap from the bed, but Torpenhow’s arms were round him, and Torpenhow’s chin was on his shoulder, and his breath was squeezed out of him. He could only gasp, ‘Blind!’ and wriggle feebly.

‘Steady, Dickie, steady!’ said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. ‘Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid,’ The grip could draw no closer. Both men were breathing heavily.

Dick threw his head from side to side and groaned.

‘Let me go,’ he panted. ‘You’re cracking my ribs. We-we mustn’t let them think we’re afraid, must we — all the powers of darkness and that lot?’

‘Lie down. It’s all over now.’

‘Yes,’ said Dick, obediently. ‘But would you mind letting me hold your hand? I feel as if I wanted something to hold on to. One drops through the dark so.’

Torpenhow thrust out a large and hairy paw from the long chair. Dick clutched it tightly, and in half an hour had fallen asleep. Torpenhow withdrew his hand, and, stooping over Dick, kissed him lightly on the forehead, as men do sometimes kiss a wounded comrade in the hour of death, to ease his departure.

In the gray dawn Torpenhow heard Dick talking to himself. He was adrift on the shoreless tides of delirium, speaking very quickly —‘It’s a pity — a great pity; but it’s helped, and it must be eaten, Master George. Sufficient unto the day is the blindness thereof, and, further, putting aside all Melancolias and false humours, it is of obvious notoriety — such as mine was — that the queen can do no wrong. Torp doesn’t know that. I’ll tell him when we’re a little farther into the desert.

What a bungle those boatmen are making of the steamer-ropes! They’ll have that four-inch hawser chafed through in a minute. I told you so — there she goes! White foam on green water, and the steamer slewing round. How good that looks! I’ll sketch it. No, I can’t. I’m afflicted with ophthalmia. That was one of the ten plagues of Egypt, and it extends up the Nile in the shape of cataract. Ha! that’s a joke, Torp. Laugh, you graven image, and stand clear of the hawser. . . . It’ll knock you into the water and make your dress all dirty, Maisie dear.’

‘Oh!’ said Torpenhow. ‘This happened before. That night on the river.’

‘She’ll be sure to say it’s my fault if you get muddy, and you’re quite near enough to the breakwater. Maisie, that’s not fair. Ah! I knew you’d miss.

Low and to the left, dear. But you’ve no conviction. Don’t be angry, darling. I’d cut my hand off if it would give you anything more than obstinacy. My right hand, if it would serve.’

‘Now we mustn’t listen. Here’s an island shouting across seas of misunderstanding with a vengeance. But it’s shouting truth, I fancy,’ said Torpenhow.

The babble continued. It all bore upon Maisie. Sometimes Dick lectured at length on his craft, then he cursed himself for his folly in being enslaved. He pleaded to Maisie for a kiss — only one kiss — before she went away, and called to her to come back from Vitry-sur-Marne, if she would; but through all his ravings he bade heaven and earth witness that the queen could do no wrong.

Torpenhow listened attentively, and learned every detail of Dick’s life that had been hidden from him. For three days Dick raved through the past, and then a natural sleep. ‘What a strain he has been running under, poor chap!’ said Torpenhow. ‘Dick, of all men, handing himself over like a dog! And I was lecturing him on arrogance! I ought to have known that it was no use to judge a man. But I did it. What a demon that girl must be! Dick’s given her his life — confound him! — and she’s given him one kiss apparently.’

‘Torp,’ said Dick, from the bed, ‘go out for a walk. You’ve been here too long. I’ll get up. Hi! This is annoying. I can’t dress myself. Oh, it’s too absurd!’

Torpenhow helped him into his clothes and led him to the big chair in the studio. He sat quietly waiting under strained nerves for the darkness to lift. It did not lift that day, nor the next. Dick adventured on a voyage round the walls. He hit his shins against the stove, and this suggested to him that it would be better to crawl on all fours, one hand in front of him. Torpenhow found him on the floor.

‘I’m trying to get the geography of my new possessions,’ said he. ‘D’you remember that nigger you gouged in the square? Pity you didn’t keep the odd eye. It would have been useful. Any letters for me? Give me all the ones in fat gray envelopes with a sort of crown thing outside. They’re of no importance.’

Torpenhow gave him a letter with a black M. on the envelope flap. Dick put it into his pocket. There was nothing in it that Torpenhow might not have read, but it belonged to himself and to Maisie, who would never belong to him.

‘When she finds that I don’t write, she’ll stop writing. It’s better so. I couldn’t be any use to her now,’ Dick argued, and the tempter suggested that he should make known his condition. Every nerve in him revolted. ‘I have fallen low enough already. I’m not going to beg for pity. Besides, it would be cruel to her.’ He strove to put Maisie out of his thoughts; but the blind have many opportunities for thinking, and as the tides of his strength came back to him in the long employless days of dead darkness, Dick’s soul was troubled to the core. Another letter, and another, came from Maisie. Then there was silence, and Dick sat by the window, the pulse of summer in the air, and pictured her being won by another man, stronger than himself. His imagination, the keener for the dark background it worked against, spared him no single detail that might send him raging up and down the studio, to stumble over the stove that seemed to be in four places at once. Worst of all, tobacco would not taste in the darkness. The arrogance of the man had disappeared, and in its place were settled despair that Torpenhow knew, and blind passion that Dick confided to his pillow at night. The intervals between the paroxysms were filled with intolerable waiting and the weight of intolerable darkness.

‘Come out into the Park,’ said Torpenhow. ‘You haven’t stirred out since the beginning of things.’

‘What’s the use? There’s no movement in the dark; and, besides,’— he paused irresolutely at the head of the stairs — ‘something will run over me.’

‘Not if I’m with you. Proceed gingerly.’

The roar of the streets filled Dick with nervous terror, and he clung to Torpenhow’s arm. ‘Fancy having to feel for a gutter with your foot!’ he said petulantly, as he turned into the Park. ‘Let’s curse God and die.’

‘Sentries are forbidden to pay unauthorised compliments. By Jove, there are the Guards!’

Dick’s figure straightened. ‘Let’s get near ’em. Let’s go in and look. Let’s get on the grass and run. I can smell the trees.’

‘Mind the low railing. That’s all right!’ Torpenhow kicked out a tuft of grass with his heel. ‘Smell that,’ he said. ‘Isn’t it good?’ Dick sniffed luxuriously. ‘Now pick up your feet and run.’ They approached as near to the regiment as was possible. The clank of bayonets being unfixed made Dick’s nostrils quiver.

‘Let’s get nearer. They’re in column, aren’t they?’

‘Yes. How did you know?’

‘Felt it. Oh, my men! — my beautiful men!’ He edged forward as though he could see. ‘I could draw those chaps once. Who’ll draw ’em now?’

‘They’ll move off in a minute. Don’t jump when the band begins.’

‘Huh! I’m not a new charger. It’s the silences that hurt. Nearer, Torp! — nearer! Oh, my God, what wouldn’t I give to see ’em for a minute! — one half-minute!’

He could hear the armed life almost within reach of him, could hear the slings tighten across the bandsman’s chest as he heaved the big drum from the ground.

‘Sticks crossed above his head,’ whispered Torpenhow.

‘I know. I know! Who should know if I don’t? H’sh!’

The drum-sticks fell with a boom, and the men swung forward to the crash of the band. Dick felt the wind of the massed movement in his face, heard the maddening tramp of feet and the friction of the pouches on the belts. The big drum pounded out the tune. It was a music-hall refrain that made a perfect quickstep —

 He must be a man of decent height,
 He must be a man of weight,
 He must come home on a Saturday night
 In a thoroughly sober state;
 He must know how to love me,
 And he must know how to kiss;
 And if he’s enough to keep us both
 I can’t refuse him bliss.

‘What’s the matter?’ said Torpenhow, as he saw Dick’s head fall when the last of the regiment had departed.

‘Nothing. I feel a little bit out of the running — that’s all. Torp, take me back. Why did you bring me out?’

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