The Light That Failed, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter II

 Then we brought the lances down, then the bugles blew,
 When we went to Kandahar, ridin’ two an’ two,
 Ridin’, ridin’, ridin’, two an’ two,
 Ta-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra,
 All the way to Kandahar, ridin’ two an’ two.

 — Barrack–Room Ballad.

‘I’M NOT angry with the British public, but I wish we had a few thousand of them scattered among these rooks. They wouldn’t be in such a hurry to get at their morning papers then. Can’t you imagine the regulation householder — Lover of Justice, Constant Reader, Paterfamilias, and all that lot — frizzling on hot gravel?’

‘With a blue veil over his head, and his clothes in strips. Has any man here a needle? I’ve got a piece of sugar-sack.’

‘I’ll lend you a packing-needle for six square inches of it then. Both my knees are worn through.’

‘Why not six square acres, while you’re about it? But lend me the needle, and I’ll see what I can do with the selvage. I don’t think there’s enough to protect my royal body from the cold blast as it is. What are you doing with that everlasting sketch-book of yours, Dick?’

‘Study of our Special Correspondent repairing his wardrobe,’ said Dick, gravely, as the other man kicked off a pair of sorely worn riding-breeches and began to fit a square of coarse canvas over the most obvious open space. He grunted disconsolately as the vastness of the void developed itself.

‘Sugar-bags, indeed! Hi! you pilot man there! lend me all the sails for that whale-boat.’

A fez-crowned head bobbed up in the stern-sheets, divided itself into exact halves with one flashing grin, and bobbed down again. The man of the tattered breeches, clad only in a Norfolk jacket and a gray flannel shirt, went on with his clumsy sewing, while Dick chuckled over the sketch.

Some twenty whale-boats were nuzzling a sand-bank which was dotted with English soldiery of half a dozen corps, bathing or washing their clothes. A heap of boat-rollers, commissariat-boxes, sugar-bags, and flour — and small-arm-ammunition-cases showed where one of the whale-boats had been compelled to unload hastily; and a regimental carpenter was swearing aloud as he tried, on a wholly insufficient allowance of white lead, to plaster up the sun-parched gaping seams of the boat herself.

‘First the bloomin’ rudder snaps,’ said he to the world in general; ‘then the mast goes; an’ then, s’ ‘help me, when she can’t do nothin’ else, she opens ‘erself out like a cock-eyes Chinese lotus.’

‘Exactly the case with my breeches, whoever you are,’ said the tailor, without looking up. ‘Dick, I wonder when I shall see a decent shop again.’

There was no answer, save the incessant angry murmur of the Nile as it raced round a basalt-walled bend and foamed across a rock-ridge half a mile upstream. It was as though the brown weight of the river would drive the white men back to their own country. The indescribable scent of Nile mud in the air told that the stream was falling and the next few miles would be no light thing for the whale-boats to overpass. The desert ran down almost to the banks, where, among gray, red, and black hillocks, a camel-corps was encamped. No man dared even for a day lose touch of the slow-moving boats; there had been no fighting for weeks past, and throughout all that time the Nile had never spared them. Rapid had followed rapid, rock rock, and island-group island-group, till the rank and file had long since lost all count of direction and very nearly of time. They were moving somewhere, they did not know why, to do something, they did not know what. Before them lay the Nile, and at the other end of it was one Gordon, fighting for the dear life, in a town called Khartoum. There were columns of British troops in the desert, or in one of the many deserts; there were yet more columns waiting to embark on the river; there were fresh drafts waiting at Assioot and Assuan; there were lies and rumours running over the face of the hopeless land from Suakin to the Sixth Cataract, and men supposed generally that there must be some one in authority to direct the general scheme of the many movements. The duty of that particular river-column was to keep the whale-boats afloat in the water, to avoid trampling on the villagers’ crops when the gangs ‘tracked’ the boats with lines thrown from midstream, to get as much sleep and food as was possible, and, above all, to press on without delay in the teeth of the churning Nile.

With the soldiers sweated and toiled the correspondents of the newspapers, and they were almost as ignorant as their companions. But it was above all things necessary that England at breakfast should be amused and thrilled and interested, whether Gordon lived or died, or half the British army went to pieces in the sands. The Soudan campaign was a picturesque one, and lent itself to vivid word-painting. Now and again a ‘Special’ managed to get slain — which was not altogether a disadvantage to the paper that employed him — and more often the hand-to-hand nature of the fighting allowed of miraculous escapes which were worth telegraphing home at eighteenpence the word. There were many correspondents with many corps and columns — from the veterans who had followed on the heels of the cavalry that occupied Cairo in ‘82, what time Arabi Pasha called himself king, who had seen the first miserable work round Suakin when the sentries were cut up nightly and the scrub swarmed with spears, to youngsters jerked into the business at the end of a telegraph-wire to take the places of their betters killed or invalided.

Among the seniors — those who knew every shift and change in the perplexing postal arrangements, the value of the seediest, weediest Egyptian garron offered for sale in Cairo or Alexandria, who could talk a telegraph-clerk into amiability and soothe the ruffled vanity of a newly appointed staff-officer when press regulations became burdensome — was the man in the flannel shirt, the black-browed Torpenhow. He represented the Central Southern Syndicate in the campaign, as he had represented it in the Egyptian war, and elsewhere. The syndicate did not concern itself greatly with criticisms of attack and the like. It supplied the masses, and all it demanded was picturesqueness and abundance of detail; for there is more joy in England over a soldier who insubordinately steps out of square to rescue a comrade than over twenty generals slaving even to baldness at the gross details of transport and commissariat.

He had met at Suakin a young man, sitting on the edge of a recently abandoned redoubt about the size of a hat-box, sketching a clump of shell-torn bodies on the gravel plain.

‘What are you for?’ said Torpenhow. The greeting of the correspondent is that of the commercial traveller on the road.

‘My own hand,’ said the young man, without looking up. ‘Have you any tobacco?’

Torpenhow waited till the sketch was finished, and when he had looked at it said, ‘What’s your business here?’

‘Nothing; there was a row, so I came. I’m supposed to be doing something down at the painting-slips among the boats, or else I’m in charge of the condenser on one of the water-ships. I’ve forgotten which.’

‘You’ve cheek enough to build a redoubt with,’ said Torpenhow, and took stock of the new acquaintance. ‘Do you always draw like that?’

The young man produced more sketches. ‘Row on a Chinese pig-boat,’

said he, sententiously, showing them one after another. —‘Chief mate dirked by a comprador. — Junk ashore off Hakodate. — Somali muleteer being flogged. — Star-shelled bursting over camp at Berbera. — Slave-dhow being chased round Tajurrah Bah. — Soldier lying dead in the moonlight outside Suakin. — throat cut by Fuzzies.’

‘H’m!’ said Torpenhow, ‘can’t say I care for Verestchagin-and-water myself, but there’s no accounting for tastes. Doing anything now, are you?’

‘No. I’m amusing myself here.’

Torpenhow looked at the sketches again, and nodded. ‘Yes, you’re right to take your first chance when you can get it.’

He rode away swiftly through the Gate of the Two War–Ships, rattled across the causeway into the town, and wired to his syndicate, ‘Got man here, picture-work. Good and cheap. Shall I arrange? Will do letterpress with sketches.’

The man on the redoubt sat swinging his legs and murmuring, ‘I knew the chance would come, sooner or later. By Gad, they’ll have to sweat for it if I come through this business alive!’

In the evening Torpenhow was able to announce to his friend that the Central Southern Agency was willing to take him on trial, paying expenses for three months. ‘And, by the way, what’s your name?’ said Torpenhow.

‘Heldar. Do they give me a free hand?’

‘They’ve taken you on chance. You must justify the choice. You’d better stick to me. I’m going up-country with a column, and I’ll do what I can for you. Give me some of your sketches taken here, and I’ll send ’em along.’ To himself he said, ‘That’s the best bargain the Central southern has ever made; and they got me cheaply enough.’

So it came to pass that, after some purchase of horse-flesh and arrangements financial and political, Dick was made free of the New and Honourable Fraternity of war correspondents, who all possess the inalienable right of doing as much work as they can and getting as much for it as Providence and their owners shall please. To these things are added in time, if the brother be worthy, the power of glib speech that neither man nor woman can resist when a meal or a bed is in question, the eye of a horse-cope, the skill of a cook, the constitution of a bullock, the digestion of an ostrich, and an infinite adaptability to all circumstances. But many die before they attain to this degree, and the past-masters in the craft appear for the most part in dress-clothes when they are in England, and thus their glory is hidden from the multitude.

Dick followed Torpenhow wherever the latter’s fancy chose to lead him, and between the two they managed to accomplish some work that almost satisfied themselves. It was not an easy life in any way, and under its influence the two were drawn ver closely together, for they ate from the same dish, they shared the same water-bottle, and, most binding tie of all, their mails went off together. It was Dick who managed to make gloriously drunk a telegraph-clerk in a palm hut far beyond the Second Cataract, and, while the man lay in bliss on the floor, possessed himself of some laboriously acquired exclusive information, forwarded by a confiding correspondent of an opposition syndicate, made a careful duplicate of the matter, and brought the result to Torpenhow, who said that all was fair in love or war correspondence, and built an excellent descriptive article from his rival’s riotous waste of words. It was Torpenhow who — but the tale of their adventures, together and apart, from Philae to the waste wilderness of Herawi and Muella, would fill many books. They had been penned into a square side by side, in deadly fear of being shot by over-excited soldiers; they had fought with baggage-camels in the chill dawn; they had jogged along in silence under blinding sun on indefatigable little Egyptian horses; and they had floundered on the shallows of the Nile when the whale-boat in which they had found a berth chose to hit a hidden rock and rip out half her bottom-planks.

Now they were sitting on the sand-bank, and the whale-boats were bringing up the remainder of the column.

‘Yes,’ said Torpenhow, as he put the last rude stitches into his over-long-neglected gear, ‘it has been a beautiful business.’

‘The patch or the campaign?’ said Dick. ‘Don’t think much of either, myself.’

‘You want the Euryalus brought up above the Third Cataract, don’t you? and eighty-one-ton guns at Jakdul? Now, I’m quite satisfied with my breeches.’ He turned round gravely to exhibit himself, after the manner of a clown.

‘It’s very pretty. Specially the lettering on the sack. G.B.T. Government Bullock Train. That’s a sack from India.’

‘It’s my initials — Gilbert Belling Torpenhow. I stole the cloth on purpose.

What the mischief are the camel-corps doing yonder?’ Torpenhow shaded his eyes and looked across the scrub-strewn gravel.

A bugle blew furiously, and the men on the bank hurried to their arms and accoutrements.

‘“Pisan soldiery surprised while bathing,”’ remarked Dick, calmly.

‘D’you remember the picture? It’s by Michael Angelo; all beginners copy it. That scrub’s alive with enemy.’

The camel-corps on the bank yelled to the infantry to come to them, and a hoarse shouting down the river showed that the remainder of the column had wind of the trouble and was hastening to take share in it. As swiftly as a reach of still water is crisped by the wind, the rock-strewn ridges and scrub-topped hills were troubled and alive with armed men.

Mercifully, it occurred to these to stand far off for a time, to shout and gesticulate joyously. One man even delivered himself of a long story. The camel-corps did not fire. They were only too glad of a little breathing-space, until some sort of square could be formed. The men on the sand-bank ran to their side; and the whale-boats, as they toiled up within shouting distance, were thrust into the nearest bank and emptied of all save the sick and a few men to guard them. The Arab orator ceased his outcries, and his friends howled.

‘They look like the Mahdi’s men,’ said Torpenhow, elbowing himself into the crush of the square; ‘but what thousands of ’em there are! The tribes hereabout aren’t against us, I know.’

‘Then the Mahdi’s taken another town,’ said Dick, ‘and set all these yelping devils free to show us up. Lend us your glass.’

‘Our scouts should have told us of this. We’ve been trapped,’ said a subaltern. ‘Aren’t the camel guns ever going to begin? Hurry up, you men!’

There was no need of any order. The men flung themselves panting against the sides of the square, for they had good reason to know that whoso was left outside when the fighting began would very probably die in an extremely unpleasant fashion. The little hundred-and-fifty-pound camel-guns posted at one corner of the square opened the ball as the square moved forward by its right to get possession of a knoll of rising ground. All had fought in this manner many times before, and there was no novelty in the entertainment; always the same hot and stifling formation, the smell of dust and leather, the same boltlike rush of the enemy, the same pressure on the weakest side, the few minutes of hand-to-hand scuffle, and then the silence of the desert, broken only by the yells of those whom their handful of cavalry attempted to purse. They had become careless. The camel-guns spoke at intervals, and the square slouched forward amid the protesting of the camels. Then came the attack of three thousand men who had not learned from books that it is impossible for troops in close order to attack against breech-loading fire.

A few dropping shots heralded their approach, and a few horsemen led, but the bulk of the force was naked humanity, mad with rage, and armed with the spear and the sword. The instinct of the desert, where there is always much war, told them that the right flank of the square was the weakest, for they swung clear of the front. The camel-guns shelled them as they passed and opened for an instant lanes through their midst, most like those quick-closing vistas in a Kentish hop-garden seen when the train races by at full speed; and the infantry fire, held till the opportune moment, dropped them in close-packing hundreds. No civilised troops in the world could have endured the hell through which they came, the living leaping high to avoid the dying who clutched at their heels, the wounded cursing and staggering forward, till they fell — a torrent black as the sliding water above a mill-dam — full on the right flank of the square.

Then the line of the dusty troops and the faint blue desert sky overhead went out in rolling smoke, and the little stones on the heated ground ant the tinder-dry clumps of scrub became matters of surpassing interest, for men measured their agonised retreat and recovery by these things, counting mechanically and hewing their way back to chosen pebble and branch. There was no semblance of any concerted fighting. For aught the men knew, the enemy might be attempting all four sides of the square at once. Their business was to destroy what lay in front of them, to bayonet in the back those who passed over them, and, dying, to drag down the slayer till he could be knocked on the head by some avenging gun-butt.

Dick waited with Torpenhow and a young doctor till the stress grew unendurable. It was hopeless to attend to the wounded till the attack was repulsed, so the three moved forward gingerly towards the weakest side of the square. There was a rush from without, the short hough-hough of the stabbing spears, and a man on a horse, followed by thirty or forty others, dashed through, yelling and hacking. The right flank of the square sucked in after them, and the other sides sent help. The wounded, who knew that they had but a few hours more to live, caught at the enemy’s feet and brought them down, or, staggering into a discarded rifle, fired blindly into the scuffle that raged in the centre of the square.

Dick was conscious that somebody had cut him violently across his helmet, that he had fired his revolver into a black, foam-flecked face which forthwith ceased to bear any resemblance to a face, and that Torpenhow had gone down under an Arab whom he had tried to ‘collar low,’ and was turning over and over with his captive, feeling for the man’s eyes. The doctor jabbed at a venture with a bayonet, and a helmetless soldier fired over Dick’s shoulder: the flying grains of powder stung his cheek. It was to Torpenhow that Dick turned by instinct. The representative of the Central Southern Syndicate had shaken himself clear of his enemy, and rose, wiping his thumb on his trousers. The Arab, both hands to his forehead, screamed aloud, then snatched up his spear and rushed at Torpenhow, who was panting under shelter of Dick’s revolver. Dick fired twice, and the man dropped limply. His upturned face lacked one eye. The musketry-fire redoubled, but cheers mingled with it. The rush had failed and the enemy were flying. If the heart of the square were shambles, the ground beyond was a butcher’s shop. Dick thrust his way forward between the maddened men. The remnant of the enemy were retiring, as the few — the very few — English cavalry rode down the laggards.

Beyond the lines of the dead, a broad blood-stained Arab spear cast aside in the retreat lay across a stump of scrub, and beyond this again the illimitable dark levels of the desert. The sun caught the steel and turned it into a red disc. Some one behind him was saying, ‘Ah, get away, you brute!’ Dick raised his revolver and pointed towards the desert. His eye was held by the red splash in the distance, and the clamour about him seemed to die down to a very far-away whisper, like the whisper of a level sea. There was the revolver and the red light. . . . and the voice of some one scaring something away, exactly as had fallen somewhere before — a darkness that stung. He fired at random, and the bullet went out across the desert as he muttered, ‘Spoilt my aim. There aren’t any more cartridges. We shall have to run home.’ He put his hand to his head and brought it away covered with blood.

‘Old man, you’re cut rather badly,’ said Torpenhow. ‘I owe you something for this business. Thanks. Stand up! I say, you can’t be ill here.’

Throughout the night, when the troops were encamped by the whale-boats, a black figure danced in the strong moonlight on the sand-bar and shouted that Khartoum the accursed one was dead — was dead — was dead — that two steamers were rock-staked on the Nile outside the city, and that of all their crews there remained not one; and Khartoum was dead — was dead — was dead!

But Torpenhow took no heed. He was watching Dick, who called aloud to the restless Nile for Maisie — and again Maisie!

‘Behold a phenomenon,’ said Torpenhow, rearranging the blanket. ‘Here is a man, presumably human, who mentions the name of one woman only. And I’ve seen a good deal of delirium, too. — Dick, here’s some fizzy drink.’

‘Thank you, Maisie,’ said Dick.

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