The Light That Failed, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter III

 So he thinks he shall take to the sea again
 For one more cruise with his buccaneers,
 To singe the beard of the King of Spain,
 And capture another Dean of Jaen
 And sell him in Algiers. — A Dutch Picture. — Longfellow

THE SOUDAN campaign and Dick’s broken head had been some months ended and mended, and the Central Southern Syndicate had paid Dick a certain sum on account for work done, which work they were careful to assure him was not altogether up to their standard. Dick heaved the letter into the Nile at Cairo, cashed the draft in the same town, and bade a warm farewell to Torpenhow at the station.

‘I am going to lie up for a while and rest,’ said Torpenhow. ‘I don’t know where I shall live in London, but if God brings us to meet, we shall meet.

Are you starying here on the off-chance of another row? There will be none till the Southern Soudan is reoccupied by our troops. Mark that.

Good-bye; bless you; come back when your money’s spent; and give me your address.’

Dick loitered in Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailia, and Port Said — especially Port Said. There is iniquity in many parts of the world, and vice in all, but the concentrated essence of all the iniquities and all the vices in all the continents finds itself at Port Said. And through the heart of that sand-bordered hell, where the mirage flickers day long above the Bitter Lake, move, if you will only wait, most of the men and women you have known in this life. Dick established himself in quarters more riotous than respectable. He spent his evenings on the quay, and boarded many ships, and saw very many friends — gracious Englishwomen with whom he had talked not too wisely in the veranda of Shepherd’s Hotel, hurrying war correspondents, skippers of the contract troop-ships employed in the campaign, army officers by the score, and others of less reputable trades.

He had choice of all the races of the East and West for studies, and the advantage of seeing his subjects under the influence of strong excitement, at the gaming-tables, saloons, dancing-hells, and elsewhere. For recreation there was the straight vista of the Canal, the blazing sands, the procession of shipping, and the white hospitals where the English soldiers lay. He strove to set down in black and white and colour all that Providence sent him, and when that supply was ended sought about for fresh material. It was a fascinating employment, but it ran away with his money, and he had drawn in advance the hundred and twenty pounds to which he was entitled yearly. ‘Now I shall have to work and starve!’ thought he, and was addressing himself to this new fate when a mysterious telegram arrived from Torpenhow in England, which said, ‘Come back, quick; you have caught on. Come.’

A large smile overspread his face. ‘So soon! that’s a good hearing,’ said he to himself. ‘There will be an orgy to-night. I’ll stand or fall by my luck. Faith, it’s time it came!’ He deposited half of his funds in the hands of his well-known friends Monsieur and Madame Binat, and ordered himself a Zanzibar dance of the finest. Monsieur Binat was shaking with drink, but Madame smiles sympathetically —‘Monsieur needs a chair, of course, and of course Monsieur will sketch; Monsieur amuses himself strangely.’

Binat raised a blue-white face from a cot in the inner room. ‘I understand,’ he quavered. ‘We all know Monsieur. Monsieur is an artist, as I have been.’ Dick nodded. ‘In the end,’ said Binat, with gravity, ‘Monsieur will descend alive into hell, as I have descended.’ And he laughed.

‘You must come to the dance, too,’ said Dick; ‘I shall want you.’

‘For my face? I knew it would be so. For my face? My God! and for my degradation so tremendous! I will not. Take him away. He is a devil. Or at least do thou, Celeste, demand of him more.’ The excellent Binat began to kick and scream.

‘All things are for sale in Port Said,’ said Madame. ‘If my husband comes it will be so much more. Eh, ‘how you call —‘alf a sovereign.’

The money was paid, and the mad dance was held at night in a walled courtyard at the back of Madame Binat’s house. The lady herself, in faded mauve silk always about to slide from her yellow shoulders, played the piano, and to the tin-pot music of a Western waltz the naked Zanzibari girls danced furiously by the light of kerosene lamps. Binat sat upon a chair and stared with eyes that saw nothing, till the whirl of the dance and the clang of the rattling piano stole into the drink that took the place of blood in his veins, and his face glistened. Dick took him by the chin brutally and turned that face to the light. Madame Binat looked over her shoulder and smiled with many teeth. Dick leaned against the wall and sketched for an hour, till the kerosene lamps began to smell, and the girls threw themselves panting on the hard-beaten ground. Then he shut his book with a snap and moved away, Binat plucking feebly at his elbow. ‘Show me,’ he whimpered. ‘I too was once an artist, even I!’ Dick showed him the rough sketch. ‘Am I that?’ he screamed. ‘Will you take that away with you and show all the world that it is I — Binat?’ He moaned and wept.

‘Monsieur has paid for all,’ said Madame. ‘To the pleasure of seeing Monsieur again.’

The courtyard gate shut, and Dick hurried up the sandy street to the nearest gambling-hell, where he was well known. ‘If the luck holds, it’s an omen; if I lose, I must stay here.’ He placed his money picturesquely about the board, hardly daring to look at what he did. The luck held.

Three turns of the wheel left him richer by twenty pounds, and he went down to the shipping to make friends with the captain of a decayed cargo-steamer, who landed him in London with fewer pounds in his pocket than he cared to think about.

A thin gray fog hung over the city, and the streets were very cold; for summer was in England.

‘It’s a cheerful wilderness, and it hasn’t the knack of altering much,’ Dick thought, as he tramped from the Docks westward. ‘Now, what must I do?’

The packed houses gave no answer. Dick looked down the long lightless streets and at the appalling rush of traffic. ‘Oh, you rabbit-hutches!’ said he, addressing a row of highly respectable semi-detached residences. ‘Do you know what you’ve got to do later on? You have to supply me with men-servants and maid-servants,’— here he smacked his lips — ‘and the peculiar treasure of kings. Meantime I’ll clothes and boots, and presently I will return and trample on you.’ He stepped forward energetically; he saw that one of his shoes was burst at the side. As he stooped to make investigations, a man jostled him into the gutter. ‘All right,’ he said.

‘That’s another nick in the score. I’ll jostle you later on.’

Good clothes and boots are not cheap, and Dick left his last shop with the certainty that he would be respectably arrayed for a time, but with only fifty shillings in his pocket. He returned to streets by the Docks, and lodged himself in one room, where the sheets on the bed were almost audibly marked in case of theft, and where nobody seemed to go to bed at all. When his clothes arrived he sought the Central Southern Syndicate for Torpenhow’s address, and got it, with the intimation that there was still some money waiting for him.

‘How much?’ said Dick, as one who habitually dealt in millions.

‘Between thirty and forty pounds. If it would be any convenience to you, of course we could let you have it at once; but we usually settle accounts monthly.’

‘If I show that I want anything now, I’m lost,’ he said to himself. ‘All I need I’ll take later on.’ Then, aloud, ‘It’s hardly worth while; and I’m going to the country for a month, too. Wait till I come back, and I’ll see about it.’

‘But we trust, Mr. Heldar, that you do not intend to sever your connection with us?’

Dick’s business in life was the study of faces, and he watched the speaker keenly. ‘That man means something,’ he said. ‘I’ll do no business till I’ve seen Torpenhow. There’s a big deal coming.’ So he departed, making no promises, to his one little room by the Docks. And that day was the seventh of the month, and that month, he reckoned with awful distinctness, had thirty-one days in it!

It is not easy for a man of catholic tastes and healthy appetites to exist for twenty-four days on fifty shillings. Nor is it cheering to begin the experiment alone in all the loneliness of London. Dick paid seven shillings a week for his lodging, which left him rather less than a shilling a day for food and drink. Naturally, his first purchase was of the materials of his craft; he had been without them too long. Half a day’s investigations and comparison brought him to the conclusion that sausages and mashed potatoes, twopence a plate, were the best food. Now, sausages once or twice a week for breakfast are not unpleasant. As lunch, even, with mashed potatoes, they become monotonous. At dinner they are impertinent. At the end of three days Dick loathed sausages, and, going, forth, pawned his watch to revel on sheep’s head, which is not as cheap as it looks, owing to the bones and the gravy. Then he returned to sausages and mashed potatoes. Then he confined himself entirely to mashed potatoes for a day, and was unhappy because of pain in his inside. Then he pawned his waistcoat and his tie, and thought regretfully of money thrown away in times past. There are few things more edifying unto Art than the actual belly-pinch of hunger, and Dick in his few walks abroad — he did not care for exercise; it raised desires that could not be satisfied — found himself dividing mankind into two classes — those who looked as if they might give him something to eat, and those who looked otherwise. ‘I never knew what I had to learn about the human face before,’ he thought; and, as a reward for his humility, Providence caused a cab-driver at a sausage-shop where Dick fed that night to leave half eaten a great chunk of bread. Dick took it — would have fought all the world for its possession — and it cheered him.

The month dragged through at last, and, nearly prancing with impatience, he went to draw his money. Then he hastened to Torpenhow’s address and smelt the smell of cooking meats all along the corridors of the chambers. Torpenhow was on the top floor, and Dick burst into his room, to be received with a hug which nearly cracked his ribs, as Torpenhow dragged him tot he light and spoke of twenty different things in the same breath.

‘But you’re looking tucked up,’ he concluded.

‘Got anything to eat?’ said Dick, his eye roaming round the room.

‘I shall be having breakfast in a minute. What do you say to sausages?’

‘No, anything but sausages! Torp, I’ve been starving on that accursed horse-flesh for thirty days and thirty nights.’

‘Now, what lunacy has been your latest?’

Dick spoke of the last few weeks with unbridled speech. Then he opened his coat; there was no waistcoat below. ‘I ran it fine, awfully fine, but I’ve just scraped through.’

‘You haven’t much sense, but you’ve got a backbone, anyhow. Eat, and talk afterwards.’ Dick fell upon eggs and bacon and gorged till he could gorge no more. Torpenhow handed him a filled pipe, and he smoked as men smoke who for three weeks have been deprived of good tobacco.

‘Ouf!’ said he. ‘That’s heavenly! Well?’

‘Why in the world didn’t you come to me?’

‘Couldn’t; I owe you too much already, old man. Besides I had a sort of superstition that this temporary starvation — that’s what it was, and it hurt — would bring me luck later. It’s over and done with now, and none of the syndicate know how hard up I was. Fire away. What’s the exact state of affairs as regards myself?’

‘You had my wire? You’ve caught on here. People like your work immensely. I don’t know why, but they do. They say you have a fresh touch and a new way of drawing things. And, because they’re chiefly home-bred English, they say you have insight. You’re wanted by half a dozen papers; you’re wanted to illustrate books.’

Dick grunted scornfully.

‘You’re wanted to work up your smaller sketches and sell them to the dealers. They seem to think the money sunk in you is a good investment.

Good Lord! who can account for the fathomless folly of the public?’

‘They’re a remarkably sensible people.’

‘They are subject to fits, if that’s what you mean; and you happen to be the object of the latest fit among those who are interested in what they call Art. Just now you’re a fashion, a phenomenon, or whatever you please. I appeared to be the only person who knew anything about you here, and I have been showing the most useful men a few of the sketches you gave me from time to time. Those coming after your work on the Central Southern Syndicate appear to have done your business. You’re in luck.’

‘Huh! call it luck! Do call it luck, when a man has been kicking about the world like a dog, waiting for it to come! I’ll luck ’em later on. I want a place to work first.’

‘Come here,’ said Torpenhow, crossing the landing. ‘This place is a big box room really, but it will do for you. There’s your skylight, or your north light, or whatever window you call it, and plenty of room to thrash about in, and a bedroom beyond. What more do you need?’

‘Good enough,’ said Dick, looking round the large room that took up a third of a top story in the rickety chambers overlooking the Thames. A pale yellow sun shone through the skylight and showed the much dirt of the place. Three steps led from the door to the landing, and three more to Torpenhow’s room. The well of the staircase disappeared into darkness, pricked by tiny gas-jets, and there were sounds of men talking and doors slamming seven flights below, in the warm gloom.

‘Do they give you a free hand here?’ said Dick, cautiously. He was Ishmael enough to know the value of liberty.

‘Anything you like; latch-keys and license unlimited. We are permanent tenants for the most part here. ‘Tisn’t a place I would recommend for a Young Men’s Christian Association, but it will serve. I took these rooms for you when I wired.’

‘You’re a great deal too kind, old man.’

‘You didn’t suppose you were going away from me, did you?’ Torpenhow put his hand on Dick’s shoulder, and the two walked up and down the room, henceforward to be called the studio, in sweet and silent communion. They heard rapping at Torpenhow’s door. ‘That’s some ruffian come up for a drink,’ said Torpenhow; and he raised his voice cheerily. There entered no one more ruffianly than a portly middle-aged gentleman in a satin-faced frockcoat. His lips were parted and pale, and there were deep pouches under the eyes.

‘Weak heart,’ said Dick to himself, and, as he shook hands, ‘very weak heart. His pulse is shaking his fingers.’

The man introduced himself as the head of the Central Southern Syndicate and ‘one of the most ardent admirers of your work, Mr.

Heldar. I assure you, in the name of the syndicate, that we are immensely indebted to you; and I trust, Mr. Heldar, you won’t forget that we were largely instrumental in bringing you before the public.’ He panted because of the seven flights of stairs.

Dick glanced at Torpenhow, whose left eyelid lay for a moment dead on his cheek.

‘I shan’t forget,’ said Dick, every instinct of defence roused in him.

‘You’ve paid me so well that I couldn’t, you know. By the way, when I am settled in this place I should like to send and get my sketches. There must be nearly a hundred and fifty of them with you.’

‘That is er — is what I came to speak about. I fear we can’t allow it exactly, Mr. Heldar. In the absence of any specified agreement, the sketches are our property, of course.’

‘Do you mean to say that you are going to keep them?’

‘Yes; and we hope to have your help, on your own terms, Mr. Heldar, to assist us in arranging a little exhibition, which, backed by our name and the influence we naturally command among the press, should be of material service to you. Sketches such as yours ——’

‘Belong to me. You engaged me by wire, you paid me the lowest rates you dared. You can’t mean to keep them! Good God alive, man, they’re all I’ve got in the world!’

Torpenhow watched Dick’s face and whistled.

Dick walked up and down, thinking. He saw the whole of his little stock in trade, the first weapon of his equipment, annexed at the outset of his campaign by an elderly gentleman whose name Dick had not caught aright, who said that he represented a syndicate, which was a thing for which Dick had not the least reverence. The injustice of the proceedings did not much move him; he had seen the strong hand prevail too often in other places to be squeamish over the moral aspects of right and wrong.

But he ardently desired the blood of the gentleman in the frockcoat, and when he spoke again, and when he spoke again it was with a strained sweetness that Torpenhow knew well for the beginning of strife.

‘Forgive me, sir, but you have no — no younger man who can arrange this business with me?’

‘I speak for the syndicate. I see no reason for a third party to ——’

‘You will in a minute. Be good enough to give back my sketches.’

The man stared blankly at Dick, and then at Torpenhow, who was leaning against the wall. He was not used to ex-employees who ordered him to be good enough to do things.

‘Yes, it is rather a cold-blooded steal,’ said Torpenhow, critically; ‘but I’m afraid, I am very much afraid, you’ve struck the wrong man. Be careful, Dick; remember, this isn’t the Soudan.’

‘Considering what services the syndicate have done you in putting your name before the world ——’

This was not a fortunate remark; it reminded Dick of certain vagrant years lived out in loneliness and strife and unsatisfied desires. The memory did not contrast well with the prosperous gentleman who proposed to enjoy the fruit of those years.

‘I don’t know quite what to do with you,’ began Dick, meditatively. ‘Of course you’re a thief, and you ought to be half killed, but in your case you’d probably die. I don’t want you dead on this floor, and, besides, it’s unlucky just as one’s moving in. Don’t hit, sir; you’ll only excite yourself.’

He put one hand on the man’s forearm and ran the other down the plump body beneath the coat. ‘My goodness!’ said he to Torpenhow, ‘and this gray oaf dares to be a thief! I have seen an Esneh camel-driver have the black hide taken off his body in strips for stealing half a pound of wet dates, and he was as tough as whipcord. This things’ soft all over — like a woman.’

There are few things more poignantly humiliating than being handled by a man who does not intend to strike. The head of the syndicate began to breathe heavily. Dick walked round him, pawing him, as a cat paws a soft hearth-rug. Then he traced with his forefinger the leaden pouches underneath the eyes, and shook his head. ‘You were going to steal my things — mine, mine, mine! — you, who don’t know when you may die.

Write a note to your office — you say you’re the head of it — and order them to give Torpenhow my sketches — every one of them. Wait a minute: your hand’s shaking. Now!’ He thrust a pocket-book before him. The note was written. Torpenhow took it and departed without a word, while Dick walked round and round the spellbound captive, giving him such advice as he conceived best for the welfare of his soul. When Torpenhow returned with a gigantic portfolio, he heard Dick say, almost soothingly, ‘Now, I hope this will be a lesson to you; and if you worry me when I have settled down to work with any nonsense about actions for assault, believe me, I’ll catch you and manhandle you, and you’ll die. You haven’t very long to live, anyhow. Go! Imshi, Vootsak — get out!’ The man departed, staggering and dazed. Dick drew a long breath: ‘Phew! what a lawless lot these people are! The first thing a poor orphan meets is gang robbery, organised burglary! Think of the hideous blackness of that man’s mind! Are my sketches all right, Torp?’

‘Yes; one hundred and forty-seven of them. Well, I must say, Dick, you’ve begun well.’

‘He was interfering with me. It only meant a few pounds to him, but it was everything to me. I don’t think he’ll bring an action. I gave him some medical advice gratis about the state of his body. It was cheap at the little flurry it cost him. Now, let’s look at my things.’

Two minutes later Dick had thrown himself down on the floor and was deep in the portfolio, chuckling lovingly as he turned the drawings over and thought of the price at which they had been bought.

The afternoon was well advanced when Torpenhow came to the door and saw Dick dancing a wild saraband under the skylight.

‘I builded better than I knew, Torp,’ he said, without stopping the dance.

‘They’re good! They’re damned good! They’ll go like flame! I shall have an exhibition of them on my own brazen hook. And that man would have cheated me out of it! Do you know that I’m sorry now that I didn’t actually hit him?’

‘Go out,’ said Torpenhow — ‘go out and pray to be delivered from the sin of arrogance, which you never will be. Bring your things up from whatever place you’re staying in, and we’ll try to make this barn a little more shipshape.’

‘And then — oh, then,’ said Dick, still capering, ‘we will spoil the Egyptians!’

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