The Light That Failed, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter V

 ‘I have a thousand men,’ said he,
 ‘To wait upon my will,
 And towers nine upon the Tyne,
 And three upon the Till.’

 ‘And what care I for you men,’ said she,
 ‘Or towers from Tyne to Till,
 Sith you must go with me,’ she said,
 ‘To wait upon my will?’

 Sir Hoggie and the Fairies

NEXT morning Torpenhow found Dick sunk in deepest repose of tobacco.

‘Well, madman, how d’you feel?’

‘I don’t know. I’m trying to find out.’

‘You had much better do some work.’

‘Maybe; but I’m in no hurry. I’ve made a discovery. Torp, there’s too much Ego in my Cosmos.’

‘Not really! Is this revelation due to my lectures, or the Nilghai’s?’

‘It came to me suddenly, all on my own account. Much too much Ego; and now I’m going to work.’

He turned over a few half-finished sketches, drummed on a new canvas, cleaned three brushes, set Binkie to bite the toes of the lay figure, rattled through his collection of arms and accoutrements, and then went out abruptly, declaring that he had done enough for the day.

‘This is positively indecent,’ said Torpenhow, ‘and the first time that Dick has ever broken up a light morning. Perhaps he has found out that he has a soul, or an artistic temperament, or something equally valuable.

That comes of leaving him alone for a month. Perhaps he has been going out of evenings. I must look to this.’ He rang for the bald-headed old housekeeper, whom nothing could astonish or annoy.

‘Beeton, did Mr. Heldar dine out at all while I was out of town?’

‘Never laid ‘is dress-clothes out once, sir, all the time. Mostly ‘e dined in; but ‘e brought some most remarkable young gentlemen up ’ere after theatres once or twice. Remarkable fancy they was. You gentlemen on the top floor does very much as you likes, but it do seem to me, sir, droppin’ a walkin’-stick down five flights o’ stairs an’ then goin’ down four abreast to pick it up again at half-past two in the mornin’, singin,’ “Bring back the whiskey, Willie darlin,’"— not once or twice, but scores o’ times — isn’t charity to the other tenants. What I say is, “Do as you would be done by.” That’s my motto.’

‘Of course! of course! I’m afraid the top floor isn’t the quietest in the house.’

‘I make no complaints, sir. I have spoke to Mr. Heldar friendly, an’ he laughed, an’ did me a picture of the missis that is as good as a coloured print. It ‘asn’t the high shine of a photograph, but what I say is, “Never look a gift-horse in the mouth.” Mr. Heldar’s dress-clothes ‘aven’t been on him for weeks.’

‘Then it’s all right,’ said Torpenhow to himself. ‘Orgies are healthy, and Dick has a head of his own, but when it comes to women making eyes I’m not so certain — Binkie, never you be a man, little dorglums. They’re contrary brutes, and they do things without any reason.’

Dick had turned northward across the Park, but he was walking in the spirit on the mud-flats with Maisie. He laughed aloud as he remembered the day when he had decked Amomma’s horns with the ham-frills, and Maisie, white with rage, had cuffed him. How long those four years seemed in review, and how closely Maisie was connected with every hour of them! Storm across the sea, and Maisie in a gray dress on the beach, sweeping her drenched hair out of her eyes and laughing at the homeward race of the fishing-smacks; hot sunshine on the mud-flats, and Maisie sniffing scornfully, with her chin in the air; Maisie flying before the wind that threshed the foreshore and drove the sand like small shot about her ears; Maisie, very composed and independent, telling lies to Mrs. Jennett while Dick supported her with coarser perjuries; Maisie picking her way delicately from stone to stone, a pistol in her hand and her teeth firm-set; and Maisie in a gray dress sitting on the grass between the mouth of a cannon and a nodding yellow sea-poppy. The pictures passed before him one by one, and the last stayed the longest.

Dick was perfectly happy with a quiet peace that was as new to his mind as it was foreign to his experiences. It never occurred to him that there might be other calls upon his time than loafing across the Park in the forenoon.

‘There’s a good working light now,’ he said, watching his shadow placidly. ‘Some poor devil ought to be grateful for this. And there’s Maisie.’

She was walking towards him from the Marble Arch, and he saw that no mannerism of her gait had been changed. It was good to find her still Maisie, and, so to speak, his next-door neighbour. No greeting passed between them, because there had been none in the old days.

‘What are you doing out of your studio at this hour?’ said Dick, as one who was entitled to ask.

‘Idling. Just idling. I got angry with a chin and scraped it out. Then I left it in a little heap of paint-chips and came away.’

‘I know what palette-knifing means. What was the piccy?’

‘A fancy head that wouldn’t come right — horrid thing!’

‘I don’t like working over scraped paint when I’m doing flesh. The grain comes up woolly as the paint dries.’

‘Not if you scrape properly.’ Maisie waved her hand to illustrate her methods. There was a dab of paint on the white cuff. Dick laughed.

‘You’re as untidy as ever.’

‘That comes well from you. Look at your own cuff.’

‘By Jove, yes! It’s worse than yours. I don’t think we’ve much altered in anything. Let’s see, though.’ He looked at Maisie critically. The pale blue haze of an autumn day crept between the tree-trunks of the Park and made a background for the gray dress, the black velvet toque above the black hair, and the resolute profile.

‘No, there’s nothing changed. How good it is! D’you remember when I fastened your hair into the snap of a hand-bag?’

Maisie nodded, with a twinkle in her eyes, and turned her full face to Dick.

‘Wait a minute,’ said he. ‘That mouth is down at the corners a little.

Who’s been worrying you, Maisie?’

‘No one but myself. I never seem to get on with my work, and yet I try hard enough, and Kami says ——’

‘“Continuez, mesdemoiselles. Continuez toujours, mes enfants.” Kami is depressing. I beg your pardon.’

‘Yes, that’s what he says. He told me last summer that I was doing better and he’d let me exhibit this year.’

‘Not in this place, surely?’

‘Of course not. The Salon.’

‘You fly high.’

‘I’ve been beating my wings long enough. Where do you exhibit, Dick?’

‘I don’t exhibit. I sell.’

‘What is your line, then?’

‘Haven’t you heard?’ Dick’s eyes opened. Was this thing possible? He cast about for some means of conviction. They were not far from the Marble Arch. ‘Come up Oxford Street a little and I’ll show you.’

A small knot of people stood round a print-shop that Dick knew well.

‘Some reproduction of my work inside,’ he said, with suppressed triumph. Never before had success tasted so sweet upon the tongue. ‘You see the sort of things I paint. D’you like it?’

Maisie looked at the wild whirling rush of a field-battery going into action under fire. Two artillery-men stood behind her in the crowd.

‘They’ve chucked the off lead-‘orse’ said one to the other. ‘‘E’s tore up awful, but they’re makin’ good time with the others. That lead-driver drives better nor you, Tom. See ‘ow cunnin’ ‘e’s nursin’ ‘is ‘orse.’

‘Number Three’ll be off the limber, next jolt,’ was the answer.

‘No, ‘e won’t. See ‘ow ‘is foot’s braced against the iron? ‘E’s all right.’

Dick watched Maisie’s face and swelled with joy — fine, rank, vulgar triumph. She was more interested in the little crowd than in the picture.

That was something that she could understand.

‘And I wanted it so! Oh, I did want it so!’ she said at last, under her breath.

‘Me — all me!’ said Dick, placidly. ‘Look at their faces. It hits ’em. They don’t know what makes their eyes and mouths open; but I know. And I know my work’s right.’

‘Yes. I see. Oh, what a thing to have come to one!’

‘Come to one, indeed! I had to go out and look for it. What do you think?’

‘I call it success. Tell me how you got it.’

They returned to the Park, and Dick delivered himself of the saga of his own doings, with all the arrogance of a young man speaking to a woman.

From the beginning he told the tale, the I— I— I’s flashing through the records as telegraph-poles fly past the traveller. Maisie listened and nodded her head. The histories of strife and privation did not move her a hair’s-breadth. At the end of each canto he would conclude, ‘And that gave me some notion of handling colour,’ or light, or whatever it might be that he had set out to pursue and understand. He led her breathless across half the world, speaking as he had never spoken in his life before.

And in the flood-tide of his exaltation there came upon him a great desire to pick up this maiden who nodded her head and said, ‘I understand. Go on,’— to pick her up and carry her away with him, because she was Maisie, and because she understood, and because she was his right, and a woman to be desired above all women.

Then he checked himself abruptly. ‘And so I took all I wanted,’ he said, ‘and I had to fight for it. Now you tell.’

Maisie’s tale was almost as gray as her dress. It covered years of patient toil backed by savage pride that would not be broken thought dealers laughed, and fogs delayed work, and Kami was unkind and even sarcastic, and girls in other studios were painfully polite. It had a few bright spots, in pictures accepted at provincial exhibitions, but it wound up with the oft repeated wail, ‘And so you see, Dick, I had no success, though I worked so hard.’

Then pity filled Dick. Even thus had Maisie spoken when she could not hit the breakwater, half an hour before she had kissed him. And that had happened yesterday.

‘Never mind,’ he said. ‘I’ll tell you something, if you’ll believe it.’ The words were shaping themselves of their own accord. ‘The whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel, isn’t worth one big yellow sea-poppy below Fort Keeling.’

Maisie flushed a little. ‘It’s all very well for you to talk, but you’ve had the success and I haven’t.’

‘Let me talk, then. I know you’ll understand. Maisie, dear, it sounds a bit absurd, but those ten years never existed, and I’ve come back again. It really is just the same. Can’t you see? You’re alone now and I’m alone.

What’s the use of worrying? Come to me instead, darling.’

Maisie poked the gravel with her parasol. They were sitting on a bench.

‘I understand,’ she said slowly. ‘But I’ve got my work to do, and I must do it.’

‘Do it with me, then, dear. I won’t interrupt.’

‘No, I couldn’t. It’s my work — mine — mine — mine! I’ve been alone all my life in myself, and I’m not going to belong to anybody except myself. I remember things as well as you do, but that doesn’t count. We were babies then, and we didn’t know what was before us. Dick, don’t be selfish. I think I see my way to a little success next year. Don’t take it away from me.’

‘I beg your pardon, darling. It’s my fault for speaking stupidly. I can’t expect you to throw up all your life just because I’m back. I’ll go to my own place and wait a little.’

‘But, Dick, I don’t want you to — go — out of — my life, now you’ve just come back.’

‘I’m at your orders; forgive me.’ Dick devoured the troubled little face with his eyes. There was triumph in them, because he could not conceive that Maisie should refuse sooner or later to love him, since he loved her.

‘It’s wrong of me,’ said Maisie, more slowly than before; ‘it’s wrong and selfish; but, oh, I’ve been so lonely! No, you misunderstand. Now I’ve seen you again — it’s absurd, but I want to keep you in my life.’

‘Naturally. We belong.’

‘We don’t; but you always understood me, and there is so much in my work that you could help me in. You know things and the ways of doing things. You must.’

‘I do, I fancy, or else I don’t know myself. Then you won’t care to lose sight of me altogether, and — you want me to help you in your work?’

‘Yes; but remember, Dick, nothing will ever come of it. That’s why I feel so selfish. Can’t things stay as they are? I do want your help.’

‘You shall have it. But let’s consider. I must see your pics first, and overhaul your sketches, and find out about your tendencies. You should see what the papers say about my tendencies! Then I’ll give you good advice, and you shall paint according. Isn’t that it, Maisie?’

Again there was triumph in Dick’s eye.

‘It’s too good of you — much too good. Because you are consoling yourself with what will never happen, and I know that, and yet I want to keep you. Don’t blame me later, please.’

‘I’m going into the matter with my eyes open. Moreover the Queen can do no wrong. It isn’t your selfishness that impresses me. It’s your audacity in proposing to make use of me.’

‘Pooh! You’re only Dick — and a print-shop.’

‘Very good: that’s all I am. But, Maisie, you believe, don’t you, that I love you? I don’t want you to have any false notions about brothers and sisters.’

Maisie looked up for a moment and dropped her eyes.

‘It’s absurd, but — I believe. I wish I could send you away before you get angry with me. But — but the girl that lives with me is red-haired, and an impressionist, and all our notions clash.’

‘So do ours, I think. Never mind. Three months from today we shall be laughing at this together.’

Maisie shook her head mournfully. ‘I knew you wouldn’t understand, and it will only hurt you more when you find out. Look at my face, Dick, and tell me what you see.’

They stood up and faced each other for a moment. The fog was gathering, and it stifled the roar of the traffic of London beyond the railings. Dick brought all his painfully acquired knowledge of faces to bear on the eyes, mouth, and chin underneath the black velvet toque.

‘It’s the same Maisie, and it’s the same me,’ he said. ‘We’ve both nice little wills of our own, and one or other of us has to be broken. Now about the future. I must come and see your pictures some day — I suppose when the red-haired girl is on the premises.’

‘Sundays are my best times. You must come on Sundays. There are such heaps of things I want to talk about and ask your advice about. Now I must get back to work.’

‘Try to find out before next Sunday what I am,’ said Dick. ‘Don’t take my word for anything I’ve told you. Good-bye, darling, and bless you.’

Maisie stole away like a little gray mouse. Dick watched her till she was out of sight, but he did not hear her say to herself, very soberly, ‘I’m a wretch — a horrid, selfish wretch. But it’s Dick, and Dick will understand.’

No one has yet explained what actually happens when an irresistible force meets the immovable post, though many have thought deeply, even as Dick thought. He tried to assure himself that Maisie would be led in a few weeks by his mere presence and discourse to a better way of thinking. Then he remembered much too distinctly her face and all that was written on it.

‘If I know anything of heads,’ he said, ‘there’s everything in that face but love. I shall have to put that in myself; and that chin and mouth won’t be won for nothing. But she’s right. She knows what she wants, and she’s going to get it. What insolence! Me! Of all the people in the wide world, to use me! But then she’s Maisie. There’s no getting over that fact; and it’s good to see her again. This business must have been simmering at the back of my head for years. . . . She’ll use me as I used Binat at Port Said.

She’s quite right. It will hurt a little. I shall have to see her every Sunday — like a young man courting a housemaid. She’s sure to come around; and yet — that mouth isn’t a yielding mouth. I shall be wanting to kiss her all the time, and I shall have to look at her pictures — I don’t even know what sort of work she does yet — and I shall have to talk about Art — Woman’s Art! Therefore, particularly and perpetually, damn all varieties of Art. It did me a good turn once, and now it’s in my way. I’ll go home and do some Art.’

Half-way to the studio, Dick was smitten with a terrible thought. The figure of a solitary woman in the fog suggested it.

‘She’s all alone in London, with a red-haired impressionist girl, who probably has the digestion of an ostrich. Most red-haired people have.

Maisie’s a bilious little body. They’ll eat like lone women — meals at all hours, and tea with all meals. I remember how the students in Paris used to pig along. She may fall ill at any minute, and I shan’t be able to help.

Whew! this is ten times worse than owning a wife.’

Torpenhow entered the studio at dusk, and looked at Dick with eyes full of the austere love that springs up between men who have tugged at the same oar together and are yoked by custom and use and the intimacies of toil. This is a good love, and, since it allows, and even encourages, strife, recrimination, and brutal sincerity, does not die, but grows, and is proof against any absence and evil conduct.

Dick was silent after he handed Torpenhow the filled pipe of council. He thought of Maisie and her possible needs. It was a new thing to think of anybody but Torpenhow, who could think for himself. Here at last was an outlet for that cash balance. He could adorn Maisie barbarically with jewelry — a thick gold necklace round that little neck, bracelets upon the rounded arms, and rings of price upon her hands — the cool, temperate, ringless hands that he had taken between his own. It was an absurd thought, for Maisie would not even allow him to put one ring on one finger, and she would laugh at golden trappings. It would be better to sit with her quietly in the dusk, his arm around her neck and her face on his shoulder, as befitted husband and wife. Torpenhow’s boots creaked that night, and his strong voice jarred. Dick’s brows contracted and he murmured an evil word because he had taken all his success as a right and part payment for past discomfort, and now he was checked in his stride by a woman who admitted all the success and did not instantly care for him.

‘I say, old man,’ said Torpenhow, who had made one or two vain attempts at conversation, ‘I haven’t put your back up by anything I’ve said lately, have I?’

‘You! No. How could you?’

‘Liver out of order?’

‘The truly healthy man doesn’t know he has a liver. I’m only a bit worried about things in general. I suppose it’s my soul.’

‘The truly healthy man doesn’t know he has a soul. What business have you with luxuries of that kind?’

‘It came of itself. Who’s the man that says that we’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding?’

‘He’s right, whoever he is — except about the misunderstanding. I don’t think we could misunderstand each other.’

The blue smoke curled back from the ceiling in clouds. Then Torpenhow, insinuatingly —‘Dick, is it a woman?’

‘Be hanged if it’s anything remotely resembling a woman; and if you begin to talk like that, I’ll hire a red-brick studio with white paint trimmings, and begonias and petunias and blue Hungarias to play among three-and-sixpenny pot-palms, and I’ll mount all my pics in aniline-dye plush plasters, and I’ll invite every woman who maunders over what her guide-books tell her is Art, and you shall receive ’em, Torp — in a snuff-brown velvet coat with yellow trousers and an orange tie. You’ll like that?’

‘Too thin, Dick. A better man than you once denied with cursing and swearing. You’ve overdone it, just as he did. It’s no business of mine, of course, but it’s comforting to think that somewhere under the stars there’s saving up for you a tremendous thrashing. Whether it’ll come from heaven or earth, I don’t know, but it’s bound to come and break you up a little. You want hammering.’

Dick shivered. ‘All right,’ said he. ‘When this island is disintegrated, it will call for you.’

‘I shall come round the corner and help to disintegrate it some more.

We’re talking nonsense. Come along to a theatre.’

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