The Light That Failed, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter VI

 ‘And you may lead a thousand men,
 Nor ever draw the rein,
 But ere ye lead the Faery Queen
 ’Twill burst your heart in twain.’

 He has slipped his foot from the stirrup-bar,
 The bridle from his hand,
 And he is bound by hand and foot
 To the Queen o’ Faery-land.

 Sir Hoggie and the Fairies.

SOME weeks later, on a very foggy Sunday, Dick was returning across the Park to his studio. ‘This,’ he said, ‘is evidently the thrashing that Torp meant. It hurts more than I expected; but the Queen can do no wrong; and she certainly has some notion of drawing.’

He had just finished a Sunday visit to Maisie — always under the green eyes of the red-haired impressionist girl, whom he learned to hate at sight — and was tingling with a keen sense of shame. Sunday after Sunday, putting on his best clothes, he had walked over to the untidy house north of the Park, first to see Maisie’s pictures, and then to criticise and advise upon them as he realised that they were productions on which advice would not be wasted. Sunday after Sunday, and his love grew with each visit, he had been compelled to cram his heart back from between his lips when it prompted him to kiss Maisie several times and very much indeed. Sunday after Sunday, the head above the heart had warned him that Maisie was not yet attainable, and that it would be better to talk as connectedly as possible upon the mysteries of the craft that was all in all to her. Therefore it was his fate to endure weekly torture in the studio built out over the clammy back garden of a frail stuffy little villa where nothing was ever in its right place and nobody every called — to endure and to watch Maisie moving to and fro with the teacups. He abhorred tea, but, since it gave him a little longer time in her presence, he drank it devoutly, and the red-haired girl sat in an untidy heap and eyed him without speaking. She was always watching him.

Once, and only once, when she had left the studio, Maisie showed him an album that held a few poor cuttings from provincial papers — the briefest of hurried notes on some of her pictures sent to outlying exhibitions. Dick stooped and kissed the paint-smudged thumb on the open page. ‘Oh, my love, my love,’ he muttered, ‘do you value these things? Chuck ’em into the waste-paper basket!’

‘Not till I get something better,’ said Maisie, shutting the book.

Then Dick, moved by no respect for his public and a very deep regard for the maiden, did deliberately propose, in order to secure more of these coveted cuttings, that he should paint a picture which Maisie should sign.

‘That’s childish,’ said Maisie, ‘and I didn’t think it of you. It must be my work. Mine — mine — mine!’

‘Go and design decorative medallions for rich brewers’ houses. You are thoroughly good at that.’ Dick was sick and savage.

‘Better things than medallions, Dick,’ was the answer, in tones that recalled a gray-eyed atom’s fearless speech to Mrs. Jennett. Dick would have abased himself utterly, but that other girl trailed in.

Next Sunday he laid at Maisie’s feet small gifts of pencils that could almost draw of themselves and colours in whose permanence he believed, and he was ostentatiously attentive to the work in hand. It demanded, among other things, an exposition of the faith that was in him.

Torpenhow’s hair would have stood on end had he heard the fluency with which Dick preached his own gospel of Art.

A month before, Dick would have been equally astonished; but it was Maisie’s will and pleasure, and he dragged his words together to make plain to her comprehension all that had been hidden to himself of the whys and wherefores of work. There is not the least difficulty in doing a thing if you only know how to do it; the trouble is to explain your method.

‘I could put this right if I had a brush in my hand,’ said Dick, despairingly, over the modelling of a chin that Maisie complained would not ‘look flesh,’— it was the same chin that she had scraped out with the palette knife — ‘but I find it almost impossible to teach you. There’s a queer grin, Dutch touch about your painting that I like; but I’ve a notion that you’re weak in drawing. You foreshorten as though you never used the model, and you’ve caught Kami’s pasty way of dealing with flesh in shadow. Then, again, though you don’t know it yourself, you shirk hard work. Suppose you spend some of your time on line lone. Line doesn’t allow of shirking. Oils do, and three square inches of flashy, tricky stuff in the corner of a pic sometimes carry a bad thing off — as I know. That’s immoral. Do line-work for a little while, and then I can tell more about your powers, as old Kami used to say.’

Maisie protested; she did not care for the pure line.

‘I know,’ said Dick. ‘You want to do your fancy heads with a bunch of flowers at the base of the neck to hide bad modelling.’ The red-haired girl laughed a little. ‘You want to do landscapes with cattle knee-deep in grass to hide bad drawing. You want to do a great deal more than you can do. You have sense of colour, but you want form. Colour’s a gift — put it aside and think no more about it — but form you can be drilled into.

Now, all your fancy heads — and some of them are very good — will keep you exactly where you are. With line you must go forward or backward, and it will show up all your weaknesses.’

‘But other people ——’ began Maisie.

‘You mustn’t mind what other people do. If their souls were your soul, it would be different. You stand and fall by your own work, remember, and it’s waste of time to think of any one else in this battle.’

Dick paused, and the longing that had been so resolutely put away came back into his eyes. He looked at Maisie, and the look asked as plainly as words, Was it not time to leave all this barren wilderness of canvas and counsel and join hands with Life and Love?

Maisie assented to the new programme of schooling so adorably that Dick could hardly restrain himself from picking her up then and there and carrying her off to the nearest registrar’s office. It was the implicit obedience to the spoken word and the blank indifference to the unspoken desire that baffled and buffeted his soul. He held authority in that house — authority limited, indeed, to one-half of one afternoon in seven, but very real while it lasted. Maisie had learned to appeal to him on many subjects, from the proper packing of pictures to the condition of a smoky chimney. The red-haired girl never consulted him about anything.

On the other hand, she accepted his appearances without protest, and watched him always. He discovered that the meals of the establishment were irregular and fragmentary. They depended chiefly on tea, pickles, and biscuit, as he had suspected from the beginning. The girls were supposed to market week and week about, but they lived, with the help of a charwoman, as casually as the young ravens. Maisie spent most of her income on models, and the other girl revelled in apparatus as refined as her work was rough. Armed with knowledge, dear-bought from the Docks, Dick warned Maisie that the end of semi-starvation meant the crippling of power to work, which was considerably worse than death.

Maisie took the warning, and gave more thought to what she ate and drank. When his trouble returned upon him, as it generally did in the long winter twilights, the remembrance of that little act of domestic authority and his coercion with a hearth-brush of the smoky drawing-room chimney stung Dick like a whip-lash.

He conceived that this memory would be the extreme of his sufferings, till one Sunday, the red-haired girl announced that she would make a study of Dick’s head, and that he would be good enough to sit still, and — quite as an afterthought — look at Maisie. He sat, because he could not well refuse, and for the space of half an hour he reflected on all the people in the past whom he had laid open for the purposes of his own craft. He remembered Binat most distinctly — that Binat who had once been an artist and talked about degradation.

It was the merest monochrome roughing in of a head, but it presented the dumb waiting, the longing, and, above all, the hopeless enslavement of the man, in a spirit of bitter mockery.

‘I’ll buy it,’ said Dick, promptly, ‘at your own price.’

‘My price is too high, but I dare say you’ll be as grateful if ——’ The wet sketch, fluttered from the girl’s hand and fell into the ashes of the studio stove. When she picked it up it was hopelessly smudged.

‘Oh, it’s all spoiled!’ said Maisie. ‘And I never saw it. Was it like?’

‘Thank you,’ said Dick under his breath to the red-haired girl, and he removed himself swiftly.

‘How that man hates me!’ said the girl. ‘And how he loves you, Maisie!’

‘What nonsense? I knew Dick’s very fond of me, but he had his work to do, and I have mine.’

‘Yes, he is fond of you, and I think he knows there is something in impressionism, after all. Maisie, can’t you see?’

‘See? See what?’

‘Nothing; only, I know that if I could get any man to look at me as that man looks at you, I’d — I don’t know what I’d do. But he hates me. Oh, how he hates me!’

She was not altogether correct. Dick’s hatred was tempered with gratitude for a few moments, and then he forgot the girl entirely. Only the sense of shame remained, and he was nursing it across the Park in the fog. ‘There’ll be an explosion one of these days,’ he said wrathfully. ‘But it isn’t Maisie’s fault; she’s right, quite right, as far as she knows, and I can’t blame her. This business has been going on for three months nearly.

Three months! — and it cost me ten years’ knocking about to get at the notion, the merest raw notion, of my work. That’s true; but then I didn’t have pins, drawing-pins, and palette-knives, stuck into me every Sunday.

Oh, my little darling, if ever I break you, somebody will have a very bad time of it. No, she won’t. I’d be as big a fool about her as I am now. I’ll poison that red-haired girl on my wedding-day — she’s unwholesome — and now I’ll pass on these present bad times to Torp.’

Torpenhow had been moved to lecture Dick more than once lately on the sin of levity, and Dick and listened and replied not a word. In the weeks between the first few Sundays of his discipline he had flung himself savagely into his work, resolved that Maisie should at least know the full stretch of his powers. Then he had taught Maisie that she must not pay the least attention to any work outside her own, and Maisie had obeyed him all too well. She took his counsels, but was not interested in his pictures.

‘Your things smell of tobacco and blood,’ she said once. ‘Can’t you do anything except soldiers?’

‘I could do a head of you that would startle you,’ thought Dick — this was before the red-haired girl had brought him under the guillotine — but he only said, ‘I am very sorry,’ and harrowed Torpenhow’s soul that evening with blasphemies against Art. Later, insensibly and to a large extent against his own will, he ceased to interest himself in his own work.

For Maisie’s sake, and to soothe the self-respect that it seemed to him he lost each Sunday, he would not consciously turn out bad stuff, but, since Maisie did not care even for his best, it were better not to do anything at all save wait and mark time between Sunday and Sunday. Torpenhow was disgusted as the weeks went by fruitless, and then attacked him one Sunday evening when Dick felt utterly exhausted after three hours’ biting self-restraint in Maisie’s presence. There was Language, and Torpenhow withdrew to consult the Nilghai, who had come it to talk continental politics.

‘Bone-idle, is he? Careless, and touched in the temper?’ said the Nilghai.

‘It isn’t worth worrying over. Dick is probably playing the fool with a woman.’

‘Isn’t that bad enough?’

‘No. She may throw him out of gear and knock his work to pieces for a while. She may even turn up here some day and make a scene on the staircase: one never knows. But until Dick speaks of his own accord you had better not touch him. He is no easy-tempered man to handle.’

‘No; I wish he were. He is such an aggressive, cocksure, you-be-damned fellow.’

‘He’ll get that knocked out of him in time. He must learn that he can’t storm up and down the world with a box of moist tubes and a slick brush.

You’re fond of him?’

‘I’d take any punishment that’s in store for him if I could; but the worst of it is, no man can save his brother.’

‘No, and the worser of it is, there is no discharge in this war. Dick must learn his lesson like the rest of us. Talking of war, there’ll be trouble in the Balkans in the spring.’

‘That trouble is long coming. I wonder if we could drag Dick out there when it comes off?’

Dick entered the room soon afterwards, and the question was put to him.

‘Not good enough,’ he said shortly. ‘I’m too comf’y where I am.’

‘Surely you aren’t taking all the stuff in the papers seriously?’ said the Nilghai. ‘Your vogue will be ended in less than six months — the public will know your touch and go on to something new — and where will you be then?’

‘Here, in England.’

‘When you might be doing decent work among us out there? Nonsense! I shall go, the Keneu will be there, Torp will be there, Cassavetti will be there, and the whole lot of us will be there, and we shall have as much as ever we can do, with unlimited fighting and the chance for you of seeing things that would make the reputation of three Verestchagins.’

‘Um!’ said Dick, pulling at his pipe.

‘You prefer to stay here and imagine that all the world is gaping at your pictures? Just think how full an average man’s life is of his own pursuits and pleasures. When twenty thousand of him find time to look up between mouthfuls and grunt something about something they aren’t the least interested in, the net result is called fame, reputation, or notoriety, according to the taste and fancy of the speller my lord.’

‘I know that as well as you do. Give me credit for a little gumption.’

‘Be hanged if I do!’

‘Be hanged, then; you probably will be — for a spy, by excited Turks.

Heigh-ho! I’m weary, dead weary, and virtue has gone out of me.’ Dick dropped into a chair, and was fast asleep in a minute.

‘That’s a bad sign,’ said the Nilghai, in an undertone.

Torpenhow picked the pipe from the waistcoat where it was beginning to burn, and put a pillow behind the head. ‘We can’t help; we can’t help,’ he said. ‘It’s a good ugly sort of old cocoanut, and I’m fond of it. There’s the scar of the wipe he got when he was cut over in the square.’

‘Shouldn’t wonder if that has made him a trifle mad.’

‘I should. He’s a most businesslike madman.’

Then Dick began to snore furiously.

‘Oh, here, no affection can stand this sort of thing. Wake up, Dick, and go and sleep somewhere else, if you intend to make a noise about it.’

‘When a cat has been out on the tiles all night,’ said the Nilghai, in his beard, ‘I notice that she usually sleeps all day. This is natural history.’

Dick staggered away rubbing his eyes and yawning. In the night-watches he was overtaken with an idea, so simple and so luminous that he wondered he had never conceived it before. It was full of craft. He would seek Maisie on a week-day — would suggest an excursion, and would take her by train to Fort Keeling, over the very ground that they two had trodden together ten years ago.

‘As a general rule,’ he explained to his chin-lathered reflection in the morning, ‘it isn’t safe to cross an old trail twice. Things remind one of things, and a cold wind gets up, and you feel said; but this is an exception to every rule that ever was. I’ll go to Maisie at once.’

Fortunately, the red-haired girl was out shopping when he arrived, and Maisie in a paint-spattered blouse was warring with her canvas. She was not pleased to see him; for week-day visits were a stretch of the bond; and it needed all his courage to explain his errand.

‘I know you’ve been working too hard,’ he concluded, with an air of authority. ‘If you do that, you’ll break down. You had much better come.’

‘Where?’ said Maisie, wearily. She had been standing before her easel too long, and was very tired.

‘Anywhere you please. We’ll take a train tomorrow and see where it stops. We’ll have lunch somewhere, and I’ll bring you back in the evening.’

‘If there’s a good working light tomorrow, I lose a day.’ Maisie balanced the heavy white chestnut palette irresolutely.

Dick bit back an oath that was hurrying to his lips. He had not yet learned patience with the maiden to whom her work was all in all.

‘You’ll lose ever so many more, dear, if you use every hour of working light. Overwork’s only murderous idleness. Don’t be unreasonable. I’ll call for you tomorrow after breakfast early.’

‘But surely you are going to ask ——’

‘No, I am not. I want you and nobody else. Besides, she hates me as much as I hate her. She won’t care to come. To-morrow, then; and pray that we get sunshine.’

Dick went away delighted, and by consequence did no work whatever.

He strangled a wild desire to order a special train, but bought a great gray kangaroo cloak lined with glossy black marten, and then retired into himself to consider things.

‘I’m going out for the day tomorrow with Dick,’ said Maisie to the red-haired girl when the latter returned, tired, from marketing in the Edgware road.

‘He deserves it. I shall have the studio floor thoroughly scrubbed while you’re away. It’s very dirty.’

Maisie had enjoyed no sort of holiday for months and looked forward to the little excitement, but not without misgivings.

‘There’s nobody nicer than Dick when he talks sensibly, she though, but I’m sure he’ll be silly and worry me, and I’m sure I can’t tell him anything he’d like to hear. If he’d only be sensible, I should like him so much better.’

Dick’s eyes were full of joy when he made his appearance next morning and saw Maisie, gray-ulstered and black-velvet-hatted, standing in the hallway. Palaces of marble, and not sordid imitation of grained wood, were surely the fittest background for such a divinity. The red-haired girl drew her into the studio for a moment and kissed her hurriedly.

Maisie’s eyebrows climbed to the top of her forehead; she was altogether unused to these demonstrations. ‘Mind my hat,’ she said, hurrying away, and ran down the steps to Dick waiting by the hansom.

‘Are you quite warm enough! Are you sure you wouldn’t like some more breakfast? Put the cloak over you knees.’

‘I’m quite comf’y, thanks. Where are we going, Dick? Oh, do stop singing like that. People will think we’re mad.’

‘Let ’em think — if the exertion doesn’t kill them. They don’t know who we are, and I’m sure I don’t care who they are. My faith, Maisie, you’re looking lovely!’

Maisie stared directly in front of her and did not reply. The wind of a keen clear winter morning had put colour into her cheeks. Overhead, the creamy-yellow smoke-clouds were thinning away one by one against a pale-blue sky, and the improvident sparrows broke off from water-spout committees and cab-rank cabals to clamour of the coming of spring.

‘It will be lovely weather in the country,’ said Dick.

‘But where are we going?’

‘Wait and see.’

The stopped at Victoria, and Dick sought tickets. For less than half the fraction of an instant it occurred to Maisie, comfortably settled by the waiting-room fire, that it was much more pleasant to send a man to the booking-office than to elbow one’s own way through the crowd. Dick put her into a Pullman — solely on account of the warmth there; and she regarded the extravagance with grave scandalised eyes as the train moved out into the country.

‘I wish I knew where we are going,’ she repeated for the twentieth time.

The name of a well-remembered station flashed by, towards the end of the run, and Maisie was delighted.

‘Oh, Dick, you villain!’

‘Well, I thought you might like to see the place again. You haven’t been here since the old times, have you?’

‘No. I never cared to see Mrs. Jennett again; and she was all that was ever there.’

‘Not quite. Look out a minute. There’s the windmill above the potato-fields; they haven’t built villas there yet; d’you remember when I shut you up in it?’

‘Yes. How she beat you for it! I never told it was you.’

‘She guessed. I jammed a stick under the door and told you that I was burying Amomma alive in the potatoes, and you believed me. You had a trusting nature in those days.’

They laughed and leaned to look out, identifying ancient landmarks with many reminiscences. Dick fixed his weather eye on the curve of Maisie’s cheek, very near his own, and watched the blood rise under the clear skin. He congratulated himself upon his cunning, and looked that the evening would bring him a great reward.

When the train stopped they went out to look at an old town with new eyes. First, but from a distance, they regarded the house of Mrs. Jennett.

‘Suppose she should come out now, what would you do?’ said Dick, with mock terror.

‘I should make a face.’

‘Show, then,’ said Dick, dropping into the speech of childhood.

Maisie made that face in the direction of the mean little villa, and Dick laughed.

‘“This is disgraceful,”’ said Maisie, mimicking Mrs. Jennett’s tone.

‘“Maisie, you run in at once, and learn the collect, gospel, and epistle for the next three Sundays. After all I’ve taught you, too, and three helps every Sunday at dinner! Dick’s always leading you into mischief. If you aren’t a gentleman, Dick, you might at least —”’

The sentence ended abruptly. Maisie remembered when it had last been used.

‘“Try to behave like one,”’ said Dick, promptly. ‘Quite right. Now we’ll get some lunch and go on to Fort Keeling — unless you’d rather drive there?’

‘We must walk, out of respect to the place. How little changed it all is!’

They turned in the direction of the sea through unaltered streets, and the influence of old things lay upon them. Presently they passed a confectioner’s shop much considered in the days when their joint pocket-money amounted to a shilling a week.

‘Dick, have you any pennies?’ said Maisie, half to herself.

‘Only three; and if you think you’re going to have two of ’em to buy peppermints with, you’re wrong. She says peppermints aren’t ladylike.’

Again they laughed, and again the colour came into Maisie’s cheeks as the blood boiled through Dick’s heart. After a large lunch they went down to the beach and to Fort Keeling across the waste, wind-bitten land that no builder had thought it worth his while to defile. The winter breeze came in from the sea and sang about their ears.

‘Maisie,’ said Dick, ‘your nose is getting a crude Prussian blue at the tip.

I’ll race you as far as you please for as much as you please.’

She looked round cautiously, and with a laugh set off, swiftly as the ulster allowed, till she was out of breath.

‘We used to run miles,’ she panted. ‘It’s absurd that we can’t run now.’

‘Old age, dear. This it is to get fat and sleek in town. When I wished to pull you hair you generally ran for three miles, shrieking at the top of your voice. I ought to know, because those shrieks of yours were meant to call up Mrs. Jennett with a cane and ——’

‘Dick, I never got you a beating on purpose in my life.’

‘No, of course you never did. Good heavens! look at the sea.’

‘Why, it’s the same as ever!’ said Maisie.

Torpenhow had gathered from Mr. Beeton that Dick, properly dressed and shaved, had left the house at half-past eight in the morning with a travelling-rug over his arm. The Nilghai rolled in at mid-day for chess and polite conversation.

‘It’s worse than anything I imagined,’ said Torpenhow.

‘Oh, the everlasting Dick, I suppose! You fuss over him like a hen with one chick. Let him run riot if he thinks it’ll amuse him. You can whip a young pup off feather, but you can’t whip a young man.’

‘It isn’t a woman. It’s one woman; and it’s a girl.’

‘Where’s your proof?’

‘He got up and went out at eight this morning — got up in the middle of the night, by Jove! a thing he never does except when he’s on service.

Even then, remember, we had to kick him out of his blankets before the fight began at El–Maghrib. It’s disgusting.’

‘It looks odd; but maybe he’s decided to buy a horse at last. He might get up for that, mightn’t he?’

‘Buy a blazing wheelbarrow! He’d have told us if there was a horse in the wind. It’s a girl.’

‘Don’t be certain. Perhaps it’s only a married woman.’

‘Dick has some sense of humour, if you haven’t. Who gets up in the gray dawn to call on another man’s wife? It’s a girl.’

‘Let it be a girl, then. She may teach him that there’s somebody else in the world besides himself.’

‘She’ll spoil his hand. She’ll waste his time, and she’ll marry him, and ruin his work for ever. He’ll be a respectable married man before we can stop him, and — he’ll ever go on the long trail again.’

‘All quite possible, but the earth won’t spin the other way when that happens. . . . No! ho! I’d give something to see Dick “go wooing with the boys.” Don’t worry about it. These things be with Allah, and we can only look on. Get the chessmen.’

The red-haired girl was lying down in her own room, staring at the ceiling. The footsteps of people on the pavement sounded, as they grew indistinct in the distance, like a many-times-repeated kiss that was all one long kiss. Her hands were by her side, and they opened and shut savagely from time to time.

The charwoman in charge of the scrubbing of the studio knocked at her door: ‘Beg y’ pardon, miss, but in cleanin’ of a floor there’s two, not to say three, kind of soap, which is yaller, an’ mottled, an’ disinfectink.

Now, jist before I took my pail into the passage I though it would be pre’aps jest as well if I was to come up ’ere an’ ask you what sort of soap you was wishful that I should use on them boards. The yaller soap, miss ——’

There was nothing in the speech to have caused the paroxysm of fury that drove the red-haired girl into the middle of the room, almost shouting —‘Do you suppose I care what you use? Any kind will do! — any kind!’

The woman fled, and the red-haired girl looked at her own reflection in the glass for an instant and covered her face with her hands. It was as though she had shouted some shameless secret aloud.

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