The Light That Failed, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter IX

 ‘If I have taken the common clay
 And wrought it cunningly
 In the shape of a god that was digged a clod,
 The greater honour to me.’

 ‘If thou hast taken the common clay,
 And thy hands be not free
 From the taint of the soil, thou hast made thy spoil
 The greater shame to thee.’— The Two Potters.

HE DID no work of any kind for the rest of the week. Then came another Sunday. He dreaded and longed for the day always, but since the red-haired girl had sketched him there was rather more dread than desire in his mind.

He found that Maisie had entirely neglected his suggestions about line-work. She had gone off at score filed with some absurd notion for a ‘fancy head.’ It cost Dick something to command his temper.

‘What’s the good of suggesting anything?’ he said pointedly.

‘Ah, but this will be a picture — a real picture; and I know that Kami will let me send it to the Salon. You don’t mind, do you?’

‘I suppose not. But you won’t have time for the Salon.’

Maisie hesitated a little. She even felt uncomfortable.

‘We’re going over to France a month sooner because of it. I shall get the idea sketched out here and work it up at Kami’s.

Dick’s heart stood still, and he came very near to being disgusted with his queen who could do no wrong. ‘Just when I thought I had made some headway, she goes off chasing butterflies. It’s too maddening!’

There was no possibility of arguing, for the red-haired girl was in the studio. Dick could only look unutterable reproach.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘and I think you make a mistake. But what’s the idea of your new picture?’

‘I took it from a book.’

‘That’s bad, to begin with. Books aren’t the places for pictures. And ——’

‘It’s this,’ said the red-haired girl behind him. ‘I was reading it to Maisie the other day from The City of Dreadful Night. D’you know the book?’

‘A little. I am sorry I spoke. There are pictures in it. What has taken her fancy?’

‘The description of the Melancolia —

 ‘Her folded wings as of a mighty eagle,
 But all too impotent to lift the regal
 Robustness of her earth-born strength and pride.

And here again. (Maisie, get the tea, dear.)

 ‘The forehead charged with baleful thoughts and dreams,
 The household bunch of keys, the housewife’s gown,
 Voluminous indented, and yet rigid
 As though a shell of burnished metal frigid,
 Her feet thick-shod to tread all weakness down.’

There was no attempt to conceal the scorn of the lazy voice. Dick winced.

‘But that has been done already by an obscure artist by the name of Durer,’ said he. ‘How does the poem run? —

‘Three centuries and threescore years ago, With phantasies of his peculiar thought.

You might as well try to rewrite Hamlet. It will be a waste of time.

‘No, it won’t,’ said Maisie, putting down the teacups with a clatter to reassure herself. ‘And I mean to do it. Can’t you see what a beautiful thing it would make?’

‘How in perdition can one do work when one hasn’t had the proper training? Any fool can get a notion. It needs training to drive the thing through — training and conviction; not rushing after the first fancy.’ Dick spoke between his teeth.

‘You don’t understand,’ said Maisie. ‘I think I can do it.’

Again the voice of the girl behind him —

‘Baffled and beaten back, she works on still; Weary and sick of soul, she works the more.

 Sustained by her indomitable will,
 The hands shall fashion, and the brain shall pore,
 And all her sorrow shall be turned to labour ——

I fancy Maisie means to embody herself in the picture.’

‘Sitting on a throne of rejected pictures? No, I shan’t, dear. The notion in itself has fascinated me. — Of course you don’t care for fancy heads, Dick.

I don’t think you could do them. You like blood and bones.’

‘That’s a direct challenge. If you can do a Melancolia that isn’t merely a sorrowful female head, I can do a better one; and I will, too. What d’you know about Melacolias?’ Dick firmly believed that he was even then tasting three-quarters of all the sorrow in the world.

‘She was a woman,’ said Maisie, ‘and she suffered a great deal — till she could suffer no more. Then she began to laugh at it all, and then I painted her and sent her to the Salon.’

The red-haired girl rose up and left the room, laughing.

Dick looked at Maisie humbly and hopelessly.

‘Never mind about the picture,’ he said. ‘Are you really going back to Kami’s for a month before your time?’

‘I must, if I want to get the picture done.’

‘And that’s all you want?’

‘Of course. Don’t be stupid, Dick.’

‘You haven’t the power. You have only the ideas — the ideas and the little cheap impulses. How you could have kept at your work for ten years steadily is a mystery to me. So you are really going — a month before you need?’

‘I must do my work.’

‘Your work — bah! . . . No, I didn’t mean that. It’s all right, dear. Of course you must do your work, and — I think I’ll say good-bye for this week.’

‘Won’t you even stay for tea? ‘No, thank you. Have I your leave to go, dear? There’s nothing more you particularly want me to do, and the line-work doesn’t matter.’

‘I wish you could stay, and then we could talk over my picture. If only one single picture’s a success, it draws attention to all the others. I know some of my work is good, if only people could see. And you needn’t have been so rude about it.’

‘I’m sorry. We’ll talk the Melancolia over some one of the other Sundays.

There are four more — yes, one, two, three, four — before you go. Good-bye, Maisie.’

Maisie stood by the studio window, thinking, till the red-haired girl returned, a little white at the corners of her lips.

‘Dick’s gone off,’ said Maisie. ‘Just when I wanted to talk about the picture. Isn’t it selfish of him?’

Her companion opened her lips as if to speak, shut them again, and went on reading The City of Dreadful Night.

Dick was in the Park, walking round and round a tree that he had chosen as his confidante for many Sundays past. He was swearing audibly, and when he found that the infirmities of the English tongue hemmed in his rage, he sought consolation in Arabic, which is expressly designed for the use of the afflicted. He was not pleased with the reward of his patient service; nor was he pleased with himself; and it was long before he arrived at the proposition that the queen could do no wrong.

‘It’s a losing game,’ he said. ‘I’m worth nothing when a whim of hers is in question. But in a losing game at Port Said we used to double the stakes and go on. She do a Melancolia! She hasn’t the power, or the insight, or the training. Only the desire. She’s cursed with the curse of Reuben. She won’t do line-work, because it means real work; and yet she’s stronger than I am. I’ll make her understand that I can beat her on her own Melancolia. Even then she wouldn’t care. She says I can only do blood and bones. I don’t believe she has blood in her veins. All the same I lover her; and I must go on loving her; and if I can humble her inordinate vanity I will. I’ll do a Melancolia that shall be something like a Melancolia —“the Melancolia that transcends all wit.” I’ll do it at once, con-bless her.’

He discovered that the notion would not come to order, and that he could not free his mind for an hour from the thought of Maisie’s departure. He took very small interest in her rough studies for the Melancolia when she showed them next week. The Sundays were racing past, and the time was at hand when all the church bells in London could not ring Maisie back to him. Once or twice he said something to Binkie about ‘hermaphroditic futilities,’ but the little dog received so many confidences both from Torpenhow and Dick that he did not trouble his tulip-ears to listen.

Dick was permitted to see the girls off. They were going by the Dover night-boat; and they hoped to return in August. It was then February, and Dick felt that he was being hardly used. Maisie was so busy stripping the small house across the Park, and packing her canvases, that she had not time for thought. Dick went down to Dover and wasted a day there fretting over a wonderful possibility. Would Maisie at the very last allow him one small kiss? He reflected that he might capture her by the strong arm, as he had seem women captured in the Southern Soudan, and lead her away; but Maisie would never be led. She would turn her gray eyes upon him and say, ‘Dick, how selfish you are!’ Then his courage would fail him. It would be better, after all, to beg for that kiss.

Maisie looked more than usually kissable as she stepped from the night-mail on to the windy pier, in a gray waterproof and a little gray cloth travelling-cap. The red-haired girl was not so lovely. Her green eyes were hollow and her lips were dry. Dick saw the trunks aboard, and went to Maisie’s side in the darkness under the bridge. The mail-bags were thundering into the forehold, and the red-haired girl was watching them.

‘You’ll have a rough passage to-night,’ said Dick. ‘It’s blowing outside. I suppose I may come over and see you if I’m good?’

‘You mustn’t. I shall be busy. At least, if I want you I’ll send for you. But I shall write from Vitry-sur-Marne. I shall have heaps of things to consult you about. Oh, Dick, you have been so good to me! — so good to me!’

‘Thank you for that, dear. It hasn’t made any difference, has it?’

‘I can’t tell a fib. It hasn’t — in that way. But don’t think I’m not grateful.’

‘Damn the gratitude!’ said Dick, huskily, to the paddle-box.

‘What’s the use of worrying? You know I should ruin your life, and you’d ruin mine, as things are now. You remember what you said when you were so angry that day in the Park? One of us has to be broken.

Can’t you wait till that day comes?’

‘No, love. I want you unbroken — all to myself.’

Maisie shook her head. ‘My poor Dick, what can I say!’

‘Don’t say anything. Give me a kiss. Only one kiss, Maisie. I’ll swear I won’t take any more. You might as well, and then I can be sure you’re grateful.’

Maisie put her cheek forward, and Dick took his reward in the darkness.

It was only one kiss, but, since there was no time-limit specified, it was a long one. Maisie wrenched herself free angrily, and Dick stood abashed and tingling from head to toe.

‘Good-bye, darling. I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry. Only — keep well and do good work — specially the Melancolia. I’m going to do one, too. Remember me to Kami, and be careful what you drink. Country drinking-water is bad everywhere, but it’s worse in France. Write to me if you want anything, and good-bye. Say good-bye to the whatever-you-call-um girl, and — can’t I have another kiss? No. You’re quite right. Good-bye.’

A should told him that it was not seemly to charge of the mail-bag incline. He reached the pier as the steamer began to move off, and he followed her with his heart.

‘And there’s nothing — nothing in the wide world — to keep us apart except her obstinacy. These Calais night-boats are much too small. I’ll get Torp to write to the papers about it. She’s beginning to pitch already.’

Maisie stood where Dick had left her till she heard a little gasping cough at her elbow. The red-haired girl’s eyes were alight with cold flame.

‘He kissed you!’ she said. ‘How could you let him, when he wasn’t anything to you? How dared you to take a kiss from him? Oh, Maisie, let’s go to the ladies’ cabin. I’m sick — deadly sick.’

‘We aren’t into open water yet. Go down, dear, and I’ll stay here. I don’t like the smell of the engines. . . . Poor Dick! He deserved one — only one.

But I didn’t think he’d frighten me so.’

Dick returned to town next day just in time for lunch, for which he had telegraphed. To his disgust, there were only empty plates in the studio.

He lifted up his voice like the bears in the fairy-tale, and Torpenhow entered, looking guilty.

‘H’sh!’ said he. ‘Don’t make such a noise. I took it. Come into my rooms, and I’ll show you why.’

Dick paused amazed at the threshold, for on Torpenhow’s sofa lay a girl asleep and breathing heavily. The little cheap sailor-hat, the blue-and-white dress, fitter for June than for February, dabbled with mud at the skirts, the jacket trimmed with imitation Astrakhan and ripped at the shoulder-seams, the one-and-elevenpenny umbrella, and, above all, the disgraceful condition of the kid-topped boots, declared all things.

‘Oh, I say, old man, this is too bad! You mustn’t bring this sort up here.

They steal things from the rooms.’

‘It looks bad, I admit, but I was coming in after lunch, and she staggered into the hall. I thought she was drunk at first, but it was collapse. I couldn’t leave her as she was, so I brought her up here and gave her your lunch. She was fainting from want of food. She went fast asleep the minute she had finished.’

‘I know something of that complaint. She’s been living on sausages, I suppose. Torp, you should have handed her over to a policeman for presuming to faint in a respectable house. Poor little wretch! Look at the face! There isn’t an ounce of immorality in it. Only folly — slack, fatuous, feeble, futile folly. It’s a typical head. D’you notice how the skull begins to show through the flesh padding on the face and cheek-bone?’

‘What a cold-blooded barbarian it is! Don’t hit a woman when she’s down. Can’t we do anything? She was simply dropping with starvation.

She almost fell into my arms, and when she got to the food she ate like a wild beast. It was horrible.’

‘I can give her money, which she would probably spend in drinks. Is she going to sleep for ever?’

The girl opened her eyes and glared at the men between terror and effrontery.

‘Feeling better?’ said Torpenhow.

‘Yes. Thank you. There aren’t many gentlemen that are as kind as you are. Thank you.’

‘When did you leave service?’ said Dick, who had been watching the scarred and chapped hands.

‘How did you know I was in service? I was. General servant. I didn’t like it.’

‘And how do you like being your own mistress?’

‘Do I look as if I liked it?’

‘I suppose not. One moment. Would you be good enough to turn your face to the window?’

The girl obeyed, and Dick watched her face keenly — so keenly that she made as if to hide behind Torpenhow.

‘The eyes have it,’ said Dick, walking up and down. ‘They are superb eyes for my business. And, after all, every head depends on the eyes. This has been sent from heaven to make up for — what was taken away. Now the weekly strain’s off my shoulders, I can get to work in earnest.

Evidently sent from heaven. Yes. Raise your chin a little, please.’

‘Gently, old man, gently. You’re scaring somebody out of her wits,’ said Torpenhow, who could see the girl trembling.

‘Don’t let him hit me! Oh, please don’t let him hit me! I’ve been hit cruel today because I spoke to a man. Don’t let him look at me like that! He’s reg’lar wicked, that one. Don’t let him look at me like that, neither! Oh, I feel as if I hadn’t nothing on when he looks at me like that!’

The overstrained nerves in the frail body gave way, and the girl wept like a little child and began to scream. Dick threw open the window, and Torpenhow flung the door back.

‘There you are,’ said Dick, soothingly. ‘My friend here can call for a policeman, and you can run through that door. Nobody is going to hurt you.’

The girl sobbed convulsively for a few minutes, and then tried to laugh.

‘Nothing in the world to hurt you. Now listen to me for a minute. I’m what they call an artist by profession. You know what artists do?’

‘They draw the things in red and black ink on the pop-shop labels.’

‘I dare say. I haven’t risen to pop-shop labels yet. Those are done by the Academicians. I want to draw your head.’

‘What for?’

‘Because it’s pretty. That is why you will come to the room across the landing three times a week at eleven in the morning, and I’ll give you three quid a week just for sitting still and being drawn. And there’s a quid on account.’

‘For nothing? Oh, my!’ The girl turned the sovereign in her hand, and with more foolish tears, ‘Ain’t neither o’ you two gentlemen afraid of my bilking you?’

‘No. Only ugly girls do that. Try and remember this place. And, by the way, what’s your name?’

‘I’m Bessic — Bessie —— It’s no use giving the rest. Bessie Broke — Stone-broke, if you like. What’s your names? But there — no one ever gives the real ones.’

Dick consulted Torpenhow with his eyes.

‘My name’s Heldar, and my friend’s called Torpenhow; and you must be sure to come here. Where do you live?’

‘South-the-water — one room — five and sixpence a week. Aren’t you making fun of me about that three quid?’

‘You’ll see later on. And, Bessie, next time you come, remember, you needn’t wear that paint. It’s bad for the skin, and I have all the colours you’ll be likely to need.’

Bessie withdrew, scrubbing her cheek with a ragged pocket-handkerchief. The two men looked at each other.

‘You’re a man,’ said Torpenhow.

‘I’m afraid I’ve been a fool. It isn’t our business to run about the earth reforming Bessie Brokes. And a woman of any kind has no right on this landing.’

‘Perhaps she won’t come back.’

‘She will if she thinks she can get food and warmth here. I know she will, worse luck. But remember, old man, she isn’t a woman; she’s my model; and be careful.’

‘The idea! She’s a dissolute little scarecrow — a gutter-snippet and nothing more.’

‘So you think. Wait till she has been fed a little and freed from fear. That fair type recovers itself very quickly. You won’t know her in a week or two, when that abject fear has died out of her eyes. She’ll be too happy and smiling for my purposes.’

‘But surely you’re not taking her out of charity? — to please me?’

‘I am not in the habit of playing with hot coals to please anybody. She has been sent from heaven, as I may have remarked before, to help me with my Melancolia.’

‘Never heard a word about the lady before.’

‘What’s the use of having a friend, if you must sling your notions at him in words? You ought to know what I’m thinking about. You’ve heard me grunt lately?’

‘Even so; but grunts mean anything in your language, from bad ‘baccy to wicked dealers. And I don’t think I’ve been much in your confidence for some time.’

‘It was a high and soulful grunt. You ought to have understood that it meant the Melancolia.’ Dick walked Torpenhow up and down the room, keeping silence. Then he smote him in the ribs, ‘Now don’t you see it? Bessie’s abject futility, and the terror in her eyes, welded on to one or two details in the way of sorrow that have come under my experience lately. Likewise some orange and black — two keys of each. But I can’t explain on an empty stomach.’

‘It sounds mad enough. You’d better stick to your soldiers, Dick, instead of maundering about heads and eyes and experiences.’

‘Think so?’ Dick began to dance on his heels, singing —

‘They’re as proud as a turkey when they hold the ready cash, You ought to ‘ear the way they laugh an’ joke; They are tricky an’ they’re funny when they’ve got the ready money — Ow! but see ’em when they’re all stone-broke.’

Then he sat down to pour out his heart to Maisie in a four-sheet letter of counsel and encouragement, and registered an oath that he would get to work with an undivided heart as soon as Bessie should reappear.

The girl kept her appointment unpainted and unadorned, afraid and overbold by turns. When she found that she was merely expected to sit still, she grew calmer, and criticised the appointments of the studio with freedom and some point. She liked the warmth and the comfort and the release from fear of physical pain. Dick made two or three studies of her head in monochrome, but the actual notion of the Melancolia would not arrive.

‘What a mess you keep your things in!’ said Bessie, some days later, when she felt herself thoroughly at home. ‘I s’pose your clothes are just as bad.

Gentlemen never think what buttons and tape are made for.’

‘I buy things to wear, and wear ’em till they go to pieces. I don’t know what Torpenhow does.’

Bessie made diligent inquiry in the latter’s room, and unearthed a bale of disreputable socks. ‘Some of these I’ll mend now,’ she said, ‘and some I’ll take home. D’you know, I sit all day long at home doing nothing, just like a lady, and no more noticing them other girls in the house than if they was so many flies. I don’t have any unnecessary words, but I put ’em down quick, I can tell you, when they talk to me. No; it’s quite nice these days. I lock my door, and they can only call me names through the keyhole, and I sit inside, just like a lady, mending socks. Mr. Torpenhow wears his socks out both ends at once.’

‘Three quid a week from me, and the delights of my society. No socks mended. Nothing from Torp except a nod on the landing now and again, and all his socks mended. Bessie is very much a woman,’ thought Dick; and he looked at her between half-shut eyes. Food and rest had transformed the girl, as Dick knew they would.

‘What are you looking at me like that for?’ she said quickly. ‘Don’t. You look reg’lar bad when you look that way. You don’t think much o’ me, do you?’

‘That depends on how you behave.’

Bessie behaved beautifully. Only it was difficult at the end of a sitting to bid her go out into the gray streets. She very much preferred the studio and a big chair by the stove, with some socks in her lap as an excuse for delay. Then Torpenhow would come in, and Bessie would be moved to tell strange and wonderful stories of her past, and still stranger ones of her present improved circumstances. She would make them tea as though she had a right to make it; and once or twice on these occasions Dick caught Torpenhow’s eyes fixed on the trim little figure, and because Bessie’’ flittings about the room made Dick ardently long for Maisie, he realised whither Torpenhow’s thoughts were tending. And Bessie was exceedingly careful of the condition of Torpenhow’s linen. She spoke very little to him, but sometimes they talked together on the landing.

‘I was a great fool,’ Dick said to himself. ‘I know what red firelight looks like when a man’s tramping through a strange town; and ours is a lonely, selfish sort of life at the best. I wonder Maisie doesn’t feel that sometimes. But I can’t order Bessie away. That’s the worst of beginning things. One never knows where they stop.’

One evening, after a sitting prolonged to the last limit of the light, Dick was roused from a nap by a broken voice in Torpenhow’s room. He jumped to his feet. ‘Now what ought I to do? It looks foolish to go in. — Oh, bless you, Binkie!’ The little terrier thrust Torpenhow’s door open with his nose and came out to take possession of Dick’s chair. The door swung wide unheeded, and Dick across the landing could see Bessie in the half-light making her little supplication to Torpenhow. She was kneeling by his side, and her hands were clasped across his knee.

‘I know — I know,’ she said thickly. ‘‘Tisn’t right o’ me to do this, but I can’t help it; and you were so kind — so kind; and you never took any notice o’ me. And I’ve mended all your things so carefully — I did. Oh, please, ‘tisn’t as if I was asking you to marry me. I wouldn’t think of it.

But you — couldn’t you take and live with me till Miss Right comes along? I’m only Miss Wrong, I know, but I’d work my hands to the bare bone for you. And I’m not ugly to look at. Say you will!’

Dick hardly recognised Torpenhow’s voice in reply —‘But look here. It’s no use. I’m liable to be ordered off anywhere at a minute’s notice if a war breaks out. At a minute’s notice — dear.’

‘What does that matter? Until you go, then. Until you go. ‘Tisn’t much I’m asking, and — you don’t know how good I can cook.’ She had put an arm round his neck and was drawing his head down.

‘Until — I— go, then.’

‘Torp,’ said Dick, across the landing. He could hardly steady his voice.

‘Come here a minute, old man. I’m in trouble’—‘Heaven send he’ll listen to me!’ There was something very like an oath from Bessie’s lips. She was afraid of Dick, and disappeared down the staircase in panic, but it seemed an age before Torpenhow entered the studio. He went to the mantelpiece, buried his head on his arms, and groaned like a wounded bull.

‘What the devil right have you to interfere?’ he said, at last.

‘Who’s interfering with which? Your own sense told you long ago you couldn’t be such a fool. It was a tough rack, St. Anthony, but you’re all right now.’

‘I oughtn’t to have seen her moving about these rooms as if they belonged to her. That’s what upset me. It gives a lonely man a sort of hankering, doesn’t it?’ said Torpenhow, piteously.

‘Now you talk sense. It does. But, since you aren’t in a condition to discuss the disadvantages of double housekeeping, do you know what you’re going to do?’

‘I don’t. I wish I did.’

‘You’re going away for a season on a brilliant tour to regain tone. You’re going to Brighton, or Scarborough, or Prawle Point, to see the ships go by. And you’re going at once. Isn’t it odd? I’ll take care of Binkie, but out you go immediately. Never resist the devil. He holds the bank. Fly from him. Pack your things and go.’

‘I believe you’re right. Where shall I go?’

‘And you call yourself a special correspondent! Pack first and inquire afterwards.’

An hour later Torpenhow was despatched into the night for a hansom.

‘You’ll probably think of some place to go to while you’re moving,’ said Dick. ‘On to Euston, to begin with, and — oh yes — get drunk to-night.’

He returned to the studio, and lighted more candles, for he found the room very dark.

‘Oh, you Jezebel! you futile little Jezebel! Won’t you hate me tomorrow! — Binkie, come here.’

Binkie turned over on his back on the hearth-rug, and Dick stirred him with a meditative foot.

‘I said she was not immoral. I was wrong. She said she could cook. That showed premeditated sin. Oh, Binkie, if you are a man you will go to perdition; but if you are a woman, and say that you can cook, you will go to a much worse place.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kipling/rudyard/light/chapter9.html

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