The Light That Failed

Chapter VIII

Rudyard Kipling

And these two, as I have told you,
Were the friends of Hiawatha,
Chibiabos, the musician,
And the very strong man, Kwasind.
TORPENHOW was paging the last sheets of some manuscript, while the Nilghai, who had come for chess and remained to talk tactics, was reading through the first part, commenting scornfully the while.

‘It’s picturesque enough and it’s sketchy,’ said he; ‘but as a serious consideration of affairs in Eastern Europe, it’s not worth much.’

‘It’s off my hands at any rate. . . . Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine slips altogether, aren’t there? That should make between eleven and twelve pages of valuable misinformation. Heigho!’ Torpenhow shuffled the writing together and hummed—

Young lambs to sell, young lambs to sell,
If I’d as much money as I could tell,
I never would cry, Young lambs to sell!

Dick entered, self-conscious and a little defiant, but in the best of tempers with all the world.

‘Back at last?’ said Torpenhow.

‘More or less. What have you been doing?’

‘Work. Dickie, you behave as though the Bank of England were behind you. Here’s Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday gone and you haven’t done a line. It’s scandalous.’

‘The notions come and go, my children—they come and go like our ‘baccy,’ he answered, filling his pipe. ‘Moreover,’ he stooped to thrust a spill into the grate, ‘Apollo does not always stretch his—— Oh, confound your clumsy jests, Nilghai!’

‘This is not the place to preach the theory of direct inspiration,’ said the Nilghai, returning Torpenhow’s large and workmanlike bellows to their nail on the wall. ‘We believe in cobblers’ wax. La!—where you sit down.’

‘If you weren’t so big and fat,’ said Dick, looking round for a weapon, ‘I’d——’

‘No skylarking in my rooms. You two smashed half my furniture last time you threw the cushions about. You might have the decency to say How d’you do? to Binkie. Look at him.’

Binkie had jumped down from the sofa and was fawning round Dick’s knee, and scratching at his boots.

‘Dear man!’ said Dick, snatching him up, and kissing him on the black patch above his right eye. ‘Did ums was, Binks? Did that ugly Nilghai turn you off the sofa? Bite him, Mr. Binkie.’ He pitched him on the Nilghai’s stomach, as the big man lay at ease, and Binkie pretended to destroy the Nilghai inch by inch, till a sofa cushion extinguished him, and panting he stuck out his tongue at the company.

‘The Binkie-boy went for a walk this morning before you were up, Torp. I saw him making love to the butcher at the corner when the shutters were being taken down—just as if he hadn’t enough to eat in his own proper house,’ said Dick.

‘Binks, is that a true bill?’ said Torpenhow, severely. The little dog retreated under the sofa cushion, and showed by the fat white back of him that he really had no further interest in the discussion.

‘Strikes me that another disreputable dog went for a walk, too,’ said the Nilghai. ‘What made you get up so early? Torp said you might be buying a horse.’

‘He knows it would need three of us for a serious business like that. No, I felt lonesome and unhappy, so I went out to look at the sea, and watch the pretty ships go by.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘Somewhere on the Channel. Progly or Snigly, or some watering-place was its name; I’ve forgotten; but it was only two hours’ run from London and the ships went by.’

‘Did you see anything you knew?’

‘Only the Barralong outwards to Australia, and an Odessa grain-boat loaded down by the head. It was a thick day, but the sea smelt good.’

‘Wherefore put on one’s best trousers to see the Barralong?’ said Torpenhow, pointing.

‘Because I’ve nothing except these things and my painting duds. Besides, I wanted to do honour to the sea.’

‘Did She make you feel restless?’ asked the Nilghai, keenly.

‘Crazy. Don’t speak of it. I’m sorry I went.’

Torpenhow and the Nilghai exchanged a look as Dick, stooping, busied himself among the former’s boots and trees.

‘These will do,’ he said at last; ‘I can’t say I think much of your taste in slippers, but the fit’s the thing.’ He slipped his feet into a pair of sock-like sambhur-skin foot coverings, found a long chair, and lay at length.

‘They’re my own pet pair,’ Torpenhow said. ‘I was just going to put them on myself.’

‘All your reprehensible selfishness. Just because you see me happy for a minute, you want to worry me and stir me up. Find another pair.’

‘Good for you that Dick can’t wear your clothes, Torp. You two live communistically,’ said the Nilghai.

‘Dick never has anything that I can wear. He’s only useful to sponge upon.’

‘Confound you, have you been rummaging round among my clothes, then?’ said Dick. ‘I put a sovereign in the tobacco-jar yesterday. How do you expect a man to keep his accounts properly if you——’

Here the Nilghai began to laugh, and Torpenhow joined him.

‘Hid a sovereign yesterday! You’re no sort of financier. You lent me a fiver about a month back. Do you remember?’ Torpenhow said.

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Do you remember that I paid it you ten days later, and you put it at the bottom of the tobacco?’

‘By Jove, did I? I thought it was in one of my colour-boxes.’

‘You thought! About a week ago I went into your studio to get some ‘baccy and found it.’

‘What did you do with it?’

‘Took the Nilghai to a theatre and fed him.’

‘You couldn’t feed the Nilghai under twice the money—not though you gave him Army beef. Well, I suppose I should have found it out sooner or later. What is there to laugh at?’

‘You’re a most amazing cuckoo in many directions,’ said the Nilghai, still chuckling over the thought of the dinner. ‘Never mind. We had both been working very hard, and it was your unearned increment we spent, and as you’re only a loafer it didn’t matter.’

‘That’s pleasant—from the man who is bursting with my meat, too. I’ll get that dinner back one of these days. Suppose we go to a theatre now.’

‘Put our boots on,—and dress,—and wash?’ The Nilghai spoke very lazily.

‘I withdraw the motion.’

‘Suppose, just for a change—as a startling variety, you know—we, that is to say we, get our charcoal and our canvas and go on with our work.’ Torpenhow spoke pointedly, but Dick only wriggled his toes inside the soft leather moccasins.

‘What a one-ideaed clucker that is! If I had any unfinished figures on hand, I haven’t any model; if I had my model, I haven’t any spray, and I never leave charcoal unfixed overnight; and if I had my spray and twenty photographs of backgrounds, I couldn’t do anything to-night. I don’t feel that way.’

‘Binkie-dog, he’s a lazy hog, isn’t he?’ said the Nilghai.

‘Very good, I will do some work,’ said Dick, rising swiftly. ‘I’ll fetch the Nungapunga Book, and we’ll add another picture to the Nilghai Saga.’

‘Aren’t you worrying him a little too much?’ asked the Nilghai, when Dick had left the room.

‘Perhaps, but I know what he can turn out if he likes. It makes me savage to hear him praised for past work when I know what he ought to do. You and I are arranged for——’

‘By Kismet and our own powers, more’s the pity. I have dreamed of a good deal.’

‘So have I, but we know our limitations now. I’m dashed if I know what Dick’s may be when he gives himself to his work. That’s what makes me so keen about him.’

‘And when all’s said and done, you will be put aside—quite rightly—for a female girl.’

‘I wonder . . . Where do you think he has been to-day?’

‘To the sea. Didn’t you see the look in his eyes when he talked about her? He’s as restless as a swallow in autumn.’

‘Yes; but did he go alone?’

‘I don’t know, and I don’t care, but he has the beginnings of the go-fever upon him. He wants to up-stakes and move out. There’s no mistaking the signs. Whatever he may have said before, he has the call upon him now.’

‘It might be his salvation,’ Torpenhow said.

‘Perhaps—if you care to take the responsibility of being a saviour.’

Dick returned with the big clasped sketch-book that the Nilghai knew well and did not love too much. In it Dick had drawn all manner of moving incidents, experienced by himself or related to him by the others, of all the four corners of the earth. But the wider range of the Nilghai’s body and life attracted him most. When truth failed he fell back on fiction of the wildest, and represented incidents in the Nilghai’s career that were unseemly,—his marriages with many African princesses, his shameless betrayal, for Arab wives, of an army corps to the Mahdi, his tattooment by skilled operators in Burmah, his interview (and his fears) with the yellow headsman in the blood-stained execution-ground of Canton, and finally, the passings of his spirit into the bodies of whales, elephants, and toucans. Torpenhow from time to time had added rhymed descriptions, and the whole was a curious piece of art, because Dick decided, having regard to the name of the book which being interpreted means ‘naked,’ that it would be wrong to draw the Nilghai with any clothes on, under any circumstances. Consequently the last sketch, representing that much-enduring man calling on the War Office to press his claims to the Egyptian medal, was hardly delicate. He settled himself comfortably on Torpenhow’s table and turned over the pages.

‘What a fortune you would have been to Blake, Nilghai!’ he said. ‘There’s a succulent pinkness about some of these sketches that’s more than life-like. “The Nilghai surrounded while bathing by the Mahdieh”—that was founded on fact, eh?’

‘It was very nearly my last bath, you irreverent dauber. Has Binkie come into the Saga yet?’

‘No; the Binkie-boy hasn’t done anything except eat and kill cats. Let’s see. Here you are as a stained-glass saint in a church. Deuced decorative lines about your anatomy; you ought to be grateful for being handed down to posterity in this way. Fifty years hence you’ll exist in rare and curious facsimiles at ten guineas each. What shall I try this time? The domestic life of the Nilghai?’

‘Hasn’t got any.’

‘The undomestic life of the Nilghai, then. Of course. Mass-meeting of his wives in Trafalgar Square. That’s it. They came from the ends of the earth to attend Nilghai’s wedding to an English bride. This shall be an epic. It’s a sweet material to work with.’

‘It’s a scandalous waste of time,’ said Torpenhow.

‘Don’t worry; it keeps one’s hand in—specially when you begin without the pencil.’ He set to work rapidly. ‘That’s Nelson’s Column. Presently the Nilghai will appear shinning up it.’

‘Give him some clothes this time.’

‘Certainly—a veil and an orange-wreath, because he’s been married.’

‘Gad, that’s clever enough!’ said Torpenhow over his shoulder, as Dick brought out of the paper with three twirls of the brush a very fat back and labouring shoulder pressed against stone.

‘Just imagine,’ Dick continued, ‘if we could publish a few of these dear little things every time the Nilghai subsidises a man who can write, to give the public an honest opinion of my pictures.’

‘Well, you’ll admit I always tell you when I have done anything of that kind. I know I can’t hammer you as you ought to be hammered, so I give the job to another. Young Maclagan, for instance——’

‘No-o—one half-minute, old man; stick your hand out against the dark of the wall-paper—you only burble and call me names. That left shoulder’s out of drawing. I must literally throw a veil over that. Where’s my pen-knife? Well, what about Maclagan?’

‘I only gave him his riding-orders to—to lambast you on general principles for not producing work that will last.’

‘Whereupon that young fool,’—Dick threw back his head and shut one eye as he shifted the page under his hand,—’being left alone with an ink-pot and what he conceived were his own notions, went and spilt them both over me in the papers. You might have engaged a grown man for the business, Nilghai. How do you think the bridal veil looks now, Torp?’

‘How the deuce do three dabs and two scratches make the stuff stand away from the body as it does?’ said Torpenhow, to whom Dick’s methods were always new.

‘It just depends on where you put ’em. If Maclagan had know that much about his business he might have done better.’

‘Why don’t you put the damned dabs into something that will stay, then?’ insisted the Nilghai, who had really taken considerable trouble in hiring for Dick’s benefit the pen of a young gentleman who devoted most of his waking hours to an anxious consideration of the aims and ends of Art, which, he wrote, was one and indivisible.

‘Wait a minute till I see how I am going to manage my procession of wives. You seem to have married extensively, and I must rough ’em in with the pencil—Medes, Parthians, Edomites. . . . Now, setting aside the weakness and the wickedness and—and the fat-headedness of deliberately trying to do work that will live, as they call it, I’m content with the knowledge that I’ve done my best up to date, and I shan’t do anything like it again for some hours at least—probably years. Most probably never.’

‘What! any stuff you have in stock your best work?’ said Torpenhow.

‘Anything you’ve sold?’ said the Nilghai.

‘Oh no. It isn’t here and it isn’t sold. Better than that, it can’t be sold, and I don’t think any one knows where it is. I’m sure I don’t. . . . And yet more and more wives, on the north side of the square. Observe the virtuous horror of the lions!’

‘You may as well explain,’ said Torpenhow, and Dick lifted his head from the paper.

‘The sea reminded me of it,’ he said slowly. ‘I wish it hadn’t. It weighs some few thousand tons—unless you cut it out with a cold chisel.’

‘Don’t be an idiot. You can’t pose with us here,’ said the Nilghai.

‘There’s no pose in the matter at all. It’s a fact. I was loafing from Lima to Auckland in a big, old, condemned passenger-ship turned into a cargo-boat and owned by a second-had Italian firm. She was a crazy basket. We were cut down to fifteen ton of coal a day, and we thought ourselves lucky when we kicked seven knots an hour out of her. Then we used to stop and let the bearings cool down, and wonder whether the crack in the shaft was spreading.’

‘Were you a steward or a stoker in those days?’

‘I was flush for the time being, so I was a passenger, or else I should have been a steward, I think,’ said Dick, with perfect gravity, returning to the procession of angry wives. ‘I was the only other passenger from Lima, and the ship was half empty, and full of rats and cockroaches and scorpions.’

‘But what has this to do with the picture?’

‘Wait a minute. She had been in the China passenger trade and her lower decks had bunks for two thousand pigtails. Those were all taken down, and she was empty up to her nose, and the lights came through the port holes—most annoying lights to work in till you got used to them. I hadn’t anything to do for weeks. The ship’s charts were in pieces and our skipper daren’t run south for fear of catching a storm. So he did his best to knock all the Society Islands out of the water one by one, and I went into the lower deck, and did my picture on the port side as far forward in her as I could go. There was some brown paint and some green paint that they used for the boats, and some black paint for ironwork, and that was all I had.’

‘The passengers must have thought you mad.’

‘There was only one, and it was a woman; but it gave me the notion of my picture.’

‘What was she like?’ said Torpenhow.

‘She was a sort of Negroid-Jewess-Cuban; with morals to match. She couldn’t read or write, and she didn’t want to, but she used to come down and watch me paint, and the skipper didn’t like it, because he was paying her passage and had to be on the bridge occasionally.’

‘I see. That must have been cheerful.’

‘It was the best time I ever had. To begin with, we didn’t know whether we should go up or go down any minute when there was a sea on; and when it was calm it was paradise; and the woman used to mix the paints and talk broken English, and the skipper used to steal down every few minutes to the lower deck, because he said he was afraid of fire. So, you see, we could never tell when we might be caught, and I had a splendid notion to work out in only three keys of colour.’

‘What was the notion?’

‘Two lines in Poe—

Neither the angles in Heaven above nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

It came out of the sea—all by itself. I drew that fight, fought out in green water over the naked, choking soul, and the woman served as the model for the devils and the angels both—sea-devils and sea-angels, and the soul half drowned between them. It doesn’t sound much, but when there was a good light on the lower deck it looked very fine and creepy. It was seven by fourteen feet, all done in shifting light for shifting light.’

‘Did the woman inspire you much?’ said Torpenhow.

‘She and the sea between them—immensely. There was a heap of bad drawing in that picture. I remember I went out of my way to foreshorten for sheer delight of doing it, and I foreshortened damnably, but for all that it’s the best thing I’ve ever done; and now I suppose the ship’s broken up or gone down. Whew! What a time that was!’

‘What happened after all?’

‘It all ended. They were loading her with wool when I left the ship, but even the stevedores kept the picture clear to the last. The eyes of the demons scared them, I honestly believe.’

‘And the woman?’

‘She was scared too when it was finished. She used to cross herself before she went down to look at it. Just three colours and no chance of getting any more, and the sea outside and unlimited love-making inside, and the fear of death atop of everything else, O Lord!’ He had ceased to look at the sketch, but was staring straight in front of him across the room.

‘Why don’t you try something of the same kind now?’ said the Nilghai.

‘Because those things come not by fasting and prayer. When I find a cargo-boat and a Jewess-Cuban and another notion and the same old life, I may.’

‘You won’t find them here,’ said the Nilghai.

‘No, I shall not.’ Dick shut the sketch-book with a bang. ‘This room’s as hot as an oven. Open the window, some one.’

He leaned into the darkness, watching the greater darkness of London below him. The chambers stood much higher than the other houses, commanding a hundred chimneys—crooked cowls that looked like sitting cats as they swung round, and other uncouth brick and zinc mysteries supported by iron stanchions and clamped by 8-pieces. Northward the lights of Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square threw a copper-coloured glare above the black roofs, and southward by all the orderly lights of the Thames. A train rolled out across one of the railway bridges, and its thunder drowned for a minute the dull roar of the streets. The Nilghai looked at his watch and said shortly, ‘That’s the Paris night-mail. You can book from here to St. Petersburg if you choose.’

Dick crammed head and shoulders out of the window and looked across the river. Torpenhow came to his side, while the Nilghai passed over quietly to the piano and opened it. Binkie, making himself as large as possible, spread out upon the sofa with the air of one who is not to be lightly disturbed.

‘Well,’ said the Nilghai to the two pairs of shoulders, ‘have you never seen this place before?’

A steam-tug on the river hooted as she towed her barges to wharf. Then the boom of the traffic came into the room. Torpenhow nudged Dick. ‘Good place to bank in—bad place to bunk in, Dickie, isn’t it?’

Dick’s chin was in his hand as he answered, in the words of a general not without fame, still looking out on the darkness—’”My God, what a city to loot!”’

Binkie found the night air tickling his whiskers and sneezed plaintively.

‘We shall give the Binkie-dog a cold,’ said Torpenhow. ‘Come in,’ and they withdrew their heads. ‘You’ll be buried in Kensal Green, Dick, one of these days, if it isn’t closed by the time you want to go there—buried within two feet of some one else, his wife and his family.’

‘Allah forbid! I shall get away before that time comes. Give a man room to stretch his legs, Mr. Binkie.’ Dick flung himself down on the sofa and tweaked Binkie’s velvet ears, yawning heavily the while.

‘You’ll find that wardrobe-case very much out of tune,’ Torpenhow said to the Nilghai. ‘It’s never touched except by you.’

‘A piece of gross extravagance,’ Dick grunted. ‘The Nilghai only comes when I’m out.’

‘That’s because you’re always out. Howl, Nilghai, and let him hear.’

‘The life of the Nilghai is fraud and slaughter,
His writings are watered Dickens and water;
But the voice of the Nilghai raised on high
Makes even the Mahdieh glad to die!’

Dick quoted from Torpenhow’s letterpress in the Nungapunga Book. ‘How do they call moose in Canada, Nilghai?’

The man laughed. Singing was his one polite accomplishment, as many Press-tents in far-off lands had known.

‘What shall I sing?’ said he, turning in the chair.

‘“Moll Roe in the Morning,”’ said Torpenhow, at a venture.

‘No,’ said Dick, sharply, and the Nilghai opened his eyes. The old chanty whereof he, among a very few, possessed all the words was not a pretty one, but Dick had heard it many times before without wincing. Without prelude he launched into that stately tune that calls together and troubles the hearts of the gipsies of the sea—

‘Farewell and adieu to you, Spanish ladies,
Farewell and adieu to you, ladies of Spain.’

Dick turned uneasily on the sofa, for he could hear the bows of the Barralong crashing into the green seas on her way to the Southern Cross. Then came the chorus—

‘We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors,
We’ll rant and we’ll roar across the salt seas,
Until we take soundings in the Channel of Old England
From Ushant to Scilly ‘tis forty-five leagues.’

‘Thirty-five-thirty-five,’ said Dick, petulantly. ‘Don’t tamper with Holy Writ. Go on, Nilghai.’

‘The first land we made it was called the Deadman,’

and they sang to the end very vigourously.

‘That would be a better song if her head were turned the other way—to the Ushant light, for instance,’ said the Nilghai.

‘Flinging his arms about like a mad windmill,’ said Torpenhow. ‘Give us something else, Nilghai. You’re in fine fog-horn form tonight.’

‘Give us the “Ganges Pilot”; you sang that in the square the night before El-Maghrib. By the way, I wonder how many of the chorus are alive to-night,’ said Dick.

Torpenhow considered for a minute. ‘By Jove! I believe only you and I. Raynor, Vicery, and Deenes—all dead; Vincent caught smallpox in Cairo, carried it here and died of it. Yes, only you and I and the Nilghai.’

‘Umph! And yet the men here who’ve done their work in a well-warmed studio all their lives, with a policeman at each corner, say that I charge too much for my pictures.’

‘They are buying your work, not your insurance policies, dear child,’ said the Nilghai.

‘I gambled with one to get at the other. Don’t preach. Go on with the “Pilot.” Where in the world did you get that song?’

‘On a tombstone,’ said the Nilghai. ‘On a tombstone in a distant land. I made it an accompaniment with heaps of base chords.’

‘Oh, Vanity! Begin.’ And the Nilghai began—

‘I have slipped my cable, messmates, I’m drifting down with the tide,
I have my sailing orders, while yet an anchor ride.
And never on fair June morning have I put out to sea
With clearer conscience or better hope, or a heart more light and free.

‘Shoulder to shoulder, Joe, my boy, into the crowd like a wedge
Strike with the hangers, messmates, but do not cut with the edge.
Cries Charnock, “Scatter the faggots, double that Brahmin in two,
The tall pale widow for me, Joe, the little brown girl for you!”

‘Young Joe (you’re nearing sixty), why is your hide so dark?
Katie has soft fair blue eyes, who blackened yours?—Why, hark!’

They were all singing now, Dick with the roar of the wind of the open sea about his ears as the deep bass voice let itself go.

‘The morning gun—Ho, steady! the arquebuses to me!, The
I ha’ sounded the Dutch High Admiral’s heart as my lead doth sound the sea.

‘Sounding, sounding the Ganges, floating down with the tide,
Moore me close to Charnock, next to my nut-brown bride.
My blessing to Kate at Fairlight—Holwell, my thanks to you;
Steady! We steer for heaven, through sand-drifts cold and blue.’

‘Now what is there in that nonsense to make a man restless?’ said Dick, hauling Binkie from his feet to his chest.

‘It depends on the man,’ said Torpenhow.

‘The man who has been down to look at the sea,’ said the Nilghai.

‘I didn’t know she was going to upset me in this fashion.’

‘That’s what men say when they go to say good-bye to a woman. It’s more easy though to get rid of three women than a piece of one’s life and surroundings.’

‘But a woman can be——’ began Dick, unguardedly.

‘A piece of one’s life,’ continued Torpenhow. ‘No, she can’t.’ His face darkened for a moment. ‘She says she wants to sympathise with you and help you in your work, and everything else that clearly a man must do for himself. Then she sends round five notes a day to ask why the dickens you haven’t been wasting your time with her.’

‘Don’t generalise,’ said the Nilghai. ‘By the time you arrive at five notes a day you must have gone through a good deal and behaved accordingly. Shouldn’t begin these things, my son.’

‘I shouldn’t have gone down to the sea,’ said Dick, just a little anxious to change the conversation. ‘And you shouldn’t have sung.’

‘The sea isn’t sending you five notes a day,’ said the Nilghai.

‘No, but I’m fatally compromised. She’s an enduring old hag, and I’m sorry I ever met her. Why wasn’t I born and bred and dead in a three-pair back?’

‘Hear him blaspheming his first love! Why in the world shouldn’t you listen to her?’ said Torpenhow.

Before Dick could reply the Nilghai lifted up his voice with a shout that shook the windows, in ‘The Men of the Sea,’ that begins, as all know, ‘The sea is a wicked old woman,’ and after rading through eight lines whose imagery is truthful, ends in a refrain, slow as the clacking of a capstan when the boat comes unwillingly up to the bars where the men sweat and tramp in the shingle.

‘“Ye that bore us, O restore us!
She is kinder than ye;
For the call is on our heart-strings!”,
Said The Men of the Sea.’

The Nilghai sang that verse twice, with simple cunning, intending that Dick should hear. But Dick was waiting for the farewell of the men to their wives.

‘“Ye that love us, can ye move us?
She is dearer than ye;
And your sleep will be the sweeter,”
Said The Men of the Sea.’

The rough words beat like the blows of the waves on the bows of the rickety boat from Lima in the days when Dick was mixing paints, making love, drawing devils and angels in the half dark, and wondering whether the next minute would put the Italian captain’s knife between his shoulder-blades. And the go-fever which is more real than many doctors’ diseases, waked and raged, urging him who loved Maisie beyond anything in the world, to go away and taste the old hot, unregenerate life again,—to scuffle, swear, gamble, and love light loves with his fellows; to take ship and know the sea once more, and by her beget pictures; to talk to Binat among the sands of Port Said while Yellow ’Tina mixed the drinks; to hear the crackle of musketry, and see the smoke roll outward, thin and thicken again till the shining black faces came through, and in that hell every man was strictly responsible for his own head, and his own alone, and struck with an unfettered arm. It was impossible, utterly impossible, but—

‘“Oh, our fathers in the churchyard,
She is older than ye,
And our graves will be the greener,”
Said The Men of the Sea.’

‘What is there to hinder?’ said Torpenhow, in the long hush that followed the song.

‘You said a little time since that you wouldn’t come for a walk round the world, Torp.’

‘That was months ago, and I only objected to your making money for travelling expenses. You’ve shot your bolt here and it has gone home. Go away and do some work, and see some things.’

‘Get some of the fat off you; you’re disgracefully out of condition,’ said the Nilghai, making a plunge from the chair and grasping a handful of Dick generally over the right ribs. ‘Soft as putty—pure tallow born of over-feeding. Train it off, Dickie.’

‘We’re all equally gross, Nilghai. Next time you have to take the field you’ll sit down, wink your eyes, gasp, and die in a fit.’

‘Never mind. You go away on a ship. Go to Lima again, or to Brazil. There’s always trouble in South America.’

‘Do you suppose I want to be told where to go? Great Heavens, the only difficulty is to know where I’m to stop. But I shall stay here, as I told you before.’

‘Then you’ll be buried in Kensal Green and turn into adipocere with the others,’ said Torpenhow. ‘Are you thinking of commissions in hand? Pay forfeit and go. You’ve money enough to travel as a king if you please.’

‘You’ve the grisliest notions of amusement, Torp. I think I see myself shipping first class on a six-thousand-ton hotel, and asking the third engineer what makes the engines go round, and whether it isn’t very warm in the stokehold. Ho! ho! I should ship as a loafer if ever I shipped at all, which I’m not going to do. I shall compromise, and go for a small trip to begin with.’

‘That’s something at any rate. Where will you go?’ said Torpenhow. ‘It would do you all the good in the world, old man.’

The Nilghai saw the twinkle in Dick’s eye, and refrained from speech.

‘I shall go in the first place to Rathray’s stable, where I shall hire one horse, and take him very carefully as far as Richmond Hill. Then I shall walk him back again, in case he should accidentally burst into a lather and make Rathray angry. I shall do that to-morrow, for the sake of air and exercise.’

‘Bah!’ Dick had barely time to throw up his arm and ward off the cushion that the disgusted Torpenhow heaved at his head.

‘Air and exercise indeed,’ said the Nilghai, sitting down heavily on Dick. ‘Let’s give him a little of both. Get the bellows, Torp.’

At this point the conference broke up in disorder, because Dick would not open his mouth till the Nilghai held his nose fast, and there was some trouble in forcing the nozzle of the bellows between his teeth; and even when it was there he weakly tried to puff against the force of the blast, and his cheeks blew up with a great explosion; and the enemy becoming helpless with laughter he so beat them over the head with a soft sofa cushion that that became unsewn and distributed its feathers, and Binkie, interfering in Torpenhow’s interests, was bundled into the half-empty bag and advised to scratch his way out, which he did after a while, travelling rapidly up and down the floor in the shape of an agitated green haggis, and when he came out looking for satisfaction, the three pillars of his world were picking feathers out of their hair.

‘A prophet has no honour in his own country,’ said Dick, ruefully, dusting his knees. ‘This filthy fluff will never brush off my legs.’

‘It was all for your own good,’ said the Nilghai. ‘Nothing like air and exercise.’

‘All for your good,’ said Torpenhow, not in the least with reference to past clowning. ‘It would let you focus things at their proper worth and prevent your becoming slack in this hothouse of a town. Indeed it would, old man. I shouldn’t have spoken if I hadn’t thought so. Only, you make a joke of everything.’

‘Before God I do no such thing,’ said Dick, quickly and earnestly. ‘You don’t know me if you think that.’

I don’t think it,’ said the Nilghai.

‘How can fellows like ourselves, who know what life and death really mean, dare to make a joke of anything? I know we pretend it, to save ourselves from breaking down or going to the other extreme. Can’t I see, old man, how you’re always anxious about me, and try to advise me to make my work better? Do you suppose I don’t think about that myself? But you can’t help me—you can’t help me—not even you. I must play my own hand alone in my own way.’

‘Hear, hear,’ from the Nilghai.

‘What’s the one thing in the Nilghai Saga that I’ve never drawn in the Nungapunga Book?’ Dick continued to Torpenhow, who was a little astonished at the outburst.

Now there was one blank page in the book given over to the sketch that Dick had not drawn of the crowning exploit in the Nilghai’s life; when that man, being young and forgetting that his body and bones belonged to the paper that employed him, had ridden over sunburned slippery grass in the rear of Bredow’s brigade on the day that the troopers flung themselves at Caurobert’s artillery, and for aught they knew twenty battalions in front, to save the battered 24th German Infantry, to give time to decide the fate of Vionville, and to learn ere their remnant came back to Flavigay that cavalry can attack and crumple and break unshaken infantry. Whenever he was inclined to think over a life that might have been better, an income that might have been larger, and a soul that might have been considerably cleaner, the Nilghai would comfort himself with the thought, ‘I rode with Bredow’s brigade at Vionville,’ and take heart for any lesser battle the next day might bring.

‘I know,’ he said very gravely. ‘I was always glad that you left it out.’

‘I left it out because Nilghai taught me what the Germany army learned then, and what Schmidt taught their cavalry. I don’t know German. What is it? “Take care of the time and the dressing will take care of itself.” I must ride my own line to my own beat, old man.’

Tempe ist richtung. You’ve learned your lesson well,’ said the Nilghai. ‘He must go alone. He speaks truth, Torp.’

‘Maybe I’m as wrong as I can be—hideously wrong. I must find that out for myself, as I have to think things out for myself, but I daren’t turn my head to dress by the next man. It hurts me a great deal more than you know not to be able to go, but I cannot, that’s all. I must do my own work and live my own life in my own way, because I’m responsible for both. Only don’t think I frivol about it, Torp. I have my own matches and sulphur, and I’ll make my own hell, thanks.’

There was an uncomfortable pause. Then Torpenhow said blandly, ‘What did the Governor of North Carolina say to the Governor of South Carolina?’

‘Excellent notion. It is a long time between drinks. There are the makings of a very fine prig in you, Dick,’ said the Nilghai.

‘I’ve liberated my mind, estimable Binkie, with the feathers in his mouth.’ Dick picked up the still indignant one and shook him tenderly. ‘You’re tied up in a sack and made to run about blind, Binkie-wee, without any reason, and it has hurt your little feelings. Never mind. Sic volo, sic jubeo, stet pro ratione voluntas, and don’t sneeze in my eye because I talk Latin. Good-night.’

He went out of the room.

‘That’s distinctly one for you,’ said the Nilghai. ‘I told you it was hopeless to meddle with him. He’s not pleased.’

‘He’d swear at me if he weren’t. I can’t make it out. He has the go-fever upon him and he won’t go. I only hope that he mayn’t have to go some day when he doesn’t want to,’ said Torpenhow.

.     .     .     .     .

In his own room Dick was settling a question with himself—and the question was whether all the world, and all that was therein, and a burning desire to exploit both, was worth one threepenny piece thrown into the Thames.

‘It came of seeing the sea, and I’m a cur to think about it,’ he decided. ‘After all, the honeymoon will be that tour—with reservations; only . . . only I didn’t realise that the sea was so strong. I didn’t feel it so much when I was with Maisie. These damnable songs did it. He’s beginning again.’

But it was only Herrick’s Nightpiece to Julia that the Nilghai sang, and before it was ended Dick reappeared on the threshold, not altogether clothed indeed, but in his right mind, thirsty and at peace.

The mood had come and gone with the rising and the falling of the tide by Fort Keeling.

The Light That Failed - Contents    |     Chapter 9

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