"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 wading 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 tomorrow, 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 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.
"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 goodbye 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. Goodbye, 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 tonight," 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.
"Goodbye, 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. Goodbye."
A shout 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."
"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 Bessie,—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's 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.
"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 tonight."
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."
What's you that follows at my side?— The foe that ye must fight, my lord.— That hirples swift as I can ride?— The shadow of the night, my lord.— Then wheel my horse against the foe!— He's down and overpast, my lord.
Ye war against the sunset glow; The darkness gathers fast, my lord. ——The Fight of Heriot's Ford
"This is a cheerful life," said Dick, some days later. "Torp's away; Bessie hates me; I can't get at the notion of the Melancolia; Maisie's letters are scrappy; and I believe I have indigestion. What give a man pains across the head and spots before his eyes, Binkie? Shall us take some liver pills?"
Dick had just gone through a lively scene with Bessie. She had for the fiftieth time reproached him for sending Torpenhow away. She explained her enduring hatred for Dick, and made it clear to him that she only sat for the sake of his money. "And Mr. Torpenhow's ten times a better man than you," she concluded.
"He is. That's why he went away. I should have stayed and made love to you."
The girl sat with her chin on her hand, scowling. "To me! I'd like to catch you! If I wasn't afraid 'o being hung I'd kill you. That's what I'd do. D'you believe me?"
Dick smiled wearily. It is not pleasant to live in the company of a notion that will not work out, a fox-terrier that cannot talk, and a woman who talks too much. He would have answered, but at that moment there unrolled itself from one corner of the studio a veil, as it were, of the flimsiest gauze. He rubbed his eyes, but the gray haze would not go.
"This is disgraceful indigestion. Binkie, we will go to a medicine-man. We can't have our eyes interfered with, for by these we get our bread; also mutton-chop bones for little dogs."
The doctor was an affable local practitioner with white hair, and he said nothing till Dick began to describe the gray film in the studio.
"We all want a little patching and repairing from time to time," he chirped. "Like a ship, my dear sir,—exactly like a ship. Sometimes the hull is out of order, and we consult the surgeon; sometimes the rigging, and then I advise; sometimes the engines, and we go to the brain-specialist; sometimes the look- out on the bridge is tired, and then we see an oculist. I should recommend you to see an oculist. A little patching and repairing from time to time is all we want. An oculist, by all means."
Dick sought an oculist,—the best in London. He was certain that the local practitioner did not know anything about his trade, and more certain that Maisie would laugh at him if he were forced to wear spectacles.
"I've neglected the warnings of my lord the stomach too long. Hence these spots before the eyes, Binkie. I can see as well as I ever could."
As he entered the dark hall that led to the consulting-room a man cannoned against him. Dick saw the face as it hurried out into the street.
"That's the writer-type. He has the same modelling of the forehead as Torp. He looks very sick. Probably heard something he didn't like."
Even as he thought, a great fear came upon Dick, a fear that made him hold his breath as he walked into the oculist's waiting room, with the heavy carved furniture, the dark-green paper, and the sober-hued prints on the wall. He recognised a reproduction of one of his own sketches.
Many people were waiting their turn before him. His eye was caught by a flaming red-and-gold Christmas-carol book. Little children came to that eye-doctor, and they needed large-type amusement.
"That's idolatrous bad Art," he said, drawing the book towards himself.
"From the anatomy of the angels, it has been made in Germany." He opened in mechanically, and there leaped to his eyes a verse printed in red ink—
The next good joy that Mary had, It was the joy of three, To see her good Son Jesus Christ Making the blind to see; Making the blind to see, good Lord, And happy we may be. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost To all eternity!
Dick read and re-read the verse till his turn came, and the doctor was bending above him seated in an arm-chair. The blaze of the gas-microscope in his eyes made him wince. The doctor's hand touched the scar of the sword-cut on Dick's head, and Dick explained briefly how he had come by it. When the flame was removed, Dick saw the doctor's face, and the fear came upon him again. The doctor wrapped himself in a mist of words. Dick caught allusions to "scar," "frontal bone," "optic nerve," "extreme caution," and the "avoidance of mental anxiety."
"Verdict?" he said faintly. "My business is painting, and I daren't waste time. What do you make of it?"
Again the whirl of words, but this time they conveyed a meaning.
"Can you give me anything to drink?"
Many sentences were pronounced in that darkened room, and the prisoners often needed cheering. Dick found a glass of liqueur brandy in his hand.
"As far as I can gather," he said, coughing above the spirit, "you call it decay of the optic nerve, or something, and therefore hopeless. What is my time-limit, avoiding all strain and worry?"
"Perhaps one year."
"My God! And if I don't take care of myself?"
"I really could not say. One cannot ascertain the exact amount of injury inflicted by the sword-cut. The scar is an old one, and—exposure to the strong light of the desert, did you say?—with excessive application to fine work? I really could not say?"
"I beg your pardon, but it has come without any warning. If you will let me, I'll sit here for a minute, and then I'll go. You have been very good in telling me the truth. Without any warning; without any warning. Thanks."
Dick went into the street, and was rapturously received by Binkie.
"We've got it very badly, little dog! Just as badly as we can get it. We'll go to the Park to think it out."
They headed for a certain tree that Dick knew well, and they sat down to think, because his legs were trembling under him and there was cold fear at the pit of his stomach.
"How could it have come without any warning? It's as sudden as being shot. It's the living death, Binkie. We're to be shut up in the dark in one year if we're careful, and we shan't see anybody, and we shall never have anything we want, not though we live to be a hundred!" Binkie wagged his tail joyously. "Binkie, we must think. Let's see how it feels to be blind." Dick shut his eyes, and flaming commas and Catherine-wheels floated inside the lids. Yet when he looked across the Park the scope of his vision was not contracted. He could see perfectly, until a procession of slow-wheeling fireworks defiled across his eyeballs.
"Little dorglums, we aren't at all well. Let's go home. If only Torp were back, now!"
But Torpenhow was in the south of England, inspecting dockyards in the company of the Nilghai. His letters were brief and full of mystery.
Dick had never asked anybody to help him in his joys or his sorrows. He argued, in the loneliness of his studio, henceforward to be decorated with a film of gray gauze in one corner, that, if his fate were blindness, all the Torpenhows in the world could not save him. "I can't call him off his trip to sit down and sympathise with me. I must pull through this business alone," he said. He was lying on the sofa, eating his moustache and wondering what the darkness of the night would be like. Then came to his mind the memory of a quaint scene in the Soudan. A soldier had been nearly hacked in two by a broad-bladed Arab spear. For one instant the man felt no pain. Looking down, he saw that his life-blood was going from him. The stupid bewilderment on his face was so intensely comic that both Dick and Torpenhow, still panting and unstrung from a fight for life, had roared with laughter, in which the man seemed as if he would join, but, as his lips parted in a sheepish grin, the agony of death came upon him, and he pitched grunting at their feet. Dick laughed again, remembering the horror. It seemed so exactly like his own case.
"But I have a little more time allowed me," he said. He paced up and down the room, quietly at first, but afterwards with the hurried feet of fear. It was as though a black shadow stood at his elbow and urged him to go forward; and there were only weaving circles and floating pin-dots before his eyes.
"We need to be calm, Binkie; we must be calm." He talked aloud for the sake of distraction. "This isn't nice at all. What shall we do? We must do something. Our time is short. I shouldn't have believed that this morning; but now things are different. Binkie, where was Moses when the light went out?"
Binkie smiled from ear to ear, as a well-bred terrier should, but made no suggestion.
"'Were there but world enough and time, This coyness, Binkie, were not crime. . . . But at my back I always hear——'" He wiped his forehead, which was unpleasantly damp. "What can I do? What can I do? I haven't any notions left, and I can't think connectedly, but I must do something, or I shall go off my head."
The hurried walk recommenced, Dick stopping every now and again to drag forth long-neglected canvases and old note-books; for he turned to his work by instinct, as a thing that could not fail. "You won't do, and you won't do," he said, at each inspection. "No more soldiers. I couldn't paint 'em. Sudden death comes home too nearly, and this is battle and murder for me."
The day was failing, and Dick thought for a moment that the twilight of the blind had come upon him unaware. "Allah Almighty!" he cried despairingly, "help me through the time of waiting, and I won't whine when my punishment comes. What can I do now, before the light goes?"
There was no answer. Dick waited till he could regain some sort of control over himself. His hands were shaking, and he prided himself on their steadiness; he could feel that his lips were quivering, and the sweat was running down his face. He was lashed by fear, driven forward by the desire to get to work at once and accomplish something, and maddened by the refusal of his brain to do more than repeat the news that he was about to go blind. "It's a humiliating exhibition," he thought, "and I'm glad Torp isn't here to see. The doctor said I was to avoid mental worry. Come here and let me pet you, Binkie."
The little dog yelped because Dick nearly squeezed the bark out of him.
Then he heard the man speaking in the twilight, and, doglike, understood that his trouble stood off from him—"Allah is good, Binkie. Not quite so gentle as we could wish, but we'll discuss that later. I think I see my way to it now. All those studies of Bessie's head were nonsense, and they nearly brought your master into a scrape. I hold the notion now as clear as crystal, 'the Melancolia that transcends all wit.' There shall be Maisie in that head, because I shall never get Maisie; and Bess, of course, because she knows all about Melancolia, though she doesn't know she knows; and there shall be some drawing in it, and it shall all end up with a laugh. That's for myself. Shall she giggle or grin? No, she shall laugh right out of the canvas, and every man and woman that ever had a sorrow of their own shall—what is it the poem says?- -
'Understand the speech and feel a stir Of fellowship in all disastrous fight.'
"'In all disastrous fight'? That's better than painting the thing merely to pique Maisie. I can do it now because I have it inside me. Binkie, I'm going to hold you up by your tail. You're an omen. Come here."
Binkie swung head downward for a moment without speaking.
"Rather like holding a guinea-pig; but you're a brave little dog, and you don't yelp when you're hung up. It is an omen."
Binkie went to his own chair, and as often as he looked saw Dick walking up and down, rubbing his hands and chuckling. That night Dick wrote a letter to Maisie full of the tenderest regard for her health, but saying very little about his own, and dreamed of the Melancolia to be born. Not till morning did he remember that something might happen to him in the future.
He fell to work, whistling softly, and was swallowed up in the clean, clear joy of creation, which does not come to man too often, lest he should consider himself the equal of his God, and so refuse to die at the appointed time. He forgot Maisie, Torpenhow, and Binkie at his feet, but remembered to stir Bessie, who needed very little stirring, into a tremendous rage, that he might watch the smouldering lights in her eyes.
He threw himself without reservation into his work, and did not think of the doom that was to overtake him, for he was possessed with his notion, and the things of this world had no power upon him.
"You're pleased today," said Bessie.
Dick waved his mahl-stick in mystic circles and went to the sideboard for a drink. In the evening, when the exaltation of the day had died down, he went to the sideboard again, and after some visits became convinced that the eye-doctor was a liar, since he could still see everything very clearly.
He was of opinion that he would even make a home for Maisie, and that whether she liked it or not she should be his wife. The mood passed next morning, but the sideboard and all upon it remained for his comfort.
Again he set to work, and his eyes troubled him with spots and dashes and blurs till he had taken counsel with the sideboard, and the Melancolia both on the canvas and in his own mind appeared lovelier than ever. There was a delightful sense of irresponsibility upon him, such as they feel who walking among their fellow-men know that the death-sentence of disease is upon them, and, seeing that fear is but waste of the little time left, are riotously happy. The days passed without event.
Bessie arrived punctually always, and, though her voice seemed to Dick to come from a distance, her face was always very near. The Melancolia began to flame on the canvas, in the likeness of a woman who had known all the sorrow in the world and was laughing at it. It was true that the corners of the studio draped themselves in gray film and retired into the darkness, that the spots in his eyes and the pains across his head were very troublesome, and that Maisie's letters were hard to read and harder still to answer. He could not tell her of his trouble, and he could not laugh at her accounts of her own Melancolia which was always going to be finished. But the furious days of toil and the nights of wild dreams made amends for all, and the sideboard was his best friend on earth.
Bessie was singularly dull. She used to shriek with rage when Dick stared at her between half-closed eyes. Now she sulked, or watched him with disgust, saying very little.
Torpenhow had been absent for six weeks. An incoherent note heralded his return. "News! great news!" he wrote. "The Nilghai knows, and so does the Keneu. We're all back on Thursday. Get lunch and clean your accoutrements."
Dick showed Bessie the letter, and she abused him for that he had ever sent Torpenhow away and ruined her life.
"Well," said Dick, brutally, "you're better as you are, instead of making love to some drunken beast in the street." He felt that he had rescued Torpenhow from great temptation.
"I don't know if that's any worse than sitting to a drunken beast in a studio. You haven't been sober for three weeks. You've been soaking the whole time; and yet you pretend you're better than me!"
"What d'you mean?" said Dick.
"Mean! You'll see when Mr. Torpenhow comes back."
It was not long to wait. Torpenhow met Bessie on the staircase without a sign of feeling. He had news that was more to him than many Bessies, and the Keneu and the Nilghai were trampling behind him, calling for Dick.
"Drinking like a fish," Bessie whispered. "He's been at it for nearly a month." She followed the men stealthily to hear judgment done.
They came into the studio, rejoicing, to be welcomed over effusively by a drawn, lined, shrunken, haggard wreck,—unshaven, blue-white about the nostrils, stooping in the shoulders, and peering under his eyebrows nervously. The drink had been at work as steadily as Dick.
"Is this you?" said Torpenhow.
"All that's left of me. Sit down. Binkie's quite well, and I've been doing some good work." He reeled where he stood.
"You've done some of the worst work you've ever done in your life. Man alive, you're——"
Torpenhow turned to his companions appealingly, and they left the room to find lunch elsewhere. Then he spoke; but, since the reproof of a friend is much too sacred and intimate a thing to be printed, and since Torpenhow used figures and metaphors which were unseemly, and contempt untranslatable, it will never be known what was actually said to Dick, who blinked and winked and picked at his hands. After a time the culprit began to feel the need of a little self- respect. He was quite sure that he had not in any way departed from virtue, and there were reasons, too, of which Torpenhow knew nothing. He would explain.
He rose, tried to straighten his shoulders, and spoke to the face he could hardly see.
"You are right," he said. "But I am right, too. After you went away I had some trouble with my eyes. So I went to an oculist, and he turned a gasogene—I mean a gas-engine—into my eye. That was very long ago. He said, 'Scar on the head,- -sword-cut and optic nerve.' Make a note of that. So I am going blind. I have some work to do before I go blind, and I suppose that I must do it. I cannot see much now, but I can see best when I am drunk. I did not know I was drunk till I was told, but I must go on with my work. If you want to see it, there it is." He pointed to the all but finished Melancolia and looked for applause.
Torpenhow said nothing, and Dick began to whimper feebly, for joy at seeing Torpenhow again, for grief at misdeeds—if indeed they were misdeeds—that made Torpenhow remote and unsympathetic, and for childish vanity hurt, since Torpenhow had not given a word of praise to his wonderful picture.
Bessie looked through the keyhole after a long pause, and saw the two walking up and down as usual, Torpenhow's hand on Dick"s shoulder.
Hereat she said something so improper that it shocked even Binkie, who was dribbling patiently on the landing with the hope of seeing his master again.
The lark will make her hymn to God, The partridge call her brood, While I forget the heath I trod, The fields wherein I stood.
'Tis dule to know not night from morn, But deeper dule to know I can but hear the hunter's horn That once I used to blow. —The Only Son
IT WAS the third day after Torpenhow's return, and his heart was heavy.
"Do you mean to tell me that you can't see to work without whiskey? It's generally the other way about."
"Can a drunkard swear on his honour?" said Dick.
"Yes, if he has been as good a man as you."
"Then I give you my word of honour," said Dick, speaking hurriedly through parched lips. "Old man, I can hardly see your face now. You've kept me sober for two days,—if I ever was drunk,—and I've done no work. Don't keep me back any more. I don't know when my eyes may give out. The spots and dots and the pains and things are crowding worse than ever. I swear I can see all right when I'm—when I'm moderately screwed, as you say. Give me three more sittings from Bessie and all—the stuff I want, and the picture will be done. I can't kill myself in three days. It only means a touch of D. T. at the worst."
"If I give you three days more will you promise me to stop work and—the other thing, whether the picture's finished or not?"
"I can't. You don't know what that picture means to me. But surely you could get the Nilghai to help you, and knock me down and tie me up. I shouldn't fight for the whiskey, but I should for the work."
"Go on, then. I give you three days; but you're nearly breaking my heart."
Dick returned to his work, toiling as one possessed; and the yellow devil of whiskey stood by him and chased away the spots in his eyes. The Melancolia was nearly finished, and was all or nearly all that he had hoped she would be. Dick jested with Bessie, who reminded him that he was "a drunken beast"; but the reproof did not move him.
"You can't understand, Bess. We are in sight of land now, and soon we shall lie back and think about what we've done. I'll give you three months' pay when the picture's finished, and next time I have any more work in hand—but that doesn't matter. Won't three months' pay make you hate me less?"
"No, it won't! I hate you, and I'll go on hating you. Mr. Torpenhow won't speak to me any more. He's always looking at maps."
Bessie did not say that she had again laid siege to Torpenhow, or that at the end of our passionate pleading he had picked her up, given her a kiss, and put her outside the door with the recommendation not to be a little fool. He spent most of his time in the company of the Nilghai, and their talk was of war in the near future, the hiring of transports, and secret preparations among the dockyards. He did not wish to see Dick till the picture was finished.
"He's doing first-class work," he said to the Nilghai, "and it's quite out of his regular line. But, for the matter of that, so's his infernal soaking."
"Never mind. Leave him alone. When he has come to his senses again we'll carry him off from this place and let him breathe clean air. Poor Dick! I don't envy you, Torp, when his eyes fail."
"Yes, it will be a case of 'God help the man who's chained to our Davie.' The worst is that we don't know when it will happen, and I believe the uncertainty and the waiting have sent Dick to the whiskey more than anything else."
"How the Arab who cut his head open would grin if he knew!"
"He's at perfect liberty to grin if he can. He's dead. That's poor consolation now."
In the afternoon of the third day Torpenhow heard Dick calling for him.
"All finished!" he shouted. "I've done it! Come in! Isn't she a beauty? Isn't she a darling? I've been down to hell to get her; but isn't she worth it?"
Torpenhow looked at the head of a woman who laughed,—a full-lipped, hollow- eyed woman who laughed from out of the canvas as Dick had intended she would.
"Who taught you how to do it?" said Torpenhow. "The touch and notion have nothing to do with your regular work. What a face it is! What eyes, and what insolence!" Unconsciously he threw back his head and laughed with her. "She's seen the game played out,—I don't think she had a good time of it,—and now she doesn't care. Isn't that the idea?"
"Where did you get the mouth and chin from? They don't belong to Bess."
"They're—some one else's. But isn't it good? Isn't it thundering good? Wasn't it worth the whiskey? I did it. Alone I did it, and it's the best I can do." He drew his breath sharply, and whispered, "Just God! what could I not do ten years hence, if I can do this now!—By the way, what do you think of it, Bess?"
The girl was biting her lips. She loathed Torpenhow because he had taken no notice of her.
"I think it's just the horridest, beastliest thing I ever saw," she answered, and turned away.
"More than you will be of that way of thinking, young woman.—Dick, there's a sort of murderous, viperine suggestion in the poise of the head that I don't understand," said Torpenhow.
That's trick-work," said Dick, chuckling with delight at being completely understood. "I couldn't resist one little bit of sheer swagger. It's a French trick, and you wouldn't understand; but it's got at by slewing round the head a trifle, and a tiny, tiny foreshortening of one side of the face from the angle of the chin to the top of the left ear. That, and deepening the shadow under the lobe of the ear. It was flagrant trick-work; but, having the notion fixed, I felt entitled to play with it,—Oh, you beauty!"
"Amen! She is a beauty. I can feel it."
"So will every man who has any sorrow of his own," said Dick, slapping his thigh. "He shall see his trouble there, and, by the Lord Harry, just when he's feeling properly sorry for himself he shall throw back his head and laugh,—as she is laughing. I've put the life of my heart and the light of my eyes into her, and I don't care what comes. . . . I'm tired,—awfully tired. I think I'll get to sleep. Take away the whiskey, it has served its turn, and give Bessie thirty-six quid, and three over for luck. Cover the picture."
He dropped asleep in the long chair, hid face white and haggard, almost before he had finished the sentence. Bessie tried to take Torpenhow"s hand. "Aren't you never going to speak to me any more?" she said; but Torpenhow was looking at Dick.
"What a stock of vanity the man has! I'll take him in hand tomorrow and make much of him. He deserves it.—Eh! what was that, Bess?"
"Nothing. I'll put things tidy here a little, and then I'll go. You couldn't give the that three months" pay now, could you? He said you were to."
Torpenhow gave her a check and went to his own rooms. Bessie faithfully tidied up the studio, set the door ajar for flight, emptied half a bottle of turpentine on a duster, and began to scrub the face of the Melancolia viciously. The paint did not smudge quickly enough. She took a palette-knife and scraped, following each stroke with the wet duster. In five minutes the picture was a formless, scarred muddle of colours. She threw the paint-stained duster into the studio stove, stuck out her tongue at the sleeper, and whispered, "Bilked!" as she turned to run down the staircase. She would never see Torpenhow any more, but she had at least done harm to the man who had come between her and her desire and who used to make fun of her. Cashing the check was the very cream of the jest to Bessie. Then the little privateer sailed across the Thames, to be swallowed up in the gray wilderness of South-the- Water.
Dick slept till late in the evening, when Torpenhow dragged him off to bed. His eyes were as bright as his voice was hoarse. "Let's have another look at the picture," he said, insistently as a child.
"You—go—to—bed," said Torpenhow. "You aren't at all well, though you mayn't know it. You're as jumpy as a cat."
"I reform tomorrow. Good night."
As he repassed through the studio, Torpenhow lifted the cloth above the picture, and almost betrayed himself by outcries: "Wiped out!—scraped out and turped out! He's on the verge of jumps as it is. That's Bess,—the little fiend! Only a woman could have done that!—with the ink not dry on the check, too! Dick will be raving mad tomorrow. It was all my fault for trying to help gutter-devils. Oh, my poor Dick, the Lord is hitting you very hard!"
Dick could not sleep that night, partly for pure joy, and partly because the well-known Catherine-wheels inside his eyes had given place to crackling volcanoes of many-coloured fire. "Spout away," he said aloud.
"I've done my work, and now you can do what you please." He lay still, staring at the ceiling, the long-pent-up delirium of drink in his veins, his brain on fire with racing thoughts that would not stay to be considered, and his hands crisped and dry. He had just discovered that he was painting the face of the Melancolia on a revolving dome ribbed with millions of lights, and that all his wondrous thoughts stood embodied hundreds of feet below his tiny swinging plank, shouting together in his honour, when something cracked inside his temples like an overstrained bowstring, the glittering dome broke inward, and he was alone in the thick night.
"I'll go to sleep. The room's very dark. Let's light a lamp and see how the Melancolia looks. There ought to have been a moon."
It was then that Torpenhow heard his name called by a voice that he did not know,—in the rattling accents of deadly fear.
"He's looked at the picture," was his first thought, as he hurried into the bedroom and found Dick sitting up and beating the air with his hands.
"Torp! Torp! where are you? For pity's sake, come to me!"
"What's the matter?"
Dick clutched at his shoulder. "Matter! I've been lying here for hours in the dark, and you never heard me. Torp, old man, don't go away. I'm all in the dark. In the dark, I tell you!"
Torpenhow held the candle within a foot of Dick's eyes, but there was no light in those eyes. He lit the gas, and Dick heard the flame catch. The grip of his fingers on Torpenhow's shoulder made Torpenhow wince.
"Don't leave me. You wouldn't leave me alone now, would you? I can't see. D'you understand? It's black,—quite black,—and I feel as if I was falling through it all."
"Steady does it." Torpenhow put his arm round Dick and began to rock him gently to and fro.
"That's good. Now don't talk. If I keep very quiet for a while, this darkness will lift. It seems just on the point of breaking. H'sh!" Dick knit his brows and stared desperately in front of him. The night air was chilling Torpenhow's toes.
"Can you stay like that a minute?" he said. "I'll get my dressing-gown and some slippers."
Dick clutched the bed-head with both hands and waited for the darkness to clear away. "What a time you've been!" he cried, when Torpenhow returned. "It's as black as ever. What are you banging about in the door-way?"
"Long chair,—horse-blanket,—pillow. Going to sleep by you. Lie down now; you'll be better in the morning."
"I shan't!" The voice rose to a wail. "My God! I'm blind! I'm blind, and the darkness will never go away." He made as if to leap from the bed, but Torpenhow's arms were round him, and Torpenhow's chin was on his shoulder, and his breath was squeezed out of him. He could only gasp, "Blind!" and wriggle feebly.
"Steady, Dickie, steady!" said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. "Bite on the bullet, old man, and don't let them think you"re afraid." The grip could draw no closer. Both men were breathing heavily.
Dick threw his head from side to side and groaned.
"Let me go," he panted. "You're cracking my ribs. We—we mustn't let them think we're afraid, must we,—all the powers of darkness and that lot?"
"Lie down. It's all over now."
"Yes," said Dick, obediently. "But would you mind letting me hold your hand? I feel as if I wanted something to hold on to. One drops through the dark so."
Torpenhow thrust out a large and hairy paw from the long chair. Dick clutched it tightly, and in half an hour had fallen asleep. Torpenhow withdrew his hand, and, stooping over Dick, kissed him lightly on the forehead, as men do sometimes kiss a wounded comrade in the hour of death, to ease his departure.
In the gray dawn Torpenhow heard Dick talking to himself. He was adrift on the shoreless tides of delirium, speaking very quickly—"It's a pity,—a great pity; but it's helped, and it must be eaten, Master George. Sufficient unto the day is the blindness thereof, and, further, putting aside all Melancolias and false humours, it is of obvious notoriety—such as mine was—that the queen can do no wrong. Torp doesn't know that. I'll tell him when we're a little farther into the desert.
"What a bungle those boatmen are making of the steamer-ropes! They'll have that four-inch hawser chafed through in a minute. I told you so—there she goes! White foam on green water, and the steamer slewing round. How good that looks! I'll sketch it. No, I can't. I'm afflicted with ophthalmia. That was one of the ten plagues of Egypt, and it extends up the Nile in the shape of cataract. Ha! that's a joke, Torp. Laugh, you graven image, and stand clear of the hawser. . . . It'll knock you into the water and make your dress all dirty, Maisie dear."
"Oh!" said Torpenhow. "This happened before. That night on the river."
"She'll be sure to say it's my fault if you get muddy, and you're quite near enough to the breakwater. Maisie, that's not fair. Ah! I knew you'd miss.
Low and to the left, dear. But you've no conviction. Don't be angry, darling. I'd cut my hand off if it would give you anything more than obstinacy. My right hand, if it would serve."
"Now we mustn't listen. Here's an island shouting across seas of misunderstanding with a vengeance. But it's shouting truth, I fancy," said Torpenhow.
The babble continued. It all bore upon Maisie. Sometimes Dick lectured at length on his craft, then he cursed himself for his folly in being enslaved. He pleaded to Maisie for a kiss—only one kiss—before she went away, and called to her to come back from Vitry-sur-Marne, if she would; but through all his ravings he bade heaven and earth witness that the queen could do no wrong.
Torpenhow listened attentively, and learned every detail of Dick's life that had been hidden from him. For three days Dick raved through the past, and then a natural sleep. "What a strain he has been running under, poor chap!" said Torpenhow. "Dick, of all men, handing himself over like a dog! And I was lecturing him on arrogance! I ought to have known that it was no use to judge a man. But I did it. What a demon that girl must be! Dick's given her his life,— confound him!—and she's given him one kiss apparently."
"Torp," said Dick, from the bed, "go out for a walk. You've been here too long. I'll get up. Hi! This is annoying. I can't dress myself. Oh, it's too absurd!"
Torpenhow helped him into his clothes and led him to the big chair in the studio. He sat quietly waiting under strained nerves for the darkness to lift. It did not lift that day, nor the next. Dick adventured on a voyage round the walls. He hit his shins against the stove, and this suggested to him that it would be better to crawl on all fours, one hand in front of him. Torpenhow found him on the floor.
"I'm trying to get the geography of my new possessions," said he. "D"you remember that nigger you gouged in the square? Pity you didn't keep the odd eye. It would have been useful. Any letters for me? Give me all the ones in fat gray envelopes with a sort of crown thing outside. They're of no importance."
Torpenhow gave him a letter with a black M. on the envelope flap. Dick put it into his pocket. There was nothing in it that Torpenhow might not have read, but it belonged to himself and to Maisie, who would never belong to him.
"When she finds that I don't write, she'll stop writing. It's better so. I couldn't be any use to her now," Dick argued, and the tempter suggested that he should make known his condition. Every nerve in him revolted. "I have fallen low enough already. I'm not going to beg for pity. Besides, it would be cruel to her." He strove to put Maisie out of his thoughts; but the blind have many opportunities for thinking, and as the tides of his strength came back to him in the long employless days of dead darkness, Dick's soul was troubled to the core. Another letter, and another, came from Maisie. Then there was silence, and Dick sat by the window, the pulse of summer in the air, and pictured her being won by another man, stronger than himself. His imagination, the keener for the dark background it worked against, spared him no single detail that might send him raging up and down the studio, to stumble over the stove that seemed to be in four places at once. Worst of all, tobacco would not taste in the darkness. The arrogance of the man had disappeared, and in its place were settled despair that Torpenhow knew, and blind passion that Dick confided to his pillow at night. The intervals between the paroxysms were filled with intolerable waiting and the weight of intolerable darkness.
"Come out into the Park," said Torpenhow. "You haven't stirred out since the beginning of things."
"What's the use? There's no movement in the dark; and, besides,"—he paused irresolutely at the head of the stairs,—"something will run over me."
"Not if I'm with you. Proceed gingerly."
The roar of the streets filled Dick with nervous terror, and he clung to Torpenhow's arm. "Fancy having to feel for a gutter with your foot!" he said petulantly, as he turned into the Park. "Let's curse God and die."
"Sentries are forbidden to pay unauthorised compliments. By Jove, there are the Guards!"
Dick's figure straightened. "Let's get near "em. Let's go in and look. Let"s get on the grass and run. I can smell the trees."
"Mind the low railing. That's all right!" Torpenhow kicked out a tuft of grass with his heel. "Smell that," he said. "Isn't it good?" Dick sniffed luxuriously. "Now pick up your feet and run." They approached as near to the regiment as was possible. The clank of bayonets being unfixed made Dick's nostrils quiver.
"Let's get nearer. They're in column, aren't they?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
"Felt it. Oh, my men!—my beautiful men!" He edged forward as though he could see. "I could draw those chaps once. Who'll draw 'em now?"
"They'll move off in a minute. Don't jump when the band begins."
"Huh! I'm not a new charger. It's the silences that hurt. Nearer, Torp!— nearer! Oh, my God, what wouldn't I give to see 'em for a minute!—one half- minute!"
He could hear the armed life almost within reach of him, could hear the slings tighten across the bandsman's chest as he heaved the big drum from the ground.
"Sticks crossed above his head," whispered Torpenhow.
"I know. I know! Who should know if I don't? H'sh!"
The drum-sticks fell with a boom, and the men swung forward to the crash of the band. Dick felt the wind of the massed movement in his face, heard the maddening tramp of feet and the friction of the pouches on the belts. The big drum pounded out the tune. It was a music-hall refrain that made a perfect quickstep—
"He must be a man of decent height, He must be a man of weight, He must come home on a Saturday night In a thoroughly sober state; He must know how to love me, And he must know how to kiss; And if he's enough to keep us both I can't refuse him bliss."
"What's the matter?" said Torpenhow, as he saw Dick's head fall when the last of the regiment had departed.
"Nothing. I feel a little bit out of the running,—that's all. Torp, take me back. Why did you bring me out?"
There were three friends that buried the fourth, The mould in his mouth and the dust in his eyes And they went south and east, and north,— The strong man fights, but the sick man dies.
There were three friends that spoke of the dead,— The strong man fights, but the sick man dies.— "And would he were with us now," they said, "The sun in our face and the wind in our eyes." —Ballad.
The Nilghai was angry with Torpenhow. Dick had been sent to bed,—blind men are ever under the orders of those who can see,—and since he had returned from the Park had fluently sworn at Torpenhow because he was alive, and all the world because it was alive and could see, while he, Dick, was dead in the death of the blind, who, at the best, are only burdens upon their associates. Torpenhow had said something about a Mrs. Gummidge, and Dick had retired in a black fury to handle and re-handle three unopened letters from Maisie.
The Nilghai, fat, burly, and aggressive, was in Torpenhow's rooms.
Behind him sat the Keneu, the Great War Eagle, and between them lay a large map embellished with black-and-white-headed pins.
"I was wrong about the Balkans," said the Nilghai. "But I'm not wrong about this business. The whole of our work in the Southern Soudan must be done over again. The public doesn't care, of course, but the government does, and they are making their arrangements quietly. You know that as well as I do."
"I remember how the people cursed us when our troops withdrew from Omdurman. It was bound to crop up sooner or later. But I can't go," said Torpenhow. He pointed through the open door; it was a hot night. "Can you blame me?"
The Keneu purred above his pipe like a large and very happy cat—"Don't blame you in the least. It's uncommonly good of you, and all the rest of it, but every man—even you, Torp—must consider his work. I know it sounds brutal, but Dick's out of the race,—down,—gastados expended, finished, done for. He has a little money of his own. He won't starve, and you can't pull out of your slide for his sake. Think of your own reputation."
"Dick's was five times bigger than mine and yours put together."
"That was because he signed his name to everything he did. It's all ended now. You must hold yourself in readiness to move out. You can command your own prices, and you do better work than any three of us."
"Don't tell me how tempting it is. I'll stay here to look after Dick for a while. He's as cheerful as a bear with a sore head, but I think he likes to have me near him."
The Nilghai said something uncomplimentary about soft-headed fools who throw away their careers for other fools. Torpenhow flushed angrily. The constant strain of attendance on Dick had worn his nerves thin.
"There remains a third fate," said the Keneu, thoughtfully. "Consider this, and be not larger fools than necessary. Dick is—or rather was—an able-bodied man of moderate attractions and a certain amount of audacity."
"Oho!" said the Nilghai, who remembered an affair at Cairo. "I begin to see,— Torp, I'm sorry."
Torpenhow nodded forgiveness: "You were more sorry when he cut you out, though.—Go on, Keneu."
"I've often thought, when I've seen men die out in the desert, that if the news could be sent through the world, and the means of transport were quick enough, there would be one woman at least at each man's bedside."
"There would be some mighty quaint revelations. Let us be grateful things are as they are," said the Nilghai.
"Let us rather reverently consider whether Torp's three-cornered ministrations are exactly what Dick needs just now.—What do you think yourself, Torp?"
"I know they aren't. But what can I do?"
"Lay the matter before the board. We are all Dick's friends here. You"ve been most in his life."
"But I picked it up when he was off his head."
"The greater chance of its being true. I thought we should arrive. Who is she?"
Then Torpenhow told a tale in plain words, as a special correspondent who knows how to make a verbal precis should tell it. The men listened without interruption.
"Is it possible that a man can come back across the years to his calf-love?"
said the Keneu. "Is it possible?"
"I give the facts. He says nothing about it now, but he sits fumbling three letters from her when he thinks I'm not looking. What am I to do?"
"Speak to him," said the Nilghai.
"Oh yes! Write to her,—I don't know her full name, remember,—and ask her to accept him out of pity. I believe you once told Dick you were sorry for him, Nilghai. You remember what happened, eh? Go into the bedroom and suggest full confession and an appeal to this Maisie girl, whoever she is. I honestly believe he'd try to kill you; and the blindness has made him rather muscular."
"Torpenhow's course is perfectly clear," said the Keneu. "He will go to Vitry- sur-Marne, which is on the Bezieres-Landes Railway,—single track from Tourgas. The Prussians shelled it out in '70 because there was a poplar on the top of a hill eighteen hundred yards from the church spire. There's a squadron of cavalry quartered there,—or ought to be. Where this studio Torp spoke about may be I cannot tell. That is Torp's business. I have given him his route. He will dispassionately explain the situation to the girl, and she will come back to Dick,—the more especially because, to use Dick's words, 'there is nothing but her damned obstinacy to keep them apart.'"
"And they have four hundred and twenty pounds a year between 'em."
Dick never lost his head for figures, even in his delirium. You haven't the shadow of an excuse for not going," said the Nilghai.
Torpenhow looked very uncomfortable. "But it's absurd and impossible. I can't drag her back by the hair."
"Our business—the business for which we draw our money—is to do absurd and impossible things,—generally with no reason whatever except to amuse the public. Here we have a reason. The rest doesn't matter. I shall share these rooms with the Nilghai till Torpenhow returns. There will be a batch of unbridled 'specials' coming to town in a little while, and these will serve as their headquarters. Another reason for sending Torpenhow away. Thus Providence helps those who help others, and"—here the Keneu dropped his measured speech— "we can't have you tied by the leg to Dick when the trouble begins. It's your only chance of getting away; and Dick will be grateful."
"He will,—worse luck! I can but go and try. I can't conceive a woman in her senses refusing Dick."
"Talk that out with the girl. I have seen you wheedle an angry Mahdieh woman into giving you dates. This won't be a tithe as difficult. You had better not be here tomorrow afternoon, because the Nilghai and I will be in possession. It is an order. Obey."
"Dick," said Torpenhow, next morning, "can I do anything for you?"
"No! Leave me alone. How often must I remind you that I'm blind?"
"Nothing I could go for to fetch for to carry for to bring?"
"No. Take those infernal creaking boots of yours away."
"Poor chap!" said Torpenhow to himself. "I must have been sitting on his nerves lately. He wants a lighter step." Then, aloud, "Very well. Since you're so independent, I'm going off for four or five days. Say goodbye at least. The housekeeper will look after you, and Keneu has my rooms."
Dick's face fell. "You won't be longer than a week at the outside? I know I'm touched in the temper, but I can't get on without you."
"Can't you? You'll have to do without me in a little time, and you'll be glad I'm gone."
Dick felt his way back to the big chair, and wondered what these things might mean. He did not wish to be tended by the housekeeper, and yet Torpenhow's constant tenderness jarred on him. He did not exactly know what he wanted. The darkness would not lift, and Maisie"s unopened letters felt worn and old from much handling. He could never read them for himself as long as life endured; but Maisie might have sent him some fresh ones to play with. The Nilghai entered with a gift,—a piece of red modelling-wax. He fancied that Dick might find interest in using his hands. Dick poked and patted the stuff for a few minutes, and, "Is it like anything in the world?" he said drearily. "Take it away. I may get the touch of the blind in fifty years. Do you know where Torpenhow has gone?"
The Nilghai knew nothing. "We're staying in his rooms till he comes back. Can we do anything for you?"
"I'd like to be left alone, please. Don't think I'm ungrateful; but I'm best alone."
The Nilghai chuckled, and Dick resumed his drowsy brooding and sullen rebellion against fate. He had long since ceased to think about the work he had done in the old days, and the desire to do more work had departed from him. He was exceedingly sorry for himself, and the completeness of his tender grief soothed him. But his soul and his body cried for Maisie—Maisie who would understand. His mind pointed out that Maisie, having her own work to do, would not care. His experience had taught him that when money was exhausted women went away, and that when a man was knocked out of the race the others trampled on him. "Then at the least," said Dick, in reply, "she could use me as I used Binat,— for some sort of a study. I wouldn't ask more than to be near her again, even though I knew that another man was making love to her. Ugh! what a dog I am!"
A voice on the staircase began to sing joyfully—
"When we go—go—go away from here, Our creditors will weep and they will wail, Our absence much regretting when they find that we've been getting Out of England by next Tuesday's Indian mail."
Following the trampling of feet, slamming of Torpenhow's door, and the sound of voices in strenuous debate, some one squeaked, "And see, you good fellows, I have found a new water-bottle—firs'-class patent—eh, how you say? Open himself inside out."
Dick sprang to his feet. He knew the voice well. "That's Cassavetti, come back from the Continent. Now I know why Torp went away. There's a row somewhere, and—I'm out of it!"
The Nilghai commanded silence in vain. "That's for my sake," Dick said bitterly. "The birds are getting ready to fly, and they wouldn't tell me. I can hear Morten-Sutherland and Mackaye. Half the War Correspondents in London are there;—and I'm out of it."
He stumbled across the landing and plunged into Torpenhow"s room. He could feel that it was full of men. "Where's the trouble?" said he. "In the Balkans at last? Why didn't some one tell me?"
"We thought you wouldn't be interested," said the Nilghai, shamefacedly.
"It's in the Soudan, as usual."
"You lucky dogs! Let me sit here while you talk. I shan't be a skeleton at the feast.—Cassavetti, where are you? Your English is as bad as ever."
Dick was led into a chair. He heard the rustle of the maps, and the talk swept forward, carrying him with it. Everybody spoke at once, discussing press censorships, railway-routes, transport, water-supply, the capacities of generals,—these in language that would have horrified a trusting public,— ranting, asserting, denouncing, and laughing at the top of their voices. There was the glorious certainty of war in the Soudan at any moment. The Nilghai said so, and it was well to be in readiness. The Keneu had telegraphed to Cairo for horses; Cassavetti had stolen a perfectly inaccurate list of troops that would be ordered forward, and was reading it out amid profane interruptions, and the Keneu introduced to Dick some man unknown who would be employed as war artist by the Central Southern Syndicate. "It's his first outing," said the Keneu. "Give him some tips—about riding camels."
"Oh, those camels!" groaned Cassavetti. "I shall learn to ride him again, and now I am so much all soft! Listen, you good fellows. I know your military arrangement very well. There will go the Royal Argalshire Sutherlanders. So it was read to me upon best authority."
A roar of laughter interrupted him.
"Sit down," said the Nilghai. "The lists aren't even made out in the War Office."
"Will there be any force at Suakin?" said a voice.
Then the outcries redoubled, and grew mixed, thus: "How many Egyptian troops will they use?—God help the Fellaheen!—There's a railway in Plumstead marshes doing duty as a fives-court.—We shall have the Suakin-Berber line built at last.—Canadian voyageurs are too careful. Give me a half-drunk Krooman in a whale-boat.—Who commands the Desert column?—No, they never blew up the big rock in the Ghineh bend. We shall have to be hauled up, as usual.—Somebody tell me if there's an Indian contingent, or I'll break everybody's head.—Don't tear the map in two.—It's a war of occupation, I tell you, to connect with the African companies in the South.—There's Guinea-worm in most of the wells on that route." Then the Nilghai, despairing of peace, bellowed like a fog-horn and beat upon the table with both hands.