"But what becomes of Torpenhow?" said Dick, in the silence that followed.
"Torp's in abeyance just now. He's off love-making somewhere, I suppose," said the Nilghai.
"He said he was going to stay at home," said the Keneu.
"Is he?" said Dick, with an oath. "He won't. I'm not much good now, but if you and the Nilghai hold him down I'll engage to trample on him till he sees reason. He'll stay behind, indeed! He's the best of you all. There'll be some tough work by Omdurman. We shall come there to stay, this time.
"But I forgot. I wish I were going with you."
"So do we all, Dickie," said the Keneu.
"And I most of all," said the new artist of the Central Southern Syndicate.
"Could you tell me——"
"I'll give you one piece of advice," Dick answered, moving towards the door. "If you happen to be cut over the head in a scrimmage, don't guard. Tell the man to go on cutting. You'll find it cheapest in the end. Thanks for letting me look in."
"There's grit in Dick," said the Nilghai, an hour later, when the room was emptied of all save the Keneu.
"It was the sacred call of the war-trumpet. Did you notice how he answered to it? Poor fellow! Let's look at him," said the Keneu.
The excitement of the talk had died away. Dick was sitting by the studio table, with his head on his arms, when the men came in. He did not change his position.
"It hurts," he moaned. "God forgive me, but it hurts cruelly; and yet, y'know, the world has a knack of spinning round all by itself. Shall I see Torp before he goes?"
"Oh, yes. You'll see him," said the Nilghai.
The sun went down an hour ago, I wonder if I face towards home; If I lost my way in the light of day How shall I find it now night is come? —Old Song
"Maisie, come to bed."
"It's so hot I can't sleep. Don't worry."
Maisie put her elbows on the window-sill and looked at the moonlight on the straight, poplar-flanked road. Summer had come upon Vitry-sur-Marne and parched it to the bone. The grass was dry-burnt in the meadows, the clay by the bank of the river was caked to brick, the roadside flowers were long since dead, and the roses in the garden hung withered on their stalks. The heat in the little low bedroom under the eaves was almost intolerable. The very moonlight on the wall of Kami's studio across the road seemed to make the night hotter, and the shadow of the big bell-handle by the closed gate cast a bar of inky black that caught Maisie's eye and annoyed her.
"Horrid thing! It should be all white," she murmured. "And the gate isn't in the middle of the wall, either. I never noticed that before."
Maisie was hard to please at that hour. First, the heat of the past few weeks had worn her down; secondly, her work, and particularly the study of a female head intended to represent the Melancolia and not finished in time for the Salon, was unsatisfactory; thirdly, Kami had said as much two days before; fourthly,—but so completely fourthly that it was hardly worth thinking about,- -Dick, her property, had not written to her for more than six weeks. She was angry with the heat, with Kami, and with her work, but she was exceedingly angry with Dick.
She had written to him three times,—each time proposing a fresh treatment of her Melancolia. Dick had taken no notice of these communications. She had resolved to write no more. When she returned to England in the autumn—for her pride's sake she could not return earlier—she would speak to him. She missed the Sunday afternoon conferences more than she cared to admit. All that Kami said was, "Continuez, mademoiselle, continuez toujours," and he had been repeating the wearisome counsel through the hot summer, exactly like a cicada,- -an old gray cicada in a black alpaca coat, white trousers, and a huge felt hat.
But Dick had tramped masterfully up and down her little studio north of the cool green London park, and had said things ten times worse than continuez, before he snatched the brush out of her hand and showed her where the error lay. His last letter, Maisie remembered, contained some trivial advice about not sketching in the sun or drinking water at wayside farmhouses; and he had said that not once, but three times,—as if he did not know that Maisie could take care of herself.
But what was he doing, that he could not trouble to write? A murmur of voices in the road made her lean from the window. A cavalryman of the little garrison in the town was talking to Kami's cook. The moonlight glittered on the scabbard of his sabre, which he was holding in his hand lest it should clank inopportunely. The cook's cap cast deep shadows on her face, which was close to the conscript's. He slid his arm round her waist, and there followed the sound of a kiss.
"Faugh!" said Maisie, stepping back.
"What's that?" said the red-haired girl, who was tossing uneasily outside her bed.
"Only a conscript kissing the cook," said Maisie.
"They've gone away now." She leaned out of the window again, and put a shawl over her nightgown to guard against chills. There was a very small night-breeze abroad, and a sun-baked rose below nodded its head as one who knew unutterable secrets. Was it possible that Dick should turn his thoughts from her work and his own and descend to the degradation of Suzanne and the conscript? He could not! The rose nodded its head and one leaf therewith. It looked like a naughty little devil scratching its ear.
Dick could not, "because," thought Maisie, "he is mine,—mine,—mine. He said he was. I'm sure I don't care what he does. It will only spoil his work if he does; and it will spoil mine too."
The rose continued to nod in the futile way peculiar to flowers. There was no earthly reason why Dick should not disport himself as he chose, except that he was called by Providence, which was Maisie, to assist Maisie in her work. And her work was the preparation of pictures that went sometimes to English provincial exhibitions, as the notices in the scrap-book proved, and that were invariably rejected by the Salon when Kami was plagued into allowing her to send them up. Her work in the future, it seemed, would be the preparation of pictures on exactly similar lines which would be rejected in exactly the same way——The red-haired girl threshed distressfully across the sheets. "It's too hot to sleep," she moaned; and the interruption jarred.
Exactly the same way. Then she would divide her years between the little studio in England and Kami's big studio at Vitry-sur-Marne. No, she would go to another master, who should force her into the success that was her right, if patient toil and desperate endeavour gave one a right to anything. Dick had told her that he had worked ten years to understand his craft. She had worked ten years, and ten years were nothing. Dick had said that ten years were nothing,—but that was in regard to herself only. He had said—this very man who could not find time to write—that he would wait ten years for her, and that she was bound to come back to him sooner or later. He had said this in the absurd letter about sunstroke and diphtheria; and then he had stopped writing. He was wandering up and down moonlit streets, kissing cooks. She would like to lecture him now,—not in her nightgown, of course, but properly dressed, severely and from a height. Yet if he was kissing other girls he certainly would not care whether she lecture him or not. He would laugh at her. Very good.
She would go back to her studio and prepare pictures that went, etc., etc.
The mill-wheel of thought swung round slowly, that no section of it might be slurred over, and the red-haired girl tossed and turned behind her.
Maisie put her chin in her hands and decided that there could be no doubt whatever of the villainy of Dick. To justify herself, she began, unwomanly, to weigh the evidence. There was a boy, and he had said he loved her. And he kissed her,—kissed her on the cheek,—by a yellow sea-poppy that nodded its head exactly like the maddening dry rose in the garden. Then there was an interval, and men had told her that they loved her—just when she was busiest with her work. Then the boy came back, and at their very second meeting had told her that he loved her. Then he had——But there was no end to the things he had done. He had given her his time and his powers. He had spoken to her of Art, housekeeping, technique, teacups, the abuse of pickles as a stimulant,— that was rude,—sable hair-brushes,—he had given her the best in her stock,— she used them daily; he had given her advice that she profited by, and now and again—a look. Such a look! The look of a beaten hound waiting for the word to crawl to his mistress's feet. In return she had given him nothing whatever, except—here she brushed her mouth against the open-work sleeve of her nightgown—the privilege of kissing her once. And on the mouth, too. Disgraceful! Was that not enough, and more than enough? and if it was not, had he not cancelled the debt by not writing and—probably kissing other girls? "Maisie, you'll catch a chill. Do go and lie down," said the wearied voice of her companion. "I can't sleep a wink with you at the window."
Maisie shrugged her shoulders and did not answer. She was reflecting on the meannesses of Dick, and on other meannesses with which he had nothing to do. The moonlight would not let her sleep. It lay on the skylight of the studio across the road in cold silver; she stared at it intently and her thoughts began to slide one into the other. The shadow of the big bell-handle in the wall grew short, lengthened again, and faded out as the moon went down behind the pasture and a hare came limping home across the road. Then the dawn-wind washed through the upland grasses, and brought coolness with it, and the cattle lowed by the drought-shrunk river. Maisie's head fell forward on the window- sill, and the tangle of black hair covered her arms.
"Maisie, wake up. You'll catch a chill."
"Yes, dear; yes, dear." She staggered to her bed like a wearied child, and as she buried her face in the pillows she muttered, "I think—I think—But he ought to have written."
Day brought the routine of the studio, the smell of paint and turpentine, and the monotone wisdom of Kami, who was a leaden artist, but a golden teacher if the pupil were only in sympathy with him. Maisie was not in sympathy that day, and she waited impatiently for the end of the work.
She knew when it was coming; for Kami would gather his black alpaca coat into a bunch behind him, and, with faded flue eyes that saw neither pupils nor canvas, look back into the past to recall the history of one Binat. "You have all done not so badly," he would say. "But you shall remember that it is not enough to have the method, and the art, and the power, nor even that which is touch, but you shall have also the conviction that nails the work to the wall. Of the so many I taught,"—here the students would begin to unfix drawing-pins or get their tubes together,—"the very so many that I have taught, the best was Binat. All that comes of the study and the work and the knowledge was to him even when he came. After he left me he should have done all that could be done with the colour, the form, and the knowledge. Only, he had not the conviction. So today I hear no more of Binat,—the best of my pupils,—and that is long ago. So today, too, you will be glad to hear no more of me. Continuez, mesdemoiselles, and, above all, with conviction."
He went into the garden to smoke and mourn over the lost Binat as the pupils dispersed to their several cottages or loitered in the studio to make plans for the cool of the afternoon.
Maisie looked at her very unhappy Melancolia, restrained a desire to grimace before it, and was hurrying across the road to write a letter to Dick, when she was aware of a large man on a white troop-horse. How Torpenhow had managed in the course of twenty hours to find his way to the hearts of the cavalry officers in quarters at Vitry-sur-Marne, to discuss with them the certainty of a glorious revenge for France, to reduce the colonel to tears of pure affability, and to borrow the best horse in the squadron for the journey to Kami's studio, is a mystery that only special correspondents can unravel.
"I beg your pardon," said he. "It seems an absurd question to ask, but the fact is that I don't know her by any other name: Is there any young lady here that is called Maisie?"
"I am Maisie," was the answer from the depths of a great sun-hat.
"I ought to introduce myself," he said, as the horse capered in the blinding white dust. "My name is Torpenhow. Dick Heldar is my best friend, and—and—the fact is that he has gone blind."
"Blind!" said Maisie, stupidly. "He can't be blind."
"He has been stone-blind for nearly two months."
Maisie lifted up her face, and it was pearly white. "No! No! Not blind! I won't have him blind!"
"Would you care to see for yourself?" said Torpenhow.
"Oh, no! The Paris train doesn't go through this place till tonight. There will be ample time."
"Did Mr. Heldar send you to me?"
"Certainly not. Dick wouldn't do that sort of thing. He's sitting in his studio, turning over some letters that he can't read because he"s blind."
There was a sound of choking from the sun-hat. Maisie bowed her head and went into the cottage, where the red-haired girl was on a sofa, complaining of a headache.
"Dick's blind!" said Maisie, taking her breath quickly as she steadied herself against a chair-back. "My Dick's blind!"
"What?" The girl was on the sofa no longer.
"A man has come from England to tell me. He hasn't written to me for six weeks."
"Are you going to him?"
"I must think."
"Think! I should go back to London and see him and I should kiss his eyes and kiss them and kiss them until they got well again! If you don't go I shall. Oh, what am I talking about? You wicked little idiot! Go to him at once. Go!"
Torpenhow's neck was blistering, but he preserved a smile of infinite patience as Maisie's appeared bareheaded in the sunshine.
"I am coming," said she, her eyes on the ground.
"You will be at Vitry Station, then, at seven this evening." This was an order delivered by one who was used to being obeyed. Maisie said nothing, but she felt grateful that there was no chance of disputing with this big man who took everything for granted and managed a squealing horse with one hand. She returned to the red-haired girl, who was weeping bitterly, and between tears, kisses,—very few of those,—menthol, packing, and an interview with Kami, the sultry afternoon wore away.
Thought might come afterwards. Her present duty was to go to Dick,—Dick who owned the wondrous friend and sat in the dark playing with her unopened letters.
"But what will you do," she said to her companion.
"I? Oh, I shall stay here and—finish your Melancolia," she said, smiling pitifully. "Write to me afterwards."
That night there ran a legend through Vitry-sur-Marne of a mad Englishman, doubtless suffering from sunstroke, who had drunk all the officers of the garrison under the table, had borrowed a horse from the lines, and had then and there eloped, after the English custom, with one of those more mad English girls who drew pictures down there under the care of that good Monsieur Kami.
"They are very droll," said Suzanne to the conscript in the moonlight by the studio wall. "She walked always with those big eyes that saw nothing, and yet she kisses me on both cheeks as though she were my sister, and gives me—see— ten francs!"
The conscript levied a contribution on both gifts; for he prided himself on being a good soldier.
Torpenhow spoke very little to Maisie during the journey to Calais; but he was careful to attend to all her wants, to get her a compartment entirely to herself, and to leave her alone. He was amazed of the ease with which the matter had been accomplished.
"The safest thing would be to let her think things out. By Dick's showing,— when he was off his head,—she must have ordered him about very thoroughly. Wonder how she likes being under orders."
Maisie never told. She sat in the empty compartment often with her eyes shut, that she might realise the sensation of blindness. It was an order that she should return to London swiftly, and she found herself at last almost beginning to enjoy the situation. This was better than looking after luggage and a red- haired friend who never took any interest in her surroundings. But there appeared to be a feeling in the air that she, Maisie,—of all people,—was in disgrace. Therefore she justified her conduct to herself with great success, till Torpenhow came up to her on the steamer and without preface began to tell the story of Dick"s blindness, suppressing a few details, but dwelling at length on the miseries of delirium. He stopped before he reached the end, as though he had lost interest in the subject, and went forward to smoke. Maisie was furious with him and with herself.
She was hurried on from Dover to London almost before she could ask for breakfast, and—she was past any feeling of indignation now—was bidden curtly to wait in a hall at the foot of some lead-covered stairs while Torpenhow went up to make inquiries. Again the knowledge that she was being treated like a naughty little girl made her pale cheeks flame. It was all Dick's fault for being so stupid as to go blind.
Torpenhow led her up to a shut door, which he opened very softly. Dick was sitting by the window, with his chin on his chest. There were three envelopes in his hand, and he turned them over and over. The big man who gave orders was no longer by her side, and the studio door snapped behind her.
Dick thrust the letters into his pocket as he heard the sound. "Hullo, Torp! Is that you? I've been so lonely."
His voice had taken the peculiar flatness of the blind. Maisie pressed herself up into a corner of the room. Her heart was beating furiously, and she put one hand on her breast to keep it quiet. Dick was staring directly at her, and she realised for the first time that he was blind.
Shutting her eyes in a rail-way carriage to open them when she pleased was child's play. This man was blind though his eyes were wide open.
"Torp, is that you? They said you were coming." Dick looked puzzled and a little irritated at the silence.
"No; it's only me," was the answer, in a strained little whisper. Maisie could hardly move her lips.
"H'm!" said Dick, composedly, without moving. "This is a new phenomenon. Darkness I'm getting used to; but I object to hearing voices."
Was he mad, then, as well as blind, that he talked to himself? Maisie"s heart beat more wildly, and she breathed in gasps. Dick rose and began to feel his way across the room, touching each table and chair as he passed. Once he caught his foot on a rug, and swore, dropping on his knees to feel what the obstruction might be. Maisie remembered him walking in the Park as though all the earth belonged to him, tramping up and down her studio two months ago, and flying up the gangway of the Channel steamer. The beating of her heart was making her sick, and Dick was coming nearer, guided by the sound of her breathing. She put out a hand mechanically to ward him off or to draw him to herself, she did not know which. It touched his chest, and he stepped back as though he had been shot.
"It's Maisie!" said he, with a dry sob. "What are you doing here?"
"I came—I came—to see you, please."
Dick's lips closed firmly.
"Won't you sit down, then? You see, I've had some bother with my eyes, and——"
"I know. I know. Why didn't you tell me?"
"I couldn't write."
"You might have told Mr. Torpenhow."
"What has he to do with my affairs?"
"He—he brought me from Vitry-sur-Marne. He thought I ought to see you."
"Why, what has happened? Can I do anything for you? No, I can't. I forgot."
"Oh, Dick, I'm so sorry! I've come to tell you, and——Let me take you back to your chair."
"Don't! I'm not a child. You only do that out of pity. I never meant to tell you anything about it. I'm no good now. I'm down and done for. Let me alone!"
He groped back to his chair, his chest labouring as he sat down.
Maisie watched him, and the fear went out of her heart, to be followed by a very bitter shame. He had spoken a truth that had been hidden from the girl through every step of the impetuous flight to London; for he was, indeed, down and done for—masterful no longer but rather a little abject; neither an artist stronger than she, nor a man to be looked up to—only some blind one that sat in a chair and seemed on the point of crying. She was immensely and unfeignedly sorry for him—more sorry than she had ever been for any one in her life, but not sorry enough to deny his words.
So she stood still and felt ashamed and a little hurt, because she had honestly intended that her journey should end triumphantly; and now she was only filled with pity most startlingly distinct from love.
"Well?" said Dick, his face steadily turned away. "I never meant to worry you any more. What's the matter?"
He was conscious that Maisie was catching her breath, but was as unprepared as herself for the torrent of emotion that followed. She had dropped into a chair and was sobbing with her face hidden in her hands.
"I can't—I can't!" she cried desperately. "Indeed, I can't. It isn't my fault. I'm so sorry. Oh, Dickie, I'm so sorry."
Dick's shoulders straightened again, for the words lashed like a whip.
Still the sobbing continued. It is not good to realise that you have failed in the hour of trial or flinched before the mere possibility of making sacrifices.
"I do despise myself—indeed I do. But I can't. Oh, Dickie, you wouldn't ask me—would you?" wailed Maisie.
She looked up for a minute, and by chance it happened that Dick's eyes fell on hers. The unshaven face was very white and set, and the lips were trying to force themselves into a smile. But it was the worn-out eyes that Maisie feared. Her Dick had gone blind and left in his place some one that she could hardly recognise till he spoke.
"Who is asking you to do anything, Maisie? I told you how it would be. What's the use of worrying? For pity's sake don't cry like that; it isn't worth it."
"You don't know how I hate myself. Oh, Dick, help me—help me!" The passion of tears had grown beyond her control and was beginning to alarm the man. He stumbled forward and put his arm round her, and her head fell on his shoulder.
"Hush, dear, hush! Don't cry. You're quite right, and you've nothing to reproach yourself with—you never had. You're only a little upset by the journey, and I don't suppose you've had any breakfast. What a brute Torp was to bring you over."
"I wanted to come. I did indeed," she protested.
"Very well. And now you've come and seen, and I'm—immensely grateful. When you're better you shall go away and get something to eat. What sort of a passage did you have coming over?"
Maisie was crying more subduedly, for the first time in her life glad that she had something to lean against. Dick patted her on the shoulder tenderly but clumsily, for he was not quite sure where her shoulder might be.
She drew herself out of his arms at last and waited, trembling and most unhappy. He had felt his way to the window to put the width of the room between them, and to quiet a little the tumult in his heart.
"Are you better now?" he said.
"Yes, but—don't you hate me?"
"I hate you? My God! I?"
"Isn't—isn't there anything I could do for you, then? I'll stay here in England to do it, if you like. Perhaps I could come and see you sometimes."
"I think not, dear. It would be kindest not to see me any more, please. I don't want to seem rude, but—don't you think—perhaps you had almost better go now."
He was conscious that he could not bear himself as a man if the strain continued much longer.
"I don't deserve anything else. I'll go, Dick. Oh, I'm so miserable."
"Nonsense. You've nothing to worry about; I'd tell you if you had. Wait a moment, dear. I've got something to give you first. I meant it for you ever since this little trouble began. It's my Melancolia; she was a beauty when I last saw her. You can keep her for me, and if ever you're poor you can sell her. She's worth a few hundreds at any state of the market." He groped among his canvases. "She's framed in black. Is this a black frame that I have my hand on? There she is. What do you think of her?"
He turned a scarred formless muddle of paint towards Maisie, and the eyes strained as though they would catch her wonder and surprise. One thing and one thing only could she do for him.
The voice was fuller and more rounded, because the man knew he was speaking of his best work. Maisie looked at the blur, and a lunatic desire to laugh caught her by the throat. But for Dick's sake—whatever this mad blankness might mean- -she must make no sign. Her voice choked with hard-held tears as she answered, still gazing at the wreck—"Oh, Dick, it is good!"
He heard the little hysterical gulp and took it for tribute. "Won't you have it, then? I'll send it over to your house if you will."
"I? Oh yes—thank you. Ha! ha!" If she did not fly at once the laughter that was worse than tears would kill her. She turned and ran, choking and blinded, down the staircases that were empty of life to take refuge in a cab and go to her house across the Parks. There she sat down in the dismantled drawing-room and thought of Dick in his blindness, useless till the end of life, and of herself in her own eyes. Behind the sorrow, the shame, and the humiliation, lay fear of the cold wrath of the red-haired girl when Maisie should return. Maisie had never feared her companion before. Not until she found herself saying, "Well, he never asked me," did she realise her scorn of herself. And that is the end of Maisie. * * * * * *
For Dick was reserved more searching torment. He could not realise at first that Maisie, whom he had ordered to go had left him without a word of farewell. He was savagely angry against Torpenhow, who had brought upon him this humiliation and troubled his miserable peace. Then his dark hour came and he was alone with himself and his desires to get what help he could from the darkness. The queen could do no wrong, but in following the right, so far as it served her work, she had wounded her one subject more than his own brain would let him know.
"It's all I had and I've lost it," he said, as soon as the misery permitted clear thinking. "And Torp will think that he has been so infernally clever that I shan't have the heart to tell him. I must think this out quietly."
"Hullo!" said Torpenhow, entering the studio after Dick had enjoyed two hours of thought. "I'm back. Are you feeling any better?"
"Torp, I don't know what to say. Come here." Dick coughed huskily, wondering, indeed, what he should say, and how to say it temperately.
"What's the need for saying anything? Get up and tramp." Torpenhow was perfectly satisfied.
They walked up and down as of custom, Torpenhow's hand on Dick's shoulder, and Dick buried in his own thoughts.
"How in the world did you find it all out?" said Dick, at last.
"You shouldn't go off your head if you want to keep secrets, Dickie. It was absolutely impertinent on my part; but if you'd seen me rocketing about on a half-trained French troop-horse under a blazing sun you'd have laughed. There will be a charivari in my rooms tonight. Seven other devils——"
"I know—the row in the Southern Soudan. I surprised their councils the other day, and it made me unhappy. Have you fixed your flint to go? Who d'you work for?"
"Haven't signed any contracts yet. I wanted to see how your business would turn out."
"Would you have stayed with me, then, if—things had gone wrong?" He put his question cautiously.
"Don't ask me too much. I'm only a man."
"You've tried to be an angel very successfully."
"Oh ye—es! . . . Well, do you attend the function tonight? We shall be half screwed before the morning. All the men believe the war's a certainty."
"I don't think I will, old man, if it's all the same to you. I'll stay quiet here."
"And meditate? I don't blame you. You observe a good time if ever a man did."
That night there was a tumult on the stairs. The correspondents poured in from theatre, dinner, and music-hall to Torpenhow's room that they might discuss their plan of campaign in the event of military operations becoming a certainty. Torpenhow, the Keneu,, and the Nilghai had bidden all the men they had worked with to the orgy; and Mr. Beeton, the housekeeper, declared that never before in his checkered experience had he seen quite such a fancy lot of gentlemen. They waked the chambers with shoutings and song; and the elder men were quite as bad as the younger. For the chances of war were in front of them, and all knew what those meant.
Sitting in his own room a little perplexed by the noise across the landing, Dick suddenly began to laugh to himself.
"When one comes to think of it the situation is intensely comic. Maisie"s quite right—poor little thing. I didn't know she could cry like that before; but now I know what Torp thinks, I'm sure he'd be quite fool enough to stay at home and try to console me—if he knew. Besides, it isn't nice to own that you've been thrown over like a broken chair. I must carry this business through alone—as usual. If there isn't a war, and Torp finds out, I shall look foolish, that's all. If there is a way I mustn't interfere with another man's chances. Business is business, and I want to be alone—I want to be alone. What a row they're making!"
Somebody hammered at the studio door.
"Come out and frolic, Dickie," said the Nilghai.
"I should like to, but I can't. I'm not feeling frolicsome."
"Then, I'll tell the boys and they'll drag you like a badger."
"Please not, old man. On my word, I'd sooner be left alone just now."
"Very good. Can we send anything in to you? Fizz, for instance. Cassavetti is beginning to sing songs of the Sunny South already."
For one minute Dick considered the proposition seriously.
"No, thanks, I've a headache already."
"Virtuous child. That's the effect of emotion on the young. All my congratulations, Dick. I also was concerned in the conspiracy for your welfare."
"Go to the devil—oh, send Binkie in here."
The little dog entered on elastic feet, riotous from having been made much of all the evening. He had helped to sing the choruses; but scarcely inside the studio he realised that this was no place for tail-wagging, and settled himself on Dick's lap till it was bedtime. Then he went to bed with Dick, who counted every hour as it struck, and rose in the morning with a painfully clear head to receive Torpenhow's more formal congratulations and a particular account of the last night's revels.
"You aren't looking very happy for a newly accepted man," said Torpenhow.
"Never mind that—it's my own affair, and I'm all right. Do you really go?"
"Yes. With the old Central Southern as usual. They wired, and I accepted on better terms than before."
"When do you start?"
"The day after tomorrow—for Brindisi."
"Thank God." Dick spoke from the bottom of his heart.
"Well, that's not a pretty way of saying you're glad to get rid of me. But men in your condition are allowed to be selfish."
"I didn't mean that. Will you get a hundred pounds cashed for me before you leave?"
"That's a slender amount for housekeeping, isn't it?"
"Oh, it's only for—marriage expenses."
Torpenhow brought him the money, counted it out in fives and tens, and carefully put it away in the writing table.
"Now I suppose I shall have to listen to his ravings about his girl until I go. Heaven send us patience with a man in love!" he said to himself.
But never a word did Dick say of Maisie or marriage. He hung in the doorway of Torpenhow's room when the latter was packing and asked innumerable questions about the coming campaign, till Torpenhow began to feel annoyed.
"You're a secretive animal, Dickie, and you consume your own smoke, don't you?" he said on the last evening.
"I—I suppose so. By the way, how long do you think this war will last?"
"Days, weeks, or months. One can never tell. It may go on for years."
"I wish I were going."
"Good Heavens! You're the most unaccountable creature! Hasn't it occurred to you that you're going to be married—thanks to me?"
"Of course, yes. I'm going to be married—so I am. Going to be married. I'm awfully grateful to you. Haven't I told you that?"
"You might be going to be hanged by the look of you," said Torpenhow.
And the next day Torpenhow bade him good-bye and left him to the loneliness he had so much desired.
Yet at the last, ere our spearmen had found him, Yet at the last, ere a sword-thrust could save, Yet at the last, with his masters around him, He of the Faith spoke as master to slave; Yet at the last, tho' the Kafirs had maimed him, Broken by bondage and wrecked by the reiver,— Yet at the last, tho' the darkness had claimed him, He called upon Allah and died a believer.—Kizzilbashi.
"Beg your pardon, Mr. Heldar, but—but isn'tn othin" going to happen?" said Mr. Beeton.
"No!" Dick had just waked to another morning of blank despair and his temper was of the shortest.
"'Tain't my regular business, 'o course, sir; and what I say is, 'Mind your own business and let other people mind theirs;' but just before Mr. Torpenhow went away he give me to understand, like, that you might be moving into a house of your own, so to speak—a sort of house with rooms upstairs and downstairs where you'd be better attended to, though I try to act just by all our tenants. Don't I?"
"Ah! That must have been a mad-house. I shan't trouble you to take me there yet. Get me my breakfast, please, and leave me alone."
"I hope I haven't done anything wrong, sir, but you know I hope that as far as a man can I tries to do the proper thing by all the gentlemen in chambers—and more particular those whose lot is hard—such as you, for instance, Mr. Heldar. You likes soft-roe bloater, don't you? Soft-roe bloaters is scarcer than hard- roe, but what I says is, 'Never mind a little extra trouble so long as you give satisfaction to the tenants.'"
Mr. Beeton withdrew and left Dick to himself. Torpenhow had been long away; there was no more rioting in the chambers, and Dick had settled down to his new life, which he was weak enough to consider nothing better than death.
It is hard to live alone in the dark, confusing the day and night; dropping to sleep through sheer weariness at mid-day, and rising restless in the chill of the dawn. At first Dick, on his awakenings, would grope along the corridors of the chambers till he heard some one snore. Then he would know that the day had not yet come, and return wearily to his bedroom.
Later he learned not to stir till there was a noise and movement in the house and Mr. Beeton advised him to get up. Once dressed—and dressing, now that Torpenhow was away, was a lengthy business, because collars, ties, and the like hid themselves in far corners of the room, and search meant head-beating against chairs and trunks—once dressed, there was nothing whatever to do except to sit still and brood till the three daily meals came. Centuries separated breakfast from lunch and lunch from dinner, and though a man prayed for hundreds of years that his mind might be taken from him, God would never hear. Rather the mind was quickened and the revolving thoughts ground against each other as millstones grind when there is no corn between; and yet the brain would not wear out and give him rest. It continued to think, at length, with imagery and all manner of reminiscences. It recalled Maisie and past success, reckless travels by land and sea, the glory of doing work and feeling that it was good, and suggested all that might have happened had the eyes only been faithful to their duty. When thinking ceased through sheer weariness, there poured into Dick's soul tide on tide of overwhelming, purposeless fear—dread of starvation always, terror lest the unseen ceiling should crush down upon him, fear of fire in the chambers and a louse's death in red flame, and agonies of fiercer horror that had nothing to do with any fear of death. Then Dick bowed his head, and clutching the arms of his chair fought with his sweating self till the tinkle of plates told him that something to eat was being set before him.
Mr. Beeton would bring the meal when he had time to spare, and Dick learned to hang upon his speech, which dealt with badly fitted gas-plugs, waste-pipes out of repair, little tricks for driving picture-nails into walls, and the sins of the charwoman or the housemaids. In the lack of better things the small gossip of a servants' hall becomes immensely interesting, and the screwing of a washer on a tap an event to be talked over for days.
Once or twice a week, too, Mr. Beeton would take Dick out with him when he went marketing in the morning to haggle with tradesmen over fish, lamp-wicks, mustard, tapioca, and so forth, while Dick rested his weight first on one foot and then on the other and played aimlessly with the tins and string-ball on the counter. Then they would perhaps meet one of Mr. Beeton's friends, and Dick, standing aside a little, would hold his peace till Mr. Beeton was willing to go on again.
The life did not increase his self-respect. He abandoned shaving as a dangerous exercise, and being shaved in a barber's shop meant exposure of his infirmity. He could not see that his clothes were properly brushed, and since he had never taken any care of his personal appearance he became every known variety of sloven. A blind man cannot deal with cleanliness till he has been some months used to the darkness. If he demand attendance and grow angry at the want of it, he must assert himself and stand upright. Then the meanest menial can see that he is blind and, therefore, of no consequence. A wise man will keep his eyes on the floor and sit still. For amusement he may pick coal lump by lump out of the scuttle with the tongs and pile it in a little heap in the fender, keeping count of the lumps, which must all be put back again, one by one and very carefully. He may set himself sums if he cares to work them out; he may talk to himself or to the cat if she chooses to visit him; and if his trade has been that of an artist, he may sketch in the air with his forefinger; but that is too much like drawing a pig with the eyes shut. He may go to his bookshelves and count his books, ranging them in order of their size; or to his wardrobe and count his shirts, laying them in piles of two or three on the bed, as they suffer from frayed cuffs or lost buttons.
Even this entertainment wearies after a time; and all the times are very, very long.
Dick was allowed to sort a tool-chest where Mr. Beeton kept hammers, taps and nuts, lengths of gas-pipes, oil-bottles, and string.
"If I don't have everything just where I know where to look for it, why, then, I can't find anything when I do want it. You've no idea, sir, the amount of little things that these chambers uses up," said Mr. Beeton.
Fumbling at the handle of the door as he went out: "It's hard on you, sir, I do think it's hard on you. Ain't you going to do anything, sir?"
"I'll pay my rent and messing. Isn't that enough?"
"I wasn't doubting for a moment that you couldn't pay your way, sir; but I 'ave often said to my wife, 'It's 'ard on 'im because it isn't as if he was an old man, nor yet a middle-aged one, but quite a young gentleman. That's where it comes so 'ard.'"
"I suppose so," said Dick, absently. This particular nerve through long battering had ceased to feel—much.
"I was thinking," continued Mr. Beeton, still making as if to go, "that you might like to hear my boy Alf read you the papers sometimes of an evening. He do read beautiful, seeing he's only nine."
"I should be very grateful," said Dick. "Only let me make it worth his while."
"We wasn't thinking of that, sir, but of course it's in your own 'ands; but only to 'ear Alf sing 'A Boy's best Friend is 'is Mother!' Ah!"
"I'll hear him sing that too. Let him come this evening with the newspapers."
Alf was not a nice child, being puffed up with many school-board certificates for good conduct, and inordinately proud of his singing. Mr. Beeton remained, beaming, while the child wailed his way through a song of some eight eight-line verses in the usual whine of a young Cockney, and, after compliments, left him to read Dick the foreign telegrams. Ten minutes later Alf returned to his parents rather pale and scared.
"'E said "e couldn't stand it no more," he explained.
"He never said you read badly, Alf?" Mrs. Beeton spoke.
"No. 'E said I read beautiful. Said 'e never 'eard any one read like that, but 'e said 'e couldn't abide the stuff in the papers."
"P'raps he's lost some money in the Stocks. Were you readin' him about Stocks, Alf?"
"No; it was all about fightin' out there where the soldiers is gone—a great long piece with all the lines close together and very hard words in it. 'E give me 'arf a crown because I read so well. And 'e says the next time there's anything 'e wants read 'e'll send for me."
"That's good hearing, but I do think for all the half-crown—put it into the kicking-donkey money-box, Alf, and let me see you do it—he might have kept you longer. Why, he couldn't have begun to understand how beautiful you read."
"He's best left to hisself—gentlemen always are when they"re downhearted," said Mr. Beeton.
Alf's rigorously limited powers of comprehending Torpenhow"s special correspondence had waked the devil of unrest in Dick. He could hear, through the boy's nasal chant, the camels grunting in the squares behind the soldiers outside Suakin; could hear the men swearing and chaffing across the cooking pots, and could smell the acrid wood-smoke as it drifted over camp before the wind of the desert.
That night he prayed to God that his mind might be taken from him, offering for proof that he was worthy of this favour the fact that he had not shot himself long ago. That prayer was not answered, and indeed Dick knew in his heart of hearts that only a lingering sense of humour and no special virtue had kept him alive. Suicide, he had persuaded himself, would be a ludicrous insult to the gravity of the situation as well as a weak-kneed confession of fear.
"Just for the fun of the thing," he said to the cat, who had taken Binkie's place in his establishment, "I should like to know how long this is going to last. I can live for a year on the hundred pounds Torp cashed for me. I must have two or three thousand at least in the Bank—twenty or thirty years more provided for, that is to say. Then I fall back on my hundred and twenty a year, which will be more by that time. Let's consider.
"Twenty-five—thirty-five—a man's in his prime then, they say—forty-five—a middle-aged man just entering politics—fifty-five 'died at the comparatively early age of fifty-five,' according to the newspapers. Bah! How these Christians funk death! Sixty-five—we're only getting on in years. Seventy-five is just possible, though. Great hell, cat O! fifty years more of solitary confinement in the dark! You"ll die, and Beeton will die, and Torp will die, and Mai—everybody else will die, but I shall be alive and kicking with nothing to do. I'm very sorry for myself. I should like some one else to be sorry for me. Evidently I'm not going mad before I die, but the pain's just as bad as ever. Some day when you're vivisected, cat O! they'll tie you down on a little table and cut you open—but don't be afraid; they'll take precious good care that you don't die. You'll live, and you'll be very sorry then that you weren't sorry for me. Perhaps Torp will come back or . . . I wish I could go to Torp and the Nilghai, even though I were in their way."
Pussy left the room before the speech was ended, and Alf, as he entered, found Dick addressing the empty hearth-rug.
"There's a letter for you, sir," he said. "Perhaps you'd like me to read it."
"Lend it to me for a minute and I'll tell you."
The outstretched hand shook just a little and the voice was not over-steady. It was within the limits of human possibility that—that was no letter from Maisie. He knew the heft of three closed envelopes only too well. It was a foolish hope that the girl should write to him, for he did not realise that there is a wrong which admits of no reparation though the evildoer may with tears and the heart's best love strive to mend all. It is best to forget that wrong whether it be caused or endured, since it is as remediless as bad work once put forward.
"Read it, then," said Dick, and Alf began intoning according to the rules of the Board School—"'I could have given you love, I could have given you loyalty, such as you never dreamed of. Do you suppose I cared what you were? But you chose to whistle everything down the wind for nothing. My only excuse for you is that you are so young.' "That's all," he said, returning the paper to be dropped into the fire.
"What was in the letter?" asked Mrs. Beeton, when Alf returned.
"I don't know. I think it was a circular or a tract about not whistlin' at everything when you're young."
"I must have stepped on something when I was alive and walking about and it has bounced up and hit me. God help it, whatever it is—unless it was all a joke. But I don't know any one who"d take the trouble to play a joke on me—Love and loyalty for nothing. It sounds tempting enough. I wonder whether I have lost anything really?"
Dick considered for a long time but could not remember when or how he had put himself in the way of winning these trifles at a woman's hands.
Still, the letter as touching on matters that he preferred not to think about stung him into a fit of frenzy that lasted for a day and night. When his heart was so full of despair that it would hold no more, body and soul together seemed to be dropping without check through the darkness.
Then came fear of darkness and desperate attempts to reach the light again. But there was no light to be reached. When that agony had left him sweating and breathless, the downward flight would recommence till the gathering torture of it spurred him into another fight as hopeless as the first. Followed some few minutes of sleep in which he dreamed that he saw. Then the procession of events would repeat itself till he was utterly worn out and the brain took up its everlasting consideration of Maisie and might-have-beens.
At the end of everything Mr. Beeton came to his room and volunteered to take him out. "Not marketing this time, but we'll go into the Parks if you like."
"Be damned if I do," quoth Dick. "Keep to the streets and walk up and down. I like to hear the people round me."
This was not altogether true. The blind in the first stages of their infirmity dislike those who can move with a free stride and unlifted arms—but Dick had no earthly desire to go to the Parks. Once and only once since Maisie had shut her door he had gone there under Alf's charge. Alf forgot him and fished for minnows in the Serpentine with some companions. After half an hour's waiting Dick, almost weeping with rage and wrath, caught a passer-by, who introduced him to a friendly policeman, who led him to a four-wheeler opposite the Albert Hall. He never told Mr. Beeton of Alf's forgetfulness, but . . . this was not the manner in which he was used to walk the Parks aforetime.
"What streets would you like to walk down, then?" said Mr. Beeton, sympathetically. His own ideas of a riotous holiday meant picnicking on the grass of Green Park with his family, and half a dozen paper bags full of food.
"Keep to the river," said Dick, and they kept to the river, and the rush of it was in his ears till they came to Blackfriars Bridge and struck thence on to the Waterloo Road, Mr. Beeton explaining the beauties of the scenery as he went on.
"And walking on the other side of the pavement," said he, "unless I'm much mistaken, is the young woman that used to come to your rooms to be drawed. I never forgets a face and I never remembers a name, except paying tenants, 'o course!"
"Stop her," said Dick. "It's Bessie Broke. Tell her I'd like to speak to her again. Quick, man!"
Mr. Beeton crossed the road under the noses of the omnibuses and arrested Bessie then on her way northward. She recognised him as the man in authority who used to glare at her when she passed up Dick"s staircase, and her first impulse was to run.
"Wasn't you Mr. Heldar's model?" said Mr. Beeton, planting himself in front of her. "You was. He's on the other side of the road and he'd like to see you."
"Why?" said Bessie, faintly. She remembered—indeed had never for long forgotten—an affair connected with a newly finished picture.
"Because he has asked me to do so, and because he's most particular blind."
"No. 'Orspital blind. He can't see. That's him over there."
Dick was leaning against the parapet of the bridge as Mr. Beeton pointed him out—a stub-bearded, bowed creature wearing a dirty magenta-coloured neckcloth outside an unbrushed coat. There was nothing to fear from such an one. Even if he chased her, Bessie thought, he could not follow far. She crossed over, and Dick's face lighted up. It was long since a woman of any kind had taken the trouble to speak to him.
"I hope you're well, Mr. Heldar?" said Bessie, a little puzzled. Mr. Beeton stood by with the air of an ambassador and breathed responsibly.
"I'm very well indeed, and, by Jove! I'm glad to see—hear you, I mean, Bess. You never thought it worth while to turn up and see us again after you got your money. I don't know why you should. Are you going anywhere in particular just now?"
"I was going for a walk," said Bessie.
"Not the old business?" Dick spoke under his breath.
"Lor, no! I paid my premium"—Bessie was very proud of that word—"for a barmaid, sleeping in, and I'm at the bar now quite respectable. Indeed I am."
Mr. Beeton had no special reason to believe in the loftiness of human nature. Therefore he dissolved himself like a mist and returned to his gas-plugs without a word of apology. Bessie watched the flight with a certain uneasiness; but so long as Dick appeared to be ignorant of the harm that had been done to him . . .
"It's hard work pulling the beer-handles," she went on, "and they've got one of them penny-in-the-slot cash-machines, so if you get wrong by a penny at the end of the day—but then I don't believe the machinery is right. Do you?"
"I've only seen it work. Mr. Beeton."
"I'm afraid I must ask you to help me home, then. I'll make it worth your while. You see." The sightless eyes turned towards her and Bessie saw.
"It isn't taking you out of your way?" he said hesitatingly. "I can ask a policeman if it is."
"Not at all. I come on at seven and I'm off at four. That's easy hours."
"Good God!—but I'm on all the time. I wish I had some work to do too. Let's go home, Bess."
He turned and cannoned into a man on the sidewalk, recoiling with an oath. Bessie took his arm and said nothing—as she had said nothing when he had ordered her to turn her face a little more to the light. They walked for some time in silence, the girl steering him deftly through the crowd.
"And where's—where's Mr. Torpenhow?" she inquired at last.
"He has gone away to the desert."
Dick pointed to the right. "East—out of the mouth of the river," said he.
"Then west, then south, and then east again, all along the under-side of Europe. Then south again, God knows how far." The explanation did not enlighten Bessie in the least, but she held her tongue and looked to Dick"s patch till they came to the chambers.
"We'll have tea and muffins," he said joyously. "I can't tell you, Bessie, how glad I am to find you again. What made you go away so suddenly?"
"I didn't think you'd want me any more," she said, emboldened by his ignorance.
"I didn't, as a matter of fact—but afterwards—At any rate I'm glad you've come. You know the stairs."
So Bessie led him home to his own place—there was no one to hinder—and shut the door of the studio.
"What a mess!" was her first word. "All these things haven't been looked after for months and months."
"No, only weeks, Bess. You can't expect them to care."
"I don't know what you expect them to do. They ought to know what you've paid them for. The dust's just awful. It's all over the easel."
"I don't use it much now."
"All over the pictures and the floor, and all over your coat. I'd like to speak to them housemaids."
"Ring for tea, then." Dick felt his way to the one chair he used by custom.
Bessie saw the action and, as far as in her lay, was touched. But there remained always a keen sense of new-found superiority, and it was in her voice when she spoke.
"How long have you been like this?" she said wrathfully, as though the blindness were some fault of the housemaids.
"As you are."
"The day after you went away with the check, almost as soon as my picture was finished; I hardly saw her alive."
"Then they've been cheating you ever since, that's all. I know their nice little ways."
A woman may love one man and despise another, but on general feminine principles she will do her best to save the man she despises from being defrauded. Her loved one can look to himself, but the other man, being obviously an idiot, needs protection.
"I don't think Mr. Beeton cheats much," said Dick. Bessie was flouncing up and down the room, and he was conscious of a keen sense of enjoyment as he heard the swish of her skirts and the light step between.
"Tea and muffins," she said shortly, when the ring at the bell was answered; "two teaspoonfuls and one over for the pot. I don't want the old teapot that was here when I used to come. It don't draw. Get another."
The housemaid went away scandalised, and Dick chuckled. Then he began to cough as Bessie banged up and down the studio disturbing the dust.
"What are you trying to do?"
"Put things straight. This is like unfurnished lodgings. How could you let it go so?"
"How could I help it? Dust away."
She dusted furiously, and in the midst of all the pother entered Mrs. Beeton. Her husband on his return had explained the situation, winding up with the peculiarly felicitous proverb, "Do unto others as you would be done by." She had descended to put into her place the person who demanded muffins and an uncracked teapot as though she had a right to both.
"Muffins ready yet?" said Bess, still dusting. She was no longer a drab of the streets but a young lady who, thanks to Dick's check, had paid her premium and was entitled to pull beer-handles with the best. Being neatly dressed in black she did not hesitate to face Mrs. Beeton, and there passed between the two women certain regards that Dick would have appreciated. The situation adjusted itself by eye. Bessie had won, and Mrs. Beeton returned to cook muffins and make scathing remarks about models, hussies, trollops, and the like, to her husband.
"There's nothing to be got of interfering with him, Liza," he said. "Alf, you go along into the street to play. When he isn't crossed he's as kindly as kind, but when he's crossed he's the devil and all. We took too many little things out of his rooms since he was blind to be that particular about what he does. They ain't no objects to a blind man, of course, but if it was to come into court we'd get the sack. Yes, I did introduce him to that girl because I'm a feelin' man myself."
"Much too feelin'!" Mrs. Beeton slapped the muffins into the dish, and thought of comely housemaids long since dismissed on suspicion.
"I ain't ashamed of it, and it isn't for us to judge him hard so long as he pays quiet and regular as he do. I know how to manage young gentlemen, you know how to cook for them, and what I says is, let each stick to his own business and then there won't be any trouble. Take them muffins down, Liza, and be sure you have no words with that young woman. His lot is cruel hard, and if he's crossed he do swear worse than any one I"ve ever served."
"That's a little better," said Bessie, sitting down to the tea. "You needn't wait, thank you, Mrs. Beeton."
"I had no intention of doing such, I do assure you."
Bessie made no answer whatever. This, she knew, was the way in which real ladies routed their foes, and when one is a barmaid at a first-class public- house one may become a real lady at ten minutes' notice.
Her eyes fell on Dick opposite her and she was both shocked and displeased. There were droppings of food all down the front of his coat; the mouth under the ragged ill-grown beard drooped sullenly; the forehead was lined and contracted; and on the lean temples the hair was a dusty indeterminate colour that might or might not have been called gray. The utter misery and self- abandonment of the man appealed to her, and at the bottom of her heart lay the wicked feeling that he was humbled and brought low who had once humbled her.
"Oh! it is good to hear you moving about," said Dick, rubbing his hands. "Tell us all about your bar successes, Bessie, and the way you live now."
"Never mind that. I'm quite respectable, as you'd see by looking at me. You don't seem to live too well. What made you go blind that sudden? Why isn't there any one to look after you?"
Dick was too thankful for the sound of her voice to resent the tone of it.
"I was cut across the head a long time ago, and that ruined my eyes. I don't suppose anybody thinks it worth while to look after me any more. Why should they?—and Mr. Beeton really does everything I want."
"Don't you know any gentlemen and ladies, then, while you was—well?"
"A few, but I don't care to have them looking at me."
"I suppose that's why you've growed a beard. Take it off, it don"t become you."
"Good gracious, child, do you imagine that I think of what becomes of me these days?"
"You ought. Get that taken off before I come here again. I suppose I can come, can't I?"
"I'd be only too grateful if you did. I don't think I treated you very well in the old days. I used to make you angry."
"Very angry, you did."
"I'm sorry for it, then. Come and see me when you can and as often as you can. God knows, there isn't a soul in the world to take that trouble except you and Mr. Beeton."
"A lot of trouble he's taking and she too." This with a toss of the head.
"They've let you do anyhow and they haven't done anything for you. I've only to look and see that much. I'll come, and I'll be glad to come, but you must go and be shaved, and you must get some other clothes—those ones aren't fit to be seen."
"I have heaps somewhere," he said helplessly.
"I know you have. Tell Mr. Beeton to give you a new suit and I'll brush it and keep it clean. You may be as blind as a barn-door, Mr. Heldar, but it doesn't excuse you looking like a sweep."
"Do I look like a sweep, then?"
"Oh, I'm sorry for you. I'm that sorry for you!" she cried impulsively, and took Dick's hands. Mechanically, he lowered his head as if to kiss—she was the only woman who had taken pity on him, and he was not too proud for a little pity now. She stood up to go.
"Nothing 'o that kind till you look more like a gentleman. It's quite easy when you get shaved, and some clothes."
He could hear her drawing on her gloves and rose to say good-bye. She passed behind him, kissed him audaciously on the back of the neck, and ran away as swiftly as on the day when she had destroyed the Melancolia.
"To think of me kissing Mr. Heldar," she said to herself, "after all he's done to me and all! Well, I'm sorry for him, and if he was shaved he wouldn't be so bad to look at, but . . . Oh them Beetons, how shameful they've treated him! I know Beeton's wearing his shirt on his back today just as well as if I'd aired it. Tomorrow, I'll see . . . I wonder if he has much of his own. It might be worth more than the bar—I wouldn't have to do any work—and just as respectable as if no one knew."
Dick was not grateful to Bessie for her parting gift. He was acutely conscious of it in the nape of his neck throughout the night, but it seemed, among very many other things, to enforce the wisdom of getting shaved.
He was shaved accordingly in the morning, and felt the better for it. A fresh suit of clothes, white linen, and the knowledge that some one in the world said that she took an interest in his personal appearance made him carry himself almost upright; for the brain was relieved for a while from thinking of Maisie, who, under other circumstances, might have given that kiss and a million others.
"Let us consider," said he, after lunch. "The girl can't care, and it's a toss- up whether she comes again or not, but if money can buy her to look after me she shall be bought. Nobody else in the world would take the trouble, and I can make it worth her while. She's a child of the gutter holding brevet rank as a barmaid; so she shall have everything she wants if she'll only come and talk and look after me." He rubbed his newly shorn chin and began to perplex himself with the thought of her not coming. "I suppose I did look rather a sweep," he went on. "I had no reason to look otherwise. I knew things dropped on my clothes, but it didn't matter. It would be cruel if she didn't come. She must. Maisie came once, and that was enough for her. She was quite right. She had something to work for. This creature has only beer-handles to pull, unless she has deluded some young man into keeping company with her. Fancy being cheated for the sake of a counter-jumper! We're falling pretty low."
Something cried aloud within him:—This will hurt more than anything that has gone before. It will recall and remind and suggest and tantalise, and in the end drive you mad.
"I know it, I know it!" Dick cried, clenching his hands despairingly; "but, good heavens! is a poor blind beggar never to get anything out of his life except three meals a day and a greasy waistcoat? I wish she'd come."
Early in the afternoon time she came, because there was no young man in her life just then, and she thought of material advantages which would allow her to be idle for the rest of her days.
"I shouldn't have known you," she said approvingly. "You look as you used to look—a gentleman that was proud of himself."
"Don't you think I deserve another kiss, then?" said Dick, flushing a little.
"Maybe—but you won't get it yet. Sit down and let's see what I can do for you. I'm certain sure Mr. Beeton cheats you, now that you can't go through the housekeeping books every month. Isn't that true?"
"You'd better come and housekeep for me then, Bessie."
"Couldn't do it in these chambers—you know that as well as I do."
"I know, but we might go somewhere else, if you thought it worth your while."
"I'd try to look after you, anyhow; but I shouldn't care to have to work for both of us." This was tentative.
"Do you remember where I used to keep my bank-book?" said he. "Torp took it to be balanced just before he went away. Look and see."
"It was generally under the tobacco-jar. Ah!"
"Oh! Four thousand two hundred and ten pounds nine shillings and a penny! Oh my!"
"You can have the penny. That's not bad for one year's work. Is that and a hundred and twenty pounds a year good enough?"
The idleness and the pretty clothes were almost within her reach now, but she must, by being housewifely, show that she deserved them.
"Yes; but you'd have to move, and if we took an inventory, I think we"d find that Mr. Beeton has been prigging little things out of the rooms here and there. They don't look as full as they used."
"Never mind, we'll let him have them. The only thing I"m particularly anxious to take away is that picture I used you for—when you used to swear at me. We'll pull out of this place, Bess, and get away as far as ever we can."
"Oh yes," she said uneasily.
"I don't know where I can go to get away from myself, but I'll try, and you shall have all the pretty frocks that you care for. You'll like that. Give me that kiss now, Bess. Ye gods! it's good to put one's arm round a woman's waist again."
Then came the fulfilment of the prophecy within the brain. If his arm were thus round Maisie's waist and a kiss had just been given and taken between them,— why then . . . He pressed the girl more closely to himself because the pain whipped him. She was wondering how to explain a little accident to the Melancolia. At any rate, if this man really desired the solace of her company— and certainly he would relapse into his original slough if she withdrew it—he would not be more than just a little vexed.
It would be delightful at least to see what would happen, and by her teachings it was good for a man to stand in certain awe of his companion.
She laughed nervously, and slipped out of his reach.
"I shouldn't worrit about that picture if I was you," she began, in the hope of turning his attention.
"It's at the back of all my canvases somewhere. Find it, Bess; you know it as well as I do."
"But what? You've wit enough to manage the sale of it to a dealer. Women haggle much better than men. It might be a matter of eight or nine hundred pounds to— to us. I simply didn't like to think about it for a long time. It was mixed up with my life so.—But we'll cover up our tracks and get rid of everything, eh? Make a fresh start from the beginning, Bess."
Then she began to repent very much indeed, because she knew the value of money. Still, it was probable that the blind man was overestimating the value of his work. Gentlemen, she knew, were absurdly particular about their things. She giggled as a nervous housemaid giggles when she tries to explain the breakage of a pipe.
"I'm very sorry, but you remember I was—I was angry with you before Mr. Torpenhow went away?"
"You were very angry, child; and on my word I think you had some right to be."
"Then I—but aren't you sure Mr. Torpenhow didn't tell you?"
"Tell me what? Good gracious, what are you making such a fuss about when you might just as well be giving me another kiss?"
He was beginning to learn, not for the first time in his experience, that kissing is a cumulative poison. The more you get of it, the more you want.
Bessie gave the kiss promptly, whispering, as she did so, "I was so angry I rubbed out that picture with the turpentine. You aren't angry, are you?"
"What? Say that again." The man's hand had closed on her wrist.
"I rubbed it out with turps and the knife," faltered Bessie. "I thought you"d only have to do it over again. You did do it over again, didn't you? Oh, let go of my wrist; you're hurting me."
"Isn't there anything left of the thing?"
"N'nothing that looks like anything. I'm sorry—I didn't know you"d take on about it; I only meant to do it in fun. You aren't going to hit me?"
"Hit you! No! Let's think."
He did not relax his hold upon her wrist but stood staring at the carpet.
Then he shook his head as a young steer shakes it when the lash of the stock- whip cross his nose warns him back to the path on to the shambles that he would escape. For weeks he had forced himself not to think of the Melancolia, because she was a part of his dead life. With Bessie's return and certain new prospects that had developed themselves, the Melancolia—lovelier in his imagination than she had ever been on canvas—reappeared. By her aid he might have procured more money wherewith to amuse Bess and to forget Maisie, as well as another taste of an almost forgotten success. Now, thanks to a vicious little housemaid's folly, there was nothing to look for—not even the hope that he might some day take an abiding interest in the housemaid. Worst of all, he had been made to appear ridiculous in Maisie's eyes. A woman will forgive the man who has ruined her life's work so long as he gives her love; a man may forgive those who ruin the love of his life, but he will never forgive the destruction of his work.
"Tck—tck—tck," said Dick between his teeth, and then laughed softly. "It's an omen, Bessie, and—a good many things considered, it serves me right for doing what I have done. By Jove! that accounts for Maisie's running away. She must have thought me perfectly mad—small blame to her! The whole picture ruined, isn't it so? What made you do it?"
"Because I was that angry. I'm not angry now—I'm awful sorry."
"I wonder.—It doesn't matter, anyhow. I'm to blame for making the mistake."
"Something you wouldn't understand, dear. Great heavens! to think that a little piece of dirt like you could throw me out of stride!" Dick was talking to himself as Bessie tried to shake off his grip on her wrist.
"I ain't a piece of dirt, and you shouldn't call me so! I did it 'cause I hated you, and I'm only sorry now 'cause you're 'cause you're——"
"Exactly—because I'm blind. There's noting like tact in little things."
Bessie began to sob. She did not like being shackled against her will; she was afraid of the blind face and the look upon it, and was sorry too that her great revenge had only made Dick laugh.
"Don't cry," he said, and took her into his arms. "You only did what you thought right."
"I—I ain't a little piece of dirt, and if you say that I'll never come to you again."
"You don't know what you've done to me. I'm not angry—indeed, I'm not. Be quiet for a minute."
Bessie remained in his arms shrinking. Dick's first thought was connected with Maisie, and it hurt him as white-hot iron hurts an open sore.
Not for nothing is a man permitted to ally himself to the wrong woman.
The first pang—the first sense of things lost is but the prelude to the play, for the very just Providence who delights in causing pain has decreed that the agony shall return, and that in the midst of keenest pleasure.
They know this pain equally who have forsaken or been forsaken by the love of their life, and in their new wives' arms are compelled to realise it.
It is better to remain alone and suffer only the misery of being alone, so long as it is possible to find distraction in daily work. When that resource goes the man is to be pitied and left alone.
These things and some others Dick considered while he was holding Bessie to his heart.
"Though you mayn't know it," he said, raising his head, "the Lord is a just and a terrible God, Bess; with a very strong sense of humour. It serves me right— how it serves me right! Torp could understand it if he were here; he must have suffered something at your hands, child, but only for a minute or so. I saved him. Set that to my credit, some one."
"Let me go," said Bess, her face darkening. "Let me go."
"All in good time. Did you ever attend Sunday school?"
"Never. Let me go, I tell you; you're making fun of me."
"Indeed, I'm not. I'm making fun of myself. . . . Thus. "He saved others, himself he cannot save." It isn't exactly a school-board text." He released her wrist, but since he was between her and the door, she could not escape. "What an enormous amount of mischief one little woman can do!"
"I'm sorry; I'm awful sorry about the picture."
"I'm not. I'm grateful to you for spoiling it. . . . What were we talking about before you mentioned the thing?"
"About getting away—and money. Me and you going away."
"Of course. We will get away—that is to say, I will."
"You shall have fifty whole pounds for spoiling a picture."
"Then you won't——?"
"I'm afraid not, dear. Think of fifty pounds for pretty things all to yourself."
"You said you couldn't do anything without me."
"That was true a little while ago. I'm better now, thank you. Get me my hat."
"S'pose I don't?"
"Beeton will, and you'll lose fifty pounds. That's all. Get it."
Bessie cursed under her breath. She had pitied the man sincerely, had kissed him with almost equal sincerity, for he was not unhandsome; it pleased her to be in a way and for a time his protector, and above all there were four thousand pounds to be handled by some one. Now through a slip of the tongue and a little feminine desire to give a little, not too much, pain she had lost the money, the blessed idleness and the pretty things, the companionship, and the chance of looking outwardly as respectable as a real lady.
"Now fill me a pipe. Tobacco doesn't taste, but it doesn't matter, and I"ll think things out. What's the day of the week, Bess?"
"Then Thursday's mail-day. What a fool—what a blind fool I have been! Twenty- two pounds covers my passage home again. Allow ten for additional expenses. We must put up at Madam Binat's for old time"s sake. Thirty-two pounds altogether. Add a hundred for the cost of the last trip—Gad, won't Torp stare to see me!— a hundred and thirty-two leaves seventy-eight for baksheesh—I shall need it— and to play with. What are you crying for, Bess? It wasn't your fault, child; it was mine altogether. Oh, you funny little opossum, mop your eyes and take me out! I want the pass-book and the check-book. Stop a minute. Four thousand pounds at four per cent—that's safe interest—means a hundred and sixty pounds a year; one hundred and twenty pounds a year—also safe—is two eighty, and two hundred and eighty pounds added to three hundred a year means gilded luxury for a single woman. Bess, we'll go to the bank."
Richer by two hundred and ten pounds stored in his money-belt, Dick caused Bessie, now thoroughly bewildered, to hurry from the bank to the P. and O. offices, where he explained things tersely.
"Port Said, single first; cabin as close to the baggage-hatch as possible. What ship's going?"
"The Colgong," said the clerk.
"She's a wet little hooker. Is it Tilbury and a tender, or Galleons and the docks?"
"Galleons. Twelve-forty, Thursday."
"Thanks. Change, please. I can't see very well—will you count it into my hand?"
"If they all took their passages like that instead of talking about their trunks, life would be worth something," said the clerk to his neighbour, who was trying to explain to a harassed mother of many that condensed milk is just as good for babes at sea as daily dairy. Being nineteen and unmarried, he spoke with conviction.
"We are now," quoth Dick, as they returned to the studio, patting the place where his money-belt covered ticket and money, "beyond the reach of man, or devil, or woman—which is much more important. I"ve had three little affairs to carry through before Thursday, but I needn't ask you to help, Bess. Come here on Thursday morning at nine. We'll breakfast, and you shall take me down to Galleons Station."
"What are you going to do?"
"Going away, of course. What should I stay for?"
"But you can't look after yourself?"
"I can do anything. I didn't realise it before, but I can. I've done a great deal already. Resolution shall be treated to one kiss if Bessie doesn't object." Strangely enough, Bessie objected and Dick laughed. "I suppose you're right. Well, come at nine the day after tomorrow and you'll get your money."
"Shall I sure?"
"I don't bilk, and you won't know whether I do or not unless you come. Oh, but it's long and long to wait! Good-bye, Bessie,—send Beeton here as you go out."
The housekeeper came.
"What are all the fittings of my rooms worth?" said Dick, imperiously.
"'Tisn't for me to say, sir. Some things is very pretty and some is wore out dreadful."
"I'm insured for two hundred and seventy."
"Insurance policies is no criterion, though I don't say——"
"Oh, damn your longwindedness! You've made your pickings out of me and the other tenants. Why, you talked of retiring and buying a public-house the other day. Give a straight answer to a straight question."
"Fifty," said Mr. Beeton, without a moment's hesitation.
"Double it; or I'll break up half my sticks and burn the rest."
He felt his way to a bookstand that supported a pile of sketch-books, and wrenched out one of the mahogany pillars.
"That's sinful, sir," said the housekeeper, alarmed.
"It's my own. One hundred or——"
"One hundred it is. It'll cost me three and six to get that there pilaster mended."
"I thought so. What an out and out swindler you must have been to spring that price at once!"
"I hope I've done nothing to dissatisfy any of the tenants, least of all you, sir."
"Never mind that. Get me the money tomorrow, and see that all my clothes are packed in the little brown bullock-trunk. I'm going."
"But the quarter's notice?"
"I'll pay forfeit. Look after the packing and leave me alone."
Mr. Beeton discussed this new departure with his wife, who decided that Bessie was at the bottom of it all. Her husband took a more charitable view.
"It's very sudden—but then he was always sudden in his ways. Listen to him now!"
There was a sound of chanting from Dick's room.
"We'll never come back any more, boys, We'll never come back no more; We'll go to the deuce on any excuse, And never come back no more! Oh say we're afloat or ashore, boys, Oh say we're afloat or ashore; But we'll never come back any more, boys, We'll never come back no more!"
"Mr. Beeton! Mr. Beeton! Where the deuce is my pistol?"
"Quick, he's going to shoot himself 'avin" gone mad!" said Mrs. Beeton.
Mr. Beeton addressed Dick soothingly, but it was some time before the latter, threshing up and down his bedroom, could realise the intention of the promises to 'find everything tomorrow, sir.'
"Oh, you copper-nosed old fool—you impotent Academician!" he shouted at last. "Do you suppose I want to shoot myself? Take the pistol in your silly shaking hand then. If you touch it, it will go off, because it's loaded. It's among my campaign-kit somewhere—in the parcel at the bottom of the trunk."
Long ago Dick had carefully possessed himself of a forty-pound weight field- equipment constructed by the knowledge of his own experience. It was this put- away treasure that he was trying to find and rehandle. Mr. Beeton whipped the revolver out of its place on the top of the package, and Dick drove his hand among the khaki coat and breeches, the blue cloth leg-bands, and the heavy flannel shirts doubled over a pair of swan-neck spurs. Under these and the water-bottle lay a sketch-book and a pigskin case of stationery.
"These we don't want; you can have them, Mr. Beeton. Everything else I'll keep. Pack 'em on the top right-hand side of my trunk. When you've done that come into the studio with your wife. I want you both. Wait a minute; get me a pen and a sheet of notepaper."
It is not an easy thing to write when you cannot see, and Dick had particular reasons for wishing that his work should be clear. So he began, following his right hand with his left: ""The badness of this writing is because I am blind and cannot see my pen." H'mph!—even a lawyer can't mistake that. It must be signed, I suppose, but it needn't be witnessed. Now an inch lower—why did I never learn to use a type-writer?—"This is the last will and testament of me, Richard Heldar. I am in sound bodily and mental health, and there is no previous will to revoke."—That's all right. Damn the pen! Whereabouts on the paper was I?—"I leave everything that I possess in the world, including four thousand pounds, and two thousand seven hundred and twenty eight pounds held for me"—oh, I can't get this straight." He tore off half the sheet and began again with the caution about the handwriting. Then: "I leave all the money I possess in the world to"—here followed Maisie"s name, and the names of the two banks that held the money.
"It mayn't be quite regular, but no one has a shadow of a right to dispute it, and I've given Maisie's address. Come in, Mr. Beeton. This is my signature; I want you and your wife to witness it. Thanks. Tomorrow you must take me to the landlord and I'll pay forfeit for leaving without notice, and I'll lodge this paper with him in case anything happens while I'm away. Now we're going to light up the studio stove. Stay with me, and give me my papers as I want 'em."
No one knows until he has tried how fine a blaze a year's accumulation of bills, letters, and dockets can make. Dick stuffed into the stove every document in the studio—saving only three unopened letters; destroyed sketch- books, rough note-books, new and half-finished canvases alike.
"What a lot of rubbish a tenant gets about him if he stays long enough in one place, to be sure," said Mr. Beeton, at last.
"He does. Is there anything more left?" Dick felt round the walls.
"Not a thing, and the stove's nigh red-hot."
"Excellent, and you've lost about a thousand pounds' worth of sketches. Ho! ho! Quite a thousand pounds' worth, if I can remember what I used to be."
"Yes, sir," politely. Mr. Beeton was quite sure that Dick had gone mad, otherwise he would have never parted with his excellent furniture for a song. The canvas things took up storage room and were much better out of the way.
There remained only to leave the little will in safe hands: that could not be accomplished til tomorrow. Dick groped about the floor picking up the last pieces of paper, assured himself again and again that there remained no written word or sign of his past life in drawer or desk, and sat down before the stove till the fire died out and the contracting iron cracked in the silence of the night.
With a heart of furious fancies, Whereof I am commander; With a burning spear and a horse of air, To the wilderness I wander.
With a knight of ghosts and shadows I summoned am to tourney— Ten leagues beyond the wide world's end, Methinks it is no journey. —Tom o' Bedlam's Song
"Goodbye, Bess; I promised you fifty. Here's a hundred—all that I got for my furniture from Beeton. That will keep you in pretty frocks for some time. You've been a good little girl, all things considered, but you"ve given me and Torpenhow a fair amount of trouble."
"Give Mr. Torpenhow my love if you see him, won't you?"
"Of course I will, dear. Now take me up the gang-plank and into the cabin. Once aboard the lugger and the maid is—and I am free, I mean."
"Who'll look after you on this ship?"
"The head-steward, if there's any use in money. The doctor when we come to Port Said, if I know anything of P. and O. doctors. After that, the Lord will provide, as He used to do."
Bess found Dick his cabin in the wild turmoil of a ship full of leavetakers and weeping relatives. Then he kissed her, and laid himself down in his bunk until the decks should be clear. He who had taken so long to move about his own darkened rooms well understood the geography of a ship, and the necessity of seeing to his own comforts was as wine to him.
Before the screw began to thrash the ship along the Docks he had been introduced to the head-steward, had royally tipped him, secured a good place at table, opened out his baggage, and settled himself down with joy in the cabin. It was scarcely necessary to feel his way as he moved about, for he knew everything so well. Then God was very kind: a deep sleep of weariness came upon him just as he would have thought of Maisie, and he slept till the steamer had cleared the mouth of the Thames and was lifting to the pulse of the Channel.
The rattle of the engines, the reek of oil and paint, and a very familiar sound in the next cabin roused him to his new inheritance.
"Oh, it's good to be alive again!" He yawned, stretched himself vigorously, and went on deck to be told that they were almost abreast of the lights of Brighton. This is no more open water than Trafalgar Square is a common; the free levels begin at Ushant; but none the less Dick could feel the healing of the sea at work upon him already. A boisterous little cross-swell swung the steamer disrespectfully by the nose; and one wave breaking far aft spattered the quarterdeck and the pile of new deck-chairs. He heard the foam fall with the clash of broken glass, was stung in the face by a cupful, and sniffing luxuriously, felt his way to the smoking-room by the wheel. There a strong breeze found him, blew his cap off and left him bareheaded in the doorway, and the smoking-room steward, understanding that he was a voyager of experience, said that the weather would be stiff in the chops off the Channel and more than half a gale in the Bay. These things fell as they were foretold, and Dick enjoyed himself to the utmost. It is allowable and even necessary at sea to lay firm hold upon tables, stanchions, and ropes in moving from place to place. On land the man who feels with his hands is patently blind. At sea even a blind man who is not sea-sick can jest with the doctor over the weakness of his fellows. Dick told the doctor many tales—and these are coin of more value than silver if properly handled—smoked with him till unholy hours of the night, and so won his short-lived regard that he promised Dick a few hours of his time when they came to Port Said.
And the sea roared or was still as the winds blew, and the engines sang their song day and night, and the sun grew stronger day by day, and Tom the Lascar barber shaved Dick of a morning under the opened hatch-grating where the cool winds blew, and the awnings were spread and the passengers made merry, and at last they came to Port Said.