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Chapter 10

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

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.


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
thin, 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

'"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

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 to-day,' 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

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

'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

Rudyard Kipling

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