‘Good,’ said Dick, as he sat licking his lips before the easel in the studio.
’I want more, heaps more. The lean years have passed, and I approve of these fat ones.’
‘Be careful, old man. That way lies bad work.’
Torpenhow was sprawling in a long chair with a small fox-terrier asleep on his chest, while Dick was preparing a canvas. A dais, a background, and a lay-figure were the only fixed objects in the place. They rose from a wreck of oddments that began with felt-covered water-bottles, belts, and regimental badges, and ended with a small bale of second-hand uniforms and a stand of mixed arms. The mark of muddy feet on the dais showed that a military model had just gone away. The watery autumn sunlight was falling, and shadows sat in the corners of the studio.
‘Yes,’ said Dick, deliberately, ’I like the power; I like the fun; I like the fuss; and above all I like the money. I almost like the people who make the fuss and pay the money. Almost. But they’re a queer gang, an amazingly queer gang!’
’They have been good enough to you, at any rate. Than tin-pot exhibition of your sketches must have paid. Did you see that the papers called it the “Wild Work Show”?’
’Never mind. I sold every shred of canvas I wanted to; and, on my word, I believe it was because they believed I was a self-taught flagstone artist.
I should have got better prices if I worked my things on wool or scratched them on camel-bone instead of using mere black and white and colour. Verily, they are a queer gang, these people. Limited isn’t the word to describe ’em. I met a fellow the other day who told me that it was impossible that shadows on white sand should be blue, ultramarine, as they are. I found out, later, that the man had been as far as Brighton beach; but he knew all about Art, confound him. He gave me a lecture on it, and recommended me to go to school to learn technique. I wonder what old Kami would have said to that.’
‘When were you under Kami, man of extraordinary beginnings?’
’I studied with him for two years in Paris. He taught by personal magnetism. All he ever said was, “Continuez, mes enfants,” and you had to make the best you could of that. He had a divine touch, and he knew something about colour. Kami used to dream colour; I swear he could never have seen the genuine article; but he evolved it; and it was good.’
‘Recollect some of those views in the Soudan?’ said Torpenhow, with a provoking drawl.
Dick squirmed in his place. ’Don’t! It makes me want to get out there again. What colour that was! Opal and umber and amber and claret and brick-red and sulphur cockatoo-crest sulphur against brown, with a nigger-black rock sticking up in the middle of it all, and a decorative frieze of camels festooning in front of a pure pale turquoise sky.’ He began to walk up and down. ’And yet, you know, if you try to give these people the thing as God gave it, keyed down to their comprehension and according to the powers He has given you ’
‘Modest man! Go on.’
’Half a dozen epicene young pagans who haven’t even been to Algiers will tell you, first, that your notion is borrowed, and, secondly, that it isn’t Art.
’’This comes of my leaving town for a month. Dickie, you’ve been promenading among the toy-shops and hearing people talk.’
‘I couldn’t help it,’ said Dick, penitently. ’You weren’t here, and it was lonely these long evenings. A man can’t work for ever.’
‘A man might have gone to a pub, and got decently drunk.’
’I wish I had; but I forgathered with some men of sorts. They said they were artists, and I knew some of them could draw, but they wouldn’t draw. They gave me tea, tea at five in the afternoon! and talked about Art and the state of their souls. As if their souls mattered. I’ve heard more about Art and seen less of her in the last six months than in the whole of my life. Do you remember Cassavetti, who worked for some continental syndicate, out with the desert column? He was a regular Christmas-tree of contraptions when he took the field in full fig, with his water-bottle, lanyard, revolver, writing-case, housewife, gig-lamps, and the Lord knows what all. He used to fiddle about with ’em and show us how they worked; but he never seemed to do much except fudge his reports from the Nilghai. See?’
’Dear old Nilghai! He’s in town, fatter than ever. He ought to be up here this evening. I see the comparison perfectly. You should have kept clear of all that man-millinery. Serves you right; and I hope it will unsettle your mind.’
‘It won’t. It has taught me what Art holy sacred Art means.’
‘You’ve learnt something while I’ve been away. What is Art?’
’Give ’em what they know, and when you’ve done it once do it again.’
Dick dragged forward a canvas laid face to the wall. ’Here’s a sample of real Art. It’s going to be a facsimile reproduction for a weekly. I called it “His Last Shot.” It’s worked up from the little water-colour I made outside El Maghrib. Well, I lured my model, a beautiful rifleman, up here with drink; I drored him, and I redrored him, and I redrored him, and I made him a flushed, dishevelled, bedevilled scallawag, with his helmet at the back of his head, and the living fear of death in his eye, and the blood oozing out of a cut over his ankle-bone. He wasn’t pretty, but he was all soldier and very much man.’
‘Once more, modest child!’
Dick laughed. ’Well, it’s only to you I’m talking. I did him just as well as I knew how, making allowance for the slickness of oils. Then the art-manager of that abandoned paper said that his subscribers wouldn’t like it. It was brutal and coarse and violent, man being naturally gentle when he’s fighting for his life. They wanted something more restful, with a little more colour. I could have said a good deal, but you might as well talk to a sheep as an art-manager. I took my “Last Shot” back. Behold the result! I put him into a lovely red coat without a speck on it. That is Art. I polished his boots, observe the high light on the toe. That is Art. I cleaned his rifle, rifles are always clean on service, because that is Art.
I pipeclayed his helmet, pipeclay is always used on active service, and is indispensable to Art. I shaved his chin, I washed his hands, and gave him an air of fatted peace. Result, military tailor’s pattern-plate. Price, thank Heaven, twice as much as for the first sketch, which was moderately decent.’
‘And do you suppose you’re going to give that thing out as your work?’
’Why not? I did it. Alone I did it, in the interests of sacred, home-bred Art and Dickenson’s Weekly.’
Torpenhow smoked in silence for a while. Then came the verdict, delivered from rolling clouds: ’If you were only a mass of blathering vanity, Dick, I wouldn’t mind, I’d let you go to the deuce on your own mahl-stick; but when I consider what you are to me, and when I find that to vanity you add the twopenny-halfpenny pique of a twelve-year-old girl, then I bestir myself in your behalf. Thus!’
The canvas ripped as Torpenhow’s booted foot shot through it, and the terrier jumped down, thinking rats were about.
’If you have any bad language to use, use it. You have not. I continue.
You are an idiot, because no man born of woman is strong enough to take liberties with his public, even though they be which they ain’t all you say they are.’
’But they don’t know any better. What can you expect from creatures born and bred in this light?’ Dick pointed to the yellow fog. ’If they want furniture-polish, let them have furniture-polish, so long as they pay for it.
They are only men and women. You talk as if they were gods.’
’That sounds very fine, but it has nothing to do with the case. They are they people you have to do work for, whether you like it or not. They are your masters. Don’t be deceived, Dickie, you aren’t strong enough to trifle with them, or with yourself, which is more important.
Moreover, Come back, Binkie: that red daub isn’t going anywhere, unless you take precious good care, you will fall under the damnation of the check-book, and that’s worse than death. You will get drunk you-re half drunk already on easily acquired money. For that money and you own infernal vanity you are willing to deliberately turn out bad work. You’ll do quite enough bad work without knowing it. And, Dickie, as I love you and as I know you love me, I am not going to let you cut off your nose to spite your face for all the gold in England. That’s settled. Now swear.’
’Don’t know, said Dick. ’I’ve been trying to make myself angry, but I can’t, you’re so abominably reasonable. There will be a row on Dickenson’s Weekly, I fancy.’
’Why the Dickenson do you want to work on a weekly paper? It’s slow bleeding of power.’
‘It brings in the very desirable dollars,’ said Dick, his hands in his pockets.
Torpenhow watched him with large contempt. ’Why, I thought it was a man!’ said he. ‘It’s a child.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ said Dick, wheeling quickly. ’You’ve no notion owhat the certainty of cash means to a man who has always wanted it badly.
Nothing will pay me for some of my life’s joys; on that Chinese pig-boat, for instance, when we ate bread and jam for every meal, because Ho-Wang wouldn’t allow us anything better, and it all tasted of pig, Chinese pig. I’ve worked for this, I’ve sweated and I’ve starved for this, line on line and month after month. And now I’ve got it I am going to make the most of it while it lasts. Let them pay they’ve no knowledge.’
’What does Your Majesty please to want? You can’t smoke more than you do; you won’t drink; you’re a gross feeder; and you dress in the dark, by the look of you. You wouldn’t keep a horse the other day when I suggested, because, you said, it might fall lame, and whenever you cross the street you take a hansom. Even you are not foolish enough to suppose that theatres and all the live things you can by thereabouts mean Life.
What earthly need have you for money?’
‘It’s there, bless its golden heart,’ said Dick. ’It’s there all the time.
Providence has sent me nuts while I have teeth to crack ’em with. I haven’t yet found the nut I wish to crack, but I’m keeping my teeth filed.
Perhaps some day you and I will go for a walk round the wide earth.’
’With no work to do, nobody to worry us, and nobody to compete with? You would be unfit to speak to in a week. Besides, I shouldn’t go. I don’t care to profit by the price of a man’s soul, for that’s what it would mean.
Dick, it’s no use arguing. You’re a fool.’
’Don’t see it. When I was on that Chinese pig-boat, our captain got credit for saving about twenty-five thousand very seasick little pigs, when our old tramp of a steamer fell foul of a timber-junk. Now, taking those pigs as a parallel ’
’Oh, confound your parallels! Whenever I try to improve your soul, you always drag in some anecdote from your very shady past. Pigs aren’t the British public; and self-respect is self-respect the world over. Go out for a walk and try to catch some self-respect. And, I say, if the Nilghai comes up this evening can I show him your diggings?’
‘Surely.’ And Dick departed, to take counsel with himself in the rapidly gathering London fog.
Half an hour after he had left, the Nilghai laboured up the staircase. He was the chiefest, as he was the youngest, of the war correspondents, and his experiences dated from the birth of the needle-gun. Saving only his ally, Keneu the Great War Eagle, there was no man higher in the craft than he, and he always opened his conversation with the news that there would be trouble in the Balkans in the spring. Torpenhow laughed as he entered.
’Never mind the trouble in the Balkans. Those little states are always screeching. You’ve heard about Dick’s luck?’
’Yes; he has been called up to notoriety, hasn’t he? I hope you keep him properly humble. He wants suppressing from time to time.’
’He does. He’s beginning to take liberties with what he thinks is his reputation.’
’Already! By Jove, he has cheek! I don’t know about his reputation, but he’ll come a cropper if he tries that sort of thing.’
‘So I told him. I don’t think he believes it.’
’They never do when they first start off. What’s that wreck on the ground there?’
‘Specimen of his latest impertinence.’ Torpenhow thrust the torn edges of the canvas together and showed the well-groomed picture to the Nilghai, who looked at it for a moment and whistled.
‘It’s a chromo,’ said he, ’a chromo-litholeomargarine fake! What possessed him to do it? And yet how thoroughly he has caught the note that catches a public who think with their boots and read with their elbows! The cold-blooded insolence of the work almost saves it; but he mustn’t go on with this. Hasn’t he been praised and cockered up too much? You know these people here have no sense of proportion. They’ll call him a second Detaille and a third-hand Meissonier while his fashion lasts. It’s windy diet for a colt.’
’I don’t think it affects Dick much. You might as well call a young wolf a lion and expect him to take the compliment in exchange for a shin-bone.
Dick’s soul is in the bank. He’s working for cash.’
’Now he has thrown up war work, I suppose he doesn’t see that the obligations of the service are just the same, only the proprietors are changed.’
‘How should he know? He thinks he is his own master.’
’Does he? I could undeceive him for his good, if there’s any virtue in print. He wants the whiplash.’
’Lay it on with science, then. I’d flay him myself, but I like him too much.’
’I’ve no scruples. He had the audacity to try to cut me out with a woman at Cairo once. I forgot that, but I remember now.’
‘Did he cut you out?’
’You’ll see when I have dealt with him. But, after all, what’s the good? Leave him alone and he’ll come home, if he has any stuff in him, dragging or wagging his tail behind him. There’s more in a week of life than in a lively weekly. None the less I’ll slate him. I’ll slate him ponderously in the Cataclysm.’
’Good luck to you; but I fancy nothing short of a crowbar would make Dick wince. His soul seems to have been fired before we came across him.
He’s intensely suspicious and utterly lawless.’
‘Matter of temper,’ said the Nilghai. ’It’s the same with horses. Some you wallop and they work, some you wallop and they jib, and some you wallop and they go out for a walk with their hands in their pockets.’
‘That’s exactly what Dick has done,’ said Torpenhow. ’Wait till he comes back. In the meantime, you can begin your slating here. I’ll show you some of his last and worst work in his studio.’
Dick had instinctively sought running water for a comfort to his mood of mind. He was leaning over the Embankment wall, watching the rush of the Thames through the arches of Westminster Bridge. He began by thinking of Torpenhow’s advice, but, as of custom, lost himself in the study of the faces flocking past. Some had death written on their features, and Dick marvelled that they could laugh. Others, clumsy and coarse-built for the most part, were alight with love; others were merely drawn and lined with work; but there was something, Dick knew, to be made out of them all. The poor at least should suffer that he might learn, and the rich should pay for the output of his learning. Thus his credit in the world and his cash balance at the bank would be increased. So much the better for him. He had suffered. Now he would take toll of the ills of others.
The fog was driven apart for a moment, and the sun shone, a blood-red wafer, on the water. Dick watched the spot till he heard the voice of the tide between the piers die down like the wash of the sea at low tide. A girl hard pressed by her lover shouted shamelessly, ’Ah, get away, you beast!’ and a shift of the same wind that had opened the fog drove across Dick’s face the black smoke of a river-steamer at her berth below the wall. He was blinded for the moment, then spun round and found himself face to face with Maisie.
There was no mistaking. The years had turned the child to a woman, but they had not altered the dark-gray eyes, the thin scarlet lips, or the firmly modelled mouth and chin; and, that all should be as it was of old, she wore a closely fitting gray dress.
Since the human soul is finite and not in the least under its own command, Dick, advancing, said ‘Halloo!’ after the manner of schoolboys, and Maisie answered, ‘Oh, Dick, is that you?’ Then, against his will, and before the brain newly released from considerations of the cash balance had time to dictate to the nerves, every pulse of Dick’s body throbbed furiously and his palate dried in his mouth. The fog shut down again, and Maisie’s face was pearl-white through it. No word was spoken, but Dick fell into step at her side, and the two paced the Embankment together, keeping the step as perfectly as in their afternoon excursions to the mud-flats. Then Dick, a little hoarsely ’What has happened to Amomma?’
’He died, Dick. Not cartridges; over-eating. He was always greedy. Isn’t it funny?’
‘Yes. No. Do you mean Amomma?’
‘Ye es. No. This. Where have you come from?’
‘Over there,’ He pointed eastward through the fog. ‘And you?’
’Oh, I’m in the north, the black north, across all the Park. I am very busy.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I paint a great deal. That’s all I have to do.’
‘Why, what’s happened? You had three hundred a year.’
‘I have that still. I am painting; that’s all.’
‘Are you alone, then?’
’There’s a girl living with me. Don’t walk so fast, Dick; you’re out of step.’
‘Then you noticed it too?’
‘Of course I did. You’re always out of step.’
‘So I am. I’m sorry. You went on with the painting?’
’Of course. I said I should. I was at the Slade, then at Merton’s in St.
John’s Wood, the big studio, then I pepper-potted, I mean I went to the National, and now I’m working under Kami.’
‘But Kami is in Paris surely?’
’No; he has his teaching studio in Vitry-sur-Marne. I work with him in the summer, and I live in London in the winter. I’m a householder.’
‘Do you sell much?’
’Now and again, but not often. There is my ’bus. I must take it or lose half an hour. Good-bye, Dick.’
’Good-bye, Maisie. Won’t you tell me where you live? I must see you again; and perhaps I could help you. I I paint a little myself.’
’I may be in the Park to-morrow, if there is no working light. I walk from the Marble Arch down and back again; that is my little excursion. But of course I shall see you again.’ She stepped into the omnibus and was swallowed up by the fog.
‘Well I am damned!’ exclaimed Dick, and returned to the chambers.
Torpenhow and the Nilghai found him sitting on the steps to the studio door, repeating the phrase with an awful gravity.
‘You’ll be more damned when I’m done with you,’ said the Nilghai, upheaving his bulk from behind Torpenhow’s shoulder and waving a sheaf of half-dry manuscript. ’Dick, it is of common report that you are suffering from swelled head.’
’Halloo, Nilghai. Back again? How are the Balkans and all the little Balkans? One side of your face is out of drawing, as usual.’
’Never mind that. I am commissioned to smite you in print. Torpenhow refuses from false delicacy. I’ve been overhauling the pot-boilers in your studio. They are simply disgraceful.’
’Oho! that’s it, is it? If you think you can slate me, you’re wrong. You can only describe, and you need as much room to turn in, on paper, as a P. and O. cargo-boat. But continue, and be swift. I’m going to bed.’
’H’m! h’m! h’m! The first part only deals with your pictures. Here’s the peroration: “For work done without conviction, for power wasted on trivialities, for labour expended with levity for the deliberate purpose of winning the easy applause of a fashion-driven public ” ’That’s “His Last Shot,” second edition. Go on.’
’ “public, there remains but one end, the oblivion that is preceded by toleration and cenotaphed with contempt. From that fate Mr. Heldar has yet to prove himself out of danger.’
‘Wow wow wow wow wow!’ said Dick, profanely. ’It’s a clumsy ending and vile journalese, but it’s quite true. And yet,’ he sprang to his feet and snatched at the manuscript, ’you scarred, deboshed, battered old gladiator! you’re sent out when a war begins, to minister to the blind, brutal, British public’s bestial thirst for blood. They have no arenas now, but they must have special correspondents. You’re a fat gladiator who comes up through a trap-door and talks of what he’s seen. You stand on precisely the same level as an energetic bishop, an affable actress, a devastating cyclone, or mine own sweet self. And you presume to lecture me about my work! Nilghai, if it were worth while I’d caricature you in four papers!’
The Nilghai winced. He had not thought of this.
‘As it is, I shall take this stuff and tear it small so!’ The manuscript fluttered in slips down the dark well of the staircase. ’Go home, Nilghai,’ said Dick; ’go home to your lonely little bed, and leave me in peace. I am about to turn in till to-morrow.’
‘Why, it isn’t seven yet!’ said Torpenhow, with amazement.
‘It shall be two in the morning, if I choose,’ said Dick, backing to the studio door. ’I go to grapple with a serious crisis, and I shan’t want any dinner.’
The door shut and was locked.
‘What can you do with a man like that?’ said the Nilghai.
‘Leave him alone. He’s as mad as a hatter.’
At eleven there was a kicking on the studio door. ’Is the Nilghai with you still?’ said a voice from within. ’Then tell him he might have condensed the whole of his lumbering nonsense into an epigram: “Only the free are bond, and only the bond are free.” Tell him he’s an idiot, Torp, and tell him I’m another.’
’All right. Come out and have supper. You’re smoking on an empty stomach.’
There was no answer.
Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936. The Light that Failed, 1890. Chapter 4.
Image: Engraving after Melton Prior of the Battle of Majuba Hill, for the Illustrated London News, 1881