There were three friends that buried the fourth,|
The mould in his mouth and the dust in his eyes
And they went south and east, and north,—
The strong man fights, but the sick man dies.
There were three friends that spoke of the dead,—
The Nilghai, fat, burly, and aggressive, was in Torpenhow’s rooms. Behind him sat the Keneu, the Great War Eagle, and between them lay a large map embellished with black-and-white-headed pins.
‘I was wrong about the Balkans,’ said the Nilghai. ‘But I’m not wrong about this business. The whole of our work in the Southern Soudan must be done over again. The public doesn’t care, of course, but the government does, and they are making their arrangements quietly. You know that as well as I do.’
‘I remember how the people cursed us when our troops withdrew from Omdurman. It was bound to crop up sooner or later. But I can’t go,’ said Torpenhow. He pointed through the open door; it was a hot night. ‘Can you blame me?’
The Keneu purred above his pipe like a large and very happy cat—
‘Don’t blame you in the least. It’s uncommonly good of you, and all the rest of it, but every man—even you, Torp—must consider his work. I know it sounds brutal, but Dick’s out of the race,—down,—gastados expended, finished, done for. He has a little money of his own. He won’t starve, and you can’t pull out of your slide for his sake. Think of your own reputation.’
‘Dick’s was five times bigger than mine and yours put together.’
‘That was because he signed his name to everything he did. It’s all ended now. You must hold yourself in readiness to move out. You can command your own prices, and you do better work than any three of us.’
‘Don’t tell me how tempting it is. I’ll stay here to look after Dick for a while. He’s as cheerful as a bear with a sore head, but I think he likes to have me near him.’
The Nilghai said something uncomplimentary about soft-headed fools who throw away their careers for other fools. Torpenhow flushed angrily. The constant strain of attendance on Dick had worn his nerves thin.
‘There remains a third fate,’ said the Keneu, thoughtfully. ‘Consider this, and be not larger fools than necessary. Dick is—or rather was—an able-bodied man of moderate attractions and a certain amount of audacity.’
‘Oho!’ said the Nilghai, who remembered an affair at Cairo. ‘I begin to see,—Torp, I’m sorry.’
Torpenhow nodded forgiveness: ‘You were more sorry when he cut you out, though.—Go on, Keneu.’
‘I’ve often thought, when I’ve seen men die out in the desert, that if the news could be sent through the world, and the means of transport were quick enough, there would be one woman at least at each man’s bedside.’
‘There would be some mighty quaint revelations. Let us be grateful things are as they are,’ said the Nilghai.
‘Let us rather reverently consider whether Torp’s three-cornered ministrations are exactly what Dick needs just now.—What do you think yourself, Torp?’
‘I know they aren’t. But what can I do?’
‘Lay the matter before the board. We are all Dick’s friends here. You’ve been most in his life.’
‘But I picked it up when he was off his head.’
‘The greater chance of its being true. I thought we should arrive. Who is she?’
Then Torpenhow told a tale in plain words, as a special correspondent who knows how to make a verbal precis should tell it. The men listened without interruption.
‘Is it possible that a man can come back across the years to his calf-love?’ said the Keneu. ‘Is it possible?’
‘I give the facts. He says nothing about it now, but he sits fumbling three letters from her when he thinks I’m not looking. What am I to do?’
‘Speak to him,’ said the Nilghai.
‘Oh yes! Write to her,—I don’t know her full name, remember,—and ask her to accept him out of pity. I believe you once told Dick you were sorry for him, Nilghai. You remember what happened, eh? Go into the bedroom and suggest full confession and an appeal to this Maisie girl, whoever she is. I honestly believe he’d try to kill you; and the blindness has made him rather muscular.’
‘Torpenhow’s course is perfectly clear,’ said the Keneu. ‘He will go to Vitry-sur-Marne, which is on the Bezieres-Landes Railway,—single track from Tourgas. The Prussians shelled it out in ‘70 because there was a poplar on the top of a hill eighteen hundred yards from the church spire There’s a squadron of cavalry quartered there,—or ought to be. Where this studio Torp spoke about may be I cannot tell. That is Torp’s business. I have given him his route. He will dispassionately explain the situation to the girl, and she will come back to Dick,—the more especially because, to use Dick’s words, “there is nothing but her damned obstinacy to keep them apart.”’
‘And they have four hundred and twenty pounds a year between ’em. Dick never lost his head for figures, even in his delirium. You haven’t the shadow of an excuse for not going,’ said the Nilghai.
Torpenhow looked very uncomfortable. ‘But it’s absurd and impossible. I can’t drag her back by the hair.’
‘Our business—the business for which we draw our money—is to do absurd and impossible things,—generally with no reason whatever except to amuse the public. Here we have a reason. The rest doesn’t matter. I shall share these rooms with the Nilghai till Torpenhow returns. There will be a batch of unbridled “specials” coming to town in a little while, and these will serve as their headquarters. Another reason for sending Torpenhow away. Thus Providence helps those who help others, and’—here the Keneu dropped his measured speech—‘we can’t have you tied by the leg to Dick when the trouble begins. It’s your only chance of getting away; and Dick will be grateful.’
‘He will,—worse luck! I can but go and try. I can’t conceive a woman in her senses refusing Dick.’
‘Talk that out with the girl. I have seen you wheedle an angry Mahdieh woman into giving you dates. This won’t be a tithe as difficult. You had better not be here to-morrow afternoon, because the Nilghai and I will be in possession. It is an order. Obey.’
‘Dick,’ said Torpenhow, next morning, ‘can I do anything for you?’
‘No! Leave me alone. How often must I remind you that I’m blind?’
‘Nothing I could go for to fetch for to carry for to bring?’
‘No. Take those infernal creaking boots of yours away.’
‘Poor chap!’ said Torpenhow to himself. ‘I must have been sitting on his nerves lately. He wants a lighter step.’ Then, aloud, ‘Very well. Since you’re so independent, I’m going off for four or five days. Say good-bye at least. The housekeeper will look after you, and Keneu has my rooms.’
Dick’s face fell. ‘You won’t be longer than a week at the outside? I know I’m touched in the temper, but I can’t get on without you.’
‘Can’t you? You’ll have to do without me in a little time, and you’ll be glad I’m gone.’
Dick felt his way back to the big chair, and wondered what these things might mean. He did not wish to be tended by the housekeeper, and yet Torpenhow’s constant tenderness jarred on him. He did not exactly know what he wanted. The darkness would not lift, and Maisie’s unopened letters felt worn and old from much handling. He could never read them for himself as long as life endured; but Maisie might have sent him some fresh ones to play with. The Nilghai entered with a gift,—a piece of red modelling-wax. He fancied that Dick might find interest in using his hands. Dick poked and patted the stuff for a few minutes, and, ‘Is it like anything in the world?’ he said drearily. ‘Take it away. I may get the touch of the blind in fifty years. Do you know where Torpenhow has gone?’
The Nilghai knew nothing. ‘We’re staying in his rooms till he comes back. Can we do anything for you?’
‘I’d like to be left alone, please. Don’t think I’m ungrateful; but I’m best alone.’
The Nilghai chuckled, and Dick resumed his drowsy brooding and sullen rebellion against fate. He had long since ceased to think about the work he had done in the old days, and the desire to do more work had departed from him. He was exceedingly sorry for himself, and the completeness of his tender grief soothed him. But his soul and his body cried for Maisie—Maisie who would understand. His mind pointed out that Maisie, having her own work to do, would not care. His experience had taught him that when money was exhausted women went away, and that when a man was knocked out of the race the others trampled on him. ‘Then at the least,’ said Dick, in reply, ‘she could use me as I used Binat,—for some sort of a study. I wouldn’t ask more than to be near her again, even though I knew that another man was making love to her. Ugh! what a dog I am!’
A voice on the staircase began to sing joyfully—
‘When we go—go—go away from here,|
Our creditors will weep and they will wail,
Our absence much regretting when they find that they’ve been getting
Out of England by next Tuesday’s Indian mail.’
Following the trampling of feet, slamming of Torpenhow’s door, and the sound of voices in strenuous debate, some one squeaked, ‘And see, you good fellows, I have found a new water-bottle—firs’-class patent—eh, how you say? Open himself inside out.’
Dick sprang to his feet. He knew the voice well. ‘That’s Cassavetti, come back from the Continent. Now I know why Torp went away. There’s a row somewhere, and—I’m out of it!’
The Nilghai commanded silence in vain. ‘That’s for my sake,’ Dick said bitterly. ‘The birds are getting ready to fly, and they wouldn’t tell me. I can hear Morten-Sutherland and Mackaye. Half the War Correspondents in London are there;—and I’m out of it.’
He stumbled across the landing and plunged into Torpenhow’s room. He could feel that it was full of men. ‘Where’s the trouble?’ said he. ‘In the Balkans at last? Why didn’t some one tell me?’
‘We thought you wouldn’t be interested,’ said the Nilghai, shamefacedly. ‘It’s in the Soudan, as usual.’
‘You lucky dogs! Let me sit here while you talk. I shan’t be a skeleton at the feast.—Cassavetti, where are you? Your English is as bad as ever.’
Dick was led into a chair. He heard the rustle of the maps, and the talk swept forward, carrying him with it. Everybody spoke at once, discussing press censorships, railway-routes, transport, water-supply, the capacities of generals,—these in language that would have horrified a trusting public,—ranting, asserting, denouncing, and laughing at the top of their voices. There was the glorious certainty of war in the Soudan at any moment. The Nilghai said so, and it was well to be in readiness. The Keneu had telegraphed to Cairo for horses; Cassavetti had stolen a perfectly inaccurate list of troops that would be ordered forward, and was reading it out amid profane interruptions, and the Keneu introduced to Dick some man unknown who would be employed as war artist by the Central Southern Syndicate. ‘It’s his first outing,’ said the Keneu. ‘Give him some tips—about riding camels.’
‘Oh, those camels!’ groaned Cassavetti. ‘I shall learn to ride him again, and now I am so much all soft! Listen, you good fellows. I know your military arrangement very well. There will go the Royal Argalshire Sutherlanders. So it was read to me upon best authority.’
A roar of laughter interrupted him.
‘Sit down,’ said the Nilghai. ‘The lists aren’t even made out in the War Office.’
‘Will there be any force at Suakin?’ said a voice.
Then the outcries redoubled, and grew mixed, thus: ‘How many Egyptian troops will they use?—God help the Fellaheen!—There’s a railway in Plumstead marshes doing duty as a fives-court.—We shall have the Suakin-Berber line built at last.—Canadian voyageurs are too careful. Give me a half-drunk Krooman in a whale-boat.—Who commands the Desert column?—No, they never blew up the big rock in the Ghineh bend. We shall have to be hauled up, as usual.—Somebody tell me if there’s an Indian contingent, or I’ll break everybody’s head.—Don’t tear the map in two.—It’s a war of occupation, I tell you, to connect with the African companies in the South.—There’s Guinea-worm in most of the wells on that route.’ Then the Nilghai, despairing of peace, bellowed like a fog-horn and beat upon the table with both hands.
‘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.