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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Light That Failed - Chapter 1
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The Light That Failed - Chapter 1 Post by :Bionic_Office Category :Long Stories Author :Rudyard Kipling Date :March 2011 Read :932

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The Light That Failed - Chapter 1


So we settled it all when the storm was done

As comf'y as comf'y could be;

And I was to wait in the barn, my dears,

Because I was only three;

And Teddy would run to the rainbow's foot,

Because he was five and a man;

And that's how it all began, my dears,

And that's how it all began. -- Big Barn Stories.

'WHAT do you think she'd do if she caught us? We oughtn't to have it,
you know,' said Maisie.

'Beat me, and lock you up in your bedroom,' Dick answered, without
hesitation. 'Have you got the cartridges?'

"Yes; they're in my pocket, but they are joggling horribly. Do pin-fire
cartridges go off of their own accord?'

'Don't know. Take the revolver, if you are afraid, and let me carry

"I'm not afraid.' Maisie strode forward swiftly, a hand in her pocket
and her chin in the air. Dick followed with a small pin-fire revolver.

The children had discovered that their lives would be unendurable
without pistol-practice. After much forethought and self-denial, Dick
had saved seven shillings and sixpence, the price of a badly constructed
Belgian revolver. Maisie could only contribute half a crown to the
syndicate for the purchase of a hundred cartridges. 'You can save better
than I can, Dick,' she explained; 'I like nice things to eat, and it
doesn't matter to you. Besides, boys ought to do these things.'

Dick grumbled a little at the arrangement, but went out and made the
purchase, which the children were then on their way to test. Revolvers
did not lie in the scheme of their daily life as decreed for them by the
guardian who was incorrectly supposed to stand in the place of a mother
to these two orphans. Dick had been under her care for six years, during
which time she had made her profit of the allowances supposed to be
expended on his clothes, and, partly through thoughtlessness, partly
through a natural desire to pain,--she was a widow of some years anxious
to marry again,--had made his days burdensome on his young shoulders.

Where he had looked for love, she gave him first aversion and then hate.

Where he growing older had sought a little sympathy, she gave him
ridicule. The many hours that she could spare from the ordering of her
small house she devoted to what she called the home-training of Dick
Heldar. Her religion, manufactured in the main by her own intelligence
and a keen study of the Scriptures, was an aid to her in this matter. At
such times as she herself was not personally displeased with Dick, she
left him to understand that he had a heavy account to settle with his
Creator; wherefore Dick learned to loathe his God as intensely as he
loathed Mrs. Jennett; and this is not a wholesome frame of mind for the
young. Since she chose to regard him as a hopeless liar, but an
economical and self-contained one, never throwing away the least
unnecessary fib, and never hesitating at the blackest, were it only
plausible, that might make his life a little easier. The treatment
taught him at least the power of living alone,--a power that was of
service to him when he went to a public school and the boys laughed at
his clothes, which were poor in quality and much mended. In the holidays
he returned to the teachings of Mrs. Jennett, and, that the chain of
discipline might not be weakened by association with the world, was
generally beaten, on one account or another, before he had been twelve
hours under her roof.

The autumn of one year brought him a companion in bondage, a
long-haired, gray-eyed little atom, as self-contained as himself, who
moved about the house silently and for the first few weeks spoke only to
the goat that was her chiefest friend on earth and lived in the
back-garden. Mrs. Jennett objected to the goat on the grounds that he
was un-Christian,--which he certainly was. 'Then,' said the atom,
choosing her words very deliberately, 'I shall write to my
lawyer-peoples and tell them that you are a very bad woman. Amomma is
mine, mine, mine!' Mrs. Jennett made a movement to the hall, where
certain umbrellas and canes stood in a rack. The atom understood as
clearly as Dick what this meant. 'I have been beaten before,' she said,
still in the same passionless voice; 'I have been beaten worse than you
can ever beat me. If you beat me I shall write to my lawyer-peoples and
tell them that you do not give me enough to eat. I am not afraid of
you.' Mrs. Jennett did not go into the hall, and the atom, after a pause
to assure herself that all danger of war was past, went out, to weep
bitterly on Amomma's neck.

Dick learned to know her as Maisie, and at first mistrusted her
profoundly, for he feared that she might interfere with the small
liberty of action left to him. She did not, however; and she volunteered
no friendliness until Dick had taken the first steps. Long before the
holidays were over, the stress of punishment shared in common drove the
children together, if it were only to play into each other's hands as
they prepared lies for Mrs. Jennett's use. When Dick returned to school,
Maisie whispered, 'Now I shall be all alone to take care of myself;
but,' and she nodded her head bravely, 'I can do it. You promised to
send Amomma a grass collar. Send it soon.' A week later she asked for
that collar by return of post, and wa not pleased when she learned that
it took time to make. When at last Dick forwarded the gift, she forgot
to thank him for it.

Many holidays had come and gone since that day, and Dick had grown into
a lanky hobbledehoy more than ever conscious of his bad clothes. Not for
a moment had Mrs. Jennett relaxed her tender care of him, but the
average canings of a public school--Dick fell under punishment about
three times a month--filled him with contempt for her powers. 'She
doesn't hurt,' he explained to Maisie, who urged him to rebellion, 'and
she is kinder to you after she has whacked me.' Dick shambled through
the days unkempt in body and savage in soul, as the smaller boys of the
school learned to know, for when the spirit moved him he would hit them,
cunningly and with science. The same spirit made him more than once try
to tease Maisie, but the girl refused to be made unhappy. 'We are both
miserable as it is,' said she. 'What is the use of trying to make things
worse? Let's find things to do, and forget things.'

The pistol was the outcome of that search. It could only be used on the
muddiest foreshore of the beach, far away from the bathing-machines and
pierheads, below the grassy slopes of Fort Keeling. The tide ran out
nearly two miles on that coast, and the many-coloured mud-banks, touched
by the sun, sent up a lamentable smell of dead weed. It was late in the
afternoon when Dick and Maisie arrived on their ground, Amomma trotting
patiently behind them.

'Mf!' said Maisie, sniffing the air. 'I wonder what makes the sea so
smelly? I don't like it!'

'You never like anything that isn't made just for you,' said Dick
bluntly. 'Give me the cartridges, and I'll try first shot. How far does
one of these little revolvers carry?'

'Oh, half a mile,' said Maisie, promptly. 'At least it makes an awful
noise. Be careful with the cartridges; I don't like those jagged
stick-up things on the rim. Dick, do be careful.'

'All right. I know how to load. I'll fire at the breakwater out there.'

He fired, and Amomma ran away bleating. The bullet threw up a spurt of
mud to the right of the wood-wreathed piles.

'Throws high and to the right. You try, Maisie. Mind, it's loaded all

Maisie took the pistol and stepped delicately to the verge of the mud,
her hand firmly closed on the butt, her mouth and left eye screwed up.

Dick sat down on a tuft of bank and laughed. Amomma returned very
cautiously. He was accustomed to strange experiences in his afternoon
walks, and, finding the cartridge-box unguarded, made investigations
with his nose. Maisie fired, but could not see where the bullet went.

'I think it hit the post,' she said, shading her eyes and looking out
across the sailless sea.

'I know it has gone out to the Marazion Bell-buoy,' said Dick, with a
chuckle. 'Fire low and to the left; then perhaps you'll get it. Oh, look
at Amomma!--he's eating the cartridges!'

Maisie turned, the revolver in her hand, just in time to see Amomma
scampering away from the pebbles Dick threw after him. Nothing is sacred
to a billy-goat. Being well fed and the adored of his mistress, Amomma
had naturally swallowed two loaded pin-fire cartridges. Maisie hurried
up to assure herself that Dick had not miscounted the tale.

'Yes, he's eaten two.'

'Horrid little beast! Then they'll joggle about inside him and blow up,
and serve him right. . . . Oh, Dick! have I killed you?'

Revolvers are tricky things for young hands to deal with. Maisie could
not explain how it had happened, but a veil of reeking smoke separated
her from Dick, and she was quite certain that the pistol had gone off in
his face. Then she heard him sputter, and dropped on her knees beside
him, crying, 'Dick, you aren't hurt, are you? I didn't mean it.'

'Of course you didn't, said Dick, coming out of the smoke and wiping his
cheek. 'But you nearly blinded me. That powder stuff stings awfully.' A
neat little splash of gray led on a stone showed where the bullet had
gone. Maisie began to whimper.

'Don't,' said Dick, jumping to his feet and shaking himself. 'I'm not a
bit hurt.'

'No, but I might have killed you,' protested Maisie, the corners of her
mouth drooping. 'What should I have done then?'

'Gone home and told Mrs. Jennett.' Dick grinned at the thought; then,
softening, 'Please don't worry about it. Besides, we are wasting time.

We've got to get back to tea. I'll take the revolver for a bit.'

Maisie would have wept on the least encouragement, but Dick's
indifference, albeit his hand was shaking as he picked up the pistol,
restrained her. She lay panting on the beach while Dick methodically
bombarded the breakwater. 'Got it at last!' he exclaimed, as a lock of
weed flew from the wood.

'Let me try,' said Maisie, imperiously. 'I'm all right now.'

They fired in turns till the rickety little revolver nearly shook itself
to pieces, and Amomma the outcast--because he might blow up at any
moment--browsed in the background and wondered why stones were thrown at
him. Then they found a balk of timber floating in a pool which was
commanded by the seaward slope of Fort Keeling, and they sat down
together before this new target.

'Next holidays,' said Dick, as the now thoroughly fouled revolver kicked
wildly in his hand, 'we'll get another pistol,--central fire,--that will
carry farther.'

'There won't b any next holidays for me,' said Maisie. 'I'm going away.'

'Where to?'

'I don't know. My lawyers have written to Mrs. Jennett, and I've got to
be educated somewhere,--in France, perhaps,--I don't know where; but I
shall be glad to go away.'

'I shan't like it a bit. I suppose I shall be left. Look here, Maisie,
is it really true you're going? Then these holidays will be the last I
shall see anything of you; and I go back to school next week. I

The young blood turned his cheeks scarlet. Maisie was picking
grass-tufts and throwing them down the slope at a yellow sea-poppy
nodding all by itself to the illimitable levels of the mud-flats and the
milk-white sea beyond.

'I wish,' she said, after a pause, 'that I could see you again sometime.

You wish that, too?'

'Yes, but it would have been better if--if--you had--shot straight over
there--down by the breakwater.'

Maisie looked with large eyes for a moment. And this was the boy who
only ten days before had decorated Amomma's horns with cut-paper
ham-frills and turned him out, a bearded derision, among the public
ways! Then she dropped her eyes: this was not the boy.

'Don't be stupid,' she said reprovingly, and with swift instinct
attacked the side-issue. 'How selfish you are! Just think what I should
have felt if that horrid thing had killed you! I'm quite miserable
enough already.'

'Why? Because you're going away from Mrs. Jennett?'


'From me, then?'

No answer for a long time. Dick dared not look at her. He felt, though
he did not know, all that the past four years had been to him, and this
the more acutely since he had no knowledge to put his feelings in words.

'I don't know,' she said. 'I suppose it is.'

'Maisie, you must know. I'm not supposing.'

'Let's go home,' said Maisie, weakly.

But Dick was not minded to retreat.

'I can't say things,' he pleaded, 'and I'm awfully sorry for teasing you
about Amomma the other day. It's all different now, Maisie, can't you
see? And you might have told me that you were going, instead of leaving
me to find out.'

'You didn't. I did tell. Oh, Dick, what's the use of worrying?'

'There isn't any; but we've been together years and years, and I didn't
know how much I cared.'

'I don't believe you ever did care.'

'No, I didn't; but I do,--I care awfully now, Maisie,' he
gulped,--'Maisie, darling, say you care too, please.'

'I do, indeed I do; but it won't be any use.'


'Because I am going away.'

'Yes, but if you promise before you go. Only say--will you?' A second
'darling' came to his lips more easily than the first. There were few
endearments in Dick's home or school life; he had to find them by
instinct. Dick caught the little hand blackened with the escaped gas of
the revolver.

'I promise,' she said solemnly; 'but if I care there is no need for

'And do you care?' For the first time in the past few minutes their eyes
met and spoke for them who had no skill in speech. . . .

'Oh, Dick, don't! Please don't! It was all right when we said
good-morning; but now it's all different!' Amomma looked on from afar.

He had seen his property quarrel frequently, but he had never seen
kisses exchanged before. The yellow sea-poppy was wiser, and nodded its
head approvingly. Considered as a kiss, that was a failure, but since it
was the first, other than those demanded by duty, in all the world that
either had ever given or taken, it opened to them new worlds, and every
one of them glorious, so that they were lifted above the consideration
of any worlds at all, especially those in which tea is necessary, and
sat still, holding each other's hands and saying not a word.

'You can't forget now,' said Dick, at last. There was that on his cheek
that stung more than gunpowder.

'I shouldn't have forgotten anyhow,' said Maisie, and they looked at
each other and saw that each was changed from the companion of an hour
ago to a wonder and a mystery they could not understand. The sun began
to set, and a night-wind thrashed along the bents of the foreshore.

'We shall be awfully late for tea,' said Maisie. 'Let's go home.'

'Let's use the rest of the cartridges first,' said Dick; and he helped
Maisie down the slope of the fort to the sea,--a descent that she was
quite capable of covering at full speed. Equally gravely Maisie took the
grimy hand. Dick bent forward clumsily; Maisie drew the hand away, and
Dick blushed.

'It's very pretty,' he said.

'Pooh!' said Maisie, with a little laugh of gratified vanity. She stood
close to Dick as he loaded the revolver for the last time and fired over
the sea with a vague notion at the back of his head that he was
protecting Maisie from all the evils in the world. A puddle far across
the mud caught the last rays of the sun and turned into a wrathful red
disc. The light held Dick's attention for a moment, and as he raised his
revolver there fell upon him a renewed sense of the miraculous, in that
he was standing by Maisie who had promised to care for him for an
indefinite length of time till such date as---- A gust of the growing
wind drove the girl's long black hair across his face as she stood with
her hand on his shoulder calling Amomma 'a little beast,' and for a
moment he was in the dark,--a darkness that stung. The bullet went
singing out to the empty sea.

'Spoilt my aim,' said he, shaking his head. 'There aren't any more
cartridges; we shall have to run home.' But they did not run. They
walked very slowly, arm in arm. And it was a matter of indifference to
them whether the neglected Amomma with two pin-fire cartridges in his
inside blew up or trotted beside them; for they had come into a golden
heritage and were disposing of it with all the wisdom of all their

'And I shall be----' quoth Dick, valiantly. Then he checked himself: 'I
don't know what I shall be. I don't seem to be able to pass any exams,
but I can make awful caricatures of the masters. Ho! Ho!'

'Be an artist, then,' said Maisie. 'You're always laughing at my trying
to draw; and it will do you good.'

'I'll never laugh at anything you do,' he answered. 'I'll be an artist,
and I'll do things.'

'Artists always want money, don't they?'

'I've got a hundred and twenty pounds a year of my own. My guardians
tell me I'm to have it when I come of age. That will be enough to begin

'Ah, I'm rich,' said Maisie. 'I've got three hundred a year all my own
when I'm twenty-one. That's why Mrs. Jennett is kinder to me than she is
to you. I wish, though, that I had somebody that belonged to me,--just a
father or a mother.'

'You belong to me,' said Dick, 'for ever and ever.'

'Yes, we belong--for ever. It's very nice.' She squeezed his arm. The
kindly darkness hid them both, and, emboldened because he could only
just see the profile of Maisie's cheek with the long lashes veiling the
gray eyes, Dick at the front door delivered himself of the words he had
been boggling over for the last two hours.

'And I--love you, Maisie,' he said, in a whisper that seemed to him to
ring across the world,--the world that he would to-morrow or the next
day set out to conquer.

There was a scene, not, for the sake of discipline, to be reported, when
Mrs. Jennett would have fallen upon him, first for disgraceful
unpunctuality, and secondly for nearly killing himself with a forbidden

'I was playing with it, and it went off by itself,' said Dick, when the
powder-pocked cheek could no longer be hidden, 'but if you think you're
going to lick me you're wrong. You are never going to touch me again.

Sit down and give me my tea. You can't cheat us out of that, anyhow.'

Mrs. Jennett gasped and became livid. Maisie said nothing, but
encouraged Dick with her eyes, and he behaved abominably all that
evening. Mrs. Jennett prophesied an immediate judgment of Providence and
a descent into Tophet later, but Dick walked in Paradise and would not
hear. Only when he was going to bed Mrs. Jennett recovered and asserted
herself. He had bidden Maisie good-night with down-dropped eyes and from
a distance.

'If you aren't a gentleman you might try to behave like one,' said Mrs.

Jennett, spitefully. 'You've been quarrelling with Maisie again.'

This meant that the usual good-night kiss had been omitted. Maisie,
white to the lips, thrust her cheek forward with a fine air of
indifference, and was duly pecked by Dick, who tramped out of the room
red as fire. That night he dreamed a wild dream. He had won all the
world and brought it to Maisie in a cartridge-box, but she turned it
over with her foot, and, instead of saying 'Thank you,' cried--
'Where is the grass collar you promised for Amomma? Oh, how selfish you

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