It is 1917, and World War I is raging. The narrator meets a fellow Freemason, a London tobacconist, who takes him to a Lodge run by a group of wealthy merchants. Contrary to official policy, they have thrown their meetings open to any soldiers on leave, or convalescent from wounds, who can pass a test that demonstrates their Masonic credentials. The story describes the leniency of the examiners, with the visitors' pleasure at the familiar ritual, good food and repose they can find in the secure setting the Lodge provides. Their various origins allow them to contribute new ideas and experiences to the debate that follows the ritual. The narrator, agreeing that rules should be relaxed to allow such access to Lodges in wartime, departs planning to tell the Masonic authorities what is happening.
Background to the story
The story was written in September 1917, shortly after Kipling joined the War Graves Commission, and six months after he had agreed to write a history of his dead son's regiment's part in the war. It was first published in the Story-Teller and Metropolitan, December 1918. To the annotator of ORG, who compiled many of the notes given here, the theme of the story is given in the four lines at the top of page 62, following the Biblical quotation "it's the Spirit, not the Letter, that giveth life": "The question of Visiting Brethren is an important one. There are so many of them in London now, you see; and so few places where they can meet." In the Story-Teller, it is preceded by the editorial comment: "The motif which lies behind it is such that we urge all those who have relatives in the War who are Freemasons to send them a copy."
Judith van Heerswynghels, in the introduction to her French translation of Debits and Credits [Pierre Coustillas, general ed., Rudyard Kipling: Oeuvres, vol. 4 [(Liege: Gallimard, 2001)] pointed out that "in a sense, this can scarcely be called a fiction, since it tells no story; what is concerned is rather an expression of the author's admiration and affection for Masonic ritual and furnishings." It also suggests what attracted Kipling to the Craft: the easy comradeship, the social mix and the chance to exchange opinions between men who would otherwise never have met.
Kipling and Freemasonry
As a twenty-year-old journalist on the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, Kipling was initiated in 1886 into what he would describe as "an Indian Mixed Lodge" [letter to the Worshipful Master of Friendship and Unity Lodge, Bradford-upon-Avon, 10 January 1931], Hope and Perseverance No. 782 in Lahore, in what is now Pakistan. He went on to say: "I was entered by a Hindu, raised by a Mohammedan, and passed by an English Master, but never rose beyond the office of Secretary." He was advanced to the Mark degree in 1887, when he was also elevated into the Mount Ararat Mark Mariners Lodge No. 98. He also visited the Lodge of St John the Evangelist No. 1483 (now no more), a military lodge in the Lahore cantonment, and borrowed the names of Mulvanney, a surgeon, and Lt Learoyd RA for subsequent literary endeavours.
On promotion to the Pioneer, a larger newspaper in Allahabad also owned by his employers, he joined the Lodge of Independence with Philanthropy No. 391 there. By all accounts, during his travels through India he was a regular and most welcome visitor to other Lodges. In 1888, during a visit to Bengal, he writes to his cousin Margaret Burne-Jones that at the local St George in the East Lodge, a lodge affiliated to the East India Railway Company (still in existence today, though not meeting) there were "men who will talk to me as though they had known me all their lives on subjects which both I and they will be able to discourse about with freedom and camaraderie." Freemasons' lodges are known for the warm welcome they give to the visiting Brother and visiting is a very important part of Freemasonry. It is perhaps this Lodge that he would describe in his story "The Bold Prentice" (Land and Sea Tales) as "St Duncan's in the East".
After leaving India he was never again so active in the Craft. In 1909 he joined the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, as Rose Croix, a Christian degree which requires a belief in the Trinity by its members. In 1921 he would be a Founder Member of the War Graves Commission Lodge "The Builders of the Silent Cities Lodge No. 12" in St Omer, under the Grande Loge Nationale Francaise. Kipling is credited with having devised this apposite name.
J.M.S. Tompkins called the Lodge "a pool of healing" [The Art of Rudyard Kipling, London: (Methuen, 1959), p. 176]. To Harry Ricketts, "the keynote here was sympathy; for the bereaved and for the troops, both finding temporary comfort at the Lodge." [Harry Ricketts, The Unforgiving Minute: a Life of Rudyard Kipling, London: (Chatto and Windus, 1999) p. 336.] Angus Wilson, though he disliked the Masonic stories, finding them "muddled", nevertheless praised in them "a very lively and sympathetic concern with tradesmen - grocers, tobacconists, apothecaries, and hairdressers - an affectionate and admiring feeling for the petit-bourgeois world that is as effective in its was as that of Bennett or Wells. The other feature of the stories is a pleasing delight in the ritual and furnishing (particularly eighteenth-century furnishing) of the Lodge" [Angus Wilson, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling (London: Secker & Warburg, 1977) p. 315.]