First published in The Week’s News on 11 August 1888 (Martindell has 4 August), and collected in In Black and White inThe Indian Railway Library the same year and Soldiers Three in 1895.
An Englishman, on a journey, is held up by a flooded river. He is given refuge by the warden of the ford, an old Mussulman, who for many years had helped travellers cross over. He tells the tale of how in the days of his youth and strength he had loved a Hindu girl in a village across the river. They could not marry, but he used to meet her secretly in the fields. Once he had swum across when the river was in flood, and had been carried away. He would have drowned had he not been able to cling to the body of a dead man. When he reached land he found it was the corpse of the hated Sikh who was to have become her husband.
This powerful tale may disappoint sentimentalists who look for a happy ending to a love story, or at least a happy interlude, as in "Beyond the Pale" (Plain Tales from the Hills) and "Without Benefit of Clergy" (Life’s Handicap), even if all ends in death and disaster. "She" disappears from the story and the warden remains at his ford which may indicate that they parted, as she is never heard of again. It is, however, a measure of Kipling’s genius that the reader (and especially this one) finds such stories utterly convincing and feels concern for the characters and for what happens to them. It is occasionally difficult to remember that we are dealing with works of fiction. [Ed.].
Norman Page (p. 97) refers to Kipling’s article in The Pioneer of 28 July 1888 telling how he had been delayed by a flood while travelling from Simla to Allahabad. Charles Allen (p. 260) maintains that the river in this tale is the Gugger, where the warden was an elderly woman, and in which Kim was nearly drowned on the way from Umballa to Simla. (Chapter VIII).
See also “The Head of the District” (Life’s Handicap) in which a wife is unable to reach her dying husband because the river Indus is so high and turbulent; also “The Bridge-Builders" (The Day’s Work), in which a newly built bridge over the Ganges is threatened by a great flood; also the verses “Ford o’ Kabul River” and “A Ripple Song”.
See also the letter from Reginald Harbord (Editor of the ORG) in Kipling Journal 135/23 asking for someone to draw a plan of the river and ford. There does not seem to have been a response, and this may confirm the view that this was an invented place.
Some critical comments
An early critic, Frederick Knowles (p.127), writing in 1900, quotes appreciative comments from The Edinburgh Review: '...a poem in prose; it could not be praised too highly' and The Athenæum 'The idyll of a dusky Hero and Leander.'
Louis Cornell (p.150) also calls this story a reworking of the legend of Hero and Leander,
where love is expressed not through morbid jealousy , but by heroic endurance in a flooded river. [In that legend, Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite, lived on the European shore of the Hellespont and held a torch to guide her lover Leander when he swam across to see her. One night the weather extinguished the torch and he was drowned. She jumped in the sea herself and perished.]
Joyce Tompkins (p. 102) likens this and the other dramatic monologues to Browning’s Men and Women (1855), a collection which includes “Bishop Blougram’s Apology” and other poems which Kipling parodied. (Robert Browning 1812-1889)
See also the excellent Notes (from p. 576) and Appendices in Rudyard Kipling, a Critical Edition of the Major Works, Daniel Karlin (Ed.).