The Tragedy of Crusoe


First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 13 September 1884

Kipling to Edith Macdonald, 17 September 1884

The immediate inspiration for ‘The Tragedy of Crusoe’ was the fact that Kipling himself had just returned from his annual visit to the Hills. He had been at Dalhousie with his family in August but returned alone to Lahore in September to endure the end of his second season of Indian hot weather. Wheeler, his editor, was then absent, and Kipling had the paper to himself; that probably explains how it is that this, the first extended piece of imaginative prose that he is known to have published in India, got into the pages of the CMG. At the same time, Kipling expected soon to be called away from the CMG to the Pioneer, and he meant therefore to ‘have a final flare up on the old rag’ (to Edith Macdonald, 1 7 September 1884). [T.P.]

The Article

(From a Correspondent)
Monday — Reacht the island — I would say the station — this morn, Mrs Crusoe being, at my own desire, left, it may be for a month or twain in the cooler air of the hills. Now, since we were first wed (and I shall not, even in my own diary, write down how long ago that was) I have never been a day parted from Mrs Crusoe; which I take it is not altogether becoming to a man of my spirit. Howbeit, yesterday, when I hinted, very gently, at this much to Mrs Crusoe — for though she is mine own dear wife, yet T dare not speak all my mind to her — she seemed in no way offended, but only laughed a good deal; saying that ‘men’s insides were made so comical, God help them’, and if I had that fancy in my brain I had best go to the island and there live as I might for two months, till she saw fit to join me. Though I was a little taken aback, and, to tell the truth not over well pleased, at her ready agreement in my plan, yet I made shift to look vastly content, and left the mountains in so great a haste, that both sherry flask and sandwiches were left behind. This, I hold, was the fault of my wife, who should have given them both to me.

When I reacht the ship — I should say of course my house — I found that it had leakt greatly fore and aft, through the late heavy rains; spoiling my wife’s new spinet, and, what is of far greater importance, many of my newly bound volumes that had but lately come out from England. I spent a dreary day soothing their swelled and blistered backs as well as might be, and thus forgot my tiffin. At dusk I went forth to explore the island, on mine old horse, whom I dare swear that the sais hath not exercised any time these two months. By him (the horse, not the sais) I was fought with for two miles, and runned away with for another two; the beast only stopping for want of breath. I find the island, as far as I can see, to be wholly uninhabited, except by the natives. Nor am I altogether sorry for this, since I cut but an indifferent good figure, this even, laid, for the most part, astride of my horse’s head, and swearing, Lord help me, in a manner that I hoped I had long ago forgotten. Home, exceeding sore and disposed to be very wrath with all about me. I was made none the sweeter when my man Friday told me that there was no whisky in the house. Says I, ‘How then did Friday manage to get so beastly drunk?’ Friday takes me up short at this, and says he is not more drunk than I, but he has been rejoicing at once more meeting his old friend. At this he sits down very quick, and says that I am his Father and Mother and goes fast asleep. I cannot find it in my heart to be very angry with Friday, but rather envy one who can be so merry — though it is true he has no library to be ruined by roof leakage. For form’s sake I have admonished him with a new leathern punkah rope, its end; and so grimly to dinner at the Club.

There I fell in with Jones (Cadwallader — He that I quarrelled with last July, because of a horse he sold me) and we dined together alone. He is the only inhabitant of the island; Mrs Jones, like Mrs Crusoe, being in the cooler hills. I see that I was a fool ever to fall out with thus pleasant a fellow, and withal one that can talk so well. Moreover, I will at once write to Mrs Crusoe and tell her that she must call on Mrs Jones. We two then smoked each other’s cheroots in great friendship till close upon midnight, when I returned home; and finding no lights in my house but all in Friday’s, I did again fall to with a punkah rope for five good minutes. To bed shortly after, where I lay awake till Friday had howled himself asleep.
Tuesday. — A woful day. This morning came Friday to me, smiling for all the world as though no words had passed between us overnight — whereat I suspected mischief but said nothing. Presently, while I was taking stock of my sodden library, he says: — ‘Kerritch hogya’ but I made shift to escape into the garden and there examine the roses. Yet no man can avoid his fate, or, for the matter of that, Friday, when he is bent on being heard. So, at breakfast, I, being in a white-hot heat to get away betimes to work, my man bows himself double and says several times very loud: — ‘Kerritch hogya’. Then I thought how Mrs Crusoe, she that is now at the Hills, would have dealt with him at once, and that with no inconvenience to myself. For, though I can speak Thibetan, Nagri, Malay, and the Lord knows how many other tongues, the barbarous and hybrid speech wherein the affairs of a household are wont to be ordered is a great stumbling-block to me. Friday, methinks knows this, for which I hate him the more. I clutcht my hair (what is left of it that is) three several times, and prayed inwardly that Friday might not see the great depths of my ignorance. Then says I, with my finest air: — ‘Kitna che?’ ‘Sahib,’ says he ‘Sarce che worshster, tael che, nia kunker estubble kiwasti, rye che, marubber che’ [‘How many?’ ‘Sahib,’ says he, ‘Worcestershire sauce, oil, new gravel for the stable, ? , pickels’] — and if I had not taken him up short there, I believe he would have continued till now. As soon as I had stoppt him he goes off again, like a crazy clock, telling me that Mrs Crusoe had dismist her dhobie ere she went hillward, and askt me to get another; that there were three kinds of meat, all good, in the bazar, and I was to chuse what I liked best — that I was to say what I would have to eat not only for this week, day by day, but the next and the next. Also he askt whether I should retain the old cook, whose face I had never seen, or whether I should be fed by contract; and a thousand other things that till now I fancied came in the course of nature — as do tiffin and dinner. I have sent him away for a while to fill me a pipe while I try to make ready against his return. Oh that my wife were here!
11 of the clock. — Even though I know that none will read this foolish diary save I, yet I dare not, for very shame, write down all that I have done and suffered within the two hours past. How Friday saw that I, Civil and Sessions Judge and a ruler among men, was helpless as a little babe when there was any talk of degchies, storerooms, and the like; how I floundered from one blunder to another (for I hold that housekeeping is in no way man’s work) trying all the while to keep up my sorely shrunken dignity; how Friday led me on, little by little, as men coax an unwilling dog into the sea, until he had gauged the sum total of my ignorance; how I sweated and turned hot and cold under his words, as I have often seen prisoners sweat and change colour under mine. All this, I say, I dare not set down. Let it suffice for my humiliation, that, at the end of my torment, Friday had roughly, and after his own fashion (which I take it was not of the best), shewn how I was to manage my own house in the matter of jam, clean sheets, and two daily meals, and in the doing of it had so trampled on and crushed my spirit, that I could but sign all he wished (and the papers were not few) in hope of being released from his tyranny. But Lord! Lord! how many things be necessary to a man’s sustenance whereof I have scarcely even heard the names till today —much less smelt and handled of them. Moreover, I see now what a strange and terrible car of Juggernaut it is that Mrs Crusoe, my never enough to be valued spouse, controls. I, who have rashly taken its guidance into my hands, am laid spent and prostrate among the wheels whereon I have ridden so smoothly before. All day I have done nothing at all save wonder how Mrs Crusoe can receive me with so smiling a face each evening, when she is on the island, if this be the kind of torture that falls to her lot. But it may be that she has some management to overcome it, for I have never, now I think, seen signs of it in her face, and this day has gone far to age and sour me, who am still, thank Heaven, a young man for my years.
To the Club again in the evening where I met Cadwallader Jones; but for shame, lest he should laugh at me, durst not enquire how he fared when his wife was away. To bed at midnight, wondering which of all the dainties I had so plenteously provided in the morning would be given me for my next day’s meal. Surely it is not too warm for Mrs Crusoe to visit the island now.
Wednesday. — I am sorry that I ever smote Friday with a punkah rope, for I see that he is minded to poison me. This mom, in my big silver dish, set forth with many flowers and on a fair white cloth, came three sodden fragments of flesh which seemed as though they had been but newly torn from the inside of some dead beast. There was rice also, but I have never eaten small shot, so I put it all aside, and for two rupees of my own money Friday got me certain sardines in tin, and a very little oil. With these I must stay my stomach as best I can. They taste wondrous fishy, and the tea is smoakt and of a new flavour. Mrs Crusoe never gave me anything like it.
I had naught in the middle of the day at my office — neither meat nor drink — and returned home through the mire in a conveyance hired from a native. (Nota Bene. — It was girded about with ropes, like Paul’s ship, and I held both doors shut with my own hands till I was mired to the elbow.) When I askt Friday what he means by sending neither tiffin nor carriage, he says that I gave no order, which was true enough, but I fancied that tiffin was eaten at least once every day by most men. I am very sick and tired and dare not abuse Friday as he deserves, or he will leave me altogether and I shall starve. Was too ill to go to the Club, so gave Friday two annas to get me a cup of tea. It tastes sadly of Friday his hookah. To bed wondering whether starving outright is better than being slowly poisoned, and also what became of the stores I had ordered yesterday. Dreamt that Friday had boiled sardines in tea for my breakfast, and that Mrs Crusoe stood by with a basket of tripe and laught. A very terrible dream.
Thursday. — Friday hath a new turban with two broad gold stripes and a pink one in the middle, and walks not over steadily. He asks me at nine in the morning what I would eat. Said that I was too sick to attend to work, and desired a savoury omelette. At ten ‘twas ready, but there was neither tea, milk, bread, or anything else, saving two forks that were not of the same set, and a plate. Friday says I made no bundobust, and my head aches too sorely to reply. Made shift to eat the omelette which, methinks, was of bad eggs mainly; and lay down for the rest of the day, never a soul coming nigh me. In truth I am wrong here. Friday’s children did harry an old turkey-cock in the verandah, which was close to my head, for two hours; and I thank Providence that made me a Civil and Sessions Judge and gave me Mrs Crusoe, for the fever that rackt me till I could stir neither hand nor foot — else I should have assuredly killed them all. In the evening my distemper went from me a little, but am still too weak to eat. Friday hath gone to the bazar and hath forgotten to bring me iced water. To bed, where I dreamt that I smothered Friday and all his children under an omelette of turkey cock’s eggs. I have never been wont to dream in this fashion before.
Friday. — The fever left me in the night. Found this morning that I had but one clean shirt, and that frayed and chafed at the wristbands. Now I know I had twelve when I left my wife, so askt of Friday — who walks as though ground was air under him — what had become of all my gear. At this he wept for ten minutes (over mine only towel) and prayed me to send him to prison since I had blackt his face thus far. At this I was very wrath and said that no one had called him thief, but that I wanted my shirts again. Thereat he wept more than before, till I kickt him out of the room and shut the door. When next I opened it after smoaking a pipe to consider how I should do, I found seven of my shirts — three that had been worn and four that were new — lying in a heap on the threshold. They smelt terribly of cocoanut oil and bad tobacco, and were marked and stained with all manner of stuffs. But Friday knew nothing of them at all, save that I was his father and mother and had suspected him of robbery. He wept all day by fits and starts, and I gave him four annas to quiet him. But this did not amend the quality of my meals. Dined again at the Club where Cadwallader Jones (who, methinks still, cheated me in the matter of that horse) called me a ‘sick dove’ and clapt me on the back with his hand. Mrs Jones returns to the island shortly. I would I were Jones, or at least that Mrs Crusoe was here. To bed thinking sorrowfully how I have done no work at all this week by reason of the pestilent Friday, who was more in my mind than anything else. Lord! Lord! and I had a thousand and one matters to finish and furbish up ere the Courts opened! Yet I will give him one day more of grace, and then — it is surely cool enough for Mrs Crusoe. Stoppt the punkah to see if this were so, and went off in a strong sweating till dawn.
Saturday. — Friday is again drunk nor was there any sign at all of breakfast. I eat sparingly of my sardines, with a cheese scoop; the rest of the table gear being all filthy with the remains of some feast. I found them in the pantry and judge that Friday hath been entertaining his friends. I have telegrapht for Mrs Crusoe, and till she come must make shift to live on sardines.
Jacob Cavendish, M.A.