Charles Carrington (1955) writes thus:
‘Mrs. Bathurst’ is a strange and difficult tale. Rudyard had now quite outgrown the diffuseness and exuberance which marred some of the stories of his Allahabad period. He could afford to take his time, and let nothing go to press until it had been exhaustively edited and revised. It was not uncommon for the first draft of a story to be two or three times longer than its published form, as he whimsically explained [in Something of Myself] :
In an auspicious hour read your final draft and consider faithfully, every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. Finally, read it aloud alone and at leisure. Maybe a shade more brushwork will then indicate or impose itself. If not, praise Allah and let it go, and ‘when thou hast done, repent not’. … I have had tales by me for three or five years which shortened themselves almost yearly.
He had not acquired this technique when he wrote ‘The Drums of the Fore and Aft’; he perhaps overdid it when he shortened ‘Mrs. Bathurst’, a complex story which would have supplied most writers with a full-length novel. It suffers from too much compression, so that in parts it is unintelligible. Nevertheless, for all its obscurity, “Mrs Bathurst” is a powerful story, the account of a woman who is described as not very seductive or amusing or intelligent, but who was never forgotten by any man who made her acquaintance. :
T’isn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It. Some women’ll stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down a street.’
The original of Mrs. Bathurst is said to have been a barmaid in Christchurch, New Zealand; the setting of the tale is at Simonstown, the naval base at the Cape, but these are subsidiary matters. What the reader remembers is the glimpse of ‘Mrs. Bathurst walking towards us with that blindish look in her eyes and the reticule in her hand’, as the two sailors saw her in a cinema film. It is one of the earliest allusions to the cinematograph in fiction, as it is, perhaps, the earliest use of the word ‘It’ for feminine charm.
The critics had fallen foul of Kipling’s early attempts to portray women, finding them all detestable, from ‘the Colonel’s lady to Judy O’Grady’. The gentle, smiling, mature Mrs. Bathurst was different indeed, but so elliptic is the process of her story that the reader is never plainly told what becomes of her. She is flashed on to the screen and off, with disastrous but incomprehensible consequences to the sailor who has pursued her round the world. Such a tale could never be a popular favourite and it seems hardly credible hat it should have been written by the author of ‘The Absent-minded Beggar.”
[This editor suggests, very diffidently, that Carrington has mis-read the tale, at least in part. For one thing – a minuscule point, but … – the original was not a barmaid in Christchurch, but a barmaid in Auckland – Kipling himself said so.
In the first place, the tale is not really “an account of a woman who is described as not very seductive …”. Mrs. Bathurst is a major character, of course, but the tale is not really about her: it is about Vickery, and the effect that she has on him. It is a powerful particular tale to illustrate a general point that Helen of Troy reappears down the years in different guises, and the effect on her men is nearly always catastrophic.
Nor has Vickery ‘pursued her round the world’. He met her in a suburb of Auckland, fell under her spell, proposed marriage and was accepted (or so it may be inferred). There is no indication of what she may have seen in him (although he is, according to Pyecroft, “a superior man” – see the note on page 347, lines10-11), but it was clearly a lightning romance. They married (bigamously, it would appear, since he has a “lawful wife”), and then, as is the way of naval men, his ship left in the normal course of its programme. The wedding is unlikely to have been a church wedding, since there would probably not have been time to call the banns in the time available – a civil wedding required only 15 days notice. (No warships were then based in New Zealand: ships of the squadron on the Australia station visited New Zealand at regular but infrequent intervals, rarely spending more than a fortnight in any one port.) He might have revisited Auckland in the course of that commission, once more or even twice, or he might have returned to England without revisiting New Zealand. (Given the possible timescale of events postulated above, the latter is the more likely occurrence.) At all events, on returning to England, he resumed normal marital relations with his wife. We are given no evidence, explicit or implicit, that he contacted Mrs. Bathurst at any time between his leaving New Zealand for the last time, and his seeing her on the film in Capetown. Not surprisingly, Vickery bears a load of guilt: whatever the feminists may say about philandering men, Mrs. Bathurst was unlikely to have been forgotten by her ‘husband’, however long ago it might have been that they co-habited. So the sight of her, in England and quite recently, acts powerfully upon him, to the extent that he deserts.]
J M S Tompkins (1959) writes:
One of the earliest and most extreme of the experiments in suppressed narrative was “Mrs Bathurst”. It is unlike the later experiments, such as “Dayspring Mishandled”, in two ways. There is no difficulty about its theme, which is the destroying power of love; on the other hand, no analysis can establish with certainty how the destruction came about. We see the gaunt shrine and the shrivelled victims, but we cannot trace the avenues of approach. If Kipling meant us to do so, it may be held, as Professor C.S. Lewis has suggested, that he has overdone his demolitions. But he may have meant the unexplained in the action to reflect the inexplicable in the theme. How and why does a candid, generous woman, who ‘never scrupled to feed a lame duck or set ‘er foot on a scorpion’, become the vessel of destructive power?
If we were allowed to trace too closely the stages by which Vickery is destroyed, we might make the mistake of thinking that we know. So Vickery appears in Pyecroft’s ‘resumé’ only in the last stages of his obsession, in Cape Town and Mrs. Bathurst is seen far off in Sergeant Pritchard’s memories of New Zealand or momentarily on the screen of the early biograph, ‘lookin’ for somebody’. ‘I’m trying to say solely what transpired’, Pyecroft remarks; but ‘what transpired’ is more than the few facts he has to recount, because the men who tell and hear have knowledge of Aphrodite. Pyecroft knows that ‘it takes ’em at all ages”, and mentions a shipmate, Moon, who ‘ran’ (deserted) after sixteen years’ service. Inspector Hooper knows that ”if a man gets struck with that kind o’ woman … he goes crazy – or just saves himself”, as he, perhaps, has done. The arid shore, the parching wind, the ‘seven-coloured sea’ of the setting are the fit haunt of the goddess, as the grotesque lightning-charred group in the teak-forest is a fit monument to her. Even the song of the casual picnic party and Pritch’s involuntary irresistibility to servant-girls point in the same direction. ‘I used to think seein’ and hearin’ was the only regulation aids to ascertainin’ facts’ , says Pyecroft, ‘but as we get older we get more accommodatin’. The cylinders work easier, I suppose.’ Still, “Mrs. Bathurst” is hard on the cylinders.
There follows a footnote:
The facts about Vickery are that he has a fifteen-year old daughter; his wife died in childbed six weeks after he came out, so that he is free; he did not murder her: there was ‘a good deal’ between him and Mrs. Bathurst, and he has some wrong or deceit against her on his mind. He says she was looking for him at Paddington. He sees his Captain, is sent up-country alone and deserts eighteen months before his pension is due. He is found dead with a woman after a thunderstorm.
[This last is unsubstantiated: he was found with another person, but as is explained in both the Notes on the text [Page 363, line 30], and in attempting to provide a solution to Professor Karlin’s puzzles (see below), it is in the highest degree improbable that the other body found with Vickery was Mrs. Bathurst – while Kipling may have eradicated clues in editing the tale, he is unlikely to have made errors in time and space as well, nor would he have postulated a virtually impossible occurrence – the meeting of Mrs Bathurst and Vickery in the vastness of South Africa without means of communication.]
Pyecroft and Pritchard both insist that it was not Mrs. Bathurst’s fault. She was left a widow very young, never remarried, and had the respect of the non-commissioned and warrant officers who went to her little hotel in Hauraki. The scene From Lyden’s ‘Irenius’ that precedes the tale makes the point that the groom, or clown, is caught in the same noose as kings – this may account for the grotesque stress on ‘Click’; that the woman destroyed him in ignorance, for she loved him; and that the groom in the end threw life from him out of weariness and self-disgust – which suggests that Vickery stood up to attract the lightning.
[Again, this has to be pure supposition. They were in the middle of a teak-forest – surrounded by tall trees, though at a few hundred yards’ distance (the trees were cut back on each side of the line, to minimise the danger of fire from sparks thrown by the locomotives. The probability of their being struck by lightning must have been less than of a tree being struck – but this is fiction, and the lesser possibility is allowable, if not an improbability.]
This is not a continuous narrative; but neither is it confusion. Rather it is like the early biograph, ‘just like life … only when any one came down too far towards us that was watchin’, they walked right out o’ the picture, so to speak’.
George Shepperson, writing about Kipling’s knowledge of the world, says:
The exactness of detail, moreover, which he showed about other parts of the world escaped him when he got beyond the Zambezi. … This is clear from his vague references in “Mrs. Bathurst” to Nyasaland which he invariably spells in the old nineteenth-century way as “Nyassa”. … Perhaps that is why he could only kill Mrs. Bathurst and her lover off when they got near to it.
[Such a negative comment seems pointless to this Editor – Nyassaland was so spelt when the story was written, and the reference to killing off Mrs. Bathurst suggests that the critic has been uncritical when considering the evidence for his statement.]
C A Bodelsen (1964) wrote extensively about “Mrs Bathurst”, devoting a whole chapter of the reference to the tale, under the heading “The Hardest of All the Stories”.
Since it first appeared in 1904,”Mrs Bathurst” has always been regarded as the most enigmatic of Kipling’s stories. In this respect, it is in a class by itself: all the other obscure stories yield one meaning, if only one studies them carefully enough. The difficulty is that they have several layers of meaning, and the reader who senses the presence of one of the less obvious ones may find it hard to track it down with the help of the clues Kipling has provided.
But in “Mrs Bathurst” the difficulty is of another order: no one seems to be able to say what this tale is about. To my knowledge, up to 1962 no-one has even tried to give a complete interpretation, i.e. one that makes a coherent pattern of the story, though it has now challenged students of Kipling for nearly 60 years. Incidentally, it is a triumph of Kipling’s art that “Mrs Bathurst”, for all its obscurity, is somehow satisfactory – every person to whom I have ever shown it has become absorbed by it. [This editor would wholeheartedly concur with the last remark.]
It has been conjectured that the tale has gone to pieces for the writer, in the literal sense of the word – that in the course of the continuous revisions of the first draft, which we know it was his habit to undertake, he inadvertently left out clues that would have explained it all. I find it difficult to believe this. For one thing Kipling was too careful a writer to have done that. For another, he could hardly have failed to notice mistakes of this kind when he revised the story for Traffics and Discoveries after it had first been published in the Windsor Magazine.
[Given the dates of printing the two texts, it seems most probable that he made the changes between the two before the finally printed Windsor Magazine was available. It was the September issue, and so presumably was available on September 1st. Clay and Sons printed the collection of Traffics and Discoveries on 20 September. In those 19 days he would have to check the amendments he had made, send them to Macmillan, receive the revised proofs, proof-read them, send them back. The timescale is very tight, though not impossible.]
And, finally, he speaks in Something of Myself (p. 101) with obvious satisfaction of the way it ‘slid into his mind’. In any case, the fact that Kipling undertook a revision of the story between its first appearance in the Windsor Magazine and its appearance in Traffics and Discoveries practically rules out this theory.
A contribution to the Kipling Journal (No. 132, December 1959 by Lt. Col. B.S. Browne, (cf. p.124) offers another explanation: the story is a ‘farrago of nonsense’ and a deliberate hoax: Kipling wanted to see how bad a story he could get away with. The writer surmises that ‘the ghastly accounts of Pyecroft’s walks with Vickery were meant as a warning not to take the story too seriously’, and that the Boy Niven episode may be ‘a warning that he too is being kept wandering in circles by an innocent-seeming writer’. This theory makes no account of Kipling’s own remarks about Mrs. Bathurst in Something of Myself, or of his general attitude to his work, both of which make it untenable.
I think Dr. Tompkins is right in her suggestion that Kipling may have wanted to make the story reflect the style of the early film picture that plays such a great part in it, where the figures fade out as they approach the spectator. This is, in fact, an exact description of what he does with the principal characters and events: at one point they step out of the direct narrative, and what happens the reader must piece together from earlier bits of information.
Altogether it is a much more probable explanation of the obscurity of the story than that of the careless abbreviation, that, in adopting this technique, Kipling overestimated the clues he provided: they are difficult to pick up, because the action is not told by a single narrator, but emerges from the conversation of four speakers.
But the story must have a definite meaning, and it must be possible to get at it, if only one picks up the right trail. The following is offered as an explanation of that meaning. It is, of course, impossible to prove that such an explanation is correct. All one can do is to take care that it is compatible with all the clues one is able to find. As there are a very considerable number of clues, there is a strong presumption that an interpretation compatible with them all is the correct one, tough it is, of course, logically possible, if not very likely, that they might also be compatible with another explanation as well.
Students of Kipling’s obscurer stories need hardly be reminded that they are condensed to an extraordinary degree. There is hardly anything in them that does not have some significance. Every sentence can contain a meaning that may often be grasped only after repeated readings. In the present tale, it will appear from the following that an astonishing amount of information about the writer’s intentions is to be found in unexpected places. The information is scattered all over the story, but, once assembled, it will be found to hang together and to fall into a coherent scheme.
It may be objected that the labour of the critic in trying to elucidate one single story (and that of his readers in working their way through his exposition) is disproportionate to the interest of the task. But “Mrs Bathurst” is not only a puzzle. A close examination of it opens wider perspectives: the story is en early, highly interesting, and very bold experiment in technique far in advance of the time, and foreshadowing that of Kipling’s later years. Briefly, it consists of extreme condensation, a network of cross-references from one passage to others, and an indirectness that leaves it to the reader to provide the conclusion of all the crucial episodes from hints dropped elsewhere in the story. This method is carried through far more radically, as far as I can see, than in any of the late stories. In “Mrs Bathurst” we thus get the technique of the latter in a state of pure cultivation.
As readers cannot be expected to know the whole of “Mrs Bathurst” by heart, it will be necessary to begin with a synopsis of the story that includes what I take to be the clues planted in it by the writer. This is obviously not quite fair, as, in so doing, one might miss counter-clues that others might perhaps find. Also there is admittedly is subjective element in any decision as to what is a clue. I have therefore included in the synopsis everything I thought might possibly be regarded as clues, even when I do not think they are. The clues will have to be further elaborated in connection with the interpretation. In order to avoid unnecessary duplication, they are only given in the barest outline in the synopsis, and the reader is referred to the interpretation for a fuller treatment.
At the opening of the story the narrator, whose role is throughout one of an observer, finds himself on a beach near Cape Town. I agree with Dr. Tompkins that the scenery is intended to strike the dominant note of the tale, and that it is meant to evoke the idea of a Greek coast as an appropriate setting for the appearance of the Goddess Aphrodite (cf. the Homeric ‘seven-coloured sea’. The very word ‘Greek’, which occurs twice in a prosaic context – Greek immigrants who sell beer – serves, I believe, as one of those discreet verbal pointers that Kipling was later on to use so much as a means to direct the reader towards the right associations.)
The Narrator meets three men: railway inspector Hooper, a sergeant of Marines called Pritchard, and the bluejacket Pyecroft, who figures in several other tales. Their talk at first centres on two subjects that both adumbrate the subsequent events of the story. One is the love affairs of sailormen, and the other is deserters. The first is treated in a way that must have some significance. It emphasises a certain fickleness and lack of seriousness in the sailors’ relations with women: ‘the uniform always ‘fetches ’em’; one of the sailors mentioned is ‘mormonastic’, and Pyecroft and Pritchard agree that, though they have had intimate relations with hundreds of women, they have forgotten all but two of them.
In connection with one of the men who have deserted because of a girl, we get the commentary: ‘It takes them at all ages’, and it is said that if a man becomes infatuated with a woman of superior charm and character, ‘he goes crazy – or just saves himself‘ (I italicise the last words because they are of some importance for my interpretation).
The talk works round to two acquaintances of the sailors. One is a warrant officer called Vickery that emerges is that of a ‘superior’, somewhat finicky and not very likeable man. He tries to be genteel in his speech, but his badly made false teeth click when he gets excited. He has a daughter aged fifteen and his wife has recently died in childbed. He must be middle-aged, for he is due to be pensioned off in eighteen months time. When later he deserts, we are told that he first punctually executed the commission on which he was sent up-country. Altogether, one gets the impression of a staid and somewhat pedestrian person who is capable in the performance of his duties, a man who conforms to lower middle-class ideas of respectability – in short an entirely unglamorous person and a type of man from whom one would not expect anything in the way of romantic passion. Paradoxically, this has been sized on by critics as the very reason why he should be the victim of such a passion, on the grounds that Kipling is obviously out to make the point that the attacks of Aphrodite on her prey are unpredictable. This looks plausible enough, especially as Kipling later in life made the same point with the protagonists of A Madonna of the Trenches. But that is after all ‘another story’, and it will appear below that the function of the character assigned to Vickery is susceptible of another interpretation. However that may be, it seems clear that the characterisation of Vickery is meant to serve another purpose later in the story.
It is suggested that Vickery has had a love affair with the woman who gives her name to the story. Mrs. Bathurst is – or was – the proprietress of a small hotel at Hauraki in New Zealand, frequented by the lower ranks of the Royal Navy personnel. Much space is devoted to building up a picture of her. She appears as a woman of exceptional goodness, loyalty and generosity, with a great fascination for men, though she is not beautiful. Illustrations of these qualities are given at some length. When her customers have no money, she tells them that they can pay her when they get home: ‘I know you won’t let me suffer‘. (The words look like one of Kipling’s verbal pointers. I think they are meant to be: one of her customers, Vickery, does make her suffer in a much more serious way than by failing to pay for his drinks.) She once entrusted her gold watch to a bosun who had forgotten his. She puts a set of Pritchard’s favourite beer aside for him, tying them up with her hair-ribbon, and when he comes back four years later she at once recognises him and produces the bottles.
She is described as a person ‘who never scrupled to feed a lame duck or set her foot on a scorpion’. The two sailors who tell us all this, and whose somewhat hard-boiled opinion of women in general we have just hear, admire her greatly, and refuse to believe that she could ever have done anything reprehensible. If anything went wrong, they repeatedly affirm, the fault cannot possibly have been hers.
Pyecroft than goes on to tell what he saw of Vickery just before he deserted. The latter takes him to a circus performance at Cape Town, which includes a four minute show of the newly invented cinematograph. The reel consists of a number of scenes from London, and one of them shows a crowd of passengers coming ot of a train at Paddington. One of the crowd is Mrs. Bathurst, It is made clear that Vickery goes to see this film every night, and that he has brought Pyecroft with him in order to make sure that the woman is really Mrs. Bathurst, and not a hallucination When Pyecroft remarks that she seems to be looking for somebody, he replies: ‘She is looking for me!’ and works himself into a rage, even threatening to murder Pyecroft, because he takes his remark as an attempt to pump him.
His reactions to the picture are very strange: he is obviously in the extremes of terror, and when the film show is over he takes his companion on a pub crawl trying in vain to get dead drunk. He intimates to Pyecroft that he has committed some terrible sin, and later on he tells him: ‘I am not a murderer, because my lawful wedded wife died in childbed six weeks after I came out. That much at least I am clear of.’ (Again, one suspects one of Kipling’s pointers: why ‘lawful’? Is there another woman whom he regards as his wife, and who is not a lawful one?)
A few days later, Vickery has an interview with his Captain. At the end of it, the latter comes out of his cabin wearing ”his court-martial face’, but after a visit ashore he returns looking like his usual self. We learn that he is sending Vickery on a journey to Bloemfontein to dispatch some ammunition. After having duly performed this task, Vickery deserts and vanishes into the blue.
Early in the story, Hooper has told the narrator that he has brought a souvenir back from a recent journey to Rhodesia, and during Pyecroft’s recital, he continues to finger his waistcoat poclet. He asks the two sailors questions about Vickery, which they resent, because they think he is trying to get information for the police. It is Hooper who provides the conclusion of Vickery’s story: in Rhodesia he has been told to keep a look-out for two tramps who have been seen on the railway line. He finds their bodies in a teak forest; they are completely charred by lightning, but one of them is identifiable as Vickery by his false teeth and his tattoo marks. Hooper refrains from producing the teeth, which, we gather, are the ‘souvenir’ he talked about.
Thus we get the highly effective device that the end of the story is implicit in the beginning, but kept in suspense till the last.
So much for the synopsis. It will be seen that there are a number of questions to which one must have the answers if the story is to be at all comprehensible: what were the relations of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst? What was the terrible sin that Vickery had committed, and that we were told was not murder? Why was he so terrified by the film? How is it that the film can show Mrs. Bathurst in London, when she is supposed to be in New Zealand? What was Vickery doing in the wilds of Rhodesia, on his way to the Zambesi, where in 1904 he could not possibly hope to see the film? As long as we do not know – or guess – the answers to these riddles, the story is like a jig-saw puzzle with so many pieces missing that it cannot be put together to form a recognisable picture.
I am convinced that in order to find the meaning of “Mrs Bathurst” one must start from the film episode. If its full implications are realised, it comes out as the most original and striking idea of the tale. It contains most of the information necessary for the understanding of the latter, and I should not be surprised to learn that for Kipling it was the point around which he built the whole story.
[While it cannot be denied that the film episode is, indeed, the pivotal one in the tale, one may question, on the evidence of Kipling’s own words, that it was the point about which he built the whole story. In the note on the Origins of the story, we have recorded Kipling’s own words from Something of Myself which make no mention of any film as forming an essential part of the tale taking shape in his mind. But Professor Bodelsen’s hypothesis can be neither proved nor disproved.]
It is easy to miss something here, because after sixty years we have most of us ceased to feel that there is anything very wonderful in the fact that a film can show us people at the other end of the world, or even people who are not in the world any more. I shall come back to the latter point, but for the moment I would stress that this cannot have been the way people felt about the cinema in 1904. To them, the possibilities must have seemed little short of marvellous, and in this story we see Kipling, with his usual originality, seizing on this and working out its implications for his own art, as he did with another new invention in Wireless.
I spoke above of the information about the characters of the story that can be gleaned from its film motif. This information is that Mrs. Bathurst has left New Zealand for London (this must be fairly recently, as Pyecroft says the episode of the beer bottles was ‘in 1901, mark you’). Further that she is looking for Vickery. Besides serving a symbolical purpose (to which I shall return below), I believe that this must be taken quite literally: she has come to London to find him. One notes that the picture shows her arriving at Paddington Station by the Western Mail train. Such details often convey something of importance in Kipling: in this case it tells us that she has just landed in one of the western ports.
[We must suggest that, lacking knowledge of naval detail, Professor Bodelsen misinterprets this event. There is a 95% probability that Vickery’s marital home was in Plymouth or Devonport. Nor has Mrs. Bathurst just arrived in Great Britain – she appears to have no baggage. (See the notes on The Timescale of the Story. It follows that she would not be looking for him in London, but in one of the three naval ports, and her first port of call must have been Plymouth, because the ‘Hierophant’ is a Devonport-manned ship. If he did not live in Plymouth, then she might, in ignorance, have taken the bold step of enquiring at the Admiralty: they would have referred her back to the Captain of the Royal Naval Barracks in Devonport, where the records of ratings and warrant officers in that division were held. And her lack of baggage does not suggest that she has come prepared for an overnight stay, as would have been necessary. So, if we are to examine every phrase minutely, and if we assume that Kipling, who was so careful of the detail, knew these facts and intended them, then these are inescapable conclusions.]
And furthermore, if one reads Pyecroft’s description of the film carefully, it tells us something of the utmost importance for the understanding of the story; it gives us the missing piece that makes the jigsaw puzzle come out as a meaningful picture, viz, that Mrs. Bathurst is dead when Vickery and Pyecroft see her on the screen.
When one’s attention has been called to this by the description of the picture, one realizes that it can be deduced from the facts we already know from the story. We have been pointedly told that Vickery’s wife has recently died in childbed, and that he has only a short time to wait before he is pensioned off, when there would be nothing to stop him from going to New Zealand or London or wherever Mrs. Bathurst might be. This information must be meant to tell us that he is now a free man. (Kipling calls attention to this by making Pyecroft say: ‘if what ‘e said about ‘is wife was true he was free man as ‘e stood’.) There would be nothing to prevent him from marrying Mrs. Bathurst, if she were still alive, in which case the wrong he did her would presumably be expiated , and their love affair brought to a quite prosaic conclusion. There would be no need for him to torture himself by seeing her picture every night, nor for their death in a thunderstorm.
[It ill behoves a mere male to comment on Mrs. Bathurst’s possible reaction on learning of Mrs. Vickery’s death and the circumstances surrounding it, but it may at least be argued that she might not have been so immediately forgiving as Professor Bodelsen suggests].
But apart from the above, the description of Vickery and Pyecroft contains two indications that it is a dead woman they see on the screen. The first is Vickery’s reaction to the sight, which is that of a haunted man. But it is also indicated symbolically – and I think unmistakably – in the account of the film itself. In this we are first told that ‘when anyone came down too far towards us that was watchin’ they walked out of the picture, so to speak’. If this were meant merely as a piece of description, there is no need that it be repeated. In fact, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that there are no gratuitous repetitions in Kipling’s late manner. But it is repeated some ten lines further down, and amplified in a way that, according to his usual practice of indirect communication, seems to mean something: when Mrs. Bathurst appears among the crowd coming out of the train, Pyecroft says:‘She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture – like – like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle.’ (The word ‘shadow’, with its significant overtones, and also ‘candle’ (‘the candle of life’) again look like verbal pointers.)
[Although this Editor finds it difficult to follow Professor Bodelsen’s interpretation of the significance of this phrase (as did the ORG Editors), nonetheless we confess to being at a loss to understand the shadow and candle simile. Pyecroft is an eminently practical sailor, and while he may use a strange vocabulary from time to time, the meaning of them is usually quite clear. That said, it must have been strange, for someone seeing a cinema show for the first time, to have to reconcile the two dimensional screen, with the three dimensional movement: if the screen were large enough, since they were sitting at the front, they would naturally turn their heads to follow Mrs. Bathurst, but instead of, as normal, following her past them, and behind them – she disappears: it must have seemed unnatural.]
And by telling us that Mrs. Bathurst is dead, the film motif also gives us a clue to one of the other enigmas of the story: what was the sin that Vickery had committed? Clearly, it had some connection with her. What then was the meaning of his confidence to Pyecroft: ‘I am not a murderer, because my lawful wife died in childbed six weeks after I came out. That much at least I am clear of.’
For one thing, of course, he is telling Pyecroft that he has an alibi as far as his wife’s death is concerned. But it also tells us other things. Why this insistence on his alibi for his wife’s death, when there is no mention that anybody thought he had been guilty of it? It looks as though he had been tempted to do away with her, though he did not do so, and for what other purpose than to marry another woman? (In 1904, and even today (1964), it would have been impossible for him to get a divorce.)
But the most important fact it conveys to us is that until he came out to South Africa he maintained marital relations with his wife, and that she was expecting a baby when Mrs. Bathurst came to London to find him. And this would, for a respectable man like Vickery, be a valid reason – or excuse – to tell her that he could not leave his wife for her.
‘I am not a murderer’. But a man who causes the death of a woman by driving her to take her own life or to die of a broken heart is not technically a murderer, though his guilt may be as heavy as if he were. And this I believe is what Vickery did. I think the clues we have examined put us in a position to answer the question: what was Vickery’s guilt, and what happened to her after the story left her at her hotel at Hauraki?
The following is an attempt to make explicit what Kipling expected us to guess from the clues he planted in the story. It is slightly embarrassing thus to amplify something that he only hinted at, and to resort to a matter-of-fact account that he did not want to give himself, but it has to be done if one wants to interpret the story. This, then, is what I suppose to have happened:
Like the other two sailors, Vickery came to New Zealand, where he met Mrs. Bathurst at her hotel. They had a love affair. Once she had fallen for him she was completely obsessed by her love for him, as a woman of her generous habit of giving all she had would be. Hence the attitude to her many sailor admirers described earlier in the book; the easy and tolerant way in which she fended off their approaches, which she could afford because her affections were so completely centred on another man. Hence, perhaps, the ‘blindish look’ twice attributed to her.
The wrong that Vickery did her was that he did not tell her that he had a wife, and allowed her to believe that he would marry her. Some time after 1901 (when Pritchard last saw her in New Zealand) she went to London to join him. At that time, Vickery was still living with his wife, for, as we have already been told, she died in childbed six weeks after he came out to South Africa. Published early in 1904 [September, actually] the story must have been written some time before [Professor Bodelsen would not then have been aware that Mrs. Kipling’s diaries reveal that it was completed at the end of February 1904.] It takes place after the Boer War ended in May 1902, as otherwise Vickery could not have wandered around the country as he did; but not long after, as evidenced by the ammunition which he was sent to dispatch from Bloemfontein – there would not be naval ammunition there in peace-time. That Kipling took pains to indicate dates (for the beer-bottle incident and Mrs. Vickery’s death) that would be irrelevant if not meant as clues is surely significant.
Mrs. Bathurst has thus come from the other end of the world to find her lover. As the film shows her, she has just arrived and is literally looking for him.
[There is no real justification for this last statement, other than Vickery’s own statement which might normally be thought of as being conclusive – except that he was labouring under considerable emotional strain when he made it. One might ask how they had made the rendezvous? If Mrs. Bathurst had indeed landed in Plymouth (or possibly Avonmouth – we don’t know she has come from Plymouth), and come to London to find Vickery, she could not have known what time she would arrive in London until the day she landed. She might have sent a telegram (where to?) and come to London hoping that he would be there to meet her, but she could have had no real expectation of that occurring – he was in the Navy after all, and she knew well, from her contacts with her customers over the years, that leave was – erratic, let us say.]
She finds him and now learns for the first time that he is a married man, and that his wife is expecting a baby, and finds that he refuses to break up his marriage. The earlier reference to his fifteen year-year-old daughter is another piece of information contributing to show the strength of his domestic ties. What we have already learnt about Vickery indicates that this is how he would react in a crisis: a stolid and prosaic person, punctilious about his duties and ambitious to be ‘genteel’, a conformer, not a man likely to take a step that would present him in a disreputable light. Realising how she has been betrayed (and being the sort of woman who would anyhow refuse to steal another woman’s husband) she kills herself, or dies of grief and humiliation.
[One must question this interpretation, if only because of Pritchard’s description, to which Pyecroft tacitly acquiesces, which speaks of her never scrupling to “set ‘er foot on a scorpion”. Whatever the precise nature of the former relationship between Mrs. Bathurst and Vickery, his conduct may be described as scorpion-like, and it is more likely that Mrs. Bathurst’s reaction would have been a metaphorical quick stamp on her betrayer.]
It was said before that the film theme is the central one of the story. Kipling seized upon certain aspects of the new invention, viz. that a film could show, not only people in a distant country, but people who had died since it was photographed, and he used this to give a new twist to an old theme: the haunting of a murderer by his victim. This is what Vickery experiences in the cinema: he believes the dead woman is ‘looking for him again’. in another and more sinister sense. The reason why he feels compelled to see the film every night is thus not that he cannot bear to miss one glimpse of the woman he loves, but the same compulsion which drives a murderer to revisit the scene of his crime. The ordeal of doing this is almost too horrible to be borne. He perspires with terror, and his face is ‘white and crumply’ like that of a foetus. In short, Mrs. Bathurst is primarily
the story of a haunting
One minor point remains to be cleared up before coming to the end of the story, if only to leave no loose ends: What is the meaning of the episode of Vickery’s interview with his Captain? Why does the Captain wear his ‘court-martial face’ after listening to Vickery? And what happened during his visit ashore to make his anger, or anxiety, subside? Clearly, Vickery must have told him something that shocked him deeply, and afterwards something must have happened during the Captain’s visit ashore to relieve his mind. Th way Kiplng elaborates the episode leaves no doubt that it is meant to be significant.
I think what he wants us to read between the lines can only be this: Vickery told the Captain that he was afraid of going mad, and that he would go completely out of his mind and commit some desperate act if he could no longer satisfy his compulsive urge to see Mrs. Bathurst on the film. This is supported by two earlier clues: Pyecroft talks at some length about sailors who go mad, and in a scene between him and Vickery the latter becomes so furious at what he takes to be an attempt to worm out the secret of his guilt that he threatens to murder him.
Like a good officer, who has the welfare of his men at heart, the Captain is distressed and alarmed at Vickery’s confession, but does not know what to do about it. When however he goes ashore, he consults the Admiral (whose headquarters are mentioned a little further on, as if to lead the reader in the right direction), and the latter authorises him to send Vickery to Bloemfontein. That it is an unorthodox procedure to let him travel alone, is emphasized by Pritchard’s surprise when he hears about it. Thus a solution is found to enable Vickery to see the picture again, and he tells Pyecroft that this is indeed what he intends to do.
[Professor Bodelsen has put his finger on the most difficult problem in the whole story, and has proposed a reasonable solution based on the evidence as he sees it. But it is suggested that he is (to quote Pyecroft’s fictional contemporary Sherlock Holmes) “theorising on insufficient data”). He seems to be unable to put himself in the shoes of Vickery’s Captain. To allow a potential madman, and a homicidal one at that, loose on an unsuspecting population would be in the highest degree irresponsible, while conniving at desertion would be improper. The Victorian Navy had its share of eccentrics – there was one at the Cape at round about this time, ‘Prothero the bad’ (but that is another story altogether) – but irresponsibility was not a common failing. Elsewhere, in the note on The Problems in Mrs. Bathurst we have suggested a possible solution which pays due regard to the fact that the tale has a Royal Navy setting, in more than just the circumstances of Vickery’s meeting Mrs. Bathurst.]
This may be the place to deal with the puzzling Boy Niven episode told by the sailors early in the story. Boy Niven induced a group of bluejackets to desert to an uninhabited island near Vancouver, telling them that an uncle of his had a farm there and that he was ‘compelled by the law of the land’ to give them a farm too, and keeping them walking in circles till they end up at their starting point. The episode has no immediate relevance to the rest of the story. It looks lke a pure digression. But real digressions are practically unknown in Kipling’s late manner. Mr. Elliott Gilbert has shown in his above-mentioned paper that it very aptly symbolises the haphazardness of fate which forms an underlying thematic structure in “Mrs Bathurst”. In the present context the question is whether the Boy Niven has any connection with the plot of the story. I think it may have. It is part of Kipling’s method in the tales in his late manner sometimes to indicate connections within the story by phrases and themes that form a kind of cross-reference to other passages.. Mr. Gilbert has called attention to one of these: the ‘heaqvy thunder and squalls’ that the deserters get when they are brought back to their ship, foreshadowing the thunderstorm in which Vickery perishes. One wonders if there may not have been more. The deserters come to the island to seek the fulfilment of an empty promise made by a liar, as Mrs. Bathurst did when she came to London. Pyecroft says: ‘But we believed him’, and repeats this a little later. Mrs. Bathurst believes Vickery’s false promises. In short the Boy Niven episode looks like an example of the ‘overture device’ that Kipling was later o to use in The Bull That Thought: that of an introductory playing through of themes from the story.
And what of the conclusion of the story: the two charred bodies in the teak forest? I believe that Doctor Tompkins theory that the other body is that of Mrs. Bathurst is true – in a way . For if the theory is to be accepted literally, it raises a number of new enigmatic points: how did Mrs. Bathurst get to Africa? If she did, why did she not meet Vickery at Cape Town, where the liners come in, instead of in a remote part of the country like Rhodesia? How could she find him there, seeing that he had disappeared without leaving a trace? Why was she dressed as a tramp? And anyway, if the present interpretation is correct, she was dead. But, paradoxically, if she was dead, that solves all these difficulties: it is hard to see how Kipling could transport a live woman to a Rhodesian forest and get her dressed as a tramp – at least, he could not very well do it without telling us how it was done – but he could do what he liked with a ghost.
I believe that the end of the story is meant to embody a motif that Kipling was many years later to elaborate in A Madonna of the Trenches: that of love victorious over death. Like Sergeant Godsoe and Aunt Armine in the latter story, Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst were to meet again after death, in this case at the moment of Vickery’s death. And this is indeed almost the only ending one can think of that is appropriate to the story if the present interpretation is correct. We must bear in mind the emphasis placed on Mrs. Bathurst’s loyalty and generosity. It is, I think, meant to prepare the way for the idea that, in spite of Vickery’s betrayal, she forgives him and seeks the union with him after death that was denied her in life.
But in carrying through this motif, it is obvious that Kipling must have come up against a technical difficulty: hitherto the story has evolved on a realistic as well as a symbolic level, and the events are such as might conceivably happen in real life. But as Mrs. Bathurst is dead, and only her shade can be brought on the scene, he is forced either to give the story an openly supernatural ending, which would not go very well with the rest of it, or he must somehow contrive to join the flats of the realistic and the symbolic levels.
The part of the story in question must therefore be composed in such a way that one can read both a natural and a supernatural explanation into the final scene, or rather the latter must be kept wavering between the two. This is a very delicate operation, and its difficulty may well be the cause of the increasing obscurity of the narrative as it moves towards its conclusion, for from now on nothing can be told explicitly, and the writer has to proceed by hints and the sort of communication effected by symbols.
Before going on, I would point out that the persons for whom Hooper is told to look out are described by his colleague as ‘a couple of tramps’, while later Hooper refers to one of them as the other’s ‘mate’. It is easily overlooked that the two words may at a pinch be applied to a woman, though the inspector no doubt thinks they are men, and Pyecroft first receives the same impression listening to Hooper’s narrative. This may be taken as part of the ‘wavering’ technique referred to above. Nor ir it anywhere said explicitly that the two tramps travel together – from an artistic point of view it would be much more satisfactory if they met in the forest as the storm breaks.
[Well, no, it isn’t explicitly stated that the two tramps travel together: but two tramps were given “quinine and grub” together at Bulawayo, and there is a strong implication that they were travelling together along the line of the railway – which is why Hooper was looking out for them, in the plural. And now, two tramps are found, 90-odd miles down the track from Bulawayo. There has to be the strongest of implications that they are the same two. The probability of it being otherwise has to be very small.]
While the interpretation up to this point can be based on clues which Kipling seems to have expected the attentive reader to grasp, we are on less sure ground as regards the end of the story. Here, the interpreter must resort to a certain amount of guesswork, for the simple reason that (if the above theory is correct) Kipling did not want to give clues of the kind that would make the meaning too obvious.
It is of course impossible to reconstruct the complete ‘scenario’ that Kipling had in mind, and of which he could show only a few glimpses because he wanted to avoid committing himself to any explanation explicit enough to be unambiguously supernatural or natural. The whole thing had to be done by hints and suggestions; it had to be made ambivalent, and the glimpses allowed the reader had to be brief, fragmentary and flickering – like an early cinematographic film, to borrow Dr. Tompkins’ simile. In fact, it would not be unlike Kipling actually to have imitated this cinematographic effect, seeing what a central place the film theme occupies in the story.
In the result, it is the reader who will have to make a choice between the natural and the supernatural ending, by means of the fragments of the ‘scenario’ offered to him. He will have to proceed o the principle of Pyecroft’s speech earlier in the story: ‘I used to think seein’ and hearin’ was the only regulation aids to ascertainin’ facts, but as we get older we get more accommodatin’.’
As for the complete ‘scenario’, one would have to be a clairvoyant to make more than a rough guess, but I think it may have been something like the following:
The second tramp is, on the supernatural level, Mrs. Bathurst’s ghost, and I believe that is the impression that Kipling wants to convey. (One notes that in the first printed version, that of the Windsor Magazine, an illustration unmistakably represents the second tramp as a woman – cf. below.) If the flickering light shows the reader another version of the death scene, viz. that, though the other tramp is a real tramp, Mrs. Bathurst’s ghost takes possession of his body as his soul leaves it, that will do as well.
That the second tramp must be, or in someway represents, Mrs. Bathurst seems to me the only artistically satisfactory explanation: it would be pointless, and unlike Kipling, to introduce an anonymous tramp, of whom one has heard nothing before and who has no discoverable function in the tale, when Vickery might just have been made to meet his death alone.
There may also be the idea of pursuit, which would give a particularly dramatic and sinister turn to the Vickery-Bathurst motif, and also account for Vickery’s flight further and further north: either he is afraid to die, as he would have to in order to be united with the dead woman, like Sergeant Godsoe in A Madonna of the Trenches, and this is in keeping with what has been intimated about his character. Or he believes that Mrs. Bathurst’s ghost is an avenging spirit pursuing him in order to call him to account. Turning back to Pyecroft’s account of the film, every detail of which is apparently meant to be significant, one is arrested by the insistence on the way in which Mrs. Bathurst walks out of the screen: after Vickery has passed beyond the inhabited places where he could satisfy his compulsion to see her nightly at the show, perhaps he believes she has actually stepped out of the picture, and is pursuing him in an even more menacing way than compelling him to submit to the torture of watching her on film. Perhaps one of the reasons why he had to see the picture every night was to make sure this had not happened yet.
[It must be said that only in his more emotional moments is it likely that Vickery, an eminently practical man, as all warrant officers were and are, would have imagined that one day he might see the same film, and find Mrs. Bathurst’s image no longer on it – or is Professor Bodelsen pulling our collective legs? It must also be realised that the cinematograph, as a public entertainment, was new, and relatively uncommon. It is more than likely that only a small minority of readers of “Mrs Bathurst” would have seen a film – certainly not if you were a tea-planter in Assam, or a District Officer in Northern Nigeria, reading your three-month-old copy of the Windsor Magazine – and a detailed description of what a moving picture looked like would not have been out of place.]
Yet, however that may be, she overtakes him in the end, and as he dies he knows that his betrayal is forgivn. For her charred body is kneeling before him [Kipling says “squatting” – not the same thing] , and her face is turned upwards towards his in adoration – this, I take it, is what Kipling wants us to sense behind the prosaic description of the railwayman to the effect that she is ‘squatting before him and watching him’ [Sorry, Professor Bodelsen, but the actual words were ‘squattin’ down lookin’ up at ‘im …’ – not ‘before him’, with the implication of supplication or adoration – the other figure might have been beside or behind Vickery: we do not know.] (One notes that elsewhere, for example in a Madonna of the Trenches, Kipling obtains a subtle effect by reporting an event through a character who does not quite understand what he has witnessed.)
The account of the finding of the bodies ends with an obviously symbolic passage. Though both bodies crumble into ash, Vickery’s false teeth (of which we have heard so much earlier in the story) are intact, and his tattoo marks are clearly visible ‘as writing shows up white on a burned letter’. The marks are a crown and a foul anchor with the initials M.V. A foul anchor means, among other things, an emblematic anchor with a piece of the cable loosely wound about it. Thus, Vickery;s body and its frailties have been destroyed by the purifying fire of all forgiving love, and the falsity symbolized by his badly made false teeth has been sifted away from his dust. The tattoo-mark is still visible, but its foul anchor has turned white [Not just the anchor – the whole tattoo is now white]. The anchor symbolises steadfastness and fidelity: the mark of a lie while he lived – that it has turned white like the writing on a burned letter signifies a message that the lie is now forgiven.
Most people who ponder “Mrs Bathurst” seem to take it for granted that it is Vickery that is possessed by Aphrodite and destroyed by Love, while Mrs. Bathurst is assigned the role of his unwilling destroyer. I wonder why. It appears to me that Kipling has gone out of his way to tell us that Mrs. Bathurst is the born victim of love, and that with her unbounded generosity and loyalty, not to mention her motherliness, she is the very type of woman to throw herself away on an unworthy object and to sacrifice herself completely for a man once she has fallen deeply in love with him, with the same openhandedness as that with which she gave her gold watch to the sailor.
In the present interpretation the above-mentioned roles are reversed. I think that what I regard as an erroneous distribution of the roles may, at least partly, be due to a mistaken reading of two clues. One is the remark about the deserter: ‘It takes them at all ages’. But that does not refer to Vickery, but to another man, and anyway is just as applicable to her as to him.
[Indeed, the latter phrase is perfectly true, but the sentence ‘It takes them at all ages’ does refer to Vickery. The previous sentence indeed referred to Moon, the other deserter mentioned in the tale, but Pyecroft, having said ‘It takes ’em at all ages’ immediately says ‘Look at – you know’, referring to Vickery as an example. Moon, as a seaman with 16 years service would have been about 34; Vickery, as we have suggested elsewhere was over 48.]
The other is that a man who ‘gets struck with’ a woman like Mrs. Bathurst ‘goes crazy – or just saves himself‘ (my italics). The second part of the sentence is surely as significant as the first: Vickery was the sort of man who saved himself. That he was destroyed in spite of his playing for safety is part of the moral of the story: he that risks his life shall save it, and he that saves it shall lose it.
[It must be suggested that the point of the story is that Vickery was not the sort of man who saved himself. Having allowed himself to ‘play away from home’, to use a modern idiom, even to have genuinely fallen in love, he has, on return to his wife, been smitten by guilt. (And, even allowing that he may have been influenced by ‘the tender passion’, at another level he has merely allowed his animal instincts to take over, both at home and away.) He has been unable to ‘save himself’, and the sight of Mrs. Bathurst on the cinema screen has reinforced the realisation that he cannot do so. So he decides to do the lower middle-class equivalent of the Victorian novelist’s solution for the disappointed lover; instead of going off to ‘shoot lions in Africa’, he determines to disappear and reinvent himself, by losing himself in Africa – in this case, in the construction camps of the railway.]
It is true that the characterisation of Vickery as a prosaic person is part of the theme of the unpredictable ways of love. But surely this theme is even better illustrated by making an attractive woman fall in love with a dull man than by making a dull man fall in love with an attractive woman.
And finally we have a piece of external evidence about the roles of the two characters. It is from Kipling himself. In Something of Myself (p. 101) he tells us the following:
‘All I took away from the magic town of Auckland was the face and voice of a woman who sold me beer at a little hotel there. They stayed at the back of my mind till ten years later when, in a local train of the Cape Town suburbs, I heard a petty officer from Simons Town telling a companion about a woman in New Zealand who ‘never scrupled to help a lame duck or put her foot on a scorpion’. Those words gave me the key to the face and voice at Auckland, and the tale called “Mrs Bathurst” slid into my mind, smoothly and orderly as floating timber on a bank-high river.’
The story thus started from Mrs. Bathurst, whom he must have conceived as its principal character, and whose name he used as its title. And as the fundamental motif of the tale is obsessional love, and the principal character would normally be the one to embody the fundamental motif, that passage at least makes it likely that she was the one that Aphrodite took possession of.
[This is a very fair point, and is supported by Pritchard’s account of Mrs. Bathurst (page 350). He tells her she’s ‘his particular’, and adds ‘(She’d let you go that far!)’. So Mrs. Bathurst is not a flirtatious type of barmaid, but a respectable widow who has, she thinks, the chance to find love a second time. Eros has loosed two darts, and found two targets simultaneously.]
Another clue that might lead one astray is the Elizabethan pastiche called From Lyden’s Irenius which precedes the story. Like the poems that usually occupy this position, it must be expected to play a variation on the idea of the story itself, and this, in fact, it does. The chief point it makes is that destructive love does not respect rank, and this is expressed in a blank verse passage where the victims are a King and a clown. The word ‘clown’ may be taken by the reader to refer to Vickery, rather than Mrs. Bathurst, as the one possessed by the destructive passion. But to read this into the passage would be like concluding from Keats’ line about the nightingale ‘heard by Emperor and clown’ that the bird was inaudible to the female sex. The meaning of the Irenius passage is obviously only that the victim may be a person without the glamour of superior rank, and it thus fits both Mrs. Bathurst and Vickery. Actually, they are both destroyed, she by her own great love, and he by being the object of it.
The Irenius fragment contains two further passages relevant to the story. One is: ‘She that damned him to death knew not that she did it, or would have died ere she had done it. For she loved him.’ (Ere would normally be taken to mean ‘rather than’, but it is perhaps significant that it may also mean ‘before’, thus carrying overtones hinting that she was dead before she destroyed her lover.) This, it will be seen, is perfectly in keeping with the present interpretation: if we take ‘ere’ in its most obvious sense, the Irenius passage means: Mrs. Bathurst loved Vickery, but if she had known that her love would damn him – one notes the overtones of ‘damn’, suggesting that he is not only killed by her love, but brought by it to commit a sin for which Hell is a fit punishment – she would never have shown him that she loved him. The second passage runs: ‘at the end (he) threw his life from him for a little sleep’. This too fits the interpretation: Love has made such a Hell for him that death came as a relief.
One thing remains to be dealt with. “Mrs Bathurst” was first published in the Windsor Magazine for September 1904 before it was printed in Traffics and Discoveries later in the same year. In the short interval between the two, Kipling revised the text.
The possibility that the Traffics and Discoveries version wholly represents Kipling’s original manuscript, and that every deviation from Traffics and Discoveries in the Windsor Magazine must be due to an outside hand, can be dismissed. For some of the Windsor variants are concerned with small points of style that no magazine editor could be expected to meddle with, and the corresponding passages in the final version are sometimes improvements that bear the mark of Kipling’s hand. He must then have revised his original manuscript text slightly when he prepared the text. (This, incidentally, is one of the proofs thata the obscurities cannot be due to careless drafting.) Nevertheless, it will be seen below that the Windsor text contains a few variants which can hardly be ascribed to Kipling, but must have been made by, or demanded by, the editor of the magazine. The two texts diverge on sixty-odd points, but the differences are without exception of minor importance: it can be said at once that none of them affects the plot or has any bearing on the interpretation.
]This last is not entirely true – it will be seen that Martin Seymour-Smith (Section 10 below) drew a false conclusion which had a bearing on his interpretation of one aspect at least of the tale (the difference is at page 347, line 10) – but that misinterpretation was made some 13 years after Professor Bodelsen wrote.]
The majority of the changes in the final text are stylistic improvements, as when ‘yellow rocks’ is altered to ‘the piled rocks’, and ‘the sun’ to ‘the assured sun’. ‘Bristling all over’ is altered to ‘crimsoning rapidly’. ‘They (the films) are the very thing itself’ becomes ‘are taken from the very thing itself’, and she (the railway engine) ran so lifelike’ is altered to ‘she headed so straight’. A good many of them serve the purpose of making Pyecroft’s speeches more in character, and the motif of the false teeth is emphasised by one additional mention.
Others are corrections of misprints or slips. Thus the name ‘Barnato’ is given its correct form ‘Barnado’. The first mention of the nickname ‘Click’ is deleted, because it makes nonsense of a later passage which presupposes that the identity of the man in question has not yet been revealed. [This is not quite correct – it is the first mention of the name Vickery which is deleted – thus making it seem that Hooper has previous knowledge of his name, when, as originally written, the name had been revealed on the previous page]. In the Windsor version, Vickery is described as ‘a genteelly ‘alf-bred beggar’ – an obvious misprint, which is corrected into ‘a genteelly-spoken ‘alf-bred beggar’.
One curious feature of the Windsor text is that it suppresses (the word is surely the right one) all the not very numerous references to birth and sexual intercourse founding the final version. Besides throwing light on the taboos which a popular magazine was expected to observe at the time, one of these variants of the Windsor text has a deceptive air of affecting a clue of some importance. An examination of all the suppressions in question shows however that this is not the case. The passage where Pyecroft attempts to describe the unique quality of Mrs. Bathurst’s personality runs in the final version as follows: he first asks Pritchard: ‘How many women have you been intimate with all over the world?’ In the magazine version, this runs: ‘How many women have you been affectionate with …?’ Pyecroft goes on to say: ‘ … most of ’em you can live with a month on end, an’ next commission you’d be put to it to certify whether they talked in their sleep or not‘. This becomes in the magazine version: ‘ … most of ’em you can know for a month on end, an’ next commission you’d be sore put to it to certify whether they were black or white‘. In the passage where Pyecroft describes what Vickery’s face looks like while he watches the film show, he likens it to ‘those things in bottles I those herbalistic shops at Plymouth – preserved in spirits of wine. White and crumply things – previous to birth as you might say‘. The italicized words are left out I the magazine version.
This brings us to the passage referred to above where the magazine text might be read as indicating some real difference of meaning from that of the final version. In the latter, Vickery says that his wife died I childbed six weeks after he came out, but in the Windsor Magazine he says that she died in ‘er bed. The wording is odd in itself – after all, most women die in their beds, and there seems no reason to mention it explicitly in the case of Mrs. Vickery. Bu in the light of the above it is seen that it means nothing at all: it is merely a consequence of the principle adopted by the magazine editor of suppressing all references to human reproduction. Incidentally, it would be interesting to know who was ultimately responsible for these bowdlerisms. Did the editor correct the text on his own, or did he obtain the author’s permission to do so? There are some indications that the former was the case: the alterations look as though they have been done in the proofs, by somebody who was at pains to avoid overrunning of the lines where it could be done. This seems to be the case for example with the alteration of ‘intimate with’ to ‘affectionate with’, where the result is so inept that it is difficult to believe that Kipling could be responsible for it. But however this may be, the fact remains that he restored the original wording in the final text.
The illustrations in the Windsor Magazine cannot be dismissed without examining them, seeing that they may have possibly been approved by Kipling, and that it would at any rate seem improbable that they would be allowed to run counter to the plot as he conceived it. [This second point is agreed, but Kipling’s published correspondence shows examples where his suggestions and requests concerning illustrations to his tales in magazines were disregarded by the publisher.] The question is: do they contain clues to the understanding of the plot, in the same way as the cover design for Edwin Drood? They are signed Victor Prout. They are in the usual magazine style of the period, and not on a very high artistic level, though one of them – Vickery and Pyecroft walking in the dark after the film show – does succeed in catching the eerie atmosphere of the scene. The only one that appears to have any bearing on the interpretation represents the finding of the two dead bodies in the forest.
The drawing has some peculiar features. Hooper is shown on the left, dramatically registering surprise and horror. Vickery is standing stiffly against a wooden barrier that marks the end of the railway siding. He is seen against the light so that he is outlined in almost complete blackness. His features, including his false teeth, are invisible, but the tattoo marks show up white in the opening of his shirt. A figure which is unmistakably that of a woman, [other critics are less positive in their identification] is sitting between the rails before him, shading her eyes with one hand as if dazzled, and stretching out her other arm towards him with the fingers spread, in a gesture which may express either horror at what she sees, or an instinctive movement to ward off her own fate.
They have both managed to be completely charred without any damage to their clothing, down to the folds of Vickery’s baggy trousers and their wide-brimmed felt hats. This must presumably be put down to the high standard of decency that the Windsor Magazine was concerned to maintain. The posture of the woman is very odd. It is that of a living woman: no one who did not know the story would guess she was dead, let alone that she was charred to the point of crumbling into ashes when he body was moved. The outstretched arm, the spread fingers, and the graceful feminine pose of the body are quite impossible for a burnt-out corpse. As the story is too explicit on this point for Prout to have believed that the figure he was to draw was meant to be alive, I can only think of two explanations: either the editor (or Prout) decided that the readers of the magazine were as averse to seeing the picture of a dead body as to being reminded of the facts of life, or Prout did not know how to draw one.
In any case, the picture can be dismissed as devoid of evidential value, except for the important fact that it shows that the second tramp was a woman, for it is unlikely that the artist should have been allowed to misrepresent Kipling’s intentions in that respect.
Professor J I M Stewart (1966) in contrast, did not allow the story to detain him for long, writing:
Kipling wrote only one other story which is at once haunting and hopelessly mysterious. This is the much earlier “Mrs. Bathurst” (Traffics and Discoveries), the theme of which appears to be sexual passion in its destructive aspect.
Philip Mason has written what, in these Editors’ eyes, is the most perceptive of the shorter comments on “Mrs Bathurst”.
… there can be no doubt about the importance of the central theme of “Mrs Bathurst”. As I have said, it is a novel condensed into a series of single scenes with most of the intervening parts left out. There are widely differing interpretations of it, and some critics have assumed without question a conclusion which seems to me demonstrably wrong. And, critics apart, you will find intelligent Kipling devotees who have quite a variety of ideas about what happened. So it must be discussed. But to condense it any further is impossible, while it is equally impossible to discuss it without reminding the reader of the points which are in dispute. He must read the story again and form his own judgment – but that he should make such a personal rediscovery is one of the objects of this book.
As I have already said, the inner story is told to the narrator by three men, each of whom holds certain pieces of evidence. Most of the running is made by Pyecroft, but his companion, Pritchard, a sergeant of Marines, also remembers Mrs. Bathurst well. She was a young widow who kept a pub in Auckland, New Zealand, for warrant officers and sergeants. No one could forget her; she had It, a phrase then used for the first time; she was kindness itself and immensely attractive but basically good; Pritchard, indeed, who in a gigantic calf-like way is still half in love with her, keeps insisting that whatever happened could not have been her fault. The key phrase about her – which Kipling had heard ten years before in New Zealand [Not so; Kipling had heard it only a year or so earlier in South Africa, on the train from Simons Town to Cape Town. The point is immaterial, but …] – was that she ‘never scrupled to feed a lame duck or set her foot on a scorpion …’ Both Pyecroft and Pritchard also know Vickery, a warrant officer with eighteen months to go before his honourable discharge with pension. He had four false teeth on the port side, his own having been carried away by an ammunition hoist; they clicked when he was excited and this gave him the name of ‘Click’ Vickery. Both also knew that Vickery recently went from Cape Town up the country to take delivery of some naval stores left there after the South African War. This he had done and seen them into trucks for return to the navy. Then he had disappeared.
So much was common knowledge. But Pyecroft, who had been serving in the same ship, could throw more light on his disappearance. Their ship was in Cape Town [Simons Town, twenty miles away, actually, but sailors on leave nearly all went to Cape Town for a night out – Pyecroft makes this clear when he says (p 354, line 28) “Next night I went into Cape Town …” – he would not have said that had they been in Cape Town docks. ] and they had leave to go ashore. Vickery had asked him to come, at his expense, to the most costly seat in the circus where there was an exciting novelty – something hardly any sailor had seen before – a cinematograph. It showed a train coming in to Paddington, and there, quite plain, was Mrs. Bathurst, walking towards you. It was only forty-five seconds but it was all that Vickery wanted. He led Pyecroft out of the circus at once and for the rest of the evening insisted that he should come with him, walking very fast, all round Cape Town, turning into every bar for a drink, downing it without conversation and then tearing on to the next. Next night and the next night for five nights running, Pyecroft went through the same demanding ritual. For most of the time, Vickery would not permit conversation, but once he did answer a question; yes, he knew what Mrs. Bathurst was looking for; she was looking for him. But any further questions might lead to murder – and if that led to his own death he would not mind.
When Vickery got leave to go up country, he told Pyecroft that the cinematograph show would be at Worcester, which is about fifty miles from Cape Town up the line, ‘so I shall see her yet once again’. He added that he was not a murderer because his wife had died in childbed six weeks after he left England. ‘That much at least I am clear of’. He went clicking into the station with the words: ‘The rest is silence.’ It is now that the third man present, a railway engineer called Hooper, comes in with his contributory evidence. He had been in Rhodesia and had heard of two tramps on the railway line (near Wankie’s on the way to Victoria Falls); his informant had given them food and quinine. (‘I don’t envy that other man if –’ said Pyecroft, but no one finished his sentence.) Hooper had found the two tramps, both near the line, struck by lightning and as black as charcoal. What he had just heard enabled him to identify one of the two, the one who was standing up, by the four false teeth on the port side. Those teeth Hooper had had in his pocket since the beginning of the story, though he never showed them. The last words of the story are spoken by Pyecroft:’… ‘aving seen ‘is face for five consecutive nights on end, I’m inclined to finish what’s left of the beer and thank Gawd he’s dead!’ And since Pyecroft had said that on those walks Vickery’s face reminded him of things preserved in spirits in a bottle – ‘White and crumply things – previous to birth …’ – we may be inclined to agree with him.
Many readers have assumed without question that the second tramp was Mrs. Bathurst. But this is quite untenable. Vickery says he is going to ser her ‘yet once again’ in the cinema show at Worcester. The two tramps were clearly men; there were a lot of deserters wandering about after the war, and Hooper’s informant would have spoken of them quite differently if he had been talking of a man and a woman – something very unusual. Pyecroft’s reference to ‘that other man’ goes unchecked. Three times Hooper distinguishes between the two tramps in phrases he would not have used if one had been a man and one a woman. ‘The man who was standing up had false teeth …his mate who was squatting down … the false-toother was tattooed…’ And if Vickery had made an assignment to meet Mrs. Bathurst in Rhodesia – he being now a free man – his whole behaviour becomes incomprehensible. He could have married her and taken his pension. The story depends inescapably on the fact that he has lost her irrevocably through some grievous fault of his own. That I take to be the hinge to any understanding.
What the fault was we cannot say with any certainty, but perhaps he had persuaded her to sell up in New Zealand and come to England without revealing that he was married. The cinema camera had caught her by chance as her train steamed into Paddington and she got out, looking for Vickery. My own guess is that he had contemplated murdering his wife and perhaps even taken some steps towards carrying out the murder. Perhaps Mrs. Bathurst discovered, in one blow, the fact that he was married and the plan for the murder. Perhaps he found he could not carry it through and confessed to her. They must have quarrelled and he must have believed it was for ever. There was the hard side to her nature; perhaps she had set her foot on him as a scorpion and he, when he understood the wrong he had done her and how he had misjudged her, dared not face her again. But most of that is guesswork.
Next comes the question of what Vickery had said to the captain of his ship. All we are told is that he asked for an interview and that the captain came out having shipped his court-martial face, went ashore and came back looking normal, after which Vickery was sent on a mission. Here again, one can only guess, but my suggestion is that Vickery had convinced the captain that he was going mad and likely to commit suicide or even to murder a comrade, and had asked for a way out that would not bring scandal on the navy and his ship – or anyone else. When he went to ashore, the captain was able to find a plausible reason for sending him away from his ship and giving him the opportunity to desert. He carried out the duty assigned to him and then disappeared, meaning to find an unobtrusive way of ending his life. The other man he picked up by chance; we know that he still had a craving for company. It has been suggested by Elliott Gilbert (who is right in thinking the second tramp was not a woman) that Vickery stood up in the midst of an intense electrical storm to attract the lightning, and that the second tramp, who was crouching, is there to emphasise that Vickery’s death was voluntary. It may be, though again this is surmise, that the second tramp was not so much put in as left in. We know that one source of the tale was the phrase about Mrs. Bathurst overheard in New Zealand years earlier [Not so, see above]; from what we know of Kipling’s methods of work, it seems likely that he had another pebble to add to that, and it may have been that some one had told him of two tramps killed by lightning and found by the side of the railway track. It is just the kind of picture that Kipling had always looked for and used as a centre-piece (like the Other Man dead in the rickshaw) and just the kind of thing he might have heard over a drink in Cape Town. That is a guess; what I am sure of is that Vickery was seeking death.
[The above is a perfectly fair opinion, given Vickery’s state of mind, as described by Kipling: but Mr. Mason does not explain why Vickery chose to go off into the bush to find death. He could have done so on board ship without incurring the stigma of desertion; and he has waited two months before death found him, rather than his finding death.]
There is one saying of Pritchard’s which at first sight suggests that he thought the other tramp was Mrs. Bathurst. When Vickery has been identified by the teeth, Pritchard ‘covered his face; with his hands for a moment, like a child shutting out an ugliness. “And to think of her at Hauraki” he murmured – …’ remembering her as she had been in her bar in New Zealand. But it is not conclusive. He knew that – though she was not to blame – she had been involved in someway with Vickery, who had been destroyed by the involvement – burnt indeed to charcoal that fell to pieces when the corpse was moved. That surely was ugliness enough. It is brought out by contrast with a picnic party on the beach, who start for home as this tale of mental agony and physical disintegration comes to an end. They are ‘sunburned, wet and sandy’ after a day of happy idleness and they sing a popular song of the day, ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’, a song of sentimental prettiness, that goes with the thought of Mrs. Bathurst, innocently flirtatious in her bar at Hauraki.
Many will say this is not the way to tell a story, and that it is a blemish that learned critics have pronounced it unintelligible. … To me, on return to the story late in life, the interest has been enormously enhanced by the uncertainty as to what happened between the still shots we are shown. It may be that the part played by the cinematograph is no accident, and that someone had been explaining to Kipling how the illusion of motion was conveyed by a succession of single pictures.
But there is an older model in the Scottish ballads and in particular that powerful anonymous poem: Edward, Edward. I hope the reader will read it through and consider how it resembles a Kipling story. It opens, like ‘Love-o’-Women’, with a murder just committed.
Why does your brand sae drop wi’ blude
Why does your brand sae drop wi’ blude
And why sae sad gang ye, O?
O I hae killed my hawk sae gude,
O I hae killed my hawk sae gude,
And I had nae mair but he, O.
But his mother will not be put off, and presses him closer and closer with menacing questions, till at last he blurts out:
O I hae killed my father dear
She does not ask why or how now utter a word of sorrow, surprise or reproach. She goes on questioning, coming a little closer at every question. What is he going to do now – about himself, his life being forfeit? What will he do, a banished man, about his towers and hall, his wife and children? And finally what will he do about himself:
And what will ye leave to your ain mither dear,
And what will ye leave to your ain mither dear,
My son, now tell me, O?
The curse of hell frae me sall ye bear,
The curse of hell frae me sall ye bear:
Sic counsels ye gave to me, O!
In that last half-stanza we suddenly understand the part this terrible old woman has played, driving him on to the murder, as much because she hates her husband as for the sake of the lands and castle she will get when her husband is banished – for there can be no doubt she will make short work of the wife. But none of this is said. There are only seven stanzas – and apart from the refrain, each stanza has only two lines, each repeated. Fourteen effective lines – but each hammered home and the reader (or rather hearer) made to picture for himself the motives of a woman who combines in herself Clytemnestra, Lady Macbeth and Hedda Gabler!
Perhaps in “Mrs Bathurst” Kipling carried this method too far. But that he meant to do what he did I have no doubt, nor have I any doubt that now – after reading it several times and thinking about it a good deal – I am left with an immensely strong impression of its three main themes: the devastating and destructive power which an extremely attractive woman may innocently exercise; the unaccountability of human affairs and the eccentricity of chance; and the difficulty of knowing anything of the lives of other people except what is revealed in a passing flash. It would be an interesting though laborious task to reconstruct “Mrs Bathurst” as Henry James might have told it – surely at ten times the length …
Angus Wilson (1977)
writing of the stories in Soldiers Three, says:
In this Kipling, at his best, seems to me a much more interesting forerunner of cinematic vision than in his later complex experiments in visual merging and distancing like “Mrs. Bathurst”.
Later on, he comments:
Pyecroft’s voice is one of the things that finally deadens the over-complex, over-revised South African story “Mrs. Bathurst” which has aroused so much praise. But the failure of “Mrs. Bathurst” …
And then he discusses Mrs. Bathurst in some detail:
He produced only one post-war story laid in South Africa. It has been highly praised and, as he clearly spent much effort upon fashioning it, it must be discussed. This is the famous “Mrs. Bathurst” which has aroused as much puzzle-solving among his devotees as the unfinished Edwin Drood has among Dickensians. But, although important work which breaks new ground is often likely to puzzle the most sensitive and perspicacious readers, puzzle in itself is no merit in literature. My impression is that admirers of Kipling have understandably but mistakenly seized on the difficulty of not knowing what Kipling means in “Mrs. Bathurst” in order to insist that he, too, can be ‘difficult’ like authors so admired by the highbrows. But the ‘difficulty’ of Mrs. Bathurst is of little interest, for, in the last resort, the story is empty.
A naval warrant-officer named Vickery, of whom we know next to nothing except that his dentures are ill-fitting, deserts from his ship at Cape Town and disappears. We know that in the preceding week he has been obsessed night after night by the chance appearance in the news on a cinema screen of Mrs. Bathurst, a New Zealand woman, who is beloved by a large number of seamen who visit Auckland. Of her we know a little more – the way she puts her hand up to the curl behind her ear, her generosity to her seafaring customers, her long memory for faces she has seen years before, her blindish way of looking at people. For the rest we are told that she has a mysterious appeal – ‘It’, the first use of Elinor Glyn’s later famous term for sex-appeal. To this story, given by Vickery’s shipmate, Pyecroft, is added the information from Hooper, a South African railway inspector, that beyond Bulawayo, on the way to the Zambesi, two bodies have been found, two tramps it is thought, turned to charcoal by the lightning of a great thunderstorm. Both disintegrate on touch. One has the false teeth and tattoo marks of Vickery.
What does it mean? Why is he there? What has he done to call down such wrath? Who is the other? Is it Mrs. Bathurst herself? The answer to the last question seems to be certainly, no. But if Vickery’s dead mate is somebody totally unknown to the reader, what is the meaning of that? The questions remain and will remain unanswered. .
But an insoluble mystery is only effective if it matters. And what happens to Vickery doesn’t matter because we know nothing of him; indeed, what happens to Mrs. Bathurst doesn’t matter much to us, although her generosity and amiability may make us hope that she did not leave her home in Auckland in order to be struck by lightning in a teak forest on the way to the Zambesi River. The story is the only one of Kipling’s that rouses in me this sort of easy irony, because whether he was conscious of it or not, it is very pretentious. Mr. Amis has suggested that it fails because Kipling, in his passion for paring down his work, has rendered it unintelligible. He may well be right, but I think it is more likely that it never had much meaning.
[Again, although it is not really our purpose to criticise the critics, it has to be said that Angus Wilson’s views are not always supported by a detailed reading of the text. We know (all right, some of us know) a great deal more about Mr. Vickery than Angus Wilson suggests – see note below. And in asking “What has he done to call down such wrath?” he displays a degree of naivety, it is suggested. Committing bigamy and then having sexual relations with your wife within a few weeks is surely unlikely to receive divine approbation under any code of morality.
What do we know about Mr. Vickery
- He is a “service man within eighteen months of his pension” (p. 345, line 30)
- He is a naval warrant officer (p. 345, line 32)
- He has four false teeth in his lower left jaw (p. 347, lines 5-6)
- He is acquainted with Mrs. Bathurst (p. 348, line, lines 18 -20)
- He was married with a fifteen year old daughter (p. 348, lines 27-28)
What can we infer about Mr. Vickery
- From (1) above, he is aged about 48½.
- From (2) and other remarks, we can deduce he is a Gunner or Chief Gunner. The fact that he lost his teeth in an accident with an ammunition hoist suggests the gunnery branch: and there is partial confirmation because he clearly is not a Carpenter (Mr. ‘Crocus’ Rigdon is the ‘Hierophant’‘s Carpenter – there was only one in a cruiser), nor is he the Gunner (T) (or else he and Pyecroft would have been working together on the ‘sugared’ gyroscope). As a warrant officer one would expect him to be of good character, used to acting responsibly and to taking responsibility.
- He is tolerably well-educated, by the standards of the lower middle class, which would be his status as a warrant officer. For one thing, he would not be a warrant officer without a certain degree of education (to be a Gunner required more than the basic ‘three Rs’). Furthermore, he quotes Hamlet.
- From (5) above (and (1) here), he married when he was about 30: his wife almost certainly was a west-country woman herself.
- ‘Hierophant’ is a Devonport-manned ship, therefore he almost certainly lives in Plymouth or Devonport. As a married warrant officer, he would rent a small house in a lower middle-class area of Devonport.
- He is still strongly sexed: at the age of 48 or so he has a passionate affair with one woman, and fathers a child on his wife at more or less the same time (not that these are remarkable events for a 48½-year old, but they give the lie to the criticism that we know very little about him).
- He has a conscience (albeit belated): he feels guilt about his relationship with Mrs. Bathurst; and he is relieved that he does not have anything on his conscience about his wife who has died, not knowing of his unfaithfulness.
Nonetheless, this Editor would concur with Angus Wilson that it is entirely possible that the story “never had much meaning”, by which it is understood that Professor Wilson thought it plausible to read the story as a straightforward one of love (or lust), desertion, remorse, degradation and ultimate destruction (one of the seven or eight basic plots, which it has been observed, are all there are, or ever have been, in fiction). There is no need to worry about overtones and allusions and ‘meanings’. It is worth considering the readership of Kipling’s works, when they were written – the men and women for whom he actually wrote. They were educated, certainly, but would have laughed to scorn any idea that they were “intellectual”. They were probably not particularly “well-read”, certainly nothing like as well-read as Kipling himself was from his earliest days as a journalist. So they would have been unlikely to recognise many of the allusions and inferences beyond the Biblical and Shakespearean. Which does not mean that Kipling would not have included other allusions: critics have commented on his apparent love of being ‘clever’, but it may have been doubted how far Kipling would have gone in, one might say, ‘casting pearls before swine’. There’s little point in being ‘clever’ if your readership is going to be incapable of recognising how ‘clever’ you have been (other than for your own sterile satisfaction).
Lord Birkenhead wrote his biography of Kipling in the three years 1945-48, but publication was vetoed by Kipling’s daughter, Mrs Bambridge, after reading the book in draft. It was finally published in 1978 after Mrs Bambridge’s death and that of Lord Birkenhead. In it he writes (p. 240):
The Five Nations … was followed in 1904 by a strange story, “Mrs Bathurst”, which puzzled many of his admirers. In it, he showed that tendency, which was to grow upon him, to concede less and less to the reader, to pare the material so ruthlessly down to the bone as to leave an impression of baffling obscurity, seeming almost to challenge the reader to place his own interpretation on it.
Later on, he writes (pp.330-331):
“He had deviated from the ‘straight’ method of story-telling, as used in Plain Tales from the Hills, as long ago as 1904 in “Mrs. Bathurst” and in “They”. He now gave a twist to this technique and used lot more often, thinking that the old method was played out.
It has been pointed out that these experiments tended to become ‘a kind of greatly concentrated novel, usually dealing with a fairly long period in the lives of one or more characters, and this involves a high degree of concentration if the story is to be of its usual length – 15 to 20 pages’. And it is clear that Kipling saw this intense compression as a desirable end in itself, although it was by no means a new characteristic in his writing.
For years he had been in the habit of dipping a pen in Indian ink, and re-writing each manuscript, considering every paragraph, sentence and word, and ruthlessly cutting out dead wood. After a time, he would re-read the story, and usually found that it required ‘a second shortening’. And then there would come a third reading where further deletions might be made. There were obvious dangers in this method, for as C.S. Lewis wrote: ‘Even an athlete can be overstrained. Superfluous flesh should be sweated off, but a cruel trainer may be too severe in judging what is superfluous. I think Kipling used the Indian ink too much. Sometimes the story has been so compressed that in the completed version it is not quite told – at least I still do not know exactly what happened in “Mrs Bathurst”.
The late stories are indeed pared to the bone to such an extent that some of them demand the most concentrated attention, but more importantly they are distinguished by another trait. Kipling seems to be setting elaborate puzzles in the manner of certain Victorian painters in their ‘problem’ pictures, giving a limited help in their solution. It is as though he said to the reader: ‘There, I have given you enough clues. Work it out for yourselves.’ But he is conceding less and less, and although the stories are full of grace notes, the clues are deeply hidden.
Craig Raine has written, in his introduction to A Choice of Kipling’s Prose:
At the centre of “Mrs Bathurst” is another famously baffling image, which once read is never forgotten: two tramps, squatting one squatting, one standing, by the dead-end of a railway siding in South Africa.:
There’d been a bit of a thunderstorm in the teak, you see, and they were both stone dead and as black as charcoal. That’s what they really were, you see – charcoal. They fell to bits when we tried to shift them. The man who was standin’ up had the false teeth. I saw ’em shinin’ against the black. Fell to bits he did too, like his mate squatting down an’ watchin’ him, both of ’em all wet in the rain. Both burned to charcoal, you see. And – that’s what made me ask about marks just now – the false-toother was tattooed on the arms and chest – a crown and foul anchor with M.V. above.
When everything has been said about this story, it is this image which continues to grip the heart and squeeze it. Like the piece of dried bread, it never relaxes its hold on the imagination. Is any explanation possible? Kipling approaches this coup de theatre by a very circuitous route, using several narrators, and yet each apparent digression contributes to the whole.
Most readers see “Mrs Bathurst” as an obscure tale of elective affinities – the core of which is the passion of a middle-aged warrant officer called Vickery for Mrs. Bathurst, a widowed New Zealand hotel keeper. What has passed between them is only guessed at by the narrators. But they agree that Mrs. Bathurst is something special. She has ‘It’. Vickery’s obsession which manifests itself suddenly and feverishly when, in Cape Town, he suddenly sees her for a few seconds on film. She is arriving at Paddington in search of Vickery. Night after night Vickery watches her – then deserts. Another narrator, Hooper, supplies the grisly denouement above, at the point where the other two, Pyecroft and Pritchard break off. Vickery’s tattoo shows up white, like writing on a burned letter. There is some dispute as to whether the other body is that of Mrs. Bathurst: Pritchard plainly thinks it is, but critics have differed, myself included.
Though the rambling narration has been denounced by both Kingsley Amis and Angus Wilson, the story is as precise as a Swiss watch. Everything fits, but the reader has to wind it up. The theory of elective affinity stems from the narrators. They fit Vickery’s story to their own experience: sailors, they know, constantly desert for reasons of the heart. Moon has jumped ship in the South Seas for a woman, ‘bein’ a Mormonastic beggar’; Spit-Kid Jones married a ‘cocoanut-woman’. Hooper agrees that some women can drive a man crazy if he doesn’t save himself. Hence the theory. Kipling, however, is careful to show the observant reader that his narrators are unreliable, and to tuck away the truth of the matter. The credulity of Pyecroft and Pritchard is established in the framing story of Boy Niven who drags them off on a wild goose chase through the woods of British Columbia. In addition, there is a persistent motif of unreliable machinery – trains derailed on straight lines, a gyroscope that goes on the blink, damaged rolling stock, sprung midship frames, ill-fitting false teeth, and so on. It is a broad hint that the machinery of this story is unreliable.
Moreover, on ascertainable facts, the narrators are shown to be wrong. Hooper hears the clink of couplings: ‘It’s those dirty little Malay boys, you see.’ It isn’t. It’s Pyecroft and Pritchard. Similarly, Pyecroft gets an expert to ‘read’ the captain’s face – wrongly, as it turns out. Further, Kipling makes Pyecroft employ a variety of foreign phrases, all italicised, adding an extra one to the magazine version – moi aussi, verbatim, ex officio, status quo, resumé, peeris, and casus belli. Taken with other Biblical props from the Acts – the beer (‘Others, mocking, said, These men are full of new wine’) and the strong south-easter (‘a sound from heaven like a rushing mighty wind’) these phrases add up to a parody of the gift of tongues.
In other words, Pyecroft speaks more than he knows, trusting to erroneous inspiration, as when he compares Vickery’s false teeth to a marconi ticker, hinting at strange communication with Mrs. Bathurst. Hooper’s tic of dialogue is to say ‘You see’, a total of sixteen times. The point is that his companions don’t see at all.
The truth is concealed in the words of ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’, sung by some picnickers on the beach, words by A.H. Fitz, music by W.H.Penn. They tell us what Vickery only hints at in the phrase ‘my lawful wife’, namely that he has married Mrs. Bathurst bigamously, in a Moon-like way. A ‘lawful’ wife implies an unlawful wife and the song confirms this suspicion:
As they sat there side by side,
He asked her to be his bride;
She answered ‘Yes’ and sealed it with a kiss.
Vickery’s eventual fate, death by lightning, tells us what happened after the bigamy, for it is paralleled in the framing story of Boy Niven. ‘Heavy thunder with continuous lightning’ is, according to Pyecroft, the punishment for desertion. Vickery, then, is a double deserter, from Mrs. Bathurst and the Navy. We don’t know much about Mrs. Bathurst, but we know enough to understand why Vickery is afraid, ‘like an enteric at the last kick’: first, ‘she never scrupled to … set ‘er foot on a scorpion’; secondly, as Pritchard’s anecdote of the beer-bottles demonstrates, she never forgets. After five years, she remembers Pritchard’s name and his ‘particular’ beer, unlike the servant girl who chucks him a bottle of beer in mistake for someone else. The contrast is telling.
Vickery has committed a crime, bigamy, and that presumably is why the captain connives at his absence without leave – desertion being less of a disgrace than legal proceedings from the Navy’s point of view. The element of criminality also explains why Vickery watches the film so compulsively, yet with such dread: in the oldest of traditions, he is revisiting the scene of his crime. The film explains, too, that Vickery, unlike the others, has found Mrs. Bathurst forgettable. He takes Pyecroft along for confirmation – so much for their romantic interpretation.
In “Mrs Bathurst”, nothing is wasted. Every digression contributes to the total meaning. It is like a closed economy, as parsimonious as a city under siege , despite its air of beery reminiscence. In ‘The Wrong Thing’, Kipling makes it clear that his art had no place for guesswork. Though he believed in his Daemon, as any write must if he is not to force his talent, he was conscious and critical after the Inner Voice had played its part: ‘Iron’s sweet stuff’, says Hal, ‘if you don’t torture her, and hammered work is all pure, truthful line, with a reason and a support for every curve and bar of it.’ Though one can scarcely imagine any child grasping this piece of aesthetic theory from Rewards and Fairies, it is a plain warning to adults that nothing van be skipped, that every detail is relevant – as it is in ‘Mars. Bathurst’.
Does this affect the status of the charcoal figures? Ultimately, it does not. Are we to assume an accident? Or an act of God? Clearly the fate of Vickery carries an element of poetic justice, but we cannot speculate beyond that point. The reader untangles the thread of the narrative only to discover that Kipling, at the crucial moment, has snapped it in order to preserve the shock at the heart of the tale. There is no insulating context, only raw voltage.
Craig Raine continues in the next paragraph, when he is starting to discuss another, much later, tale, “Dayspring Mishandled” (Limits and Renewals):
This story illuminates one difference between Kipling’s early work and his later work. In Something of Myself, Kipling dilates briefly on his art: ‘The shortening of them, first to my own fancy after rapturous re-readings, and next to the space available, taught me that a tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked’. Kipling, rightly in my view, never deviated from this prescription. Yet there are those who have argued that, whereas in the earlier work excision creates intensity, in the later stories it merely creates obscurity. However, in the later work, the reader is often expected, as in Mrs. Bathurst, to reinstate what Kipling has eliminated.
[In the above, there is much with which this Editor would entirely agree, but there are some points made by Craig Raine which must be argued, if only to present an alternative viewpoint.
He says that the narrators are unreliable and credulous, citing the story of Boy Niven: it may be so, but the Boy Niven episode occurred 15 years ago, when the narrators were still teenagers. Having served the Queen around the world for the past 15 years, and having had experience of their fellow-men (and women), the probability of their remaining so credulous must be substantially lessened.
Craig Raine says
Moreover, on ascertainable facts, the narrators are shown to be wrong. Hooper hears the clink of couplings, ‘It’s those dirty little Malay boys, you see.’ It isn’t. It’s Pyecroft and Pritchard. Similarly, Pyecroft gets an expert to ‘read’ the captain’s face – wrongly, as it turns out.
The first example is hardly serious – Hooper has made a perfectly reasonable assumption based on the facts as he knew them. And Lamson’s reading of the Captain’s face was probably accurate, when the observation was made – a change is observed when the captain returns from the shore, having apparently had his problem solved by the staff ashore.
Craig Raine continues by citing Pyecroft’s employment of ‘a variety of foreign phrases … all italicised, and other Biblical props But those of us who have met Pyecroft in the three previous tales know that his speech is full of such expressions, such as a partly-educated man might use, and the italicisation is surely no more than a printing convention commonly used where a foreign word is interpolated into English conversation.
Professor Nora Crook has written a most thought-provoking critique of ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ in her Kipling’s Myths of Love and Death. In it, she devotes a whole chapter to “Mrs Bathurst”, pointing out the Dantesque allusion, inferences and references contained in the tale. She also advances a hypothesis as to the identity of the second figure found dead with Vickery at the end of the tale.
This Editor regards her comments as being significant, in particular her drawing a parallel with Dante’s ‘Inferno’, since we know that Kipling had read it. She starts in her introduction, as follows:
The flurry of publications and reviews following the fiftieth anniversary of Kipling’s death has provided an occasion for the literary world formally to jettison the outdated image of the children’s writer yoked to the imperialist. This hybrid is replaced by that of the man with a great deal more than a mere ‘two sides to his head’
…This multi-faceted Kipling is just as controversial as the old laureate of Empire, but today the divisions tend to centre round hermeneutics. Some of his stories, such as the notorious Mrs. Bathurst’ have, from the day they were written, defied explication, even on the simple level of ‘What really happened?’
… It is in this climate that I present my study – an attempt to interpret some of Kipling’s most dense and problematic tales, approaching them through his famous (or notorious) allusiveness. The study focuses on three writers, Dante, Chaucer and Swinburne. All three were read by him intensively at school, though you might not think so if you merely judged by the number of times he mentions them by name. I have not bound myself to refer to these authors alone, which would be a procedure grossly simplifying Kipling’s intertextuality. Dante, for instance, is interwoven with Milton, the Bible and classical mythology. Allusion-spotting, which I don’t regard as a literary can-opener that infallible enables one to get at the goodies inside a story, is used only inasmuch as it serves the purpose of interpretation or illumination of narrative strategies, after which I avail myself of other means.
Nora Crook’s Chapter headed ‘Kipling and Dante (1): ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ begins:
Its setting and theme of the journey into the interior from which one emerges with unspeakable knowledge has caused it to be compared to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. At the same time, it has acquired the mystique of being like Henry James’s ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ – a great uncrackable, ‘the hardest of all the stories’. ‘The reader turns on the brilliantly contrived treadmill of speculation, an endless spool which no critic has yet succeeded in halting’, as Richard Holmes puts it. Few critics of his adult fiction have been able to resist the challenge, and there is a sizable ‘What happens in “Mrs Bathurst”? literature, to which I am about to add.”
Professor Crook makes a number of suggestions as to the nature of the “overlaid textures” which she believes Kipling may have used in this tale. She includes the Greek myth of Mars and Venus; and that of Phyllis and Demophoön; homosexuality and sodomy; an analogy to Dante’s ‘Inferno’; a suggestion (but no more) that Mrs. Bathurst might be dead when Vickery deserts; she examines whether Vickery’s soul was ‘saved’ at the end, or whether he went to Hell.
It is not appropriate to discuss all these suggestions here: those interested would do well to read Professor Crook’s work in its entirety. However, it must be said that some of her suggestions rely on an almost intuitive analysis of what Kipling might have meant, without any evidence from the text. One example is the suggestion of a homosexual relationship between Vickery and the second tramp at the end: there is absolutely nothing in any normal reading of the text to suggest this, but Professor Crook suggests that the recent scandal concerning the suicide of Major-General Sir Hector Macdonald who had been accused (but never charged) of improper behaviour with boys in a train in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was indicative of what must have been in Kipling’s mind. In positing an analogy to a circle of Dante’s ‘Inferno, she cites the “endlessly circling reel of film” – was she thinking of a modern repetitive film loop? Such technology was not available in 1904. And she speaks of the second tramp as collapsing “into a black soggy mess at Hooper’s touch”. But all Hooper says is “They fell to bits when we tried to shift ‘em”. He had previously said “There’d been a bit of a thunderstorm in the teak ….”; construing the phrase infers that the rain had ceased, and implies that the corpses had dried out, or at worst were drying out. If they were charcoal, they were more likely to have crumbled to ashes rather than a soggy mess.
In dissecting Professor Bodelsen’s criticism of Mrs. Bathurst, Professor Crook discusses the illustrations by Victor Prout, which appeared in the Windsor Magazine
…Bodelsen also thought that Victor Prout’s illustrations to the magazine version were conclusive, claiming that the picture supposed to be of Hooper finding the bodies showed an unquestionably feminine figure. Kipling would never have allowed it through, he argued, if it was untrue to the intentions of his story. Unfortunately the available evidence points to Kipling having no control over magazine illustrations, and there is one known case of an illustrator ludicrously misreading his text. Moreover, the charred tramp looks rather more masculine than feminine, and the hands do not match those of Mrs. Bathurst behind the bar.
This Editor would agree that the figure if not definitely masculine, has no obvious female characteristics: it is viewed from three-quarters rear, and is dressed in male attire – but there is no obvious bosom, nor feminine hips. But where the text says the second figure was “squattin’ down lookin’ up at ‘im” (which I take to mean squatting down on ‘its’ haunches), the drawing shows a reclining figure, one leg outstretched, the other drawn up, supporting itself with the right arm on the ground behind. And the illustration of the bar of the hotel at Hauraki (“a little hotel for warrants and non-coms”) is inaccurate in that it shows an ordinary sailor, possibly a Petty Officer, leaning with his back to the bar, very much at home. He would not have been in a “hotel for warrants…” which would have been, in effect, an exclusive club. None of these things matter, other than to emphasise the fact that the illustrations to the tale cannot under any circumstances, be cited in support of any particular contention.
However there is one point of Professor Crook’s ‘solution’ which is worth discussing. She makes a case for the second tramp, at the end of the tale, to be the former Boy Niven. She has discussed Professor Bodelsen’s suggestion that the second figure is a reincarnation of Mrs Bathurst (who has died) in the body of a tramp.
Professor Crook goes on to say:
… would it be reasonable for the men to think that Niven is the second tramp, and that in actuality, not in some supernatural or fantastic way?
Kipling has left time for Niven to arrive ‘up-country’ and meet Vickery. Between Vickery’s departure for Bloemfontein and the finding of the bodies is an interval of about eleven weeks, which allows for a sea voyage from England to Capetown (about seventeen days) and a journey by rail and foot to Rhodesia. Niven could easily have overtaken Vickery (who had to go to Bloemfontein and was further delayed by his pursuit of the film) and attached himself to the latter at, say, Bulawayo. We don’t know much about Niven, but almost every detail given contributes to a hypothesis as to how he might have ended up in the jungle, whereas there is an entire absence of such detail in Mrs. Bathurst’s case. He is ‘balmy’ and gets ‘ideas’ from reading books. He is physically tough and has tramped through backwoods and has an obsession with ‘free land’. Such a character might easily take it into his head (without supernatural persuasion) in 1902-3 to go to the new country of Rhodesia hoping to make his fortune. ‘We get heaps of tramps up here since the war’, says Hooper (p. 363). He has a reputation for deserting ship and for cunning and could have enrolled as a crew member or stowed away on both ships and trains. That people do use the railways for bad purposes is an idea inherent in Hooper’s explanation of his ‘Stop that’ as the narrator drifts into ‘fairyland’. ‘It’s those dirty little Malay boys, you see, they’re always playing with the trucks ….’ ‘Don’t be hard on ‘em. The railway’s a general refuge in Africa’, says the narrator. ‘’Tis – up-country at any rate’, replies Hooper. This links the dirty boys, who are thought to be disturbing the ‘couplings’, with the two tramps for whom the railways is a refuge, and if one tramp has the nickname ‘Boy’ there is an even closer link.
Much of the above is perfectly true: there was time for Boy Niven (as he was – now Mr. L.L. Niven, Signal Boatswain) to have got from England to Rhodesia within the story’s timescale, but …..
- There is no indication that Vickery even knew Niven: the only link between the two men is Pyecroft, who knew Niven some fifteen years ago when the incident at Esquimalt took place, and only met Vickery for the first time some two-three months before Vickery deserted.
- It is, however, feasible (though no more) that they were acquainted: Because they had Pyecroft as a link, it follows that both had been Devonport ratings, and later Devonport-based Warrant Officers: therefore they could have known one another, despite their age difference (Vickery, we know, is about 48, Niven is now in his early 30s)
- It is also feasible that Vickery knew precisely where Niven was serving at this time (Christmas 1902), and could have contacted him by cable.
- But why should Mr. Niven, now a respectable and respected Signal Boatswain (with or without contact from Vickery) chuck up a career and pension prospects (and perhaps a family) to go tramping in the African bush? He may have had wild ideas, but that was when he was a teenager – incidentally, ‘Boy’ is not a nick-name, it is a naval rating; the lowest of all: nor had he ever deserted – had he done so he would not have become a Signal Boatswain. Surely it is a coincidence too far to believe that he just happened to do the same as Vickery, at the same time (but for no apparent reason), and that they just happened to meet up in the northern Transvaal or Rhodesia.
- If it wasn’t coincidence, but based on a deliberate invitation from Vickery, quite apart from the same question of why did Niven accept, how did Vickery appoint their rendez-vous, when he could not have known what his own movements might be? In this editor’s immoveable view, the second tramp has to be some chance-met companion. Even if Vickery knew which ship Niven was serving in to send him a cable, he could have had no knowledge of where that ship might be in European waters, nor when any cable might reach him: he could not have known Niven’s reaction to the invitation.
Realistically, in the view of this Editor, the suggestion of Niven as the second tramp cannot hold water.
All in all, Professor Crook makes a good case for some of the allusions to which she draws attention, in particular to Dante’s Inferno. She suggests that Vickery has descended to his own particular Hell, drawing a parallel to that described in Canto 14. But is must be said that her assessment of the Mars-Venus theme, involving the Hierophant’s Carpenter, includes some questionable, if not incorrect, assumptions. She says, in a footnote: ‘Crocus is the link man between Mrs Bathurst and Vickery – he takes Vickery to the circus …’. Kipling’s text merely says: ‘I couldn’t get off the first two or three nights …; but I remember Vickery went ashore with our Carpenter Rigdon – old Crocus we called him.’ There is no mention of the circus, but a strong implication that they had been on a drinking spree – Pyecroft speaks of the Carpenter as ‘a.Warrant Officer of ‘is cubic capacity’, suggesting that Rigdon had a beer-belly which he was accustomed to keep appropriately filled!
An examination in detail of Kipling’s use of allusions would make a book of its own: and the various Editors of all these notes, drawing on their predecessors’ notes for the ORG, have tried to point out as many as they have recognised. But it may be said that common English usage includes so many allusions which we do not recognise, because they have become an ingrained part of everyday speech, that it is difficult to pick them all out. Similarly, in some cases, where a whole theme seems reminiscent of some other work, it may be suggested that, since there are so few essential plots, it is almost certain that a modern story will be in some measure plagiarised from an earlier writer (who probably took his inspiration from someone earlier …).
(1989) writes at length about this story. His text is reproduced below, virtually complete, because his commentary is – with that of Professor Bodelsen – the most extensive on this enigmatic tale.
His admiration for it (which we will see is not unqualified) is clear:
Kipling, as I have remarked, got away with a great deal that he would not had he not had a grand reputation. We owe some magnificent stories to this fact (who would have published “Mrs. Bathurst” had it been sent in by an unknown writer), but we also owe to it some bad books.
A few pages later, in discussing ‘The Brushwood Boy’, he says that Kipling:
…was trying to work out some ill-formulated private scheme. What can it all mean? … It is scarcely any wonder that Kipling’s critics have not chosen to try to interpret this story. It is an example of irresponsible obscurity. Some feel that “Mrs Bathurst” is, too; but there is a power in that tale which somehow suggests cohesion – and certainly there is no hint of the silliness of characterisation that there is in “The Brushwood Boy”.
Of Traffics and Discoveries, he remarks:
Of the eleven stories the volume contains, only three are really memorable: They’, ‘Wireless’ and “Mrs. Bathurst”…
“Wireless” and “Mrs. Bathurst” are also about obsessive love and the suffering it entails. “Mrs Bathurst” was greatly admired, although not always for explicit reasons; but then a reaction set in, and Angus Wilson and Kingsley Amis attacked it as pretentious, over-revised, over-complex, over-compressed and lacking in intelligibility. Norman Page (A Kipling Companion, 1984) was nearer the mark in drawing attention to the manner in which its ‘obscure power’ exercises ‘a perennial fascination’. Elliot Gilbert has devoted an essay to it (The Good Kipling, 1972). One or two ‘solutions’ to the tale (these tend to treat it as if it were a kind of superior crossword puzzle) are patently impossible or else over ingenious, yet – and here again we must pay tribute to Kipling’s cunning and skill – irresistible. The ‘meaning ‘ of the story, as dense as that of a Shakespeare play or a Hardy novel, lies in how we try to answer the questions set by the text: we need to understand, if not at the outset, that there is no single meaning, no single ‘explanation’. Or is that what we should understand?
“Mrs. Bathurst” comes into the category of supreme literature, leading such critics as Walter Allen to put Kipling at the top of their list of short-story writers in the English language. It is always hard to give the exact reasons why writing does come into this category; but one of them must be that it has the thrilling ambiguity of that kind of experience which touches the heart, which, to adapt what Wordsworth said of poetry, is recollected in a tranquillity redolent with colloquial exactitude. One of the story’s most powerful features – though to draw attention to this is to isolate it artificially – is to make use of the novelty of the influence (then) of the new technique of moving pictures. Its influence on movies must have been as incalculable as it is unacknowledged. The wary reader must here be alive to, and perpetually on the lookout for, what has become known as its ‘synchronicity’. Joyce’s name for this was an ‘epiphany’: moments of significant and breathtaking coincidence. The sense of aptness perhaps derives from the Heraclitan realisation that ‘character is fate’, that the state of a person’s being attracts the circumstances of his life: suddenly, here, this is clarified. Then such moments are lost to us, and banality (here presented in the form of the facetious reminiscences of Pyecroft and his acquaintances: the frame of the story) returns: but nothing is ever quite the same again – and no one is ever quite the same again, after reading this tale.
It was distilled by extreme suffering. Yeats spoke of perfection of the life or the art, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in “Mrs Bathurst”.
Kipling’s life had become imperfect and unhappy: morose, disappointed, crude false. Yet his daimon, using him like a telephone wire (for years he would not have the actual instrument put into Bateman’s, and when he did it was in the sole control of Carrie), produced this in defiance of it all. No wonder he felt unworthy when he considered his life by the side of it. It is the same with any creative artist.
Martin Seymour-Smith goes on to talk about the fragment of (supposed) Jacobean drama which appears as the precursor to Mrs. Bathurst:
Both “They” and “Mrs Bathurst” deal with the reincarnation theme, or some aspect of it; whether Mrs. Bathurst does is more problematical. Few if any commentators apart from Tompkins have given attention to Kipling’s unprecedented experiments in verse drama – for the very good reason that, on the face of it, they are scarcely intelligible. But while I will not pretend to offer the key to this mystery, the bit from the Gow tragedy that precedes “Mrs. Bathurst” is worth looking at, and particularly so because, although occasionally mentioned, it is never discussed and, I suspect, very seldom read.
After quoting from the piece, supposedly from a play by one Lyden, entitled Irenius, he continues:
Either this is a piece of fun, with no relation to what follows it; or it has a partial (casual) relation to it; or it offers the key to it. I have met no reader who can say exactly what it means; and many believe ‘Lyden’s Irenius to be a real play … Let us, for the time being, leave it aside; but keep it in mind.
The frame, a device developed and elaborated by Kipling from very old practice, is provided here by a convivial meeting between the narrator and three others in a ‘brake-van chalked for repair’. It all comes about because the narrator’s visit to a ship has been frustrated by its absence up the coast. His friend Inspector Hooper, a detective on the Cape Government Railways, runs them down line to a place that is cool. They are soon joined by Second-Class Petty Officer Emanuel Pyecroft – in other stories a facetious bore – and his friend Pritchard, an enormous Marine Sergeant with a black moustache, Pyecroft’s old shipmate.. They begin to reminisce, over bottles of Bass, and the conversation drifts to deserters, of whom the most remarkable, according to Pyecroft, has a name beginning with ‘V’. They are not altogether happy with the subject, and qualify ‘desertion’ (as service people always do) by saying, ‘only permanent absence up-country’. We learn the deserter’s nickname before we learn his name: ‘Click’. He was sent to Bloemfontein to take over some navy ammunition left in the fort there, took it, but disappeared; but we do not know why. The talk gets a little heated, and the narrator, in order to ‘tide over the uneasy little break’, asks why he was called Click.”
Pyecroft explains why, and it becomes clear that Hooper knows something about a man answering to the description, and the marine, Pritchard, tries to leave – he thinks Hooper is after Vickery; but the narrator ‘takes responsibility’ for Hooper. Then Mrs. Bathurst is introduced:
‘Why did Vickery run?’ I began, but Pyecroft’s smile made me turn my question to ‘Who was she?’
‘She kep’ a little hotel at Hauraki – near Auckland,’ said Pyecroft.
‘By Gawd! roared Pritchard, slapping his hand on his leg. ‘Not Mrs. Bathurst!’
Pyecroft nodded slowly, and the Sergeant called on all the powers of darkness to witness his bewilderment.
Pritchard, who has not before heard of this protests that ‘you don’t make me believe that was any of ‘er fault. She wasn’t that!’ It also transpired that Vickery has been married and has a fifteen-year-old daughter. Some care is taken to establish the personality of Mrs. Bathurst, who is described as a ‘Queen of air and darkness’ figure, but in a more plebeian context. The ‘Queen of air and darkness’ is, of course, Housman’s enigmatic poem: an expression of both the ‘romantic agony’ in general, and his own homosexual predicament. I do not want to try to draw too close a parallel between it and ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ – but it does have the same enigmatic air, and in both the lyric and in the tale there is a ‘fatal’ female figure:
Mrs. Bathurst is not so aggressive; yet here are these two men discussing just how she could bring such a man as ‘Click’ to defeat and despair. ‘She – she never scrupled to feed a lame duck or set ‘er foot on a scorpion at ant time of ‘er life’. Even this magnificent piece of information fails to satisfy Pyecroft, who says it ‘Don’t help him … My mother’s like that for one’. Clearly Mrs. Bathurst is in some indefinable way, to these two men (who have only seen her a few times), different from other women. Pyecroft says:
‘… I’ve only been to Auckland twice – how she stood an’ what she was sayin’ an’ what she looked like. That’s the secret. ‘Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It. Some women’ll stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down the street, but most of ’em you can live with a month on end, an’ next commission you’d be put to it to certify whether they talked in their sleep or not, as one might say.’
To this Hooper says he has known a couple of women ‘of that nature’, and Pritchard, trying to get his (and Pyecroft’s) sense of Mrs. Bathurst across, immediately asks, ‘An’ it was no fault of theirs?’ Does this imply that, as in the Housman poem, such women are doomed? There follows a key piece of dialogue:
‘None whatever, I know that!’
‘An’ if a man gets struck with that kind o’ woman?’ Pritchard went on.
‘He goes crazy – or just saves himself,’ was the answer.
‘You’ve hit it,’ said the Sergeant. ‘You’ve seen and known somethin’ in the course o’ your life, Mr. Hooper. I’m lookin’ at you!’ He set down his bottle.
‘And how often had Vickery seen her?’ I asked.
‘That’s the dark and bloody mystery,’ Pyecroft answered. I’d never come across him till I came out in the Hierophant just now, an’ there wasn’t any one in the ship who knew much about him. You see, he was what you call a superior man. ‘E spoke to me once or twice about Auckland and Mrs. B on the voyage out. I called that to mind subsequently. There must ‘ave been a good deal between ’em, to my way ‘o thinkin’. Mind you, I’m only givin’ you my résumé of it all, because all I know is second-hand, so to speak, or rather I should say more than second-hand.
The reader has to be attentive to everything here. Note for instance, the name of the ship on which Pyecroft sailed with Vickery (the Hierophant – or Pope – is one of the Greater Arcana of the Tarot pack; possibly Kipling followed Mathers, and saw it as representing ‘Mercy’ or ‘Beneficence’, although its original significance seems to have been ‘religion’).
Pyecroft now goes on to give his account of Vickery’s extraordinary behaviour when he and Pyecroft went to ‘Home and Friends for a Tickey’. This was the cinematograph or biograph given during the performance at Phyllis’ circus in Cape Town (a tickey is a threepenny-bit). Vickery has desired him to accompany him, while sober – even to the extent of paying for his ticket. The sight of Vickery’s face, Pyecroft says, ‘quite cured me of my thirsts’: ‘Don’t mistake. It didn’t frighten me. It made me a little anxious … If you want to know it reminded me of those things in bottles in those herbalistic shops in Plymouth – preserved in spirits of wine. White an’ crumply things – previous to birth as you might say.’ There is certainly something ineffably sinister and unpleasant about a white and crumply thing previous to birth, and even the Sergeant comments that Pyecroft has a ‘ ‘beastial mind’.
At the show Vickery asks him to note ‘ ‘anything that strikes him’. They watch ‘ ‘London Bridge an’ so forth an’ so on, an’ it was very interestin” – Hooper points out that, ‘ ‘you see’, ‘they are taken from the very thing itself’, an observation that may certainly be made of stories in general. Then the Western mail coming into Paddington is shown:
Then the doors opened and the passengers came out and the porters got the luggage – just like life. Only – only when anyone came too far towards us that was watchin’, they walked right out of the picture, so to speak. I was ‘ighly interested, I can tell you. So were all of us. I watched an old man with a rug ‘oo’d dropped a book and was tryin’ to pick it up, when quite slowly, from be’ind two porters – carryin’ a little reticule an’ looking from side to side – comes out Mrs. Bathurst. There was no mistakin’ the walk in a hundred thousand. She came forward – right forward – she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritchard alluded to. She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture – like a shadown jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ‘eard Dawson in the tickey seats be’ind sing out: ‘Christ! There’s Mrs. B!’
Vickery, Pyecroft reports, ‘clickin’ his four false teeth with his jaw down like an enteric at his last kick’ – like a dying man, be it noted – wants to be sure, and even asks Pyecroft to come again the next day to make doubly sure.
We have experienced three things (at least) here. First, our own growing attention to the story. What is happening? Secondly, the account of the cinematograph show. Thirdly, Mrs. Bathurst herself twice over (so, as Pyecroft would say, to speak): as herself reanimated in the memories of the sailor spectators, and as an image on film., then so much a novelty as to shock deeply someone they knew on it, coming (threateningly, like nemesis?) towards them, and towards the terrified Vickery most of all.
They go to the show four more times, simply for the forty-five seconds of Mrs. Bathurst’s appearance, interspersing their attendance with heavy drinking. Vickery becomes increasingly disturbed, murderous in mood, even suicidal, and when Pyecroft says to him, ‘I wonder what she’s doin’ in England … Doesn’t it seem to you that she’s lookin’ for somebody? answers ‘ ‘She’s lookin’ for me … Yes, lookin’ for me … But … in future, Mr. Pyecroft, I should take it kindly of you if you’d confine your remarks to the drinks set before you. Otherwise … with the best will in the world towards you, I may find myself guilty of murder!’
He visits the captain of the ship. What transpires is not known – only that the captain is angry, and that Vickery is detailed to go up-country.
Pyecroft, with his innate shrewdness and his own recognition of the power of Mrs. Bathurst, so ubiquitous in the memories of sailors, doesn’t want to know any more, and tells Vickery, ‘ ‘Consume your own smoke.’ Vickery answers:
‘You! … What have you got to complain of? – you’ve only ‘ad to watch. I’m it … but that’ neither here nor there . . . I’ve only one thing to say before shakin’ ‘ands. Remember . . . remember that I’m not a murderer, because my lawful wife died in childbed six weeks after I came out. That much at least I’m clear of.
He will say no more, but, as a ‘superior man’ might, quotes Hamlet: ‘the rest is silence’. Then, having seen the guns into the trucks, he disappears, ‘within eighteen months of his pension’.
One more detail remains: when Pyecroft remarks how, in the kind of south-east wind in which he walked around with the half-crazed Vickery (it is blowing even now, outside the carriage where they sit), he can ‘hear those teeth click, so to speak’ , Hooper, fingering his waistcoat pocket says, ‘ ‘Permanent things false teeth are. You read about ’em in all the murder trials.’ Does he have the teeth in his pocket? We do not know for certain, only that Hooper simply returns to a question he had asked of the narrator, just as they were interrupted by Pyecroft and Pritchard, as to whether he knew Wankies ‘ ‘on the way to the Zambezi – beyond Bulawayo’ . He then told the narrator, feeling in his waistcoat pocket, that he had a ‘curiosity’ for him, or ‘more of a souvenir perhaps than …’ Now, could false teeth possibly be a ‘souvenir’, under any circumstances, and especially to a totally ignorant narrator? Would not four false teeth on a small plate be a somewhat grotesque gift from anyone? Be that as it may, he now takes this up again and tells the company, ‘There’s a curious bit o’ line there, you see. It runs through sold teak forest … seventy two miles without a curve … I was uo there a month ago relievin’ a sick inspector … He told me to look out for a couple of tramps in the teak.’
Pyecroft catches on very quickly indeed: Two? … I don’t envy that other man …’ Hooper finishes his account; they often get tramps there, he saw these two … looking up at him; they were ‘stone dead’ , struck by lightning, ‘as black as charcoal’ . He buried them, since there was nothing else he could do. ‘They fell to bits when we tried to shift ’em. The man who was standin’ up had the false teeth. I saw them shinin’ up against the black.’ He had asked about marks because Vickery had a tattoo on his arms and chest, ‘a crown and foul anchor with M.V. above’. How could he have seen that when they were burned black? You know how writing shows up black on a burned letter. Well, it was like that, you see. And I buried them in the teak and I kept … But he was a friend of you two gentlemen, you see.’ He puts his hand to his waistcoat pocket, but draws it way – empty.
Irritated critics of this story tend to misjudge it by grasping after ‘evidence’. But this is a story prompted by the then very new technique of movie-making, about the telling of stories: actually about – one might say – why we are irritated by life itself: it consists of various almost random features, such as might very well entertain a crowd at a circus. The teeth themselves, so much at the centre of it, are false. It is, like the very best stories (for example, Don Quixote), incidentally the most precious of all sorts of literary criticism.
Four people are thrown gratuitously together, through an initial error on the part of the narrator, and their talk over beer settles gradually into the pursuit of what is to them a mystery. The story is not, at its first level, about the nature of the precise connection between Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst at all: that intriguing matter only comes into it by chance. It is about stories themselves, and how they arise: about reality. We are not ‘taking up a book’ here, but getting a story in a different way. At the second level “Mrs Bathurst” is, clearly, about ‘significant coincidence’, or ‘synchronicity’. At the third level it is ‘about’ Mrs. Bathurst and Vickery; and our curiosity is indeed aroused. We are bound to ask the questions that have so often been asked. What do we really know about Vickery? But – perhaps an even more germane question – what do we know about Hooper?
This story has provoked so many fantastic questions, to which so many fantastic answers have been given, that there is nothing incongruous about the suggestion that all might not be as it seems, that someone may not be acting, or speaking, in good faith. After all, Pyecroft’s own initial tale about the sailor Boy Niven, who lured eight sailors away with a lie – he had been reading books, and wanted a day ashore and to ‘have himself talked of’– is about a kind of bad faith: when Pyecroft and Pritchard, as both remember without rancour, get back to their ship, they are accused of leading Niven astray. Gilbert has pointed this out in his essay on the story, in which he ably argues the case for its being ‘about’ the fortuitousness of life’, the intransigence of the universe’. But he insists that ‘inability to apportion blame correctly follows necessarily from the fortuitousness of life’. He feels that the indignation of Pyecroft and Pritchard about Boy Niven’s unfairness entails a reversal of values when they come to speak of Vickery, in their ‘vehement’ exoneration of Mrs. Bathurst. But they don’t exonerate Mrs. Bathurst at all. They simply state that they can’t believe that any of Vickery’s sufferings could be her fault!
Gilbert goes on to suggest, rightly I think, that Mrs. Bathurst is, by her capacity to arouse love in men, an unwilling agent of disaster for them – but this misses the point of Pyecroft’s and Pritchard’s confidence in her innocence of wrong-doing: being men, and having seen and been struck by her, they would be thus confident! Mrs. Bathurst’s emphasised ‘blindish’ way of looking tells us that she was short-sighted but too vain, as a popular landlady, to wear glasses. Perhaps she was not so innocent, even in her consciousness… But that is only a suggestion, to open up the field of enquiry at the point where commentators, for some reason, feel they want to close it up. Why? We know about Mrs. Bathurst from what a couple of sailors say about her, and from what Pyecroft reports of the state Vickery is in because of her. They say she has ‘It’ (Kipling anticipated Elinor Glyn by some years in the use of this term for ‘sex appeal’), and later Vickery says that he himself ‘is’ ‘it‘, which is emphasised. As in a newsreel – Gilbert is right in drawing attention to this – the tale consists of discreet bits of ‘clips’, each clip seen though the eye, not of a camera, but of a sensibility, truthful or untruthful, prejudiced or unprejudiced, honest or misleading, shrewd or dense, subtle or coarse, sensitive or insensitive … The exception, if Pyecroft is telling the truth, is what the cameraman shows us of Mrs. Bathurst: to the newsman, the cameraman making up his reel, she is just a striking woman getting off a train; but in the sensibility of Click Vickery she is coming towards him and after him.
But let us play the game – it is only a game, like the cinema, or reading – of looking at this story with the intention of testing Inspector Hooper’s role in it. The narrator meets Hooper, whom he knows, after discovering that the ship he wanted to visit has just steamed away. What is he going to find out about Hooper? A few lines on, he speaks of his ‘prophetic soul’ in buying extra beer from the Greeks, thinking of what the newly arrived Pyecroft and Pritchard are going to consume.
Hooper, a detective [he isn’t, but no matter] has just come back from an investigative trip up country. [No one says it was an investigative trip, or not in the police sense – that is purely Martin Seymour-Smith’s supposition.] The two others soon turn up, and he takes no particular interest in them, though he responds civilly enough to the services banter (‘an’ I can assure you, Mr. Hooper, even a sailor-man has a heart to break’). But the story they tell of Boy Niven’s exploit might (or might not) alert him as a detective to the fact that they are gullible. For Boy Niven led them a merry dance, and what is emphasised in their recounting of this is just how tall his story was. Perhaps, then, Pyecroft is still as stupid and liable to misunderstand as he was then (perhaps, though, he is not: we are in life here, not fiction). [But the Boy Niven events took place some 16 years ago, when Pyecroft and Pritchard were still teenagers, or in their very early twenties.]
What they got for their gullibility was thunder and ‘continuous lightning’ (it was lightning that struck Vickery and the others). The subject of Vickery comes up when the desertion of a man, one of the eight misled by Boy Niven, is being discussed. This man, Moon (another suggestion of lunacy in connection with running off with women), who ‘always showed signs o’ bein’ a Mormonistic beggar … slipped off quietly’ while his ship was cruising among the South Seas. They hadn’t time to chase him even, says Pritchard, if the navigation officer had been up to his job. Wasn’t he, Hooper asks? Pyecroft explains that he was not, and ends, ‘They do do strange things at sea, Mr. Hooper’, and Mr. Hooper comments, ‘Ah! I’m not a taxpayer.’ Then, the narrator adds, Pritchard ‘seemed to be one who had a difficulty in dropping subjects’, for he persists in comments about Moon, and these lead Pyecroft into the subject of Vickery: ‘It takes them at all ages. Look at – you know?’ When Pritchard alludes to his absence without leave up-country, Hooper takes an interest. (He has seen .the M.V. on the charred chest.)
But when he asks, ‘Did they circulate his description?’ Pritchard becomes suspicious that this detective is trying to capture his service colleague for a reward, and he gets up as if to leave: ‘per’aps we may ‘ave made an error in …’ (the tale is redolent with error) he begins: Hooper crimsons ‘rapidly’, and the narrator – perhaps he is Kipling – has to turn to Pyecroft to cool things down. Pritchard, appealed to, comments that he only wishes to observe that Hooper takes a bloomin’ curiosity in the matter. We cannot say that the matter of his embarrassment is not emphasised. The narrator who may be Kipling himself after a story at all costs (even if it is hardly a story), smooths things over by explaining to Hooper that while Pritchard regards him as ‘the Law’, he will ‘vouch’ for him: the storyteller will ‘take all the responsibility for Mr. Hooper’. When asked facetiously by Pyecroft to apologise ‘all round’ for his rudeness, Pritchard cannot quite understand why his behaviour has been unreasonable, and, so far as Pyecroft is concerned, it is merely a matter of politeness because Mr. Hooper has been offended and Mr. Hooper has been vouched for by his friend, the narrator.
At this point Hooper says something which can hardly be an error, since Kipling so carefully went over his writing. (He did talk about a certain error he had made which no reader had ever noticed, but he might have made that up to tease; if he didn’t, then he probably meant some technical error. Kipling readers have delighted to try to find it. This can hardly be it though.)
Hooper says, ‘You did quite right to look out for your own end o’ the line … I’d ha’ done the same with a gentleman I didn’t know, you see.’ (In this tale, Pyecroft is always saying, ‘so to speak’, ‘so to say’, and Hooper is always saying ‘you see’ – both these tricks of speech drawing our attention to the nature of reality, which is never what it seems to be.)
[This may be a fair enough point, but is it not more a reflection of the reality of ordinary speech? – in the way that today, common speech is frequently interspersed with ‘like’ and ‘sort of’, neither expression indicating any particular inexactitude. Kipling has dropped his characters’ Hs and Gs, and has merely given them other oral mannerisms as well, entirely in keeping with their education and background.]
Then he asks, ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear a little more o’ your Mr. Vickery. It’s safe with me, you see?’
Now how can he possibly have known Vickery’s full name? It has not yet been mentioned, BY ANYONE. He has seen the tattooed ‘M.V.’ and they have spoken of him as ‘V’. The narrator has never heard the name or the story. Hooper was merely told by the sick inspector whom he relieved that he should look out for two tramps in the teak; he does find them, but they have been struck by lightning and there are no means of identification beyond the teeth and the tattoo … In so careful a writer, and in so deliberately obscure a story, this must give rise to enquiry. Kipling so cunningly links up details in the story itself with ones in the epigraph that he must have been perfectly aware of what he was doing.
[Unfortunately, Mr. Seymour-Smith clearly didn’t have the benefit of having read the Old Reader’s Guide. Had he done so, he would have known that, despite his complimentary remarks about Kipling’s attention to detail, this was a case where his care (and, perhaps, his copy editor at Macmillan) failed him. It will be seen (see the note on textual differences, that in re-editing the tale between the final text for the Windsor Magazine, and that for Traffics and Discoveries, Kipling edited out a phrase which gave Hooper Vickery’s name about three lines earlier, thus rendering invalid Martin Seymour-Smith’s remark.]
So far as that is concerned, there is the matter of the lightning, which is mentioned three times. There is hell: the fool, the groom, Jack Straw, waiting to be hanged [this is a reference back to the fragment of ‘Irenius’, which precedes this tale] (murder comes into this when Vickery denies it), ‘plucks the left sleeve of destiny in Hell to overtake why she clapped him up like a fly on a sunny wall’ – and then the Sergeant called all the powers of darkness to witness his bewilderment’ when Pyecroft suddenly brings in Mrs. Bathurst, whom he, Pritchard, has known, too, and whom he remembers so well. Vulcan, who in the epigraph caught Venus with Mars in the ‘house of stinking Capricorn’ (Kipling’s joke about his, his wife’s and one of his children’s sun-signs), is of course the God of thunder and lightning. The epigraph, a mere fragment from a play, is as obscure as the tale. Three men, Gow, a prince, Ferdinand, speak: of the sacking of a city and of a man, Jack of the Straw, about to be hanged. There is also a Duke who works God’s will ‘very exactly’ in the hanging. Jack is condemned because of some actions of a woman who loved him, and never knew what she did to him (or would not have done it). Yet Jack may in a sense have had some control since he ‘threw life from him’ for ‘a little sleep’. Gow says that the astrologers would have predicted his fate had he been a King: and he is reported as asking, ‘Have I any look of a King .. to be so baited on all sides by Fortune …?’ (is the allusion to Lear, but from a very different angle?)
To return to Hooper. When he sits down with the narrator, it is to ‘a tray of spiked documents’. Since Pritchard must see these (Hooper has been at work on these before he came, while the narrator fell into sleep), he has every reason to be suspicious. And are they not indeed likely to be documents relating not only to damage to rolling stock, which Hooper went up country to investigate, but also to the two lightning-struck corpses which he says he found.
[Once again, it seems to this Editor that Mr. Seymour-Smith is reading into the tale implications which are not justified by Kipling’s words. His belief that Hooper is a policeman colours his interpretation of every phrase – but Hooper did not go “up country to investigate” “damage to rolling stock” solely. He went up country to relieve temporarily another locomotive inspector who was ill – and who worked, in fact, for another railway company. Inspecting damaged rolling stock would indeed be part of his duties, but the paperwork resulting would have remained up in Bulawayo.]
The two visitors cannot know Hooper, or he would recognise them. But do they already know of him? The conversation jovially turns to beer, and Pyecroft makes a joke about Pritchard’s having obtained the Bass through being so attractive to women. ‘It was all a mistake,’ he protests, and insists that the maid who gave him the beer had mistaken him for Maclean, ‘ ‘we’re about of a size’. Countering Pyecroft’s fun, he begins, ‘ ‘Why – why – to listen to him you wouldn’t think that only yesterday – ‘, and Pyecroft interrupts, ‘ ‘be warned in time. If we began tellin’ what we know about each other we’ll be turned out …’
[Martin Seymour-Smith seems to be suggesting that Pyecroft thinks they should not reveal their petty misdemeanours, however amusing, in front of a policeman – which is fair enough. But it may be suggested that nor would Pyecroft wish to reveal them in front of anyone – it might be embarrassing for the two of them, and also for their hearers. ]
It is worth repeating that everything, from the epigraph onwards, has been about error and things not being what they seem. The clown Jack of the Straw was hanged for some random reason not even predicted by the astrologers: something has happened to a clown that might more fittingly have happened to a prince. perhaps. If ‘Fortune here be a woman, then, in the last recondite lines of the epigraph, perhaps she went out secretly, a great lady (as she would be) from some feast to steal for herself, in lust, a clown (coneycatch has strong sexual implications), and somehow punished him in a situation (once again that seems to be the implication) more fitting to a King, more fitting to the predictions of an astrologer (who did, indeed, in such times as those, predict only for ‘important’ people – whose fates involved everyone else). (In ‘gerb of long-stored lightnings’ Kipling is really chancing his arm: ‘gerb’ is a very rare word meaning ‘ear of wheat’ and then, by extension, a fountain or firework shaped like one; presumably he is using it here in the third sense.)
Pritchard’s belief in the essential moral goodness of Mrs. Bathurst is absolutely sincere, but is based on no more than that she attracted him greatly, and that she remembered him and kept his beer for him. Again, when Pyecroft states that she was a widow, left ‘so very young and never re-spliced’, that is only hearsay, or, maybe, what she told inquisitive or over-familiar sailors. Why should it be true?
[Equally, why should it not be true? This is a piece of fiction, and so in that sense none of it is “true”. But if one wishes to look for hidden meanings, the reader/critic expects the author to play fair, and provide clues. If the author does not, then it is like the author of a piece of detective fiction, who allows the great detective to unmask the villain without having given the crucial clue (even if well-buried) to the reader.]
Hooper shows at least understanding of what the two men are telling him about the nature of Mrs. Bathurst: when Pyecroft tries to convey her uniqueness. He replies: ‘Ah! That’s more the idea. I’ve known just two women of that nature.’ Eagerly Pritchard asks, ‘An’ it was no fault o’ theirs?’ and Hooper is quick to agree: ‘None whatever. I know that!’
What if one of the two women he knows ‘like that’ has been Mrs. Bathurst? He is easily able to answer, although he talks slowly, Pritchard’s question, what do you do if you ‘get struck with that kind o’ woman’: go crazy or just save your self. ‘You’ve seen and known something in the course o’ your life, Mr. Hooper. I’m lookin’ at you!’ responds Pritchard, now quite satisfied about the bona fides of the detective.
We are exercising here, just the state of inquisitiveness that the writer has set up in us – and so, in that state, we ask, ‘would, in such an economical story, such a writer attach to each tiny detail a special significance?’ Hooper, in view of his slip (in knowing Vickery’s name before it has been mentioned), must have something he wishes to conceal. Pyecroft, dwelling on the ‘dark and bloody mystery’ of how well Vickery knew Mrs. Bathurst, admits that ‘all I know is second-hand so to speak, or rather I should ay more than second-`and’. Hooper is ‘peremptory’ in his sharp response: ‘How? … You must have seen it or heard it?’ And Pyecroft warns him, or the reader, or both: ‘Ye-es … I used to think seein’ and hearin’ was the only regulation aids to ascertainin’ facts, but as we get older we get more accommodatin’. The cylinders work easier, I suppose ..’ He asks Hooper if he was in Cape Town last December, when the Circus came; Hooper is rattled by this, and we are told he was not. But he admits that he has seen ‘Home and Friends’ there when he was ‘up country’ –
[This is not strictly correct – Hooper merely says that he has seen “the cinematograph – the pictures of prize fights and steamers. I’ve seen ’em up-country’. There is no mention of prize fights in Pyecroft’s description of ‘Home and Friends’. ]
– and, indeed, Vickery himself appears to have deserted in pursuit of the show, to Worcester (‘Did he stop to see Mrs. Bathurst at Worcester?’ the narrator asks, later, and Pyecroft answers, ‘It’s not known.’) The implication is that he has therefore himself seen Mrs. Bathurst, or perhaps it is, but he does not elaborate, or say that he has seen her.
[It must be suggested that Mr. Seymour-Smith is reading into the text something that isn’t there: in the first place, Vickery did not desert until after he had completed his work at Bloemfontein: if he broke his journey en route to spend a night at Worcester to see the newsreel again, that does not make him a deserter, though it is agreed that it is clear from the story that he is already intending to desert. Secondly, as indicated above, all we know is that Hooper has seen moving pictures before – we may note that when he says ‘I’ve seen ’em’, Pyecroft has merely mentioned “London Bridge and so forth” – nothing about the train at Paddington – but we all know that the human tide crossing London Bridge is an image which has been, and continues to be, employed by programme makers of film and television. There is no evidence that Hooper has seen Mrs. Bathurst on film. It is conceded that he might have done so, but it is suggested that the probability was not very high.]
He does exclaim, ‘impatiently’, ‘Seen ’em all. Seen ’em all.’ The reader must make of this what he will: the implication is surely that he does not want to go further into the matter of what he has seen. But since Pyecroft specifically mentions ‘the Plymouth express arrivin’ at Paddin’ton’, we must suppose that Hooper almost slips up once again.
[Well, fair enough – but might it be a normal male reaction, not wanting to be up-staged by another man – today’s equivalent might be “My mobile phone’s got X, Y and Z on it”. “So has mine. So has mine”.]
Commentators have felt that the other corpse reported by Hooper would not have been included by Kipling unless there was a special point to it, and they have therefore concluded that it must be that of Mrs. Bathurst herself, one going do far as to suggest that it is her ghost! But if Mrs. Bathurst is not the other charred corpse, then whose is this corpse, and what significance can it possibly have that properly arises from the information presented in the story?
The common interpretation that Vickery went crazy for love after seeing Mrs. Bathurst in a moving picture show does not do credit to the facts presented: namely that he believes that she is looking for him in England, and that he is at least clear of the murder of his wife. Something has happened beyond his mere feelings, however intense they may have been. But we are of course playing the writer’s game exactly in all this, which is right, and is what he wants us to do: to look at the very nature of the connection between reality and the sorts of purported narratives of it. The epigraph plainly emphasises that stories of common people are just as important as those of notable people. And as we search for the exact meaning we are reminded, by our own curiosity , that this is the nature of stories, that in this lies their appeal. Therefore (such is Kipling’s skill and power here) we do have faith in the existence of a meaning in “Mrs Bathurst”, and we go on searching. (In such tales as ‘The Dog Hervey’, where the language is less intense and the whole less tense, that faith tends to fade.) We therefore go on asking, alluding to various possibilities intrinsic in the text.
This is Kipling’s first story to be written in a ‘modernistic’ idiom, similar, as Walter Allen suggests, to the poetry that Eliot and Pound were to write in a few years’ time. To anticipate modernism is no artistic feat in itself, although it is a technical one. But the elliptical technique here is demanded by the nature of the tale. Belief collapses, and so coherence, if it exists, needs to be questioned and rediscovered. We have become familiar (over-familiar by now) with the comparison of the storyteller with God; in 1904 it was novel, and this story reads the better if we see its writer as a God in command of his characters withholding, from his expectant bourgeois audience, the resolution they demand.
Certainly Gilbert puts his finger on it when he says that the narrator in the story represents ‘man’s eternal quest for the meaning concealed in random events. And the art of the story is aposiopesis, the device of classical rhetoric which seeks, on every level of the narrative, to withhold the ultimate secret’.
Ah: the ultimate secret! That is what Gilbert omits to mention, as I also do. Yet there is no point in the practice of aposiopesis if there is no ‘ultimate secret’ … That is what lies behind this masterpiece: the secret that has not yet been discovered. There is something factual here, a circumstantial truth, which is so terrifying that we should be unable to bear it if we knew. If it does not exist then it is some tribute to Kipling’s achievement in this tale that he creates the eternal illusion of it. For such a terror lies behind every situation half-grasped.
An illuminating parallel may be drawn between this famous tale and a piece of English music belonging to almost the same time (1899), and written by a man who had much in common with Kipling : he achieved enormous popularity which he lost after the First World War; he was ‘right-wing’, although not as right-wing as Kipling; his music was inextricably linked with imperial splendour; he was a gloomy and often morose man; he held something like the same view of inspiration; he even had a difficult and snobbish wife … I am speaking of course of Sir Edward Elgar, and in particular, of the Enigma Variations. What a lot of happy ink has been soiled about the theme of those? Yet how many will claim that the music itself is diminished? Enigma was in the air just then, but grasped only by a few.
Harry Ricketts (1999) writes (p. 287):
…Nor, as Alain-Fournier realised in 1905, were Kipling’s stories just for children or soldiers. ‘Wireless’, “Mrs Bathurst” and ‘They’, all collected in Traffics and Discoveries, were as good as anything he had ever written. Each, in its different way, turned on Kipling’s fascination with new technology and the supernatural.
… The new item of technology in “Mrs Bathurst” was the cinematograph – the device through which Vickery saw his lover on screen and was convinced that he was being haunted. It was a wonderfully elliptical tale, but Kipling had already so moved to the periphery of literary fashion that none of the leading critics of the day troubled to give it serious attention. Someone who was decidedly not a literary critic, P.G. Wodehouse, would recall to a friend in 1928 his first encounter with the story:
Listen Bill, something really must be done about Kip’s ‘Mrs. Bathurst’. I read it years ago and didn’t understand a word of it. I thought to myself : ‘Ah, youthful ignorance!’ A week ago I re-read it. Result, precisely the same. What did the villain [Vickery] do to Mrs. Bathurst? What did he tell the Captain in his cabin that made the Captain look very grave and send him up country where he was struck by lightning? Why was the other chap who was struck by lightning, too, introduced? And, above all, how was Kip allowed to get away with six solid pages of padding at the start of the story?”
Even if Kipling had retained his literary readership, ‘Mrs. Bathurst’ would still have baffled the critics, for it was, in effect, the first modernist text in English. Deliberate obliqueness, formal fragmentation, absence of a privileged authorial point of view, intense literary self-consciousness, lack of closure – all the defining qualities of modernism were present and correct. But 1904 was also the year of ‘Bloomsday’, from which literary modernism was about to take off on a different flight path.
In the same year (1999), Professor Daniel Karlin published Rudyard Kipling – A Critical Appreciation of the Major Works, in which “Mrs. Bathurst” is reproduced and annotated (using much material from the ORG). Professor Karlin writes in his head-note:
The link between these far-fling places [Auckland and Simon’s Town] is the Navy; this is a naval story not because of what happens on board ship, as in ‘The Bonds of Discipline’, but because of the accident of circumstances which belong to Navy life and which affect those who take an interest in it. The story begins with one such accident, which leaves the narrator ‘stranded’, and another accident brings him into company with his old acquaintance Pyecroft. Throughout the story, time and distance are haphazard elements: at one moment Mrs. Bathurst leans close over a hotel bar, at another she is distant and ungraspable. Hence the power of her enigmatic appearance at the train station, captured by the newfangled (other-worldly) medium of the cinematograph, a fleeting image which can be repeated again and again, an ‘enigma of arrival’
Daniel Karlin continues by citing the P.G. Wodehouse quote reproduced above in Harry Ricketts’ work on the tale, remarking that:
…it is an early witness of the story’s capacity to baffle. Indeed, “Mrs Bathurst” has become the most discussed of Kipling’s stories, often to little purpose. A number of puzzles, some of them apparently crucial to the plot, simply cannot be resolved, for example the sequence of events of which Mrs. Bathurst’s journey to England forms a part (was she looking for Vickery, as he maintains? Did they meet subsequently?), or the identity of the second tramp who is found dead with Vickery (is it Mrs. Bathurst herself?).
It may be worthwhile to offer answers to Daniel Karlin’s three questions:
- Was she looking for Vickery? Not proven. She might have been, and if she and Vickery had gone through a form of marriage then it is reasonable to suppose that she would follow him to England, but there is absolutely no written evidence in the tale to suggest that she was searching for him, other than that she was in England: but this comes as a surprise to Vickery – clearly he didn’t expect her to follow him to England, or if he did, not so soon. On the day that the cameraman filmed her at Paddington, she was on some nondescript business (evidence, the reticule – see our separate notes What Happened Next)
- Did they meet subsequently? Again, not proven, but, it is suggested, highly improbable. Certainly, in terms of time, it is possible. On hearing of his wife’s death, and knowing that Mrs. Bathurst was in England, Vickery could have cabled to her to meet him in South Africa. First problem – where would he send the cable to? He has no knowledge of her whereabouts in England. She could have cabled him, having discovered that he was serving in HMS Hierophant, but clearly hadn’t – receipt of such a cable in Hierophant would have been known, and Pyecroft would have been aware of it. If one allows that somehow they could have made contact at the very end of December, then where were they to meet? From the time of her receipt of .a cable from the Cape to arriving in Cape Town, a minimum of three weeks would have had to pass, by which time Vickery had been missing about two weeks.- a ‘deserter’ on the run. Unless he had friends ashore in Cape Colony, or in the Free State, or the Transvaal, and there’s no evidence that he had, all he could have said would be “Meet me at the back of the Goods shed, somewhere along the line of rail from Cape Town to Kimberley, some time in February.” Therefore, highly improbable.
- Is it Mrs. Bathurst herself? Emphatically, no. It is inconceivable that the inspector who had befriended the two tramps would not have mentioned that one was female, if that were the case. And even if she had attempted to pass herself off as a man, could she have hidden that ‘It’ quality? (Consider Ethel Le Neve, in the Crippen murder case eight years later – despite being disguised as a boy, her female shape gave her away.)
Daniel Karlin continues:
The story’s indeterminacy is deliberate and radical: as David Lodge points out, it displaces attention onto the process of storytelling itself, and juxtaposes the mystery of the central subject (what happened between Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst?) with the suspense of its narration (‘”Mrs. Bathurst”: Indeterminacy in Modern Narrative’, in P. Mallett (ed.), Kipling Considered (1989), 71-84). At any rate P.G. Wodehouse is – dare I say it – wrong to exclaim indignantly, after listing several of the plot-puzzles: ‘And, above all, how was Kip allowed to get away with six solid pages of padding at the start of the story?’ Far from being ‘padding’, these opening pages are dense with significance – if only we could tell in which direction the signs pointed.
“Mrs. Bathurst” represents a deepening of Pyecroft’s character comparable to that which Kipling gave Mulvaney’s in “Love –o’-Women” or Learoyd’s in “On Greenhow Hill” – all of them stories of erotic obsession. Like ‘Love-o’-Women’, Vickery is a ‘superior man’ in terms of class to the man who tells his story.
1999 was a good year for Kipling biography and commentary, in which Andrew Lycett also published his Rudyard Kipling. He comments on “Mrs. Bathurst”:
…the most successful and still most pored-over story in Traffics and Discoveries was the enigmatic “Mrs Bathurst”, written in South Africa in February. Ostensibly a rambling memoir about the demise of an unfortunate naval warrant officer called Vickery, it contrasted two forms of modern communication – mechanised transport (symbolised by the railways at the beginning and end) which resulted in loneliness and isolation for those required to travel great distances in service of Empire (an old theme from Indian days), and the cinema which provided powerful, immediate images of ‘Home and Friends’, as the newsreel feature in the Cape Town biograph was called.
Overlaid on this was a subject Rudyard had scarcely addressed since India: the destructive power of sexual love. Twenty-odd years before Elinor Glyn invented the It-girls, Rudyard wrote of the sex-appeal of Mrs. Bathurst, the barmaid whom his anti-hero Vickery had met in Auckland, ‘Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. Some women’ll stay in a man’s memory if once they walk down a street …’ (Possibly he gleaned this idea from Lord Milner, who had courted Glyn the previous summer.)
Rudyard explained in Something of Myself how Mrs. Bathurst was based on his own recollections of a barmaid who had sold him a beer during his visit to Auckland in 1891. A decade or so later he heard a petty officer from Simonstown telling a friend about a good-natured woman from New Zealand. ‘Then – precisely as the removal of the key-log in a timber-jam starts the whole pile – these words gave me the key to the face and voice at Auckland, and a tale called “Mrs. Bathurst” slid into my mind, smoothly and orderly as floating timber on a bank-high river.’ Rudyard had been exploring the tricks and subtleties of memory … Now there was a new form of memory that threatened the paramountcy of words as a form of communication – the mechanical and often uneven reproduction of pictures at the cinema.
Craig Raine has argued plausibly that Vickery’s guilty secret is bigamy. Since no reliable model for Mrs. Bathurst has been found, Rudyard’s imagination may have been stimulated by a surprise meeting with his old flame Isabella Burton in London the previous October, at a time when Carrie was away with the children, staying with the Baldwins in Worcestershire. Isabella had left her husband and returned to England with her only son Francis. Rudyard subsequently wrote formally to thank her for an old Gaiety programme, which reminded him of his old theatrical performances in Simla … Although his cool tone gave nothing away, he elsewhere indicated that there were strains in his marriage. ‘Men and women may sometimes, after a great effort, achieve a credible lie’, he noted in ‘They’, as if drawing on hard-won experience. “Mrs Bathurst” hints that, at the age of thirty-eight, he might have contemplated some indiscretion with Isabella and then banished the thought.
©Alastair Wilson 2008 All rights reserved