Mrs Bathurst

Some problems

As our 21st century readers will have seen, or will see, this tale has had a vast amount of thought and ink expended upon it, and we have tried to give as full a selection of various critics considered opinions as possible, in the hope that in collating them all in one place, you will be able to arrive at your own conclusions. We hope that, in arriving at those conclusions, you have not suffered mental indigestion from the variety of material presented for your consideration. We give our own summarised conclusion at the end of the Headnote.

Here, we try to summarise the ‘problems’ in ‘Mrs.Bathurst’ and, in line with giving the reader all the ‘evidence’, we offer first the ORG view of the problems, followed by our own.

The ORG opens its section under this heading with a piece of verse:

Doctors and lawyers only, that I know,
Do not mistake their views for final fact
But “give opinions”. Give? Well sometimes so,
The noun at least is modest and exact. [D.H.B].

The ORG continues: “With these cautionary lines in mind and the pages of “Mrs. Bathurst” before him, only a boldly opinionated man would claim to have found solutions to all their problems, and he would unquestionably have difficulty in convincing others of their correctness. If ‘I think’, ‘It is suggested’, and ‘We may perhaps suppose’ do not figure in the following notes, their omission is only to save space and reduce tedium.

The ORG took as its starting point, an article in the Kipling Journal (KJ 123, Dec 1959) which is cited and examined by Professor Bodelsen (see Critical Notes on “Mrs. Bathurst”.) This article, “The Unsolved Problem of ‘Mrs. Bathurst'”, was by Lieutenant Colonel B.S. Browne. This is what the ORG had to say:
To the late Lieutenant Colonel Barwick Browne, who gave this story protracted attention, the plot presented four major improbabilities:

1. He believed that Mrs. Bathurst would have followed Vickery to England only if she supposed she had been married to him, and he cannot see how she could have been persuaded into the secret marriage ceremony that would have been necessary to Vickery to avoid his being exposed as a bigamist.

[An NRG commen: we agree with the first part of Colonel Browne’s point: indeed, we regard it as proven, since Mrs. Bathurst is in England, and there is the strongest of implications that Vickery has gone through a form of marriage with her. As regards to how she could have been persuaded, all one can do is observe that men (and very occasionally women) managed to contract bigamous marriages in secrecy before and after the presumed date of the tale: the advent of the halfpenny press some eight years before this tale was written has provided us with a century of Sunday (mostly) reading to prove the point.]

2. Lieutenant Colonel Barwick Browne is mystified by Vickery’s agitation at the cinema, which he assumes to have been due to fear. But as Vickery’s wife was dead, he was free to go through a second and this time legal ceremony. Mrs. Bathurst’s consent is taken for granted.

3. He asserts that the captain of the Hierophant connived at Vickery’s desertion and regards this as the greatest improbability.

[NRG comment: we agree emphatically with Colonel Browne’s point: and we have examined it in detail in the section below where we offer our own comments on the ‘problems’ in this tale.]

4. He cannot understand how Vickery and the other orphan of the storm in the teak forest – whom he unquestioningly assumes to be Mrs. Bathurst – could have been so destitute.

All these difficulties are based upon arguable, probably doubtful, assumptions, since:

(a) Mrs. Bathurst might have been persuaded to leave New Zealand by the hope of marriage or alternatively by loneliness or a compulsion to try a last despairing effort to patch things up.


[NRG comment: we are not quite sure why the ORG refers to “a last despairing effort to patch things up”. There is no evidence, nor even implied evidence, of any rift before Vickery left New Zealand, nor that he had written to her after return to England to break off with her. Had such a rift occurred, then surely it would have come out in the discussions which Pyecroft and Vickery had as the Hierophant was ploughing her way southwards to the Cape. Pyecroft makes no mention of this when he says, in the brake van: ” ‘E spoke to me once or twice about Auckland and Mrs. B. on the way out. … There must ‘ave been a good deal between ’em, to my way o’ thinkin’.” Had there been a break-up of the relationship, then Vickery would surely have said so, and Pyecroft would have reported it.]

(b) If fear had been an important element in the feelings awakened in Mr. Vickery by the brief glimpse of Mrs. Bathurst on the screen, would he have been so eagerly counting the minutes till her next appearance, and have gone to such efforts to see an extra performance at Worcester? Remorse for his own mismanagement and anguish over a hopelessly star-crossed love would adequately explain the disturbance that accompanied his desire to see even her shadow. The Colonel’s unsupported assertion that “the woman who obviously loved (Vickery) so dearly would have been ready to forgive him his first deception” will be discussed a little later.

(c) No doubt the captain of the Hierophant would have been most unwilling to connive at desertion, if the question had been put baldly to him like that. But he may have seen it as a choice between taking some risk in order to give Vickery a chance of pulling himself together and the virtual certainty of a disastrous breakdown on board, to the detriment of the ship’s morale and reputation.

[NRG comment: as will be seen below, we believe that, had the question been put baldly to the captain, he would have taken a totally different course of action. That he didn’t take that different course of action suggests to us that Vickery presented him with a different problem: in short, he told his captain a ‘cock-and-bull’ story to enable him to leave the ship.]

(d) The poverty of Mr. Vickery and his companion surely presents no real problem at all. Naval pay, never generous, had risen very little since the Napoleonic Wars, and Mr. Vickery had been spending freely in Cape Town. Mrs. Bathurst, after a voyage from New Zealand to England, a stay of uncertain duration there, and a further passage out to South Africa might be equally short of ready money. But is there any convincing evidence that the other was Mrs Bathurst? The Colonel says “the story is about her and not about Vickery, for Kipling was always very careful that the titles should express the real theme of the story.” Professor Bodelsen flatly disagrees with the last statement, as well he may. To take the Pyecroft stories only, the title, Their Lawful Occasions has no very direct relation to the events in the story, and The Horse Marines comes uncomfortably near to anticipating the smart-Alec book title that now appear so frequently. In any case, Mrs. Bathurst is less concerned with the woman herself than with her effect upon men in general and Vickery in particular.

(e) There are other arguments against believing that the second victim was Mrs. Bathurst. If it had been, would Inspector Hooper (who could hardly be unaware of the sex of the two) have remained silent when Pyecroft said “I don’t envy that other man if” – ? Would anyone, ouside a True Story Magazine have referred to a woman as Vickery’s “mate”? A third, even more positive , piece of evidence from Inspector Hooper is his statement that ‘The Man who was standin’ up had the false teeth.’

Furthermore, would not Mrs. Bathurst’s pursuit to Africa have created difficulties greater than Colonel Browne’s?

Could a woman of her personality, on a mission like hers, have escaped attention in a small community like Simon’s Town at that period?

Would she not have had to get in touch with the Hierophant, or someone in the ship?

How would she have set about picking up a man on the run in the middle of Africa?

If they had met, would not Vickery have made prodigious efforts to get her out of the bush? Rhodesia has always been a friendly country (Witness the inspector assisting the tramps with grub and quinine. And should it be argued that people might be reluctant to help a deserter, it can be stated as a fact that scores of deserters from the Allied forces were sheltered in South Africa during Hitler’s War.) Three months after leaving the Hierophant he was at M’Bindwe siding, waiting for something to turn up. Was this the attitude of a man reunited with the great love of his life or a broken one who had lost all interest and aim?

Parenthetically, we may note that reference to the Windsor Magazine drawing of the scene at that side is a complete dead end. … We do not believe that the picture is of any value, even as evidence.

Colonel Browne’s argument that no one in the brake-van had any doubt that the other body was Mrs Bathurst’s is only one more unproved statement. Pritchard’s words and actions need mean no more than realisation that the light-hearted and apparently invulnerable Mrs. Bathurst must have suffered deeply in the affair, whatever its details. The snatch from The Honeysuckle and the Bee carries conviction only to those already convinced. And finally, Pyecroft’s epitaph on Mr. Vickery, ending with the words “Thank God he’s dead! would surely be completely out of keeping if he believed that Mrs. Bathurst had shared the Gunner’s fate.

There seems to be no need to accept Colonel Browne’s alleged improbabilities as proving his still more improbable theory that Kipling offered the story as no more than a piece of effrontery.

At the same time, it must be freely acknowledged that the evidence does not admit of an approved Staff College solution to the story. What is attempted here is no more than a sketch outline of some possibilities.

The initial fragment “From Lyden’s ‘Irenius'” (the epigraph, as Mr. Gilbert calls it) offers great possibilities for symbolical analysts. Sticking firmly to the shallows, we only draw attention to the sentences: “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.” as an indication – strongly supported by Inspector Hooper’s “None whatever. I know that!” – that the main theme of the story is the impact of an innocent femme fatale on a man who loves her.

The actual working out of doom is much less clear. At least as difficult to explain as any of Colonel Browne’s “improbabilities” is how, in a small intimate community, a deep attachment could develop between Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst without exciting comment and bringing his marriage to light.: but most honest observers will admit to having occasionally been startled by developments which have worked up under their view. Accepting Pyecroft’s view that the wrong and deceit was on Vickery’s part, it must be assumed that if his marriage was referred to at all, he held out some prospect of an early release by divorce or death.
[NRG comment: surely not divorce, at this date: divorce, although slightly easier than 50 years earlier, was still extremely difficult, and not for those of limited means.]

On leaving New Zealand, he may have made an effort to break the attachment, perhaps with some temporary success, without informing Mrs. Bathurst.

[NRG comment: we are not sure what our predecessors mean by this: presumably that he didn’t write to her, nor respond to any of her letters.]
The absence of any word from him might have impelled her to go to England. [NRG comment:We are not in a position to know whether she arrived before or after the Hierophant had sailed.]

In the first case she might have met Mrs Vickery, with a painful scene; in the second, she might at least have learnt the cause of her death, and if our estimate of the age of the films shown at the circus is right, she might have preceded them to South Africa, if she did intend to continue her pursuit. But having found out that she had been deceived, would she necessarily do so, as so many readers assume? To have maintained her independence and integrity as she had done, she must have had that guid conceit o’ herself for which the Scots used to pray until they assumed its possession as part of their national heritage, a very well-developed self respect that she would not lightly surrender, and we are assured she never scrupled to set her foot on a scorpion. Without necessarily putting Vickery in that category, she might have decided to give him up; Professor Bodelsen’s theory of her death offers an alternative.

[NRG comment: that she might give him up is entirely possible, bigamous marriage or not. If she had discovered that he was, in fact married, she might well aim to keep her self respect by dropping him. The only evidence we have that she is looking for him is Vickery’s own statement, when labouring under emotional stress.]

Either would account for Vickery’s attitude as described by Pyecroft, that of a man for whom life holds nothing beyond the temporary distraction of seeing Mrs. Bathurst on the screen, and drinking to blunt his regrets. When these have been exhausted, he drops everything and lets the ends run. According to Pyecroft, he was a “dumb lunatic” and may have been for years. On his own showing, he was tempted to seek the sudden death that three months later overtook him in the teak forest.

It has been suggested that the apparently fortuitous nature of his death is an artistic weakness in the story, but it was to some extent the consequence of his actions – very much so, if we accept Dr. Tompkins’s theory that Vickery was standing up in the hope of attracting the lightning.

Some learned critics have made heavy weather of the leisurely opening of ‘Mrs. Bathurst’, either dismissing Boy Niven as a frivolous nuisance or searching his tale for hidden meanings. To a simple seaman [that phrase suggests that this portion of the ORG was the work of Admiral Brock] something of the sort seems needed to provide a setting for the main story and a natural lead-in to Pyecroft’s narrative. Without that, it would have seemed improbable that he and Sergeant Pritchard would have discussed, in front of civilians (one of whom neither had seen before) the desertion of an officer whom they believed to be still at large and “wanted”. Apart from that, Boy Niven makes an entertaining yarn, more amusing and less discreditable than some stories of the desertions that were once numerous on the Pacific Station.

Some other theories

Venereal disease has been put forward as a possible reason why Mr. Vickery should not have sought to restore his relations with Mrs. Bathurst after the death of his wife. This is a possibility, but it would damage the story by reducing our regard for Vickery, none too simpatico at best, to vanishing point.

While owing much to Professor Bodelsen’s analysis, we must admit that there are heights to which we cannot follow him, notably the idea that the other figure in the forest was the ghost of Mrs. Bathurst.

NRG Solutions to the Problems in “Mrs. Bathurst”

In offering our solutions to the problems, we would enter the same conditional caveat as the ORG Editors: imagine, if you will, that we have used the same ‘it is suggested’, ‘our supposition is’, etc..

It seems to these Editors that there are, when you boil the whole story down, five (or four-and-a-half) problems in ‘Mrs. Bathurst’:

  1. Why did Vickery desert?
  2. Was it Vickery’s corpse found by the railway in Matabeleland?
  3. Whose was the second corpse found alongside the presumed Vickery corpse?
  4. Was it suicide?
  5. Why did the Captain of the Hierophant apparently connive at Vickery’s desertion?

Question (2) is the half-a-problem, because the evidence, although perhaps not complete, is sufficient to convince a court that it was indeed Vickery – the tattoo is surely sufficient. The fact that Hooper does not actually pull the false teeth out of his waistcoat pocket should not be taken as a negative indication: Kipling has signalled several times in the tale that Hooper has a set of dentures which match the description given by Pyecroft, and we may ask, “Surely, if the teeth Hooper had did not match Pyecroft’s description, then why should Hooper conceal the fact?”

As for question (1), we suggest that Vickery deserted from guilt, because he couldn’t face up to what he had done to Mrs. Bathurst and, indirectly, to his wife, by impregnating the latter so that she died in childbirth. We have Pyecroft’s “evidence” (scarcely an expert witness, but the only evidence we have) that he was unstable prior to seeing Mrs Bathurst on the screen and prior to learning of his wife’s death (p. 358: “Mad? The man was a dumb lunatic – must ‘ave been for months – years p’raps”). This may be taken as meaning that Vickery was emotionally, if not mentally, unstable, but not so far as to impede his duties on board the Hierophant – the naval authorities would have noticed. His actions in Cape Town indicate that he was powerfully affected, emotionally, by seeing Mrs Bathurst on the screen, to an irrational degree, unless he had been involved with her.

For question (3), we agree with the ORG, and feel confident that the second corpse was just another tramp. It is inconceivable that a woman, even a disguised woman (and how do you disguise a woman with ‘It’?), would not have attracted remark, and we have a direct report from Hooper, who has spoken to a colleague who in turn has met the tramps at close quarters, without any suggestion that the second tramp was a woman. Furthermore, it is stretching credulity and coincidence too far to believe that Mrs. Bathurst could have made contact with Vickery, who, as a deserter on the run, would have been unable to forecast his own movements. [We have discussed this point in considering Daniel Karlin’s notes on this tale.] Why then introduce a second tramp? One suggestion offered is that there must be closure: the tale has reached its end. Vickery could have been killed off in many ways, but, given that he is a fugitive, a death in the bush (or teak) is entirely appropriate (though there would have been many more equally plausible ways). To get him there realistically, Kipling has made him become a tramp: but we have no great reason to think that Vickery has a death-wish (though the author may have one for him). It is true that he talked, rather wildly, while in Capetown, of committing murder (on Pyecroft), which would inevitably have led to his own death, but had he wished to commit suicide he could easily have let himself fall overboard one dark night, and it would merely have been an accident – without the disgrace of desertion. However, as a tramp he would be quite likely to have picked up a companion, so that if there were an accident, he could have been cared for until a passing train offered some form of succour. So, the second tramp is there because it is natural for him to have been there. Had the second tramp not been there, this editor at least would probably have said to himself “That’s not very likely, that he should go off into wild country on his own”.

For question (4), if we accept that the second corpse was just another tramp (and the great majority of critics share this view), then the supposition that Vickery was standing to protect that tramp becomes less tenable. It has been suggested that he is seeking death, but we do not think this is tenable, either. We have said that if he wished to commit suicide he could have done it quietly, and without the stigma of desertion, one quiet night in the middle watch at sea. If, for some reason, he determined to kill himself ashore, why has he waited for two months, and then chosen the chancy method of standing in the open in a thunderstorm? If, despite all this, he thought the storm offered an opportunity to take his own life, a surer method would have been to seek shelter under the tallest of the nearby trees.

In naval terms, question (5) is the most difficult problem of all. Prima facie, the captain of one of H.M. Ships would have been in the highest degree unlikely to connive at the desertion of an officer, particularly if, as has been suggested by a number of critics, Vickery had come to him saying, in effect, “I’ve committed bigamy” (or perhaps no more than “I’ve got myself involved with a woman”), “and it’s driving me out of my mind, to the extent that I can’t trust myself not to murder someone”. My reaction, as a naval officer, would have been to sympathise, but also to send for the Medical Officer. If I investigated the matter further, and found that the immediate cause of my Gunner’s apparent emotional turmoil was no more than that he had seen his inamorata on a cinema screen in Cape Town, apparently in London, my reaction would have been confirmed. (Had he said “She’s here in Cape Town”, matters might have been different.) Vickery’s emotional and mental problems may be substantial, but for them to lead to murder (on the evidence given) would be totally irrational. In the short term, the man ought to be locked up for his own safety, and the good of the ship. To send him off ashore, alone, to do some unspecified task, with the risk that, in his precarious mental state, he would have injured or killed some blameless civilian would have been highly irresponsible (even if Pyecroft has said (p. 345, line 19), “They do do strange things at sea, Mr. Hooper.’).

But we do not know any of this: what we do know is that the captain had “shipped ‘is court-martial face”. If we are to seek significance in every phrase (and it is generally agreed that Mrs. Bathurst requires such examination) it is suggested that this is a very pertinent phrase: it implies that Vickery has confessed to some naval crime. Bigamy was not a naval crime, but, if an action were brought, would have been in the civilian criminal or civil courts. But if Vickery could persuade his captain that some naval error had been made, which not only reflected badly on Vickery, but also on the ship and hence her captain, then the captain might well wear a court-martial face, and would take counsel of the Admiral’s staff ashore. Since Vickery is the Gunner, and since, as becomes apparent, the solution to his problem involved ammunition, it may be reasonably supposed that the problem which Vickery has taken to his captain, involved guns and/or ammunition (or at least, that is what Vickery has told his captain).

On the other hand, if Vickery’s problems, as presented to his captain, were personal and emotional, one would have expected the captain to send for the ship’s medical officer, or to consult with the Fleet Medical Officer – at this time there was a naval hospital at Simons Town, with a Fleet Surgeon in charge. There was also an asylum, the Valkenberg Asylum, opened in 1891, in the Cape Town suburb of Observatory, just below the Groote Schuur Hospital A century later we may think that our predecessors’ knowledge of psychiatric matters was slight, but Freud’s first work on psychoanalysis was already published; and the Royal Navy had a dedicated hospital (Royal Naval Hospital, Great Yarmouth) for patients with mental problems (the great-grandfather of one of your editors, a Staff Captain, Royal Navy, spent time there after suffering a breakdown in 1902, at exactly the date of this story). So it may be taken that the Navy was aware of such problems, and had a mechanism for coping with/treating them. There is no suggestion in the tale that this mechanism was invoked.

Elsewhere, we have proposed, as a fictional exercise, a naval solution to what it was that Vickery said to his Captain, and why the Bloemfontein trip was authorised.

Also see a note on what might have happened afterwards.


©Alastair Wilson 2008 All rights reserved