First published in Nash’s Pall Mall and the Metropolitan Magazine for December 1913, collected in A Diversity of Creatures (1917) where it is accompanied by the poem “Rebirth”; also collected in the Sussex Edition Volume 9, page 273, the Burwash Edition Volume 9, and Scribner’s Edition Volume 26.
In London, in 1913, the narrator meets the American inventor Laughton Zigler, whom he had last encountered as a prisoner during the South African War. (See “The Captive” in Traffics and Discoveries.) Zigler has built up a successful arms business and become rich, and he carries the narrator off to the elegant country house, overlooking the English Channel, where he is living, entertaining a large house party in grand style.
This is the frame to a strange tale by Zigler. He and three distinguished British friends, including a senior Judge, had been golfing in the park, and surprised two airmen, presumably German spies — though no evidence is given for their nationality — who had just landed in their bi-plane. They fire on Zigler and his friends, who fight back with their golf clubs, inadvertently killing both intruders. Because it was an accident, they know they would probably be acquitted of murder, but there would be an international scandal. They put the bodies back on the plane, start the engine, and sent it out to sea. It is never seen again.
Philip Holberton writes: For the purposes of the story, the spies’ plane must be silent. So [Page 275 line 31] Zigler has invented a silencer: “I am the Rush Silencer for military aeroplanes – absolutely silent – which the Continent leases under royalty.” The plane is also fitted with “My Renzalaer” [Page 294 line 30] – another of Zigler’s inventions; “I am the Renzalaer ten-cylinder aerial – the lightest aeroplane engine on the market.” [Page 275 line 27]
Charles Carrington (p. 410) groups this story with “My Son’s Wife” later in this volume and “An Habitation Enforced” (Actions and Reactions) as accounts of a London intellectual and an Anglo-American family settling in the English countryside. He might have added “An Error in the Fourth Dimension” (The Day’s Work) concerning another American whose attempt at settling in England was unsuccessful. All have a slight tinge of Kipling’s own life in Sussex but we are warned not to regard the story as autobiographical.
Edmund Wilson, in his rather spiteful essay “The Kipling that Nobody Read”, comments on the discussion in Zigler’s house party, which turns on the issue of the assimilation of incomers into a society, and their influence. Mrs Burton, Zigler’s mother-in-law, had expressed the view that in his defeat of the South in the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had: ‘wasted the heritage of his land … and had surrendered the remnant to aliens’, and Wilson suggests that these are Kipling’s own views, as expressed in Something of Myself (p. 128), where, writing of his time in Vermont in the 1890s he recalls:
I first began to wonder whether Abraham Lincoln had not killed too many autochthonous (original inhabitants) ‘Americans’ in the Civil War, for the benefit of their hastily imported Continental supplanters.
Kipling does, however, go on to accept that: ‘This is black heresy…’
But the heart of the tale is the killing of the airmen. Dr Tompkins reminds us (p. 108) that both this story and “The Honours of War” (earlier in this volume) were written in the years before the 1914-1918 war, and have linked poems that were written after it had broken out:
“The Edge of the Evening” is a sinister tale; the light is fading … indicative of a bad stretch ahead
Angus Wilson believes (p. 259) that in December 1913 Kipling’s sense of the immediacy of a German invasion was so strong that he wrote this story, and Andrew Lycett takes a similar view (p. 434).
T.S. Eliot, proposing the toast “The Unfading Genius of Rudyard Kipling” at the Annual Luncheon of the Kipling Society in 1958 (KJ129/9) observed:
He had a gift of prophecy…He foresaw two wars. That of 1914 is foreshadowed in his “Ode to France” written in 1913. (collected as “France”) And in 1932 he foresaw, in “The Storm Cone,” the storm that was to burst seven years later. He seems to me the greatest English man of letters of his generation.
[This address was also reprinted in Kipling and the Critics p. 118]
It is indeed possible that Kipling saw the 1914 War approaching as early as 1902, witness his verse “The Islanders”, and “The Captive” the same year (Traffics and Discoveries). This Editor is of the opinion, however, that while this is also such a story, the characters are exaggerated, the country estate is more elaborate that it ever could be, while the house-party and domestic staff are overdrawn. In short, it is a parody of a spy-story, including an unlikely aircraft that would not have behaved in the manner described. Kipling is again ahead of his time. While time has not yet (2008) caught up with him, this tale can still be enjoyed as a rattling good yarn, even when taken with a pinch of salt.
[J H McG]
©John McGivering 2008 All rights reserved