At the End of the Passage

(notes edited by John McGivering)


First published in the United States of America on 20 July 1890 in the Boston Herald and then in Lippincott’s Magazine for August the same year. Collected in 1891 in an authorised volume Mine Own People (following an American “ pirate” volume of the same name) and in Life’s Handicap (1891) in the United Kingdom.

The story

Four young men, a doctor, a civil servant, a surveyor, and an engineer, get together each week in the engineer’s house in a remote station, to dine and chat. It is the summer season, and there is no escape from the heat and dust, and little to entertain them. Hummil, the engineer, is near the end of his tether, arguing stridently with the others, in a vile temper. He has not slept properly for days, and when he does drop off, he is afflicted by fearful dreams. He has put a spur in his bed to stop himself drifting into the shallow sleep of nightmares.

The doctor, Spurstow, unloads Hummil’s gun, lest he shoot himself, and gives him bromide to help him sleep deeply. But when they return a week later, they find him dead. There are images of horror in the dead eyes.

Verse Heading

In Life’s Handicap the story is headed by the following lines, also collected in Songs from Books (1913).

The sky is lead and our faces are red,
And the gates of Hell are opened and riven,
And the winds of Hell are loosened and driven,
And the dust flies up in the face of Heaven,
And the clouds come down in a fiery sheet,
Heavy to raise and hard to be borne.
And the soul of man is turned from his meat,
Turned from the trifles for which he has striven
Sick in his body, and heavy hearted,
And his soul flies up like the dust in the sheet
Breaks from his flesh and is gone and departed,
As the blasts they blow on the cholera-horn.

Philip Holberton writes: In Life’s Handicap this verse is called “Himalayan”. It is the third verse (of four) of a poem of that name by Kipling published in Echoes in 1884. The style is a parody of a minor American poet, Joaquin Miller. The other three verses, though still describing the hot season in the Plains of India, are relatively light-hearted, using a number of native words for comic effect and with the names of three hill-stations (Simla, Murree, and Naini Tal) as a sort of refrain.
The verse used here as a Heading, like the story, is deadly serious. The heat and the wind come from Hell, man loses all appetite and all interest, until his soul leaves his body – as happened to Hummil in the story, literally frightened to death. A Cholera-horn, in the final line, is ‘a long brass horn of hideous sound often used at native funerals’. [Hobson-Jobson].

Some critical comments

Carrington (p. 469) looks upon this as a problem-story in the same mode as the problem-pictures which were so popular at the Academy in Kipling’s younger days. ‘This is all I am going to tell you’, says the author. Make what you can of it.’

See Philip Mason (p. 101) for an examination of this story – he believes Kipling himself may have experienced similar unspeakable fear coming in dreams. [This is also the theme of “In the Same Boat” in A Diversity of Creatures.]

See also J M S Tompkins (p.205):

I cannot be sure that ‘ the blind face that cries and can’t wipe it’s eyes,’ which appears with horrible facetiousness in “La Nuit Blanche” in Departmental Ditties and as pure horror in (this story) rose in Kipling’s own dreams, but he himself has told us in “Brazilian Sketches” (Sussex Edition, Volume 24) that once in a child’s dream he wandered into a Fifth Quarter of the world and ‘ found everything different from all previous knowledge,’ and the memory of that dream must have provided the groundwork for George Cottar’s (“The Brushwood Boy” in The Day’s Work) wanderings …

Braybrooke [Kipling’s Soldiers, C W Daniel, London 1925, p. 92 ) regards this as a study of a man driven mad by three elementals:

The sense of being alone, the force of the pitiless sun ….. and the curse of being unable to sleep. …. Something robs Hummil of sleep and his mind slowly but surely goes.

See also Mary Hamer’s essay
“Kipling and Dreams”

[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2006 All rights reserved