First published as “The Recrudescence of Imray” in Mine Own People in the United States in 1891 and Life’s Handicap the same year.
Imray has disappeared, and despite the usual enquiries, there is no trace of him. Three or four months later his bungalow is rented by Strickland of the police and soon after the narrator quarters himself on Strickland. It is a wild night, of drenching rain, and is is hard to get to sleep. During the small hours the narrator senses the presence of a strange figure, trying to convey some urgent message. Strickland’s great dog is also disturbed.
The next day there is no rational explanation for these apprehensions. However, they happen to see a snake up by the corner of the ceiling cloth, which is disappearing into the roof space. Strickland climbs up after it, and finds Imray’s body, with its throat cut, lying on the rafters. Strickland suspects Imray’s servant, who confesses to the murder.
In Life’s Handicap the story is headed by the following lines, also collected in Songs from Books (1913).
The doors were wide, the story saith,
Out of the night came the patient wraith,
He might not speak, and he could not stir
A hair of the Baron’s minniver—
Speechless and strengthless, a shadow thin,
He roved the castle to seek his kin.
And oh, ’twas a piteous thing to see
The dumb ghost follow his enemy!
Philip Holberton writes: In these lines a ghost follows its enemy. It can be seen but is completely powerless: he could not stir.
A hair of the Baron’s miniver Miniver is a fur used in trimming ceremonial dress. The ghost in the story can do a bit more: it is seen by the narrator’s servant and by the dog Tietjens, it tramps around the house, tries to open a door, and speaks in a husky whisper.
In Life’s Handicap the verse is entitled “The Baron.” ORG says that these lines are based on “The Baron of St. Castine”, Part Two of “The Student’s Tale” in Tales of a Wayside Inn by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). However, I am sceptical about whether “The Baron of St. Castine” deserves to be credited as Kipling’s inspiration. There’s a Baron and a castle, but no wraith and no enemy to follow; the verse form is very common – what Byron called “The fatal facility of the octo-syllabic verse.” [P.H.]
In Allahabad in 1888 Kipling was staying with friends in who lived in a pre-Mutiny bungalow :
… It had cloth ceilings to create an air-pocket under the thatched roof. Once when a powerfully unpleasant smell pervaded the house, it was traced to a small dead squirrel trapped under the roof – an incident that Rudyard used in this story. [ Andrew Lycett p. 163]
Some critical comments
Angus Wilson (p. 66) is not impressed by Strickland’s prowess:
The only detection that Strickland performs for us seems to satisfy his own pleasure in his authority rather than to reveal any of the famed nearly superhuman powers of seeing into the native mind that he is credited with.
Philip Mason likewise (pp. 104-5):
…murder was suspected; can it be supposed that the house was not searched ? It would have been full of police for a week. It was the hot weather and it would not have been long before a corpse became noticeable…Imray’s bearer would have been closely questioned…these are glaring absurdities…
[That is as may be, but the story rushes along with such gusto that the reader – and particularly this one – never noticed ! Ed.]
Thurston Hopkins however, (p.62) regards this story as: ‘a veritable masterpiece in the art of presenting the essential, in literary temperance…’ He disagrees (p. 63) with critics who call this and the previous story ‘ “shockers” of an exaggerated and pernicious stamp’ claiming that ‘They were written to show how isolated Englishmen have fought long, silent fights against the powers of darkness and death in India.’
The Times of 27 January 1914 reported on a dramatisation of this story at the Court Theatre presented by Mr.Rowland Pertwee. The reviewer remarks:
The result was not entirely satisfactory, and perhaps it might have been foretold that the gruesome story … would suffer by being translated from the suggestiveness of narrative to the harsh realism of stage presentation.
[J H McG]
©John McGivering 2006 All rights reserved