First published in the Civil and Military Gazette, 2 August 1889. Collected Volume VII, No.48 of Turn-overs, 1889, and in Abaft the Funnel (Unauthorised and Authorised Editions), 1909.
Set in California, the story is related by a man from Calaveras County near San Francisco. Lot Vermilyea is an upstanding young man who falls in love with the daughter of an Irishman named Dougherty. After being booted out of the house several times when he comes courting, Dougherty finally challenges him to a fight to see if Lot can beat him. Lot does, and is permitted to marry the girl.
What Lot did not anticipate is that his father-in-law will thereafter keep visiting him and picking a fight. Lot always wins, but the old man is delighted to have someone in the family who can give him his exercise free-of-charge, and comes back for more after recovering from each fight. Nor that his father-in-law, after Lot had been made a Deacon of his church, would laud him as a boss fighter to the other Deacons which didn’t do much for his ecclesiastical reputation. The story ends with Lot in despair, not because of the fighting, but of the “darned monotony of the circus.”
Kipling had left India on 9 March 1889, travelling with Professor “Aleck” and Mrs Edmonia Hill via Burma, Malaya, China, Japan and the U.S.A. on his way back to England. The reports that he sent back to the Pioneer describing his travels were collected in From Sea to Sea (1899). His arrival in San Francisco on 28 May 1889 and his stay in that city until 17 June is described in Chapters XXIII to XXV.
Calaveras County had a particular resonance with Kipling since it was the locale of many stories by Bret Harte, a prolific American author (1836-1902) of humorous verse and prose whose works had long appealed to Kipling. He could also be said to be the man who gave the impetus to Kipling to use his own fiction for the weekly edition of the Pioneer. As he related in Something of Myself, Chapter III “Seven Years Hard”:
There was to be a weekly edition of the Pioneer for Home consumption. Would I edit it, additional to ordinary work? Would I not? There would be fiction—syndicated serial-matter bought by the running foot from agencies at Home. That would fill one whole big page. The ‘sight of means to do ill deeds’ had the usual effect. Why buy Bret Harte, I asked, when I was prepared to supply home-grown fiction on the hoof? And I did.
Kipling expressed his enthusiasm for Bret Harte on other occasions in Something of Myself, and makes several references to him and his works in From Sea to Sea. In a letter to his sister of 8 March 1931 he is still quoting from one of Bret Harte’s stories, “Baby Sylvester” in reference to his poem, “Akbar’s Bridge” (Limits and Renewals):
Now I have set the verses aside to drain—all same cheese. At the end of a few weeks it—like Baby Sylvester— will “yield a thin treacle.” Which means I shall be able to make it shorter by a verse or two.
(The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, Vol.6, ed T. Pinney, p.23).
Bare-knuckle fighting was still common in 1889 although there were attempts to ban prizefights, and boxing with gloves was just starting to come in. One of the best known of the fighters of the time was John L. Sullivan (1858-1918), an Irish-American, who won a major bout in July of that year near Richburg, Mississippi.
©David Page 2006 All rights reserved