First published in Limits and Renewals (1932) where it is accompanied by “Azrael’s Count” which describes the undying love that sometimes exists between man and woman.
This is what J M S Tomkins has called a ‘celestial fable’, similar in style to “On the Gate” (Debits and Credits). It is concerned with suffering, and hope, and disappointment, and breaking strain, serious matters, though Kipling — who seems to have rejected the idea of Hell, and indeed much of conventional Christian belief — appears not to be entirely serious throughout the tale. The character of the Archangel of the English, for example, allows for some gentle derision at the expense of modern Liberal optimism, while there is a continuing undercurrrent of mockery of bureaucracy, which — for some readers at least — tends to obscure the more serious issues at stake.
Satan shows the Archangels Azrael and Gabriel, with some pride, one of his ingenious contrivances for testing humanity, a replica of a railway terminus where people wait endlessly for trains which may or may not bring them their loved ones. (Kipling’s lodgings were just across the road from Charing Cross Station, one of the great London termini) This is a metaphor which is also used in “On the Gate”, and has echoes of that enigmatic story “Mrs Bathurst” in Traffics and Discoveries.
The narrative is neatly encapsulated in KJ 129/16 by A.E. Bagwell-Purefoy:
The best way to tackle it is, first of all, to pick the thread of the actual story
out of the mass of Argument, Talk, Description, Mechanics, etc., that almost
engulf the reader. It’s none too easy to do this, but the tale is, in fact, that of
two high-born mortals, whom for simplicity’s sake we’ll call Lord and Lady. Both
are fated to come to a bad end should they ever meet. In Part One of the story
they do meet, and their Guardian Spirits, Kalka’il and Ruya’il, are put under arrest
for allowing it. But it turns out, on enquiry, that the meeting of Lord and Lady
was inevitable, because their Guardian Spirits, when on Earth, had suffered exactly
the same fate: disaster through knowing each other. Then, when they’d both
been through Hell and ‘reconditioned’ for useful work, they were allowed to meet
in Heaven, which meant that automatically their charges met—so their story was
repeated. A bad mistake by Gabriel’s Department, in allotting Kalka’il and Ruya’il
to Lord and Lady. End of Part One.
Part Two traces, sketchily but grimly, the downfall of Lord and Lady after
their first meeting. Both are rich, both are highly-placed, and both are utterly
wretched. It’s not quite clear whether they fell into squalid poverty while still on
Earth or after they’d left it, but by the time we see them again—at Hell’s Railway
Terminus—they’re both pretty nasty sights: seedy, dirty, and babbling of their
past distinctions. Each is desperately searching for the other, suffering agony in
the process, but—and here, surely, is the Diamond in the Clay—agonising though
their memories are, each fights like mad to keep them. They utterly refuse to be
drugged into forgetfulness. And that must be because, at the bottom of it all,
they’ve still got HOPE. So this story has a cheering message, too, though it’s
buried much deeper than in “On the Gate.”
And then at last, crudely and accidentally as they did on Earth, they’re allowed
to bump into each other again—and all the horror drops away with: ” What does
it matter now, Dear ! “
J M S Tompkins can always be relied upon to examine an obscure story in detail and this she does (page 183 passim) after writing of “On the Gate” that ‘so delicate and gay is this tune played upon the bones of death’:
The mode of “Uncovenanted Mercies,” the companion-piece to “On the Gate,” does not allow of this sort of stroke. It is not a tale of the War, and the tendrils that hold it to contemporary life are not sensitive to such a tug. Yet the weight of human pain is conveyed, in a different fashion, when Gabriel, Azrael and Satan wait in the casualty-room in Hell during an endless interval and submit themselves to the agony that creeps in from outside … This is the myriad dust of suffering mortality which obscures these shining figures, and Azrael groans ‘How long…?’
[See also KJ 169/06]
Bonamy Dobrée (in Elliott Gilbert (Ed.), page 56) writes of redemption in “The Gardener”:
Though Kipling may not have been in any ordinary sense of the word a Christian, it would seem clear that this Gospel reference to Mary Magdalene meeting Christ at the Tomb is profoundly revealing of his attitude. If this were an isolated case, it would not perhaps count for much: but the attitude is evident again and again, as in “Uncovenanted Mercies”.
Dobrée also notes that the choruses of “The Supports”, the verse that follows “On the Gate” include ‘Glories, Powers and Toils’, but also – and this one ought to notice – ‘of Patiences, Faiths and Loves’. This is, Dobrée believes, confirmed by the remark at page 375 line 27 of “Uncovenanted Mercies”, ‘even Evil itself shall pity’.
That may be so, but Kipling seems, generally speaking, to exhibit a broadly eclectic attitude towards different religious beliefs, as reflected in his verse “The Two-Sided Man”, and in his account of childhood visits to Catholic and Hindu shrines in the opening pages of Something of Myself.
Descended from a long line of Methodist ministers, he was christened into and brought up in the Church of England, and in his Southsea years as a six-year old was subjected to fundamentalist Christian notions of Sin and Damnation, and introduced to Hell ‘in all its terrors’. He had a remarkable knowledge of the King James Bible, as one sees in much of his writing. But in “Dead Kings” (Letters of Travel, page 259), in a dialogue with a long dead Egyptian official in a tomb lined with images of gods, he elicits the answer to a Riddle of the Sphinx : ‘All sensible men are of the same religion, but no sensible man ever tells’.
Philip Mason regards “Uncovenanted Mercies” as one of the stories about important things in Limits and Renewals and A Diversity of Creatures, ‘which repay reading more than once; indeed, it would be a very acute reader who discovered the full flavour of any of them at first reading’ (page 210). Mason later points out that Satan, who is a member of the Hierarchy, on equal terms with his colleagues, wearing a halo as they do, is the Satan of the Book of Job, not the embodiment of evil of Paradise Lost, ‘a servant of the Mercy, whose task it is to test men and women and prove them. It is one part of his duties to recondition human souls for re-issue’ (page 270).
Charles Carrington. (page 475), who himself had fought through the Great War on the Western Front, writes in relation to Kipling’s bleak “Epitaphs of the War”
These were his final comments on the First World War: to every man his own private terror, his own vein of courage, his own breaking-strain, his own salvation by a loving attachment to life; and the other aspect of the picture may be seen in the strange, elaborate – not quite successful – allegories of the after-life, “On the Gate” and “Uncovenanted Mercies”. The reader is not expected to believe in them unreservedly.
But Dr Tompkins sees a profound message in this final tale from Kipling’s final collection:
What is indicated here is the generation of a positive spiritual force in despair and degradation; and the requirement of the test for Breaking Strain is that the subject shall resist the offer of oblivion and persist in self-acceptance, with the painful consciousness of all he has lost and discarded. He is then, in the language of the Infernal industry, reconditioned for re-issue. This is a heavy burden for a fantasy to carry, and its gait, in consequence, is lopsided. The mercies that are outside the Covenant … derive from the belief, natural to an artist if he believes at all, that nothing can break the bond between creature and creator, that God is God not only of those who acknowledge him but of those who do not, and for these mercies it is difficult to find satisfactory images.
[G S / J H McG]
©Gillian Sheehan and John McGivering 2008 All rights reserved