Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.
Every work of fiction must meet the test of credibility: while we are reading, we must believe. Coleridge called it "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment." That does not mean that fiction must be written in the realistic mode; any mode will do so long as the writer is able to make us believe. The work must have inner credibility. We know that all fiction is made up; we ask only that the writer manage his task so the evidence of contrivance is not obvious. In the last issue of the Review I called a story of Kipling's one of the finest in the language because of its seeming naturalness, for the skill with which he concealed his artistry. There are plenty of very fine works that do not come up to that standard, and our literature would be impoverished without them. For example, some of Hemingway's early stories (I'm thinking of "The Killers") seem perfectly natural, but "In Another Country," fine as it is, seems contrived. There are degrees of artistry and we may, according to our taste, enjoy even poorly contrived fictions. Putting taste aside, let us strive for intellectual clarity here and say that the best writers are those who create the most believable fiction.
Crime fiction is perhaps the most obviously contrived genre, with its stereotyped plots, situations, and characters, but we can be charmed again and again by the absurdities of Hercule Poirot or Inspector Maigret or countless other amateur and professional sleuths because the better writers create a world, an atmosphere that seems real because it is internally consistent, i.e., no matter how immoral some of the characters may be, they all inhabit the same behavioral and moral universe. To put it another way, we do not expect characters in an Agatha Christie story to behave as the characters in a Simenon novel--their worlds are quite different. There are not many of these better writers, and there never were. Crime fiction is a vast field full of lousy writers, but it has produced two masters, Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, and I think Michael Gilbert (1912-2006) will one day be ranked right behind them because he created a solid, believable world in his fiction, one that does not seem at all contrived.
Here's a quotation from the introduction to one of his recent books:
It is the fashion nowadays for the author to penetrate deeply into the characters and feelings of his policemen; their family quarrels and upsets, their psychological backgrounds, their secret ambitions and phobias, all are laid bare for us. The great American writer Professor Jacques Barzun objected strongly to the practice. "Am I a couch?" he demanded. I side with Barzun. Let your policeman get on with his job. --The Man Who Hated Banks
My sentiments exactly, and not just because I want the "policeman to get on with his job"; with all the couch work the characters are less and less believable as it becomes obvious that the extraneous goings-on are deliberate distractions from what's supposed to be the main story line; we see the characters as bogus devices used to fill an essentially empty construction, as ploys to brand name a product (the cat-loving cop, the alcoholic cop, etc), as displays of pretension revealing a writer both incapable of writing a simple detective story and simultaneously a jerk who thinks he's too good for that. Such books dominate the field nowadays and amazingly, their writers think that by such devices they achieve realism and evade contrivance!
What crime fiction did Michael Gilbert write? From 1947 when his first novel, Close Quarters, was published, until 50 years later, he published some 30 novels and story collections, ranging "from Scotland Yard police procedurals to classic country-house mysteries, action-packed thrillers, and tales of the seamy side of London life." [Blurb from back cover of The Man Who Hated Banks] All of it is characterized by naturalness, warmth, economy, pertinence, and for lack of a better word, ordinariness. This is from Young Petrella:
"It's a Ponting job," said Superintendent Palance. "It's got their registered trade mark all over it. Get after them quick. They're probably hiding up."
But the Pontings were not hiding. They were at home, and in bed. They raised no objection to a search of their premises.
"It's irregular," said Sidney. "But what have we got to hide?"
"You boys have got your job to do," said Jack. "Get it finished, and we can get on with our breakfast."
Palance came up to see Haxtell. "They certainly did it. They most certainly did it. Equally certainly they've dumped the diamonds. And none of them has reached a receiver yet, I'm sure of that. And the Pontings use Mrs. Coulman."
"Yes," said Haxtell. "Well, we must hope to do better this time."
"Are you set on trying it on your own?" Palance was senior to Haxtell. And he was longer in service, and older in experience. Haxtell thought of these things, and paused. He was well aware of the responsibility he was shouldering, and which he could so easily evade. Then he said, "I really think the only way is to try it ourselves, quietly."
"All right," said Palance. He didn't add, "And on your own head be it." He was never a man to waste words.
Note the economy of writing and the despatch with which the narrative is pursued. There isn't a wasted word, but Gilbert is careful not to drain the Ponting's crime and its consequences of color and interest by reducing everything to a bare recital. Palance's eagerness and earnestness are there in his short sentences and repetitions, which makes Haxtell's decision more impressive, and helps to characterize him, too. The remarks of the Pontings seem unnecessary to the story, but they show by their coolness their confidence in the redoubtable fence, Mrs. Coulman, whose elusiveness is the story's subject. In half a page we've covered several days of action, seen the anxiety of the police and the cockiness of the crooks, and begun to have a feeling for the characters.
From another story in the same volume:
"Don't forget the most important item," said Barstow. "The limp."
Petrella said, "It did occur to me to wonder, sir, whether we ought to place much reliance on the limp."
He received a glare which would have daunted a less self-confident man. "He would have to have somewhere to hide that big screwdriver. It was almost two foot long. The natural place would be a pocket inside his trouser leg. That might account for the appearance of a stiff leg."
Haxtell avoided Barstow's eye. "It's an idea," he said. "Now just get along and start checking on this list of Miss Martin's known relations."
"There was one other thing-"
"Do you know," observed Superintendent Barstow unkindly, why God gave young policemen two feet but only one head?"
Petrella accepted the hint and departed. Nevertheless the idea persisted; and later that day, when he was alone with Haxtell, he voiced it to him.
Here we glimpse Barstow's irascible authority, Petrella's ingenuousness and intelligence, and Haxtell's sympathetic backing of his subordinate, achieved again with a few strokes.
This is from Roller-Coaster, the last novel featuring Patrick Petrella:
Groener said, "This morning Sergeant Belling--one of my most experienced men--was taking a look at the East Stepney Dock. It's a small dock--it hasn't been used for many years--near the out-flow of the Limehouse Cut. He'd taken his launch into the entrance channel. There's no gate at the river end and it's blocked at the far end by a movable grating. There's a narrow beach of shingle and mud on each side of the channel, just above tide level, and it was on the downstream beach, a few yards in from the river, that he spotted the body. And the real puzzle was how the hell it got there."
"Might it have been dropped from the dock?" said Gwilliam.
"Quite impossible. There was no sign of anyone having broken into the dock, which was strongly barred. And if they had got in, to put the body where it was found, would have meant hoisting it over a ten-foot railing of pointed steel spikes."
"And why should anyone have bothered?" said Petrella.
"If they wanted to get rid of the body, they'd have weighted it and dropped it into the river, not left it where it was bound to be spotted sooner or later."
"Might it have been brought in from the river?" said Summerson.
"The same objection," said Petrella. "Why do it?"
Having allowed the amateurs to talk nonsense, Groener was now prepared to pronounce a professional judgment. He said, "I don't think anyone brought that body in. Let me explain. On this stretch of the river boats observe a sort of rule of the road. When the tide's ebbing, and they're coming up against it, they're allowed to hug the banks, where there's some slack water. Boats going down use the tidal flow and keep to mid-stream. So what I'm reasonably sure must have happened is that the body was floating down close to the bank and still high in the water."
"Explain that last bit," said Petrella, who was listening intently.
"A body that goes in fully clothed doesn't sink straight away. Which is how quite a few attempted suicides have been saved. Their rescuers have been able to grab them before their clothes get sodden and pull them right down. Now if a barge came past, near the bank and against the stream, its bow wave would be quite strong enough to lift a body that was only just submerged clean out of the water and deposit it on the beach just inside the entrance."
"Which fits in," said Petrella, "with its being found on the down-stream beach. How long would a body float high?"
The passage conveys facts (which will be very important later) in a way that seems wholly natural. It seems simple, but if you've ever read any crime fiction, you'll know that while this is one of the principal tasks in the genre, the bedrock on which everything rests, its management is not easy. Here we get the facts spontaneously, as it were, and we also get an impression of Groener as a man of solid authority, and one of Petrella as intelligent and thoughtful.
Note the naturalness, the ordinariness of these excerpts--and yet, the economy of the writing and the unwavering focus on the subject gives them a tautness, a heightened quality which makes them hold our interest. This is an impression of ordinariness created artistically. Gilbert is never sensational; he gets and holds our attention by the quality of his writing. I happen to have chosen excerpts from two of the three books about Petrella, but his books about counter-espionage, about the adventures of a semi-retired lawyer, about spy rings, about the career of a ruthless entrepreneur, and so on, exhibit these qualities, too. The characters are never fanciful or absurd, and except for the worst villains, they are sympathetic figures, fellow human beings. That is a very rare accomplishment in crime fiction.
One of the chief pleasures of crime fiction has always been the satisfaction of our moral sense, the triumph of right over wrong, of good over evil, but that's another failing of contemporary writing: too many writers think it's sophisticated to make their detectives wallow in moral ambiguity, to blur the distinction between good and evil, even to deny it altogether (as in Le Carre's cold war spy novels). Of course there are degrees of moral certainty, in life as in art, and we all have varying expectations and predilections in this regard. I like old-fashioned Westerns, for instance, stories featuring a much-maligned but innocent cowboy who arrives on the scene to find an honest old rancher and his beautiful, spunky daughter being swindled by sinister villains (their locus the back room of a saloon) in league with corrupt local powers. The cowboy comes to the aid of the rancher, and after much fisticuffs and gunplay, he defeats the villains, marries the girl, and gets the ranch. Put another way, I'm not looking for verisimilitude when I read a Western; I'm trying to recapture the feelings I had when I went through a pulp magazine phase at the age of ten.
Expecting good to triumph in crime fiction, we know it can never be as true to life as great imaginative literature: Ishmael is saved but the innocent crew of the Pequod goes down with Captain Ahab; Lord Jim finally acts up to his self-conception but must die in the act. Melville and Conrad, like Gilbert, are writing about a moral universe; the difference is that theirs is more profound, more complex. There may be defeats and ambiguities, but ultimately good is not confused with evil.
That is a contemporary phenomenon. To shed further light on it, let me digress for a moment. After the 2004 election, National Public Radio began broadcasting a program, "Focus on Faith," meant to show that Democrats were religious, too, but naturally the lefty conception of religion was bound to be peculiar. In fact, the program, featuring old lefties and spokesmen for bizarre forms of "spirituality," is resolutely anti-religious. Recently, a "moderate" Republican senator was interviewed so he could denounce legislators who claim their votes are directed by God. The charge is absurd, but I'm sure the senator believes it, because any moral argument immediately rouses the lefty fear of God and religion. One can say that they use the dreaded word "God" to discredit morality. They are desperate to think themselves free of all that. That's why abortion is their most cherished cause--what could show the futility, the irrelevance of morality better than the legal sanction of the slaughter of the innocents?
Which is where morally ambiguous fiction comes in. Literature, like other cultural influences, precedes ideas; it creates habits of mind and heart that build up visions of life, visions that guide and sustain us. The visions inculcated by modern writing have helped to create the amorality of our time. Unfortunately, too many conservatives seem to think politics is the answer,that culture is a sideshow--how wrong they are!
To return to Michael Gilbert. His work is not simplistic (in the sense of my favorite Westerns) nor is it as morally complex as great art. At the end of Waugh's Scoop, William Boot is home at his beloved Boot Magna, writing his countryside column, but we know that the forces represented by the Daily Beast are just over the horizon, and owls are hunting by moonlight. When Father Urban is transformed at the end of Powers' novel, do we have second thoughts? Are we entirely convinced that his worldly wisdom was all false and that his withdrawal is wholly good? Gilbert does not moralize; he creates what seems like a commonplace world (but how interesting it is!) in which characters struggle to right wrongs, to defeat (temporarily at least) evil, and he knows that the ultimate stakes are far larger than any individual crime:
A retired Admiral is musing on the future of two children he has met:
It was going to be a perilously difficult world as, one after another, the old bastions went down: religion, family life, the rule of law. Stormy seas which were going to need to clear to chart the course, and strong hands on the tiller.
The story moves on, and nothing is made of the Admiral's thought, but it is a bit of chilling realism for the reader, a reminder of the fragility of civilization and the moral order. In that one touch, Gilbert shows the depth of seriousness that lies behind his wonderful creations. That's why the world in his books seems so real, so believable.
These are Michael Gilbert's books in order of publication. All are highly recommended except the first one and the last three.
They Never Looked Inside
The Doors Open
Death Has Deep Roots
Death In Captivity
Fear To Tread
Be Shot For Sixpence
Blood And Judgment
After The Fine Weather
The Crack In The Teacup
The Dust And Heat
Game Without Rules
The Etruscan Net
Stay Of Execution
The Body Of A Girl
The Ninety-Second Tiger
The Night Of The Twelfth
Petrella At Q
The Empty House
Death Of A Favourite Girl
Mr. Calder And Mr. Behrens
The Final Throw
The Black Seraphim
The Long Journey Home
Paint, Gold, Blood
Anything For A Quiet Life
The Man Who Hated Banks
The Queen Against Karl Mullen
Ring of Terror
Into Battle *
"The world is a dangerous place to live--not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." --Albert Einstein
To be well-read was once an enviable achievement, something to be admired, a sign that one was cultured. I don't think the concept exists anymore; I know the condition doesn't. Not only are the local yuppies utterly ignorant of prominent literary figures, they are unashamedly bored by the subject. I say to a 55-year-old feather merchant of the yuppie persuasion, trying to keep the shocked wonder out of my voice, "You've never heard of Rudyard Kipling?" "Nope," he replies, trying a quick perfunctory smirk as he turns with not entirely phony interest to my wife: He does not think she will bore him by raving about long-dead authors he's never heard of.
Writing literary essays was a class act in my youth; when I mention what I'm doing nowadays I get an uncomprehending stare. What is "literary"? What is "essay"? Yuppies do not need to read when they can watch dramatizations on TV or listen to tapes in the car. This turning away from literature is one of the effects of the collapse of the left-liberal worldview, as is the barrenness of contemporary writing. One system of thought is dying, another has been born but is still mute so far as imaginative writing goes. Since conservative editors are not about to give new fiction an airing, the best we can do is study the works of writers from the past to reveal their unique qualities and to show how their artistry works, in the process making us (and I include myself) more sensitive to good writing and more interested in it. Then we shall no longer accept the debased products of the time. That an intelligent person should read the New Yorker or the New York Times Book Review is a sign of the cultural confusion of our days; that conservative publications should praise squalid contemporary writing signals cultural deprivation.
Rudyard Kipling (1806-1936) began as a reporter on a paper in India when he was 18, and soon was writing short stories for the paper. It was clear right away that his was a strong, new voice, racy and unabashed, startlingly unlike the pompous, stuffy stories of the period. He was decidedly modern. An early story, "Lispeth" shows this in its tale of a Christianized hill woman, famously a beauty, who falls in love with an Englishman who, on the advice of the Chaplain's wife (who wants to pacify Lispeth) promises the girl he'll come back to marry her. After several trying months, the Chaplain's wife finally tells her the truth.
"How can what he and you said be untrue?" asked Lispeth.
"We said it as an excuse to keep you quiet, child," said the Chaplain's wife.
"Then you have lied to me," said Lispeth, "you and he?"
Lispeth goes back to her own people, renouncing Christianity. This is the concluding paragraph.
Lispeth was a very old woman when she died. She had always a perfect command of English, and when she was sufficiently drunk, could sometimes be induced to tell the story of her first love-affair.
It was hard then to realize that the bleared, wrinkled creature, exactly like a wisp of charred rag, could ever have been "Lispeth of the Kotgarh Mission."
Modernity is apparent in its economy as it moves from point to point of the simple plot without a single extraneous word, without the longwinded "word painting" common in the stories of the time, and it shows also in the author's impiety toward the gods of conventional thinking, i.e., the presumed superiority of the English, the hypocrisy of the chaplain's wife. Finally it shows in the finely balanced irony of the penultimate paragraph, both masked and heightened by the speaker's matter-of-fact tone. The last paragraph (especially "like a wisp of charred rag") dissolves all the pettiness of the plot in the unfathomable pathos of mortality.
From 1888 to 1891 Kipling published eight volumes of stories based on his Indian experience, stories of extraordinary range including Anglo-Indian life, soldiers, all kinds of Indians, spies, the Great Game of Anglo-Russian rivalry on the frontier, social comedies, love stories, farces, tragedies, etc., a remarkable virtuoso performance. There are very few failures among nearly 100 stories, and all may be read over and over again (as I have done) for their characters, situations, and artistry.
A word about how to read, and not to read, Kipling. His reputation was severely damaged among the cultural elite by the perception that he was an imperialist and generally opposed to what were regarded (and are still regarded) as the progressive movements of the time. This was certainly true, and later I shall discuss the issue, but now I'm concerned with a subtler problem. A large portion of his output was about India and Anglo-Indian life, and it was on that basis that his sudden reputation was made, so that although his later work was about other subjects and places, he will always be regarded in the light of his early reputation as the chronicler of India under the Raj. His work is too often judged as a reflection of that life. Some say the portrait is accurate, others say it's false, and then those who disapprove of colonialism disapprove of Kipling simply because that was his subject. In other words, his subject has distorted our appreciation of his work because we have forgotten that every artists's subject is an imaginative creation.
Now let's look at one of his explicitly political stories, "The Little Foxes" (1909), a comic exposure of the sentimentalities of progressivism. It tells of the unplanned but ingenious establishment of a system of governance (chiefly concerned with land titles and crops) intertwined with customs and experiences of foxhunting, set up by the English govenror, in an Ethiopian colony. All is well until the "New Era" arrives in the form of a member of Parliament bent on investigating the horrors of colonial rule. The story works by carefully building up the details of the development of the hunt and its involvement with the problems of governance, making it seem plausible and sensible, which means that Kipling has to create a believable cast of English officials, their servants, and village natives, plus the MP, Mr. Groombride. As Arnold Bennett once said, characters are indispensable to the novel, and it is just as true of Kipling's stories, which, more than anything else, are creations of characters. As the story mounts to its hilarious climax, the reader should see that the working out of the idea--anti-progressivism--is secondary to the imaginative creation itself. Ideas in Kipling's work are made the natural outgrowth of the story; they never overcome the story. No one of any sense reads a great fiction writer for his ideas.
Kipling's early stories are remarkably finished, and there are subtleties in them, but as a whole they are highly colored and sharply drawn. Nothing wrong in that, but the writer must cast a finer net if he would catch more of life in his work, and in his later stories Kipling creates works of art that are masterpieces of subtlety. One of his finest stories, and certainly the most artistically complex, "Mrs. Bathurst" (1904), achieves its effect and meaning by deliberate indirection, by painting a picture with fine small strokes, touches here and there against a seemingly bland background, here a railway siding near the naval base outside Cape Town, South Africa.
Moulded dunes, whiter than any snow, rolled far inland up a brown and purple valley of splintered rocks and dry scrub. A crowd of Malays hauled at a net beside two blue and green boats on the beach; a picnic party danced and shouted barefoot where a tiny river trickled across the flat, and a circle of dry hills, whose feet were set in sands of silver, locked us in against a seven-colored sea.
The speaker, Kipling as unobtrusive observer, is sitting in a caboose, eating sandwiches and drinking beer with Hooper, a railwayman. The tone of the scene and the relationship is utterly casual. Hooper, feeling in his vest pocket, remarks that he found a "curiosity" up the line beyond Bulawayo, but at that point he's interrupted by the appearance of Pyecroft, a sailor known to the speaker, and Pritchard, a Marine sergeant, who join them, bringing some beer. The story of how they came by the beer leads to reminiscences on the seamen's part, aided by occasional remarks by the speaker, in which the recent desertion of Warrant Officer Vickery is mentioned. He was sent up country to retrieve some Naval ammunition, and after shipping it, he disappeared. Hooper picks up his ears when he learns that Vickery had four false teeth in his lower jaw, and again feels in his vest pocket as he asks what tattoos he had. A contretemps diverts that line of inquiry, and Pyecroft goes on with the story.
"Why did Vickery run?" I began, but Pyecroft's smile made me turn my question to "Who was she?"
She was Mrs. Bathurst, a young widow who kept a small hotel and bar for Naval noncoms near Auckland, New Zealand. Pritchard is incredulous, refusing to believe she would be involved in an intrigue (Vickery is married). Pyocroft agrees that it "wasn't her fault." The speaker says,
Such faith in a Sergeant of Marines interested me greatly. "Never mind about that," I cried. "Tell me what she was like."
Both men vehemently testify to her kindness and sweet nature, but Hooper says "I can't see her yet somehow," so Pyecroft asks Pritchard how many women he's been intimate with, and answers the question himself by saying hundreds and then asking how many are remembered? Although Pritchard saw her only thrice in ten years, and Pyecroft only twice, they recall everything about her.
. . . how she stood an' what she was sayin' an' what she looked like. That's the secret. 'tisn't beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It's just It . . ."
Then Hooper begins to see: "That's more the idea. I've known just two women of that nature."
"An' it was no fault o' theirs?" asked Pritchard.
"None whatever. I know that!"
"An if a man gets struck with that kind o' woman, Mr. Hooper?" Pritchard went on.
"He goes crazy--or just saves himself," was the slow answer.
What struck me (and Kipling's discernment seems almost miraculous) was Pritchard's remark, repeated twice by Pyecroft, "she looked at me under her eyebrows in that blindish way she had o' looking," because I've known the look and felt its power.
I have dealt at such length with the description of Mrs. Bathurst because, although the story seems to be about Vickery and his fate, she and her enigmatic attraction-"It"--is the real subject, and she is made as much a living character in the story as the others, each of whom speaks in his own voice and acts characteristically. Pyecroft, something of a cynical rogue, freely uses naval terms and misues foreign phrases: "If the fat marine now occupying the foc'-she will kindly bring 'is status quo to an anchor yet once more," and Hooper less obviously speaks as a railwayman: "You did quite right to look out for your own end o' the line," while Pritchard is warmly boyish (he blushes when Pyecroft asks him about his intimacies). This scrupulous character-drawing is not done just for its own sake; the final effect of the story--how Vickery's fate strikes each character--is its meaning, as we shall see.
The rest is soon told. A circus came to Cape Town and among its attractions was one of those early films:
London Bridge with the omnibuses--a troopship goin' to the war--marines on parade at Portsmouth, the Plymouth Express arrivin' at Paddin'ton.
When Pyecroft went, Vickery, who saw the film the night before, caught him at the door and insisted they sit together, saying, "If you see anything that strikes you, drop me a hint." Finally, in the scene at Paddington station, Mrs. Bathurst appears:
There was no mistakin' the walk in a hundred thousand. She came forward--right forward--she looked out straight at us with that blindish look . . .
Vickery was sure, but he wanted Pyecroft to double his assurance. Immediately, Vickery drags Pyecroft out and takes him on a rapid bar hop, obviously in a state:
He didn't look at what he drunk--he didn't look at the change. He walked an' he drank an' he perspired rivers.
This goes on for five nights, until the circus leaves. Vickery's state is something of a grim puzzle, but Pyecroft's colorful account of being dragged from bar to bar, is comic. At one point, when Pyecroft observes that she seems to be looking for someone, Vickery replies, "She's lookin' for me," but he'll say no more. Then Vickery, after a mysterious interview with the captain, is sent up the line to retrieve the ammunition, and as he's leaving he tells Pyecroft he's not a murderer because his wife died six weeks after he sailed.
"Then what have you done that signifies?" I said. "What's the rest of it?"
"The rest," 'e says, "is silence . . ."
Everyone is mystified, although they're sure Mrs. Bathurst is blameless. Then Hooper, touching his pocket again, tells the story that's been at the back of his mind from the beginning, and of course by now we know what's in his pocket. He was told to look out for a couple of tramps waiting at the siding waiting to go north:
I saw them miles ahead along the straight, waiting in the teak. One of 'em was standin' up by the dad-end of the siding an' the other was squattin' down lookin' up at 'im, you see,
"What did you do for 'em?" said Pritchard.
"There wasn't much I could do, except bury 'em. There'd been a bit of a thunderstorm in the teak, you see, and they were both stone dead and as black as charcoal. That's what they really were, you see--charcoal. They fell to bits when we tried to shift 'em. The man who was standin' up had the false teeth. I saw 'em shining against the black. Fell to bits he did too, like his mate squatting down an' watchin' him, both of 'em all wet in the rain. Both burned to charcoal, you see. And--that's what made me ask about marks just now--the false-toother was tattooed on the arms and chest--a crown and foul anchor with M.V. above."
"I've seen that," said Pyecroft quickly. "It was so."
"But if he was all charcoal-like?" said Pritchard, shuddering.
"You know how writing shows up white on a burned letter? Well, it was like that, you see. We buried 'em in the teak and I kept. . . . But he was a friend of you two gentlemen, you see."
Mr. Hooper brought his hand away from his waistcoat-pocket-empty.
Pritchard covered his face with his hands for a moment, like a child shutting out an ugliness.
"And to think of her at Hauraki!" he murmured-"with 'er 'air-ribbon on my beer." "Ada," she said to her niece . . . Oh, my Gawd!" . . .
"On a summer afternoon, when the honeysuckle blooms,/And all Nature seems at rest,/Underneath the bower,/ 'mid the perfume of the flower,/Sat a maiden with the one she loves the best . . ." sang the picnic-party waiting for their train at Glengariff.
"Well, I don't know how you feel about it," said Pyecroft, "But 'avin' seen 'is face for five consecutive nights on end, I'm inclined to finish what's left of the beer an' thank Gawd he's dead!"
The serene, untroubled background which so colored the "preface" of the story before Pyecroft and Pritchard appeared is reasserted by the innocent song of the picnickers, and it is against that background that the shadowy drama of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst has been enacted, so the song at this point makes the drama stand out sharply, darkly colored. Hooper's account, especially the bit about writing showing up "white on a burned letter," puts an end to the earlier comedy, and the tragedy is heightened by contrast with the song. What we are left with is a mystery of love, and the fact that each character takes it differently but characteristically--Hooper with solemn sensitivity, leaving the teeth in his pocket; Pritchard, ever loyal to Mrs. Bathurst, with real feeling; Pyecroft sardonically--shows us also the mystery of our lives: Pulled by the same tides, rocked by the same waves, we sail alone.
Readers used to conventional fiction sometimes have difficulty understanding a story like this because they expect it to make a clearly discernible point, a Big Thought which can be extracted from the story. "Mrs. Bathurst" doesn't work that way. Its closest analogy would he a Chekhov play like The Cherry Orchard: its meaning, its point, is the story itself. When we finish reading it, what we think about are these things, probably in this order: the power of love (Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst), its multifariousness (Pyecroft, Pritchard, and the picnickers), the differing responses which show our uniqueness and loneliness, the tenuous but real bond between the living (the men in the railway carriage). The story, then, is a meditation on life, and while Kipling the artist certainly made it, all traces of contrivance are cunningly concealed. It is a masterpiece because it seems perfectly natural, just a story told on a railway siding. But we know it is more than that because it is infused with feeling, and we sense the tragedy of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst even as we see the comic and melodramatic aspects-like life itself. The artistry of this story must be one of the greatest in English. *
Stories: Plain Tales From the Hills, Soldiers Three, In Black & White, Under the Deodars, The Phantom Rickshaw & Other Tales, Mine Own People, Traffics & Discoveries, Actions & Reactions, Diversity of Creatures, Land & Sea Tales, "They" & Brushwood Boy, Debits & Credits, Limits & Renewals.
The Jungle Book, Second Jungle Book. Animal stories. The best, half the total, are about Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves.
Stalky & Co. Prep school stories.
Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards & Fairies are historical tales for children.
Just So Stories for very young children.
Almost all Kipling's best later stories are collected in two Penguin volumes: I: A Sahib's War & Other Stories, II: Friendly Brook & Other Stories, selected by Andrew Rutherford.
The Art of Rudyard Kipling (1959) by J. M. S. Tompins is first rate.
Kipling: The Glass, The Shadow, & the Fire (1975) by Phillip Mason is the best single book on Kipling's art.