“Mrs. Bathurst” is one of the most ingeniously crafted and enigmatic stories by Rudyard Kipling. Originally published in the Windsor Magazine as the fourth of a set of six stories, each featuring the character Petty- Officer Pyecroft, the story is far more complex than its predecessors. Instead of the garrulous Pyecroft acting as the main narrator, the tale of doomed love is told by three men, Pyecroft, Pritchard, and Hooper, each complementing the others by narrating only as much of the story as he honestly knows. Consequently, there is no one definitive version of the story: The reader is dependent on each narrator supplying his contribution. At the same time, the reader is kept at a distance by the inclusion of a fourth, anonymous narrator, whose first person narration frames those of his companions. By distancing the reader from the narrative, the reader is encouraged to question both the meaning and the making of the text.
The success of Kipling’s conceit, though, also depends on his effective use of time, place, and atmosphere. These elements are established in the story’s opening: “I found myself stranded, lunchless, on the sea-front with no hope of return to Cape Town before 5 p.m.” By chance, the narrator meets his friend Hooper, a railway inspector. Hooper has a “souvenir” from up-country for the narrator but is interrupted by Pyecroft and his shipmate, Pritchard. Brought to South Africa on imperial duty, Kipling’s protagonists are themselves adrift, temporarily suspended while waiting either for the next train or for ship repairs to be made. In the meantime, there is little to do but talk. They swap stories about other migrant figures, such as Boy Niven, who, on the promise of land, “lured seven or eight able-bodied seamen and marines into the woods of British Columbia.” The characters they describe, snatches of lives spent (or misspent) in the service of empire, are both shadowy and mysterious. While these stories are being exchanged, the reader is uncertain when the tale of Mrs. Bathurst will itself begin, if she is related to any of these characters, or if there will be a principal narrator.
The talk turns to Warrant-Officer Vickery who, four months previously, deserted by going up-country. Hooper presses them for identifying marks, and Pyecroft describes Vickery’s mechanical false teeth. The desertion is doubly strange since Vickery was close to receiving his pension. Pyecroft speculates that the cause may have been the owner of “a little hotel at Hauraki—near Auckland”: a woman named Mrs. Bathurst. Pritchard is shocked at the suggestion, not only because Vickery was married with a child but because of the sublime goodness of Mrs. Bathurst. Vickery seems to have met her in New Zealand, but Pyecroft acknowledges that his information is secondhand: “I used to think seein’ and hearin’ was the only regulation aids to ascertainin’ facts, but as we get older we get more accommodatin’.”
The decisive event, Pyecroft recalls, occurred during a cinema show: “We saw London Bridge an’ so forth an’ so on, an’ it was most interestin’ . . . the pictures were the real thing—alive an’ movin’.” Then, suddenly, Pyecroft and his companions recognize Mrs. Bathurst: “She came forward—right forward—she looked out straight at us with that blindish look which Pritch alluded to. She walked on and on till she melted out of the picture.” The effect of this on Vickery is dramatic: He returns compulsively to the cinema show, his false teeth clicking “like a Marconi ticker,” convinced that Mrs. Bathurst is looking for him. Vickery’s increasingly erratic behavior climaxes in his desertion.
This passage has provoked much debate. The film seems to have been shot during the South African War; Pyecroft and Vickery apparently see it just before Christmas 1902. Whether Vickery left England before or after Mrs. Bathurst’s arrival is unclear. Equally unclear is why Mrs. Bathurst is in England: Has she discovered Vickery’s adultery? Vickery refers to his wife as “my lawful wife,” implying that Mrs. Bathurst is his unlawful bride and that his crime is bigamy. However, Vickery also refers to murder. It has been suggested that Mrs. Bathurst is dead (whether or not the victim of murder) and that Vickery has been possessed by her ghost. It could equally be that the innocent sight of Mrs. Bathurst reminds Vickery of a lapse into temptation— there is no evidence that he betrayed his wife—and that, fearing the loss of his moral code, he disappears from the story. As Hooper comments, a man either “goes crazy—or just saves himself.”
Kipling leaves his coup de grâce, though, to the very end. Hooper returns to the subjects of the false teeth and of up-country. He tells the others that two tramps had been discovered in a forest, petrified after being struck by lightning, “One of ’em was standin’ up by the deadend of the siding an’ the other was squattin’ down lookin’ up at him.” The only identifying mark that remained from the standing man was a set of false teeth. At this point, Hooper removes his hand from his waist pocket, apparently containing the souvenir for the frame narrator, to reveal—nothing. The irresolution of Kipling’s text places the burden of interpretation on the reader. The ending, though, complements the beginning of the story. The reactions of Pritchard and Pyecroft suggest that they have been convinced, despite the lack of evidence, that the standing body is Vickery. At the same time, the absence of a coherent meaning diverts the reader away from a central focus to the peripheries of the narrative—how the story is told rather than what is told, when and where the story is set (especially the outposts of Empire), and who is telling the story. Kipling’s perennial insistence on the lives and language of working men is here counterpointed by the stray characters within empire: the Greek merchants, the “dirty little Malay boys,” and the “heaps of tramps.”
Bayley, John. The Short Story: Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen. Brighton: Harvester Press, 1987.
Bodelson, C. A. Aspects of Kipling’s Art. Manchester, En gland: Manchester University Press, 1964.
Everett, Barbara. “Kipling’s Lightning-Flash,” London Review of Books, 10 January 1991, pp. 12–15.
Kipling, Rudyard. Mrs. Bathhurst and Other Stories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Lodge, David. After Bakhtin: Essays on Fiction and Criticism. London: Routledge, 1990.