Summary

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“Mrs. Bathurst” is one of the most cryptic and puzzling of all Kipling’s stories. Part of what makes the story such a mystery is the method by which it is told, for it is presented almost completely as a dialogue among four men. Furthermore, the dialogue is so clipped and cryptic that it is often difficult to follow. The principal characters are Petty Officer Pyecroft, his friend Sergeant Pritchard of the marines, the narrator, and his friend Inspector Hooper of the South African railways. Pyecroft and Pritchard tell the other two men the story about Warrant Officer Vickery, who deserted the service with only eighteen months left before his discharge, and his mysterious relationship with Mrs. Bathurst, a young widow who managed a hotel in New Zealand.

The central story of Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst is prefaced by a brief account about the officer Boy Niven, who lured a small group of sailors and marines into the woods for no other reason than for personal publicity. At the end of this inconclusive and seemingly irrelevant little tale, the conversation moves to Vickery and his mysterious desertion so close to his discharge. The first ambiguous reference to Vickery is to his nickname “Click,” in reference to the four false teeth on his lower left jaw that were not set properly and thus made a clicking sound when he talked fast. At the reference to the false teeth, Inspector Hooper is meaningfully described with his hand in his waistcoat pocket, although at this point it is certainly not clear why Hooper should have Vickery’s false teeth on his person.

When the topic of Mrs. Bathurst is introduced, most of the conversation is between Pyecroft, who is telling the tale, and Pritchard, who knows the lady and vouches for her kindness and integrity. He cannot believe that she is the cause of a married man and father like Vickery deserting the service. In a key phrase in the story, however, Hooper, after hearing of Mrs. Bathurst’s ladylike behavior, says, “I don’t see her somehow.” To see Mrs. Bathurst becomes the challenge of the story. Even though both Pyecroft and Pritchard say they have seen her only once or twice, they can remember her vividly. Pyecroft says, “That’s the secret. ’Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It. Some women’ll stay in a man’s memory if they once walk down a street.”

Kipling’s puzzling story is, in some ways, about this kind of fascination, for all four of the men can remember having met one or two women of that nature, and all agree that if a man gets struck with that kind of woman, he goes crazy. What gives the story its particular turn of the screw is the “dark and bloody mystery” of Vickery’s own vision of Mrs. Bathurst. Pyecroft tells of Vickery’s insisting that he accompany him to a showing of an early motion picture, the cinematograph, in Cape Town, South Africa. Pyecroft knows that something strange is involved, for he says the look of Vickery’s face reminded him of “those things in bottles in those herbalistic shops at Plymouth—preserved in spirits of wine. White an’ crumply things—previous to birth as you might say.”

What makes Pyecroft’s description of the experience at the cinematograph so crucial to the story is the particular nature of early audience response to the new film technology. While watching a film, early viewers often mistook it momentarily for reality. In the particular film scene that Vickery wants Pyecroft to see, the London Mail train is shown arriving at the station and the...

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passengers getting out “just like life.” As they walk toward the camera, and thus seemingly toward the film viewers, they walk right out of the picture. Pyecroft sees Mrs. Bathurst come straight toward them, looking at them in a blind way without seeing and then melting out of the picture “like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle.” Vickery says, “it’s the woman herself,” and he urges Pyecroft to come with him to see her again the next night. For five consecutive nights, they go to see the film to watch Mrs. Bathurst make her forty-five-second walk toward them with that blind look in her eyes.

Although Pyecroft declares that Vickery is insane, he says that Vickery told him that Mrs. Bathurst was in England looking for him. Vickery tells Pyecroft that, whereas he only had to watch, “I’m it.” Moreover, he tells Pyecroft to remember that he is not a murderer, that his wife died in childbirth six weeks after he left England on his last voyage. When the listeners to Pyecroft’s story ask for the rest of it, he replies, “the rest is silence.” All that is known for sure is that Vickery deserted and disappeared.

The story ends with the men considering the possible meaning of Vickery’s experience. Hooper says, “I wonder what it was,” and Pyecroft replies, “I’ve made my ’ead ache in that direction many a long night.” Once again, when Pyecroft mentions hearing Vickery’s clicking teeth, Hooper’s hand goes significantly to his waistcoat pocket. It is Hooper who ends the story with a grisly little tale of his own about two tramps he saw standing by the railway in the interior. Having been struck by lightning, the two were burned to charcoal and fell to bits when Hooper touched them. The man who was standing up had the false teeth, says Hooper; the other was squatting down and watching him. Both of them fell to pieces when he touched them, Hooper explains. The story ends with Pyecroft saying that after having seen Vickery’s face for five consecutive nights, he thanks God that he is dead.

Critics have long puzzled over this story, complaining that Kipling cut too much out of it and thus left it stripped of any explanatory detail. Although one knows that the standing pile of ashes is Vickery, one can only guess that the other one is Mrs. Bathurst herself, since no other character has been introduced in the story. “Mrs. Bathurst” focuses on the unexplainable mystery of human fascination, but it is the mystery of the cinema that serves as the central metaphor, for as Vickery watches the film night after night, he is in that curious situation experienced by all filmgoers of being a viewer who cannot himself be seen. Moreover, as he tells Pyecroft, he is not merely a viewer but is the missing character in the film, for he insists that Mrs. Bathurst has gone to England to find him. Instead of playing a told story over and over again, as is the usual short-story convention, the film creates the illusion of the actual event being repeated. What is so unbearable to Vickery is that Mrs. Bathurst’s search for him seems to be repeated over and over again. Although it obviously took place in the past, every time he sees it, it seems to be taking place in the present. Making the story depend on dialogue rather than on narration, Kipling not only makes the cinema scene the central metaphor of the story but also makes cinema technique the means by which the story is told.

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