“Mrs. Bathurst” takes place in Glengariff, South Africa, in the years following the Boer War (1899- 1902). The main story is told through a conversation between three men and the narrator; the four men discuss the tragic tale of Mrs. Bathurst, a hotel owner in New Zealand, and her lover, Mr. Vickery (also known as “Click”). The preface to the story is an excerpt from a mock-Jacobean tragedy written by Kipling entitled Lyden ‘s ”Irenius” that narrates a dialogue between a prince and one of his subjects. The themes of the epigraph—disinterested fate and accidental providence—carry over into the story.
The story begins with the narrator running into his friend Mr. Hooper, who is an inspector for the Cape Government Railways. The two men hitch a ride down the tracks on a chalk-car that is being repaired. Mr. Hooper starts to take something out of his pocket to show the narrator, but is interrupted by the shouts of Mr. Pyecroft, an old friend of the narrator’s. With Pyecroft is his bulky companion, Sergeant Pritchard. These two visitors climb into the car and introduce themselves to Mr. Hooper.
The conversation turns to the legendary story of “Boy Niven,” who lured seven or eight sailors into the woods of British Columbia from port in Vancouver in 1887, promising to give them land. The group of sailors, which included Pritchard and Pyecroft, was court-marshaled for desertion. Sergeant Pritchard then mentions Spit-Kid Jones, a sailor who was also a member of the group and who later married a so-called “coconut-woman” and eventually deserted the ship Astrild.
The topic leads Pritchard to make reference to Mr. Vickery, nicknamed “Click” because of his noisy false teeth. Mr. Hooper asks about Click’s infamous tattoos. Wary, Pritchard suspects that Mr. Hooper is an agent for the law and begins to leave, remaining only on account of entreaties from all three of the men. The narrator vouches for Mr. Hooper’s honesty, and Pritchard apologizes for his suspicion.
Settled once again, the narrator asks why Vickery deserted the navy. Pyecroft replies, “She kep’ a little hotel at Hauraki—near Auckland [New Zealand],” implying that the source of Click’s departure was a woman. Pyecroft describes the woman, Mrs. Bathurst, as a widow who kept a hotel and wore black silk. Pritchard interrupts to give a personal account of Mrs. Bathurst’s generosity of spirit, telling how she often let the sailors rent rooms on credit and how she once reserved four bottles of beer for him during a visit by cutting off a piece of her own hair ribbon and wrapping it around the necks of the bottles. To sum up her character, Pritchard proclaims, “She—she never scrupled to feed a lame duck or set ‘er foot on a scorpion at any time of ‘er life,” indicating a mixture of charity and courage in her personality.
Pyecroft and Pritchard agree that, of all the hundreds of women they have been “intimate” with in their lives, Mrs. Bathurst is one of the most memorable. Pyecroft explains, ‘”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, but most of ’em you can live with a month on end, an’ next commission you’d be put to it to certify whether they talked in their sleep or not, as one might say.”
The conversation returns to the subject of Mr. Vickery, and Pyecroft relates his most recent encounter with him on the ship Hierophant, from which he has just returned. While in port at Cape Town, Pyecroft recalls, Vickery had asked him to go to the cinema at Phyllis’s Circus. On the way to the theater, Pyecroft felt strange because of the look on Vickery’s face, which reminded him of “those things in bottles in those herbalistic shops at Plymouth. .. [w]hite and crumply things—previous to birth you might say.”
At the cinema, Vickery told Pyecroft to pay special attention to the ”Home an’ Friends” portion of the movie, which showed news footage from Europe.
“Then the Western Mail came in to Paddin’ton on the big magic lantern sheet. First we saw the platform empty an” the porters standin’ by. Then the engine come in, head on, an’ the women in the front row jumped: she headed so straight. Then the doors opened and the passengers came out and the porters got the luggage—just like life. Only—only when any one came down too far towards us that was watchin’, they walked right out o’ the picture, so to speak. I was ‘ighly interested, I can tell you. So were all of us. I watched an old man with a rug ‘oo’d drooped a book an’ was tryin’ to pick it up, when quite slowly, from be’ind two porters—carryin’ a little reticule an’ lookin’ from side to side—comes out Mrs. Bathurst. There was no mistakin’ the walk in a hundred thousand. She come 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—like—like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle, an’ as she went I ‘eard Dawson in the tickey seats be’ind sing out: ‘Christ! There’s Mrs. B!” (Excerpt from “Mrs. Bathurst”)
Mesmerized by Bathurst’s image, Vickery urged Pyecroft to return to the theater for five consecutive nights to watch the scene again. When Pyecroft pauses in his story, Mr. Hooper asks Pyecroft what he thinks of the whole thing. Pyecroft replies that he hasn’t quite finished thinking yet, but one thing he knows is that Vickery was a “dumb lunatic” since he was convinced that Mrs. Bathurst was in England looking for him. But, Vickery remained very reserved about the whole affair, in Pyecroft’s memory. Pyecroft feared for his own safety, thinking that Vickery would turn violent when the cinema left town and he no longer had access to the “stimulant” of seeing Mrs. Bathurst on film.
Pyecroft concludes the tale: after an hour-long meeting with the Captain, Vickery was sent on an errand to take over naval ammunition left after the war in Blemfontein Fort. The real reason for Vickery’s journey, however, was to see the movie image of Mrs. Bathurst once more, since the cinema moved away from Cape Town to Worcester. Pyecroft escorted Vickery to shore and as they parted for the last time, Vickery said cryptically, “Remember, that I am not a murderer, because my lawful wife died in childbed six weeks after I came out.” The rest of Vickery’s story is “silence,” as Pyecroft says, echoing Hamlet’s dying words.
Vickery apparently reported to Bloemfontein, oversaw the loading of the ammunition, then disappeared. After the men have thought in silence about Pyecroft’s story for a few minutes, Hooper speaks up to tell the group of a curious piece of railway line on the way to Zambesi that runs through a solid teak forest for seventy-two miles without curving. He explains that a month ago he was relieving a sick inspector on that line when he discovered two tramps who had been living in the forest. There had been a thunderstorm and they had been turned into “charcoal” by lightning. The man standing up had false teeth and tattoos on his arms and chest, including one with a crown and an anchor, and the letters “M.V.” above.
Pritchard is overcome at the horror of the description. Mr. Hooper brings his hand out of his pockets (perhaps to show his companions the false teeth?), but it is empty. Pyecroft exclaims that, after seeing Vickery’s eerie face five nights in a row, he is thankful that the man is dead.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Rudyard Kipling, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.