“THE FINEST STORY IN THE WORLD”
and The Contstant Delight of Rudyard Kipling
I waltz in and tango out of Rudyard Kipling’s stories, always intrigued, unfailingly pleased. I’m just doing the dance this week on his pages of short stories: “The Kipling Sampler”, copyrighted 1892-1910 by RK himself, then “By arrangement with Mrs. George Bambridge of Doubleday and Co, Inc.” (I’m not making that up), through 1957 which is the year of the volume in my hand; pages totalling 223, which are fragile and yellowed in this friendly slim volume that I have carried through very nearly my entire life beginning with teen me of the meritorious ’60’s. The decade was you know, in retrospect (amazingly) (improbably) something to brag about. Even inciting nostalgia. And if for nothing more than this said of my generation: We were readers. And by God but we had writers to read.
The Kipling Sampler contains 8 short stories including the thrilling “Mowgli’s Brothers”, “The Tomb of His Ancestors”, other favorites; 18 Poems including “Gunga Din”, “Mandalay”, and “If~”; “On Travel: An Englishman in Yellowstone Park”, telling of his 4th of July visit to Livingstone; and an extract of his novel, “Kim”.
I am today drawn in by one I have never read. I have not, all my life, stuck with collected Kipling from start to finish. He engages me variously through the years, and I don’t think he’d mind my saying so, not a bit. But I’ve always loved having him within reach of my extended paw.Portrait of Rudyard Kipling by B Sparhawk, Oil on Linen
That tale is called: “The Finest Story In The World”. Pretty compelling stuff for a writer to trip over just by the title alone. But the opening salvo was so good, so rich, I want to share it with you.
It’s part of Kipling’s magic that with a mere handful of sentences (so linked you have to return to see if you just read one or several) he gets you lasooed in and doesn’t let go until the final punctuation. I’m going to give you Mr Kipling’s first paragraph. See if you don’t agree.
“His name was Charlie Mears; he was the only son of his mother, who was a widow, and he lived in the north of London, coming into the City every day to work in a bank. He was twenty years old and was full of aspirations. I met him in a public billiard-saloon where the marker called him by his first name, and he called the marker “Bullseye.” Charlie explained, a little nervously, that he had only come to the place to look on, and since looking on at games of skill is not a cheap ausement for the young, I suggested that Charlie should go back to his mother.”
Are you hooked? Well, pages 54 to 79 of my ancient volume carries Kipling’s tale in full. Just 25 pages of something that carries you off to untold imaginings of your own at the heated end of the author’s prodding nib.
It’s a brilliant light touch with the stranglehold of a python yet all he does is tell a story. It’s a real craft, not easy to duplicate, a joy to fall into.
Now here is the oddest thing imaginable, and part of the reason I want to tell you about this. Kipling details more of this young Charlie Mears he befriends, and the odd arrangement they come to (Charlie’s coveting a writer’s life that Kipling, older and wiser, the never identified first person is experiencing) wherein Charlie supplies Kipling with an unbelievable story he is unable to write, and Kipling pays him 5 pounds for the idea because he believes he can, himself, write it.
Charlie lets his story out in a gush (of ships and galley slaves and swashbuckling hero pirates) then piecemeal in appointed visits, and their talk is of writing and the thrill of words, and the overwhelming mystery of how the juvenile, untraveled, unread Charlie could possibly imagine any of it. The story goes on to reveal that Charlie is channeling (Kipling calls it metempsychosis) an ancient Greek galley-slave and the content comes to him in dreams and he is accurate to the point of his writing out what the galley slaves scratched in ancient Greek with their iron bound wrists on their oars! Which Kipling trudges off to verify with an annoyed antiquarian linguist at the museum across town. How stupendous is that!
Kipling’s character continues to pry the tale from young Charlie who is kept oblivious to the obvious that he is speaking somehow from his OWN history as a captive Greek slave on a pirate’s ship. Then Charlie, gaining confidence, begins to spin out other past seafarer lives “half a dozen several and separate existences spent on the blue water in the morning of the world”, in fact the man’s a rare treasure trove, now appearing to possibly be an Argonaut in a previous life!! What a find for the writer befriending him. Wow.
But this here-and-now-Charlie is as naive and petulant as a child whom Kipling must nurse along. He dares not tell him what he suspects… because he begins to envision his own writing career into unimagined, glorious sugar plums….once the story is writ.
But here’s a wondrous strange part for me, and it fits in the peculiar category of never knowing at all where reading someone else’s words might lead all of us.
Kipling’s paying cash for the story idea allows Charlie the money to purchase unread books; he is giddy; he falls in love with Longfellow and quotes a poem’s stanza about the sea: “I remember the black wharves and the ships And the sea-tides tossing free; And Spanish sailors with bearded lips, And the beauty and mystery of the ships, And the magic of the sea.”
Now by sheer coincidence it is from one of my favorite Longfellow poems, and the very bit I memorized long ago, and in fact (I’m not making this up!) included it in my own short story, coming from the mouth of my Grandfather Alfred in the one called: “Grandpa’s Ticket to Ride” (“The Gandy Dancer & Other Short Stories”, BD Sparhawk, 2004.)
And the pirate hero of the Charlie/Kipling story is a red-head, same as my sailor Grandfather! It’s all true. What can it mean?
And on reflection, because I’m a writer and see the construction of things and the plot and twists and turns, I’m also thinking: Why Rudyard you sly fox you.
Can it be that you had some story in your head with the cast of characters, and some composition of the plot and fancies of where it might go but couldn’t make it go there…..and look what you did! You went and invented Charlie, and never did more than the outline of that story but still you turned it into a tale worth keeping and telling, and named it “The Finest Story in the World”.
Which is likely the emotion you woke from sleep feeling it must be, aha.
But trying to get it onto paper never worked right. Now this discovery of mine of you adds so much wonder and happiness to my knowing the man, and increased admiration. What a damn clever fellow. Oh I wish I’d known him. We could sit at a country campfire for endless talk, or opposite at a railway’s gas-lit dining car table with cream-colored linen and weighted silver over a fair meal and stiff drinks of an evening; or catch sunrise on a midnight’s hike, rounding a trail’s bend into a wide open space that led downhill to the longed for destination and we hadn’t stopped talking for hours. Maybe days.
I can (and have) exhausted even the best of friends with my enthused descriptions and tales. But I have the feeling Rudyard and I would never run out of steam and only rest long enough to eat or drink or have a few winks then pick up where we left off. How I wish I’d known you in the flesh. And, I think it’s fair, that despite your generous gifting of so much pleasure to the world, to discover from “The Finest Story in the World” that you turn out to be a thrifty man who would never let even a convoluted delight go unexplored.
For the full of Kipling’s short and marvelous tale, go here: “The Finest Story in the World”