By 1888 Rudyard Kipling had created one great character, an Irish soldier in the colonial service, Private Terence Mulvaney. A private at the time of the stories, at least – “I was rejuced aftherwards, but, no matther, I was a Corp'ril wanst” (“The God from the Machine”). Mulvaney is always accompanied by his friends Privates Learoyd and Ortheris, but the force of Mulvaney’s personality is such that they become appurtenances of his larger character. He is Falstaff, so to speak, and they are Pistol and Bardolph.
Mulvaney’s demotion hints at his vices, mostly drink and anger, but he also, aside from the usual soldiering virtues of courage and loyalty to his companions, has a couple of characteristics that a lesser writer would find hard to pull off. He is smart, convincingly smarter than the “Kipling” who narrates the stories, and also a better story-teller. Not a better story-teller than the actual Kipling, obviously, I hope.
Not that I was disappointed when I turned to a new Kipling story that featured one of his other recurring characters, like the queenly adulteress Mrs. Hauksbee, or no recurring characters at all, but soon enough I was enjoying a little thrill whenever Private Mulvaney appeared. Kipling’s stories were fine, but Mulvaney’s as told to Kipling were better.
Mulvaney tells stories about pranks, battles, deeds good and bad. In “With the Main Guard” Mulvaney and his pals and for some reason the Kipling-narrator are keeping the night shift in a guard house on the hottest night of the summer (“What I was doing there at that hour is a question which only concerns McGrath, the Sergeant of the Guard, and the men on the gate”). Mulvaney tells a long, complex, first-rate battle story. The shift ends, the watch is relieved, and Kipling complicates the tale (this is the very end of the story):
'Oh, Terence!' I said, dropping into Mulvaney's speech, when we were alone, 'it's you that have the tongue!'
He looked at me wearily; his eyes were sunk in his head, and his face was drawn and white. 'Eyah!' said he; 'I've blandandhered thim through the night somehow, but can thim that helps others help themselves? Answer me that, Sorr!'
And over the bastions of Fort Amara broke the pitiless day.
Story-telling as a compassionate but costly act. Mulvaney always turns out to be a twist or two deeper than he first seems. At least three more Mulvaney stories were published post-1888. Lucky me!
I am amazed to discover that I am not at all sated with reading Kipling, although I am all done writing about him. He has been a surprising discovery, as odd a thing as that is to say about such a famous writer. He has attracted a fog, though; only one way to dispel it.