She delighted in hearing men talk of their own work, and that is the most fatal way of bringing a man to your feet. (“William the Conqueror”)
There are not many women in The Day’s Work, but William makes up for a lot. She is the strongest of strong Female Characters.
Twice she had been nearly drowned while fording a river; once she had been run away with on a camel; had witnessed a midnight attack of thieves on her brother’s camp; had seen justice administered, with long sticks, in the open under trees; could speak Urdu and even rough Punjabi with a fluency that was envied by her seniors; had entirely fallen out of the habit of writing to her aunts in England, or cutting the pages of the English magazines; had been through a very bad cholera year, seeing sights unfit to be told; and had wound up her experiences by six weeks of typhoid fever, during which her head had been shaved and hoped to keep her twenty-third birthday that September.
Despite her masculinity, she is a man-killer, only partly because she is a rarity, a young, single English woman living with an army. She could “look men slowly and deliberately between the eyes — even after they had proposed to her and been rejected.”
The story is about the man, Scott, who finally conquers her, and vice versa. He does it by doing his duty under extraordinary circumstances, a South Indian famine (William of course does her duty as well). In its description of meaningful work, the story is quite similar to “The Devil and the Deep Sea.” Scott is not trying to straighten a bent rod but keep children alive when he is shipped wheat rather than rice.
What was the use of these strange hard grains that choked their throat? They would die.
I do not remember reading any such thing, but I assume that there is a contemporary fiction of famine, stories of aid workers delivering powdered milk and Plumpy’Nut. I doubt there was such a thing before “William the Conqueror.” Kipling, like his hero and heroine, has to come up with solutions on his own.
Amidst the famine, and despite the characters barely meeting, a love story moves along, its apotheosis the moment that William is given a vision of Scott as a god, a moment that she is only granted because she herself is a goddess. But this is mythic-Kipling, not Kipling-at-work, which here is “feeding babies and milking goats.”
As odd as it seems, “The Maltese Cat,” a detailed description of a polo match, is also structured much like the rebuilding of the engine or the administration of famine relief. For the players, it is a series of difficult problems to be solved with great effort and at great risk. The players in this case are the horses – the story is mostly from the perspective of the title character, the captain of the horses. For the length of the story, the game is their work.
I am having trouble finding a quotation that does not make the story seem ludicrous. It’s a polo match; the characters are horses (one name here belongs to a human):
Corks was watching the ball where it lay in the dust close to his near fore with Macnamara’s shortened stick tap-tapping it from time to time. Kittiwynk was edging her way out of the scrimmage, whisking her stump of a tail with nervous excitement.
As with any story about sports, at least when it is not your sport, and mostly even when it is, the question that is hard to answer is “Who cares?” I mean, it does not really matter who wins any polo match, much less a fictional one. But here I found myself chasing the ball around the field, caring mostly about what Kipling was doing with his prose. “It was as neat an exhibition as fancy figureskating.”