The shell that arrived by way of the Chief Engineer’s cabin was some five inches in diameter, with a practice, not a bursting, charge. It had been intended to cross her bows, and that was why it had knocked the framed portrait of the Chief Engineer’s wife – and she was a very pretty girl – on to the floor, splintered his wash-hand stand, crossed the alleyway into the engine-room, and striking on a grating, dropped directly in front of the forward engine, where it burst, neatly fracturing both the bolts that held the connecting-rod to the forward crank. (“The Devil and the Deep Sea”)
The engine powers a British vessel at this point manned by pearl poachers, petty criminals operating under the British flag in Dutch Malaysia. The shell, fired from a Dutch gunboat, was meant as a warning shot, but it cripples the ship. The poachers, after an interval of slave labor,* find themselves housed by a cheapskate official on their own ship. They secretly repair the engine and escape, never, after one act of revenge, to be heard from again.
About a third of the story describes either the damage to or repair of the engine. The protagonist, if not the engine itself, is the Chief Engineer. The repair of the engine is taken as a great act of heroism. It is a pirate story where I root for the pirates. Great feats are worth the doing – that is the primary theme of The Day’s Work. And great feats are made up of an accumulation of little feats – that is the secondary theme.
I ended the quotation with a rod and a crank. The next paragraph describes the damaged mechanism in motion. Pistons, columns, that rod flailing about. How many readers even at the time could visualize the scene well? How much does it matter?
There was a sound below of things happening – a rushing, clicking, purring, grunting, rattling noise that did not last for more than a minute. It was the machinery adjusting itself, on the spur of the moment, to a hundred altered conditions… [the ship] slid forward in a cloud of steam, shrieking like a wounded horse.
Metaphors help. But there are still plenty of pistons and so on. Perhaps a diagram would help. Perhaps not.
I have not even gotten to the repair of the engine. The climax – I will skip to that – is the straightening of that connecting-rod, a hallucinatory scene. “It is curious that no man knows how the rods were straightened”:
At last – they do not remember whether this was by day or night – Mr. Wardrop began to dance clumsily, and wept the while; and they too danced and wept, and went to sleep twitching all over; and when they woke, men said that the rods were straightened, and no one did any work for two days, but lay on the decks and ate fruit. Mr. Wardrop would go below from time to time, and pat the two rods where they lay. and they heard him singing hymns.
Kipling has moved into his mythic mode. This is something beyond work as such.
“The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” has a plot not so far from a heist movie, except for the part of the story that us told as obliquely as any Modernist would dare, and it has characters, maybe only two, but characters like normal stories. Except this story is about the repair of an engine. It is radically original but also a dead end, at least for any writer without an imagination as capacious as Kipling’s. Maybe it is one of a kind. Sometimes it seems that is the real theme of The Day’s Work – stories no one has written before and will never write again.
* Kipling’s narratorial voice is one of the few that deserves the word “sardonic.” The crew is sent into, essentially, slavery: “Deep peace continues to brood over Europe, Asia, Africa, America, Australasia, and Polynesia.”