“The Bridge-Builders” leads off The Day’s Work. Kipling is building a gigantic bridge across the Ganges this time, rather than a ship’s engine or polo victory.
In the little deep water left by the drought, an overhead-crane travelled to and fro along its spile-pier, jerking sections of iron into place, snorting and backing and grunting as an elephant grunts in the timber-yard. Riveters by the hundred swarmed about the lattice side-work and the iron roof of the railway-line, hung from invisible staging under the bellies of the girders, clustered round the throats of the piers, and rode on the overhang of the footpath-stanchions; their fire-pots and the spurts of flame that answered each hammer-stroke showing no more than pale yellow in the sun’s glare.
If I am not so sure that I want to read fiction about bridge-building, I am sure that if I do read it I want it to be written by a writer like Kipling, one who does not just know but sees, or perhaps I mean does not just see but knows. What a memory he must have had.
As well as the early part of “The Bridge-Builders” introduces the main theme of the book, it is a bit of a diversion. The bridge is nearly done when the Ganges floods. Is the story about the heroic efforts of the chief engineer Findlayson and his Indian “all-around man” Peroo to save the bridge? No, not at all. Through circumstances too convoluted to describe, the two characters spend the flood trapped on an island, jointly hallucinating a debate of the Indian gods – Ganesh, Hanuman, the Ganges personified (well, crocodilified) – about whether or not the bridge will stand. Ganesh takes the long view:
“It is but the shifting of a little dirt. Let the dirt dig in the dirt if it pleases the dirt,” answered the Elephant.
A strange thing to read in a book about work and duty.
Kipling rarely resorts to actual gods but more typically allows his human-scale characters glimpses of the cosmic:
…an accident of the sunset ordered it that when he had taken off his helmet to get the evening breeze, the low light should fall across his forehead, and he could not see what was before him; while one waiting at the tent door beheld with new eyes a young man, beautiful as Paris, a god in a halo of golden dust, walking slowly at the head of his flocks, while at his knees ran small naked Cupids. (“William the Conqueror”)
The characters fall in love when they reveal themselves, for an instant, as divine. The Day’s Work ends with an uncanny repetition of the idea in “The Brushwood Boy,” where the recurring dreamscape of an English officer in India turns out to be a mystical link to a girl he knew in his childhood.
He and she explored the dark-purple downs as far inland from the brushwood-pile as they dared, but that was always a dangerous matter. The interior was filled with “Them,” and “They” went about singing in the hollows, and Georgie and she felt safer on or near the seaboard. So thoroughly had he come to know the place of his dreams that even waking he accepted it as a real country, and made a rough sketch of it.
And Kipling makes a sketch, too. Maybe I should have quoted a weirder bit, like when Georgie drowns and a duck laughs. “The Brushwood Boy” is like a Lovecraftian weird tale of the Dream Cycle variety that ends not with the revelation of forbidden knowledge but rather the discovery of, to use the contemporary word, a soulmate and, as the romance readers call it, a HEA. Weird, weird, weird.