Rudyard Kipling, let it be said again, is the finest short story writer in English. At least, I haven't read a better. Much as I adore the plotted viciousness of The Jungle Books, my favourite collection is Debits and Credits (1926), which comes late enough in Kipling's career to be classified as---in Edmund Wilson's pointed phrase---'the Kipling that nobody read'. Although the book contains several masterpieces which regularly appear in selections from Kipling's work (most notably, 'The Wish House', 'The Bull that Thought', 'The Eye of Allah'), it has fallen out of print for long periods. The neglect is incomprehensible. Debits and Credits is the work of a Prospero-figure, abjuring his powers at their height, seeking forgiveness for himself and for a ruined world.
To call Debits and Credits a book of short stories is to do it a disservice. The fourteen stories are held together (and kept apart) by poems which commentate obliquely or directly on the themes of the prose. 'Sea Constables', for example, is a merciless tale of maritime revenge against 'Uncle Newt' --- war-profiteering neutrals being more offensive even than an honest enemy --- and it is preceded by Kipling's poem, 'The Changelings'.
Or ever the battered liners sank
With their passengers to the dark,
I was head of a Walworth Bank,
And you were a grocer's clerk.
I was a dealer in stocks and shares,
And you in butters and teas,
And we both abandoned our own affairs
And took to the dreadful seas.
Wet and worry about our ways---
Panic, onset, and flight---
Had us in charge for a thousand days
And a thousand-year-long night.
We saw more than the nights could hide---
More than the waves could keep---
And---certain faces over the side
Which do not go from our sleep.
We were more tired than words can tell
While the pied craft fled by,
And the swinging mounds of the Western swell
Hoisted us Heavens-high...
Now there is nothing---not even our rank---
To witness what we have been;
And I am returned to my Walworth bank,
And you to your margarine!
This is light verse of the darkest kind. Its rhythms are a variation on the ballad stanza --- four beats followed by three --- but their jauntiness disguises intimate dangers. How easy to read that final line as a joking pay-off, as if the speaker were to be believed that the horrors of war can be pushed away and a banal diurnal career resumed. Everything in the poem resists that paraphrasable meaning. Even the final exclamation mark manages to betray anxiety.
During the Boer War, Kipling had written of the difficulties faced by soldiers returning to civilian life. The irregulars come home to a petty, prissy nation, with its ''ouses both sides of the street'. In this context, there can be nothing pettier than a career in 'margarine'. For all that the banker and grocer are traumatised by memory of---a horrible euphemism---'more than the waves could keep', they continue to hanker for 'what they have been'. As the poem title reminds us, they have changed and cannot go back to their previous lives. Could it be that the trauma of naval warfare is outstripped by the greater trauma of trying to resume the trite rigmarole of civilian existence?