T HE RUMPLED, BROWN -PAPER PACKAGE WAS ADDRESSED SIM PLY TO “MONSIEUR KIPLING.” RUDYARD KIPLING, CELEBRATED BRITISH AUTHOR AND NOBEL PRIZE-WINNER, OPENED IT, HIS CURIOSITY PIQUED BY THE PAINSTAKING SCRAWL. INSIDE WAS A RED BOX CONTAINING A FRENCH TRANSLATION OF HIS NOVEL KIM---—PIERCED BY A BULLET HOLE THAT STOPPED AT THE LAST 20 PAGES. THROUGH THE HOLE, TIED WITH STRING, DANGLED THE MALTESE CROSS OF THE CROIX DE GUERRE, FRANCE’S MEDAL FOR BRAVERY IN WAR.
The book had been sent by a young French soldier, Maurice Hamonneau. He explained in a letter that had Kim not been in his pocket when he went into battle, he would have been killed. Hamonneau asked Kipling to accept the book and the medal as a token of gratitude.
Kipling felt more moved than he had been by any other honor he’d received. Through him, God had spared the life of this soldier. If only he had spared the life of another—one who meant more to Kipling than all the honors in the world.
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TWENTY-ONE YEARS BEFORE, in the summer of 1897, Kipling’s American wife, Carrie, bore their third child. The Kiplings already had two daughters, Josephine and Elsie, whom Rudyard adored. He hoped for a boy this time. He would always remember the moment that high-pitched squeal rang out. “Mr. Kipling,” the doctor called, “you have a son!”
Soon Kipling was gazing at an almost-nine-pound, swaddled bundie. He cradled the warm, yawning infant in his arms, and a yearning rose within him much more profound than any he had ever known.
John Kipling, as they named the boy, turned out to be a bright, cheerful and uncomplaining child. Kipling felt blessed. But in the winter of 1899, tragedy struck.
On a trip to the United States, Rudyard and his older daughter, six-year-old Josephine, became ill with pneumonia. Before antibiotics, there was little doctors could do . On March 4, Kipling, desperately weak, finally pulled himself out of his delirium. Two days later, Josephine died.
Kipling could no longer bring himself to look at pictures of Josephine or hear her name mentioned . But he had to put aside his grief for the sake of three-year-old Elsie and 19-month-old John.
He took the children for picnics on the hilly Sussex Downs. He built a sandbox for them. When it came to playing with them, no game was too outlandish.
Kipling’s fondest memories of those early years were the winters between 1900 and 1907, which the family spent near Cape Town, South Africa. On hot afternoons, Kipling would lie in a hammock in the shade of a huge oak tree, his children close by. “Daddo,” John may have asked one such time, “why do leopards have spots?”
No doubt a sparkle came to Kipling’s eyes . The leopard, he began, mimicking the voice of an ancient sage, had long ago been sandy-brown in color, as were the zebra and giraffe he hunted on the open savannas. But then, to foil the leopard, the zebra and giraffe hid in the forests.
“After a long time,” Kipling continued, “what with standing half in the shade and half out of it, the giraffe grew blotchy, and the zebra grew stripy .” The leopard, in order to hunt his new prey in the forest, needed to change too, explained Kipling, so he chose spots.
“Now and then you will hear grownups ask, ‘Can a leopard change his spots?’” Kipling winked at his children and shook his head no . “He is quite contented as he is.”
Kipling collected his fantastical tales about wildlife into a book called Just So Stories. In 1902, the book was published to critical acclaim. He was fast becoming a favorite author of children around the world . Few would have guessed that the man who so loved the magic and mystery of childhood had had such an
unhappy one himself.
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BORN IN BOMBAY, INDIA, IN 1865, RUDYARD KIPLING FIRST GLIMPSED THE WORLD THROUGH THE BUSTLING STREET LIFE OF INDIA.
But before he turned six, he and his younger sister Trix were shipped off to England to attend school. The woman paid to board them beat and taunted the small, frail Rudyard, and censored the children’s letters home . Often she would lock him in a cold, damp cellar for hours.
Despite all the abuse, young Kipling willed himself to remain cheerful. Years later, he wrote that the experience “drained me of any capacity for real, personal for the rest of my days.” It also made him all the more determined to give his own children the happiness, love and security he had lacked.
Kipling returned to India to become a newspaper reporter, and wrote fiction in his spare time. His plots dealt with the courage, sacrifice and discipline he saw in British servicemen stationed there, as well as with the mystery and danger of India. He collected his popular stories into short books, hoping to find a market in London.
Editors there derided his work . One wrote: “I would hazard a guess that the writer is very young, and that he will die mad before he has reached the age of 30.” Kipling ignored the criticism and continued to write . In time, as his books gained popularity with readers, he became sought after by famous writers, academics and politicians . Kipling, however, was as indifferent to the praise as he had been to the earlier criticism.
Sy the early 1900s, Kipling was predicting war with Germany and calling for compulsory military service . For this he was frequently mocked by critics as an “imperialist” and a “jingoist.”
Even though he was increasingly scorned by the thinkers of the day, Kipling stood firm in his views and drew strength from his home and family.
HIS SON JOHN WAS GROWING TALL AND HANDSOME. Though not a skilled athlete, John loved competing in sports at his boarding school. How Kipling loved to watch his son, radiant with enthusiasm, dashing across the rugby field. How proud Kipling was----not because John was a great athlete but because he showed the quiet spunk and good humor that the father admired. John congratulated team-mates and opponents on their efforts. He never bragged about a win or whined about a loss . If he broke a school rule, he took his punishment without complaint. He accepted responsibility for his actions. The boy, Kipling realized, was becoming a man.
To Kipling, that meant handling adversity with fortitude. He wanted to encourage this conduct in his son. If John could follow in the footsteps of great men Kipling had known, if he could live by that set of values, if......
On a winter’s day in 1910, Kipling began to pen those thoughts for his 12-year-old son . He called the poem “If —,” and included it in a book of children’s tales published later that same year.
The critics did not consider it one of his greatest works. Yet within a few short years, the four-stanza poem became a classic the world over, translated into 27 languages . Schoolchildren memorized it. Young men marching off to battle recited it. Its simple, inspirational code of conduct defined for millions of people a set of values to live by.
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B Y 1915, THE WAR KIPLING HAD PREDICTED WAS RAGING
IN EUROPE. His son John was now a tall, lean, quick-witted 17-year-old with nut-brown hair, sparkling hazel eyes and the wispy beginnings of a mustache. Further, he was rejected as an officer by both the army and the navy. Eventually Kipling managed to get him a commission as a second lieutenant with the Irish Guards, which he eagerly accepted.
Shipped to Ireland, John proved an able officer. Meanwhile, Kipling campaigned on the home front for volunteers and visited France to write about the war.
In May, Britain was rocked by news of heavy casualties. As wave after wave of recruits went overseas, John’s departure loomed nearer. Kipling knew he had a choice. Because John was only 17, he required parental consent to go to the front. But Kipling could not now shirk everything he’d taught his son to believe—no matter what the consequences. He gave his consent.
At noon on August 15, John waved good-by to his mother and sister with a tip of his officer’s cap. Carrie Kipling wrote that he looked “very smart and straight and brave, as he turned to say, ‘Send my love to Daddo,’ “ who was already in France.
Just over six weeks later, on October 2, a messenger arrived at the Kipling estate, bearing a telegram from the War Office . John was missing in action, last seen during a battle in Loos , France. Kipling made desperate efforts to determine John’s fate, but no one could supply any information. Unable to sit idly by, he trudged from one muddy outpost hospital to another, searching for wounded men from John’s battalion.
Quiet and self-effacing, he instantly established rapport with the soldiers he visited. Yet nothing could staunch the hollow wound that grew within him as months went by, and still no news came of his son.
Toward the end of 1917, an eye-witness was finally located who had seen John die two years earlier in the Battle of Loos. Even with this sad news, the family could not find relief, for John’s body was never recovered.
During the remaining 18 years of his life, Kipling devoted himself to his duties as a member of the Imperial War Graves Commission, reburying—and honoring —the dead. He proposed the general inscription on the Stone of Sacrifice at each cemetery---—”THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE”– ---and the phrase “KNOWN BUT UNTO GOD” on the headstones of soldiers whose bodies, like that of his son, were never identified.
He visited countless sites and appeared at many functions on behalf of the commission. All the while, he was nearly overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness. He had sacrificed his greatest gift. For what purpose? On sleepless nights, when the timbered ceilings of his stone house creaked, Kipling sat in the darkness, trying to answer that question. For the very first time in his life, the man who’d made his living by words could find none to ease his own pain.
On a journey to France, Kipling visited Maurice Hamonneau, the French soldier who had sent him his Croix de Guerre at the end of the war. Over the years, the two men had corresponded, and a friendship had bloomed. Then one day in 1929, Hamonneau wrote that his wife had given birth to a son. Would Kipling be the godfather?
He would be delighted, Kipling wrot e back. It was only fitting, he added, that Hamonneau’s copy of Kim and his medal be given to the boy. Kipling stared out his study window, recalling that joyful moment when he first cradled his own son in his arms. Hamonneau now knew that magical feeling. God, through Kipling, had spared Hamonneau’s life, and something miraculous had come from it all.
For the first time in years, Kipling felt a surge of hope. Here is what John had sacrificed his life for---—the unborn. Of all the memorials Kipling f could construct, none would do more justice to his courageous son’s rnemory than this tiny infant, so full of life and promise.
“My son’s name was John,” he wrote to Hamonneau. “So yours must be Jean.” And so it was that Kipling’s godson bore the French version of his own son’s name---—and another father could know the hope and delight Kipling had felt, watching a son become a man.
READER’S DIGEST Magazine
June 1993. (Pgs. 69-72)
Volume 142. No. 854
Church of the Science of God
La Jolla, California 92038-3131
© Church of the Science of GOD, 1993