Short Story September Week Two

Saki, or Hector Hugh Munro in real life, was a satirist of Edwardian society and is today widely considered a master of the short story. According to his sister, he chose his pen-name from the last quatrain of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

Yon rising Moon that looks for us again –
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden – and for one in vain!

And when like her, oh Saki, you shall pass
Amongst the Guests, Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One – turn down an empty Glass!

It’s an image entirely apt to the society that he passed through as an observer; an anonymous cupbearer of stories, not an impressive personality in his own right. Hugh Walpole noted that “He was to be met with at country houses and London parties, apparently rather cynical, rather idle , and taking life so gently that he might hardly be said to be taking it at all”. Much like the eponymous Clovis in this 1911 collection of stories.

Clovis spends his time visiting the higher classes, lounging around the lawns, sipping the cocktails and amusing himself at the expense of his hosts.  Injecting wicked, if not downright malicious comments at (in)appropriate intervals.

“We’ve lost Baby,” she screamed.

“Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?” asked Clovis lazily.

“He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,” said Mrs Momeby tearfully, “and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus …”

“I hope he said hollandaise,” interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, “because if there’s anything I hate …” (From the Quest)

There are a number of stories in this collection in which children do not fare well and adults are strangely indifferent.  During a hunting trip an unearthly noise is heard coming from the direction of a marauding hyena.

The wailing accompaniment was explained. The gypsy child was firmly, and I expect painfully, held in his jaws.

The child is left to its fate. 

Constance shuddered. “Do you think the poor little thing suffered much?” came another of her futile questions.

“The indications were all that way,’ I said; ‘on the other hand, of course, it may have been crying from sheer temper. Children sometimes do.”  (From Esmé)

Battlelines are often drawn between adult and child and the victor is not always the grown-up.  Sredni Vashtar is one of the darkest tales in this collection.  No clues beyond that the mentality of the young boy makes me shudder.

As does the idea of having a pet that can talk and that bears witness to the innermost secrets of an household – an idea executed to brilliant effect as Tobermory, the cat is interrogated at an Edwardian tea-party.

What do you think of human intelligence?” asked Mavis Pellington lamely.

“Of whose intelligence in particular?” asked Tobermory coldly.

“Oh, well, mine for instance,” said Mavis, with a feeble laugh.

“You put me in an embarrassing position,” said Tobermory, …

and it’s all downhill from there!  Especially for Cornelius Appin, the cat’s trainer, who later is trampled to death by an elephant at Dresden Zoo.  Clovis, showing his aptitude for a deadpan oneliner, comments

If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast, he deserved all he got.

Witty, cruel, incisive, frequently macabre, this is a stunning collection of stories.  Prescient almost.  In The Hounds of Fate Stoner, a vagrant,  is mistaken for Tom, a black sheep returning to the family fold.  During the time he spends with his “family” it becomes obvious that Tom has enemies, many enemies.  He never finds out what black deeds lie in his assumed past but threats are made on his life.  He is given money and persuaded to disappear once more.  As he leaves the village

there stepped out from the shadow of an overhanging oak tree a man with a gun … Stoner sprang aside in a wild effort to break through the hedge that bordered the lane, but the tough branches held him fast.  The hounds of Fate had waited for him in those narrow lanes, and this time they were not to be denied.

Stoner shares the ultimate fate of his creator.  On the morning of November 13, 1916 Hector Hugh Munroe was shot through the head by a sniper’s bullet in the trenches of World War I and Britain was deprived of yet another brilliant pen.

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