TO THE LYNX KITTEN, WITH HIS
RELUCTANTLY GIVEN CONSENT, THIS BOOK IS AFFECTIONATELY
TO THE LYNX KITTEN, WITH HIS
RELUCTANTLY GIVEN CONSENT, THIS BOOK IS AFFECTIONATELY
There are good things which we want to share with the world and good things which we want to keep to ourselves. The secret of our favourite restaurant, to take a case, is guarded jealously from all but a few intimates; the secret, to take a contrary case, of our infallible remedy for seasickness is thrust upon every traveller we meet, even if he be no more than a casual acquaintance about to cross the Serpentine. So with our books. There are dearly loved books of which we babble to a neighbour at dinner, insisting that she shall share our delight in them; and there are books, equally dear to us, of which we say nothing, fearing lest the praise of others should cheapen the glory of our discovery. The books of "Saki" were, for me at least, in the second class.
It was in the WESTMINSTER GAZETTE that I discovered him (I like to remember now) almost as soon as he was discoverable. Let us spare a moment, and a tear, for those golden days in the early nineteen hundreds, when there were five leisurely papers of an evening in which the free-lance might graduate, and he could speak of his Alma Mater, whether the GLOBE or the PALL MALL, with as much pride as, he never doubted, the GLOBE or the PALL MALL would speak one day of him. Myself but lately down from ST. JAMES', I was not too proud to take some slight but pitying interest in men of other colleges. The unusual name of a freshman up at WESTMINSTER attracted my attention; I read what he had to say; and it was only by reciting rapidly with closed eyes the names of our own famous alumni, beginning confidently with Barrie and ending, now very doubtfully, with myself, that I was able to preserve my equanimity. Later one heard that this undergraduate from overseas had gone up at an age more advanced than customary; and just as Cambridge men have been known to complain of the maturity of Oxford Rhodes scholars, so one felt that this WESTMINSTER free- lance in the thirties was no fit competitor for the youth of other colleges. Indeed, it could not compete.
Well, I discovered him, but only to the few, the favoured, did I speak of him. It may have been my uncertainty (which still persists) whether he called himself Sayki, Sahki or Sakki which made me thus ungenerous of his name, or it may have been the feeling that the others were not worthy of him; but how refreshing it was when some intellectually blown-up stranger said "Do you ever read Saki?" to reply, with the same pronunciation and even greater condescension: "Saki! He has been my favourite author for years!"
A strange exotic creature, this Saki, to us many others who were trying to do it too. For we were so domestic, he so terrifyingly cosmopolitan. While we were being funny, as planned, with collar- studs and hot-water bottles, he was being much funnier with werwolves and tigers. Our little dialogues were between John and Mary; his, and how much better, between Bertie van Tahn and the Baroness. Even the most casual intruder into one of his sketches, as it might be our Tomkins, had to be called Belturbet or de Ropp, and for his hero, weary man-of-the-world at seventeen, nothing less thrilling than Clovis Sangrail would do. In our envy we may have wondered sometimes if it were not much easier to be funny with tigers than with collar-studs; if Saki's careless cruelty, that strange boyish insensitiveness of his, did not give him an unfair start in the pursuit of laughter. It may have been so; but, fortunately, our efforts to be funny in the Saki manner have not survived to prove it.
What is Saki's manner, what his magic talisman? Like every artist worth consideration, he had no recipe. If his exotic choice of subject was often his strength, it was often his weakness; if his insensitiveness carried him through, at times, to victory, it brought him, at times, to defeat. I do not think that he has that "mastery of the CONTE"—in this book at least—which some have claimed for him. Such mastery infers a passion for tidiness which was not in the boyish Saki's equipment. He leaves loose ends everywhere. Nor in his dialogue, delightful as it often is, funny as it nearly always is, is he the supreme master; too much does it become monologue judiciously fed, one character giving and the other taking. But in comment, in reference, in description, in every development of his story, he has a choice of words, a "way of putting things" which is as inevitably his own vintage as, once tasted, it becomes the private vintage of the connoisseur.
Let us take a sample or two of "Saki, 1911."
"The earlier stages of the dinner had worn off. The wine lists had been consulted, by some with the blank embarrassment of a schoolboy suddenly called upon to locate a Minor Prophet in the tangled hinterland of the Old Testament, by others with the severe scrutiny which suggests that they have visited most of the higher- priced wines in their own homes and probed their family weaknesses."
"Locate" is the pleasant word here. Still more satisfying, in the story of the man who was tattooed "from collar-bone to waist-line with a glowing representation of the Fall of Icarus," is the word "privilege":
"The design when finally developed was a slight disappointment to Monsieur Deplis, who had suspected Icarus of being a fortress taken by Wallenstein in the Thirty Years' War, but he was more than satisfied with the execution of the work, which was acclaimed by all who had the privilege of seeing it as Pincini's masterpiece."
This story, THE BACKGROUND, and MRS PACKLETIDE'S TIGER seem to me to be the masterpieces of this book. In both of them Clovis exercises, needlessly, his titular right of entry, but he can be removed without damage, leaving Saki at his best and most characteristic, save that he shows here, in addition to his own shining qualities, a compactness and a finish which he did not always achieve. With these I introduce you to him, confident that ten minutes of his conversation, more surely than any words of mine, will have given him the freedom of your house.
A. A. MILNE.
"All hunting stories are the same," said Clovis; "just as all Turf stories are the same, and all—"
"My hunting story isn't a bit like any you've ever heard," said the Baroness. "It happened quite a while ago, when I was about twenty-three. I wasn't living apart from my husband then; you see, neither of us could afford to make the other a separate allowance. In spite of everything that proverbs may say, poverty keeps together more homes than it breaks up. But we always hunted with different packs. All this has nothing to do with the story."
"We haven't arrived at the meet yet. I suppose there was a meet," said Clovis.
"Of course there was a meet," said the Baroness; all the usual crowd were there, especially Constance Broddle. Constance is one of those strapping florid girls that go so well with autumn scenery or Christmas decorations in church. 'I feel a presentiment that something dreadful is going to happen,' she said to me; 'am I looking pale?'
"She was looking about as pale as a beetroot that has suddenly heard bad news.
"'You're looking nicer than usual,' I said, 'but that's so easy for you.' Before she had got the right bearings of this remark we had settled down to business; hounds had found a fox lying out in some gorse-bushes."
"I knew it," said Clovis, "in every fox-hunting story that I've ever heard there's been a fox and some gorse-bushes."
"Constance and I were well mounted," continued the Baroness serenely, "and we had no difficulty in keeping ourselves in the first flight, though it was a fairly stiff run. Towards the finish, however, we must have held rather too independent a line, for we lost the hounds, and found ourselves plodding aimlessly along miles away from anywhere. It was fairly exasperating, and my temper was beginning to let itself go by inches, when on pushing our way through an accommodating hedge we were gladdened by the sight of hounds in full cry in a hollow just beneath us.
"'There they go,' cried Constance, and then added in a gasp, 'In Heaven's name, what are they hunting?'
"It was certainly no mortal fox. It stood more than twice as high, had a short, ugly head, and an enormous thick neck.
"'It's a hyaena,' I cried; 'it must have escaped from Lord Pabham's Park.'
"At that moment the hunted beast turned and faced its pursuers, and the hounds (there were only about six couple of them) stood round in a half-circle and looked foolish. Evidently they had broken away from the rest of the pack on the trail of this alien scent, and were not quite sure how to treat their quarry now they had got him.
"The hyaena hailed our approach with unmistakable relief and demonstrations of friendliness. It had probably been accustomed to uniform kindness from humans, while its first experience of a pack of hounds had left a bad impression. The hounds looked more than ever embarrassed as their quarry paraded its sudden intimacy with us, and the faint toot of a horn in the distance was seized on as a welcome signal for unobtrusive departure. Constance and I and the hyaena were left alone in the gathering twilight
"'What are we to do?' asked Constance.
"'What a person you are for questions,' I said.
"'Well, we can't stay here all night with a hyaena,' she retorted.
"'I don't know what your ideas of comfort are,' I said; 'but I shouldn't think of staying here all night even without a hyaena. My home may be an unhappy one, but at least it has hot and cold water laid on, and domestic service, and other conveniences which we shouldn't find here. We had better make for that ridge of trees to the right; I imagine the Crowley road is just beyond.'
"We trotted off slowly along a faintly marked cart-track, with the beast following cheerfully at our heels.
"'What on earth are we to do with the hyaena?' came the inevitable question.
"'What does one generally do with hyaenas?' I asked crossly.
"'I've never had anything to do with one before,' said Constance.
"'Well, neither have I. If we even knew its sex we might give it a name. Perhaps we might call it Esmé. That would do in either case.'
"There was still sufficient daylight for us to distinguish wayside objects, and our listless spirits gave an upward perk as we came upon a small half-naked gipsy brat picking blackberries from a low-growing bush. The sudden apparition of two horsewomen and a hyaena set it off crying, and in any case we should scarcely have gleaned any useful geographical information from that source; but there was a probability that we might strike a gipsy encampment somewhere along our route. We rode on hopefully but uneventfully for another mile or so.
"'I wonder what that child was doing there,' said Constance presently.
"'Picking blackberries. Obviously.'
"'I don't like the way it cried,' pursued Constance; 'somehow its wail keeps ringing in my ears.'
"I did not chide Constance for her morbid fancies; as a matter of fact the same sensation, of being pursued by a persistent fretful wail, had been forcing itself on my rather over-tired nerves. For company's sake I hulloed to Esmé, who had lagged somewhat behind. With a few springy bounds he drew up level, and then shot past us.
"The wailing accompaniment was explained. The gipsy child was firmly, and I expect painfully, held in his jaws.
"'Merciful Heaven screamed Constance, 'what on earth shall we do? What are we to do?'
"I am perfectly certain that at the Last Judgment Constance will ask more questions than any of the examining Seraphs.
"'Can't we do something?' she persisted tearfully, as Esmé cantered easily along in front of our tired horses.
"Personally I was doing everything that occurred to me at the moment. I stormed and scolded and coaxed in English and French and gamekeeper language; I made absurd, ineffectual cuts in the air with my thongless hunting-crop; I hurled my sandwich case at the brute; in fact, I really don't know what more I could have done. And still we lumbered on through the deepening dusk, with that dark uncouth shape lumbering ahead of us, and a drone of lugubrious music floating in our ears. Suddenly Esmé bounded aside into some thick bushes, where we could not follow; the wail rose to a shriek and then stopped altogether. This part of the story I always hurry over, because it is really rather horrible. When the beast joined us again, after an absence of a few minutes, there was an air of patient understanding about him, as though he knew that he had done something of which we disapproved, but which he felt to be thoroughly justifiable.
"'How can you let that ravening beast trot by your side?' asked Constance. She was looking more than ever like an albino beetroot.
"'In the first place, I can't prevent it,' I said; 'and in the second place, whatever else he may be, I doubt if he's ravening at the present moment.'
"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.'
"It was nearly pitch-dark when we emerged suddenly into the highroad. A flash of lights and the whir of a motor went past us at the same moment at uncomfortably close quarters. A thud and a sharp screeching yell followed a second later. The car drew up, and when I had ridden back to the spot I found a young man bending over a dark motionless mass lying by the roadside.
"'You have killed my Esmé I exclaimed bitterly.
"'I'm so awfully sorry,' said the young man; I keep dogs myself, so I know what you must feel about it I'll do anything I can in reparation.'
"'Please bury him at once,' I said; that much I think I may ask of you.'
"'Bring the spade, William,' he called to the chauffeur. Evidently hasty roadside interments were contingencies that had been provided against.
"The digging of a sufficiently large grave took some little time. 'I say, what a magnificent fellow,' said the motorist as the corpse was rolled over into the trench. 'I'm afraid he must have been rather a valuable animal.'
"'He took second in the puppy class at Birmingham last year,' I said resolutely.
"Constance snorted loudly.
"'Don't cry, dear,' I said brokenly; 'it was all over in a, moment. He couldn't have suffered much.'
"'Look here,' said the young fellow desperately, 'you simply must let me do something by way of reparation.'
"I refused sweetly, but as he persisted I let him have my address.
"Of course, we kept our own counsel as to the earlier episodes of the evening. Lord Pabham never advertised the loss of his hyaena; when a strictly fruit-eating animal strayed from his park a year or two previously he was called upon to give compensation in eleven cases of sheep-worrying and practically to re-stock his neighbours' poultry-yards, and an escaped hyaena would have mounted up to something on the scale of a Government grant. The gipsies were equally unobtrusive over their missing offspring; I don't suppose in large encampments they really know to a child or two how many they've got."
The Baroness paused reflectively, and then continued:
"There was a sequel to the adventure, though. I got through the post a charming little diamond brooch, with the name Esmé set in a sprig of rosemary. Incidentally, too, I lost the friendship of Constance Broddle. You see, when I sold the brooch I quite properly refused to give her any share of the proceeds. I pointed out that the Esmé part of the affair was my own invention, and the hyaena part of it belonged to Lord Pabham, if it really was his hyaena, of which, of course, I've no proof."
The grill-room clock struck eleven with the respectful unobtrusiveness of one whose mission in life is to be ignored. When the flight of time should really have rendered abstinence and migration imperative the lighting apparatus would signal the fact in the usual way.
Six minutes later Clovis approached the supper-table, in the blessed expectancy of one who has dined sketchily and long ago.
"I'm starving," he announced, making an effort to sit down gracefully and read the menu at the same time.
"So I gathered;" said his host, "from the fact that you were nearly punctual. I ought to have told you that I'm a Food Reformer. I've ordered two bowls of bread-and-milk and some health biscuits. I hope you don't mind."
Clovis pretended afterwards that he didn't go white above the collar-line for the fraction of a second.
"All the same," he said, "you ought not to joke about such things. There really are such people. I've known people who've met them. To think of all the adorable things there are to eat in the world, and then to go through life munching sawdust and being proud of it."
"They're like the Flagellants of the Middle Ages, who went about mortifying themselves."
"They had some excuse," said Clovis. "They did it to save their immortal souls, didn't they? You needn't tell me that a man who doesn't love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He's simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed."
Clovis relapsed for a few golden moments into tender intimacies with a succession of rapidly disappearing oysters.
"I think oysters are more beautiful than any religion," he resumed presently. "They not only forgive our unkindness to them; they justify it, they incite us to go on being perfectly horrid to them. Once they arrive at the supper-table they seem to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the thing. There's nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster. Do you like my new waistcoat? I'm wearing it for the first time to-night."
"It looks like a great many others you've had lately, only worse. New dinner waistcoats are becoming a habit with you."
"They say one always pays for the excesses of one's youth; mercifully that isn't true about one's clothes. My mother is thinking of getting married."
"It's the first time."
"Of course, you ought to know. I was under the impression that she'd been married once or twice at least."
"Three times, to be mathematically exact. I meant that it was the first time she'd thought about getting married; the other times she did it without thinking. As a matter of fact, it's really I who am doing the thinking for her in this case. You see, it's quite two years since her last husband died."
"You evidently think that brevity is the soul of widowhood."
"Well, it struck me that she was getting moped, and beginning to settle down, which wouldn't suit her a bit. The first symptom that I noticed was when she began to complain that we were living beyond our income. All decent people live beyond their incomes nowadays, and those who aren't respectable live beyond other peoples. A few gifted individuals manage to do both."
"It's hardly so much a gift as an industry."
"The crisis came," returned Clovis, "when she suddenly started the theory that late hours were bad for one, and wanted me to be in by one o'clock every night. Imagine that sort of thing for me, who was eighteen on my last birthday."
"On your last two birthdays, to be mathematically exact."
"Oh, well, that's not my fault. I'm not going to arrive at nineteen as long as my mother remains at thirty-seven. One must have some regard for appearances."
"Perhaps your mother would age a little in the process of settling down."
"That's the last thing she'd think of. Feminine reformations always start in on the failings of other people. That's why I was so keen on the husband idea."
"Did you go as far as to select the gentleman, or did you merely throw out a general idea, and trust to the force of suggestion?"
"If one wants a thing done in a hurry one must see to it oneself. I found a military Johnny hanging round on a loose end at the club, and took him home to lunch once or twice. He'd spent most of his life on the Indian frontier, building roads, and relieving famines and minimizing earthquakes, and all that sort of thing that one does do on frontiers. He could talk sense to a peevish cobra in fifteen native languages, and probably knew what to do if you found a rogue elephant on your croquet-lawn; but he was shy and diffident with women. I told my mother privately that he was an absolute woman-hater; so, of course, she laid herself out to flirt all she knew, which isn't a little."
"And was the gentleman responsive?"
"I hear he told some one at the club that he was looking out for a Colonial job, with plenty of hard work, for a young friend of his, so I gather that he has some idea of marrying into the family."
"You seem destined to be the victim of the reformation, after all."
Claws wiped the trace of Turkish coffee and the beginnings of a smile from his lips, and slowly lowered his dexter eyelid. Which, being interpreted, probably meant, "I DON'T think!"