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Hector Hugh Munro (18 December 1870 – 14 November 1916), better known by the pen name Saki, and also frequently as H. H. Munro, was a British writer whose witty, mischievous and sometimes macabre stories satirize Edwardian society and culture. He is considered a master of the short story, and often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. Influenced by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll and Rudyard Kipling, he himself influenced A. A. Milne, Noël Coward and P. G. Wodehouse. Besides his short stories (which were first published in newspapers, as was customary at the time, and then collected into several volumes), he wrote a full-length play, The Watched Pot, in collaboration with Charles Maude; two one-act plays; a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, the only book published under his own name; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington; the episodic The Westminster Alice (a parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland); and When William Came, subtitled A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, a fantasy about a future German invasion and occupation of Britain.
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Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger
The Stampeding of Lady Bastable
Hermann the Irascible — A Story of the Great Weep
The Jesting of Arlington Stringham
The Easter Egg
Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped
The Music on the Hill
The Story of St. Vespaluus
The Way to the Dairy
The Peace Offering
The Peace of Mowsle Barton
The Talking-Out of Tarrington
The Hounds of Fate
A Matter of Sentiment
The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope
“Ministers of Grace”
The Remoulding of Groby Lington
TO THE LYNX KITTEN, WITH HIS RELUCTANTLY GIVEN CONSENT, THIS BOOK IS AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATED
H. H. M.
“The Background” originally appeared in the LEINSTERS’ MAGAZINE; “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable” in the DAILY MAIL; “Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger,” “The Chaplet,” “The Peace Offering,” “Filboid Studge” and “Ministers of Grace” (in an abbreviated form) in the BYSTANDER; and the remainder of the stories (with the exception of “The Music on the Hill,” “The Story of St. Vespaluus,” “The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope,” “The Remoulding of Groby Lington,” and “The Way to the Dairy,” which have never previously been published) in the WESTMINSTER GAZETTE. To the Editors of these papers I am indebted for courteous permission to reprint them.
“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.’
The Gräfin’s two elder sons had made deplorable marriages. It was, observed Clovis, a family habit. The youngest boy, Wratislav, who was the black sheep of a rather greyish family, had as yet made no marriage at all.
“There is certainly this much to be said for viciousness,” said the Gräfin, “it keeps boys out of mischief.”
“Does it?” asked the Baroness Sophie, not by way of questioning the statement, but with a painstaking effort to talk intelligently. It was the one matter in which she attempted to override the decrees of Providence, which had obviously never intended that she should talk otherwise than inanely.
“I don’t know why I shouldn’t talk cleverly,” she would complain; “my mother was considered a brilliant conversationalist.”
“These things have a way of skipping one generation,” said the Gräfin.
“That seems so unjust,” said Sophie; “one doesn’t object to one’s mother having outshone one as a clever talker, but I must admit that I should be rather annoyed if my daughters talked brilliantly.”
“Well, none of them do,” said the Gräfin consolingly.
“I don’t know about that,” said the Baroness, promptly veering round in defence of her offspring. “Elsa said something quite clever on Thursday about the Triple Alliance. Something about it being like a paper umbrella, that was all right as long as you didn’t take it out in the rain. It’s not everyone who could say that.”
“Everyone has said it; at least every one that I know. But then I know very few people.”
“I don’t think you’re particularly agreeable today.”
“I never am. Haven’t you noticed that women with a really perfect profile like mine are seldom even moderately agreeable?”
“I don’t think your profile is so perfect as all that,” said the Baroness.
“It would be surprising if it wasn’t. My mother was one of the most noted classical beauties of her day.”
“These things sometimes skip a generation, you know,” put in the Baroness, with the breathless haste of one to whom repartee comes as rarely as the finding of a gold-handled umbrella.
“My dear Sophie,” said the Gräfin sweetly, “that isn’t in the least bit clever; but you do try so hard that I suppose I oughtn’t to discourage you. Tell me something: has it ever occurred to you that Elsa would do very well for Wratislav? It’s time he married somebody, and why not Elsa?”
“Elsa marry that dreadful boy!” gasped the Baroness.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” observed the Gräfin.
“Elsa isn’t a beggar!”
“Not financially, or I shouldn’t have suggested the match. But she’s getting on, you know, and has no pretensions to brains or looks or anything of that sort.”
“You seem to forget that she’s my daughter.”
“That shows my generosity. But, seriously, I don’t see what there is against Wratislav. He has no debts — at least, nothing worth speaking about.”
“But think of his reputation! If half the things they say about him are true —”
“Probably three-quarters of them are. But what of it? You don’t want an archangel for a son-inlaw.”
“I don’t want Wratislav. My poor Elsa would be miserable with him.”
“A little misery wouldn’t matter very much with her; it would go so well with the way she does her hair, and if she couldn’t get on with Wratislav she could always go and do good among the poor.”
The Baroness picked up a framed photograph from the table.
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