|Books, glorious books: When William Came, Saki (H. H. Munro)
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
I’ve had my Kindle for over a month now. It’s become such an integral part of my life that I finally feel like admitting it. It makes the 3 hours a day I spend commuting on trains pass in a pleasant otherworldly dream. When I buy expensive gadgets, I always fear that my interest in them will wane quickly and I’ll be left feeling stupid that I spent a lot of money on something that entertained me for two weeks. I’m pretty certain that the Kindle is here to stay, however.
I have only paid for two things on it so far: the collected works of the Bronte sisters (£0.72) and Lolita (<£4), because I had a sudden and irrepressible urge to re-read it while in Copenhagen. (No, I don’t understand it either.) Everything else I’ve downloaded thus far has been free and out of copyright. I’ve been taking the opportunity to read many classic favourites (Swift, Bierce, Chekhov) and explore new ones (Wharton, Balzac) - and I discovered, while searching for Saki (H. H. Munro), that he had written a novella. Saki is an English writer that I associate with short, acerbic, witty stories, and I was very surprised to find a work of that length available - and for free. I was curious if his barbed pen, so adept at illustrating the painful absurdity of self-important people in under a hundred words, would retain its power when forced to expend its energy over several thousand.
When William Came opens in a Britain freshly defeated by Germany in the first world war. In this not very promising setting, Saki wields the social antics of a young, wealthy couple to illustrate the flavours of resignation that quickly come to dominate the national outlook. I was surprised to find his portrait of the intelligent, resigned young woman so sympathetic and believable, as it is rare for Saki’s female characters to be anything other than children or dour, humourless spinsters. Cicely is insightful and politically adept, and she is determined to carve out a place for herself in the new society. Her outrage at the conquest is rapidly overcome by her overriding urge to adapt and retain her life of ease and comfort. Her husband, on the other hand, tries to resist the tide of acceptance. He deludes himself into thinking that he is succeeding far better than his wife at being a subversive influence. In reality he too is lulled into acquiescence, seeing no alternative for the near future because of his lack of belief in his fellow Briton’s will to revolt.
I have the feeling that Saki struggled with the long form of story-telling. Though there are some piercingly astute observations delivered via internal monologue in this as in all his works, their delivery is somewhat hampered by the need to drive the plot along in a coherent fashion. I half wish he’d written it purely as a debate between the two main characters. Still, as a portrait of a dystopian British future and the tendency towards acceptance of oppression, it could be seen as a weaker predecessor of works like Brave New World.
I wouldn’t recommend that anyone new to Saki pick it up as their first experience of his writing. It’s a rather heavy-handed endorsement of the “to make peace you must prepare for war” polemic. His short story collections, like Beasts and Super Beasts and The Chronicles of Clovis which are also free on the Kindle, have the same biting, sardonic humour without the unnecessary detail and the political agenda. I leave you with one of my favourites.
Laura, by Saki (H. H. Munro)
"You are not really dying, are you?" asked Amanda.
"I have the doctor's permission to live till Tuesday," said Laura.
"But to-day is Saturday; this is serious!" gasped Amanda.
"I don't know about it being serious; it is certainly Saturday," said Laura.
"Death is always serious," said Amanda.
"I never said I was going to die. I am presumably going to leave off being Laura, but I shall go on being something. An animal of some kind, I suppose. You see, when one hasn't been very good in the life one has just lived, one reincarnates in some lower organism. And I haven't been very good, when one comes to think of it. I've been petty and mean and vindictive and all that sort of thing when circumstances have seemed to warrant it."
"Circumstances never warrant that sort of thing," said Amanda hastily.
"If you don't mind my saying so," observed Laura, "Egbert is a circumstance that would warrant any amount of that sort of thing. You're married to him - that's different; you've sworn to love, honour, and endure him: I haven't."
"I don't see what's wrong with Egbert," protested Amanda.
"Oh, I daresay the wrongness has been on my part," admitted Laura dispassionately; "he has merely been the extenuating circumstance. He made a thin, peevish kind of fuss, for instance, when I took the collie puppies from the farm out for a run the other day."
"They chased his young broods of speckled Sussex and drove two sitting hens off their nests, besides running all over the flower beds. You know how devoted he is to his poultry and garden."
"Anyhow, he needn't have gone on about it for the entire evening and then have said, `Let's say no more about it' just when I was beginning to enjoy the discussion. That's where one of my petty vindictive revenges came in," added Laura with an unrepentant chuckle; "I turned the entire family of speckled Sussex into his seedling shed the day after the puppy episode."
"How could you?" exclaimed Amanda.
"It came quite easy," said Laura; "two of the hens pretended to be laying at the time, but I was firm."
"And we thought it was an accident!"
"You see," resumed Laura, "I really HAVE some grounds for supposing that my next incarnation will be in a lower organism. I shall be an animal of some kind. On the other hand, I haven't been a bad sort in my way, so I think I may count on being a nice animal, something elegant and lively, with a love of fun. An otter, perhaps."
"I can't imagine you as an otter," said Amanda.
"Well, I don't suppose you can imagine me as an angel, if it comes to that," said Laura.
Amanda was silent. She couldn't.
"Personally I think an otter life would be rather enjoyable," continued Laura; "salmon to eat all the year round, and the satisfaction of being able to fetch the trout in their own homes without having to wait for hours till they condescend to rise to the fly you've been dangling before them; and an elegant svelte figure - "
"Think of the otter hounds," interposed Amanda; "how dreadful to be hunted and harried and finally worried to death!"
"Rather fun with half the neighbourhood looking on, and anyhow not worse than this Saturday-to-Tuesday business of dying by inches; and then I should go on into something else. If I had been a moderately good otter I suppose I should get back into human shape of some sort; probably something rather primitive - a little brown, unclothed Nubian boy, I should think."
"I wish you would be serious," sighed Amanda; "you really ought to be if you're only going to live till Tuesday."
As a matter of fact Laura died on Monday.
"So dreadfully upsetting," Amanda complained to her uncle-in-law, Sir Lulworth Quayne. "I've asked quite a lot of people down for golf and fishing, and the rhododendrons are just looking their best."
"Laura always was inconsiderate," said Sir Lulworth; "she was born during Goodwood week, with an Ambassador staying in the house who hated babies."
"She had the maddest kind of ideas," said Amanda; "do you know if there was any insanity in her family?"
"Insanity? No, I never heard of any. Her father lives in West Kensington, but I believe he's sane on all other subjects."
"She had an idea that she was going to be reincarnated as an otter," said Amanda.
"One meets with those ideas of reincarnation so frequently, even in the West," said Sir Lulworth, "that one can hardly set them down as being mad. And Laura was such an unaccountable person in this life that I should not like to lay down definite rules as to what she might be doing in an after state."
"You think she really might have passed into some animal form?" asked Amanda. She was one of those who shape their opinions rather readily from the standpoint of those around them.
Just then Egbert entered the breakfast-room, wearing an air of bereavement that Laura's demise would have been insufficient, in itself, to account for.
"Four of my speckled Sussex have been killed," he exclaimed; "the very four that were to go to the show on Friday. One of them was dragged away and eaten right in the middle of that new carnation bed that I've been to such trouble and expense over. My best flower bed and my best fowls singled out for destruction; it almost seems as if the brute that did the deed had special knowledge how to be as devastating as possible in a short space of time."
"Was it a fox, do you think?" asked Amanda.
"Sounds more like a polecat," said Sir Lulworth.
"No," said Egbert, "there were marks of webbed feet all over the place, and we followed the tracks down to the stream at the bottom of the garden; evidently an otter."
Amanda looked quickly and furtively across at Sir Lulworth.
Egbert was too agitated to eat any breakfast, and went out to superintend the strengthening of the poultry yard defences.
"I think she might at least have waited till the funeral was over," said Amanda in a scandalised voice.
"It's her own funeral, you know," said Sir Lulworth; "it's a nice point in etiquette how far one ought to show respect to one's own mortal remains."
Disregard for mortuary convention was carried to further lengths next day; during the absence of the family at the funeral ceremony the remaining survivors of the speckled Sussex were massacred. The marauder's line of retreat seemed to have embraced most of the flower beds on the lawn, but the strawberry beds in the lower garden had also suffered.
"I shall get the otter hounds to come here at the earliest possible moment," said Egbert savagely.
"On no account! You can't dream of such a thing!" exclaimed Amanda. "I mean, it wouldn't do, so soon after a funeral in the house."
"It's a case of necessity," said Egbert; "once an otter takes to that sort of thing it won't stop."
"Perhaps it will go elsewhere now there are no more fowls left," suggested Amanda.
"One would think you wanted to shield the beast," said Egbert.
"There's been so little water in the stream lately," objected Amanda; "it seems hardly sporting to hunt an animal when it has so little chance of taking refuge anywhere."
"Good gracious!" fumed Egbert, "I'm not thinking about sport. I want to have the animal killed as soon as possible."
Even Amanda's opposition weakened when, during church time on the following Sunday, the otter made its way into the house, raided half a salmon from the larder and worried it into scaly fragments on the Persian rug in Egbert's studio.
"We shall have it hiding under our beds and biting pieces out of our feet before long," said Egbert, and from what Amanda knew of this particular otter she felt that the possibility was not a remote one.
On the evening preceding the day fixed for the hunt Amanda spent a solitary hour walking by the banks of the stream, making what she imagined to be hound noises. It was charitably supposed by those who overheard her performance, that she was practising for farmyard imitations at the forth-coming village entertainment.
It was her friend and neighbour, Aurora Burret, who brought her news of the day's sport.
"Pity you weren't out; we had quite a good day. We found at once, in the pool just below your garden."
"Did you - kill?" asked Amanda.
"Rather. A fine she-otter. Your husband got rather badly bitten in trying to 'tail it.' Poor beast, I felt quite sorry for it, it had such a human look in its eyes when it was killed. You'll call me silly, but do you know who the look reminded me of? My dear woman, what is the matter?"
When Amanda had recovered to a certain extent from her attack of nervous prostration Egbert took her to the Nile Valley to recuperate. Change of scene speedily brought about the desired recovery of health and mental balance. The escapades of an adventurous otter in search of a variation of diet were viewed in their proper light. Amanda's normally placid temperament reasserted itself. Even a hurricane of shouted curses, coming from her husband's dressing-room, in her husband's voice, but hardly in his usual vocabulary, failed to disturb her serenity as she made a leisurely toilet one evening in a Cairo hotel.
"What is the matter? What has happened?" she asked in amused curiosity.
"The little beast has thrown all my clean shirts into the bath! Wait till I catch you, you little - "
"What little beast?" asked Amanda, suppressing a desire to laugh; Egbert's language was so hopelessly inadequate to express his outraged feelings.
"A little beast of a naked brown Nubian boy," spluttered Egbert.
And now Amanda is seriously ill.