‘The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat’

Jocantha Bessbury was in the mood to be serenely and graciously happy. Her world was a pleasant place, and it was wearing one of its pleasantest aspects. Gregory had managed to get home for a hurried lunch and a smoke afterwards in the little snuggery; the lunch had been a good one, and there was just time to do justice to the coffee and cigarettes. Both were excellent in their way, and Gregory was, in his way, an excellent husband. Jocantha rather suspected herself of making him a very charming wife, and more than suspected herself of having a first-rate dressmaker.

“I don’t suppose a more thoroughly contented personality is to be found in all Chelsea,”1 observed Jocantha in allusion to herself; “except perhaps Attab,”2 she continued, glancing towards the large tabby-marked cat that lay in considerable ease in a corner of the divan. “He lies there, purring and dreaming, shifting his limbs now and then in an ecstasy of cushioned comfort. He seems the incarnation of everything soft and silky and velvety, without a sharp edge in his composition, a dreamer whose philosophy is sleep and let sleep; and then, as evening draws on, he goes out into the garden with a red glint in his eyes and slays a drowsy sparrow.”

“As every pair of sparrows hatches out ten or more young ones in the year, while their food supply remains stationary, it is just as well that the Attabs of the community should have that idea of how to pass an amusing afternoon,” said Gregory. Having delivered himself of this sage comment he lit another cigarette, bade Jocantha a playfully affectionate good-bye, and departed into the outer world.

“Remember, dinner’s a wee bit earlier to-night, as we’re going to the Haymarket,”3 she called after him.

Left to herself, Jocantha continued the process of looking at her life with placid, introspective eyes. If she had not everything she wanted in this world, at least she was very well pleased with what she had got. She was very well pleased, for instance, with the snuggery, which contrived somehow to be cosy and dainty and expensive all at once. The porcelain was rare and beautiful, the Chinese enamels took on wonderful tints in the firelight, the rugs and hangings led the eye through sumptuous harmonies of colouring. It was a room in which one might have suitably entertained an ambassador or an archbishop, but it was also a room in which one could cut out pictures for a scrap-book without feeling that one was scandalising the deities of the place with one’s litter. And as with the snuggery, so with the rest of the house, and as with the house, so with the other departments of Jocantha’s life; she really had good reason for being one of the most contented women in Chelsea.

From being in a mood of simmering satisfaction with her lot she passed to the phase of being generously commiserating for those thousands around her whose lives and circumstances were dull, cheap, pleasureless, and empty. Work girls, shop assistants and so forth, the class that have neither the happy-go-lucky freedom of the poor nor the leisured freedom of the rich, came specially within the range of her sympathy. It was sad to think that there were young people who, after a long day’s work, had to sit alone in chill, dreary bedrooms because they could not afford the price of a cup of coffee and a sandwich in a restaurant, still less a shilling for a theatre gallery.

Jocantha’s mind was still dwelling on this theme when she started forth on an afternoon campaign of desultory shopping; it would be rather a comforting thing, she told herself, if she could do something, on the spur of the moment, to bring a gleam of pleasure and interest into the life of even one or two wistful-hearted, empty-pocketed workers; it would add a good deal to her sense of enjoyment at the theatre that night. She would get two upper circle tickets for a popular play, make her way into some cheap tea-shop, and present the tickets to the first couple of interesting work girls with whom she could casually drop into conversation. She could explain matters by saying that she was unable to use the tickets herself and did not want them to be wasted, and, on the other hand, did not want the trouble of sending them back. On further reflection she decided that it might be better to get only one ticket and give it to some lonely-looking girl sitting eating her frugal meal by herself; the girl might scrape acquaintance with her next-seat neighbour at the theatre and lay the foundations of a lasting friendship.

With the Fairy Godmother impulse strong upon her, Jocantha marched into a ticket agency and selected with immense care an upper circle seat for the “Yellow Peacock,” a play that was attracting a considerable amount of discussion and criticism.4 Then she went forth in search of a tea-shop and philanthropic adventure, at about the same time that Attab sauntered into the garden with a mind attuned to sparrow stalking. In a corner of an A.B.C. shop5 she found an unoccupied table, whereat she promptly installed herself, impelled by the fact that at the next table was sitting a young girl, rather plain of feature, with tired, listless eyes, and a general air of uncomplaining forlornness. Her dress was of poor material, but aimed at being in the fashion, her hair was pretty, and her complexion bad; she was finishing a modest meal of tea and scone, and she was not very different in her way from thousands of other girls who were finishing, or beginning, or continuing their teas in London tea-shops at that exact moment. The odds were enormously in favour of the supposition that she had never seen the “Yellow Peacock”; obviously she supplied excellent material for Jocantha’s first experiment in haphazard benefaction.

Jocantha ordered some tea and a muffin, and then turned a friendly scrutiny on her neighbour with a view to catching her eye. At that precise moment the girl’s face lit up with sudden pleasure, her eyes sparkled, a flush came into her cheeks, and she looked almost pretty. A young man, whom she greeted with an affectionate “Hullo, Bertie,” came up to her table and took his seat in a chair facing her. Jocantha looked hard at the new-comer; he was in appearance a few years younger than herself, very much better looking than Gregory, rather better looking, in fact, than any of the young men of her set. She guessed him to be a well-mannered young clerk in some wholesale warehouse, existing and amusing himself as best he might on a tiny salary, and commanding a holiday of about two weeks in the year. He was aware, of course, of his good looks, but with the shy self-consciousness of the Anglo-Saxon, not the blatant complacency of the Latin or Semite. He was obviously on terms of friendly intimacy with the girl he was talking to, probably they were drifting towards a formal engagement. Jocantha pictured the boy’s home, in a rather narrow circle, with a tiresome mother who always wanted to know how and where he spent his evenings. He would exchange that humdrum thraldom in due course for a home of his own, dominated by a chronic scarcity of pounds, shillings, and pence, and a dearth of most of the things that made life attractive or comfortable. Jocantha felt extremely sorry for him. She wondered if he had seen the “Yellow Peacock”; the odds were enormously in favour of the supposition that he had not. The girl had finished her tea and would shortly be going back to her work; when the boy was alone it would be quite easy for Jocantha to say: “My husband has made other arrangements for me this evening; would you care to make use of this ticket, which would otherwise be wasted?” Then she could come there again one afternoon for tea, and, if she saw him, ask him how he liked the play. If he was a nice boy and improved on acquaintance he could be given more theatre tickets, and perhaps asked to come one Sunday to tea at Chelsea. Jocantha made up her mind that he would improve on acquaintance, and that Gregory would like him, and that the Fairy Godmother business would prove far more entertaining than she had originally anticipated. The boy was distinctly presentable; he knew how to brush his hair, which was possibly an imitative faculty; he knew what colour of tie suited him, which might be intuition; he was exactly the type that Jocantha admired, which of course was accident. Altogether she was rather pleased when the girl looked at the clock and bade a friendly but hurried farewell to her companion. Bertie nodded “good-bye,” gulped down a mouthful of tea, and then produced from his overcoat pocket a paper-covered book, bearing the title “Sepoy and Sahib, a tale of the great Mutiny.”6

The laws of tea-shop etiquette forbid that you should offer theatre tickets to a stranger without having first caught the stranger’s eye. It is even better if you can ask to have a sugar basin passed to you, having previously concealed the fact that you have a large and well-filled sugar basin on your own table; this is not difficult to manage, as the printed menu is generally nearly as large as the table, and can be made to stand on end. Jocantha set to work hopefully; she had a long and rather high-pitched discussion with the waitress concerning alleged defects in an altogether blameless muffin, she made loud and plaintive inquiries about the tube service to some impossibly remote suburb, she talked with brilliant insincerity to the tea-shop kitten, and as a last resort she upset a milk-jug and swore at it daintily. Altogether she attracted a good deal of attention, but never for a moment did she attract the attention of the boy with the beautifully-brushed hair, who was some thousands of miles away in the baking plains of Hindostan, amid deserted bungalows, seething bazaars, and riotous barrack squares, listening to the throbbing of tom-toms and the distant rattle of musketry.

Jocantha went back to her house in Chelsea, which struck her for the first time as looking dull and over-furnished. She had a resentful conviction that Gregory would be uninteresting at dinner, and that the play would be stupid after dinner. On the whole her frame of mind showed a marked divergence from the purring complacency of Attab, who was again curled up in his corner of the divan with a great peace radiating from every curve of his body.

But then he had killed his sparrow.


  1. At the time, the London borough of Chelsea had the reputation of being a cultured area: many artists and writers lived there.
  2. The word “tabby” is believed to derive from this Arabic name.
  3. Theatre in London’s West End.
  4. The name is invented.
  5. The Aerated Bread Company ran a chain of teashops selling its product. They provided a place women could eat unaccompanied without fear of censure.
  6. The Indian Mutiny (against the British colonial rulers) of 1857-58.

‘The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from Beasts and Super-Beasts (public domain). Notes © 2019-20 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

‘Laura’

“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. Continue reading

‘The Lull’

“I’ve asked Latimer Springfield to spend Sunday with us and stop the night,” announced Mrs. Durmot at the breakfast-table.

“I thought he was in the throes of an election,” remarked her husband.

“Exactly; the poll is on Wednesday, and the poor man will have worked himself to a shadow by that time. Imagine what electioneering must be like in this awful soaking rain, going along slushy country roads and speaking to damp audiences in draughty schoolrooms, day after day for a fortnight. He’ll have to put in an appearance at some place of worship on Sunday morning, and he can come to us immediately afterwards and have a thorough respite from everything connected with politics. I won’t let him even think of them. I’ve had the picture of Cromwell dissolving the Long Parliament taken down from the staircase, and even the portrait of Lord Rosebery’s ‘Ladas’[1] removed from the smoking-room. And Vera,” added Mrs. Durmot, turning to her sixteen-year-old niece, “be careful what colour ribbon you wear in your hair; not blue or yellow on any account; those are the rival party colours, and emerald green or orange would be almost as bad, with this Home Rule business[2] to the fore.”

“On state occasions I always wear a black ribbon in my hair,” said Vera with crushing dignity.

Latimer Springfield was a rather cheerless, oldish young man, who went into politics somewhat in the spirit in which other people might go into half-mourning. Without being an enthusiast, however, he was a fairly strenuous plodder, and Mrs. Durmot had been reasonably near the mark in asserting that he was working at high pressure over this election. The restful lull which his hostess enforced on him was decidedly welcome, and yet the nervous excitement of the contest had too great a hold on him to be totally banished. Continue reading

‘The Treasure-Ship’

The great galleon lay in semi-retirement under the sand and weed and water of the northern bay where the fortune of war and weather had long ago ensconced it. Three and a quarter centuries had passed since the day when it had taken the high seas as an important unit of a fighting squadron—precisely which squadron the learned were not agreed. The galleon had brought nothing into the world, but it had, according to tradition and report, taken much out of it. But how much? There again the learned were in disagreement. Some were as generous in their estimate as an income-tax assessor, others applied a species of higher criticism to the submerged treasure chests, and debased their contents to the currency of goblin gold. Of the former school was Lulu, Duchess of Dulverton.

The Duchess was not only a believer in the existence of a sunken treasure of alluring proportions; she also believed that she knew of a method by which the said treasure might be precisely located and cheaply disembedded. An aunt on her mother’s side of the family had been Maid of Honour at the Court of Monaco, and had taken a respectful interest in the deep-sea researches in which the Throne of that country, impatient perhaps of its terrestrial restrictions, was wont to immerse itself. It was through the instrumentality of this relative that the Duchess learned of an invention, perfected and very nearly patented by a Monegaskan savant, by means of which the home-life of the Mediterranean sardine might be studied at a depth of many fathoms in a cold white light of more than ball-room brilliancy. Implicated in this invention (and, in the Duchess’s eyes, the most attractive part of it) was an electric suction dredge, specially designed for dragging to the surface such objects of interest and value as might be found in the more accessible levels of the ocean-bed. The rights of the invention were to be acquired for a matter of eighteen hundred francs, and the apparatus for a few thousand more. The Duchess of Dulverton was rich, as the world counted wealth; she nursed the hope, of being one day rich at her own computation. Companies had been formed and efforts had been made again and again during the course of three centuries to probe for the alleged treasures of the interesting galleon; with the aid of this invention she considered that she might go to work on the wreck privately and independently. After all, one of her ancestors on her mother’s side was descended from Medina Sidonia,[1] so she was of opinion that she had as much right to the treasure as anyone. She acquired the invention and bought the apparatus.

Among other family ties and encumbrances, Lulu possessed a nephew, Vasco Honiton, a young gentleman who was blessed with a small income and a large circle of relatives, and lived impartially and precariously on both. The name Vasco had been given him possibly in the hope that he might live up to its adventurous tradition,[2] but he limited himself strictly to the home industry of adventurer, preferring to exploit the assured rather than to explore the unknown. Lulu’s intercourse with him had been restricted of recent years to the negative processes of being out of town when he called on her, and short of money when he wrote to her. Now, however, she bethought herself of his eminent suitability for the direction of a treasure-seeking experiment; if anyone could extract gold from an unpromising situation it would certainly be Vasco—of course, under the necessary safeguards in the way of supervision. Where money was in question Vasco’s conscience was liable to fits of obstinate silence. Continue reading

‘The Open Window’

“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”

Framton Nuttel endeavored to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.

“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”

Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction came into the nice division.

“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion. Continue reading

Joseph Gandy's 'Soane's Bank of England as a ruin' (1830)

Wolves and wapiti fighting on the steps of the Athenaeum Club

One of my favourite conceits in Saki’s stories is the idea of “wolves and wapiti fighting on the steps of the Athenaeum Club.”[1]

The Athenaeum Club in 1830

The Athenaeum Club in 1830. Credit: Engraved by James Tingle (1801-1858) from an original study (now in the Museum of London) by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd, the master recorder of nineteenth-century London. Originally produced for Shepherd’s part-work series “London and its Environs in the Nineteenth Century” (London 1829-1832). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7355209

The quotation comes from the story ‘On Approval’ (in Beasts and Superbeasts). In it aspiring but penniless painter Gebhard Knopfschrank specialises in “an unusual and unvarying theme”:

His pictures always represented some well-known street or public place in London, fallen into decay and denuded of its human population, in the place of which there roamed a wild fauna, which, from its wealth of exotic species, must have originally escaped from Zoological Gardens and travelling beast shows. “Giraffes drinking at the fountain pools, Trafalgar Square,” was one of the most notable and characteristic of his studies, while even more sensational was the gruesome picture of “Vultures attacking dying camel in Upper Berkeley Street.” There were also photographs of the large canvas on which he had been engaged for some months, and which he was now endeavouring to sell to some enterprising dealer or adventurous amateur. The subject was “Hyaenas asleep in Euston Station,” a composition that left nothing to be desired in the way of suggesting unfathomed depths of desolation.

I recently happened to discover that the idea of painting a well-known place in a state of future ruination is common enough in art. The first reference that I came across to this sub-genre of painting referred to Hubert Robert’s 1796 painting Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie en ruines, which depicts part of the Louvre Museum in Paris, its roof collapsed and the artworks half buried under rubble:

Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie du Louvre en ruines (Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins) by Hubert Robert

Vue imaginaire de la Grande Galerie du Louvre en ruines (Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins) by Hubert Robert [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s another painting (also by Hubert Robert) showing what it actually looked like:

Hubert Robert - Vue de la Grande Galerie du Louvre

Hubert Robert – Vue de la Grande Galerie du Louvre. Picture credit: Par Hubert Robert — Christian Stukenbrock & Barbara Töpper (2005) 1000 Meisterwerke der Europäischen Malerei von 1300 bis 1850, Hagen: Verlag Könemann, ISBN 3-8331-1310-3, p. 976., Domaine public, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4447576

More relevant to Saki is English painter and architect Joseph Gandy’s ‘Soane’s Bank of England as a ruin’ (1830):

Joseph Gandy's 'Soane's Bank of England as a ruin' (1830)

Picture credit: https://thinkersandmakers.wordpress.com/tag/ruins/

This one can be seen at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. (Soane commissioned it himself.) Unfortunately the artist’s imagined vantage point is too high up for the viewer to be able to discern any wolves, giraffes, hyena or similar wild animals.

Apparently Gandy painted other similar fantasies (the technical term is capricci). I wonder if Saki knew them — and perhaps even drew inspiration from them?

You can read more about Gandy here:


  1. The Athenauem Club is is a private members’ club on Pall Mall in London. Membership is reserved to those who have in some way distinguished themselves in science, engineering, literature or the arts.  ↩

‘The Story-Teller’

It was a hot afternoon, and the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry, and the next stop was at Templecombe, nearly an hour ahead. The occupants of the carriage were a small girl, and a smaller girl, and a small boy. An aunt belonging to the children occupied one corner seat, and the further corner seat on the opposite side was occupied by a bachelor who was a stranger to their party, but the small girls and the small boy emphatically occupied the compartment. Both the aunt and the children were conversational in a limited, persistent way, reminding one of the attentions of a housefly that refuses to be discouraged. Most of the aunt’s remarks seemed to begin with “Don’t,” and nearly all of the children’s remarks began with “Why?” The bachelor said nothing out loud. “Don’t, Cyril, don’t,” exclaimed the aunt, as the small boy began smacking the cushions of the seat, producing a cloud of dust at each blow.

“Come and look out of the window,” she added.

The child moved reluctantly to the window. “Why are those sheep being driven out of that field?” he asked.

“I expect they are being driven to another field where there is more grass,” said the aunt weakly.

“But there is lots of grass in that field,” protested the boy; “there’s nothing else but grass there. Aunt, there’s lots of grass in that field.”

“Perhaps the grass in the other field is better,” suggested the aunt fatuously.

“Why is it better?” came the swift, inevitable question. Continue reading

‘Fur’

“You look worried, dear,” said Eleanor.

“I am worried,” admitted Suzanne; “not worried exactly, but anxious. You see, my birthday happens next week—”

“You lucky person,” interrupted Eleanor; “my birthday doesn’t come till the end of March.”

“Well, old Bertram Kneyght is over in England just now from the Argentine. He’s a kind of distant cousin of my mother’s, and so enormously rich that we’ve never let the relationship drop out of sight. Even if we don’t see him or hear from him for years he is always Cousin Bertram when he does turn up. I can’t say he’s ever been of much solid use to us, but yesterday the subject of my birthday cropped up, and he asked me to let him know what I wanted for a present.”

“Now I understand the anxiety,” observed Eleanor.

“As a rule when one is confronted with a problem like that,” said Suzanne, “all one’s ideas vanish; one doesn’t seem to have a desire in the world. Now it so happens that I have been very keen on a little Dresden figure that I saw somewhere in Kensington; about thirty-six shillings, quite beyond my means. I was very nearly describing the figure, and giving Bertram the address of the shop. And then it suddenly struck me that thirty-six shillings was such a ridiculously inadequate sum for a man of his immense wealth to spend on a birthday present. He could give thirty-six pounds as easily as you or I could buy a bunch of violets. I don’t want to be greedy, of course, but I don’t like being wasteful.” Continue reading