El ala este : Y otros cuentos (Saki in Spanish)

Saki fan, researcher and contributor to this blog Juan Facundo Araujo has published a book of Spanish translations, including (if I understand correctly) the previously untranslated ‘The East Wing’ and ‘A Jungle Story’. He also wrote an introductory essay.

Here’s the Spanish description from Amazon:

“El ala este” incluye tres relatos inéditos en español del genial autor inglés, con un estudio preliminar de Facundo Araujo y una elegante selección anotada de cuentos, ilustrados por los artistas Néstor Martín y Pablo Castillo.

‘Reginald on Christmas Presents’

I wish it to be distinctly understood (said Reginald) that I don’t want a “George, Prince of Wales” Prayer-book1 as a Christmas present. The fact cannot be too widely known.

There ought (he continued) to be technical education classes on the science of present-giving. No one seems to have the faintest notion of what anyone else wants, and the prevalent ideas on the subject are not creditable to a civilised community.

There is, for instance, the female relative in the country who “knows a tie is always useful,” and sends you some spotted horror that you could only wear in secret or in Tottenham Court Road.2 It might have been useful had she kept it to tie up currant bushes with, when it would have served the double purpose of supporting the branches and frightening away the birds—for it is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder æsthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.

Then there are aunts. They are always a difficult class to deal with in the matter of presents. The trouble is that one never catches them really young enough. By the time one has educated them to an appreciation of the fact that one does not wear red woollen mittens in the West End, they die, or quarrel with the family, or do something equally inconsiderate. That is why the supply of trained aunts is always so precarious. Continue reading

‘The East Wing’

“I’m so glad you have come,” she said; “servants are so little help in an emergency of this kind. My husband has gone off in the car to summon the fire-brigade.”

“Haven’t you telephoned to them?” asked the Major.

“The telephone unfortunately is in the east wing,” said the hostess; “so is the telephone-book. Both are being devoured by the flames at this moment. It makes one feel dreadfully isolated. Now if the fire had only broken out in the west wing instead, we could have used the telephone and had the fire-engines here by now.”

“On the other hand,” objected Lucien, “Canon Clore and Major Boventry and myself would probably have met with the fate that has overtaken the telephone-book. I think I prefer the present arrangement.”

“The butler and most of the other servants are in the dining-room, trying to save the Raeburns and the alleged Van Dyke,”1 continued Mrs Gramplain, “and in that little room on the first landing, cut off from us by the cruel flames, is my poor darling Eva. Eva of the golden hair. Will none of you save her?”

“Who is Eva of the golden hair?” asked Lucien.

“My daughter,” said Mrs Gramplain.

“I didn’t know you had a daughter,” said Lucien, “and really I don’t think I can risk my life to save some one I’ve never met or even heard about. You see, my life is not only wonderful and beautiful to myself, but if my life goes, nothing else really matters to me. I don’t suppose you can realise that, to me, the whole world as it exists to-day, the Ulster problem, the Albanian tangle, the Kikuyu controversy,2 the wide field of social reform and Antarctic exploration, the realms of finance, and research and international armaments, all this varied and crowded and complex world, all comes to a complete and absolute end the moment my life is finished. Eva might be snatched from the flames and live to be the grandmother of brilliant and charming men and women; but, as far as I should be concerned, she and they would no more exist than a vanished puff of cigarette smoke or a dissolved soda-water bubble. And if, in losing my life, I am to lose her life and theirs, as far as I personally am concerned with them, why on earth should I, personally, risk my life to save hers and theirs?”

“Major Boventry,” exclaimed Mrs Gramplain, “you are not clever, but you are a man with honest human feelings. I have only known you for a few hours, but I am sure you are the man I take you for. You will not let my Eva perish.”

“Lady,” said the Major stumblingly, “I would gladly give my life to rescue your Eva, or anybody’s Eva for the matter of that, but my life is not mine to give. I am engaged to the sweetest little woman in the world. I am everything to her. What would my poor little Mildred say if they brought her news that I had cast away my life in an endeavour, perhaps fruitless, to save some unknown girl in a burning country house?”

“You are like all the rest of them,” said Mrs Gramplain bitterly; “I thought that you, at least, were stupid. It shows how rash it is to judge a man by his bridge-play. It has been like this all my life,” she continued in dull, level tones; “I was married, when little more than a child, to my husband, and there has never been any real bond of affection between us. We have been polite and considerate to one another, nothing more. I sometimes think that if we had had a child things might have been different.”

“But your daughter Eva?” queried the Canon, and the two other men echoed his question.

“I have never had a daughter,” said the woman quietly, yet, amid the roar and crackle of the flames, her voice carried, so that not a syllable was lost. “Eva is the outcome of my imagination. I so much wanted a little girl, and at last I came to believe that she really existed. She grew up, year by year, in my mind, and when she was eighteen I painted her portrait, a beautiful young girl with masses of golden hair. Since that moment the portrait has been Eva. I have altered it a little with the changing years — she is twenty-one now — and I have repainted her dress with every incoming fashion. On her last birthday I painted her a pair of beautiful diamond earrings. Every day I have sat with her for an hour or so, telling her my thoughts, or reading to her. And now she is there, alone with the flames and the smoke, unable to stir, waiting for the deliverance that does not come.”

“It is beautiful,” said Lucien; “it is the most beautiful thing I ever heard.”

“Where are you going?” asked his hostess, as the young man moved towards the blazing staircase of the east wing.

“I am going to try and save her,” he answered; “as she has never existed, my death cannot compromise her future existence. I shall go into nothingness, and she, as far as I am concerned, will go into nothingness too; but then she has never been anything else.”

“But your life, your beautiful life?”

“Death in this case is more beautiful.”

The Major started forward.

“I am going too,” he said simply.

“To save Eva?” cried the woman.

“Yes,” he said; “my little Mildred will not grudge me to a woman who has never existed.”

“How well he reads our sex,” murmured Mrs Gramplain, “and yet how badly he plays bridge!”

The two men went side by side up the blazing staircase, the slender young figure in the well-fitting dinner-jacket and the thick-set military man in striped pyjamas of an obvious Swan & Edgar pattern.3 Down in the hall below them stood the woman in her pale wrapper, and the Canon in his wonderful-hued Albanian-work dressing-gown, looking like the arch-priests of some strange religion presiding at a human sacrifice.

As the rescue-party disappeared into the roaring cavern of smoke and flames, the butler came into the hall, bearing with him one of the Raeburns.

“I think I hear the clanging of the fire-engines, ma’am,” he announced.

Mrs Gramplain continued staring at the spot where the two men had disappeared.

“How stupid of me!” she said presently to the Canon. “I’ve just remembered I sent Eva to Exeter to be cleaned. Those two men have lost their lives for nothing.”

“They have certainly lost their lives,” said the Canon.

“The irony of it all,” said Mrs Gramplain, “the tragic irony of it all!”


  1. Henry Raeburn (1756–1823), Scottish portrait painter. After relative neglect for forty years after his death, his reputation had undergone a reassessment and at the time Saki was writing his works were much sought after and correspondingly expensive. Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), Dutch painter who worked for the English court.

  2. The Ulster unionists’ were prepared to oppose the government’s Irish Home Rule plans by force if necessary. The borders of Albania had been established by international agreement in 1913 after it gained independence in 1912. However, in February 1914 ethnic Greeks in the south of the country tried to break away, setting up the the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus. The issue was not settled till 1921. A controversy within the Anglican Church had erupted over an ecumenical service held in Kikuyu in modern-day Kenya in June 1913.

  3. Swan & Edgar was a high-class department store, located at Piccadilly Circus, London.


‘The East Wing’ by Saki (H.H. Munro) (public domain). Notes © 2020 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

Link

Voltaire of the Suburbs

Cover of The Argosy magazine 1937 edition

In good company! Scan from http://www.philsp.com/data/images/a/argosy_uk_193709.jpg

On the internet, if you dig beneath the pictures of people’s food or cats and the anonymous abuse of figures in public life, you sometimes come across herculean efforts of single-interest obsessiveness like the Fiction Mags Index, which indexes thousands of magazines, including “pulp” magazines, and their contents. It has listings for both “H.H. Munro” and “Saki”, which are interesting because the details given mostly refer to reprints of the stories, usually in American or Australian magazines — information that is (as far as I know) not to be found elsewhere.

My title comes from an (anonymous) article on Munro published in The Argosy in September 1937, which also republished ‘The Mouse’ (from Reginald in Russia). I may have a go at tracking down the article — the title is intriguing, to say the least.

‘The Penance’

Octavian Ruttle was one of those lively cheerful individuals on whom amiability had set its unmistakable stamp, and, like most of his kind, his soul’s peace depended in large measure on the unstinted approval of his fellows. In hunting to death a small tabby cat he had done a thing of which he scarcely approved himself, and he was glad when the gardener had hidden the body in its hastily dug grave under a lone oak-tree in the meadow, the same tree that the hunted quarry had climbed as a last effort towards safety. It had been a distasteful and seemingly ruthless deed, but circumstances had demanded the doing of it. Octavian kept chickens; at least he kept some of them; others vanished from his keeping, leaving only a few bloodstained feathers to mark the manner of their going. The tabby cat from the large grey house that stood with its back to the meadow had been detected in many furtive visits to the hen-coops, and after due negotiation with those in authority at the grey house a sentence of death had been agreed on: “The children will mind, but they need not know,” had been the last word on the matter.

The children in question were a standing puzzle to Octavian; in the course of a few months he considered that he should have known their names, ages, the dates of their birthdays, and have been introduced to their favourite toys. They remained however, as non-committal as the long blank wall that shut them off from the meadow, a wall over which their three heads sometimes appeared at odd moments. They had parents in India—that much Octavian had learned in the neighbourhood; the children, beyond grouping themselves garment-wise into sexes, a girl and two boys, carried their life-story no further on his behoof. And now it seemed he was engaged in something which touched them closely, but must be hidden from their knowledge.

The poor helpless chickens had gone one by one to their doom, so it was meet that their destroyer should come to a violent end, yet Octavian felt some qualms when his share of the violence was ended. The little cat, headed off from its wonted tracks of safety, had raced unfriended from shelter to shelter, and its end had been rather piteous. Octavian walked through the long grass of the meadow with a step less jaunty than usual. And as he passed beneath the shadow of the high blank wall he glanced up and became aware that his hunting had had undesired witnesses. Three white set faces were looking down at him, and if ever an artist wanted a threefold study of cold human hate, impotent yet unyielding, raging yet masked in stillness, he would have found it in the triple gaze that met Octavian’s eye.

“I’m sorry, but it had to be done,” said Octavian, with genuine apology in his voice. Continue reading

‘Reginald’s Peace Poem’

“I’m writing a poem on Peace,”1 said Reginald, emerging from a sweeping operation through a tin of mixed biscuits, in whose depths a macaroon or two might yet be lurking.

“Something of the kind seems to have been attempted already,” said the Other.

“Oh, I know; but I may never have the chance again. Besides, I’ve got a new fountain pen. I don’t pretend to have gone on any very original lines; in writing about Peace the thing is to say what everybody else is saying, only to say it better. It begins with the usual ornithological emotion:

‘When the widgeon westward winging
Heard the folk Vereeniginging,2
Heard the shouting and the singing—’”

“Vereeniginging is good, but why widgeon?”

“Why not? Anything that winged westward would naturally begin with a w.”

“Need it wing westward?”

“The bird must go somewhere. You wouldn’t have it hang around and look foolish. Then I’ve brought in something about the heedless hartebeest3 galloping over the deserted veldt.”

“Of course you know it’s practically extinct in those regions?”

“I can’t help that, it gallops so nicely. I make it have all sorts of unexpected yearnings:

‘Mother, may I go and maffick,4
Tear around and hinder traffic?’

Of course you’ll say there would be no traffic worth bothering about on the bare and sun-scorched veldt, but there’s no other word that rhymes with maffick.”

“Seraphic?”

Reginald considered. “It might do, but I’ve got a lot about angels later on. You must have angels in a Peace poem; I know dreadfully little about their habits.”

“They can do unexpected things, like the hartebeest.”

“Of course. Then I turn on London, the City of Dreadful Nocturnes,5 resonant with hymns of joy and thanksgiving:

‘And the sleeper, eye unlidding,
Heard a voice for ever bidding
Much farewell to Dolly Gray;6
Turning weary on his truckle-
Bed he heard the honey-suckle
Lauded in apiarian lay.’

Longfellow7 at his best wrote nothing like that.”

“I agree with you.”

“I wish you wouldn’t. I’ve a sweet temper, but I can’t stand being agreed with. And I’m so worried about the aasvogel.”8

Reginald stared dismally at the biscuit-tin, which now presented an unattractive array of rejected cracknels.

“I believe,” he murmured, “if I could find a woman with an unsatisfied craving for cracknels, I should marry her.”

“What is the tragedy of the aasvogel?” asked the Other sympathetically.

“Oh, simply that there’s no rhyme for it. I thought about it all the time I was dressing—it’s dreadfully bad for one to think whilst one’s dressing—and all lunch-time, and I’m still hung up over it. I feel like those unfortunate automobilists who achieve an unenviable notoriety by coming to a hopeless stop with their cars in the most crowded thoroughfares. I’m afraid I shall have to drop the aasvogel, and it did give such lovely local colour to the thing.”

“Still you’ve got the heedless hartebeest.”

“And quite a decorative bit of moral admonition—when you’ve worried the meaning out:

‘Cease, War, thy bubbling madness that the wine shares,
And bid thy legions turn their swords to mine shares.’

Mine shares seems to fit the case better than ploughshares.9 There’s lots more about the blessings of Peace, shall I go on reading it?”

“If I must make a choice, I think I would rather they went on with the war.”


  1. The recently concluded Boer War (1899-1902).
  2. Vereeniging is a city in South Africa. At the time it was part of the Transvaal province. The city’s name derives from the Dutch for “union”. The Treaty of Vereeniging ended the Boer War.
  3. A type of large antelope.
  4. The town of Mefeking held out against a siege by the Boers for 215 days (1899—1900). News of its relief was greeted in Britain with such joy that it led to the coinage of a short-lived verbal noun ‘mafficking’, meaning ‘celebrating loudly and extravagantly’.
  5. Punning on the title of Scottish poet James Thomson’s long poem The City of Dreadful Night (1874). (Rudyard Kipling also wrote a ‘sketch’ with the same title, published 1888.) “Nocturnes” probably refers here not to musical pieces but to the paintings of night-time London by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), which attracted a great deal of criticism at the time.
  6. “Goodbye Dolly Gray” was a song written by Will D. Cobb (lyrics) and Paul Barnes (music), ventriloquising the feelings of a soldier going off to war. It was popular in the USA during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and (after a few changes to the lyrics) in the UK during the Boer War.
  7. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), American poet.
  8. Vulture.
  9. A reference to “they shall beat their swords into plowshares” in Isaiah 2:3-4; control of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State brought with it the right to exploit their mineral riches, such as their gold and diamond mines.

‘Reginald’s Peace Poem’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from Reginald (public domain). Notes © 2019-20 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

‘The Easter Egg’

It was distinctly hard lines for Lady Barbara, who came of good fighting stock, and was one of the bravest women of her generation, that her son should be so undisguisedly a coward. Whatever good qualities Lester Slaggby may have possessed, and he was in some respects charming, courage could certainly never he imputed to him. As a child he had suffered from childish timidity, as a boy from unboyish funk, and as a youth he had exchanged unreasoning fears for others which were more formidable from the fact of having a carefully thought-out basis. He was frankly afraid of animals, nervous with firearms, and never crossed the Channel without mentally comparing the numerical proportion of lifebelts to passengers. On horseback he seemed to require as many hands as a Hindu god, at least four for clutching the reins, and two more for patting the horse soothingly on the neck. Lady Barbara no longer pretended not to see her son’s prevailing weakness; with her usual courage she faced the knowledge of it squarely, and, mother-like, loved him none the less.

Continental travel, anywhere away from the great tourist tracks, was a favoured hobby with Lady Barbara, and Lester joined her as often as possible. Eastertide usually found her at Knobaltheim,1 an upland township in one of those small princedoms that make inconspicuous freckles on the map of Central Europe.

A long-standing acquaintanceship with the reigning family made her a personage of due importance in the eyes of her old friend the Burgomaster,2 and she was anxiously consulted by that worthy on the momentous occasion when the Prince made known his intention of coming in person to open a sanatorium outside the town. All the usual items in a programme of welcome, some of them fatuous and commonplace, others quaint and charming, had been arranged for, but the Burgomaster hoped that the resourceful English lady might have something new and tasteful to suggest in the way of loyal greeting. The Prince was known to the outside world, if at all, as an old-fashioned reactionary, combating modern progress, as it were, with a wooden sword; to his own people he was known as a kindly old gentleman with a certain endearing stateliness which had nothing of standoffishness about it. Knobaltheim was anxious to do its best. Lady Barbara discussed the matter with Lester and one or two acquaintances in her little hotel, but ideas were difficult to come by.

“Might I suggest something to the Gnädige Frau?”3 asked a sallow high-cheek-boned lady to whom the Englishwoman had spoken once or twice, and whom she had set down in her mind as probably a Southern Slav.4

“Might I suggest something for the Reception Fest?” she went on, with a certain shy eagerness. “Our little child here, our baby, we will dress him in little white coat, with small wings, as an Easter angel, and he will carry a large white Easter egg, and inside shall be a basket of plover eggs, of which the Prince is so fond, and he shall give it to his Highness as Easter offering. It is so pretty an idea; we have seen it done once in Styria.”

Lady Barbara looked dubiously at the proposed Easter angel, a fair, wooden-faced child of about four years old. She had noticed it the day before in the hotel, and wondered rather how such a towheaded child could belong to such a dark-visaged couple as the woman and her husband; probably, she thought, an adopted baby, especially as the couple were not young.

“Of course Gnädige Frau will escort the little child up to the Prince,” pursued the woman; but he will be quite good, and do as he is told.”

“We haf some pluffers’ eggs shall come fresh from Wien,”5 said the husband.

The small child and Lady Barbara seemed equally unenthusiastic about the pretty idea; Lester was openly discouraging, but when the Burgomaster heard of it he was enchanted. The combination of sentiment and plovers’ eggs appealed strongly to his Teutonic mind.

On the eventful day the Easter angel, really quite prettily and quaintly dressed, was a centre of kindly interest to the gala crowd marshalled to receive his Highness. The mother was unobtrusive and less fussy than most parents would have been under the circumstances, merely stipulating that she should place the Easter egg herself in the arms that had been carefully schooled how to hold the precious burden. Then Lady Barbara moved forward, the child marching stolidly and with grim determination at her side. It had been promised cakes and sweeties galore if it gave the egg well and truly to the kind old gentleman who was waiting to receive it. Lester had tried to convey to it privately that horrible smackings would attend any failure in its share of the proceedings, but it is doubtful if his German caused more than an immediate distress. Lady Barbara had thoughtfully provided herself with an emergency supply of chocolate sweetmeats; children may sometimes be time-servers, but they do not encourage long accounts. As they approached nearer to the princely daïs Lady Barbara stood discreetly aside, and the stolid-faced infant walked forward alone, with staggering but steadfast gait, encouraged by a murmur of elderly approval. Lester, standing in the front row of the onlookers, turned to scan the crowd for the beaming faces of the happy parents. In a side-road which led to the railway station he saw a cab; entering the cab with every appearance of furtive haste were the dark-visaged couple who had been so plausibly eager for the “pretty idea.” The sharpened instinct of cowardice lit up the situation to him in one swift flash. The blood roared and surged to his head as though thousands of floodgates had been opened in his veins and arteries, and his brain was the common sluice in which all the torrents met. He saw nothing but a blur around him. Then the blood ebbed away in quick waves, till his very heart seemed drained and empty, and he stood nervelessly, helplessly, dumbly watching the child, bearing its accursed burden with slow, relentless steps nearer and nearer to the group that waited sheep-like to receive him. A fascinated curiosity compelled Lester to turn his head towards the fugitives; the cab had started at hot pace in the direction of the station.

The next moment Lester was running, running faster than any of those present had ever seen a man run, and—he was not running away. For that stray fraction of his life some unwonted impulse beset him, some hint of the stock he came from, and he ran unflinchingly towards danger. He stooped and clutched at the Easter egg as one tries to scoop up the ball in Rugby football. What he meant to do with it he had not considered, the thing was to get it. But the child had been promised cakes and sweetmeats if it safely gave the egg into the hands of the kindly old gentleman; it uttered no scream, but it held to its charge with limpet grip. Lester sank to his knees, tugging savagely at the tightly clasped burden, and angry cries rose from the scandalized onlookers. A questioning, threatening ring formed round him, then shrank back in recoil as he shrieked out one hideous word. Lady Barbara heard the word and saw the crowd race away like scattered sheep, saw the Prince forcibly hustled away by his attendants; also she saw her son lying prone in an agony of overmastering terror, his spasm of daring shattered by the child’s unexpected resistance, still clutching frantically, as though for safety, at that white-satin gew-gaw, unable to crawl even from its deadly neighbourhood, able only to scream and scream and scream. In her brain she was dimly conscious of balancing, or striving to balance, the abject shame which had him now in thrall against the one compelling act of courage which had flung him grandly and madly on to the point of danger. It was only for the fraction of a minute that she stood watching the two entangled figures, the infant with its woodenly obstinate face and body tense with dogged resistance, and the boy limp and already nearly dead with a terror that almost stifled his screams; and over them the long gala streamers flapping gaily in the sunshine. She never forgot the scene; but then, it was the last she ever saw.

Lady Barbara carries her scarred face with its sightless eyes as bravely as ever in the world, but at Eastertide her friends are careful to keep from her ears any mention of the children’s Easter symbol.


  1. Invented.
  2. Mayor.
  3. Literally “Gracious Lady”: polite form of address (German).
  4. At the time, most of the countries that later made up Yugoslavia (the ‘Land of the Southern Slavs’) were incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  5. Vienna (German).

‘The Easter Egg’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from The Chronicles of Clovis (public domain). Notes © 2019-20 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.

‘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.

‘The Wolves of Cernogratz’

“Are they any old legends attached to the castle?” asked Conrad of his sister. Conrad was a prosperous Hamburg merchant, but he was the one poetically-dispositioned member of an eminently practical family.

The Baroness Gruebel shrugged her plump shoulders.

“There are always legends hanging about these old places. They are not difficult to invent and they cost nothing. In this case there is a story that when any one dies in the castle all the dogs in the village and the wild beasts in forest howl the night long. It would not be pleasant to listen to, would it?”

“It would be weird and romantic,” said the Hamburg merchant.

“Anyhow, it isn’t true,” said the Baroness complacently; “since we bought the place we have had proof that nothing of the sort happens. When the old mother-in-law died last springtime we all listened, but there was no howling. It is just a story that lends dignity to the place without costing anything.”

“The story is not as you have told it,” said Amalie, the grey old governess. Every one turned and looked at her in astonishment. She was wont to sit silent and prim and faded in her place at table, never speaking unless some one spoke to her, and there were few who troubled themselves to make conversation with her. To-day a sudden volubility had descended on her; she continued to talk, rapidly and nervously, looking straight in front of her and seeming to address no one in particular.

“It is not when any one dies in the castle that the howling is heard. It was when one of the Cernogratz family died here that the wolves came from far and near and howled at the edge of the forest just before the death hour. There were only a few couple of wolves that had their lairs in this part of the forest, but at such a time the keepers say there would be scores of them, gliding about in the shadows and howling in chorus, and the dogs of the castle and the village and all the farms round would bay and howl in fear and anger at the wolf chorus, and as the soul of the dying one left its body a tree would crash down in the park. That is what happened when a Cernogratz died in his family castle. But for a stranger dying here, of course no wolf would howl and no tree would fall. Oh, no.” Continue reading

‘The Occasional Garden’

“Don’t talk to me about town gardens,” said Elinor Rapsley; “which means, of course, that I want you to listen to me for an hour or so while I talk about nothing else. ‘What a nice-sized garden you’ve got,’ people said to us when we first moved here. What I suppose they meant to say was what a nice-sized site for a garden we’d got. As a matter of fact, the size is all against it; it’s too large to be ignored altogether and treated as a yard, and it’s too small to keep giraffes in. You see, if we could keep giraffes or reindeer or some other species of browsing animal there we could explain the general absence of vegetation by a reference to the fauna of the garden: ‘You can’t have wapiti and Darwin tulips, you know, so we didn’t put down any bulbs last year.’ As it is, we haven’t got the wapiti, and the Darwin tulips haven’t survived the fact that most of the cats of the neighbourhood hold a parliament in the centre of the tulip bed; that rather forlorn looking strip that we intended to be a border of alternating geranium and spiræa has been utilised by the cat-parliament as a division lobby.1 Snap divisions2 seem to have been rather frequent of late, far more frequent than the geranium blooms are likely to be. I shouldn’t object so much to ordinary cats, but I do complain of having a congress of vegetarian cats in my garden; they must be vegetarians, my dear, because, whatever ravages they may commit among the sweet pea seedlings, they never seem to touch the sparrows; there are always just as many adult sparrows in the garden on Saturday as there were on Monday, not to mention newly-fledged additions. There seems to have been an irreconcilable difference of opinion between sparrows and Providence since the beginning of time as to whether a crocus looks best standing upright with its roots in the earth or in a recumbent posture with its stem neatly severed; the sparrows always have the last word in the matter, at least in our garden they do. I fancy that Providence must have originally intended to bring in an amending Act,3 or whatever it’s called, providing either for a less destructive sparrow or a more indestructible crocus. The one consoling point about our garden is that it’s not visible from the drawing-room or the smoking-room, so unless people are dinning or lunching with us they can’t spy out the nakedness of the land. That is why I am so furious with Gwenda Pottingdon, who has practically forced herself on me for lunch on Wednesday next; she heard me offer the Paulcote girl lunch if she was up shopping on that day, and, of course, she asked if she might come too. She is only coming to gloat over my bedraggled and flowerless borders and to sing the praises of her own detestably over-cultivated garden. I’m sick of being told that it’s the envy of the neighbourhood; it’s like everything else that belongs to her—her car, her dinner-parties, even her headaches, they are all superlative; no one else ever had anything like them. When her eldest child was confirmed it was such a sensational event, according to her account of it, that one almost expected questions to be asked about it in the House of Commons, and now she’s coming on purpose to stare at my few miserable pansies and the gaps in my sweet-pea border, and to give me a glowing, full-length description of the rare and sumptuous blooms in her rose-garden.” Continue reading