‘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.

‘The Woman Who Never Should’

The Prime Minister[1] sat in a deep, leather-lined chair in his new room, dreaming in the dusk of evening over the coming years and achievements of his Premiership as a brooding hen mothers in prospect the chickens she is yet to hatch. It was a long vista down which his fancy wandered, of peace and adroitness and delicate handlings, of careful managing and gentle rosewater revolutions, above all, of placid, unwavering majorities. A pleasant waking dream, through which the refrain “Toujours Balfour”[2] trickled with the soothing murmur of a meadow stream. A sigh at his elbow broke in upon his musings like a dead rook falling with insistent thud from the silence of a sleeping rookery, and he turned to find a woman standing beside him — a woman with pale, almost frightened face, but with an underlying air of resolution that bordered on defiance.

“Efficiency!” he said; “you here. Here, of all places!”

“You are displeased to see me here?”

“Not displeased, exactly, but I can scarcely believe it. You must see that you cannot possibly stay here.”

“Yet at one time you used to be proud to be seen with me. I suppose I was useful to you at election times, when things did not go so easily for you as they do now. You used to take me to your arms, then, and I think you really cared for me[,] just a little.”[3]

“Of course I admire you very much still, and I often talk about you[,] really I do, though we’ve seen so little of each other lately[.] But you can’t reasonably expect me to dislocate my whole career and habits.”[4]

“I might be so helpful to you. In times of crisis, for instance, the consciousness that you had me by your side—“

“In times of crisis and perplexity I simply get in a man from the street to act as caretaker, and I become again as a little child,[5] innocent of all things[.][6] I have always found that answer admirably hitherto[.] And it would never do, for many reasons, to take you into my establishment; you would inevitably make your presence felt in so many departments. There is my brother and other members of the family group[7] to be considered[—]they would never be able to fit into your ways.”

“You are keeping back the real reason from me, possibly because you wish to spare my feelings. You love another. Do I know her name?”

The Prime Minister hesitated for a moment, then answered softly, as one who caresses a tradition, “Laissez Faire.”[8]

“That old thing! I should have thought you were tired to death of her years ago.”

“Hush, don’t say spiteful things. She may not be brilliant or particularly modern, but you cannot think what a solace it is to a man, tired with his golf or jaded with his philosophical studies,[9] to turn to someone who asks little, exacts nothing.”

“And does nothing, knows nothing, and is dowdy without being cheap. So it is for her that I am put on one side!”

“And you, are you so very constant in your affections? Why do people couple your name so freely with that of my rival and sometime predecessor in the Premiership?”[10]

“Perhaps because he has shown me attention where you have only offered neglect. Remember, if I have no longer attractions for you, there are others.”

The Minister flushed with a sudden unreasoning jealousy. “He cannot give you what I can, a permanent home and a share in all that is going—“[5]

Then, checking himself, he added more gently, “What am I saying? Dear lady, I can never be more to you than a friend. You may come and drink tea with me sometimes on the Terrace,[11] and I shall always be glad to see you — at Manchester.[12] But you must never come here again. It is no place for you.”

Then he held the door open for his unbidden guest. Her foot-steps sounded down the staircase like the hollow menace of a receding drum, and he tried to fancy that its time-beat remotely harmonised with the lingering refrain “Toujours Balfour.”

With a sigh of relief he sank back into the depths of his armchair.

“It was dreadful” he murmured, “but how brave I was! That shall be the keynote of my Administration; we will be gently courageous. Every notable Administration gets a nickname: they will call us—yes, they will call us the League of the Poor Brave Things.”[13]

(First published in The Westminster Gazette, Tuesday, July 22, 1902. I have added a few pieces of punctuation that are either invisible or missing from the copy I worked from.)


  1. Arthur James Balfour (1848–1930), British Conservative politician, Prime Minister 1902–1905.  ↩
  2. ”Balfour for ever“ (French).  ↩
  3. The need for “national efficiency” had become a political watchword from the end of the nineteenth century, prompted by Britain’s military failures in the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and by increased competition from Germany. Demands for efficiency, i.e. modernisation, were made by politicians from all parties. Balfour’s 1902 Education Act was to be one product of this drive. 
  4. Balfour was often characterised as indolent and lacking passion or drive. Winston Churchill once commented “If you wanted nothing done, Arthur Balfour was the best man for the task. There was no equal to him”.  ↩
  5. Reference to Matthew 18:3.  ↩
  6. Was Munro perhaps remembering John Dryden’s Prologue to Joseph Harris’ The Mistakes (1690)? “’Tis innocent of all things–even of wit.”  ↩
  7. Balfour came from a political family: his father and grandfather had been MPs and his brother Gerald (1853–1945) also entered parliament. His maternal grandfather was the second Marquess of Salisbury, who was an MP before inheriting his title and later served as Lord Privy Seal and Lord President of the Council. His son (and consequently Arthur’s uncle), the 3rd Marquess, was Prime Minister three times in the later nineteenth century.  ↩
  8. Political ideology that governments should interfere as little as possible, especially in economic matters.  ↩
  9. Balfour made a name for himself with philosophical writings, including his The Foundations of Belief (1895) and Defence of Philosophic Doubt (1879); his love of golf was well known and often exploited by caricaturists and political sketch writers.  ↩
  10. Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, (1847–1929), Liberal Prime Minister 1894–1895.  ↩
  11. Of the Houses of Parliament, overlooking the Thames.  ↩
  12. Balfour represented the constituency of Manchester East from 1885–1906.  ↩
  13. “The League of the Poor Brave Things” was the name of one of the many voluntary charitable organisations looking after deprived children.  ↩

John Bull’s Christmas Tree

(After the manner of Hans Andersen.)

The Frozen LambkinMr. R. J. Seddon.
Church-House SparrowLord Hugh Cecil.
Grand VizierMr. A. J. Balfour.
Clockwork CawmilSir H. Campbell-Bannerman.
Josephus MaximusMr. Joseph Chamberlain.
Dalmeny Auto-CarThe Earl of Rosebery.
Cavendish Sleeping-CarThe Duke of Devonshire.
Money-PigMr. C. T. Ritchie.
King-DollThe King.

JOHN BULL was sleeping placidly. He has been known to do so, occasionally. Santa Claus, which is Nickolas, entered very softly from G.K.W., which is the official abbreviation for Goodness Knows Where. How or whence he had come nobody could have told, which was just as well, as there was at least a possibility that his reindeer team might have come under the head of foreign cattle, and been stopped at one of the ports. And even saints have tempers, particularly in these competitive days, when so many of their special lines are being exploited by the Penitent Rich. Never, if you are praying to a saint, ask for a Free Library or a University education; you won’t get it.

Nickolas had brought a large fir-tree with him, as well as a bag stuffed full of presents to be hung upon it; it was advisable to bring the tree along, as John Bull was not likely to have provided one himself, though the Intelligence Department had warned him that Christmas would in all probability fall on the 25th of December. And it was an extremely lively bag that the saint proceeded to unpack; some of the toys would keep pushing them­selves to the top, and others couldn’t be made to move in any direction. A frozen, woolly lamb came out with a flop as soon as there was an opening, which looked as if the bag must have been made up at the Antipodes, and after that there was a general scramble and an awful amount of quarrelling as to who should go where. The fact that they were all carefully labelled and ticketed only made matters worse, because some of them weren’t at all pleased with their descriptions, and tried to exchange them quickly with others, so that there was really a great deal of confusion.

The Frozen Lambkin

The Frozen Lambkin sulked furiously because it was stuck on an inconspicuous branch, and it objected strongly to its distinguishing label of “Maori had a little lamb,” but the Church-House sparrow was obviously pleased with his ticket, setting forth that:

“A Sweet Cecilia on a Tree
Delighted every passer by.”

Still, that was no reason why he should have started whistling “Marching thro’ Lloyd-Georgia.”

“A political career would be endurable if it wasn’t for its politics,” said the Grand-Vizier doll, as it was being fitted on to a front branch.

The Grand Vizier

“And one could lead so comfortably if people wouldn’t push one about so,” remarked the clock-work Cawmil, as it went on to the branch opposite.

The Grand-Vizier and the Cawmil were the two most amiable toys in the bag, but each had its private troubles. The Cawmil felt it would get along much better if the other members of its caravan weren’t always examining its works and putting spokes in its wheels. And the Grand-Vizier felt that he had sacrificed one of life’s most cherished birthrights; he could not quarrel with his family relations without disorganising the whole Council of the Caliphate. Not that the Grand-Vizier wanted to quarrel with anybody, but no one likes to have virtue turned into a political necessity.

The Party Machine Gun

Right in the centre of the tree, because it would really go nowhere else, the saint had slung the great Party-machine gun, the Josephus Maximus, with self-repeating non-recoiling action, cast at the make-them-feel-small arms factory at Birmingham. When in action this weapon of precision could volley chilled steel with astonishing aim and velocity from a disappearing platform, but at present it had been converted into a smooth-Boer instrument of delicate calibre.

 

The Money Pig

There were other mechanical toys in great variety. There was the Dalmeny auto-car, that went by itself, stopping now and then at wayside inns to throw out suggestions. And there was the Cavendish sleeping-car, which never went at all, but generally managed to be well placed, nevertheless. And a tremendous buzzing and jarring accompanied the unpacking of the Irish jaunting-car, which sometimes went beyond prescribed limits, but never seemed to get any further for all that.

A large new box of soldiers looked very imposing, but no one could tell what was inside, because the lid was fastened down with a quantity of red-tape. “It may be all cotton-wool and imagination,” said the new Money-pig, gloomily, “but I shall have to find the money for it all the same.”

The Money-pig, who came out of the bottom of the bag, looked very squeezed, but there was an air of saturnine satisfaction about him, as if he had been pinching back where he could, and his crumpled ticket, which read, “Infinite Ritchies in a little room,” suggested that he was in for an exchequered career. But the Money-pig’s reflections were cut short by a loud burst of cheering from all the toys, and a lighting up of all the little candles, for Santa Claus had just put the King-Doll on the top branch of all, and the King-Doll was extremely popular. And Santa Claus, desiring to remain anonymous, even in these days of extensive advertising, withdrew quietly and unobserved just as John Bull was awakened by the noise of all the toys and dolls wishing each other a Happy Christmas.

[This early piece of light-hearted political satire was published in The House Annual, 1902  – a fund-raising publication in aid of “The Referee” Children’s Dinner Fund, one of a number of charities that fed children from poor families. (The speech marks are like that in the original.) The story is billed as “by Saki”. The (uncredited) illustrations are by Francis Carruthers Gould, who had already collaborated with Saki on The Westminster Alice. I am grateful to Brian Gibson (author of Reading Saki: The Fiction of H. H. Munro) for providing me with a copy of this story.]

‘The Pond’

Mona had always regarded herself as cast for the tragic rôle; her name, her large dark eyes, and the style of hairdressing that best suited her, all contributed to support that outlook on life. She habitually wore the air of one who has seen trouble, or, at any rate, expects to do so very shortly; and she was accustomed to speak of the Angel of Death almost as other people would speak of their chauffeur waiting around the corner to fetch them at the appointed moment. Fortune-tellers, noting this tendency in her disposition, invariably hinted at something in her fate which they would not care to speak about too explicitly. “You will marry the man of your choice, but afterwards you will pass through strange fires,” a Bond Street two-guinea palm-oilist had told her. “Thank you,” said Mona, “for your plain speaking. But I have known it always.” Continue reading

‘The Garden of Eden’

[This fragment was found among Munro’s papers after his death and first published as part of his sister’s memoir of him. Ethel Munro’s (rather idiosyncratic) commentary on it runs thus: “Eve is depicted as a very stubborn, even mule-like character. The serpent simply cannot get her to eat the forbidden fruit. She does not see that any good will come of it, and she is placidly happy in her limited knowledge. […] How she eventually succumbed I don’t know. Hector had a special detestation for this type of character, stubborn, placid, unimaginative, like the awful, good child in ‘The Story Teller’ […]”]

The Serpent elaborated all the arguments and inducements that he had already brought forward, and improvised some new ones, but Eve’s reply was unfailingly the same. Her mind was made up. The Serpent gave a final petulant wriggle of its coils and slid out of the landscape with an unmistakeable air of displeasure.

“You haven’t tasted the Forbidden Fruit, I suppose?” said a pleasant but rather anxious voice at Eve’s shoulder a few minutes later. It was one of the Archangels who was speaking.

“No,” said Eve placidly, “Adam and I went into the matter very thoroughly last night and we came to the conclusion that we should be rather ill-advised in eating the fruit of that tree; after all, there are heaps of other trees and vegetables for us to feed on.”

“Of course it does great credit to your sense of obedience,” said the Archangel, with an entire lack of enthusiasm in his voice, “but it will cause considerable disappointment in some quarters. There was an idea going about that you might be persuaded by specious arguments into tasting the Forbidden Fruit.” Continue reading