“These Mappin Terraces1 at the Zoological Gardens are a great improvement on the old style of wild-beast cage,” said Mrs. James Gurtleberry, putting down an illustrated paper; “they give one the illusion of seeing the animals in their natural surroundings. I wonder how much of the illusion is passed on to the animals?”
“That would depend on the animal,” said her niece; “a jungle-fowl, for instance, would no doubt think its lawful jungle surroundings were faithfully reproduced if you gave it a sufficiency of wives, a goodly variety of seed food and ants’ eggs, a commodious bank of loose earth to dust itself in, a convenient roosting tree, and a rival or two to make matters interesting. Of course there ought to be jungle-cats and birds of prey and other agencies of sudden death to add to the illusion of liberty, but the bird’s own imagination is capable of inventing those—look how a domestic fowl will squawk an alarm note if a rook or wood pigeon passes over its run when it has chickens.”
“You think, then, they really do have a sort of illusion, if you give them space enough—”
“In a few cases only. Nothing will make me believe that an acre or so of concrete enclosure will make up to a wolf or a tiger-cat for the range of night prowling that would belong to it in a wild state. Think of the dictionary of sound and scent and recollection that unfolds before a real wild beat as it comes out from its lair every evening, with the knowledge that in a few minutes it will be hieing along to some distant hunting ground where all the joy and fury of the chase awaits it; think of the crowded sensations of the brain when every rustle, every cry, every bent twig, and every whiff across the nostrils means something, something to do with life and death and dinner. Imagine the satisfaction of stealing down to your own particular drinking spot, choosing your own particular tree to scrape your claws on, finding your own particular bed of dried grass to roll on. Then, in the place of all that, put a concrete promenade, which will be of exactly the same dimensions whether you race or crawl across it, coated with stale, unvarying scents and surrounded with cries and noises that have ceased to have the least meaning or interest. As a substitute for a narrow cage the new enclosures are excellent, but I should think they are a poor imitation of a life of liberty.”
“It’s rather depressing to think that,” said Mrs. Gurtleberry; “they look so spacious and so natural, but I suppose a good deal of what seems natural to us would be meaningless to a wild animal.”
“That is where our superior powers of self-deception come in,” said the niece; “we are able to live our unreal, stupid little lives on our particular Mappin terrace, and persuade ourselves that we really are untrammelled men and women leading a reasonable existence in a reasonable sphere.”
“But good gracious,” exclaimed the aunt, bouncing into an attitude of scandalised defence, “we are leading reasonable existences! What on earth do you mean by trammels? We are merely trammelled by the ordinary decent conventions of civilised society.”
“We are trammelled,” said the niece, calmly and pitilessly, “by restrictions of income and opportunity, and above all by lack of initiative. To some people a restricted income doesn’t matter a bit, in fact it often seems to help as a means for getting a lot of reality out of life; I am sure there are men and women who do their shopping in little back streets of Paris, buying four carrots and a shred of beef for their daily sustenance, who lead a perfectly real and eventful existence. Lack of initiative is the thing that really cripples one, and that is where you and I and Uncle James are so hopelessly shut in. We are just so many animals stuck down on a Mappin terrace, with this difference in our disfavour, that the animals are there to be looked at, while nobody wants to look at us. As a matter of fact there would be nothing to look at. We get colds in winter and hay fever in summer, and if a wasp happens to sting one of us, well, that is the wasp’s initiative, not ours; all we do is to wait for the swelling to go down. Whenever we do climb into local fame and notice, it is by indirect methods; if it happens to be a good flowering year for magnolias the neighbourhood observes: ‘Have you seen the Gurtleberry’s magnolia? It is a perfect mass of flowers,’ and we go about telling people that there are fifty-seven blossoms as against thirty-nine the previous year.”
“In Coronation year there were as many as sixty,” put in the aunt; “your uncle has kept a record for the last eight years.”
“Doesn’t it ever strike you,” continued the niece relentlessly, “that if we moved away from here or were blotted out of existence our local claim to fame would pass on automatically to whoever happened to take the house and garden? People would say to one another, ‘Have you seen the Smith-Jenkins’ magnolia? It is a perfect mass of flowers,’ or else ‘Smith-Jenkins tells me there won’t be a single blossom on their magnolia this year; the east winds have turned all the buds black.’ Now if, when we had gone, people still associated our names with the magnolia tree, no matter who temporarily possessed it, if they said, ‘Ah, that’s the tree on which the Gurtleberrys hung their cook because she sent up the wrong kind of sauce with the asparagus,’ that would be something really due to our own initiative, apart from anything east winds or magnolia vitality might have to say in the matter.”
“We should never do such a thing,” said the aunt.
The niece gave a reluctant sigh.
“I can’t imagine it,” she admitted. “Of course,” she continued, “there are heaps of ways of leading a real existence without committing sensational deeds of violence. It’s the dreadful little everyday acts of pretended importance that give the Mappin stamp to our life. It would be entertaining, if it wasn’t so pathetically tragic, to hear Uncle James fuss in here in the morning and announce, ‘I must just go down into the town and find out what the men there are saying about Mexico. Matters are beginning to look serious there.’ Then he patters away into the town, and talks in a highly serious voice to the tobacconist, incidentally buying an ounce of tobacco; perhaps he meets one or two others of the world’s thinkers and talks to them in a highly serious voice, then he patters back here and announces with increased importance, ‘I’ve just been talking to some men in the town about the condition of affairs in Mexico. They agree with the view that I have formed, that things there will have to get worse before they get better.’ Of course nobody in the town cared in the least little bit what his views about Mexico were or whether he had any. The tobacconist wasn’t even fluttered at his buying the ounce of tobacco; he knows that he purchases the same quantity of the same sort of tobacco every week. Uncle James might just as well have lain on his back in the garden and chattered to the lilac tree about the habits of caterpillars.”
“I really will not listen to such things about your uncle,” protested Mrs. James Gurtleberry angrily.
“My own case is just as bad and just as tragic,” said the niece, dispassionately; “nearly everything about me is conventional make-believe. I’m not a good dancer, and no one could honestly call me good-looking, but when I go to one of our dull little local dances I’m conventionally supposed to ‘have a heavenly time,’ to attract the ardent homage of the local cavaliers, and to go home with my head awhirl with pleasurable recollections. As a matter of fact, I’ve merely put in some hours of indifferent dancing, drunk some badly-made claret cup, and listened to an enormous amount of laborious light conversation. A moonlight hen-stealing raid with the merry-eyed curate would be infinitely more exciting; imagine the pleasure of carrying off all those white minorcas2 that the Chibfords are always bragging about. When we had disposed of them we could give the proceeds to a charity, so there would be nothing really wrong about it. But nothing of that sort lies within the Mappined limits of my life. One of these days somebody dull and decorous and undistinguished will ‘make himself agreeable’ to me at a tennis party, as the saying is, and all the dull old gossips of the neighbourhood will begin to ask when we are to be engaged, and at last we shall be engaged, and people will give us butter-dishes and blotting-cases and framed pictures of young women feeding swans.3 Hullo, Uncle, are you going out?”
“I’m just going down to the town,” announced Mr. James Gurtleberry, with an air of some importance: “I want to hear what people are saying about Albania. Affairs there are beginning to take on a very serious look. It’s my opinion that we haven’t seen the worst of things yet.”
In this he was probably right, but there was nothing in the immediate or prospective condition of Albania to warrant Mrs. Gurtleberry in bursting into tears.
First published posthumously in book form in 1919
‘The Mappined Life’ by Saki (H.H. Munro), taken from The Toys of Peace (public domain). Notes © 2019 Bruce Gaston. No reproduction without permission.