[Story] "The Story-Teller" | Saki
"EVERYBODY KNEW THAT SHE MUST BE AN EXTRA GOOD CHILD"
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 frown on the bachelor's face was deepening to a scowl. He was a hard, unsympathetic man, the aunt decided in her mind. She was utterly unable to come to any satisfactory decision about the grass in the other field.
The smaller girl created a diversion by beginning to recite "On the Road to Mandalay ." She only knew the first line, but she put her limited knowledge to the fullest possible use. She repeated the line over and over again in a dreamy but resolute and very audible voice; it seemed to the bachelor as though some one had had a bet with her that she could not repeat the line aloud two thousand times without stopping. Whoever it was who had made the wager was likely to lose his bet.
"Come over here and listen to a story," said the aunt, when the bachelor had looked twice at her and once at the communication cord.
The children moved listlessly towards the aunt's end of the carriage. Evidently her reputation as a story-teller did not rank high in their estimation.
In a low, confidential voice, interrupted at frequent intervals by loud, petulant questionings from her listeners, she began an unenterprising and deplorably uninteresting story about a little girl who was good, and made friends with every one on account of her goodness, and was finally saved from a mad bull by a number of rescuers who admired her moral character.
"Wouldn't they have saved her if she hadn't been good?" demanded the bigger of the small girls. It was exactly the question that the bachelor had wanted to ask.
"You don't seem to be a success as a story-teller," said the bachelor suddenly from his corner.
The aunt bristled in instant defence at this unexpected attack.
"It's a very difficult thing to tell stories that children can both understand and appreciate," she said stiffly.
The children's momentarily-aroused interest began at once to flicker; all stories seemed dreadfully alike, no matter who told them.
"She did all that she was told, she was always truthful, she kept her clothes clean, ate milk puddings as though they were jam tarts, learned her lessons perfectly, and was polite in her manners."
There was a wave of reaction in favour of the story; the word horrible in connection with goodness was a novelty that commended itself. It seemed to introduce a ring of truth that was absent from the aunt's tales of infant life.
The aunt permitted herself a smile, which might almost have been described as a grin.
The story-teller paused to let a full idea of the park's treasures sink into the children's imaginations; then he resumed:
There was a murmur of approval at the excellence of the Prince's decision; so many people would have decided the other way.
"There were lots of other delightful things in the park. There were ponds with gold and blue and green fish in them, and trees with beautiful parrots that said clever things at a moment's notice, and humming birds that hummed all the popular tunes of the day. Bertha walked up and down and enjoyed herself immensely, and thought to herself: 'If I were not so extraordinarily good I should not have been allowed to come into this beautiful park and enjoy all that there is to be seen in it,' and her three medals clinked against one another as she walked and helped to remind her how very good she really was. Just then an enormous wolf came prowling into the park to see if it could catch a fat little pig for its supper."
"Unhappy woman!" he observed to himself as he walked down the platform of Templecombe station; "for the next six months or so those children will assail her in public with demands for an improper story!"
Hector Hugh Munro (December 18, 1870 – November 13, 1916), better known by the pen name Saki, was a British writer, whose witty and sometimes macabre stories satirised Edwardian society and culture. He is considered a master of the short story and is often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. His tales feature delicately drawn characters and finely judged narratives. "The Open Window" may be his most famous, with a closing line ("Romance at short notice was her speciality") that has entered the lexicon.
In addition to his short stories (which were first published in newspapers, as was the custom of the time, and then collected into several volumes) he also wrote a full-length play, The Watched Pot, in collaboration with Charles Maude; two one-act plays; a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, the only book published under his own name; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington; the episodic The Westminster Alice (a Parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland), and When William Came, subtitled A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, a fantasy about a future German invasion of Britain. He was influenced by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, and Kipling, and himself influenced A. A. Milne, Noël Coward, and P. G. Wodehouse.
The name Saki is often thought to be a reference to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, a poem mentioned disparagingly by the eponymous character in "Reginald on Christmas Presents" and alluded to in a few other stories. (This is stated as fact by Emlyn Williams in his 1978 introduction to a Saki anthology. It may, however, be a reference to the South American primate of the same name, "a small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere" that is a central character in "The Remoulding of Groby Lington")
At the start of World War I, although 43 and officially over age, Munro joined the Royal Fusiliers regiment of the British Army as an ordinary soldier, refusing a commission. More than once he returned to the battlefield when officially still too sick or injured to fight. He was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France in November 1916 when he was killed by a German sniper. His last words, according to several sources, were "Put that bloody cigarette out!" After his death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood.