“What are you children doing out here?” demanded Mrs. Quabarl the next morning, on finding Irene sitting rather glumly at the head of the stairs, while her sister was perched in an attitude of depressed discomfort on the window-seat behind her, with a wolf-skin rug almost covering her.
“We are having a history lesson,” came the unexpected reply. “I am supposed to be Rome, and Viola up there is the she-wolf; not a real wolf, but the figure of one that the Romans used to set store by – I forget why. Claude and Wilfrid have gone to fetch the shabby women.”
“The shabby women?”
“Yes, they’ve got to carry them off. They didn’t want to, but Miss Hope got one of father’s fives-bats and said she’d give them a number nine spanking if they didn’t, so they’ve gone to do it.”
A loud, angry screaming from the direction of the lawn drew Mrs. Quabarl thither in hot haste, fearful lest the threatened castigation might even now be in process of infliction. The outcry, however, came principally from the two small daughters of the lodge-keeper, who were being hauled and pushed towards the house by the panting and dishevelled Claude and Wilfrid, whose task was rendered even more arduous by the incessant, if not very effectual, attacks of the captured maidens’ small brother.
The governess, fives-bat in hand, sat negligently on the stone balustrade, presiding over the scene with the cold impartiality of a Goddess of Battles. A furious and repeated chorus of “I’ll tell muvver” rose from the lodge-children, but the lodge-mother, who was hard of hearing, was for the moment immersed in the preoccupation of her washtub.
After an apprehensive glance in the direction of the lodge (the good woman was gifted with the highly militant temper which is sometimes the privilege of deafness) Mrs. Quabarl flew indignantly to the rescue of the struggling captives.
“Wilfrid! Claude! Let those children go at once. Miss Hope, what on earth is the meaning of this scene?”
“Early Roman history; the Sabine Women, don’t you know? It’s the Schartz-Metterklume method to make children understand history by acting it themselves; fixes it in their memory, you know. Of course, if, thanks to your interference, your boys go through life thinking that the Sabine women ultimately escaped, I really cannot be held responsible.”
“You may be very clever and modern, Miss Hope,” said Mrs. Quabarl firmly, “but I should like you to leave here by the next train. Your luggage will be sent after you as soon as it arrives.”
“I’m not certain exactly where I shall be for the next few days,” said the dismissed instructress of youth; “you might keep my luggage till I wire my address. There are only a couple of trunks and some golf-clubs and a leopard cub.”
“A leopard cub!” gasped Mrs. Quabarl. Even in her departure this extraordinary person seemed destined to leave a trail of embarrassment behind her.
“Well, it’s rather left off being a cub; it’s more than half-grown, you know. A fowl every day and a rabbit on Sundays is what it usually gets. Raw beef makes it too excitable. Don’t trouble about getting the car for me, I’m rather inclined for a walk.”
That’s an excerpt from The Schartz-Metterklume Method, a short story by the great Saki. If you’re not familiar with the work of Saki – real name Hector Hugh Munro (1870–1916) – you’ve got a real treat in store. If you want a lazy analogy, he’s the literary missing link between Oscar Wilde and PG Wodehouse, with the advantage that his short stories are generally very short indeed, making them ideal yarns for dipping into. There are plenty of collected editions out there.
In The Schartz-Metterklume Method, Lady Carlotta is travelling to visit friends when she is mistaken for the new governess that Mrs Quabarl has engaged, and decides to have some fun by playing along. Saki crafted several other stories along similar lines, only more usually centred around louche, mischievous young upper class men, most notably a character called Clovis Sangrail. This is a lost world of country house parties, educated young chaps with no visible means of support, but who can often be found in the company of wealthy aunts.
There’s much more to Saki than hilarious drawing-room tales, though. At heart he has a cold detachment which still has the power to shock. The completely serious Sredni Vashtar, the tale of an unloved boy’s invention of his own religion may be his best-known work and has inspired several musical, TV, theatrical and movie productions. Some of his funniest stories are about tragedy and death, and all of them written in a beautiful, highly-polished and economical prose style.
Munro had worked as a colonial policeman, then a journalist and had seen a lot of the world, including massacres in Tsarist Russia. A man of pronounced right-wing views, he basically despised the upper class society he wrote about as frivolous and irrelevant. This is best seen with his novella When William Came, a satire on London society collaborating with the enemy following a successful German invasion. In the actual war, he enlisted in the army even though he was over-age. Refusing an officer’s commission he rose through the ranks of the Royal Fusiliers to Lance-Sergeant until being killed in the trenches in 1916. His (alleged) last words were “put that bloody cigarette out!” He’d have liked that.