ByH. Munro

Hector Munro (pseudonym Saki, 1870-1916) is a British novelist and a short-story writer. He is best known for his short stories. Owing to the death of his mother and his father's absence abroad he was brought up during child­hood, with his elder brother and sister, by a grandmother and two aunts. It seems probable that their stem and unsympathetic methods account for Mun­ro's strong dislike of anything that smacks of the conventional and the self-righteous. He satirized things that he hated. Munro was killed on the French front during the first world war.

In her Biography of Saki Munro's sister writes: "One of Munro's aunts, Au­gusta, was a woman of ungovernable temper, of fierce likes and dislikes, imperi­ous, a moral coward, possessing no brains worth speaking of, and a primitive disposition." Naturally the last person who should have been in charge of child­ren. The character of the aunt in The Lumber-Room is Aunt Augusta to the life.

The children were to be driven, as a special treat, to the. sands at Jagborough. Nicholas was not to be one of the party; he was in disgrace. Only that morning he had refused to eat his wholesome bread-and-milk on the seemingly frivolous ground that there was a frog in it. Older and wiser and better

people had told him that there could not possibly be a frog in his bread-and-milk and that he was not to talk nonsense; he continued, nevertheless, to talk what seemed the veriest non­sense, and described with much detail the coloration and mark­ing of the alleged frog. The dramatic part of the incident was that there really was a frog in Nicholas's basin of bread-and-milk; he had put it there himself, so he felt entitled to know something about it. The sin of taking a frog from the garden and putting it into a bowl of wholesome bread-and-milk was enlarged on at great length, but the fact that stood out clearest in the whole affair, as it presented itself to the mind of Nicho­las, was that the older, wiser, and better people had been proved to be profoundly in error in matters about which they had expressed the utmost assurance.



"You said there couldn't possibly be a frog in my bread-and-milk; there was a frog in my bread-and-milk," he repeated, with the insistence of a skilled tactitian who does not intend to shift from favourable ground.

So his boy-cousin and girl-cousin and his quite uninterest­ing younger brother were to be taken to Jagborough sands that afternoon and he was to stay at home. His cousins' aunt, who insisted, by an unwarranted stretch of imagination, in styling herself his aunt also, had hastily invented the Jagborough ex­pedition in order to impress on Nicholas the delights that he had justly forfeited by his disgraceful conduct at breakfast-table. It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred, if all the children sinned collectively theywere suddenly informed of a circus in a neighbouring town, a circus of unrivalled merit and uncounted elephants, to which, but for their depravity, they would have been taken that very day.

A few decent tears-were looked for on the part of Nicholas when the moment for the departure of the expedition arrived. As a matter of fact, however, all the crying was done by his girl-cousin, who scraped her knee rather painfully against the step of the carriage as she was scrambling in.

"How did she howl," said Nicholas cheerfully as the party drove off without any of the elation of high spirit that should have characterized it.

"She'll soon get over that," said the aunt, "it will be a glori­ous afternoon for racing about over those beautiful sands. How they will enjoy themselves!"

"Bobby won't enjoy himself much, and he won't race much either," said Nicholas with a grim chuckle; "his boots are hurt­ing him. They're too tight."

"Why didn't he tell me they were hurting?" asked the aunt with some asperity.

"He told you twice, but you weren't listening. Ypu often don't listen when we tell you important things."

"You are not to go into the gooseberry garden," said the aunt, changing the subject.

"Why not?" demanded Nicholas.

"Because you are in disgrace," said the aunt loftily.

Nicholas did not admit the flawlessness of the reasoning; he felt perfectly capable of being in disgrace and in a gooseberry garden at the same moment. His face took an expression of considerable obstinacy. It was clear to his aunt that he was de­termined to get into the gooseberry garden, "only," as she re­marked to herself, "because I have told him he is not to."

Now the gooseberry garden had two doers by which it might be entered, and once a small person like Nichplas could slip in there he could effectually disappear from view amid the masking growth of artichokes, raspberry canes, and fruit bush­es. The aunt had many other things to do that afternoon, but she spent an hour or two in trivial gardening operations among flowerbeds and shrubberies, whence she could keep a watchful eye on the two doors that led to forbidden paradise. She was a woman of few ideas, with immense power of concentration.

Nicholas made one or two sorties into the front garden, wriggling his way with obvious stealth of purpose towards one or other of the doors, but never able for a moment to evade the aunt's watchful eye. As a matter of fact, he had no intention of trying to get into the gooseberry garden, but it was extremely convenient for him that his aunt should believe tha| he had; it was a belief that would keep her on self-imposed sentry-duty for the greater part of the afternoon. Having thoroughly con­firmed and fortified her suspicions, Nicholas slipped back into the house and rapidly put into execution a plan of action that had long germinated in his brain. By standing on a chair in the library one could reach a shelf on which reposed a fat, impor-

tant-looking key. The key was as important as it looked; it was the instrument which kept the mysteries of the lumber-room secure from unauthorized intrusion, which opened a way only for aunts and such-like privileged persons. Nicholas had not had much experience of the art of fitting keys into keyholes and turning locks, but for some days past he had practised with the key of the school-room door; he did not believe in trusting too much to luck and accident. The key turned stiffly in the lock, but it, turned. The door opened, and Nicholas was in an unknown land, compared with which the gooseberry gar­den was a stale delight, a mere material pleasure.

* * *

Often and often Nicholas had pictured to himself what the lumber-room might be like, that region that was so carefully sealed from youthful eyes and concerning which no questions were ever answered. It came up to his expectations. In the first place it was large and dimly lit, one high window opening on to the forbidden garden being its only source of illumination. In the second place it was a storehouse of unimagined treasure. The aunt-by-assertion was one of those people who think that things spoil by use and consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them. Such parts of the house as Nicholas knew best were rather bare and cheerless, but here there were won­derful things for the eyes to feast on. First and foremost there was a piece of framed tapestry that was evidently meant to be a fire-screen. To Nicholas it was a living breathing story; he sat down on a roll of Indian hangings, glowing in wonderful colour beneath a layer of dust and took in all the details of the tapes­try picture. A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some re­mote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow, it could not have been a difficult shot because the stag was only one or two paces away from him; in the thickly growing vegetation that the picture suggested it would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag, and the two spotted dogs that were springing forward to join in the chase had evidently been trained to keep to heel till the arrow was discharged. That part of the picture was simple, if interesting, but did the huntsman see, what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were com­ing in his direction through the wood? There might be more

than four of them hidden behind the trees, and in any case would the man and his dogs be able to cope with four wolves if they made an attack? The man had only two arrows left in his quiver, and he might miss with one or both of them; all one knew about his skill in shooting was that he could hit a large stag at a ridiculously short range. Nicholas sat for many golden minutes revolving the possibilities of the scene; he was inclined to think thai there were more than fotir wolves and that the man and his dogs were in a tight corner.

But there were other objects of delight and interest claim­ing his instant attention: there were quaint twisted candlesticks in the shape of snakes, and. a teapot fashioned like a china duck, out of whose open beak the tea was supposed to come. How dull and shapeless the nursery teapot seemed in compari­son! Less promising in appearance was a large square book with plain black covers; Nicholas peeped into it, and, behold, it was full of coloured pictures of birds. And such birds! A whole portrait gallery of undreamed-of creatures. And as he was ad­miring the colouring of the mandarin duck and assigning a life-history to it, the voice of his aunt came from the gooseber­ry garden without. She had grown suspicious at his long disap­pearance, and had .leapt to tiie joonclusion that he had climbed over the wall behind the sheltering screen of lilac bushes; she was now engaged in energetic and rather hopeless search for him among the artichokes and raspberry canes.

"Nicholas, Nicholas!" she screamed, "you are to come out of this at once. It's no use trying to hide there; I can see you all the time."

It was probably the first time for twenty years that any one had smiled in that lumber-room.

Presently the angry repetitions of Nickolas’ name gave way to a shriek, and a cry for somebody to come quickly. Nicholas shut the book, restored it carefully to its place in a corner, and shook some dust from a neighbouring pile of newspapers over it. Then he crept from the room, locked the door, and replaced the key exactly where he had found it. His aunt was still call­ing his name when he sauntered into the front garden.

"Who's calling?" he asked.

"Me," came the answer from the other side of the wall; "didn't you hear me? I've been looking for you in the goose­berry garden, and I've slipped into the rain-water tank. Luckily

there's no water in it, but the sides are slippery and I can't get out. Fetch the little ladder from under the cherry tree —"

"I was told I wasn't to go into the gooseberry garden," said Nicholas promptly.

"I told you not to, and now I tell you that you may," came the voice from the rain-water tank, rather impatiently.

"Your voice doesn't sound like aunt's," objected Nicholas; "you may be the Evil One tempting me to be disobedient. Aunt often tells me that the Evil One tempts me and that I always yield. This time I'm not going to yield."

"Don't talk nonsense," said the prisoner in the tank; "go and fetch the ladder."

"Will there be strawberry jam for tea?" asked Nicholas in­nocently.

"Certainly there will be," said the aunt, privately resolving that Nicholas should have none of it.

"Now I know that you are the Evil One and not aunt," shouted Nicholas gleefully; "when we asked aunt for strawber­ry jam yesterday she said there wasn't any. I know there are four jars of it in the store cupboard, because I looked, and of course you know it's there, but she doesn't because she said there wasn't any. Oh, Devil, you have sold yourself!" There was an unusual sense of luxury in being able to talk to an aunt as though one was talking to the Evil One, but Nicholas knew, with, childish discernment, that such luxuries were not to be over-indulged in. He walked noisily away, and it was a kitchen-maid, in search of parsley, who eventually rescued the aunt from the rain-water tank.

Tea that evening was partaken of in a fearsome silence. The tide had been at its highest when the children had arrived at Jagborough Cove, so there had been no sands to play on — a circumstance that the aunt had overlooked in the haste of or­ganizing her punitive expedition. The tightness of Bobby's boots had had disastrous effect on his temper the whole of the afternoon, and altogether the children could not have been said to have enjoyed themselves. The aunt maintained the fro­zen muteness of one who has suffered undignified and unmer­ited detention in a rain-water tank for thirty-five minutes. As for Nicholas, he, too, was silent, in the absorption of one who has much to think about; it was just possible, he considered, that the huntsman would escape with his hounds while the wolves feasted on the stricken stag.


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