“Mrs. Pendercoet’s Lost Identity” (1911) is a satire of urban female pretentiousness, over-elaborate masquerade balls, and advertising (see also “Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped”). And it is a satire directed by one of Saki’s cheeky, twitting young men, with whom the author-narrator clearly sides from the start: “No one had ever suggested that Mrs. Pendercoet should disguise herself as either of these renowned beauties, [Mary Queen of Scots or Diane de Poitiers,] but she chose to regard the proposal as imminent on every one’s lips.” Rollo, however, who previously appeared in “The Strategist” (WG, July 3, 1909), is a little less mature, less witty, and less insouciant than Reginald, Clovis, or Bertie van Tahn.
Certain elements, especially the mention of types (“the Artist”), recall Saki’s Reginald sketches, where the young dandy would talk to an “I,” an “Other,” a “Duchess,” etc. The jokes and puns here, though, are even more of-the-moment and often related to commercial products—this is a story that reads not so much as coolly contemporary as verging on the voguish and modish (which may be why it was never republished in a collection). And there is not only the prankishness of a Reginald or Clovis or Vera here but a Saki-esque metamorphosis, doubling as yet another mischievous triumph over an auntly figure.
Saki, drawing on Munro’s experience of his severe aunts—his guardians for most of his childhood—repeatedly twitted, targeted, or tormented the autocratic aunt-figure in his fiction. Most memorably, young Nicholas humbles his cousins’ forbidding aunt in “The Lumber-Room” and ten-year-old Conradin’s animus for his oppressive guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, is fulfilled, wish-like, by the titular polecat-ferret in “Sredni Vashtar.” The anti-auntness in Saki’s fiction, so full of witty bachelors or airless marriages, is mainly levelled at the figure for being so stodgy, conformist, and matrimony-promoting—for instance, in “Tea,” James Cushat-Prinkly is prodded and pushed out of singledom by the vocal disapproval of “his mother, his sister, an aunt-in-residence, and two or three intimate matronly friends.”
So, Rollo and Saki team up to thwart the dowager-like and aunt-like Mrs. Pendercoet (echoing Mrs. Packletide, who appears in three Saki stories) of “St. George’s, Hanover Square,” who is trying, fairy-tale-like, to escape her “matronly state” for one enchanted evening at a ball, where she can “make a legitimate sensation in some queenly guise.” Saki has Rollo dress up Mrs. Pendercoet, in our mind’s eye, in groaning puns, only for him to be dressed-down by her for his impertinence—thus Mrs. Pendercoet’s snake-like “tongue” provides the justification for her fall from the imagined heights of Pomona. She is brought low, in both class and repute, by Rollo and Saki’s misidentifying transformation of her, in the ball-goers’ eyes, into “‘the Aunt of the Gardener’.” Even worse, Mrs. Pendercoet’s humiliation is preserved for posterity by another artist, recording the moment for a newspaper . . . much like Saki, etching his mischievous prose-portraits into print for The Westminster Gazette and the Morning Post.
“The Optimist” (1912) is a story of male pride, male shame, and a distinctly rural English sense of family honour. Its running tension, though, comes from the protagonist, Richard Duncombe, trying to lighten the mood even as, after the story’s crepuscular opening, Saki the author-narrator keeps darkening the atmosphere. And those flourishes of menacing Gothic atmosphere—seeping into Duncombe’s marrow—are so self-conscious as to seem, at times, winkingly meta-Gothic: “there was something still and ghostly”; “there grew on him the presence of fear in the atmosphere, a sense of something instinctively dreaded, as though a corpse were lying somewhere in the house awaiting burial”; “the mother lived in the dead past . . . [t]hat was the thing that had given him the feeling of something dead lying in the house—the unburied past that still lay above-ground.”
Here, then, is another of Munro/Saki’s brooding, eerie West Country folk stories (see: “The Blood-Feud of Toad-Water,” “The Peace of Mowsle Barton,” and “The Cobweb”), set among rural folk in Devonshire, where Munro spent his childhood (just outside Barnstaple). The “combe” in its non-hero’s name further hints that the locale is North Devon, where Woolacombe, Ilfracombe, and Combe Martin lie.
The twist in this tale, as in Saki’s “The Mouse” (1909) and “The Storyteller” (1913), comes on a train, but this twist stops us at a “grim” waystation in the life of a country lad who is, though in the same Edwardian-era England, as far from Saki’s carefree, urban Reginald or Clovis as can be imagined. And there, on the train, any sense of forward movement, especially after the free-and-easy Duncombe’s laggardly ride just happened to lead him to the family’s door, is ironically undercut by the boy’s sullen stuck-ness, for he is speeding along by train only to be caged in a dank, dark place, day upon day upon day.
With that solemn revelation, the story’s optimist is suddenly exposed as hopelessly naïve and out-of-his-depth . . . in no small part because he assumes, of this rural family, a simplicity and backwardness—and the mother does look back, with “wistful” nostalgia, to her father’s and father-in-law’s public statures, in contrast with the family’s present-day shame. (Edwardian-era England was often, after the war, thought of by nostalgics as a halcyon epoch—the last golden age for England and its Empire—and Saki happens to explode just such a sunny, false sentiment.)
Duncombe is one of Saki’s self-involved characters battling the monotony of everyday life, but he is no clever, self-involved trickster, à la Reginald or Clovis or Vera. Instead, feeling a tad downcast and lonely—and perhaps living down to his dreary surname—after riding “through a seemingly endless succession of fields” in “a misty world of plough-land, grass-land, and fallow, in which he and his horse seemed to be the only living things,” he overcompensates by talking too much and too cheerily to his hosts. He counters the mother’s rueful memory of honourable patriarchs with a rosy view of the future (and so, unwittingly, only adds to the mother’s and later the son’s pain) because Richard Duncombe sees himself as a social superior who can simply lift mother’s and son’s spirits with some encouraging words (even promising to send her a friend’s book as a “‘souvenir’” of their conversation!). Duncombe also makes assumptions that lead him astray, and so he feels, by story’s end, in contrast with the station’s throng of onlookers, “cruelly” unobservant.
What shines forth, from the pall that Saki lowers over his southwest-Gothic tale, is the glinting irony that Duncombe’s most successful hunt on this fateful day was that of a quarry which he never meant to have in his sights—a boy-turning-man who, thanks to Duncombe’s witless optimism, takes on the “glazed stare of a trapped and helpless animal that sees the hunter approaching.” And one of Saki’s deftest touches is that equine verb in the final sentence, “reared,” which returns us to the story’s beginning—which must seem so terribly long ago to Duncombe, surely “wistful” himself for that time when he was, in such profound contrast with now, just riding along, so calmly, peacefully alone. It was a time when he was in blissful ignorance of whatever “tragedy” lay behind a local house’s door . . . then still merely “a tragedy whose nature he could not guess at.”