“The Music on the Hill”

Saki penned this week’s weird story being discussed over at LibraryThing.

And that brings up the following story, courtesy of the Roads to the Great War blog:

Among the 73,000 names engraved on the memorial to the missing of the Somme at Thiepval is that of Lance Sergeant H. H. Munro of the 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers. H.H. Munro, aka Saki, had gained popularity before the Great War for his witty and off-beat stories. He could have avoided serving, but Munro was the son of a soldier and a child of the Empire. And so he found himself at the Somme in November 1916 during the battle’s final stages, when the high command decided that they damn well ought to capture the village of Beaumont Hamel, because they were supposed to take it on the first day of the fighting, July 1st. Munro’s company had been put out to guard the left flank in a night attack on the village. It was a foggy night, and the fighting had died down by the early hours. Munro and some other men had taken cover in a shell hole. An English officer called across to a friend. A man struck a match, Munro snapped, “Put that bloody cigarette out!” whereupon he was shot in the head by a single round from a sniper. As Saki, he always appreciated a telling punch line.

Review: “The Music on the Hill”, Saki, 1911. 

As you expect from Saki, this is a short, darkly humorous tale. It concerns one Sylvia (an obviously ironic name) Seltoun. She is “pugnacious by circumstance”, veteran of many small disputes which she has managed to win. Her latest concerns her husband Mortimer, dubbed “Dead Mortimer” by his enemies.

His family wasn’t pleased about their marriage, and Mortimer, before his marriage, was not known for liking women. Her newest struggle is to pry Mortimer “away from Town, and its group of satellite watering-places”. She wants to get him to go to his country home in Yessney.  His mother says he’ll never go, but, if he does, he won’t leave. It has some kind of hold on him. 

When Sylvia gets there, she isn’t real keen on Yessney. She’s town bred and not used to “the almost savage wildness about Yessney”. It seems a place where the joy of life is linked to the “terror of unseen things”. 

One day, she comments that the place is very wild, that it’s the kind of place you would think the

‘worship of Pan had never quite died out’. It hasn’t died, says Mortimer –

‘he is the Nature-God to whom all must come back at last. He has been called the Father of all the Gods, but most of his children have been stillborn.’ 

Sylvia’s doesn’t like her “vaguely devotional” faith being referred a mere aftergrowth. She asks Mortimer if he really believes in Pan. Mortimer says he may be a fool about many things but not about the reality of Pan. 

One day, Sylvia inspects the farm and its cows, chickens, pigs, and dogs. She gets a sense of teeming life but also “crushing stillness and desolation”, “a sense of furtive watchful hostility”.  She hears a strange sound: a boy’s “golden laughter”. She continues to sense something sinister about. 

Meanwhile, she sees little of Mortimer. He stays out in the country from dawn to dusk, hunting and fishing. 

One day, she comes across a beautiful bronze statue of Pan with a cluster of fresh grapes on it. She grabs the grapes, disgusted. In the nearby bushes, she sees a boy’s beautiful face with brown, “unutterably evil eyes”. 

That night she mentions the boy to Mortimer and says she thinks it was a “gipsy”. Not likely, he says. There aren’t any gypsies around. He says he suppose it’s Sylvia’s doing. (How, exactly, he doesn’t say.) The statue may be a “harmless piece of lunacy,” but people would think her “dreadfully silly” for interfering with it. 

Then he asks if Sylvia meddled with it. She says she took the grapes. 

‘I don’t think you were wise to do that,’ he said reflectively. ‘I’ve heard it said that the Wood Gods are rather horrible to those who molest them.’

‘Horrible perhaps to those that believe in them, but you see I don’t,’ retorted Sylvia.

‘All the same,” said Mortimer in his even, dispassionate tone, ‘I should avoid the woods and orchards if I were you, and give a wide berth to the horned beasts on the farm.’ 

She says she thinks they will be going back to Town soon. Mortimer says he doesn’t think he will ever go back. 

The next day, as she walks about, her imagination gives all the barnyard animals an air of menace. 

As she walks up a hill, she hears the sound of pipes. Then she hears the sound of hunting horns and sees, far off, a stag being chased by hound and hunters. She feels sorry for it. The deer comes closer. The piping music sounds shriller from the nearby bushes. 

Then the stag comes closer to her – and she sees the boy in the bushes. She remembers Mortimer’s warning to avoid horned animals. She pleads for the boy to drive it off.

The last paragraph is:

The antlers drove straight at her breast, the acrid smell of the hunted animal was in her nostrils, but her eyes were filled with the horror of something she saw other than her oncoming death. And in her ears rang the echo of a boy’s laughter, golden and equivocal. 

Mortimer seems to have given his loyalty to Pan long ago given his constant excursions outdoors, belief in Pan, and how nonplussed he seems about the danger Sylvia is in. 

Short and sweet with another unhappy Saki ending.

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