“The Open Window”
by H.H. Munro (writing as Saki)
‘When . . . Oh, Saki, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in your joyous errand reach the spot
Where I made One – turn down an empty Glass!’
(Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward FitzGerald translation)
In all the company of Edwardian Age short story writers, Hector Hugh Munro wielded one of the wittiest, most satirical and certainly most bittersweet of pens, calling himself “Saki,” after the immortal cupbearer in Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Persian poet Omar Khayyam.
Born in Burma in 1870 during the British Raj, Munro began a career as a historian and newspaper journalist. Not until 1904 did he begin publishing the satirical stories with their trademark “twist” endings, that would bring him lasting fame.
Although for American readers, Munro’s “Saki” stories are reminiscent of the wry twists and often dark humor of contemporary writers O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) and Ambrose Bierce, mutual influence seems unlikely. It was as if something in the spirit of the times led them to write tales such as Saki’s classic ghost story, “The Open Window,” the subject of today’s Adventure classics.
Poor Mr. Famton Nuttel has retreated to the countryside, hoping the peace and quiet will cure the nervous exhaustion that plagues him. His sister, however, fears social isolation will merely make his nervous condition worse. To avoid that, she has produced a list of acquaintances in the area for him to call on. Among these is a Mrs. Sappleton, whose 15-year-old niece, Vera, opens the door to Nuttel in her aunt’s temporary absence.
“(So) you know practically nothing about my aunt?” she asks. “Her great tragedy happened just three years ago. . . that would be since your sister’s time. . . You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon. . . Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back (and) their bodies were never recovered (but) poor aunt always thinks that they will come back some day, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk.”
At first Nuttel is relieved when the aunt returns, but his relief soon disappears as she prattles cheerfully about the eminent return of her husband and brothers from their shooting expedition. “It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence,” he thought, “that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.”
Published in 1914, “The Open Window” is widely available, so treat yourself, Dear Reader, to a very wry ghost story on what I hope is a fine October day for you, also.
In a twist reminiscent of his own stories, Munro enlisted in the British army during World War I, although he was then well into his forties. The Modern Library’s edition of his collected stories includes the account his sister, Ethel M. Munro, wrote of his death in France on November 13, 1916. “It was a very dark winter morning. . . a number of the fellows sank down on the ground to rest, and Hector sought a shallow crater, with the lip as a back-rest. (His captain) heard him shout, ‘Put that bloody cigarette out,’ and heard the snip of a rife-shot.”
In the attack that followed, Munro’s company lost track of his body. Whether he now lies in an unmarked grave, or simply vanished as so many did in the war’s devastation, only the divine cupbearer knows.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues an October of Halloween horror with H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls.”)