...you know what it is—one often reads some fantastic story of that sort, and one simply does not believe it. It's like freak diners' and explorers' yarns. One thinks, 'Yes, yes,' and then you turn to see who won the semi-finals at Wimbledon….
--The Kidnapped 'General'
Stacy Aumonier (1877-1928) is my latest short story writer infatuation.
I started yesterday searching out stories by Frank O'Connor (1903-1966) to read. But, as Frost wrote, "Way leads unto way." (This has usually been my method of selecting what fiction to read next.)
Ultimately, I read three or four stories by Stacy Aumonier yesterday, and will read more.
Aumonier will not be to everyone's taste. But if like me you appreciate that certain tone of voice in Bierce, Maupassant, Saki, Collier, Dahl, Waugh (and Maugham at his most acidic), Aumonier will be worth a look.
His stories are not brief by today's standards (or at least by my standards). Slowly accumulating setting, context, and characters through concrete action, they take their time.
Old Fags (1917)
"Old Fags" is one of the most compelling and emotionally upsetting stories I have read. That it raised gooseflesh and made me laugh (uncomfortably! I assure you) only serves to underscore its power and Aumonier's craft.
Set entirely within the lower depths of destitute working class London, it shows us the life of Fags, who survives by picking up salvageable ends of cigar and cigarette. His tenement neighbors, Mrs. Birdle and her daughter Minnie, are as close to physical extinction as Old Fags. As their distress escalates, Fags fumes at his powerlessness.
The solution, the means of life-saving material solidarity to the Birdles, is delivered to Old Fags through his acquaintance with Meads. Meads is "groom" to the wonderfully named Mrs. Bastien-Melland; Meads is not in charge of the lady's horses, but her dogs: Chows and Pekinese.
"Old Fags" offers lots of satisfying what-goes-around-comes-around comeuppance. There's not too much coincidence in connections among characters. The mood of grim poverty persists until the end, but Aumonier creates excitement and suspense through remorseless deployment of humor and the grotesque.
"The Kidnapped 'General'" spends most of its time as an ingratiating and rollicking (yes, rollicking) comedy. It would have been perfect for Ealing Studios in its wonder years, with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Jim Parker and the narrator. Only at the end does Aumonier impose his plot turnabout on the reader; from there "The Kidnapped 'General'" rises to a higher level of the sublimely heartbreaking and ridiculous.
We rambled far afield. On this occasion we were just over the border in Buckinghamshire. Jim Parker sighed.
"I wonder they haven't turned this into one of their beastly golf courses," he said.
"Touch wood," I answered. "We're not across it yet." But no, there was no golf course on this nameless common. It was a delightful and deserted spot. We walked across it for half a mile, when we came to a kind of dingle formed by the opening into a long, narrow sand-pit. We were just passing it when Jim remarked:
"There's a queer habitation for you!"
I looked in the direction his stick was pointing, and beheld half-way up the dingle an odd-looking shanty in red and white.
"Um," I answered. "Let's go and have a look at it."
We entered the dingle and approached the rustic dwelling. At first it appeared to be a double-storeyed cabin painted rather gaily, with pots of flowers hanging from a balcony. On closer inspection the truth became apparent. On the lower part of the dwelling, dim but quite perceptible, was the word "General." It was an old converted "General" motor-bus! The owner had certainly been rather clever about it. The wheels had either been removed or were buried in the sand. The lower part remained practically intact, except for a surrounding wooden platform. The upper part had been roofed in with timber, and a balcony built out, supported by wooden posts. The woodwork was painted white; there were chintz curtains at the windows, and flowers in profusion in pots and tubs. A gay little dwelling. It was, I suppose, deplorably bad manners for Jim Parker and me to stand there and laugh. But there was something about the association of the "General" with this obscure and picturesque retreat that was irresistible. We were still laughing when a man came out on to the lower platform and regarded us. He was a tall, strongly-built man, with a neat, pointed brown beard, close-cropped hair turning grey, cold blue eyes, and the skin of a man who lives in the open. He bowed to us gravely, and said:
"Good morning, gentlemen."
We pulled ourselves together and responded. Then he added:
"I presume they have sent you from the inn to hear the story of the kidnapped General?"
A Source of Irritation (1918)
"A Source of Irritation" is a perfect story. It shows what a skilled short story writer can do when he does not set a food wrong.
To look at old Sam Gates you would never suspect him of having nerves. His sixty-nine years of close application to the needs of the soil had given him a certain earthy stolidity. To observe him hoeing, or thinning out a broad field of turnips, hardly attracted one's attention. He seemed so much part and parcel of the whole scheme. He blended into the soil like a glorified swede. Nevertheless, the half-dozen people who claimed his acquaintance knew him to be a man who suffered from little moods of irritability.
And on this glorious morning a little incident annoyed him unreasonably. It concerned his niece Aggie. She was a plump girl with clear blue eyes and a face as round and inexpressive as the dumplings for which the county was famous. She came slowly across the long sweep of the downland and putting down the bundle wrapped up in a red handkerchief which contained his breakfast and dinner, she said:
"Well, Uncle, is there any noos?"
Now this may not appear to the casual reader to be a remark likely to cause irritation, but it affected old Sam Gates as a very silly and unnecessary question. It was, moreover, the constant repetition of it which was beginning to anger him. He met his niece twice a day. In the morning she brought his bundle of food at seven, and when he passed his sister's cottage on the way home to tea at five she was invariably hanging about the gate. And on each occasion she always said, in exactly the same voice:
"Well, Uncle, is there any noos?"
"Noos!" What "noos" should there be? For sixty-nine years he had never lived further than five miles from Halvesham. For nearly sixty of those years he had bent his back above the soil. There were indeed historic occasions: once, for instance, when he had married Annie Hachet. And there was the birth of his daughter. There was also a famous occasion when he had visited London. Once he had been to a flower show at Market Roughborough. He either went or didn't go to church on Sundays. He had had many interesting chats with Mr. James at "The Cowman," and three years ago had sold a pig to Mrs. Waig. But he couldn't always have interesting "noos" of this sort up his sleeve. Didn't the silly gaffir know that for the last three weeks he had been thinning out turnips for Mr. Dodge on this very same field? What "noos" could there be?
He blinked at his niece, and didn't answer. She undid the parcel, and said:
"Mrs. Goping's fowl got out again last night."
He replied, "Ah!" in a non-committal manner, and began to munch his bread and bacon. His niece picked up the handkerchief, and humming to herself, walked back across the field. It was a glorious morning, and a white sea-mist added to the promise of a hot day. He sat there munching, thinking of nothing in particular, but gradually subsiding into a mood of placid content. He noticed the back of Aggie disappear in the distance. It was a mile to the cottage, and a mile and a half to Halvesham. Silly things, girls! They were all alike. One had to make allowances. He dismissed her from his thoughts and took a long swig of tea out of a bottle. Insects buzzed lazily. He tapped his pocket to assure himself that his pouch of shag was there, and then he continued munching. When he had finished, he lighted his pipe and stretched himself comfortably. He looked along the line of turnips he had thinned, and then across the adjoining field of swedes. Silver streaks appeared on the sea below the mist. In some dim way he felt happy in his solitude amidst this sweeping immensity of earth and sea and sky.
And then something else came to irritate him....
Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty (1922)
Miss Bracegirdle recalls some of the very proper unmarried women in stories by Maugham and E. F. Benson. She knows she must tread carefully each day to avoid any act that might risk her reputation. The grand comedy of "Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty" is in the urgent crisis its protagonist faces and overcomes, her grace under pressure.
There would be lots to tell the dear dean when she wrote to him on the morrow—nearly losing her spectacles on the restaurant car; the amusing remarks of an American child on the train to Paris; the curious food everywhere, nothing simple and plain; the two English ladies at the hotel in Paris who told her about the death of their uncle—the poor man being taken ill on Friday and dying on Sunday afternoon, just before tea-time; the kindness of the hotel proprietor who had sat up for her; the prettiness of the chambermaid. Oh, yes, everyone was really very kind. The French people, after all, were very nice. She had seen nothing—nothing but was quite nice and decorous. There would be lots to tell the dean to-morrow.
Her body glowed with the friction of the towel. She again donned her night attire and her thick, woollen dressing-gown. She tidied up the bathroom carefully in exactly the same way she was accustomed to do at home, then once more gripping her sponge-bag and towel, and turning out the light, she crept down the passage to her room. Entering the room she switched on the light and shut the door quickly. Then one of those ridiculous things happened—just the kind of thing you would expect to happen in a foreign hotel. The handle of the door came off in her hand....
The Perfect Murder (1926)
I'm hard-pressed to think of a short story that begins as deliciously as "The Perfect Murder."
One evening in November two brothers were seated in a little café in the Rue de la Roquette discussing murders. The evening papers lay in front of them, and they all contained a lurid account of a shocking affair in the Landes district, where a charcoal-burner had killed his wife and two children with a hatchet. From discussing this murder in particular they went on to discussing murder in general....
The two brothers see their financial prospects plummet in the tale; their plans, plots, and schemes will repeatedly be dashed to bits. In the end, they will face the scorpion-sting of cruel and bloody irony.
In short, it's a delectable story.
'I've never yet read a murder case without being impressed by the extraordinary clumsiness of it,' remarked Paul, the younger brother. 'Here's this fellow murders his victims with his own hatchet, leaves his hat behind in the shed, and arrives at a village hard by with blood on his boots.'
'They lose their heads,' said Henri, the elder. 'In cases like that they are mentally unbalanced, hardly responsible for their actions.'
'Yes,' replied Paul, 'but what impresses me is— what a lot of murders must be done by people who take trouble, who leave not a trace behind.'
Henri shrugged his shoulders. 'I shouldn't think it was so easy, old boy; there's always something that crops up.'
'Nonsense! I'll guarantee there are thousands done every year. If you are living with anyone, for instance, it must be the easiest thing in the world to murder them.'
'Oh, some kind of accident— and then you go screaming into the street, "Oh, my poor wife! Help!" You burst into tears, and everyone consoles you. I read of a woman somewhere who murdered her husband by leaving the window near the bed open at night when he was suffering from pneumonia. Who's going to suspect a case like that? Instead of that, people must always select revolvers, or knives, or go and buy poison at the chemist's across the way.'
'It sounds as though you were contemplating a murder yourself,' laughed Henri.
'Well, you never know,' answered Paul; 'circumstances might arise when a murder would be the only way out of a difficulty. If ever my time comes I shall take a lot of trouble about it. I promise you I shall leave no trace behind.'
As Henri glanced at his brother making this remark he was struck by the fact that there was indeed nothing irreconcilable between the idea of a murder and the idea of Paul doing it. He was a big, saturnine-looking gentleman with a sallow, dissolute face, framed in a black square beard and swathes of untidy grey hair. His profession was that of a traveller in cheap jewellery, and his business dealings were not always of the straightest. Henri shuddered. With his own puny physique, bad health, and vacillating will, he was always dominated by his younger brother. He himself was a clerk in a drapery store, and he had a wife and three children. Paul was unmarried.
The brothers saw a good deal of each other, and were very intimate. But the word friendship would be an extravagant term to apply to their relationship. They were both always hard up, and they borrowed money from each other when every other source failed.
20 September 2021
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