Beasts and Super-Beasts, by Saki

Cousin Teresa

Basset Harrowcluff returned to the home of his fathers, after an absence of four years, distinctly well pleased with himself. He was only thirty-one, but he had put in some useful service in an out-of-the-way, though not unimportant, corner of the world. He had quieted a province, kept open a trade route, enforced the tradition of respect which is worth the ransom of many kings in out-of-the-way regions, and done the whole business on rather less expenditure than would be requisite for organising a charity in the home country. In Whitehall and places where they think, they doubtless thought well of him. It was not inconceivable, his father allowed himself to imagine, that Basset’s name might figure in the next list of Honours.

Basset was inclined to be rather contemptuous of his half-brother, Lucas, whom he found feverishly engrossed in the same medley of elaborate futilities that had claimed his whole time and energies, such as they were, four years ago, and almost as far back before that as he could remember. It was the contempt of the man of action for the man of activities, and it was probably reciprocated. Lucas was an over-well nourished individual, some nine years Basset’s senior, with a colouring that would have been accepted as a sign of intensive culture in an asparagus, but probably meant in this case mere abstention from exercise. His hair and forehead furnished a recessional note in a personality that was in all other respects obtrusive and assertive. There was certainly no Semitic blood in Lucas’s parentage, but his appearance contrived to convey at least a suggestion of Jewish extraction. Clovis Sangrail, who knew most of his associates by sight, said it was undoubtedly a case of protective mimicry.

Two days after Basset’s return, Lucas frisked in to lunch in a state of twittering excitement that could not be restrained even for the immediate consideration of soup, but had to be verbally discharged in spluttering competition with mouthfuls of vermicelli.

“I’ve got hold of an idea for something immense,” he babbled, “something that is simply It.”

Basset gave a short laugh that would have done equally well as a snort, if one had wanted to make the exchange. His half-brother was in the habit of discovering futilities that were “simply It” at frequently recurring intervals. The discovery generally meant that he flew up to town, preceded by glowingly-worded telegrams, to see some one connected with the stage or the publishing world, got together one or two momentous luncheon parties, flitted in and out of “Gambrinus” for one or two evenings, and returned home with an air of subdued importance and the asparagus tint slightly intensified. The great idea was generally forgotten a few weeks later in the excitement of some new discovery.

“The inspiration came to me whilst I was dressing,” announced Lucas; “it will be the thing in the next music-hall revue. All London will go mad over it. It’s just a couplet; of course there will be other words, but they won’t matter. Listen:

Cousin Teresa takes out Caesar, Fido, Jock, and the big borzoi.

A lifting, catchy sort of refrain, you see, and big-drum business on the two syllables of bor-zoi. It’s immense. And I’ve thought out all the business of it; the singer will sing the first verse alone, then during the second verse Cousin Teresa will walk through, followed by four wooden dogs on wheels; Caesar will be an Irish terrier, Fido a black poodle, Jock a fox-terrier, and the borzoi, of course, will be a borzoi. During the third verse Cousin Teresa will come on alone, and the dogs will be drawn across by themselves from the opposite wing; then Cousin Teresa will catch on to the singer and go off-stage in one direction, while the dogs’ procession goes off in the other, crossing en route, which is always very effective. There’ll be a lot of applause there, and for the fourth verse Cousin Teresa will come on in sables and the dogs will all have coats on. Then I’ve got a great idea for the fifth verse; each of the dogs will be led on by a Nut, and Cousin Teresa will come on from the opposite side, crossing en route, always effective, and then she turns round and leads the whole lot of them off on a string, and all the time every one singing like mad:

Cousin Teresa takes out Caesar Fido, Jock, and the big borzoi.

Tum–Tum! Drum business on the two last syllables. I’m so excited, I shan’t sleep a wink to-night. I’m off tomorrow by the ten-fifteen. I’ve wired to Hermanova to lunch with me.”

If any of the rest of the family felt any excitement over the creation of Cousin Teresa, they were signally successful in concealing the fact.

“Poor Lucas does take his silly little ideas seriously,” said Colonel Harrowcluff afterwards in the smoking-room.

“Yes,” said his younger son, in a slightly less tolerant tone, “in a day or two he’ll come back and tell us that his sensational masterpiece is above the heads of the public, and in about three weeks’ time he’ll be wild with enthusiasm over a scheme to dramatise the poems of Herrick or something equally promising.”

And then an extraordinary thing befell. In defiance of all precedent Lucas’s glowing anticipations were justified and endorsed by the course of events. If Cousin Teresa was above the heads of the public, the public heroically adapted itself to her altitude. Introduced as an experiment at a dull moment in a new revue, the success of the item was unmistakable; the calls were so insistent and uproarious that even Lucas’ ample devisings of additional “business” scarcely sufficed to keep pace with the demand. Packed houses on successive evenings confirmed the verdict of the first night audience, stalls and boxes filled significantly just before the turn came on, and emptied significantly after the last encore had been given. The manager tearfully acknowledged that Cousin Teresa was It. Stage hands and supers and programme sellers acknowledged it to one another without the least reservation. The name of the revue dwindled to secondary importance, and vast letters of electric blue blazoned the words “Cousin Teresa” from the front of the great palace of pleasure. And, of course, the magic of the famous refrain laid its spell all over the Metropolis. Restaurant proprietors were obliged to provide the members of their orchestras with painted wooden dogs on wheels, in order that the much-demanded and always conceded melody should be rendered with the necessary spectacular effects, and the crash of bottles and forks on the tables at the mention of the big borzoi usually drowned the sincerest efforts of drum or cymbals. Nowhere and at no time could one get away from the double thump that brought up the rear of the refrain; revellers reeling home at night banged it on doors and hoardings, milkmen clashed their cans to its cadence, messenger boys hit smaller messenger boys resounding double smacks on the same principle. And the more thoughtful circles of the great city were not deaf to the claims and significance of the popular melody. An enterprising and emancipated preacher discoursed from his pulpit on the inner meaning of “Cousin Teresa,” and Lucas Harrowcluff was invited to lecture on the subject of his great achievement to members of the Young Mens’ Endeavour League, the Nine Arts Club, and other learned and willing-to-learn bodies. In Society it seemed to be the one thing people really cared to talk about; men and women of middle age and average education might be seen together in corners earnestly discussing, not the question whether Servia should have an outlet on the Adriatic, or the possibilities of a British success in international polo contests, but the more absorbing topic of the problematic Aztec or Nilotic origin of the Teresa motiv.

“Politics and patriotism are so boring and so out of date,” said a revered lady who had some pretensions to oracular utterance; “we are too cosmopolitan nowadays to be really moved by them. That is why one welcomes an intelligible production like ‘Cousin Teresa,’ that has a genuine message for one. One can’t understand the message all at once, of course, but one felt from the very first that it was there. I’ve been to see it eighteen times and I’m going again tomorrow and on Thursday. One can’t see it often enough.”

* * * *

“It would be rather a popular move if we gave this Harrowcluff person a knighthood or something of the sort,” said the Minister reflectively.

“Which Harrowcluff?” asked his secretary.

“Which? There is only one, isn’t there?” said the Minister; “the ‘Cousin Teresa’ man, of course. I think every one would be pleased if we knighted him. Yes, you can put him down on the list of certainties — under the letter L.”

“The letter L,” said the secretary, who was new to his job; “does that stand for Liberalism or liberality?”

Most of the recipients of Ministerial favour were expected to qualify in both of those subjects.

“Literature,” explained the Minister.

And thus, after a fashion, Colonel Harrowcluff’s expectation of seeing his son’s name in the list of Honours was gratified.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29