The Chronicles of Clovis, by Saki

The Peace Offering

“I want you to help me in getting up a dramatic entertainment of some sort,” said the Baroness to Clovis. “You see, there’s been an election petition down here, and a member unseated and no end of bitterness and ill-feeling, and the County is socially divided against itself. I thought a play of some kind would be an excellent opportunity for bringing people together again, and giving them something to think of besides tiresome political squabbles.”

The Baroness was evidently ambitious of reproducing beneath her own roof the pacifying effects traditionally ascribed to the celebrated Reel of Tullochgorum.

“We might do something on the lines of Greek tragedy,” said Clovis, after due reflection; “the Return of Agamemnon, for instance.”

The Baroness frowned.

“It sounds rather reminiscent of an election result, doesn’t it?”

“It wasn’t that sort of return,” explained Clovis; “it was a home-coming.”

“I thought you said it was a tragedy.”

“Well, it was. He was killed in his bathroom, you know.”

“Oh, now I know the story, of course. Do you want me to take the part of Charlotte Corday?”

“That’s a different story and a different century,” said Clovis; “the dramatic unities forbid one to lay a scene in more than one century at a time. The killing in this case has to be done by Clytemnestra.”

“Rather a pretty name. I’ll do that part. I suppose you want to be Aga — whatever his name is?”

“Dear no. Agamemnon was the father of grown-up children, and probably wore a beard and looked prematurely aged. I shall be his charioteer or bath-attendant, or something decorative of that kind. We must do everything in the Sumurun manner, you know.”

“I don’t know,” said the Baroness; “at least, I should know better if you would explain exactly what you mean by the Sumurun manner.”

Clovis obliged: “Weird music, and exotic skippings and flying leaps, and lots of drapery and undrapery. Particularly undrapery.”

“I think I told you the County are coming. The County won’t stand anything very Greek.”

“You can get over any objection by calling it Hygiene, or limb-culture, or something of that sort. After all, every one exposes their insides to the public gaze and sympathy nowadays, so why not one’s outside?”

“My dear boy, I can ask the County to a Greek play, or to a costume play, but to a Greek-costume play, never. It doesn’t do to let the dramatic instinct carry one too far; one must consider one’s environment. When one lives among greyhounds one should avoid giving life-like imitations of a rabbit, unless one want’s one’s head snapped off. Remember, I’ve got this place on a seven years’ lease. And then,” continued the Baroness, “as to skippings and flying leaps; I must ask Emily Dushford to take a part. She’s a dear good thing, and will do anything she’s told, or try to; but can you imagine her doing a flying leap under any circumstances?”

“She can be Cassandra, and she need only take flying leaps into the future, in a metaphorical sense.”

“Cassandra; rather a pretty name. What kind of character is she?”

“She was a sort of advance-agent for calamities. To know her was to know the worst. Fortunately for the gaiety of the age she lived in, no one took her very seriously. Still, it must have been fairly galling to have her turning up after every catastrophe with a conscious air of ‘perhaps another time you’ll believe what I say.’”

“I should have wanted to kill her.”

“As Clytemnestra I believe you gratify that very natural wish.”

“Then it has a happy ending, in spite of it being a tragedy?”

“Well, hardly,” said Clovis; “you see, the satisfaction of putting a violent end to Cassandra must have been considerably damped by the fact that she had foretold what was going to happen to her. She probably dies with an intensely irritating ‘what-did-I-tell-you’ smile on her lips. By the way, of course all the killing will be done in the Sumurun manner.”

“Please explain again,” said the Baroness, taking out a notebook and pencil.

“Little and often, you know, instead of one sweeping blow. You see, you are at your own home, so there’s no need to hurry over the murdering as though it were some disagreeable but necessary duty.”

“And what sort of end do I have? I mean, what curtain do I get?”

“I suppose you rush into your lover’s arms. That is where one of the flying leaps will come in.”

The getting-up and rehearsing of the play seemed likely to cause, in a restricted area, nearly as much heart-burning and ill-feeling as the election petition. Clovis, as adapter and stage-manager, insisted, as far as he was able, on the charioteer being quite the most prominent character in the play, and his panther-skin tunic caused almost as much trouble and discussion as Clytemnestra’s spasmodic succession of lovers, who broke down on probation with alarming uniformity. When the cast was at length fixed beyond hope of reprieve matters went scarcely more smoothly. Clovis and the Baroness rather overdid the Sumurun manner, while the rest of the company could hardly be said to attempt it at all. As for Cassandra, who was expected to improvise her own prophecies, she appeared to be as incapable of taking flying leaps into futurity as of executing more than a severely plantigrade walk across the stage.

“Woe! Trojans, woe to Troy!” was the most inspired remark she could produce after several hours of conscientious study of all the available authorities.

“It’s no earthly use foretelling the fall of Troy,” expostulated Clovis, “because Troy has fallen before the action of the play begins. And you mustn’t say too much about your own impending doom either, because that will give things away too much to the audience.”

After several minutes of painful brain-searching, Cassandra smiled reassuringly.

“I know. I’ll predict a long and happy reign for George the Fifth.”

“My dear girl,” protested Clovis, “have you reflected that Cassandra specialized in foretelling calamities?”

There was another prolonged pause and another triumphant issue.

“I know. I’ll foretell a most disastrous season for the foxhounds.”

“On no account,” entreated Clovis; “do remember that all Cassandra’s predictions came true. The M.F.H. and the Hunt Secretary are both awfully superstitious, and they are both going to be present.”

Cassandra retreated hastily to her bedroom to bathe her eyes before appearing at tea.

The Baroness and Clovis were by this time scarcely on speaking terms. Each sincerely wished their respective rôle to be the pivot round which the entire production should revolve, and each lost no opportunity for furthering the cause they had at heart. As fast as Clovis introduced some effective bit of business for the charioteer (and he introduced a great many), the Baroness would remorselessly cut it out, or more often dovetail it into her own part, while Clovis retaliated in a similar fashion whenever possible. The climax came when Clytemnestra annexed some highly complimentary lines, which were to have been addressed to the charioteer by a bevy of admiring Greek damsels, and put them into the mouth of her lover. Clovis stood by in apparent unconcern while the words:

“Oh, lovely stripling, radiant as the dawn,” were transposed into:

“Oh, Clytemnestra, radiant as the dawn,” but there was a dangerous glitter in his eye that might have given the Baroness warning. He had composed the verse himself, inspired and thoroughly carried away by his subject; he suffered, therefore, a double pang in beholding his tribute deflected from its destined object, and his words mutilated and twisted into what became an extravagant panegyric on the Baroness’s personal charms. It was from this moment that he became gentle and assiduous in his private coaching of Cassandra.

The County, forgetting its dissensions, mustered in full strength to witness the much-talked-of production. The protective Providence that looks after little children and amateur theatricals made good its traditional promise that everything should be right on the night. The Baroness and Clovis seemed to have sunk their mutual differences, and between them dominated the scene to the partial eclipse of all the other characters, who, for the most part, seemed well content to remain in the shadow. Even Agamemnon, with ten years of strenuous life around Troy standing to his credit, appeared to be an unobtrusive personality compared with his flamboyant charioteer. But the moment came for Cassandra (who had been excused from any very definite outpourings during rehearsals) to support her rôle by delivering herself of a few well-chosen anticipations of pending misfortune. The musicians obliged with appropriately lugubrious wailings and thumpings, and the Baroness seized the opportunity to make a dash to the dressing-room to effect certain repairs in her make-up. Cassandra, nervous but resolute, came down to the footlights and, like one repeating a carefully learned lesson, flung her remarks straight at the audience:

“I see woe for this fair country if the brood of corrupt, self-seeking, unscrupulous, unprincipled politicians” (here she named one of the two rival parties in the State) “continue to infest and poison our local councils and undermine our Parliamentary representation; if they continue to snatch votes by nefarious and discreditable means —”

A humming as of a great hive of bewildered and affronted bees drowned her further remarks and wore down the droning of the musicians. The Baroness, who should have been greeted on her return to the stage with the pleasing invocation, “Oh, Clytemnestra, radiant as the dawn,” heard instead the imperious voice of Lady Thistledale ordering her carriage, and something like a storm of open discord going on at the back of the room.

The social divisions in the County healed themselves after their own fashion; both parties found common ground in condemning the Baroness’s outrageously bad taste and tactlessness.

She has been fortunate in sub-letting for the greater part of her seven years’ lease.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/s/saki/clovis/chapter20.html

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