Saki (the pseudonym of Hector Hugh Munro) made his name with witty, satirical stories about aspects of Edwardian society. In this darkly comic short story, Van Cheele, a wealthy, relaxed landowner, has his complacent comfort undermined by a chance meeting in his woodlands.
Gabriel-Ernest could easily be a horror story – a werewolf is marauding close to a village and makes off with a child. Instead, Saki constructs a comedy where the moral dimension of what happens is scarcely relevant. What the reader focuses on is the obtuseness of Van Cheele. The reader is always well ahead, picking up the many clues, so Van Cheele seems at best imperceptive, at worst rather stupid.
The Boy in the Woods
This effect begins at the very opening of the story, with Cunningham’s statement that ‘There is a wild beast in your woods’. Cunningham’s reticence, refusing to elaborate further, raises the reader’s interest, but Van Cheele dismisses it, not taking it seriously until the end of the story when it is too late. His slowness is also apparent when he meets the naked boy in his woods. The boy tells Van Cheele that the night is his ‘busiest time’ and that he feeds on ‘child-flesh’ when he can get it. Van Cheele dismisses this as a ‘chaffing remark’, careless banter, but the reader knows better. There are further clues in the statement that he hunts ‘on four feet’ and the boy’s ‘weird low laugh’ which is ‘disagreeably like a snarl.’ Even Van Cheele thinks of him as an ‘animal’. And then when he returns home, his aunt tells him that he looks as if he ‘had seen a wolf.’ Saki lays down the clues thickly and because Van Cheele comes so close to the truth but dismisses it, the effect is comic rather than frightening.
Saki is also playing with the idea of fiction here. Readers of fiction recognise the tropes and understand immediately that this story is fantastical; Van Cheele, however, does not know he is in a fantastical story, so of course cannot rationally leap to the conclusion that the boy is a werewolf, because werewolves do not actually exist – except in stories.
The Boy in the House
The comedy becomes more explicit when the boy appears in the refined domesticated environment of the ‘morning-room’, attracting the interest and sympathy of Van Cheele’s aunt. There is much humour in the elderly lady’s concern for the naked boy and Van Cheele’s desperate attempts to cover him up. It is the aunt who names him Gabriel-Ernest, with double irony. Gabriel is the name of the Christian angel who announces that Mary will be the mother of Jesus, so is associated with innocent infancy, while Ernest is a homophone of ‘earnest’, meaning truthful, serious, sincere. Oscar Wilde uses the same pun in his famous comic play The Importance of Being Earnest. The reader picks up immediately on the danger of the aunt’s well-meaning idea of inviting Gabriel-Ernest to help with the ‘infant members of her Sunday-school class’.
It is only in the last few paragraphs of the story that Cunningham finally completes the tale he began in the first line, and it confirms the reader’s suspicions – he has witnessed the wild boy transform into a wolf at sunset, though he too hasn’t believed what he has seen. Van Cheele’s panicked realisation and desperate attempt to find Gabriel-Ernest lead to the dark comedy of the dénouement. He has left to take ‘the little Toop child home’, but of course neither Gabriel-Ernest nor the Toop child are seen again. A scream has been heard, clothes have been found, and the community reaches the comically wrong conclusion and erects a memorial to ‘the unknown boy, who bravely sacrificed his life for another.’ There is no tragedy here – the reader is not interested in ‘the little Toop child’, who does not even have a first name nor a sex – they are merely a device for the comic ending.
A Queer Reading
Saki makes a comic story out of the material of horror and pokes fun at his central character, the man who fancies himself a ‘great naturalist’ but has no real understanding of the natural world, let alone the supernatural one. There is also perhaps the sense that Van Cheele does not even understand himself and his own impulses. There is a steady current of homoeroticism through the story, starting of course with his encounter with a naked sixteen-year-old boy lying ‘asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun.’ Note not just the content, but the sensual ‘w’, ‘l’ and sibilant sounds of this sentence. What the boy is interested in is ‘Flesh’, a word which he pronounces ‘with slow relish’. He perhaps represents a side of Van Cheele that the man cannot admit to himself. As the boys says, ‘I fancy you’d rather have me here than in your house’. Is there a wildness and danger to Van Cheele’s desires which do not comfortably fit in the ‘primly ordered house’ of Edwardian gentility? Certainly the description of the boy’s disappearance from their first encounter, as he ‘plunged into the pool’ and Van Cheele notes his ‘glistening body’, would suggest so.
Gabriel-Ernest’s appearance in that house also conforms to this interpretation. Although a comic scene, Van Cheele is terrified of the boy’s true nakedness being seen and tries to obscure his body ‘under the folds of a Morning Post’, just as he might desperately attempt to conceal his sexuality from his aunt. Of course his aunt is too innocent to notice; a ‘naked homeless child’ is to her as deserving of care and sympathy ‘as a stray kitten or derelict puppy’, but this could also suggest she is more open-minded that her nephew thinks. The end of the story is clear, however. Gabriel-Ernest, perhaps in this interpretation representing homosexual leanings, is a danger to innocence and has to disappear. Van Cheele refuses to acknowledge him at all at the end: ‘he flatly refused to subscribe to the Gabriel-Ernest memorial.’ In Edwardian society, he has to suppress what he has discovered about himself.