"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Death of Sylvia Seltoun, From Saki’s Short Story, “The Music on the Hill.”

I’ve been reading a few Saki (pseudonym for H. H. Munro)  short stories every year. You can click the link, "Saki," below to find my other posts on his short stories.  They are short, pitch perfect, and delightful, all written with an acerbic eye and style.

“The Music on the Hill” is about an overbearing woman, Sylvia Seltoun, who successful marries an upper class gentleman, and she gets him to move to his country home, known as “Yesney,” instead of continuing his listless days in his town watering holes.  Mortimer, her husband warns her about the pagan wood deity Pan who lurks in the woods.  She scoffs at it of course, and she comes to a sudden death one day while roaming through the woods and being horned by a large stag, all the while a devilish looking boy looks on. 

The story is only six or even pages long (Saki is remarkably condensed) and you can read it entirely here.  I’m not going to analyze it but do look for all the levels of irony in it, such as Sylvia’s name meaning is “woods” or “forest.”  I’m going to quote the final paragraphs that culminate in her death. 

Sylvia noted with dissatisfaction and some self-contempt that the course of her next afternoon's ramble took her instinctively clear of the network of woods. As to the horned cattle, Mortimer's warning was scarcely needed, for she had always regarded them as of doubtful neutrality at the best: her imagination unsexed the most matronly dairy cows and turned them into bulls liable to "see red" at any moment. The ram who fed in the narrow paddock below the orchards she had adjudged, after ample and cautious probation, to be of docile temper; today, however, she decided to leave his docility untested, for the usually tranquil beast was roaming with every sign of restlessness from corner to corner of his meadow. A low, fitful piping, as of some reedy flute, was coming from the depth of a neighbouring copse, and there seemed to be some subtle connection between the animal's restless pacing and the wild music from the wood. Sylvia turned her steps in an upward direction and climbed the heather-clad slopes that stretched in rolling shoulders high above Yessney. She had left the piping notes behind her, but across the wooded combes at her feet the wind brought her another kind of music, the straining bay of hounds in full chase. Yessney was just on the outskirts of the Devon-and-Somerset country, and the hunted deer sometimes came that way. Sylvia could presently see a dark body, breasting hill after hill, and sinking again and again out of sight as he crossed the combes, while behind him steadily swelled that relentless chorus, and she grew tense with the excited sympathy that one feels for any hunted thing in whose capture one is not directly interested. And at last he broke through the outermost line of oak scrub and fern and stood panting in the open, a fat September stag carrying a well-furnished head. His obvious course was to drop down to the brown pools of Undercombe, and thence make his way towards the red deer's favoured sanctuary, the sea. To Sylvia's surprise, however, he turned his head to the upland slope and came lumbering resolutely onward over the heather. "It will be dreadful," she thought, "the hounds will pull him down under my very eyes." But the music of the pack seemed to have died away for a moment, and in its place she heard again that wild piping, which rose now on this side, now on that, as though urging the failing stag to a final effort. Sylvia stood well aside from his path, half hidden in a thick growth of whortle bushes, and watched him swing stiffly upward, his flanks dark with sweat, the coarse hair on his neck showing light by contrast. The pipe music shrilled suddenly around her, seeming to come from the bushes at her very feet, and at the same moment the great beast slewed round and bore directly down upon her. In an instant her pity for the hunted animal was changed to wild terror at her own danger; the thick heather roots mocked her scrambling efforts at flight, and she looked frantically downward for a glimpse of oncoming hounds. The huge antler spikes were within a few yards of her, and in a flash of numbing fear she remembered Mortimer's warning, to beware of horned beasts on the farm. And then with a quick throb of joy she saw that she was not alone; a human figure stood a few paces aside, knee-deep in the whortle bushes.

"Drive it off!" she shrieked. But the figure made no answering movement.

The antlers drove straight at her breast, the acrid smell of the hunted animal was in her nostrils, but her eyes were filled with the horror of something she saw other than her oncoming death. And in her ears rang the echo of a boy's laughter, golden and equivocal.

I found the writing, especially in that long paragraph to be superb.  Finally you can also listen to the story being read. 

I found that to be the best of the several readings available.  However, the reader makes a glaring error.  She forgets to read “The antlers drove straight at her breast” in that last paragraph, a very important detail to say the least.  Still I enjoyed her voice and tone.  

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