I’ve been reading a bunch of Saki’s short stories, which is easy to do since his short stories are excellent, fun, and very short, so short that at seven pages in my edition, “Tobermory” is one of Saki’s longer stories. Saki, the pen name of H. H. Munro, wrote satiric short stories at the turn of the 20th century England, up to 1916, when unfortunately he was killed in World War One. Last year I highlighted his story, “Sredni Vishtar” and said how talented one needed to be to write stories under a half dozen pages.
“Tobermory” had me laughing out loud. The situation is outrageously fantastic—a talking cat—and yet Saki convinces us immediately. I wonder if Saki was inspired by H. G. Wells, the science fiction writer, who a few years earlier had written The Island of Doctor Moreau, where a mad scientist invents a machine to make animals speak. While Wells’ novel is rather somber and serious, Saki’s short story satiric and hilarious.
The story is set at Lady Blemely’s house-party, what I imagine is an upscale Victorian tea party of a near dozen guests. One of the guests is a “homely” chap, a scientist named Mr. Cornelius Apin, who makes the astonishing claim that he has invented a process where he can make animals talk human language. Here’s the opening paragraph;
It was a chill, rain-washed afternoon of a late August day, that indefinite season when partridges are still in security or cold storage, and there is nothing to hunt - unless one is bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, in which case one may lawfully gallop after fat red stags. Lady Blemley's house- party was not bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, hence there was a full gathering of her guests round the tea-table on this particular afternoon. And, in spite of the blankness of the season and the triteness of the occasion, there was no trace in the company of that fatigued restlessness which means a dread of the pianola and a subdued hankering for auction bridge. The undisguised open-mouthed attention of the entire party was fixed on the homely negative personality of Mr. Cornelius Appin. Of all her guests, he was the one who had come to Lady Blemley with the vaguest reputation. Some one had said he was "clever," and he had got his invitation in the moderate expectation, on the part of his hostess, that some portion at least of his cleverness would be contributed to the general entertainment. Until tea-time that day she had been unable to discover in what direction, if any, his cleverness lay. He was neither a wit nor a croquet champion, a hypnotic force nor a begetter of amateur theatricals. Neither did his exterior suggest the sort of man in whom women are willing to pardon a generous measure of mental deficiency. He had subsided into mere Mr. Appin, and the Cornelius seemed a piece of transparent baptismal bluff. And now he was claiming to have launched on the world a discovery beside which the invention of gunpowder, of the printing-press, and of steam locomotion were inconsiderable trifles. Science had made bewildering strides in many directions during recent decades, but this thing seemed to belong to the domain of miracle rather than to scientific achievement.
I’m taking the quotes from The Literature Network’s electronic copy, where you can read the entire thing. Please do, you’ll find it enjoyable. Let me continue on a little more. The guests must have been told of this outrageous invention by the scientist himself, and of course everyone is in disbelief. I imagine the guests looking at this sort of geeky scientist and thinking he’s just trying to be pretentious to cover his lack of people skills by telling them he’s made their cat, Tobermory, speak English. It’s Lady Blemely’s husband who challenges him.
"And do you really ask us to believe," Sir Wilfrid was saying, "that you have discovered a means for instructing animals in the art of human speech, and that dear old Tobermory has proved your first successful pupil?"
"It is a problem at which I have worked for the last seventeen years," said Mr. Appin, "but only during the last eight or nine months have I been rewarded with glimmerings of success. Of course I have experimented with thousands of animals, but latterly only with cats, those wonderful creatures which have assimilated themselves so marvellously with our civilization while retaining all their highly developed feral instincts. Here and there among cats one comes across an outstanding superior intellect, just as one does among the ruck of human beings, and when I made the acquaintance of Tobermory a week ago I saw at once that I was in contact with a `Beyond-cat' of extraordinary intelligence. I had gone far along the road to success in recent experiments; with Tobermory, as you call him, I have reached the goal."
Mr. Appin concluded his remarkable statement in a voice which he strove to divest of a triumphant inflection. No one said "Rats," though Clovis's lips moved in a monosyllabic contortion which probably invoked those rodents of disbelief.
If the guests seem rather stuck up, they are. The story turns on intelligence—who has it and who doesn’t—with the cat being the superior to the humans, who are mostly lame. The other guests start to chime in.
"And do you mean to say," asked Miss Resker, after a slight pause, "that you have taught Tobermory to say and understand easy sentences of one syllable?"
"My dear Miss Resker," said the wonder-worker patiently, "one teaches little children and savages and backward adults in that piecemeal fashion; when one has once solved the problem of making a beginning with an animal of highly developed intelligence one has no need for those halting methods. Tobermory can speak our language with perfect correctness."
This time Clovis very distinctly said, "Beyond-rats!" Sir Wilfrid was more polite, but equally sceptical.
"Hadn't we better have the cat in and judge for ourselves?" suggested Lady Blemley.
Sir Wilfrid went in search of the animal, and the company settled themselves down to the languid expectation of witnessing some more or less adroit drawing- room ventriloquism.
In a minute Sir Wilfrid was back in the room, his face white beneath its tan and his eyes dilated with excitement. "By Gad, it's true!"
His agitation was unmistakably genuine, and his hearers started forward in a thrill of awakened interest.
I found that so laugh-out-loud funny. Sir Wilfred, a rather stiff man, comes in shocked and disconcerted. Notice how Saki has built up the anticipation. The outrageous claim is made while sitting around a living room where no one believes it; so one goes off stage to witness it and comes back to confirm it. And suddenly the cat wonders into the room himself to prove it to the reader. Not only is it funny but the drama itself makes “real” in the fiction what is actually impossible.
Collapsing into an armchair he continued breathlessly: "I found him dozing in the smoking-room and called out to him to come for his tea. He blinked at me in his usual way, and I said, 'Come on, Toby; don't keep us waiting'; and, by Gad! he drawled out in a most horribly natural voice that he'd come when he dashed well pleased! I nearly jumped out of my skin!"
Appin had preached to absolutely incredulous hearers; Sir Wilfred's statement carried instant conviction. A Babel-like chorus of startled exclamation arose, amid which the scientist sat mutely enjoying the first fruit of his stupendous discovery.
In the midst of the clamour Tobermory entered the room and made his way with velvet tread and studied unconcern across to the group seated round the tea- table.
Saki picked the perfect pet to do this with. I don’t think a dog would have worked as well. The cat is even more supercilious than the guests. Now Saki has set this up perfectly.
A sudden hush of awkwardness and constraint fell on the company. Somehow there seemed an element of embarrassment in addressing on equal terms a domestic cat of acknowledged mental ability.
"Will you have some milk, Tobermory?" asked Lady Blemley in a rather strained voice.
"I don't mind if I do," was the response, couched in a tone of even indifference. A shiver of suppressed excitement went through the listeners, and Lady Blemley might be excused for pouring out the saucerful of milk rather unsteadily.
And the story goes on to where Tobey starts telling things about the guests he has overheard that people would not want to have said in public. It is a perfect situation from which to develop satire. The guests ultimately decide they must have Tobey killed so their secrets won’t come out. I will say that the very extreme shortness of the story made the ending a bit dissatisfying. It was too much of a happenstance to bring it to a close. I imagine Saki was word limited and couldn’t develop a proper conclusion. But I might be wrong, you tell me. Was the conclusion satisfying?
If you wish, you can hear along with the story with this audio recording. It’s always fun to hear a story.