Our blog generally features short pieces on the Library’s collections and associated activities but as it is the holiday season we thought we would post a very short story. The story and its author are featured in our current exhibition “Pen names” which explores authors who publish books under assumed names. The author of the story is Saki, the pen name used by Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916). Saki was a celebrated author of macabre and satirical short stories and an influence on A.A. Milne, P.G. Wodehouse, Roald Dahl and Will Self. The story is about novelist Augustus Mellowkent who on the advice of his publisher issues his books under the pen name Mark Mellowkent. In a few pages it arguably says more about the nature of pen names and the life of the writer than our whole exhibition, such is the power of a great short story writer.
“Mark” by Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)
Augustus Mellowkent was a novelist with a future; that is to say, a limited but increasing number of people read his books, and there seemed good reason to suppose that if he steadily continued to turn out novels year by year a progressively increasing circle of readers would acquire the Mellowkent habit, and demand his works from the libraries and bookstalls. At the instigation of his publisher he had discarded the baptismal Augustus and taken the front name of Mark.
“Women like a name that suggests some one strong and silent, able but unwilling to answer questions. Augustus merely suggests idle splendour, but such a name as Mark Mellowkent, besides being alliterative, conjures up a vision of some one strong and beautiful and good, a sort of blend of Georges Carpentier and the Reverend What’s-his-name.”
One morning in December Augustus sat in his writing-room, at work on the third chapter of his eighth novel. He had described at some length, for the benefit of those who could not imagine it, what a rectory garden looks like in July; he was now engaged in describing at greater length the feelings of a young girl, daughter of a long line of rectors and archdeacons, when she discovers for the first time that the postman is attractive.
“Their eyes met, for a brief moment, as he handed her two circulars and the fat wrapper-bound bulk of the East Essex News. Their eyes met, for the merest fraction of a second, yet nothing could ever be quite the same again. Cost what it might she felt that she must speak, must break the intolerable, unreal silence that had fallen on them. ‘How is your mother’s rheumatism?’ she said.”
The author’s labours were cut short by the sudden intrusion of a maidservant.
“A gentleman to see you, sir,” said the maid, handing a card with the name Caiaphas Dwelf inscribed on it; “says it’s important.”
Mellowkent hesitated and yielded; the importance of the visitor’s mission was probably illusory, but he had never met any one with the name Caiaphas before. It would be at least a new experience.
Mr. Dwelf was a man of indefinite age; his high, narrow forehead, cold grey eyes, and determined manner bespoke an unflinching purpose. He had a large book under his arm, and there seemed every probability that he had left a package of similar volumes in the hall. He took a seat before it had been offered him, placed the book on the table, and began to address Mellowkent in the manner of an “open letter.”
“You are a literary man, the author of several well-known books _”
“I am engaged on a book at the present moment — rather busily engaged,” said Mellowkent, pointedly.
“Exactly,” said the intruder; “time with you is a commodity of considerable importance. Minutes, even, have their value.”
“They have,” agreed Mellowkent, looking at his watch.
“That,” said Caiaphas, “is why this book that I am introducing to your notice is not a book that you can afford to be without. ‘Right Here’ is indispensable for the writing man; it is no ordinary encyclopedia, or I should not trouble to show it to you. It is an inexhaustible mine of concise information_”
“On a shelf at my elbow,” said the author, “I have a row of reference books that supply me with all the information I am likely to require.”
“Here,” persisted the would-be salesman, “you have it all in one compact volume. No matter what the subject may be which you wish to look up, or the fact you desire to verify, ‘Right Here’ gives you all that you want to know in the briefest and most enlightening form. Historical reference, for instance; career of John Huss, let us say. Here we are: ‘Huss, John, celebrated religious reformer. Born 1369, burned at Constance 1415. The Emperor Sigismund universally blamed.'”
“If he had been burnt in these days every one would have suspected the Suffragettes,” observed Mellowkent.
“Poultry-keeping, now,” resumed Caiaphas, “that’s a subject that might crop up in a novel dealing with English country life. Here we have all about it: ‘The Leghorn as egg-producer. Lack of maternal instinct in the Minorca. Gapes in chickens, its cause and cure. Ducklings for the early market, how fattened.’ There, you see, there it all is, nothing lacking.”
“Except the maternal instinct in the Minorca, and that you could hardly be expected to supply.”
“Sporting records, that’s important, too; now how many men, sporting men even, are there who can say off-hand what horse won the Derby in any particular year? Now it’s just a little thing of that sort”
“My dear sir,” interrupted Mellowkent, “there are at least four men in my club who can not only tell me what horse won in any given year, but what horse ought to have won and why it didn’t. If your book could supply a method for protecting one from information of that sort it would do more than anything you have yet claimed for it.”
“Geography,” said Caiaphas, imperturbably; “that’s a thing that a busy man, writing at high pressure, may easily make a slip over. Only the other day a well-known author made the Volga flow into the Black Sea instead of the Caspian; now, with this book _”
“On a polished rose-wood stand behind you there reposes a reliable and up-to-date atlas,” said Mellowkent; “and now I must really ask you to be going.”
“An atlas,” said Caiaphas, “gives merely the chart of the river’s course, and indicates the principal towns that it passes. Now “Right Here” gives you the scenery, traffic, ferry-boat charges, the prevalent types of fish, boatmen’s slang terms, and hours of sailing of the principal river steamers. It gives you_ “
Mellowkent sat and watched the hard-featured, resolute, pitiless salesman, as he sat doggedly in the chair wherein he had installed himself, unflinchingly extolling the merits of his undesired wares. A spirit of wistful emulation took possession of the author; why could he not live up to the cold stern name he had adopted? Why must he sit here weakly and listen to this weary, unconvincing tirade, why could he not be Mark Mellowkent for a few brief moments, and meet this man on level terms?
A sudden inspiration flashed across him.
“Have you read my last book, The Cageless Linnet?” he asked.
“I don’t read novels,” said Caiaphas tersely.
“Oh, but you ought to read this one, every one ought to,” exclaimed Mellowkent, fishing the book down from a shelf; “published at six shillings, you can have it at four-and-six. There is a bit in chapter five that I feel sure you would like, where Emma is alone in the birch copse waiting for Harold Huntingdon – that is the man her family want her to marry. She really wants to marry him, too, but she does not discover that till chapter fifteen. Listen: ‘Far as the eye could stretch rolled the mauve and purple billows of heather, lit up here and there with the glowing yellow of gorse and broom, and edged round with the delicate greys and silver and green of the young birch trees. Tiny blue and brown butterflies fluttered above the fronds of heather, revelling in the sunlight, and overhead the larks were singing as only larks can sing. It was a day when all Nature_”
“In ‘Right Here’ you have full information on all branches of Nature Study,” broke in the book-agent, with a tired note sounding in his voice for the first time; “forestry, insect life, bird migration, reclamation of waste lands. As I was saying, no man who has to deal with the varied interests of life_”
“I wonder if you would care for one of my earlier books, “The Reluctance of Lady Cullumpton,” said Mellowkent, hunting again through the bookshelf; “some people consider it my best novel. Ah, here it is. I see there are one or two spots on the cover, so I won’t ask more than three-and-ninepence for it. Do let me read you how it opens:
“‘Beatrice Lady Cullumpton entered the long, dimly-lit drawing-room, her eyes blazing with a hope that she guessed to be groundless, her lips trembling with a fear that she could not disguise. In her hand she carried a small fan, a fragile toy of lace and satinwood. Something snapped as she entered the room; she had crushed the fan into a dozen pieces.’
“There, what do you think of that for an opening? It tells you at once that there’s something afoot.”
“I don’t read novels,” said Caiaphas sullenly.
“But just think what a resource they are,” exclaimed the author, “on long winter evenings, or perhaps when you are laid up with a strained ankle — a thing that might happen to any one; or if you were staying in a house-party with persistent wet weather and a stupid hostess and insufferably dull fellow-guests, you would just make an excuse that you had letters to write, go to your room, light a cigarette, and for three-and-ninepence you could plunge into the society of Beatrice Lady Cullumpton and her set. No one ought to travel without one or two of my novels in their luggage as a standby. A friend of mine said only the other day that he would as soon think of going into the tropics without quinine as of going on a visit without a couple of Mark Mellowkents in his kit-bag. Perhaps sensation is more in your line. I wonder if I’ve got a copy of “The Python’s Kiss.”
Caiaphas did not wait to be tempted with selections from that thrilling work of fiction. With a muttered remark about having no time to waste on monkey-talk, he gathered up his slighted volume and departed. He made no audible reply to Mellowkent’s cheerful “Good morning,” but the latter fancied that a look of respectful hatred flickered in the cold grey eyes.
Saki and this short story are featured in the Library’s exhibition Pen Names which explores a range of writers working in Britain from the 1800s to the present day who use pen names. The exhibition runs from 8 July 2022 to 29 April 2023. Learn more about Pen Names on our website. For more blog posts about authors who use aliases search #PenNamesNLS.