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Hardly a story this month - a scene, really. An anecdote. A little domestic scene, on the topic of the writing of thank-you notes, by Saki at his most Oscar-Wildean.
It's interesting how many stories from a hundred years ago, two hundred - a thousand - are still easily related to today. Because some things about human society, and human nature, will probably never change. This was published in 1914, and I still feel the same way, myself, every time I sit down to write thank-you notes.
And yes - I do still do that. Well, occasionally.
Incidentally, I generally think of Egbert and Janetta as a brother and sister, rather than husband and wife, but I can't explain why. The story doesn't seem to give any real clues one way or the other. What do you think?
you written to thank the Froplinsons for what they sent us?” asked Egbert.
“No,” said Janetta, with a note of tired defiance in her voice; “I’ve written eleven letters to-day expressing surprise and gratitude for sundry unmerited gifts, but I haven’t written to the Froplinsons.”
“Some one will have to write to them,” said Egbert.
“I don’t dispute the necessity, but I don’t think the some one should be me,” said Janetta. “I wouldn’t mind writing a letter of angry recrimination or heartless satire to some suitable recipient; in fact, I should rather enjoy it, but I’ve come to the end of my capacity for expressing servile amiability. Eleven letters to-day and nine yesterday, all couched in the same strain of ecstatic thankfulness: really, you can’t expect me to sit down to another. There is such a thing as writing oneself out.”
“I’ve written nearly as many,” said Egbert, “and I’ve had my usual business correspondence to get through, too. Besides, I don’t know what it was that the Froplinsons sent us.”
“A William the Conqueror calendar,” said Janetta, “with a quotation of one of his great thoughts for every day in the year.”
“Impossible,” said Egbert; “he didn’t have three hundred and sixty-five thoughts in the whole of his life, or, if he did, he kept them to himself. He was a man of action, not of introspection.”
“Well, it was William Wordsworth, then,” said Janetta; “I know William came into it somewhere.”
“That sounds more probable,” said Egbert; “well, let’s collaborate on this letter of thanks and get it done. I’ll dictate, and you can scribble it down. ‘Dear Mrs. Froplinson—thank you and your husband so much for the very pretty calendar you sent us. It was very good of you to think of us.’”
“You can’t possibly say that,” said Janetta, laying down her pen.
“It’s what I always do say, and what every one says to me,” protested Egbert.
“We sent them something on the twenty-second,” said Janetta, “so they simply had to think of us. There was no getting away from it.”
“What did we send them?” asked Egbert gloomily.
“Bridge-markers,” said Janetta, “in a cardboard case, with some inanity about ‘digging for fortune with a royal spade’ emblazoned on the cover. The moment I saw it in the shop I said to myself ‘Froplinsons’ and to the attendant ‘How much?’ When he said ‘Ninepence,’ I gave him their address, jabbed our card in, paid tenpence or elevenpence to cover the postage, and thanked heaven. With less sincerity and infinitely more trouble they eventually thanked me.”
“The Froplinsons don’t play bridge,” said Egbert.
“One is not supposed to notice social deformities of that sort,” said Janetta; “it wouldn’t be polite. Besides, what trouble did they take to find out whether we read Wordsworth with gladness? For all they knew or cared we might be frantically embedded in the belief that all poetry begins and ends with John Masefield, and it might infuriate or depress us to have a daily sample of Wordsworthian products flung at us.”
“Well, let’s get on with the letter of thanks,” said Egbert.
“Proceed,” said Janetta.
“‘How clever of you to guess that Wordsworth is our favourite poet,’” dictated Egbert.
Again Janetta laid down her pen.
“Do you realise what that means?” she asked; “a Wordsworth booklet next Christmas,
and another calendar the Christmas after, with the same problem of having to write
suitable letters of thankfulness. No, the best thing to do is to drop all further allusion to
the calendar and switch off on to some other topic.”
“But what other topic?”
“Oh, something like this: ‘What do you think of the New Year Honours List? A friend
of ours made such a clever remark when he read it.’ Then you can stick in any remark
that comes into your head; it needn’t be clever. The Froplinsons won’t know whether
it is or isn’t.”
“We don’t even know on which side they are in politics,” objected Egbert; “and anyhow you can’t suddenly dismiss the subject of the calendar. Surely there must be some intelligent remark that can be made about it.”
“Well, we can’t think of one,” said Janetta wearily; “the fact is, we’ve both written ourselves out. Heavens! I’ve just remembered Mrs. Stephen Ludberry. I haven’t thanked her for what she sent.”
“What did she send?”
“I forget; I think it was a calendar.”
There was a long silence, the forlorn silence of those who are bereft of hope and have almost ceased to care.
Presently Egbert started from his seat with an air of resolution. The light of battle was in his eyes.
“Let me come to the writing-table,” he exclaimed.
“Gladly,” said Janetta. “Are you going to write to Mrs. Ludberry or the Froplinsons?”
“To neither,” said Egbert, drawing a stack of notepaper towards him; “I’m going to write to the editor of every enlightened and influential newspaper in the Kingdom, I’m going to suggest that there should be a sort of epistolary Truce of God during the festivities of Christmas and New Year. From the twenty-fourth of December to the third or fourth of January it shall be considered an offence against good sense and good feeling to write or expect any letter or communication that does not deal with the necessary events of the moment. Answers to invitations, arrangements about trains, renewal of club subscriptions, and, of course, all the ordinary everyday affairs of business, sickness, engaging new cooks, and so forth, these will be dealt with in the usual manner as something inevitable, a legitimate part of our daily life. But all the devastating accretions of correspondence, incident to the festive season, these should be swept away to give the season a chance of being really festive, a time of untroubled, unpunctuated peace and good will.”
“But you would have to make some acknowledgment of presents received,” objected Janetta; “otherwise people would never know whether they had arrived safely.”
“Of course, I have thought of that,” said Egbert; “every present that was sent off would be accompanied by a ticket bearing the date of dispatch and the signature of the sender, and some conventional hieroglyphic to show that it was intended to be a Christmas or New Year gift; there would be a counterfoil with space for the recipient’s name and the date of arrival, and all you would have to do would be to sign and date the counterfoil, add a conventional hieroglyphic indicating heartfelt thanks and gratified surprise, put the thing into an envelope and post it.”
“It sounds delightfully simple,” said Janetta wistfully, “but people would consider it too cut-and-dried, too perfunctory.”
“It is not a bit more perfunctory than the present system,” said Egbert; “I have only the same conventional language of gratitude at my disposal with which to thank dear old Colonel Chuttle for his perfectly delicious Stilton, which we shall devour to the last morsel, and the Froplinsons for their calendar, which we shall never look at. Colonel Chuttle knows that we are grateful for the Stilton, without having to be told so, and the Froplinsons know that we are bored with their calendar, whatever we may say to the contrary, just as we know that they are bored with the bridge-markers in spite of their written assurance that they thanked us for our charming little gift. What is more, the Colonel knows that even if we had taken a sudden aversion to Stilton or been forbidden it by the doctor, we should still have written a letter of hearty thanks around it. So you see the present system of acknowledgment is just as perfunctory and conventional as the counterfoil business would be, only ten times more tiresome and brain-racking.”
“Your plan would certainly bring the ideal of a Happy Christmas a step nearer realisation,” said Janetta.
“There are exceptions, of course,” said Egbert, “people who really try to infuse a breath of reality into their letters of acknowledgment. Aunt Susan, for instance, who writes: ‘Thank you very much for the ham; not such a good flavour as the one you sent last year, which itself was not a particularly good one. Hams are not what they used to be.’ It would be a pity to be deprived of her Christmas comments, but that loss would be swallowed up in the general gain.”
“Meanwhile,” said Janetta, “what am I to say to the Froplinsons?”