The Open Window



"My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel," said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; "in the meantime you must try and put up with me."

Framton Nuttel endeavored to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.

"I know how it will be," his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; "you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice."

Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction came into the nice division.

"Do you know many of the people round here?" asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.

"Hardly a soul," said Framton. "My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here."

He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.

"Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?" pursued the self- possessed young lady.

"Only her name and address," admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.

"Her great tragedy happened just three years ago," said the child; "that would be since your sister's time."

"Her tragedy?" asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.

"You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon," said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.

"It is quite warm for the time of the year," said Framton; "but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?"

      "Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day's shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favorite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it."

      Here the child's voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. "Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back someday, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing 'Bertie, why do you bound?' as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window--"

She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.

"I hope Vera has been amusing you?" she said.

"She has been very interesting," said Framton.

      "I hope you don't mind the open window," said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; "my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They've been out for snipe in the marshes today, so they'll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you menfolk, isn't it?"

      She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects of duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic, he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.

"The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise," announced Framton, who labored under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one's ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. "On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement, "he continued.

"No?" said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention--but not to what Framton was saying.

"Here they are at last!" she cried. "Just in time for tea, and don't they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!"

Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with a dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.

In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window, they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: "I said, Bertie, why do you bound?"

Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall door, the gravel drive, and the front gate were dimly noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid imminent collision.

"Here we are, my dear," said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window, "fairly muddy, but most of it's dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?"

"A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel," said Mrs. Sappleton; "could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of goodbye or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost."

      "I expect it was the spaniel," said the niece calmly; "he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve."

Romance at short notice was her specialty.
      From the very beginning of this short story, a perceptive reader with sensibility for "higher" literary art will discern the transcendent quality of this writing by Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), whose pen name was Saki.

      Saki uses such exact, precise, apt wording to describe the young man, the young girl, the setting, and the events, that we get the distinct "sense" that this is "high" art. The feeling is not that described by Robert Graves, of a poem that "makes the hair on the back of the neck stand," but a mystic awareness of being in the presence of exquisite genius.

      The description of Framton gives us the distinct impression of a totally self-absorbed hypochondriac who is oblivious to his boring everyone with details of his infirmities. We see that his intruding on this family is done under the mistaken impression that a "letter of introduction" is an unfailing token of open and hearty welcome.

      Now the "darker" side of the story makes its appearance: Framton has ever laid eyes on the aunt. The young girl instantly sees the "romantic" possibilities in this development. Note that we learn from the Aunt that her name is Vera, meaning Truth or Truth-Teller.

      The fact that Framton knows "practically nothing" about Vera's aunt is the catalyst for the young girl's bizarre "creativity at short notice."

      Vera instantly creates out of whole cloth the "tragedy" of her aunt's mental delusion of the return of her husband and brothers from their death while hunting.

      Subterranean feelings stir in us as we learn from the young storyteller that the "open window" is integral to the "tragedy."

      Intricate details of the "tragedy" apprise us of how the hunting expedition--"off for their day's shooting"--ended in calamitous death in the "treacherous piece of bog."

      The fact that their "bodies were never recovered" adds a desolate, doleful air to the entire account.

      We now learn that Vera is not only highly creative in contriving fiction but that she is a consummate actor as well, her voice suddenly becoming "falteringly human." The young storyteller now adds auditory cues that she feels sure will be heard by Framton as the drama unfolds: the younger brother singing aloud: "Bertie, why do you bound?"

      Vera's Sarah Bernhardt dramatic "shudder" adds to Framton's preparation for the final dramatic scene. But the young man gets some relief from his narrator when the aunt bustles into the room.

      The aunt's dreadful "delusion" immediately rears its head, creating a visage of horror as she chatters on obliviously about the dead hunters.

      Understandably, by this point, Framton is in an almost totally distraught mental state, trying with all his might to turn the conversation away from the aunt's horrifying psychological aberration. What makes the situation even more ghastly is that today is the anniversary of the tragic event.

      Reverting to his habitual self-absorbed hypochondria, Framton attempts to divert the aunt from her psychosis by rehearsing his infirmities and their multiform equipage.

      Suddenly the final ghastly scene begins to unfold: the aunt becomes delusional, believing she hears and sees her husband and brothers returning from their tragic deaths.

      Framton attempts to gain some modicum of composure by visually commiserating with Vera on this tragic recurrence of her aunt's madness. Unfortunately, the insanity appeared to have infected Vera, for she too is looking aghast out the "open window."

      And then, the final clap of doom, Framton is infected with the aunt's hallucinations and he too hears and sees the stricken victims as they approach the "open window." He dashes off in wild, distraught pandemonium.

      As the husband and brothers enter through the "open window," we begin to realize that we too, the readers, have been influenced by the young girl's extraordinary ability at fiction--that the "tragedy" was actually a clever hoax.

      In a somewhat shocked condition ourselves, we now experience the adroitness of Vera's "gift," as she "calmly" invents an entirely original "explanation" for Framton's sudden fright and mad dash from the house.

      Yes, fantasy on the spur of the moment was Vera's forte.