He had to earn his living, but he was content as long as he had enough money to supply his needs. When a friend once suggested a profitable field for his writings, he dismissed the idea by saying that he was not interested in the public for which it was proposed that he should write. He loved his art, and, by refusing to adopt a style that might have appealed to wider circles, he made himself a place in our literature which, in the opinion of many, will be lasting.
Almost every day he played cards, either in the late afternoon or in the evening, at the Cocoa Tree Club.
The Toys of Peace by Saki (H.H. Munro)
The sight of the wealth of others did not excite his envy. I remember his coming home from a ball and relating that he had sat at supper next a millionairess, whose doctor had prescribed a diet of milk-puddings. Munro was exceedingly generous. Nothing angered him more than meanness in others. I remember the indignation with which he spoke of a rich woman who had refused to give adequate help to a poor person, who stood in need of it. This even life in town, occasionally varied by a visit to a country house, was rudely disturbed by the shock of war.
Munro was in the House of Commons when Sir Edward Grey made his statement on the position that this country was to take up. He told me that the strain of listening to that speech was so great that he found himself in a sweat. He described the slowness with which the Minister developed his argument and the way in which he stopped to put on his eye-glasses to read a memorandum and then took them off to continue, holding the House in suspense.
That night we dined at a chop-house in the Strand with two friends. He was determined to fight. He was over military age and he was not robust.
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In the first weeks of the war there seemed little chance of his being able to become a soldier. There still hangs in his room in Mortimer Street an old Flemish picture, which he had picked up somewhere, of horsemen in doublets and plumed hats, fighting beneath the walls of a city. It was, I think, the only painting in his possession. Perhaps it was this picture that represented to him the romance of which he spoke; but he did not hide from himself the terrible side of war. Happily thoughts about war can be given in his own words.
He felt that the thing that was a little bit finer than anything else in the world would never come into his life.
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No one could really forget those wonderful leaden cavalry soldiers; the horses were as sleek and prancing as though they had never left the parade-ground, and the uniforms were correspondingly spick and span, but the amount of campaigning and fighting they got through was prodigious. Then there was the slow unfolding of the long romance of actual war, particularly of European war, ghastly, devastating, heartrending in its effect, and yet somehow captivating to the imagination. The thrill that those far-off things call forth in us may be ethically indefensible, but it comes in the first place from something too deep to be driven out; the magic region of the Low Countries is beckoning to us again, as it beckoned to our forefathers, who went campaigning there almost from force of habit.
One felt that the war would affect them chiefly as involving a possible shortage in the supply of eau-de-Cologne or by debarring them from visiting some favourite art treasure at a Munich gallery. It is inconceivable that these persons were ever boys, they have certainly not grown up into men; one cannot call them womanish—the women of our race are made of different stuff.
They belong to no sex and it seems a pity that they should belong to any nation; other nations probably have similar encumbrances, but we seem to have more of them than we either desire or deserve. It seems to place a huckstering interpretation on honour, to display sacred things in a shop window, marked in plain figures. There is perhaps nothing very patriotic in shouting and flag-waving, but it is the only way these youngsters had of showing their feelings. But after a few months he found that he was not strong enough for life in a cavalry regiment and he arranged to exchange into the 22nd Royal Fusiliers.
One of his comrades told me that at the front they would sometimes put their packs on a passing lorry; it was against orders, and Munro refused to lighten the strain of a long march in this way, although the straps of the pack galled his shoulders. Twice he was offered a commission, but he refused to take one.
The Toys of Peace and Other Papers
He distrusted his ability to be a good officer and also he desired to go on fighting side by side with his comrades, one of whom, now an officer and a prisoner in Germany, had been his friend before the war. I was told by a man of his company that one day a General was conducted along the trenches by the Colonel commanding the regiment and recognised Munro, whom he had met at dinner-parties in London. Munro excused himself from accepting it. Another opportunity of less arduous work was offered him. Men who could speak German were ordered to report: interpreters were wanted to deal with prisoners.
He was allowed to do as he wished. And his gaiety never left him. Those who were with him speak of the tales with which he amused them. When he came home on leave, it was evident that the strain of military life was telling on him. He was thin and his face was haggard. But the spiritual change wrought in him by the war was greater than the physical. He told me that he could never come back to the old life in London.
And he wrote asking me to find out from a person in Russia whether it would be possible to acquire land in Siberia to till and to hunt, and whether a couple of Yakutsk lads could be got as servants. It was the love of the woodlands and the wild things in them, that he had felt as a child, returning. The dross had been burnt up in the flame of war. Munro fell in the Beaumont-Hamel action in November On the 12th he and his comrades were at Beldancourt. I saw daily the appalling discomforts he so cheerfully endured.
He flatly refused to take a commission or in any way to allow me to try to make him more comfortable. General Vaughan told him that a brain like his was wasted as a private soldier. He just smiled. He was absolutely splendid. What courage!
The men simply loved him. Go about in the shops and buy any little toys and models that have special bearing on civilian life in its more peaceful aspects. Of course you must explain the toys to the children and interest them in the new idea. Still, as you say, they are at an impressionable age.
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I will do my best. On Easter Saturday Harvey Bope unpacked a large, promising-looking red cardboard box under the expectant eyes of his nephews. Eric was hotly in favour of the latter contingency. A quantity of crinkly paper shavings was the first thing that met the view when the lid was removed; the most exiting toys always began like that. He was an authority on political economy. Bertie gave an expressive grunt, which conveyed his opinion that there was no accounting for tastes.
He had been reading Roman history and thought that where you found Christians you might reasonably expect to find a few lions. These little round things are loaves baked in a sanitary bakehouse. That lead figure is a sanitary inspector, this one is a district councillor, and this one is an official of the Local Government Board. Votes are put into it at election times. And here are some tools of industry, a wheelbarrow and a hoe, and I think these are meant for hop-poles.
This is a model beehive, and that is a ventilator, for ventilating sewers. This seems to be another municipal dust-bin—no, it is a model of a school of art and public library. This little lead figure is Mrs. Hemans, a poetess, and this is Rowland Hill, who introduced the system of penny postage.here
The Toys of Peace and Other Papers by Saki
This is Sir John Herschel, the eminent astrologer. It was rather a poser. Votes will be put in the ballot-box, and the Mayor will count them—and he will say which has received the most votes, and then the two candidates will thank him for presiding, and each will say that the contest has been conducted throughout in the pleasantest and most straightforward fashion, and they part with expressions of mutual esteem. I never had such toys when I was young.
This would never do. Louis was really famous, now, as a landscape gardener; the way he laid out Versailles was so much admired that it was copied all over Europe. Harvey retreated to the library and spent some thirty or forty minutes in wondering whether it would be possible to compile a history, for use in elementary schools, in which there should be no prominent mention of battles, massacres, murderous intrigues, and violent deaths.
Still, it would be something gained if, at a highly impressionable age, children could be got to fix their attention on the invention of calico printing instead of the Spanish Armada or the Battle of Waterloo. Become a fan on Facebook.