Let's start the new series of Gentle Readers with a story in which absurdity is tamed by embracing it.. It's one of my favourites by the cynical and brilliant "Saki", who was writing in England in the early years of the 20th century.
"The Stalled Ox"
“Do you mean to say that you’re going to sit quietly down and paint that ox while it’s destroying my morning-room?”
Let's start the new series of Gentle Readers with a story in which absurdity is tamed by embracing it. It's one of my favourites by the cynical and brilliant "Saki", who was writing in England in the early years of the 20th century.
Theophil Eshley was an artist by profession, a cattle painter by force of environment. It is not to be supposed that he lived on a ranche or a dairy farm, in an atmosphere pervaded with horn and hoof, milking-stool, and branding-iron. His home was in a park-like, villa-dotted district that only just escaped the reproach of being suburban.
On one side of his garden there abutted a small, picturesque meadow, in which an enterprising neighbour pastured some small picturesque cows of the Channel Island persuasion. At noonday in summertime the cows stood knee-deep in tall meadow-grass under the shade of a group of walnut trees, with the sunlight falling in dappled patches on their mouse-sleek coats. Eshley had conceived and executed a dainty picture of two reposeful milch-cows in a setting of walnut tree and meadow-grass and filtered sunbeam, and the Royal Academy had duly exposed the same on the walls of its Summer Exhibition.
The Royal Academy encourages orderly, methodical habits in its children. Eshley had painted a successful and acceptable picture of cattle drowsing picturesquely under walnut trees, and as he had begun, so, of necessity, he went on. His “Noontide Peace,” a study of two dun cows under a walnut tree, was followed by “A Mid-day Sanctuary,” a study of a walnut tree, with two dun cows under it. In due succession there came “Where the Gad-Flies Cease from Troubling,” “The Haven of the Herd,” and “A-dream in Dairyland,” studies of walnut trees and dun cows. His two attempts to break away from his own tradition were signal failures: “Turtle Doves alarmed by Sparrow-hawk” and “Wolves on the Roman Campagna” came back to his studio in the guise of abominable heresies, and Eshley climbed back into grace and the public gaze with “A Shaded Nook where Drowsy Milkers Dream.”
On a fine afternoon in late autumn he was putting some finishing touches to a study of meadow weeds when his neighbour, Adela Pingsford, assailed the outer door of his studio with loud peremptory knockings.
“There is an ox in my garden,” she announced, in explanation of the tempestuous intrusion.
“An ox,” said Eshley blankly, and rather fatuously; “what kind of ox?”
“Oh, I don’t know what kind,” snapped the lady. “A common or garden ox, to use the slang expression. It is the garden part of it that I object to. My garden has just been put straight for the winter, and an ox roaming about in it won’t improve matters. Besides, there are the chrysanthemums just coming into flower.”
“How did it get into the garden?” asked Eshley.
“I imagine it came in by the gate,” said the lady impatiently; “it couldn’t have climbed the walls, and I don’t suppose anyone dropped it from an aeroplane as a Bovril advertisement. The immediately important question is not how it got in, but how to get it out.”
“Won’t it go?” said Eshley.
“If it was anxious to go,” said Adela Pingsford rather angrily, “I should not have come here to chat with you about it. I’m practically all alone; the housemaid is having her afternoon out and the cook is lying down with an attack of neuralgia. Anything that I may have learned at school or in after life about how to remove a large ox from a small garden seems to have escaped from my memory now. All I could think of was that you were a near neighbour and a cattle painter, presumably more or less familiar with the subjects that you painted, and that you might be of some slight assistance. Possibly I was mistaken.”
“I paint dairy cows, certainly,” admitted Eshley, “but I cannot claim to have had any experience in rounding-up stray oxen. I’ve seen it done on a cinema film, of course, but there were always horses and lots of other accessories; besides, one never knows how much of those pictures are faked.”
Adela Pingsford said nothing, but led the way to her garden. It was normally a fair-sized garden, but it looked small in comparison with the ox, a huge mottled brute, dull red about the head and shoulders, passing to dirty white on the flanks and hind-quarters, with shaggy ears and large blood-shot eyes. It bore about as much resemblance to the dainty paddock heifers that Eshley was accustomed to paint as the chief of a Kurdish nomad clan would to a Japanese tea-shop girl. Eshley stood very near the gate while he studied the animal’s appearance and demeanour. Adela Pingsford continued to say nothing.
“It’s eating a chrysanthemum,” said Eshley at last, when the silence had become unbearable.
“How observant you are,” said Adela bitterly. “You seem to notice everything. As a matter of fact, it has got six chrysanthemums in its mouth at the present moment.”
The necessity for doing something was becoming imperative. Eshley took a step or two in the direction of the animal, clapped his hands, and made noises of the “Hish” and “Shoo” variety. If the ox heard them it gave no outward indication of the fact.
“If any hens should ever stray into my garden,” said Adela, “I should certainly send for you to frighten them out. You ‘shoo’ beautifully. Meanwhile, do you mind trying to drive that ox away? That is a Mademoiselle Louise Bichot that he’s begun on now,” she added in icy calm, as a glowing orange head was crushed into the huge munching mouth.
“Since you have been so frank about the variety of the chrysanthemum,” said Eshley, “I don’t mind telling you that this is an Ayrshire ox.”
The icy calm broke down; Adela Pingsford used language that sent the artist instinctively a few feet nearer to the ox. He picked up a pea-stick and flung it with some determination against the animal’s mottled flanks. The operation of mashing Mademoiselle Louise Bichot into a petal salad was suspended for a long moment, while the ox gazed with concentrated inquiry at the stick-thrower. Adela gazed with equal concentration and more obvious hostility at the same focus. As the beast neither lowered its head nor stamped its feet Eshley ventured on another javelin exercise with another pea-stick. The ox seemed to realise at once that it was to go; it gave a hurried final pluck at the bed where the chrysanthemums had been, and strode swiftly up the garden. Eshley ran to head it towards the gate, but only succeeded in quickening its pace from a walk to a lumbering trot. With an air of inquiry, but with no real hesitation, it crossed the tiny strip of turf that the charitable called the croquet lawn, and pushed its way through the open French window into the morning-room. Some chrysanthemums and other autumn herbage stood about the room in vases, and the animal resumed its browsing operations; all the same, Eshley fancied that the beginnings of a hunted look had come into its eyes, a look that counselled respect. He discontinued his attempt to interfere with its choice of surroundings.
“Mr. Eshley,” said Adela in a shaking voice, “I asked you to drive that beast out of my garden, but I did not ask you to drive it into my house. If I must have it anywhere on the premises I prefer the garden to the morning-room.”
“Cattle drives are not in my line,” said Eshley; “if I remember I told you so at the outset.” “I quite agree,” retorted the lady, “painting pretty pictures of pretty little cows is what you’re suited for. Perhaps you’d like to do a nice sketch of that ox making itself at home in my morning-room?”
This time it seemed as if the worm had turned; Eshley began striding away.
“Where are you going?” screamed Adela.
“To fetch implements,” was the answer.
“Implements? I won’t have you use a lasso. The room will be wrecked if there’s a struggle.”
But the artist marched out of the garden. In a couple of minutes he returned, laden with easel, sketching-stool, and painting materials.
“Do you mean to say that you’re going to sit quietly down and paint that brute while it’s destroying my morning-room?” gasped Adela.
“It was your suggestion,” said Eshley, setting his canvas in position.
“I forbid it; I absolutely forbid it!” stormed Adela.
“I don’t see what standing you have in the matter,” said the artist; “you can hardly pretend that it’s your ox, even by adoption.”
“You seem to forget that it’s in my morning-room, eating my flowers,” came the raging retort.
“You seem to forget that the cook has neuralgia,” said Eshley; “she may be just dozing off into a merciful sleep and your outcry will waken her. Consideration for others should be the guiding principle of people in our station of life.”
“The man is mad!” exclaimed Adela tragically. A moment later it was Adela herself who appeared to go mad. The ox had finished the vase-flowers and the cover of “Israel Kalisch,” and appeared to be thinking of leaving its rather restricted quarters. Eshley noticed its restlessness and promptly flung it some bunches of Virginia creeper leaves as an inducement to continue the sitting.
“I forget how the proverb runs,” he observed; “of something about ‘better a dinner of herbs than a stalled ox where hate is.’ We seem to have all the ingredients for the proverb ready to hand.”
“I shall go to the Public Library and get them to telephone for the police,” announced Adela, and, raging audibly, she departed.
Some minutes later the ox, awakening probably to the suspicion that oil cake and chopped mangold was waiting for it in some appointed byre, stepped with much precaution out of the morning-room, stared with grave inquiry at the no longer obtrusive and pea-stick-throwing human, and then lumbered heavily but swiftly out of the garden. Eshley packed up his tools and followed the animal’s example and “Larkdene” was left to neuralgia and the cook.
The episode was the turning-point in Eshley’s artistic career. His remarkable picture, “Ox in a morning-room, late autumn,” was one of the sensations and successes of the next Paris Salon, and when it was subsequently exhibited at Munich it was bought by the Bavarian Government, in the teeth of the spirited bidding of three meat-extract firms. From that moment his success was continuous and assured, and the Royal Academy was thankful, two years later, to give a conspicuous position on its walls to his large canvas “Barbary Apes Wrecking a Boudoir.”
Eshley presented Adela Pingsford with a new copy of “Israel Kalisch,” and a couple of finely flowering plants of Madame Adnré Blusset, but nothing in the nature of a real reconciliation has taken place between them.