“The Threat” by Saki
Sir Lulworth Quayne sat in the lounge of his favourite restaurant, the Gallus Bankiva, discussing the weaknesses of the world with his nephew, who had lately returned from a much-enlivened exile in the wilds of Mexico. It was that blessed season of the year when the asparagus and the plover’s egg are abroad in the land, and the oyster has not yet withdrawn into it’s summer entrenchments, and Sir Lulworth and his nephew were in that enlightened after-dinner mood when politics are seen in their right perspective, even the politics of Mexico.
“Most of the revolutions that take place in this country nowadays,” said Sir Lulworth, “are the product of moments of legislative panic. Take, for instance, one of the most dramatic reforms that has been carried through Parliament in the lifetime of this generation. It happened shortly after the coal strike, of unblessed memory. To you, who have been plunged up to the neck in events of a more tangled and tumbled description, the things I am going to tell you of may seem of secondary interest, but after all we had to live in the midst of them.”
Sir Lulworth interrupted himself for a moment to say a few kind words to the liqueur brandy he had just tasted, and them resumed his narrative.
“Whether one sympathises with the agitation for female suffrage or not one has to admit that its promoters showed tireless energy and considerable enterprise in devising and putting into action new methods for accomplishing their ends. As a rule they were a nuisance and a weariness to the flesh, but there were times when they verged on the picturesque. There was the famous occasion when they enlivened and diversified the customary pageantry of the Royal progress to open Parliament by letting loose thousands of parrots, which had been carefully trained to scream ‘Votes for women,’ and which circled round his Majesty’s coach in a clamorous cloud of green, and grey and scarlet. It was really rather a striking episode from the spectacular point of view; unfortunately, however, for its devisers, the secret of their intentions had not been well kept, and their opponents let loose at the same moment a rival swarm of parrots, which screeched ‘I don’t think’ and other hostile cries, thereby robbing the demonstration of the unanimity which alone could have made it politically impressive. In the process of recapture the birds learned a quantity of additional language which unfitted them for further service in the Suffragette cause; some of the green ones were secured by ardent Home Rule propagandists and trained to disturb the serenity of Orange meetings by pessimistic reflections on Sir Edward Carson’s destination in the life to come. In fact, the bird in politics is a factor that seems to have come to stay; quite recently, at a political gathering held in a dimly-lighted place of worship, the congregation gave a respectful hearing for nearly ten minutes to a jackdaw from Wapping, under the impression that they were listening to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was late in arriving.”
“But the Suffragettes,” interrupted the nephew; “what did they do next?”
“After the bird fiasco,” said Sir Lulworth, “the militant section made a demonstration of a more aggressive nature; they assembled in force on the opening day of the Royal Academy Exhibition and destroyed some three or four hundred of the pictures. This proved an even worse failure than the parrot business; every one agreed that there were always far too many pictures in the Academy Exhibition, and the drastic weeding out of a few hundred canvases was regarded as a positive improvement. Moreover, from the artists’ point of view it was realised that the outrage constituted a sort of compensation for those whose works were persistently ‘skied’, since out of sight meant also out of reach. Altogether it was one of the most successful and popular exhibitions that the Academy had held for many years. Then the fair agitators fell back on some of their earlier methods; they wrote sweetly argumentative plays to prove that they ought to have the vote, they smashed windows to show that they must have the vote, and they kicked Cabinet Ministers to demonstrate that they’d better have the vote, and still the coldly reasoned or unreasoned reply was that they’d better not. Their plight might have been summed up in a perversion of Gilbert’s lines—
“Twenty voteless millions we,
Voteless all against our will,
Twenty years hence we shall be
Twenty voteless millions still.”
And of course the great idea for their master-stroke of strategy came from a masculine source. Lena Dubarri, who was the captain-general of their thinking department, met Waldo Orpington in the Mall one afternoon, just at a time when the fortunes of the Cause were at their lowest ebb. Waldo Orpington is a frivolous little fool who chirrups at drawing-room concerts and can recognise bits from different composers without referring to the programme, but all the same he occasionally has ideas. He didn’t care a twopenny fiddlestring about the Cause, but he rather enjoyed the idea of having his finger in the political pie. Also it is possible, though I should think highly improbable, that he admired Lena Dubarri. Anyhow, when Lena gave a rather gloomy account of the existing state of things in the Suffragette World, Waldo was not merely sympathetic but ready with a practical suggestion. Turning his gaze westward along the Mall, towards the setting sun and Buckingham Palace, he was silent for a moment, and then said significantly, ‘You have expended your energies and enterprise on labours of destruction; why has it never occurred to you to attempt something far more terrific?’
“‘What do you mean?’ she asked him eagerly.
“‘Do you mean create disturbances? We’ve been doing nothing else for months,’ she said.
“Waldo shook his head, and continued to look westward along the Mall. He’s rather good at acting in an amateur sort of fashion. Lena followed his gaze, and then turned to him with a puzzled look of inquiry.
“‘Exactly,’ said Waldo, in answer to her look.
“‘But—how can we create?’ she asked; ‘it’s been done already.’
“‘Do it again,’ said Waldo, ‘and again and again—’
“Before he could finish the sentence she had kissed him. She declared afterwards that he was the first man she had ever kissed, and he declared that she was the first woman who had ever kissed him in the Mall, so they both secured a record of a kind.
“Within the next day or two a new departure was noticeable in Suffragette tactics. They gave up worrying Ministers and Parliament and took to worrying their own sympathisers and supporters—for funds. The ballot-box was temporarily forgotten in the cult of the collecting-box. The daughters of the horseleech were not more persistent in their demands, the financiers of the tottering ancien régime were not more desperate in their expedients for raising money than the Suffragist workers of all sections at this juncture, and in one way and another, by fair means and normal, they really got together a very useful sum. What they were going to do with it no one seemed to know, not even those who were most active in collecting work. The secret on this occasion had been well kept. Certain transactions that leaked out from time to time only added to the mystery of the situation.
“‘Don’t you long to know what we are going to do with our treasure hoard?’ Lena asked the Prime Minister one day when she happened to sit next to him at a whist drive at the Chinese Embassy.
“‘I was hoping you were going to try a little personal bribery,’ he responded banteringly, but some genuine anxiety and curiosity lay behind the lightness of his chaff; ‘of course I know,’ he added, ‘that you have been buying up building sites in commanding situations in and around the Metropolis. Two or three, I’m told, are on the road to Brighton, and another near Ascot. You don’t mean to fortify them, do you?’
“‘Something more insidious than that,’ she said; ‘you could prevent us from building forts; you can’t prevent us from erecting an exact replica of the Victoria Memorial on each of those sites. They’re all private property, with no building restrictions attached.’
“‘Which memorial?’ he asked; ‘not the one in front of Buckingham Palace? Surely not that one?’
“‘That one,’ she said.
“‘My dear lady,’ he cried, ‘you can’t be serious. It is a beautiful and imposing work of art—at any rate one is getting accustomed to it, and even if one doesn’t happen to admire it one can always look in another direction. But imagine what life would be like if one saw that erection confronting one wherever one went. Imagine the effect on people with tired, harassed nerves who saw it three times on the way to Brighton and three times on the way back. Imagine seeing it dominate the landscape at Ascot, and trying to keep your eye off it on the Sandwich golf links. What have your countrymen done to deserve such a thing?’
“‘They have refused us the vote,’ said Lena bitterly.
“The Prime Minister always declared himself an opponent of anything savouring of panic legislation, but he brought a Bill into Parliament forthwith and successfully appealed to both Houses to pass it through all its stages within the week. And that is how we got one of the most glorious measures of the century.”
“A measure conferring the vote on women?” asked the nephew.
“Oh dear, no. An Act which made it a penal offence to erect commemorative statuary anywhere within three miles of a public highway.”