The British author H. H. Munro, whose pen-name was Saki, was an expert craftsman of the extremely short short story. This is a genre well worth mastering, as it is now once again becoming fashionable – largely because our attention spans are much shorter than they used to be thanks to the instant gratification widely available online. Munro often took a single, very simple, idea and developed it into something highly sophisticated within a remarkably small wordcount. This story, ‘Filboid Studge’, is about a young artist called Mark Spaley whose artwork transforms a disgusting breakfast cereal into a bestseller. One might say that within the space of only 1035 words, Munro creates a plausible and absorbing picture of the human condition that a great many aspiring writers of full-length novels are hard put to achieve in hundreds of pages. At any rate, setting oneself a 1000-word limit for a short story is a very good creative writing exercise.
“I want to marry your daughter,” said Mark Spayley with faltering eagerness. “I am only an artist with an income of two hundred a year, and she is the daughter of an enormously wealthy man, so I suppose you will think my offer a piece of presumption.”
Duncan Dullamy, the great company inflator, showed no outward sign of displeasure. As a matter of fact, he was secretly relieved at the prospect of finding even a two-hundred-a-year husband for his daughter Leonore. A crisis was rapidly rushing upon him, from which he knew he would emerge with neither money nor credit; all his recent ventures had fallen flat, and flattest of all had gone the wonderful new breakfast food, Pipenta, on the advertisement of which he had sunk such huge sums. It could scarcely be called a drug in the market; people bought drugs, but no one bought Pipenta.
“Would you marry Leonore if she were a poor man’s daughter?” asked the man of phantom wealth.
“Yes,” said Mark, wisely avoiding the error of over-protestation. And to his astonishment Leonore’s father not only gave his consent, but suggested a fairly early date for the wedding.
“I wish I could show my gratitude in some way,” said Mark with genuine emotion. “I’m afraid it’s rather like the mouse proposing to help the lion.”
“Get people to buy that beastly muck,” said Dullamy, nodding savagely at a poster of the despised Pipenta, “and you’ll have done more than any of my agents have been able to accomplish.”
“It wants a better name,” said Mark reflectively, “and something distinctive in the poster line. Anyway, I’ll have a shot at it.”
Three weeks later the world was advised of the coming of a new breakfast food, heralded under the resounding name of “Filboid Studge.” Spayley put forth no pictures of massive babies springing up with fungus-like rapidity under its forcing influence, or of representatives of the leading nations of the world scrambling with fatuous eagerness for its possession. One huge sombre poster depicted the Damned in Hell suffering a new torment from their inability to get at the Filboid Studge which elegant young fiends held in transparent bowls just beyond their reach. The scene was rendered even more gruesome by a subtle suggestion of the features of leading men and women of the day in the portrayal of the Lost Souls; prominent individuals of both political parties, Society hostesses, well-known dramatic authors and novelists, and distinguished aeroplanists were dimly recognizable in that doomed throng; noted lights of the musical-comedy stage flickered wanly in the shades of the Inferno, smiling still from force of habit, but with the fearsome smiling rage of baffled effort. The poster bore no fulsome allusions to the merits of the new breakfast food, but a single grim statement ran in bold letters along its base: “They cannot buy it now.”
Spayley had grasped the fact that people will do things from a sense of duty which they would never attempt as a pleasure. There are thousands of respectable middle-class men who, if you found them unexpectedly in a Turkish bath, would explain in all sincerity that a doctor had ordered them to take Turkish baths; if you told them in return that you went there because you liked it, they would stare in pained wonder at the frivolity of your motive. In the same way, whenever a massacre of Armenians is reported from Asia Minor, every one assumes that it has been carried out “under orders” from somewhere or another, no one seems to think that there are people who might LIKE to kill their neighbours now and then.
And so it was with the new breakfast food. No one would have eaten Filboid Studge as a pleasure, but the grim austerity of its advertisement drove housewives in shoals to the grocers’ shops to clamour for an immediate supply. In small kitchens solemn pig-tailed daughters helped depressed mothers to perform the primitive ritual of its preparation. On the breakfast-tables of cheerless parlours it was partaken of in silence. Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds. “You haven’t eaten your Filboid Studge!” would be screamed at the appetiteless clerk as he hurried weariedly from the breakfast-table, and his evening meal would be prefaced by a warmed-up mess which would be explained as “your Filboid Studge that you didn’t eat this morning.”
Those strange fanatics who ostentatiously mortify themselves, inwardly and outwardly, with health biscuits and health garments, battened aggressively on the new food. Earnest, spectacled young men devoured it on the steps of the National Liberal Club. A bishop who did not believe in a future state preached against the poster, and a peer’s daughter died from eating too much of the compound. A further advertisement was obtained when an infantry regiment mutinied and shot its officers rather than eat the nauseous mess; fortunately, Lord Birrell of Blatherstone, who was War Minister at the moment, saved the situation by his happy epigram, that “Discipline to be effective must be optional.”
Filboid Studge had become a household word, but Dullamy wisely realized that it was not necessarily the last word in breakfast dietary; its supremacy would be challenged as soon as some yet more unpalatable food should be put on the market. There might even be a reaction in favour of something tasty and appetizing, and the Puritan austerity of the moment might be banished from domestic cookery. At an opportune moment, therefore, he sold out his interests in the article which had brought him in colossal wealth at a critical juncture, and placed his financial reputation beyond the reach of cavil. As for Leonore, who was now an heiress on a far greater scale than ever before, he naturally found her something a vast deal higher in the husband market than a two-hundred-a-year poster designer.
Mark Spayley, the brainmouse who had helped the financial lion with such untoward effect, was left to curse the day he produced the wonder-working poster.
“After all,” said Clovis, meeting him shortly afterwards at his club, “you have this doubtful consolation, that ’tis not in mortals to countermand success.”
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