Saki is the pen name of the British writer Hector Hugh Munro, also known as H. H. Munro (1870-1916). In "The Open Window," possibly his most famous story, social conventions and proper etiquette provide cover for a mischievous teenager to wreak havoc on the nerves of an unsuspecting guest.
Framton Nuttel, seeking a "nerve cure" prescribed by his doctor, visits a rural area where he knows no one. His sister provides letters of introduction so he can meet people there.
He pays a visit to Mrs. Sappleton. While he waits for her, her 15-year-old niece keeps him company in the parlor. When she realizes Nuttel has never met her aunt and knows nothing about her, she explains that it has been three years since Mrs. Sappleton's "great tragedy," when her husband and brothers went hunting and never returned, presumably engulfed by a bog (which is similar to sinking in quicksand). Mrs. Sappleton keeps the large French window open every day, hoping for their return.
When Mrs. Sappleton appears she is inattentive to Nuttel, talking instead about her husband's hunting trip and how she expects him home any minute. Her delusional manner and constant glances at the window make Nuttel uneasy.
Then the hunters appear in the distance, and Nuttel, horrified, grabs his walking stick and exits abruptly. When the Sappletons exclaim over his sudden, rude departure, the niece calmly explains that he was probably frightened by the hunters' dog. She claims that Nuttel told her he was once chased into a cemetery in India and held at bay by a pack of aggressive dogs.
Social Conventions Provide "Cover" for Mischief
The niece uses social decorum very much to her favor. First, she presents herself as inconsequential, telling Nuttel that her aunt will be down soon, but "in the meantime, you must put up with me." It's meant to sound like a self-effacing pleasantry, suggesting that she isn't particularly interesting or entertaining. And it provides perfect cover for her mischief.
Her next questions to Nuttel sound like boring small talk. She asks whether he knows anyone in the area and whether he knows anything about her aunt. But as the reader eventually understands, these questions are reconnaissance to see whether Nuttel will make a suitable target for a fabricated story.
The niece's prank is impressively underhanded and hurtful. She takes the ordinary events of the day and deftly transforms them into a ghost story. She includes all the details needed to create a sense of realism: the open window, the brown spaniel, the white coat, and even the mud of the supposed bog. Seen through the ghostly lens of tragedy, all of the ordinary details, including the aunt's comments and behavior, take on an eerie tone.
The reader understands that the niece won't get caught in her lies because she's clearly mastered a lying lifestyle. She immediately puts the Sappletons' confusion to rest with her explanation about Nuttel's fear of dogs. Her calm manner and detached tone ("enough to make anyone lose his nerve") add an air of plausibility to her outrageous tale.
The Duped Reader
One of the most engaging aspects of this story is that the reader is initially duped, too, just like Nuttel. The reader has no reason to disbelieve the niece's "cover story"-that she's just a demure, polite girl making conversation.
Like Nuttel, the reader is surprised and chilled when the hunting party shows up. But unlike Nuttel, the reader finally learns the truth of the situation and enjoys Mrs. Sappleton's amusingly ironic observation: "One would think he had seen a ghost."
Finally, the reader experiences the niece's calm, detached explanation. By the time she says, "He told me he had a horror of dogs," the reader understands that the real sensation here is not a ghost story, but rather a girl who effortlessly spins sinister stories.