A story that illustrates Saki’s (H. H. Munro’s) lesser-known talent for pathos, “The Interlopers,” collected in the posthumous anthology The Toys of Peace (1919), is a sort of Balkan gothic romance that moves from thrilling to hopeful to tragic, thanks to Saki’s usual twist ending.
On a stormy winter evening, Ulrich von Gradwitz searches his Carpathian forest for his longtime foe, Georg Znaeym. The disputed land has been the cause of a bitter, raging blood feud between the families “for three generations.” Ulrich has long dreamed of shooting “down his neighbour in cold blood” and his archnemesis desires the same end for him. The two men suddenly come face to face beneath an enormous beech tree. As they hesitate to shoot, the storm brings down the tree, pinning them next to each other. Injured and bloody, the enemies laugh at each other’s fate. Ulrich tells Georg that his men will soon be there to deal with him as a poacher, while Georg counters that his men are not far behind him; they will reach him first and then roll the tree onto Ulrich. Georg notes that, with their lives in the balance, there are “no cursed interlopers to come between us”; by the end of the night, one of them will die at the hands of the other and his men. Yet slowly, wracked with pain as they consider their imprisonment, the neighbors begin to realize the folly of their lifelong animosity. They agree to be friends, imagine the surprise of the village at the sight of them riding into the “market-square together,” and then call out for their men in a spirit of cooperation and renewed hope. Ulrich sees figures approaching, and Georg asks whose men they are. But they are not men; they are wolves.
Munro was a reporter in the Balkans from 1902 to 1904 for The Morning Post, and many of the stories he wrote as Saki use the area as an untamed frontier backdrop for slightly exotic suspense tales of passionate violence or family secrets, from the terrorist attack in “The Easter Egg” to a mystical death in “The Wolves of Cernogratz.” In contrast to many of Saki’s Balkan stories, however, which tend to show the area as a pseudo-Oriental other on the wild fringes of Europe, “The Interlopers” shows its two protagonists as ultimately just as fate-controlled and pretense-bound as any of Saki’s English characters.
In comparing men to beasts—indeed, suggesting that men are lesser creatures, for they refuse to rise above petty blood feuds yet cannot shake off the hypocritical, self-contradictory codes “of a restraining civilization”— and eliciting the reader’s sympathy for the men’s newfound amity, only to show that their friendship comes too late, Saki champions indifferent nature and implacable fate over the false civility and trivial covetousness of man. Ironies abound in this barbed fable: Hunters become the hunted, property disputers are trapped on the land, and public enemies in life become private friends in death.
Saki. The Complete Saki. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1982.