I recently purchased a copy of Ashley Sterne's 1926 story collection Knotted Yarns from a Scottish bookseller. I had been seeking this book ever since I read the following 1926 review in the London periodical The Age:
["Knotted Yarns," by Ashley Sterne (Nisbet and Co. Ltd, London) are a series of sketches of the broadly burlesque kind, which have been contributed to the "Passing Show," "London Opinion" and the "Bystander." They represent the limits to which an English humorist will go, and are, as a flapper would say, "screamingly funny." The very title of the first one – The Sheik, the Shriek and the Shrike – is enough to bring a smile to the reader's face. The sketch is funny enough to convulse one. The second one – The Charity Which Stayed at Home – concerning the heartburnings of a vicar who wins 10,000 pounds in a lottery reads like Anthony Trollope run mad. The others are in similar strain.]
The first story in the collection is provided below. In The Sheik, The Shriek, and the Shrike, Mr. Sterne has fun at the expense of Ethel M. Dell (referred to as Uthel M. Hell), a writer of popular romances—early twentieth-century bodice-rippers with repressed young women in exotic locales being stoked to red-hot passion by dashing men of adventure.
Prepare to be convulsed.
THE SHEIK, THE SHRIEK, AND THE SHRIKE
By Ashley Sterne
"Can you give me no word of hope?"
Hilary Hiccup stood gazing anxiously at the fair, frail girl before him. She was twiddling her fingers nervously as if knitting an imaginary jumper. The colour kept coming and going from her face as though it had lost its way.
"I know I am not nearly good enough for you," pursued the young man. "I know I am only a soft-soap broker's ledger-keeper. But my heart is in its proper place—on the left, just underneath my fountain pen—and I would try to make you happy. My income, as you know, is not very large; but I can get soft-soap on wholesale terms, and I am very lucky at sweepstakes."
Hysteria Hinks uttered a deep sigh—one about five-foot-four deep, for it came from the depths of her sole.
"It isn't a question of money or means, Hilary," she said. "I could be content with very, very little. Like Mr. W.B.Yeats, I wish for nothing better than a cabin of clay and wattles, nine rows of beans, and a honey bee. But I should require to share them—with the right man."
"You mean—after all those chocolates—after all those tram-rides—after all those visits to the pictures in the ninepenny seats—you mean I am not the right man?"
The words came stumbling, halting, faltering, gasping from his lips. They might have been drinking. Hilary Hiccup stood amazed, as Hysteria continued:
"I am afraid not, Hilary. You see, you are not the strong, silent man of my girlish dreams. You are rather, if I may say so, a weak, noisy man. A girl of my romantic temperament and anaemic physique craves a fuller life than you can offer me."
So that was the trouble—this yearning for the Fuller Life he had heard so much about! Nearly every man he knew who had recently proposed had been defeated on the Fuller Life clause. The Fuller Life was clearly infectious. He only wished he could understand what Hysteria meant by the Fuller Life. Did it mean that she wanted Fuller's chocolates and no others? Did she wish him to throw up soft-soap and enter the fuller's earth business? Or did she merely require a tonic which would make her feel fuller beans? The phrase baffled him. It conveyed no more to him than if Hysteria told him she craved the ablative absolute or the Pragmatic Sanction. Nevertheless, he sensed that this mystic shibboleth embraced his dismissal, and his face fell with a crash. Little wonder that he found his voice cracked when he attempted to raise it.
"Is—that—final?" he managed to ask, with an effort; "or shall I call again?"
"It would be quite useless, Hilary," Hysteria replied. "To-morrow—didn't I tell you?—to-morrow I am leaving England."
"Leaving England?" Hilary repeated, an octave lower; "what for?"
"For Algeria. There, amid the desert sands and the ostriches, the camels and the date-palms, I hope to find that fuller, freer life for which I long."
"But why Algeria? Why not Chipping Sodbury or Leighton Buzzard?"
"There is no fuller, freer life in England," said Hysteria gently.
"Have you tried Selfidge's or the Stores?"
Hysteria shook her head. "I have been blackballed at both," she said sadly.
"Have you tried a small ad. in the Daily Express?"
The girl smiled enigmatically, and made a noise like the Sphinx being inscrutable. "You don't understand," she murmured.
"But Algeria! I hate to think of your going there—alone. The desert is so frightfully—er—deserted. Supposing you tripped over an oasis and sprained your ankle? Supposing you walked into a mirage and bumped your forehead? Supposing you fell into the hands of one of those brutal Sheiks? Sup—"
He paused. At the mention of the word "Sheik" she had colored violently. Hilary gazed at her long and loud. His eyes pierced her like gimlets. Through one of the holes he saw plainly what was passing through her mind.
"So!" he said, at length. "I see what it is. You have been reading Uthel M. Hell!"
Hysteria hung her head—hung it so low that Hilary was seized with an insane desire to kick it. But he mastered himself with an effort.
"You're after a Sheik!" he went on accusingly. "Can you deny it?"
Hysteria, her secret out, could bear up no longer. She went all to pieces. Lumps of her crashed to the floor. Odd bits of her littered the whole room. She opened her mouth to speak, but the draught from the open window blew it to.
"All is clear to me now," Hilary continued. "Hitherto I have only seen as in a pewter darkly. But now my vision is as keen as a Hyde Park policeman's. This fuller, freer life you rant about is nothing but an excuse to trickle off into the desert and get kidnapped. You've got the Sheik fever—that's what's the matter with you. No wonder there's no room in your heart for the pure, unselfish love of a soap-softener's ledger-clerk! Very well, then; go to Algebra—I mean, Algeria. Go to Neuralgeria, if you prefer it. Go to Arabia, Bessarabia, Jemimarabia, Cochin China, Cochineal, Ballarat, Ararat, Arrowroot, Clapham Junction—anywhere! I don't care! All I hope is you may get your fuller life—three bags fuller!"
He paused for his words to sink in. A sinister silence pervaded the apartment, relieved only by the faint ticking of a mattress in a bedroom overhead and the voice of an itinerant hawker crying onions in the street without.
"Have you thought what this foolish, headstrong action of yours will mean?" he resumed. "If you persist in your determination your relatives, your friends, your acquaintances would wash their hands of you. The more punctilious of them would probably wash their necks of you, too. Your insurance company would cut you off without a shilling. Telephone operators would cut you off without an apology. You would be a social pariah—a leper—an outcast—a forecast—anathema maranatha. You would be excommunicated from the Plymouth Rocks, or whatever your religious sect may be, with bell, book, and candle, lock, stock and barrel. And what of your life as a Sheikess—have you thought of that? Do you grasp what it will mean? Your master will soon tire of you, and he will cast you aside like an old shoe. You will get the boot, and be relegated to the Zareba with his other disused wives. There you be handed a crochet-hook and a cocoon, and forced to make yashmaks for the remainder of your life. Your diet will be entirely new to you. You will be fed on nothing but tame locusts and wild honey, sherbet and gum arabic—sustenance to which your innards are totally unaccustomed. Your clothing will be exiguous to a degree that would make a Beauty Chorus blush—camel's hair cammy-knicks and a couple of saucepan lids. You will be forced to adopt the Mohammersmith religion and to pray seventeen times a day in a foreign language with which you are totally unacquainted, while you kneel on a cork bathmat with your head towards Honolulu and your heels towards Stoke Newington. Lastly, if your lord and master predeceases you, you will be forced to commit chutnee—a barbarous custom which consists of shaving your head, smearing your naked body with vaseline and cigar-ash, and finally burying yourself alive, head downwards, in a zinc dustbin. I can only add—"
But Hysteria had collected her scattered faculties, pulled herself together, and now stood confronting him.
"Stop!" she cried, and there was something about her appearance that silenced him. It would have silenced a boiler factory. "You can tell me nothing of which I am not already aware. But you have guessed rightly. I have no use for your flabby, flaccid, invertebrate lovers. I would as lief marry a jellyfish or a Devonshire junket. Give me someone with crude, primeval passions which make lumps like door-knobs stick out on his forehead, which cause his jugular veins to bulge like fire-hoses! Give me someone who'll gnaw my ears and chew my neck. Someone who'll clump me, thump me, bump me, and jump on me! Someone who'll force me to love and reverence him with harsh blows from the sjambok, the springbok, the zambuk, and even the timbuk, too. Give me him I say! Give me him!"
Hysteria's passionate outburst left Hilary impotent. He knew he hadn't such a person about him, and it was purely to convince Hysteria that he turned out all his pockets. He turned to her with a shrug.
"So that is the kind of man you want, is it?"
Hysteria nodded, like Homer. "Only more so," she added, like a chartered accountant.
"Then the worst I can wish you," said Hilary, picking up hat, stick, gloves, overcoat, scarf, hat, newspaper, gloves, attache case, stick, overcoat and scarf, "the worst I can wish you is that you may get him. The best—that you'll miss the boat."
Sheik Hashish Ben Nevis reclined on the luxurious divan in his sumptuously appointed marquee, puffing contentedly at the mouthpiece of his B-flat hookah, in the bottle of which the smoke bubbled musically the fragrantly scented bilge-water.
Upon a small triangular octagonal table by his side reposed a bucket of rich, thick, sweet coffee made in Arab fashion (one quart of fish-glue and one sack of soot beaten into a paste with a Japanese umbrella). Upon another by his other side rested an earthenware bowl of antique native workmanship, marked with the customary antique native inscription, "Birmingham and Midland Hardware Co., Ltd.," wherein were heaped coconuts, pomegranates, dates, figs, vegetable marrow, artichokes, and other fruits of the desert.
He was simply but picturesquely clad in a burnouse, a callouse, a fez, a boz, and a pair of loose-fitting dahabiyehs cut on the Oxford, 1925, model; the only sign of opulence about his dress being an untanned ostrich-egg mounted on stilts, which he wore as a tie-pin.
The heavy, hot desert air, combined with a heavy, hot lunch, had made him sleepy, but there was to be no siesta for the Sheik that afternoon. A knock on the tent-flap, and his young lieutenant, Rhubarb Ben Lomond, entered.
"Allah alum bismillah alleluia ille illa illud, your Sheikship."
"Never!" exclaimed the Sheik, sitting up. "Is that a fact? Tell me again."
"I said, my lord, there was a woman without."
"Without what?" demanded the Sheik.
"Without any sense of decency, sire."
"Show her in," said the Sheik. "Is my fez on straight?"
"One moment, sire. When I said she had no sense of decency I did not mean what you mean. I meant she had no sense of social decorum. I informed her you were siesta-ing, but nevertheless she insisted that I acquainted you of her presence. When I refused, she got quite shirty. She's another of those confounded Englishwomen, seeking abduction."
"By the big toe of the Prophet! What, another one! How many does that make to-day?"
"Tell her the abduction quota for the month is full."
"I have ventured already to tell her so, sire, but she refused to believe me."
"Then," exclaimed the Sheik angrily, "may wild dromedaries lay their eggs on the tomb of my great godfather, Ragbag Ben Hassock, if I don't teach her a lesson! What did you say her name was?"
"Hysteria Hinks—both h's aspirated, as in apple-dumpling."
"Where is she now, and what is she doing?"
"She is beside the Shalimar washing her pink-tipped hands in a pail."
"Sergeant Rabbi Ben Ezra and a squad of armed guards are watching her."
"What arms have they?"
"Two each, sire. One on each shoulder."
"Good! Put her in irons, then seize her by the left ear and drag her to me."
The young lieutenant dropped on his knees, and having beaten his head 147 times against the tent-pole in token of obedience, withdrew, to return, after a short while, with Hysteria. She had been heavily ironed. Manacles were about her feet, barnacles were about her wrists, carbuncles about her neck; but withal she was smiling happily. For some moments the Sheik eyed her in silence. Hysteria returned his gaze with interest—interest that would have turned a moneylender sick with envy. She was vamping him for all she was worth.
"Well, what's brought you here?"
"A camel, your Royal Sheikness."
"Tut! With what intent have you come to this oasis where my caramel—I should say caravan—has rested?"
"O mighty Hashish Ben Nevis!" began Hysteria, "O Moon of my delight! My Song of Araby! My Tale of Fair Cashmere!"
"How dare you address me in this manner!" snapped the Sheik. "Tale of Fair Cashmere, indeed! D'you take me for a nightshirt? Cut out all the solo and come to the chorus. What is it that you want?"
"I want to be abducted," replied Hysteria.
"House full," remarked the Sheik tersely. "Ask me another."
"Then let me be my lord's handmaiden—to minister to his needs, to sew on his buttons, to darn his socks, to patch his pants—even to grovel in the dust and lick his shadow!"
"I'm already overstaffed with handmaidens," retorted the Sheik. "And footmaidens, too," he added.
"Then suffer me just to be my lord's slave—to follow him whithersoever he goes, keep the flies off him, and brush the sand out of his ears."
"I flung fourteen of my superfluous slaves to the camels this morning. I'm flinging nine more to the ostriches after tea this afternoon, and to-morrow I fling the rest to the buzzards. Do you know what that means? Do you know what buzzards are?"
"I've always understood that they were an Oxford Street firm of wedding-cake manufacturers," replied Hysteria, her heart beating wildly at the thought.
"It is only another name for vultures," said the Sheik pointedly, "and vultures only feed on dead bodies. So when I talk of flinging people to the buzzards it is merely an euphemism to saying that they will be submitted to a twelve hour's non-stop spell of torture and their mutilated carcases flung to the vultures. Would you wish to figure among the also-flungs?" laughed the Sheik derisively.
Hysteria, totally unprepared for such summary rejection of her overtures, grew desperate.
"Don't you even want a nursery governess?" she pleaded. "I can teach the piano, fancy needlework, the Shorter Catechism, freehand drawing, underhand bowling, painting—hand, house, or face, and elementary conics."
"Stop it!" barked the Sheik. "To be quite frank, I'm fed up to the roots of my beard with you English girls. You're the nineteenth to-day that has blown in imploring me to abduct her, and I'm darned well sick of the whole jolly lot of you—and you, especially. The others did have the common decency to bimble off without stopping to argue with me."
Panic-stricken at last, and fearful of the worst, Hysteria flung herself at the Sheik's feet, and shrieked for mercy. Only release her and she would never trouble him again. What's more, she would spare no pains to prevent his being again molested by Englishwomen. She would even go so far as to promise him the head of Uthel M. Hell—the author of all the trouble—on a soup-plate.
The Sheik merely turned her over with his foot and clapped his hands. Rhubarb Ben Lomond entered and knocked his head against the mantelpiece 296 times in token of fidelity.
"Remove this woman," ordered the Sheik. "Take her into the kitchen and give her a small sherbet and a lump of date pudding, then tie her up to a cactus overnight. I will deal with her after breakfast to-morrow."
An hour or so later Rhubarb Ben Lomond again came to the Sheik's tent.
"My lord," he gasped, in a tremor of excitement, "a sandstorm is brewing!"
"What's it brewing?" the Sheik inquired, removing the head-phones and jumping off the divan.
"My Allah! Then there is not a moment to be lost. Tell Rabbi Ben Ezra to saddle the camels, and tell Gwyllwm Ben Davies to bring me my boots. Then strike camp at once."
The lieutenant withdrew, and a minute afterwards the noise of knocking satisfied the Sheik that the camp was being struck lustily in all directions. In an incredibly short space of time the caravan was formed and moving rapidly in the direction of the nearest shelter—a cave in the middle of the desert some half a league or more on the caravan track to Bungal-al-Makim.
None too soon! Barely had they travelled a mile ere over the oasis the sandstorm burst with a loud report, and the Sheik and his lieutenant ascended a dune to watch it. In a few minutes nothing was to be seen of their former camping-ground save the tops of a few of the taller palm-trees. Everything else was submerged beneath the sabulous cataclysm, and for some moments the two men wept like anything to see such quantities of sand. Then the Sheik looked up and glanced once more at the oasis. The storm was over, and on the sand which covered the oasis there had settled a large bird, with a bill as long as a solicitor's, delving a hole in frantic haste.
"What sort of bird is that?" idly asked the Sheik. "It looks to me like a buzzard."
"I rather think it's a shrike," said R.B. Lomond.
"Possibly," said the Sheik. "But buzzard or shrike, what brings it there, I wonder? We left no carrion about?"
The other shook his head.
"Strange!" muttered the Sheik. "Very strange! Those birds never come to earth except for carrion. But let us hasten, or we may get mixed up in an anti-sandstorm."
"By the Prophet's Whiskers! I have it!" cried the lieutenant. "I know what the bird's after! In the hurry of departure I forgot to untie that infernal woman!"
"That," observed the Sheik, smiling, as he patted Rhubarb Ben Lomond on the back, "is the first piece of good Kismet we've struck for months!"