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In Saki’s short story, “Dusk,” the main character Norman Gortsby finds himself sitting on a bench in a park in London. It is about 6:30 p.m. Norman watches people go by and makes sardonic judgments about them. He calls this time of day “the hour of the defeated.” On this evening, our protagonist feels himself among those defeated because of something that has happened to him [the reader does not find out what it was]. Next to Norman sits...
...an elderly gentleman with a drooping air of defiance that was probably the remaining vestige of self-respect in an individual who had ceased to defy successfully anybody or anything.
He soon leaves with Norman judging him as a man that no one respects.
Now begins the deception.
A young man soon takes the old man’s place on the bench. The young man is in a foul mood, so Norman asks him what is wrong. The young man claims that his usual hotel had been demolished. As a result, he had to stay in another hotel; and now he could not remember the name of it or where it was located. He had gone out to buy some soap because he did not like the soap that the hotel provided. So he was faced with the prospect of spending the night outside since he did not know anyone in London and he had no money with him.
Norman observes that his story had one weakness. He could not show him the soap that he had bought. After fumbling around in his overcoat pockets, the young man said that he must have lost it and hurries away. What a tale!
While he sits alone on the bench, Norman analyzes the young man's story. He thought that the purchase of soap was a detail that had made the story of the young man possible. Yet, he makes the observation:
If he had had the brilliant forethought to provide himself with a cake of soap, wrapped and sealed with all the solicitude of the chemist's counter, he would have been a genius in his particular line.
As Norman gets up to leave, he notices something at the end of the bench: a bar of soap. Feeling guilty, he rushes to find the young man and give him his soap. When he finds him, Norman apologizes for his skepticism, returns the cake of soap, and loans him some money thinking the young man will repay him.
As Norman walks back, he passes the bench where he had been sitting. The old man who had shared the bench with him earlier in the evening is there searching for something. When Norman questions him, the old man tells him that he had lost a bar of soap. This man who thought himself a good judge of character finds himself deceived. Norman learned a hard lesson: Nobody speaks the truth when there is something he must have.
The most important element of deception in the young man's story is that he doesn't want anybody to give him money but only to lend him some money until he can find his hotel, get back into his room where he left his money, and return the loan promptly. Since Gortsby gives, or lends, the con man a sovereign, we can assume that a pound (worth about five dollars at the time but worth more like fifty dollars in present-day buying power) was sufficient for the young man to rent a room in another hotel overnight and perhaps even have enough left over for a light supper. The young con artist represents himself as a sort of country gentleman newly arrived in London. He tells Gortsby that he doesn't know a soul in the city. This is intended to explain why he can't ask a friend or acquaintance to help him out in an emergency. It also is intended to hint to Gortsby that he might be able to make a valuable friend simply by lending this young gentleman a sovereign for one or two days. The young gentleman appears to belong to a higher social class than Gortsby. He might be grateful enough to invite Gortsby to dinner when he repaid the sovereign, and he might even invite Gortsby down to his family estate to shoot grouse and meet his folks. The suggestion in his hard-luck story is that he would be happy to become acquainted with a young Londoner who might show him around the big city.
The part about the cake of soap was a nice touch. It suggests that this young stranger really is an aristocrat. He is used to having the best of everything. He can't tolerate what he calls "hotel soap" but must have a cake of the best kind available. We do not know what "hotel soap" was like in London in Saki's time (1870-1916), but we do know what "motel soap" is today. It is a small bar wrapped in paper, not very luxurious, easy to drop and hard to find with your eyes full of soap suds. Most of us readers would prefer to have a big bar like we have at home, but we are not so fastidious that we would go out looking for a bar of soap in a strange city. The fact that this young stranger is apparently willing to do so implies that he has aristocratic tastes and also that he has plenty of money. That he is supposedly an aristocrat implies that he supposedly has a sense of honor.
His is a new kind of hard-luck story. Gortsby has been sitting on a park bench watching people he mentally judges as "defeated." They are all hard up for money. That's what makes them defeated. If they had money in the bank they wouldn't be defeated. Saki's description of these defeated men and women serves as a contrast for the young con man, who acts like an upper-class Oxford graduate temporarily embarrassed and in need of a small loan from some "decent chap." We don't know whether Gortsby really believes his story or whether he was thinking of lending him any money. Gortsby is young, but he has heard many hard-luck stories and has probably been fooled by some of them in the past.
This con artist is evidently new at the game. Otherwise he would have had the foresight to buy a cake of soap and carry it in his pocket. He will undoubtedly refine his grift and will be able to produce a cake of soap next time if necessary.
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