Norman Gortsby, a sophisticated, cynical and skeptical young Londoner, is sitting on a park bench observing people, including an elderly gentleman seated beside him. Most of the men and women who have come out in the evening look needy and defeated, but Gortsby feels no particular sympathy. He is by no means a wealthy gentleman of leisure, but he has a better-than-average job, probably in some bank or brokerage firm. He must be unmarried; otherwise he would be going home to dinner. He is relaxing on the bench after a day’s work and will soon go home to a modest nearby flat or “bed-sitter.”
When the elderly man departs, a young man plops down on the bench, explains that he is new to London, and begins telling Gortsby a complicated hard-luck story about being unable to find his hotel after going out to buy a cake of soap and needing to borrow enough money from “some decent chap” to rent a room just for the night.
“Of course,” said Gortsby slowly, “the weak point of your story is that you can’t produce the soap.”
The young man departs in a huff, having realized that Gortsby never had any intention of giving him money and was only amusing himself by listening to his cock-and-bull story. But then:
Lying on the ground by the side of the bench was a small oval packet, wrapped and sealed with the solicitude of a chemist’s counter. It could be nothing else but a cake of soap.
Gortsby is overwhelmed with shame and guilt. He manages to catch the young stranger and gives him a sovereign plus the cake of soap. He feels pleased with himself and vows to be more charitable, more trusting and compassionate in the future.
But when he is passing the bench where they had been sitting
. . . he saw an elderly gentleman poking and peering beneath it and on all sides of it, and recognized his earlier fellow occupant.
“Have you lost anything, sir?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, a cake of soap.”
Gortsby realizes he has been swindled and, ironically, that his original cynicism and skepticism were the correct attitude to have had in the first place. So Gortsby changes from being cynical to being trusting and back to being cynical again. This is a cold, cruel world in which it is every man for himself. Bellum omnium contra omnes (The war of all against all). Compassion and charity are mistaken attitudes. Not only was the young stranger a con artist, but the elderly gentleman is probably another con artist, one with more experience in the game who has actually procured a cake of soap and dropped it near the bench with the intention of coming back and using it as a ploy to start a conversation with Gortsby, leading up to a hard-luck story about a lost hotel.
It is noteworthy that the young con man does not look for the cake of soap by the bench, further proof that he never had it to lose; while on the other hand, the elderly gentleman is searching nowhere but around the bench, proof that he left it there intentionally. So both must be con artists of different generations.
Saki has been described by biographers as a Tory and a reactionary, as well as a misogynist and an anti-Semite. He obviously believed it was a mistake to give handouts to the unfortunate because it only made them more dependent and increased their numbers. No doubt Munro was a Social Darwinist who believed that the struggle for existence improves the human species through survival of the fittest. He uses the learning experience of his young viewpoint character to dramatize his message.