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The story is told from the viewpoint of a young Londoner named Norman Gortsby. He is certainly not a gentleman of leisure but probably a man with a good position in a bank, brokerage, or trading house. The extended description of his observations of the forlorn people coming out at dusk shows he is in the habit of lounging on park benches and observing humanity. This habit has made him cynical. He has undoubtedly been approached many times with hard-luck stories because he looks like a good mark. He is well-dressed and has unguarded body language. The park bench is like an open invitation for strangers to sit beside him--as park benches still are today. He enjoys talking to strangers--but he has become hardened by city life and is not likely to part with any of his hard-earned money. It is essential to suggest that the loss of a sovereign is important to him. Many clerks had to work an entire week to earn a sovereign, which was the same as one pound sterling before decimalization.
An elderly gentleman is sitting beside Gortsby when the story opens. This is noted only because the old man will have an important role to play later. When this man leaves, a young man plops down beside Gortsby and starts telling him a complicated story about not being able to find his hotel after going out to buy a cake of soap and leaving almost all his money behind in his room. The most important line in the story is the following:
"Of course," Gortsby said slowly, "the weak point of your story is that you can't produce the soap."
Gortsby has not asked the young man to produce the soap he claims to have bought. The way Gortsby phrases his statement shows that he never believed the story and never had any intention of giving this stranger money. Gortsby shows he is not the easy mark that panhandlers and grifters have taken him for in the past. He knows, without even asking, that this young man does not have a cake of soap in any of his pockets. The author states specifically that the con man is wearing an overcoat. He could easily be carrying the soap in his overcoat or suit or even in a pocket of his trousers--if he had any soap to carry. It is almost as if Gortsby has X-ray vision, but what he has is sophistication acquired from experience with grifters in a big city.
When the young man leaves in a huff, Gortsby happens to find a wrapped cake of soap right by the bench. This makes him experience a change of heart.
"It's a lesson to me not to be too clever in judging by circumstances."
He rushes to give the astonished young grifter a sovereign plus the soap. But then he sees the elderly gentleman searching all around the bench and is told he is looking for a lost cake of soap. Gortsby realizes he has been a sucker. Furthermore, the old man might have left the soap there intentionally. Why else would he seem so certain the soap had to be by the bench and nowhere else? He probably intended to come back and use it as a gambit to start a conversation and then tell Gortsby the same story about losing his hotel.
Gortsby goes from being hard-hearted to being soft-hearted and then back to being harder-hearted. He was right in the first place in distrusting people and evolving a cold and selfish urban armor.
Gortsby's learning experience dramatizes Saki's Social Darwinist message: It is a mistake to help the unfortunate because that only rewards laziness, vice, crime, and welfare dependence, thereby increasing the legions of Socialists and Communists.
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