“The Little Donkeys with The Crimson Saddles,” by Hugh Walpole

November 20, 2019 at 3:52 pm (Book review, books, Short stories)

THE little donkeys went past the shop-window at eight in the morning and seven-thirty in the evening, punctually, rain or shine.

Miss Pope christened them Percy and Emily. The old man whose donkeys they were she had long ago named Voltaire because he looked wicked, unChristian and clever – and because she liked literary allusions. One thing she often discussed with Miss Menzies, and that was why, being wicked and clever, he had not advanced further in the world. Miss Menzies suggested drink, and Miss Pope thought it probable.

Thus in its  unassuming way, this story, the first in Hugh Walpole’s collection The Silver Thorn, begins.

As I began reading, my first question was, where are we? The presence of the donkeys made me think of Spain, but no, this is Silverton-on-Sea, a fictional seaside town in England. The owner of the animals, the so-called Voltaire, makes them available to children and their families for rides. Thus he ekes out a living.

Miss Pope and Miss Menzies keep a small shop in the town. The shop offers a variety of items for sale –

The fancy work was very new, the antiquities very old. The shop, when it was lucky, made a profit, and then they went away for a holiday. They had been to the Lake District, Paris, Vevey, the Isle of Man, and Lake Como. On the other years the shop had not made a profit.

At age forty-three, Jane Pope is thirteen years older than Alice Menzies. She is at peace with her lot in life. But Alice Menzies, seeing what she perceives as the approach of spinsterhood, does not share in this equanimity. She longs for the chance to be a wife and mother, before it is too late..

In the meantime, she and her companion continue to observe the punctual coming and going of the little donkeys. It is how their days are marked.

And then a man arrives, and with his arrival comes a moment of reckoning for Alice Menzies.

Alice, as she sat down beside him, wished (Oh, how she wished!) that he had not chosen just this spot in which to make his proposal. Had she thought of it (but when does one think of these things?) there could not possibly be anywhere worse – here where she could see all the familiar things – the little town white and shining in the sun, huddled together so happily as though cosily inviting her congratulation (she so old a friend) at its contentment, the great sweep of purple, green-striped sea, the silver beach, the cornfields and the singing larks. Yes – and then, surely she could see them quite clearly, Percy and Emily trotting bravely, little midgets of patience and determination, to their inevitable destiny.

“The Little Donkeys with the Crimson Saddles” is a short story dating from around 1928. Yet this gem of a tale has a timeless quality; it is strongly atmospheric, beautifully crafted, and immensely moving. I would rate it with the stories of Alice Munro. That is the highest praise I can give to a work of short fiction.

The Silver Thorn can be downloaded free of charge from the site The Faded Page. (A PDF download is of reliable quality.)

In the anthology Capital Crimes: London Stories, Martin Edwards says this about Hugh Walpole: “Today, his work is strangely underappreciated.” I’ve read several other stories by Walpole, and I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.

Sir Hugh Walpole, 1884-1941

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: