The protagonist of this story, Van Cheele, hears that a wild beast is loose in his woodland property. When he goes for a stroll, however, he finds not an animal but a naked teenage boy, fresh from a dip in a pond. Van Cheele asks the boy about his origin, and the lad provides a curious set of answers. He claims to live in the woods and states that he does not sleep at night (“that’s my busiest time”). The conversation grows still more bizarre when Van Cheele enquires as to the boy’s diet:
“What do you feed on?” he asked.
“Flesh,” said the boy, and he pronounced the word with slow relish, as though he were tasting it.
“Flesh! What Flesh?”
“Since it interests you, rabbits, wild-fowl, hares, poultry, lambs in their season, children when I can get any; they’re usually too well locked in at night, when I do most of my hunting. It’s quite two months since I tasted child-flesh.”
Ignoring the chaffing nature of the last remark Van Cheele tried to draw the boy on the subject of possible poaching operations.
“You’re talking rather through your hat when you speak of feeding on hares.” (Considering the nature of the boy’s toilet the simile was hardly an apt one.) “Our hillside hares aren’t easily caught.”
“At night I hunt on four feet,” was the somewhat cryptic response.
The discussion ends when the boy abruptly dives into the water and swims away, with Van Cheele left to contemplate all that he has heard. The woods have indeed been losing their game, so the boy might well be a hunter. But he remains disturbed by the lad’s claim of infanticide – “Such dreadful things should not be said even in fun” – particularly when he recalls that a baby recently went missing in the area.
The next morning, Van Cheele is startled to find the strange boy in his home. His aunt, meanwhile, is rather taken with the visitor: “A naked, homeless child appealed to Miss Van Cheele as warmly as a stray kitten or derelict puppy would have done.” She calls him Gabriel-Ernest. One resident of the Van Cheele estate that does not like the newcomer, however, is the household dog – which runs away at the sight of the boy.
Van Cheele later speaks to his friend, an artist named Cunningham, who turns out to have also witnessed the naked boy’s activities. More than that, he saw the boy vanish at sunset – only to be replaced with a wolf:
“What! vanished away into nothing?” asked Van Cheele excitedly.
“No; that is the dreadful part of it,” answered the artist; “on the open hillside where the boy had been standing a second ago, stood a large wolf, blackish in colour, with gleaming fangs and cruel, yellow eyes. You may think–”
But Van Cheele did not stop for anything as futile as thought. Already he was tearing at top speed towards the station. He dismissed the idea of a telegram. “Gabriel-Ernest is a werewolf” was a hopelessly inadequate effort at conveying the situation, and his aunt would think it was a code message to which he had omitted to give her the key.
As the result of a distinguished man of letters deciding to tackle a subject that is today more typically associated with pulps, penny dreadfuls and b-movies, “Gabriel-Ernest” has long been a favourite of anthologists. Saki’s story is a comedy of manners, deriving humour from the arrival of this less-than-noble savage in the polite setting of the Van Cheele property; this is summed up in the scene where the man of the house tries desperately to preserve the boy’s modesty with a newspaper. But such decorum can only hide the boy’s bestial nature for so long. Early on, Van Cheele tries to ignore the boy’s claim to have killed and eaten a baby; but the full horror of the situation finally sinks in – alas, only after is aunt has hit upon the delightful idea of introducing Gabriel-Ernest to the younger members of her Sunday school class.
The story can be read as a satire of Victorian and Edwardian notions of childhood as a time of unspoilt innocence. For cultural context, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan had debuted five years before “Gabriel-Ernest” was published, and a strain of mythological imagery connects the two stories: while Peter is Pan, Gabriel-Ernest is specifically compared to “some wild faun of Pagan myth” by the character Cunningham. Frolicking as naked as Adam and Eve, the wolf-boy is truly a being of nature – but as pretty as it may be to look at, nature is red in tooth and claw.