Sredni Vashtar by Saki, 1912

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by Saki, 1912

As a professional journalist and star foreign correspondent, Saki (pseudonym of H. H. Munro) had all the resource of the ready writer who, strictly on time, never fails to supply the precise number of words to fill the precise amount of space, no more and no less. These limitations helped him to achieve the balance and economy so characteristic of his best stories, among which "Sredni Vashtar" (in The Chronicles of Clovis; 1912) is certainly one. Although he wrote two full-length novels, Saki was most at home with the medium of the short story. His stories, often no more than anecdotes, are exquisitely constructed and beautifully proportioned. In the course of his short life he produced more than 120 of such works, all written at speed to meet a deadline. Not a word is superfluous, not a phrase too long. The prose glitters with Wildean epigrams ("To have reached the age of thirty is to have failed in life") and with others that are pure Saki, the most famous being "She was a good cook as cooks go, and as cooks go she went." He is on the side of children against adults, of life enhancers against bores, of frankness against pomposity. Beneath the sparkling surface is a moralist who satirizes greed, cupidity, hypocrisy, and snobbery. He can be very cruel, sometimes playfully, as when he writes, "Waldo is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death." Most of us have a Waldo in our life and have, on various occasions, felt that way about him. At other times the cruelty can be implacable and chilling. "Sredni Vashtar" is typical of Saki, both in his fellow feeling for children and in his detestation of interfering adults.

When Saki was a boy, his much-loved pet had been a Houdan cockerel. It fell ill, and although a veterinary surgeon could have saved it, the aunt under whose domination the boy lived ruled that it should be put down. His misery was intense. Thirty years later he used the incident, still agonizing over it in his memory, as the basis for "Sredni Vashtar." The protagonist, 10-year-old Conradin, belongs reluctantly to the household of an elder female cousin who is his legal guardian. She delights in thwarting his every pleasure and loves to forbid him from doing the things he enjoys. It is all, she explains prissily, "for his good." (One is reminded of another Saki story, "The Jesting of Arlington Stringham," in which a woman is annoyed by a page boy who delivers an unwelcome message: "Eleanor hated boys, and would have liked to have whipped this one long and often. It was perhaps the yearning of a woman who had no children of her own.") Conradin hates "The Woman," as he calls her, and takes refuge in his imagination. He often wanders about the dull and cheerless garden in flight from the woman's peremptory demands and joyless embargoes. One of the few delights Conradin has left him is a dilapidated shed in an overgrown corner of the garden. Here lives a ragged Houdan hen on which he lavishes his affection, as did the young Saki. Here, also, is a hutch containing a large polecat ferret that a friendly butcher's boy has smuggled in for a handful of silver. Conradin baptizes the animal Sredni Vashtar and invents pagan rituals in his honor. Sredni Vashtar grows into a god and a religion much more potent to Conradin than the Sunday outings on which the woman drags him to the local church. The shed is a haven, a place where for the time being he can forget his tyrannical guardian and can summon up phantoms and beings remembered from history and from his own musings. The ferret is a lithe beast with sharp fangs that Conradin secretly fears but dearly treasures. Every Thursday he performs a mystic ceremonial at the shrine of the great Sredni Vashtar. In summer he lays flowers at the shrine and in winter scarlet berries. The woman suspects something is going on in the shed. "It is not good for him to be pottering down there in all weathers," she decides. The Houdan hen is promptly taken away and sold overnight. She peers expectantly at Conradin, white faced but silent. Determined not to give her satisfaction, he stares back impassively. The secret worship of Sredni continues. There is a special thanksgiving one day when the woman suffers from an agonizing toothache and the boy convinces himself that Sredni Vashtar is responsible.

The woman remains suspicious about the boy's persistent visits to the shed. She ransacks his bedroom and finds the secret hiding place where he keeps the key. "What are you keeping in that locked hutch?" she demands. "I believe it's guinea-pigs. I'll have them all cleared away." That night Conradin prays earnestly: "Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar." Sredni Vashtar, being a god, must surely know what it is that the suppliant asks of him. He watches the woman stalk down to the shed. He imagines her going in, peering shortsightedly at the animal, perhaps poking clumsily at the thick straw. In his mind he sees her coming out with the pursed smile on her lips that he knows and loathes so heartily, his ferret being carried away by the gardener. And he foresees a future dominated more and more by her insufferable dictatorship. In the misery of defeat he chants a defiant hymn:

Sredni Vashtar went forth, His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white. His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death. Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.

Soon he is rewarded. Out through the doorway ambles "a long, low, yellow-and-brown beast, with eyes a-blink at the waning daylight, and dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat. Conradin dropped on his knees. The great polecat-ferret made its way down to a small brook at the foot of the garden, drank for a moment, then crossed a little plank bridge and was lost to sight in the bushes. Such was the passing of Sredni Vashtar."

The maid starts to look for the woman. "She went down to the shed some time ago," says Conradin. He hears the search being made for her, the scream when she is discovered, the sobbing, the sound of something heavy being borne into the house. "Whoever will break it to the poor child? I couldn't for the life of me!" exclaims a voice. Conradin spreads a lavish allowance of butter on his toast and eats it with enjoyment. Toast with his tea was among those things the woman had usually denied him because she knew he liked it.

—James Harding