SREDNI VASHTAR

Conradin was ten years old, and the doctor had pronounced

his professional opinion that the boy would not live another

five years. The doctor was silky and effete, and counted

for little, but his opinion was endorsed by Mrs. De Ropp,

who counted for nearly everything. Mrs. De Ropp was

Conradin’s cousin and guardian, and in his eyes she

represented those three-fifths of the world that are

necessary and disagreeable and real; the other two-fifths,

in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in

himself and his imagination. One of these days Conradin

supposed he would succumb to the mastering pressure of

wearisome necessary things—such as illnesses and coddling

restrictions and drawn-out dulness. Without his

imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness,

he would have succumbed long ago.

Mrs. De Ropp would never, in her honestest moments, have

confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she

might have been dimly aware that thwarting him “for his

good” was a duty which she did not find particularly

irksome. Conradin hated her with a desperate sincerity

which he was perfectly able to mask. Such few pleasures as

he could contrive for himself gained an added relish from

the likelihood that they would be displeasing to his

guardian, and from the realm of his imagination she was

locked out—an unclean thing, which should find no

entrance.

In the dull, cheerless garden, overlooked by so many

windows that were ready to open with a message not to do

this or that, or a reminder that medicines were due, he

found little attraction. The few fruit-trees that it

contained were set jealously apart from his plucking, as

though they were rare specimens of their kind blooming in an

arid waste; it would probably have been difficult to find a

market-gardener who would have offered ten shillings for

their entire yearly produce. In a forgotten corner,

however, almost hidden behind a dismal shrubbery, was a

disused tool-shed of respectable proportions, and within its

walls Conradin found a haven, something that took on the

varying aspects of a playroom and a cathedral. He had

peopled it with a legion of familiar phantoms, evoked partly

from fragments of history and partly from his own brain, but

it also boasted two inmates of flesh and blood. In one

corner lived a ragged-plumaged Houdan hen, on which the boy

lavished an affection that had scarcely another outlet.

Further back in the gloom stood a large hutch, divided into

two compartments, one of which was fronted with close iron

bars. This was the abode of a large polecat-ferret, which a

friendly butcher-boy had once smuggled, cage and all, into

its present quarters, in exchange for a long-secreted hoard

of small silver. Conradin was dreadfully afraid of the

lithe, sharp-fanged beast, but it was his most treasured

possession. Its very presence in the tool-shed was a secret

and fearful joy, to be kept scrupulously from the knowledge

of the Woman, as he privately dubbed his cousin. And one

day, out of Heaven knows what material, he spun the beast a

wonderful name, and from that moment it grew into a god and

a religion. The Woman indulged in religion once a week at a

church near by, and took Conradin with her, but to him the

church service was an alien rite in the House of Rimmon.

Every Thursday, in the dim and musty silence of the

tool-shed, he worshipped with mystic and elaborate

ceremonial before the wooden hutch where dwelt Sredni

Vashtar, the great ferret. Red flowers in their season and

scarlet berries in the winter-time were offered at his

shrine, for he was a god who laid some special stress on the

fierce impatient side of things, as opposed to the Woman’s

religion, which, as far as Conradin could observe, went to

great lengths in the contrary direction. And on great

festivals powdered nutmeg was strewn in front of his hutch,

an important feature of the offering being that the nutmeg

had to be stolen. These festivals were of irregular

occurrence, and were chiefly appointed to celebrate some

passing event. On one occasion, when Mrs. De Ropp suffered

from acute toothache for three days, Conradin kept up the

festival during the entire three days, and almost succeeded

in persuading himself that Sredni Vashtar was personally

responsible for the toothache. If the malady had lasted for

another day the supply of nutmeg would have given out.

The Houdan hen was never drawn into the cult of Sredni

Vashtar. Conradin had long ago settled that she was an

Anabaptist. He did not pretend to have the remotest

knowledge as to what an Anabaptist was, but he privately

hoped that it was dashing and not very respectable. Mrs. De

Ropp was the ground plan on which he based and detested all

respectability.

After a while Conradin’s absorption in the tool-shed began

to attract the notice of his guardian. “It is not good for

him to be pottering down there in all weathers,” she

promptly decided, and at breakfast one morning she announced

that the Houdan hen had been sold and taken away overnight.

With her short-sighted eyes she peered at Conradin, waiting

for an outbreak of rage and sorrow, which she was ready to

rebuke with a flow of excellent precepts and reasoning. But

Conradin said nothing: there was nothing to be said.

Something perhaps in his white set face gave her a momentary

qualm, for at tea that afternoon there was toast on the

table, a delicacy which she usually banned on the ground

that it was bad for him; also because the making of it

“gave trouble,” a deadly offence in the middle-class

feminine eye.

“I thought you liked toast,” she exclaimed, with an

injured air, observing that he did not touch it.

“Sometimes,” said Conradin.

In the shed that evening there was an innovation in the

worship of the hutch-god. Conradin had been wont to chant

his praises, tonight be asked a boon.

“Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.”

The thing was not specified. As Sredni Vashtar was a god

he must be supposed to know. And choking back a sob as he

looked at that other empty comer, Conradin went back to the

world he so hated.

And every night, in the welcome darkness of his bedroom,

and every evening in the dusk of the tool-shed, Conradin’s

bitter litany went up: “Do one thing for me, Sredni

Vashtar.”

Mrs. De Ropp noticed that the visits to the shed did not

cease, and one day she made a further journey of inspection.

“What are you keeping in that locked hutch?” she asked.

“I believe it’s guinea-pigs. I’ll have them all cleared

away.”

Conradin shut his lips tight, but the Woman ransacked his

bedroom till she found the carefully hidden key, and

forthwith marched down to the shed to complete her

discovery. It was a cold afternoon, and Conradin had been

bidden to keep to the house. From the furthest window of

the dining-room the door of the shed could just be seen

beyond the corner of the shrubbery, and there Conradin

stationed himself. He saw the Woman enter, and then be

imagined her opening the door of the sacred hutch and

peering down with her short-sighted eyes into the thick

straw bed where his god lay hidden. Perhaps she would prod

at the straw in her clumsy impatience. And Conradin

fervently breathed his prayer for the last time. But he

knew as he prayed that he did not believe. He knew that the

Woman would come out presently with that pursed smile he

loathed so well on her face, and that in an hour or two the

gardener would carry away his wonderful god, a god no

longer, but a simple brown ferret in a hutch. And he knew

that the Woman would triumph always as she triumphed now,

and that he would grow ever more sickly under her pestering

and domineering and superior wisdom, till one day nothing

would matter much more with him, and the doctor would be

proved right. And in the sting and misery of his defeat, he

began to chant loudly and defiantly the hymn of his

threatened idol:

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.

And then of a sudden he stopped his chanting and drew

closer to the window-pane. The door of the shed still stood

ajar as it had been left, and the minutes were slipping by.

They were long minutes, but they slipped by nevertheless.

He watched the starlings running and flying in little

parties across the lawn; he counted them over and over

again, with one eye always on that swinging door. A

sour-faced maid came in to lay the table for tea, and still

Conradin stood and waited and watched. Hope had crept by

inches into his heart, and now a look of triumph began to

blaze in his eyes that had only known the wistful patience

of defeat. Under his breath, with a furtive exultation, he

began once again the paean of victory and devastation.

And presently his eyes were rewarded: out through that

doorway came 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.

“Tea is ready,” said the sour-faced maid; “where is the

mistress?” “She went down to the shed some time ago,”

said Conradin. And while the maid went to summon her

mistress to tea, Conradin fished a toasting-fork out of the

sideboard drawer and proceeded to toast himself a piece of

bread. And during the toasting of it and the buttering of

it with much butter and the slow enjoyment of eating it,

Conradin listened to the noises and silences which fell in

quick spasms beyond the dining-room door. The loud foolish

screaming of the maid, the answering chorus of wondering

ejaculations from the kitchen region, the scuttering

footsteps and hurried embassies for outside help, and then,

after a lull, the scared sobbings and the shuffling tread of

those who bore a heavy burden into the house.

“Whoever will break it to the poor child? I couldn’t for

the life of me!” exclaimed a shrill voice. And while they

debated the matter among themselves, Conradin made himself

another piece of toast.