I cannot actually remember a time when I didn’t know this story. I must have come across it in an anthology when I was ten or eleven, and I have a dim memory of an eccentric English teacher reading it in class, for ‘Sredni Vashtar’ echoes in my mind as speech rather than as words.
Revisiting it for the purposes of this exercise, I’m struck once again by Saki’s economic use of words. This is a very short story, yet it contains such depths. So much is inferred, so little said, yet the story unpacks itself before our eyes, like some sort of wondrous space-saving device that unfolds at the press of a button
Conradin, the ten-year-old boy at the heart of the story, lives with an overbearing cousin who is his guardian. It is widely believed that he will die within the next few years. His cousin, Mrs De Ropp, does her level best to eradicate any shred of warmth from his existence, denying him a wide range of comforts on the grounds that they are bad for his health. ‘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’ (53).
One might wonder why she tolerates Conradin, whom she so clearly dislikes. Note the way that Saki says nothing outright but, in the way he juxtaposes sickliness and guardianship, hints at the possibility of an inheritance for Mrs De Ropp, whom we now see to be putting up with Conradin for the sake of the money. Or possibly, she does not like the fact that there are parts of Conradin’s life she cannot control.
Without his imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago. […] 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. (53)
We are meant to be in sympathy with Conradin, deprived of love, affection, even something as normal and comforting as hot buttered toast, but it is worth considering something as an adult that one might not consider as a child, namely the frustration of dealing with a child who is so self-possessed, so self-contained, who maintains a rich interior life of which one can know nothing. There must surely be a sense of frustration, a desire to push the child, to see how far he can maintain his equilibrium. It is not a pretty game, but perhaps Conradin is not as innocent as he at first appears. And yet there is a flavour of tragedy in the description of Conradin’s life, not least in the way he lavishes affection on a scraggy hen because he has nothing else.
It is important though that however wretched Conradin’s life might seem, he organises it to find what small pleasures he can, exercising his imagination through private story-telling, through keeping the hen, and also in the presence of a polecat-ferret, even though ‘Conradin was dreadfully afraid of the lithe, sharp-fanged beast’ (54). Christened Sredni Vashtar, the polecat-ferret becomes the centre of elaborate ceremonies devised by Conradin, his own religion. This is a god who laid ‘some special stress on the fierce impatient side of things, though Conradin himself seems to be a child of extraordinary patience.
It is at the point when Mrs De Ropp confiscates the hen that Conradin finally incarnates Sredni Vashtar as a god, by asking him for a boon: ‘Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar’ (54). The chant is what keeps Conradin going , I suspect, rather than any genuine belief that the polecat can do anything about his situation. When Mrs De Ropp reinvestigates the shed, however, and discovers the cage containing the polecat, what must seem to Conradin like a miracle takes place. One suspects that the polecat was never very well fed, and it is only natural when someone opens the cage of a starving animal and, being so short-sighted, gets in too close, that something might happen. We are never told what, though Conradin sees the polecat leave the shed, ‘with dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat’ (55), and anyone who knows how ferrets kill their prey can make a guess. But is it a god or a sated polecat that leaves the shed?
There is no obvious supernatural element to this story, only the intense uncertainty as to whether Conradin’s prayer to his monstrous god-pet have been answered, or whether, as an adult might say, it is just coincidence. The totally matter-of-fact tone, the rational structuring of the facts of the story point one way, and yet one is constantly tugged in the other direction because it seems almost too good to be true. It is possible to read this story in an entirely realist mode, but the gloomy atmosphere that surrounds the story, with Conradin as a little beacon of intelligence and creativity, might pose other alternatives. Did he plan it? Or was it genuinely a wonderful coincidence. Has his devotion to Sredni Vashtar made the ferret into something more, a genuine act of faith? Or is this story actually another of Conradin’s vivid imaginings, born of desperation, a terribly plotted but unexecutable revenge. The more one works at this story, the less certain it becomes, the more unsure the reader becomes. Perhaps there are moments when the power of a child’s imagination becomes so strong – didn’t we all, as children, fervently wish for something to happen, believing that the sheer power of thought might just bring it about?
This short story incidentally has a wonderfully horrible closing line, another example of the skill of Saki. The household servants have found what we infer is Mrs De Ropp’s body, and are now trying to decide what to do, in particular whether to tell Conradin, who has obviously long since worked out what’s happening, and has been happily making the forbidden toast for himself.
And while they debated the matter among themselves, Conradin made himself another piece of toast. (55)
There is so much invested in ‘another piece of toast’.
(If you like Sredni Vashtar, I particularly recommend another story by Saki, ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ which is quite wonderfully sinister.)