"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lines I Wished I’d Written: The Tool-Shed from Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar”

Last year I started reading the short stories of H. H. Munro, otherwise known by his pen name, Saki.  Saki’s short stories are typically five or so pages long and in some cases three.  It takes real talent to write such short shorts.  I am continuously amazed at how much information he packs in.  Sharp wit, deft eye for the exact detail, diction that accentuates the sarcasm under his tone, Munro is a satirist exploiting the foibles and arrogance of upper class Edwardian England, an England that was at the height of its empire.  Last year I read his story, "Esmé" and thought it a minor classic.  I just read “Sredni Vashtar,” and though I don’t think this rises to a classic, it’s still a fine story.  Perhaps others might elevate this to a classic; it has its own Wikipedia entry.    

This is the story of a sickly, ten year old boy, Conradin, apparently an orphan and being raised by his cousin, a Mrs. de Ropp.  Conradin hated his cousin as only a boy could hate a matronly overseer, and in his imagination exacted some sort of pleasurable enmity.  It is implied, though never stated, that the boy lives in his imagination because of his illness.  The passage I quote below is where he establishes a hideaway in a garden shed, sharing it with a Houdan hen and a ferret, elevating the ferret into a deity, and setting up a shrine. 

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 that kind of 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 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 the hutch, an important feature of the offering being that the nutmeg had to be stolen.  These festivals were of regular 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 another day the supply of nutmeg would have given out.

Notice the irony here.  A sickly orphan is a child one typically feels compassion for, and we presume Mrs. de Ropp has indulged in just that, but it’s that very coddling to his illness that he grows spiteful against.  And so he creates this sort of evil god, gives it some sort of exotic Hindu name, and performs some sort of black worship service to spite “the Woman.”  There’s a certain boyish misogyny in that term.  The boy seems to feel a sense of powerlessness, and so tries to gather power in his ritual.  The scene is rich with psychological depth.

You can read "Sredni Vashtar" on line at the Literature Network.  It's a short read.  You can read and listen along with this reading by a Tom Baker.


  1. The excerpt won me over. You have pretty good taste in literature for a guy who is so limited in his classical music preferences.

    Going to read the full story now.

    1. Thanks. Did you like the whole story? As I re-read the story I think the cousin was a lot crueler than I initially thought. It could be the boy had reason to really spite her.

  2. I did enjoy the whole story, and I agree that the cousin was deliberately beastly to the poor boy- she seemed to go out of her way to be rid of anything that might give him any enjoyment. The whole thing with the toast sounds like she wanted to be the sole source of pleasure to him, doled out by the drop. Good story- thanks for the tip!