I couldn’t have been older than eight when Dad sat me down to read me a story. The story was called Sredni Vashtar.
The main (really only proper) character was a young, frail Edwardian boy named Conradin, living with a domineering female cousin, who seemed determined to joylessly coddle, thwart and repress him into the grave. His only consolation was a shed down at the bottom of the barren garden, which to him was a ‘playroom and a cathedral’, populated by his own imagination.
(Having read The Secret Garden, I thought I knew where this was going. Conradin even rather resembled Colin Craven.)
The shed also housed Conradin’s pet hen; and, in a hutch in the corner, a large polecat-ferret that he’d bought off a friendly butcher’s boy and hid fervently from his cousin, dubbed in his hostile mind ‘The Woman’.
(Having read Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, I definitely thought I knew where this was going.)
Conradin, in his loneliness and mixed fear and awe of the polecat-ferret, named it – what else but Sredni Vashtar? And proceeded to worship the animal, giving it offerings of flowers and berries, and occasionally nutmeg, believing it to be responsible for the various ailments of The Woman.
(I still thought I knew where this was going.)
The Woman noticed Conradin’s trips down to the shed, ruled them contrary to her desires, and had the hen sold. Conradin’s hate grew ever fiercer, and he prayed to Sredni-Vashtar to ‘do one thing for me’. “The thing was not specified.
(I…was curious about where this was going.)
Since Conradin’s trips to the shed did not cease, one thing came to another, his guardian assumed he was hiding guinea pigs at the bottom of the garden and marched down to the shed with the key to open the locked hutch. Conradin was left behind to mutter a prayer to his god, while it still was one and not a ferret being carried away by his smug, bullying relation:
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.
(I had no clue where this was going, but I liked the poetry, and planned to repeat it to myself for the rest of the day. I usually did that with words I liked. Still do.)
The rest is silence.
Well, except for the screams of a maid when she goes down to the shed to find her mistress, and the general confused hubbub as something heavy is carried 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 among themselves, Conradin made himself another piece of toast.
Thus was the passing of Sredni Vashtar. And thus was my introduction to Saki, the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro.
Saki, one of the Edwardian Era’s most sarcastic, keen and sometimes malicious observers, wrote over a hundred short stories, three novels and three plays before his wicked wit and intellect was blown to bits by a sniper’s bullet in November 1916. I’ve read relatively little of his work, the stories amassed in this collection forming only a small handful of his creations; but Saki’s own distinctive style and brand, comedy mixed with that perfect touch of sarcasm and cruelty, is a winner. Dad introduced me to short stories through Kipling, but Saki’s work showed me just how short a narrative could be, and what you could cram into that small amount of space to entertain and shock your reader.
While Saki will always be – for me – the moment when Conradin spots the long, low beast coming out of the shed “with dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat”, there are plenty of other stories that left me staring as I made my way through this book when I was older, after asking Dad for the book ‘with the poem, Sredni Vashtar’. The ones that really get to me are the ones with harsh twists at the end, like the gut-punch of The Easter Egg, or the nasty conclusion to The Music on the Hill.
My favourite story from Saki isn’t even Sredni Vashtar but Gabriel Ernest: a tale with a surface appearance of comparing adolescence and beautiful youths to animalist desire and potential for degeneracy (I am not surprised Dad did not read this one to us, then or ever) and which turns out to be…well. Just check out the brilliant reading below, and pay no attention to the spoileriffic image behind the play button.
Only, maybe don’t listen to it at night. When no one else is around.