Imagine this: you’re out for a walk in the woods one fine evening, just as the sun is sinking low through the trees and ensuring everything is striped golden and black, like a tiger’s hide. Its late spring, so the trees are dusted with verdant green and the sun shines brightly, but there’s still a layer of coolness in the air that settles over your skin as you walk.
You’re picking your way along a little dirt path that thankfully is more dirt than mud due to the recent sunny spell. It’s a pleasant evening, but for no particular reason you quicken your pace, suddenly a little – just a touch – nervous.
You don’t see the clearing in the woods until you’re standing in it, hidden as it was by a thicket of brambles, fallen branches and the detritus of previous autumns. You pause for a moment, struck by the sudden stillness of the woods. No birdsong, no insects buzzing, not even a little breeze stirring the leaves on the trees.
And then: it slinks out of the undergrowth just in front of you.
What it is you are not certain. It looks like a monstrously overgrown ferret or weasel – long lean lithe body, sharp pointed muzzle, and cruel jagged teeth. And it is covered, mouth to tail, in blood. Not old blood – fresh, scarlet, coppery-smelling blood.
For a long moment, you stare at each other. Its eyes are small, black and very knowing. There is an intelligence, an awareness behind them that is exceptionally disconcerting. And somehow, you know that this animal is not an innocent, unknowing denizen of the natural world, descendent of Eden. This animal knows evil and does evil.
And has done evil.
Then the moment shatters and it fades into the undergrowth like a ghost. You stand there shivering, jittery, appalled.
You have been recipient of a most dubious privilege. You have witnessed the passing of Sredni Vashtar.
‘Sredni Vashtar’ was written between 1910 and 1911 by Saki, which was the penname of Hector Hugh Monro. It first appeared in his collection of short stories The Chronicles of Clovis (1911), and focuses on a young boy named Conradin… and of course, Sredni Vashtar. Conradin is doomed to die at a young age according to a pompous doctor, his guardian Miss De Ropp genteelly despises him (the feeling is more than mutual) and his one source of pleasure in life are his pets, kept in the garden shed. One is a raggedy hen, and the other is Sredni Vashtar, a name bestowed by Conradin.
It is never clarified what sort of animal Sredni Vashtar actually is within the story. He is described as a ‘great ferret-polecat,’ bought off a butcher’s boy, but Saki tells us little else. Despite this dearth of detail, Conradin, who is possessed of a feverish imagination, has built his own religion around the creature. He both admires and fears Sredni Vashtar, believing the polecat-ferret to possess supernatural power. For instance, when his loathed guardian Miss De Ropp is suffering from an appalling toothache, Conradin half-believes Sredni Vashtar is responsible for causing it.
Matters come to a head when Miss De Ropp spitefully sells Conradin’s raggedy hen. Conradin goes to Sredni Vashtar and asks him to ‘do one thing for me.’ The nature of Conradin’s request is never specified. But when Miss De Ropp unwisely heads down to the garden shed one afternoon, Sredni Vashtar is given the chance to fulfil it. Miss De Ropp never appears again, Sredni Vashtar slinks out of the shed coated in blood and vanishes, and when a servant goes looking for Miss De Ropp they come back screaming.
Conradin eats his toast.
‘Sredni Vashtar’ is one of Saki’s better known tales, though that isn’t saying much. Saki’s numerous short stories are witty, funny and absolutely merciless when it comes to exposing and ridiculing humanity’s pretensions and vanities. In my humble opinion, he deserves to be much better known than he currently is. Although by no means the only early-twentieth century author to write comedies of manners, he is more reminiscent of Oscar Wilde for his razor-sharp observations and his rich humour.
Hector Hugh Monro was born in British Burma in 1870, where his father was an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police. After his mother died when he was only two, he was given over to aunts and grandmothers for a strict puritanical upbringing in Barnstaple, Devon. Perhaps not coincidentally, the theme of children revenging themselves on severe guardians (as in ‘Sredni Vashtar’) was a recurring one in his fiction. He was joined the Burma police as an adult, but was sent home after a bout of malaria. He then turned his attention to writing, first non-fiction and then his short stories. The penname Saki was borrowed from a character in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – or possibly a South American monkey species.
Saki loved contrasting wild beasts and animals with the stultifying conventions of English life, another recurring theme in his work. Perhaps to enhance this tendency, some of Saki’s stories have a distinct supernatural element and there is always an undercurrent of genuine eeriness to these tales. Arguably some of his work can be categorized as ‘magical realism,’ if the term wasn’t so strongly associated with South American literature. The influence of his monkey-ish pseudonym? The thought is a delightful one! By the way, Saki’s ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ and ‘Laura’ are two of my own personal favourite short stories of all time, both of them notably featuring animals, or at the very least beasts.
But the focus here is Sredni Vashtar… and also Conradin, and Miss De Ropp. Despite the opening of my post focusing on the passing of Sredni Vashtar himself, who and what in this strange tale is truly monstrous?
At first glance, it’s obvious – the titular Sredni Vashtar. A monstrous, overgrown animal that rips out the throats of women? (Okay, it’s not specified precisely how Miss De Ropp meets her end, but somehow I always imagine Sredni Vashtar going for the carotid artery). His name is deeply evocative, despite being mumbo-jumbo made up by Conradin. Vaguely suggestive of some form of mysticism, perhaps influenced by Saki’s own experiences in Burma, it sounds exotic and inexplicable. Rather like Sredni Vashtar himself.
But Conradin’s no wronged little innocent. He’s certainly a pitiable figure in many ways. He’s condemned to die young, has no friends or companions save his hen and Sredni Vashtar (who is not exactly cuddly) and is treated meanly, if not cruelly, by Miss De Ropp. Yet there’s a streak of true viciousness in Conradin. Whilst wishing an ill-fate on Miss De Ropp is understandable, the strength of Conradin’s hate and his single-minded focus on causing his guardian harm is quite unnerving.
The story makes use of both the absurdity and the savagery of childhood. Conradin’s peculiar little religious rituals in honour of Sredni Vashtar, his decision that his hen is an Anabaptist and his vivid imagination all add the humour of the story. Yet his unadulterated loathing of Miss De Ropp and all she stands for is the driving impetus of the story. Yes, Sredni Vashtar may do the killing, but Saki heavily implies that he is asked to kill, urged to kill, given permission to kill by Conradin.
And then there’s Miss De Ropp. How she came to be his guardian is never explained – but it’s not important. Like many of Saki’s characters she is skilled in self-deception, refusing to admit to herself that she dislikes her ward. She maintains an outward veneer of respectability and believes that anything that causes inconvenience is the ultimate sin. She takes a lot of pleasure in spoiling Conradin’s fun, ostensibly for his own good, does a lot of nagging and imposes all kinds of regulations. Miss De Ropp is a cold, joyless, domestic tyrant. And fatally, she fails to recognise that life isn’t as neat and tidy and regulated as she believes it to be, only learning this lesson when it’s too late for her.
So… where does the monstrosity lie in this clever little tale? Saki refuses to confirm anything, letting his audience make up their own minds, so I’ll do the same. Decide who or what is the obscure monster, but if you do happen to meet Sredni Vashtar, don’t make Miss De Ropp’s mistake. Treat him with respect, don’t get in his way and remember: ‘his enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.’
Till next time, dear readers.
Don’t go out alone.
A brief biography of Saki: http://www.online-literature.com/hh-munro/
The text of ‘Sredni Vashtar’: http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/vashtar.html