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Sredni Vashtar

chapter one

For his good

Conradin was ten years old. He lived with Mrs De Ropp, who was his cousin and guardian. One day Mrs De Ropp called a doctor because Conradin was always sick. The doctor came and examined him.

‘This boy will only live another five years,’ said the doctor.

‘I agree,’ said Mrs De Ropp; ‘he is such an ill little boy.’

The doctor’s opinion wasn’t important to Conradin, but Mrs De Ropp’s was very important. She represented that large part of Conradin’s world that was unpleasant, necessary and real. The other, smaller part of his world was represented by his imagination - his only defense against Mrs De Ropp.

‘One day,’ thought Conradin, ‘I’m certain that I’ll lose this war against her. Tomorrow will be like today: I’ll take my medicine at nine o’clock, I won’t play in the garden, I’ll go to bed at seven o’clock. Every day I’ll do these things, and, in the end, I’ll die.’ For the moment, however, Conradin continued to fight his battle, with imagination as his only weapon.

Mrs De Ropp did not admit to herself that she disliked Conradin; but she was probably aware that she took pleasure in stopping him from playing - ‘for his good’. Conradin hated her but he was able to hide this hate. He enjoyed his few pleasures very much because he knew that Mrs De Ropp did not approve.

There was a garden behind the house, but Conradin never played there. He knew that one of the windows of the house would open and he would hear Mrs De Ropp shout, ‘Conradin, come and take your medicine!’ or ‘Conradin, come inside now. It’s too cold. Do you want to get ill?’ So Conradin went to a shed in a far corner of the garden. This shed was his place of refuge; it was in part a cathedral and in part a playroom. Conradin’s imagination had filled the shed with hundreds of interesting phantoms, but there were also two real living creatures. One of these was a hen, to which Conradin gave all of his affection - he had no one else. And in the back of the shed there was a large hutch. This was the home of a large polecat-ferret. Conradin was terribly afraid of this beast with sharp teeth, but it was his most treasured possession. It was also his secret from the Woman, which was his own private name for Mrs De Ropp. And one day he invented a fantastic name for the beast - Sredni Vashtar, and it became his god and religion. The Woman also had her religion, and she took Conradin to her church once a week. But the Woman’s religion was not his. Every Thursday Conradin worshipped his god. He brought it red flowers and red fruit because Sredni Vashtar was an impatient god that would not like the slow, boring rituals of the Woman’s religion. And on special festivals he brought nutmeg to his god, and it was essential that the nutmeg was stolen from the kitchen of the Woman. These festivals were not regular; they were held to celebrate something special that happened. For example, once Mrs De Ropp had a horrible toothache for three days and Conradin celebrated for three days. He almost believed that Sredni Vashtar had caused the Woman’s terrible pain.

Unfortunately, the Woman noticed that he spent a lot of time in the shed. ‘It is not good for him to be there all the time. I am going to tell the gardener to take away his hen. Then there will be no reason for him to go to the shed,’ she thought.

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