Conradin, a ten-year-old boy, is pronounced sickly by the local doctor, who says he won’t live another five years. Mrs. De Ropp, Conradin’s older cousin and guardian, endorses the doctor’s opinion. To Conradin, she represents “three-fifths of the world”: everything that is real and necessary but unpleasant. His imagination makes up the other two-fifths of the world. Conradin fears that one day he too will fall prey to the necessary and dull things that his cousin worries about. He believes that the only thing that has stopped him from becoming like his cousin so far is his own active imagination, which is spurred by his loneliness.
The beginning of the story sets up the central conflict: the clash between Conradin’s active imagination and Mrs. De Ropp’s dull practicality. The fact that Mrs. De Ropp represents “three-fifths of the world,” suggests a pessimistic outlook, where the majority of the world is dominated by such dullness. The “alliance” between the doctor and Mrs. De Ropp illustrates that Conradin is outnumbered. Perhaps this sense of being outnumbered contributes to Conradin’s feelings of loneliness, and the fact that these two authority figures agree that Conradin is going to die in five years implies that perhaps his coming death is actually a result of the way that they impose this dull practicality on him.
Mrs. De Ropp, who would never admit to herself that she dislikes Conradin, nevertheless is willing to admit that it is not “particularly irksome” when she must force Conradin to do things he dislikes for his own good. Conradin hates her, but he is able to mask it. He takes pleasure in doing things that he knows would displease his guardian if she knew about them, and he likes the fact that she has no way to get into the realm of his imagination.
Mrs. De Ropp clearly dislikes Conradin, but the narrator phrases things humorously, which establishes a light air behind which Saki can aim his sarcasm at Mrs. De Ropp’s self-denial and the way she puts up an outward appearance to hie her inner cruelty. She only allows herself to torment Conradin if she can justify it by saying that she’s doing what’s best for him, even if that’s not actually the case. As the most “respectable” character in the story, Mrs. De Ropp often represents a type of old-fashioned British morality, and the fact that she is so deeply flawed is meant to poke fun at the hypocrisy and inherent cruelty of this type of morality. Conradin himself is less conflicted: he despises his cousin and has no problem admitting it to himself.
Conradin spends his time in a dull garden overlooked by the windows of the house. Mrs. De Ropp is always nearby, ready to open a window to tell him what not to do. There are fruit trees in the garden, but he’s not allowed to pick the fruit from them, and they don’t produce much fruit anyway. Partially hidden behind some shrubbery, however, there is an out-of-use tool shed, which becomes a haven for Conradin—something like a playroom or a cathedral.
This scene, which describes the garden where Conradin spends most of his time, is a parody of the Garden of Eden story in Genesis in the Bible. Within the domain of her home, Mrs. De Ropp is God, and Conradin is Adam. Just as God forbade Adam from eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Mrs. De Ropp forbids Conradin from taking fruit from any of the trees. The scene is funny in part because of how it differs from the Garden of Eden story: instead of being an earthly paradise like the Biblical Garden of Eden, Mrs. De Ropp’s garden is mostly barren, perhaps to suggest that if she is a “god,” she’s not a very good or life-giving one. The idea of forbidden fruit will also be important: just as Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the forbidden tree, Conradin will seek things forbidden to him by Mrs. De Ropp by going into the toolshed. Later events in the story will reference British colonialism, and the barrenness of Mrs. De Ropp’s garden could be read as a comment on Britain’s policy of invading foreign lands to strip their resources.
Conradin uses his imagination to fill the toolshed with “phantoms,” some based on history and others that he invented on his own. Two real, living animals also inhabit the toolshed. One is a ragged-looking Houdan hen (a French breed of chicken with white or black-and-white feathers), which Conradin lavishes with affection. The other is a large polecat-ferret, which lives in a large hutch (or cage) and which was smuggled into the shed by a butcher boy in exchange for some silver that Conradin had hoarded over time.
Conradin’s imagination is powerful, showing that he is far from the dull sickly boy that his cousin believes he is. The way that Conradin mixes history with invention is actually similar to what Saki himself is doing in the story—while the events of the story are made up, some of them are meant to parody or comment on events in history. One important historical fact that will become relevant as the story progresses is that Britain was a colonial power at the time, subduing the locals in distant lands and ruling over them. This process was frequently cruel and generated wealth for Britain, and was justified by Britain as being for the benefit of those they colonized—similar to the way Mrs. De Ropp rules over her own domain and Conradin. The Houdan hen and the polecat-ferret will both be important in the rest of the story, both for advancing the action of the plot and for extending the metaphor about how British government and religion ruled at the time. The fact that the polecat-ferret must be kept in a cage foreshadows that the creature is dangerous.
Conradin is afraid of the sharp-fanged polecat-ferret, but it is also his most valued possession. The Woman (a nickname that Conradin uses for his guardian Mrs. De Ropp) doesn’t know that the animal is being kept in the toolshed, and Conradin tries to keep it that way. One day, Conradin comes up with a miraculous name for the creature: Sredni Vashtar, the great ferret. Mrs. De Ropp is religious and takes him to church once a week, but to Conradin traditional church services are an “alien rite” in contrast to the pagan-style religion that he has invented in the toolshed.
Here Saki extends the Garden of Eden parody—just as God didn’t see what Adam and Eve were doing when they ate the forbidden fruit, Mrs. De Ropp can’t see what Conradin does when he’s in the shed. Saki also develops the contrast between Conradin’s imagination and Mrs. De Ropp’s authority. The pagan religion that Conradin invents is the polar opposite of what he experiences when he goes to Christian church with Mrs. De Ropp. Sredni Vashtar is a made-up name, but it evokes the name of Hindu gods such as Shiva and Vishnu, once again connecting the events of the story to British colonialism.
Every Thursday, Conradin worships Sredni Vashtar with an elaborate ceremony, involving red flowers when they are blooming and scarlet berries during the winter. Sredni Vashtar is a fierce, impatient god—which seems to Conrad to be the opposite of Mrs. De Ropp’s religion. On important “festival days,” Conradin steals nutmeg and spreads it in front of Sredni Vashtar’s hutch. These festivals are irregular and are used to celebrate events such as when Mrs. De Ropp suffered from a toothache for three days. Conradin almost convinces himself that Sredni Vashtar was responsible for the toothache.
The rituals of Conradin’s imaginary religion interact with minor events happening in the real world—the real world influences Conradin’s religion, and not the other way around. Here, it seems that the misfortunes of Mrs. Ropp, like her toothache, are a cause for Conradin to celebrate. The fact that Conradin’s rituals are largely ineffective and based on superstition is a parody of what the British at the time might describe as “pagan” religions. Note, though, that these rituals also invites comparison to the rituals of Mrs. De Ropp’s conversative British Christianity, and subtly implies that while such Christian rituals might be seen as serious and meaningful by the British, they might also be looked at as being arbitrary, a bit silly, and just as ineffectual in influencing the real world as Conradin’s religion is.
In Conradin’s imagination, the Houdan hen doesn’t join the cult of Sredni Vashtar. He decides she is an Anabaptist. Conradin has no idea what an Anabaptist is, but he hopes it’s not “respectable.” His cousin Mrs. De Ropp is very respectable, and that is why Conradin detests respectability.
Anabaptists are a religious movement that broke away from mainline Christianity, and as a result, they would not be looked on favorably by more “respectable” British Christians like Mrs. De Ropp. Conradin doesn’t know this—he just likes the word—so it’s funny that his choice is actually appropriate, and it also shows just how much of Mrs. De Ropp’s life—and British religious life in general—is dominated by asserting control by asserting what is and isn’t respectable. Once again, Saki emphasizes the connection between Conradin’s imaginings and Mrs. De Ropp, showing how Conradin uses his imagination to oppose his stodgy cousin.
Eventually, Mrs. De Ropp begins to notice that Conradin is spending time in the toolshed. She decides that it isn’t good for him to be spending so much time there, so at breakfast one morning, she announces that the Houdan hen was sold and taken away overnight. As she says this, she looks at Conradin, waiting for rage or sorrow, which she believes she can rebuke with her own excellent reasoning. But a pale Conradin says nothing.
As always, Mrs. De Ropp suspects that if Conradin enjoys something, it can’t be good for him—which gives her justification to control and punish him. By taking away the Houdan hen, she is invading the realm of his imagination. This attempt at controlling Conradin’s mind is a commentary on what religious conservatives were doing at the time in Britain, as well as what Britain was attempting to do abroad in its colonies—each were engaged in an effort to influence and manipulate what people were allowed to think as a way to maintain control. This section may also be a historical joke: Anabaptists (like the Houdan hen) really were kicked out of England at one point in history.
That afternoon, at tea, Mrs. De Ropp puts toast on the table (a delicacy she usually bans on the grounds that it’s bad for Conradin and that it causes trouble for her to make). But Conradin doesn’t touch the toast. Mrs. De Ropp says she thought he liked it, and Conradin just replies, “Sometimes.”
Toast is one of the most important symbols in the story, and it will play a key role later in the ending. It represents all the pleasures that Mrs. De Ropp denies Conradin, supposedly for his own good, but often just out of arbitrary cruelty. Even though he enjoys toast, Conradin refuses it here—perhaps he is still upset over losing his beloved Houdan hen, or perhaps he is just determined not to do what his cousin wants him to do. His refusal of toast is a kind of resistance.
That evening in the shed, Conradin changes the way he worships the “hutch-god,” Sredni Vashtar. Instead of chanting praises, he asks for a favor. Conradin does not say aloud specifically what this favor is; he simply asks Sredni Vashtar to “do one thing for me,” believing that because Sredni Vashtar is a god, he will know what the thing is. Holding back tears in the shed, Conradin must eventually go back to the outside world, which he hates.
Mrs. De Ropp intensification of her effort to control Conradin by getting rid of the hen seems to have had the opposite of its intended consequence: Conradin begins to intensify his devotion to the pagan religion he’s invented. The fact that he does not specify the “one thing” that he wants Sredni Vashtar to do for him suggests that Conradin has begun to conceive of his god as omniscient—another parallel with Mrs. De Ropp’s God. Although the narration does not specify what exactly the “one thing” is (and perhaps Conradin himself isn’t entirely certain), it is clear that Conradin wants revenge on Mrs. De Ropp for what happened to the Houdan hen. It is also notable that Conradin is now not just celebrating real world events through his religious celebrations; he is asking his god to intervene in the real world, even if his recognition that he has no choice but to return to the world outside the shed suggests that he doesn’t actually believe Sredni Vashtar can or will intervene.
Every night in his dark bedroom and every evening in the toolshed, Conradin repeats the same prayer: “Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.” Mrs. De Ropp notices that his visits to the tool shed haven’t stopped, even after the Houdan hen was sold. One day, she goes inside the shed to investigate and finds the locked hutch of Sredni Vashtar. She believes it contains guinea pigs and tells Conradin that she is going to get rid of them.
Emboldened after selling the Houdan hen, Mrs. De Ropp is determined to make her control over Conradin absolute. Meanwhile, and in direct response, Conradin is just as determined to resist her, as shown by his repeated prayers. The intensification of efforts at control lead to an intensification of resistance against that control. The discovery of Sredni Vashtar’s hutch sets in motion the climax of the story. Conradin’s invented god will face off against the “respectable” authority of Mrs. De Ropp. That Mrs. De Ropp thinks the cage contains guinea pigs does signal the limits of the respectable imagination, which is a potential weakness.
Conradin tells Mrs. De Ropp nothing about what’s in the toolshed, so she searches his bedroom until she finds the key to the hutch that he had hidden. She goes right to the shed with the key. Since it is a cold afternoon, Conradin has to stay in the house while she goes to the shed. He can still watch her, however, if he stations himself at the furthest window of the dining room, where the door of the shed is visible just beyond the corner of the shrubbery.
The situation looks bad for Conradin. Despite his prayers, he still believes at this point that Mrs. De Ropp will triumph over Sredni Vashtar, just as she did over the Houdan hen. The fact that Conradin must stay inside the house again shows Mrs. De Ropp’s control. But I also helps set up the ending, which has some elements of ambiguity. Because the narration here follows Conradin’s viewpoint, it won’t be possible to see what actually happens inside the shed.
Conradin watches Mrs. De Ropp enter the shed. He imagines her opening the door of Sredni Vashtar’s hutch and peering down with her short-sighted eyes into the thick straw, where the ferret is hidden. He imagines her getting impatient and prodding at the straw. He repeats his prayer one last time, but even as he prays, he knows that he does not truly believe in the power of Sredni Vashtar.
While the scenario Conradin imagines here is plausible, there is no way of knowing whether it’s an accurate account of events, since the narration follows Conradin’s perspective, and he’s watching from inside the house. This reminder that Mrs. De Ropp is short-sighted is significant. In addition to playing a role in the plot, it is a metaphor, and it could be Saki’s humorous way of saying that the British Empire (which the respectable Mrs. De Ropp represents) is also short-sighted and therefore blind in its understanding of the sort or degree of resistance its attempts at control might elicit.
Conradin expects that Mrs. De Ropp will come out of the shed with a pursed smile on her face, and then an hour or two later, the gardener will carry Sredni Vashtar out of the hutch—no longer a god, just a simple brown ferret. Conradin believes his cousin will always triumph, just as she’s triumphing now, and that he will continue to grow weaker and sicker as a result of all her “pestering … and superior wisdom,” until one day there will be nothing left of him and the doctor who believed Conradin wouldn’t live another five years would be proved right.
Because he is used to being thwarted by Mrs. De Ropp, Conradin does not expect his ferret god to succeed. It may be significant that Sredni Vashtar is described as “brown,” since this would again connect Sredni Vashtar to the inhabitants of Britain’s colonies, like India. While Saki’s sympathies clearly lie more with Conradin and Sredni Vashtar than with Mrs. De Ropp, his portrayal of Sredni Vashtar as a fierce, “brown,” violent pagan could be read as racist, particularly since “Sredni Vashtar” seems to be a pseudo-Hindu name. Conradin’s prediction that he will wither and die could be read as a pessimistic prediction of what will happen to Britain (and its colonies) if people like Mrs. De Ropp and the doctor are allowed to triumph over imagination.
Feeling the sting of defeat, Conradin begins to chant a hymn for the endangered Sredni Vashtar. The chant is a battle song about how Sredni Vashtar goes forth, with bloody thoughts and bared teeth, as his enemies beg for peace but he brings them death. All of a sudden, however, Conradin stops his chanting and goes closer to the window pane. After several minutes, the door of the shed is still ajar. Conradin watches birds running and flying across the lawn, counting them again and again, while still keeping an eye on the open door as even more minutes pass.
The violence of Conradin’s hymns to Sredni Vashtar indicate the depth of his hatred for his cousin—Mrs. De Ropp’s cruelty toward him has caused him to move past the ambiguity of “Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar” to explicit calls for violence fighting. The narration’s limited perspective allows the story to build suspense, since it’s unclear what is happening inside the shed. (Previously, the narration had sometimes included the thoughts of Mrs. De Ropp, but from here until the end, it will follow only Conradin.) While this story is generally very concise, parts of this section deliberately slow the pace for a moment (such as the passage about counting and recounting the birds), in order to mimic the anticipation and anxiety that Conradin is feeling.
A maid comes to lay the table for tea, but this doesn’t interrupt Conradin, who continues to wait and watch. He begins to feel hopeful, even triumphant—an unfamiliar feeling after all the time he has spent in patient defeat. Under his breath, he begins to repeat the battle chant.
The presence of servants like the maid reinforces the idea that Mrs. De Ropp is upper class and that she’s an authority figure. The suspense builds as Conradin begins for the first time to believe that Sredni Vashtar may be victorious, which underscores how Mrs. De Ropp’s efforts here to assert even more control may in fact be a strategic blunder. Conradin has always just assumed he can’t really revolt against Mrs. De Ropp, but her increased efforts have made him feel like he has to resist, which in turn makes the idea of successfully resisting imaginable.
And then Conradin sees it: out of the open shed door walks Sredni Vashtar, with stains of blood around his throat and jaws.. Conradin’s ferret god walks down to a small brook at the lower part of the garden, takes a drink, and then crosses a plank bridge and disappears into the bushes.
Although no violence is depicted in this scene, it’s safe to assume Sredni Vashtar has killed Mrs. De Ropp, perhaps because of her short-sightedness, just as Conradin imagined. While there is little ambiguity about the final outcome (that Mrs. De Ropp is dead and that Sredni Vashtar escapes), the ambiguity over how this happened allows the events to feel “miraculous,” even if there isn’t necessarily anything supernatural about what happens. Perhaps Mrs. De Ropp just bent down to look in the cage and the ferret attacked. Or perhaps Conradin’s desperate hope and belief empowered his god to greater heights of power. The key point is that the ambiguity about what happened allows Saki to blend the imaginary with the real, demonstrating that the border between the two isn’t always clear. Perhaps another reason why the death of Mrs. De Ropp isn’t depicted is because it might make her appear more sympathetic, which wouldn’t make sense for her character or the story: her role in the story is to be unsympathetic in almost every way.
The maid informs Conradin that tea is ready and asks where Mrs. De Ropp is. Conradin informs the maid that his cousin went down to the shed some time ago. While the maid goes down to fetch Mrs. De Ropp, Conradin begins to toast himself a piece of bread. He draws the process out, using a lot of butter and slowly enjoying eating the toast, all the while listening to the sounds of the house.
By now, it’s clear what’s happened to Mrs. De Ropp, but the story still builds suspense because Conradin knows something that the maid doesn’t, and he is curious to see how she’ll react. The fact that Conradin can only enjoy toast after he’s sure his cousin is dead hints at how she was holding him back and preventing his enjoyment while she was alive. Moreover, the fact that Conradin can enjoy himself at all—that he is literally “toasting” her death—suggests that he feels no sadness or guilt about the death of Mrs. De Ropp. There is a metaphoric connection here to British colonialism. Britain imagined itself as vital and necessary to its colonies, as being good for the colonies, but there is an implication here that the colonies, once free of Britain, wouldn’t mourn at all.
First Conradin hears noises, then silence, then the maid screams, and a chorus of others from the kitchen area answer her. Footsteps sound everywhere as they try to get outside help. Then, there is scared sobbing and shuffling as something heavy is brought into the house.
As in earlier scenes, Saki builds suspense by limiting the narration to Conradin’s point of view. The commotion of the servants helps to emphasize the seriousness of what just happened—that the death of Mrs. De Ropp will affect more people than just Conradin; that the social order has been overthrown—but it is also comic, mostly because Mrs. De Ropp was so unsympathetic.
Conradin overhears a shrill voice asking who will break the news to the child. The voice exclaims they couldn’t for the life of them bear to do it. While the voices outside of the dining room debate what to do next, Conradin makes himself another piece of toast.
The irony of this final scene is that while the servants are distraught about breaking the news to Conradin, Conradin himself seems to be happier about the news than anyone. The symbol of the toast reappears, once again emphasizing that this is a joyous occasion for Conradin (and so suggesting that the death of Mrs. De Ropp’s brand of respectable British Christian colonialist conservatism will also be a joyous occasion for Saki, and for anyone oppressed by it.