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Chronicles of Clovis

Sredni Vashtar
Conradin was ten years old, and the doctor had pronounced his professional opinion that
the boy would not live another five years. The doctor was silky and effete, and counted
for little, but his opinion was endorsed by Mrs. de Ropp, who counted for nearly
everything. Mrs. De Ropp was Conradin's cousin and guardian, and in his eyes she
represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real;
the other two-fifths, in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in
himself and his imagination. One of these days Conradin supposed he would succumb to
the mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things---such as illnesses and coddling
restrictions and drawn-out dullness. Without his imagination, which was rampant under
the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago.
Mrs. de Ropp would never, in her honestest moments, have confessed to herself that she
disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him "for his
good" was a duty which she did not find particularly irksome. Conradin hated her with a
desperate sincerity which he was perfectly able to mask. Such few pleasures as he could
contrive for himself gained an added relish from the likelihood that they would be
displeasing to his guardian, and from the realm of his imagination she was locked out--an
unclean thing, which should find no entrance.
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 their kind 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
 
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