Tooth and Claw

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    Sredni Vashtar
    Conradin was ten years old and was often ill.
    'The boy is not strong,'said the doctor.'He will not live much longer.'But the doctor did not know about Conradin's imagination. In Conradin's lonely, loveless world,his imagination was the only thing that kept him alive.
    Conradin's parents were dead and he lived with his aunt.The aunt did not like Conradin and was often unkind to him.Conradin hated her with all his heart, but he obeyed her quietly and took his medicine without arguing. Mostly he kept out of her way.She had no place in his world. His real, everyday life in his aunt's colourless, comfortless house was narrow and uninteresting. But inside his small, dark head exciting and violent thoughts ran wild. In the bright world of his imagination Conradin was strong and brave. It was a wonderful world, and the aunt was locked out of it.
    The garden was no fun. There was nothing interesting to do. He was forbidden to pick the flowers. He was forbidden to eat the fruit. He was forbidden to play on the grass But behind some trees, in a forgotten corner of the garden, there was an old shed Nobody used the shed, and Conradin took it for his own.
    To him it became something between a playroom and a church. He filled it with ghosts and animals from his imagination. But there were also two living things in the shed. In one corner lived an old, untidy-looking chicken. Conradin had no people to love, and this chicken was the boy's dearest friend.And in a dark, secret place at the back of the shed was a large wooden box with bars across the front. This was the home of a very large ferret with long, dangerous teeth and claws.Conradin had bought the ferret and its box from a friendly boy, who lived in the village. It had cost him all his money,but Conradin did not mind.He was most terribly afraid of the ferret, but he loved it with all his heart. It was his wonderful,terrible secret. He gave the ferret a strange and beautiful name and it became his god.
    The aunt went to church every Sunday. She took Conradin with her, but to Conradin her church and her god were without meaning. They seemed grey and uninteresting.The true god lived in the shed, and his name was Sredni Vashtar.
    Every Thursday, in the cool, silent darkness of the shed,Conradin took presents to his god. He took flowers in summer and fruits in autumn, and he made strange and wonderful songs for his god. Sometimes, on days when something important happened, Conradin took special presents.He stole salt from the kitchen and placed it carefully and lovingly in front of the ferret's box.
    One day the aunt had the most terrible toothache. It con tinued for three days. Morning and evening Conradin put salt in front of his god. In the end he almost believed that Sredni Vashtar himself had sent the toothache.
    After a time the aunt noticed Conradin's visits to the shed.
    'It's not good for him to play out there in the cold,' she said. She could always find a reason to stop Conradin enjoying himself. The next morning at breakfast she told Conradin that she had sold the chicken. She looked at Conradin's white face , and waited for him to cry or to be angry. But Conradin said nothing; there was nothing to say.
    Perhaps the aunt felt sorry. That afternoon there was hot buttered toast for tea. Toast was usually forbidden. Conradin loved it, but the aunt said that it was bad for him. Also, it made extra work for the cook. Conradin looked at the toast and quietly took a piece of bread and butter.
    'I thought you liked toast,' the aunt said crossly.
    'Sometimes,'said Conradin.
    In the shed that evening Conradin looked sadly at the empty corner where his chicken had lived. And, for the first time, he asked his ferret-god to do something for him.
    'Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar,'he said softly.
    He did not say what he wanted. Sredni Vashtar was a god, after all. There is no need to explain things to gods.Then, with a last look at the empty corner, Conradin returned to the world that he hated.
    And every night, in the shed and in his bedroom, Con radin repeated again and again.
    'Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.'
    So Conradin's visits to the shed continued. The aunt no ticed, and went to look in the shed again.
    'What are you keeping in that locked box?' she asked.' I'm sure you're keeping an animal there. It's not good for you.
    Conradin said nothing.
    The aunt searched his bedroom until she found the key to the box. She marched down to the shed. It was a cold afternoon, and Conradin was forbidden to go outside. From the window of the dining-room Conradin could just see the door of the shed. He stood and waited.
    He saw the aunt open the shed door. She went inside.Now, thought Conradin, she has found the box. She is opening the door, and feeling about inside the box where my god lives.
    'Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar,'said Conradin softly. But he said it without hope. She will win, he thought.She always wins. Soon she will come out of the shed and give her orders. Somebody will come and take my wonderful god away-not a god any more,just a brown ferret in a box.Then there will be nothing important in my life… The doctor will be right. I shall sicken and die. She will win. She always wins… In his pain and misery, Conradin began to sing the song of his god:
    Sredni Vashtar went into battle.His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.
    his enemies called for peace but be brought them death.
    Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.
    Suddenly he stopped singing and went nearer to the window.The door of the shed was still open. Slowly, very slowly the minutes went by. Conradin watched the birds on the grass.He counted them, always with one eye on that open door. The unsmiling housekeeper came in with the tea things. Still Sonradin stood and watched and waited. Hope was growing,like a small, sick flower, in his heart. Very softly he sang his song again, and his hope grew and grew. And then he saw a very wonderful thing.
    Out of the shed came a long, low, yellow-and-brown animal. There were red, wet stains around its mouth and neck.
    'Sredni Vashtar!' said Conradin softly. The ferret-god made its way to the bottom of the garden. It stopped for a moment, then went quietly into the long grass and disappeared for ever.
    'Tea is ready,' said the housekeeper. 'Where is your aunt?'
    'She went down to the shed,' said Conradin.
    And, while the housekeeper went down to call the aunt,Conradin took the toasting-fork out of the dining-room cupboard. He sat by the fire and toasted a piece of bread for himself. While he was toasting it and putting butter on it,Conradin listened to the noises beyond the dining room door.First there were loud screams-that was the housekeeper.Then there was the cook's answering cry.Soon there came the sound of several pairs of feet. They were carrying something heavy into the house.
    'Who is going to tell that poor child?' said the housekeeper.
    'Well, someone will have to,'answered the cook. And,while they were arguing, Conradin made himself another piece of toast.

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