The Devourers

The Devourers
Title: The Devourers
Release Date: 2012-03-14
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 26 March 2019
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[Pg ii]

The Devourers
By
A. Vivanti Chartres


G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
New York And London
The Knickerbocker Press
1910

 

[Pg iii]

Copyright, 1910, by
A. VIVANTI CHARTRES.

 [Pg iv]

TO MY WONDERCHILD
VIVIEN
TO READ WHEN SHE HAS WONDERCHILDREN
OF HER OWN

[Pg v]

 

 

[Pg vi]

PREFACE

There was a man, and he had a canary. He said, "What a dear littlecanary! I wish it were an eagle." God said to him: "If you give yourheart to it to feed on, it will become an eagle." So the man gave hisheart to it to feed on. And it became an eagle, and plucked his eyesout.

There was a woman, and she had a kitten. She said: "What a dear littlekitten! I wish it were a tiger." God said to her: "If you give yourlife's blood to it to drink, it will become a tiger." So the woman gaveher life's blood to it to drink. And it became a tiger, and tore her topieces.

There was a man and a woman, and they had a child. They said: "What adear little child! We wish it were a genius." ...

BOOK I

[Pg 1]

I-I

The baby opened its eyes and said: "I am hungry."

Nothing moved in the silent, shadowy room, and the baby repeated itsbrief inarticulate cry. There were hurrying footsteps; light arms raisedit, and a laughing voice soothed it with senseless, sweet-soundingwords. Then its cheek was laid on a cool young breast, and all was tepidtenderness and mild delight. Soon, on the wave of a light-swingingbreath, it drooped into sleep again.


Edith Avory had hurried home across the meadow from the children's partyat the vicarage, her pendant plaits flying, her straw hat aslant, andnow she entered the dining-room of the Grey House fluttered andbreathless.

"Have they come?" she asked of Florence, who was laying the cloth fortea.

"Yes, dear," answered the maid.

"Where are they? Where is the baby?" and, without waiting for an answer,the child ran out of the room and helter-skeltered upstairs.

In front of the nursery she stopped. It was her own room, but throughthe closed door she had heard a weak, shrill cry that plucked at herheart. Slowly she opened the door, then paused on the threshold,startled and disappointed.[Pg 2]

Near the window, gazing out across the verdant Hertfordshire fields, sata large, square-faced woman in pink print, and on her lap, facedownward, wrapped in flannel, lay a baby. The nurse was slapping it onthe back with quick, regular pats. Edith saw the soles of two little redfeet, and at the other end a small, oblong head, covered with soft blackhair.

"Oh dear!" said Edith. "Is that the baby?"

"Please shut the door, miss," said the nurse.

"I thought babies had yellow hair, with long muslin dresses and bluebows," faltered Edith.

The square-faced nurse did not answer, but continued pat—pat—pat withher large hand on the small round back.

Edith stepped a little nearer. "Why do you do that?" she asked.

The woman looked the little girl up and down before she answered. Thenshe said, "Wind," and went on patting.

Edith wondered what that meant. Did it refer to the weather? or was it,perhaps, a slangy servant's way of saying, "Leave me alone" or "Holdyour tongue"?

"Has the baby's mother come too?" she asked.

"Yes," said the nurse; "and when you go out, will you please shut thedoor behind you?"

Edith did so.

She heard voices in her mother's room, and looked in. Sitting near hermother on the sofa was a girl dressed in black, with black hair, likethe baby's. She was crying bitterly into a small black-edgedhandkerchief.

"Oh, Edith dear," said her mother, "that's right! Come here. This isyour sister Valeria. Kiss her, and tell her not to cry." [Pg 3]

"But where is the baby's mother?" said Edith, glad to gain time beforekissing the wet, unknown face.

The girl in mourning lifted her eyes, dark and swimming, from thehandkerchief. "It is me," she said, with a swift, shining smile, and oneof her tears rolled into a dimple and stopped there. "What a dear littlegirl for my baby to play with!" she added, and kissed Edith on bothcheeks.

"That size baby cannot play," said Edith, drying her face with the backof her hand. "And the woman was hitting it!"

"Hitting it!" cried the girl in black, jumping up.

"Hitting it!" cried Edith's mother.

And they both hurried out.

Edith, left alone, looked round the familiar room. On her mother's bedlay a little flannel blanket like the one the baby was wearing, and ababy's cap, and some knitted socks, and a rubber rattle. On a chair wasa black jacket and a hat trimmed with crape and dull black cherries.Edith squeezed one of the cherries, which broke stickily. Then she wentto the looking-glass and tried the hat on. Her long small face lookedback at her gravely under the caliginous head-dress, as she shook herhead from side to side, to make it totter and tilt. "When I am a widow Ishall wear a thing like this," she said to herself, and then dropped itfrom her head upon the chair. She quickly squeezed another cherry, andwent out to look at the baby.

It was in the nursery in its grandmother's arms, being danced up anddown; its fist was in its mouth, and its large eyes stared at nothing.Its mother, the girl in black, was on her knees before it, clapping her [Pg 4]hands and saying: "Cara! Cara! Cara! Bella! Bella! Bella!" Wilson, thenurse, with her back to them, was emptying Edith's chest of drawers, andputting all Edith's things neatly folded upon the table, ready to betaken to a little room upstairs that was henceforth to be hers. For thebaby needed Edith's room.

The little girl soon tired of looking, and went down to the garden.Passing the verandah, she could hear the gardener laughing and talkingwith Florence. He was saying:

"Now, of course, Miss Edith's nose is quite put out of joint."

Florence said: "I'm afraid so, poor lamb!"

Edith ran to the shrubbery, and put her hand to her nose. It did nothurt her; it felt much the same as usual. Still, she was anxious andvaguely disturbed. "I must tell the Brown boy," she said, and went tothe kitchen-garden to look for him.

There he was, on his knees, patting mould round the strawberry-plants; agood deal of earth was on his face and in his rusty hair.

"Good-evening," said Edith, stopping near him, with her hands behindher.

"Hullo!" said the gardener's boy, looking up.

"They've come," said Edith.

"Have they?" and Jim Brown sat back on his heels and cleaned his fingerson his trousers.

"The baby is black," said Edith.

"Sakes alive!" said Jim, opening large light eyes that seemed to havedropped into his face by mistake.

"It has got black hair," continued Edith, "and a red face."

"Oh, Miss Edith, you are a goose!" said the Brown [Pg 5] boy. "That's allright. I thought you meant it was all black, because of its mother beinga foreigner."

Edith shook her head. "It's not all right. Babies should have goldenhair."

"What is the mother like?" asked Jim.

"She's black, too; and the nurse is horrid. And what is the matter withmy nose?"

"Eh?" said Jim Brown.

"Yes. Look at my nose. What's wrong with it?"

The Brown boy looked at it. Then he looked closer. Little by little anexpression of horror came over his face. "Oh!" he exclaimed. "Oh my!Just think of it!"

"What? What is it?" cried Edith. "It was all right just now." And as theboy kept staring at her nose with growing amazement, she screamed: "Tellme what it is! Tell me, or I'll hit you!"

Then the Brown boy got up and danced round her in a frenzy of horror atwhat was the matter with her nose; so she took a small stone and threwit at him. Whereupon he went back to his strawberry-plants, and declinedto speak to her any more.

When he saw her walking forlornly away with her hand to her nose, andher two plaits dangling despondently behind, he felt sorry, and calledher back.

"I was only larking, Miss Edith. Your nose is all right." So she wascomforted, and sat down on the grass to talk to him.

"Valeria speaks Italian to the baby, and they have come to stay always,"she said. "The baby is going to have my room, and I am going to beupstairs near Florence. We are all going to dress in black, because of [Pg 6]my brother Tom having died. And mamma has been crying about it for thelast four days. And that baby is my niece."

"Your brother, Master Tom, was the favourite with them all, wasn't he?"said Jim.

"Oh, yes," said Edith. "There were so many of us that, of course, themiddle ones were liked best."

"I don't quite see that," said Jim.

"Oh, well," explained Edith, "I suppose they were tired of the old ones,and did not want the new ones, so that's why. Anyhow," she added, "itdoesn't matter. They're all dead now."

Then she helped him with the strawberry-plants until it was time fortea.

Her grandfather came to call her in—a tall, stately figure, shufflingslowly down the gravel path. Edith ran to meet him, and put her warmfingers into his cool, shrivelled hand. Together they walked towards thehouse.

"Have you seen them, grandpapa?" she asked, curvetting round him, as heproceeded at gentle pace across the lawn.

"Seen whom, my dear?" asked the old gentleman.

"Valeria and the baby."

"What baby?" said the grandfather, stopping to rest and listen.

"Why, Tom's baby, grandpapa," said Edith. "You know—the baby of Tom whois dead. It has come to stay here with its mother and nurse. Her name isWilson."

"Dear me!" said the grandfather, and walked on a few steps.

Then he paused again. "So Tom is dead." [Pg 7]

"Oh, you knew that long ago. I told you so."

"So you did," said the old gentleman. He took off his skullcap, andpassed his hand over his soft white hair. "Which Tom is that—my son Tomor his son Tom?"

"Both Toms," said Edith. "They're both dead. One died four days ago, andthe other died six years ago, and you oughtn't to mix them up like that.One was my papa and your son, and the other was his son and the baby'spapa. Now don't forget that again."

"No, my dear," said the grandfather. Then, after a while: "And you sayhis name is Wilson?"

"Whose name?" exclaimed Edith.

"Why, my dear, how should I know?" said the grandfather.

Then Edith laughed, and the old gentleman laughed with her.

"Never mind," said Edith. "Come in and see the baby—your son Tom'sson's baby."

"Your son's Tom's sons," murmured the grandfather, stopping again tothink. "Tom's sons your son's Tom's sons ... Where do I put in thebaby?"

Edith awoke in the middle of the night, listening and alert. "What isthat?" she said, sitting up in bed.

Florence's voice came from the adjoining room: "Go to sleep, my lamb.It's only the baby."

"Why does it scream like that?"

"It must have got turned round like," explained Florence sleepily.

"Then why don't they turn it straight again?" asked Edith.[Pg 8]

"Oh, Miss Edith," replied Florence impatiently, "do go to sleep. When ababy gets 'turned round,' it means that it sleeps all day and screamsall night."

And so it did.

II

A gentle blue February was slipping out when March tore in withscreaming winds and rushing rains. He pushed the diffident greennessback, and went whistling rudely across the lands. The chilly drenchedseason stood still. One morning Spring peeped round the corner anddropped a crocus or two and a primrose or two. She whisked off again,with the wind after her, but looked in later between two showers. Andsuddenly, one day, there she was, enthroned and garlanded.Frost-spangles melted at her feet, and the larks rose.

Valeria borrowed Edith's garden-hat, tied it under her chin with a blackribbon, and went out into the young sunshine across the fields. Aroundher was the gloss of recent green, pushing upwards to the immature blueof the sky. And Tom, her husband, was dead.

Tom lay in the dark, away from it all, under it all, in the distantlittle cemetery

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