Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Devourers, by Annie Vivanti Chartres - Full Text

[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 little canary! I wish it were an eagle." God said to him: "If you give your heart to it to feed on, it will become an eagle." So the man gave his heart to it to feed on. And it became an eagle, and plucked his eyes out.
There was a woman, and she had a kitten. She said: "What a dear little kitten! I wish it were a tiger." God said to her: "If you give your life's blood to it to drink, it will become a tiger." So the woman gave her life's blood to it to drink. And it became a tiger, and tore her to pieces.
There was a man and a woman, and they had a child. They said: "What a dear 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 its brief inarticulate cry. There were hurrying footsteps; light arms raised it, and a laughing voice soothed it with senseless, sweet-sounding words. Then its cheek was laid on a cool young breast, and all was tepid tenderness and mild delight. Soon, on the wave of a light-swinging breath, it drooped into sleep again.

Edith Avory had hurried home across the meadow from the children's party at the vicarage, her pendant plaits flying, her straw hat aslant, and now she entered the dining-room of the Grey House fluttered and breathless.
"Have they come?" she asked of Florence, who was laying the cloth for tea.
"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 through the closed door she had heard a weak, shrill cry that plucked at her heart. 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, sat a large, square-faced woman in pink print, and on her lap, face downward, wrapped in flannel, lay a baby. The nurse was slapping it on the back with quick, regular pats. Edith saw the soles of two little red feet, and at the other end a small, oblong head, covered with soft black hair.
"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 blue bows," faltered Edith.
The square-faced nurse did not answer, but continued pat—pat—pat with her 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. Then she 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 "Hold your tongue"?
"Has the baby's mother come too?" she asked.
"Yes," said the nurse; "and when you go out, will you please shut the door behind you?"
Edith did so.
She heard voices in her mother's room, and looked in. Sitting near her mother on the sofa was a girl dressed in black, with black hair, like the baby's. She was crying bitterly into a small black-edged handkerchief.
"Oh, Edith dear," said her mother, "that's right! Come here. This is your 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 before kissing the wet, unknown face.
The girl in mourning lifted her eyes, dark and swimming, from the handkerchief. "It is me," she said, with a swift, shining smile, and one of her tears rolled into a dimple and stopped there. "What a dear little girl for my baby to play with!" she added, and kissed Edith on both cheeks.
"That size baby cannot play," said Edith, drying her face with the back of 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 bed lay a little flannel blanket like the one the baby was wearing, and a baby's cap, and some knitted socks, and a rubber rattle. On a chair was a black jacket and a hat trimmed with crape and dull black cherries. Edith squeezed one of the cherries, which broke stickily. Then she went to the looking-glass and tried the hat on. Her long small face looked back at her gravely under the caliginous head-dress, as she shook her head from side to side, to make it totter and tilt. "When I am a widow I shall wear a thing like this," she said to herself, and then dropped it from her head upon the chair. She quickly squeezed another cherry, and went out to look at the baby.
It was in the nursery in its grandmother's arms, being danced up and down; 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, the nurse, with her back to them, was emptying Edith's chest of drawers, and putting all Edith's things neatly folded upon the table, ready to be taken to a little room upstairs that was henceforth to be hers. For the baby 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 talking with 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 not hurt her; it felt much the same as usual. Still, she was anxious and vaguely disturbed. "I must tell the Brown boy," she said, and went to the kitchen-garden to look for him.
There he was, on his knees, patting mould round the strawberry-plants; a good deal of earth was on his face and in his rusty hair.
"Good-evening," said Edith, stopping near him, with her hands behind her.
"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 fingers on his trousers.
"The baby is black," said Edith.
"Sakes alive!" said Jim, opening large light eyes that seemed to have dropped 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 all right. I thought you meant it was all black, because of its mother being a foreigner."
Edith shook her head. "It's not all right. Babies should have golden hair."
"What is the mother like?" asked Jim.
"She's black, too; and the nurse is horrid. And what is the matter with my 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 an expression 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 the boy kept staring at her nose with growing amazement, she screamed: "Tell me 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 at what was the matter with her nose; so she took a small stone and threw it at him. Whereupon he went back to his strawberry-plants, and declined to speak to her any more.
When he saw her walking forlornly away with her hand to her nose, and her two plaits dangling despondently behind, he felt sorry, and called her back.
"I was only larking, Miss Edith. Your nose is all right." So she was comforted, 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 be upstairs 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 the last 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, the middle 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, "it doesn't matter. They're all dead now."
Then she helped him with the strawberry-plants until it was time for tea.
Her grandfather came to call her in—a tall, stately figure, shuffling slowly down the gravel path. Edith ran to meet him, and put her warm fingers into his cool, shrivelled hand. Together they walked towards the house.
"Have you seen them, grandpapa?" she asked, curvetting round him, as he proceeded 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 who is dead. It has come to stay here with its mother and nurse. Her name is Wilson."
"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, and passed his hand over his soft white hair. "Which Tom is that—my son Tom or his son Tom?"
"Both Toms," said Edith. "They're both dead. One died four days ago, and the 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's papa. Now don't forget that again."
"No, my dear," said the grandfather. Then, after a while: "And you say his 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's son's baby."
"Your son's Tom's sons," murmured the grandfather, stopping again to think. "Tom's sons your son's Tom's sons ... Where do I put in the baby?"
Edith awoke in the middle of the night, listening and alert. "What is that?" 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 a baby gets 'turned round,' it means that it sleeps all day and screams all night."
And so it did.

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