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      The Devourers


      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


      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.

      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."

      "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 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 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.


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