‘A remarkable imagination continually provokes both pity and terror’ OBSERVER
‘One of the last century’s most original literary talents’ DAILY TELEGRAPH
‘She wrote exciting plots . . . a writer of fearless originality’ GUARDIAN
This collection of short stories enabled du Maurier’s devoted readership to see her, for the first time in a very different guise . . . as an exponent of the sinister and macabre.
Read on for an extract from short story, The Birds:
On December the third the wind changed overnight and it was winter. Until then the autumn had been mellow, soft.The leaves had lingered on the trees, golden red, and the hedgerows were still green.The earth was rich where the plough had turned it. Nat Hocken, because of a wartime disability, had a pension and did not work full-time at the farm. He worked three days a week, and they gave him the lighter jobs: hedging, thatching, repairs to the farm buildings.
Although he was married, with children, his was a solitary disposition; he liked best to work alone. It pleased him when he was given a bank to build up, or a gate to mend at the far end of the peninsula, where the sea surrounded the farm land on either side. Then, at midday, he would pause and eat the pasty that his wife had baked for him, and sitting on the cliff’s edge would watch the birds. Autumn was best for this, better than spring. In spring the birds flew inland, purposeful, intent; they knew where they were bound, the rhythm and ritual of their life brooked no delay. In autumn those that had not migrated overseas but remained to pass the winter were caught up in the same driving urge, but because migration was denied them followed a pattern of their own. Great flocks of them came to the peninsula, restless, uneasy, spending themselves in motion; now wheeling, circling in the sky, now settling to feed on the rich new-turned soil, but even when they fed it was as though they did so without hunger, without desire. Restlessness drove them to the skies again.
Black and white, jackdaw and gull, mingled in strange partnership, seeking some sort of liberation, never satisfied, never still. Flocks of starlings, rustling like silk, flew to fresh pasture, driven by the same necessity of movement, and the smaller birds, the finches and the larks, scattered from tree to hedge as if compelled.
Nat watched them, and he watched the sea-birds too. Down in the bay they waited for the tide.They had more patience. Oyster-catchers, redshank, sanderling, and curlew watched by the water’s edge; as the slow sea sucked at the shore and then withdrew, leaving the strip of seaweed bare and the shingle churned, the sea-birds raced and ran upon the beaches. Then that same impulse to flight seized upon them too. Crying, whistling, calling, they skimmed the placid sea and left the shore. Makehaste, make speed, hurry and begone: yet where, and to what purpose? The restless urge of autumn, unsatisfying, sad, had put a spell upon them and they must flock, and wheel, and cry; they must spill themselves of motion before winter came.
Perhaps, thought Nat, munching his pasty by the cliff’s edge, a message comes to the birds in autumn, like a warning. Winter is coming. Many of them perish. And like people who, apprehensive of death before their time, drive themselves to work or folly, the birds do likewise.
The birds had been more restless than ever this fall of the year, the agitation more marked because the days were still. As the tractor traced its path up and down the western hills, the figure of the farmer silhouetted on the driving-seat, the whole machine and the man upon it would be lost momentarily in the great cloud of wheeling, crying birds. There were many more than usual, Nat was sure of this. Always, in autumn, they followed the plough, but not in great flocks like these, norwith such clamour. Nat remarked upon it, when hedging was finished for the day. ‘Yes,’ said the farmer, ‘there are more birds about than usual; I’ve noticed it too. And daring, some of them, taking no notice of the tractor. One or two gulls came so close to my head this afternoon I thought they’d knock my cap off ! As it was, I could scarcely see what I was doing, when they were overhead andI had the sun in my eyes. I have a notion the weather will change. It will be a hard winter. That’s why the birds are restless.’
Nat, tramping home across the fields and down the lane to his cottage, saw the birds still flocking over the western hills, in the last glow of the sun. No wind, and the grey sea calm and full. Campion in bloom yet in the hedges, and the air mild. The farmer was right, though, and it was that night the weather turned. Nat’s bedroom faced east. He woke just after two and heard the wind in the chimney. Not the storm and bluster of a sou’westerly gale, bringing the rain, but east wind, cold and dry. It sounded hollow in the chimney, and a loose slate rattled on the roof. Nat listened, and he coud hear the sea roaring in the bay. Even the air in the small bedroom had turned chill: a draught came under the skirting of the door, blowing upon the bed. Nat drew the blanket round him, leant closer to the back of his sleeping wife, and stayed wakeful, watchful, aware of misgiving without cause.
Then he heard the tapping on the window. There was no creeper on the cottage walls to break loose and scratch upon the pane. He listened, and the tapping continued until, irritated by the sound, Nat got out of bed and went to the window. He opened it, and as he did so something brushed his hand, jabbing at his knuckles, grazing the skin. Then he saw the flutter of the wings and it was gone, over the roof, behind the cottage.
It was a bird, what kind of bird he could not tell. The wind must have driven it to shelter on the sill.
He shut the window and went back to bed, but feeling his knuckles wet put his mouth to the scratch. The bird had drawn blood. Frightened, he supposed, and bewildered, the bird, seeking shelter, had stabbed at him in the darkness. Once more he settled himself to sleep.
Presently the tapping came again, this time more forceful, more insistent, and now his wife woke at the sound, and turning in the bed said to him, ‘See to the window, Nat, it’s rattling.’
‘I’ve already seen to it,’ he told her, ‘there’s some bird there, trying to get in. Can’t you hear the wind? It’s blowing from the east, driving the birds to shelter.’
‘Send them away,’ she said, ‘I can’t sleep with that noise.’
He went to the window for the second time, and now when he opened it there was not one bird upon the sill but half a dozen; they flew straight into his face, attacking him.
He shouted, striking out at them with his arms, scattering them; like the first one, they flew over the roof and disappeared. Quickly he let the window fall and latched it.
‘Did you hear that?’ he said. ‘They went for me.Tried to peck my eyes.’ He stood by the window, peering into the darkness, and could see nothing. His wife, heavy with sleep, murmured from the bed.
‘I’m not making it up,’ he said, angry at her suggestion. ‘I tell you the birds were on the sill, trying to get into the room.’
Suddenly a frightened cry came from the room across the passage where the children slept.
‘It’s Jill,’ said his wife, roused at the sound, sitting up in bed. ‘Go to her, see what’s the matter.’
Nat lit the candle, but when he opened the bedroom door to cross the passage the draught blew out the flame.
There came a second cry of terror, this time from both children, and stumbling into their room he felt the beating of wings about him in the darkness.The window was wide open.Through it came the birds, hitting first the ceiling and the walls, then swerving in mid-flight, turning to the children in their beds.
‘It’s all right, I’m here,’ shouted Nat, and the children flung themselves, screaming, upon him, whilein the darkness the birds rose and dived and came for him again.
‘What is it, Nat, what’s happened?’ his wife called from the further bedroom, and swiftly he pushed the children through the door to the passage and shut it upon them, so that he was alone now, in their bedroom, with the birds.
He seized a blanket from the nearest bed, and using it as a weapon flung it to right and left about him in the air. He felt the thud of bodies, heard the fluttering of wings, but they were not yet defeated, for again and again they returned to the assault, jabbing his hands, his head, the little stabbing beaks sharp as a pointed fork.The blanket became a weapon of defence; he wound it about his head, and then in greater darkness beat at the birds with his bare hands. He dared not stumble to the door and open it, lest in doing so the birds should follow him.
How long he fought with them in the darkness he could not tell, but at last the beating of the wings about him lessened and then withdrew, and through the density of the blanket he was aware of light. He waited, listened; there was no sound except the fretful crying of one of the children from the bedroom beyond.The fluttering, the whirring of the wings had ceased.
He took the blanket from his head and stared about him. The cold grey morning light exposed the room. Dawn, and the open window, had called the living birds; the dead lay on the floor. Nat gazed at the little corpses, shocked and horrified. They were all small birds, none of any size; there must have been fifty of them lying there upon the floor.There were robins, finches, sparrows, blue tits, larks and bramblings, birds that by nature’s law kept to their own flock and their own territory, and now, joining one with another in their urge for battle, had destroyed themselves against the bedroom walls, or in the strife had been destroyed by him. Some had lost feathers in the fight, others had blood, his blood, upon their beaks.
Sickened, Nat went to the window and stared out across his patch of garden to the fields.
It was bitter cold, and the ground had all the hard black look of frost. Not white frost, to shine in the morning sun, but the black frost that the east wind brings. The sea, fiercer now with the turning tide, white-capped and steep, broke harshly in the bay. Of the birds there was no sign. Not a sparrow chattered in the hedge beyond the garden gate, no early misselthrush or blackbird pecked on the grass for worms. There was no sound at all but the east wind and the sea.
Nat shut the window and the door of the small bedroom, and went back across the passage to his own. His wife sat up in bed, one child asleep beside her, the smaller in her arms, his face bandaged. The curtains were tightly drawn across the window, the candles lit. Her face looked garish in the yellow light. She shook her head for silence.
‘He’s sleeping now,’ she whispered, ‘but only just. Something must have cut him, there was blood at the corner of his eyes. Jill said it was the birds. She said she woke up, and the birds were in the room.’
His wife looked up at Nat, searching his face for confirmation. She looked terrified, bewildered, and he did not want her to know that he was also shaken, dazed almost, by the events of the past few hours.
‘There are birds in there,’ he said, ‘dead birds, nearly fifty of them. Robins, wrens, all the little birds from hereabouts. It’s as though a madness seized them, with the east wind.’ He sat down on the bed beside his wife, and held her hand. ‘It’s the weather,’ he said, ‘it must be that, it’s the hard weather.They aren’t the birds, maybe, from here around.They’ve been driven down, from up country.’
‘But Nat,’ whispered his wife, ‘it’s only this night that the weather turned. There’s been no snow to drive them. And they can’t be hungry yet. There’s food for them, out there, in the fields.’
‘It’s the weather,’ repeated Nat. ‘I tell you, it’s the weather.’
His face too was drawn and tired, like hers.They stared at one another for a while without speaking.
‘I’ll go downstairs and make a cup of tea,’ he said.
The sight of the kitchen reassured him. The cups and saucers, neatly stacked upon the dresser, the table and chairs, his wife’s roll of knitting on her basket chair, the children’s toys in a corner cupboard.
He knelt down, raked out the old embers and relit the fire. The glowing sticks brought normality, the steaming kettle and the brown teapot comfort and security. He drank his tea, carried a cup up to his wife.Then he washed in the scullery, and, putting on his boots, opened the back door.
The sky was hard and leaden, and the brown hills that had gleamed in the sun the day before looked dark and bare. The east wind, like a razor, stripped the trees, and the leaves, crackling and dry, shivered and scattered with the wind’s blast. Nat stubbed the earth with his boot. It was frozen hard. He had never known achange so swift and sudden. Black winter had descended in a single night.
The children were awake now. Jill was chattering upstairs and young Johnny crying once again. Nat heard his wife’s voice, soothing, comforting. Presently they came down. He had breakfast ready for them, and the routine of the day began.
‘Did you drive away the birds?’ asked Jill, restored to calm because of the kitchen fire, because of day, because of breakfast. ‘Yes, they’ve all gone now,’ said Nat. ‘It was the east wind brought themin. They were frightened and lost, they wanted shelter.’
‘They tried to peck us,’ said Jill. ‘They went for Johnny’s eyes.’
‘Fright made them do that,’ said Nat.‘They didn’t know where they were, in the dark bedroom.’
‘I hope they won’t come again,’ said Jill. ‘Perhaps if we put bread for them outside the window they will eat that and fly away.’
She finished her breakfast and then went for her coat and hood, her school books and her satchel. Nat said nothing, but his wife looked at him across the table. A silent message passed between them.
‘I’ll walk with her to the bus,’ he said, ‘I don’t go to the farm today.’
And while the child was washing in the scullery he said to his wife, ‘Keep all the windows closed, and the doors too. Just to be on the safe side. I’ll go to the farm. Find out if they heard anything in the night.’ Then he walked with his small daughter up the lane. She seemed to have forgotten her experience of the night before. She danced ahead of him, chasing the leaves, her face whipped with the cold and rosy under the pixie hood.
‘Is it going to snow, Dad?’ she said. ‘It’s cold enough.’
He glanced up at the bleak sky, felt the wind tear at his shoulders.
‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s not going to snow. This is a black winter, not a white one.’
All the while he searched the hedgerows for the birds, glanced over the top of them to the fields beyond, looked to the small wood above the farm where the rooks and jackdaws gathered. He saw none.