Birds of a Feather
Algernon didn’t really understand his wife’s fondness for birds. She had come into their marriage with a parrot that had belonged to her grandmama and it had lived in a cage in the drawing room where it had moulted and shed and screeched and squawked. Algernon had loathed the parrot. One day when his wife was out making calls, Algernon had poured a dose of Godfrey’s Cordial down its feathered throat and that had been the end of the feathered nuisance.
Eleanor had been quite upset but as the bird had no mark on him, she could only accept the explanation that it had died of natural causes. If she had noticed the marks on his hand where the bird had pecked him (pecked him quite hard in fact), she had not mentioned it.
Algernon had suggested that Eleanor have the infernal thing stuffed if she missed it so much but his suggestion had been met with a stony glare and a glacial silence. Algernon had often told Eleanor that sulking did not suit her. Unlike a beautiful woman whose allure was only enhanced by a pout, a sullen expression simply magnified an ugly woman’s unappealing looks.
Eleanor was the youngest and plainest of three remarkably unattractive heiresses whose father had secured marriages for them with an open checkbook and a blind eye to their suitors’ imperfections. Algernon had never lied to Eleanor about his motives for marrying her; never pretended that he loved her. He believed she appreciated his candor and the freedom to pursue her own interests without the hindrance of sentimental illusions. So long as he appeared the doting husband in public, she did not seem to care if he took his pleasures elsewhere. He thought she was even relieved that he did not press his conjugal rights.
It had been a quite pleasant and civilized arrangement until the parrot died. But Eleanor would not stop talking about the bird. Algernon simply did not understand her continued distress. And then one day she returned home from a visit with her dear friend Amalie St. Amant—an unmarried woman whose complexion suggested a link with darkest Africa—bearing a cage with two turtle doves in it.
Eleanor told Algernon that the birds—shabby little brown and grey things—were a gift from Amalie and then conveyed them to the drawing room without asking his permission.
The birds unsettled him, perhaps because they did not appear to like him very much. When he walked by, they would puff up into angry balls of fluff and peck at the bars on their cage. Algernon began avoiding the room.
Eleanor had said that the birds were a mated pair and in due course, they produced two eggs that looked rather like chicken eggs only much smaller. On the pretext of examining the eggs with scientific curiosity, Algernon had taken them out of the cage and then dropped them on the drawing room rug, where they had shattered. He had apologized profusely for his clumsiness but Eleanor had not been mollified.
She had refused to call a maid to clean up the mess but had tended to it herself, using the luxurious fabric of her skirt to sop up the bloodied yolk and broken bird foetuses as if using a grimy kitchen rag.
She withdrew into a frigid silence that Algernon escaped by staying at his club for the next week. When he returned, Eleanor welcomed him back cordially, if not enthusiastically. She was full of blather about some woman she’d met through Amalie, a notorious advocate of free love named Victoria Woodhull. Free love was all very well for Victoria Woodhull—she was a beautiful woman—thought Algernon, but for Eleanor, Algernon feared love would always be a mercantile transaction.
He had strongly suggested that Eleanor avoid further contact with the Woodhull hussy, who was noted for her fascination with spiritualism and for her outlandish political beliefs. To his surprise, Eleanor had defied him, pointing out that since he had his own friends, she should be free to see whomever she liked. Algernon had been forced to correct her.
Two days later, Amalie had sent a note inquiring after Eleanor’s health. Algernon scribbled a reply suggesting that Eleanor had suffered a nervous breakdown and was too ill to see anyone.
An hour later a packet of books arrived for Eleanor, a gift from Amalie. Algernon assumed they were sentimental novels of the sort Eleanor favored, romances with impossibly chivalrous swains wooing impossibly virtuous virgins. Algernon didn’t believe in light reading. He perused the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal every morning and that told him all he needed to know about the news of the day and how his investments were faring.
Eleanor’s bruises were fading to yellow when she finally emerged from her boudoir. She went straight to the drawing room with one of Amalie’s books in her hand and closed herself in with the turtle doves. When she came out several hours later, there was the smell of burning salt and wet herbs in the room. An hour later, there was a single egg in the cage with the birds.
It was a most unusual egg. In fact, it didn’t look like a bird’s egg at all, but was leathery like a turtle or snake egg. It was larger than a bird’s egg also—much, much, much larger—and its shell had a sickly purplish hue.
Most peculiar of all, the shell radiated heat—so much so that the drawing room was almost tropical with it. The egg unsettled Algernon and he decided it had to be destroyed. One day, as Eleanor was in the library poring over a book, Algernon quietly opened the door to the turtle doves’ cage and removed the odd purplish egg.
Much to his dismay, the moment he touched it, hairline cracks appeared in the shell and spread until the whole egg was a mosaic held together by only the thinnest of membranes. And then a beak pecked a hole in the shell and a clawed foot stepped through the opening, followed by the rest of the …thing … that had been inside the shell.
It unfolded and unfurled and expanded until it stood at its full height, half a head taller than Algernon, who was not a small man. And as Algernon stood in the drawing room with the remains of the egg in his hands, the thing that was not a turtle dove, nor a bird of any kind, devoured him head first.
In the library, Eleanor heard the noise of Algernon’s demise and smiled. The books Amalie had loaned her were from a very special lending library open to only a select group of patrons. The knowledge they contained was esoteric and those who were not afraid to dabble in the dark arts were rewarded for their efforts.
Algernon had always boasted that he didn’t love her, assuming that so long as he escorted her to the theatre and acted charming in public she would overlook his infidelities and ignore his wanton indiscretions. He had gone too far when he’d killed her grandmother’s parrot though, and pretended that the wounds on his hands were the result of a shaving mishap and not the evidence of his crime.
Algernon had made sure Eleanor knew he didn’t love her. He’d had no idea how much she’d loathed him.