The Parasites


By Daphne du Maurier

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When people play the game: Name three or four persons whom you would choose to have with you on a desert island – they never choose the Delaneys. They don’t even choose us one by one as individuals. We have earned, not always fairly we consider, the reputation of being difficult guests . . .

Maria, Niall, and Celia have grown up in the shadow of their famous parents – their father, a flamboyant singer and their mother, a talented dancer. Now pursuing their own creative dreams, all three siblings feel an undeniable bond, but it is Maria and Niall who share the secret of their parents’ pasts.

Alternately comic and poignant, The Parasites is based on the artistic milieu its author knew best, and draws the reader effortlessly into that magical world.


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Animal Parasites are invertebrate animals which have taken up their abode in or upon the living bodies of other animals.

From a broad biological outlook parasitism is a negative reaction to the struggle for existence, and always implies a mode of life that is nearer the line of least resistance…

Occasional parasites are to be distinguished from permanent parasites. Among the former are the bed-bug and the leech, which usually abandon their host when they have obtained their object.

In the embryo stage they are migratory, moving from host to host, or to a free life before becoming mature…

Among the latter are the so-called fish-lice, which, with piercing mouth organs and elaborate clinging apparatus, remain in the same host always, and are among the most degenerate parasites known.

Parasites affect their hosts by feeding upon their living tissues or cells, and the intensity of the effect upon the hosts ranges from the slightest local injury to complete destruction.

The Encyclopedia Britannica.


It was Charles who called us the parasites. The way he said it was surprising, and sudden; he was one of those quiet reserved sort of men, not given to talking much or stating his opinion, unless upon the most ordinary facts of day by day, so that his outburst—coming, as it did, towards the end of the long, wet Sunday afternoon, when we had none of us done anything but read the papers and yawn and stretch before the fire—had the force of an explosion. We were all sitting in the long, low room at Farthings, darker than usual because of the rain. The french windows gave very little light, chopped as they were in small square panes that added to the beauty of the house from without, but inside had all the appearance of prison bars, oddly depressing.

The grandfather clock in the corner ticked slowly and unevenly; now and again it gave a little cough, hesitating momentarily, like an old man with asthma, then ploughed on again with quiet insistence. The fire in the basket grate had sunk rather low; the mixture of coke and coal had caked in a solid lump, giving no warmth; and the logs that had been flung carelessly on top earlier in the afternoon smoldered in dull fashion, needing the bellows to coax them into life. The papers were strewn about the floor, and the empty cardboard covers of gramophone records were among them, along with a cushion that had fallen from the sofa. These things may have added to Charles's irritation. He was an orderly man, with a methodical mind, and looking back now with the realization that his mind was at that time laboring under heavy strain, that he had in fact reached a point where it was imperative that he should make up his mind about the future and come to a decision, it is understandable that these little things—the untidiness of the room, the casual, careless, sprawling atmosphere which pervaded the whole house when Maria came for the weekend, and which he had endured now for so many months and years—acted as the first spark to fan the boiling resentment into flame.

Maria lay, as she always lay, stretched out upon the sofa. Her eyes were closed, her usual defense against attack from any quarter, so that people who did not know her thought she slept, that she was tired after a long week in London, that she needed rest.

Her right hand, with Niall's ring upon the third finger, drooped in weary fashion over the side of the sofa, the finger-tips touching the floor. Charles must have seen it from where he sat, in his deep armchair, opposite the sofa; and although he had seen and known the ring for as long as he had known Maria, accepting it in the first place as he would have done any personal belonging of hers dating possibly from childhood days, like a comb, a bracelet, worn from routine without sentiment; yet the sight of it now, the pale aquamarine stone, clinging tightly to the third finger, so valueless and paltry compared to the sapphire engagement ring that he himself had given her, and the wedding ring too, both of which she was always leaving about on the washbasin and forgetting, may have served as further fuel to his smoldering anger.

He would know, too, that Maria was not sleeping. The play she had been reading was thrown aside—the pages were already crumpled and one of them torn, the puppy had been allowed to play with it—and there was the smear of a sticky sweet dropped by one of the children on the cover. During the next week or so the play would be returned to the owner, with the usual note from Maria scribbled in her careless handwriting or typed on the indifferent machine she had bought at a junk-sale years ago: "Much as I liked your play, which I found extremely interesting and which I am sure will be a great success, I don't somehow feel that I should be quite right or really what you want in the part of Rita…" and the owner, though disappointed, would be flattered and say to his friends, "She liked it enormously, yes indeed," and think of her ever afterwards with regard, almost with affection.

But now the play lay on the floor, scrapped and forgotten with the Sunday papers, and whether any thought of it passed through Maria's mind as she lay on the sofa, with her eyes closed, Charles would never know. He had no answer to that, or to any of her thoughts, and the smile that hovered a moment at the corner of her mouth and went as swiftly—it happened now, in her pretence of sleep—had no connection with him, or with his feelings, or with their life together. It was remote, the smile of someone he had never known. But Niall knew. Niall was sitting hunched on the window seat with his knees drawn up, staring at nothing; and even from there he had caught the smile, and guessed the reason.

"The black dinner dress," he said, apparently without reason, "tightly cut, revealing every curve. Doesn't it just show what sort of man he must be? Did you get beyond page five? I didn't."

"Page four," said Maria, her eyes still closed, her voice coming from a lost world. "The dress slips, a little further on, betraying a white shoulder. I skipped to see. I think he must be a little man with pince-nez, going rather thin on top, and too many gold fillings."

"Kind to children," said Niall.

"Dresses up as Father Christmas," went on Maria, "but they're never fooled because he's not careful enough about hitching up his trousers, and they will show under the red gown."

"He went to France last summer for his holiday."

"That's where he got the idea; he watched a woman across the dining room at the hotel; nothing happened, of course. But he couldn't take his eyes off her bosom."

"Now it's out of his system he feels better."

"The dog doesn't, though. He was sick on the lawn just now, under the cedar tree. He's eaten up page nine."

The movement from the armchair, as Charles changed his position and straightened out the sports page of the Sunday Times, should have warned them of irritation, but they took no notice.

Only Celia, intuitive as always to approaching storm, raised her head from her workbasket, and flashed the warning glance which was disregarded. Had the three of us been by ourselves she would have joined in also, from force of habit, from amusement; because this was something we had always done, from childhood days, from the beginning. But she was a guest, a visitor, and it was Charles's house. She felt instinctively that Charles disliked the tone of banter between Niall and Maria, which he did not share; and the silly mockery of the author whose tangled play lay on the floor, discarded by the puppy, seemed to him cheap and not particularly funny.

In a moment, Celia thought, watching Niall straighten up and stretch his arms, Niall will wander to the piano, and yawn, and frown, and stare at the keyboard with that tense look of concentration that means in reality he is thinking of nothing at all, or merely what there would be for supper, or whether there was another packet of cigarettes up in his bedroom; and he will begin to play, softly at first, whistling under his breath, as he had always done since he was twelve years old, on those old prim upright French pianos; and Maria without opening her eyes would stretch also, and put her arms under her head, and hum softly, under her breath, in tune to Niall. At first he would lead, and she would follow, and then Maria would break away into a different song, a different melody, and it would be Niall who caught the pattern and come ghosting after her in repetition.

And Celia thought that she must in some way, however clumsily, prevent Niall going to the piano. Not because Charles would dislike the music; but because it would be yet another of those unnecessary pointers to the fact, from which he must suffer, year in, year out, that Niall alone, before husband, sister, children, knew what went on in the closed shell that was Maria's mind.

Celia put down the workbasket—weekends at Farthings were generally spent in mending the children's socks, poor Polly couldn't keep pace with them, and of course nobody asked Maria—and swiftly, before Niall could settle himself at the piano (he was already straddling the stool and opening the lid), said to Charles, "We none of us seem to do the Acrostic nowadays. There was a time when we all had our heads buried in dictionaries and encyclopedias, and things. What is the first upright, today, Charles?"

There was a moment's pause, and then Charles said, "I haven't looked at the Acrostic. A word of nine letters in the crossword caught my attention."

"Oh, what was that?"

"An invertebrate animal preying upon the body of another animal."

Niall struck the first chord on the piano.

"A parasite," he said.

Then the explosion came. Charles threw down his paper on the floor, and got up from his chair. We saw that his face was white and tense, and his mouth a thin hard line. He had never looked like this before.

"Correct," he said, "a parasite. And that's what you are, the three of you. Parasites. The whole bunch. You always have been and you always will be. Nothing can change you. You are doubly, triply parasitic; first, because you've traded ever since childhood on that seed of talent you had the luck to inherit from your fantastic forebears; secondly, because you've none of you done a stroke of ordinary honest work in your lives, but batten upon us, the fool public who allow you to exist; and thirdly, because you prey upon each other, the three of you, living in a world of fantasy which you have created for yourselves and which bears no relation to anything in heaven or on earth."

He stood there, staring down at us, and for a moment none of us said anything. It was painful, embarrassing, not a time for laughter. The attack was far too personal. Maria opened her eyes now and lay back against the cushion, watching Charles, an odd, self-conscious expression upon her face, like a child uncertain of punishment who has been caught out in misdemeanor. Niall remained rooted to the piano, looking at nothing and at no one. Celia folded her hands in her lap and waited, passive and expectant, for the next blow. She wished she had not taken off her glasses when she put aside the workbasket—she felt naked now without them. They served as a defense.

"What do you mean?" said Maria. "How do we live in a world of fantasy?"

She spoke in her puzzled voice, the voice that went with wide-eyed innocence—Niall and Celia recognized the note at once, and so perhaps did Charles, who possibly was deceived no longer, not after years of marriage.

He rose to the bait, gladly, like a voracious fish.

"You have never lived anywhere else," he said, "and you are not an individual at all, you're just a hotch-potch of every character you've ever acted. Your mood and your personality change with each new part that comes along. There is no such woman as Maria, there never has been. Even your children know it. And that's why they are fascinated by you, for two days only, and then go running up to the nursery to Polly, because Polly is real, and genuine, and alive."

These are things, thought Celia, that men and women say to each other in bedrooms. Not in drawing rooms, not on Sunday afternoons, and please Maria don't answer him back, don't whip up his anger more, because it is obvious now that he has been unhappy for a long while, and none of us knew, or understood, it has been boiling up for months, for years… She plunged into the battle to forestall Maria. She must guard both Niall and Maria from attack, as she had always done.

"I do understand what you mean, Charles," she said. "Maria does alter, of course, with different parts, but then she used to do that when we were children, she was always being somebody else. But it's not fair to say she doesn't work. You know how she works, you've been to rehearsals, or you used to, at one time—it's her life, it's her profession, everything goes into it, you must admit that."

Charles laughed, and Maria knew from the sound of the laugh that Celia had not made things any better, only worse.

Once Maria could have dealt with that laugh; she would have got up from the sofa and put her arm round Charles, and said, "Don't be such an old silly. What's bitten you, my darling?" And she would have led him off to the farm buildings and feigned an interest in some old tractor, or a bin of corn, or fallen slates from an outhouse, anything to preserve the serenity of their being together; but nowadays, it was different, these things did not work anymore, and surely now, thought Maria, at this late hour, he is not going to start being jealous of Niall; it would be too silly, too futile; he must know that Niall is like another part of me and always has been. I have never let it interfere with my marriage, my work or with anything, it hasn't hurt Charles, it hasn't hurt anyone, it is just that Niall and I, Niall and I… and then her thoughts lost themselves in a tangled web and she felt suddenly frightened, like a child in a dark room.

"Work?" said Charles. "You can call it work, if you like. A circus dog, trained as a puppy, jumps for a biscuit, and then jumps automatically for the rest of its life when the lights go on in the tent and the people clap."

What a pity, thought Niall, that Charles has never talked in this way before. We might have been friends. I perfectly understand his point of view. This is the kind of conversation that I like having when everyone else is rather tight and I am perfectly sober and it's about half-past four in the morning; but now, in Charles's own house, it's somehow all wrong, and rather terrible, like a priest for whom one has a great respect suddenly taking his trousers off in church.

"But the people enjoy watching the dog," he said swiftly, trying to divert Charles. "That's why they go to the circus, for distraction. Maria supplies the same drug in the theater, and I give it in large doses to all the errand-boys who whistle my songs. I think you've got hold of the wrong word. We're pedlars, hawking our wares—not parasites."

Charles looked across the room at Niall seated at the piano. Here it comes, boys and girls, thought Niall; this is what I've been waiting for all my life, a real slashing blow beneath the belt; how tragic that it has to come from dear old Charles.

"You…?" There was a world of scorn in his voice, of contempt, of bitter pent-up jealousy.

"What about me?" said Niall, and just as a house loses all charm from without when the shutters are drawn, the light went away from his expressive face, leaving it blank and impersonal.

"You're a freak," said Charles, "and you have the intelligence to realize it, which must be singularly unpleasant for you."

Oh, no… no… thought Celia, this is the worst yet, and why did it have to happen today, this afternoon? This is all my fault for asking about the Acrostic. I should have suggested a good walk across the park and through the woods before tea.

Maria got up from the sofa and threw a log onto the fire, and she wondered what would be the best thing to do; whether to make a gigantic, foolish joke, or to whip round and scream and have a tearing scene to clear the air, so that the attention would focus on her and away from Niall, an old childhood trick that had worked well when they were little and Niall had been in trouble from Pappy, or Mama, or old Truda. Or whether it would not be best to get out of the house, and away, and up in the car to London, and forget that this disastrous Sunday had ever happened? She would soon forget, she forgot everything, nothing stayed in her mind for very long. It was Niall himself who saved the situation. He closed the lid of the piano, and went over to the window, and stood watching the trees at the end of the lawn.

It was that still, quiet moment before dark that comes at the close of a short winter's day. The rain had stopped, too late now to matter. The trees were lovely, and forlorn, massed together where the woods began, and the old dead, naked branch of a fir twisted a grotesque arm into the sky. A dank starling grubbed for worms in the wet grass. These were the things Niall knew and loved and watched when he was alone, they were the things he would have drawn had he known how to draw, the things he would have painted had he known how to paint, the things he would have woven into music had the sounds that came into his head, day in, day out, gone out again as symphonies. But that never happened. The sounds went out as jingles, as catch-penny tunes, whistled by errand-boys at street corners, sung by giggling shop-girls for a fortnight and forgotten, the pitiful, cheap nonsense that was his single claim to fame. No genius, no real power was his; only a small seed of inherited talent that enabled him to spin out one tune after another, without effort, without even inclination, and thereby reap a fortune, which he did not want.

"You're so right," he said to Charles, "so absolutely and entirely right. I am a freak." And for a moment he looked haunted, as he had looked many years ago as a little boy when Mama ignored him, and to show that he did not care would run to the hotel window that looked out over the Paris street and spit on the heads of passersby; then he was haunted no longer, he ran his fingers through his hair, and smiled.

"You win, Charles," he said; "the parasites are defeated. But if I remember my biology aright, in the long run the hosts they prey upon die too." He went over to the piano again, and sat down.

"Never mind," he said, "you've given me an idea for another worthless song." He struck the favorite chords of his favorite key, smiling still at Charles.

"Let's all prey upon each other,

Let's all feed upon ourselves,"

he sang softly, and the sensuous dancing rhythm of the foolish song broke into the tense, disastrous atmosphere of the dark drawing room like the sudden laughter of a child.

Charles turned on his heel and went out of the room.

And the three of us were left alone.


People always gossiped about us, even as children. We created a strange sort of hostility wherever we went. In those days, during and after the First World War, when other children were well-mannered and conventional, we were ill-disciplined and wild. Those dreadful Delaneys… Maria was disliked because she imitated everyone, and not always behind their backs. She had the uncanny knack of exaggerating some little fault or idiosyncrasy, the turn of a person's head, the shrug of a shoulder, the inflection in a voice, and her unfortunate victim would be aware of this, aware of Maria's large blue eyes that looked so innocent, so full of dreams, and which were in reality pondering diabolical mischief.

Niall was disliked not so much because of what he said, but more for what he did not say. A shy, taciturn child, with a sullen expression like a Slav, his silence was full of meaning. The grown-up individual meeting him for the first time would feel summed-up and judged, and definitely discarded. Glances would pass between Niall and Maria to show that this was so, and later, not even out of earshot, would come the sounds of ridicule and laughter.

Celia was tolerated because she had inherited, by a stroke of fortune, the charm of both her parents and none of their failings. She had Pappy's large generous heart, without his emotional extravagance, and Mama's grace of manner with none of Mama's power for destruction. Even her talent for drawing—which did not develop in strength until later—was a kindly quality. Her sketches were never caricatures, as Maria's would have been; nor were they twisted to the bitterness that Niall would have given them. Her fault, as a child, was a fault common to all youngest children; a propensity to weep, to whine, to clamber on people's knees and seek indulgence. And because she had neither Maria's grace nor her beauty, but was a stout, heavy little girl with red cheeks and mousy hair, the adult was soon bored, wishing to push her away like a clinging dog, whereupon Celia's eyes would fill with tears and the adult feel ashamed.

We were too greatly indulged; a shocking thing. We were permitted to eat rich food, drink wine, stay up to all hours, roam about London and Paris on our own, or whatever other city we happened to be living in at the time; so from an early age we were cosmopolitan in outlook, belonging to no particular country, with a smattering of several languages, none of which we ever learned to speak with fluency.

Our relationship to each other was such a muddled thing that it was small wonder no one reached the truth of it correctly. We were illegitimate, they said; we were adopted, we were little skeletons from Pappy's and Mama's respective cupboards, and maybe there was truth in this; we were waifs they had found abandoned in the gutter, we were orphans, we were the spawn of kings. And why did Maria have Pappy's Irish blue eyes and Pappy's blond hair, yet move with someone else's lissom grace? And why was Niall dark and lithe and small, with Mama's white texture of skin, yet carry the high cheekbones of a stranger? And why did Celia sometimes pout like Maria, and sulk like Niall, if they were no relation to each other?

When we were little the whole business puzzled us ourselves, and we would ask questions, and then forget again, and after all, we thought, it did not really matter very much because from the very beginning of time none of us remembered anything or anyone else; Pappy was our father, and Mama was our mother, and we three belonged to both of them.

The truth was simple, once learned and understood.

When Pappy was singing in Vienna, before the first war, he fell in love with a little Viennese actress who had no voice at all but was allowed to speak one line in the second act of an indifferent operette because she was very naughty and very lovely and everybody adored her. Perhaps Pappy married her, none of us have really known or cared; but after they had been together a year Maria was born and the little Viennese actress died.

Meanwhile, Mama was dancing in London and Paris, already breaking away from the ballet in which she had trained, and becoming that unique, unforgettable personality who filled the theater of whatever city she happened to visit: Mama, whose every movement was poetry, whose every gesture a note in music, and who had no partner ever upon the dim-lit, eerie stage, but always danced alone. Someone was Niall's father. A pianist, old Truda used to say, whom she permitted once to live with her in secret and make love to her for a few weeks only, and then sent away because someone told her that he had T.B. and it was catching.

"And she didn't catch T.B. at all," Truda told us in her dry fashion, sniffing in that disapproving way of hers; "she had my boy instead, and never forgave him for it."

"My boy" was Niall, of course, whom Truda, as Mama's dresser, took into her charge at once. She washed him and dressed him, and put on his napkins, and gave him his bottle, and did everything for him that Mama should have done: while Mama danced alone, and smiled her secret, individual smile, and forgot all about the pianist who had disappeared out of her life, whether to die of T.B. or not she neither knew nor cared.

And then they met in London, Pappy and Mama, when Pappy was singing at the Albert Hall, and Mama was dancing at Covent Garden. Their encounter was a thing of rapture that could only happen to those two, never to others, Truda said, with a world of perception rising suddenly in her blunt voice. They fell in love instantly and married, and the marriage brought ecstatic happiness to the pair of them, and possibly despair too at times (no one enquired into that), and it also brought Celia, the first legitimate offspring of both.

So there we were, the three of us, related and not related, one of us a stepsister, and another a stepbrother, and the third half-sister to each; no one could devise a greater mix-up had they done it deliberately. And only a year or so in age between us all, so that there had never been a life that any of us could remember but the life we had known together.

"No good will come of it," Truda would say, either in one of many dingy hotel sitting rooms that would be serving us as temporary nursery-schoolroom, or in some other top-floor room in a furnished house which Mama and Pappy would have taken for the duration of some season or tour. "No good will come of this mixture of race and mixture of blood. You're bad for each other and always will be, you'll destroy yourselves somehow," she used to say after one of us had been especially naughty and wild, and she would fall back upon proverbs and maxims that meant nothing at all, but had a sinister sound to them, like "You can't touch pitch without being defiled" and "Birds of a feather may flock together, but the weakest goes to the wall." She could do nothing with Maria. Maria defied her always. "You are eldest," she said. "Why don't you set the right example?" And straightway Maria would mock her, pulling her mouth into the set, thin lines of Truda's mouth, jutting out her chin and exaggerating the wobble, thrusting the right shoulder a little before the left.

"I'll tell your Pappy of you," said Truda, and there would be grumbles, and groans, and mutterings all day; but when Pappy came to see us nothing happened but an immediate riot, and even greater tomfoolery, and then we would all three be taken to the drawing room and set to caper and show off and play wild bears upon the floor, to the boredom no doubt of the visitors who had come to gaze upon Mama.


On Sale
Dec 17, 2013
Page Count
352 pages

Daphne du Maurier

About the Author

Daphne du Maurier (1907–1989) was born in London. Her first novel, The Loving Spirit, appeared in 1931, but it would be her fifth novel, Rebecca, that established her as one of the most popular writers of her day. In addition to novels, du Maurier wrote plays, biographies, and several collections of short fiction. Many of her works were adapted for the screen, including RebeccaJamaica InnMy Cousin Rachel, “Don’t Look Now,” and “The Birds.” Du Maurier spent most of her life in Cornwall, the setting for many of her books, and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1969.

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