There was thin, crisp snow on the ground, the sky was blue, the wind very cold, the air clear. Farmers were just turning out the cows for an hour or so in the midday, and the smell of cow-sheds was unendurable as I entered Tible. I noticed the ash-twigs up in the sky were pale and luminous, passing into the blue. And then I saw the peacocks. There they were in the road before me, three of them, and tailless, brown, speckled birds, with dark-blue necks and ragged crests. They stepped archly over the filigree snow, and their bodies moved with slow motion, like small, light, flat-bottomed boats. I admired them, they were curious. Then a gust of wind caught them, heeled them over as if they were three frail boats opening their feathers like ragged sails. They hopped and skipped with discomfort, to get out of the draught of the wind. And then, in the lee of the walls, they resumed their arch, wintry motion, light and unballasted now their tails were gone, indifferent. They were indifferent to my presence. I might have touched them. They turned off to the shelter of an open shed.
As I passed the end of the upper house, I saw a young woman just coming out of the back door. I had spoken to her in the summer. She recognised me at once, and waved to me. She was carrying a pail, wearing a white apron that was longer than her preposterously short skirt, and she had on the cotton bonnet. I took off my hat to her and was going on. But she put down her pail and darted with a swift, furtive movement after me.
“Do you mind waiting a minute?” she said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
She gave me a slight, odd smile, and ran back. Her face was long and sallow and her nose rather red. But her gloomy black eyes softened caressively to me for a moment, with that momentary humility which makes a man lord of the earth.
I stood in the road, looking at the fluffy, dark-red young cattle that mooed and seemed to bark at me. They seemed happy, frisky cattle, a little impudent, and either determined to go back into the warm shed, or determined not to go back, I could not decide which.
Presently the woman came forward again, her head rather ducked. But she looked up at me and smiled, with that odd, immediate intimacy, something witch-like and impossible.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said. “Shall we stand in this cart-shed—it will be more out of the wind.”
So we stood among the shafts of the open cart-shed that faced the road. Then she looked down at the ground, a little sideways, and I noticed a small black frown on her brows. She seemed to brood for a moment. Then she looked straight into my eyes, so that I blinked and wanted to turn my face aside. She was searching me for something and her look was too near. The frown was still on her keen, sallow brow.
“Can you speak French?” she asked me abruptly.
“More or less,” I replied.
“I was supposed to learn it at school,” she said. “But I don’t know a word.” She ducked her head and laughed, with a slightly ugly grimace and a rolling of her black eyes.
“No good keeping your mind full of scraps,” I answered.
But she had turned aside her sallow, long face, and did not hear what I said. Suddenly again she looked at me. She was searching. And at the same time she smiled at me, and her eyes looked softly, darkly, with infinite trustful humility into mine. I was being cajoled.
“Would you mind reading a letter for me, in French,” she said, her face immediately black and bitter-looking. She glanced at me, frowning.
“Not at all,” I said.
“It’s a letter to my husband,” she said, still scrutinizing.
I looked at her, and didn’t quite realise. She looked too far into me, my wits were gone. She glanced round. Then she looked at me shrewdly. She drew a letter from her pocket, and handed it to me. It was addressed from France to Lance-Corporal Goyte, at Tible. I took out the letter and began to read it, as mere words. “Mon cher Alfred”—it might have been a bit of a torn newspaper. So I followed the script: the trite phrases of a letter from a French-speaking girl to an English soldier. “I think of you always, always. Do you think sometimes of me?” And then I vaguely realised that I was reading a man’s private correspondence. And yet, how could one consider these trivial, facile French phrases private! Nothing more trite and vulgar in the world, than such a love-letter—no newspaper more obvious.
Therefore I read with a callous heart the effusions of the Belgian damsel. But then I gathered my attention. For the letter went on, “Notre cher petit bébé—our dear little baby was born a week ago. Almost I died, knowing you were far away, and perhaps forgetting the fruit of our perfect love. But the child comforted me. He has the smiling eyes and virile air of his English father. I pray to the Mother of Jesus to send me the dear father of my child, that I may see him with my child in his arms, and that we may be united in holy family love. Ah, my Alfred, can I tell you how I miss you, how I weep for you. My thoughts are with you always, I think of nothing but you, I live for nothing but you and our dear baby. If you do not come back to me soon, I shall die, and our child will die. But no, you cannot come back to me. But I can come to you, come to England with our child. If you do not wish to present me to your good mother and father, you can meet me in some town, some city, for I shall be so frightened to be alone in England with my child, and no one to take care of us. Yet I must come to you, I must bring my child, my little Alfred to his father, the big, beautiful Alfred that I love so much. Oh, write and tell me where I shall come. I have some money, I am not a penniless creature. I have money for myself and my dear baby—”
I read to the end. It was signed: “Your very happy and still more unhappy Élise.” I suppose I must have been smiling.
“I can see it makes you laugh,” said Mrs. Goyte, sardonically. I looked up at her.
“It’s a love-letter, I know that,” she said. “There’s too many ‘Alfreds’ in it.”
“One too many,” I said.
“Oh, yes—And what does she say—Eliza? We know her name’s Eliza, that’s another thing.” She grimaced a little, looking up at me with a mocking laugh.
“Where did you get this letter?” I said.
“Postman gave it me last week.”
“And is your husband at home?”
“I expect him home tonight. He’s been wounded, you know, and we’ve been applying for him home. He was home about six weeks ago—he’s been in Scotland since then. Oh, he was wounded in the leg. Yes, he’s all right, a great strapping fellow. But he’s lame, he limps a bit. He expects he’ll get his discharge—but I don’t think he will. We married? We’ve been married six years—and he joined up the first day of the war. Oh, he thought he’d like the life. He’d been through the South African War. No, he was sick of it, fed up. I’m living with his father and mother—I’ve no home of my own now. My people had a big farm—over a thousand acres—in Oxfordshire. Not like here—no. Oh, they’re very good to me, his father and mother. Oh, yes, they couldn’t be better. They think more of me than of their own daughters. But it’s not like being in a place of your own, is it? You can’t really do as you like. No, there’s only me and his father and mother at home. Before the war? Oh, he was anything. He’s had a good education—but he liked the farming better. Then he was a chauffeur. That’s how he knew French. He was driving a gentleman in France for a long time—”
At this point the peacocks came round the corner on a puff of wind.
“Hello, Joey!” she called, and one of the birds came forward, on delicate legs. Its grey speckled back was very elegant, it rolled its full, dark-blue neck as it moved to her. She crouched down. “Joey, dear,” she said, in an odd, saturnine caressive voice, “you’re bound to find me, aren’t you?” She put her face forward, and the bird rolled his neck, almost touching her face with his beak, as if kissing her.
“He loves you,” I said.
She twisted her face up at me with a laugh.
“Yes,” she said, “he loves me, Joey does,”—then, to the bird—“and I love Joey, don’t I. I do love Joey.” And she smoothed his feathers for a moment. Then she rose, saying: “He’s an affectionate bird.”
I smiled at the roll of her “bir-rrd’.
“Oh, yes, he is,” she protested. “He came with me from my home seven years ago. Those others are his descendants—but they’re not like Joey—are they, dee-urr?” Her voice rose at the end with a witch-like cry.
Then she forgot the birds in the cart-shed and turned to business again.
“Won’t you read that letter?” she said. “Read it, so that I know what it says.”
“It’s rather behind his back,” I said.
“Oh, never mind him,” she cried. “He’s been behind my back long enough—all these four years. If he never did no worse things behind my back than I do behind his, he wouldn’t have cause to grumble. You read me what it says.”
Now I felt a distinct reluctance to do as she bid, and yet I began—“My dear Alfred.”
“I guessed that much,” she said. “Eliza’s dear Alfred.” She laughed. “How do you say it in French? Eliza?”
I told her, and she repeated the name with great contempt—Élise.
“Go on,” she said. “You’re not reading.”
So I began—“I have been thinking of you sometimes—have you been thinking of me?”—
“Of several others as well, beside her, I’ll wager,” said Mrs. Goyte.
“Probably not,” said I, and continued. “A dear little baby was born here a week ago. Ah, can I tell you my feelings when I take my darling little brother into my arms—”
“I’ll bet it’s his,” cried Mrs. Goyte.
“No,” I said. “It’s her mother’s.”
“Don’t you believe it,” she cried. “It’s a blind. You mark, it’s her own right enough—and his.”
“No,” I said, “it’s her mother’s.” “He has sweet smiling eyes, but not like your beautiful English eyes—”
She suddenly struck her hand on her skirt with a wild motion, and bent down, doubled with laughter. Then she rose and covered her face with her hand.
“I’m forced to laugh at the beautiful English eyes,” she said.
“Aren’t his eyes beautiful?” I asked.
“Oh, yes—very! Go on!—Joey, dear, dee-urr, Joey!”—this to the peacock.
—“Er—We miss you very much. We all miss you. We wish you were here to see the darling baby. Ah, Alfred, how happy we were when you stayed with us. We all loved you so much. My mother will call the baby Alfred so that we shall never forget you—”
“Of course it’s his right enough,” cried Mrs. Goyte.
“No,” I said. “It’s the mother’s.” Er—“My mother is very well. My father came home yesterday—on leave. He is delighted with his son, my little brother, and wishes to have him named after you, because you were so good to us all in that terrible time, which I shall never forget. I must weep now when I think of it. Well, you are far away in England, and perhaps I shall never see you again. How did you find your dear mother and father? I am so happy that your wound is better, and that you can nearly walk—”
“How did he find his dear wife!” cried Mrs. Goyte. “He never told her he had one. Think of taking the poor girl in like that!”
“We are so pleased when you write to us. Yet now you are in England you will forget the family you served so well—”
“A bit too well—eh, Joey!” cried the wife.
“If it had not been for you we should not be alive now, to grieve and to rejoice in this life, that is so hard for us. But we have recovered some of our losses, and no longer feel the burden of poverty. The little Alfred is a great comfort to me. I hold him to my breast and think of the big, good Alfred, and I weep to think that those times of suffering were perhaps the times of a great happiness that is gone for ever.”
“Oh, but isn’t it a shame, to take a poor girl in like that!” cried Mrs. Goyte. “Never to let on that he was married, and raise her hopes—I call it beastly, I do.”
“You don’t know,” I said. “You know how anxious women are to fall in love, wife or no wife. How could he help it, if she was determined to fall in love with him?”
“He could have helped it if he’d wanted.”
“Well,” I said, “we aren’t all heroes.”
“Oh, but that’s different! The big, good Alfred!—did ever you hear such tommy-rot in your life! Go on—what does she say at the end?”
“Er—We shall be pleased to hear of your life in England. We all send many kind regards to your good parents. I wish you all happiness for your future days. Your very affectionate and ever-grateful Élise.”
There was silence for a moment, during which Mrs. Goyte remained with her head dropped, sinister and abstracted. Suddenly she lifted her face, and her eyes flashed.
“Oh, but I call it beastly, I call it mean, to take a girl in like that.”
“Nay,” I said. “Probably he hasn’t taken her in at all. Do you think those French girls are such poor innocent things? I guess she’s a great deal more downy than he.”
“Oh, he’s one of the biggest fools that ever walked,” she cried.
“There you are!” said I.
“But it’s his child right enough,” she said.
“I don’t think so,” said I.
“I’m sure of it.”
“Oh, well,” I said, “if you prefer to think that way.”
“What other reason has she for writing like that—”
I went out into the road and looked at the cattle.
“Who is this driving the cows?” I said. She too came out.
“It’s the boy from the next farm,” she said.
“Oh, well,” said I, “those Belgian girls! You never know where their letters will end. And, after all, it’s his affair—you needn’t bother.”
“Oh—!” she cried, with rough scorn—“it’s not me that bothers. But it’s the nasty meanness of it—me writing him such loving letters”—she put her hand before her face and laughed malevolently—“and sending him parcels all the time. You bet he fed that gurrl on my parcels—I know he did. It’s just like him. I’ll bet they laughed together over my letters. I bet anything they did—”
“Nay,” said I. “He’d burn your letters for fear they’d give him away.”
There was a black look on her yellow face. Suddenly a voice was heard calling. She poked her head out of the shed, and answered coolly:
“All right!” Then turning to me: “That’s his mother looking after me.”
She laughed into my face, witch-like, and we turned down the road.
When I awoke, the morning after this episode, I found the house darkened with deep, soft snow, which had blown against the large west windows, covering them with a screen. I went outside, and saw the valley all white and ghastly below me, the trees beneath black and thin looking like wire, the rock-faces dark between the glistening shroud, and the sky above sombre, heavy, yellowish-dark, much too heavy for this world below of hollow bluey whiteness figured with black. I felt I was in a valley of the dead. And I sensed I was a prisoner, for the snow was everywhere deep, and drifted in places. So all the morning I remained indoors, looking up the drive at the shrubs so heavily plumed with snow, at the gateposts raised high with a foot or more of extra whiteness. Or I looked down into the white-and-black valley that was utterly motionless and beyond life, a hollow sarcophagus.
Nothing stirred the whole day—no plume fell off the shrubs, the valley was as abstracted as a grove of death. I looked over at the tiny, half-buried farms away on the bare uplands beyond the valley hollow, and I thought of Tible in the snow, of the black witch-like little Mrs. Goyte. And the snow seemed to lay me bare to influences I wanted to escape.
In the faint glow of the half-clear light that came about four o’clock in the afternoon, I was roused to see a motion in the snow away below, near where the thorn-trees stood very black and dwarfed, like a little savage group, in the dismal white. I watched closely. Yes, there was a flapping and a struggle—a big bird, it must be, labouring in the snow. I wondered. Our biggest birds, in the valley, were the large hawks that often hung flickering opposite my windows, level with me, but high above some prey on the steep valleyside. This was much too big for a hawk—too big for any known bird. I searched in my mind for the largest English wild birds, geese, buzzards.
Still it laboured and strove, then was still, a dark spot, then struggled again. I went out of the house and down the steep slope, at risk of breaking my leg between the rocks. I knew the ground so well—and yet I got well shaken before I drew near the thorn-trees.
Yes, it was a bird. It was Joey. It was the grey-brown peacock with a blue neck. He was snow-wet and spent.
“Joey—Joey, de-urr!” I said, staggering unevenly towards him. He looked so pathetic, rowing and struggling in the snow, too spent to rise, his blue neck stretching out and lying sometimes on the snow, his eye closing and opening quickly, his crest all battered.
“Joey dee-uur! Dee-urr!” I said caressingly to him. And at last he lay still, blinking, in the surged and furrowed snow, whilst I came near and touched him, stroked him, gathered him under my arm. He stretched his long, wetted neck away from me as I held him, none the less he was quiet in my arm, too tired, perhaps, to struggle. Still he held his poor, crested head away from me, and seemed sometimes to droop, to wilt, as if he might suddenly die.
He was not so heavy as I expected, yet it was a struggle to get up to the house with him again. We set him down, not too near the fire, and gently wiped him with cloths. He submitted, only now and then stretched his soft neck away from us, avoiding us helplessly. Then we set warm food by him. I put it to his beak, tried to make him eat. But he ignored it. He seemed to be ignorant of what we were doing, recoiled inside himself inexplicably. So we put him in a basket with cloths, and left him crouching oblivious. His food we put near him. The blinds were drawn, the house was warm, it was night. Sometimes he stirred, but mostly he huddled still, leaning his queer crested head on one side. He touched no food, and took no heed of sounds or movements. We talked of brandy or stimulants. But I realised we had best leave him alone.
In the night, however, we heard him thumping about. I got up anxiously with a candle. He had eaten some food, and scattered more, making a mess. And he was perched on the back of a heavy arm-chair. So I concluded he was recovered, or recovering.
The next day was clear, and the snow had frozen, so I decided to carry him back to Tible. He consented, after various flappings, to sit in a big fish-bag with his battered head peeping out with wild uneasiness. And so I set off with him, slithering down into the valley, making good progress down in the pale shadow beside the rushing waters, then climbing painfully up the arrested white valleyside, plumed with clusters of young pine trees, into the paler white radiance of the snowy, upper regions, where the wind cut fine. Joey seemed to watch all the time with wide anxious, unseeing eye, brilliant and inscrutable. As I drew near to Tible township he stirred violently in the bag, though I do not know if he had recognised the place. Then, as I came to the sheds, he looked sharply from side to side, and stretched his neck out long. I was a little afraid of him. He gave a loud, vehement yell, opening his sinister beak, and I stood still, looking at him as he struggled in the bag, shaken myself by his struggles, yet not thinking to release him.
Mrs. Goyte came darting past the end of the house, her head sticking forward in sharp scrutiny. She saw me, and came forward.
“Have you got Joey?” she cried sharply, as if I were a thief.
I opened the bag, and he flopped out, flapping as if he hated the touch of the snow now. She gathered him up, and put her lips to his beak. She was flushed and handsome, her eyes bright, her hair slack, thick, but more witch-like than ever. She did not speak.
She had been followed by a grey-haired woman with a round, rather sallow face and a slightly hostile bearing.
“Did you bring him with you, then?” she asked sharply. I answered that I had rescued him the previous evening.
From the background slowly approached a slender man with a grey moustache and large patches on his trousers.
“You’ve got ’im back ’gain, ah see,” he said to his daughter-in-law. His wife explained how I had found Joey.
“Ah,” went on the grey man. “It wor our Alfred scared him off, back your life. He must’a flyed ower t’valley. Tha ma’ thank thy stars as ’e wor fun, Maggie. ’E’d a bin froze. They a bit nesh, you know,” he concluded to me.
“They are,” I answered. “This isn’t their country.”
“No, it isna,” replied Mr. Goyte. He spoke very slowly and deliberately, quietly, as if the soft pedal were always down in his voice. He looked at his daughter-in-law as she crouched, flushed and dark, before the peacock, which would lay its long blue neck for a moment along her lap. In spite of his grey moustache and thin grey hair, the elderly man had a face young and almost delicate, like a young man’s. His blue eyes twinkled with some inscrutable source of pleasure, his skin was fine and tender, his nose delicately arched. His grey hair being slightly ruffled, he had a debonair look, as of a youth who is in love.
“We mun tell ’im it’s come,” he said slowly, and turning he called: “Alfred—Alfred! Wheer’s ter gotten to?”
Then he turned again to the group.
“Get up then, Maggie, lass, get up wi’ thee. Tha ma’es too much o’ th’ bod.”
A young man approached, wearing rough khaki and kneebreeches. He was Danish looking, broad at the loins.
“I’s come back then,” said the father to the son; “leastwise, he’s bin browt back, flyed ower the Griff Low.”
The son looked at me. He had a devil-may-care bearing, his cap on one side, his hands stuck in the front pockets of his breeches. But he said nothing.
“Shall you come in a minute, Master,” said the elderly woman, to me.
“Ay, come in an’ ha’e a cup o’ tea or summat. You’ll do wi’ summat, carrin’ that bod. Come on, Maggie wench, let’s go in.”
So we went indoors, into the rather stuffy, overcrowded living-room, that was too cosy, and too warm. The son followed last, standing in the doorway. The father talked to me.
Maggie put out the tea-cups. The mother went into the dairy again.
“Tha’lt rouse thysen up a bit again, now, Maggie,” the father-in-law said—and then to me: “’ers not bin very bright sin’ Alfred came whoam, an’ the bod flyed awee. ’E come whoam a Wednesday night, Alfred did. But ay, you knowed, didna yer. Ay, ’e comed ’a Wednesday—an’ I reckon there wor a bit of a to-do between ’em, worn’t there, Maggie?”
He twinkled maliciously to his daughter-in-law, who was flushed, brilliant and handsome.
“Oh, be quiet, father. You’re wound up, by the sound of you,” she said to him, as if crossly. But she could never be cross with him.
“’Ers got ’er colour back this mornin’,” continued the father-in-law slowly. “It’s bin heavy weather wi’ ’er this last two days. Ay—’er’s bin northeast sin ’er seed you a Wednesday.”
“Father, do stop talking. You’d wear the leg off an iron pot. I can’t think where you’ve found your tongue, all of a sudden,” said Maggie, with caressive sharpness.
“Ah’ve found it wheer I lost it. Aren’t goin’ ter come in an’ sit thee down, Alfred?”
But Alfred turned and disappeared.
“’E’s got th’ monkey on ’is back ower this letter job,” said the father secretly to me. “Mother, ’er knows nowt about it. Lot o’ tom-foolery, isn’t it? Ay! What’s good o’ makkin’ a peck o’ trouble over what’s far enough off, an’ ned niver come no nigher. No—not a smite o’ use. That’s what I tell ’er. ’Er should ta’e no notice on’t. Ty, what can y’ expect.”
The mother came in again, and the talk became general. Maggie flashed her eyes at me from time to time, complacent and satisfied, moving among the men. I paid her little compliments, which she did not seem to hear. She attended to me with a kind of sinister, witch-like graciousness, her dark head ducked between her shoulders, at once humble and powerful. She was happy as a child attending to her father-in-law and to me. But there was something ominous between her eyebrows, as if a dark moth were settled there—and something ominous in her bent, hulking bearing.
She sat on a low stool by the fire, near her father-in-law. Her head was dropped, she seemed in a state of abstraction. From time to time she would suddenly recover, and look up at us, laughing and chatting. Then she would forget again. Yet in her hulked black forgetting she seemed very near to us.
The door having been opened, the peacock came slowly in, prancing calmly. He went near to her and crouched down, coiling his blue neck. She glanced at him, but almost as if she did not observe him. The bird sat silent, seeming to sleep, and the woman also sat hulked and silent, seemingly oblivious. Then once more there was a heavy step, and Alfred entered. He looked at his wife, and he looked at the peacock crouching by her. He stood large in the doorway, his hands stuck in front of him, in his breeches pockets. Nobody spoke. He turned on his heel and went out again.
I rose also to go. Maggie started as if coming to herself.
“Must you go?” she asked, rising and coming near to me, standing in front of me, twisting her head sideways and looking up at me. “Can’t you stop a bit longer? We can all be cosy today, there’s nothing to do outdoors.” And she laughed, showing her teeth oddly. She had a long chin.
I said I must go. The peacock uncoiled and coiled again his long blue neck, as he lay on the hearth. Maggie still stood close in front of me, so that I was acutely aware of my waistcoat buttons.
“Oh, well,” she said, “you’ll come again, won’t you? Do come again.”
“Come to tea one day—yes, do!”
I promised—one day.
The moment I went out of her presence I ceased utterly to exist for her—as utterly as I ceased to exist for Joey. With her curious abstractedness she forgot me again immediately. I knew it as I left her. Yet she seemed almost in physical contact with me while I was with her.
The sky was all pallid again, yellowish. When I went out there was no sun; the snow was blue and cold. I hurried away down the hill, musing on Maggie. The road made a loop down the sharp face of the slope. As I went crunching over the laborious snow I became aware of a figure striding down the steep scarp to intercept me. It was a man with his hands in front of him, half stuck in his breeches pockets, and his shoulders square—a real farmer of the hills; Alfred, of course. He waited for me by the stone fence.
“Excuse me,” he said as I came up.
I came to a halt in front of him and looked into his sullen blue eyes. He had a certain odd haughtiness on his brows. But his blue eyes stared insolently at me.
“Do you know anything about a letter—in French—that my wife opened—a letter of mine—?”
“Yes,” said I. “She asked me to read it to her.”
He looked square at me. He did not know exactly how to feel.
“What was there in it?” he asked.
“Why?” I said. “Don’t you know?”
“She makes out she’s burnt it,” he said.
“Without showing it you?” I asked.
He nodded slightly. He seemed to be meditating as to what line of action he should take. He wanted to know the contents of the letter: he must know: and therefore he must ask me, for evidently his wife had taunted him. At the same time, no doubt, he would like to wreak untold vengeance on my unfortunate person. So he eyed me, and I eyed him, and neither of us spoke. He did not want to repeat his request to me. And yet I only looked at him, and considered.
Suddenly he threw back his head and glanced down the valley. Then he changed his position—he was a horse-soldier. Then he looked at me confidentially.
“She burnt the blasted thing before I saw it,” he said.
“Well,” I answered slowly, “she doesn’t know herself what was in it.”
He continued to watch me narrowly. I grinned to myself.
“I didn’t like to read her out what there was in it,” I continued.
He suddenly flushed so that the veins in his neck stood out, and he stirred again uncomfortably.
“The Belgian girl said her baby had been born a week ago, and that they were going to call it Alfred,” I told him.
He met my eyes. I was grinning. He began to grin, too.
“Good luck to her,” he said.
“Best of luck,” said I.
“And what did you tell her?” he asked.
“That the baby belonged to the old mother—that it was brother to your girl, who was writing to you as a friend of the family.”
He stood smiling, with the long, subtle malice of a farmer.
“And did she take it in?” he asked.
“As much as she took anything else.”
He stood grinning fixedly. Then he broke into a short laugh.
“Good for her” he exclaimed cryptically.
And then he laughed aloud once more, evidently feeling he had won a big move in his contest with his wife.
“What about the other woman?” I asked.
“Oh”—he shifted uneasily—“she was all right—”
“You’ll be getting back to her,” I said.
He looked at me. Then he made a grimace with his mouth.
“Not me,” he said. “Back your life it’s a plant.”
“You don’t think the cher petit bébé is a little Alfred?”
“It might be,” he said.
“Yes—an’ there’s lots of mites in a pound of cheese.” He laughed boisterously but uneasily.
“What did she say, exactly?” he asked.
I began to repeat, as well as I could, the phrases of the letter:
“Mon cher Alfred— Figure-toi comme je suis desolée—”
He listened with some confusion. When I had finished all I could remember, he said:
“They know how to pitch you out a letter, those Belgian lasses.”
“Practice,” said I.
“They get plenty,” he said.
There was a pause.
“Oh, well,” he said. “I’ve never got that letter, anyhow.”
The wind blew fine and keen, in the sunshine, across the snow. I blew my nose and prepared to depart.
“And she doesn’t know anything?” he continued, jerking his head up the hill in the direction of Tible.
“She knows nothing but what I’ve said—that is, if she really burnt the letter.”
“I believe she burnt it,” he said, “for spite. She’s a little devil, she is. But I shall have it out with her.” His jaw was stubborn and sullen. Then suddenly he turned to me with a new note.
“Why?” he said. “Why didn’t you wring that b—— peacock’s neck—that b—— Joey?”
“Why?” I said. “What for?”
“I hate the brute,” he said. “I had a shot at him—”
I laughed. He stood and mused.
“Poor little Élise,” he murmured.
“Was she small—petite?” I asked. He jerked up his head.
“No,” he said. “Rather tall.”
“Taller than your wife, I suppose.”
Again he looked into my eyes. And then once more he went into a loud burst of laughter that made the still, snow-deserted valley clap again.
“God, it’s a knockout!” he said, thoroughly amused. Then he stood at ease, one foot out, his hands in his breeches pockets, in front of him, his head thrown back, a handsome figure of a man.
“But I’ll do that blasted Joey in—” he mused.
I ran down the hill, shouting with laughter.