Chapter 4 - Monkey Nuts
At first Joe thought the job O.K. He was loading hay on the trucks, along with Albert, the corporal. The two men were pleasantly billeted in a cottage not far from the station: they were their own masters, for Joe never thought of Albert as a master. And the little sidings of the tiny village station was as pleasant a place as you could wish for. On one side, beyond the line, stretched the woods: on the other, the near side, across a green smooth field red houses were dotted among flowering apple trees. The weather being sunny, work being easy, Albert, a real good pal, what life could be better! After Flanders, it was heaven itself.
Albert, the corporal, was a clean-shaven, shrewd-looking fellow of about forty. He seemed to think his one aim in life was to be full of fun and nonsense. In repose, his face looked a little withered, old. He was a very good pal to Joe, steady, decent and grave under all his 'mischief'; for his mischief was only his laborious way of skirting his own ennui.
Joe was much younger than Albert - only twenty-three. He was a tallish, quiet youth, pleasant looking. He was of a slightly better class than his corporal, more personable. Careful about his appearance, he shaved every day. 'I haven't got much of a face,' said Albert. 'If I was to shave every day like you, Joe, I should have none.'
There was plenty of life in the little goods-yard: three porter youths, a continual come and go of farm wagons bringing hay, wagons with timber from the woods, coal carts loading at the trucks. The black coal seemed to make the place sleepier, hotter. Round the big white gate the station-master's children played and his white chickens walked, whilst the stationmaster himself, a young man getting too fat, helped his wife to peg out the washing on the clothes line in the meadow.
The great boat-shaped wagons came up from Playcross with the hay. At first the farm-men waggoned it. On the third day one of the land-girls appeared with the first load, drawing to a standstill easily at the head of her two great horses. She was a buxom girl, young, in linen overalls and gaiters. Her face was ruddy, she had large blue eyes.
'Now that's the waggoner for us, boys,' said the corporal loudly.
'Whoa!' she said to her horses; and then to the corporal: 'Which boys do you mean?'
'We are the pick of the bunch. That's Joe, my pal. Don't you let on that my name's Albert,' said the corporal to his private. 'I'm the corporal.'
'And I'm Miss Stokes,' said the land-girl coolly, 'if that's all the boys you are.'
'You know you couldn't want more, Miss Stokes,' said Albert politely. Joe, who was bare-headed, whose grey flannel sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, and whose shirt was open at the breast, looked modestly aside as if he had no part in the affair.
'Are you on this job regular, then?' said the corporal to Miss Stokes.
'I don't know for sure,' she said, pushing a piece of hair under her hat, and attending to her splendid horses.
'Oh, make it a certainty,' said Albert.
She did not reply. She turned and looked over the two men coolly. She was pretty, moderately blonde, with crisp hair, a good skin, and large blue eyes. She was strong, too, and the work went on leisurely and easily.
'Now!' said the corporal, stopping as usual to look round, 'pleasant company makes work a pleasure - don't hurry it, boys.' He stood on the truck surveying the world. That was one of his great and absorbing occupations: to stand and look out on things in general. Joe, also standing on the truck, also turned round to look what was to be seen. But he could not become blankly absorbed, as Albert could.
Miss Stokes watched the two men from under her broad felt hat. She had seen hundreds of Alberts, khaki soldiers standing in loose attitudes, absorbed in watching nothing in particular. She had seen also a good many Joes, quiet, good-looking young soldiers with half-averted faces. But there was something in the turn of Joe's head, and something in his quiet, tender-looking form, young and fresh - which attracted her eye. As she watched him closely from below, he turned as if he felt her, and his dark-blue eye met her straight, light-blue gaze. He faltered and turned aside again and looked as if he were going to fall off the truck. A slight flush mounted under the girl's full, ruddy face. She liked him.
Always, after this, when she came into the sidings with her team, it was Joe she looked for. She acknowledged to herself that she was sweet on him. But Albert did all the talking. He was so full of fun and nonsense. Joe was a very shy bird, very brief and remote in his answers. Miss Stokes was driven to indulge in repartee with Albert, but she fixed her magnetic attention on the younger fellow. Joe would talk with Albert, and laugh at his jokes. But Miss Stokes could get little out of him. She had to depend on her silent forces. They were more effective than might be imagined.
Suddenly, on Saturday afternoon, at about two o'clock, Joe received a bolt from the blue - a telegram: 'Meet me Belbury Station 6.00 p.m. today. M.S.' He knew at once who M.S. was. His heart melted, he felt weak as if he had had a blow.
'What's the trouble, boy?' asked Albert anxiously.
'No - no trouble - it's to meet somebody.' Joe lifted his dark-blue eyes in confusion towards his corporal.
'Meet somebody!' repeated the corporal, watching his young pal with keen blue eyes. 'It's all right, then; nothing wrong?'
'No - nothing wrong. I'm not going,' said Joe.
Albert was old and shrewd enough to see that nothing more should be said before the housewife. He also saw that Joe did not want to take him into confidence. So he held his peace, though he was piqued.
The two soldiers went into town, smartened up. Albert knew a fair number of the boys round about; there would be plenty of gossip in the market-place, plenty of lounging in groups on the Bath Road, watching the Saturday evening shoppers. Then a modest drink or two, and the movies. They passed an agreeable, casual, nothing-in-particular evening, with which Joe was quite satisfied. He thought of Belbury Station, and of M.S. waiting there. He had not the faintest intention of meeting her. And he had not the faintest intention of telling Albert.
And yet, when the two men were in their bedroom, half undressed, Joe suddenly held out the telegram to his corporal, saying: 'What d'you think of that?'
Albert was just unbuttoning his braces. He desisted, took the telegram form, and turned towards the candle to read it.
'Meet me Belbury Station 6.00 p.m. today. M.S.,' he read, sotto voce. His face took on its fun-and-nonsense look.
'Who's M.S.?' he asked, looking shrewdly at Joe.
'You know as well as I do,' said Joe, non-committal.
'M.S.,' repeated Albert. 'Blamed if I know, boy. Is it a woman?'
The conversation was carried on in tiny voices, for fear of disturbing the householders.
'I don't know,' said Joe, turning. He looked full at Albert, the two men looked straight into each other's eyes. There was a lurking grin in each of them.
'Well, I'm - blamed!' said Albert at last, throwing the telegram down emphatically on the bed.
'Wha-at?' said Joe, grinning rather sheepishly, his eyes clouded none the less.
Albert sat on the bed and proceeded to undress, nodding his head with mock gravity all the while. Joe watched him foolishly.
'What?' he repeated faintly.
Albert looked up at him with a knowing look.
'If that isn't coming it quick, boy!' he said. 'What the blazes! What ha' you bin doing?'
'Nothing!' said Joe.
Albert slowly shook his head as he sat on the side of the bed.
'Don't happen to me when I've bin doin' nothing,' he said. And he proceeded to pull off his stockings.
Joe turned away, looking at himself in the mirror as he unbuttoned his tunic.
'You didn't want to keep the appointment?' Albert asked, in a changed voice, from the bedside.
Joe did not answer for a moment. Then he said:
'I made no appointment.'
'I'm not saying you did, boy. Don't be nasty about it. I mean you didn't want to answer the - unknown person's summons - shall I put it that way?'
'No,' said Joe.
'What was the deterring motive?' asked Albert, who was now lying on his back in bed.
'Oh,' said Joe, suddenly looking round rather haughtily. 'I didn't want to.' He had a well-balanced head, and could take on a sudden distant bearing.
'Didn't want to - didn't cotton on, like. Well - _they be artful, the women_ - ' he mimicked his landlord. 'Come on into bed, boy. Don't loiter about as if you'd lost something.'
Albert turned over, to sleep.
On Monday Miss Stokes turned up as usual, striding beside her team. Her 'whoa!' was resonant and challenging, she looked up at the truck as her steeds came to a standstill. Joe had turned aside, and had his face averted from her. She glanced him over - save for his slender succulent tenderness she would have despised him. She sized him up in a steady look. Then she turned to Albert, who was looking down at her and smiling in his mischievous turn. She knew his aspects by now. She looked straight back at him, though her eyes were hot. He saluted her.
'Beautiful morning, Miss Stokes.'
'Very!' she replied.
'Handsome is as handsome looks,' said Albert.
Which produced no response.
'Now, Joe, come on here,' said the corporal. 'Don't keep the ladies waiting - it's the sign of a weak heart.'
Joe turned, and the work began. Nothing more was said for the time being. As the week went on all parties became more comfortable. Joe remained silent, averted, neutral, a little on his dignity. Miss Stokes was off-hand and masterful. Albert was full of mischief.
The great theme was a circus, which was coming to the market town on the following Saturday.
'You'll go to the circus, Miss Stokes?' said Albert.
'I may go. Are you going?'
'Certainly. Give us the pleasure of escorting you.'
'That's what I call a flat refusal - what, Joe? You don't mean that you have no liking for our company, Miss Stokes?'
'Oh, I don't know,' said Miss Stokes. 'How many are there of you?'
'Only me and Joe.'
'Oh, is that all?' she said, satirically.
Albert was a little nonplussed.
'Isn't that enough for you?' he asked.
'Too many by half,' blurted out Joe, jeeringly, in a sudden fit of uncouth rudeness that made both the others stare.
'Oh, I'll stand out of the way, boy, if that's it,' said Albert to Joe. Then he turned mischievously to Miss Stokes. 'He wants to know what M. stands for,' he said, confidentially.
'Monkeys,' she replied, turning to her horses.
'What's M.S.?' said Albert.
'Monkey nuts,' she retorted, leading off her team.
Albert looked after her a little discomfited. Joe had flushed dark, and cursed Albert in his heart.
On the Saturday afternoon the two soldiers took the train into town. They would have to walk home. They had tea at six o'clock, and lounged about till half past seven. The circus was in a meadow near the river - a great red-and-white striped tent. Caravans stood at the side. A great crowd of people was gathered round the ticket-caravan.
Inside the tent the lamps were lighted, shining on a ring of faces, a great circular bank of faces round the green grassy centre. Along with some comrades, the two soldiers packed themselves on a thin plank seat, rather high. They were delighted with the flaring lights, the wild effect. But the circus performance did not affect them deeply. They admired the lady in black velvet with rose-purple legs who leapt so neatly on to the galloping horse; they watched the feats of strength and laughed at the clown. But they felt a little patronizing, they missed the sensational drama of the cinema.
Half-way through the performance Joe was electrified to see the face of Miss Stokes not very far from him. There she was, in her khaki and her felt hat, as usual; he pretended not to see her. She was laughing at the clown; she also pretended not to see him. It was a blow to him, and it made him angry. He would not even mention it to Albert. Least said, soonest mended. He liked to believe she had not seen him. But he knew, fatally, that she had.
When they came out it was nearly eleven o'clock; a lovely night, with a moon and tall, dark, noble trees: a magnificent May night. Joe and Albert laughed and chaffed with the boys. Joe looked round frequently to see if he were safe from Miss Stokes. It seemed so.
But there were six miles to walk home. At last the two soldiers set off, swinging their canes. The road was white between tall hedges, other stragglers were passing out of the town towards the villages; the air was full of pleased excitement.
They were drawing near to the village when they saw a dark figure ahead. Joe's heart sank with pure fear. It was a figure wheeling a bicycle; a land girl; Miss Stokes. Albert was ready with his nonsense. Miss Stokes had a puncture.
'Let me wheel the rattler,' said Albert.
'Thank you,' said Miss Stokes. 'You are kind.'
'Oh, I'd be kinder than that, if you'd show me how,' said Albert.
'Are you sure?' said Miss Stokes.
'Doubt my words?' said Albert. 'That's cruel of you, Miss Stokes.'
Miss Stokes walked between them, close to Joe.
'Have you been to the circus?' she asked him.
'Yes,' he replied, mildly.
'Have you been?' Albert asked her.
'Yes. I didn't see you,' she replied.
'What! - you say so! Didn't see us! Didn't think us worth looking at,' began Albert. 'Aren't I as handsome as the clown, now? And you didn't as much as glance in our direction? I call it a downright oversight.'
'I never saw you,' reiterated Miss Stokes. 'I didn't know you saw me.'
'That makes it worse,' said Albert.
The road passed through a belt of dark pine-wood. The village, and the branch road, was very near. Miss Stokes put out her fingers and felt for Joe's hand as it swung at his side. To say he was staggered is to put it mildly. Yet he allowed her softly to clasp his fingers for a few moments. But he was a mortified youth.
At the cross-road they stopped - Miss Stokes should turn off. She had another mile to go.
'You'll let us see you home,' said Albert.
'Do me a kindness,' she said. 'Put my bike in your shed, and take it to Baker's on Monday, will you?'
'I'll sit up all night and mend it for you, if you like.'
'No thanks. And Joe and I'll walk on.'
'Oh - ho! Oh - ho!' sang Albert. 'Joe! Joe! What do you say to that, now, boy? Aren't you in luck's way. And I get the bloomin' old bike for my pal. Consider it again, Miss Stokes.'
Joe turned aside his face, and did not speak.
'Oh, well! I wheel the grid, do I? I leave you, boy - '
'I'm not keen on going any further,' barked out Joe, in an uncouth voice. 'She hain't my choice.'
The girl stood silent, and watched the two men.
'There now!' said Albert. 'Think o' that! If it was me now - ' But he was uncomfortable. 'Well, Miss Stokes, have me,' he added.
Miss Stokes stood quite still, neither moved nor spoke. And so the three remained for some time at the lane end. At last Joe began kicking the ground - then he suddenly lifted his face. At that moment Miss Stokes was at his side. She put her arm delicately round his waist.
'Seems I'm the one extra, don't you think?' Albert inquired of the high bland moon.
Joe had dropped his head and did not answer. Miss Stokes stood with her arm lightly round his waist. Albert bowed, saluted, and bade good-night. He walked away, leaving the two standing.
Miss Stokes put a light pressure on Joe's waist, and drew him down the road. They walked in silence. The night was full of scent - wild cherry, the first bluebells. Still they walked in silence. A nightingale was singing. They approached nearer and nearer, till they stood close by his dark bush. The powerful notes sounded from the cover, almost like flashes of light - then the interval of silence - then the moaning notes, almost like a dog faintly howling, followed by the long, rich trill, and flashing notes. Then a short silence again.
Miss Stokes turned at last to Joe. She looked up at him, and in the moonlight he saw her faintly smiling. He felt maddened, but helpless. Her arm was round his waist, she drew him closely to her with a soft pressure that made all his bones rotten.
Meanwhile Albert was waiting at home. He put on his overcoat, for the fire was out, and he had had malarial fever. He looked fitfully at the Daily Mirror and the Daily Sketch, but he saw nothing. It seemed a long time. He began to yawn widely, even to nod. At last Joe came in.
Albert looked at him keenly. The young man's brow was black, his face sullen.
'All right, boy?' asked Albert.
Joe merely grunted for a reply. There was nothing more to be got out of him. So they went to bed.
Next day Joe was silent, sullen. Albert could make nothing of him. He proposed a walk after tea.
'I'm going somewhere,' said Joe.
'Where - Monkey nuts?' asked the corporal. But Joe's brow only became darker.
So the days went by. Almost every evening Joe went off alone, returning late. He was sullen, taciturn and had a hang-dog look, a curious way of dropping his head and looking dangerously from under his brows. And he and Albert did not get on so well any more with one another. For all his fun and nonsense, Albert was really irritable, soon made angry. And Joe's stand-offish sulkiness and complete lack of confidence riled him, got on his nerves. His fun and nonsense took a biting, sarcastic turn, at which Joe's eyes glittered occasionally, though the young man turned unheeding aside. Then again Joe would be full of odd, whimsical fun, outshining Albert himself.
Miss Stokes still came to the station with the wain: Monkey-nuts, Albert called her, though not to her face. For she was very clear and good-looking, almost she seemed to gleam. And Albert was a tiny bit afraid of her. She very rarely addressed Joe whilst the hay-loading was going on, and that young man always turned his back to her. He seemed thinner, and his limber figure looked more slouching. But still it had the tender, attractive appearance, especially from behind. His tanned face, a little thinned and darkened, took a handsome, slightly sinister look.
'Come on, Joe!' the corporal urged sharply one day. 'What're you doing, boy? Looking for beetles on the bank?'
Joe turned round swiftly, almost menacing, to work.
'He's a different fellow these days, Miss Stokes,' said Albert to the young woman. 'What's got him? Is it Monkey nuts that don't suit him, do you think?'
'Choked with chaff, more like,' she retorted. 'It's as bad as feeding a threshing machine, to have to listen to some folks.'
'As bad as what?' said Albert. 'You don't mean me, do you, Miss Stokes?'
'No,' she cried. 'I don't mean you.'
Joe's face became dark red during these sallies, but he said nothing. He would eye the young woman curiously, as she swung so easily at the work, and he had some of the look of a dog which is going to bite.
Albert, with his nerves on edge, began to find the strain rather severe. The next Saturday evening, when Joe came in more black-browed than ever, he watched him, determined to have it out with him.
When the boy went upstairs to bed, the corporal followed him. He closed the door behind him carefully, sat on the bed and watched the younger man undressing. And for once he spoke in a natural voice, neither chaffing nor commanding.
'What's gone wrong, boy?'
Joe stopped a moment as if he had been shot. Then he went on unwinding his puttees, and did not answer or look up.
'You can hear, can't you?' said Albert, nettled.
'Yes, I can hear,' said Joe, stooping over his puttees till his face was purple.
'Then why don't you answer?'
Joe sat up. He gave a long, sideways look at the corporal. Then he lifted his eyes and stared at a crack in the ceiling.
The corporal watched these movements shrewdly.
'And then what?' he asked, ironically.
Again Joe turned and stared him in the face. The corporal smiled very slightly, but kindly.
'There'll be murder done one of these days,' said Joe, in a quiet, unimpassioned voice.
'So long as it's by daylight - ' replied Albert. Then he went over, sat down by Joe, put his hand on his shoulder affectionately, and continued, 'What is it, boy? What's gone wrong? You can trust me, can't you?'
Joe turned and looked curiously at the face so near to his.
'It's nothing, that's all,' he said laconically.
'Then who's going to be murdered? - and who's going to do the murdering? - me or you - which is it, boy?' He smiled gently at the stupid youth, looking straight at him all the while, into his eyes. Gradually the stupid, hunted, glowering look died out of Joe's eyes. He turned his head aside, gently, as one rousing from a spell.
'I don't want her,' he said, with fierce resentment.
'Then you needn't have her,' said Albert. 'What do you go for, boy?'
But it wasn't as simple as all that. Joe made no remark.
'She's a smart-looking girl. What's wrong with her, my boy? I should have thought you were a lucky chap, myself.'
'I don't want 'er,' Joe barked, with ferocity and resentment.
'Then tell her so and have done,' said Albert. He waited awhile. There was no response. 'Why don't you?' he added.
'Because I don't,' confessed Joe, sulkily.
Albert pondered - rubbed his head.
'You're too soft-hearted, that's where it is, boy. You want your mettle dipping in cold water, to temper it. You're too soft-hearted - '
He laid his arm affectionately across the shoulders of the younger man. Joe seemed to yield a little towards him.
'When are you going to see her again?' Albert asked. For a long time there was no answer.
'When is it, boy?' persisted the softened voice of the corporal.
'Tomorrow,' confessed Joe.
'Then let me go,' said Albert. 'Let me go, will you?'
The morrow was Sunday, a sunny day, but a cold evening. The sky was grey, the new foliage very green, but the air was chill and depressing. Albert walked briskly down the white road towards Beeley. He crossed a larch plantation, and followed a narrow by-road, where blue speedwell flowers fell from the banks into the dust. He walked swinging his cane, with mixed sensations. Then having gone a certain length, he turned and began to walk in the opposite direction.
So he saw a young woman approaching him. She was wearing a wide hat of grey straw, and a loose, swinging dress of nigger-grey velvet. She walked with slow inevitability. Albert faltered a little as he approached her. Then he saluted her, and his roguish, slightly withered skin flushed. She was staring straight into his face.
He fell in by her side, saying impudently:
'Not so nice for a walk as it was, is it?'
She only stared at him. He looked back at her.
'You've seen me before, you know,' he said, grinning slightly. 'Perhaps you never noticed me. Oh, I'm quite nice looking, in a quiet way, you know. What - ?'
But Miss Stokes did not speak: she only stared with large, icy blue eyes at him. He became self-conscious, lifted up his chin, walked with his nose in the air, and whistled at random. So they went down the quiet, deserted grey lane. He was whistling the air: 'I'm Gilbert, the filbert, the colonel of the nuts.'
At last she found her voice:
'He thought you'd like a change: they say variety's the salt of life - that's why I'm mostly in pickle.'
'Where is he?'
'Am I my brother's keeper? He's gone his own ways.'
'Nay, how am I to know? Not so far but he'll be back for supper.'
She stopped in the middle of the lane. He stopped facing her.
'Where's Joe?' she asked.
He struck a careless attitude, looked down the road this way and that, lifted his eyebrows, pushed his khaki cap on one side, and answered:
'He is not conducting the service tonight: he asked me if I'd officiate.'
'Why hasn't he come?'
'Didn't want to, I expect. I wanted to.'
She stared him up and down, and he felt uncomfortable in his spine, but maintained his air of nonchalance. Then she turned slowly on her heel, and started to walk back. The corporal went at her side.
'You're not going back, are you?' he pleaded. 'Why, me and you, we should get on like a house on fire.'
She took no heed, but walked on. He went uncomfortably at her side, making his funny remarks from time to time. But she was as if stone deaf. He glanced at her, and to his dismay saw the tears running down her cheeks. He stopped suddenly, and pushed back his cap.
'I say, you know - ' he began.
But she was walking on like an automaton, and he had to hurry after her.
She never spoke to him. At the gate of her farm she walked straight in, as if he were not there. He watched her disappear. Then he turned on his heel, cursing silently, puzzled, lifting off his cap to scratch his head.
That night, when they were in bed, he remarked: 'Say, Joe, boy; strikes me you're well-off without Monkey nuts. Gord love us, beans ain't in it.'
So they slept in amity. But they waited with some anxiety for the morrow.
It was a cold morning, a grey sky shifting in a cold wind, and threatening rain. They watched the wagon come up the road and through the yard gates. Miss Stokes was with her team as usual; her 'Whoa!' rang out like a war-whoop.
She faced up at the truck where the two men stood.
'Joe!' she called, to the averted figure which stood up in the wind.
'What?' he turned unwillingly.
She made a queer movement, lifting her head slightly in a sipping, half-inviting, half-commanding gesture. And Joe was crouching already to jump off the truck to obey her, when Albert put his hand on his shoulder.
'Half a minute, boy! Where are you off? Work's work, and nuts is nuts. You stop here.'
Joe slowly straightened himself.
'Joe!' came the woman's clear call from below.
Again Joe looked at her. But Albert's hand was on his shoulder, detaining him. He stood half averted, with his tail between his legs.
'Take your hand off him, you!' said Miss Stokes.
'Yes, Major,' retorted Albert satirically.
She stood and watched.
'Joe!' Her voice rang for the third time.
Joe turned and looked at her, and a slow, jeering smile gathered on his face.
'Monkey nuts!' he replied, in a tone mocking her call.
She turned white - dead white. The men thought she would fall. Albert began yelling to the porters up the line to come and help with the load. He could yell like any non-commissioned officer upon occasion.
Some way or other the wagon was unloaded, the girl was gone. Joe and his corporal looked at one another and smiled slowly. But they had a weight on their minds, they were afraid.
They were reassured, however, when they found that Miss Stokes came no more with the hay. As far as they were concerned, she had vanished into oblivion. And Joe felt more relieved even than he had felt when he heard the firing cease, after the news had come that the armistice was signed.
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 recognized 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 realize. 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 realized 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 realized 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 recognized 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 Elise,' 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.