Peacock in the Snow


IT had been snowing for almost two days and the snow was deep all the way out to the house on the evening we went there for the first time. The air was cold and brisk, but we felt warm from the exertion, pushing through the dry drifted snow with the cold air against our faces and the now diminishing snowflakes striking singly against them with sharp, then quickly melting needle points. The lights in the houses that we passed looked warm and homelike against the cold.

’It seems funny — calling on Henry,’ said Paul.

We three had lived together ever since we had started teaching at the university.

‘Yes, it seems very formal,’ I said.

Paul laughed and brushed some snow off his face. He took a deep breath.

‘I love this weather,’ he said.

We all loved the cold sharp weather. On week-ends we often went skiing on the hills around the town. Henry was the best skier of the three. This dry powdery snow would be good for skiing.

We did n’t say anything for a time, pushing through the dry snow. Then Paul said: —

‘I wonder what she’s like. What’s her name again?’


‘Oh, yes. Rosamond.’

‘It’s a pretty name,’ I said.

He did n’t say anything.

‘Don’t you think so?’ I said.

‘It’s sort of fancy. Rosamond . . .’

Most of the houses that we passed were painted white. The snow and the white-painted houses looked clean and cold. The evergreens around the houses and the bare branches of the trees along the sidewalk, above our heads, looked black and hard as iron against all the pure whiteness. Everything was black and white except where the yellow lights shone out from the windows of the houses and softened the hard whiteness of the snow.

‘When you shut out the lights it looks like a black and white pen-andink drawing, does n’t it?’ I said.

Paul nodded and said, ‘That’s what I like about it. It’s clean and sharp. No frills . .

‘It makes you feel at home,’ I said.

‘What do you mean?’

‘It makes you feel as if you were back in the laboratory.’

‘Oh, yes,’ he said, and laughed.

I thought of the work I might be doing in the laboratory to-night instead of calling on Henry and his new wife. Put we could n’t very well get out of it. We were old friends.

‘I guess there’s something in that,’ said Paul. ‘I don’t know: I’m really not very observing, — I mean I don’t especially notice things around me, scenery and all that, — but when I do notice something it’s always like this.’ He waved his arm toward the white snow. ‘It’s black and white and never colored. I don’t care so much about color.’

‘That’s the way I feel, too,’ I said. ‘That’s why we like this place.’

‘Look, that must be it over there,’ said Paul, pointing at a house.

‘It’s quite far out, is n’t it?’ I said.

‘Yes. It looks nice, though.’

We paused as we came nearer the house, looking at it. It was a simple white-painted old colonial house. I suddenly remembered it.

‘This is where old Truman used to live,’ I said. ‘Don’t you remember?’

’Oh, of course. . . . Certainly.’

‘I suppose it was too much for Mrs. Truman to afford after lie died. So she rented it.’

‘I saw her the other day, but I did n’t know she’d moved.’

We started up the path to the house.

‘Calling on Henry,’ said Paul, and gave a short laugh.

‘And Rosamond.’

‘Yes,’ he said.

Before we rang we stamped our feet on the porch to get the snow off our galoshes. Henry heard us and came to the door. It was good to see old Henry again. We went in.

‘Well, well, well,’ we all said, standing there in the hall and looking at each other and smiling, all of us feeling a little embarrassed.

It had been almost a year since Henry had left for his sabbatical and, during that time, got married. He looked well.

‘We’ve missed vou, old Henry,’ said Paul.

‘I’ve missed you,’ said Henry.

‘I guess you’ve been too busy to go into a decline on account of us, though,’ I said.

We all laughed, looking at one another. It was nice to be together again. But different, in a way.

We stood in the hall. A draft came from under the hall door. Henry pointed to it and said: —

‘I’ve got to do something about that. Get some weather stripping, or something.’

We looked at him and smiled.

‘The old householder,’ said Paul.

Henry blushed a little.

I looked toward the living room on the other side of the hall to see if his wife was there, but it was empty. Henry glanced up the stairs.

‘Well, are you all impatient to get back on the job?’ Paul asked him.

Henry’s face lighted up.

’You bet I am. It’s all very nice getting a sabbatical like this, but after a while . . .’ He shook his head. ‘I won’t mind getting back to work again. You know there were times when I felt I’d give anything just to smell some nice stink again: some nice H2S or ammonia or . . .’

‘I thought the scent of orange blossoms made a man forget all about everything else,’ said Paul, and we all laughed.

We did n’t say anything for a few seconds, then Paul said, ‘Well, I’ve got young Jennings working for me now, and from what he’s been able to get together for me I’ve almost decided that . . .’

He paused, seeing Henry looking toward the stairs, seeing a smile come over his face. We all looked toward the top of the stairs.

Rosamond. There she was, at the head of the stairs. The light was dim up there and we could n’t see anything except the outline of her figure.

‘Well!’ said Henry, smiling up at her.

Paul and I glanced at each other and then up again at her.

She came slowly down the stairs, now’, and as she came towrard the brighter light in the hall we gradually saw her more clearly. But before we could see her face we saw the long trailing gown of some sort, of soft stuff and the colors in it. I had never seen colors like that together: green and purple and deep blue and even here and there a streak of a kind of pink. It reminded me of a peacock. I caught Paul’s eye for a second. The soft stuff of the gown flowed along her as she came down and the colors seemed to flow with it, getting each moment more vivid as she moved slowly down the stairs into the bright light that filled the hallway from the chandelier above our heads. Then I saw her face, and I could understand the look on Henry’s face better than I had a moment ago. It was a beautiful face, and I could see how a man could love it. It was a passionate face, too, with dark eyes and a generous mouth. We were n’t used to seeing faces like that around here. The girls we knew, the ones who sometimes went skiing with us, were blonder and their eyes were usually blue or gray and not brown like these, and they had more outdoor color in their faces. I thought now that her name fitted her very well. In fact, she might even have had a more unusual name, like Dolores, or something like that.

We all smiled and said something as Henry introduced us and then she led the way into the other room. I watched the soft flowing blue and purple and green of the gown as she moved past.


The room had n’t changed much since the days when old Dr. Truman used to be here. I remembered a lot of things in there about which I had forgotten. I remembered coming out here for seminars on cold winter nights like this. It seemed very long ago. I could see that Henry had rented the place furnished, just as it was. There were even some family photographs of old Truman’s on the walls. It was not a big room, but it was very neat and clean, with white walls and clean white woodwork and a lot of books around the walls in white-painted bookcases. On the floor there were a few hooked rugs in pale pink and blue and gray, and there were some simple but good-looking chairs of the early American type. Chairs of that sort are stiff and not very comfortable, but they go well with the colonial style of architecture that is so general around here. In front of the small white marble fireplace was the old wicker armchair in which Dr. Truman always used to sit. The only thing that I saw in the room which was different from the times when we used to come there was a large bunch of purple iris and another of darker purple violets in two vases on the mantelpiece. They seemed somehow out of place there, although I don’t know why they should have.

For a few moments we all stood there in the room. I saw Henry’s wife looking around, as if she were n’t certain where to sit. You could see that she was as much of a stranger in the room as we were. More, perhaps, since we had been there often before. She looked at the small chairs and then at the wicker armchair. As her eyes moved around the room I had the impression, for a second, that she was frightened — which was foolish, of course, as there was n’t anything in the room to frighten anybody. Probably she was just shy.

She sat down in the wicker armchair by the side of the fireplace. She was very graceful. The wicker of the chair creaked as she sat in it. I remembered how it always used to do that when old Dr. Truman sat in it.

‘Well, this must be quite a change for you,’ said Paul to her when we had all sat down. ‘I mean coming right up here from down there, into all this snow and everything.’

‘ This is the first snow Rosamond has ever seen,’ said Henry, smiling over at her.

‘It’spretty, is n’t it?’I said. ‘Everything black and white this way, like a pen-and-ink drawing.‘

‘Yes, it’s very pretty. But it’s so awfully cold,’ she added.

Henry laughed and looked at us.

‘If she thinks this is cold, what do you suppose she’ll say when it gets really cold?’

She looked at him uncertainly.

‘Really cold?’

‘Why, yes,’ he said. ‘This is n’t really cold.’

‘I wonder what the temperature is,’ I said.

Henry got up and went to the window. He drew aside the white curtain and looked out at the thermometer.

‘Eighteen,’ he said.

‘Wait till it gets to be eighteen below,’ Paul said.

We all laughed. Henry’s wife looked worried, then she laughed, too.

‘It does n’t get to be eighteen below,’ she said.

‘Oh, doesn’t it!’ said Henry. ‘You wait and see.’

‘You’ll get used to it, though,’ I said to her. ‘It’s really not so bad.’

She looked from one to another of us with a slight smile on her face. She had a warm-looking beautiful mouth. I looked at it and then at the bright colors of her dress. I thought of old Dr. Truman sitting in that chair, pulling his little white beard, and now of her in this bright dress with colors that I ’d never seen together before, green and blue and purple and pink. The flowers on the mantel behind her happened also to be like some of the colors in the dress.

‘Well, I ’ll just have to get used to it, shan’t I?’ she said, smiling at us more fully, now. ‘Shan’t I?’

‘I’m afraid so, dear,’ said Henry.

‘But it must be hard, just the same,’I said. ‘After you’ve been used to a place where it never gets cold, where . .‘

‘It really is wonderful down there,’ said Henry. ‘The blue water, and palm trees, and at night you get the smell of the orange groves, and . . .’ He stopped, looking at us, and laughed. ‘You see how romantic it makes you.’

It certainly did. Paul and I looked at each other and then back at Henry. And then at her. It was odd.

‘And the air, Henry,’ she said. ‘Don’t you remember how you always used to say the air was so soft?’ She looked at us. ‘I was so used to it, I thought it was funny when he said that. But now . . .’ She looked toward the window on which the frost crystals glittered from the light in the room. ‘Now I see what he means.’

‘Well, yes,’ he said. ‘I know. At first I thought that was wonderful. But it’s funny, after a while.’ He turned to us. ‘After a while I got so that I felt I’d give anything for some air with real — real snap in it.’ He glanced toward the window and took a deep breath. ‘Like this.’

He looked over toward her, but her eyes were lowered.

‘Well, I’d certainly like to go there,’ said Paul.

‘You must come and visit us there next summer,’ she said, looking up again and smiling.

‘Oh, are you going to be there next summer?’ Paul said.

‘Well, we thought we might go there for a while,’ said Henry. ‘Rosamond wants to see her family, of course.

. . . But I think it would be nice for her to get up to Maine or some place like that. She really ought to see some of that country.’

‘Maine is very nice,’I said.

‘Of course the water’s terribly cold there,’ said Paul.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Henry.

‘Oh, yes, it is, Henry,’ I said. ‘It’s really too cold to be much fun.’

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I should n’t like that.’

‘Rosamond’s a great swimmer,’ said Henry. ‘Much better than I am. You ought to see her: she’s a regular fish.’

‘I like to really swim,’ she said. ‘You know: not just in and out, but really swim around for hours.’

‘Well, I would n’t advise Maine, then,’ I said.

‘It’s beautiful country, though,’ said Henry, and Paul and I both agreed with him, because we could see that that was really where he would like to go.


For a few moments we said nothing, then Paul started the conversation again by asking her something about the South and she talked more, now, than she had before. From the way she talked I could see that she certainly must be very fond of that country. There was something, too, about her expression and the things she spoke of, and the way her voice sounded when she spoke of t hem, that made you see and even feel the things she was describing. It was different from the way Henry spoke. Perhaps it was just her Southern way of talking — although her accent was n’t at all extreme. But there was something in her voice that made me see the herons standing in the red lakes at sunset, and the sharp edge of blue and green where the Gulf Stream flows north against the cold ocean water.

But she did n’t talk long, and when there was a moment’s pause Henry leaned toward us and said, ‘How did Sparling finally make out? Has he published his results yet ? ’

We told him about that and then he asked us some more questions about the work in our department.. You could see that, after having been away so long, he was anxious to find out all that had happened and to get back to work again himself.

While Paul was telling him about the new’ w’ork he was doing I looked at Rosamond. She smiled at me and then pretended to listen to what the others were saying. Of course she was n’t interested, because she knew nothing about it.

I moved my chair over a little closer to hers. On the table at her side I noticed something that I had n’t seen before. It was a shell, striped with bright bands of blue and green and orange, curving smoothly, with a sharp spire at one end and a delicate slightly iridescent fold at the other.

‘That’s beautiful,’ I said. ‘Did you find that down there?’

‘They’re all over the beaches,’ she said. ‘But they’re pretty, are n’t they? Sometimes when you ’re swimming you can see them moving along the bottom.’

The only shells I had ever noticed on our beaches up here were those big white clamshells and the dirty-looking little periwinkles.

I thought of the wfide beaches and the warm clear water and the tall palms leaning before the wind.

I listened to her.

Country like that must be strange. I had never seen swamps where gray shreds of Spanish moss hang dowm motionless from the limbs of dead cypress trees. I had never seen ramshackle Negro cabins, dirty and falling to pieces, but with flame vines growing over the doors. I did not even know what a flame vine was, but I could imagine.

Paul and Henry suddenly looked guilty and both turned to her, smiling.

‘We did n’t realize until we got out here,’ said Paul, ‘that this was the house where old Truman used to live.’

‘We certainly ought to know it well,’ I said. ‘All the times we’ve been here.’

‘Poor old Doc,’ said Henry.

‘Why?’ she asked. ‘What happened to him?’

‘Oh, he died,’Henry said. ‘He . . .’

He stopped and looked at her, and for a moment we all felt embarrassed, as though we had said something we should n’t.

‘He was very old,’ I said. ‘How old do you suppose he was, Henry?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. . . . Well along, certainly.’

‘I saw Mrs. Truman the other day, but I did n’t know’ she’d rented the place to you,’ said Paul.

‘Yes,’ said Henry. ‘She’s gone to live in some boarding house. I can’t say that I blame her. It would be pretty cold and lonely out here all alone.’

I looked at Rosamond. Her eyes were moving slowly around the room.

‘It’s cold right now, Henry, if you should ask me,’ I said. ‘How about a little heat?’

Henry jumped up.

‘Good night, I’m sorry! I hadn’t noticed.’

He went out of the room and we heard his steps going down the cellar stairs.

‘It. is cold, at that,’ said Paul. ‘Look, you can almost see your breath.’ He turned to Rosamond. ‘I should think you’d be frozen in that — that thin dress.’

She smiled and drew herself more closely into a corner of the wicker chair. It creaked a little as she moved.

‘I thought perhaps it wras just me,’ she said. ‘Henry thinks I’m so shivery that I did n’t think there wras any use speaking about it.’

‘No, it really is cold,’ Paul said.

I asked her something more about the South. I kept thinking of the things she had said. I liked to hear her voice. In the cold room and among our hard sharp voices her voice sounded soft and warm. Perhaps that was the way the air down there wras different, too.

I never knew until now that there were real jungles there, with wildcats and alligators and rattlesnakes. And I could see the muddy tidal shore, steaming under the hot sun, with gulls and pelicans and herons fishing, and cabbage palms and palmetto thickets crowding, densely, to the water’s edge.

Henry came back.

‘It was almost out,’ he said. ‘I’m not used to running a furnace, I’m afraid.’ He went over to Rosamond and put his arm around her shoulder. ‘Did you get cold, darling?’

‘Everybody did,’ said Paul.

‘I’m terribly sorry. Wait, I’ll get you something.’ He wrent to the door. ‘What shall I get you?’

She looked at us and then around the room.

‘ You might get me that green shawl, on the shelf in the closet.’

He hurried up the stairs.

‘I remember this room always used to be cold,’ I said. ‘It’s on the north side and hard to heat. We always . . . ’

Paul cleared his throat and said, ‘It’ll just take some stoking.’

She gave a sudden laugh.

‘Maybe the old man, Dr. — What’shis-name—just died of the cold.’

I looked at her, but, although she was facing me, her eyes were looking past me. I could feel them, warm, on the snow crystals of the window at my back.

I laughed and said, ‘People don’t die of the cold.’

‘Don’t they?’ she said.

Paul smiled at her and shook his head.

I thought of the trees down there: pepper trees, and lime, and orange. And then there were strange names, like tamarind, and pawpaw, and yucca, and gumbo limbo. They sounded soft and ripe when she spoke them. I had never seen any trees like that. The only trees I knew were things like maples, and elms, and pines, and larches.

Henry came back.

‘I couldn’t find that shawl anywhere,’ he said. ‘So I brought this coat instead. It’ll be warmer, anyway.’

He held out the coat toward her. It was a kind of gray woolen coat with a small fur collar.

She looked at it, then smiled and said, ‘Well, it’s not exactly smart, Henry, but it is warmer, that’s true.’

She leaned forward in the chair and he slipped the gray coat over her shoulders. She pulled it around her. It covered most of her dress.

‘Well,’ said Henry, ‘the heat ought to be up in a few minutes, then you won’t need it any more. I remember how warm it always used to be when we were here with old Dr. Truman. It . .

‘Do you play the piano?’ Paul asked her, looking over at a pile of music that was lying on the table.

‘She certainly does,’ said Henry. ‘Come and play for the gentlemen, dear.’

We all laughed.

‘It’s just that old upright the Truman girls used to practise on,’ said Henry. ‘But it’ll probably do. It’s been tuned, anyway.’ He turned to her. ‘Have you tried it yet?’

She shook her head.

He looked at us and said, ‘You have to keep after these children to keep them practising. Bad girl!’

Paul and I avoided looking at each other.

‘Why, I thought surely you’d be doing that when you should have been unpacking,’ Henry said to her. ‘Have n’t you felt like it?’

‘Why, I don’t know,’ she said slowly. ‘No . . . I guess I have n’t.’

He held out his hands to her. She hesitated a moment, t hen held out hers and let him pull her up from the chair.

‘What shall I play?’ she said over her shoulder, after she had sat down at the piano.

‘Play that Bach thing,’ he said.


I liked the hard clear feeling of the notes as they came out of the piano under her fingers. You had a sense of precision and accuracy from them. They were cold and distinct, like separate drops of ice falling into the air. I thought of the black winter trees against the white snow, and of the laboratory, and of the exact solutions of mathematical problems and the kind of sparkle that comes as all the numbers slip correctly into their places and you see the solution approaching and you know it is right and finally the last figure is put down, the only figure that could fit into just that place, and you sit back and there is your problem — solved. The music stopped short, precisely, finally.

Paul and Plenry and I looked at each other and nodded and then applauded. She glanced back with a smile over her shoulder.

‘More,’ said Paul.

I looked at the ice crystals and their etched patterns on the windowpane.

Pier hands moved over the keys in some preliminary chords. We sat back and waited. I still heard the clear absolute notes falling into their proper grooves and final conclusion. I forgot about the places about which she had been talking a little while ago.

She began to play slowly. The music sounded unfamiliar. For a moment I thought the piano really was out of tune. It was an old piano and a few of the notes might have been worn or broken. I did n’t know enough about it to tell. But then I felt that it could n’t be the piano. All the sounds had been too exact before. In all that Bach piece there had not been one flaw. Everything had fallen into its proper appointed place. And I felt that these notes were also falling into their proper places, but I could n’t understand it. The music made a strange murmuring sound, low and throbbing, with now and then a thin harsh streak across it, like the sawing scrape of some insect, or the high cry of a bird. I saw the music. I saw sunlight and trees, and it felt warm. Thin reedy bird cries came through the hot still air, and there were the breathing sounds of breezes, and sudden harsh thrusts. I saw her hands move faster and now there was a kind of bitter longing in the sounds which they produced, mounting, until the room — in which I remembered the quiet voice of old Dr. Truman as he sat there in the wicker chair, pulling his little white beard, and the respectful voices of his students — became suddenly filled with a passionate torrent of music that I felt must somehow change the whole appearance of everything there, as if enormous flowers should suddenly burst into bloom out of the white walls, and the polished floor turn to warm muddy water, and the ice crystals upon the windowpanes be dissolved to green leaves.

The music suddenly stopped, leaving something unfinished hanging shattered in the air.

Paul and Henry and I looked at each other. We applauded for a moment. She did not turn around. For several seconds none of us spoke. Then Henry cleared his throat and said: —

‘ That was fine, dear. What was that — something modern?’

She got up from the piano. The gray coat fell to the floor. She looked very beautiful as she stood there, her lips parted a little and more color in her face than there had been before. The bright colors of her gown made me think of luxuriantly growing blue and pink and purple flowers.

‘What was it?’ Henry asked her again.

She looked at him and then at us with a slight smile.

‘One of my masterpieces,’ she said.

‘Yours?’ Henry looked surprised. ‘You mean you — you composed it?’

She nodded her head.

‘Why, I never knew you wrote any music yourself, Rosamond,’ he said.

‘You see?’ She looked at us and then back at him. ‘There are some things that even you don’t know about me, darling.’

He looked at her for several seconds more and then at us, proudly.

‘Did you write that recently?’ Paul asked her.

She laughed and said, ‘Just now. That was the world premiere.’

‘That was fine,’I said. ‘Great . . .’

I wanted to say something more, but I did n’t know just how to put it. I felt this music and its bursting flowers, but I could have said more to her about the Bach. I could express that.

We all stood there a little longer, then she went over to the fireplace and looked up for a second or two at the flowers that stood on the mantelpiece.

Henry went over to the radiator and felt it with his hand.

‘Ah, it’s coming along,’ he said.

She turned around and smiled at him, and then sat down again in the wicker chair. It creaked, and I thought again of old Dr. Truman.

We left soon after. She and Henry came to the door with us. It had stopped snowing and the sky was cloudless and filled with stars. Henry looked up and said: —

‘I think we’re in for some clear cold weather now for a while.’ He took a long breath of the sharp air. ‘Does n’t that feel great?’

He looked down at Rosamond and put his arm around her.

‘You’d better go and see how your furnace is getting on,’ said Paul, and we all laughed.

Paul and I walked along for a while without speaking, then he said, ‘Well, old Henry’s a real householder now, is n’t he?’


‘Like her?’ Paul asked.

‘Yes,’I said. ‘She’s pretty. . . . Unusual, sort of.‘

‘Yes, she’s pretty.‘

‘She plays the piano well, doesn’t she?‘

‘Yes,’Paul said. ‘She plays well. I liked the Bach. But was n’t that last thing she played crazy, though!’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I thought it had something to it.‘

It was hard for me to say just what I felt about a piece of music.

Paul laughed.

‘Something to it? What?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. A feeling ... I felt something there.‘

Paul laughed again.

‘That’s certainly a clear statement for a scientist to come out with. “A feeling,” says the exact scientist.‘

‘Don’t you see what I mean?’ I said.

He shook his head.

‘It was very feminine. Vague . .

I did n’t feel like talking about it. I was annoyed at not being able to express myself more exactly. It made me feel silly.

‘That’s the whole trouble with women,’he said. ‘Their emotions and their ideas and — everything about them is amorphous. You can tell in just one minute’s talk with a woman like that that she does n’t know what she wants.’

‘All right,’ I said. ‘You’re probably right.‘

‘Well, don’t be irritable about it,’he said.

‘I’m not irritable,’ I said.

‘Oh, I thought you were. . . . Sorry.’

We walked along for a while without saying anything more. I kept hearing that music — and seeing it at the same time.

Finally Paul said, ‘But I can’t picture her with the other faculty wives — imagine her with Frau Professor Purvis, good God!—or going skiing with us. Can you?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I can’t. It’ll probably be hard for her. And Henry’ll certainly be disappointed if she does n’t take up skiing, he’s so crazy about it.’

‘Well, I suppose she’ll adapt herself after a while,’ Paul said. ‘She’ll have to.‘

‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘She’ll have to.‘

As we came up to the laboratory Paul suddenly stopped and said he thought he’d go in and have a look around. He asked me if I was coming in, too. At first I said I was n’t, but then I decided I would, after all. Neither of us had intended to work that night, but somehow we got started and we stayed there until after three o’clock in the morning. I don’t know why we did.