(Miss Robinson was saying “Vast wheat-growing areas in North America and Siberia.”
Astrith had for the moment placed her left hand across the back of her neck.)
But on this particular morning, the first morning, as he lay there with his eyes closed, he had for some reason waited for the postman. He wanted to hear him come round the corner. And that was precisely the joke- he never did. He never came. He never had come -round the corner -again. For when at last the steps were heard, they had already, he was quite sure, come a little down the hill, to the first house; and even so, the steps were curiously different- they were softer, they had a new secrecy about them, they were muffled and indistinct; and while the rhythm of them was the same, it now said a new thing- it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep. And he had understood the situation at once- nothing could have seemed simpler- there had been snow in the night, such as all winter he had been longing for; and it was this which had rendered the postman’s first footsteps inaudible, and the later ones faint. Of course! How lovely! And even now it must be snowing- it was going to be a snowy day- the long white ragged lines were drifting and sifting across the street, across the faces of the old houses, whispering and hushing, making little triangles of white in the corners between cobblestones, seething a little when the wind blew them over the ground to a drifted corner; and so it would be all day, getting deeper and deeper and growing more and more silent.
(Miss Robinson was saying “Land of perpetual snow.”)
All this time, of course (while he lay in bed), he had kept his eyes closed, listening to the nearer progress of the the postman, the muffled footsteps thumping and slipping on the snow-sheathed cobbles; and all the other sounds- the double knocks, a frosty far-off voice or two, a bell ringing thinly and softly as if under a sheet of ice- had the same slightly abstracted quality, as if removed by one degree from actuality- as if everything in the world had been insulated by snow. But when at last, pleased, he opened his eyes, and turned them towards the window, to see for himself this long-desired and now so clearly imagined miracle-what he saw instead was brilliant sunlight on a roof; and when, astonished, he jumped out of bed and stared down into the street, expecting to see the cobbles obliterated by snow, he saw nothing but the bare bright cobbles themselves.
Queer, the effect this extraordinary surprise had had upon him-all the following morning he had kept with him a sense as of snow falling about him, a secret screen of new snow between himself and the world. If he had not dreamed such a thing-and how could he have dreamed it while awake?-how else could one explain it? In any case, the delusion had been so vivid as to affect his entire behaviour. He could not now remember whether it was on the first or the second morning-or was it even the third?- that his mother had drawn attention to some oddness in his manner.
“But my darling”-she had said at the breakfast table-”what has come over you? You don’t seem to be listening…”
And how often that very thing had happened since!
(Miss Robinson was now asking if anyone knew the difference between the North Pole and the Magnetic Pole. Astrid was holding up her flickering freckled hand, and he could see the four white dimples that marked the knuckles.)
Perhaps it hadn’t been either the second or third morning-or even the fourth or fifth. How could he be sure? How could he be sure just when the delicious progress had become clear? Just when it had really begun? The intervals weren’t very precise… All he now knew was, that at some point or other- perhaps the second day, perhaps the sixth-he had noticed that the presence of the snow was a little more insistent, the sound of it clearer; and, conversely, the sound of the postman’s footsteps more indistinct. Not only could he not hear the steps come round the corner, he could not even hear them at the first house. It was below the second house that he heard them; and a few days later again, below the third. Gradually, gradually, the snow was becoming heavier, the sound of its seething louder, the cobblestones more and more muffled. When he found, each morning, on going to the window, after the ritual of listening, that the roofs and cobbles were bare as ever, it made no difference. This was, after all, only what he had expected. It was even what pleased him, what rewarded him: the thing was his own, belonged to no one else. No one else knew about it, not even his mother and father. There, outside, were the bare cobbles; and here, inside, was the snow. Snow growing heavier each day, muffling the world, hiding the ugly, and deadening increasingly-above all-the steps of the postman.