The door was of black varnish, very fine and just old enough to have class. It opens now, inward, admitting not just decadent snow and the sounds of traffic and life, but the bundled figure of a man, his overcoat providing not nearly enough protection against the deadly chill of the city. Perhaps, then, the sigh is one of relief, for as he hangs the garment upon a hook he feels the warmth of the nearby hearth, the smell of cooking stew from the kitchen close by.
He walks there now, a small smile upon his face, and his shiny black shoes thump lightly against the thin carpet. The small woman at the pot is not his wife, nor of any relation to him, but as ever he feel toward her the greatest affection and gratitude.
"Hilda. I've returned." The woman has bad ears, now, and shouts from the porch seldom reach her comprehension. But at such proximity she turns, slowly, regarding him with kind, thoughtful blue eyes, and gives a craggy smile not unlike a friendly mountain.
"Little boy," she says, laughing loudly not with mirth, but simple welcome and joy at his return, "little Truman. Oh, you have been away so long!"
"Just since the morning, good woman, but it is very good to see you."
She waves the spoon with a merry air. "Oh, bah. I am old now, and the old rise very late and sleep very early, in preparation of the grave. It's been nearly a day, since last I saw you." There is a pause, as she stirs the gently bubbling mixture. "How very handsome you are growing!"
The meal is short, but full of simple, happy conversation. There was a time when Hilda would have eaten in the servants' room, that dusty, disused room that now served as a second pantry, but there were no other servants now, and so good was her company and so old now her lungs that such a designation seemed cruel. His father would not have approved, of course, but such sacrifices were sometimes inevitable.
"I think I will go ice-fishing tomorrow, out on the lake," he said at one point. "Things go well at the bank, and some of the lads were thinking of going out in commemoration on the week-end." He took the ladle in hand, and served himself more stew, waving away Hilda's fussy insistence that she do it herself. "They say it is a good lake - the fish are large but very stupid, and a man can catch his dinner there with relative ease." He chewed upon a bit of tender meat, obviously deep in thought, and said at last, "Could you cook a carp, Hilda? They say there is no better reward for a man than to taste the fruition of his own hunt."
She smiles and nods, no trace upon her face of sorrow or irony, though both emotions would be well justified. It would be impossible to say whether it is a clever act she uses, or the first onsets of benign senility, for she does not mention that there are no carp to be caught in winter, for they slumber at the bottom of the water until the warmth of spring, nor does she remark on her employer's lack of rod and bait, just as, in hunting season, she conveniently forgot that he did not own a rifle, with which to shoot grouse with a client. "I can put it in the stew," is what she says, and her smile warms Truman's heart.
"Yes. Well." Placing his spoon across the bowl, he sat back, looking content. "It will be a fun morning, won't it?"
She laughs again, the eyes, at least, as young as they ever were. "A young man needs his air, little Truman. But you must be so cold, sitting alone on a lonely lake like that. Won't you borrow your father's coat? It was always so very warm.
"I think I should like it very much. Do you know where he put it?"
A nod. "I will find it for you. I have put the pipe in the study, if you want that."
The smoking was cheerful, the small euphoria of having plans and chatting with Hilda enough to motivate him to read a few chapters of a novel he'd bought two summers ago, before retiring to his chamber. There he lay, catching stray thoughts of sleep, sifting up less desirable things in his net.
Below, all is quiet. Hilda has gone to sleep. The house creaks and settles on its timbers. "Ah, me..." he whispers, and his voice is tired and cracked. "I'd almost quite forgotten. Traegahn. I promised to get him done over the weekend, didn't I? It will occupy me for at least a day, and if I put it up until Sunday I may forget."
He does not consider that perhaps he made plans simply in fear of his Saturday excursion. But he does recall an old and long-forgotten November, walking with a pretty girl, and he had planned to go to America, and live a life there of great adventure.
Fear is a curious thing, thinks Mr. Truman North, of Hampshire, now of London, and it marks us all so very queerly.
It really was a beautiful fur coat. He thought of Hilda looking for it in the old attic, and the wardrobe of his late father, not finding it at worrying and blaming her old eyes and not knowing he had burned it, so very long ago, for a youthful passion now quite forgotten. He would still depart tomorrow, with many well wishes to the home, but it will not be to the lake he goes. He will set his course to the bank, to his cubicle, and there he will feel safe and happy and horrible and small.
He closes his eyes. He dreams of trout, long and gleaming, and a bridge of gleaming gold, and a face like emerald starlight. It is a cold night, and the crickets are all gone, but the winter wind blows narrow, along paths lit by lights that never move.