“The other side of the park. He was so fiery, Miss, with his back legs sliding as he stole across the ice.”
A man with dirt-rimmed nails sat beside me. I saw a dark hood and a wisp of grizzled hair in the corner of my vision. A groundsman or gamekeeper probably, I did not know. I was struck by a sense that his work bought him in the close contact with the earth. I thought to stand and go but didn’t. I had come to rest on a small bench, tired by so many strides across drifts. I followed his pointing hand across an icy clearing towards a wood of tall snow-laden firs.
“Lives in the roots of a tree over there.” He paused and then continued, “I hope he gets away Miss.”
The man must have heard the thunder of hooves and yelping dogs hurtling over fields as my fiancé led the Boxing Day hunt. I was minded to say that it is merely a drag hunt, the fox is safe nowadays but I decided not to encourage conversation. Whilst he sat there, I was aware of a strange smell hung about him, a sort of compound of animals, dogs, something acrid.
“Its sharp muzzle snuffed the air and then it ran through snow up to its belly, ice forming on his russet coat.”
I examined the backs of my hands as he spoke, expecting that my silence would encourage him to move off. My engagement ring flashed a little as it caught the light. As I sat with the man I was struck by a sensation as if the outer world had for a few moments been left behind. I also became very aware of my own fatigue.
That morning as I awoke my fiancé said, “You look a little pale my dear.”
“I didn’t sleep well,” I replied.
During the early hours, I had awoken. I walked down the wide staircase, through the long hallway and put my eye to a gap. I saw in the low Christmas lights my fiancé in the arms of a woman. In the soft glow my two brothers were standing by raising their glasses as if making a toast as they danced. As I watched them, my sharp distress quickly changed to one of awe. The strangest thing was as my fiancé lovingly smoothed the long red hair and held the pale hands of the woman, I saw that he was actually holding me. I knew it then to be one of those strange dreams that can sometimes be brought on by too much strong drink, or even an over-active mind. My forthcoming wedding had been on my mind a great deal. It was planned for the eve of Candlemas.
As I dressed that morning I had looked down on the wide courtyard at the hunt meeting. My fiancé, a disturbingly elegant man and handsome in breeches and red waistcoat, shared a stirrup cup with several fawning ladies. He looked darker than ever against the luminescence of the snow, making him appear slightly unreal. His legend is that, although still rather young he had already been on the verge of marriage once before. It did not matter to me but I understood there had been some sort of scandal. The only trace I had ever found of his previous love had been in the empty pages of the family photograph albums from where her likenesses had been removed.
I watched the horses gallop out of the courtyard. As I had prepared for my walk I had contemplated my reflection in the large oak mirror garlanded with withering holly. I too had had lovers.
I gave a little start as the man continued.
“And then I saw its brush of orange disappear into the snowbound roots of a great fir, as dignified as any castle…and do you know Miss, the fox turned his head, his breath silver on the air. He seemed to observe me for fully a minute, bold as you like.”
I saw the fox just as the man described it, his tail like a flame against snow and ice. Imagined, real, I knew not which. I saw it taking shelter, saved from whatever savagery he imagined. I scanned the trees and grey sky. The strange smell stole into the air again.
“We’ll both catch our deaths sitting here,” I said at last and as I spoke a few fresh flakes began to fall. The dark hood turned toward me. I could barely supress a flinch when I caught a pair of golden-yellow eyes.
I watched him stand and walk away across the clearing. At that moment, my phone buzzed in my pocket. With numb fingers, I opened the screen. A spasm of shock and confusion almost caused me to fall off the bench. A picture of my wedding day to my previous fiancé, an exceedingly wealthy man. I was standing next to him, my long auburn hair cascading over my shoulder, wearing a dress of pure swan-white. The next picture flipped onto the screen. I pressed my hand over my mouth. Candlemas morning. The ghost of my late husband lying in the snow his head twisted the wrong way, his blank eyes open, just seconds before my two brothers entombed him under wintery earth. Uncompromising, we had inherited a business empire.
With my heart clamouring in my throat I saw too that the photographs had been sent to my fiancé with the message, “BE BOLD, BE BOLD.” I looked toward the black lines of trees. I caught a red lupine flick against the white. Across the snow there were no traces of any man at all.