“But what did he look like?” Olga demanded.
Dunya shrugged. “As to that, no two tellers agree. Some say he is naught but a cold, crackling breeze whispering among the firs. Others say he is an old man in a sledge, with bright eyes and cold hands. Others say he is like a warrior in his prime, but robed all in white, with weapons of ice. No one knows. But something came to Marfa as she sat there; an icy blast whipped around her face, and she grew colder than ever. And then Frost spoke to her, in the voice of the winter wind and the falling snow:
“ ‘Are you quite warm, my beauty?’
“Marfa was a well-brought-up girl who bore her troubles uncomplainingly, so she replied, ‘Quite warm, thank you, dear Lord Frost.’ At this, the demon laughed, and as he did, the wind blew harder than ever. All the trees groaned above their heads. Frost asked again, ‘And now? Warm enough, sweetheart?’ Marfa, though she could barely speak from the cold, again replied, ‘Warm, I am warm, thank you.’ Now it was a storm that raged overhead; the wind howled and gnashed its teeth until poor Marfa was certain it would tear the skin from her bones. But Frost was not laughing now, and when he asked a third time: ‘Warm, my darling?’ she answered, forcing the words between frozen lips as blackness danced before her eyes, ‘Yes…warm. I am warm, my Lord Frost.’
“Then he was filled with admiration for her courage and took pity on her plight. He wrapped her in his own robe of blue brocade and laid her in his sledge. When he drove out of the forest and left the girl by her own front door, she was still wrapped in the magnificent robe and bore also a chest of gems and gold and silver ornaments. Marfa’s father wept with joy to see the girl once more, but Darya and her daughter were furious to see Marfa so richly clad and radiant, with a prince’s ransom at her side. So Darya turned to her husband and said, ‘Husband, quickly! Take my daughter Liza up in your sledge. The gifts that Frost has given Marfa are nothing to what he will give my girl!’
“Though in his heart Boris protested all this folly, he took Liza up in his sledge. The girl was wearing her finest gown and wrapped in heavy fur robes. Her father took her deep into the woods and left her beneath the same fir tree. Liza in turn sat a long time. She had begun to grow very cold, despite her furs, when at last Frost came through the trees, cracking his fingers and laughing to himself. He danced right up to Liza and breathed into her face, and his breath was the wind out of the north that freezes skin to bone. He smiled and asked, ‘Warm enough, darling?’ Liza, shuddering, answered, ‘Of course not, you fool! Can you not see that I am near perished with cold?’
“The wind blew harder than ever, howling about them in great, tearing gusts. Over the din he asked, ‘And now? Quite warm?’ The girl shrieked back, ‘But no, idiot! I am frozen! I have never been colder in my life! I am waiting for my bridegroom Frost, but the oaf hasn’t come.’ Hearing this, Frost’s eyes grew hard as adamant; he laid his fingers on her throat, leaned forward, and whispered into the girl’s ear, ‘Warm now, my pigeon?’ But the girl could not answer, for she had died when he touched her and lay frozen in the snow.
“At home, Darya waited, pacing back and forth. ‘Two chests of gold at least,’ she said, rubbing her hands. ‘A wedding-dress of silk velvet and bridal-blankets of the finest wool.’ Her husband said nothing. The shadows began to lengthen and there was still no sign of her daughter. At length, Darya sent her husband out to retrieve the girl, admonishing him to have care with the chests of treasure. But when Boris reached the tree where he had left his daughter that morning, there was no treasure at all: only the girl herself, lying dead in the snow.
“With a heavy heart, the man lifted her in his arms and bore her back home. The mother ran out to meet them. ‘Liza,’ she called. ‘My love!’
“Then she saw the corpse of her child, huddled up in the bottom of the sledge. At that moment, the finger of Frost touched Darya’s heart, too, and she fell dead on the spot.”
There was a small, appreciative silence.
Then Olga spoke up plaintively. “But what happened to Marfa? Did she marry him? King Frost?”
“Cold embrace, indeed,” Kolya muttered to no one in particular, grinning.
Dunya gave him an austere look, but did not deign to reply.
“Well, no, Olya,” she said to the girl. “I shouldn’t think so. What use does Winter have for a mortal maiden? More likely she married a rich peasant, and brought him the largest dowry in all Rus’.”
Olga looked ready to protest this unromantic conclusion, but Dunya had already risen with a creaking of bones, eager to retire. The top of the oven was large as a great bed, and the old and the young and the sick slept upon it. Dunya made her bed there with Alyosha.
The others kissed their mother and slipped away. At last Marina herself rose. Despite her winter clothes, Dunya saw anew how thin she had grown, and it smote the old lady’s heart. It will soon be spring, she comforted herself. The woods will turn green and the beasts give rich milk. I will make her pie with eggs and curds and pheasant, and the sun will make her well again.
But the look in Marina’s eyes filled the old nurse with foreboding.
The lamb came forth at last, draggled and spindly, black as a dead tree in the rain. The ewe began licking the little thing in a peremptory way, and before long the tiny creature stood, swaying on minute hooves. “Molodets,” said Pyotr Vladimirovich to the ewe, and stood up himself. His aching back protested when he drew it straight. “But you could have chosen a better night.” The wind outside ground its teeth. The sheep flapped her tail nonchalantly. Pyotr grinned and left them. A fine ram, born in the jaws of a late-winter storm. It was a good omen.
Pyotr Vladimirovich was a great lord: a boyar, with rich lands and many men to do his bidding. It was only by choice that he passed his nights with his laboring stock. But always he was present when a new creature came to enrich his herds, and often he drew it to the light with his own bloody hands.
The sleet had stopped and the night was clearing. A few valiant stars showed between the clouds when Pyotr came into the dooryard and pulled the barn door shut behind him. Despite the wet, his house was buried nearly to the eaves in a winter’s worth of snow. Only the pitched roof and chimneys had escaped, and the space around the door, which the men of Pyotr’s household laboriously kept clear.