He hadn't considered the possibility that Anna might reject him. No one ever had. What was that phrase she so often used to describe his effect upon her, a phrase that made him feel he was being trapped? 'Animal magnetism'. She said his made it impossible for her to deny any of his moods.
They'd been more than an item in that small country village, their relationship the gossip of townsfolk. Everyone, including the postal clerk, assumed they'd marry. The only question was, when?
Petulant and self-possessed, he'd turned to others when her too attentive periods of interest in his every thought made him fantasize about fresh conquests, made him deaf to her transparent feminine chatter. It was the lack of challenge. She was too easy. It wasn't any other aspect of her that sent part of his mind wandering in search of certain diversions. Her figure, enticing appearance, every physical aspect of her seemed made to enjoy. And he indulged every pleasure, yet found himself in dangerous and sometimes deliciously exciting situations sponsored by her other weaknesses. Her need for constant attention and affirmation provided the lubricant for his moral slipping and sliding.
Once, during the off and on relationship, he'd pursued an older woman, one who showed little interest until he'd hinted she might find some of his 'talents' stimulating. She'd abused him, yet he'd found her dominating personality a physical and emotional challenge, engaging in acts he might have found repulsive a few years earlier.
After being debased, whipped and left locked naked in a room for two days without food or drink, he'd managed to escape, avoiding her thereafter like some abhorrent disease. He'd been frightened nearly speechless when he found himself face to face with her at a socialite's party a few weeks later. Well dressed and arm and arm with a much younger woman, she'd hardly acknowledged his transparent discomfort. Unable to forget what she'd done, he couldn't get the dominatrix out of his mind for weeks, something he would never admit. Anna knew nothing of this experience.
When he'd attended Cambridge, an unbridled imagination had blossomed and he'd become obsessed with the idea that he should become a writer. His father, a well-to-do businessman, had unsuccessfully attempted to steer his son toward industry and commerce, but the young man had all ready made up his obdurate mind.
Anxious to get more popular books in print, he'd moved back to London to write another gentleman's novel, stories men read in private. Anna had begged him to stay, flustered and at wit's end, tear-filled soulful brown eyes like a wounded doe dogging his steps. That sent him running.
Only two days after he'd returned, a young school girl just fifteen flirted with him in a London park. He'd carefully played the game as well as she, using the willing flirt, even offering her money to perform certain acts Anna had mastered to please his more puissant urges.
The pretty nymph had been more than intrigued but refused to accept offered money. Somehow using a younger girl added excitement to acts that had become routine with Anna. After all, didn't most men have a penchant for pliable tarts? However, he would have been ashamed had anyone discovered him indulging his, what did Anna call them? 'Delicious perversions'. He most definitely indulged them.
When winter darkened skies and heavy snows left the city all but silent, he journeyed south and spent the next year living alone in the warmth of a small ancient city named Tarfaya on the coast of Morocco. Though he couldn't speak the native language, there were many who spoke English adequately. He quickly hired an aging housekeeper after discovering she had two attractive young daughters. In more ways than one, both reminded him of the London school girl. The mother knew what he did to and with her daughters, yet said nothing because he paid her well by the standards of what she might earn had she worked for someone else.
When he wasn't writing he was indulging appetites his mother would have found disgusting. He'd been raised by a Victorian mother who hated everything about sex. An avowed agnostic, he found little to apologize for, believing he was doing little to hurt two such pliant libidinous girls who were providing salubrious grist for new books.
What bothered him most was something he couldn't explain. He was missing Anna, and did everything he could to try to keep thoughts of her out of his mind. The delectable duet was a diversion. Robust from better meals, rosy cheeked from daily glasses of wine, the pair loved to frolic and allowed every lascivious pleasure his devious mind had ever imagined. He was imagining books. They grew plumpish. He grew thinner.
It was spring when he packed again and booked a ship's passage back to London. Rain seemed endless and kept him inside his flat but gave him more time to edit what he'd written in Morocco. He wrote for hours on end. Hours turned into days, then weeks. Had it not been for the landlady, he might have forgotten to eat. Bowls of steaming soup and large bread rolls were often left outside his door. Each time he'd heard retreating steps after her gentle taps to get his attention on the hallway wall.
By August he'd finished two novels and took them to his agent after receiving a reply acknowledging a time to meet. His agent, a sometimes critical but gentle man, was pleased by the new works. Smiling grandly, the man presented him with a bank statement showing the spoils from his novel written the year before. The sum was enormous by any stretch of mind, and he'd struggled to maintain some degree of equanimity. He wrote out a generous draft for his agent's efforts, a figure far greater than the man had expected and he had to assure the fellow that the check had been more than well-earned.
Then, for the first time in many weeks, he went to his post-box and found a small stack of mail, seven letters from Anna and two from the girls in Tarfaya, all nine filled with confessions and steamy offers not suitable for public print. He smiled and reread each, words and feminine voices in his mind stirring urges ignored for months.
Aroused by the blue correspondence, he took a cab to the district where he'd first met the young girl. He sat in the park and waited for classes to end. At last she appeared in the company of another girl, a chunky little thing with curly red hair. When the lovely creature saw him sitting on the bench, she left her red-headed companion and rushed to his side, full of urgent questions and girlish chatter. They exchanged pleasantries, then he pressed a scrap of paper with his address thereon into the palm of her small hand. She read the note, blushed as red as her friend's hair, lower lip between perfect white teeth. Although she didn't say so in words, enthusiastic blue eyes answered his last request. He knew the eager to play femme would be at his door before nightfall.
It was shortly past dark when he heard the knock and opened the door. He didn't speak, nor did she, but both were quick to engage in other much more intimate and pleasurable intercourse, she so ardently enthusiastic, he was light-headed before an hour had passed. She left him at his door, finger to still trembling lips, smiling like she'd just dined with the queen. After he washed with warm water provided by a thoughtful landlady, he slept better than he had for months.
He awoke with Anna's image lingering, visage interwoven in humid elusive dreams, aroused more than usual. After attending to toiletries, he dressed and went out to find something to eat. Sweet pudding and tea was somewhat a habit.
Then, driven by those 'delicious perversions', he took a long walk that ended across the street from the school. It was nearly noon and students were about, adolescent voices and topics familiar to anyone who'd ever attended secondary school. A mild rain had begun, and he stepped into a locked doorway to watch passing students hurrying off to mid-day meals. This time she was walking alone, and he stepped out so she could see where he'd been standing. Joining him in shadows, she immediately became dangerously flirtatious, daringly touching him in the most familiar fashion. Morning dreams surfaced, the physical response predictable, but what surprised him was the libidinous offer she whispered in his ear.
No one saw, or if they did he didn't notice as she knelt at his feet and did the one thing that satisfied his most salacious fantasy, then stood and smiled like the cat who'd just eaten the canary. Though the doorway had been in shadows and somewhat private, the little darling had not only done it in public, she'd acknowledged wanting more. All aglow and off to join students on their way back to classes, she was gone before he could find his voice.
Pleased again, warm as toast from an oven, he took a cab back to his flat. Suspecting some might accuse him of wild exaggeration, he nevertheless was sure many would gladly pay just to read about what they could only hope for in secret. Images and story line inspired by the precocious girl's afternoon performances, he wrote late into the darkness of a quiet rainy night.
The plan came to him in a dream and he fashioned it for weeks before deciding to put it into action. Full of himself, he took the morning train to Leeds, renting a room where he'd lived for roughly a year in an old inn a few kilometers from Anna's birthplace. He hadn't been so sure of himself for months. Flushed with anticipation and without invitation, he decided to call directly on Anna at home.
The place was old and had been in her family for seven generations or more, an estate with orchards, stables and summer fields of grain. 'Well-off' was how townsfolk referred to Anna's family, a fact that had often left him feeling out of his waters. Escorted into the book-filled sitting room by their ageing servant, he waited for what seemed hours for Anna's appearance. She'd always been one to spend a great deal of time on those things women do to make them more attractive, a trait that at first had somewhat irritated him, like her over-attention to each of his thoughts.
After an excruciating passage of time, the door opened and Anna's mother and father entered the huge room. At first he was somewhat put-off, but conversation was polite, though somewhat formal, filled with questions regarding his trip to Africa. He answered as best he could, but unable to wait another moment, stood and announced his intentions, requesting the honor of making their lovely daughter his wife. As modest as possible, but wanting to assure them of his very able status, he went on to explain his newly acquired wealth and position in the literary world. With nothing else to add, he waited, hat still in hand.
The following silence was deafening. There were sounds he couldn't remember having heard in that room though he'd been there numerous times; horses in the stables, scullery noises from a distant kitchen, the tick-tock of the enormous clock in the main hallway. Unable to bear it, he started to speak, but Anna's father held up his hand. The unimaginable news left him stunned.
While he'd been in Africa Anna had met a gentleman from America, a man of some means and social position in New York. He'd proposed at once and had courted her with a deluge of gifts, and though he was described by Anna's father as, a bit balding and some twenty years her senior, she'd finally accepted, confiding in both parents it was because she hadn't heard a word from her former suitor for so many months. It had been a splendid affair. She'd married in late July.
Hands at his side, he looked at the oak parquet floor, at the Persian carpets where supple Anna had secretly knelt whenever the opportunity permitted. Thoughts scattered like crows from a corn-field - her rejecting him for an older man - thoughts making heated blood rise in his cheeks. The room was quiet as dust. Clearing his throat, he bowed with a deep sweep of an arm and excused himself, a smiling wax face in the London museum. The awkward parting was an agonizing experience for everyone in the room. Without words, the old man-servant let him out, the large door closing behind him like a vault.
He didn't notice the threatening rain. After returning to the inn like a man headed for a funeral, he packed once again. Self-confidence shattered, he took the night train back to London.
Winter was early, London even colder, damp air thick with the smell of coal smoke. Wrapped in a long oilskin coat, he sat after brushing wet snow from the bench at a spot where he could see students leaving school. There she was once more, but this time in the company of a younger man. The smiling pair were holding hands as they climbed into a covered cab waiting close to the school's entrance. He didn't miss the way she looked at the handsome lad. In a darkened doorway, he'd seen that same expression. Cheeks aflame and feeling faint, he shut his eyes.
At the ship's agency he made travel arrangements. That done, he arranged a letter of credit with his bank, withdrew some currency, hailed a cab and went back to the flat.
In the light of an oil lamp he wrote a short note to his agent, then took it downstairs for the landlady to post. On impulse he gave her a week's rent, but told her he'd be leaving the next day. Thankfully she asked no uncomfortable questions.
Standing alone at the railing on the top deck, he watched the familiar gray snow-wrapped skyline of London's East End, the docks and boats until he could no longer see them. He stood for hours at the rail as the ship negotiated the twisting turning Thames, passing Erith, Gravesend and Canvey Island where the river widened to over two miles. He lost sight of winter-wrapped land after North Foreland, near Margate. Mind frozen, chilled through as death, he accepted an offered drink from a Cockney steward - then ordered a bottle to be delivered to his cabin.
Below deck, but finding little warmth, he unlocked his cabin door. Sparse in every sense of the word, its interior matched his emotions. Enervated, rejection courting jealousy, he couldn't keep images of the school girl's clandestine tryst from surfacing in his mind. Fighting off tears, he tried desperately not to think about Anna, but did, every part of him burning in the knowledge that she'd been totally devoted to him and as well as his pleasures.
Unable to force himself to go to the dining room, thoughts of eating nearly making him nauseous, he sat on the edge of his bunk and drank most of the Scotch.
It was more than the action of waves and the effects of drink that left him wretched and sick for months.
* * *