I wiped at my cheeks and forehead with my handkerchief. Strangely, I do not remember feeling cold. I walked amongst the thinning crowd, my thoughts undisciplined. How was it that this woman had escaped my notice all the time I had been at Thrupp? After all, the village was not so large as to produce general anonymity. And why had she been dining at the hotel? Had she been sitting behind me as I had eaten my poached sole in solitude? Had the child been with her then?
I went on in this manner for some time until I began to slow my pace. It was not that desire had ebbed but rather that fatigue was overwhelming me. I became aware that I had suffered a terrific shock: my knees grew shaky, and my hands began to tremble. I finally noticed the cold as well; it cannot have been more than twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit on that night. I decided to seek refuge and was recrossing the quadrangle for perhaps the fifth time when I heard a childs cry. I turned in the direction of the sound and saw two women standing in the darkness. The taller of the two was half hidden beneath a rug thrown over her shoulders and in which she had wrapped the child. Next to her, and clinging to her arm, was an older woman who seemed in some distress. She was coughing roughly.
When I drew closer to the threesome, I saw that the stillness I had observed in the woman with the golden brown eyes had now been replaced by concern.
"Madam," I said, approaching swiftly (as swiftly as the fire itself?), "are you in need of assistance?"
Whether Etna Bliss actually saw me then, or not until the following day, I cannot say, for she was understandably distracted.
"Please, I must get my aunt home," she said. "Id be grateful if you could find us transportation, for she has inhaled a great deal of smoke and cannot walk the necessary distance to her house even under the best of circumstances."
"Yes, of course," I said. "Will you stay put?"
"Yes," she said simply, thus placing the utmost trust, and perhaps even the well-being of her aunt, in my person.
I discovered that night that a man is never so capable and alert as when in the service of a woman he hopes to please. Almost at once, I was in the street with paper dollars in my hand, which caught the eye of a cabdriver who already had a fare, but who doubtless saw an opportunity to squeeze more bodies onto his frayed upholstered seats. I completed his calculation by leaping onto the carriage and giving immediate instructions.
"Sir, this is irregular," he said, looking for the extra tip.
But I, and rightly so, dressed him down. "A disaster has occurred of the most serious proportions, and people all about are in dire need. You should be lending your aid for no pennies at all," I said.
Astonishingly, for I had in the interim begun to doubt the reality of my encounter with the arresting woman, the two women with the child were where I had left them. I helped the older woman, who was by now shivering badly, into the carriage first, and then gave my hand to the woman with the child the hand surprisingly warm in my frozen one. The other passengers could barely suppress their annoyance at being delayed to their hot baths, but they nevertheless moved so that my party could fit.
"Madam, I shall need an address," I said.
The ride cannot have lasted half an hour, even though the driver took the other fare home first. I sat across from the aunt, who was still coughing, and from the couple, who might have been thinking of their lost possessions in the cloakroom (a dyed fox coat? an alligator case?), but I was aware only of a slight pressure against my elbow, a pressure that increased or decreased as the woman beside me attended to the child or leaned forward to put a hand upon her elderly aunts arm. And just that slight pressure, of which the woman beside me was doubtless completely unaware, was, I believe, the most intensely physical moment of my life to date so much so that I can re-create its delicate promise and, yes, its eroticism merely by closing my eyes here in my moving compartment, even with all that came after, all that might reasonably have blotted out such a tender memory.
From All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve. Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Little, Brown & Company.
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