The clock struck one, I think. Waking to find myself alone in the bed, I rose, lit a candle, and went to find out where Maud had gone. I went barefoot, on tiptoe, down the stairs and through the silent house.
A little line of red light escaped into the corridor from the library. There she was, then. I opened the door, but I did not go in. When I saw that she was writing I would have closed the door and passed on by without disturbing her, but she looked up and saw me.
'Sue,' she said. 'Come in.'
She sat in an armchair, close to the fire, with a board laid across her lap for writing on, and she looked very warm and cosy in the red light. She had dragged an old crimson chaise-longue across to the hearth; it formed a screen, of sorts, making a barrier between her and the darkness and the cold and the books.
'Come in,' she said again.
'You're writing.' But I was already obeying.
'I can write with you here.'
Crossing the room, I could see her face better; I could make out the expression in her eyes – a sort of absorbed desire. I wondered what she had been writing... Thinking of that, I trembled, and she saw it.
'Sue,' she said.
She wore only her night-dress and dressing-gown, and her hair streamed loose down her back.
'What are you doing still up?' I asked.
She smiled, and this time there was no mistaking the mischief in her eyes. 'I had an idea.'
'Might you read the story to me?' We did this, sometimes; she said it helped her think. I need not describe how I enjoyed that.
'Are you warm enough?' she asked.
I nodded. 'You seem to have half a forest's worth of logs on there.'
'Then take off your clothes. I have a better idea than reading.'
The breath caught in my throat. 'Will you show me, then?' I asked, pulling my own night-dress over my head.
She nodded at the chaise-longue. 'Lie down.'
I did as she bid me.
'Now,' she said. She took the board from her lap, careful not to spill the ink, and laid it all on the floor. Then she rose and moved her chair so that she could sit beside me, facing me as I lay there. Her eyes ran the length of my body, quietly considering, and I shivered despite the warmth of the fire. I felt as if she were a doctor and I, her patient. I had never visited a doctor in my life, of course, but there were pictures, in the books, that showed the things that happened in doctors' consulting-rooms...
'Yes,' she said. 'Yes. This will work.'
She took off her dressing-gown, and pushed the sleeves of her night-dress up to her elbows.
'The hero of my story,' she said, 'is a poet. I'll read you the beginning some time, but really all you need to know is that he is writing a poem about his lady-love.'
She reached down and picked up the last piece of paper. 'Where was I? Ah, yes... She lay before me now, in all her naked glory, and I felt my flesh stirring as...'
'That was where you came in. Now.' She laid the paper down, and picked up the pen, and lent over me, very close, so that my quickened breath stirred her hair. I realised then what her game was, and I thanked the stars that there was no one but we two in the house.
She laid the pen to my skin, just at the base of my collarbone, and I felt its sharp little prick as she began to write.
'I took my pen, and I dipped it in the ink, and I began to write on her smooth skin.' She could not write as fast as she could speak, and so her words on her tongue were slow and languorous as caresses, and all the while the pinprick scratches of the pen were quick and urgent.
'She gasped, and I recognised in her the desire that was burning in myself. My love, I said, how can I find the words to capture your beauty? My jewel, my ripe fruit. See, I said, how I mar your perfection even as I seek to describe it. Your round breasts, their hard red points, see how I cover them in these words that...'
Her right sleeve flapped down again. She hissed a soft exclamation of annoyance.
'Take it off,' I suggested.
She nodded. 'Hold the pen,' she said, and fumbled with the buttons. I would have liked to help, but I feared that I was too inky, so I just watched her as she knelt up in the chair and cast the garment aside, clean and beautiful in the firelight.
'I'll need a bath after this,' I murmured, handing the pen back to her.
'She doesn't say that in the story.' Maud's voice was indistinct, as she bent to dip the pen.
'What does she say, then?'
Maud laughed. Tiring of my breasts, she selected a spot near my hip, and began to write again. 'She said, O, my poet, my prince – enough of this folly. I desire deeds, not words. I care not for how you speak of me, but for what you do to me.'
'Your other hand,' I urged her.
'Ah, indeed... With your one hand you write – well, and good – but your other hand... Taking her at her word, I pinched her nipples, hard, and then turned my attention to the secret place between her legs. She groaned, and the pen dropped from my hand as her whole being shuddered...'
I pulled her down to me, her lips to mine, her fingers inside me; and she was whispering words that never went into her stories, words that were too good, too sweet, words that were for her and me alone. And then I opened my eyes, and saw – 'The story!'
The ink was smudged across us, the words blurring into nothingness, indistinct shapes that even I knew would mean nothing.
She glanced down at me, and at herself, and she laughed. 'I can write it again,' she said. 'No doubt you will remind me if I forget any details.'