Hetty had thrown that meeting with Mr. Crabtree at her, not knowing how it could disrupt Anna’s peace, if Anna would let it.
Anna would not let it. She was determined to blot out all thought of Crabtree, and return to that dream and learn more of what had happened to her, despite Hetty’s throwing that sudden grenade at her feet.
She took paper and one of her drawing pencils to bed with her; made sure that there was a fire lit and a candle left burning, so that as soon as she awoke, even in the dark, she could make notes of what was still fresh in her mind.
There was a logical order to what happened, a narrative that followed a certain sequence of events, so when she went to bed again, she would let her mind seek its own way into that dream.
She stifled all other thoughts from her consciousness; laid deep into her pillows, and went over in her mind what she now realized had begun two weeks earlier, as merely a pleasant ride to celebrate the successful season that was now coming to an end, and the approaching meeting with Mr. Crabtree.
Damn! She shouldn’t have thought of him again. She’d never sleep if she let that third anniversary meeting, prey upon her mind.
Instead, she immersed herself in the details of her ride and preparation for it; from the dress she had donned to go riding; that grey serge that the seamstress in the village had made for her; saddling Peony; determined to do that for herself, just as she had that afternoon, and then getting herself settled 'securely aboard that damned side-saddle', as her nautical father would have described it.
Peony needed to be ‘going’, as much as she did.
Anna was back into the mood of things now, re-living everything she remembered of that day as she rode away from the estate, noting how far along they were in the fields she passed, with one of the best hay crops in many years, or so Mr. Frith had told her.
The market gardening side of everything had been growing too, with heavy crops of most of their vegetables and with a strange, but satisfying abundance of new animals. Some of the humans who worked on the farm were not far behind in their fecundity either, married or not.
Anna dreamed again, but she went into the dream, thinking only of the beginning of that ride she had first set out upon, letting each detail fall into place as she remembered it taking place, confident that the flow of that dream would pull her into what she could not easily remember.
There had been heavy rain on the hills to the west over the previous few days. They had watched that with apprehension, hoping that it would hold off from them for long enough to get the next batch of hay under cover, or at least made up into hay ricks, and raked down so that the strands of hay; oriented up and down, would direct water down to the ground, rather than having it soak in. There might be some spoilage, but it would be minimal.
As on that earlier ride, her mind became just as occupied with thoughts of everything, except where she was actually riding, and she recognized that, as before, she really had gone farther than she’d intended, coming up short at the river before she even knew how far she’d gone.
The waters did not seem particularly high, with gravel still exposed on the banks, but she had never been this far before, so was not able to judge what she could see.
She looked across the river. It looked so peaceful and inviting over there, and the river was wide and slow-flowing where she was, though the channel narrowed both above and below, where the water flowed more swiftly and she could hear it rumbling through narrow spaces.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained! She would ford the river, despite what her common sense told her would be a foolhardy thing to attempt, ride to the top of the first rise and see what she could see, before she returned home.
She wished she’d paid more attention to Mr. Frith’s map of the area now, and then she would know what lay beyond that rise, and even farther out than that.
She urged Peony into the water, prepared for some resistance at first, but confident that she would prevail. Peony did not like water, but Anna was able to urge her into it with some kind words of encouragement, and then firmly moving her forward with a slap on her rump; something Peony was not used to getting.
Anna remembered recovering her sense of how foolish this was, so she stopped the mare part-way across when the water rose almost to the horse’s belly, and tried to turn her, before getting to where it was deeper and the current even stronger, but Peony panicked, and lost her footing for whatever reason, and Anna was jolted from the saddle and thrown into the river.
Perhaps there had been a branch, carried on the current, or maybe Peony had stepped into a hole and stumbled when they got to the middle of the channel, but the next thing Anna remembered was losing her seat with a cry, and falling into the water as Peony surged ahead from under her, crossing the river, and leaving her mistress floundering.
Peony had stumbled. Anna had not expected that, and she was thrown from the horse into the river from that precarious seat. Whoever in society had decreed that a woman should only ride a horse on a side-saddle—probably a man—should be condemned for the rest of his life to ride that way.
She’d hit her head on something as she’d fallen, stunning her momentarily, but the cold water soon awoke her, taking her breath away, gripping her in its deathly embrace as it pulled her into the stronger current, dragging her down. She fought to grab hold of a rock but her hand slipped on its smooth, wet surface, and she was pulled into the main channel and drawn downriver, even as she saw her horse struggle to the far bank and stand there, waiting. At least she, was safe.
That was the last thing Anna saw clearly or could remember.
The rest of it was confusing and dark, with splashes of light shimmering far above her as she floundered around, mostly under water.
The water was cold; so cold it took her breath away. She was drowning, being pulled down into the depths, unable to breathe, and unable to get to the surface because of her wet dress pulling her down with the current.
She had been stunned for a few moments; for long enough to be carried down with the current before the sudden shock of the cold water revived her again, leaving her with a sore head, gasping for air, and seeing nothing clearly with her hair, face, and eyes full of water.
The air trapped in her dress kept her partially afloat, but as it was displaced by water, soaking it up like a sponge, she sank lower.
She swore, soon finding that she was in a dangerous situation, carried in the middle of the channel, downriver, moving ever faster, and that her dress was getting ever more sodden, and pulling her farther down, deeper into the water.
She tried to hold herself steady enough to regain her feet but was unable to, all the while being dragged into a narrowing and deepening channel, and being tumbled along, fighting all of the time to find something to hang onto, and having to fight for air at the same time.
She was tumbling, rolling along a river bed, occasionally coming to the surface but never for long, and only long enough to snatch at a breath; never getting enough air. There was nothing to see but water and rocks, and it was cold, so cold she could not feel much of anything.
When she managed to battle to the surface, getting colder and heavier as she became wetter, she became conscious of another person riding along the bank of the river beside her.
He was riding a black horse—she knew that horse, but did not know him. He seemed to be shouting to her, but she could hear nothing.
She’d been in this part of her dream before.
Then, he went from her sight, leaving her to drown. Surely, he would not be so callous as to leave her to die.
Was this how her life was to end?
She came to the horrifying realization that she could no longer breathe without taking a lungful of water; that this really was the end of her short life, and that she would not survive.
Just when she was ready to give up and put her fate into the hands of the gods, she felt a strong hand grasp her by the neck of her dress, and then another, grab her arm, and she was hauled indecorously to one side into shallower water, spluttering and fighting to breathe, feeling more dead than alive, and so cold she just wanted to curl up there, and die.
He was speaking to her, telling her to hang in, and he would get her somewhere dry and warm.
Fine words buttered no parsnips!
It sounded good, but it was only an empty promise until it happened.
She could barely hear him, over her puking-up the water she had swallowed onto the hard rocks she was lying on, but with her head supported by his body as she fought for air.
He was as cold and wet as she was, she could feel that.
Then she was pulled to her feet when she just wanted to lie there and to be left to die, but he wouldn’t let her. This was too cruel!
He pulled her around, lifting her onto the back of his horse and holding her close to his body, into him, as he rode at a mad pace away from the river.
She wasn’t sure which was worse, the jarring around on the back of that horse, or the mind-numbing cold.
She saw Peony fall in behind and follow them. She was thankful for that. Then, she remembered nothing more for a while until it began again; more of being pulled around.
He was undressing her out of her sodden clothing, and he was talking to her as he did that, touching her everywhere, with her clothing sticking to her body and him needing to free it. She was still cold, still wanting to be left alone to die. She would tell him off, for this, when she was able to.
Sometime later, but without any sense of how much time had gone by, but it can’t have been long, she was being dried, painfully and vigorously. He was a masochist, to do this to her!
She tried to complain and push away from the pain of it, but could feel warmth coming back into her limbs, so she did not fight him away this time. Someone, that man, was speaking to her, but she did not know what was said.
Nothing, again. She had stopped her never-ending shivering and her chattering with the cold. Those spasms were now less frequent.
A fire spread its warming tentacles out into a darkened room (so it was nighttime now), touching at her in her dream, lying in front of it. She was still being pulled around and her hair was being dried for the umpteenth time.
She remembered a naked body; that of a man, moving around and glistening in the firelight as he made up the fire and stirred at a cauldron heating over the fire, or moved a steaming kettle from over the hot ashes to make a drink.
It was a scene straight out of Shakespeare, but these were not the witches of Endor, but only a single figure. Certainly, a man, with a strange body like that. Definitely, naked. Why was he naked? But he had got wet too, helping her, so they were naked together. She was not shocked by that thought. They had no choice about any of it. Maybe they were both dead, and this was the waiting area where they were to be judged as to where they should go; limbo, or purgatory, though that latter word had another meaning in Roman times... she recalled some of her Gibbon, and other books she'd read.
Her feet were being rubbed, and then a warm brick, wrapped in a thick towel, was placed against them as blankets were put over her, and tucked in around her, as her mother used to do.
Her memories and recollections were disjointed, and came and went. Something about her, and about the setting in which she found herself, had changed each time she regained consciousness. She was not sure where the dream ended and reality began, if any of it was real and not something dreamed up by her own over-active imagination. That was the problem with dreams.
Some little time later, there was a feeling of warmth under her, warmth behind her, and warmth enfolding her, this time without the pain of the cold. She was being held securely and tightly in a strong but gentle embrace, and she was alive. She drifted back to sleep knowing that she was both alive and safe, but not sure where she was, other than in heaven.
From that moment forward, she sensed that she had never been so well-attended to, except when she had fallen into the fountain as a child. She remembered that, vividly, of being scolded for being so careless; had been undressed, and put into a warm bath.
Was this happening to her again? Was she back in childhood? She giggled and snuggled closer into the warm body beside her, feeling him pulling her closer. Him! It was not her mother helping her this time.
Was she in the middle of some bacchanalian orgy, reclining on cushions and without a single piece of clothing to her name? She had read about them, and how the Romans had lived and disported themselves romantically, licentiously, with their servants, slave girls, concubines, and paramours, and how they had a servant standing by with a jug of ice-cold water to pour over their testicles when they began to get too excited with one of the girls... but enough of that.
She must be in one of those dreams, and as it was only a dream what was the point of being either shy or embarrassed? No one would recognize her. This was her own, private dream, so she could relax and enjoy it; bathe in the anonymity of it.
But where were the other guests? Where was the ostentation; the music that there should be? Where were the reed pipes, the flowing wine, the heaped platters of food? (She was hungry). And where were the obligatory figures of such mythology; the lustful Centaurs, the always ready and rampant Eros, or his counterpart…Cupid, with his 'not so diminutive' arrow always at the ready, (she giggled even if it was a dream), or Venus, with her retinues of Cherubim? Where was the wild revelry?
This was real, yet, not real, there was no music, no splendor, and this was not her, caught up in the middle of this dream, yet it was her. It was also quiet, apart from the deafening crackle of the fire, and sparks springing to life and being whirled up the chimney like lost souls drawn up to heaven from the fire below. A narrow escape for them.
There was warmth at her back too. It moved, then stretched out once more behind her. A dog. Samson. She knew the dog’s name from somewhere, but not that of the man. His name escaped her, and it shouldn’t have, considering what they had now shared, were even then, sharing.
The man was in front of her, facing her, holding her close. Holding her very close with his hands holding her close, touching her. He was speaking to her, touching her face, her hair; sharing his warmth with her; the man. Her savior.
She felt herself raised to sit up as a hot drink was brought to her lips to course down her throat, spreading its warmth into the depths of her body, followed by a kiss. Then some soup. It was salty and hot, and welcome, then another kiss. Was the soup a reward for the kiss? Or was the kiss a reward for eating the soup. She didn’t care. She wanted more of both, and both were forthcoming.
She could see her clothes drying in front of the fire.
Then what was she wearing? She chose not to ask, or think about it. She was naked, of course, just as he was. She would try not to think about that.
She should ask about what she could not clearly remember. How had she got here? Who was he? She knew the dog and his horse, but not him. Who had undressed her? As though it wasn’t obvious.
She should ask about Peony, and tried to, but he did not seem to be listening. It didn’t matter; she could say nothing, no matter how hard she tried. Then oblivion claimed her once more.
She revived to find that there was still a blanket over her and a soft pillow under her head. She was warm. There was a man’s head beside hers on the pillow… as there had been each time she’d woken, and she was held in his arms, as she had been earlier too, but that was not all, there were other things happening between them; grown-up, intense... things.
She had seen that for herself when she had blundered into a stall and caught two of the farm hands entwined in each other’s arms and doing strangely exciting things to each other. She had been shocked to see that, frozen; not saying anything; not fully understanding what they were doing to each other; observing; curious. It had been a learning experience for her. She had seen others, after that, playing with each other, then undressing and playing more, then.... After the first few times she knew how it would progress, and left them to it.
And now, it was happening to her, just as shockingly, and she didn’t care. It was wonderful, and just as welcome; but it shouldn’t have been welcome. What did that say about her? There was no slave standing by to pour cold water on his balls when he 'came', to delay him, so she got everything after that, and it was as she said... wonderful.
She could hear it raining outside, with small rivulets running down the window panes, and the wind was strong, whipping small branches around near the window.
She knew that she was loved, was still being loved, the way their bodies were together; sensing everything, and she had never felt such a deep and blissful feeling of contentment as though they belonged together like this for the rest of their lives.
The man was watching her, smiling at her, touching her by her cheek, and then he leaned in to kiss her. She returned his kiss and his caress; understanding for herself, for the first time, what love was, and what it was like, and what it meant.
She was back in her childhood again, being bathed in front of the warm fire. She was laughing in this dream, but her nurse was not the one bathing her and this was not her as a child, but as a grown woman.
The man was bathing her. Not only that, he was somehow in the bath with her, little room as there was for two of them in that tub, large as it was, without sitting one, over and upon the other in a very intimate way, and he was bathing her, and she was bathing him in turn, running her hands over his hard body as he did the same for her so-soft, and excitable one.
They were talking together, laughing as though they had known each other all of their lives. (how could they be talking in such a relaxed way, or laughing, with her in such a personal and intimate predicament—naked with him... even joined together, as they were—and why was she not complaining, or fighting him away as she should have been with him doing that so-personal thing to her, impaling her? They were doing more than that too, to distract themselves from what was steadily building between them once more. She could feel the growing excitement in them both.
Even as that was happening, building, they were sharing a glass of wine and also feeding each other, alternating, kissing very often. Soon, everything but the kissing, would stop, and that more urgent thing between them would take over, once more, as it seemed to, each time they were this close, and this well intertwined.
That thought no longer concerned her. They had already done so much more together, and she had let him; helping him, letting him take that hair from her body. She had been as curious about herself there, as he had been, and so attentive as he had focused and gently touched, kissed (even there?) swept that hair from between her legs with that razor.
It had been necessary; something they both wanted, and it had seemed the next step in the things they would do together. What else might they do after that, again. As if she needed to ask. She could already feel it happening. There were a thousand new things to learn all of the time when a special man came into your life as he had done.
Each time they paused in what they were doing, they were drawn to each other to kiss. She had never known that such tender kissing might be so pleasurable or lead in such interesting directions. Much more had happened between them after those other times they had kissed, in a seemingly unstoppable progression, and it would soon happen again.
He was caressing her, touching her upon her body, touching and holding her breasts in a way she knew, deep down had to be wrong—anything which gave so much pleasure had to be sinful; the preachers continually fulminated against what they were doing with each other. Those puritanical pulpit-demons were discomforted by the thought that somewhere out there, someone was finding pleasure in something in their lives. And that, must be wrong.
She wanted to see more of the man, to know more about him, but he was indistinct in her dream and all she could see were his eyes; kind eyes. She reached out to find him, but all she felt was the cold air of her bedroom, and there was no warmth beside her when she felt for him there.
She launched awake with a cry and sat up, not sure where she was at first, to find Samson licking at her hand in the dark. Then, it came back to her. She was in her bed at home, and she had been dreaming again about those two weeks that had escaped from her consciousness. Except Samson was here. But for him she might have believed it all to be a dream. It was slowly coming back to her now, but not in a way she could talk to anyone about, or describe, other than in general terms.
She dropped back onto her pillow feeling a sense of desperate emptiness and great loss, much greater than any similar feeling she’d ever had before, and with that man gone from her body. She needed to find Samson’s owner, the man who had saved her life, taken her to his estate, undressed her, dried her, brought warmth back into her body and given her life, and more than life. He had loved her; made love to her, and it had not been wrong. She had loved him in return. Would always love him.
And he was searching for her.
Anna wanted to get back into that dream and learn more about what had happened, but the dawn of a new day was no more than an hour or two away, and then she would have a lot of things to think about.