A great courtesan possesses both curiosity and courage.
The Journals of Augustin X
Early Spring, 1822
Naked, he sat cross legged upon a brilliantly hued carpet, a voluptuous woman on his lap. Her bare legs were on either side of his hips, her feet crossed at his back. One masculine hand rested on her thigh, fingers splayed, while the other curved around her waist. Her head was arched back, throat exposed, eyes closed, the look on her face one of sublime pleasure. His head was bent, the edge of his smile carnal and anticipatory, captured forever in the act of his tongue gently touching an elongated nipple.
The artist had pictured the man in a state of arousal, a condition surely accentuated out of all proportion. No man, Margaret Esterly thought, could be quite that large.
Her gaze returned to the painting time and again, even as a flush crept up her neck. A scene of sensuality and abandon. Almost shocking. But beautiful in a strange and unsettling way. That was the only reason, Margaret told herself, that she studied it with such avid curiosity.
The caption that accompanied the drawing was both confusing and evocative.
The face, the ears, the breasts are rich with sensation. But close attention must be made to speak softly, murmuring words of tenderness in anticipation of the pleasure to come.
“You’re too fascinated with those books, Miss Margaret.”
She blinked, glanced up, her face warming.
On the other side of the table, Penelope sat chopping onions and frowning at her. The two years since they’d left London had brought a few changes to their lives, chief among them the friendship they shared. A not surprising development, considering that they were both London born and raised.
Margaret wanted, almost desperately, to be quit of London and its memories. To her surprise, Penelope was more than willing to join her in the country.
With Jerome’s death, she had no family. Her parents had died of influenza when she was only a child. Her grandmother, a former governess, had raised her, but she had passed on a year after her marriage to Jerome.
The small cottage Margaret had rented two years ago wasn’t a prepossessing place. The only furniture was a bureau, two small cots, two chairs and a small wooden table she despaired of ever making stand straight. Finally, she had shimmied a piece of wood beneath one leg but it still wobbled from side to side. A fireplace took up one whole wall, a welcome warmth during the winters on the Downs.
“It’s a good thing you hide them above the rafters when the girls come. I can just imagine what their mothers would say if they knew you read such things,” Penelope scolded.
She stood, emptied the contents of the bowl into the stew over the fire. Their main meal of the day had not contained meat for weeks, but they were never short of onions. Margaret was beginning to detest the smell and taste of them.
“I have never read the third volume,” Margaret said in her own defense. “He writes most compellingly about the Orient, Penelope.”
Penelope turned and looked at her, one eyebrow rising. A perfect chastisement, Margaret thought. She could not have done better with her own students.
Another change in her life. She had begun teaching a few girls from the village over the last year. Doing so had given her an opportunity to use those lessons her Gran had taught her.
She would never have children of her own; that fact had been proven during her five year marriage to Jerome. But three mornings a week, seven little girls ranging from five to ten years of age came to her cottage. For those hours, she thought not about her precarious financial situation, nor of her loneliness, but each girl’s talent and needs. Annie’s enthusiasm for learning was delightful, as was the way Dorothy was advancing in her reading. She answered their questions and smiled at their laughter.
In turn, she learned from her students. On their walks she’d been shown how to listen for the grouse, or watch a new moon in order to predict the growing season. Margaret had stood in a meadow as she’d been instructed by seven excited voices, concentrating upon the clouds and feeling small and insignificant beneath the bowl of sky. Had she’d ever truly seen the sky in London?
It was, after all, a satisfactory life. One that would be remarkably content if she were not so desperate for money.
She glanced down at the book on the table again. The painter had been an artist of some talent. Her fingers trailed across the illustration of muscled shoulders, down a tapering back and over the length and breadth of one thigh. This man appeared in numerous small illustrations sprinkled throughout the Journals of Augustin X. In each of them he had been proudly naked, involved in some sensual and surely forbidden act. His shoulders were broad, his back tapering to his waist. His buttocks were perfectly formed as if to coax a palm to curve around both of them. A stranger, possibly a figment of the artist’s imagination. Yet she knew him more intimately than she had known her husband.
But even more shocking then the paintings was her own unfettered imagination. Too many times she’d envisioned herself as the woman in his arms. Surfeited with pleasure, languid with the memory of it. Her eyes holding secrets and promising lessons, her smile curved in pure, unalloyed joy.
A few days after the fire she’d found the three books tucked into the bottom of the strongbox. For months, the Journals of Augustin X had remained in the small chest, untouched. But during their first winter here, bored and lonely, Margaret had extracted the first volume and begun to read it.
Augustin had evidently been a well traveled man of leisure and some wealth. He had written, in exquisite detail, about the scenery of the lands he’d visited. Her fingers trailed over a passage.
My journey through China began at the Qinghai on the Tibetan Plateau at the Huang He River. At the place the Wei River enters the Huang He in central Shaanxi province we were treated to great hospitality. It was there I met Ming Wu and spent one of my most memorable nights in the land of the Manchu.
The true nature of the Journals of Augustin X, however, was not a travelogue. Instead, it was a graphic account of Augustin’s erotic journey throughout the world. Each of his Journals was tantamount to a book of instructions on how to engage in the sensuality he portrayed in such exquisite detail. He seemed especially entranced with the courtesans he’d met, many of whom educated him on the higher delights of sensuality. He had even fancied himself in love with one, and his tender farewell to her had brought tears to Margaret’s eyes.
That first winter she told herself it was better to destroy the books. But they were the only link to the bookshop and her life with Jerome. Besides, reading them occasionally gave her something to do other than to worry about their perilous financial condition.
Her conscience chuckled in the silence. Very well, perhaps she was too fascinated with these books. The Journals revealed a world she’d never before known, one of amorous encounters and erotic acts she’d never thought to witness.
“They’re evil things, Miss Margaret,” Penelope said, glancing over her shoulder at the book on the table. “Cursed.”
“They aren’t cursed. They are simply books,” Margaret said patiently. “Only a collection of words.”
“And pictures,” Penelope said. “Any man who ever touched me that way would get the back of my hand, Miss Margaret,”
Penelope’s cheeks, round and rosy on most days, were now fiery with color. Her pointed chin jutted out at Margaret. Even her straight brown hair seemed to curl with indignation. Her dark eyes met Margaret’s gaze and in them was the righteousness of the never tempted.
Margaret admitted that she was not as pure in thought. Some nights she lay in her cot and wished that her life had been different. At the same time, she recognized that the past years had taught her well. Turmoil had come to her in the guise of the fire and the death of her husband. It was wiser to wish for consistency than for chaos. Excitement was for other people.
If there were moments, like this afternoon, when she wondered what her life might have been like if she had never married Jerome, then it was to be expected. She simply pushed those errant thoughts away.