Events in childhood shape our destiny. What happens in those formative years may so affect our lives that what follows is as inevitable as if we were a leaf that, once it has fallen into a stream, is carried helplessly away to its ultimate destiny.
Edwin Stearns always knew, down to the day and hour, when a key event in his life occurred: a warm afternoon in August 1879. He was 10 at the time, and had joined his mother Clara and sister Lillian, who was seven, at Oakdale, the family summer retreat. Oakdale consisted of five acres and a sprawling house shaded by tall maples and chestnuts. It overlooked the Hudson River near Stony Point, just north of New York City. His father Elliott, president of First Federal bank, had remained in the city to work.
Edwin had been reading when his mother called him. Descending from his bedroom, he emerged onto a lawn that extended down to the river. Beneath a maple tree near the house was a patio where the family often took meals outdoors. Another woman had joined his mother there.
Edwin recognized Annie Dunne at once. She smiled and held out both hands, saying, “Ah child, ye’ve grown so I don’t know ye. Come give yer old Annie a hug!”
The woman was in her late thirties, lean and at the same time robust, with an ample bosom and wide hips. She had the muscular arms and legs of one who works hard for a living. Her rosy cheeks and bright ginger hair, curly and parted in the middle, revealed her Irish peasant heritage.
Edwin was surprised by the emotions that swept over him. He had not seen the woman in five years; but his first memories in life were of Annie Dunne. Something deep within him was stirred, as if he had missed her in a way that he was unaware of until this moment.
Without thinking Edwin rushed into Annie’s arms, feeling her warmth, murmuring, “Annie! I’m so happy to see you again! I’ve missed you!”
After the hug Annie held him at arm’s length, saying, “Eddy boy, let me look at ye! Such a pretty lad now, Mrs. Stearns, he is. This’n will be death on the girls when he’s a man, I fancy!”
The three engaged in friendly conversation for a few minutes, Edwin standing beside his seated mother. After a while Clara said, “Edwin, talk to Annie for a few minutes. I need to check on Lillian and see if she’s napping like she’s supposed to.”
Clara went into the house, and Annie’s frank smile made Edwin blush. “Ah, ye be blushin’ now, are ye? Well, no need to. Why, you used to love yer old Annie, ‘n nothin’ pleased ye more than to sit in her lap. Are ye too old fer that now, lad?”
Not understanding why, Edwin wanted to be close to the woman again. He settled into her lap. It being a humid day, Annie had a faint sheen of perspiration on her. Beneath her lavender sachet was the scent of the woman herself, a fragrance that seemed to awaken within him feelings long forgotten.
Annie put one arm around the boy and planted a quick motherly kiss on his cheek. “Eddy boy, you were me favorite, ye know. All th’ children I’ve suckled and help raise, and you the sweetest. Why, child, so many hours I used t’ sit in that old rockin’ chair with ye.”
Edwin felt stealing over him a sense of absolute contentment and peace. In this woman’s lap he was in a place of which he had no memory but missed nonetheless. He somehow knew without remembering how Annie had loved and comforted him as an infant. With great reluctance he eventually got down from her lap. And when later that afternoon she bade a fond farewell to Edwin and his mother, the boy was close to tears.
This episode left an enduring impression on Edwin. For days, then years to come, he replayed that summer day in his mind, recalling the scent of Annie Dunne, her warm soothing voice, and the awareness that she had been something to him for which he knew no name. Edwin Stearns was now a leaf, afloat in a stream.
The next stages of his life unfolded according to plan. Edwin eventually matriculated at Yale, earning mostly gentleman’s C’s. He attended the debutante balls and selected among the many comely women available to him Helena Goodwin for his wife. With raven hair and dark brown eyes, she was the daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant and, more importantly, a woman of his social class.
His union with Helena was good for his career. Helena’s father moved many of his business accounts to First Federal Bank where Edwin was now an assistant banker. The woman herself was intelligent and unfailingly loyal to her husband. If Edwin never felt breathtaking passion toward her, then their easy life together more than made up for it.
At age 23, after two years of marriage, Helena became pregnant and bore Edwin a son. And gave her life in the process. Even in New York City, childbirth in 1893 had grave risks. Helena began to hemorrhage during delivery and bled to death, passing within a few hours of the birth of Edwin Stearns Jr.
That and subsequent days were a nightmare for Edwin, who up to then had never known tragedy. At the graveside service on a bright winter day, Edwin wept openly and continuously. Mixed with the pain of his loss was an overwhelming sense of guilt. Was he now being punished for not loving her enough? The thought haunted him.
Edwin’s mother and Lillian briefly moved into the brownstone in the Upper West Side that Edwin owned. Also residing there was Inga Hofmann, a white-haired maid who was responsible for the kitchen and laundry. As soon as Edwin Junior was brought home, Edwin’s mother set about hiring a wet nurse to care for the infant.
Edwin had taken a week off from the bank. His family tried to console him, but he found that he wanted to be alone, and often took long walks through the streets of Manhattan as well as Central Park. Each day he laid flowers on Helena’s fresh grave.
He had just returned from such a trip two days after the funeral. It was a damp dreary day, with a pall of coal smoke hanging over the city. Entering his house, he heard Clara’s voice.
“Edwin, is that you?”
“Could you come into the parlor, dear? There’s someone here I want you to meet.”
He entered the room and went pale in amazement. Sitting on the sofa was a woman in her early 20s, wearing a dark green shawl and heavy wool dress. Edwin’s eyes were at once drawn to her ginger hair and rosy cheeks. The woman was to him the very image of a young Annie Dunne. His long-lost surrogate mother had, in a sense, at last come home.
“Edwin,” his mother said, “this is Annie Clarke. Miss Clarke, my son Edwin.”
The woman rose and curtsied, saying “Vary pleased t’ meet ye, sir.” Edwin, by turns blushing and going white, bowed to her, saying, “My pleasure, Madam.” Dear God, he thought, she even has the same name!
“Miss Clarke is of course applying … I say, Edwin, are you all right? You look upset,” his mother said.
“I’m fine, Mother,” he stammered.
“Do you already know Miss Clarke?”
“No, of course not. Please forgive my manners, Miss Clarke. I’m still not myself after all that’s happened, I’m afraid.”
“Well of course you aren’t, dear,” said his mother. “No one could expect you to be. At any rate, this young lady has applied for the position of wet nurse. I’ve already shown her the babe and will contact her references. She lives in Brooklyn now, such a long way from here. I was thinking it might be best if she moved into the house and cared for the child full time. Do you agree?”
Edwin agreed. But at the same time he felt a sense of foreboding toward this woman who was a stranger and yet somehow so familiar.
A week later Lillian and Edwin’s mother, who was having another bout of pleurisy, returned to their own home. Edwin was now in charge of the household. He plunged himself into work, often returning home late. The duties of keeping house and caring for Edwin Junior were left entirely to the two women who lived there.
Winter passed into spring and then early summer as both his housekeeper and his nurse proved capable and loyal in their duties. Each morning Annie would bring Edwin’s child to hold in his arms. At first he worried that Helena’s death might cause him to resent his son, but the opposite proved true. He saw the boy as a part of Helena, one last precious gift that she had given him.
To a casual observer Edwin had resumed his normal life. But inside he still felt the same turmoil as the first time he met Annie Clarke. The sight of her always reminded him of that long-ago afternoon with Annie Dunne and the feelings it engendered. He marveled at how the two women could be so alike, not only in name and appearance, but seemingly put here to nourish and comfort those in need of it.
In the evening Edwin would retire promptly at ten o’clock, read for a while, and soon fall asleep. But often he would awaken later and listen to the mantel clock in his bedroom and the occasional cabriolet passing outside on the brick street.
Then a gaslight would be lit down the hall, and he would hear the faint sounds of Annie Clarke entering the child’s bedroom for his two o’clock feeding. Edwin would lie in darkness, thinking of what was taking place in the nursery. Occasionally he would rise and stand at his bedroom door, the dim light from the room beckoning to him seductively.
A man is only flesh. One June night when the warm southerly wind was gently blowing, Edwin could stand it no longer. Soon after the light had gone on in the nursery, he put on his robe and slippers and walked as in a trance down the hall, pausing at the door to take in the scene.
Annie Clarke was sitting in a cushioned rocking chair, bathed in the golden glow of the gaslight. Her head was turned as she watched Edwin Junior suckle her left breast. To Edwin she seemed a vision, the embodiment of every woman who has ever offered from her own body sustenance for an infant. Without realizing it, tears came to his eyes.
Then Annie looked up and gasped when she saw Edwin. “Oh, Mr. Stearns!” she cried in a low voice, “ye gave me such a start! Ah, me heart’s racin’! Is somethin’ wrong?”
“No, not at all,” came Edwin’s reply, his voice barely above a whisper. “I was already awake. I … I see the child so little during the day. Is he nursing well? Does he gain weight?”
“Aye, he does,” Annie replied nervously, “a fine pink boy, always wanting me .. well, ye know.” The woman blushed intensely, not daring to look at Edwin.
Annie was wearing a white shift that served as her nightgown, beneath which were knee-length bloomers. She had covered her shoulders with a white shawl and had unbuttoned the shift down to her waist. Edwin presently saw that mother’s milk had seeped from her right breast and wetted the shift.
“Annie,” he whispered, “watching you feed my son like this is, I think, the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Would you please allow me to … to stay here for a while?”
The woman forced herself to look at Edwin, to study his eyes. Since entering his employ he had always been polite and formal with her, everything a maidservant hopes for in an employer. And he was also piteous. She felt great sympathy toward this handsome man, with his smooth skin and well-trimmed moustache. He had suffered a crushing loss at such a young age. She occasionally found herself wishing she could somehow assuage his grief.
“If … if ye wish, sir,” she murmured. Edwin sat in a chair about six feet from woman and child. Her face still flush, she drew the infant away from her left breast, pulled back the shift, and offered him her right nipple, with no attempt at modesty. The man watching was, after all, her master.
Edwin saw that Annie’s breasts were cream colored, round and turgid. Her areolae were pinkish brown, raised and puffy, from which swelled nipples fully an inch long. Little Edwin Junior quickly found Annie’s right nipple and began to suck avidly, pushing against her ripe breast with his tiny hands. Above the quiet hiss of the gaslight could be heard the faint sound of the suckling infant.
Long minutes passed as the man watched his son nurse. Finally the child was full. As he began to lose interest Annie pulled him away and covered herself, whispering, “That’s enough for now, tiger.” She held and rocked the infant for another moment, by which time he was asleep. She then rose from the chair and handed him to Edwin.
As the man placed his son in the crib and covered him with blankets, Annie re-buttoned her shift and pulled the shawl over her. Turning to her, Edwin said, “Thank you, Annie.”
“Good night, sir,” she replied. He quickly left the room as she extinguished the gaslight. Annie likewise sought the refuge of her room, and only then realized that her bloomers were literally wet from the juice of her sex.
The next night and for many nights after, Edwin attended the two o’clock feeding. Often not a word was exchanged between the man and woman. He sat quietly, gazing reverently at his infant and the woman nourishing him.
After a few nights Annie was calm enough to study the man as she suckled his child. Her own prior experience with men had been without exception disagreeable. At the age of eighteen she had fought off a brother who attempted to rape her, the attack ending only when she broke his jawbone with a stick of firewood. Her husband Liam had been a drunkard and a brawler. When word came that he had died in jail, a common occurance in New York in the 1890s, she felt more than anything else a sense of relief.
Edwin Stearns was quite literally the only gentleman that she had ever known. As she bared her breasts she watched his eyes but saw no carnal desire. He seemed more captivated that lustful, truly enjoying the intimate scene of a woman nursing his child.
One night, just as the infant had begun to suckle her left breast, Annie found herself whispering, “Sir, ye can come closer ‘n touch the babe if ye wish.”
Without a word Edwin moved his chair so that he could reach out and touch his son’s tiny shoulder, and then softly caress the down on his head. Now the tension in the air became palpable. Edwin placed his hand on Annie’s left hand that was holding the infant, then after a moment removed it. Both man and woman were looking away, neither daring to gaze at the other.
As if unable to control what was unfolding, Annie drew back her shift to uncover her right breast, then took Edwin’s hand and held it to its warmth. He gently moved his hand over her, probing the heft and firmness of her bosom. Now mother’s milk was seeping out and down her soft globe like a rivulet. Edwin drew his finger over the liquid, collecting as much as he could, and then touched the finger to his lips, drawing in the pale fluid of Annie’s body.
But still neither dared look at the other. Edwin again collected her milk and sipped it. Finally Annie whimpered, “Oh take it! Take it now if ye like, sir!”
Edwin leaned down and took Annie’s nipple into his mouth and with a faint moan joined his son in suckling at the woman’s breasts. At once came that same feeling of comfort as when he had sat in Annie Dunne’s lap. The warm milk now filling his mouth took Edwin even further back; he felt as an infant who needs only mother’s milk to satisfy him. The sensation was too wonderful for words. Never in his life had he known such perfect contentment.
Yet he was still in the present time. His own manhood was hard and erect, nearly throbbing. Finally forcing himself to release Annie’s nipple, he gasped, “I don’t want to be greedy. The little tot needs it more, I guess.”
Again he looked away as he kissed Annie’s hand, then drew up to finally look the woman in the eye. Both gazed at each other in shock, as if the experience of actually meeting each other’s eyes was the most audacious, intimate act of all. Annie’s eyes were damp with tears.
“You are a wonderful woman, Annie,” Edwin murmured. She did not reply, but rather broke the gaze and shifted the infant to her other breast, again making no effort to cover herself.
Edwin now sat silently with hands folded as his son finished nursing. Annie then rose and handed the boy to his father to place into the crib. Afterwards he quickly embraced the woman; then, saying, “Goodnight, Annie!” he hurried out of the room. When Annie reached her own room she still felt the prickly heat in her loins. The copious juice of her sex had flowed out and poured down her legs.
Another week passed. Each night Edwin watched his son suckle at Annie’s breast. And when she bade him, he took his nourishment there as well. But like an obedient child he never insisted, rather waiting until with words or gestures Annie invited him to take the breast.
Edwin became obsessed with that moment, living only for it. He impatiently awaited the end of the workday, then the end of the evening, as it meant that soon he would again place his lips on Annie’s firm nipples and savor that most delicious and satisfying liquid on earth.
Sitting at his desk, every inch the proper banker, his thoughts were only of the maidservant. She was earthy and sensuous in a way that was new to him. Edwin longed to be more intimate with her. He recalled that every few nights, just before the ten o’clock feeding, Annie took a bath in the upstairs bathroom.
One evening Inga had gone to visit her family when Edwin heard the sound of the pipes as bathwater was being run for Annie’s bath. With scarcely a thought he rose from his desk in the study and walked upstairs. Would she would accept his intrusion or cry out in anger? He did not know. But he could no more stop himself than he could stop breathing.
Without hesitation he opened the bathroom door. Annie was standing in profile at the tub. She had taken off her gown and bloomers, unbuttoned her shift, and was in the process of lifting it over her head. She turned and gasped when she saw Edwin.
For a few seconds the man and woman stared raptly at each other. He could not have known the thoughts swirling through Annie’s head. Edwin was first of all a man, to whom she felt naturally subordinate. And he was her master, one whose wishes and needs took precedent over her own. Surprisingly aroused by the thought that she was at his mercy and must acquiesce, Annie drew the shift over her. Holding it by her side and trembling, she turned to reveal in full her nude body.
Edwin gazed at her nakedness in wonder, barely able to breathe. He had never seen his late wife Helena or any other woman naked, in fact had never seen so much as a photograph of a naked woman. The thick reddish tuft covering Annie’s pubic mound somehow made her more primal, more the female animal. He stepped to her and placed his hands on her shoulders, then began to gently kiss her shoulders, neck and cheek. And then her lips.
Annie was taken aback not so much by his actions as his tenderness. When he had entered the room she had searched his eyes for reassurance that he would not abuse or humiliate her. She was relieved by what Edwin’s blue eyes told. In addition to carnal lust she saw the same reverence as when she suckled his infant. And now came kisses not clumsy or rough, but affectionate, even loving. The man and woman embraced, she feeling for the first time his hard manhood pressed against her.
Then Edwin drew away slightly and said, “Let me wash you.” Annie obediently got into the tub. “Lean back and close your eyes,” she heard. She did so.
Now came Edwin’s soapy hands, roaming over her neck and shoulders and breasts, covering her with rose-scented soap. Annie dared open her eyes to look at the man, again startled by what she did not see. There was no leering grin on his face, no indication that he meant to demean her. He was still blushing intensely, as if he were compelled to do this but wanting that his actions please her. It was an entirely new experience for Annie Clarke.
“Now move forward,” he murmured. When she obeyed, he washed her back, taking his time.
“Now stand up,” came the next command. Annie stood in the tub; Edwin, sitting on its edge, took more soap into his hands and began to bathe her calves and thighs. Soon he was at her sex. He drew his hands across the dense bush covering her pubic mound, then slid one hand between her thighs.
Edwin gently but firmly pressed up into her sex until he was touching the woman’s outer labia; he moved his wet soapy hand slowly back and forth, causing Annie to gasp in shock and pleasure. Now came the heady scent of her sex mixed with that of the soap. Under ordinary circumstances she would have been mortified at the thought of a man aware of the aroma of this most intimate part of her body. But this was not an ordinary time.
Edwin at last removed his hand and turned on warm water, collecting it in a small pail and pouring it over the woman, rinsing her clean. After he had finished he stepped over and took a towel, holding it out in anticipation.
Annie got out of the tub and stood as Edwin dried her off. Not a word was spoken. But for the deep blush on their faces, one might have thought that a banker bathing and then drying his young maidservant was the most ordinary of household chores. Determined to render full service, he then held out her bloomers and watched as she put them on. The same was repeated with her shift and gown.
The experience of seeing and caressing the woman’s soft body had filled Edwin’s senses, left him nearly speechless. He took her in his arms, again radiating a mixture of warm affection and lust. “I’ll see you later tonight,” he whispered. With a kiss on her cheek and then her lips, he walked out of the room.
Annie breast-fed Edwin Junior and then went to bed. She slept fitfully, and with something like relief finally heard the baby’s soft cries of hunger just after two in the morning. Within moments she had drawn the infant to her breast, and shortly after saw Edwin appear at the door. She immediately pulled down her shift and once more fed from her body both father and son.
When the infant was sated and asleep again, she turned off the gaslight and walked to her room. She turned to see the outline of Edwin in the door. Now the man and woman came together in a passionate embrace. Looking up into his face, Annie whispered, “I’m yours sir. Do with me as ye please!”
Edwin did so. Off came the gown, down came the bloomers and up over her shoulders went the shift. Motioning for her to get into bed, he removed his robe and nightgown and joined her. Immediately he mounted and entered her. There was no need for foreplay or arousal. That had been going on for hours, through the bath and the suckling at her breast. Now the man and woman only sought relief from the fire raging within them.
Edwin gasped in astonishment as he felt his manhood sink to the hilt in Annie’s warm welcoming sheath. With a feeling of exhilaration he knew that here was a woman with whom a man could take his full measure of satisfaction.
He recalled that the only times Helena seemed to enjoy sex was on their wedding night, and occasionally on the first night of a vacation. But at home, she expected Edwin to maintain the same decorum when he mounted her as at all other times. Their intercourse was quick and with no unnecessary heat or emotion. Helena had seen her role in satisfying Edwin’s carnal needs as a duty, not a pleasure.
But in Annie’s soft warm body he could fully satiate himself, could drink his sexual fill and give the same in return. Covering her face with kisses, he murmured “Oh, you feel divine, Annie! This is truly heaven!”
“Thank ye, sir,” he heard the woman whisper. Her hips moved up to welcome his manhood, and with slowly increasing speed their bodies moved in rhythm.
For Annie too this was a night of firsts. Her husband Liam, when he mounted her, had always reeked of whisky and sour body sweat. But this man now astride her was clean, with a faint scent of cologne. She realized that instead of using her as no more than a receptacle for his semen, that Edwin was in fact not just aware but even considerate of her needs. His gentle kisses and matching rhythm with her proved it.
Annie’s body began to feel more and more fiery, and a tingling sensation arose and swept over her. Expecting that it might soon abate, it instead became overpowering to the point where she scarcely knew what she was doing. Instead of easing the burning she had felt, the movement of their bodies together raised her to heights of ecstasy that she had never known before.
As if from far away she heard Edwin saying “Oh yes, oh yes!” and now she felt hot semen surging into her. This brought Annie to yet another level where an astonishing bolt of electricity raced through her, down to her toes. She clasped the man in an iron grip, unaware that she was crying Oh! Ooh! Ooohh!
Afterwards, for long minutes the two lay in darkness, gasping for breath. Edwin gave Annie an affectionate kiss on her cheek, but then heard a quiet sob from the woman.
“Annie? Are you all right?”
“Oh sir, sir! I never knowed a man could make a woman feel like that. I ain’t never felt nothin’ like it before. Lord, it truly was heaven!”
“I didn’t hurt you, did I love?” The last word escaped his lips without thinking, but once spoken seemed right.
“Oh, no sir! You’re the sweetest and gentlest man I’ve ever knowed! I’m sorry I’m cryin’, sir, but it’s ’cause I’m so happy!”
Now the man and woman lay together in silence, wanting only the feel of the other’s body. And some time later when Edwin’s kisses became more passionate, Annie’s body began to radiate heat once again.
Annie for the first time without fear or hesitation wanted a man in her; she could scarcely wait. And Edwin knew that he would please this woman as only a man can. And that in return her delicious sex would nourish him, would give him a sense of contentment that he had not known since he was an infant.
The day was dull and lifeless. Summer had ended, but autumn’s color was still weeks away. Edwin sat in the library of his parent’s grand home near Washington Square, sharing a bottle of claret.
“Have you found a new cook?” his mother asked.
“Yes, a Mrs. Carlton. She has been very capable so far. The woman does wonders with a pork roast.”
Edwin’s father spoke. He was in his early fifties, with thinning brown hair and a full beard. “Son, when Mrs. Hofmann gave notice, she paid us a visit. She told us that she could no longer work in a household where indecent behavior was going on between an unmarried man and woman. The woman, worse still, being a maidservant.”
Edwin stared into his claret but said nothing.
“Well,” Elliott Stearns continued in his baritone voice, “is there any truth to this?”
Still examining the claret, Edwin said, “Mrs. Hofmann was always a truthful woman. I’m sure she did not make anything up or exaggerate.”
His mother Clara sighed. “Then you must let Annie Clarke go at once, Edwin! Oh how could you, with little Edwin’s wet nurse! You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Edwin made to speak, but was interrupted by his father. “Son, we know the grief you suffered when you lost Helena. We all did. You being a young man, it’s only natural to … to take comfort in the arms of another woman. But surely you see what a position this places you, and for that matter, your whole family in. It cannot go on.”
Edwin stood and addressed his parents in a surprisingly calm manner. “The months that I have, as you say, taken comfort with Annie Clarke have been the happiest of my life. I love the woman. I will take her as my wife if she will have me. I can no more let her go than I could give up my own son!”
The room was deathly silent for long seconds. “You can’t possibly be serious!” his mother then gasped. “Surely my boy, you don’t propose to dress this .. this Irish peasant in a silk gown and present her to New York society? Good lord, the humiliation we would suffer!”
Again Edwin’s father spoke. “Your mother is right, Edwin.” Motioning to their dining hall, he went on. “why, you’ve sat at our table with Mayor Croker and his wife, and the most cultured people in this city. You’re a graduate of Yale, you love poetry and the theater. And this woman, this Annie, is she even literate? What can she offer you besides .. well, besides physical pleasure?”
Edwin rose and went to the window, looking out at the Stearns rose garden. “I don’t quite understand it myself. I loved Helena; I think about her and mourn her passing every day. But Annie touches some part of me that I never knew existed.” Draining his wine, he said almost to himself, “I think it is a rare man that finds a wife who is a perfect match; who satisfies him in every way. Most of us are happy with something less. I suppose it’s the same with women too.”
Then he turned to face his parents again. “But for Annie Clarke I will give up everything. My career, New York society, even my home. Nothing matters to me except to be with my son and this woman. Nothing.”
Elliott Stearns had spent a lifetime as a businessman. He could judge from a man’s face what his intentions and actions might be. Had Edwin been flustered, or nervous and edgy, he would have known that Edwin’s affair was a passing dalliance. But in Edwin’s firm jaw, in his skin drawn tightly over his cheeks, Elliott Stearns saw a man who had made up his mind; whose steel resolve could never be altered.
“Father!” Clara cried, “Speak to your son! This is madness! Tell him what he must do!”
A moment passed in silence as Elliott filled a briar pipe and lit it. He rose and spoke in his baritone voice: the family patriarch delivering a verdict of which there could be no appeal.
“My boy, I’ve watched you go to school, take on a career and a wife. But I’ve often felt that you were simply going through life as your family and society expected you. I’ve seldom seen signs of any great enjoyment or passion in you. Today I see that, for perhaps the first time ever.” He paused and took a puff from the briar. “But it may be best to quit New York. If you do, where will you go?”
“I’ve always loved Oakdale. I thought we might live there.”
“And do what?” cried his mother, now in tears, “live on family charity? Dear lord Edwin, you’ll be the death of me! Oh my heart! Someone please tell me this isn’t happening!”
Edwin looked evenly at his father; two men discussing a deal. “The land around Oakdale has some of the best apple orchards in New York. I loved working in them as a boy. Several could be had at a reasonable price.”
Clara Stearns continued to wail. “Oh, now he wants to marry a peasant and become a farmer! Could it be any worse!”
“Now Mother,” Elliott Stearns turned to her, a trace of a smile on his lips, “our grandfathers were farmers, and well-respected men.” He would never tell Clara that he was proud that regardless of his behavior, Edwin had shown spine and gumption. And proud that apron strings were being severed. “Tell me how I can help,” he said in a business-like voice.
Annie Clarke Stearns sat on the bed, resting against two pillows. Beyond the open bedroom window was darkness and the rich aroma of autumn leaves. The only sound was crickets that would soon fall silent as winter came. The woman was wearing a pale green cotton gown, open to her waist. At her left breast suckled an infant; Annie gently caressed its soft red curls.
Edwin walked into the bedroom, wearing his robe. He removed it and, hanging it in the closet, got into bed in his nightgown.
“Well?” Annie smiled.
“Five thousand bushels of McIntosh,” he said tiredly, “and two thousand of Jonathans. The last of them loaded and sent on their way today.”
“Edwin, that’s brilliant! Our best harvest ever!”
“Yes. Now I’ll talk to old man Willis about his four acres that we can add if he’ll agree to my price.” After a pause he went on, “Ironic, isn’t it? They’ll remember this year, 1896, because of another panic on Wall Street. And no one will recall what a bumper crop of apples it brought.”
He glanced down to the babe and caressed her head. “How’s little Emma?”
“Like all the Stearns, I reckon. She loves me tit, ‘n can’t get enough of it.” Seeing the look on her husband’s face, she shook her head wryly and let the gown fall from her shoulders, offering her other breast to Edwin.
He nestled down into the bed and began to lick the mother’s milk that was already flowing down his wife’s bosom. Then he took the nipple, thinking that now, three years older and with her own child, Annie’s flow of milk was stronger than ever, its flavor somehow richer and sweeter as well. He sucked eagerly; the warm fluid was both aphrodisiac and drug. At the first taste of it all worries melted away. He felt, if only for a while, the complete bliss of an infant.
With an absolute sense of contentment as his wife suckled him, Edwin was hardly aware of the faint rumbles of thunder in the western sky. Now Annie was caressing his head; after a moment she said, “You never get tired of it, do ye?”
He paused to kiss her full globes, murmuring, “No, I can’t get enough of you, Mrs. Stearns. Not any of you.” As if to emphasize the point, his hand went exploring under her gown, down to her thighs and her warm sex where already the juices were beginning to seep.
“Don’t get too frisky,” she whispered. “This thunder’ll probably wake little Eddy. ‘N ye know where he’ll want to be.”
As if on cue, they heard the first calls of “Mama! Da-da!” from the next room. By the time Edwin had brought his son to their bed, Annie had finished nursing Emma and returned the child to its crib near the window.
Edwin Junior, his black hair and dark eyes such a contrast to his half-sister, snuggled up to Annie. “Want t’ sleep here tonight,” he murmured.
“You can, son,” said Annie. Turning to Edwin, she whispered, “We can put him back in his bed fer Emma’s two o’clock feedin’, I guess.” After a pause she said, “If ye wake up I’ll feed ye both.”
“And then?” he said with a wicked grin.“Yes,” she smiled in anticipation, “that too, Mr. Stearns. That too.”