The late-autumn light was fading quickly as Professor Lucas Wainwright slipped a thick sheaf of papers into his briefcase and snapped the locks closed. The beginning of a new academic year was always a difficult time, and he was in no mood for staying late. Satisfied that nothing remained that could not wait until the next day, Lucas tucked his spectacles into the breast pocket of his suit, picked up his briefcase, and turned out the lamp. His fingers had barely brushed the door handle, however, when it was turned from the other side and the door opened.
"Hello?" he asked, pulling the door open the rest of the way. In the gloomy corridor beyond stood a young woman. He recognised her immediately: a strikingly beautiful girl with an asian cast to her features. Her long hair, dark and lustrous, fell well past her shoulders, and she stood with the easy poise of a dancer. In her simple green vest top and short black skirt, she looked even younger than her eighteen years. He had noticed her already amidst the nameless crowd of first-year students: she was something special, the eldest daughter of an old Hong Kong trading company, wealthy and cultured and utterly beguiling.
"Professor Wainwright?" the girl asked in a crisp tutored accent that still carried the merest trace of her birthplace.
"Mia, isn't it? What can I do for you?"
"I'm sorry for bothering you, Professor. I'm having some trouble."
"Not at all. I'm always available to help my students, particularly those as gifted as you. Come in, please." He gestured to a low leather couch, and Mia sat elegantly, smoothing her short skirt. Lucas placed his briefcase back on his desk, turned on the lamp, and crossed to a tasteful walnut cabinet. "Can I offer you something to drink?" he asked over his shoulder, taking out a slender decanter.
"No, thank you, Professor." Lucas poured out two generous measures of brandy and corked the decanter again.
"I insist," he said, taking the heavy crystal tumblers to the couch and passing one to Mia. She took it uncertainly, and sipped. "Now," said Lucas with a warm smile, sitting down next to her, "what seems to be the trouble?"
"It's the assignment. Donne, Elegy Twenty. I've read the poem a hundred times, and it doesn't make sense."
"In what way?"
"It's..." She hesitated for the briefest moment. "Archaic?"
"It is," conceded Lucas with a half-smile. "But if there is one aspect of human behaviour which remains the same through the passage of centuries, it is the act of love. And Donne, I should say, is a master. I'm sure a girl as beautiful as you are is no stranger to the attentions of romantic men."
"But I don't understand what he's saying," Mia protested, flushing slightly at the compliment. "I've taken the poem apart and I've researched every reference, but it doesn't... it doesn't work."
"I see. Don't be alarmed, it's not an uncommon problem faced by students for whom English is a second language. We can dissect and analyse, but the poem wields a subtle magic that must be experienced more than it is understood. Consider," he added, warming to his subject, "the opening lines."
"Come, madam, come, all rest my powers defy; Until I labour, I in labour lie," quoted Mia without hesitation.
"Indeed," said Lucas with a small nod. "And considered rationally, critically, those words have no great power. But imagine these words on the lips of a man, a man who feels such love for his mistress, such desire, that every moment apart pains him. The foe ofttimes, having the foe in sight, Is tired with standing, though he never fight."
Mia frowned. "There's something different."
"That's what I was talking about. You've read the poem many times - now you're feeling it." Lucas leaned a little closer, and fixed her with an intent gaze. "Off with that girdle, like heaven's zone glittering, but a far fairer world encompassing."
"He's just a typical man," Mia said with a nervous laugh, though her eyes never left his.
"Of course; Donne is reminding us that there is nothing rare or obscure about lust. Indeed, he's almost making the case that it is the most natural state of humanity. Two people, united by one single desire? What can be more natural? Or more beautiful? Unpin that spangled breast-plate, which you wear, that th' eyes of busy fools may be stopp'd there. He tells us that love is commonplace and transcendental; familiar and sacred."
Mia had stilled, and her eyes glowed with understanding as Lucas continued. "Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime tells me from you, that now 'tis your bed time. Off with that happy busk, which I envy, that still can be, and still can stand so nigh."
"I can feel it," Mia whispered. "It's magical."
"Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals, as when from flowery meads th' hill's shadow steals. Do you see?"
She nodded, shifting in her seat and leaning toward him. "Don't stop," she said hesitantly. "Please?"
Lucas smiled again, and mischief glinted in his eye. "Off with your wiry coronet, and show the hairy diadems which on you do grow. Off with your hose and shoes; then softly tread in this love's hallow'd temple, this soft bed." Mia gasped, her eyes widening, her lips moist and parted. Lucas leaned toward her, his soft voice the only soud in the room. "In such white robes heaven's angels used to be revealed to men; thou, angel, bring'st with thee a heaven-like Mahomet's paradise. And though ill spirits walk in white, we easily know, by this, these angels from an evil sprite," he said, lowering his voice and holding her gaze, "those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright."
Lucas paused as Mia leaned in closer still, her lips so close to his that he could feel the cool whisper of her breath. "Licence my roving hands," he murmured, taking her hands in his and tracing his fingertips over her smooth skin, "and let them go before, behind, between, above -"