The Wood Nymph(2)

By: Mary Balogh

“Perhaps it will give a more superior tone to the neighborhood to have Mr. Mainwaring among us,” Emily said, “though he would sound a great deal more distinguished if he had a title.”

“Pooh,” her sister said, “a title is not important, Emmy. He is of impeccable lineage, Papa says.” “Anyway,” the countess said decisively, “I want you all to look your best this afternoon. You are all remarkably fine girls, even if I do say so myself, and surely Mr. Mainwaring must show interest in one of you. Your new dress looks quite elegant, Melissa, now that the bow has been straightened. And your hair looks most becoming, Emily. You have had Matty dress it in a new style?”

“I consider it looks less frivolous than the old style,” said Emily, turning her head first one way and then the other so that her mother could see the total effect. “After all, I am three-and-twenty already. Will it do for our visitor, do you think, Mama?”

“I am sure he will be most impressed,” her mother replied. “And, Helen, when do you plan to dress for the visit?”

The countess’s youngest daughter was sitting in the window seat, her head bent low over some embroidery. She looked up when her name was mentioned, a vacant expression in her eyes.

“What?” she asked.

The countess tutted impatiently. “Really, child,” she said, “I suppose you have not heard a word of what we have been saying. How can you be in a room with other people and not know what is going on? I asked you when you plan to dress for our visitor.”

“We are expecting visitors?” Helen asked in some alarm.

“Oh, Helen,” Melissa said with a giggle, “you know we are expecting Mr. Mainwaring this afternoon. We have talked of little else for several days. And you know you are as interested as we are in discovering if he is young and handsome.”

“Mr. Mainwaring?” said Helen, frowning slightly. “Is he the owner of Graystone who has recently arrived?”

“I declare, Helen,” Emily said coldly, rising from her chair and crossing the room to her sister, “you live entirely in a world of your own. I think you have been indulged far too long. A child who daydreams can seem to be a sweet creature, but when you are approaching twenty years of age, it is time you learned to accept your social responsibilities.”

“I am sorry, Emmy,” Helen said, “but no one told me about Mr. Mainwaring. I do not wish to meet him, though. He has come from London, has he not? I would expect him to be very different from us and difficult to talk to.”

Emily tutted and then put her hands on her hips as she looked down at her sister’s embroidery. “Really, Helen.” she exclaimed. “Look at this, Mama. Helen is not following the pattern at all. She is supposed to be stitching dainty anemones, and instead she has embroidered a huge dandelion. A dandelion! How ridiculous you are. You will have to unpick the work, you know.”

“Dandelions are the prettiest flowers I know,” Helen said evenly, apparently undisturbed by her sister’s outburst. “They are like the sun. It is their ugly leaves and stems that make people dislike them. I am tired of creating pretty, dainty things.”

“There is no time for one of your arguments now,” the countess said impatiently. “You must go upstairs immediately, child, and get ready. Mr. Mainwaring will be here within the hour.”

“I will do as I am, Mama,” Helen said, putting aside her embroidery and smoothing her skirt over her knees. “My dress is clean.”

“You will not do at all, child,” her mother said firmly. “Your new muslin will suit very nicely. And I shall send Matty up to try to do something with your hair.” She sighed. “Why is it that it will hold into no style, Helen? No matter how carefully it is curled and confined with pins, a half-hour later you have a halo of fine hairs standing all around your head. I am sure you do not take after me.”

“It really does not matter, Mama,” Helen said placidly. “I am not intending to ensnare Mr. Mainwaring, you know.”

“Your trouble is that you have forgotten that you are almost twenty years of age already,” Emily said. “We must all be looking for husbands at every opportunity, Helen. It is our duty, you know.”

The countess clapped her hands. “Helen, move!” she said. “And remember—it is to be the muslin.”

“Yes, Mama,” Helen said.

But when she was in her room, Helen did not immediately change her clothes. She wandered to the window and looked up at the sky. The clouds were low and heavy. They promised rain later. It looked like a chilly day for summer. Even so, the outdoors looked inviting. She gazed out across her father’s fields to the east, to the large grove of trees that was just across the boundary from their land, on the land belonging to Mr. Mainwaring.