The Wood Nymph(3)

By: Mary Balogh

She had not been to her private place there for three whole days, and she was beginning to chafe against the restrictions of home. She knew that Emily was right. She was a grown woman now, and she should be taking an interest in the activities of womanhood. She should be interested in her appearance and in visiting and attending all the social activities that rural living could offer. She should be interested in finding an eligible husband. She should be joining wholeheartedly in the feminine chatter of her mother and her two older sisters. But, oh, she could not.

Her own world, the one she had built up through the years of her girlhood, was still far more attractive to her than she could imagine the real world ever being. Reading and painting and writing could still inspire her with more passion than the prospect of a new gown or a ball. And sitting and gazing at nature around her was infinitely more exciting than sitting in the drawing room listening to the polite conversation of her family and the current visitors. She found it all painfully boring and unsatisfying. If matters were left to her, they would never either visit or entertain.

She hated the prospect of having to sit through a visit by Mr. Mainwaring that afternoon. He was the owner of Graystone, the neighboring estate, and had been for some years, but he had never been there before. Now he had arrived from London and was being made much of by everyone within a ten-mile radius. She had no right to judge someone she had never met, of course, but she had taken a strong dislike to the man. He doubtless thought a great deal of himself. She could almost picture him looking down the length of an aristocratic nose at all the rustics in this out-of-the-way corner of Yorkshire. If he was from London, he was probably a dandy and a man of frivolous tastes. She seemed to remember Papa saying that he was a fashionable man.

She knew what the visit would be like. Papa would be there, but he would not say much. He never did. Papa had really only two topics of conversation: horses and hunting. If it happened that Mr. Mainwaring had little interest in these, then Papa would have nothing at all to say. The conversation would be left to Mama and the girls. Mama would be slyly hinting at the various accomplishments of her daughters—she was bound to have Emily sing for the visitor. And Emily would be more than usually dignified, trying to impress the man with her breeding and maturity. And Melissa would be silly, and would use wiles to try to draw compliments from the unsuspecting visitor.

Helen had seen it all before. She loved them all, of course. They were her family. But she had never been able to understand why they could not behave naturally in the presence of gentlemen. Why must every single man be seen as a matrimonial prospect? Was there nothing more in life for a woman than to find a husband? It seemed that she was the odd one, though, to imagine that there must be something else. Mama and the girls appeared to accept the necessity of matrimony without question, and so did all the other girls and mamas of Helen’s acquaintance.

She turned sharply as the door to her room opened.

“Oh, Matty,” she said. “I am not ready to have my hair done yet. I shall ring when I need you.”

The girl curtsied and left the room again.

Helen still stared at the closed door. She could not face that visit. She could not get herself all dressed up like a sacrificial offering and be polite all afternoon to a man she was sure to despise. She could not. She turned her head to glance again in the direction of that beckoning grove of trees and up to the sky, which was still holding its rain. Then she rushed over to her closet and dragged out her moss-green velvet riding habit and her black leather boots.

They would scold all evening, she told herself as she changed quickly into the chosen garments. Mama would talk about duty, and Papa would threaten to lock her in her room without supper. Emily would remind her that at her age she should have a stronger sense of family duty. But she would prefer all that to an afternoon of confinement with Mr. Mainwaring. Even the name she disliked. He sounded stuffy.

She picked up her riding whip from a corner of the closet and let herself quietly out of the room. A quick glance to left and right assured her that there was no one in sight. She ran lightly to the servants’ staircase at the back of the house and quickly down to the back entrance. A few minutes later, Helen was emerging from the stables, seated sidesaddle on her horse. She took him around behind the house and headed for the fields to the east. She did not look back as she spurred the horse to a gallop. She would think of the scolding later.

* * *

William Mainwaring saw Helen go as he rode slowly up the driveway to the Earl of Claymore’s home. She was certainly able to handle her horse well, whoever she was, he thought. For one envious moment he wished he could join her or at least gallop away on his own flight to freedom. But he was bound to make this visit, the first of many. His neighbors had been attentive in the five days since his arrival at Graystone and he appreciated their kindness. It was not their fault that he was of a reserved, unsociable nature.