The Wood Nymph(5)

By: Mary Balogh


Instead of dismounting at the entrance to the earl’s house, Mainwaring rode on to the stables. He should have expected the welcome he had been given at Graystone, then. Perhaps its closeness to Scotland had led him to expect that he would have quiet and privacy here. But maybe it was as well that matters had turned out this way. Shy as he was, he really did not wish to be a hermit. He had learned to value the few friends he had made since leaving Scotland, though he had permanently lost the two dearest friends he had had. He had heard since leaving Ferndale that they were together again, Robert and Elizabeth Denning, though he had not tried to contact them.

Being here at Graystone was more unnerving than being at Ferndale had been the year before, though. Here he was alone. The burden of the conversation would be on him. He dreaded the prospect. The earl had said that he had a wife and daughters—Mainwaring could not remember how many. And he had no idea of their ages or matrimonial status.

Having turned his horse over to the care of a groom in the earl’s stables, Mainwaring checked the folds of his neckcloth and fall of lace over the backs of his hands and strode across to the main door. There was no point in delaying the moment any longer. Perhaps the next visit would be easier, once he had got through this one.

* * *

A stream wound its way through the dense trees and wild undergrowth that formed the western border of William Mainwaring’s property. It gurgled past some large stones that had somehow embedded themselves along its path, and it played with some leaves and twigs, which had fallen from the trees that overhung its waters, twirling them, stranding them against a stone for a few teasing minutes, and then carrying them onward again. Most of the trees were old and gnarled, uncared for. But the very wildness of the scene had its charm.

At some time in the past, a gamekeeper’s hut had been built in a small clearing on the bank of the stream. There had been no gamekeeper employed for many years, and the hut was old and dilapidated. The wooden walls and roof were bleached and weathered; the door hung crookedly on its hinges and had been wedged shut at an awkward angle. Long grass and weeds grew up all around it, and there was only the faintest trace of the path that had been worn to its door.

Yet Lady Helen Wade was clearly familiar with the scene. She entered the clearing on foot and walked without hesitation to the hut. She wrestled with the door for only a few moments before it swung open with a loud squeak. Clearly she was accustomed to its awkwardness. She disappeared inside.

A few minutes later a completely different young lady emerged from the hut. This girl wore a shapeless cotton dress, which was too short for her. It reached barely to her ankles. It covered her to the neck, but its sleeves, which were meant to reach the wrists, ended just below the elbows. It had been washed and bleached so many times that it was almost impossible to say which shade of blue or green it had once been. Light tawny hair fell in loose and tangled curls over her shoulders and partway down her back. The girl was barefoot. In one hand she held a leather-bound book.

Helen crossed to the stream and stood staring down at its moving waters. She tested the water with the toes of one foot and seemed to be satisfied with her findings. She lowered herself immediately to the thick grass of the bank, hitched her skirt almost to the knees, and lowered both feet into the water. She swished them around for a while, enjoying the delightful coolness after the confined heat of her boots.

She looked around her at the wildflowers that were almost lost in the long grass, at the heavy summer foliage of her favorite tree, the old oak, which grew close to the bank, and up to the sky, which still swirled with heavy clouds. She breathed deeply of the heavy summer scents of it all and closed her eyes with a smile of satisfaction. Oh yes, it would be worth every moment of that scolding she was bound to be subjected to.

Finally Helen opened her book, a much coveted copy of Mr. Wordsworth and Mr. Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Soon her mind was in a totally different world, a world

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

Everything was forgotten: her feet gradually growing colder and colder in the water, the grass and trees around her, the clouds growing heavier with the promised rain, her father’s drawing room where the rest of the family was gathered, and Mr. Mainwaring.





CHAPTER 2



“Aladies’ man,” said the Earl of Claymore.

“A most genteel sort of a man,” said the countess, “though his manners are a little stiff.”

“Very handsome,” sighed Lady Melissa Wade, “with those brown eyes and that dark hair. And so very tall!”