The Wood Nymph(6)

By: Mary Balogh

“Toplofty!” said Lady Emily Wade decisively. “The man thinks himself superior just because he has acquired some town bronze.”

Helen heard all four opinions of Mr. Mainwaring during dinner that evening. Their new neighbor dominated the conversation, even if the opinion of him was not altogether favorable. She gathered that he had not shown sufficient interest in her father’s talk of horses and hunting. It was shocking enough for even a lady to admit to the earl that she had never hunted and, indeed, even disapproved of the sport. But for a man to do so was clearly a testimony of his basic effeminacy. Mr. Mainwaring had even dared to express sympathy for the fox!

“It is surely not unmanly to hate killing for the sake of killing, is it, Papa?” Helen was unwise enough to ask.

“We all know your strange views, child,” he grumbled. “Can’t think where you acquired them. Certainly not in this house. I am certainly thankful you did not turn out to be the son I hoped for. I should not be able to hold up my head in the neighborhood. Feeling sorry for the poor fox, indeed! The animal is a nuisance, child, with no right to live. Its only use in life is to provide pleasure to the hunter.”

Helen nodded her head to the footman who was offering her wine. She did not this time answer her father. There was no point in doing so. It was always useless to try to discuss any topic with him. He took any disagreement with his opinion as a personal affront. But she did find herself warming unwillingly to the neighbor whose acquaintance she had avoided during the afternoon. The man could not be all bad if he had the courage to oppose blood sports in an age when the willingness to hunt was a badge of manhood.

She soon understood the differing opinions of her sisters. Emily had sung for him, accompanying herself on the pianoforte. She was generally accounted the best musician for miles around. No entertainment was complete without a musical selection from the eldest Lady Wade. But Mr. Mainwaring had not appeared suitably impressed. He had apparently nodded his approval and complimented Emily on the song, but he had kept his seat and he had not smiled. And he had committed the unforgivable sin of expressing interest in Melissa’s watercolors when Mama had mentioned them to him. And he had spent all of five minutes with his head bent over the pictures after the younger sister had been sent to fetch them.

But Helen could not escape indefinitely the scold that she had known was coming.

“I did not take kindly to your absenting yourself this afternoon, child,” the countess said, fixing Helen with a severe eye. “You knew very well that we were expecting a visitor, and you know that I sent you upstairs for the express purpose of getting ready. You are no longer a schoolgirl. You are expected to do your duty as an adult member of this family, just like the rest of us.”

“Maybe if I took a strap to you, you would learn to heed your mama,” the earl added. “I can’t think where you disappear to half the time, Helen, but you had better not let me ever find out that you have left our land or mixed with any company beneath your station.”

Helen lowered her eyes to her plate and ate steadily through the next few minutes while the scold proceeded. She was used to it. She had heard the same complaints and the same threats many times. But she could not feel sorry that she had not stayed for Mr. Mainwaring’s visit. She would have been dreadfully bored and she would doubtless have been called upon to show him her embroidery. She would have had to endure the sight of his lip curling in disdain when he saw that dandelion. No one ever understood her vision of life. No one could see beyond prettiness to the true beauty all around them. She did not regret her afternoon spent in an area that most would consider wild and quite worthless.

William Mainwaring spent the next two days getting to know his own property. His estate manager had worked there for years and had clearly done a good job. The land was prosperous, the tenants contented. Although he had never visited the place before, Main-waring had always meticulously examined every report he received from his various properties. He was satisfied with this man and saw no reason now to begin to interfere. He contented himself, then, with wandering around, sometimes alone, sometimes with the manager, looking and listening. He enjoyed meeting his tenants, most of whom treated him with marked friendliness, having found him to be a generous and a just man, even though he had always been an absentee.

By the afternoon of the second day, there was only one part of the estate that he had not explored. It was the dense wood that ran almost the complete length of the west side of his property. There had used to be a gamekeeper there, the manager had explained, until it became obvious that there was no longer enough game in the area to keep the man busy. The previous owner had once considered clearing the trees away so that the land might be cultivated, but it would have been too huge an undertaking. The trees were large and old. There was a great deal of undergrowth. And even if the task could be accomplished, it was doubtful that it would have proved to be worthwhile. A stream meandered through the woods. Its presence would complicate the matter of cultivating the reclaimed land. The scheme had been abandoned.