The Wood Nymph(7)

By: Mary Balogh

Mainwaring was glad. He welcomed a place that was likely to give him some privacy. If his neighbors continued to be as attentive as they had been thus far, he would be thankful to have a private place to which to escape, a place where he could be alone with his own thoughts occasionally. Not that he resented the visits of his neighbors. In fact, he was touched by the friendliness of most of those who called and by the flood of invitations he had already received. It was just that he had not expected it.

He needed solitude on this particular afternoon. He had had a completely unexpected letter that morning from the Marquess of Hetherington. It had been a painful experience breaking the seal, knowing from whom the letter had come. They were in Sussex for the summer awaiting the already overdue birth of their first child. Mainwaring had put down the letter at that point, finding that his hand was shaking. When he took it up again, it was to find that this was by no means the first letter Robert had sent him. Others had gone to Ferndale, to Mainwaring’s former address in London, even to White’s Club. Both Hetherington and Elizabeth had been puzzled and a little hurt by his silence.

“We keep telling ourselves that perhaps these letters have not reached you,” the marquess had written, “and we cling to the hope that this is so, because we do not like to think what your silence might mean otherwise. However, Prosser called on us a few days ago while on a journey west and we have finally discovered from him exactly where you may be found. You can have no idea how elusive you are, my friend.

“Let me repeat yet again what I have written in every letter to you. Both Elizabeth and I grieve over the lapse in our friendship and both of us have a very real sense of our own guilt. Can you forgive me for the way I treated you when we last met? I have long been sensible of the fact—indeed, I knew it even at the time —that your intentions were perfectly honorable and your behavior above reproach. I can excuse myself only with the explanation that I was an extremely jealous husband.

“What I should have explained, of course, is that I loved Elizabeth perhaps more than was good for me at the time. Fortunately, I later discovered that she returned my feelings equally and that the whole of our separation had been caused by a ghastly misunderstanding. We both feel that we owe you this much of an explanation, though the details, of course, are known only to my wife and myself. Elizabeth herself wishes to write to you. She feels, I know, that she treated you with less than complete honor. But she values your friendship as do I, my friend.”

The letter went on to explain that they were planning to be in London for the winter, but that it was likely that they would return to Sussex as soon as next spring came, though it would mean missing the Season. Both he and Elizabeth preferred life in the country and they felt it would be better for their child to live there. They wanted William to visit them in London, if he would not find the meeting too painful. They wanted to be given the chance to show him that they still considered him to be their dearest friend.

Mainwaring was badly shaken by the letter. He had accustomed himself to the unhappiness of having lost these two friends. He had always convinced himself that he had been the guilty party, deliberately trying to come between a man and his lawful wife. And he had reconciled himself to the belief that he would never see Elizabeth again, although he would love her all his life.

Now he discovered that in fact Hetherington had been trying to contact him for most of the past year and that they both still valued his friendship. They wanted him to visit them.

He did not know how he felt about it all. The knowledge that they were not still angry with him, that they had not deliberately cut the acquaintance, was remarkably soothing. Yet he was cautious. Elizabeth had been a friend, yes, a very dear friend, one to whom he could talk at his ease. But far more than that, she had been the woman he loved, the woman he still loved. Could he see her again without showing that she still meant a great deal more to him than she should? Could he invite such personal pain? Could he bear to see her with Hetherington, to see the love that they clearly felt for each other? Could he bear to see their child, when once he had dreamed that she would bear his children?

He wandered toward the wood on foot, taking the letter with him. He must reply, and soon. But he did not know exactly what he would say.

* * *

Helen had managed to slip away for the afternoon. Mama and the girls were going on a round of visits, mainly to boast of the news that they were to entertain Mr. Mainwaring for dinner, she suspected. It had not been difficult to avoid being made a member of the party. It was becoming an accepted fact that she did not participate with any regularity in the afternoon social rituals of the neighborhood. She rather believed that her own family welcomed her absence. She did not offer much support in the conversations anyway.