The Wood Nymph(8)

By: Mary Balogh

She had already shed her riding habit and was dressed in the shabby old cotton dress again. One day soon, she knew, the garment was going to fall to pieces around her and she would have to find something else to wear when she wished to be totally comfortable and free. But she hated to think of its happening. She had worn the dress since she was in the schoolroom, first as a day dress, and later when it became too short for her, as a painting smock to save her good dress from the splatters of paint that were inevitable when she began work.

She intended painting that afternoon. But painting for Helen did not necessarily mean dragging out easel, paper, and paints and setting to work to produce a picture. Sometimes it could mean doing nothing for a whole afternoon but observing. And that was the case on this particular afternoon. She had decided to paint the stream. But having set herself that task, she realized that she had never really seen it at all. It would have been easy ten years before or even more recently than that. Children always took for granted that water was blue. Her brightest blue paint would have been pulled out and in no time at all she would have had a satisfactory blue streak across the paper.

But, Helen realized, standing barefoot on the bank and gazing down at the water which flowed past, it was not blue at all. The realization would not have been so bad perhaps if she could have satisfied herself that it was gray or brown or gold or silver or any other color. The truth was that it was all those colors. And yet it was none of them. When she stooped down and scooped some drops into her palm, she found that they were completely colorless. And the water looked quite different from this close than it had looked a moment ago from the doorway of the hut. She looked up. Would it look different again from the branches of the old oak tree, which she had climbed many times? She hitched her skirts and climbed up to see.

Ten minutes later, Helen was back on the bank of the stream, lying on her stomach, her face propped up on her hands and suspended over the water. Her feet, crossed at the ankles, were waving in the air above bent knees. She was observing with all her senses. When she finally came to paint the scene, she wanted to be able to feel the water from the inside. She wanted to reproduce all the colors and shades, all the movement and life that were engrossing her full attention now. How wonderful nature was! How could she possibly reproduce any of it with her brush without simplifying it beyond all meaning?

Her legs stopped moving suddenly and her back stiffened. She could feel prickles along her spine. There was something behind her. She had heard nothing, but she felt a presence very strongly. She hardly dared turn her head. Heaven knew what kind of vicious beast might be there just waiting to pounce at her smallest movement. She turned her head and glanced cautiously over one shoulder.

A man was leaning one shoulder against a tree some distance away, arms folded, watching her. She knew at a glance that he was Mr. Mainwaring. This was his land, after all, and one could hardly expect to find another strange and fashionable young man wandering in this particular area, especially when the young man was tall and dark. Yes, and handsome. Melly had been quite right. Helen did not move. She just continued to look.

Helen could feel her face flushing. She felt horribly embarrassed to be caught thus, in this position and in these clothes. She, Lady Helen Wade!

“Is it a wood nymph?” he asked. “Or is it human?” “Oh,” she said, and rolled over onto her knees, “you did startle me. I thought you were a wild boar at the very least.” In self-protection, almost without realizing she did so, she used the North Country accent that the servants always used, instead of talking in her own voice.

He raised his eyebrows and moved forward to stand beside her on the bank, looking down into the water. “It is a lovely spot you have chosen,” he said. “Do you make it a habit to come into the woods?”

“They are yours, are they not?” she said. “Would you mind if I said that I come here often?” She sat back on her heels the better to look up at him.

He smiled, and the expression completely transformed his rather austere features, she found. He stooped down on his haunches. “Do you like to be alone sometimes too?” he asked. “Or do you have the evil intention of burning my woods to the ground one of these days?”

“I like it here,” she said, her cheeks still aflame. “This is my own special place, and if you were to forbid me to come, I should have to disobey you.”

He chuckled. “Well, you are honest at least,” he said. “And tell me, what is it you have to escape from? What are you supposed to be doing at this moment?” Helen gazed back into his dark eyes, on a level with her own, her mind fast inventing a story that would sound plausible. But he went on to answer his own question.