The Wood Nymph(9)

By: Mary Balogh

You should be helping at home, is that it?” he asked. Baking bread, or doing the family wash, or scrubbing the floors, or some other activity that is supposed to keep females happy?”

Yes, she said vaguely, and she began to feel her heartbeat return to normal. “I slip away whenever I am able.”

“And suffer later, I suppose,” he said, and smiled again. “Who are you?”

“Nell, sir,” she replied with only a moment’s hesitation.

“And you have only one name, Nell?” he asked. “But no matter. That is enough. It is a pretty name. It suits you, wood nymph. What were you doing when I came upon you?”

“Learning water,” she said earnestly.

“Learning water?”

“Yes,” she said. “Tell me if you can, without looking, what color is water?”

He looked amused. “Blue sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes green or gray. It depends upon the sky.”

“But what if it is not exposed to the sky?” she asked. “What if there are trees?”

“Then perhaps brown or green,” he said.

“You are right,” she said excitedly. “All your answers are right all of the time. And yet you missed light and shade and movement and all the differing tones of the colors you named.”

“Indeed?” he said. “You intrigue me.” But he was amused, teasing, Helen could see.

“Look,” she said. She became so engrossed in her subject that her embarrassment of a few minutes before and her awareness of the impropriety of her appearance and behavior were forgotten. She rolled over onto her stomach again and leaned over the water. “Look and tell me what you see.”

He followed her example and stretched out beside her. “What do I see?” he asked. “Let me consider a moment. Ah, yes. I see a wood nymph with lots of fair hair and large gray eyes. She looks just like you.” Helen laughed with delight. “You will not believe me, will you?” she said. “It is true, though, as you will see if you but take the time to observe. There is a great deal to learn about water.”

“Yes,” he said more seriously, “you are quite right, Nell. Many times one thinks that one sees nature and appreciates its beauty. But most of the time our senses but scratch the surface.”

“Oh, you do understand!” Helen exclaimed, turning a glowing face to him. “Most people think I have windmills in my head when I talk that way. You like to be alone too, do you not? Is that why you came here? Or did you merely feel that you must explore every part of your property?”

“You know who I am then?” he said. “But I suppose it is common knowledge in the village that I have come at last.”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Everyone knows, sir.” William Mainwaring sat up on the bank and looked around him. “That hut must belong to the gamekeeper who used to be employed here,” he said. “I wonder if he left anything inside.”

“Oh, no, he did not,” Helen said quickly, catching at his arm as he made to rise. “There is nothing at all inside, sir, and the door is stuck.”

He looked at her and the amusement was there in his eyes again. “Nell,” he said, “you are lying to me. Why must I not look inside?”

She blushed. “Please,” she said, “I use it sometimes. I do not do any harm. Such a ramshackle building cannot be of any use to you, can it? Please do not go inside.”

He relaxed into a sitting position again. “Well, wood nymph,” he said, “are you allowed to accept gifts from gentlemen? I hereby make you a present of the gamekeeper’s hut and I shall never trespass without a personal invitation. Will that make you happy?”

“You are very kind,” she said earnestly.

They looked at each other in silence for several moments, without embarrassment. Each was assessing the other.

William Mainwaring finally got to his feet and brushed grass from his buckskin breeches. “I must be going, wood nymph,” he said. “I shall leave you alone to learn water.”

“Good-bye, sir,” she said, “and thank you for the present. It is one of the most precious I have ever received.”

He laughed. “Au revoir, Nell,” he said.

William Mainwaring found that he was still smiling as he walked through the woods in the direction of home. The letter from Hetherington lay in his pocket forgotten for the moment. What a delightful little creature! She really did seem more wood nymph than woman. Learning water, indeed! Now, what did she keep in the gamekeeper’s hut that was so important? he wondered. It had sounded as if she came often to the place.