The wood nymph
JULY AND AUGUST
“Do stand still, Melissa," the Countess of Claymore said to her daughter. "Your ribbons are not tied properly in front. The bow is decidedly crooked."
"Whatever I do with it, Mama," the girl complained, "it is still askew just a few minutes later. I do believe Miss James was at fault when she made the dress. I wish we did not have to rely on rustic dressmakers. We are never fashionable."
"I do think Papa could take us to Harrogate occasionally," Lady Emily Wade agreed. "Surely twice a year would not be beyond our means, Mama. We have been stuck in the country here forever, and never meet anyone even remotely distinguished."
"There is nothing wrong with Miss James's workmanship," the countess said firmly. "It is merely that the ribbon has been tied wrongly, Melissa. Stand still and I shall retie it for you."
"Papa said that Mr. Mainwaring is very fashionable," Melissa said. "Perhaps he really will be, Emmy. Perhaps he will also be young and handsome. Papa said he is young, of course, but that could mean any age below fifty."
"I would not raise your hopes too high, Melly," her sister warned. "Have you ever known anyone both young and handsome to settle in this neighborhood?"
"No," Melissa agreed, "but that does not mean that one never will. We know that he is very rich, at least. He owns Graystone and Papa says that he owns a great deal of property in Scotland and the south of England as well. I think it would be most appropriate if he also turns out to be handsome."
"You are too romantic by half," Emily said scornfully. "If he is eligible, Melly, it is fitting that we should meet him. After all, we owe it to our positions in society to make suitable marriages before much more time has elapsed. And if Papa will not take us to a place of fashion, we shall have to make the most of what we have here."
"I have asked and asked Papa to take us all to London for a Season," the countess assured her daughters, "or to Harrogate at the very least. But he cannot take his horses and his dogs to London, you see, and you all know that hunting is the breath of life to your father."
"Mr. Mainwaring really is coming this afternoon, Mama, is he not?" Melissa asked anxiously. "Papa was quite definite about it?"
"Oh, yes," her mother said. "He has been in residence at Graystone for several days, you know, and has been called upon by most of our neighbors. Papa was the first to call, of course. It is time Mr. Mainwaring returned the calls, and he did assure Papa that he would wait upon us this afternoon. I really am most anxious to make his acquaintance, though I feel quite vexed that he has waited all these years to visit his property. We see little enough of good company as it is without a perfectly good estate remaining unoccupied by its master for several years."
"Perhaps it will give a more superior tone to the neighborhood to have Mr. Mainwaring among us," Emily said, "though he would sound a great deal more distinguished if he had a title."
"Pooh," her sister said, "a title is not important, Emmy. He is of impeccable lineage, Papa says."
"Anyway," the countess said decisively, "I want you all to look your best this afternoon. You are all remarkably fine girls, even if I do say so myself, and surely Mr. Mainwaring must show interest in one of you. Your new dress looks quite elegant, Melissa, now that the bow has been straightened. And your hair looks most becoming, Emily. You have had Matty dress it in a new style?"
"I consider it looks less frivolous than the old style," said Emily, turning her head first one way and then the other so that her mother could see the total effect. "After all, I am three-and-twenty already. Will it do for our visitor, do you think, Mama?"
"I am sure he will be most impressed," her mother replied. "And, Helen, when do you plan to dress for the visit?"
The countess's youngest daughter was sitting in the window seat, her head bent low over some embroidery. She looked up when her name was mentioned, a vacant expression in her eyes.
"What?" she asked.
The countess tutted impatiently. "Really, child," she said, "I suppose you have not heard a word of what we have been saying. How can you be in a room with other people and not know what is going on? I asked you when you plan to dress for our visitor."
"We are expecting visitors?" Helen asked in some alarm.
"Oh, Helen," Melissa said with a giggle, "you know we are expecting Mr. Mainwaring this afternoon. We have talked of little else for several days. And you know you are as interested as we are in discovering if he is young and handsome."
"Mr. Mainwaring?" said Helen, frowning slightly. "Is he the owner of Graystone who has recently arrived?"
"I declare, Helen," Emily said coldly, rising from her chair and crossing the room to her sister, "you live entirely in a world of your own. I think you have been indulged far too long. A child who daydreams can seem to be a sweet creature, but when you are approaching twenty years of age, it is time you learned to accept your social responsibilities."
"I am sorry, Emmy," Helen said, "but no one told me about Mr. Mainwaring. I do not wish to meet him, though. He has come from London, has he not? I would expect him to be very different from us and difficult to talk to."
Emily tutted and then put her hands on her hips as she looked down at her sister's embroidery. "Really, Helen!" she exclaimed. "Look at this, Mama. Helen is not following the pattern at all. She is supposed to be stitching dainty anemones, and instead she has embroidered a huge dandelion. A dandelion! How ridiculous you are. You will have to unpick the work, you know."
"Dandelions are the prettiest flowers I know," Helen said evenly, apparently undisturbed by her sister's outburst. "They are like the sun. It is their ugly leaves and stems that make people dislike them. I am tired of creating pretty, dainty things."
"There is no time for one of your arguments now," the countess said impatiently. "You must go upstairs immediately, child, and get ready. Mr. Mainwaring will be here within the hour."
"I will do as I am, Mama," Helen said, putting aside her embroidery and smoothing her skirt over her knees. "My dress is clean."
"You will not do at all, child," her mother said firmly. "Your new muslin will suit very nicely. And I shall send Matty up to try to do something with your hair." She sighed. "Why is it that it will hold into no style, Helen? No matter how carefully it is curled and confined with pins, a half-hour later you have a halo of fine hairs standing all around your head. I am sure you do not take after me."
"It really does not matter, Mama," Helen said placidly. "I am not intending to ensnare Mr. Mainwaring, you know."
"Your trouble is that you have forgotten that you are almost twenty years of age already," Emily said. "We must all be looking for husbands at every opportunity, Helen. It is our duty, you know."
The countess clapped her hands. "Helen, move!" she said. "And remember-it is to be the muslin."
"Yes, Mama," Helen said.
But when she was in her room, Helen did not immediately change her clothes. She wandered to the window and looked up at the sky. The clouds were low and heavy. They promised rain later. It looked like a chilly day for summer. Even so, the outdoors looked inviting. She gazed out across her father's fields to the east, to the large grove of trees that was just across the boundary from their land, on the land belonging to Mr. Mainwaring.
She had not been to her private place there for three whole days, and she was beginning to chafe against the restrictions of home. She knew that Emily was right. She was a grown woman now, and she should be taking an interest in the activities of womanhood. She should be interested in her appearance and in visiting and attending all the social activities that rural living could offer. She should be interested in finding an eligible husband. She should be joining wholeheartedly in the feminine chatter of her mother and her two older sisters. But, oh, she could not.
Her own world, the one she had built up through the years of her girlhood, was still far more attractive to her than she could imagine the real world ever being. Reading and painting and writing could still inspire her with more passion than the prospect of a new gown or a ball. And sitting and gazing at nature around her was infinitely more exciting than sitting in the drawing room listening to the polite conversation of her family and the current visitors. She found it all painfully boring and unsatisfying. If matters were left to her, they would never either visit or entertain.
She hated the prospect of having to sit through a visit by Mr. Mainwaring that afternoon. He was the owner of Graystone, the neighboring estate, and had been for some years, but he had never been there before. Now he had arrived from London and was being made much of by everyone within a ten-mile radius. She had no right to judge someone she had never met, of course, but she had taken a strong dislike to the man. He doubtless thought a great deal of himself. She could almost picture him looking down the length of an aristocratic nose at all the rustics in this out-of-the-way corner of Yorkshire. If he was from London, he was probably a dandy and a man of frivolous tastes. She seemed to remember Papa saying that he was a fashionable man.
She knew what the visit would be like. Papa would be there, but he would not say much. He never did. Papa had really only two topics of conversation: horses and hunting. If it happened that Mr. Mainwaring had little interest in these, then Papa would have nothing at all to say. The conversation would be left to Mama and the girls. Mama would be slyly hinting at the various accomplishments of her daughters-she was bound to have Emily sing for the visitor. And Emily would be more than usually dignified, trying to impress the man with her breeding and maturity. And Melissa would be silly, and would use wiles to try to draw compliments from the unsuspecting visitor.
Helen had seen it all before. She loved them all, of course. They were her family. But she had never been able to understand why they could not behave naturally in the presence of gentlemen. Why must every single man be seen as a matrimonial prospect? Was there nothing more in life for a woman than to find a husband? It seemed that she was the odd one, though, to imagine that there must be something else. Mama and the girls appeared to accept the necessity of matrimony without question, and so did all the other girls and mamas of Helen's acquaintance.
She turned sharply as the door to her room opened.
"Oh, Matty," she said. "I am not ready to have my hair done yet. I shall ring when I need you."
The girl curtsied and left the room again.
Helen still stared at the closed door. She could not face that visit. She could not get herself all dressed up like a sacrificial offering and be polite all afternoon to a man she was sure to despise. She could not. She turned her head to glance again in the direction of that beckoning grove of trees and up to the sky, which was still holding its rain. Then she rushed over to her closet and dragged out her moss-green velvet riding habit and her black leather boots.
They would scold all evening, she told herself as she changed quickly into the chosen garments. Mama would talk about duty, and Papa would threaten to lock her in her room without supper. Emily would remind her that at her age she should have a stronger sense of family duty. But she would prefer all that to an afternoon of confinement with Mr. Mainwaring. Even the name she disliked. He sounded stuffy.
She picked up her riding whip from a corner of the closet and let herself quietly out of the room. A quick glance to left and right assured her that there was no one in sight. She ran lightly to the servants' staircase at the back of the house and quickly down to the back entrance. A few minutes later, Helen was emerging from the stables, seated sidesaddle on her horse. She took him around behind the house and headed for the fields to the east. She did not look back as she spurred the horse to a gallop. She would think of the scolding later.
* * *
William Mainwaring saw Helen go as he rode slowly up the driveway to the Earl of Claymore's home. She was certainly able to handle her horse well, whoever she was, he thought. For one envious moment he wished he could join her or at least gallop away on his own flight to freedom. But he was bound to make this visit, the first of many. His neighbors had been attentive in the five days since his arrival at Graystone and he appreciated their kindness. It was not their fault that he was of a reserved, unsociable nature.
Even so, Mainwaring drew his horse to a stop and gazed at the figure in green as she galloped across a field to the east. Melissa was destined to be pleased by his appearance. He was a good-looking man, tall and straight in the saddle, his hair dark and quite long beneath his hat, his face thin and almost austere in expression, yet handsome for all that.
It was strange really, he supposed, that he had been surprised by everyone's attentiveness. He should have learned a year before that a new arrival in a neighborhood was bound to arouse interest and speculation among the families for miles around. It was the home of his childhood and younger manhood that had been the strange one. He had grown up in the Scottish home of his maternal grandfather with almost only the old man and a rather crusty elderly housekeeper for company. They had had virtually no contact with their neighbors and had participated in no social activities. Even when they had gone to church on Sundays they had never lingered to talk with other members of the congregation.
Nothing had changed even when his grandfather had died. He had been one-and-twenty at the time, and he had spent eight more years there, almost totally alone. He had been so used to it, he supposed, that his youth was gone before he had begun to wonder what the outside world had to offer. He was a wealthy man, both as his grandfather's heir and in his own right. He had properties both in the north and in the south of England. He really should visit both.
But first he had gone to London and had lived there for a few weeks in something like shock. He really had not known how to take his rightful place in society. He had found it very difficult to converse with people or to relax and be at his ease. Had he not struck up a conversation with Robert Denning, Marquess of Hetherington, at White's one rainy afternoon, he might well have returned to Scotland and become as much of a hermit as his grandfather had been. Hetherington was his opposite in personality. He was as sunny-natured and as gregarious as Mainwaring was reserved and antisocial. Yet for some reason they had become immediate and fast friends.
Hetherington had gone with him to his southern property, Ferndale, along with a few other acquaintances with whom he had learned to be comfortable. And there he had had his first experience of the kind of welcome a new member of a community could expect to receive. He and his houseguests had become involved in a constant round of activities. Invitations had been endless. And he had enjoyed it all, surprising himself with the sense of belonging that he had felt almost from the beginning.
He might have settled there at Ferndale had it not been for that unhappy experience with Elizabeth. She had been a paid companion at the time, but he had been instantly attracted to her quiet charm and tranquil manner. It was only when he was already in love with her, he was sure, that he had realized just how beautiful she was too. It was only then, too, that he had discovered that by some bizarre twist of fate she was the estranged wife of his friend Hetherington. It still seemed impossible, even now, to believe that such a thing could actually have happened.
In his innocence he had not recognized the fact that love still existed between those two. Although Elizabeth had told him that she still loved her husband, he had tried to persuade her to let Robert divorce her so that she might marry him. Hetherington was no longer at Ferndale at the time. And she had agreed, though he realized now that her acquiescence had been a muddled and unhappy one. So, like a knight crusader, he had ridden off to ask Hetherington for the simple matter of a divorce for his wife.
Mainwaring took one hand from the reins of his horse and ran it along his jaw. He could almost feel that first unexpected punch that Hetherington had thrown in the middle of the drawing room of Hetherington Manor. They had fought doggedly and silently for several minutes before the butler and Robert's secretary had rushed into the room to pull them apart. Hetherington's voice had been cold and expressionless afterward when they were straightening their clothes and wiping blood from mouths and noses.
"Elizabeth is my wife and will remain so, Mainwaring," he had said. "You had best forget her. I will not tolerate your touching her, and if I find that you have already done so, I shall kill you, my friend."
Mainwaring had left without another word, and he had seen neither one of them since. It was not that he was afraid of Hetherington's threats. Rather, he was a man of high principle. If his erstwhile friend chose to claim his wife, he had every right to do so. Mainwaring himself must not interfere.
He had never been back to Ferndale. He had spent the winter and the spring in London, though he had not involved himself to any large extent in the social life there. He had tried to adjust himself to the first real setback that life had offered him. He had never loved before. Indeed, he had had almost nothing to do with women before. Consequently, when he had fallen in love, he had fallen hard. And he had found that it was impossible to forget Elizabeth. He would love her all his life. No other woman could possibly mean anything to him.
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.
“A ladies' 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!"
"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, Mainwaring 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.
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.
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 fail 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 wasl 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.
"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.
"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.
She must have indulgent parents if she was allowed to escape the day's chores without punishment. Perhaps, though, she thought the punishment an acceptable exchange for a few hours of freedom. In fact, maybe it was not parents she was escaping. Perhaps it was a husband. He did not think she was as young as he had at first thought her. She did not seem married, though.
Helen was still sitting on the bank of the stream, hugging her knees. She was no longer studying the water. She was gazing across at the trees on the opposite bank. The man was not at all as she had expected. He certainly looked every inch the proper gentleman, and his face in repose was severe. But there was warmth and humor in him, and an understanding of what depths were in nature for those who cared to observe. She liked him. Yes, she thought, her eyes widening in surprise, she liked Mr. Mainwaring. She could never remember liking any man before, and precious few women.
But what a coil! She had deliberately deceived him into thinking she was a village wench. She had talked with that accent all through their conversation and she had not contradicted the suggestions he had made about what she should be doing that afternoon. Her appearance, of course, would have completely deceived him. The dress, her loose, tangled hair, her feet and legs bare to above the ankles-none of them would betray her true status.
What was she to do when he discovered her real identity? What an embarrassment it would be! Would he look at her with amusement as he had done a few times that afternoon? Or would it be with disgust that a lady could have appeared and acted as she had done? Either way, it was going to be hard to face him. That evening! Of course, he was to dine with them that evening. Helen groaned and put her forehead down onto her raised knees. She couldn't. She just couldn't face him, least of all with Mama and Papa and her sisters looking on. Why, oh why, had she not simply revealed her identity immediately?
The afternoon was clearly ruined, she thought, getting to her feet and crossing with lagging footsteps to the old hut. Her hut. Her precious gift! A slow smile lit up her face. She was going to have to think of some course of action, and fast.
It was five days later before Helen was able to return to her private place in the woods, the longest absence she could remember since she had started to go there two years before. It seemed that everything conspired against her.
First of all, she had to play sick for the whole of a glorious midsummer day. She had feigned a headache on the night when Mr. Mainwaring had been invited to dinner, and Helen never had headaches. She had finally convinced the whole family after wandering around the house frowning and clutching her temples for more than an hour and had been packed off to bed with lavender water and vinaigrette, warm milk, and a hot brick for her feet. Mama herself had come to bathe her temples with the lavender water.
"Poor child," she had said. "I do hope you are not going to become a martyr to the migraines as Emily and I are. You lie there and do not worry about a thing. I shall make your excuses to our guests. It is provoking that yet again you will miss Mr. Mainwaring, though. Such a gentlemanly man, and just the person for one of you girls. Of course, I believe he already favors Melissa, but he has not yet met you, child, and you can be quite prettily behaved when you set your mind to it."
Helen moaned and her mother leaned over her and kissed her forehead. "There, there," she said soothingly, "you go to sleep now, child."
Helen had felt very guilty after her mother had left. Mama did not often treat her with such gentleness. It seemed unfair to have won sympathy through a deception. She had sat up in bed and clasped her knees. It was all very pointless anyway, this feigned illness. She would not be able to avoid meeting Mr. Mainwaring forever. Sooner or later he would know that Lady Helen Wade ran around in the woods in rags that barely covered her decently and spent her time doing undignified things like lying on her stomach by a stream, bare legs waving in the air.
Perhaps it would have been easier to have dressed for dinner and met him after all. She could have put on her very best chilly manner, the one she used with that horrid Oswald Pyke, who fancied himself such a ladies' man. Mr. Mainwaring would not dare look at her with contempt if she treated him so. Helen had sighed. Truth to tell, it was not so much the embarrassment of having her identity revealed to Mr. Mainwaring that bothered her. It was more the ending of an intriguing situation that she could not bear to see. She wanted to meet him again in the woods, just to see if her first impression of him was correct. She did not know that he would come ever again, of course, but she was almost sure he would.
Mama insisted on fussing over her all of the next day, too, the day when the weather was so glorious. And she could not even read a book or write in the journal where she kept copious notes on all her thoughts and feelings. Melissa kept tiptoeing into the room and gazing solicitously at her, and asking in a stage whisper if there were anything she could do. It was all very touching and preyed heavily on her conscience.
And then for two whole days it had rained, the sort of fine misty rain that soaked one's clothes and one's hair and seemed to get right through to one's skin and even under the skin. It was the sort of weather in which it was impossible to remain cheerful.
Helen had shut herself into the music room for much of the first day and hammered out a tune on the piano. She knew the piece without the music. She always learned by heart the music that she liked, so that she could then close her eyes to play and learn to feel the melody. She was not content to sit back and listen to the music she produced. She wanted to be inside it. The result was not necessarily what the composer had had in mind when he wrote, but it was marginally satisfying to Helen. Not totally satisfying. She was never quite sure that she was there inside the music. But then, she was not certain that she wanted to be. Perhaps it would lose its fascination if she ever felt that she understood it completely.
That activity was stopped abruptly when her mother appeared in the room and suggested very gently that such violent playing would only bring about a recurrence of her headache. Helen had no choice but to meekly agree.
Sunday came finally and it was necessary to go to church. Helen always looked forward to the outing. She was not at all interested in the bonnet parade, which seemed to be the chief interest of most of the female part of the congregation, or in the game of attracting more admiring male glances than any other young lady present. Helen loved the building and the ritual of the service.
The church was ridiculously large for such a small village. It was never more than one-third full, though everyone within a five-mile radius came on Sunday mornings, come rain or shine. But to Helen its very size was its attraction. It was a cold stone building, uncomfortably cool even in the height of summer. Its Gothic doorway and stained-glass windows, its high arched ceiling all reached toward heaven. She loved to see the vicar in his vestments. Dull, ordinary Vicar Brayley became in church a figure of great dignity, and his voice, hesitant and monotonous during conversation, took on power and authority when he read from the Bible or chanted a psalm.
On this particular Sunday she was not so eager to go. Mr. Mainwaring was bound to be there. He would see her, and her humiliation would be very public. Miraculously, though, he did not see her, not to recognize, anyway. She wore her bonnet that had lace piled on the crown and she pulled the lace down over her face when they went into the church. He was indeed there but sat at some distance from the earl's family. After the service was over, Helen made an undignified bolt for her father's carriage while the rest of the congregation stood around in groups for fully twenty minutes.
"I was afraid that the sunshine would bring back my headache," she explained feebly when the rest of her family joined her.
"And what on earth were you doing with the lace from your bonnet all down around your face?" Emily asked. "You did look a fright, Helen. You looked as if you were in deep mourning, except that the hat is blue and not black. I was quite mortified to be seen sitting in the same pew as you."
"Mr. Mainwaring must think you quite a freak," Melissa added. "You ran away like a frightened rabbit, Helen. You will have us all thinking that you are afraid to meet the man for some reason." She turned to her older sister. "Mr. Mainwaring has offered to take me driving this afternoon, Emmy."
Helen wished suddenly that she had walked home instead of waiting twenty minutes in a stifling carriage.
And so it was Monday afternoon before Helen finally managed to escape to the woods again'. She changed into her cotton dress, loosened her hair, kicked off her shoes, and pulled off her stockings. She wanted to read; she wanted to write; she wanted to paint. But she would do none of these things. If Mr. Mainwaring came, he would know immediately that she was no village wench if she had a book or a brush in her hand. And she wanted him to come. She had tried to tell herself all morning that she wished to come here merely so that she could be alone and free from the fetters of her life again. But she wanted to see him.
She paced the bank of the stream, dangled her feet in the water, twirled around the trunk of a tree, and finally climbed the branches of the old oak tree, which had been created for that purpose. She wedged herself high up, her back against the sturdy trunk, her knees drawn up, and her feet resting on a branch. She watched and watched for him. And finally she looked up and became absorbed in the pattern the branches and the leaves made against the sky, and in the changing face of the wide blue expanse above her as wisps of cloud scudded across it.
It had not been an easy week for William Mainwaring. He had read and reread the letter from Hetherington, feeling alternately comforted that they still wished to be his friends, and yet hurt to know that they were apparently happy together, that they were expecting a child. The child had probably been born already, in fact. In some ways it might have been better never to have known how their marriage was progressing. He had to feel happy for Elizabeth. After all, he loved her, and love could never be a wholly selfish emotion. And he had known even when he planned to marry her himself that she loved Robert. He was glad for her that her story had had a happy ending at last. But his own pain was not therefore lessened.
He loved her still. The longing only became stronger with time, in fact. He dreamed frequently of what it would be like now to live at Graystone with Elizabeth as his wife. With her perhaps he could enjoy the social life of the neighborhood, which he was finding something.of an ordeal. There were several families here that he could like if only he had her with him to please them with her warm charm and her never-failing ability to converse with even the dullest person.
He had finally written back two days after receiving the letter. It was a reply that accepted unconditionally the renewed offer of friendship and that accepted a full measure of blame for the unpleasantness that had happened in the past. He congratulated them on the expected birth. But the letter was noncommittal about their invitation. He could not yet contemplate the thought of seeing them, of knowing beyond a doubt that he was nothing more than a friend to the Marchioness of Hetherington.
Mainwaring made an effort to appear agreeable to his neighbors, most of whom had devised some entertainment for his benefit. He had even forced himself to invite Lady Melissa Wade to go driving with him after church on Sunday. It was true that he had been almost maneuvered into doing so when she had answered with alacrity the question he had put to her father about the best direction to take if one wanted to see some attractive countryside. But even so, he did not try to avoid the excursion. He must somehow force himself to live on, he supposed, and the girl at least was willing to do most of the talking with only the occasional prompting from him.
He had still not met the youngest of the earl's daughters. It seemed almost as if she were avoiding him, though he could not imagine why she would do so. A few of his new acquaintances, though, had hinted that the girl was "strange," something of an eccentric. If only she knew how little she had to fear from him.
Always through the week his thoughts came back to the little wood nymph. After a few days it was difficult even to believe that she had been real. How delightful it must be to belong to the lower classes, with nothing to worry about but the day's chores. The girl had seemed so free from care. He constantly felt himself resisting the urge to go back to the woods to see if she was there, and to see if his first impression would remain. Perhaps if he saw her again, she would appear merely dull or vulgar.
He did not wish to go. It would not do to become involved in any way with a girl of a different class. Mainwaring had always frowned heavily on those men – and there were many-who felt that women of a lower class were theirs for the taking, that virtue counted for nothing if the female were not a lady. He had never been able to bring himself to use even a dancer or a prostitute. He could see them too clearly as women, persons, who at some time had been down on their luck and forced to sell the only commodity that was wholly theirs. His little wood nymph should be left alone to enjoy whatever solitary pleasures she gained from her "special place," as she had called it.
Yet he found that by the Monday he could no longer stay away. He needed to be alone, he told himself. It was a beautiful day and a walk would do him good. She would probably not be there anyway. After all, it could not be easy for a girl to get away from home in the middle of the day. But it was a pretty place, her spot by the stream. He would go and see it again.
At first he thought that she was not there. There was no one today leaning over the stream studying the colors and movement of the water. He tried to convince himself that he was not at all disappointed. And then he saw her, perched high up in an oak tree, apparently perfectly relaxed, not clinging for safety by so much as a single hand. She was gazing upward, quite unaware of his presence.
William Mainwaring smiled with genuine amusement. He had to quell the desire to laugh outright.
"Hello, wood nymph," he called. "Are you learning sky today, or is it branches?"
She looked down. "You are mocking me," she said. "If you were up here, you would see that the clouds are moving fast across the sky, but it is not windy here. Is not that extraordinary? Do you imagine there is a gale blowing up there?"
"I can only be thankful that there is no gale down here," he said. "You would be blown out of the tree like a leaf in autumn."
"Nonsense," she replied. "I am perfectly safe. I have climbed this tree a thousand times or more."
"Wood nymph!" he said. His voice was almost a caress. "Would you please humor a poor earth-bound mortal and come down from there?"
He marveled at how surefooted she was as she descended quickly. She must be very used to walking in bare feet, he thought, if she did not hurt them against the bark of the tree. He held up his arms when she reached the lowest branch.
"Let me help you," he said.
"I have jumped it safely a thousand times," she replied, but she put her hands on his shoulders and allowed him to swing her to the ground.
She looked delightfully wild, he thought, with her large, rather dreamy gray eyes and tangled tawny hair and with her faded shabby dress that ended a full inch above her bare ankles. He reached out to take a leaf from her hair.
"Am I disturbing you, Nell?" he asked. "Would you prefer it if I went away again?"
"That seems a strange question to ask when I am the one trespassing on your land," she said, her voice a little breathless. "But no. Come and sit on the bank. I need to wash my feet in the stream."
He watched her settle herself on the grass and dangle her feet over the edge after hitching her skirts almost to the knees. He smiled, crossed to her side, and sat down. She was really very beautiful in her own way. Untamed beauty. He hated to think of anyone trying to force her to be a conventional barmaid or scullery maid or whatever other occupation must be open to her. He hated to think of her drudging over household tasks. She should always be free. The thought passed unbidden into his mind that he had it in his power to free her. He could set her up in comfort if he wished so that she would always be free from any chance of a life of drudgery. He quelled the thought.
"Do you know any poetry, Nell?" he asked.
"Poetry, sir?" she asked, looking across at him wide-eyed.
"Probably not," he said, answering his own question. "I must bring some books and read to you. You would like the works of some of the new poets, I believe."
"Why?" she asked.
"I think some of them share your complete absorption with nature," he said. "William Wordsworth, for example. He believes, you know, that there is a spirit behind all of nature. A tree is not just something pretty to look at. It somehow has a spiritual force." He laughed. "You probably do not know what I am talking about, do you?"
"Oh yes, I do!" Helen said eagerly. "Yes, I do, and that is exactly how I feel. Do you too?"
William Mainwaring smiled again into the bright face so close to his. "I admire his poetry and read it quite frequently," he said. "But I must confess that I have not given a great deal of serious thought to his philosophy. But then I have never known the man. I do know you, wood nymph, and I believe your passion might be infectious."
He had not meant it quite the way it sounded when it came out of his mouth. The girl looked intently at him. Her cheeks flushed and her lips parted, but there was nothing coquettish in her manner. Perhaps it was his realization of that fact that made her so irresistible. Mainwaring leaned forward before he had any conception of what he was about to do and kissed her.
He lifted his head almost immediately. She had offered no resistance. Her lips had been warm and soft beneath his. Those rather dreamy eyes of hers were still looking into his.
"I wanted you to do that," she said unexpectedly, and she leaned imperceptibly toward him.
This time he put an arm around her shoulders and turned her to him before kissing her. And he could feel the blood pounding against his temples as her breasts came against his coat and her lips parted beneath his. He threaded his free hand through the loose tangles of her hair and tentatively explored her lips with his tongue. The soft warmth drew him in and soon he was reaching into her opened mouth, touching her tongue with his, stroking the roof of her mouth until she shivered against him. He kissed her closed eyes, her chin, her throat, and finally, her mouth again.
A village girl. Just a poor village girl. What was he doing taking advantage of such innocence? He put her head against his shoulder and held it there while he looked up into the branches of the trees, trying to impose sanity on his mind. Had he completely taken leave of his senses? He had never before allowed himself to be carried away by sheer desire. He had never had a woman. He had kissed only one other. He closed his eyes tightly. Elizabeth! How could he sully his love for her with these feelings of mere desire for a young girl with whom he could have nothing in common beyond a fondness for a wood and a stream?
William Mainwaring put the girl gently away from him and smiled at her. "I should not have done that," he said. "I am sorry, Nell. I do not wish to frighten you into believing that you are no longer safe here. I assure you that it will not happen again."
She gazed seriously back at him. "I am not sorry," she said, "and I am not frightened. Are you going to leave now?"
"Yes," he said, "I think I had better go."
"Will you come again?" she asked. "Will you read me those poems?"
He had stood up. But he stooped down now and put a strand of hair behind her ear. "Yes, wood nymph," he said softly. "I shall come and read to you. There is a whole world of which you must be unaware that I would wish opened to you."
He smiled at her and drew his thumb lightly over her lips before straightening up again and turning to stride away through the trees and quickly out of her sight.
Helen did not immediately leave. She noticed, in something of a daze, that one of her feet was still dangling in the water. She pulled it out and tucked both feet under the hem of her dress, not bothering to dry the wet one first. What a coil she was in! In the past half-hour she had broken just about every rule that should guide her actions as a lady. The first meeting with Mr. Mainwaring could be discounted. She had not expected him then. She could not be expected to feel any guilt about talking to him on that occasion. Mere civility had demanded it, even if not the deception. But this time!
She admitted to herself quite freely that the hope of a meeting with him was what had really brought her there. And she had deliberately invited closeness. She could have stayed in the tree and talked to him from that safe distance. But no. She had descended as fast as her legs would carry her as soon as he had suggested it, and she had invited him to come and sit with her on the bank. She had used feminine wiles that she had not known she possessed. It was most improper to sit on the bank of a stream in the midst of a dense wood with a gentleman, unchaperoned.
And that was not all. She had felt the spark of something between them when he had said that he might learn her passion for nature. She had known he was going to kiss her for a full second before she had felt his mouth on hers. And she had done nothing to avert the peril as she could quite easily have done by laughing or breaking eye contact with him or doing any of a hundred and one little things that would have broken the tension of the moment. If she were a lady, she would have done one of those things. And she would have been walking away from there just as fast as her legs would carry her.
Truth was, she had wanted him to kiss her. What a shocking admission! They had not even been formally introduced. And even if she could be excused for that first kiss, about which she had had only a second's warning, there was no excuse at all for the kiss that followed. She even had the uncomfortable feeling that she had invited it. The first one had not been enough, a mere brushing of lips. But the second! She did not know by what instinct she had parted her lips, but she could feel now the intimacy of his open mouth against hers and of his tongue touching her own. She could feel her breasts pressed against the hardness of his chest.
And she had reveled in the feelings. She should have been deeply shocked. She should, in fact, have swooned quite away at having done something she should not even have dreamed of doing outside the marriage bed. But the only fact that made Helen feel guilty was that she did not feel ashamed. The day was brighter for the embrace. She was the happier for it. She lifted her head and gazed at the sky, where the same powerful gale was blowing wisps of white across its surface. She wished she were up there so that she could feel the wind in her hair and on her hot cheeks.
She wondered if she was falling in love. Helen believed very strongly in love. She had always thought it must be the most glorious and sublime feeling of which one could be capable. But she had never expected it to be part of her experience. She had never felt even a mild liking for any of the men she had met since she left the schoolroom. But this could not be love. It had come too suddenly. She hardly knew the man. He I probably be quite different if he knew her real identity. He would then surely be as prosy and as starchy as all the other gentlemen of her acquaintance.
Helen's face suddenly felt hotter than ever. Of course, soon he was bound to find out. There was no way she could escape indefinitely meeting him in public. There was a ball at Lord Graham's house the very next night, and she was bound to meet him there. The ball was being given largely in honor of his arrival in the neighborhood. How would she be able to face him? What would his reaction be when he knew that the girl he had teased and kissed in the woods was really Lady Helen Wade? He would probably feel obliged to do something stupid like offer for her. And how mortifying it would be to receive an offer of marriage for such a reason. Especially when one was beginning to imagine oneself in love with the man.
Helen frowned and rested her chin on her raised knees. Was Mr. Mainwaring a rake? she wondered. Was he out to take her virtue just because he believed her a village wench, someone who did not count? She would hate to think so. Undoubtedly, though, he would not have behaved so had he known that she was a lady. But then, she had behaved so, had she not, knowing that she was a lady? The problem was just too complicated. Anyway, if the man were a rake, he would not have been contented with the kiss they had shared. And he was the one who had ended it. Helen did not like to examine the question of when she would have put an end to the encounter.
Of one thing she was sure. She wanted to see him again before the inevitable exposure of her identity the following evening. She should not, of course. She should not play with fire. But he was going to read her the poems of Mr. Wordsworth. She smiled guiltily and glanced in the direction of the hut. She could have produced her own copy of Lyrical Ballads and read to him. Would he not have been surprisedl
Looking at the hut made her consider another problem. What if she returned tomorrow to find that he was already here? Either he would see her in her everyday clothes and know the truth, or she would have to steal away and miss the chance of a meeting with him. There was only one solution. She would have to take the dress with her and hide it somewhere else so that she would be wearing it already when she arrived.
Ten minutes later Lady Helen Wade emerged from the hut wearing the same riding outfit as she had worn on the previous occasion. She carried the faded cotton dress over her arm. She gazed lingeringly in the direction of the riverbank before walking away toward the western edge of the wood, where she had tethered her horse.
“Mr.Mainwaring has asked me for the first set this evening," Melissa announced with studied casualness at the breakfast table the next morning.
"I think it only right and proper that he should," her mother replied. "He has singled you out quite markedly, my love, and I think everyone would expect that be will show you deference tonight."
"He has also suggested that we ride together one morning," Melissa continued, "but I told him that I would have to consult Papa."
"Young puppy would probably fall off at the first fence," the earl grumbled into his beefsteak. "Or else he would ride an extra two miles to avoid the fence. Ride with him, Melly, if you must. You will be as safe with him as with a nursemaid."
'"It would not surprise me in the least if he were to declare himself before the week is out," the countess said. "It would be a splendid match for you, my love, for all that he is only a mister. He must be worth twenty thousand a year if he's worth a penny."
“More, I shouldn't wonder," said the earl. "The fella owns half of England and Scotland."
"I think you exaggerate somewhat, my love," his wife suggested. "But really, Melissa, it would be a grcat triumph to have a daughter married to a man of such consequence. Now, if only we could find someone equally distinguished for dear Emily."
“I am not at all in a hurry to fix my choice, Mama," that young lady was hasty to add. "I have not yet met the man I consider worthy of my esteem. I would think it somewhat vulgar to snatch the first presentable man to appear in the district since we emerged from the schoolroom."
"Quite right too, my love," her mother agreed, not appearing to notice the slur that had been cast on her younger daughter. "And then, of course, there is Helen. I really do not know what we are to do with her." She gazed hopelessly and fondly at her youngest, who had sat silently through the preceding conversation.
"You need not worry about me, Mama," she said now. "I shall stay a spinster and remain with you and Papa."
"Yes, but you see, child," her mother said quite seriously, "you will never be a comfort to my old age if you continue to play the pianoforte as if it were your mortal enemy and work your embroidery as if it called for your undivided attention and wander, off whenever your presence is most called for."
Helen lowered her eyes and crossed to the sideboard for more coffee.
It was going to be the most awful day in her life, Helen reflected somewhat later as she wandered to the stables to watch the grooms brush down the horses and clean their stalls. This evening she was going to have to bear the introduction to Mr. Mainwaring. That was bad enough. But through a restless night she had reconciled herself to its inevitability. If she could only meet him once more during the afternoon, before he knew the truth, she would be satisfied. If only he would kiss her again… But she did not dwell on the thought. Just to see him and talk to him would be enough, and to hear him, perhaps, read to her some of Mr. Wordsworth's poetry.
But now to have found out that he had promised. Melly the first dance and had already asked her if she would ride with him one morning! And he had taken her driving the Sunday before. Was he developing a tendre for Melly? Was Mama right, and they might expect a betrothal between Mr. Mainwaring and her sister in the near future? Somehow the thought made her feel slightly sick. She wandered over to her own horse, which had been led out of its stall. She patted its nose and buried her face briefly against its mane.
Of course, it was all very possible. He knew her only as a rather ragged girl. He had talked with her twice, kissed her once. It was ridiculous to dream that perhaps his thoughts were centered as much on her as hers were on him. If he did think of her, it was probably with some amusement and perhaps with some interest in carrying on a mild flirtation. A man of his class just did not lose his heart to a lower-class girl. And a man of his class would see no dishonor in flirting with a servant girl, or even in having an affair with her, while conducting a serious courtship of a lady who was his social equal. There was nothing especially inconsistent in Mr. Mainwaring's behavior.
But there was something upsetting about it. She so wanted him to be perfect. Helen had long ago lost faith in the people of her class, both male and female. But he had seemed different. Despite the fact that he looked stern and almost morose at times, she had seen humor, kindliness, and intelligence in him. She had dreamed that he was like her, dissatisfied with the rigidity of the code of behavior by which they were expected to live, eager to find out some of the deeper meanings of life that must be hidden behind the superficiality. And, of course, she liked to believe that the man to whom she was so strongly drawn physically was worthy of her regard.
Helen dreaded now to find that he was really no different from any other man. It would be almost impossible, of course, for him to fall in love with the girl he thought she was. But sometimes it was pleasant to dream that the impossible could happen. Now the afternoon had been somewhat spoiled for her. She did not know whether she still wanted to see him. It would be painful to discover that perhaps her suspicions were true, and that he was interested only in the rather interesting physical relationship that had budded the day before.
Yet she knew that she had to go. Tonight he would know the truth. For the rest of her life, long after he was married to Melly, perhaps, she would wonder what would have happened had she gone to meet him. It was altogether possible, of course, even probable, that he would not come. He must have a great many social commitments with which to fill his afternoons. She would go and consider herself fortunate if he did not appear.
William Mainwaring was in a similar quandary for different reasons. He had suffered a half-hour of guilt and remorse as he had walked home across the fields the afternoon before. He should not have gone to see her. Meeting a young girl alone in the woods was a potentially dangerous situation under any circumstances. In his case it was perhaps doubly so. He was unhappy; for almost a year he had been separated from the woman he loved and would never possess, and he had recently been reminded very forcefully of the fact. He was lonely and felt more so among these strangers who would not leave him to his own solitude.
She had come almost like a gift from heaven, his little wood nymph. A gift from the devil, more like! She was beautiful and she was very unusual and he wanted her more than he had imagined he would ever want a woman after Elizabeth. He had wanted very much earlier to lay her down on the bank and to lift her skirts and bury all his hurts inside her. He could only imagine what it would be like. He had lived an almost totally womanless existence despite his one-and-thirty years. But he had wanted Nell, had been closer than he cared to think to giving in to the temptation. And he did not think that she would have resisted. That fact alone scared him. The responsibility, the decision, was entirely his.
He could not do that to her. She was probably an innocent. He would have all the responsibility of having taken her virginity if he gave in to his desires, and would perhaps ruin forever her chances of making a contented marriage. If he felt an honest affection for the girl, perhaps there would be some excuse for him. But how could he offer any woman even the smallest part of his heart when it all belonged entirely and forever to Elizabeth? He would be using the girl purely to soothe his physical frustrations. Somehow he felt that Nell deserved better than that. For all that she was a poor and uneducated girl, she had feelings as he or anyone else had and she deserved to be loved by the man who would possess her first.
By the time he reached home after his encounter with Helen, Mainwaring had decided that he must go no more to the woods. He must not see the girl again. He must make a more determined effort to mix with his neighbors, to keep himself occupied so that he would not have the time either to brood about his lost love or to think with lust about Nell. In an effort to put his resolve into immediate effect, he had stridden to the stables, saddled his horse himself, and ridden into the village to return a book that the vicar had loaned him the previous week.
It was while he was riding down the village street that he had met the two elder daughters of the Earl of Claymore. He had raised his hat, made his bow, and prepared to ride on. But Lady Melissa Wade had stopped with the obvious intention of conversing with him, while the other girl had bowed rather haughtily and passed into the milliner's shop behind her. Lady Melissa had asked him if he was to attend Lord Graham's ball the following evening. Her intention had been obvious. She must have known very well that he would be there.
Nevertheless, Mainwaring had fallen into the trap almost willingly. If he must forget the past, and if he must resist the temptation presented by the little wench, then what better way was there to do both than to attach himself to another lady? He must only be careful not to so single her out as to feel himself honor-bound to offer for her.
"May I hope that you will reserve the first set for me, Lady Melissa?" he had asked, smiling down at her. "Or am I too late and your card is filled already?"
She had tittered. "Really, sir," she had said, "you are not in London now. We do not generally choose partners before the ball begins, you know. But I should be delighted to reserve the set for you. What a delightful horse you have, Mr. Mainwaring. He is very obedient despite his great size and strength."
"We have been a long way together," he had said, patting his horse's flank.
"Indeed?" she had said. "I was under the impression, sir, that you did not have much love of horses. Riding is one of my greatest pleasures. I insist on exercising my horse myself each morning, no matter what the weather."
"Perhaps we could ride together one morning," he had suggested politely.
"Oh," she had said, raising surprised eyes to his, "what a perfectly splendid idea. I would have to ask Papa if I may, of course. But I think he will agree, provided I take a groom with me."
"Until tomorrow evening, then," he had said, raising his hat and bowing to her again before riding off to the vicar's house with the grim satisfaction of having done the right thing to try to set his life in order.
That had been the day before. But somehow matters did not appear so simple in the light of morning. It was a particularly beautiful day. He had no commitments until the evening. And when he went into his library to select a book to read on the terrace outside, he took down, without conscious choice, his, copy of Lyrical Ballads. The volume opened on its own to a much-loved poem-one about Lucy. And he smiled as he read about her:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
– Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.
William Mainwaring looked up and smiled. The poet might almost have been describing his wood nymph. Nell. And she would be waiting for him that afternoon perhaps, wondering if he would keep his promise to read her some of these poems. There was something of a poet in her, something of an artist, he felt sure. If only she could have had the benefit of an education, she probably would have been a very interesting person. Not that there was anything dull about her now. She would enjoy hearing these poems, he was convinced. Should he go and read them to her?
Could he go and keep himself from touching her? Just yesterday at this time perhaps he could have answered in the affirmative with some confidence. But he had touched her already, and that brief embrace had awoken a hunger in him that he did not believe he could easily quell. It would be far safer to stay away. Far safer for her and far better for his self-respect. He did not like himself for hungering after one woman while loving another.
Perhaps the very best thing he could do with his life would be to marry Lady Melissa Wade. He did not think he was flattering himself to believe that she would accept him. She was a pretty girl with her fair hair and blue eyes, and she seemed amiable enough. He could never love her, or feel any deep affection for her in all probability, but then, chances were that she would not expect any such devotion. With her his life would take on some stability. With her he would be able to satisfy those physical cravings that the girl in the woods had just reawakened. And with her he would be beyond temptation. He did not believe that his conscience would allow him ever to stray to another woman if he had a wife to whom he owed his loyalty.
He got up from his seat on the terrace and wandered back to the library. But he did not put the book back on the shelf. He tapped it against his free hand and stared sightlessly at the titles before him. If it was to be so, if he really was to take such an irrevocable step, perhaps it would be safe to see Nell one more time. After all, he had almost promised her that he would go. He would see her that afternoon and begin his serious courtship of Lady Melissa that evening at Lord Graham's ball. It was very possible that the girl would not be there, anyway, and then matters would be taken out of his hands.
William Mainwaring strode out of the library and took the stairs up to his room two at a time, the volume of poems still clasped in one hand.
Despite the precaution she had taken of hiding her shabby cotton dress close to the western edge of the wood and putting it on before going to the clearing by the stream, Helen was again the first to arrive there. Indeed she thought he was not coming. Time seems long when one is waiting for someone one is not even certain will come, especially when one dare not fill in the time with a book or a sketchpad. She was sitting a little back from the stream, sheltering from the heat of the sun beneath the shade of a large tree, when he came. She sat cross-legged, her chin resting on one fist. She did not move when she saw him come.
"Hello, wood nymph," he said, stopping when he was still several yards away from her and smiling.
It was the smile that did it. She knew beyond any doubt that the unthinkable had happened. She loved him. She could not believe ill of his motives. There was such gentleness in his smile. "Hello," she said.
"You see?" he said, holding up the volume he clasped in one hand. "I have brought the book. You will like some of the poems, I believe." He came and sat beside her under the tree so that she felt suffocated, unable to breathe freely. "You do not look very pleased," he added. "Am I forcing myself and my interests on you, Nell?"
"Oh, no," she said, and looked up into his dark eyes, I disturbingly close to her own. "I thought you were not coming, and I would have been disappointed if you had not. Please read to me."
"Would you?" he asked. "Have been disappointed, I mean? I would have been here sooner, but I had an unexpected visitor and had to stay and be civil."
He looked across at her as if he expected her to say something, but she looked back silently. Finally he opened the book and thumbed through the pages. She waited with great interest to see which poem he would choose to read first.
"Here it is," he said at last. "This, I think, you will appreciate. It is one of my favorites."
And he began to read her the poem about the rainbow, which was not one of her favorites-it was her very favorite.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me diet
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
He read slowly and distinctly, savoring every word.' By the time he had finished, Helen had her eyes tightly closed, enthralled as much by his voice as by the sentiment of the poem.
"Do you like it?" he asked.
"Oh, yes." Her eyes flew open and looked into his. "It is just exactly as I feel, you see. But people keep telling me that I shall grow up one of these days and that I shall then become interested in the more important things of life. I shall not. I would rather die!"
He smiled gently and his eyes dropped involuntarily to her mouth. "You need not fear, little wood nymph," he said. "You will never change. At least, you will never lose your love for what you have now. It is too deeply a part of your nature, I think."
She could feel tears welling to her eyes and dropped them hastily to look at the grass between them. No one had ever understood before, and no one had ever spoken with approval of her strange tastes. Was it possible that he felt about her as she felt about him? But, no. He was to dance with Melissa that very evening, and ride with her one morning soon. He would perhaps be betrothed to her before the summer was out. And she herself was a mere village wench, as far as he knew. She jumped to her feet suddenly and moved away from him among the trees.
"What is it, Nell?" he called after her.
She did not answer. But she did not run far away, either. She merely wanted a few moments to collect herself. She did not want their afternoon to end so soon, their last afternoon. Within a few hours he would know who she was, and his approval would turn to amusement at the best, contempt at the worst. It was perhaps acceptable for a serving girl to love the woods and the sky and the stream, but there was something definitely odd about a society girl who preferred those things to. fashion and gossip and visits. She stopped at the big oak that she had climbed the day before and leaned against it, resting one cheek against the rough old bark and wrapping her arms as far around it as she could reach. She closed her eyes.
"What are you doing now?" William Mainwaring asked from behind her. His voice held a mixture of concern and amusement.
"This tree was here for hundreds of years before you and I," she said, neither moving nor opening her eyes. "Can you imagine all the life it must have seen and all that it will see long after we are dead and buried? Sturdy as an oak' is such an apt phrase. It lives, you know. If I were led here blindfold and did not know what I clasped, I would know it was a living thing."
"Would you, Nell?" he asked gently.
"Oh, yes," she said. "It is so full of life. If we could only understand a tree! Do touch it. Run your hand over the bark. You will see what I mean."
She felt his hands touch the tree on either side of her, just above her own hands. He did not touch her, though every inch of her body was aware of the closeness of him. Neither of them moved-or breathed, it seemed-for several seconds, and then she turned, or he turned her, she was never sure which.
He threaded his fingers through her hair and held her face turned up to him. He was looking deeply and questioningly into her eyes. She gazed back, not even trying to hide the longing and the love that she felt. She closed her eyes.
"Nell," he murmured, and he was kissing her throat, her cheeks, her eyes, and finally her mouth.
Her arms went up and around his broad shoulders and she let her body sag against his so that she could feel the strength of his chest, the powerful muscles of his thighs against hers. He was so much taller than she. She felt small and very feminine in his arms. Her mouth opened beneath the pressure of his and his tongue came inside again, but more knowingly this time. He found and teased the soft flesh beneath her tongue, stroked with agonizingly light touch the roof of her mouth. Helen moaned.
He raised his head and moved his mouth to her throat again. She inhaled sharply as his hands came away from her hair and clasped her breasts, massaging them slowly beneath his palms.
"Nell," he said, lifting his head again and resting his forehead against hers. "Stop me. Stop me if you do not want this."
For answer she put her hands over his against her breasts and turned her head so that their mouths met again. She was in a strange world. Much as she was involved in the embrace, she was still quite aware of what was happening, knew with perfect clarity what was about to happen, and could foresee without any doubt how horrified she must feel afterward. She knew that she was about to lose her virginity, that she was about to give away all chance of making a good marriage, unless she were to lie to her prospective husband, that she would be outcast if the truth ever became known. She knew all this, but she did not care. She was powerless to prevent her own ruin because she had no wish at this moment to prevent it.
William Mainwaring shrugged out of his coat while continuing to kiss her. She could feel his movements though she did not open her eyes. She opened them only when he raised his head, took her gently by the shoulders, and lowered her to the grass, the coat that he had dropped beneath her head. He raised her skirt to her waist with gentle hands. She averted her face and closed her eyes as he removed her thin undergarments. She kept them closed as she listened to him shed his own clothing. And she lifted her arms up for him when he came down beside her.
He kissed her again and reached under her dress to touch her unconfined breasts, but he made no further attempt to prepare her. He moved across her and lowered his weight onto her unresisting body. She parted her knees beneath the pressure of his and allowed him to spread her legs wide on the grass. And then she felt him and knew with something almost like triumph that it was too late now to change her mind.
It hurt and hurt. She was unaroused and dry, and his slow entry seemed to tear her apart. She bit her lower lip and felt as if she must cry out in panic until the pain crested and he continued his entry unimpeded. She forced herself to relax when he stopped, forced herself to realize that she was a woman and shaped for such sexual activity, that no damage could be done. She forced her body to push against him. This, then, was how it felt.
She cried out in protest when he began to withdraw. Not yet. It could not be over yet. But he eased his hands beneath her to cushion her against the hard ground and thrust himself in again. And he repeated and repeated the movement, slowly, but with deep, hard thrusts, until she was moist and could delight in the discovery of her own sexuality. She was not fully aroused. She was not herself headed toward any climax. But she clasped her arms around him, twined her legs around his, and watched the treetops above them, waving in the gentle summer breeze, while he repeatedly, and with growing urgency, drove into her body. She smiled and caught her lower lip between her teeth once more.
It seemed to go on for a very long time. But finally his movements slowed and he shuddered deep inside her. Then his full weight relaxed on top of her and he was still.
Helen continued to watch the treetops and she continued to hold her man with arms and legs. She felt very tender toward him. She loved him. She did not want him to move, ever.
William Mainwaring was walking home through the woods. He did not see his surroundings. He took no conscious direction. Mere instinct took him in the direction of home. He did not know yet if he regretted what had just happened. He suspected that he would bitterly regret it once he had emerged from the state of pure feeling and rational thought took over:. But that moment had not yet come. He knew only that he had a wholly new and exhilarating sense of his own manhood.
He could not feel guilty-not yet, at all events. He had not gone there this afternoon with the sole intention of possessing Nell, though he had been fully aware lie dangers involved in seeing her. And the whole thing had come about so naturally, without any forcing of the moment. She had not been reluctant. Indeed, he had given her ample opportunity to stop what was developing. And there had been nothing the 1st bit sordid about their coupling. Though there had been no love involved, of course, there was a certain degree of tenderness and awareness of the girl as more than just a body.
He found her irresistibly attractive. As soon as he had touched her that afternoon, he knew that he did not want to stop, that he needed to take their embrace to completion. She was so beautiful despite the shabby dress and the wild, loose hair, so soft to the touch. She smelled clean and wholesome, though she wore no detectable perfume.
She had said afterward that he had not hurt her. He did not know. He had been so intent on the sensations of his own body as he entered a woman for the first time that he had not closely observed her reactions. He would not even have known for sure that she had been a virgin had he not seen the streaks of blood on her legs as he lowered her skirt when it was all over.
It had been a beautiful experience. He had never imagined that there would be such warm, moist softness and such exquisite pleasure in releasing all his manhood into a woman's body. He had certainly not dreamed for the last year that any woman could bring him that sense of release and well-being when all his love was focused on someone unattainable. It was an unexpected delight to know that despite his love, he could still live a normal, healthy life. He would always remember his little wood nymph with gratitude.
She had told him, when he asked, that he had given her pleasure. He did not know the truth of that, either. He knew nothing about pleasing a woman sexually. She had lain still for him and had opened herself fully and sweetly to his every demand. She had held him afterward until he had lifted himself away from her and lowered her skirt, and even then she had rolled onto her side and lain against him while he closed his eyes and drifted into sleep for several minutes. He had certainly not displeased her.
He had left her with reluctance a few minutes before. If he had ever imagined that sleeping with her would be like slaking a thirst, he was very mistaken. Having her once had merely awakened an appetite that he knew would continue demanding satisfaction for some time to come. He had arranged to meet her the following afternoon again. Sooner or later his conscience was going to remind him of ail the moral arguments he had used on himself earlier and of all the practical solutions he had decided upon for his own future.
But he would not think of these things before he must. He wanted Nell and she wanted him. He would carry on this affair with her as long as they both wished it. Already he could hardly wait for the next day. He wanted to make love to her more consciously. He wanted to be more aware of her reactions, more aware of her needs.
Mainwaring stopped walking. He was already at the eastern edge of the wood. He put his head back and gazed up at the branches and the sky overhead. He turned around and around until the branches swirled dizzily above his head, and laughed at the picture he must make. It was a good thing that there was no spectator close by to wonder if he was returning to his childhood. And then the toe of one boot caught against the gnarled root of an ancient tree and he fell heavily and awkwardly, his foot twisted beneath him.
He continued laughing in self-conscious embarrassment and rubbed his boot at the ankle ruefully, waiting for the sharp pain to recede. After several minutes it still had not done so, and when he raised himself to a standing position on the good leg and lowered the injured one gingerly to the ground, pain shot up his leg and set him to biting his lower lip. Dammit! It served him right for behaving like such an imbecile. However was he to walk home? There was over a mile of open country between him and the house. He hopped and hobbled for a few yards until he finally had the idea of using a fallen tree branch as a crutch.
It took him well over an hour to reach home, and another half-hour for his valet to remove his boot from a foot that had swelled alarmingly around the ankle. He was forced to agree reluctantly to sending a groom in search of the doctor. The ankle could be broken, and the sooner it was set, the better it would heal.
There was no broken bone, only a bad sprain, but before the evening was half over Mainwaring was forced to realize that he was going to be house-bound for the next few days at least. No ball at Lord Graham's tonight. No ride with Lady Melissa one morning in the near future. And no lovemaking tomorrow with Nell.
Helen was dancing with Oswald Pyke. It often struck her as a great blessing that she was not as smitten with him as he was with her. Even if she were head over ears in love with him, she could never bring herself to marry that name. Imagine being Mrs. Oswald Pyke. Helen Pyke. Master Egbert Pyke, Miss Georgiana Pyke. And all the little Pykes. Fortunately, it was no great sacrifice to refuse him just on the grounds of a ridiculous name. She liked the man no better.
It was not just his looks, though she found nothing attractive in his short, rather pudgy figure, his thinning fair hair, and his plump hands that always seemed to be moist. He was a bore. If it were not his hounds he was talking about, it was his crops or his new hunting jacket or some other topic of no possible interest to her. Or else he was proposing marriage to her, one of his favorite hobbies. He was doing that now, despite the fact that it was the opening set of the ball and despite the inconvenience of the fact that it was a country dance and they were frequentlyy separated by the figures of the dance. Every time they came together for a few seconds, he was at it.
"If I have a good crop of turnips this year, I shall be able to afford a new ladies' maid," he said. "She could be assigned wholly to you if you will marry me, Lady Helen."
They were separated by the dance.
"Do give me an answer," he begged the next time they came together. "Do not keep me in suspense like this."
"I have told you at least fifty times, Mr. Pyke," she replied, "-or is it fifty-one?-that I will not marry you. Or anyone else at the moment," she added when she saw his crestfallen face as he turned away to twirl with another lady belonging to their set.
She answered mechanically. One did not even have to listen to Oswald. He rarely had anything new to say. She even danced mechanically, her mind and her eyes on the doorway into the ballroom. Any second now he would appear. Already he was late. Melly was fuming on the sidelines. Anyone who did not know her might not know that she was angry, of course. She smiled with dazzling brightness and her fan was waving at a sprightly pace. One of her feet kept time to the music. But Helen knew that she was furious. She had refused more than one partner on the grounds that the set was already spoken for, and now she was left standing like a wallflower.
But Helen had little sympathy to waste on her sister. Her heart was beating like a sledgehammer on her own account and she was in danger of losing her step every time someone new appeared in the doorway. For how long after his arrival would she be able to escape his notice? On the way here in the carriage she had been cautiously hopeful. Surely if she were careful enough, she could keep the length of a room between them for the whole night. The weather was warm. She could perhaps persuade her partners to take her walking in the garden.
But she knew it was hopeless as soon as she arrived. She had forgotten how small the Grahams' ballroom was. The man would need two cataracts not to see and recognize her even if they were squeezed into opposite corners of the room. She would try, of course, but she knew it would be no good. And she dreaded the moment when their eyes would meet and recognition would dawn in his. What would she do? Smile and wave? Blush and bite her lip? Walk over to him, hand extended in sociable greeting? Rush crying into the garden? Swoon? Well, she would soon find out, she thought gloomily as she and Oswald came together again and he renewed his persuasions.
When the set ended, Helen crossed to the French doors and stood against the heavy draperies that had been drawn back from them. If she stood very still, perhaps she could blend into the background. Her gown was not a very different shade of primrose from the curtains. She watched the doorway to the ballroom as if she expected her executioner to come through it at any moment.
She had tried to avoid the meeting. She had never been very good at faking a cough or a sneeze. She had had to use the headache story again. But no one had believed her.
"Nonsense, child," Mama had said, looking impatiently at the drooping eyes and wan expression of her youngest daughter. "It is a very strange headache that attacks only when there is some entertainment approaching. You always seem in bouncing health when you leave the house in the afternoons for one of your walks or rides."
"How strange you are, Helen," Emily had said. "Have you no interest in elevated company and superior conversation? Why must you always try to avoid any activity in which you must meet people-and the best people that this part of England has to offer, at that?"
"You are going tonight and that is that!" the earl had said, and Helen could tell by his tone that there was no point at all in trying to argue further.
She had wanted nothing more than to crawl to her room, where she might spend the evening and the night digesting what had happened that afternoon. She could not yet feel any guilt, and surely she should. All she could think of was the terrible disaster of the ball tonight that would prevent her from ever meeting her lover again and experiencing the great happiness of making love with him once more.
"Oh, yes, it would be my pleasure," she said now with a wide smile as another young man of her acquaintance bowed before her and solicted her hand for the next set. And another for the next. By the time the music began for the fifth set, the one before supper, Helen found herself tense with hope. He was not going to come! It was incredible. He must know that the evening had been arranged for his benefit, the Grahams having a marriageable daughter, whom a Season in London during the spring had not succeeded in removing from their hands. He must realize that he would be committing an unpardonable social sin in omitting to put in an appearance. Yet surely he would be here by now if he were coming at all.
It was only well after supper, when Helen was flushed and delirious with joy, dazzling her present partner with her vitality, though she did not realize the fact, that she discovered that Mr. Mainwaring had sent his apologies to his hosts early in the evening. He had a sprained ankle and was unable to walk.
"You see, child," her mother pointed out wisely during the journey home, interrupting a loud and excited monologue that Helen was delivering to no one in particular, "if you just make an effort to go out and mix with people, you find that you enjoy it. I have not seen you so happy for a long time."
"I don't know how you could have enjoyed yourself so much, Helen," Melissa complained. "I thought it a particularly insipid evening."
"Indeed, it was most disappointing to learn that Mr. Mainwaring has injured his leg," her mother agreed. "I hope it does not confine him to home for many days. His presence has certainly livened up the neighborhood in the last weeks. It will be most disagreeable to be without him."
Helen sat quietly for the remainder of the journey home and retired meekly to her room when they arrived there. The great sense of relief that had succeeded upon the realization that she was to be reprieved for that night at least was already wearing off. If it was not now, it would come later. And William was hurt. What had happened? Was he in a great deal of pain? She would be quite unable to see him or even to make inquiry about a man she was supposed not even to have met. She would have to rely solely on the chance mentions of him that her family or their acquaintances might make. And his leg might be broken, for all she knew.
William. She whispered the name. It had never been one of her favorites. She had never thought of it as a particularly romantic name, though it was shared by one of her favorite poets. But how dear the name sounded now, evoking as it did the face and figure of her lover. Helen sat cross-legged on the bed, clad in her nightgown, and allowed her thoughts to dwell fully on him, as she had not dared since she had left that afternoon.
She tried to feel shame. She told herself quite deliberately what it was she had done. She had given what no lady dare give outside her marriage bed. With a man she scarcely knew and one who did not know her true identity, she had lain in broad daylight on the grass and made love. Yes, it was an apt expression. They had made love. He had been very tender and considerate.
She remembered how he had given her a chance to stop what was happening between them before any real harm was done. And she remembered how, after it was all over, he had lain beside her, his arm beneath her head, and held her close, his free hand stroking her head until he fell asleep. And after he had dressed and prepared to leave, he had taken her into his arms and kissed her and made her promise that she would come again the following day.
Yes, of course, now that she could think about the afternoon, she could recognize that he loved her too. He had not been a man merely taking advantage of a willing wench. He loved her! She really need not be afraid to tell him who she was. How could he despise her? There had been nothing sordid in what they had done. He would realize that, would know that she was not normally loose in her morals. He would know that she had given him all merely because she loved him.
She was still thankful that he had not been at the ball. It would not have been a good setting for such a discovery. But she would tell him the next time they met. It was a great trial to know that it would not now be the next day or the day after. It might be a week or more before he was able to walk to the wood again. But he would go there as soon as he was able, she knew, and there she would tell him the truth. He possibly would be angry at her deception, and embarrassed, but all would be well. In fact, once he had got used to the idea, he would probably be glad to know that she was a girl of his own social level. They would marry.
It was a pleasant dream, one that sustained Helen through what remained of the night. She slept peacefully after ten minutes of wondering if William were in pain and unable to sleep himself.
William Mainwaring had, in fact, spent an almost sleepless night. He would never have guessed that a simple sprain could hurt as if it were a dozen fractures. Of one thing only he was thankful. No one knew the truth of how he had sustained the injury. He felt a prize idiot. He had been behaving like a young boy with his first infatuation. In fact, embarrassing as it was to admit even to himself, that was more or less what he was. His very retired upbringing had retarded his social progress by at least ten years. How most of his contemporaries would snicker if they knew that yesterday afternoon, at the age of one-and-thirty, he had bedded his first woman!
And now he had made very sure that the affair would not continue for at least four or five days. He ground his teeth as he was forced to accept the support of his valet down the stairs to the breakfast room. He had refused to stay in bed. The sun was shining with every bit as much force as it had the day before. He ached to be with Nell again. He wanted to make love to her. He wanted to touch her warm and pliant little body again. He wanted to be inside her.
He took the plate of food that the butler had heaped for him at the sideboard and turned his attention impatiently to the pile of mail at his elbow. There was no point in brooding on what could not be. But how provoking it was to think that she would probably be there waiting for him. It was unlikely that she would have heard about his mishap. Would she think that he had abandoned her, that having once tasted of her treasures he had lost interest? He would have to make it up to her when he saw her next.
His attention was arrested by a letter that had been addressed in an unmistakably feminine hand. He felt himself turn cold. What other woman could be writing to him but Elizabeth? He tore open the seal and spread the letter on the table before him, his food forgotten. Yes, it was indeed from her, he saw, glancing to the signature at the end. He had not seen her handwriting before, but he would have known that it was hers. It had all the neatness and elegance and restraint that were so much a part of her character.
They had received his letter, and it had been a relief to them to know that he had finally received one of theirs. It was an equal relief to know that he had not received any of the others. His long silence was now explained.
"I have so much wanted to write to you myself," she wrote. "I have always felt very badly about what happened a year ago, William. I am afraid I presumed too much on a friendship that I held, and still hold, very dear. I should never have agreed to marry you. Indeed, I do not believe that I would have wronged you to the extent of going through with the ceremony, even if Robert had not acted as he did. And it would have been wrong. You knew that I could not have given my heart to you, and you very much deserve to have a wife who is wholly yours. You are a very dear person, William."
The letter went on to repeat the invitation that her husband had extended in the earlier letter. It also told the news of the birth of a son two weeks before.
Mainwaring let the letter fall onto the table when he had finished reading it. He felt sick. He pushed aside the untouched plate of food and pushed himself to his feet. Then he winced and sat down again with an oath. He was forced to accept the butler's assistance to the library, where he sat, his injured leg propped on a stool, staring sightlessly out of the window.
He relived all the pain and the loss of the previous summer as if those events had happened but yesterday. Those first weeks in London had felt like hell itself. He had wandered around restlessly, contented nowhere, avoiding acquaintances, trying to decide whether he should write to her or not, whether he should try to see her or not. She had promised to marry him if he could free her from her existing marriage. And he had been so confident that Robert would raise no objection to divorcing her. He had been so sure that Robert had no feeling for her after having lived apart from her for six years. It was hard to accept the sudden reality of being alone, exiled from her. He had wanted to go to her. He was not sure that she did not wish to see him. But his powerful sense of honor had kept him away. Her husband had refused to set her free, had warned him off, and he had to accept the rights of a husband.
But he had ached for her, as he ached for her now. Elizabeth, with that rare aura of tranquillity that attracted all who knew her. He doubted if she fully realized how much she had been respected and loved by all the families around Ferndale, even though they knew her only as a paid governess and companion. He could not blame Robert for refusing to give her up. It only seemed incredible to him that he had been able to live apart from her for all that time, when they were legally married. But there was obviously a very interesting story surrounding that mystery, a story that he would never know.
Damn Robert Denning! If only she had never met him, perhaps she could have loved him, William Mainwaring. Perhaps they would have been married now and it would have been his child that she had just borne. Foolish thought! He put his head back against the rest of the leather chair in which he sat and stared at the ceiling. If she had not met Robert, she probably would not have ended up in the vicinity of Ferndale as a governess. And she would perhaps have been a different person had she not suffered in the past. In fact, he remembered saying something like that to her when he was trying to persuade her to marry him. No, things were as they were and he would have to learn to live with them.
He closed his eyes. How could he so have forgotten his love as to have become excited by that little wench in the woods? He compared the two women in his mind. Elizabeth, so mature; Nell so childlike. Elizabeth with her beauty, her charm, her social poise; Nell with her wild, untutored grace. Elizabeth's intelligence and good education; Nell's ignorance of all except the wild nature around her. Elizabeth, perfectly groomed and elegant; Nell, shabby and unkempt. How could he have? How could he have so forgotten Elizabeth yesterday as to have violated Nell and even convinced himself that it had been a good experience?
He felt repelled now by the memories. How could he have convinced himself that the girl was a sweet innocent? She was wild and promiscuous. True, she had been a virgin before he had touched her, but it was just pure chance, surely, that he had been the first. The girl would have done as much with any male who happened to come her way. What modest wench spent a great deal of her time alone in the woods? What modest girl offered such an open invitation as a shabby dress that was too small for her and that revealed a considerable expanse of bare leg? He was suddenly glad of his sprained ankle. It offered him the excuse he needed to keep away from his appointment with her. By the time he was recovered, she would have forgotten about him, in all probability. She would probably have found someone else.
Mainwaring was given little more time to brood that day. Although unable to go out himself, he found that almost every man of rank for miles around called on him during the day to inquire about his health and to commiserate with him for having to miss the several entertainments that had been arranged for the coming days.
The following five days were dreary ones for Helen. She lived in a state of almost unbearable tension. Her last meeting with William Mainwaring had begun something which it was a torture to have to delay. Had she only been able to see him on the following afternoon, all the joy and the excitement of being in love and of sharing of physical relationship with her lover might have been sustained. But she found that as the days crept past she became less confident, more shy of seeing him again. Perhaps for him it had all meant nothing. Perhaps he was accustomed to such encounters. But no, she would not believe it. He must love her as she did him.
She knew from her father's conversation that Mr. Mainwaring was likely to be house-bound for a week. Apparently his leg was badly sprained and he found it quite impossible to put it to the ground. She felt quite safe, therefore, when she returned to the woods two days after his accident, in bringing her books and her paints out of the hut. She decided to paint the stream at last and spent a half-hour vainly trying to capture on paper all the shades of color and light that she had observed the afternoon she had first met William.
She finally gave up the effort in disgust. What she had painted on the paper in no way resembled what she saw in her mind. She could force no communication between mind and hand. Of, of course, she knew the reason. She knew from long experience that she could never produce anything to her satisfaction unless her whole mind was absorbed in the task. And she had not fully concentrated on her painting that afternoon. She was thinking of William. She was wanting him.
She moved to sit on the bank of the stream and rested her chin on her raised knees. She was not at all sure that this love business was good for her. Was this what it did to a person? Was one totally unable to concentrate on any other activity once one loved? Love should enrich life, not impoverish it, she thought. But of course it was her restlessness, her uncertainty that made her so incapable of doing any of the things she had always delighted in.
She tried to picture William's face. It was very handsome, long and rather thin, with a straight nose and firm mouth that gave one the early impression that he was a stern and perhaps humorless man. She had never liked dark eyes. She had always admired blue or light gray. Even her own eyes were too dark a gray to please her. But William's brown eyes suited him. They gave a depth to his glance so that when he looked fully at her, she felt that she was gazing into his very soul. He wore his hair rather longer than was fashionable. It was thick, shiny hair, the sort that made one's fingers itch to touch it. And his smile! It was so unexpectedly warm. It so transfigured his face. Helen smiled and hugged her knees. She remembered the look on that face when it had been close to hers, dreamy with passion.
Suddenly she was on her feet and darting lightly to the hut. A minute later she was outside again, a sketchpad and a piece of charcoal in her hand. For the next hour everything was forgotten: surroundings, loneliness, even longing for William Mainwaring as she sketched his face. Finally it was completed to her satisfaction, though she still wrinkled her nose as she held it at arm's length to view the total effect. She had pictured him smiling. He looked very boyish, not at all the dignified gentleman of her first impression. Was this really he? Or was the other? How could she possibly capture the complete man in one picture? Helen had never been interested in portraiture before. She now began to understand some of the frustrations and challenges involved.
However satisfied or dissatisfied she might be with the sketch she had made, its resting place for that night and the nights that followed was beneath her pillow.
She did not go back to the woods for the next three days. She could not face going there until there was a chance that yet again William would come. Her father reported that he had still not gone out. Her mother too was becoming increasingly cross over her absences during the afternoons, when she might be expected to help entertain guests or to accompany her sisters on visits to various neighbors. For three days she was almost a model daughter.
But finally she could stay away no longer. Mr. Mainwaring was moving around with a cane, the vicar had informed them the previous afternoon when they had paid a call at the vicarage. It was unlikely, of course, that he would attempt to walk all the way to the woods for several more days, but she could not stay away when there was the remotest chance of his coming.
She had three more days to wait.
William Mainwaring's disgust with Helen did not last for many days. The feeling became turned more against himself. He loved Elizabeth. Her letter had hardly left his sight since he had received it, and it had been read over and over again. But Elizabeth was unattainable. And such a love did little to satisfy all one's baser cravings. He found more and more as the dreary days dragged on that his thoughts were returning to Nell.
He despised himself. He had always despised sexual activity that was devoid of love. He had always been determined that he would never be guilty of such a sin himself. Yet he could not get her out of his mind, his little wood nymph. He longed to see her again, to talk to her. He found her fresh and rather naive view of the world quite delightful. She was like a breath of fresh air in a rather stuffy world. He wanted to touch her, to wind his fingers in that wild tangle of hair, to kiss that warm, soft mouth. He wanted to possess her again.
Damn! He tried to repeat the arguments he had used after first reading Elizabeth's letter. He tried to convince himself that in reality Nell was probably little better than a slut, that he was degrading himself associating with her. But it was no good. The craving was too strong to be denied. He was being ruled by pure physical passion, by sheer lust. But he I not shame himself out of his determination to see her again as soon as he was able to hobble as far as the woods.
For two days after he was finally able to get around again he felt obliged to spend his afternoons repaying the visits that his neighbors had been kind enough to pay him during his confinement to the house. He drove himself in a curricle so that there might be less pressure on the still-painful ankle.
He found the visit to the Earl of Claymore rather uncomfortable. The whole family was gathered in the drawing room when he was announced, with the exception of that elusive youngest daughter, and he was faced with all the embarrassment of having to converse with Lady Melissa, remembering how he had begun to set in motion a courtship of the girl just the week before. His injury had put a halt to that, keeping him away from the ball at which he was to have partnered her for the opening set, and preventing him from making a definite appointment to ride with her. But the injury had proved a blessing in disguise. His entanglement with Nell and his feelings for Elizabeth had totally destroyed his plan to court Lady Melissa.
Yet he suspected from the behavior of the ladies that he was being treated almost as the accepted suitor of the girl. He was seated beside her on a sofa; her opinion on everything he uttered was eagerly solicited by her mother, and she always agreed with what he had said. She managed yet again to introduce the topic of riding into the conversation, and there was an awkward little silence when he failed to pick up the cue. He left as soon as good manners allowed him to do so, feeling both relief and alarm. Had he really aroused hopes that he might be honor-bound to revive? He sincerely hoped not. He could not now imagine how he could ever have entertained the notion of marrying the girl.
Finally Mainwaring felt that he was free to spend an afternoon as he wished. His leg felt strong enough. He could walk now without thinking about it. Only the occasional twinge reminded him that he must be careful for a while. Even the weather was cooperating. After a few days that were dull and overcast, the sun shone and only a slight breeze ensured that the day would not be unbearably hot. If only she were there when he came. He had hardly considered the possibility that she might not be. But he had to take the chance.
On this occasion Mainwaring was the first to arrive at the stream beside the hut. He was disappointed. He hoped that she was merely later than usual in coming, not that she was not coming at all. He wandered to the hut and put a hand on the door, which hung crookedly on its hinges. But he removed the hand again. It would not be fair to look inside when she had been so anxious that he should not. And he had made her a gift of the old building. It would not be right to trespass on her property.
He looked around him. The small clearing among the trees almost breathed her presence. The old oak tree would be forever hers. It was in its branches that she had sat the second time he saw her. And it was its trunk she had hugged the last time just before he had touched her. And the stream, where she had been "learning water" the first time he saw her-had she finally decided what color it was?
He wandered to the edge of the bank and gazed down at the water flowing past. She was quite right. It was really not one color or one shade at all. He stooped down and finally sat on the bank. How had she come to notice that when she was but a wild and untutored little thing? But then, he supposed that one did not need an education to observe the world around. He had never thought of really looking at objects of nature until he met Nell. And he had never considered touching in order to learn. Who but she would have thought of leaning her whole body against a tree just so that she might feel its life?
She was probably a girl of some intelligence. She would doubtless respond with eagerness to the chance to learn from books. He could teach her perhaps. She would be an apt pupil. He could probably open up for her a new world as she had done for him. The thought was tempting.
"Hello," she said from behind him. Her voice was breathless.
He turned and smiled. "Hello, wood nymph," he said. "I have missed you."
She moved forward and seated herself beside him. “You hurt your foot," she said. "Is it better now?"
"Yes," he replied, "and it was a great annoyance, Nell, because it kept me from you."
She colored and looked at him bright-eyed.
He leaned forward and took one of her hands, which were lying loosely clasped in her lap. "Nell," he said, "I know so little about you. Tell me about yourself."
The perfect opportunity! All she had to do now was to tell him that she was not what he had thought. He would ask what she meant and she would tell him that she was the third daughter of the Earl of Claymore, the one he had not met. He would not mind. He was in a sympathetic mood.
"There is really nothing to tell," she heard herself say, and she shrugged her shoulders and smiled. "My life has been very ordinary. Tell me about yours. It must have been very exciting, I think."
"And you would be very wrong," he told her. "I have a great deal, do I not, wood nymph? Wealth and property and social status. It must seem to you that I cannot fail to be happy."
"And you are not?" she prompted, unconsciously squeezing the hand that still held hers.
"I had a lonely childhood," he said. "My parents died when I was an infant, and my grandfather brought me up in Scotland. He was a recluse long before I came to him. I was educated at home by him-fortunately, he was a learned and an intelligent man. He would not allow me to make companions of any other boy in the vicinity, and he did not wish me to go away to school. He and his housekeeper, who had been with him for years and years, were almost the only human companions I knew until I grew to manhood."
"Poor little boy," she said, her eyes suspiciously bright as they looked into his.
He laughed. "I am not trying to spin a tragedy," he said. "It was a lonely childhood, yes, but there were compensations. I loved my grandfather and I believe he loved me. Even his refusal to let me out of his sight came, I think, from a fear that he would lose the one link with life that had come to him in his old age. It was a very secure childhood. It was not until long after he died and I decided that I should venture out into the world that I realized how ill-equipped I was to become a part of it."
"Where did you go?" she asked.
"To London first," he said. "I found life hard there. It is not easy for me to meet and converse with new people. I find myself frequently tongue-tied."
"Yet you can talk to me," Helen said.
He smiled and took her hand in a warmer grip. "Yes, little wood nymph, I can talk to you," he said, "because I know you are not sitting in judgment on my conversation and my manners. I always used to feel the same way with… with someone else."
"With a lady?" she asked.
"I had one good friend, too," he said, not answering her question. "He was everything I am not: charming, at ease in any company, never at a loss for words. He helped me a great deal."
"Why have you come here?" she asked.
"I wanted a little peace and quiet, wood nymph," he replied. "I thought to find it here. Maybe I am more like my grandfather than I care to admit."
"Have you found it?" she asked. "The peace and quiet, I mean."
His eyes wandered over her face for a while before he answered. "To a degree," he said finally. "I have met you, Nell, and with you I feel I can relax. I can forget that there are such things as balls and assemblies and dinner parties and afternoon visits to be made. You do not realize how fortunate you are not to have to worry about such things."
She smiled. The moment for her great revelation seemed to be slipping farther into impossibility. His hand left hers and reached up to cup the side of her head. His thumb stroked her cheek.
"I have missed you, Nell," he said softly. And he meant it. He knew that he should not mean it, that he should even now be making an effort to remain aloof from her. But the magic was there, as it always was when he was with her. She sat so quietly and earnestly listening to him, this girl who was very beautiful despite the shabbiness of her dress and the untidiness of her hair. Desire was rising in him and he did not have the will to quell it.
"I have missed you too," she said, and she turned her head so that her lips were against his palm.
Mainwaring was lost. His hand slipped through her hair to cup the back of her head and his other hand reached for her shoulder and pulled her close. Ah yes, her lips were as he remembered them, soft and warm, eager to part beneath the persuasion of his tongue, her mouth sweetly responsive to his invasion. He could feel her firm, unfettered breasts against his coat and her fingers in his hair.
But this time he wanted to be quite sure that she had as much pleasure as he. He laid her back against the grass and lifted her dress to her breasts and over her head and free of her arms. He removed her undergarments. He took his coat off and rolled it beneath her head before removing the rest of his clothes. She was beautiful, breathtakingly so. He gazed with wonder at her, not even touching her for a while. And he noticed that she gazed unashamedly back. Nell. His lovely Nell.
He touched her only with his hands, exploring her breasts and her small waist, her inner thighs, and he watched the color mount in her cheeks, and her lips part. When he touched her in more intimate places, she closed her eyes and tipped back her head. She clutched the grass on either side of her. He watched her, his own desire under rigid control, his hand learning with slow patience to arouse her for his entry.
When she looked at him once more and reached up her arms for him, he finally took her, and the taking was infinitely sweeter for the knowledge that their passion was shared. Her hips reached up and found his rhythm, and by very instinct he paced himself to the tension of her body. He knew, he felt, when that tension was ready to give way, and finally, gratefully, he pressed all his weight down on her and drove his own release into her soft and yielding warmth. He heard her cry out and was aware that his own voice had been mingled with hers.
Mainwaring lifted himself off her and drew her into the shelter of his arms. Her body was warm and damp and still shaking with the aftermath of passion. He kissed her closed eyes and her mouth, feeling relaxed and sleepy. He smiled dreamily when she looked up at him, her own face flushed and drowsy.
"Oh, William," she said, "I do love you so." And she smiled into his eyes, turned her head more comfortably into his shoulder, and slept.
William Mainwaring lay taut and wide awake beside her. God, what had he done? Were those words merely spoken in the aftermath of a satisfactory coupling, or had she meant them? Oh, God, no, he thought, and put his free hand over his eyes. He could not have done that to her, could he? He had not put someone else in the same position that he had been put in the year before.
He wanted to wake her, ask her what she had meant. She could not love him, surely. She was just a country girl, he a wealthy gentleman. She must have realized from the start that there could never be any real relationship between them. Surely she had known that the best they could hope for was a mutually satisfactory summer of physical passion. They were mere words she had spoken; they must be. He continued to hold her in his arms while she slept.
But when she woke and looked up at him, her smile was so bright and trusting, her eyes so full of tenderness, that his heart felt like lead inside him. What sort of havoc was he about to wreak in another human's life? He kissed her with a hopeless tenderness.
"I must leave, Nell," he said.
Her smile faded somewhat. "So soon?" she asked. "I wanted to talk to you."
"Next time, little wood nymph," he said, kissing her lightly on the nose and sitting up to dress himself.
"I had something to tell you," she said, reaching for her own clothes. Her voice sounded a little forlorn.
"Then say it." He smiled around at her as he buttoned his shirt.
"No," she said hesitantly. "It is something I find difficult to say. I wanted to tell you when you were holding me."
He laughed and pulled her to her feet. "I really must go, Nell," he said. "Next time I shall hold you and you shall make your big confession. Will that please you?"
"I suppose so," she said uncertainly, and she put her hands on his chest and raised her face to be kissed.
He took her face between his hands and looked down into her trusting eyes so full of… love! God, but he hated himself. He kissed her briefly and very gently on the lips and turned and left her without another word.
Helen was left with an almost empty feeling, which she did not understand. He had come, and seeing him again had made her realize that she loved him far more than she had thought. It had felt so lovely to sit beside him on the bank of the stream, holding his hand and listening to him talk. No one ever seemed to want to talk to her. People were impatient of her strange ideas, her intensity about subjects that did not matter to them. But William had seemed to want to talk to her, and he had talked about himself. He had seemed relaxed, though he had said that he found it difficult to converse with other people. He had made her feel unusually wanted.
And he had made love to her again. She could not have imagined any experience more wonderful. She had loved it the first time, knowing herself possessed by the man to whom she had given her heart. But this time he had done indescribably wonderful things to her body, arousing excitement and longings of which she had not suspected herself capable. And then he had carefully and thoroughly satisfied all those longings. When she had curled against him and slept, she had felt as if they were united forever, as if they could never again be two separate entities.
Why, then, was she here alone, and he on his way back to Graystone? She looked around her. Everything seemed to quiet and so… almost inanimate without William there to share it with her. He had to go, of course, just as she had to go home. It was absurd to expect otherwise. She tried to shake off her mood. Tomorrow he would come back again and they would talk and love. He would remember that she had something important to say to him, and finally she would be able to unburden herself of her secret.
He had seemed to be almost in a hurry to leave. But, of course, perhaps he really did have something important to do. It was quite possible that he had a dinner appointment and would have to get ready early for it. Yet surely he could have spared a few more minutes when he knew that she wanted to speak to him. Nonsense, she told herself. If she had really pressed the point, he would have listened.
Had he said he would come back tomorrow? Had he said anything about seeing her again? He had said he would hear what she had to say the next time, but he had not said when that next time was likely to be. Absurd to worry about that. They had met enough times, and knew each other well enough that they no longer had to make definite arrangements to meet again. He knew that she came here very often in the afternoons. He would come tomorrow, or at worst the next day. Had he not said that he had missed her? And had not his lovemaking shown a very definite regard for her?
Helen turned around with sudden impatience and pulled her dress over her head again. She tossed it down on the grass and jumped into the stream. The water reached to her waist, and she gasped with the shock of its coldness against her heated flesh. Then she took a deep breath and plunged beneath the surface, trying to wash away her uneasiness along with the dried sweat of summer heat and an afternoon's passion.
It was really a crime that one did not get up early every morning. William Mainwaring thought as he drove his curricle along dusty country roads, expertly maneuvering it around bends that would have taken an inattentive driver quite unawares. There was a quiet and peacefulness about the early morning that was not there later in the day. The sun was still quite low on the horizon, and a haze still settled over everything, promising heat again later. But for now, the air was fresh and cool. He felt almost cheerful for a brief few minutes.
If only he did not feel quite such a failure. It seemed to have become his fate in life to be constantly running away. When he had left Scotland a few short years before, he had thought he was running to life, a life that had passed him by for the whole of his youth. But what had the adventure brought him? Last year he had fled from Elizabeth as soon as her husband made it clear to him that he would not easily leave her go. And he had left London just a short while ago, convinced that he would be happy again in a country setting.
And now here he was again, running back to Scotland because of a little wench whose parents could not afford to buy her a dress that fit or shoes for her feet. Would he ever find a place where he belonged? Had he merely been unfortunate in his relationships, or was there something wrong within himself? He sighed. His housekeeper in Scotland would be surprised to see him. He would probably throw her into fits. His grandfather's old housekeeper had survived him by only a couple of years, and Mainwaring had hired this woman shortly before his departure for London. He assumed that the household was running smoothly, but he did not know how the woman would react to his unexpected arrival.
His decision had been made the evening before after a great deal of soul-searching. He had tried to shrug his mind free of Nell. She was, after all, a creature of no social significance. She had given herself to him entirely of her own will, and she had been foolish enough to fall in love with him. She could not expect anything more of him than some money with which to buy herself decent clothes. Or perhaps she hoped that he would set her up as his mistress. Such arrangements were not at all uncommon. But really he owed her nothing. He could salve his conscience quite easily by going to her the next day and giving her a bag of coins. It was as easy as that.
The trouble was that it was not at all that easy. He had never been able to think of people solely in terms of class. It had appalled him in his time in England to notice with what indifference, even contempt, the people of his class could treat their servants. And women always suffered the most. He had been at one houseparty when he had literally bumped into a maid one morning as he left his room. She had been sobbing into her apron, but would not answer his queries. She had merely rushed past him. Later in the morning, the other members of the party, all male, had roared with appreciation as one of their number had described in graphic detail his rape of the girl the night before. Mainwaring had left the house the same day.
No, he could not dismiss Nell from his mind merely because she was of a lower class. She was a creature of intelligence and sensitivity, he knew, and a woman of deep feeling and passion. If it was true that she loved him, she would suffer when she knew that he did not return her feeling, that he had no intention of making of their relationship anything more than it was at present. She would be hurt, perhaps permanently scarred.
And he knew very well how she would feel. The same thing had happened to him the year before. And there was no worse feeling in this world, he believed, than to know that one's love was bestowed where it was not returned and that there was no hope of any change. The one difference was that Elizabeth had been far more honest with him from the start than he had ever been with Nell. He had fallen in love with Elizabeth, knowing full well that she did not love him. She had never encouraged him, never given away physical favors except that one kiss after he had finally persuaded her to marry him.
He had behaved deceitfully and dishonorably with Nell. Although he had never spoken words of love to her, with his body he had led her to believe that he loved her. He had taken possession of her body twice, taken the privilege of a husband, even though he had had little doubt the first time that she was a virgin. It was no consolation to him that the vast majority of men of his class would have done the same without the merest qualm of conscience. He was not other men. He m as himself, with his own very strict code of conduct and his own very tender conscience. She had every right to love him and feel secure in the expectation that he returned her love.
As he sat in his library alone, not even a drink in his hand to dull the edge of his guilt, Mainwaring felt very ashamed of himself. He had not forced her, it was true. She had made her own decision to allow him to possess her. But he could not excuse himself with such thoughts. He should never have allowed himself to touch any woman unless he was prepared to offer his heart as well as his body.
What was he to do? He could not continue the affair; that much was perfectly clear to him. He would not offer her compensation in the form of money or gifts. He would feel it insulting, and he had a strong belief that Nell would feel doubly hurt if he tried. It would be like offering her payment for services rendered. He would be making a whore of her.
What, then? Mainwaring sat for a long time, an elbow resting on one raised knee, staring into an empty fireplace, wondering whether he should marry the girl. The possibility would not have occurred to most men in his position. Even to marry a governess or the daughter of a cit would have been beneath the dignity of any but those very much in love or very much in debt. But to marry a little nobody who did not seem even to possess a pair of shoes would have seemed downright laughable. And why marry a wench who gave freely outside the marriage bed?
But to William Mainwaring it was a very serious problem. He cared not a fig for social convention. It mattered not to him that if he married Nell, half the drawing rooms in the country would be closed to him. He had no particular wish to enter those drawing rooms. The only questions that did occupy his mind were whether or not he should marry her or whether marriage to him would be the best solution for Nell.
There was really little doubt about the first question. He owed her marriage. He had perhaps taken away her chances of making a decent marriage with any other man. At best, he had placed her in danger of being very severely punished by a future husband who would discover that he was not the first to use her. He could have paused at that point and made the firm decision to make Nell his wife. He would not suffer unduly from the marriage, even if his own happiness mattered in this decision. He liked her and found her attractive. What would it matter to him if he did not love her? It was not as if he expected someday to find a bride whom he could love.
But it was the second question that he pondered long. If she did love him, Nell would be happy to marry him. Her life would change a good deal, suddenly she would be able to have all the things she had only dreamed about. And he would enjoy spending money on her, seeing her childlike delight in the gifts he could give her. Yet was it certain that marriage to him would bring Nell happiness even if he could disguise the fact that he did not love her? Even if their social life was restricted, her life as his wife would be vastly different from anything she had known. And must he assume that the change would be all for the better? She would find the adjustment a gainful process no doubt. She had no training whatsoever for that life she would have to lead.
Marriage was for a long time. All else notwithstanding, it would not take Nell long, sensitive as she was, to realize that his feelings for her in no way matched hers for him. He would not be able to pretend for a lifetime.
And it was on this point that the whole decision hinged. Would the unhappiness of being married to someone one loved but who did not return that love be worse than that of being completely abandoned? A year ago he had pleaded with Elizabeth to marry him, even though she still loved Robert. He had enough love for both of them, he had assured her. And he had believed passionately what he had said. Now he was not so sure. If Robert had divorced her, and if she had married him, would it be torture now to be here with her, seeing her every day, loving her by night, knowing that her heart was somewhere off with her first husband?
For the first time, Mainwaring admitted to himself that he was probably far better off away from Elizabeth. It had been a bad year, but the worst of the pain had dulled. There was just the ache left, the knowledge that his whole life was spoiled by what had happened. But he pain would have been constantly present, the wound would have festered, if he had been daily in a position of intimacy with her.
He could not put Nell in that position, Nell was a free spirit. He would not be able to bear to see the light go out of her eyes and the spring from her step. He could not imprison her soul. She would suffer if he left her. In all probability, if her feelings ran deep, as he suspected they did, she would be badly hurt for a long time. But she would still be free at the end of it all. She would probably be a stronger person for the suffering.
There was only one thing that he could do. Much as he disliked having to uproot himself yet again, admit defeat once more, he must leave. If he stayed, he was not sure that he would have the strength to stay away from her. And even if he did, it seemed very possible that he would run into the girl in the village one day. Even the knowledge that he was still in residence would cause her unnecessary pain. He must leave and give her a chance to begin forgetting him.
He did wonder if it was the honorable and the compassionate thing to do to go to Nell the next day and tell her of his decision. He could imagine her perhaps going to the woods for several days before she heard of his departure, waiting for him to come. He could imagine her pain when she discovered that she had been abandoned without a word. He would look the biggest blackguard ever to walk this earth. But equally he could picture the scene if he faced her with the truth. Would she be saved any pain by his presence? Perhaps it would be worse. And, worst of all, perhaps his pity would overcome him and he would take her into his arms again. There was no saying what would happen if he did that. But the end result would still be the same.
There was not much rest that night either for Mainwaring, or for his servants. He wrote notes to all his acquaintances in the area, excusing himself for his hasty departure. He wrote longer letters of apology to the two families with whom he had accepted invitations. His servants packed his bags and prepared his curricle and his horses.
Thus it was that early the following morning William Mainwaring was on his way to Scotland, all but his heaviest trunks strapped to the back of his curricle. His heavier luggage was to be sent on later. It was with a heavy heart that he drove on until the landmarks became unfamiliar. This was a sordid and a shameful episode of his life, and he would not easily forget it. One's own unhappiness was easier to bear than the unhappiness one knew one had inflicted on someone else.
The family was already sitting down to dinner when Helen trailed into the dining room. She took her place without a word.
"Well, miss?" the earl said severely. "Is it customary in this house to come to the table whenever you feel like doing so?"
"I am sorry, Papa," she said. "I was busy thinking and I forgot the time. I did hurry as much as I could so that I would not be dreadfully late."
"Perhaps a removal to the schoolroom without any food or drink would teach you that punctuality is a virtue in this house," her father said.
"Yes, Papa," she replied, her eyes on her empty plate.
"And next time, child, that is exactly what will happen," the earl blustered, unnerved by the docility of his daughter.
"And where were you this afternoon, Helen?" her mother wanted to know. "You know very well that I asked specifically that you drive to your Aunt Sophie's with your sisters and me. It was Cousin Matilda's birthday, and it was only fitting that we all go to wish her a happy birthday."
"I am sorry, Mama," Helen said. "I forgot. I went for a walk."
"There have been altogether too many walks since spring arrived this year," the countess said in exasperation. "Papa and I have been very patient. We know that you are rather strange, child, and that you seem to need to be on your own more than Emily and Melissa. But, really, at your age, you must begin to take an interest in your social duties. If you cannot limit the walks to afternoons when we have nothing else planned, I shall really have to forbid you altogether to leave the house unaccompanied."
"Yes, Mama," Helen answered meekly.
Really, she did not feel like arguing with anyone. She felt mortally depressed, though she had told herself for the past two hours that she was overreacting. William had not been there this afternoon. There was nothing so strange about that. He felt his social obligations, even if she did not feel hers. He was very popular in the neighborhood. Doubtless he had other engagements for the afternoon. She could not expect to see him every day. Tomorrow he would be there.
She must be very careful not to antagonize Mama further. What a dreadful predicament she would be in if her mother's threat were carried out. Not that her parents usually showed such consistency, but she did not want to tempt fate. She would never be able to see William if a groom or a maid were made her constant watchdog.
It would not be so bad, perhaps, she would not be so depressed, if she had not had a presentiment that he uld not come today. She had sat under the oak tree trying to shelter from the chill wind that had arisen since noon and had known that she would not see him. She told herself now, as she had told herself all afternoon, that he would come tomorrow and all would be well. She had nothing to fear until then. They had no engagement for that evening, which might have brought her unexpectedly into William's company.
Helen was so deeply wrapped in her own gloom that she almost missed the interchange between Melissa and her mother. Melly was talking in her complaining whine, Helen's unconscious mind realized, before her conscious mind heard the words.
"But, Mama," Melissa was saying, "I cannot believe that he would have left without a word. Surely something dreadful must have happened to cause him to leave in such a hurry. We were to ride one morning."
"It is most provoking," the countess agreed. "He did appear to show a marked partiality for you. It must have been your excessive modesty, my love, that made him believe that you did not wish the connection. I cannot think what else can have changed his mind."
"Perhaps he thought that because he was a mere mister, he was not good enough for me," Melissa said tragically. "Oh, Mama, what am I to do? We will never find husbands."
"Considering that he is so beneath us in station," Emily added tartly, "I would say that Mr. Mainwaring altogether put on too many airs. He is probably holding out for a duke's daughter. I warned you, Melly, how it would be."
Helen was all attention now. "What has happened to Mr. Mainwaring?" she asked.
"You see, Helen," her oldest sister said crossly, "you will have nothing to do with visiting with us, and then you expect us to relay all the local news to you at the dinner table. Mr. Mainwaring has gone, that is what has happened. The neighborhood is buzzing with the news. He gave no warning, you know, and he had several invitations that he had to decline after already accepting them. For once I must applaud you, Helen, in showing no interest in securing an introduction to the man. He did not deserve such notice."
Helen felt somewhat removed from the scene at the table. Her ears were buzzing. Voices seemed to come from far away.
"He is not much loss to the neighborhood," the earl grumbled into his food. "The fellow's just a city dandy, if you ask me. Won't hunt because of the poor fox! Won't watch a cockfight because of the poor birds! It only made me wonder that he did not carry a jar of smelling salts around in his pocket."
"Is he not coming back?" Helen asked. Her voice sounded surprisingly normal to her own ears.
"It seems not, child," the countess said. "In the note he wrote Papa, he explained that he is going to Scotland for the remainder of the summer at least. And his trunks and boxes were sent away from Graystone this morning."
"Oh, Mama, what am I to do?" wailed Melissa.
"Don't fret, my love," Lady Claymore said. "I talked to Papa earlier about going to London perhaps for the winter. It is only right that you girls should have the opportunity to find husbands worthy of your rank and breeding."
"Mama?" Emily looked sharply at her mother, hope dawning in her eyes. "Is this right?"
"Well," the countess said, glancing anxiously at her husband, "Papa said he would see."
Emily talked about nothing else for the remainder of the meal. It was quite beneath her sense of dignity to appear too enthusiastic about the proposed visit, but it was obvious to all that she was very eager indeed to go to London. Even Melissa's mood seemed to lift somewhat when she was reminded of all the parties and entertainments that winter in the city would have to offer. Why, the place must be simply teeming with gentlemen equally as handsome as Mr. Mainwaring, and a good number of them might even have titles.
Only Helen's mind refused even to consider the delights that might be in store for her if only Papa would agree to let them go. She could not think beyond the dreadful fact that she had been abandoned, left without a word of explanation, by the man who had become her lover. She sat rigidly in her chair while the animated conversation of her mother and sisters continued. She ate without even realizing that she did so.
The days following were the worst Helen could ever remember living through. Outwardly she was more sociable and more biddable than usual. She sat with her mother and sisters in the mornings sewing and listening to their conversations. She even agreed more than once to ride with Melly, usually a great trial because her sister always insisted that they ride at a -sedate pace perched on their sidesaddles. Helen was usually a neck-or-nothing person, and she had a shocking habit of swinging one leg to the other side of her horse despite the restrictions of a long skirt, when she thought herself unobserved.
In the afternoons and evenings she did whatever her family had planned, sitting with apparent cheerfulness through endless visits, listening to the invariable topic of conversation: the strange defection of Mr. Mainwaring. One and all now recalled that they had never quite taken to the man. He had always held aloof as if he considered himself better than they. "Toplofty" was the general term of disapproval for the man whose company and favor they had all courted a mere week before.
And Helen listened to the other topic of conversation, which took precedence even over Mr. Mainwaring when her mother and her sisters and she were alone. Although the earl had said only that he would think about it, it was assumed that the proposed visit to London was quite definite. Mama was excited. She had made only one visit to London since her marriage, and that had been a fleeting one of a mere week several years before. She relished the prospect of bringing out three marriageable daughters and of finding husbands for them. There were many old acquaintances whom she could scarcely wait to see again.
Both Emily and Melissa were almost equally delighted by the prospect. Emily had always considered that she was wasted on the company she was likely to meet in the country. Now, at last, she would find her true environment. She would make a brilliant marriage and would be able to behave with amiable condescension whenever she came home for a visit. She did not, of course, put these thoughts into quite such words, but Helen was able to interpret her sister's feelings with some accuracy.
Melissa was suffering from wounded pride. She had fully expected an offer from Mr. Mainwaring. What was worse, she was convinced that everyone else of their acquaintance had expected the same outcome. It was humiliating to find that he had left without a word to her. It was not that she had loved him. Melissa would have scorned to consider such an emotion when thinking of marriage. But he was a handsome and a wealthy man. He would have made a distinguished husband. It was important, now, for her self-esteem, that she find another husband, equally superior to all their other acquaintances. Perhaps more so. In London she would have a chance to meet gentlemen of higher rank than Mr. Mainwaring.
Helen listened and she behaved correctly. The countess eyed her youngest daughter several times during those days with relief. The mention of London had brought about a noticeable change in Helen. Why had she not thought of it before? Of course, the child was very young and she undoubtedly had a great deal more energy than either of the elder girls. It was natural that she should be bored by the very restricted activities of their lives at home. London was just what she needed. There she would have more activities than even her energy could cope with, and there surely she would find some gentleman who would not look too much askance at her strangeness. The child was daughter of an earl, after all, and she would have a le dowry with which to attract attention.
But Helen said nothing. She did what was expected of her and she spoke when good manners dictated that she speak. But within, she ached with a pain that felt as if it must break out into sheer hysteria at any moment. She would not go to the woods. She would not think about William. But one cannot tell oneself to stop thinking about a topic. In fact, Helen found, the one sure way to ensure that one thought constantly on a subject was to try not to. One week after her last visit to her private hideout, she went back there deliberately, in a determined effort to think through what had happened and come to terms with her misery.
She did not change into the cotton dress. She merely pulled off her riding boots and stockings when she reached the banks of the stream and dangled her feet in the water as she sat down. She had not opened the door of the hut. She had no wish this afternoon to bring out any of her books or paints. She had to think.
There could be only one explanation for his hasty departure. It had to be because of her. There had been no warning that he had been contemplating the move. He had accepted several invitations for dates after his departure. It had to be that final afternoon with her that had decided him. What was it? He had seemed genuinely glad to see her after his week of confinement at home. He had talked to her as if she had been a real friend, and he had held her hand the whole while. There had seemed to be real affection in his manner.
And his lovemaking had been far more tender than it had been on the first occasion. He had not been intent only on the satisfaction of his own desire. She had been well aware that he had used his hands and and lips deliberately to build her own excitement. He had been ready for her many minutes before she was ready for him›, she had known. And even when he had thrust inside her, she had known, somewhere on a more rational level than the one of heightened emotion under which she reacted, that his movements had been controlled. All the time he had been deliberately guiding her to a climax, and only when he knew that she had reached it did he allow his control to break.
Those were not the actions of a man who was considering abandoning her. Unless he was an experienced rake who delighted in his own sexual prowess. Somehow, though, the image did not at all fit William Mainwaring as she knew him.
It was afterward, only afterward, that his manner had been less warm. He had not been cold exactly, or unfriendly, but she had felt a withdrawal. He had been in a hurry to leave. In his earlier mood he would have stayed and held her and listened to the story that she wanted to tell him. He had talked about hearing it the next time, but his failure to make a definite tryst with her had been noticeable. She had felt uneasy even at the time. Now she knew that her instinct had been quite right.
But what had caused the change? Had he suddenly become disgusted with what they were doing? Had she said or done anything to make him feel that she was trying to shackle him? Surely not. She had given herself freely to him on two occasions. He could not have felt himself trapped.
"Oh, William, I do love you so!"
Helen's eyes widened. She had not said that, had she? Oh, surely not. She could not have done so before he gave indication that he felt as she did. Why, then, could she almost hear herself saying the words? When would she have said them? She hid her face against her raised knees and thought her way moment by moment through their lovemaking from the first kiss. No, she had not said a word. And then she remembered curling into the warmth of his naked body after he had withdrawn from her. She remembered him kissing her, warm kisses of relaxed affection, passion gone.
"Oh, William, I do love you so," she had said.
Helen raised a burning face and stared down into the water. For several minutes she could think only of her own shame. Strangely, she felt no shame at all for having given herself to a man who was neither her husband nor her betrothed. But to have told him that she loved him when he had never suggested anything but a physical and perhaps affectionate regard for her was unpardonable. She had been convinced that he did love her, but he had never said so. How could she so demaned herself!
But finally anger took the place of shame. Mr. William Mainwaring had fled from his home, had he, merely because a girl he supposed to be a village wench had tried to lay claim to his affections? He had run like a scared rabbit. It was fine to spend a summer dallying with her in the woods, accepting her free favors, but he was not about to allow himself to be lured into accepting any responsibility for her feelings, He had not even had the courage to say good-bye to her, to tell her face to face that he was going away.
She had loved him and she had thought him worthy of her love. He had seemed a kindly and a sensitive man. She had not suspected him of cowardliness or of moral weakness. But he clearly suffered from both. And cruelty. He was undoubtedly a cruel man. Did he not realize that she would go back to their meeting place and that she would grieve when he did not come?
One thing was now very clear to her. She must not love William Mainwaring any longer. He was not worth the misery that she had suffered for the last week. She was ashamed now to think that she had given herself to a man of his character. For the first time she felt violated and sullied. But there was really no point in brooding on what could not be changed. Only she must be sure that from this moment she looked only ahead. She would not waste another sigh or tear on that man. She would enter wholeheartedly into her mother's plans for the winter. Perhaps in London she would meet a real man, one she could respect as well as love. She doubted it, but she had to have something positive on which to focus her mind for the next several weeks.
Helen pulled her feet from the stream, rubbing them dry on the grass and the hem of her habit, and pulled on her stockings and boots again. She strode across to the hut and wrestled the door open. There was no use in leaving her paints, paper, and books any longer. She would not be coming back. After all, she was trespassing on the land of a man whom she was now pledged to hate. Even the hut belonged to him-she was returning the gift, even though he was not there to know it-and she scorned to use what was not hers.
When she came outside again, she placed her bundle of possessions carefully on the path and closed the door as tightly as the warped wood and crooked hinges would allow. Then she stooped to pick up her belongings again. But she did not do so. She remained bent over them for a while; then she straightened up and wandered with lagging steps and unseeing eyes to the edge of the stream again.
How could she be so self-righteous and so dishonest with herself as to put all the blame on William? She was the one who had led him to believe she was a village girl. She had not told him the truth even when he had asked her to tell him about herself. And what had happened to her was not seduction. She had been a willing partner. William had never treated her with disrespect. And he had never made any promises to her.
What promises had she expected, anyway? Marriage? How absurd! Gentlemen did not marry young girls in shabby dresses who ran around barefoot. Especially when those girls give away their favors freely. She must have been mad to have dreamed that he was falling in love with her.
Perhaps for the first time in her life Helen regretted that she was not like other girls of her class. She had earned correct behavior and attitudes, but she had not practiced them. Instead, she had lived in her incredibly unrealistic and childish dream world, where one could do as one wanted and not have to abide by the consequences.
Except that this time she was being hurled out of the world of dreams and childhood into the one where one's actions had very definite and painful consequences. She had lost her virginity along with her innocence. She had a heart that was painfully bruised. She was beginning to grow up.
And she was beginning to realize that in the adult world one had to take responsibility for one's own actions. She was painfully disillusioned by William's behavior, yes, and she would never be able to trust him again even if he returned now. She still believed his abandonment without a word to her to be cruel. But first and foremost she had herself to blame.
Was she ashamed of what she had done? She was not sure. But she knew that she had done wrong, not just in lying with a man who was not her husband, but in deceiving him. She deserved the consquences that were causing her misery. She had learned a painful lesson.
When Helen finally picked up the assorted bundle from outside the hut, she left the clearing without once looking at her surroundings.
October and November
The Marquess of Hetherington entered the morning room of his home in London, where the marchioness was writing an answer to an invitation spread on the escritoire before her. She looked around, smiled, and lowered her head to the task again. He walked up behind her, bent, and planted a kiss on the back of her neck.
She looked up at him and smiled broadly. "If John proves to be as mischievous as his father," she said, "I see I shall be forever scolding. Look what you have made me do, Robert." She pointed to the letter in front of her, which was neatly written with the exception of final character. It had a long upward curl that took it sharply through the two lines above it.
Her husband did not appear contrite. He grinned. "If all I get when I enter a room is a vague smile, my love," he said, "then you deserve punishment. You will just have to start all over again."
Elizabeth Denning put her pen down with exaggerated care, rose to her feet, and put her arms up around her husband's neck. "Since I saw you at the breakfast table a mere half-hour ago, my lord," she said, "I did r* t see the need of an elaborate greeting. But if you insist. There, is that better?" She kissed him lightly on the lips.
"Minx!" he said, still grinning. "Control your passion, Elizabeth, or I shall forget entirely why I came here."
"So it was not just to see me?" she asked.
"That too," he replied. "But mainly I wanted you to see this." He held up a sheet of paper. "It is from William, love."
"Yes," he said. "From Scotland. It is no wonder we had no reply to our last letter. He seems not to have received it. He is glad that your confinement is now safely over and hopes that both you and the child are healthy."
Elizabeth clucked her tongue. "And John is more than two months old already," she said. "Will William never stay in one place long enough for a person to remain in communication with him?"
"He is coming to London after all," Hetherington said. "That is why he has written. He should be here soon. He was almost ready to leave when he sent this."
"Oh, how splendid!" Elizabeth said, smiling with genuine pleasure. "Is he to stay here, Robert? I must have a guest chamber prepared for him immediately."
"No," he replied. "He says here that he will take rooms as he has always done when in town. It is better to leave it at that," he said, holding up a hand to silence the protest that his wife was clearly about to make. "We are both very fond of him, love, and I believe he returns our regard, but remember that this is likely to be a painful reunion for him. When I last saw him, I fought with him, and when you last saw him… well, we need not go into that."
"Yes, you are right," Elizabeth said thoughtfully, seating herself sideways on the chair before the escritoire. "Poor William. But surely that episode has passed into history by now. Perhaps he has already found someone else, Robert."
"Unlikely, if I know William," he said.
"We will have to take him about with us and do some entertaining here," she said, "and make sure he meets some eligible ladies."
"You are not going to turn matchmaker, are you, love?" he asked with an expression of some pain. "Heaven help us when we have daughters! Come to the nursery with me. I have not seen John yet this morning. I want to see if I can make him smile again. You would not believe me yesterday."
"You are being quite absurd, Robert," Elizabeth said, rising to her feet and smiling at her husband. Two-month-old babies do not smile. They have wind. And you forget that I am quite a successful matchmaker. Lucy Worthing and Mr. Dowling were married during the summer, were they not? And it I who first suggested to her that she talk to him when she sat next to him at a dinner party. 'Ask him about his hogs,' I suggested. She did so, and a beautiful romance began at that very moment."
The Marquess of Hetherington snorted inelegantly. "I dread to think what poor William's fate will be," he said. "Come. To the nursery, woman."
"Yes, my lord," she replied meekly.
William Mainwaring was indeed on his way to London. He had set out two days before the letter arrived in his friend's hand. He was traveling slowly, in a closed carriage that could also convey his valet and his luggage. He was in no hurry to arrive. Although he had made the decision to come after long and careful deliberation, he was still not sure that he was doing the right thing, and he was certainly not looking forward to the weeks ahead with any great eagerness.
He had done a great deal of thinking during his two months in Scotland. There he had found the solitude he had craved since leaving London earlier in the year. It seemed that his neighbors had been accustomed to the hermit habits of his grandfather and him for so long that they did not consider the possibility that now he might be of a more sociable disposition. Mainwaring was quite happy to let them continue thinking so.
He had spent a great deal of time outdoors, sometimes riding up into the hills north of his estate, more often walking endless miles over the empty moors south of the hills. The bleakness of the landscape suited his mood. Although there was an austere beauty in the place, there was nothing of prettiness to distract the mind from its own inner workings.
He had tried to consider the state of his own life and make some plan for his future. He was past thirty already, and as unsettled as he had been when his grandfather died. He had lands and wealth. He even had friends. But he had nothing but regrets for the past, unhappy situations that he had fled from, and uncertainty about the future. He had no goal, no plans. What did he want of life? The question could not be avoided forever. Or if it were, then he would end up like his grandfather, a recluse, with nothing of purpose or of love in his life. More and more he understood why the old man had clung so much to him after the death of his parents. He must have been desperately lonely and unhappy.
Mainwaring did not really want such a life for himself. It was true that he did not find it easy to make friends or even to mix with other people on a social level. He had even somewhat resented the friendly advances of his neighbors at Graystone. Yet now, the more he was alone, the more he realized that people had become important to him. He would never be an outgoing person and would probably never have a large number of friends. But he needed some, and he already had friends whose company and whose love he valued and needed. Robert and Elizabeth Denning were uppermost in his mind, but he could not escape thinking even of Nell. She could have been a friend if only circumstances had been different.
Where had he gone wrong in the last few years? Why was he still so rootless? Why had he come skulking back here, like a wounded animal to its den, to lick his wounds? He knew that, much as he needed this quiet breathing space in his life, staying here was not the answer. He would have to face life again if he hoped ever to achieve a measure of contentment.
And the more he thought of it, the more Mainwaring came to realize that the first thing he would have to do would be to face his past. He could not be always running away. He had greatly valued Robert Denning's friendship. Although their personalities were as different as it was possible for them to be, they had shared a bond. Each of them had suffered; each of them had developed a character somewhat deeper than that of most men about town. And quite apart from his emotional feelings for Elizabeth, he valued her friendship too. And these friendships could not thrive on letters alone. He would have to find the courage to face them.
And it would take some courage. He had loved Elizabeth with all the ardor of a first love, and he had never fully recovered from her loss. To see her again under any circumstances would be painful. But to see her with his best friend, to see her with Robert's child, would be an ordeal that he dreaded. But face her he must. He must see the reality of her marriage with his own eyes. He must torture himself by being in their company for a goodly length of time. He would have to winter in London. Perhaps once the reality was finally impressed upon him, he would be able to come to terms with his feelings, put them behind him, and start a new life. Only one thing he would not do. He would not stay at their home. He could not do that.
Another person was on Mainwaring's mind at least equally as much as the Dennings during those two months. He found that he could not put Nell out of his mind. Whenever he went out-of-doors he could see her. He could see her in the hills, running lightly with her bare feet to the top so that she might see over. He could see her on the moors, stooped down in the heather, examining with intense interest the tiny purple blooms. He could see her among the trees that surrounded his home, her body pressed against a trunk, her cheek against the living bark, her slim hands exploring with sensitive interest its rough contours.
Indoors he could escape her no less. The house was cold, as it always had been. He spent his indoor hours almost exclusively in the room he had made into a library. And when he read the songs of Robert Burns, which he loved, hearing the melodies with his mind as his eyes read, he thought of her. She would love these songs, and she could be the subject of many of them. Many times his hands strayed, almost against his will, to his volume of Lyrical Ballads, and he would read all the poems he had meant to read aloud to her. He had read her only one very short one, and there were so many that he would like to have shared with her. He regretted that he had not had the opportunity to do so.
He felt heavyhearted whenever he thought of her, his little wood nymph. Had he made her unhappy by his desertion? Did she grieve for him still? Had he done the wrong thing to leave without a word? Would it have been kinder to have met her again, to have explained as gently as he could why they could not continue seeing each other?
He found that he missed her. Frequently he would find himself storing some little observation or small anecdote in his mind to share with her, only to realize almost immediately that he would not be seeing her again. Sometimes he would lie down in the heather on the hills, allowing his horse to graze unshackled beside him. He would clasp his hands behind his head and gaze up at the sky and find himself wondering, as she had done on one occasion, why the clouds seemed to move at such speed across the sky, though there was no wind on the ground. And he would find himself wanting her with a yearning that brought an ache to his throat.
He even thought of going back to her. Surely he could make a marriage with her work. He had a great deal to offer her-not so much material things as his friendship and his ability to teach her and to open to her the world of books and of art. And he had a great deal to gain. She would be a sweet and a cheerful companion and always full of vitality and a fresh originality, he believed. And she could bring him great sensual satisfaction. He could not imagine ever growing tired of making love to her, or caressing her to that peak of ecstasy that she had reached during their second time together, and of burying in her sweet, soft depths all his own needs.
But always he would dash the thoughts ruthlessly from his mind. He was being selfish to think in that. He was not thinking of what was best for her. The truth was that he could not offer himself to her unless he had all of himself to offer. And he could never offer that to any woman except one. Marry he must. He recognized the need in himself for a wife, for the companionship and the sense of belonging that marriage would bring. He recognized his need for children, who would give him a sense of his own identity. But his wife must be a woman who would not expect his love. He must choose for himself a woman whom he could respect and esteem and one whom he could not hurt. And she must be a woman of his own class, one who would not have to adjust painfully to his way of life.
So William Mainwaring traveled toward London, knowing that it was that it was the only course open to him if he was to make anything meaningful out of his life. But he felt no eagerness, no impatience to be there. In a few days' time he would see Elizabeth again, and he would see her child. And the wound would be raw and painful again. A man does not willingly hasten toward certain pain.
The Countess of Claymore and her three daughters were all in the drawing room of the rather shabby but undoubtedly imposing mansion they had rented on Charles Street when the earl arrived home late in the afternoon. His wife was all aflutter, he noticed as soon as he let himself into the room, and the older girls, too, were looking more animated than they had appeared in the three days since their arrival in town.
How provoking that you have been away until now," the countess said by way of greeting. "We have but now bade farewell to Lady Medbourne and her daughter. Charlotte Hinton that was. my love. Do you remember her? She made her come-out the same year as I did. We all felt quite sorry for her at the time -such a scrawny little thing, you know, and almost nothing for a dowry. But she did quite well for herself after all. Married Lord Medbourne the year after you took me north."
"Medbourne?" the earl said, brow furrowed in thought. "Old fellow, was he? Red-faced and always wheezing?"
"Yes, indeed," his wife agreed. "I would not have considered him much of a catch myself. He must have been close to his sixties at least, and not at all an imposing figure. But he had the title, you know, and a not inconsiderable fortune, it seems. Charlotte did quite well. She has been a widow these fifteen years, and she has a son and daughter who accompanied her this afternoon. Pasty girl. Rather like poor Charlotte was as a girl."
"Lady Medbourne has invited us to dinner tomorrow sennight, Papa," Emily said in a matter-of-fact voice. She believed in getting to the important point. "Mama says that she must have suitable connections. Soon, it would appear, we will have a circle of acquaintances suitable to our station."
"Lady Bridgemoor left her card this morning too while we were out," the countess added. "Celia Thompson that was, you will recall."
"Well, I do hope that invitations begin to arrive soon," Melissa added petulantly. "It is too provoking to be in London at last and have nothing to do."
"Nonsense, my love," her mother said. "Of course, we will be on everyone's invitation lists once it is known that we are here. But it must take a few days. Papa and I have been absent for so long, you see."
"You are very quiet, child," the earl said, turning to his youngest daughter, who was sitting very upright in the window seat, her hands clasped in her lap. He was finding himself becoming as irritated with the girl's listlessness as he had used to be with her restlessness. “And are you longing for the parties to begin too?"
Helen looked up with an expressionless face. "I shall be happy with whatever you and Mama plan," she said. "I am in no hurry, Papa."
The earl smiled and turned to the rest of his family. He rubbed his hands together. "I have made a few connections of my own today," he said. "I spent a few hours at White's."
And whom did you meet there?" his wife asked. “Anyone I know, my dear?"
"Yes, indeed," he replied, "and I do not know whether to be pleased or not. I believe I might have cut the man, had he been alone."
"Whomever do you mean?" his wife asked, her interest piqued.
"Mainwaring," he said. "He is not in Scotland after all. He has been here for more than a week apparently and intends to stay for the winter."
"Mr. Mainwaring?" the countess said indignantly. "He would surely not have the gall to present himself here. We really have no need of the acquaintance of the likes of him in London."
"Papa?" Melissa had turned pale and clutched the skirt of her gown. "You surely have not invited him here, have you? I could not bear the humiliation of seeing him again."
"It seemed only mannerly to do so," Claymore replied, "especially when his companion was so very civil. Hetherington, my love," he added, turning to his wife.
"The marquess?" she asked. "A very distinguished gentleman, I remember. How comes Mr. Mainwaring to know him, I wonder."
"This is young Hetherington," the earl explained. "The father died a number of years ago, I gather, along with his elder son."
"And he is a marquess, Papa?" Emily asked sharply.
"No less," her father replied. "And he has agreed to call upon us with his wife, tomorrow afternoon, my love." The earl beamed with triumph at his mate.
The countess clasped her hands against her breast. "You see, Emily?" she said. "I told you it must be just a matter of time before we will be accepted into the very best society. The Marquess of Hetherington! But what a pity that he is married already."
Emily said nothing, but resumed the needlework that she had put down on her father's arrival.
Helen continued to sit in the window seat, as apparently listless as she had been since their arrival in London and, indeed, for some time before that. Inwardly she was in turmoil, the blood hammering in her head so that she was totally unaware of the movement and conversation taking place in the room. William was in London! She was in grave danger of meeting him again, especially if her family became acquainted with his friend the Marquess of Hetherington. She could not. It must not happen. It was bad enough that she could not banish him from her thoughts, that she knew him to have completely ruined her life. She could not see him again. She would die if she were forced to do so.
She watched unseeing the hands that were clasped in her lap. How could she possibly avoid the meeting? Papa had said he was here for the winter. So were they. And it was inevitable that they would move in much the same social circles. Helen had none of her sisters' anxieties that perhaps they would be ignored by the ton. Her father was an earl, after all, and he and Mama had connections, neglected as they had been for several years. Sooner or later she would come face to face with William. It had been a sheer miracle that she had escaped him at home. She could not hope to do so for a whole winter here.
He would know the truth. Not that that mattered longer. She could even feel a sort of satisfaction in thinking of how surprised he would be and how uncomfortable to remember the summer. No, it did not bother her at all that the truth would be known. She felt too much contempt and hatred for Mr. William Mainwaring to be at all concerned about a little embarrassment. She could keep the anger and the deep dislike locked inside her as long as she did not see him again. But how could she come face to face with him, probably many times over the next few months, and not reveal to the whole world how strong her feelings about him were? And how could she face having to acknowledge again her own feelings of guilt and inadequacy?
How would she ever be able to be in his presence without being constantly aware of the fact that there would always be that bond between them, unwanted now by either? Had she merely loved him, she might have turned defiantly from him and lived a full life despite him. But he had possessed her, he still possessed her, and she would forever be bound by what had happened between them. She would never be free, but she certainly did not need his physical presence to remind her constantly of how foolish and how deceitful she had been. She had given herself to a shallow, unfeeling man, a man she had surely deserved at the time, and now she would have to watch him mingle with the ton as if he had every moral right to do so. Perhaps he did. She was not at all sure that his behavior was unusual for one of his class.
The Marquess and Marchioness of Hetherington did indeed make the promised visit the following afternoon. They were not accompanied by William Mainwaring, to the satisfaction or relief of most of the family of the Earl of Claymore. As they left, the regulation half-hour after their arrival, the marchioness placed in the hands of her hostess an invitation to a ball they were to hold the following week.
"It is not to be a large affair, ma'am," she said. "This Is not the Season, and London is not as heavily-populated as it will be then. But our mutual friend, Mr. Mainwaring, is newly arrived and we have planned the ball as a welcome to him. I am sure he would be delighted, as we would be, to see some of his neighbors there. I do hope you will be able to come." She followed her husband from the room after smiling warmly at the countess.
"Robert," she said as she sank into the warm velvet upholstery of their coach and made room for him beside her, "I am so glad you suggested that we visit the earl and his family this afternoon. They seemed almost pathetically grateful to see us."
“I could hardly say no, my love," the marquess said, turning to her with a grin, "when the man himself suggested it at White's yesterday. William had a previous engagement but I had none. But you are right. They have rusticated so long, I believe, that London is like a foreign city to them. You see the dangers of staying in the country for too long, Elizabeth?"
"Oh, well and good," she said, "but you know that once John is past babyhood I wish to spend most of our time in the country, Robert."
He leaned across and kissed her lightly on the lips. "And you will hear no argument from me," he said. "There I shall have you more to myself."
"Robert," she said seriously, a frown creasing her brow, "is it possible to help William become attached to any female? He seems to have been quite impervious to the charms of any of the ladies he has met in the past week or so."
The Marquess of Hetherington laughed and took her hand. "Elizabeth, I quite forbid this train of thought," he said. "William is a grown man, you know, older than either you or I. Let us leave him to manage his own life."
"But he cannot be happy, Robert," she persisted. "There must be someone worthy of him. Do you think he became well-acquainted with any of the earl's daughters during the summer?"
"I doubt it," he said. "I don't think any of them is quite William's type. The oldest one is too haughty for her own good. The middle one is shallow, if I may judge on such short acqaintance. And the youngest one… well, what did you think of the youngest one?"
Elizabeth looked at him. "Oh, Robert," she said, "I do hate to be unkind. But was she not dreadful? No looks. No manners. No personality. I feel quite sorry for the girl."
"I found her quite fascinating," Hetherington replied, and he grinned as his wife looked at him, eyebrows raised. "I do believe this afternoon was the first time I have ever seen you fail miserably to draw someone into conversation. Did she actually growl at you, my love, or did it merely appear that way from across the room?"
"She certainly scowled when I tried to commend her on her embroidery," Elizabeth said.
Hetherington leaned toward her until their shoulders touched. "I do not know why we are wasting time on such topics," he said, "when we are all alone together in such a setting, Elizabeth."
"Oh, do behave yourself," she said with a most unladylike giggle. "We are in the streets of London, Robert, not far out on an empty highway."
He sighed. "Even there, you always seem to be terrified that a highwayman or someone will poke his head through the window at some intimate moment," he said. "Not that that ever particularly deterred me, did it, love? It is still my theory that John was conceived on the road to Devonshire."
"Robert!" she said, her face and neck almost crimson. "You know I do not like you to say so. And I am sure it is not true. Oh, do stop it." She slapped ineffectually at his hand, which had already undone the ribbons of her bonnet and was pushing it back from her head. "Have you no shame?"
"None whatsoever, my love," he said, and he grinned down into her flushed face before lowering his mouth to hers.
William Mainwaring propped one foot with its silver-buckled dancing pump against the cushions of the seat opposite him. He had drawn the velvet curtains across the carriage windows. Although there was always plenty of light in the main streets of London even at night, he had no particular interest in viewing other partygoers. He rested an elbow on a satin-clad knee and smiled. Really, he marveled, he felt happier than he had felt in a long while.
He knew the reason for this ball, of course, as he had known the reason for the two informal dinner parties that the Hetheringtons had held in the two weeks and since his arrival in London. Elizabeth was trying to matchmake. Robert had even admitted as much a few mornings before, when the two men were riding alone in the park. He had expected to feel more anguish at the realization. He had even gone home after the ride instead of accompanying his friend to Tattersall's, so that he might examine his bruised heart in private.
And it was there, quite alone, that he had discovered that there was no very painful bruise, only amusement that a woman several years his junior, a woman who had once agreed to marry him, had taken it upon herself to find him a wife. He did not love Elizabeth any longerl That is, he had been hasty to remind himself, he loved her a great deal. None of his admiration for her serenity and her intelligent good sense, and none of his appreciation of her beauty had faded. He still felt his heart lift in her presence as he always had. He still considered her one of the closest friends he had ever known. But he no longer felt about her as a lover feels.
The knowledge had come as a great shock to him. He had taken for granted that that type of love could never die. When he had first met her again-dreadful afternoon-all the pain of his brief courtship and of its abrupt end had flooded back and the wound had been as raw and as painful as it had ever been. She was more beautiful than she had been, if that were possible. Now there was an addition to the serenity that he had always loved. Now there was a radiance, and it did not take much imagination to know that it was Robert who had wrought the change. If he had ever doubted the true feelings of those two for each other, he could doubt no longer after seeing them together. They did not display their love in public, but they did not need to. They glowed.
His unhappiness had been made even worse when Robert, after disappearing for a few minutes, had returned to the drawing room with their son, a blond, blue-eyed replica of himself. Mainwaring had witnessed the look that husband and wife exchanged over the baby's head. It was not a particularly private look or a demonstrative one, but it had told him more clearly than any words could have done that the child was the greatest bond of love between them. He had felt the bottom fall out of his world.
Yet, over the days, when he saw both Robert and Elizabeth frequently, the pain had receded again and he had found himself genuinely relaxed in their presence. They were a warm and a charming couple, radiating friendliness and happiness. Without realizing it was happening, Mainwaring found that more and more he thought of them as a pair who belonged together. There was no doubt about it; they had been born to find each other. He thought of them less and less as separate persons. But it was not until that morning after the ride in the park that he had realized fully what had happened to him. Elizabeth was Robert's wife and it was right that she should be. She could never have belonged to him. He could not have made her happy, and consequently he would not have been happy himself. He finally, and with grateful relief, let go of her with his mind. Henceforth he could relax in her friendship.
The coach lurched to a stop and Mainwaring grabbed the leather strap beside his head to prevent himself from being hurled to the seat opposite. He drew back the curtain and peered out, but let it fall into place again hastily when he heard angry voices d outside. Let his coachman argue the matter out. He had no wish to become involved in a street brawl.
Strangely, it had been only that morning that he realized the implications of his freedom from loving Elizabeth. Two of his trunks, those that contained his less-than-essential belongings, had finally arrived the afternoon before. The servants had unpacked them, but he had instructed that the books be piled in the library, as he wanted to put them on the shelves himself. He had declined the usual morning ride with Robert in order to perform the task. And, of course, among the books was his copy of Lyrical Ballads. Nell. He had smiled ruefully and placed the book on a shelf. And then it had struck him.
He was free of Elizabeth. His heart was whole again. It was possible that he could love again. He had found himself thinking of his little wood nymph all day. She had never really been out of his mind since summer, in fact. But always he had assumed that he could never love her. He had concluded long ago that his feelings for her were mostly physical, that his longing for her was occasioned by the fact that she was the first, and only, woman he had ever possessed. He knew there was more to his feelings than that. He liked the girl, too. She had an interesting and original mind, even if she was uneducated. He was attracted to her as a person.
But he had never even considered labeling those feelings as love. He loved Elizabeth, and he had always assumed that one loved only once in a lifetime. For almost the whole day the possibility that he loved Nell haunted him. He tried to tell himself that he could not possibly love a girl of such vastly different background and station in life from himself. He tried to tell himself that he was behaving with naivete to so exaggerate such a brief episode in his life. The chances were that Nell had forgotten him already. It was quite possible that she had wed some village lad by now.
The carriage jerked into motion again. Mainwaring was not particularly in the mood for dancing. Not that he ever was. But he smiled again, remembering why Elizabeth had arranged the evening. She had probably invited every eligible female between the ages of eighteen and thirty in the hope that one of them would catch his fancy. Dear Elizabeth. He must waltz with her. She was lovely to dance with. The very first time he had talked to her had been during a waltz. She had been so surprised that he had asked her, a mere governess and chaperon at the time, to dance.
What would she say tonight, he wondered, if he were to tell her that he was seriously considering returning to Yorkshire to ask for the hand of a little waif of a girl who did not even possess a pair of shoes? She would think he had taken leave of his senses. He smiled again. He had taken leave of his senses. He was going to do it!
Mainwaring was one of the first to arrive at the ball. It seemed only right that he be early when he knew that the entertainment was unofficially in his honor. He walked about in the sparsely populated ballroom, bowing to distant acquaintances, talking with others. Really he was becoming quite adept at participating in light social chitchat, he thought. He was held up for quite a time by one dowager whose granddaughter was newly arrived in town. The girl was with her, a tall, thin girl who hid her fright behind a facade of boredom. But Mainwaring knew from her eyes that she felt self-conscious almost to the point of panic. He had experienced the feeling too recently himself to have forgotten. He signed the girl's card for two sets and made an effort to draw her into conversation, while the dowager looked on with satisfaction.
The trouble with such situations, he found, was that it was difficult to know when and how one might excuse oneself and move away. Why did such behavior come perfectly naturally to such people as Robert Denning? He was almost relieved to see the Earl and Countess of Claymore enter the ballroom. He had forgotten that Elizabeth had invited them. He had not felt particularly comfortable with the knowledge; he still had a suspicion that he might have behaved a little less than honorably toward their daughter. He had promised to take Lady Melissa riding one morning. He should have found the time to keep the appointment before leaving for Scotland.
However, under the circumstances he was quite relieved to make his excuses to his present companions and to cross the room to greet his neighbors.
Mainwaring felt quite relieved a few minutes later, the greetings over with. As with his meeting with Elizabeth a few weeks before, it had turned out that the actual encounter was not nearly as bad as it had been in imagination. The earl was all affability and Tie countess was civil despite the fact that she seemed to have decided to act the part of the dignified and aloof grand lady. The eldest daughter had favored him with a gracious nod of the head, and Lady Melissa had curtsied stiffly, her face unsmiling. Clearly she was indicating disapproval. But at least the proprieties had been observed and the next meeting would hold no embarrassment at all. He turned to ask Lady Melissa if he might claim a set with her later in the evening.
"Where is Helen?" the earl asked. "Never tell me the child has taken herself off alone already."
"A maid is sewing up the hem of her gown, Papa," Emily explained. "Someone trod on it on the staircase, it seems."
The earl sighed. "Such a thing could happen only to Helen," he said. "The dancing has not even begun yet."
"It was a minor matter, Papa," said Emily. "Here she comes now."
William Mainwaring turned to watch with interest the approach of the elusive youngest daughter. He saw a small girl, much shorter than her sisters and lacking their straight-backed poise. She swung her shoulders as she moved, and strode along rather than walked, although her movements did not lack grace. She wore a pink gown, lace over silk, high-waisted, perfectly fashionable. Yet neither the gown nor the color suited her. Her tawny hair had been piled and curled into a style that might have been becoming if numerous rebellious wisps had not insisted on forming a sort of halo around her head. She had a rather full, almost round face, pretty perhaps had her jaw not been clenched quite so tightly and had not the heightened color of her cheeks outdone the shade of her gown.
"It seems absurd that you have not met our youngest daughter, Mr. Mainwaring," the countess said in her grand manner. "May I present Helen to you?"
Mainwaring smiled with something more than mere politeness. So this was the skeleton in the closet. The girl was so very different from her very proper mother and sisters. He held out his hand for hers and prepared to bow over it. And it was only at that moment-he could never afterward imagine how he could have looked at her for what must have been almost a whole minute without realizing-that he knew her.
For one moment he was caught in a feeling of unreality-almost the feeling one would get if one walked out of a room only to find that one was walking into it. The girl who was raising that clenched jaw and staring with such controlled fixity into his eyes was Nell! She raised her hand and placed it in his.
"I am pleased to meet you, sir," she said. The sound came through her teeth. It was her voice indeed, yet different. The accent was more clipped. She curtsied, a stiff, ungraceful gesture.
William Mainwaring had missed his cue by perhaps only a couple of seconds. No one seemed to have noticed. He bowed over her hand, which still lay in his. "It is my pleasure, ma'am," he said.
Robert and Elizabeth were entering the ballroom to begin the dancing. It was time to excuse himself in order to claim his first partner. He bowed to the family as a whole and turned away.
The Marquess of Hetherington took his wife's arm and linked it through his. He led her in the direction of the adjoining room, where the refreshments were set out.
"Come and have some lemonade," he said. "I do not much care if you are thirsty or not, my love. My only objection to balls-and unfortunately it is a major one – is that one rarely so much as sets eyes upon the person with whom one would wish to spend the whole evening. I have not spoken with you since the opening set, and that was a country dance."
She laughed. "I seem to remember that you used to go and sulk in the library when such a thing happened," she said.
"Ah, but one cannot be so rag-mannered, my love, when one is the host," he said. "One must smile and smile and pretend that the desire to dance with one's own wife is the furthest thought from one's mind."
"Robert!" she said, glancing through her dance booklet as he took a glass of lemonade from a footman. "You have reserved the second dance after supper with me, and it is a waltz too. You have a mere two hours or so to wait."
He pulled a face and then waggled his eyebrows at her. "My main consolation must be that after all these people have left, I shall have you alone for the rest of the night," he said.
She tapped him on the arm with her fan. "That is at least four hours in the future," she said. "We will just have to be patient, Robert."
"We," she repeated, smiling conspiratorially at him. Then her expression sobered. "Robert," she said, "the next set will be starting soon and I promised myself that this time I would see that that dreadful little Wade girl was partnered. I am not sure, but I could almost swear that she has not danced even once. For the last two sets she has been sitting among the chaperons, her chin in her hand."
"I had noticed," Robert said. "In fact, I asked for the last set myself. Do you know what she said? She said her feet were sore from wearing new slippers. She has not been on her feet long enough to develop even the smallest blister."
"Oh dear, I must go and see what I can do," Elizabeth said, depositing her half-empty glass on a tray and walking determinedly back toward the ballroom. "What on earth can be wrong with the girl?"
William Mainwaring reached Helen a few paces ahead of his friends. The set that was forming was the first for which he had not previously solicited the hand of some other lady. He bowed formally before Helen, who was still sitting, one leg crossed over the other, foot swinging, one elbow resting on her knee, her chin in her hand.
"May I have the honor of this dance, Lady Helen?" he asked, his voice sounding strained to his own ears.
She raised her eyes to him without lifting her chin or slowing the motion of her foot. "No," she said, and looked out across the ballroom again.
"May I fetch you something?" he asked. "A glass of lemonade perhaps?"
"I am not thirsty," she said, not bothering to look up at him.
Mainwaring hesitated and glanced at the empty chair beside her. "If you will not dance," he said, "may I sit and talk to you?"
She too glanced at the empty chair. "I cannot stop you from sitting beside me," she said. "I do not own the chairs here. But if you do, I shall move away." She looked up at him then and smiled. Her foot still swung slowly back and forth.
Mainwaring bowed, looked at her intently as if he were about to say more, and moved abruptly away.
Elizabeth Denning, several feet away, looked indignantly up into her husband's face. "Oh," she said. "Oh, I am lost for words. If it would not cause a dreadful scandal, Robert, I would order that horrid little girl from my house. Her manners are quite, quite uncouth. I am so angry I could scream."
Hetherington smiled. "Later, my love," he said. "You can scream and throw things at me in the privacy of our room. For now, smile! I believe your next partner is approaching, and Miss Fitzpatrick will be thinking that I am about to make a wallflower of her."
Helen knew that she was behaving quite shockingly badly. She seemed powerless to control herself. She never did behave with the smooth good manners of Emmy and Melly, of course. She was labeled at home as rather strange. But she had never before been so openly bad-mannered. Mama would have a thousand fits if the girls had noticed and told her about it later. And Papa would bluster at her and threaten all sorts of dire consequences. It was a relief to her that for the moment at least they were not present in the ballroom. Papa was doubtless playing cards and Mama was either doing likewise or had discovered some old cronies and was having a comfortable coze with them somewhere.
It was a relief to know, too, that the worst was over. She had dreaded this evening more than she had ever dreaded anything in her life-no, there was one thing she dreaded more, but she would not think of that yet. For days she had schemed to avoid the ball. A headache would not work, she knew. She had even considered taking a tumble from her horse and contriving to break a leg, but she had turned craven when it came to the point. She might just as easily break her neck, and she would not have liked that at all.
Anyway, she had told herself finally, she could not put off the meeting forever. Even a broken leg would heal before the winter was over. Meet William she must. She might as well get the ordeal over with. So she had resigned herself to attending the Hetheringtons' ball and to coming face to face with her faithless lover.
Not that the decision had made the ordeal any the easier. She had almost missed the ball despite herself. By the time the family was ready to leave, she had felt physically sick. She had come so close to fainting in the hallway of the Charles Street house, in fact, that Mama had remarked on her paleness and had offered her vinaigrette. Helen had declined, but Papa had laughed at her and had actually pinched her cheek, something he had not done for years. He had teased her about being nervous on the occasion of her first London ball.
She would never know how she had succeeded in walking without aid into the ballroom after her hem had been sewn up. She had known that he must be there already. He was the guest of honor, the Marquess of Hetherington had said the week before, and they were late arriving. But she had not really expected that he would be close to the doorway in conversation with her family. Her heart and every pulse in her body had hammered against her as she had walked the short distance toward them. She had no idea how she had kept her face or her legs under control.
But it had been done. She had even spoken to him and she had felt a hysterical kind of exultation when she realized that he had not immediately recognized her. She had felt his shock and believed now that she had even smiled. She hoped so. She wanted above all for him to believe that she cared every bit as little as he did. She was glad that the sight of him had aroused such hatred in her. She hated him now far more than she had in the more than two months since she had seen him last. She was well aware that the feeling was caused as much by the reminder of her own guilt that the sight of him brought as by his own bad behavior. But she determinedly focused all her animosity against him. Hatred would carry her through this interminable evening and through other such evenings for the months-no, weeks-ahead.
Helen had not meant to be so completely unsociable. She had intended to dance with anyone who asked her. She had intended, in fact, to have a wildly good time, to show Mr. William Mainwaring that she was not in any way dependent on him for happiness. She knew that she did not look good. Formal clothes never had suited her, and the pink gown that Mama had insisted on was a worse disaster than usual. She knew that in the last few months she had lost the few good looks she had had. She had not fooled herself into imagining that she might be the most popular girl at the ball. But she would make the most of the invitations she would have. So she had resolved.
But in the event she had found herself in the power of a massive lethargy. She was totally unable to bring herself out of the black mood that had swept over her as soon as the moment that she had lived for in such dread for the last week was over. As soon as William had turned away to claim his first dance partner, she had felt her whole being sag. No one had asked her for the first dance. They had arrived too late for the necessary introductions to be made. Melissa suffered a similar fate. And after the first set, she had started to refuse prospective partners, using a succession of different excuses, heedless of the possibility that two men might compare notes and realize that she had lied to at least one of them.
She could not dance. Her attention could only be focused entirely on the man she so hated. He was devastatingly handsome. She had never seen him dressed formally before. She was quite sure that every female in the room was watching him, either openly or covertly. He was at least twice as attractive as the next-most-handsome man. And he looked so much more distinguished than anyone else, dressed in black, with startlingly white linen, while the other men were almost all in pastel shades.
Handsome and entirely ruthless and heartless. She could not understand why she had not seen it before. No man of such good looks could possibly be kind and sincere. He could hardly avoid being conceited. Such an unimportant commodity as a woman's heart would mean nothing to such a man. He would crush it beneath his heel without even realizing what he did.
She watched him, without appearing to do so, as he danced with one lady after another, conversing with them in his rather stiff and aloof manner. Toplofty, thinking himself better than anyone else. She saw him approaching her when a new set was already forming. Why was he coming? Out of curiosity? Out of a desire to gloat? Did he imagine that she would swoon at his feet out of gratitude? That she would feel honored to be so singled put by the most distinguished man at the ball? By the time he stopped in front of her, she could cheerfully have spit in his eye.
She was not unaware of the proximity of the Marquess and Marchioness of Hetherington as she with William. And she was glad that they overheard. She resented them too. She was not exactly sure why she did so, unless it was the fact that they were his friends. And so handsome a couple and so charming and self-assured. And so happy. Yes, she resented them, especially the marchioness, who was dancing with William and smiling into his face and talking animatedly. She was not in any way jealous, of course. She did not even wish to see William Mainwaring again, and she had totally given up the idea of marriage, happy or otherwise.
Helen looked stonily downward and watched her slipper as it swayed back and forth in front of her.
Helen was depressed. It was scarcely noon and she had still not fully persuaded herself that there was another day to face. She had been out of bed for a couple of hours despite the lateness of the night before, but she had not breakfasted or dressed. She was in her room reading Mr. Wordsworth's Prelude when her father sent for her. Not that she was really concentrating on the poetry. She found it so difficult these days to concentrate on anything or to feel any enthusiasm.
She sighed and rang the bell for her maid. Was Papa still cross with her? Were the scoldings of the night before to resume? They had been very late home and she had felt utterly dispirited, but both Mama and Papa had felt it their duty to take her to task over her behavior at the ball. She could not really blame either Emmy or Melly. It was Mama who had discovered her sitting glumly among the chaperons. The girls had merely confirmed her suspicions that Helen had been doing so all evening.
They had prosed on for so long that Helen had finally broken down in tears, something she hated to do in public. But Papa was not satisfied, it seemed. She changed into a day dress of her maid's choice and submitted to having her hair brushed and twisted into some sort of a style. Then she descended to the morning room, wishing that she had some food inside her to fortify her against the lecture that was coming, though she knew that food would not sit comfortably in her stomach at the moment. She blew out a breath silently through puffed cheeks and opened the door.
William Mainwaring stood facing her across the room, his hands behind his back, his legs slightly apart. He was looking pale, his expression even more austere than usual. Helen stared at him incredulously, closing the door behind her without conscious thought.
"You!" she said. "What are you doing in my father's house?"
"I came to speak to him and to you, Lady Helen," he said. His voice sounded strained.
"Indeed?" she prompted haughtily.
He seemed to be having trouble with his breathing. "I have asked your father if I may pay my addresses to you," he said at last. "He has given his consent. I would be greatly honored, ma'am, if you will consent to be my wife."
Helen continued to stare at him from her position just inside the door. "Have you completely taken leave: your senses?" she hissed. "How dare you come here with such a suggestion?"
He had not moved. His expression was still stern and controlled. "I can understand that you are angry with me," he said. "I did not know who you were."
"Angry," she said. She strode across the room suddenly, color flooding into her face. "Angry? Why should I be angry with you, sir? I am only incredulous at your temerity. I cannot imagine how you could have nerve enough even to come here this morning. But to talk to Papa! And to make me this offer! You can take your offer, sir, and chuck it in the Thames."
“Nell-" he began.
"My name is Helen, sir," she said, glaring at him m a few feet distant. "Lady Helen to you."
He took a deep and ragged breath. "I am sorry," he said. "I have not meant to insult you. I have lain awake all night thinking how I might make amends. I have much explaining to do, I know, and even then much of my behavior is beyond excuse. Please, ma'am, believe that I deeply regret what is past and wish to do something to put matters to rights."
Helen put her hands on her hips and laughed, a short, mocking laugh. "And you believe that matters can be put to rights, as you put it, by marrying me," she said. "I would consider marriage to you only further punishment for my own wrongdoings. I could think of no worse fate than to be sentenced to spend my life with a man of such low principles."
Mainwaring winced noticeably and turned paler, if that were possible. "I have ruined you, Nell… ma'am," he said quietly. His voice was almost pleading. "The least I can do is to offer you the protection of my name."
"I would prefer my own name and any ruin that goes with it, sir," she said. Her jaw was clenched as it had been the night before. She was finding it increasingly difficult to relax enough to speak clearly.
"Why did you not tell me?" he asked, searching her eyes with his.
Helen smiled unpleasantly and tapped her foot on the floor. "Would it have made a difference, William?" she asked. "If you had known I was Lady Helen Wade, would you have treated me with the proper respect? Don't answer that, please. I fear you might say yes, and then I would despise you even more than I do now. Are you one of those men who think it quite acceptable to tumble a girl of no social position, while you almost fear to touch the fingertips of a lady? I despise such double standards, sir."
He hesitated. "You do me some injustice," he said.
"Do I?" she asked. She looked him contemptuously up and down. "I did not notice you breaking a leg to find my fictitious father in the village to offer for me. In fact, you ran in the opposite direction. It was time to find someone new in Scotland, was it? You should be in your element now, sir. I hear that London is simply crawling with whores and lightskirts."
For the first time Mainwaring looked angry. "Such words and ideas do not become you," he said. "I see that I have made an error in coming here today. I apologize, ma'am. I shall not take any more of your time."
He bowed and moved past her in the direction of the door. He paused when he reached it, a hand on the knob. "If I can be of service to you at any time," he said quietly, "will you ask me? Please, Nell?"
She turned to face him, her eyes hard. "Mr. Mainwaring," she said, "you are the last person on God's earth to whom I would turn for help in any situation I can imagine."
He looked at her silently for several moments before letting himself quietly out the room.
Helen reached out a hand to grasp a porcelain figurine that stood on a table beside her. She aimed at the door on the level of where his head had been. But she let her hand fall to her side, the figurine still safely within her grasp. Her shoulders slumped. She was being self-righteous again. Why had she not simply agreed to exchange forgiveness with him so that they could have been free of their mutual guilt and free to merely dislike and avoid each other? She could not seem to do it. She could not forgive him. Was it perhaps because she could not quite forgive herself?
Helen replaced the porcelain ornament carefully on the table. She concentrated all her effort on not crying. Her face became so red and blotchy when she did so. Everyone would know of her misery.
William Mainwaring rode without thinking. When he finally came to an awareness of his surroundings, he was on the Great North Road, London already receding into the distance behind him. He did not know where he had thought to go-back home to Scotland, perhaps. Was the instinct to run away taking over from conscious thought again? He slowed his horse to a walk, but he did not immediately turn back. He needed to be alone for a while yet.
He could not possibly have botched things worse. The past twenty-four hours were like one jumbled nightmare in his mind-no, not even twenty-four. Until last evening, until he had found Nell in the person of Lady Helen Wade, he had thought that perhaps at last his life was beginning to follow some sort of satisfactory plan. Only an hour before meeting her again, he had decided to go back to Yorkshire and search her out and marry her if she would have him.
He still could not contemplate the night before with any rational thought. Seeing her in Robert's ballroom, knowing her real identity had completely numbed his mind. He could not now remember who his dancing partners had been. He could not remember who had been there or with whom he had talked. He could recall only his suffocating consciousness of her presence, at first standing, and later sitting on the sidelines. She had not danced even once. And she had looked sullen and quite unapproachable.
He had looked at her several times with incredulity. It was she, of course, yet she was not the Nell he remembered, the light, dreamy little wood nymph of his memory. This was a girl who was poorly dressed- the color and style of her gown were all wrong. Her hairstyle did not suit her and her face was fuller than he remembered. She would not have attracted him at all had he seen her for the first time that evening, he knew, especially with the brooding looks that were directed most often at the floor.
Yet he could look beyond her present appearance and see the ragged, unkempt, graceful creature he had known during the summer. And his heart had ached for her. Had London taken the bloom from her? Or had he done that? Looking at her minutes before he had approached her to ask her to dance, he had pictured her vividly as she had appeared the last time he had seen her, curled naked and sleepy beside him, flushed from his lovemaking, telling him that she loved him. He had found her refusal to dance a painful experience. He had wanted to stoop down in front of her, put his arms around her, and soothe away whatever it was that had taken away her joy.
It had been a particularly difficult moment later in the evening, after everyone but him had left, when Elizabeth had asked him how he had enjoyed the evening. It had been relatively easy to lie, even to laugh good-humoredly at her teasing and Robert's about the various ladies who had appeared smitten by his charms. But then she had spoken about Nell.
"Was she always so rude when you were in Yorkshire, William?" she had asked. "I do not wonder that you removed to Scotland if that was the sort of manners to which you were exposed."
"The elder sisters have quite acceptable manners," Robert had added. "My guess is that the youngest one has been overindulged. Someone should have given that girl a few good spankings when she was younger. Elizabeth wanted to throw her out when she was so rude to you, William." He had grinned.
Mainwaring's smile had been strained. "I am sure there must have been good reason for her mood," he had said. "She is not naturally an ill-natured girl."
"You are too good, William," Elizabeth had said. "I have quite made up my mind that the girl will not be included in any of our invitations for the rest of the winter. Our friend does not have to be exposed to such uncouth behavior."
He had left it at that and bade them good night. It was the only time he had suspected Elizabeth of insensitivity. But how could she be expected to know?
Mainwaring was beginning to feel cold. He wore only a riding coat, and the weather was overcast and blustery. He wished that he had his greatcoat. There was an inn perhaps a mile ahead along the road. He would stop there, he decided, and have some refreshments before heading his horse for London again.
A few minutes later he was gratefully ensconced in the chimney corner of the inn's taproom, a glass of ale and a steak-and-kidney pie on a plate before him. He was not hungry, but he had not had breakfast or luncheon. He must eat before setting out on his return journey. He estimated that he had been riding for about two hours before he had stopped here.
He had not exaggerated when he told Nell that he had lain awake all the previous night. He had not slept. He had a problem that needed to be solved, and he had no idea how best to go about it. Marry the girl he must. There was no question of that. And that decision was not hard to make. It had already been decided, in fact, though he had thought it was a penniless girl he was going to claim. The problem was how to make the offer without making it seem as if he offered only because of his recent discovery.
He was not sure that he loved Nell. The knowledge that he was free to love a woman other than Elizabeth Denning was still a novelty to him. He knew that he wanted her. Her loss of looks, so evident at the ball, had no bearing on that. And he knew that he was powerfully drawn to her, that he wanted to know her better, because he had the conviction that there was a great deal worth getting to know. But was that love? He did not know.
And he did not care. He would marry her. His final decision had been to waste no time. The proposal would only become more difficult to make the longer he delayed it. Perhaps her unhappiness of the night before came from a belief that he no longer cared. Perhaps if he went to her the next morning and asked her to marry him, she would respond and he would have the chance to explain to her why he had left her in the summer. Then he would be able to assure her that he had been planning to make the offer regardless of her identity. Perhaps. He had decided to take the gamble.
And it had not worked. Somehow it had been quite the wrong thing to do. She hated him and she despised him. And she believed all those things about him that be had hoped to avert. He had felt so helpless against her anger and her contempt. He had behaved badly. And he had acted with a double standard. Although he would dearly have liked to deny her accusations, he knew in his heart that he probably would not have made love to her had he known who she was. He quite possibly would not even have kissed her. It was a disturbing admission to make to himself. He had always prided himself on his treatment of those beneath him socially. He had always convinced himself that he treated people equally, regardless of their rank. And it was not true.
Mainwaring nodded curtly when the landlord offered to refill his glass of ale. He pushed away from him the half-eaten pie.
He had deserved her rebuff. He could not fully exonerate himself of all she had accused him of. And what could he do now? She had made it clear that she scorned his attentions. But he could not leave her alone. He had to marry her. By God, he had taken her virginity! She would not be able to accept any other man under those circumstances, and how would she explain to her parents her reluctance to choose a husband? She really had no choice but to accept him. And she hated him. Poor Nell!
Mainwaring paid his reckoning and walked out to the stableyard to claim his horse, which was looking refreshed after a feed and a thorough brush-down. He swung himself into the saddle. He would have to win her, prove to her somehow that marriage to him would not be the heavy sentence that she anticipated. He would have to show her that, though no angel, he was a man of integrity and conscience. He would have to try somehow to revive the love that she had given him so freely and so trustingly but a few months before.
It was not going to be easy.
Helen was not to be allowed to escape. No sooner had Mr. Mainwaring left the room than the butler was standing in the doorway, bowing and informing her that the countess desired her presence in the drawing room.
Helen sighed. There was no point in trying to avoid the issue. She walked toward the door, which the butler was holding open for her.
"Well," her mother said, rising to her feet as soon as Helen appeared in the doorway of the drawing room, "my own dear child. I knew we would find eligible husbands for you all if we just came to town and if you exerted yourselves. I don't know how it came about, my love, when you met Mr. Mainwaring for the first time only last evening, but such things do happen sometimes, I have heard. And to think Papa and I thought you did nothing but sulk throughout the ball."
"Mama…" Helen said.
"You are really to marry Mr. Mainwaring?" Melissa asked. "I wish you joy, Helen. I rather favored him myself at one time, but I believe I should look around me more carefully before making any choice."
"I think you are very fortunate," Emily added. "Mr. Mainwaring is a very proper sort of man even if he does not enjoy a high rank. Have he and Papa decided when the wedding is to be, Mama?"
"Oh, not too soon, I hope," Melissa cried in alarm. "It would not do, would it, Mama, for Helen to be married before Emmy and me?"
"Well, my love-" the countess began.
"Mama," Helen said, "I have refused Mr. Mainwaring's offer."
There was an incredulous silence for a moment.
"Refused?" the countess said. "But you cannot have done that, child. Papa said that he might marry you."
"But I have said no," Helen said, a slight tremor in her voice. "Papa cannot say that I must marry anyone."
"Helen!" Emily exclaimed. "How ungrateful can you be? Papa has brought us all here at great expense when he would much prefer to have stayed at home for the hunting season. And he has found you a quite acceptable husband. For what possible reason could you have refused?"
"If you consider it so important for us to marry, and if you find Mr. Mainwaring so eligible," Helen blurted, "then do you marry him, Emmy. I have no intention of marrying anyone, now or ever."
The countess had sunk down onto a sofa. "Child," she said now, "what are we to do with you? You are twenty years old; practically on the shelf already, and you behave like a hoyden many years younger. You must marry. What else is there?"
"Mama," Helen said, seating herself beside her mother and taking her limp hand in her own, "I shall stay with you. I cannot marry, indeed I cannot. And I cannot bear Mr. Mainwaring. I should die rather than accept his offer. Please do not try to force me. I shall be a good daughter, I swear. But please do not expect me to enter the marriage mart."
The countess was unused to seeing her youngest daughter so distraught. She patted her hand. "Well, Helen," she said, "I really do not know what is to become of you. And I do not know how Papa will view this. You have made him appear very foolish, you know, child. Mr. Mainwaring had his blessing. I do believe they had even talked about a settlement.” She sighed.
Helen rose to her feet. "May I asked. "I do not feel like any luncheon, Mama. I shall rest in my room."
The countess sighed again. "If only you could be more like your sisters," she said. "Melissa has had two bouquets this morning, and Emily has been asked to drive in the park with Lord Harding and his sister this afternoon."
Helen smiled and made her escape. In her own room she pulled the pins from her head and shook her hair loose about her shoulders. She lay down on her bed and stared at the canopy over her bed.
What had made him come? Why had he made an offer for her? She had certainly given him no encouragement the evening before, and she knew that she had not looked good. She had behaved throughout the evening in a manner calculated to repel any man rather than to attract. Yet he had decided to come this morning, to speak to Papa in a formal offer for her hand, and then to speak to her. How could he have done such a thing?
His reason was obvious, she supposed, and it was one that made her think worse of him than she had already done. He clearly did live by an appalling double standard. The accusation she had made to him in the heat of her anger had been quite justified. He had probably not given her a second thought since leaving her in the summer. A country wench did not merit any concern on the part of a gentleman. It was no barb for one's conscience to have ruined such a girl. But it was a different matter altogether when one knew that that girl was a lady. Only marriage could right such a wrong. It was true that she had done wrong to deceive him. She should not have put his moral values to such a test. But, right or wrong, she had tested him. And she did not like what she had found. She had to despise him for his behavior.
Had he seriously thought that she would accept him, gladly escape to respectability? Had he expected her to so humiliate herself, knowing full well that he offered only because he felt obliged to give her the protection of his name, as he had put it? He must have been confident if he had gone to her father first.
What did he really think of her? Despite his offer, he must really despise her. What woman of her age and rank would have done what she had done? She had given herself quite deliberately to a stranger, when even to have given a kiss should have shocked her. There was no question of seduction. She had entered into the liaison quite as freely as he. It was only now, perhaps, since they had arrived in London that she was beginning to realize even more fully the enormity of what she had done. She saw around her the young girls of the ton, cosseted and guarded at every turn by mamas and chaperons. Most of them probably never had a chance even to be alone with a man until after they were safely married. And she had met a man alone several times and had actually made love with him.
Yes, he must despise her. He must consider her to be a woman of very loose morals. Was she? She supposed she must be. She had suffered and she had been punished for her wrongdoing. She would continue to suffer probably for a long time to come. She could never again live the normal life of a girl of her class. She had accepted almost from the beginning that what she had done was terribly wrong. Yet despite it all, she still could not feel real shame for anything in the past except the deception she had practiced. She should be both ashamed and disgusted to remember that she had given herself to a man who was little more than a stranger. But she was not. The experience had made a woman of her in more than one way, and she would not revert to girlhood even if she could.
Let Mr. William Mainwaring despise her, she thought defiantly. Let him think that she could be as easily persuaded to marry him as to lie with him. She really did not care. If only he did not show to quite such advantage in his city clothes! It did not seem fair that he should have looked so handsome and so distinguished the night before, while she had looked as if she were dressed in someone's cast-off curtains. It was not fair that he had known he would see her this morning and had had the chance to dress in that close-fitting riding jacket of olive green and those buff riding breeches that fit him like a second skin and the highly polished boots. She had felt so dowdy in her brown wool morning dress and her hastily piled hair. And she had felt so unattractive with the extra weight she had put on recently, which seemed to have settled all around her face.
She must avoid him at all costs. She had thought that after seeing him once she would find future meetings easier. But he had made sure that that would not be the case. Now there would be all the acute embarrassment of remembering their interview of this morning. Not that another meeting would have been easy even without that encounter. Seeing him again the night before had only served to remind her of how very attractive a man William Mainwaring was. And disapproving of a man did not take away one's attraction to him, she had discovered with some dismay. She would just have to stay well away from him. The only consolation to her mind was the conviction that he would be just as anxious to avoid her from now on.
Lord Harding appeared to be quite taken with Lady Emily Wade. He was a man in his early forties, a widower. He had spent the years since the death of his wife divided between his home in Richmond and the Foreign Office, where his fluent knowledge of several European languages made him an invaluable asset during the time of the Napoleonic wars. For a long while he had not seemed to feel the need for a new wife. His unmarried sister had moved into his home soon after his bereavement and had looked efficiently to his comforts and acted as his hostess on the rare occasions when he entertained.
But now the sister, at the age of two-and-thirty, had surprised everyone by betrothing herself to a widower, a baronet more than fifteen years her senior, who desperately needed a mature woman to care for his five children. When Lord Harding began to appear at the social events of the ton, therefore, it was rumored that he was finally looking around for a new wife. Lady Emily seemed to be his instant choice, and it was not difficult to see why that would be. She was the daughter of an earl. She was young, yet past her girlhood, elegant and dignified. He was not the sort of man who would be unduly concerned with her lack of humor.
She was invited to attend the theater with him, his sister, and her betrothed a week after the Hetherington ball, a week during which she had driven with him twice and received visits from him on two other occasions. Lady Melissa was also invited to attend in order to even the numbers with a young cousin of Lord Harding's. However, it was Helen who actually did go. She showed almost the only animation she had displayed since their arrival in London when she heard of the good fortune of her sisters.
"You are going to see The School for Scandal?" she said when Emily introduced the topic over tea in the drawing room one afternoon. "Oh, Emmy, I would give my right arm to be in your shoes. I have read the play, you know, and it is enormously witty. I wonder if it will be well-acted. Oh, I do wish I could see it myself."
Melissa pulled a face. "You would not be so eager if you knew what company you would be in, Helen," she said. "Lord Harding, Miss Lane, and Sir Rupert Davies are quite distinguished company, of course, but Mr. Simms! He must be a head shorter than I am, and so thin and youthful-looking that I shall be positively embarrassed to be seen with him."
"Oh, Melly!" Helen retorted. "What possible difference can it make who your companion is to be when you will be watching a play? You will hardly even be called upon to converse with him."
"Then do you go with him," Melissa said crossly. "You would be a more suitable companion anyway, Helen. I am sure the two of you are more of an age, and you probably would not be taller than he."
"Oh, may I, Emmy, do you think?" Helen asked, turning to her eldest sister eagerly. "I promise to be impeccably well-behaved and to smile until my face splits in two."
Emily replaced her cup in its saucer and placed both on the table in front of her. "I really do not see why you cannot take Melissa's place," she said. "Lord Harding asked only that my sister accompany us tomorrow evening. You really must keep that promise, though, Helen."
"Oh, I shall," Helen cried. "I shall be so intent on the play that I shall not have a chance to get into any kind of trouble, Emmy."
"Well," her sister said doubtfully, "you must remember that a visit to the theater is a social occasion too. You are not expected to have your attention so glued to the stage that you totally ignore your companions."
"I shall be very civil to Mr. What's-his-name, never fear," Helen assured her sister.
On the following evening Helen was still excited. She had never seen a play performed before. She could only imagine how delightful the experience would be. She took extra pains with her appearance, insisting on a plain satin gown of royal blue, which made her look a great deal less pasty than did the pastel shades favored by her mother. She had Matty tightly braid her hair and wrap it around the back of her head. It was a new style for her, but it would certainly tame those wisps of hair that always succeeded in working •heir way free of loose curls or ringlets. She thought the braids quite becoming when she examined herself in the glass. A pale face, which had lost its youthful bloom, looked back at her, but she was not concerned a ith dazzling anyone.
Lord Harding had brought his cousin with him in the carriage. They were to meet his sister and her betrothed at the theater. Melissa had been quite right. Mr. Timothy Simms was a very small man and thin into the bargain. Although he was apparently very young, his fair hair was thinning. He seemed to be living to disguise its sparsity by combing it straight up at the sides and piled in the center. His shirt points were so high and so stiff that Helen feared he was in danger of scratching his eyeballs with them. But she was not at all perturbed by the thought of having to spend the evening in his company. She smiled dazzlingly at him and unknowingly enslaved him from the first moment.
She gazed about her in frank wonder when they entered Lord Harding's box at the theater. She did not know what she had expected, but it was certainly not this.
"It is more like a ballroom than a theater," she said wide-eyed to Mr. Simms, who was solicitously placing a chair for her close to the balcony. "Look at those chandeliers and all the velvet in the boxes."
"It is quite a magnificent place, is it not?" he agreed.
"And the people!" she continued. "Do they always dress like this, sir, to watch a play?"
Mr. Simms smiled indulgently and placed his own chair as close to Helen's as he decently could. "But of course," he said. "Attending the theater is a fashionable activity, Lady Helen. No one wishes to be seen to disadvantage by other members of the ton."
"And will everyone quieten down when the play begins?" Helen asked. "There is such a noise now that I can scarcely hear myself think."
He smiled. "A great deal depends on the quality of the acting," he said. "People will listen if there is something worthwhile to listen to."
"And they will carry on talking otherwise?" she asked incredulously. "How unspeakably rude!"
Mr. Simms laughed outright. "You are delightfully idealistic, Lady Helen," he said. "Most people do not come to the theater for the primary purpose of watching a play, you know."
But at that moment the performance began and there was no further chance for conversation. Helen was enthralled from the outset. Mr. Sheridan's wit positively sparkled through the expert performance of the actors. She could not have said afterward if the audience had quietened down or not. She forgot there was an audience. She was alone in the theater, carried body and soul into the world of the drama. It was quite bewildering at the end of the act to discover that there was to be an intermission before the play resumed. Helen blinked and looked around her, disoriented for a moment.
Lord Harding rose and held out a hand to Emily. "May I escort you to the box of my aunt, Lady Downing? She has asked that I present you to her," he said.
They left the box, followed closely by Lord Harding's sister and Sir Rupert Davies. Helen had no intention of moving. Had she got up from her seat and moved out of sight of the stage, the spell would be broken. She waited impatiently for the play to resume. She found it harder to converse with Mr. Simms than she had before. She looked around when someone entered the box, expecting to see one of their party returned. But it was William Mainwaring who was standing there looking at her.
"Good evening, Lady Helen," he said gravely, bowing formally. "I trust you are enjoying the play?"
Helen gaped and suddenly became very conscious of Mr. Simms beside her. "Thank you, sir," she said. "Yes, indeed, I am. May I present Mr. Timothy Simms? Mr. Simms, Mr. William Mainwaring."
The two men exchanged bows and polite greetings. And all three of them conducted a stiff and labored conversation for the few minutes that ensued before Lord Harding's group returned. Mr. Mainwaring exchanged civilities with the newcomers and took his leave. But before he did so, he turned to Helen again and addressed her quietly, but for all to hear.
"May I call on you tomorrow, ma'am," he asked, "and take you driving in the park?"
Helen bit down hard on her lower lip. Just in time she remembered where she was and who her audience was. And she had promised Emmy so faithfully to be on her best behavior. She could not make a scene. And he must have known it.
"Thank you, sir," she was forced to reply meekly. "That would be very pleasant."
And that was the end of the play, as far as Helen was concerned. She might as well not have been there at all, she reflected later, for all that she saw or heard. She could see them out of the corner of her eye the whole time: William, the Marquess and Marchioness of Hetherington, and a slightly older couple, in a box almost directly opposite the one in which she sat. She could not imagine how she had not noticed them there before. They must have come late and she had been so engrossed in the play that she had not witnessed their arrival.
Why, in the name of all that was wonderful, had he decided to pay a call on her during the intermission? Had her rejection of the week before not been plain enough? And why would he want to challenge her rejection, anyway? Surely he had offered for her only out of a sense of social duty. It should have been a vast relief to him to find that he need not marry her after all. Yet not only had he felt somehow obliged to call on her this evening, but he had also maneuvered her into accepting a more private meeting with him the following day.
She did not wish to go driving with him. She did not wish to see him ever again; she certainly did not want to be close to him or to be in the position of having to converse with him. What did they have to say to each other? Even apart from her dislike of him and the contempt that each must feel for the other, it would be acutely embarrassing to be alone and yet on public display with the man with whom she had been so intimate just a few months before. Even during those very uncomfortable minutes when he had been involved with her and Mr. Simms in an absurdly formal conversation, she had had alarming flashes of memory of him kissing her, touching her, his face close to hers, dreamy with passion.
She would merely have to be sick the next day or she would have to think of some other excuse not to keep the appointment. But of course, it would not work. Emily had heard her consent quite positively and quite freely to drive with Mr. Mainwaring. And Emily would tell Mama. And Mama would make her go. Mama's hopes of a wedding for her youngest daughter would be instantly revived. Was that what he hoped for? Did he really wish to marry her?
Helen had the uncomfortable feeling that William Mainwaring might prove to be a troublesome adversary.
William Mainwaring was feeling decidedly nervous as he guided his curricle through the busy traffic of the London streets on his way to Charles Street. For a week he had been looking for her wherever he went, hoping that somehow he could arrange to talk to her, to give her a better impression of himself than he had I ne hitherto. He had racked his brains for a method of approach. But then, when he had seen her the evening before at the theater, he felt as if he had been taken by surprise. He had been as jittery as a boy with his first infatuation.
He had agreed at the last minute to accompany Robert and Elizabeth and their mutual friends, the Prossers, to the theater. He had not wanted to go at first, feeling that his presence as a fifth member of the party would be awkward. But all four of them had persuaded him over dinner that they really desired his company. They had been almost late, arriving only minutes before the performance began. And he had been looking forward to the play. He always enjoyed a sparkling eighteenth-century farce. He had seen Nell immediately, seated in the box opposite and talking animatedly to a young man he had not seen before.
The first act had been completely lost on him. He had hardly glanced at the stage but had looked across at her almost the whole time. There was no danger that she would turn and see his interest. She was as utterly absorbed in the play as she had been with the water when he first saw her or with the sky on the second occasion. She leaned forward over the edge of the box, both arms on the velvet armrest before her. She had looked beautiful to him again. Her hair was drawn back and made her look younger and more fragile. And her face had had that dreamy yet eager look that had attracted him during the summer. He had felt a rush of tenderness for her. He longed to be sitting beside her so that she would turn to him and share with him her enthusiasm.
The intermission between acts had been more than half over by the time he had made up his mind to go and speak to her. She was so obviously enjoying herself. Did he have the right to spoil her evening? Her reaction to him both during Robert's ball and on the following morning had suggested that she would not welcome a visit from him now. Yet if he did not go, he might not see her again for days or even weeks. Elizabeth had finally caused him to make up his mind.
"Have you seen your neighbors across from us?" she had asked. "I am so happy to see that they have made new acquaintances. They felt like strangers and outsiders when they first arrived, I think."
"Yes, I noticed them earlier," Mainwaring had replied, "and was about to pay my respects, in fact."
"Oh, William," she had said, laying a hand lightly on his arm, "perhaps you should wait until Lady Emily returns to the box. Only that horrid little girl is there at present."
He had smiled. "Lady Helen is really not such a horror once one gets to know her," he had said.
"If you ask me," Robert had added, grinning, "allowing you to go, William, is like allowing a Christian into the lions' den. We shall watch from here and come to pick up your remains if it seems necessary."
So he had gone and had found himself almost totally tongue-tied. He could not have said afterward what they had talked about. He did know that he had felt an unreasonable jealousy of Mr. Timony Simms, with whom she had seemed to be conversing quite happily before his arrival. He had noticed when they stood that they were almost of a height, and they had both looked youthful and shy. Perhaps he was too old for her, too dull, to different in every way.
He had not meant to trick Nell. When Harding had returned with his companions, he had prepared to leave, but he had had a last-minute panicked feeling that if he left then he would never have the chance to talk to her again. So he had turned to her, in the hearing of them all, and asked her to drive with him this afternoon. Of course, it had been a wicked thing to do. He had asked civilly, and she had almost no choice but to agree or make an unpleasant scene. But he had not meant to do it; he had not planned it beforehand.
He was on his way to call for her. He did not know what his reception would be. Perhaps she would have found some excuse for not going out with him. She would almost certainly be angry or sullen. And he did not know what he would talk about, how he would broach the subject that he wished to discuss with her. He wanted to explain to her why he had left her without a word in the summer, and he wanted to explain that he had decided to offer for her even before he knew her identity. But would she give him the chance? And would he find the right words even if she did?
One of his questions was answered as soon as he entered the house on Charles Street. The butler showed him immediately to the drawing room, where the countess and her two elder daughters were entertaining Lord Harding and Mr. Simms. Helen entered the room almost before he had a chance to greet everyone, wearing a russet velvet pelisse and brown bonnet trimmed with orange ribbons. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes bright.
Lord Harding and Mr. Simms got to their feet. The latter made her an elegant bow. "Lady Helen," he said, "I hoped to see you this afternoon. Will you be at Lady Kirsten's musical evening tomorrow? I hope to see you there-and your sisters, of course."
"I have been looking forward to it, sir," she replied. "Lady Kirsten always succeeds in engaging artists of superior talent, I have heard."
Helen turned determinedly to Mainwaring. "Good afternoon, sir," she said brightly. "I am ready for our drive, as you see."
He bowed and stood aside for her to precede him from the room.
It was every bit as dreadful as he had expected. She was not angry and she was not sullen. But she was so determinedly bright that he soon despaired of ever breaking through her mask. She smiled constantly and sat bolt upright on the seat beside him.
"You look very pretty, Nell," he said. "Just like the autumn."
"Thank you, sir," she replied. "I considered that the outfit would be suitable for the season."
"Are you warm enough?" he asked. "There is a blanket that I can spread across your lap if you need it."
"Gracious no," she said with a bright little laugh. "It is a glorious day, sir, quite warm for the time of year. Look, there is not a cloud in the sky, and the sun is still quite high."
"Do you enjoy driving in London?" he asked. "It is not any match for the open countryside, is it?"
"Oh, but very much more interesting," she said. "One has only to look around to see all kinds and classes of humanity. And driving in the park is a most exhilarating experience. One can see in one afternoon almost everyone who is anyone, and one can learn a great deal about the latest fashions. The countryside has nothing to compare with such excitement, sir."
Mainwaring was silent for a while. Indeed, turning into the park without colliding with any other vehicle took his whole concentration. It was the fashionable hour, and the day was unusually suited to an outing.
"How are you enjoying London, Nell?" he asked when he could relax his attention again. He turned and looked at her flushed face beneath the brim of her bonnet. "Do you enjoy all the social activities and the •xtra company?"
"It must be every girl's dream, sir, to spend some months in London," she said, "and to participate in the social whirl. How else are we to find eligible husbands and to remain in touch with the important events in life?"
"But I am not asking every girl, Nell," he said quietly. "I am asking you."
She looked across at him haughtily. "And what makes you think that I am any different from the others?" she asked.
"Nell," he said, "not so long ago we could talk to each other, you and I. We could share thoughts and feelings. You were not a brittle little city girl then. Can you not talk to me now?"
"I am a different person entirely from the girl I was then," she said, looking away from him out over the grass and the trees beyond the traffic of carriages, horses, and pedestrians. "I have grown up, sir, and I find it boring in the extreme to be reminded of that time."
"I am sorry," he said. "I liked the other Nell."
And after that exchange, he found, they really had nothing to say to each other. There was so much he wanted to say. He did not for a moment believe that she had really changed so much in such a short time. But he was not adept with words. He was not accomplished at communicating with people. If only he had been Robert Denning at that moment, he thought. Robert would have known exactly how to keep his good humor and how to get her talking. There would not be this almost unbearable tension. What would Robert do right now? What would he say to break down the barriers between them? He tried desperately to answer his own questions. But it was as it always had been with him. The more he tried to think of what to say, the more he found himself tongue-tied.
It was quite a relief to see the Hetheringtons approaching in an open phaeton. He had not been expecting such a reprieve. He had heard Elizabeth say that driving in the park was too funny to be borne. People went there, she claimed, only to show off their new clothes and hairdos and to gather enough gossip to give themselves food for conversation during the coming evening.
She was smiling broadly when the two vehicles drew abreast. "Good afternoon, Lady Helen, William," she called gaily. "Robert and I have decided to join the squeeze this afternoon, too, as you see. It is really far too nice a day to remain indoors, and where else does one go in London if one wants an outing?"
"To tell the real truth," Hetherington added, smiling mischievously at his wife, "Elizabeth has a new bonnet and she had to come here to be quite sure that it is far more bang up to the minute than any other lady's."
"Robert!" she scolded. "You will put me to the blush. There is really not a word of truth in what he says, Lady Helen. Do you not agree with me that it would be so much more pleasant today to be in the country galloping a horse across a wide field?"
"No," Helen said, staring expressionless at the smiling marchioness. "I am much happier just where I am."
"You look very fetching, I must say," Hetherington said, filling the little gap of awkwardness that Helen's reply had caused. "Just like an autumn leaf."
"Mr. Mainwaring said the same thing to me earlier," Helen said. "I suppose it must be true."
Her tone sounded utterly bored. Mainwaring was acutely embarrassed. "I believe we are holding up traffic," he said. "I shall see you tomorrow morning, Robert?"
"Yes, indeed," his friend replied. "The park is much more to my liking in the morning, when it is less crowded. Good day to you, Lady Helen."
Helen nodded stiffly to the pair of them while Mainwaring took a warmer farewell. They drove on in a silence that was even more tense than it had been before their meeting with the Hetheringtons. William Mainwaring broke it.
"I understand that you are angry with me," he said curtly. "I know that you have taken me in disgust for several reasons. I can excuse you for not speaking or behaving as most young ladies would when out driving with a gentleman. But I wish you would reserve that behavior for me. I do not take kindly to your treating my friends in an ill-mannered way. They have done nothing to offend you, Nell. On the contrary, they always go out of their way to make other people feel comfortable in their presence."
Helen did not immediately reply. When he turned to look at her, Mainwaring saw that she was rigid with anger. He stared out over his horses' heads again and waited for her to reply.
"How dare you!" she said finally. Her voice was very quiet, shaking with fury. "You have no possible right, sir, to lecture me on correct behavior. You of all people! I cannot believe that you can have the effrontery to set yourself up as an authority on good manners."
"You know as well as I do that you were deliberately rude to the Marquess of Hetherington and his wife," he said calmly. "I do not doubt that it was done to embarrass me. And you succeeded admirably. But you also embarrassed two people who have in no way deserved your scorn. Vent your contempt on me if you must, Nell. I have at least partly deserved it."
She turned to him and looked full into his face. "Mr. Mainwaring," she said, "when I refused to dance or converse with you at the marquess's ball, I believed I had made it clear that I had no wish to renew our acquaintance. And when you came to me with your insulting offer of marriage, I am sure I made it abundantly obvious that I both hate and despise you. Yet you have pursued me. I had no wish to see you last night, and I had no wish to drive with you this afternoon. I should be happy never to see you again. If I must be rude to your friends in order to be rid of you, then I shall be rude. But I will not be called to task by such as you. I will not."
Mainwaring had paled, but he had had the presence of mind to turn his curricle away from the main promenade so that their quarrel would not be conducted in such a glaringly public setting. He turned to look at her now, pain in his eyes. "Nell," he said, "there is so much I want to say to you. I have behaved badly, I will admit, but there is much you do not understand. I would like to have the chance to talk to you. There were no barriers between us when we first met. Yet now it is as if a stone wall had been erected between us."
"I wish it had!" she retorted. "I have nothing to say to you, sir, not now or ever. I wish to go home."
She turned on him, angry again. "And I have told you before," she said, "that that is not my name. I wish you to stop this curricle immediately, sir, and set me down. I find that I would prefer to walk home than have to remain in your company a moment longer."
"That will not be necessary," he said. "I shall take you home."
"Set me down," she commanded. "I wish to walk."
"No, I cannot do that," he replied. "I have brought you out with your parents' knowledge, and it is my responsibility to see you safely home again."
"Yes," she said, "and I am so safe with you, am I not, William? You will protect me from all the horrors that might face me if I were on foot and alone. Who knows? Some unprincipled man might even consider abducting me."
"That is unfair," he said, his face still pale and set into stern lines. "You know that what happened between us, Nell, was no abduction. You were as willing and as eager as I."
"Yes," she agreed, "to my everlasting shame. Take me home, sir, at once, and I charge you as a gentleman to leave me alone in the future. I might have to see you again in the coming weeks, but I have no wish to talk to you again. Or to your friends," she added.
They drove back to Charles Street in silence. Mainwaring did not enter the house, but lifted Helen to the ground, bowed, and turned back to his curricle as soon as a footman opened the door.
Elizabeth Denning was in the nursery, bouncing her son on her knee. Most of the time he watched her solemnly, drooling wetly from an open mouth. Occasionally he would delight her with a wide smile. It was definitely a smile, she had decided. It was no longer just wind. Somehow he had got into his fist the ribbon that tied her dress below her breasts and was trying to direct it into his mouth.
"No, no, lambkin," she said, gently wresting the ribbon from his fingers. "I cannot walk around for the rest of the morning with a damp and bedraggled ribbon hanging down my front, you know. Shall we find a toy for you?"
She lifted him high in the air as she stood up, and he smiled his toothless smile again. "Just like Papa, lambkin," she said, laughing up at him, "except that you do not yet have his lovely white teeth."
"And a good thing too," a cheerful voice said from the doorway. "Even a toothless son is giving me quite enough competition for my wife's affections. I gather that you have finally admitted, my love, that John really can smile. Quite an accomplished little mite, is he not? But then, how could he avoid being so when he has two such parents?" He bent and kissed the baby on top of his blond curls and his wife on the lips.
"It is your modesty, you know, Robert, that has always attracted me to you," Elizabeth said, lifting her head and kissing him in return.
He grinned. "Here is a strange invitation," he said, raising a card that he held in one hand. "I thought I had better find you out and see what you think before replying."
"Oh?" she prompted.
"Harding is organizing a party to take out to his Richmond home for a couple of days," he said. "He feels that the distance is far enough that his guests should stay overnight. He wants us to make two of the group."
"Really?" Elizabeth said. "We hardly know him, do we? To what do we owe the honor? It really is an honor, you know, Robert. Lord Harding hardly ever entertains. I do not believe many people have seen his home."
"I have been thinking about it," Hetherington said. "Harding has been paying court to that eldest daughter of Claymore's. I imagine the matter must be serious. His name has not been linked with that of any woman since the death of his wife years ago. The outing is probably for her benefit."
"And you think our connection with the earl and his family is the reason why we have been invited?" Elizabeth asked.
"Well," he replied, "William was almost the only person they knew when they arrived here, and we must have been among their earliest acquaintances. If Harding wishes to please the girl, he has probably been careful to invite people she knows."
"Then William will also have been invited?" she said.
"Probably," he replied. "Do you think we should accept, Elizabeth?"
"I hate to think of leaving John for a whole day and a night," Elizabeth said hesitantly. "But it is tempting, Robert. I must confess a curiosity to see Lord Harding's home. And it would be ill-mannered to refuse, would it not?"
"I shall return an acceptance then," he said. "Perhaps we will be needed to rescue William from the lions' den."
"Oh, Robert," she said, "you do not think that perfectly horrid sister will be there, do you? But of course, it is highly probable. I had not thought of that. She will be bound to ruin the whole outing and I shall be very hard put to it to be civil to her."
He laughed. "My love," he said, "I do not believe you could be rude to anyone if you tried. Although, when I think about the matter, I can remember some pretty blistering insults you once let fry in my direction."
"Why did William take her driving yesterday?" Elizabeth asked. "I still cannot understand it, although we talked and talked about it yesterday."
"I believe it is as I said then," Hetherington replied. "William feels sorry for her and is trying to coax her out of the dismals. He has a kind heart, you know."
"Yes," she agreed, "but there should be limits to the amount of sacrifice one is prepared to make for an ungrateful person. Oh, I hope she does not come, Robert. We shall have to protect William from her if she does."
Hetherington grinned broadly. "You are quite irresistible, you know, Elizabeth, when you are angry," he said. He swept the baby into his arms and placed him down on the floor, where a blanket was spread with toys. "I am sorry, John, my boy, but I have a pressing need to hug your mama."
"Robert!" she scolded as he took her into his arms. "Do have a care. Nurse may be back at any moment."
"And would have an immediate heart seizure to find me holding and kissing my own wife," he said, smothering any further protests with his mouth.
All three of the Earl of Claymore's daughters had been invited to accompany Lord Harding to his home and to stay there for one night. Emily was clearly gratified. She had already confided to her mama that if he were to offer for her, she would accept. He was considerably older than she, of course, but he had all the dignity, position, and consequence that she looked for in a husband. And there was no denying that he was a handsome man despite the fact that he was more than forty years old. His invitation suggested that he was seriously considering making her an offer. One did not invite a casual acquaintance to one's home.
Melissa too looked forward to the visit. She had not taken very well with the ton thus far. She had had her fair share of partners at the two balls they had attended, and she had even been sent a few bouquets after those entertainments. But no gentleman had yet singled her out for marked attention. She was somewhat disappointed that Mr. Mainwaring had shown no inclination to renew the attachment that had seemed to be budding between them during the summer. Not that she had intended being friendly with him, but it was provoking to be denied the opportunity to set him down. If Emmy could only become betrothed to Lord Harding, she felt, her own position could only be enhanced. It was likely too that he had invited guests other than themselves to his home. Perhaps some of them would be interesting people.
Helen accepted the invitation and even showed mild enthusiasm about it in the presence of her family. But she did not want to go. She did not want to go anywhere, in fact. The depression that had been heavy on her since their arrival in London and, indeed, before that had not lifted at all. It was impossible for it to be lifted, in fact, but she supposed she had been looking for some miracle to happen. Her gloom had only deepened. How much longer would she be able to go on like this, in a state of indecision and inaction?
Try as she would, she could not shake William Mainwaring from her mind. Why, oh why, had he had to decide to come to London at the same time as they? It was impossible to avoid him, utterly painful to see him. And he made it worse by going out of his way to be close to her and speak to her.
He had wanted to explain his past behavior when they had driven together in the park. Should she have listened? It might have been interesting to hear the story he had made up. But it would have hurt beyond anything to have heard him lie on top of everything else. And there could be no real explanation of what he had done.
It would not be so hard to bear if she could only stop loving him, she thought, or if it were possible to blot out the past and begin life afresh. But neither action was possible. She had only fully admitted to herself that she still loved him after that drive together. It was no good trying to pretend she did not. She would never deceive herself. But she did not want to love him. He was guilty of behavior that she could never forgive. Had he had the courage to come to her during the summer to explain that he was going away because he could never marry a girl of a different class, she might at least respect him for honesty. But as it was, she could afford him no respect at all.
So it seemed she was doomed to love and hate William. She would not have thought it possible to feel both emotions at once, but it was. And she could not continue to see him. What if he persisted in noticing her? She would really lose her temper at some time and disgrace not only herself but also her whole family. Funny to think of disgracing them by merely losing one's temper! As it was, she had behaved very badly. She did not care about the way she had spoken to him both at the ball and in the park. But she knew she had been rude to the Hetheringtons, without any cause whatsoever except that they were his friends. William had been quite right about that. It was probably that fact that had made her so angry with him.
She even wondered if she owed an apology to the marquess and his wife. But it was hard to apologize when the offense had not been a really open one. And she did not feel like apologizing. She really did dislike them. But why? Just because they were William's friends? If she was totally honest with herself, she would have to admit that there was more to it than that. They were such an attractive couple, good-looking and vibrant with life, while she felt so dull and so lackluster, especially now. And they were so clearly happy with each other. They were not two individuals, but a couple, it seemed. She had to admit to jealousy, a burning envy. Much as she had tried to convince herself to the contrary, she would have liked a marriage like that. But it was impossible now.
She would go with Emmy and Melly to Lord Harding's house, Helen decided, but after that she would have to do something, make some decision about her future. She could not go on much longer like this. Until then she would block all her problems from her mind.
Lord Harding had all his guests gather at his London home so that they might travel to Richmond together. It was a beautiful day, one of those crisp days of autumn when the sun shines and the air is still and one feels that summer is heavy and lifeless in comparison. He was in a good mood. Lady Emily Wade and her two sisters had accepted his invitation; his courtship of the former was progressing quite satisfactorily. Once he had seen her in the setting of his favorite home and assured himself that she suited it, he would pay a call on her father and make arrangements for the nuptials. He had no doubt that she would accept him.
As for his other guests, all had accepted and had arrived on time for a morning start. There were his sister, Sophie Lane, and Sir Rupert Davies; young Timothy; his sister's friend, Miss Janet Ashley, and her brother, Mr. Rodney Ashley; Mr. William Mainwaring; and the Marquess and Marchioness of Hetherington. He was not closely acquainted with any of the last three, but they were apparently friends of Lady Emily's, and he wished her to feel comfortable during the outing.
William Mainwaring had guessed that Helen would be one of the party. The purpose of the visit was an open secret. If Harding were planning to make the eldest girl his bride, it stood to reason that the other two sisters would be among his guests. He was not quite sure how he felt about the situation. Since his drive in the park with Nell, he had not been at all sure that it was possible to break through the barrier she had erected between them. If he was to talk to her again, he would have much preferred a more private setting than they were likely to find during these two days.
He did not trust her, either, to confine her disapproval to him. He could have faced with some resignation the prospect of her singling him out for a public setdown. But he feared that she would again treat Robert and Elizabeth with less than good manners. Perhaps she would even go beyond that. He would have to try to avoid such a situation if he possibly could. Perhaps he could ignore her completely.
Could he do so, though? He was not sure that it was possible. He could not see her without feeling a strong attraction to her. This, despite the fact that she made no effort to look her best or to behave in a pleasing manner. Seeing her sullen, ill-mannered, and obviously unhappy made his heart ache. She had been such a vibrant yet dreamy little thing when he first knew her. She had seemed a part of the beauty and innocence of the woods around her. And the weight of responsibility was heavy on him. Had he caused the change in her?
He feared there was no doubt that he had. She had given herself to him without thought or conscious decision there in the woods. It had been an unreal atmosphere, in which she had been unable to apply the codes that her upbringing must have instilled in her. And clearly she was bitterly regretting what had happened. She felt herself ruined, no doubt, unable to throw herself wholeheartedly into the life of the ton, unable to encourage any other man. Yet she would not accept his offer. She saw him as her seducer and hated him for it. She would not marry him even for the sake of restoring respectability to her life. Dear Nell! She was high-principled, after all.
The ladies rode in two carriages, while the men rode close to them. Helen and Elizabeth had each made an effort to be in different carriages. Neither felt comfortable at the prospect of being thrown into company with the other for almost two whole days. Helen, in fact, was badly shaken. She had not known who Lord Harding's guests were to be. It had never once crossed her mind that perhaps William and the marquess and marchioness would be of their number. She knew of no friendship between her sister's suitor and them. It took her a while to realize that it was her sister's connection to them that had caused them to be invited. Of course. Lord Harding was clearly trying to fix his interest with Emmy. He had invited those three because they were her earliest acquaintances in London.
Helen felt utterly trapped. It was a relatively small party. It would be impossible to avoid them for all the hours that lay ahead. And it was too late by the time she knew the truth to find a way out of going herself. She was already at Lord Harding's London house. So she sat in the carriage, listening halfheartedly to the animated conversation between Sophie Lane and Janet Ashley, sitting side by side on the seat opposite. Emmy and Melly were in the other carriage with the marchioness. Helen was suffocatingly aware of William, tall and handsome and grim on his horse outside, in view almost every time she looked out of the window, though he did not approach the carriage once during the journey.
The afternoon and the formal dinner passed agreeably for almost everyone. A late luncheon was awaiting them when they arrived, and afterward the ladies retired to the rooms that had been prepared for them to rest after the journey. Later Lord Harding took some of his guests on a walk around his very large garden, while the less energetic stayed in the house to play billiards or merely to converse around the cozy fire that had been lit in the drawing room. They all retired again before dinner in order to rest and get ready for the evening.
Lord Harding was feeling pleased with himself by the time dinner was over. Lady Emily Wade had behaved with the modest self-assurance that he desired in a wife. She had admired his home and his garden, yet with a restraint that did not suggest a greed to make them her own. She had sat to his right at both luncheon and dinner and had conversed sensibly with both him and her near neighbors. Perhaps, if the opportunity presented itself, he thought, he would talk to her later in the evening. She was, after all, of age, and talking to her father was a formality rather than a strict necessity.
Melissa was feeling moderately contented. She had succeeded in singling Mr. Rodney Ashley out from the rest of the group that had gone walking earlier and found him to be an agreeable young man, even if not a particularly forceful character. She had made a point of being close to him when dinner was announced, and he had led her in and seated himself next to her. At least she was showing Mr. Mainwaring that she was in no way pining for his attentions.
William Mainwaring himself was beginning to breathe more easily. So far he had succeeded in keeping both himself and the Hetheringtons away from Nell. All three of them had chosen to remain at the house during the afternoon. He was not sure if Elizabeth and Robert, like him, had deliberately stayed back when it became clear that Nell intended to go. It hurt him more than he would admit to feel that perhaps his friends were deliberately avoiding her, but it was nevertheless a relief. She was very quiet today. He had hardly heard her voice, even at the dinner table, when she was sitting two seats removed from his. But it was not a contented quiet, he felt. Her face was pale and rigidly set. He did not wish to provoke any unpleasantness in public.
It had been a nightmare of a day for Helen. She had held grimly to her self-control, but she felt like an animal caught in a trap. She felt suffocated for air. If only she could get away! She had thought of pleading illness and returning home, but doing so would attract too much attention. She had flirted desperately with Mr. Simms over luncheon but had realized with dismay that he was very responsive. She must not deliberately capture the poor man's heart when she knew she might leave him hurt. She knew too well what such treatment felt like.
Unfortunately, Mr. Simms had stayed close to her all through the afternoon, and he had led her in to dinner and talked to her throughout. Perhaps it was a good thing. At least his presence gave her good reason to stay away from the three people she wished to avoid. But now she had the added problem of being civil to him while not in any way encouraging his advances. And she could not avoid watching the Hetheringtons in the drawing room before dinner, her arm linked through his, conversing with perfect amiability to all around them, but occasionally glancing at each other with open affection. And she was forced to watch William cross the room to Janet Ashley and offer her his arm in to dinner, and to listen to his voice as he talked to her during the meal.
Yet, by the time dinner was over, she was at least pleased that there had been no confrontation. If they could just get through the evening as they had the day, they could all go home in the morning and breathe easily again. Emmy at least looked happy. It was clearly only a matter of time before she was betrothed to Lord Harding. He was a thoroughly dry old stick in Helen's estimation and not without a large sense of his own importance. But he would, undoubtedly, be a good catch for Emmy. Life as Lady Harding would suit her down to the ground.
Sophie had risen from the table, and Helen took her cue, as did the other ladies, to leave the gentlemen to their port. She followed the others to the drawing room. Most of them immediately clustered around the pianoforte. Helen would have sat down close to the fire had not the marchioness done so first. Helen had no desire for a t?te-a-t?te with that lady. She lingered close to the others while it was decided that Melly should play first and Emmy sing.
They were still arranged thus when the gentlemen joined them. Mr. Simms immediately singled out Helen.
"Do you play?" he asked. "I am sure we would all like to hear you."
"Yes," she said, "I do play, but only for my own amusement, sir."
Lord Harding was standing close, having approached the instrument to congratulate Emily on the song she had just finished. "I'll wager you are being too modest, Lady Helen," he said. "Your sisters are both accomplished musicians. I would expect that you are in no way inferior. Please favor us with a piece."
"I would rather not," she said. "Really, I have not been used to playing in public as my sisters have."
"Then sing for us at least," Mr. Simms persisted. "I am sure you must have a sweet voice. Your sister will remain at the pianoforte and accompany you, I am sure." He smiled at Melissa, who still occupied the stool.
Helen's hands were opening and closing at her sides. She was trying hard to maintain her control, though she felt as if the nightmare of the day were reaching a climax. "I don't sing," she said.
"Perhaps a duet," he suggested. "I sing a little myself. Surely we can find a song that we both know. You can play while I sing."
Her hands were clenched into fists now, her knuckles white against the sides of her gown. "I think not," she said, forcing a smile. She could feel her control slipping.
Mr. Simms smiled back and opened his mouth to continue his persuasions.
A hand grasped Helen lightly by the arm. "Lady Helen is tired, I believe," William Mainwaring said. "It has been a long and busy day." He turned to smile down at her. "Perhaps you are ready for that walk in the garden we talked about earlier? Or are you too tired?" He would allow her a way out if she wanted it.
She looked blankly back at him for a moment, but he felt the muscles of her arms relax as she unclenched her hands. "No, I am not too tired," she said. "Fresh air and a walk are just what I need."
"Go and fetch your cloak, then," he said. "It will be chilly outside, I think."
She went from the room in a daze.
He held the front door open for her, waving aside the footman who jumped forward for the purpose. It was not a dark night. The sky was still as clear as it had been all day, and the nearly full moon and the stars gave enough light that they did not need to stay on the terrace that circled the house. When they had descended the stone steps to the cobbled courtyard before it, William Mainwaring took Helen's arm and linked it through his.
She felt herself grow tense. He had touched her briefly before, when they were introduced at the ball and when he had helped her into and out of his curricle the afternoon they had driven together. But those had not been prolonged contacts. Now she could feel the muscles of his arm through the thickness of his greatcoat, and her shoulder rested against his upper arm. She felt small and fragile again, as she had when they had become lovers. And she wanted above everything else to close her eyes and lay her head against his shoulder and trust to his strength to bear all her burdens.
She had very nearly cracked back there in the drawing room. One moment more and she would have been screaming with fury at poor Mr. Simms and Lord Harding. And over what? Just a small matter of playing the pianoforte and singing. It was too ghastly a thought to bear contemplation. She would have horribly embarrassed both herself and everyone else present. But more serious than that, she might have jeopardized Emily's chances with Lord Harding. He might not want a bride with a sister who could so lose all sense of propriety. Though soon enough he would know anyway. William had saved her on this occasion. There could be no doubt that he had sensed her mood and had done what he could to avert trouble. She had to feel some gratitude.
They walked in silence for several minutes, threading their way slowly among the graveled walks of the formal gardens that stretched for several hundred yards before the house. He was the first to speak.
"What is it, Nell?" he said quietly. "What is it that is making you so very miserable?"
She wanted to give him a tart answer. She opened her mouth to do so. But the words would not come. The fight had gone completely out of her for the present. She hung her head and said nothing.
"Is it me?" he asked. "Have I caused all this change? I can hardly recognize in you the carefree little wood nymph that I once knew."
"Don't," she murmured.
"Don't," she repeated. "Don't, don't!" She tried to pull her hand free of his arm, but he would not let her go-
"Nell, you are not crying, are you?" he asked, turning to her and trying to see into her face.
"No," she said, but her voice came out on such a quaver that she gulped and made matters worse.
"You are crying!" he said, aghast, and he finally let go of her arm and drew her into his arms, cradling her head against the capes of his coat. "Don't. Oh please, don't. Tell me what I can do, Nell. I know I have hurt you dreadfully, but I do not know what I can do to make amends."
"There is nothing," she said into the cloth of his coat. He had to bend his ear closer to hear the words between her sobs. "There is nothing you can do for me, William. Neither of us is quite the person I thought, and it is too late now to change that. There is nothing you can do. Take me back, please."
"You are in such pain," he said, laying his cheek against the top of her head. "And you have been like this since I met you here. I have to do something, Nell. I cannot see you destroy yourself like this. Will it help if I tell you something about myself and why I left you as I did in the summer?"
"No, it would not help at all," she said, pulling her head away from his coat, though he still held her firmly against him. "I do not want to talk about that."
"Would you believe me if I told you that I was planning to leave for Yorkshire to find you and ask you to be my wife before ever I met you here and discovered who you really were?"
"Oh, no," she said wildly. "Don't say that. Don't lie, William. I have little enough to admire you for as it is."
"You have cast me in the part of the villain, I see," he said sadly, "and I can say nothing to redeem myself in your eyes, Nell." He reached up a hand and put behind her ear a lock of wayward hair that had worked loose from her braids. "We were friends once."
She stared back at him, feeling more miserable than she could ever remember feeling. He could be so convincing when one was close to him. She was suffocated by regrets for what might have been.
And then he was kissing her. And she was quite powerless to resist him. She was too tired and too weak to do anything but put one arm up on his broad and strong shoulder and thread the fingers of the other hand through his wind-ruffled hair. And she relaxed her body full against his and surrendered to his embrace. He was so much bigger than she, so much stronger. His hand on the back of her head was warm and steady. His mouth covered hers with firm assurance, and his tongue gently caressed her lips before taking warm possession of her mouth. In a moment she would begin to think… in a moment she would push away from him.
"Nell," he said, his lips against her throat, "let us put the past behind us. Let it be as if we met but today. We will start anew and I shall court you as I should. Let us forgive and forget. Shall we?"
The words were hypnotic. More than anything else in the world she wanted to agree with him, to look up and abandon herself to her love for him. But she could not, dared not trust him again. He could not love her. He wanted to do what was proper because she was Lady Helen Wade. She hardened her heart.
Helen pulled her head back from him so that they were looking into each other's eyes. Hers were clear again. Gone was the languor of a few moments before. "The past is with us whether we wish it to be or not, William," she said. "I at least can never be free of it. And I can neither forgive nor forget. I did not meet you today. I met you several months ago and I know too much about you to wish for any courtship."
He took a deep breath. "I see you are inflexible," he said. "You want someone perfect, Nell, and perfection does not exist in this life. Can you not make allowances for my weakness when you have been weak yourself?"
Her eyes flashed. "My only weakness was to be deceived by a man like you," she said.
"No," he said. They were standing facing each other now, no longer touching. "Your upbringing must have taught you that even to be alone with a man without your parents' close chaperonage was unacceptable behavior. Yet you did not avoid a second private meeting with me. You did not try to prevent me from kissing you, and when I gave you the chance to avoid lying with me, you did not take it. You quite knowingly gave me your virginity, Nell. You did wrong according to the code by which our society lives. A serious wrong. Can you not, then, have more sympathy with me?"
"How dare you stand there and point out my transgressions!" Helen said, her eyes blazing. Her hands were clenched into fists at her sides again. "You sinned equally, sir. You sought me out a second time and you chose to kiss me. You chose to come back yet again and… and m-make love to me. I believe we are equal on that score. It is not for that that I have come to hate you. What I cannot forgive is your dishonesty and cowardice. You could not face me and tell me that you had grown tired of me, that you felt no responsibility for a girl of my apparent station in life."
"Dishonesty!" he said. His face was very grim. "I do not believe I have any monopoly on dishonesty, ma'am. I do not believe I am too hard of understanding, but it seems to me that you spoke not one word to suggest your real identity. Indeed, I am convinced that you deliberately set out to deceive me. Even your voice was different. You did not speak there as you do here, in the voice of an educated and cultured woman. How could you have allowed me to go on believing a lie when we had become lovers? I felt close to you. I thought there were no barriers between us."
"Obviously there were," she said. "You did not know I was living a lie, and I did not know that you were merely using me because you thought me a girl of no account."
He made an impatient gesture. "Do you know," he said, "I am glad now that you did not accept my offer. I do not think I would want a wife who believes only she has the right to err, and who has no tolerance at all for the failings of others. I would not want such a woman to be the mother of my children."
"Ohhh!" she cried. It came out on a long wail. "Oh, how could you? How could you!" She began to sob again, loud uncontrolled sobs, which sounded almost as if they were tearing her apart.
Mainwaring reached out for her. She was clearly beside herself. But she slapped his hands away and turned from him.
"Nell," he said.
"Leave me alone!" she cried. "Oh, how could you! I'll kill myself. I swear I'll kill myself."
He reached for her again, in real alarm this time. But she tore her arm out of his grasp and started to run toward the house. She stumbled once, but she picked herself up before she fell completely to the ground, and continued to run. Mainwaring stayed where he was, watching her panicked departure and listening to her sobs. Finally, as she disappeared through the door, he began to hurry and then to run after her.
Two tables had been set up for cards in the drawing room. The only guests who were not playing were Elizabeth Denning and Mr. Simms. The latter was seated at the pianoforte, playing apparently for his own amusement. Elizabeth was standing behind her husband's chair, looking at his hand of cards, when William Mainwaring entered the room. He crossed to the tea tray, which was still set on a table close to the fireplace, and looked speakingly at her.
She smiled and walked toward him. "Are you ready for tea, William?" she asked. But when she looked more closely, she could see that his face was pale and his hair disheveled from the outdoors. "What is wrong?"
"Elizabeth," he said, placing himself so that his back was to the company, "go to her, please. She is probably in her room and she is very upset. She may need you."
"Lady Helen?" she asked, her eyes large with surprise. "Oh, no, William. I am not the person to speak with her. If there is something seriously amiss, one of her sisters should be sent up to her. Shall I call Lady Emily?"
"Elizabeth, please," he said. "Her sisters will not do at all. You have a much better way with people. You will be able to calm her."
"I cannot," she said, her hand creeping up to her throat. "She does not like me, William. I could have no influence with the girl at all. What has happened?"
His eyes were wild, she noticed now. "Go to her, please!" he said. "For my sake, Elizabeth? I love her!"
She stared at him wide-eyed for a moment longer, then turned without another word and hurried from the room. Mainwaring looked after her, the horrible, nightmare suspicion growing in his mind.
No one answered the door to Elizabeth's knock, and the room, she saw when she opened the door hesitantly, was in darkness. But she looked along the corridor, saw that there was a branched candlestick on a table close by, and picked it up. By its light she could see that the room was indeed occupied. Lady Helen was lying facedown diagonally across the bed. She still wore the cloak that she had put on for her walk with William. Her hands were clenched in loose fists on either side of her head. Elizabeth put the candlestick down on a dresser and quietly closed the door.
"Can I be of any help, Lady Helen?" she asked.
There was no answer.
"Will you not speak to me?" Elizabeth said. "I would like to help if I may."
"Go away!" the girl's voice said, muffled by the bedclothes.
Elizabeth sighed. "No," she said, "I will not do that. I can see that something has happened to upset you greatly, and I believe you need company even if you will not admit it. I shall sit here quietly if you do not wish to talk immediately. Shall I take your cloak?" She reached out gently to ease it away from the girl's shoulders.
Helen whirled around on the bed and slapped at Elizabeth's hands. "Leave me alone," she said. "Go away! I do not need you or anybody."
Her eyes were so full of hatred that Elizabeth straightened up and moved back a step. "What have I done to you?" she asked gently. "I cannot recall anything that might have offended or hurt you. But you have always disliked me. I want to be your friend. I believe you need one, Helen. I doubt if I have ever known anyone as unhappy as you."
"What do you know of unhappiness?" Helen asked passionately. She jumped to her feet, tore off her cloak, and flung it at a chair. "For some people life is always perfect, is it not? You have beauty and position. You have a husband who dotes on you and whom you adore. You have a son. You have a home and money and security and… and…"
"Is that what has bothered you?" Elizabeth asked, and she reached out a hand and touched Helen's arm. The girl tensed and pulled away. "I was wrong a moment ago when I said I had never known anyone as unhappy as you. I have known someone. Myself, Helen."
Helen made an impatient gesture and turned away to sit at the end of the bed.
"I have been married for seven years," Elizabeth said, "and only the first two days of that time and the last year have been spent with my husband."
Helen turned her head to look at her, but she said nothing.
"We were separated by the wickedness of two men and by a terrible misunderstanding," Elizabeth continued. "If we had not met again quite by accident little more than a year ago, we might never have learned the truth. Even then, it is miraculous that the truth became known. We were both so bitter by that time, each blaming the other for the separation, that we were reluctant to talk. I still shudder to think that at this moment I might be in Yorkshire, a governess, and Robert might be in London or at Hetherington Manor, alone. You see, Helen, most people suffer to a greater or lesser degree at some time during their lives. Those of us who are very fortunate also know a great deal of happiness. I am fortunate. The last year has healed many of the wounds of the previous six years."
"I did not know," Helen said tonelessly. "I am sorry."
"You need not be," Elizabeth said. "You are quite right. At present I have all the blessings in life that any person could want. Clearly you do not. But my own sufferings have made me sympathetic to those of other people, Helen, and I am a good listener. Will you not confide in me? Sometimes it is far easier to talk to a stranger than to a friend or a relative."
"No, there is nothing," Helen said, shaking her head, "nothing to tell. I am sorry if I have spoiled the evening for everyone. Truly sorry. We will all go home tomorrow and I shall not embarrass anyone with my company again."
"But, my dear," Elizabeth said, "you cannot shut yourself away from all company. You are young and you should be enjoying yourself, meeting other people of your age. Can you not put your unhappiness behind you and start afresh?"
"No," Helen said.
"I see," said Elizabeth. She hesitated. "Is it William, Helen? Has something happened between you two?"
"I said I did not wish to talk!" Helen said sharply. "I hate Mr. Mainwaring."
Elizabeth looked at the girl's sullen face for a few moments in silence. "I am sorry I cannot help you," she said. "If there is anything I can do for you tonight or tomorrow, will you send for me?" When Helen did not answer, she turned and crossed to the door.
"Oh," Helen wailed, "help me. Please help me!" Her hands covered her face when Elizabeth turned, and she doubled over to put her head in her lap.
Elizabeth knelt in front of her and put her own hands over the back of the girl's head. "Oh, what is it, Helen?" she said.
The girl's sobs were so convulsive that she could say nothing for a while. "What am I to do?" she managed to gasp out eventually. "What am I to do? Oh, what am I to do?"
Elizabeth held the girl cradled in her arms. She rocked her, without saying a word.
Helen looked up at last, her eyes filled with tears and horror. "I am increasing," she said. "I am with child."
Elizabeth closed her eyes. "Oh, God," she said.
"I do not know what to do," Helen said, "or where to go. I keep expecting to wake up and find it all a dream. But my dresses are beginning to tighten already. I shall not be able to keep it a secret much longer. Oh, what am I to do?"
"Were you ravished?" Elizabeth asked. "Helen, if it is true, you must have the courage to go to your parents. The man must be brought to justice. You cannot be blamed."
"No," the girl said. "It was not like that. I loved him. Oh, God help me, I loved him. I gave myself willingly. And he left me." Her hands were over her face again.
Elizabeth looked at her and held her breath as she asked the question. "Not William, Helen?"
"Yes," she said.
Elizabeth stood up. "I can hardly believe it," she said, dazed. "William! I cannot imagine him behaving so dishonorably. To ruin you and then to abandon you! And does he now refuse to marry you?" But he had just said he loved the girl, her mind recalled.
"No," Helen said, "he offered for me soon after we came to London. I refused him."
"But why, Helen? It is the only solution, is it not?"
"I cannot marry him," the girl replied. "He thought me a mere servant girl when he knew me in Yorkshire. Yet as soon as he discovered my true identity here, he positively rushed to Papa so that he might do the proper thing. I could not marry a man who offered for all the wrong reasons."
"But there is the baby to think about too," Elizabeth said. "William must feel that he owes your child a name."
"I have not told him," Helen said.
"He does not know?"
Elizabeth sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to order her whirling thoughts. She could not quite believe the things she was hearing about her friend, whom she had always considered the soul of propriety and honor. But digesting those facts would have to wait awhile. At present the frightened girl beside her was in desperate need of help.
"You will have to leave London immediately," she said. "I shall take you to Hetherington Manor, shall I? It is in Sussex, not very far away. If we were to leave tomorrow as soon as possible after returning from here, we would have to spend only one night on the road."
"I could not ask that of you," Helen said tonelessly.
"I think you have very little choice," Elizabeth said very gently. "You will need a place where you can come to terms with what is happening to you, and Hetherington is a very private place. You need not worry that you will be taking me away from the social whirl. London life is something I can take or leave with equal cheerfulness. I shall be happy to take John back to the country."
"I cannot impose upon you after the shabby way I have treated you," Helen said.
"Nonsense!" Elizabeth said briskly. "Now that I understand your behavior, I can quite easily forget it. I shall ask your mama if you may accompany me to the country for a visit. Will you tell her the truth before we leave, Helen? She will have to know soon, you know."
"I know." Helen's hand was over her mouth. "Oh, but I cannot. I cannot say it to her. I have imagined myself doing so many times in the last few months when I am in her presence. And I know I just cannot do it."
"Then you must write to her as soon as we reach Hetherington," Elizabeth said, "and then the worst will be over. You will be able to relax. It is important, you know, that you be as tranquil as possible during the next few months, and that you rest and eat well. Your child is in no way to blame for anything that has happened. He must be given a good start in life."
"Why are you willing to do this for me?" Helen asked. "I have done nothing to deserve your concern. Indeed, I would have thought you must dislike me intensely."
Elizabeth smiled. "I have recently become a mother myself," she said. "Perhaps it is just that my maternal instincts are working to excess at the present. Will you tell William too, Helen? He has a right to know."
"No!" Helen said sharply. "I do not wish him to know. He will be forever pestering me if he finds out the truth. He would not have cared that much"-she snapped her fingers in the air-"if I had been a mere tenant's daughter or a servant. For all I know, the country may be littered with his illegitimate offspring."
"I think you do him some injustice," Elizabeth said gently. "But, I know. Sometimes we are inclined to think far worse of those we love most than we are of anyone else. We expect perfection in our loved ones, I suppose."
Helen looked up. "He said that just now," she said.
"You do love him, do you not?"
"I shall leave you now," Elizabeth continued. "Will you be all right? Do try to rest. Tomorrow if all is well we shall set out for the country and there you will be able to relax and prepare for the future. You will be safe with me, Helen. I shall look after you."
"Only promise me one thing," Helen said as Elizabeth rose to leave. "Promise me that you will say nothing to him."
"Of course I will not," Elizabeth assured her. "That information must come from you when you are ready. But remember, Helen, that he should know. Your child is his too. Good night."
"Good night," Helen said. "Thank you, your ladyship."
" 'Elizabeth,' " that lady said, smiling warmly at the girl as she left the room.
"If you and John are going to Hetherington tomorrow, then of course I must come too," Robert Denning was saying an hour later when he and Elizabeth were in their room together.
"No," she said. "I think it is important that I be alone with her for a while. She is very frightened and very bewildered, Robert. I think your presence would merely distress her more."
He caught her arm and pulled her against him. "We have not been apart since last year," he said. "I am afraid to be without you again, Elizabeth."
She put her arms up around his neck. "You are being absurd," she said. "Do you imagine that if we part again, someone or something will keep us apart as they did seven years ago? It will not happen again, darling, you know that. I hate the thought of being away from you too. I am not even sure I shall be able to sleep without your shoulder to lay my head on. But that poor girl is in dreadful trouble, Robert. I cannot leave her to face it alone. You should have seen the look of utter desperation in her eyes just before she told me."
"Can it really be true?" he asked, frowning down into her upturned face. "It just does not seem like William at all. To tell you the truth, I thought he had never had anything to do with women. I am sure he had not when I knew him in London."
"I really do not know the full story," she said, "but I do know that those two love each other. And they are worlds apart, Robert. Sometimes one feels so helpless."
He hugged her to him and laid his cheek against hers. "It seems I have no choice but to let you go," he said. "But not for long, Elizabeth. A week is the longest I can give you. I shall come to you then. Will that be long enough?"
"Yes," she said. "John and I cannot possibly live without you any longer than that."
He moved his head back from hers and grinned down at her. "If this is to be our last night together for a whole week, darling," he said, "I do not know why we are wasting time standing here fully clothed. Do you?"
"I really cannot imagine," she agreed, "unless it is that you are remarkably slow." |
"Minx!" he said, his hands at her back. "I never have broken you of the habit of wearing these dresses with the scores of buttons down the back, have I?"
Helen was gazing through the window of the Marquess of Hetherington's very comfortable traveling carriage. Although this was their second day of travel, she felt quite free of the aches and pains that had made the journey from Yorkshire a torment a few weeks before. She felt relaxed for the first time in several months. Not happy, it was true. But it was an enormous relief to be at least partly free of the burden of her secret.
She looked across to the seat opposite, where Elizabeth was smiling down at her baby. He was gazing back up at her, his eyes fixed and occasionally drooping. He would be asleep very soon. Helen could still not imagine why her companion had chosen to be so kind. They were barely acquainted and Helen had not done anything to endear herself to either of the Hetheringtons. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yet here she was on her way to a safe haven in Sussex, safe until after the birth of her child if she wished, Elizabeth had said.
She had seriously misjudged both husband and wife, Helen thought ruefully, returning her attention to the passing scenery. Elizabeth had mentioned the day before, laughingly, not at all in reproach, that she and the marquess had not been away from each other at all since their reunion the year before. Yet clearly he must have permitted her to leave, and she had chosen to do so, all for the sake of a stranger who had committed an unpardonable indiscretion and who had always treated them in an ill-mannered way.
It was just one more sin to add to the many. She really had made a terrible mess of her life, and there was no real chance that she would ever be able to live normally again. There was always the chance, of course, that she could find a foster-home for the child without anyone finding out what had happened. She was sure her father would be only too eager to pay for the child's keep. But she knew tbat she would not be able to turn to that solution. Despite everything, now that her pregnancy was an accomplished fact, she wanted the child. She felt a fierce love of it, a determination to devote her life to its upbringing. And heaven knew, the child would need as much love as she had to give. The stigma of bastardy was not easily shaken.
Helen put her head back against the soft velvet cushions of the coach and glanced at her companions again. The baby was sleeping; Elizabeth had closed her eyes. Helen did likewise.
She would not relive yesterday for all the money in the world. They had decided after all not to begin the journey to Sussex until the morning after their return from Richmond. But Mama had been very delighted by the invitation to her youngest daughter. Her trunk had been all packed by night.
So yesterday morning there had been little to do but to get ready and to wait for the arrival of the marchioness. Alone with her mother quite by chance in the morning room, Helen had taken her courage in both hands and blurted out the truth to her. For one moment she had expected her mother to faint-she certainly had paled and swayed on her feet. But the countess seemed to have felt that it was not the time for the vapors. The matter was too serious. Helen could not now remember what either of them had said. She knew only that she had refused to tell the name of the father, beyond denying that he was Oswald Pyke. Her mother had agreed, in a daze, to break the news to the earl.
It had been horrible, and more so when it came time to kiss everyone else good-bye in the hallway, as if she were on the way to a coveted holiday. Both she and her mother had done well, she thought. It was strange how one's own wrongdoing could reach out to hurt others. At first she had hardly admitted her own guilt. She was mostly the wronged party, she had convinced herself. When she had begun to suspect the presence of the child, she had felt a great bitterness against William for his betrayal. It was only recently that she had admitted again that she was at least equally guilty. And she had hurt not only herself, but her mother and doubtless her father and sisters too. Not to mention the poor innocent growing inside her.
Her upbringing, of course, had been largely to blame for it all. She had always been a dreamer, and despite their scolding and nagging, her parents had given in to her and allowed her to go her own way. They had certainly allowed her a great deal more freedom than Emmy or Melly had ever had, or than most other girls of her class had, she suspected. She had made a habit of being away from home for hours at a time, but they had never insisted that she take a groom or a chaperon with her. But she must not shift the blame to her parents; it would be unfair to do so. She knew that she had been a very difficult girl.
She had lived in a dream world. Because she could find little to satisfy her in the world where she actually lived, she had created her own, centered on the woods and the stream, and she had lived deeply in her imagination, losing herself in nature and books and in the creative process of painting, writing, and-at home-sewing and playing the pianoforte.
So it had happened that although she knew what was right and wrong, what was acceptable and unacceptable in her world, she had applied the standards of her own world in her relationship with William. He had seemed so much a part of that world, a man who liked solitude as she did, a man who liked reading and who seemed to understand her as no one else had ever done. It had been the most natural thing in the world to fall in love with him and to show that love in the ultimate physical way. She had known, of course, even at the time, that she was doing wrong, but she had known only with her head. With her heart, she had known that what she did was the only right thing to do.
Everyone had to grow up at some time in life, she supposed. It was just unfortunate for her that it had been such an abrupt and such a painful process. Finding William to be faithless and cruel had been the first step. It had jolted her out of her dream world. Acknowledging her own responsibility for what had happened had been the second. Discovering that she was with child had completed the process. Her thoughtlessness, her refusal to be realistic in her actions, had now involved an innocent person, who would suffer all his life from his illegitimacy. These weeks in London had served to make her realize that she herself had done very wrong. Now she knew that such behavior as hers was almost unheard of in a young girl, though older, married ladies often lived by an entirely different moral code. She was really very fortunate to have encountered someone as kind as the marchioness.
William. She was, she supposed, extremely foolish to have refused his offer of marriage. Perhaps her first refusal was understandable. It had happened only the morning after her meeting with him. She had been taken completely by surprise. But two days before, he had kissed her and asked if they might start again, if he might court her properly. His behavior had suggested that he really did wish to marry her, not just that he felt obliged to do so. Yet she had still rejected him. Marriage to him would be the answer to all her problems. She would be with the man she loved. Her child would have a name and a father. Both of them would have the security of a home.
But she could not do so. There was probably something quite ridiculous, she thought, about clinging to this little shred of pride when she had so completely degraded herself, but it was all she had to cling to. She could not trust him. And she would not marry a man whom she could not respect, even if she loved him ten times more than she loved William.
Helen relived that kiss. It had felt so very right to be there in his arms, her body leaning against his. She had felt for those few moments as if all the burdens of the world had been lifted from her shoulders. If only…
She opened her eyes to find Elizabeth looking across at her and smiling.
"We are on Hetherington land already," she said. "We should be at the house in fifteen minutes or less. I shall be very happy to get down and have a good stretch."
"This coach is very comfortable," Helen said politely.
"Yes," Elizabeth agreed. "Robert and I traveled all the way to Devonshire and back with it last year." She bent her head over the sleeping child to hide a private smile.
"And she said nothing else?" Mainwaring prodded.
The Marquess of Hetherington shrugged his shoulders and lowered his head to avoid contact with an overhanging branch. As was their frequent custom, the two men were riding in the park before the crowds of the day made it a social pastime rather than an exercise.
"You have asked me the same question a dozen times," he said. "Elizabeth merely said that the girl was unhappy and tired of London. Apparently she jumped at the invitation to spend some time at Hetherington."
"But Elizabeth was not planning the journey," his friend persisted. "You have both said continually since my arrival that you are here for the winter."
"Elizabeth loves the country," Hetherington said. "We both do, in fact. I am unable to leave at the moment. I have that big speech to deliver in the House the day after tomorrow, you know. I was quite delighted when she found a companion with whom to travel."
Mainwaring rode on in silence for a few moments. "Did Elizabeth tell you that I love Nell?" he asked.
"Nell? Is that what you call Lady Helen?" said Hetherington. "Yes, she did mention it. I must confess I was surprised, William. She is so unlike the kind of woman I would have expected you to choose."
Mainwaring reddened somewhat and forced a smile. "You mean she is very unlike Elizabeth?"
Hetherington laughed. "Well, she is, is she not?" he said.
"Yes, she is totally different," he admitted. "But I do love her, Robert. I wish you could know her as I knew her in Yorkshire. You would not wonder at my feelings, I think. She has not shown to advantage here. City life and the social round do not suit her. And I fear that I hurt her last summer. I left her, you see, because I did not think I had a whole heart to offer her and I did not feel it fair to offer anything less."
"Does she know this?" asked Hetherington.
"No," Mainwaring said. "She refuses to listen to any explanation. She is convinced, you see, that I shall merely make an excuse. I can hardly blame her."
Hetherington grinned suddenly and prodded his horse to a canter. "Females can be like that," he said. "When it happened to me, I merely kidnapped Elizabeth. This is the first time she has got free of my clutches since."
Mainwaring prodded his horse forward too until he drew level with his friend again. "She was your wife already," he said. "But did you really, Robert? Anyway, it would not work with Nell. I have done her enough wrong already. I am not even sure that there is not something else weighing on her mind."
"Oh?" said Hetherington. "Do you have any idea what?"
Mainwaring hesitated. "I had hoped that you might be able to enlighten me," he said. "I thought perhaps she would have confided in Elizabeth."
"Here we are back at the gates again," Hetherington sighed, "and I am going to have to ride right through them. 1 am still far from satisfied with that speech. I shall have to spend the rest of the morning going over it yet again. Are you coming with me, William?"
"No," his friend replied. "I am going to ride for a while. But I am inviting myself to Hetherington next week when you go. I have to make one more effort to see Nell and talk things out with her."
"I am not sure you will be very welcome," Hetherington warned. "Even Elizabeth might frown on your arrival if she has really taken a fancy to your little Nell and if she feels that the girl does not wish to see you."
"You are forbidding me to come, then?"
"Me? A self-confessed kidnapper?" Hetherington said. "If you ask me, I would say that the girl is probably pining for you, William, my lad. And nothing can be gained with the ladies, I am convinced, if one listens to what they say they want."
William Mainwaring smiled as he watched his friend ride out through the gates of Hyde Park and into the already busy traffic of the street beyond. Robert had given a lift to his spirits. If only he could be certain that the situation with Nell could be so easily solved. But there had to be more to her strange, sullen behavior than unhappiness in the city and anger with him. If that had been all, surely the evening in the garden at Richmond would have solved all. She had responded to him there, he knew. For the space of maybe two minutes she had given herself into his hands again. She had held him and kissed him. She had wanted him.
Yet she had pulled away from him once more, and she had totally rejected his suggestion that they start all over again, forget the improprieties and the misunderstandings of the past. It had been a bitter quarrel. He could never remember feeling so angry with anyone as he had felt with her on that evening, and he knew certainly that he had never lost his temper with anyone before. He had never said things deliberately to hurt as he had done with her. He had succeeded more than he could possibly have hoped, even during the height of his anger. He was still appalled to remember her reaction. He had almost believed her when she had cried out that she would kill herself.
Yes, there was more to her strange mood. And had a terrible, sinking feeling that he knew what it was. He had made love to her on two separate occasions during the summer, to a girl as naive and inexperienced in such matters as he. It was a measure of his naivete that it had not once struck him either at the time or since that children were sometimes the result of such couplings.
Was Nell with child? The possibility hardly bore thinking about. He tried to imagine the terror she must have gone through if it were true-first the suspicion, then the gradually dying hope, and finally the certain knowledge. She would have to break the knowledge to her family, face the consequences somehow. And all alone! He had doomed her to face it all alone.
Although he still tried to convince himself that it could not be so, in his heart Mainwaring knew that it was. It was the only explanation that fit all the facts. How would a girl feel if she still nursed to herself such a secret? Surely she would be moody and sullen, given to bursts of temper. She would probably lose some of her physical bloom. She would start to put on weight even before the pregnancy showed in the most obvious place-perhaps on the face. And she would surely feel bitter anger and contempt against the man who had impregnated and then abandoned her.
Mainwaring was hardly even aware that he had spurred his horse to a gallop. Only the sight of a couple of maidservants walking ahead of him, one leading a massive dog by a lead, caused him to ease back on the reins and resume the brisk canter that was safer in the park.
The only fact that had seemed at first not to fit the theory was her refusal to accept his proposal. Surely if she were carrying his child, she would accept with relief the chance to marry him. But he could no longer comfort himself with this thought. Nell was not like other girls. She did not always take a practical attitude to life, he knew. He did not believe that she would have given in so easily to his wooing if she had. She had had very little to gain really from their liaison. It must have been only love that had prompted her to give everything.
Given that attitude, and given her very righteous anger against him for abandoning her without a word, it was not really surprising that she had refused to take the easy road out of her difficulties and accept his offer. In fact, it was very much in character that she would refuse. Poor, dear, stubborn Nell! How could he ever have doubted that he loved her? He had been thoroughly enchanted by her from the moment when he first saw her propped in such an unconventional attitude on the bank of the stream and she had turned to him and told him that she was learning water. If he had not fallen in love with her then, it must have happened very soon afterward.
If only he had realized it at the time! They might have been safely married by now and no one would ever be certain whether the child-if there really were a child-had been conceived before or after the nuptials. But he had been caught up in his long period of mourning for the loss of Elizabeth. He was not belittling that emotion now. He truly had loved her, he believed. But he might have recovered sooner. His grief had been thoroughly self-indulgent. He had known that Elizabeth really belonged with Robert. He had liked the picture of himself as the lovelorn, rejected lover, he supposed. Had he not been so caught up in this romantic image of himself, he surely would have known the obvious before it was too late. He had always loved Nell, no matter who she was.
Was it too late now? He had no doubt that his little wood nymph was in reality a tough-minded female who would not be easily persuaded. She would not be easily governed even if she did finally consent to be his wife. Her parents seemed to have little control over her. But he must try. Even if there were no child, he must try. He could not leave her alone, knowing that he was to some extent responsible for her misery. And if there were a child, then she must be persuaded to marry him. He could not possibly allow her to face all the ignominy of bearing an illegitimate child alone. Anyway, it was his child she would bear. His child and Nell's. She had to listen. Even if he had to kidnap her as Robert had done Elizabeth.
Mainwaring grinned suddenly and quite unexpectedly. Only Robert Denning would conceive of doing such a thing. To Elizabeth of all people. She was such a beautiful, dignified, independent woman-or at least she had been that way when he had known her. Most people loved her and respected her, but most also stood somewhat in awe of her. Yet Robert had had the audacity to kidnap her. How Mainwaring would have liked to witness her reaction! That whole story, in fact, would be fascinating to hear.
What had Nell told Elizabeth? he wondered. Elizabeth, of course, and Robert were like a shield when he had questioned them. He could draw nothing from either, except what Hetherington had repeated earlier. But surely there must have been more. Elizabeth had had no intention of going into the country, despite what Robert had said, and there was certainly no reason why she would have chosen Nell for a companion if she had. Nell had not treated his friends with much courtesy. Again the evidence pointed all in one direction. Elizabeth was the sort of person who would turn all her plans upside down and overlook all personal feelings if she felt she could help a fellow creature in trouble.
Well, he would go with Robert the following week, even though he did risk at best a very cool welcome from the two women. It was a temptation to go immediately, in fact, but he thought it best to curb the urge. Nell had been very upset. He should give her a few days alone in the country with the soothing company of Elizabeth before renewing his campaign.
Yes, she had been upset. And what had caused her finally to break? His cruel-and quite untrue-declaration that he would not want a woman like her to be the mother of his children!
Elizabeth found after a couple of days at Hetherington Manor that she was pleasantly surprised by Helen. She had felt great compassion for the girl earlier, so much so, in fact, that she had inconvenienced herself and her husband a great deal in order to help her. And of course she had been willing to give the girl a chance for William's sake, though it puzzled her to understand what he could see to love in her. But she had not really expected to like Helen. She was willing to concede that the sullenness and the rudeness that had so set her against the girl at first were easily explained now that she knew the truth. But still, she expected to find her guest humorless and not overly intelligent or interesting. She had been wondering how she would entertain her.
Yet the first thing that had happened when they entered the house was indicative of what was to happen for the coming days. In the large hallway of Hetherington Manor, displayed on the wall facing the main door was a painting by Joseph Turner. It was Robert's pride and joy, a picture of sunset on a turbulent ocean. Most visitors commented on it. There was nothing unusual, then, in Helen's stopping to do so. But the intensity of her reaction was unusual.
She had dropped the one hatbox that she carried, just inside the door, without even noticing that a footman stood with hand outstretched to take it. She had not stopped to remove her heavy cloak and bonnet as Elizabeth had done. She had walked forward, almost like a sleepwalker, her lips parted.
"Oh!" was all she had said at first.
Elizabeth had smiled and joined the girl after handing her things to the footman. The nurse, who had been traveling in the baggage coach behind them, had already taken the baby upstairs to the warmth of the nursery.
"Do you like it?" she had asked.
Helen had not immediately replied. "Who did it?" she had asked at last without withdrawing her eyes from the painting.
"Mr. Turner," Elizabeth had said. "Have you seen any of his other paintings?"
"Oh, no," Helen had replied. "There are more? How I envy him!"
Elizabeth had laughed. "Do you paint?" she asked.
"I thought I did," Helen had said, "but I see now that I only dabble. Oh, I have tried and tried to be like this. But everything is of the surface. I cannot get beneath the surface to the real life. This man has done so. Look! He has become part of that sunset. He has been into it and into that ocean. He has painted it from the inside out. Oh, how envious I am."
Elizabeth had looked at the girl, startled. "You take painting seriously, I see," she had said.
"Oh, I did," the girl had replied. "But I can never be this good. What a failure I am."
"And what a foolish thing to say," said Elizabeth. "If you love painting, Helen, and if you have an earnest desire to reach perfection, then you are a failure only if you give up. That would mean that you do not have the courage to try."
Helen had seemed to be aware of her presence for the first time. She had given her hostess a look of bright interest. "Of course you are right," she had said. "Self-pity has become such a habit with me lately that I am afraid I have become overindulgent. You do understand too, do you not? My family has always ridiculed my paintings. Papa says they look more as if I had attacked the paper than painted on it." She had laughed suddenly. "Perhaps you will agree with them if you ever see any of my work."
"We shall have to put it to the test," Elizabeth had said. "And it is fine for you to be standing here talking, Helen. You are still wearing your cloak. I am feeling decidedly chilly. Let us go up to the drawing room. I have been told that tea and scones await us there."
On the following day, when Elizabeth was in the sitting room writing a lengthy letter to Robert, Helen had come into the room carrying a roll of paper. Elizabeth had smiled at her.
"I thought you might like to see one of my drawings," she had said. "I did not bring any of my paintings. This one is not good. It is the only portrait I have ever attempted. And it does not really look like him. But I like the picture anyway." She had unrolled the picture almost apologetically and turned it for Elizabeth to see.
Elizabeth had been almost speechless, as she wrote to Robert afterward. "Oh, Helen," she had said, "how did you know? How could you know him so well? Yes, that is William; that is his very essence. I don't think I even knew it myself until this moment."
Helen had looked doubtful. "But do you not think," she had said, "that I should have sketched him with a serious expression? He is far more often serious than smiling."
"Oh, yes," said Elizabeth, "but this is the real William. All his inner kindness and gentleness show through here. This is as he should look always, Helen. And this is how he was when you knew him?"
"Yes," Helen had said, "but it is not a good portrait, after all. I was deceived. I loved him, you see."
"And love him still," Elizabeth had stated gently. "It will not do to deny the truth, you know, Helen. Do you carry this picture around with you only because it is a good work of art? I do not know the truth of last summer, but I do know William Mainwaring. For all the evidence to the contrary, I cannot believe him to be the heartless villain you consider him to be. Don't suppress your bitterness. Face it and think about it. Perhaps you will find a different answer than the one you have accepted so far."
Helen had rolled the portrait in her hands. She had looked sullen again. "I want to forget," she had said. "I want to think only of my child and how I can best prepare to give him a good life."
"I am sorry!" Elizabeth had leaned forward and placed a hand over one of Helen's. "I do not mean to preach at you or be forever handing out unsolicited advice. I shall never refer to the matter again, Helen. Let us be friends and try to make each other happy here, shall we? I must finish writing to Robert and then I must visit John for a while-I have seen him only briefly this morning. After that, shall we go for a walk? It looks overcast and cold out there, but the fresh air will do us good. And the land around here is very picturesque. Perhaps you will get some ideas for painting again. If it is true that you have done none since leaving Yorkshire, I suspect that it is high time you got back to it."
And that is exactly what had happened, Elizabeth reflected rather ruefully a few days later. Helen had not actually done any painting yet, but she had made copious preparations. She had been hardly indoors, but had trudged around the grounds, sketchpad in hand, staring and touching, trying to get behind the outer surfaces to the reality within, she told a fascinated Elizabeth. The latter felt very much alone without her husband and without any companionship except that of her baby and the occasional meeting with her guest.
But she was pleased, nevertheless. Helen was clearly not the insipid, moody little girl that she had expected. In fact, Elizabeth suspected that she was a highly intelligent and artistic girl, whose talents had never been either appreciated or encouraged. And the change of scene was obviously doing her a great deal of good. There was a new sparkle in her eyes, fresh color in her cheeks, and a welcome intensity in her expression. Elizabeth was beginning to like her and she was beginning to understand why William had fallen in love with her. She even felt she had a glimmering of understanding of how those two had come to flout convention to such a shocking degree as to have created a child outside marriage.
She longed for the arrival of Robert at the end of the first week. She wanted to share her discoveries with him, and she wanted to discuss with him how they might best bring together again these two people who so clearly loved and needed each other.
Helen had indeed become absorbed again in her painting, but not quite to the extent that Elizabeth believed. She was enchanted by the scenery of the Hetherington grounds. There were no formal gardens, and Helen was glad. She could admire formality, but she could not love it. It seemed almost sacrilegious to take nature and try to subdue it to man's idea of beauty and symmetry. Nature was perfect in itself. Man could not improve on it. There seemed to her almost an absurdity about constructing little hedgerows, all carefully cut and shaped so that they lacked any spontaneity, and flower gardens, where flowers were given strict instructions to grow a uniform color and a uniform height. And marble statues of Greek gods or cherubs always seemed to her totally inappropriate in an English countryside. The rains and the temperate climate of England produced vegetation enough and color enough that it did not need embellishment. It was not that the Hetherington grounds were uncared for. She had discovered that the gardener had four helpers and that all five of them were constantly busy. But their efforts were used to aid nature rather than to distort it.
At this time of the year most people would have found the gardens drab. Most of the trees were already bare. There were no flowers remaining. Only greens and browns, Helen noted with satisfaction. The shadings of those two colors were almost infinite. One could spend days noticing the contrasts, undistracted by the gaudier colors of summer. She wandered, drinking in the late-autumn beauty of it all, forgetting for long stretches of time the cold, her obligations to her hostess, her pregnancy, and the uncertainty of her future. Soon she would beg paper and paints from Elizabeth and try to paint some of her feelings out of herself. She was almost ready.
But she was not always absorbed by such thoughts. Just as frequently, as she wandered over the lawns and among the trees, her eyes alone saw them. Her mind was wholly taken by the picture of a different landscape, of tall old trees and wild, untended undergrowth, of a dilapidated hut and a meandering stream. And of herself there, caught up in a dream world, unaware of the realities of life
As she leaned against an oak tree in the Hetherington grounds, her hands tracing the contours of its trunk, in her mind she felt the old oak tree by the stream, its bark older and rougher. And she felt William's hands above hers, William behind her. And in her imagination she turned to him as she had turned in reality several months before. She relived his kiss, his lovemaking. She relived each of their three meetings, remembering every look, word, and touch that had passed between them.
For the first days she refused to recall what had followed. She had resolved when she came here to put the pain behind her. For the sake of her unborn child she needed to achieve some sort of tranquility, and brooding on the wrongs that she had done and those that had been done her was not a way to achieve that aim. She concentrated wholly on those three afternoons, when she had fallen in love and when she had given her love freely without a thought of the consequences.
On one of those afternoons her child had been conceived. And for the first time Helen was fiercely glad that it had happened. Even if she had the choice now, she would not have things differently, she believed. For the rest of her life she would have her son or her daughter to remind her that at one time she had found her ideal. She had always wanted perfection in her life. Well, she had it once-a perfect love. She could never love William again as she had then, and she could certainly never trust him again, but once, for the space of a few days, she had loved. And she was glad that there would be a permanent and perfect memento of those days. What could be more perfect than a child? A child who would be part of him, who perhaps would look like him?
The shining eyes and the glowing cheeks that so pleased Elizabeth were due as much to this acceptance of the past as they were to the renewal of her determination to paint.
Although Helen sometimes forgot that she was a guest and that she should spend more time with her hostess, she did enjoy Elizabeth's company when they were together. She had been grateful to her for the invitation to Hetherington, but she had not really expected to like her hostess. Despite what Elizabeth had said to her about her own sufferings, Helen had labeled her as one of the privileged in this life, as one who had not really been made to face the harshness of life as most other people had.
She was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find that Elizabeth had a warm personality and a keen intelligence. Her love for her husband and son were no affectation. She wrote to the marquess daily, though he was planning to come a week after their own arrival. She spent a large portion of each day with her son instead of abandoning his upbringing to the nurse. And her love was not confined to her own family. She told Helen about her brother John and his wife, Louise; and the affection she felt for them and their growing family-two children, soon to be three-was very obvious.
She talked sometimes with enthusiasm and amusement about her come-out Season in London, when she had met the marquess and when his eccentric grandmother had aided and abetted their growing love and their eventual elopement. And she spoke of the people of the village of Granby where she had lived for the six years of her separation from her husband, as a governess and companion. There was no bitterness in any of these stories, but there was a great deal of affection for the people she had known. And, of course, Helen could never forget that the marchioness had saved her from a nightmare situation.
Elizabeth could also talk intelligently about books and about art. She had a great deal more knowledge than Helen, in fact, and the younger girl learned eagerly from her. The marchioness understood too that art in all its forms was more than a pretty ornament to life. Helen was playing the pianoforte in the music room one evening while Elizabeth was upstairs putting the baby to sleep. When she finally emerged from her absorption in a Bach fugue, it was to find that her hostess was sitting quietly in a chair close to the door.
"You have mastered the feeling of the music," she said. "I have heard Bach played so many times as if he wrote merely that the painist might exercise his fingers and impress his listeners. But I think you are a trifle heavy, Helen. Bach was meant to be played on a harpsichord, I believe. There should be a crispness and a brilliance about his music as well as emotion. Do try it again, but this time do not press so heavily on your fingers."
She stood behind Helen, every inch the teacher that she had been for five years. And Helen obediently played the piece again, trying to improve her technique according to the advice she had been given. It was good advice. It came obviously from someone who knew what she was talking about and who cared deeply for music.
Before many days had passed Helen was beginning to like Elizabeth Denning very much indeed.
She was also beginning to open her mind again to the events of the past few months. She had determined to avoid thinking about the painful things that had happened, but of course it is impossible to blank thoughts from the mind merely by the effort of will. When she eventually began to paint, taking all her equipment out-of-doors despite the coldness of the weather, she found she could no longer keep her feelings repressed. If she was to show feeling in her paints, she had to be willing to release all that was inside her. And the pain was with her again.
Had she been totally unreasonable? she asked herself at last. She had refused even to listen to William when he had wanted to explain why he had left her in the summer. It seemed impossible, of course, that he could have a good reason for what he had done. But then surely it would seem to almost anyone that she could not have had a good reason for allowing herself to be violated before she was married. Papa had said as much, in fact. He refused to write to her, refused to acknowledge her as his daughter or have her name mentioned in his house, her mother reported in a letter. To him there could be no possible excuse for the disgrace she had brought on herself and on his family. Papa would relent, of course, but he would never understand her behavior, she knew.
Was she being equally insensitive in refusing even to listen to William? Did she not at least owe him a hearing? After all, he was the father of the child inside her, and he had offered to do the honorable thing and marry her, even without knowing about the child's existence. His words and behavior at Richmond had even suggested that he might still care for her in some way.
What was it he had said? He had said that she behaved as if she were the only one allowed to err. She demanded perfection, he had said, and had not realized that perfection in another human being was impossible to find. Was she really being so unreasonable and so immature? She knew herself to be far from perfect. Her present condition was proof positive of that. And she had done him wrong. She had led him to believe that she was an uneducated girl of easy virtue. Certainly he had not raped her. He had, in fact, given her every opportunity to avoid his possession. She had deceived him. She should at least have told him who she was so that he could have made a free decision as she had. Was it time she admitted her guilt to someone other than just herself?
By the time she had completed her first, unsatisfactory painting of the grove of trees at the foot of the lower lawn, Helen was seeing the past few weeks in a totally new perspective. And she was no longer satisfied with her own part in those events. She really had behaved like a spoiled brat who had to make everyone else suffer because life was not going her way. She must have upset her family with her sullen ways, and she had behaved with horribly bad manners to the Hetheringtons. Even her treatment of William had been inexcusable. She was equally guilty for the turn of events during the past summer, yet she had behaved as if she were the wronged angel and he the blackest villain.
She finally came to these conclusions on the morning of the day when the Marquess of Hetherington was expected. Elizabeth had been bright with repressed excitement when Helen left with her easel and paints and paper. She must return to the house, she decided, and write a letter to William. It would be extremely difficult to write. She must apologize for her part in the predicament in which they found themselves and for her refusal to listen to his explanations. And Helen was not good at apologizing.
But who was? she thought philosophically. She packed away her painting things with a sigh. The picture was terrible. It was neither pretty nor meaningful. She would have to write, Only then, perhaps, would her conscience be salved enough that she could produce the picture that she knew was somewhere inside her. She walked back to the house to join a restless Elizabeth for luncheon.
They were in the drawing room later in the afternoon. Elizabeth was bent over her embroidery, though her mind was not really on what she was doing. It was a shame, she felt, that John had chosen to sleep longer than usual this afternoon. Playing with him would have been a distraction. Helen was seated at the farther end of the room at the escritoire, writing a letter. Whoever she was writing to, she was not finding the task easy. The surface of the desk was littered with papers that had been crumped into little balls, and she seemed to be staring at the wall ahead of her, stroking her chin with the feather of her quill pen every time Elizabeth glanced at her.
Finally, when she was beginning to convince herself with the greatest of good sense that Robert would not come today after all, but would surely come on the morrow, she heard the unmistakable sound of horses' hooves on the cobbles outside the main doors. Embroidery was dumped unceremoniously beside her, and Elizabeth was on her feet in a moment.
"That must be Robert," she said. "I should wait here, should I not, Helen? The servants will think me a mistress of scant dignity if I rush to meet him. Anyway, it is only a week since I last saw him. Is my hair tidy? The water here is so much softer than that in London. My hair just refuses to keep its chignon."
Helen turned on her chair and smiled at her hostess. It was an unusual sight to see Elizabeth agitated. "There is not a hair out of place," she said, "and I think probably servants like to serve people who show affection for each other."
Elizabeth laughed. "Your encouragement is all I needed," she said. "Helen, you are having a terrible influence on me."
And she was out of the room and flying down the staircase and across the wide hallway without a second thought to her dignity. An expressionless footman was already holding open the door at the approach of his master. Elizabeth went rushing past him and down the first six steps. Two arms reached out and lifted her over the remaining two and swung her in a wide circle.
"Hoyden!" the Marquess of Hetherington said with a wide grin. "Are you not afraid of what the servants will think, Elizabeth?"
And he was seeking out her mouth and kissing her thoroughly right there in front of the footman and the butler hovering in the background, and the groom who was holding his horse's head, and William, who was standing on the cobbles still holding the reins of his own horse.
She flushed and pushed at her husband's shoulders. "William!" she said breathlessly. "You have come too? I am delighted to see you." She held out a hand to him. "But I am not at all sure that you have done the right thing to come here. Helen will be upset, you know."
He accepted her hand and bowed over it unsmilingly. "I am afraid I invited myself quite unashamedly," he said. "How is she, Elizabeth? I had to make one more attempt to speak to her. If I can see after a day or two that it is no good or that I upset her too much, I shall leave without having to be told to do so, I assure you."
"I did sound inhospitable, did I not?" she said contritely. She linked an arm through his and led him toward the door. "You must be tired if you have ridden all the way from London. Do come up and have some refreshment."
"It seems that having my wife rush from the house like a schoolboy was welcome enough for me," Hetherington grumbled cheerfully, following them into the house and up the stairs to the drawing room.
Helen was still seated at the escritoire, the pile of discarded papers now spilled over onto the floor. She turned as the door opened, the beginnings of a polite smile on her face. When she saw Mainwaring, she scrambled to her feet, brushing yet more papers to the floor.
"Oh," was all she could think of to say.
He hurried across the room, took a nerveless hand from her side, and raised it to his lips. "Nell," he said, searching her eyes with his, "how are you?"
She stared back without a word for a few moments, during which time the room seemed curiously quiet. "Oh," she said again. And then, loudly, accusingly, "Oh, someone has told you!"
And she brushed past him, ran the length of the room, and pushed her way with lowered eyes past a silent Elizabeth and Robert and out into the hallway.
“What do you think will happen?" Elizabeth asked.
"I believe he will fall asleep at any moment," Hetherington said, brushing a cheek against the soft curls of his son, who had become very quiet against his shoulder, except for the sounds he made as he sucked on one fist. "And it is not before time. I am near exhaustion from playing so hard."
"I did not mean with John, silly," she said, smiling at him from her perch on the window seat. "And he would have fallen asleep long ago if you had not persisted so long in tickling him and getting him overexcited. I meant with Helen and William. It has been dreadful since yesterday' afternoon, has it not?"
"I did not find last night half-bad," Hetherington said, ogling her over the baby's head and grinning broadly when she blushed. "But, yes, you are right. Last evening was most uncomfortable with that little chit with her nose in the air, quite ostentatiously talking to none of us, and William his most gloomy, taciturn self."
"This morning was awful too," Elizabeth said. "All four of us seem to have had the same idea-to breakfast early before the others were down. And there we all were again, you and I making polite conversation to two deaf-mutes."
"If they had been deaf-mutes, all would have been well," Hetherington said. "We might have carried on a cozy, personal conversation. The situation is going to be impossible for you, Elizabeth. Are you really intending to stay with this girl until after the birth of her child? She must have six months to go at least. She is the most morose little brat it has ever been my misfortune to meet."
"Oh no," she said hastily. "That is really a misconception, Robert. I have got to know her in the past week, and really she is a very vital and a very interesting girl. Very intelligent, I think, and artistic. She was beginning to settle down and relax. I have come to like her very much. I cannot help feeling that William mistimed his visit quite dreadfully. She needs time, Robert, and a great deal of it. Now she is right back to the state she was in when I brought her here."
"Yet I must sympathize with William," Hetherington said. "He really does dote on her, you know. I have been feeling sorry for him, but from what you say, perhaps he has not made such an unwise choice. But really, he has got himself into a dreadful mess. The girl wants nothing to do with him, and he obviously knows that she is with child."
"Yes, was that not dreadful?" Elizabeth said. "Helen still believes, I think, that we have told him. And then when she left the room yesterday, he asked us what it was he was supposed to have been told. You could just tell that he knew very well, but he was afraid to put it into words just in case he was wrong. And of course we could not say anything."
Hetherington sighed loudly. "Elizabeth, is this little tyke asleep yet?" he asked, turning so that she could see the child's face. "I am sure he must be. There are no longer loud sucking noises assailing my ear, anyway."
"Yes, he is," she said, getting to her feet. "Put him down in his crib."
They both stood gazing down fondly at the sleeping baby. "Do you think he has gone to find her?" Elizabeth asked.
" 'He' being William, I suppose," Hetherington said. "I would think it very probable. She disappeared with painting equipment right after breakfast and has not been seen since. He disappeared soon after luncheon and has not reappeared. I would imagine that somewhere on our grounds, my love, there are two people either glowering at each other in sullen silence – that seems the most likely possibility with those two -or having a battle royal. I hope for the latter. It is more likely to accomplish something."
"Oh, I do hope so too," she said. "Hope that something is accomplished, that is. They should be together, Robert. Not just for the sake of the child, but for their own sakes. They are a rather odd couple, but in a strange sort of way I think they suit admirably."
Hetherington wound an arm around her waist and pulled her against him. "Do you know," he said, "much as I am fond of William, I am mortally tired of talking about his love life. I would much prefer to talk about my own."
"You have problems too?" she asked, laying her head on his shoulder.
"Yes, certainly," he agreed. "I am feeling in dire need of making love to my wife, and yet I find myself in a room that is likely to be entered by a nurse at any moment."
"Let us go to our room, by all means," Elizabeth said, "and I shall see if I can think of a solution on the way."
He nudged her head away from his shoulder and grinned down at her. "I expected shocked protests about what the servants would think if we disappeared to our bedchamber together in the middle of the afternoon," he said.
"Will they know, do you think?" she asked, coloring. "It is just that a week was such a long time, Robert."
He leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the lips. "You proved that to me last night, darling," he said. "Come and show me again. Take my arm, ma'am, so that we will present a respectable appearance to any servants who happen to be lurking about."
Helen had left the house as soon as she could after breakfast. She had hastily gathered together her painting materials, donned a warm cloak, and fled to the grove below the lower lawn, out of sight of the house. She was horribly embarrassed and confused. She wished she might never have to go back to the house. She did momentarily consider the idea of dropping her supplies and keeping on walking or running, but it was a stupid urge, of course. She had nowhere to go, and neither belongings nor money with her. Anyway, she had run or avoided her problems for too long.
She might have known that William would come with the marquess. It had probably been planned all along. But she felt betrayed to think that Elizabeth had said nothing to her, and even more so to think that the Hetheringtons must have told him about her condition. She had been inclined at first to judge them very harshly. But she was tired of always thinking the worst of people. They had doubtless thought that they were acting for the best. William was their friend and they must have concluded that he had a right to know the truth. And indeed he did. She had been wrong to keep it from him for so long.
But these thoughts did not make the awkwardness of the situation any the more bearable. She had hardly been able to look at William since his arrival. That letter had been proving hard enough to write. But to meet him face-to-face, knowing that he knew, was proving to be an impossible situation, especially when the marquess and his wife were always present too. She had found herself unable to utter a word to any of them since the afternoon before, or even to look at them.
William was not helping matters at all, either. It was true that he had spoken to her, even come close to her and touched her, when he arrived. But that had been the wrong time. She had been so surprised that she had been quite unable to respond. Since then he had said nothing. He had been almost as silent as she during dinner the evening before, and during breakfast this morning. Was he regretting his decision to come? Was his silence proof that he had come only out of a sense of obligation, knowing that she was with child?
Now she did not know what to do. There was no longer any point in trying to write to him. Yet she could not imagine herself summoning enough courage to approach him and talk to him. It was just too hard a problem to solve.
An hour after she had arrived in the chosen spot, Helen began to paint. Fortunately, it was not a very cold day. The sun shone from a clear sky, bringing the suggestion of warmth even if not the reality. She huddled inside her cloak for a while, but later she threw it back over her shoulders so that she could have greater freedom to use her brush. She had resolved that she would not think for several hours, at least, and soon she had succeeded in becoming quite absorbed in the process of creating with paint what she had seen with her eyes and felt in her heart.
William Mainwaring had left the house after luncheon. He was feeling deuced embarrassed and not at all sure that he had done the right thing to come. He had hoped that a week in the country would have calmed Nell down, made her better prepared to receive him and listen to him. Yet she had appeared to be very angry both when she saw him and since. He must talk to her, of course, and alone. He had waited for her to come back during the morning. He had intended to ask her to walk outside with him, and somehow force her to communicate. But she had not returned, even for luncheon. Finally he could wait no longer. There was no point in having come if he was going to be afraid to approach her. He must go and find her and hope that he could somehow break through the wall of silence that she had set up between them the day before.
He did not know where she had gone; he had not watched her leave the house that morning. But he did know that she had been going to paint. She could not be too far away. It took him a half-hour to find her, but as soon as he saw her through the trees of the grove he knew that he should have guessed she would come among the trees. He walked closer. She must be very absorbed in what she did if she had not heard him, he thought.
He stopped some distance behind her and leaned one shoulder against the trunk of a tree. Yes, she was absorbed in her work. Her cloak had been thrown back over her shoulders so that it could offer warmth to no more than her spine. And the dress she wore underneath, although made of wool, was not heavy enough to protect her from the autumn chill. Yet she seemed quite unaware of any discomfort. She wore no bonnet and her hair was in wild disarray as it had been those times when he had first known her. The ribbon that had held her curls away from her face was lying abandoned on the grass beside her. Her face, which he could see partly in profile, was flushed, whether with the cold or with the intensity of her efforts, he could not tell.
Her dress was not ragged and her feet were not bare, but it was the old Nell, his little wood nymph, who stood there, quite unaware of his presence. He folded his arms and watched her for a long time. He did not want to break the spell of the moment. He did not want her to turn and see him and become again the cold, bitter young woman that she had been since they had met in London.
Finally she made an impatient gesture with head and hand, flinging a lock of hair behind her ear. And in so doing, she turned her head enough that she became aware of his presence behind her. They stared at each other in silence for a moment.
"William," she said at last, "how long have you been standing there?"
He pushed his shoulder away from the tree and strolled toward her. "For some time," he said. "I hated to disturb you. You seemed as intent on your painting as you were in studying water when I first met you."
"I have always loved painting more than any other activity," she said. "And I have discovered that painting does not have to be insipid and decorative. That picture in the marquess's house-the one by Mr. Turner in the hallway-is magnificent. It has filled me with despair and with hope."
Mainwaring discovered that he was almost holding his breath. Where was the coldness, the aloofness? It surely would return at any moment. But he wanted to prolong this moment of near-friendliness. He looked at the painting on her easel. And then he gazed at it, transfixed.
"You have missed one detail," he said at last.
"Have I?" she asked doubtfully. "I am sure you are right. What is it?"
"There should be a little wood nymph sitting up in the branches of the oak tree," he said. "This branch, I think." He pointed.
"Oh." Her face relaxed unexpectedly into a smile. "That is ridiculous. Is the water right, William? I am not at all sure."
"I can almost feel it," he said. "Yes, you were quite right. All those colors are necessary. Together they capture the stream exactly as it is. How could you possibly do it all so well from memory?"
"I don't know," she said. "In fact, until this moment I do not believe I even realized that I was not painting the scene before my eyes."
"Nell!" he said, and there was such tenderness in his voice that she looked up at him, startled. There was an awkward moment while they looked full into each other's eyes.
"Nell," he said, "will you listen to me for a while?"
"No!" she said quickly.
"No," she said. "I want to say something first." She turned away from him and busied herself cleaning her brushes and packing away her things. "I was writing you a letter when you arrived yesterday. I had not finished it, but it was far easier to write than to speak to you, I think."
"What is it, Nell?" he asked gently. "We should not find it so hard to talk to each other, should we? There was a time not so long ago when we meant everything to each other."
"Oh, I think not," she said breathlessly. "But no matter. The point is, William, that you were right that night in Richmond. My behavior since I have known you has been far from blameless. The worst wrongs I have done you have been to keep secrets from you, facts that you had a right to know. Before we became l-lovers, I should have told you who I was. You had a right to know that and to decide if you still wanted to… to…"
"It should have made no difference," he said quietly.
"But I did wrong," she persisted, "and thus I had no right to refuse to forgive you for what you did to me. I do forgive you, William. I do not know why you did as you did, and I really do not want to know. But it does not matter. It has been a sordid affair from beginning to end, and perhaps we should forgive each other and have an end to the bitterness at least."
"Nell," he said, and he reached out without thinking and put behind her ear the truant lock of hair, which had fallen again across her face.
She pulled away from his hand and turned away from him. "I think it would be better if you went now, William," she said. "I mean away from the house altogether. It is painful for both of us, I believe, to be in each other's company. We do not need to torture each other, do we?"
"I love you," he said.
She turned back to him and smileu rather wanly. "It is kind of you to say so," she said. "You know my pride will not let me accept you unless you can say that, and you feel that you must convince me because of the child. It is not necessary, William. I have had two months to become accustomed to the knowledge that I am increasing. I am no longer bewildered." She had been looking at his hessian boots. She looked now into his face and found it white and set.
"It is true, then," he said. "I was convinced that it must be so, yet it is still a shock to hear you say it."
"Did the Marquess of Hetherington not tell you?" she asked.
"Robert?" he said. "His lips can be firmly buttoned if he feels that honor demands secrecy. No, I did not know for sure until now. Nell, I have caused you so much suffering, and I have let you endure it all alone. You must have been so very frightened. Let me make amends as far as I am able. Let me give you my name and my protection now. Let me care for you."
She shook her head.
"I wanted to marry you," he said. "I wanted you and I needed you, Nell. And I left you because I knew I did not have the willpower to stay away from you as long as I stayed at Graystone. I wanted to marry you but I could not offer for you because I did not believe I could offer you my heart. I fancied myself in love with someone else. And you had said you loved me, Nell. It did not seem fair to marry you when, as it seemed to me, I needed you only to soothe a bruised heart. I did not realize, fool that I was, that my feelings for you were ones of love. It seems incredible to me now that I did not know."
"You loved someone else?" Nell asked, just as if she had not heard anything else.
"It was over long before I met you," he said, "but I had refused to let go. She was a friend as well as the woman I had hoped to marry. But when I saw her again in London, I realized that only the friendship had survived the year of our separation. I had loved you without even realizing the truth. But I had realized it before I met you again, Nell, and I had already decided that I would go back to Yorkshire and find you and see if you would have me."
"Even if I had been a barmaid or a scullery maid?" she asked.
"Even if you had been a duchess," he said with a smile. "Your rank really did not matter to me, Nell. I loved a girl who was unspoiled by life, a girl who could look at the world around her with wonder and awe. And a woman who was unafraid to give herself in love to a man who had promised her nothing in return."
"Oh," she said.
"I am truly sorry for the terror the last few months must have brought you, Nell," he said. "And I will be very sorry if you insist on going through this alone. But I cannot feel as sorry as I should for those afternoons we spent together. I have not known a great deal of love in my life-perhaps that is why I did not recognize it this time. But you have taught me that love is a giving of one self, that it goes beyond the rules and restrictions that our society imposes on us. I am glad that my child will be borne by you, even if you refuse to acknowledge me as the father. He will be fortunate indeed to have you for a mother."
"Oh," Helen said again. She was blinking her eyes, furiously trying to hold back the tears. "I have always been told that I am an ungrateful, unfeeling girl. I have not known a great deal of love either, William."
He smiled. "You will have more than your fair share for the rest of your life, little wood nymph," he said, "whether you accept me or not. You can drive me away but you will never stop me from loving you."
"William…" she said, and stopped, appalled, when she heard how thin and uncontrolled her voice was. She swallowed. "I thought I would die when you did not come and when I heard that you had gone from Graystone."
"Did you, Nell?" he said.
"I have been so lonely," she said.
"Me too, sweetheart."
"You are not saying all this because I am stubborn and bad-tempered and will not agree to let you do the honorable thing?"
"Oh," she said.
"Nell," he said, "if I come closer and kiss you, are you likely to start yelling and kicking and punching?"
"No," she said. And she laughed nervously and felt her face crumple up at the same time. "William," she said, and she reached out blindly for him, "I really do not have any courage at all. I have been terrified and I have secretly dreamed that you would come along and sling me over your shoulder and carry me off by force to the nearest preacher. You won't let me go or change your mind, will you?"
He hugged her to him and hid his face against her hair. "I have just had an idea," he said. "If you refuse to marry me of your own free will, I am going to sling you over my shoulder and carry you off by force to the nearest preacher. What do you think of that?"
She laughed and hiccuped at the same moment. "William," she said into the capes of his greatcoat, "I do love you, you know. That has never changed. I am not marrying you because I feel I should."
"I know," he said, and he framed her face with his hands and looked down into her eyes. "I know, Nell. You are wrong, you see. You have a great deal of courage. I know very well that you would not marry me if you felt there was any doubt that either of us loved the other. You will marry me, then?"
"Yes," she whispered. "Oh, yes."
He lowered his head and kissed her. And then his hands moved away from her head so that he could hold her to him again, and her mouth opened beneath his seeking tongue. Somehow she had unclasped the buttons of his greatcoat and burrowed her way inside its heavy folds. Her hands found their way inside his coat and his waistcoat to the silk shirt at his shoulders. Heat flared between them.
"Enough, sweetheart, enough," he said at last, his lips at her temples and on her closed eyes. "This time I want to treat you properly. We will be wed as soon as may be, and then I shall take you to a warm and clean bed and make love to you for the whole of one night- and for all of the following day, very like. But not on the grass in clandestine manner again. Not until after we are married anyway," he added with a smile.
"Will we stay in London?" she asked. "It is going to be obvious very soon that we did not wait for our wedding."
"No," he said, drawing her face against his neckcloth. "Neither of us belongs in London now, Nell. We shall leave for Scotland, shall we, and stay there until after our confinement. You will like Scotland, I think. It was made for wood nymphs. And there we need not care what society says about us. I never have cared much anyway, but I still would not wish to see you wounded by gossip."
Helen sighed with contentment. "How lovely it is," she said, "to have someone to plan for me. Will you always do so, William? I have always thought I wished for total independence, but now I realize that I have been merely waiting for a man to whom I should be happy to surrender control."
"That sounds dangerously meek, Nell," he said. "I do not for one moment believe you, you know."
She smiled impishly up at him. "I am most awfully hungry, you know," she said. "I forgot all about luncheon. It must have been hours ago, was it?"
He smiled back and leaned down to kiss her on the nose. "Come on," he said. "We might as well go back and face the embarrassment of meeting Elizabeth and Robert. I can just see the I-told-you-so expressions on their faces. I shall carry your things."
"William," she said, twining her arms around his waist just when he would have moved away. Her face was alight, he saw when he looked down at her with a questioning smile. "I felt the baby move for the first time yesterday. He really is there."
He hugged her to him once more and kissed her hard on the lips. "I should hope so, you absurd little wood nymph!" he said.