Several strange things happened that summer. He says it would be a great mistake to write an account of that time, for some prying eye might chance upon it, but I must confess my fingers itch to write it down. In time we are bound to forget the details and it may seem as though nothing out of the ordinary happened. But I know better now. So, against his advice, which I am not always governed by, I shall spell out my adventures in glorious detail?and hide the manuscript somewhere truly safe. Perhaps a hundred years from now, when our bones molder in the village cemetery, someone will come upon my account and it will shock them. So much the better.
The first thing I have to say is that I was raised quite properly by conscientious and loving parents. They should not be held responsible for any unbecoming behavior of mine; after all, my sister, Amanda, has never once done anything out of the ordinary. What a dull life she has led! But that is neither here nor there. My brother, Robert, on the other hand, has been a little wild, but people seem to expect that. Boys are always granted more indulgence than girls, if you wish my opinion. He says my opinion on such subjects is not worth a tinker's dam, but he's biased, being a male himself.
It's true that I was raised to be a lady of quality, and even he can't deny that in most respects I fulfill the role remarkably well. Actually, what he would say is that I look the part because I'm small and have fine features, which give the illusion of a demureness that I do not in the least possess. Never mind. For the most part, people believe what they see: Catherine Ryder wears her auburn hair in a decorous style and keeps her lovely green eyes lowered in a most becoming modesty.
He laughs at my saying that, of course. If people wish to see me as modest, who am I to disillusion them? My eyes are a dead giveaway to my sentiments and it's only reasonable that I should keep them prudently lowered on certain occasions. I was born with a sense of the absurd that very few people share. But to get on with my story.
It was a mild summer, with fairly regular bouts of rain. By the time July came, I was grateful for a few inordinately hot days. Amanda sits in the shrubbery and fans herself when it's hot. I go to the pond. Ever since we were very young children, Robert and I had gone to the pond. It meant escaping from our nanny, but we were perfectly capable of that. Of course, a time came when Robert himself became ?modest? and would no longer go to the pond with me, but by then I had quite learned what a youthful male body looked like.
The first, and only, time we tried to take Amanda with us, she very nearly put a permanent period to our escapades. I had to bribe her with a whole summer's worth of sugarplums to keep her from confessing our destination and activity. For Papa had taught Robert to swim, and Robert taught me. We would have taught Amanda, but when she saw that Robert meant to take off his clothes, she ran screaming from the glade. Just like a silly child. Really, it's a wonder I speak to her! She hasn't changed much in the last dozen years.
That summer Robert was still in London when the great heat descended on Cambridgeshire, so I knew I should not be discovered if I took a dip in the pond. He would have been surprised to see how his skinny sister had filled out in some places, because he still tended to think of me as a child. That's another thing men do: they grow up and become men, but they think females remain girls forever and ever.
Still, I have to admit that it was Robert who discovered our perfect swimming hole. No one else seems to have found it because there's a decoy: a large, obvious pond, a charming part of the landscape, with its placid oval of green, clear water. No one would dare to swim in that open situation, where all the world, riding past on the road to Newmarket, might catch a glimpse of one. But along the northern edge of the water there's a stand of trees beyond a jumble of boulders. The boulders are not inviting, with their sharp edges and crumbling surfaces. And even if someone were to explore them, they would hardly notice the one narrow passage through them where the water meanders past into a special pocket of the glade.
Rather shallow, the lagoon itself is protected by more boulders, with the stand of trees only coming close at one point. It's so secluded that I've never felt the least fear of detection there. So off I set on the first Tuesday in July, when it was so hot that even Amanda's even temper was somewhat frayed, refusing rather abruptly when I invited her to walk with me.
"Walk? In this heat? My dear Catherine, you must be teasing," she said as she plied her fan faster. "Mama would not approve of a walk in this heat."
"I'm persuaded she would allow me my eccentricity," I retorted. Mama has a few eccentricities of her own.
I wore my old jonquil muslin because I knew it was one of the few garments that I could don again with reasonable ease. These high-waisted dresses do have their advantages, say what you will. I also wore a wide-brimmed bonnet to protect my face from the sun. Not that I'm missish about a slight coloring from the glare, but it has a tendency to bring out my freckles, and that Mama would disapprove of excessively. I have to admit that even I have some doubts about the attractiveness of freckles. On the face, at any rate.
Amanda frowned at me as I strolled by her, heading for the pond. "You really ought to carry your parasol, Catherine."
Naturally I didn't pay the least heed to her. Whether I listen or not, it gives her consequence to offer me advice, I think. Being so well informed on what is proper, and sharing the information, makes her feel more grown up. She's only eighteen, and she resents the fact that I'm two years older and don't pay the least attention to all her absurd standards of behavior. Goodness, I shouldn't want to grow dull as Amanda. He says there's no chance of such a thing happening.
The sun beat down on the narrow path I followed, making the dirt spring out in little puffs with each footfall. I could hardly wait to dispose of my gown and shift; they never feel so constricting as in the heat. In my walk I passed no one, though there were various animals that my dog sported after. Dutch, the dog, is fond of galloping after rabbits and squirrels, but he's never caught one, thank heaven. Even Dutch seemed a bit dragged down by the weather. I very clearly saw one rabbit that he made no move to follow. His big basset ears drooped almost to the ground.
Before passing through the narrow opening to the hidden lagoon, I casually surveyed the area around me, looking for anyone in the summer-droning landscape. The pond was well out of sight of our manor house, and mostly surrounded by grazing land. In this kind of weather there were cows standing belly-deep in the cool water. The road beyond would have an occasional horse and rider, or a carriage, but there was nothing visible on the nearest stretch at the moment. I quickly slipped through the passage in the rocks.
This isn't as easy as it sounds, because even when you've taken your shoes off, the stone under the water is both slippery and sharp. There are several places where one can get a good handhold, but where you can?t, it's difficult to make your way without falling, especially when you have shoes and stockings in your hands. Dutch makes a great production of following, splashing about in the water as though it were required of him. It's a wonder I wasn't drenched by the time I reach the second, smaller pond.
Only one boulder here is flat enough to lie on to dry off, so it's where I leave my clothes. The jonquil muslin looked like a splash of bright paint on the weathered rock. Beside it I placed my rolled shift, my shoes, my stockings, and my bonnet. There was almost no breeze, so I didn't have to worry about my clothes blowing into the water.
Having had only a moderate amount of experience, and only a meager amount of instruction, my swimming is not perhaps as dexterous as it might be. The important thing is that I can keep myself afloat and paddle my way across the narrow stretch of water. There is something deliciously exciting about one's naked body gliding through the water. If you haven't tried it, you would never credit the pleasure of the water's caress.
I'm not a stranger to my body, as Amanda is. I doubt if she's ever looked at herself in a mirror when she had no clothes on. Why, she's embarrassed if you find her in her nightgown without a dressing gown over it. She calls this behavior ?modesty." And wears her gowns so long no view of her ankle is possible to inflame some male who happened to glance down. In my experience that is almost never the direction a man's gaze takes, but Amanda merely waves aside such considerations.
Because I ride and walk and swim and take part in any kind of sport that I am not absolutely forbidden, my body is rather firm and compact. Amanda's is rounder, which some people seem to think is just how a woman's body should be, but I'm not the least envious of her. To maintain so pale and soft an image one apparently has to sit in the shade all day and lounge on a sofa?not straining one's eyes?all evening. That sort of life is not for me! I should die of boredom.
But to continue.
The tiny lagoon wasn't as warm that day as it had been many others. I had to swim briskly to dissipate the chill, but after a few minutes my body adjusted. I was floating on my back, with my eyes closed, when I heard a very distinct male voice ask, "Is this some new activity in the country? Really, I should have left London long since if I'd known."
Occasionally I am quick-witted. This was not one of those occasions. The only thing I could think to do was drop down under the water. This had the disadvantage of being a position in which I could not breathe. I was forced to surface again, knowing full well that the water was clear as glass. "Go away," I shouted, afraid to even look toward the rocks from whence his voice issued. It was not a boy's voice. This was a full-grown man, and one I'd never met, from the sound of that deep, amused voice. Believe me, I'd have recognized any of the locals and given them a piece of my mind.
"I can't very well go away when I see a maiden in distress," he insisted. "Why, I believe a young woman has fallen into the pond and may be in need of my assistance."
"I don't need your help. I can swim perfectly well."
"I wouldn't precisely agree with you on that. You do more of a dog paddle than a stroke, but I suppose we mustn't be splitting hairs. Shall I join you??
"No!" The very suggestion forced my eyes to find him. He was perched above the spot where my jonquil muslin lay. Not far enough away for the view of my body to be denied him. "It's quite ungentlemanlike of you to sit there gaping at me. A fellow with even a modicum of manners would have long since disappeared."
"A fellow with no spirit of adventure perhaps. Why, it's not every day a fellow happens on a beautiful mermaid splashing about in a pond under his nose. I really am tempted to join you," he said, putting a hand up to loosen his starched neckcloth.
"Don't you dare!" It was at that moment that I remembered Dutch and had my famous idea. "I shall set my dog on you if you make any such attempt."
"You mean this wild beast?" He shifted to reveal that he was petting Dutch where the dog crouched slavishly near his feet.
"No, not that one," I snapped. "There's another one and he'll rip your throat out."
"Dear me." Even from my distance I could tell the man was laughing at me. That silent laughter is the worst kind. He had a mass of thick brown hair, rather rumpled by the wind, and the kind of aristocratic nose Robert would have sold his soul for. I won't discuss his eyes. No one should have such expressive eyes. "Do you think he's likely to do it soon?" the man asked. "It might be best if I removed my cravat first."
His mockery made me wish to remove his cravat myself and stuff it in his mouth. We seemed to be at an impasse. I had no way to hide my nakedness, and I was not going to climb out of the lagoon and walk straight up to where he sat to claim my clothes.
"Perhaps you think I'm some scullery maid or washer woman, whom you may spy upon without fear of retribution," I said. "Well, I'm not. I'm a gently born female who has a family to protect her, I assure you, sir. Now be off with you." I fluttered my fingers in a dismissive gesture, much as I believe a queen might use to rid herself of the unwanted presence of a servant.
My unwelcome visitor remained unmoved. He hid his twitching lips behind a large, long-fingered fist and studied me for some time. Finally he said, "I had already determined that you were gently born by your clothes and your speech. As to your family protecting you ... Well, I don't doubt their existence, but they aren't here and the view is so delightful I can scarcely tear myself away."
He raised a languid hand to stall my protestations. "Yes, I know. I am a most ungentlemanlike gentleman. It's been pointed out to me on more than one occasion, and I haven't the least urge to change, you know. Very stubborn of me, but there it is."
My gaze went again, rather wistfully, to my clothes. "How long do you intend to stay there??
"Oh, I should think for some time yet. Though it's not the most comfortable seat I've ever had, it is certainly the most entertaining."
"Have you no respect for my maidenly modesty??
This time he did laugh, a deep and rather infectious sound that engulfed me and made me shiver with its vibrations. Dutch barked in sympathy with him, plodding about in a frenzy of excitement. So much for my throat-ripping dog.
It's very difficult to look haughty when your hair is hanging in wet curls around your face and your nude body is helplessly in view of some villain, but I did my best. I lifted my eyebrows and my nose went up with them, and I said, "My family will be concerned if I don't arrive back at the house shortly."
He shrugged his broad shoulders. The snug fit of his jacket was remarkable by our country standards. "I have no intention of hindering your departure. In fact, I think it would be perfectly splendid if you would join me here on the rock. Please don't think I have any intention of harming you. You are perfectly safe with me."
"Safe!" I exclaimed. "Only a rake and a libertine would behave so odiously. I fear for my very life."
"Come, come," he said soothingly. "I have the greatest admiration for you. You aren't the first woman I've seen naked. I shall be perfectly capable of resisting any wayward impulse to ravish you. There's something positively captivating about outraged innocence in a perfectly proportioned frame." He looked up at the sky, a small frown drawing his brows together. "I think it must be the artist in me."?
"You must think me the greatest fool on earth to believe you are an artist. You're nothing more than a Peeping Tom."
He sighed and thrust out his hands, palms up. "You have misunderstood me again. I simply meant that your beauty touches my soul."
"Humph," I snorted. "More like it touches your..."
His grin tempted me to finish my sentence, but I had no intention of walking farther down that path. Robert had already told me my tongue was a little free in these matters. Though why I should feign a maidenly lack of knowledge is beyond my understanding. After all, men already know about these things, a great deal more than I do. Would my total ignorance enhance their knowledge somehow?
Well, that's neither here nor there. This fellow continued to observe me, a wicked gleam in his eyes. I wasn't able to cover myself, because I needed my hands to keep afloat. With sudden inspiration, I remembered a day when Robert and I were children and had a splashing match. There was a certain way you could hold your hand that would send the water a great distance. We'd even gotten our clothes, lying on the rocks, soaking wet. Which would happen again, no doubt, if I tried to spray him. Still, it was worth that difficulty. I paddled a little closer to where he sat, which made him eye me quizzingly.
With a whoop I began to spray him, large arcs of water curving out of the lagoon and neatly landing right on his chest. Much to my surprise, he began to laugh, rather than showing any annoyance or trying to get out of range of my spray. Really, it was too exasperating of him.
Suddenly he held up his hand, fiercely whispering, "Stop!?
I paid no attention to him. It satisfied my sense of fair play to at least inconvenience the fellow. So he leapt down to the edge of the water and glared at me. He was intimidating in that pose, much as my father had been when he was alive and intended that I should obey him. This man was perhaps more threatening because he was a stranger and I had no way of knowing what kind of a temper he had. I instantly fell still, and then I could hear it, too.
There was the distant sound of voices, coming from somewhere outside the enclosed space. One of the men sounded very much like our estate manager, Roderick Hughes. The last thing on earth I wanted was for him to find me there! The poor old fellow would stick his spoon in the wall for sure. And if it was Cousin Bret with him, that would be too mortifying. That conceited numskull would never let me forget it if he caught me swimming naked.
My countenance must have given me away. The tall man frowned and whispered, "No doubt they've found my horse. I'll distract them. You get out of here as soon as you can, for God's sake. But not before that gown dries, mind you. I know what a damped petticoat does to the female figure, and you don't want to be passing by all your neighbors in that condition."
He turned away without a further glance at me. I was grateful to him, for this small service. Not that I was going to thank him, mind you.
He didn't even bother to remove his boots to wade through the narrow passage. But it was several minutes before I heard his voice on the other side. Perhaps he'd managed to elude them until he was some distance from the entrance, because his voice sounded quite distant when he spoke.
"Now, now, there's no need to lay a hand on me, my dear fellow," he protested, in a mild drawl that almost made me laugh.
Cousin Bret's voice was much more penetrating. "What do you mean by this intrusion? Our lands are clearly marked. I've a mind to send for a constable."
"Have you? Well, I'm sure you must do precisely as you wish. For my part, I'll be heading on up to the manor house, if you'll be so kind as to return my horse to me."
"And how do I know this is your horse?" Cousin Bret asked, an obvious insult intended by his tone. "I've never laid eyes on you before in my life, so don't pretend that you are known at the manor."
"No, Robert's not there to vouch for me," the stranger admitted, "but I daresay that won't matter. I have his commission in my pocket. No, no, I have no intention of showing it to you. It's addressed quite clearly to Mrs. Ryder and I have every confidence that you are not she."
He knew Robert! Oh, God. I would never hear the end of this. First he would tell my mother?for my own good, of course; they always say that?and then he would tell Robert. I climbed out of the pond and hopped up to the ledge where my gown lay, wet and bedraggled. Not that it made any difference. Dutch blinked sleepily up at me from his spot on the rock.
From the distance I heard Mr. Hughes speak for the first time. "It's a fine horse you have here, sir. If I can be helping you with directions to the manor, you've only to ask. Was it a shortcut you was intending??
Good old Hughes. No one could be better at ferreting out information in the politest possible way. He sounded so respectful, compared with my cousin. But then, most everyone did. Cousin Bret had managed to offend just about everyone since he arrived for his annual summer visit. He was far too old at twenty-one to keep coming around here each summer as though he were still a child. I don't know why Robert hadn't warned him off this year. Papa would have been disgusted by the way Cousin Bret had turned out, all bossy and proud. There was very little to interest him at Hastings, except perhaps my sister. And even Amanda wasn't odd enough to be taken in by Cousin Bret.
The stranger was explaining to Hughes that the glimmer of water on such an oppressive day had indeed tempted him to cut across country. "Apollo was in need of a drink, to say nothing of myself. I must have fallen asleep in the shade."
"That sun's a killer today," Hughes agreed. "Good thing your horse didn't wander off."
"Oh, Apollo's not in the habit of doing that," the man assured him. I could hear the creak of the saddle as he swung himself up. "If you'll just point me in the direction of the manor ..."
As the hoofbeats receded, I listened for Cousin Bret's comment, but he was strangely silent. Mr. Hughes said only, "Fine-looking fellow. Must have met Mr. Robert in London. Perhaps we can look forward to Mr. Robert paying us a visit soon."
"Not likely," Cousin Bret sneered.
And I feared he was right, much as I hated to admit it. Robert seemed to have lost all taste for the country life. I tugged on my damp shift, which felt clammy against my skin. The hot sun would dry everything out in no time, but the thought brought little solace when I thought of what lay in store for me at home. I tied my rumpled bonnet securely under my chin and carried my shoes and stockings to the narrow entrance. The basset waddled down off the rocks and splashed into the water behind me. We made quite a procession heading back to Hastings.