When her mother died, her father had retreated into his study for days. It was not seemly for a gentleman to cry but Helen had heard his sobs, seen him bury his face in his hands through the banisters from her spot on the stairs. She had crouched silent in the darkness, shivering in her nightdress, the hard wood on the step digging into her bony thighs where she sat. At the funeral his face had been an impassive mask and she could not forget the coldness of his glazed eyes as he stared into the distance.
"There now, child," a kindly voice had whispered. "Screw up your courage." Helen had clenched her jaw against the tears and squeezed the warm, wrinkled hand of Mrs Roe, the housekeeper, as the casket was lowered into the ground, an icy wind chilling her to the bone. It was a long time before Helen felt warm again.
After the funeral, her aunt had insisted that Gregory come home and he had assented "for the good of the child." Their cases were packed and loaded onto the train at Waterloo for the long journey west. She would always remember that interminable journey, the noise and smoke of the crowded platform, Mrs Roe furtively slipping barley sugars into her palm while her father stared moronically out of the window. Helen was restless, her insides churning endlessly in a swell of suppressed emotion and she had roamed the compartments as the adults dozed, slipping from first class to wander the length of the train.
Helen was asleep when they arrived in Exeter and had a vague memory of being bundled from the train into the carriage, her strongest recollection the scent of shaving soap on her father's neck as he carried her. When she woke, it was to the kindly face of Mrs Roe and the lopsided motion of the carriage as it lurched forward along the highway at dawn.
Her grandfather's house at Holbiton was a welcome sight indeed and the old man limped out of the door to embrace Mrs Roe warmly as they stepped out of the carriage.
"And you must be my little Helen," the old man had said in a warm tone, stooping low and leaning heavily on his cane to meet her eye. "My you've grown since last I laid eyes on you." Helen gave a him a tentative smile as he ruffled her hair with a wink. "Inside with you now, come along." Mrs Roe had taken her hand, leading her inside the house and as they stopped inside the door Helen peered back to watch the stiff greeting between father and son while the old woman unbuttoned her coat.
Helen had first met Mrs Venner in the kitchen, trailing wide eyed behind Mrs Roe, still clutching her hand as though she were afraid to let go. Mrs Venner smiled broadly as they entered, straightening up from the stove and setting her wooden spoon down loudly on the side.
"Oh mother," the cook had exclaimed joyfully in an accented voice as they embraced. The sound reminded her of her own mother and Helen couldn't help but soften when the young woman stooped down stiffly to clutch her by the shoulders tenderly, the round swell of her pregnant stomach just visible through her skirts. "And who might this be then?" Mrs Venner had chuffed warmly, smiling broadly at the young girl.
"This is our Helen," Mrs Roe had explained.
"Well aren't you a pretty one?" Mrs Venner had beamed. "Oh but your hands are chilled. How about something hot to warm you through before you sleep now child?" Helen's lips curled up in a ghost of a smile.
Since her mother's death weeks before, everything had seemed so utterly drab and tasteless to Helen but that meal would be forever fixed in her memory as the most delicious thing she'd ever tasted. She sat on the wooden bench beside Mrs Roe while Mrs Venner had served them thick, crunchy toast with an inch of butter topped with ham and poached egg, the orange yolk oozing across the plate. Mrs Venner sat opposite with a beatific smile, feeding soldiers to a little boy perched on her knee and making amiable chat with her mother. Helen peered through the window at the vegetable garden beyond, the sea just visible in the distance and felt a sense of comfort that had been sorely lacking in the chilly corridors of the London house.
Winter turned to spring and the land came to life. The hedgerows bloomed with primroses and the garden was filled with the bright colours of bean stalks, the cherry tree covered in a mass of bright pink blossoms. Mrs Venner's baby came in April, a little girl with big green eyes. Helen had stood timidly at the foot of the bed as Mrs Venner held the tiny bundle in her arms.
"Do you want to come and say hello Helen?" she'd asked in a soft voice and Helen stared at her with wide, excited eyes. "This is our little Elsie, there you go now." She was shaking as Mrs Roe helped her take the baby, equal parts terrified and amazed. She'd never held a baby before.
Helen came to love that house in the country, the clean sea air, the wide open spaces, the gurgling toddler in the corner of the kitchen. Happily she trailed down the lane to the village with Mrs Venner on the way to market and not so happily on the way to church but even that was not so much of a chore as it had been in London. After enduring an hour of fire and brimstone she would run irreverently around the churchyard with her cousins, panting wildly as they pressed against the wide trunk of the Yew tree to hide from the scolding pastor.
Her father went back to London with Mrs Roe but every few weeks he would come back to visit, remarking on how well she looked.
"It seems to agree with you, being here," he'd told her softly.
"Yes Papa," she'd replied timidly as they sat in the garden drinking tea from the good porcelain. Helen had become accustomed to the thick, simple china Mrs Venner used and felt awkward as she shakily lifted the fine cup to her lips. Gregory smiled gently at her and chuckled at her wide eyed expression of glee when Mrs Venner had come bearing a plate of scones and an enormous dish of clotted cream.
Later Helen had listened outside the door as the men discussed her future, her ear pressed against the varnished wood as their deep tones murmured on the other side. It was decided that Helen would go back to London with her father. It made her heart swell in her chest when he confessed that he missed her but as she lay in bed that night, despair clutched at her heart. She did not care to leave the warmth of this house and the family to go back to the grim, smoky streets of London, the memory of the lonely rooms still clear in her mind. As much as she longed for paternal tenderness, she loathed the stiff formality of it all, the fine china, the tightly laced starched dresses. She never wanted to leave Mrs Venner's kitchen, the rough wooden table, the plates piled high with food, the kindly smile, the screaming children.
"Now then Helen, what do you say? Will you come back with me to London this week?" her father had asked cheerfully. Helen had forced a smile but her displeasure was evident to all. "And how would it be, if Mr and Mrs Venner came to work in our big old house there?" Her eyes went wide.
"And Michael and Elsie?" she chirped hopefully and the grown ups laughed warmly.
"Yes my love," Mrs Venner told her excitedly. "Imagine, you and I shall be London ladies!"
Somehow, the thought of the London house did not leave her so cold now.
Gregory had many times wondered if he'd ever feel anything again but as he stepped into the hall late one evening and the sound of children's laughter drifted towards him down the hall he could not help the smile that spread across his face. He made his way to the scullery, a great din filling his ears as he pushed open the door. Helen sat in a tin bathtub, her back to the door screaming blue murder as a harried looking Mrs Venner attempted to untangle the mass of blonde curls that spilled across her shoulder. A young Elsie sat perched on a stool by the fire giggling uncontrollably as her brother Michael strutted about nude, a beard of soap bubbles clinging to his chin, his towel draped like a cape about his shoulders.
"For heaven's sake child, keep still!" Mrs Venner cried.
"But it hurts, OW! Noo!" Helen protested, squirming under the comb in the housekeeper's hand.
"Time and again I've told you about climbing through that hedgerow!" Mrs Venner chided with an irritated huff. "The mess of your hair! Oh, Dr Magnus sir," she exclaimed, turning to see Gregory's smiling visage in the door.
"Father!" Helen cried standing upright so suddenly that a huge wave of soapy water splashed across the stone floor.
"Oh, Helen, child!" Mrs Venner uttered, plastering a towel over the girl's naked form.
"Hello my darling girl," Gregory smiled benevolently stepping forward as Helen began to prattle on about her adventures in the garden. He sat on the stool beside Elsie who grinned at him innocently as Helen stepped closer, her teeth chattering as she spoke, water pooling around her bare feet.
"I fear you are raising a hellion, Dr Magnus."
Gregory smiled stiffly at the dour, prim matron sat rigidly on the chair before him. "Helen is...a spirited child," he explained only to be met with a raised brow from the governess.
"It does her no good to be consorting as she does with the help. A young lady such as Miss Magnus requires the company of a more refined class of people," the woman replied in clipped, Scottish tones.
"Mrs Venner has been like a mother to Helen since my wife died," Gregory responded tiredly, his shoulders slouching as she continued.
"Be that as it may, Dr Magnus, I am gravely concerned. Helen is now twelve years old and her table manners leave much to be desired. She talks with her mouth full, puts her elbows on the table and her use of the glottal stop belies her standing. Why I sometimes think I might be speaking with a street urchin instead of the daughter of an eminent surgeon such as yourself. And this habit of leaving her bed at night and creeping into the servant's rooms, it simply cannot go on. No, I am afraid there is much to be done and I cannot stress enough the need for correct discipline and structure in this household."
Gregory sighed. "As you wish Mrs Menzies."
"It is pronounced Ming-iss!" the matron had barked at Helen upon their first meeting. Elsie called her Mrs Meanness behind her back and Helen laughed so hard her jaw ached. She was an absolute dragon and the children all loathed her, most of all Helen who was now required to eat her meals in the dining room instead of in the kitchen with Mrs Venner and the others. Mrs Meanness would rap her over the knuckles with a spoon for slouching, for eating too quickly, too noisily, for leaving the fat on her meat, for elbows on the table.
They would spend all day in the study or the drawing room, reciting Latin verbs and arithmetic tables and Helen would gaze longingly out of the window as the other children returned from the church school in the afternoon, running and kicking stones down the street. On Monday's Elsie stayed home from school to help her mother with the laundry. On those days, Mrs Menzies took the afternoon off to run errands in town and Helen and Elsie would play a game in the yard, touching each other's faces through the bedsheets where the hung out to dry on the line.
The only positive outcome, in Helen's opinion, of Mrs Menzies reign of terror was her insistence on music lessons. She had convinced Dr Magnus to employ for two afternoons a week the esteemed Mr Cohen, a Russian Jew recently arrived from St Petersburg to instruct Helen in piano and violin. Helen adored Mr Cohen, with his wonderful accent and his wistful stories of the motherland. He was a cheerful, happy soul and Helen loved those afternoons. At the end of their sessions he would play for her, great impassioned pieces that made her heart fill up. Mrs Menzies was equally moved although she was less inclined to express it than her headstrong charge. Nonetheless, everyone could tell when the old battleaxe was feeling weepy as she would permit Mrs Venner, Michael and Elsie to sit at the back of the room as he played.
Helen continued to sneak out of her room at night, climbing the back stairs to the servant's quarters and reading ghost stories to Michael and Elsie by candlelight, their cold toes pressed together under the blankets. She adored them and they adored her, much to the chagrin of Mrs Menzies. The woman was to be applauded for her efforts, for as the years passed and despite Helen's fierce resistance, she began to grow into the kind of young woman that Gregory had hoped; intelligent, polite, well read although still too willful and wild for the dour old Scot. As the girl matured into a woman, she grew weary of their constant battle and retired to Lanarkshire to live with her reverend brother. There was no love lost between her and the young woman she left behind.
"You'll come to no good Miss Magnus, of that I am certain," the old crone had whispered bitterly into her ear as they said their goodbyes. Helen was unmoved and silently watched her retreating form trail down the path towards the carriage at the gates.
At eighteen, Helen had made her debut into polite society. They had hosted a soiree at the house and several eligible young men were invited to make the acquaintance of the statuesque blonde Helen had become. She sat stiffly during the entire event and Gregory shifted uncomfortably in his seat as he had forced chatter with the gathered matriarchs in his salon. It was evident to him that young Helen had no interest whatsoever in marriage although she was intrigued enough by the opposite sex. No one in the house could not forget the scolding Mr Venner had given his lovestruck son when the pair had been discovered kissing in the parlour on Christmas day.
Helen would often inveigle her way into his study of an evening when he had the company of gentlemen colleagues and she would gaze enraptured at them as they spoke. Gregory discovered to his equal horror and delight as time passed, that she was rather more interested in their brains than any romantic notions one might usually associate with a young woman. She began to express an interest in science and was often to be found with her nose in one of his anatomy books. She would harangue him endlessly with questions about his work at the Royal Free Hospital, pestering him ceaselessly to allow her to accompany him there. Mrs Venner had warned him about her wiles but he was nonetheless rendered utterly powerless by them and consented to his wilful child's demands.
To Helen, it was like another world and the more time she spent in the company of surgeons the less time she spent at home. She barely noticed the little girl who had idolised her, too enchanted by the world of knowledge and science she had uncovered and to everyone's deep concern and Gregory's secret pride, the most thrilling discovery of all.