Helen asked her nurse where babies came from when she was two and a half. "Heavens," Nurse said, "why would a pretty girl like you want to know about that?" She tugged one of Helen's ringlets. Then she leafed through Helen's storybooks and showed her a cow and a calf, a sow and piglets, a ewe and a lamb, which would, Helen thought, all be very well if she lived in the country, but she didn't.
When she was a little older, and was allowed to dine with her father in the formal dining room on Wednesdays and Sundays if she had been a good girl all week, she asked him. He looked at her over his spectacles and said, "That is not a proper topic of discussion at table, especially for a young lady."
"When is it proper, then, Father?" Helen asked.
He sipped his tea slowly, placed the cup back in its saucer, and said, "When you're married."
"But I'll never be married!" Helen cried, having decided this long since. She had seen Butler hit Cook, his wife, over something silly, and wanted no part of it. "So won't you please tell me now?"
"No," he said, and "No more questions this evening, child," but Helen thought he wanted to laugh and would not allow himself.
So she asked her governess, a grown-up lady of seventeen, who swooned and begged for her smelling salts. When Helen had found the green bottle and waved it under her nose, Miss Halliday said, "We'll have no more of that," and Helen decided she would never wear a corset, either.
Miss Halliday did not last long, because Helen quickly learned to read and write and do arithmetic. Father said he was proud of his bright girl and hired a tutor, a young man who was reading chemistry at King's College, London. Men, Helen thought, must know more of these things than women. But he didn't know, or said he didn't, and if he were a woman Helen would have said he'd swooned, and there went her first tutor, straight out the door.
Helen did what any bright girl would do: she snuck into her father's surgery. The books had many long words and a few pictures, and while Helen could sound out the letters, she did not yet know enough Latin to make sense of them. She understood the pictures well enough.
When her cat had kittens, Helen demanded, to the consternation of the entire household except her father, who was away, that she be allowed to watch the birth late into the night. It was quite unpleasant, Helen thought, with the blood and the mucous, and she never wanted to do it herself; but when the cat had finished, the kittens were clean and soft and mewling, and Helen would never carry six children at once, anyway, nor have to lick them clean. Perhaps, one day, she might consider it.
She still had questions, though. She had heard whispers about the horror of the wedding night, about blood on sheets, about a young bride who put up with it once but planned never to allow it again; but she had also heard what most certainly did not sound like horror, through Butler and Cook's attic bedroom door.
Soon enough she found herself at tea with the vicar's wife, Mrs. Wickens, whom Helen's father insisted she visit at least once a month, to provide a female influence. Also present were the three Misses Wickens, one of them recently affianced, and two young married women from church. Helen thought she might never have a better opportunity. She asked the affianced Miss Wickens, who sat beside her on the settee, if it hurt terribly, or if she thought she might enjoy it. Miss Wickens responded much the way Miss Halliday had, and upon recovering told the other ladies, with a weak laugh, that young Helen had asked her a most astonishing question, which Helen was then forced to whisper in Mrs. Wickens's ear. "Gracious!" Mrs. Wickens said. "Whyever would you wish to discuss that, at your age?" There followed a great deal of tut-tutting, and murmurs about poor little motherless Helen, with no one at home to teach her how to be a lady. After that, Helen's visits to Mrs. Wickens increased to twice a month, and her humiliation at such visits increased tenfold.
In the end it was her Great-Aunt Ernestine Monkhouse, her father's mother's sister, who came to Helen's rescue. Great-Aunt Ernestine lived in Brighton, one of the most magical places in the world in Helen's eyes, and at the age of ten, Helen was sent to stay two weeks in August. Father escorted her on the train, carried her brand-new satchel, told her to behave herself with a twinkle in his eye, and returned to the station. Helen felt quite grown-up.
Great-Aunt Ernestine was, Helen had heard it said, a walking scandal. Widowed twice, childless, but quite rich, she was known throughout the whole of England, according to Mrs. Wickens, for saying the most outrageous things and exhibiting no shame about them. "How unfortunate," Mrs. Wickens had said, with more tut-tutting, "to allow an impressionable girl to enter her orbit." When Helen pricked up her ears and pressed for details, Mrs. Wickens said, "Mrs. Monkhouse tells the truth when she shouldn't," and then, as if she'd said too much, pursed her lips and angrily ordered Maddie, the maid, to bring more tea and make sure it was hot. Helen was encouraged; she herself had recently been chastised for telling old Mr. Chilcott, next door, that he smelled of beer and should bathe more often, and that the Magnuses had quite a large bath, should he wish to use it. "At least we know where she gets it," Cook had sighed.
"Shall we go for a walk?" Great-Aunt Ernestine asked, once Helen had been shown to her room and given some bread and butter. They walked to the Chain Pier, a pleasant half-hour from the house, saw the camera obscura, ate ice cream, and strolled back on the beach, their shoes sinking in the sand. Helen thought it the most delightful day she had ever spent.
"Now, my Miss Helen. Your father tells me you are full of questions."
Helen, delighted, immediately asked half a dozen. Great-Aunt Ernestine laughed heartily, leaving Helen to fear she was in for the kind of dressing-down she'd had in Mrs. Wickens's drawing room.
"Oh, no, my dear," she said in a low voice, as if telling Helen a great secret. "It's not meant to hurt at all," which Helen found quite a relief. "As long as your husband knows where everything is."
"I know where everything is," Helen said proudly, holding her favorite hat on her head with both hands, lest it fly into the Channel. "I looked in Father's books. I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't."
Great-Aunt Ernestine fixed Helen's hat-ribbon for her. "I doubt your father's books educated you properly on the subject. I have a book I can show you, but you must promise not to tell your father that you've seen it."
The prospect of an illicit book aroused Helen's curiosity even more. "What kind of book? Not a novel?" For she knew her father's opinion on novels.
"Certainly not," said Great-Aunt Ernestine, who must share Father's disdain. "Merely a book given to my first husband by his mother before our wedding. In my day," she sniffed, "we knew that husband and wife must please each other equally. Young people today," by which Helen assumed she meant anyone under the age of seventy, "have forgotten everything we knew, yet they count their wisdom so much greater."
Helen was concerned with only one word of this speech. "Equally?" she asked, her voice higher than usual, unsure if that meant what she thought it meant, but hoping very much that it did.
"Equally. But you must be sure, Helen, to find a young man who values your joy above his own."
And Helen solemnly promised that she would.