Helen found a copy of Mrs. Beeton's book in the library when she was twelve, and beginning to give some thought to the looming prospect of becoming the mistress of the house. At the moment, all was arranged by a formidable housekeeper who pretended to be deaf whenever Helen asked her to alter her routine in the slightest. She was aware, though, that once she transformed from a little girl into a young lady -- a metamorphosis she hoped would be painless -- the responsibility for managing the house would fall squarely on her shoulders. Certainly her father never paid the slightest mind to his domestic affairs, except to complain mildly if the joint of beef more closely resembled a burnt offering in pagan times or the scullery maid had absent-mindedly put sugar in the soup.
She read it with a combination of interest and dismay. "The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron, are much more serviceable in life than petticoated philosophers, blustering heroines, or virago queens" was very nearly at the beginning, and she chewed her fingernails considering her qualifications. Virgin, yes, although she checked one of her father's medical texts to be certain she understood the state required. Modest, probably not, if she was honest, and if she weren't, she would probably only be proving the point. Prudent, possibly, but she wasn't sure she could claim careful. And she tried not to bluster, but sometimes raising her voice to a shrill note not proper to young ladies was the only way to get a single word in edgewise.
Still, it was the nearest thing she'd found to a set of instructions for how to manage a household respectably, and she was considerably older before she understood how inadequate it was in many respects. She still took it down from time to time, but as often as not it was to shake her head and wonder what it would be like to lead a more conventional sort of life. Still later, she began to wonder if anyone actually led a conventional enough life for the book to cover all possible problems of household management, but by then she'd learned to muddle along on her own.
EARLY RISING IS ONE OF THE MOST ESSENTIAL QUALITIES which enter into good Household Management, as it is not only the parent of health, but of innumerable other advantages. Indeed, when a mistress is an early riser, it is almost certain that her house will be orderly and well-managed.
Helen woke to the sound of what at first in her sleep-muddled state struck her as a banshee wail. Then her head cleared enough for her to remember that they did not, to the best of her knowledge, possess a banshee. She threw on a wrapper and made her way downstairs, to be confronted by some sort of enormous cat yowling at a black squirrel that had gone to ground on the chandelier, and was chattering and baring its teeth.
"Father?" she called, hoping he hadn't already ventured forth and left her with this one to deal with.
"Just fetching my gloves," her father said, coming out of the dining room. What a pair of reinforced gauntlets had been doing in the dining room, Helen was unsure, but it didn't seem the operative question. "Here, puss." He made tching noises and offered it what appeared to be a kipper.
The cat, apparently some sort of relative of the lynx, although considerably larger, turned to look, as if considering the virtues of the squirrel on the chandelier versus the kipper in the hand. With its momentary diversion, the squirrel gathered itself, still chattering furiously, and leapt for the stair railing.
It landed neatly and scurried up the rail, and Helen had a moment to consider her options. She settled for whipping off her wrapper and attempting to swaddle the creature in it, but the squirrel eluded her, dashing down the hall and out of sight.
By the time she composed herself, Dr. Magnus had shut the great cat into his study, from which she hoped he had a plan for removing it later, and was looking up at her with a mild frown. "You could have caught it with your hands," she said.
"They are carnivorous," Helen pointed out.
"Catch it behind the head. And mind the claws."
"I shall certainly keep that in mind next time," Helen said, although she meant it more as a plan for which she hoped to have an alternative the next time the situation arose.
Her father glanced back at the dining room. "Breakfast is ready, by the way," he said. "There are kippers. It'll all be cold if you don't roust yourself out of bed, though."
"It's a good thing you woke me, then," Helen said, and went back to her room to assemble herself for the day.
CLEANLINESS IS ALSO INDISPENSABLE TO HEALTH, and must be studied both in regard to the person and the house, and all that it contains.
"Whatever do you do to your clothes, Miss?" Helen's maid Sophie said, worrying at the stains on Helen's dress with her fingertips. "This dress was new Monday last."
Helen frowned at the skirt, trying to remember what she'd been doing while wearing it. "That's iodine, I think. Mr. Druitt upset the beaker into my lap. He's not much of a chemist."
"Distracted, I suppose," Sophie said, with a conspiratorial air that always made Helen feel a bit helpless, as if some sort of feminine confidence that she didn't really feel equal to producing was required.
"I think it's really only that he doesn't pay attention," Helen said. "He's only in this lab because his friend Mr. Watson is." She shook her head, amused despite a certain feeling that John Druitt could become an unwanted distraction to her if she let him. "He said his tutor asked him if he'd jump off a cliff if all his friends did too, and he said yes, because he'd assume they knew something he didn't."
"That's never iodine," Sophie said, turning the skirt round to reveal a badly faded blotch.
Helen contemplated it with interest. "Dilute carbolic, maybe? It would be interesting to experiment and see if various chemical preparations could be identified from their effects on my skirts."
"Couldn't you wear an apron, Miss?"
"Not when the gentlemen aren't. I assure you, their clothes aren't in any better condition. Except possibly for Mr. Tesla's. He's very careful about that sort of thing."
"This bit's green, Miss," Sophie said darkly.
Helen frowned. That was probably a result of the shipment of giant beetles from Borneo. One of them had met an unfortunate fate in transit, and cleaning it up had been a bit nasty. "It's ink, I think," she said.
"I'll see what they can do at the laundry," Sophie said, but she didn't sound optimistic.
THE CHOICE OF ACQUAINTANCES is very important to the happiness of a mistress and her family.
"Exactly who are these friends who are coming to dinner?" Dr. Magnus asked over breakfast, without looking up from his newspaper. He made it sound like a casual question, but she wasn't sure it entirely was. "Not that I don't trust they're all perfectly suitable, but a father likes to know."
"You know Mr. Watson perfectly well," Helen said.
"Of course," her father said, in a more cheerful tone. He lowered the newspaper enough to smile at her. "I thought you'd warm up to him."
Helen didn't feel it necessary to explain that she and James had gotten on much better once they'd gotten clear that each of them intended to marry the other shortly after hell froze over. "And then there's his friend Mr. Druitt. They were in school together."
"Yes, Druitt, I've seen him before," her father said. "Plays cricket or something, doesn't he?"
"Not to the detriment of his studies," Helen said, not necessarily entirely honestly. She found herself on the verge of saying admiringly he's very tall, and shook her head to clear it. Possibly the crushed beetle the night before was having some sort of delayed effect on her faculties. "He's reading Classics."
"Well. I suppose you can't go wrong with Latin."
"So you always say. There's Mr. Griffin. He's made some very interesting experiments in chemistry, and he's made a study of optics. He's at Oxford on scholarship," she said, because it was better to get that out of the way ahead of time than have her father ask awkward questions at dinner about who Mr. Griffin's family were. "But he's very keen. And there's Mr. Tesla." She suspected there was nothing she could possibly say that would make her father happy on that front, short of this is Mr. Tesla, and he's just leaving. "He's done amazing things with electricity. I'm eager for you to meet them all."
Her father frowned at her. "You haven't told them about my work, have you?"
"Not a word," Helen said, feeling a moment of guilt at the knowledge that her father probably believed her.
IN CONVERSATION, TRIFLING OCCURRENCES, such as small disappointments, petty annoyances, and other every-day incidents, should never be mentioned to your friends.
"And what did you do today?" Dr. Magnus asked, raising a spoonful of oxtail soup to his lips. Helen had already tasted it, and ascertained that salt rather than sugar had been used in its creation.
She glanced at James, rather at a loss for how to answer. Their experiments with Mr. Tesla's new electrical apparatus could certainly be described in all propriety, but she felt it might be better to leave out the part where the apparatus had unexpectedly caught fire. They had extinguished the blaze promptly, and New College had never really been in genuine peril of going up in flames, but the entire episode seemed ill designed to reassure her father about her friends.
"An experiment in the properties of electrical current," Nikola said, and began explaining his theories at some considerable length. She wasn't sure whether her father was actually interested or only pretending to be for her sake, but it carried them through the soup and turbot and on to the lobster cutlets. Nikola and Nigel both eyed the cutlets with an expression that suggested they were wondering how a lobster could be made into cutlets larger than the original lobster itself. Neither John nor James appeared to take any notice of what they were eating; John had said once that a boyhood of subsisting on boarding-school meals had killed any temptation to ask what was on the plate set before him, as generally it had been better not to know.
There was a clanking from above the table, and Helen glanced up, although her father seemed unperturbed. To her dismay, she realized that the wayward black squirrel was investigating the chandelier. She returned her gaze firmly to her plate.
"What is that noise?" James said, frowning.
John kicked his ankle under the table, obviously feeling that drawing attention to what he probably took for a mouse somewhere in the room was less than tactful. "I was intrigued by your latest translations from the excavations in Rome," he said, turning a look of polite interest on Dr. Magnus.
"Well," he said, looking a bit pleased. "That's a hobby, really."
The chandelier rattled, and Helen could hear a soft but audible chatter. She couldn't help envisioning the squirrel dropping into the middle of the dinner table, the gentlemen scrambling to be helpful by catching it, the blood as it sank its needle-sharp teeth into someone's hand ...
James met her eyes across the table. She felt certain that he'd seen the creature, and as he tended to lack the least modicum of tact, she shook her head quellingly at him. He shrugged and returned to dissecting his cutlet.
Her father was now pontificating about the fine points of Latin translation, which limited his audience to James, who was clearly somewhat distracted, and John, who she suspected would have feigned interest even if her father had been lecturing on the art of bricklaying. Nikola and Nigel were arguing in low voices about the properties of tungsten, which was respectable if not exactly spritely conversation, leaving Helen to watch the squirrel dangling above their heads. It met her eyes with what she could swear was a cheeky expression. Then it made a flying leap to the sideboard, disappearing out of sight in the direction of the butler's pantry with an audible clatter.
James made a choking noise that he turned into a cough, scowling so dramatically that she was sure he was trying not to laugh. John glanced at him sideways with an expression that said more loudly than words can't I take you anywhere? Nikola and Nigel both turned round to examine the sideboard with interest.
"Oh, look, the fillet," Helen said brightly, relieved at the distraction created as it was brought in along with the vegetables. She only hoped that the roast pigeons scheduled to appear along with the puddings wouldn't prove a temptation for the squirrel to emerge in search of what looked like familiar prey. She made a mental note to look the situation up in Mrs. Beeton's book later, in hopes of some recommended course of action, but she suspected squirrels, carnivorous, in chandelier would prove to be one more subject the author had neglected.
GOOD TEMPER SHOULD BE CULTIVATED by every mistress, as upon it the welfare of the household may be said to turn; indeed, its influence can hardly be over-estimated, as it has the effect of moulding the characters of those around her, and of acting most beneficially on the happiness of the domestic circle.
They had finished both pigeons and ginger pudding without incident, moved on through grapes and sugared almonds, and were lingering over the remains of their wine when Helen's father caught her eye meaningfully.
"I expect I should withdraw," she said, looking daggers at him.
"We'll be along directly," he said. It was perfectly proper, of course, and also infuriating. As well as somewhat alarming, she had to admit. It wasn't that she didn't trust her friends to survive drinking port with her father without her supervision, except in the sense that she didn't, entirely, trust them. Nikola and John in particular were all too frequently possessed by the devil of mischief, although John was clearly on his best behavior.
She banished as unproductive the question of whether John's determination to impress Dr. Magnus was prompted by interest in Helen, interest in the secret's of her father's laboratory, or the desire to do James a good turn by being presentable as his particular friend. They would be half an hour at least, and she certainly had no intention of sitting in the drawing room reading an improving book, or even reading Gray's Anatomy.
The only question was whether the gauntlets were still in the dining room. She located them in her father's study, which was thankfully bereft of large felines, and ducked into the kitchen in search of some appropriate bait for luring carnivorous squirrels out of hiding.
The servants were just sitting down to their own dinner, and several of them stared at her, clearly considering asking why the mistress of the house wanted a dish of raw beef and a pair of leather gauntlets to follow the dessert course.
"Carry on, please," she said, and no one ventured a comment, although there was an audible murmur behind her as she went out again. The butler's pantry was deserted, the wine glasses still sitting on the sideboard. She set down the dish of raw beef and drew back into the shadows, waiting patiently.
After some time, the creature ventured out from its hiding place and over to the dish, holding up a chunk of meat and nibbling at it. She crept up behind it, painfully slowly, readying herself to make a snatch, and then heard the dining room door opening into the hall.
"Helen?" her father called. "Where's she gone?"
It distracted her just long enough for the squirrel to snatch up another piece of meat and dash under the sideboard with it.
"Damn," Helen said under her breath, and took the gloves off with resignation.
IN RETIRING FOR THE NIGHT, it is well to remember that early rising is almost impossible, if late going to bed be the order, or rather disorder, of the house.
The gentlemen departed at a reasonable hour, pleading the wrath of their various landladies if they stayed out all night. Her father said goodbye in the front hall and then abruptly remembered an urgent matter to attend to, leaving her to say what he clearly suspected would be a more personal farewell to James.
"He still hopes I'm courting you, doesn't he?" James said, looking amused.
"It gives him comfort," Helen said. "He doesn't like to think I'll die an old maid."
"That hardly seems likely," John said.
Helen wasn't sure whether she liked his expression or not. Possibly she did. "It depends on whether I want to or not, doesn't it?"
"Most things do," Nikola said. He glanced in the direction her father had departed with a sardonic smile. "So did we convince him that we're good boys?"
"He's not that gullible," James said. "What was that in the chandelier, by the way?"
"I'll tell you all about it tomorrow," Helen said.
"By which she means 'shove off before my father comes back,'" Nigel said.
"Yes, do, please," Helen said. James clasped her hand, and John bowed over it, after which Nikola of course had to do the same, with considerably more flourish.
"Come along, Tesla," John said, taking him firmly enough by the arm that she wasn't sure Nikola had much choice in the matter.
"Good night to you all," Helen said, and watched them go down to the waiting cab, still arguing. For a moment, she felt she would have given anything to go with them. It wasn't that she was unhappy with her father's company, certainly, and she had considerably more freedom than she would if she were living in Lady Margaret Hall or in a proper boarding house for young ladies, even if her father would have footed the bill for her to do any such thing. And yet.
"Seen them off, have you?" Dr. Magnus said, coming back into the hall.
"They're all a bit full of themselves," he said. "But not bad young scientists. Most of them." She wasn't sure who he was excepting, and wasn't entirely sure she wanted to know. "You want me to tell them what I really do here, don't you?"
"Watson already knows some of it," she said, and caught herself a moment too late. "Mr. Watson, I mean." It was all too easy to fall into the casual habits of address that the gentlemen used with each other. At least she hadn't said "James."
If anything, her father's expression softened. "I'd have no problem with you showing him."
"That won't do," Helen said. "If we tell Mr. Watson, he won't keep it from Mr. Druitt. And I won't stand for the three of us knowing without telling Mr. Griffin and Mr. Tesla."
He shook his head. "It sounds to me as if your young gentlemen friends aren't very good at keeping secrets. And here you are implying you aren't either."
"I have kept this secret for ten years," Helen said, not bothering to hide how the words stung. She wasn't twelve years old anymore, not by a long shot. "Ever since you finally trusted me with it. I kept it tonight, even when one of your carnivorous squirrels was rampaging through the dining room--"
"You might have caught it this morning," Dr. Magnus said, but he did look a bit apologetic. "I didn't think they were such good cagebreakers. We're always learning something."
"You trusted me with your secrets, and I will keep them for the rest of my life," Helen said. "But not alone. These are my friends, and I would trust any of them with my life. And with my work. I'm asking you to trust my judgment."
"It means that much to you?"
"Whether you trust my decisions means a great deal."
"That's not what I meant."
"But that's the important thing, isn't it? If I'm ever to be more than your student -- if you mean for me to carry on your work someday -- you must at least have confidence in my ability to carry out my own work as I see fit. With whom I see fit."
After an uncomfortably long pause, he nodded. "All right. Show them whatever you want. I hope you're sure about this."
"As sure as I am of anything," Helen said.
Her father yawned. "If that's settled, I've got a few case notes to look over, and then I'm for my bed," he said.
"Oh, no," Helen said. "We're going to catch that squirrel of yours."
Dr. Magnus smiled a little, his head to one side. "Is that so?"
"It is. As the mistress of the house, I simply don't feel I can in good conscience go to bed and leave a carnivorous animal roaming free to menace the servants."
"They don't attack humans," he said. "But, as the mistress of the house, I suppose it's up to you to decide."
Helen smiled. "So let's catch the creature," she said, and went to find the gauntlets again.
AS WITH THE COMMANDER OF AN ARMY, or the leader of any enterprise, so is it with the mistress of a house.
Helen kept her copy of Mrs. Beeton, although she rarely took it down after the 1890s, and took it with her when she founded the Old City Sanctuary, largely for its entertainment value. Household manuals of the modern era tended toward recipes for thrifty casseroles and for making clever centerpieces out of colored paper, and didn't contain chapters like "General Observations On Quadrupeds," with its attempt to sum up Linnaen taxonomy for any mistress of the household desperately in need of knowing that the short-horn cow was a member of the class Mammalia within the Animal Kingdom.
She ran across it one afternoon while looking for something entirely different, and flipped through its pages with a certain nostalgia. She couldn't easily remember being young enough to look for answers to running a household in the pages of a book like this, but she must have been, and it hadn't been such a bad guide as all that. If nothing else, its message to young women who found themselves suddenly managing a household after having spent their entire lives to that point being ordered about by parents and governesses and schoolmistresses seemed to boil down to: you're in charge, so act like it. She had certainly been given worse advice.
She did shake her head at "The modest virgin, the prudent wife, and the careful matron"; she felt that at this point, given the choice, she would go for "blustering heroine," assuming that "virago philosopher" wasn't an option.
Kate stuck her head in the door, looking rather harried. "That thing we brought in last night -- the one with all the tentacles? It's loose. The Big Guy chased it into Henry's lab, but it went under a cabinet, and I think it's eating something under there."
"I'll get the stun gun," Helen said. "Go and see if you can find a tin of anchovies in the kitchen. It likes those."
"Will do," Kate said, and Helen put the book away and went to do what she could to restore domestic tranquility again.