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End of an Era

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Helen had found it infinitely easier to arrange a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt than with the president. While the first lady had a full schedule, her assistant had fit Helen in without protest.

 

Eleanor was tall—taller than Helen—and she reached out to shake Helen’s hand firmly, smiling as though Helen was an old friend. “I’ve heard glowing reports about you,” Eleanor said with a smile.

 

Helen responded with a smile. “It’s nice to know that there are good things being said about me.”

 

“Only good things,” Eleanor replied. “That is, if you like headstrong women, which I do.”

 

Helen laughed. “I imagine you get called that quite often.”

 

“Among other things.” Eleanor waved Helen onto one of the well-appointed chairs in her parlor. Helen had elected to meet Eleanor in her Greenwich Village apartment, as that was more convenient for Eleanor. “You have quite the reputation, Dr. Magnus.”

 

“As do you,” Helen replied easily. “But please, call me Helen.”

 

“And I’m Eleanor. Now, tell me what it is you wanted to discuss.”

 

Helen could appreciate someone who wanted to get immediately down to business, and she began a slightly expurgated version of what she wished to accomplish in America before war overcame England. Helen had given some version of this speech more than a dozen times now; on this occasion she avoided using the term “abnormals,” and instead described them as “unique zoological specimens” and “persons with special abilities.”

 

Eleanor listened intently, nodding in all the right places, and asking a few intelligent questions. “Your goals are admirable, but I’m afraid you might have trouble getting entrance for even the most extraordinary of refugees,” she said when Helen had finished outlining her broad designs. “I’m afraid that the man in charge of visas would like nothing more than to stop immigration entirely.”

 

Helen sighed. “It’s the same story in most countries, but I have a few tricks up my sleeve.”

 

“If you can get ‘round him, I’d like to see it,” Eleanor said, sipping her coffee. “Mr. Long and I do not see eye to eye on many things, and I’m afraid he views me as something of a busybody.”

 

Helen raised an eyebrow. “Don’t most men when we women choose to act without first asking permission?”

 

Eleanor chuckled. “Just so.”

 

“My long term goal is to make a home here,” Helen continued. “Our network is expanding, and I’d like to establish a presence in the United States.”

 

Eleanor was quiet for a moment. “You’re thinking quite far ahead.”

 

“I believe in the value of long range planning, although I’ve been called impetuous at times,” Helen admitted. “But I’m afraid we cannot afford to lose this war, and so I must believe that we will win it.”

 

Eleanor gave Helen a long, measuring look, and then gave a decisive nod. “I would like you to meet my husband, if you’ll permit me to arrange it.”

 

“I would be honored,” Helen replied readily.

 

“And if you’d like to accompany me this evening, I’m giving a talk at a girls’ school. You might enjoy it, if you’re not too tired from your travels.”

 

Helen was tired, but there was something about Eleanor Roosevelt that intrigued her—an intelligence mixed with vulnerability that had Helen wanting to know more, to see more.

 

“I’d love to.”

 

After that evening, Helen understood why Eleanor had the respect of so many—and why she engendered a certain amount of animosity as well.

 

But then, Helen had garnered her share of criticism and hostility; it was just part of the job.

 

~~~~~

 

Helen had heard that if Eleanor was intense, then Franklin Roosevelt was charming, and so far they had both lived up to their reputations. The president was all warm smiles and amusing anecdotes, and Helen found herself responding to his charm almost against her will.

 

She found it difficult to talk business—it turned out they knew a number of the same people, and the president was more inclined to towards gossip than to serious discussion. “But about building a sanctuary here, Mr. President,” Helen said, trying to pull the conversation back around. “I’d like to know that I have your support.”

 

“Of course, of course,” he said genially. “Mrs. Roosevelt has told me quite a bit about your work, and I’ve heard of the London sanctuary. You do a lot of work with those who have special needs.”

 

Helen saw a flash of something in his eyes, probably the same indomitable will that had allowed him to beat polio, and to win two terms as president, and might gain him a third. She suddenly suspected that he knew far more about abnormals than he had let on so far.

 

“We do,” Helen replied. “And this is still the New World. My partner, Dr. Watson, and I have agreed that we’ll go our separate ways at the end of the war.”

 

The president leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “I’m not sure I can countenance some of the rumors I’ve heard about you, Dr. Magnus.”

 

Helen allowed a smile. “I’m sure the rumors are greatly exaggerated, sir.”

 

“Somehow I doubt it,” he replied, his eyes sharp with intelligence. “I will tell you something I tell few people, Dr. Magnus: you have my support—but only on two conditions.”

 

“And what are your conditions?” Helen asked.

 

The president smiled. “First, that this agreement stays between us, and second, that when you perform your tasks for the British government, you do what you can aid us.”

 

Helen thought about the offer for a long moment. “I will make that bargain with you, with the understanding that I will not betray Britain. Nor will I betray the United States.”

 

“Then I believe we have a deal,” the president replied. “It’s only a matter of time before we enter this war, Dr. Magnus, and we will need every possible advantage.”

 

“You will have it,” Helen promised. “We are all in this together, after all.”

 

~~~~~

 

Helen had a number of other meetings with the president over the course of the war, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She got to know Generals McArthur and Eisenhower rather well, and she respected the team that Roosevelt had constructed. Roosevelt had the ability to select good people, and then get the hell out of the way, something Helen could admire.

 

As charming as Franklin could be, however, as politically facile as he was, it was Eleanor’s intensity that drew Helen more. Helen was endlessly fascinated by the give and take in their relationship, their deep affection, and yet their constant disappointment in what the other found impossible to give.

 

Eleanor was too intense, too serious; Franklin was too much a political animal to adhere to absolutes. She bulldozed, Franklin finessed.

 

Helen very much liked them both, but she had a little more in common with Eleanor, who fought tooth and nail for the underdog, who would accept no other answer but “yes.”

 

“I envy you, you know,” Eleanor said one day, during her whirlwind trip to England. Helen had arranged to be there at the same time, and they were sitting in a small parlor in the London Sanctuary, sipping chamomile tea. Helen had just finished giving Eleanor a tour, showing the first lady more than anyone who worked outside the sanctuary had seen in a long time.

 

Eleanor had taken it with remarkable aplomb, greeting those abnormals Helen had introduced as warmly and sincerely as she spoke to anyone.

 

“For what reason?” Helen asked.

 

“You and Dr. Watson share work and a passion, as well as an understanding,” Eleanor replied. “You’re in love.”

 

“We have been friends for longer,” Helen replied. “Friendship turned to passion.”

 

“Whereas I have passion turned to friendship,” Eleanor murmured. “But the passion seems a lifetime ago.”

 

“Passion can be rediscovered.”

 

“I believe we have in our work.” Eleanor summoned a smile. “My apologies. I don’t mean to bore you with this.”

 

“Relationships are never boring,” Helen replied.

 

“You’re too kind.”

 

“Very rarely,” Helen said dryly.

 

Eleanor let out a quiet laugh. “Thank you for this evening. It’s been fascinating and wonderful.”

 

Helen smiled. “You’ll have to visit the sanctuary in America once it’s sorted.”

 

“I’d like that,” Eleanor replied. “I should get back.”

 

“Of course,” Helen said, rising to her feet. “Thank you for stopping by.”

 

She saw Franklin again first, the next time she was in the United States. He granted her a meeting immediately when she notified him she was in town. His appearance startled her—he’d aged a great deal since the beginning of the war, and Helen was struck once again by the vagaries of mortality. A person could remain unchanged for years, and then appear to age decades in a matter of months.

 

Helen thought it might be a mark of his weariness that the president did not spend any time on small talk on this occasion. “I’m told that you’ve had contact with an operative in Germany,” Franklin said, leaning forward. “Is it true?”

 

Helen nodded. “Yes, I have. He was able to go behind the lines to collect information regarding the Germans’ movements and activities.”

 

Helen had been interrogated before, and the president was one of the best. He asked incisive questions, wanting every detail—everything she’d seen, everything Nikola had said, all of it.

 

She had a flash of insight—that this was how Franklin Roosevelt experienced the world, through other people, because of his physical limitations. She didn’t know that she would do nearly as well as he had done if their positions were reversed.

 

Helen liked to be in the thick of things; she couldn’t see herself standing on the sidelines.

 

Once the president was certain he’d uncovered every detail, he smiled and it transformed his face. “You’ll stay for cocktails, Dr. Magnus.”

 

“That’s very kind of you,” she replied.

 

He laughed. “Nonsense. You’re a beautiful, intelligent woman. You’ll be the one doing me the kindness.”

 

Helen realized that he was flirting, and she thought she understood the flash of vulnerability she’d sometimes seen in Eleanor’s eyes.

 

But she was still charmed.

 

“Well, never let it be said that I’m not kind, then,” Helen replied with a smile.

 

~~~~~

 

Helen was performing an autopsy on a jessaped to determine cause of death when the news came. She’d returned from the east only the day before to find work piled up, and she’d thrown herself into it with relief. Dealing with abnormals was her life’s work, her calling, and she needed the respite from the sights and sounds of war and mass murder.

 

James stepped inside the laboratory, his expression grave. Helen knew immediately that the news was bad.

 

“What’s happened?” she asked, setting aside her scalpel.

 

James grimaced. “President Roosevelt is dead.”

 

Helen closed her eyes, feeling a wave of grief. Losing friends didn’t get any easier, even though Franklin’s death wasn’t exactly a surprise. Recent pictures had suggested he was unwell, although he’d rallied enough to allay fears and win a fourth term in office. But it had only been a matter of time.

 

She thought immediately of Eleanor. “I’ll need to send my condolences.”

 

“I’m sorry,” James said. “I know that you were rather fond of him.”

 

“It’s always hardest for those left behind,” Helen murmured.

 

James put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her closer, pressing his lips to her forehead. Helen wished that James’ infernal machine hadn’t made it so difficult to be close, or that it wasn’t a constant reminder of his physical limitations.

 

Eventually, not even the machine would be able to stave off the ravages of time; Helen hated to think of a world without James in it, so she shoved it aside.

 

“It’s the end of an era,” she said, thinking not just of Franklin’s passing, but also her imminent move to America to set up a new sanctuary.

 

He squeezed her shoulders. “I suppose it is.”

 

There was no way to attend the funeral, of course, although she would have liked to be there for Eleanor. Helen had far too much to do in order to prepare for the move, although she did send a letter to Eleanor expressing her deep admiration for Franklin, and her sorrow at his death.

 

Eleanor wrote back before Helen left London, her letter warm and almost chatty.

 

Your words did me good, my dear Helen. I am keeping busy, but as you said, the world is an emptier place for F. being gone. Remembering our time in London has helped, though, because I remember that the world is a much larger place than I had imagined up to that point. If you have the opportunity or the inclination, I should very much like to see you again.

 

Helen dashed off a reply as she finished packing her things.

 

I would love to see you again. I may not be able to make it to New York until this fall, or possibly winter, but if you are in Old City before that time, feel free to stop by the new sanctuary. We might not have everything sorted, but I won’t mind the company of a friend.

 

She scribbled the address of her hotel at the bottom of the page; she’d be staying there until she’d finalized the purchase of the new sanctuary.

 

Helen thought a bit longingly of stopping in New York, but she had far too much to do at the moment, responsibilities that she couldn’t shirk.

 

She continued to exchange the occasional letter with Eleanor, but she couldn’t get away. Time tended to speed by for her, particularly when she was caught up in her work, and so Helen was a bit surprised when she got a cable from Eleanor saying that she would be in Old City in a few days, and would Helen care to meet her for dinner?

 

Helen agreed, somewhat chagrined to find that fall and winter had come and gone, and it had been nearly a year since the president had died.

 

Eleanor waited for Helen in a private parlor in one of the upscale hotels in the city, and she met Helen with outstretched hands. “It’s a pleasure to see you.”

 

“And you,” Helen said immediately. Eleanor appeared a little worn in her dark blue suit with the black armband. “You look well.”

 

Eleanor smiled. “And you do not look as though a day has gone by since I saw you last.”

 

Helen thanked her for the compliment, not quite ready to confirm that impression. “I hear you’ve been doing marvelous work with the United Nations.”

 

Work was a safe topic, and they spoke amiably of international politics and the end of the war. Helen was able to offer more information on conditions behind what Churchill had recently termed “the iron curtain.”

 

“You always have the most interesting sources,” Eleanor said, sounding a bit envious. “Franklin always thought so.”

 

“Your husband was a fascinating man in his own right,” Helen replied. “I was very sorry to hear of his death. I know it’s been nearly a year.”

 

Eleanor looked away, her expression troubled. “I miss him more than I thought possible.”

 

Helen reached out and put a hand over Eleanor’s. “Work helps.”

 

Eleanor gripped Helen’s hand hard and turned to face her. “You understand.”

 

Helen held on, offering a lifeline. “Perhaps better than anyone,” she admitted, thinking of John, of James, of Nikola and Nigel.

 

She understood all too well.

 

Eleanor smiled. “Then tell me about your work.”

 

And Helen did, leaving her hand where it was.