A Victorian Love Story
London socialite Helena Gillingham’s world is turned upside down when her father takes his own life after his fraudulent crimes are revealed. Cast from society and suddenly penniless, Helena must relocate to the Welsh mountains, only to learn that her new neighbor is none other than the notorious madman Theodotus Mallory. But is Theo really as mad as London society says?
Theo, tormented by the horrors he witnessed during the Crimean War, has finally found serenity in living a simple life tending to his gardens. Helena’s unexpected presence shatters that peace, for he harbors the devastating secret that led to her misfortunes. Now she is destitute and frightened because of him… and he can’t deny his mounting attraction to the beautiful young woman. Can he pursue a life with Helena, all the while knowing his role in her downfall?
Frail – Excerpt
I should have taken the first train out of London.
Music thundered in Theo’s ears. His hands shook. Sweat poured down his back, drenching the shirt beneath his evening coat.
On the chalked dance floor, couples swept to a waltz being played by a chamber orchestra of violins, flutes, and a harp. The light of the gas flames in the chandeliers glistened on the silk and taffeta skirts as they swished to the lift and fall of the dance. The young ladies’ cheeks were flushed from the heat, and their hair was styled into stiff waves and spirals and adorned with beads and flowers. The scent of perfumes and men’s hair oils burned Theo’s nose. He balled and flexed his hands, taking long breaths to slow his racing heart. The last five years tending his gardens and living like a monk in the Snowdonia mountains of North Wales hadn’t managed to lessen his angst at coming back to the city.
“Pray, Theo, it’s but a dance, not a parliamentary debate,” Theo’s stepmother Marie, the Countess of Staswick, said. She scanned the ballroom with her shiny cocoa eyes. “You are going to scare off the ladies with that glower you wear.”
He forced a smile. Before him, another season’s fresh crop of debutantes whirled—one of whom, his stepmother had assured him, would make a lovely bride. Marie had never surrendered her belief that the soft arms of a loving wife could “cure” Theo where quack doctors and opiates had failed.
“Much better.” Marie inspected Theo’s smile from under her long lashes and then glanced at her husband. “All the ladies are peeking at your son—wanting to dance with such a handsome man. He resembles his father, of course.” She laughed.
“You look fine this evening.” The words sounded stiff on his father’s lips. It was the same compliment he had given Theo when he had entered the parlor dressed in black coat and white cravat.
Over the last year, the two men had reached a raw, uncomfortable truce. When Theo and his brothers were growing up, the earl never lavished praise on his sons. His voice boomed in the House of Lords, but, at home, he preferred to communicate with a curt word or a hard look of disapproval. Now he was nervous and awkward around his middle son, repeatedly asking him how he was feeling, about his home in Wales, or his opinion on political matters. Both flailed for the right words, inevitably choosing the wrong ones. A simple sorry couldn’t wipe away the pain Theo had inflicted on his family after returning from Crimea. In those months, he hadn’t been able to sleep for the racing of his mind, which he tried to numb with alcohol, opium, flesh, and violence. He had passed his nights stalking alone through the streets, his eyes darting from side to side, constantly watching, his muscles flexed, on a razor’s edge, and ready to reach for the rifle no longer at his side.
“I know one of these pretty ladies is going to fall in love with you,” the earl said, straining to sound casual. He looked at his wife as if to ask, Did I say the right thing?
Theo heard a burst of tingling female laughter rise above the music. Several couples quickly stepped aside for a young lady who had forgotten all rhythm of the dance and was spinning wildly under her partner’s arm. Her pastel blue gown was cut so low the ruffle of lace running across her breasts and shoulders barely covered her nipples. Black spiraling curls lifted in the air around her white porcelain face. A reckless grin hiked her high cheekbones and sparkled in her arresting eyes. They weren’t the dark brown or deep gray eyes he would have expected with her coloring, but a light silvery blue, matching her diamond necklace.
“Who is that?” he asked, although in his gut he already knew the answer. She fit all the descriptions he had read in the papers: exotically beautiful and wild.
“That is Miss Helena Gillingham,” his stepmother answered, confirming his assumptions. She leaned closer until her mouth was near his ear. “If you won her, you could turn Grosvenor Square into your private garden. No need to traipse off to Wales anymore.”
His throat burned. His poor parents had no inkling Helena’s father, John Gillingham, was the reason he had torn himself away from Wales for the first time in five years.
“I think even Petruchio would draw the line at her,” he quipped dryly. “Is her father in attendance?”
Marie shook her head. “I rarely see the man at parties. But your father converses with him at the club almost every day.”
Theo replied with a terse hmm and edged along the wall to get a better view of the human whirlwind as she slipped from her partner’s grasp and spun like a top into an aging couple. They shot her a hot glare.
“I’m so terribly, terribly sorry,” she said, appearing anything but contrite as she pressed her hand to her mouth to stem the flow of giggles.
So this was the daughter of the man who was bilking hundreds of his fellow men.
She turned as if she knew he was thinking about her, her unsettlingly pale eyes locking on his. Her gaze swept over his person, returning to his face. An odd combination of heat and cold spread over his skin. He couldn’t deny her allure. She had the type of sparkling gaze that trapped a man like an insect pinned to a board. She studied him a moment more, then her lips formed a moue, and she gave a saucy toss of her head.
Was she flirting with him? A grave error.
A number of men who had served with him in Crimea had recommended he place his savings in her father’s bank. They trusted the banker with large parts of their modest savings, dependent on his five percent return. Theo first became suspicious of the banker when his neighbor, Emily, casually mentioned she had repeatedly written to her cousin Gillingham in London for help when her husband and son were first sick. She received no reply. What began as mere curiosity about the wealthy man turned into Theo’s two year-long investigation into his fictional board members, dubious stock trades and holdings, and doctored financial statements. That morning, Theo had disembarked the train from Chester and met with a Scotland Yard officer named Charles Wilson who had agreed to keep Theo’s name in confidence.
“Gillingham has set up a phony board of directors for his bank and is siphoning money to himself by giving loans to suspicious companies,” Theo had told the officer. He pointed to Sheffield Metalworks of which Gillingham owned a majority of shares and sat on the board with several of his cronies. The machinery was outdated, and the company received perhaps one or two small railroad contracts a year. Why would Gillingham have this firm and others like it except to hide money?
“I estimate about seven hundred thousand pounds has been intentionally taken from his bank’s capital,” Theo had continued. “He is stealing. He is going to run and leave his customers—my soldiers—with the full extent of his liability.”
And now Gillingham’s daughter flirted and twirled in a shining silk gown financed by the same men who were sent to war in ridiculous uniforms, and made to contend with flimsy tents and no food. Theo may have left the army when he stepped onto the London docks after two years in Crimea, insisting on being called a plain mister again, no longer Colonel Mallory, but that primal need to take care of his men remained.
“She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” a voice said, jerking him from his thoughts.
Theo turned. Beside him stood a young man with bristle-like, blonde whiskers and a squared dimpled chin. “Eliot,” Theo whispered.
“Pardon?” The man blinked.
Damn. Eliot was dead. One of a dozen that day who were still reeking of dysentery when he was lined in a ditch beside his dead comrades and covered with dirt.
“I’m sorry,” Theo muttered. “I’m confused.”
The gentleman laughed. “Miss Gillingham does that to a fellow.”
Theo made no response and continued along the edge of the dance floor. He knew he should square away a partner for the next set to appease Marie. Instead, he motioned to a servant to bring him some wine. He lingered in a corner, sipped from his glass, and observed Miss Gillingham.
She had traipsed back to her partner. Her lips curved in a childish pout that, no doubt, her admirers found adorable. As she lifted and fell in the 1-2-3 rhythm, her gaze kept drifting in Theo’s direction. When the song at last ended, she clasped her partner’s arm, allowing him to escort her from the floor, then peeked over her shoulder at Theo—with an invitation in her eyes.
But he had seen enough to satisfy his curiosity about the woman. She was a spoiled, oblivious child, and he wasn’t going to let her sit on his conscience. And yet he continued to study the graceful curve of her back as she crossed the threshold into the parlor where the refreshments were laid out. Again, she tossed her curls, casting him a beckoning glance before disappearing into the room.
He finished his wine and signaled for another glass, which he gulped down. He knew he shouldn’t drink so much so quickly, but the people and noise were crowding his senses. He sleeked his palms down his face, smoothing the bristles of his beard. His hands were rough and wrinkled, belonging to a man of sixty, not thirty. Under his nails were tiny rims of dirt he couldn’t scrub away. He closed his eyes, for a moment letting his mind wander through the memory of his gardens at Castell Bach yr Anwylyd. When he had left, the grounds were dormant in the winter. Deep in the soil the bulbs and roots waited out the cold, and all the seeds to be planted were germinating in the green house. Against the enormous sky and vaulting mountains, the oak tree branches were still, stark bones.
People crowded Helena in the parlor. She muttered the appropriate just darling and oh, how clever to their chatter as she strained to look over the crush of shoulders, searching for him. Her fingers holding her champagne shook; her nerves were electrified. She waited and waited, staring at the threshold as her friends babbled on. Who was that gentleman?
The violins began thrumming a new song. A strong hand gripped her arm. “My turn,” a voice whispered and began tugging her towards the dance floor.
“No!” she cried, ripping herself free, splashing her drink. She covered her outburst with a smile. “I-I haven’t finished my cham…” Her voice faded as the stranger stepped into the room.
His gaze darted about as he raked his fingers through his chestnut hair, lifting it from his forehead, leaving a few stubborn strands over his brow. Slight hollows formed below the ridges of his cheekbones. Although his lips were full, he kept his mouth tight and his jaw clenched beneath his beard. His evening clothes weren’t as crisp as the other men’s and appeared a size too small, the coat gaping at his chest and his biceps straining the seams of his sleeves.
She stepped forward, putting space between herself and her circle of acquaintances.
He did not approach, but remained planted a few feet before her. She knew he was as aware of her as she was of him. His gaze had made her self-conscious for the entire dance.
Why did he not come?
When he didn’t respond, she strode toward him, her crinoline swaying with the motion of her hips. People turned to watch her performance. His eyes widened and his chest rose, but not with anticipation. Some emotion she couldn’t decipher. Her confidence faltered. Something about this man made her feel beyond naked, as though her very skin had been stripped away. She immediately reached for something outrageous to do to hide her lapse. She had to keep everyone enthralled with her bright glow, distracted from the despondency below.
So she raised the glass to her lips, took a long sip, then wiped the side of her lip with her finger, watching his reaction. His expression didn’t change except for a deepening in his eyes.
“I saw you watching me.” She smiled, tilting her head. “I hoped you would care to dance.”
She could hear the gasps and feel the shocked stares of others in the room. The attention gave her a goosy, heady sensation, emboldening her further. She was determined to make the man adore her like the others.
“Is your father not here?” he asked.
“Why would you care to see my father? Are you going to ask for my hand in marriage?” She raised her shoulders, making a silvery little laugh that worked its charm on the gentlemen around her. Yet the stranger remained rigid.
“Come now, I was jesting. A little joke.” She touched his arm. Beneath the sleeve, she could feel him tense. “My father would never attend such a party. There are no stacks of ledgers or tiny numbers scribbled about—all the things he adores.”
His nostrils flared with a harsh exhalation, and he wiped his hand across his mouth.
“Are—are you well?” she asked.
His lips moved, but no words came out. Then he surprised her, taking her hand still resting on his arm and pulling her forward. “You said you wanted to dance.”
His hands, rough like a laborer’s, sent a hot current through her skin. “Please hold this,” she said, shoving her glass at her friend Emmagard.
She let him lead her through the web of dancers, finding a clear space near the center of the floor. She wrapped her fingers around his and rested her other hand on his shoulder. He stiffened and swayed on his feet as if he suddenly didn’t know what to do. She must be making the poor boy nervous.
“I’m Helena,” she said, gently nudging him into the rhythm of the dance. “But I suppose you must call me drab ‘Miss Gillingham.’ And you are?”
“Theodotus!” She laughed. “That’s quite a name.” She slowly enunciated each syllable with a slight pucker to her lips. “The—o—do—tus.”
“Well, I suppose you must call me drab ‘Mr. Mallory,’” he replied flatly.
“Oh, I detest drabness,” she cried loud enough for her audience to hear. “No, no, you shall be ‘Mr. Theodotus’ to me. Why have I not seen you before? Are you visiting from some exotic place? I would find that fascinating.”
He studied her, not with the enamored look she was accustomed to getting from men, but something reserved and calculating. What was his game? All men had some game to try and catch her. Some pretended to be friends, some feigned bored aloofness, and others became her pet. She couldn’t find this man’s level.
“Wales,” he replied after several beats.
“Wales!” she exclaimed. “I adore Wales. I visited when I was four.”
“Four? Well, it must have made a lasting impression on you.” He hiked the edge of his mouth in a wry smile—or was that a sneer? His guarded eyes offered no translation.
She surprised him by lifting his arm and turning under it. He faltered.
“You must practice if you are to dance with me,” she teased. “We stayed in Conwy.”
His head jerked up, his cheeks reddened. “What?”
She smiled to herself. He wasn’t impervious to her, after all. “Conwy in Wales. Remember, we were talking about Wales. My cousin took me to see the castle—the lovely one by the sea,” she continued. “I nearly caused her apoplexy, for I ran away and climbed a crumbling wall, nearly falling to my death.”
In truth, her cousin had been flirting with a local boy and hadn’t noticed Helena slipping away. She had scampered along the old fortress, going higher and higher up the narrow towers until she could see the shining water flowing in from the sea.
She remembered a crumbling sound and then the stinging burn of falling down the stone, the sharp edges cutting through her clothes. Her head and spine slammed the pavers of the courtyard. The next sensation she remembered was the cool breeze that blew her collar over her chin and then pain burst in every fiber of her body. For several long seconds she couldn’t move. Her cousin never came for her. A childish terror had seized her that no one would notice she was missing. She would be lost forever. At length, her body began to recover from the shock. She had scrambled to her feet and raced up the steep street to her cousin’s house, screaming, saliva flying from the corners of her mouth. She found her mother in the parlor, having tea, and pressed her wet face into her lap and wailed.
“My dress,” her mother had cried, and yanked Helena away from the delicate fabric.
Helena shook her head, casting off the old memory. Why was she thinking about such a ridiculous thing at a ball?
“I was a very naughty child,” she told Mr. Mallory with an arch in her voice, trying to provoke her serious dance partner into some semblance of flirting.
“Were you visiting your cousin Emily in Wales?” he asked. “She is an acquaintance of mine.”
“Cousin Emily?” she said. In her mind flashed various cards received through the Christmases and Easters from a Mrs. Emily Pengwern, who lived at one of those odd-looking Welsh addresses. She wrote tiresomely on and on about her daughter and son. “I suppose. I don’t really remember much.”
“Come now, I thought you adored Wales.” He halted and her foot crunched down on his toes, but his face didn’t register any pain. “The reason I inquire about your cousin is because she is infirm and poor.”
His features turned stony. The hatred in his glower was tangible.
What had she done?
“Naturally, I was a little taken aback when I learned she was related to one of the wealthiest men in England,” he continued.
“I was young when—”
“She had written your father for help when her husband was dying of typhoid and received no reply.” His voice was rising.
“I will check my correspondences. Surely, I—”
“It’s too late,” he barked, causing heads to turn.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“I took Emily’s young daughter into my home before her father’s funeral. We planted tulips while I explained to her about a beautiful place called Heaven where she would be reunited with her loved ones. Do you believe in Heaven, Miss Gillingham? Because sometimes I don’t.”
“What—what?” she said, shaking her head, unsure of what was happening. “I said I didn’t know about—”
“What else do you not know?” he shouted.
People around them ceased dancing to stare. Something wasn’t right about this gentleman. His eyes glittered like a feral animal ready to attack. She tried to wrest herself from his grip. “Let go! You’re squeezing my fingers.”
“Do you know the cost of your ball gown alone could tide your cousin and a dozen other war widows over for a year?” he spat. “But I would hate for you to be deprived of one less gown to flaunt yourself in!”
“How dare you!” she hissed. Her chest was heaving in great gasps. The violins continued scraping out the beat of a waltz, but no one was dancing.
“No, how dare you! You are a vain, ignorant, and selfish girl. I fail to see society’s attraction to you.”
Helena’s mouth flopped open with a sharp intake of air.
Then something broke behind his eyes. “Why couldn’t you have helped her?” he pleaded. “Do you and your father have any decency? Compassion? Are you really that cruel?”
The corner of his eyelid ticked as his gaze darted from side to side. He began backing up, colliding with a couple behind him.
“What is the matter?” she whispered, instinctively reaching for him.
“My son,” the Earl of Staswick broke through the dancers. His wife held his arm as he dragged his bloated leg over the chalked floor. He clamped a hand on Mr. Mallory’s shoulder. “That’s enough,” he said quietly.
“Son?” Helena echoed.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Mallory whispered. “I’m so sorry.” He spun on his heel and strode from the dance floor, breaking into a jog when he hit the grand doors to the hall.
“It’s not you, my dear,” Lady Staswick said quietly. “It’s that Theo, he…he…” Her lips quivered as if she were trying to convey something that couldn’t be said in words. “He becomes a little upset at times,” she concluded. A fragile smile broke across her face. “T-that’s a lovely dress. I admired it when I came in.” She touched the fabric, her smile drawing down. “Good evening, then,” she said and clasped her husband’s elbow.
The imposing earl’s shoulders were slumped as his wife led him on the path through the guests blazed by their son.
Helena wrapped her arms about herself. She stood alone on the stage, her audience watching, waiting for the next laugh or daring act. But she couldn’t move. She was the small child again who had tumbled from the castle walls.
“Well, at least,” she swallowed. “At least we—we’ll have s-something to talk about tomorrow rather than the usual dull gossip.” She affected a breezy flip of her curls to hide her shaking. She knew what she said was cruel, but it pushed away Mr. Mallory’s ugly words and pained eyes, as well as her shame.
She pivoted, coming face-to-face with her friend Emmagard Ainley, whose family had brought Helena here in their carriage. She was a slim lady with sharp angular features on her thin face, which seemed at odds with her delicate lavender taffeta gown and the tiny violets sprinkled about her curls.
“Come away, dear,” she said, taking Helena’s hand.
Helena and Emmagard dashed through the parlor, picking up Emmagard’s twin brother Jonathan along the way. He kept Helena’s admirers away as the two ladies disappeared into a library.
The room smelled of lemon-polished wood and leather. The fire in the grate reflected in the various brass fixtures. Jonathan closed the door behind them, drawing a chair under the lock. He resembled his sister, except that where Emmagard exuded efficiency, he was an intense and sulky man. He threw himself on the leather sofa. “The man’s truly demented,” he said and broke out into laughter.
“What happened out there?” Helena began to pace, pressing her hand to her racing heart. “He called me selfish and ignorant. To my very face!”
“Oh, don’t take it so hard.” Jonathan tapped his temples. “Everyone knows Theodotus is a regular mad-hatter. He called our own father…what was it? Oh, yes, an unfeeling complacent arse.” Jonathan shrugged. “Which he is, of course.”
“Jonathan, don’t talk of Papa that way,” Emmagard admonished weakly, as if it was her duty.
Her brother waved his hand. “Anyway, the earl had to apologize to us and several other families on account of Theo. Seems the old boy makes a point of alienating himself from all proper society. Getting into brawls in pubs, insulting his betters on the street, and generally loitering about with the wrong sorts. I understand they had quacks shocking him with electric currents like a galvanized frog and filling him with opiates before he was finally put in an asylum.”
“An asylum?” Helena flung her arms up. “Why didn’t you say that before—”
“Before you asked him to dance?” Emmagard finished, her lips quivering with amusement. “I should have stopped you, dearest, but it was so darlingly funny. Helena and the mad man. You have to admit he is rather handsome.”
“Quite a handsome lunatic,” Helena agreed. She sighed as she looped her arm through her friend’s. “Do you truly think I’m vain, ignorant, and selfish like he said? Truly?”
“Of course, and that is what is so charming about you.” Emmagard’s chortle sounded like a gurgle deep in her throat. “Oh, don’t look at me like that, all bereft,” she said, kissing Helena’s cheek. “I am joking. I adore you.”
“I adore you, too,” Helena replied and then cast a teasing glance at Jonathan from beneath her lashes. “And I adore you,” she purred.
Despite his façade of world-weary, cynical boredom, his eyes lit up. She tilted her head and cast a coquettish smile, feeling her confidence coming back. “And now you must dance with me and make me forget about that horrid Mr. Mallory.”
“What are you going to do, Theo?” Marie demanded. “Wait in the train station all night?” She lifted the edge of her gown and chased after him as he hurried down the corridor to his old room in his father’s London home. He had intended to stay the night and try to be the good son again in order to repair some of the damage from the months after the war. But now his white dress shirt was drenched with his sweat, his heart racing, and his mind was flying too fast for him to know his own thoughts. He had to get back to Wales, to the quiet rush of the wind through the mountains.
He yanked his portmanteaux from the closet. “I’m taking the next train going west. I’ll see from there.”
“Can you not stay here one evening?” Marie snatched the handles from his hands. Tiny red veins webbed in the edges of her eyes. “Is that too much to ask? Your father is worried about you.”
He ran his hand across his mouth. “I’m not like this in the mountains,” he said. “I’m well there. I need to be home. That’s all.” He reached for his bag, but Marie hid it behind her back.
“You are not leaving this house.”
“Son, we want to help you.” His father’s large frame blocked the doorway.
“I said I am well!” Theo shouted. Dammit! He pressed the heel of his palm to his forehead. Forget the portmanteaux. Get the hell out. “I must go,” he muttered.
“You will goddamned stay here,” the earl thundered.
“See what you’re doing to your father?” Marie snatched Theo’s elbow. “For God’s sake, let us help you,” she pleaded.
“Marie has found some physicians here in London.” His father’s voice turned low and controlled. He entered the room with his palms up. “No need to go to an asylum. You can stay with us. We can take care of you.”
“I don’t need to be taken care of!” Theo bit down on his tongue, reining in his anger.
“I’m sorry I can’t be a better son,” he whispered after several long seconds. “I’ve always been sorry. But I have to go.”
“No!” Marie cried.
Theo’s throat burned. He closed his eyes and kissed her forehead. Her perspiration was salty on his lips.
“I love you both,” Theo raised his gaze to his father. “Please.”
The creases in the old man’s face appeared deeper in the low light.
“I promise I am myself in the mountains,” Theo continued. “The man I once was. You must believe me.”
The earl studied his son for a moment, and then something broke behind his eyes. “Do what you feel you must.” He rubbed his lids, turning away from his son.
Marie dropped the portmanteaux and buried her head in her husband’s chest. He put a protective arm around her. Her quiet weeping echoed in the room.
Theo wished he had the strength to stay for the night, to perhaps even see that damned physician, if it would make them happy. His chest was heavy with self-loathing as he picked up his bag and quietly walked from the room.
His footfalls echoed in the dim stairwell. On the walls, his ancestors watched from their painted frames—his uncle, who was with Wellington at Waterloo, his great-grandfather, who fought against Cromwell. These men believed wars were won by “honor” and “breeding.” But a heavy conical Russian bullet could tear into a man, shattering his bones and all he believed about himself, making him hold the dead body of his fellow soldier as a shield as he crawled to the safety of a ditch.
Theo couldn’t make his father understand the bloated nothingness inside of him. All the philosophies he’d learned in school, all those virtues extolled by the reverend, were the empty fodder of bored fools. Reality was a hundred dead soldiers—his men—like Eugene, an Irish farmer’s son who had trapped and skinned rabbits the winter the troops ran out of food; James, who’d written letters for the illiterate men to carry on their person into battle so their families could be informed in the event of their deaths; and slight Colin, who the French Zouaves had dressed in women’s clothes and made join in their ridiculous pantomimes. All beloved sons of mothers. Their arms, limbs, entrails blown apart, strewn in the mud.
Theo turned. His parents hovered above him on the landing. “I’m sorry,” he told them again.
Theo waited alone on the Paddington platform for an hour. Occasionally, a watchman would walk by, nod, and say a terse “Good evening.” Otherwise Theo was alone and in blessed silence. He counted the railroad ties until they blurred together in the distance and then started over again.
The train chugged in a little after one-thirty. He walked past the first-class cars. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, but he didn’t feel safe spending the night in an empty compartment. He stepped into a crowded car smelling of soured human sweat. The passengers were resting their heads against the glass or seat, and a low buzz of snores filled the air. He edged down the aisle, trying to avoid outstretched legs as the train lurched forward. He found an empty set of wooden seats and slumped down. Outside the window, London was the shadows of roof lines and dots of light. He gripped his knees with his fingers. His muscles were taut and perspiration cooled under his shirt sleeves.
The train rolled into two more stations, then, at last, the lights of London dimmed as the countryside approached. Theo blew out a long stream of breath, rested his head on the glass and tried to sleep, but the memory of Helena Gillingham dancing returned. Her silvery eyes haunted him all the way to Manchester. He wondered if the spoiled beauty had any idea that her small, gilded world was about to crumble.
He finally sank into sleep and dreamed of the fog whirling around him at the Sandbag Battery. His raw throat burned from shouting for his men to obey, but both sides had lost control of their armies. A bullet exploded the forehead of the man beside him, splashing warm blood and torn flesh onto Theo’s cheek and into his mouth. Even in his dream, he had remembered the haze which had opened to reveal a young, frightened Irish boy gripping his rifle, having shot his own countryman. Except now no soldier stood there, screaming in anguish at his horrible mistake, only Miss Gillingham smiling in her ball gown cut so low her breasts had popped free from the bodice. This is wrong, he thought in his dream. She was supposed to be in London, not here.
Emmagard and Jonathan’s family conveyed Helena home a little after three in the morning. Helena’s feet burned and her muscles ached from keeping her arms lifted, clutching numerous partners. She had danced every dance after Mr. Mallory’s strange exit. Her nerves were on edge. She couldn’t keep still, else his eyes—confused and scared—would fill her mind, his words echo in her brain, You are a vain, ignorant, and selfish girl.
Now she kissed her friends on their cheeks. “You were naughty to let me dance with that lunatic,” she teased them, even as her belly knotted. “And I shall get back at you when you least expect it.”
She exited the carriage and stared up at her town home, her laughter dying away. She hated coming home. The white stone glowed in the dark and only a few windows were lit. The rest were glossy and vacant, like the eyes of the dead. The housekeeper, Mrs. Baines, opened the door. The lamp she held made an orb of light about her thin, crinkled face.
The house was cold. The balusters on the staircase cast long, vertical shadows across the floors and up the walls. She felt overwhelmed by the silence here and wished she could run back into Emmagard’s carriage. She must go through her invitations tomorrow and see if there was a house party or such she could attend, anything to shrug off the despondency of this place.
“Did you enjoy a pleasant evening, miss?” the housekeeper asked in her flat, disinterested servant’s tone as she lit the way up the stairs. The corridors were frigid at night so Helena kept her coat and gloves on.
“I suppose,” she murmured, she couldn’t tell the housekeeper about Mr. Mallory, in fact, she didn’t confide anything that truly mattered to her to anyone.
As she turned to head up another flight, she noticed gold light flooding from under her father’s study.
“Is Papa home?” she asked, surprised. Her father rarely came home. He was either working at the bank or visiting some woman she pretended not to know about.
“He returned a little after midnight.”
Helena asked Mrs. Baines to wait in her chamber. She knocked softly on the library door and slipped inside without waiting for a summons. The room was stuffy and hot from the high blaze of coals. The flames reflected on the polished wooden panels and fixtures. Her father sat, his shoulders hunched over his massive inlaid desk. He was a well-built man, more slender than robust, with a grave face, slightly sagging jowls, graying curls that hung to his collar, and pale eyes like his daughter’s. He balanced a cigar in one hand and scribbled in a ledger with the other.
When she was a child she would steal his ledgers and hide them under her bed to garner his attention, even if it were a thundering, face-reddened anger.
His head jerked up and his eyes narrowed, focusing on her form. “Helena.” He sounded annoyed. “I presumed you were asleep.”
“Of course not.” She dropped into the leather chair before his desk. “I was at a party. Why would I stay home at night?”
He nodded, his expression vague, as if he wasn’t listening to her but to his own thoughts. He shook his head. “I’m sorry. You’ve caught me in the middle of trying to solve a problem.”
“You are always in the middle of solving some problem.” She laughed to cover the exasperation in her voice.
He waved his pen before him. “Do you think this home and the gowns you wear are free? No, someone must pay for this.” This, or some variation thereof, was his usual response to her questions. That she ought just be grateful for her finery and not impose on his precious time.
He returned to his ledger, a signal their conversation was over.
She didn’t move from her seat. “There was man at the ball asking about you.”
He scribbled something and then took a draw from his cigar.
“His name is Mr. Theodotus Mallory,” she continued. “His father is the Earl of Staswick. Is Mr. Mallory a client of yours?”
“No, and I’m glad of it.” He blew out smoke and tapped his ash into a tray, still not looking up from his work. “He suffers from a nervous condition that renders him unstable.”
Helena remembered the terror in Mr. Mallory’s eyes before he fled. She had visited Bethlem Hospital and noted the inmates appeared unmindful of their madness. But Mr. Mallory was acutely aware of his lapse.
The coals shifted in the grate.
“Papa, have you heard from Cousin Emily recently?”
He paused, as if to remember his cousin. “No, of course not. Why are you bringing this topic up tonight?”
“Mr. Mallory said she is a poor widow now. Is that so?”
He hissed through his teeth and slammed his pen into the inkwell. “I can barely keep up with my clients, let alone begging relatives.”
“But she does send letters.”
“Helena, I’m tired.” He gestured to the stack of ledgers beside him. “And I have to go through all these client accounts by tomorrow. I require solitude. You run on off to bed. We shall talk in the morning.”
She knew in the morning, there would be some other crisis, and by the following morning yet another issue would have arisen that would require immediate attendance. There would never be time to talk.
She crossed to the door, paused, and ran her palm over the cool brass knob. The question that had been plaguing her since she and Mr. Mallory had danced burst forth. “Do you…do you think I’m a good person, Papa?”
“I haven’t time for your nonsense, Helena!” he boomed. “Good God, you drive me to distraction with your foolishness.” He began to wave her off, but stopped. “Do fetch me that decanter on the shelf behind you.”
She retrieved it and set the bottle beside him on his desk. “Good night,” she whispered and kissed his head. His coarse hair prickled her lips. “I love you.”
He shooed her away with an annoyed, “Yes, yes,” and poured the brandy.
Mrs. Baines was pulling back the covers of the bed when Helena entered her room. She kicked off her shoes. “Toss away those hateful things.”
There were holes at the tip of her stockings from dancing, and blisters had formed at the sides of her big toes. The housekeeper stifled a yawn, took a pair of scissors from the commode and popped the stitches holding her in the gown, while Helena yanked every pin from her hair. One-by-one, Mrs. Baines undid each lace on Helena’s corset and then untied her crinoline. A freed prisoner, Helena collapsed into the bed.
“Will that be all, miss?” The housekeeper stood with Helena’s clothes folded over her arm.
Helena didn’t want to be alone, but what else could she say but, “Yes, thank you.”
She curled on her side. Her thoughts started to churn, turning over the events of the evening. Alone in the silence, she had no means to distract herself. She wasn’t ignorant and selfish, she told herself, and considered all the money her father had made for deserving families who trusted him with their savings. Jonathan was right—Mr. Mallory was demented.
She rose, relit her lamp, and studied her dark reflection in the mirror. She tried to smile, composing her face as she wanted others to see her. Then her lips began to quiver. He had violated her somehow. Although he might be a lunatic, she had felt him look inside her, past the lovely clothes and witty conversation, into her heart and mind, and he disliked what he saw there. As much as she did.
Helena awoke with her emotions on edge from the previous evening. The heavy clouds, the color of tarnished silver, did little to lift her depressed mood. She sat alone in the breakfast room, breaking up her toast with her fingers as she revisited the previous night’s conversation. Mr. Mallory’s insults still stung. They burrowed into her thoughts, refusing to be quieted even as she reassured herself the man was mad and she shouldn’t believe anything he said. Yet, he appeared so scared and vulnerable. It almost broke her heart.
At last, she arranged for the carriage to take her to Emmagard and Jonathan’s. She couldn’t stand being alone, drowning in her own thoughts, a moment longer. Emmagard’s parlor was crammed with callers. Helena, Emmagard, and several other young people elected to stroll around Hyde Park. There, even though their breaths misted before their faces, they could talk without censure about last evening’s notorious dance.
Jonathan arrived on horseback as she and his sister were about to act out their own version of the scene for their audience.
“I shall be Helena,” Emmagard exclaimed and turned to her friend. “Please, I beg you would dance with me, Mr. Mad Mallory.”
They performed an exaggerated waltz on the grass, sweeping their skirts about as Helena hurled ridiculous insults in a dramatic voice, “How dare you flaunt yourself before Jonathan’s horse in your shiny walking dress. An entire stable of ponies could live off the price of your hideous bonnet. I have a good mind to feed it to the horse, you selfish, vain, silly, unfeeling lady.” Then the two broke into giggles as their group of admirers applauded.
“I understand there are pleasant asylums available for people like Mr. Mallory,” one of gentlemen remarked.
“Lock him away!” Helena cried in mock horror. “But Mr. Mad Mallory is ever so amusing. I do wish he would attend more balls so I might ask him to dance again.” Laughter gurgled up from her throat. Belittling Mr. Mallory before friends quieted her anxious thoughts. He was a lunatic, a violent madman who had no right to call her ignorant and selfish.
A tall man in a dark brown coat with the collar turned up and a hat worn low on his forehead cut across the lane and into the path of Jonathan’s horse. The beast reared up and Jonathan yanked the reigns to keep his mount from trampling the man.
“Get your damn nag out of the way!” the man hissed. Several ladies in the group gasped. The stranger cocked his head so he could see below the brim of his hat and stared right at Helena with hostile, squinting eyes. “Are you Miss Gillingham?” he demanded
Helena blinked, surprised to be addressed by the stranger. “Err…yes.”
The man stepped towards her and shook his fist before her face. “May your father rot in hell!”
“What?” Helena cried as Jonathan shouted, “Get away from her!” He bumped the man with his horse’s rear.
“Don’t stand up for her!” the stranger growled. “Not after what her father’s done.”
“I said get away!” Jonathan cracked his whip near the man’s ear.
The man gave an unimpressed “Hmmp,” shot Helena another nasty glare, and began to stalk off at the same time she heard yet another voice calling. “Miss Gillingham! Miss Gillingham!” A hefty clerk from her father’s bank cut across the grass, waving a newspaper. He stopped before her, leaned down to rest his hands on his knees and tried to catch his breath. “Your father… you need to come… home… an emergency!”
The sounds and voices around her combined into a loud buzz inside Helena’s head. “What has happened?”
The man shook his head. “You must go home.”
For a moment, Helena didn’t move, feeling again like the stunned little girl who had fallen from the castle in Wales. A loud roar filled her ears, and she broke into a run, her skirts cracking the air behind her.
Jonathan galloped next to her. “Get on,” he ordered.
She didn’t reply, but dove into the line of carriages jamming Park Lane and then hurried into the crisscrossing Mayfair streets. Outside her house, dozens of men swarmed by the iron railing and out into the street, halting traffic. Two uniformed policemen stood beside her door.
A young boy hoisted up on the gas lamp swirled his hat above his head. “The West London Savings Bank has failed!” he bellowed, his voice echoing down the street. “The West London Savings Bank has failed!”
Helena pressed her hand to her mouth. What was happening? Had they lost all their money? Blackness covered the edges of her vision, and she felt as though she was looking on the scene through a pinhole.
“I want my bloody money!” a thick, gray man shouted at her. His face was so close to hers his warm spittle sprayed her cheeks. “Do you understand?”
“No,” she whispered. “I… I… no.”
Then it seemed that the wave of human bodies crashed onto her, yanking at her sleeves and skirt, tearing her bonnet from her head.
“Let go of me!” she screamed, jostling her elbows about her, trying to fend off the men.
A strong, gloved hand grabbed her forearm and roughly jerked her. She slammed into the coat buttons of a police officer. His chest rumbled as he shouted, “Let her alone!” Keeping his tight grip, he pulled her through the mob.
She broke free at the steps and rushed into the house. Inside, men in somber clothes with matching somber faces milled about, speaking in low, guarded voices. They watched her with nervous eyes, swaying on their feet, as if they didn’t know what to do or say.
“My God, what has happened?” she whispered. Not waiting for a reply, she rushed up the stairs. More men packed the corridor leading to her father’s library. They stopped their conversations and bowed their heads to her.
In the library, her father’s solicitor sat in the chair by the fire. His oiled hair was disheveled and he stared with vacant, red-rimmed eyes and nodded numbly to several men standing over him holding notebooks. One of the men turned; he was a broad shouldered man with a hard nose and azure eyes that seemed to shoot out from his corrugated skin. His hair—the color of rust—spiked along his part and forehead. He waved his hand as he spoke. “She mustn’t see this. Someone remove her.”
“This is my home. I shall do…” she faltered. On the shelf behind her father’s desk, a dark liquid had spattered over the leather books.
The room became still as she slowly walked around the desk. On the floor, a man was sprawled backwards over his capsized leather chair, a small pistol gripped in his hand. He wore a neatly pressed gray coat adorned with a silver pin that glinted in the light from the desk lamp. She recognized the slight cleft of her father’s chin and his graying, coarse curls, but the center of his face was missing—just a deep red and black hole of blood and flapping flesh where his mouth, nose and eyes had been.
She opened her mouth to scream, but all that came out was a tight, painful squeak. She fell to the floor by his side.
“Oh, Papa,” she choked and laid her head across his chest, putting her cheek over his silenced heart. “No,” she whispered over and over.
The day before, Theo had found the plateau on the small hill that rose from where the river snaked through his property. The small oval of land was lost in tangles of gray, gaunt tree limbs and nettles. He hadn’t any idea what kind of garden he wanted to grow on the spot, except that he thought in the summer evenings he would like to sit here, hidden in the foliage and study the phantom-like mountains of Snowdonia rising in the distance. But now his back muscles burned as he slammed his hoe into the ground, ripping through the thick roots and hitting yet another stone. He felt the reverberation in his bones.
“Dammit,” he spat.
He had been out here the entire morning and only managed to clear about four square feet.
“You’re raging against God again,” his steward, Eli Gordon, said in his Irish lilt. He leaned against a tree, sipping brandy from a leather-covered flask. Straw-like blonde hair curled under the brim of the hat he wore low on his brow. He was a lean man with a hard belly and powerful shoulders that sloped down. His collar was open, revealing a network of scars that vined up his neck and across the flap of skin that covered the corner of his left eye. Two days before the final assault on Redan, he had been playing cards in the trench when a Russian sharpshooter hit him above his left cheekbone.
“Raging against God, you say?” Theo wiped his wet brow and leaned against his hoe. “And I thought I was trying to make a garden.” Branwen, his black and white border collie, sensing her master was taking a rest, rolled onto her back for a good rub. He leaned down and scratched her belly. “There you go, old girl.”
“Some land God doesn’t want tamed.” Gordon took another sip and gazed off at the mountains disappearing into the clouds.
“It must be jolly fun to stand there and drink and philosophize while I work.”
“Aye, the way I see it, one of us must do the thinking.” Gordon set his flask into the overturned earth and stretched his arms over his head, releasing a long groan. Then he took up his shovel and pushed the blade under the rock Theo had struck.
The two had worked together for almost seven years now and Gordon remained as obstinate and unyielding as he had been when the men first met in that miserable summer of scorching heat and cholera at the camp in Varna, where the air reeked of shit and was dusted with lime. Gordon was recruited from the London taverns for a better pay than working for almost slave labor in the docks. He had fixed Theo with cool, challenging eyes that first day. Theo hadn’t trusted Gordon. But even as a brash, inexperienced officer, he knew to tread carefully around the man. Although Gordon had been shy of twenty-two when he arrived in Crimea, he was like a father to other young Irish soldiers, many of whom were not more than sixteen and sent their pay to their mothers.
The two won each other’s grudging respect in the battle of Sandbag Battery. Theo was shouting for his troops to hold their line as Russian artillery was pounding their position. Down to a little over a hundred men, some of the young soldiers were fleeing, others were hunkered down, paralyzed with terror. “Keep firing, damn you!” Theo heard someone shout. “Don’t let them Russian buggers scare you!” Beside him in the haze of fog and gunfire, Gordon was staring down the sight of his Minié. He fired at a Russian soldier who appeared out of the fog, but missed. Gordon slammed the Russian on the head with his rifle barrel and then dragged him to the ground, beating him with his fists.
Despite the years of working together, a distance remained between the loyal men. Theo would always be the commanding officer and Gordon the wise, seasoned soldier.
Branwen whimpered, pawing the air with her right hind leg. Lost in his thoughts, Theo had stopped scratching the dog.
“You’re still thinking about what happened in London,” Gordon said quietly.
Theo lowered his head and rubbed the dog’s muscular stomach.
Six months ago, he would walk back from the garden as the sun began to disappear behind the mountains, turning the landscape the lustrous orange and purple of dusk. His heart would fill with the beauty, and he would realize he hadn’t thought about Crimea for almost the entire day. But now this bad business with Gillingham had managed to trigger his old memories.
“I killed Gillingham,” he said finally.
“He knew they were going to hang him, and he took his own life.” Gordon used his heel to push the shovel deeper. “It was nothing you did.”
Theo rose, crossed to Gordon’s flask, drank from it, and then wiped his lips with his coat sleeve. “I was too harsh on his daughter given what happened.”
“She doesn’t know. You told me that Scotland Yard copper was keeping your name quiet.”
“But the things I said to her—”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have danced with her like you did,” Gordon conceded.
“Or shout insults at her in the middle of a ball—I probably shouldn’t have done that either.”
Gordon scratched the tough skin on his chin. “From what I’ve heard, she needed a good setting down.”
“For God’s sake man, her father killed himself because of me!” Theo barked. “How much more setting down does she require?” Branwen flinched, her brown eyes tensed with worry. She began licking her master’s hand.
“You just talked to Scotland Yard,” Gordon continued, unmoved by his employer’s outburst. “They were the ones who determined he was guilty. Stop blaming yourself.”
“She used to be society’s little wild darling. With her father dead, everyone is taking out their anger on her. In the newspapers, they are savaging her behavior, her clothes, her every move.”
“There’s nothing clean in this world.” Gordon grunted as he flipped the stone from the soil with the shovel blade. “You did what you felt you had to do. Somebody’s always going to be hurt, whether they had it coming or not.”
“How can you stand to think that way?”
“I can’t change the truth.”
“Mr. Mallory!” a young female called out.
Branwen bolted down the slope, leaping over the nettles and rocks, then disappeared down the path running by the river.
“Up here, Megan,” Theo said.
Moments later Megan, Mrs. Emily Pengwern’s daughter, sprinted down the same path, her gray cloak sailing in the air behind her, the dog jumping at her heels. Theo considered Megan his adopted daughter. In his mind, she was still the wild, unfettered, and outspoken girl he adored. But every day her figure was becoming more and more that of a woman. Her breasts burgeoned and her waist thinned. He didn’t want her to grow up, but to remain in a childlike state, unencumbered by the needs of her maturing body.
“Cymorth, Mr. Mallory!” she cried in Welsh. “Mama’s in the front garden.”
“What?” Theo shouted. “She knows she’s not supposed to walk up here. You shouldn’t have let her go.”
“I tried!” the girl retorted. “She doesn’t listen to me.”
“Oh, hell,” Theo whispered. The men edged down the steep incline, using their shovels for support. Then they sprinted behind Megan, down the path that led to the back of Theo’s home, through the stone arch running under the west wing and onto the drive.
Theo found Mrs. Emily Pengwern sitting on the edge of the stone fountain inside the oval of boxwoods in the front garden. She rose to greet them. Even beneath the weight of a heavy cloak and blue shawl, Theo could see her chest rising, laboring to breathe. Her face was waxy and pale with dark crescents carved beneath her brown eyes. Wet wisps of auburn hair stuck to her forehead below her straw bonnet.
“Mr. Mallory,” she began in that formal English style of hers. Her voice was light and musical, but raspy around the edges.
“Emily, sit back down!” Theo barked, too upset to do the pretty. “I’m vexed at you. You are the most stubborn woman in existence. You knew I would come down if you only asked. Why didn’t you send Betry?”
“Since a miner put a baby in her, she doesn’t do anything but throw up all day,” explained Megan in Welsh.
“We try not to speak of such matters,” Emily said, placing a calming hand on her daughter’s lap. Megan rolled her eyes. “And please remember to use your English in front of Mr. Mallory.”
Emily Pengwern neé Douglas was the daughter of a London engineer who had journeyed to Wales to help construct Thomas Telford’s suspension bridge. His mother had been John Gillingham’s aunt, and his grandfather a London solicitor. While in Conwy, he fell in love with Emily’s mother and married her. He eked whatever living he could find working for the mines and coming railroads to support his small family, which included his wife’s mother and sister, both fishermen’s widows.
Emily was a beautiful woman, even after the typhus fever that had killed her husband and young son and weakened her body. If anything, illness had exaggerated her delicate beauty, thinning her oval face, making her cheekbones more prominent and accenting huge eyes that glowed like brown embers.
Megan possessed her mother’s features, but her father’s coloring. Her glossy dark hair was very fine and always escaping its braids. She gazed frankly at the world with eyes that were almost black.
“Come,” he said, clasping onto her mother’s elbow. “I’m escorting you inside where Efa will lecture you properly. And then I’ll lecture you again before I take you home in the carriage.”
Theo’s home had once been a stone fortress standing imposingly on the hill, but Cromwell’s armies had destroyed all but four rooms, a tower, and sections of the original outer walls. In the early 1700s, an English family had bought the property to banish a scandalous son and his embarrassing new bride, a family servant. The son had built a smaller, castle-like cottage complete with turrets and arched stained glass windows to match the tower.
Theo escorted his neighbors through two massive wooden doors carved with a large dragon and into the entrance hall where he called out to his housekeeper, Efa, Gordon’s wife. “Mrs. Pengwern walked here. Smartly scold her for me.”
“Don’t listen to him,” Emily tried to call, but her voice was too weak to carry. Theo hid his panic, hurrying her into the parlor.
A wood fire blazed, burning the damp from the air and making the dark room feel like a cozy night no matter what the hour. The carpet, singed from embers, had been pulled near the hearth where Branwen slept. Around the rug, three armchairs were arranged in a semi-circle with thick fur pelts hanging on the backs.
“Now, you sit here,” he said, pulling up his own chair beside a round marble table holding a gardening reference book, a bound copy of The Pickwick Papers cracked opened at the last page he’d read, several folded London newspapers, and a pendulum clock which softly ticked away the seconds.
Efa rushed in with a wool blanket across her arm, the rich scent of simmering broth and dried rosemary wafting in her wake. “Mrs. Pengwern, that physician from Chester made me promise you wouldn’t exert yourself,” she said. “Now you’re making a liar out of me.”
Efa was in her late twenties and possessed the energy of a steam train. Her fine brown hair was always escaping her bun and falling about her face. Tiny freckles sprayed the bridge of her nose and tops of her cheeks. Her dark, alert eyes slightly bulged and she kept her soft lips pursed in a hard line. Florence Nightingale had hand selected Efa to assist her in Crimea. Now, Efa exacted the same order and efficiency she had learned under the famed nurse on Theo’s tiny household.
She tucked the edges of the quilt around Emily. Without looking at her husband, she motioned to him. “Gordon, stoke the fire while I fetch some tea.” She turned and hurried out, her skirt flapping behind her. “I’ll be back shortly,” she warned.
Megan plopped down cross-legged by the edge of the hearth. Branwen tried to curl into a small enough ball to fit in her lap.
“Now what is so important you had to risk your health to call?” Theo asked Emily more sharply than he had intended. He sat on the armrest of a neighboring chair and crossed his arms.
“I am quite fine,” Emily said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “You and Megan worry too much about me. But I refuse to spend my life trapped in my house sewing and reading until my eyes droop and hands fall off. ” She laughed as she reached beneath the blanket, brought out a letter and held it out to him. “The truth is I desire your advice on a family matter.”
“My advice?” Theo quipped, taking the envelope. “But you never heed anything I tell you.”
“I believe you have met my relation Miss Helena Gillingham,” she continued, unfazed.
Theo’s eyes cut to Gordon. The man’s hard face didn’t twitch as he stabbed at the burning wood with a poker. Theo never told Emily of his true dealings with Mr. Gillingham. Only Gordon knew the entire story.
“Once, at a dance,” Theo replied damply.
“She wants to live with us,” Megan said, her screwed face displaying her feelings on the matter.
“What?” Theo carried the missive to the window. The red and blue stained glass tinted the light that spread over the lavish handwriting on the thick-bordered mourning stationary.
My dear Cousin Emily,
Thank you so very much for your gracious letter of condolence for my father’s passing. Your kindness has meant so much to me at this sad time. No doubt, you have read the unfortunate news concerning my father’s business. I have been quite devastated by the recent turn of events. I still love and mourn my father as I try to reconcile the terrible reports I have continued to receive from the police.
Sadly, the crown has confiscated our home and all our belongings. It is my desire to remove to the country, away from the memories here. I recall from our previous correspondences you have a darling young daughter and adorable boy. I would very much enjoy educating them on the refinements of society such as dance or music. I would also endeavor to be an enjoyable and useful companion to you. Please let me know if these arrangements might suit you.
Your affectionate cousin,
Miss Helena Gillingham
“Oh God,” he whispered under his breath as he pinched the bridge of his nose.
The oblivious woman hadn’t even realized Emily’s boy had died. And he had told her Emily was poor and sick. If Helena was soliciting help from Emily, she must have been turned away by everyone else.
“Mama, she needn’t come,” Megan cried, echoing Theo’s thought. “I don’t require finishing.”
“Quiet, dear,” her mother whispered.
Theo swallowed, folded the letter back, and stared out at his garden, all wavy and red through the thick stained glass. He knew he had inadvertently brought Helena to this desperate turn and to that end he felt responsible. Still, Megan was right: Helena couldn’t come. Spoiled and accustomed to being waited on, she would only be a drain on Emily’s weak health and, perhaps, even put the woman in her grave.
“Helena doesn’t belong here,” he said, slowly.
“I told you,” Megan said.
“I don’t believe she has anywhere else to go,” Emily continued. “I’ve read what they’ve been writing about her in those vicious English papers. As if she is to be blamed for her father’s crimes.” She ran her fingers over a frayed thread in the blanket. “One ought not turn away family.”
Theo could hear the compassion in her voice. He felt a masculine protectiveness towards his fragile neighbor. “I don’t think you understand the life Helena is accustomed to living—the degree of wealth her father had accumulated.” Theo knelt before Emily and lowered his voice to an intimate tone. “He ignored the death of your husband and son, as well as your own illness. He was worth a little under a million pounds at the height of his fraud. And you saw none of it. Not a single farthing.”
Emily smiled, ruefully. “I think I ought to be grateful not to have received stolen money.”
He took her fingers and gently squeezed them between his palms. “The material point is that he never helped you and now his daughter is pleading for your charity when you have none to give.”
Emily yanked her hands back, sensitive of her reduced condition. Without her husband to run the small farm, she had to let the lands out, living upon the small rents she collected and whatever money Theo managed to slip her.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. In the corner, he heard Gordon shift on his feet. Several seconds ticked on the clock. He remained kneeling—impotent and embarrassed. He had to say something. “Perhaps, I could—”
“I saw how he treated her,” Emily said. “I was fourteen when she came to visit. A little older than Megan is now. She was maybe five and always trying to get her parents’ attention—singing, dancing, making up little stories to tell them. I was supposed to be attending her when she fell from the castle walls at Conwy.” Emily’s eyes became unfocused. “I remember the irritation in her parents’ eyes when she came sobbing to them. They didn’t care she was hurt; they were just vexed she had interrupted them.”
Theo’s belly tightened; he moved to fetch his tobacco pouch from the mantle, but stopped, thinking better of it with Emily present. He clamped his hands behind his back.
“Helena hugged me as I cleaned up her scrapes. So tight and desperate was her little embrace. I realized she hadn’t known much affection.”
“I can assure you she enjoys a great deal of affection now,” Theo said, gruffer than he intended. “She was quite the rage in London with the gentlemen.”
“I know,” Emily said quietly, keeping her eyes down. “I thought she could help Megan. I sometimes feel…I feel I can’t be the mother she needs.”
Megan bolted up, sending poor Branwen rolling onto the floor. “That’s not true!” the girl shouted. “You’re all I need.” She beseeched Theo, “Tell her Helena mustn’t come. Tell her…” Her voice tightened to a squeak, fear quivering beneath the veneer of toughness.
“There, Megan,” Emily said, “You are no longer a girl and will have to marry sooner than later. And, perhaps, Helena can help you with the finer points. That is all I meant.”
“Well, if she knew anything of finishing, she would be married and not begging to come live with us,” Megan pointed out.
Theo chortled quietly at Megan’s apt logic. Emily flashed him a squelching look.
“I feel I must strongly impress upon you that this is not good idea,” he said. “People in this village have lost money or know people who have lost money to her father. She will not receive a sympathetic reception in this or the neighboring villages.”
Emily studied him and then tilted her head. “Or anywhere else it seems.” She kept those penetrating eyes fixed on his face. “How long must she be punished? How long until all this anger burns away? Will no one offer her compassion?”
His jaw tightened. “You don’t understand. She… she…” He couldn’t finish. Emily’s words weren’t about Helena, but him. She and this village had taken him in—an Englishman with a fractured mind and empty soul—and accepted him as their own. They respected him, invited him into their homes, and tolerated his odd compulsive need to garden. Here, he wasn’t the cracked one, the bedlamite he was in London.
Emily opened the letter again and ran her fingers over the words. “Her father committed the crime, not her.” Resolve hardened her words. Theo knew that once again Emily wasn’t going to listen to his advice but behave as rashly as ever.
Emily and Megan stayed for dinner, speaking of local gossip and Theo’s gardens. Although no one mentioned Helena, she remained present like an unseen guest at their table.
Later Theo drove them home as rain started to fall. Again he expressed his disapproval of having the spoiled girl come to live with Emily. Again he was rebuffed.
A little before one in the morning, Theo awoke shouting, “You don’t belong here!” and reached for his rifle. But all he felt was soft mattress. His heart thundered in the darkness.
He had dreamed he was coming to Castell Bach yr Anwylyd for the first time. Except all the green, lush forests and gardens were gone. Scoured, darkened dry earth surrounded the house. He had opened the double entrance doors to find the floors strewn with the bloated, rotting corpses of the Russian soldiers abandoned in Sevastopol. Feces, urine, and blood caked the Welsh carvings. Men with shattered bodies crawled out with twisted limbs from under the dusty furniture. A hand grabbed for his ankle. He glanced down. “Water,” a solider with a cracked, bloody mouth rasped. “Water.” Then the man’s face transformed into Helena’s beautiful one.
Theo knew there would be no more sleep tonight. He rose and poured a brandy. He stared out his window. Outside, the downpour drowned out the moon and stars. He drained his glass of brandy and leaned his head against the cold glass, listening to the soft roar of rain and feeling the alcohol numb his mind.
What had he done? Emily still thought of Helena as a sad five-year-old. She had no idea the human gale she would bring upon them. Here, hidden in the hills, Theo had found something true. This was his church, his sanctuary. Helena, with her reckless laughter and bold, witless conversation, represented everything he had fled: undeserved wealth, pretense, arrogance and a willful ignorance of the suffering of others. She would destroy everything sacred about this place.
“You don’t belong here,” he said again, this time as a whisper.