—- Chapter II —-
Helena Scheuberin was a woman both of and ahead of her time. Born and raised in Innsbruck, she had grown up the daughter of affluent woodworker, benefiting from the progressive outlook of both her mother and father. Her parents had always believed in the importance of education, providing her and her brother with equal access to personalized instruction by the wizened tutelage of old Master Wheeler.
The old Master was strict, his expectations unyielding, and yet his love for his pupils was obvious, cushioning all reprimands and informing all action. Through him, Helena learned a myriad of subjects, ranging from Latin and grammar to the fundamental nature of logic and rhetoric, philosophy and mathematics.
“I hate you,” her brother had once screamed at Master Wheeler after the ancient educator had refused to let him off from answering a question. Her brother then threw his quill at the Master’s silver head, which he dodged with surprising agility.
“Leave me alone,” her brother continued, burying his face in his chubby and cherubic hands.
“No boy-o, that I won’t do.”
“Because I have a responsibility to both of you.”
Their parents would have had a conniption fit if they heard about this behavior during their lessons, but old Master Wheeler had never said a word, instead giving her and her brother a big wink after debriefing with their mother following class. And gradually he had won their trust, developing a gregarious rapport and a close-knit bond.
When she was 17, Helena had stayed behind in the instruction room one afternoon, dawdling and dithering as Master Wheeler packed up his papers.
“Something I can assist you with my miss?” said Master Wheeler, his back remaining turned as he gingerly placed scrolls into a satchel.
“Mother says you soon won’t be coming here,” she said finally, her hands playing and pulling on her long black hair.
“Yes,” that’s true. You and your brother are soon to be of age. Your lessons are nearly complete; there is not much more I can teach you.”
“That’s not true.”
“Ah but it is my miss; and all I can say is that there was never a prouder teacher.”
“But what am I to do?”
“What you can. You’ll live your life, and you’ll keep learning.”
“Yes, but what is it that I am supposed to do?”
The old Master stopped, and the constant crinkling of his scrolls and quills fell silent. He turned to face the girl; his eyebrows raised, wrinkles arching across his spotted and craggy brow. He stared at her oval face, meeting her perfectly round eyes that sat above cheeks sprinkled with a healthy array of freckles. Both the old man and the young girl knew what each other was thinking at that exact moment. Sebastian Steiner, the son of the illustrious Steiner merchant family, had recently asked for her hand, to which her parents had responded enthusiastically. Although they had always encouraged their daughter’s love for the life of the mind, they had never seriously considered her for another pursuit aside from a well-matched engagement.
Wheeler could see the depth of her pain, perceive the weight of the girl’s burden. Leaving his bag on his desk, he walked toward the girl and lay his hands on her thin shoulders.
“You’re one of the smartest girls I’ve ever taught. You have endless potential. And you will make something of your life; I promise you that.”
Reading the girl’s face, Wheeler could see that, despite his best intentions, he had only gotten half-way there. Some part of his words still rung hollow. They were stilted, platitudes really, pushing up against the confines of time, the fundamental boundaries of the age. It was, in a sense, as if he himself only halfway believed them. And if he could not sell himself, what hope did he have of convincing an agonized teenager?
“But it’s ok to be sad.”
With that, the girl’s knees buckled and she sank against his arms. Her face was crunched, marked and marred by tears. Wheeler held her as she cried, staring out the window as the sun dipped low and eventually disappeared beneath the snowy peaks of the Karwendel Alps.
Now 34, Helena couldn’t yet take stock of the totality of her life. Master Wheeler was long since dead, having succumbed to the plague alone in his home, with nothing keeping him company except for his books and his dogs. When this had occurred, Helena had not seen or spoken to him for over two years, as her time had been occupied with a foolhardy attempt to open her own apothecary in central Innsbruck.
Her husband of 16 years, Sebastian, had tolerated yet never loved her aspirations and ambition. But he was not home enough to effectively monitor her affairs, a fact that he seemed to have accepted long ago. His work took him to far-flung locations, trading spices in Constantinople, silks in Baghdad. He had little time or energy to concern himself with day-to-day life back in Innsbruck or the existential malaise of his wife.
And so, on any given day, Helena was left largely to her own devices, free to administer and direct the household staff, and engage in the pursuits that interested her. Deep down, she had an inkling that she was luckier than most. The house’s library, for instance, was well stocked with various books from across the Empire and beyond. The Yellow Book of Lucan, the Bellifortis, the Vernon Manuscript and The Poems of Francois Villion were her current companions, partial vanguards against a dispiriting stasis. But even with such treasures, she was increasingly dissatisfied with her position in the world and could hardly abide being relegated to the position of passive observer.
In recent weeks, she had had thrown herself into charitable activities, directing donations of food to the Innsbruck Foundling Home. Once and awhile, she even personally accompanied the deliveries herself, stepping nimbly and coolly around the “sturdy vagabonds” being whipped raw for not having obtained the proper licenses. She had also strained to inculcate herself as a responsible party in her husband’s financial holdings, managing the books of his mercantile dealings and assessing any outstanding debt.
But try as she might, she couldn’t move the society in which she lived, could not transfigure herself beyond the ornamental. Just as her apothecary had been met by scorn and derision by her friends and neighbors, so too were her attempts to inquire about a swath of grain fields located to the east of the city or investigate the inter-workings of the municipal guilds. Her presence in these sectors was only marginally tolerated, certainly never accepted or appreciated.
“Me lady?” her maid, Abella, said one afternoon as Helena sat brooding in the library, a text about oat cultivation sitting open on her lap.
“Don’t know where to begin.”
“Just speak. You know you don’t have to stand on ceremony with me.”
For many years, Abella and Helena had cultivated a friendly relationship, gradually becoming each other’s closest confidants in times both good and bad. Abella knew of Helena’s aptitude and aspiration for more than her body and identity allowed, just as Helena was sympathetic to Abella’s hardscrabble existence and curiosity for the world in which lived. Of course, Abella could not ascertain the heights of intellectualism that Helena herself had reached, but she could at the very least hold her own in conversation.
“It’s bout Tobias.”
“What about him?”
Tobias was Abella’s beloved, a poor, oafish farmer who lived outside the city’s limits. Rough, brash and uncouth, Tobias had always rubbed Helena the wrong way in the few times she had been unfortunate to spend time in his company. She had never approved of his coupling with Abella, and she had often feared for what a proposal might mean for the current order of her household.
“He as’ asked me parents for marriage,” Abella said, interrupting Helena’s thoughts.
The air was sucked out of the room, and the book on Helena’s lap slid forward and fell to the ground with a dull thud.
“But, but, why?”
“He said e’ loves me.”
Helena sat in frozen horror, as if her chair had suddenly grown tendrils that were wrapping themselves around her body. She knew that such a sentiment was patently false. The lout was not capable of love. He also had allegedly gotten violent with Abella less than six months ago. The poor girl had come to the house with a limp and a wicked-looking bruise across her cheekbone. And when Helena had inquired about these injuries, she had made numerous excuses, lamely claiming that she had gotten in the way of a couple of brawling roughnecks in the ale house across the street from her family’s hovel.
“You’ve thought about this,” Helena finally said after a painful and protracted pause.
“Of course, me lady. I ope’ this can serve as me notice.”
“But Abella, I don’t understand; what can he offer you?”
“I…,” she began, before falling silent.
Abella looked at Helena, but then moved her eyes past the woman and past the chair, running her gaze over the monolithic bookshelves that stood against the opposite wall. These shelves loomed over her, seeming to fill the room. They were jammed with books of every size and shape, and contained stories and information to which the illiterate Abella had never been provided access.
“…I just need, want, to be with him.”
Helena’s throat was suddenly dry and pinched. She felt a deep sadness well up within her, and she knew that while her home was going to remain full of servants, it was also soon to become a far emptier and less habitable place. She also saw what she knew to be true about the time in which she lived, where opportunity was narrow and aspiration a fallacy.
Red hot anger then surged in her veins, obliterating all vestiges of compassion and sensitivity. She was looking at a simple, silly girl, who, despite having stayed up nights talking with Helena, laughing with her, and even tending to her when she was ill, was now throwing her life away. And it at last hit her how different her and Abella truly were – and how they always would be.
“I can stay on till the end of thee month,” Abella said hopefully, looking at Helena with tenderness and concern.
“Don’t bother,” Helena responded with the emotional weight of 16 years of ambivalence.
“But me lady.”
“Speak to Madam Magpie. She will take care of all arrangements, and today can serve as your last day,” Helena said curtly, coldly, as if the words themselves had been dipped in icy water.
Helena then rose and walked toward to a side door of the library, exiting the room without a backward glance and leaving her fallen book on the floor.
Night fell on Innsbruck and Helena stood at the window of her bedroom window, watching Abella depart from the servant entrance for the final time. She had a small bag of possessions with her as she walked to a horse that was ridden by Tobias. Even from her position and even through the darkness, Helena could see his hooked and bulbous nose, his beady and greedy little eyes. A shiver of revulsion slithered its way down her spine to the small of her back as she peered at his tangled and matted beard, imagining how select strands were likely coated and crusty with dried beer and flecks of mutton. Hopelessness gripped her as the pair rode down the cobblestone rode and eventually disappeared around the corner. And she wondered to herself if this life she was leading, this reality she belonged to was the end of history. And if so, was what lay ahead truly eclipsed by darkness and dead space, a void lacking in definite improvement and progress, unable to be illuminated by the most strident of human effort or the most incandescent light of any given star.