(A solid campaign, A need for attention, A fix for a leak, and A very bad encounter)
Colonel Walter was studying a fresh set of books in the scientific library. Taking fascinated notes. Iris set a table in his bedroom and all but dragged him there. Gentle touches to his bicep, chest, and shoulders were only possible once he was seated. Once she had him seated at some delicious food, she added gentle brushes of her hands against his as she waited on him. It was quite the concentrated campaign, and it had no effect at all.
She took to leaning on him. First briefly, and then for extended moments. Always on the very cusp of proper behaviour. Her touches turned to caresses. She absently tidied his hair in passing. She added an affectionate note to her voice whenever she used his title.
She conspired to place his favourite foods on every meal tray she carried up to him. She spoiled him as much as she could get away with.
And he still remained oblivious to her efforts.
Any time she got close to him, the babies got involved. Four complaining about how the others were leaving him out of things or otherwise being rude to him. Rabbit complaining that The Spine wasn't any fun. Three complaining that there was oil all over the place when he wasn't complaining about being hungry. And The Spine complaining nobody that was following the rules.
If there was anything more powerful for thwarting the true course of love, it was four babies with the ability to complain.
She finally got most of them sorted out, and persuaded Colonel Walter to examine Unit Four to find out exactly was going on with him and his programming. She stuck by Colonel Walter, anyway. Passing tools. Learning what she could about the automatons and how they worked.
"Ah," Colonel Walter kept saying. And, "Hm." Or, "Oh..."
He dictated notes, which Iris was glad to take for the interests of long-term legibility. The only thing that irritated him was that he occasionally had to pause to clarify the spelling. Iris endeavoured not to irritate him so often. She learned more complicated words in the space of one hour than she had in her lifetime to date.
And at the end of all of it, he had made a minor error in one of the algorithms designed to help Unit Four learn. An error that impeded Unit Four from learning very much at all. When he did learn, he did so... sideways, as Colonel Walter put it.
And that, in turn, resulted in a lecture to the other three about being kind to others.
The Admiral had started ungentle inquiries into who was making the most headway into begetting. It involved a parade of five blushing ladies at a time, and a parade-ground holler about private affairs.
He went so low as to promise a thousand dollars to the first woman to get pregnant with a Walter heir.
Iris weathered her turn with flushed face and the secret satisfaction that the Admiral had managed to disgust all her fellow maids so much that none would be contemplating his loins as a means of cashing in. She heard more than a few of the girls plotting to arrange for only the married women to ever be near the repulsive fellow.
Married women were off limits to him, only because there was a chance of his bastard heir being raised into another family. The Admiral wanted tight control over his genetic heritage. Just as he wanted control over all things but himself.
Iris went back to the babies. The one bright point in both her life and Colonel Walter's. They were getting rather good at their instruments. Of course, they couldn't play the wind section. Most of their faces featured vents in their cheeks, so they could not form a proper seal.
And speaking of seals...
"The Spine? May I see you in the lab for something?" Colonel Walter had made adjustments to the slab so that all the Automatons could lie prone for repairs, maintenance, and new parts or workings. He was constantly twiddling with them.
And yet, he had not fixed The Spine's oil leak. Iris could find some equipment, now that it had been neatly arranged. Located one of his miniaturised dark lanterns, which used electricity and an Edison lamp to provide a stark beam of light.
With that, and The Spine opening his mouth as wide as it could go, she located the problem. A leaking lubricant pipe. It needed to be flexible, so Colonel Walter had used rubber tubing. In order to get in there and do anything about it, one would have to disengage the poor fellow's entire jaw.
There were tools to do that, but she had little idea how to patch the tubing.
"Thank you, dear," she said, and allowed him to return to his lessons.
She had to find out if there was a way to fix him without causing too much trouble in the process. Which required research. Iris ventured into the scientific library and read up on rubber tubing. How it was made, how it was reinforced, the intricate processes and chemistry.
Which included the accidental discovery of vulcanisation. Right down to ideal formulas for resilience and strength. Colonel Walter certainly had all the chemicals in his labs. She had an idea.
She called The Spine away from play once more.
"Am I in trouble?" he burbled.
"I want to try something to fix that oil leak," she said. It's going to be a little tricky, and it might not work... But I think I can do it."
She laid him down on the slab and unfastened his jaw, placing the pieces carefully on a tray for just such a purpose. Next, the swift application of a linen bandage she had had soaking in the latex formula. Tight and neat, but not too tight or it would restrict the flow and cause more trouble.
When the Colonel noticed - she trusted he would - he would also notice the neat bandaging work. Better than any field medic he had ever known.
It was tight, difficult work. Up and down the leak and a little each side, until it was covered over three times. "Just stay still, dear," she soothed. "It won't be for long, I promise."
Candle flame set it alight. Iris counted the seconds before she doused the flame. Checked her work against the colour plate she had found in one of the books. It looked perfect. She hoped she kept her self-satisfaction well bottled as she finished putting his face back together. And put a rasp to the tiny, sharp edge of a bolt that looked like it could have caused the trouble in the first place.
"There," she sighed, still up to her elbows in latex. "How does that feel? Didn't hurt terribly much, did it?"
The Spine smacked his chops a little. "It feels dry, Ma." He smiled. "There's no leak, any more."
"Very good. You come to me or Pappy if it pops on you."
"Yes, Ma." He was eager to scurry off to show his siblings in the hall. A chorus of chittering broke out between three of them, interrupted occasionally for explanations to Unit Four.
Iris focussed on cleaning up. It was essential that she didn't leave any trace beyond the slight loss of some chemicals and, of course, the improvement in The Spine's speech. She made sure all the rooms were spic and span before she returned downstairs to prepare the Colonel's afternoon repast.
Now that he was used to her cooking being rather good, she was sneaking more and more vegetables onto his plate. This offering included a small bowl of salad prepared in the Mediterranean style and the more traditional meat and three veg. For sweets, she added a selection of small fruit muffins. And, because the Colonel had certain odd views about nutrition, there was an even smaller selection of nuts and toasted seeds.
Sneaky imp of a giant had figured out how to get horsebread without actually eating horsebread.
And he backed it up with science that even a layperson could understand.
But still... Horsebread was meant for animals with a more robust digestive system than a human being. Iris balked at serving it to him as regularly as he desired. Besides, he was looking much better when he was eating people food.
A fact to which he testified when he arrived back from the Cavalcadium. "Twelve different strangers offered to exchange calling cards with me... All of them were ladies. It's very odd."
Iris allowed herself a moment of appreciation for the way his musculature had filled out since his altered diet. All that working with heavy metal devices had had an impact. And as a giant, he cut an even more striking figure than most men.
Bolder ladies were already swarming. Within weeks, shyer ladies would be pointing him out to their fathers. Who would then come calling to enquire about his matrimonial availability.
Sooner or later, there would be more than one who could tolerate, or even be as good as a mother to his automaton children.
It broke her heart, but maybe it was for the best.
"I wouldn't say that it's that unusual, Colonel. You're a very handsome man." She stopped ogling him. "Where will you take your afternoon meal?"
"Near my boys, of course. Somewhere on my floor, anyway. I missed their company."
"PAPPY!" Four voices rang out from an upper landing. They had missed him, too. They all clattered down the stairs in a great hubbub, and formed a circle around both him and herself. They tightened that circle into a hug.
Iris was forced to hold the tray above her head, and wound up being squashed a little too intimately into the muscular frontage of Colonel Walter. She blushed and stammered, "The girls and I taught them how to hug properly, Colonel."
He was chuckling. Delighted. Trying to squirm around enough to caress each automaton in return. "That's lovely, my boys. I love you too. But Pappy needs some fuel, now. Perhaps the morning room, Miss Iris."
Once she got free, she scurried to set his place before he arrived. She knew that the Colonel was quite content to allow her to set up in his presence, but the morning room was one of the areas where the Admiral fetched up after everyone was done pushing his basket chair out of the way. He wasn't there, this time, thank goodness.
Unit Four was the first to sidle up to Iris and say, "Ad-mir-al Sir is still bro-ken. When are re-pairs?"
Even if his learning was sideways, he could still fathom things out on his own. The babies knew that the Admiral was 'broken' as they put it. They also knew that broken things meant the need for repairs. They did not, evidently, understand that humans and automatons were vastly different.
Iris finished setting up the Colonel's meal. "Living things are self-repairing, for the most part," she began. She backed off to allow Colonel Walter to take his seat. "We've done what we can to make sure he repairs himself properly, but the rest goes very slowly compared to clever young automatons."
Four thought about this, and finally added, "And me?"
It nearly broke her heart. "Of course I think you're a clever Automaton, Four. The fact that you learn sideways is no detriment to your intelligence."
"Hear, hear," cheered Colonel Walter. "The problem is that far too many try to teach straight on. It's a very rare sort who even attempts to teach sideways. Those sorts are the absolute best, you know. Patient. Kind. I've seen them twist their thinking around and try all angles to teach at. It's downright poetic when the lessons get through." He paused to properly engulf some salad. "I was so relieved when something finally stuck in my head... I wept."
The other three babies were quietly chirping to each other at that revelation. If Pappy learned sideways, she could almost see them thinking, and Pappy was wonderful... then all that Four needed was someone to figure out how to teach sideways.
Iris belatedly realised that Four never chirped or chittered like the other three. He always hung his head or looked away when the others engaged in their chirping chatter. The others were excluding him.
"It's very rude to talk about someone in a language they don't understand," she told them.
"It's all right, Ma," said The Spine. "We're working out how to teach Four sideways."
"An' we're gonna start with Robutt," added Three.
That was a word only Rabbit had heard, during an intense discussion from a host of white-coated scientists. One of them from the Russian steppes. She had never heard the word used again, not in English, but for Three to use it meant that Rabbit had communicated it and its inferred meaning.
The babies had a word for themselves and a word for their musical language.
Iris stopped boggling and displayed Unit Three with a gesture. "There's your evidence of communication, Colonel."
"Indeed," he cooed. Increasingly pleased. "Miss Iris, perhaps you can assist me in writing a monograph on the subject. I know the majority of the work is yours, but... Tradition demands the one with the most qualifications puts their name to the document. A tradition I despise, to be quite honest."
"Tradition is tradition," she sighed. He hadn't noticed that The Spine's speech had cleared up immeasurably. "There's quite a few that chafe me, too, Colonel." Like the fact that she didn't have the freedom to be honest with him about her feelings. Or overtly ask him out walking. Or be overt with him at all.
The Admiral might not care, but the Walter social standing would plummet if the world knew of any love between a maid and a gentleman of Colonel Walter's standing. Wagging tongues had already destroyed her standing, everywhere but at the Pembrookes. Iris didn't want to see Colonel Walter lashed by them as well.
"Oh yes," said Colonel Walter. "It's infuriating. Tradition decrees that feminine education be kept to a minimum, yet there are so many brilliant minds... perhaps many more than men... Who find their way forward in spite of opposition. How many more than that simply surrender because opposition is too great? How many brilliant minds are stifled because they're encased in the wrong colour of skin? Or taught that dresses and hairstyles are more important than motion the of the planets? It's just terrible, Miss Iris. Terrible." He slammed his cutlery down. Stood his in place. "To Tartarus with tradition! Miss Iris, I shall teach you how to write a scientific monograph, and assist you with the formal wording. My name will be on your paper as your sponsor, only. And may tradition choke on it."
Unit Four, the only one of the babies who was not easily distracted, applauded by clanging his brass hands together. "Hoo-Ray for Pap-py!"
"I'd prefer you began after you've finished your meal, Colonel."
"Hm? Oh. Yes. Of course. Thank you, Miss Iris." He blushed blue as he sat. His pale skin, just starting to colour from more time in the sunshine, showed peculiar white patches. Unevenly painted across what she could see of his skin. He must have caught her staring, because he rolled up his sleeve to show a vast splotch of white. As if paint had dropped on him and left pale spatter. "The mark of Blue Matter exposure. Perfectly harmless. In fact, quite the opposite of harmful. The rabbit in the lab has lived quite a few years longer than his wild counterparts, and shows no ill effect from it. I expect to be completely transformed in the space of a few more months. Naturally, I have been observing and documenting the progress."
"And there's... no other effects?" Iris worried.
"Intermittent nausea. Nothing terrible. As you can see, my appetite remains healthy."
She smiled. Iris was just about to enquire as to his emotions in regards to romance between the classes, but one of the bold ladies came calling. Her clothing was no-nonsense. Tailored, but relatively plain. She looked over the room with a calculating eye. Assessed Iris in an instant and found her wanting. She smiled genially enough for Colonel Walter when Martin announced her as Miss Diamanté Beauregard.
This was by no means a plain woman. Iris knew the difference between undecorated and artful simplicity. Miss Diamanté Beauregard had spent a lot of money to appear so simple.
"Good afternoon, my dear Colonel," she said. Half breathy whisper and half lustful purr. "Such a delight to see you again."
Colonel Walter looked lost for all of a minute before some fragment of good manners compelled him to say, "I'm currently in the middle of a late lunch, Miss Beauregard. Would you like some tea? Elevenses? Perhaps there some spare pastries?"
"Tea and what is to spare. I did make the mistake of calling without notice." She invited herself into a seat. "I know it's forward of me, but I just couldn't risk anyone stealing my march."
A march straight down the aisle into the life of a gold digger or a black widow. If she could not ensnare Colonel Walter, she would likely aim herself at the Admiral. Iris hurried to the kitchen to prepare the laziest Afternoon Tea in the history of service. Just so she could hurry back and play gooseberry. Hot water and some handy herbs in the teapot. Whatever young Tom had left behind that could be artfully arranged on a cake stand. Cloth on the trolley, set it all up and then push it as fast as she dared towards her destination.
When she got back... Colonel Walter was pacing around both his chair and his meal, hands flapping and fingers twitching. Muttering fragments of polite conversation to himself, in between random flinches and expulsions of, "Dummins!"
Miss Diamanté Beauregard was backed into a corner, raging attempted commands at Unit Four, who blocked her every attempt at egress.
"LET ME OUT, YOU CLATTERING, CLANKING COLLECTION OF CLOCKWORK AND CLUTTER!" Miss Beauregard screamed.
"Bad la-dy," said Four. "You stand in the cor-ner un-til you are sor-ry!"
Iris abandoned the trolley by Miss Beauregard's former chair, and scurried to aid Colonel Walter. She caught him up in his orbit and gently took one of his dancing hands in her own. Reassured him that it was all right, now. He should sit and talk calmly about what happened.
"No," he said, wavering from side to side like a perplexed elephant. "No, no, no, no, no," he was shivering. "I can't, I can't... Can't be calm. Miss mess must malevolence... Dizzy dangerous disgusting dummins..."
Iris gently shushed him. Petted his wavering hands until he began to focus on her. "Just tell me what happened, Colonel..."
Tears were gathering in his eyes. "She licked me in the ear!" And since his hands were captured in hers, he attempted to wipe the sin away with the nearest shoulder. His expression was that of the very depths of disgust.
Iris pressed her handkerchief into his palm. "Here. I'll escort Miss Beauregard to the door. Martin will see her to the gate."
"Yes, very good," he sighed, evidently trying to scour away Miss Beauregard's memory with plain cotton cloth. His ear may well be bleeding soon, if Iris didn't hurry.
Therefore she tapped Four on the shoulder and soothed, "Thank you, dear. I'll take her away."
Miss Beauregard had a face like a smacked bottom.
"Miss Beauregard, I do believe you have overstayed your welcome. This way to the door, m'm."
"You little slut," hissed Miss Beauregard on her way out. "You might want him, but you'll never keep him. He will leave you in the ditch you came from with any bastard he sired."
Iris ignored her. Took her as far as the foyer where the doorman waited. "Colonel Walter has requested that you see Miss Beauregard safely out the gates, Martin."
Martin did his knowing smirk. "Sad to see you go, Miss Beauregard," he lied.
"Goodbye, Miss Beauregard," Iris cut the woman dead on her way back to the Colonel.