(The need for fixing, What must be done, Utter chaos upstairs, and How well did you know her?)
Iris could see the exact moment when her words killed him. The joy bled out of him, starting with the twinkle in his eye. Then the light in his presence. Then the straightness in his stance.
"No," he whispered. "No, it's not fair. No. No. No... I worked so hard..." His hands started to shake. No. Not shake. Wriggle. Like he was trying to simultaneously shake water from his hands and conduct an orchestra at the same time. His head shook, trying to deny reality. A whispered, "Dummins," escaped him.
He was going to have one of his funny turns in front of the babies!
Iris gently stilled his hands. Repeated, "Colonel Walter," until his glazing eyes focussed on her once more.
"It was never your fault," she soothed. "You did everything that you could, and there wasn't much anyone could do for her."
"There has to be something," he whispered. "A cure. A way to traverse time. I could go back... Save her."
"It would take years. Maybe the rest of your life," she said. "For now, your babies need you. And you need to prepare. The funeral's on Saturday."
"I could... I could... I could still fix it..."
"Not yet, please," she added gentle petting motions to his arm. Even hunched and huddled, his face was too far to reach in such a public place. "Nobody else will understand. Least of all, all the others who love Delilah." Was it a sin to use her name against him? She certainly felt like she was going to hell for it.
Iris tried not to think too hard about that which she was about to do. "No buts, Colonel," she said. Coming over the authoritarian mother. "You are going to march right back up those stairs and have yourself a proper bath. And you are going to brush your teeth, comb your hair, and put on some fresh, clean clothes from the skin out! Yes, Miss Iris."
It had worked on her six brothers, many of whom were larger than her. And now it worked on this giant. "Yes, Miss Iris," he echoed.
"And remember to shave," she called after him, as he began to slink off.
He felt his cheek. "Yes, Miss Iris."
She wheeled on the automatons. "Please go follow your Pappy and make certain that he doesn't do anything... silly. I have to make certain Pappy has some good fuel for a change."
All four of them were boggling at her with open mouths.
"Quickly, now." She shooed them towards the stairs as if they were lost little ducklings in search of a pond. Iris stayed long enough to make sure they were all on their way before she ran like hell for the kitchen.
The gossip mill was already grinding, of course. Iris simply barged her way through them all and gathered everything she could possibly need to feed a man who had been existing - how long? - on horsebread sandwiches and coffee. Ham, eggs, flour, butter, sugar... Definitely some fruit. A lime compote should see any scurvy away. Or some of that marmalade he loved so much.
One day, she hoped and prayed, she would wean him off of every single ingredient in those damned sandwiches and teach him to eat the sort of fare that humans ate. Preferably suited to his station.
"Miss Iris, are you planning to breakfast an army?" asked Miss Chastity.
"Just one giant who's been eating nothing but sandwiches for untold days," frustration and fury and a good helping of mortification helped her to whip everything that needed whipping to within an inch of its life. "How many days until Saturday?"
"It's the day after tomorrow, Miss Iris," said Miss Prudence, who was wrapped lovingly around Miss Chastity.
Wonderful. She had today and tomorrow to wrangle order out of the Colonel, and to teach him not to mention time travel to any of the mourners. He was a brilliant man, she knew it. But he had the worst sensibilities about what to say and when. Or what to do and when.
A proper gentleman would have let other maids see to her tears and her vapours on the first day. A proper gentleman would never have given her such an incendiary kiss. A proper gentleman would never have made such unlikely things as giant automaton babies to play music for the one he adored.
A proper gentleman would never have thought of time travel as the first solution for fixing the unfixable.
Iris found herself irrationally glad that he was not a proper gentleman.
Several things frying. Some things baking. The Colonel was going to be occupied and she was about to sin again. "I think we should all go upstairs while the Colonel is occupied and sort out those labs of his. They're all such a mess, it's bound to be terribly unhealthy."
"But... It's frightening up there..."
"Any more terrifying than running into the Admiral when you're alone?" Countered Iris. "There's nothing up there that you haven't already met. The rest of it is just mess, and I have enough to deal with with the Colonel and his babies."
Dawning realisation hit the assembled maids. The Admiral rarely set foot inside the Colonel's area. Which meant that it was a sanctuary against the Admiral and his unsavoury attentions. Suddenly, some scientific paraphernalia didn't seem all that disturbing, any more.
Prudence and Chastity volunteered first, to see what could be done. Pamela decided to assist. Then Chloe and Rosemary. Thereafter, Iris had to focus on her cooking. But by the time she had a tray organised, there was only Tom left. Licking his lips in anticipation of some malformed spares. She filled his pockets with movable treats. Added a wink and a shushing motion.
Tom instantly crammed one into his mouth before he took her upstairs.
With luck, the Colonel should have some pants on, and the babies could even be helping.
There was no such thing as luck in this wicked world.
Four was using his pinpoint legs to spear pieces of paper and bring them to Three, who proceeded to draw on every blank space with a collection of pencils he had found. Rabbit was busy making great clouds of chalk dust by clapping dusters together. And then etching the dusters with chalk so he could make more clouds.
The Spine was nowhere to be seen.
Thank goodness she'd had the foresight to bring a covered tray.
As for the other maids... They had formed a chain at the far end of the hall. One chain ferried books inside it, and another ferried papers out. Other, random objects were simply evicted into the hallway.
But nobody was working on keeping the babies in order.
Iris found The Spine inside Colonel Walter's bedroom, playing with cuff links and tie pins. She almost collapsed with relief at the sight of him. One less baby to worry about. She set the tray on a sideboard and asked, "Where's Pappy?"
"Underwater," bubbled The Spine.
Iris focused her hardest on not succumbing to heart failure as she knocked on the ensuite door. "Colonel Walter? Is all well?"
"Just fi-ine," he singsonged. "I'm only wearing a to-wel..."
"Not underwater," corrected The Spine.
One less problem in an entire circus of them. Next, she peered at the paper that Three and Four were entertaining themselves with. They were the crumpled rejects and not, as she feared, important.
Next big problem - Rabbit. Iris rounded up every atom of chalk she could spot and locked it in a desk drawer. Then ordered Rabbit to go make clouds in the stairwell.
She returned to Colonel Walter to find him securing a shirt and admiring her cooking. Good. "Spine? You can go and help the ladies tidy up, thank you, dear." Iris found a small table under a pile of reading material and excavated it for his breakfast. The books would eventually find their way into the rapidly-growing scientific library. She left them by the door where someone would see them.
Colonel Walter needed her now.
His eyes were dull of their spark. They looked out on the world without any interest in very much at all.
Iris set him up at his breakfast and pulled open the curtains so he could see outside. He'd just lost hope, she knew. Seeing the world spinning on, regardless, was both the cruelest torture and the best medicine for him. Little finches hopped about in a nearby tree. Dancing in the air and among the twigs.
"When my Pappy died... Mother fell into such a melancholy... She barely ate, hardly slept... It was as if her soul was halfway along into the next world. I did everything I could for her, but nothing brought her back into life like watching the birds..." Iris looked back at Colonel Walter. He was eating, true, but it might as well have been wallpaper paste to him. "The babies are going to need you," she murmured. "They don't understand. They don't know why things are happening the way they are. I'm keeping them distracted, but... They're sharp. They know something has happened. And things are different with you."
He stopped eating. "You're... so much better with them..."
"Only for teaching the little things. I don't know anything about what to do to fix their hurts. I don't know how to repair them. I can't even read your notes, Colonel. I'm sorry, but your hand is nearly illegible. They need you. They're going to need you for some time yet."
"I was going to use them and put them away," he mumbled. "They're more alive than I anticipated..." He made himself eat, as if her lightest pastry was made out of lead. "How many days until Saturday?"
"It's Thursday, today, Colonel."
"They won't be ready... Can't take babies to a funeral. They ask all the wrong questions."
At least he was thinking ahead. Somewhat. If she could get him as far as the funeral, she could coach him through the rough days afterwards. If the Admiral was a decent man, he would allow his son to mourn.
But she knew that the Admiral was not a decent man.
At least he was trapped in a basket chair and at the mercy of Mrs Cambridge. That could hold him for months at best. Weeks at worst.
One crisis at a time... "I'll babysit, of course," she volunteered. "Today, you must see to yourself. You've been running yourself ragged, lately. Sit. Eat. Watch the birds. The girls and I are going to sort out all the mess."
He must have been distracted, because he murmured, "Yes. Yes. Of course."
Iris felt like she should be marching straight to the inferno. If he knew what they were doing to his chaos, right now... But he had invited her to do just this. But... he would throw a conniption to see all his work being so casually mishandled like this.
Iris rescued all of the uncrumpled sheets of loose paper, on the basis that the Colonel would know what they meant. His illegible scrawl had become infinitely worse during his time of extended sleeplessness. And when she could, she checked the papers that the babies were playing with, just in case. Scribbled out scratches and definite rejects, all. Good.
As for the rest of the mess, she left the human chains to their processing and got on with sorting everything that they didn't know how to handle. Things in jars could be arranged neatly enough on shelves freshly vacated by books, paper, and an impressive pile of cutlery, crockery, trays, and the spoiled remains of meals.
Iris was mostly certain that he didn't want to keep anything that could no longer be identified. And if he did, she or Mrs Cambridge could talk him out of starting new examples. Probably.
As for his mysterious gizmos... She arranged the ones that were connected to other things in a neater order, and moved the unconnected ones to a different room. It did her heart good to air out the tidied rooms and sweep out the last of the cobwebs and dust.
Far too much paper was loose. Even stacked neatly into folios, there was still a host of them. Nobody could read Colonel Walter's spider scrawl but Colonel Walter, who was currently indisposed. Well. Communing on some level with the giant mechanical giraffe that had decided to keep an eye on him through the window.
Asking him to sort out this lot might lead to another fit of inspiration. Iris left him where he was and divided the loose sheets into piles by content.
Papers just containing impersonations of handwriting went in one pile. Papers with identifiable drawings of automatons or their parts went into another. Papers with anatomical studies to a third, and so on. Anything that looked like it belonged together stayed together.
She had ten piles in all, placed in folios and labeled, and stacked neatly on a shelf before she ventured to check on the Colonel. He'd eaten everything. Drank all the tea. He stood and stared out the window, but she doubted he saw anything. Not even his giant metal giraffe. Iris made to creep in and quietly remove the tray and its empty dishes.
He nearly scared the life out of her when he spoke. "I should be sad. I know I should be sad. I should be... but I'm not. Part of my life has... gone. A brilliant woman of science. An incomparable wit. A beauty to rival Helen of Troy. Gone. And I'm just... empty."
"Maybe it hasn't become real, yet," she allowed. "Some people can't mourn until they really know that... someone has passed away."
"No. When Ma died, I was..." a twitch of his shoulder, a cascade of his fingers conducting an inaudible melody. "The Admiral my father threatened to lock me away in a padded room and start over with a new wife. I learned quickly to conceal... But this is different. I should be sad, but I can't find it."
This was something that might take more searching than spying copper fingers in a pile of paper. "I never got to know her. What was she like?"
He smiled. "She took my breath away. I nearly fainted, the first time I saw her. She gave me permission to breathe and laughed. Doctor Moreau must have been so used to men behaving like that around her. I was thunderstruck. I had to read everything she'd written. I attended her every lecture. I just had to capture her attention."
He had not, Iris realised, answered the question. "All right. Now what was she like?"
"Um. Smart, of course? I heard she was fond of African animals. Oh, and she liked music."
This was barely a sketch. "Did she prefer coffee or tea?"
Henceforth, the Colonel's only answer was, "Um."
"What kind of music did she like?" Um. "What was her favourite colour?" Um. "Where did she like to spend her free time?" Um. "Who were her friends besides Miss Broodwell?" Um. "What was her favourite treat after a long day?" Um. "What weather made her happy?" Um. "Do you know of anything that made her happy?"
"Miss Iris, you're being unfair..."
"Now answer those same questions about me."
He boggled at her. "You like rosemary tea with a double helping of honey. Your favourite music is the romantic arias from Gilbert and Sullivan. Your favourite colour is green. When you have free time you read. You've become fast friends with Mrs Cambridge, Miss Florence, Chastity, and Clarity. You're partial to hot chocolate and warm pastries. You like sunny days and you're cheered by the sight of birds."
"And that's just from passing chatter. Did you spend any time talking to her?"
Iris dared to lay her hand on his arm. "You may have loved her, but you didn't know her."
He still looked lost when his eyes turned to her. "So... I'm not broken... I'm just horrible."
"You're not at all horrible," she soothed. "You were entranced. I was entranced just the same. And it's all right to feel what you're feeling."
"Oh," he said, staring into the distance. "She was very entrancing. Her voice was so melodic, even the birds attended her lectures outdoors. I think she captured and identified three new species that way."
Iris smiled a little at that image. "Charm like that would be hard for anyone to ignore. I'm sure the world is sadder without it."
One of his hands started wobbling anew. "I think I need some-something to do. I don't have a goal. There's nothing to work towards. What do I do?"
"I have just the thing..."