(Formal Dinner, The suffragette’s critique, Goods on display, and An insufferable situation)
Dinner was a very stiff affair. Starched collars and cuffs and near-strangling black ties. The Admiral Walter wore it like a second skin, while the young master wore it rather like a straight jacket.
Iris, and a good half-dozen other maids in similarly brief uniforms, stood decoratively around the room. All well within the young master's line of sight. She had managed to find his bedchamber, conspired to lay out one of his better suits, and forced him into bathing by the simple method of frowning at him and pointing until he got the message.
He scrubbed up very well, indeed. If he just looked after himself, he could gather potential brides just by strolling down the street. Once that deathly pallor wore off from getting the right amount of sun.
Conversation between the Admiral and his son focussed exclusively on women. "Got you a new maid," said Admiral Walter. "Nice to see she's competent."
"Mm?" The young master startled. "Oh. Yes. She managed to embarrass me about the state of affairs in my labs. Without saying a word. I've invited her to help tidy up. It's going to delay my work, a little, but displacement activity might shake my brain out of the corner it's in."
"You weren't born with a brain in your head," rumbled the Admiral. "My family line's going to end with your idiocy if you don't get to begetting. Send you to a girl's school and you set your sights on that giant suffragette." He pronounced that last word in the same way other men would curse.
"Scientist, father," corrected the young master. "She has a doctorate in chemistry and she's a genius."
"Hips like a flamingo. Never survive childbirth." The Admiral spared a moment to attack a sausage. "Now look at all of these fine specimens." His sweeping gesture included all of the maids on display.
Iris felt like an iced cake under glass, and tried desperately not to blush.
"Fine figures of what a real woman should be. Petite, with sturdy, childbearing hips. All from good breeding stock, the lot of them."
The fires of mortification incinerated Iris' cheeks. And her ears. And began to spread across her face. Good breeding stock. She wasn't a cake. She was a cut of beef. Slaughtered lamb, ready for roasting. She might as well be wearing gravy and a sprig of parsley.
"Father," sighed the young master. "I am not in the habit of evaluating women like carcasses at a butcher's. I'd rather have someone I could talk with."
Well. That was her out of the game. At least until she was declared fit to speak in public.
"I outrank you, boy," the Admiral rumbled like gathering thunder. Like a burning fuse attached to a powder keg. "Fifteen years. Fifteen years in this country's military services and you couldn't get better than Colonel. You couldn't even serve a full twenty years! Combat nerves! What kind of a man gets combat nerves? I'll tell you! An ineffective, weak, pantywaist who might as well lop off his tallywhacker and wear artificial teats! You'll take one of these women and know them in the biblical sense before one of your damn fool, idiotic contraptions kills your worthless hide, or by God... I'll bloody sire something on one of them and call it yours! That's a God-damned order!"
Iris knew in an instant that he'd pick on a girl with nowhere to run. Someone desperate for work, poor as a church mouse. Someone whose other options were the poorhouse or the gutter. Hot, terrified tears spilled from her eyes. She held her breath, lest she let loose with an ugly sob.
"Damn you," spat the young master. Colonel Walter. "You made her cry."
No. Oh no. No. He wasn't rising from the table without his father's leave. He was not extracting a kerchief nor making a beeline for her position amongst the array of other, finer cuts available in Admiral Walter's meat menu. He was certainly not cooing soothing nothings for a miserable serving girl.
And Admiral Walter was not grinning like a greasier version of the serpent in Eden. Like he'd just played his son like a virtuoso violinist.
And Colonel Walter was not being a kindly giant with his awkward, long limbs. Trying to fend off her terrors with fatherly comfort.
And the light was not fleeing and she was certainly not fainting.
All her strength departed with the last of the light.