(Cryptic utterances, Strange change of routine, Joyous news, and A fearful fate)
There was only one explanation that fit. Miss Iris had gone more than peculiar in his absence. She had odd, quiet fits of weeping where he couldn’t see her. And when she talked to him she was either baffling or angry with him
It began small, of course, with breakfast the morning after he came home.
“I have ceased being unwell,” she said out of nowhere.
“I didn’t know you were sick,” he said. “I’m glad you got over it. If you were still ill I might have gone into another strange frenzy.”
Miss Iris boggled at him as if she’d just witnessed him growing another head and announced, “I have filing to do,” before she cut him dead and huffed out of the room.
He was still wondering what he’d done wrong by the time dinner rolled around, where he witnessed the miracle of the Admiral his father pointedly not waxing lyrical about the Walter legacy and its need for heirs. There was also a suspicious lack of maids on display.
He couldn’t fathom it. The world had seemingly gone mad in his absence. Miss Iris was pointedly not as warm as he remembered to him. Thought she still looked after him, as was her duty, her cryptic utterances and resulting fury with him made him suspect he had done something terribly wrong.
The Admiral his father was only a quarter of the monster to whom he had become accustomed. He seemed… actively merry. And when Peter enquired about snuff, opium extract, or lithium… she told him that the Admiral was not indulging in any vices known to man or beast.
Peter even found the time to covertly search the old man’s offices. Not a trace of any vice, nor its paraphernalia.
It boggled the mind.
Miss Iris started wearing a smock in lieu of her usual pinafore. And her temper increased. She repeated strange phrase after strange phrase.
“I am lost to the pudding club.”
“I have an interesting condition.”
“I am increasing.” Increasing what? Where? How? None of these simple questions were answered at all logically.
“I am expecting,” she said.
Baffled, Peter said, “I think you left off the end of that sentence, Miss Iris…” Which was exactly the wrong thing to say, because it resulted in another huff.
This went on for two months. When she uttered the cryptic, “I shall have to be confined, soon.” It sounded urgent. Terribly urgent. And important. And embarrassing, she was red as a beet, the poor dear.
Peter dreaded another huff so much that he broke. Tears spilled and his voice cracked. “I’m sorry, Miss Iris. I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.” He hiccoughed a sob. “Please don’t be mad at me? I don’t like when you’re mad at me.”
An enormous sigh. The kind of sigh that covered thousands of generations of women being disappointed in the men around them. “Oh, Peter…” she mourned. At last, she sat in the comfortable chair where she so often lit for dictation. “Do you know what Enceinte means?”
“Well of course, it’s French for preg--” the light dawned brighter than the sun itself. A supernova in his head. He could feel the indigo tides of mortification rising to cover his face. “Oh. Oh! Oh my goodness, I must be an idiot. Dummins! No wonder you were cross. Why are you still working? Shouldn’t you be with… the… father? Who is the lucky gentleman? Is he… um… being responsible? I’ll trounce him if he isn’t.”
She sat agog. Boggling and goggling. “No, I just spent two months trying to explain my predicament to him. It’s you, you bloody daft potato!”
It was a rare moment. He could actually feel a silly episode coming on. “Please excuse me, Miss Iris. I need to think in the hall. I’ll… try not to be long.” He rose in utter calm, stepped out into the hall, and had a full-on, circular fit up and down the length of it. When he wasn’t walking elaborate spirals, he was either circling between doorways or oscillating from one end of the hall to the other.
He swore that he was repeating most of the horrible things that the Admiral his father had to say about him. At least until recently. O good God. Had his father done something… rash… involving forged paperwork? The horror of such a grand lie added whimpers to his already disturbing utterances. And the only thing stopping him from hurting himself for it was the fact that it would upset Miss Iris.
He was babbling Bye Baby Bunting when he caught sight of Three attempting to wave him down.
“Hi, Pappy. Hello. Hey.”
Peter stopped cold. Forced him hands to do their shaking by his hips, rather than high above his head. “Yes? What is it?”
“Big weird dance,” said Three. “What’s it for?”
Oh dear. “Uh. Pappy… Pappy’s trying to…” what could he say? He’d tried so hard to shield the babies from his silly episodes. “Uh… I’m trying to think my way around some… very big news. It’s given me something of a turn.” Oh dear. There were going to be more babies. Real. Soft. Squishy. Vulnerable. Terrifying. Human babies. His babies.
In something little less than four month’s time, if he had his mathematics correct.
“Is it why Ma has three pumps now?”
What? “How do you mean, ‘pumps’?”
“Everybody gots the pumps in the chest. Ba-boomp, Ba-boomp, Ba-boomp,” he struck his brass chest in a heartbeat rhythm to illustrate his point.
“Oh yes. Humans call that a heart. We get one each.”
“So why Ma’s got three?”
Three. It shorted his brain out. Three. There were three heartbeats.
“Pappy? Why’s two of them so fast?”
“Miss Iris is having twins,” Peter murmured. He knew well what that meant. Many a doctor had seen to it that there were three coffins instead of three lives. Twins were a peril that tiny Iris could not well afford. Midwives, on the other hand, managed well to see the mother survive the experience… and often at least one of the infants, too. He left Unit Three in a state of perplexity and returned to his drafting office to find her fast asleep in the comfortable chair.
Growing new humans was exhausting work.
I am a scientist, and I am investigating in order to be certain of Iris’ health, he told himself as he lifted the smock. Her alarming roundness was both the result of her diminutive dimensions and the fact that two bodies grew within instead of one.
Her heartbeat was sound. She had the wisdom to dispense with corsetry altogether. Good. She had a robust ribcage in comparison to the more frail ladies of breeding. Also good. Someone had been letting out her dress to accommodate her new dimensions. Very good indeed.
He felt her expanding belly, and was rewarded with movement. Kicks. They were kicking. Alive and healthy. Both of them.
“Yes, loves,” he cooed to the bump, resting his cheek oh-so-gently against it. “Pappy’s here. Pappy’s going to do his best to care for you both and Ma… I promise. Whatever it takes.”
Iris moved. Frowning at him. “What th’ blue devil’s got into you?”
“It’s twins. They’re twins. There’s two little hearbeats,” whispered Peter. Illogical tears bloomed in his eyes. “Two. Unit Three heard them.”
The same dread that gripped him was echoed in her eyes. “Twins… I suspected but… How could he hear that?”
“Well, the automatons had to have excellent auditory processing capabilities in order to learn and play music… I may have put their sensitivity a little high…”
“Oh, Peter,” she sighed. And very tenderly fixed his mussed-up hair. “You know how it is with twins. I might die.”
“Please don’t?” he begged. “I can get you the best midwife in town. Midwives have better survival statistics, you know. And… and I want you to stay. Do you want to get married? I can arrange it. Name your church. I’m not much of a believer, but I suspect you would be. Any church is fine. And if we act quickly, we can make it happen before the Admiral my father does something illegal about the documents.”
“Peter…” she sighed. “No.”
“But… you… you do love me, yes? Or has that faded due to my despicable ignorance? I promise I’ll be good to your children. I’ll legally recognise them. Oh! Oh, a boy and a girl at once. It would be marvellous. I’ll teach them both at the Cavalcadium! Just promise me you’ll stay? I’m… better… when you’re around. You know just what to do to quell my silly episodes. You’re so capable… and so clever… We could be unstoppable, the two of us. No, the four of us.”
She laid a gentle finger across his lips. He kissed them, staring up at her in a mixture of adoration and horror.
“It’s twins, Peter. Even with a midwife, I may yet die. And I won’t leave you a widower.”
“I’ll still be devastated if the unthinkable happens,” he murmured.
“We may be engaged,” she allowed. “I’ll even let your father pre-date the bans if he so chooses. And if - only if - I survive the birth bed, then we can become a team.”
“You’ll stay?” he chirped. He was already on both knees. “You will become Mrs Peter Walter?”
An enigmatic smirk. “Maybe I’ll buck tradition and insist you become Mister Iris Tonia.”
He laughed at the very concept. “Oh yes! That would put a march on the Admiral and his legacy! And won’t the gossips hate it? Let them choke on all their words,” he cackled. His hands were waving about for the joy of it. “I would. I will. Say the word.”
But Iris had gone sullen despite her excellent idea. “Gossips,” she said as if it were a curse. “I despise them. All their meaningless chatter and mean words have come true. In a way. I’ll be vilified by society…”
“Oh, bother society. Hold your head high, dear Iris. All the esteem you need is in my eyes, and the eyes of the Automatons. I could build you more? I think I have the knack of it, now. It should be relatively easy.”
“No,” said Iris firmly. “Don’t you dare. Six babies all at once is plenty, I promise.”
“I wouldn’t make you look after them. I’ve been managing fairly well with Rabbit and the boys. I think I might even become a competent parent.”
“Still, love… the answer remains ‘no’.”
An illogical smile lit on his face. Crooked and joyous and entirely unstoppable. “Yes, Miss Iris. I mean. Yes, my love.”