(Pembrooke’s Finishing School for Discerning Ladies, A confusion of betterment, A nice chat, and An old ally)
Sunday arrived far too early and far too late. She was not yet ready to walk the streets of San Diego in confidence on her own... And the Admiral had taken to menacing the girls, even when they were in pairs. The maids took to traveling everywhere in threes and fours.
Today, this Sunday, everyone else had other business. She was the only one going to town. At least she didn't have to wear her awful uniform anywhere outside of the mansion. Iris only had one other dress. Dowdy and plain and beyond notice.
It had been enough of a shield, all the way to San Diego. Even the cab drivers didn't see her. But after four days of avoiding the Admiral, she feared her dowdy and demure appearance would not be enough to avoid avaricious eyes nor grabbing hands. Her purse became her shield, clutched in a white-knuckled grip in front of her chest.
The neighbourhood she was sent to was on the very borders of the upper class and the lower class. It had many higher class affectations, the bronze embellishments polished to resemble gold. A small effigy of a boy holding a ring in lieu of a living ostler. And a fancy plaque at the wrought iron gate, announcing it to be Pembrooke's Finishing School for Discerning Ladies.
Access to the rear entrance was locked. Iris was forced to approach the front and timidly made use of the brass knocker. She had enough time to unearth the Admiral's references and advisory letter.
And - Lord above help her - the forged papers care of the Admiral's friend.
The woman who answered the door took one look at Iris and smiled like a new mother. "The Admiral sent you, didn't he?"
Iris gave her a grateful nod and offered her papers.
"I'm Mrs Pembrooke. Come on in. You need a nice sit and a chance to chat. It's all right. Mr Pembrooke had served under the Admiral in his time. He knows all about his... strong opinions."
The kitchen was an oasis in a sea of young women practicing scales, young women walking with books on their heads, and young women reciting apparent gibberish. The cheap furniture within the kitchen and the hiss of the kettle made Iris feel right at home. And the homemade shortbread helped as well.
Mrs Pembrooke chatted about the school and the gallant Mr Pembrooke. The latter had been fast friends with the Admiral before he "turned against the whole world". Mr Pembrooke remembered the friend who once was, rather than the oppositional and abrasive Admiral who Iris met.
It seemed strange to believe that Admiral Walter was once a friendlier man. The sheer impossibility of it shook her out of her four-day silence. Talking about the oppressive atmosphere at Walter Manor. About her enforced silence and communication difficulties with the Colonel.
"I think I saw him near that Cavalcadium school once or twice. Distinctive figure of a man."
"Oh aye, tall as a telegraph pole," Iris agreed. "And not unpleasant to look at, come to think of it. Harmless as a butterfly, lord be thanked."
Mrs Pembrooke smiled a knowing smile. "Got a little soft spot for him, then?"
"Oh I know I ain't got a chance. Has his heart stuck on this lady doctor chemist at the Cavalcadium. Heard talk that she's a living angel. The young master's outdoing some other fellow, name of Becile. They're both making mechanical miracles, believe it or not."
"Sounds like her heart is not stuck on either of them, poor lambs."
Iris chuckled into her tea. "Hope he finds someone else to smile for, soon," she said. "It's getting deplorable in there. Fair deplorable."
"I think," said Mrs Pembrooke to someone behind Iris, "we might be able to work in a convincing Jersey affect."
Iris turned to spot an older man who may as well have had 'navy' tattooed on his heart. "Mr Pembrooke, I presume?"
His smile turned his severe features into a second sun. "Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss... Tonia."
Her lessons for the day remained in the kitchen, and contained a measure of nonsense words. The Pembrookes said it was to train her mouth in the new way of talking. For it to work effectively, she had to run through her new, nonsense verses out loud at every chance.
And, Mr Pembrooke added with a twinkle in his eye, the Admiral would find her offensive on the assumption that she had gone mad.