(Acting for her life, Five pounds of snuff, A peculiar turn, and Enthusiastic gratitude)
Iris focused intently on the carpet. The Pembrookes' lessons had included acting for a reason. And now she was acting for her life, as well as the lives of all the maids working under the Admiral. Her part was now the shy and demure maid, only after an honest day's work. And one who had no clue what the Admiral was on about.
She kept her eyes on the carpet so she would not be forced to lie to the Colonel's face.
"Don't know what happened," she lied, barely above a murmur.
"It's all right," he soothed. "The Admiral my father refuses to admit that coca leaf extract in his snuff is detrimental to his mental faculties. Especially when it's mixed with ergot. If you see or hear him -er- going peculiar... Just run for Mrs Cambridge." The Colonel sighed in annoyance. "Now we're all going to have to search the manor for his snuff-boxes... Drat it."
Iris peeked. "...'m sorry, colonel," she squeaked. At least that wasn't a lie. "...didn't mean to make trouble..."
Fortunately for the household, the Admiral kept snuff-boxes in all kinds of hiding places. It was the work of minutes to unearth as many as two dozen from the Admiral's study alone. Other maids also turned up armloads of the things. Colonel Walter also discovered four dozen in various hiding spaces.
The Admiral had a very evident problem. He had five pounds of snuff-boxes, all mostly full, and that much was only after a cursory search.
Colonel Walter looked like someone had shot his dog. "Pack it up in pound lots," he ordered. "Lock them in my safe. And give anything that won't fit to Mrs Cambridge. There will be a tidy sum for the one who finds the most snuff." He turned back upstairs and ascended like a man headed for his own hanging.
Iris crept after him, snuff bounty forgotten. Though she did find more than a few hidden in decorative sconces along the way. She added them to her pinny pocket in passing.
Colonel Walter want pacing in agitated circles when she found him. Hands trembling. No. Flapping as if he had scorched them. His posture and pace had both gone peculiar. And he was mumbling his own seeming nonsense.
"Addle daddle diddle dumpling dummin, dummin, dummins. Poor Peter pickle-head, poached, parboiled, coddle brains... Dummins. Dummins!" He started knocking his head with his own fists. "Stupid, stupid boy! Dummins, dummins, dummins!" He collided with a wall. First by accident and then thrice more by design.
He was trying to hurt himself!
Iris rushed to him and put herself between the wall and his body. Stilled his fists with careful hands. Made soft, soothing noises for him. She let him sway. It seemed to help his calm.
She had to be careful to pick the words she was certain of. "There," she cooed. "Calmly now. It's over."
"Dummins, dummins," he muttered. "Didn't spot it. I didn't see... Addled headed. Coddle pated..." He fell into a repeated whisper of, "Dummins, dummins..."
"It's easy to miss, I know." Very careful. She had to speak slowly, lest her new accent slip. "My own Pappy was a devil for the grog. We all thought he had his habit licked until..." Mama had sent her out for some eels while she went to fetch the little ones from Mrs McCorsky. Iris still remembered the sound, the plume of smoke, and the light of the fire. "Until the still went up and took him with it."
He'd stopped swaying. Stopped fighting to hurt himself. "But... you're the most observant person I know," he protested.
"And I still missed every sign," she insisted. "So it can't be your fault."
His crushing embrace came without warning, and lifted her off her feet. His kiss to her temple, both enthusiastic and oddly incendiary. It certainly lit a fire in her cheeks. "Bless you, Miss Iris! I can build again with a clear conscience! How could I possibly repay you?"
"Please put me down?" she risked.
Only then did he notice that he was tossing her about like a rag doll. "Whoops," he cheered, and placed her down. And then he was off like a shot into his mechanical mess.
Iris wandered the floors below in a daze. Her hands found and ferried snuff-boxes into her pinny pocket of their own accord. An occupation she preferred to touching the memory of Colonel Walter's kiss. She was certain she could light tinder off its searing imprint.
She was still out of breath when, pinafore and arms stacked full, Mrs Cambridge found her.
"Are you all right?" she asked. She had a large basket with her. Let's have them and count them in. Safe's already full."
Iris obeyed automatically. Let Mrs Cambridge help. And all the while, the Colonel's embrace still crushed her, and the imprint of his kiss still burned. Whoever his passions fell upon... they would doubtless enjoy a lifetime of such incendiary attention.
The Admiral wanted such attention to fall on Iris, but she knew her place. Work hard, stay invisible, perhaps catch the notice of a coal-boy or a coachman. And thereafter, a life of far more domestic toil and dull repetition until her dying day.
That future, that inevitable path was somewhat spoiled, now. Whatever man she chose would have to work hard, indeed, to write over her memory of Colonel Walter's enthusiastic demonstration.
"You look like you've been ravished and you're not sure if you didn't want to be," Mrs Cambridge joked.
The Colonel's kiss lit a new fire all across her face. From brow to chin. Across both ears. It eclipsed her neck and threatened to overshadow her entire body.
"...he just hugged me," she said in a voice barely one foot tall. "And laid a kiss," Iris pointed to her temple. Still not daring to touch it, lest its fire incinerate her fingers.
"Ah? That's not very like him... He's usually so painfully reserved about touching others. What was happening?"
Iris couldn't make herself speak at a respectable volume. Her voice failed to compete with a mouse, but Mrs Cambridge still listened intently as Iris described the Colonel's strange gyrations and peculiar speech.
"You stopped one of his funny turns?" said Mrs Cambridge, in the same tones one might ask a hero if he was certain that he carried a dozen orphans out of a fire whilst fighting a rabid lion.
Iris, still flushing furiously from the spark of his kiss, could only nod.
"Why, Miss Iris... Those have plagued him since he was but little. The Admiral tried to beat it out of him, I heard say. Now he hides until it's over... And you stopped it cold with a kind word?"
And then you smacked the lion in the nose with one of the orphans' rag dolls?
She nodded again. A bare ghost of a nod.
"I doubt he was thinking of taking liberties with you. Probably just glad for the relief."
Iris found her voice at last, red as a beet from tip to toe. "If that's what he does in gratitude, I fair reckon the woman he loves aught t' catch fire from his passion."
"Best find him a fireproof paramour, then," said Mrs Cambridge. "He never was that comfortable with romance, that lad. Went out walking, a few times. Never brought anyone home to meet his father."
Iris uncharitably thought that Colonel Walter had extended those women a great mercy, and pondered how to tell the Admiral that he sabotaged his son's matrimony just by existing. She wisely decided to let Mrs Cambridge break that news.