Chapter 2. A Confounded Spinster
By her own estimation Polly Plumber was a middling sort of a girl. She was not tall, by any definition of the word, but neither was she freakishly short; she was not hideous to look on, but she was hardly a ravishing beauty either. She was neither light skinned nor dark skinned, but rather a patchwork of both with neat stitching between. Her hair was neither straight nor exactly curly but rather tended toward the texture and temperament of an Airedale Terrier.
She was quite good at some subjects, like maths and blueprint reading, and beastly bad at others; dancing and embroidery, for instance. At twenty-two she had successfully dodged marriageable age, but was still young for a spinster. She herself had little money or property beyond her monthly allowance, but her father had quite a bit more than other Common people she had been exposed to. While she was observably not Common, neither had she been born to the aristocracy, having been built by her father from parts he had gathered together in the back rooms at The Imperial Museum.
Oh, there had been others made the way she had, from common parts, but they were all male, and stupid. She didn’t mean it badly, but the others like her, the reason they were called reccs - short for “reclamations” - was that they were wrecks. From Common casualties of war, the army doctors took the most functional bits, sewed those bits together, reanimated them and returned them to the generals. The results were aware enough to follow orders but couldn’t speak and had less initiative than the average spaniel. Of course they were usually just a week or two reanimated before they were put back on the front lines. They never lasted long.
It had been an idea of her father’s that a recc made of Common infants might learn and grow as other children did. And she did, although she wasn’t quite ordinary, being stronger than Common girls and a bit less coordinated. Her duties were to be examined, take tests, and be measured every fortnight, although she hadn’t grown in years.
Other than that she had had the run of the Museum until she started bleeding, when Mrs. Brolly began to oversee her education, which was far from educational – if you asked Polly, not that anyone did.
Still, it was a comfortably agreeable grey area she inhabited, replete with exemptions and privileges. The very fact that her life had such clear lack of definition rendered it subject to interpretation and therefore malleable. She could and did shape her niche to suit herself. She would be the last to complain. Polly liked falling through the cracks of social expectation. She could do as she pleased, provided she observed the niceties and kept her dress clean. What’s more, life was full of puzzles to be solved.
Polly’s Papa, for instance, was an interesting subject. She often wondered exactly how her father ought to be classified. He had been born to a Common mother and a Common father and begun life as an errand boy. Yet now he moved among those born Men of Note as a matter of course. He counted the great monsters of the age among his closest confidants. True, sometimes it did happen that Common women bore monsters. But Henry Plumber did not grow hirsute under any phase of the moon, be it full, crescent, or gibbous. He had neither scales nor feathers. He did not possess gill, nor horn, nor tail. He could not fly unaided or walk through walls or speak to the dead. He wasn’t even humpbacked. And yet…and yet… her father, for all his Common birth, and Common parentage, and Common appearance, had a mind as quick and ponderous as a winged elephant and nearly as likely.
It was her father’s mind that made him indispensable to Her Majesty and her father’s mind that enabled him to rise to such a position of power and prestige as director of the Londinium branch of The Imperial Museum, where scholars and scientists unraveled the secrets of the universe on a daily basis and inventors from the breadth of the empire and beyond produced wonders of every water with delightful regularity. Perhaps that was it; it was her Papa’s brain that made a monster of him.
Polly was knocked out of her reverie by a delicate clearing of the throat and looked expectantly at her companion, though more likely it was she who should be referred to as Mrs. Brolly’s companion. In any event, the jolt left Polly as confounded as if she had been awakened from a sound sleep. Still, Mrs. Brolly cleared her throat in reproach.
There was no question as to what sort of person Mrs. Brolly was. Mrs. Brolly was so decidedly unCommon anyone who gazed upon her naked face was turned to stone. An aristocrat of the first order, Mrs. Brolly, like most of her father’s intimates, made his acquaintance during the Afghan campaign. Perhaps it was not quite the done thing to refer to a widow of Mrs. Brolly’s class as her Papa’s intimate, and Mrs. Brolly was correct as a rule. It was her defining characteristic. But, correct or not, it was true that Mrs. Brolly came to dine every Saturday, and to tea twice a week. She instructed Polly in those subjects she considered unfit for a paid tutor. It was also true that of all his associates only Mrs. Brolly’s opinion was solicited, much less deferred to, on the topic of Polly.
Polly stared hard trying to glean some clue as to her crime from Mrs. Brolly’s perfect composure, perfect grooming, perfect attire, and perfectly opaque veil.
“Polycorpus Plumber, your posture is an insult to both your father and your upbringing. Have you no respect whatsoever for the labor that went into your construction? Sit up straight, child,” Mrs. Brolly lit into her as though slouching were a deadly transgression. She feared Mrs. Brolly would still be upbraiding her and referring to her as “child” when she was fifty. It was disheartening.
Polly righted herself and flipped open the necessaries box. Without thinking, she retrieved the mirror to make certain her hat was at the proper angle. In doing so, she snagged her glove on a bent corner of the carriage clock, ripping the kidskin loudly and knocking said clock directly into Mrs. Brolly’s lap. The visiting cards, pencils, social registry, and scheduling book spilled willy-nilly on the coach floor.
Polly fully expected to be upbraided by Mrs. Brolly and braced herself accordingly. She was more than slightly taken aback when all she got was a sorrowful, “Oh, Polly!” instead. Frankly, the tone of it unnerved her. It wasn’t what she was accustomed to hearing from anyone, let alone Mrs. Brolly. It sounded vaguely like…pity.
She couldn’t imagine why her snagging her glove on the carriage clock today was any more pathetic than last week, when she had laughed so hard at Mr. Cottingham’s impersonation of her Papa she had accidentally snapped the handle off her cup of tea and ruined her blue taffeta dress. There had been no “Oh, Polly!” then. Not even a little one. No, she had been sent up to her room to change and was lectured on decorum and carelessness for a good three quarters of an hour.
So obviously there was some difference between today and last Thursday. She wondered what it could possibly be. Perhaps it wasn’t her at all but rather Mrs. Brolly who was not the same as last week. She had never known Mrs. Brolly to be changeable, but perhaps she had suffered some disappointment Polly wasn’t privy to. It had to be a dreadfully lonely life with perfect poise, perfect behavior, and perfect seclusion behind three layers of heavy veils. Polly’s Papa had told her more than once that in the Afghan campaign, when Mrs. Brolly met the enemy and turned them to stone, the expression set on their marble faces was that of pure ecstasy.
Polly moved her conjecture to the back of her mind as she saw the horses draw near The Imperial Museum.
“For goodness’ sake, Polly, if you could but this once exit the coach in the manner of a well brought up young lady rather than a stevedore we would all be eternally grateful,” Mrs. Brolly sighed.
Taking her anticipation in hand Polly waited patiently, more or less, for the footman to help Mrs. Brolly from the carriage first, and even suffered to be “helped” as well. She took the marble steps one at a time. She didn’t swing her reticule from side to side or hike her skirt scandalously high in order to make her way more quickly.
She did draw the line at not stopping to chat with everyone she saw on her way to visit her Papa. She could never be one for Mrs. Brolly’s cool bob of the head. She simply wasn’t that subtle or refined. She was patently overenthusiastic. It was one of her defining characteristics. She waved vigorously at Mr. Virgil, the head of all the Museum cleaners, who scowled in response to her grin, as was his habit.
Polly couldn’t help herself. The Museum was quite possibly the best place on earth. Down every corridor was a fresh wonder to be studied and for some reason today Mrs. Brolly seemed intent on steering her past every one of them. She gripped Polly’s arm with not only her gloved hands, but a will of iron, preventing her from taking the narrow stairwell that led to the roof where Polly could easily spend all day with Dr. Noor improving the performance of his various flying machines. Mrs. Brolly’s grip only tightened as they passed the doorway leading to the Department of Munitions with its delightful explosions. Likewise she was dragged past The Arboretum, where plants of all sorts were grown and researched, and the Menagerie, where a thousand beasts were housed.
How unfair, not to mention unusual. After a standard admonishment not to make a nuisance of herself, Polly should have been set free to roam where she pleased. It was what she did. Why the change? Why the secrecy?
When she was practically frog marched past the Department of Inventions she could bear it no longer, she snorted. Professor Magesteri, who headed the most exciting department of them all, might be gruff and he might have intimidated her when she was younger, and he might still take great exception to her interrupting any of his multitudes of underlings with questions, but he always allowed her access to his works in progress. Always. She was allowed to put her hand to any disappointments or failures, and chances were she would have them running before the day was out. Sometimes it took him that long to recall that he found her annoying and shout her out of his laboratories. And that was before. Well. Before. Perhaps this had something to do with that.
Professor Magesteri hadn’t betrayed her, had he? He couldn’t do that without betraying himself as well, and surely, surely her papa would be more than a bit put out with him as well.
Wouldn’t he? Maybe?
Oh Mighty Isis!
Polly was in trouble.