by Nancy Bach
Kenelmcombe, Gloustershire, 21 December, 1869
“Esme, stop squirming like a toddler, else I shall very likely stick you with a pin.”
Cooper, Lady Esmeralda Huddlestone’s once-upon-a-time nanny, then governess, and soon-to-be housekeeper, settled the Honiton lace wedding veil on her seventeen-year-old charge’s head. If Cooper had been human, instead of an automaton, Cooper reckoned her hands would be shaking. They had been through so much to get to this day, one with real hope for the future. So, it wasn’t only Esme that had a case of the nerves today.
“I’m sorry, Cooper. I just….” The young girl who had been in Cooper’s care almost continuously since she was an infant looked up at Cooper’s reflection in the dressing table mirror. Her eyes were wide, her face unusually pale, and Cooper could see tears sparkling on her dark lashes. “What if… what if Uncle Neville shows up?”
“Hush, now. You know perfectly well that odious man is in Kenya. Didn’t he send a telegram to that pederast Everett Holmes, just day before yesterday?” Cooper fastened the veil onto Esme’s head with a wreath of Hellebores and viburnum, the best the garden at Harrogate Hall could offer in the middle of December. “He can’t possibly have travelled from Nairobi all the way to Gloucestershire in two days’ time.”
Esme didn’t appear soothed. “What if it was a trick? What if Uncle Neville knows we’re intercepting his telegrams? What if someone saw the wedding banns, and told him what you and Egg cooked up to save me?”
Cooper placed her hands firmly on Esme’s thin shoulders, the sensors in her copper alloy digits providing the feedback for her to calculate the right amount of pressure. “I daresay, I wouldn’t put it past him. But no. He doesn’t know. Professor Burroughs has every newsie and telegram boy in Highgate in his pocket. There is not a chance that a message could have gotten through.” From her artificial lips to God’s ear. Cooper’s features softened into a smile as she gazed at her young charge in the mirror. A smile only made possible by flexene, a patented alchemical substance that covered her copper alloy frame, created by the clever man who designed and built her, the great inventor Professor Hieronymous Burroughs. “Now look at you. Aren’t you just the picture of a lovely bride?”
Esme brushed at her tears. “But Everett’s still in England. What if Everett–”
Cooper used her stern nanny tone. “Enough of that, Esmeralda. If either your uncle or the horrid beast he tried to force you to marry show up at the church, I swear upon your mother’s grave that I will do whatever is necessary to forbid them ingress. Neither of those men will ever lay a finger on you again.”
Esme smiled, a little. “You would, wouldn’t you? Attack them, I mean.”
“Indeed I would. Professor Burroughs has recently modified my protocols to include a number of defensive and offensive maneuvers.”
Now Esme laughed. “Cooper, I adore you. You must teach me.”
There. Crisis averted. As if in response, Cooper felt a sort of loosening in her joints and cams. Had the Professor programmed that reaction the last time he tinkered with her circuits? She didn’t remember experiencing that particular sensation before. She made a mental note to ask him about it after the wedding.
With a small shake of her head that sent the curly tendrils of her ginger wig jiggling, she gestured at the mirror. “Now put a little rouge on those cheeks. You want to look your best for Lord Harrogate, don’t you?”
Esme’s smile faltered. “I do. Of course, I do.”
Cooper waited for the inevitable ‘but’.
“Does Egg know, Cooper? About what Everett did to me?” Her voice caught. “The liberties he took when he would make me go riding with him?” She turned away. “I knew it was wrong, even though he told me it wasn’t, but I couldn’t stop him and now my life is ruined and–”
Cooper knelt, turned Esme to face her. “Hush now. Egg knows enough. I had to tell him some of it so that he understood the urgency of stealing you away. And you are not ruined.” Had she just told a lie? No, just an interpretation of the truth. Chadwick did not care that the girl had been compromised. It was what made this plan to have him marry her so perfect. He was the quintessential absent-minded scholar and didn’t care a fig about social proprieties. Oh, if only Esme’s Uncle Neville had not sent Cooper away, she would have stopped the perfidy before it started–with one of her knitting needles if it came to it. “Listen to me. The important thing is that he’ll take good care of you and he’ll see to it that you regain control of your inheritance from your father. I’ve known Chadwick Eggerton longer than you’ve been alive. I was his…” She paused, considering how much of the truth she could tell. Oddly, there were no restrictions in her programming about this. Odder still was that she had never before noticed. She finally decided on an innocuous term. “I was his housekeeper for many years before Professor Burroughs sent me to look after your mother while she and your father were in India. He is an honorable and gentle man.”
“Housekeeper? Really?” Esme raised her eyebrows, then frowned and scrunched her forehead. “I suppose as my husband, Egg will want to… um… you know…with me.” She gazed earnestly into Cooper’s green eyes. “Won’t that… I mean, I guess I’m afraid that…”
There came an odd whirring of gears in Cooper’s chest and she felt…she had no word for what she felt. Discomfort? Disquiet? Damn that crazy engineer, what had he done to her? “That’s really for the two of you to work out, but to make this marriage unassailable by your uncle, it should be consummated.”
Esme’s lip began to quiver, and Cooper stood briskly, despite her bushings being a little tight after her recent overhaul. She understood the child’s fears regarding the prospect of marital relations, all too understandable after Esme’s recent experiences with the heinous creature she had been betrothed to, but Cooper’s protocols told her it was important to help Esme focus on the future. “He’s been your teacher and mentor since you were twelve, child. You know he would never hurt you. Now come.” She took Esme’s hands and pulled the young bride to her feet. “Oh, but you are a vision, aren’t you? Your mother would be so proud.”
Esme looked at herself in the mirror, turning this way and that, admiring the dress with its yards and yards of damask and lace. It was simpler in style than was the fashion, and the bustle was perhaps not as large as was currently in vogue, but it had been Esme’s mother Essylt’s dress. ]Though Cooper had had to take it in a bit, as Essylt had been a taller, more robust woman, Esme could not have looked more stunning if the dress had been custom made for her.
“It is a lovely dress, Cooper. You are a miracle worker!” She embraced Cooper, careful not to catch the lace on any of Cooper’s fittings. “Thank you!”
Hoping she had set Esme’s nerves to right, Cooper beamed at her charge. “Now you know the saying. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. You’ve got something borrowed, that’s the dress. Your veil is something new. You’ve–”
“I’ve got Egg.” She giggled, some of her plucky spirit returning. “He’s got to be my something old.”
Cooper gave Esme a stern look, although a glitch in her programming wouldn’t let her features hold the expression.“Child, you will be the death of me. Your something old is Lord Harrogate’s grandmother’s parure.” She gestured at the sapphire and diamond necklace, earrings and bracelet that sparkled against the ivory damask and lace of Esme’s gown.
“I suppose.” She gave Cooper a wink. “Maybe I should pocket them, change into my new visiting dress, and you and I can abscond to Spain. We could live quite comfortably for decades on the money this jewelry would fetch us.”
Cooper stiffened her posture. “I am going to pretend I didn’t hear that.” She gave Esme her most severe look. Her programming allowed, even encouraged, a certain hardness–one needed to be strict with children. Recently, however, accessing those protocols had become difficult, and her tone came out less gruff than desired. Reaching into the pocket of her uniform’s black skirt, she pulled out a lovely blue silk and lace handkerchief with Esme’s new monogram embroidered into the corner. “Now, here. I’ve made this for you. You can tuck it up into your sleeve, and it will be your something blue.”
Tears welled in Esme’s eyes again. She took the handkerchief with trembling fingers. “Oh, Cooper…”
“Esmeralda Elizabeth Penbre Huddlestone! Stop that sniveling immediately.”
Esme sucked in a shuddering breath. “Sorry. You’re right. I need to pull myself together. How much time have we?”
Cooper glanced at the clock. “Twenty minutes. We need to get you downstairs and ready for the carriage.” She drew the girl forward, unaccountably unable to stop herself from chattering. “The Professor wanted to replace the real horses with those clockwork monstrosities of his, but you just know they’d break down on the way to the church and you’d be late.” As much as Cooper adored her creator, it was well-known, though seldom discussed, that the majority of his inventions had flaws.
She hustled her charge out of the large, sunny bedroom and down the wide staircase into the front hall, carrying Esme’s train. “Now then, you wait here with Gregory. Don’t move or you’ll muss your dress. Mr. Livingston will see to it Chad–Lord Harrogate uses the back stairs. He mustn’t see you before you arrive at the church. Speaking of his Lordship, I must run up to see Himself. He’s requested my urgent assistance with something.”
Esme clutched at her arm. “Wait! Cooper, you can’t leave me now!”
Cooper patted Esme’s hand then gently removed it, her servos reacting sluggishly as though some part of her regretted the action. Which was stuff and nonsense. She had no programming for regret. Putting her hands on her hips, she raised her chin and looked down at her charge. “Your mother was a Baroness, your father an Earl. You are a Lady, Esmeralda. Behave like one.”
Esme frowned, clearly not happy, but at least she didn’t burst into tears again. Cooper found her own facial features softening. Rearranging the folds of Esme’s veil, she leaned close and whispered, “You’ll be fine, love.”
Esme swallowed, then squared her shoulders and lifted her own chin. “I will, won’t I?”
Cooper nodded and stepped back, prouder than she ought to be. The gears in her chest that produced the artificial heartbeat that had soothed Esme as an infant whirred and clicked in an unfamiliar rhythm. Proud? She knew the word, but could automatons feel pride? Satisfaction perhaps, at knowing she had done an excellent job rearing her charge. But pride? And what was that strange sensation in her chest, as though something was seizing up inside? Was there a malfunction there? So many glitches today. What had Professor Burroughs done to her when he tinkered with her the other day? She really needed to speak with him, when the opportunity presented itself.
Her gears once again ticking normally, Cooper turned and hurried up the stairs. She wasn’t sure what Chadwick wanted from her that his gentleman’s gentleman Livingston couldn’t do just as well, but he’d requested she attend him, and so she would. If for no other reason than to make sure he got to the church on time.
Livingston opened the door to Chadwick Eggerton’s private chambers and gave Cooper a harried look. “He refuses to put on his suit until he speaks with you.” The tall, lean figure stepped aside and gestured her in to the heavily paneled room. The drapes were drawn against the chill weather and Cooper crossed to the two windows on the far side of the mahogany four poster bed and flung open the curtains. “Chadwick Nigel Eggerton, you are not a mushroom. Let in some daylight.”
Eggerton sat on the upholstered bench at the end of his bed in nothing but his good silk drawers, an undervest, and stockings, all held together by suspenders and garters.
Livingston gestured again. “You see?”
Cooper let out a sigh. Her eyes had not been designed to roll in their sockets, but there were times when she wished she could mimic the action used so often by her young charge. “I will deal with him, thank you, Mr. Livingston.”
With a frustrated harumph, Livingston let himself out and latched the door behind him. Cooper then turned to Eggerton.
“What are you waiting for? You’ll be late! Chadwick, you mustn’t be late to your own wedding. It’s simply not done. Not even for you.”
He gazed at her forlornly. “I am not so sure this plan of yours is the right thing.” He reached out his hands and she took them, as she had been programmed to do, and he pulled her down onto the bench beside him. “Ruby, darling.” He used the pet name he’d given her, when she’d first been sent to him. “What will I do with a wife young enough to be my granddaughter? You and I, we’ve been,” he paused, and Cooper could see him struggle to find a word that had the proper propriety. “We’ve been together, in a, er, conjugal way for so many years, and there are expectations for a gentleman on his wedding night. He brushed a tendril of hair from her cheek. “She’s not…”
Cooper was surprised. Shocked. She had to short-circuit this argument. “She’s not what? Pure enough? We’ve discussed this–”
“No! No, that’s not what I meant at all!” He looked away but kept her hands in his. “No, Ruby. It’s just, she’s not you.” He clutched at her hands, and she was both comforted by the feel of his touch against her sensors and disturbed by the desperateness displayed in the way he held on. “Having … marital congress … with Esme,” he appealed to her with sincere blue eyes, “feels like I’m being unfaithful to you.”
Her circuits stalled for a brief second and she could not think. That had never happened to her before. The lapse was only momentary, and when she recovered, she knew what she had to do, to say. “First, you must not call me Ruby. Not any longer. It was a sweet name you gave me, but with Esme to become your wife, I cannot be your Ruby any longer.”
Eggerton looked down at his feet. “That is the problem. You’ve always been my Ruby and now …”
Cooper felt that odd whirring in her chest and a strange constricted feeling in all of her parts, as though the oil in her tubing was viscous and sludgy. “Now it will be different.” She gave his hands a light squeeze, careful not to press too hard and aggravate his rheumatism. “You must go through with it, Chaddy. We have had our time together. Now it’s Esme’s turn. She’s been through so much for all she is so young. Please. Be the one to give her the chance to find happiness.”
Eggerton frowned. “How can a bright young thing like that be happy with an old curmudgeon like me?”
Cooper shook her head. “It’s a place to start. A safe place for her to find her wings.”
“And when she wants to fly away?”
“Then we let her.”
He thought for a moment then gazed at Cooper with twinkling blue eyes. “You are as brilliant as you are beautiful, Ruby.”
“Cooper. Cooper to you now. And you must be Lord Harrogate to me.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. When had his thin frame become so stooped? “At least for the next little while.”
He slipped an arm around her and they sat for a minute or two, quietly enjoying each other’s company. Finally, she pulled away and stood. “Now you must get dressed. I will not allow you to be late. Livingston would never let me forget it. You know how things are below stairs.”
Eggerton chuckled. “I thought the two of you had come to an accord.” He stood and began putting on his boiled shirt, followed by his trousers.
“It is a tenuous truce predicated on my performing my housekeeping duties to his nearly impossibly high expectations.” She handed him articles of clothing, watched him struggle the same way she’d watched Esme struggle with her first pinafore as a child, fighting back the urge to help. “I’ll fetch him now, and he can do what he does best. I never could manage a bow tie.”
“Of course you can. You can manage anything you want, Ruby Cooper.”
He smiled and suddenly her artificial heartbeat sped up, and her oil sounded as though it were rushing through her tubes like a river. What was going on? It wasn’t an unpleasant experience. It was just odd. She was reminded suddenly of a penny dreadful she’d caught Esme reading, and the heroine in it, who when confronted with the wicked smile of the handsome and dashing hero, had heard her blood pounding in her ears.
That was ridiculous. She really should have a conversation with Professor Burroughs. She must find time for that. She must. And yet….
There came a pounding on the door, and Cooper spun, gears whirring in her chest cavity.
“Egg! Egg, man, are you decent?”
Cooper expelled a gust of air, her hand pressed to her madly ticking heart. Professor Burroughs. She’d recognize that bellow anywhere. She flung the door open before he dented the heavy wood. “Professor, please. A bit of decorum.”
Hieronymous Burroughs, Inventor to the Queen, and one of the most brilliant scientists of his generation, bustled into the room and swept Cooper up in a bear hug. “My dear Cooper! You look stunning as always. Haven’t aged a day!” He chortled at his own joke, the same joke he’d been using for years.
“Professor, you saw me just last night after supper.”
He released her. “Remind me to adjust your humor settings, Cooper.”
Cooper shook her head. “I’ll make a note of it, sir.”
Burroughs swung around to face his friend. “What are you doing, old boy? ou’re only half dressed!” Then he cast a sly look at Cooper. “One last hour of passion, is it?”
Cooper stiffened. “It most certainly is not!”
“Now, now, don’t get your knickers in a twist, Cooper. It’s what I built you for, after all.”
Eggerton interrupted. “Originally perhaps, Hy, but she’s proven herself to be supremely adaptable to nearly anything. She is your most brilliant creation.”
Burroughs, nattily dressed in a morning coat, with his wreath of fluffy white hair and his well-trimmed beard, beamed at Cooper like a smartly turned-out Father Christmas. “Well. If I do say so myself. Ahem.” He turned again to Eggerton. “Shouldn’t we be on our way to the church? I mean,” he pulled out his pocket watch, “It’s almost nine o’clock.”
Cooper inched her way to the door. “I’ll go and fetch Livingston. And remember, Professor, you gentlemen must take the back stairs. No one can see the bride before the wedding.”
“Yes, yes, Livingston will keep us on the straight and narrow.” Professor Burroughs chortled. “Because no one is as straight and narrow as he is! Haha!”
Cooper quickly escaped and found Livingston waiting in the hall. “He needs your assistance now, Mr. Livingston.”
“Indeed.” He moved to the open door then paused and faced Cooper. “This…” He swept a hand around. “You have done a most excellent job arranging all of this, Cooper. I commend you.”
Cooper stood silent for a moment, thunderstruck. “I… Thank you, Mr. Livingston.”
He nodded at her curtly then brushed past her into his master’s room. She heard him sigh heavily as he snatched the bow tie from Burrough’s hands.
Knowing both Chadwick and the professor were in capable hands, Cooper hurried off. She needed to see to her own brief toilette before making sure Esme got into her carriage without any further damage to her dress than she had undoubtedly already caused.
The service took place in the little village church, a place of stone and ancient beams and well-worn wooden pews, tastefully decorated with winter flowers and greenery. Attendance had been kept to a minimum, despite the fact that the whole of the village had wanted to come. They adored Chadwick and the men would be downing pints of ale that night at the pub, in Chadwick’s and Esme’s honor. The bill for the impromptu fete would be footed by Chaddy himself, although the happy couple would not be in attendance. Chadwick knew which side his bread was buttered was on.
The bride and groom, the professor, Cooper and the household staff were present, along with the Reverend Wyeth, his wife and his eldest daughter, but that was all. The fewer people, Cooper had decided, then the less chance of anyone making an objection. She knew that despite having reassured Esme that there was no way her uncle could have found out about the wedding and do anything to stop it, his learning about their plan wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
The vows were spoken, and Chadwick slipped the ring that had been his mother’s on Esme’s slim finger. Cooper bit her lip as she saw Esme’s hand shake. Then at last, the vicar, who was a school mate of Chadwick’s and had been in the village since Cooper had first come to Kenelmcombe, pronounced the couple man and wife. Cooper felt her whole structure sag, as though her batteries had run down. Next to her, the professor grabbed her arm.
“All right there, Cooper?” Burroughs peered at her curiously, his pink cherub’s mouth curled up in an odd smile.
She gripped the pew in front of her until the weakness passed. “Yes. Thank you, Professor, I’m fine.”
But she wasn’t. As she watched Esme and Chadwick sign the parish register, and the other household staff gather round the bride and groom, Cooper knew something wasn’t right. She considered the many glitches she’d felt during the morning – and come to think of it all of the previous day – and knew that something was happening to her. If she had to put a name to it, she’d say she was ‘feeling’ things. Emotions. But that was impossible. She was an automaton, and her programming did not allow for emotions.
And yet as she watched Professor Burroughs pump Chadwick’s hand in congratulations then kiss Esme on the cheek, her heart stuttered in its beating and she felt a surge of energy in her circuits that caused a hundred different memories of her and Chadwick over the last thirty years to flood her awareness. They had been together, then apart when she went to do for Esme’s mother, then together again when Esme’s uncle had sent her away. Yet despite all of that they had always still been what they were to each other. Now… now things would never be the same between them. And that knowledge made her heart seize and her cams feel loose and the gears in her chest feel tight.
It was sadness. Or what she presumed sadness felt like.
And that was so very wrong.
It was her turn to greet the newly wedded couple. She pushed aside the wrongness and hugged Esme tight. “Such a beautiful bride. Your mother would be so happy for you.”
Esme had tears in her eyes, but tears of joy now, not of fear or shame or hopelessness. “Thank you, Cooper. You’ve given me back my life.”
Cooper smiled down at her charge. “It was my pleasure, my Lady.”
Esme batted her shoulder. “Oh, stop that. None of that ‘my Lady’ folderol.” She stood on her tiptoes and whispered in Cooper’s ear. “And you don’t have to call Egg Lord Harrogate, either. He’ll always be your Chaddy, even if he’s legally my husband.”
Cooper gasped. “What…”
Esme slipped her arm through her husband’s and pulled him into the conversation. “Cooper, I’ve known you all my life, and I am neither stupid nor unobservant. Do you think I don’t know about the two of you? I think you’re adorable together. So don’t let this marriage interfere with what you have.”
“I…we…” Cooper was aware her mouth was gaping open. She felt as though her circuits had shorted.
Chadwick too could do little more than stare open-mouthed.
“Oh, Cooper, you silly git.” Esme kissed her on the cheek. “I love you madly, you know. Now pull yourself together and help me with my train. Livingston will be livid if we don’t get back to the house in time for our wedding luncheon.”
That was certainly true enough. Already Cooper could feel the valet’s eagle eyes on her, as though he could push her to move faster simply by staring. She scooped up Esme’s train, arranging it over her charge’s arm, then followed the couple down the aisle of the modest stone church and out the doors, where the rest of the household waited to throw rice at the happy couple. The intense constriction of the gears in her chest eased and her joints felt fluid again.
As the two entered the waiting carriage, together now, as man and wife, Cooper could hear Chadwick chattering to his bride about their honeymoon trip. “Now, I have arranged for us to start our Grand Tour in Copenhagen. You’ll absolutely adore the National Museum of Denmark. It’s run by my old friend Jens and has one of the finest collections of iron age artifacts in the world, outside of the British Museum. We can test your ability to date iron age pot shards with more than the few samples I have available.”
Cooper smiled indulgently. Chadwick was in teacher mode again, and Esme was nodding like a good student. They might be husband and wife but had quickly slipped back into the roles most comfortable to them.
Chadwick continued as Cooper tucked Esme’s train into the carriage and closed the door. The girl had the audacity to wink at Cooper before returning her attention to her husband, who remained blithely unaware. “At some point, perhaps after Austria and Greece, we’ll go to Cairo, where I’ll introduce you to Mssr. Mariette. I know we’re not supposed to be friends with the French, but really, the work he’s been doing in Abydos is remarkable.”
He was still lecturing as the carriage trundled off down the lane.
Cooper turned to go but found Professor Burroughs at her elbow. He was regarding her curiously again, his head slightly canted to one side. “Are you sure you’re feeling quite well, Cooper?”
She paused for just a fraction of a second. She knew that if she told him of her glitches, of the experiences that she was likening to emotions, he could fix her. It was what he was best at – making sure she ran according to her protocols.
She glanced at the carriage, receding into the distance, thinking of the days of hope and happiness that stretched before her, then squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I feel quite well, Professor, thank you for your concern.”
“Cooper!” Livingston rescued her from any additional queries. “Quickly now! Lunch isn’t going to serve itself.”
She dipped her head at the professor then hurried after Livingston and the cart that would take the household staff back to the Hall. She was aware, for the briefest of instants, that Burroughs was smiling and nodding to himself.
Then protocol kicked in and she focused on the tasks at hand. Always best to look to the future, her programming said, which today, thankfully, looked bright indeed.