Waistcoats & Weaponry Page 36

The mechanicals stopped as suddenly as they had started, going perfectly still as if hit by a blast from Vieve’s obstructor. Everyone relaxed, thinking it some strange glitch, now ended. But before the guests could completely recover, the mechanicals began to sing, all together, in perfect unison. Sophronia hadn’t even known one could instill such complex group protocols into mechanicals.

The mechanicals sang as loudly as their voice boxes allowed. The tune was startlingly patriotic. Although, afterward, no one would claim that “Rule, Britannia!” sung in such high, tinny tones was particularly stirring. The fancy new models, on loan, threw themselves into their dramatic roles. Even Frowbritcher, at the top of the stairs, the most sophisticated mechanical in the Temminnick household, was participating. Such nonsense ought, by rights, to be far beneath his dignity!

Bumbersnoot, dangling from his lacy cord over Sophronia’s shoulder, looked as if he’d like to join. But he had no voice box and no track. So he beat out time to the tune with his tail, slapping the side of Sophronia’s hip rhythmically. The mechanicals sang the full length of the song, drawing out the chorus at the end on a long “slaves!” Longer than any human could hold the note.

Then they stopped.

Instead of going back about their duties, they stayed stopped. All their little steam engines cycled down, as if they were dying in their tracks. Silence descended. Only the tick-tock of Bumbersnoot’s tail continued. He seemed the only one immune to a massive turn-off.

There was a moment’s stunned silence, and then pandemonium reigned. Only this time, it was humans. No one there had ever seen anything like it. Mrs. Temminnick’s amazing hostess abilities were praised by all. Imagine the exorbitant expense in mechanics’ commissions alone! But Mrs. Temminnick was no Sophronia; she could not hide her surprise and claim credit where none was due. Thus the shock and awe, initially translated into delight, quickly changed to fear that such a spectacle was uncontrolled.

This, soon, was the least of their problems, as it became patently clear that every mechanical in the house was dead without possibility of revival.

There was no one to serve the food. No one to respond to the bell rope. No one to open the doors. No one to clip the wicks and replace the candles. No one to turn down the gas. No one to carry the wood and lay the fires against nighttime chill. Worst of all, there was no one to refill the champagne glasses. The party was ruined. The evening was considered a loss. The whole week was looking pretty bad. How on earth would they function? What were they to do? No one could imagine life without servants. Of course, there were a few human staff; everyone kept some. But they were intended for complicated tasks. It was beneath one’s human staff to do the work of a mechanical, not to mention the fact that there was simply too much of that work!

The gentry at the ball spiraled into panic. What if it was not just the Temminnicks’ mechanicals malfunctioning? What if their own servants were broken? Who would make the tea in the morning? Several of the ladies began to have hysterics. Even a few gentlemen succumbed to overwrought nerves.

Sophronia, Dimity, and Sidheag participated briefly in the confusion. After all, they also had never seen anything like it. But it only took them a moment to realize they should take advantage of the situation. Such a crisis as this, mass mechanical revolt of an incomprehensibly passive variety, would occupy the adults long enough for them to make good their escape.

Thus, without any fainting necessary, they left the ball and made for the gazebo.

The boys were already there. Soap had found a number of large wicker picnic baskets and stuffed them with food filched from the kitchen. Felix provided a pillow sack containing a collection of menswear. Pillover was standing off to the side with these items, watching as the other two attempted to extract the airdinghy from its intimate relationship with the gazebo.

While Dimity went to point out how it had been incorporated, Sophronia dashed off with Sidheag to find Roger. He might know where Mumsy was keeping the helium.

Roger proved amenable to repurposing the transportation nodules, so long as Sophronia took the blame. He hooked up a donkey to the helium cart so quickly, it was almost as if he had been expecting never to use it for the party display.

Sophronia gave him a sardonic look.

“This much helium, miss, for a lantern show? Bloody great waste.”

“My thoughts exactly, Roger.”

They returned with donkey and helium just as the airdinghy basket tumbled off the roof of the gazebo with a crash. Fortunately, it survived intact. Felix and Soap righted it and jumped inside to throw out the four balloons. While they wrestled the sail and mast up the middle, the girls and Roger unrolled the balloons and began to fill them with helium. There was no way to rush this part, although Sophronia kept glancing back to the house, where the shifting lights were her only clue that all was still chaos in the ballroom.

None too soon, the four balloons were filled. They tugged up the basket so that it rose sedately into the air, shedding decorative bits of gazebo in its wake. Felix and Soap managed to raise the center sail. It was a pity they disliked each other so intensely, for it was clear that they made an efficient team. Sophronia appreciated efficiency.

Dimity and Sidheag climbed inside, awkward in long skirts and with no ladder. Sophronia swung Bumbersnoot over. Pillover passed up the hampers. Roger tossed in the sack of clothes.

“Everyone good to go?” Sophronia asked, wondering what they were forgetting.

Four faces peeked over the edge, nodding. Soap and Felix extended their arms down while Dimity and Sidheag went to the other side of the gondola against the lean.

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