Mr. Punch lowered Julian’s head and gazed at the baby in his lap. He tickled Fuller’s stomach again and the child shrieked with glee.
He sighed, “Naasir, me chum, are you sayin’ that the lady what helped you looked like Lord Fallbridge?”
“Yes,” Naasir nodded slowly.
“And, she called herself ‘Barbara Allen’?”
“Yes, Mr. Punch.” Naasir responded.
“Couldn’t be.” Mr. Punch shook Julian’s head. “Couldn’t be that beast what’s his sister, could it?”
“Iolanthe Evangeline did say that Lady Barbara wasn’t in New Orleans. She said that Her Ladyship had gone off to take care of some business. Why her business brought her to Marionneaux, I can’t imagine.” Robert coughed.
“I can imagine.” Punch said slowly, still looking at the baby. “She’s with that Nanny what makes little boys keep secrets. I’ll bet you they was together the whole time on the ship. I’ll wager you that Barbara was under our noses the whole time we was sailin’ here. See, I knew. I could feel her. Me master knew, too. I remember ‘im thinkin’ it.”
Robert helped Naasir into the nursery and sat him down in the bentwood rocker near the bassinette.
“Naasir,” Robert began, “Can you remember anything else about the woman you saw last night?”
“She came up from the shadows, Dr. Halifax, just as was written. I was told even as a small boy that a dark beauty would rise from the smoke to snatch me from the flames.”
“Whew!” Punch grumbled, “What kind of bedtime story was that for yer ma to tell ya?”
“A true one, Mr. Punch.” Naasir said. “And, so it happened. The dark beauty came up from behind the men and hit them with some timber. She untied me and set me free.”
“That don’t sound like Lady Barbara.” Punch muttered, “That one never lifted a finger to help nobody.”
“She said she would kill me herself if I didn’t hurry to leave.” Naasir continued.
“That,” Punch laughed, “sounds like Lady Barbara.” Punch’s smile faded.
“What is it, dear Punch?” Adrienne asked.
“What does a human life cost?” Punch said slowly.
“Pardon me?” Adrienne said.
“Iolanthe Evangeline asked me that when we was at her place. She asked me if I knew what a life cost. I thought she was barkin’ mad when she asked it. Life don’t cost nothing, it don’t. Just the wear on the body, so it’d seem. But, then she said somethin’ ‘bout a ‘fresh, new life.’” Punch tickled the baby again. “A life like me nephew’s. A sweet new life.”
Adrienne blanched. “Robert told us that Lady Barbara bore a child.”
“A child what she didn’t want.” Punch continued. “A child what she wanted to get rid of. One what Iolanthe Evangeline could sell like it were some kind of gammon.”
“But, who in Marionneaux would want to buy a child?” Adrienne asked. “All of the families here have as many children as they could want. In fact, just recently, Carling Rittenhouse bore a lovely little girl, Afton. She’s sweet if not delicate.”
“That’s where she is—that Nanny. She came here, she said, to look after the babe you just mentioned. That’s where Barbara is, too.” Punch frowned.
“Naasir was coming down the hill when you found him. The only residence at the peak of La Colline Cramoisie is the Rittenhouse Plantation. Surely, that must be where Naasir was taken and where he saw this ‘Barbara Allen.’” Cecil thought aloud.
“So, that’s where we’ll be goin’.” Punch rose, gently cradling the baby in Julian’s arms.
Adrienne took Fuller from him. The baby began to cry.
“Oh, there, there,” Adrienne cooed at the child, “Uncle Punch will be back soon.”
“Sure I will, little chum.” Mr. Punch smiled at the infant. “We’re gonna sing songs, you and I, we are. Happy songs what will make you laugh. Not songs ‘bout ungrateful girls what don’t care ‘nough ‘bout people.”
“Mr. Punch,” Robert began, “I understand that we need to visit the Rittenhouse home, but we must do so with caution. We will need to have a map of what we’ll say and do.”
“Or we could just go over there an’ smack ‘em with sticks ‘til they talk.” Punch winked.
“I prefer my method.” Robert sighed.
“Figured ya would.” Punch laughed.
“I’ll help Naasir to the cabins,” Cecil said.
“Thank you, Mr. Halifax, but I can manage. I will lie down, if you don’t mind. Just for a short while.”
“We insist,” Robert nodded firmly.
“Cecil,” Adrienne said, “Do follow Naasir downstairs and see to it that Chidi or Gamilla walks with him.”
“Of course, Darling.” Cecil smiled, following Naasir out.
“Shall I leave you two to talk privately?” Adrienne asked.
“Course not! We got no secrets from ya—not ‘bout this anyway.” Mr. Punch answered. “Very well, Chum, tell me ‘bout this map you want to make for our visit.”
“To begin with, you’ll need to act as Lord Julian would act.” Robert started.
“Why?” Punch asked.
Robert chose his words carefully. “Because I think that we will have a better chance of finding out what we need if Julian appears to be at the helm.”
Punch frowned. “But, he ain’t. I’m the one what’s here.”
“You’ve pretended to be Lord Julian before.” Robert responded.
“I know, but I like bein’ me-self. ‘S easier, it is.” Punch grumbled. “Don’t see why I have to pretend to be somethin’ I ain’t. Don’t you like me as I am?”
Robert’s face fell. “Certainly, I do. Very much. I like both of the men who occupy Julian’s body—equally.”
Fuller began to cry again. Adrienne picked him up. “Ah, I see that our young master wants changing.”
“We’ll leave you to it.” Robert said quickly. “Mr. Punch, will you come with me to my room?”
“’Course.” Punch nodded Julian’s head.
“I’d like to speak with you further.” Robert continued.
“I didn’t do nothin’.” Punch grumbled.
“No one said you did.” Robert smiled. “We’re just going to talk.”
“Right.” Punch grunted.
Alone in the nursery, Adrienne changed Fuller, humming softly as she powdered him. Suddenly, she became aware of the fact that someone else was with her. She finished her task, and gently placed Fuller in his bassinette.
Adrienne turned slowly and narrowed her eyes at the two men that were standing behind her.
“Surely you don’t think that I’ll go quietly,” She smiled.
Did you miss Chapters 1-55? If so, you can read them here.