Mr. Punch howled like a wounded animal as Robert coughed up more blood. He refused to leave the man’s side even after Cecil and one of Carling Rittenhouse’s servants carried Robert up the winding staircase to some unused bed chamber.
Cecil had hurried off to bring back Marionneaux’s only physician. Mr. Punch sat alone with Robert in the darkened room. Outside the door, he could hear Adrienne speaking softly to a frantic Carling Rittenhouse who kept screeching the words “Yellow Jack.”
“I won’t have it in my house.” Punch overheard Carling barking. “Not with the babe…not with Afton. She’s delicate.”
“I’m sure it’s not the fever,” Adrienne said quietly.
“I don’t care what it is!” Carling shrieked. “I want him out of my house.”
Punch stormed to the door and opened it. He leveled Julian’s eyes at the woman. “Shut yer gob!” He shouted before, slamming the door shut again.
“How…how dare he? I don’t care who he is…” Carling bellowed. Mr. Punch heard the clicking of the women’s slippers as, no doubt, Adrienne led Carling away.
Punch leaned over Robert and put Julian’s head on the sick man’s chest. Robert weakly placed his hand on Julian’s head, patting it.
“Yer full a stuff.” Punch murmured. “I can hear it in ya, Chum. Bad stuff. Gotta get it out o’ ya.”
“Burnin’ up.” Punch continued to murmur frantically, still leaning on Robert. “Burnin’ up like fire.” He sat up, “Me chum!” Mr. Punch began to cry.
Robert slowly shook his head.
“No, don’t move, Chum.” Mr. Punch said. “Stay awful still, right.”
Robert fumbled to grab Julian’s hand. “Julian…” he croaked.
“Not here, he ain’t.” Mr. Punch rocked back and forth. “Couldn’t be. Not now. Can’t see this, he can’t.”
“Julian.” Robert moaned, coughing violently again.
“It’s me, Chum.” Mr. Punch said. “Ol’ Punch what cares for you.”
Robert’s body spasmed.
“Physician’s on his way. He’ll patch you up, he will. Make you right again. Not to worry.” Punch said, rocking again. “Not to worry. Not to worry.”
The door groaned open and a woman entered—a dark-skinned woman with a pleasant face and sympathetic eyes. She carried a basin of water and flannel which she placed on the stand next to the bed where Robert lay.
She wrung out the flannel and reached forward to place it on Robert’s forehead.
“Don’t touch him!” Punch screamed. “Don’t know you. Can’t touch him. He’s mine.”
The woman’s eyes widened, yet she smiled gently. “I know you’s scared, Sir. You gotta let me help ya.”
“Don’t know you.” Punch repeated.
“I’m here for to help you, Sir.”
“You a maid here?” Punch asked.
“No, Sir. I come from Mr. Fontanal’s place. My name is Marjani. I’m good at nursin’ folk. Miss Rittenhouse, she done sent for me special.”
Mr. Punch narrowed Julian’s eyes. “You can help?”
“Jus’ let me put this cloth on his head.” Marjani said.
“Only he’s mine.”
Marjani handed the flannel to Mr. Punch. “You take it and put it nice and gentle on his forehead.”
Mr. Punch did as she said.
“Now what?” Mr. Punch asked.
“Now, Sir, we wait.” Marjani said softly. She looked at Robert. “Nice lookin’ man.”
“For a human, he’s nice lookin’.” Punch nodded Julian’s head.
Marjani nodded as if what Mr. Punch said was the most normal thing in the world.
“Julian…” Robert rasped.
“That you, Sir?” Marjani asked. “What he’s askin’ for?”
“Sometimes.” Mr. Punch frowned. “Only not now.”
“Seems he wants you to be what he’s askin’ for now. Can you do that?”
“No.” Mr. Punch sighed. “Gotta be somethin’ else.”
“Now’s the time for you to be whatever this fella needs.” Marjani smiled.
Mr. Punch stared at Robert and took a deep breath. “I’m here, Robert,” Mr. Punch said in Julian’s voice. “I’m here at your side, and we’re going to ensure your well-being. There’s nothing at all for you to be concerned about. Nothing at all. The only thing that you should think about is all the good times ahead.”
“That’s good, Sir.” Marjani smiled sweetly. “I’ll be outside the door. If he starts coughin’, holler for me.”
Mr. Punch nodded.
When Marjani left, Robert moaned, “I know…”
“Know what, Robert?” Mr. Punch asked in Julian’s voice.
“I know…” Robert repeated.
“No good me tryin’ to fool ya, I ‘spose.” Mr. Punch grunted, speaking as himself.
“Julian…” Robert said again. “I know…”
“Can’t do it!” Mr. Punch began to cry again. He put Julian’s arms around Robert and held him. “Can’t do it. Too much, it is. Don’t know what to do.”
Again, the door creaked open. Punch didn’t move. He continued to hold on to Robert’s boiling body, thinking, at first, that Marjani had returned. The scent told Mr. Punch otherwise.
“Get out!” Punch shouted, his face still buried in Robert’s stomach. “Get out of here, Barbara.”
“Is that how you greet your sister, Julian?” Barbara whispered.
“You ain’t me sister!” Punch growled, looking up, but still holding Robert tightly. “You’re no one’s sister. You’re name is Barbara Allen, remember? You’re a maid what’s got blonde hair sittin’ on her head. You’re nothin’ a me.”
“What’s gotten into you?” Barbara asked. “You sound strange.”
“Am strange.” Punch continued to growl. “But, not as strange as you. Where’s your baby, Barbara?”
“Quiet.” Barbara spat.
“Get out of here. Don’t want you.” Punch hissed. “Not ‘less you got what you took from me. Where’s the thing what you took from me head?”
“Your head?” Barbara asked.
“The diamond, Barbara Allen!” Mr. Punch shouted, again pressing Julian’s face against Robert’s chest. “Though I’d sell it me-self a thousand times over if it would help me chum.”
“I don’t have it.” Barbara answered.
“Then, leave! You’re no good to me.” Mr. Punch hollered.
“I can help you.” She looked at Robert. “Your friend is dying.”
“’Young man, I think you’re dying.’” Mr. Punch roared. “Know all about that, don’t ya, oh cruel Barbara Allen.”
“Julian, you’re my brother and I love you.” Barbara said softly.
“Love me?” Punch released Robert and stood up. “Love me? Whaddya know of love, you…” He paced the floor in front of Barbara. “I ain’t yer brother. I’m brother to that lady with the fine face. That lady what speaks French and what loves her baby. That’s who me sister is. She knows how to love.” Mr. Punch extended Julian’s hand and pointed to Robert. “And, this man. This man what took care o’ me. He knows how to love. What do you know ‘bout it? You’re a harlot and a thief! Face of an angel on a rotten devil’s body. Well, I beat the Devil and I’ll beat you!”
“Who are you?” Barbara asked slowly. “Won’t you let me help? I set your man free.”
“Free from the troubles what you got him in.” Mr. Punch growled. “You want to help, give me the diamond what you took from me.”
“I can’t do that.” Barbara shook her head.
“Julian…” Robert moaned.
Mr. Punch hurried to Robert’s side. He looked at Barbara. “Ain’t nothin’ more important than this man to me right now.”
“I know of a way.” Barbara whispered. She took a small glass vile from her apron pocket. “Give him this.”
Mr. Punch snatched it from her hand and pulled the cork from it, smelling it.
“Arthur.” Mr. Punch growled. “This is the med’cin what he tried to give me. Med’cin what he said Robert told him to give me. Probably the same stuff what he poisoned us with.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Barbara said icily.
“You ain’t tryin’ to help.” Punch hissed. “You’re tryin’ to help yerself! You’re tryin’ to kill me chum!”
Barbara laughed. “I’m only trying to give him peace, Julian, you mad fool.”
Did you miss Chapters 1-60? If so, you can read them here.