Barbara Allen laughed cruelly, “Just what do you intend to do, my lunatic brother?”
“Intend to cleave yer skull like what you did mine!” Mr. Punch shouted as he held the oil lamp over Julian’s head.
“I shan’t stop you.” Barbara smiled defiantly. “It will only complete the set of scars left behind from your friend.”
Mr. Punch drew Julian’s arm back as if he was going to hurl the lamp at Barbara’s grinning face. Instead, he dropped the lamp which shattered to the floor.
“Coward.” Barbara smirked.
“Not a coward.” Mr. Punch pulled Julian’s lips into a frown. “Smart, I am. Can’t do what you done. Not like bein’ a puppet where the next day Judy is back in the tent with me. Hurtin’ you would be forever, it would. Permanent. Can’t do it. Wouldn’t be clever. And, if there’s one thing that I am, it’s clever.”
“You’re a fool.” Barbara spat as the door to the room opened.
Carling Rittenhouse rushed in. She was followed by Adrienne and Cecil.
“Dear God!” Carling gasped. “My lamp! No sooner had I allowed you and this sick man to remain in my home than you start breaking things. Adrienne, you assured me that nothing strange would happen!”
Adrienne stammered, looking confused.
“It was I, Mrs. Rittenhouse.” Barbara spoke quickly, curtsying. “Lord Fallbridge kindly allowed me to come in to light the grate and I clumsily upset the lamp. I’m terribly sorry. You can take it from my wages.”
“I’ll do more than take it from your wages.” Carling hissed. “You’re dismissed! Pack your things and leave my property.”
“Only…” Barbara began.
“Only nothing!” Carling cried. “I want you out of this house.”
“Mama?” A small voice said from the doorway. “What’s happening? I heard shouting?”
A little boy—no older than four entered the room. His large green eyes were shockingly bright against a cascade of deep auburn curls.
“Rowan, darling.” Mrs. Rittenhouse demurred to her son, “I thought you were with your sister.”
“I am.” Rowan said, coming further into the room. “Who’s that?” he pointed at Robert. “Why’s he in bed?”
“That’s Mr. Halifax’s brother. He’s ill. He will be staying here for awhile.”
“Why are you yelling at the maid with the false hair?” Rowan Rittenhouse asked innocently.
“Never you mind, dear. If you’re with your sister, where is she? I told Ulrika not to let you out of her sight.”
“I’m here, Mother,” a deep voice called from the hallway. A young woman of about twenty entered. She was tall and broad-shouldered with a thick masculine neck. Despite her size, she was quite beautiful with the same startlingly green eyes as her brother. Her bright red hair had been carefully arranged upon her head—further emphasizing her trunk-like neck.”
“Ulrika, take your brother to Nanny.” Mrs. Rittenhouse commanded. “I’ll be down shortly.”
“Really,” Ulrika grinned. “What happened in here?”
“It’s not your affair, Ulrika.” Carling spat. “Go on, now.”
“Very well, Mother.” Ulrika sighed. She looked toward Barbara. “Come along Barbara Allen, I want you to lay out my gown for tonight.”
“Barbara is no longer staying here.” Carling Rittenhouse said firmly. “She’s clumsy and stupid and must be dismissed.”
“Mother!” Ulrika Rittenhouse stamped her foot loudly against the floor. “I won’t have it! You promised me that I could have a proper lady’s maid. You said that I could have any maid I wanted, and I want this one.”
Rowan Rittenhouse cringed.
Cecil, Adrienne, Robert and Julian/Punch all stared dumbly at the scene which unfolded before them.
“Mama,” Rowan Rittenhouse chirped. “We saw Mrs. Cage’s new baby. He’s a good baby. He’s my friend. His name is Holt and when he gets older, he and I will play and I can go to their place and…”
“Quiet, Rowan!” Ulrika snapped. “You little toad.”
“Ulrika, don’t speak to your brother that way.” Carling said sharply. “As for the maid, I have spoken. Now take your brother to Nanny and make sure that Afton is resting comfortably.”
“I will not!” Ulrika bellowed. “Not without my maid.” Her green eyes sparked with rage.
Carling Rittenhouse wrung her hands. “Very well, darling.” She said. “You may keep your maid. For now.” She narrowed her eyes at Barbara. “However, clumsy girl, if you break one more thing in this house, I’ll see to it that the overseer tans your hide. Remember your place in this house. You’re no different than any of the other servants even if your skin is a different color.”
“Yes, Mrs. Rittenhouse.” Barbara curtsied again. She glanced over her shoulder and smirked at Julian. “Pardon me.”
With that, Barbara and Ulrika flounced from the room followed by Rowan who quickly began to chatter again.
“Oh, my nerves. I’m on edge!” Carling moaned. “It’s too much. No one helps me. One minute Rowan is going on about something or other and Ulrika is shouting and little Afton is crying. And, now I have a sick man in my house.”
“Mrs. Rittenhouse,” Cecil began. “I wasn’t aware that Mrs. Cage had birthed another son.”
“Well, she did.” Carling spat. “Obviously.”
“Adrienne, were you aware that Mrs. Cage was expecting?” Cecil asked his wife.
“No, I was not, mon cher.” Adrienne answered.
“Well, she was.” Carling said with considerable exasperation. “A fine boy with a fine name. Holt Cage. It speaks of strength. Now, honestly, I just can’t stay in this sick room any longer. You may stay here as long as you need to recuperate,” She looked at Robert, “and your friend may stay with you. However, do try to be quiet. My nerves are ruined. Ruined. Good day.”
Carling fluttered out of the room.
“Welcome back, Mr. Punch.” Adrienne smiled.
“How’d you know?” Mr. Punch asked.
“I just know.” Adrienne said.
Mr. Punch sat Julian down on the bed with Robert. “Sorry, Chum.”
“For what?” Robert croaked.
“’Bout that ugliness with his sister.” Mr. Punch mumbled.
“Mr. Punch, I’m proud of you. You did the right thing.” Robert said hoarsely.
“Not so sure.” Mr. Punch shrugged Julian’s shoulders. “Only I’m happy to know you think so. Like that you got pride in me, I do.”
Robert began coughing again.
“Here, now you’ve had ‘nough excitement. Time for you to get yourself some rest.”
“I agree.” Adrienne said.
“What did you mean just now?” Cecil asked. “That girl—she is, in fact, Lady Barbara?”
“Not no more. She’s some other creature what call herself Barbara Allen.” Mr. Punch sighed. “Some kind of monster. Don’t know. Just know that the baby what they call Holt Cage ‘as got to be her child what she threw away. Her child what she had with Arthur.”
“Your former valet?” Adrienne asked.
“Yep, me master’s footman what’s gone in the sea.” Mr. Punch nodded. “Killed the father of his sister’s baby, I did.” Mr. Punch began to cry. “Didn’t know it was wrong to do. Know better now.”
“Dear Punch,” Adrienne said sweetly. “Don’t think of it. We must rally for Robert’s sake.”
“Can’t help but think of it.” Mr. Punch sobbed. “Didn’t know it was wrong. Didn’t know.”
At that very moment, Barbara Allen was sneaking out of the Rittenhouse mansion. She ran through the cold evening air, pulling the wig from her head as she ran. She threw back her head so that her own dark hair came loose and fluttered in the breeze. Panting, she reached the stables and flung herself into a stall.
“He’s here.” She panted.
“I know.” A man’s voice responded.
“I thought he was going to kill me.”
“He’s barmy, that one.” The man grumbled.
“Did you post the letter?” Barbara asked.
“I did.” The man answered flatly. “She’ll be here.”
“Good.” Barbara smiled.
“Not to worry, pet,” The man grinned. “You’ll get all that you’re due, and then some.”
“Oh, I hope so.” Barbara sighed.
“We’ll see ‘em all dead.” The man said.
“Say it again.” Barbara laughed. “Say, it again, my love.”
“All dead—all of ‘em.” The man said gruffly.
“Oh, Arthur, I do love you so,” Barbara hissed, pulling the man into a deep kiss.
Did you miss Chapters 1-65? If so, you can read them here. Come back on Monday for Chapter 67 of Punch’s Cousin.