Naasir crouched in the hedgerow behind the stables on the Rittenhouse estate. A rustling in the thicket behind him startled him. He smelled the air and relaxed his shoulders. He knew Marjani was nearby.
“I done hurried,” Marjani whispered as she approached Naasir. “Is the man in there?”
“Arthur is there, yes.” Naasir responded softly. “However, he’s not alone.”
“That Barbara’s with him?” Marjani frowned.
“No.” Naasir shook his head. “Listen.”
Marjani paused and cocked her head to one side. She heard a deep laugh come from the stables—a laugh that was almost feminine.
“Can’t be.” Marjani shook her head.
“Yes.” Naasir nodded.
“Let’s take ourselves over to the front and tuck ourselves behind the oaks.” Marjani whispered. “Then, we can see inside through one o’ them doors.”
Naasir nodded again. Very quietly, they made their way toward the row of thick oak trees which stood in front of the stables. The trees were hung with Spanish moss which tickled their heads with rough gray fingers as they hid.
Inside the stable, they could see Ulrika Rittenhouse tossing her flaming hair back as she laughed.
“Oh, Arthur, really.” Ulrika growled. “You are terrible.” She pressed her body against the man who lay against a mound of disheveled hay.
“Get off me, would ya?” Arthur barked.
“You didn’t tell me to get off of you the other night.” Ulrika grinned.
“That was only for one time. You know that. That were the deal we struck.” Arthur said roughly.
“It doesn’t have to be.” Ulrika said, running her hand across Arthur’s shoulder.
“Sure does.” Arthur said. “I wasn’t so happy ‘bout it at the first. But, that’s the bargain you made with Barbara and I wasn’t goin’ to make a liar of her.”
“You’re awfully loyal to Barbara.” Ulrika frowned.
“I am.” Arthur nodded.
“It seems to me that your loyalty is misplaced.” Ulrika crossed her arms.
“How do ya figure?” Arthur spat.
“Well, it’s simply that a woman who would hire you out the way she did—really, is she worthy of your love? Now, I could give you my love and so much more. My family is very wealthy.”
Arthur laughed cruelly. “And, Barbara’s isn’t? She’s a lady for God’s sake!”
“Not here she isn’t.” Ulrika said angrily. “Here, she’s a servant and a whore!”
“So am I, Love.” Arthur laughed. “So am I. So, ya see, we’re well matched Barbara and I.”
Ulrika opened the front of the lace dressing gown she was wearing and exposed her bosom to Arthur. She cooed. “Are you telling me that you don’t want me?”
Arthur grabbed a fistful of hay and threw it in Ulrika’s face, laughing.
“That’s exactly what I’m tellin’ you.”
Ulrika sputtered angrily, but made no effort to cover herself.
“Now, get outta here and leave me in peace.” Arthur barked. “Go play with your dolls.”
“I aim to play with you.” Ulrika shouted.
From outside the stable, Naasir gently placed his hand on Marjani’s shoulder.
She smiled at him gently. “These folk are nothin’ better than animals.” She whispered. “Ya see all sorts a things ‘round here. All sorts a things. Ya gotta watch these folk. They take what they want and don’t care nothin’ ‘bout who it hurts. Just ask my girl. She knows. Sometimes, though, blessings come of it. I got me a granddaughter, ya see. She came from pain, she did. But, she’s a right fine girl. Columbia’s her name. She’s more of a lady—even at her tender age—than that hightone rich girl in there.”
Marjani stopped talking when they heard footsteps approaching. Naasir and Marjani hid themselves deeper in the shadows of the oaks.
They watched as Barbara strutted into the stables.
“What is going on in here?” Barbara shrieked. “What is this display?”
“Oh, look. It’s my maid.” Ulrika cooed, still making no effort to cover herself.
“Get away from him.” Barbara shouted. “This is not part of our arrangement.” She drew in a deep breath. “You got what you were promised. Now leave.”
“I give the orders around here, maid.” Ulrika said, finally closing her gown. “In case you’ve forgotten, really, you are subservient to me.”
“We made each other a promise, Ulrika.” Barbara said angrily.
“That’ll be ‘Miss Rittenhouse,’ if you don’t mind.” Ulrika grinned. “Don’t you know that you shouldn’t make promises to strangers? You’ll never be sure how they’ll act. I don’t pretend that I’m a virtuous young thing. I couldn’t be and still get what I want. So, I suspect you’ll want to do what I say.”
“Why should I?” Barbara hissed.
“You don’t want me to tell your attractive, lunatic brother where you’ve hidden that big, beautiful diamond, do you?”
“And, you don’t want your brother’s companion to know that the wicked, wicked footman didn’t die on that ship.” Ulrika continued, unaware that Arthur’s presence was already known to Robert and Mr. Punch. “And, I would hate to have to expose my cousin—the mousy nanny. That would cause such pain—not only for you, but for my family. After all, if it weren’t for her, you wouldn’t be here. You do want to remain here, don’t you? Or do you want your brother to take you back to England?”
“You’re a sorry, little…” Barbara began.
“Tut, tut, maid.” Ulrika grinned. “Remember who your master is.”
“I have but one master.” Barbara said. “And you aren’t she.”
“Yes.” Ulrika tossed her hair. “I am.” She walked over to Barbara. “I am. Now, I don’t want much, really. I merely want the use of your footman. I don’t see why that should bother you.”
“Because he’s my husband!” Barbara hissed.
“Barbara!” Arthur shouted. “Enough!”
From outside the stable, Naasir whispered. “It only gets worse.”
“Always does.” Marjani responded gently. “We can make it stop.”
“When?” Naasir asked, twisting the glass vial of red powder between his long fingers.
“When they settle down, we’ll take ‘way their pain.” Marjani answered.
Meanwhile, upstairs in the mansion, Robert began snoring softly. Mr. Punch listened to his friend’s breathing. His intake of air was less encumbered. Mr. Punch smiled. He walked over and grabbed a flannel off of the washstand—draping it over Julian’s uninjured hand.
Mr. Punch very carefully tucked part of the flannel into the crook of Julian’s thumb and forefinger so that it resembled a mouth.
“That’s the way to do it,” he whispered gleefully, making Julian’s thumb and finger move back and forth like lips.
Punch chuckled to himself.
“Good evening, Mr. Punch.” He whispered in a comic voice, moving his fingers again to make Julian’s hand “speak.” “Have you any sausages?”
“I have no sausages.” Punch giggled.
Mr. Punch paused and sighed. “Here…sausages.” He licked his lips. “Wouldn’t mind some sausages.”
He glanced over at Robert who was still sleeping peacefully.
“Wonder where the larder is in this place.” Mr. Punch mumbled to himself. “Got a hunger, I do.”
He looked at Robert again and considered the possibility of sneaking out in search of a snack.
“Hmmm.” Punch grunted.
Punch’s thought process was interrupted by a loud, sharp noise from outside.
Robert awoke with a start.
The noise repeated—cutting through the silent night sky.
“Shots?” Robert squinted.
“Sounds like when that Cage bloke fired his pistol at us!” Mr. Punch said nervously.
Another shot rang out.
From outside, they heard wild shouting. In the chaos, they heard Marjani scream. “Mr. Halifax!”
Did you miss Chapters 1-75? If so, you can read them here.