Hurry up, Chum,” Mr. Punch giggled. “You’re chokin’ me, you are.”
“Terribly sorry, Mr. Punch.” Naasir smiled.
“Why do we have to wear these things, anyway?” Mr. Punch said frantically, tugging at his collar and cravat. “Not bloody comfortable and only slow ya down.”
“This is how a gentleman dresses.” Naasir responded, placing a ruby and pearl stickpin neatly into the folds of Punch’s crimson cravat.
Mr. Punch studied himself in the glass of the wardrobe. “Here, that’s a nice color, isn’t it?”
“Very nice.” Naasir nodded. “You look very handsome, indeed.”
“Oh,” Mr. Punch smiled. “Gotta say, that’s all Julian.”
“Nevertheless,”’ Naasir grinned. “Both of you look quite handsome.”
“You know, Chum,” Mr. Punch continued as Naasir helped him on with his olive green coat, “this’ll be me very first Christmas. Usually, Julian’s the one what gets to do the merry-making—not that he makes merry very often. Always so gloomy, me master. But, I gotta say, I’m right excited ‘bout the whole thing.”
“I can see that.” Naasir said calmly.
“Did you do what I asked?” Mr. Punch said.
“Yes, Sir, of course,” Naasir nodded.
“So, you got everythin’?”
“Good.” Mr. Punch sighed happily.
“I’ve even gotten the ribbon for Master Toby.” Naasir winked.
“Here.” Mr. Punch cooed. “I almost forgot. Toby!” He patted his leg and the terrier came running from his perch on the armchair by the window.
“Will you put it on him while I get me rings? Well, me master’s rings.”
“I will.” Naasir chuckled. He tied a deep green ribbon around Toby’s neck. The dog wagged his tail and tried to lick Naasir’s hand.
“Looks right proud, he does.” Mr. Punch said cheerfully.
“Be careful of your hands, Sir.” Naasir reminded Mr. Punch.
“Oh, the fingers are all right.” Mr. Punch smiled as he slipped Julian’s’ diamond ring on his left index finger and the ring set with a piece of the Molliner Blue on Julian’s right hand. “It’s just the palms what are hurt.”
“Just be cautious not to disturb the bandages.” Naasir said. “I’ve had to promise Dr. Halifax that if you’re going to come downstairs, you’re going to have to mind your wounds.”
“Worry, worry, worry.” Mr. Punch whooped. “It’s all fine, it is. Me legs itch like the devil, but it ain’t nothin’ that I can’t survive.” Mr. Punch looked around the room. “Now…”
“All of your parcels are already downstairs.” Naasir interrupted, knowing what Mr. Punch was going to ask.
“Fine.” Punch nodded Julian’s head. “Only not all of ‘em.”
“Yes, sir.” Naasir protested. “I brought them down earlier and placed them around the Christmas tree that Mr. and Mrs. Halifax decorated last night.”
“Look in the black leather case on the writing table.” Mr. Punch snickered.
“Have I forgotten something?” Naasir asked.
“No.” Mr. Punch whooped. “Only I want to make sure that you get a present for Christmas. Now, I don’t have nothin’ of me own to give. Still, I think me master would want you to have this.”
Naasir opened the case to reveal a gold pocket watch engraved with the initial “M.”
“It were me pa’s.” Mr. Punch said softly. “He gave it to Julian, and now I’m givin’ it to you.”
“Mr. Punch, it’s too fine, I can’t…” Naasir said.
“Sure you can. We want you to have it. I talked it over with me master. See, without you, we wouldn’t be here. You plucked us from that fire, you did. It’s only right that you should have somethin’ shiny to show you that we care ‘bout you.”
“I’m at a loss for words.” Naasir said, studying the watch.
“This way, you can always make sure we get to places when we’re ‘sposed to. Humans are so worried ‘bout bein’ places on time, they are.”
“I will treasure it.” Naasir gulped.
“Happy Christmas.” Mr. Punch grinned his wild grin.
A knock on the door signaled Robert’s entry.
“Well, then,” Robert said. “Mr. Punch, don’t you look fine? Are you ready to see the family?”
“I am.” Mr. Punch nodded quickly. “Only, one thing. Where’s his sister?”
“Adrienne has told me that Barbara declined the invitation to join the family this morning and prefers to stay in the servant’s hall.”
“Is that where she is now?” Mr. Punch asked.
“I don’t rightly know for certain. I spoke with Adrienne last night. Aside from Naasir, I’ve not seen anyone yet this morning. I know only that Adrienne let Barbara stay in one of the back cottages last night and that she declined Adrienne’s invitation.”
“Good enough, “ Mr. Punch nodded.
“Will that be all?” Naasir asked.
“Yes, Naasir.” Robert smiled. “I understand that the servants are making merry. You’re expected to join them.”
“Yes, Sir.” Naasir said.
“Well, then, go on and enjoy your morning. We’ll ring if we need anything.” Robert nodded.
“Thank you, Sir.” Naasir smiled. He looked at Mr. Punch. “And, Mr. Punch, please tell His Lordship that I will never forget this kindness.”
“He knows, Chum.” Mr. Punch smiled.
Naasir left the room and hurried to the servant’s hall to join the others.
“Shall we go see the tree?” Robert asked.
“Oh, please!” Mr. Punch said with the excitement of a child.
“Before we go down, I’ve something I want to give you in private.” Robert said slowly.
“Somethin’ for me?” Mr. Punch asked.
“Well, yes. It’s something for both you and Julian. Mr. Punch, I knew all along that you were different. Ever since the first day I met you at the clinic long ago when you were in need. I knew—somehow—that our paths would intersect. I didn’t know how much they would.” Robert laughed. “When I saw you again on The Hyperion, I decided that I would…help you. I hadn’t’ anticipated all of this…”
“Never heard you stumble with words before, Chum.” Mr. Punch said.
Robert chuckled. “I’m usually more eloquent than this. I’ve made my peace with the fact that, in you, I’ve got two friends—both quite different, but both somehow the same. I…” Robert reached into his pocket and removed a velvet pouch. “I want you to have this as a token of my admiration, my friend.”
Mr. Punch’s eyes widened. “It ain’t that Voodoo powder is it?”
Robert laughed, “No.” He smiled, “Here, I’ll open it for you.”
Robert opened the pouch and removed a sparkling stickpin. The tip of the pin was a gold oak leaf, set with a large diamond. “I’ve had this since I was a boy. When my father had his…troubles…he gave it to me for safekeeping. He told me that whatever I did, I was not to sell it because it had special meaning to him. You see, my mother gave this pin to him on the occasion of their wedding. It’s the finest thing I have. I’m not a wealthy man—not compared to the prestige of the Molliners and the Duchess of Fallbridge. So, this was the…well, the finest thing I could offer the finest friend I’ve ever had.”
Mr. Punch gulped.
“Will you accept it?” Robert asked.
“Sure, I will.” Mr. Punch said happily. “Only don’t you think it’s something Cecil might want to have?”
“I’ve already discussed it with him.” Robert answered. “He thinks it’s quite right for you to have it.”
“Put it on me, then.” Mr. Punch said quickly.
“You’re already wearing a pin.” Robert laughed.
“Take the other off.” Mr. Punch chortled.
“There,” Robert said, tucking the stickpin into Julian’s cravat. He removed the other and returned it to the jewel case.
“I feel like Naasir did,” Mr. Punch said, studying Julian’s reflection in the mirror. “I don’t know what to say, I don’t. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Robert nodded. “Now, everyone’s waiting for us and I can see that Toby is eager to participate in some Christmas cheer.”
“Me, too.” Mr. Punch smiled.
Robert opened the door. From downstairs, they could smell delicious foods and could hear the sound of Adrienne playing carols on the piano.
“There’s somethin’ down there for you, too.” Mr. Punch said as they walked down the hall. “Somethin’ from me and me master.”
“I’ve got everything I want.” Robert responded contentedly.
Meanwhile, a cold wind whipped across the Rue de la Marchands where Barbara waited between two brick buildings. She’d already missed the carriage that was to take her and Arthur to New Orleans. Arthur had not shown up. He was several hours late.
Barbara was fuming. “I simply cannot believe this…” She muttered to herself.
She gently set down the large bag that she was carrying. In it were her few meager possessions as well as the silver and jewelry she had stolen from Adrienne and Cecil’s house.
“No diamond, no husband, no child…” Barbara frowned. “No family.”
She considered returning to the Halifax house, but felt certain that they’d surely have discovered that she’d robbed them by then. Just as she was about to depart to find out when the next carriage would be leaving, Arthur staggered up to her—clearly intoxicated.
“Happy Christmas, Pet.” Arthur slurred.
“Where have you been?” Barbara hissed.
“Been a change of plans, Love.” Arthur laughed. “Big change of plans…”
Did you miss Chapters 1-90? If so, you can read them here.