You filty, little idiot!” Ulrika hissed as she shoved Nellie to the floor. “How could you let this happen?”
“What choice did I have?” Nellie groaned. “They overpowered me.”
“And, what?” Ulrika growled. “You had the diamond in your handbag? You simply said, ‘Oh, here, this isn’t mine to give, but take it’?”
“No.” Nellie panted.
“What then?” Ulrika demanded. “How did Iolanthe Evangeline even know you had it? No one except Arthur and you knew that I had taken the diamond from Barbara! Not even Arthur knew that I had given it to you for…what I thought was safe-keeping!”
“There’s nothing that Iolanthe doesn’t know!” Nellie whimpered.
“Nonsense!” Ulrika paced the room.
“She demanded that I give it to her.” Nellie whined, “I could smell the death on her! I knew she’d kill me, too!”
“What does that matter?” Ulrika barked. “What use are you to anyone? Well, I suppose you’re enough use to a lonely man with money in his pocket! But, otherwise, what good are you?”
“I have a mind, and a soul!” Nellie said softly.
“No you don’t!” Ulrika spat. “You have a body and nothing more.”
Nellie began to cry.
“Oh, tears…really?” Ulrika grumbled. “Do you think I’ll soften as your tears fall? The wetness from your eyes will not tenderize me, my dear! I am ruined! You fool!”
“How are you ruined?” Nellie coughed. “You’re wealthy! Your family is powerful. You have the world open to you.”
“Not the world that I want!” Ulrika screamed. “You do realize that you’ll be punished?”
“Please, be kind to me.”
“No.” Ulrika shook her head. “You’ve given away my freedom, and, now I’ll see to it that yours is taken.”
“The Duchess is dead,” Nellie scrambled like a crab into the corner of the room. “We can get rid of Lord Fallbridge. Then, nothing will prevent you from claiming his fortune. Barbara? Don’t worry about Barbara Allen. Iolanthe has plans for her. It’ll be easy. Please, Ulrika, please. Listen to me. I don’t need to be punished. I’ll make it right.”
“To begin with,” Ulrika smiled, “I’ll see to it that your family knows your little secret.”
“No.” Nellie pleaded. “Please. It would destroy them!”
“Good!” Ulrika laughed. “I hope they choke on the knowledge that their precious little Nell bore her brother’s child! A deformed little creature that you buried in the field while it was still breathing! Perhaps I can commission an artist to paint a picture of the scene I stumbled upon that day two years ago! I remember it well!”
“You can’t do that Ulrika!”
“Those were the conditions of our association, Nellie.” Ulrika laughed.
“You’re too cruel!”
“Not cruel enough.” Ulrika smiled, lowering her eyes toward Nellie. “Look at your pretty face. Aren’t you fair? I suppose you’ll still be able to find work—on your back. Perhaps Iolanthe will take you back into her stable of fallen women. Or, perhaps you could work on your own. There’s plenty of need for young women of your stature in New Orleans. You might find your fortune still.”
“I…I…don’t…” Nellie began.
“Or,” Ulrika laughed, breaking a bottle on the mantel, ‘you might not!” With one quick motion, Ulrika took the broken end of the bottle and slashed it across Nellie’s face.
Meanwhile, up the street, Robert’s hands shook as he embraced Julian.
“It’s been so long,” Robert said in a trembling voice.
“For you, perhaps.” Julian said softly into the man’s ear. “I’ve been here. In his kindness, Mr. Punch has kept me informed. I’ve even been able to hear some of what’s gone on around us. Your words to us at Christmas were most appreciated.”
“Julian,” Robert whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you,” Julian replied.
“Come, Cecil, “Adrienne said quietly to her husband. “Let’s leave Julian and Robert alone so that Julian might have a moment with his mother.”
“Of course,” Cecil grunted.
“If you don’t mind, Robert, I’d like it if I could be alone.” Julian said as Robert released him from his embrace.
“Oh, Julian,” Robert shook his head. “I think I’d better stay…”
“I’ll be fine,” Julian nodded. “Please.”
Robert looked helplessly at Adrienne who nodded.
“Dr. Halifax,” Marjani interrupted, “I know what you’re thinkin’. I feel what you’re rememberin’. His Lordship needs to be alone. Come with me and I’ll make you some tea. His Lordship will return to you. Come have some tea with me—all of ya, and perhaps you and Mr. Halifax can remember your own mama together.”
“Marjani, thank you,” Adrienne said.
“Robert?” Adrienne said.
“Do come, old man,” Cecil said softly.
“Are you sure?” Robert asked Julian.
“Quite.” Julian nodded.
Cecil, Adrienne, Marjani and Robert left the room, shutting the door behind them.
Julian picked up the lamp from the table and carried to the stand near the bed where the Duchess of Fallbridge lay more peacefully than her son had ever seen her.
He sat on the bed next to his deceased mother and studied her face.
“I never thought this would be how it ended.” Julian said quietly. “To be honest, Mother, I fancied you’d live forever.”
He sighed. “Why were you always so unhappy?” He shook his head. “I know why I’ve been unhappy. Partly, at least. Partly… My mind is different, you know. You always insisted that I was insane. Yet, my insanity has served me well. Don’t you think? Mr. Punch—for all of his wildness—has been a loving protector. He’s been kind to me. He’s allowed me to feel joy. You never had that. For that, I pity you. All the while, you looked at me with contempt. Or, so I thought. Perhaps, it was jealousy. Envy.”
Julian shut his eyes, but continued speaking. “Why did you always hate me? Was it because I reminded you of father? I know you disagreed with my passion for what you considered useless endeavors. I know you thought that, in that regard, I was too much like Father. I know you loathed what you perceived as my meekness. I am so, terribly sorry that I was such a disappointment to you. But, you had Barbara. She is so very like you. You could have rejoiced in her. Yet, you drove her away, too. And, here we are.”
Julian opened his eyes again and frowned. “Your words cut me. Do you know that? Unlike the cuts I endured—those physical cuts—that I withstood as a child, your words opened wounds that never healed. Why? Why did you leave me with that woman—Agnes? Didn’t you know what was happening? How could you do that?”
Julian drew in a deep breath and released it slowly.
“There’s nothing good that can come of my anger.”
He sat silently for several minutes and stared at his mother’s corpse.
Finally, he said. “In so many ways, Mr. Punch has released me. Now, I am able to release you, Mother. I hope that, finally, you might have some peace and some freedom. I don’t know about Heaven or Hell, Mother. I truly don’t. I know what I’ve been told, but personally, I think there’s a little bit of both for everyone. But, for your sake, I hope there is a comfortable place for you somewhere. Somewhere, perhaps, where you’ll finally be satisfied. I won’t vilify you. That wouldn’t be fair. For as much as you condemned me, and compared me, I’m guilty of the same. I look at Adrienne—through my own eyes or through Punch’s—and I see what a mother truly should be. I see a gentle soul who wishes to ensure the happiness of those she loves—at any cost. Yes, I’m guilty, for lo these many weeks I’ve wished that you were such a mother, just as you wished that I’d be a different man. No one is at fault, now. Now, it’s over. Go forth and be at peace, Mother. I hope to do the same, but I wish to do it while I’m still alive. Be at peace, now. Perhaps we all may be.”
Julian rose and walked to the fireplace, where he rested his head on the mantle and sobbed.
Mr. Punch spoke clearly to Julian—in that private way that they shared, the voice that no one else could hear.
“Master, chum.” Mr. Punch said. “Want me to come back? You’re not strong enough yet, but I’m most awful proud of you for what you just done.”
“Soon,” Julian answered without moving his lips. “Mr. Punch, I’ll need you for what’s to follow.”
“I only wish to serve you,” Punch answered from inside Julian. “I’m terrible sorry for what I done.”
“No, no,” Julian answered silently. “You did nothing wrong.”
“But, I did,” Punch answered from within, “I did.”
“Rest.” Julian thought. “Mr. Punch, rest. I wish to speak with Robert and the others—for a moment. Gather your strength.”
“As you wish,” Mr. Punch responded.
Julian walked out of the room and squinted down the corridor, trying to get his bearings. He wasn’t familiar with the house.
“The stairs are ahead, Master chum.” Punch said from within. “The family is, I’d guess, in the parlor to the left of the foyer.”
Julian nodded to himself and followed Punch’s directions. He found the group seated in the parlor, as Punch had suggested. Marjani was tending to the fire.
“How are you?” Robert rose and hurried to Julian’s side.
“I’m not sure,” Julian smiled weakly. “I know I have been so fortunate for the support all of you have shown me. Sadly, I do have more to ask of you.”
“Anything,” Adrienne nodded.
“We’ll need to arrange for Mother’s burial.”
“I’ll see to it.” Cecil said. “I know the ways of this area.”
“Thank you,” Julian said.
“There is one more thing.” Julian shook his head.
“What is it?” Robert asked.
“I need you to look after my Mr. Punch.” Julian answered. “He’s not well.”
Did you miss Chapters 1-138? If so, you can read them here. Come back on Monday for Chapter 140 of Punch's Cousin.