Mr. Punch was already at the bottom of the stairs as Robert, Marjani and Charles started down.
“Where’s me nephew?” Punch shouted as he rushed into the parlor, his dressing gown fluttering out behind him like a red cape.
“Mr. Punch!” Adrienne rose.
“Hullo, Lady Chum!” Mr. Punch chirped. “Where’s the boy?” He glanced at Barbara and remarked stiffly, “I see you finally done somethin’ right.”
“I’m glad someone thinks so.” Barbara muttered.
“So?” Punch moaned, hopping up and down on one foot.
“The child has been taken to the nursery. Meridian is watching him with Fuller and Columbia.” Cecil smiled.
“Right!” Mr. Punch said, hurrying out of the room.
“Goodbye, Julian.” Barbara chuckled. “Or whomever you are presently.”
“Perhaps I’d better go with him.” Adrienne said.
“I’ll go,” Marjani shook her head as she came into the parlor with Charles and Robert. “Ya’ll talk this out.”
“Thank you, Marjani.” Robert smiled.
“’Course, Doctor.” Marjani winked.
“Oh, Charles,” Barbara sighed, extending her hand toward the man.
Charles walked over and took Barbara’s hand.
Cecil nodded at him, and Charles sat next to Barbara.
“I’ve done it now.” Barbara murumured.
“I’d say so.” Charles nodded.
‘Do you hate me?” Barbara asked.
“I haven’t thus far.” Charles smiled.
“Very well, now.” Robert grunted. “What are we going to do about this?”
“We’ve got to get Miss Allen and the child out of Louisiana as quickly as possible.”
“I agree,” Adrienne nodded.
“As do I, but where?” Robert asked.
“I think the safest place for her—presently, is somewhere familiar for her. So, England.” Cecil said.
“But, she can’t go back to Fallbridge Hall.” Robert said. “She’s sure to be found there.”
“True.” Cecil nodded.
“Where else do I have to go?” Barbara asked. “I have no money. I have nothing!”
“Don’t worry about that, Miss Allen.” Cecil shook his head. “We’ll see that you have all you need.”
“I couldn’t!” Barbara argued. “I couldn’t take anything else from you. I’ve already taken so much.”
“What choice do you have?” Cecil spat angrily.
Barbara’s cheeks turned pink.
“She could go to my flat. I’ve paid up for months in advance.” Robert suggested. “Furthermore, neither the Cages nor Iolanthe would think to look for her there because my animosity for the woman is well known.” He glanced at Barbara. “Sorry.”
“No bother.” Barbara shrugged. “I know you’re not fond of me.”
“I’ve sent one of the men to the docks for a schedule.” Cecil said. “We’ll soon know when she can depart. Now, we only have to worry what to do with them in the interim.”
“Cecil, I can’t help but wonder if it would be unwise for a woman and child to travel across the sea alone.” Adrienne spoke up.
“It’s not as though I can take my husband with me.” Barbara grumbled.
“Not your legal husband.” Charles said. “But, the other passengers wouldn’t need to know that I’m not actually your husband.”
“You?” Barbara’s eyes widened.
“You couldn’t!” Barbara said quickly.
“It’s not a bad idea.” Cecil replied thoughtfully.
“But, what of your employment?” Barbara asked. “You’ve only just started with Julian.”
“His efforts would be better spent on this, I think.” Robert nodded—secretly relieved at the thought of being rid of Charles.
“What say you, Miss Allen?” Charles asked.
Meanwhile, Mr. Punch and Marjani quietly made his way into the nursery.
Meridian looked up and smiled.
“Coo!” Mr. Punch gasped when he saw his nephew playing happily with Fuller Halifax and Columbia. “Look at him!”
“You wanna meet our guest, Mr. Punch?” Meridian asked.
Punch looked at Marjani.
“Go on,” Marjani smiled.
Punch walked slowly toward the children and sat on the floor next to them.
“Hullo, Columbia.” Mr. Punch smiled.
Columbia smiled and responded sheepishly, “Hullo.”
“You like playin’ with these fine boys?” Mr. Punch asked.
“I do.” Columbia nodded.
“Do you know who they are?”
“Sho’.” Columbia giggled. “That’s Fuller and this is Colin.”
“Colin?” Mr. Punch whispered, his eyes welling up with tears. “Like me pa.”
“Was that what they called your pa?” Columbia asked.
“Yes.” Mr. Punch nodded, wiping his eyes.
Meridian and Columbia looked at one another and smiled.
“See, these boys are me nephews.” Mr. Punch said to Columbia. “Fuller’s me nephew cuz he’s me Lady Chum’s son and Robert’s nephew. And…Colin…” Mr. Punch gulped, “is me nephew cuz he’s me master’s sister’s son.”
“You got a master?” Columbia asked—her eye’s wide.
“Columbia, Honey, everyone’s got a master o’ one kind or another.” Marjani said softly.
“Oh.” Columbia nodded, looking lovingly at her grandmother.
Mr. Punch reached over and picked up Colin, burying his nose in the child’s thick chestnut hair. “Hullo, Colin. Do ya know me? I’m yer Uncle Punch. And, I’m also yer Uncle Julian. But, you don’t need to worry ‘bout that right now.” The baby giggled as Mr. Punch held him high in the air.
“You look like yer mama did when she were a little babe. Guess you look like me, too.” Punch continued. “I just want you to know you got folk what love you. See, I’m gonna see to it that you get everything that’s yours. There’s a big house far away from here. It’s a fine house—grand and wide with many, many rooms and lots of land. Horses and trees and game and a big pond full o’ fish with duckies and swans floatin’ on it. And, there’s a fine, fine house in a city called London. It’s tall and white and clean with stairs what seem to go on forever. Someday, that’ll be yours, too. Someday folk will know what a good man you are and they’ll respect you and call you by your right name. And, they’ll call you, ‘Your Grace’ like what they do me—or me master—and you’ll be a Duke. Someday. See, Colin, I aim to see that you get all what you deserve. Your Uncle Punch is gonna do whatever he can to protect you and keep you safe and happy.”
Colin reached for a clump of Julian’s hair as Fuller climbed up on his lap, feeling a little left out.
Mr. Punch sat with both babies on his lap as Columbia came over and put her head on Julian’s arm.
“Meridian?” Mr. Punch said softly.
“Yes, Sir?” Meridian smiled at the pleasant scene in front of her.
“Would you do somethin’ for me?”
“Sure.” Meridian nodded.
“Would you get me dog and me puppet?” Mr. Punch asked.
“’Course,” Meridian chuckled. “You done want your whole family with ya?”
“I do.” Mr. Punch sniffed. “I do. For as long as I can.”
At that very moment, Edward Cage threw a ceramic pitcher across the kitchen. His wife, Corliss, flinched as tears darkened her dress.
“You stupid, stupid girl!” Edward raged at Zettie who sobbed openly. “How could you leave him with a stranger?”
“She seemed so nice! Holt done liked her!” Zettie wept.
Edward slapped her hard against her ears. Zettie screamed.
“Who was she?” Edward screamed. “What was her name?!”
“I don’t know!” Zettie stumbled backward.
“I know, Mr. Cage.” Odo said, creeping down the stairs like a puff of smoke.
“You know?” Edward spun around. What do you know?”
“Her name was Barbara Allen.” Odo smiled.
Did you miss Chapters 1-197? If so, you can read them here.