Monday, April 2, 2012

Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square, Chapter 1

Chapter One:
The Idol's Gossip

Rumors of the Duke of Fallbridge’s strange behavior had flooded London Society since he had returned from his long, mysterious voyage to America.  Reports of the Duke’s peculiarities clung to the lips of lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, viscounts, barons and even a princess or two.  New information was shared daily and the topic of Julian, Duke of Fallbridge and his family remained a fashionable pursuit throughout the spring of 1853. 

Few people, however, were eager to admit that they had neither seen nor spoken to the Duke themselves since his return to his luxurious townhouse at No. 65 Belgrave Square.  To be sure, most of the tales spread about the Duke—though somewhat based on fact, at first, at least (even if most of the information came from the overeager mouths of servants)—were exaggerated and pure hearsay.  Still, a lack of solid proof never prevented a baron from badmouthing a Duke and it certainly never kept a baroness from gossiping about one of London’ most prominent households. 

Even Their Majesties Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were keen to learn of the odd conduct of the Duke of Fallbridge.  When still just Lord Fallbridge, Julian, had been a favorite of the Prince and his regal wife.  Prince Albert considered Julian to be one of the most talented jewelers in Britain and often sought out Fallbridge to collaborate on projects.  Lord Fallbridge had, after all, created a good many of the garter stars for the court, and, then, there was the stunning parure which he had created with the Cambridge emeralds and some of the most perfect diamonds that the Royal Couple had ever seen.  Of course he was a favorite.  And, of course, Their Majesties were interested to know if the Duke would be able to continue to serve them.

Prince Albert had no interest in baseless gossip.  While the Sovereign was more accepting of scandalous chatter, the Prince had no room for it.  He wanted facts, and, certainly these facts were provided to him.  Perhaps because of this, the Prince Consort was one of the few people in London to know only the truth (or what the Duke claimed was the truth) of the Duke’s return.

As reported to the Prince Consort, Julian, Lord Fallbridge explained his lengthy absence by stating that he had gone to New Orleans, in America, to look for his sister, Lady Barbara, who had fled England to avoid marrying a less-than-interesting baron.  Lord Fallbridge’s mother, the Duchess of Fallbridge (always a thorn in Prince Albert’s side) had followed.  There, Fallbridge claimed, the Duchess and Lady Barbara were felled by the virulent fever epidemic which had caused havoc across the southern part of America.  Fallbridge inherited his mother’s title and the newly created Duke returned to Britain with a child that he had adopted (the son of a family who had also been lost to the Yellow Fever) and a man called Dr. Robert Halifax with whom the Duke had set up residence in Belgrave Square.  With them came two valets and, several weeks later, an African woman whom the Duke and the Doctor employed as a parlor maid.  That was all that Prince Albert needed or wanted to know.

Queen Victoria, however, when the Prince was out of earshot, didn’t mind hearing the Baroness Lehzan speak animatedly about the rumors that the Duke’s adopted son was really the illegitimate child of Lady Barbara and the Duke’s late valet.  The Queen gasped to learn that some believed that the Duchess of Fallbridge had ordered the murder of her own husband, Sir Colin Molliner, and that the Duchess herself had been murdered, and not lost to fever as the Duke reported.  Victoria blushed at the whispers that the Duke and his new companion, Dr. Halifax, were more than just friends, and she giggled nervously upon learning that it was suspected that the Duke’s sister had not died at all,  but was actually living in America where she had become a prostitute.

Nevertheless, The Queen, like much of London society, took these tidbits of gossip as being just that—bits of fluff which served to entertain them in ballrooms and theatre boxes.  What was more troubling, at least to the Queen, were the rumors of the Duke’s changed demeanor. 

Before he’d left for America, the last that anyone had seen of the newly created Duke, he had fled from his London townhouse to return to Fallbridge Hall.  His exodus had taken place after being attacked by thieves.  The Duke had always been a shy and nervous sort who loathed loud talking and groups of more than two people.  He’d always been quiet and reclusive, but after being attacked, it was said that he never left his rooms at Fallbridge Hall.  That’s what made the news of his journey to America all the more surprising.  Everyone who knew of the trip wondered how in the world the man would ever function in such a wild place as America.  Perhaps that accounted for the change in the man.  Perhaps he had to adapt in order to survive.

To be sure,  after returning, the Duke looked better than he ever had.  Somehow the journey had agreed with him physically.  He was more robust and broad than he had ever been.  His face, still angular and pale, had a more relaxed look to it—framed by reddish, chestnut hair.  And, many reported that the Duke’s almond-shaped brown eyes—which had long been without any spark of life—once again flickered and shined.
Gone, however, was the quiet manner in which he spoke—replaced with an excited, chattering voice, peppered with bad grammar and a roughness  which had never been there before.  In many ways, he was said to act more like a servant than a Duke and, certainly, more like a child than a man of nearly forty years.

Then, there was the strange bond with the doctor.  Many believed that few would object to their relationship had Dr. Halifax been born into the upper class.  But, the man was of middle class origins (and the son of a woman who is said to have died in an asylum).  Certainly, he was not the choicest companion for the Duke of Fallbridge.

No one could recall the origins of the story.  It had been told to ladies by their maids since the Duke returned.  From whom the first maid had learned it, no one can be sure, but the rumor was that this Dr. Halifax—when they were home, alone—referred to the Duke not as “Your Grace” or “Fallbridge,” as would have been fitting, but as “Mr. Punch” or “Dear Punch.”  Punch?  Mr. Punch—as in the red-nosed, hunch-backed puppet with the crimson suit and scarlet cap?  Mr. Punch—Judy’s husband?  Mr. Punch who killed his own baby?  That Mr. Punch?  Why on earth would this man call a Duke by such a name?

And, yet, if the tales were true, wasn’t the Duke’s behavior—the rough speech, the exclamations of joy, the curious and child-like nature, the quickness to anger—rather like that of the famed puppet of Covent Garden?

Queen Victoria, like many, was intrigued by the thought.  However, there were others who were made nervous by it—by the whole thing!

One of those sat in the front hallway of No. 65 Belgrave Square—three months to the day that the Duke and the Doctor had opened up the grand mansion again.  Ellen Barrett studied her surroundings.  The house was assuredly elegant—perfectly-kept and handsomely decorated in shades of turquoise , coral, gold and pale green.  The black and white marble floor gleamed so much so that its intricate pattern seemed to vibrate.  The dramatic staircase which rose majestically in loose curves through the center of the house was illuminated from above by a glass dome.  Daylight streamed down the steps, making the imported Persian runner seem to come alive with color: sienna, rust, salmon, crimson, indigo, purple, azure, emerald…

Yes, it was a handsome house.  Ellen ran her fingers along the gilt arm of the comfortable chair in which she sat, waiting for her interview.  The young man who had opened the door and ushered her in was good-looking and charming.  He had introduced himself as Charles, the first footman and valet to His Grace, the Duke.  When Charles had disappeared behind the door which led downstairs to the servants’ hall, Ellen wished to follow him.  She could see herself being happy in that house.  Well, thus far at least.

Footsteps—a man’s footsteps—on the stairs made Ellen stand.  She adjusted her black skirts and fidgeted with the folded references she held in her hands.  She stood as stiffly and regally as she could and forced herself to smile.

“I’m terribly sorry to have kept you waiting,”  a man smiled at her as he came down the stairs.  He was tremendously handsome with bright blue eyes and ebony hair which curled around his long, strong neck.  Thin and trim, he wore a beautifully tailored suit of dove gray which framed his broad shoulders.  He smiled genuinely.

“Your Grace?”  Ellen bowed her head.

“No.”  The man smiled. “I am Dr. Robert Halifax.”

“I see.”  Ellen nodded.

“And you are?”

“Miss Ellen Barrett.”

“Have you your references?”  The doctor asked.

“I have, Sir.”  Ellen nodded.  She handed the folded pages to the man. 

“Would  you please follow me?”  Robert asked, pointing to the staircase.  “His Grace is waiting for you in the library.”

“Yes.”  Ellen nodded.

“I know he’s eager to see you.”  Robert smiled again, climbing the stairs.  “We’ve had such a time finding a governess for little Colin.  Our parlor maid, Gamilla, has been watching the boy since she arrived.  However, it’s not fair to her to ask her to continue to do so.”

“A child should have a proper governess.”

“I agree.”  Dr. Halifax nodded.  They paused at the landing and Robert gestured toward a tall, cream-painted door adorned with applied gilt moldings.  “He’s waiting.  Shall we?”

Ellen took a deep breath and nodded.  She was finally going to see the man about whom all of London had been buzzing for weeks. 

Come back tomorrow for Chapter 2 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square.  You will always be able to read all chapters of this story in the Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square, Chapter Archive.  


Shawn said...

Yay! The beginning of a new story with our beloved "dear Punch!" What a wonderfully written first chapter that beautifully sets the scene for life in Belgravia. I am so excited to follow along on the journey that this tale will take us. Thank you for sharing your talent with us, Joseph!

Carolyn said...

I agree with Shawn! This is so exciting!

Gene said...

I looked forward to this all weekend. I'm not disappointed at all.

Sam P said...

This is great!

Dashwood said...

Off to another wonderful start. I think all your readers will be as happy as I am with this new book.

Book Gurl said...

Worth the wait.

Darcy said...

Great start! I can't wait to learn more about the new characters and continue to follow the saga of our old friends from "Punch's Cousin".

Matt said...

Joseph, this is so good. And, I loved the April Fools' posts yesterday.

Kathy said...

This is going to be a good story.

Anonymous said...

Great beginning!

Anonymous said...

Love it.