Always a Dozen More
Robert closed the door to the Duke’s room behind him, stepping out into the passage. He leaned casually against the wall and patiently leveled his bright blue eyes at Hortence. “Why don’t you begin, Hortence?”
“Sir?” Hortence smiled.
“I’d like for you to explain to me why you and Miss Barrett are quarreling outside of His Grace’s chamber door.” He answered plainly.
“I was just cleaning here in the passage,” Hortence lied.
“Cleaning? Cleaning what?” Robert looked at the maid’s hands which were empty.
She blushed. She reached into her apron pocket and retrieved a soiled rag. “I was just about to polish the brasses.”
“I see.” Robert nodded. He looked to Ellen. “What have you to say, Miss Barrett?”
“She wasn’t cleaning, Dr. Halifax.” Ellen replied firmly. “I caught her listening at His Grace’s keyhole.”
“That’s a serious charge,” Robert raised his eyebrows. “Hortence? Would you care to respond?”
“I would,” Hortence frowned. “Sir, I wouldn’t like to think that you’d take this woman’s word for anything.”
“She’s a…” Hortence’s eyes twinkled with glees. “She’s an unclean woman, Sir.”
Robert’s eyes flashed with anger. “I wish to hear no more.”
“But, I can tell you more, Sir. Lots more…”
“That’ll do.” Robert snapped. “I want the two of you to listen to me. Your master is preparing for his first visit with the Crown in months. He will not be bothered with this foolishness. Hortence, I want you to go to the servants’ hall and tell Speaight that I wish to speak to the two of you. This isn’t the first time that your conduct has been brought to my attention, Hortence.”
“Sir!” Hortence wailed. “I ain’t the one what you should be concerned about. This woman is in charge of the Duke’s child. Is she the one you want with the boy? I could tell you things ‘bout her…”
“I won’t hear them.” Robert answered firmly. “Now, go.”
With tears springing from her eyes, Hortence fled down the corridor and hurried down the stairs.
Robert took a deep breath and frowned, looking at Ellen. “Miss Barrett, I’m very disappointed.”
“I’m terribly sorry, Sir.” Ellen said quickly. “It’s just that I saw her listening and I…I couldn’t let her. When I questioned her, Sir, she turned on me…lies, Sir.”
“Say no more about it.” Robert shook his head. “However, let me tell you this. You have been put in a position in this household in which we have allowed you into our trust. Yours is the most important role in the house. You are responsible for our son. Not only that, you have been awarded sensitive information. I trust you will continue to show us that you’ve been worthy of our trust.”
“I think I have, Sir.” Ellen sniffed. “If I were not loyal to His Grace, I’d not have confronted Hortence when I found her eavesdropping.”
Robert’s anger softened a bit. “This is true. You must understand, especially knowing what you do, that I—no, all of us—most be protective of His Grace.”
“I do, Sir.” Ellen replied.
“I apologize if I was harsh.” Robert smiled. “I do tend to become…”
Ellen shook her head. “You needn’t explain, Sir.”
“Please return to the nursery. If I were you, I would keep my distance from Hortence.”
“Oh, I shall.”
“By the way, I would not give any weight to anything she were to tell me. I’ve long disliked the girl. She was hired by Jackson—the butler at Fallbridge Hall. She was already here when His Grace and I arrived. In fact, she was employed before Speaight and the others. I think, actually, she is a cousin of Jackson’s. I had no hand in the decision of bringing her here. However, I will certainly have a say as to whether or not she will remain.”
Ellen nodded. “Sir, I do hope you know that I meant it when I said that I would do all that I can to protect His Grace.”
“I do.” Robert smiled. “Now, please return to the nursery.”
“Yes, Sir.” Ellen replied, hurrying up the stairs to the nursery.
Robert sighed, shaking his head. He inhaled and opened the door to the Duke’s room, smiling as he entered.
There, in the center of the room, dressed in his fine black velvet court suit, Mr. Punch/the Duke grinned with pride and joy at his companion.
“Look at me!” Mr. Punch whooped. “I’m all dressed, I am.”
Charles, who was standing behind the Duke, nodded proudly.
Robert’s voice caught in his throat as he studied Mr. Punch—his chestnut hair slicked back, his face freshly shaven. “You look…” He choked a bit.
“Is it good?” Mr. Punch asked expectantly.
“It’s exceptional.” Robert nodded. “You’re exceptional.”
“A look like a Duke, then?” Mr. Punch asked.
“You look like a Prince.” Robert grinned, wiping his eyes. “You look very handsome, indeed.”
“It were Charles what done it. I didn’t want to do it. But, I think it’s good, it is.” Punch exclaimed happily. “You like this thing?” he pointed to his crimson cravat.
“It’s perfect.” Robert nodded. “You’re perfect.”
“It’s itchy, it is.” Mr. Punch giggled. “Tickles me throat.”
“A pitfall of our fashion,” Robert smiled. “But, in your case, quite worth the sacrifice.”
“So, you’ll be proud to walk into Buck House with me?”
“I should think I’d be proud to walk anywhere with you, dear Punch.” Robert said.
“Sir, we’ve only got His Grace’s pin and cuff buttons to finish. Otherwise, I think he’s ready.” Charles interjected.
“Thank you, Charles.” Robert nodded. “For everything.” He walked over to Mr. Punch and brushed his hand against the Duke’s velvet shoulder. “Now, you’ll have to excuse me for a moment, my dear. I have one small thing which needs my attention downstairs. I shan’t be long.”
“Here, what were all the commotion outside?” Punch asked.
“Nothing to concern you,” Robert shook his head. “A little trouble with Hortence.”
Punch wrinkled his nose. “Coo. Don’t like that one, I don’t. She’s sour.” He stuck out his tongue, making a face as if he’d bit into a lemon. He giggled and poked Charles in his stomach. “What you think, eh?”
Charles chuckled. “I don’t disagree, Your Grace.”
“What do the others think o’ her?” Punch asked Charles. “Do folk like her much downstairs.”
“She’s not well-liked, no.” Charles shook his head.
“I say, then, get rid of her.” Mr. Punch shrugged.
“That was my intention,” Robert replied. “I first wanted your permission.”
“You got it, Chum.” Mr. Punch nodded.
“Well, then, I shall carry on.” Robert smiled. “And, so should you. I shall return forthwith.”
“Good.” Punch nodded quickly. He looked at Charles. “Here, you ain’t gonna spray me with that stuff what smells?”
“I thought I might, Sir.” Charles replied.
“Aw.” Mr. Punch groaned.
“Just a little, Sir.” Charles continued.
Robert paused for a moment, watching the amiable scene of Mr. Punch and his valet. He nodded in approval before slipping out of the room and hurrying down three flights to the servants’ hall.
There, Robert was not surprised to find Hortence causing quite a scene. She stood in the middle of the staff dining room, wailing madly, shouting that “Everyone was against” her.
Speaight and Mrs. Pepper stood at a distance, watching. Mrs. Pepper’s face was contorted into a contemptuous scowl—her hands wrapped in a dishtowel. Speaight, as he usually did, looked both mildly amused and disdainful.
At the dining table, Gerard sat next to Vi—both of whom seemed to be enjoying the spectacle which Hortence was causing. Robert could feel their distaste for the girl and their anticipation that she would be sacked.
Robert cleared his throat.
Gerard and Vi both stood up quickly.
“Sir,” Speaight nodded.
Mrs. Pepper lowered her head, for a second, in respect.
Hortence spun around and spotted Robert, wailing at him. “Oh, Sir! Just hear me out! You’re all against me!”
“Hortence, I’ve heard quite enough. You are hereby dismissed. Violet, will you please accompany Hortence to the attics and help her gather her things? Leave your uniform on the bed and wear the clothes which you wore here. Once you’ve gathered your things, you’re to be brought back here where Speaight will give you a week’s wages. You will receive no reference.” Robert said tersely.
“No reference?” Hortence howled. “How’m I to get another position?”
“You should have considered that before you eavesdropped at the Duke’s door.”
“I’ll tell.” Hortence growled.
“Tell what?” Robert smiled.
“I’ll tell ‘em all. I’ll go to the papers, I will. I’ll tell ‘em all that the Duke’s a loon and that you and he are…!”
“Hortence!” Speaight shouted.
Mrs. Pepper blushed.
“Shut your gob, you bitch!” Gerard shouted. He, then, immediately looked aghast at what he’d said. “I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Pepper, Vi. Sir, forgive me.”
Mrs. Pepper sniggered and Vi looked at the floor. Robert waved his hand in dismissal.
“I would be very careful what you say, Hortence.” Robert snapped. “Very, very careful.”
“Why?” Hortence spat. “All of Society wants to know what goes on here. And, there’s lots to tell, ain’t there? Not just you and the loon up there. What about the governess? Eh? What about her? Caught in her master’s bed before she came here. If this ain’t a house o’ sin, I don’t know what is! Oh, won’t Society eat it up? What will Her Majesty say, then? Eh? Tell me! I’ll ruin you and that mad monkey! I’ll tell ‘em all what I seen! I’ll tell ‘em about the embraces and the sweet cuddles I seen! You two sicken me! You’re both sick!”
“You have half an hour.” Robert barked. “Speaight—see that she’s gone.” With that, he turned on his heel and walked up the stairs.
Once in the lavish entry hall, Robert paused, running his shaking fingers through his dark hair and taking a long, raspy breath. Robert looked around the stunning foyer and imagined, for a moment, that its opulent walls were crawling with rodents—gnawing, invading and defiling their happy home. He closed his eyes quickly and shuddered, recalling the squalor of his youth and the moment when he had once had to kill a rat which had come too close to his ailing mother.
“Where there’s one, my boy,” his mother had said, “there’s always a dozen more. Can’t just kill one rat. Can’t just, not just…one rat. Can’t just kill one. Always a dozen more.”
He stood there for a moment, his eyes clenched shut. Finally, he opened his eyes and took a long look at the perfect house, untouched and clean, before smoothing his waistcoat and sprinting back up to his dear Punch.
Did you miss Chapters 1-11 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square? If so, you can read them here. Come back tomorrow for Chapter 13.