The Rest of the Stag
Mr. Punch tried very carefully to ensure that he didn’t open his eyes too widely. After all, Robert had always told him that it was his typical wide-eyed gaze which usually gave him away. Julian, as Robert explained, didn’t open his eyes that much. And, so, Mr. Punch attempted to keep his eyelids in a position which would neither give him a countenance of surprise nor, conversely, one of drowsiness.
The two men sat, rather uncomfortably, in a long, narrow corridor in Buckingham Palace. Mr. Punch didn’t much like the upholstery which lined the soaring walls, but he didn’t dare say anything about it to Robert. He looked over to his companion mischievously. Robert stifled a small smile and the two nodded at one another, silently deciding between them to discuss the appointments of the palace’s little-seen, somewhat damp and drafty, apartments privately once they arrived home.
Robert looked around. For a moment, he couldn’t contain his excitement and a childish grin crept over his face as he considered the reality that he, Robert Halifax of Wimbledon, was seated not only in Buck House, but in the passage which led to the private rooms of the Prince Consort. He itched to laugh out loud. Still, he knew that Punch’s composure hinged on his own, so, he kept silent, tapping his knees with the palms of his hands in order to steady himself.
A rather stiff, disgruntled-looking footman appeared from an unseen corridor around a heavily plastered corner. The footman was followed by an older gentleman who looked quite exhausted.
The footman paused in front of Robert and Punch/The Duke and asked softly. “Do you require anything, Your Grace? Sir?”
“No, thank you,” Punch replied in his best impersonation of Julian, the Duke of Fallbridge. Afterwards, he looked sideways at Robert and winked quickly.
“No.” Robert nodded.
As the footman scurried off, the older man approached.
“His Majesty will see you now, Your Grace.”
Mr. Punch rose. “Thank you.”
“This way,” the man began. He paused and turned around, looking at Robert. “Does he know how to address the Prince?”
“Yes.” Mr. Punch replied curtly.
“Of course, Your Grace.” The man nodded.
Mr. Punch wondered who this man was. He didn’t remember seeing the baggy-eyed bloke the last time he’d been at the palace—well, the last time he’d been there and watched from within the body he shared with the Duke. Mr. Punch clenched his hands into fists, overcome with a desire to belt the old man across the back of the head. He knew that he couldn’t, but…oh, it would have felt so very nice.
Robert and Punch followed the old gentleman to a gilt and heavily carved door. The man paused, bowing his head before opening the door.
“Your Majesty?” The man said softly.
“Come!” A very German, but surprisingly quiet voice responded.
“His Grace, Julian, Duke of Fallbridge and Doctor Robert Halifax.” The man said, bowing and allowing Punch, first, and, then, Robert to pass.
“Your Majesty,” Mr. Punch smiled, imitating Julian. He bowed his head quickly and only slightly. Robert, however, staying silent, bowed longer and more deeply—perhaps a little too deeply, but it didn’t matter since Prince Albert was only focused on the Duke.
“Sit.” Prince Albert said sharply.
Punch sat, indicating to Robert to sit next to him on the long settee in front of the fireplace at the farthest end of the Prince’s study. Mr. Punch raised his eyebrows slightly to remind Robert not to sit until the Prince Consort did. Once the two other men were seated—the Prince in a rather rigid, highly ornamented armchair adjacent to the settee—Robert joined his companion.
“Fallbridge--who is this man?” Prince Albert asked.
Mr. Punch smiled politely wishing he could shout, “He’s me chum!” Instead, he answered in an even, mannered voice, “This, Your Majesty, is Dr. Robert Halifax—my companion.”
“Are you ill?” Prince Albert growled.
“No, Sir.” Punch replied, forcing himself not to frown.
“Why, then, do you require a physician companion?”
“I do not require him, Your Majesty. I enjoy his company.” Mr. Punch replied as coolly as he could.
“Ah.” Prince Albert narrowed his eyes. “It is said, Fallbridge, that you are mad. Are you?”
Mr. Punch took a deep breath and continued smiling. He could feel Robert’s discomfort and wanted to shout at the Prince Consort. “It is said that you think the Queen will allow you to rule the Empire! Which one of us, then, is mad?”
He didn’t, however.
Instead, Mr. Punch replied simply, “It is said that many a great man is mad. Those who are beneath us wish to discredit us. I suspect that I should be thankful that those who gossip still think me important enough to manufacture rumors against me. Otherwise, I should worry that I had no place in Society at all.”
Robert drew in air audibly—terribly impressed with his companion’s response.
“Good show, Fallbridge. You’re as sharp as ever.” The Prince answered. He looked over at Robert. “Your companion, Fallbridge,” the Prince continued, speaking to Punch, though looking at Robert, “is very handsome. Very handsome indeed.”
“He is, Sir.”
“He appears as if he has stepped from a work of an Italian Master. Botticelli, I think.”
Mr. Punch felt that itch in his hands and wished he could grab the small parian bust of the Queen from off of the gilt table next to the settee and smash it across the Prince’s head.
Instead, he only nodded. “Dr. Halifax is more handsome than that, I think.”
“Perhaps,” Prince Albert sniffed. “I imagine he’s popular with the ladies in court.”
With this, Mr. Punch could not resist chuckling aloud. Robert blushed.
Punch forced himself to sober up by rubbing his palms quickly against his velvet breeches. “The doctor has no time for such things. He is dedicated to his life as a healer as well as to keeping me company.”
“A loyal man, then.” Prince Albert nodded approvingly. “Not distracted by sinful pursuits.”
Mr. Punch glanced at Robert who was doing his best to not look as miserable as he felt. “You could say that,” Punch replied slyly. He seized that opportunity to change the subject by trotting out the little speech he had so diligently rehearsed.
He began, “We were ever-so overjoyed by your invitation. I must confess, I was quite pleased at the chance to see you again, Your Majesty, and, more so, to introduce my companion to you as I suspect that you share similar sensibilities. Like you, Sir, Dr. Halifax is a man of both the arts and sciences. His influence has aided me tremendously, allowing me to serve you all the better.”
“Fine,” Prince Albert replied dryly. He looked again at Robert—this time finally speaking to him directly, “I am pleased to know you.”
“I am honored, Your Majesty,” Robert replied, opening his mouth for the first time since they entered the Prince’s chamber.
Prince Albert cleared his throat. “As you know, Fallbridge, the anniversary of Her Majesty’s birth is coming in May. The twenty-fourth to be exact. I wish to make a special gift to her. It must be very special.”
“How may I help you, Sir?” Mr. Punch asked.
Robert gazed affectionately at Punch, so proud of the way the man was carrying himself in that terribly stressful encounter.
“I want for you to make her a lovely jewel.”
“I would be delighted, Your Majesty,” Punch replied, still speaking as Julian might. “Have you something in mind?”
“Of course!” Prince Albert spat. “I want a pin. A lovely pin of golden oak leaves.”
“That would be brilliant.” Punch smiled. “I should be thrilled to show you several designs.”
“Not just gold, mind…” Prince Albert warned.
“Certainly not.” Mr. Punch nodded. “I know how Her Majesty loves diamonds. Perhaps with emeralds and lovely Persian turquoise. Or blue sapphires to sparkle in Her Majesty’s eyes.”
“No!” Prince Albert growled. “None of those.”
“Do you have a certain stone you’d prefer?”
“Will you provide them to me, or shall I purloin them for Your Majesty?” Mr. Punch asked.
“These,” Prince Albert frowned, reaching into his coat pocket and removing a small, red velvet pouch. He tossed the pouch to the Duke/Mr. Punch who caught it deftly before it hit his lap.
“Open it.” Prince Albert nodded.
Mr. Punch carefully opened the pouch and poured the contents into his hand.
For all the world, poor, poor Punch wished he could cry out and laugh—“Bloody hell! It’s a sack of teeth!” But, he didn’t.
Punch could feel Robert’s eyes widening.
Mr. Punch inhaled and forced another smile. “How very interesting, Your Majesty. Teeth. And, what lovely…large…teeth they are.”
“Stag’s teeth!” Prince Albert barked. “From my own kills. My own trophies. All of them from Balmoral. The Queen loves reminders of my skill.”
“I think that these will make a very...interesting...brooch, Sir.” Punch continued.
“How will you do it?”
“I think, perhaps, the teeth would be displayed as acorns amongst golden oak leaves.”
“Fine,” The Prince replied.
Mr. Punch carefully returned the teeth to their pouch. He wished desperately to wipe his hands on his stockings, but he refrained.
“It is settled. I wish to see sketches in one week. Thank you for your time. You are dismissed.”
Mr. Punch and Robert exchanged glances as Prince Albert rose and returned to his desk.
Bowing slightly, Mr. Punch grinned. “Good day, Your Majesty.”
Robert did the same. Together, they backed out of the room. The footman closed the door behind them.
Walking slowly down the corridor, they waited until they were a safe distance from the Prince’s door before Punch chuckled long and low. “Coo!” He whispered. “It’s a bloody sack of teeth.”
“I wonder what he did with the rest of the stag.” Robert whispered.
“Probably gnawed it to pieces with his own teeth.” Mr. Punch teased quietly. “’Spose I should be bloody grateful he didn’t give me a sack of antlers and hooves.”
Robert giggled softly.
“You did real good, chum.” Punch whispered.
“Thank you,” Robert replied. “My dear Punch, you have no idea how brilliant you were. I could not be more impressed.”
“Here, I were pretty brilliant, weren’t I?” Punch whispered. “Now, come on, chum, let’s go make a terrible ugly brooch.”
Did you miss Chapters 1-13? If so, you can read them here. Come back tomorrow for Chapter 15 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square.