From Workhouse to Townhouse
Robert wearily opened his bedroom door to find Gerard carefully curling freshly starched collars into the velvet-lined leather box in which they waited to be worn.
“Sir,” Gerard smiled, tucking the box into a drawer. “You’ll pardon me sayin’ it, but you look awful tired.”
“I am,” Robert nodded.
“How’s the Honorable Mrs. Potts, then?” Gerard asked.
“Resting comfortably.” Robert sighed.
“Is she terrible ill, Sir?”
“No. She’s terribly full.” Robert chuckled. “If either of us had eaten as much as she has this evening, we, too, would have stomach pains.”
Gerard smiled. “Well, Sir, better that than if she were really sick.”
“True.” Robert nodded, loosening his cravat. “What goes on here?”
“Well, Sir, Charles has already gotten His Grace undressed and left him in his room with his puppet and Dog Toby.”
“Good. And Colin?”
“Master Colin is dreamin’ of toy boats and summer days.”
“So, all is right in our little world, then.” Robert sighed contentedly, sitting on the bed so that Gerard could help him off with his boots.
“Yes, Sir.” Gerard nodded, kneeling to undo his master’s boots.
“And, what’s the atmosphere downstairs?”
“Quite jolly, Sir.” Gerard answered.
“No further discussion of Hortence?”
“No, Sir.” Gerard shook his head. “Mrs. Pepper told us not to speak her name less she pop back up like a bad penny.”
“It’s better without her, Sir.” Gerard continued.
“I take it that she was not well-liked?”
“Oh, no, Sir.” Gerard replied firmly, rising up to place Robert’s boots by the side of the door. He would take them downstairs later to polish them. “She weren’t too kind, that one. Always so sour and complainin’. It’s easier without her.”
“Well, we’ll replace her in the next few days. I’d hate to think that Violet and Gamilla would have to endure an added burden.”
“We’ll make do.” Gerard answered pleasantly.
“So, may I ask, what do you all do in the evenings?”
“Evenings are awful nice, Sir. More so tonight what with…her…gone. Once we got you and His Grace all settled in, we sit by the fire. The girls work on their mending and Charles and me, well, we sometimes do the boots or other things. Mrs. Pepper, she’s ever so nice, Sir, she makes a pot of chocolate and puts a plate of butter biscuits on the table. Now that Miss Barrett’s here, she joins us sometimes. We talk ‘bout where we been. Gamilla tells us about America and Miss Barrett tells us about the time she spent in Scotland when she was small. But, best of all, Mr. Speaight will read to us, Sir. And, we listen. I like it.”
“What does he read to you?”
“Sometimes from the News, Sir. That’s fine, it is. But, I like it best when he reads us stories. Tonight he’s startin’ a new one. Mr. Dickens’ ‘The Adventures of Oliver Twist.’ It’s about a poor, orphan boy from the workhouse, Sir.”
“I’ve read the novelization.” Robert smiled. “I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“I will.” Gerard responded. “Though it may make me a little sad.”
“See, I were in the workhouse, Sir.”
“Were you?” Robert studied the man. He wasn't bad-looking, just a bit rough. In fact, at certain angles, he was rather handsome--broad-shouldered with sandy-blond hair, his face looked older than its almost thirty years, a leathery and tanned visage from which two light blue eyes twinkled.
“I didn’t know that. We don’t know much about your past, Gerard.”
“Ain’t no use in you knowin’, Sir. I’ve had some troubles. But, it’s all over now.”
“I’m glad of that.”
“It’s thanks to you, Sir. You and His Grace. If you’d not taken a chance on me, I’d…” He shook his head. “It don’t matter.”
“We’re happy that you’re part of our household.”
“And, I’m happy to be in it, Sir.” Gerard nodded. “See, I were an orphan. Me sis and me. Me mum, she died when I was born. And, our pa—he weren’t no good. We got sent to the workhouse. I never saw me sis again after that. Told she died, Sir.”
“I’m sorry.” Robert shook his head.
“She were an angel on this earth, Sir, and now she’s an angel in heaven. When I got out of the workhouse, Sir, I found the drink, and well…that’s when me troubles started and I found myself in bad company…like when you and His Grace found me. But, I ain’t touched a drop of the stuff since and I don’t aim to do so again.”
“Good for you.” Robert smiled as Gerard helped him out of his coat.
“I never thought, Sir, that I’d live in a house like this with all these fine folk and two fine masters like you and His Grace. When I were a boy, I dreamed of bein’ in service in a fine house. Me mum would be so proud, she would.”
“I’m sure she would.” Robert nodded. “Gerard,” he began, “if it helps you to know it—I never dreamed I’d live on Belgrave Square either. When I was a boy in Wimbledon, my mother was very ill. My brother, Cecil, and I almost ended up in the workhouse, too.”
“Is that so?” Gerard’s eyes widened. “Was your pa bad, too?”
“No.” Robert shook his head. “He wasn’t bad. He was just…too generous, or perhaps just careless. He spent his money freely, not worried about where he’d get more. He mounted considerable debt. Consequently, he went to prison for it.”
“But, Cecil and I—we managed to work. Cecil more so than I. He worked so that I could take care of our mother and so that I could study. Thanks to him, I was able to get an education. Actually, we both were.”
“And, that’s how you was able to be a doctor, then?”
“And, look at you now—a fine gentleman in a grand house. Everyone in Belgravia knows that you’re the best doctor here. Startin’ to, anyway.”
“Thank you for that, Gerard.”
“And, you made a fine, smart match for yourself, too.” Gerard smiled. “If you’ll pardon me sayin’ so.”
“I don’t mind.” Robert nodded. “I know I did. I appreciate that you see it. Some would think that I hadn’t.”
“Why? Cuz His Grace is a fella? That don’t matter. Does it, Sir? Long as you’re happy.”
“And, I am.”
“That’s why I got so angry when Hortence said those unkind things ‘bout you.” Gerard continued. He paused and frowned. “Let’s not tell Mrs. Pepper I said her name.”
“I won’t.” Robert smiled. “We’ll never mention her again.”
“Sure, we’re through with her.” Gerard grinned, handing Robert’s nightshirt to him.
“I hope so.” Robert mumbled.
“Will you be wantin’ anything else, Sir? I can bring up a tray for ya.” Gerard asked.
“No. I think that will be all for tonight. You go downstairs now. I don’t want to keep you from Oliver Twist.”
“Thank you, Sir.” Gerard grinned. “Good night.”
“Good night, Gerard,”
Wrapping his dressing gown around himself, Robert waited for a few moments after Gerard departed and, then, quietly opened the door to Mr. Punch’s room which adjoined his own.
He paused in the doorway and watched Mr. Punch who stood in his nightshirt in front of the pier mirror. Robert smiled watching Punch making faces at himself, hunching his shoulders and lumbering in front of the glass like a simian.
After awhile, Robert cleared his throat.
Mr. Punch spun around and chirped happily. “Chum! I’m a monkey!”
“I see that.”
Punch pointed to the bed where the terrier was curled up, sleeping. “Dog Toby’s snorin’.”
“He always does.” Robert nodded. “I think it’s time for us to do the same.”
“’Spose.” Punch nodded. “I’m through bein’ a monkey for tonight. Had a nice chat with me puppet, too.”
“That’s nice.” Robert smiled. “I’m sure you both enjoyed that.”
“We did. Here, did Mrs. Potts die?”
“No, she just ate too much.”
“Oh.” Punch’s eyes widened. “A person can eat too much?”
“It appears so.” Robert leaned against the door frame.
“Huh…” Punch shrugged. He then giggled, “Ain’t got nothin’ on your feet.” He pointed.
“I haven’t.” Robert looked down.
“Too chilly for that.” Punch said, walking over to Robert and taking his hand. “Come sit by the fire with me.”
“Very well,” Robert grinned.
“Can we talk for a bit before bed?” Punch asked.
“If you like. About what would you like to talk?”
“Tell me a story.”
“What sort of story?”
“Whatever you like.” Punch chirped. “Don’t matter none, just like hearin’ you talk.”
“Well, then, let me tell you a story about two little boys from Wimbledon…”
“You and Cecil?”
“Perhaps.” Robert winked.
“Does it have a happy ending?”
“Very, dear Punch.” Robert grinned. “Very happy, indeed.”
Did you miss Chapters 1-15 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square? If so, you can read them here. Come back tomorrow for Chapter 17.