Dinner Will Help
Mrs. Pepper was alarmed when the Duke didn’t call for his luncheon tray.
“Is he ill, Mr. Speaight?” She asked.
“Not to my knowledge, Mrs. Pepper,” the butler had answered.
“What’s he doin’ up there?”
“He was, for many hours, in the morning room.” Mr. Speaight responded. “He’s now gone upstairs to the library.”
Mrs. Pepper nodded gravely, twisting a towel in between her fingers. “Will the doctor be home soon?”
“Hard to say, Mrs. Pepper,” Mr. Speaight shook his head.
“Stuff and nonsense,” Mrs. Pepper muttered. “The doctor will come in, wantin’ to be fed when I’ve got to get downstairs supper on the table.”
“We’ll do what we can, Mrs. Pepper. I have no doubt of your abilities to feed this household in a fine and elegant fashion.”
“Well, then,” Mrs. Pepper smiled slightly. “Go on.”
The cook’s alarm quickly turned to irritation when the Duke didn’t take tea. She complained bitterly to Mr. Speaight. “Spent an hour bakin’ me special maple cake—a favorite of His Grace.”
“The cake will keep, Mrs. Pepper. In fact, it’s even lovelier the next day—if that’s possible.”
This mollified the cook—until it was time for upstairs dinner.
“Ain’t he gonna eat?” Mrs. Pepper growled when her dinner was returned to the kitchens—uneaten. “One thing we can always count on is that the Duke’s gonna be hungry. I don’t know! The whole world’s at sixes and sevens!”
“It’s not our place to speculate, Mrs. Pepper.” Mr. Speaight sighed. “His Grace will eat when he’s ready.”
“Don’t expect me to take time heatin’ this bird up again.” She grumbled, poking at the glazed fowl which sat grandly on its silver tray. “It’ll be dry.”
“His Grace likes cold chicken.” Mr. Speaight smiled. “And, your chicken is so succulent that it could never be dry.”
“Oh well,” Mrs. Pepper smiled. “Thank you kindly, Mr. Speaight.”
Charles, too, had been concerned about the Duke. Several times he had gone upstairs to look in on his master. It wasn’t unusual for the Duke to mope while the doctor was out on a call, but he seemed more bothered than usual. His Grace’s eyes looked sick and tired and he barely spoke when Charles addressed him.
When Violet had gone into the library to tend the grate and light the lamps, His Grace had barely looked up. And, when Gerard carried up the sherry tray in anticipation of the doctor’s return, the Duke didn’t even acknowledge the man’s presence—he simply sat in a chair by the window, peering out over Belgrave Square.
Even Gamilla had tried to get a response from the Duke when she went to change the library flowers.
“Good afternoon, Your Grace,” she had nodded.
“’Milla,” the Duke had muttered.
Gamilla even whispered kindly to the Duke, calling him “Mr. Punch.” “Dr. Halifax will be home shortly, Mr. Punch,” she had said.
“Yes,” was the man’s only response.
“Colin’ll want to see you.” Gamilla tried again.
That was the only time the Duke’s face lightened a little. “I’d like that. Me boy…” he had trailed off.
She left him. He seemed to want to be alone.
Everyone downstairs had fallen silent—going about their business without the usual cheerful chatter. The Duke always set the tone in the household. The staff was—especially with Hortence gone—quite jolly, matching the energy of their eager-eyed master. However, that day, all were sullen and anxious.
“Must be sum-fink wrong upstairs, then.” Ethel had whispered to Jenny. “Vi says the Duke’s in a bad humor.”
“I’ll bet he’s sad what with the doctor gone today.” Jenny shrugged. “Now, don’t bother me, Ethel—I got these cheese straws to finish.”
“What for?” Ethel frowned. “He ain’t gonna eat them.”
Another queer thing was the obvious absence of Miss Barrett. She usually paid several visits a day to the staff. They liked her. She didn’t mind bringing down her own trays and she always had a joke or kind word for everyone. Yet, that day, she didn’t come down once. She rang for her trays and rang for fresh milk for Master Colin. She rang to have things removed and rang for new linens.
“I don’t like it,” Ethel grumbled.
“Ain’t your place to like or not like anythin’!” Mrs. Pepper had snapped. “Now, back to the scullery with ya. Upstairs dinner dishes want washin’.”
“Didn’t use none!” Ethel complained. “What’s to wash?”
“Do as you’re told!” Mrs. Pepper spat.
Ethel trudged back to the scullery and sat on her stool, staring at the large basin—nothing to do.
When the bell rang for the front door, Charles, Gerard and Speaight all put on their jackets.
“We don’t all three need to go. It’s most likely the doctor,” Speaight squinted. He pointed at Gerard who nodded—scurrying up the stairs.
Indeed, it was the doctor. The man looked tired and hungry, yet he still smiled.
“Ah, Gerard.” Robert nodded, coming into the house. He paused as Gerard helped him off with his coat.
“Mrs. Pepper will have my head,” Robert teased. “I’m sure I’ve ruined dinner. It couldn’t be helped. I hope His Grace went into the dining room without me.”
“No, Sir.” Gerard shook his head.
“No?” Robert raised his eyebrows.
“No.” Gerard answered.
“How are things here?” Robert asked cautiously. “Any trouble?”
“Not trouble, really.” Gerard answered. “Only His Grace hasn’t spoken a word to no one, nor has he eaten.”
“I see.” Robert frowned. “Where is His Grace?”
“Last anyone saw, Sir, he was in the library—lookin’ out the window.”
Without another word, Robert hurriedly climbed the stairs and, pausing to take a breath, placed a smile on his face as he entered the unusually dark library.
“Dear Punch,” Robert declared as cheerfully as possible. “I’ve returned.”
“Saw you come in.” Mr. Punch/the Duke replied.
“You’ve got a wonderful vantage point at that window. I imagine you’ve seen all that transpired on Belgrave Square.”
“Maybe,” Mr. Punch mumbled, not looking up. “Did Lord Glencaron die?”
“Yes,” Robert answered, shaking his head. “I did all that I could to make him comfortable. But, the poor fellow’s heart wasn’t strong enough.”
“Must be awful havin’ to deal with death and sick people each day.”
“It can be,” Robert nodded, walking over to Mr. Punch and sitting across from him in the window alcove. “I try to remember that it’s my place to foster life where I can. When I am unable to do so, I try to give each man or woman the dignity that he or she deserves.”
“Dignity, huh?” Mr. Punch snorted.
“Yes, dear Punch.” Robert answered softly.
They sat in silence for awhile.
Finally, Robert could stand no more. “Please, dear Punch, if something is troubling you, I do hope you’ll confide in me.”
Punch pointed to the small table between them on which sat the letter which he’d brought upstairs with him.
Robert picked up the letter and squinted at it. He rose and walked to the fire, reading the peculiar scroll by the light of the flames. His face went pale.
“What is this?” Robert gasped.
“A threat, I believe it’s called.” Mr. Punch mumbled.
“From whom did this come?”
“Don’t know.” Punch responded.
“From where did you get it?”
“Miss Barrett found it—with that carnation there.” Punch answered, finally looking up. “It says I’m mad. It says that the Queen and the newspapers will be told that I’m a bad fella.”
“Who would so such a thing?” Robert rasped.
“Miss Barrett says it’s Hortence.”
“That’s right.” Mr. Punch growled, rising from his chair. He walked to the fire and stood across from Robert.
“Did she happen to say why she thought Hortence would write this?”
“You know why.” Mr. Punch narrowed his eyes.
“I suppose I do.” Robert sighed.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Chum?” Mr. Punch asked, the hurt rising in his voice. “Why didn’t you tell me what that awful girl said?”
“I didn’t want to worry you.”
“I’m worried now. More so worried knowin’ ‘bout it afterwards, I am.”
“We were going to the palace. It was your first official outing since we’ve come home. I…”
“I know,” Mr. Punch sighed. “You were tryin’ to protect me, you were.”
“I truly was.”
“That’s what Miss Barrett said.” Punch continued.
“I…I…” Robert began. “Oh, Punch, you know I’m not very good at expressing myself.”
“I know.” Mr. Punch sniffed. “Only, ya gotta tell me now.”
“When I dismissed Hortence…”
“Not that.” Mr. Punch interrupted. “I know what she said. Miss Barrett tol’ me. That ain’t what I want to know.”
“What is it, then?” Robert asked awkwardly.
“Do you think it’s true?”
“Do you think I’m mad?”
“No! Certainly not!” Robert answered passionately.
“Then, why do you keep things from me?”
“I didn’t want to worry you.”
“So you said,” Mr. Punch replied. “Or is it that you don’t think I can cope with them things what you fear will worry me? Do you think maybe I’ll become a lunatic and do somethin’ awful?”
“No.” Robert responded quickly, putting his hands on Punch’s shoulders. “I do not think that at all. You can cope with anything. You’ve shown me that time and again. I have no cause to doubt your abilities ever. In fact, you’re better in most situations than I am.”
Mr. Punch shrugged. “Don’t know ‘bout that.”
“I simply knew that the task of visiting the Prince was daunting. I didn’t want to add an element of…” He stopped. “Dash it all!”
Mr. Punch smiled. “Now, Chum. I didn’t mean to make it worse for ya.”
Robert’s eyes grew moist with tears. “When I was a child, I was always told, ‘Don’t tell your mother.’ She couldn’t handle anything. First father, then Cecil and I…we always kept things from her which we feared would upset her. It’s a habit I’d gotten into. But, you…I don’t do it because I think you’re incapable. You’re not like my mother. She, truly, was…incapacitated. With you, I…”
“You don’t gotta say no more.” Mr. Punch shook his head, taking Robert’s hand and leading him to the settee in front of the fire. He forced Robert to sit.
“I’m terribly sorry.” Robert continued.
“Have you been angry with me all this time?”
“No.” Mr. Punch shook his head. “I was upset at first, I was. Ain’t gonna tell ya otherwise. Only after awhile, I began to worry if maybe I am mad and that maybe you thought as such, too.”
“If you were mad, dear Punch, you wouldn’t fret about it.”
Mr. Punch smiled. “I reckon that’s the truth.” He patted Robert’s knee. “But, you gotta understand that we can’t keep things from one another. We’re both the masters of this house. We owe it to one another to tell what we know—even if it’s something what’s gonna be hard to hear. We’ll expect the same of Colin when he’s talkin’ and it’s only fair to ‘xpect it from each other.”
“Of course,” Robert nodded. “Can you forgive me?”
“Already did.” Mr. Punch grinned. “And, can you forgive me for bein’ upset about it?”
“No need.” Robert shook his head. “However, we do, indeed have a terrible problem here.” He held up the letter. “Hortence, if she was behind this, is incapable of doing this on her own. I doubt she can even read or write. She must have someone assisting her—making this all the more dangerous.”
“I know.” Mr. Punch nodded. “Thought of that, I did.”
“What shall we do?”
“Eat,” Mr. Punch stood up.
“We eat—that’s what we do. You gotta be hungry.”
“Well, I’m twice as hungry.”
“Understandably, you’re twice as many men.”
“True,” Mr. Punch chirped cheerfully—relieved to have spoken his mind.
“Mrs. Pepper will not be pleased to be asked for dinner on a tray.”
“She’ll live.” Mr. Punch shrugged as he rang for Speaight. He looked at Robert, “Sorry you had to see a man die today.”
Robert nodded. “I’m, sadly, rather used to it.”
Mr. Punch sighed.
“To be sure, what sustained me was the thought that I’d be coming home to you and Colin.”
As Speaight entered the room, Mr. Punch whooped, but then, remembered himself.
Speaight wasn’t aware of the “Punch side” of his life, and, so, he quickly fixed his face into an aristocratic grin and lowered his shoulders and voice. “Speaight, would you be so good as to ask Mrs. Pepper to prepare dinner trays—with my apologies—to be brought to the library.”
“Gladly, Your Grace,” Speaight answered with relief.
“Dr. Halifax and I are terribly hungry.” Punch continued as the Duke.
“I’m glad to hear it, Sir.”
“Tell Mrs. Pepper, if you would, that I wasn’t feeling well earlier, but that the aroma of her lovely dinner chased my malaise away.”
“She’ll appreciate that, Sir.”
“I rather figured,” the Duke teased.
“I will return shortly, Your Grace.” Speaight smiled, pleased to be able to share the good news with those below.
After Speaight exited, Robert looked up at his dear Punch.
“Please know,” Robert said softly. “Whatever I do, I do from affection—not doubt.”
Mr. Punch nodded. “And know if I worry, it’s me what I’m doubtin’ not you.”
“Dinner will help.” Robert winked.
“It’s a start,” Mr. Punch answered.
Did you miss Chapters 1-18 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square? If so, you can read them here. Come back tomorrow for Chapter 20.