A Way to Ruin
Speaight volunteered to go downstairs to the morning room to offer Lady Constance refreshment while the Duke readied himself for his visitors. On his way from the Duke’s bedchamber, Speaight narrowed his eyes at Charles, letting the Duke’s valet know that his superior disapproved of the overly-familiar way in which the man had spoken to the master of the house.
Nevertheless, Charles and Gerard stayed behind after Speaight had left. The two men could sense their master’s panic and, for a moment, both dispensed with the usual protocol and addressed the Duke as their friend.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea for you,” Gerard warned, adding, “Your Grace” to the end of the statement.
Mr. Punch shook his head, glad to be able to speak as himself instead of as Julian, if only for a moment.
“What choice have I got?” he shrugged.
“We could just send them both away.” Charles suggested. “That had been your first instinct, Sir.”
“When it was just the man,” Punch nodded. “He’s an un-titled stranger what just barged into me house, he is. It’s easy ‘nough to dismiss him, it is. Only the woman—she’s a lady, the daughter of a Countess, and part of Society. I know that Countess Hamish, I do. She’s a talker, that one. If I send her daughter away without receiving her, that’s all the countess will need to say terrible things ‘bout me—if she ain’t already. I know they’re talkin’ all over the City of Westminster. Even Prince Albert himself has heard it. And, don’t you know, Countess Hamish has spoken a lot of what’s been said? How can I tell Speaight to send Lady Constance home without her bein’ all hurt and offended and runnin’ to her mum? Then, won’t she talk? And, not jus’ ‘bout me, but ‘bout Robert and Colin, too. We don’t need people wonderin’ where I got Colin. It’s gonna be hard ‘nough when he grows up and folk start noticin’ he looks an awful lot like a Fallbridge for bein’ adopted. Don’t you think they already think he’s me sister’s son? I can’t give folk anymore chances than they already got to gossip by what goes on in this house.”
“But, Sir,” Gerard urged. “We can simply tell her you’re not able to receive her now and that she could come back another time. That way, Dr. Halifax can be there, too.”
“Or, we could wake the doctor,” Charles suggested.
“No.” Mr. Punch sighed. “Poor man watched ol’ Lord Glencaron breathe his last but a few hours ago. Let the poor fella sleep.”
“I ‘preciate it. I really do.” Mr. Punch interrupted. “Only there’s things what you don’t know. See, yesterday I got a letter I did—unsigned, it was—statin’ that someone was gonna go to the papers and the Crown and tell ‘em I’m mad. We can’t ‘ford no more ill words ‘bout this household. Not now.”
“All the more reason not to see this woman, Your Grace. And, especially that Victor Geddes. Maybe he’s the bloke what sent the letter.”
“Dr. Halifax thinks it was Hortence what sent it.” Mr. Punch whispered.
“She can’t read, Sir.” Gerard groaned. “How could she send a letter?”
“With the help of that bloke in the vestibule.” Charles frowned. “I’ll throw him out on his ear.”
Mr. Punch smiled at the thought. But, then, he shook his head. “I gotta see him. If he’s gonna threaten me and me family, I gotta see him. ‘Sides, maybe he’s just some fella what’s come for charity or some such… We don’t know.”
“Please let me awaken the doctor,” Charles urged again. “At least let him talk to this Geddes man while you chat with Lady Constance, Your Grace.”
Mr. Punch sighed. “I can’t. I’m a man. I ain’t a puppet no more. And, what’s more I’m a Duke. If I can make jewels for the Queen and run a household, I can do this. I’m the head of this household, I am—whether I want to be or not—and as such, I gotta take care of things what’s difficult.”
“You won’t be convinced otherwise, Sir?” Gerard asked.
“No.” Mr. Punch smiled. “But, I truly do ‘preciate that you two fellas is so loyal to me.”
“We owe you everything, Your Grace,” Gerard said softly.
“And, I owe you two a lot, too.” Mr. Punch replied. “Now, Gerry, how ‘bout you go down and take the Geddes fella into the library less Speaight gets on ya.”
“Yes, Sir.” Gerard nodded. “I’ll stay with him until you come down.”
“And, I’ll stand just outside the library door.” Charles offered.
“Good of ya. Speaight’s gonna want ya to carry, he is, only, tell ‘im I asked you to guard the door if he asks.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Now, go on, I’ll be down in a tick.” Punch said.
The two footmen scurried downstairs.
Mr. Punch took a deep breath and studied his reflection in the mirror.
“Look at that chap in the glass, then.” He muttered to himself. “Looks like a Duke.” He grunted. “Feels like a puppet.” He wandered over to his writing desk and picked up the small porcelain figure of Harlequin which sat on the corner.
“You got a fine life, don’t ya?” He said to the colorful figurine. “Just sittin’ there on your wee porcelain stump—smilin’. Ain’t got to worry ‘bout nothin’ do ya? Well, I gotta go talk to folk, I do. And, I gotta pretend to be me master when all I want to do is…”
Punch grinned, feeling the weight of the figurine in his hand. “Could just knock ‘em both on the head with ya.” He snorted. “Ah—you’d break. Porcelain ain’t no good for hittin’.” Frowning, Mr. Punch set down the figurine. “Wouldn’t solve nothin’ anyway.”
Exhaling, Punch made his way down the stairs, passing the library door where he waved at Charles who had taken his post. Down the last remaining flight to the morning room, Punch muttered softly to himself. “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”
He paused at the morning room door, fixing his face into his “Julian expression,” and, then, slowly opened it.
Lady Constance stood in the middle of the morning room—dressed in a frothy day gown of pink lace which Punch thought rather clashed with the color of her dull blonde curls. He disliked her immediately.
“Well, Your Grace, good morning,” Lady Constance cooed. “I’m terribly sorry to come unannounced, but I was just passing by and I thought, ‘I’m simply dying to see the Duke and what he’s done with Fallbridge House.”
“Good morning, Lady Constance,” Mr. Punch answered with as much enthusiasm as he could muster while still maintaining Julian’s manner of speaking. “I actually call it Molliner House after my late father, Sir Colin Molliner.”
“Oh, how…loyal.” She smirked. “This room is just charming.” Lady Constance continued.
“Thank you,” Punch replied dryly. “Please, make yourself comfortable.” He gestured as regally as possible to the settee in the center of the room.
“Who did you contract as your decorator?” Lady Constance asked.
“I did not employ a decorator.” Punch answered.
“You devised this scheme on your own?”
“Yes.” Mr. Punch nodded, still mimicking Julian.
“How unusual for a man, but your kind are very clever with these things.”
“My kind, Lady Constance?” Mr. Punch raised an eyebrow, trying his best to maintain his composure.
“Well, I mean, of course, because you’re a jeweler…and artist. And, then, there’s your people. As I recall, your late mother, the Duchess, was always so clever with interiors.” She said quickly.
“Of course,” Mr. Punch answered.
“I do hope I’m not keeping you from anything,” Lady Constance continued.
“Breakfast,” Punch muttered.
“Of course not.” Mr. Punch quickly covered, returning to his Julian voice. “To what do I owe the honor of your visit, Lady Constance? Surely you didn’t come just to see the house when your own home must, certainly, be similar.”
“If only it were. Our house is so drab compared to yours. I love this scheme. I may copy it.”
Mr. Punch nodded.
Lady Constance looked slightly pained and terribly uncomfortable. She took a deep breath. “Well, I do have something I’d like to discuss with you, Your Grace.”
“Is your…well, I understand that you have a companion. Is he about?”
“He is not receiving at the moment.”
“Pity. I’d like to meet him. I hear he’s a very good physician.”
“Yes, he is. Thank you.”
“You see, I’ve come on something of a mission.”
“Yes, Lady Constance.”
“You and your…friend…have not been to any events this Season. In fact, no one has hardly seen you at all since you’ve returned. When we read that you’d visited the Prince Consort, Mother said to me that we should really extend a neighborly invitation to you and Dr. Halifax. So, we concocted a little scheme, Mother and I.”
“At the end of this month, we’d like to host a dinner party in your honor.”
“How kind,” Mr. Punch replied. He glanced around the room quickly and took inventory of all of the things with which he could strike Lady Constance across the skull. No, he wasn’t actually going to do it, but the idea both comforted and pleased him. “We’d be delighted.”
“Of course, you’ll receive an official invitation, but as I said, I was passing by and thought I would just love to ask you in person.”
“Certainly. Thank you, Lady Constance.”
“I must say, you’re looking very well. I thought, since we hadn’t seen you, that perhaps you were ill.”
“I’m not ill at all.”
“Clearly, though I must say you look different than I remember you.”
“I can’t really say,” Lady Constance responded, looking over the sharp edge of the long, pointed nose which sat crookedly in the center of her pinched, equestrian face. “You just look different.”
“Time abroad will do that.” Mr. Punch nodded.
“I suppose.” She rose. “Well, I won’t keep you any longer. I’m sure you must have dozens of important duties ahead of you today. Knowing that you’re so eager to come to our little dinner, Mother and I will finish the guest list today.”
“How wonderful,” Punch replied, rising as well and walking to the bell push, eager to be rid of the woman. He rang quickly.
“I think we’ll also invite the Baron and Baroness Lensdown. Do you remember them, Your Grace?”
“I can’t say that I do.” Mr. Punch stopped in his tracks, looking sideways at Lady Constance. “Not well.”
“I understand that you’ve just taken on their old governess.” Lady Constance said slyly.
“Ah, yes, of course.” Mr. Punch nodded, again growing uncomfortable, but trying his best to maintain his impersonation of Julian.
“I’m sure you and the baron will have much to discuss.”
“I have no doubt.” Mr. Punch forced a smile.
He nearly chirped with excitement when Speaight appeared at the door.
“Speaight, will you escort Lady Constance to the door, please?”
“Of course, Your Grace.” Speaight nodded.
Lady Constance looked a little miffed to have had her line of questioning cut short.
“Good day, Lady Constance. Thank you so much for your visit.” Mr. Punch smiled, this time genuinely relieved.
“Yes. Good day to you, Your Grace.” The woman responded tersely as Speaight showed her out.
Mr. Punch lingered behind the open morning room door for a moment after glancing up the stairs to the library door where Charles still stood at attention.
“Bugger,” He muttered in his own voice. “Now I gotta go to a dinner in someone else’s house. What a queer way to ruin such a fine thing as eating.”
He snorted, shaking his head.
“Well, that’s done.” He grumbled. “Now, on to the fella.”
Did you miss Chapters 1-21 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square? If so, you can read them here. Come back tomorrow for Chapter 23.