Mr. Punch and the Baby
Rich coral-colored walls, trimmed with white and gilt plaster moldings welcomed Ellen Barrett into the Drawing Room of the Duke of Fallbridge’s palatial townhouse. From the ornate wainscoting to the thick dentil of the crown molding which clung to the eggshell blue ceiling, the walls proudly boasted a dazzlingly impressive array of large, important-looking oil paintings ranging from landscapes to family portraits to tender genre scenes of innocent lovers and ruddy-cheeked children. Above the handsome mantelpiece, behind a massive, black-slate, French clock and between a pair of silver girandoles—dripping with crystals—a particularly large canvas had been hung, displayed in an ornate lavishly gilt frame.
The painting above the mantel depicted a street scene, at the center of which was a red-and-white-striped tent-like booth in which a lively Punch & Judy show was being performed. The spectacle was being observed by painted children, men and women who—forever frozen in time—gazed with delight at the hunch-backed, crimson-suited puppet. In the scene, the puppet held his wooden-headed offspring and upon the play-board, to the right, a terrier in a pointed hat and bright yellow ruff looked on.
Ellen smiled at the cheerful painting before realizing, that once again, she had entered a room in the mansion without noticing that the Duke was nowhere to be seen.
“I got a puppet.” A friendly, somewhat raspy, voice called out from the center of the room.
Ellen turned her attention to the middle of the Drawing Room where she spotted--under a japanned and gilt center table laden with a huge crystal vase of flowers--the Duke of Fallbridge. On his right hand sat a tremendous puppet figure of Mr. Punch—expertly carved and beautifully costumed. Young Colin lay on the floor on a blanket. He gurgled gaily, reaching for the ears of the Dog Toby who say next to him. Both seemed mesmerized by the Duke.
“I see that you have, Your Grace,” Ellen nodded. “And, a very handsome puppet it is.”
“It’s mine,” The Duke answered proudly. “Dr. Halifax’s brother, Cecil—he carved the head. And, Mrs. Halifax—Adrienne—she and me chum Marjani made the little suit.” He paused and scratched his chin with his left hand. “I mean to say that my friend, Marjani, crafted the fine little costume.”
“It’s beautiful.” Ellen nodded again, walking closer to the table under which the Duke, his son and dog sat.
“You like it?”
“I do.” Ellen replied. “And, I must say that Master Colin and the Dog Toby seem to love him.”
“They do,” The Duke replied brightly. “Everybody loves Mr. Punch.” The Duke rolled on his side, coming out from beneath the table. He did so without the puppet touching the floor—a feat which impressed Ellen greatly.
The Duke stood up and looked cautiously at Ellen.
“You like Mr. Punch?” he asked.
“As you say, everyone loves Mr. Punch.” Ellen answered.
“Hmmm…” The Duke wrinkled his nose. Once again, his eyes were wide and excited, yet he appeared to be thinking as his brows twitched.
The Duke of Fallbridge grinned and extended his puppet-ed hand. “You can hold him while I pick up Colin.”
“Thank you, Sir.” She took the puppet from her employer.
“No--thank you.” The Duke chirped gaily as he picked up his son. “Come, Toby,” he called. The dog obediently followed him as he carried the child over to a settee near the fire.
“Come sit with us, Miss Barrett,” the Duke said absent-mindedly. “The chair with the little pictures of people on it is the most comfortable. You can have that one.”
Ellen sat. “It is comfortable.”
“It’s fabric is what’s called toile. I learned that from me chum.” The Duke mumbled. He looked up and blushed, sighing, he repeated himself, using the more refined voice he had used the day of their first meeting. “I mean to say that the pattern is toile. Dr. Halifax has been quite helpful in identifying these things.”
“I suspect you knew them already,” Ellen smiled, ignoring the Duke’s obvious discomfort. “Being a famous jeweler, I’m sure you’re aware of most artistic terms.”
“You’d think,” the Duke laughed. “Only, I ain’t…I am not…famous.”
“But, you are. You’re highly celebrated. I remember seeing your work at the Great Exhbition in 1851 and I recall reading many times how much Prince Albert adores your work.”
“Eh.” The Duke shrugged. “None of that matters.” He looked down at the child in his arms. “This is what matters.” Looking up, he realized that Ellen was still holding his puppet.
“Oh!” He exclaimed with wide eyes. “You don’t have to hold him. He likes to sit in chairs, he does. You can put him in the other chair there.”
“I shall,” Ellen nodded, rising for a moment and gently placing the puppet in the chair adjacent to her. This seemed to please the Duke who grinned widely.
“Thank you,” he smiled. “Some folk don’t treat things with respect. Even if somethin’ can’t talk, don’t mean they aren’t aware. Most things want talkin’ to.”
Again he caught himself speaking in that odd, casual, rough manner. He snorted and shrugged, resigned to the fact that it had happened.
“You had asked to see me, Your Grace.” Ellen began.
“Sure,” The Duke nodded, looking absently at Ellen.
They looked at one another for several moments.
“I imagine I should say something now,” The Duke sighed. “See, Miss Barrett, I’m not so very good with other people.”
“I think you’re doing very well, Sir.”
“Thank you.” The Duke grinned. “Here, listen, I wanted to talk with ya ‘bout Colin.” He paused and frowned.
“Is something bothering you, Your Grace?”
“No,” The Duke answered. “Errrr…well, I don’t think so. Can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, Sir.”
“Do you mind if I talk like this. I know it ain’t the way a nobleman is ‘sposed to talk only it’s easier than what’s ‘xpected of me.”
“This is your home, Sir, you may speak however you like.” Ellen replied.
“Coo!” The Duke whooped. “See, I told me chum that you’d understand! I could tell, just by lookin’ at ya.”
Ellen smiled and nodded.
“Now,” The Duke continued. “Me boy, Colin—he’s a fine boy. Next to Dr. Halifax, he’s the most ‘portant person in the world and I want you to know what he likes and what he don’t.”
“I’m glad to know.” Ellen answered.
“Dr. Halifax—he helped me make a list.” The Duke continued. He looked around. “Oh, what’d I do with it?” He yelped happily, “Oh! It’s on the table—the black table with all them people’s pictures on it.”
“Shall I get it?” Ellen asked.
“Sure, when you leave. You can read it before supper. Here, you gettin’ ‘nough to eat?”
“I am. More than enough. Mrs. Pepper has been very kind.”
“Good!” The Duke shouted gladly. He giggled loudly. “Her name is Pepper what’s a spice. And, she’s a cook.” He howled happily.
They were interrupted as the main door to the room opened and the doctor entered. “Dear Punch, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that…” he paused, realizing that they weren’t alone. “Ah, Miss Barrett, excuse me. I didn’t realize you were here.”
Ellen stood up and bowed her head.
“No, please, sit.” Dr. Halifax waved his hand. He went to the settee and moved Toby—who was sitting up against the Duke—over so that he could be seated next to His Grace. He paused to tickle Colin’s stomach. The child cooed and gurgled in appreciation.
Ellen sat down, smiling. She liked the warm interaction of this unusual family and found it most comforting and appealing.
“I was just about to tell His Grace that we received a letter from America—from my brother and his wife.”
“Here, how they doin’?” The Duke exclaimed in excitement.
“Well, Your Grace,” Dr. Halifax smiled, emphasizing “Your Grace.”
“It don’t matter, chum.” The Duke shook his head. “She don’t mind if I talk like this.”
Robert looked cautiously at Miss Barrett.
“As I told His Grace, this is his home and he may do as he pleases.”
“True.” The doctor nodded. “You’ll forgive me. Some people, I’ve found, might judge His Grace harshly for something so simple.”
“I would never do so.” Ellen replied.
“I’m happy to know it.” The doctor smiled. “The happiness of these two people outweighs everything else for me.”
Ellen smiled in appreciation and understanding.
The Duke tilted his head to one side. He looked at Ellen. “I’m called ‘Mr. Punch.”
“I noticed.” Ellen answered.
Robert began to look nervous.
“Don’t fret, chum.” Mr. Punch whispered to his friend. “We can trust her.”
The doctor nodded, hesitantly, “I’m sure we can.”
“Only me chums call me ‘Mr. Punch,’ but I’d like it if you did.”
“I would be honored.” Ellen replied sincerely.
“However, we must be careful…” Robert began.
“I would never do so in front of the staff or visitors. And, I would never mention it to anyone else.” Ellen said quickly.
“It’s important that you don’t.” Robert sighed. “You see, there are some things that you don’t know.”
“I’m sure.” Ellen said.
“Listen, chum.” The Duke/Mr. Punch began. “We trust this woman with our Colin. If we can trust her that much, we can trust her with this. And, to be sure, it might help her to know, it might.”
“Yes, of course, dear Punch.” Dr. Halifax nodded, putting his arm around the Duke’s shoulders. “Miss Barrett, what we’re about to tell you must not leave this house.”
“You can trust me, Sir.” Ellen nodded.
“I hope so,” Robert sighed. “I truly do.”
Did you miss Chapters 1-4? If so, you can read them here. Come back tomorrow for Chapter 5—“Childhood Friends”-- of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square.