An Inevitable Invitation
Dr. Halifax paused in the corridor outside of the Drawing Room. Leaning on the banister, he peered over the edge at the soft curve of the monumental staircase which elegantly wound up through the center of the Belgrave Square mansion. He took a deep breath, and from his coat pocket, removed the letter that he had received from his brother in Louisiana.
To be sure, the letter was intended both for Robert as well as Mr. Punch/The Duke. However, tucked within the envelope was a separate note from the doctor’s brother, Cecil. In it, Cecil compelled Robert to think about what they had discussed before he and the Duke departed for England.
Robert sniffed, blinking his eyes rapidly, he recalled the private moment that he and Cecil had shared—two brothers, trying to find the words to properly convey their emotions. Amidst the usual uncomfortable grunts and declarations that it was “too, too bad that they’d be separated yet again,” Cecil had suggested that Robert write the book he’d always discussed.
As a physician, Robert had longed to write a tome which would somehow prove helpful to other people. However, he’d always believed that the book should have a specific subject. He’d always planned to pen such a manuscript—some great researched work which might allow him to have a permanent place in the pantheon of medical geniuses. Yet, the subject had always eluded him.
“Why not write about Mr. Punch?” Cecil had suggested.
At first, Robert was annoyed by his brother’s suggestion and ended the conversation abruptly. “Cecil, we’re about to part again—perhaps forever—I don’t wish you argue with you, but you know very well that I cannot betray the intimacy that His Grace and I share by exposing his…his…situation in such a way.”
“Situation?” Cecil had grinned. “It’s an illness. There’s no harm in saying so. It’s an illness like any other. The man—as much as we love him—isn’t the same as the rest of us. He’s ill. You could truly help others like him by chronicling his experience.”
“I can help others without exposing him so.” Robert had replied.
“Do you remember what we endured when Mother was ill?” Cecil had asked plainly.
“How could you possibly ask me that? Of course, I remember!” Robert snapped. “I was the one who cared for her while…”
“While I was off working? Trying to repay our blackguard father’s monumental debts?” Cecil frowned.
“I’m not criticizing you.” Robert had answered.
“I know.” Cecil shook his head. “However, had we had some sort of idea what troubled mother, what caused her to plunge into such fits of melancholy, to rise into such episodes of mad behavior, we might have been able to help her. Had there been a book, some information which could have helped…”
“Mr. Punch doesn’t suffer from the same affliction that mother did.” Robert had grunted.
“No.” Cecil sighed. “He does not. However, do you think he’s alone in this? Do you think he’s the only man or woman in the world who has another entity or entities living inside of him? Certainly not! Punch is fortunate. You love him for what he is. But, what of the others like him—those who don’t have the luxury and wealth that the Duke has. Those who are forced to go into the world in order to survive, those who have no one like you to look after them.”
“You make him sound as if he’s an invalid. He’s not.”
“I know that!” Cecil had snapped. “I’ve lived with the man lo these many weeks. Haven’t I? But, he’s quite lucky to have had us to help him. This isn’t only about His Grace regardless. It’s about the others who are less fortunate. Through research, you could help them. By writing of the Duke’s struggle you could possibly aid thousands.”
Robert had nodded. “I understand.”
“Dear brother, I don’t wish to part on this note.” Cecil smiled.
“Nor do I…” Robert had smiled, embracing his brother.
During their voyage, Robert had neatly tucked the memory away , however, Cecil’s letters reminded him. Robert knew that, in many ways, his brother was correct. However, he hesitated to mention it to Mr. Punch. Their return to England had gone surprisingly smoothly. With the help of Jackson, the butler at Fallbridge Hall, the house at No. 65 Belgrave Square had been opened and staffed without a hitch. Mr. Punch/The Duke had settled in with their son without too much turmoil and the man seemed quite content. Robert didn’t dare disturb the peace of the household—especially since it was the first quiet and content they had shared in months. Their time in New Orleans had been heavy with one despair after another. Robert couldn’t take away their newfound happiness with such a suggestion.
And, yet…the thought preyed upon him each day.
Folding the letter again, Robert tucked it into his pocket. He peered over the banister once more. On the floor below, he could see Gerard carrying a newly polished set of candelabra into the library. Gerard looked up and noticed the doctor. He smiled.
“Good morning, Gerard.” Robert retuned the smile.
Taking another deep breath, Robert shook his head. “No,” he thought to himself. “I cannot disturb our comfort for this.”
He headed for the door to the Drawing Room, and just as his hand touched the ornate bronze door handle, he heard the familiar, light voice of Speaight.
“Sir,” Speaight nodded, extending a small silver salver. “Today’s post.”
“Thank you,” Robert smiled, talking the small stack of letters.
“Will you or His Grace require anything?” Speaight asked.
“No, I don’t think so.” Robert shook his head. “Master Colin is upstairs with Miss Barrett. His Grace is here with Dog Toby. I think we should be just fine for awhile.”
Speaight nodded and silently retreated as Robert entered the Drawing Room.
“Chum!” Mr. Punch chirped happily.
Dressed in a fine deep blue suit, cream-colored silk waistcoat and emerald green cravat fastened with a peridot pin, the Duke sat on the floor beneath the japanned center table. Dog Toby was with him—the canine flat on his back with his legs extended into the air. Mr. Punch vigorously scratched the dog’s belly—much to Dog Toby’s delight.
“Good morning, dear Punch,” Robert smiled.
“I didn’t hear you this morning. You got up terrible early. Couldn’t you sleep, chum?”
“I slept quite well.” Robert winked. “However, I had a patient to attend to this morning.”
“You already been out, have ya?” Punch nodded. “Coo! I’d not want to be a doctor if I’d have to get up with the pigs.” He paused and squinted. “Is that somethin’ people say?”
“More or less.” Robert chuckled.
“Are there pigs in the City of Westminster?”
“A good many, I’d guess.” Robert laughed. “But, mostly in Parliament.”
“Ha!” Punch guffawed. “Funny.” He rolled over and came out from beneath the table.
“What ya got there? Presents?”
“Not exactly. It’s the morning post. Speaight gave it to me as I came in.”
“Oh,” Mr. Punch frowned. “And, here I was hopin’ for presents.”
“Well,” Robert winked again, reaching into his pocket. “I did stop at a barrow in Covent Garden this morning.” From his pocket, he removed a small tin, wind-up toy in the shape of Mr. Punch—the famed puppet, not the Duke himself.
Punch’s eyes widened with palpable delight. “For me?”
“For you.” Robert smiled affectionately. “But, perhaps you’ll share it with Colin.”
“Course!” Punch whopped. “Oh, ain’t he wonderful? Thank you so much!”
“My pleasure,” Robert nodded, patting Punch’s shoulder.
Mr. Punch wound up the toy and watched its clockwork mechanism scoot the thing across the highly polished floor of the Drawing Room. He giggled wildly.
Robert flipped through the post.
“Anythin’ good?” Mr. Punch asked, looking up for a moment from his happy enterprise.
“Mostly bills.” Robert sighed. “Haberdasher, milliner, uniforms for the staff…oh…” He paused.
“What is it?”
“A letter for you.” Robert answered slowly.
“From America?” Punch asked eagerly and hopefully, standing up and placing his new toy gently on the table. “Here, you never did show me the letter what we got from Cecil yesterday.”
“Oh…” Robert mumbled. “This isn’t from America. This is from the palace.”
Mr. Punch’s face went pale. “The palace? Which palace?”
“You know which palace.” Robert smiled.
“There’s a lot of ‘em ‘round these parts.” Punch muttered.
“Buckingham Palace.” Robert replied, handing the letter to Mr. Punch.
“Think maybe it’s just a ‘how are things on Belgrave Square’ letter from Queen Victoria?” Punch asked cautiously.
“I doubt it. It’s from the desk of the Prince Consort. And, as we know, Prince Albert is not given to random inquiries about our general well-being.”
“Didn’t think so,” Punch sighed. He handed the letter back to Robert. “You open it.”
Robert took a paper knife from the center table and sliced open the letter, carefully preserving the wax seal since he knew that Punch liked to collect them.
“Go on…” Punch nodded.
Robert read the missive.
“Well?” Punch asked nervously.
“The Prince Consort has requested that you meet with him at the palace tomorrow morning.”
“Here, what for?” Mr. Punch asked.
“It doesn’t say. However, I’m sure he wishes for you to begin on a new project for him.”
Mr. Punch shook his head nervously. “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can, dear Punch. And, furthermore, you must. This is not an optional request. When Prince Albert calls for you, you must attend.”
“Now,” Robert held up his hand. “I know what you’re going to say, but, I can’t agree. I’ve seen the drawings you’ve been working on.”
“You have?” Punch’s eyes widened.
“Well, of course, I have. You should know by now that I’ve been looking over your shoulder. Dear Punch, you’ve somehow absorbed Julian’s talent. Your designs are brilliant. You may be Mr. Punch, but you have the Duke of Fallbridge’s knack for design. Should any of those sketches be produced by any of Julian’s goldsmith’s, the result would be some truly exceptional jewels.”
“You think so? Really?”
“I assure you, they’re exquisite.”
“Coo!” Mr. Punch chirped. “Who knew I had it in me?”
“I did.” Robert put his arm around Punch’s shoulders. “And, furthermore, Julian did. Though he may not be willing to come out and live with the rest of us, he’s been guiding you from within. I see it in your work. It’s as good or better than the pieces of the Duke’s which I saw displayed at the 1851 Exhibition.”
“Thank you.” Punch blushed.
“My dear, Julian trusts you to live life for him, and he’s right to do so. You are very capable of anything you put your mind toward.”
“I’m scared.” Mr. Punch shook his head. “Prince Albert—he’s gonna know I ain’t the same fella what he saw last year.”
“You can do it.” Robert replied.
“I can if you come with me.” Mr. Punch’s eyes widened.
“The invitation was only for you. Not for me.”
“You’ve gotta come!” Punch said quickly. “I can’t see him without you!”
Did you miss Chapters 1-6? If so, you can read them here. Come back Tuesday, for Chapter 8 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square.