Just Like Me
“You don’t look like your ma at all,” Mr. Punch smiled as he tickled Colin’s little belly. Both of them had enjoyed their respective breakfasts and Mr. Punch had taken Colin into the library with him so that Miss Barrett could get some rest after her long, sleepless night and Gamilla could attend to her many assorted duties.
At least that’s the excuse he gave. The truth was, Punch enjoyed spending time with his son and, aside from the moments that he passed with Robert, considered the tot’s companionship the happiest part of his life. Mr. Punch could never understand why other titled men in similar positions to his didn’t spend time with their children. Talking to Colin, playing with him, singing him songs, reading to him—these were all joys which Punch would never trade.
Punch, Colin and Dog Toby sat in their favorite spot in the library—under one of the marquetry side tables with ormolu mounts which flanked the two monumental windows at one end of the room. Dog Toby lay on his side and watched lazily as Punch chattered to the baby.
“No, you don’t look like your ma. You look like me. Huh—how we gonna ‘xplain that when you get older?” Punch studied the boy. “Yep—you’re just like me. Same eyes, same nose, same chin…”
Punch squinted for a moment and wondered when he began to think of Julian’s appearance as his own. He supposed it must have been going on for awhile. The night before he had promised to share such realizations with Robert—those little thoughts about identity. Robert had explained that such information would be helpful to writing their book and, also, in aiding Miss Barrett’s brother.
“See…” Punch smiled at the baby, gently touching the child’s nose with his finger. “Your nose is like mine. Your ma looked a bit different. You got me hair, too—auburn. That’s all Molliner. Only thing I got from me pa’s side. I look like me own ma.”
Punch sighed again, wondering as well when he began to believe that Julian’s mother was his own. At first he’d denied it--saying that since he grew within Julian’s mind, he had no mother. He promised to remember to share that thought, too, with Robert.
“You don’t remember your ma, do ya?” Punch asked the child. “Dog Toby does.” Punch chuckled. “Coo!” He shook his head. “See, your ma was me sister. And your pa…was someone else.” Punch frowned—just for a second—“but, I want you to know that even though I’m really jus’ your uncle, I’ll always be your papa, too.”
He smiled. “Guess I’m all sorts o’ things at once, ain’t I?”
Ticking the child’s stomach again, Punch continued. “Don’t matter that I ain’t truly your father. I feel like I am, and that’s what counts. Our chum, Robert, too, he feels like your papa and he ain’t even related to you by blood at all. See, none o’ that matters, it don’t. When you start talkin’, and you ought to soon or so says Miss Barrett, you oughta call me ‘Father’ or ‘Pa’, but probably best to just say, ‘Father.’ Robert’d like it if you’d call him that, too, he would, only he says folk wouldn’t care for it. So, you can call him ‘Uncle Robert.”
The child’s eyes brightened and he reached for the ring on Punch’s index finger. Punch turned the diamond so that the child could see it sparkle, but didn’t allow the baby to take it off his finger.
“See, Uncle Robert’s gone to visit Miss Barrett’s brother and the man what looks after ‘im. We’re gonna try to help him, we are. Uncle Robert will be back soon. And, Miss Barrett’s takin’ a nap since she were out all night with her brother. So, it’s jus’ you and me and Dog Toby. I gotta draw some pictures for His Majesty later. Pictures of gems with teeth. Fool thing, that. Maybe you can help me. I’ll put some paper and colors on the floor and we’ll see what you can do. Would you like that?”
The child gurgled.
“A fine boy, you are, me Colin.” Mr. Punch smiled.
Punch looked up as he heard the library door open and grinned at Charles as he entered.
“Your Grace?” Charles said softly. He looked around the room, finally spotting Punch and company under one of the tables. “I’m sorry to interrupt you and Master Colin.”
“We’re jus’ havin’ a chat, Charles. Dog Toby, too.”
“Yes, Sir.” Charles nodded.
“Somethin’ you need to tell me?” Punch asked cheerfully.
“There’s a gentleman here to see Dr. Halifax, Your Grace.”
“Bloody…” Punch scowled. He caught himself. “Ooop. Not in front of the baby.” He giggled. “What I mean to say is…not again?”
“Yes, Sir.” Charles smiled softly.
“Is it a sick person?” Punch asked with an unusual hopefulness, “you know—one of Dr. Halifax’s patients?”
“I don’t think so, Sir. He looks quite healthy.”
“Oh.” Mr. Punch shrugged. “Well, did ya tell ‘im that the doctor ain’t here?”
“I did, Sir. He asked if he could see you instead.”
Mr. Punch grunted. “I seen enough folk yesterday to last me awhile, I did.”
“I understand, Your Grace.”
“What did he say his name was?”
“William Stover, Sir.”
“You don’t say?” Punch grumbled, rolling out from underneath the table. Charles offered his master a hand to steady him as he rose.
“Do you know the gentleman, Sir?” Charles asked.
“No, I don’t.” Punch muttered. “But, the doctor does…”
“Shall I send him away, Sir?”
“No.” Mr. Punch smiled. “I think I shall see him. Have him wait for me in the morning room, please.”
“As you wish, Your Grace.” Charles nodded. “Shall I take Master Colin back to the day nursery?”
“Hmmm…” Mr. Punch shook his head. “I’ll take him up me-self. Please tell this Mr. Stover that I’ll be down shortly.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
After Punch had taken Colin to the nursery and rang for Gamilla to watch the boy, he paused in front of the tall glass in the passage. He arranged his hair in a manner more befitting the Duke of Fallbridge and descended the stairs, stiffening his back as he did. He wished he didn’t have those bruises on his neck, but it wasn’t to be helped. Fixing his face into his “Julian expression,” Mr. Punch opened the morning room door and entered.
“Mr. Stover,” Punch said in his best Julian imitation. “I am Julian, Duke of Fallbridge.”
“Good morning, Your Grace,” William Stover replied nervously. “Thank you for taking the time to see me.”
“Of course,” Punch replied, gesturing to one of the coral-collared armchairs which flanked the morning room fireplace. “Do sit, please.”
As William sat, Punch studied the man. Robert had been accurate in his description of William. The man was balding with a ring of fine blond hair around the crown of his head. He wasn’t fat, but was shaped, as Robert had said, like a barrel. And, yet, he had long, elegant fingers. He was dressed handsomely, but not finely and had the red cheeks of a man who’d been too long in the weather. Mr. Punch smiled at the height of the man. He was quite short, and Punch thought this tremendously fitting and convenient. He imagined how easy it would be to smash something over this little fellow’s head, and, though he’d never dream of actually doing so, the idea pleased him fully.
“This is a lovely home, Your Grace.” William said self-consciously. “So grand.”
“Thank you, Mr. Stover. We’re quite happy here.”
“Does your family live here?” He added, “Your Grace,” awkwardly to the end of the question.
“Yes.” Mr. Punch nodded. “You could say so. My blood family is all deceased. I am joined in this house by my companion, whom you know, and my son.”
“You have a son, Sir?” William asked.
“I have. I adopted him while we were abroad.”
“You were abroad with Dr. Halifax, Your Grace?”
“Is that where you met?”
“No. Well, to be accurate we’d met previously, but not officially following the Great Exhibition. We became actually acquainted while we were both traveling.”
Mr. Stover nodded. “Your son is very fortunate, Sir, to live in such a fine home and to have someone in his life like the doctor, and you, of course, Your Grace. He…Robert…errr….Dr. Halifax was always so kind to my sister’s children. They adored him.”
“Dr. Halifax is quite good with our boy.” Punch replied, smiling confidently.
“I’m glad.” William replied softly.
They sat in silence for several seconds and, with each tick of the clock, Punch became more annoyed, but he cleverly didn’t show it.
Instead he forced a smile and began, “Mr. Stover, I believe you were informed that Dr. Halifax was not present.”
“I was, Your Grace.”
“However, you wished to see me?”
“May I ask why?”
William pinched his lips together.
“You may speak plainly to me, Mr. Stover. I think you’ll find I’m not the typical peer.”
“Well, Sir, since I may speak freely, I will say that I was curious to see you. I have heard that Dr. Halifax was your companion and when I read his address, I couldn’t help but to wish to see him again and to see that…that he was happy and well.”
“I assure you that Dr. Halifax is both well and happy. From whom have you heard that Dr. Halifax was my companion?”
“It’s the talk of London, Sir.” William blushed.
“I imagine that it is. However, rest assured, by the time Her Majesty brings this next child into the world, Society will find other matters about which to gossip.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“Now, that you’ve seen me, is your curiosity satiated?”
“Yes, Sir. You’re much handsomer than I imagined.” William suddenly seemed horrified by what he had just said. “Please don’t think me impertinent, Sir.”
“I don’t.” Mr. Punch replied stiffly. “It’s only natural that you’d wish to see how your old friend lives and with whom.”
“Has Robert mentioned me?”
“No.” Mr. Punch answered, being careful not to show how much it delighted him to say so. “The first I’d heard of you was yesterday when we’d received your card. Dr. Halifax knows so many people and has such a vast list of patients and casual acquaintances that it, surely, would be impossible for him to mention all of them to me, or, in fact, remember all of them.”
Punch knew he was being terribly rude, but, he didn’t mind. He concluded that it was his own home and that this man had barged in uninvited. Furthermore, the price that Mr. Stover paid for not being bludgeoned with a blunt object was mild rudeness. Still, our Punch couldn’t help but feel that he was being a bit too hard on the little man and added, with a genuine smile, “Dr. Halifax did mention that you had opened a porcelain concern. I do hope that it’s going well for you.”
“Yes, Your Grace.” William nodded. “Fairly well, indeed.”
“How pleasing,” Mr. Punch replied. “Have you a message for Dr. Halifax?”
“Only that I wish him all the best, Your Grace.”
“That’s kind of you, Mr. Stover.” Mr. Punch rose. “I shall see to it that Dr. Halifax will always have the best of everything.”
William rose, too, blushing again. “I’m glad, Your Grace. Thank you, again. I do hope I haven’t intruded on your home too terribly.”
“You haven’t.” Punch shook his head as he rang for Charles who appeared surprisingly quickly. Punch wondered if—after what had happened the day before—Charles hadn’t been standing at the ready outside the door.
“Charles,” Punch smiled. “Will you show Mr. Stover to the door, please?”
“Good morning, Your Grace,” William bowed his head.
“Goodbye, Mr. Stover,” Punch said, a bit of the triumphant creeping into his voice.
Charles, as he ushered the man from the room, looked quickly over his shoulder at the Duke and flashed a brief, but sly, smile which told Punch that the valet had, in fact, been standing at the door.
Punch waited until William had left the house and then whooped loudly. “Silly little egg-shaped bloke!” With a joyful smile he bounded up the stairs to collect Dog Toby from the library and join Colin in the nursery.
Did you miss Chapters 1-26 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square? If so, you can read them here. Come back tomorrow for Chapter 28.