Presents for the Duke
Ethel and Jenny walked slowly with their shoulders pressed together (Ethel’s right shoulder pressed against Jenny’s left) through the grand foyer of No. 65 Belgrave Square, up the monumental, winding staircase and to the tall, pedimented door of the drawing room. The two girls peered over the ornate balustrade and gazed down that the gleaming floor of the hall below them.
“Ain’t nothin’ like nothin’ I ever saw.” Ethel whispered to Jenny.
“Imagine that this is up here all the time—just above our heads.” Jenny replied softly. “It’s a palace.”
“Come on, girls, don’t dawdle.” Speaight warned.
“Here—Vi.” Jenny chirped, grabbing Violet’s shoulder as she passed by. “You see this every day, do ya?”
“Sure,” Violet said proudly. “Everyday.”
“Ain’t it sum-fink?” Ethel cooed.
“It’s a right palace.” Jenny murmured again.
“His Grace must be ever-so rich.” Ethel whispered.
“’Course he is!” Jenny nodded firmly. “Master’s the Duke of Fallbridge. One of the wealthiest men in England. Did ya know?”
“Sure, I knew.” Ethel frowned. “Just didn’t know what it’d look like.”
“Enough chatter girls!” Mrs. Pepper snapped. “Now, straighten up. Let me look at ya.” She inspected her maids. “I ‘spose that’ll have to do.”
“It’s me best apron, Mrs. Pepper,” Ethel nodded.
“Ain’t the apron I’m worried about.” Mrs. Pepper sighed.
“Now,” Speaight spoke up. “We don’t want to keep the Duke waiting. We’re to enter the room in the following order—one after another. Mind...Heads up, smiles on your faces, hands folded in front of you.”
“How’m I to fold my hands, Mr. Speaight? I’m carryin’ the present.” Violet asked nervously.
“All but you, Violet.” Mr. Speaight grumbled. “Now, listen. Charles first, then Gerard. Next Gamilla, then Violet, then Jenny and last Ethel. Mrs. Pepper will go in with me first.”
“What of Miss Barrett?” Ethel asked.
“She’s already in there. She’s looking after Master Colin.” Mrs. Pepper replied.
“Oh.” Ethel nodded.
“Everyone, stiff-backs. Ready?” Speaight barked.
The staff nodded.
Charles grinned groggily and whispered to Gerard. “I still feel all out of sorts from that potion of the doctor’s. Hope I don’t do something foolish.”
Gerard chuckled sloppily.
“You look a bit drowsy yourself, Gerry.” Charles squinted. “You all right?”
“Fine, fine.” Gerard nodded slowly, trying to shield Charles from the fact that he’d not only taken the one sip of the medicine which Charles had asked him to return to Dr. Halifax, but two, and was feeling quite warm and fuzzy.
“Very good,” Speaight said officially. “In we go. Remember the order.”
With that, Speaight opened the door. He and Mrs. Pepper went in first followed by the others in the order Speaight had instructed.
Ethel and Jenny gasped softly when they saw the drawing room of the mansion. Ethel’s jaw dropped at the sight of the opulent room with its three large crystal chandeliers—flickering with candles—its ornate plastered walls, important paintings and shining, plush furnishings.
Seated next to the fire, the Duke and the doctor shared a sumptuous settee. They rose as they staff entered. Miss Barrett stood nearby holding the baby. The Dog Toby sat on the floor at the Duke’s feet.
“Look…” Jenny whispered to Ethel.
“I see,” Ethel replied though she wasn’t quite sure what she was supposed to be looking at.
Did Jenny want her to look at the masters? Maybe. They did look even handsomer than Ethel ever remembered them looking. Or did Jenny want her to notice the small pile of gifts—sparkling with fine paper and ribbons? Perhaps Jenny wanted Ethel to notice the wheeled trolley which Speaight had set up earlier with shimmering crystal and an iced bottle of champagne in a silver tub.
Certainly, Jenny had noticed all these things, but she was actually pointing out the cake—the cake which she herself had helped Mrs. Pepper to make. The cake stood on a dark-colored table at the center of the drawing room. Iced in pale blue royal icing with crisp white and silver ornaments, the cake rose up to nearly three feet tall—towering at four tiers. The masterpiece was surmounted by white sugar-roses. On the front face of the top layer, Mrs. Pepper—with Jenny’s assistance—had piped the Fallbridge arms.
Mrs. Pepper looked proudly at her work and glanced, for a brief second, at Jenny—offering her a rare smile. Jenny blushed.
The staff watched as the Duke took a deep breath. He looked, for a moment, as if he was slightly confused and emotional—unsure of what to say. However, when he opened his mouth, he spoke so eloquently, that the staff—especially Jenny and Ethel—felt as if they were, for the first time in their life, in the presence of someone truly magnificent.
“I am so honored,” The Duke began, “to welcome you into the drawing room, and most thrilled that all of you have taken the time from your busy schedules to join me in the celebration of the anniversary of my birth. Truly, you are all the very heart of our home. Without you, neither Dr. Halifax nor I—nor even young Colin—would be able to survive. And, so, I welcome you humbly, knowing that I am forever in your debt.”
Jenny, Ethel and Vi looked at each other, certain that in their entire lives no one had ever greeted them with such pure sincerity and kindness.
“Have you seen,” the Duke continued, “the glorious cake?” He pointed to the giant dessert and smiled. Ethel thought that the Duke’s smile was terribly open and childlike for a man of his stature. She found it charming. “I know, of course, that Mrs. Pepper and Jenny have. It’s a masterpiece. A true work of art, and I am, in awe of it. So, thank you.”
“Oh, Your Grace,” Mrs. Pepper curtsied, blushing.
“It’s so lovely,” Dr. Halifax added, “that it seems a shame to ruin it by cutting it. However, for as handsome as it is, I suspect it tastes even better.”
“Oh.” Mrs. Pepper continued blushing.
“And, Speaight—thank you for arranging all of this,” The Duke smiled.
“Certainly, Your Grace.” Speaight cleared his throat. “On behalf of all of us downstairs, I’d like to wish you many happy returns of the day.”
“Thank you,” The Duke replied.
Ethel studied the man. He seemed as if he wanted to say much more than he was. He had a cheerful twinkle in his eye which reminded Ethel of her baby brother. She had seen the man several times before when he’d come downstairs for one reason or another, and she always found him to be charming, but that night, he seemed more lovely than usual—and certainly not as old as Mr. Speaight had said he was.
“Mr. Speaight…” Violet whispered. “May I…”
“I suppose, Violet.”
Violet handed the gift to Mr. Speaight.
“Your Grace, if it may please you, the staff has all put in to get you a small token which may remind you of this day and our appreciation of you.”
“Oh, how kind,” the Duke smiled eagerly though his speech was even and mannered.
Speaight retrieved a silver tray from a nearby sideboard and placed the gift atop it so he could present it to the Duke.
“Why’d he do that?” Ethel whispered.
“Ain’t supposed to hand things right to the master.” Jenny whispered in return.
“Oh.” Ethel nodded.
The duke took the gift from the tray and smiled. He seemed to want to tell everyone to be seated, but knew that he shouldn’t. “I hope you don’t mind if I sit to open this?”
“Certainly, Sir.” Speaight nodded.
Everyone smiled as the Duke removed the paper from the box and opened it. His eyes lit up happily when he saw what was inside.
From the box, he removed the small music box which they had purchased for him with a portion of their wages.
“How lovely,” the Duke nodded, examining the box.
“We know, Sir, how much you enjoy going to the Punch and Judy shows in Covent Garden. And, we have seen the handsome puppet that you have. We all thought you might like this trinket. As you can see, the top is painted with a scene of Mr. Punch and Judy with the baby and their dog.”
“Dog Toby,” the Duke said. Ethel noticed that his voice was different when he said that—brighter, lighter, a little rougher. She liked it, and was quite pleased with herself for figuring out why the Duke’s dog was called “Dog Toby.”
“This is the finest gift.” The Duke nodded, after clearing his throat. He sounded more like himself that time.
“Open it, Sir,” Ethel chirped.
Speaight looked at her quickly and, for a second, Ethel was sure that the butler was about to scold her for speaking out of turn. Instead, he smiled.
The Duke opened the music box and grinned when he heard the tune. “It plays ‘Quadrille de Punch.’ I thank you very much.” He paused, “And, look at that. The inside of the lid is engraved. He read aloud, ‘To His Grace, the Duke of Fallbridge. 23 Mar. 1853. With appreciation from the staff of No. 65 Belgrave Square.” He cleared his throat again. “I’m terribly honored. Thank you all so much.”
Dr. Halifax looked quite pleased. “Shall we watch His Grace open his other gifts?”
“I already…” The Duke said quickly. He stopped himself, and took a deep breath. “I’ve already been given this lovely box and…” He used his right hand to touch a ring on his left hand. “And, my beautiful present from you, Dr. Halifax. There couldn’t be more.”
Jenny squinted to get a look at the ring the Duke was wearing. She’d not seen him wear it before. It glimmered in several different colors. Jenny noticed that Ethel was looking at it, too. They were both quite impressed.
“Did the doctor give him that?” Ethel whispered.
“Who else, then?” Jenny frowned.
“Dunno.” Ethel shrugged
“Your Grace,” Dr. Halifax said formally. “Did you not notice the gifts on the table?”
The Duke laughed—loudly and with a sort of joy which Ethel and Jenny would never have thought possible from a titled man. “I rather thought that those were meant as favors for our guests.”
“They are all for you.”
Speaight retrieved one of the gifts and placed it on the tray to offer to the master.
The Duke took the gift and studied the small card which had been tucked under the ribbon.
“Who’s it from, Sir?” Ethel called out, feeling quite at home. She did, however, looked sideways to Mr. Speaight, but he didn’t seem to mind.”
“It is from Their Majesties, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.”
The staff gasped, terribly impressed.
The Duke carefully opened the paper to reveal a leather box.
“Nice,” Ethel whispered.
“That ain’t it.” Jenny mumbled.
“Oh.” Ethel’s eyes widened.
Opening the leather case, the Duke removed a gleaming gold box the likes of which the maids had never seen before.
“How beautiful.” Gamilla said. “Your Grace, what is it?”
“Well, Gamilla, it’s a snuffbox. See, the top of the box is…” He paused again.
Ethel wondered if the Duke always did this—starting to speak in one way, and then changing his mind after a few words.
The Duke began to speak again. “Gamilla, this is called enamel. You see this lovely blue?”
He held the box up for the staff to see. The top of the gold box was, indeed, a shining blue. In the center, a small portrait oval of Queen Victoria was surrounded by fiery diamonds.”
“Think,” Ethel whispered, “that came from Her Majesty herself.”
“I must thank Their Majesties when we visit them the day after tomorrow.” The Duke said to Dr. Halifax who, the maids noticed, looked immensely pleased and proud.
“Shall I get another?” Speaight asked.
“Yes, please,” the Duke nodded, placing the gold box next to him on the settee, alongside the music box.
“A gift we gave the master is right next to a gift from the palace. From the Queen herself.” Ethel chirped excitedly.
Speaight offered another box to the Duke—this one was larger.
“This is from Dr. Halifax’s brother, Cecil, and his wife in Lousiana.” The Duke smiled. He looked at Gamilla who nodded with understanding.
From the box, the Duke removed a very large puppet with a wooden head and a cloth body. The puppet resembled Dog Toby only wearing a yellow and red ruff and pointed hat.
Ethel noticed that tears had begun to form in the Duke’s eyes.
The master tried to speak, but couldn’t seem to find words.
“Of course,” Dr. Halifax spoke up, “Charles, Gerard and Gamilla know this already since they were with us in America, but the puppet that His Grace keeps in his bedchamber was made for him by my brother, Cecil—a sculptor—and his wife. It seems they’ve made a canine companion for Mr. Punch—the puppet—just as the Duke has the real Dog Toby.”
With that, Dr. Halifax sat next to the Duke, careful not to sit on the music box and snuffbox from the Queen and Prince. He whispered to the man softly. “Steady on, dear… We’ll write a nice letter to them this evening.”
The Duke nodded, still unable to speak.
At that very moment, Ethel realized what Mrs. Pepper and Mr. Speaight were saying earlier when they said the Duke was not likely to find a wife. Ethel grinned, happy that her two masters had one another.
“Will you…” The Duke began, pausing to press his lips together. “Will you hold him for me?”
Ethel wondered if the Duke wouldn’t cry. He seemed as if he might—not sad tears, but happy ones. He didn’t, however. Instead he cleared his throat.
“There are three more, Sir.” Speaight said.
“Get the small one, Speaight.” Dr. Halifax pointed.
Speaight did as instructed.
As the Duke took the box, Dr. Halifax smiled. “This one, Your Grace, is from our Colin.”
“How’d he…” The Duke snorted. “Pardon me…how…”
“I helped arrange it for him.” The doctor winked.
“Ah, thought maybe Dog Toby took him shopping.” The Duke muttered cheerfully—again, his voice slightly different.
The Duke opened a leather and mohair case—hinged at each side to open in the center—to reveal a gold and diamond framed portrait miniature.
Again, the Duke was unable to speak, his eyes moist. He held the miniature up for all to see. It was a small painting—of brilliant, vivid color—of Colin—his pink cheeks and dark eyes perfectly captured in enamel color.
“You see, Your Grace,” The doctor said, emotion creeping into his own voice, “It’s Colin.”
“I see.” The Duke responded softly.
“When we first opened the house, do you recall when I asked that painter to finish the murals on the nursery walls?”
The Duke nodded.
“Do you remember the man that I introduced to you as the muralist’s assistant?”
The Duke nodded again.
“I fibbed a little.” The doctor winked. “He was not the muralist’s assistant. It was Joseph Lee, the miniaturist who works so often for Their Majesties. While you were working on the papers for some of your charities, he was making sketches of Colin.”
Gamilla couldn’t hold her tongue any longer. “I sat with them. Sir, you should have seen the drawings—they were so pretty. But, this…this is much prettier, still.”
Dr. Halifax grinned. “Mr. Lee finished this just in time. He arranged for the jeweled frame which was made especially for you by Garrard’s.”
The Duke’s head shook for a moment and, then, he nodded slowly to Dr. Halifax.
“Do you like it, Your Grace?” Gamilla asked.
“Very, very much,” The Duke rasped. “Forgive me,” he said slowly. “As I am without words at the moment.”
“Give him ours now,” Gerard barked.
This made the Duke laugh. “Gerard has the spirit.”
Charles looked at his friend. “You all right?”
“Sure,” Gerard said brightly.
“Charles, perhaps you would like to present your gift to the Duke?” Speaight asked.
Charles held up his broken wrist.
“Ah, yes.” Speaight chuckled. “I’ll do it.”
“Sir,” Charles began. “I know that we all, as a staff, got you that nice music box, but Gerard and I wanted to do something special, too.” Charles turned to face the rest of the staff. “I know you’re all aware that Gerard, Gamilla and I were in the employ of His Grace in America. However, what you don’t know is that, much as he is with all of us here, His Grace showed us such special kindness while we were abroad, that we will forever be in his debt."
“Pardon me sayin’ it,” Gerry spoke up. “But had it not been for the Duke and Dr. Halifax, neither Charlie, Gamilla nor me might be alive today.”
Opening the small box that he’d been handed. It was a wee, leather case which he opened slowly to reveal a pair of gold cuff buttons. On their faces, they’d been chased and carved with a small portrait of the puppet figure, Mr. Punch. At the top of each of the Punchinello’s hats, a small ruby flickered.
“Oh, they’re terribly handsome.”
“Best we could afford, Sir.” Charles said humbly.
“Thank you so much, Charles. Thank you Gerard.” The Duke smiled.
“His Grace must really enjoy ol’ Red Nose.” Ethel whispered to Jenny.
“Seems so.” Jenny nodded.
“One remains.” Speaight said. “Miss Barrett?”
“The last is from me and Gamilla, Your Grace.” Ellen smiled.
“May I?” Gamilla asked.
“Of course,” Gamilla retrieved the gift from the table and, using Speaight’s tray, offered it to the Duke.
After opening the brightly wrapped package, His Grace removed from the box, a porcelain figure.
“It’s a nodder,” Gamilla smiled.
The Duke gently touched the head of the figure which gently rocked in place in a nodding motion. Modeled after a figure of pierrot, the figure was brightly colored. In the pierrot’s hand was nestled a painted representation of a Punch puppet. The figure wore a pointed cap and across the front of his coat were several colorful, fluffy puffs.
The Duke giggled like a little boy. “It’s very smart. Thank you so much! It’ll always agree with me, too. I can’t say how much it is appreciated, thank you—both of you.”
“Sir,” Ellen said. “We must thank you for all you’ve done for us.”
“Yes, Your Grace,” Gamilla added. “The kindness you done showed me is like nothin’ I never knew ‘fore. Even to bring me all the way here from America, Sir. You made my life very good.”
The Duke continued to play with the nodder for a few moments, smiling all the time, before realizing that he must speak. Setting the gift next to him, he rose.
“I want to thank all of you for your touching kindness. You’ve all been too, too kind for, honestly, the best gift you can give me is the one you already present each day. You see, it’s been my dream to enjoy a happy, peaceful home. Because of all of you, that dream is a reality. I want you all to know that each day, I am thankful for all of you.”
Jenny and Ethel found that they both had tears in their eyes.
Gerard laughed stupidly, patting Charles on the back.
“You’re not quite yourself, mate.” Charles whispered.
“Jus’ havin’ some fun, Charlie.” Gerard winked.
“Well, then,” Dr. Halifax rose. “Speaight, champagne is in order, I think. And, Mrs. Pepper, I think you should be the one to cut that magnificent cake.”
“Oh, certainly, Dr. Halifax.” Mrs. Pepper blushed again.
Everyone began to murmur happily, and soon the joyful sound grew so loud that no one heard the front door bell as it rang insistently.
After a few moments, Tom, the page, stiffly and hesitantly entered the room. He walked up to Mr. Speaight and whispered. “Sir, there’s a woman here.”
“What’s that boy?” Speaight asked, turning from the champagne which he was pouring.
“A woman…well, two of em. One young and…and an old woman, too. They’re both in the vestibule.”
“Oh.” Speaight’s eyes widened. He signaled for Gerard to keep pouring, and then, made his way to the vestibule. As he walked, he had a rather sick feeling that their happy party was over far too soon.
Did you miss Chapters 1-33 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square. If so, you can read them here. Come back on Saturday for Chapter 35.