Hide and Seek
Speaight quietly slipped back into the drawing room and approached Dr. Halifax who was having a chat with both Ethel and Jenny who both blushed with every word the young doctor spoke.
“Pardon me, Sir.” Speaight said softly.
“Yes, Speaight. I wondered where you went.” Robert smiled.
“Tom informed me that someone had rung the front bell. The Countess Hamish and Lady Constance, Sir.”
Robert frowned. “Pity.”
Jenny and Ethel giggled.
“They requested an interview with you and His Grace.” Speaight continued.
“I suppose we must.” Robert shook his head. “Pardon me, ladies,” he nodded at Ethel and Jenny.
With the doctor out of earshot, the girls giggled loudly.
“He’s ever-so handsome,” Jenny gushed as the doctor walked off.
“Not as handsome as His Grace.” Ethel shook her head.
"Those blue eyes," Jenny sighed.
"But, His Grace has got that soft auburn hair, looks like them pictures of princes in books." Ethel replied.
"Fine," Jenny tittered. "They're both a treat, they are. But, they only got eyes for each other."
Dissolving into a wave of giggles again, the girls clinked their champagne glasses.
Robert walked to Mr. Punch/The Duke who stood in the corner with Ellen and Gamilla. In his arms, Punch held little Colin. He looked so happy that Robert didn’t wish to bother him. Still, he knew that refusing the Countess Hamish would be a social mistake with long-lasting ramifications. After all, the countess was known to be a terrible gossip and, in Robert's eyes, they couldn't afford more rumors.
“Your Grace,” Robert nodded at his companion formally. He looked to the women. “Excuse me, Miss Barrett, Gamilla, however I’m going to need to steal the Duke for a moment. We won’t be long.”
“Aw.” Mr. Punch frowned. "We was talkin' 'bout babies and puppy dogs and such."
“I promise, dear Punch,” Robert whispered, feeling free enough to speak so intimately in front of Gamilla and Ellen, “we will come right back and you may resume your joyful chat.”
“Sure,” Punch smiled. “Miss Barrett, will you take Colin?”
“Of course,” Ellen smiled, reaching for the child. "Come here, Master Colin. Miss Ellen wants to talk with you."
“We’ll bring him to his room, Sir.” Gamilla volunteered. “It’s getting too late for him. Look at 'em sleepy eyes.”
“Very well,” Punch sighed. “We’ll come up to say ‘good night’ soon.” He reached over to tickle the baby's stomach. "Your papas love ya an awful lot."
Punch walked to the center of the room. He spoke up, using his best “Julian” voice and said, “Pardon me, everyone, Dr. Halifax and I must depart for a few moments. However, we welcome you to carry on. Have another glass of champagne—well, except for the younger girls--Jenny and Ethel." He grinned. "—and each of you should enjoy another piece of Mrs. Pepper's magical cake in our absence.”
The staff applauded as the Duke and the doctor followed Speaight out of the drawing room.
Alone with Speaight and Robert Punch felt he could speak freely. “Why we leavin’?” Punch sighed. “We gonna play a game? Oh! I know. We can play hide and seek. Speaight can, too. In fact, Speaight’s ‘it.’ Speaight, go stand over there and count to fifty while me chum and me hide. Come on, men. Let's play!"
Speaight chuckled. “As much as I would enjoy that, Your Grace, I’m afraid I interrupted because you’ve visitors.”
“Damn.” Punch scowled. “Never turns out well, it don’t. Who is it?”
“Lady Constance and the Countess Hamish.”
“Bugger.” Punch shook his head. “We was havin’ such a fine time, too.”
“Not to worry. We’ll be quick about it.” Robert put his arm around Mr. Punch’s shoulders.
“Good. Don't like that Lady Constance, I don't. She's got a face what looks like a balled-up foot.”
Robert laughed. "You may not want to mention that to her."
"Nah, 'spose not. Where'd you put 'em, Speaight?"
“I’ve put them in the library since the fire was lit in there.” Speaight explained as the Duke and the doctor followed him through the passage.
“Thank you, Speaight.” Robert nodded.
“Shall I announce you?” Speaight asked.
“I don’t think that’s necessary.” Robert shook his head.
“Well…” Punch raised his eyebrows hopefully. “I rather like when he does, I do. Helps me remember to act like Julian. Makes me feel…dunno…good, like I'm important.”
“Very well,” Robert winked. "But, remember, you're important anyway."
They both paused for Speaight to open the door to the library.
The butler stepped inside first. “His Grace, the Duke of Fallbridge and Doctor Robert Henry Halifax.”
The two women inside nodded as Robert and Punch entered.
Punch studied their uninvited guests. Lady Constance looked as pinched and unpleasant as the last time he saw her. This time, however, she was dressed in a bright chartreuse gown trimmed with feathers and yellow sequins which made her look more like a bird than she already did. The lady’s mother—Countess Hamish—was simply an older version of her daughter. Equally pinched and disgruntled-looking, the countess was dustier, more wrinkled and considerably greyer. She wore a dull gown of dove gray which struck Punch immediately as being five years out of fashion.
“May I bring the sherry tray?” Speaight asked.
“No!” the countess spat. “Leave us. Perhaps you can pay better attention to your duties from now on!”
Speaight looked at the Duke who shrugged slightly. “That will be all for now, Speaight. Thank you.”
“You should have a word with that man, Fallbridge,” Countess Hamish growled with Speaight still in ear-shot. "He's useless!"
Without another word, Speaight left.
The four of them stood in awkward silence for several seconds. During this time, Punch thought of the many things that were right there in the library with which he could swat the women across the skull. The thought pleased and relaxed him and he smiled. "Countess," he began.
“What sort of household are you running here, Fallbridge?” The countess snarled.
“Pardon me, Countess?”
“We waited almost ten minutes before someone answered the door.” The countess mooed. “Your mother never would have stood for that. It’s good that she’s dead. She’d be ashamed of the way in which you run your household. Don’t you think that if such a thing ever happened at Fallbridge Hall when your mother was alive that she’d have dismissed that butler? Honestly, Fallbridge, what’s someone to do—waiting that long?”
“Most people would have given up and left.” The Duke answered—more Punch than he intended.
Neither the countess nor her daughter seemed to notice. The countess continued her tirade.
“And when the door was answered, it was some grubby page. Not even a footman! I could accept a footman if a butler wasn’t available. But, this? You know, Fallbridge, I knew your mother when you were young. She always said you’d amount to nothing. If this is any evidence of how you run your household, then, I fear she was correct.”
Punch stared at the woman with wide, hurt eyes. "This is my house."
“Mother, please.” Lady Constance said quickly.
“You must forgive us, Countess,” Robert interrupted. “We weren’t expecting anyone. The staff is otherwise occupied.”
“A good household is always prepared to answer the door.” The countess scowled. “Who are you, by the way?”
“Mother, this must be Dr. Halifax.” Lady Constance said sharply.
“Are you unable to introduce yourself?” The countess spat. "Perhaps not, you look rather common."
Punch had had all he could stomach. “He is no such thing! And, why should he have introduced himself?” he asked, still managing to speak in Julian’s voice. “Speaight announced us both. You know I’m the Duke of Fallbridge since you addressed me as such, and, so, clearly the other man in the room must be Dr. Halifax. A very important man, I might add, and one to whom you should not speak so."
“Well…” The countess sniffed.
“What can we do for you?” Robert asked, hoping to soften the situation before it got worse.
“First, you can explain to me why I had to wait ten minutes to be greeted.”
“The staff has been given the evening off in honor of the anniversary of my birth.” The Duke explained. “Something my mother, your friend, never celebrated, but something which I—as the Duke of Fallbridge—am free to do.”
“You let all of your servants go out all at once?” Lady Constance asked, wide-eyed.
“No, they’re all here. They’re in the drawing room, eating cake.” Punch answered plainly, but still with Julian’s formal tone.
“You…you were socializing with your staff?” The countess stammered.
“Yes.” The Duke smiled. “For the anniversary of my birth. As I said, we weren’t expecting anyone. I am terribly sorry that you had to wait, but I suppose that’s what happens when you come without an invitation or unannounced.”
“How dare you speak to me in such a way?”
“How dare you presume to come into my home and tell me how to run it!” Mr. Punch replied sharply, but still as Julian. “And furthermore, I thought that when the Duchess of Fallbridge died I’d no longer be subjected to such hateful tirades! I don’t appreciate your tone—especially in my own home, Countess. Need I remind you that I am a Duke?”
“You should act like one, then. You’ve been terribly rude. And, we’ve come here with a kind invitation to you—the dinner in your honor. We wanted to speak with you about it.” The countess gasped.
Lady Constance pouted. “Yes, we did wish to, Mother. And, we shall. Let’s not get muddied in petty arguments. Your Grace, we would like to discuss the dinner which I’d mentioned.”
“Which we so kindly had planned in your honor!” The countess howled. “Before we were forced to wait in the chill of the night! I can see how our kindness will be returned!”
“That’s kind of you, yes.” The Duke replied. “However, you must understand that when you arrive at a man’s home without warning, you may have to wait. And, you certainly should not barge in with unwelcome opinions about the operation of the households of others nor with insults directed at the staff of that household, nor, the mate of the man of the house, nor, most of all, come in spitting insults at someone who outranks you.” With that, Punch wildly looked around the room--his eyes darting about--as he wondered with what he could hit the countess. Again, he had no intention of doing it, but he liked to know his options.
“What are you looking at? You are as mad as people say!” Countess Hamish snarled.
“That’s enough!” Robert shouted. Usually quite mild, Robert never held back when he felt his companion was being treated unjustly. “I’ll thank you both to leave our home! And, you can take your dinner invitation with you!”
With that, Robert stormed over to the bell-push and ran for Speaight who arrived within seconds.
“I…I have never…” Countess Hamish huffed.
“Mother,” Lady Constance hissed. “Remember why we’ve come… I told you…Let's start again, please. Mother, remember!”
“Speaight!” Robert bellowed as the butler entered the room. “Show these women out.”
“You’ll regret this!” the countess moaned.
“I highly doubt it.” Robert shook his head.
“Mother, please…let’s not leave like this.” Lady Constance begged. She whispered something to her mother which neither Robert nor Punch could hear.
The countess swatted her daughter away. “That is no longer my concern, Constance!” She turned to Robert. “I don’t think you know to whom you’re speaking, young man.”
“I’m speaking to the old woman who tried to ruin our evening. I’m speaking to the dowager beast that came here to insult my companion! Now, let me tell you to whom you are speaking. I shall repeat my name, lest you forget it. I am Dr. Robert Halifax. I am the companion of the Duke of Fallbridge. And, may I remind you, Countess Hamish, that while the Duke is very much in the favor of the Crown, your family has been shunned from the court since the time of William IV! And, that, Countess Hamish, is only because you were a ‘favorite’ of the late King as well as his brothers--a fact that always stuck in the craw of Queen Adelaide. You wish to speak of gossip? How about those little morsels I’ve heard about your evenings at Brighton? I don’t think I need continue! Your charm is apparently lost on Her Majesty Queen Victoria. I’m sure she knows how her uncles enjoyed your companionship and I’m sure the thought sickens her. From what I’ve heard, while you may hold court over the small-minded of Belgravia, you’re not welcome at the palace. Meanwhile, I will be taking luncheon with the Duke and Prince Albert in two day’s time. Perhaps it is you who should be careful to whom you speak so unpleasantly. Furthermore, should I hear any talk of this event or of my companion’s supposed ‘madness,’ I will know from whom that slander came and I will know to whom to address my most serious complaints! Now, good evening!”
Both the countess and Lady Constance gasped.
“Follow me, please.” Speaight smiled.
As the women walked from the room—in shock—Robert slammed the door behind them as punctuation.
He put his hands over his face.
“Ha!” Mr. Punch laughed, speaking as himself. “Ha! Oh, Chum! What a man, you are! You tore into them old crones!”
“I know.” Robert groaned. “I shouldn’t have done that. I know. Dear God, I should…”
“Hold on, Chum.” Punch put his arms around Robert. “Don’t say ‘nother word.”
“But, I…” Robert panted. “I shouldn’t have spoken to her that way. She’s a countess. Here, I was worried about offending her by refusing her visit and I ended up basically calling her King William’s whore.”
“I know!” Punch whopped, nuzzling Robert. “Weren’t it grand?” He giggled. “Not just William IV, but George IV! Oh, did you see her face, chum! She were as white as a sheet! Oh, it were grand!”
“She outranks me…” Robert whimpered.
“Not here she don’t.” Punch said firmly. “Furthermore, if she were such a fine and proper lady, she’d not have been so mean to Speaight nor me.”
“I couldn’t let her speak to you that way.”
“I’m proud of ya, I am, my Robert.” Punch smiled at his companion. “You were more Mr. Punch than I! You beat the Devil!”
“I just hope I didn’t make it worse,” Robert shook his head.
“Nah—who cares? Now, we don’t gotta worry ‘bout her fool dinner invitation. Didn’t want to go anyway.” Punch smiled,fiddling with the buttons on Robert's waistcoat.
“I just hope she doesn’t add to the gossip.” Robert clucked his tongue.
“I don’t think she’d dare.” Punch chuckled.
Speaight returned to the room. “Sir? I’ve shown the ladies out.”
“Thank you.” Robert sighed. “I don’t suppose you heard any of that?”
“Yes, Sir.” Speaight smiled. “And, may I be so bold as to say that it was a long time coming?”
Finally, Robert chuckled. He shook his head, "I'm so sorry you had to hear that, but sorrier still that the countess spoke to you in such a manner. No man should have his dignity stripped away like that."
"Thank you, Sir."
“Come on, chum.” Punch winked. “We got a party to go to.”
“Of course,” Robert nodded. “Speaight, please go on ahead. Tell the others, if you would, that we’ll return in a moment. And, let's just forget about all of this unpleasantness..”
"Sir, the countess and Lady Constance are not representative of the ladies of Belgravia and Mayfair. It is easily forgotten." Speaight nodded, leaving the library.
“Dear Punch,” Robert said softly. “I do want to apologize for one thing.”
“I know you don’t care for raised voices. So, I’m terribly sorry about that.”
“Better you raised your voice than I raised bumps on their heads.” Punch teased. “You was jus’ tryin’ to protect me. Don’t be sorry for that. I’m glad you did.”
“Good.” Robert grinned.
“Now, come on…” Punch grabbed Robert’s arm. “I wanna go eat more cake and look at me presents. Thank you for what you done for me. That miniature of Colin and this fine ring…”
“You’ve had a good day, then?”
“Best birthday I ever had.” Punch smiled. “And, since it’s the first I ever had, I can only expect ‘em to get better and better.”
“I assure you that they will.”
“You’ll help me write to Cecil and Adrienne to thank ‘em for the puppet Dog Toby?”
Mr. Punch grinned slyly.
“What’s that for?”
“Dunno.” Punch shrugged playfully. “Couple a things. First, I rather liked seein’ ya be all tough with them ol’ birds.”
“Gonna have to reward ya for that later.”
“What’s the other thing?”
“Well, we got your birthday comin’ up.”
“Not until October.”
“Well, just you wait, chum. It’s gonna be a day you won’t forget.”
“There hasn’t been a day spent with you that I’d want to forget.” Robert replied. “Now, back to the party?”
“In a minute.”
“First…” Punch tapped Robert on the shoulder. “We play hide and seek.”
Did you miss Chapters 1-34? If so, you can read them here. Come back on Monday for Chapter 36 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square.