“How much?” Robert demanded.
“How much did you give him?”
“I poured the bottle into the pitcher.” Fern replied plainly.
“You…you…” Robert sputtered. “Why would you do such a thing, you wicked girl?”
“I was helping.” Fern answered.
“Helping?” Robert snapped. “Do you even know what you’ve done?”
“I gave the Duke a sleeping tonic.”
“So you knew what was in that bottle and you deliberately poured it into his water? You…do you realize that taking too much of that elixir could kill a man?”
“It’s salvation.” Fern said quickly.
“Salvation?” Lennie interrupted. “To harm your benefactor? To poison the man who took you into his home and made you part of his family?”
“I didn’t poison him.” Fern shook her head. “I gave him a sleeping tonic.”
“How do you even know about such things?” Lennie asked.
“Mama had a bottle just like it. She’d take it at night and say, ‘Fern, this is my salvation.’ It was good. It made her sleep and when she was asleep she didn’t feel so bad. I saw that the Duke felt bad. He scolded me. I knew he didn’t like to do it. I knew he was upset because I ruined the African’s dress and because those ladies were being bad. So…so…”
“So you poured the tonic into his drink.” Lennie nodded.
“I was trying to help.”
“You could well have killed him.” Lennie shook her head.
“But…I was trying to help. He’s nice even if he is barmy and peculiar.” Fern shrugged.
“You lie.” Robert growled. “You’re a liar. A wicked, wicked girl.”
“No.” Fern answered.
“Get out of my sight.” Robert hissed. “Gamilla, get her out of my sight. Take her to her room and lock the door. She’s not to come out. She’s not to come out until I decide what’s to be done with her.”
“I was trying to help!” Fern screamed.
“Get her out.” Robert spat.
“Come on, Miss Fern.” Gamilla in haled. “Let’s go to your room.”
“Is the Duke dead?” Fern ignored Gamilla, peering at Punch who lay on the sofa.
“No.” Gamilla whispered.
“Disappointed?” Robert snarled.
“I want to see him.” Fern said.
“You will do no such thing!” Robert shouted. “Charles, pick her up and take her to her room.”
Charles stepped forward.
“Don’t touch me. Don’t TOUCH me!” Fern screamed racing toward the sofa upon which the Duke lay.
“Wake up!” Fern howled at him. “Tell them I’m not wicked. I was trying to help!” She began to sob wildly. “Your Grace! Please! Open your eyes. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” The girl fell to her knees on the floor and moaned. “No! No! I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Fern!” Robert bellowed.
“Robert, be gentle.” Lennie whispered.
“Why?” Robert asked.
“She’s just a child.”
“Surely you don’t believe this foolishness.”
“I do.” Lennie replied. She stepped closer to Robert, putting Dog Toby on the floor. Whispering, she continued. “The child has had a horrid life. Her wretched mother’s suicide, shuffled from place-to-place, being held captive by Orpha…Marduk. She’s seen horrible things. Certainly, it would make her strange. I don’t think she’s wicked, I think she just doesn’t know any better. It’s been one place of cruelty after another. When added to the guilt and shame a…an illegitimate child feels naturally…”
Robert rolled his eyes and snorted. Looking at Gamilla, he asked, gently. “Do you feel the same way?”
“I don’t know, Sir.” Gamilla shook her head. “To be true, I just don’t know.”
Robert nodded and inhaled.
“Very well.” He sighed. “Lennie, perhaps you can take Fern to her room and Gamilla can stay here with me and help me with His Grace.”
“I will.” Lennie replied.
“Perhaps you can speak with her.” Robert said softly.
“I’ll try.” Lennie smiled.
“I do hope you’re correct in your assessment of the girl.” Robert replied. “I truly do.”
Lennie nodded and walked to where Fern had fallen to the floor. “Fern?”
“I won’t leave until he wakes up.”
“That won’t be for awhile, I don’t think.” Lennie shook her head. “Dr. Halifax thinks it best you go to your room and wait.”
“He hates me.” She whispered.
“He doesn’t hate you.”
“He yelled at me.”
“He’s upset.” Lennie replied.
“I really didn’t mean to hurt His Grace.”
Scratching his neck, Robert spoke up. “I believe you Fern. But, you must promise me never to do something like this again, and, never, ever to go into my bag or…even my study again. Now, let Lennie take you upstairs. I’ll come and talk with you when the Duke wakes.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“Fern, I need to pay attention to Uncle Punch to make sure he’s all right. If you want to help, the best thing you can do is go with Lennie.”
“Come with me.” Lennie added.
Fern nodded and stood up.
“I didn’t mean to hurt him.” She repeated.
“Very well.” Robert answered as calmly as he could. “Just don’t do anything like it again.”
Lennie escorted Fern from the library.
“Sir, would you like us to stay?” Gerard asked softly.
“Uh…no, I don’t think so. Just Gamilla. You could go see what’s keeping Speaight with the water and…” Robert shook his head.
“Sir?” Gerard asked.
“Nothing. It’s just that I’m not convinced about the girl.”
“Nor am I, Sir.” Gerard replied.
“Charles, you knew her mother better than we did.”
“Not really, Sir.” Charles replied.
“Inasmuch as she spoke with you privately once or twice.” Robert continued. “What do you think of Fern.”
“I think she’s raving mad, Doctor. To be honest.”
Robert nodded. “As do I.” He sighed. “Miss Molliner has romanticized the girl simply because she’s a child, but…” He paused. “Perhaps I’m wrong. I can’t think of it now. Charles, would you prepare the Duke’s bed. I’ll ring for either you or Gerard to help me bring him upstairs soon.”
“Yes, Sir.” Charles replied.
“Gamilla, would you get some flannels? Both damp and dry.”
“Of course.” Gamilla nodded. “I won’t be but a moment.”
The three servants exited.
Alone with Punch, Robert knelt down and put his hand on Punch’s chest.
“You’re breathing well and your heart is strong.” Robert said to his unconscious companion. “I’ve a mind to pick you up and carry you from here. We can send Gamilla for Colin and we’ll take Charles and Gerard and just leave. We can go anywhere in the world. Maybe Florence. I’ve only seen it in engravings. I hear there’s much gold there. You’d enjoy it. I suppose we should take Lennie, too. Maybe she could take up painting. Colin could grow up speaking Italian. Charles could teach all of us.” He shook his head. “You’d scold me for wanting to run away. Wake up, love, and scold me.”
They sat in silence.
“Not to worry, dear Punch,” Robert said finally. “I shall wait.”
Did you miss Chapters 1-298 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square? If so, you can read them here. Come back tomorrow for Chapter 300.