Darkness Until You Die
“Dear Punch,” Robert shook his head as he paced in front of the hearth in Punch’s bedchamber, “are you quite certain about this?”
“I am, Chum.” Punch nodded groggily.
“You’ve only been awake half an hour,” Robert sighed.
“Robert’s correct, brother dear.” Lennie nodded. “This can wait until the morning.”
“I want to talk with her now, I do.” Punch answered.
“I’ll speak with her, Punch.” Lennie smiled. “Though, I must say, well…I don’t know what good it will do. Our earlier conversation didn’t go so very well.”
“Yes, Lennie and I will speak with the girl. You need your rest, my dear.” Robert added.
“Rest? Ain’t I been sleepin’ most of the day?” Punch raised his eyebrows.
“Dear Punch, you were administered a dangerous amount of that tonic. Yes, you were asleep, but your body needs time to recover.”
“I don’t have time to recover. The world’s still the same as it was when I went to sleep. Ulrika and Orpha are still just a few doors down with that poor creature. And, Lennie, I know what you told me ‘bout them havin’ the baron brought to ‘em and all, but, to me, that just means they’re all the more dangerous. Furthermore, Fern’s still troubled and she needs help, she does.”
“Be that as it may, my dear…” Robert began. “There’s no need for you to start fighting dragons immediately.
“I ain’t gonna fight no one.” Punch smiled wearily. “Fern is no dragon.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Robert muttered.
“Punch, I’ll be the first to say that I was quick to defend her, simply because of her age, but, the person with whom I spoke earlier today showed no signs of the innocence of childhood.” Lennie spoke up.
“All the more reason I should talk to her.” Punch replied. “She’s still just a child. Maybe she’s broken now, but, she’s got time, she has, to make a change.”
Robert and Lennie exchanged glances.
“Don’t she, Chum?” Punch asked.
“I’m not sure. I admit, I’m not the best judge when it comes to the girl. I’m afraid I’ve already made up my mind about her.”
“Lennie?” Punch asked.
“Well, I’m sure there’s a chance she could be rehabilitated, brother dear. However, since this afternoon, I’ve had time to think about this, and, to be honest, I’m leaning more toward an agreement with Robert. While it’s possible she may be improved, I’m not sure that this is the place to do it. Perhaps there are better places for her with people who might better be able to address whatever needs she has.”
“She needs understandin’ and comfort.” Punch sighed.
“She’s a threat to our family.” Robert shook his head.
“I’ll make sure she’s kept away from Colin. You don’t gotta fear that, Chum. I’d never make a choice that might put Colin in harm’s way.”
“What about you?” Robert asked. “You’re in harm’s way as long as she’s in this house. She’s already almost killed you. And what of Lennie, and the staff, and, even Dog Toby?”
“And Robert.” Lennie added.
“Listen, I ain’t made a decision. I just wanna talk with the girl to see for myself what you’re tellin’ me.”
“And, I think it would be best if you waited until the morning.” Robert said firmly.
“Chum…” Punch began, but he was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“That’s Gamilla with her now.”
“I’m not leaving you alone with her.” Robert replied.
“I don’t want you to. You and Lennie both should stay.” Punch nodded.
Robert grunted, and opened the door, to find, as expected Gamilla and Fern on the other side.
“Is the Duke dead?” Fern asked.
“No.” Robert scowled. “Despite your best efforts.”
“Robert.” Lennie warned.
“Go on in, girl.” Gamilla tapped the girl on the shoulder.
Fern entered the room and stared the Punch who was propped up in bed.
“Shall I go?” Gamilla asked.
“No, Gamilla.” Punch shook his head.
“You see,” Fern smiled. “I told them you wouldn’t die. And, you didn’t. You had a nice sleep for yourself.”
“I don’t need that much sleep.” Punch answered, using his usual speaking voice, but attempting to speak with a slightly more formal tone than he preferred. “So, my girl…”
“I’m not your girl.” Fern snapped.
“Well, then…if you’re not my girl, then, who’s are you?”
“So, you’d rather belong to no one than to my family?” Punch asked.
“Yes.” Fern replied.
“I see,” Punch nodded. “Well, then…girl. I’m not so sure what you were tryin’ to accomplish today by slippin’ that bottle of tonic in my water.”
Fern smiled. “I was trying to help.”
“That’s what I’m told.” Punch nodded. “Still you know I don’t believe that.”
“I don’t know why everyone is so upset. You didn’t die.”
“And what if I did?”
“Then your house would be sold and your son would be given to strangers.” Fern replied. “That’s what happens when people die.”
“Not in my case.” Punch responded, slightly shocked. “If I were to die, Dr. Halifax would be bequeathed the house as well as my other two, and all my property, and he would raise Colin. See, Colin’s got two fathers.”
“Some people have none.”
“You could have two uncles right here. And, an auntie.” Punch shrugged. “If you let us be that to ya.”
“I don’t need aunts and uncles.”
“Watch the way you speak to His Grace.” Gamilla scolded.
“I’ll do as I wish!” Fern shouted.
“Fern, I can’t quite figure what you’re tryin’ to accomplish here.” Punch contined, unfazed. “Are you tryin’ to best us? Do ya think you can get the better of us? You can’t. Have you ever seen the Punch and Judy show at Covent Garden?”
“Of course I have. Everyone has.” Fern grumbled.
“Well, then, you know there’s a reason I’m called Mr. Punch. See…I stared evil in the eye. Looked in the very face of the devil, and I beat ‘im. I beat the devil. I’m Mr. Punch. And, if I can beat the devil, sure I can beat a little girl at her games.”
“There’s no such thing as the devil.” Fern frowned.
“Maybe not in the way folk think of it—not some bloke with red skin and a tail and hooves like a beast. But, there’s folks what’re like the devil. I know ‘em. I’ve beaten a good few of ‘em, and I’ll beat the rest. You know ‘em, too. Them folks like your Auntie Orpha and that lunatic ginger woman from America.”
“All gingers are lunatics.” Fern smiled.
“Is that meaning me, too?” Punch laughed.
“What would you call a man who thought he was a puppet?”
“I’d call ‘im wise. What’d you call a girl who was so filled with misery that it weighed her down so she didn’t know what to do? I’d call her ‘Fern.’ I ain’t too sure ‘bout you, I’m not. You…there are others like you what I’ve known. Folk so heavy with sadness that it makes ‘em do odd things. Some o’ them folk do awful deeds because they don’t know any other way. Some share wickedness because they want everyone they see to be as miserable as they are. Which are you?”
“I don’t do awful things.” Fern shook her head.
“No? What would you call ruinin’ a bride’s dress what she made ‘erself? Or, almost droppin’ a baby from a window? See, these are the things what a miserable person does. That, and poisonin’ poor, unsuspectin’ Dukes what are only tryin’ to be nice and helpful.”
Fern smiled again.
“You got a lot against ya, Fern. I know that. Your life, short as it is, has been terrible sad. But, it don’t have to be.”
“I’m not sad. My mind is clear.” Fern answered.
“Well, then, you can make a choice.”
“You can stop doin’ these wicked things and stay here where there are folk what want to be your friend or, we can do what Dr. Halifax wants to do.”
Gamilla, Lennie and Robert watched expectantly as Punch explained.
“See, he wants to send you away. And, when I say that, I don’t mean to a nice school where good little girls learn to speak French and do needlework. I mean to an asylum where sick, little girls drool and make baskets.”
Fern’s smile faded. “My mother asked you to take care of me.”
“That’s what we would be doin’.” Punch replied. “Here’s the truth, then. You ain’t really kin to us. We got no obligation to your poor, dead mama. We tried to do as she asked, but if it don’t work, we gotta send you away. Sure, we’ll take care of ya. I’ll pay for ya to stay at the asylum, if that’s what you choose.”
“You can’t send me to a place like that!” Fern snapped.
“I can, and I will.”
“Your mother is dead. And, you know how she died, too. It was a coward’s way to die, and more cowardly still to leave ya behind like she done. But, your mama’s crime is her own. Don’t mean we gotta put our real family in the path o’ peril. See. When folk leave us be, we’re ‘appy here. Me and the doctor, we’re happy. We got Lennie now, and she brings joy to the house. We all love young Colin. We love our Dog Toby, too. We got a house full of folk, upstairs and down, what care for one another. It’s a nice place where there’s plenty of warmth and vittles and gold to go ‘round for all, for as long as we live. It’s good to be here. It’s good to be part of this family. You could be a part of it, too, if you want. But, you don’t seem to want to, or you wouldn’t do them things you done. Here and now, I’m giving you one more chance. You can decide. Stay here and learn to let that misery inside of you go ‘way, or go to an asylum and work your fingers bloody while your mind rots from the inside.”
Punch shrugged again. “And, let me tell ya. If you tell me you want to stay, and, then do somethin’ else—and I don’t mean natural mistakes children make—somethin’ truly wicked and planned like you done before, if you lie to me ‘bout wantin’ to be good, I’ll send ya away that very moment. And, it won’t even be as nice an asylum. No baskets there. Just a cell and a hard cot and nothin’ but darkness until ya die.”
Robert, Lennie and Gamilla remained silent, surprised, but pleased, by Punch’s bluntness.
“So, what’ll it be?”
Fern was silent.
“Right.” Punch nodded. “I see you don’t want to stay here.”
“I didn’t say that!” Fern answered. “It’s just, I can’t promise I’ll always be good.”
“All children make mischief. They break things, they have accidents, they play games and jokes. I can understand all that. I expect all that. Like I said, I don’t mean them natural things what children do. I mean harmful things, hurtful things what cause pain and injury.”
“I’ll ask again.” Punch smiled. “What’ll it be?”
Did you miss Chapters 1-305 of Mr. Punch of Belgrave Square? If so, you can read them here. Come back tomorrow for Chapter 307.