Arriving in Kensington on the following morning, driven by his personal coachman — Irish Tom — and travelling in the coach with his monogrammed initials on the side, now grown a little the worse for wear, John, having disembarked, made his way briskly to his father’s residence in Church Lane, walking up the pathway that ran between the High Street and the gravel pits. His father had moved to the country in 1758, nearly ten years previously, and had now reached the great age of eighty-six. Yet the years had laid their hand upon him kindly; his golden eyes still gleamed with full cognition of all that was taking place, his voice was firm and strong with none of the quavering tones of the very elderly, his hearing, though fading, was still sharp enough. Let in by a footman, John stood in the doorway of the library and gazed upon the old man, glasses perched upon nose, avidly reading the newspaper, a cup of coffee standing on a small table at his side.
It was true that age had not faded Sir Gabriel and yet there was an air of fragility about him. He had never been overweight but these days there was a new thinness, a new angularity to his features. His hands, John noticed before he spoke, had a rustling quality about them as they turned the leaves of his beloved newspaper.
‘Hello, Sir. How are you on this fine day?’
Sir Gabriel looked up in a gleam of gold. ‘John, my boy, I never heard you come in.’
‘I was on tiptoe,’ John lied, and hurried forward to stop his father rising and to give him the huge kiss that the good old man merited.
‘Well, now, this is an unexpected pleasure. It must be at least two weeks since I last saw you.’
It was nearer three but the Apothecary did not correct him. ‘You are looking well, Father. Are you continuing to take the physick I made for you?’
‘Of course I am, my dear. Otherwise I should not be in such fine health.’ Despite John’s protestations he stood up and walked, stiffly but for all that with an excellent carriage of his shoulders, to where stood a sherry decanter and a selection of glasses.
‘Now, Father, you should let me do that.’
Sir Gabriel turned on him an amused smile. ‘My good child, the more you try to remove tasks from me the more senile I shall become. Let me, I beg you, continue to do anything of which I am still capable as long as my poor wits will allow.’
John immediately felt contrite. How many times in the past had he lectured the families of those growing older to let the elderly continue in their small duties as long as flesh would allow? And now here he was trying to remove his own father’s from him. He accepted the sherry and waited quietly until Sir Gabriel was seated once more before he said anything further.
‘Sir, I have brought you a present.’
The grand old man sipped his sherry and raised a shapely white brow. ‘Oh? And what might that be?’
‘This,’ said John, and produced a bottle of carbonated water from his pocket.
Sir Gabriel looked at him. ‘My dear, you’ve done it. You’ve succeeded in getting the bubbles in.’
‘I have indeed — and not before time either. Do you know I went to see Sir John Fielding — who presents his highest compliments to you, as does Joe Jago — and they both insisted that I should market the stuff. In other words bottle it and sell it to the public at large.’
His father rose once more and fetched himself a clean glass. ‘Pour some for me, my boy.’
John did so and his father quaffed deeply, then looked up with obvious surprise. ‘I never thought to admit that I actually enjoyed the taste of water, but I can truly say that this is excellent. I shall have some more.’ And he held out his glass for a refill.
The Apothecary smiled broadly. Sir Gabriel had always had a preference for fine wines and the very best champagne, and now here he was asking for more water. This was praise of the highest order.
‘So what do you think I should do about selling it?’ he asked.
‘You must indeed comply with what the Blind Beak suggests. Remember that he has one of the highest intellects in the land, and I personally would follow his advice without question.’
‘But there is a problem, Sir.’
‘And what is that?’
‘Elizabeth is due to deliver her child shortly and I promised to return to Devon to be with her. If I am to set this up as a business I shall need an able assistant.’
Sir Gabriel stroked his chin thoughtfully. ‘Indeed you will and I fear that I am a trifle old for such an adventure.’
John suppressed a smile.
‘What about young Dawkins?’
‘But he is married now and lives in Chelsea.’
‘Yes, and to that lovely girl Octavia. Do they have any offspring yet?’
‘Not that I’ve heard.’
‘Well that is beside the point at the moment. Why don’t you contact him and ask him if he would like to come back and work for you?’
‘I could try, I suppose.’
‘My son, unless you try nothing will ever get done. If he says no he might suggest a friend of his. Who knows?’
‘Father, you’re right. I leave for Devon in five days’ time. I shall go and see him tomorrow. In fact it would be easier to travel from here. May I stay the night with you?’
‘And what of Rose? Will she be safe?’
‘She has a whole household at her command. I am sure she will manage just for one night.’
‘Then nothing would give me greater pleasure than to have your company for the evening. Perhaps after we have dined we might have a game of cards.’
‘But you nearly always win, Sir.’
‘Perhaps tonight, my dear, your luck will change.’
It was feeling very cheerful that John made his way to Chelsea next morning. Normally he would have gone by water, enjoying the experience of the river’s flow and watching the wildlife that teemed along its banks. But today he felt that Irish Tom should earn his wages and consequently set out in his coach. The best route was along Chelsea Road and Tom took this, passing the fields and outbuildings of Avery Farm, to say nothing of the pretty farmhouse nestling comfortably amongst its barns. Beyond the next outcrop of trees there was a junction of tracks and Tom bore right, avoiding the stretch of water crossed by Chelsea Bridge. This waterway was fed by the Thames and the bridge was little more than a wooden structure, hardly fit for a coach to venture on. Passing down Strumbelo, then Jews Row, Tom finally turned into Francklins Row and drew the coach to a halt outside a very smart apothecary’s shop. Nicholas Dawkins and Octavia had obviously done very well for themselves.
Nick’s surprise on seeing his old master enter the shop was profound. His pale features flushed bright red, his large eyes widened and he almost cut his finger on the suppository-making machine.
‘Mr Rawlings! What a pleasure to see you. Come in, come in.’
He went to a door behind the counter, opened it and called up, ‘Octavia, Octavia. Can you come down? Mr Rawlings has arrived to see us.’
‘I’ll be there in a moment,’ answered a distant voice.
‘I think you’ll find Octavia somewhat changed,’ said Nicholas, his eyes very twinkly.
John guessed at once that she was pregnant, then immediately thought of Elizabeth. He must journey to her next week at the latest. He loved her too much to let her face what was bound to be a difficult labour on her own.
The door flew open and there stood the girl with eyes the colour of blackberries, still as ravishingly pretty as when the Apothecary had first seen her. And, as he had thought, she was in the early stages of expectant motherhood and this only served to make her look more attractive than ever. She pulled a wry face at John and laid her hand on her stomach.
‘As you will see, Sir, I am now two people.’
He went to her and whirled her round. ‘And if I may say so, Madam, it becomes you enormously.’
‘Enormous being a most suitable word, Mr Rawlings.’ Octavia burst out laughing. ‘Oh, how very good it is to see you again. And how is your dear father?’
‘Spry and as fit as his age will allow.’
‘That is all I wanted to hear.’
‘And he sends his fondest love to you both. You wait till I tell him your news. He will be as thrilled as I am by it.’
‘The talk is all of babies round here,’ Octavia said delightedly. ‘Nick and I think it must be the freshness of the air.’
John smiled, thinking to himself that the air in Devonshire was not doing too badly either. But Octavia was still prattling.
‘You must stay to dinner. Say you will. And Irish Tom can dine in the kitchen. It will be just like old times.’
The Apothecary looked pleased. ‘I should be delighted. As long as I am not interrupting anything.’
‘Then it is agreed.’
And Octavia hurried back through the door and towards the kitchens to speak to the cook.
It was indeed like old times. John was placed opposite his former apprentice while Octavia sat at the head of the table, her honoured guest on her right. In this position the Apothecary was able to study Nick, going back in his mind to when he had first seen him in Bow Street, taken in by the kind-heartedness of Mr Fielding, as the Magistrate had been in those days. The boy had been nothing much more than a starveling; tall, eyes the colour of a Thames barge sail, limping, yet with an indefinable air about him. They had called him the Muscovite because of his proven Russian heritage. And John, knowing that he was being manipulated but rather enjoying the feeling, had agreed to take on this not very desirable boy as his apprentice.
Just before they had sat down to eat he had given Nick and Octavia a bottle of his carbonated water to try and they had both uttered cries of delight on tasting it.
‘This is just the sort of thing that would sell well at Ranelagh Gardens,’ she had exclaimed.
‘Which brings me to an interesting point which I shall tell you while we dine,’ John had answered. And now he said, ‘Our old friend Sir John Fielding thinks I should sell my bottled water to the public. Thinks I should take out an advertisement in the newspapers to that effect.’
‘And so you should, Sir,’ Nicholas answered.
‘But there lies the difficulty, Nick. Without giving up my apothecary’s shop, without changing my life completely, I could not manage it. If this business is to be run then it must be run well. Indeed I was half hoping that I could persuade you to come back to Nassau Street and do it for me. But now, seeing how happy and settled you are here, I realize that would not do at all.’
‘I would gladly take on sales direct to Ranelagh Gardens,’ Nick answered earnestly. ‘But return to London I could not do. Octavia and I are happy in the country and want our child born in this pleasant place. You do understand?’
John nodded. ‘Of course I do. It would be a lot to ask of anyone.’
Octavia spoke into the silence. ‘I might know someone.’
Both men turned to look at her.
‘Who?’ asked Nick.
Ignoring him, Octavia turned to John. ‘This would be an entirely suitable person to run your business and I think make a success of it. I feel certain of that or I would not be recommending them.’
‘Who the devil is it, Octavia? Why are you being so mysterious?’ asked her husband.
The blackberry eyes twinkled. ‘Because, gentlemen, I speak of a woman.’
‘A woman?’ said John, flabbergasted.
‘Yes, Sir. I am talking about a certain Mrs Jacquetta Fortune.’
There was a long silence broken by the Apothecary, who said, ‘At least she has a lovely name. Can you tell me more about her?’
‘Gladly. I meet her on my morning walks which I take as part of my daily exercise. She is young, pretty and of good family but, alas, Lieutenant Fortune died at sea and now she is living most frugally. She takes in sewing to make ends meet.’
‘But how does this equip her to run a developing business? A business that might grow very big?’
‘Because, my dear John, before she married Jacquetta used to run her father’s business for him.’
‘Then why isn’t she…’
‘Wealthy? A sad tale but a true one. Her father owned a shipping company — that is how she met Lieutenant Fortune, a sailor on one of his ships. The old man trusted her completely with all aspects of his affairs but when she told him that she wanted to marry — and to whom — he fair had apoplexy. He offered her all kinds of inducements to continue and she agreed — but as a married woman. To get to the point, she gave up all for love. Her father cut her out of his will and she received the bag. And then her husband was killed!’
‘A calamitous story indeed.’
Two blackberry eyes were regarding him seriously and a pretty white hand laid itself on his arm. ‘John, say that you will at least meet her. I beg of you to give her a chance.’
Nick spoke up. ‘I can endorse what Octavia has just told you, Mr Rawlings. Jacquetta is truly an orphan of misfortune. But she has not been broken by it. She is like a sail before the wind in her determination to survive.’
John paused, considering, then said, ‘You must understand that if I agree to meet her there is no guarantee that I will employ her. I might not think she would be capable of running such an enterprise as mine. Or I might just not like her.’
Octavia opened her mouth to speak but Nick rushed in and said, ‘That would be completely understood, Mr Rawlings. We shall arrange the meeting tomorrow morning if that would be suitable for you. Now, would you care to spend the night with us?’
‘Thank you but no. I must return to Sir Gabriel. Though still very fit he is ageing and I know that he worries about me. I’ll get Irish Tom to earn his keep, though I thank you for the offer.’
Octavia picked up her glass. ‘Then I’ll propose a toast. To dear John — you see I have got out of the habit of calling you Mr Rawlings…’
The Apothecary laughed.
‘And the fervent hope that he takes to Jacquetta Fortune.’
‘I’ll drink to that,’ added Nick. ‘Here’s to Mr…’ He corrected himself. ‘John,’ he said.