To John’s horror when he opened the clothes press on the following morning, he discovered that he had left only two ensembles behind in Devon. One was a perfectly ghastly affair in a violent shade of lime green with violet embroidery — a colour combination that could have come off had it not been for the vivid hue of the lime. It had been created by a tailor in Exeter and the Apothecary felt he only had himself to blame for the purchase. The second was the divine outfit he had had made for Lady Sidmouth’s ball, crimson satin decorated with silver butterflies, with a straight-cut short waistcoat also made of silver. This too had been made locally, though by a different craftsman. The decision was to choose which to wear.
Eventually John chose the lime, thinking it preferable to look like a piece of fruit than a complete dandiprat, one who tries to be something that he was actually not. Very conscious of his vivid apparel he covered all with his long travelling coat — from which the servants had obligingly scraped off the mud — and set forth for Lady Sidmouth’s lovely home, perched high on the cliffs overlooking Sidmouth Bay. John suddenly found that he was sweating profusely — bathed in it, in fact — at the thought that Elizabeth might be dead. She was very old indeed to be a mother and it came to him that her body might have been too tired for the rigours of childbirth. Then it occurred to him that the child might be dead as well and he would be going to a house draped in darkest mourning. He prepared his face as he rang the bell and thus was looking extremely stern when a footman answered the door.
‘Good morning, Sir.’
‘Good morning. I have come to call on the Lady Elizabeth di Lorenzi.’
‘Very good, Sir. Step inside. I will fetch Lady Sidmouth.’
The man seemed cheerful enough and John felt his spirits begin to rise. He was ushered into a small parlour and then his hostess came in, bustling like a harvest mouse, her strange face with its tiny mouth as jolly as he had ever seen it.
‘Elizabeth…?’ he said.
‘Asleep and not to be disturbed,’ she answered promptly.
‘And has she…’
‘Oh yes, indeed, my dear John. Come upstairs and meet your… No, I shall hold you in suspense a moment or two longer. Shall we go?’
Feeling that he was running the gauntlet of emotion, John found that his legs were trembling as he followed Lady Sidmouth’s comfortable form up to the first floor. ‘Have I a son or a daughter?’ he asked, his voice sounding strange even to his own ears.
She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Wait and see.’
They entered a small corridor and went straight to the end where Lady Sidmouth threw open a door to permit a beautiful view of the pounding sea. But it was not to the sea that John’s eyes were drawn. Instead he saw to his amazement that a strange man was inside, holding a small baby in his arms and examining it carefully. Before John could utter, Lady Sidmouth made the introduction.
‘Dr Hunter, allow me to present to you Mr John Rawlings, an apothecary of London.’
Where one moment John had stood askance wondering what was going on, now he bowed deeply. ‘Dr Hunter, the honour is entirely mine. Your name is spoken of with ringing tones throughout the medical profession.’
For he was standing in the presence of one of the most eminent men of his day, physician extraordinary to Queen Charlotte and the man who had brought obstetrics out of the domain of the midwife and into the general stream of medical practice. John bowed a second time. It was the greatest respect he could pay. Still not knowing what sex the child was that Dr Hunter was holding, he said, ‘Is it a boy or a girl, Sir? I really would like to know.’
William Hunter grinned widely. ‘He is a boy — and so is the other one.’
John’s mouth fell open. ‘What?’
‘Yes Sir, Lady Elizabeth was delivered of twins by Caesarean section. I performed the operation myself and now she is stitched up neat as you please.’
The Apothecary was released from his trance and rushed to look at both his sons. Hunter handed him the child he had been holding and John lifted the other one up from his cot. Two pairs of eyes regarded him solemnly, neither smiling nor frowning, simply looking at him as they might any other individual. With neither of them did he have the experience he had had with Rose. That great yet indefinable feeling that they had always known one another.
‘I take it you are the father, Sir?’ asked William in his gentle Scots accent.
John looked up. ‘Yes, Sir, I must admit I am.’
‘Well, you’ve a handful to look after then.’
The Apothecary pulled a wry face. ‘I don’t know about that, Sir. It all depends on Lady Elizabeth.’
Lady Sidmouth said firmly, ‘I do not feel the nursery is a suitable place for such a conversation, gentlemen. You may continue it downstairs. Now put the twins down, John. They need their sleep.’
There was no arguing with the woman; she was the kind who would order the Queen’s physician about and he would meekly obey, as he now did. But John turned in the doorway and suddenly rushed back to the two cribs standing side-by-side. The twins had indeed fallen asleep, their long dark lashes standing out against the fresh white pillowcases which cradled their heads. They were both black-haired — like their mother — but John thought he could see something of himself about their faces. But whoever they resembled, one fact stood out plainly — they were identical.
John leant over swiftly and kissed each baby on its downy cheek. ‘Hello, my son,’ he said to one after the other, then he straightened up and joined Lady Sidmouth and the doctor as they made their way downstairs.
During the conversation over a glass of sherry, when he could speak to Dr William Hunter frankly — Lady Sidmouth having bustled off somewhere — John was told the entire story of Elizabeth’s travail. It seemed that she had gone to take tea with Lady Sidmouth and the mysterious dark waters of the womb had ruptured, at which her hostess had ordered her to bed and refused to let her travel another step.
‘But how did you come into it, Sir? Are you of Lady Sidmouth’s acquaintance?’
‘No, but my brother is.’
‘John Hunter, the renowned surgeon?’
‘The same. He has a small country estate not far away — it was left to him by our uncle and John often asks me down for a short break in my routine. Well, a servant of Lady Sidmouth’s arrived at his house and explained the situation. Said that the labour was growing difficult, the midwife suspecting there might be a breach presentation. Naturally, I attended at once, and after an examination believed there could well be twins. So, somewhat reluctantly I might add but in view of the mother’s age, I performed a Caesarian and out came your two little boys. But I stitched Lady Elizabeth’s abdomen back with the greatest care, Mr Rawlings, I can assure you of that.’
‘How has she taken all this? Will she really recover?’
Dr Hunter took a small sip of sherry and allowed himself a smile. ‘She is one of the strongest women I have ever come across, Sir. She has a body like steel caused by years of riding and exercise. She is not milk and sugar like many women today but more red wine and spice. We must wait to see if any infection sets in and then I think we can safely say that she will survive.’
‘If you have no objection I would like to give her a decoction of Feverfew.’
‘You have some on you?’
‘No, but I can ride to Exeter tomorrow and have a mixture made up.’
For the first time since their meeting Dr Hunter looked slightly superior. ‘If you think that it might do good, then by all means do so. It will do no harm at any rate.’
John said nothing, thinking that it was to Dr Hunter’s skill and kindness that he owed the birth of his sons and the safe delivery of Elizabeth. His sons! The words suddenly struck him and he felt a broad smile cross his face. Those two angelic beings upstairs were his progeny, his blood, his bone.
William Hunter saw him smile and said, ‘I am sure that you are very happy with the outcome.’
‘I am indeed, Dr Hunter. And it is all thanks to you. I think you probably saved Elizabeth’s life — as well as that of my boys.’
Again he grinned. Even saying ‘my boys’ gave him pleasure.
‘Well, puerperal fever will appear tomorrow if it is going to appear at all. But be assured, Mr Rawlings, I washed my hands thoroughly in soap and water before I started to operate.’
John knew that many doctors thought this an unnecessary precaution but it was one in which he fervently believed, having been taught by his old Master, Mr Purefoy, that in the future this would be the coming thing.
Lady Sidmouth popped her head around the door. ‘Elizabeth is awake and is asking for you, Mr Rawlings.’
He stood up, bowed to Dr Hunter and followed her upstairs to a room opposite the nursery. Opening the door, he thought he had never seen a more beautiful sight. The Marchesa sat propped against the pillows in a large bed, very modern, and obviously imported from France where the fashion was just gaining ground. Gone were the tester and the carved wooden poles supporting it. In its place was a large curving bedhead made of walnut adorned with floral garlands, draped ribbons, scrolling waves and acanthus leaves. Against all this splendour, pale, with her long black hair loose about the shoulders of her white nightgown, sat Elizabeth herself.
John bowed so low that his hair swept the floor, then knelt beside the bed and took one of her long tapering hands in his.
‘Oh my darling,’ was all he could think of saying.
She looked at him and though he could see the lines of fatigue around her eyes, they still had the same sparkle in their depths.
‘What on earth are you wearing?’ she said.
John put his head on the counterpane and laughed. And in the laughter tears came until he was sobbing uncontrollably with joy at the successful birth of his gorgeous twin boys and the safe delivery of that most wonderful creature, the Marchesa di Lorenzi, clearly very much alive and no worse that he could see for the experience.
There was a knock on the door and two maids came in, each carrying a baby in her arms.
‘Your sons, Milady,’ said the older girl and bobbed a curtsey.
John stood up and took the two bundles from them, then he held them out to their mother. ‘We made these,’ he said.
She grinned at him and then put the babies to her breasts.
‘You’re feeding them yourself,’ he said, delighted.
‘Of course,’ she answered. ‘I read the paper by Carl Linnaeus and that convinced me it was by far the best way. Besides, it will slim my figure and I intend to go riding again soon.’
‘You are a miraculous being,’ he said in amazement, watching his two sons taking milk contentedly.
‘And you,’ she answered, ‘though closely resembling an oversized lime, are a genuinely nice man. Now be off with you. Leave me in peace with my sons.’
‘Any ideas on names?’ asked John from the doorway.
‘I thought perhaps Jasper and James. Do you like those?’
The Apothecary repeated them under his breath, looked at the two tiny boys, then said, ‘I can’t think of anything nicer.’
Lady Sidmouth would not hear of him going back to Elizabeth’s mansion that night, and so he not only was invited to dine with them but offered a small guest room into the bargain. He had wanted to see Elizabeth again but was told that she slept once more, but he was allowed another quick peek at his sons before they were put down for the night.
Observing them closely he noticed that even at this early age they were totally the same. Both dark-haired, their eyes still baby-blue, they nonetheless had noses that were destined to be strong and lips that were going to be passionate. At least that is what John told himself fondly as he observed their tiny little hands, kissed their minute feet and tickled them under their wobbly infant chins. So he was in the first throes of delightful fatherhood as he made his way downstairs, only to be halted by the sound of muffled giggling. He turned to see who it was and cast his eyes on two young women he had met before, namely Lady Sidmouth’s daughter Felicity and her cousin, Miranda Tremayne. Knowing that he was the object of their derision, presumably because of the hideous colour of his clothes, John gave them a florid bow.
‘Good evening, ladies. I trust I find you well.’
They bobbed brief curtsies that suggested he was hardly worth the courtesy. Then Miranda spoke.
‘Good evening, Mr Rawlings. I have remembered the name correctly, have I not? La, what a flutter with the house full of babies. How do you like your little bast- I mean your sons?’
‘I like them very well,’ John answered evenly.
Miranda continued, ‘We were saying how well Lady Elizabeth looks despite her ordeal. We think it is nothing short of a miracle at her age.’
She had made this kind of remark once before, at Lady Sidmouth’s summer ball to be precise, and John felt his fury grow. ‘Elizabeth is a remarkable woman,’ he said, ‘and has been through many ordeals to become the person she is today.’
There was another muffled giggle and he realized that his answer could have been taken two ways.
‘But one thing,’ he continued firmly, ‘that one could never say about the Marchesa is that she is shallow. She is like steel compared with many of the drooping lilies that one sees around one. Would you not agree?’
There was silence, then Felicity said, ‘Shall we go down to dinner?’
‘After you, ladies,’ said John, and felt that he had just won that round.
During the night he was awoken by the sound of crying, and for a moment thought he had gone back in time and that it was Rose who wanted him. Then he came to his senses and was just about to get out of bed when he heard footsteps in the corridor and realized that maids had already picked the infants up and were at this very moment carrying them in to their mother. He thought of Elizabeth being woken up by two hungry boys and decided that as soon as she was on her own he would creep into her room and tell her how much he loved her.
He lay awake listening for the sound of the maids returning the boys to the nursery. Eventually he heard them, then the house grew silent and still once more. Softly John got out of bed and walked across the corridor to where Elizabeth lay sleeping. Her black hair was spread across the pillow like a fantastic web, shot with silver where the moon peeped in through the vents in the curtains. Walking quietly, John went to the window and drew them apart a little. Far below him the sea churned and leapt, and the Apothecary spared a thought for the many poor devils spending the night on the treacherous waves. Then he pulled the curtains closed and turned back to the bed.
A great surge of emotion filled him as he looked down at the woman who had so courageously undergone the mighty experience of giving birth. Then he bent and gently kissed her on the cheek before snuggling in beside her and — oh so gently — taking her in his arms and falling asleep.