Dressed in his lilac-bloom taffeta with a double breasted waistcoat in subtle rose-pink and silver, with breeches tight enough to take your breath away, John felt ready to take on the world as he carefully climbed into the carriage which was taking them to Sidmouth House for the grand rout to celebrate the betrothal of Miranda Tremayne to the Earl of St Austell. Beside him sat the Marchesa di Lorenzi, looking every inch the part, dressed in midnight blue, her hair swept high, a cascade of ribbons descending down one side of her face, accentuating the scar yet at the same time adding to her look of finely chiselled hauteur.
Yet despite her loveliness and despite his love for her, John could not help feeling that they were now both in a hopeless situation. Since the birth of the twins he had wanted nothing more than to live as a family unit. But this would mean giving up his shop in Shug Lane and moving to Exeter, against a formidable group of rivals — apothecaries who had spent many years building up their reputations and businesses and who would not welcome a newcomer on the scene. As for begging Elizabeth to move to London, he had given up on that score. She would point to her great house, her enormous estate, and say, with truth, that this was the place to bring up children; this was the place to let them breathe the fresh air of the Devon countryside; this was the place to teach them to ride and to swim. Mentally John shook his head. Elizabeth and he had reached a situation out of which there was no foreseeable way.
It was late April, and one of those exquisite evenings that the month could so breathtakingly produce. Everywhere, as the carriage moved forward, John could see the triumph of spring — that fresh, bright greenness of leaf and bud bursting through the dead wood of winter. Colour was coming back, crocuses were thrusting their way through one of the great lawns, while below them the sea was gentle and full of song. Just as they alighted from their coach the evening sun caught the edifice of Sidmouth House and bathed it in a luminescence like the inside of a seashell.
The receiving line that met them in the grand hall was headed by Lady Sidmouth herself, hideously gowned in puce, her small facial features swamped by a large feathered headdress. Next to her stood Miranda, clothed in pale blue with white lutestring decoration, a perfect example of blushing, maidenly modesty. With her eyes cast to the floor, she glanced up at each new arrival and lisped, ‘Oh thank you,’ as they announced their good wishes. And next to her stood the man himself — the Earl of St Austell, with his cruel raven’s face and his long white hair, tied back in a scarlet ribbon, and his large imposing stature. John did not know exactly what he had been expecting but nothing on the lines of this. Sir Clovelly had given him some idea, had painted a word portrait, but this man exceeded everything that had been said about him. He was the picture of an absolute brute that age had in no way diminished. For one minute John felt a tremendous compassion for Miranda, before that was replaced by the thought that she had willingly chosen the man.
He caught Elizabeth’s eye as they passed into the big saloon. ‘What do you think?’ he murmured.
‘He’s rotten to the core and doesn’t give a damn who knows it.’
‘But how old is he, for heaven’s sake?’
‘Seventy-two — and all set for another ten years at least.’
‘Poor Miranda indeed,’ Elizabeth whispered back.
The saloon was filling up with people, several of whom John recognized. The first person on whom he set his gaze was Lettice James, the gossipy woman he had met on the stagecoach who had tried to pump him for information about Lady Elizabeth. Her eyes widened to twice their size when she saw them enter the room together. She came over, swift as a bird, literally trembling with excitement.
‘My dear Lady Elizabeth, how are you? I have been so concerned. I was saying to this gentleman I met on the stagecoach — that was where it was, was it not, Sir? Anyway, I was saying to him that I had not seen you at all these past few months and was hoping you were not poorly.’
‘Actually,’ the Marchesa answered with a smile, ‘I was pregnant.’
Lettice looked as though someone had hit her in the solar plexus. ‘Oh, oh! I had not realized you had married again. Forgive me.’
‘That’s perfectly all right, my dear, because you see I haven’t. You say you have already met John?’
A tiny nod came from the other woman.
‘Well, he is the father. We had twin boys by the way.’
There was the sound of a strangulated gurgle and Lettice James became very pale.
‘And now if you’ll forgive me,’ said Elizabeth sweetly, ‘I see someone else that I know. Good day to you.’
And she swept on, John following behind like a little lap dog. Glancing over his shoulder he could see that the poor creature had been forced to sit down and that Felicity was leaning over her administering salts.
‘Elizabeth, how can you be so forthright?’ he reprimanded. ‘The woman is in shock.’
She gave him a smile. ‘Serves her right,’ she said. ‘She’s the biggest gossip ever born and always knows everybody’s business before they have even thought of it themselves.’
‘Now, now,’ he said. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained.’
The Marchesa gave a humourless laugh. ‘Indeed not. But it can come under a great deal of pressure.’
And John, remembering how her first child had died in the horrors of an opium den and how she had exacted punishment on those responsible, suddenly felt sorry for her and for a moment came near to understanding her overwhelming love for the twins and how she insisted on bringing them up single-handedly.
He felt Felicity at his elbow as the Marchesa wandered off.
‘Good evening, Mr Rawlings. Is this not an elegant ensemble?’
‘Very. But I know so few people. Perhaps you could tell me who one or two of them are.’
‘Gladly.’ Her eyes swivelled round the room. ‘Well, there’s Lord St Austell’s younger grandson, George Beauvoir. Isn’t he handsome? Mind you, they say he is a reckless blade. But he has a certain charm, would you not agree?’
‘He’s certainly of very good appearance. But does his character match his looks?’
‘I shouldn’t think so for a minute,’ Felicity said — and gave rather a sorrowful little giggle.
John did not add that he had last seen George engaged in a tavern brawl with Freddy Warwick. ‘And who’s the young woman talking to him?’
‘Oh that’s Lady Imogen, his sister. She’s a very sweet person — or at least so I am told.’
‘Ah,’ said John thoughtfully. He had recognized her on the instant. She was the woman he had seen in the apothecary’s shop, the one he believed to be pregnant. And running his practised eye over her he thought that he could indeed see the first signs of a rounding. If he were correct then heaven help the girl. She would get no quarter from her grandfather and probably be sent away and her child handed to some wretched foster mother. Then she would come home to live a life of shame and misery and daily reminding of her terrible sin.
At that moment Lady Imogen looked directly at the Apothecary and he bowed courteously whilst she in return dropped the smallest curtsey imaginable. This led him to wonder if she were in fact conceited and full of the grandness of her station in life. He watched her say something to her brother who also looked in John’s direction. The Apothecary could not resist it. He bowed, waved and grinned like a lunatic all at one and the same time. George glowered, then changed his mind and approached.
‘How do, Mr Rawlings? That is your name, isn’t it?’
‘It is, and it please your lordship.’
George looked slightly surprised. ‘Last time I saw you I was brawling in a tavern, I believe.’
‘Knocking the living daylights out of one Freddy Warwick.’
‘Never could abide the fellow. Yet he seems to shadow me. Trouble is that we both belong to the same social set so he has this awful habit of turning up wherever I am. See, there he is now. Talking to that fascinating woman with the scarred face. Dying to meet her but so far our paths have not crossed.’
John turned his head and saw Freddy deep in conversation with the Marchesa.
‘She’s the Lady Elizabeth di Lorenzi,’ George continued. ‘I believe she married some damn Eyetie, hence the funny name. D’you know, I’ve always been captivated by older women. By God, I wouldn’t mind going for a gallop with her, I can tell you. I bet she’d give me the ride of my life.’
The Apothecary actually felt the colour leave his cheeks. ‘Be very careful, Sir. You are speaking of my mistress.’
George turned on him a look of total surprise. ‘Really? Well, I’ll be damned. By the way, who’s your tailor?’
John was rendered utterly speechless by the incongruity of the question and just stared at the fellow, who by now was grinning like a cat.
‘That’s beside the point,’ he said eventually.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that,’ answered George, who was clearly having the time of his life. ‘His workmanship looks damned good to me. I’ll wager he dwells in London.’
‘Yes, Sir, he does.’
‘Damn fine. Well, I must be off. Got to pay my respects to Sir Godfrey. Au revoir.’
And he sauntered away without a backward glance. John was just about to rejoin the subject of the recent conversation when he felt a small tug at his elbow and looked round to see the beautiful Miss Cordelia Clarke regarding him.
‘Oh Mr Rawlings, how nice to see you again. Is this not an elegant gathering? And it is so wonderful to make your acquaintance once more.’
John bowed very deep, then raised her small gloved hand to his lips. ‘The pleasure is entirely mine, Miss Clarke.’
She blushed divinely and John thought what a sweet and attractive girl she was. And at that moment two people bore down on him simultaneously: the formidable Lady Bournemouth, clearly chaperoning Miss Clarke, and Elizabeth with a wary look in her eye. John bowed again to them both.
‘Oh do present me, Sir,’ said Miss Clarke. ‘I have admired the Lady Elizabeth from afar for an age.’
Lady Bournemouth interrupted. ‘My turn first, my child. Mr Rawlings, pray introduce me to your companion. I saw you together when you arrived.’
John turned to the Marchesa. ‘Lady Elizabeth, allow me to present Lady Bournemouth to you. She is held in very high regard by Sir Gabriel, with whom she plays cards.’
They bobbed curtsies at one another and the older woman said, ‘How de doo? It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Elizabeth. And now may I introduce you to my late sister’s granddaughter? A very dear child. Cordelia Clarke.’
‘I cannot think how we have not met before,’ Elizabeth answered, giving a grand curtsey to Cordelia. ‘What a lovely girl you truly are.’
Miss Clarke blushed becomingly once more. ‘I am so thrilled to be presented at last, my Lady. I often ride past your house and look at it admiringly.’
‘Well, next time you must come in, my dear.’
But this conversation got no further because at that moment Freddy Warwick joined the group, bowing magnificently to all the ladies in turn. Finally he stopped, fixed on John a look that beseeched him not to say a word about the fight in the tavern, and said, ‘How nice to see you again, Sir.’
Yet it was obvious, even at this stage, that Freddy had eyes only for Cordelia and had joined the group with the express purpose of talking to her. Having made his greetings to the other ladies he turned to the object of his desire.
‘How nice to see you again, Miss Clarke. Did you enjoy your visit to London?’
‘Oh yes, thank you, Mr Warwick. I met some most interesting people.’
‘More interesting than the people one meets on the Exeter social scene I don’t doubt.’
‘Oh yes, far more.’
Her eyes were sparkling and she seemed full of fun — and John, regarding her, thought, young and innocent though she might be, she was quite enjoying putting this youthful admirer through a little bit of torture.
‘But surely,’ he replied with spirit, ‘you did not attend anything as grand as this rout. I mean the betrothal of a peer of the realm is something to celebrate for sure.’
She drew his head down and whispered in his ear. He listened and then burst out laughing.
Lady Bournemouth drew herself up. ‘Cordelia, whispering in public is considered the height of ill manners. Were you at home I would send you to your room. Apologize to Lady Elizabeth and Mr Rawlings immediately.’
Miss Clarke dropped her eyes to hide the fact she was bubbling with mischief, and dropped a penitent curtsey. ‘Please forgive me, Marchesa, Mr Rawlings — it’s just that I have known Freddy for ever and a day. I’m sorry, I mean Mr Warwick.’ Having said this she burst into a fit of giggling in which Freddy joined.
John was delighted. It seemed that this young couple had found the ability to laugh together, which was something he considered very important. Lady Bournemouth huffed angrily but saw the amusement in Elizabeth’s expression and condescended to smile. So they were standing, a little group clearly enjoying themselves, when a shadow fell over them. Looking up, John saw the Earl and Miranda clearly waiting to be addressed.
In that moment, before a word was spoken, John regarded the elderly bridegroom-to-be and actually felt physically repelled. It was as if the man’s soul had been dragged out, leaving a husk with cold blue-ice eyes with which to glare at the rest of mankind. And what eyes they were. It was like looking at an Arctic landscape and feeling the chilling gale blow, like gazing on a terrain where the sun never shone. Despite himself, John looked away.
St Austell stood there in silence, obviously considering himself too high up the social scale to start any kind of conversation. It was Elizabeth who saved the day. She swept a small curtsey, with much rustling of her gown, and said, ‘We meet again, Lord St Austell. To remind you, I am Lord Exmoor’s daughter. May I congratulate you on your forthcoming marriage. And you, Miranda, I wish you every happiness.’
St Austell stared at her and John could have sworn that a glimmer of salacity moved in the depths of those terrible eyes. Then he spoke.
The Apothecary had been expecting a deep boom but instead the voice rasped, almost painfully. ‘How dee do, Lady Elizabeth? I trust you are keeping well. You may present your friends to me.’
Elizabeth did not meet John’s eye as she introduced Lady Bournemouth, who made much of curtseying to a peer of the realm, sweeping very low and then having some difficulty in rising again. Thankfully her great niece offered an arm and an embarrassing situation was avoided. John made a short bow and muttered his congratulations. On the one occasion he looked at the Earl it was to see the slightest of sneers upon his face.
Cordelia and young Freddy Warwick had obviously met the man before and all they had to do was to congratulate him and wish Miranda well, it being considered the height of bad manners to offer congratulations to the bride as if she had finally achieved her objective. This done, there was a short silence into which Miranda spoke.
‘I can’t tell you how happy I am,’ she said gushingly, linking her arm through that of her future husband. ‘Montague is so good to me. I dare not tell you or I think all you ladies will be jealous.’
Neither Elizabeth nor Cordelia smiled, but Lady Bournemouth let out a high-pitched titter. John caught Freddy’s eye and they exchanged a glance. But George Beauvoir was making his way towards them at which young Mr Warwick, running his fingers over the back of Cordelia’s hand in a gesture that no one was meant to see, made a hasty exit.
‘Well, Grandpa, how are you doing?’ George asked, bowing laconically as he did so.
‘I am doing very well,’ rasped the other.
‘Surrounded by beautiful women as usual.’
‘This is not the place for that sort of remark.’
‘Sorry, Sir.’ George paused, then said, ‘Good God, here comes Falmouth. I thought he was still in town.’
John turned his head to see who they were regarding and scarcely recognized the figure that was coming towards him. Previously it had had its nose in a book and had appeared to be slightly subnormal, to say the least. Now it was wearing a well-tailored black taffeta suit and was striding along with a smile on its face; however, it still had the huge pair of glasses hiding the eyes.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ said St Austell in that grating rasp, ‘may I introduce my elder grandson, Viscount Falmouth. He has just returned to us from the city of London.’
Lady Bournemouth contemplated another deep curtsey but, remembering the last occasion, thought better of it and gave a small bob.
John Rawlings bowed then stared at the fellow. ‘I believe we have met before, Sir.’
‘Have we?’ asked Falmouth vaguely.
‘Yes, Sir. You came into my shop in Shug Lane and I served you. Do you remember?’
‘By Jove, yes I do. Well, how the devil are you?’
‘I am very well indeed,’ answered John — and gave a crooked smile.