Fourteen

Afterwards, when John was sipping a glass of champagne and standing alone, having wandered off to a window to gaze at the plunging sea below, he recalled that recent time in his shop in Shug Lane when Maurice, Viscount Falmouth, had come in, presenting himself as an absent-minded human being ordering strengthening potions for his poor old grandfather. How different he seemed today, alive and full of energy, though still clearly short-sighted. And, furthermore, could it really be true that the terrifying Earl needed aphrodisiacs, regardless of the fact he was in his seventy-third year? John knew that time could take its toll, but surely not from so fierce and vital a creature as St Austell. He had a sudden mental picture of the man crushing Miranda beneath him and despite the warmth of the day found himself shuddering.

A movement at his elbow brought his attention back to the present and he saw that Lady Sidmouth stood there, an oddly comic figure in her fine array.

‘I saw you shake, my friend. May I ask what caused it?’

‘I don’t know, Madam. Perhaps a goose walked over my grave.’

And this remark made him think of that chilly warning given to him by his daughter, that strange little sprite who loved him so dearly. Looking round the room it seemed to John at that moment that the crowd gathered therein had somehow developed a sinister aspect. Everyone had a cruelty, a hardness about their features, even the Marchesa had become like a mask in a carnival, blank and uncaring.

Without thinking, John heard himself say, ‘What is your opinion of the Earl?’ a question he would never have dared ask directly had he not been in such a strange mood.

He felt Lady Sidmouth draw close. ‘He is a monster,’ she answered.

Startled, the Apothecary looked at her. ‘Then why did you permit the marriage?’

She looked up at him from her half-closed eyes, and what he could see of her pupils were glazed and dull. ‘I could do nothing to stop it. Miranda is merely a cousin. The poor girl’s mother is dead and her father remarried to some uncaring wretch. She is twenty years old and she insisted that she had her way. Filled me up with some poppycock tale of being in love. With that ogre! But I think they deserve each other. The only thing that worries me is that he enjoys depths of depravity of which poor Miranda knows nothing.’

‘Could you not tell her that?’

‘I tried, believe me. I spoke to her more frankly than is common between guardian and ward but she would have none of it. Told me that I was mistaken and to say no more. Quite honestly, Mr Rawlings, I have had to give up arguing for the sake of my sanity and my daughter, Felicity.’

She let out a sudden suppressed sob and John instinctively put an arm round her shoulders. ‘My dear Lady Sidmouth, you have clearly done your best and I am sorry that I said what I did. Miranda has always struck me as a self-willed girl and now, having made her bed, she can lie in it.’

‘Which I believe she will with some enjoyment,’ Lady Sidmouth answered sadly, and walked away with sloping shoulders.

Their conversation was at an end and John was on his way to rejoin Elizabeth when that extraordinary young man, Viscount Falmouth, bore down on him. John was about to make him a bow when Falmouth said, ‘Don’t bother with that, I beg you. It is I who should be bowing to you.’

Startled, the Apothecary replied, ‘Why, my Lord?’

Falmouth gave him a good-natured grin and John saw that beneath his ugly glasses, beneath his rather other-worldly expression and his general air of bookishness, there lay a very handsome fellow indeed. His white wig enhanced his strong features and when one peered one could see a pair of dazzling green eyes, currently hidden by that unattractive pair of spectacles.

‘Because I came in and asked for… well, you know.’

‘For something to help your grandfather on his wedding night?’answered John directly. ‘I should say — judging by his general demeanour — that he would need no such thing.’

Maurice Falmouth laughed. ‘I think perhaps I was a little previous with my request. I must admit that he looks hale and hearty enough to me now that I see him. You see, I was reading a book about an older man getting married again and failing miserably, if you understand my meaning, and that was what had me wandering into your shop and asking for your help.’

The Apothecary thought that it was a reasonable enough explanation for someone who had his nose in a novel most of the time, but had no chance to think anything more about it for at that moment George came bounding up, punching Maurice jovially on the shoulder.

‘How did you enjoy London, you bugger?’

‘Very well. It was dirty and smelly but of good cheer.’

‘I’m glad to hear it. Did you manage to meet any rum duchesses?’

‘That’s more your style than mine.’

‘I’ll say,’ answered George, rubbing his hands together.

‘You want to watch where you tread,’ Maurice said with meaning. ‘Or you’ll end up with something nasty.’

‘Well, there’s always a good apothecary to help me out.’ And George slapped John so heartily on the back that he was winded for a full two minutes. Red in the face he gasped for air, a sight which seemed to highly amuse both Maurice and his brother.

No sooner had he recovered than John punched George hard, also in the back, saying, ‘Oh yes, we can cure most things but not, I’m afraid, the great pox — from which the only way out is the powdering tub.’

‘Not a pleasant idea,’ said Maurice firmly. ‘Well, it has been most delightful talking to you, Mr Rawlings. No doubt we shall meet again.’

‘No doubt, my Lord.’

George bowed then sauntered off in the direction of Freddy Warwick who, seeing him coming, plunged into earnest conversation with the local vicar. After a few moments observing, George lost interest and went in search of a pretty girl. John finished his somewhat interrupted contemplation of the sea and went to rejoin the Marchesa.

Afterwards, riding home in the carriage, John said, ‘You know I must take Rose back to London, sweetheart. She starts at her school next week.’

The Marchesa turned to look at him. ‘Oh dear, I had quite forgotten about that. What a shame she must go. She is so sweet to have around the house and is very good with the twins. Do you know I have heard her sing to them and they join in with strange little cries. It is quite the most remarkable sound.’

‘She must go and get an education, Elizabeth. I regret her departure as well but I would not like her growing up an ignoramus.’

‘No more would I.’

‘Madam…’

‘Yes?’

‘You wouldn’t come as well, just for a short time? I would so like to show my sons to my friends in London.’

She turned to look out of the carriage window. ‘I think they are too young to face the journey, don’t you?’

A small clutch of hope departed from the Apothecary’s heart. ‘Perhaps at the moment. But one day in the future…’ He left the statement hanging in the air.

Elizabeth placed her gloved hand over his and said quietly into the darkness, ‘One day, John, it will all turn out as you wish.’

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