As soon as John set foot in the flying coach the picture that Rose had painted so vividly came back to haunt him. He saw before his closed eyes a ghastly old woman dressed all in brown, a big bonnet concealing most of her face, what he could see of it bearing such a look of menace that he drew a breath of fear. Rose’s voice came back to him. ‘When you see her, lie flat.’ None of it, neither description nor words, made any sense, and yet he knew a great deal better than to ignore the prediction of his incredible daughter who was gifted in so many ways.
A great deal of time had been passed in London and it was June before he returned to Devon, firstly to see Elizabeth and his twin boys and secondly to attend the wedding of Miranda Tremayne and the Earl of St Austell. Not that he particularly wanted to witness the joining of such a pair, but out of respect for Lady Sidmouth, in whose house his sons had been born, he felt duty-bound to attend.
He had worked hard during the intervening weeks, bottling the water in the new bottles which had arrived from the manufacturer, dividing his time between his business and his shop in Shug Lane. Of Jacquetta he had deliberately seen little, telling himself that it was foolish of him to feel attracted to her when she was obviously more interested in Gideon than himself. And who was he to query the gap in years that lay between her and his apprentice when his own relationship was with a far older woman? And a woman who meant more to him than any other?
John opened his eyes and surveyed the other three passengers. They consisted of a stocky middle-aged couple and their loutish, spotty son who was carefully picking his teeth, which were spaced very widely apart, with a silver toothpick. The boy, feeling John’s gaze upon him, gave the Apothecary a dirty look and turned his attention to the passing scenery. John wished momentarily that he had chosen Irish Tom to bring him down rather than leave him at Mrs Fortune’s disposal. But in fairness the poor woman had appointments all over town whereas he was merely seeking pleasure.
‘Good day, Sir,’ he said, addressing the youth, who looked put out.
‘Good day,’ the boy mumbled back.
‘Eh?’ said John, cupping his ear.
‘I said good day,’ thundered the other, waking his mother up, who regained consciousness with a scream of alarm.
John looked at her earnestly. ‘Oh, my dear Madam, are you quite well? Such a cry you let forth I thought the Devil himself might have attacked you.’
‘No, I’m perfectly well, Sir. I was just a little alarmed.’
‘Eh?’ said John, and cupped his ear again.
‘He’s deaf,’ the boy whispered to his mother.
She repeated the remark at full volume.
John looked testy and said, ‘All right, all right. I can hear you.’
The poor woman looked highly embarrassed. ‘Do forgive my son, Sir. He’s only doing his best.’ She turned on John a weary look which spoke of years of martyrdom at the hands of the horrid youth.
Suddenly John felt terribly sorry for her. ‘What do you call him?’ he asked, as if the boy were not there.
‘Herman, Sir. My father’s name.’
She smiled, quite kindly, and John instantly regretted his earlier behaviour.
‘A very good name.’ He turned to its owner. ‘And are you a very good boy?’
Herman, who was probably about sixteen and was wearing a white wig which had clearly been handed down from his father, flushed.
‘Yes, I suppose so.’
John was tempted to make a witty remark but thought better of it because at that moment the father, who had been snoring gently, woke himself up with a tremendous trumpet.
‘Ha, ha,’ he said, ‘have I missed something?’
‘No, dear,’ replied his poor wife, ‘this gentleman was just asking Herman’s name.’
‘Ah, it’s introduction time is it? Well, how dee do, Sir. I am Cecil Cushen. Pleased to make your acquaintance.’
‘And I yours, Sir. John Rawlings is the name.’
‘Rawlings? Rawlings? You’re no relation to Fanny Rawlings of Islington, are you?’
‘I regret not, Sir. Tell me, are you travelling all the way to Exeter?’
‘Indeed I am. My wife’s late cousin’s wife is there. She is much distressed by the recent loss of her husband and we are going down to comfort her.’
A look of deep gloom settled over Herman’s features and John felt a certain pity for the youth, bored to the gappy teeth as he was destined to be.
‘I am sorry to hear that,’ he said. ‘So where do you live in town?’
‘Islington, Sir. A quaint and pretty little village. And you?’
‘In Piccadilly. My business is also there.’
‘Let me guess what you do,’ said Mr Cushen jovially. ‘I’ll swear you are a lawyer, Sir.’
‘Nothing so fancy. I am an apothecary by trade and I have a shop in Shug Lane.’
He had opened the flood gates. Mr Cushen spent the next quarter of an hour talking about his digestive problems together with Herman’s spots, while his wife, not to be outdone, described in graphic detail her terrible pain when she had fallen and fractured her leg whilst visiting Scotland. John endured it all with a brave smile and the occasional exclamation of horror as he had done so many times in the past.
He had found through bitter experience that it was better by far not to mention what he did for a living. Though in this particular case he had had little option but to do so. Therefore he knew with a feeling of doom that the rest of the journey was going to be punctuated with remarks and questions about the family illnesses and, indeed, so it transpired until, at last, the horses feet clattered over the cobbles of Exeter.
‘It has been a truly splendid experience, Sir,’ said the head of the household jovially.
‘Indeed, Sir, it has,’ echoed his wife. ‘Quite remarkable.’
‘Thank you,’ John answered weakly.
Only Herman remained silent and the Apothecary guessed that it was the public discussion of his spots which had proved too much for him. As he got out of the coach John bowed to the boy.
‘Goodbye, Master Cushen. Perhaps we shall meet again some day.’
Herman bared his teeth in what John supposed was a smile. ‘I expect we will if you patronize the taverns of Exeter at all.’
‘Well I do occasionally.’
‘I do most of the time. Got to know ’em during our not infrequent visits. Picked up a few cronies as well. In fact, I enjoy it here.’
‘You prefer it to Islington?’
‘In a way, yes.’
‘Perhaps one day you’ll move to Devon.’
‘You may be right at that, Sir.’
John was relieved to see the family get into a waiting carriage and be on their way. He turned to find that Elizabeth had paid him the same compliment. A conveyance from the Big House had been sent to meet the flying coach. Realizing how difficult this must have been to time, the Apothecary felt doubly grateful as he climbed into its comforting depths.
The house was unnervingly quiet when the footman showed him into the echoing Great Hall. Looking up John saw that Britannia, complete with spear, still guarded the premises, only this evening she seemed to be wearing a less belligerent expression.
Perhaps she’s getting to like me, he thought.
Making his way up the grand staircase John proceeded to the nursery, looking for his sons. But to his surprise the room was empty. Somewhat perturbed he went down again and out through the French doors into the gardens beyond. And there, lying beneath one of the magnificent elm trees getting the last of the sunshine were the two little mites playing with their nannies. In typical fashion Elizabeth had them stripped to their napkins, and they were lying on a large rug with plenty of noisy toys within grabbing distance. John stood quietly and surveyed the scene.
For the millionth time his heart plummeted as the awfulness of his situation hit him yet again. His longing to lead a settled family life with everyone in their correct place, the twins growing up alongside their sister, seemed at that moment to be his primary objective. But then he knew quite certainly that if that was his criterion he had fallen in love with the wrong woman. Yet who could resist her with her dark, haunting, ugly beauty; her vivid and enigmatic personality; her complete rejection of social mores and conventions?
As if his thoughts had conjured her up he heard the distant thudding of hooves and she came riding into his line of vision, straight and tall in the side saddle, her long skirt skimming the grass, her hair swept up beneath her hat.
‘John!’ she called out, and quite literally jumped to the ground and flung herself into his arms.
Standing there, like that, John knew that leaving her would be almost impossible for him. Her dark hair filled his nostrils with its delicate fragrance, her skin was wholesome, like a freshly cooked sweetmeat. Elizabeth was all he had ever wanted in a woman — and yet… John knew at that moment that he was indeed getting older. His values were changing. The wild spirit that he had always possessed was still there, still guided him, but was being diverted into different channels.
On the spur of the moment he said, ‘Elizabeth, my darling, let me take the boys back to London with me. Just for a visit. It would please my father and Rose so much.’
She drew back, staring at him with a chilly glance. ‘You don’t understand, do you? The twins mean everything to me. They have replaced my lost son. I could never part with them, not even for a month.’
‘Then why don’t you come as well? It would fill us all with so much joy.’
She turned on her heel. ‘I will give it some consideration.’
John would have felt triumphant had it not been for her tone of voice which was hard and unyielding. Instead he felt like a beggar at a feast. Why should he, who had, in his own particular way, achieved quite a bit, have to implore her to visit him? Even worse, plead for access to his own sons? Feeling decidedly put out, the Apothecary walked downhill towards the Exe without looking back.
Two days later they went to the wedding. The ceremony was held in the small Saxon church nearest to Sidmouth House. Located close to the village of Sidmouth, it stood at the bottom of the hill from the top of which the Great House had its commanding position of both land and sea. Obviously for such an important society marriage the church was packed to the doors, and John, to his great surprise, saw that as well as Sir Clovelly Lovell — who was squeezed into a pew with a formidable dame of menacing mien — there were several people whom he recognized. Cuthbert Simms, whom he had met while investigating the strange death of the hawk-featured Mr Gorringe, had been called back to organize the dances, or so John imagined. The gossipy woman from Exeter, Lettice James, eyes darting round like a hen’s, was present, as were also Mr and Mrs Cushen whom he had met recently whilst travelling to Exeter. Their gappy-toothed son, Herman, was thankfully not present.
This day Elizabeth seemed exquisite. Tall and lean — her normal figure having restored itself since the birth — she was clad in a deep, sulky red, its cut more towards the back than the sides. With this captivating look she wore a veiled hat, a large and lovely creation over which some poor little milliner had clearly slaved for hours. John, not to be outdone, wore his moire silk ensemble in crushed hyacinth, the double-breasted waistcoat of deep purple dazzling the eyes in the morning sunshine.
As well as the local people there were, of course, all the relatives and friends of the bridegroom’s. John saw that the three grandchildren were present. Lady Imogen, desperately trying to conceal her pregnancy by wearing a strange robe-like garment; Lord George, looking more dashing and handsome than was decent in a fine suit of rich blue, heavily embroidered with a myriad of sparkling winkers; the absent-minded Viscount Falmouth, wearing dark colours and appearing to be lost in thought behind his misty spectacles. Freddy Warwick was also present, staying as close as he could to Miss Cordelia Clarke, who was there with her chaperone, Lady Bournemouth.
It was at this point that the bridegroom turned and ran his frightening blue gaze over the congregation. Just for a moment his eyes met those of the Apothecary and John had to restrain himself from shuddering. He was looking into pools of ice in the depths of which were madness and depravity. He feared for Miranda Tremayne, who had been acting so demurely of late, and then it occurred to him that she actually was a willing participant in the excesses of Lord St Austell, and that her wedding night would come as no surprise to her.
As if his thoughts had conjured her up there was a flutter in the doorway as the merry organ — a surprisingly mellow and fine sound — leapt into life and the bridal party began their progress down the aisle. Miranda, a fragrant vision in taffeta and lace, was on the arm of Lady Sidmouth’s son, whom John recognized with astonishment as the amazingly effeminate Robin Sidmouth, he of the pouting lips and very high heels. Robin had aged, there was no denying that, but he still presented the same bustling figure as he hurried Miranda up to the altar, far more quickly that she would have liked.
So she stood beside the Earl and they exchanged a glance. John wished that he could have been a mind reader because he would have been glad to know their thoughts. However, he had no time for that. The couple made their vows in subdued voices and then with a flamboyant gesture St Austell picked up her hand and placed a gold ring on it. Miranda had achieved her ambition and was now a Countess, but John, watching as the newly married pair made their way from the church, could not help but wonder what dark and terrible secrets they were about to share.
Outside, a group of fisher folk cheered loudly, the illusion of perfection somewhat ruined by the fact that someone threw a dead fish at Robin and shouted out, ‘Light heels!’
The strain of the wedding now over, John became hysterical and laughed audibly, a fact which annoyed the bridegroom who shot him a dark look. So it was in this atmosphere that the assembled company got into their waiting conveyances and started up the hill to Sidmouth House and the feast which awaited them.