It had always amazed the Apothecary that such a peculiar little woman as Lady Sidmouth should have such great artistry in the matter of interior decoration. He had thought that her ball had reached the heights of splendour but on this occasion the wedding feast excelled it. The Grand Saloon, in which the reception was to be held, was without doubt the most stunning room in the entire house as well as being the largest. From the pillars surrounding the doorway to the huge French doors giving a full view of the gardens and lawns sweeping down to the sea, everything was in perfect proportion. Not only that, the room had a harmony most pleasing to the eye and the senses. Decorated throughout in a pale shade of yellow it caught the sun’s beams and reflected them, like the heart of a primrose.
For the feast Lady Sidmouth had stripped out a great deal of the furniture and instead had set up long tables covered in elegant white cloths, all laid with the most exquisite silver and glassware. She had also filled the room with late spring hyacinths which added their strange heady scent to the air and added a dark shade of blue to the decorations. Entering the Saloon in a long line, being greeted first by the Earl and the new Countess, together with Lady Sidmouth as hostess and Robin, her son, as host, John came face to face with his old acquaintance.
‘My dear Lord Sidmouth,’ he said, giving a small bow, ‘do you remember me?’
The cherubic face which had been quite becoming in his youth had now run to fat and represented a florid faun rather than anything angelic.
Robin peered closely. ‘Well, damme! Ain’t you Rawlings? A friend of Orlando’s?’
‘Yes, we met in Bath if you recall.’
‘So we did and had a merry time of it. But what a tragic end Orlando had. I would have thought him the very last to commit suicide.’
John’s face did not move a muscle as he replied, ‘Quite so.’
Robin leant closer and there was a puff of hot, rather smelly breath. ‘Would like to talk to you more but duty calls. Do seek out my wife. Name of Maud. That’s her over there in the mauve gown.’
He gestured and John turned his head to look, his eye alighting on a listless woman with a pained expression.
‘We shall be delighted to do so,’ said the Marchesa rapidly, taking John under the elbow and steering him towards the Earl and his new wife.
The pair stood slightly apart and John had a second or two to look at them before he arrived before them. St Austell seemed almost rejuvenated by the recent ceremony, his long white hair glinting in the sunshine, tied back with his usual scarlet ribbon. Beside him the bride looked like a vixen who had just killed a chicken and was waiting to devour it. They were one of the nastiest wedded couples that the Apothecary had ever clapped his eyes on.
Lord St Austell spoke. ‘May I say how damned fine you look, Madam.’
This remark was addressed to the Marchesa, who dropped a small curtsey in response.
‘But not as fine as your bride, my Lord.’
The Earl made no answer but seized Miranda roughly round the waist and pulled her towards him in a gesture so familiar that John knew they had already been to bed together.
‘No, nobody could be as lovely as my Countess.’
He said this with such an air of satisfaction that John wanted to hit him. Elizabeth, sensing his tension, complimented Miranda on her appearance and hurried John into the wedding feast proper.
The meal began with schooners of sherry, dry as a bone and much to the Apothecary’s taste. Then when everybody was seated in their appointed place, the food was served by Lady Sidmouth’s staff with extra people brought in so that there should be no slacking.
John found himself between Elizabeth and Lettice James, once again minus a husband whom John was beginning to suspect was a figment of her imagination. She had outdone herself as regards her ensemble and had topped the whole thing with an enormous hat, representing a ship in full sail, the mast of which threatened to prise John’s eye out whenever she bent forward.
‘My oh my, what a noble company, is it not, Mr Rawlings? I feel quite elevated by being amongst them, so I do.’
John dodged the mast and got slapped by a spinnaker instead.
‘Your husband is not with you today, Mrs James?’
‘No, poor dear, he suffers terribly with a personal complaint and is laid low with it I fear.’
John hesitated to ask in case she told him, but Elizabeth entered the conversation.
‘I’m sorry to hear that. What form does his illness take?’
Lettice lowered her voice to a hoarse whisper. ‘Flatulence.’
‘Indeed. Is there no cure?’
The Apothecary felt it coming before the words had formed.
‘I wondered if Mr Rawlings would have a look at him and might indeed prescribe something. Many local doctors have washed their hands of the case.’
John winced. ‘Gladly, Madam. One of these days I will call in.’
‘Could you not be a little more specific, Sir?’
‘Alright. I’ll come next week.’
‘Oh thank you, thank you,’ gushed Lettice and hit John with a mainsail for a reward.
The meal progressed and the sunlight slowly moved round until it was coming in across the sea. Cuthbert Simms appeared and informed them that the orchestra was setting up in the Great Hall and, indeed, strains of music could be heard.
‘My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen,’ he announced importantly, ‘the dancing will be led by the bridal couple.’
The Earl of St Austell rose to his full height and his cruel mouth forced itself into a smile. ‘Come, Miranda,’ he said, ‘let us show the young folk how it should be done.’
The company rose as he led his bride outward and then followed him in a mass, drunk with wine and with the general atmosphere of high excitement. John led Elizabeth out, taking her by the hand, noticing the way the folds of her gown gleamed in the dusky light. How could he ever let her go? he wondered.
They stood round the room in a vast circle watching the Earl and Countess perform an old-fashioned minuet. It should have been charming, a delight to see, but John felt quite repelled by the expressions on their faces. St Austell’s smile seemed cruel and rapacious; Miranda’s was so demure that it could not be believed. Their dance ended to polite applause and then the whole room began to form into sets as Cuthbert shouted out the names of the dances, then participated himself, his partner being the listless Maud. Robin Sidmouth meanwhile whirled about with a lovely local lass — though his smiles were reserved for her brother, John could not help but notice.
The dancing was eventually broken up by the bride being taken upstairs to her chamber, her attendant females giggling girlishly. Somehow or other Miranda managed to manufacture a deep blush which she made sure the assembled company could see. The bridegroom, attended by a motley selection of elderly rakes, followed shortly afterwards. John turned to Elizabeth, having no wish to see the grand bedding.
‘I feel like another drink. What about you, my dear?’
‘An excellent plan indeed.’
They wandered back into the Grand Saloon, where many of the other guests had already foregathered, the orchestra taking a well-earned break. The sun was beginning to set over the sea and the very first candles were being lit in the room, giving it a soft and glowing and highly atmospheric feel. Leaving Elizabeth talking John went over to the long doors and looked out at the dying day, gazing out towards the sea as was his habit. And then he saw her. Just for a split second he could have sworn that an old woman in a poke bonnet stepped out from behind a tree and stared towards him, then in the blink of an eye was gone.
The thrill of horror that the Apothecary experienced was indescribable. The creature he had glimpsed had been exactly as Rose had described. He stood stock still, chilled to his soul with fear. Elizabeth came to join him.
‘John, what’s the matter? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’
‘I think I just have.’
But further conversation was impossible for, with a great whoop of triumph, carried shoulder high by his ancient cronies, the bridegroom re-entered the room. John realized that quite a time must have passed because the Earl was now arrayed in a scarlet robe with a matching turban placed upon his head.
‘Well?’ called Lord George, his grandson.
‘Very well indeed,’ called back the disgusting old man. ‘Miranda has just parted with her most precious gift.’
There was a roar of truly raucous laughter in which the Apothecary did not join, and the Earl of St Austell was placed in the bridegroom’s chair by his cheering supporters.
‘Here’s to your health, Sir,’ somebody shouted, and the company raised their glasses.
At a nudge from Elizabeth John did likewise, and then his eyes were drawn to the windows once more. For there, etched against the dying sun, stood that terrible figure he had seen before. He was paralysed with fear, and then in his head he heard Rose’s voice: ‘Lie flat.’
Pulling Elizabeth down with him, he headed for the floor.
‘What…’ she began.
But he silenced her by putting his hand over her mouth. All around them they could hear the cheers of the wedding guests at the bridegroom’s triumph and then they heard a woman’s voice turn from a laugh to a terrible scream. This was followed by the sound of shots, two at a time, several of them. And then there was an unnatural quiet.
Very slowly, the Apothecary peered over the edge of the tablecloth. He took in several things at once. First of all there were two old women, both of their faces hidden by those hideous bonnets. They were firing double-barrelled pistols and as one reloaded the other fired. The guests were falling slowly, like leaves, and he could only guess at the number of dead and wounded. Sensing a movement at his end of the table, one of the crones turned and fired straight at him. Momentarily the bonnet tipped back and John had the impression of a face, a face that gave him the feeling he had seen it somewhere before. But like a dream the memory was gone as quickly as it had come. John feigned death as the bullet whistled straight past his ear and into the floor. He felt Elizabeth do the same and they both lay still as corpses until eventually the firing stopped.
‘Happy wedding day, my Lord,’ one of them shrieked in eldritch tones, then there was the sound of the French doors being thrown open and running feet.
Nobody stirred. There was absolute stillness. It was just as if the two old women had murdered everyone in the room. And then there came a little sound from the doorway. John cautiously opened one eye and without turning his head peered in the direction from which the noise came. All he could see was a pair of men’s shoes, extremely high heeled. So Robin Sidmouth had at least escaped.
Very gingerly John eased himself upwards and was relieved to see that other people were doing so as well. At least half of the gathered guests had escaped unscathed, it would seem. From the doorway came a series of high-pitched shrieks and the sound of a heavy weight crashing to the floor. It would appear that the Earl of Sidmouth had been quite overcome.
But it was not to him that John’s attention was drawn, for a far more dramatic sight met his gaze as he heaved himself upright. The Earl of St Austell lay slumped forward on the table, his turban half shielding his face, his scarlet robe darker in the middle where a mass of crimson dyed it a deeper red. Someone — the Apothecary did not know who — gingerly approached him and tapped him on the shoulder. The body fell forward a fraction but other than that did not stir. But the movement dislodged the turban which slipped even further to one side. If John had not been a trained apothecary he could easily have vomited. Because the Earl’s face had been shot away and what lay in its place was a dripping red mass of brains and eyeballs. For the first and only time John pitied him.
Elizabeth, who by now was also standing upright, followed John’s gaze. ‘Oh God’s mercy,’ she said softly.
John turned to her and seated her back in her chair, pouring a brandy from a nearby decanter.
‘Here, drink this,’ he said, and handed her the glass. She took it and sipped and John thought he had never seen her so pale in all the years he had known her. ‘Now you must excuse me,’ he said. Raising his voice he shouted, ‘Is there a physician present?’
‘Yes, Sir, I’m a surgeon,’ called a man of no more than thirty, a man with carrot-coloured hair whom John had noticed amongst the dancers and who was just rising to his feet. ‘Are you similar?’
‘I am an apothecary. For God’s sake let us assess the damage.’
They both crossed to the most obvious victim of the shooting. Mr Perkins, as he briefly introduced himself, with more courage than had the Apothecary, put out a hand and removed the turban entirely. The ooze underneath, that had minutes earlier been the head of a man, trickled into the tablecloth.
‘God almighty,’ said the surgeon, ‘whoever did this certainly had no respect for the Earl of St Austell.’
‘Clearly not,’ John answered, as a thought occurred to him.
‘He’s been shot at least four times.’
And it was true enough. Their brief examination of the body revealed four different wounds. Two in the back, one in the knees — which meant his assailant must have bent down to attack him — and the face once, close-up and with both barrels.
‘There’s nothing we can do for him,’ said Perkins, shaking his head. ‘It is the wounded who should be our primary concern.’
Strangely there were not as many of these as the noise and confusion had first suggested. Lord George Beauvoir had a shoulder injury, Lady Imogen had been shot in the leg — and from the whimpering she was making John presumed that she was shortly going to miscarry the child she bore. A whisper to Elizabeth had her being escorted upstairs to one of the many spare bedrooms. Poor little Cuthbert Simms had received a graze from a passing bullet and was bearing it manfully, despite the fact that he was trembling like a blancmange. The only other tragedies were Lettice James, who had been shot dead, a wound straight to her heart, and a young man whom John did not know, had been killed.
In the doorway Lady Sidmouth could be heard remonstrating with her son.
‘Oh do get up Robin, do. You’re like a girl, so you are, fainting at the sight of blood. Go to poor Maud. She looks fit to die.’
Maud was indeed very ashen-faced but only because she had been sitting near the Earl of St Austell and some of his blood had spattered on her. To make matters worse it was starting to dry and it wasn’t until Mr Perkins set to with a damp cloth that she showed any signs of revival. Meanwhile Viscount Falmouth rushed in from outside and quite literally screamed when he saw his grandfather’s body, still in its chair but sprawled out on the tablecloth before it. He approached it running, but when he saw what was left of his kinsman’s head he turned away, clutching his guts.
But at that moment there came a voice from the doorway, calling out merrily. People picking themselves up, the wounded being tended to, the dead being covered by fresh white tablecloths brought in by the ever-sensible Lady Sidmouth, all but the eternally silenced turned their heads.
Miranda stood in the entrance, dressed in a gorgeous nightgown and nothing else. Barefoot and without any kind of robe on the top, John felt she represented some old Norse goddess come to earth to bring summer. She stood immobile, staring from one to the other. Then she saw what lay there, cried out, ‘Montague,’ and rushed towards the heap that Lady Sidmouth was just covering.
She stopped short. ‘Is the naughty man in his cups?’
Lady Sidmouth gazed at her gently. ‘No, my dear, it is a little worse than that.’
Miranda looked roguish. ‘He has lost consciousness. Oh la, that is a fine way to spend a wedding night.’
She began to tug at the corner of the tablecloth. ‘Oh Monty, you are a bad boy. I think it is time you came to bed.’
Viscount Falmouth straightened himself up and crossed rapidly in her direction. ‘Don’t do that, Miranda. It is better that you don’t see.’
‘You’ll address me as Your Grace, in future, Maurice. Remember that I am now the Countess of St Austell.’
‘Whoever you are,’ he snapped at her, ‘don’t look under that tablecloth.’
‘Oh pooh,’ she answered and gave it one final tug.
The mortal remains of her husband lay before her like a piece of butchered meat and there were cries from around the room as people saw him.
Miranda clapped her hands over her mouth and her eyes widened in a most fearful manner, then with a great groan she fell unconscious to the floor.
John leapt forward but did not reach her before the Viscount, who scooped her up into his arms, then stood staring helplessly about him.
‘Odds my life!’ said Robin Sidmouth. ‘I do believe the lady faints.’
There followed a profound silence and just for a second John closed his eyes, thinking of all the duties that lay before him. The acrid smell of blood was suddenly everywhere and mixed with it the scent of hyacinths, sweet and beautiful. It was like the two extremes of life. The cruelty of people, the beauty of spring flowers forever mixed in one overpowering perfume. The Apothecary sighed, opened his eyes, and set about the tasks that must be done.