Eighteen

It turned out that three people had died in all. As well as St Austell and Mrs James there was a third guest that nobody knew particularly well, but still a lost life for all that. Of the wounded there were many more than John had first realized. These amounted to a simple graze as a bullet had flown past to several people having been hurt. The Apothecary and the surgeon were in the middle of giving life-saving first aid when Elizabeth came from upstairs and called Mr Perkins to attend. Much as John had suspected, Imogen was miscarrying her child. Which would, no doubt, be a relief to the anxious woman he had spied in the apothecary’s shop.

At last the line of hurt people was dealt with and John was just sipping a cup of coffee, which he had requested in order to steady himself, when a very pallid Felicity came to stand beside him.

‘Mr Rawlings, I wonder if you would look at my arm. I think I might have a bullet in it.’

He noticed then that the shawl with which she had covered herself was bloodstained and as he pulled it away she gave a little shudder.

‘I’m sorry. Did that hurt you?’

‘Yes, it did rather.’

She gave him a brave smile but he saw as soon as he examined her that she had indeed a bullet lodged in her upper left arm.

‘I will bandage this up for you but I daren’t remove the cause of the problem. We must get the surgeon to look at you fairly soon.’

‘Tonight?’

‘Yes, tonight. There’s no escaping that fact, young lady. Where is your mother?’

‘Over there.’ And Felicity pointed to where Lady Sidmouth was dispensing hot drinks and small eatables to the shocked and wounded.

‘How was it that you got shot?’ John asked the girl, his opinion of whom was rising by the second.

‘I picked up a candelabra and threw it at one of them.’

John leant back and gave a low whistle. ‘We shall have to report all this to the Constable. By the way, has he been sent for?’

‘Mama thought it best to wait until tomorrow.’

‘I don’t know that that was entirely wise. He really might like to see the scene as it is.’

‘But who is the Constable. Do you know?’

‘I have no idea because the job changes annually. But Exeter seems to have a system of each citizen chosen for the unpleasant task employing a certain individual to take his place. And if that system still holds good and if the individual is the same as the one I came across when last there was a murder in Devon, then his name is Tobias Miller and he is a first-class individual.’

Felicity gave a little shiver. ‘Must I go to the surgeon tonight? He seems awfully busy.’

‘Yes, you must, foolish child. It will be painful but it is best the bullet comes out as soon as possible, otherwise infection might set in.’

‘How do you know that it won’t anyway?’

‘Because I have spread on a good paste from Lady Sidmouth’s store cupboard. That will look after it very well until the bullet can be removed.’ John looked round him. ‘Is there anybody else?’

But it seemed that there wasn’t, and he decided that it was time he had a brief chat with Felicity’s mother before leaving.

Lady Sidmouth had proved herself to be a woman made of steel. Her headdress had come off, she had bloodstains all over her dress but, nothing daunted, she plunged into caring for the injured and keeping up the spirits of the rest as if it were her bounden duty. Which, John considered, it probably was. She looked up as he approached.

‘Well, Mr Rawlings, this is one wedding you won’t forget in a hurry.’

‘Indeed not, Madam. I can honestly say that it will be imprinted on my memory for ever.’

She smiled grimly. ‘Lady Imogen has lost a child, by the way. I had half guessed she was pregnant. Had you?’

‘Oh yes. It is better all round that that burden has been taken from her.’

‘Indeed. They say it was old St Austell’s by the way.’

‘What?’

‘Apparently he has been interfering with her since she was a child. If it’s true then he met his nemesis today.’

‘What a foul old bastard!’ John said with vehemence. ‘He deserved everything he got. Of course I feel sorry for Miranda…’

‘I wouldn’t do too much of that,’ came the sharp reply. ‘I think she knew perfectly well what she was getting into.’

The Apothecary held up his hand. ‘Say no more, please. Let me have some illusions left. Now, my Lady, Felicity must see the surgeon tonight. She has a bullet in the arm which I cannot remove.’

‘Young Perkins shall come as soon as he’s finished with Imogen. He’s a nice fellow. Lives in Exeter. As a matter of fact he is quite a friend of Felicity’s. Indeed I have certain hopes. Damn this going after a title business. If he’s a sound man, then let nature takes its course.’

John gathered from this somewhat convoluted statement that Mr Perkins was a possible suitor for Felicity’s hand.

‘Then will you get him?’ he asked.

‘I’ll go upstairs at once,’ she answered.

Having reassured himself on that point, John surveyed the scene. Lady Bournemouth was spreading her girth on to a small chaise while Cordelia and Freddy both fanned her face frantically. Mr Cushen, very grey about the gills, was escorting Mrs Cushen out to their waiting coach. Robin Sidmouth had tired of trying to comfort Maud and had whirled round the room like a bee and was presently deep in conversation with Viscount Falmouth while Maud sat alone, a miserable and solitary figure. Meanwhile a group of strong young estate workers, obviously having been called from their beds, had come into the Grand Saloon armed with planks and determined expressions. They went first to the late Earl and regardless of the blood seeping through the cloth that covered him, hefted him on to the plank, shoulder high.

‘Where is he going to be put?’ asked John.

‘The cellar is to become a temporary mortuary. It’s cool down there, and besides the Constable will no doubt want to examine the bodies,’ answered Elizabeth, returned from the room above. Her voice changed. ‘John, as soon as you are finished here I want to go home. I want to ride out into the night and search for those two old besoms. The fact that they got away has hurt my amour propre.’

‘It would appear that they did the world a service in getting rid of Milord.’

‘Yes, but think of those they wounded indiscriminately. Think of poor Felicity. Think of poor Mrs James — foolish, yes, but actually harmful, no. Think of the other man, a meek fellow in life and perfectly inoffensive in death. Should not they be avenged?’

‘Indeed they should.’

‘Then let’s ride out. It will be a great adventure. In the darkness, you and I.’

Something of the excitement she felt began to penetrate his weary body. Much as he disliked riding at night, he felt himself wanting to accompany her. Besides, she was right. Those two creatures — had they been men all along? — must not be allowed to wreak such carnage and then walk clean away. They must be hunted down and tried by jury.

A thought occurred to John. Unless the couple had acted on their own volition, then there was somebody else to find, the man or woman who had masterminded the whole thing. For surely two such crazy people as the assassins appeared to be, apparently shooting at random, had really had but one target and that could only be the Earl of St Austell. The very number of his wounds was some proof of that. The rest of the volley of bullets would have been to mask the fact that he was the actual victim. The Apothecary thought more deeply and it occurred to him that Mrs James with her gossipy manner and her constantly clacking tongue might also have been on the list to be taken care of. As to the third man, a Mr Meakin, he knew nothing of him but he intended to find out.

He turned to Elizabeth. ‘As long as I am no longer wanted here I’ll come with you. The night air might clear my head. By the way, where is Miranda?’

‘Lord Falmouth took her upstairs. She has been put to bed and Mr Perkins has given her a sleeping draught.’

‘Then that’s as well.’

Outside it was cold and John suddenly began to shiver, realizing that he was suffering from delayed shock. Elizabeth glanced at him in the cushioned interior of the coach.

‘I think a large brandy for you, my friend.’

Once inside her house he poured himself a drink and sat by the fire, reliving every moment of the sudden and terrible attack. At that moment he longed to be with Rose, reassuring her, telling her that the old woman had come and that he had survived. And then he looked up and gasped.

Elizabeth had come downstairs, not clad as she normally was but in the guise of the woman he had met on his honeymoon, many years ago. She was dressed in men’s clothes, her dark hair drawn up into a net and concealed by the hat that she wore. Her body looked long and lean and, to John’s eyes, immensely attractive.

‘God’s teeth,’ he said. ‘You’ve turned back into her. To the vigilante.’

‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Now are you going to ride out with me or do you leave me to search on my own?’

‘I’ll come,’ he said, standing up. ‘Give me a second to change. But first let me kiss you. It has been a long time since I last saw you dressed like this.’

She laughed, and even that sound excited him. They clung together in a deep kiss and then she pushed him towards the stairs.

‘Change to riding clothes. We’re off to seek those two murderous creatures.’

‘If we find them it will only be the beginning.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean that behind tonight’s shooting there lies another brain, cool and cunning and utterly ruthless.’

‘I am aware of that. He must be drawn into our net slowly. But we will find him, don’t you worry about that.’

‘It could be a woman who was behind tonight’s bloodshed,’ John answered, thinking of Imogen and the child she had so fortunately aborted.

‘Indeed it might,’ Elizabeth said over her shoulder as she left the house and headed towards the stables.

John thought that despite all the horrors that the evening had held for him he had never felt so alert. Every sense was tuned to high pitch as he mounted his horse and set off, Elizabeth cantering beside him. She had turned in the direction of the wild moor and he, not knowing the terrain as well as she, just followed.

It was a clear, cold night; a night of mystery and illusion. The moon was tiny, a sliver held in the arms of the old moon. John felt heightened, ready to receive every signal that the night might send him. Just for once he no longer dreaded riding out, his mind concentrated on all the sounds of the impenetrable darkness. Beneath the churning of pounding hooves came the noise of other things. Of unseen creatures making their way through the undergrowth, calling out a warning. Close at hand a vixen screamed an unearthly cry. Something altogether bigger bayed a response.

Slightly in advance of him Elizabeth rode easily, her body almost seeming part of the black beast on which she was mounted. John thought how magnificent she looked in man’s clothing and was vividly reminded of when he had first seen her, peering at her through the crack in a cupboard door while she undressed.

She must have read his mind because she turned and called out, ‘Shall we go to the Grange?’

‘I don’t know that my nerves could stand it,’ he answered.

‘Nonsense. If those two old biddies are hiding out it is the logical place for them to go.’

‘Why?’

‘Because they must have had horses tethered somewhere, and the sensible thing would be to make for the Grange. No mortal person ventures near the place after dark I can assure you.’

‘I can understand that perfectly.’

‘Oh John, don’t be lily-livered. Remember the time we went there together.’

And suddenly he did. Remembered with a certain embarrassment how he had nearly made love to her and would have done so had he not, in a great pang of guilty conscience, recalled his marriage vows and thought of Emilia, his wife.

He answered, rather shortly, ‘Yes, I recall it.’

She must have guessed his feelings because she slowed down and leant across to take his horse’s bridle.

‘John, we needn’t go there if you do not wish it. But I do feel it is worth taking a look, just in case.’

‘But it would mean climbing all over that monstrous house and after my experiences earlier this evening I don’t feel that I am up to it.’

‘Then you shall wait outside while I go in,’ she said soothingly, which was just the sort of thing to say to the Apothecary, who at once felt that he was being cowardly.

‘No, I wouldn’t hear of it, Elizabeth. I shall accompany you.’

But as they neared the gaunt building, its ruined towers and turrets reaching into the dark sky like clutching fingers, John’s heart plummeted once more.

‘Must we go?’

‘Yes, we must.’

Motioning him to be silent Elizabeth dismounted in a spinney of trees and tethered the two horses to the branches. Reluctantly John also swung down and they proceeded on foot towards the ghastly edifice.

‘I thought it better to arrive without prior warning,’ she whispered.

John could not help but grin at her. ‘You’re certain they are in there,’ he murmured back.

‘I’m not certain of anything, but it is worth a try.’

But strangely, as they approached the building, they could see that certain alterations had been made and there were definite signs of restoration work. Windows that had hung open to the skies had now been boarded up and made secure. Scaffolding had been erected against one of the walls. Various workmen’s tools were gathered neatly together in a newly built hut.

Elizabeth turned to John, her eyes wide. ‘I’d heard a rumour that someone was interested in buying the place. It would appear to be true.’

‘But who would want it?’

‘Obviously somebody wealthy with a large family. I’ve no idea of his identity though. And I had put the whole thing down to local tittle-tattle.’

‘Shall we try to get in nonetheless?’

Elizabeth looked at him, her eyes sparkling. ‘Let us do that. It will obviously be the last time.’

Their usual mode of entry through one of the sagging windows was now barred to them, but walking cautiously round they discovered a kitchen door that had worked loose and was swinging on its hinges. Moving lithely — rather like a panther, John thought — Elizabeth made her way in.

There is nothing more soul destroying than a big, empty kitchen. The whole place smelt of rot and decay, and John gazed around at filthy sinks, greasy spits and mucky ovens. The Marchesa marched onward on silent feet and the Apothecary followed as quietly as he could. They reached the bottom of that formidable staircase and Elizabeth had started to climb before he could stop her. It was then that John thought he glimpsed the real reason why she had come to Wildtor Grange. She wanted to revisit the apartments she had once used as a hideout when she had been younger and not so honest a citizen as she was these days.

She had increased her stride so that John was forced into a half run to keep up with her. He could not for the life of him remember in which direction her apartments lay and he stood in the dark, trying to get his bearings. And then Elizabeth reappeared carrying a candle. She had stripped off all her clothes and he was terribly aware of how gorgeous she looked. In fact he could not keep his eyes off her. She smiled enigmatically.

‘Do I still attract you?’ she asked.

‘More than I can say.’

‘Then show me.’

He needed no further invitation. He allowed her to lead him to those old rooms which still bore something of the perfume she had once worn, where he flung her down on to the bed. And then he made love to her, so many times and so beautifully, as if in so doing he could put the memories of that terrible wedding out of his head for ever.

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