Nineteen

John was woken by the sunlight playing on his face and stretched out an arm to reach for Elizabeth. But she was not there. He was alone in her great bed in that terrifying house, with its monstrous staircase and its long dreary suites of rooms leading one upon the other. How anyone, however wealthy and with however many children, could think of buying and restoring such a place was quite beyond him.

He sat up and looked around. Once, long ago, when the Marchesa had been a vigilante avenging the death of her only son, she had used it as a hideout and had slept alone in the great house, first having furnished an apartment to her own luxurious requirements. Now, though the curtains and cushions were faded and dusty and generally tired, the rooms still had the air about them of somewhere that had once been rather grand. He supposed that with enough money spent upon it and enough cheerful fires lit and constantly thronged with hosts of people, Wildtor Grange might again achieve something of its original potential after all.

He swung out of bed and had started to put his clothes on when the door opened and there stood Elizabeth, fully dressed and already wearing her tricorne hat. She smiled at him becomingly.

‘Guess what I’ve just found.’

John shook his head. ‘I don’t know. What?’

‘These.’

And she pulled from behind her back two brown shifts, of the type worn by working women, and two hideous poke bonnets.

‘So they were here,’ exclaimed John.

‘They most certainly were. My reading of the situation is that they came here, changed, then went on to Exeter where they disappeared into the crowd.’

‘Let me have a look at those dresses,’ said John, buttoning up his shirt.

Elizabeth passed them to him.

‘These have been specially made. Look at the size of them. They’re too long for a woman for a start, though admittedly one is shorter than the other. But then so were the assassins.’

The Marchesa sat down on the bed. ‘What else did you notice about the couple?’

‘I glimpsed the face of one of them. Briefly.’

‘What about their hands?’

‘Their hands? Now those I did see. One had long fingers and I do believe brown spots. So he must have been quite middle-aged. The other, younger. Rather reddish hands, square.’

‘And did you not see that one of them wore a bracelet of some kind?’

‘No, I didn’t. Which one?’

‘The taller. He had something round his wrist which I only just glimpsed but thinking that he was a woman I did not pay much attention. But these dresses prove their gender. Conclusively.’

And she held one garment against her. The skirt folded at the hem leaving a good part of the dress trailing on the floor.

John took hold of the bonnets and held them up to the light.

‘What are you looking for?’

‘Hairs. Have you got any tweezers?’

‘I’ll go and look.’

She crossed to the dressing table and after searching for a few minutes came back to him with a pair.

‘Thank you.’

He scooped around inside the hats and eventually gave a cry of triumph and produced a longish hair, held between the tweezers.

‘There,’ he said.

Elizabeth stared at it. ‘It’s red.’

‘Indeed it is. And it belongs to one of the killers. But how to keep it, that’s the problem.’

She went back to the dressing table and raked about, then returned with a small box, satin lined, that had once housed earrings.

‘Will this do?’

‘Perfectly,’ and he carefully tucked the hair within. Vaguely, very vaguely, the colour reminded him of someone, but he could not for the life of him think who it was.

A search of the second bonnet proved less favourable. It was full of the smell of sweet pomade and John imagined that the wearer must have slicked his hair down into a net and put the bonnet on over the lot.

‘Where did you find all this?’

‘In a pile at the bottom of the stairs.’

‘Then it must be as you thought. They could have gone on to Exeter and boarded a stagecoach and be halfway to anywhere by now.’

‘John, we’ve got to go and see the Constable. He must get on to the case. If those two blackguards get away with this I shall be furious.’

‘I didn’t realize that you were that attached to the Earl of St Austell,’ the Apothecary said wryly.

‘He can be damned. It is the innocent victims I am concerned about.’

She was itching to be on the move, to do her part in bringing the criminals to justice. She slapped John’s hat on his head and headed for the staircase without another word. He followed behind her, carrying the box with the hair in it, and, telling himself not to be afraid, began to descend that nightmarish staircase. And then his eye was caught by something. Something dropped on one of the stairs. It was a man’s handkerchief and on it were smears of carmine and white as if someone had wiped it over their face to remove their make-up. It could as easily have belonged to a belle or beau of fashion, yet John’s instinct told him it was a man’s. He snatched it up and put it in his pocket for more careful examination later on.

They reached Exeter about forty minutes later, having gone like the wind. John, terrified by the ordeal of riding fast, had clung on for dear life, losing his hat and his stirrup at one point. The hat he gave up as a bad job, the stirrup he eventually regained. Panting, mud streaked and definitely pale, he arrived at Tobias Miller’s house in the High Street, hoping that the citizens of Exeter still held on to their custom of reappointing Toby when it was their turn to undertake the much-hated job. Elizabeth, looking cool as a cucumber and calm to boot, slid out of the saddle and knocked at the front door. A round-cheeked, jolly little woman answered, explaining that she was his sister.

‘No, my Lady, Tobias has gone off to Lady Sidmouth’s house. Appears there was a terrible shooting up there last night. He went off soon after dawn when one of her footmen arrived in a coach.’

The Apothecary groaned aloud and spoke forcefully.

‘Elizabeth, I am going off to have breakfast. The horse is exhausted and so am I. You do as you please.’

He had not intended to sound so brusque but obviously it touched a spark with the Marchesa. She was silent for a moment or two and then she said, ‘You’re quite right. We must give the animals a rest. I’ll join you.’

They did not speak a great deal during the meal until John covered one of Elizabeth’s hands with his and said, ‘Thank you for last night. It was tremendous and exciting. And worth all the riding.’ He laughed then and added, ‘In every sense.’

She laughed back and, pulling his face towards hers, plonked a kiss on his nose. ‘I suggest we take the horses home, then change. And we’ll go to Lady Sidmouth’s by coach.’

‘I utterly agree with you,’ John said thankfully.

Tobias Miller stood in the Grand Saloon and looked about him carefully. Then he crossed to the French doors and let himself out into the garden, seeing if the villains had left any visible tracks behind them. Sure enough, there were a couple of footprints in the flower bed and Toby, after staring at them for a moment or two, took out a little ruler from his inner pocket and measured them. They were clearly not left by a woman — unless she had simply enormous feet — and the indent of the heel was larger than any left by a woman’s shoe. Taking out a notebook from another hidden pocket, he made a rough pencil sketch of the footprint before stepping back into the Saloon.

Lady Sidmouth was inside, looking more than a little miserable.

‘I cannot think why there should have been such an attack. And at a wedding feast. It really is too bad.’

‘My Lady, may I sit down?’ asked Toby politely.

‘Oh there I am forgetting common courtesy. Please do, Constable Miller. Now how can I assist?’

‘First of all, Madam, I would like a list of all the people present yesterday, including their addresses, if such a thing should be possible.’

‘Oh yes indeed, it most certainly is. It was a wedding and we had sent invitations and listed all those who could come and those who refused. I will get a servant to fetch it for you.’ She rang a little bell and when a footmen came ordered him to fetch the wedding list and also bring some refreshment for Constable Miller.

‘Thank you, Ma’am, you are very kind. A cup of tea would be pleasant. And now, if you’ll forgive me, I would like to speak of the events of yesterday afternoon.’

‘Certainly.’

‘These assassins. You say they wore brown shifts and poke bonnets, but did you conclude they were disguises, to hide their true identity?’

‘Oh quite definitely. I thought they were men, in fact. You see, they had big hands and feet and quite broad shoulders. One of them definitely, though the other was smaller.’

‘Um. And though they shot at everyone, would you say the target was the Earl of St Austell?’

‘That really is hard to conclude. It seemed to me that they were on a mad killing spree. But that doesn’t really make any sense. But then, what does?’

‘Quite.’

The Constable was silenced by the arrival of his tea. When the footman had left, he asked, ‘And where is the widow now?’

Lady Sidmouth stared and then said, ‘Oh you mean Miranda. She is prostrate in her room, poor girl. She has stepped straight out of her wedding gown and into deepest black.’

‘As you say, Madam, she is to be much pitied. Now, as you know, I have examined all three bodies and it will be my duty to send them on to the Exeter mortuary. The Coroner will release them in due course and then they may be duly buried.’

‘I see. Tell me, what did you conclude from your examination?’

‘I am no medical man as you know, my Lady. But judging from their injuries I would say that the Earl was definitely the target. He was shot four times. Mrs James had one bullet wound to the heart and Mr Meakin looked as if he had been shot almost by accident.’

‘I see. So what does that tell you?’

‘You want my honest opinion?’

‘Of course.’

‘Then I would say they were hired assassins and their brief was to kill the Earl and, perhaps, Lettice James. Mr Meakin I am not so certain of.’

Lady Sidmouth went very white. ‘But who could possibly have hired them?’

‘That’s what I’m going to find out. Did the Earl have any enemies that you know of?’

‘Dozens, I should imagine.’

Tobias looked up from his notebook. ‘Really? Who for example?’

‘I really don’t think I would care to say that.’

‘That is up to you, Lady Sidmouth. But I shall find out in any case. You can be assured of it.’

‘That is entirely your affair, Constable.’

‘Yes, Madam, it is.’

As Tobias Miller was making his way out he ran into that most exemplary man, John Rawlings, together with that formidable female, the Marchesa di Lorenzi.

‘Ah, Mr Rawlings, how are you, my dear Sir? What are you doing in this part of the world?’ John opened his mouth to reply but the Constable continued, ‘Let me hazard a guess. You were invited to the wedding and witnessed the happenings of yesterday afternoon.’

‘Quite right. But what you didn’t know was that the Lady Elizabeth and I called on you this morning to be told that you had made an early visit to Lady Sidmouth.’

The Constable lowered his voice. ‘Is there anywhere we can talk privately?’

‘I can only think of the cellar. Nobody will venture down there because of the bodies.’

The Marchesa spoke. ‘Then I’ll call on Lady Sidmouth and keep her occupied. Meanwhile you two can have your private discussion.’

‘Thank you, Madam,’ said the Constable and gave her a formal bow.

Walking quietly, John and Tobias made their way round the house and in at the back door used by the servants. The steep circular staircase that it was the daily lot of the employees to climb or descend was immediately to their left. Without a word both men plunged downwards.

The atmosphere in the cellar was horrible. For no good reason John felt the hairs on his neck rise. All the old stories of ghosts and ghouls flashed through his mind. And then, quite distinctly, he heard a sound. Tobias turned to him with raised eyebrows and the Apothecary motioned him to be quiet. They crept forward to where lay the three mounds, all covered with fresh white linen.

‘Don’t move or I’ll shoot,’ said Tobias, drawing a pistol.

For answer there was silence, followed by a long, terrible, gasping sob.

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