Twenty-One

Mr James had pulled himself out of bed and into an ancient armchair by the time they entered the room. He had a rather grubby blanket wrapped round him and was almost bent in half, snuggling into it. He looked thoroughly decrepit but in fact, thought the Apothecary, peering into his face, he was probably little more than fifty and far from stupid.

Tobias Miller broke the silence. ‘I am so very sorry, Sir, that your wife has been called to her Maker. The whole thing is a complete tragedy.’

Mr James straightened slightly. ‘Yes, my heart is broken. Though, to be honest, she was rarely at home. Her social life, you know. Always flitting from one place to another. But she moved in good circles, I can tell you.’ His eyes swivelled round to John, who noticed that they were a strange colour, a type of river grey. ‘I presume that you are the apothecary that was mentioned.’

‘You presume correctly, Sir. That is my profession.’

Mr James suddenly pulled the blanket up over his face and began to moan, rocking himself to and fro like a forlorn child.

Toby and John exchanged a glance of surprise before John stepped forward and gently put down a hand. ‘Hush, Sir, please do. I know you are in the depths of mourning but try to brace up.’

The blanket was lowered very slightly so that the pair of eyes became visible — and what anguish in their depths. ‘How can I brace up? I am in mourning for all of my life as well as that of poor Lettice, shot by some thug on a whim. Oh God, I might as well be dead myself.’

At this moment the poor fellow voided some wind with such a loud explosion that John found himself in the unfortunate position of wanting to laugh. Constable Miller however kept a straight face.

‘That’s as may be, Sir. But I am afraid I am here on official business and I have to ask you some questions.’

There was no reply as Mr James hid once more behind the blanket.

Tobias Miller came as near to losing control as John had ever seen him. ‘Mr James,’ he thundered, ‘for God’s sake act your age. You can’t revert to babyhood unless you are a total idiot, in which case you should be committed to an asylum. Now what is your Christian name?’

The man slowly sat up straight. ‘My name is Geoffrey James and I am a merchant of Exeter. Indeed I have been one for many a long year.’

‘And what do you deal in?’

‘Spices. I import them from the Indies and distribute them to my many customers.’

‘And how can someone of your importance behave as you are doing? Wrapping yourself in a blanket and behaving like a child. For shame.’

‘I think you are addressing me out of turn. I suggest you apologize,’ Geoffrey answered, slowly getting out of his chair.

John decided that this was the moment to intervene. He put on his sympathetic but professional manner. ‘My dear Mr James, I am actually here to offer you some help. Your late wife mentioned to me — in the strictest confidence of course — that you suffer badly with flatulence. I think I can procure a cure — forgive the pun.’

The grey eyes looked at him with bored resignation. ‘I have had quacks treating me for years. All to no effect.’ As if to prove the point he voided wind thunderously once more.

‘What have they prescribed?’

‘I don’t know,’ Geoffrey answered sadly. ‘All sorts of things. I couldn’t name them.’

‘Tell me, are onions included in your diet.’

‘Yes, I do like a boiled onion. I must admit I do.’

‘Well, I should give that up for a start. Have you had a clyster?’

‘Not in a while. I don’t like the things.’

‘Nobody does. But you must persevere. I am going to prescribe for you a weekly washout with the combined flowers of Melilot and Chamomile together with a half a dram of the powdered root of Lovage, taken by mouth once a day. You will find it very warming and further it actually dissolves wind.’

Mr James heaved a sigh. ‘If you think it will do any good.’

‘I most certainly do, Sir. I shall call on your tomorrow with an apothecary’s boy to administer the purge. And now, Sir, may I suggest that you retire to bed. You are obviously worn out with sorrow. At what time would you like me to arrive?’

Somehow John managed to glance at Toby unseen and the Constable picked up his cue. ‘I can see, Sir, that you are not well enough to answer questions today. I too will return tomorrow at the time you wish.’

Geoffrey nodded with affected weariness. ‘That would suit me better. You can fix the times with Gertrude. But please don’t come together.’

They bowed their way out and walked down the street and straight into a tavern.

‘That,’ said Toby Miller, ‘was one of the most awkward interviews of my life.’

‘I think the man is in genuine grief. He looks utterly careworn — and as for his distressing and odorous complaint. It would be enough to try the nerves of any human being,’ John answered, and drank the strong jigger of gin he had ordered.

An hour later the Apothecary got into the coach which had been waiting for him, but instead of going straight to Elizabeth’s home went to see his patient, Felicity, at Sidmouth House. He found her feverish but making good progress. The surgeon from Exeter, Alexander Perkins, had removed the bullet and spent the night at Sidmouth House. Indeed he had only just returned home, and the Apothecary found Felicity dropping off to sleep when he entered her bedroom accompanied by her mother. On examining her arm he found it bandaged. Very carefully John raised the wound to his nostrils and sniffed.

‘The surgeon has spread it with a different paste from the one I used.’

‘Alehoof,’ answered Lady Sidmouth. ‘I keep a supply of it in my medicine chest. When I am running low I get a fresh batch from the apothecary in Exeter.’

‘Very wise. And clever of Mr Perkins to use it.’

‘I think he is a very clever young man,’ said Lady Sidmouth pointedly, looking in Felicity’s direction.

At that moment there was a noise downstairs and the mistress of the house was called urgently to settle some minor dispute in the kitchens. As soon as the door had closed behind her, Felicity patted the bedcover.

‘Pray sit here, Mr Rawlings. There is something I want to tell you that nobody else must hear.’

John sat, agog.

‘Last night you can remember the confusion and noise. Well, after you and everybody else had eventually left, my mother insisted that I go to my bedroom and lie down, awaiting Mr Perkins’ arrival. But I could not sleep. My arm was throbbing and hurting so much and the room felt hot and oppressive. Anyway, to come to the point, I decided to disobey her and take a turn round the gardens. I walked to where the lawns begin, where they sweep down to the sea. And there, on the beach below — it is only visible at low tide so you may not have noticed it — I saw two distant figures. I could not recognize who they were but they were walking close together and they kissed from time to time. They must have been connected with our house because there is no other way down to the beach. I know it was probably two of the servants but nonetheless it gave me quite a start.’

‘You didn’t recognize them at all? Was there nothing that gave you any clue?’

‘No, except that…’

‘Yes?’

‘Except that the woman had something on her head — a scarf of some kind I think — that blew out from time to time on the wind.’

‘You’re absolutely sure about this? It wasn’t by any chance the two assassins?’

‘No, these two people were shaped differently. It most certainly wasn’t them.’

‘I see,’ said the Apothecary, and sat silently, thinking.

The sound of Lady Sidmouth returning had him leaping up again and examining Felicity’s arm once more.

‘Well, Mr Rawlings, and what is your prognosis?’

‘In bed for a few days, then up and taking a little gentle exercise. Particularly of the arm. In short, Felicity should keep using it. But I am sure that Mr Perkins has said this to you already.’

‘He certainly has. He will be calling again tomorrow.’ She looked at Felicity, who went very pink.

‘Then there will be no need for me to return except for a social call. I am sure Elizabeth will be visiting soon.’

John took his leave, filled with thought. He could picture the couple walking in the moonlight, dark shapes alone on that small beach that only appeared when the tide was out. They must have climbed the wooden staircase back to the house, then parted to go — where? Had they only been servants as Felicity had wondered or had there been something altogether more sinister about their tryst? All the way back to Elizabeth’s house he turned the matter over and over in his mind but could come to no conclusions whatsoever.

That night he dreamed such a dream. He was on a strip of sand, walking behind the couple who constantly eluded him. For however much he increased his pace they always remained at the same distance in front of him. He could hear them laughing quietly and he watched the girl’s scarf blow out in the wind, taking off over her head as if she would fly away with it. The couple reached the end of the beach and turned to go back in the other direction and the Apothecary, rather than being able to see their faces, felt that he had to turn too. So now he walked in front of them and he heard them both pursuing him. He broke into a run but whichever way he went he knew that they were right behind him. In the end he was so terrified that he ran into the sea and swam out a little way. But the sea was black and cold and hateful, and the moon had gone in. Down he went, down and down into the inky depths, then he gave the most almighty scream and woke up.

He was alone in the big bedroom and the door was open. Elizabeth must have got up to see to the twins, as was her custom despite the nursery maids. Still feeling nervous because of the dream, John got out of bed and pulled on a nightrail. He crossed to the window and looked out and suddenly he had a mental picture of Rose and Sir Gabriel. It was quite distinct. Sir Gabriel was fetching her from school and she was greeting him with radiant eyes and a glowing complexion. She was happy, John felt certain of it, yet as always when he thought of his daughter he had a longing to see her. He wondered whether to get a flying coach to London and go home for a while, leaving the investigation in the hands of Constable Miller, a most able man in John’s view.

Yet there were so many things that just didn’t add up. The two men dressed as women, ready to kill, yet holding back from Sir Clovelly Lovell; the thread of red hair; Mrs Cushen’s strangely fearful manner in the Cathedral; sad Geoffrey James behaving like a baby; and lastly Felicity’s strange sighting of two people walking on the beach below her. What did any of it mean? Were the incidents even related? Shaking his head, the Apothecary went downstairs to find something to eat and drink in a hope that this would finally get him off to sleep peacefully.

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