His appointment with the extremely miserable Mr James, who had given John some cause for concern in the hours of wakefulness he had had the night before, was not until two o’clock. Therefore the Apothecary decided to put the morning to some use and make a call at the home of the late Mr Meakin, the third person to die in the shooting affray.
The deceased had not lived in Exeter but in a very small village outside called Clyst St Agnes. His house, however, denoted someone of wealth, standing as it did in its own beautiful grounds and reached by a short drive with a carriage sweep in front. As the coach approached — borrowed from Elizabeth once more — John peered through its windows trying to work out the profession of the newly dead man. He concluded that he was either a lawyer or a physician.
The door was answered by a footman wearing a very solemn face. Outwardly the house had signs of deep mourning, the curtains all being drawn and the knocker swathed in black material.
‘I am sorry, Sir, but Madam is not receiving anyone at all. There has been a tragedy in the family, you see.’
‘Yes, I understand completely. I was just hoping for a brief word with…’
‘Will I do?’ interrupted a voice.
The door opened a little wider to reveal a wee dot of a woman, no more than four feet and a few inches, with a tiny busy face and hair scraped back off her face into a high curly bun.
John made a bow. ‘Mrs Meakin?’ he asked.
‘Alas no. Poor Ella is lying down. She is with child, you know. I am Miss Meakin, sister of Alan.’ She suddenly burst into tears like an April shower, dry one minute, rain pouring the next. And as suddenly, it was gone again. ‘To whom am I speaking, if you please?’
‘John Rawlings, Madam. I am here on semi-official business.’
‘Are you? Are you going to solve the mystery of dear Alan’s death? Then enter, pray do. Hawkins, be good enough to fetch sherry for two to the parlour.’
As he walked through the house the Apothecary could see that it was finely appointed and tastefully decorated and reckoned that the family were monied people.
‘Do take a seat,’ said Miss Meakin. ‘Now, what can I do for you?’ A pair of bright eyes were fastened on him and she added, ‘Please do not think me callous in receiving you like this. It is just that I want this horrid mystery solved and if I can help in any way, I will.’
‘I am very obliged to you for seeing me. I just have a few questions if you would be so good.’
At this point the sherry arrived and Miss Meakin poured them both a schooner.
John raised his glass. ‘Your health, Madam. Let me just explain that I am assisting the Constable of Exeter, Tobias Miller, with his investigations.’
This was not strictly true but the Apothecary had no hesitation in telling a white lie, anxious as he was to find out if the dead man had a more intimate relationship with St Austell and his family, or had merely been acquainted through business. He guessed at the latter.
‘Obviously, Miss Meakin, you have been told all the details of the terrible affair at the Earl of St Austell’s wedding feast. Tell me, how well did your brother know the Earl?’
‘Well, socially, he didn’t. But the Earl had considerable dealings in Devon — as well as Cornwall — and Alan was a lawyer, in charge of the Earl’s Devon affairs.’
‘I see. Very much as I thought.’
‘What else can I help you with?’
‘I don’t know really.’ For once the Apothecary was at a loss, having failed to make any true connection between the two dead men.
‘Would you like another sherry while you think?’
Miss Meakin refilled his glass and John sipped, wondering what to say.
‘Alan’s wife could not go with him to the wedding feast — and God be thanked for that in hindsight — because she is very near her time. My poor, poor sister-in-law. Heaven alone knows what future awaits her.’
‘But surely you have enough money.’
‘Yes, we do. Though Alan’s salary was a goodly part of it. He was very clever you know. As I told you he handled all the Earl’s affairs.’
John had a moment of inspiration. ‘St Austell wasn’t by chance making a new will, was he?’
‘Oh yes,’ replied Miss Meakin earnestly. ‘Alan was much involved with it. The Earl left a personal bequest to his bride, apparently, which would see her comfortably off for the rest of her days.’
‘Really? And do you know if it had been signed or not?’
She looked bewildered. ‘Oh yes. It was signed shortly after they became betrothed.’
Suddenly the Apothecary saw a thread. Lord George and Viscount Falmouth must have been quite displeased about that, to say nothing of Lady Imogen. He drank his sherry rather fast and stood up. ‘It really has been a pleasure to meet you, Miss Meakin. If there is anything I can do to help you or your sister-in-law please do contact me. I am staying with Lady Elizabeth di Lorenzi at her house near Exeter.’
The little dot opened her eyes wide and then wept again. ‘Thank you for being so polite, Mr Rawlings,’ she said in a muffled voice.
‘Thank you for receiving me, Miss Meakin.’ He bowed his way out, hat across his chest. ‘Please give my condolences to Mrs Meakin.’
‘I will, I will.’
He left her crying in full flood and stepped out and into his carriage with an entirely different view of the case.
Unfortunately he had no time to pursue his idea at present because, looking at his watch — still the one that Sir Gabriel had given him for his twenty-first birthday — he discovered that he had less than half an hour until his appointment with Mr James. But when he panted to the front door, a minute or two late, the horrible Gertrude waved her tooth at him and shouted, ‘He’s out,’ before slamming it shut in his face.
John stood, slightly annoyed and quite definitely nonplussed. He had made a firm arrangement to call on Geoffrey James and now the fellow had backed out. He decided that he would try to locate him and knocked on the door again.
It was opened after a minute and Gertrude thrust her unlovely face out. ‘Wot is it?’
‘Do you know where Mr James has gone?’
‘Down to the river. Says he’s going to drown hisself.’
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ John answered impatiently, and set off at some speed.
Originally the River Exe had been tidal and navigable up to the city walls, and it had thrived as a busy port. In the 1270s, however, Isabella de Fortibus, the Countess of Devon, had built a weir across the river to power her mills. Whether this was a deliberately spiteful action no one knew but it had the effect of cutting off Exeter’s thriving harbour from the sea. Twenty years later trade with the port resumed only to be cut off once more, this time by Hugh de Courtenay, Earl of Devon, Isabella’s cousin. This meant that all goods had to be unloaded at Topsham — a town that John could remember clearly from the days of his honeymoon — and carried by road. The Earls, rubbing their hands in glee, collected heavy tolls to anyone using the highways,
For 250 years the city sent petitions to the King to have the port reopened, until finally in 1550 Edward VI, the boy King — Henry VIII’s son by Jane Seymour — finally granted permission. In 1563, Exeter traders employed a Welshman, John Trew of Glamorgan, to build a canal to bypass the weirs and rejoin the river in the centre of the city, where a great quay would be built. In 1677 it was extended and the entrance was moved to Topsham, and in 1701 the canal was deepened and widened to allow ocean-going sailing ships right of passage.
This was how Elizabeth had met her husband, the Italian trader, the Marchese di Lorenzi, who had sailed his ship to Exeter loaded with Murano glass. And she, the daughter of an English Earl, pampered and cosseted since birth, had run off with him and lived a wild and exciting life in Italy. Until tragedy had intervened and she had returned to England to bring up her son on her own.
But now, John thought, she had a lively pair of twin boys to cope with, and just for a second came near to understanding her possessiveness over them.
It seemed to him that as a merchant of Exeter Geoffrey might go down to the quay, and it was to there that John made his way. There was no sign of his quarry but for a few minutes he stopped in open-mouthed admiration of the great ships — sails furled, decks swarming with men — that lay at anchor there. Then he felt a tap on his shoulder and looking round saw the melancholy Mr James, drunk as a wheelbarrow, swaying on his feet, and looking a ripe shade of green.
‘Greetings,’ said Mr James, then shambled to the water’s edge and was horribly sick into the river.
John, observing him with a seasoned eye, waited till all the retching was done and then walked forward and dragged the wretched man back to where two barrels offered a temporary sitting place.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘tell me everything.’
‘I loved her, that was the trouble,’ said Geoffrey incoherently. ‘She was an awful wife, terrible in fact, but I couldn’t help myself. I just loved her.’
‘Why was she so bad?’ asked John.
‘Unfaithful. Always out. Gossip. Everything that one wouldn’t desire in a woman.’
He hiccuped violently and John instinctively leaned away.
Mr James continued, his speech somewhat clearer. ‘You see, she was fascinated by what she thought of as the “best people”. She had very humble origins, you know. Born to a labouring family. Her father heaved goods coming off the ships. But she was very pretty at one time and had a pleasing way with her. So pleasing that I married her. I loved her so much. Oh God’s wounds.’ His voice broke on a sob. ‘Anyway, she set about cultivating society people. She would do anything to get to know them. Anything at all.’ By now he was crying openly.
John watched in silence, certain he knew what was coming next.
‘That wretch the Earl of St Austell. She became his mistress. He would bed any doxy and I am certain he took her as part of a wager. And after that, he would torment her. Send for her once a year and openly laugh in her face before seducing her. He turned her into a flip-flap. My pretty little Lettice.’
‘Did you kill him? Were you one of the two shooters?’
Geoffrey looked at him in astonishment. ‘No, I did not. I went out drinking that day — the day of the wedding. No, Sir, you can look elsewhere for your murderer.’
John nodded quietly, anxious not to stop the flow. ‘I understand. Tell me, did Lettice share any of the Earl’s secrets do you know?’
‘I can’t imagine it.’ He was sobering up and looked at the Apothecary quite acutely. ‘Why, may I ask?’
‘I am just wondering if that was the reason for her murder?’
‘I should think there must be at least fifty of Exeter’s citizens who had a motive for killing my poor wife. She gossiped about everyone and everything. Except herself. But in a way she was quite proud of the fact that she was St Austell’s whore. Made her feel that she had risen up in the world.’ He sighed deeply.
‘And she told you all this?’
‘I charged her with the fact she was his mistress. And do you know what she replied?’
‘That I was a fumbler and no use to woman or beast.’
John said nothing, thinking of all the tragedies of life, of all the million and one hurts and cruelties that people inflict on other human beings. How nothing ever seems to go straightly from A to B. That living was punctuated by a zillion and one relentless wounds, starting, perhaps, with a child falling down and ending with the death of someone near and dear. What a treacherous path indeed.
Geoffrey stared at him soberly. ‘The trouble was that she fell out of love with me. That is probably what drove her to do what she did.’
John shook his head. Even at this most dire of times, Mr James was still making excuses for Lettice. He forced a cheerful smile on to his face. ‘It is a sad loss for you, Geoffrey. I may call you that? But let me hear no more nonsense about ending your life. Living is a challenge to each and every one of us, and it is up to you to do it, for better or worse.’
‘The house is so empty without Lettice.’
‘Nonsense. You said she was always out and about. The best thing you can do is get on with your business and make it better. Work is the greatest cure-all for everything.’
Mr James straightened his shoulders, clearly sobering up. ‘You’re right, of course.’
‘And the other thing you might do to improve things…’
‘Is sack Gertrude.’ And the Apothecary raised one of his mobile eyebrows and grinned.
When he got home it was to find a letter from Jacquetta Fortune awaiting him. It was neatly written in a long flowing hand and was so descriptive that John chuckled as he read it. Apparently Gideon was running the shop as if he were an apothecary of many years standing, while the apprentice, Robin Hazell, was turning out to be a boy of quick understanding and obvious merit. His great friend and admirer, Fred the Factotum, was proving adept with his letters and had added a post scriptum to Jacquetta’s script:
I WRIT THIS WITH MINE OWN HAND.
Slyly John slid his eyes up from where he sat opposite Elizabeth, calmly reading a newspaper with a minute pair of spectacles perched upon her nose, comparing the colour of her hair with that of Mrs Fortune. They were as unalike as any two women could be yet, he had to admit it, though he loved Elizabeth with all his heart he still had a penchant for Jacquetta, with her competent manner and her glowing locks.
‘Interesting letter?’ said Elizabeth, looking at him over her glasses.
‘Yes, it’s from Mrs Fortune. She says that the business is booming, that Gideon has taken over the shop as if I never existed, and that both the boys are doing well.’
‘And what of Rose?’
‘She says nothing.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Probably because she knows nothing. Remember Rose is at school now.’ He sighed. ‘I wish I could see her.’
‘There is nothing to keep you here,’ Elizabeth answered with a hint of acidity.
John knew the right thing to say. ‘Yes, there is, by God. There is you, the beautiful woman who will not marry me. And there are my twin sons whom I love almost as much as I love you. And thirdly there is this wretched affair of the shooting.’
‘Are you any further with the investigation?’
‘Indeed I am. It seems that the Earl of St Austell had made a new will in favour of his bride, Miranda. And further that Lettice James was his fancy piece.’
Elizabeth burst out laughing. ‘And to think of the face she pulled when she learned that I was giving birth to bastards! What a beastly woman. But it does not surprise me regarding Montague. He bedded with anything wearing a skirt. Tell me, did he sign the will?’
‘Indeed he did. A will that could be, perhaps, overturned by his grandchildren at some later date.’
‘What about Geoffrey James?’
‘I think we can count him out. He may be weak, he may behave like a total idiot, but I don’t think he is capable of murder.’
The Marchesa nodded. ‘And what of the two assassins? Any further clues to their identities?’
‘None. Nothing at all. Not a trace.’
‘They’re probably back in London by now.’
‘I wonder,’ answered the Apothecary slowly. ‘I just wonder.’