John rushed upstairs to change into night clothes, and put on something rather dark and fetching before going into the salon to see who had arrived. And there, draped decorously on a chaise with Freddy Warwick sitting as close to her as was decent, was Miss Cordelia Clarke. Of the redoubtable Lady Bournemouth there was no sign. Crossing over to Miss Clarke, John kissed her hand and gave a formal bow to Freddy, who had risen to his feet and returned the compliment.
‘My dear,’ he said, going to Elizabeth and kissing her on the cheek.
‘Where have you been?’ she asked, not crossly but curiously. ‘You’ve been out since first light. What have you been up to?’
‘Nothing much,’ John answered, not wishing to discuss the love life of Lady Imogen in front of anyone else. ‘I went into Exeter and bumped into someone I met on a coach. I just felt like riding,’ he added apologetically.
‘How unlike you,’ Elizabeth answered with just a hint of acidity. ‘Well, now that you’re here, Cordelia has something to tell you.’
‘Yes indeed,’ echoed Freddy, gazing at her adoringly.
Cordelia gave a little shiver as she embarked on her tale. ‘It happened on that terrible night of the wedding feast. Fortunately I was sitting next to Freddy…’ They exchanged tender glances. ‘… and he pulled me to the floor when he saw what was happening. We lay very still but kept our eyes open and thus I had a fine view of everything that happened at that level. I was terrified when a pair of feet came and stood right in front of me. I thought I was going to be killed.’
‘I would have protected you,’ said Freddy nobly.
‘Anyway, as I was watching, the crone’s garter came undone and slipped right off. When he had moved away I stretched my arm out and found it, then I hid it underneath me. And here it is.’
And with a triumphant move of her hand she reached into her reticule and produced the garter.
‘May I see it?’ asked John.
Cordelia handed him a decorative ribbon, definitely past its best and decidedly grubby but quite clearly a man’s. It had woven into it a slogan, namely ‘A toast to King George’. John passed it to Elizabeth.
‘Would you wear this?’
‘No, I would not. It is male attire.’
John took it back and stared at it. Whoever had owned the shabby thing had murdered — or assisted therein — three people. If it could help him hunt the killer down… But John knew that was impossible. It would be preposterous for him to even imagine going about such a task. Nonetheless, he turned to Cordelia and said, ‘May I keep this?’
‘Of course. It was meant for you and the Constable.’
‘I know he will be delighted to see it.’
‘He called here while you were out,’ Elizabeth said. ‘I think he is rather anxious to see you.’
‘If you have nothing planned for tomorrow, sweetheart, I shall ride into Exeter and catch up with him.’
Elizabeth’s vivid gaze caught his and he saw humour flicker in the depths of her eyes. ‘I have several females coming to admire the twins. I think it would be as well if you were elsewhere, my dear. But do please borrow the small coach. I could not bear to think of the pain to your posterior if you continue to ride.’
Everybody laughed, including John, though inwardly he felt somewhat slighted. He felt he had ridden well and as a town dweller had acted more like a countryman, directing his mount with a firm hand. But he suffered in silence and was glad when Freddy changed the subject.
‘I have asked Cordelia to marry me, and she has been kind enough to accept my proposal.’
‘Whenever did you ask?’ said Elizabeth. ‘I thought Lady Bournemouth had Cordelia under night-and-day protection.’
‘She was somewhat hors de combat after the shootings and I stole a moment whilst in Lady Sidmouth’s garden.’
John thought to himself that Lady Sidmouth’s house seemed to be a magnet for all kinds of emotions, whether they be for good or ill. And his mind went off at a tangent, grasping at straws, trying to form some sort of pattern yet still unable to see one.
Elizabeth rose and kissed the betrothed pair and asked all kinds of questions about where and when the wedding would be but he could barely move, so caught up in his thoughts and angry with himself that he had so many threads which refused obstinately to weave into a pattern. Vaguely he heard Freddy’s voice.
‘I have decided to study medicine, Madam. I am going to follow in my father’s footsteps.’
John came back to earth. ‘Very good. And where are you going to do this?’
‘At St Bartholomew’s Hospital. As you know it is one of the oldest, and my father studied there.’
‘We are going to live in London and be very poor but very happy,’ said Cordelia in a jolly voice.
John shook the young man’s hand. ‘Well done, both of you. My warmest congratulations, Sir.’ He turned to Cordelia. ‘And for you, young lady, a kiss on the cheek if I may be so forward.’
‘You certainly may.’
Elizabeth signalled a footman and champagne was brought in and consumed with much gaiety but John could not join in wholeheartedly. Something was niggling in his mind. Something indefinable yet which he knew had already been said to him.
Later, when the guests had gone and Elizabeth had retired for the night, he sat up late and thought the whole thing through. At the wedding of Miranda Tremayne to the old rake the Earl of St Austell, two hired assassins, dressed as women, had made their way into the wedding feast and deliberately shot three people, all of whom had strong connections with the Earl. Mrs Lettice James had been his mistress but an indiscreet one. A born gossip, a woman who could keep nothing to herself but must talk about it through the town. Then there had been Mr Alan Meakin, a country solicitor who had worked closely with St Austell and had drawn up his recent will — duly signed and perfectly legal — leaving a considerable fortune to his bride.
Felicity had been wounded and John had had a bullet fly right past him. Other people had suffered minor injuries — but Sir Clovelly Lovell had heard the assassins say ‘Not him’, or words to that effect, which suggested some local knowledge.
So who stood to gain? Possibly the Earl’s three grandchildren: Viscount Falmouth, Lord George and Lady Imogen. Mr James, if he had loved his spouse sufficiently, might have wiped out her lover. The Meakins? John could only discount them when he thought of the heavily pregnant wife. Perhaps Felicity, who might have willingly received a wound in order to cover some enormous secret. And lastly Miranda, the weeping widow, still confined to her room and refusing to eat.
A fine list of suspects indeed. But of them all the biggest question mark hung over Lady Imogen herself. Just supposing that the child she had carried had been fathered incestuously by her grandfather and that she was using Jessamy Gill as a means of escaping from her sordid past? What then?
For once the Apothecary felt quite ill-at-ease thinking about the whole sorry affair. He had instinctively believed Mr James and Imogen — but supposing the reaction of his gut had been incorrect? And what about Mrs Cushen, who had been nervously praying in Exeter Cathedral? Why had she been at the wedding? What connection did she have with the Earl of St Austell?
John stepped outside to get a breath of night air, wandering into the garden and gazing up at the full moon, feeling oppressed by his wretched thoughts. Yet as he did so he felt rather than heard another presence. Somebody was watching him, he felt certain of it.
‘Who’s there?’ he called.
Nobody answered and nothing stirred but still he felt that pair of unseen eyes observing him. He was in no mood to investigate. Turning on his heel John sprinted back into the house and locked the doors behind him.
The next day he took the small coach to Exeter, leaving at an ungodly hour and for once forgoing his breakfast. He knew that the Constable rose early to start his investigations and was determined to catch him before he began his official duties. Consequently he knocked on the door of the small house close to The Blackamore’s Head at eight o’clock in the morning. A girl with a mop and pail answered and showed him into a small parlour where Toby was just finishing his breakfast. He looked up in some surprise.
‘Oh, it’s you, Mr Rawlings. I have a great deal to tell you.’
‘And I you. Furthermore an important piece of evidence was handed to me last night and I wanted to give it into your safekeeping.’
So saying, John removed the garter from where it lay in tissue paper and handed it to Toby, who examined it and gave it back.
‘And where did this come from, Sir?’
‘Could I have a slice of your toast and then I’ll tell you?’
‘By all means, Sir. Would you like some tea?’
John nodded, his mouth already full and the girl trudged in and took the teapot away.
‘Mrs Miller not here?’ John asked.
‘Alas, no. She died of an infection last winter. I am a widower, I fear.’
‘I am very sorry to hear that. You must miss her terribly. Now, if you’ve no objection, I would like to tell you about that garter.’
And John proceeded to fill Toby in with absolutely everything that had taken place since they had last been together. It was a long tale and during it John managed several cups of beverage and consumed a fairly hearty breakfast. He wound up by presenting his list of suspects and his reasons for being doubtful about Geoffrey James and Lady Imogen.
Toby nodded thoughtfully. ‘Well, the Coroner opened his inquest on the Earl and closed it again till a later date. Likewise with the other two. But he has released the bodies for burial so we are going to have three funerals on our hands.’
‘I see. So where are the late Earl’s grandsons at the moment?’
‘Staying at an inn in Exeter. They plan to wait here until they can accompany their grandfather’s body back to Cornwall.’
‘Any news of them?’
‘Well, apparently Lord George is going round getting into fights and falling fantastically drunk. The new Earl, however, having recovered from his little fit which I believe I engendered, has seen the light and is now being very solicitous of those who were injured. He has called repeatedly at Lady Sidmouth’s asking to see both his grandstepmother — the weeping Miranda — and Felicity. The former won’t have anything to do with him; the latter, who is allowed up to sit in a chair, has received him on several occasions. The last time he asked to see his sister and was told she was out. He did not like that at all.’
‘Has he discovered that she has gone?’
‘Not yet, I believe. Lady Sidmouth is either being very tactful or very clever. I know she has set in train her own enquiries but the fact that her estate manager has also disappeared is a powerful piece of evidence.’
‘Does she realize they have gone off together?’
‘Yes, and I think she secretly thinks good luck to them.’
‘Do you feel as I do that Lady Imogen was not behind the crime?’ John asked.
‘Funnily enough, her choice of husband has swayed me in her favour. You see, I know Jessamy Gill. He used to come into Exeter every so often and he is the salt of the earth, as the saying goes. If he thought she was mixed up in anything like a murder plot he would have turned his back on her for ever.’
‘And what about Geoffrey James?’
‘Him I am not so certain of. I’ll take your word that he’s mad with grief but I would need a little more convincing than that.’
‘I forgot to tell you that someone was in the garden last night, silently watching me.’
A gleam shone in Toby’s eyes. ‘Who was it? Do you know?’
‘No, I saw nobody, but I was just aware of his — or her — presence.’
‘Perhaps it was your imagination.’
‘Perhaps,’ answered John.
They formulated a plan that they would divide the suspects between them. John would take Miranda, the ex Viscount — now the new Earl, Lord George and Mrs Cushen. Constable Miller would take Geoffrey James, Lady Imogen and Felicity.
‘What if Imogen has already left for Dorset?’
‘Then I’ll follow her there, Sir. I am very thorough, you can believe me.’
‘And the owner of that soiled and grubby garter?’
‘He’ll have gone back to whichever rathole he emerged from long since.’
‘Perhaps not. Perhaps he was an Exeter man.’
‘In that case, his days are numbered.’
John had started the day so early that it was only eleven o’clock when he emerged from his conference with the Constable. Feeling that the net must be tightening around who actually masterminded the killings, he decided that time was of the essence and ordered the coachman to go first to the apothecary’s shop in the main thoroughfare then on to Sidmouth House. An hour later he bowed his way into Lady Sidmouth’s receiving room and asked if he might visit Miranda as he had several healing medicaments he wanted to give her.
‘She won’t see you, John. She allows no one near her.’
‘Then what does she do with herself all day?’
‘She lies on her bed of grief and weeps.’
‘Well that’s not going to do her a lot of good. I mean she’ll have to come out for the funeral.’
‘And she’ll have to journey to Cornwall for it. I mean sooner or later she will have to take up residence in her new home. Perhaps you will be able to persuade her.’
‘I can only try.’
But a gentle knocking on the door of Miranda’s bedroom only elicited a shout of, ‘Go away. Have you no pity?’
John disguised his voice, speaking falsetto and trying desperately to sound like a maid. ‘The apothecary has called with various medicines for you, Milady. They will strengthen you for your journey to Cornwall.’
There was an audible sigh and then Miranda said, ‘Oh very well.’
A second or two later a key turned in the lock and there she stood.
To say that she looked ghastly was an understatement; in fact she looked fit to die herself. Her skin had the fearful pallor of death, her eyes were like black stones set shockingly in a casing of marble, her blonde hair stuck on end and was unbrushed and uncared for. She wore a soiled and grubby nightdress. Beneath her eyes were streaks where tears had poured down her unwashed cheeks. They widened now as she took in who was standing before her.
‘What are you doing here?’ she asked in an indignant tone.
‘I am an apothecary and I have brought you some of my simples,’ he said, his face ingenuous, his manner sweet.
‘Oh, very well, come in. Shall I call a maid for chaperone?’
He affected a slightly offended air. ‘There will be no need for that. I merely wish to administer my potions.’
‘I’m sorry, I did not mean to offend you. My grief is so great that I do not always know what I am saying.’
She turned away from him and disconsolately walked towards the bed on which she threw herself and indulged in a fresh bout of weeping. John hastily gave her his handkerchief, removing the other — completely sodden.
‘I would like a little light if you have no objection,’ he said, and before she could say a word crossed to the two large windows and pulled back the curtains.
The glare of daylight fell on Miranda’s ravaged features and John swiftly unpacked the parcel that the apothecary in High Street, Exeter, had prepared for him. There was autumn Gentian for debility, together with white Dittany for hysteria. To restore Miranda’s ailing appetite the apothecary had also added an infusion of Polypody sweetened with honey.
‘Well, here we are then,’ said John in a jolly tone.
Miranda looked up from the pillow and a deep sob raked her body. ‘What are they?’
‘Physicks to make you better. Try some, there’s a good girl. Remember that you will have to get up soon and journey to your new home. You won’t want the servants to see you looking worn out with weeping, will you?’
‘No,’ she said a little reluctantly.
‘Then drink these down please, Countess St Austell. I promise they will restore you to full health.’
Miranda perked up at that, saying in a wistful voice, ‘Yes, I am the Countess. Not even dear Montague’s terrible death can take that away from me.’
‘It most certainly can’t,’ John answered.
He looked at her, assuming his honest citizen face. ‘Tell me, Miranda, did you truly love your husband?’
A beatific smile lit her saddened features. ‘Oh, Mr Rawlings, I loved him with all my heart.’