Twenty-Seven

All night long the thought that Felicity believed herself in danger came back to haunt him. Was it merely that she had a high fever and was suffering from delusions or was it something more sinister? Whatever the problem, John slept little and rose early and made his way to the stables as soon as he had eaten. There he once more borrowed the good-natured horse — as good natured as any horse can be, that is — and heaved himself into the saddle. Then he set off for Sidmouth House as quickly as it was possible for him to go.

He had taken the precaution of packing a small bag with medicaments for fever and ague: Cinquefoil, for he had been taught in his training that one leaf cures a quotidian, three a tertian and four a quartan ague; Angelica, otherwise known as Tansies or Heart’s Ease, and a pleasant plant to use; and Centaury, which when boiled and rubbed into the skin was a sure-fire cure for everything from sciatica to voiding the dead birth.

Halfway to Lady Sidmouth’s residence it started to rain, heavily, with large drops that penetrated his clothes and soaked him to the underwear. Cursing his luck, the Apothecary rode gamely on but eventually drew to a halt beneath a large tree, to give the animal a rest as much as anything. Dismounting, he drew the horse into the deep shade and there waited for a quarter of an hour.

While he stood in silence he saw a horseman go by. Admiring the man’s easy athleticism, John stared with envy as he passed close to them. He did not have a full glimpse of the face for the man had his collar turned up and his hat pulled down, but he could have sworn it was Lord George. So he was back from Cornwall empty handed. In the excitement of yesterday John had forgotten to ask Tobias Miller if he had any news of the whereabouts of Imogen, and now he found himself truly hoping that she had made her escape from that rotten family.

John’s thoughts turned to Maurice, the new Earl. He was certainly a strange character, not exactly unlikeable but nebulous. He seemed to have a different skin for every occasion, rather like a chameleon. The Apothecary was in the unusual position of still being uncertain as to what the man was really about. He wondered then if Maurice had something of a yen for Felicity, but discounted that idea in favour of George. The handsome rake would have married anyone who could have brought him a good dowry and he had certainly had his eye roving around at the wedding feast. But that had been before the two assassins came in and killed three people.

The rain had eased off and John remounted again with some difficulty and continued on his journey. A quarter of an hour later the splendid house came into view and John walked the horse round to the stables so that he might arrive on foot. Feeling like a tatterdemalion, his hat slopping water, a bag in his hand like a salesman, his coat drenched through, the Apothecary rang the bell.

A footman answered and looked at him in some surprise. ‘Mr Rawlings, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, I have called to see Miss Felicity.’

‘If you would wait in the small receiving room, Sir, I shall send for Lady Sidmouth.’

John handed the footman his damp coat and hat and waited in silence for a moment or two before the door was flung open and Lady Sidmouth stood there. To say she was much changed would have been too great an exaggeration, but she was most certainly haggard and looked on the point of collapse. So much so that the Apothecary hurried forward and helped her into a chair.

‘My dear Lady Sidmouth,’ he said, ‘sit down, do. You look quite weary.’

‘I am wrung out, my friend. I am so worried about my daughter. She seems to be getting weaker by the minute, despite the ministrations of Mr Perkins. He cannot understand it. The wound is healing up but in her body she is deteriorating. Oh dear.’

And she flung the apron she always wore over her face so that John could not see her tears. He waited a moment then said, ‘Would you like me to have a look at her?’

The apron lowered. ‘Indeed I would, Sir.’

‘Tell me, is she eating?’

‘All she will have is a little vegetable soup. She spends most of her time sleeping.’

‘But a few days ago she was in the garden with Mr Perkins.’

‘That is the strangeness of her complaint. It is as if some awful thing is attacking her. But heaven alone knows what when she is tucked safely in her room night and day.’

‘And how is Miranda coping with life?’

‘Oh, she’s calming down a little. After all, she has to follow her husband’s coffin to Cornwall tomorrow. The funeral is to be held there in two days’ time.’

‘And Lady Imogen will not be present, I take it.’

She shot him a look and in her eyes he read everything. Lady Sidmouth knew exactly what had happened and, indeed, condoned it.

‘No, Sir, she will not be there. She has eloped with my estate manager and they have both gone to Dorset to start a new life. By now I believe they will be man and wife and there is nothing anybody can do to her any more.’

‘May I ask you a straight question?’

‘Of course.’

‘Was she abused by her grandfather?’

‘Most certainly. In a way those masquerading old women did her an enormous favour.’

‘Do you think she was behind the killings?’

Lady Sidmouth gave him a startled look. ‘Good gracious, no. She was desperately unhappy but she would never have stooped that low.’

‘Then who was it? Do you know?’

She shook her head. ‘No, Mr Rawlings, I don’t. It has puzzled me ever since. Who would want to see the Earl dead other than Imogen? And she is quite definitely innocent.’

John ran his mind over the other two victims but would have sworn an oath that neither of them had a family that could have done such a thing as murder.

He looked at Lady Sidmouth with a great deal of sympathy. ‘Let me talk to Felicity. Perhaps I will be able to glean something of what this mysterious ailment is.’

He found her lying in a great bed with the curtains drawn darkly round it. As John pulled them back she let out a little mew and put her hand over her eyes. He turned back to Lady Sidmouth.

‘Would you mind leaving us alone for a few minutes? She will be perfectly safe with me.’

‘I know that. Just find out what ails her, John. I am begging you to do so.’

‘Don’t worry. I shall do my absolute best.’

Sitting on the bed he leant closely to Felicity who was whispering something in a tired, small voice.

‘John?’

‘Yes, I’m here. Tell me what is happening. Why do you feel threatened?’

‘I saw them again.’

‘Who?’

‘The couple on the beach. And they saw me, I know it. They both looked up and they noticed me gazing at them from the top of the cliff. And after that my condition got worse and worse. Oh John, I think I am dying.’

‘Nonsense. Once I’ve found out what is going wrong I shall have you up and about in no time. Now, tell me. When was it you last saw them?’

‘Three nights ago. Mr Perkins had called that evening and I felt neither too ill nor too tired to sleep after he had gone. So I wandered the length of the garden to where the grasses sweep down to the sea and then I stopped in my tracks. Because there on the beach below they were walking in the twilight, arms around each other, her scarf blowing up in the wind.’

‘Did you recognize them?’

‘No, not really.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘I would hate to name the wrong person and get them into trouble.’

John decided to leave that for the moment and asked instead, ‘What have you been eating?’

‘Only a mouthful or two of soup. And a little sip of wine.’

‘Who brings it to you?’

‘The maids. It comes from the kitchen.’

‘I see. Promise me you will let nothing pass your lips until I return. I need to talk to your mother urgently.’

Felicity brought her mouth close to his ear. ‘Is someone trying to poison me?’

‘I don’t know yet but I am about to find out.’

So saying he pulled the curtains back round her bed and hastened downstairs to where Lady Sidmouth stood anxiously waiting.

‘What is the matter with her? Were you able to discover anything?’

‘I think someone is giving her poison. If you take my advice, Lady Sidmouth, I would bundle her into a nightrail and several shawls and send her in a carriage to Lady Elizabeth’s. There we can be absolutely sure of the food that is given her and she can recuperate in peace.’

The heavy-lidded eyes of the little woman opened wide. ‘Poisoned, you say? But who could be doing such a thing? The staff are all devoted to her.’

He looked at her very seriously. ‘I cannot say at this stage and, besides, I would prefer not to do so until I am absolutely sure. But please take my advice and get her away as soon as possible.’

‘You are certain Elizabeth will not object?’

‘She most certainly will do as I ask when I tell her how urgent the matter is.’

Just as Lady Sidmouth was going upstairs Miranda was coming down, escorted by her personal maid to whose arm the Countess clung for dear life. She was skeletally thin and her little-girl face had now slimmed down to one of high cheekbones and beauteous curves. Her eyes were dry but were red-rimmed through many hours of weeping. She was dressed entirely in black, her widow’s weeds hanging round her face. She jumped when she saw John below, watching her.

‘Oh, Mr Rawlings, how you startled me. This is my first time downstairs since that terrible tragedy. I am awaiting the arrival of my grandstepsons who will escort me back to Cornwall and my new life.’ She wrung her hands. ‘But what life could there possibly be after the death of him I loved most?’

She gazed downwards as she negotiated the last few steps and John noticed that tears threatened to spring up once more.

‘Madam, calm yourself, I beg you,’ he said. ‘You must make a resolve to act with an iron will in the presence of all the servants and relatives who will, no doubt, be examining you with a mixture of love and envy. Chin up, I implore you.’

She turned on him a look which contained a myriad of emotions. ‘It is easy for you to speak, Sir. You live comfortably with your mistress and your little bastards, but I have to carry my sorrow with me to the grave.’

‘You forget that it is only a temporary home for me. I must leave for London soon and then what of my mistress and my bastards, as you choose to call them? I shall miss them as cruelly as if they had died, believe me.’

She softened. ‘I am sorry that I said that. You speak the truth indeed. We all have problems to bear in one way or another.’

But John did not answer. Instead he was looking out of the window to where Maurice — who had presumably met George on the way — was greeting his brother. ‘I think your grandstepsons have arrived for you now. My, how handsome they are in their black.’

The new Earl and, or so he supposed, the new Viscount Falmouth, formerly Lord George, were alighting from their horses and making their way to the front door, hats clutched firmly in hands.

As they came into the hall the Apothecary gave them a respectful bow. ‘Good day, your Lordships.’

‘Good day, Mr Rawlings,’ answered Maurice. ‘Have you anything to keep up the spirits with you? We have a long journey to Cornwall ahead of us and are quite in the dumps at the thought of it.’

Miranda spoke. ‘It is all very well for you to talk, my Lord. It is I who bear the greatest burden of grief.’

They rushed to her side, making sounds of sympathy, leading her away to a nearby room where they seated her on a sofa and rang the bell for brandy. John kept an eye on them through the partially open door which he gently closed shut as he saw Felicity being carried in the arms of a stout-hearted footman towards the front entrance. Outside a carriage was drawn up, presumably summoned by Lady Sidmouth.

‘I’ll follow in ten minutes,’ he whispered to the fragile girl. ‘Don’t worry. Elizabeth will look after you.’

She opened her eyes, nodded, then closed them again. Lady Sidmouth let out a subdued sob and John put his arm round her shoulders. And at that moment George opened the door and walked into the hall.

‘Well, stap me, if it isn’t Felicity. Where are you going to my pretty maid?’

John gave a disarming smile. ‘She is going to stay with Lady Elizabeth for a few days. Recuperation and all that.’

‘Good heavens. I didn’t realize she was that ill. I’ll go and tell the others. They’ll want to bid her farewell.’

‘I’d rather you didn’t do that, my Lord. It is imperative that the patient is kept absolutely quiet. If you would be so good.’

The new Viscount stood nonplussed, his handsome face suddenly rather silly and slack-jawed.

‘Thank you so much, my Lord,’ John continued airily.

Lady Sidmouth picked up the theme and said, ‘Thank you, George. I knew you would understand.’

And his lordship could do nothing but stand there and gape as the others swept out through the front door into the dreary afternoon.

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