Apothecary John Rawlings is intrigued when a letter arrives asking him to investigate an impostor claiming to be the long-lost step-son of a wealthy Bristol merchant in possession of his dead wife's diamond inheritance. John Rawlings' father, Sir Gabriel Kent joins him on the trip to take the healing waters at Hotwell where they socialize with the crème of Bristol society. But Rawlings is compelled to try and solve the mystery and so he must trawl through the underbelly of eighteenth-century society to unearth the sordid secrets at the heart of the investigation.
About the Author
Deryn Lake is the pseudonym of a well-known historical novelist who joined the popular ranks of historical detective writers with her gripping John Rawlings Mysteries. Deryn Lake lives near Hastings, East Sussex
Read an Excerpt
Death On The Rocks
By Deryn Lake
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Deryn Lake
All rights reserved.
It was a very strange letter. Very strange indeed. It had been brought to John Rawlings, Apothecary, by Fred, the general factotum of the shop in Shug Lane, Piccadilly, who hung round nosily while John broke the wax that sealed it. He looked up.
'When did this arrive?'
'Just now, Sir. The post boy brought it. I took it from his hand directly.'
Fred still stood, staring beadily.
'Haven't you got any work to do?'
'No, Sir. I've swept the floor and the shop is all clean and tidy.'
'Well sweep through again. There is no such thing as too clean.'
Fred reluctantly went off to fetch his broom and John looked at the letter.
Honourable Sir. I beg you though you do not know the Signatory to peruse these words. I can claim only the slightest Connection with your Goodself and that is through a cousin of Your Friend Samuel Swann Esq. I believe that you have helped to solve Problems with the Esteemed Magistrate Sir John Fielding and I now wonder if you can help me Solve One of a personal Nature with which I am confronted.
My Wife sadly Passed From this Life some Six Years ago. She had Been Married before and I met her Son, who lived with us until he ran away from home aged Fourteen Years. Despite our best Endeavours, he refused to return Home. My Wife, under the terms of Her Will, had left her Son – her only Child – a considerable fortune in Diamond jewellery and of this he was advised by My Lawyer, Who put an Advertisement in Several Newspapers. Accordingly, He arrived in this Country some Months Ago to take Receipt of His Inheritance.
I come to the Point. I did not recognise Him at all. It was as if a Stranger had Walked into My House. He had Changed out of all Recognition. When he knocked upon My door I first refused Him Entry but he called out Jovially, "Do you not Know Me?" and I was forced to let him in. Sir, I Beg of You a Favour. Please could You Come to the small village of Clifton, outside Bristol, and help me Somehow to Identify this Man.
I shall, my dear and Honoured Sir, Be Most Grateful if this could be done at some time in the Not Too distant Future.
John read the signature – 'Horatio Huxtable, Merchant' – then put the letter into the pocket of his long apron.
'Anyfing interesting?' asked Fred, peering over his broom.
'You haven't swept the corners,' answered John with a grin, and walked into his compounding room.
He was greeted immediately by the sweet smell of drying herbs, bunches of which hung from a beam running the length of the chamber. Looking round him, he felt in seventh heaven. Everything that constituted his art was around him: alembics, crucibles, retorts and matrasses stood on a bench near the back, while on the centre table were small oil stoves with bubbling pewter pans upon them, and several pestles and mortars, in the largest of which Robin Hazell was pounding away at a mixture of simples. John sighed. He might be a lonely widower, but in this place he could put his troubles behind him and feel at peace with the world.
Robin was now eighteen years old and had grown into the most attractive young man. Delicately built and not terribly tall, his autumnal colouring and sherry eyes had lost the naivety of youth and now appeared to make him look like an elegant faun. His hands were graceful and in them something as ordinary as a pestle contrived to become a thing of beauty. John felt protective of him, realising that the boy could well be the prey of depraved creatures of either sex.
Robin looked up as the Apothecary came into the room.
'All well, Master?'
'Yes indeed. How is that mixture coming along?'
'It's almost done.'
'Good. Let it stand overnight and we will boil it for the decoction in the morning.'
'Very well, Sir.'
John looked around him and despite the harmony he had with his surroundings, felt the first shiver of cold. It was a September evening and the nights were getting sharp. He looked at his fob watch which told him that there was another quarter of an hour until closing. Going back into the shop and seeing that it was empty – Fred having disappeared upstairs to tidy the rooms of the law students who lived above – the Apothecary opened the letter once more. The address was given as '24, Sion Row, the village of Clifton, near Bristol', the date a week previously.
The Apothecary pondered. He could ask Gideon Purle, his former apprentice, now an apothecary in his own right and a Yeoman of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, if he could run the shop while he went away, and he knew that Gideon would agree. But the snag about this was that young Purle devoted all his time to running John's sparkling water business in company with Jacquetta Fortune, the wretchedly thin widow whom John had asked to manage the project, and who had surprisingly blossomed into an elfin beauty with frosty lights in her golden hair.
Whether the two were in love the Apothecary had never been able to work out. Their heads were always bent close together as they leaned over sales figures and the like. Yet though he was sure his former apprentice had strong yearnings in that direction, Mrs Fortune always remained intriguingly unreadable.
How like a woman, John thought, and smiled cynically.
Once more he looked at his watch, somewhat battered nowadays after its many years of service. It had been given to him by Sir Gabriel Kent, his beloved adopted father, on his twenty-first birthday – all those years ago, the Apothecary thought, and laughed a little at the very idea.
It was nearly time to close the shop and Fred came in for his final instructions.
'Anything more to do, Sir?'
'All swept and clean for the morning?'
'Then you can pull the cover over the counter and leave the rest to Robin and me.'
'Very good, Mr Rawlings,' and Fred's hand came up into a salute.
As usual the gesture tugged at the Apothecary's heartstrings. As a baby, Fred had been dumped in a box outside the gates of Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital and had been taken on by John out of the goodness of his heart. One day, or so he hoped, Fred would make a fine servant to someone of position, but meanwhile the little lad was acting as a general cleaner and dogsbody for the Apothecary's shop and the law students in the dwelling above. He watched as the boy pulled at the linen cover and called Robin out to help.
'Is it time to go, Master?'
'Yes. It's a cold night and I doubt we'll get any more custom.'
While the boys struggled with the cloth, John went into the compounding room and blew out the candles and oil lamps, then went into the shop and did the same. Then, having seen Fred scuttle up the stairs, he locked the door and stepped out into the night.
There was little joy left in his home, he thought as he walked along, Robin hurrying beside him. Number 2, Nassau Street, that had once been so full of love and laughter, was a quiet house now, only the ghosts of the past left to whisper down the corridors at night.
Sir Gabriel Kent, once the greatest beau in London, had long since moved to the village of Kensington, while Rose, John's beloved daughter, was at boarding school in Kensington Gore. Gideon, too, had rented a small apartment over a shop in Thrift Street now that he was no longer an apprentice. Young Robin, as custom decreed, slept in the servants' quarters in John's house. So the only other person in the Apothecary's silent home was the discreet Mrs Fortune, who worked long hours and whom he often did not see even at mealtimes. It was all rather depressing.
John patted the letter in his waistcoat pocket, deciding that he would give it his full attention after his return from having supper with his very dear friends Louis and Serafina de Vignolles. Thinking about this raised his spirits and he speeded up his progress along Princes Street, Robin hurrying along to keep in step.
An hour later, the Apothecary descended from the house and waited while a servant ran to fetch a chair. Tonight he was dressed very finely with a pair of striped stockings and buckled breeches worn beneath a fashionably short waistcoat and a narrow-shouldered coat with tight-fitting sleeves and decorated buttons at the wrist. Over this he had quite the latest thing – a broad-brimmed hat of felt and a long overcoat. Feeling tremendously smart, he waited on the corner of Gerard Street until a chair pulled up and he got inside, leaving the curtain open and gazing out at the passing parade.
The chairmen trotted along, keeping well away from the dark narrow alleys which were used by various members of the public for all kinds of nefarious purposes, sticking instead to the broader streets, the gutters of which stank with the detritus dumped in them daily. Having left Gerard Street they hurried up Princes Street, then turned down Knaves Acre and Brewers Street, then up into Warwick Street, along Beak Street, and then thankfully into Great Swallow Street, where the lights from the houses of Hanover Square lit the cobbles. John got out and paid the perspiring men generously and then sauntered along the square to number 12.
As usual a footman answered the door and John gazed around him, thinking of the time – many years ago now – when he had first stood there. It must be nearly twenty years, the Apothecary thought, and rejoiced that he had been able to make and keep such friends as the Comte and Comtesse de Vignolles.
'My dear,' called a voice from the staircase, and looking up John saw that Serafina was descending to meet him.
She was as elegant as ever, though now the sides of her hair gleamed pewter in the light of the many candles that lit their gracious home. But she still had that slight racehorse delicacy about her, the full mouth that curved so easily into a smile, the lovely bones of her cheeks reflected in the blaze of the chandelier which illuminated the steps.
'Serafina,' he said, and ran up the stairs to bow before her and kiss her hand.
In response, she took him into her arms, holding him away from her slightly so that she could look into his face.
'You have an extra line or two,' she said in the husky tones that he had always thought thrilling.
'My dear, I shall be forty next year,' he answered, giving her a crooked grin.
She threw her hands in the air. 'Don't speak to me of it. I try to remember your father's words that age is merely a number.'
The Apothecary smiled wryly. 'I say them to myself daily.'
His eye was caught by further movement on the stairs and he looked up to see a young lady approaching. A young lady so like her mother that the Apothecary drew a breath before giving a formal bow.
'Italia?' he asked.
The girl curtseyed. 'Indeed, Sir.'
'You have grown up,' he said. And it was true. John had not seen Serafina's daughter for at least two years and the miracle had taken place. She was now fourteen years old and had turned into a young woman in the intervening months.
'Do you think we are alike?' asked Serafina with a smile.
'As two pod peas, my dear.'
'Would you like to be her age again, John?'
The Apothecary smiled. 'Sometimes yes, but mostly no. Like a good wine, I am maturing in the cask.'
Serafina smiled back and looked up the stairs. 'I believe that men improve with age. Do you not think that Louis is a prime example?'
And the Comte de Vignolles certainly looked at his best, with his leonine head rapidly sporting a deal of white among the dark hair and his tall figure carrying itself with all the assurance of an older man.
'My dear John, how good to see you again.'
'And you, Sir.'
'Here is your godson, Jacques. Grown somewhat since last you met.'
Louis stepped to one side to reveal a handsome lad of about eleven with a mass of dark curling hair tied back with a scarlet bow. Jacques put his hand on his heart and gave a deep bow.
'Godfather, I am so pleased to see you again.'
'And I you, Jacques,' John answered, and gave a formal bow in return.
He had delivered the child, brought him into the world, when during a social call on Serafina she had gone into premature labour. But all had been well. Thanks to the services of John and a quick-witted maid, the tiny little boy had lived and thrived. And now here he was, grown into a regular fine fellow.
Serafina looked at him and winked an elegant eye. 'You approve of my brood?'
John winked back. 'Not nearly as much as I approve of you, Madam.'
Later that evening, when the supper had been taken and the candles burned low and the young people had yawned their way to their bedrooms, the three friends sat at the table while the port bottle was passed round. Serafina did not participate in the tradition of ladies leaving the men alone – except when in elegant company – and sat while John and Louis lit pipes and watched the blue smoke curl towards the beautiful ceiling.
'Are you happy, my dear?' she asked John, looking at him over the rim of her glass.
He sighed. 'I am content,' he answered, 'if that is what you mean.'
'No, it is not what I meant. I repeat, are you happy?'
The Apothecary glanced at her and saw that she knew the answer even before he had spoken.
'To be honest with you, I crave adventure and I miss my sons. And I still miss Elizabeth, though the pain of that has vanished with the passing of the years.'
'But you genuinely loved her?' asked Louis.
'With all my heart. And I still do. But I am not one of those people who go on pining for something that I can no longer have. I have too practical a nature.'
'You are a wise man,' said Louis. 'A lot of valuable time is wasted by those who hunger for what is lost.'
Serafina suddenly sparkled with mischief. 'We must find an adventure for you, my friend.'
John's eyes lit up. 'As a matter of fact I had a mysterious letter today.'
'From a stranger. A man in Bristol – well, just outside actually, a village called Clifton.'
'Apparently someone has turned up claiming to be his stepson, but he maintains he's never seen the fellow in his life before.'
Serafina and Louis exchanged a glance.
'How odd,' Louis said.
'And what does he want you to do about it?' asked the Comtesse.
'He has apparently heard that I have in the past worked with Sir John Fielding and he wants me to visit him. At least I think that is what he wants.'
'You must write to him this very night, John. Tell him that you will be delighted to accept the commission.'
'Where did you say he lived?' asked Louis.
'In Clifton. It's a village outside Bristol. Up on the edge of the Avon Gorge.'
'I've seen it,' Louis answered. 'It's quite small. I believe the rich of Bristol are building up there to get away from the stink of the town.'
'You must go, John,' said Serafina, her eyes suddenly glinting. 'I have a feeling it might relieve your low spirits.'
'Not exactly low, more unsettled.'
'Whatever you say,' she answered, 'but promise me you will attend upon this mysterious gentleman.'
'Yes,' the Apothecary said, 'I give you my promise.'
'Then I'll drink to that,' replied Serafina, and with that she raised her glass.CHAPTER 2
Much later that night, when the Apothecary had climbed into his bed and snuggled down beneath the blankets, he looked once again at the letter. With a stomach full of wine and good food, let alone his promise to Serafina, he made the decision to visit Bristol soon.
He had been there once before as a boy of fourteen, taken by Sir Gabriel, visiting an old friend who dwelled in Queens Square. He had stared overawed at the mighty Avon Gorge, at the ferry boat crossing it, back and forth, at the young boy rowing it, scarcely older than himself. But most of all his eye had been drawn to the mighty ships riding at anchor, rowed up the narrow waterway of the channel by barges, it being too narrow and the wind too flighty to allow them to sail. Then his eyes had widened in horror as he had watched one ship unload its cargo. A hatchway had opened in the hold and out had come a string of strange people with black skins, naked but for a few tattered rags which they clutched about them. There had been men, women and children of all ages, staggering out of the blackness below and almost blinded by the light of day. There had been infants, some no older than two years. One, a terrified little girl, lost control of her bladder and stood, helpless, while urine cascaded down her legs and tears down her tragic black face.
John had turned to Sir Gabriel. 'What are they, Sir? Are they people?'
His father had made a strange sound, almost a hollow laugh. 'They are called negroes, John. And yes, they are people like ourselves.'
Excerpted from Death On The Rocks by Deryn Lake. Copyright © 2013 Deryn Lake. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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