Read Beloved Poison Online

Authors: E. S. Thomson

Beloved Poison

Beloved Poison

Beloved Poison
 

E. S. Thomson

 

CONSTABLE • LONDON

 

CONSTABLE

 

First published in Great Britain in 2016 by Constable

 

Copyright © E. S. Thomson, 2016

 

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

 

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

 

ISBN: 978-1-47212-228-5

 

Constable
is an imprint of
Little, Brown Book Group
Carmelite House
50 Victoria Embankment
London EC4Y 0DZ

 

An Hachette UK Company

 

 

 

For Guy and Carlo

Contents
 

 

Chapter One

 

Chapter Two

 

Chapter Three

 

Chapter Four

 

Chapter Five

 

Chapter Six

 

Chapter Seven

 

Chapter Eight

 

Chapter Nine

 

Chapter Ten

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

Acknowledgements

 

Author’s Note:

 
Chapter One
 

 

I
stood on the threshold of my room, my hand on the door knob. A man was inside. He leaped to his feet, the long roll of paper he was holding open on the bed springing closed and tumbling to the floor. It was not
my
bed he was using – that remained where it was against the wall. The situation was far worse than that: the truckle bed that lay beneath it had been pulled out, and set up opposite. A mattress had been dragged up from one of the store rooms, and the bed neatly made. A stove-pipe hat, new, obviously, and precious, sat on the pillow.

The man who owned the hat was in his mid-twenties, with curly brown hair cut close to his head. I noted the ink on the fingers of the hand he held out to me, and on the cuffs of his shirt. I saw the sheen on his waistcoat from habitually leaning against a desk, or drawing board. His boots were beside the door, the clay-coloured mud of the infirmary’s main courtyard drying on the soles. At five feet and eight inches in height he was no taller than I.

He had settled himself in nicely. An open carpet bag at the foot of his bed showed a clean shirt, collar and cuffs. Against the wall, beside the fireplace, leaned the neatly folded legs of a tripod, a small wooden instrument case tucked between them.

‘Mr Flockhart?’ he said, stepping forward. ‘Mr Jem Flockhart?’

I nodded, my expression grim. I did not ask
his
name. There was no need, for I knew exactly who he was. I would have told him so but I was so surprised to see him in my room that, for once, I was unable to say anything.

He stepped neatly into the silence. ‘Mr Flockhart,’ he repeated, still holding out a hand. ‘I am—’

‘William Quartermain, junior architect for Shaw and Prentice.’

‘Have we met before?’

‘No,’ I said. His voice had a pleasant West Country burr to it. Wiltshire, perhaps, or Somerset? London was growing at a prodigious rate and there were opportunities for incomers with ambition. A glance at the shiny brass plaque on his new theodolite case confirmed my thoughts: ‘J. King and Son, 2 Clare Street, Bristol.’ And yet he lacked any degree of urban sophistication – his outlandish stove-pipe hat suggested as much – and I was sure he was not a native of that city. He must be from some fearful yokel-infested backwater – Bath, perhaps, or Devizes – come to London to seek his fortune. I wondered how long he had been in town. His skin had the sickly pallor of all who had breathed in the city air for longer than a fortnight, though his cheeks still bore the traces of a provincial journeyman’s tan. He smiled at me, his gaze trusting, as if he anticipated the start of a marvellous friendship. London would eat him alive if he was not careful.

I shook his hand, aware of the roll of thick paper that lay between us on the floor. It was a plan of the hospital – my hospital – that much I had glimpsed. How much did it show of the place? The cellars that had once belonged to the medieval monastery? The dark, sluggish watercourse that flowed beneath out-patients or the underground passage that led from the dissecting rooms to the churchyard? There was more to St Saviour’s than any neophyte architect might see. But there was a more urgent matter to attend to, and I was obliged to put aside my curiosity.

‘You can’t stay here,’ I said. ‘This is where
I
sleep.’

His smile faded. ‘But the apothecary said—’


I
am the apothecary.’

‘What about that tall thin man downstairs? Isn’t he also the apothecary?’

‘Yes—’

‘And senior to you?’

‘I suppose—’

‘Well
he
said—’

‘Whatever he said, I doubt he meant that you should sleep
here
.’ I had meant to sound calm but authoritative. Somehow, I had ended up sounding like an idiot, and an unreasonable one at that.

‘The apprentice brought up the mattress on your father’s bidding. The governors thought it best if I live within St Saviour’s, to be close to my work, and there’s nowhere else to stay.’

Nowhere else? Was there not space in the porter’s lodge? Could the man not sleep beneath the deal table in the apothecary? I closed my eyes. My father was sick, that much was clear to anyone. Had his tiredness so befuddled his senses that he no longer knew the difference between appearance and reality? Had he forgotten who I was? All at once I felt naked, exposed, the clues to my secret identity shouting from every corner of the room. I had bought a screen from the auction house on Priory Street, and over this I had draped a pair of fine Paisley shawls. A small bottle of
Valeriana officinalis
tincture, which is good for menstrual cramps, stood on the shelf above my bed. Before the fire the rags from my monthly bleeds dried in a line of dismal greyish pennants. Oh, yes, I was unique among women. There had been an apothecary named Flockhart at St Saviour’s Infirmary for over one hundred years and I was set to inherit my father’s kingdom amongst the potions. But it took a man to run that apothecary, and so a man I must be.

I swept forward to gather up the rags from the fireplace. ‘Dusters,’ I muttered. I snatched at the Paisley shawls too – such feminine details would never do – and bundled them away. On the desk, a large hyacinth rose from its bulb in a defiant pink fist. William Quartermain regarded it, and then me, in silence.

‘Excuse me, Mr Quartermain,’ I said. ‘But there must have been a mistake.’

Downstairs in the apothecary Gabriel Locke, our apprentice, was crouched goblin-like over the work bench, rolling out sulphur pills. A smudge of chalk on his nose gleamed white in the candlelight. ‘I tried to tell you, Mr Jem,’ he said, before I could speak. ‘But you didn’t listen. It was your father’s idea.’ Gabriel pointed.

My father was slumped in the wing-backed chair before the fire, his eyes closed. He was sitting so quiet and still that I had bounded up the stairs without even noticing him. I chided myself inwardly for my selfishness. He was sleeping badly, I knew, and yet I had not even paused to look for him and ask how he fared. At my father’s elbow, a stack of prescription ledgers teetered on a small table. Each ward in the infirmary sent its ledger down to us for midday, and we spent the afternoon making up the necessary prescriptions. There was much to do, even when my father was helping. Now, with him asleep, it was just Gabriel and I. And there was also the matter of the man upstairs.

But the man upstairs was now the man downstairs, as all at once I noticed that he had followed me in his stockinged feet, and was standing at the back of the apothecary, his face pale and earnest in the shadows. ‘The Company sent me, Mr Flockhart. I believe I was expected,’ he said. ‘It was arranged with the governors, but I apologise personally for any inconvenience. I realise there are not many who welcome me at St Saviour’s.’

‘It’s not your fault.’ My father opened his dark-ringed eyes, looking from me to Mr Quartermain. ‘Commerce will always come before health. We cannot obstruct progress – so called – or we will be crushed. There were a few who said as much at the meeting.’

‘Dr Bain, yes, I heard him myself, sir. But there were many who wished to refuse the Company’s offer. Dr Magorian was particularly vocal. And Dr Graves, well—’ Mr Quartermain cleared his throat, and then added in an undertone, ‘I thought he and Dr Bain were going to come to blows.’

‘Not on this particular occasion, Mr Quartermain,’ said my father. ‘We must be grateful for that at least.’

‘Your Company, sir, has offered less than half what the hospital and its lands are worth,’ I said. ‘St Saviour’s has been here since 1135 and you expect us to go away just because your employers wish to build a railway into the centre of the city? Can they not build somewhere else?’

‘It seems not,’ he replied. ‘But I’m merely the junior architect. I’m not one of the hospital governors, who agreed to the proposal, nor one of the railway company officials, who made the offer. The decisions to pull down the hospital, and to build the railway bridge in its place, were none of my doing. I’m simply tasked with organising the emptying of St Saviour’s graveyard, as the Company cannot knowingly build on the bones of the dead. I’m also instructed to look over the rest of the place, and report my preliminary impressions.’

‘Mr Quartermain is to stay with us while he . . . while he does what’s required,’ said my father. ‘You are to assist him in any way he sees fit.’

‘I? But I have work to do. Especially as you’re so . . . so tired.’ I chose my words carefully. To suggest that he was sick, too weak and ill to perform the duties he had attended to all his life, would be a mistake. And yet I had watched his recent deterioration with alarm. How might I raise the matter without provoking his anger? I had no idea. Perhaps I should speak with Dr Hawkins. The two of them seemed uncommonly friendly all of a sudden. ‘And the physic garden requires my attention,’ I added. ‘I can’t—’

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