Read The Poisonous Seed Online
Authors: Linda Stratmann
This book is dedicated to the two people who inspired ‘Chas’ and ‘Barstie’ with appreciation and affection, and my thanks for taking it in such good part!
olice Constable Wilfred Brown strode briskly along Westbourne Grove, his boots thudding heavily on the wooden paving. A few days before, dirty yellow fog had swirled thickly across London, turning daytime into twilight, burning eyes and lungs, and dissuading all but the most determined or the most desperate to venture out of doors. The return of daylight had brought the Grove back to life again, but it was still bitterly cold, and he carefully warmed his fingers on the top of the bullseye lantern that hung from his belt. Last month’s Christmas bazaars had become this month’s winter sales, and the Grove was choked with carriages, a lone mounted policeman doing his best to make the more persistent loiterers move on. The constable wove a determined way through armies of large women in heavy winter coats fiercely clutching brown paper parcels, vendors of hot potatoes and mechanical mice, and deferential shop walkers braving the cold to assist cherished customers to their broughams. The chill air was seasoned with the scent of damp horses and impatient people. Despite the appearance of bustle and prosperity, there were, however, signs that all was not well in the Grove. The bright red ‘Sale’ posters had a sense of desperation about them, and here and there were the darkened premises of businesses recently closed. On the north side of the Grove, the unfashionable side, opposite the sumptuous glitter of Whiteleys, Wilfred found his destination, the murky yellow glow of the morning gas lamps softening the gilded lettering of William Doughty & Son, Chemists and Druggists. He pushed open the door and the sharp tone of an overhead bell announced his entry into the sweet and bitter air of the shop, where the glimmer of gaslight polished the mahogany display cases, and within their gloomy interiors touched the curves of porcelain ointment pots, and highlighted the steely shine of medical instruments.
It was a small, narrow shop, in which every inch of space was carefully utilised. There were cabinets along its length, filled with neat rows of bottles and jars, and, above them, shelves reaching almost to the ceiling arrayed with more bottles, lined up like troops on parade. In front of the counter there was a single chair for the benefit of lady customers, and an iron stove filled with glowing coals, gamely supplying a comforting thread of warmth. Behind the counter were deep shelves of brown earthenware jars, and fat round bottles with glass stoppers, some transparent, some opaque blue or fluted green, each labelled with its contents in Latin. Below were dark rows of wooden drawers with their own equally mysterious inscriptions. Nowhere, he observed, was there any speck of dust.
Wilfred paused as a tall young woman in a plain black dress and a white apron finished serving a customer; a delicate-looking lady who shied away at the sight of his uniform and left the shop as quickly as she could.
He stepped forward. ‘Good morning, Miss. May I see the proprietor?’
The young woman looked at him composedly, lacing her long fingers in front of her, a subtle glance noting the striped band on his left cuff that showed he was on duty.
‘My father is unwell and resting in bed,’ she said, her tone implying, in the nicest possible way, that that was the end of any conversation on
Wilfred, who stood five feet nine in his socks, was unused to meeting women tall enough to look him directly in the eye and found this rather disconcerting. Recalling that the business was that of Doughty & Son, he went on: ‘Then may I see your brother?’ He could have kicked himself as soon as the words were out.
Miss Doughty could not have been more than nineteen. She was not pretty and she knew she was not. The face was too angular, the form too thin, the shoulders too sharp. She was neat and capable, and her hair was drawn into a careful knot, threaded with a narrow piece of black ribbon. Her one article of adornment was a mourning brooch.
Her eyes betrayed for a brief moment a pain renewed. ‘My brother is recently deceased.’ She paused. ‘If you require to see a gentleman, there is a male assistant who is on an errand but will, I am sure, return shortly. If not, then I should mention that I have worked for my father for several years.’
Wilfred, who could already see in her the makings of the kind of formidable matron who at forty years of age would be enough to terrify any man, took a deep breath and launched into his prepared speech.
‘You may have heard that Mr Percival Garton of Porchester Terrace died last night?’
‘I have,’ she replied. Bayswater was a hive of talk on all subjects, and several customers had arrived that morning eager to tell the tale, each version more dramatically embellished than the last.
Frances Doughty had never met the Gartons but they had been pointed out to her as persons of eminence. They were often, in good weather, to be seen taking the air, an anxious nursemaid following on with the children, of whom there were now five. Percival was something over medium height, with handsome features impressively bewhiskered, his figure inclining to stoutness, while Henrietta, with a prettily plump face, was ample both of bosom and waist. Frances had observed the way that Henrietta placed her hand on her husband’s arm, the little glances of confidence that passed between them, the small acts of consideration that showed that, in each other’s eyes at least, they were still the same graceful and slender creatures they had been on the day of their wedding. There was a delightful informality about Henrietta’s pleasure in her husband’s company, while Percival, at a period in life when so many men were pressed down by the cares of business and family, showed the world a smooth and untroubled brow. Bayswater society had judged them a most fortunate couple.
‘Is it known how he died?’ asked Frances.
‘Not yet, I’m afraid. We are making enquiries about everything he ate and drank yesterday, and it is believed that he had a prescription made up at this shop.’
‘I’ll see.’ She moved behind the wooden screen that separated the dispensing desk from the eyes of customers, and emerged with a leather-bound book which she placed on the counter. As she turned to the most recent pages,Wilfred saw that it was a record of prescriptions.
‘Yes, here it is.’ She pointed to some faint and wavering script that he felt sure was not hers. ‘Yesterday evening – a digestive mixture.’
‘I’m not sure I can read that, Miss,’ said Wilfred, awkwardly. ‘Is it in Latin?’
‘It is. I’ll show you what it means.’ She fetched two round bottles from the shelf behind her, one clear and one pale blue, and placed them on the counter, then added a flat glass medicine bottle and a conical measure. ‘First of all, two drachms – that is teaspoonfuls – from this bottle, tincture of nux vomica.’ She pointed to the clear bottle which was half full of a brown liquid. ‘The tincture is a dilute preparation from liquid extract of nux vomica which in turn is manufactured from the powdered seed. Two drachms’ – her long finger pointed out the level on the measure – ‘are poured into a medicine bottle this size. We then add elixir of oranges’ – she indicated the pale blue bottle, which was only a quarter full – ‘to make up the total to six ounces. The elixir is our own blend, syrup of oranges with cardamom and cassia. Many people take it alone as a pleasant stomachic. The whole is then shaken till mixed. The dose is one or two teaspoonfuls as required.’
‘This nux vomica …’, he left the question unsaid but she guessed his meaning.
‘The active principle is
, commonly known as strychnine.’ She saw his eyebrows climb suddenly and smiled. ‘In very small amounts.’
Wilfred frowned. ‘What if he took more than the proper dose?’
‘I can assure you,’ said Frances firmly, ‘the amount of
in this preparation is so small that Mr Garton could have swallowed the whole six ounces of his mixture and come to no harm. Also,’ she turned through the pages of the book, ‘It is known that Mr Garton does not have an idiosyncrasy for any of the ingredients, as he has had the mixture several times before without ill-effect.’ She pointed out the entry for a previous prescription, this one in a neat legible script. ‘And this is not freshly made-up stock. As you can see from the levels in the bottles, we have dispensed from this batch many times in the last few weeks.’
Wilfred nodded thoughtfully. ‘Are you – er – learning to be a chemist, Miss? I’ve heard there are lady chemists now.’
She paused, and Wilfred, to his regret, saw once again a sadness clouding her eyes. ‘One day, perhaps.’ It was not the time to explain. Frances recalled the long evenings she had spent in diligent study to prepare for the examination that would have admitted her to the lecture courses of the Pharmaceutical Society, and the incident that had put a stop to her ambitions; her brother Frederick’s fall from an omnibus and the injury which had sent poisons coursing through his blood. There had been two years during which she had nursed him, two years of fevers and chills and growing debility, three operations to drain the pus – procedures which would have killed an older man – the inevitable wasting of strength, and decline into death at the age of twenty-four. It was a time during which her grieving father had dwindled from a hale man of fifty to a shattered ancient, becoming a second invalid requiring Frances’ constant care.
‘Can you advise me how much of the mixture remains in the bottle?’ asked Frances. ‘I really do doubt that he drank it all.’
‘We do have a slight difficulty there,’ admitted Wilfred. ‘The maidservant was so upset she dropped the bottle and most of the medicine spilled out. We are hoping that what is left is enough for the public analyst but we have no way of knowing how much he took.’
‘I see,’ said Frances. ‘All the same, I believe you may safely rule out Mr Garton’s prescription as being of any significance in his death. When is the inquest?’
‘It opens at ten tomorrow morning, at Providence Hall, but I doubt they’ll do more than take evidence of identification and then adjourn for the medical reports. If you’ll take my advice though, I suggest you ask your solicitor to watch the case. You never know what might be said.’
There was a sudden loud jangling of the bell and a dapper young man with over-large moustaches burst into the shop, his eyes wide with alarm. ‘Miss Doughty, I met a fellow in the street and he told me —’. He halted abruptly on seeing Wilfred and gasped, ‘Oh my Lord!’
‘Constable, this is Mr Herbert Munson, my father’s apprentice,’ said Frances evenly. ‘Mr Munson, I would beg you to be calm. The constable is merely enquiring about the prescription made for Mr Garton yesterday.’
Breathlessly, Herbert dashed to the counter and glanced at the book. ‘Yes, of course. I remember it very well, I was here at the time, and I can assure you that everything was in order.’ He threw off his greatcoat. ‘I’ll make up some samples of the stock items for you to take away. The sooner this is settled and we are cleared of suspicion the better.’ He busied himself behind the counter. Despite the chill weather he was sweating slightly, and had to make an effort to steady his hands as he poured the liquids. Frances remained calmly impassive as she helped to seal and package the bottles.
‘We would appreciate it, Constable,’ said Frances, handing Wilfred the parcels and looking him firmly in the eye, ‘if you could let us know the outcome of your enquiries.’
‘Of course, Miss Doughty.’
‘And should I wish to speak to you again, where can I find you?’ Frances had already observed his collar number, and now produced a notebook and pencil from her apron pocket and solemnly wrote it down.
‘You’ll find me at Paddington Green station at either six in the morning or six at night. Just ask for Constable Brown.’ He smiled. ‘Good day to you, and to you Sir.’ As Wilfred trudged away his thoughts turned, as they so often did during his long hours of duty, to his wife Lily, the sweetness of her face and temper, her diminutive rounded form innocent of any sharpness and angles, more rounded recently since she had borne him their second child (not that he minded that at all), and how she had first melted his heart by the way she had gazed up trustingly into his face.