Mr Septimus Fleet worked his way across the crowd thronging the Assembly Rooms. An orchestra played in the gallery, and the whole scene, lit by five chandeliers, was one of lively entertainment. He found Miss Annabella Brearley perched on one of the chairs by the wall, between her aunt and her gouty uncle, and tapping her closed fan against her dance card with impatience. The next dance was about to start, for those who were able.
‘Have you no partner, Miss Brearley?’ Septimus bowed to Annabella, and to the aunt, who sat beside her like a silken mountain. He was a younger son, but from a good family. He had an income which would not have secured him a female of the first water, Clarice Medward, for example, but should suffice to take Annabella off her relatives’ hands. He had a narrow, pointed face and brownish hair brushed neatly back; Annabella had said mockingly that he was like a greyhound.
‘My dance card is full,’ said Annabella, ‘but…’
She was to dance with the Duke of Montepulciano, but where was he? There he was in the musicians’ gallery, something passed from his pocket to the lead violinist, the musicians conferred and nodded their heads. There followed some tuning of instruments, a rhythm tapped out on wood, and then a swirling tune. As the dancers hesitated, the Duke was at Annabella’s elbow. She gave him her hand, and he bowed low, and moulded his lips to her thin kid glove. Then he raised her hand and encircled her waist with his arm, and they whirled away to the music. After a moment they were joined by the throng, the light frocks of the young ladies lifting as they paced and span, obeying the steps of their partners. The aunt let out a grunt of disapproval.
‘It’s a waltz, Lady Brearley,’ said Septimus grimly, sitting down by her. Through a quizzing-glass he saw that the Duke’s handsome face was alarmingly near to Annabella’s, his mouth within kissing distance. Their bodies were indecently close. Beyond them, Clarice Medward sparkled like a jewel. ‘It’s all the rage in Paris.’
‘One is most disappointed with our niece’s progress,’ said Lady Brearley, behind her fan. ‘Halfway through our month at Bath, by now. Taking the waters is all very well, but there’s only so much…’ She finished with a sigh that informed Septimus that matrimonial matters were not developing as expected.
Septimus tried not to glower at the Duke of Montepulciano. The Venetian’s finely tailored coat was the best that Savile Row could supply; his collars and neck-cloths were starched and folded with a geometry that would have confused Pythagoras. He had the luck of the devil at the gaming tables, and a phaeton with four perfectly matched greys.
Annabella smiled as the Duke spoke to her, then she lowered her eyes so that they rested on his neck-cloth. At one point she looked sharply up at him, startled and embarrassed, as if he had made an insolent suggestion. When the Duke finally led her back to her place beside her aunt she was trembling and flushed. The Duke’s praise of Annabella’s charm and grace did not enliven the cold features of the aunt, and he bowed, and wished them a good evening.
Septimus scowled at Annabella’s confusion, and at the Duke’s graceful exit. ‘I saw three bailiffs and his landlord’s agent waiting outside his house this morning, and you would not believe his conversation. The man is quite odious, believe me, incapable of observing the conventions of decent society.’
He waited for his words to have an effect on Annabella. But her pretty eyes were unfocused and a feverish bloom remained on her skin. Her lips were gently parted and her brown curls were in a modish disarray. He continued, with anger forming like ice in his heart: ‘A damned foreigner, from Venice, the haven of the debauched and the desperate! And he works what he calls a secret sistema at the card table. He won two guineas from me last night at faro. The man’s a card-sharper, if I could only prove it. The sistema of Law, indeed!’
‘Oh, dear,’ said Annabella, gazing into the distance. The Duke was leaving the dance floor for the card room.
‘Please excuse me,’ Septimus said abruptly to the ladies.
‘Do call on us,’ said Lady Brearley, and Septimus bowed and hurried after the Duke. Behind him he could hear Lady Brearley starting to reproach her niece.
Septimus watched the Duke play at the card tables for some time but could not fault him. He began to wonder if he had been unjust, although he suspected that the Duke only lost if he so chose.
‘Miss Annabella’s been poorly since Friday, and Dr Snailham’s attending her,’ said the housemaid, and showed Septimus into the parlour. There were footsteps in the room above, then he heard a door open and close, and Lady Brearley’s anxious tones.
‘A common problem in young females,’ the doctor said. They were descending the stairs; Septimus tensed upright on his chair, preparing to rise rapidly and say he was just going. The doctor cleared his throat to fore-warn of the delicacy of his next statement. ‘A wandering uterus,’ he said. ‘Tincturus Helleborinus, a half-teaspoon daily, no more. A mustard poultice, and mind, now, that this may cause some blistering. I advise twice weekly immersions at the Queen’s Bath and two pints of spa waters daily.’ He continued in lower tones that Septimus could not make out, and chuckled.
There then followed a brief conversation about the doctor’s fee. Dr Snailham was well spoken of in Bath as he offered remedies for gout, and obesity, and melancholia, and any number of preparations to render the complexion free of wrinkles and as pure as paper. His Arsenical Soap was held to be most efficacious. His patients paid well, for he ran his practice from a fine house in Milsom Street.
The doctor left, and Lady Brearley entered the parlour. Despite her cordial greeting and small-talk, Septimus could see that she was upset. He enquired after Annabella’s health. Lady Brearley sat down in an armchair and flicked her fan open with a snap.
‘She says she won’t have any of the doctor’s medicines or poultices, and she must stay in bed all day. Yesterday one could barely persuade her to the Pump Room. But tomorrow she shall go, whether she will or no!’
‘I do hope…’ began Septimus, but she cut him short, fixing him with a hard stare:
‘And marriage, Mr Fleet! Marriage is what the doctor ordered!’
He found them in the Pump Room the next morning. There was always a hush at that time of day as the beau monde of Bath, who were, to be truthful, mostly thickened about the corseted waist and ruddy of feature, imbibed the rusty-tasting mineral water, which seemed to have been drawn from the most demon-infested regions of Hell. What conversation there was mainly concerned rheumatism. Annabella, obedient as a ward must be to her aunt, sipped the nasty stuff, watching the crowd over the brow of her glass and avoiding Septimus’s eye.
The hush was suddenly disturbed, as Mrs Fountain started a commotion in the centre of the room, suffering another unpleasant turn. Her silver ear-trumpet clattered to the floor. There were gasps from her companions as she lolled in her bath-chair, her eyes vacant, still agitating her fan over a mouth that made no sound. A victim to some obscure disease which her late husband had, it was rumoured, contracted in Jamaica, Mrs Fountain nursed her ailments as carefully as her five thousand pounds in Four Percent Consols.
Dr Snailham was quick to check her pulse, but soon the Duke of Montepulciano was squeezing his way to the front of the crowd of hangers-on. He knelt at her side, taking her hand from the doctor, and gently chafing it with his own. He replaced her fallen ear-trumpet and called her name, more than once, into it. She began to revive; the crisis abated.
‘My dear lady,’ pronounced the Duke, ‘my own poor heart nearly stopped when I perceived you so lifeless.’
‘What?’ she shouted. ‘What’s that?’ He was obliged to repeat himself, and the remainder of his insincere flattery, several times at the top of his voice.
‘Who is?’ demanded Mrs Fountain.
Septimus turned to grin at Annabella. She had taken another sip of water, but now seemed unable to swallow. The Duke completed his performance and stood up, still clasping the hand of Mrs Fountain who was smiling up at him, fluttering her fan in dismissal. He bowed low and pressed her hand to his lips before making his way back to the card room. He appeared not to notice Annabella, who spluttered and choked. Her aunt urged her to drink more water, prompting a fit of the vapours, after which Annabella demanded to be taken home.
Septimus made his way to the card-room, where the Duke had engaged a number of gentlemen in play. He recognised Dr Snailham, and the others he did not, but considered them rich young fools, glad to lose a couple of guineas for the amusement of it.
Septimus stood behind the Duke’s shoulder, but would not play. He watched the cards flashing through the Duke’s hands into elaborate arrangements on the table. ‘So, what is this secret sistema of Law?’
The Duke swept a few coins across the table with a curl of his long, perfectly manicured fingers. ‘It involves mathematics, and taking only water.’ He raised a glass of spa water, and cocked his head at Dr Snailham. ‘Play, my Hippocratical friend.’
Dr Snailham put down his claret and turned over a card. He chuckled. ‘Well, are your mathematics in my favour, or no?’ He slammed it down, claiming back a few shillings.
The Duke gathered up the cards, and they blurred in his hands as he shuffled and dealt. ‘John Law was a gambler, who found his way to Paris when the Royal Treasury was bankrupt.’
Dr Snailham swept up his cards, fanned them in his fingers and smiled, leaning back and hooking his shoulder blades over the chair-back. He rested his card hand on his belly and reached for his claret with the other. The Duke, sipping the rusty water, watched every card that was played, computing the probabilities behind his unfathomable eyes. After twenty minutes, the other gamblers were turning away, and Snailham had started to bluster.
‘Damned ill fortune,’ he said. ‘Unless…confound it! Let me see those cards, you blackguard!’
It was grounds for a duel, but the Duke merely smiled, tapped his cards into a perfect oblong, and handed them over. He sipped his water as Snailham examined the backs, and accepted the grunt of apology. Then the Duke continued his explanation:
‘Law created the first paper money system, backed by stock in his Mississippi company. He raised the French Exchequer to the heights of wealth. In a year he was a millionaire and the wealthy fought to buy his shares.’
The Duke held out his hand for the cards, and Snailham returned them. The Duke started to shuffle again. ‘But when the bubble of bankruptcy burst, the mob chased Monsieur Law out of Paris. He wandered the gaming tables of Europe, making money in the way he knew best. And in his last years in Venice he taught the secret of the cards to Senator Malpiero.’ He made as if to deal again, but Snailham held up his hands.
‘My luck’s out today. Another day and I shall have my revenge!’ Snailham drained his claret glass, and pushed himself upright on the arms of his chair.
‘As well you may,’ smiled the Duke, ‘and my luck may change, just as John Law died in poverty, when his mind began to fade and he could no longer win at the Ridotto.’ He watched Snailham’s retreating back, and murmured, ‘but that day will not be tomorrow, sir, nor the next. Do you play?’ he asked Septimus again.
‘I don’t play with card-sharps,’ said Septimus. ‘Or bogus noblemen.’
Again, it might have been grounds for a duel, but the Duke shrugged. ‘I do this for my living,’ he said. ‘I have a noble name, but that’s all. The fortunes of my family are long extinct. And you?’
‘I have a small private income,’ said Septimus.
‘You profit by the travail of others,’ said the Duke. ‘How then are you more noble than me, living as I do, by my wits, and by the laws of mathematics?’
Septimus replied that he at least led a blameless life, and did not pursue wealthy widows for their money, or trifle with the hearts of innocent young gentlewomen.
The Duke’s unfathomable eyes registered no displeasure, and he smiled down at the pack of cards that he had been shuffling unawares in his hand. ‘It will amuse me to teach you,’ he said. ‘The sistema was taught me by a descendant of Senator Malipiero, who himself learnt it from John Law.’
When Mrs Fountain died a few days after her unpleasant turn, it was no surprise to anyone. She had, it was agreed, become sicker and sicker despite all her medicaments and despite all her immersions in the hot springs of the Queen’s Bath. Her brain had been permanently fevered by her years in Jamaica, and by the disease she had contracted from her husband. She died as he had died. For the last two days of her life, her babble of barbarisms could not be quietened by laudanum. She had recurrent nightmares of blood and suffering, and despite her deafness, heard voices screaming for mercies that she would not grant. A purple rash striped her skin.
The Duke of Montepulciano had sent her flowers, but it was too late. For months, Dr Snailham had been calling daily, or twice a day, on Mrs Fountain in Sydney Place. He was the only gentleman granted access to her bedchamber, from whence he had been heard bellowing his instructions down her ear-trumpet. Every little discomfort, every discharge, and every pimple had been prescribed its own remedy. Mrs Fountain had said herself that the shelves of her dressing-room bore hundreds of jars and bottles: pills, powders, decoctions, mucilages, tinctures, cerates, liniments and cataplasms. That she had grown ever weaker bore testimony to her physician’s powers in keeping her alive. Each day’s setback had been but another spur to his professional attention, each night-time palpitation the prompt for another prescription, and if she awakened in the morning with the blue devils and the megrims, his chaise had soon appeared outside her door.
Mrs Fountain had no heirs and Dr Snailham was her sole beneficiary. The funeral was held quietly at Bath Abbey.
‘Oh, Mr Fleet!’ One hand held a kerchief to her weeping eyes and the other dangled, clutching a letter. ‘After all one did for her! She’s left one nothing but shame and disgrace!’
Sir Ralph Brearley sat in an armchair, his gouty fist clenched over the handle of his walking cane and his swollen foot resting on a cushion.
‘She’s just like her mother,’ he said. He rapped the cane on the floorboards. ‘When she comes crawling back, she’ll feel the end of this, Duke or no Duke!’
It took Septimus some time to discover from the old couple that Annabella had eloped with the Duke of Montepulciano. This was partly due to his disbelief and partly to Lady Brearley’s firm grip on the letter.
Expressing a sense of profound disappointment seemed the correct thing to do. He had nearly managed to calm them both, and himself had partaken of a small glass of sherry, when a visitor brought the most shocking news of all. They learned that Dr Snailham was dead by his own hand, for in one night at faro he had lost the five thousand pounds in Four Percent Consols and a house in Milsom Street with a thriving medical practice attached. An empty bottle of Tincturus Helleborinus, and several bottles of laudanum, had been found beside him. The secret sistema of John Law had prevailed.