Death at Rottingdean

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1999-03-01
  • Publisher: Berkley

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For Kathryn Ardleigh and her newly Lorded husband Charles, a seaside holiday in Rottingdean is a needed rest. The cozy hamlet is built on a labyrinth of hundred-year-old tunnels that once were used by smugglers. But when a coast guard's body is found on the beach, the town is suspected to plying its illicit trades of the past. And with the help of a young writer named Rudyard Kipling, they're about to discover something rotten in Rottingdean...


Chapter One

Smuggling is the chief support of the inhabitants at which they are very Dext'rous--for which innocent and beneficial practice (sad to relate) Captain Dunk the Butcher paid £500 and ten of his worthy friends were lodged in Hawsham Gaol or in their elegant language were sent for a month to colledge to improve their manners.

Old History of Rottingdean

The salt breeze was fresh against the boy's face and the waves broke with a soft chuckle and a foamy fizz on the shingle beach at his feet. On very calm days, when there was no breeze at all, the water lapped gently against the rounded flint pebbles, as it might do at the edge of a millpond. But Patrick had spent his entire eleven years on the south coast of England, and he was not taken in by the Channel's deceptive tranquillity. Autumn conjured up angry sou'westers, whose giant crashing waves scooped up the flint pebbles and flung them at the great chalk cliff a few yards behind him, undermining the soft, flint-studded rock until great slabs gave way and collapsed into the maelstrom, pulling down sections of the Brighton-to-Rottingdean road and bits of wall and even a few hapless cottages. The furious waves would pound road and rock and walls and roof to nothing, leaving only the indestructible nodules of gray flint, strewn on the beach to be used as the waves' ammunition for the next attack against the cliff.

    Patrick walked for a few feet eastward, studying the shiny flint pebbles, but they gave no clue to what he had seen last midnight from the hazardous margin of the cliff above. Frowning, he raised his eyes and scanned the heaving horizon, but the fishing boats far out in the Channel seemed to be going about their ordinary business. He turned and looked back at the cliff. Nothing there, either, except for a pile of recently fallen chalk whose collapse had carved out a shallow cave a dozen feet up the rock wall, typical of the shallow caves that pocked the white cliffs eastward from Rottingdean and westward nearly to Brighton. All that was left of what he had seen was the shadowy image in his mind: a figure in black oilskins hauling a skiff onto the shingle at this very point, then dragging something heavy from the base of the cliff back to the skiff. The waning moon was draped with clouds and its light had been shuttered and fitful, like a flickering lantern in a high wind. Patrick could not see the boatman's face, but there was something in his movements and bearing that made the boy think he knew him, and he was sure he recognized the skiff. Once his burden was loaded, the man had pushed off and rowed out to sea.

    Patrick had watched, his heart beating fast, until the thin moon flickered out and darkness extinguished man and boat and mysterious cargo. When there was no more to be seen, not even the glimmer of a mined oar, he hurried along the path below Beacon Hill and past the great dark windmill to Mrs. Higgs's dilapidated cottage. With the sureness of long practice, he climbed the apple tree and scrambled nimbly through the loft window to drop feet-first onto his bed, where he pulled the scratchy blanket to his chin, squeezed his eyes shut, and pondered. The longer he thought, the more vague and ghostly and dreamlike was the remembered scene, until he drifted into sleep and it actually was a dream, the boatman throwing off his hood to reveal a terrible face with huge holes for eyes, and the cargo a dead man.

    A dead man. Well, why not? With a shiver that was half excitement and half apprehension, Patrick shoved his hands into the pockets of his ragged corduroy trousers and set off toward the Gap, where the metal pier jutted out into the sea and a row of red-and-white-striped bathing machines were lined up like miniature circus tents under the cliff. This beach had seen its share of dead men, drowned sailors washed up like bloated cod from Channel shipwrecks and smugglers killed in the pursuit of their hazardous occupation. Smugglers' Village, Rottingdean was called by some, in honor of its role in the contraband trade. There must have been dozens of smugglers caught between the coast guard and the cliffs, or trapped like rats in the maze of tunnels that lay under the streets and houses. Patrick pushed his lips in and out, his fertile imagination summoning up a disagreement, a violent struggle, a shot fired in anger. A dead man on the beach below the cliff's, crumbling edge? A natural event, to any who knew the history of Smugglers' Village.

    To an observer of the late 1890s, Rottingdean appeared to be a peaceful hamlet of some twelve hundred kind and law-abiding souls, where little enough happened from year to year. Its chief distinctions were its proximity to bustling, brassy Brighton, a scant three miles to the west, and its quiet streets, quaint appearance, and fresh sea air, which attracted a few wealthy London families who enjoyed summering in a seaside village. The racing on White Hawk Down brought in a different kind of visitor, who was likely to stay at the White Horse Inn and employ the village boys--among whom Patrick made himself most convenient and willing--to execute various urgent commissions.

    Yes, the beach had seen its share of brutal murder. Settled in Neolithic times, the village owed its existence to the Gap, a narrow breach in the cliff that guards the south coast of England like a fortress wall. The Gap was opened eons before by a stream that cut through the soft chalk on its way to the sea and vanished before the area became a Roman outpost, and then (by subsequent violent overthrow) a Saxon territory and a Norman settlement. From time to time over the centuries, marauding raiders and foreign invaders stormed through this inviting opening into the Sussex uplands, killing and burning and destroying. Once the invasion had ended, the folk who survived (and some of them always did) returned to their peaceful pursuits: growing corn in the arable meadows and grazing sheep on the gently rolling downs.

    But by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the villagers, a wily, opportunistic lot who were steeled by their encounters with this harsh land, had discovered that a different sort of traffic through the Gap might be used to benefit the village. This was the period when punitive excise made smuggling both into and out of England a gainful occupation, and most of Rottingdean's citizens were in one way or another engaged in it. The cellars under the houses--chiefly those around the Green--were linked to one another and to the beach by a labyrinth of tunnels dug through the soft chalk. Bales of fleeces (wool was the chief illicit export were stored in the cellars, then trundled through the tunnels to the beach and loaded onto ships bound for distant ports. Boxes of tea and tobacco, barrels of spirits, and bundles of lace--products that the rich people in the great houses and cities to the north wanted and were willing to pay for (without the duty, of course)--came in the other direction, being unloaded from the ships, hauled in through the tunnels, stored in the cellars, and freighted under cover of darkness in the direction of Falmer and Lewes, for further transport to London. It was altogether a profitable business, considered by the villagers to be a legitimate, if illegal, perquisite of their coastal residence.

    In an attempt to halt this brisk commerce, the government built a customs house in the village and three stations along the cliff's edge, where armed coast guards made regular nightly patrols from Black Rock eastward through Rottingdean to Saltdean. But whether it was because the coast guards were lazy or stupid or dishonest (or all three), the smugglers continued to ply their trade with the regularity of the moon and the tides until the excise laws were dismantled in the 1840s and the business ceased to return a profit. That, at least, was what the high government officials thought. But Patrick, whose sharp eyes and ears and quick wit made him privy to most of the village secrets, knew otherwise.

    And now he knew about the dead man on the beach. He raised his head, frowning. Should he tell what he had seen? On the whole, he thought not, with the shrewdness of a boy who knows that it may be dangerous to share secrets with men. But what if he himself had been seen watching from his clifftop vantage point and thought to be an accomplice, a lookout? He could protest his innocence but he could not prove it, which would lead to difficulties with the officials, who would go straightaway to Mrs. Higgs, the woman who looked after him, who would shut up the window and bar the attic door at night and make it difficult for him to come and go as he pleased.

    Patrick hunched his shoulders against the wind. He should tell someone what he had seen, before he was accused of complicity. But whom should he tell? If it had been any other matter, he would have gone directly to Harry Tudwell, the stablemaster and his friend and benefactor. But something made him think that Mr. Tudwell already knew about this particular happening, and that telling him might complicate the matter. The village constable, a fat, lazy man whom Patrick held in contempt, was a great friend of Mrs. Higgs's, and telling him would be the same as telling her. He might tell Lady Burne-Jones, who lived at North End House and employed Mrs. Higgs as a laundress. She was a bit of a busybody but she had befriended him, insisting that he call her Aunt Georgie and giving him copies of Treasure Island, The Jungle Books , and several of Conan Doyle's detective stories, which he enjoyed a great deal. But Lady Burne-Jones was a member of the Parish Council and considered herself the guardian of everyone's welfare. She would certainly ask discomforting questions, such as what he was doing at the cliff's edge at midnight. And there was no guarantee that she would not tell Mrs. Higgs about his nocturnal adventures.

    Patrick looked up and caught sight of a dark-haired man clad in a canvas jacket and carrying a fishing rod and bucket, descending from the Quarter Deck--the cobbled area on the cliff above the beach--to the pier. The man waved at him, and Patrick waved back. The fisherman was Mr. Kipling, Lady Burne-Jones's famous nephew, who had come to Rottingdean on Derby day to take The Elms, the walled house at the far end of the Green. Patrick had already read the adventures of Mowgli before he met their author in Aunt Georgie's back garden and discovered to his great delight that Mr. Kipling was full of even more wonderful stories. The tales of bazaar life and wandering lamas in India, where Mr. Kipling had once lived, excited him wildly, but the teller had intrigued him even more. Patrick had met all sorts of men on his various errands and considered himself a fair judge of character. An excellent judge, come to that, as Harry Tudwell the stablemaster would attest, or Trunky Thomas, the proprietor of the bathing machines, both of whom relied on Patrick's reports concerning the visitors who stayed at the White Horse Inn. But Mr. Kipling, who was said to earn a fine living by spinning tales, was entirely new to the boy's experience. He had a worldliness born of wide travel, sharpened by an enormous curiosity about the workings of ordinary things and softened by a warm friendliness toward children, whom he treated with thoughtful respect. Patrick meant to learn more about this man, and hear as many more of Mr. Kipling's stories as he might be willing to tell.

    Patrick reached into his pocket and pulled out the bent cigarette for which he had traded his friend Ernie Shepherd a striped peppermint humbug. He turned his back against the wind to light it expertly, and squatted down on the shingle to smoke and think as he watched Mr. Kipling walk jauntily out to the end of the pier and settle down to an hour's fishing, as he did almost every day. After a few minutes, the boy stood and extinguished his cigarette, saving what was left for a later smoke.

    Yes, if he should tell anyone the story of what he had seen on the beach, it should be Mr. Kipling. But not just now. Just now, the story was a thin one, only a beginning, with no middle and no end, hardly worthy to be heard by Mowgli's creator. So he would not tell, not yet. He would wait and use his eyes and his ears and see what else he might learn.

Copyright © 1999 Susan Wittig Albert and William J. Albert. All rights reserved.

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