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Authors: Robin Paige

Death at Rottingdean (3 page)

BOOK: Death at Rottingdean
Steering the motorcar toward Brighton and a quiet lunch, Kate thought how good it was to see her husband smile. When she agreed to become his wife, she'd known that their marriage would be difficult. She was an American, and Irish, old enough to have lived her own life and independent enough to insist on her freedoms; he was the son of a wealthy and aristocratic British family that seemed bound to the past by every imaginable tradition. The best she could hope for was that their love for one another-a love that had grown and deepened in the eighteen months of their marriage—would help to ease the worst of the inevitable bumps in the road ahead.
And so it had, for a time. Charles's mother, the Dowager Lady Somersworth, had been bitterly opposed to her son's marriage and made no secret of her dislike for her Irish-American daughter-in-law. The newlywed couple had taken up residence at Bishop's Keep, the Essex manor Kate had inherited, and avoided visiting Charles's family. Now, Kate looked back on that quiet and happy time with a regretful pleasure, for a momentous change had overtaken them, testing their love and making the past nine months desperately difficult.
At Christmas of the year before, Charles's brother Robert, the fourth Baron of Somersworth, had died. The elder brother's death was not unexpected, and it finally visited upon Charles the obligations of the peerage, which both he and Kate had anticipated with dread. Charles's new responsibilities opened a new era in their marriage. From then on, Kate felt, nothing had been the same.
Now the fifth Baron of Somersworth, Charles seemed determined to do his duty. He saw to his brother's funeral and assumed the management of the estates, both in England and Ireland. When Parliament sat in late January, he moved to the family's large London mansion and took his seat in the House of Lords. Because Kate felt it was her duty to be with Charles, she went with him, and tried as best she could to play her role in Society. London in the season, with money to spend, a splendid home, and nothing to do but enjoy herself—what more could she want?
But it hadn't been a happy time. Charles was remote, occupied with meetings all day and sessions in the House at night. London was dirty and noisy, and Kate pined for the easy freedoms of her rural life at Bishop's Keep, where she had tended her gardens, managed her own household, and ridden her bicycle to the village. The London house was a mausoleum—immense, uninviting, and efficiently managed by a housekeeper who made it chillingly plain to the new baroness that she wasn't welcome belowstairs. While Kate had enjoyed vigorous health in the country, she was quickly exhausted by the interminable whirlwind of London social life: morning rides in Hyde Park, afternoons spent shopping and making calls, evening soirees and dinners, glittering balls that went on until three in the morning. She had also tried hard to keep up with her writing, for Kate had already published a number of fictions and wanted to do more. And on top of that there was the work she had undertaken for the Countess of Warwick, who had asked her to see to the problems of the orphanage in the parish of George the Martyr.
Kate sighed to herself, thinking back over the hectic spring and early summer. Perhaps it was the exhaustion that had led to their great tragedy. If only she'd had the sense to take better care of herself! If she had gone home to Bishop's Keep in April when she learned she was pregnant, instead of agreeing to help the Countess with yet another of her impractical schemes to improve the lives of slum children—
“I hope,” Charles said loudly, over the clatter of the engine, “that you will like Rottingdean. It is a very little village, after all, with only a few families.”
“I'm sure I don't care,” Kate said, “as long as you are there. In fact, I shall be glad for some time alone together.” It would be such a relief to have no luncheon appointments, no dinner engagements, no balls or parties—not even any servants, except for their own Amelia and Lawrence. She might even be able to get back to the book she had started writing so many months before, which was fearfully overdue at her publishers.
Charles nodded and went on. “But they are interesting families. The Burne-Joneses have a house on one side of the Green—the painter, you know, and his wife. She is quite an independent woman, I understand, with a great many ideas of her own. Stanley and Lucy Baldwin—you've met them both—visit Lucy's parents, the Ridsdales, who live on another corner of the Green. And the Kiplings have taken a house nearby. Rudyard's wife is an American; Caroline, her name is.” He paused. “Perhaps, while we are there, we should host a dinner or evening's entertainment.”
Kate's heart sank. She admired the painting of Edward Burne-Jones, who was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She had planned to take some time to study the stained glass windows that he and his fellow artist, William Morris, had created for the parish church. She would like, as well, to meet Lady Burne-Jones, about whom she had already heard a great deal. But as for a dinner or a party—
“We didn't come to Rottingdean for company,” she protested. “We were to have a private holiday, with time to walk on the beach and among the downs.” They were to have time, she hoped, to recapture the pleasure in one another's company that had seemed to elude them in London—to return, perhaps, to the charm of the early days of their marriage, when all seemed so right and full of promise.
“Yes, of course,” Charles said. “But I'm sure you and Caroline Kipling would get on famously. She has a new baby, a boy, I understand, just over a month old.”
And then he stopped and turned to her, stricken, and she saw in his sherry-brown eyes what she knew was in his heart: an overwhelming sadness at the loss of their own child, and at the awful knowledge that there could never be a son, at least not
son, to fulfill the obligations of his lineage.
At Brighton, the lanes remain much as they were in the eighteenth
century, when goods were landed on the beach and carried
straight up for sale and distribution from shops and inns
among the winding alleys and narrow courtyards. The Old
Ship Hotel nearby has changed little since the days of George
IV's coronation in 1821, when it was the scene of an admirable
bit of smuggling opportunism. While the town celebrated
elsewhere, the free-traders took advantage of the empty streets
and moved tubs of spirits out of the pub stables completely
unobserved. Today it's one of the town's better hotels, with
an air more of smugness than smugglers.
Smugglers' Britain
harles turned away from Kate with an inward groan, cursing himself for his thoughtlessness. What a way to begin their holiday—by reminding her of her terrible loss, the very loss he had brought her here to forget! Kate had been wonderfully brave in the months since her illness and miscarriage, but he knew she needed to be away from everything—away from that huge, cold London house, even away from Bishop's Keep, where they had dreamed together of the children they would have.
Now that dream was dead, and to ease Kate's heart, he had arranged this month-long holiday in a peaceful village on the south coast of England, where he could spend every moment with her, helping her forget, helping her heal the loss for which she seemed to carry such a dreadful burden of responsibility and guilt.
These were topics he found difficult to discuss. But then, Charles, like most of the men he knew, could not speak easily about the things that were closest to him. On their wedding night, Kate had run her finger over one of the wide scars on his bare chest. When she asked about it, he said only that he had been in a tight spot in the Sudan, and gently silenced her. She had understood that it was a matter he did not wish to discuss, and though they slept in each other's arms every night, she never mentioned the scars again. The moment never arose when he could tell her how it was that he had lived and all of his men had died, that he had been rewarded with a knighthood for his bravery, while their courage was forgotten, and how sad he still felt about these things. In fact, he had been in India to convey his condolences to the parents of his young sergeant, when Rudyard Kipling, then the eager new assistant editor of the
Civil and Military Gazette,
had heard a rumor of the affair and sought him out. He could not talk of it to Kipling, either.
They now were entering Brighton. It was Saturday, and the bright autumn sunshine, as always, had lured hundreds of day-trippers from the city on the London, Brighton, and South Coast Railway. Working-class families dressed in their best, they came to listen to a concert on the lawns near the Metropole Hotels, or stroll along the sea-front promenade and laugh at the banjo-playing blackface minstrels in their striped blazers and straw boaters. They joined the crowds visiting West Pier and the Aquarium and the new Palace Pier, scheduled to open the next year. Or they rode in horse-drawn buses to the neighboring seaside resorts of Rottingdean and Hove, or boarded a paddle-wheeled pleasure-steamer for a trip to the Isle of Wight. Brighton had its own fine Society, of course, led by the Duchess of Fife (who was frequently visited by her father, the Prince of Wales) and the two wealthy Sassoon brothers, both bankers. The Brighton season began in October and lasted through March, with the theater, the opera, and the hunt providing abundant entertainment. The pleasure city might not be the brilliant social center it had been when the monarchy came regularly to town, but it still had plenty of life—and far too much traffic.
“Be careful, Kate!” Charles cried, as a horse-drawn brewer's wagon pulled out directly in front of them. Momentarily distracted from her driving, Kate had turned her head to stare at a bizarre cluster of buildings on the right, with a gaudy Oriental facade, Moorish trellises, fantastic onion-shaped domes, and dozens of minarets. Now, she braked hard, and Charles pitched forward.
“I'm sorry,” she said. “Are you all right?” But she was beginning to giggle. “Is
the Royal Pavilion? It looks like something out of
The Arabian Nights.”
“That's it,” Charles said, resettling his goggles. “Quite something, isn't it?”
“Words can't begin to describe it,” Kate said wonderingly. “Whoever built it must have been crazy—and very rich.”
“Yes to both. I've always thought of the damn thing as a monument to royal excess. Now, the place belongs to the town of Brighton. It's the first stop for day-trippers just off the train.” He pointed to a heedless and noisy crowd crossing the cobbled street in front of them and pausing to stare at the motorcar. “Watch out for that lot.”
Kate frowned through the heavy veil that swathed her face. “Would you care to take the wheel, my lord?”
Charles smiled and shook his head. To tell the truth, he was quite proud of the fact that she was a better driver than he was—and certainly a fearless one, with a calm, even temperament that enabled her to meet every vehicular crisis with aplomb. He would change the tires, add petrol when necessary, and lend a shoulder when they found themselves stuck in the mud, but he was content to let her drive when they went somewhere together.
“Thank you, no, my dear,” he said mildly. “You are managing very well. Forgive me if I seemed critical. The Old Ship is only a little farther.”
They arrived without further incident at the hotel, one of the oldest in the city, and were shown to a table in the elegantly appointed dining room. After they ordered, Charles excused himself and went in search of his manservant, Lawrence, whom he found sitting over a steak-and-kidney pie in the taproom with his wife, Amelia, Kate's personal maid. The two servants had come down on the train with the boxes and cases, and Lawrence had hired a gig for the three-mile drive east along the coast to Rottingdean, to the house they had taken for the month.
Charles arranged with Lawrence and Amelia to leave for Rottingdean after lunch, and returned to Kate, taking a moment to stand in the dining room doorway and admire her. She was gazing out the window beside the table, her chin propped on her hand, her shining russet hair gathered into a loosely coiled mass beneath her wide-brimmed hat. Her face, which was too firm-featured to be thought beautiful, was quiet and reflective, and Charles was glad to see that the color in her cheeks was brighter than it had been in some time. The bodice of her dark blue motoring dress fit neatly, showing firm, rounded breasts, and her waist was slim enough, in spite of her refusal to submit to what she called the “torture of the corset.” In fact, his wife held rather firm opinions about rational dress and delighted in scandalizing people with her split cycling skirts and the knee-length costume in which she played at tennis.
Charles pulled out his chair and sat down. “You're pensive,” he said, and took her gloved hand in his.
She turned to him with a bright smile. “I was just thinking how wonderful it will be to have you all to myself, my dear, after the turmoil of the last few months. We have been so little together, and I have missed you.” She squeezed his hand. “Dreadfully.”
“I had not known that Parliament would take so much of my time,” Charles said. “I believed myself well informed about matters of government, but I found it very hard to untangle all that business about the Voluntary Schools Bill.” He sighed. “No one else seemed to have difficulty understanding it.”
“That's because none of the other lords was paying attention,” Kate said tartly. “And it was a very vexed matter, all tangled up with local and Church politics and—”
She was interrupted by a tall, slender man with a mustache and a neat salt-and-pepper beard, wearing gray kid gloves, an impeccable gray coat, and striped tie. He saluted Charles.
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