Read Death at Rottingdean Online

Authors: Robin Paige

Death at Rottingdean (4 page)

BOOK: Death at Rottingdean
“Hello, Sheridan,” the man said, bowing over his hat. “How delightful to see you here. I hope you have come to stay for a while.”
“Arthur Sassoon!” Charles exclaimed, standing, and introduced him to Kate. The Sassoon brothers—Arthur and Reuben—were among Brighton's wealthiest residents, and Arthur, who lived in Hove, just to the west of Brighton proper, had been a close friend of the Prince of Wales for many years. They were both members of the notorious Marlborough House set, sometimes called the Marlborough
banditti because of their high jinks.
Sassoon bowed to Kate. “Where in Brighton are you staying, Lady Sheridan?”
“We are not in Brighton,” Kate said. “We are in Rottingdean.” She gestured to an empty chair. “Won't you please join us?”
“Thank you, no,” Sassoon said regretfully. “My carriage is waiting. I'm on my way to call on the duchess. You will be in Rottingdean for some time?”
“Three weeks,” Charles said. “We've come for a quiet seaside holiday. The last few months have been wearing.”
“Ah, yes, quaint little Rottingdean.” Sassoon raised one eyebrow, amused. “Quite a rustic retreat, most attractive, and most relaxing, known for the innocent charms of the downs and the seashore. You shall find few temptations there, I promise you, and even less excitement.” He smiled. “But I trust you can make the time for an evening at my home in King's Gardens, Lord Charles. The Prince will be there Tuesday next, and I should be most gratified if you will agree to attend our party.” He bowed apologetically to Kate. “A men's evening, quite informal, with cards and general revelry.” To Charles, he added, “Rudyard Kipling has agreed to join us. You know, do you, that he is staying in Rottingdean?”
“Thank you for the invitation,” Charles said. “It is very kind of you to include me. But I have promised my wife that this holiday—”
Kate put out her hand, stopping him. “Of course you will accept,” she said firmly. “What is one evening, when we have so many lovely ones waiting for us?”
Sassoon smiled. “Generously spoken, Lady Sheridan. So it's settled. Tuesday next. then, at seven. And remember, we are very informal. His Royal Highness insists.” He bowed again. “Since you are in search of quiet, I am sure you will enjoy your stay at Rottingdean. Nothing ever happens there.”
Try as he will, no man breaks wholly loose
From his first love, no matter who she
Oh, was there ever sailor free to choose,
That didn't settle somewhere near the
t was a cool, crisp morning, and the sweet call of St. Margaret's bell summoned the Rottingdean parishioners, who were an upright and churchgoing lot, to Sunday worship. But Rudyard Kipling, always a renegade soul, was offering thanks to his diety in another fashion. He was seated on an overturned bucket at the end of the iron pier with his twelve-ounce St. John's trout rod in his hand—lighter than he liked for Channel fishing, but adequate until he found something heavier.
On the whole, Kipling had much to be grateful for. It had been a good plan, returning to Rottingdean, with the grassy downs at its back and the great, gray sea all before it. He had spent a happy time here with the Beloved Aunt and Uncle—Georgiana and Edward Burne- Jones—in August of ‘82. He had been a boisterous lad fresh from his last term at Westward Ho!, importantly decorated with his first side-whiskers and excited about his journey to India, where his father had arranged his first employment as a journalist with the daily
Civil and Military Gazette
in Lahore. He had spent nearly seven years as an apprentice writer there, producing not only the newspaper stories he was hired to write, but dozens of other well-received stories and poems. When he came back to England in '89, still a very young man, he was ready to embark on a serious career as a writer.
And after that, it seemed,. success had come so easily that he could later imagine those days only as a kind of waking dream, where he took, as a matter of course, the fantastic cards that Fate was pleased to deal him. In 1892, in the thick of an influenza epidemic, he married an American woman, Caroline Balestier, and the two of them went on a Cook's tour around the world. They settled for a few years in Vermont, where he wrote
The Jungle Books
Captains Courageous
and Josephine and Elsie were born, and then came home again to England, first to Torquay, then—full circle, it seemed—to Rottingdean beside the sea, where last month Carrie had triumphantly given birth to John, a black-haired, beetle-browed boy who snorted like a whale and fed like a ravenous calf.
Fifteen years, a solicitous wife, three healthy children, and too many pages to count. It was something a man could appreciate, if hardly comprehend, Kipling thought, as he stared out at the heaving sea. But while there had been happy days, those years had not been unceasingly bright. Although he could hardly say so, even to himself, he had married Carrie perhaps less out of love for her than out of a desperate grief for her brother and his much-loved friend Walcott, who had died suddenly of typhoid.
As marriages go, his to Carrie had been happy enough. She certainly looked out for his welfare, although she had a strongly proprietary attitude and could not seem to understand that he might want to go off by himself occasionally. But the time in Vermont, where he'd intended them to spend their lives, had come to a bitter end in a public feud with Carrie's brother Beatty. Illness and depression had plagued him since, and he suffered from an impotent anger at the American publishers who shamelessly pirated his books, publishing them without permission or payment. The days in Torquay had concluded in a blackness of mind and sorrow of heart, and he and Carrie had almost fled to Rottingdean.
There was peace in this little smugglers' village, which had changed very little in the years since he had first visited, except for the rather surprising prosperity evident in the newly repaired and painted houses and the number of shining new gigs in the High Street. Somehow or other, the village had managed to survive the Depression of the last decade and in recent years seemed to have stumbled upon good times. But there was still at the back of Kipling's mind an uneasy foreboding, and he mulled it over as he sat and smoked and gazed southward, over the Channel.
The problem, to put it bluntly, was England's infernal complacency. While the nation basked in the golden glow of Empire and celebrated itself in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, these were latter days, and few had the wisdom to know it. This was not an ideal world but a nest of burglars, as he himself had written to his friend Jack Mackail, and England had to protect itself against being burgled. There had been trouble in South Africa after the Jameson Raid, and he had a sense of something like a wind going in the tops of the mulberry trees, of things moving into position, as troops move into place before a battle. The big smash was coming one of these days, and it would be the Germans they would have to go up against. He had warned against hubris in
the poem he had written for the Jubilee. But as usual, his caution had been largely misinterpreted, especially by the Liberals, who did not like to be reminded that England was the last, best hope of the civilized world. So there was nothing for him to do just now but wait and watch, as he watched now, across the Channel.
“Are you catching anything, sir?”
Kipling turned with a start. The boy with the fishing rod was named Patrick—Pat. he was called in the village, a slender, wiry boy with the freckled face and coppery hair and dancing green eyes of the Irish. Kipling understood that he had come from good family fallen on hard times; that his mother, a clergyman's daughter, was dead these last three years; and that his father, stationed in India with an Irish regiment, paid the Aunt's laundress to board the boy. It was a common practice. Kipling himself had been boarded for close on six years in Southsea, next to Ports-mouth, in a small house that was little better than Mrs. Higgs's cottage. He hoped Patrick was happier than he had been.
“Catching up on my thinking,” Kipling said. “The fish seem to be occupied with their own affairs. They certainly have paid no attention to me.” He grinned up at the boy. “Sit, why don't you, Patrick? There's room in this ocean for another hook.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said, and sat, casting his line into the water with scarcely a ripple.
Kipling liked children, for they had none of the duplicity of adults. They demanded nothing and returned all honest affection with an open and innocent affection of their own. But while this boy spoke with the seemingly earnest respect that a schoolboy might use to the headmaster, he did not have the easy trustfulness of other children his age. Kipling had met him under the copper beeches in the pleasant garden of North End House, where Aunt had gathered Josephine and Elsie and the children of the houses around the Green to hear him tell stories of the cat that walked by himself and the bad-tempered rhinoceros with cake-crumbs under his skin. The boy had crept round the gooseberry bushes to listen with the others, but he was not like them. He was older, of course, eleven or so, and well-spoken for his age, perhaps because he read books. But there was more—a wariness, a certain calculating shrewdness that made him seem alert and almost adult. He made free of the village, for he carried laundry to and from the houses around the Green, and Kipling had seen him hanging about the stables and in the taproom at the White Horse Inn. An intriguing boy, Kipling thought, puffing on his pipe and watching him out of the corner of his eye. A boy worth knowing.
Patrick turned and caught his glance. “Sir,” he said, “I wonder, sir—” He hesitated, looked away, and then said, with remarkable composure, “Never mind,” and reeled in his line and cast again.
The silence of the next ten minutes was broken only by the raucous shrilling of the gulls and the lapping of the waves on the shingle as a wooden skiff was rowed jerkily to shore beside the pier, towing something—a large fish, perhaps, too large to land into the small boat—at the end of a hempen line. The fisherman clambered out and lurched drunkenly up the beach in the direction of the bathing machines.
“Trunky!” he bellowed. “Trunky Thomas, where the devil be ye?”
A stout gray-haired man in a heavy woolen sweater emerged from a frame building on the cobbled ledge that the villagers called the Quarter Deck. He leaned over the stone wall. “Wot's the matter, Jack?” he called down, in a gravelly voice.
“Wot's the matter, 'e asks,” Jack replied, as if to himself, and raised his head. “The matter is,” he said loudly, “that I've fished up a dead man. Ye'd best send for the constable.”
“A dead man!” Kipling exclaimed. Beside him, Patrick hunched his shoulders, staring fixedly at the water.
“A dead man!” Trunky Thomas cried. He straightened up. “ 'Oo is it, Jack?”
“ 'Oo is it, 'e asks,” Jack muttered, shaking his head. “ 'Tis the coast guard,” he said. “The coast guard from Black Rock. 'E bobbed up 'gainst my boat like a blasted cork.”
“George Radford, is it?” Trunky cried. “Well, I'll be blowed!”
Beside Kipling, Patrick cleared his throat. “Excuse me, sir,” he said quietly, “but there's a story I should like to tell you, if you wouldn't mind listening.”
May no ill dreams disturb my rest,
Nor Powers of Darkness me molest.
—RUDYARD KIPLING, “The Phantom Rickshaw”
ate shivered into her woolen jacket as she and Charles stood on the windy height above the shingle, watching as a pair of men and one small boy stoutly hauled the body of a dead man out of the water and onto the beach, as if it were a harpooned whale that the sea was loath to yield.
“Drowned, it would seem,” said the gentleman on the other side of Charles. He was dressed in gray tweed knickerbockers and jacket and a gray bowler, and was holding a small box camera. He aimed it carefully, pushed a button, and took a photograph of the scene on the beach. “I have heard it said that the natives along this coast, when they turn despondent, are driven by the powers of darkness to jump off the cliff and into the sea.” He spoke somewhat stiffly and with a pronounced accent. Perhaps he was French, or Belgian, Kate thought. French, most likely, with those pale blue eyes.
Kate shivered again, and Charles put his arm around her. “If you're cold,” he said, “we can go back and warm ourselves.”
“No,” Kate said, but she was grateful for the shelter of Charles's arm, and leaned against him, looking sadly at the sodden bundle on the beach. “I was just wondering what might drive a man to take his own life in a place so beautiful and peaceful.”
“Beautiful and peaceful it is indeed, ma'am,” said the photographer, and bowed with a smart flourish, clicking the heels of his polished black boots. “In truth, this quaint little village is of such beauty and peace that I think an extended stay might be rewarding. I beg your pardon for the inquiry, but I wonder if you know of suitable accommodations in the vicinity—a house to let, perhaps?” And he bowed again.
“I'm afraid not,” Charles said, his eyes on the scene at the beach. “We just arrived yesterday.”
The man seemed to be unaffected by what was going on. “You are here on holiday?” he asked Kate.
Kate did not answer. She looked down toward the beach. “Charles, that man coming up from the pier,” she said. “He's waving at us.”
“Ah, Kipling!” Charles exclaimed, and went to the top of the stairs to greet the man. “Kipling, my dear old chap, how very good to see you again!”
15.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

El legado del valle by Jordi Badia & Luisjo Gómez
Chasing Sunsets by Eva Marie Everson
Kit Gardner by Twilight
Stuff to Spy For by Don Bruns
Out of Mind by Jen McLaughlin
Bad Boy by Olivia Goldsmith
Gone by Martin Roper