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Authors: Robin Paige

Death at Rottingdean (7 page)

BOOK: Death at Rottingdean
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“Oh, but she has already been distracted, Aunt,” Kipling said, rising on the toes of his shiny black boots. “She was above the beach when the body of the dead man was towed in this morning and that blockhead Woodhouse refused our help with the investigation.”
“That man,” Aunt Georgie said disapprovingly, “I have spoken several times to the Parish Council about his unacceptable behavior.” She turned to Kate. “I hope you weren't too distressed by the drowning, my dear.”
“I fear, Aunt,” Caroline said primly, “that this is not a fit subject for the children.” She rang a brass bell and a white-aproned nurse appeared and whisked the two little girls away, in spite of their pleas to be allowed to stay.
“Young John is devilish clever, but I doubt he has yet mastered the language,” Kipling said, settling himself in a green leather chair and motioning Charles to a matching chair on the other side of the fire. “We may go on without fear of offending his tender ears.”
“I understand that it was the coast guard from Black Rock who drowned,” Aunt Georgie remarked. “I met Mrs. Radford on the Brighton omnibus just last week. She is a sweet person, but quite helpless, I thought. And now she will be all alone with their two small children. But the parish has remedies to offer. I will visit her very soon and see what should be done.”
“Is there any word as to the cause of death?” Charles asked. “Has it been put about that he died by drowning?”
“As a matter of fact,” Kipling replied, “it has.” He pulled his expressive black brows together. “But I also overheard our cook telling the serving maid that the poor fellow had the misfortune of running himself through with his own sword before he jumped off the cliff and into the sea.”
Kate and Caroline gasped. “How dreadful!” Caroline exclaimed.
Aunt Georgie frowned. “But I thought the coast guards carried only wooden truncheons. I had no idea they were armed with swords!”
“A short sword is hidden inside the truncheon,” Kipling explained. “It can be pulled out and wielded like a long knife. A quite effective weapon, I assure you.”
Charles was staring at Kipling, and gave voice to the question that was loud in Kate's mind. “Ran
himself
through?” he asked. “On what evidence—”
Kipling held up his hand. “Don't look to me for explanations, Sheridan. I am merely reporting what the cook said to the serving maid while I lurked unseen in the hallway, awaiting an announcement as to dinner. I was given to understand, however, that it is the general report that is being circulated in the village, for the serving maid reported that her brother brought the same news home from the taproom at The Plough.”
“But the boy's report absolutely contradicts the idea of suicide,” Kate objected. “Surely an investigation will reveal—”
“The boy's report?” Aunt Georgie asked.
“Our young friend Patrick was hanging about on the cliff night before last,” Kipling replied. “He saw a man in oilskins loading Radford's body into a skiff.”
Aunt Georgie pulled in her breath. “Poor Paddy!” she exclaimed. “What a horrible thing for him to witness. He must have been terribly frightened!”
“I rather think, Aunt,” Kipling said dryly, “that our sympathies should lie with the dead man. Patrick seems not to have been frightened at all.”
Kate tried again. “It seems to me that Patrick's report shows that the coast guard could
not
have killed himself.”
“Oh, I don't agree,” Caroline murmured, stroking the baby's head with her finger. “Someone might have found the poor fellow lying dead at the foot of the cliff and decided to bury him at sea.”
“I'm afraid I'm missing something,” Charles said, frowning. “Why should anyone do something of that sort?”
“Out of sympathy with the dead man's family,” Caroline replied. “Or perhaps to avoid the scandal of a suicide in the village.”
There was a moment's silence, and then Aunt Georgie said, “I'm afraid I agree with Carrie. In
this
village, someone might have done just that—but not out of sympathy, if you ask me. And Patrick will do well not to give tongue to a contrary report, if he knows what is good for him.”
“If he knows what is good for him?” Charles asked, in a tone of mild curiosity.
Aunt Georgie tilted her head at him. “Haven't you heard of the Rottingdean smugglers?”
“Oh, Aunt,” Caroline sighed, with the dismissive air of someone who has listened to the story more often than she cared to. “That business took place long ago, in the time of King George. It may be very romantic and all that, but it's all over now.”
“That is commonly said, Carrie, my dear,” Aunt Georgie replied. “But Rottingdean keeps its own secrets, and even those of us who have maintained houses in this village for fifteen years are not privy to its inner workings. And even though I serve on the Parish Council and do my utmost to preserve the peace and tranquillity of the village, I don't pretend to understand all the little mischiefs that go on in its pubs and its streets. Or under the streets, for that matter,” she added suggestively.
Kate leaned forward, intrigued.
“Under
the streets?”
The baby began to fuss, and Carrie held him against her shoulder. “Aunt is referring to the notorious Rottingdean tunnels that were dug by smugglers well over a hundred years ago,” she said in a practical tone. “They've all been blocked up for fear of subsidence, or children being trapped. The area is entirely safe.”
“That is the tale that is told to outsiders,” Aunt Georgie said. “The truth may be exactly the opposite.”
“Well, the tunnel that leads out of
our
cellar is certainly blocked,” Caroline retorted. “The agent who let the house assured us so, and told us to ignore any stories to the contrary.” Her voice was edgy, and Kate thought that if there was any tension in the family, it lay between Kipling's wife and his aunt—some jealousy, perhaps. It struck her that Mrs. Kipling might view her husband's aunt as a competitor for his affections and was looking for opportunities to discredit her. But the aunt did not seem inclined to surrender.
“For heaven's sake, Carrie,” Aunt Georgie said, “house agents will tell you anything you like to hear. The Elms was built by a man who made his living in the illegal export of wool, and it is common knowledge that his cellar was a smugglers' depot. It lay at the hub of several tunnels that led to other houses. One may indeed be blocked, but who can say as to the others. And aren't you the very one who complained of noises in the cellar a night or two ago?”
Caroline responded to the challenge with a light laugh. “You're not suggesting that there are
still
smugglers in this village?”
“I am only suggesting that some intrigue or another is afoot,” Aunt Georgie replied, lifting her chin. “You cannot have noticed it, my dear, for you have not lived here a sufficient time, but an unusual amount of money has been coming into this village lately. The chemist has a new horse to pull his old gig, and the money to stable it. And Mrs. Howard, who has been poor as a church mouse, somehow found the means to open a dressmaker's shop on the High Street and offer fabrics and laces as fine as any in Oxford Street. Perhaps you can suggest where the money might have come from.”
Caroline looked cross and did not answer. The fire hissed and Kipling stirred uncomfortably. To ease the strain, Kate turned to him and spoke lightly. “Speaking of cellars—”
“Ah, yes, our ghost!” Kipling exclaimed with evident relief, and jumped up. “He may not be in evidence tonight, but you can at least see where he lives. Or where he walks,” he corrected himself. “I don't suppose it is accurate to say that a ghost lives.”
Caroline gave a horrified gasp. “Ruddy, you can't be thinking of taking our guests to the cellar, of all places!”
“Oh, but we
want
to go,” Kate said quickly, rising.
“Don't trouble yourself to get up, my dear.” Kipling patted his wife's shoulder. “You and John stay here, and we'll get a candle from the kitchen. I'll ask the maid to bring dessert and coffee while we're gone.”
Aunt Georgie rose with alacrity and picked up the brown shawl that lay on her chair.
“I'll
come,” she said. She draped the shawl around her shoulders and smiled up at Kate, who felt like a giant beside the tiny woman. Small as she was, though, her erect carriage gave the impression of strength and self-possession. “Perhaps I was wrong when I said you should find no excitement here, my dear. The notion has just come to me that you might think of writing a story that takes place in our tunnels.”
“Now, that's an idea, Kate,” Charles said warmly. “You could set the tale in King George's day and be sure of smugglers. You might even ask about the village and gather the names of some of the men who were involved. I'm sure there are many older people who have interesting smugglers' tales to tell.”
“If that's your plot, you should visit the old windmill on Beacon Hill, behind North End House,” Kipling suggested as they left the room and turned into a dark hallway with old-fashioned framed pictures on the wall. “It was often frequented by smugglers, who used the sails to signal boats out in the Channel.”
“The old windmill!” Aunt Georgie said. “The very thing! Ruddy, you shall put the old mill into one of your poems, and Beryl Bardwell can put it into a story.” She patted Kate's hand with a chuckle. “No argument, now. As I tell my nephew, those with a gift for writing stories are obliged to do so, in order to relieve those of us with an insatiable need for reading them.” Turning to Kipling, she said, “What story are you working on now, dear?”
“I've begun to revisit the Irish boy I first thought of when we were at Bliss Cottage in Vermont,” Kipling said nonchalantly. “I've gone as far as to make him the son of a private in an Irish regiment, born in India and mixed up with native life. I've christened him Kim, although I haven't been able to think of anything for him to do except trek around India having adventures.”
Aunt Georgie chuckled. “Fashioned after our very own Paddy, I wonder? Well, if you observe the child for very long, you won't lack for things for your Kim to get up to. But shouldn't you have a plot of some sort?”
“What was good enough for Cervantes—” Kipling began, but his aunt cut him off.
“Don't Cervantes me,” she said tartly. “I remember your mother remarking once that you couldn't make a plot to save your soul.” She smiled sweetly at him. “Now, dear, hadn't you better fetch the candle?”
A few minutes later, the four of them—Kipling, Charles, Aunt Georgie, and Kate, were making their cautious way down a narrow flight of worm-eaten wooden stairs into a large, irregularly shaped, cavelike cellar carved out of the gray-white chalk on which the house was built. At the foot of the steep stairs, Kipling held the flickering candle over his head, and Kate saw that the walls, which were not at all square or straight, went back a long distance into the gloomy shadows.
“The tunnel entered at this point,” Kipling said, going to a tier of wooden shelves. “But there is no access, you see—it is entirely blocked.”
Behind the shelves, Kate could make out the arched outline of an opening that had been filled in with bricks and plastered over. She turned and looked around, thinking that Aunt Georgie was entirely right. The setting suggested all kinds of ideas for a story, or perhaps even a book. The present cellar contained only the detritus of previous households—broken chairs, a dirty piece of carpet, rusty tools—but she fancied she could see it as it must have been a hundred years before, filled with wooden kegs of fine brandy and boxes of cigars and French lace. She could imagine, as well, a gang of crafty smugglers, led by the man who had built the house, gathering to celebrate their latest success by tapping into one of the precious kegs.
“You've explored all the nooks and crannies, I suppose,” Charles said thoughtfully. Kate looked at him curiously. He seemed to be sniffing the air.
“Actually, no,” Kipling said. “We've been here less than a month, and with John's arrival...” The candle guttered and he shielded it with his hand. “Carrie's right, y‘know,” he said uneasily. “This place is in no fit state. P'rhaps I'd just better lock up the door and declare the cellar out of bounds.”
At Kate's elbow, Aunt Georgie spoke firmly. “The tunnel is blocked
here,”
she said, wrapping her shawl more securely around her. “But that does not mean that there are no other openings in this cellar—or that all the, openings are blocked. The tunnels are said to have led from the cliffs to every consequential house in the village. To the vicarage, where the Reverend Dr. Hooker was the watchman for the local smuggling ring—and to Seabrooke House, of course,” she added, turning to Kate. “I was told that one of the Seabrookes—Richard, I think it was—earned quite a good living by hauling goods to Falmer and Lewes. His brother was in league with the Hawkhurst Gang, and was responsible for arranging capital to finance their endeavors.”
“That's very interesting,” Kate said, thinking of the cellar below Seabrooke House, almost as large as this one, and the spilled brandy and evidence of bottles that had been taken away. “I shall have a look for evidence of a tunnel in our cellar.”
“And the ghost?” Charles asked lightly, turning to Kipling. “You say you heard him recently?”
“A few nights ago,” Kipling said. In a mischievous tone, he added, “We can extinguish the candle and wait, if you like,” and suited the deed to the word.
Kate gasped as the chill dark closed suddenly around them. Beside her, Aunt Georgie shivered. They stood for a moment huddled tensely together, listening to the muffled footfalls of the servants moving around in the kitchen over their heads. Then even that noise ceased, and all Kate could hear was the low sound of their communal breathing. And then, just as she was feeling that they had waited long enough, she heard something else: a heavy, echoing thud on the other side of the wall, but very distant, as if it were miles away—or years ago. A second later, there was another thud, and a low rumble.
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