Read Death at Rottingdean Online

Authors: Robin Paige

Death at Rottingdean (9 page)

BOOK: Death at Rottingdean
“Mornin', 'Arry,” Mr. Landsdowne said. He took off his black hat and shifted his weight nervously. “Some of the men wanted me t' ask you about—”
“About George Radford's killin' hisself, I s‘pose ye mean, John,” Mr. Tudwell said, and leaned back in his chair. A somber look replaced the frown. “Sad business, ain't it? Poor boy, so young, an' with a wife an' children at 'ome. ‘E's to be pitied, not blamed, is wot I sez.”
Mr. Landsdowne swallowed and his adam's apple bobbed up and down. “ ‘Twas def'nitely suicide, then?”
Mr. Tudwell nodded. “George was giv'n t' black moods, y‘know. One evenin' at Th' Plough, I 'eard ‘im say 'e'd thought many times of throwin' hisself off th' cliff. Tom Brown was there when 'e said it. 'E 'eard it too, an' will testify to it.” Mr..Tudwell looked up at Mr. Landsdowne. “Mebbee there're some others who've 'eard somethin' of th' like—yerself, mebbee?”
There was a pause, and then Mr. Landsdowne replied, “Well, now that you mention it, t' be sure, I'ave. George killed himself, no doubt about it.” Then he stopped to chew on a corner of his lip. “But the coroner'll come over from Brighton, and there'll be an inquest.”
“T' be sure,” Mr. Tudwell said, in a careless tone. “But Constable Woodhouse 'as those matters well in hand. You c'n tell th' others there's nothin' t' worry about. Just to be on th' safe side, though, it might be as well to postpone some of our...activities.”
Mr. Landsdowne hunched his rusty shoulders, scowling. “Postpone? I don't like th' sound o' that, 'Any. There's too much involved, far's I'm concerned. An' I'm sure others' ll feel the same way.”
“We'll talk it over,” Mr. Tudwell said soothingly. “Tonight, at th' Black Horse. But it's my judgment that we 'ave t' postpone. In fact—” He glanced up and saw Patrick. “Ye're still here, boy? Thought I told ye t' get t' those stalls.” Then he held up his hand. “But come back later. I'll want ye t' go on an errand this afternoon.”
“Yes, sir,” Patrick said with his customary alacrity. But he went to do the dirty job of mucking out the stalls chastened and deeply perplexed. He was sure now that Mr. Tudwell knew exactly what had happened on the beach, and the thought sorely troubled him. Patrick had known the dead man scarcely at all, but it was sad to think that he had left children behind—boys, perhaps, who would have to grow up without a father. And Patrick was no fool: he knew from the tone of the conversation that neither Mr. Tudwell nor Mr. Landsdowne believed that the coast guard had killed himself, no matter what they said. But Mr. Tudwell was his friend, and the friend of all the village, for he was the man who had brought it prosperity. Patrick owed him loyalty—and anyway, what would be changed if he spoke about what he had seen? The coast guard was dead, and nothing would bring him back.
With these perplexing thoughts filling his mind, Patrick worked doggedly through the morning, returned at noon to Mrs. Higgs's to refill the copper, hurried through his lunch, and ran back to the stable for his commission.
Mr. Tudwell was pacing up and down in front of the table in the office, hands behind his back, head down, clearly troubled. But when Patrick came in, his worried look vanished and he put on a smile.
“Ah, there ye are, Paddy,” he said briskly. “Ye're to locate a Mr. Maurice Burke, at th' ‘ove Tobacconist in Church Road, just above Kingsway. Mr. Burke asked me t' take a look at a certain gray 'unter he ‘eard was for sale, an' tell 'im whether it‘ud suit 'im. ‘Ere's th' message: 'Th' gray hunter isn't presently available. Mebbee in a few weeks.' ” The stablemaster regarded Patrick narrowly. “Let's 'ear it now, Paddy.”
“ ‘The gray hunter is not presently available. Maybe in a few weeks,' ” Patrick repeated. He had delivered messages concerning the availability of various horses to other merchants in Brighton and Hove, and did not for one moment believe that a mere tobacconist was in the market for a gray hunter. But Patrick did not need to inquire into the true meaning of the message. As to that, he was already quite clear.
“Very good,” Mr. Tudwell said. He put his hand on Patrick's shoulder with a fatherly benevolence. “An' since ye'll likely linger along th' sea front an' lie t' me an' say ye went lame or lost yer way, ye may as well take th' rest o' th' afternoon for th' job an' buy yerself some sweets when ye're done.” And he gave Patrick a pat on the shoulder and a coin in the hand.
With a grin, Patrick shoved the coin in his pocket and ran out of the office. When he had gone, Harry Tudwell sank into the chair behind the table and buried his face in his hands. But even though his burning eyes were squeezed shut, he could still see the pale, drowned face of the young coast guard. No amount of village prosperity, no number of shiny new horses in the stable or well-stocked dress shops on the High Street, could repay the wife for the loss of her husband or the children for their father. And he, Harry Tudwell, whose intentions had been of the best, who had worked hard to bring a lasting prosperity to the village through its various enterprises, could hold only himself responsible for the way things had gotten out of hand.
When all the world would keep a matter
Since Truth is seldom friend to any crowd,
Men write in fable as old Aesop did,
Jesting at that which none will name aloud.
—RUDYARD KIPLING “The Fabulists”
ow, it could be argued that Patrick should not have carried a message for a man he believed to be involved in another man's death. But he was only a boy, with a boy's judgment and a boy's ordinary need for a man's affection and approval. So he took the coin, pocketed his reservations, and hurried off to the White Horse, where The Coffin (as the odorous old coach was known) was about to begin its afternoon run to Brighton. He begged a ride from Old Hennessey, whose Jack Russell terrier shared the box with them, barking like a banshee at every passing vehicle.
Patrick thus went in fine style as far as the coach terminus on Madeira Drive, then caught a ride on a passing omnibus when the conductor was distracted by an old woman with several large parcels and a parrot. As the bus passed Queen's Road, he hopped off and walked the rest of the way to Burke & Sons Tobacconists in Church Road, Hove—a pleasant walk on a bright, crisp Monday afternoon. He found Mr. Maurice Burke, a gray-faced, hunch-backed little man at work behind the counter.
“Not havailable, did 'e say?” Mr. Burke asked with a frown, when he had delivered his message.
“Perhaps in a few weeks,” Patrick repeated.
“Haltogether hunacceptable,” Mr. Burke said. He scowled at Patrick. “Did 'e say why?”
Patrick shook his head. “No, sir. Just that it's not available.”
“Well, tell ‘im I sez I expect 'e'll locate another,” Mr. Burke growled, “an' th' sooner, th' better, I sez.” For Patrick's trouble, he gave him two Turkish cigarettes out of an orange cardboard box on the counter, and pushed him out the door.
Patrick would rather have had money, but the cigarettes were an acceptable substitute and he smoked as he sauntered in a leisurely manner eastward along the bustling sea front, glad to have his errand done with. He might have thought about what the message meant, and how it was related to the coast guard's death. But he put those thoughts aside and stopped to listen to an organ grinder with a redhatted monkey rattling his chain, then loafed along in front of the imposing steel frame of the new Palace Pier, his hands in his pockets, whistling a beer hall tune.
Had anyone looked attentively at him, they would have seen only a thin young boy with curly red hair, dressed in a knit jersey with too-short sleeves, red suspenders, and brown corduroy trousers, truant from his employment and out on an afternoon's lark. Patrick's own view of himself, however, was rather more fabulous. He was by turns a daring pirate from
Treasure Island,
enjoying shore leave before taking to the high seas for more raids on rich merchant ships. Then he was Mr. Kipling's Mowgli, Master of the Jungle, gliding through a twilit thicket of trees with the rock python Kaa draped in a friendly fashion across his shoulders. And then he was a smuggler, carrying a tub of the finest French brandy through the tunnels under Rottingdean's High Street to—
“Look where ye're walkin', boy,” a voice shrilled, and Patrick, recalled to reality, jumped back smartly to avoid being struck by a wheeled chair in which sat a wizened old man bundled up in an overcoat, propelled by a sullen male attendant wearing a checked suit and bowler hat. He did not jump back soon enough to avoid the old man's ebony cane, however, which dealt him a numbing blow on the arm. He hopped up and down, cursing and rubbing his arm, as the old man rolled on through the crowd, giggling hysterically and poking his cane at pink-faced nurses with babies in prams and fat wives with paper-wrapped packets of fish.
But Patrick's pain was short-lived, and he was soon whistling again. It was getting on to teatime, and he stopped at a street vendor's cart to buy three fresh oysters for a penny, and a little further on, finding himself still hungry, a baked potato and a tin cup full of steaming China tea. He was tempted by the ginger-beer stand, with its polished mahogany frame and bright gold taps, but held firmly to the last of his coins, which he still had in his pocket when he arrived at the electric railway's jetty at the Banjo Groyne. The coast road to Rottingdean was only three miles long, but he was tired and would far rather ride than walk, if it could be managed without cost.
Twenty minutes later, he had smuggled himself aboard the
in the company of a man and woman with such a large flock of children that the conductor could not be bothered to count them. Once on board, he climbed the stairs to the open deck on top of the salon for a better view of the cliffs and the Channel and the sea gulls clamoring overhead. Locally, the Pioneer was called the Daddy Longlegs, for it was built on 24-foot stilts so that it could make the journey in high tide as well as low. An ungainly affair, it looked like a cross between a well-appointed railway carriage, a pleasure steamer topped with a pilothouse, and one of Jules Verne's flights of fancy.
For Patrick, the trip on the electric railway was the perfect end to an altogether satisfactory day, and by the time he disembarked from the
in the voluminous shelter of a woman's skirts, he had already forgotten his anxiety of the morning. He climbed the steps to the Quarter Deck and made his way up the High Street, past the White Horse Inn and the Black Horse pub, then sharply left, as if he were going to the stables. Instead, he took the path up Beacon Hill.
The black-tarred smock windmill that stood at the brow of the hill, overlooking the Channel, had long since ceased to grind corn and the canvas of its sails had disappeared before Patrick was born. Few people came up here except on the occasions when the village beacon fire was lit—such as Her Majesty's Jubilee, just a few months before. That had been a night Patrick would remember for the rest of his life, capping a day of parades and prayers and feasting that ended with the whole village gathering around the beacon fire, with answering fires ablaze from hilltops all up and down the seacoast, and flares sent up from ships far out in the Channel, and fireworks, and the Brighton Military Band playing at Queen's Park. Indeed, such were the celebrations all around the globe that it was unlikely that any of the Queen's subjects anywhere in her empire would forget where they were on that particular night in 1897.
But Beacon Hill was dark and silent now, and the windmill was the same shadowy and secret place it had been for the past fifty years. According to local legend, it had been much used by smugglers, who employed the mill proper to store their booty and the sails, which carried their canvas then and could be turned by hand, to send messages to ships waiting in the Channel. Now, no one used it—no one but Patrick, and the pigeons that roosted high up in the rafters, and the field mice that found it a warm and dry place to spend the winter. And since local legend also had it that the mill was haunted by the ghost of a smuggler who had been hanged there many years before, no one was likely to use it, which suited Patrick perfectly and made it a fine hideway for his precious cache of secretly saved coins.
But still, despite its usefulness to Patrick, the mill was a gloomy place at twilight, and he felt, as he always did, a shiver of apprehension as he entered. Outside, the sea shone with a pearly luminescence that signaled a gathering storm. Inside, it was dusky and quiet, except for the low moan of the wind in the bare sail frames and the faint squeaking of the main shaft, which still turned as the sails turned, although the millstone and the spur wheel, dismantled, lay against the stone foundation. Indeed, it was so dark within that Patrick reached up above the low door and took down a stub of a candle and a match, fetched from Mrs. Higgs's cupboard. He lit it, striking the match against a stone and shielding the flickering flame from the cold wind that came through the open door. He turned to go to his cache, which was concealed behind a loose stone.
Then he saw it, and his breath froze in his throat. A man was sitting upright, legs stretched out, his back against one of the ancient grinding wheels that had been tilted up along the opposite wall. He was staring accusingly at Patrick, his eyes like pale glass balls in a face as white as marble, his mouth open as if to charge Patrick with some horrible crime. But the man could no longer accuse anyone of anything. There was a small round hole in the front of his brass-buttoned coast guard jacket, and the wool was sodden with congealed blood. He was quite, quite dead.
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