Cover design: Corin Spinks. Portraits Alice and Pip: Heijo van der Werf
Background image: Lee Roberts (CC by-sa 2.0)
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
10. BETTERMOST VIEW
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
10. BETTERMOST VIEW
Neeva escorted Alice and Pip through the maze of the cellars, back to the stairs that led up to the inn. The strand of ginger hair still showed.
“Up ye go,” she said.
“Bethanks, Neeva,” Alice said. “For everything.”
Neeva smiled, once again a chilling sight because of her face paint. “A pleasure. Now go.”
Alice was surprised to find Nell waiting for them up the stairs, a little breathless as if she had rushed there from another chore. Alice looked back down into the cellar to see Neeva still there.
So they’re not the same person.
It was slightly disappointing, Alice had liked the idea that they might have been.
“How do?” Nell asked.
“We’re going home!” Pip cheered.
Nell smiled. “I’m pleased to hear that, though it be a pity ye haven’t had time to see more of Sinneport.”
“I would have liked that,” Alice said. “But we have an hour at most.”
“Mayhap…,” Nell said thoughtfully, then brightened. “If ye get dressed in a hurry, I can show ye all of Sinneport in less than that.”
“All of it? In less than an hour?” Pip asked.
“Yarr. If ye want to.” Nell nodded. “Yer gear be mended, it be on yer beds. Can ye find yer room from here?”
“I bluv so,” Alice answered.
“Good. Ye go get dressed, jump-round-and-hang-by-nothing. Meanwhile, I’ll go and see if Mum can be bribed into parting from some grub for yer journey. Meet me out back in the courtyard when ye’re done.”
She turned and made for the kitchen, leaving Alice and Pip to climb the stairs to the first floor.
When they entered the room, Alice could see their gear neatly laid out, rents stitched and clear of dirt, other than dull stains which Alice suspected would never come out. Her shift especially, would never be white again, but she dared not keep the far finer one she’d been lent here. She took off the heavy shirt, hoping that Neeva would get it back to the Tumtops farm.
Alice began to reach for the hem of the fine shift she was wearing when it occurred to her that Pip was in the room. She turned to find him likely to have drawn the same conclusion, to judge by his sheepishly awkward expression. He had also already taken the Tumtops shirt off, managing to look both silly and rather fetching in the bloomers.
“Back to back?” Alice suggested.
“No peeking,” he said. “Promise?”
Alice was tempted to repeat her impression of Goody Tumtop’s estimation of what there was or wasn’t to see but stopped herself. Pip seemed keen on making a manly impression, which she thought was rather sweet and shouldn’t spoil.
“I promise you won’t catch me peeping,” she said solemnly. “Cross me heart and hope to die.”
Pip looked relieved at that and Alice kept her word. This time she was so discreet that he didn’t catch her peeping.
Alice tried to wipe the smug grin off her face when they went downstairs, back in their old gear, barring their boots.
Alice didn’t mind going barefoot but she did miss her sturdy boots, a present from her mum when she had started her apprenticeship with the Rottingdean Free Traders.
The children filed through the taproom and went outside onto the courtyard, lined by the inn, its storerooms, coach house, and stables. Nell was already waiting for them. She led them out of the courtyard, through the passage that ran below the first floor of the timbered building.
“Mairemaid Street,” Nell said, indicating the street they emerged onto. Lined by more timbered houses, the cobbled street ran steeply downhill to their right, and levelled out to their left, the direction Nell took them in.
After a brief walk past more old houses that exuded the flavour of forever ago, they came to a magnificent church of an imposing size. To one side lay a graveyard, with lines of gravestones beneath sombre trees, to the other a narrow street that led to the main entrance of the church, a surprisingly low arched doorway below a far larger arched stained-glass window.
“Liss! Look!” Pip pointed upwards, at the ornate decorations around the azure blue clockface on the bell tower. Above it stood two gilded cherubs holding small bells.
“The clock be bettermost,” Nell said proudly. “And the two lads we call quarter boys, all-along-of them striking the quarter, not the hours.”
Between the quarter boys was an ornamented baroque frame surrounding a field of the same bright blue as the clockface. Alice read out loud the gilded words on the blue field:
For our time is a very shadow that passeth away
“The Wisdom of Solomon,” Nell said, and then recited: “’And our name shall be forgotten in time…and our life shall pass away as the trace of a cloud, and shall be dispersed as a mist, that is driven away with the beams of the sun...For our time is a very shadow that passeth away’.”
Alice liked the references to clouds and mist. “Were Solomon an aeronaut?”
Nell laughed in that infectious Hawkhurst manner. “Mayhap he were.”
“What does it mean?” Pip asked.
“Tis a reminder that life is but short,” Nell said.
Grief clawed at Alice’s heart at hearing those words. They were true. She had learned that lesson well enough. Life could come to an abrupt end.
Nell continued, “Howsumever, also a reminder that it be bettermost to make the most of it awhile ye can: ‘Come on therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are present…Let us fill ourselves with costly wine…and let no flower of spring pass by us: Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds, before they be withered’.”
“Fill ourselves with costly wine,” Pip repeated. “This Solomon were a Free Trader, sureleye.”
“I suspect that be why we like his wisdom in Sinneport.” Nell chortled. “Come, let’s go inside.”
She led them into the church, which seemed even more spacious inside than the considerable size of the exterior suggested. Alice’s spirits sagged a little as she took it all in. Although St Margaret’s in Rottingdean was far smaller, the sanctified aura of the interior reminded her of the memorial services that would soon be held for Hattie Tucknott and Bill. Pip’s face fell too; he was probably thinking the same about whatever church in Hastings would host a poignant farewell for his brother Harold, Brock, and The Joseph Swaine’s skipper.
Nell picked up on their mood change. “Mayhap it weren’t a bettermost idea to bring ye here? My ‘pologies, do ye want to leave?”
The children shook their heads bravely.
“Very well, I weren’t planning to tarry here anyhow. Come.”
Nell led them to a side door, which gave them access to a stairway leading into the tower. Parts of the stairs were so narrow that a grown man would have had to squeeze through. They emerged into a room that covered an entire floor of the tower and held a complex clockwork mechanism, then climbed more stairs to reach the next floor that was almost entirely taken up by eight enormous bells and their mountings.
Steep steps led further upwards. Alice was surprised at how far they had to climb. The bell tower had looked short and squat from the outside but was clearly far larger and higher that the exterior view suggested. They drew curious looks from pigeons settled amidst the roof rafters, before Nell pushed open a door that led outside, onto the narrow walkway between lead-lined steeple roof and the crenelated parapets.
“Oh!” Alice exclaimed. “Tis almost alike skirring.”
The views from the top of the bell tower were astonishing. They could indeed see all of Sinneport as they walked along the low parapet, looking out over the mostly red-tiled rooftops of the town built on a promontory of higher land. Nell pointed out and named the rivers that met below the town: The Rother, The Tillingham, and the Brede.
A stiff breeze tugged at Alice’s hair. Overhead she could see what Sussex folk called ‘marestails’, streaky white clouds that indicated plentiful wind shears. St Mary’s weathervane, which had seemed small from below, dominated the immediate upper alt, black and gold in the sun - its directional arms marked N, E, S, and W - laden with chittering starlings.
“A castle!” Pip pointed at a small two storey building below with a round tower on each corner. Though compact, it looked formidable, solidly built from grey dressed stone.
“That be the Weepers Tower,” Nell said. “The town jail now, ye can see the wall of the exercise yard behind the keep and the edge of the Women’s Tower, where the women’s cells be.”
Alice looked beyond the town. In contrast to the low wooded ridges and hills to the north and west of Sinneport, there was a vast expanse of flatness to the south and east. The sight was unsettling for someone who had grown up amidst the great whale-backed green domes of the South Downs.
Despite the flatness there was a great deal of variation. A mud-coloured river channel – for it was low tide – snaked between darker green marshy areas and the lighter green of drained fields dotted with sheep. Alice could see a stretch of yellow sand as well, and beyond that the silver reflection of the sea. She had little doubt that the bell tower was perfect for Owling use: look-outs and signallers.
Somewhere out there was the Tumtops farm. Near the salts where the sky-skiffs had come crashing down and she and Pip had run for their lives, pursued by the murderous mercenaries aiming to gun them down.
Alice heard, for a brief instance, the rattle of a Gatling, and frowned. Was everything going to be a reminder of that horrible night now? It cast a shadow over the beauty of the church and the spectacular views from the bell tower, though also served as a reminder that she had a task – to get back to Rottingdean and warn her folk that hungry predators were prowling the clouds.
“Tis a bettermost view,” she told Nell. “But, mayhap…”
Nell nodded. “Tis time to head back, also afore the bells ring the hour, we dursn’t be too close to them when they be a-tolling.”
They made their way down and headed back to the Mairemaid Inn. Alice observed Nell as they walked, marvelling again at how similar her body shape and movements seemed to Neeva’s. She had to refrain from asking who Neeva might be, because it was simply something that a Free Trader should never ask. Prying now might raise renewed suspicions that Alice and Pip were spies of sorts and delay their return home.
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
Atween Sinneport and Hastings
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
Atween Sinneport and Hastings
They found Andreas Black in the middle of the Mairemaid Inn’s courtyard, fidgeting with an imposing trike. McFeck – his face clear of paint – and another man were standing nearby. When the other man spoke Alice recognised his voice as Pug’s. He had the weathered face and the wiry frame of a sailor or fisherman, likely to have hauled ropes and clambered up rigging since childhood – an impression strengthened by his grey-streaked beard and the steel hook in lieu of his left hand.
Andreas Black had lowered the scarf he’d previously used to hide his face. He had shoulder length fair hair, streaked with silver, and a long scar that ran from his collar bone up the side of his neck to his ear. Apart from his height, the scar, the waxed great-coat, and his tricorne hat, there was little that seemed remarkable about him. Had Alice passed him in Brighton wearing workman’s clothes, or the finer gear of a gent, she would have walked right by him without taking much notice – a useful clandestine quality no doubt.
Next to McFeck and Pug, the both of whom were powerfully present, Black seemed quiet and unassuming. When he moved or spoke he did so with the grace of a gentleman, but there was none of the arrogance nor ingrained superiority that marked so many of his class. He seemed somehow burdened by the weight of a great sadness which suggested he wasn’t a man inclined to jests, banter, or idle chit-chat – enveloped as he was by an air of gravity.
Alice suspected he wasn’t a man to be trifled with.
Tis the quiet ones you need to keep an eye on, her father had once told her.
The men discovered a great big gun strapped to the trike and Pip joined them to crowd around it.
Black drew the gun from its leather holster, holding the belt-fed big calibre monstrosity up for them to see. “Kraken Killer,” he said, with evident pride in his voice.
The men and Pip ooh’d and ah’d like it was a new-born babe.
Nell sighed and rolled her eyes, making Alice grin. She knew how to load a variety of smaller handguns, how to fire them, and how to clean them – but didn’t share the fascination. They were tools for a purpose and best when not used at all. She studied the trike instead.
It was a remarkable three-wheeled machine, a smaller wheel at the front, and two larger ones at the rear. It reminded Alice of the Volk Workshops lektrishaws which plied their trade all over Brighton and Hove, ferrying passengers to and fro – although there were significant differences.
The Volk Workshops lektrishaws were light and mostly open-framed constructions, the sole casing at the back around the comfortable double passenger seat, shielding the electrical engine and batteries from sight. The lektrishaws had a foldable canvas roof that could be raised or lowered to suit the weather or wishes of the passengers, though it provided no shelter for the driver. The narrow wheels restricted the lektrishaws to hard surfaced roads only.
Black’s trike was clearly built for sturdier work. There was barely any exposed machinery, and the casing appeared to be made of riveted steel plates. The front wheel and the two larger rear wheels were wide, deeply grooved to afford optimal grip. The driver’s burgundy leather saddle looked far more comfortable than the lektrishaw driver seats, but there were no comfortable passenger seats. Instead, as if by afterthought, a crude, narrow bench had been added between the front of the trike and its considerable engine mounting at the back. Some empty jute sacks were scattered across the small bench.
To Alice’s surprise she couldn’t see coal panniers, a fire door, boiler, or smoke stack. The trike clearly wasn’t steam-powered.
When Black re-holstered Kraken Killer, Tess came out of the inn carrying a lidded reed basket.
Turning his head swiftly to take stock of the new arrival, Black caught Alice inspecting his trike.
“It’ll be a tight fit,” Black told Alice. “Dusky wasn’t designed for passengers.”
“Tess an Nell are tae be blamed fur that,” McFeck said. “Fed the bairns a stoatin big breakfast. Ah swear they’ve groon sideways an upwards since this morn.”
“I’m sure the chavvies won’t mind the tight fit,” Nell said, winking at Alice.
Alice grinned shyly. She didn’t mind so much.
“When will we be in Rottingdean, Mus Black?” Alice eyed the trike’s engine.
“Rottingdean?” Black asked. “I don’t want to disappoint you, young miss, but we’d never make it to Rottingdean before nightfall.”
“Oh,” Alice said, trying to conceal her disappointment. “I reckoned mayhap your trike were fast.”
Black smiled. “Oh, Dusky is fast when on a surfaced road. Unfortunately, both your occupation and mine dictate some caution.”
He opened his coat to display a sword hanging from a leather baldric, as well as a short-barrelled shotgun and two holstered pistols.
Pip had ambled back over to Alice and looked at all the weaponry with wide eyes. “You’re a highw—”
Alice poked him and Pip quickly shut up.
“Mus Black likes his guns, so he does,” Tess said.
“You can never be too careful,” Black smiled.
Continuing her visual inspection of the trike, Alice asked. “How is it powered? Lektrical?”
“Indeed,” Black said. “In my line of work it won’t do to go roaring down the highways and byways in a spectacular display of noise.”
“Were it built by Magnus Volk?” Alice asked.
Black looked surprised. “You’ve heard of Volk then? I suppose most would in your part of Sussex.”
Alice just smiled. She knew Magnus Volk personally. He had been one of her dad’s friends and as far as Uncle Magnus was concerned that friendship hadn’t ended with John Hawkeye’s death. Revealing that to Black and the Mudlarks though, would be revealing a little bit too much of who ‘Liss’ might be.
She pointed at a small iron plate near the bottom of the engine casing, a stylish depiction of the letters ‘V’ and ‘W’. “Volk Workshops.”
“Ah, she be a deedy one,” Tess exclaimed in approval.
“Dusky is a prototype,” Black said, lowering his guard to speak in a tone of paternal pride. “The only one in existence.”
Alice knew that Uncle Magnus had been experimenting for some time with the notion of powering a sky-skiff with electricity. A near-silent engine would be a game changer for Night-Fliers. Uncle Magnus had told her that he didn’t think generating the power required would be a problem, the issue was the sheer number of batteries required to sustain power for any meaningful amount of time. These would be so weighty that a sky-skiff could never take to the air in the first place. Black’s trike, it seemed, was a step in the right direction. She suspected that the actual engine beneath the casing at the trike’s rear would be compact and small, most space taken up by batteries.
“Does it have much of a range?” Alice asked. “There bain’t many places to recharge batteries, sureleye.”
Black regarded her with bemusement. “I see that you’re quite the expert, Miss…?”
“Just Liss will do, Mus Black.”
“Just Liss. You’re quite right. As a matter of fact, the only local places to recharge that I know of are the Volk Workshops in Brighton, the aeroports at Hollingbury, Maidstone, or Ashford, and the observatories at Herstmonceux and Brightling. Volk is quite the genius however, he’s added power regenerating capability.”
“Quiddy?” Pip asked.
“Lektrical batteries are big and heavy,” Alice explained. “But for all that size they run out of power mighty fast.”
“This new device,” Black added. “It allows batteries to replenish themselves by the very movement that they cause. I can get four hundred miles from a single charge, and four hundred more because there’s two batteries.”
“I dunno about this lektri-city stuff. I’d prefer a set of sails and a sturdy A&P engine any time,” Pip said.
“And a mouthful of soot.” Pug laughed. “That be the Owler’s answer. Good man.”
Pip beamed, broadening his shoulders.
Alice disagreed about the technology but didn’t voice her opinion. It seemed Uncle Magnus had stumbled upon a solution that he would hopefully be adapting for sky-bound purposes.
“As I said, Dusky can be mighty fast,” Black said. “But we’ll be avoiding the highways and taking the byways – the old Owler’s paths. Although the Yeomans are stationed at Eastbourne now, Dragoons still patrol the main roads between here and Hastings. We have plenty of reasons for wanting to avoid them. We’ll see you to Rottingdean tomorrow, Liss.”
“Don’t worry. You can stay at my house tonight,” Pip offered. “Mum and Dad will welcome you, sureleye.”
Alice smiled her thanks, though she wasn’t as confident, reckoning that Pip had forgot for a moment the ill tidings he’d be bringing home.
“You need not worry on my account, young man,” Black said. “I have my own sleeping arrangements in Tamarisk Town.”
“And ye won’t go hungry on the way,” Tess offered Black the basket. “There’s plenty in here for all three of ye, just in case you’re held up.”
“Thank you, Goody Hawkhurst.” Black took the basket and fastened it to a side rack of his trike. “All aboard.”
Goodbyes were rushed.
“Fair Winds, chavvies,” Pug said, saluting them with his hook.
“Fair Winds, Mus Pug,” the children replied in unison.
“Try nae tae fall aff the trike,” McFeck advised. “If ye want tae avoid crackin yer heids loch eggs.”
“Bethanks, Mus McFeck.” Alice grinned at him, then turned to Tess and Nell. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“Just get yerself home safely,” Nell said. “That would please us enow.”
Alice nodded. “Master Tumtops’s shirts, I think they were his only spares…”
“We’ll see he gets them back, with a dallop of something on the side by way of thanks,” Nell promised.
“Bethanks. Mayhap I can come back somewhen and thank them in person.”
“Ye’d always find a warm welcome at the Mairemaid Inn,” Tess said with a smile.
Alice smiled back, determined to visit Sinneport again some day in more pleasant circumstances.
“Goggles on,” Black told the children, slipping his own over his eyes. “It only takes a tiny pebble or twig hurled up by the front wheel to take out an eye.”
They followed his example after which McFeck helped them up Dusky’s passenger bench while Black took place on the driver’s seat. When he ignited the engine, it produced a steady low hum that was barely audible. Instead of jolting into motion, the trike glided forward smoothly.
With a last wave at their new friends in Sinneport, Alice and Pip were on their way again.
Black drove down Mairemaid Street at a slow pace. There was no other traffic here, just some children at play and a few women exchanging gossip by open doors or windows. Looks of curiosity were aimed at the passengers, rather than the trike, from which Alice deduced Black was not an uncommon visitor in these parts.
Alice was glad Black was holding back on speed and grateful for the jute sacks on the seat of their bench, because the street’s cobblestones made the trike shake incessantly – the vibrations playing merry hell with her sore bruises.
The road levelled out at an intersection where Black kept on going straight, taking them amidst tarred wooden warehouses and fisherman’s net huts. Crates, coiled cables, sails, and netting were stored everywhere, all permeated by the briny smell of the sea.
Black turned right, driving along a busy quay beneath the masts and rigging of moored schooners, brigs, luggers, and hogboats. After that they crossed a bridge. Once on the other side they were soon swallowed up by the green, brown, orange, and yellow hues of the autumn countryside.
The land rose and became uneven, a relief after the expanse of the flat lands on the other side of Sinneport. Black knew his way effortlessly, not once taking a wrong turn as he guided Dusky over narrow lanes. These were sunk deep into the earth and shielded by tree cover that was so dense at times that it seemed they were driving through tunnels. As Black had predicted, they couldn’t make great speed. There were occasional sharp turns and the lanes were treacherous; boggy in places and the wheel ruts of countless wagons were filled with muddy puddles of unpredictable depth. Even driving carefully resulted in a fair spray of mud on the lower parts of the trike, boots, bare feet, and breeches.
Dusky’s near-silence was remarkable. Had it been a steam bike, they would have had to holler at the top of their voices and still be overpowered by the roar of the engine. Instead, they could speak at a normal volume, but apart from a few comments as they pointed out oddities along the way to each other, Alice and Pip didn’t talk, each lost in their thoughts.
Alice tried to think of home but even as they were heading steadily westwards, both Rottingdean and Brighton seemed too distant to fully comprehend – farther and farther away by the hour. Instead, Alice’s thoughts drifted to all the new people she had met since yesterday, replaying various encounters in the marshes and at the Mairemaid Inn.
She was intrigued by Neeva and Scylla and wondered again who the two smugglers were in their daytime lives. She had been convinced that Nell and Neeva had been one and the same, but seeing them simultaneously after the meeting in the inn’s cellars ruled that out. Neeva also puzzled Alice because of her position within the Mudlark collective. She’d stayed behind at the Tumtops Farm as a look-out and to load the ponies, the sort of job usually delegated to apprentices or newly-fledged Free Traders. Pug and the others, however, had treated her with curious deference, and Neeva’s word had been enough for Alice and Pip to earn Scylla’s trust.
Then there was Pip. The makeshift passenger seat on Dusky was a tight fit indeed, but it seemed to Alice that he was leaning against her just a little more than was strictly necessary. Not that she was going to complain, as she was doing the exact same. It was strange to consider she had only met Pip less than a full day ago; it seemed she had known him since forever and longer.
Sighing, Alice laid her head on his shoulder. Pip became tense for an instant, before relaxing again, and then hesitantly draping an arm around her shoulders. Alice smiled, snuggled against him, and closed her eyes.
If only Lottie could see me now!
Lottie was her best friend and lived a few houses down from Alice’s house on Artillery Street in the Brighton slums. Lottie had been born and bred in Brighton’s Lanes and had helped Alice adjust to life in the slums. Although Alice had by now learned to cope, she had resigned herself to the fact that Lottie would always be more street-savvy, and more knowledgeable about other matters as well, like boys.
Other than her old friendship with childhood friend Brax Alice had never had much of an interest in boys, regarding them as noisy and awkward nuisances at best. Fortunately, when she was together with Lottie, boys tended to focus their full attention on Alice’s friend, whose golden hair and flawless angelic face drew them like land-sharks to a badly concealed beacon signal at night. Lottie was fascinated by boys in turn, keeping lists of the ones she’d kissed, wanted to kiss, might kiss in exchange for a ha’penny or boiled sweet, and would never kiss for all the treasure in the world.
None of those options had ever seemed remotely appealing to Alice, despite all of Lottie’s assurances that it was all tremendously exciting.
Alice had always thought ‘never’ was a reasonable compromise, but now she wasn’t so sure anymore. She found it hard to understand or explain the strong sense of connection she felt with Pip. It was all very perplexing but she vaguely suspected a kiss might play a part at some point – and surprised herself because she didn’t find that an unpleasant prospect.
A by now familiar shadow surfaced in her mind, that of The Joseph Swaine barrelling out of the night on collision course with The Martlet, trailing flame and smoke, crewed by hideous screams. Alice was filled again with the dreadful foreboding that Pip would look at her in a different light when he came to know what part Alice had played in his brother’s death. It would be better, she decided, to try not to think too far ahead.
For our time is a very shadow.
Nell had been right; enjoy what there is now, before it passed like all things must.
At this moment, headed home with ill tidings, body still aching and smarting from her sustained injuries – made worse by vibration of the trike and the jolts and jerks caused by the uneven roads – there was comfort and safety in the intimate proximity of Pip. A curious sense of belonging that caused a strange – almost delirious – mix of thrill, confusion, and contentment.
Alice had no idea how much time had passed when Andreas Black brought Dusky to a halt. It was at an intersection sheltered by a copse of trees, with a flagstone seat by the side of the road for weary travellers.
Black turned in his seat to face the children. “A short rest. Shall we see what’s in Tess Hawkhurst’s basket?”
He lowered his goggles and dismounted. The children did likewise.
Black sat down on the bench, Alice and Pip taking place on the other end. The basket was amply filled with bread, cheese, boiled eggs, ham, dried sausages, and apples. Despite having had a large breakfast, Alice found she had quite an appetite and she partook in the meal with relish. When they were finished Black filled a long pipe with tobacco and lit it. Alice wasn’t sure if she imagined that Pip was inching her way, but she reckoned he ought to be, so she shifted his way until their legs touched and shoulders touched. She relaxed, hoping Black would take a long time to smoke his pipe.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Black said. “Did you commit to a freefall right after the exit?”
“Yarr,” Pip answered. “Liss used the stall.”
Black uttered a low whistle. “You’re a gutsy pilot, Liss. At what altitude did you level out?”
“The Joseph Swaine at fifty feet over the sea,” Pip said. “Liss lower at twenty feet. She’s a bettermost aeronaut, our skipper said so, afore…”
His voice trailed away as sadness swept over his face.
Alice shook her head. “Pip, it bain’t—”
“No, no,” he said quickly. “He really did say so…before…I were just…he said the pilot of The Martlet saved our lives and were a credit to the Fishguts.”
“I didn’t save all your lives though, did I?” Alice blurted out. “The Rozzers brought us down over the mush.”
“It sounds to me you did all you possibly could,” Black said. “I don’t know many Night-Fliers who could have evaded such predators for long.”
Alice shook her head again. Both Pip and Black credited her with admiration she didn’t deserve.
Her eyes grew moist and she blurted out her guilty secret, “You don’t understand. It was my fault. My fault they brought us down.”
Pip looked at her speechless, his eyes full of disbelief. Alice thought her heart would shatter into splinters, just as the sky-skiffs had done.
“I’m so sorry.” She let out a sob, hating herself for it but unable to stop it now the terrible truth was out. “I’m sorry, Pip. I didn’t mean to.”
“Didn’t mean to do what, Liss?” Black asked gently. “What happened at the end?”
“We were skirring toward the mush…” Alice stopped talking and sniffed. She gathered her courage, wanting it done with, and rattled off her words. “Our skipper ordered me to the bow, as look-out. She knew the mush was anigh and didn’t want to hit a tree or farm. I thought the danger were over and weren’t paying attention as I went forrard. I was lost in thought. I’d only just reached the bow when the Rozzers appeared and opened fire. If…if I’d been paying attention, done what the skipper told me, I might have read the Rozzers skicing in. I could have raised the alarm and maybe…”
Her voice trailed off, and Alice forced herself to look Pip in the eye. She finished softly. “Maybe the rest would still be alive.”
She waited to see anger on Pip’s face. Or disappointment – disgust even. There was none of that though, just confusion.
“I’m not so sure,” Black said. “I think you may be wrong in drawing that conclusion.”
Alice glanced at him and shrugged. It would be rude to say so, but what would a highwayman know about skirring? He was probably being polite, trying to offer meaningless comfort that would do little to extinguish her burning shame. She looked at Pip again, for it was the anticipation of his reaction that set her on edge, heart thumping so loud she was sure everybody could hear it. He looked back, his eyes searching hers. Then he reached out for her hand and held it tight – too tight, but the renewed pain was mixed with relief. He didn’t seem different to Alice at all.
Black wasn’t discouraged by her lacklustre response. He blew out a small cloud of smoke, and then asked: “What’s the length of a sky-skiff? Thirty feet?”
“Twenty-eight, not counting the bowsprit,” Alice answered, with the automatism of an apprentice frequently drilled on these matters.
“And it takes how long to walk from stern to bow?” Black asked. “Fifteen seconds at most, thirty in turbulence. You were prop-powered, weren’t you?”
“Yarr.” Alice answered, frowning slightly as she turned her attention back to Black, not quite understanding what he was aiming at.
“There were no turbulence,” Pip said.
“Twenty knots at most then,” Black continued. “I assume you continued to skirr low?”
“Yarr,” Pip confirmed. “There was a fogbank, but it weren’t high, so we had to skim the sea to make use of it.”
“I see.” Black took a thoughtful puff of his pipe. “The most logical course of action to take considering the circumstances, but it yielded high-alt to the Rozzers, didn’t it? Limiting evasive action to starboard or larboard, since you couldn’t descend any farther, and ascending would’ve only made you a target all the quicker. What formation were the Rozzers in?”
“In a line,” Pip answered. “A hundred feet atwixt each of them. The middle ones hit us, the other two were on either side of them.”
Black nodded. “Skicing in at the remarkable wind-powered speed you mentioned at the Mairemaid—”
“—forty knots,” Alice provided. “But they were slowing down already I think, because they started the engines.”
“Giving them optimal tactical options,” Black noted.
“I don’t understand,” Alice said. That wasn’t entirely true. Deep down she suspected what Black was driving at, but it was hard to relinquish her sense of responsibility.
“I do,” Pip said. “It weren’t your fault Liss, even if you had read them coming in—”
“—There was nothing to be done,” Black said. “You mentioned a hundred and forty degree killing arc from their bow. With the Rozzers lined up, thirty seconds wouldn’t have taken you out of harm’s way. Not with the speed differential, their high-alt advantage, and that field of fire.”
“So you’re naun to blame,” Pip said, smiling.
Alice stared at them. It made sense, what they said, although she didn’t dare shed her burden that easily.
“It’s only natural,” Black said. “For you to blame yourself. I would have done the same…Actually, I have done the same. Part and parcel of the responsibility of command. But the navigational mathematics of the situation don’t lie, there’s nothing you could have done to avert the tragic outcome.”
“You’ve done the same?” Alice asked.
A pained grimace was answer enough.
It struck Alice that Black had a flawless understanding of skirring. Usually when gentlefolk claimed skirring experience they mistakenly counted time spent in the First Class Lounges of luxury liners as valid flight hours. Black knew far more though, than could be gleaned from sipping gin & tonic on a comfortable lounge chair.
She asked him, “Are you an aeronaut as well?”
“Used to be,” Black said, his manner suddenly curt as if it wasn’t a topic he liked to discuss. Then he shrugged. “I had a short career in the Air Corps.”
“Air Corps!” Pip exclaimed. “You were a Roz—” Alice nudged him and Pip shut up.
“A Rozzer?” Black smiled. “I preferred to think of myself as an aviator, truth be told. It was in the early days of flight, when pioneers like MaeYaBee Tu-Pa-Ka, Madeline Scarthorpe, Al Hapfold, Pascal Houvin, and Peter van Haelen were at the forefront of new discoveries. Before the Air Corps was renamed the Royal Aero Fleet. The Corps was never deployed against Free Traders, unlike the RAF.”
He drew his sword halfway out of the scabbard and showed them the grip. “Standard issue for Air Corps officers at the time. Minus the gilded tassels, we all lost those in a hurry – damned nuisance in a fight. Good sword though, reliable.”
Alice stared at the sword. If Black had stayed on he could have been one of the Royal Aero Fleet officers chasing Free Traders in the night skies. He would have been a formidable opponent; she was glad that he was an ally instead. She asked, “Why did you leave the service, Mus Black?”
“Family issues,” Black replied, the curtness back as he carefully sheathed the sword. “My brother, he—” anger flashed across his face “—suffice to say that the Crown saw fit to seize all the family property. I was forced to sell my Air Corps commission, and mustered on a privateer, a zephyr called The Blue Orchid. She was mine to command soon, and in her day, The Blue Orchid was state-of-the-art. She, my crew, and I won the Winchelsea twice in a row...”
Alice and Pip were enthralled. The Winchelsea Night Run was legendary. The race was held every three years. It was attended by sky-folk from all trades, especially Owlers, privateers, and pirates. The current record holder was Captain Fitzsimmons Noakes and his wind-drakar, The Centennial Kestrel.
A Night-Flier who did us all proud, and another one of Dad’s friends.
Black continued. “That’s also when I obtained Kraken Killer.”
Pip’s eyes widened. “You were a pirate!”
A light smile played on Black’s lips. “I was a privateer, armed with a letter of marque. Entirely legitimate, though it may be possible that we occasionally indulged in…other activities after I took command. I met Tess Hawkhurst on one such outing, she being a notable aeroship pirate at the time. That was far, far away to the south. El Escorpion she was called: The Scorpion. We worked on a job together. That’s when I met Captain John Hawkeye as well. And got this…” He pointed at the long scar on the side of his face.
“You met…Cap’n Hawkeye?” Alice asked.
“Yes. He was a sea-bound privateer at the time, in southern waters.”
Alice knew that much, but little else about her father’s younger years. He had always been reticent about talking of that part of his past. Whenever Alice had tried to probe, he’d say, “My proper life began when I met your mum, sweetheart.”
Black continued. “It may also be that another such venture, a solo run back in Europe, was interfered with by the Prussians over the Baltic. That ended with the unfortunate disintegration of The Blue Orchid with loss of most of my crew.”
He took a puff from his pipe. “I know what it’s like. I chose to retire from the skies then, and returned home looking for a new occupation. I was inspired by my great-uncle Jack Shrimpton, who had been a highwayman of ill fame in his days. I’d work alone, be dependent on no one, and no one dependent on me.”
“Stand and deliver!” Pip called out full of admiration. “I heard of Black Jack, they say he could melt away in the night!”
“Indeed, as can I.” Black blew out smoke. “The main difference being that I’ve got Dusky and Kraken Killer, instead of a horse and flintlock pistol.”
Black smiled as he said those words, but the steel in his eyes confirmed to Alice her earlier suspicion that he was not a man to be trifled with.
She said, “My dad always said that once the sky gets in your blood an aeronaut bain’t never whole on the ground, ever again.”
Black laughed. “Your father was quite right. I sometimes fancy I can hear the clouds calling my name. Who knows, one day...”
Alice nodded, that’s what her land-bound years had felt like in between skirring The Liddle Mew with her father and her return to the sky as apprentice on board of The Martlet. During those sky-less years in Brighton she had sometimes heard her name whispered by the wind as if it had been calling her home.
“But now,” Black said, tapping out his pipe. “Tis the muddy lanes that call us, so they can splatter us some more. Far less glamorous than swanning about the clouds I’m afraid.”
The children laughed.
When Black helped them back onto Dusky’s makeshift back seat it was as if an enormous weight had been lifted off Alice’s shoulders and she could breathe easier.
“Next stop,” Black announced as he started the engine. “Hastings.”
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
Hastings Old Town
12. ABRUPT END
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
Hastings Old Town
12. ABRUPT END
The beginning of the final leg to Hastings passed by in a dream. The self-reproach that had weighed Alice down like lead ballast was gone. This time she could enjoy her leaning game with Pip without the intrusion of nagging guilt. As far as Alice was concerned, Dusky’s progress across the increasingly hillier ground could last forever and longer. Despite all the horrible things that had happened, and her aching hands, bruises, and cuts, she had never experienced being as wholesome – so complete – before, snuggled against Pip on Dusky’s small passenger bench during that first hour or so after the break.
The mood changed when they emerged from a sunken, tunnel-like byway onto a main road, open fields rising up a hill slope on the other side of the hardened dirt thoroughfare. The sudden exposure to wide open space replaced cosiness with wariness. The children sat up straight, heads moving this way and that to keep watch on the sky above, as well as the road and adjoining fields.
“Hastings isn’t far off now, just over the rise,” Black announced. “Pip, where am I headed to get you home?”
“Sinnock Square, off the High Street.”
“I know the place.”
“I only ever seen Hastings from a gurt length away, up in the sea-sky,” Alice said. “You’re nearly home, Pip.”
He nodded, but with a pained expression on his face.
The road dipped down into a long vale, flanked by two steep green ridges and filled with a maze of rooftops. The houses were replaced by a forest of masts and rigging at the far end of the valley, beyond which the sea glistened beneath a sky stunningly transformed by the explosion of fiery hues that were the sinking sun’s farewell to the day. Gulls soared and wheeled through the colourful vista in large numbers, filling the air with their squawks and screeches.
Pip stayed silent, so it was left to Black to point out various features.
“East Hill,” Black pointed briefly. “West Hill, with the castle ruins atop. Customs & Excise watching stations on both hills, with the lookout towers. ”
Alice glanced at the landmarks briefly, but her main concern was Pip who was fast withdrawing into himself, suddenly remote and distant. She reached for his hand, but he drew it away, biting his lip, a faraway look in his eyes. Alice’s heart sank, feeling his pain as he readied himself for the ill tidings he was bringing home.
She recalled that fateful night in Rottingdean when Uncle Yard and some Rottingdean Owlers had brought her father’s body home. The disbelief and anger…followed by overwhelming sadness and an emptiness that lingered still. It would be that way in three Hastings households this night, and two families in Rottingdean the next.
“All Saints.” Black indicated an old church just ahead, its tower fortified by stout buttresses.
Black turned right, directing Dusky onto a narrow cobbled street that gradually curved south, to reveal a long street of timbered houses.
Pip suddenly gripped Alice’s hand and she held it tightly, ignoring the renewed pain from her palm.
“It’ll be alright,” she promised him.
He nodded without much conviction.
Black brought them to a standstill, by a doorway that revealed a narrow cat’s creep, the steps climbing up to a small mews, the courtyard’s cobbles level with Alice’s eyes.
“Can’t take Dusky into the alley,” Black said, switching off the engine.
“Quiddy?” Pip asked.
“He means twitten,” Alice explained. “Sheere-folk say ‘alley’.”
“I’ll walk from here,” Pip said, sliding up his goggles. “It bain’t far.”
“Shall I come with you?” Alice asked, as they scrambled off the trike. She lowered her goggles to leave them dangling around her neck.
Pip shook his head. “I reckon I best tell them about Harold first. Then, after, I’ll come get you.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Black said.
Alice nodded – slightly disappointed because she was curious as to Pip’s family and home, and then guilty because it was a selfish thought when people were about to receive horrible news.
Pip walked through the doorway and up the cat’s creep. A group of children gathered around to admire the trike and throw curious looks at Alice and Black. They kept a careful distance though, wary of the strangers.
They probably all know Pip, and he them. He’s got a whole life I know nothing about.
Although Alice’s thoughts were with Pip, trying to imagine how his parents would react to his homecoming and the ill news he brought home, she was also keen to question Black.
“Mus Black, you said you’d recruit ‘riders’ in Hastings. Steam Riders?”
“Indeed,” Black answered. “But you need not worry about—”
“—I’m not,” Alice said. “I know some of them back in Brighton.”
The Downs Chapter of the SaSoS, the Sons and Sisters of Steam. They sometimes visited Volk Workshops just like Alice did and they could often be found tinkering with their bikes in a mechanical workshop and clubhouse they had at the back of Hollingbury Aeroport. Now and then they’d make land runs for the Rottingdean Free Traders, deep into the Weald, or even as far as Lunnon. They were tough and rough, but in the same manner Hattie Tucknott had been. If the local riders were anything like the ones she knew, she’d be pleased to be in their midst.
“Besides,” she declared grandly, “I can take care of myself.”
Black raised his eyebrows.
Alice shrugged. “Mayhap not when hunted by gazillas in the mush.”
“That were what I said, gallizzas.” Alice kicked away a small pebble on the cobbles. “Are they friends of yours, Mus Black? These Steam Riders?”
“Colleagues,” Black said. “I’m the odd one out but we sometimes ride together. If they’re not on the road, we’ll find them in Tamarisk Town. It’s where I’m planning to spend the night, after talking to the local Owlers.”
“Tamarisk Town? I bain’t never heard of it.”
“There’s more to Sussex than the coast between Black Rock and Beachy Head, Liss, as you appear to be discovering. Surely though, you’ve heard of the Mericans.”
“Yarr, of course I have. Folk say the Mericans be one of the best Free Trading outfits in business.”
“You’d best not call them Free Traders in Tamarisk Town. It’s fine to use in Hastings, but across the border they prefer to be called importers & exporters. Tamarisk Town is a place where appearances must be maintained.”
“Border? Across the border?”
Black smiled. He had a quirky smile that transformed his whole face, briefly lifting that grave expression of his.
“About seventy years ago, some of the locals were fed up paying extortionate taxes and squatted a shingle bank at the end of Priory Valley, on the other side of West Hill. The shingle bank fell beyond the jurisdiction of Hastings borough. The squatters built a town of their own on Priory Ground, which soon came to be called Prairie Ground, and declared their right to stop paying taxes.”
“And the Rozzers let them?”
“Not at first. The Sheriff of Hastings marched his men to Tamarisk to restore authority, but the Mericans weren’t having it.”
“What did they do?”
“They formed a militia, which met the Sheriff at the bridge over the Priory. They were armed and easily outnumbered the Sheriff’s men.”
“Was there a battle?”
“A battle of wills. The Merican leader, Thomas Page, scolded and berated the Sheriff first, then read the American Declaration of Independence and hoisted the Stars & Stripes.”
“The terrorist flag! I was taught that in school. But the colonists lost!”
“Lose they did. Rule Britannia. But terrorists? It depends on your perspective. I used to think so, but I’ve since changed my mind. Their libertarian notions have justified appeal. To complete the story, the Sheriff ordered his men to withdraw from Priory Bridge, leaving the Mericans in possession, and it forms the border crossing still.”
“Between Hastings and Tamarisk Town.”
Alice grinned. “The Rozzers must be right tessy about that.”
Footsteps sounded in the mews, a far heavier foot-fall than Pip’s.
Alice and Black looked up the cat’s creep. The man who appeared was clad in fishermen’s gear and had a dour, humourless face. His receding hair was mostly grey, though his eyebrows were untouched by silver: Dark, narrow, with an angry downward twist at the ends.
He stepped through the doorway and stopped on the pavement. “Black.”
“Ruxley,” Black answered, with a sudden reservation in his tone and body language.
“S’pose thanks are in order, for bringing my youngest son home to his fambly,” the man spoke begrudgingly.
Alice stared at him in disbelief, not willing to believe this man was Pip’s father.
Black gave a curt nod. “And we—” he indicated Alice. “—offer our sincere condolences for your tragic loss.”
Ruxley gave Alice a quick, disinterested glance before grimacing. “It bain’t an easy loss. He were the only one of my sons grown enow to bring home a man’s wages. Twould have been better had you brought him home instead.”
Alice peered past the horrible man but could see no sign of Pip.
Ruxley continued speaking, “I unnerstan my youngest lad invited the girl into my home, howsumever, it weren’t his place to do so. I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but this bain’t the right time. The fambly needs time to mourn.”
Alice’s face fell.
“I understand,” Black said. “As does young Liss, I’m sure.”
He looked at Alice inquiringly. Biting her lip, she nodded. It made perfect sense given the circumstances, but it was also as if someone had yanked the ground away below her feet.
Ruxley shrugged. “Do you have a place to go?”
“My intention was to make for Polymina and inform the Governor, as requested by the Mudlarks. Liss can come with me.”
Ruxley nodded. “I’ll happen along later. Bollinger will want a council.”
He turned and strode back up the cat’s creep without so much as a goodbye.
Alice stared at his back, then tried to look past him again, hoping to catch sight of Pip headed their way, but her hope was dashed by the empty mews.
“Liss,” Black said. “We’d better be off. I’m sure Ruxley will bring Pip along to Tamarisk later.”
Alice nodded and scrambled up the trike. The little bench at the back seemed awfully empty. Black mounted and ignited Dusky’s engine.
When he drove down the High Street, Alice turned to stare at the receding doorway leading to the mews but it remained stubbornly bereft of an awkward boy.
Liking Alice Kittyhawk? There are two novellas preceding Fair Night for Foul Folk that may interest you, available as paperback or Kindle.