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
13. MOCK CITY OF UNDESIRABLES
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
13. MOCK CITY OF UNDESIRABLES
Black took a turn off the High Street, wove his way around an ancient looking church and then through a narrow maze of streets, sometimes just a dirt path behind back gardens, gradually ascending all the while.
They reached a large open grassy area on the broad ridge of West Hill. Away from the shelter of the houses, Alice could feel the wind on her face, caressing her hair. It blew with sporadic and enthusiastic little bursts, promising clouds and rain. The Free Trader in her was cheered her up and she rose out of her slouch to take note of her surroundings, taking special interest in the windmills that rose to their right.
“I reckoned that Tamarisk Town would be on the sea front,” she said to break the silence.
“It is,” Black said. “But the sea front road curls around Castle Cliff. I’d be taking a blind turn in my approach to Priory Bridge if we went that way, which isn’t to my liking. One day, when London finally takes notice of the curious anomaly of Tamarisk Town, I might find myself driving headlong into a battalion of edgy redcoats.”
He pointed at buildings rising up to their left. “The castle and the West Hill C&E watch-house. There’s a watch-house on East Hill as well. Both have a funicular railway to allow for quick access to Old Town and the Stade – or back up.”
Alice looked, scowling at the Customs & Excise watch house and its watchtower, before peering at the castle ruin. The crumbling walls formed a decaying echo of past glories.
Black drove them past the remains of a castle tower and gateway before he brought Dusky to a halt. He helped Alice down and beckoned for her to follow him as he strode up a narrow path that followed the base of the castle. The defensive walls were stouter and taller on this side of the ruins. Black’s long cape-shouldered coat billowed out like a cloak and his scabbarded sword was visible, lending for a moment to the elusion that Black was a castle guard of yore, forever and longer ago.
“Mus Black, why don’t you like Mus Ruxley?” Alice asked.
“How did you—never mind. Am I that easy to read?”
“No, Mus Black, but you tensed up.”
“Making me too easy to read.” Black sighed. “Let’s just say that Steph Ruxley and I have had…differences of opinion in the past.”
“Something like that. I hadn’t realised that Pip was a Ruxley, he certainly bears little resemblance to his father.”
“Is it bad to be a Ruxley?”
“There have always been a few good ones,” Black said carefully.
“That family has an ill reputation that stretches back more than a century.”
Having witnessed the lack of grace displayed by Pip’s father, Alice could well believe it. She reminded herself that the man had just been told his son had been killed so it might not be fair to judge him too harshly – but nonetheless her intuition told her he was unlikely to be very pleasant under any circumstances.
He said he’d rather Pip died instead of Harold. Poor Pip!
They reached a rocky promontory that offered a seagull’s view of the land below the other side of West Hill.
“Priory Valley,” Black announced. “By all rights Hastings ought to be confined in Bedlam, for the many contrasting faces it has. Priory Valley was where Hastings was first built, until the floods that destroyed the natural harbour. They then built a new town that is now Old Town in Bourne Valley, where we brought Pip. But now…”
He pointed to their right where imposing buildings rose along broad streets. “They built this where the first town once was. This is New Town in Priory Valley, and that there…”
He pointed farther away, to tall buildings with classical facades that rose along the curve of the coast, the type of fancy seaside hotels and apartments Alice knew well enough from the Brighton seafront.
“St Leonards-on-Sea. Used to be mostly fields and a few farms, as well as the Bo Peep Martello Tower. The powers that be want to extend the seaside resort all the way to Old Town, but…”
Black indicated a closer large rectangular area that stretched lengthwise along the sea, a quarter of a mile long and five hundred yards across. In contrast to the obvious care with which St Leonards and New Town had been planned, the rooftops in this rectangle formed a hap-hazard mix, the buildings an assorted mish-mash of styles and sizes. Behind them, on the seafront, rose a forest of low masts and rigging. Most of the masts leaned askance in different directions, suggesting the vessels been drawn up a beach. About a third of the masts bore inflated envelopes, rather than spars and furled sails.
The township was enclosed by a tall palisade. Blue-coated sentries wearing old-fashioned tricorne hats – guns shouldered – stood guard behind the sharpened top ends of the stakewall. There were a few manned watchtowers as well, each flying an odd flag; narrow white-and-red horizontal stripes with a top quarter consisting of a blue field that sported a single white star.
“Prairie Ground,” Alice said, hardly daring to believe that such a display of defiance hadn’t been ruthlessly suppressed.
“The last remaining territory of the ill-fated United States,” Black said. “Tucked away in an unimportant corner of England—”
“—from the perspective of London,” Black added. “Hence its continued existence, it wouldn’t have lasted a week in Thames Valley. It was started by idealists striving for Liberty, Equality, and Justice.”
Alice flinched at hearing those last words mentioned in one breath. It was dangerous, nothing short of treachery if heard by the wrong ears. She also noted Black’s use of past tense and asked: “And now?”
“A mock city of shacks, huts, and tents, inhabited by beggars, gypsies and other undesirables , if you’d believe the Sunday sermons,” Black said in a tone that suggested he wasn’t in the least concerned about what was preached in nearby churches. “Though they are quite right in stating parts of it are a wretched den of vice and villainy. I would ask you to stay close by me down there.”
“I can take care of—”
“—You misunderstand me. It’s for my sake. Tamarisk Town plays on my delicate nerves. I’d feel safer knowing you were watching my back.”
Alice grinned. “I’m in your debt, Mus Black, so the least I can do is protect you.”
“Thank you, Liss. It’s much appreciated.”
Tamarisk Town was even more of a jumble seen from its own narrow streets.
By themselves most buildings weren’t exceptional, but their slapdash placement offered a devil-may-care impression. Alice saw a butcher’s with slaughter houses and piggeries next to a gin palace called “Black Horse”. A white-washed windmill and limekilns cheek-to-cheek with lodging houses. A brick schoolhouse with a sawing house to one side and a tallow factory to the other. Warehouses, ale-houses, shops, residences, stables – all mixed up. There were regular stone buildings and improvised timbered ones, but also canvas tents, towering net huts, and upturned hulls – small obsolete fishing boats sawn in half to form meagre hovels but some of these from larger ships.
The narrow streets were busy: Carts, wagons, carriages, and a few steam-powered engines competed for space with people of all ages and occupations. Alice saw labourers hard at work in the workshops and factories; drunks staggering out of ale-houses; countless children at play; street-vendors hawking their goods; street girls with tight corsets and low-cut blouses; grizzled fishermen shaking their heads at the world; dandy adventurers investing their step with jaunty confidence; and a great many aeronauts in oil and soot stained overalls, wearing begoggled leather flying caps and utility belts heavily loaded with tools. There was far more activity here than she’d seen on the streets of Old Town.
Alice felt the absence of Pip keenly. She would have liked to share all the new impressions with him but supposed he would know the place well enough.
Black drove Dusky to the far end of the township, stopping in front of a beached and dismasted ship’s hull, some 120 feet long. It was supported by numerous struts and surrounded by various outbuildings . That odd white-and-red striped flag with the white star on the blue quarter was prominent here. Alice counted at least a dozen Star-and-Stripes, lending some poignant pride to the old hulk in the rays of the dying sun.
“Polymina Palace,” Black announced. “The official residence of the Governor of Tamarisk and the seat of government.”
Scrambling down from the trike, Alice saw three drunk aeronauts staggering from the doorway built into the hull amidships, clutching on to each other for support and loudly bawling a lewd song.
“Palace?” she asked. “Bain’t it an alehouse, Mus Black?”
“That too,” Black answered. “The brig’s hulk is the oldest building here and serves many purposes.”
Black negotiated with a ragged urchin who offered to watch Dusky. Alice drank in the sights and sounds of the makeshift town around her. Apart from the traffic, people’s talk and shouts, industriousness from the workshops, and ever-present cries of seagulls, she could also hear the nearby crash of waves on shingle, as well as the distinct sound of a light aeroship taking off.
Clements Mark Three engine. Probably a cloud-ketch.
She had no time to verify the half-formed impression of the cloud-ketch. Black had reached an agreement with the urchin and Alice followed him to the entrance of Polymina Palace.
He paused before going in. “Stay close, it can get a little rowdy in there.”
Alice nodded. “I got your back, Mus Black.”
The interior was dark and smoky. The hold had been enlarged by the removal of the lower decks in the middle of the ship, so that the ceiling rose all the way to the upper deck. A large stone hearth had been built opposite the entrance, the size of the magnificent one in the taproom at the Mairemaid Inn but more crudely constructed. A fire burned merrily, a bare-chested spit-boy slowly turning a roasting hog that filled Polymina Palace with a mouth-watering smell.
Although the orlop deck had been removed entirely, the lower deck had been left intact both fore and aft, the open ends balustraded for the safety of the revellers drinking at the tables on the makeshift upper floors. There was much shouting to and fro between the two opposing upper floors and the main open central space on ground level, as drinkers hollered greetings, jokes, and insults to and fro.
A small group of men and women in a corner, to one side of the central hearth, were playing a variety of musical instruments. Some of them looked vaguely familiar, were these the same musicians Alice had seen breakfasting at the Mairemaid that morning? They had left much earlier than Alice, so could have made it to Hastings by coach or train. Many of the guests bawled along with ill-tuned gusto.
One day there came a sailor
Just an ordinary bloke
A bulging at the trousers
With a heart of solid oak
At sea without a woman
For seven years or more
There wasn’t any need to ask
What he was looking for.
Black threw a concerned look at Alice. She just grinned and sang along with the chorus, having long ago learned the lines to ‘Bell Bottom Trousers’ from the fishermen on Brighton’s seafront.
Singing bell bottom trousers,
Coat of Navy-blue
Let him climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do!
Black shrugged and beckoned Alice to follow him aft. They did not make quick progress because the ground floor of Polymina Palace was packed, all tables full and serving maids rushing orders in between. There were alcoves built along the hulk’s hull – simple wooden partitions forming side walls, leather curtains serving as makeshift doors. Some of the curtains were open, revealing men and women around tables, concentrating intently on hard-fought card or dice games. As for the booths with closed curtains, it wasn’t hard to guess what was happening there, to judge by the feverish squeals, rhythmic groans, and bestial cries that sounded from within them.
Black cast another worried glance at Alice but she wasn’t in the least bit concerned. In Brighton’s slums the street girls – some her own age – conducted their business openly against the brick walls of twittens and mews for a penny a go. There were no leather curtains in Brighton’s Lanes, she could just about see all she supposed there was to see, simply by popping over to the grocer’s on an errand for her mum, or carrying contraband around to deliver at hotels and pubs.
He asked her for a candlestick
To light his way to bed
He asked her for a pillow
To rest his weary head.
They reached a crude stairway at the stern, guarded by two uniformed men. The soldiers looked terribly old-fashioned - dressed in white waistcoats and breeches, dark blue frock coats with red linings and facings, black tricorne hats, white stockings, and black buckled shoes.
Black spoke to one of the guards who disappeared up the stairs. He returned swiftly, beckoning Black and Alice to climb up. The volume of ‘Bell Bottom Trousers’ didn’t diminish; as it seemed most of the hulk’s occupants were now singing along.
And speaking to her gently
Just as if he meant no harm
He asked her if she’d come to bed
JUST SO’S TO KEEP HIM WARM!
Wild cheers and jeers followed, fists and boots drumming tables and floor. The ship trembled slightly in response to the outburst of noise. Alice’s bare feet registered the vibrations on the last steps and the deck of the officers’ mess at the top end of the stairs. It was lined on three sides by narrow, leaded windows that were lent drama by the cloudscape outside. The sky shimmered in purple and pink hues as the sun sank behind the very edge of the South Downs that rose up behind Eastbourne, across Pevensey Bay.
Alice looked at the distant low dark edge of the Downs longingly.
The cabin was dominated by a large table. Two clerks sat at one end, surrounded by inkpots, ledgers, and parchments, scribbling away with harried concentration on their faces. There was a solitary high-backed chair at the other end of the table, occupied by a portly man whose face beamed with pleasure as he swigged from a large pewter tankard.
“Governor Bollinger,” Black said in a low voice for Alice’s benefit.
The governor stomped a boot on the floor and beat a fist on the table as he joined the chorus.
Singing bell bottom trousers,
Coat of Navy-blue
Let him climb the rigging
Like his daddy used to do!
The governor’s attire was similar to that of the guards, except that his blue coat was faded somewhat and looked worse for the wear, the impression not helped by the fact that the coat was a little too small for the man, like an old wedding coat long out-grown. His collar, cuffs, lapels, and lining, as well as waistcoat and breeches, were all made from buff wool that had seen better days, frayed or faded in some places, or darkened by stains. Bollinger wore a flamboyant curled and powdered wig on his head, as well as a tricorne hat that sported a prominent white, red, and blue cockade.
She lifted up the blanket
And a moment there did lie
He was on her, he was in her
In the twinkling of an eye.
Alice hovered at the back of the room, uncertain as what to do. Black circled the table. He greeted the Governor and then began to speak to him urgently in a tone so low his words were inaudible. The Governor’s amiable expression changed to shock, followed by horror, and finally anger.
He was out again, and in again
And plowing up a storm
And the only words she said to him:
“I hope you’re keeping warm.”
Black seemed to have reached the end of his accounting. The Governor’s face was red, livid with anger. He snatched the tricorne hat off his head and threw it on the table, then for good measure ripped off his wig to reveal closely shorn receding hair. The wig joined the hat on the table, discharging a small cloud of powder when the Governor slammed it down.
Singing bell bottom trousers
Coat of Navy-blue
Let him climb the rigging
LIKE HIS DADDY USED TO DO!
“HELL’S BELLS,” the Governor thundered. “How’s a Governor to govern with this infernal racket?” He glowered at the clerks who grinned back impudently, then lowered his voice, speaking intently to Black as he counted off his fingers.
Black nodded. When the Governor was done giving instructions, the highwayman strode back towards the stairs and beckoned Alice to follow him downstairs.
Then early in the morning
The sailor he arose
Saying here’s a two pound note
For the damage I have done
If you have a daughter
Bounce her on your knee
If you have a son…
Polymina Palace shook as if it had been struck by a squall out at sea when just about everyone in the establishment roared out the last line.
SEND THE BASTARD OUT TO SEA!
“What’s to happen?” Alice had to shout at Black to be heard over the tumultuous applause, laughter, and roars that marked the end of the song.
“Not here,” Black shouted back. “I’ll tell you when we get to the Pig Sty.”
They were halfway to the main door when Alice’s eyes fell on a scene that made her blood boil. One of the tables was occupied by a gang of young men, fluff rather than beards on their cheeks, eyes unfocused with intoxication, and arrogant bravado in their braying voices. One of the young men, with black curls and a brutish expression that was vaguely familiar had pulled a young tavern wench onto his lap. The red-haired girl was struggling to get away, fear in her eyes and panic on her face. She couldn’t have been more than two years older than Alice.
“Mus Black,” Alice said urgently, pulling at his sleeve. “Look.”
Black glanced and shook his head. “We’ve got matters to attend to, this isn’t our business.”
“Pest!” Alice exclaimed. Black was right, of course. She had Free Trading duties and had been told often enough that she was too easily distracted. Nonetheless, she looked at the struggling girl again.
Emboldened by the encouragement of his mates, the brute tore at the lacing of the girl’s bodice and slid his hand below the fabric, kneading her breast so hard that the girl cried out in pain.
“It don’t come right to me,” Alice told Black angrily, then launched herself forward, “KEEP YOUR BLASTED PAWS OFF HER!”
There was a moment of perplexed silence at the table, as the young men stared at the barefoot, miniature Free Trader wearing a battered top hat who crouched in front of their table hissing and spitting like a furious cat.
The brute looked as surprised as the rest of them, but after glancing about uncertainly at his mates for a moment, seemed to draw the conclusion that backing down wasn’t an option.
“Or ye’ll do what?” He sneered at Alice. “Were ye planning to hurt me, dwarf? Or did you want some too? You bain’t even got titties large enow to play with by the looks of it.”
Sniggering loudly, he gave his victim’s breast another hard squeeze to make her cry out again.
Alice drew her steel hat pin from her top hat in one swift movement and held it tightly in her fist, arm coiled – ready to strike. “I’ll have your eyeballs out, you…” she recalled something McFeck had said, “…doaty scrote.”
The brute’s mates broke their silence by laughing, but not at Alice, directing their howls of merriment and derision at their friend instead.
He snarled at Alice, “Little bitch. If ye be wanting to pick a fight—”
There was a loud click as a gun was cocked. The brute shut his mouth and paled as the barrel of a colt was placed against his temple.
“Then reckon thar’ll aft-ta go through me,” a woman’s voice – familiar to Alice – said with steel confidence. “Name thar weapon o’ choice. Gun, sword, bare mitts. Matters nowt to me. Ayl send thy rotten soul to the Devil, thar cack-handed twonk. Bur not afore I make thar piss thy breeches.” Without taking her eyes off the bully, the woman upturned her previous tone of voice to genuine cheer. “Ey up, Sky-Girl! Not seen thar in ages, my cleva Kittlin.”
The woman who had come to Alice’s aid was short with a muscular frame. She had long mousy brown hair and a slight scar on her right cheek. She wasn’t young but Alice had never managed to figure out what age she was, it was hard to tell. Her outfit included feminine frills and lace randomly mixed with leather tool belts and other engineering gear. Alice knew her from Brighton as Lady C, one of the Sisters of Steam.
There was a metallic scraping sound as Black stepped next to Alice. He had drawn his sword and extended its blade so that it pointed at the brute’s throat. “I could just run him through now and save us all further bother.”
In a flurry of blue and gold a massive macaw fluttered down, landing on the brute’s head. The large bird sank one huge talon in the young man’s hair and scalp to get a grip, and then extended the other leg down to let its talon hover suggestively in front of the brute’s eyes.
“Damn your eyes,” the bird screeched, flexing its nails. “Damn your eyes!”
Alice grinned. Bramble was Lady C’s companion and devilishly clever.
Some of the brute’s friends began to quietly remove themselves from the table, their bravado deflated.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the brute promised. He had gone white as a sheet and withdrew his offending hand from the girl – slowly raising both hands in surrender. The girl quickly scrambled off his lap and moved behind Alice and Black, sobbing as she laced up her bodice to cover her bared breast. The brute’s eyes were focused upwards, in terror of the macaw. “For mercy’s sake, tell the parrot to go cut its stick.”
“Parrot? Name the bird reit ‘n us may do so.” Lady C turned to Black. “Andreas. Thas late. Thar’s doitin’ so thar is. Slowin’ down in thy old age?”
“Ladies first, Lady Christina,” Black answered. “I was merely being polite.”
“Lady C, Mus Black,” Alice said. “Bethanks, howsumever, I were handling the situation on me own.”
“With that little pricker of yours?” Black asked coolly.
“I bain’t ken the wench was under yer protection,” the brute babbled. “Squire, Milady! Have mercy.”
His words infuriated Alice. “That SHOULDN’T matter.”
“Huh?” the young man looked puzzled. “Course it matters. I’d be doing naun wrong if she weren’t.”
Without hesitation Alice jabbed at one of his raised hands with her hatpin, stabbing it halfway through before quickly pulling it back.
The brute howled in pain and doubled over, clutching his hand.
Bramble, unbalanced, launched himself into the air with an outraged squawk. “Frigging wazzock!”
“GOOD!” the red-hair girl screamed at the brute.
“I have reconsidered,” Black told Alice. “Your little pricker may be of some use after all.”
“Course it is, Andreas,” Lady C said. “There’s a reason so menny gentlemen write to t’ papers to complain o’ ladies carryin’ ‘atpins these days.”
Bramble landed on Lady C’s shoulder to give her ear a friendly nibble, before advising Alice. “Stick him! Have at him! Tally Ho!”
Alice was staring at the overgrown boy crouching on the ground, reduced to quivering jelly and babbling for mercy. His last mates cleared the table, giving Alice, Black, and Lady C wary looks as they made themselves scarce.
“He bain’t worth it, Bramble,” Alice said. She looked at the red-haired girl who had half concealed herself behind Black. “Are you alright?”
The girl nodded but was clearly on the verge of tears. She stared angrily at the bully who was scrambling away as fast as he could on all fours.
“Tha’d best come wit’ us, lass,” Lady C told the girl. “Thar needs a brew. Propa tea, not thar weak muck thas Jessies sup down ‘ere int’ sarth.”
“I dursn’t! I’ve got to work,” the girl said, shocked at the suggestion that she leave her station.
“Ney, thas don’t, lass, not if ayes sez thas don’t,” Lady C declared with unshakable confidence. “What’s thar name?”
“It’ll be reit, Lucy. Aym Lady Christina and ayl ‘ave word wi’ thar gaffa later. ‘E listens ta us. Tha’s ta come wi’ us.”
Lucy nodded. Alice stepped closer and took the girl’s hand in hers. “How do, Lucy? I’m Liss.”
Lucy managed a smile. “Bethanks, Liss.”
“Andreas,” Lady C addressed Black. “Weren’t expectin’ thee.”
“There’s trouble afoot, Lady C. Or rather, trouble afloat. Most vexing to the Free Traders and they’ve asked for our help. We were just heading for the Pig Sty when Liss insisted on attending this unfortunate business here.”
Alice suspected he was annoyed that she had ignored his instructions to stay by his side and not get involved. She couldn’t blame him. This had been an unwelcome distraction that drew attention to their presence when they had a job to do and should have pursued discretion. Alice knew that she hadn’t acted as a Free Trader, but had no regrets, it had just been too wrong. She knew it happened all the time, but this time she’d been able to intervene and put an end to a girl’s fearful humiliation – and that pleased her.
“Good,” Lady C said in response to Black’s explanation. “Thar can come wi’ us, Andreas. T’others will be suited to see thee.” She bestowed a smile on Alice. “Thar too, my cleva Kittlin. Wasp, Red, n’ Keto are ‘ere n’ all. What’s more, I’ve a mind t’ tek a look at thy hands.”
Alice smiled at hearing the names of friendly folk, the South Downs Chapter of the Sons and Sisters of Steam, before glancing down at her hands. During the course of the day the bandages had loosened and acquired a layer of dirt. Some of the deeper cuts she’d received elsewhere were throbbing as well.
Inspecting Alice critically, Lady C said, “Hell Fire! What manner o’ trouble ‘ave thar got thee sen inta this time, Sky-Girl?”
“We were on a run,” Alice explained. “The Rozzers shot our skiffs down.”
Lady C gave Black a surprised look. “Wasn’t there a truce, an unofficial understandin’ o’ sorts?”
“It’s uncharacteristic and unexpected, contrary to the Trinity Accord,” Black said. “Two skiffs lost, five Free Trader lives.”
“More,” Alice said. “The French channel-runner had a crew of five.”
Lady C frowned. “That ain’t grand.”
“Indeed,” Black agreed. He looked around at the busy ground floor. “We’ve just informed the Governor and he’s summoning a Small Hastings Moot. Perhaps it would be better to give a proper briefing at the Pig Sty? So as the rest can hear as well?”
Lady C nodded her agreement. “Let’s nip on. Ta Pig Sty.”
Liking Alice Kittyhawk? There are two novellas preceding Fair Night for Foul Folk that may interest you, available as paperback or Kindle.