FAIR NIGHT FOR FOUL FOLK Chapter Twenty: On the Levels 


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Cover design: Corin Spinks. Portraits Alice and Pip: Heijo van der Werf

Background image: CORIN SPINKS, Heijo van der Werf


THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER 1871

Pevensey Levels 


20. ON THE LEVELS


SaSoS hadn’t gone far from King’s Bottom when they needed to drive up an access way to the main seafront road. The beach was nearly wholly blocked by building materials and machinery. The obstacles appeared related to the construction of a pier that rose over the sea on a forest of stilted legs, it’s decking intact but no superstructure to speak of yet.


Naun as bettermost as West Pier, Alice concluded with Brightonian smugness.


With no more danger posed by friendly fire in the form of a hail of shingle, the convoy changed shape from a broad line into a compact bullet – roaring past the tall classical facades of the luxurious St Leonards seafront.

Although the exuberance of the take-off died down, leaving the thunder of the engines supreme, one of the Steam Riders would loudly whoop their speed-thrill every now and then, joined by the others straight away. Keto had once told Alice that the pure joy of riding the road would boil their brains if they couldn’t blow down steam.

Occasionally hotel doormen would storm onto the pavement, their protests quickly overpowered by a stream of withering expletives from Loz.


Black shook his head several times, and twice Alice heard him say, “Madness, this is madness.”


She understood his concern. A highwayman would value stealth as much as a Free Trader. For land-runs, Free Traders even wound the hooves of their ponies in soft padding to lessen the noise, as they did with their own boots. The first time Alice had accompanied a land-run entrusted to the SaSoS had been counter to her every instinct and had left her horrified at the continuous advertisement of their presence.


She had told Jim Gunning as much and recollected what he had said.


“Tis precisely that gut-feeling of yours,” he had told her. “That’s uttermost important. You feel discomforted being in the thing that creates so much noise, Alice. Now imagine being outside it – half a mile away in the darkness, hearing a monstrous din fast closing in on you, then seeing a myriad of blazing eyes, spitting steam and fireworks, bellowing like a knucker from the old tales.”


“I’d be frit,” Alice had confessed.


“Anyone in their right mind would,” Gunning had growled contentedly. “It’s what we count on, folk being in their right mind, knowing to get out of the way.”


He had explained that the noise of running bikes was the chief weakness of the Steam Riders, so they had sought to make it a strength instead. No matter what, they could and would be heard from some distance away, so they invested that sound with elements of madness to warn all to stay well away from SaSoS Chapter Business.

He had also told her the golden days of Steam Riding were over. For two decades, Steam Riders had been the fastest folk in Britain, able to outwit any attempts to contain them with ease. Telegraph wires had put an end to that reign, as well as Royal Aero Fleet spotters. News of their arrival travelling fast ahead had allowed Rozzers to set up hot receptions for any gang whose Chapter Business had taken them beyond the bounds of the law. Most gangs had gone the way of the 1066 Chapter, speeding and whooping fearlessly into an ambush of hundreds of muskets spitting lead.


That’s why Bollinger had the telegraph wires cut. There would be no warning to Eastbourne that Steam Riders had broken out of Hastings and were westbound with a Free Trade fugitive – though those ahead were bound to hear their approach when the convoy got close enough.


But what messages had hummed over the wires earlier?


Major Altringham’s 9th Dragoon Guards were stationed at Battle, but Wasp had said she reckoned all of them had gathered along the major roads into Hastings. Likely that was just the main roads though. They hadn’t seen a single mounted trooper on the St Leonards seafront yet, which Alice reckoned was typical of Altringham. Chief Inspector Willoughby knew all the senior officers stationed in Sussex for counter-smuggling operations and had once told her Altringham was all show and no content.


“Like all bloody cavalry, Alice, the horse be better suited for thinking than the man riding it.”


The South Essex Regiment was stationed at Newhaven and too far away to make any difference yet. That left the Queen’s Men and Yeomen Cavalry at Eastbourne.


Willoughby called the military arm of Customs & Excise and the local mounted militia ‘toy soldiers’. Their recruits consisted almost entirely of men rejected by the Army and the Royal Navy as being unsuitable for service – and those services took just about any one who could count to two and mark a muster paper with a spidery ‘X’.

Yet the commanding officer of both the Queen’s Men and the Yeomen was Lieutenant-Colonel Morgan Meadows. Meadows was ruthlessly ambitious. His cunning made the Queen’s Men and Yeomen more dangerous than they ought to have been, as experienced by Scylla’s Mudlarks and Alice’s Fishguts.


St Leonards came to an end. The convoy swept back onto the beach and skirted a short range of low sandy cliffs. Dawn had transformed into dull, sunless daylight that revealed a grim sea, a mass of grey clouds, and a bleak landscape of beach and low-lying land pockmarked by marshy depressions. There were few trees, it was mostly unkempt thorny-looking shrubs that separated wider areas of grassland on which soggy sheep grazed, or stared at the passing Steam Riders with some consternation. The odd tree was short and stunted in growth by the winds blowing in from the sea, the trunks bent to point inland.


Alice’s father had told her that when their Saxon forebears had arrived from their tribal swamp lands across the Narrow Sea, they had been so overwhelmed by Sussex that they had proclaimed their new kingdom of Suth-Seaxe to be the Land of Gods. Alice doubted that they’d discovered the Pevensey Levels when they said that, presuming it was the Cuckmere, Ouse, or Adur river valleys Saxon eyes had rested on.


Her thoughts turned back to more pressing matters. Would Meadows have been forewarned to be on the look-out for a girl of Alice’s age wearing a top hat?


Alice shivered and scowled simultaneously.


It hurt to realise that someone in the group of people she had met yesterday had chosen to betray Alice’s presence in Tamarisk. Others may have seen her, but they wouldn’t have known she was an ambush survivor. Specifics had only been discussed at the Pig Sty and the Polymina.


She doubted that SaSoS, even the two of the 1066 Chapter whom she hadn’t met before, would have done such a thing. Haddent and Loz might be rude and unfriendly, but Steam Riders clung to their own Code as rigidly as seabound landlubbers hung on to rigging in coarse weather.


So it was one of the Free Traders.


Who had chaunted? Alice was sure it was Mus Ruxley. In a way it didn’t make sense for Mus Ruxley to turn to the Rozzers after they had killed his son, but hadn’t Ruxley said that Rottingdean was to blame for the loss of The Joseph Swaine? She could hear him say it again, in that hostile tone of his.


…The Fishguts led our crew straight into disaster…


He might have convinced himself that Alice was to blame for his son’s death. He seemed to hate Alice’s very existence, and whosoever had tipped Altringham had wished ill upon her. The professional soldiery stationed in Sussex treated captured Free Traders without mercy. Most of those Rozzers were hardened veterans of the endless French Wars. They tended to view Free Traders as an enemy to be dealt with as they dealt with all of the Queen’s foes.


Alice shivered again. Her age would make no difference to the Rozzers – they would treat her rough.

The convoy swept inland, moving away from the beach and going deeper into the monotonous landscape of slight rises of higher and drier ground around soggy water meadows. Occasionally they would see a cluster of trees around the rooftop of a farm cottage, but these were far and few between. They didn’t see any people, who had likely followed the ancient tradition of melting into the background when dubious folk traversed their bleak flatlands or other moil was afoot.


It had started to drizzle, adding to the general impression of a wet, dismal place. The Steam Riders no longer hollered as they slowed down to negotiate the narrow muddy tracks they were following.


Bramble launched himself into the air every now and then, to circle high over their heads for a while, before returning to NautiLass – each time with a cheerful “Hello mum.”


Alice’s thoughts turned back to soldiers and their treatment of anyone suspected of being a Free Trader. She was surprised at how much she managed to recall from classroom lessons – because those were part of apprenticeship, just as land-runs and sea-runs were, it wasn’t all the freedom of the sky-runs.


She also knew a lot that hadn’t been part of the lessons. Alice had become particularly adept at accidentally lingering in certain places before announcing her presence, or after appearing to depart. It wasn’t entirely honest, she knew, but she had always been incurably curious. Besides, she wanted to be a good Free Trader and that meant knowing things which adults didn’t voluntarily share with younglings. She reckoned she’d learned a lot from overheard snatches of conversation in Rottingdean’s Black Horse and The Plough, the Police Station in Brighton, and the House of Nine Skulls in North Laine, where Brighton’s Jugs ran operations from.


Before the Trinity Accord had been struck, newspapers had been full of macabre stories about the ‘Foul Folk’ of the south coast. Smugglers had been condemned as thieves, robbers, rapists, and murderers. That in turn had led to a surge on the theme of Foul Folk in Penny Dreadful novels.


They had laughed so hard, in the Rottingdean pubs, the House of Nine Skulls, and even at the Police Station, when they had read lurid reports of murderous gangs unleashed upon the countryside, sometimes assisted by French pirates. Journalists invariably made much mention that smugglers cared not for loyalty to Britannia. That was simply ridiculous. Coast folk were fiercely loyal to the Queen. It was just Her Majesty’s Government they had some issues with – mostly related to excise duties.


But if the newspapers were to be believed, whole villages had been razed to the ground, cut-throat smugglers leaving nothing but ashes and blackened bones. The villages – and even towns – were never named for reasons of ‘national security’. With their customary sense of humour, Sussex folk had come to call each and every new unnamed razed hamlet or town: ‘St. Nowhen’.


What the local Free Traders hadn’t realised was that folk in most of Britain seemed to believe every word in the papers. That included most of the Sheere-folk soldiers stationed in the South East, arriving as firm believers that Sussex and Kent were full of murdering monsters, Foul Folk to be defeated in battle.


The newspaper stories had stopped abruptly after the Trinity Accord, but large segments of the populace were still braying for smuggler necks to be bound with hemp. Uncle Yard had told Alice that the mob would be encouraged to direct their attentions on new foes, but until they were pointed in the direction of the French or Irish – or whatever colony in the Empire dared to question innate natural British superiority –, public hunger to see smugglers dangle from the gallows would persist. It was one of the reasons why the once powerful Brighton Jugs and Hove Gold-Stones played second fiddle to the smaller neighbouring Fish-guts, Black Jos, and Pork-Bolters these days. Both towns had large furrin – mostwhen Lunnon – populations, disdainful of the Foul Folk and far quicker to report suspicious behaviour rather than observing the local custom of politely looking elsewhere.


Alice patted the deep side-pocket of her smock to feel the hard outline of the chalk tablet. A message from the Governor of Tamarisk to the chief of the Rottingdean Free Traders.


A Sussex Moot had been summoned, for the first time in everwhen. Alice was proud that she had played a part in this, rather than just standing on the sidelines waiting for others to make the decisions.


The moot would mean more pointed questions for Rottingdean regarding the Trinity Accord. The triangle of understanding between Lunnon, the coastal constabularies, and Free Traders had included a cease-fire over the Channel. The armed forces had been restricted to regular patrols just over and behind the coastline to create the appearance they were doing something at least. Evading them within their set limitations hadn’t been difficult for skilled Sussex Owlers.


Why had the Rozzers broken the Trinity Accord? Who had directed this new aggressive change of policy? Alice doubted Uncle Yard would have answers. She was certain he would have never sent The Martlet out on a solo night run if he’d had the slightest suspicion of the danger that had awaited Tucknott’s crew. Surely though, if all the Owlers worked together, they’d be able to work out why the four sky-sharks were here, and more importantly, how they would be able to defeat them.


Then life could get back to normal and Alice could resume her apprenticeship – and mayhap have time for the added distraction of Pip…Matt.


Alice thought of her letter. Bollinger would surely get Alice’s letter to Lucy as soon as he could. Was Lucy due in for a shift at the Polymina today? Would she be able to get Alice’s letter to Pip? Tonight even? Definitely by tomorrow, of that Alice was sure. Lucy could then hand the letter over to Pip’s mother or sister at the pump – and Pip would be reading her words shortwhen later.


She smiled, happy for a moment.


The convoy reached a broader road, less muddy and running along an east-west axis. Able to make more speed, the Steam Riders duly did so. Alice closed her eyes and felt the wind blow through her hair. It was almost as good as skirring against a stiff crosswind up in the sky. She felt certain that if they kept up their current progress they’d be in Rottingdean soon.


Alice didn’t look forward to delivering her news, but longed for her proper homecoming afterwards – back to Brighton. Now that home didn’t seem impossibly far away anymore, it was more tangible and she strongly yearned to be back there – back with Mum and Auntie Beth on Artillery Street. Alice longed to hear Lottie’s excited gossip. The Chief Inspector’s booming voice as he assigned her a task, usually followed by Harding’s jokes. The fishermen on the beach singing bawdy ditties when they turned the beach capstans as the gulls swirled and shrieked above…


Alice was sure she’d enjoy all the familiar sights and sounds with far more appreciation. It all seemed so safe, secure in certainties, rock-solid.


Mayhap, I can show Pip one day.


The Downs seemed farther away now than they had appeared earlier, less prominent as well. Not long ago it had seemed they towered over the levels, but now the ridge seemed less impressive, a slight rise on the horizon.


The drizzle turned into a steady rain but Alice didn’t mind. Her breeches and smock were made to shrug off such weather – it was being dipped into tidal channels that they didn’t cope with that well. Her feet were dry and warm in the promiskus boots, and most of the rest of her was encased in the fishermen gear’s protection. The warmth provided by Alice’s new scarf was nothing short of miraculous and her cuts and bruises no longer caused constant pain. She lifted her face to let the wind splash raindrops against her face, her hair too restless to catch the rain as of yet.


Spreading her arms wide, Alice ululated: “Woohoo!”


That set off the SaSoS, who couldn’t possibly remain silent at such provocation. Steam whistles blew shrilly and there was much hollering and whooping for a few minutes, much to the alarm of a flock of sheep in one of the water-logged meadows they passed.


The startled sheep took to flight entirely when Bramble amused himself by flying at them screeching: “Us’ll knit you. Us’ll knit you.” 


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Chapters Twenty-One  & Twenty-Two can be found here: 

https://www.nilsnissevisser.co.uk/fair-night-chapters-twenty-one-and-twenty-two


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