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
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
Alice’s dream was like a fever that coasted between prolonged scenes of vivid detail versus fragmentary detachment accompanied by a vague awareness of an otherwhere – in which she was asleep but restless, moved about again like a bale of bacca.
In the main she was back in Rottingdean, though there was a vast stretch of grim wetland at the seaward side of the village, instead of the small shingle beach and immediate presence of the sea.
Women’s voice drifted over the strangely empty village. Neither of the two familiar from Rottingdean or Brighton.
So am I.
“Zackly, and it didn’t always make sense, to be honest.”
Nothing makes sense – which made sense because Alice was aware it was a dream. Her eyes soared over the rooftops in the manner of a Wind Reader’s and watched two small figures solemnly walking up a narrow path that led out of the village onto a hill slope.
“In fact, somewhen she parleys like a regular little Owler chief, and I reckon she’s as stubborn as a chief, sureleye.”
“I bain’t stubborn.”
Nor am I. That is me down there, with Brax.
Brax had been a neighbour in Rottingdean and her best friend before he had been sent away to school on a scholarship.
The younger Alice below and Brax carried something between them – a small chest of sorts, but not with the exuberance they did when they played pirates and frolicked off to bury treasure.
I remember that. We were playing. Shortwhen after…
“The girl be a proper little wildcat. She was about to tackle McFeck and his great big Scottish Sword with her hatpin.”
“McFeck just now told me they were brave.”
That was nice of him. Brax had been nice too. We were playing funeral.
Brax had made the small waste wood coffin they carried after Alice had announced her intention to hold a funeral for Ebony.
A third woman’s voice joined the other two, shrill and plaintive.
“Why can’t Hastings and Rottingdean look after their own? We got enough trouble as it is taking care of our own.”
“Being the pious church-goer ye are, Breksid, I would have expected you to be more familiar with what the Good Book has to say about…”
Hastings? Brax is from Rottingdean, just like I am…was...
Ebony had been Alice’s fancy doll from France, which she had got from her father along-of being good on her sixth birthday. Three years later, the play-funeral in a copse of trees had been a solemn imitation of Alice’s father’s recent funeral at St Margaret’s.
“…like we’ve known each other forever and longer. Mayhap it won’t hurt me to forge friends along the coast.”
“Bettermost to trust naun at all.”
“Zackly. Jess so.”
They had buried Ebony just after Alice’s mum had broken the news that she was unable to pay their rent and they would have to move to Brighton.
Alice had been horrified by the notion that they would have to leave her dad in Rottingdean, cold and lonely beneath his gravestone. She had reasoned that if she buried Ebony nearby he wouldn’t so alone. Besides, Alice hadn’t wanted Ebony to live through the shame of having to move to the slums, with the threat of the workhouse a continuous presence. Ebony was a lady and wouldn’t have liked the slums at all. It seemed silly now, but Alice vividly recalled the solemnity with which the two small figures below were laying Ebony’s coffin to rest. It had been real enough.
“Asides, weren’t ye busy enow forging friendship with Sam from the Old Bell?”
“Can’t trust them Bell-Ends from the Old Bell. They got their end of town, we got ours.”
Alice looked down at herself and Brax, standing hand-in-hand by the hole in the ground into which they had lowered the doll’s small coffin. She remembered the words they had spoken, remembered from her father’s funeral.
"Ashes to ashes. Dust to Dust."
Why can’t we be buried in the sky? Our coffins attached to a balloon to drift through the clouds, to disappear over the horizon – or ever upward, truly free of all land-bound worries.
“I won’t do that.”
“Mum, who are you talking to?”
Someone talking to a mother, but it wasn’t Alice’s mum’s voice. When they had been packing their meagre belongings for the move to Brighton, Alice’s mum had asked about the expensive doll. Struck by guilt, Alice had lied and told her mum the Rozzer soldiers had taken Ebony, just as they had taken all valuables they could find after the shooting was done.
I Lied to Mum. I Lied to Mum. I LIED to Mum.
Alice wanted to cry. In her dream she squirmed with guilt and rushed to the copse of trees to claw at the earth. Hauling the small coffin Brax had made out of the ground, she opened the lid, gushing with relief at the notion that she’d see Ebony’s porcelain face appear. She then take the doll home to show her mum…but it wasn’t Ebony’s face that greeted her eager eyes…
…it was Bill’s, mouth comically open in astonishment as he watched the gruesome mess of his shredded stomach. Alice was back on The Martlet, chased by the four killers. Once more she saw Hattie Tucknott and Brock as they were peppered by the Gatling. Then the Chopback on The Joseph Swaine’s deck, trying to stumble away from the flames that engulfed him, his mouth gaping in an agonised scream. Only this time…this time they were all looking at Alice with accusation in their eyes. Bill, Hattie Tucknott, Brock, the burning man. She could read no pain in those eyes, no disbelief or incomprehension. Just recrimination.
…you did this…you did this…you did this…
“NO!” Alice shot upright. “Yarr, I did. Oh no, no…”
She was trembling again. Not because she was being shot at, nor the cold. Just that horrible dream and overwhelming sense of guilty failure. She looked around her in a daze of confusion, disorientated because she had no idea where she was.
Folding her arms around her chest, she tried to take stock. It was night still, but the room she found herself in was dimly lit by the stump of a flickering candle on a dresser, next to her battered top hat. The room was timbered and lacked straight angles, age having warped floor, walls, and ceiling to create a lopsided whole.
There were distant sounds coming from a lower floor. Voices, loud or laughing. Other voices united in a song, accompanied by musical instruments.
Oh for the love it
Oh for the hate of it
Oh for the “Damn nearly getting away with it”
Oh for the sighing and the rueing the day of it
Oh for those Belles.
Were they above a tavern?
Ain't that always the way of it
Oh My! Oh I was taken in!
(Oh, all my eye and that Betty Martin!)
A man must acknowledge the wages of sin
And not blame those Belles for the mess that he's in!
Discovery followed discovery.
Alice was wearing a clean shift that felt smooth to the touch. She found herself in a warm bed with goose down mattress, crisp sheets, and a soft, thick wool blanket. She was clean. Her hands had been bandaged. Alice relished the touch of a cool ointment that soothed her palms. There were more bandages and plasters for the worst of the cuts elsewhere on her body.
Looking around, she could see another bed opposite hers, a mop of dark tousled hair on the pillow.
Alice was relieved Pip was here. Where ever here was, it was certain to be a long stride from everything that was familiar and known. Even though she’d only just met him, Pip’s presence suggested a connection to the world Alice knew, not the flat wetlands where they had come crashing down.
Just then Pip started to twitch, moaning.
“Pip, wake up, you’re dreaming.”
He began to trash about wildly. “HAROLD! NO!”
Alice lifted her covers, stepped onto the floor, and crossed over to Pip’s bed.
“Hush, Pip.” Alice sat down on the bed and stroked the boy’s hair. Shuddering with guilt again, she wondered if Harold had been the man on fire – had Pip watched his brother burn alive?
It’s all my fault.
“Pip, I’m so sorry.”
“Huh? Quiddy? Whazmatter?” Pip seemed to waken in the same disorientation that still left Alice unsettled. He struggled to a seating position, the covers falling away to reveal his upper body, bandages bright against his bare skin.
“You were having a nightmare.”
“I’m so sorry.” Alice choked back a sob.
“What for? Where are we?” Pip was puzzled as he looked around the room.
“Sinneport, I reckon. I don’t remember naun after getting on Neeva’s horse. I just woke up now. But that’s where they said they’d take us.”
“Take us to Scylla the Mairemaid.” Pip shivered and Alice could feel a chill crawling along her spine. “That man said she were going stake us out at Camber Sands!”
Alice considered this. “I don’t reckon so, Pip.”
“Why not? Scylla is half-Pook, bain’t she? She’s got a cruel streak – drowns chavvies in mud be what folk say back home.”
Alice found it hard to explain. There had been promises of cruelty, but she suspected much of it in an exaggerated fashion. In her experience it was how some men talked.
Back in Brighton, she sometimes visited the police station below Town Hall to talk to Chief Willoughby about the Toffs from the fancy areas of town that she shadowed on his behalf. The constables at the station always talked in loud boasts. First Rate Constable Harding usually threatened to arrest her – even though Alice suspected he liked her just as much as she was fond of him. At any rate, when Harding had actually had an opportunity to put cuffs around her wrists for violating the Vagrancy Act, he’d cunningly made the evidence against Alice disappear – with a wink, grin, and friendly insult.
The Rottingdean Owlers were even worse. Hattie Tucknott had rarely issued a command without adding dire threats as to cruel and unusual punishments that would follow failure to comply in perfection.
“Aye-aye, Cap’n,” whoever was crewing The Martlet would respond cheerfully with a wide grin, and that would be the end of it. If warnings or sanctions were in order, the skipper’s sharp tongue was all she’d needed. Alice had seen big strong men like Bill cringe and shrink under a verbal lashing by the skipper. Alice had been at the receiving end of a few herself, when her mind had drifted off – away from whatever task Alice should have been focusing on.
She fought off a wave of renewed guilt. Apart from her dad, it was near impossible to image a better teacher than Hattie Tucknott. There had been a heart of gold beneath the skipper’s gruff manners and raw determination to get jobs done well. But it was probably better not to talk to Pip about Hattie Tucknott. Alice was sure she would cry. There was another explanation though, one that made sense.
“Look.” She showed Pip her bandaged hands and then pointed at a bandage on his chest. “They cleaned us and dressed our wounds. Why do that if they planned to hurt us? This shift they put on me is a fancy one. Ever so soft.”
Pip looked down at himself, frowning. He peered beneath the covers and then threw them off in horror.
“WHY AM I WEARING-” – his voice broke and he finished shrilly – “-girl’s bloomers?!”
Alice couldn’t help but giggle at his squeak. The bloomers seemed to match her shift as far as she could see in the dim candlelight, with frilly lace ends. “Mayhap they didn’t have boy’s stuff to hand.”
Pip frowned. “Who undressed – and cleaned me?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure it was someone…,” Alice paused, then mimicked Goody Tumtops’s ancient voice, “…who raised four strapping sons, lad, and who doubts ye got anything atwixt—”
“—Yarr, yarr. Very funny.” Pip scowled, instinctively folding his hands over that part of his body. “I’m naun enjoying Romney Marsh much yetner, there be far too much undressing for my liking.”
Alice disagreed. She thought that part of the night at the Tumtops farm had been rather interesting, but of course she wasn’t going to admit as much. “I reckon we’re as safe as can be, Pip. They bluv we’re Free Traders, you heard Neeva. This Mairemaid will help us get home, sureleye.”
“I miss home,” Pip confessed, lips trembling.
Alice was relieved she wasn’t alone in that. She could well understand his strong yearning to be back where there was a sense of belonging and safety. Maybe she wasn’t as cut out for the Free Trade business as she had reckoned herself to be. “Oh, Pip! So do I.”
“I don’t know how to tell my folks…about Harold.”
Alice bit her lip. She had no idea how to bring such tidings herself.
“I know it’s silly,” Pip said morosely. “But I just want him back. I want Harold to be alive.” He broke down in sobs, which grew into cries of anguish.
Alice didn’t know what to say, so folded her arms around him instead. He crawled into her embrace, crying uncontrollably now. Feeling his shoulders quivering as the boy was racked with sobs, Alice could no longer keep her own eyes dry and started to cry as well. The tears flowed for Hattie Tucknott, Bill, Brock, the Hastings crew, the Frenchmen aboard the channel-runner, two fine sky-skiffs, a cargo-brig, a crop of lace, and poor Pip coming to terms with his brother’s death.
It was all so unfair.
At long last the sobs stopped coming and their tears dried up. Alice felt much better for it, although it appeared Pip was embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a small voice. “I shouldn’t have cried. Men don’t cry.”
“Nonsense. You lost your brother, anybody who’d naun cry over that be a monster, not a man.”
“Do you really reckon so?”
“I know so,” Alice said with all the determination she could muster. She gently untangled herself from their embrace and yawned. “I don’t ken what time tis, Pip. But mayhap we should try to get some more sleep, if we’re to meet this Scylla later.”
“Mayhap,” Pip said softly. “Liss, will you stay with me? Please.”
It wasn’t proper but after all they had been through Alice reckoned that didn’t matter. They were hurt, grieving, scared, and lonely. She answered him by lifting the bed covers and crawling beneath them. They snuggled up and, drawing comfort from each other’s presence, were soon asleep again – much more peacefully this time.
Alice only woke the once before morning, or rather might have, because she wasn’t sure. Perhaps she was dreaming when she perceived someone sitting on the side of the bed, and then a hand softly stroking Alice’s forehead.
“Mum?” Alice asked sleepily.
It wasn’t her mother’s voice that answered though but another woman’s, one of the voices she had heard earlier,
“No, my dear, but I could have been.”
The words were so nonsensical that Alice dimly reckoned she must have been dreaming. She snuggled tighter against Pip and drifted off again.
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
7. INGENURIOUS YARN
WEDNESDAY 1 NOVEMBER 1871
7. INGENURIOUS YARN
“Rise and shine, chavvies. Time to rise and shine.”
Alice opened her eyes to see daylight peeking in at the edge of the curtains of the room’s window.
A woman walked into the ancient timber walled room, bearing a tray with two steaming mugs on it. She set the tray down on the dresser next to Alice’s top hat and the now empty candle-holder, talking all the while. “The cocks crowed more than an hour ago and ye have a busy day ahead of ye.”
Yawning, Alice was briefly puzzled by the unaccustomed warmth of another body close to hers. When she recalled who it was, the puzzlement was replaced by a strange contentment which she was loath to surrender just yet. She shut her eyes tightly and rested her head on Pip’s shoulder. He was still asleep, his chest beneath her hand falling and rising gently.
“We’ll have to decide what to do with the two of ye.”
Alice heard the woman walking towards the window, followed by the sound of curtains being drawn open.
“But mayhap ye’ll be wanting a hearty…oh!”
Alice opened her eyes to see the room lit up by daylight. It made it hard to distinguish the features of the woman standing by the window. For a moment, Alice thought it might be Neeva’s slim silhouette she was looking at, but the voice was different, familiar in some way – but lower and merrier in note.
“By Geemeny,” the woman shook her head. “I see that ye decided to alter yer sleeping arrangements.”
Realizing how it might look, Alice quickly disentangled herself from Pip and sat up. Her sudden movement stirred Pip into waking, mumbling a protest.
“Tis not…” Alice said. “We didn’t…” The heat of a blush spread across her cheeks.
The woman laughed, a merry sound. “No need to go a-flux-and-a-flutter, it bain’t naun of my purvension.”
She walked toward the bed, allowing Alice to see more than just a silhouette. The woman had long ginger hair. There was a fine network of wrinkles around her eyes and mouth that suggested someone fond of mirth and laughter. Her scent contained a hint of lavender.
Alice shook her head. “It weren’t that. I was a-feared. I had a bad nightmare.”
Pip sat up next to Alice, looking at the woman curiously. “So did I.”
“Oh Geemeny,” the woman shook her head in sympathy. “Well it bain’t a surprise that ye’ve both been hag-ridden this night. Neeva told me what ye been through. Tis naun small thing to lose yer crew, nor to be chased and shot at.”
“Neeva!” Alice exclaimed. “Is she here?”
“Naun, she be out on an errand.”
“Where is here?” Pip wondered. “Where are we?”
“Ye be in The Mairemaid Inn on Mairemaid Street. The bettermost establishment in Sinneport, even if I say so meself, sureleye.”
Alice became wary upon hearing the word ‘Mairemaid’. Who was this woman? Were she and Pip still among Free Trading folk? The Mairemaid’s Mudlarks? She had said she knew Neeva.
Light footsteps approached the room, accompanied by a cheerful voice. “I should’ve known ye’d be nabbling away, Mum, while the chavvies’ tea gets cold and the other guests go hungry.”
Another woman entered the room, the spitting image of the first, other than that she was younger, short of twenty, Alice guessed, though she often found it hard to judge older folks’ age.
The young woman raised her eyebrows when she saw Alice and Pip together in the same bed but said nothing, instead making for the dresser to lift the mugs off the tray. She walked towards the bed with the still steaming mugs in her hands. “A fair morning to you. Liss and Pip, bain’t it?”
Alice and Pip nodded and gratefully accepted the mugs of tea.
“Geemeny! My manners!” The older woman tut-tutted. “I’m Tess. Tess Hawkhurst. And this be my daughter—”
“—Nell,” the younger woman introduced herself. “Likewise a Hawkhurst.”
“Keepers of the Mairemaid Inn,” Tess said.
Alice opened her mouth to ask a question but Tess shook her head. “That also means we’re busy folk. I’m sure ye have a dunnamany questions—”
“Howsumever,” Nell interceded. “Them that ask no questions—”
“—isn’t told a lie,” Alice and Pip responded simultaneously. It was a Free Trade saying, meaning the less anyone knew the better.
“Come downstairs to the taproom and ye’ll get some breakfast. And mayhap at least some answers.” Tess smiled.
“Yer gear were brought in last night,” Nell added. “Slabby, cut about, and tore. Tis been washed already but needs a touch of repair. So ye’ll have to wear Master Tumtops’s shirts a while longer.”
“Taproom,” Tess said. She did so in a friendly manner, but it was unmistakably a command nonetheless. “Down the stairs, turn right and it’ll be anigh. Ye’ll find it soon enow. Dappen ye finish yer tea.”
The taproom wasn’t hard to find on account of the hum of multiple conversations. It was a large room with a low, beamed ceiling. An immense hearth took up almost all of one wall, a small fire crackling in the middle of it.
Daylight filtered in through leaded windows. The timbered walls were martial in nature, sporting a great many arrangements of old-fashioned cutlasses, axes, handguns, muskets, and rifles, most of which had clearly seen a lot of use.
Almost all the tables were occupied. Tough and rough-looking men and women, boasting and jesting while they paid honour to mouth-watering breakfasts. One corner was occupied by a different type of folk, dressed in a confusion of styles. Some had strangely shaped cases with them and Alice guessed they were the musicians she’d heard deep in the night when she’d woken up.
None of them gave Alice or Pip so much as a look which suited Alice just fine. Back in Rottingdean she had shared similar establishments with rough folk without hesitation, to debrief after a run out over sea, or plan a route over the byways of the South Downs and Weald for the land-run of a crop.
This was different though. The Rottingdean folk had known her from birth. Here she didn’t know anybody – although she suspected those here who were not musicians were likely to be Free Traders. They’d be the Mudlark strongmen and batmen, tasked with guarding landings, land-runs, and storage. Some were probably the folk she had encountered in their disguises the previous night.
Alice wondered, with a small grin, how many of the antiquated guns on the walls were in prime order, loaded and ready for use.
Pip seemed relieved to be ignored as well but probably for a different reason. He kept on fidgeting with his make-shift clothing, pulling up the legs of the bloomers because when the legs were properly down their frilly lace hems were visible below Mus Tumptops’s shirt, much to Pip’s embarrassment and Alice’s bemusement.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered to him. “Your legs look purty .”
He frowned at her in response before they made their way to the only empty table, a small one on the far side of the taproom. They sat down next to each other on the bench by the wall, huddled close together. Alice didn’t take her top hat off, feeling more comfortable with it on.
Two women strode by with piles of empty platters in her hands. One was a sturdy elder, with a grumpy face, the other Nell, who smiled at them. “Be right with ye dappen Breksid and I are done with this lot.”
“I’m hungry,” Alice told Pip. His belly rumbled in response and they shared a laugh at that.
A heavy-set man ambled over to their table, his cheeks half concealed by dark stubble as long as his cropped hair, his eyes sparkling with merriment. He pulled up a chair and sat opposite them, then leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, his face animated with mischief.
“Guid morn, bairns. Sleep well? Ah was thinkin’, ye’ll be wantin’ a guid cover story. Sae as nae tae draw undue attention tae yerselves.”
“Mus McFeck!” Alice said.
“Och aye, whae did ye expect? The Tippoo Sultan?”
Nell appeared with platters laden with bread, fried eggs, mushrooms, bacon, and sausages.
Alice’s eyes grew wide, she rarely saw such abundance. Pip was also staring at the food in longing amazement.
McFeck said, “Sae, aboot those guid stories. I bin thinkin’, thinkin’ hard.”
“Thinking hard, have ye?” Nell set her burden on the table and indicated that Alice and Pip should help themselves. She pulled up a chair and sat down next to McFeck. “Did it hurt yer head?”
“Och aye, a wee bit.” McFeck nodded bravely. “But I have a braw story.”
Neither Nell nor McFeck seemed interested in breakfast, so Alice and Pip began to eat ravenously.
“The bairns will hae tae be called Joe an Josette. The story plays oan the rivalry atween two toowns, baith alike in dignity. Proud Hastings an Bonnie Rottingdean, whaur we lay uir scene—” McFeck had started to gesture to emphasis his tale, but stopped, looking at Alice and Pip with wide eyes. “—Wood ye look at those bairns eat? Oonly a wee bit ago they waur close to death, no mair than a pair ay sodden bilge rats. Luik at them noo! Eatin enough to fill several coos, an they hae four bellies!”
“Tis a bettermost sight,” Nell agreed. “Young ones can be quick to bounce back. Parley some more about Proud Hastings and Bonnie Rottingdean. I were enjoying yer tale boco .”
“Ah shall, Nellie, as ah waur no finished yet. In the shadow ay ancient grudges atween those two toowns, new mutiny arose when tender but furbidden love blossomed.”
Alice frowned, but was too busy devouring a sausage to respond.
“Like the darling buds of May?” Nell asked coyly.
“A poetic ring that has, Nellie, sae aye, jess loch that. Not bad fur a Sassenach.” McFeck beamed. “Uir pair ay star-cross’d lovers, fair Josette an ‘er handsome Joe, were furbidden by their elders tae be taegether sae they hatched a cunnin’ plan tae escape an start a new life.”
“We’re not!” Pip said between mouthfuls, blushing. “What you said we are.”
“Hush, lad. Tis but a wee tale. Sae Josette an her Joe borrowed a ship an sailed away, but alas! They waur sae engrossed in the sweetness ay each other’s lips—”
“Euw!” Alice protested.
McFeck ignored her and continued. “—that they failed tae spot the stoating big whale that swam reit through their ship. The ship sank jess aff uir bonny swamp. The young lad an lassie waur captured by unsavoory natives, loch young Nellie here. The natives waur delighted, bein’ the mud-bound cannibals they waur. Their oonly hesitation waur havin’ tae decide whether tae cuik the star-crossed lovers fur breakfast, or cuik them fur supper. In the end, the muddy natives were well-fed an ne’er was a story ay mair woe than thes ay fair Josette an her handsome Joe.”
He looked them at expectantly.
“A whale?” Pip asked doubtfully.
“We’re naun star-crossed lovers,” Alice said crossly. “And we’d make a poor meal.”
“An ingenurious yarn, this tale of yers,” Nell said, “howsumever, parts of it sound a mite familiar.”
McFeck was indignant. “Dae ye take me fur a dishonest bodie? Are ye suggestin’ ah woods borrow another man’s words? Ye forgit that we’re maur than jess born warriors in the bonny homeland, we’re poets an all.”
Nell laughed, an infectious echo of her mum. “Nay, McFeck. I dursn’t. My poor mind must be in a mizmaze, that be all.”
“Where is your homeland, Mus McFeck?” Alice asked. “France? Flanders? Holland?”
Most of the foreigners she knew hailed from there and they spoke similar gibberish, although she was beginning to understand McFeck a little better.
“FRANCE?” McFeck looked horrified. He glanced at Nell as if inviting her to join his shocked incredulity.
“Quick, fetch a doctor. The lassie may hae a brain-fever. France she says! Holland she says!”
“Flanders then,” Pip suggested, before tucking into his eggs.
“Flanders he says! Alas! The swamp has tooched the bairns’ brains. Ahm afraid the rot in their heads is tay fur gain tae save them. Best take them ootside an drown them in the harbour, it bein’ the most merciful thing tae dae. Tis high tide still, a guid time fur a wee bit of drownin’.”
“McFeck hails from Scotland,” Nell told the children. “He’s a proper Scotsman, all-along-of which he appears as daft as a Moonraker otherwhile.”
“Scotland!” Alice exclaimed. “I reckoned Marsh Folk weren’t much fond of outlanders.”
“Ye be right.” Nell grinned. “We proper dislikes half of ‘em, hates the other half, despises the lot of ‘em, and trust naun of ‘em. Howsumever, we took pity on poor McFeck here, all-along-of him hailing from such a savage and primitive land. Tis unaccountable, but it weren’t Christian charity to send him back, sureleye.”
McFeck made to protest but they could hear Tess calling Nell’s name before he had a chance to.
Nell stood up, brushing her hands on her apron. “I’d bettermost get back to help Mum in the kitchen or there’ll be hell to pay.”
Alice leaned back, her appetite satisfied and her tummy full. Pip was still picking at his plate, but with less relish now. Some of the other occupants of the taproom started to depart. Others produced coins, cards, and dice which they laid on the tables. A few lit pipes.
The musicians were filing out past their table. Alice stared in awe at one of them, a woman wearing a black skirt but otherwise entirely dressed in a gentleman’s business suit. Her hair was done up in twin coils that curled in perfect alignment with the curve of the top hat’s brim.
The woman saw Alice looking at her, and smiled when she saw Alice’s own – far less impressive – top hat. She raised a hand to touch the brim of her hat, and Alice quickly did likewise, pleased with their exchange.
“Whae be a Moonraker?” McFeck asked.
Alice laughed. “That were in Rottingdean, somewhile ago. Three Owlers had sowed a crop of Geneva in the duck pond behind the Plough Inn, all-along-of the Queen’s Men having a coke round the village. When the Owlers thought the coast was clear, they grabbed rakes to retrieve the tubs from the pond but just then the Queen’s Men returned.”
“Caught red-handed,” Pip said.
“Almost,” Alice replied. “All-along-of the crop still being below the water. Still, it were a strange thing to be doing, raking a pond, so the Queen’s Men demanded to ken what the men were up to. The Owlers put on their most ardle-headed faces, a-two of them with their mouths hanging open stupidly, and the third telling the Queen’s Men that they were hungry. He pointed at the reflection of the moon in the middle of the pond and said they were trying to retrieve the big yellow cheese from the pond so they could eat it.”
“And then?” Pip asked.
“The Queen’s Men left, shaking their head at what chuckle-heads the local yokels were. Afterwards, the three Owlers were dubbed ‘Moonrakers’ by the village in honour of their deedy cunning.”
“Ah don’t mind bein’ called a Moonraker then,” McFeck said. “Ah thooght it was mair loch Mike the Mucker, back haem. A wee bit simple in the head, and one day he waur found spreadin’ manure roond the kirk tower. He said it was tae encoorage the tower tae grow taller.”
Alice laughed, before asking: “Is it really primitive and savage in Scotland, a-like Nell said? I bain’t never met a Scotsman before.”
McFeck looked aghast. “Scotland is the bonniest country in the whole wide warld. Ah reckon the savages are those whae mistakenly think their flat mudlands are something braw tae swatch at.”
“Then why did you leave?” Pip asked.
“A tragic tale ‘o woe,” McFeck assured them. “Tae dae with an unfortunate misunderstandin’ regardin’ some coos.”
“Coos?” Pip was puzzled.
“Mooh,” McFeck clarified.
“Misunderstanding?” Alice narrowed her eyes.
“The puir beasties waur in dire need ay some fresh air an exercise. Ah was oonly takin them fur a wee stroll. Twas frae the goodness ay my heart, but sadly, nobody would believe me. Sae ah deemed it wiser tae make mahself scarce.”
Alice grinned. She looked at her empty plate. It had been a fine breakfast and McFeck pleasant company, but the time had come to contemplate more serious matters.
“Mus McFeck,” she said. “We need to get back home. To Rottingdean and Hastings. We have to tell our folk what happened. To warn them, or more of our Night-Fliers will die.”
McFeck leaned back in his chair, looking at her thoughtfully. “I think you know the answer to that, lass. It isn’t a decision I can make. We’re all under the orders of Scylla here.”
Alice stared at him. His pronunciation had still sounded strange to her ears, but his talk had suddenly been bereft of the foreign words he used.
Pip came to the same conclusion. “You can speak English!”
“Of course I can, laddie,” McFeck answered, then grinned. “When it suits me.”
“But that’s naun fair,” Alice complained. “That’s trickery!”
“Is it now?” His eyes sparkled mischievously. “Yet I am called McFeck by day and McFeck by night. I’ll answer to no other name. Tell me, are your names truly Liss and Pip?”
Alice wasn’t going to answer that. “Still naun fair.”
McFeck laughed. “Those from Kent, the Marsh, and Sussex should be wary of accusing others of being duplicitous, ‘Liss’. With your Free Trade code names and disguises, hiding one personality by playing at another. Then there’s those who take that a step farther. You’re all lucky to know who you are at all when you look in the mirror.”
Alice had to concede he had a point. She herself was Alice Gunn in Brighton, Alice Kittyhawk in Rottingdean, and had once been Liddle Hawkeye up in the sky but was now simply known as Liss among Free Traders. The South Downs Chapter of the Sons and Sisters of Steam called her Sky-Girl and the Brighton constables Miss Nosy.
She shrugged. “I have to get back to Rottingdean. You tell me Scylla will decide, but when do we get to meet her?”
McFeck looked at Pip. “You’ve caught a feisty one in your nets, laddie. You may want to consider throwing her back into the sea, maybe catch something tamer.”
“He’s caught nothing in his nets,” Alice corrected him. “When do we see Scylla?”
McFeck stood up, towering over the table. “If it’s the Kelpie Quine ye be wantin’ tae meet, lassie, then that’s whae ye’ll be meeting. With a wee bit ay luck, she’ll put the both ay ye out ay yer misery tae cure ye of yer impatience.”
“When?” Alice pressed him.
“Now. Follow me.” McFeck turned and strode out of the taproom.
Alice and Pip scrambled up and followed him.
WAGES OF SIN
WAGES OF SIN
The short story 'Wages of Sin', set at the Mairemaid Inn in Sinneport and featuring Tess and Nell Hawkhurst, as well as some other familiar faces, can now be read in The Dark Design Anthology THE TALE OF THE RED QUEEN AND OTHER STORIES, which Professor Elemental assures you is 'bloody marvellous'.
Liking Alice Kittyhawk? There are two novellas preceding Fair Night for Foul Folk that may interest you, available as paperback or Kindle.