Mad Hatter sc-4, page 1part #4 of Sergeant Cribb Series
( Sergeant Cribb - 4 )
Mad Hatter’s Holiday
Brighton this year! Albert Moscrop closed his eyes, drew back his head and sniffed. It was the long, indulgent sniff of a man quite absorbed in the olfactory function.
Ah! There it was, unmistakably. A whiff of sea air among the conflicting odours of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. He pressed a sixpence into a porter’s palm.
‘D’you see the green portmanteau there on the luggage rack. Kindly convey it to number fifty, Montpelier Parade, and inform Miss Lyle that Mr. Moscrop intends to pass the day on the promenade and will arrive for tea at four. No, not this one.’ He moved his hand protectively to a small Gladstone bag. ‘I shall require this during the day.’
Yes, by George! If Brighton in September lived up to its reputation he would need the bag. The signs were promising enough. As the train had steamed into the terminus the crowds on the platform were three and four deep. Third class passengers every one; there was no doubt of that. Each group carrying its own luggage and every face lobster-red from the sun. Clerks and shop-assistants and their families returning to the fogs of the Metropolis after a week at the ‘briny.’ They were leaving in hundreds, abandoning the town like an army in retreat, wooden spades and tin buckets in hand. The Brighton of ginger beer and Punch and Judy was being surrendered to a different class of visitor. It was polo at Preston Park and Bernhardt at the Theatre Royal from now on. If you wanted a furnished house in the Royal Crescent the price had jumped overnight to ten guineas a month. The Season had begun.
‘Carry yer bag, mister?’
‘Fetch yer cab, sir?’
Small boys bombarded him at the station entrance. New arrivals were worth pursuing in September. He shook his head emphatically. What could be more Philistine than taking one’s first breath of ozone from a hansom? He set off at a sharp step down the Queen’s Road.
And instantly regretted it. The thoroughfare was lined with public houses of the most dubious kind, the first resort of excursionists when they streamed out of the London trains on Bank Holidays. No gentleman would be seen in such a place. Misspelt postcards, propped at the bottom of windows among dead flies, announced equivocally that rooms with private service were available on request. Winking females reinforced the offer from open casements upstairs.
Odious as the neighbourhood was, Moscrop had made his decision. There was no turning back. He marched down the hill at infantry-pace, eyes concentrated ahead on the convergence of the two sides of the street. Presently, fortitude was rewarded. A wedge of wholesome, glittering blue appeared. By then he was almost as far down as West Street. Salubrious, sea-level Brighton lay ahead.
He did not stop until the sea stretched across the full width of his vision and a fresh breeze ruffled his hair and moustache. He stood at the Esplanade railing listening to the grate of shingle and the cries of children and rediscovering the smell of seaweed. The blood quickened in his veins. He tightened his grip on the Gladstone bag.
The beach below was not crowded by Saturday standards. There were sufficient customers to keep the boatmen and bathing-machine attendants busy, but the real shoulder-to-shoulder occupation of the pebbles was over for 1882. Those remaining were middle-class families for the most part, seated placidly at decent distances from each other, enjoying the air and avoiding the sun under large hats and parasols. A few stone-throwers played ducks and drakes at the water’s edge. The summer spectacle of lines of cockney paddlers, boots suspended from their necks, was over. Anyone venturing into the water now came from a Corporation machine, properly attired in a striped costume.
Moscrop joined the general movement in the direction of the West Pier. In his check suit and bowler he was soon inconspicuous, one of a long parade of freshly-arrived visitors taking that first bracing turn along the prom. The tempo was leisurely, dictated by bath-chairs; the conversation loud and entirely taken up with a social roll-call. Everyone was expected back from Trouville or Baden-Baden this week or next. The Fashionable Visitors’ List Office in East Street had never received so many callers.
He looked about him, among the nodding parasols. Really those resonant accents were deceiving. Three-quarters of his fellow-promenaders had not arrived socially. They strolled determinedly among the elite, scanning the faces approaching from the Hove direction in hopes of someone recognising them. Moscrop preferred to make a detailed observation of those nearest him. Odd how satisfying it was to spot a slightly faded blazer or a fraying hem. Oh, he was no fashion-plate himself, but he had no pretensions of being one. He had a more original reason for taking a promenade.
In recent years he had made a small pastime of mingling with crowds. Often he left his shop in London’s Oxford Street and shambled along the pavement with the throng as far as Marble Arch for the pleasure it gave him. At weekends he liked to visit the Crystal Palace, not to watch fireworks, but to stand among thousands. He thought of Waterloo Station as his club, quite the most congenial place in London. Morning and evening, when the activity there was at its height, he was invariably seated below the clock, reading The Times.
His looks were ideally suited to his hobby. His features were undistinguished in every way. You could not possibly spot him in a crowd. But his face was adaptable to each vagary of fashion. When half London went in for luxuriant Dundreary whiskers, Albert Moscrop’s growth conformed exactly to the ideal. And when in the seventies the cleanshaven face framed under a central parting became high ton, his physiognomy was equal to it. He passed two days at work before anyone noticed the change.
Now, behind the blond moustache and with sidewhiskers scrupulously trimmed level with each ear-lobe, he was all that a man in his forties was required to be. Perhaps he tended to stoop a little when relaxed, but it happened too rarely to be a threat. He was constantly on guard against idiosyncrasies.
There was excitement ahead. Even a few nicely modulated squeals of terror. Knowledgeable promenaders explained to their escorts that the gun-shots they could hear came from a rifle and pistol saloon under the West Pier. Thrills unbounded! Treading the planks of a pier was hair-raising enough, without guns discharging underneath. Moscrop savoured the polite hysteria around him like chalybeate water. He wryly observed that no one actually turned back. Even the faintest hearts were wrapping their gowns across their fronts in readiness for the turnstile.
As he passed inside, he was careful to hold his bag at chest height. Once through, he strode the wooden causeway with a springy step. What better two-pennyworth existed than these three hundred and seventy yards, projecting audaciously across beach and foam and shallows to the deeper waters, indifferent to the power that surged and sucked beneath?
The genius in the design was a revelation. Oh, he had studied his gazetteer conscientiously enough on the way down in the train, read the description of Eusebius Birch’s pier, but it had not prepared him for this. It was a triumph of modern architecture, worthy to stand with Scott’s St. Pancras Station. Such massive stability, refined by the most intricate detail! He moved left for an unimpeded view. The side stretched away towards the pier-head with the neatness of a perspective exercise. Seating was provided along its full extent, the safety railing serving a second function as a back-support. And here Birch’s genius was manifest. The principle of perpendicularity, so fundamental to pier-construction, was abandoned. The railing was bow-shaped. Why? So that a lady could sit against it with comfort and watch the action of the waves beneath her, confident that her posture presented an elegant, undulating line.
It was without question the most civilised pier he had promenaded.
He moved on towards the pier-head, enjoying the drumming of hundreds of sets of shoe-leather on the wooden flooring, more musical to him than the strains of the band ahead. Last August Bank Holiday, according to the newspapers, seventeen thousand visitors had passed through the turnstiles. He had spent the day at London Bridge Station and he was prepared to believe the figure.
Seventeen thousand were not on the pier at one time, of course, exquisite as that might have been. But the ability of the structure to support large numbers was beyond question. From his position there was a comforting view of massive iron piles and girders supporting the projecting sides of the pier-head. They were black as Hades and barnacle-encrusted and the sea bristled with them, thrusting upwards from their concrete foundations. After he had watched them for a minute while the water lapped fitfully at their base, the pier’s white superstructure, all domes and bunting, seemed ridiculously slight.
The pier-head, the goal of promenaders, rewarded them with a choice of distractions. As a professional salesman, Moscrop admired the enterprise behind the amusements, even if they were not much to his taste. Beyond the bandstand were four ornamented houses: Snelling’s Bazaar; Cheesman’s Reading Room and Lending Library; a shell and fossil shop; and Mr. Swaysland’s Natural History Museum. The last was particularly popular; besides the stuffed bird exhibition, billed as including a golden eagle and The Death and Burial of Cock Robin Ornithologically Illustrated, there was an aviary below the level of the pier-head with thirty live owls which you visited by descending an iron staircase. Moscrop was one of the few who forewent that experience.
Instead he took a rapid turn round the perimeter, learned from notices that the sun’s rays would be concentrated on the touch-hole of the pier cannon at noon and that the Diver would descend at 3.30 p.m., and then started back along the east side, from which he had come. The deck was divided by a wood and glass weather-screen, admirable protection against unexpected gusts, but a barrier to movement between the sides. The prospect of Hove and Cliftonville from the pier-head interested him less than Brighton and Kemp Town, so it was logical to return by the same side.
This time he stopped a few yards along, as if to study the serpentine decoration on one of the lamp-standards. Then he placed his bag on the seat and sat beside it in the sunshine, facing inwards towards the weather-screen. Two elderly men reposed in bath-chairs in its shadow. He observed them steadily for several minutes, undistracted by the promenaders crossing his line of vision. Satisfied that they were deep in slumber, he turned towards the sea.
It was so dazzling after the shaded scene opposite that his eyes contracted at once. Turning his face from the myriad glittering specks below the horizon, he scanned the browner water inshore and the waves languidly breaking below the pier, producing a marbling effect as the foam dispersed. There were other sights to interest a pier-goer: excursion-yachts, fishing-boats, the pleasure steamer twenty minutes out from the head and passing the old Chain Pier. Moscrop took them in with one sweep of the head and moved his gaze to the shore.
It was not architecture that caught his attention now, not the endless facade of white-fronted hotels and Georgian houses, nor the stately sweep of the King’s Road and the Marine Parade. It was the beach. More precisely it was the people on the beach.
His position afforded an outstanding view of the shingle and its occupants as far as the Chain Pier, almost a mile distant. There were none of the obstructions one encountered from other viewpoints. The stone groynes hid nothing from this height and the bathing-machines were like rows of match-boxes. The sunshine and the approach of noon had brought numbers of visitors on to the beach. The pebbles, as brown as the Gobi when you saw them en masse, were studded with the brilliant colours of shawls and parasols. There must have been four or five hundred people within view. He flushed with exhilaration.
He turned away, his tongue moistening his upper lip. His two neighbours slept on and the parade along the deck continued, unheeding. He reached for the Gladstone bag.
It was going to be so much easier than it had ever been before. The conditions were perfect: range, light, elevation. He hesitated only to select the best instrument for his purpose. The sporting model by Burrows of Malvern was the least conspicuous and the new Carl Zeiss was the most powerful, but he settled for his Prussian Officer’s field-instrument with a magnification of eight diameters. He could not be sure that his hand was steady enough this morning for the strongest lenses. Where was the profit in ten diameters if every tremor were magnified ten times?
He withdrew a small square of velvet from his pocket. There was no need to hurry. Now that he was seated, nobody looked his way. He was accepted as a lounger, and like the bandsmen and the anglers on the pier-head he had merged with the scenery. He breathed on each eye-piece and polished it methodically with the velvet.
When the cleaning was finished, he folded the velvet and replaced it in his pocket. Then he turned, rested his elbows on the rail, trained the glasses on the pleasure-steamer in the middle distance and stroked the image expertly into perfect focus. He watched a gull fly across the wording S.S. Brighton on the bow. By Jove! Those Prussians knew how to grind a lens. Small wonder the French had lost the war.
But he had not brought out the binoculars to study shipping. He moved his field of view across the flexuous lines of the Chain Pier and on to the beach below the Marine Parade. Without adjusting the focus, he continued the movement slowly left, scanning the steep banks of shingle. His eyes received only a blurred impression of shapes and colours, with a figure once or twice stealing into the picture when its movement momentarily matched the sweep of the glass.
That was incidental. He was not concerned with individuals yet. He swung the glass over everything contained in the entire length of beach within his purview: upturned fishing-boats, blackened breakwaters, nets spread to dry, garish bathing-machines, seaweed in heaps, fluttering pennants and hundreds of reclining people, all merging in an optical effect as dazzling and devoid of form as Turner’s last landscapes.
The binoculars reached the limit of their sweep, the pier itself, close to hand and out of focus. The image went blank and Moscrop shifted the instrument away from his eyes and rested his chin upon it contentedly. He had achieved nothing in the way of observation-the movement along the shore-line was far too quick for that-but his purpose was otherwise. It was the gesture that had mattered, a little piece of ritual, quite personal in significance. He had measured the area within his sights and staked a claim, so to speak. A mile or so of Brighton beach was subject to the scrutiny of his lens. The glasses had passed, however briefly, over every man, woman and child who chanced to be there this morning. Encouraged by this, he took out his piece of velvet and set to work again, humming an accompaniment to the brass band behind him.
For no very clear reason, he thought about the young woman who had sat opposite him in the carriage on the way down, a pretty, fair-haired creature in a white muslin dress and straw hat trimmed with crimson. Yet it was more about himself that he thought. How he had covertly stolen glimpses of the girl, not wishing to give offence, peering into the window to catch her reflection in the glass each time the train passed through a cutting. He was not shy-the proprietor of a shop could not afford to be-but the enforced intimacy of a First Class carriage was different altogether from the businesslike exchanges in his Oxford Street emporium. When the train had approached Clayton tunnel, he had got up to fasten the window and she had nodded her appreciation of the courtesy. In the darkness he had set his eyes firmly in her direction, hopeful that a chink of light might illuminate her features for an instant. He had even strained forward to catch the fragrance she wore. But when the light returned he was stiffly back against the headrest with his eyes trained on the procession of telegraph poles past the window. How odd it was that if the same young woman were now seated on the beach he could observe her minutely without embarrassment on either side!
For his first concentrated survey he chose the
Pebbles monopolised the scene now, more blue than brown when he saw them closely, and as clean as if every one had been scrubbed that day. Farther down was an upturned fishing-boat on trestles, with children scrambling over it. They were the first live figures the lens had caught and he was pleased at the definition. Some loss of colour was inevitable, but the features were sharp and there was no spectral fringe around them. The Zeiss itself could not have produced a clearer image.
He discovered a courting couple sitting against a rowing-boat, the girl in a white serge and navy-blue yachting dress with silver anchor buttons (could he really see that well or was his imagination supplying the details?) and a pill-box hat, and the man in ducks, sharing her parasol. The chaperone, heavily veiled and knitting assiduously, sat with her back against the stern. To their right was a poorer family who seemed to have missed the exodus. They were eating shrimps or whelks and passing round a stone bottle, presumably of beer. A fruit-seller approached and just as quickly moved on.
The band to Moscrop’s rear stopped playing. All that was audible now was the thud of footfalls on the planking and the lapping of the tide. It made an odd accompaniment to the animated scene he was observing. With one faculty increasingly involved in the life below him, the others had become dissociated from what was happening on the pier. The music had blended pleasingly with the images, but now that it had stopped he was straining to hear the crunch of pebbles as someone walked by and the shrill cries of the children playing on the boat. It was like being afflicted suddenly with deafness. His concentration was going.
PETER LOVESEY SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Killing with ConfettiBertie and the Crime of PassionBertie and the TinmanBertie and the Seven BodiesBeau DeathThe Headhunters ihmi-2Mad Hatter sc-4Diamond Solitaire pd-2
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