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Murder on the Brighton Run

Murder on the Brighton Run
by Amy Myers
Art by Allen Davis

Auguste Didier was cold, he was wet, and he was miserable. The correct place for a master chef on a November Saturday morning was adding the finishing touches to an exquisite luncheon and not struggling through thick mud in the Surrey countryside to push a contraption that frightened horses and called itself a motor carriage.

“That’s done it. Hop up, old chap,” called the Earl of Sattersfield encouragingly from the driver’s seat as the contraption condescended to lurch forward again.

Fuming at being dubbed “old chap” (the earl was many years older than he was), Auguste once more took his place next to him on the two-seater Panhard et Levassor vehicle. He was all too conscious that much of the mud on the road was not due to Mother Nature but to the horses that used it.

The fourteenth of November 1896 was apparently an important step forward for the future of mankind. The Locomotives on Highways Act had come into force this very day and it was no longer necessary for a gentleman to walk before one of these horseless vehicles with a red flag to indicate that the monster was on its way. This, it seemed, was cause for great celebration amongst those of Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s subjects who could afford such entertainment. One of them had seen fit to organise, at short notice, a run for motorcars from London to Brighton, on the south coast, and a gold medal would be awarded to the first to arrive. That was all very well for the earl, but for Auguste it would be an ordeal with no reprieve.

“Nearly there,” His Lordship added. “They do a good luncheon at the White Hart.”

The halt at a Reigate inn, about halfway to Brighton, would indeed be welcome. The day had brought nothing but misery for Auguste since the celebratory breakfast at the Metropole Hotel in London’s Northumberland Avenue earlier that morning. A red flag had been ceremoniously ripped in half to the cheers of most of the population of London, judging by the crowds that had gathered to see the motorcars depart. So many people jostled for this privilege that it had been hard to see the other contestants, especially through the fog.

This gloomy, rainy day was dubbed Emancipation Day, although to Auguste there seemed no logic in this. Would the villagers of England see it as emancipation as they took their cattle along the lanes only to be mown down by thunderbolts hurtling towards them at anything up to twelve miles per hour? Would elderly people sitting peacefully outside their front doors enjoy coughing in steam and petrol fumes during this great step forward for mankind?

“Pity about old Pilkington,” His Lordship yelled, his hands gripping the stick that apparently controlled—or otherwise—this regrettable invention. “He would have enjoyed this.”

Auguste doubted that. The reason for Colonel Edward Pilkington’s absence from this motorcar run had been trumpeted last evening not only to his cousin the noble Earl of Sattersfield, but to an entire roomful of diners in the restaurant of Plum’s Club for Gentlemen, where Auguste was employed.

“You can deuced well do as you like if you’re so set on winning this gold medal,” he had boomed. “I shall be travelling to Brighton by railway in a civilised manner and you, Sattersfield, can look elsewhere for another damned fool to be your passenger.” (A role that as Auguste had since discovered to his discomfort included pushing, engine-cranking, solving mechanical problems, and navigating.)

His Lordship had therefore looked elsewhere and browbeaten Plum’s secretary into loaning him Auguste’s unwilling services. Auguste had begun a polite protest when the most extraordinary row had broken out at the next table.

“To the Léon Bollée and the glory of France!” shouted Henri, younger son of the Comte de Montrousse. He was a handsome young man of about twenty-five and a habitué of the private gambling houses. Auguste knew that for Henri each throw of the dice was a gamble between riches on the one hand and disgrace and bankruptcy on the other, and he feared for the young man’s future.

“Only my motor car,” Henri had declared, flushed with wine and excitement, “deserves the gold medal.”

His attention had been fixed not on Colonel Pilkington, however, but on his own dining companion. The Baron von Merkstein was his chief rival at the gambling tables, a correct and proper gentleman who played with cold determination against Henri’s reckless bets—which were based, as far as Auguste could tell, on his whim of the moment.

The baron raised his glass slowly and deliberately. “The Benz, Monsieur le Comte. To the future. The Benz alone deserves the gold medal. The Léon Bollée is but a French toy.” He picked up his glass. “To Germany and the Benz.”

Henri’s face darkened. “Twenty thousand francs that you are wrong, Baron. I shall arrive in Brighton before you, and win the gold medal too.”

The baron rose to his feet. For a moment Auguste thought he would whisk out a duelling pistol, but fortunately not. “Twenty thousand marks,”he replied, “that my Benz arrives before the Bollée.”

Auguste froze. This was an insult on the baron’s part, as the gold-standard value of the mark was considerably higher than the franc’s.

Henri went white, his hand shaking on the glass. “Thirty thousand francs.”

“Thirty thousand marks,” the baron whipped back.

By now everyone was listening to the battle, and both men had risen to their feet, the better to trade insults.

“Forty thousand,” Henri had hurled back.

The baron smiled. He must have heard the tremble in Henri’s voice. “Monsieur le Comte, we are in England. Shall we say two thousand pounds must be paid by the loser?”

Even the Earl of Sattersfield had gulped at that. And no wonder, Auguste thought. This sum would keep many of Plum’s members in comfort for a year. He began to dread the coming Emancipation Day ordeal even more. This bitter quarrel between Henri and the Baron von Merkstein, together with the impression Auguste had gained of the chaos earlier that evening at the Holborn Skating Rink in Oxford Street, increased his foreboding. The motor- cars were to be guarded there for the night and their misguided owners had been heatedly arguing as to which of them deserved the gold medal for first arrival at the designated finishing point, Preston Park on the outskirts of Brighton. From there, the motor cars would drive in a stately procession to the Metropole Hotel on the Brighton seafront, where the winning driver would be presented with his medal at dinner.

Tomorrow, Auguste had feared, would be a formidable day. He agreed with Colonel Pilkington. The civilised way to travel to Brighton was by railway train.

 

Perched now on the Panhard et Levassor with the rain seeping in through his hat and aware that his coat was miserably inadequate to fend off the weather, Auguste knew his fears had been justified. Fortunately, there was shortly to be balm in this Gilead of horror. Several public houses along the route had obligingly offered water and petrol to the contestants, but the White Hart, known to the earl, whose home was nearby, was providing luncheon too. Not all contestants would wish to halt their headlong rush by motorcar along the Brighton Road, as stopping at Reigate would affect their arrival time, so Auguste appreciated the Earl’s solicitude.

“My pleasure, dear chap,” the earl assured him. “Gives me time to check one or two things on the old lady.”

The old lady, Auguste presumed, was this motorcar, which was chugging and choking in a disconcerting way as they drove through the cheering crowds along Reigate High Street to the White Hart.

The earl’s solicitude for Auguste’s welfare continued. “I’ll set you down here at the main entrance, my dear chap, while I go round to the yard. Have a look for old Pilkington, will you? He said he’d break his train journey here for a spot of luncheon, then take a train on to Brighton to see me receive the gold medal.”

The White Hart proved to be a large inn with coaching facilities and splendid gardens at its rear. A room had been set aside for the drivers and their passengers, and Auguste assessed the array of food, ranging from tartlets filled with foie gras mousse and crayfish salad with truffles to cream soufflés and flummeries. Excellent.

He could see Henri here but not the baron. Perhaps he had driven straight on in his desire to win the bet. No, there was a large jolly-looking man talking with a German accent who might be his passenger.

There was, however, no sign of Colonel Pilkington, although it was after one o’clock. He must have continued by train to Brighton because of the bad weather.

Henri was looking strained. “What are you doing here, Didier? Are you the chef?”

“No. A passenger, Monsieur le Comte.”

Henri smiled. “My passenger Bella travels to Preston Park by train. She is too delicate to endure such rain. Her pretty feet would be wet.”

“Bella?” Auguste queried. “Is she perhaps Miss Parker of the Galaxy Theatre?”

“Indeed she is. You know her?”

Auguste did. He had once worked at the Galaxy Theatre. She was one of the darlings of London, particularly of the mashers who vied at the stage door to escort her to dinner after the show. From what he knew of Bella, she wouldn’t have the least objection to getting her pretty feet wet. It would be Henri who wanted his lady friend to appear as a fragile beauty under a parasol and not an umbrella. Auguste was uneasily aware that his own clothing showed signs of the mud through which he had been pushing the car and looked surreptitiously around to see if others suffered from similar misfortunes.

He had no need to reply to Henri’s question, as the Baron von Merkstein had just arrived and Henri’s attention immediately switched to him.

“You should have departed already, Monsieur le Comte,” the baron said coldly, “if you wished to arrive before me at Preston Park. Perhaps you have forgotten our little arrangement? I did not see you on the journey here. No doubt you have already had trouble with that three-wheeled French toy.”

“Pray do not concern yourself with my motorcar, Baron. I saw no sign of yours passing me on the journey, and your cumbrous machine must require your every care if you are ever to reach Preston Park, let alone before me.”

With that Henri moved away. The Baron von Merkstein gave Auguste a disdainful look, and he too moved away. The jolly-looking gentleman, who must indeed be the baron’s passenger, beamed at Auguste in goodwill as they exchanged a few comments about the journey to come. It transpired that he too had a preference for horses, even though he worked as a mechanic for the Benz company.

The Earl of Sattersfield did not arrive until after Auguste had, to his great satisfaction, the pleasure of trying the warm chocolate soufflé that had been rushed from the kitchens and looked delicious. This was the most fragile of soufflés to achieve with success due to its tendency to sink so quickly after leaving the oven. He always took the precaution of preparing two in case the first fell too quickly to be presented.

“Drove up to Reigate Station to see if I could spot old Pilkington,” the earl said. “No sign of him. When I reached the yard, I had to crawl under the old lady, who was spluttering a bit. Deuced messy job. Ruined my coat and had to change. You can have a go at the dirty work next time, Didier. Pilkington here, is he?”

Conscious of the cause of his own ruined trousers, Auguste seethed. “No, My Lord,” he muttered.

“He must have travelled straight on. Sensible enough if he took the Pullman train by mistake. That would mean changing at Red Hill Junction for Reigate.” The earl cheered up at this very reasonable explanation.

Auguste agreed. It was common knowledge that the two railway companies which used Red Hill Junction had for many years clashed bitterly, not even deigning to share the same railway station. Now, at least, the Pullman trains from Victoria and London Bridge to Brighton used the same station as the trains from Charing Cross that served the Reigate line.

“Well, let’s be off, Didier,” the earl said briskly. “I can see you’re eager to set off. The motorcar’s fixed now and I’ve cleaned her up a bit, so off we go. No time to waste on food, eh?”

At this heresy Auguste blenched. “Yes, Your Lordship,” he said, with a wistful look at the cheese. The earl might take luncheon as lightly as the non-appearance of Colonel Pilkington, but the disregard of both seemed to Auguste to signal that trouble was not far away. . . .

 # # #

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Murder on the Brighton Run by Amy Myers, Copyright © 2016 with permission of the author.

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