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After an invigorating but not exactly restful trip to a Yorkshire spa during which she survived a near brush with death and foiled a murderer, aspiring writer Aggie Morton and her friend Hector are thrilled to have the opportunity to stay at a camp by the sea and watch real paleontologists at work. The famed husband and wife team of the Blenningham-Crewes are about to become even more famous with the recovery of the fossilized bones of an ichthyosaur from the sea by Lyme Regis. This news has already caught the attention of an American millionaire, a British museum and a travelling circus owner, who each want the bones for their own collections. Tensions are running high throughout the camp, from the cook, to the collectors, to the Blenningham-Crewes themselves, and become downright dangerous after Aggie and Hector make a discovery of their own- a body on the beach. Not a fossil, but a human body.
For my writing compatriots,
the Misanthropic Stabbers,
a lovely set of friends
A Novel Adventure
That second week in July was full of surprises. Lovely, mysterious and ghastly surprises.
Plus, one that broke my heart in two.
Meeting my very new nephew was the marvelous beginning, even if he lay in my sister's arms and rarely woke up, except for nourishment, during my four-day visit. Once, he considered me with such gravity that I was convinced his navy-blue eyes were attempting to read my mind. How he might interpret such a briar patch I'd never know, as wee Jimmy was only eleven days old.
Mummy would stay on at Owl Park for two weeks more, to help my sister Marjorie learn to be a mother while I went off to my next adventure. This began with my first-ever ride in a motorcar! (Admittedly, a tad more thrilling than watching a baby sleep.) Marjorie's husband, James, had purchased a brand-new Peugeot a few weeks before his son was born. Today he was practicing his new driving skills by taking me to Lyme Regis, beside the sea.
"It's a fine day, and we're going a distance of twenty-nine miles," James told Mummy. "The drive won't take much longer than an hour. I shall be back before tea if Hector's train is on time." We were to pause at the railway station in Axminster to collect my best friend before driving five miles more to our destination.
I peered at the row of mysterious brass-rimmed gauges set into what James called the dashboard, just above my knees. These bobbing needles next to the steering wheel told James the quantity of petrol in the tank and the speed at which we were traveling. The wooden panel itself protected us from the noisy whirr and oil splatters produced by the engine.
James opened a compartment under his seat and pulled out a folded map and a pair of smart leather gloves. "The wood of the steering wheel warms up and begins to sweat at this time of year." He buckled the clasps at his wrists. "The gloves provide better grip." He handed the map to me and started the engine. We lurched backward before he adjusted our position to drive out through the courtyard gates.
"Take off your hat," he added, "if you care to keep it. The wind will think it's a gift otherwise, and carry it off." I removed my hat and tucked it into the lunch hamper in the back seat.
The rush forward into a shimmering afternoon shook loose a burst of laughter.
"Oh, James!" I had to shout because of the warm, whistling wind. I patted the gleaming wood of the dashboard to tell him, How beautiful! In his beam of pride, I saw a glimpse of the boy he must have been before he grew up to be Lord Greyson. And a peek at the boy my teeny nephew might become?
"This motorcar is the prettiest thing in my life," James said, at a half holler. "Aside from your sister, of course."
I leaned over to punch his arm.
"Hey! Not while I'm driving!"
I snatched my hand back and held down the map fluttering on my lap. How foolish to tease the person at the helm of a machine roaring through the countryside faster than a cantering horse!
"You'll be at Camp Crewe four nights before your grandmother arrives on Friday for her weekend at the hotel in town," said James. "Are you nervous to be without family for so long?"
"Hector will be with me, so I shan't be nervous," I said. "Though I've never slept in a tent before. I expect that will be odd. I'm more curious than anything else."
"No other Morton female has ever slept in a tent," said James. "Not your sister, or mother, nor your Grannie Jane. That's quite an achievement. Add to that being part of a rare fossil excavation, and you may claim uncommon scientific endeavor!"
"Especially now that they've uncovered something so grand to excavate," I said. "The remains of a creature lying unseen for all of history."
"Our timing is indeed fortuitous," said James. "We had no idea, when the arrangements were made, that Mrs. Blenningham-Crewe would trip over a spectacular find. This sort of undertaking usually leans heavily on guessing and luck."
"Guessing and luck is what makes fossil-hunting and paleontology so like detecting," I said.
James flashed me a smile. "Just your cup of tea, eh? But here's a chance to apply that curiosity to a subject more savory than human corpses, do you see? At the governors' meeting for the museum, when this notion of encouraging young scientists came along, I jumped at the chance to have you and Hector be part of it."
"They didn't mind that I'm a girl?" I said.
James concentrated very hard on the road for a minute, but it was a sham. Not so much as a field mouse in our path.
"Truth is," he said, after a bit, "there are occasional advantages to being Lord Greyson and on the board of governors. I suggested that the Natural History Museum must embrace the twentieth century and allow girls to learn about science. You're a bit of an experiment, do you see? Best foot forward, and all that."
Well, humph. I could summon good behavior when necessary, and Hector was as polite as a vicar on Sunday.
"What you mean is that I mustn't let you down," I said.
"No chance of that," said James, in his nice way. "I have utter faith that you'll hold your own with the boys, Hector and the other two. The Young Scientists League, the governors are calling it. They've even come up with a—"
"Slogan," I interrupted. "You said already. I've got it memorized. 'Introducing inquiring youth to the facts and the mysteries of Mother Earth.' Right?"
James nodded. "Professor Blenningham-Crewe and his wife have quite a reputation in the fossil world," he said. "I expect that this, this…whatever its name is, will be their ticket to fossil royalty. Some sort of swimming lizard—icky-something…quite unpronounceable."
"Ichthyosaur," I said. James had read us the letter from his friend Mr. Everett Tobie, who was part of the team at Camp Crewe.
"You see?" said James. "You're a natural."
"So, you fixed it for Hector and me to be part of the Young Scientists League, and you fixed it for your school chum to be the photographer, and—"
"No, no, I had nothing to do with that," said James. "It was Everett who informed me about the Blenningham-Crewes to start with. His contribution is drawing the specimens and taking photographs on digs. He's a real artist."
"How did he learn to do that?"
"He was always sketching, even at school. Cartoons of the masters, still lifes of the breakfast table, anything that caught his eye. He was born abroad, where his father was running a British outpost. His mother was Moroccan. Mr. Tobie met her out there and surprised himself by getting married. Sadly, she died early on, and his father brought Everett home to England."
I decided I liked Everett for this reason alone. My own Papa had died one year and six months ago. Hello, Papa, I still said to him most days. I thought of him for the smallest of reasons—when I put extra honey on my toast, or calculated a sum, or watched Mummy brushing her hair. What would he say about me riding in a motorcar? On my way to dig up fossils and to stay with strangers in a tent? So many things he would never know about my life!
"Will we get there in time?" I said. My nose and cheeks were tingling from sun and wind.
"Plenty of time." James reached over to tap the map. "Just don't steer me wrong."
I'd not had many opportunities in my life to follow a map but found it an appealing exercise. Quite simply, I became a bird. Suddenly the world expanded in every direction, farther ever than a human girl named Aggie might see. The lines and dots on the page took on a meaning that outshone even words when looked at from the sky. I directed the driver admirably, my wings swooping this way and that, my fingertip tracing the miles.
The redbrick railway depot at Axminster had a roof that sloped to a high peak, like a gingerbread house with drippy icing. James stopped the motorcar nearby and we climbed down. My legs, and indeed all of me, wobbled a bit after the abundance of jouncing.
"Nice to stop shouting for a minute," said James. "You look a bit pink, Aggie. Put your hat back on while we're standing here. Your mother will give me a dreadful wigging if you start sprouting freckles."
"How long before the train comes?" I said.
James pulled out his watch. "A quarter of an hour, I should think. Let's see what Cook packed for our lunch, shall we? I'm mad with thirst." He opened the hamper and pulled out bottles of lemonade and a packet of cucumber sandwiches laced with dill from the kitchen garden at Owl Park. I kept one wrapped for Hector, as he was always hungry.
"How many minutes now?" I asked, as we tidied things away.
"We should hear the whistle any moment," said James. We strolled along the platform, nodding hello to a porter who waited in the shade.
"Oh, look!" A bright poster was pasted to the station wall, showing a dog on its hind legs, wearing a ruffled collar. "There's a circus in Lyme Regis this very week!"
We read the list of attractions printed in gold and scarlet letters.
I mustn't get my hopes up. We had come to Lyme Regis for a more elevated purpose than visiting a circus. But wouldn't it be thrilling?
We heard the blast of the whistle. Hector was nearly here!
Certain works of literature referred to a steam engine as an Iron Horse, but it seemed to me more a mythical creature. Hot gusts of steam were the fiery breaths of an angry dragon. The ground trembled a little as the train approached, like a Minotaur knocking down trees. Thundering wheels screeched against metal tracks, like cries of angry harpies.
The beast shuddered to a stop. Carriage doors popped open along its length, releasing passengers from their compartments onto the platform. A slight fog of steam lingered as I looked madly back and forth for Hector.
There! James strode toward him, two paces ahead of me, but I darted past his elbow to make certain I was first.
He wore a sailor suit, light blue for summer, and held his case in one hand while keeping a straw boater in place with the other. Was it because he came from Belgium that he looked so small and foreign? None of the hurrying adults paid any attention. Only I knew the prodigious friction of his brain cells, and the capacity of his heart for true friendship.
My unladylike greeting knocked him off-balance, but he withstood my embrace with good cheer. James scooped up the suitcase and hoisted it to his shoulder as if it were a loaf of bread.
"Did you bring your torch?" I said. "And your magnifying glass? I expect that will be especially useful, don't you, for looking at old bones?"
"Yes, and yes," said Hector. "Also, the vicar lends to me his binoculars. I am equipped to see both near and far." We hurried to keep up with James.
"And now!" I said. "The motorcar! Wait till you feel it purring and chuckling all about you!"
Hector came to a halt, suitably impressed. "A Peugeot Double Phaeton, monsieur?" he said. "Manufactured in this year of 1903?"
"You are correct." James patted the motorcar as if he'd built it himself. Hector ran his fingers over the gleaming bonnet, polished with industry by James as he could not bear to relinquish the task to a servant.
"We'll be a bit squished in back with the luggage," I said, "but I want to sit together, don't you? You won't believe how fast we go!" It was to be Hector's first time riding in a motorcar as well. "And let's never go anywhere without each other again," I said. "Never ever."
"And may we agree"—James tucked Hector's case under the lunch hamper—"that this particular excursion will not include the discovery of a dead body?"
"I'm afraid we cannot make that promise." I grinned at Hector. "Can we?"
Foolishly, I was thinking of giant reptile bones.
A Very Best Friend
Mr. Everett Tobie had instructed James to find the church of St. Michael the Archangel in the village of Lyme Regis. We drove over cobblestones, peering about, until an old man with a barrow pointed the way to the helpfully named Church Street, and there we were. We parked the car in the shade of the rectory and found ourselves overlooking the cemetery. Beyond rows of gravestones were the rolling waves of the sea. This part of Dorset shared the same coast as my hometown in Devon, the next-door county, but it seemed much wilder here.
"Look how high we are above the water!" I jumped from the back seat and attempted to smooth wrinkles from my linen dress.
James plonked my hat onto my head and scooped up our cases. "Everett says it's still a bit of a walk from here," James said. "Look for the footpath off that way…" He pointed to where the cliff took a jagged turn, forming a steep rocky backdrop to the crescent-curved shoreline far below us to the east.
"Ahoy there!" A hatless man in shirtsleeves waved both arms from the very path we sought.
"Everett!" James raised his hands, each holding a case, and waved a clumsy greeting in return. Mr. Tobie had thick black hair, dark golden skin and a smile as bright as the sunny afternoon.
"The one and only Everett Tobie," said James. Mr. Tobie doffed an imaginary hat and performed a sweeping bow. James put down our luggage, and the men embraced with quick slaps on each other's backs. Hector bowed in his elegant Belgian way.
I said, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Tobie," and began a small curtsy, but was prevented by a firm shake of his head.
"I appreciate the effort," he said, "but we are very informal, as you will see. Lord Greyson here would be horrified if he knew the truth of it. You're to call me Everett and we all muck in as a team, right? That works best while camping. Save your fancy manners for the cook, if you know what's good for you."
That sounded ominous, but I could see he meant it in jest. We followed him on what he called the short route, winding through the small cemetery. I stopped to look at the stone for Here Lies Eliza Wembley, Beloved Wife, and Timothy Martyn, Not Forgotten, who had carved birds above his name. What better place to linger? Surely those who rested here deserved a few moments of consideration? Their time on earth—and their absence from it—were noted in so few words.
"It is a promising sign that you like graveyards," said Everett. "A paleontologist must be drawn to the deep, dark past." He paused beside a weathered stone marker. "Here's the one you'll want to notice."
To the memory of Joseph Anning, it read, who died July the 5th 1849. Aged 53 Years, and then, Also of three Children who died in their Infancy. Also of Mary Anning, sister of the above. Her death date was inscribed as well, March the 9th 1847. Aged 47 Years.
"That's a crowded grave," I said.
"Joseph and his sister Mary were the first people to discover an ichthyosaur," Everett explained. "The very first in the world, so far as anyone knows. She was twelve years old. And here we are, nearly one hundred years later, uncovering another on the very same beach."
Hector and I, also twelve, lingered to stare at the historic marker.
"Ichthys," said Hector, "is Greek for fish. And sauros means lizard. That's where the name came from. Fish lizard."
Everett's eyebrows lifted. His first peek at Hector's superior brain! "A scientist in the making!" he said. "I anticipate exciting days ahead."
The walk was nearly twenty minutes, but neither James nor Everett complained about carrying our cases such a distance.
"There is a track that comes from the main road directly to camp," said Everett, "but it's used by wagons rather than fancy motorcars, and has ruts as deep as ditches."
We arrived at an encampment of round canvas tents in a small meadow, a tiny village that made me think of Crusaders and jousting. A young woman with rosy cheeks and fluttery yellow hair came out to greet us. This was Helen, daughter of the cook and also his assistant—and now a childminder as well. Not that we needed minding!
"Hallo." She bobbed her head at James but seemed more curious about Hector and me, examining us with friendly gray eyes. Helen was what my Grannie Jane called pleasingly plump, healthy and bosomy. She wore a flowered dress under her apron, sewn by herself, she told me later. Hector made his adroit little bow, but I only smiled. I'd been taught not to curtsy to servants or helpers.
"And this is Arthur." Helen introduced the lanky boy lurking behind her. "Arthur Haystead." He glanced at Hector and attempted his own bow in the direction of Lord Greyson, though he looked rather like a pecking rooster.
"Arthur is the third member of our Young Scientists League," said Everett. "He lives in the village, but he'll be staying with us at Camp Crewe for the fortnight. He submitted an informative essay on hagstones when he wrote to request a place with us."
What was a hagstone? I felt a prickle of shame. Hector and I were here merely because James suggested we come, not for any knowledge about fossils.
"Hector," Everett was saying, "you'll be in a tent with Arthur and our other boy when he gets here, if that suits?"
"The pleasure is mine," Hector lied.
"Oscar Osteda is from America," said Everett. "He and his father arrive tomorrow."
"Master Arthur, you'll show our new friend where he's to kip, right?" said Helen. "You're with me, Miss Aggie. Thanks to you being a girl and needing a companion, these next two weeks will be like a holiday for me. I'll be sleeping a few extra minutes in the mornings, instead of going back and forth to town with my father." She picked up what she correctly guessed to be my case.
"Go on," said James, seeing me hesitate. "I'll take a look about with my governor's eyes while you put your belongings away."
The girls' tent was circular and made of white canvas, low around the perimeter and high in the middle.
"Leave your shoes out here." Helen slipped hers off, and obediently I did the same. "Less sand and grit inside that way."
The tent seemed smaller within than it looked from the outside, and the air was stifling. The dome reached well above our heads, but our cots were set off to the sides where the slope of the roof made us stoop.
"Not to fuss about the heat," said Helen, with a breathy laugh. "We won't be in here much during the day, and the warmth is obliging enough to stick around at night. It's cozy, but it's nice that we're only two. The boys are three in the same space."
I pinned on a smile. I had not shared a bedroom, except with my dog Tony, since Marjorie went away to school five years ago. And here I'd be with a complete stranger!
"I made yours up." Helen smoothed the dull green blanket that lay over a turned-back sheet and thin pillow. Two folded towels sat on the end of the cot.
"It looks worn, but it's clean," said Helen. "My mam is the laundress for the camp, and plenty of others in town. I'll tell you one thing I don't want to be, and that's a laundress. Nor a cook, really, either. But I'm seventeen already, so if I'm not promised to be married soon…" Her voice trailed off.
Which of the thousand possible ways had she meant to finish that sentence? If I'm not promised to be married soon, I shall become an old maid with nine cats. If I'm not promised to be married soon, I shall run away to sea…
"Do you have a beau?" I whispered. Not a question one usually asked a stranger, but it seemed to be what she wished for…As if I'd dropped berry sorbet on a tea cloth, her face went pink that quickly.
"I do," she said, "but you mustn't say, not ever. My dad…" She wagged her head and widened her eyes. "He expects I'll be helping him till I'm forty and toothless. I won't be mentioning my Ned till it's a sure thing, you hear?"
"I'm good at secrets," I assured her. If I'm not promised to be married soon, I'll be chopping onions till my teeth fall out.
Between the beds was a small packing crate in use as a table for a lantern, a speckled tin cup and a notebook with a pencil attached on a ribbon.
"Are you a writer?" I said.
Helen's cheeks became rosier still. She moved the book from the crate to a place under her nubbly blanket. "That's my diary," she said. "Mostly twaddle, my mam would say, not that I'd ever show her."
I began to pull my own notebook out of the pocket I'd stitched to my skirt especially to hold it, but a voice outside interrupted.
"Helen? Are you there?" It was the boy, Arthur Haystead.
"Lord Greyson wishes to say goodbye to Aggie," said Hector.
"We're coming." Helen hopped up and I followed her into bright daylight. Arthur and Hector were mismatched sentinels: one tall and gangly, the other short and perfectly poised. Arthur's sandy hair stuck up like summer grass, while Hector's was as shiny and flat as new paint.
James and Everett were emerging from the biggest tent. The work tent, Helen called it.
"I have been with your hosts," said James. "You will have an illuminating time of it here."
"Thanks for the commendation, my lord," said Everett, not in the least bit respectfully. James laughed and pretended to cuff him. Everett pretended it had been a fierce blow and reeled backward.
But then James turned to me. "Do let us know, won't you?" he said. "How things are going? Marjorie and your mother will love to hear the news."
"Yes, James," I said, "I will write letters. And you needn't add the bit about being good children and obeying our elders."
James tugged on my plait. "Consider all instructions left unsaid. Except for the one about taking care not to fall into the sea. Look after each other. Your grandmother will arrive on Friday, for a weekend of sea air, and I shall collect you in a fortnight for another glimpse of the world's best baby."
He gave me a hug, and Hector a clap on the shoulder. Even Arthur received a salute. Then he strode off along the footpath toward the church and his lovely motorcar. He turned for a final wave, and I realized it was the first minute of the first week of my life when I would have no family within shouting distance. Hector pressed my hand. He'd been living in a whole other country from his parents and sister for nearly a year! How dare I make the slightest complaint? My mind spun back through the million hours Hector and I had shared during his time in England, a few of them scarily dangerous. For one night full of those hours in particular, he had shouted his throat raw with no one hearing.
I squeezed his hand in return, an optimistic promise that no such calamity would strike during this bright-skied, summery week.
- On Sale
- Nov 1, 2022
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Hachette Book Group