After returning to their hotel to bathe and change out of their swimming things and into light, casual clothes, Steed and Emma went in search of dinner. They decided on a pub near Eastbourne, of which Steed had heard good reports, and now they sat shoulder to shoulder in the snug, legs stretched out in front of them, mostly-empty pint glasses in hand, the remains of an excellent meal on the table before them. The food had been plentiful and well prepared, although nothing elaborate, and the beer outstanding: the perfect thing after a day spent at the beach.
Emma stretched luxuriously, then lounged back against the settee, eyes closed. “Steed, you have a gift for finding good places to eat.”
“Thank you, my dear,” he said as he lay back beside her. “The only thing missing is a fire in the grate, but it’s much too warm at the moment.”
Emma nodded agreement. She was comfortable in a light, strapless sheath dress and sandals, and even Steed had bowed to the influence of the weather, forgoing both waistcoat and suit jacket, although his propriety did not bend so far as to prevent him wearing a tie. Yes, indeed, it was warm, the heat of one of the hottest days of the year so far only just starting to dissipate with the onset of evening. The snug’s window was open to admit a soft breeze that smelled of summer greenery and the faint tang of the sea.
They sat in silence for a moment, enjoying one another’s company and the feeling of ease after a good meal at the end of a long and pleasant day. As Steed took another sip of his beer, Emma turned to him and said, “Steed, I do believe you owe me a story.”
“Yes, I believe I do.”
Steed sat up and drained his glass, setting it on the table. Then he slapped his thighs with both hands and shifted to face Mrs Peel.
“Well, you see, it was like this. During the war, I was initially assigned to a combat unit in Germany, but not long after was drafted into I-Corps and sent back to England for training. It was pretty intense: they needed as many functioning agents as possible in a very short amount of time, but even they realized that we occasionally needed a breather. So after the first six months, they turned us loose with a five-day leave and orders not to leave the country.
“Our training site was outside of London, because of the Blitz, you see, but even so I wanted to get somewhere even more open, where I could breathe clean air and see the sky, and maybe forget for a while the horrors that were going on. So I packed up my rucksack and took a train to Eastbourne, from where I planned to ramble along the coast and over the Downs, staying in pubs or camping in the small tent I brought with me. I arrived in the early morning, tramped through the village, stopping to buy a few supplies, and then headed out to walk the path along the cliffs….”
The grip that encircled his wrist was unbreakable, and the force that pulled him back from the cliff’s edge irresistible. Steed opened his eyes and stumbled backward, pulled by someone, he didn’t know who, but that person soon was going to realize his mistake, and regret it, if any intent to start trouble were involved.
Steed whipped around to find himself face to face with an elderly man, slightly taller than himself, rail thin, with hawklike features and narrow shoulders. His right hand rested on top of a walking stick, but Steed was fairly sure his companion didn’t actually need it as a prop. The man was gazing into his eyes with a piercing glare tempered with concern and, yes, Steed was sure of it, a tinge of alarm.
As they held each other’s gaze, the man evidently read something in Steed’s face that made him let go his wrist with an apology.
“What on earth did you do that for?” said Steed, rubbing his wrist, which still smarted from the pressure of the man’s grip.
“It seemed to me,” said the man, somewhat sternly, “that you were about to toss yourself over the edge, and as that would have been both unpleasant to witness and difficult for the appropriate authorities to clean up afterwards, I thought it prudent to stop you from doing so.”
Steed cocked a disbelieving eyebrow at his intended savior.
“What, so you see me standing here and the first thing you guess is that I’m going to kill myself?”
The other’s glance flashed steel. “My dear young man,” he snorted. “I never guess.”
Steed nodded and crossed his arms, deciding to humor the old goat. “I see. So what led you to that conclusion, then?”
“I saw a young man of an age statistically consistent with many suicides standing entirely too close to the cliff’s edge, his hands slightly elevated away from his his sides and opened with the palms facing front. His head was thrown back, eyes closed, and he was leaning forward as though preparing to cast himself over.”
Steed suppressed a smile.
“Yes, I can see how you might have drawn that conclusion from what you saw. But you apparently failed to take into account the evidence of the rucksack.”
The man glanced at the rucksack that sat on the ground a few feet away.
“A holdall for a suicide note and things to be distributed to one’s survivors,” said the old man.
“A rucksack full of supplies for a rambling holiday around Sussex,” said Steed.
“Could have been used as misdirection,” said the man. “You dress as someone who appears to be doing such, in order to deflect attention from what you actually intend to do, thus allowing you to get this far without interference.”
“Yes, I suppose I could have done. Had that been my intent. But it wasn’t.”
“Yes, that would seem to be the case,” said the man. “Well, if not deciding to end it all and thus begin a great deal of trouble for those who perforce must remain behind, what were you actually doing?”
“Feeling the wind,” said Steed.
“Feeling the wind.”
Steed had to suppress another smile: the old man seemed to be having renewed doubts as to his mental state, albeit along rather different lines than formerly. Steed began to sense some potential for entertainment in the offing.
“Yes. The wind is strong today,” said Steed, “and it seemed a good thing to just stand and let it push me and wash over me, with all that space below, like birds do.”
The man leaned on his stick and looked askance at Steed with an old, dry, calculating regard.
“Ah. Yes. Well, have a care that you don’t trust it to blow you back from the brink, young man.”
Steed picked up his rucksack and swung it onto his shoulders, shooting a cheeky grin at his companion.
“Well, if I don’t trust the wind, how else will I fly, then?”
As the old man seemed to have no answer for this, Steed gave him a jaunty salute, then turned on his heel and tramped off along the cliffs. He was very pleased with himself and how he appeared to have completely stumped the crotchety old busybody. Or had he? Yes, it had been fun to see the old man’s reaction, but at the same time Steed had the nagging feeling that those piercing eyes were studying his retreating back and, what was more, might be understanding things about him that maybe even he didn’t know.