Time quake, p.13
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       TIME QUAKE, p.13

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘Indeed, we are not robbers,’ said Sir Richard stepping forward. ‘And we are gratified to discover that nor are you a member of that profession! May we wish you a good evening, sir.’

  Sir Richard went on to introduce himself and the other members of the party, and once the old gentleman had satisfied himself that he had nothing to fear from them, his countenance relaxed. ‘I am your humble servant, my good sirs,’ he said, inclining his head in a small bow. ‘Robbers cause me no anxiety, I assure you. See, I have a fearsome array of weapons with which to defend myself!’

  He deposited the dog on the floor in order to open his frayed brocade jacket, revealing two pistols, a piece of rope and a dagger which he pulled out of their respective pockets and replaced one by one.

  ‘Upon my word,’ said Sir Richard. ‘I pity the villain that attempts to deprive you of your purse. Are you then in the habit of taking the air at this late hour?’

  ‘I am, good sir, indeed I am. Toby prefers the night to the day and as he is such a remarkable animal I like to humour him.’

  The old man scooped up the dog from the ground. ‘I have children and grandchildren aplenty – and a wife besides – but Toby is better company than any of them.’

  ‘If only we could all be blessed with such an animal,’ said Parson Ledbury, ‘we should be spared the inconvenience of finding human company.’

  ‘You mock me, sir, I know,’ said the old man good-humouredly, ‘and yet I am not about to deprive myself of diversion and affection because my companion happens to have four legs. He is an admirable singer, don’t you know.’

  ‘Your dog sings?!’ exclaimed Peter.

  ‘Faith, Toby sings like an angel in heaven,’ said the old man. ‘I assure you he needs naught but a little encouragement to set him off. Come, Toby, let us give these gentleman a tune:

  The heavy hours are almost past, that part my love and me;

  My longing eyes may hope at last their only wish to see.’

  The old gentleman’s voice was dry as dust, but he could hold a tune. As the old gentleman repeated the refrain, the dog, cradled in its owner’s arms, obligingly started to sing. Peter laughed out loud for the voice that came from its white and clean-angled jaws was at once melodious as well as uncannily human.

  ‘Watch out!’ Peter screamed all at once.

  Instinctively Gideon ducked and only just in time. Out of nowhere a tin bucket filled with slops crashed and splattered onto the cobbles at their feet. The impact echoed over the river and caused the dog to bark wildly. All looked up and flickering candlelight appeared in several windows. A dark figure leaned out of a window a couple of houses away.

  ‘God’s teeth,’ the figure bellowed, his face obscured by the night. ‘Can a man not find repose in his own home without having to listen to such caterwauling? Get you gone before I come down to knock your brains from your heads!’

  The window slammed shut and Peter, Gideon, the Parson and Sir Richard exchanged incredulous looks. Large smiles spread over all their faces.

  ‘Why so cheerful, my good sirs, after such a rude outburst?’ asked the old gentleman.

  ‘Let us just say,’ said Sir Richard, ‘that your dog appears to have a talent for ferreting out rats. Toby has rendered us a most valuable service: he has found him whom we seek.’

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  These Are the Times that Try Men’s Souls

  In which Lord Luxon encounters

  George Washington and marvels

  at the power of the written word

  Lord Luxon contemplated the tall, quiet figure who stood some fifty yards downstream. General Washington wrapped his cloak about him against the savage winter storm, all his energy and all his will focussed on transporting the remnants of his army across the ice-choked river. Unaccustomed to physical discomfort of any kind – other than the consequences of drinking too much wine – Lord Luxon nevertheless willingly endured this icy vigil. His mind and body were on full alert; every nerve tingled with excitement; never had he felt more alive, for tonight he would decide the manner in which he would leave his mark on the world.

  Can it really be true, he thought, that here, in this place, the future of America is balanced on a knife-edge? All at once Lord Luxon questioned Alice’s counterfactual advice, for how could the fate of such a powerful nation hinge on the outcome of one reckless attempt to cross a river? What unique circumstances had contrived to bring history to its tipping point on the banks of the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776? Looking out at the desperate scene playing out before him, Lord Luxon was struck by the yawning gap between Alice’s bare description of the event and the urgent, chaotic reality. He even felt a twinge of compassion for the ragged American Patriots who swarmed over the riverbanks, battling with frightened horses, heavy artillery and rampaging nature. But how could he be certain that a military failure would ensure that Britain retained control of America? And, just supposing that Alice’s hypothesis were true, did the Commander-in-Chief of this struggling army have any notion of the significance of this night? Could Washington feel the weight of history on his shoulders, as he did? There was something about the General’s demeanour that made Lord Luxon suspect that he did. Besides, to cross the Delaware on a night such as this was nothing if not an act of desperation, a last-ditch attempt to snatch at least one victory from the British redcoats and their mercenaries.

  Lord Luxon brushed away the ice that was forming on his greatcoat as he contemplated how best to make a well-placed incision in the fabric of time. Nothing was certain in life but this game was surely worth the candle. In his mind’s eye, he saw his prize: a glorious vision of New York rose into a blue sky from the harbour, and he recalled Alice’s story of how the people of that city had melted down the statue of George III for bullets. Let General Washington beware, thought Lord Luxon, for he has a new enemy, whose very presence, here on this battlefield, he cannot begin to comprehend, and whose most dangerous weapon is undoubtedly history itself.

  And so, from his vantage point, wedged halfway up the largest tree on the riverbank, Lord Luxon observed General Washington and his troops brave the ice floes, and the snow, and the biting north-easterly wind, in order to cross the Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. He watched a flotilla of assorted civilian boats that had been commandeered into service. He counted more than twenty of them. Some were small but others, like the Durham barges, were very long. Indeed, the largest must have been close to sixty feet in length. The river was alive with the sound of ice – it creaked and groaned and rumbled as giant slabs of it were carried downstream.

  The open boats were quickly awash with icy water so that the passengers mostly stood for the duration of the crossing. The tortuous process had started at nightfall. Now it was past one o’clock and there was still much work to be done. Through his night-vision binoculars Lord Luxon watched one boat, crammed with a dozen soldiers, crash into a block of ice big enough to pitch a tent on. The boat would have capsized but for the efforts of two of the men, who dug into the riverbed with their long poles and blindly, inch by painful inch, forced the boat to the bank. What a pity, thought Lord Luxon with a smile, that the Americans are so poorly equipped. How much better they would fare with a twenty-first-century spyglass which allowed one to see in the dark – though he wasn’t about to lend them his own.

  Gradually the determined Patriots began to make some headway. The patience of vast crowds of soldiers waiting for passage was rewarded as they disembarked gratefully at Johnson’s Ferry. The number of bonfires, twinkling like stars, on the far Pennsylvania side began to diminish, while the number of bonfires blazing on the New Jersey bank began to increase. Sentries were sent out to guard the landing place and hundreds of men stood in front of the bonfires while they waited for the rest of the horses and the artillery to be brought over. They all turned like meat on spits, for no sooner had they warmed one side than the other was already frozen again.

  Lord Luxon had never experienced such cold, al
though his earliest memory was of clinging on to his mother’s hand during a frost fair when, unusually, the Thames had completely frozen over. Whilst they had stood marvelling at the sight of a whole ox roasting on a large fire built on the thick ice, a thief had stolen his mother’s purse. He remembered watching gleefully as all their servants gave chase, slipping and falling and crashing into stalls as they did so. To his disappointment the Thames had not frozen since, but if one had to endure cold like this in order to have a frost fair, he would rather do without.

  In any case, one could hardly compare the Thames with the Delaware. If the former ran through one of Europe’s great cities, the latter appeared to flow through the middle of a windswept and inhospitable wilderness. The powerful, glacial winds made it feel even colder, slicing through his greatcoat and making his hands numb and his feet throb painfully despite the layers of warm clothing that William had provided for him and Sergeant Thomas.

  The sergeant had taken up position a few feet below Lord Luxon, on the same tree. His legs were straddled over a stout branch and his back was pressed into the trunk. All night they had listened to an officer barking instructions to his army on the move, his stentorian voice carrying even over the howling storm.

  ‘My throat aches just listening to the fellow,’ commented Lord Luxon to Sergeant Thomas.

  ‘Ay, sir, they are lucky to count him among their number. It would be difficult to imagine how the task could have been accomplished without him. I freely admit that I could not have done what he has this night.’

  ‘Then he deserves our first shot, what say you?’

  ‘He would make an easy target – he is the size of a house!’ But even as Sergeant Thomas spoke, he felt a pang of sadness. The anonymous officer with the booming voice had earned his respect that night. In the heat of battle there was never time for reflection or pity. It was a case of kill or be killed. But there was something unpalatable about hiding in a tree with an aristocrat with hands as soft as a girl, and plotting the death of a man in this way.

  ‘But you have not answered my question. Should he die first?’

  ‘If that is what you wish, sir.’

  ‘Pshaw! It is not a case of what I wish. I brought you here, Sergeant Thomas, in order that you could advise me. I’d wager you’ve seen more action in your time than Washington himself—’

  ‘I’ve been in the army man and boy, sir – almost thirty years.’

  ‘I cannot imagine such a thing! Do you not dream of taking your ease in some cottage by a stream? Of taking a wife, perhaps?’

  ‘The army is my wife, sir.’

  ‘Ha! I believe you! And so, Sergeant Thomas, at what point should we strike? How many men do you suppose I need to transport here to sabotage Mr Washington’s stratagem?’

  ‘I should prefer to see how the night unfolds before expressing an opinion.’

  ‘Very well, Sergeant. Even though I can scarcely feel any of my limbs, if these men can brave this howling north-easterly I suppose that we can do likewise. Although I must say that I can think of more cheerful ways to spend Christmas night.’

  Sergeant Thomas put his binoculars to his eyes and watched the American Patriots struggle to disembark through rows of blocks of ice that were collecting close to the bank like sets of jagged teeth. He pitied them, for rarely in his long career had he seen more trying conditions.

  ‘If I had not witnessed it myself,’ said Lord Luxon, ‘I should have said that this crossing was an act of utter folly.’

  ‘But is that not the beauty of General Washington’s plan, sir? The Hessian mercenaries at Trenton will be warm in their beds on Christmas night, believing the Americans to be on the other side of a broad river without a hope of getting across in such weather. Washington has made an ally of the storm.’

  Night-vision binoculars pressed to their eyes, like two unblinking owls, Lord Luxon and Sergeant Thomas continued to survey the scene from their high and windswept perch.

  ‘What a ragged-looking bunch they are!’ commented Lord Luxon.

  ‘They are battle weary, and poorly supplied, without a doubt,’ returned Sergeant Thomas. ‘But then, if you say that our redcoats and the mercenaries have driven them out of New York and chased them across New Jersey, it is not surprising that their uniform does not pass muster.’

  ‘If uniform is a measure of an army, the American Patriots do little to inspire confidence.’

  ‘The lack of a handsome jacket will not trouble a fighting man, sir, but the lack of shoes will. I have observed many men with nothing more than rags tied around their feet. Have you not noticed the trails of bloody footprints in the snow? This night will bring forth a fair crop of frostbitten toes. Cannon and musket fire do not scare me but I have a horror of the gangrene. Gangrene has the stink of hell about it.’

  ‘Why so? Have you ever been afflicted with it?’

  ‘No, thank God, but many is the time I’ve held a gag for my comrades to bite on while the surgeon got to work with his saw . . .’

  Lord Luxon gulped. ‘Upon my word, Sergeant, what vastly disagreeable images you conjure up.’

  ‘War is not for the faint-hearted.’

  ‘Have a care, Sergeant Thomas – you are impertinent. My father was a fighting man as were all my uncles. He who pays the piper calls the tune, and you and your little band do not come cheap. Like it or not, men of action will not survive long without men of ideas.’

  ‘My apologies, sir, I did not mean to imply . . .’

  ‘Yes, yes, I did not employ you for your silver tongue.’

  There was a lull in the conversation during which the wind howled and the branches creaked all around them. It was Lord Luxon who spoke first.

  ‘You know, Sergeant Thomas, I am a betting man. But were the outcome of this night not already known to me, I should not bet so much as a bean on this lamentable, rag-tag army of amateurs. Lady Fortune is nothing if not surprising. To think that they will defeat the Hessians within a few hours – why, it beggars belief!’

  ‘No one can predict the fortunes of war, sir. It seems to me that courage is indispensable but it is not enough; nor is skill; nor is heart – no matter how much one would like to think it is. I have seen astonishing victories and unforeseen defeats. Nothing is ever certain until the final shot has been fired.’

  ‘Ha! And not even then . . . Tell me, Sergeant, if Trenton is eight or nine miles distant, how long do you suppose it will take them to march there in these conditions?’

  ‘Two hours would suffice for the men – but they must carry heavy artillery over winter roads. I should guess three hours if all goes well.’

  ‘In which case Washington will be lucky to reach Trenton by dawn.’

  Suddenly Sergeant Thomas made a shushing sound. Lord Luxon swept the ground beneath them with his night-vision binoculars and spotted one of the sentries walking in their direction. He watched as Sergeant Thomas waited until he was directly below, jumped on him and wrestled him to the ground. There was a brief altercation, inaudible to Lord Luxon, during which Sergeant Thomas disarmed the man and held the blade of a knife to his throat. Presently he tore off the sentry’s jacket, his tricorn hat and the grimy scarf which he had used to tie it around his head, and then proceeded to bind and gag him.

  He called up to Lord Luxon: ‘With your permission, sir, I should like to stand with the infantry awhile – it will give me a better idea of where to mount the attack.’

  ‘But what of the sentries? Your life is your own but I had rather you not risk it while you are in my service.’

  ‘I have persuaded this fine fellow to divulge the password.’

  ‘Then, by all means, Sergeant Thomas.’

  ‘He should not cause you any trouble – I have bound him tightly.’

  ‘I am astonished that you spared him—’

  ‘The password bought him his life.’

  ‘And you are a man of your word?’

  ‘What would I be if I were not?’

  ‘Like the
rest of the world, Sergeant Thomas. And what, out of curiosity, is General Washington’s password?’

  ‘Victory or Death!’

  Lord Luxon flexed his fingers in the fur-lined leather gloves he had bought in Saks on Fifth Avenue – how he loved twenty-first-century shopping – and wrapped his heavy coat tight around him against the wind. Even so, he still felt in danger of freezing to death if he let himself drift into sleep which somehow the cold beckoned him to do, like a siren willing a sailing ship to crash and falter on her rock. He longed for his vigil to end. Images from his past haunted him – of the balls his mother would arrange at Tempest House and of the men of his family, strutting about like peacocks in shiny black boots, erect and proud in their immaculate uniforms, making the young ladies blush and giggle. How frightened he had been of these good-looking, arrogant men. He would cower behind the pillars of the ballroom and peep out, marvelling at these glamorous creatures who looked as if they had ridden out after breakfast and conquered the world. They had probably, Lord Luxon now realised, spent most of the day losing small fortunes at cards but a dashing uniform still aroused in him feelings of envy and admiration. All of them were dead now, yet they continued to look disapprovingly down at him from their portraits hung in the Long Gallery.

  Half an hour later Lord Luxon heard Sergeant Thomas clambering back up the tree. He reached up to him, a fluttering piece of paper in his hand.

  ‘What is this that you give me?’

  ‘Read it, sir. It is a pamphlet written by a certain Thomas Paine, an Englishman, it seems, but no friend to the crown. It has been read or heard by every man in the American army. It has given them hope and purpose.’

  Turning towards the tree trunk to obscure the tiny pool of light, Lord Luxon took out a small torch and read out loud.

  ‘These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph . . .’

 

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