Time quake, p.14
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       TIME QUAKE, p.14

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘Ha! Tyranny! It is a British colony! Their relatives still live out their lives in Surrey and Norfolk and the Yorkshire Dales! It is but a small matter of paying tax to the Crown . . . In any case, the Americans will invent their own taxes soon enough and doubtless they shall prove as painful to pay as any of those levied by King George. But I agree that this Mr Paine knows how to pen a sentence. “These are the times that try men’s souls . . .” It sounds like a drumbeat.’

  ‘Those words are on every man’s lips. Their morale is high – they have a purpose. They are fighting for their own freedom.’

  ‘Did I not say to you, Sergeant Thomas, that every man of action needs a man of ideas?’

  ‘Some men need to be inspired before battle.’

  ‘But not you?’

  ‘No, sir, I am a war horse. Put my blinkers on and I shall fight until death takes me or I am told to stop. It is what the army has taught me.’

  ‘Then, Master War Horse, tell me what information you have learned on your reconnoitre.’

  ‘I saw General Washington sitting on an old beehive—’

  ‘A beehive! Does the Patriot Army not run to chairs?’

  ‘I cannot comment, sir. The General was deep in thought while his men struggled with the cannon and the horses around him. I fancy he was wondering if he should give up the task – and perhaps he was thinking, too, that it would be just as foolhardy to turn back. I liked the look of him – he is in a tight spot yet he is resolute and there is a calmness about him—’

  ‘Yes, yes. General Washington impressed you. What else?’

  ‘It seems that most of the men are signed up until the new year – in a week they will be free to return to their homes but they know General Washington will ask them to stay until the job is done.’

  ‘Which is a worry for him but hardly for me. What else?’

  ‘The officer in command of the crossing – with a voice so powerful it carries over the roar of the wind – he is Colonel Henry Knox. I pity the horse that has to carry him for he is a mighty figure of a man. From what I have seen tonight, he is a man with the instincts of a soldier – which is rarer than you might suppose. I also learned of something else which has given me some cause for concern.’

  ‘And what is that?’ asked Lord Luxon sharply.

  ‘It is not Washington alone who attempts to cross the Delaware this night. There are two other forces – one at Trenton and another further downstream. If Washington fails this night it may be that other forces will arrive to take his place.’

  ‘Damn your eyes, Sergeant Thomas! Why did you not tell me at once! That is bad news, indeed!’

  ‘Perhaps they fail, sir – in this storm—’

  ‘And perhaps they succeed,’ snapped Lord Luxon. He sighed. ‘No matter. I shall consult Alice on my return – if she has not been frightened to death by your wretched hound!’

  They watched the last cannon being unloaded and saw the men assembling into a snaking column, ready for their long march to the Hessian mercenaries’ encampment at Trenton. It would be a march not only to Trenton, but, if Lord Luxon’s plan failed, also to a glorious victory that would revive the Patriot cause and save it from military disaster. Lord Luxon felt a pang of doubt for the first time that night. How could he stop Washington and the Patriots wrenching the colonies from Britain’s grasp?

  ‘And so, Sergeant Thomas, what should be our strategy? Have you formed an opinion?’

  ‘I have, sir. My first thought was that we could make do with fifty or sixty men if our attack was timely enough – but I am now of the firm opinion that if we strike early in the evening, when the storm raged fiercely and morale was at its lowest ebb, we need only a party of four. The death of two men should seal the Americans’ fate.’

  ‘Four! I fancied you were going to ask for two hundred! As for the two men, you refer, I imagine, to General Washington and Colonel Knox.’

  ‘I do, sir.’

  ‘Then, so be it! With your words you have signed their death warrant, Sergeant Thomas. Rather than passing into the golden annals of history, the crossing of the Delaware shall be held up as a failure; it shall be viewed as an ill-judged attack in which a rarely remembered general called George Washington met his death. Above all, this night shall be remembered as the beginning of the end of a short-lived adolescent rebellion against Mother England!’

  Sergeant Thomas could not reply. The emotions that quickened his heartbeat were conflicting ones and Lord Luxon’s words rang in his ears. He found he was trembling, but not on account of the cold.

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  Brothers in Blood

  In which the Tar Man confronts Gideon

  with a truth he is reluctant to accept

  and Gideon recalls an early memory

  ‘By the laws!’ the old gentleman exclaimed when he heard the Tar Man’s name. ‘Do you speak of the impudent hound with the scar down his cheek who has every villain in London under his thumb or in his sights?’

  When Sir Richard verified that the party was, indeed, in hot pursuit of this very individual, the old gentleman grew agitated.

  ‘Why, then, he is the same rogue who swindled my brother out of two brood mares and took so much off him at the card table he had to sell his cutlery!’

  When the old gentleman would not be dissuaded from coming to their assistance, Sir Richard grew finally tired of arguing with him. He asked him to stay with Peter. They could both, he said, be on guard duty at the entrance to the alleyway leading to the Tar Man’s house.

  Following Sir Richard and Parson Ledbury into the alley, Gideon shot one last look at Peter and mimed lobbing a stone. Peter held up the cobblestone he had managed to prise up from the path and gave Gideon the thumbs-up sign. Gideon nodded and disappeared into the alley.

  Tucked under his master’s arm, Toby’s ears lay flat against his head and, as its owner had promised, the animal did not make a sound. Peter let out a long sigh of frustration. The old gentleman turned and put his mouth to his ear. Peter could smell his warm, brandy-laden breath.

  ‘Though ’tis done with the best of intentions,’ he whispered, ‘the old and the young are oft protected from dangers they would be happier to face. It can be vexatious in the extreme, can it not, Master Schock?’

  Peter nodded. ‘It’s true. Grown-ups think they’re looking after you when half the time it’s them that need looking after . . .’

  Peter became aware of the old man scrutinising him so long and so hard he became uncomfortable. He looked away. The sound of distant thunder rumbled across the city like a succession of explosions. The atmosphere felt heavy and oppressive as if it were about to pour with rain, yet the skies were clear.

  ‘Who are you, child? Your speech is strange and your circumstances the more so.’

  Peter could not help sighing again. He wished Sir Richard had not left him with the old gentleman to deal with. ‘No, I don’t come from here. But I can’t return home until we get our hands on something the Tar Man has stolen. We’ve absolutely got to get it back – and it’s not going to be easy.’

  ‘An unhappy predicament . . .’

  ‘You can say that again – and the Tar Man is a seriously nasty piece of work, I can tell you. And he’s clever.’

  ‘Well, may success attend you, my boy! We shall not let the brute pass, shall we, Toby? We shall tear him to shreds before we let him get away. What say you, young sir, that we display a little more spirit than perhaps your companions would ask of us? I feel my juices stirring!’

  ‘What do you mean? Gideon said he needed me for a lookout – I don’t want to let him down . . .’

  ‘Lookout? ’Tis naught but a ruse to keep you out of harm’s way. Where is your bottom, young sir?’

  ‘It’s not a question of bottom!’ Peter protested. ‘I’ve got plenty of bottom! But please try to keep your voice down! We could ruin everything if—’

  The old gentleman ignored him and started to hobble energetically towards the Tar Man
s house, his cane clicking against the cobblestones. He paused, however, to turn around to face Peter and hold up a knife. Its short blade glinted in the moonlight.

  ‘If this villain is as dangerous as you say, your companions will welcome reinforcements – and see, I am armed!’

  Then he pulled out a length of cord from an inside pocket which he tossed over to Peter.

  ‘And now so are you!’

  Peter caught the cord in one hand. ‘Please come back!’ he begged as loudly as he dared. ‘Please!’

  But it was too late, for the gentleman had already disappeared out of sight, Toby tucked under his arm. I’ve got enough people to worry about, thought Peter furiously, without having to mind an old man and his dog! But perhaps the old gentleman was right. Gideon could do with his help – even if he didn’t know it yet. Peter had realised something about Gideon while witnessing his fight with the Tar Man. It was just not in Gideon’s nature ever to give in or go back on his word. Even when no one else would think of blaming him. This time, Peter thought – if it comes to it – I’ll be there to save Gideon from himself. Clutching the heavy cobblestone to his chest, Peter followed in the old man’s footsteps. As he disappeared into the alley he glanced over at the moonlit carriage where, he hoped, Kate slept peacefully on, oblivious to all.

  Sir Richard took the Parson’s gunpowder horn and began to charge and prime the pistols. Gideon, meanwhile, crouched down next to the Tar Man’s back door to examine the keyhole. He took a small penknife from his pocket and probed and rattled the mechanism. In less than a minute he had picked the lock and, with the blade of his knife, had lifted the inside latch. He rose to his feet and, with the tip of his index finger, pushed the door very gently. It creaked open a thumb’s width.

  ‘Bravo, Gideon!’ whispered Sir Richard.

  The Parson was even more impressed. ‘Upon my word, Mr Seymour! You are a man of parts! I can see how your guilty conscience has cost Lord Luxon dear! Indeed, I begin to perceive why he was angry enough to wish to see you hang!’

  ‘I am not proud of possessing such a skill,’ replied Gideon sharply. ‘I do this solely because Master Peter and Mistress Kate are in dire need . . .’

  ‘Come, come, Gideon!’ whispered Parson Ledbury. ‘Would even a saint object to breaking into a thief ’s house in such circumstances? You are too scrupulous!’

  ‘And you are too loud, my friend,’ hissed Sir Richard. ‘The Tar Man is within and I doubt not that he has sharp ears . . . Come, let us do the deed.’

  Holding the door with both hands, Gideon swung it wide open in one rapid movement in case the hinges should squeak. They peered inside the yawning entrance. The air that escaped from the house was cool and smelled of damp. On the ground floor all was in darkness, but on the floor above, straight ahead of them, they saw a stripe of yellow light pouring out from a gap at the bottom of an ill-fitting door. This scrap of candlelight was sufficient to reveal a bare and narrow stairwell whose steep steps led down to the whitewashed hall where the three men now stood huddled together.

  Sir Richard handed one of the pistols to Gideon. He took it and weighed it in his hand, taking a moment to get used to the feel of this untried weapon. It was a handsome pistol with an engraved brass barrel. Gideon ran his thumb over the flintlock and cast an eye over the primed flash-pan, taking care to blow away the dusting of powder Sir Richard had left on the barrel of the pistol. Then, pointing it at the floor, he slowly squeezed the trigger to test its resistance. Sir Richard smiled. Finally satisfied, Gideon grasped the pistol and held it in front of him.

  ‘Will it pass muster, Colonel Seymour?’

  ‘Ay, it will do.’ Gideon’s good eye twinkled. Then he added: ‘I once saw a man’s hand blown off on account of a poorly primed pistol.’

  Sir Richard raised an eyebrow at Parson Ledbury but made no comment. Gideon started to move slowly and carefully towards the staircase. He motioned to his companions to stay put.

  ‘If it came to it,’ whispered Parson Ledbury into Sir Richard’s ear, ‘do you suppose either of them would be capable of killing his own brother?’

  Sir Richard put his mouth close to the Parson’s ear in his turn. ‘If they are brothers I doubt not that the Tar Man would have few scruples about the matter. But in the fever of combat I believe that a man is capable of anything – even Gideon. And knowing him as we do, I fear his keen conscience would plague him ever afterwards.’

  ‘I shall endeavour to put myself between them if I can,’ said Parson Ledbury.

  ‘Well said, my friend, I shall attempt to do the same. But I hope that no blood will be shed. Blueskin is nothing if not shrewd – provided we make it worth his while to return the device he may yet be tempted to give it up. I shall put my faith in diplomacy.’

  They watched Gideon climb the narrow flight of stairs, with steps as light and sure as a cat’s. When he reached the top, he held his pistol at the height of a man’s heart and aimed it at the door. The Parson and Sir Richard saw him cock his head to one side as if he were listening to something and presently they, too, became aware of a regular, rasping sound coming from the other side of the door. Gideon turned towards them and mimed the forwards and backwards motion of someone sharpening a knife on a grindstone. Sir Richard felt the Parson’s hand on his sleeve.

  ‘God go with you, my friend,’ whispered the Parson.

  ‘God go with us all,’ Sir Richard replied.

  The gathering storm was still threatening to break. Gideon signalled for Sir Richard and the Parson to join him under cover of a distant thunderclap that rumbled over the city towards them. They climbed up the stairs on tiptoe, treading as delicately as they were able which, in the Parson’s case, was not easy. A floorboard creaked underfoot and the sound of the Tar Man sharpening his knife abruptly halted. They all stared, unblinking, at the door, not daring to breathe, fear pricking at them, listening to the sound of blood thumping in their temples. After a few seconds the swish of a knife blade against well-oiled stone started up again and all three men slowly let out their pent-up breath.

  ‘Ready, gentlemen?’ mouthed Gideon to his two companions.

  They nodded.

  Gideon swallowed, hesitated for an instant, then hurled himself at the door. The adrenaline rush of fear sharpened his senses to that extent that time itself seemed to slow down and nothing seemed quite real. He was aware of a circular window to his left and of the door slamming hard against the wall behind him to his right and, in front of him, flickering red flames and a sudden blast of heat. His eyes darted about the well-lit room in search of the Tar Man but he saw only a pair of boots warming by the hearth and a long black coat draped over the back of a chair next to them. Then he felt Sir Richard and Parson Ledbury push roughly past him. He barely had time to ask himself why they were doing this when he heard a dull thud somewhere to his right. A flurry of panic rose in his chest, like a dying bird. Gideon swung around but even before he had turned ninety degrees, a pistol went off inches away from his face and the sheer force of the detonation knocked him off his feet. He crashed to the floor, the pistol shot booming in his ears and the pungent odour of gunpowder stinging his nostrils. Gideon was too dazed to know if he were wounded or unhurt, and then, as bits of the lath and plaster ceiling, damaged by the grapeshot, started to fall down on him, he had the happy sensation that he was lying on his back in a heavy snowstorm. Was that his pistol flying across the room? Something skidded across the bare wooden floor. Gideon’s fingers closed over his empty palm and, through his confusion, all he knew was that he had to get up and retrieve that pistol at all cost. Gideon blinked, conscious of a terrible ringing in his ears, and tried to focus his one good eye. If only he could move; if only he could see . . . Gradually the swirl of shapes in front of him stopped spinning and solidified in the form of two figures looming over him. One of the heads leaned over at an unnatural angle while the other seemed to have a vertical line drawn down one cheek, rather like a scar . . . Blueskin! Gideon shot up, crying o
ut with the pain of it, but relieved, at least, to realise that the electric pains that streaked down every nerve in his jaw and back and arms were not caused by any new wound but were simply those inflicted earlier in the evening.

  The Tar Man observed him coolly over Sir Richard’s shoulder. Something was not right. Sir Richard was standing awkwardly. His face was grey and contorted with pain while his watery eyes seemed to look straight through Gideon without seeing him. Then Gideon noticed the knife pressing into Sir Richard’s neck and saw how the Tar Man was pinning his right arm behind his back. Gideon had seen this manoeuvre before. He prayed that Blueskin would not continue with it.

  ‘’Tis a little premature, would you not say, Gideon, for a second beating? You should have a care for your good looks – if I did not know better I should have said that Featherstone’s wagon had rolled over you.’

  Gideon struggled to take in the situation. His eyes slid sideways towards Parson Ledbury who lay slumped over a table strewn with clutter. Blood oozed from a cut on the Parson’s forehead. It was forming a small red pool on the tabletop and was then trickling, drop by drop, onto the bare wood floor. The Parson was semi-conscious and groaned loudly as if he were in the middle of a nightmare.

  Gideon looked back at the Tar Man. Though his lips were moving, Gideon’s ears were ringing too much for him to catch most of what the Tar Man said. He shook his head violently. When he looked up again, Sir Richard’s desperate and terrified gaze now met his own, pleading silently for help. The point of the Tar Man’s knife pressed into Sir Richard’s throat, his skin white and barely resisting the pressure of the blade.

  Murder, Gideon knew, was something the Tar Man tried to avoid – on account of the complications in one form or another that would always ensue – but he would not shy away from the deed if circumstances demanded it. Everyone who knew Blueskin had some gruesome tale to tell. This was, of course, only what the Tar Man would have encouraged for, as Lord Luxon’s henchman, terror was his currency. Gideon himself had once witnessed an attack on the Tar Man as he had stood drinking beer one afternoon in Covent Garden Piazza. The assassin had made the fatal error of attacking with the sun behind him so that his shadow gave him away. Gideon recalled how dispassionately the Tar Man had turned and slit the wretch’s throat from ear to ear before walking away, brushing down his jacket as he did so, even remembering to toss a coin to the landlord in payment for his ale. The grotesque fountain of blood, spurting forth in the warm sunshine before ebbing gradually away, had cowed the bustling crowd into a deep and eerie silence. Yet a few minutes later porters had removed the corpse, the landlord had sluiced down the cobblestones with buckets of cold water and the robust Covent Garden crowd, who had seen everything, continued about their business.

 
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