Time quake, p.16
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       TIME QUAKE, p.16

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘Pshaw! Have half the waifs and strays of London found their way to my door? Am I to be licked to within an inch of my life by confounded lapdogs?’

  Toby closed his jaws on the Tar Man’s ankle.

  ‘Aargh!’

  A second later Peter saw the little white dog fly through the air and land with a thud in the corner of the hall where it lay as still as the grave. It was then Peter’s turn to become the object of the Tar Man’s attention. He sprang towards him. Through streaming eyes Peter knelt down and fumbled for the cobblestone. He was shaking with fear. A creature caught in the hypnotic gaze of a striking snake. No sooner had Peter’s fingertips closed, too late, around the cobblestone than the Tar Man was upon him. Peter felt himself swung, in his turn, across the hall. He flew through the air. His head hit the wall and for a moment all he could see was a shower of stars. He wondered if he might be unconscious or in the middle of a dream and lay quietly, calm and detached from everything. Presently, however, he became aware of footsteps. He opened his stinging eyelids and squinted into the darkness. Wiping the tears away with the back of his hand, he tried to focus on a dark shape that crossed his angle of vision. The Tar Man was re-entering the hall from one of the rooms that led off it, stepping over the old gentleman who still lay groaning on the threshold. He was carrying something in both hands and now stood, head bowed in concentration as if he were praying. After a minute or so, the Tar Man seemed to grow exasperated and he flung the two objects he was holding into the far corner of the hall, walked a few paces, bent over, pulled something up and proceeded to disappear into the floor! Peter struggled to understand what he was seeing. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. A trapdoor! There must be a cellar, or even a secret passageway, beneath the house! A stink of mould and stagnant water wafted towards him in waves. The contour of the Tar Man’s head was now all that Peter could make out as he pulled the trapdoor down after him. It closed with a clang that echoed within the unseen space into which the Tar Man had vanished.

  Peter looked up at the door at the top of the stairs. His heart began to race. What terrible sight awaited him up there? Peter tried to heave himself up but found he was too shocked and winded to move, so he lay still, helpless as a baby. His ribs hurt and his mouth was so dry his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He felt a terrible longing for an ice-cold glass of Coca-Cola. He licked his lips; he could almost taste it. Fat chance of him getting his wish, he thought. Perhaps he’d never taste his favourite drink ever again . . . Or perhaps somewhere, in one of those parallel worlds Kate’s dad had told them about, there was a house on Richmond Green, with a mum and a dad and a boy called Peter, who would come home from school and raid the giant fridge for salami and Coca-Cola. Suddenly the existence of such a world seemed highly improbable. Home. He hadn’t thought about home for so long. He rubbed at his watering eyes, trying to get rid of the speck of plaster.

  Like a ceasefire, all was eerily silent in the Tar Man’s house while the trail of victims left in his wake tried to recover from their encounter with Lord Luxon’s henchman. The calm was of short duration. The door burst open again and this time Peter saw Gideon hurry down the staircase.

  ‘Gideon!’ cried Peter in delight. ‘You’re alive!’ And then: ‘Stop! Cord! Bottom of stairs!’

  The golden candlelight that now poured down from the Tar Man’s sitting room illuminated the cord that was stretched taut across the stairwell. In the nick of time Gideon spotted it and leaped high into the air, landing heavily on the stone flags next to Peter.

  Gideon looked about him. He saw the old gentleman hauling himself slowly up by the door handle; he saw the little white dog lying still and silent at the far end of the hall and he saw Peter, slumped up against the wall, legs stretched out in front of him like a drunk recovering in a gutter.

  ‘We were trying to stop the Tar Man . . .’ said Peter.

  ‘I do not need to ask how you fared . . .’

  ‘There’s a trapdoor,’ said Peter quickly, rolling on to his side but failing to push himself up from the floor. ‘Over there – he opened it and disappeared down the hole.’

  ‘Then there’s no time to lose. Come, Peter, if you are not too badly hurt, I need you to fetch Hannah.’

  Gideon offered Peter his hand and, with some grunting on both their parts on account of their respective injuries, he heaved him to his feet.

  ‘Sir Richard needs a doctor,’ panted Gideon. ‘As does the Parson.’

  ‘I’ll have no doctor prodding at me! I’ve lost enough blood. A glass or two of port is all I need to steady my nerves.’

  It was Parson Ledbury who spoke, his bulky form swaying to and fro, black against the flickering light. He clung unsteadily to the door handle.

  ‘May I suggest, Parson, that you take the precaution of sitting down before you break your neck.’

  The Parson slithered obediently down the door frame, and sat with a loud thump on the top step. He rested his elbows on his knees and held his bloodied face in his hands. ‘I fear for my cousin, Gideon. Can such an injury be mended? It is his right arm. Please God, Richard will not lose the use of it.’

  Meanwhile the old gentleman had started to crawl towards Toby.

  ‘I’ll get him for you,’ said Peter hurriedly. His head was spinning as he walked down the hallway and he had to steady himself by leaning against the wall. He looked down at the motionless dog and picked it up as you would a baby and cradled it in his arms so that its short legs stuck up in the air. Its dense, bristly fur felt coarse against Peter’s fingers and its head drooped backwards, its jaws slightly apart, revealing black and pink gums.

  The old gentleman had stopped crawling but remained on all fours, his eyes fixed on his canine friend. ‘Tell me the truth, young sir, have I room for hope? Is he warm or cold?’

  ‘He is warm, sir,’ said Peter.

  The old gentleman let his forehead sink to the floor and his back heaved.

  Gideon knelt down next to the old gentleman and put his hand on his back.

  ‘May I help you to your feet, sir?’ he asked.

  The old gentleman shook his head and remained in this semi-recumbent pose.

  Gideon stood up, full of rage. ‘The devil take Blueskin! Is his sole purpose on this earth to dispense an unending stream of misery and fear? Peter, run and get Hannah. I have to bring the Tar Man back to mend Sir Richard’s arm.’

  ‘What?!’ exclaimed Peter.

  ‘There is no time to explain,’ said Gideon, pulling up the trapdoor. ‘Sir Richard will be in an agony of pain when he begins to stir. He will need a nurse.’

  As Hannah helped Kate wrap strips of her petticoat around her feet, a set of fingers suddenly appeared and gripped the bottom edge of the carriage window. A head rose up out of the darkness with open mouth and wild hair. Hannah screamed.

  ‘Don’t do that!’ exclaimed Kate. ‘You made me jump!’

  ‘The Lord preserve us! I took you for a highwayman, Master Peter!’

  ‘Kate! Hannah!’ he panted, in such a rush to get his words out they were almost incoherent. ‘Sir Richard is badly injured and needs help. And the Parson’s been hit on the head and the old gentleman is hurt. Even the dog’s unconscious . . .’

  ‘Whoa! Slow down!’ said Kate. ‘You’re gabbling! What happened to Sir Richard and the Parson? And what old gentleman? What dog?’

  ‘Has the Tar Man shot Sir Richard?’ asked Hannah in alarm. ‘Should we call for a surgeon?’

  ‘No and yes. I haven’t seen Sir Richard but he’s bad . . . The Parson thinks he might lose his arm.’

  ‘What happened?’ cried Kate.

  Hannah crossed herself.

  ‘No time to explain,’ said Peter, backing away from the carriage. ‘Gotta go. Gideon’s gone after the Tar Man alone.’

  Peter’s face vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. Kate thrust her head through the open window.

  ‘Peter!’ she shouted after him. ‘If you wait for me to bind my other foot I’ll come with you
. . . Peter!’

  Peter stopped and looked at her. ‘You’ll have to catch up with me, Kate. You haven’t seen what the Tar Man’s done. I can’t wait – everyone else is injured and Gideon needs some back-up now. You and Hannah come as fast as you can – the Parson and Sir Richard need you.’

  Peter turned and ran.

  ‘And I need you,’ she mouthed into the dark.

  Hannah instructed the driver to find a surgeon and hurried after Kate, her blonde hair coming loose as she ran. Despite her assertions to the contrary, Kate’s feet were causing her problems. The uneven cobblestones hurt her even through the layers of petticoat. She prayed that she would not fast-forward again before she reached Peter.

  ‘You poor soul,’ said Hannah sympathetically. ‘You’re hobbling along like an old woman.’

  ‘Thanks a lot, Hannah!’

  They stopped at the Tar Man’s half-open door and instinctively held hands, unwilling to cross the threshold.

  ‘Just in case,’ said Kate, bending over and scraping off some dry dirt from between the cobblestones. ‘Gideon taught us this trick. If anyone comes at you, just throw a load of dust right into their eyes and then run like there’s no tomorrow.’

  ‘With your feet like they are,’ whispered Hannah, ‘let’s hope you don’t need to . . .’

  They pushed open the door with great care and crept silently into the house. They heard voices. In the middle of the hall floor, a single candle cast a circle of weak light. A strong river smell hung in the air. Until she recognised one of them, Kate’s heart missed a beat when she spotted two figures in the shadows. Parson Ledbury and the old gentleman were sat on the stone flags, legs outstretched, backs to the wall and shoulders propped up against each other. Kate breathed a sigh of relief. They reminded her of two ancient tomcats at the farm, favourites of hers, both strays with torn ears and a good crop of fleas, who would swagger up and down the farmyard bumping shoulders as they went. The old gentleman had tipped back his head and was gulping something down from a small flask, wiping his mouth with a large handkerchief and letting out a deep sigh of appreciation. He offered the flask to Parson Ledbury who took it gratefully and downed a generous mouthful.

  ‘Nectar, my dear fellow!’ he said.

  In return he offered the old gentleman some snuff from a silver box.

  ‘Finest snuff in London. Recommended to me by Sir Richard. I’ll send some over if it finds favour with you.’

  The old gentleman put a pinch on the back of his hand, covered up one nostril and sniffed.

  ‘Upon my word, Parson, it’s very fine. Very fine indeed. I often think it is the small pleasures of Life that are the sweetest of all. When you are recovered I hope you will do me the honour of dining with me at a most agreeable chop house I know in Red Lion Square . . .’

  ‘The Parson seems to have made a friend,’ whispered Hannah to Kate.

  ‘With the greatest of pleasure, my dear fellow,’ said the Parson.

  Hannah coughed to announce their presence and when the two men looked up Hannah bobbed a curtsy.

  ‘Kate! Hannah!’ exclaimed the Parson. ‘Ah, but you are a sight for sore eyes. The Tar Man has run through us like a fox in a hen house but at least none of us is dead – although Sir Richard is bad, very bad. As for this courageous gentleman and his dog, they have both been ill rewarded for coming to our aid.’

  Hannah immediately took out a handkerchief and a water bottle and started to dab at the cut on the Parson’s head. Toby was laid out motionless over his master’s knees. The old gentleman looked up at Kate, his pale features suddenly animated. He bowed his head.

  ‘You are a friend of the young gentleman?’

  Kate smiled and made an attempt at a curtsy.

  ‘I am, sir. My name is Kate.’

  ‘Come nearer, child.’

  Kate knelt down next to him.

  ‘It is an honour to meet any friend of Master Schock – we are comrades in arms. Do you, too, come from foreign parts?’

  ‘I do, sir.’

  The old gentleman scrutinised Kate’s face. ‘Your complexion has a delicacy about it which is very rare, indeed one might almost call it transparent . . . Tell me, my dear, can you sing? It might revive my dog who loves nothing better in the world than a good tune.’

  Kate’s eyebrows crept upwards of their own accord. She got to her feet. ‘Perhaps later once we’ve attended to Sir Richard . . . Where is Sir Richard?’

  The Parson pointed to the door at the top of the stairs.

  ‘And the Tar Man?’ asked Hannah. ‘Where is he?’

  ‘Would that I knew,’ said the Parson. ‘All I can only tell you is that he disappeared down the trapdoor which you see before you. Gideon is in hot pursuit although I do not hold out much hope of success. I cannot deny that Blueskin is a formidable adversary. Master Peter joined in the chase but a few minutes ago.’

  Kate picked up the candle and peered down the gaping black hole in the floor. She could see nothing beyond the first few steps but the strong draught of air that rose up from the darkness made the candle gutter.

  ‘I fancy it leads to the river,’ said the old gentleman. ‘Most useful if your business is of the sort that demands secrecy.’

  Kate nodded and the vision of her friend floundering in dark waters flashed into her mind. She was tempted to dive down the trapdoor there and then. Hannah, meanwhile, had satisfied herself that Parson Ledbury and the old gentleman had suffered cuts and bruises but, as far as she could tell, nothing worse. The dog, however, did give her cause for concern for it did not respond to her touch and when she rested her head on its ribs its heartbeat was barely perceptible.

  ‘How could anyone bring themselves to hurt such a pretty little creature?’

  ‘If Toby dies,’ said the old gentleman, ‘I shall consider it a point of honour to bring his assassin to justice.’

  ‘It is too early to give up hope,’ said Parson Ledbury. ‘He is a game little fellow, and I have observed that in both man and beast, stature and spirit may often be found in inverse proportion.’

  Upstairs, they found Sir Richard flat on his belly, one hand formed in a fist and held to his ear, while his pale, blotchy face was squashed into what Kate recognised as being Gideon’s jacket, folded up into an improvised pillow. His legs were spreadeagled over the bare floorboards. It was hard to witness Sir Richard, a man of such dignity and bearing, being brought so low. Suddenly Kate put her hands to her mouth. She felt sick to her stomach.

  ‘Oh, Hannah, look how his arm is lying! It looks like . . . it’s not joined on properly!’

  Hannah crouched down beside him. ‘Can you hear me, sir?’

  Sir Richard groaned a little but did not open his eyes.

  Hannah spoke softly into Sir Richard’s ear: ‘It is Hannah. Mistress Kate is here with me. I’ve sent the driver to fetch a surgeon.’

  ‘Do you think he can hear you?’ asked Kate.

  Hannah nodded her head and started to slip the sleeve off Sir Richard’s good arm.

  ‘We’re going to take your jacket off and roll you onto your back, sir.’

  Then she turned her attention to his injured arm. Hannah hesitated, both hands hovering above the second sleeve. She and Kate exchanged apprehensive glances. The arm stuck out from the shoulder socket at an impossible angle.

  ‘Go on,’ said Kate. ‘You’re doing so well – anyone would think you were a nurse . . .’

  Hannah sat back on her heels and put her hands firmly back in her lap. Suddenly she looked tearful. Unwilling to let Sir Richard hear what she said, Hannah leaned over and whispered into Kate’s ear.

  ‘I’ve had to nurse more folk in my time than I care to remember on account of one thing and another – my brothers back from the war, and all the fevers that have laid low Mrs Byng’s brood – not to mention Master Jack’s scrofula. It’s often fallen to me. But I don’t know as I dare touch Sir Richard. He is Mrs Byng’s brother – what if I damage his arm further?

 
I think Sir Richard is lucky to be looked after by someone who knows what they’re doing,’ said Kate.

  ‘But I don’t! They say that the body can heal itself but from what I’ve seen of life, it often doesn’t . . . I’ve never seen an injury like this. I don’t know how to treat it, Mistress Kate, save try and make him comfortable – but how can I do that without hurting him?’

 
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