Time quake, p.24
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       TIME QUAKE, p.24

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  Nostrils flaring, the soldier’s stallion neighed, and rose up on its hind legs, and pawed the air whilst its rider stared at the fast-approaching carriage with pale, incredulous eyes. The basket of apples tipped up and the fruit tumbled down in a scarlet shower and rolled into the night and vanished. Sir Richard’s horses were beyond fear. For the first time in his life Peter heard a horse scream and it made his blood freeze. The leader stopped in her tracks causing the horses behind to plough into her. The carriage lurched and teetered for a moment on two wheels.

  ‘Hold tight!’

  Gideon’s urgent cry was the last thing Peter heard as the carriage overturned, pulling down the six horses with it. Kate’s knee knocked into Peter’s forehead with a resounding crack as she, along with Gideon, grappled to catch hold of the roof of the carriage. Peter slid down Kate’s legs, the crook of his arm catching on her trainers, and landed in a heap on the cobblestones. Winded and temporarily blinded by the blow to his head, it was a few moments before Peter could open his eyes. When he did, he saw Kate kneeling at his side and leaning over him, alternately looking down at him and shooting apprehensive glances at something he could not see. Peter pushed himself up on his elbows and saw Gideon straining to release the horses from their harnesses. They were in a terrible tangle, struggling and kicking and making shrill whinnying noises.

  Kate put her lips to Peter’s ear and shouted to make herself heard above the deafening roar that enveloped them and caused the earth to vibrate as if the earth’s heart were beating.

  ‘Are you all right?’

  Peter nodded uncertainly.

  Wincing, for the cobblestones had bruised his ribs, Peter turned around to follow Kate’s gaze. She put her arm around him and helped him to heave himself up.

  ‘Do you suppose this is the end of the world?’ she asked.

  Peter did not reply. If this were the end, he could believe it. But how could anyone make sense of any of this? He certainly couldn’t. The tall, narrow buildings, all the taverns and shops and private houses that lined Thames Street, had all simply melted away into the darkness. This world, if that was the right word, ebbed and flowed like the sea and everywhere – below them, above them, all around – were spectres from different centuries. And if these figures terrified him, Peter could see his fear echoed in their eyes. A sunset, last seen when the Romans controlled this ancient city, glinted on the gleaming breastplate and helmet of a soldier. The deep-chested man shielded his eyes with one hand and brandished a short sword with the other. He peered at them through the darkness as if he were looking into a deep, dark cave. A few yards away, a woman, young and pretty, carrying a parasol and wearing a wide crinoline dress the colour of lilac, stood immobile, pressing the head of a small child into her skirts. A wilting daisy chain hung from the child’s plump fingers. The woman, in her turn, was staring at the old gentleman in his battered tricorn hat. He held Toby in his arms, the black patch over his eye making him look cheerful even as he trembled and whined.

  But while the boundaries of the centuries bled one into another, became confused, and converged on this segment of London, Gideon busied himself unfastening the last of the horses. For an instant Gideon and Peter exchanged glances and Peter tried to work out what his friend was calling out to him. Then he realised.

  ‘Courage! All will be well!’

  Peter closed his eyes tight shut against a reality that he could not comprehend and felt Kate’s cold hand in his, gripping it tight, clammy with fear. He allowed the thunderous roaring to wash over him. But, very gradually, Peter realised that the roaring sound was beginning to diminish so that, louder with every minute, he could hear . . . a melody! Gideon was singing! Peter slowly opened his eyes. The pools of light that surrounded the figures from other sunlit centuries now flickered, like guttering candles. Peter wondered what he must look like to them: would their light penetrate his darkness? Is night visible by day? And now, out of sight on the other side of the carriage, Peter heard Parson Ledbury and Hannah singing hymns alongside Gideon. Presently the vertical forms of houses and swaying street signs began to materialise and he knew that it was over. He squeezed Kate’s hand to catch her attention and pointed at Gideon who had picked up Toby and had tucked him under his arm. Both had opened wide their jaws and both were singing to the moon.

  ‘For a moment there I didn’t think we were going to make it!’ said Peter to Kate.

  ‘Nor did I,’ Kate replied. ‘Maybe we won’t the next time . . .’

  ‘Kate!’

  ‘What? We’ve damaged Time. It’s not going to stop. Can you tell me who knows how to mend it?’

  Gideon’s elder brother had been caught on the edge of the time quake. It appeared to him like a great wall of swirling, luminous cloud that loomed out of the darkness. It teemed with ghostly figures that stared out at him and it set every hair on end. He fled, racing through the empty streets, until he could run no more. He bent over while he got his breath back. His forearms stung as if he had been scalded and he could not shake from his head a bizarre waking dream in which Mistress Dyer had taken on the appearance of a witch and had clutched at him with hands that burned like hot coals. The Tar Man was badly shaken: he who was afraid of nothing felt his courage ebb away. Had she wanted to pull him down into hell itself? ’Tis nought but a nightmare, he told himself. Brought on, no doubt, by this citadel of ghosts . . .

  He looked behind him at the unearthly, billowing wall that blotted out even the dome of St Paul’s and made every sense and instinct bristle with a primeval fear. All the same, he felt compelled to face this unknown horror and discover what it was. What I need, he said to himself, is a high place. He looked around him and realised that he was a stone’s throw away from the Monument where, many years before, he had fed meat to an eagle that was kept in a cage on the viewing platform. He decided to break in. The vertiginous stone column rose into the sky like a giant mast. Its height was equal to the distance between its base and Pudding Lane where, a century before, a fire had broken out that had all but destroyed the City of London. It was this calamitous event, he knew, that had inspired the Monument’s construction but, more importantly, it would provide him with a bird’s eye view of London – not as tall as St Paul’s, but then, nothing was. He ran up the narrow spiral staircase, stopping occasionally for breath, until he reached the viewing platform. The eagle had gone. The Tar Man was glad for he could not abide prisons of any kind. He leaned over the railing of the balcony and scrutinised the horror that had struck London. He had been right to come here for he now had a clear view of the disease that threatened his city.

  He saw an amorphous, living mass whose dark contours merged with the night. It stretched over the river from Bankside to beyond St Paul’s. It was as tall as the great cathedral itself – the gilded tip of the dome was only just visible. Luminous patches glowed within it and there was a motion to it, almost as if it breathed. He could not see as clearly as he would have liked, but it seemed to him that this mass was billowing up from either side of a line, as if the earth had cracked and this ominous accumulation was bleeding into the air. His eyes were drawn to a small area well lit by moonlight. At first he did not believe his eyes and strained to see better, but after a few moments he was certain that he could see a line of traffic consisting of two red double-decker buses and several black cabs. ‘Has all order departed from the world?’ exclaimed the Tar Man. ‘Has Nature herself grown sick?’

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  An Appointment in Manhattan

  In which the Marquis de Montfaron acquires

  a taste for flying and Alice makes a

  guilty confession to Inspector Wheeler

  It was less than forty-eight hours after the bonfire on the Dyers’ farm, and a policeman, an Enlightenment philosopher and a henchman’s apprentice had an appointment to keep in Manhattan.

  Tom had merely screwed up his eyes and dug his nails hard into the seat when the plane left the ground at Heathrow. The Marquis de Montfaron,
on the other hand, emitted a piercing cry which competed with the scream of the engine and grew louder and stronger until it reached a crescendo when it suddenly stopped in order for him to make urgent use of the brown paper bag handed to him by Inspector Wheeler. Once Montfaron had calmed down a little, everything fascinated him, from the tiny screens that informed him of the stupendous altitude and speed at which he was currently travelling, to the white plastic utensils, wrapped in plastic, with which, he supposed, he was meant to eat some rather curious food which an attendant had delivered to him on a miniature tray. Tom caused the policeman fewer problems as his approach to the transatlantic flight was to pretend it was not happening.

  The curiosity of the Enlightenment philosopher and scientist, of whom the policeman had grown so fond, knew no bounds and, on their arrival at JFK, Inspector Wheeler felt obliged to urge Montfaron not to spin around quite so much, with his eyes wide in astonishment, for he was in danger of looking like someone who had forgotten to take his medication. The Marquis succeeded in assuming a less feverish attitude but his bright chestnut eyes missed nothing. However, when their cab approached Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge, even though he had seen photographs of the city, Montfaron’s eighteenth-century sensibilities made his heart pound in his chest and his head shake from side to side in disbelief.

  ‘Quelle merveille!’ said Montfaron, his voice cracking with emotion. ‘Tom, can you truly desire to return to 1763, knowing that . . . all this awaits the world? Truly, if I were to die tomorrow, I should feel satisfied with what these eyes have seen.’

  ‘Don’t forget to breathe, my friend,’ said Inspector Wheeler. ‘I’m going to need you to talk some eighteenth-century sense into Lord Luxon if any of us are to have a good chance of surviving beyond tomorrow . . .’

  Montfaron replied without taking his eyes off the view. ‘Forgive me, cher ami. But you must remember that when Mistress Kate first demonstrated her torch to me in my chateau in Amiens, I was struck dumb. It was the most miraculous thing I had ever seen. Can you begin to imagine, then, what passion this astonishing sight kindles in my heart?’

  ‘Ay,’ said the Scottish policeman, ‘I suppose New York’s not bad. Though give me the Isle of Mull any day with just my fishing rod for company . . .’

  Montfaron laughed. ‘Very well, Inspector Wheeler, I see you wish me to keep my feet on the ground in this city of dreams. Do not fear, I understand why you have permitted me to come. Lord Luxon is of high social rank. He will be an educated man and doubtless a man of reason. He will listen to me, I am certain of it. Once he understands what damage time travel is inflicting on the world, it will be easy to persuade him to return the machine.’

  ‘Ever the optimist!’ said Inspector Wheeler. ‘What do you think, Tom? If we ask ever so politely, do you think Lord Luxon is the sort of fellow to help the police with their enquiries?’

  Tom, too, was mesmerised by the view. ‘When my Lord Luxon sees this prospect, sir, I do not think he will wish to listen to reason.’

  ‘But how did you know it was me who sent the email?’ Alice had asked when she and Inspector Wheeler had first spoken on the telephone.

  ‘Let’s just say that if you’re serious about wanting to remain anonymous, Miss Stacey, I would advise you to stay clear of computers. My colleagues at Scotland Yard managed to obtain your personal details in less time than it took me to fetch a cup of tea. Oh, and I’ll give you another tip for nothing – when you’re taking a photograph, try not to catch your own reflection in the ice bucket in front of you.’

  Alice groaned. ‘So I may as well as have sent NASA a picture with my name taped to my forehead . . .’

  Inspector Wheeler tried not to laugh. ‘I take it that your reason for wishing to remain anonymous was professional?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Well, I can understand that . . .’

  Inspector Wheeler was reluctant to divulge any information to Alice over the telephone until he had satisfied himself that her mystery friend was, indeed, the same Lord Luxon about whom he had received certain information.

  ‘About whom you have received certain information! Give me a break, Inspector! You can’t keep me in the dark over something like this!’ exclaimed Alice. ‘You’d hardly be willing to drop everything and fly over from London for a parking violation or for late payment of taxes! What are we dealing with here? Is he dangerous? Is he mad? Is he a wanted criminal? Is there a connection between Lord Luxon and the rumour that NASA has invented time travel?’

  Inspector Wheeler steadfastly refused to be drawn.

  Alice had already arranged to meet Lord Luxon at seven o’clock on Saturday evening on the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They were due at her aunt’s party at eight. Inspector Wheeler undertook to be there, together with two colleagues, at six p.m. Hopefully they would be able to identify her acquaintance there and then and, if he did, indeed, turn out to be one and the same Lord Luxon, then they would take it from there.

  ‘Just one last thing, Miss Stacey. I am puzzled why this gentleman sought you out if, as you say, you were total strangers until recently. What is the connection? Can you think of anything that can have drawn him to you in particular?’

  Alice thought for a moment. Now it was her turn to be guarded. ‘He’s into American history. And I’m an historian . . . That’s it.’

  ‘There’s nothing else that you can think of?’

  ‘No . . . but, Inspector Wheeler . . .’

  ‘Yes?’

  ‘At the risk of sounding foolish, I’d be grateful if you could answer one question for me.

  ‘What question might that be, Miss Stacey?’

  ‘Can you tell me, categorically, that this is not a man from the eighteenth century who has come to the future with a particular purpose in mind?’

  There was a pause on the other end of the line just long enough to make Alice’s heart miss a beat.

  ‘I will do my best to answer all your questions on Saturday afternoon. In the meantime, I think it might be best if you avoided speaking or meeting with him.’

  Alice replaced the receiver with a click and clutched her face with her hands. He had not laughed at her suggestion! He had not dismissed the idea as the most ludicrous thing he had ever heard. She staggered to the window of her aunt’s Upper West Side apartment as if she had received a blow to the stomach.

  The roof garden of the Met was bathed in the golden sunshine of a summer afternoon. Couples were draped over the rails looking out at the stunning views of Central Park against its backdrop of midtown skyscrapers. There was the hum of conversation and laughter as people milled around the deck edged with green hedges. Alice sat at a small table drinking tea with her three new acquaintances. While Detective Inspector Wheeler fitted Alice’s preconception of an aging Scottish policeman, she was surprised when she was introduced to his so-called colleagues. The boy, she felt, could have been cast as one of Fagin’s boys in Oliver Twist, and she did not yet know what to make of the tall Frenchman with the impressive title.

  Inspector Wheeler sensed the young woman’s anxiety straight away. She looked as if she had not slept and she could not keep still, crossing and uncrossing her legs and running her hands repeatedly through her hair.

  ‘Inspector, are you able to tell me who Lord Luxon is?’

  ‘All in good time, Miss Stacey. I’d prefer it if you would first tell me what made you contact NASA? What aroused your suspicions?’

  Alice slid a pair of large-framed sunglasses onto her nose. ‘Lord Luxon asked me for an opinion – on an historical event – and I gave it. Why wouldn’t I? I’m an historian – it’s what I do for a living. But afterwards certain things that I observed about him prompted me to make . . . some assumptions. And although I had no firm evidence to go on, those – admittedly far-fetched – assumptions made me wish that I had been less free with my advice.’

  ‘Could you be a little clearer, Miss Stacey – what advice are we talking about here? What assumpti
ons have you made?’

  Alice opened her mouth to speak but the words would not come out. Whether this was due to guilt or to a fear of ridicule she was not quite sure.

  ‘Courage, chère mademoiselle,’ Montfaron said to Alice. ‘Upon my word, whatever you might have told the fellow, we have come here to help you – and to reason with Lord Luxon.’

  ‘Upon my word!’ Alice repeated. She looked at the Marquis de Montfaron and her eyes widened. She stared at his ponytail and then at Tom’s less than perfect teeth. Suddenly she leaned over towards Tom, and practically spat out a question.

  ‘I’ve forgotten the name of King George III’s wife. What is it?’

  Tom looked startled. ‘Qu . . . Queen Charlotte, madam.’

  ‘And their son, their eldest son, how old is he now?’

  ‘George is but a babe in arms . . .’

  Alice shot up in horror. Inspector Wheeler raised his eyes to heaven.

  ‘What year are you from?’ she said to Tom. ‘1762? 1763?’

  ‘Can I please ask you to stay calm, Miss Stacey . . .’

  Alice was pointing her finger at Montfaron and Tom. ‘They . . . they . . .’

  ‘Yes,’ replied Inspector Wheeler quickly. ‘They are, but let’s not shout it from the rooftops.’

  ‘But if they are, then Lord Luxon is, too!’ cried Alice, looking around her at the crowds on the roof terrace. ‘Just how many visitors are there from another century?’

  ‘To the best of my knowledge, three. And very shortly all three of them should be congregated here, on the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum.’

 
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