Time quake, p.29
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       TIME QUAKE, p.29

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  The Tar Man took a coin out of his pocket. ‘See – this is the head of a Roman Emperor . . .’

  ‘What—?’

  ‘Do not speak! Wait and be amazed . . .’

  The Tar Man held the coin between the palms of his hands as if he were praying. Gideon became aware of the horses snorting and pawing the ground nervously as if they sensed something was amiss. Then he began to feel giddy. Gideon gripped the Tar Man’s shoulders more tightly and looked at his brother whose eyes were screwed tight shut in concentration. He listened to his long, slow breaths and saw his chest rising and falling. Then luminous spirals formed in Gideon’s mind and all at once he was aware that the light had changed and that the temperature had dropped steeply. Sheets of freezing rain splattered them. Both men opened their eyes.

  ‘By the devil, that wind cuts straight through you!’ said the Tar Man, then added quickly: ‘Do not let go of me. Keep hold of my arm.’

  Gideon did as he was told. A wintry dawn met his eyes. They stood on a straight road that crossed uncultivated land. There were fewer trees and the shallow brook had disappeared. The sky was the colour of lead, with sickly yellow streaks towards the horizon.

  ‘So how do you like my little trick?’

  But Gideon remained speechless and continued to stare at this different Surrey with round eyes. The road ran very straight across the undulating landscape and in the near distance Gideon saw a lone figure on horseback. He pointed and the Tar Man turned to look.

  ‘Excellent,’ exclaimed the Tar Man. ‘We have company. Now you shall see something to interest you. Come, let us not alarm the fellow.’

  The Tar Man pulled Gideon backwards and both peered out from behind a large gorse bush.

  ‘Where am I?’ asked Gideon.

  ‘We have not moved. We are close to Tempest House – or rather, where Tempest House will be. It is not a question of where, it is a question of when.’

  Soon they could hear horse hooves strike the muddy road. The light on this dismal winter morning was poor, and Gideon wiped the rain from his eyes as he tried to focus on the approaching figure through the prickly branches of gorse. Then despite himself, Gideon let out a small gasp as he caught sight of a Roman helmet. It was enough to alert the soldier to their presence and he immediately rode towards them, shouting something which neither man crouching in the bushes could make out, and pulling out a short, flat sword. Gideon prepared to flee, and let go of the Tar Man. Instantly he found himself fading back into a different landscape where the sun shone and it was warm and he could hear the babble of a brook. A moment later and his brother reappeared, very entertained by the look of alarm on his face.

  ‘But if you can do this at will, what need have you of the device?’ exclaimed Gideon.

  The Tar Man held up the coin. ‘With the device I can select a time at will. With this cruder manner I am at the mercy of the objects I use. You have not told me what you think of my secret, Gideon.’

  ‘But how do you do it? Is it magic?’

  ‘Do you understand how you touch your nose? Well? Touch your nose!’

  Gideon did as he was told and moved his index finger to the tip of his nose.

  ‘How did you do it?’

  ‘I do not know – I willed my finger to move and it obeyed . . .’

  ‘It is the same thing. I sense something in an object, like a hound following a scent, and I will myself to move towards it. Where is the point in questioning how I do it? I can do it – that is all I need to know. So, how do you like my new-found skill?’

  ‘I do not know how to answer you,’ said Gideon. ‘But, upon my word, Nathaniel, you are full of surprises.’

  The other half of the party travelling to Tempest House that day had hoped to reach their destination in daylight. Alas they realised that this would prove impossible when they found themselves only in Cobham at sunset. Lulled by the creak and rattle of Sir Richard’s carriage, Peter had fallen asleep. Kate held on fast to his hand, the fear of fast-forwarding and the toll it took on her fading flesh always on her mind. Soon she felt a damp chill in the air and a bright moon rose in a clear sky. Kate could just make out Parson Ledbury’s silhouette, black against the moonlit landscape. He had pulled off his wig and was slowly stroking the dome of his bristly head with both hands. A sixth sense made him aware that he was being watched.

  ‘I see that sleep evades you as much as it does me, Mistress Kate,’ he said.

  ‘Can I tell you something, Parson Ledbury?’ said Kate.

  ‘By all means, Mistress Kate. I am all ears.’

  ‘The woman, at Bartholomew’s Fair, what she was saying about me – she was right, in a way. I have become a kind of oracle. Since I started to fast-forward, I can see the future. It’s even beginning to feel like normal . . . seeing the future doesn’t seem any stranger than being able to remember the past.’

  ‘Then I pity you with all my heart for that is a burden unfit for young shoulders. What is it that you see, Kate?’

  ‘Lots of things. But most of all I see Peter at the top of a tall building. He’s tired, and shouting, and very upset, but somehow I know he’s going to be all right. I know he’s going to work out what to do . . . But when I think of me . . .’

  Parson Ledbury tried to find Kate’s hand in the dark. ‘Go on . . .’

  Kate tried to speak but could not. Parson Ledbury waited patiently. ‘Every time I think about me, what will happen to me, all I sense is a burden. It feels like I’ve got to do something but I don’t know what it is . . . And beyond that . . . I see nothing – nothing at all . . .’

  Parson Ledbury heard Kate’s shuddering breath.

  ‘And I’m frightened.’

  Peter had been awake for a while. He lay in the darkness, feeling that he was intruding on a private conversation but was unable to do anything about it. He tried to keep still.

  ‘You have shown great courage, Kate,’ said Parson Ledbury. ‘We are not meant to know the future . . . I dearly wish I could take the burden away from you.’

  All three passengers listened to the thunder of hooves and the creaking axle as Sir Richard’s carriage took them ever nearer to Tempest House and the anti-gravity machine. Each was lost in their own thoughts. Presently Parson Ledbury broke the silence.

  ‘Will you pray with me, Kate? I hope it may bring us both comfort.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Kate. ‘Thank you. I should like that.’

  Parson Ledbury knelt down at Kate’s feet as best as he could on the bumpy carriage floor. He took her hand in his and prayed that Kate might be given the strength and the courage and the wisdom to play her part in whatever it was that awaited her. Then he rested his hands gently on her head and prayed that both children might be restored to their families.

  Peter listened in the dark and hoped that Kate was wrong to be so fearful. After all, they were going to fetch the anti-gravity machine! Kate knew the code! They might be back home in a few hours!

  The Parson finished his prayer and as he and Kate said ‘Amen’, Peter fervently hoped that someone up there was listening to them.

  The Tar Man’s attention was taken by a magpie perched on the marble head of Aphrodite. The goddess stood over a splashing fountain that formed the centrepiece of the herb garden on the south side of Tempest House. Gideon and the Tar Man both sat astride the high brick wall under cover of a spreading oak. Heat radiated from the russet-coloured bricks after an afternoon of baking sunshine. Dusk was not far away, but the pale stone of Lord Luxon’s residence still glowed with the golden light of a fine sunset. The magpie flapped down and perched on the rim of the stone pond at the base of the fountain, its head cocked to one side. A long table and two benches had been placed between the beds of sage and thyme and the bird had its beady black eyes on some bread left unnoticed on the grass. The bird walked underneath the table and emerged with a chunk of it. It flew back onto the marble plinth and leaned forward, dunking the crust into the gushing water before swallowing it down. A smile came to
the Tar Man’s face.

  ‘That bird,’ he said to Gideon, ‘has got more sense than the Carrick Gang put together!’

  Gideon put his finger to his lips. ‘Hush . . . we do not wish to announce our presence!’

  ‘There is no one about – with the master away, the servants will play. See – my Lord Luxon never permits anyone to eat in his gardens excepting himself. I’ll wager they are in the kitchens helping themselves to their master’s claret.’

  ‘We do not know that for certain. And we need the key.’

  ‘Yes,’ said the Tar Man. ‘And, as it was you who lost it in the first place, I am happy for you to risk your neck breaking into William’s key cabinet.’

  Gideon scanned the horizon and pointed to a plume of white smoke rising up into sky from the other side of the house.

  ‘The gardener is burning leaves. There is always a bonfire burning at Tempest House. It is nothing.’

  ‘I am astonished that you thought to hide the device in Lord Luxon’s crypt when you no longer have access to his house.’

  ‘When did our old master ever visit the crypt excepting the day of our race? Never! No, Lord Luxon has more pressing matters to concern him than to visit his long-dead relations . . .’

  Gideon took a deep breath before he started to manoeuvre himself off the high wall. The air smelled of lavender and bonfires. The Tar Man held his weight until he was ready to drop. Gideon landed lightly but it hurt his bruised ribs and he winced. While he recovered, his brother tutted unsympathetically above him.

  ‘You do not do justice to your reputation as a cutpurse. Parson Ledbury would make less noise!’

  The Tar Man watched Gideon run silently across green turf and crouch beneath the diamond-paned windows of one of the small parlours Lord Luxon used for card games in the evening. He saw him worrying at the edge of a window with the blade of his knife and, after half a minute, he saw the rays of the setting sun glinting on glass as Gideon levered it open. The Tar Man nodded in appreciation and leaned back against the tree to wait. He had a steady nerve and knew better than to move from his post on top of the wall, for he knew he would be needed the instant Gideon reappeared. However, as darkness fell, and the hooting of owls echoed across the valley, the Tar Man began to fear the worst. Gideon was taking too long. There was something else, too. He regretted positioning himself so close to the fountain. The steady splashing of water onto the pond tended to mask other noises, and he was aware of something, some subtle and indistinct sound, that he could not distinguish. He resisted the temptation to investigate. From his vantage point, he could see the side of Tempest House and, if he leaned sideways a little, he could also see the elegant frontage, with its stone columns and the sweeping gravel drive that led through parkland to the road. He could see nothing to alarm him. The Tar Man had sat still for so long he was growing cold. Now the sun had sunk below the horizon the temperature had dropped sharply. He rubbed his arms and noticed that they still felt sore. Had it been a dream that Mistress Dyer had grabbed hold of him?

  Candlelight had now appeared in several of the downstairs rooms but then he caught sight of a flickering light in an upstairs window on the front corner of the house. It opened – he heard the creak of the hinges even over the sound of the fountain – and then he saw something white being lowered slowly from it. Quickly he realised that it was two sheets, twisted and knotted together. The Tar Man froze in concentration.

  But what, he thought to himself, is Gideon doing upstairs? William’s key cabinet is next to the pantry! He watched his brother climbing out of the window, pressing his heels into the wall of the house and leaning outwards as he held onto the sheet. Then, to the Tar Man’s astonishment, he saw Gideon reach up towards a hand that came from the window and take something from it. The Tar Man had a very bad feeling about of all this and watched in trepidation as Gideon began his descent. He kicked himself. For all his brother was a talented thief he should have gone himself.

  The Tar Man decided to move further up the wall to get a better view. He was stiff and numb from sitting so long and did not trust himself to walk across the wall without losing his balance. So he shifted himself sideways until he had moved perhaps three or four yards. His jaw dropped in disbelief.

  ‘Numbskull!’ he cried. ‘Why did I not follow my instincts and check the grounds first?’

  Pitched in the apple orchard on the other side of Tempest House were rows of white tents. He saw a large bonfire with figures seated around it. There must have been at least two dozen soldiers.

  ‘Redcoats!’ exclaimed the Tar Man out loud. ‘What the devil does Lord Luxon plan to do with redcoats?’

  It was at that moment that he heard the pounding of hooves and crunching of gravel on the drive. Now, to complicate matters further a carriage was approaching! The Tar Man’s heart leaped into his mouth – could it possibly be Lord Luxon arriving back from his adventures? Clearly he was not the only one who thought so – the Tar Man looked helplessly on at the commotion in the house. Servants appeared at the front door with lanterns and torches; uniformed officers joined them, pulling on their jackets as they went; several dogs ran, barking, into the night. Meanwhile the Tar Man watched his brother climb halfway down the sheet only to change his mind and start to climb back up again.

  ‘Don’t be a fool!’ cried the Tar Man. ‘Don’t go back into the house now!’

  One of the dogs, a black and white sheepdog, spotted Gideon struggling to get back through the window and he stood at the foot of the wall and started to growl. The Tar Man contemplated priming his pistol and shooting the beast but decided that it would take too long and make matters worse besides. Before anyone paid too much attention to the overexcited sheepdog, the carriage and six crunched to a halt in front of Tempest House. Parson Ledbury got out, taken aback by all the attention. His powerful voice boomed out over the garden so that even the Tar Man on his high perch could hear every word.

  ‘Good evening, gentleman! I did not expect a welcoming committee! I would not impose on your hospitality, but we are a good five miles from the nearest coaching inn and night has fallen. Would you be so kind as to let me have water for my horses?’

  While Parson Ledbury remained the focus of attention, Gideon slid down the sheet, dropped to the ground and started to run across the herb garden. The sheepdog started to bark excitedly, distracting the Parson’s attention and causing him to glance in Gideon’s direction. Catching sight of his friend’s blond pigtail he immediately looked away again but by then it was too late. The white sheet hanging from the window and the escaping figure were all too visible.

  ‘Stop thief!’ someone cried.

  ‘After him!’ cried another.

  The herb garden was instantly swarming with redcoats and servants bearing flaming torches. The Tar Man undid his belt and returned to his original position under the oak tree. Gideon was running as fast as his legs would carry him towards his brother, pursued by a growing crowd of shouting men.

  ‘Take hold of my belt, I will lift you,’ he shouted down to him.

  Gideon was so close now the Tar Man could hear him panting. As soon as he felt the tug on his belt he started to heave, locking one leg around a bough of the tree as leverage. He pulled with all his might but at this angle Gideon was too heavy for him. The crowd was hot on his brother’s heels. The Tar Man tried again, straining with the terrible effort, but this time he was helped by Gideon who pressed his toes in the shallow cracks between the bricks and pushed himself up. A charging redcoat in full cry aimed his bayonet at Gideon’s back. The Tar Man let out a great shout and suddenly Gideon found himself flying through the air. He caught hold of the top of the wall and then balanced precariously on one foot while he steadied himself on the tree trunk and on his brother’s shoulder.

  ‘Thank you,’ Gideon croaked as they climbed down the tree on the other side of the wall. ‘They’ll not be able to climb it from that side – they must fetch a ladder or go by way of the road. If we make haste w
e can lose them.’

  The two men dropped to the ground and began to run in the direction of the crypt and their horses. When they reached a small copse, the Tar Man slowed down a little and turned to Gideon.

  ‘Tell me you found the key, at least!’

  ‘Ay, I have the key – even though Martha, the scullery maid, came upon me skulking in the pantry. The lass took pity on me. She fetched the key and helped me to escape besides.’

  ‘Ha! You and your pretty face!’

  They ran on through masses of bracken, tripping over stones and the roots of trees. After five minutes of this, Gideon, whose injuries were slowing him down, had to stop. The Tar Man stood with his hands on his waist and waited.

  ‘Were the children in the carriage with the Parson?’

  Gideon was stooped over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. ‘I do not think so.’

  Presently Gideon stood up and turned full circle and listened. Hearing nothing, he knelt down and put his ear to the ground. He stood up again and shook his head.

  ‘No one has been murdered in their bed. They will have given up the chase by now,’ said the Tar Man. ‘And if they have not, I doubt they will guess our direction – why should a thief make for a graveyard?’

  ‘I hope you are right.’

  ‘We shall soon find out. Give me the key while I think on it.’

  Gideon reached into his pocket and pulled out a large, ornate key. The Tar Man took it.

  ‘Good. But why the devil have a gang of redcoats set up camp at Tempest House?’

  ‘Now, that I do know,’ said Gideon. ‘The kitchens and servants’ hall were full of officers playing cards. It is why I could not get to William’s key cabinet. Martha told me that Lord Luxon may take them to the colonies where he is acquiring land. It seems that while he decides what to do with them, they grow impatient of waiting for their marching orders . . .’

  Gideon and the Tar Man ran on through moonlit fields, stumbling and stopping for breath, straining to hear if they were pursued. A cloud passed over the moon and it was so dark that, tired of having their faces slashed by unseen branches, they were forced to walk with their arms bent in front of them. It was the sound of one of the horses whinnying that told them they had arrived at the crypt. There was a thick carpet of dry leaves under the giant beeches that sheltered the Luxon crypt from the elements and as Gideon and the Tar Man made their way blindly forward there was a great rustling and a cracking of twigs.

 
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