Time quake, p.31
TIME QUAKE, p.31Linda Buckley-Archer
‘You may stop here,’ he said to the cabbie, finally accepting that he could not deny the evidence of his own eyes. This, whether he liked it or not, was what two and half centuries of British rule had done to New York.
When Lord Luxon asked if the café was air-conditioned, the waitress stared at him with such a blank look on her face that he did not bother to repeat the question, but went instead outside, and sat at one of the rough wooden benches overlooking the square. It was by now three o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun had burned away the cloud cover. The city was suffocating. The drains and the gutters stank. Hoping for a breeze which did not come, Lord Luxon stirred his cup of coffee. A large plane tree cast dappled shade but he did not feel any cooler. Opposite him sat a florid-faced man with neat white hair. He wore an immaculate white shirt with engraved cufflinks and he was reading through some documents, making occasional corrections with a gold-nibbed fountain pen. A pot of tea and a plate of scones stood in front of him on the bare wooden bench. When he asked Lord Luxon to pass him the sugar, he obliged, sliding over a half-empty bowl crawling with flies. Lord Luxon sighed deeply. He was already beginning to turn any remorse about what he had done into anger and disappointment at his fellow countrymen. What a lamentable lack of vision, he thought bitterly. What a terrible admission of mediocrity. Lord Luxon was all at once so angry he found himself about to thump the table. To stop himself, he clasped his hands together, very tightly, and put them on his lap. Absent-mindedly, he observed his whitened knuckles and the half-moons of his thumbnails. Something made him lift up his hands to examine them more closely. He looked at the fine gold hairs on the back of his hand and at the pattern of lines on the palms. He had the absurd, if fleeting, notion that his flesh did not look as solid as it normally did.
Lord Luxon took a sip of his coffee. ‘Phwoah!’ he exclaimed, spitting out the muddy liquid over the scrubby grass. ‘Oh! Oh!’ He wiped his mouth with a paper napkin and smacked his lips together trying to get rid of the taste.
The man opposite laughed heartily. ‘You must be new in town to order coffee!’
‘I shall not make the same mistake again,’ replied Lord Luxon.
‘Jack Grafton,’ said the man, extending his hand.
Lord Luxon hesitated for a moment and shook it. ‘Mr Luxon,’ he said.
‘Luxon!’ laughed the man. ‘How very appropriate.’
Lord Luxon wanted to ask why it should be so, but decided against it. ‘Indeed.’
‘I detect another Englishman by the sound of your accent.’
Lord Luxon nodded. ‘You are correct in your assumption, sir.’
‘Well I, for one, am counting the days until I can get back to London. I loathe New York, especially in the summer. Alas, I have an important client who insists on expanding his business into the American market. Be satisfied with Canada, I tell him. What’s the point of battling with all that transatlantic red tape for a country with a population the size of Scotland?’
Lord Luxon gulped. ‘Quite so.’
‘And what about you? I presume you’re here on business?’
‘Yes . . .’
‘What line are you in – if you don’t mind me asking?’
‘Oh, I came here to acquire a foreign property . . .’
‘A holiday home, you mean?’
Lord Luxon smiled. ‘In a sense.’
‘No. You could say it has been a disaster.’
‘I’m sorry to hear it. But perhaps it’s a good thing – New York is a backwater. Property is cheap – but you can never be sure that it will retain its value. Personally, I don’t think you can beat southwestern Canada, particularly San Francisco. The climate is good and it’s got a very European feel to it – King Louis XXIV of France has a holiday home there, I believe . . .’
‘Really?’ Lord Luxon raised his eyebrows and watched the gentleman spread jam and clotted cream on his scone.
‘Forgive me, but what precisely did you mean when you said that it was appropriate that I found myself here?’
The gentleman smiled. ‘Look up, Mr Luxon!’
He pointed to a street sign above their heads.
‘Upon my word! Luxon Square! Do you, perchance, know the reason? Are there any famous Luxons?’
The gentleman looked at him, clearly surprised that he should be so ill-informed. ‘With your name, how odd that you don’t know all about them! The Luxon family is fabulously wealthy. They own half of London and great tracts of Canada and America besides.’ He pointed up at the sign again. ‘The most famous of them all, at least on this side of the pond, was this one, Lord Edward Luxon.’
Lord Luxon could barely disguise his delight. ‘And why did they name a square after him?’
‘The story is that he came to America incognito and assassinated some general, whose name I’ve forgotten, when the early colonists were causing trouble. He was certainly made first Duke of New York for his pains. Still doesn’t ring any bells?’
Lord Luxon shook his head, biting his lower lip to stop himself laughing out loud in delight.
‘And you see that?’
The gentleman indicated the statue of the lady in Grecian costume in the centre of the square. ‘That is a reproduction of a statue you can see in the Luxons’ family seat, Tempest House, in London.’
Lord Luxon swung his head around and scrutinised the statue. His eyes suddenly sparkled with recognition. Of course! It was the statue of Aphrodite that his father had commissioned for the fountain!
‘Tempest House is in London?’
‘Yes, close to the Surrey borders. It is sublime. If you’ve never been, you must go. They have regular open days. The gardens are spectacular – there are water gardens that cascade the full length of the valley. And as for the house itself . . . Are you positive you don’t know what I’m talking about?’
‘I do not, I assure you. Go on . . .’
‘Well, the house easily rivals Versailles. It’s enormous – but beautiful, too. An architectural masterpiece. And stuffed full of the most amazing artefacts. There’s one wing of the house entirely devoted to timepieces. Thousands of the things. The children love it, of course. When the hour strikes, it’s deafening.’
‘I promise you that even if that sort of thing normally leaves you cold, you’ll go around Tempest House open-mouthed. They say that Lord Edward Luxon bled America dry to pay for it . . .’
Lord Luxon stood up. ‘Thank you for your company, Mr Grafton. Talking with you has brought on a sudden pang of homesickness. Upon my word, why tarry in America when Tempest House awaits?’
The Luxon Wall
In which Kate demonstrates to Lord Luxon
the consequences of travelling at the speed of light
The Tar Man awoke to the sound of fountains and birdsong. His nose was buried in the sleeve of his jacket and smelled of burnt hay. He clutched at his skull, for his head was pounding worse than after a night at the Bucket of Blood. He shifted position onto his belly, groggy and unable to move, and felt the early-morning sunshine warm his back. He became aware of a pain in his hip and when he reached down to touch it, it felt tender and bruised. When he had summoned up enough energy to lift his eyelids, the Tar Man saw a multitude of rainbows in the dew-drenched grass. He heaved himself up onto all fours. The resounding boom of the battering ram suddenly came back to him, as did the clouds of choking smoke, and the redcoats with their flaming torches. The realisation suddenly flooded over him that he must have returned to the century that he had missed so much. He got to his feet to look out once more at the lie of the land. He closed his eyes and opened them again. Then he rotated a full three hundred and sixty degrees and burst out laughing.
How can this be? he thought. My Lord Luxon must have grown wealthier than the King himself. This is a wonder – never have I seen the like!
He directed a cursory glance towards his three com
All traces of the crypt and the cemetery had gone. As had the giant beech trees. Instead, there was an immaculate sweep of emerald turf as far as the eye could see. The Tar Man stood over his fellow-travellers and examined each in turn. His brother’s face was buried in the grass and his back rose and fell in a steady rhythm. Master Schock lay on his back with his mouth open and the back of his hand over his eyes to shield them from the strong light. A veil tied around their wrists joined the children together. When the Tar Man looked more closely at Mistress Dyer his stomach clenched. He could have been looking at her through water. She is an abomination, he thought. She is damaged beyond the wit of man to repair. He looked down at his own flesh to reassure himself that time had not wreaked similar wounds on himself. He backed away from her, clutching his arms.
As for the device, it suddenly dawned on him that he was going to have to arrange some transport for it while he had the chance. He walked over to examine it and remind himself how heavy it was. As he drew closer he noticed something remarkable. The young birch tree, torn up by the redcoats and used as a battering ram, protruded from the dome of the anti-gravity machine. He crouched down next to it and put his hand on the cracked casing. Liquid was still oozing out onto the grass. Indeed, there was a wide border of blackened turf all around the device. His heart started to beat anxiously and he fumbled to find the on/off switch. He pressed the simple rocker switch. Nothing. He pressed it again. He heard a click but the read-out was dead. It was broken! That numbskull of a parson! If he had not arrived at precisely the wrong moment and announced their presence to the whole of Tempest House, to say nothing of an orchard full of soldiers, they could have slipped away with no one the wiser! As it was the precious anti-gravity machine had been demolished by a tree! The Tar Man consoled himself with the thought that at least the device had survived long enough to get him here. He consoled himself further by thinking that Lord Luxon had another, and, by the laws, he had more than one account to settle with him! He turned to look at his brother’s blond head. Doubtless Gideon would feel duty-bound to care for these two innocents. Well, let him play the nursemaid if he so wished, but he did not have the stomach for it. The Tar Man did not even consider waiting until he awoke. He cared little for farewells and he cared even less to see the look of relief on Gideon’s face at his going.
The Tar Man started to walk uphill and only looked back when he had reached a coppice just below the ridge. He observed his three travelling companions. From here, the tiny, prostrate figures, with their outstretched arms, looked as if they had fallen from the sky onto this bed of sumptuous green. There, in the distance, was the new Tempest House. From this angle he could clearly see its design. Little remained of the original building. Now it was built around an inner courtyard with formal gardens on all sides. There were paths of creamy gravel and rows of orange trees in giant containers interspersed with statues. In truth, this was not a house. It was a palace. Hundreds of people could comfortably live in such a massive edifice. An artificial lake in the form of a semicircle marked the start of the water gardens that stretched into the distance, almost as far as the eye could see. The Tar Man realised that Lord Luxon must have demolished all the cottages in the valley in order to build his park. He saw a line of fountains propelling jets of spray high into the cloudless sky; he saw canals of water flowing down the valley, shimmering like blue satin ribbons, and linked by rills and waterfalls; he saw the Corinthian arch that marked the end of the gardens. What a breathtaking vista! What astounding vanity!
He saw a road flanked by long lines of poplars and leading to a car-park. Two coaches were pulling up. There were already several cars and he could see people walking towards Tempest House. Even at this distance he could hear the crunch of gravel as the drivers manoeuvred their vehicles into parking spaces. The Tar Man frowned. Who were all these people and why were they here? But what did he care? He was not going to be around long enough to find out. He continued to walk along the ridge of the hill and when he came to a gap in the trees he headed north towards London.
Lord Luxon was trailing at the back of a line of wealthy Canadian tourists. They were being shown around by a guide, a bright young woman who seemed to know everything about everything to do with Tempest House and the Luxon dynasty. She wore late-eighteenth-century dress, as did all the other guides, and used her fan to indicate points of interest. There were ooh!s and aah!s as the group passed through gigantic double doors into the Hall of Mirrors.
‘It is often said,’ commented the tour guide, ‘that Tempest House is only rivalled by Versailles, and in some ways surpasses it. This opulent stateroom was commissioned with the express intention of outdoing the original, in Versailles. And, well over two centuries later, it is still reputed to be the most beautiful room in England.’
There were murmurs of agreement.
‘Innumerable treaties have been signed here, royal marriages arranged, wars declared . . . The great and the good from every country have feasted and danced and decided the fate of the world for over two hundred years on this very spot.’
Lord Luxon did as he was told and happily admired the ceiling painted in the manner of the Italian Renaissance, and the mirrors that lined the room from floor to ceiling. He craned his neck to view the priceless crystal chandeliers, and studied the exquisite mosaic floor which had taken Venetian craftsmen eighteen years to complete. Finally, he followed behind the troupe of visitors as they walked through French doors onto a paved terrace which allowed an uninterrupted view of the longest water garden in Europe.
Lord Luxon could not help smiling. How easily had he turned the great wheel of history! The American Revolution had failed; the French Revolution had failed; Britain had retained her colonies! Ah, Alice, he thought, if you could only have witnessed how your scholarly advice has sliced through history like a surgeon’s knife! How I should have taken pleasure in entertaining you here. You, more than anyone, would have known how to appreciate it . . . He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to recall Alice’s face that first afternoon on the boat in New York harbour. How amusing, how compelling he had found her conversation! But when he tried to picture her face all he saw was her look of horror as that Frenchman crashed into the floor of the museum. He dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands. When he realised what he was doing, Lord Luxon consciously made himself unclench his fists and realign his posture. He straightened his back and elongated his neck. He refused to allow the recollection of an unfortunate incident to sour this moment of triumph. Regret was pointless. Alice – just like the Manhattan he had seen rising in glory out of the sea – had never existed in this world. Save in his memory.
Lord Luxon felt suddenly very alone. He had known from the start that if he changed the course of history no one could be aware of it. How could they be? They had known nothing else. Yet, arriving back on his own soil, he had half-hoped, unreasonably, for some hint of patriotic gratitude. So it had been a bittersweet return. If only you knew, Lord Luxon would think, gazing into the eyes of strangers he passed on the streets of a world he felt he had created. If only you knew what I have given you. My actions have guaranteed this country’s place in the world. He reached into his jacket pocket and touched the small pistol that had done the deed. Increasingly he felt the need to hold it, partly to glory in that pivotal moment, but also to convince himself that he had, in reality, won back America. In his mind the gun had become a kind of sacred relic, a talisman, something that justified his existence. He could not be
But his pale blue eyes drank in the splendour of the gardens and the house and he felt a little cheered. What a magnificent legacy he had left for his descendants to enjoy! The Canadian tourists were following their guide back into the Hall of Mirrors. Lord Luxon was about to follow them when an incident in the gardens caught his eye. People were gathered in a circle around something a little too far away for him to see properly. Perhaps someone had fainted. He lost interest and walked back into the house.
Tempest House’s most famous treasure, the Luxon Timepiece Collection, which was housed in its own wing, was to be found at the end of a long, oak-panelled gallery. To his delight, as they moved along it, Lord Luxon spotted many of the portraits that he had grown up with – of his uncles and his father, and even one of himself, painted shortly before his father’s death. As he looked up at it, the daughter of one of the tourists, a young girl with freckles, pointed straight at him and said for all to hear: ‘Look at that man! He’s in the painting!’
Everyone looked. Lord Luxon was striking his habitual pose in real life as in the painting. He did not have a cane today, but he kept one hand behind his back, held his back and neck very straight, placed his legs apart with one foot slightly forward. With his golden hair brushed back from regular features and with his fine blue eyes he was, without any doubt, a strikingly handsome man. He heard everyone agreeing that it was an uncanny resemblance.
TIME QUAKE by Linda Buckley-Archer / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes