Time quake, p.4
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       TIME QUAKE, p.4

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘Silly old thing . . .’ Kate laughed, then thought of her own dog. ‘I wonder what Molly’s doing right now. I hope she’s okay. I hope she’s not pining.’

  Peter stopped himself saying that ‘right now’ did not actually make sense and gave her hand another squeeze instead. Then he leaned over towards her and whispered into her ear: ‘I’ve been thinking . . . Ought we to tell Gideon about the Tar Man, now there’s a possibility they might actually meet each other again?’

  ‘Do we have to?’ whispered Kate back to him. ‘I mean, it can’t be true, can it?’

  ‘But we should tell him even if it’s not true. Don’t you think?’

  ‘He’s not going to like it.’

  ‘You think I don’t know that! Shall I tell him or will you?’

  ‘You! Definitely you.’

  Peter took in a deep breath and blew it out again noisily. ‘Okay . . .’

  ‘What are you two rascals plotting?’ demanded Parson Ledbury.

  When Peter looked up, all three men opposite were watching them expectantly.

  ‘Gideon?’ asked Peter hesitantly.

  ‘Yes, Master Peter?’ asked Gideon with a half-smile on his face. ‘You have the air of someone with a guilty admission to make. What have you done, my young friend?’

  ‘No, it’s nothing like that.’

  ‘Then what is it that troubles you so?’

  Peter paused and then plunged straight in. There was no easy way to say it. ‘When the anti-gravity machine brought me and Kate back again to 1763, just before Lord Luxon made off with it and we ended up at Hawthorn Cottage, we heard the Tar Man and Lord Luxon talking.’

  ‘Yes?’ Gideon smiled at him encouragingly.

  ‘And obviously we don’t know if it’s actually true or not and you know how Lord Luxon will say anything to get what he wants . . .’

  ‘What did he say?’

  ‘Well—’

  ‘Spit it out, boy, how bad can it be?’ exclaimed the Parson.

  Peter looked at Kate who nodded her head vigorously. ‘Go on, Peter. Tell him.’

  ‘Well, he . . . he . . .’ Peter raced to the end of the sentence. ‘He said that you and the Tar Man are brothers and that he’d known it from the start.’

  Hannah gasped and put her hand to her mouth and then for a long moment the only sound was the creaking of the axles and the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves. Sir Richard and the Parson exchanged alarmed glances. No one knew what to say. Then Gideon started to laugh.

  ‘What fantasy is this? Lord Luxon lies – although for what purpose I cannot tell. All my brothers are dead – save for my half-brother, Joshua. He knows this. As I have told you, Lord Luxon forever craves diversion – he will have said it to cause mischief.’

  Peter nodded. ‘I’m sure you’re right – I mean, how could you and the Tar Man possibly be related?’

  ‘Upon my word,’ said Parson Ledbury, ‘what a shocking notion! Why, to contemplate the mere possibility that you and that monster might come from the same brood chills my marrow!’ The Parson rubbed the white bristles on his chin and continued: ‘And yet, in truth, stranger things have happened . . . Nor can it be denied that the Tar Man’s motive for coming to your aid in so timely a fashion at Tyburn has long been a puzzle. If he had discovered that the same blood ran in your veins, why, that would be reason enough, would it not? Perhaps we should credit him with some human decency: perhaps his actions demonstrated a desire to save his younger brother—’

  ‘We do not share the same blood!’ cried Gideon. ‘As I have told you, Parson,’ he continued through gritted teeth, ‘I have no older brother!’

  The Parson opened his mouth to speak but Sir Richard put his hand on his arm and Gideon stared fixedly out of the window.

  ‘I’m sorry, Gideon,’ said Peter. ‘I had to tell you.’

  Gideon nodded but would not turn around to look at him. The two children exchanged guilty glances.

  Darkness had now fallen and the sooty glass globes filled with whale oil that served as street lamps on this main highway were few and far between. Inside the carriage the passengers could not see their hands in front of their faces. Soon, however, an orange glow illuminated the street and they saw a family huddled around a roaring fire stoked up with what appeared to be rafters. The giant bonfire crackled and hissed and great showers of sparks shot up into the night. Behind the fire the party could see that a building had collapsed, leaving a gaping black hole in the row of houses like a smile with a missing tooth. A pungent smell of mould and lime and ashes met their nostrils as their carriage rumbled past. Too slow to catch up with them, a woman clutching a shawl ran after them, her arms extended in supplication. She shouted something at them but her words were carried away in the wind. Sir Richard reached into his pocket, drew out some coins and threw them, rolling, at her feet. Peter leaned out of the window and saw the whole family jump up and start scrabbling around like chickens pecking in the dirt.

  ‘What would make a house fall like a pack of cards?’ exclaimed Hannah. ‘I have never seen such a thing!’

  ‘Alas, Hannah, it is a common occurrence of late. It is the second house I have seen collapse in less than a month,’ commented Sir Richard. ‘These dwellings are not well built, and the hot summer has shrunk and cracked the earth in which they sit.’

  ‘Then I pity those poor souls with all my heart,’ said Hannah, ‘and I am glad that I live in Derbyshire in a house made of stone.’

  Kate shivered all of a sudden and loosened her grip on Peter’s hand. Peter looked at her questioningly. Kate shrugged her shoulders.

  ‘It’s this funny wind. I keep thinking a storm is coming, don’t you?’

  Peter shook his head. ‘No – how can you tell if a storm’s coming? I can’t.’

  On Snow Hill the traffic grew suddenly dense and they found themselves surrounded by chaises, and carts, and wagons full of barrels of ale, all jostling for space on the thoroughfare. Everyone was headed in the same direction – Smithfield Market, the site of Bartholomew’s Fair. They proceeded at a snail’s pace while they watched the spectacle of two Irish sedan chair-men, so determined to get through the blockade of vehicles that they deliberately rammed a hackney coach, causing the skinny horses to rear up and whinny in terror.

  Normally so calm in a crisis, Gideon was becoming increasingly agitated.

  ‘Confound this traffic!’ The words burst out of him. ‘If the pleasures of Bartholomew’s Fair do not hold him, Blueskin could be miles away by now!’

  When they reached Cock Lane they decided to continue on foot. The driver was told to wait for them at the bottom of Snow Hill. There was such a multitude of folk, Sir Richard suggested it might be quicker to go a long way round through a maze of small streets which he knew. They could hire a link-boy to light their way through the dark alleys. The Parson was not in favour of such a plan, nor was Gideon.

  ‘Trust me, Sir Richard,’ he said, ‘for I have cause to know, Bartholomew’s Fair is a magnet for all the thieves in the city – Smithfield will be seething with villains lurking in the shadows.’

  Suddenly Hannah let out a cry of fright. A man carrying a fiddle, with a pair of donkey’s ears strapped to his head, was blocking her way. He pressed his face close up to hers, turned his head coquettishly to one side and crowed like a cockerel. Hannah screamed a second time when a monkey appeared between the donkey’s ears on the man’s head, reached out its delicate, leathery fingers and proceeded to grab hold of her nose – hard.

  ‘Oh! Oh! Oh!’ Hannah screamed, flapping her hands in front of her face as if trying to get rid of cobwebs. ‘Get that devilish creature away from me!’

  The fool laughed, satisfied with her reaction, and gambolled away. As he lurched drunkenly about amidst the mass of Londoners, he took out a fiddle and bow from the inside of his jacket and began to play a fast Irish jig. People immediately started to sing along and clap in time to the tune and the monkey danced on the fool’s shoulders whilst staring up at th
e night sky with glittering, coal-black eyes.

  ‘Are you all right, Hannah?’ shouted Kate.

  ‘Bless you, I am, Mistress Kate, thank you for asking. I never could abide Merry Andrews. Their purpose is to make folk laugh but the principal effect they have on me is to make my flesh crawl. And that monkey will haunt my dreams – why, a person could mistake it for a tiny, wizened old man!’

  ‘Well, my dad told me that humans and apes share a common ancestor . . .’

  Hannah looked at Kate, flummoxed, unsure whether she was supposed to laugh.

  ‘Is that so, Mistress Kate?’ she replied non-committally. ‘My ancestors came from Yorkshire.’

  And so they pressed on, with Gideon and Sir Richard leading the way and pushing through the throng. Kate held tightly on to Peter’s hand and both children stared around them, eyes wide with wonder and not a little fear. Soon the din of the crowd grew into a riotous, echoing roar and they all sensed that they were approaching the great open space of Smithfield Market. They heard the pulse of a drum and then the insistent, clanging bell of a street crier. ‘Show! Show! Show!’ he bellowed. The wind – already troublesome enough to make the men hold on to their hats or wigs and the ladies to their skirts – suddenly roared furiously up Cock Lane so that the party was blown rather than walked into Smithfield. All at once they passed from darkness into light, as countless lanterns and flares of pitch and tow illuminated the vast, heaving, monstrous, stupendous spectacle that stretched out before them: Bartholomew’s Fair.

  Released from the tight funnel of the street into Smithfield, the crowd was now able to disperse. The party stood motionless for a while, looking around them and getting their bearings, alert to the sounds which assailed them: canvas tents flapped and billowed in the wind, barrow boys rang their bells, hawkers cried themselves hoarse, revellers clapped and shouted and jeered, dogs barked and monkeys chattered, sudden waves of riotous laughter reached them from a nearby beer tent.

  ‘My head is spinning already!’ exclaimed Hannah.

  Keeping together they started to walk further in. A double-jointed contortionist, skeletally thin and able to dislocate his bones at will, tied his body in knots, eliciting loud ooh! s and aah! s from an appreciative crowd; a juggler vied with a fire-eater for the attention of fashionable ladies and gentleman whose powdered faces, studded with black beauty spots, glowed a ghostly white in the flickering half-light. A flower girl picked up apple cores and scraps and threw them to a brown bear. The beast was shackled with heavy chains to a stake and sat motionless on his ragged haunches, the expression in his soulful eyes enough to make a heart of stone weep.

  ‘Oh no!’ cried Kate. ‘How could they do such a thing?’

  Gideon guided her gently away.

  ‘Can you smell that awful smell?’ Peter asked, wrinkling his nose. ‘It’s like a butcher’s shop. Worse.’

  ‘‘Tis hardly surprising,’ said Gideon. ‘Smithfield is a meat market and always has been to my knowledge. This place is steeped in the stink of slaughter.’

  The children exchanged glances. A more savoury smell drifted towards them, however, and Parson Ledbury lifted his head and sniffed the air appreciatively. He was watching two bare-chested men, their pronounced muscles gleaming with sweat, slowly turn a giant spit on which two whole pigs were roasting. The fire hissed as drops of grease fell into the glowing embers.

  ‘I begin to feel an appetite,’ said the Parson. ‘I hope we might make short shrift of running down Master Blueskin, for I declare I should make fine work of a rib or two of pork.’

  ‘We have need of your bottom, not your stomach,’ quipped Sir Richard. ‘And your stout heart, too, no doubt before the night is out.’

  ‘Upon my life, sir, not a morsel will pass my lips until we’ve cowed the scoundrel into submission and then, I promise you, I shall sate my appetite and not hold back!’

  Gideon smiled. ‘Do you see that Up and Down yonder?’ he said, indicating a wheel-shaped structure rising up out of the centre of the fair. ‘That shall be our meeting place.’

  ‘When I rode on them as a child we always called them whirligigs,’ commented Sir Richard. ‘But then, I have twenty years on you, at least, Gideon.’

  The children looked to where he was pointing.

  ‘Can you believe it? It’s a Ferris wheel, for goodness’ sake!’ exclaimed Peter to Kate.

  Sir Richard turned to Gideon. ‘Should we divide ourselves into two or three parties, would you say?’

  ‘Three, sir, in my opinion. For surely we must cover as much ground as we can in all haste.’

  ‘Very well. I suggest that Parson Ledbury accompany Hannah and that you, Mr Seymour, take Peter. And, if I might be permitted that honour, I shall chaperone Mistress Kate,’ said Sir Richard, not noticing Kate’s expression.

  Kate tried to master her emotions but a feeling of desperate panic rose up inside her. How could she reject Sir Richard’s kind offer? But she had to stay with Peter.

  Peter felt Kate grip his hand even more tightly and he wondered if he should say something. But it was Parson Ledbury who came to her rescue.

  ‘I believe that Mistress Kate would prefer to have the comfort of her friend at her side, my dear Sir Richard. And, as it is all the same to me whether I go accompanied or alone, I suggest that you escort Hannah.’

  Sir Richard, however, would have none of it and ventured forth into the fair by himself, saying that he would search the north end of the square. He told the Parson and Hannah to take the west side while Gideon and the children should take the east.

  ‘Let us agree to meet at the foot of the whirligig within the hour, whether we have caught sight of the Tar Man or no.’

  ‘Stay close by me,’ said Gideon to Peter and Kate.

  He set off at a rapid pace and his young companions kept up as well as they could. Peter turned to Kate. ‘It’s not that I mind, Kate, but why is it that you have to hold my hand all the time? It’s as if you’re frightened that I’ll go off if you don’t. Listen, I swear I’m not going to leave you behind. Surely you must trust me by now!’

  Kate blushed, which made Peter wish he had not said anything. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I know I’m being a pain.’

  Kate was already panting with the effort of keeping up with Gideon. Peter glanced at her. She didn’t look too good. Kate had not loosened her grip on his hand for an instant. He wondered if it had been such a great idea bringing her along. They passed wooden stalls piled high with gingerbread and puppet shows and games of dice. All the while the threesome scanned the sea of faces that surged around them for a glimpse of a livid white scar and a slim, athletic build and those fathomless dark eyes which all of them now had cause to fear.

  ‘I forgot to say that the Tar Man has whiter teeth now,’ said Kate breathlessly to Gideon. ‘He’s had them done. And I think he must have had treatment for his dodgy neck, too, because he doesn’t hold his head to one side any more.’

  ‘Upon my word,’ replied Gideon. ‘Do not tell me that the brute has turned handsome.’

  ‘Actually,’ said Kate, ‘he looked pretty good when we last saw him . . .’

  ‘Kate!’ exclaimed Peter.

  ‘Well, he did!’

  ‘What miracles your century can work,’ said Gideon. But he did not smile.

  After perhaps a quarter of an hour of fruitless searching, Kate asked if they could stop for a moment for her to get her breath back. They found themselves outside a canvas tent, its entrance guarded by a burly figure in the costume of a Turk. The man stood erect and motionless, his arms folded across his impressive chest, although when a woman from an adjoining stall brought him a tankard of ale, it was with a Cockney accent that he replied.

  ‘Bless me,’ he said in a nasal voice. ‘I am heartily glad to see you. I did not imagine that standing still would bring on such a thirst.’

  At that moment the door of the tent flapped open. A black-haired woman in an exotic silk dress and with something of the gypsy about he
r escorted a doe-eyed girl from the tent. The girl turned around and Kate saw her swelling belly.

  ‘Bless me, madam, if I didn’t forget to ask you how many children I shall bear!’

  ‘To foretell the future, sweet child, is a terrible burden and costs me dear each time I step into that mysterious realm. But cross my palm with silver and I shall tell you anything your tender young heart desires.’

  The girl pulled open her purse and peered inside.

  ‘Perhaps it is best not to know . . . Upon my life, it wouldn’t do to go frightening my husband! Fare thee well, madam, and thank you.’

  The fortune-teller shrugged her shoulders and bade the girl farewell.

  ‘What am I paying you for?’ she snapped at the keeper of the door, nodding at his tankard. ‘Three customers a night won’t pay for that beer!’

  Peter and Gideon continued to scrutinise every face in the crowds that filed past them but Kate’s gaze happened to fall on the fortune-teller. The woman, who had been on the verge of re-entering the tent, suddenly stood stock-still and stared directly at Kate without blinking. Then, after a moment she took an uncertain step backwards, putting her hand to her mouth. The colour had drained from her face. It was fear that Kate read in those dark eyes. She pointed a scrawny finger at Kate and then backed slowly into the tent, tugging violently at the canvas door flap to close it. No one else witnessed the woman’s reaction. Kate’s heart thumped in her chest. The only thought that came into her head was she knows.

  ‘Ouch!’ cried Peter. ‘There’s no need to dig your nails in!’

  ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ Kate replied. ‘I didn’t realise I was.’

 

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