Time quake, p.5
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       TIME QUAKE, p.5

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  Gideon turned to her. ‘Do you feel recovered enough to continue awhile, Mistress Kate?’

  Kate nodded and Gideon strode on ahead. He stopped again, however, after only a few paces when a booming voice called out to him.

  ‘Mr Seymour!’

  Gideon turned to look at a man of majestic proportions advancing towards him with a broad smile on his face. Gideon walked over to greet him.

  ‘Mr Featherstone! It is good to see you! Though I am astonished to find you here! Who attends to your customers at the Rose?’

  ‘The Rose is three-quarters empty on account of the fair, Mr Seymour. So I said to myself, why the devil shouldn’t old Featherstone seek out a little diversion? Come, will you drink a glass with me?’

  ‘On another occasion with a good will, Mr Featherstone, but you find me in search of a certain person and I must not tarry lest his trail cool.’

  ‘A pity. I should have enjoyed your company. But who is it that you seek, if I might be so bold as to enquire?’

  ‘Blueskin.’

  Featherstone laughed out loud. ‘In which case you shall be happy indeed that Fortune caused our paths to cross. I exchanged a word or two with Blueskin not five minutes past!’

  Gideon was a good head shorter than the porter of the Rose Tavern but he grabbed him by the elbows and half lifted him into the air.

  ‘You have spoken to Blueskin! Where? Tell me, good Mr Featherstone!’

  ‘Why, in Newgate Lane heading east.’

  ‘Was he alone?’

  ‘Joe Carrick walked with him, I believe, though I did not speak to him.’

  Gideon bade farewell to Featherstone and rushed back to Peter and Kate to tell them the good news.

  ‘The Tar Man is but five minutes hence with Joe Carrick. I must run if I am to stand a chance of catching him. Make your way to the meeting place and tell the others there has been a sighting of the Tar Man and that I have gone to Newgate Lane in search of him.’

  ‘I’m coming with you!’ cried Peter. ‘I’m a fast runner! I’ve won prizes – well, one . . .’

  ‘I do not have the time to argue, Master Peter,’ said Gideon. ‘Stay with Mistress Kate. I must fly!’

  Peter turned abruptly to Kate. ‘I have to go with Gideon. If the Carrick gang are with the Tar Man he’s going to need help! I’d say that you could come, too, but . . . I just don’t think you’re fit enough to run a long way.’

  Kate looked desperate. ‘No! Please! Don’t leave me alone!’

  Peter turned on her angrily. ‘Kate, don’t give me a hard time about this! I’ve got to go. I won’t be long. Go to the meeting place and tell the others what’s happening.’

  ‘Peter! Please! You said you wouldn’t leave me . . .’

  ‘And I meant it! I’m not going to leave you! Do you really think I wouldn’t come back for you? Surely you don’t need me to be with you every single second . . . Can’t you see that the sooner we catch the Tar Man, the sooner we can get you home and make you better?’

  Kate watched Peter’s back receding into the distance. Gideon’s blond head had already disappeared from view. How long before she fast-forwarded? The cold, creeping fear that was becoming her constant companion made Kate’s shoulders slump and her head droop towards her chest. Groups of revellers sailed by: poor and rich, young and old, comely and plain – the whole world, it seemed, was in high spirits except for Kate.

  A grimacing fool approached, beating a drum and capering and frolicking about, drawing attention to a mountebank who followed in his wake. The Merry Andrew suddenly threw himself to the ground, performed a perfect somersault and stood up so close to Kate that she could see lice crawling in his coarse hair. In a reflex action she pushed him violently away. The fool staggered back a step then used the momentum to turn a deft back-flip causing the tiny bells sewn to his costume to tinkle. There was laughter and a smattering of applause.

  Kate felt someone brush past her skirts and she took a step forward to give the person behind room to pass. But the person did not pass and she felt the warmth of a physical presence at her back. The next moment she felt a hand on her shoulder. She started in surprise. Then a second hand took hold of her and strong fingers squeezed her flesh until she was held in a vice-like grip. Kate gasped with the shock of it and felt her palms grow cold and clammy and the hairs rise at the back of her neck. A sixth sense told her who it was before she even turned around to look. She peered upwards over her shoulder.

  ‘You!’

  ‘Greetings, Mistress Dyer,’ replied the Tar Man.

  ‘I don’t understand, Gideon—’

  ‘Contrary to what Mr Seymour might believe, he would not be here had I not summoned him.’

  Kate’s mind raced. Gideon and Peter would be far away by now. The others were at the other side of this huge fair . . . Should she scream? Run? Shout for help? After a moment’s hesitation she craned her neck to one side, sank her teeth into the Tar Man’s hand and ground them into his flesh, clamping her jaws together with every last ounce of her strength.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  High Treason

  In which Lord Luxon gets an answer to his

  question and Alice encounters a dog with bottom

  No sooner had Lord Luxon commented that he had taken a fancy to observing the New York skyline from the sea, than Mrs Stacey remembered a pressing, prior engagement and volunteered Alice to accompany him on a boat tour. Alice opened her mouth to object but Lord Luxon seemed so genuinely pleased that she relented and closed it again.

  Mrs Stacey flagged down a cab and as she got in she whispered into her niece’s ear. ‘How many men have you met who can boast a castle in Scotland?’

  ‘Oh, hundreds,’ whispered Alice back. ‘Enjoy your afternoon, Aunt Laura.’

  Mrs Stacey got into the cab and called through the open window, ‘I look forward to hearing all about it . . .’

  ‘Thank you very much , Aunt Laura,’ said Alice pointedly.

  Mrs Stacey smiled sweetly at Lord Luxon. Accustomed as Luxon was to half the matrons in London throwing their daughters at him, his face betrayed nothing and he merely expressed regret that he was to be deprived of Mrs Stacey’s company that afternoon.

  Half an hour later Lord Luxon and Alice were seated on slatted wooden benches at the prow of an embarking cruise boat at the South Street Seaport. The rusting vessel chugged into the murky brown waves of New York harbour and, after the stifling heat of the city, a welcome sea breeze wafted their faces. Alice tipped back her tanned face towards the sun and smelled the tang of salt water. She filled her lungs with deep breaths of air and put on a large pair of sunglasses.

  ‘That feels good,’ she said. ‘I was slowly melting back there in the museum.’ She turned to face her companion, still perfectly attired in his ivory suit. ‘If you don’t mind me asking, how hot does it have to get before you take your jacket off?’

  Lord Luxon did not reply straight away and the corners of his mouth turned up in a sardonic smile.

  ‘I should wear a coat in weather hotter than this if the occasion demanded it, madam. It is true to say, I believe, that our attitudes to fashion are . . . dissimilar.’

  ‘By which you mean,’ said Alice, looking down at her shorts and T-shirt, ‘that you don’t understand people who think that holidays are too short to spend more than half a minute a day deciding what to wear?’

  Lord Luxon was tempted to say: As much as that? but thought the better of it.

  ‘No, no, I assure you, I am all admiration,’ he said. ‘Such a conspicuous lack of vanity can only be judged as . . . commendable.’

  Alice raised her eyebrows. She resisted the temptation to say that the line between looking fashionable and looking ridiculous was a fine one.

  Lord Luxon, meanwhile, tried to imagine Alice in full court dress with a tightly laced corset and petticoats and acres of heavy silk draped over a wide hoop and a high, elaborate wig to complete the picture. His face started to crease into a broad smile at t
he thought of it. He shifted his position and tactfully pretended to turn his attention to the Statue of Liberty whose colossal form was now looming towards them. If Alice were transported back to his century, he reflected, and dressed in the fashions of the day, she would, he had no doubt of it, swoon within moments. Nor, he suspected, would she possess the self-discipline required to permanently maintain that elegant posture expected of a lady under all circumstances. He was acquainted with many women whose years of attendance at court meant that they could stand to attention for longer than any soldier on parade. They could do so for hours at a stretch, even when heavy with child, or grieving for a dead husband or half crazed with the fever . . .

  ‘Actually,’ said Alice, ‘I’m rather fond of this T-shirt.’

  Lord Luxon scrutinised her black T-shirt covered with large red letters in an italic font. He tipped his head to one side and read from it, pronouncing each word with great care: ‘Plus je connais les hommes, plus j’aime mon chien.’

  ‘The more I know about men, the better I like my dog,’ Alice translated.

  ‘That being the case, I long to make the acquaintance of your dog.’

  ‘I don’t have a dog.’

  ‘Then, upon my word, Madam, your choice of garment is perplexing . . .’

  Alice burst out laughing. ‘This is all a big act, isn’t it? All these madam! s and upon my word! s. Is it because you know I’m an historian?’

  Lord Luxon raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘I cannot understand you, madam!’

  This only made Alice laugh the more. ‘Whereas I, on the other hand, am beginning to understand you perfectly!’ she said. ‘You’re having a little fun at my expense, aren’t you? Which is okay . . . I was raised with three brothers – I’m used to being tormented.’

  Lord Luxon looked at her quizzically.

  ‘But tell me,’ Alice continued. ‘Just how old are you exactly? You sure sound like you’re a hundred and three but I’m guessing you’re not a whole lot older than me . . . Twenty-six? Twenty-eight? Am I close?’

  Lord Luxon stared fixedly at a seagull gliding overhead, its feathers a dazzling white against a deep azure sky.

  ‘Madam, I refuse to admit to being more than two hundred and seventy years old.’

  ‘In which case, sir, you look darned good for your age.’

  ‘You are kindness itself, madam.’

  ‘Do you think we might move on to first name terms?’ asked Alice. ‘All this formality is making me uncomfortable.’

  ‘If you wish, you may call me Edward.’

  ‘Edward . . . Lord Edward Luxon. That’s a good name . . .’

  ‘I am gratified that it pleases you. I was named after my father.’

  ‘I was named after Alice in Wonderland. Though I’m still waiting to fall down that rabbit hole!’

  Lord Luxon’s expression revealed his confusion.

  ‘You know – Alice in Wonderland, the children’s novel by Lewis Carroll . . . The white rabbit, the mad hatter . . .?’

  Lord Luxon shook his head.

  ‘But you must know – you’re English!’

  Loudspeakers suddenly burst into life and the tour guide’s commentary echoed over the decks of the boat. The guide narrated the story of the Statue of Liberty and Lord Luxon seemed transfixed.

  ‘She’s a wonderful sight, isn’t she?’ Alice commented.

  ‘The dimensions of the statue are so astounding as to defy belief. Although, in truth, I find Liberty rather . . . ridiculous.’

  ‘You can’t call the Statue of Liberty ridiculous!’ exclaimed Alice. ‘You’ll have us thrown off the boat!’

  ‘On the other hand, this prospect,’ he said, indicating the New York skyline with a sweep of his pale hand, ‘is sublime. I could look at it for ever and never grow tired.’

  ‘Then it’s my turn to be gratified that it pleases you.’

  The boat curved back towards the city in a gentle arc. New York rose up out of the sea like a miracle.

  ‘Who owns Manhattan?’ asked Lord Luxon suddenly.

  Alice laughed. ‘What a question! Everyone and no one. Or are you talking real estate? Could you tell me who owns London?’

  ‘As it happens, there is a gentleman of my acquaintance who owns a great deal of it. He once bet half a street of houses that one raindrop would reach the bottom of a window before another.’

  ‘That’s sick!’ said Alice but then after a pause asked: ‘Did he win?’

  ‘Yes. He has the luck of the devil. But then so, they say, do I . . .’

  The tour guide’s commentary droned on and for a while it seemed to Lord Luxon that it was not the boat that was moving but New York itself that was gliding by. The cityscape was one of vast blue distances and giant, striving proportions. How he had laughed when Mrs Stacey had called it the Big Apple. He had not seen the sense of it, and yet, looking at the city now, he would have bitten greedily into its flesh, and felt the juice trickle down his chin . . .

  The afternoon sunshine sparkled on the choppy water, dazzling Lord Luxon who, in the absence of a three-cornered hat to shade his eyes, put his hand to his brow. Alice rummaged in her large bag and offered him a pair of sunglasses.

  ‘Here – I always carry a spare pair.’

  Uncertain at first, Lord Luxon thanked her and placed the sunglasses gingerly on the bridge of his nose. He looked out across the harbour through oval, metal-rimmed lenses.

  ‘They suit you,’ she said. ‘They make you look Swedish.’

  ‘Upon my word,’ Lord Luxon exclaimed, taking them on and off to compare the difference in what he could see. Then he got up and leaned over the handrail excitedly to stare into the greenishbrown water. ‘I see shoals of fish!’

  ‘Upon my word!’ said Alice with a smile. ‘Haven’t you worn polarised sunglasses before? They’re great if you want to see through the surface glare. Keep them if you like them!’

  ‘I could not accept so valuable a gift . . .’

  ‘I got them from K-Mart. Trust me, they’re not valuable.’

  ‘Thank you . . . Alice.’

  It seemed to Alice that it was the first time all afternoon that Lord Luxon had sounded genuine. Her expression softened and Lord Luxon noticed. He quickly returned to his seat. It was the moment, he decided, to risk posing the question that had caused him to seek out Alice in the first place. He began to marshal his thoughts but, as it happened, it was Alice who broached the subject before he did.

  ‘Were you serious when we were in the Fraunces Tavern Museum – about being fascinated by that episode of American history? Is it a genuine interest or were you . . . were you being polite?’

  Lord Luxon turned to face her and sensed a sudden unease in his companion. The corner of her mouth twitched.

  Faith, could it possibly be, thought Lord Luxon, that this overeducated American was warming to him? He detected the tiniest flutter of an emotion in his breast but was careful to conceal it. Perhaps this would make her freer with her information . . .

  ‘No, I assure you, I have developed a passion for that precise period of history. Although I am sadly ignorant of the detail of it . . .’

  ‘The Revolutionary War?’

  ‘Indeed. And is it not true that you have made a particular study of Britain’s errors, military and diplomatic, that led to America gaining her independence?’

  ‘How did you know that?’ Alice exclaimed. ‘It’s the subject of my doctoral thesis. I’m halfway through a book on it. Please tell me Aunt Laura hasn’t been singing my praises to you!’

  ‘No. She did not need to. But will you permit me to ask you a question, Alice? I doubt that there are a handful of people alive better equipped to answer it.’

  ‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ said Alice. ‘Sure – what is it?’

  Lord Luxon adjusted his posture and stared out over the harbour, dotted with vessels making tracks across the expanse of water. Alice found herself admiring his fine profile and, despite herself, the cut of his jacket.
>
  ‘If you could go back in time and sabotage the Revolutionary War – so that Britain emerged victorious and America never won her independence – how would you contrive to do it?’

  Alice’s expression changed from curious to surprised to amused within the space of a few seconds.

  ‘I like your question! I’m due to teach my first class at Princeton this fall and that would be such a cool assignment to give to my students! It would be a great test of their understanding of the conflict and the progress of the war . . .’

  ‘The opinion of your students holds no interest for me, unlike your own. How should you answer the question, Alice? With the benefit of hindsight and the clear eye of an historian, which American weaknesses might you exploit? Which were the men that fate destined to be the heroes of the hour? What could the British forces do to secure a glorious victory?’

  Alice’s face lit up. ‘You really are an enthusiast, aren’t you? Though I warn you, I could go on at some length. You might end up sorry you asked!’

  ‘Quite the contrary, I assure you,’ said Lord Luxon, taking out a small leather notebook and a gold pen.

  Alice looked at him askance. ‘But why are you so interested?’

  ‘Does not the possibility of an alternative history excite you?’

  ‘History contains enough of its own puzzles without getting sidetracked with counterfactual stuff, too!’

  Lord Luxon pointed at the city shimmering in the heat haze. ‘Look what America has become. What might it have been if it were still a part of the British Empire? Does it not fan the flames of your historian’s curiosity – even a little?’

  Alice laughed. ‘I guess. More than a little. Though I’m not sure I want to tell an Englishman how he could return America to the yoke of colonial rule!’

  ‘It is but a fantasy, a conceit!’

  ‘True, but I should still be guilty of acting as your accomplice in your treasonable fantasy.’

  ‘Pish pash, it is an intriguing fantasy, is it not? Will you not indulge me?’

  ‘Pish pash! Where do these quaint expressions come from?’

 
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