Time quake, p.6
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       TIME QUAKE, p.6

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  Alice sat back, closed her eyes and sighed deeply. Lord Luxon waited expectantly, sincerely hoping that she was not about to fall asleep. It seemed to him that several minutes had passed and he was becoming agitated for the young historian had neither moved nor spoken. Abruptly Alice sat up.

  ‘Realistically,’ she said, ‘I think Britain has only two chances to win a decisive victory. The first being during the harsh winter of the 1776-77 campaign when Washington manages to frustrate the British on two noteworthy occasions. A second opportunity will arise later, I think, during the 1780 campaign. Although I definitely need to think about this some more . . .’

  Lord Luxon observed her animated face and smiled. He started to write. He had to write quickly, his pen scratching at the thick paper, for once Alice had started she could not stop. The story of a bitter war poured out of her and he found himself forming unfamiliar words with his fine gold nib: the names of battles and soldiers and politicians. All these names with which he would soon become so intimately acquainted: Washington and Thomas Paine; Clinton and Benedict Arnold; Trenton and Princeton and Valley Forge . . . By the time the boat had docked and the passengers were ready to disembark, Alice’s voice had grown hoarse and Lord Luxon’s hand ached. Alice had conjured up such a convincing picture that Lord Luxon half-expected to see icebergs floating down the Hudson River and long lines of redcoats and mercenaries carrying rifles and singing as they marched. It was almost a surprise to step back into a New York moist with August heat and thronged with American citizens going about their business in total liberty.

  The two figures parted company then, for Lord Luxon declared it his intention to walk back to his hotel, while Alice decided to catch a cab back to her aunt’s apartment overlooking Central Park. Both felt suddenly drained and exhausted, as if something mysterious and momentous had occurred.

  ‘I am in your debt, Alice,’ said Lord Luxon, kissing her hand as she got into her cab. ‘I hope that I might have the pleasure of your company again very soon. And I have so many more questions . . .’

  ‘Sure,’ said Alice. ‘I’d like that.’

  He watched the cab drive away and then, to his fury, he discovered that his pen had leaked and a great black ink stain was slowly seeping through the breast pocket of his ivory linen jacket.

  As if some sixth sense communicated her niece’s unsettled frame of mind, Mrs Stacey called Alice to ask her how the afternoon had gone. The ringtone of Alice’s mobile, the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, was so loud it made the cab driver brake. He glared at her in the rear-view mirror and she gave him an apologetic smile.

  ‘Where did you meet Lord Luxon, Aunt Laura?’

  ‘In Bemelmans Bar . . . Why?’

  ‘So Lord Luxon introduced himself to you?’

  ‘No, it was your old history professor – the one who was at Princeton but now teaches at Columbia. What’s his name? Steve something . . .’

  ‘Steve Elliot?’

  ‘Yes! Well it was him who introduced Lord Luxon to me. And he introduced me as the aunt of one of his old students who – with Lord Luxon’s particular interests – he really ought to get to know.’

  ‘So he used you to meet me! Why didn’t you tell me?’

  ‘I did! I told you he wanted someone to show him round the Fraunces Tavern Museum.’

  ‘I just thought he was a friend of yours here on holiday . . .’

  ‘Alice! Why all these questions?’ Her aunt started to sound alarmed. ‘What’s happened? Are you all right? What has he done?’

  ‘No, no, I’m fine, Aunt Laura. And actually I like him better than I thought I would. It’s just that—’

  ‘It’s just that what?’

  ‘It’s just that I told him how to sabotage the Revolutionary War.’

  There was a moment’s silence.

  ‘How very unpatriotic of you, darling!’ Alice could hear the laughter in her aunt’s voice. ‘And is that what is upsetting you?’

  ‘As it happens, yes . . .’

  ‘Oh, Alice! I think you’ve spent too long in the sun . . .’

  ‘All right, Aunt Laura, point taken.’ Alice felt suddenly ridiculous and ended the call. ‘Gotta go . . .’

  Irritated with herself as much as her aunt, Alice dropped the mobile into her capacious bag as if into deep water. This heat was horrible. Alice wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. Aunt Laura was right, though, why was she allowing herself to get so worked up?

  When the cab turned into Sixth Avenue the traffic was at a standstill. It was too hot to be patient and car horns punctuated the street noise in random bursts. She stared absent-mindedly through the window at the streams of people descending into a subway like lemmings. It was then that she spotted Lord Luxon. He had taken off his jacket which he carried draped over one shoulder. He cut a striking figure as he strode through the crowds. The full sleeves of his snowy-white shirt billowed and his tightly fitted waistcoat accentuated his slim frame. Alice noticed how many heads turned to look at him. After a few moments she watched him stop in his tracks and look down. She saw his lips moving. Was he talking to a child? Or perhaps to a dog? Then, holding up his jacket between finger and thumb he suddenly dropped it . . . Alice’s gaze followed him as he set off again up Sixth Avenue, his receding white form gradually disappearing into a floating mass of rainbow colours. Once the lines of cars started to move again, Alice opened her window and stared at the space on the sidewalk where Lord Luxon had stopped. A tramp with wild hair and skin the colour of tanned hide held the jacket to his face, stroking the cloth and pushing his fingers into the pockets. People were swerving to avoid tripping over the old man’s outstretched legs.

  Who’d have thought he had such a kind heart? said Alice to herself. Giving his beautiful jacket away like that! On impulse, she told the cab driver to stop, thrust a handful of dollar bills into his hand and started to push through the crowds, her eyes always on Lord Luxon’s blond head, hurrying when she could, but mostly struggling to beat a path through the army of shoppers that advanced on her. When she spotted him crossing to the other side of Sixth Avenue, she hurried to do the same but the lights were against her. Alice had to wait, dancing on the spot until she could dash across the street. But by the time she had reached the other side Lord Luxon had disappeared into Prince Street. Alice followed and found herself breaking into a run, her white trainers beating a rhythm on the baking sidewalk. When she saw that Lord Luxon had stopped in front of a six-storey red-brick building, she came to a halt, suddenly feeling ridiculous. What am I doing? Alice asked herself. What precisely am I going to say to him if he spots me? Who needs Aunt Laura, I can manage to embarrass myself without any help at all!

  She backed away from the street and stepped into a narrow, rubbish-strewn gap between two buildings. She leaned one shoulder against a blackened brick wall and wiped her moist face and neck as she tried to catch her breath. Unable to resist taking a peek at Lord Luxon, she peered out from behind her paper tissue and what she saw made her instantly forget her embarrassment and her yearning to be anywhere else so long as it was air-conditioned. Her jaw dropped. While Lord Luxon waited on the sidewalk below, above him, on every level of the fire escape, Alice saw a redcoat standing to attention. All at once it seemed to her that she was no longer looking at present-day SoHo, rather, she was seeing a fortified castle, impregnable and mysterious. When one of the men let down a ladder for Lord Luxon, in her mind’s eye she saw a drawbridge. Alice’s spine tingled with the thrill of it. And even though she knew in her heart of hearts that these guys must be into historical re-enactments – mid-eighteenth-century by the look of the jackets – she was in no rush to explain away what she saw. How utterly intriguing!

  Soon Lord Luxon had disappeared into the building and a moment later four out of the five redcoats did likewise. She stared up at the last remaining redcoat and suddenly he swung his gaze towards her. Alice immediately hid behind her tissue and dabbed her forehead. When she looked up again he had disappeared. The dr
awbridge to the castle, however, remained tantalisingly in place. Alice waited for a few minutes and, when no one reappeared, unable to control her curiosity, she darted out from her hiding place and crossed the road.

  Lord Luxon climbed up the ladder two rungs at a time and, as he emerged through the trapdoor onto the first level of the emergency stairs, took hold of his valet’s outstretched arm. The metal landing clanged as William hurried to hold open the heavy security door for Lord Luxon. Up above, Sergeant Thomas and his men gave a cursory salute, their faces almost as red as their jackets. William observed his master march over to a sink in the corner of the dark, cavernous room, tearing off his waistcoat and unbuttoning his shirt as he did so. William found it difficult to read Lord Luxon’s mood. He did not detect any of his habitual languor. Was he excited about something or in a rage? Lord Luxon turned the tap full on, untied the ribbon of his ponytail and held his head under the gushing cold water for a long moment, turning it slowly from side to side. Then he stood up and shook his head like a wet dog and small rivulets of water ran down from his bare shoulders and splashed onto the dusty floor. William was relieved to see that Lord Luxon had a smile on his face. All the Venetian blinds were, as usual, firmly closed; nevertheless fine, gold stripes of daylight forced their way inside, illuminating a gorgeous jumble of artefacts. Choice pieces of satinwood furniture, some inlaid with mother-of-pearl or gold, gleamed in the half-light. Amongst them stood randomly placed statues and silver candelabras and stacks of lustrous blue and white porcelain from Delft. The marble head of a pope seemed to rebuke a troupe of dancing nymphs on a Grecian urn; an equestrian statue charged out from behind a long-case clock; whilst from their gilded frames, and scattered amongst panoramic views of Venice and London, half a dozen pairs of aristocratic eyes gazed out at every movement in Lord Luxon’s treasure house. Next to the door, in pride of place, was a life-size oil painting, hung in a simple frame. In fact, it depicted the head gardener’s son at Tempest House – except that he was dressed in clothes befitting a prince – and the limpid-eyed boy stood serenely under the broad canopy of a copper beech. A pair of butterflies hovered above his head while in the distance the rolling hills of Surrey receded into a misty blue-green horizon. Mr Gainsborough had added some whimsical touches to hint at the identity of his sitter. A trowel and some boxes of seeds nestled in the roots of the great tree like clues to a murder, and there was a conspicuous grass stain on the boy’s white britches. Recently delivered to Lord Luxon by the artist himself, the painting was, by any reckoning, a masterpiece. Lord Luxon glanced greedily at it, regretting, not for the last time, that he was obliged to sell it.

  ‘Find me a chair, William! And bring me some beer before I expire of heatstroke. Pshaw! I love this city but it is even more crowded and steamy than The Bucket of Blood on a hanging day! And fetch Captain Thomas and the men while you are about it. I have news.’

  ‘Yes, my Lord,’ said William, picking up Lord Luxon’s shirt and waistcoat from the concrete floor. By dint of rearranging various items of furniture and wooden crates William came across what he was looking for. The huge, gold armchair was too heavy to lift so he dragged it, scraping its legs noisily, towards the centre of the room. Lord Luxon immediately flung himself into it and kicked off his shoes. He retrieved his leather notebook from his trouser pocket and started to read.

  When William returned with Sergeant Thomas and three of the men, it occurred to him that the chair did not merely look like a throne, it was, in fact a throne. From which court and from which century, he wondered, had his master and the men plundered this particular item. A king might not miss a painting or a clock but it did not seem right to steal his throne . . . In the small, dark kitchen at the back of the building, William cooled his cheeks with the bottle before delivering it to Lord Luxon who, like all the men, had developed a taste for ice-cold beer.

  The men stood vaguely to attention, relieved to enter the comparative cool of the building, and waited for the bare-chested Lord Luxon to address them. An animated expression played on his face and he tapped the open pages of his book. Lord Luxon drank deeply then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, continuing all the while to read his notes. The men looked longingly at the bottle of beer, beaded in condensation, that dangled from Lord Luxon’s fingers and licked their lips, wishing they were in the cool of Michael’s bar, with a fancy coaster and a bowl of salted nuts and their hot hands pressed round a chilled glass. They waited for Lord Luxon to address them. Presently he looked up and met their stares.

  ‘Finally, gentlemen, I see a path through the quagmire of History. I had hoped for much from my meeting with Mrs Stacey’s niece today, yet the brilliance of her observation has done nothing short of astound me. She has given clarity and purpose to our campaign. Already we have made great strides, we have learned to navigate our way through time with ever-greater accuracy, but today this gifted young American has unwittingly betrayed her country in the most complete way possible. Gentlemen, no longer need we stumble lost and directionless through the backwaters of a revolution, now we have a compass and a stratagem. We, gathered together in this place, shall soon be privileged to witness the stillbirth of an independent America . . .’

  William felt a shiver run up and down his spine as he observed the fire in his master’s eyes. Though whether it was patriotism that he felt, or fear, or horror, he could not have said. He looked over at Sergeant Thomas and they exchanged glances but whatever it was that the seasoned soldier was feeling, he kept it to himself. Suddenly an inner door opened and a fair-haired boy stepped into the room. He seemed agitated but did not dare speak.

  ‘What’s amiss, lad?’ barked Sergeant Thomas.

  ‘There is a girl, sir. I fancied she was watching us but I was not sure. So I hid for a moment to see what she would do. I fear she is even now a-climbing up the ladder.’

  ‘Did no one pull it up after me?’ exclaimed Lord Luxon angrily.

  Sergeant Thomas caught sight of William’s contrite expression. ‘It is my responsibility, my Lord,’ he said quickly. ‘It will not happen again.’

  Sergeant Thomas rushed to the window and nudged down one of the slats. Lord Luxon and the men did likewise. Sergeant Thomas took out his loaded pistol and pointed it at the girl.

  ‘It is Alice, Mrs Stacey’s niece!’ whispered Lord Luxon.

  ‘Has she provided you with the answers you required?’ asked Sergeant Thomas.

  ‘Yes – for the most part, at least.’

  ‘Then it would be as well to dispatch her with all haste.’

  ‘No!’

  ‘Forgive me, my Lord, but this is war. If she has followed you, she clearly has her suspicions. If you do nothing, I fear you may live to regret it.’

  ‘Since when,’ hissed Lord Luxon, ‘did I take advice from a common sergeant?’

  ‘As you say, sir.’

  The shadow of a slight figure passed noiselessly in front of the blinds. Everyone stepped backwards. The contour of a head which pressed against the window was clearly visible. She was trying to see inside. No one moved. Then Sergeant Thomas whispered into Lord Luxon’s ear.

  ‘If we do not harm her then we must at least frighten her off.’

  Lord Luxon nodded.

  A few moments later Sergeant Thomas was crouching behind the door. With one hand he silently turned the door handle. With the other he clasped together the jaws of his oversized mongrel. When he judged the moment was right he whispered something into Sally’s ear, flung open the door and pushed the cross-eyed bitch out onto the fire escape. Concealing himself at the back of the room, Lord Luxon caught a glimpse of shining, chestnut hair and Alice’s petrified face as the hound knocked her to the floor and stood over her growling, front paws on her shoulders. Alice screamed and kicked and hit the dog hard on its nose with her heavy bag. But Sally would not be put off. Alice leaped up and ran to the ladder, hoping that the dog would not follow. Sergeant Thomas had his pistol trained through the blind at Alice’s head as she
climbed down. Sally’s staccato barks were deafening and all of Prince Street looked up to watch the commotion.

  ‘You only have to say the word,’ Sergeant Thomas said to Lord Luxon over his shoulder. ‘If not here, I could follow her to a quiet place to do the deed . . .’

  Lord Luxon joined him at the window and peered through the blind. He rested his hand on the soldier’s pistol and pushed it down.

  ‘No. She may well be the instrument of our victory.’

  Sally continued to bark like a mad thing.

  ‘As you wish,’ said Sergeant Thomas in a flat voice.

  Lord Luxon flinched as Alice seemed to look straight back at him, wild-eyed, as if her gaze had penetrated the blind, before sprinting away towards Sixth Avenue and safety.

  CHAPTER SIX

  The Oracle

  In which it is the Tar Man’s turn to bare his teeth

  and Kate proves her worth

  Other than a sharp intake of breath, the Tar Man did not permit himself to react even though Kate’s incisors had broken his skin. Instead, with his free hand, he calmly leaned over and pinched a nerve in her neck. The acute, electric pain this simple gesture caused made her cry out. The Tar Man retrieved his throbbing hand and pulled both of Kate’s arms behind her back. She felt a cord tighten around her wrists. Kate tried to spit out the taste of the Tar Man. She felt sick to her stomach.

  ‘If you wish me to treat you civilly, Mistress Dyer, I recommend that you mend your manners – although it was scarcely gallant of Master Schock to leave you unaccompanied. Does he not know that Bartholomew’s Fair is teeming with rogues who would prey on those such as yourself?’

  ‘What do you want with me?’ Kate cried.

  ‘All in good time.’

  Kate opened her mouth to scream for help but her cry was instantly smothered when the Tar Man slapped his fingers over her mouth. The fool’s antics were still attracting the attention of the crowd and only one man noticed this minor disturbance on the edge of the circle of onlookers. It was the fortune-teller’s gatekeeper. Kate, still wriggling like a fish on a hook, opened her eyes wide and looked at him beseechingly. He ignored her silent pleas. The Tar Man, too, fixed the big man with a stare and, with a jerk of his head, indicated that the fellow should remove himself from his sight.

 
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