Time quake, p.9
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       TIME QUAKE, p.9

           Linda Buckley-Archer
 

  ‘I hope they don’t tread on us,’ shouted Peter above the din.

  ‘If they do we can always push them over,’ Kate replied.

  ‘’Tis rare indeed to see Master Blueskin stoop to fist-fighting,’ said a nasal voice ahead of them. ‘He’s a fellow who likes his reputation to speak for him . . .’

  ‘And see how straight he holds himself,’ exclaimed another. ‘I do believe his neck has healed!’

  ‘Ay, and look at the cut of his cloth – he’s had rich pickings of late.’

  ‘Who’s the cove that has the bottom to challenge the Tar Man?’ asked another. ‘Faith, I don’t fancy his chances.’

  Peter nudged Kate. ‘It is them!’

  ‘Don’t be so sure,’ called out an older, croaky voice. ‘We was at Tyburn when they tried to hang him. He’s the cutpurse they say was rescued by angels. We was vastly entertained – why, we did not even take it amiss when no one got scragged that day. If memory serves his name is Seymour. I like his looks. He seems a likely lad . . .’

  The voice tailed off as a great howl of pain rose up and the crowd at the front winced in sympathy.

  ‘Ha!’ cried the first voice. ‘What say you now? Your Mr Seymour will be lucky if he can find his feet again.’

  Peter and Kate exchanged desperate looks.

  ‘It is him,’ said Peter. ‘We’re going to have to push. Okay?’

  Kate nodded and both took a step backwards before charging at the row of assorted jackets and greasy ponytails that separated them from the fight. They screwed up their eyes and heaved. Amidst a flurry of vociferous complaints the children broke through and emerged, blinking, at the edge of an open circle. The crowd was passing around flaming brands taken, under protest, from a fire-eater. The children peered into the flickering half-light and saw a figure rise unsteadily to his feet and stagger towards his opponent, swaying and shaking his head repeatedly much as a horse might try to rid itself of a cloud of troublesome flies. It was Gideon. Kate felt Peter lurch forward ready to spring to their friend’s aid. She held him back.

  ‘No! You mustn’t! Gideon wouldn’t want you to . . .’

  Kate gripped Peter’s hand and he could not help straining against her for he longed to throw himself at the man whose actions had caused them all such anguish. The Tar Man’s poise and self-belief were written into every fluid movement as he prowled, cat-like, in a circle around his victim. Peter glimpsed the enjoyment in his eyes as he observed Gideon list drunkenly towards him. Peter’s heart sank to his boots. Gideon was already hurt, how was he going to withstand any more punishment? The Tar Man was relishing playing to the crowd and he allowed an amused smile to play on his lips for good effect. Gideon threw a sudden punch at the Tar Man’s jaw but it did not hit its mark. His opponent stepped to one side with a dramatic flourish, causing Gideon to lose his balance. He crashed to the ground and the crowd roared with laughter. The Tar Man shook his head and tutted.

  ‘Now that you have seen fit to make a spectacle of our private disagreement, Mr Seymour, it is only seemly that we make a little more effort to divert these good people, do you not agree?’

  Gideon tried to push himself up from the dirt but the Tar Man tripped him up with a well-judged kick to his ankles and proceeded to strut around the ring, adjusting his cream waistcoat and smoothing back his dark hair while he waited for his opponent to recover himself. People laughed even harder.

  ‘Come on, Gideon!’ shouted Peter, a lone voice in the crowd.

  Kate joined in. ‘You show him, Gideon!’

  All of a sudden they were aware of another voice calling out Gideon’s name.

  There were a few Huzzah!s but even more Boo!s. The Tar Man was not a stranger to these people.

  ‘Perhaps the others are here!’ shouted Peter to Kate.

  The Tar Man made a show of offering Gideon his hand to help him to his feet. Gideon spat at it. The Tar Man wiped his hand on his sleeve and shook his head in disappointment, then stood aside, gentleman-like, allowing Gideon to stand up. Some of the crowd booed and hissed as he found his footing. There was a large, muddy smear of dirt on Gideon’s cheek and the Tar Man took pleasure in indicating as much. There was more laughter. A flower girl, carrying a large, flat basket full of posies, stepped forward into the ring, stood in front of Gideon and dabbed at his face with a handkerchief. The Tar Man looked on and smiled at Gideon as you would a wayward child.

  ‘Please desist, madam, I beg of you,’ said Gideon, embarrassed by the attention. He tried vainly to wave her aside but, ignoring the laughter, the girl would not be put off until she had removed the dirt.

  ‘Oh, someone get her off him!’ exclaimed Peter.

  ‘At least it’s giving him the chance to get his breath back,’ said Kate.

  Finally the girl withdrew, accepting the crowd’s applause with a shallow curtsy. Then the Tar Man approached Gideon and said something in a voice too low for the crowd to hear. Whatever it was that he said, it had the same effect as a bucket of cold water to the face. Rage or hatred or both roused Gideon to the extent that he launched himself at the Tar Man in a wild fury.

  ‘It is a lie!’ he shouted.

  The Tar Man was momentarily stunned as a succession of ferocious blows rained down on him and he took several hard punches before he recovered himself enough to deflect the majority of them. Enjoying the turn the fight had taken, the excited crowd started to roar its approval and the Tar Man’s expression betrayed regret that he had goaded Gideon quite so successfully. He took advantage of the first brief pause in the onslaught to deliver not a punch but a high kick to his opponent’s stomach. Taken by surprise, Gideon staggered backwards, badly winded and barely able to lift up his arms to defend himself from the blows that he knew were bound to follow. Everyone gasped as the Tar Man landed a devastating punch to Gideon’s temple. Gideon staggered backwards, hardly managing to remain upright as he rocked first in one direction and then in the other. All eyes were now on the Tar Man as he started to circle once more, massaging his bruised knuckles and pushing up the sleeves of his shirt. Then he stood still, gathering his forces, preparing to deliver a final, knockout blow.

  Peter and Kate clutched at each other, hardly daring to look.

  ‘He’s going to kill him!’ exclaimed Kate.

  Peter watched through the gaps in his fingers as the Tar Man drew back his right arm, ready to strike, but suddenly found himself cheering alongside Kate as Gideon fell, rather than dived, at the Tar Man’s feet and instinctively grabbed hold of his ankles. Caught unawares, the Tar Man was floored. His skull cracked against the hard ground. He did not move.

  ‘He’s out cold!’ screamed Peter, punching the air with his fist.

  The ring of onlookers went silent. Disorientated though he was, Gideon’s arms shot up in triumph. The crowd started to applaud, a little ungenerously at first, but Peter and Kate jumped up and down, whooping and cheering. Gideon looked down at the Tar Man’s motionless body and shook his head in disbelief. How had he managed to win the fight? But suddenly there were shouts and Gideon recognised Peter’s shrill voice. He turned to seek out his young friend’s face in the crowd.

  ‘No! Behind you!’ shrieked Peter and Kate desperately.

  But it was too late. The Tar Man had sprung up, unhurt and perfectly alert. As Gideon turned to face him he executed an impeccable drop kick to his jaw. Gideon’s blond head flew backwards and the children watched him land, knocked finally senseless, in the putrid dirt of Smithfield Market.

  The crowd roared their approval. ‘Master Blueskin does not disappoint,’ someone said as the children pushed forward to help Gideon. ‘It is a foolish man who thinks he can get the better of the Tar Man.’

  As the children got closer Kate saw, with some satisfaction, the livid imprint of her teeth still on the Tar Man’s hand. He acknowledged the children with a slight incline of his head, then leaned down over the unconscious Gideon and said, loud enough, for the children to hear: ‘Let this teach you a lesson, littl
e brother. Never turn your back on your opponent, even if you fancy that he is not long for this world . . .’

  Kate and Peter exchanged horrified glances.

  ‘It is true then!’ murmured Kate. ‘They are brothers!’

  ‘I don’t believe it!’ said Peter hotly.

  The Tar Man started to walk away.

  ‘Stop that rogue!’ came a cry.

  Kate looked about her. ‘Was that Sir Richard?’

  ‘Stop that rogue, I say!’ shouted Sir Richard from the back of the crowd.

  Once the Tar Man had spotted Sir Richard he fixed him with a cool stare.

  Sir Richard pointed at the Tar Man and addressed the crowd. ‘This man is nought but a common thief!’

  ‘You are not in the Court of St James’ now, Sir Richard,’ cried the Tar Man. ‘Do not dare to stand in Bartholomew’s Fair and blacken my name! A common thief I am not!’ There were ripples of laughter. ‘Look to yourself and your kind, Sir Richard. You say I am a thief but I say to you, when times are good, do you not steal our money in taxes but when times are bad do you not let us starve? I may have plucked the pearls from a duchess’s neck. But you and your kind would take the bread from the plate of a hungry child. It will not be ever thus and I have cause to know . . .’

  The crowd shouted their approval and nodded their heads and people stared angrily behind them at Sir Richard.

  ‘You turn sense on its head, sir!’ replied Sir Richard.

  Now the crowd started to boo and hiss and there was a whiff of anarchy in the air. Bartholomew’s Fair belonged to the people and no one was in a mood to bow to authority.

  ‘You wouldn’t catch Blueskin stealing the bread from a child’s plate!’ someone shouted out. ‘He’d be sure to steal the plate, too!’

  There was an eruption of raucous laughter. Sir Richard tried to push his way to the front but the crowd would not let him through.

  ‘I have ten guineas in my hand for the man who brings me Master Blueskin!’ shouted Sir Richard. ‘Ten golden guineas!’

  The Tar Man laughed but cast an eye over the crowd all the same. Ten guineas was a handsome sum, although no one, he was relieved to see, was tempted by the offer. Suddenly Gideon started to groan.

  ‘He’s coming round!’ cried Kate.

  The Tar Man looked down at Gideon. ‘Have no fear, Mistress Dyer, he’ll live.’

  Then the Tar Man gestured that he desired to exit the ring and the crowd parted like the Red Sea for Moses.

  ‘Stop him, I say!’ cried Sir Richard in desperation.

  But the Tar Man waved farewell to the crowd and vanished into the night, to the sound of hearty applause.

  Now that the excitement was over the crowd quickly dispersed, although several men jostled Sir Richard, and two handsome women, who wore heart-shaped beauty spots on their faces and bosoms, spat at him. Soon Peter, Kate and Sir Richard were left alone tending the bruised and battered Gideon.

  Sir Richard seemed shaken. ‘He is a man of parts, our villainous rogue – and at all costs not to be underestimated. Though, by heaven, I swear he shall feel the full weight of my anger ere long.’

  Gideon’s eyes opened. ‘I fear that there is a long list of men,’ he croaked in a barely audible voice, ‘who have the same thought, Sir Richard.’

  Two figures loomed out of the darkness. Hannah and a bareheaded Parson Ledbury walked side by side. At first they did not notice their friends. The Parson was tearing the last morsels of flesh from a couple of ribs of pork. He wiped the grease from his mouth with the back of his hand. When he spotted the party he flung the bones to the ground where a couple of small dogs immediately pounced on them, yapping and snarling as they each pulled in opposite directions.

  ‘Gadzooks, I am heartily glad to see you!’ exclaimed Parson Ledbury. ‘We have been waiting under the whirligig this past halfhour. Time enough for a monkey to make off with my wig, would you believe! A monkey! The little devil sat chattering to itself at the top of the whirligig and would not be persuaded down.’

  ‘Yes! The creature even put the Parson’s wig on its head! I do not recall laughing so much in my life!’ Hannah giggled. ‘Begging your pardon, sir.’

  The Parson snorted. ‘But what has detained you so long? Where is Mr Seymour? And has there been a sighting of Master Blueskin?’

  Peter pointed without comment at Gideon who lay on the foul-smelling ground, bruised and bloodied. The flesh around one eye was so swollen that the eyelid was purplish and spongy and the skin stretched tight and shiny across the socket. Gideon peered up at Parson Ledbury with one bloodshot, watering eye. The Parson’s face crumpled in consternation and he immediately knelt down next to Gideon.

  ‘I see that the Tar Man lives up to his reputation. Indeed, if Master Schock speaks the truth, I can only say that this is a most disappointing way to express his brotherly affection—’

  ‘He is not my brother!’ exclaimed Gideon, trying to sit up.

  Kate and Peter pushed Gideon back down and Sir Richard put an arm on the Parson’s shoulder.

  ‘As you say, my dear fellow,’ said the Parson, hurriedly. ‘But we cannot afford to tarry here. If we do not catch up with Blueskin tonight who knows when we might get another chance. Can you walk, Mr Seymour?’

  ‘What are you thinking of, Parson?’ exclaimed Sir Richard. ‘Gideon is too hurt to do aught but rest!’

  Gideon pushed himself up on his elbows, drawing in his breath slowly through his teeth. ‘I can walk.’

  ‘No, my friend, you have taken enough of a beating for one night,’ said Sir Richard, laying a hand on Gideon’s shoulder. ‘I shall send for the carriage to take you back to Lincoln’s Inn Fields.’

  But Gideon rolled over onto his side, got onto all fours and tried to stand up, refusing all help. He swayed backwards and forwards, holding one hand to his temple, the other to his side, his features creased with the pain of it. The Parson and Sir Richard grabbed an arm each and propped Gideon up between them.

  ‘Bless me, but you have spirit, Mr Seymour!’ said Parson Ledbury, thumping Gideon on the back. ‘It is to be regretted that you were pitted against your br— such a skilful adversary – but you are not a man to turn tail. And the game is far from over. Come, let us try a few steps—’

  ‘No!’ exclaimed Kate. ‘Gideon has got to lie still! Look at his face. It’s the colour of rice pudding!’

  ‘You have no cause to be anxious on my account, Mistress Kate,’ said Gideon in a voice that made it difficult to believe him. ‘It is my own pride that pricks and stings me most. Twice he has overcome me. Once during Lord Luxon’s race, when none but the birds and the trees bore witness to my humiliation, and now here at Bartholomew’s Fair, with a baying crowd to compound my indignity. He will not lay me low again! I swear it. I swear it on my mother’s grave . . .’

  Kate looked at Gideon’s poor, swollen eye, and at his waxen complexion, and she was not the only one to think that if what they had heard was true, thrashing the Tar Man – much as the idea might appeal to the assembled company – was unlikely to be what the siblings’ late mother might have desired . . .

  ‘Oh, Gideon,’ said Kate, ‘you don’t have to prove yourself to us! No one could have done more than you have!’

  ‘Anyway, the Tar Man cheated!’ said Peter hotly. ‘You don’t have to feel bad about anything!’

  Gideon did not look convinced. ‘As Blueskin himself told me, I should have had more sense than to turn my back on him. It is not a mistake I shall repeat.’

  Peter searched in vain for words of comfort.

  ‘It is ever in my mind,’ continued Gideon, ‘that it was I who led you into the path of Blueskin on that very first day you arrived in this century. In consequence I cannot doubt that it is squarely my responsibility to put matters right.’

  Sir Richard smiled. ‘My dear fellow,’ he said. ‘How lightly you bear the world’s weight on your young shoulders . . .’

  Pulling Peter with her, Kate walked over to Gideon. The
n, hesitating a little, she planted a swift kiss on his cheek. ‘You don’t owe us anything. I think it’s the other way round . . .’

  Gideon nodded by way of thanks and a twinkle came to his one good eye. ‘Though ’tis true, on reflection, that were it not for you two wretched children, I should doubtless be supping ale in some pleasant inn . . . and in company that required cheerful conversation rather than a narrowly missed appointment at Tyburn and regular beatings.’

  As Peter laughed the memory came to him of that moment in Derbyshire – it seemed so long ago now – when he had first admitted to Gideon that if this was 1763, everyone he knew and loved was centuries away in the future. Gideon, a total stranger, with no resources, and more than enough troubles of his own, had believed him and promised to help them get back home. Gideon had kept his word and had risked everything to help these strange children from another world while the Tar Man had done everything he could to thwart them. How could one family produce such different offspring?

  ‘Alas, I cannot believe you, Mr Seymour,’ observed the Parson. ‘Having enjoyed your company for some goodly time, I believe I have the measure of you. There is a light which burns bright within you which a quiet life would swift extinguish.’

  ‘I agree with you, Parson,’ said Sir Richard. ‘I fear Gideon will always have to search for some grindstone on which to sharpen the blade of his convictions.’

  A quiet cough alerted the party to the presence of a woman who appeared at one side of this little scene, her jet-black hair glistening in the half-light. Her eyes kept finding Kate. The woman stepped forward, bracelets jangling, her flamboyant dress and confident air belying a deep unease. She clutched something in her hand. After a moment Kate realised that it was the fortune-teller. Sir Richard and the Parson were still propping up Gideon. The fortune-teller surveyed the three men uncertainly and suddenly stepped towards Sir Richard and, after executing a rather hasty curtsy, slipped a scrap of paper into his free hand. Kate noticed a tender blue bruise blossoming on her temple.

 

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