The Time Quake
ONE MANHATTAN In which Lord Luxon takes a fancy to New York
The sun shone down on the remarkable island of Manhattan, whose thrusting castles, too tall and numerous by far to be the stuff of fairy tales, held gravity in contempt as they vied to be the first to reach the sky. Great alleys of skyscrapers seemed to strut across the city, catching the rays of the dazzling sun and casting vast shadows behind them. It was August, and the air was heavy with an intense, moist heat, and those foolish enough to leave the cool shelter of the giant buildings for the scorching street would soon find their shirts sticking to their backs and their hair plastered to their foreheads. More than one New Yorker turning off Sixth Avenue onto the comparative calm of Prince Street found their gaze sidling over to an individual whose stance as well as his dress marked him out, even in SoHo, as somewhat unusual.
The buildings were smaller here, on a more human scale, a mere six stories high, some of them with iron staircases
zigzagging down toward the sidewalks, which mid-afternoon were already in deep shade. While he waited for his valet to hail a cab, Lord Luxon stood in front of an Italian baker’s shop, its windows piled high with crusty loaves baked in the form of oversized doughnuts, in order to observe his reflection in the dusty window. He adjusted his posture. People were strolling by in various stages of undress, wearing shades and shorts and brightly colored T-shirts, darting from one air-conditioned building to another. Lord Luxon, however, appeared cool and immaculate in an ivory three-piece suit, cut expertly from the lightest of cloths, which skimmed the contours of his slim figure. He assumed his habitual stance: legs apart, one arm neatly behind his back, the other resting lightly on his silver-tipped ebony cane. He consciously lengthened the muscles at the back of his neck so that he held his head at precisely the angle that announced, eloquently, that here was an English aristocrat, born of an ancient line of English aristocrats and accustomed to all that life can afford, in whatever century he happened to find himself. He observed his silhouette and congratulated himself on having discovered a tailor of such exceptional talent in an age when the male of the species seemed to have forgotten both the art and pleasure of self-adornment. And how curious it was that although well more than two centuries separated his tailors, their respective premises, on London’s Savile Row, were but a few dozen paces the one from the other.
A middle-aged tourist, his sagging belly bulging over the waist of his shorts, stopped to stare for a moment at this vision
in cream linen. Lord Luxon eyed him with distaste and thought of his cedarwood chests in 1763, specially imported from Italy, and the layers of exquisite silks they contained, the frothy lace, his embroidered, high-heeled shoes, his tricorn hats and brocade vests, his dress wigs, his rouge and his black beauty spots in the shape of crescent moons. It was disappointing, he reflected, that twenty-first century man’s sense of fashion had not kept pace with the truly staggering progress he had observed in every other walk of life. Although the current fashion for body piercing, tattoos, and hair dyes in the wildest of colors was
tempting—indeed, it might be amusing to have his navel pierced and a ruby, or perhaps a diamond or two, inserted … Lord Luxon suddenly laughed out loud, causing the staring tourist to make even less effort to conceal his curiosity. Faith, he could even have his own coat of arms tattooed on his shoulder! How deliciously unseemly!
Lord Luxon looked around him, still smiling. What a transformation this new millennium had worked on him. Little wonder, he thought, that the Tar Man, his errant henchman, had become so attached to this age of wonders. Deprived of the means to travel through time, Blueskin’s own century must now feel like a prison. … Lord Luxon recalled the Tar Man’s expression, his rage and desperation and horror as he realized that his master had stolen the ingenious time device and that, like the rest of humanity, he was once more limited to his own short span of history. Lord Luxon let a shiver of pity pass over him like a cold draft. And yet, extraordinary though he was, the
Tar Man had disappointed him in the end. Just as Gideon had. But what did that matter to him now?
Lord Luxon closed his eyes and listened to the roar of the city and sensed its throbbing pulse. How astonishing to witness what Britain’s wayward little colony had become! Those first American seeds had yielded a crop so bountiful it defied belief. This city took his breath away! It was as if the Manhattan sunshine had burned away the cloud of world-weariness and boredom that in his own time so rarely left him. Here he felt an energy and an excitement and a zest for life surging through him that he could scarcely contain. Here, his convalescent soul was regaining its appetite: Sops of bread and milk were no longer enough. Now he wanted meat.
He believed that he had found his purpose on this earth and that if he succeeded in his quest, which by all the gods he was determined to do, his name would be shot across the skies in eternal glory. …
The annoying little man continued to stare at him, and Lord Luxon glanced at the tourist’s dun-colored excuse for a shirt, wrinkled and stained with sweat, and decided to acknowledge his presence with a disdainful bow, putting one foot in front of the other and pulling out a handkerchief from his top pocket as he did so.
“Good day to you,” Lord Luxon said. “Upon my word, sir, your very countenance makes the heat seem less tolerable, if that were possible.”
“Why, on an afternoon such as this it is difficult even to
conceive of the notion of ice or snow—although I heartily recommend that you try. …”
An angry cloud scudded across the man’s red and shiny face, and he did not reply, not quite understanding Lord Luxon’s meaning but detecting more than a hint of disrespect in his arrogant peacock’s attitude. He scowled and clenched his fists and took half a step toward Lord Luxon, but he immediately found himself confronted by a ruddy-cheeked man with a black beard and pigtail and a chest the size of a small ship, who planted himself squarely between the overheated tourist and his master and proceeded to fold his arms as if it were a threat. The tourist took one look at Lord Luxon’s lackey in his worn white trousers and suspenders, his curious crimson jacket and his bulldog stare, and fled in the direction of Sixth Avenue, unable to decide if he had imagined the low growl or not. When he felt it was safe to do so, the breathless tourist looked back and saw that on each level of the fire escape that climbed up the redbrick building behind Lord Luxon there was a man, seemingly standing at attention, in white trousers and military-style crimson jacket. “Who are these guys?” he said under his breath, and found that all the hairs had risen on the back of his neck.
The Time Quake
TWO A SPENT ROSE In which the party struggle to know what to do about Kate’s affliction and Gideon brings some promising news
The hot summer of 1763 was drawing to a close, and there was something in the air, a quality to the light, that made the residents of Lincoln’s Inn Fields cherish every last warm evening before the first chill of autumn sent them scurrying indoors. Only a few streets away, amidst the raucous cries of street hawkers and the incessant thunder of wagons, starving children begged, soldiers mutilated in the recent war drowned their sorrows in gin, and for the sake of a few coins footpads beat their victims senseless up dark alleyways. But here in this civilized London square all was calm and comfort and respectability. Who could have guessed that behind these fine facades could be heard the first rumblings of a cataclysmic storm that threatened to destroy all before it?
Dusk was approaching, and the trees in the square were thick with songbirds, which trilled and warbled in the rapidly fading light. A blackbird perched sentrylike on a tall wroughtiron
gate that graced the frontage of an imposing house to the west of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The sweet birdsong drifted into Sir Richard Picard’s first-floor drawing room, carried in on wafts of air made fragrant by the honeysuckle that scrambled beneath the open window. Inside the room were to be found Parson Ledbury and two children from the twenty-first century, although their appearance gave no clue as to the century they called their own—except that under closer scrutiny their shoes seemed better suited to a modern-day sports field than the elegance of an eighteenth-century drawing room. Kate Dyer lay stretched out on her belly on a couch beneath the window, her red hair vivid against her sprigged green dress. She supported her chin in one cupped hand, while with the other she tugged absentmindedly at the sleeve of a discarded jacket draped over the back of a chair. The boy it belonged to, Peter Schock, was sitting at a circular table in front of a chessboard. Opposite him, white wig awry, sat a portly man of the cloth, who emptied a glass of claret in one gulp and set it back on the table with a bang that jolted Kate temporarily out of her reverie.
In the middle of setting out the chess pieces for a return match with the redoubtable Parson Ledbury, a white knight suspended in midair between finger and thumb, the young Peter Schock glanced over at his friend. Kate’s eyelids kept sliding shut, but as soon as they closed she would jerk them open again through sheer effort of will. Another day spent searching for the Tar Man—and hopefully the duplicate antigravity machine that Kate’s father and the scientist Dr. Pirretti had built—had left
Peter frustrated and anxious. But Kate was utterly wrung out and exhausted—as, it seemed to Peter, she so often was. Gideon and Sir Richard had been keen to continue the search, but when they noticed Kate’s white face, they insisted that the Parson take the children home to rest.
“Go to bed, Kate, before we have to carry you up,” Peter said.
Kate shook herself and pushed herself up. “No. I want to see Parson Ledbury thrash you first.”
Peter stuck out his tongue at her.
“Now, if you
were to challenge me, Mistress Kate, it would be a different matter entirely.”
“All right,” she replied. “I will. Afterward.” Kate laughed and slumped back onto the overstuffed sofa, pulling out the flounces of her dress, which were badly spattered, she noticed, with mud and other unmentionable substances from the gutters of Covent Garden. She should really get changed, but not yet … not just yet. Perhaps when she had rested for a little longer. The familiar, piercing cry of swallows made her turn her head to look through the open window. As her eyes followed the birds swooping and diving through the air in search of midges, she felt a pang of homesickness. How often had she and her brothers and sisters stood in their Derbyshire farmyard and watched swallows build their nests under the eaves. Kate wondered if she would ever do so again but instantly scolded herself for even doubting it. So she forced herself to look out at the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose silhouette, rising up into the golden evening
sky beyond Lincoln’s Inn Fields, spoke to her so powerfully of hope. She sighed heavily, and another strand of hair tumbled down over her face.
The Parson beat Peter in three moves, but by then Kate was fast asleep, and even the Parson’s victory cry did not wake her. The two players looked first at Kate and then at each other.
“I don’t think Kate likes being alone right now,” whispered Peter.
“I do not think it is a question of her being alone,” said the Parson, endeavoring to lower his booming voice a few notches. “Rather, it seems to me that Mistress Kate is frightened of being separated from you.
Bringing up the rear of the party, I observed her tagging behind you like a lamb to its mother, growing ever more anxious as the crowds grew denser.”
This was not what Peter wanted to hear. He had noticed it too. A frown etched itself onto his forehead.
“I saw a few people staring at her today. If she carries on fading at this rate, I think it’s going to be really noticeable. She can still get away with it—just—but not for very much longer.”
“Alas, I am of your opinion, Master Peter. Her condition has worsened since her return to this time.”
“I don’t get why it’s happening. I’ve traveled through time as much as she has. It’s not as if she keeps blurring back or anything. … It’s not like the first time. And I haven’t blurred back once.”
“Ay, the phenomenon is the queerest thing I ever saw, and
I cannot for the life of me account for it. Upon my word how you, Peter, continue to be in rude health while your companion droops and fades like a spent rose is quite beyond my comprehension.”
“Do you think she’ll get better if we get her back home?” asked Peter.
“I am certain of it, my dear boy,” said the Parson, unconvincingly. “But for her own safety I fear she must soon be restricted to going out under cover of darkness. …”
“What! Am I becoming a vampire now?”
Kate was suddenly fully awake. She shot up from the sofa and stood facing Parson Ledbury accusingly. The Parson stared vacantly back at her.
“Are you all planning on putting a stake through my heart or something?”
“Don’t be daft, Kate!” exclaimed Peter. “We’re just worried about you, that’s all—”
“I most humbly beg your pardon, Mistress Kate; I thought you were asleep,” the Parson said guiltily. “To distress you was the last thing in the world I intended—”
“I’m not fading!” Kate practically shouted. “I’m not
! I’m still me! I’m Kate Dyer, and I have five brothers and sisters, and I live on a farm in Derbyshire, and I have a golden Labrador called Molly, and my dad is going to come and get me! You see if he doesn’t!”
Parson Ledbury and Peter exchanged glances. Peter looked
at Kate’s pale face flushed with emotion, and he expected to see tears rolling down her cheeks, though none came.
“I am a foolish old man who should have known better. I hope you will forgive me, Mistress Kate,” said the Parson.
Peter sat down next to Kate on the sofa and slowly put an arm around her shoulders, unsure whether she wanted to be comforted in this way, but Kate immediately clung to Peter and put her face into the crook of his neck. She took hold of his hand and gripped it hard. Peter looked down. Kate’s flesh was no longer the same as his own. The effect was subtle but unmistakable. It looked faded and ever so slightly translucent, a little like wax, and if he had not known better, he would have thought there was an invisible layer that insulated his skin from hers. So little warmth radiated from her hand. Peter felt desperate. He badly wanted to help Kate get better, but what could he do?
“I promise we won’t let anything happen to you. We’ll—”
Kate cut him off mid-sentence. “Don’t. Don’t make any promises you can’t keep.”
“I shall fetch Hannah,” said the Parson. “She will know what to do for the best. Some smelling salts, perhaps, or a drop of brandy. …”
Parson Ledbury stepped onto the landing and closed the door behind him. Kate and Peter were left alone and, anxious to break the silence, Peter reached into his pocket and showed Kate a worn and very grubby piece of paper, folded up into a tiny square.
“Look. Do you remember this? I’d forgotten I still had it.”
“What is it?” asked Kate, peering at it. “It’s not your Christmas homework, is it?”
Peter smiled and nodded. He unfolded it carefully and read: “Christmas homework. To be handed in to Mr. Carmichael on January eighth. Write five hundred words on My Ideal Holiday.”
Kate burst out laughing. “You showed it to me that first day in Derbyshire. How funny!”
“If I did it, do you think it’d get us home?”
“You’d be handing it in really late. …”
“Yeah—I’d probably get a detention. …”
“Probably two. …”
“And a hundred lines. I must not time-travel during term-time.
Peter put it back in his pocket, and presently they heard voices in the hall and the sound of the front door shutting, and then the click of heels against wood as someone bounded up the stairs.
“I trust that Mistress Kate fares better,” said Sir Richard, striding into the room followed by Parson Ledbury. “Ah,” he continued, observing her strained, pale face. “I see that she does not. …”
“No, I do
feel a little better, thank you,” protested Kate, who hated people to make a fuss—well, unless it was her mother.
“Then I am heartily glad to hear it.”
“I trust your luck improved after we left you, Sir Richard,” said Parson Ledbury. “For I grow weary of searching for confounded needles in confounded haystacks.”
Sir Richard beamed. “Indeed our luck did
improve, my dear fellow. I shall let Gideon tell you his news in person, but I gleaned a crumb or two of information myself in the city this afternoon. I admit that I was becoming a little dispirited, and I resolved to take my ease a while in the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street. It was while I was there that I happened upon an old acquaintance, a wealthy merchant from Surrey—and a most happy coincidence it was, for he is a great lover of horses, and his country estate adjoins that of Tempest House.”
“Lord Luxon’s house?” asked Peter.
“Precisely, Master Schock. And when I asked him if he had seen his neighbor of late, he replied that he had seen him not two days past in Child’s Coffee House in St. Paul’s Churchyard. The merchant did not announce himself, however, as he was hidden behind the London Gazette,
toasting himself in front of the fire. Lord Luxon sat at one of the small tables, in earnest conversation with a gentleman whom my friend immediately recognized as none other than Mr. Gainsborough, the portrait painter.”
“Oh, I’ve seen his pictures at Tate Britain!” exclaimed Kate.
Sir Richard smiled. “It does not surprise me that his fame will live on—he has a truly remarkable talent.”
Peter shrugged his shoulders. “Never heard of him,” he muttered.
“My acquaintance admitted that the two gentlemen’s conversation was more interesting than his newspaper. Mr. Gainsborough, it appears, remarked to Lord Luxon that he
was sick of portraits and wished instead to take up his viol de gamba and walk off into some sweet village where he could paint landscapes and enjoy the autumn of his life in quietness and ease. To which Lord Luxon replied that if only he would agree to sell him his present commission and the diverse drawings and sketches of which they had spoken, he would give Mr. Gainsborough more than enough gold to retire from society if that is what he so wished. He also advised him to invest his wealth in the American colonies, as he himself had been doing, for he was convinced that the country had a great future. … My acquaintance observed the two fellows shake hands and leave the coffeehouse in excellent spirits.”
“So Lord Luxon is still in 1763!” said Peter.
“Or he’s returned here,” said Kate. “If he knows about America, it means that he’s learned how to use the antigravity machine.”
“Which is not such good news …,” said Peter.
“But what the devil is the fellow doing commissioning paintings?” asked Parson Ledbury.
“That’s easy,” said Kate. “A painting by Gainsborough would be worth millions in our time.”
“Ha! I thought as much!” exclaimed Sir Richard. “Well, if my Lord Luxon is bent on plundering his past to pay for his future, at least we stand a whisker of a chance of catching the rogue.”
Peter’s face brightened. “Not to mention the antigravity machine!”
“I have already sent a couple of fellows to Tempest House and also to Lord Luxon’s residence in Bird Cage Walk. If Lord Luxon is still here, we shall find out before the night is out.”
Suddenly the drawing room door swung open, and Gideon Seymour’s lean and agile figure appeared in the doorway. He looked about the room, and his blue eyes softened when they fell upon Kate. He nodded to the Parson, then walked over to the children and knelt at Kate’s feet.
“We have promising news, Mistress Kate. There has been a sighting of the Tar Man. At Bartholomew’s Fair. He cannot have been able to solve the puzzle of how to start up your device. If we are to stand a chance of catching up with him and the machine, we must make haste. Even if you are still not fully rested, I wonder if it would not do your heart good to help run down that foul villain who is the root and cause of your unhappiness. Will you accompany us, Mistress Kate? Shall we capture Blueskin and win back your machine?”
Kate jumped up from the sofa. “Are you kidding? Of course I’ll come! I want to see the Tar Man get a taste of his own medicine for once!”