Read an Excerpt Chapter Seven: The Hospitality of the Honorable Mrs. Byng
In which Peter and Kate make the acquaintance of the Byng family and Peter demonstrates his soccer skills
Kate was unconscious for barely thirty seconds. When she came round, her face was drawn and her skin was white as paper. She felt sick and weak and all she wanted to do was close her eyes and escape from a reality that she was not ready to face at least not just yet. Gideon carried Kate to a shady spot well away from the road and laid her gently on the grass. He took a shirt from his bag and folded it into a pillow for Kate's head. Then he gave his water bottle to Peter, saying, "Stay with her. We are close to Baslow Hall, Colonel Byng's house; I shall fetch a horse and will return as soon as I am able."
Peter took the bottle like a sleepwalker. His world had temporarily flicked out of focus, and he was quite happy for it to remain that way.
"Peter," said Gideon, putting a hand on his shoulder to get his attention. "Where have you come from?"
Peter looked up at him and realized he was going to have to decide whether to tell Gideon the truth. Could he trust him? He decided to follow his instincts.
"If this...is really...1763," Peter said in a halting voice, "then everyone I know is living hundreds of years in the future. Kate and I come from the twenty-first century. I don't understand how we got here. And I don't see how we can get back. I..."
Peter couldn't find the words to say anything else. He suddenly felt desperate.
Gideon's face did not betray what he was thinking. He nodded slowly and paced up and down for a couple of minutes before answering him.
"I mean no disrespect when I say that I can scarce believe that what you have told me is true, and yet...my heart tells me that you are not lying. Fate put me in that hawthorn bush to witness your arrival, and I promise you that I will do what I can to help restore you and Mistress Kate to your families."
Peter felt a surge of relief and gratitude welling up inside him. Tears pricked at his eyelids. "Thank you," he replied finally. "I'm not lying to you, Gideon I don't understand how any of this happened, but I swear to you I'm not lying."
Peter watched Gideon stride away to Baslow Hall. He set to wondering if his mother, so far away in California, had been told that her son was missing and what she would do. He had not seen her for nearly two months. Would she drop everything, tell the film studio that they would have to do without her, and get on a plane? Would she miss him if he got permanently stuck in 1763? Then it occurred to him that if he'd had a father who kept his promises, he wouldn't be in this situation now.
The shadows were lengthening by the time Kate heaved herself up on her elbows and helped herself to some water.
"Are you okay?" asked Peter. Kate nodded.
"Lost in time," she said after a while. "Why couldn't I see it before? Everyone in fancy dress and speaking funny."
"I thought that's how people spoke in Derbyshire," said Peter with a grin.
"Watch it," said Kate. "And before you ask, my dad and Dr. Williamson at the lab are not trying to invent time travel. That only happens in stories. They're studying how gravity actually works."
"Will," corrected Peter. "They will study how gravity works."
An air of unreality descended on them while they sat in the warm, still air, waiting for Gideon. Peter sat obsessively folding and unfolding a slip of paper that he had found in his anorak pocket.
"You're like Sam; you're a right fidget!" snapped Kate, irritated. "What is it anyway?"
Peter unrolled the grubby scrap of paper and read, "Christmas homework. To be handed in to Mr. Carmichael on January eighth. Write five hundred words on: My Ideal Holiday."
They both burst out laughing but soon fell silent. Chance had thrown Peter and Kate together, and whether they liked it or not, each was now a key person in the other's life. But, of course, they had known each other for less than a day and a half, and neither had yet earned the other's trust.
After a while Peter said, "You know, it's got to be something to do with that machine thing that Gideon told us about. It might not be a time machine, but it's all we've got to go on. We're going to have to find the Tar Man, aren't we?"
"I don't know," Kate replied. "Maybe it would be better to wait here.... My dad will work out what happened. I know he will. He won't stop until he's found us."
Peter did not feel quite so optimistic about Dr. Dyer's ability to travel back through time. But he also felt a pang of jealousy he wished the feelings he had about his own dad were less complicated.
"I didn't blur when I fainted, did I?" asked Kate.
"No, you didn't, why?"
Gideon arrived not on horseback but sitting in an open carriage drawn by two glossy chestnut mares. Beside him sat a pretty, plump young woman in a severe black-and-white dress. She was perhaps twenty years old and she was balancing a basket covered with a muslin cloth on her knee. Golden curls escaped from beneath a cotton bonnet and tumbled over her rosy cheeks. The driver sat perched high up on a box seat. He held his back as straight as a soldier on parade and wielded a whip, which he cracked over the horses' heads as they strained up the steep track.
When they came to a halt, Gideon helped the young woman out of the carriage. They hurried toward the children. The woman dropped a neat curtsy in Peter and Kate's direction.
"This is Hannah," announced Gideon. "Mrs. Byng's personal maid. She has brought you refreshments and a cloak each to cover your barbaric garb." Then he raised his voice, and fixing them with his dark blue eyes, he spoke slowly and very pointedly to Peter and Kate.
"I have spoken to Mrs. Byng of your traveling to England from foreign parts and of your terrible encounter with an armed highwayman in Dovedale who made off with all your clothes and possessions. I have also enlightened Mrs. Byng as to your intention of traveling to London. I explained how you became separated from your uncle, who has doubtless made his way to Covent Garden, where he has urgent business."
"Yes, that's right," said Peter in such a stilted voice that Gideon had to turn away to hide his smile. "A terrible highwayman stole all our clothes in Dovedale."
"You poor, wretched children," said Hannah sympathetically. "Mr. Seymour told me that you were forced to wear whatever you could lay your hands on, yet I do declare I have never set eyes on a more outlandish getup. Why, a person would be ashamed to be seen in such clothes in respectable company. But, Mistress Kate, you are not well. Let me help you to the carriage. Here, give me your arm and lean on me."
Kate did what she was told and looked over her shoulder quizzically at Gideon and Peter as she was maneuvered into the coach. Gideon leaned over and whispered in Peter's ear. "I do not think it wise to be open about your predicament. I fear that half the world will think you mad and the other half that you have been bewitched."
Tucked up in woollen cloaks, and swayed by the motion of the coach, Peter and Kate listened to the groaning of wooden axles and the rhythmic clop, clop, clop of the horses' hooves. The wild Derbyshire landscape, mellow in the setting sun, seemed to glide by. Hannah's basket, stuffed with hunks of bread, salty white cheese, and roast chicken, easily satisfied the children's ravenous appetites, although Hannah seemed to regard it as a small snack. She wanted to know if the highwayman could have been Ned Porter and if he was handsome. Thinking of the Tar Man, Peter told her that he was as ugly as a pig, with a big nose and greasy black hair, and that he stank. Hannah seemed very disappointed.
Peter heard Kate's sudden intake of breath and felt her hand on his arm as the broad stone facade of Baslow Hall came into view. Symmetrical and well proportioned in the same way that good doll's houses always are, the mansion was an impressive sight in the setting sun. The long curved drive cut through a great park, well stocked with stately elms and home to perhaps a thousand sheep.
"This is my school!" she exclaimed softly into Peter's ear. "This is where I go to school! I can't believe it!"
The coach crunched to a standstill in front of a flight of steps leading to a pair of imposing gilded doors. "Wow," said Kate to Peter under her breath. "It doesn't look this good now."
"It won't look this good," corrected Peter.
"You will get very annoying if you carry on like that," she whispered back.
As they all clambered down from the carriage, a small blond-haired boy in a velvet suit came careering around the corner of the house and skidded to a halt on the gravel of the drive. His mouth opened into a small O shape of surprise, and he let the misshapen leather ball he had been chasing roll toward Peter and Kate.
"We have visitors, Master Jack," Hannah called out. "Will you come and bid them welcome?"
The little fellow stood and stared at the strangers and began to walk backward, retracing his steps behind the corner.
"Hello," said Kate, kneeling down so that she was at the same height. "My name's Kate and this is Peter."
Peter walked toward the child's ball.
"Can I borrow your ball for a moment?"
He threw off his cloak, picked up the ball, and carefully placed it on the top of his right foot. Holding out his arms for balance, Peter kicked the ball to eye level then kept it in the air for a couple of minutes or more, first with his foot, then with his knee, and then he finally flicked the ball behind him, bent forward with his arms outstretched, and caught it deftly on the back of his neck. Master Jack was rooted to the spot, entranced; he had never seen such skill with a ball before. Kate was impressed too, although she couldn't quite bring herself to say so.
Jack ran forward and snatched the ball from Peter's neck.
"I like your game," he said. "I want to play it now." He smiled up at Peter, and dimples appeared in his chubby cheeks. Then his attention was drawn to Peter's anorak and he reached out to touch it.
"What is this?" he asked in wonderment, stroking the orange nylon and running his thumbnail up and down the fascinating metal zip.
"Where are your manners, Jack?" a refined woman's voice inquired. "Our guests have been attacked by a highwayman who has stolen all their good clothes."
"You poor souls," said Jack earnestly, and then added, breaking into a grin, "I should like to meet a highwayman."
"Hush, Jack," the woman's voice replied. "Do not wish for such a thing!"
Peter stood up to see who was speaking. He saw two women walking toward them: a handsome, dignified woman in a magnificent blue silk dress, and following her, a nurse carrying a baby swaddled in a lace shawl. The width of the lady's dress was nothing less than startling. It must weigh a ton, thought Peter. If she'd been standing on a sidewalk, there wouldn't have been room for anyone else. Peter started to get nervous. This must be Gideon's employer, the Honorable Mrs. Byng. What was he going to say to this grand lady? How was he supposed to behave? Thankfully, Gideon and Kate joined him, and all three of them stood to attention in a little row.
"Bow!" hissed Gideon. Peter did a bow of sorts, though he did not know what to do with his arms and legs. If she noticed, Mrs. Byng had enough tact not to show that she had. Kate fared better with a curtsy, as her legs were hidden under her long cloak and she merely bent both knees before bobbing up again.
"Welcome to Baslow Hall," said the Honorable Mrs. Byng. "I am sorry that the master of the house, Colonel Byng, is unable to greet you. He is recently left for America, where he is to join his regiment. An uncivilized land, but he must needs do his duty for England and King George, and we must do without him as best we can. Come, Mr. Seymour, introduce me to our guests."
"May I present Mistress Kate and Master Peter Schock," said Gideon. "Alas the highwayman took everything and they now find themselves entirely without resources. He stole something of great worth that they must recover. They have been separated from their uncle, whom they believe has traveled on to London, where he has urgent business."
"A sorry tale indeed. My cousin, Parson Ledbury, dines with me this evening. You must give him a description of the foul fellow who committed this crime. Alas, Derbyshire is teeming nowadays with highwaymen and footpads and villains of all kinds. And yet, as Parson Ledbury says, we shall not be cowed into staying at home because the country is rife with wickedness. Are you brother and sister, may I ask?"
"No!" Kate and Peter almost shouted.
"Mistress Kate and Master Peter are cousins," said Gideon hurriedly.
"I see. And where do your families live?"
Gideon and the children looked at each other. Each was waiting for the other to make the first move.
"We, er, have estates in Germany, near Frankfurt, and also in the north of Scotland," blurted out Peter, reasoning that the richer they sounded the better they were likely to be treated.
"I have family in Scotland," said Mrs. Byng. "Perhaps I am familiar with your estate. What is the name of the nearest town?"
"Um," replied Peter, panicking quietly. "Glanadarry."
He hoped fervently there wasn't really such a place.
"No, I do not know it. Such a pity that Colonel Byng is not here he would have enjoyed conversing with you in German. He has a good ear for languages."
"Yes, that is a pity," lied Peter, who did not.
They were saved from further inquiries by young Jack Byng, who, bored with all the talking, was trying to imitate Peter's skill with his ball. He kicked it high into the air, too high in fact, for it ricocheted off a windowpane. The glass did not shatter, and the ball was caught on the rebound by a tall black-haired boy who had just appeared from the side of the house.
"Jack Ketch, the hangman, will come and get you if you break a window," the tall boy drawled to young Jack. He then proceeded to mime putting a noose around his neck. Clutching at his throat with both hands, he made as if the breath was being squeezed out of him. He pretended to choke and let his tongue loll out and rolled back his eyes until only the whites showed. When Jack ran toward his mother and buried his head in her long swishing skirts, the black-haired boy laughed. Peter took an instant dislike to him but had to admit it was a pretty good mime.
"I wish you would not take such a delight in frightening your brothers and sisters, Sidney. Breaking a window is hardly a hanging offence, and I'll thank you not to teach young Jack that it is." She turned to Gideon. "Such a punishment would be excessively harsh, would you not agree, Mr. Seymour?"
"Yes, madam, although I have seen many a poor wretch strung up at Tyburn for scarcely more serious a crime."
"I see that you are plain-speaking, Mr. Seymour. It is a quality I shall value highly if you are to help me run the estate in the absence of the colonel. My brother Richard writes to me that you are reliable and resourceful and that you inspire men's trust. I am happy to take his advice and offer you a position here. You may settle the question of your salary with Parson Ledbury. I take it you are able to start your duties straightaway?"
"I am, madam. I am very grateful to you." A broad grin appeared on Gideon's face, and he gripped Peter's arm behind his back and squeezed it in happiness. He must have really wanted this job, Peter thought.
Mrs. Byng paused to reach into a drawstring purse made of the same blue silk as her dress. She took out a note sealed with wax and handed it to Gideon.
"Here is the letter that I mentioned earlier. It arrived but yesterday."
Gideon accepted it with a slight bow and tucked it into his pocket to read later.
"So you are often at Tyburn, Mr. Seymour?"
"Lord Luxon, my former employer, never misses a hanging day. He says that to see a man die makes him feel more keenly what it is to be alive. He hires seats in the covered stands it was my task to see to the needs of his many distinguished guests. Lord Chesterfield's French chef would prepare sweetmeats, and the finest wines would be offered to the company."
"How fascinating! You will see little excitement of that type in Bakewell, I fear. Here we live very peacefully too peacefully for some." Here she caught Sidney's eye.
"I should be content, madam, if I never saw Tyburn again in my entire life," Gideon replied.
"Then, I hope for your sake that you do not," said the Honorable Mrs. Byng.
Addressing herself once more to Peter and Kate, she said, "You are most welcome to stay at Baslow Hall and send word to your uncle in London that you are here. However, the day after tomorrow Parson Ledbury takes Sidney and young Jack to visit my brother Richard who lives in Lincoln's Inn Fields a most convenient location. You might prefer to travel down to London with them. There is room enough in the carriage and four."
"Oh thanks!" Kate exclaimed. "That'd be so cool! Yes, please!"
"Yes, that'd be brilliant!" said Peter, and seeing the expression on Mrs. Byng's face, he added, "I mean, one would be most grateful to accept your gracious offer of a...er...lift."
Mrs. Byng looked as if she were wondering exactly which part of Scotland these children sprang from.
"Well, it is settled," she said. "I will tell Parson Ledbury to expect two extra passengers."
"Mama," interrupted Sidney. "If there is a hanging day while we are staying with Uncle Richard, perhaps I could ask Parson Ledbury to take me to Tyburn?"
"No, Sidney," replied his mother. "I forbid you to do any such thing."
Mrs. Byng ordered Hannah to arrange for rooms to be prepared for the guests and for Cook to prepare them a light supper. A footman wearing a tightly curled white wig guided Peter and Kate through the airy entrance hall to a dining room lined with oak paneling. The footman stood to attention at one side of the room. Neither Peter nor Kate could guess whether they were supposed to make conversation with him. Kate tried to catch his eye and smile, but he stared right ahead so they sat in silence. Soon a kitchen maid appeared wearing a starched white apron over a worn gray dress. She carried a silver tray crammed with dishes. While the silver was gleaming, Kate could not help noticing that the servant girl could definitely have done with a wash. As the girl bent to arrange their supper in front of them, Kate saw a black rim of dirt above her collar. The kitchen maid curtsied and left the room, closing the door behind her. Peter and Kate sat in silence, feeling awkward, unsure whether they should help themselves to supper or wait to be asked. There was a bowl of steaming cabbage, a golden-crusted pie, and a pretty china dish containing a kind of stew or casserole: Some pale gray lumps were swimming around in some grayish broth. When Peter noticed the islands of congealed fat floating on the top of it, he thought he would plump for a slice of the pie. The footman came forward and picked up a heavy serving spoon. He turned to Kate.
"The stewed carp or the pie, ma'am?" he inquired with a bow of his head.
Kate looked doubtful.
"Hmmm...What are you having, Peter?" she asked.
"I know what carp is, because I've caught plenty, but I've never eaten one. They're supposed to taste a bit muddy," he whispered.
"The pie looks nice," said Kate brightly to the footman. "What sort of pie is it?"
"Calf's head pie, ma'am. It is a favorite of the Byng family."
Kate gulped and exchanged a desperate look with Peter. "May I have some cabbage and fish, please?"
"And the same for me, please," said Peter.
They ate without speaking, partly because the presence of the footman unnerved them, but mainly because the excitement of the day had utterly exhausted them. The carp was edible but was not nice Kate managed to swallow it, but Peter pushed it around his plate with his fork until finally he gave up any pretence that he was going to eat it, and pushed it away. The pudding was better. The kitchen maid arrived with a dome-shaped mound of yellow custard stuck with so many almonds it looked like a hedgehog. As she carried it in, the pudding quivered so much it made Kate laugh.
"It's alive!" she said, and then added suspiciously, "What is it made of?"
When supper was over, it was with relief that they followed Hannah to their bedrooms. Members of the Byng family gazed down at them from gilded frames as the children climbed up the sweeping staircase that overlooked the hall with its black-and-white marble floor. What a shame, thought Kate, that in two hundred and fifty years all this will be replaced by a gray linoleum floor, row after row of lockers, and a pile of unclaimed sneakers.
Alone in his attic room, and with a full stomach for the first time in a week, Gideon pulled off his boots and flung himself on the bed. He stretched out luxuriously and then remembered the letter that Mrs. Byng had given him. He sat on the edge of the bed and read it by candlelight. As his eyes moved down the page, the look of tired contentment drained from face and was replaced by distress, which soon turned into anger. He crumpled up the letter and flung it against the wall.
Copyright © 2006 by Linda Buckley-Archer
Chapter Eight: The Tar Man's Tale
In which Peter and Kate plant a cedar of Lebanon and Gideon tells the story of the Tar Man
At breakfast, melted butter dropped off Peter's hot muffin onto the old red hunting jacket that had been found for him to wear. He tried to wipe it off surreptitiously with his napkin but only succeeded in smearing the greasy stain over the ruffled cuff of his shirt, too. He tugged repeatedly at the collar that Hannah had fastened with an ornate bow. Through the tall windows he could see the sun beating down onto broad lawns, already scorched by the summer's heat. Surely they didn't really expect him to wear this getup on such a day? He was already boiling hot, and his breeches were cutting into the backs of his knees. What was so barbaric about a T-shirt anyway? Neither Sidney nor Jack looked uncomfortable, but he supposed they must be used to it.
No grown-ups were in evidence around the breakfast table, but Peter counted eight Byng children, not including the infant Byng, whom he had seen the previous evening. He was introduced to all of them but quickly forgot who was who. All these talkative Emmas, Sophies, Elizabeths, and Rachels were a little overwhelming. A small army of maids must have been responsible for all the ringlets and ribbons and cascades of lace. Despite the lavish use of lavender water, an underlying odor of unwashed bodies pervaded the crowded dining room. Peter was beginning to realize that in an age before deodorants and power showers, it was only natural that everyone was going to have their own, individual smell.
The six Byng sisters greeted Peter kindly enough, asking how he had slept and inquiring whether he had grown up abroad, on account of his strange way of speaking, but they ignored him after a while, preferring to talk about the handsome Mr. Seymour who was to help Mama run the estate while Papa was in America.
The eldest of the Byng children, Sidney, sat at the head of the table gazing out of the window through half-closed eyes, with an expression on his face that said all the tittle-tattle was of absolutely no interest to him. Young Jack Byng sat opposite Peter but was absorbed in watching motes of dust dance above him in a narrow sunbeam that passed over his head. Every so often he would poke a plump finger into the ray of sunshine and watch how it affected the movement of the dust particles. It put Peter in mind of Dr. Dyer talking to him about dark matter.
When Hannah and a kitchen maid, no older than twelve or thirteen, came in bearing fresh muffins, the girls demanded to know where Gideon was going to stay. Hannah told them that he would probably stay here at Baslow Hall until Hawthorn Cottage was ready.
Sidney roused himself to speak for the first time: "I don't know why you girls" which he pronounced "gels" "are making such a to-do about Mr. Seymour," he said. "He's not a gentleman. Indeed, he's scarcely more than a servant. Papa says that people in our position should take care to avoid an excess of contact with our...social inferiors."
If one of the elder girls had not blushed with embarrassment and exclaimed "Sidney!" Peter would not have realized that Sidney was staring directly at him. Was Sidney saying that neither he nor Gideon were worthy to mix with the Honorable Byng family?
Before Peter could work out how to react, Sidney had thrown down his napkin and excused himself from the table.
"I'll leave you to the ladies, sir," he said with a curt nod to Peter.
Who does he think he is? thought Peter. And why does he speak as if he's got a Ping-Pong ball in his mouth? I'm not sitting next to him on the way down to London.
"Please don't pay too much attention to our brother," said one of the gels to Peter. "When Papa is away, Sidney feels the responsibility of being the man of the house very keenly."
"Sidney is always a terrible prig," said another. "Whether Papa is here or not." She was shushed by her sisters.
"I'm sure Sidney did not mean to be unkind," Peter lied.
He was beginning to feel unpleasantly outnumbered by this eighteenth-century crowd and wondered where Kate had got to. The door opened and Hannah bustled in, saying that the girls' governess was ready to begin lessons, and herded them out of the room.
"You can finish your breakfast in peace, Master Schock," she said. "Young Jack can keep you company until Mistress Kate arrives. We've been searching the whole house for stays that will fit her."
"What are stays?" Peter asked Jack when Hannah had gone.
Jack sniggered and hid his face in his napkin.
When Kate arrived, Peter and Jack were sitting at opposite ends of the long table throwing pellets of bread into an empty milk jug. When the twenty-first century children each saw how the other was dressed, they fell about laughing.
"Look," said Peter, "they couldn't find any shoes big enough to fit me, so I'm having to wear sneakers with white stockings and breeches. Have you ever seen anything so stupid?"
Kate lifted up her long skirts to reveal that she, too, was wearing sneakers. Peter snorted with laughter.
"Don't make me laugh. I can't breathe as it is!" Kate gasped. "They've put this leather thing round me and laced me up at the back. I think my ribs are going to break."
"Ah, those will be the stays."
"How did you know what they're called?" asked Kate.
"Oh, everyone knows that," Peter replied.
"Is there a mirror in here?" asked Kate. "I want to see what I look like."
She looked about the morning room and saw a large gilded mirror above the fireplace. As she drew out a chair to stand on, Jack's piping voice declared, "You look ravishing, my dear."
"Is that what your father says to your mama?" asked Kate, trying to keep a straight face.
"Yes." And then, to Kate's great dismay, Jack's small face crumpled and he started to cry.
"I want Papa to come home," he sobbed.
Kate put her arms around his shoulders.
"I understand," she said.
"How old are you, Jack?" asked Peter.
"I am five. I am very ill."
"Are you?" said Peter. "You don't seem too ill."
Jack grabbed Peter's hand and placed it on one side of his throat. It was true that there was a slight swelling.
"I have the King's evil," he said proudly.
Peter quickly removed his hand and looked at Kate to see if she knew what Jack was talking about. She shook her head.
"Does it hurt?"
"Well, that's something," replied Peter.
Kate picked up her skirts and balanced precariously on a chair to study her reflection. She wore a dress of soft green silk; pink roses were embroidered on the bodice and it was edged in ivory lace. Her hair had been piled up on top of her head and strands of hair had been curled and artfully arranged around her face. She looked beautiful.
"I wish I had a camera I'd love to show Mum; she's always trying to get me to wear dresses." Kate's voice cracked. "Do you think we'll ever..."
"You will see her again," said Peter quickly. "We'll find a way."
Peter did not want Kate to start crying she was actually all right when she wasn't crying or being bossy.
Kate nodded and tried to smile. "You must miss your family too."
"I do...but my mum and dad are always away on business anyway."
"Don't you get lonely?" Kate asked.
"I can look after myself."
"I've been talking to your au pair, Miss Stein," said Detective Inspector Wheeler. "She told me that Peter was extremely upset the morning he disappeared."
He was meeting Mr. and Mrs. Schock for lunch at the Peacock Hotel, where they were staying. This was a mistake, he soon realized, because although he was ravenous, he could hardly wolf down his steak and chips when Mr. and Mrs. Schock had pushed away their plates without even touching their food.
"It would have been helpful if you could have mentioned the argument you had with your son. In the light of what Miss Stein said, I think we need to consider the possibility that Peter has run away."
Mrs. Schock looked at her husband in alarm. "What argument?" she asked. "What is all this about?"
Peter's father clenched his jaw in a vain effort to keep calm.
"There was a meeting I couldn't get out of. I had to cancel Peter's birthday treat...again. There was nothing else I could do. Peter didn't take it too well. He said he hated me.... Don't look at me like that! If you hadn't swanned off to work in LA, this wouldn't have happened!"
Mrs. Schock dropped her hands onto her lap and let her chin sink to her chest. She closed her eyes. Then her husband put his hands over hers.
"I didn't mean that. I'm sorry. All of this is my fault. I know it is."
Mrs. Schock shook her head and looked up at Detective Inspector Wheeler.
"I know my son," she said. "I don't believe that Peter would have run away. He gets angry, just like his father, and then he gets upset. But he doesn't run away. It's not his style. I don't believe it."
Mrs. Byng had invited Peter and Kate to join them in the gardens after lunch. It was a family custom, she explained, to plant a tree in honor of the birth of each of her children.
Three-month-old Alexander Byng was held by his nurse to watch the ceremony. Two gardeners held a small evergreen tree level while all the children took it in turns to throw a spade of earth into the hole that had been dug to accommodate the tree's roots.
"The colonel got Mr. Powell of Holborn to send up the tree. I have never seen a full-grown cedar of Lebanon, but Mr. Powell assured the colonel that they are long-lived and grow into majestic specimens. He guarantees that this cedar tree will outlive us all."
"Yes," said Kate wistfully, "hundreds of years from now children will still be playing in the shade of its beautiful broad branches. They'll eat their lunch, leaning their backs on its massive trunk. And if they can manage it without getting caught, they might even carve their initials into its thick bark. I can picture the scene quite clearly."
"A pretty speech, Mistress Kate, thank you," said Mrs. Byng. "And now I must finish the preparations for your journey tomorrow. Hannah will find a change of costume for you to take with you to London. In the meantime I suggest that you take your ease in the gardens your journey tomorrow will be long and uncomfortable."
As Mrs. Byng returned to the house, the children saw Gideon approach her. He took off his three-cornered hat and bowed low. He seemed preoccupied and concerned. They saw Mrs. Byng listening carefully to what he had to say. They could not hear Gideon's low voice as he had his back to them, but Mrs. Byng's clear, resonant voice carried toward them on the breeze.
"Ah, but that is unfortunate, Mr. Seymour. The harvest will soon be upon us and I was counting on your help. Can your business not be delayed?"
Gideon shook his head and spoke again.
"Then of course you must go. I would be the last person to counsel otherwise. Hurry back as soon as you are able."
Gideon kissed her hand.
"At least," Mrs. Byng continued, "I shall rest easier now there is to be another man to accompany the party. My nerves have been quite rattled with all this talk of highwaymen. Parson Ledbury is as brave as a lion, but his bluster is no match, I fear, for a gentleman of the road's pistol. While Sidney, for all his airs, is still a child."
Mrs. Byng disappeared into the house, and Gideon turned and strode over to where Peter and Kate were sitting. There always seemed to be a calmness about Gideon; even when he was rushing, he never seemed in a hurry.
"I couldn't help overhearing," Peter blurted out. "Are you coming to London with us?"
"Yes, it seems we are to follow the same road once more. Mrs. Byng is happy for me to accompany the party."
"Yes!" said Peter, punching the air.
"Hurrah!" said Kate.
Gideon seemed pleased. "I am happy to be traveling with you. But are you recovered, Mistress Kate?"
"Yes, I feel much better, thank you."
"I am glad. Mrs. Byng's dress suits you well. And you, Peter, I scarcely recognized you. You look quite the gentleman, although a pair of decent boots might improve the picture!"
"I'm glad you think so, because at breakfast Sidney as good as said I wasn't worthy to sit at the same table."
Gideon laughed. "The Byng family is old and respectable, yet they would not appear on the guest lists of half the noble families I had dealings with in London. It is understandable that the eldest son takes pleasure in claiming his superiority when he believes he can."
"Don't you think I'm a gentleman either, then?" asked Peter. He was beginning to feel a bit put out.
Gideon's eyes twinkled, but he would only reply, "A gentleman is as a gentleman does. We shall soon find out...."
"Gideon," asked Kate, "who is this Tar Man who we must track down in London?"
Gideon's smile faded and he sighed as if just the thought of the man cast a shadow over his mood.
"He is a bad man. But that much you will have worked out for yourselves. Everyone who knows him fears him, and for good reason. He is the henchman of...a powerful man. If someone needs to be found, he will find them. And when he does, just as a cat with a mouse, it is his habit to play with them a little.... And he is persistent. By heaven, he is persistent. Once set on something, he never gives up. You two should have little to fear from him as long as you give him what he demands, but at all costs do not try to double-cross him."
"He sounds terrifying!" cried Kate. "And he's the man we've got to find? What if we haven't got what he wants? What do we do then? Oh, this is not good."
"It gives me the creeps just to think about him," said Peter. "I don't want to see him again if I can help it."
"I know his history," said Gideon. "It is no surprise that he is angry with the world."
"Why? What happened to him?"
"I do not care to dwell on such a cruel story on this fine, sunny day."
"Oh, you've got to tell us now!" exclaimed Peter.
Gideon was reluctant, but Kate, who was pretty persistent herself, eventually convinced him that he might just as well tell them the truth because they'd only have nightmares imagining worse things if he didn't.
The three of them sat on the grass at the foot of a yew hedge, and Gideon told them the Tar Man's story.
He had lived in a small village, the eldest of a large family, and life had not been easy. In those days he had a name: Nathaniel. His father died when he was still young, and thereafter the only money the family had came from his mother's skill as a needlewoman. Nathaniel was mostly left to shift for himself, and he was almost always hungry. He soon took to stealing food, and by the time he had reached his teens, he had become a petty thief. He was not greedy and was far too cunning and secretive to ever get caught a few pennies, an old jacket to keep out the cold, a chicken for dinner but people were suspicious of Nathaniel, and his dark, sullen looks were against him.
One January night a stranger was attacked and robbed outside the village and left for dead. When he recovered, he accused Nathaniel of the crime. Nathaniel swore that he had never seen the man before in his entire life. However, despite the lack of evidence, Nathaniel was tried and found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. Anxious to protect his siblings from the shame and horror of such a thing, his mother stayed away from the execution. And so, at the tender age of fourteen, he was to face those last terrible moments of his life alone.
It was a bitterly cold day in January when Nathaniel was hanged, and the hangman, who had a streaming cold, did not wait the usual thirty minutes before cutting him down. Nathaniel's body was bound and covered in tar-soaked calico, as was the custom, and taken in a wagon to the village green, where in the early evening he was suspended from a post to serve as a warning to other wrongdoers.
On the other side of the green, villagers were dancing and making merry in a hall lit by candles. Outside, a fierce cold wind blew and unforgiving rain spattered against the windowpanes. A tired farmer, returning from market on horseback, heard groans as he rode past Nathaniel. The farmer peered into the darkness, and when he caught sight of this ghoulish, slimy creature swaying in a strong gust of wind, he let out a yelp of fright. The farmer was sorely tempted to ride on but decided that the least he could do was to cut the poor wretch down. So, with a heaving stomach, the farmer positioned his horse under Nathaniel and cut the cords that bound him. Nathaniel slithered to the ground, where the farmer loosened the ropes that cut into his hands and feet. Then the farmer lost his nerve and rode home at a gallop.
Barely conscious and half-blinded by the tar, Nathaniel managed to get to his feet. Drawn by the candlelight and the sound of feet drumming in time to a fiddler's tune, Nathaniel made his way across the green and staggered into the hall. The music stopped abruptly as did the cheerful babble of the crowd. It was replaced by gasps and screams and finally by silence. Through streaming eyes Nathaniel saw a circle of horrified villagers, most of whom he had known all his life, each one backing away from him, expressions of horror and revulsion on their faces. Nathaniel's neck, whilst miraculously unbroken, was severely injured, and his head drooped grotesquely to one side. To speak was agony, but still he tried. He opened his mouth to beg for help and reached out to his neighbors with tar-covered arms. Not a single soul was willing to come to his aid, and soon the whole gathering had retreated as fast as their legs could carry them into the wintry night, away from this monster in their midst. Nathaniel was left alone, howling in anguish at a world without pity.
When Gideon finished his tale, the children sat for some time lost in thought, and shivered in the warm sunshine.
"And that," concluded Gideon, "is why he is called the Tar Man. I suppose he is fearless because he has faced the worst a man can face and still survived. I have never seen him truly fear another mortal soul, nor have I seen him show pity or compassion. I do not like to recall the things I have seen him do. Most rogues' hearts are not completely black, but his heart is buried so deep I doubt it will ever see the light of day. Beware of him, children; he is always two steps ahead of you while appearing to be two steps behind, and he has powerful connections."
"You seem to know a lot about him," said Kate. "How do you know him?"
"I believe we've had enough stories for one day," Gideon answered.
"Some people like to be mysterious," said Kate.
"And others like to be impertinent," Gideon replied.
Kate pulled out the pins that were sticking into her scalp, and shook out her long hair with relief. "That's better," she said, and stretched out on her back, tucking the full skirts of her dress around her knees. She wished she could have unlaced the stays, too. I probably shouldn't be lying on the grass in this dress, she thought, but I don't think I can get up now. She yawned and her eyelids closed.
"Do you think the Tar Man did rob that man?" asked Peter.
"No," said Gideon. "I do not. He insists that he was innocent of the crime, and I believe him. The injustice of it still gnaws away at him. It robbed him of his family and his future. But he has more than made up for it since."
"What do you " Peter stopped abruptly. "Oh, no," he cried, "look at Kate!"
Gideon swung round, and both of them watched as Kate's form dissolved in front of their eyes.
"Quickly," said Gideon. "Let us sit in front of her so she cannot be seen from the house."
Peter and Gideon sat cross-legged next to what was left of Kate, shielding her from sight.
"Kate!" said Peter as loudly as he dared. "Come back!"
For several minutes they watched the transparent flickering form, a fluid amber spectre in the strong sunlight. Peter could see the daisies through her. Suddenly her shape shifted, and though Kate was still transparent, they realized she was pushing herself up on her elbows. Her eyes were open and she was shouting something in the direction of the house. She looked straight through them. Peter felt terrified and desperate.
"Kate," he cried out, "don't leave me here on my own!"
And in an instant she was back, solid as before. She sat bolt upright and said, "I blurred, didn't I?"
All the blood had gone from Gideon's face, but he asked, "How are you, Mistress Kate?"
"I was back at school," she sobbed. "I was lying in between the goalposts on the soccer pitch. The cedar of Lebanon was there, much taller than the house. And there were three men running toward me as fast as they could. Two of them were in policemen's uniforms. They could see me, I know they could. I must have looked like a ghost to them. A future ghost. I cried out to them for help. Oh, why did you call me back? I was home! I don't want to be here! I want to go home! I just want to go home!"
Copyright © 2006 by Linda Buckley-Archer
Chapter Nine: The Journey Begins
In which the redoubtable Parson Ledbury insults Gideon and the company sets off for London
Kate's spirits were very low after the blurring episode. She and Peter ate with the Byng children that evening. Sidney was not present, however, having been asked to dine later with his mother, Parson Ledbury, and some friends invited for a farewell dinner.
Cook had prepared a special dinner for the children, too, and the table groaned with roast meats, poached fish, baked custards, junkets, flummeries, and pies. Flies crawled over everything, and the dark specks in the pastry turned out to be roast flour weevils, but no one seemed to mind. Kate hardly spoke. If her body was present, she was elsewhere in spirit. Peter felt he had to talk twice as much to make up for her.
They went to bed early, in preparation for their long journey. They said their good-byes to Mrs. Byng before going upstairs, and Peter gave a small speech of thanks. Kate tried to join in too, but it was so obvious how sad and distracted and homesick she felt, that Mrs. Byng stopped her. "My dear," she said, "we need to get you to your uncle so he can dispatch you home with all haste. I believe your encounter with the highwayman has unsettled you, as well it might any young girl."
Mrs. Byng's tender concern almost provoked the tears that Peter hoped would not come, and he stood, balancing first on one foot and then on the other, while Kate was held in the lady's maternal embrace.
"Thank you," said Kate to Mrs. Byng, but the expression of gratitude in her eyes was thanks enough.
Why, thought Peter, must she always cry?
Kate slept a long and dreamless sleep that night, but Peter slept fitfully. Images of a monstrous bellowing figure dripping with tar kept intruding into his dreams. The sound of voices outside woke him after an hour, and he got up to look out of the window.
It was a hot night, with scarcely a breath of wind, and the clear sky was grainy with stars. When Peter hoisted himself up onto the high window ledge of his attic room, an amazing sight met his eyes. Twenty or thirty flaming torches illuminated the garden, causing the many trees to cast giant inky shadows behind them. A long table, placed on the lawn two floors below him, glowed with so many candles it seemed a raft of light against the dark grass. Peter could easily make out the diners' wigs, their powdered faces, and their sumptuous costumes in shades of turquoise, peach, and yellow. Sidney, looking half-asleep and wearing a ridiculous long wig, sat next to his mother, who gave him a sharp tap on his back with her fan every time he slouched. White-gloved footmen patrolled the table, replenishing glasses and serving the guests from silver platters piled high with roast meats of every sort.
Peter listened to the buzz of conversation punctuated by occasional gales of laughter. One voice in particular swept up from the table and echoed off the walls of the house and into the night.
"Damn your eyes, sir!" exclaimed a stout, hearty gentleman whilst removing his wig and wiping his bald head with a lace handkerchief. "I'll wager you ten no, twenty! bottles of my best port that the bay mare is in foal before her sister."
"I accept your wager, Parson Ledbury, as the whole table can bear witness," declared the man sitting opposite him. "And as you boast you keep the best cellar in these parts, I shall look forward all the more to consuming my winnings."
"Gentlemen," said Mrs. Byng reproachfully, "I hope your passion for gambling does not lead you down the same path as my husband's friend Lord Arlington. He lost a king's ransom last month betting that one raindrop would reach the bottom of the windowpane before another."
Parson Ledbury roared appreciatively.
"What is a life without risk? A sorry one, I should say, madam. How much did the young feller lose?"
"Three thousand guineas."
Wow! Peter said to himself. They sure are fond of betting.
The parson slapped his thigh. "Sidney," he exclaimed, gripping the boy's arm in his meaty fist, "by the look of disapproval on your dear mother's face, I believe she is beginning to doubt the wisdom of entrusting her jewelry to me. My dear Charlotte, do you think me capable of betting your diamond necklace on a raindrop?"
Mrs. Byng laughed. "All I ask is that you have the clasp properly repaired and the necklace returned safe to me in time for the Harvest Ball. In any case, if I could not trust you with my precious necklace, I should scarcely be entrusting you with my two precious sons."
The parson's fleshy face folded into a roguish smile. "I see your reasoning, cousin, although it occurs to me that Sidney here is a strapping young fellow. Now that it is the custom in London to wager one's relatives when one's purse is empty, what is to stop me losing your son and heir in a bet?"
Sidney shot to his feet, affronted, and the whole table burst into laughter.
"The parson is teasing you, Sidney," said his mother gently. "You know he cannot stand to be serious for more than five minutes at a stretch."
Peter chuckled into his sleeve. This was a different Sidney from the one he had seen lord over his sisters at breakfast. Parson Ledbury gave Sidney a friendly punch to the shoulder, causing him to spill his glass of wine, which Peter suspected was the parson's intention. A footman appeared out of the shadows to mop up the mess, although Peter noticed that nobody bothered to say thank you.
Peter watched the parson turn serious all of a sudden as he leaned toward Mrs. Byng. He lowered his booming voice, although it was still perfectly audible to everyone.
"You will not, I hope, mention the necklace to Mr. Seymour, given his history."
Peter's ears pricked up. What's the parson got against Gideon? he wondered.
"My brother says we are lucky indeed to have him," said Mrs. Byng. "He ran a great house in London as well as an estate in Surrey with a thousand acres. Richard insists that he is a good man who has been ill used by Lord Luxon."
"A leopard does not change his spots, madam. I don't trust him and I don't like him. I shall be on my guard, of that you can be certain."
"You are too harsh," replied Mrs. Byng. "I believe Mr. Seymour to be sound."
"What has Mr. Seymour done, Mother?" asked Sidney.
"Nothing, my dear, nothing at all. It is of no consequence."
The parson grunted. Peter was so keen to hear what they were saying about Gideon that he lost his footing momentarily and his chin came crashing down onto the windowsill, causing him to bite his tongue. He gasped in pain and inhaled all the dust that had collected in the corner of the window. The dust irritated Peter's nose and he let out not one but four explosive sneezes one after the other, which rang out across the garden. When Peter opened his eyes, every face at the table was turned up toward him. He thought he had better wave and say something.
"Good night!" Peter shouted down. "Looks like you're having a smashing dinner."
And with that he slammed down the window, leaped into bed, and covered his face with a sheet, the sound of Parson Ledbury's laughter ringing in his ears.
The farewell dinner had ended some time before, and now Baslow Hall was silent except for the occasional hooting of an owl. Gideon Seymour alone was not asleep in his bed. On his bed lay the crumpled letter. He stood motionless at an open window high above the gardens fragrant with lavender and roses. Above his head, silhouetted against a hunter's moon, bats flitted in and out from under the eaves.
"To think I escaped his clutches only to learn of this!" Gideon's eyes burned with such intensity and hatred that an observer would have thought he was talking to a living being. Yet it was into the empty night air that Gideon directed his words, and whatever he saw in his mind's eye was clearly causing him great distress.
"He lies, Joshua! He lies! He does not hold you in high regard. He does this to lure me back; he has no other aim!" Gideon cried. "Will Luxon not rest until he has taken everything from me? Why can he not let me go in peace?"
Peter was dreaming about his mother and father. He was trying to tell them something, but they could not hear him, no matter how loudly he spoke.
"Peter! Peter! Wake up!"
Someone was shaking his shoulder. He blinked his eyes open, and the bare whitewashed room came into focus.
"Oh. It's you," he said, and slumped back on the pillow.
"Peter, I can make myself blur!" said Kate. Her hair was loose and she was still dressed in a long white nightgown. Her face was lit up with excitement. "Just watch."
She closed her eyes and shook out her body until her limbs were floppy. Peter lay on the bed watching Kate. She looked so comical standing there that when nothing happened after a couple of minutes, he started to chuckle.
"Oh, you've put me off now," said Kate crossly. "It's a knack. I know I can get better at it. I've been practicing since daybreak. It's like those 3-D pictures at first everything's flat, but if you relax and just keep on looking, after a while the picture pops out at you and you can't imagine how you couldn't have seen it before."
Kate walked toward the window and stood in the sunshine, her red hair gleaming.
"Don't put me off this time," she ordered, and relaxed her body again. She closed her eyes and let her head fall forward a little. She put Peter in mind of a meditating angel.
A moment later Kate seemed to melt into the morning air. The sun shone directly onto Peter's face. He lifted up his hand to shade his eyes. The next moment Kate had vanished altogether. A buzzing bluebottle zigzagged in the bright space where she had stood.
"Oh, no! Kate!" Peter called out. "No!"
Peter's heart started to beat frantically, and that sixth sense that tells you if you're in someone's presence told Peter, even before he looked around him to check, that the room was empty. Kate had gone. The thought of being stranded in 1763 all alone was terrifying. She might have her faults, but he and Kate were in this together and she couldn't just abandon him like this, could she? Peter flung himself onto his stomach, feeling wretched beyond words, and punched his pillow, again and again, shouting "No!" with each thump.
"Temper, temper," said Kate from his bedroom door.
Peter froze in midpunch and looked over at her, openmouthed.
"How did you do that?"
"I walked," she replied and burst into a fit of giggles.
"Stop laughing and tell me what happened," said Peter in exasperation.
But Kate could not stop laughing and collapsed on the bed, holding her stomach, tears running down her cheeks.
"Your face," she gasped. "Those girls' faces!" She buried her head in the sheets, but her body still vibrated with laughter.
"What girls? Oh, Kate, do get a grip!"
Kate slowly sat up and tried very hard not to laugh. "I walked the length of the room...," she started, but it was no good, she was having an attack of the giggles and the crosser Peter looked, the more she laughed.
Why does she have to be so annoying? Peter thought, already forgetting how pleased to see her he had felt. Finally she stopped.
"Do you know you're sleeping in a Year Eleven common room? It was full of bossy prefects in overalls holding scrubbing brushes. Someone had scrawled really rude comments about the teachers all over the walls, and they were having to clean it off. Miss Gunn, the deputy headmistress, was there she's really strict sitting reading a newspaper. Every so often she'd look over her glasses and say, "Come on, girls, a bit more elbow grease. This is my holiday too, you know." The sports captain was there, right next to me. She winded me with a net ball the other week just because I was daydreaming. When she looked round, I stuck my tongue out at her. It was so cool. She screamed and screamed. She looked like she'd seen a ghost; they all did."
"Well they had, sort of," said Peter.
"But I'm not dead," Kate replied cheerfully.
"How are they supposed to know? We must be presumed dead by now. And look at what you're wearing a perfect ghost costume."
Kate's face dropped. "They'll tell Mum and Dad and they'll think that I'm dead. Oh, no, what have I done?"
"We'll just have to get back and show them we're alive, won't we?" said Peter, getting in quickly in case Kate got emotional. "You know," he continued, "it was difficult to see properly because of the light, but I think you just about disappeared this time. Did you look solid in the classroom?"
"I'm not sure I couldn't see myself. But I could see stuff through my arm. I guess I must have looked kind of filmy, not fully formed somehow. But they all looked so terrified, I must have looked like a ghost. The funny thing was, all the time I was there, I was still aware of you in this room. It was like having one foot in the past and one foot in the future."
"Why did you come back?" asked Peter. "Could you have stayed there if you had wanted to?"
"It felt like it was taking all my strength to stay there as long as I did. I don't know how to describe it.... It's as if I have a giant elastic band tied round my waist, which is attached to a hook here. I can go quite a way straining against the band and I suspect that I could go farther and stay longer but sooner or later I am going to ping right back."
Peter kicked the bottom of the bed absentmindedly.
"Don't do that. You'll scratch it," said Kate.
Peter gave her a look and kept on kicking. "I wonder if you've always been able to blur, I mean even though you didn't know you could. Or perhaps whatever happened to us has changed you in some way."
Kate shrugged her shoulders. "Oh!" she exclaimed suddenly. "I'll write 'I'm not dead' on a piece of paper and take it with me when I blur. Then they'll know I'm all right."
Peter thought for a moment and screwed up his face. "A ghost saying 'I'm not dead'? I don't think so somehow."
Kate sighed. "Yeah, well...I'm going to keep practicing blurring, anyway. If I do it enough times, maybe I can figure out how to unhook the elastic band, and then bye-bye 1763."
"Do you think I could blur?"
"Gideon said you did."
"Well, I can't remember."
"Try! Lie on the bed and relax and think of home. Imagine your mum's face and try to let go."
"All right," said Peter, unconvinced, "I'll give it a try."
He stretched out and made an effort to let his muscles go slack. He tried to picture his mother bringing him up a glass of milk at bedtime, sitting on the edge of his bed, and talking to him while he drank it. He clenched his fists as he forced himself to conjure up her image, but no picture would come into his head. His throat constricted and he grew tense and anxious. Why couldn't he see her?
"I can't even remember what she looks like now!" Peter burst out.
Kate looked at him, concerned; he seemed upset. "Okay, okay...think about your bedroom, then," she suggested. "I think it's really important not to feel stressed."
Peter took in a deep breath and released it slowly. He thought of lying on a beach as Margrit had once taught him. He imagined the roar of the surf as his shoulders and neck, then his arms and legs, started to feel heavy and sink into the firm sand. Now he was calm. It was the memory of his stripy duvet that popped into his head first. He held the picture as steady as he could, and before long his mind was full of stripes, dark blue on white. They were curiously soothing, and soon, ever so gently, the stripes started to ripple and vibrate, as though some great engine were being started up a long way away. After a while the stripes turned into spirals, and gradually they became more luminous. Peter had the sensation that they were passing right through his body and that he was leaving this world behind. Then, unbidden, his mother's pretty face appeared in front of him, smiling and sweet; she was brushing the hair out of his eyes. He felt a surge of happiness when he saw her face. How much he had missed her and how long it had been since he had allowed himself to give in to that feeling. All the sadness of wanting his mother to come home burst out of him in one big sob of pain. He sat up with a start.
"You started to fade for a moment there," said Kate. "I think you can do it, Peter. You can blur too."
The morning of departure had arrived, and the whole Byng family and most of their servants had been milling about on the gravel forecourt since breakfast. The July sun was already beating down mercilessly. Kate and Peter longed to set off, and all this waiting seemed interminable. Sweat trickled down Peter's back, but he did not dare remove his jacket. Kate, too, was suffering under the weight of her complicated attire, and was fanning herself madly with the painted fan Mrs. Byng had given to her. Mrs. Byng had explained about the language of fans if you held it in this way, it meant "I like you," and in another it meant "go away." Whatever else Kate's frantic fanning signified, it principally said, "I am suffocating. Please let me undo these awful stays."
Four sturdy chestnut horses were harnessed to a gleaming black carriage. The horses stood patiently, chewing on the iron bits in their mouths while footmen clambered onto the roof of the carriage, fastening down trunks. One of them lost his grip on a heavy crate and nearly sent it crashing to the ground. There was the sound of clinking glass as he dived down and grabbed it just in time.
"Well caught, Andrew," called out Mrs. Byng. "That would have been unfortunate, indeed," she observed to the older children. "That chest contains Parson Ledbury's supply of port. He is convinced that every tavern keeper between here and London will water down his wine."
Peter watched a stable boy arrive with two horses. Gideon, who had been helping organize the trunks, now came forward. He walked slowly around the stable horses, stroking their heads and talking quietly to them. He examined their eyes and their hooves and pulled up their gums so he could see their teeth. Then he got the stable lad to run around the forecourt with them on a long lead so he could watch them canter.
"I will take the black stallion," Gideon said to the stable boy. "What is his name?"
"Midnight, sir. He's fast and strong, sure enough," replied the boy, "but there's not one of us stable lads he hasn't kicked."
"Good!" said Gideon. "I like an animal with some fight in him."
Poor Jack Byng was clearly not keen on the idea of traveling to London. Despite all his sisters' efforts to cheer him up, he was clinging to his mother's skirts like a sailor to a mast in rough seas.
"Uncle Richard writes he will take you in a rowboat to Eel Pie Island and that you will ride on a donkey at Vauxhall Gardens, where you will see all the fine ladies and gentlemen," said one sister. "We girls are all jealous because we simply long to go."
"And King George will touch you and cure you of the scrofula," said another.
"I am better already," protested little Jack through several layers of fabric.
He steadfastly refused to leave his mother, and Mrs. Byng was forced to drag him around like a third leg. Only when Peter offered to have a game of footie with him did he peep out from the folds of her dress. Mesmerized by his fancy footwork, Jack followed Peter as he dribbled the ball onto the lawn. Mrs. Byng mouthed her thank you to Peter and suggested to Sidney that he join in. Sidney merely looked on in a very condescending fashion, striking a pose with one foot forward, a hand on one hip, and his chin thrust into the air. What a plonker, thought Peter, booting the ball right at him so that he had to catch it.
"Gadzooks, sir!" Sidney exclaimed. "You might have dirtied my waistcoat!"
Jack immediately struck the same imperious pose as his elder brother and repeated in his own high voice, "'Gadzooks, sir. You might have dirtied my waistcoat!'"
All his sisters laughed so hard and for so long that the servants had to bite their lips in order not to join in, and Sidney, furious, stomped off into the house.
Peter suddenly felt Kate's hand on his arm.
"I'll be back in a minute," she whispered into his ear.
"Why? What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to leave a clue for my friend Megan," Kate replied.
"What do you mean?" asked Peter.
"Never mind. It probably won't work anyway."
Kate made her way to the back of the house and found the stairs that led to the coal cellar. She crept slowly down them, touching the rough brick walls and marveling at how new and clean they looked. She was used to seeing them black with centuries of coal dust and glistening with damp. Kate remembered when she had first come here. It was after a gang of Year 8 girls were mean to her during her first ever week at the school. They said they could smell that she lived on a farm and that her lace-up shoes were so uncool even grannies wouldn't wear them.... Megan had eventually found her here. They both ended up skipping science and got detentions. This became their special place. Kate crouched down in the exact spot where she and Megan always sat on their backpacks when they wanted to be alone.
A long strand of red hair tumbled down as Kate removed an iron hairpin. She started to scratch at the soft brick with it, biting her lip in concentration. Every so often she would blow the dust away to inspect her handiwork. Oh, Megan, she thought, what would you say if you saw me in this stupid dress? I wish you were here too No, I don't. Then you'd be stuck in 1763 as well. Kate finished her message and wiped the red dust off her hands.
"I'm counting on you, Megan!" she said out loud. "Tell my dad!"
Copyright © 2006 by Linda Buckley-Archer