Read an Excerpt
The Time Quake
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!”