Dark Tides Page 1

Author: Philippa Gregory

Series: The Fairmile #2

Genres: Historical

Reekie Wharf, Southwark, London, Midsummer Eve

Dear Ned, my dearest brother,

I have to tell you that we have had a letter from Rob’s wife from Venice.

It’s bad news. It’s the worst news. She writes that Rob is drowned dead drowned. Rob’s wife widow says that she is coming to England with his baby. I write to you now as I cannot believe it as I know you would want to know at once. But I don’t know what to write.

Ned—you know that I would know if my son was dead.

I know he is not.

I swear to you on my soul that he is not.

I will write again when she has come and told us more. You will say—I think you will say—that I am lying to myself—that I cannot bear the news and I am dreaming that everyone but me is wrong.

I don’t know. I can’t know. But I do think I know.

I am sorry to write such a bad a sad letter. It is not possible that he be dead and I not know it. I would have felt it its not possible that he could be drowned.

How could I have come up out of deep water and twenty-one years later it hold him down?

Your loving sister, Alinor.

Of course I pray that you are well. Write me.





The ramshackle warehouse was the wrong side of the river, the south side, where the buildings jostled for space and the little boats unloaded pocket-size cargos for scant profit. The wealth of London passed them by, sailing upstream to the half-built new Custom House, its cream stone facade set square on the fast-flowing river, as if it would tax every drop of the roiling dirty water. The greatest ships, towed by eager barges, glided past the little wharves, as if the quays were nothing but flotsam, sticks, and cobbles, rotting as they stood. Twice a day even the tide deserted them, leaving banks of stinking mud, and piers of weedy ramps rising like old bones from the water.

This warehouse, and all the others leaning against it, like carelessly shelved books, shuddering along the bank towards the dark channel at the side, were hungry for the wealth that had sailed with the new king in the ship that had once been Oliver Cromwell’s, into the country that had once been free. These poor merchants, scraping a living from the river trade, heard all about the new king and his glorious court at Whitehall; but they gained nothing from his return. They saw him only once, as he sailed by, the royal pennants flying fore and aft, once and never again: not down here, on the south side of the river, on the east side of the town. This was never a place that people visited, it was a place that people left; not a place that ever saw a grand carriage or a fine horse. The returning king stayed west of the City, surrounded by aristocratic chancers and titled whores, all of them desperate for promiscuous pleasure, jerked back from despair by gamblers’ luck: not one of them earning their good fortune.

But this little house clung to the old puritan principles of hard work and thrift, just as the buildings clung to the quayside: so thought the man who stood before it, staring up at the windows as if he were hoping to catch a glimpse of someone inside. His brown suit was neat, the white lace at his collar and cuffs modest in these times of fashionable excess. His horse stood patiently behind him as he scanned the blank face of the warehouse—the pulley on the wall, and the wide-open double doors—and then turned to the murky river to watch the lumpers throwing heavy grain sacks, one to another from the grounded flat-bottomed barge, grunting a monotone chant to keep the rhythm.

The gentleman on the quayside felt as alien here as he did on his rare visits to court. It seemed as if there was no place for him at all in this new England. In the glittering noisy palaces, he was a dowdy reminder of a difficult past, best clapped on the back with a quickly forgotten promise. But here on the quayside at Bermondsey he stood out as a stranger: a rich idler among laboring men, a silent presence amid the constant scream from the pulley of the crane, the rumble of rolling barrels, the shouted orders and the sweating lumpers. At court, he was in the way of a thoughtless round of pleasure, he was too drab for them. Here, he was in the way of the passage of work, where men were not individuals but moved as one, each one a cog; as if even work was not work anymore; but had been atomized into a new painful machine. He thought the world was not whole anymore; but sundered into country and court, winners and the lost, protestants and heretics, royalists and roundheads, the unfairly blessed and the unjustly damned.

He felt very far from his own world of small luxuries taken for granted—hot water in a china jug in the bedroom, clean clothes laid out for the day, servants to do everything—but he must enter this world of work if he were to make right the wrong he had done, bring a good woman to happiness, heal the wounds of his own failure. Like the king, he had come to make a restoration.

He hitched his horse to a ring on a post, stepped to the edge of the wharf, and looked down into the flat-bottomed barge which was grounded heavily on the ramp beside the quay. “Where have you come from?” he called down to the man he took to be the master of the ship who was watching the unloading, ticking off the sacks in a ledger.

“Sealsea Island, Sussex,” the man replied in the old, familiar drawling accent. “Best wheat in England, Sussex wheat.” He squinted upwards. “You’ve come to buy? Or Sussex-brewed ale? And salted fish? We’ve got that too.”

“I’m not here to buy,” the stranger replied, his heart thudding in his chest at the name of the island that had been his home: her home.

“Nay, you’ll be here for a dance in the ladies’ great hall?” the shipmaster joked, and one of the lumpers gave a crack of a laugh as the gentleman turned away from their impertinence, to look up at the warehouse again.

It was on the corner of a run of shabby three-story warehouses built of planks and old ships’ timbers, the most prosperous of a poor row. Farther along the quay, where the River Neckinger joined the Thames in a swirl of filthy water, there was a gibbet with a long-ago hanged man, a few tatters of cloth holding the bleached remaining bones. A pirate, whose punishment had been to hang, and be left to hang as a warning to others. The gentleman shuddered. He could not imagine how the woman he had known could bear to live within earshot of the creak of the chain.

He knew that she had no choice, and she had done the best she could with the wharf. Clearly, the warehouse had been improved and rebuilt. Someone had gone to the expense and trouble to build a little turret at the downriver corner of the house, looking out over the Thames and the River Neckinger. She could step out of the glazed door and stand on a little balcony to look east: downriver towards the sea; or west: upriver to the City of London; or inland along St. Saviour’s Dock. She could open the window to listen to the cry of gulls and watch the tide rise and fall below her window and the goods come into the wharf below. Perhaps it reminded her of home, perhaps some nights she sat there, as the mist came up the river turning the sky as gray as water, and she thought of other nights and the thunder of the tide mill wheel turning. Perhaps she looked across the turbulent river to the north, beyond the narrow street of chandlers and victuallers, past the marshes where the seabirds wheeled and cried; perhaps she imagined the hills of the north and the wide skies of the home of a man she had once loved.

The gentleman stepped up to the front door of the warehouse which was clearly home, business, and store combined, lifted the ivory handle of his riding crop, and rapped loudly. He waited, hearing footsteps approaching, echoing down a wooden hall, and then the door opened and a maid stood before him, in a stained working apron, staring aghast at the glossy pelt of his French hat and his highly polished boots.

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