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Table of Contents
About The Book
Midsummer Eve 1670. Two unexpected visitors arrive at a shabby warehouse on the south side of the River Thames. The first is a wealthy nobleman seeking the lover he deserted twenty-one years earlier. Now James Avery has everything to offer: a fortune, a title, and the favor of the newly restored King Charles II. He believes that the warehouse’s poor owner Alinor has the one thing he cannot buy—his son and heir.
The second visitor is a beautiful widow from Venice in deepest mourning. She claims Alinor as her mother-in-law and tells her of the death of Rob—Alinor’s son—drowned in the dark tides of the Venice lagoon.
Meanwhile, Alinor’s brother Ned, in faraway New England, is making a life for himself between in the narrowing space between the jarring worlds of the English newcomers and the American Indians as they move towards inevitable war. Alinor writes to him that she knows—without doubt—that her son is alive and the widow is an imposter. But how can she prove it?
Set in the poverty and glamour of Restoration London, in the golden streets of Venice, and on the tensely contested frontier of early America, this is a novel of greed and desire: for love, for wealth, for a child, and for home.
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.
Butthis 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 ship master 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 lit tle 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. Sav iour'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 foot steps 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.
"I should like to see-" Now that he had got this far, he realized he did not know what name she used, nor the name of the owner of the warehouse. "I should like to see the lady of the house."
"Which one?" she demanded, wiping a dirty hand on her hessian apron. "Mrs. Reekie or Mrs. Stoney?"
He caught his breath at her husband's name and the mention of her daughter, and thought that if he was so shaken to hear this, what would he feel when he saw her? "Mrs. Reekie," he recovered. "It is she that I wish to see. Is Mrs. Reekie at home?"
She widened the gap of the front door; she did not open it politely to let him in, it was as if she had never admitted a visitor. "If it's about a load, you should go to the yard door and see Mrs. Stoney."
"It's not about a load. I am calling to visit Mrs. Reekie."
"Would you tell her that an old friend has called to see her?" he replied patiently. He did not dare give his name. A silver sixpence passed from his riding glove to the girl's work-stained hand. "Please ask her to receive me," he repeated. "And send the groom to take my horse into your stables."
"We don't have a groom," she answered, pocketing the coin in her apron, looking him up and down. "Just the wagon driver, and there's only the stables for the team horses and a yard where we store the barrels."
"Then tell the wagon driver to put my horse in the yard," he instructed.
She opened the front door just wide enough to admit him, leav ing it open so the men on the quayside could see him, standing awkwardly in the hall, his hat in one hand, his riding crop and gloves in the other. She walked past him without a word, to a door at the rear, and he could hear her shouting from the back door for some one to open the gate to the yard, though there was no delivery, just a man with a horse that wouldn't stand on the quayside. Miserably embarrassed, he looked around the hall, at the wood-paneled doors with their raised stone thresholds to hold back a flood, at the narrow wooden staircase, at the single chair, wishing with all his heart that he had never come.
He had thought that the woman he was visiting would be poorer even than this. He had imagined her selling physic out of a quayside window, attending births for sailors' wives and captains' whores. He had thought of her so many times in hardship, sewing the child's clothes with patches, stinting herself to put a bowl of gruel before him, turning this way and that to make a living. He had thought of her as he had known her before, a poor woman but a proud woman, who made every penny she could; but never begged. He had imagined this might be some sort of quayside boardinghouse and hoped she worked here as a housekeeper; he had prayed that she had not been forced to do anything worse. Every year he had sent her a letter wishing her well, telling her that he thought of her still, with a gold coin under the seal; but she had never acknowledged it. He never even knew if she had received it. He had never allowed himself to find the little warehouse on the side of the river, never allowed himself even to take a boat downriver to look for her door. He had been afraid of what he might find. But this year, this particular year, on this month and this day, he had come.
The maid stamped back into the hall and slammed the front door against the noise and glare of the quayside so he felt that he was at last admitted into the house, and not just delivered into the hall like a bale of goods.
"Will she see me? Mrs. Reekie?" he asked, stumbling on the name. Before she could answer, a door farther down the hall opened, and a woman in her thirties stepped into the hall. She wore the dark respectable gown of a merchant's wife, and a plain working apron over it, tied tightly at the curve of her waist. Her collar was modestly high, plain and white, unfashionable in these extravagant days. Her golden-brown hair was combed back and almost completely hidden under a white cap. She had lines at the corners of her eyes and a deep groove in her forehead from frowning. She did not lower her eyes like a puritan woman, nor did she coquet like a courtier. Once again, with a sense of dread, James met the direct unfriendly gaze of Alys Stoney.
"You," she said without surprise. "After all this time."
"I," he agreed, and bowed low to her. "After twenty-one years."
"This isn't a good time," she said bluntly.
"I could not come before. May I speak with you?"
She barely inclined her head in reply. "I suppose you'll want to come in," she said gracelessly, and led the way into the adjoining room, indicating that he should step over the raised threshold. A small window gave the view of the distant bank of the river, obscured by masts and lashed sails, and the noisy quay before the house where the lumpers were still loading the wagon, and rolling barrels into the warehouse. She dropped the window blind so that the men working on the quay could not see her direct him towards a plain wooden chair. He took a seat, as she paused, one hand on the mantelpiece, gazing down into the empty grate as if she were a judge, standing over him, considering sentence.
"I sent money, every year," he said awkwardly.
"I know," she said. "You sent one Louis d'Or. I took it."
"She never replied to my letters."
"She never saw them."
He felt himself gasp as if she had winded him. "My letters were addressed to her."
She shrugged as if she cared for nothing.
"In honor, you should have given them to her. They were private."
She looked completely indifferent.
"By law, by the laws of this land, they belong to her, or they should have been returned to me," he protested.
Briefly, she glanced at him. "I don't think either of us have much to do with the law."
"Actually, I am a justice of the peace in my shire," he said stiffly. "And a member of the House of Commons. I uphold the law."
As she bowed her head, he saw the sarcastic gleam in her eyes. "Pardon me, your honor! But I can't return them as I burned them."
"You read them?"
She shook her head. "No. Once I had the gold from under the seal, I had no interest in them," she said. "Nor in you."
He had a choking sensation, as if he were drowning under a weight of water. He had to remember that he was a gentleman; and she had been a farm girl and was now passing herself off as the lady of a poor warehouse. He had to remember that he had fathered a child who lived here, in this unprepossessing workplace, and he had rights. He had to remember that she was a thief, and her mother accused of worse, while he was a titled gentleman with lands inherited for generations. He was descending from a great position to visit them, prepared to perform an extraordinary act of charity to help this impoverished family. "I could have written anything," he said sharply. "You had no right . . ."
"You could have written anything," she conceded. "And still, I would have had no interest."
"And she ... "
She shrugged. "I don't know what she thinks of you," she said. "I have no interest in that either."
"She must have spoken of me!"
The face she turned to him was insolently blank. "Oh, must she?"
The thought that Alinor had never spoken of him in all these years struck him like a physical blow in the chest; knocking him back in his hard chair. If she had died in his arms twenty-one years ago, she could not have haunted him more persistently than she had done. He had thought of her every day, named her in his prayers every night, he had dreamed of her, he had longed for her. It was not possible she
had not thought of him.
"If you have no interest in me at all, then you can have no curiosity in why I have come now?" he challenged her.
She did not rise to the bait. "Yes," she confirmed. "You're right. None."
He felt that he was at a disadvantage sitting down so he rose up and went past her to the window, pulled back the edge of the blind to look out. He was trying to contain his temper and, at the same time, overcome the sensation that her will against him was as remorseless as the incoming tide. He could hear the rub of the fenders of the barge as the water lifted it off the ramp, and the clicking of the sheets against the wooden masts. These sounds had always been for him the echoes of exile, the music of his life as a spy, a stranger in his own country; he could not bear to feel that sense of being lonely and in danger once again. He turned back to the room. "To be brief, I came to speak to your mother, not to you. I prefer not to talk to you. And I should like to see the child: my child."
She shook her head. "She cannot see you, and neither will the child."
"You cannot speak for either of them. She is your mother, and the child-my child-has come of age."
She said nothing but merely turned her head away from his deter mined face, to gaze down at the empty grate again. He controlled his temper with an effort but could not stop himself seeing that she had matured into a strong, square-faced beauty. She looked like a woman of authority who cared nothing for how she appeared and everything for what she did.
"The child is twenty-one years old now, and can choose for himself," he insisted.
Again, she said nothing.
"It is a boy?" he asked tentatively. "It is a boy? I have a son?"
"Twenty-one gold coins, at the rate of one a year, does not buy you a son," she said. "Nor does it buy you a moment of her time. I suppose that you are a wealthy man now? You have regained your great house and your lands, your king is restored and you are famous as one of those who brought him back to England and to his fortune? And you are rewarded? He has remembered you, though he forgets so many others? You managed to elbow yourself to the front of the queue when he was handing out his favors, you made sure that you were not forgotten?"
He bowed his head so that she should not see the bitterness in his face that his sacrifice and the danger he had faced had done nothing more than bring a lecher to the throne of a fool. "I am fully restored to my family estates and fortune," he confirmed quietly. "I did not ever stoop to curry favor. What you suggest is ... beneath me. I received
my due. My family were ruined in his service. We have been repaid. No more and no less."
"Then twenty-one pistoles is nothing to you," she triumphed. "You will hardly have noticed it. But if you insist, I can repay you. Shall I send it to your land agent at your great house in Yorkshire? I don't have it in coin right now. We don't keep that sort of money in the house, we don't earn that sort of money in a month; but I will borrow and reimburse you by next week."
"I don't want your coins. I want . . ."
Once again her cold gaze froze him into silence.
"Mrs. Stoney." He cautiously used her married name and she did not contradict him. "Mrs. Stoney, I have my lands, but I have no son. My title will die with me. I am bringing this boy-you force me to speak bluntly to you, not to his mother, and not to my son, as would be my choice-I am bringing him a miracle, I will make him into a gentleman, I will make him wealthy, he is my heir. And it will be her restoration too. I said once that she would be a lady of a great house. I repeat that now. I insist that I repeat it to her in person, so that I can be sure that she knows, so that she knows exactly, the great offer I am making her. I insist that I repeat it to him, so that he knows the opportunity that lies before him. I am ready to give her my name and title. He will have a father and ancestral lands. I will acknowledge him ... " He caught his breath at the enormity of the offer. "I will give him my name, my honorable name. I am proposing that I should marry her."
He was panting as he finished speaking but there was no response, just another void of silence. He thought she must be astounded by the wealth and good fortune that had descended on them like a thunder clap. He thought she was struck dumb. But then Alys Stoney spoke:
"Oh no, she won't see you," she answered him casually, as if she were turning away a pedlar from the door. "And there's no child in this house that carries your name. Nor one that has even heard of you."
"There is a boy. I know there is a boy. Don't lie to me. I know ... " "My son," she said levelly. "Not yours."
"I have a daughter?"
This threw everything into confusion. He had thought so long of his boy, growing up on the wharf, a boy who would be raised in the rough-and-tumble of the streets but who would-he was certain have been given an education, been carefully raised. The woman he had loved could not have a boy without making a man of him. He had known her boy, Rob, she could not help but raise a good young man and teach him curiosity and hopefulness and a sense of joy. But anyway-his thoughts whirled-a girl could inherit his lands just as well, he could adopt her and give her his name, he could see that she married well and then he would have a grandson at Northside Manor. He could entail the land on her son, he could insist the new family took his name. In the next generation there would be a boy who could keep the Avery name alive, he would not be the last, he would have a posterity.
"My daughter," she corrected him again. "Not yours."
She had stunned him. He looked at her imploringly, so pale, she thought he might faint. But she did not offer him so much as a drop of water, though his lips were gray and he put up a hand to his neck and loosened his collar. "Should you go outside for air?" she asked him, uncaring. "Or just go?"
"You have taken my child as your own?" he whispered. She inclined her head; but did not answer.
"You took my child? A kidnap?"
She nearly smiled. "Hardly. You were not there to steal from. You were far away. I don't think we could even see the dust behind your grand coach."
"Was it a boy? Or a girl?"
"Both the girl and the boy are mine." "But which was mine?" He was agonized. She shrugged. "Neither of them now."
"Alys, for pity's sake. You will give my child back to me. To his great estate? To inherit my fortune?"
"No," she said.
"No, thank you," she said insolently.
There was a long silence in the room, though outside they could hear the shouts of the men as the last grain sack was hauled off the barge, and they started to load it with goods for the return trip. They heard barrels of French wine and sugar roll along the quayside. Still he said nothing, but his hand tugged at the rich lace collar at his throat. Still she said nothing, but kept her head turned away from him, as if she had no interest in his pain.
A great clatter and rumble of wheels on the cobbles outside the window made her turn in surprise.
"Is that a carriage? Here?" he asked.
She said nothing, but stood listening, blank-faced, as a carriage rolled noisily up the cobbled quay to the warehouse and stopped out side the front door which gave on to the street.
"A gentleman's carriage?" he asked incredulously. "Here?"
They heard the clatter of the hooves as the horses were pulled up, and then the footman jumped down from the back, opened the car riage door, and turned to hammer on the front door of the warehouse.
Swiftly, Alys went past him, across the room, and lifted the bottom of the blind so that she could peep out onto the quay. She could only see the open door of the carriage, a billowing dark silk skirt, a tiny silk shoe with a black rose pinned on the toe. Then they heard the maid, stamping up the hall to open the shabby front door and recoil at the magnificence of the footman from the carriage.
"The Nobildonna," he announced, and Alys watched the hem of the gown sweep down the carriage steps, across the cobbles, and into the hall. Behind the rich gown came a plain hem, a maid of some sort, and Alys turned to James Avery.
"You have to go," she said rapidly. "I was not expecting ... You will have to . . ."
"I'm not going without an answer."
"You have to!" She started towards him as if she would physi cally push him through the narrow doorway, but it was too late. The stunned housemaid had already thrown open the parlor door, there was a rustle of silk, and the veiled stranger had entered the room, paused on the threshold, taking in the wealthy gentleman and the plainly dressed woman in one swift glance. She crossed the room and took Alys in her arms and kissed her on both cheeks.
"You allow me? You forgive me? But I had nowhere else to come!" she said swiftly in a ripple of speech with an Italian accent.
James saw Alys, so furiously icy just a moment before, flush brightly, her blush staining her neck and her cheeks, saw her eyes fill with tears, as she said: "Of course you should have come! I didn't think ... "
"And this is my baby," the lady said simply, beckoning to the maid behind her who carried a sleeping baby draped in the finest Venetian lace. "This is his son. This is your nephew. We called him Matteo."
Alys gave a little cry and held out her arms for the baby, looking down into the perfect face, tears coming to her eyes.
"Your nephew?" James Avery said, stepping forward to see the little face framed in ribboned lace. "Then this is Rob's boy?"
A furious glance from Alys did not prevent the lady from sweeping him a curtsey and throwing her dark veil back to show a vivacious beautiful face, her lips rosy with rouge, enhanced with a dark crescent patch beside her mouth.
"I'm honored, Lady ... ?"
Alys did not volunteer the lady's name, nor did she mention his. She stood, awkward and angry, looking at them both, as if she could deny the courtesy of an introduction and ensure that they would never meet.
"I am Sir James Avery, of Northside Manor, Northallerton in Yorkshire." James bowed over the lady's hand.
"Nobildonna da Ricci," she replied. And then she turned to Alys. "That is how you say it? Da Ricci? I am right?"
"I suppose so," Alys said. "But you must be very tired." She glanced out of the window. "The carriage?"
"Ah, it is rented. They will unload my trunks, if you would pay them?"
Alys looked horrified. "I don't know ifI have- "
"Please allow me," Sir James interrupted smoothly. "As a friend of the family."
"I shall pay them!" Alys insisted . "I can find it." She flung open the door and shouted an order to the maid and turned to the widow, who had followed every word of this exchange. "You'll want to rest. Let me show you upstairs and I'll get some tea."
''Allara! It is always tea with the English!" she exclaimed, throwing up her hands. "But I am not tired, and I don't want tea. And I am afraid I am interrupting you. Were you here on business, Sir James? Please stay! Please continue!"
"You are not interrupting, and he is going," Alys said firmly.
"I will come back tomorrow, when you have had time to think," Sir James said quickly. He turned to the lady: "Is Robert with you, Lady da Ricci? I should so like to see him again. He was my pupil and ... "
The shocked look on both their faces told him that he had said something terrible. Alys shook her head as if she wished she had not heard the words and something in her face told James that the os tentatious mourning wear of the Italian lady was for Rob, little Rob Reekie who twenty-one years ago had been a brilliant boy of twelve
and now was gone.
The widow's mouth quivered; she dropped into a seat and covered her face with her black-mittened hands.
"I am so sorry, so sorry." He was horrified at his blunder. He bowed to the lady. He turned to Alys. "I am sorry for your loss. I had no idea. If you had told me, I would not have been so clumsy. I am so sorry, Alys, Mrs. Stoney."
She held the baby, the fatherless boy, in her arms. "Why should I tell you anything?" she demanded fiercely. "Just go! And don't come back."
But the lady, with her face hidden, blindly stretched out her hand to him, as if for comfort. He could not help but take the warm hand in the tight black lace mitten.
"But he spoke of you!" she whispered. "I remember now. I know who you are. You were his tutor and he said you taught him Latin and were patient with him when he was just a little boy. He was grateful to you for that. He told me so."
James patted her hand. "I am so sorry for your loss," he said. "For give my clumsiness."
Mistily, she smiled up at him, blinking away tears from her dark eyes. "Forgiven," she said. "And forgotten at once. How should you guess such a tragedy? But call on me when you come again, and you can tell me what he was like when he was a boy. You must tell me all about his childhood. Promise me that you will?"
"I will," James said quickly before Alys could retract the invitation. "I will come tomorrow, after breakfast. And I'll leave you now." He bowed to both the women and nodded to the nursemaid and went quickly from the room before Alys could say another word. They heard him ask the maid for his horse and then they heard the front door slam. They sat in silence as they heard the horse coming around from the yard and stand, as he mounted up, and then clattered away.
"I thought his name was something else," the widow remarked.
"It was then."
"I did not know that he was a nobleman?" "He was not, then."
"And wealthy?" "Now, I suppose so."
"Ah," the lady considered her sister-in-law. "Is it all right that I came? Roberto told me to come to you if anything ever ... if anything ever . . . if anything ever happened to him." Her face was tearstained and flushed. She took out a tiny handkerchief trimmed with black ribbon and put it to her eyes.
"Of course," Alys said. "Of course. And this is your home for as long as you want to stay."
The sleeping baby gave a gurgle and Alys shifted him from her shoulder to hold him in her arms, so she could look into the little pursed face for any sign of Rob.
"I think he is very like your brother," the widow said quietly. "It is a great comfort to me. When I first lost my love, my dearest Roberto, I thought I would die of the pain. It was only this little-this little angel-that kept me alive at all."
Alys put her lips to the warm head, where the pulse bumped so strongly. "He smells so sweet," she said wonderingly.
Her ladyship nodded. "My savior. May I show him to his grandmother?"
"I shall take you to see her," Alys said. "This has been a terrible shock for her, for us all. We only had your letter telling of his death last week, and then your letter from Greenwich three days ago. We're not even in mourning. I am so sorry."
The young woman looked up, her eyelashes drenched with tears. "It is nothing, it is nothing. What matters is the heart."
"You know that she is an invalid? But she will want to welcome you here at once. I'll just go up and tell her that you have come to us. Can I have them bring you anything? If not tea, then perhaps a drink of chocolate? Or a glass of wine?"
"Just a glass of wine and water," the lady said. "And please tell your lady-mother that I wish to be no trouble to her. I can see her tomorrow, if she is resting now."
"I'll ask." Alys gave the baby to the nursemaid and went from the room, across the hall, and up the narrow stairs.
Alinor was bent over her letter, seated at a round table set in the glazed turret, struggling to write to her brother to tell him such bad news that she could not make herself believe it. The warm breeze coming in with the tide lifted a stray lock of white hair from her frowning face. She was surrounded by the tools of her trade: herbal ism, posies of herbs drying on strings over her head, stirring in the air from the window, little bottles of oils and essences were ranked on the shelves on the far side of the room, and on the floor beneath them were big corked jars of oils. She was not yet fifty, her strikingly beautiful face honed by pain and loss, her eyes a darker gray than her modest gown, a white apron around her narrow waist, a white collar at her neck.
"Was that her? So soon?" "You saw the carriage?"
"Yes-I was writing to Ned. To tell him." "Ma- it's Rob's ... it is . . ."
"Rob's widow?" Alinor asked without hesitation. "I thought it must be, when I saw the nursemaid, carrying the baby. It is Rob's baby boy?"
"Yes. He's so tiny, to come such a long way! Shall I bring her up?" "Has she come to stay? I saw trunks on the coach?"
"I don't know how long . . ."
"I doubt this'll be good enough for her."
"I'll get Sarah's room ready for the maid and the baby, and I'll offer her Johnnie's room in the attic. I should have done it earlier but I never dreamed she'd get here so soon. She hired her own carriage from Greenwich."
"Rob wrote that she was a wealthy widow. Poor child, she must feel that her old life is lost."
"Just like us," Alys remarked. "Homeless, and with the babies." "Except we didn't have a hired carriage and a maid," Alinor pointed out. "Who was the gentleman? I couldn't see more than the top of his hat."
Alys hesitated, unsure what she should say. "Nobody," she lied. "A gentleman factor. He was selling a share in a slaver ship to the Guinea coast. Promised a hundredfold return, but the risk is too much for us."
"Ned wouldn't like it." Alinor glanced down at her inadequate let ter to her brother, far away in New England, escaping his country that had chosen servitude under a king. "Ned would never trade in slaves."
Ma . . ." Alys hesitated, not knowing how to speak to her mother.
"You know that there can be no doubt?"
"Of my son's death?" Alinor named the loss she could not believe. "His widow is here now. She can tell you herself."
"I know. I will believe it when she tells me, I am sure."
"D'you want to lie on your sofa when I bring her up? It's not too much for you?"
Alinor rose to her feet and took the half-dozen steps to the sofa and then seated herself as Alys lifted her legs and tucked her gown around her ankles.
"Comfortable? Can you breathe, Ma?"
"Aye, I'm well enough. Let her come up now."
Reading Group Guide
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In Dark Tides, two unexpected visitors arrive at a shabby warehouse on the south side of the River Thames on Midsummer Eve, 1670. The first is a wealthy nobleman seeking the lover he deserted twenty-one years earlier. Now James Avery has everything to offer: a fortune, a title, and the favor of the newly restored King Charles II. He believes that the warehouse’s poor owner, Alinor, has the one thing he cannot buy—his son and heir.
The second visitor is a beautiful young widow from Venice in deepest mourning. She claims Alinor as her mother-in-law and has come to tell Alinor that her son, Rob, has drowned in the dark tides of the Venice lagoon.
Alinor’s brother, Ned, in faraway New England is making a life for himself in the narrowing space between the worlds of the English newcomers and the American Indians as they move towards inevitable war. Alinor writes that she knows—without doubt—that her son is alive and the widow is an imposter. But how can she prove it?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel begins with a letter from Alinor, the protagonist of Tidelands, to her brother Ned, with news that her son, Rob, has reportedly drowned in Venice. She does not believe this can be true. How does this letter set up what is to come? What role do letters and communications play throughout the novel?
2. Ned tells a selectman that he didn’t come to the New World “‘to be a king looking down on subjects, forcing my ways on them in blood. I came here to live at peace, with my neighbors. All my neighbors: English and Indian.’” How does Ned abide by this intention, especially as tensions mount between the settlers and Native Americans in New England? How does his previous support for Cromwell and the republicans affect his life during this period?
3. When Alinor is presented with Matteo as a replacement for Rob, she tells Livia, “‘I don’t think that one child can take the place of another. Nor would I wish it.’” Consider this in terms of all the characters and children in the novel. Can any of these characters or children stand in for one another? How does this affect Matteo’s fate at the end of the novel?
4. Alinor, Alys, and Livia form an unusual trio of women, all women living without the protection of a man, all operating in a man’s world. How does each woman respond to the challenges of the patriarchal society in which she lives?
5. Alys explains to Livia that the Reekie family was “always on the edge, between poverty and surviving, between friends and enemies, in the tidelands between water and fields. We were on the edge of everything. At least here we are in a world with a firm footing. At least Uncle Ned is making a new life in a new land as he wants.” How do the characters exist in the space between land and sea? By the end of the novel, how do you think the family’s position has changed?
6. When James asks if Livia is willing to give up her ideals in order to get ahead, she replies, “‘If it was exiled: let it return. If it burns down: rebuild it. If it was robbed: restore it. If it is free—let us take it.’” How does this reflect Livia’s point of view? Has she lived by this edict?
7. Alinor believes that Sarah shares her gift of sight. She explains that “‘For some people, this world is not quite . . . watertight. The other world comes in . . . sometimes we can reach out to it. It’s like Foulmire—sometimes it’s land and sometimes it’s water. Sometimes I know this world, sometimes I glimpse the other. Don’t you?’” How does Alinor’s sight affect her perception of the world around her? Do you believe that Sarah has her gift?
8. Livia tells Alys, “‘I am a beautiful liar, if you like. I am all twists and turns and misdirection. You cannot trust me. I recommend that you do not trust me. I am not actually evil; but I am not straightforward. I am not simple.’” Livia tells Alys exactly who she is. Why does Alys refuse to believe her? How do the other characters react to Livia’s treatment of Alys?
9. Mrs. Rose feels trapped by her circumstances, having come to the New World for the “‘same reason as everyone. . . . I came in the first place as I had hopes of a better life. God called me and my master ordered me. I didn’t know it would be like this. I hoped for better, I still hope. And I don’t have the money for my passage back home anyway.’” Do others in this novel feel hemmed in by their lack of opportunity as they search for better lives?
10. Alys rebukes her mother, stating, “You were a fool once for love! Are you going to be a fool for spite?” How do characters act as fools for love in this novel? Does anyone become a fool for spite?
11. When Sarah arrives in Venice, Signor Russo tells her that “‘Everyone here is either a spy or a villain. Or both.’” Does Sarah find this to be true in Venice? Do you believe that Signor Russo is a villain? Do you believe that the Reekies are heroes, as Sarah later suggests? Or does the complexity of these characters exist outside of the concept of heroes and villains?
12. Wussausmon, Ned’s friend and advisor to the Massasoit Po Metacom, says, “‘I pass like a spirit from one world into another, I tell of what I have seen. But then I go back and speak of where I have been. . . . And every day I fear that I am not translating one to another; but just making the misunderstanding worse. I am trying to bring these two worlds together but all they do is grind against each other. They don’t trust each other, nobody wants to hear what I say, and they both believe I am a liar and a spy.’” How do all of these characters live between worlds? Between the lives they have and the lives they aspire to? Between who they are and who they could be?
13. Signor Russo instructs Sarah that “‘Every profit comes at someone’s cost.’” What are the costs in this novel? Who do you think pays the greatest cost? Why?
14. The ending of Dark Tides mirrors that of Tidelands. Then, Alinor and Alys were driven from their home and setting out on a journey to a new life; now, Ned leaves his home in search of “unclaimed unused lands, where he could live without choosing sides, where he could be himself: neither master nor man.” Why do you think the author chooses to end the story in this way?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Get out a map and identify the places where this story takes place. Does anything strike you about the physical distance between these locations, especially given the time period during which the story takes place?
2. Visit a museum with Greek and Roman art galleries or the Metropolitan Museum of Art website at https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art to view the kinds of antiquities Livia and Felipe might have exported. Which are you most drawn to?
3. Has anyone in your book group read other novels by Philippa Gregory, either Tidelands or her previous books? How does this book compare?
4. Visit the author’s website at PhilippaGregory.com to learn more about her work and the Fairmile series.
A Conversation with Philippa Gregory
Dark Tides is the second book in a planned series about the fictional Reekie family, spanning generations and continents. What drew you to writing an ambitious family saga at this point in your career?
It’s been a long career and deeply enjoyable! And I have learned the confidence to embark on a long project like this, certain that there will be extraordinary, little-known stories that will turn up in research that I can incorporate into the story of the family’s rise to prosperity and the greater story of the changes in England and in the world. I know a little of my family history, and many other individual and small histories, and I want to go from the personal to the global with an international long-term story. I’ve always disliked the snobbery of much of traditional historical fiction when it focuses on the well-known and grand people, so this is a challenge to that style. And in addition to all of that, I was rereading The Forsyte Saga and was inspired by the journey Soames—a wealthy Victorian Londoner—makes to what he regards are his roots: some muddy fields. Go back far enough, and all our families come from muddy fields; I wanted to celebrate that.
Although you’re best known for your work in royal historical fiction, you’ve spoken about working on a history of what we consider “ordinary” women, who have been overlooked and invisible throughout much of history. How does this nonfiction work influence and inform your fiction and vice versa?
My interest has always been in women in history; it was the obscure women and not the famous men that have always interested me. So it was a logical development that I should want to write a history of women who rarely make any mark in the records. I have been working for some years now on a history of women of England and this is my major work, but it is inspiring and supporting my fictional writing. As always, what really happened is so much more dramatic, extreme, and unlikely than anything I would dare to invent.
The first book in this series, Tidelands, was set in the marshlands of Sussex, where you lived for a time. This novel takes place between London, Venice, and the land that became Connecticut. What drew you to these settings?
Pagham Harbour, the setting of Tidelands, was the destination of many childhood visits, and I lived beside it for five years, sharing a house with the warden and sometimes helping him with his conservation work, so it was a powerful place for me to invoke in my first novel of this series. London is the center of the development of global western trade at this time, a natural destination for disgraced women who might hope to make a living obscured by the crowds, and a wonderful starting point for a story about a trading family. Venice was a famous trading city, especially in luxury goods and the objects that drove the Renaissance: classical artifacts. I’ve visited the city many times and I love the urban architecture and history, but for this novel I also went to the Isola del Lazzaretto Nuovo. I was honored to have a tour by the curator and was able to walk around the waterside path outside the boundary walls of the old quarantine castle. It was so striking to see the wildness of the Venice lagoon, the mud banks, the reed banks, and the bird life. At once I realized that Rob would see the similarity to his home, and would be as sure-footed here as on the Saxon shore. It was the landscape which inspired the escape, a part of the story I particularly like, as it came to me so vividly. I visited New England also, meeting historians and people of the Pokanoket and Pequot nations. Here too the landscape was hugely inspiring, and I could trace the settlement of Hadley on the bend in the river, and try to imagine the people who lived there, for so many centuries before the coming of the settlers.
You write beautifully about the natural world. The space particularly between land and sea holds such significance for your characters. How does your experience of nature and landscape influence your writing?
I think the truth is more that nature and landscape influence me very deeply as a person, and comes out in everything I do. I even have very vivid and detailed dream landscapes! I have lived for most of my adult life in the country, and one of my greatest pleasures is being out in the countryside. I have a sense of peace and belonging in a rural landscape, and I feel at home in woods and fields in a way that I never do in towns. I like to be connected to the animal world—I care for two ancient ponies that were my children’s ponies, and I have a dog and sometimes raise abandoned ducklings. I feed and house a rescued barn owl who flies freely out of my barn, and has lived as my neighbor (by his own free choice) for twelve years, bringing a female back every year and raising chicks. Earlier generations who lived off the land were far closer to the natural world than we are now, and I try to reflect this in my characters’ love of their home landscape, and their knowledge about the natural world. I am in awe of the historic American Indians’ integration with their world: they felt a kinship with the animal and natural world which was incorporated into every aspect of their lives.
A tremendous amount of research went into this novel—there’s such authority and ease to your voice when explaining both the process of art forgery and the relationship between settlers and American Indian nations in the New World. How did you go about researching this novel? Did anything surprise you during the research process?
As always, my research was a great deal of reading and some visits. My biggest early surprise was the extent of art and historic artifacts forgery, even today. The Lustrous Trade and the other books about art forgery listed in the bibliography were real eye-openers! I had no idea of the extent of grave looting and forgery which continues even today. Other fascinating snippets were the early international trading companies of London—Johnnie did not long to be a member of the Company any more than I longed for him to join them! I learned about the value of herbs and semiprecious stones in Restoration London, and the use of sassafras. The strangest and most inspiring material was the research into American Indians, where everything is different from English history—from religion to diet, women’s rights to transport. Studying, visiting, and talking was like entering another world.
Were there any scenes—either due to their content or the research involved—that were particularly difficult to write? How did you work through them?
I was especially aware that in the American Indian history, I was writing about people who are not my ancestors, and whose descendants have already suffered from land and cultural theft. Indeed, they have suffered at the hands of people who are my ancestors. That gives me every reason to approach with sensitivity, caution, and awareness. That was one of the reasons that I made Ned a man between the worlds, so that he too was cautiously approaching a world he did not know. It also meant I was not attempting to tell the story of the American Indians directly—of course, they have their own storytellers. Instead, I was telling the story of a man who wanted to live in a New World without the cruelties of the old, and there were some like Ned but not, tragically, enough to change the course of that cruel history. I read extensively from histories that were sensitive to these issues, and I am indebted to the readers from the Pokanoket nation for their advice and support.
You started your writing career writing about a fictional family, then transitioned to detailing the lives of Tudor and Plantagenet women. What do you feel is the greatest difference in writing wholly fictional rather than historical women?
In my first novel, Wideacre, there were no historical characters, the family lived in a historically accurate landscape of agricultural and political change, but they did not meet any recognizable historical characters. The Wise Woman also was wholly fictional against a historical landscape. But since then, I think all my historical fictions have had characters who were real people, and have been subjected to my increasing desire for history. I find the research much more interesting when it takes in whatever might have come up at the time—it is really rich and thought-provoking. And it leads me to characters that otherwise I would never have heard of! I’d never have researched Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford—a woman almost forgotten by history—if I had not written a novel about her daughter Elizabeth Woodville.
I really thought this series would be more fictional, but quite unconsciously I started the novel at a time when Charles I was in captivity, and I located the opening scene a mere twenty miles across the sea from him. As you may know, Charles I is featured in the novel and his failed rescue attempts are key to the action of the story. I don’t seem to be able to get away from historical events—nor do I want to. We are all determined by the times we live in, and to write of characters as if they were independent of their culture is not only unrealistic, but it is to miss one of the most interesting aspects of a life: how it is shaped by the times.
The technical difference is that writing about characters who have been recorded by history is about ten times more demanding than writing about wholly fictional ones! There are constant problems of location and action. Very few characters are fully recorded and many accounts are contradictory, which poses lots of problems as to which account should be trusted. There are the problems of historically recorded characters who just vanish from the records for years at a time. A historian can cheerfully leave a gap—but in a fiction all characters have to be plausibly accounted for. There are problems of controversial characters when I have to decide, as the author, whether I go with the traditionally accepted view of a historical character, or think for myself how they might appear to my fictional observer. But all these problems are worth the benefit of writing a fiction which is perfectly aligned with the known history and with the biographies—while keeping the liveliness and the authorial voice of fiction.
Your work now spans more than twenty-five novels, both historical and contemporary. What is your process for beginning a new novel?
It’s such an enjoyable process now, for I can trust it. I do a lot of general reading around the wider period and stay alert for anything that I think will be interesting—however unlikely it seems. For this series I am now reading Japanese, Chinese, and Indian history, as I think my story will take me to the East. I start to think about the characters—some will be carried forward from previous novels, but some will be new, and I think about what they will bring. I have an idea of what will be the events of the novel and I think about certain scenes in a quite detailed way. Then I start my specific research into historical characters who will occur and events that will happen, I create a strict historically accurate timeline—this goes on a massive chart, sometimes with overlays!—and I start the detailed plotting of the individual stories and scenes into the historical event. At the back of my mind is the broader question of what is happening in the history: Is there a notable historical trend during this time? And the question of my intent: What do I want to say in this novel? What do I want to learn in the course of writing? And now that I am in the midst of a series: How shall this novel end and what can I take forward to the next? One of the greatest guides is when I can’t bring myself to either read or write anything else but the new novel—that’s when I know I am ready to start. And then I simply do start, at the beginning. It’s important to get a lot of work done in the first few weeks so as not to lose momentum or confidence, but once I am about thirty thousand words in, I generally feel that I know where I am going. Then I read and write in tandem till I can write The End—which I always ritualistically do (though it’s not published like that), and then I can start thinking about how far I have achieved what I set out to do—and then rewrite.
Can you give us any hint of what comes next in the Fairmile series?
Oh! I’m very excited about it. It’s partly the story of Matteo, who is going to be his mother’s son, ambitious like her, and attach himself to the court of James II. Ned is going to come back to England with his son and try for one last push at a rebellion. Sarah and Felipe have established a legitimate business in Venice and London, and Johnnie is going to be an entrepreneur with the East India Company and make a fortune. The family is going to continue expanding the business with the ethics of Ned and Alinor in contrast to the increasingly ambitious and greedy world of the eighteenth century. That’s the plan now—it will be quite different in the writing, I know!
- Publisher: Washington Square Press (June 8, 2021)
- Length: 480 pages
- ISBN13: 9781501187193
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Raves and Reviews
"Sweeping...Historical novelist Philippa Gregory has come a long way from the Tudor court."
"A dramatic roller-coaster ride full of drama, intrigue, and family secrets.”
– Woman's World Magazine
"Gregory's storytelling chops and engagement in the untold history of women make this book an inspiring feminist entertainment."
"Enigmatically compelling...dramatic twists aplenty."
“Gregory’s talent for evoking time and place is on full display.”
– Publishers Weekly
“Superb. . . A searing portrait of a woman that resonates across the ages.”
“A gripping novel…With her usual meticulous attention to detail, the author easily elicits the chaos and dangers of the mid-17th century…This book will leave readers eagerly awaiting the next installment in the series. Fans of Gregory’s works and of historicals in general will delight in this page-turning tale.”
– Library Journal (starred review)
"The author crafts her material with effortless ease. Her grasp of social mores is brilliant, the love story rings true and the research is, as ever, of the highest calibre."
– Daily Mail (UK)
"As with all good historical fiction, the novel offers that uncanny combination of distancing detail and themes that feel only too close to us today....Tidelands is a spellbinding read and an evocative glimpse at our strangely familiar past."
– Independent (UK)
“Richly detailed and brimming with secrets (personal and political), Tidelands is a captivating portrait of a brave woman and a compelling start to a new series.”
– Shelf Awareness
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More books in this series: The Fairmile Series
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