Dark Tides Page 2

“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, leaving 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 someone 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?”

Prev page Next page