Tidelands Page 2

“I’m of the old faith, the true faith,” he confessed in a whisper. “I was invited here, but the people I was going to meet are away, and their house, where I would have been safe, is closed and dark. I have to hide somewhere tonight, and if I cannot meet with them, then I must somehow get back to London.”

Alinor stared at him as if he were in truth a faerie lord, and a danger to a mortal woman. “D’you say you’re a priest, sir?”

He nodded as if he did not trust words.

“One sent from France to do the heretic services with the hidden papists?”

He grimaced. “Our enemies would say that. I would say I serve the true believers in England, and I am loyal to the ordained king.”

She shook her head, uncomprehending. The civil war had come no nearer than Chichester, six miles north, when the little town had collapsed under a brisk siege from the parliament forces.

“They handed over all the papists when Chichester fell,” she warned him. “Even the bishop ran away. They’re all for parliament round here.”

“But not you?”

She shrugged. “No one’s done anything for me or mine. But my brother’s an army man, and very true to them.”

“But you won’t hand me over?”

She hesitated. “D’you swear you’re not a Frenchman?”

“An Englishman born and bred. And faithful to my country.”

“But spying for the king?”

“I am loyal to the ordained King Charles,” he told her. “As every Englishman should be.”

She shook her head, as if grand words meant nothing to her. The king had been driven from his throne, his rule shrunk to his household, his palace was little Carisbrooke Castle, on the Isle of Wight. Alinor knew nobody who would declare loyalty to such a king, who had brought war into his country for six long years.

“Were you going to stay at the Priory, sir?”

“I may not tell you who would have hidden me. It is not my secret to tell.”

She made a little impatient noise at his excessive secrecy. Sealsea Island was such a small community, not more than a hundred families; she knew every one of them. It was obvious that only the lord of the manor would have offered hiding to a papist priest and royalist spy. Only the Priory, the one great house on the island, had a bed and linen fit for a gentleman like this. Only the lord of the manor, sir William Peachey, would dream of supporting the defeated king. All his tenants were for parliament and for freedom from the crushing taxation that came from king and lords. And she thought it was typical of Sir William to make such a dangerous offer and then carelessly fail to honor it, leaving his secret guest in mortal danger. If this young man were caught by parliament men they would hang him for a spy.

“Does anyone know you’re here?”

He shook his head. “I went to the house where I was told to go, the safe house, and it was all dark and locked up. I was told to tap a special knock on a garden door, but no one came. I saw the bell tower over the top of the trees, so I came here to wait, in the hope that if they are asleep now, they will answer later. I didn’t know where else I might go. I don’t know this place. I came in by ship on the high tide, and it looked like a wasteland of sea and mud for mile on mile. I’ve not even got a map!”

“Oh, there’s no map,” she told him.

He looked aghast. “No map? Why has it not been mapped?”

“It’s the tidelands,” she told him. “The shingle bar before the harbor, and the harbor itself changes with every storm. The Chichester people call it ‘Wandering Haven.’ The sea breaks into the fields and takes back the land. The ditches flood and make new lakes. It never stays the same for long enough to be measured. These are the tidelands: half tide, half land, good for nothing, all the way west to the New Forest, all the way east till the white cliffs.”

“Is the minister of this church one of the new men?”

“He’s been here for years and he does as he’s told, now he takes his orders from the new parliament. He’s not whitewashed the walls or broken the windows yet. But he took down the statues, he keeps the altar at the crossway of the church and prays in English. He said that good King Henry set us free from Rome a hundred years ago, and this King Charles wants to take us back, but he can’t. He’s defeated. He’s ruined, and parliament has won the war against the king.”

The stranger’s face grew dark with anger. “They’ve not won,” he insisted. “They’ll never win. They can’t win. It’s not over yet.”

She was silent. She thought that it was long over for the king, who was imprisoned, his wife fled to France, leaving two little children behind, and his son, the prince, gone to the Netherlands. “Yes, sir.”

“Would he denounce me, this minister?”

“I think he’d have to.”

“Is there anyone here of the old faith? In hiding? On this island?”

She spread her hands as if to show him her ignorance. He saw that her palms were scratched and scarred from the shells of lobsters and crabs and the rough twine of the fishing nets.

“I don’t know what people hold in their hearts,” she said. “There were many for the king in Chichester, some of them papists; but they’re killed or run away. I know no one except one or two old ladies who remember the old faith. Most people are like my brother: godly men. My brother fought in the New Army under the general. General Cromwell is his name. You’ll have heard of him?”

“Yes, I’ve heard of him,” he said grimly. He paused, thinking hard. “Can I get to Chichester tonight?”

She shook her head. “The tide’s coming in now, and it’s high tonight for midsummer. You can’t cross the wadeway to the Chichester road till morning, and then you’d be seen. Won’t your boat come back for you?”


“Then you’ll have to hide till low tide tomorrow evening, and go across the wadeway at dusk. You can’t take the ferry. My brother’s the ferryman, and he’d arrest you on sight.”

“How would he know me for a cavalier?”

Her smile lit up her face. “Sir, no one looks like you on Sealsea Island! Not even Sir William is as fine.”

He flushed. “Well, if I have to stay on the island, where can I hide?”

She thought for a moment. “You can lie in my husband’s shed till tomorrow evening,” she offered. “That’s the only place I can think of. It’s not fit. He kept his nets there, and his pots. But he’s been missing for months and nobody ever goes there now. I can bring you food and water in the morning. And when it’s light, perhaps you can go to the Priory, just over there. You could go in the morning privately and ask to see the steward. His lordship’s away from home, but the steward might take you in. I don’t know. I can’t say what they believe. I don’t know.”

He bowed his head in a thanksgiving. “God bless you,” he said. “I think God must have sent you to be my savior.”

“I’ll show you the net shed first, before you bless me for letting you sleep there,” she said. “It’s not for the likes of you. It stinks of old fish.”

“I have nowhere else,” he said simply. “You are my savior. Shall we pray together?”

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