He saw his master's boat long before it arrived, skimming over the afternoon-bright waters of the Bay. The closer the lithe vessel approached, the deeper the sun dipped in the sky, and the more the grey clouds huddled together like cloaked guests awaiting the start of a dinner party. Meredith began to worry that Master Carr would arrive so late in the day that he and Meredith would be trapped there overnight, with a storm approaching. Then Meredith recalled that a house awaited them, with four walls and a roof to shut out the wind and the water – a haven on an island that he had always considered a haven, since the time he left it as a child.
The Bay, which sliced like a knife between the two shores of the Dozen Landsteads, was already growing choppy from the upcoming storm by the time that the skipjack anchored, a few yards from shore. By that time, Meredith was hiding in a grove of loblolly pines, so he did not see the yawl carry Carr from the skipjack to the island. However, he did hear the uncultured voice of a servant say, "You sure you don't want us to come back, sir? Looks like a rough place to stay the night, and there's a blow coming in on the tide."
Meredith did not hear Carr's reply, but it must have been reassuring, for when he peeked out again, he saw that the little yawl was being hauled aboard the skipjack, while Carr stood on the shell-strewn beach, his back to Meredith, his hand waving farewell to the crew who had brought him to the island.
The anchor came up, the rising wind bellowed the sails full, and the crew began the painful job of turning the skipjack and tacking their way back to the Western Shore from whence they had come. They would be eager to return home, Meredith knew, for tonight was the final day of the festival week of Spring Manhood, when servants would feast in honor of their masters.
Meredith had never attended such a feast, either as a master or as a servant. He never would, he knew. He would be embarrassed to be toasted by servants who believed him to be a master, and as for receiving the joy of toasting his own master . . . It was enough that he finally had a master, after so many years spent masquerading as one.
Or so he told himself.
Pushing aside all lingering longings to live the life of an ordinary servant, Meredith waited until the skipjack was well away. Then he walked forward to join Carr, who was standing erect on the beach, watching the slender, long-necked boat depart. Meredith reached Carr just in time to catch hold of his secret master, as the heir to the High Mastership of the Second Landstead dropped to his knees and began to wretch.
Alarmed, Meredith turned automatically back to his liege-service training, holding Carr's forehead steady while wrapping his arm around his master's back. As soon as the last of the vile black-green liquid was no longer pouring from Carr's mouth, Meredith ascertained that his master remained steady on his knees. Then Meredith released Carr, searched the pockets of his own jacket, and offered the heir what he could: a clean handkerchief and a small canteen of water.
Carr accepted both, though he drank only a single gulp of water before returning the canteen to Meredith. "Thank you," he said in a faint voice, forever polite.
"Sir, are you well? Shall I signal your boat to return?" Meredith turned his eye toward the horizon. The skipjack was probably too far now to sight any signal, but at this hour, when watermen made their way home to nearby Hoopers Island, many fishing boats would be travelling alongside this western beach of Barren Island, for the eastern channel between Barren Island and Hoopers Island was too shallow for navigation. Meredith could flag down one of the boats; or if his signal-flags were ignored, the house that awaited them still had signal-fires stored in its cellar.
But Carr was shaking his head. "I'm all right. It was a bad crossing."
Meredith looked again at the waves, blood-red now from the setting sun. The waves furrowed the Bay, as though a great plow had been drawn across it. On the horizon, the skipjack bobbed its way across the furrows.
He had entirely forgotten, over all these past, joyful weeks, a passing remark that Master M Carruthers had made one day, early in their acquaintance. "I tend to get seasick," Carr had said in the midst of a recital of the boat-mastering skills he planned to acquire during the coming holiday from school.
Carr tended to get seasick; and yet he had travelled here upon Meredith's invitation, on a stormy afternoon, rather than return to their boarding school on Hoopers Island on any calm day he could have chosen.
"I think I'll walk back to school," Carr added with a touch of his usual dry humor as he rose slowly to his feet.
He was quite serious, Meredith realized. At low tide, the channel between Barrens Island and Hoopers Island was shallow enough that it could be waded, albeit at the expense of wet trousers. It was by no means the sort of activity that the heir to a landstead should undertake. Yet it was clear that Carr preferred wading like a servant to taking another boat over the water.
Appalled now at his own insensitivity and lack of foresight, Meredith said, "Master Carr, if you prefer, I would be glad to have you stay overnight at my old house. It has two bedrooms," he added as Carr turned to look at him. He did not want his master to think that he was acting like one of those servants in boys' comics, seeking to seduce his master. Aside from the single kiss that Carr had granted him on the night of their pledges to each other, light touches on the arm were all that Carr had given him so far. Meredith was still glorying in having a master who showed him any affection at all; he did not wish to endanger his service by demanding more.
Now there was a slight quirk at the edge of Carr's mouth. "A dry bed on steady ground would do a good deal to heal my stomach, I'll confess. Is your house far?"
"Just a mile from here, sir, on the eastern beach of the island. If it should please you to come this way . . ."
His original plan, born during the anxious minutes spent awaiting the start of his entrance exam for university, had been to show Carr his childhood. To take Carr to see the old haunts of his early boyhood, where he had lived before he began his terrible, painful years as a bullied schoolboy. Here on this island were the hidden havens of animals that he had found and secretly watched during those early, happy years, living alone on Barren Island with his father, keeper of the navigation beacons on the island.
Now his father was gone, learning to be a sailor in the Dozen Landsteads's Oyster Navy, which enforced the oyster laws. The lamphouse where his father had lived for the last seven years, and where Meredith had stayed during school holidays, had been given over to another lamphouse keeper. All that remained of Meredith's childhood, aside from the school where he had too many painful memories, was this island and the cozy little house where he and his father had once lived.
"It isn't very big," he explained now as he and Carr made their way around the edges of a salt marsh. "Father bought it when he first rose to the rank of master. It only has a single storey, plus an attic. It had room enough for him and my mother and one or two children. Father's liege-master loaned him the money—"
"And your father paid back the loan?" Carr paused as Meredith went forward to raise a needle-spiky branch out of his way.
"Yes, sir. He paid back Captain Pembroke long ago. My father has enough money saved now that he could buy a larger house . . . but after my mother died, there were no more children, just me, and I'll be going to university next autumn. If I'm accepted," he added with a pang of worry. He was a good student, but until recently he had assumed that he would be attending the university of his own landstead, the Third Landstead University. The university he had actually applied for had different examination questions than he had anticipated; he was still not sure whether he had passed the exam.
And if he had not . . .
Uncharacteristically – for Carr was always quick to pick up on Meredith's worries and to find ways to reassure him – Carr said merely, "Are you sure that the house will still be in good condition? It has been many years."
"Oh, yes, master," Meredith replied quickly. "Nobody comes here anymore, so there would be no thefts."
Carr raised his eyebrows. "Not even hunters?" He waved toward a long-billed willet, half-hidden in the cordgrass.
"Not these days, sir. Back in my father's childhood, it was different, because of the least terns."
Carr creased his forehead. "The least what?"
It surprised Meredith still when his master, so skilled in talk of government and politics, would reveal himself ignorant of the wildlife that had surrounded him for years. "A seabird, sir. It looks a bit like a gull, but it's smaller, with a forked tail. It likes to nest in open spaces such as beaches, so it was easy prey for the hunters, who would sell the least terns' feathers to the millineries – feathered hats are very popular among the women. My father said that, when he was a child, the beaches on Barren Island used to be entirely white-and-grey like shadowed snow, so many least terns nested there."
He paused; Carr's eyes had wandered away from him. Meredith said quickly, "I'm sorry, master. It was of no importance. I apologize for having bored you with such matters."
His throat ached as he spoke. It had always been like this with Captain Pembroke's son too. Young Master Pembroke could tolerate very little of Meredith's chattering about the island's wildlife. Why, in the name of all that was sacred, was Meredith making the same mistake with Master Carr?
Carr shook his head slowly, as though barely hearing what Meredith had said. "No, I—" Carr stopped mid-sentence, leaning against the scaly trunk of a loblolly. There was sweat on his forehead.
Concerned, Meredith asked, "Master, do you wish to make use of me by taking my arm?"
Carr gave a weak smile then. "Meredith, I can think of many ways in which I wish to make use of you, but treating you as a cane is not one of them. Lead on, liegeman."
Meredith quickened his pace; the sky was growing dark, and he did not wish him and Carr to be lost in the pine-shadowed marshland overnight. As a child, he had spent many an evening sitting beside the pond near his house – really a tidal pool – listening to the mysterious sounds of leopard frogs, muskrats, snapping turtles, fiddler crabs, herons, and marsh wrens. His father had permitted this, once he had ascertained that Meredith carried an almost magical ability to calm any animal that initially considered him a threat.
But that was many years ago, and from what Meredith had already seen during their crossing of Barren Island, the island had changed over the years. This had been a brackish pond in the old days, a mixture of freshwater and salt, but now it was entirely a saltwater marsh; he could tell that from the change in plants. The cattails he remembered had disappeared, replaced by cordgrass. There were fewer animals too; the harsher conditions of the salt marsh had driven most of them away.
It was odd; he wondered how it had happened. Then he remembered (on the edge of his memory, like a smudge of land on the horizon of the Bay) the reason that he and his father had lived alone on an island where once hundreds of people had lived.
It had occurred around the time of his birth, the final abandonment of Barren Island. His haven, as he had always regarded it, had ceased to be liveable for most of the inhabitants, who had built their houses close to the channel between Barren Island and Hoopers Island. The water had crept in, inch by inch every year, and then acre by acre. The channel that had once been ankle-high at low tide now rose far higher than that. Barren Island had begun to submerge as the waters rose, eating away at the houses and farmland.
That was eighteen years ago. Meredith's chest felt suddenly painful, as though it had been hit by an oar. He knew – he thought he knew – what they would see when they emerged from the trees.
It took Carr a long time to speak when they reached the beach. Finally he said, "Well, perhaps wading across to Hoopers Island would not be so wise an idea after all. The water seems to have risen somewhat."
Meredith could not speak. He was Carr's liegeman. Indeed, he was Carr's servant, by choice rather than by official rank. He had dual reason to ensure the comfort and safety of the young man standing beside him.
Instead, he had invited his seasick master over stormy waves to visit an abandoned island and stay at a house that was crumbling into ruins.
At the moment, during low tide, the water was only lapping at the front porch. But it was clear from the house's crumpled condition that, at high tide, the channel-water had eaten away at the house's foundations. The house was sagging, like an old woman who no longer has the strength to stand upright. Its roof – covered with shells, in the Bay style – had already begun to fall in. A single storm, such as the one arriving on the wind stirring Carr's hair, might be enough to bring the entire house crashing down into matchsticks.
Meredith managed to clear his throat. "Sir, there were signal-fires in the house. We might be able to signal the watermen on Hoopers Island..." The suggestion died in his throat. The signal-fires had been in the cellar, which would have filled with water long ago. The boats passing Barren Island were at least a mile away, and the sun was now under the horizon. He and Carr would not be able to reach within sight of the boats before the dark-clouded sky turned black.
And a storm was coming.
"There might be enough left of the house for us to take shelter," said Carr in the matter-of-fact voice he used for the worst disasters. "—No, you stay here," he added. "I want to test the ground before you step on it."
As he spoke, he pulled from his vest pocket a small, flat, rectangular object with a tiny dome of glass at one end. The glass suddenly threw forth a beam of light. An electric searchlamp, too small to signal Hoopers Island, but with enough light to break through the arriving gloom. Carr was far better prepared than his servant, Meredith bitterly reflected.
Meredith remained where he was as Carr walked cautiously forward. Meredith was forced to stay where he was, not only by his master's order, but also by the awareness that Carr was simply fulfilling the vow he had made to Meredith several weeks ago, when he accepted Meredith as his servant and liegeman: the vow of protection. In any danger, it was Carr's job, as master, to protect Meredith.
And Meredith's job? It was to serve Carr in such a fashion that danger never arose. Instead, Meredith had endangered Carr's health, and now he was about to endanger both their lives.
Meredith hugged himself in the chill wind, sick at the thought of what he had done. How could he have forgotten that Carr could become ill at sea? How could he have forgotten the approaching waters on Barren Island? How, most of all, could he have assumed that the haven of his childhood would remain a haven forever?
He knew why. All the happiest memories of his life lay here. He had wanted to believe that the happiness would remain forever.
Instead, it was lost. His haven was gone.
He wiped tears from his face with the back of his jacket sleeve – Carr still had his handkerchief – and forced himself to think clearly. He was doing no good here, weeping in self-pity. Even if it was Carr's job to protect his servant, it was still Meredith's job to be on hand, in case his master should need him. If the fragile house came crashing down upon Carr, Meredith's master would most assuredly need him.
Perhaps, if the house was in no fit condition to stay in, they could shelter themselves in the storage shed. They had passed it on the way here, and it had looked intact, too far up from the empty beach to be swept away yet. It was just a tiny little windowless shack that had once housed gardening tools. Staying there would mean a cramped night on the hard floor for both of them, with no fire or blankets to keep them warm, but the roof and walls would hold back the wind and the rain.
The sky was growing darker and more blustery by the moment. Uncertain now of the old paths that had once led across the edge of the tidal pool, Meredith hesitated in his journey. Rain was starting, cold and sharp in the hard wind. Meredith had a sudden fear, just as cold and sharp, that he would not be able to find Carr in the night.
Then he saw the light, wavering in the rain. Meredith shouted, and after a moment, Carr arrived, his hat dripping with rainwater.
The heir shook his head at Meredith's enquiry. "No, there's little shelter left. The roof came crashing down so hard that it brought the attic floor down as well. Only the walls are still intact."
"There's another place we could stay, sir," said Meredith and rapidly explained.
Carr nodded, but his thoughts appeared to be elsewhere; he had turned to look again toward the darkness from which he had just emerged.
He cut off Meredith mid-sentence. "We'll go there, then. But first, I'd like you to see something."
"Sir?" replied Meredith, confused.
"Remain silent," said Carr, and underlying his words were the tone of a master who will not be questioned.
Master Carr rarely used that voice, except on the playing field. Meredith shut his mouth at once. Carr took his hand – it had grown so dark that such guidance was necessary – and then the two of them made their way to the house.
The ruined old lady was now apparent only in patches of light from Carr's searchlamp. As Carr led Meredith up the steps of the back porch, Meredith caught glimpses of warped boards, sagging eaves, peeling paint. "Careful here," said Carr, steering Meredith past a broken floorboard on the porch. For some reason, the heir was whispering. Meredith thought that was appropriate: the lady, the house of his childhood, was not merely ruined but dead. What a haven he had brought Carr to, he thought, bitterness returning.
He wondered at what point Carr would punish him for this fiasco. Carr's calm did not fool him. Carr was always calm when he administered punishments, a stark contrast to his hot-tempered father. Meredith himself had never felt the swish of Carr's cane at school – he belonged to a rival House there, and so far, during his brief, secretive time as Carr's servant and liegeman, he had not made any mistakes that were disastrous enough to merit a beating. But this surely qualified as a disaster.
Carr, however, seemed more intent at the moment on his quest than on teaching Meredith his proper place. Meredith's master paused at the screen door – the main door had been flung back and cracked during some storm – and put his finger to his lip. By this time, the heir was soaked from the rain, Meredith could see as Carr held the searchlamp skyward. He must be as cold as Meredith, who had begun to shiver.
Carr's hand was reassuringly warm, though, as he placed it on Meredith's shoulder. "Keep your eye on the room," he whispered into Meredith's ear. "I don't know how long they will remain, once I shine the light in."
"They"? Curious now, Meredith pressed his face against the screen door. Beyond the door, he knew, had once stood the parlor, where he and his father had spent many a winter evening playing dominoes and cards. In the summertime, they would open the solid door to let in the cool breezes from the Bay, and they would talk for hours about harvesting oysters and crabs, or about Meredith's exploration of the island. His father, a waterman by training, never seemed to tire of Meredith's long tales of the island beasts he had seen – of what the animals did, and where they hid, and how Meredith had watched them in their havens. His father had smiled and nodded, and the next month he would give Meredith a book he had bought during his occasional visits to Hoopers Island or the mainland, telling about the animals and plants Meredith had seen. Meredith was beginning to learn how to read, with the help of a tutor; he would pore over the long texts and then go searching for animals and plants that the books had mentioned. He would bring home specimens which he excitedly shared with his father; or he would bring home nothing and make a note of the wildlife's absence from Barren Island, in the margins of his books. Soon he was writing his notes on separate pieces of paper, and then in blank volumes, and by the final years of Meredith's time on Barren Island, his tutor was urging him to study natural history when he reached the age for university.
That was all long ago. The tutor, who was old, had died some years back, during Meredith's third term in school. Meredith's father was far away, training on the Western Shore. Young Master Pembroke, who was Meredith's official liege-master, had always ignored anything that Meredith said about plants or animals. Master Rudd, Meredith's cruel Head Prefect, would have laughed at the idea of discussing natural history with the lad who scrubbed his floors. Even Master Davenham, who was the closest thing that Meredith had ever possessed to a friend in school, had lightly turned the conversation on the few occasions that Meredith had dared to raise the topic of wildlife with him.
And Carr? Master M Carruthers, heir to the Second Landstead, Head Prefect of the Second House of Narrows School, Games Captain with a long line of adoring admirers? Meredith hadn't seen any point in raising the topic with Master Carr. Meredith was Carr's liegeman, yes, but he was also Carr's servant, and servants didn't bother their masters with trivial matters. To bore the heir of the Second Landstead with tales of animals' havens would have been as silly as interrupting the High Masters' Council to talk about crab-mating. He should have realized this today, before he nattered on about birds and beaches.
Now, as Meredith strained his eyes to see what lay in the room, he wondered whether someone besides himself and Carr was trapped here on this storm-torn island. Perhaps a group of hunters had come ashore and sought shelter in one of the few houses that the waters had not yet swept entirely away. The animals, so long bereft of human company, must be easy prey for any hunter. Meredith found himself wondering, as he often did, where the animals had taken refuge during the storm.
The room began to gradually lighten. Rather than immediately alert anyone in the room to his presence, Carr was slowly tilting the searchlamp so that its beam played across the walls. As he did so, shapes emerged out of the shadows: small shapes, scattered across the crumpled remains of the roof.
Black caps. Yellow legs. Forked tails. Feathers, white and grey, like shadowed snow. Dozens of least terns, nesting in what remained of the house, atop the broken roof made of beach shells.
The birds looked up, sleepy-eyed but not alarmed by the dim light. Their feathers were unruffled; the walls were keeping out most of the wind and much of the rain. Some of the seabirds turned their heads in the direction of Meredith and Carr, but so still were the young men that the birds tucked their heads once again onto their backs, returning to their rest, secure in the safety of their chosen haven.
Meredith did not speak until he and Carr had reached the far end of the porch, where the windows of the parlor gave way to the windows of the kitchen. Then he said softly, "Sir, how did you know?"
Carr shook his head. "I didn't. I only noticed the birds when I was on the point of opening the screen door. I retreated quickly."
"No, I mean . . . How did you know that I'd want to see them?" Carr could have taken them immediately to the storage shed, saving himself a walk in the chill rain over a landscape made dangerous by the dark storm. Carr could have done that, and Meredith would never have known the wonder of it all: the way in which his old house had been transformed into a shelter for the least terns, who had returned at last.
"They're least terns, aren't they? You were talking about them earlier." Carr sounded mildly surprised, as if it were quite obvious that a master should remember a servant's passing remark, and then brave a path through the stormy night to bring his servant a gift of what he liked. "Here, hold this."
Meredith took the searchlamp as Carr fished within the inner pocket of jacket. Finally Carr brought out an envelope, partly soaked. He handed it to Meredith.
"You keep the searchlamp," Carr ordered. "I'm going to go find that storage shed and make sure it's in good enough a condition for us to sleep in. —No, I want you to have the light," he added as Meredith opened his mouth to protest. "From what you say, the shed isn't far from here. I think I can find it, even in the dark." And he was gone, before Meredith could think of a way to protest that Carr's vow of protection surely did not extend to leaving his servant with the only light on a black, stormy night.
Meredith set the searchlamp on the floor, shining up, so that its reflection on the porch ceiling would guide Carr's path back to the house. He could only hope that Carr didn't fall into the marsh; the storm winds had grown so loud that Meredith would never hear Carr's cries for help. He leaned over the railing, braving the wind and the rain, but he could see nothing. Finally he returned to the wall of the house, where the spray of rain was less.
The envelope was nearly soaked through now; he had trouble opening it and in pulling out the papers within.
He knew, the moment he recognized what they were, that Carr would never beat him. Not for this episode, at any rate; that was clear, both from the gift that Carr had just offered and from the second gift that lay in Meredith's hands.
His acceptance into the Second Landstead University. Carr must have gone to the trouble of picking it up when he fetched the paper showing his own acceptance into the Second Landstead University. He had fetched them both and placed them together and handed them to Meredith, on this most awful of nights, as a pledge for the future: he and Meredith would remain together in the years to come.
The least terns were still sleeping when Meredith shone the light onto their walls. None of them stirred as Meredith set the searchlamp down and pulled out his canteen. He kept his voice low, hoping that he would not startle the birds.
"There are some masters," he said, "who are not worthy of their titles."
Master Rudd, rutting away the youth that he should have spent preparing to be High Master of the Third Landstead.
"There are some masters," Meredith added, "who mean well, but who do not fulfill their vows of protection and guidance."
Master Pembroke – poor Master Pembroke, whom Meredith had come to pity in the weeks since he broke his vow of liege-service to his official liege-master and began serving a far more worthy master.
"There are masters," he continued, "who do their duty in the manner expected of them."
Master Davenham, whose friendliness to Meredith, though genuine, was intermittent and minimal. So was his mastership, as far as Meredith had observed, though Master Davenham's servants and liegeman seemed not to mind. Master Davenham had fulfilled his vow of mastership; that was all that they expected or needed.
"And some masters," said Meredith, whispering now under the wind, "some very few masters, go beyond their vows and bring gifts of sacrifice to those who serve them. Gentle servants of the land—" He turned his attention back to the dozing terns. "Fellow servants, I give to you, on this day of feasting, Master M Carruthers, the greatest master alive today. When he reaches his full power, he will protect you and the other wildlife of the Dozen Landsteads. Already, he protects and guides me beyond measure. I love him, and some day thousands of Landsteaders will know him and love him." He raised the canteen to the sky and then sipped it, as though it were the champagne that all servants were granted on this night, if they lived in the households of good masters.
A hand reached out and took the canteen from him.
Master Carr did not sip from the canteen – it would have been prideful for him to do so, since the toast was in his honor. But neither did he make a self-deprecating speech in response, as some masters were foolish enough to do, when toasted on the final day of Spring Manhood.
Instead he said, with admirable succinctness, "May I prove myself worthy of your loyalty and your love, dear servant. I dare not do otherwise."
Carr leaned forward, and they kissed.