The second part of the scandalous story of the feuding ladies of Port Naain, told by Tallis Steelyard, a poet of that city…
The Mudfold and Cockeren Feud
I did at the time entertain hopes that the feud might just fade quietly away, but I’d not allowed for the tenacity with which the two ladies clung to it. It seemed to become the centre around which their lives orbited. An example of how this sad situation drew in other, entirely innocent parties is the occasion when Madam Mudfold had some success in the field of fashion.
This probably needs more explanation. Madame Mudfold herself was a short lady; her friends would call her slim, her detractors would perhaps say skinny. In reality she was one of those ladies who are a bundle of energy, always doing something, perhaps a little prone to worrying overmuch. Not being one to just sit and enjoy her husband’s affluence, she had always had her own business, and she ran a modestly successful dress shop on Newell Square. As you can see, it was based in one of the more salubrious areas.
Now had she been an unmarried lady, she’d probably have managed to live reasonably well from the shop, although in those circumstances she’d doubtless have spent more time there herself and thus reduced the number of staff she employed. Strangely, whilst Madam Mudfold thought of herself as a promising literary figure, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, she ignored the fact that when it came to clothes, she does appear to have an eye for fabric, line and colour. Hence during the season in question, rather than just producing the usual lines for her ladies, she produced something entirely original for one lady customer who was entirely content with the results. So Madame had a few more of these garments made up and displayed the results at various fashionable gatherings. It is difficult, as a mere male, to explain exactly what she achieved. I asked my lady wife, Shena, for some guidance, and she merely said that Madame Mudfold had hit on a style which managed to flatter those ladies who were no longer in the first flush of youth, and at the same time was comfortable to wear. Apparently this is all there was to it, but it was enough to cause considerable interest; so much interest that she had to hire an extra seamstress.
But this brief moment of her rival’s happiness was as liquid bile dripped onto the tongue of Madam Cockeren. From what little unreliable details I could glean from an increasingly taciturn Timpton Lumber, the news of her great enemy’s success had left her brooding and bad tempered. She was apparently determined to take action. At this point I would have hoped that as a civilised man Timpton Lumber would have allowed a fellow artist some warning of what was to come. But no, he seems to have turned his back on the camaraderie of the pen and instead may even have been spurring his patron to greater efforts as a way to worm himself more deeply into her purse.
Still I felt that Madam Mudfold had others in her household far more competent in these matters than I, and so I didn’t allow this pettiness to bother me. Yet one day I was quietly minding my own business meditating on the next stanza of my current work when I was rudely awakened by the shouting of a small boy. I rose from my seat in the sun at the stern of our barge and made my way to the gangplank to see what was causing him to carry on so, Thus it was that I discovered that Madam Mudfold wanted to see me immediately, at Newell Square. Well all thoughts of enjambement or synaesthesia were immediately set aside. One’s patron calls and the wise poet drops everything. Sensing something was up my niece Grisla decided to accompany me. Shena feels that it is good for the child to mix with a wide variety of company, and even if my patron might not appreciate her presence in the salon, it was inevitable that in the kitchen she would discover in the cook or the housekeeper one of Dame Ralash’s old girls.
Now I confess that my senses are not perhaps as honed as they could be. Let others have the light stance of the Urlan knight or the wariness of the street fighter. But I confess that even I noticed that there were an inordinately large number of women dressed in bright coloured garments, all in the vicinity of Newell Square. They seemed to know each other and were talking excitedly and in loud voices.
I brushed it off as just one of those incomprehensible things that happens in a major city, conceivably it was a gathering of fishwives celebrating an annual holiday.
When I entered the shop I discovered that Madam Mudfold was prostrate. Various of her employees were loosening her garments or fanning her. One was even attempting to burn feathers under her nose. I tried to combine an authoritative presence with a look of genuine concern, but seem to have rather failed. Madame rose from the seat into which she had been collapsed and proceeded to give vent to a tirade. This was largely incomprehensible; as it assumed both that I was privy to information I didn’t have, and that I understood a lot of particularly vituperative school girl slang of a previous generation. Finally as she subsided and two of the girls plied her with neat spirit, I asked the head seamstress what was going on. It seems that Madam Cockeren had been particularly cunning. She had sent a couple of her friends to get dresses of the latest, Mudfold, cut. Once these had been made and paid for, she had had her domestic staff unpick them and use them as patterns to make a considerable number of garments in exactly the same size, but in a variety of cheap and very highly coloured materials. Not only that but then Madam Cockeren had given these dresses to ladies for whom they were a little on the small size and paid them to go and stand in the region of Newell Square.
It has to be said that Mesdames Cockeren and Mudfold were agreed on the result of this ploy. They were both convinced that on seeing the exhibition of vulgarity being flaunted in the environs, no lady of quality would ever shop for clothes in Newell Square again.
Obviously it seemed to be widely felt that in this situation a poet ought to step in to support his patron. I was gratified that they felt I was the person to call upon, but a little vague as to exactly what they expected me to do. One cannot clear a street with litotes nor drive people back into their homes through aggressive use of metaphor. But I had a purse thrust into my hands and was told ‘To get those women off the square.’ With that I was pushed out into the street and the shop door was closed, unceremoniously, behind me.
As a way to give me time to think I pondered my fate. It was a fine summer day, pleasantly warm. Indeed it had been the perfect day to meditate quietly in the sun on the deck of the barge. I glanced longingly down towards the estuary wondering how long it would be before I could return to my creative work when I noticed that down Grey Widdle Way, where it runs off Newell Square, there was a house being largely rebuilt. I wandered closer and found that the whole of it was clad in scaffolding on which there was any number of workmen, disporting themselves. Largely stripped to the waist, heavily tanned as a result of the long hot summer, they were going about their work in a somewhat languid manner. I picked out one whom I took to be the foreman and approached him.
“Greetings, it strikes me as a particularly hot day for working.” Now this approach would normally elicit a crude response, but I reduced the chance of this happening by letting a stream of silver coins drop from my right hand to my left.
Never taking his eyes of the coins, the foreman said thoughtfully, “You know, I was just saying that very thing to one of the lads just before.”
At this point I allowed the stream of coins to drop from my left hand to my right. “It did strike me that a bunch of hardworking men could do with a chance of a drink to refresh themselves before once more returning to their labours.”
“I find myself forced to agree with you sir.”
By this point the coins were dropping from my right hand to my left. “It struck me that you and your colleagues might possibly be able to assist me?”
“What a sad world it would be if we couldn’t find time to help each other.”
“It’s just that at the moment there are a group of ladies wearing bright coloured dresses who are somewhat disturbing the peace of Newell Square. It occurred to me that they could be in need of refreshment, and if a group of similarly inclined gentlemen were to approach them and suggest this possibility, they might well take up the offer.”
As I said this I allowed the coins to fall from my left hand into his right hand. He looked at the growing pile of silver and said thoughtfully, “Damsels in distress as it were. When my lads get to hear of this I’m sure they’d feel obliged to help out.”
Given that by this time, ‘his lads’ were clustered nearby craning to hear every word; I suspected he could be right. I allowed the last coin to drop with a clink into his waiting hand. “I’d be ever so obliged if you could manage it.”
With no more ado he summoned his gallant band to him, explained the situation and they set off to put my plan into operation. I gave them five minutes and ambled in a leisurely manner back into the square. It was virtually empty.
Grisla was sitting on the step of Madam Mudfold’s establishment so I asked her where everybody had gone. She pointed down the continuation of Grey Widdle Way at the other side of the square. Perhaps thirty yards down the street was an ale house. Apparently they’d all gone in there. This I could well understand. After all, there are days when just standing in the sun, wearing clothes and talking loudly can be hard and thirsty work. Grisla made her way to the alehouse and diffidently peered through a window. When I asked her what was happening she replied with one word, ‘Carousing’.
I’d like to say that Madam Mudfold was deliriously happy with the result. Unfortunately that wasn’t absolutely true. I think she’d rather hoped I’d drive the offending ladies from the square with a horse whip. Given that I don’t possess one, and that the ladies in question were not the sort as to be easily intimidated by a whip wielding poet however nuanced his disparagement, I felt my way had been surer and less likely to get me beaten up.
Still she relented and by the time the month was out she admitted I had been right. Her husband, on examining the accounts, noticed a considerable upswing. It appears that the ladies in question had eventually returned to the bosoms of such family as they possessed and their version of the story had leaked out. They had been fulsome in the praise of the dress, comfortable, stylish, and colourful. In many cases the family they returned to was in reality the fine house where they were in service as domestics. Thus, their comments, in a safely bowdlerised version, had reached the ears of the lady of the house.
Given the weather, garments that were stylish and comfortable were at an obvious premium and so the mistress of the house would make her own enquiries. In the days following the whole discreditable episode, Madame Mudfold found herself almost overwhelmed with the volume of orders.
Still, looking back, it has to be said that for a while I did have a secret fear that I might possibly have ruined Madams business. Using an assortment of common and burly louts wasn’t ideal, but frankly there are times when you cannot get your hands on as many louche young poets as you need in a hurry. So one has to work with what one is given.
But I need not have worried. Apparently the fact that a garment might attract to the wearer’s side tanned and muscular young men who didn’t appear to own a shirt but had money to spend on drink didn’t seem to be regarded as a problem. Who would have thought it?
To be continued…
Part Three on Friday 25th December
Tallis Steelyard, author of Lambent Dreams, (available for a mere 99p) is, ‘at least in part’, the responsibility of Cumbrian author Jim Webster.
Unlike Tallis who relies on the uncertain patronage of the denizens of Port Naain, Jim claims that in order to make a living he ‘sort of farms, sort of writes and sort of helps out where he’s wanted’. Sartorially and musically challenged, Jim is nevertheless married and has three daughters.
Jim is the author of four fantasy novels set in the Land of the Three Seas plus a number of longish short stories in both science fiction and fantasy genres.
Jim’s books are available in paperback (and make perfect Christmas presents) as well as in e-book format.