The third and final part of Tallis Steelyard’s explosive revelations…
The Mudfold and Cockeren Feud
As I have intimated before, Mesdames Mudfold and Cockeren were at daggers drawn over various matters. Indeed I’ve described the situation as a feud and I don’t think many who found themselves caught up in the unhappy circumstances would disagree with me.
So far, matters had managed to resolve themselves with no harm being inflicted upon persons of import or good taste. But this happy situation was inevitably going to change.
To a certain extent I think some of the blame for this can be laid on the broad shoulders of Mister Cockeren. Old Bluffer Cockeren was a cheerful, happy-go-lucky chap; casual, easy come-easy go, happy to stand anybody a drink. Fine qualities indeed, although perhaps not what you’d expect in a leading lawyer. Still in spite of his virtues, Bluffer didn’t perhaps understand his wife, assuming in some way she was the same girl that he’d wooed and won forty years previously. As a result of this madness he decided to ‘cheer her up’ a little. How did he intend to do that I hear you all cry. Why he would fund a really grand literary event where she could strut centre stage, enjoy the adulteration of the masses and stun all her rivals into humble submission.
So this great affair was planned. Bluffer had a word with his friends and they had a word with their friends and this produced such a guest list that most artists would have fought with knives in a sack to perform at the event. With an audience of such desirable quality (and obvious wealth) poor old Bluffer would doubtless have spent his time beating off poets and other artists with a stick. But at this point Madam Cockeren stepped in. In deep conclave with Timpton Lumber, together they produced a list of invited performers. This list was distinguished mainly by the way they ostentatiously spurned those who adopted a more independent stance. Well obviously I was not going to be invited, but still, you’d have thought an old friend like Lumber could have seen fit to inveigle me an invitation so that I had the chance to ignore it. In spite of this oversight, it looked as if the whole affair was going to be a considerable success. Obviously one has to overlook the fact that there were many lesser lights being asked to perform beyond their already well known limits, but still, even the barely adequate should be given their chance to shine.
But, as you can well imagine, Madam Mudfold was not merely affronted, she was utterly mortified. She was of course invited, but sent a brief note, three weeks before the event, explaining that she would be unable to attend as she was planning to have a headache that evening. For the next three weeks tension built in the Mudfold household. Finally, the morning before the great event I was summoned to the house. There I was immediately closeted with the lady herself. In her words, “Something must be done to wipe the smile of the face of that smug harridan.” There was something about Madam Mudfold’s attitude which indicated to me that the voice of moderation was not going to get a hearing. Whilst I was pondering my answer she announced that she had a plan. It was generally known at the time that Madam Cockeren was almost immoderately proud of a recipe for stew that her late mother had bequeathed her. This dish was doubtless already cooking, and would be served to the assembled guests during the event. I confess that I had indeed tasted the stew in happier days. It is a clever combination of well hung meat marinated in decent ale, (not the local stuff) combined with a judicious use of spices. Certainly had I been invited I would have ensured that I had a plate or two of it.
Madam Mudfold then produced a large bottle of outsized tablets. I must have looked somewhat blankly at them, but was told, crisply, that they were horse worming tablets. My task would be to grind them into a powder and add them to the stew.
Now many people don’t realise that a lot of the old worming tablets worked by vigorously churning the bowels to shake worms lose, combining this with an extreme looseness which would flush away those worms which weren’t shaken lose. This is neither a tender, nor a decorous process. Hence, by and large, I would have preferred time to contemplate the task, thus giving myself time to produce reasons as to why I shouldn’t be drawn into it. But instead I was ushered through to a small scullery where there was a small grinding mill already in place on the table. Madam handed me the bottle of tablets, told me to get on with it and as she was closing the door behind her she commented unceremoniously that a simple job like that would give me time to reflect upon how I could add the powder to the stew.
So, what can an honest journeyman poet do? It did strike me that just fleeing Port Naain immediately would save everybody, including me, a lot of trouble. But I finally decided that I had to support my patron and go through with this. I suppose that what might have finally decided me was that I knew for certain that Timpton Lumber, ungrateful wretch that he is, would almost certainly help himself to three or more plates full. The thought of him, enthroned uncomfortably in some stinking privy for long periods of time, was encouragement enough. Also, by the time I had produced the powder, I also had a plan.
All these events use a wide assortment of kitchen staff and waiters hired for the night. Like every other poet, there have been times when hunger has driven me into lowering my standards and accepting other work. In these circumstances the role of kitchen porter is not without its advantages. You’re paid at the end of the night, so you leave with the money, what there is of it, in your hand. Also, if you’ve not somehow secreted the ingredients of at least two meals about your person, you’re not trying. So I went back to the barge, dressed myself in what is almost a uniform for the drudges who do the less regarded work in the kitchen and made my way to the Grand Sinecurists Dining Room where the event would be held.
Once there, nobody looked past the mottled grey beret which sagged down both sides of my face, or the grey stained tunic and britches which could both have been worn to advantage by a considerably larger man. I walked into the kitchen and just took my position near the stove, stirring something irrelevant. I could see the stew was being cooked slowly on an adjacent range. Indeed at one point Madam Cockeren came in and inspected the contents of two great cauldrons in person.
Finally there came a point when a nearby cook decided that it was my turn to take my place and provide the motive power to stir the stew. I climbed up onto the complex twin paddle mechanism, stood on the pedals and set to work. Slowly the paddles resumed their turning and I was left to get on with it. Then it was the job of a moment, when nobody was in that part of the kitchen, to deposit half a jar of the finely ground horse tablets into each cauldron. I then quietly pedalled until it was stirred in. After half an hour my replacement arrived and took my place on the pedals. With my work there completed I drifted away as unremarkably as I had arrived.
Of course the results were everything Madam Mudfold had hoped for. Indeed they might even have been described as explosive. During the next few days the rich and powerful made only brief appearances before disappearing at speed, often bend double and clutching their guts. But their disquiet was as nothing compared to the anger of Madam Cockeren who with no evidence but an unerring instinct placed the blame at Madam Mudfold’s door. She swore vengeance. To be fair, Timpton Lumber was not on hand to prompt her in this. He never ventured outside his own squalid residence for more than four days.
Madam Mudfold on the other hand was in raptures over the success. Indeed she decided to hold her own event. Obviously even she was wise enough to know that too much unseemly gloating would be regarded as bad form, so she persuaded her husband, Dour Doddi, to pay for a birthday celebration. This would be held in the Banqueting Hall of the ‘Society Dedicated to the Alleviation of the Plight of those brought low by Debauch and Shiftlessness.’ This establishment is situated on Thrall-jobber square, and both Madam Mudfold and Madam Cockeren live in fine houses on Pilgarlic Street which connects Thrall-jobber Square with the decidedly genteel Revenue Cutter Square market.
As the great day approached I grew more and more nervous. I hadn’t seen Timpton Lumber at the Misanthropes Hall, and Grisla, who was watching the Cockeren house for me noted a fair number of unsavoury characters visiting. They couldn’t all have been painters or novelists.
As for myself I was not involved in making the arrangements for this birthday party. Indeed it wasn’t until the morning of the great day that I was summoned and told the role I was to play. Apparently at the height of the festivities I was to crown Madam Mudfold with a silver diadem and recite an ode to victory. I was given the diadem and told to get on with writing the ode. It was at this point that I raised the issue of Grisla’s school fees and the fact that they were overdue, due entirely to my indigence. I am afraid that I was told that ‘this was hardly the occasion to discuss trivia.’ I was left to ‘get on with it and stop procrastinating.’
So as you can imagine it was a somewhat morose and resentful poet who finally arrived at the birthday party. A couple of glasses of moderate white wine did slightly lighten my mood. I had also brought Grisla with me; she can be most charming when necessary and I felt that in the glow of triumph, Madam Mudfold might be more forthcoming. Finally the evening drew on towards its climax with Madam seated in pride of place under the great chandelier. It was as I stepped forward to give my ode that I first noticed something was wrong. I raised my hand for silence and slowly the convivial hubbub diminished. But in the silence I could hear a new sound, a low ‘rasp, rasp, rasp.’ I looked up and high above me, clinging desperately to a wire, was Timpton Lumber, sawing at the cable from which the chandelier was suspended. I shouted a warning and everybody looked up and then started to flee in panic. Madam herself fled barefoot, discarding her shoes to gain an advantage in the rush. The chandelier finally crashed down sending burning wax everywhere, and that just hastened the speed of exodus. Grisla and I had a relatively trouble free departure having had the presence of mind to leave via the kitchens, taking the opportunity to explain the situation to the manager as we passed him.
As the mob debouched into the street, they were greeted by Madam Cockeren, who apparently by chance, just happened to be passing by with a select group of friends. Madam Mudfold, barefoot and incandescent with range, set a course for her. Madam Cockeren was at her most regal.
“Ah Madame Mudfold, it appears that your party has come to an early finish.”
Madam Mudfold was speechless at this point, a combination of breathlessness and fury, so Madam Cockeren continued.
“I always felt that it was a mistake to pick such ‘common’ venues. But then I suppose it is what one is brought up with that limits one’s sensitivities.”
As an aside, I find it interesting that some people can pass through fury and arrive at a cold icy plateau where every thought clear and targeted. People in this state are often at their most dangerous to their enemies. On the other hand, some are like Madame Mudfold. In her case her rage was such that she merely lost all control of her rational functions. Finally having recovered her breath she pulled herself to her full height and screamed, “You should be locked up as a mad woman. I might have had Tallis Steelyard pour laxative in your stew, but I didn’t try to murder people.” With this she hurled herself on the other woman and the two fell to the ground grappling and striking each other.
As she shouted her comment I noticed a number of people looking at me in a speculative manner, and I realised that at this moment wisdom indicated that I take a trip out of town in the interests of my health. As the crowd surged forward to get a view of the fighting women, I allowed myself to be jostled to the rear of the throng. There I was joined by Grisla. I thrust the prudently wrapped silver diadem into her hands and explained to her that Shena would ensure it paid her school fees. I also explained, somewhat curtly, that I would be travelling for my health. Then she ran one way and I made my way with dignified haste to the mews at the end of the street. There I could hope to find at least one horse. I entered through the inconspicuous door from the main street, bolting it behind me in case of pursuit and looked round. There was indeed one horse, but Timpton Lumber was in the saddle and was about to leave. I ran towards him shouting “Stop, take me up behind you.”
He dug his heels into the horse’s flanks and turned, making an offensive gesture in my direction. As he did so the horse leapt forward and the low lintel of the door struck Lumber firmly in the chest, sweeping him off the horse. As he struggled to his feet I pushed past him, caught the horse, mounted the animal and fled.
There is a school of thought that states that when fleeing one should ride in a considered manner so as not to draw attention to yourself. Thus when pursuers ride after you, nobody has noticed your passing.
I hold with a different school. I believe that when fleeing you should ride with all speed. It is true that people may notice you; they may indeed tell your pursuers which direction you rode in. But more importantly, you are a long way away and whilst your pursuers are discussing matters with innocent bystanders, you are getting even further away. As it was I wrote like the wind to Fluance, sold the horse and took a river boat to Oiphallarian. I felt that this city had several advantages, it was reputable enough for a poet to have a chance of work, but was far enough away so that if my work wasn’t well received I could still return to Port Naain claiming to have achieved considerable acclaim.
As it was my way was eased by Timpton Lumber. Checking through the valise he had strapped to the saddle I discovered a few clothes which displayed a distressing lack of good taste. More importantly there was a purse containing a heart warming amount of cash. This I assume was the money he had been paid to commit his dastardly deed. Also there were a number of small but expensive trinkets. It struck me that Lumber, uncertain as to whether his reward would be adequate, had taken precautions and awarded himself from the contents of his mistress’s jewellery box. So it was that I could spend my involuntary exile in reasonable style.
And the feud, how did it end?
Well Dour Doddi and Bluffer Cockeren seem to have had a drink together. Madam Cockeren was summoned to look after an aged aunt dwelling in an obscure estate somewhere four days ride north of Port Naain. At the same time it was announced that Madam Mudfold, being a lady of delicate constitution, must spend some months for the good of her health, staying in the fishing village of Praedil not far from Prae Ducis.
I remained in Oiphallarian for a season until I got word from Shena that my involvement in events seemed to have been forgotten, before I returned in modest triumph to brag self-effacingly of my performing to the crowds in the Great Opera House at Oiphallarian.
Oh and Timpton Lumber? The last time I heard he was working as a teller in a mine near Tarsteps. I suppose that finally he had found a position which matched his literary abilities.
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 gifts) as well as in e-book format.