Inevitably one tale calls to mind another. It seems that no sooner have you got one patron safely home to bed than duty demands that you take care of another. There are times when I feel that many of my patrons don’t so much need a poet as a nurse!
Still I suspect that from their viewpoint a poet is less expensive and makes no demands on their lifestyle. One will never find your poet demanding you lose weight, drink less or go to bed earlier. Similarly poets do not appear in your bed chamber at some ungodly hour of the morning demanding you ‘take exercise.’ So all in all I feel that poets are unlikely to be displaced in the affections of our patrons.
But in this case I must confess that it was not the patron who was at fault, but their offspring. I had been invited to organise a poetry reading at the University and after what turned out to be a pleasant evening a group of students asked me to dine with them. Given that lunch had been an inordinately long time previously I agreed. Admittedly dining with students can be a dubious pleasure but in this case I knew that the set in question had not merely hired a house, but had hired a cook as well. So we continued our discussion of verse, the place of doggerel in contemporary culture, and sundry other topics. The meal was excellent, game pie, an assortment of vegetables, all washed down with a selection of bottled beers. Given that the latter had all been imported from outside Port Naain, they were universally drinkable.
Then from upstairs came a crash. One of my hosts looked up and muttered, “That’ll be ‘The Chancellor’s Mistress.’”
She obvious saw the look of bewilderment on my face and explained. Apparently one of the houses in the next street had a rather vulgar statue of a naked woman pouring liquid from a pitcher. The students in the area had nicknamed the statue ‘The Chancellor’s Mistress’ after the presumed similarly the statue bore to the lady in question. As a prank, at a time when they were raising money for charity, six burly students had ‘kidnapped’ the statue. They had then sent a delegation round to inform the owner of the house that he could have his statue back for a small donation towards the charity. Much to their surprise the gentleman in question made them a generous donation on the understanding that the statue, which he apparently loathed, would never be returned. Since then it had lived on the first floor landing of their house.
This explanation would doubtless have been a prompt for further anecdote, were it not for the shouts coming from upstairs. At this point it was unanimously agreed that the circumstances needed investigation and we trooped up to see what was going on.
We were met with the sight of two young men, both stark naked, fighting with rapiers. If this wasn’t disconcerting enough, it was obvious that they were both very drunk. Hastily we threw blankets over them and disarmed them and then tried to work out what had happened.
After questioning both, and piecing together such evidence as was lying around, as far as we could discover, young man A and young man B had gone to a dance that was held close by. Young man B didn’t live in this house but was known to the residents.
Young man A had been accompanied to the dance by a young lady. During the course of the evening harsh words had been exchanged and any relationship which might have been presumed to exist between them was no more. But as chance would have it, the young lady fell in with young man B, was charmed by his kindness and concern and proceeded to dance with him for the rest of the evening.
Now this might have been an end to it, or even the start of a long and beautiful friendship, but then it would not have involved us. Our problems started when young man B invited the young lady back to his room for a nightcap. She agreed and this presented him with a problem. The house he lived in with a number of contemporaries was frankly squalid. On the other hand his good friend, young man A, lived in a pleasant house and had an elegantly appointed room. So B presumed upon a long friendship with A to ‘borrow’ his room without asking him first.
So B escorted his young lady to his new accommodation and proceeded to entertain her. Unfortunately A now returned home, having drunk excessively. It is at this point in our story that the timing becomes crucial. B had felt the need to relieve himself; but the presence of the young lady deterred him from the usual student method of just urinating out of the window, so he made his excuses and walked upstairs to the privy. The fact he was stark naked at this juncture didn’t apparently concern him. Whilst he was absent, A entered the house and climbed the stairs, went into his room and out of habit locked the door behind him. He got undressed and climbed into bed only to discover the young lady was already present. His first assumption seems to be that she had forgiven him and had come to his room to help heal the breach in their relationship. Her thoughts on the topic are unknown; indeed she may not have noticed it was a different swain who snuggled up to her.
Then B, doubtless much relieved, returned down stairs and discovered to his surprise that the door was now locked against him. He rattled the door to attract attention, only to be told to ‘go away’ by both male and female voices. At this point, angered, he picked up the statue of ‘The Chancellor’s Mistress’ and hurled her through the door. A leapt out of bed, hurled the statue back through what was left of the door and a brawl ensued, with both men assuming that they were acting to protect a damsel’s honour.
As an aside, somewhat bored by the tedious tale that was being extracted little by little from the two participants, I took the opportunity to study the statue. As someone who had met the Chancellor’s Mistress I felt that the students had done the lady a disservice. Whilst admittedly no longer in the first flush of youth, she is a beautiful and elegant lady, as well as being a renown wit and raconteur.
Still my interest in effigies was not shared by the others. They continued to fuss around the two disarmed combatants, only to break off, open mouthed, when the young lady who was partial cause of the combat appeared, still naked, in the doorway. She then said, in a plaintive, little girl lost voice, “I want to go home.”
As two of the young ladies in our party hastened to whisk her back into the room to get her dressed, I commented, perhaps foolishly, “Isn’t that the daughter of Madam Ay.”
Again note I have to be discreet, it would never do to name names or cause embarrassment to people, even after all these years. So let her name be Miss Ay for the duration of the tale.
Perhaps five minutes passed before one of the young ladies emerged from the room. “Where are her clothes?”
We searched the room, we searched the rest of the floor, we checked the privy, we searched the street outside the window. We looked everywhere. There were no clothes. There wasn’t even a sign that there might once have been clothes. But those who had been to the dance said that clothes had been worn there. Indeed one student went so far as to sigh that, “Alas, it was not one of those dances.”
As all this was going on I noticed others were starting to drift away, and I realised that it was getting late and it was probably time I went home. I was just about to say my good-byes when one of the girls came back onto the landing leading Miss Ay, wrapped for decency’s sake in a sheet. She said, “Madam Ay is a patron of yours isn’t she.”
I could see where this was leading. I said “Yes.” I suppose I hoped that the amount of resignation in my tone might tell her that the relationship was not one which I cherished too closely. As it was, my subtlety was wasted. “Good, you can take her daughter home.”
Now ideally at this point I would regale you with a whole series of amusing anecdotes about our trip across the city. As it is the whole episode is merely seared into my mind as one long, lingering, embarrassment. Whether she’d indulged in too much scarlet lichen, or was communing with some inner consciousness, she said not a word during the entire trip. At the same time, while she could walk, if she wasn’t gently shepherded with an arm around her she would stop and stare vacantly at her feet as if entranced by the mystery of locomotion. The other problem was that there were times when she seemed to believe that the sheet was an unnecessary encumbrance and she would attempt to discard it. Even when she was willing to accept being swathed decorously in white linen, she didn’t take any particular steps to ensure the sheet remained firmly anchored around her; so it was constantly slipping.
Thus our progress was slow. Given that we had a good hour’s walking whatever happened I tried to keep up a decent pace, but the faster she walked, the more she desired to cast off the constriction of the sheet. So eventually we compromised on a more sedate pace which she seemed to feel was compatible with being decently covered.
Many years ago, I remember somebody once asking me how many people I knew in Port Naain. It might have been Benor Dorfinngil, who was sometimes surprised by just how many people would greet me in the street as we walked along. All I can say is that if you want to discover how many people you know, then late one night escort a young woman wrapped only in a sheet across the city and I’ll wager you’ll met most of them.
I met acquaintances I hadn’t met for years; I met old debtors who assumed that my apparently compromising situation would lead to me overlooking their debt. I even met creditors who assumed that my new situation was indicative of an enhanced prosperity on my part and so they asked, almost aggressively, when I would be repaying them.
It has to be said that I did contemplate getting a sedan chair and sending her home, but hiring a chair at that time of night was beyond my limited resources. Then there was the time when she suddenly became animated, cast off her sheet and ran naked in entirely the wrong direction for perhaps ten minutes. Indeed if she had not been bare foot I suspect I never would have caught her.
Nevertheless, finally I came within sight of her home. Now, in between re-draping her with the sheet, or convincing her to keep walking, I had been pondering the moment of her arrival. I wanted to keep matters as quiet and prudent as possible. Merely knocking on the door would bring a servant to see who it was. This would mean that not only would the servants know about the girl’s antics, but so would the servants’ friends, family, people they met when getting their hair cut, and by the end of the morning, the wife of the man who swept the road. Indeed I could probably spread the news more slowly if I were merely to put an announcement in the Port Naain Intelligencer.
Still, I remembered that her parents were people who would sit up late at night reading or just talking over a glass. They also tended to do this in a rather nice room around the rear of the house which looked out over the garden. So it occurred to me that if I were to take their daughter round to the window, we could get her into the house without anybody noticing and from then on the girl’s parents could take charge. I looked at this plan from every possible angle and decided that this is what I would do.
At this point, it was comparatively easy. I walked the girl along the path down the side of the house. She was silent, made no attempt to cry out, run and otherwise make my task more difficult. Indeed she hugged the sheet more closely around her, perhaps feeling the chill of the night air. Once around the rear of the house I could see that there was a light in the room, but as the curtains were drawn I wasn’t sure who was in the room. So gently I tapped on the window.
A curtain was twitched aside and I could see the face of Madam Ay looking out at me. I gestured to the window handle and mimed opening the window. This she did, still looking puzzled. With the window open I immediately helped the daughter to climb in through the window.
At this point I issue a challenge. I defy anybody to help a naked girl wrapped loosely in a sheet through a narrow window without the sheet coming adrift.
Not only that, but safe in the arms of her mother, young Miss Ay burst into tears. Madam Ay didn’t hesitate. She snarled, “You scoundrel you!” Then with that she gave me a slap across the face that came close to loosening teeth. She then shouted, “Hundly, come here with your horsewhip, at once.”
I decided that in this situation, trying to explain myself was pointless. I turned and fled into the night, making sure I got out into the street before anybody could cut off my retreat.
“Were there any repercussions?” I hear you ask. I assume that either Miss Ay, when she had recovered, had no memory of Tallis Steelyard and thus her parents realised I was simply the courier; or perhaps they decided to just keep quiet lest the neighbours hear about their daughter’s antics. But I was never again asked to the house by Madam Ay and she cut me dead on the two occasions we did chance to meet. Truly is it said, ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’
Obviously there are far more things I could tell you, but frankly my somewhat churlish desire to remain hale and hearty into my later years encourages me to be discreet.
Not only that but my natural tact is enhanced by the fact that my main Sponsor is metaphorically breathing down my neck and demands that I move over and allow his to flaunt what little talent he has. So be it. I am done.
Jim Webster here; as always my grateful thanks to Tallis Steelyard for the way he has most courteously stepped aside, and indeed and smoothed my path with an exceedingly elegant introduction.
But I shall not keep you long. In short, the third story in the much acclaimed ‘Port Naain Intelligencer’ series will be available for purchase on the 1st of March; ‘Tomb-yard Follies’ on Amazon UK and Amazon.com
To quote from the blurb:
“Mapping an old family graveyard was a technically complicated job Benor expected would take him some time. But then he hadn’t allowed for getting caught up in a world of intrigue, vengeance, and arbitrary justice.”
Previous stories from the Port Naain Intelligencer are:
Flotsam or Jetsam and A Much Arranged Marriage
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.
In addition to Tallis Steelyard’s blog, you can find Jim and his books on his personal blog here, on Twitter @JimWebster6 and on Amazon UK, Amazon.com and Goodreads.
Reblogged this on Tallis Steelyard.
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Happens all the time. I’m beginning to suspect that Port Naain is simply a pseudonym for Tunbridge Wells.
That, of course, would explain a good deal 🙂
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Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.