Obviously my services are much in demand. People, once they reach a certain level of intellectual and cultural refinement realise that nothing but the best will do. So I am used to being sought out.
Admittedly it is more often by creditors and their like, but still, it does no harm to have folk asking after one.
That being said, you can see why I wasn’t surprised when I got a message from a Madam Bodery. She no longer lived in Port Naain, her husband had estates to the north of the city, and she was determined to entertain in style. Prior to her marriage she had never availed herself of my services, but I suspected that the acquisition of wealth and status had brought good taste in its train. Mock not, it can happen.
I replied to the letter, assuring her I would attend on the day in question. It was an evening event. I checked with reliable travellers who assured me her house was about fifteen miles from the city so I felt that with a good start I would have no problems arriving in time.
On the morning in question I set out early, leaving my lady wife Shena still sleeping. (Not by any means a common occurrence.) With my few necessities in an oilskin bag and my coat fastened loosely to prevent myself getting too warm, I made good time. Unfortunately I had barely left the outskirts of the city when the rain started. I fastened my coat more tightly, pulled my hat down almost to my ears and pressed on. After all, what else could I do? When the summons comes to bring culture to the benighted, it would be a hard-hearted wight who turned back.
The rain continued. It grew heavier. The fields on either side of the road, already sodden after a wet winter, displayed puddles which turned into ponds, which rapidly amalgamated to produce lakes. The road itself was, in several places, inundated by water, sometimes moving with disconcerting swiftness.
Noon came but I dare not stop to eat the simple meal of bread and dried meat that I had fetched with me. I was so wet that sitting would have left me chilled to the bone. I stopped very briefly under the shelter of a tree and transferred my lunch from my oilskin bag to my coat pocket and then hastily shut the bag again to try and keep its contents try.
Chewing on a crust which had rapidly softened in my sodden pocket I marched on. Now my hat hung shapeless about my head, my coat, shirt, and breeches were rotten wet. My small clothes, soaked, clung to my skin, whilst my socks and shoes were not merely sodden but had changed colour and were a shade of dull red from the mud on the road.
It was perhaps an hour before the commencement of the soiree that I arrived. I realised that even a poet of renown must think twice before standing, dripping in a lady’s front hall. Thus I went round the back to the servants’ entrance and knocked there. A scullion opened the door, saw me and hastily bid me enter. I stood in his scullery and discovered that my clothes were not dripping; water was running off me in streams.
Even as I made this discovery, Cook arrived. She was a lady best described as angular. Not fat, not thin, but somehow gave the impression that she had more knees and elbows that nature intended. (As an aside I realise that this is a phenomena most ladies can display in bed, but it is rare that you find one who can display it when dressed and awake.)
She took one look at me and departed, returning with a long coat of generous cut. She instructed me to disrobe at once and put the coat on. My discarded garments she had hung on one of those tall wooden clothes horses you still see in the better large houses, and this was placed near the kitchen fire. Myself, coat securely belted about me, she sat next to the fire. Then once I had a mug of hot mulled ale clasped in my hands, she asked the obvious question, why was I there?
I reached for my oilskin bag. The contents were only slightly damp but she soon had her kitchen maid hanging them from the clothes horse to dry. The letter of invitation I showed her.
On reading it she admitted to perplexity. She recognised it as genuine, but she had no knowledge of such an event being held that day. Indeed when holding a truly memorable soiree, the cook should be one of the first people brought into the planning, so her lack of knowledge boded badly.
She invited the Butler and the Housekeeper into the kitchen and they too inspected the letter. Finally the Housekeeper remembered there being some talk about such an event, but nothing came of it and apparently Madam Bodery had accepted an invitation to spend a few days in Port Naain. I was left hoping that she got as wet as I did in her travels.
Still the staff generally seemed to feel that this was indeed their mistress’s way of doing things and the Housekeeper tendered her apologies and insisted I stay the night, there being at least one spare staff bedroom where I could be accommodated.
ó ó ó
So I stayed the night. Well obviously I wasn’t going to turn round and walk the fifteen miles home in the deluge outside. With only the elderly Lady Bodery in the house, matters were a little relaxed. I drank a glass of wine with the Butler in his pantry whilst Boots tried his best to get a shine back on my shoes. Then I was shown my room, and as I admired its rustic simplicity, I was informed that a bath had already been drawn for me. After a bath, my clothes were brought up to me and now, warm, clean and properly dressed, I went down to dinner in the great kitchen.
Now whilst the master and mistress of the house were not present I don’t want you to think that the staff were running riot. Indeed we dined well but modestly, an excellent vegetable soup with new bread, a capital roast leg of mott, and for dessert a huge trifle. There was a glass of wine for everybody, and the evening promised to be convivial.
Now I was in something of a quandary. I was there to entertain, but had been abandoned and would not be paid. Still, I had been met with nothing but the warmest hospitality. So I did my best to be entertaining, but in what I would call an informal manner. I played my audience with care, told anecdotes that I knew they would find interesting as well as amusing, and I can say, without hesitation, that I was a success. Indeed the Housekeeper congratulated the Cook on her find, and the Butler agreed that they would indeed have to ensure that I was invited by error at some point in the future.
ó ó ó
Now I have mentioned the elderly Lady Bodery. She cannot have been a day under ninety but carried herself like a matron of no more than seventy. In spite of this her daughter-in-law persisted in regarding her as a semi-invalid and virtually confined her to her suite. So once son and daughter-in-law were absent, the old lady took it upon herself to wander down to the kitchen to see about her supper. (As instructed by her mistress the maid had already taken her up a little boiled fish, some bread, thinly buttered with the crust cut off, and a pot of weak tea.)
By the time she entered the kitchen, one of the kitchen maids was telling fart jokes, (It always happens, but this young lady was a fine mimic) and the Butler had, with the permission of the ladies present, removed his tie.
Things immediately became rather more formal, the maids sat silent and demure, until the old lady sat down, grabbed the bowl containing the still ample remains of the trifle, and a spoon. She then asked if someone could pour her a glass of wine.
The Butler looked somewhat crestfallen, “I’m afraid we used up the bottle we were left with Madam.”
She looked at him over the trifle bowl, spoon half way to her mouth. “Then damn it man, go and allocate yourself another. It was my bluidy husband who laid down the cellar in the first place so I ought to have some say in who drinks it.” She put a spoonful of trifle in her mouth and the Butler stood up to get another bottle. Somewhat indistinctly she then said, “Take a maid with you, and make it four bottles.”
As you can imagine, the evening went merrily. It was not yet dawn when I went to bed, and breakfast was served about noon. The day was fine and I had a pleasant walk back to Port Naain. Unpaid perhaps, but the Cook had given me half a dozen mott chops for my services.
And I still remember the tale Lady Bodery told, it was apparently a favourite of her late husband who told it of a good friend of his. Apparently this friend was an enthusiastic huntsman. Every morning he would get up early and go out with his rod or his bow to see if he couldn’t bag something for the pot. He’d be out until noon when he’d reappear without fail, normally with a couple of fish, or perhaps a brace or two of birds or even a dart. But one morning he finally met his match. He was out two hours before the dawn as usual. But as he made his way out into the driving sleet he realised it was not going to be a good day. Indeed visibility was so bad that he got lost. Lost in his own woods, no more than a couple of hundred yards from his front door! He blundered about for a while and then stepped off the bank into the river that he didn’t see until he fell into it.
Fortunately he fell in at one of his favoured fishing spots. There was a small jetty, and better still, a slate flagged path back to the house. Not only that but dawn had finally come and it was a little lighter. Freezing and chilled to the bone he threw off his clothes, crept quietly upstairs and got back into bed. Fearing he’d surprise his lady wife he said quietly and by way of explanation, “The weather is atrocious out there.”
“Yes,” she replied, her back to him, “and the idiot has still gone out hunting in it.”