When the hammer falls.

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Old ‘Ordan’ was dead. It had to happen sooner or later, and in his case, he’d have said, the later the better. But now it had happened.

I’d known him for a few years, an old man who limped a bit. He’d been a seaman until he had a fall from a yard. He lived purely because he’d missed the deck and hit the water because the ship was heeling in the right direction. He limped because he celebrated his escape from death so enthusiastically that he fell through an open hatch and broke his leg. Still, as everybody said, he’d had a good innings.

When he came back from the sea he’d taken to the vocation of ‘shore-comber.’ Each day he’d go out onto the estuary with his mud flange slung from his belt and pattie turner over his shoulder. He wasn’t as successful as some but he was more successful than others.

Off the estuary he was a fund of good stories about times past, drank sensibly, his drinks mainly paid for by those listening, and managed to keep a roof over the head of both himself and his wife. Admittedly it was not much of a roof, their rented house had two rooms, but it was weatherproof and snug enough. But now he’d gone. I had sat beside his bed in those last hours, listening to his laboured breathing and making sure his wife didn’t slip into widowhood on her own.

So what now? His wife was going to go and live with her daughter and son-in-law, and all that remained to do was to sell their few sticks of furniture. I looked around the two rooms and it seemed to show a poor return on a lifetime of hard work.

We wrapped ‘Ordan’ in his shroud and she gave the man who came to collect it for the boat the vintenar needed. Spending that one small silver coin left her purse with nothing but a lot of copper. I looked at her effects. “So when is the sale?”

“I’ve got old Yass Tileforth to drop by and we’ll have a sale in six days time.”

I knew Yass, his was a small business with small margins. He had no auction room, merely a handcart and a crate. He’d park his handcart outside the house, stand on the crate and auction off the contents as the family carried them out through the door. Occasionally if something seemed too cheap he’d buy it himself and it’d go on the handcart. I suspect he made as much reselling those things as he did from his commission.

“You go off with your daughter now, I’ll take care of things until the sale and then Yass will drop round with the money. There’s nothing here for you now.”

She left with her daughter, carrying a small bundle of clothes and wearing the thin silver ring that Ordan had given her more years ago than I’d care to remember. I looked around the room. There wasn’t much to work with but it was probably enough. His old sea chest still stood there under the bed. There was even a key in the lock. When I opened it, there was nothing but a few strangely shaped stones he’d picked up on beaches in his travels. I left; leaving the door locked behind me and went to the barge to collect some bits and pieces. I took these back to Ordan’s house and set to work. By noon I’d finished and made my way to the Misanthropes Hall.

 

For those who don’t know it the Misanthropes Hall is home to perhaps the greatest collection of gossips in Port Naain. At least in the upstairs bar you have a collection of poets, painters and other artists. They have nothing better to do than listen to gossip, this they immediately recount to their patrons in an attempt to remain interesting (and therefore worthy of patronage.)

I arrived at the bar and looked round. There were two or three small groups gathered. I moved over to the first. Tillop Willbeam was holding forth on the   architecture of the city. He was waving a wine bottle in one hand so I picked up an empty glass, tilted the wine bottle over it and then drank his health. When he’d finished his story, in hushed tones I said, “Ordan has just died.” Frankly this meant nothing to them, but none of them would ever admit it. I added, “His effects are coming up for auction and they include his sea chest. That could be worth bidding for!”

Eventually somebody would confess to ignorance. Nobody likes to look a fool but nobody wants to miss out on something either. It was Tillop who asked.

“Why his sea chest?”

“Because old Ordan was a pirate long before he became a shore-comber, and a smuggler as well. Occasionally he’d have to pay me for something and he’d laboriously drag his old sea chest out from under the bed and bring out the cash to pay me. If you’d heard it scraping on the floor like I did, you’d realise how heavy it was.”

“Piracy and smuggling can both pay well,” Tillop commented.

“Especially if you live long enough to retire,” I added. “Old Ordan’s problem was that he couldn’t afford to draw attention to himself by living too ostentatiously. Hence he got himself a snug billet close to the river so he could always disappear if he needed to.”

One of the others asked, apparently casually, “Who’s doing the auction?”

“Yass Tileforth in six days time.”

Soon the group drifted off, we all have work to do, patrons to flatter, and I drifted to joint another group. Here Julatine Sypent was waxing wrathful about the way one of his patrons had treated him. Julatine can be over-sensitive at times but on this occasion he did have a point. Expecting your poet to join the kitchen staff in washing and drying dishes is, frankly, not on. Still when he’d finished his tale of woe I merely shook my head and said, “Well, at least you’re not in the same position as old Ordan.”

Again I had to explain. “You don’t know him? Remarkable old chap, he sailed with pretty well every successful pirate captain in the south for thirty years before one of them sent him to Port Naain with nothing but an old wooden table. He’s guarded that table ever since.”

“What on earth for?” Julatine asked.

I shrugged. “Gods alone know, but I do know that one time when he was drunk he said that it was Captain Malart who glued the table drawer shut and told him to guard the table with his life, because one day he’d come to Port Naain to collect it.”

Given that Captain Malart was a pirate so successful he was on the verge of being welcomed into polite society before his unfortunate death at the hands of a jealous mistress ended his adventures; his connection with the table elicited some interest.

An hour latter I’d slandered the memory of poor honest Ordan to several more people and it was time for me to move on, I too had patrons to patronise. First I would attend upon Madam Bodery, at the time she was still living in Port Naain. I was my usual witty self, but I confess to being somewhat eclipsed by a late arrival. A lady whose name my memory can no longer supply arrived, full of the latest gossip. Apparently Ordan the Pirate was dead and his effects were to be sold at auction.

Here I pooh-poohed the story. I admitted to having met Ordan and had found him a pleasant chap, quiet in his habits, keeping himself to himself and quick to pay his debts in cash. As always in these cases my denials had the opposite effect to that I apparently intended. I was accused of lacking poetry in my soul, and people clung even more fiercely to the dream of Ordan the Pirate and his immense hidden wealth.

This scene was repeated over the next few days until Port Naain society was rife with stories about the nefarious deeds of Ordan the Audacious. Frankly I’d have been embarrassed to have invented half of them; art must have some connection with reality, however tenuous.

Still on the morning of the sale, dressed for invisibility in my kitchen porter garb I unlocked the house, gave the few sticks of furniture a quick rub down and waited for Yass Tileforth. I heard his handcart rumbling over the cobbles before I saw him, and went out to meet him.

“Good morning Master Tileforth, I’m afraid it’s not going to be a sale to keep you busy for long.”

He looked inside and shook his head. “Hopefully we’ll get a few neighbours putting in a bid or two just to help the old lady out. Doesn’t look like it’ll take long at all.”

We were still chatting when it became obvious that there was some disturbance outside. We went outside to discover the street had filled up and there could have been a couple of hundred people waiting for the sale to start. Old Yass looked at me and raised an eyebrow. I merely shrugged. He lifted his crate off the handcart and called the sale to order. I started carrying the lots to him and he’d auction them.

It went well, even the bedding fetched reasonable money as wealthy ladies realised it was probably better than what was already in the maid’s room. A box of miscellaneous crockery and cutlery made a hundred dregs which is at least fifty more that I’d have thought it was worth. The chairs were fought over, everybody wanted a souvenir of the awful buccaneer Ordan. But it was when I carried the table out that interest was really aroused.

The first thing was somebody in the crowd asking if Yass would open the drawer.  The auctioneer tried but it was jammed stuck. Even with my assistance it wasn’t going to open. I wasn’t entirely surprised, I’d used quite a bit of wood glue and it had had time to set properly.

Well that seemed to provoke their interest. I even heard somebody mutter to the person next to them, “Captain Malart’s table!”

Yass started the bidding by asking a vintenar. Normally they’d have ignored him and dropped back into dregs but somebody bid two vintenars.

Yass looked round, “Do I here three.”

“Three”

“Five”

“Ten.” This came from an excited looking gentleman at the back.

Yass was getting into his stride, “I have ten at the back, do I hear twenty?”

“Twenty.” This came from a stout lady standing close to the handcart.

“An Alar,” shouted the man at the back. Suddenly they’re bidding in gold. For those of you who aren’t familiar with real money, one gold alar is worth 25  silver vintenars. To give you a sense of proportion, an alar is a decent week’s wages.

“Two alars,” from the lady by the handcart.

“Three alars,” from the little man at the back who was almost jumping up and down in his excitement.

“Five alars.” Yass looked across. “We have a new bidder, gentleman on the left with the tall hat. Yes, you sir.” Yass looked round, “Do I hear six alars?”

There was a brief silence so he added, “Come on, do I hear six alars for this beautiful example of period furniture?”

“Six,” It was the stout lady who’d re-entered the fray.

The excitable gentleman wasn’t going to be left out. “Seven.”

“Ten.” The man with the hat was dominating the proceedings. Mister excitable shook his head when Yass looked at him.

“Eleven.” The stout lady was stout in more than just the physical sense.

“Fifteen.” The man in the hat spoke in tones lacking all emotion and excitement; he might have been telling somebody how many were coming to dinner.

“Do I hear sixteen, sixteen, without you madam, going to the gentleman on the left with the hat, going once, going twice,” Yass took a last look round the crowd, “Gone.” With that he thumped the handcart with his hammer.

The man with the hat pushed through the crowd and paid his money to Yass, whilst he instructed his two porters to take the table away.

Yass looked round, “And the final lot is Ordan’s sea chest.”

I lifted it onto the hand cart. It took some doing and it made a substantial thump when it hit the wood.

“Stand on.” The man with the hat started the bidding.

Yass is a consummate professional. In a lifetime as an auctioneer he has seen every sort of stupidity known to man. Even so, even he was briefly silent. Then he recovered.

“I’m bid fifteen alars. Do I hear twenty?”

“Twenty.” A rather elegantly attired lady was watching from her sedan chair. She waved her fan to give emphasis to her bid.

“Twenty-five”

“Thirty”

“Forty”

“Fifty.” The lady was emphatic.

Yass looked round the crowd, “Do I hear sixty?”

There was silence; people were looking at the gentleman in the hat. He smiled, turned and took off his hand and bowed to the lady.

Yass looked around the crowd again. “I have fifty at the back, do I hear sixty?”

There was still silence so he continued, “Going to the lady in the sedan chair, going once, going twice,” then a pause, finally the hammer hit the cart. “Gone.”

As the lady sent somebody to pay and collect the chest, Yass stepped down and mopped his brow with a handkerchief. I passed him a bottle of beer and he drank most of it without bothering with a glass. The money was exchanged, a two grunting sedan-chair bearers took the chest and placed it in the chair below the lady’s feet and left. The crowd dispersed, happy at the spectacle they had witnessed.

Yass put his crate onto the handcart and looked at me. “What have you been playing at Steelyard?”

“I merely do what a poet should always do, hold up a mirror to people and let them dream.”

He smiled and slapped me on the shoulder. “Well you should do it more often.” Given that he was on a five percent commission I could well believe him to be sincere. “Anyway I’ll drop the money off at the widow’s house on my way to the next sale. Been a pleasure working with you young man.”

 

Now there are those who might think that I have cheated people, bamboozled them and defrauded them from their hard earned cash.

But let us think about it. The man with the hat, what did he get for his money?
Well firstly there was a table that would be perfectly adequate in the scullery or stable. At little expensive but still, when he got the drawer open he’d discover a battered map of Uttermost Partaan showing Pronghorn Fjord and the island at the end of it. At one end of the island (a small thing barely a bowshot across) there was a small mark and in faded pencil the comment, “Under the rocking rock at low tide.”

For the lady what had she got for her money? Well she got Ordan’s collection of interesting stones, plus three strange pieces of iron that Shena had refused to buy from shore-combers only to have them abandoned yards from her office. But more excitingly there was an old key, a beast of a thing, bigger than my hand. It was wrapped in a page torn from a copy of ‘Lambent Dreams’ that the printer had given me because they’d got the type face wrong. Written across the page were the words, “When the shadow falls across the door by the gallows, turn the key.”

 

How could anybody claim they were cheated when they’d been given such opportunities to dream, to plan, to scheme? What is a little gold to the possible futures I have held out to them?

And you may ask what I got out of it? Yass got his five percent; Ordan’s widow got the rest. The lady with the Sedan chair really had to buy a copy of Lambent Dreams in order to research the clue properly and what wouldn’t an author do to sell a book?

 

If you fancy a copy of Lambent Dreams then the ebook is available at

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lambent-Dreams-Jim-Webster-ebook/dp/B01278WPWI

 

Given that you’re merely exchanging mere coin for dreams you might also fancy reading the story where I first came to the attention of the modern reader?

In which case you merely need to purchase Flotsam or Jetsam

 

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Flotsam-Jetsam-Jim-Webster-ebook/dp/B011VHS21Y/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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