As you all know I’m a man who makes a point of being smartly turned out. If you’re blessed with an elegant figure and can turn a fine leg, it seems silly not to allow the eye to dwell on your finer points.
Therefore over the years, the way young Mutt dressed has often been a bone of contention in our household. Frankly he looks as if he has dived naked into a pile of rags and come out wearing those which have somehow become entangled around his person.
I have done my best, indeed at one point I introduced him to society resplendent in pink velvet knickerbockers and matching jacket. Strangely enough that occurred barely weeks before the tale I am now about to relate.
It happened that I had been invited to perform to a gathering at the house on the outer edges of Dilbrook where it almost reaches the sea. Houses in the area are much sought after and frankly the commonest method of acquiring them is through inheritance. But the Lady Delcore had summoned me. I think this was mainly due to the Widow Handwill, one of my more constant patrons.
The day before the event I chanced to comment over breakfast that I had never been to the house before, and wasn’t entirely sure exactly where it was. Mutt, his mouth half full of bread and sausage commented that he was free that day and would go and check. Given that I was going to be busy I gratefully accepted his offer, mentally congratulating myself on the fact that my good influence was slowly improving the boy.
Next day, at about noon, I met up with Mutt and he started to lead me through parts of Dilbrook I had never entered. It was as we slipped down a narrow snicket and then through a gate into a back garden I realised that I had perhaps not been entirely wise in my choice of a guide. He proceeded to lead me through a veritable forest of gardens, glades, pleasaunces, and even through an orangery. I was by this point even more hopelessly lost that I would have been had I merely proceeded by road, but Mutt assured me the route was faster, easier and would keep us out of sight of the authorities.
Now this latter point was obviously a factor with Mutt. He was wearing his usual assortment of rags and tatters. I on the other hand was wearing my decent jacket and matching britches. The jacket was well cut, fitted me like a glove, and although of considerable age, barely showed the wear. The britches were elegant and the tails of the jacket fell perfectly to disguise the darns Shena had had to place in the seat of the pants. I could venture anywhere in perfect confidence that I was smart, elegant and perfectly turned out. Still I had no wish to be quizzed by local beadles or tipstaffs, of which there were bound to be some in such a prosperous area. So I went along with Mutt’s plan, recognising his sagacity in these matters.
All was going well until we passed through one particularly large garden. As we moved quietly across an outsized lawn I heard a whistle and then there was a cry of ‘Get him Fang.’
Mutt shouted, “This way,” and ran for a tree which grew against the garden wall. I ran after him but glanced over my shoulder to see that I was being pursued by a dog of considerable size, which appeared to well deserve the honorific ‘Fang’. He was the sort of beast that would frolic at the stirrup of an Urlan sergeant, ready at an instant to seize and pull down whatever monster his master wished to hunt.
I scrambled up the lower branches but Fang leapt and seized the tails of my coat and it was only by clasping a branch more tightly than I have ever clasped a lover that I managed to hang on. I had the dog dangling, literally, from my coat tails, with all four of its feet off the ground.
Mutt sat above me throwing pieces of twig at the animal, with absolutely no effect whatsoever, but something had to give and eventually one of the seams surrendered to the inevitable and parted. With its feet on the ground the feral beast below me gathered its resources for another leap and I frantically scrambled further up the tree. We had reached an impasse, we couldn’t go down and it couldn’t come up. So apart from the sad fact that my jacket was held together by the collar, I was relatively unscathed.
It was Mutt who rescued us, he made his way along a branch which bent gracefully under him and deposited him gently onto the wall top. He then beckoned to me to follow him. So wrapping the remains of my jacket around me I made my cautious way along the branch. Obviously I am somewhat heavier than Mutt and the branch was sagging so fast it would probably drop me at the feet of the slavering hound below us. So I was forced to jump; missed my footing and found myself suspended from the wall top, my britches having caught on something. Mutt again rescued me by the simple expedient of cutting my britches away with his knife, a delicate business and not one to be done with too much haste. I fell to the ground, my fall broken by a manure heap. I scrambled to my feet and surveyed the damage. The jacket was unwearable, save perhaps as a scarf, whilst the britches, torn across the seat and stained with manure would also not project the image I wished to convey.
Standing in my drawers and under-vest I pondered my next move. Mutt muttered something about ‘seeing summat’ and disappeared, only to reappear with a pair of trousers and a jacket he had stolen from a scarecrow the gardener had erected to protect his peas. “Put them on, then I’ll get summat better.”
I put them on, they were distinctly damp after the rain of the previous evening, and followed him. We skirted a large house and Mutt slipped in through a back window and I waited, trying to look inconspicuous. From inside there came a woman’s cry and Mutt burst out of the window with a bundle under his arm and ran as if for his life. I followed and two gardens later, out of breath, we collapsed behind a low wall. Mutt unwrapped the bundle, “These were all I could grab.”
He held up a maid’s skirt and blouse and made to pass them to me. I shook my head firmly. At this he seemed to sulk. “Well after what I done for you!” He picked up my damaged jacket and britches and turned to go. “Your best way is that way.” He pointed towards a gap in a hedge and with that he disappeared towards the road.
Now on my own I sat and pondered what to do. It was then that somebody, I never saw who, probably a parlour maid or similar, cast the contents of a bucket of ashes over the wall I was leaning against. Most of the contents of the bucket seemed to be deposited over me.
That, as far as I was concerned, was the final straw. I would return home, and send a polite note pleading illness. My one remaining problem was finding home. I decided that I might as well take Mutt’s last advice and proceeded to creep through the gap in the hedge. Had I been wearing my more usual attire I would have hesitated before doing this but frankly being dragged through a hedge could only serve to improve my appearance. Had I been out on the street, a passing vagrant would probably have informed me in no uncertain terms that there were standards that have to be maintained.
I crossed the garden and decided I would just abandon all hope of concealment and make for the road. I could then simply follow the roads home. Unfortunately as I came round the corner of a charming folly designed to look like a ruined lighthouse, I came upon a large group of ladies sitting poised politely as a young lady with a harp got up to play. Before I could withdraw one of them had spotted me, and to my mortification I realised she was Lady Delcore, my intended hostess and possible patron.
I was left unsure whether this was an exclamation or a question, so said nothing but then she followed up with, “What do you mean appearing dressed in that fashion!”
Frankly I was somewhat at a loss for words. I was searching desperately for something to say when the Widow Handwill waved cheerfully at me and then turned to our hostess.
“It’s my fault Bartha, Madam Graan here and I had a bet with Tallis that however he dressed he would still be recognised.”
I have mentioned the Widow Handwill before, and it must be said that I have come to think of her more as a friend rather than a patron. Madam Graan also covered her surprise at having been involved in such a wager as she merely smiled and congratulated me on a valiant attempt at disguise.
At this point I was feeling genuine affection for these two ladies who had come to my assistance so promptly, and Lady Delcore seemed happy to accept their explanation. She gave me a rather strained smile and motioned me to sit next to the Widow.
We then listened in respectful silence as the young lady played her harp. She was accomplished, pretty and sang nicely, so the experience was a pleasant one. When she finished and stood up, Lady Delcore gestured for me to come forward. The young lady turned to her, “Mother, perhaps Master Steelyard would feel more comfortable if he cast off his dirty clothes and took a swim in the lake to refresh himself? I’m sure our footman will be able to find an old cloak for him.”
Things were getting more dangerous by the minute. A man with an elegant figure and fine leg who takes to swimming wearing only his drawers in the presence of ladies of a certain age is heading for more trouble than he can handle on his own. Even if Shena my lady wife had been present I’d have declined the offer.
Hastily I said, “Gentle Mistress you are kindness personified. But I feel bound by a debt of honour. I have lost a bet to Mesdames Handwill and Valin and feel that I am obliged to see the day out wearing this sad garb.”
At this point the Widow piped up saying that she had no objections to my casting the garb aside and taking a swim but I remained obdurate. I then gave my performance, a couple of comic verses and a short piece on the vagaries of fate which seemed to suit the tone of the occasion and they were well received.
An hour later the event drew to its inevitable end and fortified with several glasses of decent wine and with a spare bottle suspended from my belt and concealed in the ridiculous trousers, I headed for home.
I arrived at the barge, footsore and somewhat irritated by the teasing I had received on my journey. I had had to cross virtually the entire city and began to wonder at just how many people I seemed to know. All of whom seemed to be out and enjoying the early evening sun. I found Shena sitting on the deck, using the early evening light to mend my jacket. Sitting next to her, eating a slice of meat pie, with a knife and fork, was Mutt. Instead of his usual rags he was wearing the sort of cut down shirt and trousers one can find in most middling quality second hand clothes shops. Seeing him I prepared to deliver to make a cutting comment on how he had abandoned me to my fate. I had given the topic some thought on my way home and had a number of suitable phrases jostling to be used.
But before I could say anything Shena patted him on the head. “He’s been such a good boy today.”
“He has!” Her opinion was considerably at variance with mine.
“Certainly he has. He managed to pick up some discarded clothes which he traded at one of the second hand shops. Not only did he get the clothes he is wearing, he even managed to find a piece of material which is going to be perfect for patching your britches. There are times I wonder what we’d do without him.”