I don’t often deal with the new aristocracy. It’s strange really but with the old aristocracy who where here before the city was founded, I have no problems. But the new aristocracy, largely those who have been ennobled in the last few centuries, are very different. The old aristocracy will occasionally hire me if they decide they need my talents. They treat me no worse or no better than they treat a rat catcher or a man at arms. Generally they treat me with civility and I return the favour.
The newer aristocracy are a mixed bunch. Some I can deal with but some are, frankly, so insecure that they are best avoided. Still if called upon to perform by friends then I do try to help. Thus when Calina Salin asked if I was available to assist at an event she was organising for the Dowager Lady Nelford I assured her I would help out.
To an extent the event was a success. I gave them a couple of works that I felt were appropriate to the occasion but you know what it’s like.
My trade I plied
But should I chide
The facts I elide
Shamefaced I hide
On stage I died
I missed the tide
A bitter joyride
It’s alright for Calina, an attractive woman wearing comparatively little is always going to gather appreciative spectators. A poet on the other hand depends upon the courtesy of the audience. If I had been delivering a martial piece then yes, I could have declaimed it loudly enough to be heard over the chatter, but frankly trying deliver a gentle romantic number was difficult. There were times when I couldn’t hear me.
So by the time I was summoned to the presence of the Dowager Lady, I was not at my best. She glared at me as if I were a small dog belonging to a casual acquaintance, a small dog that she had caught doing something unmentionable to a chair leg.
I bowed. “At your service madam.”
“I assume you’ll want paying.”
She frowned as if trying to work out whether I was mocking her or not. “I have another task for you.”
I was surprised at this. “I am gratified to hear it madam. Will it be remunerated on the same terms?”
Some would argue that I should not have mentioned money at this point, but I feel strongly on the subject. If you don’t mention money, far too many people will assume that you’re working for nothing. This is a delusion I seek to dispel at the earliest possible opportunity.
She waved one hand dismissively. “You’ll be paid on results. Find the child and I will pay well, fail and I’ll pay nothing.”
“Which child madam?”
She sank back in her chair a little. “My son had a child by a whore. Now he is dead the child is our heir. Find the child and I will pay you.”
It was an unusual commission but people expect a lot from poets. Sometimes, I feel, unwisely.
“Have you tried advertising for the woman to come forward?”
“I don’t want the woman, just the child. Given her trade she’ll soon acquire another if she wants.”
I tried to keep my face unreadable. “I have found that in this sort of case one inevitably has expenses. One has to be prepared to lay out some cash in advance to ease your way to the greater prize.”
It was obvious the Dowager was growing impatient. “None of the others quibbled. What makes you think you are worth paying in advance?”
“My greater experience perhaps?”
Again the dismissive gesture, “We will do without the benefit of your greater experience. Good day to you Sir.”
Thus dismissed I left, but not before collecting my fee from her factotum. (He was a tall individual who was pointed out to me as “Yon long streak of misery,” by a footman whom I asked for directions.)
As I made my way back to the barge I was less that happy with the task that I had been offered and had indirectly managed to turn down. I feel that there are some things that one should not ask an honest man to do. Lord Cartin would not have asked me to do such a thing. I felt insulted.
That night I slept badly, and next morning Shena went so far as to ask if I needed a laxative, or some other purge to clear my system of the bad humours which were obviously racking me. Finally I recounted to her the tale of my evening. She listened carefully as she put her coat on prior to leaving for the Old Esplanade. Finally she said, “Well you’d better find the mother and ensure that she is treated fairly.” With this pronouncement she left, shutting the door behind her.
I suppose I could have remonstrated, pointing out I was a poet, and things have come to a pretty pass when the world expects poets to go round righting wrongs. We are supposed to be entirely frivolous, self absorbed, and impracticable. I have gone to a great deal of trouble to create the persona and it ill suits a man to throw away so many years assiduous toil.
Nonetheless as I drank a final mug of coffee I decided that Shena was, inevitably, right. As I acknowledged this I found myself relaxing a little as I accepted the inevitable. I had to find this woman and discover for myself what was going on. After all it was not impossible that the Dowager Lady Nelford was not entirely in the wrong. She might have approached the woman, been rebuffed and was now trying a less charitable approach.
So I contemplated my wardrobe. Given its paucity my real decision was whether I was to wear a necktie or not. Given I was investigating rather than performing I decided to forgo the necktie and strike a more casual, debonair, stance. As I left the barge I pondered my first move. Really it was obvious; I had to speak first to Lithna.
Lithna and her husband ran an ale house deep in the Sump. To be fair while the area was rough, the ale house itself was comparatively safe. Lithna was a big woman. I’ve seen her carry a barrel under one arm and without breaking her stride, flatten a docker with one punch with her other hand. If anything her husband was bigger. More importantly for me, Lithna and her husband had some years ago thrown open their back parlour to those ladies of the night for whom things had got too hard.
I made my way to ‘The Termagant’. The front bar was quiet because it was still comparatively early. Lithna and her husband were at the bar, chatting quietly to a customer. I made a small gesture with my hand to attract her attention. She moved along the bar and leaned down to talk to me.
“Yes master poet.”
“I would like to speak to your ladies if possible?”
Whilst the Dowager had glared at me, Lithna’s stare flayed me; my shrivelled soul fled squirming from her. I added, “I’d like you to be with me.”
She pondered. “Yes.”
With that one word she lifted the flap and let me behind the bar and then led me into the back parlour.
A dozen women sat talking quietly or slept on chairs. I looked round. Not one of them would ever see fifty again. To be honest I don’t think any of them had been pretty. They hadn’t drifted into the trade because they were seduced by the romance of it. I took off my hat and bowed a little, “Ladies.”
That stopped the talking, and the sleepers awoke. They watched me in silence. Lithna’s presence reassured them but I could see no sign of welcome in their tired faces.
“I have a request to make. I am looking for a woman who was described to me as a whore. She has recently given birth to a child. For the good of both woman and child I have to find them before somebody else does.”
They watched me hard-eyed and in silence. I made a point of not looking at the empty cradle near the fire.
Lithna said, “More details master poet.”
“The Dowager Lady Nelford is hunting for the child. She thinks it is her grandson. Her son is dead and the child is her heir. But she wants only the child, not the mother.”
One of the women spoke. “And what is in it for you?”
I held out both hands palms up. “I have to look at myself in the mirror when I shave.”
The woman looked part me to Lithna. “Well, do we trust him?”
Lithna rested a hand firmly on my shoulder. I had to strain to remain standing up straight. “I don’t think our poet would betray us.” Effortless she turned me round. “Would you?”
I looked her in the eyes. “No.”
She let me go and I almost fell over. The woman slipped past us and went out through the bar. Lithna looked at me. “Can you make porridge?”
A little nonplussed I said, “Yes.”
“Good. While you’re waiting you can make a pan of porridge for the ladies here.”
I made the porridge and I made it properly. Porridge should be thick enough to stick to the ribs, so firm that a mouse can run across the surface without getting its feet wet. Lithna pointed to a pile of bowls and watched in silence as I served it out. Finally she passed me a tray, “A bowl each for them.”
When I carried the tray in I noticed there was a younger woman there, standing next to the cradle. Without comment I passed the bowls out and waited while the women ate. Finally the younger woman put her bowl down and walked across to me. I noticed that as she did so, several of the other women drifted casually to place themselves between me and the cradle.
“You looking for a woman with a baby.”
“I am madam and I am not alone in this.”
Who else is looking?”
“The Dowager Lady Nelford thinks the child is her grandchild.”
The woman glanced behind her towards the child in the cradle. “She’s right in that.”
“She has paid people to hunt you, she wants the child, she doesn’t want you.”
From behind me came Lithna’s voice. “So what are you going to do about it poet?”
I turned to face her, “I will do what I can, but what I can do depends on me knowing the truth.”
From behind me one of the women spat, “Truth, in this city.”
I turned back and looked at them. “Yes, it has a novelty value. But for me it’s the currency I work with, more precious that any other coin. Pay me in that and I can pour it into the hearts of decent people who will help.”
Again I felt Lithna’s hand on my shoulder, more gently this time. “I am inclined to trust this little poet.”
The mother went to the cradle and lifted out her child and carried it across to me. “If you want the truth I’ll give you it, but I don’t think the Dowager will be happy with it.”
“I might bring myself to care what she thinks, but only after making more effort than I feel the task is worth.”
She looked at me. I guessed she might be twenty-five, no more, but they hadn’t been easy years. “I was a maid in her house friend poet, did she tell you that?”
“She told me nothing?”
“Her husband tried to take my virginity when I was fifteen, so I stabbed him with some sewing scissors I was carrying. I had to run. I thought I’d killed him, he bled like a stuck pig.”
I asked, “Did you kill him?”
“No, but not from want of trying.”
I stood silent, willing her to continue the tale.
“She called me a whore?”
“Her words, not mine.”
“Well how in the forty-three hells did she expect me to survive? I was hardly likely to get another position was I?” She changed her tone, mimicking an older woman. “So child, why did you leave your last position?” Then in her own voice she answered, “I stabbed my master, left him for dead I did.”
I nodded. “I can see how lack of references could be a problem.”
“So I survived. And did quite well, I was young and quite bonny really. A couple of years later I even put together a group of a few other girls, and we’d work together for safety. I would get us hired for functions, parties, that sort of thing.” I remained silent; it was like seeing my own career in a dark mirror. She continued, “Then purely by chance, at one of these affairs, I met my master’s son.”
She’d been looking at the other women as she talked, but now she turned to me. “We’d almost been friends when I worked there, much of an age.” There was a bitter half smile, “If he’d tried to take my virginity I might even have helped him.”
She looked across to the cot as she spoke. “I nearly died, he recognised me. He took me to a room and just sat me down and listened to me.” She turned back to me, “Yes we became lovers, but it was lovers. When he knew I was pregnant he was overjoyed. He gave me tokens before he rode south with the rest of the company into Partann.”
With this she went to the cot, laid the child back down and slid her hand under the pillow and produced a small packet. This she opened on the table. A ring and a letter dropped out. She passed me the letter.
“To whosoever reads this,
I, Harran Nelford recognise the child as mine, and in the event of my death it is to be my sole heir. I have married the mother, Arosi in a ceremony registered with the Illuminated Seditionists.
“Succinct and to the point,” I looked at the ring. It was a seal ring bearing the Nelford name carved in a circle around the edge and with the name Harran running across it from edge to edge.
“And the child?”
“He too is called Harran.”
Behind me Lithna spoke. “So have you got enough truth now? Enough to pour out to secure a future for a mother and her child?”
I turned round and stared up at the big woman. “I have enough to try with.”
It’s a fair walk from The Termagant to Sweet Winkle Walk where Gaffer Alfen lived. It’s even further if you go via the Illuminated Seditionists. Arosi carried her baby and Lithna and I walked on either side of her. At the Monastery of the Order of Illuminated Seditionists we examined the records. Not only did they support her story, but the Speaker remembered Arosi. They do few weddings and these rarely involve young women who are obviously pregnant.
At Gaffer Alfen’s house Lithna left us, doubtless feeling that we were no longer at risk of being attacked in the street by somebody desperate to recover the child. I knocked on the door and Mistress Tims the housekeeper opened it.
I bowed a little. “Excuse me Mistress, but is Gaffer in?”
Restraining her curiosity she escorted us to Gaffer’s study and showed us in. Gaffer looked at me, his head cocked slightly to one side. “I think young Tallis has an interesting story for us. Am I right Tallis?”
“With your permission, perhaps one for the entire household?”
“Certainly, Tims, could you get Cook please.”
While Tims was absent, Gaffer led Arosi to a chair. “If we are letting Tallis tell a story my girl, then I’d recommend that you sit down. He has many interesting attributes, but Brevity is not one of them.”
As she sat down Tims and Cook appeared. Even after all these years I have never learned Cook’s name. I merely assume that she had one, after all what doting mother names her child ‘Cook?’
I told the tale I had heard at the Termagant, produced the letter, the ring, and also the letter written by the Speaker of the Illuminated Seditionists. Gaffer studied them and passed them to Tims and Cook who also examined them with great care.
This done the old man looked at me. “I assume you haven’t just come here to tell me a fascinating tale to help an old man pass his morning.”
I half turned, to try and include his two staff in the conversation. “
“Dowager Lady Nelford, the child’s grandmother, wants the child but will separate him from his mother.”
I could see Gaffer looking at me with one eyebrow raised questioningly. He said one word, “And..?”
“Well it’s just wrong.”
“In that you and I are in total agreement Tallis. I suspect the ladies also agree with us.”
Cook and Mistress Tims voiced their agreement. Encouraged I said, “I thought you could give Arosi a place here, she’s been a maid before, she could fit in and work for her keep.”
Gaffer looked at the two ladies and then sat thoughtfully. After what seemed like an inordinate length of time he sighed. “Tallis, you are a nice chap but you’re totally impractical.”
I felt his reply as an almost physical blow; I’d been relying on Gaffer.
He continued. “You forget who you’re talking about. You’re asking me to take the Lady Arosi Nelford as a glorified kitchen-maid.”
I heard Tims mutter “Unthinkable.”
Gaffer stood up and walked across to the fire place. He put a shovel full of coal on as he tried to marshal his thoughts. “In five, perhaps ten years, the Dowager’s health will fail. At that point her grandson will have to be produced to take his place before the old woman dies.” I started to speak but he waved me to silence. “No Tallis, before she dies. If the old woman recognises the child then it’ll save a fortune in lawyers fees, if she doesn’t we’re no worse off that if we’d waited for her to be safely dead.”
He turned and gestured to Arosi. “This young woman will then be in charge of managing her son’s household. Not only that but she’ll have to watch like a hawk to make sure people don’t try to take advantage of the situation. She is going to need friends.”
He smiled at the young woman. “This is what I suggest. Arosi here is the daughter of my brother, who in all candour we don’t talk about much. She won’t be the only child the young rogue left behind him as he drank, fought and fornicated his way from Prae Ducis to Nightbell Point. After she was widowed, Arosi came here to her kinfolk. Of course we took her in. While she’s with us she’ll understudy Cook and Mistress Tims who between them will teach her everything she needs to know about running a household.”
He turned to the two women, “Does that seem reasonable?”
They both nodded so he turned back to me. “Now you can write a letter for me to my oldest son, he is to convene a family gathering, just his siblings and their children. There I will introduce them to their cousin. They will welcome her into the bosom of the family.” Here he grinned at me, “And between ourselves I am willing to bet that I have fathered a couple of the sharpest men of business in the city.”
Arosi rose from the seat, “But I couldn’t presume, and how could I ever repay you?”
Gaffer turned to Mistress Tims. “She might believe it if it comes from another lady.”
Mistress Tims sat up a little. “It’s simple Arosi. You don’t have to repay anybody. Your son is Harran Nelford, sole heir of the Nelford family. But he’ll also be Gaffer’s grandson and when he grows up and needs friends he can trust, who is he going to turn to but Gaffer’s other grandchildren, the playmates of his youth and the children he has grown up with? Gaffer is ensuring that not only are you safe for the next few years, but that ten, twenty, thirty years into the future, you’ll have a family to support you, and the family benefit because they’re on good terms with the Nelfords.”
Gaffer clapped his hands. “Right, everything’s explained. Mistress Tims, could you and Cook please take Arosi and young Harran and show them round the house, make arrangements for rooms and all the other things she’ll need.” With this he almost chased them out of the study. Then he walked to a bureau in one corner, opened it and pulled out a bundle of letters.
“If you come here and take up pen and ink, we have letters to write Tallis.”
I sat down where he indicated, “A letter to your son.”
“Yes, but first, what do you think of this handwriting?”
I glanced at the letter. “It’s the hand of a man who was properly trained but who then never spoiled it with over-use.”
“You sum my late brother up nicely. I suspect virtually everything he wrote as an adult is in this bundle. It stuck me that somewhere in amongst these letters there’ll be a note he wrote telling me about his daughter Arosi and asking me to keep an eye on her when she’s old enough to come to Port Naain.”
I must have looked at him a little blankly because he added, “Because in ten years time or so, it’ll be nice for Arosi to have something to remember her father by won’t it.”
I picked up the pen, “I’m sure if I look hard enough in the bundle I’ll find it Gaffer.”
He patted me on the shoulder. “You’re quite bright for a poet.”
As I have mentioned elsewhere I have finally succumbed to the demands that as well as poetry, I produce prose.
So a number of these stories have been collected and bound together to form a slim book called, “Tallis Steelyard. Shower me with gold, and other stories.” Some of the stories are of course are from this blog, some others have appeared elsewhere in the blogs of those who have been my patrons over the years. Some of the stories may never have seen the light of day previously.
Not only that but they have all been subject to the harsh scrutiny of an editor, the redoubtable Mike Rose-Steel, who has, perhaps unwisely, insisted that in certain places I allow the truth more room to run free.
This work, a slim volume of almost infinite delight, is now available for purchase. Hasten if you will to