Madam Alena was, at the time, my oldest patron. A petite slender lady with short cropped white hair; she would from time to time summon me to her home to entertain a group of her acquaintances These were never events of great formality, more gatherings of friends who’d grown old together and knew each other too well for airs and graces.
They would ask me for gossip from the city, or reviews of plays being performed at the time, or whether a particular concert had been a success. Occasionally and the end of the afternoon (because they rarely met in the evening) I would be despatched to discover what had happened to a maid who had worked for one of them years ago, or to see whether the grandson of one of their gentlemen admirers sixty years ago was shaping up to be the fine figure of a man his grandfather was. I would report back on this at our next meeting.
Looking back, I realise now that had I been a mere thirty years older I would have classed Madam Alena as a friend. But I was young then and the fifty or sixty years difference in our ages was to me an insurmountable barrier. But I admired her immensely, and always felt she regarded me as an extra great-nephew. Certainly she gave Shena and I a nice present when we were married, in that she quietly paid off my few debts so we could start married life on an even footing. Looking at it in the cold light of day, I suspect that my debts were less than her daughter spent on clothes in a month, but to me at the time they seemed an immense burden.
Eventually she reached an age where it was considered unwise of her to continue living in her own establishment, and at her daughter’s insistence moved in with her and her son-in-law. Her daughter didn’t approve of me. I felt that she begrudged any money that her mother might slip my way, although to be fair, it might merely be that she worried that my company might make her mother over-tired.
It is the old question isn’t it. If you have one of those firework rockets do you cherish it, store it away somewhere, until damp and mould get to it and it dies anyway, or do you light it and allow it to spend its last moments in a great blaze of glory?
For a year or two Madam Alena continued to send for me. She would send me a note giving me a time at which to arrive. She would then sit in a downstairs parlour and when I knocked on the front door her voice would ring out imperiously. “That will be Master Steelyard for me!” Heaven have mercy on the parlour maid who thought to chivvy me away after that. We would then take tea and chat for an hour or so before she began to tire and I would make my farewells.
Then came the time when she was too weak even for that. Still I kept in touch with her. A cheerful woman called Constanta was hired to act as a combination of maid and nurse. Constanta would drop in at the barge to bring me letters from Madam. She would drink tea with Shena whilst I penned a reply that she would deliver it next day. Constanta would tease me that we were two young lovers conspiring together, and from the contents of the letter I could see that Madam enjoyed the same teasing.
Finally Constanta handed me a letter that was little more that a folded piece of paper. I opened it and read, ‘Come tonight after the household is asleep, I need to talk to you.’
I must have looked somewhat askance because Constanta sat down on a chair and started to sob quietly. Shena who was present hurried to sit down next to her with one arm round her and a clean handkerchief ready in the other hand. After a little while to compose herself Constanta said softly, “I wouldn’t wait too long before visiting. I don’t think she’ll live much longer.”
Shena looked at me, “Then you’d better visit her tonight.”
I nodded and Constanta said, “I’ve left her bedroom window open a little, and there’s a ladder tucked behind the woodshed.”
It was obvious that my evening had already been planned out for me.
& & &
It wasn’t an unpleasant night. There was no moon but the sky was clear. It was gone midnight when I approached the house; it and its neighbours were in darkness. This was a respectable neighbourhood where only special occasions called for people to be up late. I made my way round the back and could see the window, there were still two candles burning in the room. Looking at it I could see how my good friend Benor Dorfinngil would have been able to climb up and slip in without any assistance. What with down-pipes and climbing shrubs, there was virtually a staircase waiting for me.
Still I went to the woodshed, looked behind it and found the ladder. This I propped up against the wall, climbed cautiously up and started to open the window.
A voice said, “There’s not many ladies at my time of life can claim they’ve had handsome young men climbing into their bedrooms.”
It was Madam Alena in person, standing at the window. As I pushed the window up, she said, “Right, get back down the ladder and hold it, I’m coming down.”
Frankly I was too shocked to protest, for a lady who was supposed to be dying she seemed remarkably spry.
At the bottom she stopped and wrapped a silk scarf around her shoulders. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to be stupid, but it’s just that there are things I have to do.”
“Things to do?” I was a little bemused by the way matters were progressing.
“Yes, I’m not as young as I was and if I want to do things, I’ll have to do them soon. So take my arm and we’ll make our way to the Great Library.”
“If you want to return a library book, I can do that for you tomorrow.”
She slapped me gently on the arm. “I don’t have time for that sort of jest young man.”
So arm in arm we walked slowly through Dilbrook, following Blind Cheeks lane as it climbed leisurely to the Great Library. We made slow progress, occasionally we’d stop and Madam Alena would reminisce about people who’d lived in the house opposite. It was gentle gossip, almost caressing the memories of folk long dead. In this house a maid had ‘fallen pregnant.’ (I confess that this phrase has always amused me. It hints at the girl falling victim to random chance, as if pregnancy was caught in a similar manner to the common cold.) But still back to my narrative, the mistress had noticed the symptoms, morning sickness, a certain plumpness and had summoned the maid into her parlour to discuss matters. After a short discussion the father to be was also summoned from his place of work. Two days later the young couple, respectably married, arrived at the mistress’s family estate, one to become assistant housekeeper, the other to take up the post as assistant steward.
At another house she sat so long in silence I thought she might have fallen asleep. Finally in a soft sad voice she commented, “It’s sad when two people love the same person and he can only love one back.”
I said nothing for there was nothing to say. She continued, “We were good friends, and I actually met him at her house. She was besotted by him but he had eyes only for me. Eventually he swept me off my feet and I married him. A few weeks later she married a merchant with business interests in Prae Ducis. She died there a year later giving birth to her first child.” She turned to look at me, her eyes glittering with tears, “I named my daughter after her, I don’t think my husband had ever realised and I wasn’t going to be the one to tell him.”
We sat another ten minutes as she quietly contemplated fifty or more years of memories. Then she stood up. “Come on, I want to see the sun rise from the Grand Library.”
We walked on, still stopping, because for all her determination she was not strong. By the time we came to the Great Library I was supporting what little weight she had. We sat on the stone seat in front of the library, facing east. Close as lovers we sat, I with my coat round her as well because she was getting cold. Slowly the false dawn in the east turned into the true dawn as the sun finally came up over the distant mountains and its rays painted the glass panes of the Lunatic Asylum with liquid red gold.
Finally the sun was up. Madam Alena stood up. “I had to see that one last time.” She turned to me, “I think we’d better get home now. My daughter is going to have a difficult enough day without me causing extra problems.”
We took a more direct route as it was downhill all the way. We were perhaps a hundred yards from her door when she stopped and took off the scarf. She folded it carefully. “Slip that in your pocket and give it to Shena with my love.”
“Won’t you be cold?”
“It’s not far now.” She gestured to the door. “Come on, there’s things going on at the house.”
We walked along the street and arrived at the door in time to see the undertaker and his men carrying out a body wrapped in sailcloth. With dignified care they manoeuvred it down the steps and then hoisted it onto their shoulders.
Instinctively I removed my hat. As they drew level with me I asked, “Who is the deceased?”
The chief mourner stepped to one side to allow the bearers to continue. “It’s Madam Alena. She passed away early yesterday evening.”
I bowed formally to the body as it was carried past me and then stood there, alone on the pavement. Surreptitiously I felt in my pocket, the silk shawl was still there.
Slowly I turned to make my way home. As I did so I felt the breeze brush my cheek like a kiss and almost caught the soft words, “Farewell my poet.”