Can a poet be expected to recognise madness? Indeed if you speak to my lady wife she might insist that one cannot be a poet without being touched by madness. Still I would suggest that not everybody fingered by madness is a poet, although, at times, their actions seem driven by poetry whose form and metre I cannot quite grasp.
Madam Farlin was never one of my patrons. I performed in her mansion but only at the behest of others. It was one of the larger, older houses on the Northern edge of Dilbrook. Not far enough north of the city to be rustic, but far enough out for our ancestors to bury their dead there, before the city spread even further north. As Port Naain has grown, it has been built on the bodies of its dead, until now most of us make our last journey out to sea wearing a cheap shroud and with a heavy stone between our feet. Parts of Dilbrook were built on the last of the city’s old graveyards, and the dead have never complained.
Madam Farlin had one maid who lived in; her cook-housekeeper lived in a small two roomed cottage at the bottom of the garden. So when Madam was preparing one of her evening entertainments she hired in more staff for a few days.
Madam always struck me as a very ‘intense’ lady, whilst her maid, Unni, was pretty in a knowing way but considered herself something of a lady and tended to cold-shoulder both tradesmen and poets. It was not a good place to work, but money talks. Indeed there have been times when it barely needed to whisper to have me standing solicitously at its bedside with tender enquiries after its health.
Purely by chance I was there the evening that Brogen disappeared. He was a man I’d personally classified as ‘an adventurer.’ He’d been a soldier for a while, he’d sailed, and of course he’d made a habit, between adventures, of finding a cosy berth with a lady and living there whilst he planned his next adventure. I know several ladies who had liaisons with him in the past and all spoke of him with genuine affection. They described him as considerate, economical and great fun. Indeed so long as you didn’t expect him to spend much time with you, he was probably value for money.
For the night
The pleasant fling
When I was booked to perform at Madam Farlin’s I’d made my own enquiries. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. I heard that Brogen was in residence, but what is more I also heard that Madam Farlin had announced their forthcoming marriage. This didn’t sound like Brogen, but men change. It could be that not having to spend your first moments on waking frantically trying to remember the name of the lady lying next to you starts to appeal after a while.
Even as I performed I could sense a coldness between the theoretically soon to be ‘happy couple.’ I remember thinking to myself at the time that I wouldn’t be surprised if Brogen departed soon. Hence when, a week or so later, I heard that Brogen had disappeared from Port Naain, I wasn’t exactly surprised.
A couple of years later I heard that Madam Farlin had taken up with Chapper Wait. This was something of a surprise. Chapper’s wife was confined to the Port Naain Lunatic Asylum. I met her there once; Chapper had the bright idea that if I recited some of her favourite poems it might jog her memory and bring her back. Sadly it didn’t work; she didn’t recognise me, my poems, or even Chapper himself. Yet still Chapper would visit the Asylum every day and sit with her, even if only for an hour, just to talk to her and try to help her cling on to whatever sad fragments of memory she still had.
Still Chapper had a small circle of female friends of his own generation with whom he’d spend time, and it seemed that Madam Farlin had joined this select group. At the time she was patronising Lancet Foredeck and Lancet booked me a couple of times when Chapper was staying there. Again Madam Farlin was putting out the word, quietly, that she and Chapper were going to get married. There wouldn’t have been a legal problems, Chapper could have easily have divorced his wife. It’s just that I couldn’t imagine Chapper doing that.
The last time I performed there, Madam paid me in person at the end of the evening. It was perhaps an hour after most of the guests had gone, I had been kept back to help the hired staff tidy up. It isn’t really what I think of as part of my role, but as Madam wasn’t going to pay until everything was tidy, I didn’t have any real choice. She stood in the doorway of the downstairs parlour to pay us, and as I took my money, over her shoulder I noticed Chapper sprawled out on the chaise longue, apparently asleep. Apparently, according to the City Watch, I was the last person to see him alive, (Other than Madam and her maid, obviously.)
The Watch turned up on the barge to question me. All I could tell them was what I knew, which was, in reality, nothing. As the Sergeant left, he mentioned, as if in passing, that Brogen hadn’t been seen for a couple of years. This was unlike Brogen; yes he’d disappear, but rarely for more than six or eight months at a time.
Well I didn’t think a lot more about it until the Watch turned up asking me if I knew anything about Patch Vonk.
I looked at the Sergeant. “I’m afraid I’ve never even heard of the name.”
“No reason you should have done Tallis. It’s just that we’ve talked to his friends. It appears that he was ‘Walking out’ with Unni, the maid who worked for Madam Farlin. One or two of the friends commented that he felt she was starting to get a bit possessive and he was pondering breaking the relationship off.”
I sat in silence, somewhat pensive. Shena was also present. “Are you hinting at a pattern developing Sergeant?”
He leaned back against the wall. “Let’s just say that when I’m in that house I behave with absolute formality and make no suggestions, whether jocular or otherwise.”
Shena nodded, “Probably wise.”
The Sergeant stood up to go. “If you do hear anything Tallis, do an old man a favour and let me know.”
It must have been a month of two later when I next thought about Madam Farlin. I got a note from her asking me to visit her house to organise a recital of verse. Unusually she didn’t contact me via Lancet Foredeck, but directly. I assumed from this that this was because she’d fallen out with him. It happens; even the most level headed Patron can get an attack of the vapours over something and blow up the most trivial episode until it seems like a major crime has been committed. A musician who has drunk a glass more than is good for him, or a bottle put aside for later which has disappeared and you’d think the city was about to fall to the advancing barbarians. I mentioned this to Shena who merely smiled. “At least you’ll have a friend in the house.”
I was surprised at this, “Who?”
“An older lady, Dinni. A few months ago she asked me to write a reference for her. Madam Farlin has taken on a scullery maid, obviously her other people have got too grand for that job.”
“Oh well, if I see her and get the opportunity I’ll make myself known.”
It’s always been a policy of mine to cement good relations with as many of the staff in a house as possible. When forced to leave in a hurry, possibly via the kitchen, the last thing you need is a scullery maid or boots who sticks out a foot to trip you up. Far better if they inadvertently leave a door open to assist your flight.
On the day, at the time indicated, I presented myself at the house. I knocked at the front door but nobody came. I waited and then walked round to the back. If they had a new scullery maid, she might be working. The back door was open but there was nobody about. I went down to the cottage where the cook lived but that was all locked up and didn’t appear to have been lived in for a while.
So I went back to the house. I decided to explore. If somebody in there was experiencing difficulties, they could be glad to see me. If it was empty I could just leave. So cautiously I made my way through the house. As far as I could tell there was nobody there. Indeed the grates were all cold, the oven was cold and if put on the spot, I’d have sworn the house hadn’t been occupied for at least two or three days.
I sat in the downstairs parlour and poured myself a glass of white wine from the carafe. I took a sip but there was something not quite right in the taste. I spat the wine out into the grate, put the glass down and sniffed the carafe. Wine shouldn’t be left in an open topped vessel for any length of time, but this smelt wrong in a different way.
It was then I noticed the hearth rug in front of the grate. It was not quite square. No parlour maid would have tolerated that for a moment. Idly I moved it aside and discovered it was concealing a hatch in the floor. It was the job of a moment to open the hatch to see a stairway disappearing downwards into the darkness.
Lighting a lantern I found in the kitchen I advanced with care down the stairway. At the bottom I found a pile of bones, fresh and not yet picked clean. With admirable presence of mind I didn’t faint, scream or flee in terror. I merely retraced my steps, replaced the hatch and put the hearth rug back over it. Then, in what I hoped was a nonchalant manner, I walked out of the back door and along the path to the road.
I stopped at the first bar to get a shot of strong spirit to steady my nerves. I had another glass because a dispassionate analysis indicated that the first glass hadn’t achieved the desired effect. I contemplated a third but decided instead that misery loves company. I would go and share my news with the Sergeant. He was paid to deal with matters like this.
At the watch-house the watchman at the front desk ostentatiously sniffed my breath before summoning the Sergeant. The Sergeant on the other hand heard my tale and passed me a hipflask which provided me with the equivalent of a third glass. This, added to the previous two, did settle my nerves. So when the Sergeant suggested that I accompany him back to the house, I reacted with blasé unconcern. The two of us returned to the house, retrieved the lantern, opened the hatch and proceeded down the stairs.
The Sergeant examined the first pile of bones, “Two people; or at least bits of two people.”
There were certainly two skulls and two pelvises. The sergeant moved some of the bones with his dagger. “They’ve been chained here, look, here are the shackles.”
He pointed to the shackles. Given the rust on the chains, they were of considerable age, but the locks and cuffs were well oiled and in good condition. He stood up and raising the lantern high he walked round the sprawling cellar. Realising I was in danger of being left in darkness I hastily followed. “Look here Tallis, more of them.”
Along the next wall were three more sets of bones, far older. He knelt by one set and shifted them with his dagger, “Yes, a shackle here as well.” He examined the bones carefully. “Look at the teeth marks, I don’t know what made them, but it had a jaw the size of a dog.”
I looked round in the darkness. Somewhere out there were creatures who were happy to eat people, and I was stuck with a companion who had nothing better to do with his time than admire their handiwork.
“Hadn’t we better leave?”
He stood up. “Certainly I ought to get back to the Watch-house. I think the officers will want a look at this.”
I almost bundled him upstairs and didn’t really relax until we’d got the hatch down and the rug over it.
I made a statement at the Watch-house and made my way back to the barge. I told Shena what had happened and she was unusually quiet after I’d finished talking. Finally she nodded wisely. “Hopefully that’s the end of the matter.”
Over the next few months I heard nothing about the house, Madam Farlin or the maid, Unni. Indeed I’d almost forgotten the matter until one night I came home to find Shena nursing an elderly lady who was sitting in a chair wrapped in blankets.
The old woman almost jumped out of the chair. Shena put an arm round her to sit her down again.
“Hello Tallis. I’d like you to meet Dinni.”
I half bowed to our guest. “I’m afraid I don’t remember having met you but your name is not unfamiliar.”
“I’ve mentioned her before Tallis, I wrote a reference for her. She worked as a scullery maid for Madam Farlin.”
I sat down next to Dinni. She certainly didn’t look well; haggard, exhausted and ill. “What’s her problem?”
Dinni looked around fearfully. “I can hear them in the walls, the rustling.”
I sat in silence but could hear nothing. I even slipped out quietly onto the deck in case somebody was there but could see nobody. I went back downstairs. “There’s nobody there.”
“No in the walls, rustling, rustling.”
Dinni, our walls are one plank thick. There’s nothing in the walls.”
The three of us sat silently for a while, and then the old lady said, “I’ve got to tell somebody.” She turned to Shena, “You guessed?”
“Some of it, but start at the beginning.”
The old lady relaxed a little. “I’m Dinni Vonk, the grandmother of Patch Vonk. When Patch disappeared I started asking questions and heard about the other disappearances. Eventually I heard that Madam Farlin was seeking to hire a scullery maid, so armed with references I applied for the job and got it. After I’d worked there for a month or two Unni would have me scrubbing the grates as well, and that’s how I discovered the hatch. I explored.” She shivered and I looked at her with increased respect.
“I found some scraps of cloth by one of the piles of bones, the remains of a shirt the person had worn. Sewn into the collar was the name Patch Vonk. I’d found my grandson.
I started to make my own plans. First I got friendly with the cook. She wanted to move back to her family, and I encouraged her to go. When she gave her notice I told Madam Farlin that I could cook so she’d give me a trial.
The coast was clear. I tackled Unni first when her mistress was out. I got the girl drunk, and when she passed out, I dragged her down into the cellar and chained her there. I sat with her until she came round. She wet herself in her terror when she realised where she was.
I made her tell me what had happened. It seems that Madam Farlin had convinced herself that both Brogen and Chapper had taken advantage of her. She wasn’t used to being crossed and she decided they were going to die. She added something to their wine which paralysed them but left them conscious. Then she and Unni would drag them down into the cellar and chain them to the wall. Within hours they’d be dead and half devoured.”
“What about your grandson?” I asked.
“Unni.” The old woman nearly spat out the name. “She couldn’t see why her mistress was the only one to have the power of life and death over her lovers. She drugged Patch’s wine and dragged him down and chained him to the wall. She told me where the wine was kept and I left her, telling her I’d be back after I’d checked everything out. With the hatch closed and the rug over it I couldn’t hear her screams.”
“What about your mistress?” Shena asked.
“It was easy; I just added the wine to the sauce I served with her vegetables. Then, as I was dragging her to the cellar, I explained to her exactly who I was. I left her next to Unni who was already dead. That done, I closed the hatch and walked out of the house.”
Shena looked at me over the old woman’s head. I just shrugged.
Dinni shivered, “Now wherever I am I hear them rustling in the walls.”
With false heartiness I said, “Well you won’t hear them here, the walls are one plank thick and there’s nothing lurking outside.”
She sunk down more deeply into the blankets. “Rustling, I can hear the rustling.”
Shena looked at me. “Tallis, can you go outside and walk round to check there’s nobody there.”
I did, and of course there was nobody there. When I arrived back Shena had got Dinni comfortable in a bed improvised by putting two benches together.
We sat with her and the old lady dozed. As it got dark she stirred, “I can smell them, I can hear them.”
I lit a candle and set it on the table next to us, “Nothing to see Dinni.”
I made to stand up and she grabbed my hand, “Don’t leave me or they’ll come for me.”
I sat down again, and together Shena and I shared the vigil. Dinni slept for a while, but badly, muttering to herself, but however carefully I listened I couldn’t make out what she was saying. Then suddenly, just after dawn, Dinni sat bolt upright, pointed in front of her and shouted, “I hear them, I can see them, they’re there. Both of us turned round to look but the cabin was empty. As we turned back, Dinni slumped down, dead.
I looked at Shena. “I think I ought to tell the Sergeant?”
“Yes, I don’t think he could have punished her more than she’d punished herself.”
I stood up and stretched like an old dog. I was stiff from sitting for so long. I opened the door and the stepped out onto the deck. All over the deck were wet paw prints, disappearing as they dried in the sun.
If you want to explore more of the world of Tallis Steelyard, try
Tallis Steelyard and the sedan chair caper.
As a reviewer commented, “I find there’s nothing better on a cold wet day, than to sit indoors, near a warm fire/radiator, with a hot coffee, some biscuits/cake and one of Jim Webster’s books. So that’s what I’ve done today, with this particular book.
I find the plots intriguing, the characters endearing (even the ‘bad/evil’ ones) and the storytelling style relaxing.
The various threads in the stories are always neatly tied up and the endings invariably satisfactory.”