It was Susan who brought Mistress Meena to mind. It happened years ago now, as always I was younger then. But still, she was (and is) an interesting lady. When I first came across her she was a very minor guest at an affair I was assisting at. She appeared, as if from nowhere, a year or two before I start my story, and lived in a pleasant enough house in Dilbrook. It was situated on one of the less fashionable avenues, where frankly I think the houses are nicer, less ostentatious and seem designed more for gracious and comfortable living than display.
It was strange, there seemed to be a group of ladies who were not entirely happy to see her. Nothing was said to her face, but there was some interesting gossip if you stood in the right place and just ‘let your ears flap.’ In the course of ten minutes I heard, “She’s no better than she ought to be.” Now that is true of most of us to be honest. Then another lady commented, “She seems to do quite nicely for someone with no visible means of support.” To be fair, I can empathise with that one as well. Someone else commented that, “She doesn’t go out in sunlight, and she has no reflection when she looks in the mirror.” Apart from being supremely malevolent and spiteful it wasn’t even accurate. I realised at the time there was no way I could verify the comment about sunlight, but from where I was standing I could see Mistress Meena reflected in one of the wall mirrors.
I just assumed she had somehow upset one clique or another and left it at that. New ladies in an area do that merely by appearing. But what did intrigue me was she somehow seemed to float above it. She moved serenely through the throng as if encompassed within a bubble of peace and tranquillity. Still it was obvious that she hadn’t many acquaintances and even fewer friends. I didn’t see her often; I suspect she got few invitations. When I did see her she tended to have been brought along by somebody who felt Meena ought to ‘get out more.’
I made a point of chatting to her, mainly because she has a very dry sense of humour and a knack of summing a person or a situation up in very few words. It’s a gift that’s less common than it should be. So whilst I would say that she knew me to talk to, I’m not sure I would be classed as a friend. So it was a little surprising when I got a note asking if it would be permissible for her to visit Shena and I at the barge one evening.
Given that the world and his wife (or at least his bailiff) feels entitled to drop in at any time, the formality of the approach rather intrigued us. Still, Shena wrote her a very nice note of invitation. She arrived by Sedan chair and I met her on the wharf and led her across the moored boats to our barge. Once she was ensconced in a chair I poured wine for three and waited for her to raise whatever business she had.
She opened a folder and passed me a couple of sheets of paper. The handwriting was neat, the paper of good quality, and the ink a deep blue. All in all it was laid out to make a good impression. Certainly I would have no hesitation letting her make fair copies of my poems for me.
I put my wine glass down and started reading. What she had done was written a report on a gathering she had attended some nights previously. I had been present and not only was the gathering recognisable, but my own part was graciously portrayed. Indeed by the time I reached the end of the report I wished I’d taken more notice of what I’d been saying because I’d obviously been remarkably witty.
I looked up from the papers. “It strikes me that you have described the event accurately enough, but in a manner that portrays the evening that the hostess was endeavouring to achieve.”
She smiled, as one smiles at a small child who has eventually mastered a difficult spelling. “Yes, what do you think?”
“Without doubt, the hostess would clasp you to her bosom as a sister and the other guests mentioned will think warmly of you. Yet for all that, it is a true description of the evening. Somehow you have portrayed everybody as behaving as they hoped to behave rather than show the shabby reality. For example, Madame Tullit’s gown is indeed as elegant as you say, and suits her perfectly. The fact that she has worn the same gown at every occasion she has been invited to for the last ten years has somehow failed to register.”
“Could you get anybody to publish this?”
That was a good question. It’s difficult enough to get my own work published to be honest. I was about to give a vaguely discouraging answer but made the mistake of looking into her eyes. Meena is a lady of indeterminate age. She’s somewhere between ‘twenty-something’ and ‘almost-forty’. But when I looked into her eyes I saw a depth of sorrow that was far far older.
“Yes, I can get it published.”
I tried not to see the look of surprise on Shena’s face when I said that.
“Thank-you Tallis; you see, it’s very important. I have to get into society more and it struck me that if these reports were published, I’d get more invitations.”
There was something in her tone that somehow told me that this wasn’t just some bored woman who wanted to get out more. Somehow this was important.
Next morning I dropped in to visit Neebet Strill at the Port Naain Intelligencer. This sounds very casual but in reality it is something more easily said than achieved. Can you imagine the precautions Neebet as a commissioning editor with a budget takes to shield himself from the attentions of poets, never mind lesser literary riff-raff?
Needless to say I didn’t merely talk to his secretary about appointments, or sit in the waiting room waiting to be called. I waited until his secretary had to slip out to answer a call of nature and then walked straight into his office without even knocking. Before he could say anything I placed Meena’s papers in front of him and said, “It’s not my work, just read it.”
He read it twice. “Well….”
“Neebet, every hostess in Port Naain will buy your rag on the off-chance that their tedious little party gets covered.”
“And she’s not expensive.”
“Surely it isn’t something that calls for remuneration?”
That is an attitude you have to stamp on immediately it rears its ugly head. Let an editor once get away with not paying for something and they’ll never want to pay for it ever again.
“You’re right Neebet, that’s why I told her you’d only pay ten vintenars a column.”
“Ten vintenars?” I don’t think he would have made as much fuss if I’d asked him for the life blood of his first born.
“The stage lost a great talent when you became an editor Neebet. You almost make it sound as if it’s your money. Shall we say three submissions a week?”
“Three, but for twenty vintenars.”
That was better than I’d hoped for so I let it past. “I’ll arrange for them to be dropped off at your place of work.”
Feeling almost smug I bowed and slipped out of his office before he had chance to rally.
To be fair I think both he and the Intelligencer did well out of the deal. I noticed over the next month or two more and more people discussing Meena’s columns and I started seeing her more regularly, out in the social whirl. Every so often even I can manage to do some good.
It must have been some months later that Shena and I received an invitation to dine with Mistress Meena. To be honest, this came as a surprise. Mentally I suppose I had transferred her from the category of predicament to that of resolution. Not only that but as I tell this as a story, everything seems (I trust) to flow seamlessly together. Yet as I was living through this period there were all sorts of incidents which meant that Mistress Meena rarely entered my thought. I would see her occasionally, greet her as a friend when we met, and read her column whenever I found a copy of the Intelligencer blowing through the street. But otherwise, each of us lived our live without in any way impinging upon the other’s.
So Shena and I arrived at Mistress Meena’s abode at the appropriate hour. We were met by the lady herself. She did not have a maid, merely a woman who ‘did,’ and that worthy had already returned home to the bosom of her family. She ushered us through to her salon and as she brought our meal from the kitchen I had a chance to glance round and evaluate her establishment. It was light and airy, there were flowers in abundance, but growing not cut. Everything seemed to be done in quiet good taste and one got the impression our hostess was one who could do much with very little.
Shena commented quietly that in some of the fixtures and fittings she could detect a male influence at work, but not in the overall ambience. Our hostess returned with our meal, a simple peasant dish which involves mott trotters cooked so that the meat falls away. The meat is extracted and then the liquor is heated to thicken it a little at which point the vegetables are cooked in it. The meat is then stirred back in just before it is served. It’s surprisingly good. Shena has served it for us innumerable times. Meena added a little fortified wine perhaps ten minutes before taking the pan of the heat.
It was over the meal she asked if we were willing to assist her in a small scheme of hers. It was Shena who answered for both of us.
“We don’t mind helping, but why us?”
“That’s simple Shena. I know Tallis and he has a reputation as being remarkably honest and forthright for a poet. I’ve also heard you described as a person of integrity by people I trust within the business world. I need people of known integrity.”
I asked the obvious question, “Why?”
“If I explained too much now you would probably not have the correct reaction when matters come to a head. I trust your instincts to do the right thing in this matter.”
Shena asked, “So what do you want us to do.”
“It’s all perfectly simple. You’ll both be invited to a soiree. When I give you a signal Tallis is to spontaneously perform. This performance must last exactly nine and a half minutes.”
“Nine and a half? That is awfully precise.”
“I want precision. If I were to ask somebody to do something in ‘ten minutes’ they’d just assume I wanted it doing the same day.”
That seemed entirely reasonable so I gestured for Meena to continue.
“After the Nine and a half minutes are up I want both of you to spend the next seven minutes disengaging yourselves from the people involved and on the seventh minute exactly, you are to walk into the small side room off the cloakroom. I will show it to you when we arrive. Can you, will you, do this for me please?”
It was with a heavy heart I said, “There is one grave problem.”
“What is it, Meena looked and sounded worried.”
“We do not possess any form of time piece between us.”
Thus it was that Shena and I found ourselves in the Banqueting Hall of the ‘Society Dedicated to the Alleviation of the Plight of those brought low by Debauch and Shiftlessness.’ You’ll probably know it, this establishment is situated on Thrall-jobber square and a lot of people will hire it for functions.
Meena made a significant gesture and I moved to the centre of the hall, stood on a chair, and started telling the tale of Stilwater the Squid Wrestler. As I told it I kept an eye on Shena who leaned quietly against one wall with the gentleman’s pocket watch Meena had provided us with. It’s a tale that can take ten minutes to tell if you let it, but it’s a good one with plenty of room for embellishment. I’ve even got a couple of verses that fit nicely into it.
As I expected, folk turned to look and I was soon the centre of attention. As an aside it’s surprising how merely standing on a chair can draw people to you. Admittedly most of the audience assume that drink has been taken to excess and you’re about to embarrass yourself, but still, a useful technique to remember; although ladies should ensure that their skirt is of appropriate length and weight.
Shena made a significant gesture; I brought the story to a close and stepped down. Meena wasn’t far adrift with her estimate that it would take seven minutes to disengage, but we managed it, but only by the simple expedient of claiming an urgent need to find the jakes.
Shena and I were thus outside the right door at exactly the right time, and as we were about to burst in we heard an outraged voice saying, “Sir!”
With that we really did burst in to discover Mordas Chatternon standing there with his breeches around his ankles. Meena had her back to him, leaning over a table as if examining a register, with her skirt somewhat ruffled up at the back.
Mordas leapt backwards, “I assure you that this is not what it seems!”
A wiser man would have done something about his breeches before making sudden movements so he ended up sprawled inelegantly on the floor.
I adopted a somewhat haughty demeanour, “Well it’s certainly an unusual location in which to attempt a rectal examination.”
Meena was now clutching Shena and weeping piteously.
Mordas was trying to get to his feet. “I’m the victim of a conspiracy!”
I tried to sound reasonable. “I’ve thought long and hard about this…”
At this point Shena interrupted. “Not an appropriate phrase Tallis.” She gestured significantly to where Mordas stood, wilting visibly under Shena’s glare.
Meena sobbed, “I asked him to help me find my husband.”
Shena asked, “And where is your husband?”
“The Sink Islands.”
That wasn’t encouraging news. The Sink Islands are islands to the west of Partaan, rocky and inhospitable for the most part. Persons who might cause embarrassment in Port Naain can end up there, working as indentured labourers, collecting the eggs of sea fowl. It seems that sometimes it’s more pleasant to imagine your enemy collecting eggs on an exposed cliff in the face of a westerly gale than it is to merely have them dead. Folk rarely come back from there.
Shena asked, “And Mordas got your husband sent there?”
“He was part of the conspiracy. The others were from Avitas.” Meena dapped her eyes with a handkerchief.
Mordas tried to brazen it out. “Others can end up on the Sink Islands as well you know!”
Shena smiled sweetly at him. “Well you’d better organise it in the next half hour, because that’s how long it’ll take Tallis to make sure everybody here knows about how we found you.”
“And I suspect that once that has happened it’ll be round the Merchant’s quarter by noon tomorrow and your wife will be told by at least a dozen ‘concerned friends’. “
I knew with that we had him. Mordas’s wife was a wealthy lady when he married her; she had a large property portfolio. Mordas on the other had been barely capable of paying the rent in a barely reasonable boarding house. Since they married he had managed her portfolio for her and to be fair to him he’d done it wisely and well. She was considerably wealthier than she was before they married, but should she learn of his apparent philandering, our friend Mordas could be back trying to find the rent for a boarding house.
He capitulated immediately. Within a fortnight Shena and I were once more invited to dine with Meena, and on this occasion we were introduced to her husband.
He was bronzed, handsome, with broad shoulders and when he took your hand you discovered he had an iron grip. Had I been dangling on a rope collecting birds eggs from a cliff face, he was the man I would want holding the rope. Meena sat artlessly to one side, her face a picture of radiant gratitude.
As he shook my hand he expressed his thanks, adding, “Meena told me the tale of how you cozened Mordas with a combination of poor lighting, a wig and a long dress with a high collar.”
I bowed deeply to hide my bemusement; it struck me that Meena might not have told her husband the entire story.
“Such charming innocence must be protected. I could do nothing less.”
You may wish to take a further dip into the world of Tallis Steelyard
Tallis Steelyard. The Festival, and other stories.
As a reviewer commented “Always entertaining. Reading Tallis Steelyard is like getting a letter from a friend who has moved to a foreign country and comments on the foibles of the local people. Jim has the ability to draw you into his world to be entertained and illuminated by another culture.”