I mentioned some little time ago that I have an interesting account to how I came to be friends with Sneal the Peddler. Somebody has asked me about this story, I assume the rest just expect me to tell it in my own good time whether they ask me to or not.
To be fair, if fingers are to be pointed, or blame distributed, then Dame Ralash should take her fair share. Not of course that this will happen but still, I can but hope. You see it started when my lady wife, Shena, suggested that I might like to help out a friend of hers, Jinni; more formally known as Madam Sneal. Casually I asked, “An old friend?”
Shena, unusually, looked a little shifty. “Why do you ask dear?”
“I am trying to discover whether she was one of your fellow pupils at Dame Ralash’s school for ‘young maidens of humble family up to the age of thirteen.’”
For those who don’t know, Dame Ralash has always felt that her girls ought to support each other, especially when they venture out into the world.
“Oh that,” Shena said blithely, “we were at school together.”
So at least I knew where I stood in the matter. Jinni was to be cherished as if she were a family member.
“So what help does Jinni need?”
“Well she’s a musician and singer, and is need of a librettist.”
I was instantly suspicious, “A librettist or a writer of catchy popular songs.”
Shena gave a vague wave with her hand as if the two terms were effectively synonyms. “Anyway I must dash dear. Jinni is expecting you after lunch.”
With that she departed, leaving me to ponder. ‘Just after lunch’ was thoughtless. I could hardly dine with a patron and then abandon them. If this Jinni needed my assistance the least she could do was feed me. Still it never does to sulk and I made the best of a bad job. I followed a sombre procession down to the wharf where the corpse boat is loaded. After the deceased was solemnly taken on board, as is traditional the family invited we mourners back to a nearby tavern for a bite to eat and a token glass of beer with which to drink a toast to the deceased. I remained in the background until two or three others had toasted the deceased, which ensured that I at least got the name right.
Having dined I drifted away from the company and made my way to the unfashionable end of Ropewalk. I knocked on the door and was admitted by Jinni. She was a pleasant faced young woman of Shena’s age with a well modulated voice and a certain physical presence. She took me through to a parlour. Here I was introduced to Malastang Blobbard. Jinni explained the venture to me. Malastang was apparently a painter. He would create pictures. I would produce words inspired by the pictures, and Jinni would set the words to music. Tentatively I asked about remuneration, whether from sponsors or some prestigious event with much sought-after tickets. Jinni confessed that this was a speculative undertaking. We would do it and then try and get money for it. I confess I’d expected little better.
So I studied Malastang’s picture. It must be admitted that he was entirely competent. So I sat down and turned out a verse of two.
Loathsome stars and winds of fate
Dark creatures round my bed will creep
I like to drink my brandy straight
I find it helps me get to sleep
Nought that lives but all that dies
My past is getting out of hand
Darkling creatures I chastise
Now they know just where I stand
Jinni and Malastang looked at them. Malastang seemed less than entirely happy but Jinni shushed him. “We’ll take these for now; after all it is only a trial.”
With that she busied herself at the piano, tapping out tunes and rhythm. Finally she pronounced herself satisfied. “Right, I will sing it and you can see what you think.” She paused, took a mouthful of water from a glass, took a deep breath and then shook her head decisively. “I cannot sing bundled up like this.”
Swiftly she stripped to the waist and returned to the piano where she commenced to sing the words I had so hastily written. Malastang and I glanced at each other. Silently we agreed with each other, this was not the sort of behaviour we had expected from our musician.
After what proved to be a busy afternoon I returned home. Given the state of the tide, Shena had arrived before me and because the day had been successful she had prepared a dish of seared eel served on a savoury bread pudding base. As we dined I commented, “Jinni has a fine voice.”
Shena her mouth full, just nodded so I continued. “She feels she cannot sing when constricted.”
“She was like that at school. Used to cast aside blouse and vest and sing stripped to the waist.”
“She still does!”
Shena looked a little surprised at my vehemence. “To be honest we barely noticed.”
“At the time she was thirteen. Matters have changed somewhat since then.”
Shena patted me on the hand. “Well now you see why I wanted somebody sensible to work with her.”
Given that both Malastang and I had work to do, patrons to cajole and creditors to evade, we couldn’t give the time to Jinni’s project that it demanded. Still we discovered that if we turned up wearing sombre clothing and arrived promptly in the morning, we could get a couple of hours good work done before picking up a funeral party for lunch. So after a month or two our project was close to competition.
It was Sneal himself who raised the next awkward question. He had arrived home from one of his trips south and was spending a week or two resting and building up his stock for his next trip. He sat with us and looked at the paintings while his wife sang my words.
“It’s a grand performance, got some nice touches, but how’re you going to get paid fer it? It’ll not work in some great hall, as them at the back won’t happen be able to see t’pictures.”
I’ve always had a fair respect for Sneal’s commercial acumen. I doubt that he could tell Anapestic tetrameter from elegiac couplet, but should he ever find a way of selling them, no man would be faster to point out their advantages.
“I was pondering this as well Sneal.” I glanced at both Malastang and Jinni. “It strikes me that we are going to have to try and tour the various soirees. They’ll be small enough for everybody to see, but we should still get decent audiences.”
Malastang nodded sagely. “I’ve got a couple of patrons whom I’ve been quietly priming and are quite keen to have us. Have you got anybody in mind?”
I allowed myself a slight smile. “Mistress Bellin Hanchkillian is interested.”
Even Sneal was impressed with that. “With her wanting you, everybody’ll be after you!”
“Indeed Sneal, with her setting the seal of approval on our performance, we should be in great demand for a few months.”
And so it was that we performed in the salon of Mistress Hanchkillian. I had had a quiet word with the lady in question and mentioned our singer’s mild eccentricity. I felt that whilst it is good to surprise a patron, it is probably wise to put keep the surprise within limits. Also I felt that Mistress Hanchkillian might be reassured if she knew there was a limit to how much our singer was tempted to disrobe.
Mistress listened gravely to my explanations and then merely commented that a great aunt of hers had, in her prime (somewhere between the ages of eighteen and ninety seven) been known to sing wearing nothing but a pair of boots that buckled at mid thigh.
The performance itself went off without any problems. The audience circulated, listening to the music as they wandered about viewing the pictures. A pair of carefully placed maids with trays of drinks ensured that nobody wandered too close to our singer and proprieties were observed. All in all an excellent evening and Baltan her factotum dropped several coins into my jacket pocket, a number of them gold!
Within a week we were busy and indeed were forced to turn down invitations because we didn’t want to become double booked. For a month things went very well, but then we started getting towards what I call the ‘dregs’ of our run. It happens every time. Because you have performed for Madam X then Madam Y and Mistress Z will not entertain you, indeed they will spread scurrilous stories and blacken your name. So the second month is always rather more sporadic. Given our singer’s proclivities, the scurrilous stories spread rather more rapidly than otherwise and we sat pondering what other options there were.
It was Malastang who suggested we hired a private room somewhere. Jinni agreed pointing out that this would allow those who weren’t part of the social whirl to come and see us. Personally I was in favour. I have always held that the lack of social status should never stop somebody giving me money. Hence I made a few enquiries and finally came to an agreement with The Flensers. They have a meeting room upstairs, a client base that might be interested and it’s a reputable establishment in a reasonably respectable area. Obviously if I’d been more flush with funds I’d have hired the Banqueting Hall of the ‘Society Dedicated to the Alleviation of the Plight of those brought low by Debauch and Shiftlessness.’ This establishment is situated on Thrall-jobber square and is distinctly respectable. But the Flensers was happy to pay us three quarters of the door money and allow the three of us to eat and drink free all evening.
We advertised carefully, word of mouth and announcements in some of the more discerning periodicals. By which I mean the sort where the editor will include your notice in return for an invitation to the event instead of tiresomely demanding payment.
The evening was a success. A lot of ladies who had wished to see the performance, but who had not the connections to be invited to somebody’s private showing flocked to it. Obviously they expected to be squired by their husbands, but even here the road was made smooth, word had leaked out through that dark shadowy network that connects men who have wives interested in the arts. There was little resistance to a performance which involved a meal at the Flensers and an evening listening to Jinni sing. The Flensers were ecstatic in that they’d had to summon in extra catering staff and had finally disposed of their stock of mediocre vintages inherited from a previous management. This they did by judiciously adding damned stuff to the stew, the punch, and three different deserts.
So successful was our evening that The Flensers asked us to return the following week. Looking at the outsized heap of mainly silver coin they were pushing across the table to us, we agreed immediately.
If I am honest, the second evening went less well. In defence of my fellow artists I must insist that we were not to blame. Indeed the Flensers also regarded us as the innocent parties. The problem was with the Matron Ladies of the Clothier’s Guild Benevolent Society. I have addressed this august body a number of times and their knife and folk suppers are generally excellent. But frankly their members are somewhat prone to exaggeration. One had attended the Flensers and had enjoyed our show. But she did comment on Jinni’s dress, or lack of it. Now it may be that the Clothier’s Guild reacts badly to nudity or semi-nudity for obvious business reasons, but by the time they had finished discussing our performance you’d have thought we’d employed a troop of naked dancers to writhe lasciviously as the audience walked amongst them.
In itself this wasn’t an entirely bad thing, it could have brought us an even larger audience, although admittedly one doomed to disappointment. But then surely that is the true lesson of art, that reality always falls short of the high standards we artists set? What caused the trouble was that word reached Telop Drun.
Telop Drun had a stable of dancers of both sexes who could be guaranteed to writhe lasciviously on command. He also had agreements with any number of drinking dens and other places of entertainment where only his people would perform. When word came to him that there was somebody putting on an act at the Flensers which was competing with him, he was a little upset. So upset that he decided ‘something must be done’ and send one of his boys round to see Pug Eldwan. Pug, who got his name from his nose, flattened through innumerable brawls, was the man you turned to when you wanted somebody ‘leaned on’ or ‘warned off.’ Pug had the sort of reputation that would ensure compliance with even his slightest hints. What this meant was that Pug rarely had to use violence at all, indeed he could merely walk quietly up to the offender and whisper into their ear, “You’ve upset somebody.” Over the next few days the offender would get in touch with Pug to find out just who had been upset and why, and everything would be sorted out. So successful was this technique that Pug was forced to take responsibility for atrocities committed by others, purely to maintain his reputation.
Unfortunately for Telop Drun, when his man arrived to see Pug, it was to discover that Pug had finally laid aside the brass knuckles he used to jangle musically together in his pocket, and had retired to live with his sister in Prae Ducis.
Even more unfortunately he’d sold his business to Reapan the Knife. Reapan was still building his reputation, so when he took on the task of convincing the Flensers not to branch out into erotic dancing and similar, he decided to ‘go in hard’.
So instead of Pug turning up on his own, discovering the real situation and going away again, Reapan the Knife hit the Flensers with a dozen thugs on the night of our second performance.
Now if our performance had been at the Sattir’s Drop, things would have gone differently. At a nod from the barman a score of customers, each more dangerous and heavily armed than the last, would have sprung to defence of the establishment. A wise drinker knows that there are few things more to be treasured than the good will of a barman who is obliged to you.
The Flensers was not that sort of establishment. The thugs rampaged through it for a good twenty minutes before one of the guests managed to rally an assortment of Sedan chair porters, lantern carriers, feckless younger sons, and restored order. By which time Malastang had fled in one direction carrying his paintings and I fled in another, half carrying Jinni, still in a state of total disarray. Now you might ask whether or not I was worried about the damage to my reputation; if I were seen in what might be regarded as close embrace with a lady so unclad. I can only remark that reputational damage is as nothing to the tongue lashing I would have got off Shena if I’d abandoned her friend to the mob.
Still to be fair, it does no harm at all to a poet to be seen occasionally running through the streets with a half naked lady slung over his shoulder. To be fair to Jinni she has doubtless got a turn of speed to match mine, but the heel of one of her boots had broken off when she stamped on the thug I’d knocked down with a well timed blow with a easel. So running was rather beyond her at the time.
But anyway, I got Jinni back home. Sneal himself opened the door to let us in, and apart from a dry comment that he was glad he’d taken up a safe career as a peddler rather than risking his life in the performance arts, he listened to our tale. He kept glancing at the bundle on the table. This kept shrinking as Jinna retrieved yet another garment from the pile and put it on. By the time she was fully dressed the only thing left on the table was a bag full of the evening’s takings.
Sneal weighed it in his hand, then looked inside.
“So Tallis, you did at least escape with the money.”
“Well I couldn’t leave it for the ruffians to steal.”
He briskly divided the money into three and handed me my third. “Probably best that this scheme of our Jinni’s finishes for a while; folk might happen be nervous about attending.”
“Yes, I think so.” I made my way to the door, turned and added, “But in a year or so we ought to think of doing another one. With the legends and rumours that will accrue around this episode, we’ll be able to fill a couple of the bigger halls.”
He just smiled in that dry way of his. “In which case yon artist fellow will have to paint with a bigger brush.”
I made my way home, arriving as Shena was getting ready for bed. She smiled when she saw my earnings. “That’s good.
“Very good; I was thinking of proposing a toast to the good Dame Ralash and her girls.”
Shena sighed, “There’s not a drop of wine on the barge.”
I opened my coat to reveal a number of bottles thrust into the long pockets sewn to the inside.
“Well it seemed a waste to leave it to be stolen by Reapan the Knife and his bullies.”
If you fancy a little more Tallis Steelyard, you might want to visit the Festival
As a reviewer commented, “Another selection of tales from Port Naain, as told by jobbing poet Tallis Steelyard. Read about the underpinnings of dancing matrons, the secret beneath the undergarments of a gentlewoman of the town, the resurrection of a dead mercenary, and much more. This is a gentle comedy of manners in a world so different from our own. The author writes affectionately of his world and his characters, and I share that affection. Lovely stuff.”