It has to be confessed that there are many outlandish and eccentric services patrons require from their poets. This is even after setting aside salacious suggestions, for which I have a number of well rehearsed answers, plus the support of a couple of reliably louche poets of a younger generation whom I can fall back on. Still one of the more intriguing came from the Lady Doleria. She was a pleasant lady, widowed in early middle age, and she divided her time between her children and the company of friends. Had she wanted one, she could even have had a perfectly good feud as well, in that her neighbour, Madam Erdwill, was intent on having one with her.
Unlike many of these feuds, everybody was perfectly clear how, when and even why, it began. Lady Doleria married her merchant husband whilst she was very young. Over-confident he purchased a fine house for them with extensive grounds, in one of the more pleasant parts of Dilbrook. The house next door was owned by the Erdwill family, and Nathan Erdwill was a merchant adventurer of the old school, rich and established.
The two families weren’t friends but were perfectly civilised neighbours. Then the Doleria business fell on hard times. As far as I can remember there was a rapid rise in the price of grain, and Balwin Doleria had sold grain forward at the old price. This wouldn’t have mattered too much had the shipment he had purchased very advantageously in Prae Ducis arrived. Unfortunately the ship carrying it sank with all hands. So Balwin Doleria was forced to purchase expensive grain locally and sell it at a loss to honour his contracts. Desperate for money, he approached Nathan Erdwill who pondered the matter and then suggested that he buy part of the Doleria gardens that ran alongside the Erdwill residence.
It wasn’t ideal, rather than standing in its own grounds the Doleria residence now had the Erdwill gardens a mere stride from the side of the house. But Balwin paid a good price and always said that he regarded it more as security for a loan and would happily hand the land back should Nathan acquire the money.
During the next year, fortunes fluctuated, and Nathan did indeed make a number of wise purchases, including another large quantity of grain from Prae Ducis. Nathan was lucky in that his ship made it safely to Port Naain. Not only that but it arrived in the estuary the day after news of the sinking of the Speedwell, the only other grain ship coming from the south. Balwin’s grain sold at a premium and the family fortune was assured.
Unfortunately the captain of the speedwell was Nathan Erdwill who went down with his ship.
Balwin presented his compliments to the widow, and gently suggested that because he now had funds he would be delighted to purchase back the large chunk of garden, at Madam Erdwill’s valuation. He had been grateful for Nathan’s practical generosity when the Doleria household had fallen on hard times, and was only too happy to reciprocate to ensure that Madam Erdwill lacked for nothing.
Alas, in her grief Madam Erdwill somehow blamed the Doleria family for profiting from her husband’s death and refused to meet Balwin or his wife. Not only that but along her boundary between the two houses she planted swift growing pine trees.
Over the years, as is inevitable, these grew, swiftly. They largely blocked out the sun from one side of the house and left it gloomy and unprepossessing. When Lady Doleria was widowed, she might even have taken some solace in the gloom but by nature a bright and cheerful lady, she found it oppressive. Still, she determined never to gratify Madam Erdwill by complaining or even appearing to notice the problem.
Ironically I first heard about Lady Doleria when I was performing at the house of Madam Erdwill. The latter lady was fond of holding splendid events in her large garden to the rear of the house. This was indeed a wonder, the size of two or three normal gardens it had a wood, a small lake, pleasances, an orangery, an Aeolian harp, and a considerable number of flowerbeds. If possible, all her summer functions were held there. Beautiful but frankly poetry is not at its best in the open air. Then a mutual friend of the two ladies asked me, discreetly, whether I would be interesting in performing some of my work for Lady Doleria. Equally discreetly I said I was. Thus it came about that whilst I never performed at the Erdwill house again; I was something of a favourite at the Doleria residence.
It was one early summer evening when I had delivered a selection of verse to Lady Doleria and her guests. The evening had gone well, but the house was becoming ever gloomier as the sunlight was lost among the pines. The conversation seemed to take a downward turn, and then Lady Doleria took it from the general to the specific. In a sad voice she announced, “When a lady reaches a certain age, she becomes invisible.”
As her poet I would of course have argued against this, but Darrin Vort was there and he stepped into the discussion. Darrin Vort was the nearest thing the Lady allowed herself to a gentleman admirer. He tried being positive. “Nonsense girl, you’re a fine figure of a woman and you can still turn heads.”
She smiled at him but shook her head. “Darrin, you’re very kind, but if I were to ride through Dilbrook naked on horseback nobody would so much as stop and look.”
This produced some general amusement and various other ladies hinted that Lady Doleria would doubtless draw crowds, but the lady was serious. She looked round the room and announced, “A fortnight from today, I will ride stark naked from my gate to the Stilweather road and back, with Tallis Steelyard leading my horse. Nobody will take the slightest bit of notice.”
Well that did it. But I thought I spotted a gap in her reasoning. “Lady Doleria. The problem is that if I’m leading you, such is my reputation for organising a variety of antics to publicise my work, everybody is sure to ignore us on principle.”
She just smiled gently at me. “Then Tallis, we just have to hope that my youthful beauty is a match for your humility.”
So the matter was settled. But as you can imagine the announcement did cause something of a stir. Various people asked what the city was coming to and the matter was even debated, briefly, in the Council of Sinecurists. Radsel Oeltang as chair claimed the right to speak first. He announced that whilst there were ladies who he felt should be dissuaded from appearing anywhere scantily dressed, in the case of Lady Doleria he suggested only that gentlemen ensure they were elsewhere, lest the sight of her beauty place too great a strain on their courtesy. Everybody, including Lady Doleria, felt this was very charmingly said and there the matter rested.
But if officialdom had decided to take no part in the proceedings, Madam Erdwill had decided otherwise. After some brief consideration she decided that the greater humiliation would be for nobody to turn out to see Lady Doleria as she processed. Thus she organised a particularly extravagant day of celebration in her gardens at the back of her house and invited virtually everybody. Some of Lady Doleria’s friends felt torn, but Lady Doleria insisted she would not be offended if they attended.
Thus on the morning of the great day, when I led the horse to the front door of the Doleria residence, the street was almost empty. There wasn’t a soul to be seen, and apart from three large canvas covered drays parked a little way along the road there were no vehicles. The Erdwill residence was shuttered so nobody could look in or out, and indeed screens had been erected at the side of the house so that nobody from the rear garden could see towards the road or towards the Doleria residence. Even as Lady Doleria walked, stark naked, out of her house, the sound of music was already rising from next door.
I somewhat gingerly assisted her onto the back of the horse. She was going to ride side-saddle, obviously. I then proceeded to lead the horse along empty streets. Frankly I have never known the area so quiet. Even in the middle of the night one still meets maids creeping back late. But now Dilbrook was utterly empty.
I found that the trip was less embarrassing than I feared. As I walked by the horse’s head, I had my back to the lady so wasn’t forever worrying where to look. At the same time we were close enough to hold a conversation without raising our voices. So we discussed all manner of things as we passed down the empty streets. I think the trip must have taken about two hours, an hour there and an hour back, and in the course of this we never met a soul. Not even a pariah dog so much as accosted us. The weather was kind, warm but the sun wasn’t too bright. I had thought to bring a large towel with me, after all, modesty is one thing, but there are parts of one’s anatomy which a lady would not wish to have sunburned. Fortunately the towel wasn’t needed.
As we made the final approach to the Doleria mansion I noticed two things. Firstly the three canvas covered drays which had been there previously had gone. Rather more interestingly, so had the Erdwill pine trees that had so overshadowed the Doleria house.
Whilst the trees followed the boundary between the two houses, they were very much visible from the road at the front of the housel. Indeed the end tree overshadowed the pavement somewhat. Thus I felt that there apparent disappearance was a matter worth noting.
“I say Lady Doleria. The trees seem to have gone.”
I felt a more loquacious reply was called for so decided to solicit one.
“And the three drays?”
“Have you any idea what happened?”
“Well I suspect that in the drays, hidden by the canvas, there could have been a score or more skilled timber workers, sitting sharpening their axes.”
“It is strange that they happened to arrive on the one day nobody in the Erdwill household would notice anything happening on this side of the house.”
“Unfathomable are the ways of fate.”
Our conversation was halted by our arrival at Lady Doleria’s front door. Here awaited Darrin Vort who stepped forward holding an all enveloping lady’s dressing gown. He courteously assisted her down from the back of the horse and helped her slip the garment on.
“I told you I am invisible.”
Darrin Vort merely offered her his arm. “Or is it that you have merely decided you would not be seen?”
With that, arm in arm, they went into the house, leaving me to lead the horse back to the stable.
As an aside, for those who have made expressions of enjoyment at the various anecdotes told by Tallis Steelyard, several collections of his stories are available.
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.”