There are two main schools of thought about debt and debtors’ prisons. The first holds, not unreasonably, that if a chap is locked up in prison, how on earth can he earn the money he needs to pay you back?
The other school is equally reasonable. If when he was at liberty he made no attempt to pay you back but instead lived a life of obvious excess, then perhaps locking him somewhere unpleasant might encourage him to liquidate some of his capital.
As a poet and perpetually indigent I keep my own council lest I be accused of special pleading.
Still I was shocked when I was approached by a shifty looking gentleman as I walked along Ropewalk. He asked if I were Tallis Steelyard. On my replying, “Yes,” I was grabbed from behind by two unpleasantly muscular bailiffs and was frogmarched to the Houses of Licentiousness where I was bound over to indentured servitude until I’d paid of my debts. Frankly I was embarrassed. Ralbort Slane, purveyor of wines to the moderately discerning, had had me jailed for a debt of a merely thirty vintenars! Lancet Fordeck owed twenty golden alars when he was incarcerated; I’ve known painters and sculptors who’ve been jailed owing even more than that! How could I show my face in the company of my peers after being shown to owe so little?
Not only that but I had been willing to negotiate. Frankly his four vintenar per bottle wine wasn’t worth a quarter of that, but in the spirit of compromise I had been prepared to offer one vintenar per six bottles, purely as a way of opening negotiations.
For some reason this seemed to have provoked him to taking unreasonable actions, rather than coming back with a suggested figure of his own. I lament the loss of the give and take which used to make our lives bearable.
If you don’t know the Houses of Licentiousness, it is where indentured labourers sift through the eggs of shore clams in the great tanks, sorting male and female for immediate consumption or further growth. The work is wet and cold and the hours are long. The pay is low and were I to pass the next three months without eating, I might well pay off my debt.
On my second night, as I lay on a thin mattress in a cell barely longer than I was, I heard a voice whispering from above me.
I looked up. The cells had walls ten feet high, but no ceiling. Instead a metal walkway passed over every cell so that a perambulating guard could keep an eye on everybody. Gods alone know why they fitted this because in the history of the institution no guard had ever perambulated!
On the walkway I could see Mutt. He is the ‘employee’ of Shena, my lady wife. His chronological age is about ten, as with all street children these things are vague at best. But with regard to cynicism and cunning he’s well into his mid fifties.
“Is that you Mutt?”
“Who in all the forty-seven hells do you think it would be at this time of night?”
I ignored his comment. I have found it wise when dealing with Mutt to assume that his attitude is merely his own way of compensating for a warm and generous nature. To be fair, if it is, then he may be over-compensating.
“You want out?”
I briefly considered and rejected a number of answers, each more scathing than the last, and finally said, “Yes please.” I considered that it was the one least likely to cause confusion or lead to arguments.
“Cost!” It took me no effort at all to sound outraged.
“Yeah, cost. I got expenses you know.”
I just stared up at him. He stared back down, his small face inscrutable. Eventually I cheated. “You know that I will be discussing this with Shena?”
I rather assumed that Shena had sent him to rescue me, and any monetary transaction would be between the two of them.
He glared at me. “I should charge you twenty vintenars.”
He then sighed sadly, as if shocked at how the world was conspiring to take advantage of his innocence, and let down a knotted rope. I climbed swiftly up it and joined him on the walkway.
“Would it be best to leave now before I’m missed?”
Mutt coiled his rope. “Nah, you’ll not be missed; they’ll just assume you bribed one of the other guards to let you out.”
I was a little surprised by the casual attitude the staff adopted. “How much does it cost to bribe a guard?”
Mutt slung his rope over his shoulder, “A quarter of your debt.”
Now I was outraged, “And you wanted to charge me twenty vintenars!”
“I felt it might teach you the value of thrift and hard work.”
From below came a voice. “Can you two sod off and escape and let the rest of us get to sleep.”
Mutt led me along the walkway until we came to two doors. He opened the one on the right and led me out onto a balcony overlooking the sea. He tied his rope to the balcony. “Climb down ter the ledge, go left, you’ll get to the beach. I’ll fix stuff and join you.”
I glanced round, the balcony was overlooked by others but there was nobody about. I lowered myself hand over hand down the rope until I stood warily on the ledge. The moment I let go of the rope it was whisked away up into the darkness. Slowly I made my way along the path Mutt had so eloquently mapped out for me. It was obvious that at high tide this area was under water, the ledge and the wall at my back were wet and slick with weed. Below me the occasional shafts of moonlight glinted of weed covered rocks and pools of water. Eventually the ledge grew so treacherous I had to sit down on it with my legs dangling out over the rocks and move myself along hand over hand. It took me half an hour to cover a hundred yards and I was soaking and my jacket and hands had been cut by rubbing against the shellfish that clung to the stone walls.
Eventually I made it along the wall and to the beach. As I stepped down onto the sand, a door opened in the wall behind me and Mutt stepped through it. I looked through the door; a corridor ran away into the building.
“Why exactly could I not use this corridor rather than risking life and limb on those blasted rocks?”
Mutt made an airy gesture, “The corridor is for them as pay.”