And the final installment of our hero’s travels (or should that be travails?)
Because of one thing and another, it took me longer to get back to Port Naain than I originally envisaged. You know what it’s like; you bump into old friends you haven’t seen for absolutely ages. You decide that you’ll have ‘just one more glass’ and before you know where you are, you’re trying to persuade a local magistrate that performance art is specifically excluded from a score of petty regulations. At least in civilised jurisdictions.
But still, I had turned my face for home and I could almost smell the chife of Port Naain. Yet perhaps I’d delayed too long. As I set off for the last day’s march, it came as a surprise to discover that there had been some snow overnight. I suppose we who live in the city forget how soon winter can come to the rural areas.
There was not enough of it to be a problem, or even to delay me, but it was a warning, it was time I was home. So I pressed on. I made a point of not dropping in to visit friends and acquaintances otherwise it might be spring before I returned to my humble abode. I made decent enough time until I came to the far northern fringes of Dilbrook. To the north, Port Naain doesn’t really stop; the gaps between houses merely grow larger until finally you decide that the area is rural. So the northern boundary of the city is somewhat vague to be honest and it’s rare that you find two people who can agree where it falls.
Still, I was somewhere in that area where I probably wasn’t in Port Naain, when came across an elderly man leaning on his stick. He was rather blocking the street. I was about to nod courteously and step round him when he asked, “You, young fellow, have you seen a matchmaker?”
You have to admit, it’s an usual question, “A matchmaker?”
“A marriage broker, an intermediary, you know the sort of thing.”
“Not recently and never professionally.”
“Damn, we’ve lost one.”
“Aye and the bride-to-be has disappeared.”
He showed me the open window through which the escaping bride had left the building. I looked at the house. Whilst not actually grand, it was large enough to indicate the family had money.
He shook his head sadly. “There’s a right scandal about it. All sorts of fuss and kafuffle, I reckon I’m not likely to hear the end of it.”
“I imagine it will be a scandal, a maiden of tender years out in weather like this.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about the tender years.” My elderly informant paused thoughtfully, “I reckon Marple wasn’t a day under fifty.”
Tactfully I said, “Was she much sought after?”
He looked at me as if I was a little simple. “Of course, when her husband died she was tenant of the entire farm. When she married the tenancy would go with her to her new husband.”
“Did she have much land?”
“Needed two plough teams!” He took off his hat and scratched his head. “If I’d been younger I’d have been asking for her hand myself. There must have been seven or eight chaps out there who wouldn’t have said ‘No’ to the land that came with her.”
All sorts of questions came to mind but I began to suspect that if I were to ask for further clarification I could still be standing here as night fell. So I bade him farewell and promised that if I saw the lady in question I’d let him know.
Perhaps half an hour after this a carter came past, and I begged a lift on his cart. He was a Port Naain man, heading for the city. He had travelled out with a cart full of night soil and was returning with a cart load of neaps. Such is the exotic nature of the life of the small trader.
He too had been stopped by the elderly man, and we speculated on the story as we made our way steadily south. It was about noon when we overtook a middle aged lady striding for Port Naain. She wore a heavy skirt, sensible shoes, a long coat and in deference to the weather, a head scarf. We stopped and offered her a lift. As she made herself comfortable on the pile of neaps I raised the issue of the vanished bride-to-be. “Are you Marple?”
“Aye that’ll be me.”
Curiosity got the better of me. “So why have you vanished?”
“It were that matchmaker.”
The carter and I glanced at each other. The carter, as bemused as I was, asked tentatively, “I heard that the matchmaker had disappeared.”
“Aye, he were supposed to be eloping with me.”
Personally I felt even more bemused by this answer. In my ignorance I’d always assumed matchmakers to be female, and to the best of my knowledge they never eloped with their clients.
“We’d be delighted to help, could you just explain what happened?”
“Yes, Bovert claimed he loved me. So I thought, ‘fair enough, we could marry,’ it’s the second time for both of us. Then he pointed out we’d need funds, which were reasonable. So he came up with a scheme where he’d act as the matchmaker, arrange for me to marry several men, collect the deposits and then we’d flee to Port Naain with the money.”
“So he fled…”
“Yes, with the money but without me! I’ve got to catch him before he spends it all on poetry or writing or whatever.”
Suddenly Bovert struck me as a man after my own heart. The brother I had never had. I had the feeling that even the carter felt some sympathy for him.
We were coming up to an inn, ‘The Moon’. Trying to sound like a concerned friend I pointed to the inn ahead. “Madam I think we’d better drop you off at the inn.”
“Why?” She seemed most put out by this.
“I’m purely thinking of your reputation madam. For a lady to travel with two men, while she’s totally unchaperoned, could cause all sorts of gossip.”
“Oh you know how the tongues would wag,” the carter continued. “I suggest we drop you off just outside the inn so nobody sees you with us. There’s a regular conveyance comes through every afternoon, you could get that and your reputation would be safe.”
I must admit our female companion looked a little put out by this. “But surely people wouldn’t talk just because I sat on a cart with your two?”
“I wouldn’t risk it.” I thought frantically and added, “You’re going into Port Naain now. Be seen with us and by the time you get into town, respectable women will be locking their husbands up in case you lure them away!”
This shocked her and the carter took advantage of her stunned silence. “Why I knew a woman who just allowed a gentleman not her husband to take her by the arm and lead her across the street. She had to flee the city.”
By this time we had arrived at The Moon, so we genteelly bundled her off, promising not to look back. I also whispered to her that she mustn’t wave after us.
About two miles further on we caught up with a man in late middle age, sitting on a wall taking a stone out of his shoe. The carter stopped. “You Bovert?”
“Why yes, I’m known by that name.”
“Want a lift.”
“Delighted, I’m going to The Stack.”
The Stack was the name the city’s theatre was known by. I asked, “You hoping to catch a performance.”
He smiled at me. “No young man, I am a playwright.”
I gave him a hand and he sat on the neaps behind the carter and me. I said, “I’m afraid I’ve never heard of a playwright called Bovert.”
He nodded. “You won’t have done lad. I haven’t had any of my plays performed yet.”
I studied him. He’d be in his late fifties. His face was weather beaten, he was a little stooped. His hands were roughened by work.
The carter asked, “Have you been a playwright long?”
Bovert smiled a little self-consciously. “No, I’ve been a tenant farmer all my life. But when my wife died I decided that it was time I tried something else. I’d always been involved in amateur theatrical groups, I’d even written stuff. So I decided that it was now or never.”
“What about Marple your abandoned Bride?”
He shrugged. “I came up with a scheme. I’d act as a matchmaker. I’d find her half a dozen husbands, collect the deposit for all of them, then we’d run off to Port Naain and get married and use the money to carry us through until I’d become a playwright. Anyway last night as I was helping her elope, she said that she’d had a change of mind. We were to get married and she’d use the money to start up a bakery and I’d help with the kitchens. So I just ran.”
This cast a whole new light on the problem. The carter was obviously giving his thought to the ethical angle.
“Not saying you’re wrong Bovert, but frankly a bakery could be a nice little earner.”
I felt I had to join in. “I know a few who do write for the stage and frankly it’s easier to starve than it is to make a living. Having a wife running a bakery who could support you might give you something to fall back on until you’re recognised and sought after by the theatrical impresarios.”
“But she said she needed me in the bakery. I’d just swap working on the farm for working in the kitchen.” His voice became passionate. “I need a chance to express myself, to live for my art.”
Well that was a conundrum, no mistake. The carter and I looked at each other. Then I saw a bright light of intelligence in the carter’s eyes. “I think I can help you here.”
Both Bovert and I said, “You can!”
“Yes, it’s quite simple. Marple might want you in the kitchen, but frankly you’re not going to be much use. What you need is somebody who can at least cook a bit.”
Bovert nodded. “That seems a fair assessment.”
“Well I have a daughter who’s looking for a trade. She doesn’t fancy carting, but she’s not a bad cook. How about she came and worked for Marple. That’d let you get on with writing plays and what-have-you.”
There was a cynical note in Bovert’s voice when he replied, “There’ll doubtless be a cost.”
The carter prodded his horse with the butt of the whip. The horse was giving the impression it had stopped to listen to our conversation. Irritated by the carter’s rude gesture the horse shook its head and walked on again as if insulted that we should have thought it interested in anything so petty.
“Tell you what Bovert. For the first few months, as the business gets on its feet, she’ll work for her lunch and a couple of loaves she’ll bring home on an evening. If after six months the shop looks like it’ll pay, then we’ll discuss wages. I’ve also got a building across from my stables. We don’t use it much and a bakery there would catch a lot of passing trade. I’d charge a sensible rent rather than have it stand empty.”
Bovert spat on his hand and held it out, the carter spat on his hand and they shook. With this the carter turned the cart round and we headed back to The Moon.
There we found Marple sitting disconsolately outside waiting for the conveyance. When she saw us, or more properly Bovert, she stormed across. Before she could say anything, at great personal risk I interposed myself between them and raised my hand.
“Madam please, with immense ingenuity Bovert has managed to find you not merely premises for a bakery, but also a young lady who will be delighted to assist you because she wishes to learn a trade. He merely hurried on ahead to get these things sorted.”
This silenced her, but only briefly. “What about this playwright stuff?”
“Trust me madam, within a week you’ll be begging him to go outside and do something else, because otherwise he’ll just be getting under your feet.”
With this I dismounted and assisted her up onto the seat next to the carter. I bowed. “You obviously have much to talk about, and these two have a lot to explain to you. Myself I feel the need for some exercise and quite fancy a walk.”
The carter turned the cart once more and headed for Port Naain, even in the distance I could hear their three voices, arguing and discussing. Smiling at a good deed done I set off after them, whistling a jaunty tune.
It was perhaps ten minutes later that the sleet started, blown into my face by the bitter wind.
Welcome to Port Naain.
At least, to look on the bright side, the weather was so atrocious that even my creditors remained curled up in their lairs, rather than stalking the streets looking for impecunious poets to assail. Hence I made it back to Shena and the barge without further incident.
Or at least no incident worthy of report.
At this point it seems pertinent to mention that whilst this blog brings to an end the tale of Tallis’s travels, the various accounts of his escapades have been told on many other blogs. These tales will be reblogged in what may one day be accepted by biographers as the chronologically correct order on his own blog. Thus and so you can easily follow his gripping adventures.
Also, as an aside, the reason for this whole performance, (aside for being ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’) is that another volume of his anecdotes has been published. Containing some work that has never appeared on the blog, this is ;-
Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.