It is all too easy for an honest man to get into trouble, in spite of his best endeavours. Indeed I have noticed that merely trying to make your way through life quietly and without fuss seems guaranteed to drive Fate into a frenzy, causing it to do everything it can to make your life difficult. Hence it may be that a wise man shuns diffidence and ensures that the pages of history bear the marks of his booted feet, stamped heavily across them.
But if you don’t believe me about the dangers of living a quiet life, I bring to your attention Yorrund Meal. Yorrund was ‘blessed’ in that he was married to the lady who had condescended to becoming Madam Meal. In spite of having few advantages of birth or fortune, she determined that they were going to be persons of solid prosperity.
To be fair to her, she had definite gifts. She discovered that she numbered amongst her acquaintances any number of ladies who would provide rooms for students at the University. Indeed when they met they often laughed together over items of student gossip. It was then she had a moment of revelation and decided to provide a scurrilous news sheet for students.
Now she doubtless isn’t the first to do this, but she must surely be one of the few who has done so without ever having been a student.
The news sheet was an immediate financial success, selling large numbers at minimal cost. The printer was happy to handle distribution and refused to divulge to interested parties the name of the person who wrote it. Many attempted to track down the writer, often with the fiercely expressed intention of ‘beating some decency into them.’ They even kept a watch on the print shop, hoping to spot the villain arriving with an incriminating document. Yet being students it never occurred to them that a plump middle-aged lady with her hair protected by a headscarf and carrying a broom and a bag of cleaning implements was the person that they were looking for. Indeed as she left having swept the print-shop (as part payment of printing costs) they would often ask her whether she had seen anybody sneaking in with a news sheet to print. More than one tipped her silver to keep her eyes open for this much sought individual.
While the occasional surveillance didn’t particularly worry Madam Meal, it did make her cautious. So she stopped going round her friends collecting gossip. She instructed Yorrund to give up his job at the rope makers, and instead set him to the task. Obviously he needed a cover story, and so she made him a flower seller. Every morning he would collect some bunches of flowers from Darp Cockerdil and then walk through that area where Ropewalk starts to separate itself from the Sump. The main purpose of the flowers was to give him an excuse to approach his lady wife’s informants. Under the cover of a sale he would present them with the flowers and they would in turn pass him the notes they had made of particularly juicy gossip. Obviously he had to carry a few spare bunches because occasionally random strangers would try to buy flowers from him, but into each life a little rain must fall.
Yorrund wasn’t entirely happy with this state of affairs. He missed his colleagues at the rope makers, but more than that he missed his regular salary. His wife paid him occasional pocket money, and at a stroke he had shrunk from being a working man with coin in his pocket to some poor creature who had to beg his wife for the price of a tankard of ale.
Still he was always one for a quiet life; he knuckled down and got on with playing the hand life had dealt him. Unfortunately for him, life was about to deal him yet another blow. Here the rightly celebrated artist Malastang Blobbard enters our tale. He saw Yorrund offering flowers to a Widow Quinni. This was entirely innocent, the widow, seeing Yorrund from her window, nipped down stairs, took a bunch of flowers and dropped into Yorrund’s pocket a delightful story of peculation and debauchery that she’d overheard two of her student lodgers sharing the evening before. Yorrund went on his way, totally unaware that Malastang, seeing all this with the artist’s eye, had spotted the perfect picture.
Malastang jotted a few notes, did a few sketches and next day came to paint the picture. Yorrund he added from memory, but to be helpful, the Widow Quinni condescended to appear at her window to help with the composition. Aware of posterity, she ensured that when painted she was wearing her best red blouse and her treasured attifet or heart-shaped headdress.
A month later the painting was exhibited and was generally agreed to be a masterpiece. Not only did young artists flock to see what the master had achieved, many others visited it as well. Among them was Madam Meal who studied the picture briefly and jumped to her own conclusions.
That evening, when he arrived home for his evening meal after a hard day tramping the streets, Yorrund was faced with a wife burning with righteous fury. ‘How long had he been carrying on with Widow Quinni?’
Pitifully Yorrund pleaded his innocence, only to have the painting produced (metaphorically as it remained exhibited in the Banqueting Hall of the ‘Society Dedicated to the Alleviation of the Plight of those brought low by Debauch and Shiftlessness’).
A careful examination of the painting had convinced Madam Meal of her husband’s guilt. The shadows showed that the painting had to be created early in the evening, whereas Yorrund claimed to have talked to the widow well before noon. Not only that but ‘she’s wearing her red blouse and attifet, don’t tell me she wears them whilst she’s cleaning her windows.’
In spite of his protestations of innocence Yorrund was thrust out into the street with the words, ‘and don’t come crawling back’ ringing in his ears.
Penniless, Yorrund drifted through the streets, wondering what his next move should be. Eventually, out of habit, he turned up at Darp Cockerdil’s at dawn to collect some flowers to sell.
Here fortune smiled briefly on him. Because Yorrund never handled the money, Darp just put the flowers on the family account. Indeed when Yorrund, somewhat diffidently, suggested that he might try to sell more, and could he borrow a handcart, Darp was only too happy to go along with this.
At this point, fate reasserted itself. Yorrund had no sooner pushed the cart into his usual haunts on the fringes of Ropewalk and the Sump than it started to rain. It didn’t merely rain, water poured from the sky in endless torrents. Hastily Yorrund threw a tarpaulin over the flowers to protect them and then huddled pathetically under the handcart in an ill-fated attempt to stay dry. Fate and fortune were battling for the soul of Yorrund that day, Seldor Baggit chanced to be sitting in the snug of the ‘Jolly Brigand’. He glanced out of the window and saw Yorrund. Hastily he grabbed a pencil and some paper and produced a sketch. Next day that sketch, tidied up a little, then framed, was hung next to Malastang Blobbard’s painting.
It was generally agreed that Baggit had produced a little masterpiece. Even in pencil he caught the rain, the sense of endless wetness, and the look of pathetic resignation on Yorrund’s face. Suddenly painting flower sellers became all the rage. Yorrund would park his handcart and within minutes would find a score of artists had set their easels up and were assiduously trying to capture his features. Initially he was somewhat nonplussed by this, but soon discovered that if anything it drove trade. Hence within a week he had not merely set up his own account with Darp Cockerdil but had managed to find lodgings.
Madam Meal on the other hand was beginning to wonder whether she had been too hasty. Now she not merely had to produce the news sheet, she had to go round all her sources collecting the information. She did ponder asking her oldest daughter to take over the task, but given that the girl was contemplating entering the university, if only as a member of the bursar’s staff, Madam felt there might be a conflict of interests. Hence she allowed word to reach Yorrund that if he was suitably contrite she was willing to forgive him and he could come back and resume his previous career.
Yorrund allowed word to reach her that it would indeed be a cold day in hell before he gave up his flourishing business. But, were she to apologise for doubting him, then he would be happy to return.
It was their oldest daughter who broke the impasse. She pointed out to her mother that ensconced in the bursar’s office; she would be ideally placed to collect more gossip. Not only that, but her younger brother was of an age when he ought to be earning. Surely he could take his place in Yorrund’s business, do the handling of deliveries and standing in the cold and wet selling flowers. This would thus allow Yorrund to take round a few flowers and handle the collection of stories from their informants.
Her mother, realising that the younger generation must be given a chance to make their way in the world, was magnanimity personified. Yorrund, when apprised of the plan, showed his true generosity of spirit and returned to the bosom of his family.
But he did so on the explicit understanding that on one day a week he could take the day off and spend it playing pitch-penny in the Ropers’ Retreat with his former colleagues at the rope makers.