Frankly I would never have hired them anyway, had it not been for Calina Salin. She described them to me as sounding like a choir of lesser divinities. When I asked about their behaviour she dismissed my worries out of hand. I remember her very words. “Charming, polite, afraid to say boo to a goose.” Given I’ve seen her kick an errant musician into the middle of the following week, in retrospect I should not have been reassured by her comment.
Still I had to organise something for Mistress Bellin Hanchkillian. She had specifically specified musicians; so I needed musicians and Calina had recommended these musicians. So I sent word to see if they were available to hire on that evening, and they claimed they were. It was that simple. How easily do we fall into the traps fate strews for the unwary?
It was the day before the event when I actually met them. To be honest I was busy and didn’t have time, but still, I should have made time earlier. When I saw them assembled, I was somewhat put out. Most of them would have been cast out of a Partannese pirate crew for their unprepossessing appearance! I’ve seen brigands hanged out of hand purely for looking nearly half as rascally as did this crew. Still when they played, they were as good as Calina claimed.
Then I had an inspiration. You might be familiar with a technique used by playwrights where all the great battles and murders happen off-stage and are reported on stage. It is an excellent way to save on salaries and fake blood. At the same time it allows the play to move at a decent pace rather than being held up by the lingering and over-dramatic theatrical deaths of any number of overpaid and over-indulged thespians. Well I could do the same. I would have a sheet erected and the musicians could play behind that. It might even add mystery to their performance.
So that is what I did. I assembled them behind their sheet. Having assured myself he could read, I gave their leader a list of what was to be performed and in what order. Then I stationed a sensible downstairs maid to oversee them. I gave her a large jug of small ale which she could pour drinks from when they were behaving well. Indeed I promised that the jug would be refilled at regular intervals. I also gave her a brush shaft and instructed her to use it without mercy in the case of lewd remarks. Finally I gave her a programme so she knew what was going on.
That necessary task performed I left them, passed round the end of the sheet and appeared in front of the audience.
Of course somebody from near the back, who thought I wouldn’t know who they were, had to ask, “What have you got behind the sheet, Steelyard?”
“They are the musicians. I have hired sylphs who are so achingly beautiful I deemed it wiser to keep them concealed lest they reduce mortal folk to despair.”
With that I clapped my hands; the first singer came on, the musicians struck up and the entertainment started.
To be fair, it went well. The singers I had were hand-picked. Not only did they look presentable, but they were domesticated and could be trusted in simple social situations. Thus they didn’t belch offensively or pick their nose when on display.
Unfortunately I may have taken my eye off the ball. Admittedly I did hear one crack as a broomstick hit something or somebody. But there again, I noted one of the kitchen maids bringing both more small ale and another broom, so I felt things were obviously under control. I might even have got away with it had it not been for the dancing. Mistress Bellin Hanchkillian liked dancing. But being no longer young she liked the more sedate dances. Thus she would have the dancing start with two or three brisk numbers. This would take the edge off the younger dancers, who would then be glad to tread a more sedate measure or two.
The first dance was fast and furious. Not only that but whilst the musicians couldn’t see the dancers, they could feel the beat of their feet on the floor. So the musicians got carried away and the second measure was faster than the first. The third measure would have been faster yet but something went wrong. I heard the crack of the brush shaft followed by a bellowed accusation of incompetence and then the curtain was torn down as two of the musicians started fighting.
One had a knife but apparently he had neither the wit nor the temperament to use it properly. The other was using a recorder of some sort as an offensive weapon. The maid watched them both, clutching what was left of her brush shaft in her hands.
I sprang into action; I took the jug of small beer and sipped it. Somebody had added pure spirit to it, the damned stuff wouldn’t merely strip paint, it would shift the rust from a set of wrought iron gates! Given that the maid was fixated by the brawl I turned her to face me. “Go to the cook, tell her that Master Steelyard presents his compliments and could she come here immediately please.” The young woman snapped out of her trance and ran.
I then turned to face the musicians. The first thing I had to do was pick up the broken broom and threaten a fiddler who was trying to stab one of the brawlers in the back. When my back was turned one of the other musicians grabbed the jug and the rest of them retreated to form a protective huddle around it, leaving the two brawlers to their own devices. At this point cook landed. She is a most amiable lady, a fine cook with a real feel for her art. She is also a lady who can lift a full mott carcass onto the turnspit single-handed. She briefly assessed the situation, grabbed the two brawling musicians by their collars and banged their heads together twice before carrying them, one in each hand, to the back door and ejecting them into the street. The other musicians, seeing me advance upon them with the broken brush handle raised, fled after her, still carrying the jug.
After that what could I do? It was time the entertainment drew to a close anyway, so I finished it by singing, thankfully unaccompanied, the musician’s lament. This is a sad song of how the innocent artiste is repeatedly taken advantage of by worldly patrons. Given the circumstances of the evening it was greeted with more applause than it probably deserved.
It does occur to me that you might like to know a little more of the trials and tribulations of Tallis Steelyard, poet.
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.”