There are times when I confess that Mutt does worry me a little. I realise that given his background he is unlikely to be charming, sweet and innocent, (unless of course these three qualities are temporarily advantageous.) After all, I too lived most of my young life on the street and it is not a world that repays innocence. Still I have known elderly dowagers who were less cynical and vengeful than Mutt.
If you are unsure of what I mean, I shall merely recount the incident of the Finsal the balladeer. Provided you had a penchant for empty-headed and womanising lute players, Finsal was a fine fellow. People commented that he’d never done a day’s work in his life, but given the amount of time he would have to spend washing and combing his hair, that is to be expected. I had worked with him from time to time, usually when we were both hired for the same evening. I neither liked nor disliked him. As musicians went he was comparatively reliable. Yes he would always flirt with the lady of the house, (but then most musicians seem to do this almost by default.) He was professional enough to stay sober, and competent enough to have the esteem of his peers. Unfortunately he did have an inordinate respect for his own wit. Had he actually possessed any, then you could perhaps have understood it, but between ourselves I’ve had dental treatment which I chuckled at more.
On the fateful day I was walking along Fellmonger’s Wharf. I chanced to see Mutt ahead of me so I whistled to attract his attention. He turned, saw me and waved. But as he did this he inadvertently stepped into the path of Finsal. Finsal almost stumbled but caught himself in time. He then grabbed Mutt, cursed him roundly as a fool of a boy and threw him off the wharf into the estuary. Given the tide was out, Mutt fell into the mud. Luckily he’s not a heavy child, but he still got his feet stuck and had to struggle to extract them. As he did this Finsal threw fish heads at him whilst at the same time mocking him as a clay-brained mud worm. Luckily by the time I got there, a couple of Shore-combers who’d been to see Shena at the barge had arrived on the scene. They’d threatened Finsal with their pattie turners and Finsal departed. So I threw a rope to Mutt and we hauled him up.
Mutt stared after Finsal in total silence. Then he asked, “Where does he play tonight?”
Here I could help. “Madam Graan, wife of Jingling Graan is holding a soiree. I’m booked to be there and I know that he is as well.”
“Right, you’re taking me.”
I looked him up and down. Catching the glint in his eye I felt the urge to be tactful. “You might need a bath first?”
“Yeah, an’ clothes. Let’s see Shena.”
To be fair to Shena, she took Mutt’s insistence that he needed a bath, shoes and his best clothes remarkably calmly. “Well Tallis might as well go to the baths as well. Then you’re both clean.”
It is true that hauling Mutt onto the wharf isn’t the cleanest thing I’ve ever done, but I had been thinking in terms of letting the mud dry and then it’d just flake off. Still I was not going to be the one to argue. The fact that Mutt was intending to wear shoes, (something he does only at times of great solemnity and even then under protest) was a novelty that had rather shaken me.
We set off for the baths, when Mutt announced, “Is Finsal skint?”
“Does the sun come up in the morning?”
“Good.” We walked on in silence and then Mutt said, “Two twenty-five dreg pieces will do it.”
Silently I extracted two coins from my already flaccid purse. As I handed them to Mutt I took a last affectionate look at their dear familiar faces.”
Mutt pocketed them. “Yeah, they’re enough to tempt him to bend down to pick them up.”
With that he stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. Somewhere in the distance the whistle was taken up, and I could hear it repeated a number of times even further away. Mutt made no comment, but five minutes later Nail arrived. This lanky and quick moving boy was one of Mutt’s most loyal supporters. Mutt took him aside and asked something. Nail looked a little surprised. “Rotten with ‘em as always.”
“Good, we’ll go that way.”
For no reason that it was worth informing me off, we detoured down three side streets to pay homage to a large hound who was sprawled outside the door of a small house. Mutt produced a small vial from somewhere within his garments and he and Nail searched the dog assiduously until Mutt finally spotted some fleas. They were quickly trapped it in the vial and Mutt stoppered it and handed it to Nail, along with the two coins I’d given him.
“Right, Nail, get Valerin, she’ll help you find Finsal the balladeer. He’s going to Jingling Graan’s tonight and we want to get to him first.”
Nail nodded obediently and ran off at speed. Mutt watched him go with the expression of somebody whose plans are falling nicely into place. Then he turned and led me to the Goldclaw Baths. There we bathed, had our hair cut, and in my case, had a shave as well. Leaving our dirty clothing to be washed, we left. In my case you may assume, rightly, that I was dressed with the instinctive good taste of a performing poet. Mutt was a symphony in powder blue, with satin jacket and knickerbockers. These had been discarded by one of my patrons, her own son had grown out of them twenty years previously. I had saved them for Mutt who had not been entirely gracious when I gave them to him. But to this ensemble he added a small cap with a tassel, and on his feet, shoes; worn with socks.
Thus we made our way to the Graan residence. Less than half way there we were joined by Nail who arrived, as ever, at the run. “’e’s coming. Valerin ‘as ‘im.”
As an aside, I have heard Nail use the letter, ‘h’. It’s just that he seems to feel that it is superfluous and tends to dispense with it.
The use of aitch
Makes him shake
That a letter
Nail disappeared again and Mutt made me stand in a doorway. From there we watched as Valerin, in the training gown of a novice temple dancer, walked past on the opposite side of the road. Just opposite us she allowed the two coins to fall to the floor under her gown. Ten or so paces behind, Finsal the balladeer saw the coins. Casually he bent down to pick them up and as he did so, Nail moved like a shadow out of a side street. As he passed behind Finsal he emptied the vial so that the dog fleas dropped between Finsal’s shirt and britches. Then making no more noise than a puff of smoke, Nail walked quietly down the street away from the scene.
I looked askance at Mutt who merely fixed me with a steely glare. “Now it begins.”
We followed Finsal at a reasonable distance and finally came to the Graan residence. As we entered we were scrutinised by tough looking young men, but it was obvious that neither Mutt nor I was armed. This security was because Jingling Graan is one of the city’s leading criminals. Certainly one of the foremost extortioners. Still, he and his wife are slowly moving towards respectability, and I have no doubt that he will die a Sinecurist. Also I’m willing to bet that after his day, when Madam is in her old age, a grateful city will award her a couple of quarter-husbands to support her in her declining years.
As I walked through the house I realised that Mutt had disappeared. This I shrugged off as, ‘Mutt seeing somebody.’ I had no doubt that Mutt had contacts here.
I joined the throng in the main hall. Madam Graan believes in allowing guests and artists to mingle, rather than keeping we artists segregated in some small side room until we’re needed. I think she’s wise in this. I moved through the guests, greeting friends and patrons and chatting to people. As I moved from one group to another, Mutt appeared at my side. “Jingling Graan’s daughter is home.”
“I didn’t know he had a daughter, Mutt.”
Mutt communicated to me in a staccato whisper. “From first wife. Been living with her family. Come home, Madam said she ought to.”
“Will she be present during the evening.”
“Just arrived after a long ride. Gone to bed to get some sleep. Down later.”
At that point Madam Graan called us to order and asked me to make a few opening remarks. I gave them a few short but barbed verses about the doings of various senior people in the city. (None of whom were likely to be present.) Then I gave them something more classical, gently flattering Madam. With that I bowed and stepped back, Madam Graan would call me later to deliver most of my material. Finsal was called next. As I had delivered my piece I had noticed him, mainly because he seemed to be squirming.
When he came to perform, I assumed that he would sit on a stool to play his lute, but this time he performed standing. Indeed he seemed almost to use the lute to scratch himself with. It struck me that the fleas must be biting.
After his song was over he bowed and made his way through the audience. Mutt stood next to me, watching with satisfaction as a small boy came in carrying a bucket of coal which he put next to the fire. As he left, Finsal bent down to talk to him, slipped the child a few coins, and the boy gestured for the musician to follow. Mutt nudged me, and then set off after Finsal. Of course I followed, it would have been rude not to have done.
The boy had led Finsal upstairs and through the bannisters we could see him open a door into a small darkened room. He lit a candle and gestured for Finsal to go in.
As we drew closer we could see that the boy hadn’t quite shut the door, but stood to ‘guard it.”
As we reached him, the boy whispered to Mutt something about, “He’s had to strip everything off to find a flea.”
Mutt nodded, “Grab his clothes.”
Silently the boy opened the door outwards and slipped in. Seconds later he emerged carrying a bundle of clothing. Mutt shut the door and jammed it shut with a chair. The boy disappeared down the stairs with the clothing and Mutt and I casually followed him. I turned to Mutt. “So you’ve trapped him in that room.”
“Oh it’s just a bathroom. It’s got another door.”
“Where does it lead?”
“Into the bedroom.”
I pondered this as we entered the hall with the rest of the guests. It didn’t look as if our absence had been noted. “Mutt,” I asked. “Who’s in that room?”
“Jingling Graan’s daughter is sleeping there.”
It was at this point that a scream tore through the building. I suspect that the young woman had woken to discover a naked musician tiptoeing through her room.
Jingling Graan was the first man out of the room, a long dagger already drawn. Half a dozen younger and equally heavily armed men fell in behind him as he ran up the stairs. Like a lot of the guests Mutt and I followed. I must admit, Jingling Graan impressed me. There cannot be many man of his age with such a turn of speed, and running upstairs as well. He didn’t even try the door handle, but hit the door with his shoulder without slowing down. We heard the crash as he burst into the room, then there was the sound of glass smashing.
It seems that Finsal was wiser than I would have thought. (Or perhaps, being a troubadour, he was used to the situation?) Realising he was naked in the boudoir of a young lady, with her father and his bodyguards charging in through the door, Finsal had acted with dispatch. He threw himself through the window and luckily for him, he landed on the roof of a carriage parked below.
Stark naked he threw the driver off his seat and without pausing took up the reins himself. The carriage itself was found twenty miles away, Finsal himself was never seen in Port Naain again.
Should you wish to know more about the gentrification of Jingling Graan then I’d recommend
As a reviewer commented, “In this entertaining book by Jim Webster, the reader is treated to the ins and outs of sedan chair racing in Port Naain. Sedan chair racing comprises of chairs, transporting various wealthy ladies of impeccable social standing, borne by fit young men called sedan chair bearers, which raced each other through the streets. The ladies are not at all good sports and all sorts of interesting cheats take place during these races which are bet on by those in the city with a propensity for gambling.
We are introduced to a number of intriguing characters. Mistress Bream is one, an elderly lady whose decreased mobility is depriving her of the fun and social interaction she yearns for. Her various supporters arrange to have a special chair with wheels built for her and Tallis, a poet and the hero of the story, is invited to visit and view her new acquisition. This is the start of an extraordinary tale the results in Tallis seeing Mistress Bream’s son chasing a pair of sedan chair bearers with an axe and being coerced into finding out what has caused this odd behaviour. Tallis’ quest for the truth of the matter leads him to meeting Mistress Graan, the wife of a local gangster, who wishes to be seen as more cultured. Tallis agrees to assist her with hosting a poets soiree and he soon becomes embroiled in her ambitions, including her desires with regards to the sedan chair racing in the city.
I enjoyed the little pieces of poetry that the author wove into the story to enhance it. Once such piece was as follows:
“Who would not stare?
When the sedan chair
Comes a cropper
Will Tallis manage to hold a successful soiree for Mistress Graan and help her on her way to social acceptance? Will Mistress Graan achieve her goal of a win in the next sedan chair race? Will Tallis discover why Mistress Bream’s son was behaving so strangely?
You will have to read this lovely book to find out.”