It has to be confessed that Elisa Doon was not a conventional young lady. Her father, Mandrak Doon was a wealthy man, in parts, a usurer, lawyer, merchant adventurer and (quietly and with never a mention to anybody else) a philosopher. Elisa was considered beautiful, with elegant carriage and delightful manners. But it must be said that some of her contemporaries, (and all of their mothers) considered her flighty and no-better-than-she-should-be. The reason for this was that she was a great reader.
Some young ladies will take a novel with them when they go to a dance. It acts as camouflage. It means that if the gentlemen are too befuddled to recognise true beauty and thus neglect to ask them to dance, they can claim they never noticed, so engrossed were they in their book.
If Elisa took a novel with her when she went to a dance, it was because she wanted to read it rather more than she wanted to avoid the heavy feet and wandering hands of those partners chance threw at her.
I confess I rather like Elisa. On those occasions when our paths have crossed and she seemed to welcome conversation, we have discussed everything from the great literary classics to the latest twenty-dreg bodice-ripper doing the rounds. At functions, she would often take a seat near her father, which is a nice thing for a young lady to do. To be fair he was normally engrossed in either the financial pages or some profound discussion on metaphysics or epistemology. Also it should be remembered that age had left him slightly deaf so he was normally oblivious to the flow of conversation. Thus he wasn’t easily tempted into participating in it. To Elisa he was the perfect companion.
Things came to a head when Elisa was forced, by convention, to grace with her presence the Sinecurists’ Summer Ball. She and her father were happily ensconced in comfortable chairs. Then some male of her own age presumed upon her courtesy and asked her to dance. Of course she refused. To be fair, she refused most prettily, but still, she refused. He retired defeated to a group of young people who were chattering together nearby and muttered something disparaging about Elisa. With this, a rival of his, sneering at him, stepped forward to press his own suit. Elisa again refused, and it could be her refusal was less nuanced. Her prospective suitor retired back to the group where he was met by the mockery of his male friends, and that shrill laughter that a crowd of young woman not long out of girlhood can produce.
The laughter may well have been the last straw, even Mandrak may have heard it because he glanced around but returned to his paper and an article on the fact that the amount of gold in the Avitas alar had dropped from nominal to nugatory. When the third young man stepped forward to press his claim for a dance, Elisa’s expression stopped him in his tracks and led to him retreating, shamefaced, to the safety of numbers.
By now the high-pitched shrieks of laughter were making the dance-floor hideous and various of the young woman were making half-heard comments about Elisa’s general plainness, the unfashionable nature of her dress, and the dumpiness of her figure. This in itself would merely have been irritating and eventually an older lady would doubtless have glared at them and decorum would have been restored. But at this point the young ‘gentlemen’ in the party also made loud and pointed comments. These were brutally cutting and had Elisa had a brother present, he would have doubtless stepped forward to put an end to it. Alas, whilst Mandrak and his wife had done their best to provide Elisa with everything a girl might need, they had somehow neglected to provide her with a brother.
Still it was at this point that Teadan Pillan stepped into the breach. He marched across to the group and slapped one young man across the face and told him, in no uncertain terms, what he thought of him. The individual he had struck, rather than accepting the chastisement as justly deserved, cursed him and swung at him with a wine bottle. Teadan, ducked under the bottle, grabbed his opponent by both lapels and head-butted him in the face. At that point things started to go downhill rapidly. At Elisa’s prompting her father rose, magisterially, from his seat, picked up his brass-headed cane, and made his way across. By the time he arrived, Teadan, bleeding profusely from a blow to the side of the head, was clearing a space round himself with a chair, wielded in both hands, and the floor was a litter of bodies, blood, dropped fans and handbags. Mandrak used his cane to disarm one young man who was drawing his dress rapier, and summoned the waiters who hastened to break things up, now that the main of the work had been done.
Assessing the situation, Mandrak put his sedan chair at Teadan’s disposal, and insisted in walking alongside as the chair took the young man home to his parent’s house. There he lauded their son to the skies. They thanked him with somewhat bewildered gratitude and had the family doctor put a couple of stitches in the young warrior’s scalp before packing him off to bed. At the same time Elisa, in her sedan chair, accompanied by a phalanx of torch-bearers and lantern carriers, made her own way home. Elisa’s mother returned home some hours later having missed the commotion and having generally had a very pleasant evening.
Next morning, over breakfast, Madam Doon, in her role as senior lady and arbiter of manners within the household, insisted that the least that Elisa could do was to formally visit young Teadan Pillan, if only to enquire after his health. Rather to her surprise, Madam found that her husband was seconding her in this. Elisa, realising that she was outnumbered, decided that they were probably right, so agreed in good grace that she would go along with their wishes.
Thus it was that midmorning found her standing at the door of the Pillan household. The maid who opened the door announced her with great formality and Madam Pillan welcomed her graciously. After the usual courtesies about the roads, the weather, the exchange of mutual admiration for the other’s dress and hair, and a glass of two of a pleasant infusion, Elisa asked after Teadan. Madam summoned a maid and instructed her to escort Elisa to Teadan’s room.
There, with a maid standing discreetly outside the open door, Elisa thanked her gallant champion.
Teadan, still somewhat pale and slightly nauseous, assured her that it had been his privilege.
Even as this brief exchange of platitudes took place, Elisa allowed her eyes to stray over the pile of books on Teadan’s bedside table. She was pleased with what she saw there. So picking up one title that she too had read, she asked his opinion of the book. His reply showed that whilst his opinion did not march in lockstep with hers, he had both read the work and had given it serious consideration.
Worried that she might be overtiring him she made her excuses and prepared to leave. Teadan expressed the wish that she would be so kind as to visit him the following day when he hoped to be a more considerate host. Elisa after virtually no hesitation at all, agreed.
Next day when Elisa arrived, she was shown into the library. Here Teadan was seated on the couch and rose to greet her as she entered. She hastened across to insist that he sit down at once. He agreed, provided she would sit with him. Solicitous of his welfare, she agreed, and the young couple talked in an animated fashion for some time before Elisa managed to tear herself away.
A month later, Teadan formally approached Mandrak Doon to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Mandrak pondered briefly, then summoned Elisa and asked what her view was on the matter. Gravely Elisa said that she would be delighted to married Teadan. Mandrak, feeling that he wasn’t so much losing a daughter as he was gaining a son-in-law who had already shown his willingness to defend her with considerable and well targeted violence, happily gave his approval.
Should you wish to learn more of Port Naain society, you might wish to read
As a reviewer commented, “The book begins with the perils of being a painter’s apprentice. Someone has to rearrange the sitters’ hair, add the artful blossoms and dust away the crumbs from their snacks.
Several young men are sent to liberate valuable artefacts that are later sold for the upkeep of an asylum for the poor. Should things be black and white, right and wrong, or is it all about nuances, checks and balances?
We touch on fire-fighting, lady writers, solstice celebrations and more. Port Naain. All human life is there, and it’s documented with humour and acute observation.”