When I was comparatively young and undoubtedly more innocent that I am now, I remember being present at an affair hosted by the ‘Port Naain Society of anonymous lady philanthropists’. The society is an interesting one. The idea was that one of the ladies would hold a dance, a soiree or some other event at their home. Lady guests would be strictly enjoined not to wear anything new for the event but instead were to secretly make a cash donation by dropping coins into one of the collecting urns. The design of the urn meant that one couldn’t see what coins were being dropped. Obviously surreptitious attempts were made to defeat this secrecy, one lady had a usurer’s clerk stand next to the urn on the reasonable assumption that his familiarity with coin meant that he could tell the amount dropped by the sound made. Subsequent hostesses have taken firm action to assume this never happened again. The presence of the urn is normally signalled by the presence of a piper, a horn player or in one case, a full string orchestra.
Actually the concept was very popular, and gentlemen whose wife wasn’t a member of the society would speak warmly of it and even offer to escort their wife to one of the events. The society was also popular amongst those who were not well off and who could therefore wear the same outfit without modification several times without shame.
It was at one of those events that I happened to notice Madam Halgan strolling arm and arm with Madam Malwin. It struck me that I had tended to see the two ladies in each other’s company when they were out and about. So when just making conversation to another lady I mentioned in passing that Mesdames Halgan and Malwin seemed to be great friends. The lady gave me a pitying smile, patted my cheek and called me a ‘sweet boy.’
This, I confess, intrigued me. So a fortnight later I chanced to be in a situation where I was expected to make conversation with Madam Halgan. Just out of interest I pointed out Madam Malwin standing on the other side of the room, deep in conversation. “Who is that lady?”
Immediately Madam Halgan became conspiratorial. “That, dear boy, is Madam Malwin. She is a past convenor of the Port Naain Society of anonymous lady philanthropists. A more deeply devious woman never drew breath, nobody trusts her.”
When, sometime later, I was alone in the presence of Madam Malwin and pointed out to her Madam Halgan and asked the same question. Madam Malwin glanced around to see if we could be overheard and hissed, “That is Madam Halgan. She is a past convenor of the Port Naain Society of anonymous lady philanthropists. Never trust her, nobody else does. A more sly and devious woman never lived.”
Half an hour later I saw them both arm in arm discussing whether silk was really suitable for summer dresses.
I confess that I was left somewhat bewildered by all this, but as a young man whose art took him into complicated places, bewilderment was often my default condition. Still a fortnight later, young Madam Willat summoned me to her home and announced that she had been elected convenor of the anonymous lady philanthropists. Thus she wanted to hire me to perform at a soiree. I agreed enthusiastically and we immediately started planning the event.
Now it is at this point that you really ought to take your poet most deeply into your confidence. After all, it is his role not merely to entertain your guests, but also to be your support and to ensure that things run smoothly. So if you have been forced, by an unkind fate, to invite two ladies who are currently daggers drawn in a state of feud, let your poet know. In one instance I found myself trapped between two ladies. I had, in all innocence, asked them to sing along with me. They both had beautiful voices and I knew from previous occasions they both knew the words, and obviously enjoyed performing. How was I to know that they both blamed the other for the incident with the cellist, the downstairs maid, and the oversized pair of lady’s nether-garments?
So in this case I asked my hostess whether Mesdames Halgan and Malwin would be coming.
“I sincerely hope so. I invited them and hinted that the other would be there.”
“Is that not a little ‘brave’,” I asked. “After all, you are newly in post as convenor. Both ladies will doubtless have plenty of advice for you.”
“That was my thinking as well, Tallis. So when I became convenor, I wrote both ladies a brief note saying how much I had been in awe of what they had achieved when they were in post and that I would be delighted to hear any advice they cared to offer. Thus and so, they both think me a charming young woman, wise beyond her years and a fine example of modern womanhood.”
I tried to look astute. “I can understand their reaction.”
“But by inviting them both to events, I thus ensure that they both spend all their time ensuring the other doesn’t get up to mischief. Hence I can get on running things without their interfering.”
I bowed deeply to her. Madam, you are indeed wise beyond your years and a fine example of modern womanhood.
If you want to know more about life in Port Naain, and how to maintain your place in society, then read
Life for a jobbing poet is difficult. You have to be flexible with regard to your art. One day you’re organising an elegant soiree, the next a pie eating contest. Yet all the while you are striving to raise the tone and to ensure that decency, dignity, and an appreciation of the fine arts prevails.
And sadly it appears that the more honest your attempts, the more noble your endeavours, the more likely it is that you end up making enemies. Tallis helps out the family of an old friend, obliges a patron, and does his best to aid the authorities in the administration of justice. Each time he merely manages to upset the powerful, the petty, and the vindictive.