This tale has to be true, I had it from Maljie in person. She was in discursive mood, having been released from her sickbed and allowed outside to frolic winsomely (or otherwise) over strong coffee and ridiculously large pieces of fruitcake.
Now it appears that at one point, her brother was proud possessor of a talking bird. It was of modest size and was apparently a ‘Bar-rigged Beauty’ or so the seaman he purchased it from, assured him. Nautical types who travel to the distant west on the great metal ships will buy the damned things from natives who cunningly disguise their loathing of the foreigners who doubtless exploit them; and seek to overthrow their enemies by foisting upon them birds trained to the highest degree of savagery. This bird had a long complicated name in some quaint native dialect, I am assured it was something like Nellabarstupentavotis. I assume it means, “Small feathered demon with irritating personal habits and a savage disposition.” The family called it Nella for short. This had the happy accident of naming the bird after another maiden aunt. When maiden aunt Balthusia disappointed them by totally forgetting to include them in her will, the family cast about for another potential source of largesse to flatter.
Whilst Maljie was indeed painted with Nella, neither of them appeared in the same room together. Indeed the painter, having seen Nella in action, merely sketched the creature though the window of the family withdrawing room. No, within the family it was well established that Nella belonged to her brother, Maltraverse. Thus Nella shared his home, living alongside his wife and an increasing number of doubtless adorable children. Let us be fair to the beast, it seems to have left the family alone, reserving its bile for outsiders.
Now this story is set at the time of the winter solstice. Maltraverse’s lady wife was a young lady from one of the villages to the north of Port Naain. In Port Naain we have our own customs, which of course are the only civilised way of celebrating the event. It has to be admitted that there are those from remote, rustic, or frankly barbaric regions who do not share our traditions. To be fair there is little one can do about it, save perhaps shake your head sadly and give thanks to Aea that you were indeed born in Port Naain.
But having brought his wife into the very heart of his household, giving her precedence over all, including that blasted bird of his, Maltraverse obviously felt obliged to let her bring some of her customs with her.
Now I don’t want you to think that Peti, the lady in question, was mad, bad, or stupid. Indeed some of her customs were actually rather jolly. But in the year in question she had set her heart on having a solstice tree. I have travelled around some of these far northern villages. Each house will have perhaps a dozen trees planted a safe distance from them. They will then decorate one with candles which they will light on dark, still, nights. The effect is apparently quite magical. Indeed given you have a resinous pine tree being exposed to considerable quantities of naked flame, the shift from magical to spectacular can be quite abrupt. But each year the family will decorate the least charred tree.
Unfortunately for Peti, they did not have a garden with suitable trees. But she arranged to have a tree sent from home by carrier and erected it within the withdrawing room. At this point Maltraverse, doubtless absolute master in his own household, and lord of all he surveyed, felt obliged to enter onto negotiations. He pointed out that whilst the tree was a thing of beauty, he felt that enhancing this beauty in a fleeting manner that might also result in burning the house down, was perhaps a path to be shunned. Peti was too wise to pout or to allow a solitary tear to trickle down her cheek, but she obviously looked a little disappointed. Also at this point, so did the children. Maltraverse hastily improvised. Port Naain, whilst not known for its fireworks, other than in a metaphorical sense, does have them. Also one or two amateur chemists, Maltraverse among them, had come up with some indoor fireworks. Frankly I find them pointless. You have all the disadvantages of smoke and stench, but trapped in an enclosed area. As to the advantages they have little of the remarkable beauty of the real thing. Still at this point they were in their infancy and their potential was as yet merely hinted at.
It so happened that Peti had planned an evening solstice gathering, at which there would be a lot of her friends and their children. Perhaps, she suggested, he could have some of his fireworks there to decorate the tree with. Maltraverse, suddenly realising the marketing possibilities, concluded that his wife was as wise as she was beautiful and agreed instantly.
Thus and so, the plan was laid and the guests invited. At this point Maljie enters our story. She was of course invited. Indeed she was in the happy situation that some young ladies with older siblings find themselves in. She was the glamourous aunt. Young, beautiful and free-spending. The sort of creature whom nieces model themselves on, much to their mother’s silent disapproval; and who haunts the dreams of her nephews meaning that she becomes the canon against which they measure the young ladies who enter their lives.
But less of the philosophy and back to the party. It was a great success. Happy guests dined well at a buffet, childish games were played, with great gusto, by the parents, as their offspring looked on with silent disapproval. Finally Peti announced the highlight of the evening, the fireworks. She led everyone into the withdrawing room where the tree stood, faintly illuminated in the darkness.
Now off to one side of the room was an alcove where Nella lived. The alcove was festooned with branches and similar and on these Nella would perch. She was awakened by the throng and much to her disgust they ignored her and appeared to concentrate their gaze upon the tree. Now Nella was not adverse to the silent worshipful adoration of the masses. If they came too close she’d take off an inquiring finger with one snap of her beak, but otherwise she was happy to be esteemed. Being ignored for some damned tree was too much for her.
As Maltraverse lit the fuse which would light the fireworks in an appropriate order, Nella pounced. She flew across the room, grabbed the tree with her talons and with a single snap, she decapitated her rival. This left the tree a foot shorter than it had been. Unfortunately her point of attack was badly chosen. She cut into the first firework, just as it was ignited.
Now let us be fair here. Maltraverse had taken a great deal of care with his powders and mixing. Everything was tamped down just so. But he had of course assumed in his innocence that fate was not out to get him. He had never calculated the effect of a large bird biting one of his fireworks in half just as it ignited. So in my eyes he is innocent, if misguided. As for Nella, the monstrous bird was not guided at all. There was what appeared to be an enormous explosion and Nella flew backwards as rapidly as she had flown forwards. The room was filled with wailing and sobbing children who were either terrified of the smoke and noise, or who assumed Nella was dead.
As the rest of the fireworks enjoyed their brief moment of glory almost unheeded, Maljie scooped up Nella with the coal tongs (which is as close as she wished to come to the bird) and flipped her back among her branches. Nella managed to grasp one with an instinctive twitch of her talons and hung there, upside down, dazed and confused. Maljie helped Peti usher her guests back into the dining room where spirits were raised with glasses of sherbet for the children, and plum brandy for the adults.
Apparently the tree disappeared from the room that very night, and neither solstice trees nor indoor fireworks have been mentioned in that household since.
Should you wish to know more of the entirely respectable life of Maljie, a lady of many parts, I can but recommend you purchase this, for a mere 99p
As a reviewer commented, “Maljie is indeed a Lady Par Excellence. From mountain climber to pirate, currency inventor to financial genius, balloonist to Temple Warden, and more – much, much, more…
The female reader will want her as a best friend, the male reader would be wise to exercise extreme caution if he knows another lady like her.”