There are some who claim that Maljie has, in her time, been a celebrated leader of fashion. Others, less generous, have asked just when this time was. Indeed they hint that it might have been about the time we stopped wearing poorly tanned hides or garments of woven grass.
To be fair, I don’t remember the era of poorly tanned hides, but I do remember a ball that Madam Hassenbut held. Here she insisted that all the ladies must wear dresses of woven grasses or leaves. She had an ulterior motive, in that she insisted that ladies donate to her chosen charity the money saved by not by buying a dress. You can see why she never bothered adopting the same ploy with the gentlemen. She was wise enough to know that many men, if left to their own devices, would arrive at a ball wearing the jacket their father had paid for in his youth. Still, always magnanimous, she did allow ladies to wear small clothes and even a shift of more conventional material, provided it couldn’t be seen.
It has to be said that what initially struck me as an interesting style concept proved less successful in practice. Apparently the garments lacked the structural integrity that a lady might expect from her clothing. It is not for nothing that corset stays, for example, are made from steel or bone rather than plaited grasses. Thus dresses that won applause during the initial perambulation tended to go, literally, to pieces once the dancing started.
Mind you, given they were all in the same boat, the ladies shrugged and got on with their evening. Indeed I have been told since that several marriages were rejuvenated by the process and one girl child born nine months after was known as ‘Daisy’ in memory of the occasion.
But I seem to have drifted away from the topic of Maljie. It has to be admitted that she does exhibit some foibles when it comes to dress. One quirk is her casual disregard for footwear. Whether this is merely something that has remained with her since her youth, or a more disreputable habit that she developed in middle years I have never plucked up the courage to ask.
The other ‘foible’ was wearing trousers. Well obviously not long trousers, the garments of a common working man. I remember one criminal, condemned to the scaffold and forced to wear prison attire for his execution, protested most vehemently. Eventually when it was obvious that he wasn’t going to be provided with breeches like a gentleman, he cast aside the trousers entirely and walked, bare-buttocked, to the gallows.
The trousers Maljie wore were breeches, made for her to her own particular specification by a tailor. Obviously they had to be made to measure, as the trousers made for gentlemen will rarely fit a lady. For a gentleman you can have the waist and the hips about the same, because a decent belt solves most problems. Then you want good deep pockets. For a lady you must first get the hips right, then you need a lot smaller waist, and pockets so small as to be utterly useless.
Maljie’s breeches were not merely designed to fit, but had any number of fastenings. At various places, normally along the seams, there were ‘drawstrings’ of elegant complexity. This meant that simply by tightening (or loosening) the strings, you could ensure that the breeches fitted perfectly. Behind the drawstrings was an adequacy of material to ensure that decency was maintained should the drawstrings be loosened to their limit.
It must be admitted that her ensemble made an impression. Even after her sister Margarita had prevailed upon her to wear shoes and matching stockings with them. Still, before decorum had been restored, Maljie had caused a sensation by opening a bottle of wine and pouring herself a glass using only her bare feet.
Another reason Maljie caused a sensation was because of the waistcoat. She discovered, after only a little experimentation, that a gentleman’s waistcoat, cut properly, (and the buttons sewn on with strong thread) could provide a lady with ample support.
Still Maljie is not a lady to let ground breaking success go to her head. She had stunned fashionable society and many ladies discussed with their dressmakers whether they dare attempt to follow her. It must be admitted that few did, and most lacked the dexterity in their pedal extremities to emulate her technique with the wine bottle. Only Almas Slackwater challenged her supremacy in that matter, as she managed to light and smoke a pipe of lichen.
Mind you, the story of that competition is worth telling in itself. Madam Cockeren had a maid, Tillia, who was much enamoured with Vladan, a footman who worked for Madam Mudfold. Such things happen and fortunately Vladan was utterly smitten with Tillia. So far I can see you nodding along with this. An old story, which normally has a modestly happy ending with matrimony, children, grandchildren, and suchlike. But in this case there was an obstacle in the way of the story proceeding further. Madam Cockeren and Madam Mudfold had been in a state of feud. By the time of this story, more reasonable people had stepped in and the two ladies were no longer at daggers drawn. (Or if drawn they were at least not brandishing them openly.) But as you can imagine, a potential liaison between those beneath the stairs was frowned upon.
I managed to achieve a small step forward. I found Vladan a position on the rural estate of a patron. The patron wasn’t merely happy for Vladan to marry, she had worked his future wife into her plans. Tillia would step in nicely to fill the shoes of an older woman who had decided to go and live with her daughter, to act as an unpaid nursery nurse looking after her grandchildren. All I needed now was to extract Tillia from the somewhat suffocating embrace of the Cockeren household.
Fortunately I thought to mention the problem to Maljie and she immediately contacted the young mistress Slackwater and laid a plan before her. The two ladies then contrived to be invited to the next Cockeren family entertainment.
One didn’t have to be particularly observant to realise something was about to happen, when both Maljie and Almas arrived (separately) wearing breeches. Word rippled through the household that a challenge was about to be delivered. By the time Almas issued her challenge in the grand withdrawing room, not merely were all the guests present, but so was the entire family (including an elderly aunt of nervous disposition and an aged uncle who was notoriously deaf).
By the time Maljie and Almas had removed their stockings and shoes, the entire Cockeren domestic staff had also managed to find legitimate reason to be present. Thus is was with considerable ease that Vladan and I helped Tillia carry her trousseau out of the house. I assisted them stacking it on the farm cart that Vladan had arrived in and then I made my way back to the house. By the time I arrived, the great competition was over. Maljie had poured a glass of wine which Almas had drunk. Almas had filled her pipe with lichen, lit it, and Maljie had smoked it. Both ladies were mingling with the guests. Graceful complements were being exchanged, and everybody was discussing the spectacle. But I confess I never did discover whether one or the other was considered the winner of the challenge.
The next day the three of us, along with Shena, my lady wife, did attend the wedding of Tillia and Vadan. Shena and I were forced to borrow the farm cart to drive the other two home.
Still I seem to have strayed a little from the point. One advantage of her breeches was that as she grew older, they still fitted. I remember on one occasion we attended the Grand Sinecurists Ball, to raise funds to help feed our mendicants.
Passing quietly along the buffet table, I managed to secrete a couple of bottles of passable white wine in the poacher’s pockets of my coat. Maljie managed to deposit two cooked pike, a full horrocks tongue, a bottle of Urlan plum brandy, and a shoulder of roast mott in her breeches. Admittedly that was with the drawstrings fully loosened. It also has to be admitted that her gait was not perhaps the most elegant she had ever displayed. Indeed some might claim that she waddled. But the mendicants dined well the following day.
Should you wish to know the lady better
In his own well chosen words, Tallis Steelyard reveals to us the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. In no particular order we hear about her bathing with clog dancers, her time as a usurer, pirate, and the difficulties encountered when one tries to sell on a kidnapped orchestra. We enter a world of fish, pet pigs, steam launches, theological disputation, and the use of water under pressure to dispose of foul smelling birds. Oh yes, and we learn how the donkey ended up on the roof.
As a reviewer commented “Maljie is a pretty amazing woman, especially when you consider she has to deal with living in Port Naain, which is a medieval fantasy city. However, she is not one to let such things as expected gender roles hold her back – indeed no, those are merely there to be exploited!
We see Maljie and learn of her adventures through the eyes of Tallis Steelyard, a jobbing poet and himself an acute and wickedly perceptive inhabitant of Port Naain.
These stories are not so much a collection of anecdotes as a tour de force of hilarious and unlikely situations brought together in a single volume and showing the unstoppable rise and rise of the irrepressible Marjie.
If you want some feel-good reading to brighten your day, Jim Webster is your man and Maljie is, most certainly the right woman for the job!”