I’ve known Mistress Bete for many years. If I may take the liberty of calling her a sensible young woman without seeming to insult her, I shall avail myself of that privilege. She was born into a class which accepted that a daughter would have to work for a living, at least until she married and started a family. Thus her family had done their best to ensure that she had such education as they could afford.
To be fair, she was one of those pupils who, once they had been taught to read, plunge into the maelstrom of learning, leaving their teachers far behind. She read voraciously.
Her first employment was as a maid in a large and respectable house, and the housekeeper soon learned not to allow her to ‘dust the library’. Still, the lady of the house, once she realised the girl could be trusted, was happy to let her borrow books to read in her room. Indeed my suspicion is that she moved on to another position when she’d read every book in the house.
In the next house she worked in, she drifted into the position of pedagogue for the two daughters of the house. Her duties came to include escorting them to Madam Frothwhissal’s Academy for Young Ladies. Once she’d escorted them home her next task was to ensure they did whatever reading Madam Frothwhissal had set for them.
Inevitably, if a young woman wishes to get on in life, she has to keep moving on to new and more responsible positions. So when she heard rumours that Madam Mechan was looking for a new housekeeper, she applied for the post. To be fair, she didn’t really expect to get the position, but she felt that merely applying would be useful experience. Madam invited her to interview and when Bete arrived she was escorted to the more formal of the two withdrawing rooms. This one served (rather inadequately) as a library. Almost without thinking, Bete browsed the shelves whilst she was waiting and five minutes after being shown into the room she was already sitting reading.
The fact that Bete was managing to amuse herself was fortunate as it was a difficult day for the Mechan household. Hughart Mechan was a usurer. He was apparently a very successful member of his profession, his abilities discussed in hushed whispers by his peers. Indeed he proved to be more competent than any of them suspected. He managed to syphon considerable sums of money out of various partnership accounts and transfer it out of the city. Finally, as was inevitable, somebody realised what he was doing. Luckily for Hughart he was tipped off by a clerk whose loyalty had been assured by regular cash payments, (abstracted by devious means from yet another partnership account.) Hughart collected his hat and coat from the staff cloakroom, and informed the respectfully saluting doorman that he was nipping out for an early lunch prior to meeting with a client. He made his way home, collected his lady wife and children, telling cook and the housemaid to have the evening meal ready at the usual time. The family were last seen boarding the Roskadil ferry.
Bete was oblivious of this. She sat reading in the formal withdrawing room. It has to be admitted that when she finished the first book and went to get a second, it did occur to her that the behaviour of her potential employer was somewhat strange. Still, it has to be confessed, the candidate for interview is faced with a limited suite of options when it comes to demanding to be seen.
At the same time the housemaid and cook were in something of a quandary. It was obvious that their mistress had forgotten about the interview. Still the person being interviewed was likely to get the job (if only on the grounds nobody else suitable had applied for it). Thus they felt they would be wise to treat Bete with courtesy. So the housemaid explained that Madam had been called out, but provided their guest with a pot of tea and a light collation. Bete was suitably grateful (and impressed).
It was just before Cook was going to announce the evening meal that the watch arrived. The watch, in the person of Ensign Matters Broadwain (plus four lesser lights who were there to provide muscle if it should be necessary) wished to speak to Hughart Mechan. The impression given was that Master Mechan would not enjoy the interview. The Housemaid explained that there was nobody present but her, the cook and (in a moment of inspiration), the new housekeeper who had not yet taken up her position.
Bete was thus, perhaps uniquely, confirmed in her appointment by the officer who had come to arrest her employer. Now Matten Broadwain was no fool. He soon realised that not only had Bete no residual loyalty to her employers, she had never met them. So he formally placed her in charge of the premises and made her responsible to the city for their upkeep and maintenance. Having taken whatever papers he felt might be relevant to the case he was pursuing, he departed, promising to return soon.
Over their evening meal, the three ladies discussed their situation. Whilst there didn’t appear to be any hope of salaries, there was at least plenty of food in the larder and cook was confident that if she did the shopping next morning, she would be able to buy food on the usual credit terms. For a day or so she felt confident that various shopkeepers would be working on the assumption that Hughart Mechan would settle his account at the month end. At some point word would leak out that he had fled, but thanks to the fact he hadn’t been spectacularly arrested and hauled away in chains, word was taking its time.
Next morning the three sallied out and purchased provisions as if they expected to be besieged. Their immediate future temporarily secure, they pondered how they could support themselves. Bete, who had seen Madam Frothwhissal’s Academy for Young Ladies operate from very close quarters, was sure she could run something similar, only doing a better job. The other two ladies, realising that this plan held out hope of them keeping their positions, agreed to it.
Next day, Ensign Broadwain arrived with various documents to sign. Bete put forward her scheme for a school, feeling that she probably needed conformation from the city that she was entitled to do it in their building. The young Ensign thought it an excellent idea, but suggested a variant. The watch was supposed to provide an education for the children of watch personnel. At the moment this appeared to consist of leaving them in the main watch house where they were educated by the custody sergeant of the day.
Now before anybody thinks I am disdainful, let me insist that I am second to none in my admiration for custody sergeants. But the education they can provide tends, on the whole, to be patchy in some areas and over-specialised in others. Given that there was a fund accumulating to pay somebody to teach the children properly, Ensign Broadwain suggested that she offer to provide the service.
Thanks to some behind the scenes lobbying on her behalf by the good Ensign, when Bete tentatively approached the proper authorities, they were delighted by her offer. So she was in business. In the morning she had the older, or at least the more literate offspring. (In all candour one hesitates to call them scholars.) In the afternoon they were replaced by the younger offspring of the watch. This happened for five consecutive days. On the sixth day (thanks to the lobbying of some of the more adventurous girls) the pupils were once more consigned to the custody sergeant. Indeed as the months went by, Bete was able to open up other options, offering training with Cook and the Housemaid (the latter was an accomplished needle-woman.) On the next day, the children were allowed to remain in the collective bosoms of their families.
Whilst things appeared to be going well, in the background, there were complications. Hughart Mechan had disappeared owing any number of people a lot of money. Most of these people were casting acquisitive eyes on the house where Bete was now living. But of course the house was in the care of the city, and would remain there until the city was assured that Hughart Mechan didn’t owe them money.
Ensign Broadwain remained in charge of the routine side of the investigation and he discovered that the city was indeed owed money. Still the sum owed was almost nominal, (when viewed through the eyes of usurers and not those of a penurious poet) and the sale of the house would pay the debt a hundred times over. After some thought the Ensign marked the value of the house down considerably. After all it was no longer a ‘desirable residence’, it was a school room. Also, without discussing the matter with Bete, he increased considerably the amount the watch had agreed to pay for schooling. But to spare everybody’s blushes, he neglected to ensure this extra money was in point of fact paid.
In theory he had plenty of opportunities to discuss these details. Duty insisted that he visit the house to ensure the safety of the city’s property at least once a week. He was a personable young man living on his own and it seemed only fair to invite him to dinner, thus ensuring that he had a least one decent meal a week. Indeed he was a favourite of the household and Ensign Broadwain had somehow become known to the three ladies as Matten.
Matters had proceeded happily enough for a year, when Matten, suddenly formal, confessed to Bete that the city owed her a considerable sum of money. It had been underpaying her for the teaching work she had been doing, and he wondered if she would spare him and the watch embarrassment by accepting the house in full and final settlement of the city’s debt. Somewhat surprised by this turn of events, Bete agreed.
Matten also had another suggestion to make. The watch had a hall they didn’t use much. That could be turned into a school room with very little effort and Bete could transfer her teaching there. This would have the advantage of giving her back her two withdrawing rooms and would enable her to reequip one or both as proper libraries. Surprised but delighted, Bete agreed and Matten was able to go back to the watch house and reduce the amount the city was nominally paying Bete to the amount the watch was actually paying. Thus as a dutiful officer he had ensured that the city would not find itself embarrassed by debt.
It was three months later that Matten arrived at the house escorting three heavily loaded drays. It seems that Yarrow Stilthwaite had passed away and his widow had taken this opportunity to get her house back. Yarrow’s library had not as much expanded as exploded throughout the house. The widow asked Matten if he would dispose of old Yarrow’s books. Matten got the library for the cost of taking it away. He asked Bete if she wanted it?
Matten took three weeks leave from the watch and turned up with two carpenters and a lot of wood. By the end of the period they had just about got the books properly displayed. It was at some point in those three weeks that, by unspoken mutual agreement, Bete and Matten decided to get married.
Hired to do a comparatively simple piece of mapping work Benor should perhaps have been suspicious when the pay seemed generous.
Will he ever get to the bottom of what is going on?
How rough is the rough justice of rural Partann?
How to clean out a privy with a crossbow. Welcome to the pastoral idyll.
As a reviewer commented, “All Jim Websters expected miniaturists eye mix of detailed world and character building, whimsy,keaton like madcap action and philosophy. Excellent as ever.”