Only a short walk at dawn

If I am strictly honest, Filbran Autichan is a difficult person to write about. There are ‘issues.’ A fair proportion of his exploits cannot be committed to paper because no respectable publication would print them. Indeed I have known scandal sheets turn away true tales of his exploits.

On the other hand, even if the tales were published, the writer and publisher would then be overwhelmed by writs for libel. Even when he walked among us and people would greet him affably in the street or in various dining establishments, nobody ever admitted publically to being friendly with him.

“Oh I know him,” I heard a lady say, “But I doubt we’ve ever exchanged three words.”

Given that she was his mistress for ten years, I personally would prefer to draw a veil over their relationship.

Provided I don’t mention his business partners by name, (at least those of them who are still alive and influential) I think I am safe to declare that he worked in the rougher and more disreputable end of the usury market. All those small businessmen who couldn’t raise the loan they needed to start a business, expand a business, or keep their business afloat, would eventually turn to Filbran.

Filbran always paid. Yes he demanded security, his rates were high but then so were the risks, but I know perfectly respectable merchants and traders who were saved from penury because Filbran stood behind them when they needed the capital.

So Yilas Bran, grain merchant and trader, only survived because of Filbran. Bran bought more grain than was wise and then news came of a bumper harvest in Partann. The grain price started to fall, rapidly. Had it not been for the fortunate spontaneous combustion of three fully loaded grain ships in the harbour at Prae Ducis, Yilas would probably have been ruined. Me? I make no comment.

Then there was Argile Festoon. Now I willingly admit that Argile is not a bad singer. Indeed I would claim that he is a fine actor who can sing well enough, rather than a great singer who can act a bit. When he started his own troupe of performers I confess that I quite looked forward to seeing their interpretation of some of the great works. After all, a lot of performances consist of fat middle-aged but extremely competent singers waddling around the stage pretending to be love-struck adolescents. With Argile and his performers, you didn’t need to close your eyes lest the magic of the event be dispelled. With Argile the singer would at least look as if they were young enough to remember their adolescence, and still slim enough to almost fit the clothes they wore then.

Alas, Argile struggled for work, for recognition, and I feared he would fail. I saw him one morning in deep discussion with Filbran as they walked along Ropewalk. Two days later the entire cast of the operetta Bagstuff, playing at the Stack in the heart of Port Naain, was kidnapped! Partannese bandits swooped in the middle of the night and stole away the entire cast who were smuggled deep into Uttermost Partann. There they were sold to the Lord of Death Path Keep who had apparently a love of light opera. Had Argile and his troupe not been available, fully rehearsed and able to perform the very next evening, it could have been a disaster for the arts in Port Naain.

But Filbran didn’t ignore those lesser people prevented from starting on their chosen career by a simple lack of funds. Vaz the Limp wanted to get into jewellery. It was a comparatively small loan from Filbran which enabled him to buy a glass cutter, a really good handy crowbar of first quality steel, and some putty to stick to the glass. From such small beginnings, empires can grow.

But there were those who always claimed that at some point, Filbran would be fingered and that the law would descend upon him with awful finality. People would nod quietly in his direction and mutter, “He’ll take his short walk at dawn.”

Other places and other times may use different expressions, but in Port Naain, ‘a short walk at dawn’ is when the condemned man goes to the scaffold. Initially this was always at dawn, but then the authorities realised that by holding executions mid to late morning, they could draw a better crowd and there was money to be made from concession stands and similar which provided catering to a thong in holiday mood.

But still we keep the phrase.

The darker side of Filban’s trade was the security he insisted on. Argile Festoon handed over indentures for his entire company. These he’d got them to sign on the understanding they were just the usual theatrical contracts. To be fair having seen the contracts some theatrical impresarios insist upon I can quite see why Argile’s troupe were so easily deceived. But had Argile’s financial gamble failed to pay off, his entire troupe could well have had their indentures cashed in and who knows where they would have ended up or what they would have been expected to do.

In the case of Yilas Bran the cost of failure was also high. Apparently Yilas had upset people in Partann in a previous business deal. Lord Ulgar-Zare, Lord of Upper Pronghorn Keep, also deals in the grain produced by his serfs and other lesser lordlings owning fealty to him. On being crossed by Yilas, Ulgar-Zare had put a high price on Yilas’s head. If Yilas couldn’t repay the money owed to Filban, his own head was surety for the loan, and would be sent south to Ulgar-Zare.

Vaz the Limp falls into a different category. He had little security. All he could offer was his much younger half-sister.

Now Filban arranged for her to go to stay with his sister in a small farm he’d acquired over the years. Now to be fair to Filban, this was an excellent arrangement. His sister, Fillis, was not well, she walked with two sticks. Vaz’s half-sister, Minni, might only have been aged about eight at the time but she was chatty, vivacious, and arrived with an elderly cross-bred dog older than her who had probably started life as a stray. The three of them were genuinely good company for each other and Fillis came to dread the time she would lose her little guests.

The Filban got an urgent message. A carter travelling south to Port Naain had been somewhat shocked to see Fillis, almost hysterical, standing in the middle of the road in the snow, leaning on two sticks, shrieking for him to stop. Apparently Minni had disappeared, along with her dog, Moppet.

Filban abandoned everything, saddled a horse and made his way through the snow to the farm. It was evening when he arrived. There Fillis explained that Minni had made some comment about going to play in the snow and had not come back. Filban took a lantern and set off to follow the tracks of the child and her dog. After an hour or so, he finally found Minni, hopelessly lost, shivering and crying. Gently he picked her up and carried her back to the farm where Fillis immediately made much of her. But then Minni explained that Moppet had hurt her foot and Minni had had to leave her to go and get help.

Once more Filban put on his coat. It was now past midnight, but with a small girl smiling tremulously at him, he refilled the lantern and once more went out into the night.

Next day at first light, we followed his tracks. It was obvious that he had finally found Moppet. He’d picked her up and carried her, but by now he was probably lost as well. We think it was dawn when he found the road, and there, exhausted he’d finally collapsed.

In the end it was the dark shape in the snow that alerted us to his presence. The road had been well used the previous day, and he’d obviously hoped that somebody would come pass and rescue him. As it was, when we found him he lay dead in his coat, sharing the last of the warmth of his body with Moppet. Those who predicted a short walk at dawn had been right, but I think better of him now that I ever did while he lived.


It might be you wish to read a little more of the writings of Tallis Steelyard.

More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Includes the unexpurgated account of the Mudfold and Cockeren feud, the dangers inherent in light music, and how Tallis first met and wooed Shena.

As a reviewer commented, “The sheer ingenuity of Jim Webster’s short tales never ceases to amaze me as I work my way through this, and his other books.”

8 thoughts on “Only a short walk at dawn

  1. Filbran died a noble dog-rescuing death indeed.
    But now I am left wondering. Any chance that Argile is distantly related to the South London gang enforcer ‘Little Jimmy’ Festoon? Someone from my past that I would rather forget.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am not aware to any relationship, indeed the South London gentleman I’ve never heard of him before. But then you know what the thespian world is like. Who knows exactly who is related to whom?

      Liked by 1 person

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