There has always been considerable enthusiasm for peering into the future, and some unscrupulous individuals have made a good living from doing so. Normally they make their money by cozening their dupes into handing over large sums on the strength of predictions of doubtful exactitude. Indeed if the prophecy is carefully worded, virtually any outcome can be justified as proving the accuracy of the prophet.
Hectar Vortimmal was an unusual fortune teller. Firstly he was a gentleman. He owned a number of farms which were let out to industrious tenants who could be relied to pay their rents on time. Secondly he had considerable business interests. By this I mean his father and grandfather before him had invested wisely and Hectar followed their enlightened policy. They had rarely loaned money, instead they’d become partners in businesses that came to their notice.
People have asked how Hectar got involved in fortune telling. To an extent in ran in the family. His grandfather was notorious for bellowing across the Council of Sinecurists’ Chamber, “You, young man, will hang.”
Five years later his prophecy came true when the gentleman in question met his end on the gallows.
Hectar’s father also made prophecies that came true. In a debate held by the Council of Sinecurists, Hectar’s father commented that all those who spoke against him would be dead in ten years. So he argued that the Sinecurists should get behind his proposal, as it was the only which would take the city into the new century.
Again this prophecy came true. Some have quibbled, pointing out that all the speakers were over eighty at the time. Still a prophecy is a prophecy, and ten years later, all were dead. Admittedly one was killed by an outraged husband and another died from injuries received falling from a fourth floor window as he tried to evade arrest for conspiracy to outrage public decency. But still, they died.
Hectar did seem to have the general family gift. He walked into the foundry of which he was a part owner, looked round and announced, “If something isn’t done soon this business is doomed.”
This was met by stunned silence by his partners, then one said, “So what do we do?”
Hectar gathered the employees of the foundry together in the yard and looked them over. Apparently he found them surly and few of them would meet his eye. He then announced to them that as far as he could see this had the potential to be the best foundry west of the Aphices. As the best foundry it needed the best employees, and to get the best employees you had to pay the best wages. So he announced that from the end of the week they would be paid on the new wage scale. During the rest of the week he spent his time talking to foremen, charge hands, and those who’d worked there for a number of years, asking them for the things they felt were holding the business back. Over the following week he winnowed out a fair few of the workers and encouraged the manager who was responsible for day to day operations to ‘move on.’ I believe he mentioned in passing that the previous board meeting had decided that the accounts be examined by forensic accountants. The manager disappeared that night and was never heard of in Port Naain again. (At least under that name, but I saw somebody who looked remarkably like him claiming to be the author of a series of successful ‘Fifty-Dreg Dreadfuls.’ These are stories of daring-do, passion, treachery and adventure, normally set in Partann, They normally feature young ladies in considerable dishabille on their front cover, whether relevant to the plot or not.). Hectar and the board recruited a new manager and the manager recruited more workers. The business flourished.
Yet Hectar was unusual among his family in that he systemised his soothsaying. For reasons now forgotten, he developed an interest in Tyromancy. Now you might wonder what the fermentation and coagulation of cheese could tell you about the future. (Ignoring the obvious rejoinder that you could well learn to divine how good the cheese is going to be.) Now I don’t claim to know how it’s done but for Hectar is proved an almost infallible guide.
Obviously for a businessman and landowner this could prove particularly useful. Yet in those fields Tyromancy didn’t seem to have the breadth of vision one would hope for. It might give you the name of a foundry worker who deserved promotion. It might even tell you that there could be rain in two days’ time (Obviously useful when contemplating harvest) but it rarely pointed to sectors of the market that were due to rise or fall.
On the other hand, Tyromancy was very good at giving specific names and details. Purely by accident, Hectar discovered that he could predict the winners of horse races with complete accuracy.
It seems that one day when he was watching the coagulation on one of his tenant farms, a name, Running Wide, was obvious to him in the curd. Out of interest he checked and not only was it the name of a race horse, the horse was due to race at the next week’s race meeting. Thus, purely in the interests of research, he backed the horse and was gratified when it won.
Obviously being a man with an enquiring mind, he felt that this was a phenomena which deserved further research. So in the week before a race meeting you would find Hectar, notebook in hand, haunting the cheese rooms of his various farms. Then he would attend the races, place his bets, and count his winnings. It got to the stage where he would be accompanied by two burly men, purely to carry the money. The winnings themselves were of lesser interest. He tended to share them with the cheese makers who felt suitably blessed by his consideration. His share he tended to give to excellent causes. Some even came my way when he donated to a small poetry festival.
Readers wiser than I will have already spotted that Hectar ought to have anticipated problems. The whole purpose of betting on horse racing is to provide a good living for bookies. Admittedly the occasional bookie has a bad day. Indeed I remember one who had to pawn his gold watch and his wife’s earrings to provide the cash with which to face the coming week. But by the end of the week he had redeemed everything and still had cash to deposit with his usurer.
Punters who win regularly are undesirable. Punters who only ever back winners and need two men to carry away their winnings are beyond the pale.
The bookies sent a deputation to speak to Hectar. This was supposed to be a group of polite and well-spoken senior clerks who would adopt a high moral tone. Their united front collapsed when Hectar pointed out that each bookie had approached him secretly previously. They had all wanted him to work solely with them so that they alone would know the winners and could thus make serious money at the expense of their less well briefed competitors.
The well-spoken clerks retreated in disorder, but their employers were too deeply cynical to be discomforted by even the most egregious hypocrisy. They met, consulted, and agreed. Hectar hadn’t responded to kindness, so now he would have to learn the hard way. They gathered up their bullies and sent them to deal with Hector.
It was unfortunate for them that Hectar was spending a lot of time at the Foundry. He was both helping the new manager settle in and also was untangling the web of deceit that the previous incumbent had created instead of accounts. The bullies entered the foundry by the front offices and started breaking things and insulting people as they tried to find Hectar. So one of the secretaries, her dress torn, ran out into the foundry yard and told a foreman what was happening.
The resulting battle lasted three hours. The watch merely cordoned off the area. By the time the men-at-arms who were hired for halting the fighting finally arrived, the fighting was over and Hectar and his men had restored order. He then summoned the bookies to meet him at the foundry offices. Those who didn’t attend were collected by foundry workers.
In tense negotiations a deal was hammered out. The bookies agreed that they would pay for the damage (to include a cash payment to the foundry workers for their time and trouble) and they would then pay a regular monthly payment to Madam Jeen Snellflort’s Sanatorium. Hectar agreed that he would no longer practice Tyromancy. But it was agreed that Hectar could keep his notes, and if the bookies were ever late in their payments, Hectar was at liberty to resume his studies.
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As reviewers have commented, “
Tallis Steelyard Takes Off!
When I pick up a Tallis Steelyard book I know I am going to have the most enjoyable of rides start to finish. There will be social comment and cynicism, there will be intriguing concepts and fascinating settings, there will be battles of wit and cunning plans, but two things above all will stand out – the incredibly interesting characters and the wonderful moments of both subtle and laugh-out-loud humour.
The author has an eye for personality quirks and the humorous possibilities in just about every occasion, and seldom leaves either unexploited to the full.
This book was, however, something I embarked upon with a little more trepidation that usual when approaching a Tallis Steelyard book, because unlike the collections of vividly imagined and portrayed cameos which I have come to know and love, this is an entire novel.
Yes, there are still those wonderful cameos, but there is also a rare opportunity to follow Tallis through an unwitting adventure, all thanks to the indomitable Maljie of course. The way Jim Webster writes, I was sitting in the hot air balloon along with them.
If you enjoy Tallis Steelyard in shorts, you will enjoy as much in long form. If you have yet to make his acquaintance, then dive right in and do so, but hang onto your hat it’ll be a very wild ride!
Wit, wisdom and a deeply unreliable narrator
Tallis Steelyard, Maljie and a balloon. What could possibly go wrong?
Of course the answer to that should more properly be what couldn’t. Our guide is a poet, fixer, sometime conman and prolific fibber and his companion on the journey is a larger than life lady of strict if eccentric morals and definite ideas on every subject. Cue fireworks.
As we fall headfirst into this madcap adventure the only thing that is truly guaranteed is an enjoyable ride.
Jim Webster’s writing is quintessentially English in its sensibilities, being dryly humorous and sparely undecorated. He excels at the quick pen sketch of even the least important character, without ever pushing judgement down our throats.
I particularly liked the guard who felt queasy having to sit on a trapdoor to prevent our heroes escape – of such little gems are happiness made.
I will admit to having wondered if Tallis Steelyard could sustain a full-length novel, but my doubts were completely unfounded. This book is a delight.
Of you have never visited Port Nairn and never encountered the lives of a certain poet and his acquaintances may I suggest you remedy this lack tout suite.
Five stars and a big fat recommendation.