The city of Port Naain may at times present a visage formed of endless grim, smoke encrusted, streets but this is a façade. A ‘front’ presented to the sea so that visitors are not tempted to stop for long. The Partannese go home and tell their families, dupes, and co-conspirators what a dour and dreadful place the city is. After all, we don’t want them to feel at home, have you seen how they behave at home?
But once you penetrate through those smoke shrouded streets you enter Dilbrook and Three Mills where things are done differently. There are trees, gardens, pleasances, groves and indeed, hedges.
Now all these need looking after and whilst in some households, the gentleman of the house, with the assistance of a gardener, can cope with the work, there are other houses where things are done differently. I know one mage who uses sylphs to trim his hedges. I did ask him about it and he confessed that he found it remarkably diverting. Apparently the sylphs rather enjoy it after countless millennia of serving drinks, waiting table, and worrying about split ends. The chance to put on sensible shoes and do something more physical seems to appeal to them. Other households hire in the services of experts. As one lady pointed out, “When I can have bronzed and muscular young men working stripped to the waist in the garden, why wouldn’t I do this?”
There were all sorts of people offering their services, but at the Shrine of Aea in Her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm, if we ever needed any of this sort of work doing, we use the bunch of cheery reprobates that Laxey recommended to us. They went by the name of the Tree Pirate Timber Fellers.
Now in the past I’ve mentioned Stillitoe Cloudwiller. Who has not heard of the inventor of the Cloudwiller Aquatic Tripod, the Cloudwiller Patented Commendable Monocycle, or the Cloudwiller Patented Extendable Ladder? But when it comes to inventiveness, Port Naain at times resembles a seething cauldron of engineering excess. The leader of The Tree Pirate Timber Fellers was described to me as a man of almost infinite inventiveness when it came to indecorous contrivances. Apparently his work was admired in certain circles, indeed he was called a poet in heavy timber and iron in my presence.
As you can imagine, given the amount of hedge work he and his crew had to do, when he heard that somebody had produced a horse drawn mechanical hedge cutter, he was immediately interested. Having seen it demonstrated he took that extra step and purchased one.
Now according to Laxey, this hedge cutter was comparatively safe, relatively reliable, and modestly efficient. Even when allowing for the time taken having to stop work to mend something, it was still faster than doing the job manually. The company horse, after some discussion, was prevailed upon to pull the contrivance and eventually settled down to the work with a will. (As an aside the horse is worth commenting on. It went down on the books with the other employees, and was universally known as ‘Four Legs.’ Whether this was a boast, showing how the company had risen above its past history of somewhat less ‘complete’ equid labourers, or whether it was just a convenient way to differentiate the horse from the rest of the staff I never discovered.)
The new hedge cutter worked well enough. But the Tree Pirates never ceased to regard it with a vague sense of disappointment. It could surely be so much more exciting and dramatic. Certainly their Captain did toy with the idea of modifications. The great water–driven whirring blade of the circular saw in the lumber yard showed what could be done. But those blades, beautifully balanced and exquisitely sharp, were beyond his price range. And where would he get the flow of water necessary to power them as his proposed contrivance worked its way along the hedge?
Then it occurred to him that you could replace the circular saw blade with a simple sharpened steel bar. Mounted where the current blade arrangement was, this bar would spin in a vertical plane at great speed. A bar the height of a man, spinning from one end, could trim a twelve feet high hedge in one pass! This would double the speed of working and would save having to set up the hedge cutter anew when you wanted to make the second pass.
This had to be tried. That very evening, the Captain and a couple of his more amenable assistants (I was told it was the Dog’s, and the Dustpan) stripped down the hedge cutter and added the new sharpened bar. Steward, the competent one who drops in occasionally to help fix stuff saw, what they were doing, whimpered and fled. Undeterred by his lack of faith in them, the team pressed on and completed the task. Indeed so afire were they to learn how well their new version worked that they harnessed Four Legs to their mechanical masterpiece and set off into the night to test it.
This is where they ran into a problem. The previous cutting bar was worked from ‘land drive.’ So now, as Four Legs pulled the hedge cutter along, some of the work he did was shunted off via a system of gears into making the steel bar spin. Frankly it was not a success. The gearing was such that as Four Legs moved forwards the steel bar spun in a somewhat lackadaisical manner. But if they fiddled with the gearing to ensure more power went to the spinning blade, poor Four Legs struggled to move the damned thing.
They were late to bed but still, before dawn, the Captain was awake and in his workshop. He needed an auxiliary source of power and whilst he did fleetingly contemplate a steam engine, sanity prevailed. Briefly. He added a capstan. Turning this powered the spinning blade through a series of gears. Obviously the whole thing had to be widened to ensure stability, but it was found that four men on the capstan soon got the blade up to working speed.
Four Legs was harnessed to the machine and they set off to the first job. Here they ran into an unforeseen problem. Once the blade started spinning, Four Legs refused absolutely to have anything to do with the whole proceedings. Whether it was the shrill whine of sharpened metal moving at high speed not all that far from his ear, or the crashing as it smashed through the hedge, nobody was quite sure. But he was having none of it.
The owner of the hedge, who was watching the performance with interest, suggested bullocks. He pointed out that they are notoriously phlegmatic and tend to spend much of their time watching incuriously as the world passes them by. A team of four draught bullocks was borrowed. To be frank they shared Four Leg’s opinion of being hitched to something with a six feet long unguarded metal blade spinning at ridiculous speed.
But having got this far, the Captain was not going to be defeated. The capstan had proved a success. Well a capstan would solve the problem of propulsion. He added another capstan (plus two wheels at the front to support it. The team would lay out a rope alongside the hedge to be cut and at the far end of the rope was an anchor. By turning the capstan the hedge cutting team wound in the rope. But because of the anchor, the hedge cutter moved along the rope rather than just dragging to rope to the hedge cutter.
It was a triumph. Not only that, but it was discovered that whilst it could take three men on the capstan to get the blade spinning at a proper speed; once up to speed, it only took one man to keep it there. So the other two could work the capstan that moved the whole apparatus.
Their hedge cutter was a success. Even with three men it was still faster than the original hedge cutter had been with two and a horse. Also clients would boast to their friends as to how the blade took everything in one cut leaving the perfect straight hedge. There were some who did wonder about safety but the Captain reassured everybody with his party trick. He would let his team get the blade up to full speed, where it was merely a blurred fan of whirring steel. At this point he would use it to cut his cigar.
I suppose there are always teething problems, but with the hedge cutter, the teeth problems were baffling. The blade just disappeared. One moment it was there, the next, it was gone! Closer inspection showed that the drive shaft had sheared.
Strangely enough I discovered what had happened to the blade. Two miles away, across the city, a lady who shall remain nameless was admitting a gentleman admirer into her home. The gentleman was Naldent Garrond, one of Port Naain’s most successful serial philanderers. The lady’s husband was not at home and they made their way, giggling, to the master bedroom. As the lady opened the door to admit them, six feet of hot steel crashed down through the roof like a javelin. It then broke through the ceiling and passing through the bed and the floor below it, finally came to rest embedded some feet deep in the dining room table, smouldering.
Without a word, Naldent fled (thus perhaps proving why he is one of our city’s most successful philanderers. The lady, once she recovered from the shock, worried as to whether her plans had been discovered by her husband or whether she was the recipient of the wrath of an angry god. Her husband’s obvious bemusement convinced her that she had somehow offended a jealous deity and from that moment on has lived a life of unalloyed marital fidelity.
The Captain, who never recovered the blade, pondered the machine and wondered whether it was worth mending. Here he was guided by his crew, who stressed that doing the hedge by hand was almost as quick and was probably safer. Also he discovered that customers seemed to prefer the old methods. Having bronzed and muscular young men working stripped to the waist in the garden seemed more popular that cutting edge technology. Who would have thought it?
If you wish to further explore the bucolic charms of the area, I would recommend
As a reviewer commented, “What’s a poet to do when one of his lady patrons is being blackmailed and his own life may be at risk due to his actions in defending another from attack some time in the past.
How are both these events connected?
Well – read this tale and find out – trust me, it’ll be time well spent.”