It just seems to be just one of those things, but most of my patrons are ladies. I do have male patrons, but far fewer. When the patron is a married lady, I’ve noticed that her husband will feel entitled to call upon my services and I have always felt that this is a reasonable enough attitude. If the husband has prevailed upon his lady wife to invite another lady to her ‘at home’ in the hope that her husband might become a client, then I feel I am duty bound to do what I can to assist in these matters. In fact there have been occasions where I have managed to assist in the building of partnerships which went on to prosper through the years.
Over the years there are half a dozen gentlemen who I would count as friends, even though their lady wife is my patron and they might only rarely attend. Devan Backhoe is one of them. I only knew him as an older man. He was a tall man but walked with a stick as he could no longer trust his left leg. His right arm is weak and he sported a full beard because his face has so many scars that he always claimed shaving was a nightmare. He was always interesting to talk to and knew plenty of people across all social classes. I always felt that he liked people and as a result people tended to like him.
He had a property upriver of Port Naain, on the north bank, with considerable grounds. Because of the way the river eddies there, there is a deep pool by his property. He built a fishing pier and you’d see the good and the bad together, fishing from Devan’s Pier.
I remember once travelling up river with him in his boat. His wife had summoned me and Devan had both passed on the invitation and offered transport. As we disembarked he asked, “Have you ever seen the grounds?”
When I replied in the negative, he announced we’d walk through them, taking the longer route to the house.
The grounds themselves were not over-manicured. The path wound through a lot of almost natural woodland, and at one point, Devan stopped and pointed at a tree. Obviously at some point it had blown over, but the roots had somehow still held and the tree had, in spite of everything, kept growing.
He gestured at the tree with his stick. “You know what, young Tallis, I have a considerable affection for that tree.”
That, it has to be admitted, was an unusual conversational gambit. I obviously looked nonplussed, so he sat down on a bench placed nearby and gestured for me to sit down next to him. He seemed to be contemplating the tree. “You never knew me when I was a young man, did you Tallis?”
Tact prevented me from mentioning that he was thirty years older than me.
“I was a man-at-arms. I had a promising career ahead of me. I was a captain and already had my own small following.”
That was a surprise to me, I had always known him as somebody who was somehow involved in ‘business’.
“Yes, married with excellent prospects. Even as a young man I had a reputation as being a safe pair of hands and somebody you could trust in a tight spot.”
Now to be fair, I’d heard that said about him by his business colleagues in more recent times. I well remember Woodend Frummenstal, the usurer, talking about him when deep in his cups one evening. It appears that young Woodend (as he was then) had got over-involved in the finances of a brickworks. He’d turned to Devan and the other man had assessed the situation and had agreed with him. The brickworks was inherently sound, but there just wasn’t the work. Thus and so the enterprise would fail and in the process would bankrupt Woodend. Devan clapped him on the shoulder, bought half his shares off him at a generous valuation and told him not to worry. He then travelled south into Partann (no small undertaking for a man who walked with a stick) and visited the lords of various keeps. After that he made his way to Prae Ducis to spend a little time with old friends. He happened to be in the city when the various Partannese lordlings conspired together and launched an attack on the city, blowing in the main gates with cannon. It was lucky for the city that the attack that followed was very half-hearted. As it was Devan had no difficulty convincing the city that they needed to upgrade their defences. Thus it was that taking his advice they built two bastions and a demi-lune to protect the gate.
So grateful were they that they purchased the brick off him, as he could guarantee that it was baked to the proper hardness. As Woodend said, that attack on the main gate of Prae Ducis saved him. The ensuing order kept the brickworks busy for two or three years, and by that time they had a reputation for quality and prompt delivery which won them a lot more orders. As it was, it seems that Devan had already disposed of some of his shares in the brick works, at an excellent price, entirely to Partannese lordlings living in the Prae Ducis area.
Devan was still reminiscing. “Things were going well and then I got on the wrong side of lady luck and was on the losing side in a battle. I was one of the lucky ones. My squire and two knights found me where I had fallen, threw me on the back of a horse and got me off the stricken field. Apparently I should have died that night but my squire refused to let me. Also they had to keep moving because the enemy were intent on following up their victory. We apparently escaped because they swam our horses out to a ship which picked us up. By the time I properly recovered consciousness I was in a bed in Port Naain.”
He sighed. “Imagine it, Tallis. I woke up to discover I would never be able to wield a sword again. Not only might I never ride again, I might not even walk. And when I saw my face in a mirror I didn’t recognise myself. They waited a few days before they admitted to me that I no longer had a wife. She’d taken one look at me and had divorced me. If I could have died that night, I would just have turned my face to the wall and died. Mind you, I’d have needed help to turn my face to the wall.”
I was curious. “So what changed things?”
He grinned, “I might want to die but my body wasn’t for giving in. Not only that but the young woman who nursed me shouted at me and told me not to be so cowardly. Asked me if it was true I’d been a man-at-arms or whether I was a pimp who’d had an argument with a girl. She bullied me into eating, she bullied me into sitting up, and she bullied me out of bed. But they kept saying I might be stuck in a chair all my life and that really set me back. So she found me a walking stick and forced me to stand up and supported me as I walked.” He winced. “Aea but you wouldn’t believe the pain. I was nearly weeping from four steps. She wanted me to walk four more steps to the door, which would mean eight steps back to the bed. So I told her I’m do it if she married me. She told me she’d marry me if I walked into the temple under my own steam. Twelve months later, I did.”
He started to stand up, and I stood and offered him my arm. “So your lady wife is the one who got you back on your feet?”
“More than that, she encouraged me to go into business, to invest what money I had, and use my wits. Her father worked in a brick works and when the business was in trouble, I managed to save it. We’ve six children I’m remarkably proud of.” He turned and looked at me. “If I die tonight, I’ll not feel I’ve wasted my time.”
“I wonder how many can say that?”
“Fewer than you’d hope.” He pointed to the tree, “But as long as I live, nobody will take an axe to that tree.”
We walked on to the house. His wife came to the door, smiled at me and kissed Devan on the cheek. “I saw you get off the boat, but I knew you’d be all right. You had Tallis with you so couldn’t come to any harm.”
I bowed. “Madam, could you possibly put it in writing for me.”
There’s a lot in writing about Tallis Steelyard
As a reviewer commented, “Jim Webster’s sly wit and broad understanding of human nature makes his work deliciously appealing. The adventures of Tallis Steelyard, and the characters who inhabit his world, are particularly delightful. Tallis and his creator both have a dry, wry and wonderfully playful perspective, and while the tales may seem like a bit-of-fluff entertainment initially, the aftertaste is that of rich wisdom shared with a wink.”