What is a young lady to do?

Silvania Ellestone was a young lady who loved to dance. She was blessed with an older sister who was also fond of dancing, but to the elder Doanne, dancing was always a means to an end. Doanne, facing up to the reality of the family situation, realised that she had two respectable choices in life. One was matrimony and the other was a life of labour in some respectable clothes emporium.

Let us not sneer at Doanne. When, some years later, she married, not only was it a happy marriage, but her husband, recognising her gifts, agreed to call in favours and raised the capital. So Doanne worked in the respectable clothes emporium, but it was her emporium, and ladies of my acquaintance inform me that it is somewhere they can shop, confident in the knowledge that the staff are there to ensure the customer feels comfortable in their own skin, not merely to offload this season’s outrageous gowns on the unsuspecting at high prices.

But to return once more to Silvania. She genuinely loved to dance. As somebody who has danced with her on occasion I would say she dances well, with an enthusiasm which is contagious, but does honour to the nature of the dance and doesn’t degenerate into boisterous frolicking. This brought her admirers, and Silvania’s gentlemen admirers were an interesting selection.

One was Timath Hartshire. A young gentleman ‘blessed’ with five sisters, all of whom he had had to dance with as they learned new steps. He claimed that dancing with Silvania was a revelation, a release from bondage.

Another was Garstang Willerthong. A slightly older gentleman who also enjoyed dancing, he was apparently determinedly single. He discovered in Silvania a dancing partner who had no agenda other than dancing. Like Timath, should he be at a dance and discovered that Silvania was present, he would announce himself to her, and ask that she would honour him by putting his name on her card. As with Timath, this request was always accepted.

Indeed, somehow Silvania managed to gather around her an informal circle of gentlemen who came to know each other and who took to acknowledging each other in the street when they passed. They seemed to feel they were members of a companionable brotherhood. Others also recognised this. When advising ladies who were planning a dance, I would suggest that they invite Silvania, and add to the invitation a request that she fetch half a dozen dancing gentlemen with her. Thus the hostess would be spared the nightmare where, when the music strikes up and ladies seek for partners, the gentlemen sit immobile around the perimeter not making eye contact lest it somehow implicate them in something.

But I have hinted above that the Ellestone household was not blessed with riches, and Silvania was well aware of the feeling that the dress allowance was not going to stretch to the next dance. Now she was by no means spendthrift. She could happily wear a dress several times. Also, like her sister Doanne, she was skilled with her needle. It was the work of an afternoon for her to refresh her outfit so only the sharpest eyed female observer would recognise the dress as one worn six weeks ago. But this was not a long term answer.
Silvania had never danced with the idea of it leading to matrimony. Indeed one comment of hers has stuck with me over the years, “How could I dance whilst expecting?” But somehow she was going to have to earn her daily bread. Some even suggested she teach dance, but that didn’t appeal to her. For her, dance was a joy, a release, and she was wise enough to realise that teaching it professionally might forever soil it for her.

Then she remembered another of her dancing partners. Malthus Grange. He was older than her father, a condottieri who spent much of the year in Partann, and in winter he would return with his followers to Port Naain. He too loved to dance, and Silvania and he struck up one of those unlikely friendships. She broke her unwritten rule and taught his young men-at-arms how to dance, she even found them partners and invitations. Old Malthus was a source of wise advice, guidance, and arranged for the rare overly persistent suitor to be dropped off the wharf into the estuary, normally at time of high tide. Thus they would normally flounder ashore sometime later, their ardour unmistakably cooled.

So it came to pass that one spring, a fortnight or more after Malthus had ridden south, she thought to ask him for advice. It struck her that it might be possible for her to purchase things in Port Naain and sell them at a higher price in Partann. Given what she’d heard of the area, arms and cheap spirits seemed a good possible investment.

Malthus replied with a thoughtful letter. He could see what she was driving at, and there had to be markets. But he pointed out that the Partannese arms trade was dominated by Partannese manufacturers who tended to export into Port Naain. Also with regard the cheap spirits, Partann produced excellent wines and spirits, and the only spirit he had seen imported from Port Naain was so rough it was used to clean armour.

But he urged her not to be rendered disconsolate by his reply, he was sure there were gaps she could fill.

In point of fact it was this letter that her sister Doanne snatched, as sisters do, hoping to discover the name of an admirer Silvania was hiding from her. Doanne was sadly disappointed and subsequently washed her hands of any responsibility for Silvania ever marrying.

A month later Silvania was reading one of the city’s less squalid newssheets. Apparently one of our leading usurers had fled Partann with a price on his head, the locals claimed that he had been cheating them. Safe in Port Naain he mocked them unmercifully and proved conclusively that what he had done was barely immoral, never mind illegal.

So, Silvania asked Malthus in her next letter, was there a market at returning these usurers to face justice. She had a scheme to drug them at a dance. Nobody turns a hair if an attractive young lady has to assist her dance partner to a sedan chair.
Malthus commented that it was an excellent idea, and something that really did need taking up. He did point out that one problem was that, at some point, the usurer would doubtless return to Port Naain, poorer and embittered. It might be that at that point, in a most petty and mean-minded manner, the usurer would visit vengeance on Silvania.

Then Malthus proffered an idea of his own. He had overheard several Partannese ‘gentlemen’ discussing horse racing. The Partannese do breed good horses. They were lamenting the fact that when they took their horses to  Port Naain to race, they always did well, but unless they were present in person, they were always cheated by bookies and similar folk. Was it, Malthus asked, possible for Silvania to act as their agent in the city, taking a sensible percentage for her services?

Silvania asked herself, why not? After all she had attended the races on a number of occasions, her father for one being a keen follower of the horses. Indeed she remembered from conversations between dances with her various partners that some of them had contacts with the tracks. From time to time she had received tips which proved to be genuine investment opportunities.

She wrote back to Malthus, telling him that she would be delighted to try this new venture and threw herself into research. A fortnight later she was informed that ‘her’ first horse had arrived at the tracks. She made her way there by sedan chair, feeling that one had to make a good first impression in business. She was introduced to the horse, the Partannese jockey, and a Partannese horse boy of remarkably villainous appearance.

Her first victim was ‘Smiling Bob’ who tried to decamp when the horse won and she arrived to collect the winnings. As she and the jockey entered the front of Smiling Bob’s stall, he fled out of the back carrying a sack of money. He halted immediately as the villainous stable boy held an equally villainous knife at his throat.

Over the next few months, others also tried to cheat her. One, when fleeing, was tripped by two delightful girl children, whilst their nurse placed a sensible black shoe on the absconding bookie’s neck and suggested he might prefer to pay his debts.

In the case of Honest Harell, he had his front door kicked in by his own mother, who wanted to know what her no-good layabout son was thinking of, cheating such a charming young woman.

After a year, Silvania discovered she was having no more trouble getting her money than anybody else. Indeed she was having less trouble than most. Her business boomed, and grateful Partannese gentlemen were not ungenerous. At the end of a particularly successful season on the turf, when Malthus returned from his campaigns, he brought a separate small chest of arm rings, strings of pearls, and what one can only describe as hack-silver, which Silvania’s business associates had insisted that he give her. All this on top of her earnings from commission.

Eventually she did marry. It was to a gentleman who could dance well enough, made a point of being knowledgeable about horses and horse racing, and who was happy to treat her informal circle of gentlemen as his own trusted friends. She also discovered that she could dance whilst expecting. But she still claimed that one of her proudest moments was when her daughter, also named Doanne, aged twelve, stood in the front of a fleeing bookie and his two bullies and calmly demanded he hand over her mother’s money, if he knew what was good for him.

It was at his bullies’ insistence, but he did indeed hand the money over.


Should you wish to know more of Port Naain, it has to be admitted that all human life is there.

As a reviewer commented, “What starts off looking like a theft at sea, followed by a several findings in the mud when the tide is out, soon morphs into an intriguing tale where Benor, Tallis, Shena, Mutt, and a plethora of other folks, get involved in dealing with dark deeds in Port Naain.”

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