Sometimes One has to Stop Merely Watching

Somehow Elvira Cuttle never became Madam Cuttle or even, as she grew older, Dame Cuttle. Indeed in some sections of society she was always ‘that unspeakable Cuttle woman.’

She supported herself through her paintings, and in my opinion, she was good, very good. But society being what it is, she would never get the really fashionable (and well paying) commissions. I remember her laughing about it and claiming that the short commons this could lead to was how she managed to retain a reasonably trim figure into later life.

But she was one of those ladies who was somehow so much more than a painter. I remember the case of Algernon Halftin. A lot of thought is given to young ladies ‘coming out’, but their brothers seem to be thrust out of the door with little more preparation than the address of a potential employer in their pocket. As it was Algernon was competent enough and because he brought a little capital with him, entered the business as a very junior partner rather than merely a usurer’s clerk. There was no difference in the work, as junior partners are expected to learn the trade from the ground up, but the remuneration is a little better.

At this point there were two women in Algernon’s life, although he probably hadn’t realised it. There was Alianor Bletchan who was older than him (but probably younger than his mother, although I would not place money on it) and the other was Iphigenia Murhall. Iphigenia was perhaps a year or so younger than Algernon and had rather taken a liking to him when they met at the sort of event mothers arrange for their daughters, and other mothers obligingly despatch their sons to. If looked at dispassionately, Iphigenia was almost pretty, had a nice personality, but was somewhat shy. She also had steel in her that most people never recognised.

Alianor on the other hand was sophistication personified. She also had a place in society. Admittedly it wasn’t the society which had shunned Elvira Cuttle, it was a much brighter, brasher and more exciting society. For reasons of her own she virtually hypnotised young Algernon, lured him into this society and allowed him to spend his money on her. Now I will not speculate on what level of intimacy she allowed him, but she had him besotted. And then she introduced him to her friends.

If you spend much time in Port Naain you will realise there are any number of card games with which one can wile away a long evening. I admit a fondness for Keeps, but am willing to admit that there are others as absorbing. For me the joy of Keeps is that it can be played for small stakes and one relatively economical hand can last quite some time. The friends Algernon was introduced to played other games; faster and with more money bet on the turn of a couple of cards. Brash, bright and exciting and an excellent way to win, or more likely loose, a fair amount of money at speed.

With Alianor leaning over the back of his chair, Algernon played. Now I want to be fair about his opponents. They are not mere card sharps. If a card came off the bottom of the pack, it was because it was absolutely necessary. If there was unspoken collusion between them, this was almost certainly a result of long familiarity. It was probably not planned as a way of extracting the maximum amount of money from the dupe.

Indeed these players were wise. Normally, rather than skinning the coney within the first hour, they spaced things out. The victim might even come out ahead in his first evening, especially if he was a decent player. But over successive evenings there would be a slow, steady, shift of funds from the victim’s purse to theirs.

I once saw Alianor’s friends playing in the Black Grapes. It’s perhaps a more dangerous venue than they would normally play, a lot of Partannese exiles and Condottieri men-at-arms will drink there. It’s deceptively quiet, after all these men are paid to be violent. Why should they be violent in their own time at their own expense? Do ditch diggers dig ditches on their rare afternoons off?

The friends had enticed a young man-at-arms into their games and looking at the way the money was moving across the table, they were methodically taking him for every last dreg. Finally he stood up, pushing his chair back as he did, and half drew his sword.

“That last card came from the bottom of the pack.”

One of the gamblers just looked coldly at him, “Child, if you cannot play the game, take your money and regard this as a lesson learned cheaply.”

Frankly an Urlan would have killed him out of hand for that insult. But the man-at-arms merely raised a finger of his left hand. Three of his company silently materialised around the table, hands on sword hilts. The young man then reached across the table and swept all the money, his stake, the money in the middle and the stake money of the other players, into his purse.
As he stepped back from the table he gave a mocking half bow. “Woe to the vanquished. Perhaps you too have learned a lesson that might appear cheap in retrospect.”
Certainly I never saw them in the Black Grapes again.

But these were the friends of Alianor. Whether she got a percentage of the winnings, a share of the plunder they took from the victim she brought to them, I don’t know. But a lady has to eat, rent has to be paid, and ‘clothes like these don’t buy themselves, my dear.’

Iphigenia watched this from a distance. After all Alianor had entry to places Iphigenia couldn’t safely go. Indeed to the dispassionate observer, Alianor held all the good cards. Admittedly she was older, but her age was somehow nebulous and nugatory when in her presence. She brought with her excitement, and a sophistication that Iphigenia couldn’t even attempt to match.

Is was at this point that Iphigeniadid something wise. She sought the advice of her least respectable friend, the one woman she could trust, Elvira Cuttle. Elvira was in some way a distant kinswoman of her mother, who rather liked her, and had asked her to teach her daughters to paint. This Elvira did. So Iphigenia turned to Elvira, and explained her problem. Elvira sat in silence and then asked, “Do you want this young man?”
Iphigenia had given this matter some considerable thought. “Yes. At the very least I’m fond of him.”

Elvira smiled at her. “Then I will see what I can do.”

The next evening found Elvira once more in that brash, bright and exciting society she no longer frequented as much as she perhaps once did. She passed though bars and receptions, greeting old friends (or perhaps fellow survivors might be a better term) and chatted. She caught up on the news, the gossip, and the names to watch. She passed the table where Algernon and a couple of other dupes were playing cards with Alianor’s friends. Alianor was of course in adoring attendance. Elvira glanced over the shoulder of one of Alianor’s friends and remarked, sotto voce, “I thought there was only two of those cards in a pack, not three.”

Ignoring the uproar she had created, she greeted Alianor most affectionate, as one would a slightly younger sister. “Alianor dear, you look divine. You must tell me how you manage to hold back the years so. I confess I am fighting a losing battle with mine.”

For the next month, war raged between the two women. Most men, and even fewer poets, would never have noticed. In my case a wise lady told me what to look for and I watched, fascinated, as the battles were fought with absolute decorum and every sign of affection. Slowly I watched Elvira carefully unhook from young Algernon all those barbs that Alianor had so carefully planted. Firstly she ensured that in her presence, Alianor somehow looked a generation older than she claimed to be. Elvira would tell tales of things she and Alianor had done as ‘bits of girls’, ten years before Algernon was born. She would introduce him to her friends. These could be every bit as exciting as those Alianor had produced, but Elvira’s were more interesting. Whether they were sworn to best behaviour I don’t know, but they didn’t just entertain young Algernon, they taught him. These were useful lessons. In jest in a card game one would ask Algernon what cards he would like in his hand and then would deal the cards perfectly normally. Yet Algernon got the very cards he asked for. When Algernon expressed amazement, the game was halted briefly while the technique was explained, and then demonstrated more slowly. Then Algernon was handed the cards and told to try it. Obviously he would have deceived nobody, but in slow motion and without in point of fact dropping the cards, he did it.

At the same time, elderly men-at-arms would show Algernon how to spot the hidden knife, or how, with a simple walking cane, to break the hand of the man reaching for it. At the same time, older ladies would make positive comments about his deportment, his pleasant manner, and even as they complimented him so his deportment and manner improved.

It was into the second month, with Alianor vanquished, that Elvira asked Algernon to do her a favour. Apparently the daughter of an old friend was short of a gentleman to accompany her to a dance, could Algernon oblige as a favour to her?
Well of course Algernon would oblige, and with that Elvira stepped back. She felt that if at this point, Iphigenia couldn’t take over the running, it was indeed a bad job.

Still, she maintained a careful overwatch, just to make sure Alianor didn’t attempt to move back in. But Alianor had moved on, swift to cut her losses and preparing to reinvest her waning capital in a new venture.

And Elvira? Well I am sure that it will come as no surprise that the home that Algernon and Iphigenia have made is one where she is always welcome. Indeed there is a daughter named after her whom she dotes on. In this respect Iphigenia is tactful, her children greet Elvira affectionately as ‘Aunty Elvira’ as they do all their mother’s closest friends. Not for her ‘Granny Elvira’.

And I do sometimes wonder, when you see that look in Elvira’s eyes. In retrospect it was obvious, the way she stepped in to fight for Iphigenia, that she has played in that game before. But last time, was she Iphigenia or was she Alianor? There are some questions a gentleman cannot ask.


Port Naain is the sort of place you really ought to visit.

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.”

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