Photo Copyright: Jim Webster
THE COMMODE OF FALAN BIRLING
Falan Birling was a man of very regular habits. Every morning his manservant Gorrak would light a fire in the grate in Birling’s bedroom and another in the separate privy which could only be accessed from the bedroom. So accustomed to Gorrak’s movements had Birling become over the years, that he slept peacefully through the whole process. He was awakened half an hour later when Gorrak returned bearing coffee (black, strong and bitter.) Gorrak would sit up, and listen to Gorrak’s account of the day so far whilst sipping the coffee with a hard lump of sugar clenched between his teeth.
His coffee finished he would hand the cup back to Gorrak, give his order for breakfast, and taking up that day’s copy of the Port Naain Intelligencer, would repair to his private privy. There, ensconced upon the commode, he would read the paper from cover to cover, occasionally taking notes.
Then suitably at ease and ready for the day, he would return to his bedroom. He’d dress himself in the clothes Gorrak had laid out for him and repair downstairs to his day-room where Gorrak would serve breakfast. Whilst he breakfasted one of the maids would service the commode and generally prepare it for the following morning.Unless you had seen it you could not credit what a triumph of the cabinetmaker’s art the commode was. Imagine, if you will, a high backed winged chair. The frame is Aruba wood, imported from the Perfected Empire in the distant east. It has the arms and legs carved to represent the legs of fabulous beasts, the claws are inlaid with ivory. The panels are porcelain, painted with rustic scenes. Finally, the commode pan was also porcelain, the outside decorated with complex patterns in blue and gold. Birling’s little eccentricity was that he has a selection of commode pans, all identical from the outside; but inside each had painted on the bottom of the pan the face of somebody who, over the years, had irritated him beyond reason.
It was Amado, one of the youngest of Madam Jeen Snellflort’s gentlemen adventurers who took on the project of acquiring the commode. A slight youth; some tended to dismiss him as too young to mix with the others. Those who did know him valued him for his charm, dexterity, and ability to accurately reproduce any handwriting given time to practice. He decided that his first task would be to locate the commode and then work out how to move it.
Even the most limited investigation threw up the first hurdle. There was only one key to the privy room, and it was held by either Birling himself, or Gorrak when Birling was not available to open the door. Also, it was widely held that the only people who ever went into that room were the maid who cleaned, Gorrak and of course Falan Birling himself. Amado thought about this for some time and realized that unless Gorrak or the maid swept the chimney, at some point a chimney sweep would have to go in. Thus through careful inquiries, he discovered who swept the chimneys for the Birling household and managed to get a job with them. Here his slim figure and dexterity were an advantage. By and large, most chimney sweeps in Port Naain eschew the use of small children for cleaning chimneys. They’re unreliable, being given to finding snug corners to sleep in, and will cheerfully come down after a nap and claim they’ve swept everything.
So after cleaning chimneys for a month (whilst he continued his quest to learn more about both Falan Birling and his commode), Amado struck lucky and they were summoned to clean the chimneys of the Birling mansion. With Gorrak in attendance, he was admitted to the Privy and even helped throw a dust sheet over the commode. He then climbed up the chimney, sweeping as he went. Finally, he came out of the top and found himself looking down along a ridge. If he followed the lee side of the ridge it would be entirely possible to climb down some ivy and into the back garden. He returned down the chimney, taking great care to sweep it as clean as possible.
A week later Falan Birling, taking Gorrak with him, traveled into Partann on business. Birling had made his money as a skinner, tanner, glover and breeches maker. Whilst he rarely made a pair of gloves now, having people to do that for him, he did travel widely to buy the quality of hides he wanted to tan. Indeed he wasn’t averse to picking up well-tanned leather as well. Such trips could take him away from Port Naain for two or three weeks. Amado decided to strike.
His plan was founded on the fact that the Privy would remain locked and inaccessible to anybody within the house. The master bedroom where Falan slept would also be locked, and it was unlikely anybody would enter it, other than to air it before their master arrived home. For three nights he worked harder than he’d ever thought possible. He would make up a bundle of sawn timber. With it over this shoulder, he would climb up onto the Birling mansion roof and then proceed to ferry it down the chimney. This had to be done a few pieces at a time, with immense care taken to ensure that the wood stayed clean and he didn’t bring soot down with him.
I confess that I marvel at his achievement. He had to manage a long and almost vertical climb, up a chimney not much wider than his shoulders. Obviously when on the roof he could show no light. Then within the chimney itself, he had to work in almost total darkness, save for two small lanterns planted carefully on ledges left for that purpose so that chimney sweeps could work. All the while he had to transport his planks, wrapped to protect them from soot, in such a way as they didn’t knock on the walls. This tapping would be audible around the house as it was carried in the stonework.Once the wood was in place, he started phase two of his plan. There was no way he could carry the commode out up the chimney. His chances of smuggling it out down the stairs on his own were limited. It would take at least four men to carry it safely through the house. So he built a crate round it, padding it well with old bed linen, and with each commode pan boxed separately within the main crate. Again the problems were immense. First, he hung a curtain over the privy door to stop light leaking out around the edges and into the master bedroom. Then he had to do something to muffle the sound of hammering. The last thing he wanted was for the staff to become suspicious. Finally, when the crate was assembled and everything was solidly packed and wouldn’t move, he set to work on the privy door lock.
Actually, this was comparatively easy to deal with. Because he was already on the inside, he merely had to unscrew the lock mechanism from the door and then open the door. Using to lengths of round rod as rollers, Amado dragged the crate into the bedroom. Given his obsession with silence, this took up a good part of the night. Finally, that done, he went back into the privy, fastening the lock back onto the door. He then climbed out via the chimney for what he hoped would be the last time.
It was now his other skills came into play. Whilst in the bedroom he’d acquired an old volume of Falan Birling’s journal from some years previously. Using this as his guide he mastered Falan’s handwriting style. That done he wrote two letters from Falan. The first was to his Major Domo, explaining that he wanted the crate in his bedroom sent south into Partann. He also explained that he was going to ask Mythop Brothers, Carters, to collect it. He also wrote to Mythop Brothers to inform them that he had a crate he wanted taking from his house to a barge waiting on Stonecutter Wharf.
From that point on Amado was almost unnerved at how smoothly things went. He watched from a pavement café as the cart arrived to collect the crate. It was obviously expected and the cart was taken round to the back of the house. It reappeared an hour later with the crate sitting on it. At this point, Amado made his own way to Stonecutter Wharf to get there before the cart. When it arrived he watched the carters load it onto the barge Vilan’s Hulk. The Hulk took it across the river to Roskadil. Herhor who paid over a considerable quantity of cash. Whilst Madam Jeen was investing it for her hospital, the collector celebrated his acquisition by purchasing another commode pan. This was identical to the others, save that on the bottom of it one could see the face of Falan Birling.