We Could Just Elope.
I heard a rather bitter comment that whilst there are disadvantages to living to a ripe old age, the alternative isn’t actually all that tempting either. There are issues with growing old, which are perhaps too obvious to labour here. One problem is that your nearest and dearest try to take control of your life.
If you’re lucky and they are doing it for what they consider to be your good, it still remains irritating. If on the other hand it’s because they feel it was time you shuffled off this mortal coil and left them with the task of spending their inheritance, it can be actively annoying.
Now two people I knew, Halwhistle Borron and Miltilda Queerpreacher had reached what might be considered by those younger than them to be advanced years. Both, realising that they might soon be incapacitated by one thing or another, had made over most of their estates to their children. They had both come to regret the gesture.
Now Halwhistle, who had throughout his life, cut a dashing figure, was reduced to wearing those clothes his late wife had once put aside for the gardener. Miltilda on the other hand, had kept a little money for herself. Yet her daughter seemed to think that she was on the edge of senility and wouldn’t let her out without a maid.
One afternoon Halwhistle and Miltilda met, by chance, in the Foredeck Rooms. (This is a rather nice teashop that Lancet Foredecks runs. I suspect it is the vital fiscal underpinning which keeps him fed and housed when performance art isn’t paying.) But still these two had been friends for over fifty years and sat and talked for over an hour, swapping stories of the problems they faced at the hands of their offspring. Miltilda had been abandoned there by the maid who wanted to purchase some things for herself. Halwhistle was normally restricted to the house and garden. However he had found a few coins in the pocket of an old jacket and had slipped out of the house when nobody was looking. Thus he had decided to invest his new found wealth in a glass or two of one of those infusions his late wife had taught him to enjoy.
Miltilda saw the maid enter the teashop. “Oh, Halwhistle, this is unsupportable. I have had enough.”
Halwhistle said quietly, “We could just elope.”
Without hesitation Miltilda said, “Yes. Give me ten days to make arrangements.”
With that she stood up and left walking meekly behind the maid, following her like a prisoner following her gaoler.
Miltilda obviously gave the matter a lot of thought and then summoned me. When I arrived at the door the maid refused me admittance. Miltilda came to the door to see what was happening, and as she berated the girl, she dropped a letter into my pocket. I beat a hasty retreat and returned to the barge when Shena and I read the letter.
I intend to elope with Halwhistle Borron. From talking to him I know that he still owns a cottage that belonged to his grandmother not far from Woodpin. We wish to elope, marry and live there. I have the money to support us.
I need you to break us out of durance vile. In nine days I will be travelling to a concert. I will travel by sedan chair, an irritating maid will doubtless accompany me. Halwhistle is more closely constrained. You may need to help him escape from the house. Ideally on the same day at the same hour. Then we need to get to Woodpin. I place our future happiness in your hands.
As Shena said, I had to help, a gentleman could do no less.
I needed to be in three places at once. I needed to be in Woodpin to make sure the cottage was ready. I had to rescue Miltilda and simultaneously liberate Halwhistle and then manage their escape. This looked impossible. Shena listened thoughtfully.
“I can go to Woodpin, get the cottage ready and have food in the pantry and a fire in the hearth.”
“Then at least they have a safe and warm destination. I wonder if I could rope Lancet in to help with the escape of at least one of them. If I can couch it in terms of performance art, he might be interested.”
Mutt appeared from by the stove, “Yeah well, if you’ve got ‘im, I’ll get t’other.”
“Thank you. I’ll go and find Lancet now. Which one would you prefer to rescue?”
Mutt thought briefly. “Sedan chair. I can sort that.”
I wrapped my cloak around my shoulders and made my way out into a late autumn evening to find Lancet. As I hoped, I found him at the Misanthropes. He was purchasing a bottle wine, so I threw a brotherly arm around his shoulder, picked up the other glass and steered him to a quiet corner table. “Lancet, old fellow, I’ve found the perfect piece of performance art for you to stage.”
He poured wine into both glasses (which I felt was a positive sign) and gestured for me to continue. I explained the entire saga, including the letter. I also mentioned that Mutt had shown an interest in rescuing Miltilda from the sedan chair. Even as I mentioned Mutt’s name I could see Lancet look more interested.
“So you want me to rescue the gentleman?”
If you could. I know a carter who is travelling north and will pass close to Woodpin. I’m sure he will give the couple a lift. If you can get Halwhistle to me and the carter; that would be fine.”
“Hmm.” Lancet stared into his wine glass. “Mutt is dealing with the sedan chair, you say.”
Mutt and Lancet have a strange relationship. I think they actually respect each other as operators in their chosen fields, but there seems almost to be a touch of rivalry between them. It is as if each spurs the other to greater efforts.
Lancet continued. “You will inevitably need some form of false trail.” He sipped wine. “Yes, I can do it. It should be a pleasure. And what is more it’ll be a performance talked about for years to come.”
In all candour I had rather feared that part of the venture
Shena left with the carter three days before we were going to launch our mad venture. Her argument was that it would take time to get the cottage warmed through. Not only that but the carter would return to Port Naain with grain from the last harvest, unload and be ready to head north once more. Hopefully, on this trip he had our two patrons as passengers.
On the big day, I went to see Mutt in operation. I felt I owed it to him to be there both to applaud if things went well, and to support if something went wrong. I arrived in time to see Miltilda Queerpreacher leave the house, climb into the sedan chair and draw the curtains to keep out a chill wind. She was accompanied by an officious maid. They left the house and made their way through Dilbrook towards Ropewalk. The whole assemblage moved briskly through light traffic. It wasn’t until Ropewalk that they had to slow down. In fact, on Ropewalk they had to halt, the street was entirely blocked. Traffic had stopped because of a procession of temple dancers from the Temple of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Chastity. They were led by no less a person than my cousin Thela. She saw me in the crowd and winked at me as she led her dancers through any number of complex routines. Simultaneously what appeared to be a numberless host of young girls in all-encompassing robes swept through the crowd with collecting buckets. These they rattled with the innocent persistence of the young. I saw the officious maid looking flustered as she rooted through her purse for small change. But in these circumstances you have to be careful. The change must not be so small as to have the junior collectors remain standing in front of you, assuming you had meant to give more. All around her chairmen were putting down their chairs and going through their pockets for some coppers to donate. Finally the dancing came to a halt and the dancers decorously formed up in column of twos and made their stately way down the middle of the road heading back towards the temple. The maid gestured to her chairmen who picked up the chair, manoeuvring it carefully between the other chairs which had stopped next to it, and made their way down Ropewalk.
Mutt materialised beside me. “’s done.”
Mutt gestured to a second sedan chair that was at that moment turning off Ropewalk. “She got into that chair when nobody were looking.”
“Won’t the other chairmen notice anything?”
“Two girls got in when she got out. They’ll run fer it when the chair stops.”
Tentatively I said, “It was lucky that the dancing distracted everybody.”
“I owes your cousin a favour now.” Mutt’s voice sounded both worried and accusing.
There wasn’t a lot I could say at that point. I wanted to see what Lancet was up to. I mentioned this to Mutt.
Somewhat gloomily he commented, “I ‘spect you’ll hear about it soon enough. I’d keep away ter be honest.”
I pondered this and decided that Mutt, ten years old though he may be, was wise in these things. I accompanied Mutt to the rendezvous. The carter was already there, and Miltilda had changed into clothes suitable for the occasion in the chair as the chairmen waited.
Lancet’s part of the proceedings I shall now recount. I have put the story together by talking to sober witnesses, persons of unparalleled unimaginative honesty.
It seems that he struck quite early, the family were gathering for their midday meal only to be accosted by a band of masked vigilantes who held them and their domestic staff at crossbow point in the dining room whilst Lancet, also masked, railed against the drab nature of the room. He then handed out paint and brushes to his prisoners and supervised them painting everything white that was not wood panelled. It was during this process that Halwhistle Borron was extracted. He had not arrived in the dining room so it was easy for him to collect a few things, his son-in-law’s cashbox and similar and accompany his guide through to the rendezvous.
Once the room was painted to Lancet’s high standards, the masked party left, in the son-in-law’s coach and four, with an extemporised coachman standing on the roof, cracking the whip, driving through Dilbrook at a gallop. At the ferry pier the party dispersed, with the exception of an elderly couple, heavily muffled, who climbed into a small boat which whisked them across to the other side of the estuary. There, as they landed, they were met by a strong party of men who were obviously Partannese ruffians of the worst type. These ruffians had with them two spare horses. They assisted their two accomplices to mount and the whole party clattered down the road at a fair place heading for the unpoliced vastness of Partann.
Nobody took any notice of a small party of three hitching a ride on a cart load of horse dung leaving the city on the northern road and heading for Woodpin. At Woodpin the carter turned down the main road through the village, the old couple and I got off and walked the remaining mile to the cottage.
And afterwards? Apparently the son-in-law attempted to sue Lancet through the courts but ran into problems when Lancet counter-sued for the value of the home improvements he had brought about. Similarly as the Miltilda Queerpreacher’s family discovered when they made a formal complaint to the Temple of Aea. It isn’t actually illegal for an elderly lady to swap her sedan chair for that of two young girls because she doesn’t particularly want to go to the concert you decided was going to be good for her.
As for the couple themselves? Well they got by well enough. They must have purchased a cow or two, because every so often they used to send us some cheese she’d made. Both had had grandmothers who insisted that their grandchildren be taught useful skills “because you never know when they might come in.”
And now a brief note from Jim Webster. It’s really just to inform you that I’ve just published two more collections of stories.
The first, available on kindle, is ‘Tallis Steelyard, preparing the ground, and other stories.’
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to folk dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.
The second, available on Kindle or as a paperback, is ‘Maljie. Just one thing after another.’
Once more Tallis Steelyard chronicles the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. Discover the wonders of the Hermeneutic Catherine Wheel, marvel at the use of eye-watering quantities of hot spices. We have bell ringers, pop-up book shops, exploding sedan chairs, jobbing builders, literary criticism, horse theft and a revolutionary mob. We also discover what happens when a maiden, riding a white palfrey led by a dwarf, appears on the scene.