I travelled for a while through an area that was rustic to an extreme. I confess I was torn between heading back to the west and Port Naain, or continuing north along the river and getting further and further from home.
I eventually decided that I would let my muse guide me further north. After all, I was a wandering poet, every man’s friend, and welcome in any friendly home. Not only that travel broadens the mind and the bucolic life is a constant source of poetical inspiration.
Perhaps more importantly, I had left Port Naain in haste, and I suspected that unkind people there still wished to ask me difficult questions for which I had no glib answer that would satisfy them. It seemed sensible to deny the good folk of the city my company a little longer. Thus I continued north along the bank of the River Slackwater, enjoying the pleasant late summer weather.
It must be said that whilst those parts are not heavily populated, the folk there are kindly enough. Any traveller capable of splitting firewood or doing some other task is guaranteed a meal, or perhaps some bread and cheese to take away. A selection from the ‘Assorted verses’ by Quoloen the Indelicate won for me not merely a meal but a stable to sleep in.
Eventually I passed out of the tamer lands, the mountains grew closer. I was promised that before the river passed into the mountains, I would find a road which eventually led west. Finally, with evening falling I came upon Slackwater Ford. It consisted of three low houses and a ruined tower. In the distance I could see flocks grazing.
I approached the first house cautiously, somewhere a dog started barking. Even before I knocked on the door it opened and a burly man stepped out and looked me up and down.
“A good evening to you traveller; have you a name?”
“I am Tallis Steelyard, a wandering poet.”
He looked at me somewhat askance, but had the courtesy not to laugh out aloud. Wearing the battered remains of the kitchen porter’s overall I had donned to avoid being recognised by those who might be seeking me, I was not perhaps the epitome of casual good taste. Certainly I doubt many of my patrons in Port Naain would have recognised me. Indeed in some houses the footmen would already have ejected me.
Hence I added,
“Forgive my lowly guise
Fate intervened, careless of my feelings
Dressed me in soiled rags
A poet in a humble disguise
Other fellows strut
Depending on props, needing borrowed splendour
I rub along quietly
My muse stronger than a poor haircut.”
He smiled at me. “A poet is most welcome on this day. You will dine with us?”
I bowed low. “I would be delighted to.”
He led me into the low house. Most of it seemed to be one room with box beds set into the wall and two doors leading off to other rooms.
A woman of a similar age to the master of the house was standing at the stove stirring something in a large pan. One young boy was assisting her, whilst another boy was feeding twin lambs whilst a dog watched them. The lambs were enthusiastic; the boy very serious, the dog wore an expression of weary scepticism.
My host showed me to a chair. Then he went to a barrel in the corner and poured two glasses of beer from it. We chatted about the weather, the roads, and how the flocks were coping with the season. Two older children came in from outside, to be swept up by their mother into taking part in various domestic preparations. Finally we were all called to the big central table to eat.
I must confess that once food was placed in front of me, I forgot witty conversation and concentrated on eating an excellent orid stew served on a bread trencher. Walking the roads gives a fellow an appetite. Fortunately the family were of the same mind, and there was silence until we’d finished eating.
Then the master of the house drew a jug of ale from his barrel, and one of his sons placed a mug in front of each of us. This our host filled. As he took his seat he asked, “Have you a story for us master poet, or some verses?”
I glanced round the table. Bearing in mind the four children I decided that a story would go down better than verses. So I told the tale of Tittle and the Honest Tax Collector. In case you don’t know the story, Tittle is fisherman who has had a bad year, he falls ill, then he has an accident, his wife gives birth to triplets, all girls. Then his boat sinks, he looses his net in a gale, and when the tax collector comes round it is to find Tittle shivering at home; virtually naked because he has sold his last tunic to pay the rent on the hut. The tax collector sits down with four great books of rules, and discovers that Tittle has been so over-taxed, even his good luck has been taken from him.
The tax collector submits a form to reclaim the over-paid tax and in the coming years Tittle gets a repayment of good luck, his boat is blown ashore by a gale along with his net. Then with only a modicum of work he gets them seaworthy, his fishing is better than reasonable, and he slowly works his way out of debt. On top of this his three daughters grow into great beauties. The oldest marries a young nobleman, the second marries a rich merchant, and the youngest becomes a bandit queen. She eventually captures a tax collector who turns out to be the son of the honest one who saved her father. She falls in love with him and marries him, thus finally balancing the account.
This went down well, but I kept watching the youngest boy out of the corner of my eye. He looked intensely serious, and seemed most put out when his family laughed at my tale. His mother put her arm round him and he seemed to relax a little.
When the tale was finished my host stood up. “A tale like that deserves wine.”
He went to a chest and rooted around in it. He produced a silver drinking cup and a bottle of wine. He passed the cup to me and I examined it carefully. It was large enough to hold most of the bottle. What intrigued me most were the style and the workmanship. Such cups are rarely seen in Port Naain. A handful of the oldest families will have one, normally with their family crest engraved on it. This cup also had a crest but when I recognised it I looked at my host. “The Royal arms of Port Naain? Is the cup that old?”
He took the cup from me and poured wine into it. “We don’t know when our family acquired it. Family legend claims we are the rightful heirs.”
“But it’s well over a thousand years since the last king left Port Naain.”
He shrugged. “It’s a family legend. Perhaps I am rightful king of Port Naain? Perhaps one of my ancestors was merely an accomplished bandit who stole it. By every year we try and find an excuse to drink wine from it to keep the tale alive.”
Somewhat diffidently I asked, “Have you ever been to Port Naain.”
He winked at his wife. “Like every eldest son for generations, I visited the city. Apparently one was so disgusted with the place he spent less than an hour there. I spent a year.”
His wife smiled back at him. “That’s how long it took for him to convince me to marry him.”
So with great formality my host said, “So I am Rostig, perhaps King of Port Naain, and this is my wife Elisia. He lifted the cup to his lips and drank. “So Tallis Steelyard, poet and story teller, I wish you good health.”
He passed me the cup. As I held it I said,
Tallis Steelyard, poet
Should perform before Princes
They bestow it
Provoking envious glances
Seethe, I know it
Still my repute advances.”
With that I raised the cup to my lips, drank, and passed the cup back to him. gravely the cup was passed round the table and all drank. The youngest boy, still solemn, asked, “Should Grandma drink some?”
His mother hesitated briefly, “You can try her with a little on a spoon when you feed her.”
“Should she meet our guest?”
“If you think she would like it.”
He left his seat and went across to the stove. He took a bowl that had been left to keep warm and went with it to one of the box beds.
Softly his mother said to me, “My mother came with me, now her mind has gone entirely. In a morning we get her up and if it is fine we sit her outside, Jackin our youngest will look after her. If it gets cold we will bring her in and Jackin and I will wash her and get her back in bed. Three times a day he feeds her.”
She sighed a little. “He seems slow at times, he struggles to play with other children. But no-one is better with lambs or his grandmother.”
I stood up. “Then it seems appropriate that I should meet her.”
I made my way to the box bed. The boy had one arm round the old lady’s shoulders and was speaking softly to her, a string of nonsense words but their tone was affectionate and encouraging. With his other hand he lifted the spoon to her lips. Mechanically she opened her lips and he spooned a little stew into her mouth. She chewed it lethargically and swallowed. Jackin got a little more stew on the spoon and repeated the process. I looked at the woman’s face. It was slack, there appeared to be no sign of intelligence in the eyes, she fed mechanically.
From behind me Jackin’s mother said, “She was a singer in Port Naain. She was perhaps even famous, she sang the great operas. When she first came to live with us here she would sing them around the house.”
Patiently Jackin fed his grandmother, one small spoonful at a time. Then gently he wiped her lips with a cloth.
Softly I started to sing. I chose the great love duet from Phristus and Cimbu. I occasionally sung the part of Phristus to give one or the other of my lady Patrons the opportunity to sing the part of Cimbu. Apparently I’m good enough not to cause embarrassment but not so accomplished that I steal the show. The duet starts with Phristus working up the courage to tell Cimbu of his love. It’s actually quite funny at times as he keeps losing his nerve and changes the subject to talk about the weather. As I sang I would swear I could see life seep into Grandmother’s eyes. Then when the moment comes for Cimbu to come in, she opened her mouth and started to sing.
Initially her voice was small and weak, but as she sung, her voice strengthened and by the time the duet finished I could detect hints of the singer that she had once been.
Jackin gently brought a spoonful of wine to her lips and she sipped, smiled and seemed to sink down into her pillows in a natural sleep.
I made my way back to the table where the family sat in silence. As I sat down Jackin stood in front of me. “Sir, you must teach me that song.”
I glanced at my host. He sat there, his eyes damp. He nodded slightly, so I concentrated my attention on Jackin.
“Then Jackin, tomorrow I will teach you the song.”
At this point it seems pertinent to mention that the story of Tallis’s escapades continues on other blogs. They will be reblogged in what may one day be accepted by biographers as the chronologically correct order on his own blog. Thus and so you can easily follow his gripping adventures.
Also, as an aside, the reason for this whole performance, (aside for being ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’) is that another volume of his anecdotes has been published.
This is ;-
Tallis Steelyard. The Monster of Bell-Wether Gardens and other stories.