It’s strange when you think about it. One would expect a gentleman to have a fine residence. But alas property does not devolve naturally upon those of breeding and good manners. Indeed it has been commented (mainly by punsters more interested in displaying their grasp of archaisms than they are in provoking mirth) that a gentleman may have a fine address without having a fine address.
Still there are many persons of wealth and influence who can claim more than one pleasant house, elegantly appointed and displaying the opulence and good taste of the owner, or at least of the person the owner hired. And of course the house or houses are theirs. They have the deeds to prove it.
But in reality, they are merely the title holder. In the eyes of the law, they are responsible. Indeed when they enter the house, those staff who meet them will show them formal signs of respect. But let us be pitilessly candid, the staff may show respect when the master of the house arrives, but when the butler arrives, the staff leap to obey them.
In fact, whilst a gentleman may have a number of houses, each with a housekeeper, he will have but one butler. This lofty individual (the butler, not the gentleman) will arrive in one of the houses and the staff will dance attendance upon him. Even the housekeeper, otherwise absolute mistress within her domain, will treat the butler with respect. If he is wise, he will return the favour, because life goes more easily and the staff are happier when the sun and moon of their existence orbit each other in perfect harmony.
So when the family moves from one residence to another, the Butler will arrive in some state, to be greeted by attentive colleagues who report to him all the doings since his previous visit. On the other hand, the owner can often sidle, ignored, into his house. His employees might not deign to notice him until the butler gives formal notice of his arrival.
Now let us be fair here. I generalise, perhaps for artistic effect. This is entirely proper, after all, am I not an artist? But still, with a few exceptions, the generalisation holds good. Most of the exceptions are ladies. Dowagers are notorious amongst butlers for their ability to know everything. Indeed their unkind habit of remembering embarrassing events which happened forty years previously is regarded as cheating of the worst and lowest sort.
At one time Quinnan Whalhollow, usurer and lawyer, owned four houses in which he might be said to live. There was a pleasant farm, known as the Summer Farm. It is in the country where the family would go for a few weeks in summer when the city becomes unpleasant. There was the large house in Dilbrook which was the favourite abode of Madam Whalhollow, Quinnan’s wife. There was a pleasant town house in the Merchant Quarter which Quinnan preferred. This was a combination of nostalgia, as it was his childhood home, and convenience. After all it was barely a ten minute walk to his offices. Finally there was Winter Farm. Quinnan’s father had been an enthusiastic huntsman and had purchased Winter Farm for the hunting. It lay a good day’s ride east of Port Naain. Quinnan didn’t hunt as much as his father had, but he liked his fishing and Winter Farm had a couple of good fishing streams, so he would often take himself there for a week or so.
Battertan, Quinnan’s butler, was the man responsible for ensuring that each household was running smoothly. He would normally be found in the house where Quinnan was living, but in Port Naain he would spread himself between both the house in the Merchant’s Quarter and the house in Dilbrook. This was possible because he had a junior whom he could trust with day to day affairs.
Obviously, as a butler of some seniority, Battertan was professionally unperturbable. The dropping of a teapot, the presence of a score of unexpected guests, or even the prophesied arrival of a Scar warband would be met with the same bland comment of, “Indeed sir. I shall deal with the manner forthwith.”
Indeed having seen him in action I have no doubt that should a rampaging nomad raiding party appear upon the premises, Battertan would deal with them to everybody’s satisfaction.
Yet Battertan was a man with problems. The estate was overburdened with ‘extras’. Now this may need some explaining. With a small household, when a kitchen maid grows old in the family service, the Lady of the House will normally take it upon herself to ensure that the old and faithful servant has some security in her final years. If the maid goes to live with a daughter, then a small annual retainer might be paid to ensure that daughter is not left financially worse off. If there is no daughter, then the old lady might even be accommodated in a spare attic bedroom or similar. But amongst decent households, provision is made.
With the old aristocracy then there is no issue. Should you be in service to the Cartin family then in all probability your son or daughter has already been trained up in the service and you merely enjoy the use of your small cottage until finally you die and Lord Cartin himself stands by the graveside to say the final eulogy.
It is those in-between that present a problem. They are too large to know everybody and too newly arrived to have imbibed the concepts of ‘looking after our people’ with their mother’s milk. In cases like this, the burden of doing the right thing will often fall upon the shoulders of the butler. Hence Battertan had to deal with the ‘extras’ from the Whalhollow ‘estate.’
Winter Farm wasn’t a problem. The staff there was small, with extra being brought in from other houses when the family visited. Not only that but the staff were largely drawn from the local village, and were happy enough to retire back to the village in old age. Battertan merely had to ensure that they received small cash payments and occasional hampers or food parcels. All easily enough managed for a butler, indeed it merely disappeared into his petty cash accounts.
Summer Farm was a bigger problem, but even there, country folk are resilient and Battertan had managed to acquire the leases on a couple of cottages near the farm. Thus those grown old in the service of the family, who had nowhere to go, could live in the cottages. They were expected to visit the farm for at least one meal a day, and to be honest, they were useful to have about. Battertan would often sit with them at the big kitchen table, polishing brassware and telling stories of the past, explaining local customs, and trying to remember where they’d last seen the set of spare keys.
It was in the two Port Naain households that Battertan inherited problems from his predecessor. The sad deaths of two footmen left two widows and two litters of fatherless children. (Battertan’s words, not mine.) Of course they had been brought into the household as ‘extras’. Initially to just tide the families over, then because there was some thought that the widows could be useful. By the time Battertan inherited the situation both widows had passed away and their poor orphaned children had produced children of their own. Battertan did what he could. He split rooms in the servants’ quarters to provide extra accommodation. He even cleared all the junk out of the west wing of the Dilbrook house. That took less time than it should have done because the ‘extras’ had been quietly stripping those rooms and selling the contents for cash.
The other problem was the sheer amount that they ate and drank. It got so that Battertan was the only person he dare allow access to the key of the wine cellar, indeed he had booby-trapped the lock. This paid dividends, he trapped three of the ‘extras’ when their attempts to access the wine cellar precipitated a bath of whitewash over them. From that day on, the extras were moved to whichever house Battertan was currently stationed in.
Eventually Battertan had had enough. He drew Quinnan Whalhollow’s attention to an article in the Port Naain Intelligencer about some excellent fishing in the rivers of Northern Partann. Quinnan was immediately interested and Battertan mentioned that he’d heard, in passing, that there were some pleasant properties to let in the area. Immediately Quinnan gave orders that one of the houses should be taken for a month in summer.
This Battertan did and then went to get the house ready. Of course, as expected, he took the ‘extras’ with him. He even paid for the hire of two covered wagons to transport them south. Unfortunately for Quinnan the courts were clogged that summer and there was no real recess. Thus he never got time to use the house. Still, at the end of the month, Battertan handed the keys back to the owner. The ‘extras’ were abandoned, along with the house. Eventually the owner got another tenant. When she and her family tried to take possession, the ‘extras’, regarding the house as their own, ejected them. The owner was informed and arrived with the muscular members of a local vigilance committee. The ‘extras’ were arrested, and they were hauled in front of the local magistrate. Given that this august individual incidentally happened to be the owner of the house, some might claim to see a conflict of interest. Fear not, there was no conflict. The owner and magistrate were in complete agreement and the ‘extras’ were sold into indentured labour to cover both the fine and the court costs.
I remember somebody raising the issue with Battertan. He merely commented, somewhat dryly, that, “I believe they are now properly provided for.” I would swear I saw the hint of a smile as he said it.
And now we’d better hear from Jim Webster.
So here I am again with another blog tour. I’ve released two collections of short stories from Tallis and if you’ve enjoyed the one you just read, you’ll almost certainly enjoy these.
So what have Tallis and I got for you?
Well first there’s, ‘Tallis Steelyard. A guide for writers, and other stories.’ The book that all writers who want to know how to promote and sell their books will have to read. Sit at the feet of the master as Tallis passes on the techniques which he has tried and perfected over the years. As well as this you’ll have music and decorum, lessons in the importance of getting home under your own steam, and brass knuckles for a lady. How can you resist, all this for a mere 99p.
Then we have, ‘Tallis Steelyard. Gentlemen behaving badly, and other stories.’ Now is your chance to see Port Naain by starlight and meet ladies of wit and discernment. There are Philosophical societies, amateur dramatics, the modern woman, revenge, and the advantages of a good education.