“Gentlemen behaving badly”
– by Jim Webster
The blame for this whole sad episode I lay most firmly at the feet of Mutya Ardlevice, daughter of Calthrop Ardlevice. Old Calthrop himself was a usurer, a man of substance, one of the wealthiest and most respected men of business in Port Naain. He was universally known as Ballplein from his habit of messing about with mechanical contraptions in his leisure time. The name came from his bald pate being considered remarkably similar to the hammer he tended to carry. His wife, known to everybody, (including, apparently, her husband) as Madam Ardlevice, was a patron of mine.
Young Mistress Mutya was a delightful child who grew up to become an attractive young woman. The presence of two younger brothers ensured that she was prized rather than spoiled. As is the way, she had many close friends amongst the young ladies of her age and they tended to meet socially on a regular basis.
One summer, they formed a picnic club. They would chose a location and meet there for a picnic. There was safety in numbers and whilst all you would see was the young ladies, just out of sight but still in earshot were domestic staff with ponies, traps and hampers. To be fair I merely heard about these events as the ladies entertained themselves and could fill a pleasant afternoon with convivial gossip and good fellowship. They did not feel the need for the services of a poet.
They made a rule for themselves that their picnics would be ‘ladies only.’ Whilst at any given time a number of them could boast gentlemen admirers, it was felt that they needed a space in which they could relax. Not only that but it meant that they had a forum where, should it be necessary, the failings of someone outwith their fellowship could be discussed in confidence. So the unreasonable demands of mothers, the financial constraints imposed by fathers, and the inane activities of brothers all got a proper airing.
These are doubtless reasonable, even proper subjects for discussion. Yet Mistress Mutya took things to another level when she discussed a young gentleman called Crisanto. It appears that this individual had caught Mutya’s eye and she was disposed to smile upon him. Crisanto seemed to be flattered by this attention, but seemed to be a most inconstant admirer. She had no evidence of him paying court to other ladies, but he seemed to struggle to ‘fit her in’ and she could go for days without hearing from him.
This got other young ladies pondering the issue. Finally one of them, Sissi Clearsmith, who was ‘walking out’ with Bromar Heel, rather smugly drew the attention of the meeting to the fact that Bromar was always charming and attentive. The meeting took heart from this. This inattentiveness wasn’t a universal failing. There were gentlemen out there who could behave properly.
Once this was accepted by the meeting, the discussion moved on to what should be done about it? Some sort of corrective action was obviously called for. The problem is, what should this action be? On this note the picnic ended but the young women agreed that they would ponder, and suggest remedies when they met the following week.
Unfortunately Sissi Clearsmith decided to discuss the matter with Bromar Heel. The problem she faced was not that he was unwilling to dance attendance upon her, but that she had great difficulty finding excuses to go and meet him. It might help if I were to explain that there are two opinions about Bromar Heel. A fair number of ladies consider him to be charming, personable, and excellent company. A lesser number of ladies and virtually all men regard him as a cad and dastard. Indeed I have known men with no female relatives whatsoever who will still instinctively reach for their horsewhip in his presence. Sissi’s father could not say the man’s name without spitting. It was only because her mother rather liked the young man that Sissi could get to meet him at all.
When Sissi brought her problem to Bromar Heel, he did not hesitate. “Any man so discourteous as to ignore the wishes of a lady deserves to be taught a strong lesson. A flogging is too good for him.”
To be fair to Bromar, when you have been threatened with as many floggings as he had, the temptation to get your revenge must be overwhelming. Unfortunately whereas an older or wiser lady would have disregarded his comments, Sissi hung on his every word and reported them verbatim to her confederates when they held the next picnic.
Again here I find myself wondering at the unfortunate combination of circumstances. Whilst this collection of young ladies might lack experience of the world, they were not to be treated lightly. Their parents were successful people, prone to take decisions and act decisively. These weren’t the daughters of a decayed aristocracy. These were the daughters of men and women who had made the most of their advantages and had worked hard to get where they were. I have noticed that this sort of thing can rub off on their offspring.
So Sissi made her suggestion, it was generally agreed and various of those present put forward names of young men whom they felt were in need of correction. Mutya was deputised to arrange matters, and the ladies all chipped in a sum so that there was a budget for the project. Mutya’s childhood nurse, now retired, was the sister of an elderly enforcer, Brag Three-Teeth. Mutya merely dropped in on the old lady and finding the Brag present, gave him the list of names and the money to go with it.
Here Mutya was lucky. Provided you aren’t fussy about your instruments it is remarkably cheap to get somebody killed in Port Naain. Admittedly at the cheaper end of the market one has to deal with drunken psychopaths who will probably kill the wrong person. Still when Brag looked at the names and the sum of money he had been given, he realised that he could hire competent assassins. At this point he decided that for Mutya’s sake he would instead merely hire ruffians to administer a beating. This took a mere third of the budget and the money saved would keep his sister and him in some comfort through the next winter.
Now it may be he had been too economical. Had he paid somebody who had enough good hard lads to deal with everybody on the list on the same day, then matters would doubtless have gone much as he expected. Unfortunately he gave the job to Young Maggins. This doubtless capable individual was starting out for himself. No longer satisfied to just wield a truncheon at somebody else’s direction, he had decided to put together a team of his own and to tender for contracts directly. I confess I can see where Brag was coming from. We ought to encourage those just starting out in business. But in this case, whilst Maggins was conscientiously working through the list, there was only him and three lads. The list was going to take him a couple of weeks. So inevitably word got round. Young men, realising that a friend of theirs had been beaten up by hired professionals, would take more care. Indeed they made a point of going round in groups. Soon, rather than administering a perfunctory beating, Maggins found he was forced to fight pitched battles. Others got drawn in, and generally things got out of hand and over budget. Finally when one brawl had brought Ropewalk to a standstill the Watch took an interest. Maggins, his leg in plaster and with his head aching abominably, confessed that it was Brag Three-teeth who had given him the work. But because Brag had been sadly loose-mouthed, Maggins also mentioned Mutya.
Here the watch was discreet and efficient. Rather than go through the proper procedures, they merely raised the matter with Madam Ardlevice. As I was present, helping to organise Madam’s Summer Ball, I was retained by Madam as a witness. Mutya was summoned to her mother’s presence, and on being questioned, candidly explained how the situation had arisen. Madam, to my surprise, was more exasperated than angry.
“Mutya my girl, would you describe your father as a good father?”
Somewhat surprised at this line of questioning, Mutya loyally answered in the affirmative.
“So Mutya, would you say he is ever attentive, constantly dancing attendance on my, and pandering to my every whim?”
Here one could see Mutya’s instinctive loyalty to her much loved father battling with her innate honesty. “No.”
“For as long as I’ve known him, your father has had a fascination with mechanisms. Indeed when we were courting there were times when I realised that he hadn’t time for a lady-friend and his beloved steam engines, and I loathed those little engines because of it.”
I could see from Mutya’s face that she both followed her mother’s argument and agreed with it. Madam continued. “But when I became the wife, I realised I loved those little engines for exactly the same reason. He still hasn’t time for lady friends and steam engines.”
Here the slow dawning of realisation was visible on Mutya’s face. “You mean….”
“Yes, no woman in Port Naain has a more loyal or obliging husband than I.”
With this Mutya was silent and I could see her mother watching her. It was obvious to me at least that the older woman was struggling to remain stern-faced.
“Do your brothers have hobbies?”
Mutya looked up. “Yes.” Then with a note of distaste she added, “Their rooms are filled with stuffed animals or insects pinned to cards.”
“All men have interests they follow assiduously throughout their lives. They are by nature collectors. But you will notice some men seem to avoid this, and instead they will be charming and attentive and ladies find them excellent company.”
Cautiously Mutya said, “I have noticed this. I assumed it to be a norm from which other men had fallen.”
“No Mutya, they are merely men whose hobby is women. Have you ever known a collector whose collection stopped with one specimen?”
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