To Pay The Rent: The Story
This was, I should say is going on at TTLG, but due to problems there has been moved here.
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If you have remarks. Thanks.
To Pay The Rent I
(Part the first. Plans and deceitful practices.
I'm not a killer. I can kill. I have in the past. I may in the future, if necessary. I'm not an assassin. I'm... shall we say... in charge of the redistribution of wealth. I ensure the continued circulation of coin of the realm, obje-de-art, and exotic goods. To put it simply, I am a thief. A very good, very skilled thief. Not as skilled, nor as widely known as Garrett. Then again, except for the skill, I don't wish to be. No wanted posters. No constant neck strain from looking behind me. Except for a few of the more elite fences -who don't know my real name or face- I'm pretty much invisible.
I, can and do, walk the streets anytime with no fear of recognition. I am a member of the faceless mob as far as the City Watch and the Thief Catchers are concerned. At other times a little gutta-perche, some hanks of hair and "my lady's" makeup, and I can be anyone I choose to be. Two minutes, or less, and the young man who walked into the shadowed nook walks out a wizened old man. But unless on a job, I need no disguise.
I live modestly, but comfortably, in an upper middle class part of town. To my neighbors I am a well-to-do bachelor. Self-sufficient and, although not overtly anti-social, (as far as they know) am considered to be a quiet asset to the neighborhood. I am well known at balls and the Opera as an eligible although frivolous, raconteur.
In some of the seedier parts of the city I am known as an amiable companion to both men and women. But also as one with whom it is unwise to trifle. My friends are few and select. My enemies none; they seem to have a predeliction for fatal accidents.
The Thieves Guild here knows I exist. They aren't too fond of independents. Their on-going feud with Garrett keeps them too busy to put much effort into running me down. As if they could.
Holiday's over. My last job brought in enough to keep me in comfort for about 6 months. There's still some money in my stash but it's time to go to work.
At the moment, I'm dining with some of the more wealthy of Gervasius's friends deciding which of them will be my unsuspecting patron for the next few months. During lulls in the conversation -which is mainly about the devastating raid on the mansion during the Precursor exhibit- I'm weighing the risk and possible reward offered by each of my dinner companions.
Lady Larissa, sitting to my left, looks like a good target. She is wearing a large pendant ruby the size of a goose egg, and a heavy gold and diamond bracelet on her left wrist. The emerald dinner ring on her right hand is also quite interesting. Unfortunately, though she didn't know it, all the jewels were paste. And the gold? Base metal. Lady Larissa's husband, a textile merchant, was deeply in debt to some usurious moneylenders. The jewelry had been sold and replaced with paste. So... What other lamb should I shear?
Of the four other couples at the table, only two were worthy of my nocturnal attention. Lord and Lady Hempstead, and the young scion of the Rothschild fortune and his wife. The Hempsteads had had the premiere jewelsmith in town do some custom pieces recently. It was the talk of the towns upper crust. But the pieces were too well known. The wait while my fence had them shipped to another area for disposition would be lengthy. Profitable, but I need a score that would pay off sooner.
I guess it'll have to be the Rothschild kid. The sniveling social climber needs his comeuppance anyway.
My rooms were warm and cozy. As I enjoyed my wine in front of the cheery fire, I studied the plan of the Rothschild mansion. During the week since the dinner I had been my usual bon vivant man-about-town in the social scene. I also, in other guises and places, had been subverting some of the Rothschild's servants, and utilizing the services of the Beggar Master. His people, especially his "Eyes and Ears" were always good for information. Beggars, like street urchins, are invisible to most people. Although in plain sight, beggars were part of the walls and woodwork to most.
When planning a job, I make good use of the service offered by the Beggars Guild. The beggars and street urchins overhear much useful information. Mostly just gossip but often a choice bit of information; " I hear Lord whozziwhat had a new security system installed in his place... Johanne made triple his profit on that last shipload..." and other tid-bits.
For a small gift now and then, the urchins kept me informed of any tasty information they thought I might could use, and do a little spying or surveilence. With the Beggars Guild, I request specfic information or targets and pay for the service of the "Eyes and Ears" of the guild proportionate to the value of what I get. Over the years I have developed a good relationship with the guild and am favored by the Beggar Master; for whom I have done a few services best not discussed.
A light, but pleasant, dalliance with one of the housemaids. Some brotherly commiseration with one of the Rothchilds private security men, who was feeling abused and unappreciated, and I had a wealth of information about the Rothschild household and habits.
With my notes and the plan of the house and grounds spread before me, I began to set up the job. None of the "mechs" mechanical toys to deal with. Good! But that did not rule out old fashioned traps and snares, nor cancel the danger of the arrows and swords of the guards. - I do bleed when cut or shot full of arrows, and have the scars to witness the fact. For example, there were interior patrols and two corridors set up with "nightingale" floors. These are more treacherous than marble or tile covered floors. Oh? You have a question? Let me guess. Nightingale floors are designed so that the boards are closely, but loosely fitted. When walked upon they squeal and squeak like a herd of pigs being used as a dart board.
May I continue? So... I would need to avoid these, and if that was not possible, have the equipment to cancel their purpose. A unique feature of the house, -I found out- was a handful of movable walls. These are able to change the direction of a hallway, turn a though hall to a dead-end, and even to divide sections of an apparently open hallway into a series of entryless boxes. Some of these were activated nightly to block a hall or change a floor plan to confuse intruders or even guests. Others were traps that were set off by stepping on a trigger, or brushing a wire, or breaking a hair fine thread stretched across the hall, or even from the ceiling to the floor. This could cause the hapless wanderer to be trapped in a box with no exit. Not the best place for a thief. Especially as these had "murder holes" in the ceilings over them.
It seems the little Rothschild twit was a bit paranoid. He worried about assassins. I could almost sympathize with him. He had alienated all but the strongest stomachs in the ranks of the wealthy. Those few that needed him for political reasons or to maintain a facade of friendliness due to his connections were the only ones that socialized with him. His removal would be considered a blessing in many circles, and his over-indulged simpering wife was no prize either.
Back to work: The maid had provided me with the daytime layout and routine, along with some not unlikeable diversions, and the guard, with most of the patrol schedules inside and out. The use of the interior changes was random in time and use, but consisted of only three patterns. The 'nightingale' floors were active all the time, but were, of course, in fixed locations.
To Pay The Rent II
(Part the second. Where is the loot and how get we in?)
According to the maid, the common rooms of the mansion were decorated with some small but valuable objects. Ignoring the paintings -which are too hard to deal with- there were statuettes of precious metals encrusted with gems, gold and silver salvors and nutbowls, sideboards with goblets and small plate and so on. In an alcove off the formal dining room was a glass display case containing some twenty or more antique snuff boxes. These were made of gold, ivory, jade, turquoise and other jewels and metals. She said that she had seen the steward pay as much as 8,000 imperials for a couple of them. She hated these with a passion. One of her chores was to polish and dust them daily. And woe to her if she dropped or damaged one.
The master bedrooms, ( there were two. Apparently the couple shared a bed only on occassion) had walk-in dressing rooms where the personal jewelry of the day was usually kept. The major pieces of value were kept elsewhere in the house. She didn't know where.
One minor problem I would need to check a little further. Seems that there is an area of the house that only the kid had access to. It was just off his library. Only one or two rooms, but I had no details of that area.
Some household money was kept by the Steward in a lockbox in his office just off the kitchen. Usually a hundred or two in silver and copper for daily house expenses. Whenever the Steward needed to replenish his fund the kid - Oh hell. Let's use his name. Julius Trevor Darian Tremayne Rothschild the Third- would disappear into his library, lock the door and come out in a few minutes with a handful of gold Imperials and give them to the Steward for servants salaries and his little lockbox.
A courier from First City Bank would show up about twice a year with a pouch and go into the library with Julius. In a minute or two he would come out empty handed and Julius would be behind his door for a half hour or so. Then the door would unlock and he would come out or go back to work at his desk. Chances were pretty good that somewhere in the vicinity of the library was a safe or a vault.
The library was on the second floor overlooking the elaborate garden in the rear. It had a wide veranda with comfortable seating and a small table or two. In inclement weather it could be closed off by glass panels with leather gaskets. These were permanently mounted, but slid closed in grooves on the balustrade and ledger for the veranda roof rafters. When not in use to keep out the rain, they were stored in a box at the end of the veranda into which they slid. When in place, they were locked by a single pin at the bottom corner of the last panel out of the box.
This looked like my best way in. Close to my main target. Forbidden to all except Julius. The outside patrols, starting at hour 6 of the evening watch, were changed at four hour intervals . Unless circumstances made it otherwise, the 2 to 6 morning watch would be the best time to make my entry around half past 3. An hour or less should give me enough time and the watch will be half asleep -unless these be unusual men- between 4 and 6. In the morning hours near dawn the body rhythms are off balance. Even professionals get chilled and start thinking of a warm bed. With no activity needing the guards attention, over time routine grinds you down and because nothing ever happens, that's what you expect: Nothing. This common failing is one of a thief's best tools. If he but use it properly.
Autumn brings a quick nightfall. The sun was completely gone by about the 5th hour after the noon strike now-a-days and dawn was about 7 or later in the morning.
All I needed was a good look at the neighboring properties, the exterior of the house, and the layout of the grounds.
To Pay The Rent III
( An account of the demeaning things one stoops to to stay alive)
It was cold and damp. The dew seemed a little heavier than usual, or maybe I was getting old. I was just a bit to the east at the south where the Empire's highroad fronted the entrance to the estate. The tree I sat in, overlooking the Rothschild grounds, had a commanding view of the front and east side of the grounds from the main gate to the rear wall. For a man worried about assassins, Julius and his security people had a blind spot when it came to landscape and terrain.
The wall was well built as was the gate itself; heavy iron with a floral pattern that allowed no opening larger than a man's hand. The gatehouse was back from the gate and the wall about 20 feet with the entrance walls forming a truncated triangle with the gate at the apex and the base at the roadway. Positioned to allow a good view of the wall to each side and anyone approaching on the road, the gatehouse was windowed on four sides. Good planning but made useless by the numerous shrubs, trees and statues scattered about the grounds in front of the house. The carriageway to the house and portico made a gentle curve away from the gate and serpentined up to the house.
Even in broad daylight, a skilled woodsman, or thief, could make his way nearly all the way to the house unseen. The grounds were a series of low rolling swales with hollows in which to lie and hide. The plantings, including the raised flowerbeds along the road to the portico, gave excellent cover to a careful man. The side of the house that I could see, probably the same. Perhaps even more so, as there should be formal gardens and paths for the enjoyment of the occupants. Against the far back wall to the north, I could see the shape of some outbuildings partially concealed in some artfully planted copses of birch and maple. Probably the stables and various maintenance buildings.
I had seen it before. This was my third day in the tree, once in the early morning, then afternoon and now evening. Dusk was approaching and I wanted to get the rhythm of the patrols fixed in my mind. The grounds were patrolled by three pairs of men. One team made a complete circuit of the grounds just inside the wall. This took about 30 minutes. The other two patrolled from the portico around the house in opposite directions, meeting again at the portico. Every other circuit they reversed course so each pair now made the circuit the other way. They ambled stolidly around and around. They seldom if ever looked out over the grounds, and only now and again at the house. A full circuit took about 10 minutes. Sometimes there was a slight delay. I suspect a gab session in the back out of sight. Just to relieve the monotony. Whoever was in charge needed a wake-up call. Discipline was by the wayside with this crew. I checked the time. Yeah. Regular as clockwork. These dummies never checked the grounds. Just stayed on thier paths like a overladen cart stuck in the ruts of a rural farm track.
The terrain surrounding the Rothschild's was semi-open country. Adjoining the property on the East and West were two other mansions with a common wall on each side. These had no security at all and offered potential access to the wall of the Rothschild estate then, of course, entry to the grounds.
As soon as it was completely dark I left my tree -I had grown almost fond of my little perch- and made my way to the Burrick for a pint. Stayed long enough to warm up a bit and then headed home.
The next thing on my list was to arrange to get a look inside the mansion itself. I'm sure I can set myself up with an invitation to dinner or to high tea. I'll have to work on that. In my guise as footloose bon-vivant that should be easy.
At the Opera a few days later, I made a point to play up to Julius and his pretentious wife during intermission. The performance that night was "The Death of a Minstrel" a solid piece, but in this case butchered by mediocre performers. Julie's wife (she called him Julie, even in public) was tone deaf and thought it was "So tragic and sweetly sung." Missing the whole story line (it was actually a comedic love story about a cuckolded husband) and all the sour notes and broken phrasing from the contralto leading lady, and her companion tenor.
I , of course, agreed with her and suggested we three dine at Fensters after. They accepted. The dinner was a crashing bore, but did result in an invitation to a dinner party they were having two nights hence. The things I have to put up with to earn a dishonest living. It sometimes seems that a form of honest employment might be better. Not that such a possiblity ever appealed to me. I would die of boredom. With the dinner invitation secured, I went home in quite a cheerful mood.
That night I went over some small, but useful items I planned to take to dinner with me. Some wax for making key impressions -if I get the chance- in a small box resembling a snuffbox, a lead for making notes or drawings, a very small, very sharp knife, and a collection of lockpicks. These items went into the jacket I planned to wear to the dinner. The box in a side pocket, along with an identical box that actually contained snuff. The lockpicks into hidden pockets in the collar and lapel, the knife in a leather-lined pocket in the left sleeve near the cuff, the lead in the breast pocket. Paper for notes I did not need. The cuffs of the shirt I would wear was specially treated to take the marks of the lead. Lightly drawn on the cuff, the lead would not be noticed (even if I covered all the exposed area) but once home, it would react with a special chemical and become a strong black. I have used this trick a few times in the past, making notes right in front of my victim. It appears to an observer that I am merely scratching my wrist with my fingernail.
To Pay The Rent IV
(Being a dissertation on the surprises fate interposes)
I rose late the next morning quite satisfied with the results of my night at the opera. I had a liesurely breakfast. I have no servants, of course, -in my line of work they'd be in the way- and I do for myself mostly. Oh, I do have a woman come in twice a week for general cleaning and laundry. Lunch and dinner, I take out at one of the cafes or restaurants or with acquaintances.
I had just finished clearing the crockery away when there was a knock at the door. As I receive few guests, and those only by invitation only, I was somewhat surprised. It could be a tradesman or peddlar or some other harmless person, but I made certain to use the spyhole before I opened the door. Standing on the stoop was a footman in the livery of the Rothschild's.
"Yes", I asked?
"I have a note for Mr. Feiht," he replied, holding out an envelope. "I am to wait for an answer".
"Come in," I said opening the door and taking the envelope. I led him to the salon and bade him wait. " Sit down, I'll have an answer for you shortly."
I went into my den, and opened the note. It was an invitation from Julius to come and spend a few days as his guest. As it was rather short notice, he begged my indulgence, and as I kept no horses or carriage, promised to have his driver pick me up if I agreed to come. If it met my approval, the carriage would arrive mid-morning tomorrow to transport me to the mansion.
In all my planning, this I had never considered. "Come into my parlor said the fly to the spider." I do so love it when my targets are so accommodating. I nearly let out a shout and jumped for joy. Memory of the manservant in the adjoining room caused me to stifle my glee, although with difficulty. Open entrance to the house I planned to rob. And, I hoped, ample time to "case the joint" as some of my more uncouth thieving acquaintances would say.
Stepping to my desk I penned a quick acceptance. Returning to the salon, I handed it to Julius's man and showed him to the door. A glass of wine to celebrate this change in my fortune and I went to my bedchamber upstairs to select the clothing I would need.
My house, and it is mine even though the deed is in a false name, is in a mews just off Highstreet. The houses to either side both share common walls with mine. I also own the houses to either side and the one backing mine. Two of them I rent out through an agent. The other, one of those siding mine, is connected with mine though a couple of secret doors.
The change in plans let me consider taking a few more special tools with me. As I entered my bedchamber, I touched a button hidden in the jamb on the hinge side of the door. I then crossed the room and touched another under the window sill, and again a third in the baseboard at the head of the bed. This pattern and only this sequence tripped a latch in the rear of my wardrobe. I swung the heavy cabinet away from the wall and stepped into the other building. This was my workshop, armory and , if need be, my escape hatch.
To Pay The Rent V
(Being the tale of the ostentatious arrival of a wolf in disguise)
The ride out the Rothschild's was pleasant. Julius had sent an open chaisse and the weakening autumn sun was just warm enough to make the ride quite comfortable. He had also provided a hamper with wine and snacks in case I had not broken my fast.
I felt a bit of a charlatan being conveyed by a pair of matched bays, two footmen and a driver and horseboy up front. Actually, if the truth be known, I delighted in the obsequiesence shown me in this manner. Julius was well aware of my status in the social melieu and although considered well off and a gentleman of quality, it was a bit above what I should have been offered.
Either he was flaunting his wealth and his position (which he was wont to do) or some other purpose was his intent. Which, at least for the moment, eluded me.
Julius was not known for subtlety. He was pushy, self-serving, unjustifiably arrogant and in general a spoiled little rich boy. I say boy advisedly. Just past his majority, married only a few years -by arrangement- and useless to his father.
He had no business sense and although the first son and heir, was not capable, even with expert guidance, of running the wide-spread empire that produced the Rothschild fortune.
The story was that the business interests were in trust and managed by a trusted comprador. Julius was on a large allowance but had no access to the bulk of the Rothschild wealth.
As we ambled along the byway, I engaged the footman nearest me in desultry conversation. Playing the part of a dilletante wastrel, I asked seemingly harmless questions now and again.
I learned that, indeed, the stables and workshops were in the rear at the north wall. That there was a large gate with a Judas door. The driver and hostler lived above the stable, the footmen outside in the nearby village. Two housemaids, a lady's maid, the cook and the steward lived on the third floor. As did Julius's valet.
The total strength of the security force was twenty plus a "captain" or weapons master who was ex-military. The gatehouse was manned from dawn to dusk only. Unless Julius and his lady were out for the evening. In which case the roving guard would take turns in the gatehouse until they returned, after which the gatehouse was deserted until morning.
This and other bits I added to my store of information. Apparently, other than the kitchen, where they had lunch or received orders for the day, none of the men on the chaisse had been in any other part of the house.
There was an extensive basement, with access through a tunnel with a door opening at the rear near the kitchen, with a wine cellar and a cistern . The kitchen also had access to the cellars with a flight of stairs and a dumbwaiter that also serviced the diningroom, the servants quarters in the attic, and the hall near the bedroom suites upstairs.
As we approached the gate, the horseboy blew a melodic phrase on his horn. The gates swung open to allow us passage and were closed behind us. The gatekeeper returned to his small cuddy as we continued to the house.
I continued to play the dolt for the benefit of the servants while cooly appraising the design and structure of the mansion whenever it appeared through the trees on the grounds.
Large ornate windows just above the ground level on the right. Two stories high at least, possibly the ballroom. Two or three to the left of the portico; the salon and gameroom, I recalled.
Three balconies on the second floor above the portico; the guest bedrooms. The structure was of hewn graystone. The interstices adequate for a skilled climber. A ledge right below the balconies circled the mansion. Narrow, but again, adequate for one with good balance and no fear of heights. Climbable in most circumstances, I decided.
I had no doubt that the rest of the structure would prove similar in construction. So.... One mode of entry available. Good. I'll need to check out the basement and kitchen also. I'm sure I can find an excuse for Julius to give me a tour of his wine cellar.
We pulled in under the portico at the main enterance. As I alighted from the carriage, Julius came out to greet me bubbling with boyish enthusiasm.
"So glad you came," he spurted, "M'lady will be so pleased. She was quite impressed with your knowledge of opera. She feels that most of the Dayport people are a bit provincial. She comes from the capitol, you know." He lowered his voice. "She thinks we all country bumpkins here. I fear she has alienated a few of our crowd with her bold remarks."
"Your discussion of the arts at Gervasius's dinner last week and at our meeting at the performance of "The Death of A Minstrel" quite impressed her. She insisted I have you over for a few days. And, of course, I must oblige her. Thank you for coming."
This greeting made me a little uneasy. "Oh, oh." I thought, "This may be trouble."
"Oh, no. I should thank you. To enjoy seeing your collections and this magnificent house will be a great pleasure to me," I said with a bow.
He returned my bow and graced me with a smile. "Come in. Come in," he replied. "We will be having a light repast on the terrace shortly. Just some cold meats and cheeses, I'm afraid. Please join us after you've had a chance to freshen up. Jory will show you to your room, and when we are ready will come up to show you down. It will be about an hour so do take your time."
"I'll tell my wife you have arrived. She will be so pleased."
I followed Jory, his valet, who had my baggage, through the foyer in to the lobby and up the grand staircase to the second floor. My room was in the front directly over the portico. Ideal for access to the ledge I had noticed, and centrally located to the second floor. For the moment I was quite pleased.
To Pay The Rent VI
(The fox is safely in the hen house. Or is he?)
Jory had led me up the sweeping grand staircase to the landing overlooking the lobby. Turned left, and left again and continued down the mezzanine to the front of the mansion. He explained as we walked that this side of the house contained the master's library and bed suite near the landing with the guestrooms to the side and front; to the other side of the mansion were the rooms of the mistress of the house, the ladies lounge, nursery and music room.
Adjoining my rooms to the left was the gymnasium with a steamroom and cold plunge. One of the houseboys was an accomplished masseur and could be summoned by a bellpull near the steamroom. "If you wish his services, I can have him up in a few minutes," Jory said, depositing my luggage on the blanket chest at the foot of the bed. "Shall I unpack for you sir?"
"No thank you, Jory. I'll do that a bit later. As for the massage, perhaps this afternoon."
"Very well, Sir. Should you require anything later, just pull the bellcord here by the bed. There is another in the sittingroom." He paused a moment. "The boy is available from about 10 in the morning until just before 11 in the evening. He lives, as do most of the servants, outside the walls in the village. I hope this will not inconvenience you, Sir. I'll return when luncheon is ready. I hope you will not hesitate to call if you need asssistance, or have other questions." With a courtly bow he left me to myself.
My room, actually a suite, consisted of a sitting room, bedchamber and a bath, with privy, shared with the adjoining suite. The sitting room was well appointed with a small settee, an elegant sideboard, a pair of comfortable wingback chairs and matching hassocks. There was a small but welcome fire burning in the fireplace. On the sideboard was a crystal service and decanters of brandy, and port. A bowl of fruit, some new clay pipes and a humidor of tobacco graced the mantle.
I selected a pipe, packed it and, with a spill from a container by the fireplace, lit it. Exhaling a cloud of smoke, I stepped out onto the balcony and surveyed the grounds. As I had suspected, once over the wall the approach to the house would be quite simple. Avoiding the guards at night would present no problem. The ledge was wider than I had guessed and, for a thief, was a major highway circling the house.
The portico was directly beneath the balcony. The peak of the tiled roof a mere five feet or so below offering a quick route to the ground if need be. Although the balcony was a good thirty feet above the the ground, a drop to the portico, an arms length dangle from the eaves would leave a drop of only eight or ten feet.
The tobacco was very good. A mild aromatic blend with a touch of the very expensive black latakia. A few more puffs and I re-entered the suite. The bath connected to the adjoining suite. The door was locked, but a few tickles with my picks and I was through. The suite was the mirror image of mine, excluding the fire. A quick stroll through and I relocked the door on my side, and threw the inside deadbolt as well. Surprise visitors I did not need.
I put my two bags on the bed and began unpacking. My suits in the armoire, toiletries in the bath and on the dresser and I was ready. The larger empty bag went in the bottom of the armoire, the smaller, after a quick check, I locked and strapped securely. I placed it quite openly on the blanket chest at the foot of the bed, and settled by the fire with a glass of port and my pipe.
So far things could not be better. I finished my pipe and port. In the bath, a few minutes sufficed to freshen up. I changed from my traveling clothes to a slightly more formal shirt and house jacket.
Jory had mentioned the gym and my friendly housemaid had said there was a greenhouse and the house library in the same area. My inspection of the rooms, ablutions and port had taken about thirty minutes. I decided to make an open, seemingly casual inspection of the rest of the second floor. At least I hoped it would appear casual. Jory had offered me the facilities of the gym and my being out of the room would not be un-natural.
The gym was such as is nearly always found in the homes of the wealthy. Used mainly for exercise in small arms, -saber, epee and other small, edged weapons. Various swords, sabres and other weapons hung in racks ranged along the walls. The protective gear, padded armour, helmets and such, ready to hand adjacent the weapon they protected against. I recalled the footman's mention of a weapons master. "Not bad," I thought. "Wonder if Julius actually uses these?" Some of the equipment seemed to show signs of wear from use. If he could and had some skill, -which was possible- his lack of gentlemanly social skills did not discount this probability. I had another element of risk to add to the equation.
A quick look in the greenhouse and the nearby reading-room library, (quite well stocked by the way) but by the amount of dust on some of the books, not frequently used. A shame really. There were a few classics there that I would love to have in my own collection. Also one or two extremely rare and valuable editions. I made a note of the covers and sizes. Perhaps one of my art forger friends could make dummy copies. I could replace the real ones with these when I returned to rob the place. From the looks of it, they would never be noticed.
My time was nearly up. I returned to my rooms and had just settled by the fire when a knock at the door and a gentle inquiry announced Jory's return.
To Pay The Rent VII
(The introduction of an alternate plot of deception and intrigue.)
Jory escorted me down the staircase into the lobby. The terrace was to the rear of the house with access from the lobby, the Grand Ballroom on the east and a small door to the kitchen to the west. Some fifty feet in width and twenty deep, the terrace sat between the east and west wings of the house.
Imagine, if you will, a block letter C. Some one hundred and fifty feet tall, and one hundred wide. The back of the C would be the front of the house (south) with the hollow, facing north. The wings of the house would be the curves at top and bottom. Only rectangular instead of curved. These were fifty feet wide (top to bottom as you view the C) and the vertical part of the C would be seventy-five feet thick. So the back wall of the lobby, as you enter from the south, would be setback from the rear (north) of the wings some twenty-five feet. It was in this "notch" that the terrace sat. More about the floor plan of the mansion later.
Julius's mention of a 'light" repast was a masterful understatement. The table was set for three and could almost be heard to groan from the weight of what it laboriously upheld.
Ignoring the massive centerpiece -a three foot silver and gold cornocopea spilling enough fruit to stock a market stall from its fourteen inch mouth- there were fish of every variety, assorted fowl and meats of every description. Squab, quail, pheasant and more; roast beef, pickled beef, ham, roast leg of lamb, roast pork; smoked salmon, cold poached salmon, lobster and other seafood; pates, deviled eggs, pickled eggs, and enough condiments and breads to feet an invading army. The sideboard was laden with ranked cakes and pastries of every description and a beautiful crystal bowl of mixed fruit compote.
A platter on a wheeled serving table next the side board held a sample of nearly every cheese I had heard of. If this, indeed, was a light repast, then his formal dinners would shame the kings court in its munificence. It was just like Julius. Excessive display in everything. "See me. I'm rich." He'll never learn.
Jory pulled out the empty chair. "Sir... If you please." I nodded to my host and his lady and took my place at the table.
"Will there be anything else, sir," he asked, turning to Julius?
"No, Jory. Continue with your duties. Oh! Have one of the maids bring out the Montrachet. Cook knows the one I mean."
"Very good, sir." With a slight bow, Jory turned and went into the kitchen.
"Do help yourself, sir. As you can see, we have already begun," said the lady laying her fingers gently on my wrist. " You needn't stand on ceremony. Isn't that right Julie?"
"Of course my dear. Anything you say. Tell me Mr. Feiht. The rooms are to your liking? Ah... Here comes the wine!"
The maid coming from the kitchen was my obliging informant. I had no fear of her recognizing me in my present guise. But I should have anticipated a meeting sooner or later. Little slips like this can upset the most carefully laid plans.
Cradling the wine in her arms like a swaddled infant, she unwrapped it to show Julius the label. When he nodded, she broke the wax and uncorked the bottle, handing the cork to Julius. "Set it on the side board. We'll call you later to pour. It needs to breathe a bit," he said turning to me.
He examined the cork minutely. Passing the wine-stained end past his nose a time or two, he drew the lingering fumes deeply into his nostrils. He smiled with satisfaction. "Sorry... This was laid in by my grandfather. I wanted you to sample some of the best of our cellar. I was afraid it might have turned. Ah... About your rooms. They are suitable I hope. My wife insisted you have that suite. It is most central and the best appointed."
Oh, oh. I don't like this. "The rooms are fine. Thank you Mr. Rothschild. I did take a look at the gym and the greenhouse. I hope you don't mind. I was quite impressed with the library also. I do like to read a bit before retiring. I trust you'll not mind if I take advantage of it."
"Not at all," said his wife. "It is used so seldom and probably yearns for the caress of a gentle hand... And do please use our given names. That's alright isn't it Julie?"
"Of course, my dear. All this sirring and madaming is a tedious bore among friends. Of course, one must not allow the servants to get too familiar. As for the library. Think nothing of it. Please feel free to use the house as your own during your stay."
"I thought, perhaps I would show you around when we are through dining. Oh! And do call me Julius. My wife is Veronica Ann." He chuckled. "I call her Ronnie. She much prefers Ann for common usage."
And what shall we call you Mr. Feiht?" She asked, brushing my hand as she reached for a piece of bread? "Shall we call you... Pan? I have heard that you sing and play a lovely lute and have a lovely set of... pipes. They say you perform very well. Perhaps you will entertain me.. us later," she chuckled throatily. "I also hear you sit a saddle well and are an outstanding rider. We have some fine hunters that haven't been ridden in a while. You may find a mount to your liking during your visit."
"Oh, I say. Pan. Pipes. A joke my dear," Julius guffawed. " I do believe I've never heard you pun before. Panpipes. How droll."
The lady looked at me out of the corner of her eye, I smiled and replied, " Dear lady, I fear that my resemblence to Pan is limited to a poor skill at music. I have none of his... other attributes. You may call me..." I paused for a moment. This is getting dangerous. I need to be very careful here. I hope my suspicions are unfounded. You may call me Robert. Or Bob, if Julius doesn't mind." A sly smile curled her lip as I finished. Ooops. I should not have said that!
"Bob. I like that. Oh Julie do let me call him... Bob... Please."
"An you don't mind Robert, Bob it shall be. Calling you Mr. Feiht is a bit stand-offish. And if we are to become friends. That will never do. Eh?"
"Well, I think the wine is ready." He clapped his hands and the maid came to the table. "You may pour the wine now. Do be careful not to bruise it. It is a very rare vintage."
The wine was excellent and I said so and complimented him on his selection. "It is a mere trifle," he said. "Our cellar is the envy of the town. I'll show you later. A gentleman of your sophistication will be able to appreciate it, I'm sure."
I raised my glass. "A toast to a most generous host and..." I bowed to Ann, "his lovely lady." Dangerous but necessary.
They raised their glasses. As we drank, she raised her eyes and gazed boldly at me over her glass.
We chatted idly during the rest of the meal, and finished with the cheese platter accompanied by a light fruity desert wine. Rising from the table Ann stumbled -obviously, at least to me, on purpose- and fell against me. Having no choice, I reached out to catch her. As I did so, she twisted slightly causing my hand to fall on her bosom.
"Thank you, Bob" she said, clinging to me a bit longer than necessary as I set her upright. "I might have been injured and unable to enjoy your stay with us."
"Your servant, lady."
Again risky but I must play my role. Although it appeared I was digging a deeper hole everytime I spoke. My role as wastrel raconteur was starting to complicate things a bit.
"B'Gawd, you've quick reflexes, Bob. Julius exclaimed. "Must remember not to play the hand game with you. Drunk or sober," he guffawed in that abrasive way of his. "You must be tired m'dear. I'll show Bob around while you get a little rest."
He took me by the elbow and led me toward the Ballroom.
To Pay The Rent VIII
(In which our hero wonders who is conning who)
As Julius led me off, the lady was eyeing me speculatively. This was getting... sticky. If, as it was beginning to appear, the lady was acting a bit of the coquette with me, it was something I needed to consider a little more seriously. Her actions were a bit out of character as far as my investigation of the Rothschilds had indicated. No rumours of lovers or of her being of a flirtatious nature. Nor had I seen evidence of such at other gatherings where the lady had been present.
Don't misunderstand me. I enjoy the more... shall we say... intimate contacts with the opposite sex. Also the incidence of married men, and women, having paramours and engaging in outside "activities" was so common as to be the rule rather than the exception. With marriages arranged by contract and for political purposes, liasons outside the marriage served to relieve some of the more tedious aspects of such unions. That such "playtoys" were used by both men and women caused me no moral complications. Theft is theft. Whether it be caresses, kisses, or goods. Plus the fact that a stranger dipping into the "well" of another repeatedly doesn't wear it out and has been known to improve the "water".
My reputation as an amiable dance and dinner companion of wit and the rumours of my amorous (suspected but unproven) affairs with some of the high-born ladies of the town made me a desired guest of the Lords and Ladies. It added spice to the occassion. It was also a useful key giving me entry to the places where the "gold" was stored.
In this instance, although the lady was not unattractive, an entanglement with Julius's wife, under his own roof, could become a liabilty. A romp might be enjoyable but did not fatten the coffers. On the other hand if that was her intent, -Julius's welcome, and mention of her insistance to invite me gave that appearance- I could not afford to offend her. I needed the time at the house to get the final details that would complete my plan.
"This is the Grand Ballroom," Julius said. Interrupting my thoughts. "We will be dancing here after the dinner. What think you of the room?"
The ballroom was about a hundred feet long and fifty wide. Floor to ceiling windows at each end, and smaller ones along the east wall, gave excellent views of the surrounding gardens. The vaulted ceilings were decorated with a Gods and Godesses motif in bas-relief picked out with gold. About halfway up to the thirty foot ceiling a balcony ran round the room, and jutting out of the north end was a musicians gallery.
The inlaid parquet flooring was spotless and ideal for dancing. Small two and four place tables and chairs along the perimeter walls provided seating for about a sixty couples.
Entry, other than that from the terrace, was from a pair of large double doors in the west off the lobby. A cloak room was in the southwest corner.
"Impressive." I said. "I see it is about one-third of the first floor. That ceiling is a marvel of construction, and the paintings delightful. 'De Arcy' are they? I've long been and admirer of his work."
"I say. You really are a connosieur. Few would recognize his early work, 'specially from this level. These were commissioned by my great-grandfather. They are nearly a hundred years old. I had heard you collected paintings and small obje-de-art. I must get your opinion on my snuffboxes."
"I would be delighted to view them. Although snuffboxes per-se are not one of my interests, I do recognize the work of some of the makers. I particularly enjoy the delicacy of Louis de Marchand."
Julius boyishly clapped his hands gleefully. "As it happens I have a few of his works in my collection. They are my favorites." Looking around, he leaned toward me and whispered, "My wife thinks my collections are toys. I should devote myself to more common collectibles. Those that will give a good return when sold in a few years, she says. She just doesn't understand...." he trailed off plaintively.
"Oh well. Come. On with the tour. By the way, I am glad you accepted my invitation" he said in a serious tone. " I do wish your advice on something. We'll speak later if you don't mind. This way."
Now what? Julius also has some agenda on his mind. This is getting a bit complicated. Oh well. If it was the same thing every day, things would get boring very quickly. I'll just hope it is something simple.
We passed into the lobby. From the right the staircase swept down in two sweeping curves from the center of the landing above. Six or eight wide at the top expanding to about fifteen feet at the lobby. They formed a graceful ellipse around a shallow pool and fountain in the center of the lobby. The lobby was constructed of beautiful black veined marble and decorated with potted plants in the corners and some benchs along the south entrance from the foyer.
A niche at each side of the door in the west wall that led to the salon held a pair of alabaster statues of the moon goddess. We continued across the lobby into the salon. "The game room is just to the left here and to the right you see the dining room. My snuff box collection is in an alcove just through the dining room doors here." Julius remarked with a casual wave of his hand. "We'll look at them later. Would you like a game of billiards? I have a very nice table and we can have a little port while we shoot a round or two."
"At your service Julius, although I should warn you that I am quite skilled at the table. I would not like you to think I am a goose for the plucking. Your reputation as a deadly man at three cushions is well known."
He laughed delightedly. "We can try a round or two. I will give you a handicap if it proves to be as you say, Bob."
In truth he actually was a decent player. I had seen him play a time or two at other gatherings. For whatever reason, at the table he was much better company and not so much the sniveling brat that he was most of the time. I think he realized that this was one activity that his money could not affect, and that he played well or poorly on his own merits.
The game room was adjacent to the foyer on the west. The entry from the salon opened into a room about twenty-five feet square that contained a billiard table, and two card tables with seating for four at each and a couple of settees at the sides of the room for chatting and kibitzers. Cabinets held decks of cards and dice for Hazard and other dice games, draughts and chess sets and other parlor games.
A sideboard held an assortment of liquours and other beverages. The lighting was fuel-oil lamps as the Mechanists had not run power out to the area, and the mansion was beyond reach of the city gaswork lines.
"Shall we lag for first?" Julius asked. "There is an assortment of cues there in the rack. One should be suitable for you. I have them checked weekly so there should be no warped sticks there."
With a flourish of my hand and a bow, I indicated the table. "Please to lag first, mine host," I said in a theatrical tone of frivolity.
Julius attempted to match my badinage, but failed miserably. "As you wish, Bob. I'll do m' best." With a sloppy bow he set the cueball and lagged. He had a good touch and the ball return was mere inches from the cushion.
"I see that reports of your stick handling were not in error," I said, "that was an excellent stroke." I lagged and managed to stay close, but overstroked so as to let Julius take the honors. This was not entirely politics. The key to a successful deception is to allow ones opponent to expose his strengths and weaknesses. Then at the proper moment to exploit those. Use his own strength against him, and allow his weaknesses to aid you. Once you know these, you can control the outcome of nearly any situation, and yet do it without your opponent discovering the fact or exactly why they are unsuccessful.
We had a enjoyable run or two and Julius won by only a few points. "I say. You do play rather well, Bob. Lord Darnell and I have a go every once in a while, and play a few tables of partners. You and me would be a formidable team. I shall suggest he invite you next we plan to get together."
This suited me well. Lord Darnell had been a potential victim of mine for some time, but entre to his circle had yet to come my way. As he was not one for the opera or the private gaming clubs to which I had entry, this had left me searching for a way to approach him.
To Pay The Rent IX
(Wherein our hero prepares for the evenings entertainment)
We finished our port and continued the tour. The dining room was entered through the salon by a two valve, richly carved, heavy mahogany door. The panels themselves were a good four inches thick and each was five feet wide by twelve high. The fittings, latch and handles, were of gold. No lock, so if the kitchen doors were as simple as I expected, I could enter by any of three ways from the terrace, one from the cellar to the kitchen, and of course, if need be by climbing the wall of the house.
Our tour of the cellar confirmed my estimate of the security of the locks. Both the exterior cellar door and the door from the kitchen could have been opened with a lockpick made of a damp handkerchief. Our excursion had taken about two hours, including the billiard game. Julius said he had some business to take care of and promised to show me the rest of the place and the grounds in about an hour.
I said that that was not an imposition. I was his guest and to accede to his wants was only gentlemanly. As Julius went off, I returned to my rooms. Locking the door and checking the bath to make certain the deadbolt was still set to the next suite. I took my small bag and opened it. Removing the contents I laid them out on the bed.
Piece by piece, I reviewed the equipment I had brought to help me in my recconaisance. First the clothing. Soft tightly woven, light wool tights. A long sleeved turtleneck of the same material with a pullover facemask. There were no eyeholes in this hood. A panel of cheesecloth netting ran from ear to ear at eye level. This allowed vision but no possible reflection from the whites of the eyes if hit by light from a torch or lantern.
Most of my thief acquaintances were in the habit of wearing black. Black is really not the ideal tone. My outfit is a dark, nearly blue gray. This tone blends in with most shadows easily. In a medium to light shadow black produces a sharp stark outline. And at night against a skyline or in light star or moonlight is the same. The gray blends in against a night sky almost to the point of invisiblity.
Both the trousers and shirt contained pockets for holding miscellaneous items of my craft. I forbore the use of the more common potions, speed, invisibility, slow-fall and so forth. They were bulky, expensive and in the main of too short a duration. Not to mention the energy cost. Oh? You didn't know that when the metabolism is messed with you pay a cost in strength and energy? True, it only lasts a short while but then you can die inbetween breaths if your timing is off because of fatigue.
I did, however, carry a couple of small vials. Some oil for hinges and locks, some sleeping powders of different strength, a little acid for burning through chains or bars and of course the hinges on safes. I also had a few specialty items. A screwjack for breaking the weakened hinges, and for shifting the heavy stone lids on sarcophagae or trapdoors.
A small bullseye lantern with built in flint igniter, a bundle of two foot metal tubes with a woven steel cable running through them. This collection of tubes became a single rigid pole about twelve feet long when the interior cable was tensioned with a cam lever. The entire bundle was only about three inches in diameter when not extended. Yet the pole was capable of holding my weight easily, even extended across a gap and used as a bridge. With a hook screwed to the top, it became a grapple to reach ledges and roof eaves and became a ladder. The top also had a screwjack built into it. It could be placed between two parallel surfaces and wedged tightly into place with the screwjack. I see a little confusion on your face. Imagine a hollow tube threaded on the inside like a bolt. Into this is screwed a solid metal rod also with threads cut into it to match those in the tube. This is a screwjack. With a small rod to use as a handle through a hole drilled in the end of the solid rod, the rod can be screwed in and out of the tube. This can exert tremendous force as it is screwed out. With one end placed on a stable surface the operating end against another, even a child can move hundreds of pounds. The only requirement is that there be enough space into which to insert the jack. The socketed rods of my "staff" gave me a wide variety of choices from two feet to twelve of reach with eighteen inches of movement. The smaller jack in the pocket of my nightsuit had a range of zero inches to ten. This was accomplished by two jaws. One at the top of the tube and the other on the threaded rod. Tapered to a knife edge, these could be inserted in a crack then forced apart by the action of the screw.
The rest of my gear was the usual picklocks and wax for key impressions and the duplication of seal rings. I guess I should describe a bullseye lantern for those who are not in the business. This is a lantern that has a sliding door that closes the light completely off. The lantern can be carried lighted, but will emit no rays of light until the door is slid open. You can adjust the opening from a hairfine sliver of light to full flood. The only draw back is that the cylinder can get hot and, as does any hot metal, does produce an odor. An alert guard can pick this up. So it is advisable to ignite it only at the last moment when you actually need it.
Lastly I checked my shoes. These were made of very supple kidleather and had soles of quarter inch thick felt. Enough to cushion me on rough terrain (gravel and such like) but still thin enough to give me a good feel of the surface. The felt also had the advantage of not slipping on wet or mossy surfaces.
Satisfied that all was as it should be, I repacked the bag. Secured it and replaced it on the chest. Before doing so, however, I took one of the vials of sleeping powder and slipped it in the pocket of my jacket. It would go to dinner with me. And being in the jacket I had on, would be sure to be transfered to my dinner attire.
To Pay The Rent X
(In which our tour continues and secrets are revealed)
I draped my jacket over the back of a chair and went in the bath to freshen up. A quick rinse of my face; the wave of a brush in the vicinity of my hair, and I was ready for Julius's return.
With about a half an hour left, I took the time to lay down on the bed and sort out my mental plan of the house.
The servants lived in the attic spaces. Access was via a steep, narrow, twisting stair (almost a ladder) from the kitchen. I knew that Julius would not even think of the attic as part of the house and I could show no interest in this portion of the mansion. Such things are beneath a gentleman's consideration. After the household was abed -and hopefully asleep- I would check it out. Assuming my evening was not interrupted (I had a contigency plan -I hoped) I should have no trouble.
Some how I needed to locate the nightingale corridors and how they were deactivated during the day. Jory had said that the west side of this level was mainly guest rooms and Julius's suite. Presumably, these were along the corridor to the west of my rooms.
Julius's private library was at the head of the grand staircase just off the landing. I had seen a door in the northwest corner of the landing that I believe is the entrance. His chambers just past it down the corridor, I quessed. If true this meant that the vault or strongroom was somewhere in this area.
I had a plan that should neutralize the lady, at least for the night, but if she was trying to seduce me I had to find out quickly and counterplan. To treat her with scorn would create big problems. To indulge her would put me in possible danger from Julius and complicate my planning.
I needed to scout the house tonight. The night of the dinner would be too late. I suspected Julius would have an additional guest or two overnight. If so, it increased the risk of discovery during my nocturnal stroll. I could be mistaken, but it needed consideration.
During our game Julius had loosened up a little. His conversation and manner had become less stiff and pompous; less of the whiney, snobbish rich brat. Almost likeable, in fact. He had hinted that he wished my counsel on some matter., What it could possibly be, I had no inklilng. He had the Comparador and his bankers for monetary or business advice; access to information on nearly everything else through the minions of the far flung empire of the Rothschild's.
So... I needed to find out what Ann might be up to; what was on Julius's mind; the location of the safeguards in the house and how to disable them; to get the layout of the rest of the house clear in my mind. "Nothing to it!", I chuckled wryly.
My thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. "A moment," I called out. I rose, donned my jacket and opened the door. Julius stood there looking a little apprehensive.
"I say! I hope I'm not disturbing you. If you like we can continue our tour later."
"Not at all. I took advantage of the time to freshen up and have a laydown. What I have seen so far has been delightful." I smiled with a bow and a wave, "Lead on good sir host."
He smiled tentatively, unsure how to react. My nonchalant demeanor throughout the day was unsettling him a little. Used to simpering syncophants and sometimes cold disdain from his seniors and peers, my casual, light attitude had him confused. It was as though his wealth and position had no meaning. This he was unused to.
"Ah... Ah... Yes. Well... There is another suite here next to yours, as I'm sure you noticed. Much the same, I'm afraid so we will pass it bye. There is also a common sitting room at the end of the corridor here." He turned to his right away from the gymnasium, and led me down the hall.
I closed the door to my suite and left it unlocked. I had no fear of the servants or anyone discovering the tools in my bag. I had nothing to steal and even I would be hardpressed to pick the locks on my bag of goodies.
In the southwest corner at the end of the hall was a small salon. Comfortable seating allowed a view of the grounds and was arranged to offer intimacy for conversation, or solitude, even with others in the room.
Double doors let out on a small balcony. I had noted that the latch on the balcony doors of the two suites were simple drop latches.. This was the same. The windows also had simple latches. To a thief, the second floor offered unlimited access once the ledge was reached. Perhaps the library and the area of the safe or vault was the same.
From the salon the corridor ran to the north and came to a dead end. The first room on the left next the salon was a common bath and lavatory for the guest rooms, of which there were three. Julius showed me all three. Single rooms, but comfortably set up in boudoir style with seating, a small table a bed and an armoire.
We returned the way we came and passed my room and the gymnasium to the greenhouse. This was actually a small atrium. A fountain in the corner making soothing tinkles and plashes. The plants, though potted, were laid out informally in freeform beds around the room. A wrought iron table and chairs offered a place to sit and enjoy the pleasant atmosphere. I remarked to Julius that of the many such I had seen, this was the most delightful. The remoteness from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the house made it an idyllic oasis of peace.
"I'm glad you like it. It was put in by my grandfather when the mansion was first built. The only change, really, is the fountain. The plumbing was quite a challenge. The water is actually pumped into a tank in the attic. A drain in the basin returns the water to the cistern you saw in the cellar. I am quite fond of it."
"Did you have it installed?" I asked. "I must have the name of the builders who did this. My poor residence could use a quiet corner like this."
"Yes. It was one of the things I had done when I had the remodeling for my security systems installed."
Poor Julius, trying so hard to impress, his mouth ran ahead of his brain. He realized this almost immediately, and winced a little. Ah. I thought. Even if Julius forgets to tell me the name, I am sure one of the babbling servants, perhaps the steward, might oblige. If I don't learn what I need while I'm here. A nocturnal visit to the offices of the contractor may turn up plans to the security. I had noticed the "murder holes" above the passage near the salon, and above us as we left the greenhouse to continue.
The hall from the greenhouse ran north with rooms on each side, in order; the left was the back wall of the music room, then a hall joining from the left, just past the hall junction was the private rooms of the lady of the house. On the right from the greenhouse down was a small chapel, and the nursery. The hall dead ended at the door to the lady's suite.
All the corridors so far had been carpeted. The one leading from the greenhouse to the lady's chambers was not. Made of plain, highly polished, wooden planks that spanned the hall side to side. I noticed as we started down to the intersection that Julius had started to reach to the left at the corner of the music room.
Nightingale floor. Hmm, that unconscious gesture might mean something. Perhaps the trigger for the floor
We turned left into the intersecting hall and came out in another corridor. This ran to the right and left (north and south) and led past the library at the far left ending at the gymnasium and the mezzanine to my suite. To the right it made a short jog back out to the landing at the head of the grand staircase.
"These two rooms are used for household linens and storage." he said. " The entrance to the music room is just to our left. Oh. You do play don't you. Let me show you some of the instruments. I don't play myself. The wife, Ronnie, errr.. Ann, does take lessons on the flute and lyre." He continued, "I do enjoy hearing music and song, but have never been able to do more than whang at the strings, and my lips cramp when I try to learn the flute. I dispair at my ever learning, although once in a while I try again."
The music room was small, about fifteen feet by twenty. The walls were hung with drapery to kill the reverberation from the stone of which the walls were made. A couple of music stands and chairs in one corner. There was a small table holding some manuscripts and instruments. A flute, a lyre lying near it, and leaning against one corner a lute. Against the back wall stood a full-sized concert harp.
From the doorway it appeared to be a fine instrument. I approached it and lightly brushed the strings with my finger. Not too badly out of tune, "May I?" I asked. At his nod I pulled one of the chairs up to the harp. A few runs to limber my fingers a bit and I played a simple pastoral theme from "The Death of a Minstrel".
"Delightful," he clapped his hands lightly. "I do wish I had some skill at music. You play well. Perhaps you could do a piece or two for us after dinner."
"Not as well as I would like, but thank you... And I would be glad to oblige. Very nice instrument. I see no one plays it often. A shame really. It deserves to be used and appreciated. I find that playing is relaxing. I do doodle around a bit at home. But I have no instrument as fine as this. Do you happen to know the maker?"
"I believe the music teacher said it was a Maurice, though I'm not sure what that means."
"Impressive. No wonder it plays so well. With the neglect, oh sorry Julius, I mean to say that being untuned or played all instruments begin to deteriorate. They need the human touch as much as we do ourselves. Maurice was a premier master harpist and Luthier. His pieces fetch astronomical prices from collectors and artists. A shame."
--------------------------to be continued---------------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 04-19-2003 at 05:55 PM.
To Pay The Rent XI
(In which the lady makes some not so subtle remarks and something strange and unusual befuddles our hero)
Our conversation was interrupted by the sound of gentle applause. Standing in the door way, Ann was softly clapping her hands. "So I see the tales of your touch and skill are not exaggerated. Do play for us this evening. I'm sure you can... stand up to the scrutiny. After all... we are to be close friends," she said with a coy smile.
I know what my suspicions were concerning this interjection, but am certain that Julius was such a naif that nothing crossed his mind and he read nothing into the exchange.
"I say m'dear," Julius said, "didn't hear you arrive. Something you need?"
"No, Julie. I was on my way to the kitchen to discuss the dinner arrangements with cook. I thought I heard the harp and arrived just as Bob reached the climax. I'll leave you gentlemen to your pleasure. Do consider playing tonight... Bob. I'm sure I would be very pleased."
"Perhaps, madam. I am a bit rusty. But I will give it some thought."
"Well then I can't ask more can I?" She smiled sweetly, curtseyed to us and turned away.
Damn! If Julius wasn't such a dunce I'd be dragged out immediately and whipped like a dog . The lady was getting bolder. I hoped my imagination was running away with me. But the double entendres flying fast and furious seemed to give credence to my fears.
Julius smiled and shook his head. "I do hope you will indulge us. I too would enjoy a few tunes, and perhaps even a song. Although I hope you won't do one of those sickly, sweet ballads about lost love. They always make my skin creep. I don't mean I have no feelings, 'y know. But I find the simpering, hopeless lover to be a bit of an ass!."
I laughed uproariously. "I promise Julius. No heartbroken lovers or simpering swains." I stood and gave the harp one last caress. It would break my heart to leave it. But, even if I could steal it, unless I kept it in my other house, I could not play it. As the neighbors think the house empty ( I told them I planned to knock it down when money permitted to expand my house and gardens) noises from there would cause suspicion especially the sound of a harp. And I could not keep it in my own, for visitors might see it. Then the fat, as they say, would be in the fire. "Shall we continue our tour, mine host?" I chuckled as though still reacting to the request.
"Surely, I have a few items in my private library you might enjoy seeing, and, if you will, we can chat a bit with more privacy."
We left the music room and turned right strolling past the linen and storage rooms to the landing. We passed the stairs to the corridor leading off the mezzanine. This passageway also had the bare polished planks spanning the hall from side to side. The other nightingale floor!
Julius pointed down the hall. "My suite is down there. The floor is a warning device built on a model my greatgrand father encountered in a foriegn country he visited on one of his sea voyages. It actually "talks" when some one walks on it."
When I looked quizzical, he laughed. "Oh, it isn't set right now. But when it is it squeals and squeaks quite alarmingly. That's what I meant by "talks. Here's the library. Give me a moment."
He took a key from his vest pocket and unlocked the door. As he entered I thought I heard the tinkle of a bell coming from his room. Julius looked at me sheepishly, "I'll just be a moment. I need to straighten up a bit," and closed the door.
In a short time, only a moment or two, the door opened. "Sorry. I am somewhat untidy in private," Julius said, with a beckoning gesture. "Do come in."
I could see at once as I entered that the room did not fully occupy the space available in that corner of the mansion. The hallway had been about thirty feet deep ending at the door to Julius's suite. This room extended a bit past that point, but there was still some twenty feet or so to what would have been the exterior wall of the west wing.
There was pair of windows in the north wall, double doors in the east, leading to the sheltered veranda and the door we entered by. With the exception of these openings, the walls were lined, floor to ceiling, with shelves. Niches, and shadow boxes arranged among the shelving held various items. Weapons, small and large statuettes, a few choice paintings and other collectables.
The furniture consisted of a setee, a desk and chair, a study table with a stout wooden chair and a pair of wingbacks with side tables. All were of fine quality, and obviously antiques. Julius motioned me to the setee, and went to one of the shelves. Manipulation of something I could not see caused a shelf to slide out bearing an assortment of crystal decanters and some goblets. "May I offer you some sherry or port? Or if you prefer I have some brandy here.
"Sherry would be fine," I said, settling in one of the chairs instead of the setee.
Julius, his back to me, poured two goblets, and turned. Seeing me in the chair he gave a small start, and reddened a bit, but bit his tongue and said nothing. He crossed to the chairs, handed me my drink and sat in the other. "Damn me! I don't quite know what to make of you!" He took a sip of his drink, "I am not sure if you are mocking me or teasing me sometimes. I realize you are not beholden to me, but damn me, you are an impudent independent scoundrel," he said in a tone not quite mock severity.
I laughed, gently and raised my glass to him. I took a sip. "Excellent sherry, Julius. Your cellars are a treat. I am, I admit your guest, but I am for all of that still my own man. I mean no disrespect, but you would have better results if you asked rather than commanded." I raised my glass again, with a smile to remove the sting, and sipped.
The sherry flowed down my throat like ambrosia. It truly was an excellent vintage.
For a moment or two we sat quietly sipping our drinks and regarding each other in silence. I took advantage of the time to let my gaze drift casually around the room. For the most part, there was nothing out of the ordinary to see. It was typical of the refuge most men like to have available in thier homes. Here one could pleasure oneself by enjoying a little reading, play with the newest addition to a collection, admire in solitude the grandeur of a painting by a master, or just forget the outside world for a while.
One thing did attract my attention. In the center of the wall nearest Julius's suite was a tall free-standing frame. Suspended within it was a paper thin circle of polished metal. Attached to the frame, but swung to one side at the moment, was what appeared to be a small striker. The whole thing had the appearance of a gong, but the metal was too thin to give much sound, if in fact it was a gong. I had also noticed that as Julius had passed by it to get the drinks, and again upon his return it had shimmered slightly. The thin metal reacting to the air waves set up by his passing I presumed. For the moment I gave it no further thought.
'Ahem. I... Ah..." Julius paused. "I do need your advice. I have heard you do not carry tales, and I have never heard you utter a word of gossip. Even though you be present in a conversation where such is rampant. You make no comment." He cleared his throat again, blushing slightly. He took a drink and continued. "You are welcome nearly any place you go. At dinners, dances, and the opera, I constantly hear of you. You are considered to be a prize greatly to be desired as a guest at any soiree or gathering. I on the other hand am often passed over when invitations are issued."
I started to interrupt, but he waved me down.
"No don't protest. We both know it to be true. I know the fault is mine, but damn me, I have no idea why. I have wealth, my breeding and blood is a good as anybodies and better than most. I am well educated in the arts and letters and sit a saddle as well as any gentleman. Why then, am I treated with such scorn and disrespect?" This time he gulped down the rest of his drink and returned to shelf of decanters. Refilling his goblet with a shaky hand he returned dejectedly to his seat.
"I need your help. Why are you so popular and likeable. Can you help me? Tell me what's wrong. I dare not speak of this to anyone else. They would laugh in my face and ridicule me behind my back to the next group of friends they speak with"
Here was a situation I had never envisioned. Julius was young, spoiled rotten. Used to too much money and comfort. Able to instill awe, by virtue of his fortune, to the merchants and tradesmen and not a few of the monied in town. How then to reveal to him that he was a boor, unskilled in the social arts; that his selfish attitude and unconscious disregard of the feelings of another person; his lack of respect for others, and his constant whining about the respect he was not receiving, was the reason for his being in ostrasized. This was a problem. I was beginning to think that this free dinner might be more expensive than I had thought.
[To Pay The Rent XII
(Wherein our hero poses a question and finds a few he needs answers to )
This side of Julius had never been present in any of our meetings. I suddenly got the impression that his pushy attitude and displays of juvenile ego were a coverup. Julius was scared, plain and simple. He wanted to have friends, and didn't know how to act to get them.
He was spoiled. His father and the pressures of "being a Rothschild" had given him a warped view of his position in the social melieu. "I'm a Rothschild. The world is beneath my notice. Bow down and maybe I'll acknowledge your existance."
When the real world didn't fit this picture he was at a loss. He tried to play the role that had been drilled into him but somebody changed the game on him. The confusion just made him more of a brat.
This did not help my position at the moment, but maybe was a clue to how to deal with this. I didn't know what I could do. But obviously Julius expected something from me.
I sat for a moment looking at a dejected Julius. "Julius, I don't know really what you want me to do. I am in a rather uncomfortable position right now. As your guest, and ( a small white lie here) a future friend, I don't really know where to start."
He looked up as I sipped my drink.
"May I, " I asked raising my empty glass? At his sullen nod, I went over to the decanters to refill my glass. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the metal disc quiver. I had approached it with a bit more speed than Julius had and it wavered like a curtain in a breeze.
With my glass topped off, I again took my seat facing Julius. "Hmmm. Julius who are you?"
"Whaa..? I'm Julius Rothschild the Third. You know that!"
"No, Julius. Who are you? Not the rich man living on the hill. Who is Julius Darian Trevor Tremayne Rothschild III? I see you don't understand... Let's try this. You see me. You have an image of what you think you see. What you see is clothes, manners, a voice , the body of a man. What you don't see, is what animates what you see."
The look on his face became a little less confused.
"The real me comes from the heart and mind. Parts of it show to the world. But all of it never does. What am I afraid of, who do I hate, if I do? Things like that. Pieces of what make me what I am."
"You need to look in yourself and figure out who the real Julius is. Why do you want to talk to me? What do I do that is different from what you do? What qualities do you see in me?" I sipped my drink and let the silence grow.
"Well... I. Ah... He made a couple of false starts. "You mix in almost any company. I never can," he said in a low voice. "You never lose your temper. You are invariably polite and courteous, even to the servants. I have been told you never pretend to be something you are not ( this last almost caused me to laugh). I know you never gossip."
He thought for a minute, "You never talk down to anyone. You are easy to talk to. You listen.. and seldom interrupt." He flapped his hands in confusion. "I don't know. You are there, I mean... when you look at people it's not like there's nothing behind your eyes. You know what I mean... I can't explain it better."
"And....? Think about what you just said." Leaving him puzzled, I began to wander the room. I examined some of the artworks, picking up a piece now and then for a closer look. I wandered over to the veranda and stepped out to look out over the terrace and gardens below. Leaning on the railing and sipping on my drink I thought a bit more about what I had learned about the house, leaving, for the moment, thoughts of Julius's request to help him, and Julius to think a bit about our conversation.
Unless Julius's suite extended to fill the space left in the northwest corner of the second floor behind the library, that must be the area containing the strongroom, safe or vault. I saw nothing in the library that would serve otherwise. I also saw no door or access to the area. That in itself meant nothing. Secret panels, a hidden door disguised as a shelf of books and many other artifaces were used to hide such entrances. My own wardrobe and the hidden locks serving as a perfect example.
That disc in the frame intrigued me, however. What use such a seemingly flimsy piece of metal. As a decoration it was of little interest. Unpainted, unadorned disc of metal swinging loosely in a plain wooden frame. Had it a painting or something on it its presence would make more sense. There is some hidden meaning in its presence in this place. I also wondered about the light bellsounding tinkle that had accompanied the opening of the library door. I need to check the frame, sill and the door itself to see if there is some trigger to an alarm in Julius's rooms. And with luck, I might entice Julius to show me at least the non-sleeping part of his suite.
I stood and stretched lazily. Turning my back on the view I looked in the room to see Julius, elbow on knee, chin in palm, staring blankly into the distance. I entered quietly, took my seat and waited for Julius to notice my return. The sherry truly was delightful.
To Pay The Rent XIII
(Where Julius is still non-plussed and some of the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. )
When Julius began to notice my return, I took his glass and refilled it. "Now, do you want to talk some more?" I asked gently. "It's not easy to root around in your own mind and be honest to yourself about what you find. Why don't you show me some of the more interesting objects you have here in your collection? If you wish, we can talk some more later."
He looked up at me thoughtfully. He smiled tentatively. "Yes. Perhaps later." He rose and looked about the room, "This is one of my favorite items," he said getting an item from the desk.
At first glance it seemed a simple stone from a streambed. But as you held it and looked closely at it you began to see very delicate carvings. Inlaid with silver wire as fine as a hair, was a series of interlocking pictures; wild animals (bear, wolf, deer etc.) twining vines, flowers. All exquisite miniatures. So lifelike you expected to hear the wolf howl, or smell the blossoms. The surface was smooth as silk, and even though you knew it was stone, felt like the softest down, as if your fingers would sink into the surface as into a bowl of water.
"I've never seen anything like it before. Where did it come from?"
"I don't really know," Julius replied, "I found it in an old chest of my Greatgrand-father's when the attic was cleared some years ago. I find it soothing to hold and look at. It is fascinating."
"It really is a unique item. I've never seen anything like it." I strolled over near the disc that had my interest. I picked up a small dagger. Double edged, tapering to a needle point, it had an ivory handle carved into the head of a striking snake. The color and crazing of the ivory showed great age and much use. The blade looked as new. Patterns like wood grain ran through it when the blade was rolled from side to side in the light. "This is quite a prize. You know, of course, that this type of metalwork is a lost art. Pieces like this have not been made since the precursors. How long have you had it?"
"Oh, not long. Gervasius gave it me for a favor. I introduced him to some people he wanted to do business with. He said he had recieved it as a gift from the Mechanists. They have been trying to curry favor among the nobles, you know. Gervasius said he did not collect weapons. Knowing I had a minor interest he pressed it on me after he had met the people."
Julius took the weapon from my hand, turning it back and forth in the light. "I can't quite understand why it looks like wood turned to metal. And how, after all these years it maintained its edge. A man, if his hand was steady, could shave with this. I have never seen an edge so keen."
While Julius was examining the dagger, I was examining the disc. Unobtrusively to be sure. By leaning in to look at some of the items on display near by, I could see behind it. There seemed to be a thin wire attached to the back, exactly in the center and passing into the wall. I also got another look at the object attached to the frame that resembled a striker. Attached to the frame rigidly as it was, no hand could use it to strike the metal. At the moment, as I had said earlier, it was swiveled up parallel to the frame. But I noticed that if returned to the horizontal position it would nearly be touching the surface of the disc.
Ignoring the "striker" the whole thing reminded me of a bullroarer or the sheets of metal used in the opera to make thunder. I see another question in your eyes: At the opera they take thin sheets of tin or iron, (not as thin as the disc I speak of) that are... oh, about three feet by four feet. By holding them at the top and shaking them like you would shake the dust from a small rug, the metal rumbles and thunders as the ripples run down it. A bullroarer is a noise-maker we played with as children. You take a thin circle of wood and attach it to a cylinder, somewhat like a drum with a wooden head, bore a hole in it. A tiny hole. Then you put a cord through the hole and knot it on the inside of the cylinder. If you then use rosin on the string and pull it through the hole, the string drags on the wooden disc. This friction causes the disc to vibrate and the sound is amplified by the cylinder. The sounds it produces are squeals and roars that can be very loud, and in some cases, very frightening. They were, and maybe still are in some parts of the world, used by savages to scare away demons.You can also pull the knot tight against the head piece. As you pull and release the head flexes in and out (or up and down if you prefer) and sounds like a bullfrog.
This childhood memory suddenly assumed some importance in my mind. If the striker was down and the disc hit it, (as the striker can't move the disc must) the disc would vibrate. Not loudly. But if the wire from the back went to an amplifying device, such as a membrane on a tube someplace else in the house. The vibrations would travel through the wire. Then it could be used to sound a warning. But how does it work. It seems foolish to have the striker fixed. And for a person to hit the disc with their hand is also foolish. I was missing something but had the feeling I was on the right track. Oh, well... tuck that away for future examination.
"I've been thinking of what you said," Julius began, "I am still a little confused, actually I'm greatly confused. What does all that have to do with me?"
"Julius, Julius," I said softly. "If the wheel on your carriage breaks, can you fix it?"
"Of course not. That's beneath a gentleman."
"Who fixes it?"
"Why. Why, the wheelwright."
"Any wheelwright?" I asked.
"No I only allow Master Johanssen to work on my carriages."
"Why only he? Surely there are others."
"Of course," Julius replied, "but Johanssen is the best. His work is considered beyond compare. His wheels are sturdy, well balanced, and made from select woods that he cuts and cures himself. No other can compare to him."
"So from what you say, I hear a tone of respect in your voice. Does Johanssen brag about his skill? Does he run around saying 'I'm the best, you must respect me'?"
"No, of course not. People know his work is the best. He has no need to do those things."
"I see. People respect him because the quality of his work and his skill deserve it. Well, Julius, each man is like Johanssen. If he is deserving of respect, and if he respects others, then he will be respected."
Julius blushed and stated to redden even more in anger. I had in effect slapped his face. He opened his mouth but nothing came out. Suddenly, he closed his mouth and began to breath more easily. I said nothing.
After a while, he spoke. "I begin to see what you are saying. I have been a bit of an ass haven't I?"
"That is not mine to say, Julius. Do you like to be constantly interrupted when you speak? Do you enjoy a conversation with someone whose every third word is I or me? I for one don't. I treat people as I wish to be treated. I am not the center of the universe. Sadly, we measure importance by the extent of our own interests. There are things of importance outside our own lives, even in the lifes of the common folk. We just don't know them. So I try to see some of those things. If that makes me respected or considered a 'good' man I have no idea."
"Enough of that. Let's just enjoy the rest of the day. I imagine you have some choice treasures to pleasure you in your own suite, eh? I know I do. Things that are a comfort to view in a more relaxed atmosphere. I have a delightful little painting by Georges in my room, a little pastoral scene that reminds me of my home."
Julius smiled, sheepishly, "I too have a few small things in my sitting room. In fact I also have a Georges, but mine is a seascape. I often dream I am on the ship sailing off into the sunset." He grinned ruefully. "Not much chance of that I am afraid. Would you like to see it? Most people don't think too much of Georges. But I find his style refreshing. More life than the stodgy relious panels and portraits of most of the masters."
"I would be honored, Julius. Let us have another moment or two here and a small sip and you can show me this treasure."
To Pay The Rent XIV
( Wherein flattery and sympathy produce information to aid in the augmentation of our hero's lifestyle. )
Julius showed me a few more of his collection. As we chatted about the antiquities and sipped our drinks, our movement about the room gave me ample opportunity to give the place a pretty good once over -make that twice or thrice over. I managed to pace off the length of the room without arousing any suspicion. When we walked down to Julius's suite I would be able to compare the depth of the room to the distance to his door.
Any discrepancy would give me the rough area of the spaces where I hoped the valueables were kept. I also had a good look for secret buttons, false books and other indications of hidden triggers. I did notice a small spot on the vertical divider of one of the shelves at the back wall. About waist high in the shelf, it showed a slightly higher polish than the rest of the woodwork. I caught it only when I leaned forward to look at a an illuminated manuscript that Julius had in a nearby shadowbox. It was only about the size of a demi-tasse cut in half; a small semi-circle worn in the finish; the tips of three fingers would nearly cover it. Tonight I'll have to look closer here.
We finished our drinks and Julius suggested we adjourn to his suite. In addition to the Georges he had a couple of tapestries he thought I would enjoy. "Step out and I'll meet you at my suite. I'll take care of the glasses and close up the bar."
I stepped into the hall but stayed close to the partly open door. I could just see a reflection of the room in the glass of the doors to the veranda. Julius walked over to the shelf with the decanters, placed the goblets on the shelf and again manipulated the mechanism. As the shelf slid back into place, he did a strange thing. He rotated the "striker" down to the surface of the strange metal disc. He then walked slowly to the door, and drew it closed very gently. Locking the door he motioned toward the door at the end of the hall.
I counted my paces as we strolled down to the door of his suite. By my estimate, the library was some five to ten feet shorter than the hall. Julius opened the door and waved me inside. The north wall of the hall became the north wall of the suite of rooms we entered. No opening showed in that north face. So... There was some space in there that did not form part of the library or Julius's rooms.
"This is the sitting room, I shan't show you my bed chamber. I'm sure you understand. I have an aversion to having anyone, other than my wife, in there. In fact I have trouble even thinking about the maids making the bed and changing the bedding. They do of course, but even when I am not present the thought makes me nervous. A hold over from some ghost of my childhood I presume. But I have learned to live with the necessity." He chuckled softly. A slight tremor in his tone.
"Not at all Julius." I said, sympathetically, "It is a bit like being invaded. I too value my privacy, and ones bedroom is nearly the last sacred refuge now-a-days. Is this the Georges?"
"Yes, as you can see I have it hung so it is at eyelevel when I am seated by the fire. As it is seldom seen by others -you are the first in quite some time to be in here- I have no need to have it where I cran my neck to enjoy looking at it."
I bent my knees a little to get the proper angle and looked at the painting closely. "Very nice, Julius. I do believe it is among the three best of his work that I have seen. Mine is good but would rank about fourth. The other two are owned by the Dayport Art Museum." At least for a little while longer. But that will be another tale.
"Your room is very comfortable. I see that you enjoy the more exciting works in your tapestries. Is that the battle of Stonemarches there? I have seen others but this is superb. Do you know the provenance?"
"Yes, now that you ask. That was done by the sisters of the Convent St. Jenel. An order with a cloister just outside the keep at Stonemarch. I have a collection of documents showing the commission of the hanging by the Lord of Stonemarch just after his successful defense against the invaders," he said proudly. "I also have the materials list, with the quantity and prices, written in the Mother Superiors hand. And signed by her authorizing the acceptance of the commission as well as the reciepts for every time it changed ownership covering the last two hundred years."
"I can see why you take pride in the piece. It is stunning. The detail is unbelievable. And if I had the secret of the dyes and mordants that were used, I would be the wealthiest man in the empire. Those colors can't have faded a bit in all that time. The entire piece looks like it just came from the embroidery frames straight to the wall. Too bad our dyers can't produce the same colorfast yarns today."
Julius smiled shyly and squirmed like a boy caught stealing pies. "I am proud of it. This and the Georges are my two favorite pieces. I just knew you would like them. Sit. Sit," he said. "We have covered the house in it's entirety, except of course, for my lady's chambers. Until dinner we have time to get better aquainted."
"Well said, Julius. It's a bit early for us to be divulging the secrets of our past, but there are many topics upon which we can share opinions. For example, what think you of this Mechanist Cult that is warring with the Pagans and the old Hammerite order? I fear no good will come of this. In the opinion of many Karras is a pushy fanatic. Men like this nearly always create conflict and bloodshed."
"I too am suspicious of them," he replied. "I did mention how they were currying favor among the elite of the wealthy. Gervasius said they were the source of the Precusor masks he had on display. The theft of the masks enraged him beyond belief. And rumour has it that part of the cause for his loss, was the failure of the devices Karras and Cavandor had installed that week. And I also heard that some other object of import was removed from the house, exactly what I don't know. But Karras was overheard berating Gervasius for its loss."
To Pay The Rent XV
(A pleasant interval and preparations, mental and physical for the early evening.)
We sat and chatted for some time. When Julius forgot he was Julius Trevor Darian Tremayne Rothschild III he was not unpleasant company. He had a dry wit, although not ready with the repartee, did display an insightful turn of sarcasm. As an avid horseman he readily and enthusiastically discussed his stable. More like a father doting on his children than a rich man bragging about what their purchase price was. He knew each of his hunters and steeplechasers intimately and discoursed on their qualities at the drop of a hat.
He had an extensive knowledge of antiques and an encyclopedic knowledge of those areas in which he had a collectors interest.
We discussed the political scene and the machinations of the Mechanists and the potential problems to the folk of the area, at some length. During this time I, of course, was examining the room for any indications of an opening in the north wall. The furnishings were rather simple, although of good quality. A pair of very fine celadon vases on the mantlepiece, a couple of nice little paintings in addition to the Georges and the tapestry, a three tier shelf of books; some recent publications and a few of the classics, -on which Julius could hold his own in any conversation. At the heavily curtained archway to the bedchamber, a group of four small rods caught my eye. Hanging, just below ceiling level, from an arm that jutted out from the center of a ten or twelve inch circle of parchment they seemed incongruous in this setting. Resembling windchimes they had a small metal button suspended in the center in such a manner that all four could contact it (or it they). When I remarked upon it, Julius said, rather nervously, that they were an antique set of chimes that at one time were attached to a bell pull. His nervousness made me wonder. Was this the tinkle I had first heard on his opening his library?
The time passed thusly in conversation that ranged the full gamut from idle chit chat to serious exchange of ideas and experiences. As the shadows of the waning day began to encroach upon the room, Julius rose and lighted the lamps. "Ahh..." He stretched lanquidly. "Thank you for a most entertaining day. I trust we can repeat some of this tomorrow. Dinner will be about 8 tonight. I plan to take some steam in the gymnasium and perhaps a massage. Will you join me?"
"Thank you, Julius. Not just yet. I think, with your permission, I will retire to my rooms and perhaps bathe and have a lie down before dinner. Do have Jory waken me about an hour before, should I doze off." Rising I left the suite and returned to my own chambers.
Once inside, I could see that the maids had been through the room. The decanters had been refilled and the goblet I had used replaced with a clean one; the fire reset. There was no evidence that my things had been disturbed and all seemed to be as it should be. Pouring a small brandy I took the small vial of sleeping potion from my jacket and placed it in the pocket of my dinner clothes. I hanged my jacket. Kicked off my shoes. Stacked some pillows against the bolster and leaned back on the bed. So... I now had a pretty good idea of the layout of the house, where to look for the set mechanism for the nightingale floors, -the one on the lady's side of the house I could ignore as I had no plans involving her that evening after dinner. Nor was there anything on that side of the house I need consider for this night.
Julius's library and the area between it and Julius's suite were my targets for the night, and of course the attic area. For the next half-hour or so I went over my information. Doublechecking myself on certain items. Which were marble floors; which carpeted; the location of the servants staircase and safest access to it. The dumbwaiter also deserved some consideration. I would ask for a late snack to be sent up. That would give me a chance to hear it in operation and if it was noisey or not when in use.
The ledge under the balcony on my room would be a last resort for my excusion. The mezzanine to the landing would be an easy route to the private library, and at dinner, or after, I must ask Julius if I might use the gameroom should I be a bit restless in the night. This would tell me two things: one, if there were alarm traps on the mezzanine, and two if my wanderings as a guest might be a problem. I did plan to take a steam and cold plunge after dinner. As I, and most others in my social circle, used cologne and other scents, the steam and plunge would remove all the perfume from my body. The scent of perfume, or indeed, a rank body odor, was a tell-tale give away to a guard at night. The slightest amount in the night air would stand out against the normal night-time odors. In fact, I have avoided many a guard because the smell of the ale he had with his dinner, or the garlic in his stew was readily apparent some distance away. Notwithstanding the odor of sweaty bodies encased in mail, or a padded surcoat, it's odd under such circumstances, how you can smell your companion or another person, even at a distance. You can smell like a dead horse and never notice your own reek.
Relaxing with my brandy I dozed off. A gentle rapping at my door aroused me. "Yes?"
"Dinner in about an hour, sir." Jory's voice from outside the door. "Do you wish some assistance with your attire?"
"Thank you, Jory, but no. I can manage. I shall be down in about thirty minutes."
"Very good, sir. Master and Madam will be in the salon."
I heard his footsteps retreating from the door and fading away. I rose from the bed and stretched. In the bath I set the water to running in the tub and when it reached the temperature I wished, returned to my room to disrobe. I hanged my trousers, and put the soiled shirt to one side. I would pack it later with my soiled underclothing. Donning my housecoat, I entered the bath. The water was nearly high enough in the tub, so I hung the robe on the hooks by the door, put a pile of toweling at hand, stripped and sank to the chin in the bath. "Ahh..." The tub was quite large, and at a hair less than six foot, I could stretch out quite comfortably. For a few moments, I lay quietly letting the warmth seep into my body.
I washed thoroughly, and emerged refreshed and relaxed. A careful pass with my shaving razor reduced my emerging beard to smooth, except for a few small scars here and there, skin. A little of my favorite sandalwood cologne, a pass at my hair and I gathered my soiled linens, donned my robe and returned to dress for dinner.
I decided that I would wear my more subdued suit tonight. Trousers of grey velveteen, a blindingly white shirt with ruffled front and cuffs. To keep the shirt closed, some silver and onyx studs, with matching links for the cuffs. A silk string tie in a matching grey, and a jacket of midnight blue silk with grey collar and lapels. The cuffs of the jacket were also grey but of velvet. For personal jewelry, I choose an oval onyx stone set in antique filigree for my earring. I checked my appearance in the chevalier and, satisfied, tucked a handkercheif of fine linen and lace in my left cuff. I also made certain the vial with the sleeping potion was in my pocket. The rest of my "tools" were not needed for dinner.
I made my way down to the salon and joined Julius and Ann by the fireplace.
To Pay The Rent XVI
(The lady makes her intentions clear and our hero counter-punches)
They were seated in a grouping of chairs and a divan arranged near the fireplace. A pleasant crackling sound, the aroma of cedar and welcome waves of warmth were radiating into the room. Banishing the chill from which these large stone-built mansions were never free.
Julius was seated in one of the chairs, his feet up on a hassock. Ann on the divan. Leaning back against the cushions with her feet tucked up under her. She smiled up at me with a flick of her eyes to the empty place beside her.
"Good evening, Julius; Ann." I nodded to my host and hostess, taking a seat in a chair somewhat between them. Noticing, out of the corner of my eye, a small moue of disappointment on the lady's face.
I should, perhaps, enlighten you somewhat about her appearance. Ann was not the dumpy, overfed, pampered daughter of some burgher, foisted on the first old man with influence that would take her. Neither was she a stunning beauty for whom love-struck swains would write volumes of paltry, sacherine poetry swearing undying love and devotion.
The daughter of a branch of the Hempsteads, from the capitol, she was well educated, mannered and her lineage impeccable. Reaching back into the founding history of the empire. In her twenties, married by contract to Julius some two or three years, she was possessed of graceful carriage. An oval face with large, brooding eyes of jet. Her lips, touched lightly with rouge, were full with a dominant cupid bow -at the moment, slightly pouting.
Her hair was unbound, that rare shade of blue-black, reaching to mid-back and framing her face most becomingly. At a little over five feet in height, her figure had just lost its girlish qualities. Her hips were full, her waist narrow. Her breasts were full but in balance with the rest of her figure. In other circumstances such a woman as I might consider for a more personal acquaintance.
Her choice of attire for the evening was a gown with a skirt of silk and chiffon and a torso hugging waist and bodice of velvet. Cut daringly low, the dress exposed shapely shoulders, emphasizing her upper body and breasts, the top third of which peeped enticingly out of the bodice. A small spray of white roses drew ones attention to the hollow between her breasts. Where it nestled. Contrasting pleasantly with the deep, rich purple of the velvet.
Although the style was not uncommon amongst the unwed young ladies out for a gala evening with thier beaus, the evident seductive quality was a little outre for a married woman entertaining a guest or two for a small private dinner.
Sitting some distance away, as I was, the fragrance of her perfume reached me. A tantilizing exotic undertone of musk over which the scent of Jasmine rose alluringly.
"I trust I've not delayed you?" I asked, "I fear I did doze off. Jory woke me only a short time ago. Please accept my apologies"
"Not at all." Ann said with a smile, leaving Julius with his mouth open for a moment. Her quick interjection forstalling him. "Cook still has some final preparations. Julie had mentioned your intent to rest a bit. So we made sure you would have ample time to rest, and prepare for the evenings entertainment," she said with a slight emphasis on 'you, prepare' and 'entertainment'.
Not tonight dear lady I smiled to myself.
I made a slight bow from my seated position. "My thanks, dear lady, Julius. The rest and bath were most refreshing. Which reminds me. If it is no imposition? I sometimes find myself unable to sleep. Would it be a problem should I use the gameroom if I find it so? I've found that a game of solitare, or the solution of a few chess problems helps in these circumstances." As I finished saying this, I noticed a small smile touch the lady's lips. Ah... I see my suspicions may have some merit. Sorry Ann. For you I have other plans, but I will play your game verbally.
Julius considered my request for a moment or two. During the lapse in the conversation, Ann threw a sly smile and a quick wink in my direction. I, in turn, gave a slight nod at which her smile broadened as she quickly lowered her head to conceal it from Julius. My smile was completely within the confines of my own mind; no trace reached my lips. Not tonight, Ann. I repeated to myself. Although the idea is not without appeal.
"Not an imposition at all. Feel free to use the gameroom as you will. The lower level of the house, as well as the gymnasium, greenhouse, common salon and library upstairs are yours also should you desire. I shall inform the guard that you may be present. Oh... I caution you not to approach the two corridors with the polished planks, you will remember the one near my library. These are part of the house security at night. Should you stray there you might be injured." He paused. "There is a guard who makes irregular inspections of the first floor rooms. Don't be alarmed should you hear him moving about if you are down there. I will, of course, inform him that you may be there. This is my weapons master. A truly formidable and conscientious man. I would caution you to announce yourself if you approach him, and to identify yourself with alacrity if challenged. As few lights are left on at night, it would never do should you step from a shadow and surprise him."
I assured Julius that I would heed his warning and thanked him for his understanding. I did offer, that if it were an inconvenience, that I should be glad to remain within the confines of my rooms. Mentioning in passing that such could result in my being out of sorts in the morning from lack of sleep. This, of course, he refused to consider and reiterated his permission.
At this point, the doors to the diningroom swung silently open as Jory announced that dinner was awaiting our arrival.
As we rose to enter the diningroom, Ann held out her hand to me. "Sir, would you?"
With a bow I took her hand and helped her to rise from the divan. Giving my hand a gentle squeeze, she said, in a coquettish voice, "I see you are capable of rising to any occassion, as a gentleman should. I'm surprised you remain a bachelor. Surely some of the ladies must have tried to draw you in."
"Sadly, Ann. None as enchanting ay you. And as you are married, and beyond my reach. I fear I must wait for another such to stir my interest." I said, with a humourous, theatrical flourish.
At this interchange, Julius laughed heartily. "You do have a flair, Bob," he said. Then in mock severity, "Stop flirting with my wife and come to dinner." Chuckling softly he led the way into the dining room. I followed with Ann on my arm, her breast warm against my sleeve.
To Pay The Rent XVII
(A dinner, an invitation and a tune. )
The diningroom was lighted by a magnificent crystal chandelier. The scattered reflection through the myriad prisms of the pendant crystals against the red and gold of the brocade wall covering was as a dusting of diamonds on a jewlers display. The table, capable of seating some thirty couples along the sides, and, of course the host and hostess, was illuminated by a massive trio of exceptional multistemed silver candlelabra. Very nice, but requiring at least two men to move.
The service was set at one end, the head for Julius and Ann and I opposite each other. The width of the table allowed conversation, but was well beyond allowing one person to reach a foot or hand across to the other side. For this I gave an internal sigh of relief. To be startled by a wandering foot, or hand, whilst sipping my wine was not to be desired. The crockery, as was to be expected, was of the finest bone china. So thin as to be nearly transparent, the china was decorated with detailed irises around the rim, and a gold Rothschild crest in the center. The goblets, of cut crystal, adorned with a circle of gold at the mouth, was amazingly thin and delicate. A true expression of a masters hand in their creation, they represented the composite work of a lifetime.
The food was exceptionally well prepared, and the presentation a masterpiece of the art of paste and sugar. The opening course was a hearty seafood chowder, lightly seasoned with saffron. Following this, a small sorbet of lime, to clear the tastebuds. Then a dish of Pheasant en-croute, stuffed with quail eggs and minced squab. The main course was a Baron of beef, in a saltcrust, sliced and served at the table. For accompaniment, braised mixed vegetables with a delightful hollandaise, and potatoes, mashed with fresh garlic and butter.
There was the usual assortment of breadstuffs and spreads, and of course, seasonings and sauces.
Each course came with its own wine, chosen well to complement the excellent repast.
Conversation was light and of no consequence, although the lady did make her intentions clear with some rather pointed repartee (which Julius missed completely).
Dessert was Floating Islands, a confection made of whipped sweetened egg whites, poached lightly and served on a lake of vanilla flavored blanche main.
"A most pleasing dinner, Julius. Your cook is a jewel beyond compare. Do you watch -is it a him or a her?- closely else I shall steal the cook away." I smiled broadly, as Julius beamed in pride.
"It is a her," he said, "but I fear that neither gold nor threat would avail you. She has been with me and the house of Rothschild since I was a mere infant. Of all my servants, she is most precious, and loyal beyond life itself."
"Do commend her for me," I replied. "I have partaken of the dishes of many of the master chefs of the town, and the capitol. None could equal her for this meal. Nor, I suspect, any other. I am humble for the gift of such a repast, and in the face of such expertise." I bowed my head in homage to the unseen cook.
Julius clapped his hands gleefully. "Hear. Hear. You have the right of it. I shall surely tell her. She shall be pleased with your comments. Your reputation as a gourmet, is not unknown to the staff of the great houses, mine included. Your words will cheer her immensely. For her, I thank you." And, with a gesture unlike him, he rose and bowed to me.
Ann, clapped her hands at his performance. "Julie, I have not seen you so light-hearted in some time." Turning to me she said, "Thank you, Bob, for bringing joy to this house. And may you find our welcome spread for you anytime." Smiling sweetly at both Julius and me.
"The evening is yet young. Shall we repair to the gameroom? It has been a while since my wife and I have had a third to play with. Two handed games are not uninteresting, but playing the same opponent all the time, does take some of the surprises away. One gets to knowing anothers play almost to the point of prescience. We can decide which game might interest us all, and continue our conversation. Shall we?"
Julius rose, and rounded the table to assist Ann from her chair. With Ann on his arm he then led the procession to the game room where a cosy fire was blazing away with one of the game tables moved closer to its inviting warmth.
"Oh, Julie, do let us persuade Bob to play for us first. He did promise us a tune or two," she said, looking up at me from under her lowered lashes. "You will play, will you not?" Making an exaggerated pout like a child denied a sweet, she gazed up at Julius. "He did promise. Make him play for me Julie or I shall throw a tantrum," she cooed in a little girl voice.
"You see what I have to put up with?" Julius smiled. A spoiled wife. "Do oblige her or I she shall wear my ears off with her pleadings".
I laughed, "But of course. I did say I might oblige with a few tunes. Do you have Jory bring the lute from the music room. We shall be more comfortable here, I think." I looked around the room. " I think you and the lady should sit there on the settee, next the fire. I shall bring a chair forward where I can be comfortable, but not too near the heat. It would not be good for the instrument were I too close."
Ann and Julius did as I bade. "Pull that bellcord, there, by the sideboard," said Julius. "That will bring Jory to us."
I pulled the cord, and asked if I might serve them a drink, as I was already at the sideboard.
"Yes. I'll have a port," Julius replied, "and what will you have m'dear?" He asked Ann.
"I think, the sherry," she said. "I do not want to get sleepy from too much wine. To miss Bob's performance would disappoint me terribly."
Sorry Ann. The performance you anticipate will not occur. I thought. Pouring the two drinks for them and a brandy for myself, I placed the glasses on a salvor and took them to the settee. "Ann... Julius... A toast to a delightful evening, and," I glanced at Ann, "for the entertainment yet to come."
As we raised our drinks, Jory entered the room. "Sir. What is it you wish?"
"Bob, has consented to play for us. Would you fetch the Lute, from the musicroom... Please" Julius said, "And you may then retire. We shan't be needing you further."
A slight start of surprise at the 'please' in Julius's request, disturbed Jory's calm for a moment, "As you wish, sir. I shall be a moment only."
I nodded to Julius with a smile. He responded a bit shyly. "I do plan to try, Bob," he said. "It may take some doing but I begin to think you were right."
"Right? About what?" asked Ann.
"Oh, nothing. Just something Bob and I discussed earlier. Of no importance m'dear. Just man talk." and he lifted his glass slightly, in salute.
I settled in the chair I had set up, pulling a sidetable a bit closer. I leaned back, in the straight-backed chair crossing my ankles in front of me. "I shall play a couple of light tunes for your enjoyment, and, as I promised a song, I think I shall do 'The Battle at Ravens Rest. It is a bit more dramatic, and one of my favorite ballads. Besides," I said teasingly,"I can be somewhat theatrical. And allow my penchant for play-acting full sway."
We sat quietly enjoying the fire and our drinks until Jory reappeared bearing the lute. "Thank you, Jory. Oh, Julius would you consider having cook, have some of that beef and some bread set aside for me. If I do get restless, a snack might also be in order. If she just puts it in the dumbwaiter and runs it up to the hall, I won't need to disturb anyone later"
"Not at all. Jory will see to it. That will be all, Jory. Goodnight."
"Good night sir, madam, and," turning to me, "I will have cook do that sir. Sleep well." With a nod, Jory turned and glided from the room.
"It will be a moment." I said to Julius and Ann. The lute needs to get used to the temperature, and I need to check the tuning."
I exposed the body of the lute and the strings to the gentle heat from the fire for a few moments, taking the time to tune and retune some of the strings. Satisfied at last, I began to play.
I played, the Rondelay de Corsaire, and then the lively little piece known as the Cobblers Last. Pausing between to have a sip of my brandy and retune the instrument. Both pieces were well received with enthusiastic applause, and words of pleasure from my audience.
"Now," I said in my deepest theatrical tones: " The star of the evening. We thank you for your patient participation, Lady and Gentleman. We present the star of our stage, Bob. His finale for this command performance will be: The Battle Of Ravens Rest."
Both Julius and Ann laughed and applauded wildly. "You are truly, deserving of your reputation as a rancontuer, Bob. You would be a montebank of the first water and star of the theatre, should you have chosen the stage." Julius said between guffaws.
I bowed and laughing with him, replied: "Thank you sir. Your approbation is a pearl beyond price." Striking a heroic poise, I hit the opening chord of the ballad.
I'll not bore you with the full tale, as I'm sure you have heard it before, but I will gift you the closing stanzas:
"An stood he tall amongst his foe,
His sword a bloody red.
A mowing scythe that laid them low,
Upon death's grassy bed."
"From morn to dusk his blade did reap,
A harvest; young and old.
High around his feet did heap,
The foolish and the bold."
"For home and hearth, and love of king,
He bore his burden well.
An on his death the bard would sing,
Of how Bold Ransom fell."
"And in the days and years to be,
The story would ring true.
A man, a battle, a land held free,
By Ransom, and his few."
With a final crashing chord, I finished the lay, and when the last whisper of the strings had faded, put the lute aside.
---------------------to be continued------------------------
Editing the rest to add. Should be up tonight or tomorrow.
The latest chapter, for you who have already been readers will follow shortly.
Please post comments if any:
Last edited by theBlackman; 02-10-2003 at 03:20 PM.
To Pay The Rent XVIII
(Where in our hero indulges in some underhanded activities and removes a threat)
For a moment there was silence, then Julius spoke. "That was excellent! I do believe I've never heard 'Ravens Rest' so well done. Bravo!" He clapped enthusiastically. "Your phrasing and rhythmic changes were untraditional. But damn me, if I didn't feel I was there at the battle." He shook his head as if to clear his mind, "The battle came alive. It was... it was.. I cannot find the words."
Ann, meanwhile was dabbing at her eyes with a kerchief. "So tragic. The death of those men. And Ransom..." She wiped at a tear. "I usually hate heroic ballads, but this performane touched me deeply."
"Thank you both," I said, "I do so enjoy playing. As for tradition, Julius, it does have it value. I feel, that music and poetry have a life of their own. I merely react to the emotions it stimulates in me. I also feel, however, that some of the bards and jonguelers recite too many of the old ballads by rote. Not that they do poorly. Rather, that some passages need more life and emotion given them instead of the stolid stamp of a metre cut in the stone of tradition."
"Well enough of that." I placed the lute safely in a corner and went to the cabinet. "What game do you suggest for our amusement? Ann? Lady's choice. Ehh, Julius?"
Tucking her kerchief away, Ann turned to Julius. "Oh, Snakes and Ladders please, Julie," she said looking at me with the tip of her tongue sliding slowly across her upper lip. "I do so love the slow climb up and the exhilarating slide back down to start all over again."
"So then!" I replied before he could answer, taking the box from the shelf. "Snakes and ladders it shall be. I hope you reach the heights you desire many times before the play is over, Ann."
While I fetched the box, Julius arranged the table and chairs to best advantage.
The game board was spread, the tokens selected and the game begun. Julius was a canny player, and Ann not much less skilled -although she did misplay diliberately at times, causing her token to rise and fall un-necessarily at times.
During play, the conversation remained light and on subjects such as the theatre, opera, the upcoming steeplechase in which Julius's horse would race. I refilled the glasses a time or two and as the eleventh hour approached, began to stifle a yawn with the back of my hand now and then.
Finally, as the current game drew to a close..."Good play. Well done, Julius. You've won again. Forgive my lack of manners, but I fear I am getting too sleepy to continue. Perhaps one more glass together and I shall retire, if you will allow."
"To be sure, think nothing of it. This has been a most pleasureable evening! Has it not Ann?"
"Yes, most pleasureable," she agreed, "another Sherry would not ruin the night for me." She held out her glass.
I took the glasses to the sidebar to refill, while Julius and Ann reboxed the game pieces. My back to the fireplace concealed my actions from them both. The vial of sleeping potion slid easily from my pocket and emptied half itself into Anns sherry, and the remainder into Julius's brandy in one fluid motion.
My initial intent when I had taken the vial from my kit, was to chain the lady, if you will. The subsequent visit to Julius's library and suite, and my concern about an interconnected warning device in his rooms, convinced me to immobilize Julius as well.
Don't be concerned. Either for me or my victims. The potion was an effective sleep inducer, nothing more. Otherwise it was harmless.
I returned to the seated pair and offered the drinks. "Thank you, Bob," said Julius. "B'gawd, if you ever want a position as manservant, you will have my reference." He laughed gently. "Damned if I don't hire you m'self if you've no takers."
'Now Julie. Don't be mean." Ann retorted with a laugh, slapping him gently on the knee. " I'm certain that Bob will never lose his standing in any situation," and laughed gaily again.
"Should circumstances cause me to be in such a situation, I should be most happy to serve you," I replied with a theatrical bow and flourish. And raised my glass.
We all laughed for a bit. Finished our drinks and sat for a moment chuckling. "Well... " I said, stifling another yawn. "I'm to bed. If you don't mind."
I rose, bowed to my host and hostess and took my leave. In my room I changed to my smoking jacket. I selected a pipe and tobacco and settled in by the fire.
So far things had gone my way. True, the lady and her antics had created a minor complication. The potion would solve that problem, at least for tonight. In about thirty minutes both of them would be quite drowsy. In another twenty, asleep to the point of unconsciousness. They would suffer nothing but a deep restful sleep. No after effects. No repercussions. To them it would appear merely the results of an exhausting day.
I finished my pipe, and went to the dumbwaiter. Julius had said that cook would leave the tray in the dumbwaiter. This way I could bring it up if I wanted it. If I did not it would be at hand in the morning to be put away. He had also mentioned that it had been installed at Jory's request. It enabled ease of service to the upstairs guest rooms, and also served the attic. If one of the servants was invalided or indisposed, food and other items could be sent up. The stairs being very narrow and steep.
The dumbwaiter rose silently as I pulled on the rope. I removed the tray of food, and examined the dumbwaiter and the shaft. The waiter itself consisted of an open frame with a solid top and bottom. The four sides were open; just stout posts in the corners. The ropes to my left as I faced the opening. The dumbwaiter was just large enough for a man. If he knelt on the bottom and arched his neck and back. The open sides made the operation of the raising mechanism and easy task. My access to the attic later that night. I could easily avoid the guard and not risk that the stair from the kitchen should creak and groan.
I closed the dumbwaiter and returned to my rooms with the tray. Placing the tray on the sideboard, I took my trousers and put them in the clothespress. I changed from my smoking jacket to my robe and went down to the gymnasium. Before leaving, I again checked the connecting door from the bath to the other suite. I was not surprised to find the inside bolt drawn and the door unlocked. Dear, dear, Ann. I fear I have ruined your plans for the evening. I thought. I threw the bolt once more.
The steam surrounded me with penetrating warmth. I lay back on the cedar bench and stretched, luxuriating in the clouds of cleansing heat. I could feel the muscles easing. As the soothing heat soaked into my body, I planned my nights excursion. The attic first. What possible exits to the roof did it offer? Exits, of course, also meant entrances. What was the construction of the floor ne: ceiling over the space behind Julius's office? Was it floored over or was it merely a thin veneer of lath and plaster? The ceiling in my suite, and the others had been framed squares of wooden panels. In Julius's library it had been a smooth white plaster. A style often used to make a space lighter and more airy. The smooth surface aiding at night by reflecting, although weakly, the weak glow of candlelight or an oil-fed lamp.
The nightingale floor leading from the landing to Julius's suite was a problem. His unconscious gesture as he had passed the musicroom earlier may hold the key to them. I could, and would, examine that area closely before I headed for the attic. If, as I suspected, the trigger to activate, or deactivate it were there, I should be able to discover it. And, with luck, the same at Julius's library. There must needs be two triggers. One for Jory, or the guard, to deactivate the floor prior to Julius's awakening, and one for Julius, at or near his door, to use to activate it when he retired. I'm sure he would not want to walk the corridor of a morning with the noise accompanying him . Or at night should he wish to visit his office or some other part of the house, such as his wifes bedchamber.
The one for Julius's corridor could be at the start of the passage or near, even on the landing. Both areas would require some careful searching this night. I had no fear of not discovering the secret. If unsuccessful, a visit to the builders; the plans; or some creative bribery should solve the problem. I am sure that I can get the name from one of the servants. Jory, or the steward would be the most likely to know.
Ann and the coming day I would handle Oops, poor choice of word there as the need may arise. "Ahh..." I stretched and arose from my meditations. Standing in the middle of the steamroom, I went through some flexibility excersises. I am a little less than six feet in height, and weigh about one-hundred-seventy-five to eighty pounds. My shoulders are broad, but not excessively so, my waist a thirty two, give or take. Normal for my height and weight. My arms are a bit longer than most, I have a span of about six and a half feet from fingertip to fingertip with my arms spread at shoulder height. The norm is five feet ten inches to six feet. Try it yourself. You will see what I mean. The first joint of your index finger, if you are a man, will be very close to one inch, the span across the back of your hand, two and three-quarters to three inches, and your hand span about eight inches.
I am slightly more muscular than most, with the lean long muscles of a dancer or acrobat. My flexibility, however, is as good as any acrobatic circus performer. I walked to the door, and reached up to the narrow ledge of the moulding over the entrance. With just the tips of my fingers, I raised myself until my chin was above the moulding. I have the strength to raise myself higher, (and can in fact, hang thusly for twenty or thirty minutes) but to do so requires a shift of balance. To accomplish this necessitates that the head and torso move forward. With my nose against the wall this was not possible. I repeated the manuevar a few more time, dropped to the floor and entered the gymnasium.
I stepped into the cold plunge and squatted to submerge my complete body. The pool was merely at room temperature, but coming directly from the steam as I was, it was still somewhat of a shock. I remained submerged for a moment or two then emerged and vigorously toweled myself dry.
The dueling mat was about thirty feet long. Standing on one end with my back to the length of the mat, I did a couple standing backflips, and a series of back walkovers, until reaching the other end. I then did some front walkovers and handstands back to the starting end, ending the series with a full split. Satisfied, I again stepped into the plunge to stay the sweat, rinsed and dried well and returned to my suite.
To Pay The Rent XIX
(The night is not only for lovers. Or how to case the joint.)
I had taken an hour or so with my cleansing and excersises and the first hour past the midnight watch was approaching. Ann and Julius should be cradled warmly in the arms of Morpheus by now. Two possible obstacles removed.
For this look around I would need only a few of my toys: lockpicks; the throwing dagger -the hilt of which was shaped to be useful for the removal and replacement of screws- the vial of oil, and the lantern should suffice. From what I had seen, the rope and other tools would not be needed tonight.
I extinguished the lamps, leaving only a candle in the bedchamber and the dying embers in the fireplace for light. I donned my suit, shoes and hood and took a seat with my back to the fire to allow my eyes to adjust. A slight draft from the poorly fitting balconey doors stirred the light curtains to a gentle flutter now and again. Something about this was tugging at my memory. As I sat listening to the creaking as the house settled in the cooler nighttime temperature.
Nearly all buildings have their own "voices". At night the cooler air contracts the stone and metals of which they are made. The warmth of day expands them. The noise made by the activities of the occupants during the day cover up much of the sounds a house produces. Each house is almost a living entity. The scratch of a tree bough against a roof or window; the whisper, or moan of the wind in the chimney pots; the creaking of a stair or wooden floor as a body passes. All this and more is part of the house.
I sat there letting my mind catalog and familiar itself to the sound of this house. My thoughts returning again and again to the movement of the curtains. Damn! What is it about those curtains...? No... It's the movement.
Slowly the thoughts began to solidify. The air! The curtains are reacting to the wind! Suddenly, I had it. The disc in Julius's library reacted to the wave of air caused by the passage of a body. Much like a candleflame will gutter as you pass. The disc, of paper thin metal, fluttered in the frame. When it did it would hit the "striker" and the vibrations would be amplified by the size of the disc, -Oh. I forgot to mention. The disc was about three feet in diameter- and travel through the wire in the back. Probably to the "windchimes" in Julius's suite. The vibrations would move the drumhead from which they were suspended and cause them to ring. That's what I had heard when Julius opened the library door! The sudden wave of air from the inward opening door caused the disc to flutter like my curtains were now. Ingenious! Julius, you little bastard! I don't know where you got the idea but it's brilliant! I raised an imaginary goblet in salute.
I added this revelation to my store of knowledge about alarm systems. So if the air in the room is disturbed by the opening of the door, or a window, or if a body moves too swiftly into or across the room, the disc sounds an alarm. Brilliant! No thief, nor anyone else not privy to the secret, would ever suspect the purpose of the disc.
If I was correct, the system could easily be subverted. Assuming the door itself concealed no triggering device - my observations of Julius's actions seemed to confirm this. Then if the door was eased open and closed ( and I mean eeaassssed) and... if I crawled to the disc and rotated the "striker" out of the way, then the library was mine to ravish for its secrets.
Keeping my back to the fire so my night-vision would not suffer, I cracked the door. I stood with my eyes closed and mouth wide open, listening. I see the puzzlement in your eyes. The sound travels through the air, like ripples from a pebble in a pond. With your mouth open you can actually hear a little better. The extra action of the sound on the inside (so to speak) of your ear and the outside amplifies the small sounds.
On with the story. Except for those sounds I now knew to be normal for the house at night; the plash and tinkle of the fountain in the greenhouse; the creak of the roof beams from a gust of wind; the soft moan of a chimney pot- all was still.
First stop, the beginning of the nightingale floor near the greenhouse. Julius had reached out just about waist high. "Hmmm..." The wainscotting in the halls was bordered with a frieze of vines and berries. The vines running the length in lazy curves from edge to edge, the berries in groups of three at irregular intervals. One such group was on the mezzanine side of the corner, another just past, in the corridor itself.
I closed my eyes and let my fingertips glide gently over the pattern. Starting from the mezzanine side over the first group then around the corner and past the next and back again. I did this two or three times letting the texture of the surface seep into my senses. One of the berries in the group on the mezzanine side seemed to feel a little smoother than the rest of the carvings. I waited a moment or two and repeated the process. This time forming a half fist and letting the backs of my fingers between the first and second knuckles glide over the surface a little slower. Although a gentleman in appearance and demeanor, my hands, particularly my finger tips, were lightly calloused from my constant training for climbing and mantling. The more sensitive skin on the backs of my fingers slid gently along. Motes of dust caught when it was varnished and minor imperfections in the carvings caught at me as my hand moved along the pattern. Yes. That berry is definitely smoother! Very gently I pressed it into the frieze. It gave to my touch, sinking into the panel a bit then, stopping against what felt like a spring.
I quickly removed my finger so as not to trigger the device. I had learned what I needed. As the paneled wainscotting ran on both sides of the hallways and the mezzanine, it was likely that the triggering device was hidden in the same manner near Julius's library.
I heard the soft scuffle of feet and the creak of leather harness from below as the guard made a tour of the first floor. I remained where I was until I heard him again pass through the lobby and out the doors onto the terrace. As the key turned in the lock, I went back past the gymnasium and my room to the dumbwaiter at the landing. I opened the door and put my back to the dumbwaiter, did a handstand and eased my feet into the shaft. As my feet touched the opposite wall of the shaft I hooked my toes to the bottom of the cage. Walking backward on my hands I folded my legs and walked my upper body up the wall until I was kneeling in the dumbwaiter.
I closed the door and slowly raised the cage to the third floor. At the top I waited to listen for any movement. I heard nothing. I slowly eased the door open and looked out. Across from me was a plaster wall with no openings. To my left the passage ended a foot or so past the dumbwaiter shaft. The moonlight streaming through a skylight down the hall to my right showed the mouth of a corridor entering from the left, and faded into the shadows under the pitch of the roof at the west. Probably the head of the stair from the kitchen.
I slid head first out of the shaft, onto the floor. Paused, then stood and made my way to the intersection. A quick look to the left around the corner. The outline of a window at the end of the hallway. Three doors on the right of the hall, servants quarters I guessed. The wall through which the dumbwaiter opened, was rough plaster, and had a door in it just short of the intersection of the two corridors. This was an area I wanted to check. It was directly above Julius's library and the space I hoped contained the safe or strongroom.
To Pay The Rent XX
(Wherein a rat runs around the attic, and the delicate digits of our hero do thier duty. )
A quick silent tour of the hallways gave me a good idea of the attic layout. The corridor from the left that joined the one that serviced the stair and the dumbwaiter, ended at a dormer in the front of the house. Joining that from the left, about thirty feet from the window, was another that ran to the east, turned north and paralleled the east side. This ended at the rear of the house at the north.
There were three doors on the west along the corridor to the dormer. These I presumed to be rooms for the servants. Along the right (south or front of the house) of the corridor that joined this near the dormer, were three more doors, again to what I think were rooms for servants. An unlocked door in the center of the left wall opened into an unfinished storage area. Another skylight allowed a dim filter of moonlight through the grimey panel. This area was floored with rough pine and cluttered with furniture and boxes. The thick layer of dust on the floor and contents was proof that it was seldom used. The dust also reminded me to be certain to avoid picking up too much dust to track through the house later. A ladder led to a hatch in the roof. Access for roofers and other repairmen to the tiles and chimneypots. I did not enter and after a cursory scan from the doorway continued to the east.
At the east the hall turned left toward the back of the house, a door here in the east wall at the corner opened into a barren unfinished attic area. Three dormered windows marched from the front of the house to the back at equal spacings along the roof line. Bare beams, with rough lath and plaster between, supported the ceilings below. This was the area over the greenhouse, music room and other areas of the east wing. A largish tank, with valved piping, to my right near the front of the house,caught my eye. This must be the supply for the fountain below in the greenhouse. Other than this, the space was completely empty. Another hatch and ladder gave access to the roof near the far north end.
Not knowing which rooms might be occupied by the servants, I ignored the six doors at the outside edges of the attic. These held no interest for me at the moment. Back at the first intersection near the dumbwaiter, I turned left and, as I had expected, encountered the head of the stair to the kitchen.
I returned to the door near the dumbwaiter. It was locked. The dust and grime on the escutcheon and handle proved its lack of use. Using the blade of my knife as a guide, I flowed a few drops of oil into the lock mechanism. A few more drops of oil on the hinges. I took the time while the oil seeped in to lubricate the hinges and lock, to firmly fix the attic layout, and its relationship to the rooms below, in my mental plan of the house.
Like all attics the musty smell of dust and old linen permeated the air. A trace of odors from the kitchen below; hot oil, roast beef, slight smell of smoke from the banked embers in the stove and bake ovens, barely discernable over the stagnant air surrounding me. No, perfume or body odor from some prowling servant. No sound other than my own heartbeat and breathing. All was as it should be.
The lock resisted the action of my picks. I worked patiently letting my fingers read the tumblers. As I worked at the lock it began to loosen. Slowly, the tumblers gave way and with a reluctant click, the bolt slid back. I tried the door. Lack of use and time had wedged it in the frame. I dribbled a few more drops of oil on the hinges. While the oil did its work on the ancient mettal, I used my knife to probe the crack where the door met the frame. The blade slid easily around the frame except at the lower right corner below the latch. Holding the latch open with my left hand pulling lightly on the door, I used the blade to exert a little pressure on the jammed corner, taking care not to mar the woodwork. Slowly, almost painfully, the door opened into the hallway.
Once it cleared the jamb, I slowly opened it fully. The hinges, still a little stiff , resisted, but fortunately did not squeal, although I was ready to stop at the slightest noise. The space it opened onto was pitch black. The dim light from the nearby skylight revealed a small section near the door that was boarded over. Just enough to allow a man entering to have solid footing.
I went in and drew the door to. Just until it began to bind in the frame. I opened it again and brought it to where the door barely touched the jamb. I primed the bullseye and activated the igniter. After a second or two, I did it again. A soft glow that quickly blossomed into a knife edge of light from the barely opened lens reached into the darkness. When certain the flame was strong and steady, I opened the cover fully and panned the beam around the room.
The deck on which I stood was about four feet wide and the length of the room. At the far right the boxed in shaft of the dumbwaiter, with the geared tackle above it, was clearly visible. A hulking black rectangle. The rest of the space was exposed heavy beams with the usual rough lath and plaster below. Carefully balancing on the beams, and brushing the cobwebbing away, I examined the area of the western most portion.
I was directly above the space behind Julius's library. No openings pierced the room or rooms below. If I could not uncover the secret of these rooms from the library I could likely break through the plaster and drop down from here.
I retreated to the door, brushed myself as well as I could to remove any cobwebs and dust, extinguished my lantern and waited for my night vision to return. When I could see the length of the hallway, I stepped out and relocked the door. Repeating my routine with the dumbwaiter I lowered myself to the second floor and slid out onto the landing. I closed the door to the dumbwaiter. I listened for sounds of the guard patrolling on the lower level. Quiet.
Just to the west of where I stood was the beginning of the nightingale floor at the door to the library. I approached the edge of the planking and knelt down. With the palm of one hand I slowly began to exert pressure on the second plank. It started to give almost immediately. When Julius had taken me to his suite the floor had been solid and unyielding.
I needed to disable the floor to reach the door. While listening for the return of the guard, I checked the wainscotting on both sides of the hall and the sides facing the mezzanine and landing. Hoping the berries would be the key, I tested them all, one at a time, finally locating one near the dumbwaiter that gave to my touch. I pressed it firmly in until I felt a click and it would move no farther.
Back at the planking, I pressed again. Not the slightest movement. Even when I had my full weight bearing down on it. Gottcha! The library lock was of much better quality than those in the rest of the house, but was no real challenge. It yielded readily to my expert ministrations, and a few seconds with the picks rewarded me with a soft "snick" as it opened.
I eased the door inward, until I was certain the latch had cleared the striker plate. Still holding the handle, I sank to a crouch. Inch by bare inch, with pauses between, I opened the door. When the gap was wide enough, I edged around the corner. Still crouched, I slowly returned the door to the closed possition. Sinking to my stomach, I began my slow, tedious crawl -elbows and toes- to the stand holding the disc.
A few moments of cautious movement, and the striker was rotated away and the alarm disabled. The entire operation from the picking of the lock to my safeing the alarm taking about ten or twelve minutes. No longer in fear of discovery, I stood and stretched to ease my muscles. Although not unaccustomed to such exercise, the added necessity of avoiding any sudden movement that might send a vagrant breath of air to the device, had turned a routine operation into a highly tensioned venture.
Free to move about as I wished, I wasted no time in going directly to the west wall of the library. I relighted my bullseye and sought out the small blemish I had noted during my visit with Julius. The small semi-circular wear pattern on the right of the vertical was opposed by a smaller mark on the left. Much like it had been pinched between a thumb and three fingers. Why not? Nothing to lose. Grasping the panel firmly with my right hand -three fingers and the thumb- I pulled. Nothing.
Undaunted, I gripped it a little harder and pulled again. Still no result. Okay, the other way. I pushed and was rewarded with a click as the panel moved a fraction into the wall. I continued to push and a four foot wide floor to ceiling section of the bookcase swung away from me opening into the wall.
To Pay The Rent XXI
(Secrets revealed, minor head scratching, and X marks the spot)
The panel opened to the left against the wall of the corridor to Julius's suite. I picked up the lantern in my left hand. With a firm grasp of the right edge of the opening, I held the lantern high over head to throw as much light as possible. I leaned into the room, being careful not to step in. As the beam swung around the room I was surprised to see that it was completely empty.
For a moment I stood there in shock. A feeling of disappointment briefly dampened my initial elation at discovering the entrance. Then I regained my poise and smiled. Now what? Does Julius have some more tricks up his sleeve?
The room was completely bare except for a candle in a holder and a flintlock striker for lighting it, which stood on the floor to the right of the doorway. Roughly twenty feet square the room occupied the entire space between Julius's suite and the library. Two openings in the west wall and one in the north appeared to have once been windows. They were now bricked shut.
The floor was two foot by three foot slabs of polished black marble. Around the outside edge was a two color border of one foot squares in alternating pink and white. I stood in the doorway for quite a while looking at the emptiness over and over. I dropped to one knee and turned to the candleholder. With the beam of my lantern fully on it I let my gaze wander as it would while the feeling and appearance of the room , and what I had learned about Julius, the library, and the household filtered through my mind.
No one was allowed in the library if Julius was not present. Julius went into the library whenever monies were needed. Major pieces of the family jewels were not kept in the master suites. The courier from the bank brought a bag with him and, after seeing Julius in the library left empty handed. Ergo... the purpose of my visit was someplace nearby.
As my gaze idled about the room, it fell upon the candle. Why? Placed so readily near the door meant the room was not infrequently entered. I concentrated on the candle and the area around it. A small space around it on the floor seemed to have a bit more shine than the rest of the nearby floor. Beyond this patch the floor seemed a little duller. I reached out and drew a finger across the marble just beyond where the candleholder sat.
Behind my finger the path traced on the floor grew a little shinier. Dust! There was a light coating of dust where the candle was not sitting. The candleholder, the flint, and the floor beneath them were free of dust. The layer of dust on the rest of the room was very light, but just enough to dull the shine of the marble. I narrowed the beam of my bullseye. I lay down with my eyes as close to the floor as possible and panned the beam across the surface very slowly. From where I lay, a streak of black marble, about a foot wide, led to the west side of the room. The marble to either side having a light film of undisturbed dust had a duller more greyish appearance in the light beam.
Once I had noticed it, it was plain to see. I stood and raised the beam to follow this mark in the dust. The "path" crossed the room to the west, then seemed to come back toward the northeast and ended near the middle of the room. Staying on the "path", I crossed the room to the west wall. Squatting on my haunches where the mark ended just short of the boarder of small squares. One of the pink squares seemed cleaner than the two white ones to either side of it. I pressed on the center of the square. It moved a little under my hand but only a slight tremor. I pressed each corner in turn. Pressure on the righthand far corner caused it to swivel up exposing a compartment beneath it. In the bottom was a handle. Examined closer it appeared to be "T" shaped with just enough room under it to allow a hand to grasp it.
I pulled. The handle was immobile. Okay. Plan B. I twisted it left. No luck. I twisted right and felt it slowly rotate coming to a stop 90 degrees from its original position. Nothing happened. I pulled, and this time it slowly rose to about four inches above the floor and stopped again.
I was sure I had unlocked something. I had heard no sound, nor felt through the handle the movement of any mechanism. At a lose for a moment, I remembered the other part of the path in the dust had gone to the center of the room. I swung the lantern to the center of the room and was rewarded by the sight of a large section of the floor that was now standing vertically.
At the entrance to the opening I could see a flight of steps that led into the darkness below. With the lantern on full beam I leaned over and shone the light down into the darkness. The steps had railings on both sides and ended about seven feet down on a sturdy plank floor. I spent some time looking at the steps and what little else I could see. I examined the steps and the surround for any trip wires, or threads that might be part of additional alarms. I suspected none, but that little trick with the metal disc had made me a bit more wary than I might normally have been at this point in a caper. If not Julius, then whoever had installed the security systems in this house was possessed of a genius for innovation. At the moment I needed no more surprises.
It seemed clear. But I stepped onto the top of the railing, and balanced myself with a hand on the ceiling as I crept down to the end of the stair. I lowered myself off over the side of the railing. Just in case the last step or first plank at the bottom concealed a trigger. I flashed the light around the room.
My head just cleared the ceiling beams. The room was directly above the kitchen and under the library. Some twenty feet wide south to north and about forty feet long, ending in a stone wall to the east and west. The floor was heavy planking and the beams overhead just barely six and a half feet above the planking. At irregular intervals allong the north and south wall I could see candlespikes holding candles of various lengths. I took the nearest one and lit it from my bullseye. I left my lantern at the foot of the steps and used the candle to light the others, some five or six in all.
With the space now fully illuminated, although dimly, I could better see its contents. Along the north wall, a series of shelves held boxes that contained family records and journals. Some of these dated back to the early days of the Empire. I did not bother with these, although a historian would have been delerious with delight.
Near the stairs were some blanket wrapped rectangles. These were paintings, some twenty or thirty. A random sampling showed, old masters, family portraits and so on.
The south wall was also shelves. These had muslin dust panels affixed to each shelf hanging down to protect the contents. These shelves held vases, silver service and othe bric-a-brac of value; gem encrusted presentation pieces; antique glass and porcelain, cut crystal and the like.
The east end was, as I had said, a stone wall some forty feet from the foot of the stairs. In the center was a reinforced steel door secured with two iron straps hinged at one end and secured at the other by padlocks. Massive in size, the locks were sturdy, but an archaic design. They should present no problem. They didn't.
Inside a small plain oaken table and chair against the wall, directly opposite the door, held an inkstand and pens, an oil-lamp and some ledgers. I lighted the lamp.
Shelves at either end of the room held small chests and velvet or satin covered jewely cases. Some very nice gold and silver statuettes, manequettes and other small treasures of the gold and silversmiths. To the right of the table a floor to ceiling cabinet opened to disclose shelves laden with gold and silver coins and bars of bullion.
I closed the cabinet and went to the south wall. Some of the chests held handsful of unmounted gems. The velvet and satin boxes contained rings, necklaces and other jewelry items. Some obviously very old, probably part of the family treasures. Others possibly part of Ann's dowery, and pieces Julius had purchased. Either for himself (rings, shirt studs, cufflinks etc.) or Ann -jeweled tiaras, pendants, bracelets and other trinkets more feminine in design.
One piece, a dragonfly brooch was a delight. Four inches across the wingspan. Wings of cut crystal banded in gold; body carved from Ivory with inlaid jade scales; head of gold with cut emerald eyes; legs of gold with small gems at the joints. When I come back for the gold, this one goes in my personal collection. Very, very nice. The temptation to sample a few of these jewels was strong. A ring or two from some of the boxes. But if Julius came down here for some reason, it might be noticed.
I closed the strongroom back up. Extinquished the candles and, again using the handrail, ascended to the room above. With care not to stray from the "path" I activated the handle, in reverse order, and watched the slab silently close. I flipped the square back down and returned to the library. The secret door closed and latched with a muffled click. Testing it with some pressure I was satisfied that it had returned to full lock.
With the bullseye extinquished I waited while my eyes readjusted. I had been out of my rooms for about an hour and a half. At the disc I sank to the floor, set the striker, and made my slow careful crawl to the door. Opened it, slipped through and relocked the library.
The nightingale floor reset, I returned un-noticed to my rooms. A good nights work! My clothing and gear back in my bag and me in my housecoat. A few minutes in the bath to wash up and I crawled into bed falling quickly into a dreamless slumber.
To Pay The Rent XXII
(In which our host leaves Mr Feiht at the mercy of the lady.)
A series of gentle taps on my door announced morning. Jory's soft call, "Sir. Sir! Sorry to wake you."
"That's alright, Jory, give me a moment." I threw back the covers and slipped into my robe. "Good morning, Jory," I said, opening the door and waving him in.
"Good morning, sir." He put the tray he was carrying on the side board, "I'll start the fire and run your bath while you have some tea. How do you like your bath, sir?"
"Quite warm please, Jory. I'll cool it if it's too hot. Are the Rothschilds about yet?" I did not expect them to be. The hour was about 9 and the dose should have kept them asleep until 10 or later.
"No, sir. The master and mistress are not early risers. As yet they have not rung for service," and he stood from lighting the fire. "If you wish I can have cook prepare something for you."
"Thank you. That won't be necessary. The tea will do just fine, and perhaps after my bath your master and mistress might have awakened. We did put in a rather long night."
Jory nodded and went to draw my bath. I poured some tea and took a seat next the now freely burning fire, which was rapidly chasing the morning chill away. The sun was shining palely through the slowly dissolving layer of groundfog. I could hear the water running in the tub and Jory bustling about.
In a moment he came out with an armload of towels, "If you don't mind, sir, I'll just hang these by the fire to warm." He moved one of the chairs closer to the fire and draped the towels over the back, before returning to the bathroom.
"Your bath is ready, sir. I'll stay for a few minutes then bring the towels in."
"That will do nicely, Jory," I said, rising and entering the bathroom, "thank you."
Expecting to have an hour or more, before Julius and Ann were awake, I stepped into the tub and lay back, luxuriating in the warmth. I now had the plan of the house firmly in my mind, and except for the actual means of entry, my plan of action pretty much laid out.
I had a day, a dinner, and possibly one more night with the Rothschilds. I needed to come up with a way to deal with Ann. Her intentions (at least the short term ones) were now obvious. With Julius around (and the dinner) I should have nothing to worry about until the night, I thought. Wrong again!
Bathed, dried, groomed and dressed, I sat down to the rest of my tea and a pipe. A tap on the door and Jory stepped in. "Is everything satisfactory, sir? Breakfast will be ready in the dining room in about thirty minutes. I can have some more tea and some toast sent up if you wish."
I thanked him, saying that there was no need. I would come down to the salon in a few minutes and wait there. With a bow, he turned and left. I finished my tea and pipe.
Downstairs in the salon, I selected a chair near a window. The fog had burned off and the sun was bathing my chair with warming rays. I was feeling fairly smug. My noctunal stroll had exceeded my expectations and my confidence level concerning my followup visit was high. I turned my thoughts to planning my way across the grounds and into the house. I could easily survey the grounds today. Julius would be more than receptive to a suggestion to tour the gardens.
Lost in my thoughts, I did not notice Julius and Ann enter the salon, until Julius called to me. "Ah. Bob. I hope we've not kept you from breaking your fast. I don't know when I have slept so well," he chuckled, " I don't rise with the sun, but this is late, even for me." He chuckled again. " We should have Bob visit more often if he can make my evenings so enjoyable and peaceful. Ehh.... Ann?" he said, turning to his wife.
"Oh, Julie! I'm sure that Bob has other things to do than give you a good nights sleep," she laughed. "I was a little disappointed that the evenings games ended so soon. But, I admit that I too slept exceedingly well in spite of my disappointment."
Jory interrupted further conversation. "Breakfast is ready, madam, sirs. Cook is serving now, and insisted I call you while it is still hot," he said with a slight bow.
"Thank you, Jory," with a small wink to me, "we'll be right in. Bob," Julius said with a wave of his hand, "if you will, please..."
The side board was laden with steaming chaffing dishes containing, it turned out, rashers of bacon, slices of ham, eggs (poached and fried) and some flannel cakes. The table sported warming baskets of hot rolls and toast, with salvors of butter, jam, jellies and honey, flanked by trays of brie, and breakfast cheeses.
The food was good. The conversation light and pleasant and far ranging. As the plates were being cleared and the tea served, Jory came in with a letter for Julius. After asking my pardon, Julius opened it and scanned the contents, then re-read it more carefully. "I'm afraid I will have to be a poor host, this morning, Bob. I have a minor emergency in town that requires my immediate attention. I'll leave you in Ann's capable hands. I'm sure she can entertain you while I am away. I should be back in a few hours at most."
"Perhaps, you would enjoy a ride. Ann had talked about going out this morning to check some of our tenants. I'm sure we can provide you a suitable mount. I should be back before she needs to be with cook to oversee the dinner arrangements. Most of them are taken care of, but a few minor things cook can't handle."
Just what I needed! "Sorry you have to leave Julius, I had wanted to talk a bit more with you, but I have no doubt that I will be in good hands," I smiled at Ann. "A ride would be just the thing."
Julius excused himself, kissed Ann on the cheek and took his leave. Ann and I remained at the table to finish our tea.
"Well, Ann," I said, putting down my cup, "by your leave? I'll go change to more suitable garb." I stood and gave her a bow. "Have Jory or one of the servants call me when you are ready. I'll be in my rooms." I nodded again and made my way up to my suite.
Julius away, made for an interesting situation. I was sure that Ann would take no overt action with the servants about. But I had no doubt that she had somehow orchestrated the unlocking and unbolting of the connecting door into the bath last night. Neither Jory nor the maids had need to. And, except for the night hours, my rooms had been unlocked and freely available to any who needed or wished entry.
When I had packed, following the invitation to guest, I had anticipated a tour of the estate. Among my attire was clothing suited to a stroll or a ride. As I changed to sturdy trousers and a heavier coat, I considered this new development.
I had no fear of being compromised by the lady during Julius's absence, (a mistake I found out to my chagrin) and concluded that the period after the dinner and dance would be my time of most peril. If, that is, if you consider being seduced perilous.
I changed from my house slippers to light but sturdy boots. Suitable for walking or riding and sat down with a pipe of Julius's fine tobacco to await my summons.
Jory knocked and entered, "The mistress will join you on the terrace, sir. I have informed the hostler and his boy that you will be needing a mount. They will be waiting for you and the mistress at the stable. The master has informed me of your abililty so they have been instructed to allow you to select any mount you wish. Excepting, of course, the Masters own, and our champion chaser."
"Thank you, Jory. Tell the lady I'll be right down." He acknowledged my words with a nod and a bow and left.
Julius had seen me ride in hunts and some amatuer races, so he was aware that I was a more than capable rider. Though he, and none of my acquaintances in the genteel society were aware of it, I did have a horse. In fact, it had been my transportation to and from my perch in the tree when I had been checking out the estate earlier. The animal was stabled and cared for -well cared for- at an unimposing little inn on the outskirts of Olde Towne.
In one of my other persona, I had saved the innkeeper (who was also the owner) from the depredations of some extortionists. They had made the mistake of interrupting me in the midst of some pleasant dalliance with a lady friend. Their behavior, while threatening the innkeeper and breaking up the furniture to emphasis a point, had been noisey enough to cause me some irritation even in my room two floors above the common.
As they proved to be blustering braggarts and uninterested in compromise, I was forced to kill two and send the third limping off. I also sent a message with him for his boss -whom I knew of, and who knew of me- stating that this inn was "mine". And recommended his boss order a custom coffin if he planned a repeat performance by any of his men.
The grateful innkeeper, a poor but honest man, welcomed me as a son thereafter. He knew, of course, that I was not quite as law-abiding as himself, but over the years since the incident had become a close, though disapproving, friend. For all of that he was as trustworthy as a stone.
Prior to my acquisition of the horse, I had rented or had the loan of any of his mounts at need. He now boarded and cared for my horse for no fee, and ensured that the animal was fit and available for me at any hour.
I never intended to own a horse. I had no desire to have permant servants at my townhouse. A horse would have required, at the very least, a stableboy. The risk of exposing my other selves to such would have been too great. And the services of my innkeeper friend had been adequate to my needs. Both for an occasional mount and for secrecy.
My ownership of this animal was a complete accident. I had been strolling home one summer night after a very entertaining, and profitable, evening at one of the gambling clubs. As I passed one of the small parks, not far from my home, a masked horseman appeared and accosted me. He blocked my way with his steed and pointed his sabre at me. "I'll just have your purse now," he said. "You've had a good run of luck but, as you can see, it's about to change. Your purse or your life, if you please."
Armed, to his eyes, only with my walking stick, I seemed no threat to him. I made as if to give him my purse, stepping back just beyond reach of his weapon. The throwing knife was in his throat before he even saw the motion. He tumbled from the saddle clutching his throat with both hands, his sabre falling with a clatter to the road. The blade had gone in under his chin just above the adamsapple, through the soft palette and lodged in his brain. He was dead before he hit the ground.
Staying well clear of the body to avoid any blood, I retrieved the blade, wiped it on his cloak and replaced it in the sheath in my coat sleeve. With the kerchief removed from his face, I recognized him at once. The blacksheep son of a lesser noble family from the capitol. He was a member of the same club I had just left, and had the reputation of a wastrel rake. He had been exhiled by his family with a warning to never appear in their house or the capitol again. His father had a remittance sent to him monthly with a threat to completely disown him and stop the monies if he violated this order.
He had been a lieutenant in the Royal Cavalry but had disgraced himself and his family name with his debauchery. Resulting in his dishonorable discharge from the service and his exhile from his family with a monthly remittance to support him.
I had seen him earlier that evening at the Hazard table. He had gambled and lost heavily. When neither the club nor any of the members would carry his markers, or make him a loan. He had stormed out in a drunken pique. Later he had returned, a little more sober and somewhat calmer. He had taken a position near the table where he could watch the game, and the gamers, and had seen me win a fair amount. Apparently he had thought to reline his pockets with the contents of mine.
A quick look around revealed no others on the street. No sounds, other than the horse mumbling his bit and the soughing of the evening breeze in the trees, was to be heard. "Shh. Shh. It's okay. Eeaaasy." I calmed the horse as I took up the reins. I considered the situation for a few minutes. "Well, as we were both gambling men, and you set the wager, my purse against my life. And you lost," I spoke to the corpse. "I'll consider the horse your wager. After all, my purse was mine to begin with."
I mounted the horse and rode off, leaving the body to the night. I had no worry about the death being linked to me. I doubted the authorities would even discover the identity of the corpse. By morning it would be naked. The vagrants and street urchins would have picked it clean before the guard discovered it.
No one, I knew, including his family, would inquire after him. The bank where he picked up his monthly remittance might, after a month or two, notify his father that he had not been in to pick up the money. I seriously doubted that this would result in a hue and cry, and by that time Paupers Field would have long since devoured him.
At the entrance to the mews, I dismounted and tied the horse in a copse of birches near the commons at the beginning of the lane. A few minutes later, a stranger drifted silently out of the house next to mine, mounted the horse and rode away. I took him to the old inn and made arrangements for him to be kept there and returned home. The foolish former owner may not have been a good son, nor a good gambler but his ability to pick horseflesh was excellent.
The animal turned out to have a good turn of speed, was four gaited, and trained as a war-horse. It was trained to neck-rein as well as to answer to knee commands. All in all one of the finer mounts I have ridden. He (yes he, gelded, of course) was about five or six and stood 16 hands. The saddle and other trappings were a bit gaudy, though of high quality and these I had sold anonymously, replacing them with solid but plain gear. A bit of a mongrel but having good lines and the stamina of an ox. I thought him a good return for the time spent learning to throw a knife.
I finished my pipe, knocked out the dottle and went down to the lady.
To Pay The Rent XXIII
(A mount for the guest)
Ann was waiting on the terrace. Unlike most ladies of her class, she was wearing a split skirt, a new style of riding habit considered by most to be unladylike. Obviously she rode astride not sidesaddle. Noticing my raised eyebrows, she smiled broadly. "You disapprove of my outfit," she laughed? "Around here, I ride! I like to feel something powerful between my legs when I ride.!"
With a smile I was unable to hide, I bowed. "Lead on Lady."
The hostler had Ann's mount saddled and waiting when we arrived. Looking me over with a discerning eye, he knuckled his brow and said, "Sor, iff'n ya please, ayah'l shoah ye the mounts. Ya bes a biggun! Weum faour thet shud do. Them othern bes too small.
Julius had a fine stable. The paddock held some six or eight hunters and a couple of lean well-cared for steeplechasers. In a private paddock off to the side, the pride of the stable, the current steeplechase champion, a magnificent dapple-grey, stood watching us.
Inside in stalls, the four mounts the hostler thought suitable were awaiting my inspection. The smallest stood about 15 hands the other three were a good 16 or a bit more. The first he offered me was a roan gelding. "Let's have them out on a lead. One at a time so I can see their gaits, please."
"Yass, sor," he said, "the roan bes a guid horse. A leedle narvous wi a stranger, but a strong jumper. His only problem be he got no fear. Him'll jump ennything you aims em a', sor."
I watched as he put the roan through its paces. The roan showed good spirit and a willingness to obey, but his trot was a little rough. Nothing I couldn't handle, but as I had a choice a smoother gait would be welcome.
"That's enough, if you please," I said, "let's have the chestnut next."
"Aye, sor," he led the roan off and returned shortly with the the chestnut.
"No," I said, stopping him at the stable door. "He seems to be favoring his onside forefoot." I walked up saying, "Shhh, shh... good boy. Steady..." I gave the animal a couple of pats and a piece of carrot I had talked cook out of. I lifted his foot and took a look at the hoof. "Shoe's a little loose, but nothing serious," I said putting the foot down and dusting my hands off.
"Sorry, sor. Ayah'll hev it took care of. He were foin whin I checked em lorst night." He reached up to the horse with affection on his coarse features. "Ya be foin soon, Red," he said. "Ere! Runt," he called!
The stableboy appeared in the doorway with a mucking fork in his hands. "Git ye orf t' Giles the farrier. Naow," he ordered. "Tell em Red hez threwn a shoe."
Before the boy could respond, Ann called from where she was standing by her mount. "Don't bother boy! We'll do it as we passbye on our ride."
"Thenk ye, maam. Git back t' work, boy." He led the horse away. A bay with a white blaze was the next offering. "This er's Rabbit, cause e kin turn on a kerchief, an leave ye setting on ayar. E's fast an e's steady, e is."
Rabbit had a deep chest, and bright eyes. He eyed me carefully as he was led to the ring. If it had been a man I would have credited him with pride and intelligence. As Rabbit went through his paces in the ring, the thought hit me more than once. He worked well. The transition from gait to gait was smooth as silk and at the trot his legs moved like pistons and his back stayed level and smooth enough to serve as a table.
"I like the look in this ones eye. Rabbit you said? I won't need to see the fourth. I think Rabbit and I will get along nicely."
"At's foin, sor. Iffen ye come wi me, we kin git ye a saddle."
In the tack room we picked out a working saddle and adjusted the leg length on the irons, and took the tack out to where Rabbit waited. Over the objections of the hostler, I bridled and saddled Rabbit myself. I wanted the horse to get a little accustomed to my voice and presence. When I finished, I led him over to where Ann waited by the mounting block.
"You've a good eye," she said, "Rabbit is one of the best all around mounts here. He's steady, jumps well, and won't shy at every little thing. The only thing to watch out for is how quickly he can turn. I've ridden him a time or two, and only made the mistake of trying to turn him sharply at the gallop once. He nearly left me three lengths behind," she laughed. "I never tried that again. The next time it was slow down then turn."
I helped her mount, got up on Rabbit and she led us out the gate into the open land behind the estate walls.
Last edited by theBlackman; 02-13-2003 at 02:15 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXIV
(Wherein our hero gets the run-around)
A small wood surrounded the gate, and extended in both directions along the wall. Not very large, merely an acre or two in extent. As I followed Ann out along the lane, I took note that many of the trees near the gate had large branches overhanging the wall. Another example of the lapse of vision on the part of the security people.
The lane led out of the wood onto the downs. To the north, a mile or two away, the rooftops of a small hamlet could be seen. I gave Rabbit a little nudge with my heels and drew up alongside Ann. Scattered clouds gathering overhead gave warning of impending rain, this afternoon or evening. The sun struggled valiantly against the encroaching gloom, but was slowly losing the battle.
"Looks like our ride may be cut short, Ann. I trust your errands will not keep us overlong. Neither of us is dressed for rain, and unless I'm mistaken we'll surely get some today."
She tossed her head and gave me a sly look. "I think we'll be alright. And if we do get caught out, I'm sure we can shelter somewhere until it passes. Surely you aren't afraid of a little rain? Now that I consider it, perhaps you are," she laughed again. "You are quite catlike in your movements, so smooth and lithe. Do you perhaps have some cat in you," she asked? Then laughed gaily at the thought.
I laughed with her. "No, no cat blood. As for the rest, I practice with Master Robertson at the Academy of Arms. He is reputed to be the best, and is often compared to the Emperor's own weapons master, who is considered the best in the land."
"His regime is designed around flexibility, discipline, an awareness of one's body and surroundings at all times. One of his favored "tests" for those he deems skilled enough to be worthy of his time, is to drill them blindfolded. I could show you the bruises and scars of my failure to meet his expectations," and I laughed again. "You will, of course, realize that the foregoing offer was merely a figure of speech, lady. It would, indeed, be a gross impertinence and ungentlemanly to so insult you and Julius by baring my wounds."
With twinkling eyes she made a small moue of disappointment. "True," she said, "but how disappointing[." She smiled, "I quess I'll have to take your word as an honest gentleman.... For now..."
We came out of the wood at a crossroad. A rutted wagonroad led toward the hamlet. The other direction wandered out of sight into the surrounding downs and fields. A narrow track angled off to the northeast into the fields. Ann turned her mare into this. As we passed fallow fields and stacks of harvested hay, she began to speak. "Except for a few small freeholds, all this land, the hamlet and another to the west, belongs to the Rothschilds. I, rather we, are on our way to the croft of one of Julie's tenants. He was injured in an accident a few weeks ago. A few of the other tenants send a man or come over themselves to help his wife maintain the holding. She is expecting, and I stop in a couple of times a week to check on the croft and her condition."
"I'm surprised," I said, "I know most of the farmers and husbandmen help each other on other estates. But most estates would leave that to an overseer and seldom take the trouble to worry about an injured tenant or a pregnant peasant woman."
Ann grinned ruefully. "Julie has no need for the income from these lands, as his Grandfather did not. True, most of the provisions and labor for the estate come from land and crofters, but Julie treats them as if they and not he owned the land."
"His Grandfather did the same. Julie continues the practice. As Julie's wife and mistress of the estate, I am obligated to treat them likewise. We have an overseer, and he does well, but the responsibility has fallen to me to ensure he does the holders no abuse."
"Our lands produce more than other larger estates. The crofters voluntarily send in more goods or produce than they are obligated, and we all thrive. They treat Julie with the same respect and deference a child would give a parent. And our people do just that little bit extra to maintain the estate. The other estate holders cannot understand how Julie gets the peasantry to work so well and stay so loyal. We have not had a bad tenant or debtor for some years."
To this I had no response. Apparently Julius was, at least in the area of Manor lord, not as shallow or stupid as I had thought.
She gave a flick of her reins as she finished speaking, and spurted ahead. I urged Rabbit to a gallop and followed. She glanced back over her shoulder with a smile. "That tree," she pointed to a tall elm about a mile away to our right. "Last one there grooms both horses when we get back," she shouted!
She stretched out along the mare's neck and urged her into a ground eating gallop across the fields. As the mare stretched out and settled into her stride, Ann's laughter came floating back to me. Rabbit, not taken by surprise, had hit his stride nearly as soon as the mare and was gaining easily. I reined him back a little, content to be about three lengths behind for the moment.
The mare ran well. It was a pleasure to watch them both. Ann stuck to her back like she was part of the horse. The two obviously knew each other well, and had great trust in each other. The mare responded to Ann's every nuance of voice and hand. They cleared the hedgerows seperating the fields without effort. Sailing over the fences and hedgerows as if there were a single creature taking the jump, and not a horse and rider.
When the tree was a few hundred yards away, I nudged Rabbit up alongside. When Ann glanced my way, with a flashing smile, I edged Rabbit a bit closer, we cleared the next hedgerow like a team in traces, both of us laughing wildly.
The elm stood at the top of a low knoll. As we raced toward it the ground began to slope gently down to a stream that meandered along the base of the hill. Between the straining horses and the stream was a three rail fence. The space between stream and fence was too wide for a single jump, and barely wide enough for a double at the speed we were approaching. One mistimed jump, and broken bones would be the least to expect.
Halfway to the fence Ann leaned forward even further along the withers and neck and I could see her lips moving as she encouraged her mount to even greater effort. The mare responded with a little more speed, plainly at her limit. Rabbit had so far proven equal to the task. I gave him a free rein, trusting in his ability. He shook his head accepting his freedom with abandon and lengthened his stride, his belly almost to the ground. I let him go.
The mare cleared the fence, took one stride and launched herself and her rider across the stream. The bank crumbled beneath her rear hooves as she landed and she almost went down. One little catch in her stride and she was away up the hill.
As I felt Rabbit gather himself and leave the ground I leaned into the jump and lifted. We easily cleared the fence and the second jump put us well clear of the stream. "Good boy," I screamed! As soon as he was back on stride, I gently reined him back a little.
Ann and her mount reached the tree a mere half length ahead of us. We drew our horses down to a walk. "I win! She said, with her hair wild and windblown, and eyes shining with excitement. "I think you let me win. Rabbit should have run away with the race," she chortled gleefully.
"Now why would you think that?" I asked, smiling broadly. "You had the advantage of me. I have never seen the course, while you and the mare seem to know it well. I wager this is not the first, nor second time you two have made this run," I laughed again. "Besides, if Rabbit and I did hold back a little, it would be the gentlemanly thing to do. After all a gentleman never takes advantage of a lady", I said with pompous indignation.
Ann went into gales of laughter at this remark . When she finally caught her breath she said, "I should curtsey prettily at such gallantry. But as I am ahorse, you will have to take the word as the deed," and she laughed again.
By this time we had left the tree some distance behind. Over the top of a hawthorne hedge ahead, the thatched roof of a cottage began to appear as we approached.
"Ah. There's Giles' place. The farrier, she said to remind me. We'll only be a minute, Bob, and our our next stop is just down the lane from here. Then we stop in the hamlet, it's called 'Little Easting By The Way'. I need to remind the extra help for the dinner to be on time."
We rode through the gate in the hedgerow and entered the yard of a small fieldstone cottage. The ting, ting, sound of a hammer on iron came ringing out from behind the cottage. Rounding the corner we found a rough shed, open on all sides. A haze of charcoal smoke from the small forge inside, drifted lazily out from under the eaves of the thatch covering it.
At an anvil to one side of the shed, his back to us, a giant of a man was working on a horse shoe. Apparently for the large drafthorse tied to one of the corner posts, nibbling half-heartedly at the thatch.
Clad in worn woolen trousers, covered with a leather bib apron, shirtless with a disreputable heavy leather vest covering his hairy chest, Giles didn't notice our arrival. When the drafthorse whinnied at the scent of our mounts he looked up from his work.
"Hello, now. What's this?" At the sight of Ann, a huge grin split his face. The shoe went in the forge, the hammer to lie on the anvil and Giles to the water bucket hanging in the shade of the shed.
A large dipperful of water went down his throat, a second over his head. "G'day, m'lady. 'Tis always grand to see you. What brings you here?"
"Red's thrown a shoe. Actually, it's just loose. But I would like it attended to as soon as you can."
"As you wish, m'lady. Soon's I finish with Old Tom here, I'll bring my kit over. I think I have a set here I sized for him last time. A little tweak here and there and he'll be good as new." He looked up at me. " I keeps a spare set for each of Master Rothschilds horses," he said. "Saves aggravation and time." He grinned again.
"Thank you, Giles. Do please. Come, Bob," and she turned the mare and led me back to the lane.
To Pay The Rent XXV
(Lady Ann has a run of poor luck. Our hero escapes... Barely)
Once on the lane, Ann kneed the mare into a canter. We rode in silence until we came to a small holding consisting of a wattle-and-daub cottage, a small sheep cote, and hayshed. The buildings were enclosed in a low fieldstone wall. Off to the side of the cottage was a small garden with winter vegetables. In the hurdle enclosed area next to the cote a boy about 15 or 16 was adjusting the hurdles and raking up debris while he whistled merrily as he did his chores. The buildings and surrounding yard were neat and well maintained. Indications of recent repairs were evident on the walls of the cottage and in the thatch of the roof.
"That's Thom," Ann said, "his father has the adjoining holding. Thom," she called!
The boy looked up from his work at the sound of her voice. He gave a wave of his hand, leaned his rake against the side of the sheepcote and disappeared inside.
The door to the cottage opened disgorging a plump, rosy cheeked matron. Her arms were dusted with flour, and she was wiping her hands on her apron. "Lady Ann. We didn't expect you on such a dreary day," she said, smiling broadly. "Come in. Come in."
"In a minute, mistress Judy. I need a word with Thom. Would you hand me down, Bob?"
I dismounted and offered her an arm. She swung off her horse with an enticing smile on her face, and leaned seductively against me for a brief moment. The mood was broked by a voice at my side. "Lady, Ann. You called," Thom asked?
Ann stepped back from me a pace and turned to the boy. "Yes, Thom. How is the croft doing? I see the cottage has been repaired as I asked. Is there anything else I need to know?"
"No 'm, the crops are all in and Crofter Pytor is almost back on his feet. Ray, Will's son, will be shepherding this next four day. Shall I take the horses whilst you visit the goodwife?"
"Please, Thom. Do walk them a bit. When they're a little cooler you may water them."
Thom nodded and took the reins. Ann beckoned me to follow and went into the house. We were greeted by the smell of baking bread as we entered the cottage. The structure consisted of one large common room in the front for kitchen, dining and general living. In the back wall doors indicated at least two other rooms. An open, railless stairway along one wall gave access to what seemed to be a sleeping loft from which the upper portion of a rough-hewn headboard was barely visible from the entry.
A trestle table and benches stood just off center of the room, the table covered with a dusting of flour. Mixing bowls and other paraphanalia on the table and the counter near the large stone fireplace showed we had interrupted the lady, make that ladies, in the midst of their baking.
The rotund little woman who had greeted us was swinging a pothook holding a steaming post of water out of the fireplace. "Sit down. Sit down," she bobbed her head toward the benches. "Tea'll be ready in a minute." She carried the pot to the counter and poured boiling water into a waiting teapot. "It needs to steep just a bit Lady Ann," she said cheerily. The pot went back on the hook and was swung back into the fireplace.
Sitting in a chair near a window to the back of the room, another woman was knitting. She was obviously pregnant. With a shy smile she looked up from under her rag cap, and nodded greetings to Ann.
Ann bade me sit, and walked over to where she sat. The chatted for a bit in low voices. Ann gave her a pat on the arm and returned to sit by me just as mistress Judy brought the pot and a couple of clay mugs to the table. She poured the tea, set the pot on the table and went back to the kitchen counter. She returned shortly with some honey for the tea and a platter of warm freshly baked buns. "This weather," she shook her head. "Hot tea! Do you good, Lady Ann. You've no business being out in this," she scolded.
Ann turned to me laughing merrily. "Mistress Judy is the self-appointed matron of the hamlet and surrounds. She acts motherhen to everyone. Me included, as you can see. Thank you Judy, but I'll be fine. Oh... My manners. I'm sorry. This is Mr. Feiht. He is guesting with us and decided to come with me on my rounds. Mr. Feiht, Mistress Judy Collums. The woman in the corner is goodwife, Carla James.
Rising, I made my best leg. "Mistress Cullums, Mistress James. Your servant." Mistress Judy tittered, hiding her face in her apron. Mistress James, ducked behind the shelter of her rag cap and knitting in embarassment. I bowed to the women again and sat to pick up my mug of tea.
While the women talked about the workings of the croft and doings in the village, I enjoyed the homey aromas of baking bread, the warmth of the fire and my tea.
Mistress Judy was never still. Back and forth to the oven to take baked loaves out, to the table to mix more dough, to the covered loaves rising by the side of the oven. With all of this, she never missed a word that was said, and uttered many of her own.
When Ann was satisfied that all was well, we made our goodbyes. Thom met us at the door with the horses and a stool to use as a mounting block. He had ragged them off and given Ann's mare a good brushing. As I handed Ann up, mistress Judy came bustling out with a leather bag in her hand. "Lady Ann," she called, as she hurried over, "take this. 'Tis but a couple of loaves and some honey buns." Ignoring Ann's protests, she lashed it to the saddle bow. "An I'm sure 'twill not be wasted. What with your dinner tonight. Now be off with you. There's naught more to be said." And she vanished into the house.
Once in the lane we turned toward Little Easting. The clouds had managed to fight off the sun and the smell of impending rain was heavy in the air. The hamlet was some four or five miles away. If, as Ann intended, we went there, we would be hard pressed to reach the estate ahead of the rain. For rain it surely would.
We rode along the lane through well kept fields and open commons seldom speaking. Ann would comment about the various crops and crofters as we passed some of the scattered holdings, and about the dinner and expected guests. My replies were mainly neutral and the usual polite acknowledgements expected from a listener. The first light sprinkles of rain began as we were about three miles from the village.
The clouds as yet, were still broken here and there with pockets of open sky. Small rain cells walked over the terrain. As the rain grew heavier, Ann turned from the lane at an opening in the hedgerow. "Follow me," she said, kicking her mare to a canter. Rabbit and I kept at their heels. In a minute or two, a hayshed appeared ahead of us. The shelter I think she was headed for. She urged the mare to a gallop and we raced into the shed just as the clouds above opened up on the roof and the surrounding fields.
"We'll shelter here a while. This time of year the rain is usually spotty and short-lived," she said. "Help me down, Bob."
I tied Rabbit to one side of the entry and gave Ann my arm to help her dismount. As she slid from the saddle she looped both arms about my neck pressing the full length of her body against me. I must confess it was not unpleasant. "Hmm," she said coyly. "I've been trying to catch you alone for some time." She gave a little wiggle and snuggled in a bit closer.
I reached up to disengage her arms and opened my mouth to speak. The sound of giggling children and a womans stern voice interrupted me. "Now stop that! Get in there out of the rain, you scamps!"
Ann dropped her arms and stepped away from me with a scowl of disappointment. A young boy and girl flung themselves breathlessly into the shelter of the shed, followed by a middle-aged woman clutching a basket. She stood just inside the doorway for a moment shaking the rain from her shawl while berating the children for playing in the rain. She brushed at her skirt then looked up and around the shed.
"Oh..." she said falling back a step. "You startled me. Sir, Lady. We thought no one here. We just sought to get out of the rain!"
"Think nothing of if my good woman. We too took shelter from the rain, and arrived just before you and the children," I said quietly. "You need not be afraid."
The children had also not noticed us in their rush into the shed. Now they stood shyly hiding behind the woman's skirt. Peering out at us with wide open eyes whispering and giggling to each other. "Now mind your manners, you two," the woman said, "You be taught better'n that. Sorry, Sir. I be the widow Duncan. These be my childer. Tess and Mickal," she bobbed in a ragged curtsey. "We were getting the last of the taters in when the rain came."
Ann looked at me rolling her eyes up as if to say 'not again'. "Widow Duncan. I am Lady Ann Rothschild. We have not met. I had heard of your husbands death. I am sorry. I had planned to call on you next week. Are things alright at the croft. I gave orders that your tithes be cut this gathering and that you get some assistance for your harvest. Is all well?"
The widow, threw her hand up to her mouth in surprise. For a moment she stood there silently. A tear or two trickled slowly down her cheeks. Wiping them away with the back of her hand, she curtsied again. "Thank you Lady Ann. Yes. The menfolk from the other crofts have helped, and some of the women have visited to help with the stores. It was kind of you to think of such as we. My Jabbet were a good man. Without the help the childer and me would have been poorly this winter. Thank you."
Ann waved away the thanks. "Do you send word if you need any more help," she said. "My crofters will always be ready to help. It looks like the rain is stopping. Widow Duncan, we must be on our way. Bob, will you help me mount, please?"
I brought the mare over and bent a knee for Ann to use as a step and helped her mount. She leaned down to me with a twinkle in her eye. "I've not been very fortunate these last few days. I am always being interrupted." She chuckled deep in her throat and rode off. Nodding to the children and widow Duncan, I mounted Rabbit and followed.
We reached the village without further incident, and after Ann had a few words with the headman, we rode for the estate. At the stable we turned our mounts over to the hostler and his boy and returned to the house.
"Thank you for an interesting afternoon, Lady Ann. With your permission I shall bathe and get dressed for dinner. I'm certain this evening will be as entertaining if not more so." I bowed and made my way to my rooms. As I passed the kitchen I gave the bag mistress Judy had given us to cook, and asked if some tea could be sent up.
In my rooms, I stripped my damp clothing off and started a bath. I would visit the steam room after, and if Jory could arrange it have that massage he had mentioned yesterday.
To Pay The Rent XXVI
(The collectors collection. Wherein our hero flaunts his knowledge. Again. )
The masseur was skilled. After the steam had done its work, his knowledgeable fingers found knots and tightness I had not noticed. I gave myself over to his excellent care, and let my thoughts wander.
Lady Ann definitely wanted me. In her bed, or mine, or even a pile of hay. So far my efforts to avoid her had succeeded only by chance. Excepting, of course, the sleeping draught. As pleasant as the encounter might prove to be, it was a complication I did not need. My musings were interrupted by Julius's voice, "I see you are taking advantage of Jacob's skills. I had him trained in the capitol by one of the best."
I raised my head from my prone position on the massage table, and looked up to where Julius stood near the door to the gymnasium, a towel thrown over the shoulder of his house-robe. Seeing my quizzical look, he continued. "I have an arrangement with Jacob. He is a freeman. I don't believe in indenture. In exchange for the training -which will give him a marketable skill- he agreed to work for me for three years. He will then be able, should he choose to leave here, to go out on his own. He does, of course, receive payment for his services here. I do hope he will stay. He is young and has, in a way, become a member of the family."
"I'll be taking some steam. Don't let me disturb you further. Take your time. Do have Jacob stay. I will be wanting his service when I finish my steam. Sorry I had to leave this morning. But it was necessary. I trust Ann entertained you in my absence. We shall have three or four hours before the rest of the guests arrive. If you like, we can spend some time before I must play host, and continue our tour or conversation, or both."
He moved off to the dressing room. I dropped my head and gave myself up to the massage.
Julius emerged from the steamroom as I was donning my robe. He dashed into the plunge, sputtering with the shock of the cool water. He bounced out and began to towel himself off. "I love the steam. But the plunge... Brrrr!" He laughed. "Jacob, if you will..." He stretched out on the table with a heartfelt sigh. "Business can wear a man out," he said. "I ache like I have been set upon by ruffians."
I lifted the cosey from the pot and checked the temperature. The tea was still warm. Not hot, but warm enough to be drinkable. I drew a chair closer to the fire and sat with my feet up on a hassock.
Ann had mentioned a few of the guests expected this evening. Her parents, Lord and Lady Hempstead, were to come down from the capitol. They would have the suite next to mine and would be staying over. Lord Darnell -as a widower- would be alone and have one of the smaller rooms near the upstair salon.
The Fieldstones, Sir Cullen and his lady, the Shemenov's and Lady Louisa, were also expected. Lady Louisa to give an even number with Lord Darnell. Except for Lord Darnell, because of his age, the rest would be returning to the city at the end of the evening. A few of the lesser nobles and a couple of the more affluent merchants -with their wives, of course- would be attending also, but not staying the night. In all about sixteen guests. With Ann, Julius, and me there would be one less than twenty for the occassion.
The first guests were expected to arrive around 8 o' the clock. The servants were setting up a buffet in the main salon, and would set a smaller version up in the ballroom while we dined. The plan was for some mingling in the salon and game room before dinner to allow the guests to socialize a bit. Then dinner. After dinner some parlor games and light entertainment from some joungeliers, then dancing. Julius had hired one of the finest small orchestra ensembles from the city to play for the dancers.
All in all, what should be a very pleasant evening. I would, of course, make the acquaintance of Lord Darnell, -I already told you some of my plans for him- and must, of necessity, dance with my hostess. This I could not avoid.
I had learned from Julius that Lord Darnell was, or considered himself, an expert billiard player. This would be my entry. I shall suggest a round or two. Either before, or after dinner. Once Julius has made the introduction to Lord Darnell, I should have no trouble gaining his confidence.
I rose and proceeded to finish my toilet. I shaved, and took the opportunity to remove my toiletries to the sideboard in my bedchamber. As Ann's parents would also share the bath and privy, it would be unmannerly to leave my things cluttering the lavatory counter.
I dressed casually for the moment. There was ample time to don my more formal dinner and dance wear, and Julius did mention an interest in some company before the guests began to arrive.
I poured a glass of port and sat to my book.
After a time, a knock on my door and Julius's voice brought me back to the world. I rose, and opened the door. "Come in Julius, may I offer you some of your own port," I laughed.
Julius chuckled, "Yes, I do believe you may. I could use a small tot to help me relax. I hate these gatherings. I never feel comfortable."
I poured a decent glass of port, and handed it him, where he had taken a chair by the fire. I raised mine in a toast, took a sip, "It's not my place, but remember our conversation in your library? I'm sure that if you keep it in mind, and just be yourself, you may find it less tedious than you expect," I said confidingly.
"Do not, of course, anticipate an instant change in your guests. These things take time, and it will be as much a shock to them as it will be difficult for you to not fall back into your old habits."
"Thank you, Bob," he replied thoughtfully. "I had completely forgotten our conversation." He took a gulp of his port, "Don't misunderstand me. I mean to say that I had not yet considered it's application in a social situation. To be frank, I have attempted to be more forbearing with the servants and, indeed, in my business this morning -with some minor success I might add- but I must confess that it is deuced difficult to remember."
I laughed with gusto, "Julius... Julius, you surely don't expect a lifetime of behavior to change in 12 hours? It will be difficult. You will lapse back into patterns you feel more comfortable with. But... But, if you don't give up, and don't panic when you do lapse, then over time it will become the new you. So... Don't give up."
"After all, you ride horses that are willing to bear you and heed your guidance. This because the trainer, although he suffered many failures along the way, did not give up. He used his failures to learn about the animal. And then used that to reach the animals spirit and finally train the horse. Most successes come from repeated failures. You did not learn to fence by picking up a sword once. Your teacher made you practice, pointed out your errors and helped you learn from them. If you want to change you can. It won't be easy, but it will get easier the more you try," I again raised my glass with a nod to Julius.
"So tell me," I said, "is this dinner just a social, or do you have some ulterior motive in mind? I notice the guest list is a mix of the social strata."
"It was Ann's idea. She chose those she thought most cultured in this area. She wanted to show her parents that she was not completely cut off from the classical arts and persons of learning. I don't know as it will work as she envisions. Her father is a bit of a snob," he said with a sigh. "Everything he thinks is the only thing that is right. I do hope that he tempers his normal conduct. Should he tangle with Lord Darnell, or perhaps Sir Cullen, it will be disasterous."
Suddenly he started to giggle. Then he began to laugh uproariously, tears soon trickled down his cheeks. He wiped at them and tried to stop. After a great struggle he managed to bring his laughter under control. With an occassional short outbreak of laughter he said, "He reminds me of myself. Now that I think about it. Perhaps he should have a chat with you as well." And he again convulsed with laughter.
"You say he's a little full of himself," I asked? "I'll keep that in mind. Wouldn't do to upset him and ruin your party."
"Pay it no mind. Lord Hempstead is, as you, rather as I, say a bit stuffy. But for all o' that, not one to hold a grudge." He finished his port, stood and stretched. "I'm sure it's a bit chaotic downstairs, but we could take a few minutes to look at my snuffboxes, if you like. I have a very rare double snuff you might find of interest. A charming little thing; enamel over silver with handpainted polychrome work on the outside, and some monochrome landscapes on the inside of the lids. Very nice, and the only one I've ever seen."
"My pleasure, Julius. It sounds a treat. Shall we?"
In the salon the servants were setting up tables for the hor de oeuvres under the watchful eye of Jory. We wended our way through the bustle and into the diningroom.
To the left of the door near the windows at the end of the room was an alcove that held an elegant freeform etagare. Arranged carefully to best allow them to be seen, was Julius's collection.
Julius, picked up a box shaped somewhat like a flattened hourglass. "This is the double I was speaking of. As you can see, it opens from either end," and he proceeded to demonstrate. "I am particularly delighted with the figures painted on the outside. They are so well done. This artist was a miniaturist of genius and skill. This one is over a hundred years old. Look at this landscape." He opened one lid and held the box out for my examination. "The leaves of the trees are individually painted. How he could do such detail in such tiny dimensions amazes me."
He proceeded to show me a few others that he was particularly fond of. While he explained the provenance and quality of these, my eye was caught by a small, rather plain little box. It was about an inch square, and was decorated only by a small gold rose on the lid.
"Your collection is very nice, Julius, and I am impressed by the beauty of the pieces. But, I fear you have made a minor error."
He looked at me questioningly with a raised eyebrow.
"You say you collect snuffboxes. This," I picked up the little plain box, "is a 'fleabox'!"
"What's that you say." he asked? "A 'fleabox'! I never heard of such a thing."
"In the old days, when suitors used to keep a tress of their lovers hair, and a ribbon or other tokens of their love, they also had fleas. If a suitor was fancied, they were invited indoors to talk. If they were especially favored, then matters might progress to music, poetry, sighs and kisses. And sooner or later to picking fleas from the powdered wigs, or shoulders of the lady. And she in turn to removing them from his beard or wig. These little 'treasures' of intimacy were kept in little boxes as love tokens."
"What you have here, Julius. Is such a box. It actually is as valuable to a collector as any two of your snuffers. Except perhaps, the double. These usually get lost, or are confused with 'patch-and-comfit' boxes, (the small box that was used to hold the diamond or circular black 'beauty patches' that were used on the face or shoulders) or small snuff boxes."
"To a collector of 'patch-and-comfit' boxes, or small trinket boxes, these are greatly to be desired. Still, even though you thought it a snuffbox, you have found a rare treasure. Congratulations."
"My word. I thought you didn't know about snuffboxes."
"No Julius," I said, with a chuckle. "What I said was I don't collect them or know much about them."
"Well," he laughed. "Thankfully you know enough to keep me from making a mistake. I was considering using that for a trade item with my dealer friends. So now I have another reason to be grateful for your accepting my invitation."
We were interrupted by a flurry of activity behind us. The servants were starting to setup the dining room for dinner, and we were definitely in the way. "We had better be off," Julius said. "Unless we want cook and Ann to use us as centerpieces for the table. Women can be so unreasonable, don't you think? Get in their way just a little, and one would think the world was ending."
Chuckling under his breath, he led me through the apparent chaos, and back to the mezzanine. "My guests will start to arrive shortly and I must dress and play host. So please excuse me, Bob. I truly have enjoyed your visit so far. I will, of course, see you at dinner, and the buffet before, but do forgive me. As host I shall have to do those boring introductions and that tedious roam-the-room-to-meet-everyone thing." He gave a short bow and turned to his rooms.
Left to my own devices, I went back to my rooms. I selected another pipe, and stepped out on the balcony to watch the glowing sunset, and the arrival of the guests.
Last edited by theBlackman; 02-17-2003 at 02:57 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXVII
(Appetizers: Food, careless discussions and future victims)
As I was finishing my pipe, a carriage came up the drive and stopped beneath the portico. Jory's voice drifted up as he greeted Lord and Lady Hempstead. I knocked the dottle from my pipe and went into my room.
Changing for dinner, I heard the Hempsteads coming up the stair and past my rooms. I went in to the bath and threw the deadbolt. Quickly washing my face and brushing my hair, I undid the deadbolt and returned to my rooms, closed and locked the connecting door, and continued to dress.
Putting the final touches to my dressing, I could hear other carriages arriving, one at a time and the guests entering the mansion. One last look in the mirror to ensure that I was presentable, and I went down to the salon.
Julius, as host, was standing with Ann at the entrance to the salon, greeting each couple as they arrived and were announced by Jory. I made my manners to Julius and Ann as I entered. Ann, dressed a bit more demurely than the evening before, accepted my hand and greetings politely. But did manage a coy look from under her lowered lashes and gave my hand a sly squeeze as I passed down the line.
Only three or four couples had arrived while I had been dressing. I recognized Lord Darnell and Lady Louisa standing near the buffet with a couple I did not know. From the manner of their dress, the couple must have been one of the merchants and his wife, or mistress. As both couples seemed engaged with each other I passed with a nod, and picked up a small saucer and a couple of tidbits from the table.
The centerpiece of the buffet was a three tiered fountain that was circulating wine from its lower basin to the top, where it spilled from a wine jar cradled in the arms of Baccus. From there it filled an upper basin to overflow from three spouts to the center bowl, and continue to the bottom through four more.
Arranged around the base of the fountain was a forest of crystal glasses. I filled one of these from one of the spouts. The wine was a light refreshing grenache. The foodstuffs on the table were marvels of the cooks talent. Tiny sandwiches, pickled eggs, a fine caviar, delicate little cheese puffs and a host of other things too numerous to mention.
I took my plate to a chair near the gameroom where I could see the entrance and hear Jory announce the guests. In not too long a time most of the guests were congregated in little groups exchanging gossip and banter. Julius and Ann, stood by the doorway awaiting the last couple or two. One of the servants had passed to them with a tray of wine, and each had a glass in hand. They chatted with each other while they waited.
Three or four maids were passing among the crowd with salvors of hor de oeuvres. No one was without a tidbit to hand or a small selection on a plate. Returning to the table, I picked up a few more morsels, greeting those I knew as I passed.
I had met Lady Louisa at other gatherings, Sir Cullen at one of the clubs, and Lord Fieldstone at Gervasius's dinners. Most of the others I knew by sight, excepting the merchants and their spouses.
Lady Louisa had left Lord Darnell to join a circle of ladies in the corner by the gameroom. Seeing him alone for the moment, I approached and introduced myself. I made mention that I had been Julius's guest for a day or two, and that Julius had commented on his skill at billiards.
"I would be pleased to play a game or two with your Lordship sometime. Julius was quite impressed with your ability," I said. "I play myself, and am always looking for an opponent with skill. It is so boring to play those windbags who bluster and brag, but cannot truly offer a challenge. I'm sure your Lordship knows whereof I speak."
For a moment he looked at me askant, as if to say: "Who is this upstart?" Then his glare softened a bit to a gentler gaze. I could almost hear him thinking: If he has been a guest here for a day or two, he should be a gentleman of quality. So... "Yes. Julius and I play regularly. He plays well, but is sometimes a bit of a brat," he said. Noticing my startled look, he chuckled. "I am many years senior to you and Julius. As such I can say such things with impunity. And, as you are probably aware, Julius is young and still a bit over-impressed with his name and family. With luck, he'll out grow it. If not, one day he'll insult the wrong man, unwittingly I'm sure, and end up dead in a duel."
A little off balance with such candor, I said nothing in response. Lord Darnell, might be a bit more of a challenge than I had thought. This old man is still clear headed and definitely not going to be an easy mark. He sees clearly and is as sharp-witted as I have met for sometime.
"Feiht you say your name is? I think I have heard it mentioned a time or two. I don't socialize too much now-a-days. The opera bores me. I used to go with my wife, but since her death... Oh it's been some years now, don't make a face. As I was saying, I used to attend, mainly to please her, you know. But find it a bit wearing now. And I don't go to the new night spots for gambling. Not that I disapprove, better the young men have a genteel place to go, than to wander off into Bayside, or Olde Towne as they would. I don't find such amusements entertaining. A hand or two of Bizique or a rousing game of billiards or chess are more to my liking. And the company of a few friends. Thats enough for me. I have my hobbies, and my estates to keep me occupied."
Lady Louisa's return forestalled any rejoinder I may have had. "Good evening Mr. Feiht," she said. "How have you been? Ann tells me you are guesting with them for a day or two. How nice. I do believe the last time we met was at Lady Van Vernon's gala six months ago. Have you heard? She was lucky enough to get one of Karra's new servants. I do hope I will get one. The waiting list is quite long, and to have one is now considered the chic thing to do." She tittered behind a dainty hand. "It has become the new status symbol. If you have one of Karras's toys, you move up in the social standings. I am green with envy that Lady V has one and I don't," she tittered again. "Not really, but I do hear they are marvels of efficiency. And, of course, you need only feed them. They never rest and are instantly ready to do your bidding. They are amazing. Almost like one of Karras's mechanical contrivances."
"Bah! Toys for children," Lord Darnell scoffed. "That man is up to no good. Whenever he smiles I think I am looking down the throat of a tiger. Something for nothing is always a gift to be wary of."
"I quite agree, Lord Darnell. I too, think there is something sinister about Karras and his Mechs. I'm not a religious man, but I much prefer the Hammerites. At least with them you know where you stand," I said vehemently. "With Karras's oily tongue, I feel I am standing on quicksand. Do you be careful, Lady Louisa. If he does indeed offer you one of his toys, think carefully before accepting."
"Since the break-in at Gervasius's showing of the Precusor's artifacts, I have had the feeling there is more to Karras than meets the eye. Rumours among the servants, and the vendors on the street are full of stories about him and Truart. Even before Truart's death there were unbelievable tales about vanishing beggars, and homeless people attributed to the Mech, and the City Watch. Do be careful."
"Aye," Lord Darnell added. "Mr. Feiht speaks true. I have heard unsavory things myself. You would be wise to forget 'social status' regarding those new servants, and let it be."
"Oh phoo. Gentle sirs," she said. "what harm can a mechanical servant do. If offered, I shall surely accept." She gave a little flick of her fan, a quick curtsey and moved on into the crowd.
"Ah, well, I should hope she thinks better of it later. Mr. Feiht, I would be delighted to best you at the billiard table. Perhaps after dinner. If you will excuse me I must attend our host. I see he is now free. Sir." He nodded to me and turned away.
I drifted here and there amongst the guests. Stopping now and then to eavesdrop at the edge of a gathering; interjecting a comment and indulging in some polite conversation; paying subtle court to the ladies; doing my duty as guest. And at the same time maintaining my guise as bon vivant and somewhat scandleous bachelor.
I made the acquaintance of Mr. Gerard, the manager of The First City Bank And Trust. Spending some little time flattering him and his institution. A seed planted in his mind now could bear fruit in the future. I made myself a most pleasing companion to he and his wife, and made my departure with feigned reluctance.
I overheard some interesting bits of information about the guests and their households adding it to my store of knowledge about the wealthy of the town. Every little scrap of gossip, braggadoccio and self-promotion overheard has possible value in my line of work.
Ann and Julius, having greeted their guests and made a circle of the room earlier, were seated near the dining room with Ann's parents. I drifted casually over to the group, and made a leg to my host and hostess. "Thank you for your invitation, Julius. I am quite impressed with your guest list. You have gathered most of the literati and the intellectual cream of the community tonight," I smiled charmingly. "If all dinners were composed of such elite and entertaining couples, I fear I would seldom want for anything else. With such a wealth of quality conversation and mental stimulation to choose from, the dinner, as fine as I am certain it will be, is nearly an un-needed anticlimax." And I bowed deeply to my blushing host.
Oh you noticed my smarmy speech did you? During my over-done dialog, Lord Hempstead had, at first, displayed some minor annoyance. As I ran down, he turned to Julius with a questioning look. "Thank you, Mr. Feiht." Julius said, rising to return my bow. He turned to Lord Hempstead, "Lord Hempstead, may I present Mr. Robert Feiht. Mr. Feiht is a long-time friend of Ann and me. We have had the pleasure of his company for a few days here at the house. He is quite well known in the City. Mr. Feiht, may I present Lord and Lady Hempstead, Ann's parents."
"My pleasure, Lord Hempstead," I bowed. "Oh... Please don't rise on my account sir." I made a leg to Lady Hempstead. "Your servant madam, it is easy to see why your daughter is so beautiful. Julius is indeed a lucky man twice over. To have such an attractive wife, and a mother-in-law of such grace and beauty." I know. Sickening isn't it. But that's the way it's done.
"Julius, excuse me. Ladies, Lord Hempstead. I apologize for my interrupting, I merely wanted to express my pleasure. With your permission," I bowed to move away.
"No. Stay and chat with us a while," Ann put a hand out to me. "We have a few minutes before Jory will announce dinner. I'd like my parents to get to know you a little."
"If you like, Julius, Lord Hempstead?" I looked questioningly at each.
Turning to his father-in-law Julius spoke, "Sir? I hope you will agree. Mr. Feiht is truly a gentleman and, I'm sure, someone whose conversation you will enjoy. He is quite knowledgeable about music, and art. In fact, he plays both the lute and concert harp exceedingly well."
"Well," humphed Lord Hempstead turning to Ann, "if it pleases you and Julius, I must accede to my hosts wishes. Tell me Mr. Feiht, what think you of this Hammerite, Mechanist furor. It is causing quite some anxiety in the Capitol. As yet the Emperor still espouses the Hammerite cause, but there is much uncertainty in the court and amongst the upper classes."
"I confess, sir, that I am not a religious man. That is not to say that I am an atheist, rather that I am somewhat of a traditionalist. I am apprehensive about this new movement. Karras, the head priest, seems a bit of a fanatic to me. I have the feeling that he is bordering on madness with his zealotry.
No offense intended, sir. But, as Julius will attest, I seldom equivocate. I grant each man, or woman," nodding to Lady Hempstead, "his or her belief, and only ask that they respect mine. You did ask, and my feeling is that if one does not wish to hear a conflicting, or annoying answer, then the question should not be asked."
"B'gawd! He is a bold one, Julius," Lord Hempstead growled. "With the religio-political situation in the current state of unrest, you could be putting your freedom, and possibly life in jeopardy with such remarks, Mr. Feiht. I could have been, could still be for that matter, fervently in the camp of the Mechanists. A word or two in the right ear and people have been known to vanish into the dungeons of the Empire, and the Mechanists. Just or not. The Mech's power has reached that extent in some quarters.
But, I agree. Whether Julius has mentioned it or no, I too mistrust Karras and his policies," he beckoned a passing servant over and took a glass of wine from the tray.
"You men," Ann interjected! "Politics and money. Can't you ever talk about anything else. I would much more enjoy some discussion of the latest opera troupe, the newest artist or author being feted in the Capitol, or in the City. Or anything except politics and finance." she said scowling at both of us.
Further discussion was stopped by the announcement of dinner. The massive doors to the diningroom swung open and Jory stood in the doorway. Three loud taps on the floor from a staff in his hand silenced the gathering in the salon. "M'lords, Ladies, Gentlemen, if you will, please take your places. Dinner is served," he moved to one side as Julius and his party entered the diningroom.
Last edited by theBlackman; 02-25-2003 at 12:53 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXVIII
(Dinner, dancing, and dalliance)
Julius set a baronial table, which was no less than to be expected. The huge silver candelabra I had mentioned earlier were placed at either end about a quarter of the length from the table ends. Over head a highly polished crystal chandelier added a festive light to the room. In each corner of the dining room, man-tall stands, surrounded by vases of flowers, held more candles to brighten the room.
Julius and Ann sat at the table center, backs to the kitchen, and the Hempsteads sat to their right. Across from the host and hostess, sat Lord Darnell and Lady Louisa, with the Cullens to their right. The other guests were seated along both sides of the table, with a man-woman-man-woman arrangement. The more important guests closest to the host, of course.
I was seated to the right of Lady Cullen with the daughter of the owner of the largest shipping firm of the area to my right. To her right her father and mother. Across from me sat the director of the Dayport Art Museum and his wife, with Gilder the importer to their left (my right).
Julius had some how managed to have a servant for each two couples. They were attentive and well trained. How he had managed this from the people of Little Easting, I shall never know. This little holding of his, and his management was showing surprising depth and character.
The first course was a fine lobster bisque, followed by some fruit ices to cleanse the palette. There were dishes of dainties of every sort and the full gamut of fish, fowl, and hoof. The main course was two-fold. Suckling pig and a huge salt-crust roast Baron of beef. All, of course, with appropriate wines and condiments.
In all the dinner was a delight. Between courses I conversed with the ladies to either side, and Gilder and the director across from me. I also could not help but to overhear other conversations taking place elsewhere near me.
Discussion covered the whole cosmos of the towns business, art and music, and the prevalent gossip. Karras and his servants got thier fair share, and those of the guests who had accepted the servants, waxed poetic on thier sterling qualities.
There was discussion about the murder of Truart, and, still, months after the fact, discussion about the raid on Gervasius's during the Precusor exhibition. All of this I mostly ignored. The discovery that the Art Museum was to close for a while to have some exhibit changes made and some renovation, interested me greatly. The acquisition of the Georges painting I had mentioned to Julius might occur sooner than I had intended.
Gilder made mention of some exotic jewels, Fire Stones, I think he called them, that he had gotten from one of the southern islands. Those sound interesting. I may have to investigate thier value and add them to my list of "things to steal".
Sara, the daughter of Master Tyrol the shipmaster, babbled mostly about the doings of the younger set of the towns upper crust, but did drop an interesting crumb or two about her fathers business now and then. This too I filed for future consideration.
When the feasting was over, Julius bade everyone adjourn to the salon and game room. The men to thier pipes and port, and perhaps some billiards; the ladies to chat and some table games. I approached Lord Darnel and managed to get a few games of billiards out of him. I maintained a friendly but not familiar attitude during our game, and by the time we had relinguished the table to others, had received an invitation to join him and his friends at one of their billiard nights at his home. With appropriate humility, I accepted his kind offer, and excused myself to wander the salon and gameroom kibitzing and playing my dilettante role.
The bang of Jory's staff against the marble rang through the hubbub of convesation and laughter in the salon. "M'lords, Ladies. If you will, the entertainers will be performing in the ballroom shortly. An assortment of dainties and refreshments has been set for your enjoyment, and there will be music for dancing following the mummers, and jongeleurs. M'lords, Ladies." Jory bowed and gestured toward the entrance to the ballroom.
The soft sound of music drifted in from the ballroom luring the guests away from their games and chatter. At the north, under the musicians gallery, a small stage had been erected. Curtained on three sides and lighted by lanterns along the front, it stood softly glowing in the twilight of the ballroom.
Chairs had been arranged in two semi-circular rows facing the slightly raised platform. To the rear some shadowy figures could be seen engaged in preparations for the show.
I drifted over to the table and selected a likely looking desert wine. Adding a few cream pastries to my plate I stood near the door and watched the guests drift in. Some of them had obviously never seen the room before and their wandering eyes showed thier surprise at the grandeur. Others, with a cursory glance around, headed directly to the chairs to choose seats, or, as did I, went to the buffet.
Julius and Ann, came in and ushered the Hempsteads to select seats near the stage, and then circulated among the guests engaging in small talk while the entertainers finished the preparations for the show.
A flash of light from the stage drew everyones attention. A man in a harlequin costume was standing stage center. His voice carried over the crowd. "M'lords and ladies, I beg your indulgence. If I can persuade you to be seated, our little show will begin." With a theatrical flourish he swirled his cape up over his head, vanishing into the dark of the back of the stage as the folds settled about him.
With a rustle of silken gowns and the rasp of soft leather on the floor, the seats were soon filled by an anticipating audience. The footlights were turned up exposing a trio of motley clad men standing motionless in a triangular formation. At their feet an assortment of indian clubs, sickles, and other tools of the jugglers trade waited patiently.
With shout sounding as a single voice, a stamp of foot, and a flourish, the show began. With a foot, each man flicked a club from the floor, then another and another. As they rose into the air the clubs began an intricate dance from hand to hand. Cascading archs of color that lofted high, circled low and from man to man in a bewildering flash of movement. The sickles replaced the clubs, the razor sharp blades moving from hand to hand, between the legs, behind the backs of the men, threatening but never touching the wielders. Coming to a climactic finally as the 9 blades flew high into the air to come to rest in the hands of a single man.
The jugglers turned as one to face the audience, and bowed low. The applause and voiced appreciation of the seated guests, rang in the ballroom. As the applause died away, the jugglers faded away to the back of the stage to be replaced by a single figure hidden in a floor length cloak and hood.
The harlequin reappeared, and bowed. "Thank you gentle folk, the brothers Chernov, are gratified at your enjoyment. Now, from the deepest depth of the southern continent, from whence come wonders beyond your reckoning, we present Ssshinnobe. Trained from childhood in arts of suppleness and grace that allow the human body to move in ways not to be believed. I warrant you will never see her like again, unless you again see..." with a
wave of his hand and flare of his cape, he drifted to the back of the stage, "Ssshinobe!"
A pair of slender naked arms reached out from the cloak and slowly slid the hood back to expose a heart-shaped face framed by short black hair. The hands moved down to peel the cloak back off the shoulders and let it fall to the floor to pool around her feet. Ssshinobe, was wearing a silver form-fitting one-piece suit and light slippers. A figure concealed in black moved up to remove the cloak and place a waist high white pedestal with a small disc at the top to her right.
The low deep-throated throb of a drum began a slow steady rhythm. After a few seconds it was joined by the thready whisper of a flute and the figure of Ssshinobe began to weave sinuously from her ankles to her arms now extended full length above her head. Slowly she turned to place her hands on the pedestal and with no apparent effort rose into a handstand. For the next twenty minutes she proceeded to bend and contort her body into positions that made her seem boneless. All the while moving with a suppleness and grace that made the flow of water seem the graceless movement of a one legged man hopping down a cobblestone street.
As she flowed down off the pedestal and stood motionless stage center. The guests sighed with a collective release of held breath. A long moment of silence passed and then a thunder of applause burst from the crowd. She raised an arm in salute and moved gracefully off stage.
There was a murmur of wonder as the guests spoke in awe of the performance they had just witnessed. Some attributing it to a trick of the eye, others of a more mystical bent to magic, and some of the more sophisticated applauding, verbally, one of the best, if not the best, contortionist acts it had been thier priviledge to witness. The master of ceremonies, with a sense of good theatre, allowed the guests some time to continue their conversations, then appeared again at the footlights.
"Thank you Lords and Ladies. Ssshinobe sends her thanks for your applause. She feels her years of toil and training were more than amply rewarded by your appreciation. Now for your further amusement we present a musical interlude to conclude our performance. Please allow me to present Cleon, a bard of world-wide fame who is traveling with us for a while. Cleon is a master harper who has traveled all the known world, singing and guesting with the kings and heads of many countries. He is just returned from the capitol where he has performed for many of the lords and ladies of the court. Gentlefolk, Cleon."
Cleon was a man of about fifty years. His wrinkled face bore witness of his years, and the grey streaks in his thinning hair did nothing to gainsay its message. His manner was quiet and his movement as he sat to his stool, controlled and sedate. With a light touch on the harp on his knee, he played a sprightly introduction then launched into a light amusing air. His voice was a pleasing baritone and, for all his years, clear and unwavering. The tune he had chosen to open with was an old peasant song called "The Molecatcher".
I shall quote a few lines for you:
In Wellington town at the sign of the plow,
There lived a molecatcher shall I tell ya now.
He had a young wife who was buxom and gay.
But she and another young farmer did play.
The farmer he knocked on her door and did say,
Where is the molecatcher dear lady I pray.
He's out catching moles love you need have no fear,
But she didn't know the molecather was near.
He crept up the stair in the midst of thier frolic,
And caught the young farmer right up by the jacket.
Said, "I been a molecatcher for most of me life,
But you're the best mole I ever caught in me life.
I'll make you pay dearly for tilling me ground,
I'll take from your purse a full twenty pound.
Twenty pound said the farmer I really can't mind.
It only works out about two pence a time.
Sadly the tune cannot be written, but you may have heard it at one time or another. He sang a love song for the ladies and a rough heroic ballad for the men closing with a simple but elegant melody. The perfomance was indeed, a masterful display of vocal and instrumental skill. It would have been even more so had he played the harp languishing in Julius's music room, but a joy even without that.
The guests, returned to the table for some more wine and snacks as the stage was dismantled and the floor cleared for the dancing. I took the opportunity to compliment Julius on his choice of entertainment.
"Why thank you, Bob. I must confess that I left it mainly to Jory. He had mentioned that he had seen a performance of the troupe in one of the lesser theatres in town. At his suggestion, I had the manager in for a discussion and a short audition. There were a few other acts with him, but we decided on the three you have seen", he laughed. " I did not want to wear out the guests with a long performance. What think you, Ann?"
"I enjoyed the show," she replied. "Particularly the music, the piece about the molecatcher I had not before heard. I laughed most heartily. And the performance of Ssshinobe, amazed me. I would never have imagined such flexibility possible for a human body. She eyed me coyly. "Such suppleness might be advantageous in some situations."
"Well," said Julius, with a chuckle, "it would help me reach that itch between my shoulders. Although for the life of me I cannot think of another use.
"Ah. I see the floor is clear. Excuse me, Bob whilst I have Jory signal the musicians to start the dance. I'll leave you in Ann's care," and he strode off to the end of the ballroom.
"You will, of course, dance with me later," Ann said. "It would be most ungracious of you to not dance with your hostess," she smiled. "I'm sure you are as skilled at the dance as you are at riding and the harp." With a flick of her fan to my wrist she turned to speak to another guest.
The orchestra started the introduction to the Promenade. As the dancers formed the line it fell to me to dance with the only other single non-partnered guest, the daughter of the shipping magnate. Her name was Sara as you'll remember, and she was as plain as her name. Her prattle during the dance was the same usless gossip she had babbled at the table. Complaints about her parents, the doings of the younger set, the brainless ramblings of a spoiled child of the rich, a litany I had heard overmuch of during dinner.
Fortunately the steps and partner changes gave my ears respite between the reunion of our enforced partnership. When the dance ended I made my excuses and sought refuge on the terrace with a glass of wine and a pipe. I could hear the beginnings of a Gavotte in the ballroom. The Gavotte is a sprightly dance, and I turned to look in the doors at the spinning partners on the floor. Lord Darnel, with Lady Louisa, much to my surprise, was pacing the floor quite energetically, and with a youthful abandon I would not have expected. The dance and my pipe finished at the same time. I knocked the dottle out and tucked the pipe into my doublet .
I found a chair at a vacant table and watched the dancers through a Minuet, a couple of Waltzes, a Galop, and a simple country round dance. When the maestro called a short intermission, I rose and made the rounds of a couple of the tables. I called on the Bank manager and had a few words with him. I suggested I would be in need of a safety deposit box in his vault and acted a bit apprehensive about the security. He assuaged my anxiety with a complete rundown on his excellent safety measures and the quality of his guards.
I then turned my attention to the director of the Art Museum. I complimented him on the quality of the exhibits and mentioned my disappointment at the coming closure, although I agreed that a change had been long overdue. I left him with a complete schedule of the anticipated construction and work hours. The Georges would be relatively easy to add to my collection. Pride and ego can easily be played upon to solicit information. Even the most clever and sly individuals can be bled of information with the application of a little feigned interest and flattery.
I noticed Julius and Ann at a corner table with the Hempsteads and Lord Darnel and Lady Louisa. I made my way over to them. "May I pay my respects to you and your wife, Julius?" I bowed. "If it meets your approval, and that of Lady Ann, I beg permission to share a dance with your lady. That is, of course," I turned to Ann, "if your ladyship has not already filled her card."
"But of course, Bob," Julius smiled warmly, "we were speaking of that just now. I want Lord Hempstead, to meet privately with some of the others here, and was suggesting that Ann consider you as a partner for a dance or two. And..." he paused a moment, "Lord Darnel has mentioned that he is not as young as he was, and was looking for a partner for Lady Louisa for a dance or two." He fell back in his chair laughing gently. "As the only unaccompanied man here, that makes you the goat, I'm afraid."
"Baaah!" I replied with a broad smile, "I shall accept your commission with trepedation. Being in the presence of so much beauty, and being a poor dancer," I smiled again, "I fear I shall fail miserably in it. But, I'll try. Ladies, Gentlemen. Lady Ann, will you try the next Waltz with me? I shall do my poor best not to bruise your tender feet."
Ann laughed gaily, and replied with a nod. "And I shall warn Lady Louisa to expect your attentions during the ball."
I intercepted a passing servant, and snatched a glass of wine from the tray. I lifted it in toast, and looked around for a vacant chair. There was one nearby. Retrieving it I drew it up to the table. A questioning look at Julius recieved a nod of approval, and I sat.
The conversation continued. They had, it appears, been discussing the management of the estate. The Hempsteads, although wealthy and of the nobility, had never had to deal with the details of a demense. The family had been bankers and traders. Although the history could be traced back through at least two emperors, and ancestors had been honored by the successive rulers, the awards and prestige had been in traderights and areas other than land.
I sat and listened while Lord Hempstead and Julius compared the similarity and differences in the intricacies of banking and in land and tenancy management. I confess, I learned quite a bit. And quickly determined that thievery was less complicated, and, in my opinion, a much more entertaining form of gathering riches.
The ladies carried on a "sidetable" discussion on fashions, art and music, the current rumours about sub rosa liasons, pending marriages and other gossip circulating among the nobility, and high ranking families.
A few minutes more then the sound of the orchestra tuning up began to fill the ballroom, over-riding the hum and murmur of the guests. I looked over the rim of my glass at Ann, and received a nod and a sly smile.
The ochestras opening piece was another Gavotte to get things moving, so Ann and I sat watching the dancers. Lord Darnel had wandered over and gathered up Lord Hempstead, and Julius. They made thier excuses and drifted off toward the salon.
Lady Hempstead joined Lady Louisa at her table leaving the corner table to Ann and me. "Well. It appears we are to amuse ourselves tonight," she said, "at least for the moment. My father was quite impressed with you, by the way. He even spoke of inviting you to the capitol and introducing you around." She smiled, "It appears I'm not the only one in the family that knows a good thing when they see it." And she threw her head back in full throaty laughter.
I looked boldy in her eyes. "You do play your part well," I said. "The Ann you have displayed the last few days is a far cry from the one I have seen at other gatherings, and the one I have heard about from the other families. I do confess that this one is much more intriguing. And dangerous."
Her first response was peals of laughter. Then: "I grew up in the capitol. And I learned as I grew, that I was a commodity. To be used, and traded for gain, political or monetary or both. Such is the fate of, and some say duty, of the daughters of the nobility." She laughed again. "The capitol is not so naive and provincial in its views of the world. By the time my marriage with Julius was arranged I had long since learned to play the role of meek, unsophisticated, naif when in public. Although, I fear, my education had extended far beyond that of what my parents intended or suspected.
"Life in the home city of the Emperor, especially amongst the nobles and wealthy hangers on, teaches one to play many roles, and the weak do not long survive. Don't misunderstand me, I am wife to Julius, and am fond of him. I play the simpering 'wife' in public and, I must confess, to Julius because it is the face I am expected to wear. But that is only a mask. I do not have a lover here in The City, nor to be truthful, do I desire a swooning swain to court me and relieve my boredom. Julius would never suspect even had I such. But with one exception," she raised her twinkling eyes to gaze at me speculatively, "I've seen naught but fat old men and addlepated boors. Hardly likely to be of interest, and the foolish lack of common sense most display, would have the whole town gossiping twenty minutes after a liason."
I had been smiling broadly during her low voiced dialog, and sat quietly for a moment when she finished. "Shall we dance, Ann? It seems that this piece will be a Waltz." I stood and offered her my hand. She took it with a suggestive little squeeze, and we stepped into the measures of a slow Waltz.
She danced well, which was no suprise, and managed to convey a feeling of warmth and intimacy, even though the form of the dance held us arms length from each other. The warmth of the exercise wafted the scent of her perfume to me. That same exotic, and now erotic musky tang of Jasmine she had worn the first night.
----------------------------to be continued-----------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 03-20-2003 at 01:50 AM.
To Pay The Rent XXIX
(The dance is done. The piper must be paid. And a thief in the night? )
As we danced, Ann became bolder taking every opportunity to smile seductively; to offer an enticing view into her bodice; to surreptitiously caress an arm, the back of my neck. Don't worry. She was very careful. All took place during the natural movements of the dance. There would be not the slightest hint of suspicion.
The Waltz ended to the applause of the dancers. As we stood waiting for the next, Ann spoke teasingly. "My feet seem none the worse for the wear," she chuckled. "I fear you have misled me and my guests with your claims of lack of skill. My old Dancing Master was not so skilled.
"You are somewhat of an enigma," she mused. "According to common knowledge, you are a skilled rider, an entertaining raconteur, a respectable swordsman, and a most pleasant and desireable addition to a dinner or ball.
"You have never been known to show anger. You are well educated, obviously possess wealth, and, it appears, breeding. Beyond that little is known, although speculation is rife with tales, or perhaps hopes." She laughed gaily. She paused a moment in contemplations. The opening chords of a Minuet prevented her continuing. As we took our places for the dance, I could tell from her sly glances that there would be more.
She continued with her speculations as we danced and began to probe into my history. "No one knows your background. Where you came from," looking at me questioningly, "you seem to have sprung into being fully grown. One day nothing. The next there you were; at the opera, the best clubs, the finest restaurants." She looked at me with a sparkle in her eyes. "As I said. An enigma."
The dance drew us apart. Smiling to acknowledge her words, I remained silent. As we came together again, she said, "You are a most exasperating man," and laughed to remove the sting.
During the rest of the Minuet, she teased and probed, throwing an occassional dart in an attempt to draw me out. The dance ended, and we returned to our table. "Thank you for the dance," I smiled, "as for your conjectures and questions... a little mystery adds spice to life," I chuckled. "If you will excuse me," I must do my duty to Lady Louisa," I bowed over her hand and turned away.
The strains of a Galop followed me as I approached the ladies Hempstead, and Louisa. "Lady Hempstead, Lady Louisa," I made a leg, "your pardon Lady Hempstead. Lord Darnel, and our good host have charged me with ensuring that Lady Louisa has a partner for a dance or two." I bowed again, "Lady Louisa, if the Galop is to your liking...?"
She rose gracefully, and curtesied, "Indeed, it is. If I may leave you Lady Hempstead?" Receiving a nod from Lady Hempstead, Lady Louisa, offered me her hand to be led to the floor. "If it would not inconvenience you," she said as we neared the dancers, "I would like a stroll on the terrace following the Galop. It will be cooling after the activity." I of course did not demure and we joined the dance.
The orchestra was delightful, the music well delivered, and the dance exhilarating. We finished, flushed with the exercise, and laughing in mutual joy. "I've not enjoyed a Galop so much for years," I said, "thank you for the pleasure. I saw you earlier with Lord Darnel in the Gavotte, and your enjoyment was contagious. You were right, a stroll on the terrace is definitely in order. May I get you a glass of wine?"
"No thank you," she said, "but a glass of iced juice would be nice. Cider would be acceptable."
I escorted her to the terrace where we appropriated one of the small tables there. Assisting her to be seated, I excused myself and returned to the buffet. With a glass of wine for myself and some cider for Lady Louisa, I returned. I also brought a small plate of assorted pastries and fruit.
"Would it disturb you if I smoked," I asked?
"Not at all my father was a smoker, as is Lord Darnel. Actually, a man relaxing with a pipe is a pleasure to me."
I loaded my pipe and lit it from a nearby candle. When it was drawing well, I leaned back in my chair. The night was cool, but not uncomfortable. Lanterns hanging here and there in the gardens cast a soft glow over the scene, giving the garden a mystical appearance. Couples strolled here and there enjoying the peace, or sitting in quiet conversation on the benchs or in the arbors.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, then Lady Louisa began to chat about the party and the other guests. She was not vindictive nor snide. She mentioned her history of acquaintance with various families and told a few harmless amusing tales about her friends and family. I responded with similar small talk about the opera, the clubs I frequented and those guests I too was familiar with.
She lived quite near the cathedral Angelwatch. This in itself she did not really mind. But, she did say that the Mechanist order, and particularly Karras, un-nerved her. The fanatical rants of Karras, and the attacks against the Hammerite order made her quite apprehensive. She was reminded of earlier religious conflicts that had ravaged the empire in the past, and feared a pogrom like those that had gone before.
I could say nothing that would negate her fears, but did say that I was certain that the Emperor would not allow the conflict to reach such proportions. The fact that the situation here could become a bloody massacare before the Empire could react, I did not mention.
I finished my pipe, Lady Louisa her cider. "Shall we return to the ball? I still owe you a dance." I rose and moved to the back of her chair to assist her up. We returned as a Gigue was just finishing. We paused at the edge of the floor waiting for the next selection to begin. "What would you prefer, Lady Louisa, a Sarabande? A Waltz? A Courante," I asked?
"A Waltz, I think. I heard a Sarabande while we were on the terrace, so it's about time for a Waltz. If not we can watch the dance. Lady Hempstead still has chairs at her table." Just as she finished, the Maestro's voice floated out from the Musicians Gallery above.
"M'lords, Ladies, and Gentlefolk," his voice carried easily over the crowd. "Lord Rothschild, has requested that this be the last dance. It will be a Waltz."
"Lady Louisa?" I led her to the floor, and we took our positions waiting for the music. Lady Louisa and I floated through the dance as though we had been practicing together for years. She was, without doubt, one of the best dancers I have ever partnered. The Waltz ended too soon for me. I could have danced with her for quite some time. She floated through the dance as if she on a cushion of air. It was delightful, and as the dance ended, I told her so.
"La, sir. You mock me," she blushed most becomingly.
"Nay, lady. Never. It is truth. I have squired many ladies in the dance, and beyond question, never have I had a more pleasureable partner. You are a dancer of exceptional skill. I thank you heartily." And I bowed deeply, holding it an extra moment in homage.
I escorted her to her table. Lord Darnel rose to greet us. "Thank you Mr. Feiht for escorting the lady for me. I am grateful."
"It was my pleasure, I assure you. Lady Louisa, thank you again." I bowed turning to Lord Darnel, "Lord Darnel, if you will, I see that Sir Julius and his lady have returned. I must pay my respects before I retire."
The guests were gathering their belongings and beginning to drift to the foyer. I joined Julius and Ann where they were exchanging pleasantries, and accepting praise from the departing guests. From the entryway, I could hear the grinding of carriage wheels on the gravel, and the jingle of harness as the horses stirred restlessly, awaiting the guests.
"A most delightful evening Julius. And thank you for the privilege of dancing with your lady. The dinner was excellent and the entertainment superb. You will forgive me if I make my goodnights. I wish you and Ann, a good evening, and, with your permission will retire. It has been a long, and most enjoyable day."
I left them with the departing guests and went up to my room. I quickly disrobed, threw on my housecoat and slippers and went in for a steam. The soothing warmth soon had me dozing. I awoke in what seemed a few minutes, and stretched. A quick plunge in the cool pool, a quick towelling and I went back to my room.
I poured a small port, checked that the bath door was bolted, and the door locked. I extinquished the lamps, and retired to the bedchamber. I sleep cold, so I left the curtain that seperated the rooms open. I read for a while by the light of the candle on the bedstand. Finished a few pages, the port and snuffed the candle. Through the doorway to the sitting room the faint glow of the fire cast a warm subdued light into the bedchamber.
A slight metallic sound roused me. I sleep well but, like a cat am alert to every sound. And, like a cat I wake instantly. I looked toward the sitting room. The sound seemed much like a key turning. A shadowy figure was silhouetted against the fading firelight. I rolled off the bed on the side away from the approaching figure, taking with me one of the extra coverlets from the foot of the bed. On my stomach I inched my way to the foot of the bed and looked around the corner. The approaching figure was quite short. I couldn't tell if it was crouching.
The figure moved slowly and cautiously toward the bedchamber. The occassional raspy brush of a foot against the carpet whispered as it crossed the sitting room to pause at the curtain. My night vision is excellent, and with the aid of the fireglow I could see the figure clearly. Whoever it was was not very large or tall. Standing fully erect, the person would not have reached my shoulder, making it a little over 5 feet in height. It was shapeless in the concealing cloak in which it was wrapped. No weapon was visible in its hands, and my first thought was that I the thief, was about to be robbed.
After a pause at the curtain, the figure eased toward the bed. As it moved past the foot of the bed to the side, I slipped around behind it, staying in a crouch, and moved to it's left rear. Why? Simple. Most people are right-handed. Such a person will look over its right shoulder when it first looks behind itself, then over the left. If you stay low at the left, and then shift low and to the right when they switch, you can effectively remain invisible. You keep yourself where they are NOT looking. If they turn they will turn right. So you move left and keep behind them. With practice, you can be invisible even in full light.
When the figure leaned over the bed, I stood and threw the coverlet over its head and threw myself on it pinning it to the bed under the coverlet. As I did so there was a shocked, melodic gasp and it began to struggle. As I held it down, the scent of a musky perfume reached my nostrils. Damn! That's the same scent Ann was wearing!
"Stop struggling," I said in a low voice. "You won't be hurt if you calm down. Now."
A few ineffective attempts to throw me off and free itself from the coverlet, and the figure relaxed.
"Ok. That's better, Now, just stay still. I'm going to remove the blanket. If you don't want your face pushed into the mattress, you will just do as I say. If you understand me nod your head." There was a movement I took for acquiescence, and keeping a knee in the small of the intruders back, I carefully unwrapped the figure. "Stay face down until I tell you to move. I will advise you that I am capable of doing you great injury if you attempt to escape, or attack me."
I moved quickly to the nightstand, retrieving the candle. A glance at the body on the bed to assure that it was complying, and I lighted the candle and put it on the chest at the foot of the bed. If there was to be a struggle I did not want it accidentally kicked over.
"Turn over slowly and remove the hood." I was pretty sure by this time that it was Ann, but continued to pretend ignorance. "Slowly. No sudden moves."
The body began to shake, and the muffled sound of laughter came from beneath the cloak. "You do move quite quietly and quickly," the voice said between laughs. "I had thought you would be asleep." The hood slid back and Ann rolled over to lie on her back still laughing softly.
"You do like to take risks don't you," I said. "The double jump enroute to Giles' place, your antics during the dance, and now sneaking around at night." I shook my head. "I could have killed or injured you severely."
She lay looking up at me, the open cloak spead around her. Beneath the cloak was a semi-transparent nightgown of light silk, through the openings of which her body peeked enticingly. Lanquidly raising her hands above her head as she lay there, she smiled winningly. "You talk too much," she said as she sat up and pulled me down to the bed.
Last edited by theBlackman; 03-20-2003 at 10:44 AM.
To Pay The Rent XXX
(The game is a tie and our hero makes his escape)
A gentle tap on the door woke me to be followed by Jory's voice, "Breakfast in an hour, sir, unless you would like a tray in your room."
"Fine, Jory," I called as I stretched lazily. "I will have some tea, if cook doesn't mind. I shall be down in about an hour."
"As you wish, sir," he replied, and I heard him depart toward the Hempsteads suite.
Ann had slid out of bed some hours before. I had pretended to be sleeping and watched through slitted eyelids as she crossed the sittingroom and vanished. As I lay for a moment before rising, a smile crossed my face. The evening had been interesting to say the least.
The aroma of her perfume lingered on the sheets and pillows. I rose, donned my robe, and went to my toiletries. Returning with a small vial of my cologne, I sprinkled a few drops on the bedding and pillows. It would not do for the maid servant to catch the scent of her mistresses perfume in my bedclothes.
I went to place a few logs on the grate and stirred the coals until I had a cheery fire. I knocked gently on the bath door, and waited. Hearing no response, I tried the door and found it open. I entered and began my ablutions, being sure to throw the bolt on the connecting door. To embarrass Lady Hempstead would not be a good start for the day.
Back in my room when I had finished, I checked the bedding. There was no trace of Ann's perfume. My cologne had done its work well. I changed into my traveling suit, and had just begun packing for my departure, when a maid tapped on the door. "Enter."
"Your tea, sir."
"Put it on the table there by the fire. Thank, you"
She did so and with a curtsey, made her exit.
So far so good. I had everything I needed for my forthcoming return (actually more remembering last night) and would make my attempt in about 3 or 4 days after the Hempsteads had departed. Julius had mentioned a possible business trip to the capitol, and that Ann would be accompanying him. He had invited me, but I begged off, citing a prior commitment.
Meanwhile the Art Gallery would receive a night visitor. It would not profit me other than the enduring enjoyment of my new painting (the Georges. Remember)? I could easily have it in my hideaway with some of my other acquisitions. I did have a small windowless room in the center of the dummy house where I could display and enjoy my treasures. It was well appointed with all the comforts and even had a fireplace. The flue had been cleverly run into the chimney of my house to disguise the origin of the smoke.
I slowly finished my packing, stopping now and then to sit by the fire with my tea, and mull over the last few days. I made a mental list of the "goods" that I would have on my "shopping list" for my return. I reviewed my mental plan of the grounds, and the mansion, and considered and rejected differing ways to effect a safe entrance and retreat.
My intitial thoughts about the veranda to Julius's office were obviously the first thing to discard. The "gong" alarm system would be to great to risk. Opening the door from the veranda, offered the hazard of an unexpected breeze setting it off. If Julius did not take the trip, then I could not take the chance. So I must enter the house from another point.
My packing and musings had eaten up most of the hour Jory had given me. I rolled up my toiletries, making a survey of the sitting room and bed chamber to ensure I had it all. I put my two bags near the door of the suite, and went down to breakfast.
The tables had been cleared away from the salon, and the dining room restored to its comparative osterity. The sideboard was again set up with chaffing dishes and condiments. Julius and Ann were already breaking their fast. As I finished my selection, Julius looked up and waved me to take a seat across from him.
I placed my plate on the table just as Lady Hempstead arrived. "Good morning, Julius, Ann, and, of course, you Mr. Feiht. My husband will join us shortly," she said as she walked to the sideboard. I rose as if to offer her some asistance. "Oh, do remain at your place Mr. Feiht. I am not entirely decrepit," she laughed and selected a plate.
"Maam," I replied, and turned back to address my food.
"Did you enjoy your stay," Julius asked. "I am most grateful for your accepting my invitation. You truly were a pleasant addition to the last few days."
"Julius, Ann, yes. I did have a very entertaining time, and last night was exceptionally pleasant," I responded, noticing a twinkle in Ann's eye and a sly smile slid briefly across her face. "I do hope to be able to enjoy your hospitality again." Like in a few days when I revisit your strongroom. I find your residence quite interesting, and well appointed." I raised my teacup in salute.
"I am so pleased, you found our hospitality acceptable," Ann said. "It would be to our mutual satisfaction, I am sure, if we were to have you guest with us again. Is that not so, Julie?"
"Yes indeed," Julius beamed. "I am certain it would be so. I also wish to thank you, Bob. Your assistance with that little problem we spoke of the first day has been of inestimable value to me. And," here he looked at Ann with a smile, "your identification of the "flea box" and it's value was indeed a boon." Noticing my questioning look he continued. "As you know, Ann has a somewhat different view of my collection. I took the liberty of explaining your assessment, and it has, somewhat," and he smiled at Ann to remove some of the possible sting, "changed her view of my 'toy's."
Ann laughed gaily. "Too true. I still think it is a frivilous activity but, I must confess, my lack of education in the intricacies of antique evaluation and the rarity of some, seemingly, commonplace items does need changing."
Lady Hempstead joined us at the table and the conversation turned to the dinner, the guests and the dance. I made a comment or two, but except for listening mainly concentrated on my plate. Some few minutes later, Lady Louisa and Lord Darnel made their entrance. The conversations broke for a moment, to greet them, and then resumed. As they took their seats Lord Hempstead, who had come in shortly after them, kissed his wife, and Ann on the cheek and gave good morning to us all. After making his selection at the sideboard, he also took a place at the table.
The conversation stayed mainly the same, with the occassional interjection about a similar event. Breakfast passed smoothly and was quite homey. After the morning greetings, and a few minutes of conversation, the Mr.'s, Sirs, and Ladies, vanished. I of course, did not take the liberty of using first names, except with Julius and Ann. The others, long time acquaintances, used first names amongst themselves without qualm or embarrassment.
Julius and the Hempsteads discussed their plans for the coming day, with Lord Darnel and Lady Louisa, in an aside, quietly engaged in a conversation of their own. Turning to me, with an apology to Lord Hempstead, Julius said that he had alerted Jory, and the carriage would be available to take me home at my convienience. At this Lord Darnel broke in to say that as he and Lady Louisa would be returning in an hour or two he would be delighted to offer a seat in his carriage to me, and save Julius the need.
I replied that I would be most ammenable to that, if Julius took no offense.
"Of course not, Bob, and my thanks for your offer Lord Darnel," Julius said. "It would make the day easier for my hostler. He will need only provide the carriage for the Hempsteads and us later. As I have only the one hostler, and a single driver and boy, it would ease our day immensely."
"Thank you, Lord Darnel," I said. "I am already packed, and as you can see I am in my traveling clothes. I can leave any time you wish. Perhaps, we can continue the conversation we left at the billiard table last night. Lady Louisa not objecting, of course."
At this, having finished my repast, I excused myself. "Lord Darnel, I shall be in my rooms awaiting your summons. Ladies, Gentlemen," and I bowed and made my exit.
I returned to my seat by the fire in my rooms, and settled down with a pipe and my book to wait.
About an hour later, Jory appeared at my door, which I had left open. Noticing my bags, he picked them up. "Lord Darnel's carriage is at the door,sir," he said. "If you will follow me,sir."
"Of course, Jory." I stood and quickly scanned the room. I was certain that I had left nothing behind, but habit at cleaning up after a safejob, or room search, made me double check. Satisfied I followed Jory down to the foyer. While the bags were being stowed in the boot, I waited for Lord Darnel and Lady Louisa, who were yet to appear.
Jory had returned into the house, and in a short while he, and one of the house servants, reappeared with the luggage. Jory left the manservant to assist with the loading and spoke to the driver for a moment. When Lady Louisa appeared at the door with Ann, he went to the carriage and held the door open. Ann and Louisa chatted for a few minutes, during which time Lord Darnel came down the steps to stand by me.
"I will have my man drop you off first, Mr. Feiht. The Lady Louisa lives quite a bit further into town than either of us, and it would be an inconveniece to make you wait," he paused, "I live just north of you, you know. So it will work to the best advantage if we do that."
"As you wish, my Lord. I am at your disposal. It would be a service to me no matter how you decide to handle the matter," I smiled gently. "As I am the beggar at the meal, so to speak, any arrangement will suit me."
Lady Louisa chose this moment to descend to the carriage. She turned to us from the carriage door. "Gentlemen. Are you coming or shall I leave unaccompanied?" she chuckled and vanished into the coach.
Lord Darnel, and I looked at each other with a shrug, and followed her. Entering the coach, I took a seat across from Lady Louisa, with my back to the front of the coach. Lord Darnel, with a last word to Ann, entered and sat next to Lady Louisa. Raising his walking stick, which he was never without, he rapped twice on the roof, and the carriage began to roll.
Our trip back to the city was uneventful. Lord Darnel and me, discoursing on the laxity of the Thief Takers, and the ineffectual efforts of Moseley to control crime, and solve the mystery of the disappearance of people from the poorer districts of the city. As some of these were women, there was suspicion that someone was engaging in white slavery. Or perhaps, providing crewmen to the ship captains. After a time, Lady Louisa, complained about the morbidity or our discussion. We demurred to her complaint, and changed the topic to discussion about the new constructions being undertaken by the municipality to improve the docks and the downtown area.
In the presence, of such pleasant company, the time passed quickly, and before I knew it the coach was stopping at my door. I bid Lady Louisa, and Lord Darnel, goodday, and went to my door as the coachman brought up my two bags. As he returned to the coach, I turned and gave a wave to the occupants, and watched them drive off.
Last edited by theBlackman; 03-26-2003 at 10:46 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXI
(Wherein Mr. Feiht acquires some new decorations for his home)
The day was quite young. I unpacked and changed into casual clothing. With the Rothschild job on hold, I needed something to amuse me. The weekend had been much more amusing than I had anticipated, and I had had more than enough social interaction for a while.
The work at the Art Museum was scheduled to begin tomorrow, according to what the manager had told me. I decided that this would be the time to visit the museum to refresh my memory about the layout. A nice little exercise to keep me occupied while I waited for Julius to leave town.
A few hours after Lord Darnel let me out, and I was on my way downtown. It was about a half-hour at a slow stroll, and I had frequently made the walk part of my routine. It was a pleasant walking tour, I ambled through part of Olde Towne, skirted the canal and the market, passed the edge of High Towne, and shortly found myself at the Art Museum. No sign of the pending changes were evident outside, but in the foyer a small placard stated that the museum would be closing for about a week, and gave a brief explaination.
I asked attendant to take a note and my card to the manager. While he had a boy deliver the note. I looked around the lobby, noting the entrances to the wings, and the gates that sealed them from the lobby at night. The locks were well-oiled and, though newer than the gates themselves, would present no difficulty to my picks.
"Mr. Feiht?", the manager had appeared near the attendants desk, "Come in, come in. I was not expecting you." he gestured for me to preceed him into the hall, "Good to see you. I enjoyed our conversation at Julius's dinner."
We reached his office. Opening the door and waving me in, he continued, "What can I do for you? I know you are a devotee, but can't imagine what you need of me. Unless, of course, you wish to make a donation to our operating fund," he laughed. "Just a joke. But, in all truth, we can always use an additional patron. Sit, sit. Some sherry, or port.?" He seated himself at his desk and indicated the rather comfortable looking chairs facing him.
"No thanks, I just wanted to get a better idea of the changes you had planned," I said. "That is if I'm not being presumptious."
"Not at all, not at all," he hurried to reassure me. Most of my day is taken up with, routine paper work. And escorting the premiere patrons through the gallery," he looked at me wryly. "A visitor who is not haggling about the cost of operation or parading around like royalty, is a breath of fresh air."
"I would be interested in what you have in mind", I said, "I find the museum to be a relaxing place to spend a day, and wondered whether any of my favorite areas would be adversely impacted." I smiled gently, "I realize that my wants are, of course, minor and not a consideration. But I did feel a need to have my anxieties resolved. I extremely dislike suprises, as you might understand."
"To be sure. I would feel the same if some of my favorite places were to under go radical changes," he responded sympathetically. "Well... Some of the changes have to do with the exterior. We want to seal up some of the windows, and replace them with openings higher in the walls. The direct sunlight is damaging some of the painting, so by making the natural lighting more indirect, it will brighten the place but save the paintings from deterioration." He paused to pour some water from a carafe on his desk. A sip to moisten his throat and he went on. "We also have a problem with some of our storage areas below that need correcting. There seems to be moisture leaking in. We are not certain whether it is some leakage from the canal, or some other cause we are unaware of close to the foundation. As the workmen and material must come through the main building -there is no entrance to the cellars from the outside- we must close for that work also.
"I would be delighted to give you a quick tour and point out the areas and changes we plan," he pulled a bell cord behind his desk. The door to the office popped open nearly before he turned back to me. "Ah. Andrews. Mr. Feiht and I shall be touring the museum. If anyone wishes to see me, have one of the boys run me down. We will start on the third floor, and work our way down. I will notify the attendant at each floor as we leave so as to make it easier should you need to find me."
He took a last sip of water rose from the desk and gestured for me to preceed him out into the hall. We turned right and went back to a narrow iron stairway that spiraled up into a dimly lit shaft, disappearing into the shadows above.
"I'll lead if you don't mind," he said, "this is a little treacherous. But it will get us up to the top quickly, and avoid the crowds. This time of day is our busiest. This is the old servants egress. As you know the building was the ancestral home of one of the city founders. It was donated to our use some years ago when the family had a more modern residence built in High Towne."
I let him get well ahead of me. The stairs are very narrow with shallow treads. As Master Dupre, was quite stout, he filled the staircase nearly to overflowing. Although he seemed at ease, I thought it best to give him ample room on the way up. Should he slip and fall back into me, we would both be precipitated headlong to the bottom.
We made it to the top without incident at a landing closed by a plain deal door. From his pocket M. Dupre took a key and opened the door, explaining to me that occasionally the visitors tried the door. There had been a few times when children had gotten into the passageway causing alarm to their parents, and the staff. So the doors at each floor were kept locked unless in use by the staff.
The top floor was the repository and display for some of the lesser known artists. As few were interested in them, the third floor was the perfect place for them. Only a serious student or collector was likely to make the trek to see them. It also gave the museum more space for the most popular artists.
The ground floor was for sculptures and the larger paintings. The second for the old masters that required a stable environment and the added security it offered.
We spent a few minutes while he showed me some damp spots in the ceiling that indicated roof leaks. These were part of the intended repairs. We descended to the second floor. There we walked through the four rooms the floor was divided into. In the southeast room was a collection containing the Georges I intended to liberate. Entry, other than the spiral stair hidden behind a drapery in the east wall, was a single doorway from the central well at the top of the main staircase from the ground floor.
M. Dupre was quite voluble in his explanation of the repairs to be done the paintings that might need be moved, in which group the George was not included, and where they would be stored during the renovations.
We finished our tour in the basement. Part of the area was where the conservators and restorers worked. The air was a bit damp and during our tour and speech with the master conservator, M. Dupre pointed out where the bricks lining the walls showed water stains. "We think it is leakage from the canal. But we are not sure. Our search of the old records show that a small stream was diverted into the canal along that side of the building but, most of the records also mention a branch of the town sewer system," he paused. "We have not been able to locate any sketches or plans of the route, so our best option is to attempt to seal this wall, and move the conservation area to another room we are cleaning up. We are also installing a new vault in which to keep some of our most valuable items."
We spent some time watching the consevator working on an ancient triptyche panel. The panel had been in the possession of a collector who donated it to the museum. It was a piece that had been booty from one of the early wars of the Empire. Found in the ruins of a razed Hammerite temple, it had been in the families possession for a couple of hundred years. As a early fragment from the beginnings of the Hammerite faith it was priceless. But, as is not uncommon, it had been hung in the common room of the household, abused by exposure to smoke and the grime of ages.
Back in his office, M. Dupre and I shared a cup of tea and some teacakes. We chatted a bit, during which time I got a rough schedule of the workdays to come and the number and placement of the guards to be used. We parted on good terms and I made my way to the City Hall of Records.
After some inquiries, I managed to locate a small musty room down in the basement where were kept the out of date records of the city. Dim, cramped and overflowing with boxes, scrolls and stacks of molding manuscripts, the room was the domain of a man who looked to be the first inhabitant of the city.
In the dim, smokey, lantern light, his bleary eyes peered up at me from a battered old deal desk in the corner. "Ehh? What's tha' you say?" he mumbled through toothless gums. "Nobody ever comes down here." He broke into a surprised smile, of joy. "You say you are looking for maps of the city?"
"Yes, I am planning some rebuilding at my house. I need to find out if there are any old sewer trunks or streambeds near that may cause a problem," I smiled gently. "I was told that you know everything there is to know about the old city records. The copies they have upstairs, are too new. The area I am interested in is in the oldest part of the city, and the records they have show abandoned parts of the system, but are only guesses. Can you help me."
"Aye. Tis true. I have maintained these records for over fifty years. It may look untidy, but I know the location of every scrap here," he cackled raggedly. "I know more about the changes in the city structure than any of them up there," he shook his head. "Them there are always running into problems because they don't check before they tears somethin up. More fool they."
I knew the approximate date of the construction of the residence, now museum, and of my own area. I asked him what records of the drainage systems, sewers, and canals he might have from a period about 50 years before to just after. He brightened and sat for a moment with his eyes closed as he ransacked his memory. Then, with a spryness that surprised me, drew a ladder over and climbed to the top of a massive bookcase. He reached up and gathered three dingey looking scrolls from the top, and returned to the floor. Sweeping the clutter off the deal table in the center of the room he placed the scrolls in their place. He reached under the table pulling out a battered oil lantern. He lit it and placed it in a corner of the table.
"Let's see... This un is the middle of the time you ask about for the museum, this un your mews and this un a full map of the whole city sytem at that time." He mumbled to himself a moment then bustled off into the darkness of a corner. He appeared a few minutes later and placed a fourth package on the table.
"This be the original map of the the grounds deeded to Sir Theodore, the first Lord of the March here. The Royal Surveyor, Martin Theoson, was extremely talented and careful in all his work" He blew the dust off the coarse material that covered the scroll. "In all the examples of his work to be found, only one error, which amounted to less than a square yard has been found." He removed the cloth exposing a parchment roll. Ancient, with the ravages of ages showing on the edges. He unrolled the parchment slowly. The brittle, aged material gave out a mild crackling sound, threatening to tear and fall apart. "This shows all the streams and drainage to the river before the land was built up," he cleared his throat. "This un will let you see what has been changed, walled over or filled. The main cloaca runs right down Barons Way, and then to the river."
With the scrolls unrolled he pointed out the original streams and their drains, and the changes that had been made. There was a water by-pass from the canal that did pass along the leaking side of the museum basement. According to the records this dated from the first changes in the drainage system. At the other side of the museum, the maps indicated an abandoned and sealed up sewer branch, unused for the last fifty years. This tied into the main trunk somewhere near the waterfront just below the Whale's Spout at the harbor.
We talked about the growth of the city and the sometimes foolish decisions the early builders had made resulting in the contamination of the watersupply; the attempts to control the drainage that made swamps and bogs of some of the lowlands. The resulting destruction had, over time been corrected by the installation of new routes for the drainage systems, and the sealing up and abandonment of some of the original tunnels.
He pointed out the sewers in the areas I had asked about, comparing the maps one to the other, showing the changes that had been made, carefully tracing the routes of the tunnels and sub tunnels. He allowed me to make drawings of the maps, even providing me with pen, ink and materials upon which to scribe my notes.
In an hour or so, I had a complete map of the subterranean tunnels in my mews, those leading to and around the museum, and a general sketch of the main system. We parted on good terms. I left a gift of a few coins, and promised to return to visit now and again. With his knowledge and access to the old surveys and other material, he would be a valuable source for information to help plan future jobs. During my visit he had become quite voluble. His visitors were few and far between. To have someone who shared his interests was a welcome surprise.
Back at home I studied the material and decided that I needed to talk to Isaac in Harlots Lane.
The night was cool, and the weak moonlight only a sprinkle of silver through the heavy cloud layer above the city. The air was thick with the fug of woodsmoke mixed with the beginnings of a fog. Sometimes, the atmosphere in the city was a black, poisonous, nearly deadly, mix of fog, smoke from homefires and the belching smoke stacks from the local industries that was almost a solid wall. The combination had the acquired the local name of Black Fog. It became as black as night, even at mid-day when the conditions were right. The air so thick that the sound of a scream or shout died mere yards from its source.
In the concealing darkness I passed through the garden of my alternate house and crossed the commons at the back of the mews. A shadow moving in shadow.
The Crippled Burrick was packed to overflowing. Most of the cityfolk, and this included the shills, cutpurses and derelicts, stayed in their dwellings, or found shelter off the streets when the Black Fog seemed eminent. Some of the cutthroats, and other blackquards, took advantage of the fog to prey on any person on foot in the streets, even each other. It was not uncommon after the passage of a fog to find a dozen bodies lying in the gutters. Those who prowled the fog made no distinction between rich or poor, male or female. Prey was prey, and even the clothing of the victims could buy a meal or a drink. The wise man, avoided the streets and alleys at these times.
I went in. Standing just inside the door, to the left near the stairs to the rooms above, I surveyed the room. Molly, one of the barmaids, and a onetime playmate of mine, saw me in the shadow and threw a smile. I nodded in return and stepped back into the corner where the shadow was deeper.
In a few minutes Molly casually wandered over to me, delivering drinks and food as she passed through the crowded common room. "Well. You've not been in for a while," she smiled mischieviously. Molly had known me for years, and had a suspicion as to my employment, but the subject had never been broached between us.
"I need a favor, love. Can you sneak me a bowl of warm stew and a half-pint?" I asked. "I'll pay for the mug and bowl as well. I don't want to be seen here tonight, if I can avoid it."
"Up to no good, again I see," she said, "come to the back at the alley. I'll meet you there with the food in a few." She gave me a peck on the cheek and vanished toward the kitchen in the rear. Slapping away a few bold hands that reached for her delightfully rounded behind as she passed.
I slipped out and around the pub to the back. Taking shelter in an open side leanto just across from the kitchen door, I waited for Molly. Isaac should be in his pile of rags. As he seldom was away from them for more than a few minutes, at most an hour, Isaac was to be found at the intersection of Harlots Lane, and Beggars Court nearly any hour of the day or night. One of the many derelicts in the city, Isaac was a character considered by most to be just a little mad. He was so old, that he might have been laid in his bed of rags with the first foundation stone of the city. He never bathed, at least to my knowledge. When he popped up from his rag pile the pong he gave off would kill a fly at twenty yards. From whence he came, or when, was a mystery to all. One day, or so they say, a pile of rags had appeared in a niche between two of the houses on Harlots Lane, and with them, Isaac.
He was neither a beggar, although he had contact with them and the Beggar Master, nor a scavanger. He just lived in his little pile of rags by the occasional handout of his neighbors. He acted as the message center for some of the ladies of the night, and other skulkers such as myself. He never talked about his past. He would faithfully deliver your message, word for word. His memory was nearly eidetic and, although it might take a day or a month, he never forgot who the message was from, nor for whom it was intended. Isaac might have one or twenty messages, and the answers to them, tucked in his greying skull, but he never erred.
He also would not divulge the message or the 'customer' to any but the proper people. Some thugs had attempted to force him to speak once. Although he was bloodied and battered, they got nothing from him. They died. Isaac lived. When word got out about the thugs activities, the entire underbelly of the city became enraged. The Hue and Cry among the beggars, thieves and other poor of the city, and some of the wealthy, --for Isaac showed no favors or prejudice for any who would use his service-- quickly located the perpetrators. They vanished without trace or question. Isaac healed and business went on as usual.
Molly appeared in the doorway with a bowl and a mug. I pulled my cloak closer about me and left the shed dodging the drips of moisture draining from the eaves. "Thanks, Molly. I thought Isaac could use something warm tonight."
"Oh, you should have said," she vanished back into the kitchen taking the food with her. In a minute she popped out again. "Here, I added a little more meat and vegetables," she blushed.
"Oh ho! I see you have some concern for his welfare," I smiled slyly, "a new beau you don't want the publican or the customers to know about?" I asked with a knowing laugh.
"Here. Take these," she snapped giving my arm a slap after I had done so. "You just keep quiet or I'll poison your ale next I see you," she said.
"Now, now. I'm just teasing. Here." Fishing in my purse I gave her double what it should have cost, "Keep the rest for your dowry. If I am right I wish you well," I smiled. "If it is true, he is a lucky man. You're a good prize for any man Molly." I brushed her cheek with my lips and turned away, hearing the door slam behind me. I smiled.
The fog had thickened. The few torchieres in Harlots lane glowed feebly in the gloom of the narrow lane. The gutter in the center beginning to show some runoff from the dripping eaves to either side. Harlots lane was just to the north of , and across the street from the Crippled Burrick. Barely wide enough to allow two men to walk side by side, the lane even in daylight, was a dark tunnel. The houses lining either side nearly touched at the roofline, and some of the balconies mere inches from the one across the lane.
Twisting and turning it wended its way back into the decaying parts of Olde Towne, to join with Beggars Court, and continued to Dyers way, to lose its identity in the tangled alleys and byways to finally meet Barons Way near the Dayport Traders Bank by means of the Street of Goldsmiths.
At Beggars Court I stopped just short of the nook where Isaac had his pile of rags. "Isaac!" I called and waited. To a passerby, Isaac's home looked like the piled accumulation of a rag-picker, awaiting cartage to the mill. How Isaac had accumulated his pile and transported it to this niche, and why was one of those little mysteries all cities have. No one remembered seeing it grow, a rag at a time. It seemed that Isaac and his nest had sprung from the forehead of one of the Gods fully realized, and been placed there between heartbeats. One moment not. The next, there with its living occupant.
"Isaac," I called again. The pile of rags stirred and began to mound up in the middle. Soon a shadowy head appeared. Grizzled hair, snarled and matted, framed an emaciated, wrinkled face. Two rhuemy eyes glowing yellowish in the flickering torchlight, and a snaggle toothed mouth with a tongue that slowly crawled across the cracked lips lining it, took shape as Isaac's shoulders emerged from his nest.
Squinting, the eyes peered at me blearily while they tried to focus. "Whot cheer, Master Bart?" the cracked voice asked. "Whot ye be doing disturbin ol Isaac from his dreams?"
I moved over to the edge of the pile and squatted, holding out the mug and the bowl. "Here, some food and ale. I need you to do some work for me."
With the mug in his hand and the bowl cradled in a hollow in the rags, Isaac cackled shrilly breaking into a ragged cough. "Ye knows Isaac doan do no work, Master Bart." He took a gulp of the ale and began to slurp the stew noisely. "Ye bes pullin ol Isaac's leg, ye be." And he cackled again.
"True," I laughed gently, "but I do need some information. I need the name of the oldest sewer-rat in the city, and where they can be found. No harm to them, and soup and ale every night for a week for you, if you help me."
-----------------------------------------to be continued-----------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 04-11-2003 at 02:06 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXI
Through wheezing breaths and slurps from the bowl, Isaac gave me a name and a place. I told him to have Janus, one of the street urchins that called Harlot's Lane and Beggars Court home, to take the bowl and mug to the Crippled Burrick nightly for a refill. And to tell Janus that there would be some coppers for his labor.
I was deep in the shadowed narrows of the lane on my way back to the inn when I heard the plash of a careless foot in the now flowing gutter. I stopped. Backing to the left wall in a crouch, I looked ahead and listened, slowing my breathing. By the dim light of a torchiere near a doorway a few yards beyond where I waited, I could see that the lane ahead was clear. Anyone between the light and me would have shown as a dark shape against the flickering flame.
Still crouched, with my back to the wall, I crossfooted it silently up the lane. Some one, or two, was approaching. Not revelers out to visit one of the joy houses. He or they was trying to be noiseless as they came down the lane. Unsuccessfully, I might add. The scrape of a boot heel on the uneven stones; the hissy squish of a water-soaked leather boot, the brush of a hand or sleeve against the narrow sides of the lane. All this preceeded them toward me where I waited just short of the light.
I loosened my dagger, and moved forward. At the edge of the circle of light I stopped. Anyone crossing into the light would just see me as a darkened shape at the far edge of the pool of sickly light. Two men emerged into the light. Walking stealthily side by side, they nearly blocked the narrow way.
As they started to cross the lighted area one of them caught sight of me. He gave me a startled look, which he hastily concealed and paused an instant then picked up his broken stride A sideward glance from slitted eyes drew a nearly imperceptible nod from his companion as I stepped into view. Hooded, with my cloak drawn closely about me, I shuffled into the light. They seperated to back against the wall to either side, and allow me passage between them.
Not tonight boys. With my knees slightly bent, I acted like an old man returning home. Keeping my movements feeble and my features hidden in my hood, I walked toward them. The man to my left was the greater threat. His position gave him free movement take me in the back with a club, or dagger by spinning to his left away from the wall. Just as I passed between them, I dropped to a crouch and spun to my right, my dagger sweeping out to take the man on my right across the belly. I felt the passage of a club brush my hood.
As the wounded thug screamed and fell into his partner, I passed back down the lane toward Isaac a step or two, spun around and buried my dagger in the throat of the other as he struggled with the body of his friend. Without pause, I continued toward the Burrick.
At the kitchen door, I called to one of the scullions to get Molly. When she came, a few minutes later, I explained my arrangements for Isaac's dinners, gave her the cost of the meals and a little for herself, and a few coppers for Janus. We traded a quick hug and I turned away into the night.
I made my way carefully across the darkened marketplace, through the twisted warrens of Olde Towne to Three Gate and the waterfront through East Gate. Keeping to the center of the street. I walked down Old Ropewalk Way toward the western harbor. With no fear of the quards or firewatch patrols, I kept an eye on the shadows and other nooks in which a nightwalker, or bully might hide.
Unlike some of my aquaintances, I had not yet come to the direct attention of Mosley and the enforcers. I preferred to get in, get the goods, and get out. With no evidence of who, or what, I was. As a result unlike Garrett, no wanted posters, no broadsides on the walls, and no description of me was public. I strolled openly toward the Whale's Spout thinking about the unknown invader at Gervasius’ art exhibit and the theft of the Precursor Masks.
Now that was a rampage to enjoy, the on site reports by Izzie Lyon -too bad about his death, he was a good reporter- and the other reports on the raid from WELIE radio, was a story to warm a thieves heart; no clues, no arrest; and Gervasius’s mansion nearly reduced to rubble. I chuckled, “I’d like to shake that taffers hand. Raids like that come few and far between; whoever it was must have had a real mad on with Gervasius. I hadn’t heard of a bodycount that high since that last Mech raid on the Hammerite Seminary."
By now I was approaching Main Gate, where Old Ropewalk Way ended at Baron’s Way. To cross in front of the gate and continue caused me no concern, but the rumble of voices from the area of the guardpost ahead, did not sound like the usual normal banter of a sentry and a passerby. “Don’t need to get mixed up in that. Time to go around.” I turned right toward the waterfront on Reef Lane and continued, following the passage northwest until it met up with Pearl Court then continued west again toward the shipyards and the Whale's Spout.
I made my way toward the Whale's Spout following the winding streets and byways, sometimes heading toward the harbor othertimes back toward ThreeGate, but always tending west toward the shipyards and the beached galleon that housed the tavern.
The moon moved beyond the horizon its fading glow silvering the few clouds floating in the sky above. The clear night air was rendolent with the smell of decaying fish, moldy rope and the usual salted odor of the sea. For all of that, it was a pleasant change from the ancient reek of Old Towne and the sharp metallic oily smell of the areas near Dayport where the Mechanist had established themselves.
A last final turn down Cable Run brought me to the old seawall. The creak of the planks working in the ships moored at the piers and the squeaking rub of fenders along with the groan of the dolphins and pilings, as they took the weight of the waiting ships, drifted through the night; not an unpleasant sound after the hubbub of the city.
The skeleton frame of a ship on the ways at the yard of Cobb and Son was a spidery shadow against the lighter horizon. Large piles of lumber and baulks of heavy timber along the pierside, slowly turning into masts, spars, and frames at the hands of the skilled shipwrights, spiced the air with the odor of thier sawdust and shavings.
I made my way to the top of one of the taller stacks of timber. Keeping low to avoid being outlined against the skyline. The bordering road stretched away to the west along the quay. The flickering orange and yellow glow from the scattered torchiers and flambeaus along the route cast random pools of light here and there revealing, then concealing, piles of netting, rope and scattered debris.
In the light of a guttering torch a few yards ahead, a rather odd looking little man was making his way slowly down the quay.His attire was strange to the eye. A wide brimmed hat, looking like woven straw, hid his face from view. A short cape with half sleeves and a sort of shirt, tied at the waist with a wide sash, ended just above his knees. Beneath this, a pair of loose baggy trousers just reached his ankles. His feet were bare, but he showed no discomfort at the rough cobbles beneath his feet. Walking sedately and silently along, he held a cloth wrapped parcel in his left hand; his right held a walking staff bound with brass rings at each end.
As the traveler neared a shadowed doorway three large men sauntered out and lounged against a stack of timber, their position partially blocking the roadway.
I moved quietly to another lumber pile closer to the gathering. From this new vantage point I could clearly see and, by intent listening, hear the conversation below.
The little man turned to avoid the men and continue his on his way. “ ‘ere now, what be a man like ye on the piers, this night?" asked the largest of the men. “Ye be no sailor or wharf rat. An now that Oiy see ye in better light, not like any oiy’s be seein’ afore passin’ through here.”
He turned to smirk at his companions,”Wh’t s’y ye mates? Be we lettin’ this un go adriftin on our seas?” As he spoke a fourth man came from a shadow behind to block the stranger from any retreat.
Placing his bundle on the ground the little man bowed his head slightly. “Sorry, I mean no intrusion," he said softly, ”I seek a place of repose that was advised me. I was told it lay in this direction. I do not wish to disturb you.” With a bob of his head in a quick bow he continued, “If you will permit, I will continue in search of the Whale's Spout tavern. Please to let me pass.”
I did not like getting involved in anothers arguement or difficulty, but it was beginning to look like the little old fellow was about to pay the usual toll of innocents on the waterfront at night and, if he was to escape from the toughs with a whole skin, would need some help. The odd little man looked to be unarmed except for the stick, which didn’t look likely to be of much help against the four bullies.
“Well, now," laughed the leader, “Oiy guess we could do th’t. But ye’ll be ‘avein to pay a toll. Oiy mean, we kin not be lettin just any lubber sail our waters, can we now mates? So if ye be givin’ us yer purse, and Oiy, think thee bun’le there. We be lettin ye go.”
The stranger moved back a little and slowly scanned the circle of men now surrounding him. Using his foot he moved the bundle he had dropped slightly to his rear. Again he bowed slightly, “That I cannot allow. Please, I wish no harm to you nor your friends, and merely wish to continue to the Whale's Spout.”
“Ha ha ha," with a slap on his thigh the tough guffawed. “Ye don’ mean me no harm?” and his laughter grew louder. He reached back and exposed the club he had been concealing behind him and moved toward the man in the center of the circle.
I prepared to jump down to aid this apparently hapless victim. Ok. I'm a thief, a sneak and a liar, but I am still a member of the human race. Compassion for the weaker is not completely lost in me. But paused at the reaction of the little man. He seemed calm and unconcerned about the threat.
With his left hand the old man removed his hat and dropped his hand to his side. Still holding the hat, he looked around the circle again. Bending his knees slightly, he shifted his feet presenting his right side to the ringleader.
The bully raised his club and moved to attack the man in the circle. The hat flicked out and sailed into the bulley's eyes, as he flinched, the staff lashed out catching him on the left temple dropping him like a stone. Without pause the staff reversed and thrust back under the little mans’ armpit, spear-like catching the attacker behind him in the pit of the stomach. The now winded tough collapsed in a pile gasping hoarsely; the staff whistled around to catch the man on his left in the throat. The old man continued in a smooth, sliding turn; the brass ring on the end of the staff rang on the cobblestones as he faced the last bully, and grounded the staff in front of him.
With a look of paniced surprise on his face the bully looked at the three bodies littering the street and backed away to fade in the shadows. The old man replaced his hat, picked up his bundle and, without a backward glance at the carnage he had wrought, continued on his way.
“What the hell was that?” I wondered. “He took those guys out like they were so many children. I barely saw what happened. It was so quick. Who is he? And what does he want at the Whale's Spout? Whatever it is I don’t want to get in his way!”
Dropping down from my vantage point I looked about at the scene before me. The once earstwhile leader of the gang was not about to trouble anyone else, the apparently useless staff had split his skull like a ripe melon dropped from a rooftop. The winded tough was gasping for air like a fish newly hauled from the water, and the third man was turning purple as he suffocated from a crushed windpipe.
“That has to be the most dangerous single man I have ever seen,” I mused.”If he has other skills than those he shows with the staff, God help anyone that thwarts him. And he moves as smoothly as oil on water. Strange looking too. I’ve not seen a face with such a serene look. Even as he took down the bullies, his face was as calm as a carven statue.” A quick search of the three bodies, (well, two bodies and one corpse, for the man with crushed throat finally thrashed his way to oblivion) revealed a little cash and in the belt pouch of the leader a small scrap of parchment with some spidery scribbled writing on it. “Not enough light here, best read it later.” With the note and the coins in my purse, I made another quick search of the toughs. From the boottop of the winded bully a pale ivory spot attracted my eye. “Hmm? What have we here? I rolled the boottop down to expose a slim ivory-handled dirk. "Nice. This little toy might come in handy” I flipped it a time or two, “Good balance and the bit of shagreen on the hilt means it won’t slip in a hand. Very nice.”
Satisfied that no more of value would be found, I tucked the weapon into my belt at the small of my back. Checking to make sure I could reach it with either hand, and looked around for the figure of the old man.
In the short time it had taken me to search the bodies, the little man, whose pace seemed so leisurely, had moved a surprising distance down the quay and was nearly out of sight.
With a final look around to make sure I had not missed any other valuables, I hurried after the strange little man. Using the shadows and timing my movement as best I could to the rhythm of the plash of the water on the piles, and the groan of the ships as they worked in the swell, I slowly drew closer. Staying about 15 or 20 feet behind I followed silently, I thought. The man I was following passed into the heavy shadow thrown by a net of cargo hanging from the loading boom of a small lighter at the wharf -and didn’t come out the other side. “What’s this? There’s no place to go. I know he didn’t board the ship, and there’s no other place he could have gone.” I eyed the shadow cast by the suspended mass of goods. “I’d have seen him for certain.”
Slowly approaching the patch of darkness, I strained my eyes trying to discover any place the little man could have gone. " I’ll be damned, he just vanished like smoke. Maybe I imagined the whole thing," I reached and felt the small of my back. " No the dagger’s still there so at least that much was real. Wonder where he got to?”
Shaking my head in mild confusion, I looked around once more, and started on toward the pools of bright light from the strings of lanterns hanging from the transplanted masts of the galleon, now tavern, ahead of me. I took only a step or two when a gentle voice nearly in my ear, asked, “Why do you go in shadow and follow this one?”
Startled, I sprang forward turning in mid air to land a mans length away in a defensive crouch facing the shadow, the little dagger gleaming in my hand. I saw nothing. A gentle touch on my wrist; the dagger dropped to my feet; my hand lost all feeling. Still nothing.
“Are all the people here thieves and killers?” the soft voice came from nowhere and everywhere. “You saw the brigands that attacked me. This one felt you above me on the wood; smelled you as you followed me and, regrettably, must say you walk as a shod horse on stone. What do you want with this poor old man?”
Tingling fingertips signaled the slow return of feeling to my hand. “Yes. I saw you and the bullies. Yes. Nearly everyone skulking around these wharves and piers at night is either a thief, a cutpurse or a crimp,” I shook my hand as the numbness faded. “How did you do that? For that matter where are you? I know you are here, but for the life of me I still can’t see you.”
The dry soft voice again seemed to emminate from everywhere and nowhere, “How is no matter; a small thing taught to children in my village before they are of five years. And I am here.” A rap of the staff on the wooden deck drew my eye to the right just in the shadow of the suspended load.
The mans shape was still. If it had not been for the sound to key direction, and if I had not known a person was there, he would have been unseen. His utter stillness and the dark color of his clothing made him of the shadow not in it. “As we both know I am no threat to you, may we move a little into the torch light by the gangway?” I asked. “I shall leave the dagger where it is, and with your permission retrieve it later before I leave.”
After a pause, and hearing no objection from the concealing shadow, I moved a few yards down the wharf and took a stance near the landward end of the gangway to the lighter; hands well away from any place a weapon might have been concealed. Like smoke across a rooftop the strange little man glided out of the shadow and stopped a little more than arms length away.
“It’s true, I was following you. After the way you handled those dockside toughs, I was curious. I have seen quarter-staff, swordplay, and other combat styles many times in my life. You use no technique or style I have ever seen. You also are from a race of people that I have not seen before. You move so silently and with such economy of movement I was impressed, and, curious. There are tales, -on the waterfront and in this city you hear many- of a group of people called Keepers who supposedly have similar skills. I’ve never encountered one, few do, and I discounted the tales as exaggerations. But seeing you and what you did has convinced me that there may be some truth in the old legends.”
The little man made no response. I continued,”I don’t imagine you are a Keeper, nor that you have even heard of them or their history. Legend says they are able to stand in the middle of a crowd and be unseen, that they can easily disable several opponents at once, move silently over any surface and pass through any gate or wall. Your display of some of these skills intrigued me. As your destination was also mine,” I said, “I thought to observe you as you made your way there.”
Listening, with his head tipped a little to one side, the stranger waited for me to finish. “You are of this place, this City?" he asked.
He continued softly, “This one was told that safe lodging for travelers could be had at the Whale's Spout, and that, with a proper offering, information could sometimes be obtained.”
“Well?” I hesitated. “Lodging, yes. The Spout is one of the few places this side of Three Gates that offers safe lodging, and... decent food,” I added as an after thought. “As to information. Depends on what information you want. Shipping schedules -arrivals, departures,ships overdue- are posted on the main floor next the service counter. That’s free to any able to read. Information on other things can be had at a cost.”
“You also seek the... Spout, you called it? May this one share your path?” the little man inclined his head in a small, brief bow.
“Uh. Yes. Certainly.” I said, “May I retrieve my little toy?” I gestured to the dagger lying at our feet. When no response was forth-coming, I walked over and picked up the dagger, slowly and openly returned it to the belt at the small of my back. Again assuring myself that it was easily reached by both hands.
“The Whale's Spout is just past the Ways you see beyond the light ahead. May I ask your name? Your business is none of mine; I am called Bastard Bart by my enemies," I smiled", and Bart by my friends. Since you are neither, you may call me as you choose.”
The little man smiled, “This one is known, in your tongue as......” he paused, “the closest would be Passing Breeze or, perhaps, Wind. Yes. Wind will do. You could not pronounce this one’s true name; and would understand the translation even less.”
“You speak our language, very well."
“This one thanks you for the courtesy of so saying, but fears that you are over generous. It has been many years since Wind was a student of your tongue. Regrettably, the memory of an old man is failing.”
“That I should be so clumsy when I am an old man is to be devoutly wished,” I exclaimed. “If your defensive skills and, yes, your skill with a language not your own is that of a failing old man, I would indeed wish such when I reach a comparable age.” With that I turned with a beckoning gesture and strode off toward the Whale's Spout, with the stranger slightly behind at my left.
We made our way down the docks toward the Whale's Spout. “I wonder what brings Wind to this backwater of the world. If he is just a traveler we don’t have much to offer in the way of sights or excitement -other than the occasional street thug-“ I chuckled to remembering the incident I had witnessed.” If he is a merchant, which I doubt, he is either traveling with Letters of Credit or his merchandise is small and easily concealed. He seems too reserved -and too deadly- to be a merchant.”
“Will you be in our City long? I ask only because I would very much like to learn some small part of your defensive skills, if such teaching would be available to such as I. I realize that in your eyes I must be as clumsy as that horse you mentioned earlier, but I am willing to learn, -if you are willing to teach- and even a small improvement in my own poor efforts would benefit me. In turn, perhaps I could be of some service to you in exchange?” I glanced at him as I spoke.
Wind continued his silent pace along the dockside, “This one has come far and perhaps has further to travel. The Whale's Spout may provide both lodging and the answer to your question and, to that which Wind seeks. Your request, and offer, will be considered and -perhaps- as you say; so shall it be. The future is a blank page in the journal of life upon which the fates write as they will. Our paths may continue together beyond the Whale's Spout. It will be revealed as it will be.”
“Strange little man. I’ve never encountered such calm indifference. Even during the skirmish with the toughs. Calm, controlled and uninvolved emotionally. He’s like a handful of smoke on the wind. It’s there, but beyond your grasp.” The lights of the service area outside the Whale's Spout were starting to dispel the night as each step brought us closer to the patrons at the trestles outside the tavern.
“If there are many more like you in your country I am impressed. Few can catch me unawares, and none as neatly as you did. Please accept my respect and admiration.” I bowed deeply; holding the bow a long second. The entry to the Whale's Spout is just over there. The man you wish to see for lodging is called “Short Measure”, a teasing reference to his drinks. They aren’t of course! The title is rather a coarse celebration of his honesty. His true name is Dovida Erda, mention of my name might save you a few coppers in lodging fees.”
Last edited by theBlackman; 10-03-2008 at 11:33 AM.
To Pay The Rent XXXII
(And now for plan "B")
Continuing west, I passed the Spout to an area of collapsing warehouses and decaying docks against which leaned the crumbling hulks of derelict ships that had outlived their usefullness.
Locate a crumbling oldstone warehouse with a splash of red ("like blood") Isaac had said. "'Tis on the landward end of the longest pier."
After a couple of errors, I found a building that seemed to resemble his description. Once the handsome, sturdy expression of a Burgher's wealth, the crumbling walls, fallen in roof and gaping windows sprawled in the pale light on the quay. Like a besotted lady of the evening. A splattered black stain ran down the wall from a second story window like sweat smeared mascara on her cheek. Once a stately beauty. Now a used, broken woman with no future and no dreams.
The massive oaken doors that once protected the riches of the merchant, leaned drunkenly askew. Exposing the cavernous, black void of the interior.
Well back from the opening I called: "I seek 'The Old One'", my voice echoed hollowly in the darkness. "Isaac said I would find him here and stands surety for me."
A rustle from the darkness announced the appearance of a small boy. He stopped just inside the door. When I made no move, nor spoke, he stood looking at me for a time, turned and vanished back into the darkness of the warehouse.
I waited. Hands well outside my cloak, clearly unarmed.
A trio appeared in the gloom of the doorway. Shredded, mudstained rags, held together by hope and the dried mud, shrouded their bodies. Male or female I couldn't tell.
"What seek you?" a cracked gravely voice asked.
"The Old One! I was to speak to Golden Bollocks." When Isaac had given me this name, I almost broke into gales of laughter. But I knew it would ruin my chances for help. Golden Bollocks! How got he his name? My curiosity was at fever pitch. But I did not ask then, and I knew I would not ask now.
The three heads huddled together for a moment. "Wait!" gravel voice called as the trio walked back into the warehouse and vanished in the gloom.
A shadow about seven feet tall, came floating out of the blackness. As it approached, the dim light revealed the skeletal figure of a man so thin he seemed the stick figure drawing of a child. Arms and legs so fleshless that every joint and bone could be seen; the stretch and flex of every tendon revealed under a transparent, parchment skin. A pair of bloodshot eyes blazed from a hairless head. The mouth was a lipless gash over blackened and rotted teeth.
The deep, rumbling bass that issued from this unbelieveable apparition nearly knocked me over with its depth and volume. My ears rang and low vibrations made my insides quiver like jelly.
"Who are you?" he boomed. A delayed echo from the depths of the building repeating the question a moment later. "Why ask you for The Old One and me Golden Bollocks?"
"Who I am, you need not know. What you need know is contained in this," I held up a small object wrapped in a rag, "Isaac sent it Golden Bollocks."
"From Isaac, y' say, give it here," he ordered, holding out a stick figure hand that looked like a bushel basket woven from willow withes.
I tossed him the package.
Golden Bollocks held it a moment. He unwrapped it and examined it closely. "Know ye what this be?", the deep voice asked.
"No," I replyed. "Isaac said give it to you. I don't spy on friends. I opened it not."
"Hurmph! Come ye in. Stay near and don't stray," he turned and beckoned me to follow.
Inside the darkness was somewhat lessened toward the rear of the huge space. Rustling and scrabbling sounds came to my ears from either side in the shadow as I followed close behind. Overhead the lighter sky showed through gaping holes in the broken roof far above our heads. No light penetrated the almost palpable gloom surrounding us.
A sour smell with overtones of rotting meat mixed with fecal matter grew stronger as the docks and doorway ebbed behind our passage. I think the noises were the movements of the scavengers that lived here. In all cities there was a hierarchy of poor. Below the middle class and workers were the day laborers. Unemployed except as they could find occasional work unloading a cart, or some other hourly or part-time labor. Earning a copper or two to pay the rent in some rotting tenement. Then came the homeless: Beggars, the footpads and nightstalkers, then the orphaned street urchins,. At the bottom the scavengers.
Controlled by the Beggar Master, the Beggars Guild was the top of the hierachy and governed all begging in the city. Here the blind, the maimed, the limbless came to get license to beg. Many of the legless men, roaming the streets on their little wheeled platforms, entreating passersby for a coin or two, were in fact, whole men. The small boys with open, supperating sores, covered in blood and pus; the old blind woman whining at the corner, were as uninjured as you or me. The Beggar Master wielded more power than the city watch or the Thieves Guild here.
The pickpockets and thieves, under control of the Thieves Guild, except for a few such as Garrett and me, were next in line. The street urchins ran in gangs and ruled their own small neighborhoods, then the petty thieves that worked the markets stealing food and other minor goods for sustenance, one step ahead of the law and the Guild and starvation. The nightstalkers and cut-throats were lawless thieves and killers that roamed the alleys and byways. Solitary, except for some who worked in pairs. Controlled only by their own desires and needs. A law unto themselves. Still they ranked next.
Then came the ragpickers and other scavengers that searched the middens and refuse piles for sustenance. At the bottom, were the sewer-rats. Those whose help I now sought.
The sewers of the city were their domain. They knew the twists and turnings of this underground gut as well as I knew the rooftops. Their livelihood was scrabbled out of the foul wastes of those living above. Any small scrap or coin that might have fallen in the street and through a drain was their object. Pickings were slim. A lucky accident might provide them a copper or two, or once in a day of miracles, a silver coin, a ring or even a gold imperial. These were the ultimate living dregs of the city. The dead mouldering in their graves were better off than these hapless wretches.
The main outfalls for the sewers were underwater twice a day. To enter the sewers they need wait for low tide, cross the stinking mudflats and enter from the seaward end. They needed to get in, search the filthy muck lining the floor of the sewer, with bare hands, and get out before the tide rose again and covered the mouth. Many who miscounted the hours drowned when the sewers flooded on the tide.
They did not and could not walk the streets or access the sewers from above through the safety of the street grates and service holes. Their presence would immediately result in arrest and death in the mines. The watch and good folk of the city had no mercy for these creatures.
These were the people, if such you would call them, among whom I sought aid.
--------------------------to be continued--------------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 10-31-2008 at 12:22 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXIII
My night vision is excellent. Entering the nearly stygian darkness behind Golden Bollocks, left me sightless for only a few paces. As we walked toward the dim light at the end of this colossal ruin, my eyes began to pickup the shapes of darker shadows, and some movement, along the walls to either side.
Our path was straight down the center line of the structure. Overall, except for the pillars supporting the ceiling and second level mezzanine above us, and an occasional pile of rubble from the fallen roof, the main floor was unobstructed. In dimensions, the warehouse (rather the ruins) covered a space about one hundred fifty feet wide and some three hundred in length. The mezzanine was thirty feet above the main floor, and the once roof some twenty above that.
In the strengthening light, dim though it was, the dark shapes along the walls became visible as rough shacks or cubicals. Constructed from worm-eaten boards, scraps of rotting sailcloth, the hatch covers from ships and other debris that one would find in the sea wrack washed ashore in a busy harbor. A strong sneeze would probably collapse most of them, although they did offer a modicum of privacy for the occupants.
Our journey ended at the rear wall. A ramshackle collection of boards formed a walled enclosure. A flap of sailcloth masquerading as a door hanging, leaked sickly light through holes and around the edges of the opening.
"In here", Golden Bollocks held the hanging to one side and stepped through.
I followed into a ten by fifteen foot rectangle closed off from the rest of the building. The light was coming from clay pots of fishoil with the pith of dried rushes used as wicks. The rancid oily smoke from the lamps filled the air with sooty strings.
A sharp cutting slash with the edge of his hand bade me stop where I was. Golden Bollocks crossed the room to the left front corner where a hammock made from a discarded fishnet held a huddled shape. Bundled in rags and propped up by pillows made of cast off coarse jute cargo bags, a wrinkled old woman sat eying us intently.
When he reached her side Golden Bollocks leaned over to whisper in her ear. He gave her the object that I had passed him from Isaac. She listened attentively, eying me all the time, except for a moment spent examining the contents of the rag she held.
While they were engaged, I looked around my surroundings. Furnishings were sparse. A hatchcover atop some crates was a table. A few more crates appeared to be used for seating. Overhead a tattered rag of sailcloth patched with scraps of jute, or other cloths, acted as a dustcatcher.
As flimsy as the structure was getting out, even if the doorway be blocked, would present no problem. Not that I was concerned about being attacked, but old habits die hard. Entrances and exits were my first thought when entering a strange house or room. The habit had served me in good stead over the years.
Golden Bollocks straightened up from his bent position at her side and beckoned me to approach. The old woman spoke.
"What seek ye here. Ye have Isaacs token, and Bollocks here, assures me ye carried it without examinining it." Her voice was strong and clear, belying her apparent infirmity and age. "Yes. We would have known," she said in response to my unspoken thought. "Perhaps ye might guess how, but I leave thet to ye to think on.
"Nay. Speak not yet," she stopped me with my mouth open. "I will speak and ye will listen. Then we shall see. If ye speak, or leave as ye have come." She held the wrapped object up. This will return to Isaac, but not with ye."
I nodded to show I understood, and she continued.
"By this token, Isaac gives ye stature as friend. It also tells me thet, in yur way, ye be an honorable man, will not betray a friend, and offer nay danger to me and mine. Because Isaac asks it, we will treat with ye, and trust that ye'll not do us false."
Her eyes bored into me like a gimlet through rotten wood. Here was an old woman, but the strength of her will was like tempered steel. I knew that, for all her infirmity, she ruled here. And was not to be cozened or taken lightly.
"Golden Bollock says ye seek the Old One. I be she." Noticing my surprise, she laughed for a moment. "Expected ye a man did ye?" And she laughed again. "I be more'n an hundred year old. I plan to live yet another few."
She waved a hand toward Golden Bollocks and pointed under her hammock. He reached down, retrieved a bottle and handed it her. She took a drink, handed it back to him and continued, "I did not always live like this. Once I were quality folk. Better'n ye, I would say. But here I be and here I ha' been nor eighty year. Now. Come ye closer and answer. What seek ye here, and why seek ye me?"
I looked questioningly at Golden Bollocks with a raised eyebrow. "Nay fear. Bollocks is as I when ye would have dealings here," she said. A boney hand waved me forward.
"I seek only information," I said, moving close to the old woman. "It has been said that the underbelly of the city is as a highway to you and yours. I would have the benefit of your knowledge. If this be allowed, and if you be willing.
"There have been many changes in the tunnels and drains over the years. I have here some sketches of what was and what now is." I paused to gather my thoughts. "Isaac is a friend. I asked that he help me and he sent me here. I am known by reputation among the Beggars Guild, and the Thieves Guild, who wish me ill, and by the gangs of urchins, whom I aid and sometimes employ.
"The face you see is not my own, but the name by which I go in this guise is not used by any other. An ye have heard of me or no, I am called Bastard Bart by most and Bart by friends. I am a true and loyal friend. To be my enemy is to be not!"
The Old One, cackled wryly. "We are the scum of the city, hated by nearly all. But we are not all cowards and faithless. Nor do we forgive slight or injury. Of Bastard Bart have we heard. Of the 'accidents' that befall his enemies have we also heard." She laughed again, her eye twinkling. "We will help ye. For a fee, of course."
"Of course!" I agreed, with a smile.
"Bollocks, bring one of the lamps closer," she ordered. As he went for the lamp, she beckoned me closer. "Spread ye the drawings here," indicating her lap. "My eyes are not failing yet but I cannot go to the table."
I spread the maps out. "This is the original survey. All the waterways are indicated. In this none of the sewers are yet installed. This," I laid out another. "Is the first plan of the system." She examined the two maps.
"I can read," she said, "so ye needn't fear on that score." She placed a finger on the second map. "This be the main run. All the feeders end up connected to it. Hmmm. This be bricked and closed off." She indicated a line that meandered from the north past my mews and merged with the main cloaca under Baron's way. "Twere done when I was but a girl. When the mews was first in, it were used. Now there is a new line more to the east."
She continued to point out changes in the system. I laid a third drawing down. "This was twenty-five years ago," I said, "the lines you mention are not shown on this one. This one here," I pointed to the abandoned tunnel near my house. "Where does it now connect?"
She drew a line with her finger past my house to a collecting pool near the Merchants bank. "It ends here after passing under the bank. But is walled in at the pool, and has collapsed some hundred feet or so to the north. Ye can still get in to her, by a small drain that comes from the vicinity of Angelwatch, but once in ye be blocked by the fall and the closure at the pool.
"When it were used, it were a good place to dredge. Near every day some small coinage might be found. Now it be just a useless hole."
"The area I am most interested in is here," I said, pointing to the passages near the Art Museum. "This large feeder that passes near the canal. What know you of this one?"
"When the canal was cut the route intersected the drain. It was walled off at both ends and a bypass made from just north of the building." She paused and signaled for Golden Bollocks to pass her the bottle again. She took a drink. After a moment she took another, and passed the bottle back to him. "An old womans mouth gets dry with so much chatter," she said with a grimace. "One time I would have blinded ye with my beauty," she laughed. "Now I can only lure ye with my wits. But of those I still have more than enough," and she winked conspiratorially at me. "The lower part, here by the street fronting the building is no longer used. Some minor seepage from the canal keeps it damp and the end, at the waterfront, has a small grill to allow the seepage to drain out, but the rest of the lines that once fed it are sealed.
"If ye be thinking of using it to break into the basement of the building. Forget it. The nearest ye come to the foundation is ten or twenty paces. And the tide would trap ye in the deadend, e'en should ye break in the grate."
I swallowed my disappointment. "And now, what service or price do you want for your help? I will leave it you to set the fee."
"Such trust ye have, I could cheat ye and ye would ne'er know, lest ye check each bit of information," she smiled slyly.
"Nay," I said. "Isaac would not send me else he knew that fair dealing would be given. Tis true, the information was not to my advantage. But may stand me in good stead in the future. So. What be the cost?"
She lay back on her cushions closing her eyes. For some minutes she lay silent whilst I waited under the glaring eye of Golden Bollocks. Then she sat up, collected the maps. "It will cost ye, 5 in silver. The price is fair, for it has benefited you, e'en though not for the moment. And..." she paused. " One future service. It may be that we might need yur knowledge or skill to correct a wrong, or to pay a debt of mine own. What say ye?"
I could have haggled, I knew, but it was true. I could use the information about the Merchant Bank, and about the dry tunnel near the mews where sat my house. Both could well be worth more than the silver. As to the 'service'.... "I grant you both," I said, "with the provision that the service not be as an assassin, nor that it be something that I cannot accomplish in a single day or night. And that you claim the service within one year."
"So be it." she handed me the maps.
Golden Bollocks led me back through the warehouse to the wharf. "We will have Isaac contact you should we need your service," he boomed.
----------------------------------To be continued-------------------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 04-25-2003 at 06:20 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXIV
(Different strokes for different folks)
I made my way home. Openly, but wary. The two earlier incidents of the night -the thugs in Harlot's Lane, and the wharfrats- made me a little more cautious than usual. Some nights are worse than others for whatever reason. So my initial thoughts were of no use for the Art Museum. No matter. Tonight the Georges would grace my walls.
The guards would be heavier during the reconstruction, so now was the best time. The spiral utility stair would be good for an escape route. I doubt me that the guards would make use of it. For the custodian and others to use it made some sense, but the guards would not like, nor in fact, be permitted to be out of sight of the paintings and other rare items the museum contained. If you can't see it you can't guard it.
Nearing my mews, I turned and passed through the common so as to enter my hide-a-way un-noticed. Once inside I passed into my dwelling. I had a quick snack, and considered my options.
The grounds of the old estate were best entered from the street to the rear if I chose to avoid the guards patrolling the exterior. I could easily reach the roof and the skylights by climbing one of the gutter downfalls. I could also use the shrubbery to conceal myself while the guard passed, and then attempt the climb.
The canal passed quite close to the building. In fact, the east wall of the building was only a foot or two from the channel. There was also a balcony on that side that actually hung out over the canal. But it was some 20 feet above the ground, and the facing of the walls on this side was of dressed and closely fitted granite with no gaps into which a fingertip or toenail could hold.
It had an advantage that there were few windows, and the main galleries did not extend entirely across the building. There was a narrow hallway on this side, at all three floors, that had been used for the servants passage when the mansion was a residence. This allowed the maids,valets and scullions to traverse the building to perform their services without coming in contact with the occupants.
The front of the building was too well lit and the main entry well guarded, as well as being only a few yards from the street and the passing night watch.
For some time I sat at my pipe thinking about what I had seen that morning, and what the manager had told me during our tour. I rolled the plan of the building around in my mind. Like a child rolling a jelly-filled candy around in his mouth before biting down to get at the sweet center.
I turned it this way and that. I went in the front. I went in the roof. I went in the window to the managers office. None of these seemed to be the point at which to taste the treat.
I thought some more. The canal wall was a bit too high for a swim and the wall windowless for all puposes. Even did I get on the grounds, it would be necessary to expose myself to the lighted areas at the front and rear, and possible discovery by the guards as I came around from the canal to where I could attempt to enter the museum.
Ahhhhh! I got it.
I finished my wine, knocked the dottle out of my pipe and returned through the bedroom to my workshop. There, I selected a few tools for the nights work. My trusty BJ, of course, a package of dried mustard powder I'll tell you later., my special rope and grappel. To that I added the lockpicks, the little ivory handled dagger I just picked up at the docks, a soft cotton bag, and a handful of water arrows and my bow, just in case. I don't think I will need them with what I have in mind but they come anyway.
I crossed the commons again and headed for the fishmarkets on the canal just to the north of the museum.
The night air was a bit clearer than the earlier hours, but the ground mist was still hanging in pockets here and there. The moonlight had faded away. The hulking shapes of the buildings and towers loomed black against the lighter night sky. The city was pretty much asleep. Some drunken revelers staggering home, the night watch on its rounds, and the derelict homeless searching for a doorway or niche in which to sleep were all that were about.
The streets were dark. A beam here and there from a window spilled a rare pocket of light from the wayside. The widely spaced torches lighting the street, left long passages of shadow across the town.
The fish market and the moored boats at the docks in the canal behind was mostly unlighted and dark. The fishermen would not be returning until the small hours of the morning, some hours away, and the fishmongers sheds were closed and empty. Some of the fisherfolk lived on their boats. They too were at their beds. Except for the smell, the rats and feral cats, and myself, the alleys and runs of this warren were empty.
I made my way to the canal and looked out over the boats tied to the rickety piers. Spotting two or three that would serve me I checked them out one by one. The first was a bit too large for what I had in mind. From the second, the sound of snoring ripped the air with a rasping volume easily heard a distance away. The third was the outside of a three deep stack moor, but looked to be exactly what I needed.
I approached the dockside boat. I listened for any sign of occupancy. Hearing none, I slowly stepped over the gunwale and nearly trod on a small boy asleep on the deck, rolled in a blanket. I froze. When he did not awaken at the slight roll of the boat caused by my boarding, I slowly crept away to the other side and eased on to the next deck which was a few inches lower than the boat I was on.
I paused and looked this flush decked boat over very carefully. I saw an open hatch to the fishhold, and a small cuddy forward ( really just a open shed thwartships in the bow) in which there was nothing, the boat was unoccupied. I approached the boat of my choice.
About twenty-five feet in length with a beam of about eight, she seemed to be ideal. Gaff-rigged, her single mast was a bit over thirty feet in height. Perfect. The crosstree for the shroud spreader was fitted with a small platform for the fishfinder, and was about twenty-five feet above the deck.
The current in the canal was running seaward at about half a knot, or perhaps a little more, and would drift the boat along with no trouble. I would need only fend her off the canal walls and scull with the rudder a bit now and then to keep her on course. I was not about to single hand the sail, but would not need or want to.
A slash of my dagger forward, and again aft and she floated free of the rafted mooring. I pushed her off. When the gap was sufficient between me and the other boats, I took the tiller and with a few strokes sculled her into the current. There was a fifteen foot pole lying on the deck under the rail on the port side. Many working boats on the canal carry these. They are used to maneuver the boats in close quarters in and out of the dock area in the shallow canal. Getting in and out of the tight quarters of the narrow passages, the poles were much easier and more effective than oars or sculls for the larger boats.
The museum was about a half mile down stream and, fortunately for me, no bridges crossed the canal between. Even though the mast was set in a tabernacle to fold down for passage under a bridge, raising and lowering it was not a job for one man. The mast had been left erected with some nets hanging from the shrouds to dry. This would actually assist me when I reached the museum area. I poled the boat to the west side of the canal. A light touch now and then, with the pole, on the wall of the canal or the bottom, kept the boat drifting slowly down with the current.
With the boat under control for the moment, I prepared my grappel and rope. I coiled the line in the bow making sure it would run free by faking it down in a figure eight. I sat down at the tiller and waited as the current worked me closer to the museum. A flick of the rudder now and then eased my way and kept the boat pointed downstream.
When the museum began to come into view, I went to the bow, picked up the grappel. A boat length or two above the museum I swung the grappel around my head a time or two and made a cast onto the grounds. The grappel fell short. I retrieved it quickly, spun it and cast again.
This time the grappel caught something and held. The boat was just passing the balcony. I took tension on the line and braced myself. As the line took the weight, the bow of the boat began to turn into the bank. The stern continued to swing until the boat was facing upstream. I held on and the current began to push whole boat sideways toward the museum. I pulled the line in. Moving the boat upstream as she slowly drifted sideways.
The overhang was just ahead of me. I pulled the boat up until the mast was resting against the canalside edge of the balcony. I tied the line off to the bow. The press of the current kept the boat against the bank, and the mast against the balcony. I cut a piece of line off the remnants of the stern line, and swarmed up the netting to the crosstree which was just below the floor of the overhang. I quickly tied the mast to the railing.
With the boat secured, held by the mast and the line to the grappel, the mast made a perfect ladder. I had only to reach up a little to grasp the railing and swing myself onto the balcony. I crouched in the shadows and slowly eased over to the multi-paned double doors opening into the museum.
I was looking right into the central lobby of the second floor. The interior was lighted by gaslights at the top of the staircase and at the entrances to the four main display areas to either side. I saw no movement or indication of the guard. I did know that there was an interior roving watchman, but was not sure of his schedule. I tried the door. Locked as I had expected.
I positioned myself where I could see most of the staircase and the interior and still be in shadow and sat down to wait. While waiting for the guard to show, I checked my equipment. Making sure that the mustard powder was readily available in a pouch that hung at my belt near my left hand. I opened the mouth of the pouch and knotted the laces so that the weight would not close the mouth again. It would narrow but not be able to close. I practiced with my left hand. Using two fingers to spread the mouth and slip my hand inside. I made a fist and made sure that I could withdraw the fist from the pouch. I made a small adjustment in the knot to enlarge the opening. I tried again and easily spread the mouth, inserted my hand and withdrew my fist.
Satisfied, I waited.
In about twenty minutes the guard lazily came up the stairs. He paused in the center of the landing, looked casually into each area without moving a step. Having been there that morning, I knew he could not see the full length of the room from where he stood, nor into the alcoves each contained. A dozen people could have been in one or both of the rooms. Hidden in the right place they would be invisible, he would see nothing. With this level of security I would have no trouble.
He stood there a minute, and then took to the stair again and headed up to the third floor. In a few minutes he returned and continued down to the lower level. As his head passed out of sight, I used my lockpicks. In seconds I was inside. I needed to cross the center area to the southeast chamber where the Georges was hung. Hearing no sound I quickly but quietly passed the head of the stair and ducked into the room where the painting was on display. I backed into the shadow of a statue that stood in a niche just inside the door to the room. I needed to wait for him to return on his route. To attempt to take the painting now would be risky. He could return at any minute. Whether he was regular on his patrol or just haphazard, I did not know. I did know that unless he became more alert and attentive, I was safe. If his prior performance was his normal standard I had no worry.
While awaiting the return of the nightman, I eyed those paintings I could see from my vantage point. Other than the Georges, nothing near me was of particular value, or personal interest. In the back of my mind an idea was trying to surface. It toyed with me, but for the moment remained a furtive shadow in my memory.
After a time, with no sound on the stair or any indication of the guards return I was just about to make for the painting when I heard a wheezing breath ascending the stairs. Shortly the guard appeared under the lamp at the landing. Again he gave a cursory glance into each of the four chambers without entering them. He stood for a minute or so shuffling his feet and then started up to the third floor.
As he went up the stair I crossed the room to the Georges at the south end. I lifted the bottom corner of the painting and looked behind to see how it was attached to the wall. A simple hook held a wire that was attached to the painting's frame. It took no time for me to slip it from the hook and place it into the waiting cotton bag. I froze, crouched against the wall as I heard the guard coming back down from the third floor.
He continued down without pause, and I made my way back to the double doors and onto the balcony. As I put the painting down to relock the doors, the idea that had been teasing me in the back of my mind sprang out into full view. The safe in the office. If I could tap the safe, and if it actually held anything of value, especially cash I could move myself into a better position in the social register. If I stole the money. I could return some, ( Of course, not all. I am a thief you know.) in the form of a donation to the museum. Such a ploy would credit me much with some of the snootier members of the upper crust, and possibly give me entry to more pigeons to pluck. "Good idea", I thought at the time. Of such self-serving stupidity has the downfall of many a man been accomplished. In this case nearly mine.
I re-entered the museum and made my way to the curtain concealing the alcove to the spiral service stair. I used my picks and had the door open shortly. I closed the door and began to make my way down. At every groan or squeak of the ancient stair, I paused until I was certain that no one had heard and come to investigate.
The door to the office opened to my picks with no great difficulty. All the locks in the building were ancient and childs play to defeat. The safe, a venerable antigue, stood just behind the desk.
I walked over and gave the dial a spin. I could feel the tumblers roll, and actually hear a muted click as they engaged the pins. This will be no challenge at all. I went to the sideboard and picked up a brandy snifter. With the glass in my left hand I Placed the mouth of the bowl to the safe and my ear to the base. I gave the dial an experimental twirl. The glass amplified the sound and the rattle of the tumblers passing the pins was a clear as a shout.
I spun the dial right at couple of times. Setting the dial at zero, I slowly turned the dial left. Clunk, the pin dropped at 20. I turned it right. Clunk, the pin fell at 58, I continued to the left and felt as well as heard the pin engage at 12. I tested the handle. It gave with a slight groan of ancient metal.
A sound behind me caused me to sink down behind the desk. I could hear the doorknob being rattled. Damn! I forgot to relock the door!. The sound of the knob turning and the door unlatching was as loud as a cartwheel on cobbles to my adreneline stressed ears.
"What! I coulda swore this door was locked last time I checked." I heard the guard say as the door opened.
I slumped lower behind the desk. I slipped my left hand into the pouch of mustard powder. A glance to the safe showed that the door was slightly ajar where I had left it as I had ducked behind the desk. "Damn, if he sees that I'm in the stew pot."
I could hear the rasp of a sword leaving a scabbard, and the heavy tread of the guard approaching the desk.
"Hmm. Seems to look alright." The footsteps stopped at the desk. I could hear him breathing and the shuffle of his boots on the floor as he turned to look around the room. "What!! The safe door is open."
He moved along the front of the desk coming around to my right. I withdrew a handful of powder and cocked my arm. I kept a close watch up over my right shoulder to the end of the desk. As I saw his head appear over the corner I threw the powder in his face. He sneezed, and brought his hands up to rub the powder from his burning eyes. The sword dropping to the floor, as he groaned in agony. I jumped up and caught him by the shoulder and spun him around. A quick slap with my blackjack and he folded to the floor with a thump that rattled the glass on the sideboard.
I ran to the door, and poked my head into the hall. The guard had hit the floor so hard, I was sure the noise would bring another to investigate. Either he was the only guard for the door, and lower level or his partner was deaf. The roving guard checking the upper floors may have been upstairs or on his way, because I heard nothing to worry me. I waited a while to make sure there was no one coming. When a few minutes had passed I went back and checked the guard I had knocked out.
He was sleeping peacefully at the end of the desk. I checked and he was breathing raggedly but seemed to be alright, except for the tears seeping from his irritated eyes.
I pulled the safe door fully opened. Inside was a small strongbox, two fine chamois pouches, and some papers and files. I grabbed the pouches and the box. Closing the safe I gave the dial a spin, checked that it was locked, and exited to the hall. I locked the office door and headed for the stairs. I ignored the groans and squeaks as I mounted and soon reached the second floor door.
I eased the door open and stepped into the alcove behind the curtain. With the tip of my dagger, I parted the curtain enough to give me a slit to look through. There was no sign of the other guard. I crouched and crept along the wall to the balcony doors and slipped out. I relocked the door. With the strongbox and pouches tucked into my shirt, I picked up the painting and climbed over the railing to the mast.
Once on deck I put the painting down and climbed onto the top of the canal wall. Making my way along the bank, I located the grappel. It had caught on a shrub near the wall. I freed it and headed back to the boat, coiling the line as I went. Up the mast, cut the lashings, and let the boat drift away.
I let the boat drift a few lengths while I gathered the grappel and rope. I coiled the rope around my waist, hooked the grappel to my belt and picked up the pole. I poled the boat over to the other side of the canal and let the current take it as it would. In a little while I saw a landing just ahead. I guided the boat toward the landing and a few yards away, dropped the pole, picked up the bag with the painting and jumped ashore as the abandoned boat drifted away.
A careful thirty minute skulk through the darkened streets brought me safely home. A time or two I needed to avoid a group of the nightwatch, but found enough time, and shadow to hide in and they passed without noticing me.
Home sweet home. I left the my tools and the loot in my hidey hole. Passing into the bedroom I disrobed and washed up. I sat for a minute with a congratulatory glass of port, then refilled the glass and went in to examine my treasures. I unwrapped the Georges and took it into the den I had in my safehouse. It truly was a masterpiece. Georges seascapes seemed so alive you expected to feel the salt spray leap from the painting and dampen your face.
This little gem was a dark rockbound coast under a bright moon. Dark storm clouds scudding across the sky let shafts of silver light through to illuminate the raging waves that crashed at the foot of tall cliffs, atop which a lone lighthouse shone a beacon of light that pinned a dying ship on a rocky reef.
So real you could almost hear the crys and moans of the vessel as the reef ripped her keel off and shredded her stout oaken timbers.
I hung the painting next the other Georges that I had. This also a seascape. But of a calm golden day. In the middle ground a three masted bargue was hove to, while a longboat from the foreground breasted the swells returning to the ship. The contrast of the pair made a most delightful match.
I admired the painting for a while then returned to the workshop. One of the chamois bags contained a jade figurine. Obviously very old. The carving was of a tiger couchant. Carved of white and amber jade, with the body of white and the amber cunningly used for the stripes. A miniature masterpiece. In length about 6 inches it was amazingly detailed. The other bag disgorged a gold gorget. About 3 inches wide, and 5 long, the gold was carved in bas-relief with the face of some ancient god, or demon.
The strongbox opened to disclose some twenty silver pieces, a handful of coppers, and fifty gold imperials. All in all, a good nights work.
I left the items on the bench, returned to my bedroom and a much needed rest. Time enough tomorrow to continue my inspection of my nights work.
--------------------------to be continued----------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 05-28-2003 at 04:50 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXV
I awoke to a glorious day. The fading of Autumn into winter seemed to have been set back a day or two. Although it was early in the day a clear golden beam through a crack in the window curtains illuminated the room.
I broke my fast with a half-dozen shirred eggs with blackbutter and a nice rare steak. I felt I deserved it. Sitting in my den later, I admired my new acquisitions. The Georges' made a good pairing. The tiger found a home on the corner of my desk.
The coinage went in my stash, except for a handful of coppers, 5 gold imperials -which I would ostentasiously donate to the museum- and a few silver peices that went into my purse.
The maps of the drainage and sewer system, now annotated with the information from "the Old One", were open on my desk. The abandoned dry line under the Merchant Bank on Baron's Way would receive some attention later. According to the Old One, the one that passed my mews actually came across the commons to the north, passing to the rear of the four houses I owned. It came within a few feet of the basement walls of "Mr. Feiht's" house and the adjacent one I used as a safehouse.
In addition to the passage connecting the two houses from my bedroom, there was another connecting both cellars. In the latter case, through a disused cistern in my basement. The former owner had boarded it over and let it go dry when the water source had been cut off by construction to the north of the commons. The same project that had caused the sewer line to be abandoned and bypassed.
Without revealing too much of my past; over the years I had excavated a tunnel between the two cellars, and installed secret doors at each end. Skills acquired in my youth. Being the son of a shipowner does have its advantages, as does being raised in the sea-girt northren reaches of the country. The abandoned sewer would receive similar attention later. A fox always has more than one den.
I put the plans aside. I devoted another hour or two reviewing my plans for my return to Julius's mansion. I cleared my desk, took another look at the Georges, and stretched to work out the kinks caused by bending over my desk. "Ahhhh!"
I had a couple of days to "kill", if you will pardon the expression, Wind had aroused my curiosity. A trip to the Whale's Spout might be amusing. I could listen to some gossip. Gamble a little. And relax.
Time for a nap. I think I'll take "Dirk" out tonight. Dirk, you ask? Another of my alter egos. Dirk, so called because he wears crossed bandoliers with a dozen throwing knives sheathed on them, -knives he uses well by the way- is known as a cut-purse, pickpocket and petty thief. He's friendly, inoffensive and unassuming. For all of that he is dangerous. He has a slight limp, and walks canted to the left, as if his clavicle had been broken in the past and had not properly set.
The Whale's Spout was not your usual city dive, the whole place was built from the hull of an old galleon resting on itís side. All the timber had been white-washed, the removed masts had been erected across the street and lit up with hundreds of coloured lanterns. The tavern itself occupied the hold of the old galleon with the one time gundeck converted into small rooms. The owner rented these out to the travelers passing through, and, of course, to those shipowners or Captains who needed privacy away from thier wives. A skylight had been cut into the orlop deck overhead allowing light in during the day. Now, a faint glow from the lighted masts filtered through. On the main floor of the Spout some secluded booths had been constructed on either side of the keel near the bows. Isolated from each other, and the general hurly burly, with curtains made of doubled heavy leather reinforced with chains sewn between the layers in a random pattern to thwart the thrust of sword or dagger. These booths were used frequently for liasons between the sexes or for secure private arrangements of a more sinister purpose.
The jagged opening, forced through the hull of the old converted galleon when she wrecked, had been left as graphic evidence of the violence that had been visited upon her aged hull when the storm had thrown her ashore. The splintered 10 inches of double planked strakes had been trimmed only enough to remove the sharp spikes of Oak that would have endangered those entering. From the hull exterior to the inside of the cargo hold, now tavern, a short arched tunnel ending in leather curtains, tied back to allow the entrance of the mild night breeze, opened onto the main floor. I paused at the curtained entrance and looked around the tavern floor, noting the upper level and the three hatchways through which her cargo had once been lowered.
The deck beams overhead had been reinforced to make up for the removal of the stantions that once supported the gun deck. This opened the ships interior from stem to stern, making the entire hold one long narrow space. Except for the small private booths at the bow and the bar with its spouting brass whale directly opposite the entrance, the interior held only trestle tables and chairs. Bulkheads at each end concealed what appeared to be storerooms and the kitchen. Hard against the wall of Three Gate, the galleon was lying with her bow to the west. The cable tier and locker seemed to be in use for liqour stores, and the flow of drabs and servers with steaming platters of stew and loaves of bread from the area of the stern identified the kitchen.
The bar was a large semi-circle made of a dark, rich, wood that was shipped into the city from some far off country, behind it, a huge bronze cast of a whale had been mounted on a large, ornately carved plinth. Ale spurted from itís blow hole and cascaded down its sides into a shallow pool from which the barmen filled the pitchers and tankards. The sides of the plinth were crammed with bottles, most of the labels could not be read, those that could, had names that would make any respectable women blush.
The Whales Spout was slowly filling up. The clientel were fisherfolk, finished with setting the nets and boats to right, coming in for a dram before heading off to a warm bunk; Captains of merchant or trading vessels, meeting to complain, or brag about, thier last voyage, exchange information about newly found shipping hazards; hangers on and the usual crowd of gamblers, and those interested in the gossip, or the possible gain to be had in lightening the purses of the seamen, and of course, the scattering of scallywags.
The air was slowly turning bluish from the clouds of pipe smoke and the by-products of the kitchen and the flickering torches that lit the interior. The light breezes of the evening coming in the open ports and the entryway -actually the large gash caused by the storm that threw her up against Three Gate- did little to relieve the fug of smoke, cooking oils, and odor of sweat that began to build up in the tavern.
Some of the patrons took their drinks out to the trestles set up in front of the Whale's Spout under the torches adorning the masts. In a corner to the right rear of the entrance, and away from the main crowd, a dice game was in progress. The victory cries of the winners, the groans and cursing of the losers, filtering into the general din.
From his position near the bar, Dovida looked out over the crowded service area of his tavern. From where he stood, he could see the entire expanse of his empire. Over the years he had built the Whale's Spout up slowly from the abandoned hulk he had purchased from the merchant who had owned the once proud ship. Acommodation had been reached with the city council and harbor master allowing him to purchase the vacant land upon which the sea had tossed the wreck. The reputation for good food, honest drink, and honest dealing, had taken long to acquire. The thirty patient years he had invested had borne fruit. The reputation of the inn reached ports all around the known world. The rules were simple. All were welcome. No disturbances beyond an occasional thrown fist or curse were allowed. Dovidís peacekeepers were polite, gentle and firm. All were experts in combat with and without arms, and any who broke the rules were escorted outside, and given one warning. A second offense resulted in the permanent banishment of the offender.
The usual gathering of waterfront workers and fishermen were in. Along with some of the independent thieves and mercenaries. The well-to-do were there in lesser numbers, as well as some of the ladies of the evening. The Spout was well reputed and the doors open to all. Dovida and his peacekeepers ensured the safety of the patrons.
Tightly grouped little mobs of men here and there in the packed room told me where the dice, card and other gambling was going on. I grabbed a firkin of ale from a passing tray. In its place I left a few coppers and slipped into the crowded room, ignoring the open-mouthed serving girl.
Dovida gave me a welcoming wave as I passed the bar. I nodded in return and continued to wend my way across the common room. I noticed that the curtains were drawn on some of the private booths in the bow, as I crossed toward the gambling activity near the kitchens in the stern.
--------------------Chapter to continue-------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 05-21-2003 at 11:18 PM.
Chapter XXXV cont'd
I stopped, here and there, to exchange a word or two, or spend a few minutes with some of those who knew me as Dirk. Easing toward a dice game going on in a corner near the stern as I passed through the tavern.
I stood at the edge of the crowd around the table as I watched the action. A tall slender man with a sharp hooked-nose, that gave him the profile of a raptor, was the big winner. Dressed in a colorful embroidered jerkin over a fine cambric shirt with wide-mouthed long sleeves, his flambouyant gestures entertained the onlookers and players. He seemed a jolly sort. Cajoling the dice, his fellows, and lady luck, with pleas of entreaty to give him good fortune; not take their loses so much to heart -"That's dice my friend. Maybe the next roll"- and the dice to continue to show him favor in reverse order.
The sleeves of his shirt were so long that the cuffs covered his hands at times requiring him to constantly pull them back as he picked up the dice or made ready to throw. He had a habit of picking the dice up left handed. Then he flipped them to his right hand and make the throw. The game being played was a one on one game. The winner rolling against a new challenger. The onlookers could, and did, make side bets with each other on whether the challenged or challenger would win the hand.
The game used three dice. Instead of numbers the faces bore symbols, -in the highest quality dies, pictures- that represented a Footman, (the lowest) a Pikeman, an Archer, a Knight, a Castle, and a Dragon, (the highest). The lowest hand was three Footmen, the highest three Dragons. The scoring was somewhat complicated but understood by all. For example a Footman, a Knight and a Dragon, was loser to a Footman, a Castle and a Dragon. In all three-hundred and six combinations were possible.
Either player could set the stake. They could, and did, haggle about the amount, raising or lowering it until the stakes were agreed. Each rolled and, of course, the highest hand won the pot.
Our friend with the long sleeves was doing well. He played recklessly, but luck seemed to sit on his shoulders. He would lose two or three smallish bets of coppers, sometimes to the tune of fifty or sixty in two or three rolls. But he would press the stakes and seemed to win the big pots of silver that more than recouped his losses. He would fearlessly ride a losing streak and raise his wagers until the pots were quite large for this crowd.
In thirty minutes or so he had taken out some 8 or 11 challengers, graciously buying the losers a drink, with a pat on the shoulder, a smile of bon homie and a few coppers. "I never like to send a man away broke," he would say, "have a few coppers for a drink or two, and better luck next time."
Most of his victims would accept, and tell the people around the table that to lose to such a good sport and pleasant companion was almost a pleasure. And many raised a mug in toast to the victor.
This looks like my game!
As he raked in the winnings from his last game, the hook-nosed man surveyed those standing around the table. His eyes raked the crowd much as a hunter might search a forest for prey.
I bellied up to the table, fumbling at my pouch. "I'll play," I said timourously, a weak slightly thickened slur in my voice. "I bet 20 coppers." My hand trembled a little as I put my coin on the table.
He looked at me suspiciously, his eyes counting the sheathed blades on my bandoliers -twelve in all. Six on each strap, handles outward to be easily to hand- his eyes narrowed a bit as his mind worked the situation out. To him, I sounded timid and a little drunk. I appeared slightly crippled, yet, I wore my weapons, well used from the look of the hilts, openly and with careless ease. I could almost hear him thinking. I was either very good with them, or I was trying a protective bluff.
"L'es see your money," I said thickly, "if you doan wanna play, gimme and I'll play summon else." I reached for the dice.
He smiled broadly and slapped some coins down. "Sure you don't want to make it thirty?" He asked with a smirk.
I took a gulp from my firkin. Fumbling in my pouch, I spilled another handful of coins on the table, amongst them a few silver pieces. "Oops," I grinned crookedly, "too much." I picked up the silver and the extra coppers. "Lessee? Twenty there, an one, two..." I sloppily counted out ten coppers and added them to the pile of coins in the center of the table next to the dice.
"Roll the dice!"
His left hand reached out to pick up the dice. As he did so his sleeve slid down, covering his hand and the dice. He picked them up, and, as he had done all evening, flipped them from his left hand to his right. The dies rattled around in his fist while he whispered, and cooed to them... "Come on babies. Dragons. Please be good," and let the dice go.
They spilled out on the tabletop, one spinning on its corner, and fell. Archer, Castle, and Castle.
I took up the dice. "Hmm! Tough to beat." I rolled. Footman, Knight, Castle, a loser to his hand.
He shook his head sadly and reached out to claim the stakes. "Next," he said.
Before anyone could answer, I threw another handful of coppers out on the table.
He shrugged, and looked around as if to say to the crowd, "What do I do with this simpleton?"
He spread the coins out with a finger. "Looks like about forty. 'S that right?"
I leaned over and eyed the coins, slopping a bit of my ale on the table, "Sorry. Yuh looks like it."
He matched the stakes, and rolled again, still with the left hand pickup, toss to right hand, roll the dice, pattern. This time two Pikemen and a Castle.
I rolled and got a Footman, a Pikeman, and a Castle, another loser. "Damn," I shouted.
He raked in the pot and looked at me out of the corner of his eye. "Well?"
I put some more on the table. He matched me. This time I won. Then he bet a few coppers and lost. For some five or six hands the dice went back and forth. Each of us losing a few then winning, although he won two hands to my one. I acted more and more drunk, and agitated. Raising the pot, over and over, until there was a pot of thirty silvers and a couple gold imperials on the table.
The crowd around the table had grown as our game went on. Bystanders were standing on benches and table to be able to see the two of us going head to head. The babble of the onlookers grew more and more excited as the stakes mounted.
I looked blearily across the table at my opponent. "Ok. Les do it." I emptied my purse, increasing the pot by 5 more silver and 5 imperials. "Match that you poppinjay," I crooned.
With a shake of his head he dropped his purse on top of the pile. "That will more than cover it," he said casually. "Are you sure you want to play the fool?"
"It's your play. Roll!"
He reached for the dice, again with his left, and as before the sleeve fell over his hand. One of my daggers pinned his sleeve to the table preventing him from moving it, another pricked his throat, as I leaned over the table and hissed, "Move your hand and you die."
One of Dovida's peacekeepers, who had been watching the action, came breasting through the mob, scattering the onlookers as he cleared a path. "Here, here. What's this. Put down the knife."
"No. Get Dovida. I need him here. The knives don't go down until he is here. And I can kill him before you reach me," I said in a clear voice.
"Don't get hasty," the peacekeeper said."Have Dovida come over here," he called out across the now silent games. "We have need of him back here."
Calls for Dovida passed from mouth to mouth across the tavern to the bar.
While we waited, I maintained eye contact with the man I held at knife point, but not to the extent of ignoring the peacekeeper and the others nearby.
"Alright, Dirk, what's this about?" Dovida, came to stand next to me. "You know that this is not allowed. You take your differences outside. Now what's this about?"
Keeping my knive to the throat, I pulled the dagger from the table, freeing the sleeve. "Don't move a muscle," I said to the hook-nosed man. "Look under the sleeve and his hand, Dova."
With a nod to the peacekeeper, who nodded back and moved around to stand behind the man I threatened. Dovida reached across the table and took hold of the sleeve. Slid the sleeve back up the mans arm, exposing his hand cupped on the table. "Open your hand." The man slowly spread his hand out wide. "Now. Lift your hand straight up."
The hand slowly rose above the table exposing the dies. "Look in the sleeve," I said.
Dovida, folded the cuff over. Sewn into the cuff at what would be the bottom of the sleeve, was a small pocket containing a set of dice. Dovida took them out and gave them a roll. They clattered across the table and came to rest. Castle, Dragon, Dragon. Dovida did it again. Same faces.
"Let him go Dirk."
I sheathed the knife, and as I did so the crowd erupted in rage. Those losers who had stayed at the table, along with some of their friends, lunged at the hook-nosed man. Dovida and the peacekeeper were inundated in the wave of enraged patrons. I scooped up both purses, grabbed my firkin from the table and swept as much of the stake as I could into it.
I got all the silver and gold and most of the coppers, and melted back through the mob, elbowing my way through to a quiet corner where I could watch the melee. Quite pleased with myself. The sleeve, the flip of the dice, the way he bet. All told me he might be cheating. Watching closely had confirmed it to me. Using the sleeve as cover he was switching the dice. He would let the sucker win a few and then press the bet. Then he would switch the dice and take that pot.
Conning a conman is always fun.
-----------------------------More to come--------------------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 05-21-2003 at 11:19 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXV-cont'd
The commotion and activity around Dovida and "hooknose", had attracted a flow of curious patrons toward the scene. This emptied a number of the nearby tables, and as the ripples of the uproar spread, those from further away. A small table in a shadowed corner by the kitchen caught my eye. I made my way against the tide, as it were, and took a seat in the corner, back to the wall, firkin in hand.
I poured the remains of the ale from the coins in the firkin onto the sawdust covered floor. Carefully, so as not to lose a copper. When the coins were drained, I poured them into one of the pouches topping them with the second pouch. Placing my loot inside my jerkin I raised the empty firkin as a signal to a passing varlet. He gave a nod of acknowledgement. Returning shortly with a pitcher, he filled my firkin, took a few coppers and faded back into the mass of patrons.
The uproar finally faded away and Theo, one of Dovidas peacekeepers escorted the disheveled cheat to the exit. Followed closely by a pack of irate losers. Theo leaned over and whispered in "hooknose's" ear, and pushed him into the night. He turned back to face the mob behind him, spread his arms to block passage, and glared at the surging crowd. One or two tried to pass, and were unceremoniously tossed back into the tavern into the arms of the less brave behind them.
After delaying them for a few minutes, Theo stepped aside as they surged out onto the docks in search of hooknose. I knew that Dovida had told Theo to give the cheater a head start. Bodies cluttering ones doorstep was not good for business.
I raised my firkin in a silent toast. "Good luck," I thought, "you best have a good pair of legs and a good start." The weight of the purses in my jerkin was a pleasant load. I smiled happily and took another sip of ale.
Quite pleased with the evening so far, I leaned back and gazed out over the packed tavern. I smiled broadly as Dovida took the chair opposite me. "Damn you, Dirk. You could have been a little more subtle. A signal to Theo or one of the boys would have worked...
"But then you wouldn't have been able to steal the pot," and he laughed uproariously. "What brings you here tonight?" he asked. "You seem to come in when you are up to some mischief. So? What is it tonight?"
"Truth, Dovi, I only came for a drink and some chatter. The game with hooknose was only accidental," I spread my hands innocently. "I only wanted a simple game or two. When I saw what was going on, I just couldn't resist. Forgive me." And I winked over my look of innocence.
Dovida, laughed again. "You are a rogue. Mischief sticks to you like the smell of manure to a dung pile. You'll never change. One of these days you will choke on what you bite off," he rose with a smile and wave of his hand and headed back toward his place at the bar.
I caught a passing barmaid and ordered some of the house speciality, a rich, creamy, fish chowder. The fame of the Spouts fish chowder was known even amongst the gourmets of the empire, and deservedly so. A base of cream and fish stock, onions and garlic, white wine, a touch of saffron, all simmered and reduced to a thick sauce. Provided the setting for the fresh seafood it contained: White fish, shrimp, lobster. Sea bass, halibut, flounder and eel consorted with clams and steamed mussels. A dish fit for a king, and that has been served to a king -or so rumour has it.
The dish arrived accompanied by slabs of fresh bread and a bowl of butter. I ate.
As I was enjoying a small glass of wine, Theo came by. Looking around the room, he nodded, and pulled out a chair and signaled for a mug of ale. "That was some stunt you pulled there, Dirk. I'm surprised Dovi didn't throw you out as well." He smiled at the barmaid as he took the ale from her. "Thanks, Jennie." A big swallow that half-emptied the mug, and he continued. "You know we don't like that kind of disturbance. You should have signalled me or Janus."
I shrugged. "What can I say? You are right. I should have," I smiled broadly. "But it was fun while it lasted."
Theo shook his head in resignation. "I should have known better. Never serious about much of anything are you.?"
"Very serious. When it comes to my hide, and improving the contents of my purse. But," I sipped my wine, "I will be a good boy for the rest of the night, at least. And who knows. My next visit or two as well," and I laughed at the sour face he made at my speech.
"What do you know about that strange little man that came in last night? I was hanging around outside with some friends and saw him. Never saw anything like him before..." I lied straight-faced. I knew Theo would not have noticed if I had, or had not been on the docks last night or not. "Funny little man with a strawhat and a staff. Didn't look like he was from anyplace around here."
"Oh, him!" Theo thought for a moment, "I've heard a little about him from some of the ship captains that saw him come in. I can't swear to what they say, but some of them looked like they had seen a snake." He looked sharply at me, "No, not that he caused any trouble. Very polite and quiet, but them deepsea traders sure seemed taken aback by him.
"He came in and I heard him ask Dovi if there was a room, and a message for him. I think he said his name was... Wind, as I recall. Later the captains were talking. Sorting it all out from all the stories they told, he is a mercenary of some kind.
"The way I heard it last night: He is the Master of a small village in the hinterlands of a mountain range in the eastern continent. In some isolationist country called Melora, and still in the throes of civil war between opposing warlords.
"This battle had been ongoing in fits and starts for nearly five hundred years, and the main employment for the young men was fodder for the swords and spears of the battle fields. The acquisition and enhancement of skill in the use of sword, bow and spear, was a necessary factor in survival.
"Rogue bands of mercenary warriors from losing sides, or in a state of unemployment, roamed the countryside in bands raiding villages, small towns and even the holds of minor warlords." Theo finished his mug, and I signaled for another.
Theo took a swallow and continued.
This is what he told me in between swallows of ale, and the interruptions from refills: The village from which Wind came was founded by the remnants of one such band. The leader and a small group of men and their women had been on the losing side of a decisive battle some four or five hundred years ago. Hunted like animals they had retreated into the mountains.
Pursued, and killed when caught, the tiny group remaining had finally lost thier pursuers and found a valley deep in the mountains, far from the normal traveled routes and passes and had settled down. Thier leader, a superior strategist and warrior, insisted that all skills in the art of war, arms and other combat techniques be maintained and refined. Over the years the people of Konar, for so it was named, developed new and extraordinary skills -both with and without weapons.
At the passing of the original leader, it was decided that the village would be governed by a Master. This would be the most skilled among them. The current Master could be challenged at anytime by any other member of the village. Defeat at combat would decide the winner. The defeated Master would become a respected trainer of the young. The villagers made no exceptions for sex. Over the years women had become the Master more than once. Wind was the current Master of Konar.
The necessity of some contact with the world outside the village for items that it could not produce, eventually caused some of these skills to be noticed. A squabble in some town while getting supplies, the attempt by rovers to raid the pack trains returning to the village; these and other incidents brought unwanted attention to the martial skill of these unknown travelers.
One day, one of the men on such a trip was approached by a merchant in a town through which the packers were passing. A skirmish with a band of brigands just outside the town had caused much excitement to the populus of the little community. Unarmed and outnumbered, the drovers of Konar had killed all the reivers and were themselves uninjured. The merchant wanted to hire one of the drovers as a bodyquard for a special trip he planned. He had heard of this strange band of traders before, and the attendant rumours about their skills had stuck in his mind. The affirmation he had just received had caused him to make the request. The price he offered for the small service was quite large. The drover apologetically refused, but made mention of the incident to the village master upon return to Konar.
After some weeks of reflection, the Master called his council together and detailed a plan whereby the village would contract for short-term assignments. Through intermediaries, Konar would offer protection and other services to the wealthy merchants -and any other with sufficient funds. The location of the village never revealed and all negotiations with the intermediaries at locations far from its borders. The funds received for such service would be used to benefit the village. Although craft and croft supplied most of its needs, money or other currency was always useful. The crude drawing of a wolf's head left at certain places; an abandoned temple; a fork in a major road; carved into the railing of a bridge, would be a sign that someone wanted contact. A symbol representing days, would appear next to the wolf's head indicating when to be at the site to see a messenger from Konar.
If you needed the services of the Master, you would leave your sign and check everyday for an answer.
Konar would provide any service. Guard, assassinate, steal, spy; if the price was right. There was to be no mention of Konar or its location and only the Master would provide the service. Over the years knowledge of the availability of the skills of the ďMasterĒ had grown; Konar now had access to heads of state, and worked for governments, as well as for wealthy commoners. Konar's whereabouts are still unknown, but the name, and the service it renders is not.
The Master of Konar is master of all martial arts and is feared by all. It is said that the Masters of Konar have never, in their more than three hundred years of service, failed in a mission (nor failed to get paid for the service) and that from his people, whomever they be, come all the common -and a few uncommon- individual unarmed combat martial skills. And other secret arts. They have been developing and refining techniques for centuries. It is said that a Master can walk through walls, kill with a shout or a caress, and become invisible. One of the sea captains had mentioned that he had heard that such a one was on a search.
I found Theos tale to be hard to believe, but what I had seen that night on the docks fit with what I had just been told. That Wind would be here I found very interesting.
----------------------to be continued---------------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 05-21-2003 at 11:20 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXVI
(Into the breach dear friends)
My evening out as "Dirk" had been rewarding. I had made a tidy profit from the dice table, had a good dinner, and learned enough about Wind to pique my interest, and greatly increase my respect for the possible danger he represented.
I spent the next few days as Mr. Feiht in the usual manner. I slept in and had a late breakfast. I had lunch and dinner at some of the quality restaurants maintaining my 'man-about-town' persona. I made my donation to the museum, making light of the profuse thanks of the manager, Mr. Blunt, and commiserated with him about the break-in and theft, particularly the loss of the Georges. I attended the opera, and a stage play or two. I modestly accepted the praise from those I met who had heard about my contribution to the museum.
While out and about to dinner and the opera, I took pains to casually ask about the Rothschilds from any I met who might have some knowledge of their activities. I learned that his plans to go to the capitol were still in effect and that unless some major change occured in his life, he would be taking his leave of the city in another few days.
I enjoyed the Georges, checked and repaired, or redesigned the tools of my trade. I bought samples of the newest locks that the Locksmiths were touting as better and more secure. These I disassembled and studied, then reassembled and patiently learned to pick. I made a few keys in different patterns and tried them in the new locks, and added them to the 3 or 4 different "skeleton keys" I carried in addition to my assortment of lockpicks. And... of course, reviewed the material I had gathered about the Rothschilds, the abandoned sewers, and started a tentative plan for a visit to the Merchant Bank.
I contacted, secretly and in the dark of night, of course, my forger. I say mine but that's a misnomer. Ministril is his own man by virtue of his exceptional skill and a nice income from his customers. Trained as a scribe, illuminator and bookbinder by a monastic group in the northern mountains, he came to the city one step ahead of the law.
His training and monastic life ended one day, after some twenty-five years of exemplary behavior and work, when he was caught inflagrante delecto with the wife of one of the crofters from the area. As he told me one time " If you are going to make love to a woman behind the altar in the sacristy, make certain she is not a moaner. Failing that... be prepared to strangle her."
His forcible ejection from the monastary put him into the world with no money and no marketable skills. He was able to read and translate and write in five languages, a couple of them long dead. He knew inks and the materials upon which to use them as intimately as a master chef knew his herbs and foodstuffs. He could copy and bind books to match any extant in the world. If he had never seen a style of bookbinding or construction before, a five minute examination of an original was all he needed to produce a perfect copy of the style, complete with aging techniques to make it match the original.
He could make inks to match any color or chemical composition, and duplicate the script of any written document. He taught himself how to copy and carve copies of signet rings and seals. In short, if it had to do with documents he was a master and a genius.
After scrabbling out an existance as a wandering scribe for a few years, he did a minor forgery for a petty noble in the north. The success of this venture gave him his profession. A disagreement about the price for the job, the noble wanted to pay him by having his head removed, caused Ministril to flee. Eventually he ended up in the city.
Some years later I needed a forger for an entry pass to a warehouse I wanted to checkout for a job. And the Beggar Master recommended him. Since then I have used him a time or three for other documents. He does quite well at his chosen profession. Having learned his lesson from the early attempt on his life, he has added the skill of blackmail to his repetoire. Now restricts his services to those nobles, or rich merchants that pay well, (and he charges high prices) and keeps copies of the documents, with details of the transactions and with whom for what purpose, in a safe place with a couple of sealed letters held by emminent attorneys. In the event of his disappearance, or sudden demise, the letters will be opened, the documents unearthed, and the sins of the customer revealed to all. An ideal insurance policy.
In my case, the support of the Beggar Master in our first contact has maintained me in good stead. I doubt that Ministril has me in his files, but it matters not. He knows me as Bastard Bart, but has no knowledge of Mr. Feiht or Dirk. So I have no fear of that becoming a problem, and our association over the years has permitted me to remain a loyal customer. He also knows that I would not betray him to the authorities, nor mention his name amongst my cronies. So our dealings have always been to mutual satisfaction and trust.
I never mentioned to him that Bart has turned down two or three jobs that involved retrieving these letters or documents.
I gave him a sketch of the bindings and described the color and textures of the covers. A few minutes at his workshop -while he showed me samples of materials from which to choose, typefaces and fonts to match those on the spines-, sufficed for us to strike a deal for the fakes I wanted. I left him the titles to be scribed on the three covers I wanted and was told they would be ready in three days.
I find it hard to be bored with my lifestyle.
Word came from one of my urchins. The Rothschilds would be leaving this afternoon. This was both good news and bad. The first night of their absence would be the best. The servants and guards would still behave as if their masters were home. In a couple of days they would begin to relax and start to treat the place as if it was theirs. I have made entry into mansions where the servants were playing in the game room, using the baths in the master bedrooms, and otherwise enjoying the amenities of the house. The old saw is somewhat true; "The rats will play when the cat's away."
So I could pretty much depend on the activity and whereabouts of the guards and servants to be the same as when I left. I would be less likely to be surprised by a servant wandering the halls, or enjoying the port in the salon.
The bad news was that the day was drear and grey. Heavy mist, or rain, would complicate my passage through the house. Wet water-logged boots leave marks on the rugs, the marble and the polished wood of a parquet floor. The spattered drips from a soaked cape, or soggy clothing could cause some suspicion, if seen by a guard or servant.
Well, it can't be helped. I'll just have to take the possiblity into consideration and make provisions. I'll make my final choice this evening when I see what the weather is actually doing.
In my workshop, I assembled the tools I thought I might need. The bullseye lantern, the usual picks and my clothing, a double layered, water-proofed, double sewn quilted linen bag. As I was going to take the books as well as some loot from the 'vault', I wanted the protection from the weather. I also planned to have a fairly sizeable collection so the bag must needs be large enough, and strong enough to hold. The padding, of course, was to muffle any clink or clatter, if I need put the sack down for a moment.
I put out my nightsuit and soft boots. I would don these at the last minute. I also put out a pair of light boots to wear if it was raining, and a heavy, hooded cloak. I would wear these for protection to keep my nightsuit and light soft boots dry. once inside, I would change boots, and hide them and the cloak in a dark corner.
The coinage I expected would weight a pound or two, and the addition of the books and some of the solid gold and silver statues would probably make my final load in the 15 to 20 pound area. Enough for a good haul, light enough to pack easily and, in my physical condition, to run and climb with if necessary.
I added my rope and grappel, although I was sure I would not use them. The special spider silk rope, and the alloy grappel only weighed a few ounces, and doubled as a belt. I also put out the special gloves needed to grasp and climb the slender strand. My earlier investigation at the party, made most of my other tools un-necessary. Just my multi-purpose throwing knife, and a long sturdy dagger would do for weaponry.
Unless I got careless there should be no need for short sword, or bow. I took the mustard powder, of course, double bagging it in oilskin to ensure that it stayed dry. Satisfied with my preparations, I went back into my residence, to relax until time to go.
I would have a moderate dinner of sweet rolls about an hour before I started my entry to the house. That would give me a charge of energy just as I started my heaviest exertions. To soon or too late and the meal would feed me but not help me. Meat and heavy foods make one sluggish and easily tired by exertion. The breads and sugars seem to work the best.
Over the years, I have been engaged in my 'work' I have tried different quantities of, and different types of food. I have found that rich sweet rolls are the best, and if eaten about an hour before exertion is needed seems to provide a steady energy boost at the right time, if I need to run or fight.
I spent about thirty minutes in the tree I used for my first few surveys of the grounds. The guards seemed not to have changed their patterns other than to spent a minute or two huddled under the portico before returning on their patrols. This made the circuit of the house about 15 minutes per round instead of the 10 they had exhibited on my earlier visits. I stayed just long enough to get the rhythm fixed in my mind. Dropping from the tree I mounted my horse and made my way around the estate to the lane leading to the Little Easting, turning toward the back gate of the grounds just outside the village.
I hid my horse in a copse of larch in the wood near the back gate. Far enough away so the sounds he might make would not be heard at the stable, and upwind so that he would not catch the odor of the Rothschild's horses and whinny. If the stabled, or paddocked horses whinnied at his scent no one would pay any attention. But the whinny of a strange horse outside the gate might be heard by the stableboy or hostler. The hostler would know the sound of his own animals as well as a mother does the voices of her children. I did not need him wandering around.
The night had come, bringing with it a steady drizzle. Too heavy for mist, too light for rain, but laden with moisture and soaking. But also hiding the moon. The clouds made a welcome darkness, creating a landscape made up of darker and lighter pools of black. Even the white bark of the birches were dark grey streaks in the gloom. The dark bark of the oaks blended with the night so well it seemed the trees had taken invisibility potions.
A last pat on the withers, a piece of carrot in reward, and I left my mount. At the rear gate, I tried the latch of the Judas Door. Locked. A pair of simple staples and a bar on the inside kept it secure. I had noticed that during my ride with Ann. I had hoped that the hostler would have kept it unlocked for the passage of the servants.
I extracted my throwing dagger. There was a gap of about an inch in width, between the panels of the Judas door on the hinge side and the jamb on the main gate. I probed with the point of my dagger. It reached the bar, and bit. I put pressure on the bar and slid the dagger upward. The bar rose with the point of the knife and as it rose I kept pressing the dagger into the crack. I felt the bar slid up over the top of the cleat, and start to slide back into the stableyard. I stopped.
With the bar balanced on the top of one cleat, I rotated the tip of the blade left to right a time or two to break the tip free of the wood. I did not want to pull the blade out and possibly re-set the bar. I moved to the other side of the door. The crack here was narrower but sufficient to allow the blade to slip through. I fished for the bar and eased the tip of the knife under the edge of the bar near the cleat and lifted. Years of use had spread the cleat a bit. So, while not smoothly, the bar slid up. I had been afraid that the twist as the bar moved out away from the door at the hinge end would bind it in the clips.
The bar slid up over the cleat and dropped to the ground with a muffled thud. Luckily it did not hit the gate as it fell. Even were it to be heard, it was likely that the sound would be mistaken for the stomp of a restless hoof. I waited. Straining to hear through the soft hiss of the falling drizzle. The movement of a horse in one of the stalls, the hiss of the rain and drip of the runoff from the eaves were the only sounds.
The door opened silently. Once through, I closed the Judas door and leaned the bar against it. This would hold the door closed. In the darkness no one would notice that the door was unbarred, and a kick would remove the bar for a quick retreat if necessary.
Inside the walls it was only a few cautious minutes to the low hedges of the formal garden at the foot of the terrace stairs. The mansion itself was completely dark. Only the soft light of the banked fires in the kitchen fireplace giving a slight glow from the windows to lighten the night near the terrace.
Crouched behind the hedges near the foot of the stair, I waited for the guards to appear. I was a chilled a bit, but the heavy, tightly woven, woolen cloak had done yeomans duty in shedding the water and keeping me dry.
The muffled crunch of gravel and the sound of complaining voices heralded the arrival of one team of guards, and soon the ghostly figures of two men appeared from the east and gathered form and substance as they approached the terrace.
"Damn, Terrance," one of the voices said, "my cloak is leaking like a sieve. I'll be all day polishing the rust off this chestplate tomorrow. This is a cushy job most of the time, the Cap'n ain't too hard and the work is easy. But I hate these rainy nights. Gimme a good snow or a little wind any time."
"Yar. But I told you to get a new cloak fer winter. But no, you had to gamble with Jake. I warned you not to play cards with 'em. A whole weeks pay you threw at him. Serves you right. And before you ask, you ain't gonna get to borrow my old cloak. I needs it meself. I keeps me best one for show and nights like this. Stop your moaning and get on with it."
"Looks like the others aren't here yet. Let's step up under the arch by the main door and wait a bit. If they don't show up in a bit we'll have to hunt them up anyhow."
The two of them clumped up the stairs and sheltered in the doorway to the foyer, their voices fading into a mumble as they went. In a minute or two the other pair of guards came round from the west. "Where they be?" a deep gravely voice asked. "They should be here."
"Up here Harold, come out of the rain for a minute," one of the guards called from the terrace.
"'Ere now, we bain't supposed ter!" came the reply.
"Damn it Rory. Don't be such an ass. Cap'n has already made his rounds. He'll not be back for a half-hour. A minute or two out of the miserable weather won't do no harm. I mean, he's warm and cozy in that private room of his in the barracks with a nice warm fire, an we be out in the rain. T' hell with it. A bit of a smoke and shelter and we can start again."
"Well..." a second voice said reluctantly, "s'pose yer right. Can't do no harm. Come on Harold," and they too went up to shelter in the doorway.
I watched a flame appear and illuminate three of the four faces as they lighted their pipes. The flaring glow of a pipe, being drawn on, appeared at intervals, accompanied by the mumble of conversation. I had heard more than enough already. As the captain had already made his rounds, that meant that the house would be clear for at least twenty minutes more. Plenty of time for me to get in and find a place to hide, or even get into Julius's private library. This warming news almost made the chill go away, but not quite.
---------------------------------- to be continued---------------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 05-21-2003 at 11:21 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXVI contd.
(Rats in the pantry)
The distant crunch of gravel under boots grew louder as another person approached from behind me. Hoping they were on the central path and not the side where I crouched, I shrank into as small a ball as I could, and pushed tightly against the hedge. The shadow was deep here and, half surrounded by the hedge as I was, there was a good chance that they would not see me if they were on my side of the hedge.
"What the hell are you up to?" The voice shattered the night like the crack of a whip. It sounded like the speaker was right next to me. "I expected better of you. You are not recruits in the city watch. Get your useless butts back on patrol. Turn my back for a minute and you slack off. Extra duty for all of you tomorrow."
A weak protest came from the huddled mass in the archway, "Sorry Sir. Cap'n, Sir. We were comparing notes on our watches. Rory thought he saw something on the east side, and we were planning what to do."
Great! Now they will have this new guy looking for ghosts, and they might find me.
The footsteps moved off toward the terrace stairs. As the clomp of heavy boots started up the stairs I leaned out to take a look. A regal figure in full arms, with curaiss, greaves, and a polished helmet that showed scars from weapons, paused halfway to the terrace level. Arms akimbo, it leaned forward menacingly. "Likely story that. So hiding here on the terrace is going to flush out our prowler? That is if there is one.
"Well," he growled, "I guess we'll have to check. Rory. Harold, come with me around to the east. Terrance, you and Tom go round the west. Move quickly you two. Wait at the front corner of the east side until you hear us on the path. Then spread out. Terrance you take the outer path near the wall, and Tom the center path. If there is someone there the three of us might scare him out to you. Keep a sharp watch all of you. Don't miss a shadow. I'll check the windows for entry, and the four of you scour the grounds.
"Now get on it. And look sharp!"
The four made mumbled responses as they seperated and moved off. The Captain leading the way to the east.
As soon as the guards were out of sight, I ran to the west corner under the kitchen windows and down the stairs to the cellar door. I was sure that I would have plenty of time, but I wasted none. Ten seconds work with my picks and the satisfying clunk of the bolt withdrawing met my ears.
Once inside, I secured the door and waited for my eyes to adjust. From my visit to the cellars with Julius I knew that the wine cellar was to the left of the door and the stairs to the kitchen through a door to my right. If I remembered correctly, there was a table or two in the center of the room and a counter along the wall I had just come through, but no windows. There was no light coming in around the door frame, nor from anywhere else. I was as blind as the proverbial bat. I stuck a spark with my flint. The momentary flash was enough for me to get my bearings. The door to the kitchen stairs was just an unobstructed step or two to my right.
I felt my way to the opening and inched my way to the foot of the staircase. Looking up I saw the outline of the door dimly drawn by the subdued glow from the massive kitchen fireplace. Staying as far to the right as I could, where the treads were anchored in the outer wall, I slowly made my way to the step just below the door.
Over the years, the constant traffic up and down the center of the treads will cause them to sag. This results in a loosening of the treads and, of course, the possibility of squeaks and squeals as they are used. The anchor points of the treads at the outer edges are the least affected by this. By staying on these points, the likelyhood of a loose tread squeaking is near nil. That is if one is not hammer-footed in mounting the steps.
A short wait by the kitchen door, while I listened for signs of occupancy, brought no noises to me that I could not attribute to the normal night-time sounds of a deserted kitchen. The drip of a leaky faucet. The occasional brief clatter of a lid on a simmering pot. The gentle pop and sigh of a banked fire. In other words, to my ear, there was no human presence in the kitchen. I tried the door. To my delight, the unlocked door opened easily. A quick look assured me that there was nothing to fear in the kitchen.
I left the door open an inch or two. Settling on the top stair I arranged myself so I could see the door to the terrace and the door from the dining room. I knew the Captain made his rounds about every half-hour, (courtesy of my earlier visit and the chatter from the guards). But with the false sighting used as an alibi tonight, decided that a wait until the search was over outside, and the Captain came through on his rounds after -as I was sure he would do- would be my safest choice.
While I waited, I removed the damp cloak and changed from my traveling boots to my felt-soled kidglove boots, which I had been carrying in the bag. I also took the time to have a drink of water from the small bota I carried. The adrenaline build up and the long spells of patient waiting can dry you out alarmingly. So I always carried a pint or two of plain water with me. Dehydration can also affect your performance, and less than peak or near peak can shorten your career, not to mention your height by a head.
The sound of a door opening alerted me to the entrance of the Captain to the kitchen. He moved into the center of the room and slowly scanned the room. Even in the dim glow from the banked fires there were no deep shadows or places large enough for a man to hide in. From his position he could clearly see the entire room. He glanced at the door to the cellar but made no effort to approach and gave no indication that the slight crack I had open had attracted his attention. He turned and left the kitchen. The sound of the terrace door closing and the turning and click of its lock came clearly through the night.
I waited a few minutes just in case he had noticed the open door, and was playing the same game he had played with the guards. By that I mean, to be seemingly satisfied, then to return unexpectedly to recheck. Following a suitable time, I made my way to the dumbwaiter and hauled myself to the second level.
The door slide open silently and I slipped out onto the mezzanine. I sniffed the air. No perfume or body odor was discernable and, except for the tinkle of the fountain in the greenhouse sounding clearly in the empty house, all was silent. I decided to exchange the fake books for the volumes I wanted first. Remembering the possibility of traps, remember the moving partitions triggered by tripwires? I dropped to all fours and slowly made my way toward my old bedroom. About halfway to the end of the passage, the light brush of a thread touched my wrist. Just a light, cobwebby feeling.
I moved my wrist back then slowly and gently slid my hand forward until I again felt the lightest touch on my wrist. Leaving my hand where it was, and balancing carefully on both knees and that hand, I brought my other hand up and with thumb and forefinger located and traced the wire, for so it was, from right to left. About five inches above the floor it ran across the width of the mezzanine, from an anchorpoint on the railing, into a hole in the wall. A nearly invisible hook on one of the balustrades supporting the railing held a tiny ring attached to the end of the tripwire.
So. Does it work by being pulled, or by being released by breakage? I wondered. I suspected that it was strong enough to trip a man and that it was designed to trip the trap by a pull when it hit the end of its length. The design suggested that. It seemed that when unset, the excess length reeled back into the wall. Otherwise pulling it out to set it would trip the trap. That is unless the setter exercised extreme care. Pull a hair too far and the trap would spring. So there must be some slack for safety but enough so that a careless foot would trip it.
I carefully eased the ring from its anchor and, keeping slight tension on the wire, let it slacken toward the wall. To my relief it spooled slowly and gently into the wall the ring acting as a stop and fading to near invisibility against the painted baseboard. Nothing happened. The near miss reminded me that the suborned guard had mentioned that some of these cords ran from floor to ceiling as well. An unusual precaution and one guaranteed to be a shocking, if not fatal, surprise to the average thief or intruder.
Continuing on my cautious way toward the library I turned the corner toward the gymnasium and the corner holding the greenhouse. I glanced to my right toward the small salon in the southwest corner and was greeted by a blank wall. The second suite of rooms and the hallway to the salon that had been accessible to me on my guesting were sealed off. One of the movable walls that the guard had mentioned had been set to close that portion of the house off from the mezzanine. I could only hope that the library was not also closed off as I knew not how to bypass or open these closures. If worse came to worse, I could try to drop down from the attic through the appropriate murder hole above the sealed area. But this would depend entirely on the time I had to accomplish this and get into and out of the secret vault below Julius' office.
As I was passing the gymnasium I heard the terrace doors open below. Hmm. Half an hour already! I hope he doesn't come up to walk around the mezzanine. I listened to the guard move through the foyer into the salon. Hoping I had a few minutes, I moved toward the greenhouse as silently as I could, alerted for any more wire trips that might be set. I stayed to the center of the passageway. My thinking was that the trips might be just out from the walls where a skulker would more likely be passing. Just as I reached the greenhouse, I heard the stairs echo to the tramp of heavy boots. A hasty glance around revealed no obvious place to hide.
The footsteps paused at the top of the stair, and then continued toward Julius' office and the side of the mezzanine I had just traversed. Damn! If he comes full circle he's likely to find me, and, at the least, to discover that the thread has been disconnected. I checked the greenhouse again. There was a grouping of tall ferns in the far corner that might offer shelter. Three or four feet tall, there were at least three large pots grouped there that threw a deep shadow in the corner, and might have room for me to squeeze in and crouch. I took note of the area and saw a way to get in there without disturbing the plants too much.
Turning back to the mezzanine, I crouched by the door and watched the Captain come down the mezzanine toward me. I noticed he seemed to be counting off the balustrades as he came. When he reached the area where I thought I had unhooked the wire, he slowed, stepped very high and wide, and skipped over the non-existant wire. At that I turned and quickly dived into the cover given by the potted ferns. The rustle of the leaves and their movement stilling just as he looked into the room. I froze.
He stood for a moment scanning the room. His eyes probing and poking into every nook and corner. Satisfied, he turned and continued down the hall. Shortly I heard his boots ringing on the marble stairs as he descended to the main floor. He hadn't noticed the missing wire. He knew it was there, and by habit just counted the balustrades and stepped over the trip he knew was there. Habit to the rescue again! This was not the first time, nor, I suspected would it be the last that habit saved me from discovery.
-----------------to be continued-----------------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 05-27-2003 at 08:02 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXVIcont'd
A few minutes after the Captain left I was in the library. No traps in the few steps from the greenhouse. Once inside with the door closed, I lighted my Bullseye. I had about twenty minutes until he made his next round. I was reasonably sure he would fall back on his schedule. The delay caused by the minor excitement of the non-existant sighting on the grounds would cause him to re-establish his routine. Or so I hoped.
I easily located the three books. To replace them with my forged covers took less than a minute. I snuffed the lantern and slipped into the hall, the books securely, and reverently I might add, stowed in the bag. I had a minor concern about the odor of heated metal, but as the Captain had not entered the library on his rounds, the closed door should contain it.
In the time remaining before his return, the lamp and me should be inside the office. Any lingering odor should not be detectable. Knowing the way was clear, my return to the dumbwaiter was quick. I paused only to reset the tripwire.
I disabled the nightengale floor with no difficulty. My past experience with the lock of Julius' office enabled me to open it with ease. A few cautious minutes saw me prone on the floor inside. I eased the door closed just as the sound of the Captain ascending the stair began ringing through the silent house.
The windows to the rear of the house and the sunroom were tied back. The furniture silhouetted against the lighter night sky seemed as exotic beasts were lurking in the room. A fanciful image, but one I frequently conjured up when prowling a house at night. It amused me and heightened my awareness of my surroundings as I, the prey, sought to avoid falling to their attack.
Prone, on toes and elbows, I made my way to the "gong" and safed the striker. As there was nothing here I wanted, I retrieved the bag and bullseye that I had left at the door. The uncurtained windows prevented my use of my lantern but I could see well enough to avoid tripping on the furniture. I made my way to the wall behind Julius' desk. Unable to see the exact position of the slight wear pattern indicating the trigger for the secret panel, I made a few faulty attempts in opening the panel. I stepped through, closing the panel behind me. I lighted the bullseye and took a few seconds to survey the room.
I could see no appreciable changes. The candlestick and striker stood in its accustomed spot. A concentrated visual examination with a focused beam from the lantern cast no tell-tale shadows of trip wires or threads on the walls.
Try it yourself. Hang a thread in a darkened room and shine a light beam on it. A shadow will be cast on the wall behind it.
A moment to cross the room, pop the tile and turn the handle. The floor panel swung up silently exposing the stairs. Again I used the railing to descend, and avoided the first few planks at the foot of the stair by dropping off the railing to the side. Ignoring the candlespikes, I headed straight for the iron door to the strong room at the east end of this storage area.
At the first touch of my picks, the archaic locks fell open like the arms of a woman welcoming the return of her lover. I couldn't help smiling as the ancient door swung open. I paused a moment to take a breath then walked into the vault. I placed my bag on the desk, and turned to the nearby cabinet. The welcome sight of the stacks of coinage and the velvet bags of loose gemstones was joy to my mercenary soul.
I cleared the shelves of the coins and placed them in my carryall. The bags of jewels went on the desk. I turned to the jewelry boxes. First I located the beautiful dragonfly brooch I had seen on my quick survey during my visit. Oh? You have forgotten already? Four inches across the wingspan. Wings of cut crystal banded in gold; body carved from Ivory with inlaid jade scales; head of gold with cut emerald eyes; legs of gold with small gems at the joints. Remember?
Then I looked the rest of them over. Some fifteen or so had a slightly thicker coating of dust. These were obviously not used, or examined often. I went through these first. Most of them were ancient pieces. Nice but evidently from the early days of the family. Some of the settings were garish and the gems flawed. Not noticably. They obviously were heirlooms, and from appearance had been purchased as ostentatious displays of wealth during the beginning of the families rise to power. Meant to impress and unless one was an expert as I was, would have impressed, and passed casual inspection in those early days.
Of these, I took only a brilliantly designed tiara and a pectoral of jade and onyx laced with gold wire and beads of lapis lazuli. It was a treasure I knew I could sell for near its actual value out of the city. I had sources with the shipmasters who would sell it out of the country for a small percentage.
The rest of the boxes held some stunning pieces. I took a half-dozen of those that had the best quality jewels. I could have taken nearly all in my bag, but I'm not greedy, and in this case could afford to be choosey. I had a couple of hours before I would be forced to leave. So I took my time and selected only the best of the best.
Satisfied with my haul, I sat at the desk and began to sort through the unmounted, and uncut stones. I could have just taken them all, but greed is not my driving demon. Of the nearly two hundred stones I examined, I took only a few. A pair of finger length raw emeralds having only minor flaws that could be avoided by a master stonecutter. These alone would support me well for at least a year. A blue black pearl the size of my thumbnail. Two rubies about 20 carats, cut and polished, and last but not least, a star sapphire that an emperor would envy. When I was finished, I replaced the bags in the cabinet. The missing coins would alert Julius the next time he came down, but a quick look through the stones would probably satisfy him. There was a good chance that the stones, and the jewelry from the boxes would not be missed right away.
I somewhat regretted that suspicion would fall on the household, but only a little. Working for wealthy people carried that risk. It was likely that all the servants and guards would be able to alibi each other. If not. So be it.
I carefully wrapped each stone in patches of cloth I cut from the dustcovers from the other room. The only jewelry box I took was the one containing the dragonfly. I shifted the rest on that shelf to disguise the gap in the row of boxes.
I stood and stretched working out the kinks my lengthy stay at the desk had caused. Checking that my swag bag was securely tied and that it did not rattle when put down, I reluctantly closed the vault and snapped the padlocks making my way back into Julius' office.
I left the striker at the gong safed. Julius might think he forgot to set the alarm. After all. How many times have you done something so many times by habit that you needed to double check that you had in fact done whatever it was. I know I have.
I made my way to the door to the balcony. The door had no lock. Just a simple latch inside. I stepped out onto the balcony and took a position where I could look down on the terrace and the gardens. I needed to wait for the return of the Captain on his rounds, and get into the pattern of the patrols again. Although I had a good time sense, I had been concentrating on the job and needed to have contact with the patrols to re-establish my timing.
Apparently, I had just missed the turnaround. I waited about twelve minutes before the guards met below me. As usual they paused for a minute or two before continueing the patrol. Shortly thereafter, I saw the Captain coming up the path from the direction of the stables and barracks to the north at the back wall.
When he came back out and headed toward the stables, I left the office, relocking the door and resetting the nightengale floor. I made my way back to the kitchen using the staircase. As I passed through the salon into the dining room, I picked up a small bejeweled crystal and gold manequette of a peasant girl with a basket of flowers made of gems. I had noticed it during dinner. It was just a spur of the moment impulse, but I thought she and the dragonfly would make nice companions for the tiger in my den.
In the kitchen I slipped it into the bag, nestling it in between the cushioned jewels for protection. I retrieved my cloak, changed to my street boots, and put my soft soled boots in the bag with the rest of the items. I took time to finish off the water in my bota and put that in the bag.
I eased the door from the cellar to the yard open, closed and locked it behind me and started up the stairs. Just as I reached the top, I heard the guards coming from my left. Damn, they're early. I made a dash for the shelter of the hedge and slipped on a patch of damp flagstone at the foot of the terrace steps.
Damn, I mistimed that jump! I landed, sprawled half in the hedge. The rustle and noise of my landing, brought the guards around the west corner in a rush. I scrambled to my feet and, in a crouch, made a dash for the stables and the Judas gate.
The drizzle had stopped. The clouds chose that moment to break, bathing me in a sullen light, but still enough that the pursuing guards could see me. If dimly. As I passed one of the small fountains in the garden, I ducked into its shadow and cast around for a place to hide. Nothing. But the small shrubs growing close to its base offered a hiding place for the bag of loot.
Stashing it quickly in a deep pocket, as close to the base as I could push it, I hid the bag and its contents. I peeked out and saw the guards casting around for me like dogs seeking a scent trail. I could not stay were I was, and if I ran they would see me. Loaded down as they were with their weapons, armour, and sodden cloaks I should have the best of them for speed.
I broke from cover and headed for the Judas gate. Meanwhile the hullabaloo had brought the other pair of guards from the east side into the chase. They were making a run down the east wall angling to the gate in an attempt to cut me off. A quick glance at them, and at those behind me, convinced me that I would make it. Barely. But I would be out the door before they could catch me.
Then the lights went out.
When I came to, just a short time later, I was lying flat on my back looking at the Captains sword tip just under my chin. I learned later that he had just come out to start his rounds when he saw me flying out of the gloom. I nearly ran into his chest. The momentary look behind had given him time to step right in front of me, and a calculated smack with the flat of his blade had brought me down.
"Well. What have we here, Rory? Looks like you were right about someone being on the grounds." The sword didn't waver an inch. He stood smiling down at me coldly. "How's the head?" He laughed.
"Take him up."
Forceful hands yanked me to my feet. "Search him Harold."
"Aye, sir", and Harold patted me down. He carefully checked my waist, discovering the small bag of mustard powder, but not noticing that the stranded belt I wore was in fact a rope. He ran his hands over my body, under my cloak which he just brushed aside. Not noticing the small weight of the picklocks and other small items hidden in the cowl and slit pockets in the lining as he did so. Or, perhaps he thought it was just heavy from being soaked.
"Naught here but this small knife," waving my small throwing dagger. "I find no purse, or other goods on him, Sir. I think we scared em off afore he got into the house."
The Captain sheathed his sword, which had never left my throat during the search. "Good. Keep hold of him, you two," speaking to Terrance and Rory, each of whom held an arm. "So... Not your night is it," he sneered. "Bring him along." He turned and led the way back to the stables.
We passed the stable and went back into the trees to the rear. Inside the copse was a long low building I took to be the barracks. At the end was a sturdy shed. Heavy oaken door with a strong looking latch, and a provision for a bar on the outside. The Captain opened the door. Reaching inside he drew out a lantern. Lighting it, he stepped inside. I could just see into it a little way, but the wall I could see had a window just a little larger than two foot square -heavy wooden vertical bars ensuring that nothing could get in, or out, except by the door.
The five of us stood in the yard waiting. In a few minutes the Captain came out. "Tom, you and Harold bring out the tools, and the barrel of oil. The rest of the stuff can stay. Nothing there he can use to break out with."
This took little time to accomplish, and I was thrust rudely into the shed. "This'll keep you until we have the Constable here for you," the captain snarled. "I'll keep this little toy," waving my knife, "don't want you commiting suicide, do we?" And he slammed the door.
"Should one of us stay to guard em, Sir?" I heard someone ask.
"No. There's no way he can get out. The door's too heavy to break down, and them bars on the window are seasoned like iron. He's as safe as if he was in his mothers arms,." I heard the Captain say. "He'll be there when we want him."
I heard the outside bar slap into place, and the laughter of the guards as they walked away speculating on my future.
I stood where I was waiting for my vision to return. The shed was as black as a pit. The light from the lantern had taken my night vision and made sure of that. While I waited I checked my cloak. They had taken the bag of mustard powder and my throwing dagger, but had missed some of my smaller tools. The picks were of no use on the door, and the miscellany of other things, the vials of acid and oil, the small folding grappel, all were useless. The rope and gloves might be.
My eyes adjusted to the dim light and soon I could see enough to inspect my prison. The door opened inward, and had no latch on the inside. The shed was about ten feet square. A utility shed and, as I now knew, a part time cell for holding miscreants. A snarl of strong rope lay tangled in one corner to the rear of the shed. In the other corner a pile of broken furniture, a table, a couple of chairs and some damaged baskets.
I looked around my new home carefully. The walls were solid planks, no wattle and daub this shed. The inside wall was obviously that of the barracks to which it was attached. The shed was basic pole construction. Heavy posts sunk in the ground at the four corners, and one in the center of the side walls to carry the ridge pole of the roof. The ceiling was also of plank with no opening visible. Escape through the attic, if any, was not an option. The hard-packed dirt floor was a solid as a flagstone courtyard. Even had I the tools, digging out would take too long.
I sat down on the pile of rope and let my mind drift. As the Captain had said, the bars on the window were seasoned oak. Half as large as my wrist, and tenoned into the sill and header. Both of these also solid oak. The jambs of the window were solidly pegged to posts that were well bedded in the earth. All in all a well built solid structure.
So. What do I have to work with? Rope, broken furniture, some ratty old baskets. The clothes I had on and some useless picklocks and other burglar equipment. Not very promising.
I stood and began to wander around the room. No pattern or purpose, but soon I found myself walking back and forth from the rope, to the window, to the furniture, to the window, to the rope. A cycle that kept repeating. What was so interesting about a pile of wood and a tangle of rope?
---------------to be continued----------------------------------
Last edited by theBlackman; 06-02-2003 at 11:30 PM.
To Pay The Rent XXXVII
A splinter and a piece of string
Slowly an idea began to take solid shape. Rope, and a sturdy length or two of wood. I examined the window again. About two foot wide, actually a little more, with three vertical bars that reduced the actual opening to four slits. Solidly built but set into the wall as a seperate piece. The shed itself was apparently added to the barracks as an after thought.
The shed was actually only three walls and a roof. The side made by the barracks was three solid posts -two that formed the corner supports and a third that rose to support the ridge pole. So a post in each corner on the inside shaped the frame. The planks of the walls were spiked, or pinned on the outside of the posts. The exception was the shared wall with the barracks. On this side the barracks formed the wall. The posts were not actually part of the barracks. They stood in their foundation holes with no attachment to the barracks behind them. This left a gap of an inch or so between the barracks and the posts. The gap at the outside walls of the shed was closed by the exterior sheathing mating with the barracks. The ceiling overhead rested on a ledger stretched between the posts.
I picked up the rope. Nice one inch manila. As far as I could tell by touch and smell, nearly new and not rotten. How I knew this is not important. If you insist on knowing, go down to the docks and ask a sailor or a ropemaker. I untangled it and laid it out in smooth coils. Making sure that it would payout smoothly.
I turned my attention to the pile of furniture and baskets in the corner. The baskets were nearly lage enough to contain a man, but were broken and torn. I placed these nearby to one side, there were a couple of heavy chairs with broken legs, a small table with a split top and a heavy trestle table about eight feet long. The trestle table was mortise and tenon construction with lock wedges holding the stretcher to the legs. Lying on the floor amongst the scattered debris were the legs from the chairs and a few extra pieces that seemed to be from other furniture.
I selected a square-cut piece a little less than three feet long. Heavy seasoned wood, about three inches square -a table leg or somesuch. I took a corner of my cloak and lay it over the tip of the stretcher wedge on the table to muffle the noise. With my wooden hammer I carefully tapped the wedge loose and removed it. I did the same with the other wedge. Some careful manipulations, and I had a four by four inch six foot long timber of oak.
I laid this and my "hammer" down near the window. I restacked the furniture. I made certain to leave a little cubby hole underneath that I could duck into, and put the baskets nearby. Wait for it! You'll figure it out.
I figured I had about two hours before dawn. If it worked, it should have me out of here in less than an hour. Doubling the rope at the center I put the loop out the window and back in, catching all the bars in the bend. I then slipped it behind the center post and passed the free end through the loop I had first made. I pulled it tight. I now had a double line around the bars, and the free ends through the loop like a lasso.
I took the free ends and picked up the two timbers. Standing the long post vertically, I put the shorter piece horizontally across it. I now had a cross. I laced the rope from the loop in a figure "S" around the vertical, under one arm of the cross and half around the vertical and over the top of the other arm of the cross. Keeping tension on the free ends, I walked them to the corner post at the barracks by the door. I slipped the ends through behind the post, pulled as much slack out of the assembly as I could and tied it off.
So what I now had was a vertical beam with a cross piece held together by the rope, and the bars in a lasso-like loop. The assembly was a "T" shape. The crosspiece of the "T" the loop around the post and the bars. The vertical of the the "T" the 4 by 4 timber held by the line from the loop around the cross timber and tied to the corner post.
Confused. Don't be. Remember I mentioned I was the son of a shipowner? What you are seeing, if my verbal skills are sufficient, is a crude windlass. If I now take the crosspiece and start walking around the post, the line will wind up. The post can't move but the bars might. The extra loop in the line from the post to the bars will act like a pulley multiplying the power of the pull between the post and the bars. The vertical post acts like the capstan of a ship, or a winch if you prefer, and also multiplies the power of the pulling motion. As the line tightens it should pull the bars out. I hope!
I took a few minutes to make some adjustments and double check the setup and began to wind up the rope. Now. If the posts don't pull out, or the rope break. I should be able to pull the bars, or perhaps the entire window frame from the wall.
As the slack came out of the rope it began to creak and moan as it stretched. So far so good. I continued. The line began to take on the rigidity of an iron bar, and soon I was sweating profusely from the effort. The window bars had bent toward each other a little and the posts had moved slightly from the strain imposed on them. "Hold. You damn posts. Show me how well you were set." I mumbled to myself.
By now the bars had a definite bow into the room. The window frame assembly was giving audible signs of the strain on it. Small creaks and groans of the wood fibers straining against the force of the pull. My arms were trembling from the strain, and my legs getting weak. I paused a moment to gather my strength and gave a heave with the last of my strength.
The frame tore out of the wall with a tortured shriek and flew across the room to hit the barracks wall with a crash. The sudden release of pressure dropped me to the floor in a heap. I scrambled to my feet and dived under the table pulling the baskets over in front of my hiding place. Through the rents in the damaged baskets I could see the door and the scattered remains of my windlass.
The door flew open admitting the Captain and a guard. He glanced around and saw the gaping hole in the wall where the window had been. The opening in the wall riveted their attention. No one even glanced around the room.
"He's gone," shouted the Captain!. "Get out there and search the grounds. He can't be far." He dashed out the door followed by the guard.
I threw off the baskets and raced to the door. A quick look and I went out and turned to the right racing to the back of the shed. The barracks were just off the back wall of the estate leaving a narrow passage to the stable and the rear gate. I scuttled away from the barracks keeping in the shadows near the wall. I passed behind the stables and sped to the Judas gate. The gate was still closed and the bar propped against it. They had not noticed it. Apparently they had not inspected the property after catching me. I kicked the bar away and flung the Judas gate open. Then I dived back into the shadows between the stable and the wall and made my way back behind the barracks.
With the aid of a rainbarrel at a corner of the barracks I climbed up to the roof. Easing my way to the ridge I peeked over into the garden. I could hear the shouts and calls of the guards as they made a frantic effort to locate me. It was not long before I heard someone calling from the stables.
"Ere! The gate is open! I think 'es got out," came the shout!
The blast of the Captains, "Damn!" echoed through the night. "Take a look," he yelled, "if you can see anything! But don't bother to search unless you see something to chase. In that grove it would take twice the men we have to find him. If you see something holler and go after it. Otherwise forget it!"
They continued to search around the grounds for a while. The man at the gate came back to report he had re-barred the gate, and had seen nothing nearby when he looked out. The Captain had taken a stance just off the barracks near the stable where he could see most of the grounds and the buildings. He watched the search, giving an order now and then to one or the other of the searchers. "Check that clump of bushes... Look under that bench there..." Eventually he shook his head in disgust.
He called out to the men in the gardens, "Return to your duties, those on patrol. The rest of you, back to bed. That damn bastard has given us the slip!"
The men came straggling back and as the last one entered the building beneath me the Captain walked slowly back to the barracks. He stopped at the door and turned to give one last look at the grounds. The roof shook slightly from the vibrations as he slammed the door behind him.
With the muted tones of the Captains voice raging below me, I slipped off the roof and made my way to the corner of the stables near the gate. I waited patiently until I could no longer hear the guards in the gardens as they returned to their patrols of the mansion, then slipped out and headed for the fountain where I had stashed the loot.
I got there with no problems, retrieved the bag, and went back to the stables. Once more in the shadows I waited. When the Captain came out for his round of the guards and the house, I went to the Judas gate, eased the bar off and opened the door. Taking two long strings from one of the hidden pockets in my cloak, I looped one over each end of the bar and threw the ends over the top of the door. Holding the strings I hung the bar just above the level of the cleats it sat in when it barred the door. I closed the Judas gate, holding it firmly against the stops, and slacked the strings. The bar slipped into its rests, securing the gate. I let go one end of each string and pulled them through. The bar was now back in place. They would not realize what had happened and would continue to think I had made my escape right after my break out.
As I rode toward the inn where I stabled my horse, I reviewed the nights happenings. I should have kept my felt-soled boots on for one thing. They don't slip on wet surfaces or moss which was why I had them. Once in the house the change from street boots had been necessary to keep wet prints off the floors. But be sure that next time, I will keep my felts on until I am safely away. One patch of wet flagstone had nearly been my end.
At the inn I went to the room that the innkeeper always kept reserved for me, (another one of my safehouses). He glanced at me and my bag, but said nothing, although I felt his censure as I climbed the stair to my rooms. I told you part of his story earlier. I began to towel off after removing my wet things. There came a knock on the door. I opened it without qualm. I was as safe here as I was at home.
The innkeeper stood at the door with a tray, "I have the boy ragging down your horse," he said, "the hostler will clean your tack later. I would say in the morning, but 'tis already gone dawn. Here's some hot stew and a mug of ale. I'm glad you survived another venture. But I still think you should turn your back on thieving." With a scowl on his face he thrust the tray at me and stomped off down the hall.
I finished drying myself, hung my wet clothes near the fireplace to dry, gulped down the stew and ale, and fell into bed.
When I awoke it was nearly noon. The dark, grey clouds of the night before were holding the day in their sodden arms. The drizzle had returned and was beginning to turn into a steady rain. I went to the door and called for a servant. When the knock came at the door I had just finished dressing in one of the changes of clothing I kept here. "A minute," I called, pulling my boots on. I opened the door and told the boy to have a large plate of sausage and eggs sent up with a pot of tea. "If there are any potatos," I added, "have cook do a plate of home fries to go with that." He knuckled his forehead and turned away.
"Well," I thought, "it's been a good week. Think it's time to let Bart relax a little. Nothing needs the immediate attention of Mr. Feiht, and I need to re-establish Bart's presence in a few places."
I put the bag of loot in the corner and drew out one of the books. I was reading when the boy arrived with my food. I waited while he set the small table, tossed him a copper, and sat down to breakfast, my book at hand.
Yes. It had been a good couple of weeks.
Stay tuned for our next exciting adventure. Some time in the near future. Thanks to all who took the time to read this rambling story, and to the many who commented my thanks for your interest.
Last edited by theBlackman; 11-14-2008 at 08:01 PM.