Rather than his usual collection of anecdotes, this time Tallis presents us with one gripping adventure. A tale of adventure, duplicity and gentility.
Why does an otherwise respectable lady have a pair of sedan chair bearers hidden in her spare bedroom? Why was the middle aged usurer brandishing an axe? Can a gangster’s moll be accepted into polite society?
Answer these questions and more as Tallis Steelyard ventures unwillingly into the seedy world of respectable ladies who love of sedan chair racing.
As with Sue Vincent, I am honoured to open the Tallis’ tour of the blogosphere to promote his new book of a gripping adventure. Episodes published here:
Tuesday 13th, Lady Edan’s Fan – Anita Dawes and Jaye Marie
Wednesday 14th The Picture of Unter Judd – Annette Rochelle Aben
Thursday 15th The clockwork automaton of Thannial Jett – Bridges Burning
Friday 16th The commode of Falan Birling – Musings On Life & Experience
Finishing on Saturday 17th with The Luck of Bedag Keep – Chris the Story Reading Ape
The Clockwork automaton of Thannial Jett
It has always been assumed that I share the fashionable contempt for mime artists. Frankly I don’t. Indeed I’ve worked with them and once they can bring themselves to get over the ‘trapped in an invisible box’ routine, they can be useful partners. Look at their advantages. Unlike musicians and others I could mention, they are, almost by definition, silent. Not only that but whilst they can be somewhat distracting at times, compared to the lascivious gyrations of some dancers, they are staid and uninteresting.
Finally they are often so pathetically grateful to get any sort of paying work at all, that they can be trusted to follow instructions with almost dog-like devotion to the detail.
Now I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse Virgilio, another of Madam Jeen Snellflort’s gentlemen adventurers of being a mime artist, but it must be said he had studied the art and was modestly accomplished in it. When not following his art, or doing whatever gentlemen adventurers are supposed to do when not actually adventuring, he earned an extremely modest living as an assistant clerk of works to the drains department. This organisation might need some explanation. Some parts of the city do have drains, and of course
the Sump has to be flushed. So there is a small permanent staff of workmen who do the maintenance. Whichever Sinecurist picks up the bill for the department is expected to send their household staff to assist if matters get particularly fraught.
Fate, or his own inspired choice, had given Virgilio the task of acquiring the clockwork automaton of Thannial Jett for Madam Jeen. He spent some time in reconnaissance. Every three days Thannial Jett had his automaton perform in Cross-pein Hammer Square just outside Thacker’s Yard. The automaton, man sized, would arrive in a crate. The crate would initially be screened by a curtain which surrounded it completely, Finally when a crowd had gathered, the curtain was whisked away and the crate was opened to allow the crowd to see the automaton sitting writing at a desk. After a couple of minutes it would put down the pen, stand up and walk out of the crate and perform a range of exercises as if loosening up after being seated for too long.
Finally as the clockwork ran down and the automaton started to move more slowly, Jett would gently catch it. Virgilio noted that at this point Jett always pressed a stud on the neck, which seemed to release any remaining tension in the spring for the automaton always relaxed totally at this point.
Merely acquiring the device wasn’t enough for Virgilio. He wanted to make sure that there was no investigation that might lead to difficult questions being asked. He needed a substitution rather than just a removal. His first thought was to just produce a crate and substitute his crate for the automaton and crate. This he discarded on the grounds of weight. There was no way he could have lifted it on his own.
He then pondered briefly breaking into Jett’s premises, removing the automaton and taking its place in the crate. This idea he also discarded when casual conversation with one of Jett’s assistants revealed that the automaton was wound up just before it left the premises. The key was pushed unto a hole concealed between the buttocks.
Finally Virgilio hit upon his plan and made his preparations. Firstly, like every assistant clerk of works since the beginning of time, he habitually added the signatures of his superiors to all the work sheets. Hence he invented an entirely new project, ‘The New Drain.’ The first steps in creating the New Drain were to dig six inspection hatches in Cross-pein Hammer Square. These he marked out on the ground and two of the gangs proceeded to dig them, line them with brick, fit ladders, and fit the cast iron hatch covers.
To be fair the gangs did question their work. Normally when you dig a new inspection hatch you dig down six or seven feet until you hit the drain, and that done you work from there. Virgilio’s explanation that this time it had been decided to install the inspection hatches first and then have the drain dug to join them later struck them as typical of the sort of bright ideas you get from university trained civil engineers.
On the day that he had decided to act, Virgilio arrived at the square very early. He was wearing white satin breeches, red jacket, a wig, and a considerable amount of makeup smeared on his face. He opened the inspection hatch he felt most likely to be nearest the crate when it arrived and climbed down the ladder, replacing the hatch cover after him. He then waited in silence until finally Thannial Jett and his assistants arrived. Virgilio
could hear them stamping about and when everything went quiet he carefully lifted the hatch cover and peered out. He was near the crate and better still, the curtain stopped people from seeing him. He hastily clambered out, opened the back of the crate, pulled out the automaton, pressing the stud on its neck to relax it. He then gently lowered it down the inspection hatch, carefully replacing the hatch cover when he was done. Then he wiggled into the crate, pulling the back closed after him, and took his place on the
He was barely seated there when there was some sort of commotion outside, perhaps the curtain being removed. Then suddenly the front of the case was opened and Virgilio was on display. Mimicking the movements of the automaton he wrote briefly then stood up. Here his training as a mime came into its own. He was apparently very convincing as an automaton, having got the device’s jerky movements off pat. As far as I can discover, Virgilio is one of those people who tries not to ‘over-plan.’ Up until this point he was not entirely sure how he would end the performance. After all the minute Jett caught hold of him at the end of the performance he’d realise that this was no automaton. Fortunately chance left an opening for him. A small child had wiggled through to the front of the crowd and was watching the performance with scepticism. Finally when Virgilio’s callisthenics brought him near, the child reached out and grabbed Virgilio’s leg.
“Hey, it ain’t real, it’s a man.”
Virgilio didn’t hesitate, he spotted a gap in the crowd and broke free from the grasp and fled through the gap and away. Behind him he could hear shouts as people demanded their money back from Jett and denounced him as a fraud.
When it came to recovering the automaton, Virgilio’s plans had been suitably vague. He had initially intended to go with a handcart and collect it at night. Unfortunately in Port Naain, moving about at night with a handcart merely draws attention to your activities. There is a feeling that no honest man ever trundled a handcart through the streets in the hours of darkness.
But having handled the automaton he came up with a simpler plan. He removed all the makeup and waited until evening. Then, dressed in his own clothes and carrying a cloak he made his way to Cross-pein Hammer Square. When nobody was about he hauled the automaton out of the inspection hatch, threw a cloak round its shoulders and placed the automaton’s arm over his
shoulder. Then, singing raucously like a drunken student trying to get his even drunker friend to bed, he weaved his noisy way home. Next morning, with the automaton bundled in canvas, he pushed it on a handcart to Madam Jeen Snellflort’s abode and she took care of things from then on.
Thannial Jett avoided being charged for fraud, but was instead charged with common assault when he attacked a bystander with the automaton’s key, knocked him down and promised to ‘wind him up.’ The nameless collector who had acquired the automaton was delighted. The knowledge she gained from studying her acquisition pushed forward her own researches. The gratitude was tangible enough to be expressed in the form of three small freehold properties generously donated to the sanatorium.
Tallis Steelyard and the sedan chair caper. eBook: Jim Webster: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store