I’m pleased to feature Jim Webster’s short story ‘The Foolishness of Love’ today. You can find more stories by Jim on his Tallis Steelyard blog:
The foolishness of love.
Have you noticed how there are some men who seem to be fated to be a sad disappointment to their wives yet if they behaved as their wife seems to demand, then they’d end up divorced in short order?
It was the intriguing story of Caster Jessip which reminded me of this truth. Caster was a peddler. He dealt in frills and furbelows, gimcrack jewellery and the off-cuts of machine-made lace which he passed off as perfect for edging and finishing.
He’d started life as the youngest son of peasant farmer on a small farm south of Port Naain. He had soon realised that all life held in store for him was backbreaking toil and no reward. So he’d borrowed some money from the pocket of a drunk in the Hellion’s Arms and had used that as his original business capital. It must be said that due to the guilt he felt over this action, he’d bought that habitually intoxicated gentlemen far more drinks over the years than the original loan really warranted.
Still he was quite a good peddler. Now most peddlers sell a wide variety of goods, most of them very worthy. Both the lady and gentleman of the house can easily justify the purchase of pins, needles, salt and an ever dependable bottle of Tody Whissup’s patent laxative. Caster on the other hand sold nothing a lady could justify buying. So he approached his customers in an entirely different manner to the average workaday salesman. Caster flirted unmercifully with them. He winked, he made suggestive comments, he flattered and cajoled. It shouldn’t have worked; he should have had his ears boxed. But somehow, for reasons nobody has ever put a finger on, it worked well. Perhaps he never actually said anything to offend? Perhaps it was because he was not too proud to change a dirty nappy, help with the washing up, or even clean windows, provided the target of his sales technique remained within earshot. He was selling ‘the dream.’ He would do this whether the lady was alone or whether her husband was present. Indeed husbands tended to find the whole process immensely entertaining, and the guffaws of a husband normally doubled Caster’s takings.
That is how Caster met his own wife, Hillit. She was swept off her feet by his talk and gave as good as she got. The realisation crept over Caster that he was entering dangerous and uncharted territories, but he pressed on, and eventually they were married.
Now their marriage wasn’t a bad one. They had two bonny children and were doing well enough. Yet Hillit always felt a sense of vague dissatisfaction. The exciting rogue she had married turned out to be a decent man and a good husband. She realised that this wasn’t really cause for complaint. (Many a woman has discovered the exact opposite, and they are the ones to be pitied.)
When Caster arrived home he wanted no more than to enjoy his lady wife’s cooking, play with his children, and tell them stories when they went to bed. Indeed it might well be that Hillit could, in truth, describe him as boring.
I confess that this is something I too am familiar with. I will spend an evening being fascinating, witty, and sweeping people off their feet with roguish charm. When I get home I just want to sit in silence staring into my coffee mug. Shena has commented on it. Still as she also said, there is only so much roguish charm a girl can take and in all candour, the silent Steelyard is not without his place in her life.
For Caster things would doubtless have continued well enough, until his wife’s mother moved in with them. Caster had never really known her; almost by definition, when he was courting Hillit his efforts had been put into separating the object of his affections from her mother.
Unfortunately it meant that the old lady didn’t really know Caster. So she seemed to assume that his rapscallion persona was the real Caster. She would regularly abuse him as an adulterer, a breaker up of happy families and a seducer of innocent maidens. Not only was Caster innocent of the charges, he frankly would have been at a loss to achieve any of them.
Still the accusations of the old termagant and her constant berating him made home life uncomfortable for him. He took to spending less time at home and more time on the road. Unfortunately this merely gave the harridan even more evidence to use against him. Her constant refrain was that her family had always held to the highest moral standards, so how had her daughter become entangled with such a reprobate. Indeed it got so bad that Caster began to suspect that the old woman was driving a wedge between him and Hillit. Indeed he was spending so little time at home, when he did eventually meet his wife, she was occasionally distant, and also took to referring, in censorious tones, to wandering persons of immoral habit.
Now Caster was at his wits end. He was on his way home after a longer than usual trip away. At this point in the trip he would traditionally be looking forward to returning to the loving bosom of his family, yet he found himself dreading his homecoming.
Hence, to put off that evil hour, he directed his steps to the bar of the Hellion’s Arms. He purchased a tankard of their heavy ale and sat down in a corner to drink it. He had a vague hope that by the time he got to the bottom of the tankard, his life might make a little more sense.
He was on his third tankard when the stranger sat down at his table. So far his attempts to come up with a way of improving his domestic circumstances had come to naught. He greeted the stranger in an absent minded sort of way and turned his attention back to the ale.
“You from round here young man?”
Caster abandoned his increasingly fuzzy attempts to think and gave his companion his full attention. “Born and bred sir.”
His companion was a generation older than him and even in old age was tall and ‘distinguished.’ He’d obviously been a handsome man in his younger days.
“You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
Caster nodded sadly.
The stranger continued, “A sharp young fellow like yourself, what on earth can be the matter?”
Caster was minded to just mutter something incoherent, but the stranger summoned the woman who kept the bar, and a fourth tankard of heavy was placed in front of him. Feeling somewhat indebted by this spontaneous generosity Caster poured out his heart.
The older man listened courteously. “Alas, if it is matters of love, then I’m afraid I’m the last person to advise you.”
With this he gestured to the barmaid and two more tankards materialised. Caster hastily emptied the one he was clutching lest the next be whisked away as swiftly as it had materialised, and settled down to listen to the old man’s story. It was a long, meandering and maudlin tail, of love, passion, and loss. Caster rather let the tale wash over him until the old man mentioned a name.
“Sorry I missed the name.”
The old man stopped and looked at him. “Hildi Murewall.” He sighed, a long and deep sigh. “A beautiful innocent creature, I loved her more than life itself.”
Caster was still in shock, “One of the Affiton village Murewalls?”
The old man mopped his eyes with his handkerchief. “Yes, and to my shame I got her pregnant and abandoned her. I heard she had a daughter called Hillit, but I never had the courage to go back and face her.”
“Hildi Murewall, from Affiton?”
The old man looked at Caster with the expression you find on the face of somebody who has just discovered he is mistakenly drinking with the village idiot. “Yes.”
“And your name sir?”
“Wilan Burt, but I don’t think that matters.” He was speaking to an empty chair.
Caster drained his tankard as he ran out of the bar. He ran the remaining two miles home. This wasn’t entirely to his advantage, in that when his mother-in-law saw him, she got to berate him without interruption. Finally he got his breath back. “Where’s Hillit?”
The pure normality of the question shook the old woman so much that she actually answered it. “She went into the village to get some salt and spices.”
Caster pulled himself to his full height (a gesture slightly spoiled because he had to lean on the door frame to keep upright,) “Woman, I’ve met your lover, Wilan Burt. The father of your bastard child sits drinking in the appropriately named Hellion’s Arms.”
The old woman reeled back as if he had struck her and disappeared into the house. Two minutes Caster saw her slip out of the back door carrying her few belongings wrapped in a blanket.
Caster was still sitting on the front step as his lady wife came into view, their two children clinging to her skirts. To be honest he’d rather dreaded the discussion that was now inevitable, Hillit was a dutiful daughter and he wasn’t sure how she’d take the news. As he frantically tried to come up with a tactful way of broaching the topic, Hillit said, “Caster, I don’t believe what I’ve just seen.”
“Why, what was that dearest?”
“My mother, hand in hand with an elderly man, skipping together down the road towards Port Naain.”