Lords and Ladies. Or not.
Inspired by the Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum).
‘As to that Ursula with the beard,’ says my grandmother. ‘Well three husbands is what it’s about. All at once.
‘She found one of them on a sea voyage, they say – an inventor, he was. A gent of much brain but very little actual sense. She insisted they should marry, and he caved in. Didn’t keep him long, though – got a few useful inventorly secrets out of him and off she went.
‘The second one was a full-blown warlock, by reputation – said she charmed him into marriage, which is hard to believe, looking at her. Wormed a few practical spells out of him – not the silly stuff, you understand – and off she went again.
‘The third one was a doctor of sorts – understood anatomy. She travelled with him after the wedding (which wasn’t a real wedding, not with two other husbands, but he wasn’t to know that), and they indulged in a little light grave robbing. She learned the anatomical trade as they went along, and then said thank you kindly and disappeared.
‘How do you know all this, Grandmother?’ I ask.
‘I have my sources, child,’ she says, looking shifty. ‘The point is she is a shameless bigamist, which nobody can approve of. A woman can be put to death in some parts for that sort of thing – so it is a good secret to know if you need to keep her in line.’
‘What do you know of the Toad Man?’ asks my grandmother.
I’m very quick off the mark this time. ‘Why, he is the seventh son of an earl, fallen on hard times. He told the butcher’s widow when she went to enquire after his welfare.’
My grandmother smiles. ‘Yes. And she told everyone else, including you.’
‘So it’s not much of a secret,’ I say.
‘No it’s not.’ She stares out of the window with one of her faraway looks. ‘It also isn’t true.’
‘You mean he isn’t a nobleman? Or that the widow lied?’ I’m becoming confused now.
My grandmother sighs, not for the first time. ‘He is a nobleman, but not the seventh son of an earl – he is an earl himself, and in possession of a great fortune. But he doesn’t want it.’
‘An earldom and a fortune, and he doesn’t want it?’ This is inexplicable.
‘He likes his life just as it is. No responsibility, no hangers-on begging for money. No demands on his time. Just him and his coracle. It’s a secret that he’ll go to great lengths to keep.’
I begin to understand. I think. ‘It’ll be easy to keep him in line, then?’
She nods. I marvel at my grandmother’s capacity to find things out. ‘How do you know this?’ I ask. But I already know the answer. She has her sources.
Inspired by the dog violet, (Viola riviniana). Plants whose names begin with ‘dog’ are usually those that ‘pretend’ to be something else – in this case a sweet violet, though it has no scent.
‘Mr Knitbone,’ says my grandmother, stirring the soup, ‘yes, he is one of the more difficult cases.’
She falls silent, thinking, which is frustrating for me. But I know better than to badger her for more details.
She tastes the soup, thoughtfully. ‘What do you notice about him?’ she asks.
Ah, I think, this one is going to be a test.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘to begin, he wears odd shoes; one red, one blue.’
‘We won’t hold that against him,’ she says, waving the ladle at me. ‘Dressing a little strangely tends to be part of the job for these healers. The colours are significant. The red is for blood, and the blue is for bruising. What else?’
I have reached the limits of my observations.
‘Does he perhaps turn into a bat at dusk,’ I say in desperation, ‘and fly off to a cave in the mountains?’
‘You’re not taking this very seriously, are you?’ says my grandmother, and whacks me on the ear with the ladle.
There is soup everywhere, in my hair, in my ear. She doesn’t usually waste it like that.
‘I’m sorry, Grandmother,’ I say, mopping myself up, ‘but I don’t know what else to say. Mr Knitbone is such a transparent character – you can see right through him. How can he have any secrets?’
She looks at me very keenly. ‘Well,’ she says at last, ‘that’s just it, isn’t it? Now you see him, now you don’t. Do you know what a chameleon is?’
‘Only Mistress Honesty remains,’ I say, ‘and surely she hasn’t any shady secrets!’ I say it with complete confidence.
‘You shouldn’t jump to conclusions based upon a name,’ says my grandmother, knowingly.
I suppress the urge to roll my eyes. ‘But surely…’
‘Nothing sure about it, child. The first rule of fooling the public is to name a thing the exact opposite of what it is. You’d do well to remember that.’
‘But… she dresses so beautifully, she sells sound cures – you said so yourself – she has money…’
‘She is a first-class crafty thief,’ says my grandmother, not without relish.
‘A thief? But she has such a good reputation!’ I am finding this harder to believe than third eyes and people who blend perfectly into the background.
‘I said she was crafty. Good cures, as you say. The ingredients don’t come cheap. She sells them at cost price, or near. No-one dresses like that on the pittance they bring in. People trust her because of them, think she’s good because she doesn’t overcharge, but it’s all a front for her top-notch thieving activities. That’s where all her money comes from, you see.’
‘How do you know?’ I am still struggling with this.
‘I have my sources.’
I really do roll my eyes this time. She sees, but pretends not to.
‘By the way,’ she says, as she wafts out, ‘don’t carry a purse when Honesty’s around. She’s a very clever pickpocket. And don’t drink the wine at the Round House, will you? Tam Ullage drugs it. Makes people – gullible. He sells them things when they’re under the influence. That knowledge should be enough to keep him in line, too.’
I only wish I knew what would keep my grandmother in line.
Look out for the final part of The Herbarium, in which many questions are answered, and a few more are asked.