Sunday 10 May 2015

The Rainbow Coffee House

 This is not from my novel in progress, The Popish Midwife, but is a short, fun piece based on it. What do you think?
The Rainbow Coffee House

‘Fie, madam! Have you no shame!’
Cutting through wraiths of tobacco smoke from divers nearby pipes, the man swept his large brimmed hat with its single ostrich feather from his periwigged head, covered his heart with it and bowed low. Simultaneously, with the studied elegance of one practiced in the art of the sword, his other hand slyly found the hilt of the long rapier resting against his hip.
His embroidered blue doublet, fashionably unbuttoned to the waist, was not in the style of our three kingdoms but of a foreign type oft worn by good King Charles on return from his exile in France. Tucked into matching blue breeches, his undershirt was of equally uncommon design, with flounces and cuffs of forbidden Flanders lace that might surely interest Custom House.
Though his words and bow addressed me, his readiness for action was for my young table companion; one recently residing at Newgate – at his Majesty’s insistence – that had this day rejoiced his liberty in every tavern of the city!
I did not move, but answered boldly, ‘It is not I that should hide my face, my Lord, but you! Have you not come prepared for a fight when here we are all for discussion and debate, a most peaceful pastime?’
The orange flicker of the log fire joined the white spitting of rushlights – set slanted around the walls in simple iron holders – to cast restless shadows across lines of good humour and deep sorrow inscribed into the man’s aging face. His dark eyes did not leave those of the younger man’s for a single heartbeat as he rose from his bow and said, ‘Aye, My Lady, but I am ever prepared to defend a woman’s honour, despite that she has placed herself to lose it!’
His ruddy lips, near hid by the red of his trimmed beard and moustache, tipped up at the corners and remained so even as Willoughby, my less than nimble companion knocked our table trying to find his feet, spilling dark liquor from the two steaming bowls onto the stained oak grain, and cried, ‘Withdraw thyself, Sir!’
Others of the establishment stopped reading the broadsheets left lying on the tables, and their murmured conversations diminished as they noted the spectacle of Willoughby ungainly grip the sword that he had not long since retrieved from the pawnbroker.
In the time the candle on the next table burned down but a mere hair’s breadth, and before I might deny need for either to defend me, the two men took the measure of each other; then withdrew and displayed their swords in the manner of two cockerels raising their spurs to fight.
‘Wagging tongues,’ said the older cock, puffing out his hackle feathers and looking briefly to me, ‘will have me cuckolded by this boldfaced rogue. Would you have that also?’
‘Pray tell, sir,’ I replied haughtily, ‘where you have left your wits, for you have not brought them here with you! You are quite at fault in your assessment.’
Willoughby interjected, ‘Look to me, Sir, and do not vex the lady so!’ His sword wavered dangerously so that I feared I might be struck. The coffee, a drink of powdered berry from Arabia, popularly used to cure such afflictions as ailed my friend, was frustratingly slow to do its task. Though in no state to defend either mine or his own honour, I could not help but be flattered by this young cock’s misplaced attention. Not so his challenger, whose smile disappeared.
‘You seek to protect this woman? By what right dare you do so!’
‘By my honour, sir,’ slurred the younger man, whose lack of skill and ragged clothing did nothing to evoke confidence. ‘I am pledged to this lady to protect her, and I do so most ardently and willingly!’
Taking care of the blades, I held my hands at arms length, one toward each man. ‘Desist this crowing, both of you! Willoughby, this is my husband, Monsieur Cellier. Pierre, meet Captain Willoughby, who comes here to assist our cause.’
Mr Farr, once a barber but now landlord of this establishment for twenty years and more, appeared as Pierre said derisively, ‘Assist? This man is too in his cups to do more than trip over his own sword! What use is such a fellow!’
‘Now now, Mr Cellier. You know the rules.’ Mr Farr pointed to the tattered Rules and Orders of the Coffee House nailed to the wall near the door. ‘Lord and commoner are equally welcome to share a table here, so long as they be willing to talk, discuss or debate – it matters not which – but if you insult a man, you must buy him a coffee!’
‘It appears he has coffee enough,’ said Pierre. ‘Much good it does him!’
‘If that is the case, let him drink it!’ I said, quite provoked by my husband’s disagreeable demeanour. ‘I have work for him to do.’
A waft of burning pig fat reached me from a nearby spluttering rushlight, giving me thoughts of supper. Pierre sheathed his sword, pulled out a stool and sat, though it seemed Willoughby had not yet had satisfaction.
‘You, Sir, are negligent,’ he said. ‘If you had wish to guard your wife’s honour, you should not allow her freedom to keep company with a rapscallion such as I!’
Again, I could not help but be flattered by the young man’s words; but not so my husband’s, ‘And if you were not so intoxicated, sir, your eyes would not be so blind against my wife’s many years!’
Just then, as I might have fastened my red cloak, the mark of my trade, and left in indignation, there was a commotion by the door.
‘There he is! That’s him! Thief!’ Without a doubt, the man, accompanied by our local magistrate, pointed at Willoughby. I could only wonder how he might have stolen anything between his release from prison and now, when I had not left his side the whole time.

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