Lord Harry’s Teacup and Lady Swishtocks’ Balloon

Lord Harry of Hexham awoke one hot July morning to find that Lord Vlad of Tetley had surrounded his camp. There was no time to lose; Lord Harry called all his captains together and said, “Lads, Vlad the enemy is upon us. We only have time for a quick cup of tea.”

“Do we have time for a biscuit?” asked Sir Gilbert. He was eyeing the baklavas Vlad had sent over the evening before, still sitting o Lord Harry’s dining table, next to the cream buns.

“Or a cream bun?” said Sir Godfrey Applebury, more daringly. But of course no one in any battle ever led by a member of the Hexham family had ever before regaled himself upon a cream bun immediately before a battle, accept for a Hexham leading the army.

“No!” insisted Lord Harry. “Within moments, Lord Vlad will be upon us. You must rally your archers and halberdiers, marshal your swordsmen and pikemen; assemble your canoneers and harquebusiers. There is no time for dallying. We must hurry, or we will lose Tewkesbury.” Quick! To arms!”

“And what will you do, my lord,” inquired Sir Godfrey.

“Well of course, I will finish my morning tea, with a cream bun,” answered Lord Harry truthfully. It was important to be candid at such times; Harry knew he must not deceive the men and certainly not the nobles at such a pivotal moment. If he was not able to join them at the outset of the battle, their confidence would be undermined if they did not know the reason. “Baldric has baked a most delicious pudding. I cannot dismiss his labours by failing to enjoy the fruit of them. As his lord, that is my duty. Now hasten; do not let the forces of Vlad break in upon the justice I do Baldric’s work. Begone!”

Dutifully, Lord Harry’s captains went forth to their assembled troops. Outside Lord Harry’s pavilion, Sir Gilbert pointed to a rider sitting high on his mount, just one hundred yards from the camp’s palisade. “Look at that grim pallid leering knight, his fangs jutting out like knives.”

“Indeed, I spy that creature, and doubt not he be Lord Vlad, the Impaler!” reckoned Sir Godfrey. “It is far better to die in battle than fall into his hands alive.”

“We could run away, don’t you think. A happier alternative than either of the others. Do we really need be so constricted by our choices,” mused Sir Gilbert.

Sir Godfrey quietly surveyed the troops mounting the palisades, glimpsed in the direction of Lord Harry’s tent where he still enthusiastically munched on Baldric’s pudding, and quaffed down tankards of tea.

But he had just done with quaffing. Lord Harry was now ready to apply his strategic genius to the military circumstances that were now hard to ignore. For the din outside Lord Harry’s pavilion made it clear that Vlad’s army that had formed up round the camp behind its own defences. “Sir Gilbert,” he opined as he stepped out of his tent, “I do believe we are shut into the camp, both by Lord Vlad’s circumvallation, and our own counter-circumvallation; how could we ever leave?” Of course, Lord Harry didn’t wait for an answer, but strode out manfully towards the horses park on the south side of the camp. He had the forethought to wear a roan coloured cloak over his armour, so that when Vlad’s soldiers burst in they might not notice him among the horses; but if they did, there he would be, ready to protect the valuable beasts. Or at least he would be able to straddle one and make something of a dash out of the camp.

At the barricade, Gilbert and Godfrey were exchanging thoughts on a similar “I have sent my owl, Rupert Rumble, to my leman, Lady Kimberley Swishtocks, and have her balloon over camp, drop a ladder down to us and then carry us through the sky to safety,” proposed Sir Gilbert.

“What a thoroughly fantastic idea! Lady Kimberley must be quite a heavy breather,” decided Sir Godfrey.

“The heaviest in my experience,” agreed Sir Gilbert. “At least for a woman; but I doubt she breathes as heavily as a horse.”

“You are an absolute wizard. There’s something very attractive about heavy breathing. But don’t you think it could all take time to put into effect? Old Rupert Rumble won’t be up for much till nightfall if he’s anything like the owls I know.”

“Normally that would be true, Godfrey. But Rupert Rumble is an oulos diurnal, a type of owl that thinks the sun is the moon; so Rupert sleeps at night when the moon is out, or when he is put in the way of a lunar simulacrum,” explained Sir Gilbert.

“A damned gull of a bird; hardly the proverbial wise owl, do you think, Gilbert? How would such a dash stupid bird know how to find your Lady Swishtocks? In any case, one of those archers pelting us is quite likely to bring the creature down well before the balloon has any chance of going up?”

“You really are too negative, Godfrey,” remarked Gilbert as he began plucking arrows out of his shield. “Rupert Rumble might not be the sharpest too in the aviary, but he has a knack for soaring above arrows. Surely it’s worth a chance. If Rupert Rumble doesn’t get through all we’ve lost is an oulos diurnal, a damned stupid bird, as you say. But otherwise Swishtocks might turn up with her balloon and then we will be on our way.”

“It would be nice,” reflected Godfrey, stepping out of the way of a huge rock catapulted over the palisade. “But if Rupert Rumble is lost, we are no doubt also lost. Unless we could trade Lord Harry of Hexham.”

“I don’t think he’s much of a commodity,” remarked Gilbert as a halberdier collapsed back onto him from the fire-step, half his head having been sliced away by a pole-axeman with a long reach. The corpse collapsed on Gilbert just as the half head fell on Godfrey. “I do hope Lady Swishtocks grasps the urgency of the situation.” As he spoke, the companies under the command of Vlad were resting their ladders against the relatively low sides of the palisade, and swarming up them with disturbing alacrity.

“Lord Harry really should be here now, giving us a hand,” whined Godfrey, standing on the fire-step beside Gilbert, valiantly shoving away ladders and beheading wall scalers. The two captains felt themselves to be much admired by the sixpenny-a-day men about them, although these waged soldiers were not giving them a great deal of thought. “No doubt Lord Harry would commend us.”

Many of the sixpenny-a-day men were collapsing as the flimsy battlements where they stood were collapsing beneath a hail of burning spears shot from the circumvallation wall at a distance too great for Lord Harry’s archers to reach with their arrows. Vlad also had some large trebuchets with which he hurled smelly, dead cows that turned the air into a fuscous miasma. “No doubt the men don’t mind this stench,” opined Gilbert. “They are bound to be used to it where they live, but my nose picks up on such unpleasantness.”

“One of the carcasses landed in the stream where we fetch the water for our tea,” noted Godfrey in dismay. “That’s bound to strengthen the flavour. But not to my taste I am afraid.”
As Godfrey completed this last utterance, it appeared there might be no occasion for tea in the near future, if ever again. For an onager hurled a basket load of sharp heavy stones on the fire-stair of the palisade, knocking away half a dozen defenders. There was no a breach where Vlad’s minions climbed over, a half dozen scaling ladders clustered in the gap.

“Those chaps certainly are alert to any advantage,” remarked Godfrey admiringly, as the enemy clambered over the wall. “It must be nice to serve under a competent general, like Vlad.” Just then, catapults from the other side of the battlefield fired huge stones into the forward gate, driving it to the ground, having already been weakened by a battering ram that had given Lord Harry Hexham a dreadful headache despite being engaged in a conversation close to his heart.

For indeed, Harry was now immersed in his favourite subject, talking to his most responsive horse, Teacup, a handsome amber bay, and one of the finest conversationalists in the entire army. “I would like to open a little teashop, if I can negotiate with some merchant seaman to open up a tea route to the Indies. Tea has become fashionable, though if the volume of imports could be lifted, and the price brought down so that it cost less than a tankard of ale per pot, demand would lift, and revenues, like I saw that owl, Rupert Rumble, soar.”

“I have heard of some Gima or Gomo fellow. Perhaps you could work out something with him,” suggested Teacup

“Da Gama, Teacup,” recalled Lord Harry. “Vasco da Gama. But not a very obliging fellow so far as I understand. I hear he hires out balloons. He’s a friend of the Swishtocks, in fact.”

It was just at that moment that Lord Vlad’s cohorts were sweeping through the camp. Godfrey and Gilbert stood back to back, slicing and thrusting very manfully, and becoming very bloodied in the process. As it happened, one of the Vladists looked up into the sky in some amazement, providing Gilbert an opportunity to behead him before looking to see the thing of interest. It was indeed the balloon guided by Rupert Rumble, with Lady Kimberley Swishtocks pulling on the guys, and breathing heavily into the balloon capsule above her to help keep it afloat. But Rupert Rumble could see that it was not sensible to land so close to the melee where the balloon could be so easily punctured. So instead, he guided Lady Kimberley to the south side of the camp where Lord Harry was engaged in delightful conversation with Teacup. Doubtless, Gilbert and Godfrey would hurtle to this side of the camp and clamber with knightly agility into the basket.

But Rupert Rumble was mistaken; for though Gilbert and Godfrey hurried, cursing energetically at the bird, Lord Harry had also seen the opportunity. A quick word to Teacup, whom Harry had lithely straddled, ensured the horse carried him in a flash to the balloon basket and carried him over the side. With great agility of mind the palfrey began exhaling with equine might into the bubble above, so that the contraption lifted above the ground much more rapidly than when its uplift had depended solely on Lady Kimberley Swishtocks’ humour.

In the meantime, Godfrey and Gilbert were cut down by the vicious Vladists. Lord Harry of Hexham was the only Hexhamite to escape the fray alive. “Goodness, Teacup,” he said as he dismounted, “straddling a steed in a balloon at an altitude is conducive to vertigo. But I prefer to be vertiginous than slain by a Vladist.”

It was then that Harry felt the piqued gaze of Lady Kimberley Swishtocks upon him. “Lord Harry, I am here at the bidding of my betrothed, Sir Gilbert. Though I see your horse has fine lungs, I would rather have good Gilbert and his dear friend Godfrey in my balloon that you and this heavy breathing horse.”

“No doubt, Madame. But the good Gilbert and his companion are being hacked to pieces by vicious Vladists. You landed too far from them. I have always maintained that a woman who hopes to be admired for her heroic devotion to her beloved should be prepared to land in the thick of trouble when flying a balloon for the averred purpose of saving that lover.”

“A fussy, old-fashioned notion if ever I heard one; I am far too pretty to put myself in great danger, ” answered Lady Kimberley with a flick of her hair, a flick that was fortuitous in that it moved her head out of the line of fire of a stone hurtled from below. She turned her head again to see the stone fall to the ground, which now, thanks to the exhalations of Teacup, was much higher than it had been thanks to hers. It was so high that Rupert Rumble had giving up trying to follow. Instead, he glided down to fine old oak tree just above the camp being ransacked by the Vladists, found a sheltered branch to perch, and, like ordinary owls, fell asleep until nightfall.
“Lady Kimberley,” said Lord Harry after a time, “I am quite happy if you join Teacup and me on ou7r voyage to India or some such place, to get some tea.”

“No thank you, Lord Harry. That’s very nice of you, but I have to take the balloon back to Swishtocks Manor. “My father doesn’t know I’ve taken the balloon.”

“It’s very unusual to find a young woman of quality flying a balloon with only her own heavy breathing to lift it,” remarked Teacup, taking a short breather.

“I find your attitude quite outmoded. But Lord Swishtocks shares similar unfashionable views. He’ll be very cross because I took it without the chauffeur; he used to be a monk who had a fine, stentorian singing voice. He was a precentor in charge of the chancery in his monastery. But he had an affair with a choir boy who was cherished by the abbot. So he was castrated and defrocked. Which of course left him unemployed.”

“I’ve always been careful to find out about choir boys’ attachments before seducing them. I’ve no wish to be knackered,” said Teacup, before returning to his breathing duties.

“A sensible approach indeed,” said Lord Harry approvingly. “Choir boys can be very promiscuous, but it can be hard to reason with an infatuated abbot.”

Lady Kimberley went on, “So Father employed him because even though he’s castrated, and not suited to the deeper singing registers, he still has fine lungs. He’s still a heavy breather, so he’s quite suited to keeping our balloon aloft.” Looking at Teacup, she added, “I’ve never known my chauffeur to take a breather either.”

“Anyway, Lady Kimberley, I’m afraid you won’t be able to take the balloon back to the manor,” Lord Harry informed her, then hurried to finish what he had to say before she assumed the role of tirading termagant as was so often the case when young women had their balloons distrained. “It’s for the good of England. England needs tea. We’ll let you out at Plymouth. You should be able to walk home in a week or two. Tell Lord Swishtocks I’ll give him a discount on his tea for life, say twelve and a half per cent.”

“Oh, I say, that is generous,” replied Lady Kimberley pleasantly. “I had no idea you could be so generous, Lord Harry. But don’t bother letting me out at Plymouth. I’ll float down here, and should get home a week earlier.” She then opened her umbrella and leaped out of the basket. She and Lord Harry exchanged warm waves as she floated down onto the plain as Teacup assiduously applied himself to his heavy breathing.

Unfortunately Lady Kimberley arrived amongst a foraging squad of Vladists so that she never returned home to tell Lord Swishtocks about his lifelong discount on tea. But that was just as well, because over the English Channel, Teacup had an asthma attack. As a result, the balloon crashed into the sea, where Lord Harry and Teacup drowned. Quite possibly these events caused a more regular supply of tea to England to be delayed for some years.


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