You know this. Of course you do. But I was there.
For a time, a decade or two, in old Redoubt, words were powerful. The Mechanism behind the world within The Bottle Grande (the vast underlying machinery and all that shifts the substance of that which drifts within the Endless Sea) became suddenly attentive and talk grew significantly more puissant.
It was not so much that people would believe anything, but that the Mechanism would.
A chaos of unbridled chatter reigned for a moment, but that swiftly gave way to something else. Those that spoke well rose high and fast and he spoke well, my Master, James Collins.
“Eloquence is reality,” He said to me, once — when it was literally true — after he had come back early from Parliament; they had whispered a swift close to the day, all those powerful garrulous folk tired of powerful talk. “And reality is bound by words, the right words, the appropriate ones, and then those words are truth. That is the source of power. Which is why one must always be careful in what one says, or even writes.”
“Right you are, Sir,” I said, brushing his jacket free of snow and dirt. “Right you are.”
He laughed at that, his bright eyes flashing. “Oliver, I am certain of the air and earth’s attentiveness, but do you ever listen to a word I say?”
Then he was gone, striding to his rooms and the company of good brandy and the meat of his lexicons, leaving me staring down at the wreck and ruin of his costume; wondering why he didn’t just talk it all clean and let me get on with some other work. But I knew the truth in that; idle hands are the Devil’s whisperings. These labours kept my hands busy and my mouth shut.
My Master was wrong; I listened to every word he said. I listened harder than he might care I did, but it is the most important part of my job, without such attentiveness who knows what mischiefs might result.
Twelve years I’d served him, since boyhood and indenture.
I’d cleaned up after him, nodded as he described the heated Debates, the woundings that words can bring even in such a civilised Parliament as ours. He was a good man by any measure, just curse-blessed with power, and the will to use it, of a sort enough to challenge any good. Such are the stresses and strains of the Speakers of Parliament.
I cleaned and polished and set about making fixes and, when done, I saw to the evening meal, while he made more mess about the house as was his right.
Even then I had begun to suspect that my Master might be in love.
And I was right.
Thursday and Rain Day, as Parliament decreed it, the down pipes chattering, the roads slick, the parklands thirsty and the distant circuit of the bottle, look up and you can see its curvature, all hazy with downpour.
I accompanied him to the Lady Philpatrick’s house on Worrimer Street, a fashionable place of which the Master had always been disparaging. Three times he poked his head through the carriage window, demanding of the driver why were not yet there. Three times he ducked his head back in, hair slick and dripping, and whispered it dry.
My Master, the very element of composure had become anything but. I had never known him so red faced, so stilted in his animation or expression.
He had met her quite by accident at a grand dinner hosted by an allied Parliamentarian. A fellow with such meagre persuasive skill that my Master would rarely have anything to do with him, but that day the gentleman had come upon a couple of nearly perfect sentences and my Master, so impressed, had forgotten not to attend the banquet.
“I was charmed,” my Master said. “She charmed me, just with a glance or two I swear. We barely said a word to each other. Is it possible to fall in love from across the room?”
I had no answer for that, so I brushed his hat and wondered what could have transformed my Master so swiftly and ridiculously.
I understood the moment we entered the drawing room. Let me say she possessed beauty, but not how you might think it. Hers was a beauty of movement, a beauty of wit and penetrating eyes. You could not love (or even be merely smitten by) wisdom and clarity and joy and not love her.
And my Master held these things to be above all else.
“Mr Collins,” she said. “I am delighted to have your company, though somewhat bemused. For I am yet to understand what appeal I might hold to a Member of Parliament.”
My Master raised one hand and shook his head. “No, I am the one delighted. Delighted that you agreed to see me.”
The Lady smiled at him uneasily, then looked over at me, her eyes weighted with enquiry. I shrugged my shoulders, tried for a reassuring grin, and hoped that this might continue a little better than it had begun.
In that I needn’t have worried. The Lady asked all manner of questions concerning the Parliament and, the one thing above all that my Master liked to talk about, the Grammar.
“The glorious age of old Redoubt and the world within the Bottle Grande began with the word. And so it has remained,” he said to the Lady. “In Parliament we talk and shape. Each sentence is a thunderous proclamation echoing from the bottle’s firmament to its distant tapering neck and out of which our society is made.”
The Lady raised one eyebrow, and glanced askance at him.
“But surely, Mr Collins, there must be a limit to the power of eloquence?”
“Other than removing the Bottle Grande itself – for there have been madmen who tried and failed—none that I have encountered,” my Master said. “One can talk night into day should one wish it, though a man singularly engaged might take longer than a day or night to do it. Which is why we have the Parliament. A multitude of voices, a choir with which to bind the world.
“Some of us, of course, possess a grandiloquence, and around such folk the world is more labile, more agreeable to persuasion.”
The Lady’s bright eyes flicked to me. “Oliver," she said charming and disturbing me with such familiarity, “how would you rate your Master at such talk?”
“He is the most powerful speaker there ever was, Marm.”
The Lady’s eyes narrowed, her lips grew tight with mischief. Something the Master did not notice, being an altogether serious man.
“It is a miserable day out, Mr Collins. Why don’t you make it a fine one?”
My Master, surprised by this, brought a finger to his lips, then smiled, a trifle hesitantly. It was Thursday, after all. At last though, he nodded.
“Very well,” he said, then true to his word, his spoke the day into one of sunshine, and birdsong; a gentle breeze lifted the curtains and tugged at the Lady’s hair.
She laughed with pleasure at this simple-to-him, though wondrous-to-her, display and they spent the rest of the day in the garden. Much to the delight of her many pets, which though at first surprised, were quick to shake away their rainy day stupors, and set the air alive with barks and quacks, and mark the Master’s pants with muddy paws
All the way home, he sat in the cabin of our carriage, his face flushed and I knew for certain that he was in love, just as I knew that the Lady was not.
The next time he visited her, she appeared embarrassed and it did not take long for the reason to reveal itself.
“I must apologise,” she said. “I did not mean to make you do it.”
He frowned at her. “Do what, my dear?”
“Change the weather. The papers have been up in arms about it all week.”
“Oh,that,” Collins said. “It was nothing. I’ve always found Thursday, Rain Day, to be annoyingly arbitrary.”
Of course, he had not been so casual or dismissive to the half dozen raging parliamentarians who’d come a visiting Thursday evening.
“Let’s not speak of it again.”
Three more times he visited her and though every time she was polite and engaging, he did not pierce the edge of reserve that surrounded her.
They spoke of the Grammar, of its potency, of the ways it had been used throughout its short history, and the ways it had been undone, for Eloquence and Colloquy are back-and-forth things for both good and ill.
And, on the third visit, he got down on one knee, reached into his pocket for the ring he had talked into being just that morning, and declared his love for her.
At which she shook her head and paled as though the worst of her fears had come true – for she must have suspected it was coming. “Though I would wish it otherwise, Mr Collins, I cannot love you, for all your sweet talk and good company.”
And at once I knew why, though my Master could not. He blinked and balanced on his knee like a puppy slapped in the face.
“I do not understand,” he said. “I would shape the world for you. All my eloquence is yours.”
“Exactly,” she said. “How might I really know you love me? How would I know that you did not merely speak it? No, I could not trust such a glorious speaker. For all that it may be to my benefit, I cannot marry you, Sir.”
My Master got to his feet and dipped his head, his eyes never leaving hers.
“ Then let me bid you a fond farewell—though I suspect you may look upon even that with wariness — and beg of you forgiveness for the discomfort that I have caused you.”
With that we were out the room and into his carriage and away. We did not speak for some time, he too angry to open his mouth, and me too frightened to disturb the silence. In moments like that you never know what words might turn up. In moments like that it is far better not to find out.
Eloquence is not about intellect. Errant words are the problem of our age. Talk is cheap, but oh so potent. Novelists were dangerous; their imaginings could sweep across the land in clouds of drama and inference. And historians, revisionists or not, were far too potent, so it was best that they were purged. Only the lexicon remained.
Which is why the Grammar was not taught to all but those deemed fit and proper for Parliament, and the tongues of the seditious – or those that seemed far too good at speech and far too common— were cut out.
On our way home we passed the most popular pubs. The Stilled Tongue, The Looker and The Taciturn Arms and not one did the Master desire to visit.
Finally he did speak, regarding me with his wounded eyes.
“Most unexpected was it not? Most unexpected.”
Oh, after that he strode about the house, a raging melancholic.
He told the sky to rain and was met with a downpour. Collins had few friends and it had always been thus. Small talk made him uneasy. After all, he wielded the Biggest talk, the most meaningful.Everyday words, every day constructions were as difficult to him as the Grammar was to most common folk.
For five days, he kept to himself, barely touched his food, for all that I begged him to. Hardly made a mess, just sat, drank far too much and whispered to himself. I thought he’d lost his mind, or at the very least his wit, when he came at me from his rooms a wild smile stretched across his face.
“I know what I must do,” he said. “Fetch my driver, I have to see her again.”
“Please, it saddens me to see you this way," the Lady said. “And if your intent is the opposite, and you are striving to lift my spirits at the sight of you then you have failed.”
“Then let me woo you.”
The Lady lowered her eyes, then applied their weight anew upon his desperate face.
“If you feel you must then yes. But I have one request just one and you must give me your word.”
And even my Master could see where this was going.
“I would not use my words to change you,” he said. “I will not woo you that way. I will not speak you to love, merely show you mine.”
“You give me your word.”
“I give you my word.”
And with that word it began. Such a wooing as the world had never seen before.
He cast the most wondrous nets, shaped earth and sky to her snaring and all that potency was nothing to a single no from her lips. He unknitted histories and she bound them up again. He charged the air with poetries as controlled and wild as sonnets, made rondels of the heavens. He cried out her beauty like the night, made cloudless days, or set rain to fall if she said that was what might make her happy – and the Lady was fond of ducks and the sanguine creak of frogs, so she was of a mind to appreciate rain as well as clear skies.
He would pour over the Lexicon at night, muttering to himself, studying as closely as he ever had the Grammar.
“We’ve a most inelegant reality, even if it is an eloquent one,” My Master said his face tight with the frustrations of affection unreturned; of pleasantries, pleasant enough but not the passionate things for which he yearned.
So often did he attend her that he began to neglect his civic duties, no longer could you be certain it would rain on Thursday because she might not wish it. Sombre Mitre day might grow all carnival with elephants and ribbons and musicians and wiry balloons. And the people on the street would look at each other and nod, “Why it’s master Collins gone all in love with the Lady.”
And this went on for months for there was no one to challenge him, no one he could not drown out. Though several tried and suffered for it - none too badly - he was a man possessed with love not villainy.
“He’ll have us all as rabbits singing for his mistresses pleasure,” other, weaker speakers in Parliament would whisper to me, knowing I had his ear a little and I would nod my head, because it was true and I had nary an inkling where it might end.
The Lady’s favourite duck died and My Master spoke to Death, talked it into his Great hall and talked it out of taking the duck.
He took the returned-to-living thing, its duck eyes blinking, to The Lady.
She frowned. “Mr Collins, I am indeed rather fond of ducks, and Puddleson Dickens the third more than most, but I am also fond of a roast and you’ve done my kitchen no courtesy.”
In a fit of petulance, he wrung poor Puddleson’s neck then and there.
“It’s one or the other for you, isn’t it?” the Lady said. “You don’t understand the muddiness of words, their glorious multiplicities. Precision isn’t everything, you know.”
He lay the duck down on the table. “Precision is everything.”
“Love, it is a word that will not bend to my will,” My Master said, and mumbled under his breath. “Why won’t it bend to my will? How might I persuade it?”
But he did not understand that love is its own Grammar, its own singular persuasion more potent than a thousand parliaments.
He did not understand that love is not power, love is its opposite.
And even I was surprised at last when the wooing was done, and he sat with the Lady and, holding her hands, asked again that she might marry him. The Lady’s face reddened and she looked away, then back into his eyes.
“I am so sorry, Mr Collins,” she said. “But still I cannot say yes.”
“But have I not made the world abundant with wonders? Haven’t I shaped the very clouds, diverted rivers, raised monuments and challenged death for you?”
She sighed. “And, yet again, that is why I must say no. I cannot love you truly, when the world is so mutable to your tongue. I cannot love you and be me. For all that I admire you, for all that I respect you, I still cannot love you.”
He paled. “Then there is one thing left to me,” he said, rising to his feet. “One final persuasion and then I will ask you again.”
He dipped his head. “I may be gone awhile, but I will return.”
And so he undid.
He shouted down the Grammar, unmade it’s potency, as best he could, because words could always shape thoughts, but words alone would never again remake reality. So eloquent was he in this task that it took him but four months to fulfil it. And when he was done, he knew it could not be unspoken, he knew he had changed the world forever, that the Underlying Mechanism of the Bottle Grande would never listen so attentively again.
And he was not the only one. Parliamentarians lined our hall.
“What have you done?” they demanded, though they already knew.
“The world is ruined,” they said. “Talked out.”
The Master shook his head. “The world will run as it ran before. Dear sirs, talk is still not cheap. And there will be other duties to which we must attend.”
One man made to strike him and, out of habit, the Master tried to whisper it away. The fist struck him hard, then another and another.
But none of these men where used to fighting. I pulled them from my poor Master and pushed them from the house. I knew how to fight.
The Master looked at me with a new respect. “You’ll have to teach me that,” he said.
“With pleasure,” I said, thinking of the occasional bloody nose I might administer myself, still smarting over Death’s visit to the house.
Hoarse and bleeding, and with me to hold him up, he took his carriage along the thoroughfare and down to her residence.
“The World is ruined,” he whispered.
And all the way I sat and watched this world remade, this sticks and stones world, where words could sting but no longer hurt. This world where tongues might wag again now the Grammar was gone.
“The World is ruined,” he whispered again.
But it was not.
He struck his hand against the door, his knuckles bleeding. The sound so feeble because he was so feeble, but still someone came to the door, then led him in to the Lady’s drawing room.
And when she entered, the room lit up with a magic that was beyond words, doubly beyond words now. At the sight of him, her eyes widened, and she hurried to his side.
“It is done,” he said, hoarse and broken. She rubbed his face and my master winced.
“Come outside,” he said. “Into the garden.”
We all did.
“Can’t you feel it?” he said.
“Feel what?” the lady asked.
“The Bottle Grande - the air the soil - it’s no longer listening.”
I smiled. He was right, everything was as it was, but indifferent. The world did not strain to hear, nor hang upon our every word, it just was.
“You did this for me?”
“And you alone,” he said. “All done because I love you, love you more than words can ever express. And because of such a love I have bound this world up, imprisoned it. Oh, but I am a fool.”
“Fool you are, but you have not bound up this world just freed it, as you have freed my heart,” the Lady said, and clutched his hands close to her breast.
“Freed it? I do not see what you mean…”
“Would you just shut up,” the Lady said, “and kiss me.”
And that, words fled, is what my Master did.
This story originally appeared in Reserved For Travelling Shows.