the record of my life begins with my being found in a basket by the side of the high road in the province of d------, on a cold sunny morning a little after the beginning of this unfortunate century. as it is unlikely that those who placed me there expended themselves by traveling any great distance to do so, it seems that i was probably born in the said province. i have never found occasion to doubt this most reasonable assumption, and i suggest that you, dear reader, accept it also.
mademoiselle clotilde de t----------- de v-------- did everything at a most leisurely pace, and liked her journeys through life and down the roads of the kingdom to be slow and smooth, so when the coachman spotted the bundle containing myself nestled between a rock and a flower and brought the coach from a trot to a halt she simply yawned and settled back in the coach, without even enquiring what he was about.
reader, i believe i have already indicated to you my distinct preference for simple and pious persons, and i have no doubt that this preference was sealed on that distant morning when charles the coachman - the sole cause of my continued existence, the most pious creature i would ever know and the first person i encountered in this life - after my anonymous mother and perhaps an equally anonymous midwife - picked me up and brushed the dew off my still blind face.
did he say a prayer over me? probably not. curiously enough, despite his piety and his apparently limitless knowledge of the saints and angels and prophets and such, i do not recall that i ever actually saw or heard him pray. but i digress.
charles picked me up and brought me over to the coach and handed me to adolphe, a "footman" or generally underfoot servant of mademoiselle, a lazy worthless rascal of a type she was all too complaisant about, and who on this morning was accompaniying mademoiselle and her maidservant and charles to - well, that is of no interest to you, dear reader, so i refrain from the description.
knowing adolphe as i later would, i have no doubt he was a veritable fountain of witticisms and droll remarks about my sudden appearance. but as he was always somewhat cowed by charles and did his bidding - more promptly than he did mademoiselle's or charlotte the housekeeper's or jean-pierre the butler's - all of whom i will describe in good time - i do not doubt he handled me gently enough as the coach made it's easy way back to the chateau.
reader, do you wonder that i can describe all this in such detail? if you do, i judge that you have probably never lived in the depths of the provinces, where the humblest of events - let alone one so spectacular as the discovery of a foundling -
are told and retold on a winter's night - or on a spring night or a summer night or an autumn night - by any and all of the surviving participants or witnesses.
all, that is, except mademoiselle, whom i would get to know very well in the coming years, and who almost never declined to answer a question put to her in the frankest possible manner, being totally indifferent to the opinions of her fellow creatures - with the possible exception of her favorite dogs - but who always claimed to have forgotten or never known of the blessed event, and to have been barely aware or completely unaware of my existence until i began to walk, at which time i joined her small menagerie of pets. (and learned to converse with dogs and cats, but that is a story for another time).
writing all this is thirsty work! though the memories so far are not unpleasant. but i must have a cup of tea.
dear reader, perhaps i should resume my narrative with a description of mademoiselle, as she will play so large a part in my story.
mademoiselle the baroness clotilde de t----------- de v-------- was the sole survivor of an ancient and barely honorable race, one that through the centuries had alternately scorned a part in the larger affairs of the kingdom and been deemed too notorious for its wickedness to be trusted with one. what was to become of the estate on her demise was a matter of supreme indifference to her - though she was of too somnolent a disposition to be a spendthrift and bankrupt it - and as she had no near relations - neither uncle, nor aunt nor cousin - to encourage her to marry and continue the line she made not the slightest pretense of being anything but indifferent.
later, when i had become her confidant - or at least her companion - i ventured to ask her how the estate had survived the revolution. she was mildly amused by my curiosity, but confessed she had no idea. after musing on it for a minute, she replied, "by pure chance, i suppose, like everything else in this world".
she was more amused on a dreary winter afternoon when i asked her if her ancestors had gone on the crusades. she laughed out loud - something she seldom did, although she was hardly ever in a really bad humor - and exclaimed, "the crusades! what a question! the child talks to animals, and wishes to know about the crusades! what a prodigy!" as she hardly ever mocked me, but usually listened to my childish twaddle with the most serious expression - which in hindsight, i think a fellow adult might have found vacant - i was particularly stung, and blushed and did not answer, but made a pretense of attending to the low fire.
my notions of the crusades, like most of my notions of the world outside the chateau and its grounds , i had absorbed from the good charles and his equally pious sister berthe, the chateau's cook - both of whom i shall describe in more detail as i proceed.
at the time of my first memories of her - when i must have been three years old - mademoiselle would have been about twenty-three but looked at least twice that (even allowing for a child's notions of age). she took little care of her dress, and even of her hair - a major preoccupation of high-born and even bourgeois women of the period - and had a wardrobe hardly more varied than that of charles or berthe.
she liked to eat, but even that not to excess, and often dispensed with dinner altogether as a "bore". but she was very fond of little strawberry cream cakes that berthe would make for her, and stuffed her face with them at all hours of the day and night. as her pet i found myself subsisting on them too, and grew to loathe the sight of the things and indeed of all sweets - a loathing which would stand me in good stead in later life, to be sure.
the pen trembles in my blue-veined hand. tomorrow i shall describe in more detail the scandalous behaviors of my benefactress, but i will close by mentioning the trait of hers which more than any other discomfited her aristocratic neighbors and made her company less than ardently desired by them - that she did not play whist.