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.
mr paddington having gone for his fateful walk - the fatefulness of which had not yet been made manifest - the routine of his establishment was little disturbed.
the rain continued to fall. perhaps sal, desultorily chopping a potato for the evening meal, yawned a little wider than usual as she did so.
perhaps bill bikes, with a slight premonition of the changes about to be made to his comfortable existence, sat a little closer to the fire as he stuffed his master's best tobacco in his pipe. but perhaps not.
in any case their reveries were broken by a loud banging on the kitchen's back door.
neither bill nor sal moved to answer it. it continued.
"are you going to open the door, my lady?"
"no, are you?"
the pounding continued for a while. then it stopped, and only the rain beating on the window could be heard.
bill stared at the door. "he'll be back."
"indeed he will."
"he will be back with a stick, to half break the door down.
"that's a fact."
"maybe we should just let him in."
"you always do."
the perspicacious reader may have deduced from the brevity of this dialogue that it was one long practiced and often repeated.
"if you are so keen to let him in," sal contnued, "go open the door and call him back."
but bill did not move. "maybe it wasn't dennis."
"it was dennis."
bill now had the pipe filled to his liking. he took a piece of straw off the floor and stuck it in the fireplace. he was lighting the pipe with the burning straw when the pounding on the door began again, louder than before.
"didn't take him long to find a stick."
bill did not answer, being occupied in lighting the pipe.
the pounding continued, and with a sigh, sal put down her knife and went to the door. it opened with a fearful creak, letting in the wind, the rain, a foully blackened bowler hat, and a mass of patched clothing brandishing a stick.
sal dodged the stick and roughly pushed the mass of clothing aside. "no need to be so loud, dennis. you know we'll let you in, you're more bother out than in." she closed the door, which groaned even louder than when it had been opened.
"where's me seat?"
"on the floor," bikes answered. "where it always is."
dennis pushed his bowler up a notch on his head, revealing a bit of smashed red nose and face. "i thought yez was getting me a chair. when i was last here, yer said yez was getting me a chair." he looked around the four corners of the kitchen.
"oh?" sal went back to her table and resumed her chopping. "i don't think so."
"yez was getting an old chair of the master's, especially for me."
bikes laughed. "that must have been in some other great house you come around and sponge in. not here."
"and what other 'great house' is there, i ask you? this is the only 'great house' in thirty miles around of bog."
"what's thirty miles to you, eh?" bikes answered. "a traveling man like you? i thought you went to the north pole and back every day."
"only with the wind at me back, and only in a manner of speaking." dennis began to sit down in front of the fireplace.
"here, here," cried bikes. "not so close to the fire, you will use up the warmth. over by the window, if you please."
"but there is rain coming through the window."
"not so much as all that. and you needn't sit directly under it, you know. make yourself comfortable.
"ahh - but before i make meself comfortable maybe i could have a drop - just the weest of wee drops - to warm my insides."
"a drop!" exclaimed bikes. "why, we thought you was bringing the drops with you!"
"yes," added sal. "why do you think we let you in?"
"we thought you had a bottle of malt, at least, on your person," bikes went on. "do you mean to tell us there is nothing under those rags but your misshapen and unwashed body?"
"ah, yer a fine couple of wits, yez are. a fine couple of wits." dennis took a small handful of the straw that the window was stuffed with and spread it on the floor. "yer should be ornamenting and lighting up a drawing room in fair dublin city, not tormenting a poor bard and son of the wind by a low fire in the middle of the devil's own bog." he lowered himself down on the straw he had spread beside the window. "in a manner of speaking."
"myself, i don't speak in a manner of speaking," bikes answered. "i'm a plain-spoken englishman, i am, and i speak my mind, with no manner about it." and he laughed at his own wit and waved his pipe.
"bully for you, squire, bully for you."
"well, dennis," said sal, "now that you are here, do you have any news?"
"no, what news would i have? the world is going to hell, but that's no news."
"you bogtrotters," said bikes. "always complaining. you'd complain if someone beat you with a brand new stick."
"here," said sal. "this will stop your gob for a while." and she tossed dennis half of a potato, which he caught smartly.
"for sure, this isn't the best piece of a potato i've ever seen."
"why do you think i gave it to you?"
dennis turned the potato over in his hand. "maybe i will make a poem about it - the song of the bad potato."
"no, dennis, no!" sal cried, and bikes nodded. "we have told you before! we will let you in here sometimes. we might throw you a scrap, let you sit in front of the fire, even give you a drink. but we draw the line -"
"indeed!" added bikes.
"we will not listen to your poems."
"oh, that's a hard condition, mistress, for a son of the wind like meself. a hard condition - it strikes at my very soul."
the wind rattled the window, and a bit of the rain of seeped through and ran down the wall.