i considered myself a wise child, one who at least knew which side my bread was buttered on. and i felt, early on, that i had the measure of mademoiselle, my benefactress. i had no illusions as to my status - i was a pet, to be turned out of doors at a moment's notice, like a cat or dog or parrot.
in the early days of my ascension to the lofty position of pet, despite the comforts attending it (offset to some extent by occasional privations, to be sure) i often found myself wishing to be back in the kitchen under berthe's feet. i instinctively knew that berthe and charles, with their simple faith, would never think of casting me out on to the highway, whereas the capricious and absent minded mademoiselle might very well do just that.
it is difficult, if not impossible in one's later years to recall the passage of time as it filtered through the mind of a child - so it might have been months, or only a week or a few days, that i divined that mademoiselle did not need my company every minute of the day and that i was quite free to seek berthe's company in the kitchen, or charles's in the stable, almost any time i pleased. considering the matter as i pen these lines, it indeed seems more likely that it was a few days!
for a time then, all should have been well. it is easy enough now to look back and say that i was getting the best of two worlds, and that my four year old self should have been philosopher enough to realize it and be grateful for it. but gratitude is a poor conduit and a poorer barometer for dealing with our creaturely existence, and it was with the trepidations of an abandoned and hunted creature that i continued to greet each new day.
it pains me even now to say that i did not appreciate the kindness of charles and berthe, but what child is truly satisfied with the company of adults? naturally, it was with creatures closer to my own age and size that i sought companionship. as there were no other human children on the grounds of mademoiselle's residence, my first encounters with such were with the dog, balthazar, and the cat, marthe, who inhabited the kitchen, as well as some of the mice who at that time were all too able to avoid the elderly marthe's perfunctory attentions.
i found balthazar an aloof individual, polite enough but barely acknowledging my existence. he had an irritating habit of not answering your question at first, but then replying just before you were about to ask it again. he usually answered as briefly as possible, but on occasion at maddening length. marthe was friendlier and more forthcoming - when she was awake, which was not often.
the mice were chattier, but mostly about themselves and their own affairs, and were a poor source of information about the household - which was my own chief interest.
i will say that learning to talk to both the cat and the mice - to both sides of a deadly conflict, though this was little more than a polite convention due to marthe's age - was a most valuable skill which would do me great service on my journey in the wider world.
i should add that the spectre of death was constantly placed before my young consciousness, not only by the desultory warfare in the corners of the kitchen,
but by the good berthe, in whose thoughts it was ever present. not so much as the end of existence but as the door to communion with the blessed saints, with whom she was on the most intimate terms.
like virtually all (in my experience) such good souls - who make up so much and so supremely loyal a portion of mother church's population - she believed in the existence of heaven but not of hell - a view, so far as i know, not promulgated by a single learned theologian, in the history of christendom.
where was i? ah, yes, with my animal friends. on being taken upstairs by mademoiselle, i found myself in the company of her other pets, her parrot plutarch (the least garrulous of the three), her pug aristide (a creature who seemed more cat than dog), and her cat charmian. it was these who were my first true companions, and from whom i received my first lessons.
charmian in particular took a fancy to me, who can say why - who, indeed, can fathom the motives of any living creature? - i have long since given up - and we spent long afternoons both gloomy and sunny - for it was perfect weather indeed that tempted mademoiselle out of doors - chatting away, much to the amusement of mademoiselle, who could not understand a sound we made, and who only occasionally bid me talk to her instead.
ah, mademoiselle, mademoiselle! where are you now? you might even be alive!
you were, or are, only about twenty years older than myself - a gap that dwindles to nothingness as the road of life lengthens. often enough in my travels did my thoughts turn to you, and i entertained fleeting thoughts of making discreet enquiries about you. but cast them aside, for what possible reason would my carefully but delicately reconstructed self have for making them? and what would i discover? either that you had passed on, or were still "buried" in your countryside.
"buried"! in the countryside! what horror the young of the new age have for such a fate. but it was not so cruel in those days to avoid the attentions of the successive revolutions, was it, and you had the wit to do that, i grant you that. wit or luck? you ascribed it to luck, but i am no longer so sure. or sure of anything.
i am not making great progress here. these memoirs which i resolved to begin after my meeting with rudolf have not even progressed to the point of my first encounters with him. how complicated life is, even at its simplest! how difficult to unravel! how messy!
with these profound observations i again lay down my pen.
the rain continued to beat against the kitchen window, a little harder.
bikes' pipe went out and he re-lit it.
sal finished chopping her potatoes, and yawning, went to a small rocking chair in the corner, away from the fire.
"hard work, eh?" dennis asked her. this was some kind of private joke, and he laughed at it, but sal and bikes did not.
"you're sure, now, you don't want to hear me new poem?'" dennis asked.
"positively not," sal answered without looking at him or raising her voice.
"what was that?"
"she said she didn't want to hear your poem," bikes told him.
"well how about a tale, then," dennis persisted. "a rousing tale of old times."
"who wants to be roused?" sal asked him. "not i. i want a little nap before i have to light the stove."
"then dennis's tale might be just the thing," bikes told her. go ahead, dennis," bikes turned to him, "if my pipe doesn't put me to sleep, your story surely will. i only ask one thing."
"and what might that be?"
"if your tale puts me to sleep, and my pipe is still lit, put it out for me, so the house doesn't catch on fire."
"i can do that." dennis settled himself a little more comfortably beside the window.
bikes and dennis both looked up as the wind shook the window a little harder.
then dennis began:
"once upon a time, long ago but maybe not that far away, there lived a wicked king. and he was the wickedest king that ever was, so he must have been an englishman."
bikes took his pipe out of his mouth. "for england and st george!"
"and he did all the wicked things that wicked kings did. and he loved to do all the things that they did.
he loved to send his soldiers in the dead of night to seize the peasant's daughters and carry them off to his castles.
the fortunate ugly ones were set to cooking and sweeping.
the better looking ones were set to waiting on the king and his mighty men at table, and dancing for them.
and the unfortunate beautiful ones were locked up in the king's towers, where they suffered fates too terrible to be told, even on the coldest winter's nights.
and of course, like all wicked kings, and like even the so called good kings of legend, who must have lived very long ago indeed, the king loved to hunt.
and his soldiers and lackeys spent much of their days keeping poor folk from growing even a sprig of barley or a solitary potato in the wood set apart for the deer and pigs and wolves and bears that the king loved to hunt.
terrible indeed would have been the fate of any poor soul who tried to catch, for himself, any of the king's game. but the king's men had them beaten down so, that none dared to even dream of doing such.
like all kings, he loved war. and after a long winter in his castle, he would celebrate the spring by attacking his kingly neighbors, who were happy to respond by setting the king's kingdom ablaze, and the poor folk and beasts trapped within it.
and then, when the leaves began to turn, and the cold winds to blow, the kings would make up for the winter, and victor and vanquished would celebrate with a great feast in some unplundered castle or other, and sing lusty songs and toast each other into the long night, as beggars and dogs shivered and howled outside.
the king loved to drink. he would have liked to drink every drop of liquor in the kingdom himself, and it pained him muchly to begrudge his mighty men and soldiers their rations of brew, but how else was he to secure their loyalty? not that he trusted any of them, and was cursed with sleepless nights brooding on their possible perfidy, and devising ways to forestall them.
the king loved vengeance. his feelings were easily bruised, his suspicions even more easily aroused, and few things gave him as much pleasure as savoring the destruction of those who had distressed him, or whom he feared.
another thing the king loved was himself. he was sometimes willing to throw a scrap to a poor artist or craftsman to paint a picture or carve a statue of himself, and their productions gradually filled the roads and castles and strongholds of the kingdom. and on really cold winter nights, when drink or sleep or dancing girls failed him, he would even tolerate a poor wandering bard who could compose an epic celebrating his mighty deeds, and he would then let the poor poet share the repasts of the castle's ravens and cats.
but there was one thing the king loved more than all else. young maidens, hunting, war, rape, pillage, drink, revenge, his own glory - all these were well enough in their way. but they were second to the one thing the king really loved to do.
what the king really loved to do was eat.
pies, puddings, plums, peaches, breads, cakes, turnips, onions, oysters, roasted potatoes, spicy dishes from faraway lands, who would dare interrupt him as he snatched these things from the hands of the serving wenches and stuffed them down his throat - and above all every variety of meat - geese, chickens, squirrels and rabbits by the dozen, venison, beef, mutton, pigs, wild boar - roasted on spits, still quivering with life, dripping blood and sizzling and popping with grease - here, finally, was something worth the aggravation of existence.
as the years went by the king's favorite pastime took its toll. he grew too big for his throne - which indeed he had never much cared for anyway - and usually rested on a waterfall of pillows. he could only watch the maids as they crossed the floor, only listen as the hunting horns announced the break of day. even war became a burden, and carried on a litter, he could only look on without participating, tears of frustration streaming down his face, as his armies laid waste to a neighboring or rebellious town.
one bright day in late summer, as the year's wars were winding down, and he had been too infirm with gout to even accompany his troops on their last raid, he had himself carried outside, and was sitting in the shade of a venerable oak on the lawn outside the castle, chewing on a pickled leg of mutton and watching the desultory wanderings of a few peasants and beasts down the dusty high road.
a solitary figure appeared in the distance.
as it came closer it revealed itself as a man neither fat nor thin, young nor old, unhorsed and apparently unarmed, and dressed neither as a peasant, a townsman, or any kind of priest.
the king motioned to one of the two bored soldiers stationed beside his pillows to accost the fellow and bring him into his presence.
the traveler seemed in no wise surprised or intimidated by the soldier's request and accompanied him readily enough.
'a fair day, stranger. ' the king managed a friendly smile.
'a fair day, indeed.' the stranger looked past the king, across the wide lawn and up at the castle. "a fair day to sit outside a fair dwelling. might you be the master of it?"
'of it, and much else besides.'
the stranger's eyes fell on the large picnic basket beside the king and he gazed at it without guile. 'if you are the master of that basket, you could oblige a poor traveler by offering him one of those pickled eggs.'
the larger of the two soldiers straightened up. 'look here, fellow, you do not make demands of his majesty in that fashion.'
the stranger smiled, and addressed the king. 'his majesty? so you are a king?'
'i am the king - this is one of my castles.'
'perhaps you have heard of me?'
'one can hardly wander in a kingdom, without hearing of the king,' the traveler replied.
'no doubt you have heard nothing good.'
'i would not say so.'
'you have not heard of my great wickedness? from my wretched ungrateful peasants? or the rascally monks and priests who infest my poor kingdom?'
the traveler shrugged. 'i have traveled all over the world. i have traveled in the eastern lands, where the kings are truly wicked. believe me, you are the angel of mercy, seated at the right hand of the blessed virgin, compared to those gentry.'
'you do not say so,' the king replied. 'and what might you be, fellow, as you do not seem to be a king yourself?'
'a poor wanderer.'
'no doubt. like myself.' the king gestured toward the road. 'what are any of us, even kings, but poor wanderers, suspended like moths between the dusk and the dark, eh?'
'that is truly spoken. wisdom indeed.'
'but you must be something else besides - as i am a king.'
'i am a wizard.'
'ah. a mountebank, you mean.'
'as you please. i confess i can not grow a longer arm, to reach into that basket for an egg.'
'insolence!' cried the soldier who had spoken before. 'shall i thrash him, sire? or hang him from yonder tree? '
but the king laughed. 'give him an egg. two, if he wants them, and a cup of wine. tell me, sir wizard, can you foretell the future?'
'oh, yes, very easily. it is one of my stocks in trade. my road game, as the friars say.'