Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Who was my Father?


I have prevaricated for several days, for I do not know how to continue my tale without first retreating to describe how I came under the care of my uncle and what befell my parents. Yet the order of those events is so confused in my own mind, owing to my extreme youth when they occurred, I find myself surrounded by doubt and hesitation. If I were to tell my parents story as I later assembled it, I would need assume a knowledge of the designs and ambitions of men and societies that I would not gain until much later in life (nay, that perhaps I have never gained), and here present a distraction of supporting characters and set-pieces. These had little direct relationship to me, except that they robbed me of my parentage. Like an urn that had been smashed into countless pieces, scattered and buried, I uncovered that story in fragments, through chance encounters later in life and by my own research when I was of an age to undertake them. Therefore I trust you will forgive me if I proceed to tell their tale as I learned it myself, and to take my time over it, and in recompense accept the briefest scenario I can make of their circumstances.

My uncle, Adraste Osbourne, had journeyed to Paris as a young man and apprenticed as a printer and binder in the reputable house of Louis Coignard, in rue Saint-Jacques at l’Aigle d’Or. During his four year apprenticeship he undertook for M. Coignard numerous visits to London and Amsterdam, returning with Jansenist manuscripts smuggled among other foreign literary works. While in England he petitioned at Montagu House in Bloomsbury and obtained the financial support of John, Duke of Montagu, fellow of the Royal Society and Grand Master of the Premier Grand Loge of England, (whose marriage to the Lady Mary Churchill, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, provided a healthy income in addition to his wealthy father's allowance) permitting the establishment of a bookshop in Paris in rue Saint-Jacques. He was a creature of the Enlightenment, as much devoted to Science and Reason as he was fascinated by their dark progenitors, alchemy and mysticism. But his true love was the theatre. A substantial part of the profits he earned as bookmerchant (and these were not insubstantial, for he happily printed both official and pirated editions of every title he sold) went into la Comédie-Italienne when it returned to the Hôtel de Bourgogne, rue Mauconseil, in 1716. He married and was quickly widowed when his young wife died of smallpox. His younger sister, my mother, arrived in Paris in distress and six months pregnant in 1722. My father, whom she had married secretly in London, was a gentilhomme de France, but had disappeared as so many gentilhommes are wont to do. A midwife was found but she would guarantee only my survival. Thus I became my uncle's ward from the moment of my birth, and he added his wife's name to mine.

"Who was my father?"

Uncle Adraste shifted and pretended to continue reading for a moment, but I saw his eyes were not moving over the page. He licked a stained finger and turned down the corner of his page. "Pardon me, child. Did you ask me a question?" he said.

"Who was my father?"

"Ah." Still he did not look at me, but studied the crystal glass on his reading table. "Your father."

"Yes, did you know him?" I stamped my foot.

"Of course, of course." At last he put down his book and turned to look at me. "Why do you want to know, child?"

Perhaps my mouth fell open. I wanted to know because everyone had fathers of their own with occupations, and houses, and ancestors, and names. Solid fathers with whiskers and odd smells and rumpled waistcoats and leather boots and tobacco. Fathers they could cling to when they cried, or yell at when they were frustrated. Fathers who gave them ribbons and candied fruit on holidays, and took them for walks in the park or picnics in the countryside. I had only a silent emptiness that nibbled at my heart and gobbled up my guts, that filled me with something that was not sadness or anger but in between the two, burning coldly at the pit of my stomach. I wanted to be able to tell my friends my father was the King of Siam and had placed me in Uncle's care out of the way of court assassins, that he was the Captain of the Guards and was leading his troops on the battlefields in Poland, or that he was a poet who had fallen afoul of the Royal Censors and now wasted in the Bastille. I wanted something, which I thought a father might provide me, and if not a father, at least the knowledge of one.

After a long pause, my uncle said, "He was a very intelligent man."

"Was he an actor too?"

"No, no, he was not a very good actor. It might have gone better for him if he were."

"What happened to him?"

Uncle Adraste stared out the window, so I rose from where I was sitting with my puppets and stood in front of him. For a long time he would not look at me, and I tried to discover the reason by peering deep into his eyes. I scowled. "What happened to him?" I repeated.

"I have been thinking on that question since long before you were born, child."

3 comments:

Osprey said...

/me listens, entranced.

Enjah Mysterio said...

Rapt, I also give full attention to your tale, which now begins to unfold its sorrows. All our tales have them, but yours came early in life, and must have caused you terrible anguish.

hba said...

Ye gods! I have only managed to put aside a slit of time to read this with the attention it deserves, and now I want more!