Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 39
IT is well to know what people are doing, and a certain surveillance is wise.
Josiana had Lord David watched by a creature of hers, whom she thought she could trust, and whose name was Barkilphedro. Lord David had Josiana secretly watched by a creature of his, of whom he felt sure, and whose name was Barkilphedro. Queen Anne, for her part, kept herself secretly informed of the actions and conduct of the Duchess Josiana her bastard sister, and of Lord David her future brother-in-law (on the left hand), by a creature of hers whom she trusted implicitly, and whose name was Barkilphedro.
Barkilphedro had not always held the magnificent position of whisperer into three ears. He was an old servant of the Duke of York. He had tried to be a clergyman, but had failed. The Duke of York, an English and Roman prince, compounded of royal Popery and legal Anglicanism, had his Catholic household and his Protestant household, and might have pushed Barkilphedro in one or the other hierarchy; but he did not judge him to be Catholic enough to make him almoner, or Protestant enough to make him chaplain,—so that between two religions Barkilphedro found himself with his soul on the ground. Not a bad posture, either, for certain reptile souls; and some roads are impracticable, so that one must crawl flat on one's belly.
An obscure but fattening servitude had long made up Barkilphedro's existence. Service is something; but he wanted power besides. He was, perhaps, about to attain it when James II. fell; then he had to begin all over again. There was no chance for him under William III., a sullen prince, exercising in his mode of reigning a prudery which he believed to be probity. Barkilphedro, when his protector James II. was dethroned, did not lapse at once into rags. There is a something which survives deposed princes, and which feeds and sustains their parasites. The remains of the exhaustible sap causes leaves to live on for two or three days on the branches of the uprooted tree; then, all at once, the leaf yellows and dries up: and thus it is with the courtier. Thanks to that embalming process which is called legitimacy, the prince himself, although fallen and cast away, is preserved; it is not so with the courtier, who is much more dead than the king. The king over yonder is a mummy; the courtier here is a phantom. To be the shadow of a shadow is leanness indeed. Hence Barkilphedro became famished; then he took up the character of a man of letters. But he was thrust out even from the kitchens. Sometimes he knew not where to sleep. "Who will give me shelter?" he would ask. He struggled on. All that is interesting in patience in distress he possessed. He had, besides, the talent of the termite,—knowing how to bore a hole from the bottom to the top. By dint of making use of the name of James II., of old memories, of anecdotes of fidelity, and of touching stories, he pierced the Duchess Josiana's heart.
Josiana took a liking to this man of poverty and wit,—an interesting combination. She introduced him to Lord Dirry-Moir, gave him a shelter in the servants' hall among her domestics, retained him in her household, was kind to him, and sometimes even spoke to him. Barkilphedro knew neither hunger nor cold again. Josiana addressed him in the second person; it was the fashion for great ladies to do so to men of letters, who allowed it. The Marquise de Mailly received Roy, whom she had never seen before, in bed, and said to him: "C'est toi qui as fait l'Année galante! Bonjour." Later on, the men of letters returned the custom. The day came when Fabre d 'Eglantine said to the Duchesse de Rohan: "N'est-tu pas la Chabot?"
For Barkilphedro to be "thee'd" and "thou'd" was a triumph; he was overjoyed by it. He had aspired to this contemptuous familiarity. "Lady Josiana thees-and-thous me," he would say to himself; and he would rub his hands. He profited by this theeing-and-thouing to make further progress. He became a constant attendant in Josiana's private rooms,—in no way troublesome, unnoticed; in fact, the duchess would almost have changed her shift before him. All this, however, was precarious. Barkilphedro was aiming at an assured position. A duchess is only a half-way house; an underground passage which did not lead to the queen was not worth boring.
One day Barkilphedro said to Josiana: "Would your Grace like to make my fortune?"
"What dost thou want?"
"An appointment,—for thee?"
"What an idea!—thou to ask for an appointment! thou, who art good for nothing."
"That's just the reason."
Josiana burst out laughing. "Among the offices to which thou art unsuited, which dost thou desire?"
"That of cork-drawer of the bottles of the ocean."
Josiana's laughter redoubled. "What meanest thou? Thou art jesting."
"To amuse myself, I shall answer you seriously," said the duchess. "What dost thou wish to be? Repeat it."
"Uncorker of the bottles of the ocean."
"Everything is possible at court. Is there an appointment of that kind?"
"That is news to me. Go on."
"There is such an appointment, however."
"Swear it by the soul which thou dost not possess."
"I swear it."
"I do not believe thee."
"Thank you, madam."
"Then thou wishest— Say it again."
"To uncork the bottles of the ocean."
"That is a situation which can give you very little trouble. It is like grooming a bronze horse."
"Nothing to do. Well, 't is a situation that would suit thee. Thou art just about equal to it, I should judge."
"You see I am good for something."
"Come! thou art talking nonsense. Is there such an appointment?"
Barkilphedro assumed an attitude of deferential gravity: "Madam, you had an august father, James II. the king, and you have an illustrious brother-in-law, George of Denmark, Duke of Cumberland; your father was, and your brother is. Lord High Admiral of England—"
"Is what thou tellest me any news? I know all that as well as thou?"
"But here is something your Grace does not know. In the sea there are three kinds of things,—those at the bottom, lagan; those which float, flotsam; those which the sea casts up on the shore, jetsam."
"These three things—lagan, flotsam, and jetsam—belong to the Lord High Admiral."
"Your Grace understands."
"All that is in the sea, all that sinks, all that floats, all that is cast ashore,—all belongs to the Admiral of England."
"Everything! Really? And then?"
"Except the sturgeon, which belongs to the king."
"I should have thought," said Josiana, "that everything would have belonged to Neptune."
"Neptune is a fool. He has given up everything. He has allowed the English to take everything."
"Finish what thou wert saying."
"'Prizes of the sea' is the name given to such treasure trove."
"Be it so."
"It is boundless. There is always something floating, something being cast up. It is the contribution of the sea,—the tax which the ocean pays to England."
"With all my heart. But pray conclude."
"Your Grace understands that in this way the ocean creates a department."
"At the Admiralty."
"The Sea-Prize Department."
"The department is subdivided into three offices, —Lagan, Flotsam, and Jetsam; and there is an officer in each."
"A ship at sea writes to give notice on any subject to those on land,—that it is sailing in such a latitude, that it has met a sea-monster, that it is in sight of shore, that it is in distress, that it is about to founder, that it is lost, etc. The captain takes a bottle, puts into it a bit of paper on which he has written the information, corks up the flask, and casts it into the sea. If the bottle goes to the bottom, it is in the department of the lagan officer; if it floats, it is in the department of the flotsam officer; if it be cast up on shore, it concerns the jetsam officer."
"And wouldst thou like to be the jetsam officer?"
"And that is what thou callest uncorking the bottles of the ocean?"
"Since there is such an appointment."
"Why dost thou wish for the last-named place in preference to both the others?"
"Because it is vacant just now."
"In what does the appointment consist?"
"Madam, in 1598 a tarred bottle, picked up by a man conger-fishing on the strand of Epidium Promontorium, was brought to Queen Elizabeth; and a parchment drawn out of it gave information to England that Holland had taken, without saying anything about it, an unknown country, Nova Zembla; that the capture had taken place in June, 1596; that in that country people were eaten by bears; and that the manner of passing the winter was described on a paper enclosed in a musket-case hanging in the chimney of the wooden house built in the island and left by the Dutchmen, who were all dead; and that the chimney was built of a barrel with the end knocked out, sunk into the roof."
"I don't understand much of thy rigmarole."
"Be it so. Elizabeth understood. A country the more for Holland was a country the less for England. The bottle which had given the information was considered of importance; and thenceforward an order was issued that anybody who should find a sealed bottle on the sea-shore should take it to the Lord High Admiral of England, under penalty of the gallows. The Admiral intrusts the opening of such bottles to an officer, who presents the contents to the Queen, if there be any reason for so doing."
"Are many such bottles brought to the Admiralty?"
"But few. But it's all the same. The appointment exists. There is a room and lodgings at the Admiralty for the official."
"And what is one paid for this kind of doing nothing?"
"One hundred guineas a year."
"And thou wouldst trouble me for that much?"
"It is enough to live upon."
"Like a beggar."
"As becomes one of my sort."
"One hundred guineas! It's a bagatelle."
"What keeps you for a minute keeps us for a year. That's the advantage of being poor."
"Thou shalt have the place."
A week afterwards, thanks to Josiana's exertions and to the influence of Lord David Dirry-Moir, Barkilphedro was installed at the Admiralty,—safe thenceforward, drawn out of his precarious existence, lodged, and boarded, with a salary of a hundred guineas.