Undermajordomo Minor

Patrick deWitt

October 8, 2015 
The following is from Patrick deWitt’s novel, Undermajordomo Minor cover. deWitt is the author of the Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, as well as The Sisters Brothers, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize. Born in British Columbia, he has also lived in California and Washington, and now resides in Portland, Oregon.

Memel’s Lesson to the Children

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The Baron and Baroness were hidden away in their quarters for the evening, and so Mr. Olderglough gave Lucy the night off, his first in many days. He made haste for the village, entering Klara’s shanty without knocking, anticipating a glad reception, but the fire was dim in the stove, and no one was about that he could see. He heard low voices in the rear of the shanty and followed these to find Memel bed-bound and wrapped in quilts, though it was not at all cold. His flesh was gray and he was obviously very ill. Klara and Mewe stood at the foot of the bed; sitting on the floor beside them were seven or eight village children, all staring up at Memel as if to receive his instruction. There was a goblet of wine in Memel’s hand. He spoke evenly, placidly.

“One winter,” he said, “when I was a young child like you all, my father and I went to Listen together, to sell our cow. None of you ever laid eyes on my father, but I can tell you he was a man of honor. He had his religion, and he was well liked by all, though he did suffer from one peculiarity: it was said that he had never, in his life, laughed aloud. It was not that he was an unhappy man, but his existence was such that there was not any time left over for idle celebration.

“We couldn’t afford the train, and so we walked to Listen, which took three days, through deep snow. We camped beside the tracks each night, throwing a blanket over the cow and sleeping underneath her to keep warm. When the trains passed, the wind whipped up in a great, frigid current that would rustle the blanket and stoke our fire, with sparks and embers tumbling after the caboose. I still don’t know why Father asked me along on this trip. I was just another thing to worry about, after all, and my mother could have used my help at home. Well, I like to think he wanted me there for my company. But who can say what goes on in a man’s head, eh, children?

“It was dusk when we arrived in Listen, and Father was leading the cow by a rope, while I held on to its tail. Father was anxious about getting his price, because whatever money we made on the sale was meant to see us through the winter. I waited outside the auction hall for him. By the time he emerged night had fallen and I couldn’t make out his expression, and so couldn’t tell how he’d fared. But then he said to me, ‘We’ll stay in town tonight, what do you think of that?’ And I knew he’d done even better than he’d hoped, for he meant that we would rent a room, at an inn, which was unheard of for us. I told him that I liked the idea very much, and we headed off together, through the crowded square, and we were happy together, my father and I.

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“At this point in my life I had never ventured outside the village, and so I was amazed by what I saw in Listen. The street lamps, the shop displays, the bustle of men and women—all perfectly unknown to me. I gripped my father’s hand from fear of this strange world, but as the crowd pressed in on us we were separated. I looked all around me but couldn’t place him anywhere. I saw only the bodies of strangers, and none of them had any time or concern for me. They knocked me about, pushed me out of the way, and I was so frightened, then, and had begun to cry when I felt a pair of hands heft me up from behind. It was Father, of course. He put me on his shoulders, patting my knee and saying, ‘You mustn’t cry, my Memel. Don’t you know I would never leave you on your own? You’re safe with your papa, do you understand?’ I said that I did, and my heart swelled up with love for this man, because I knew what he said was the truth.

“We came to the inn, and after stowing our baggage in our room, repaired to the tavern downstairs. Much like the town square, this was full up, so that we had to eat our supper at the bar. Father pulled up a chair for me to sit on, while he stood at my side, and after we ordered our supper we took in the spectacle all about us. Father was as pleased as I had ever seen him. He had had the price of our supper folded into the bill for the room, and so was feeling very worldly and shrewd. He was drinking a beer, and he looked over the patrons as though he found them a satisfactory group. I thought I saw the trace of a smile on his face, but this may have been a trick of the candlelight. Certainly he didn’t laugh, though this was the closest I had seen him to laughter.

“We’d just had our suppers placed before us when a man in a ratty coat happened by. As soon as he saw Father he doubled back, pointing his finger, and with a perplexed look on his face. ‘Yes?’ my father said. ‘What is it, sir?’ The man slapped his forehead. ‘You’re going to pretend you don’t know me, eh? Come here, you scoundrel!’ The man took up my father in the warmest embrace, lifting him clear off the ground and shaking him about. Father naturally was baffled by this, and he broke away from the stranger, who appeared hurt, or insulted. ‘But why do you push me away, my brother? Has it really been so many years you don’t remember your own flesh and blood?’ My father explained he had no brother, that it was a misunderstanding. And at first the man could not believe it, but then Father spoke further, assuring the man he had no family other than his wife and myself, his only son. A moment went by, and the man shook his head. He was terribly embarrassed all at once, and he said, ‘Of course, now I can see that you aren’t my brother at all. Please will you forgive me, sir? What a fool I am! And here your supper is growing cool.’ He was very put out by his mistake, but Father said there was nothing to be ashamed of, it was only a simple misunderstanding, and he wished the man luck in finding his actual brother, and bid him a happy evening. The man bowed to my father, and turned to take his leave of us. But before he departed, he looked at me, and in such a way that Father could not see, he winked.

“My father had begun eating his supper, but for my part I couldn’t take my eyes off this man, and I watched him go. It seemed to me that, for one who had only seconds earlier been begging forgiveness, there was a curious lightness to his step. He actually leapt over the threshold at the entrance before vanishing into the crowd outside. ‘And what do you make of that?’ my father asked me, slurping up his stew. I said that I didn’t know what, but that the man had been a strange one. Father agreed, and now we ate our supper, before returning to our room, where we eased into the soft feather bed. The sound of celebration coming up from the streets carried on into the night, and as I drifted off I felt closer to my father than ever before. We were, the pair of us, a portrait of pride and contentment.

“All this went awry in the morning, however. For when it came time to settle our bill, we were greeted with a cruel fact, which was that my father’s purse was missing. We searched our room, and retraced our steps from the day before, but this came to nothing, and finally we had to admit the money was gone. It dawned on my father that the man in the tavern who had embraced him had been a charlatan—a pickpocket. When he explained this to me, I recalled the carefree manner in which the man had skipped over the threshold. Likely he knew by the weight of my father’s purse that he had happened upon a significant payday, and was eager to begin his spending. And while I was on the one hand sorry for my father, and fearful for us as a family, so too did I feel a curious sympathy or kinship with the thief.

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“Now, the question has come up in my mind oftentimes over the years: just where did this sympathy come from? My mother and father never so much as told a lie, and I had been raised to believe that the more you toiled, then the purer you became, and so were well poised to receive God’s favor when you passed into His kingdom. I had no reason to doubt my parents, both of them being good, kind people. Be that as it may, from the moment I saw that scallywag making away with Father’s money, I was transformed.”

Memel took a sip of wine from his goblet, seemingly chewing it before welcoming it into his stomach. He took a second sip, and made a sound like “Ah” or “Hah.”

He said, “It was not just the fact of the man’s thieving which was attractive to me, it was also the way thieving apparently made him feel. How I longed to cross a threshold in just the same manner as he! I couldn’t get him out of my mind, and began to live my life in such a way that my following after him became an inevitability. And so it went, children. I devoted my every energy to play, to shirking, to laughing, to non-working. I ran from every type of responsibility presented to me, be it chores or schoolwork or what have you. My mother and father battled valiantly against my rebellion, but I would not be discouraged, and soon embarked on my own career as a pickpocket—and a deservedly storied career it has been, if you don’t mind my saying.

“All through my apprenticeship and my eventual mastery of the art of thieving, you may be interested to learn I never for a moment misplaced my religion. In actuality, I became more devout all the while, though my God was not the God of my elders. For it had always been unattractive to me that He should reward His servants for drudge work—indeed, that He should desire servants in the first place. Being dissatisfied with their God, then, I created a God of my own, and mine was not one to honor labor, but one who repaid the bold.

“The farmer, upon seeing a healthy crop in his fields, kneels and gives his thanks. A shopkeeper will gaze with gratitude at the profits recorded in his ledger. For my part, whenever I came upon a wealthy merchant passed out in his first-class compartment, this was the instant I would pause to reflect, to praise my Savior. It was He who had guided me to these fruitful pastures, to these half-men crying out to be robbed. God wished them taught a lesson, and I, brave Memel, was His instrument.”

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He looked away from the children, and to a spot high on the wall. “Even now, when I dream, I dream of a compartment filled with the slumbering bodies of wealthy men. I am a younger version of myself, and my energy knows no limits, and I am afraid of nothing in the world. I strip them of their possessions, and their red faces are so peaceful and glad as they sleep, for they themselves are dreaming, of a full table, let’s say, a banquet held in their honor, and their hands grasping at this, at that.

“My Klara has spoken over the years of a time of reckoning for me. A day when I would feel my feet in the flames, at which point I would repent, and beg forgiveness. But it would seem that time is approaching, now, and I can say it truthfully: I was right, and my mother and father were wrong. I loved them both, but they were fools. There is nothing noble in suffering, nothing worthwhile in mindless labors. And if you see something you want, children, you should take it. Because the fact of your wanting it renders it yours.”

Memel closed his eyes. “That’s all I wanted to say to you,” he said. “Thank you for listening to me.”

The children left the room in a peaceable and orderly fashion.


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From UNDERMAJORDOMO MINOR. Used with permission of Ecco. Copyright © 2015 by Patrick deWitt.

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