It was summer, a hot day. I was eating breakfast when I was disturbed by a knocking at the manor gate. Pushing my lemon meringue pie to one side, I picked up my portable aerophone, or parp, and snapped it open. I held it at arm’s length, above my head, until it locked on to my factotum, Chumpot. A chiaroscuro image of his head, floating in a haze of static, appeared on the screen. I pressed the parp’s summoning knob and waited.
While I waited, I thought about Chumpot. Days can pass without encountering him, and I wanted to be sure it was indeed he who answered the summons. He has been our family factotum since long before I was born. If it is possible to be both suave and decrepit, both urbane and toothless, that was Chumpot. Heaven knows how aged he was, or from what wood his crutches had been fashioned.
Eventually he appeared, creaking, in the doorway. I told him I had heard a knocking at the manor gate and would have him investigate. He muttered something unintelligible and went away. I finished off the lemon meringue pie and started in on a dish of bloaters. I had eaten all but one of them when Chumpot returned, bringing with him a stranger. This fellow was nondescript, so I shall non descript him.
“Good morning on this hot summer’s day,” he said, “I am Detective Captain Cargpan, and I have come to place you under arrest.”
I was momentarily disconcerted, but quickly realised the copper’s error.
“You are confusing me with Chumpot,” I said, gesturing at the factotum, “He is a member of the lower orders, the servant class, and thus given to acts of malfeasance. By all means take him away.”
“Your factotum is as innocent as a newborn kitten,” said Cargpan, “It is you I have come for,”
And he spat in my eye.
“But I have done nothing wrong!” I cried.
“Are you sure of that?” said the policeman, spitting in my other eye, “The crimes of humankind are numberless, numberless. For example, in Thailand it is against the law for an individual to own more than one-hundred-and-twenty playing cards.”
“But we are not in Thailand and I do not own that many playing cards,” I shot back.
“Well,” said Cargpan, looking thoughtful, “Those are both matters we can look into down at the station, in the basement interrogation chamber. We might also find out whether you have ever taken hold of a salmon in a suspicious manner, whistled excessively, allowed a chicken to cross a major thoroughfare, or given a pig the name Napoleon. Who knows what you might have done in addition to the heinous enormity for which I am arresting you?”
I was about to ask what that was, but Cargpan whacked me on the windpipe with his truncheon. I saw my factotum smirking. As I gasped for breath, I was astonished to hear the copper say “Excellent work, Chumpot”. Then the pair of them bundled me none too gently out of the room and down the stairs and along the hallway and out of the manor door and into the back of Cargpan’s gleaming black police van.
As we drove along bosky country lanes towards the village police station, I experienced a shocking epiphany. Despite his suavity and urbanity, Chumpot was a most untidy man. His clothing was ragged and filthy, his shoes were always caked with mud, and I suspect he was a stranger to shampoo. Yet he wore pinned to his chest a brooch, polished to a gleam every day, a gleam so bright that, when it caught the sun, on hot summer days such as this, it flashed gash gold-vermilion, and almost blinded the observer with its brilliance. It was an oddity, compared with the factotum’s general unseemliness, and once, long ago, I had asked him about it.
“This brooch belonged to my dear departed mother,” he told me, “She was a sainted woman, a paragon of virtue, a model of kindness. She spent untold years resuscitating newborn kittens whose owners had drowned them in the toilet. I was devoted to her. As she took her last dying breath, in the drainage ditch where her poor withered body passed beyond this cruel world, she pressed her brooch into my hand and made me promise to wear it every day, and to polish it to a gleam every day, in her memory. And I have kept that promise. I could do no other.”
I found this little speech emotionally shattering, and I wept. And now, in the back of the police van, I was again emotionally shattered, and again I wept. For I suddenly saw what I had been blind to for so many years. Chumpot had lied to me. His “brooch” was a police badge!
Well, how was I to know? This was in the days before we all became familiar with coppers and their ways through endless television crime dramas and police procedurals. In any case, Chumpot was, as I had told Cargpan, a member of the servant class. As any phrenologist will tell you, though such specimens are habitually dishonest, they lack the intelligence necessary to embroider so credible and heart-wrenching a tale as Chumpot’s account of his dying mother.
I was still in a state of mental chaos when they tied me to a chair in the basement interrogation chamber and shone a Kleig light into my eyes. From behind it, I heard the suave and urbane voice of Chumpot, as if for the first time.
“Well, well, well,” he said, “I suppose I ought to introduce myself, or reintroduce myself. I am Detective Cadet Chumpot, though you might prefer to think of me as the Recording Angel. I’ve been keeping tabs on you for years and years, since before you were born. And in that time, I’ve gathered enough evidence of your unimaginably numerous and multifarious crimes to have you banged up in chokey for a very long time indeed. My boss, Detective Captain Cargpan, says he’s never seen such a lengthy rap sheet. I suppose we’d better make a start on it. So, in your own words, tell me about the time you cooked and ate a mute swan that was, as you well knew, the property of the Queen, as all mute swans are.”
And so began my interrogation. I confessed to everything on that long, long list. I sang like a canary. And all the while, in my throbbing brain, I kept asking myself – what would become of that last, uneaten bloater in my breakfast dish? That is the great question, or rather it would be if I still had any prospect of release.
The first sentence, and the last, were translated from the German by Willa and Edwin Muir. Everything in between was not.