That morning, I strode out into the grounds of my country pile, whacking my stick at lupins and at crocuses and, in one instance, at a swan passing between one pond and another. Following the path towards the ha-ha, I was startled to spot a dimwit standing under the trellis. He was a still, grubby, plump dimwit. I asked him what in the name of all the angels in heaven he was doing in the grounds of my pile. His answer was incoherent, perhaps because he was a foreign dimwit whose language was not known to me. I took him by the hand, and led him, like a fat puppy, away from the trellis, all along the path into the house. I was wearing a pair of goatskin gloves, so I did not fear picking up any germs from his grubby hands.
I bade the dimwit sit at the banqueting table and rang for Snippage, my factotum, to fetch him a beaker of water. Snippage took an unconscionably long time to respond to my call, which was unlike him. It was turning into a very odd day. First the dimwit under the trellis, then a queerly delayed Snippage. It was while I waited for him that I reflected on an additional oddity. Where had that swan popped up from? I had never seen a swan on my estate before.
When Snippage eventually arrived in the banqueting hall, he was breathless and dishevelled and reeked of malt vinegar. I sent him off to get a beaker of water for the dimwit, and then recalled that he, Snippage, was of foreign parentage. Either his mother, or his father, or both, had come from a land so distant it was not even on the same continent, but far far away, on the other side of one of the oceans, Indian, Atlantic, Pacific, I can’t remember the names of the others offhand. It occurred to me that, given his parental provenance, Snippage might be able to communicate with the dimwit better than I could. While we awaited his return, I removed my goatskin gloves and thrummed my fingertips impatiently on the banqueting table. The dimwit sat, still and grubby and plump, staring vacantly ahead of him.
An hour passed, and there was no sign of Snippage. I was concerned that the dimwit would think me uncivil, having brought him into my castle and promised him water and then left him to sit there possibly dying of thirst while I thrummed and thrummed. Words would be useless. I rang for my underfactotum, Snippage’s nephew, and when he came clomping into the banqueting hall, his usual lopsided self on account of his corrective boot, I sent him in search of his uncle. The nephew was something of a dimwit himself, but he was always eager to follow simple instructions.
He returned, panting, not ten minutes later. Snippage, he explained, in his curiously high-pitched voice, was standing under the trellis, clasping to his chest the swan, which had been strangled, presumably by Snippage himself. What a palaver, I thought. I asked the youngster if, in addition, Snippage was in possession of a beaker of water. No, was the response.
I apologised to the dimwit at the table, in spite of the fact that he was taking no notice of me whatsoever. He was still gazing blankly at nothing. I began to wonder if he was a blind dimwit, but when I waved one of my goatskin gloves in front of his face I saw his eyes flicker, albeit briefly. I commanded young Snippage to remain with our guest, to guard him from my dogs and rats and the madwoman in the attic, who might choose this of all days to break loose and career about the castle causing havoc, and I strode out again, past the beds of lupins and crocuses, towards the ha-ha, and found Snippage precisely as his nephew had described him, under the trellis, clutching a strangled swan.
I asked him, in an exasperated voice, why he had not fetched a beaker of water for the dimwit. He did not answer, and when I looked closer, I saw that he had been turned into a pillar of salt, like Lot’s wife, unnamed in the Bible but known as Ado or Edith in some Jewish traditions. What in hell’s name was going on under my trellis?
When I went back to the banqueting hall, I found the dimwit and young Snippage deep in conversation. They were babbling and roaring and giggling together, as if drunk, in a language I did not understand. I cleared my throat in a melodramatic manner to announce my presence. They fell immediately silent, and turned their heads to look at me, and then they both burst into laughter, It was the most terrifying laughter I ever heard, and I can still hear it, ringing in my ears.
I turned and fled. I hardly knew where I was going. I only knew that I must not go anywhere near the trellis. I ran and stumbled and ran and limped and ran for mile after mile until I dropped, from exhaustion, into a ditch.
When I came to, the sky was darkling. Looming above me, on one side of the ditch was a swan, and on the other side the dimwit. Both were gazing at me with glares of unbridled savagery. I called out for young Snippage. He came clomping into view, from further along the ditch, bearing a beaker of water. I glugged it down and asked him to hoist me on his shoulders and carry me home. By midnight I was back in the banqueting hall, slumped in a chair, my head resting on the table.
Seventeen years have passed since that awful day, seventeen years in which I have not set foot outside the castle. And all that time, young Snippage, now nearly as old as his salt uncle was then, has been extending the trellis, bit by bit, until now it covers almost all of the estate. In a few days more, it will reach the castle wall, and there will be no escape. The dimwit will come for me, clutching a swan living or dead, and I will be undone.