This is a wonderfully old-fashioned story, very well – and rather wordily – told.
‘To Paragot I owe everything. He is at once my benefactor, my venerated master, my beloved friend, my creator. Clay in his hands, he moulded me according to his caprice, and inspired me with the breath of life. My existence is drenched with the colour of Paragot. I lay claim to no personality of my own, and any obiter dicta that may fall from my pen in the course of the ensuing narrative are but reflections of Paragot’s philosophy. Men have spoken evil of him. He snapped his fingers at calumny, but I winced, never having reached the calm altitudes of scorn wherein his soul has its habitation. I burned to defend him, and I burn now; and that is why I propose to write his apologia, his justification.’
Those are the words of Augustus Smith, the long-suffering son of a drunken London washerwoman. He would tell the story of the man who would become his mentor, and was quite unlike anyone he had ever met before or would ever meet again.
That young man was sent to deliver Paragot’s laundry, with clear instructions that he was not to hand it over – and not to come home again – until he had extracted payment for the last three weeks. He was struck by a man unlike anyone he had ever met before.
‘Paragot lay in bed, smoking a huge pipe with a porcelain bowl and reading a book. The fact of one individual having a room all to himself impressed me so greatly with a sense of luxury, refinement and power, that I neglected to observe its pitifulness and squalor. Nor of Paragot’s personal appearance was I critical. He had long black hair, and a long black beard, and long black finger-nails. The last were so long and commanding that I thought ashamedly of my own bitten fingertips, and vowed that when I too became a great man, able to smoke a porcelain pipe of mornings in my own room, my nails should equal his in splendour.’
Paragot’s interest was piqued when Augustus pulled out the tattered copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost that he had found, mistaking it for the laundry book. He asked if the young man could cook herring. Augustus wasn’t at all sure that he could but he was hungry, he gave it a go, and he was delighted to find he could. That was the first step towards him being adopted and renamed by his hero.
‘ “Now if there’s one name I dislike more than Smith its Augustus. I have been thinking of a very nice name for you. It is Asticot.” I learned soon after that it is a French word meaning the little grey worms which fishermen call ‘gentles’, and that it was not such a complimentary appellation as I imagined. But Asticot I became, and Asticot I remained for many a year.’
That was how the gloriously unconventional education of Asticot began.
He would rise each morning to cook herring and then he would study under the tutelage of Paragot; in the afternoon he was sent out into the London streets with a mission that would be both educational and entertaining; and in the evening he would assist Paragot with his work in the kitchens of the Lotus Club.
It was a wonderful life, but it didn’t last for long. Paragot had an argument with the new owner of the club, who wasn’t at all happy with the ramshackle way his business was being run. It ended with him smashing a violin over the man’s head, and after that he decided that he and Asticot should take to the road in the furtherance of his protegee’s education!
The pair set off for France. A stray dog joined them along the way and they fell onto the company of two travelling entertainers, an old man and his granddaughter. The old man was frail, he died quite suddenly, and when Paragot realised that his granddaughter had nobody to turn to and nowhere to go he invited her to join his travelling party. She accepted happily, and he re-named her Blanquette de Veau.
Paragot was a wonderfully complex and charismatic creature, and it was easy to see why Asticot and Blanquette loved him
‘So many of your wildly impulsive people repent them of their generosities as soon as the magnanimous fervour has cooled. The grandeur of Paragot lay in the fact that he never repented. He was fantastic, self-indulgent, wastrel, braggart, what you will; but he had an exaggerated notion of the value of every human soul save his own. The destiny of poor Blanquette was to him of infinitely more importance than that of the wayward genius that was Paragot. The pathos of his point of view had struck me, even as a child, when he discoursed on my prospects.
“I am Paragot, my son,” he would say, “a film full of wind and wonder, fantasy and folly, driven like thistledown about the world. I do not count. But you, my little Asticot, have the Great Responsibility before you. It is for you to uplift a corner of the veil of Life and show joy to men and women where they would not have sought it. Work now and gather wisdom, my son, so that when the Great Day comes you may not miss your destiny.” And once, he added wistfully—”as I have missed mine.” ‘
Asticot knew a little of Paragot’s story, over time he would learn more, and the day would come when Paragot was given a second chance to claim the life – the destiny – that he thought that he had missed. Could he step back into the life he had always dreamed of, or did the very different man he had become – The Belovéd Vagabond – have a different destiny?
What did that mean -and what did the future hold – for his two protegees?
Those questions are very well considered, Astico did a wonderful job of telling the story, and I really didn’t know quite what was going to happen until the very end. It was’t quite the ending I expected but it did tie everything up satisfactorily.
I am so glad that I heard about this book, and I can warmly recommend the reading on Librivox.