Mark Forsyth

The Servant

A Christmas short story by Mark Forsyth, illustrated by Michael Heath

The Servant
Text settings

You will see, alas, that all of this is true.

One morning, I awoke in a feather bed in a room in a tavern and reached, as I always did, for my purse of gold, but it was not there. I had been travelling on business for many months and weeks with only my faithful coachman Joseph for company. Wherever I stayed, I would put the purse of golden coins by my pillow. Each night it was the last thing that I touched, and the first thing I touched in the morning.

Sometimes, when I climb a flight of stairs, I have a strange feeling, which may be peculiar to me. I misjudge the number of steps and then, at the top, I put my foot down on nothing. Then my whole body feels dizzy. It is as though the world has made a mistake and not I.

I had that feeling when I reached for my purse. But then I remembered myself. I threw off the covers, sprang from the bed, and was about to cry ‘Thief!’ when I realised that I was naked, and I couldn’t very well call people to the room without first dressing.

So I turned to my clothes, but it seemed to me that they had been transformed. For they were dirty and their colour had changed from bright black to sullen brown. And then I saw that they had not been transformed, but that the thief had taken my clothes and left his own. He must have changed there in the dark as I slept, in perfect silence.

It occurred to me for a moment that I should shout for the landlord immediately and then stand behind the long curtains at the window and explain to him from behind there what had happened. But I would have been ridiculous, and I have a terrible fear of being ridiculous. And anyway, anybody passing by outside would have viewed me from a scandalous disadvantage.

In the end, after fretting and considering and pondering for what seemed a long time, I saw that all doors were closed to me except one: I must put on the clothes that the thief had left behind. This was not a pleasant business, for he was a thief of little cleanliness, but the moment that I was dressed I opened the door and ran down the corridor to the next room where my faithful coachman Joseph was sleeping. He was the only companion of my long journey and I was suddenly as sure as I had ever been of anything that Joseph would know what to do.

So I ran into Joseph’s room without stopping either to think or to knock, shouting ‘Joseph! Joseph! Wake up Joseph. We’ve been robbed and the purse of gold is gone.’

But Joseph was completely unperturbed. And he said in a calm voice, ‘What do you mean we’ve been robbed? I have the purse of gold right here.’ He held the purse up in his right hand and I stared at it in astonishment.

Then he said, ‘And why are you calling me Joseph, Joseph?’

And I saw that Joseph was wearing my clothes.

I was so surprised that I could barely stammer out the words, ‘But you are Joseph.’ And I saw that he had shaved his beard as well.

Joseph looked at me as though I were mad, and at that moment the landlord and his wife and their boy bustled in to see what all the commotion was. And they all wanted to know what was going on, but they turned to Joseph, and not to me.

‘I am not Joseph,’ I began to say, as loudly as I dared, ‘I am…’ But I realised that they did not know which our names were as we had arrived the night before. Anyway, I was cut off by their babble of questions. All wanting to know at once if there had been a theft or a murder or if the sheets were too dirty or the room too cold. ‘Nothing, nothing,’ said Joseph. ‘My coachman is making jokes.’

The landlord wagged his finger at me and smiled.

‘Do you not remember,’ I said, ‘do you not remember me when I arrived last night?’

‘Of course, I served you broth with your master, and a beer and half a loaf of bread, and…’ The landlord stared at the ceiling. He was clearly totting up the bill in his head.

‘But that was not me,’ I exclaimed.

The landlord looked at me distrustfully. ‘My wife is a witness,’ he said.

‘I certainly am,’ she said. ‘Broth and bread and beer.’ And seeing the expression on my face she added, ‘And you had no mutton, though I offered it.’

‘She did,’ said the landlord. ‘And your master said you were not hungry.’

‘The bill will be paid,’ said Joseph calmly. ‘I have the money here.’ And he rattled my purse of gold.

‘No,’ I said. ‘What I am trying to say, is that…’ And I tried to think of how to put it to these strangers. ‘I am not the coachman.’ I said it quietly, for the truth is best when whispered.

‘Then who are you, Joseph?’ asked Joseph with a smile.

‘I am you,’ I replied. And immediately the landlord’s boy began to laugh. ‘I am…’ I said. But now they were all laughing and the man and his wife were rocking back and forward like children’s toys. And Joseph laughed too and louder than the others. ‘My apologies,’ he chuckled, ‘my apologies for my coachman.’

‘But I am… and he has stolen my clothes and…’. But I was drowned out. And Joseph came and clapped me on the shoulders like a friend. ‘Get the horses ready,’ he said.

‘We shall go home,’ I said suddenly. ‘We shall go home and my wife and my son will…’

‘Certainly we shall go home,’ said Joseph. ‘We leave this morning. I have been travelling for much too long. The coach, Joseph, the coach!’

And the landlord and his wife and his son started bustling around and handing me bags and ordering me to the stable. And what should I have done? What could I have done when they were all laughing at me and when all I had were the poor clothes of Joseph? And I found myself loading the bags onto the coach. And before I knew it, in all the hurry and confusion, I was sitting on the box and the horses were setting off without a word from me. The idiots were still laughing and waving and we rushed over a stone bridge and away.

Every day of that journey I felt like a fool, a public fool sitting on top of my carriage and not in it. But what could I do? Nobody knew me and we were far from home. Each night, when we stopped at an inn, I would lie awake and then, when I heard the midnight bell, I would creep to Joseph’s room to do what he had done to me and steal back my clothes and my money. But each night I found it locked.

Each morning, I would mount my perch again and start the horses. And sway there in the cold autumn. I racked my brains for ways to prove myself. My knowledge of business, my memories of childhood. I had a birthmark, like a little rose, but it was in a most indelicate place (the part of me that I sit upon), and who would want to look there? And, anyway, nobody knew me. I was alone on top of my carriage wearing a dunce’s cap.

Joseph did not treat me badly. Indeed, he was quite kind and generous. And when I tried to bring up the truth that I was him and he was me, he only chuckled and called me his little jester. My one comfort was that we were always heading homeward and at the end of the road I would be revealed and the torment would end.

I could not even shave, and soon I had a foul scraggly beard, just as Joseph had had.

At last, we came towards my home. Over the bridge, past the churchyard, and there was my gate, and the long drive to my house, lined with willow trees. It is a sight that has always filled me with fear and trembling on account of my wife.

Marriage is a solemn sacrament, but particularly so with me. To be honest, I married her for her money. But why she married me, she has never revealed, unless it was some form of self-mortification, for she will tell me that I have no virtues whatsoever. Indeed, this is her favourite subject of conversation and she can talk on it for hours like a scholar. And now I was to make an appearance driving my own carriage, with my coachman sitting inside and wearing my clothes.

I don’t know whether she was waiting behind the door. I sometimes believe that when I am away she crouches there the whole time like a patient hunter. But as we reached the end of the drive the doors burst open and she marched towards the horses, which halted in fear, recognising that she had the advantage of them in terms of weight.

I hailed her as jovially as I could, but the words withered in my mouth at the sight of her scowl. So I began to climb down from my perch, and as I did she began to speak. I had, as usual, been away too long and come back too early. Nothing was prepared and every-thing had been prepared for months and rotted. But she said nothing of my clothes, nothing of the fact that I was driving my own coach. And when my feet had touched the ground I turned and saw that she was not talking to me, but to Joseph.

The beard! It must have been the beard. And my wife has always been short-sighted. And though she has spectacles, vanity prevented her from wearing them. (My wife is very particular about her looks, and sometimes I find her crying.) ‘Thomas,’ she was saying, ‘Thomas you have grown too thin! You hardly look like a man.’ And it was so strange to hear my name in my wife’s mouth.

And so strange to see Joseph. What could he do? He was gazing at the ground as I always did. But I knew he would find no fortune there.

‘Well come along, Thomas, come along.’ And my wife walked back into the house. And Joseph followed. ‘Wait,’ I shouted. And my wife came back out, Joseph following like a sheep.

‘I am your husband,’ I said.

‘Stable the horses,’ said my wife without a pause. ‘Thomas, your coachman is mad.’

And she started back in. I saw then that there was only one thing I could do. ‘Wait,’ I cried and I began to unbutton my breeches, for beards may change but a birthmark abides.

But my wife did not wait and I found myself standing alone in the cold, clutching my breeches and not knowing what to do. I looked at the blank windows of my house, silently staring up the long drive. I saw Maria, the pretty maid, hurrying somewhere. Then nobody. And then I saw my son, my sad-eyed son. He looked down at me and smiled. And then he disappeared.

So, like a man in a dream, I stabled the horses.

The rest of the day, I did as Joseph would have done, whilst contemplating the revelation of my birthmark. When the sun set, having nothing else to do, I went to Joseph’s room and began to undress. I was in the middle of this activity when, without knocking, Maria entered and began to stoke up the fire. I, of course, leapt into the bed as I was wearing nothing but my small clothes. Maria looked at me and laughed, which caused me to blush. Like many men I have never been able to talk to a pretty girl and Maria was as pretty as an apple. This had been a cause of much embarrassment in my own home for when I found myself in the same room as her I would blush and have to run out.

‘You look different,’ she said. And I saw that this was the perfect moment to lay out exactly what had happened to me and enlist her support against the treacherous Joseph.

‘More handsome,’ said Maria.

To this I had no reply.

‘Joseph,’ she smiled, ‘at least tell me you missed me.’

And then, without a word more warning, Maria extinguished the candle and jumped into the bed with me. That which followed is too surprising to relate.

I soon discovered what sort of life that rascal Joseph had been leading. In my own house!

He stole my best wine and filled up the bottles with my worst. Or at least Maria did. But then she and Joseph would drink it in bed. This of course meant that I and Maria would drink it in bed. But the moral point remains. Moreover, I had decided that the best course of action was to discover all I could about his schemes and wiles. So when Maria brought me the finest dainties from that day’s meal and told me that she had filched them from my very plate (which is to say Joseph’s) I did not complain. Instead I would ask her what was going on in the house.

Here again, I was shocked to discover the way that the servants would talk about me (which is to say Joseph). I was referred to as ‘The Rabbit’ on account of my timidity, and every cruel thing my wife would say to me (which is to say Joseph) was recounted as a comical story, as though I had, my whole life, been a clown unaware of his audience. My wife was called ‘The Elephant’.

So I would hear how I had been humiliated, slapped, harangued. ‘He should give her the trousers,’ said Maria, ‘and wear the dress himself.’ And then she began laughing about how it would be too big for him (which is to say me).

‘The Rabbit still does not dare to look at me!’ And Maria would perform an impression of me giving orders to the furniture. I had always believed that I was respected in my own home, that my servants, though not in awe, saw me for what I am — a successful man of business and a gentleman. But no! It was most disconcerting, but I did not reveal myself. Instead, I would lie in Maria’s arms while we swigged my wine from the bottle and through the thin walls of the servant’s room we would listen to the ear-bashing that poor Joseph was getting, chased around the house by my Elephant.

Indeed I had to confess to myself that, in terms of pure comfort, Joseph’s life was not at all bad. Still, I was determined to reclaim my name.

But it is much harder than you might think to show people your bottom. Though the truth was written there for all to see, few men are ready to see the truth. Soon after our return the chief magistrate came to dinner. We were of the same age. We had played together as boys and swum together in the river, so he was not unfamiliar with my blemish. Yet my plan, which had seemed so simple, resulted only in my being boxed around the ears and told not to discuss my master like that.

With each visitor to the house it was the same. When I managed, with difficulty, to creep in and find myself alone with them, they refused to look. The mayor threatened to have me whipped. The priest turned pale and ran. The lawyer, who was a terrible drunk, clapped me on the shoulder, told me that I was an honest man, and stumbled away. Only the old colonel agreed enthusiastically to investigate, but insisted that I should behold his. When I asked if he too had a birthmark, he cursed and asked what interest he would have in birthmarks? And then his wife arrived and he turned haughtily away.

I thought that perhaps the doctor would be the man to prove who I was. How could a man who deals in what is mortal in us be ambushed by embarrassment? I began to tell him of the birthmark, and he was delighted. He laughed and laughed. ‘A birthmark there! O how funny! O how droll!’ And then I told him that I was Thomas. And he hugged me and told me I was truly Thomas and the funniest man he had ever met. And he gave me a silver coin and strolled away still laughing. ‘Like a rose!’ he chuckled, ‘Like a rose!’

And each night I returned, dejected, to the loving arms of Maria.

I discovered that my son loved horses. I had not known this of him because, in my former life, I had been too much at business. But now with all the idleness of Joseph (whom I realised I had been paying to loaf about half the day), I saw my son smile. In the house he was always sad and silent, as I had been when I was a child. But in the stables his eyes lit up. He loved to be allowed to groom their flanks, to fit their bits and to polish their saddles. Most of all, though, he loved to sit upon the fine steeds and say that he was St George going to kill the dragon. I took a piece of wood and carved it into the shape of a sword. He would sit on the horse and wave it above his head as I led him in circles around the yard. Then I would pretend to be his squire and we would plan our journeys and adventures.

He was the bravest of boys and would always imagine greater dangers for himself and more forbidding castles and more impossible predicaments from which there would be no escape. Yet when I, as his squire, pointed this out, he would only have to ponder for a moment before declaring that whatever difficulty it was could be solved with magic. Then the sword would become a wand and he would be free.

But when I asked him about his father, he fell silent and ran away. I preferred to have his company than my answer. Then one day he sat upon my knee exhausted from his knightly exploits, with his warm head against my shoulder. ‘How is your father?’ I asked. I thought I would learn something from his answer.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I hate my father.’

I felt a pain in every part of my body and in every part of my soul. We were silent.

‘I love you,’ said my son. ‘Not him.’

It was spring. Time had passed somehow, as it usually does. And though I was still determined to claim back my name, I had fallen into routines and habits that were not dis-agreeable. My business, I learned, was falling apart. I could hear my wife shouting about it as I lay in bed with Maria. A shriller hatred. My soft footsteps hurrying past followed by the thunder of my wife. I could do nothing.

I shaved my beard, and let it grow back again. Nobody noticed except Maria who said she preferred the former. She talked liltingly of marriage, which was morally impossible, but who cared for that? The snow melted.

I still tried to tell people what I could. Sometimes I looked at the graves in the churchyard and wondered how many times this had happened. How many gravestones gave another’s name? But I received no answer from those gentlemen of silence.

One day my master ordered me to prepare the carriage and when he told me our destination I knew that my business was a ruin. We were going to the house of a rival merchant, a man I hated, and who hated me. The only reason was to borrow money.

I thought of offering to solve the problems. After all, what did Joseph know of business? Of the soft subtleties of negotiation and bargain? Nothing. But if he could trick me out of my name, maybe he could trick that devil out of his gold.

It was a joyous drive. The world was returning to green, the sky was a faultless blue and the horses knew their way without me. I opened the carriage door for my master with much grace and ceremony, and I saw on his face all the sorrows that should have been mine. And I watched him knock humbly on the door and disappear.

I waited in the perfect spring air. Then, quite suddenly, I felt the call that all the men of the world feel once a day (that is to say, the solid urge). It was no matter as there were plenty of bushes and hedges in my rival’s gorgeous garden. So I slipped behind one, undid my breeches and crouched down. Then I glance below and saw that I was kneeling above a puddle of clear water. I could see beautiful blue sky reflected! I could see the mirrored heavens in their glory! I could see, with perfect revelation, my own bottom! And there was no birthmark.

Illustrated by Michael Heath