Castles in the Air HTML version

In presenting this engaging rogue to my readers, I feel that I owe them, if not an
apology, at least an explanation for this attempt at enlisting sympathy in favour of
a man who has little to recommend him save his own unconscious humour. In
very truth my good friend Ratichon is an unblushing liar, thief, a forger--anything
you will; his vanity is past belief, his scruples are non-existent. How he escaped a
convict settlement it is difficult to imagine, and hard to realize that he died--
presumably some years after the event recorded in the last chapter of his
autobiography--a respected member of the community, honoured by that same
society which should have raised a punitive hand against him. Yet this I believe
to be the case. At any rate, in spite of close research in the police records of the
period, I can find no mention of Hector Ratichon. "Heureux le peuple qui n'a pas
d'histoire" applies, therefore, to him, and we must take it that Fate and his own
sorely troubled country dealt lightly with him.
Which brings me back to my attempt at an explanation. If Fate dealt kindly, why
not we? Since time immemorial there have been worse scoundrels unhung than
Hector Ratichon, and he has the saving grace-- which few possess--of unruffled
geniality. Buffeted by Fate, sometimes starving, always thirsty, he never
complains; and there is all through his autobiography what we might call an "Ah,
well!" attitude about his outlook on life. Because of this, and because his very
fatuity makes us smile, I feel that he deserves forgiveness and even a certain
amount of recognition.
The fragmentary notes, which I have only very slightly modified, came into my
hands by a happy chance one dull post-war November morning in Paris, when
rain, sleet and the north wind drove me for shelter under the arcades of the
Odéon, and a kindly vendor of miscellaneous printed matter and mouldy MSS.
allowed me to rummage amongst a load of old papers which he was about to
consign to the rubbish heap. I imagine that the notes were set down by the actual
person to whom the genial Hector Ratichon recounted the most conspicuous
events of his chequered career, and as I turned over the torn and musty pages,
which hung together by scraps of mouldy thread, I could not help feeling the
humour--aye! and the pathos--of that drabby side of old Paris which was being
revealed to me through the medium of this rogue's adventures. And even as,
holding the fragments in my hand, I walked home that morning through the rain
something of that same quaint personality seemed once more to haunt the dank
and dreary streets of the once dazzling Ville Lumière. I seemed to see the
shabby bottle-green coat, the nankeen pantaloons, the down-at-heel shoes of
this "confidant of Kings"; I could hear his unctuous, self-satisfied laugh, and
sensed his furtive footstep whene'er a gendarme came into view. I saw his ruddy,
shiny face beaming at me through the sleet and the rain as, like a veritable squire
of dames, he minced his steps upon the boulevard, or, like a reckless smuggler,
affronted the grave dangers of mountain fastnesses upon the Juras; and I was