Hans von Lieven, copyright 1995
Patrick O' Brien was not pleased. He was sitting on a bench in a small park in Woolloomooloo, surrounded by drunks, waiting for the Matthew Talbot Hostel for Homeless Men to open its doors.
His suit had seen better days, so had his shoes. In fact Patrick O' Brien had seen better days. He detested his no hoper companions as much as he detested the position he was in. Life had dealt him a savage blow. One error in judgement had brought his business empire tumbling down and made him bankrupt over night. When his money went his friends and wife did too.
He could stand the ramblings of the drunks no longer. Listlessly he rose and ambled towards the water. He stopped at the wharf and watched HMAS Jervis Bay being towed to its berth. The cold breeze coming across the water made his emaciated body shudder.
He took a long swig from a bottle of Muscatel wrapped in brown paper before returning the bottle to his coat pocket. It did not warm him much.
"Patrick O' Brien," said a voice behind him.
Sluggishly Patrick turned around. He did not recognise the well dressed gentleman who was coming towards him.
"First you need a bath and a shave, then some clean clothes and a decent dinner," the stranger said looking straight into Patrick's eyes. "Shall we go?"
"I don't understand, Who are you?" Patrick stammered.
"Never mind about that now, first things first. Just think of me as your benefactor. Shall we?"
Patrick shrugged his shoulders and followed the stranger. He had nothing to lose. Maybe there was a tooth fairy after all.
Two hours later, showered, shaved and dressed in simple, but well fitting clothes Patrick was demolishing a huge steak in an upmarket hotel in Kings Cross opposite his benefactor. He was almost sober now.
'Amazing how little it takes to feel civilised again,' thought Patrick. His breeding showed. No-one observing him now would have guessed that this quiet man with the impeccable table manners had been a derelict only hours before.
Patrick ate his meal in silence. Though curious, he could wait. Let the other make the opening speech. It was long in coming. Over coffee the stranger addressed him.
"You may call me Arthur," he said. "My master has been following your career for quite some time. He is eager to help you to become useful once more."
"You have two choices," Arthur continued, "I have booked a room for you. If you accept you will stay there tonight and accompany me after breakfast to my master's estate. There is a job waiting for you."
"And if I don't?" Patrick asked.
"In this case you are free to leave. You may keep the clothes, compliments of the Count. If you choose to leave I have instructions to give you one hundred dollars and our best wishes for the future."
Patrick was intrigued. He could walk out of here with a hundred bucks in his pocket and a new set of clothes, no questions asked or???
The mystery won. Besides, anything would be better than the way he was living now. Anything!
"I accept," Patrick said firmly.
"I thought you might. Let me take you to your quarters."
* * *
Patrick was happy. The fog had cleared from his brain. The physical work in the fresh air did him good. His body felt once more well and strong. For the first time in years he was making plans for the future. Soon he would be free to leave with a substantial amount of cash in his pocket, enough to start over again. He felt grateful to the Count for having given him a second chance.
The Count, now there was a mystery if ever there was one. A tall, dark haired gentleman with intelligent features and piercing dark eyes. He spoke flawless, though heavily accented English. Some Eastern European accent Patrick guessed. Hungary, Czechoslovakia perhaps. The Count was always immaculately dressed, if a little old-fashioned. He never appeared to leave the mansion. Patrick only caught occasional glimpses of the man. He had spoken to him only once, shortly after his arrival. The Count had welcomed him to his household and told him that Quasimodo would be in charge of his rehabilitation. He and Arthur were dismissed with a curt nod.
Arthur took Patrick to the servant's wing, where Quasimodo was waiting. Patrick froze. The man was grotesque. He knew why they called him Quasimodo. He had seen the 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' too.
"Close it, close it," Quasimodo laughed.
Patrick noticed with embarrassment that his mouth was open.
"Happens to most people when they first see me," he chuckled. "You'll get used to the way I look."
Patrick felt out of his depth. He tried to stammer some apology, but the more he tried the more Quasimodo became amused.
"Sit down, have some coffee and save your words for when you have something to say," he said, still laughing.
Patrick did as he was told. Quasimodo poured him some coffee from a carafe that sat on a hot plate on the sideboard. Slowly Patrick regained his composure.
"Let me tell you what you are in for," Quasimodo poured himself some coffee and sat down. "You will be here for six months. During this time you will not leave the estate, nor will you be allowed to drink alcohol. Jonathan, the head gardener needs help, and you are it. He has another three months to go, after that you will be in charge and train your successor. The work in the fresh air will help you regain your health. So will the diet I have planned for you. We start now!"
Quasimodo snapped his fingers. As if someone had been waiting for his signal a servant appeared with a huge tray and placed it on the table between them. Patrick surveyed the platter loaded with hot and cold seafood, fresh fruit and orange juice with admiration. Things were looking up. He started to relax.
"No-one starves here," Quasimodo smiled. "The six months will go by quickly, I promise you. When your time is up, and you have kept your side of the bargain I am instructed to give you a cheque for ten thousand dollars. Until then you will do as you are told. Understood?"
"You bet! For food like this I'll do anything you ask."
"That is expected," said Quasimodo quietly, helping himself to a lobster half and some strawberries.
* * *
Next morning Patrick started work in the gardens. Jonathan was a sombre character of few words. From the little he revealed about himself Patrick assumed that he had been in circumstances similar to his own when the Count rescued him from oblivion.
Patrick thought it would take some doing getting used to Quasimodo. It did not turn out that way. Against expectations Patrick loved Quasimodo's company. In spite of his bizarre appearance the man was a gem. Nothing rattled him. He was always gentle, kind and full of good humour.
Most evenings, after work, Patrick would sit with Quasimodo in his office talking or playing chess. Neither of them cared much for the company of the other servants. It was not really an office. More like a living room with two heavy leather armchairs, a coffee table with a chess board. One wall was stacked with rare books in several languages from floor to ceiling. In one corner was a small cupboard with the ever present coffee carafe on its hot plate. There was always a fire burning in the large sandstone fireplace. Quasimodo's misshapen body needed a lot of warmth. A heavy oak door with a huge old fashioned lock led to the cellar. Quasimodo was entrusted with the Count's wines, a responsibility he took very seriously indeed. No-one but he was allowed to go there.
Quasimodo was utterly devoted to his master. He would only talk about the Count in the most deferential and affectionate terms.
"What kind of a life do you think I would have had, had it not been for the Count," he asked Patrick once. When Patrick did not know what to say Quasimodo explained. "He gave me everything, a home, an education, affection, in short he gave me a life. That makes my life his, to do with as he wishes. I would gladly die for the man. Even that would not be enough to pay for what he has done for me!"
Patrick understood. He had encountered people who had become bitter and twisted because of smaller handicaps. There was no bitterness or self pity in Quasimodo.
There was never much activity in the main part of the house during the day. This changed abruptly after dark. That was when the guests arrived. Soon the driveway was packed with Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Mercedes, even the odd Lamborghini and Ferrari. People with money!
Until four in the morning the house was abuzz with laughter and gaiety. Then, as if on command, they would all leave, only to return the next day.
No-one but Arthur and the cleaners were allowed in this part of the mansion. Throughout the night Arthur would come to Quasimodo's office and order the wines for the guests. The ritual never varied.
He would arrive with a silver tray full of elaborately engraved golden goblets. He would then instruct Quasimodo. "Two Mary Smith, one George Taylor, One Barry Livingston" and so forth.
Quasimodo would descend the narrow stairs to the cellar, carefully locking the door behind him and emerge a while later with the order. The wines were always red.
Patrick, in his better days, had been a connoisseur of rare red wines but he had never heard of such outlandish labels. His curiosity aroused he questioned Quasimodo about this. Quasimodo smiled and explained that the Count was in the habit of naming his rare reds after ex-employees of his.
"As good a way as any to assign a label," mused Patrick and left it at that. There was never an order for food. That was prepared for the servants only. As to what went on in the main house Patrick could only guess at. Probably some wine buffs gambling. Never mind, that was the Count's business.
As the months went by Patrick became more and more intrigued by the Count's red wines. He asked Quasimodo to let him try some.
"You know you are not allowed to drink here until your contract is over," he said. "However, I will let you sample some as a going away present before you leave. Agreed?"
Patrick looked forward to this day. It would not be long now. Jonathan had left two months ago, Patrick became head gardener. Francis Moore, a much younger man was assigned as his assistant. Francis had been picked from the street too. As was his custom the Count named one of his rare reds after Jonathan when he left.
* * *
Patrick awoke with mixed feelings. Today was his last day. On one hand he was eager to get out into the world once more. The cheque for ten thousand dollars that Quasimodo had given him the night before would make things easy for a while. On the other hand he would miss this place, strange though it was. He would miss Quasimodo especially. Patrick never had a better friend. One consolation though. Today he would get to taste some of the Count's prize red wines.
He finished early, arriving at Quasimodo's office around three.
"Well my friend, you have done it. Let me pour you a drink!" With that Quasimodo poured a glass of red wine from a carafe and handed it to Patrick. He did not pour one for himself.
The wine tasted somewhat bitter. Patrick did not like it much but he drank it anyway. He did not want to offend Quasimodo. Suddenly Patrick did not feel very well. He tried to get up but his body refused to move. As he slumped forward he thought 'The wine..." Then his senses deserted him altogether.
He awoke sitting on a stone floor chained to a wall. He felt weak. His neck was bandaged. Through the corner of his eye he could vaguely make out the tap that stuck obscenely through the bandages. As his vision cleared he saw Quasimodo and the Count standing directly in front of him. The Count held a goblet in his hand. He took a sip and delicately chewed the liquid before swallowing.
"What do you think, master," asked Quasimodo eagerly.
"You are right, my friend," replied the Count, obviously delighted. "The Patrick O' Brien promises to be an excellent vintage."