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Fool's Island

Fool's Island

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Fool's Island

250 pages
4 heures
Mar 21, 2013


In 1759 the young and willful Franulka leaves her castle home for Warsaw, where she attracts the attentions of the King’s son. Eighteen months later, with her Fool and maid, she vanishes. A closed carriage in the early morning, with an armed outrider, suggests disgrace and exile.But nothing is as it seems. Caught up in a deadly conspiracy, only the Fool can save her. But is the price too high? Shifting between Poland, Russia, Venice and an Adriatic island, this is a gripping historical mystery, a passionate love story and a moving study of the painful growth of self-awareness.“Here’s a novel that grabs you by the ear and eye and plunges you into the life of 18th century Poland: court intrigues, love sacred and profane, jealousy, rage, adventure, comedy and danger. And your guide is that wisest of men, a professional ‘fool’. The journey to his island is a thrilling one.” Piers Plowright, Broadcaster and Critic“A born storyteller.” Liz Jensen, author of The Rapture“Powerfully written, impeccably researched.” Elizabeth Carter-Jones, Reviewer

Mar 21, 2013

À propos de l'auteur

Robin Porecky is of Polish origin, but was born and brought up in England. He now works in Sweden as a knife-maker.This is his second novel. His first, A Pathless Land, was published by Austin

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Fool's Island - Robin Porecky

About the author

Robin Porecky is of Polish origin but was born, and brought up, in England. He now works in Sweden as a knife-maker.

This is his second novel. His first, A Pathless Land, was published by Austin&Macauley in 2009.

Robin Porecky

Fool’s Island



Copyright © Robin Porecky

The right of Robin Porecky to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with section 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.

Any person who commits any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

A CIP catalogue record for this title is

available from the British Library.

ISBN 978 1 84963 237 9


First Published (2011)

This edition 2012

Austin & Macauley Publishers Ltd.

25 Canada Square

Canary Wharf


E14 5LB


To Alexa and Piers


Among the many books that were helpful in my research, I should particularly like to draw attention to:

‘Canaletto, The painter of Warsaw’ by Mieiczyslaw Wallis, Panstwowy Institut Wydawniczy, Warsaw 1954.

‘The Journal of Countess Francoise Krasinska’ translated from the Polish by Kasimir Dziekonska, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.Ltd. 1897.

‘The Tatras’ by Zygmunt Ficet, Krakow 2001.

‘Kultura ludowa Podhala’ by Hanna Blaszczyk-Zurowska, Zakopane 2000.

‘Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance’ by Frederic Chapin Lane, John Hopkins University Press 1934.

‘A Collection of Russian Metal Icons’ by Christopher Martin, Iconastas 1986.

‘Canaletto’ by J G Links, Phaidon Press 1982.

Henryk Sienkiewicz’s great trilogy, ‘With Fire

and Sword’ (1884), ‘The Deluge’ (1886) and ‘Fire in the Steppe – Pan Michael’ (1888).


(Most Polish or technical terms are explained in the text, but these clarifications may be helpful.)

Black Virgin – Revered Polish icon in the Paulite Monastery, Czestochowa

Castellan – Administrator of a Region

Castellanic – Son of a Castellan

cepry – lowlander from southern Poland

ell – 114 centimetres (45 inches)

gneiss – metamorphic rock, typically of feldspar, quartz and mica

gorale – highlander from Poland’s Tatra Mountains

gripo – Venetian vessel, a small sleek caravel

meltemi – Mediterranean wind with dangerous jet effect when channelled between islands

polje – hollow formed where limestone has collapsed

Staroste – Administrator of a District

succubus – female demon believed to have intercourse with sleeping men

Woivode – Governor of a Province




All in all, it’s been an odd sort of life. In the last few days, to fill the time before I fall asleep, I’ve been reflecting on the ironies in my life. I’m not a fool, but I became a Fool. I’m not funny, but people laugh at me. I’m not a woman’s man, but I was saddled with a baby girl.

That was nineteen years ago. But I remain her Fool, and recently I’ve decided to present her with a gift she’ll never fully understand. It’s probably the reason for my nightly introspection.

My starting points were bastardy and want. These yielded briefly to the glorious possibility of the sublime in serving God; but that chance I forfeited through unbridled lust during the icy Polish winter of 1742. Caught in flagrante delicto, my only possible excuse, that I was trying to keep warm, was not well received; and I was expelled from the seminary for unnatural vice. I starved then, in the snow, as I starve now in the sun. This may be another irony, but it is certainly too much starvation for a man who loves his food. As for the baby, familiarly called by her diminutive, Franulka, she was screaming when I first saw her, and she was little better when she’d grown.

How can she love him? she wailed, as if I were to blame. You’ve seen him, Matenko, he’s at least thirty, his French is bad, he muddles Latin and Polish as old people do, and he’s dull.

She filled the last word with such venom, and emphasised it with such a bang on my knee, that I winced.

There are worse things than being dull, I began, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew I’d started down the wrong path. To Franulka there was no greater crime than dullness.

What things? she asked ominously.

Well, I stumbled, he might be immoral, a drunkard, a villain, violent.

Then Basia would be able to reform him, to use her love to make a better man of him, she said with all the passionate foolishness of a sixteen-year-old. "I could understand that, it would be a challenge for Basia, there would be excitement, uncertainty. But what excitement can there be in a man who will not dance a minuet, who will not actually dance anything except a polonaise? And he never looks at the rest of us, and scarcely at Basia."

He is well bred, I said in his defence, for though I too thought the Staroste of Radom was a dull dog, I felt he would suit Franulka’s sister admirably. He’s not yet married to Mademoiselle Basia, and so he does not presume.

Franulka looked at me pityingly.

What do you know about these things, Matenko? You are a Fool, you see nothing. He does not even talk to Basia, he only converses with my Honoured Parents.

By paying attention to them, is he not honouring your sister? I asked, pleased with this piece of Jesuitical reasoning. After all, it is they who are allowing Basia to marry him.

That was another mistake. Franulka leaped to her feet and glared at me.

Can she not make up her own mind? Why has she no view of her own?

Perhaps she has.

She has not, replied Franulka, stamping her foot. I asked her what she thought of him, and she answered that the will of our Honoured Parents was a sacred law to her, and that if they felt he was a suitable husband for her, then that was all that mattered.

Is she not right? I asked wickedly, heaving myself to my feet and moving a sensible distance from her.

You cannot understand, she stormed, coming after me. You are not married, you do not grasp the implications. She will have to live with him, do his commands, have his children. He is not handsome, he is not dashing; how can she bear it, knowing he will touch her…..

She blushed very red, and turned away, biting her lip, conscious she had followed her thoughts too far. But I knew only too well what was really upsetting her. She was putting herself in Basia’s place, and wondering how it was possible to be in bed and intimate with such a man. The terror was in her that her parents would put her in the same position, and I think she knew she could not do it. Unlike Basia, she dwelt upon these matters, and she could feel already the strength of physical repugnance.

So there we were, as we have always been in her short life, a Fool and the daughter of Count Stanislaus Korwin Krasinski, one of Poland’s most ancient families. That is a jest indeed. Now that I am in a place where life is down to bare essentials, I can look back over the past years and see more clearly the close weave of our lives. In the sun which beats down on my head, it is almost pleasant to recall that earlier freezing winter when I was still a young man. Memory, of course, blunts the sharper edges, so that now I think sentimentally about that huddled figure in the corner of the barbican. But I really was dying of cold and hunger, pushing myself up against the sheltering comfort of the stone as I waited for the drawbridge of Maleszow Castle to be lowered. I must still have had an optimistic spirit, for I was praying that whoever found me would show pity, and pity was not a commodity I’d often come across since my fall from grace. I’d been kicked and beaten, spat upon, and bitten by dogs, and when you’ve been used to softer living, preparing for the priesthood, a beggar’s life is hard. But, gradually, the soul shrinks with the stomach, the nerves lose their sensitivity, and pain and suffering become comparative, better or worse than the day before. There is an initial surprise one does not die as easily or as quickly as one had supposed, but that is followed by the realisation that moments of pleasure, even of joy, are still possible in the midst of misery. The beauty of a sunset over snow could still make me cry even while I was gnawing my fingers in a semblance of eating. But one does die eventually, although with difficulty and very slowly; and waiting for the drawbridge I was balancing on the brink, as near death then in the cold as I am now in the equally foodless heat. This time, of course, help is not at hand; but, though being a Fool has taught me how to live, and I’ve been happier than I’d any right to be, it has also taught me to be ready for an exit.

At the castle I rejected help, and it saved my life. The dragoons who peacocked their way across the finally-lowered drawbridge, their high helmets foolish on their wigs, were boisterously full of celebration for the birthday of the second child of their lord. One of them magnanimously offered me a crust, and though it was very small I salivated and almost reached for it. But being still in my wits, and not yet a fool, I understood it would not save my life, but merely prolong the agony. So I mustered what dignity I could, which is not easy when one is disgusting both in look and smell, and said that only a fool would refuse such kindness, but I must do so for I needed a meal, not a morsel.

I thought I would get a musket butt in my face, but they found it funny, and said I was a fool indeed, and talked among themselves. Then the Captain-in-charge re-crossed the drawbridge while the others took up guard positions, and he must have gossiped about the foolish beggar, for finally the chaplain came and ministered to me. He was a lanky man with the face of a cherub and the fair hair of an angel. Plump cheeks gave his eyes a crinkled kindly look until, at particular moments of scrutiny, they opened wider and you saw the sharp intelligence. He questioned me, for castle folk are careful. But I was just as careful, and said nothing of my past; though I did respond once when he spoke Latin, and showed I understood his French, thus staking my claim to be a gentleman. It was even a half-true claim, for I was the bastard of a gentleman. As such, a gentleman, not a bastard, I was allowed into the castle and Father Janek put me in his own room and began to feed me back to health. At times I was left alone, for he was also curate of the local church in Lisow, but servants still brought me food and drink, and gradually I returned to that short rotundity which is my natural shape, and regained the caustic tongue that too often got me into trouble. But kindly Janek ignored the bitterness and heard only humour.

You are a natural Fool, Mathias, he said delightedly the first evening, and I shall recommend you to the Count. I am certain he will give you a position – unpaid, of course.

What as? I asked. A kitchen scullion?

Father Janek laughed as though I had made a joke, which was to be the pattern for my future life.

No, no, he said, "for such work would be paid. You will be a gentleman retainer, the personal Fool of Count Krasinski, Staroste of Nova Wies and Uscie. Is that not grand?"

What happened to his last Fool, I asked suspiciously. Did his wit desert him and so they hanged him on a washing line to dry out even more?

Father Janek laughed more loudly still.

You will do admirably, he said with satisfaction. The Count, being of serious disposition and not given to frivolity, has never had a jester. But recently he acquired two dwarfs to dance upon the dining table, and his dignity will be enhanced if he has a Fool as well.

What about my dignity? I asked grumpily, but Father Janek gave me one of his looks of surprising acuity.

I do not ask about your past, he said. Sometime I am sure you will explain it to me. Meanwhile would you rather starve?

I am an ungrateful fool, I said hastily, and I would be grateful to be made a Fool.

How sensible, said Father Janek, good humoured again. You have arrived at a happy time, for the Starostine has just produced a second child, Frances, or Françoise in courtly French. It is sad it is another girl, but there is still hope of an heir. Meanwhile the Count is thanking God for his wife’s recovery, for it was not an easy birth. This puts him in a generous mood, so we shall go to him tomorrow evening.

So I became the castle Fool, and something more besides. For when I was taken before the Count, a pale silvery man, no longer young but stiff with dignity more than age, he ordered, with exquisite courtesy, that I should make him smile. I knew it was a hopeless task, for he did not seem to be a man who ever smiled, as it would be beneath his dignity. So I was preparing to return to cold and hunger rather than make a fool of myself when the nursemaid brought in the new-born baby. The Count looked at her gingerly, and at once she screamed, and went on screaming, deafeningly. Everyone was shocked into immobility, for her behaviour was an unthinkable violation of castle protocol. Since no one else would move, and the pretty young nursemaid was ashy-faced and probably about to swoon, fate pushed me forward, and I took the babe and looked down at her. At once the yelling stopped, and I was transfixed by a pair of black eyes. It is hard for a sinner like me to face such innocence and I almost averted my gaze. But somehow I held firm, feeling myself drawn in, and it was as though some matter between us had been settled, an irrevocable link forged, for her puckered face relaxed and I heard a gurgle of laughter, or wind perhaps.

The Count smiled.

It is an omen, he said portentously. You are my Fool, and honorary Chamberlain of my daughter Françoise. You will be called Matenko, and you will wear a wooden dagger as a sign of privilege.

With much bowing and utterance of thanks I escaped to Father Janek’s room and sank down on the floor. I had been given a job, and a gift; and, though I did not understand it then, that gifted child would be life and death to me.


Over the many years that followed I found people laughed almost regardless of what I said, for I was a Fool and therefore funny. Even my most mordant comment was well received, for I alone was allowed to speak in the presence of the Count without permission, and since he was immune to criticism, not understanding its possibility, he took my veiled barbs as wit, and so both of us were quite content, each seeing the other as the fool.

If that sounds mean, I confess that at that time I was a mean and angry man. Over the years I came to appreciate the goodness of my master, and to understand that generations of breeding had given him a dignity of such immense proportions there was little room for anything else. He kept a book about the grandeur of his ancestors, and taught his children so effectively they were able to recite the genealogy of the Krasinskis more perfectly than their morning prayer. The hall was lined with portraits of the most illustrious, starting with the Roman Tribune Marcus Valerius Corvinus from whom he claimed descent. Amid the wealth of inherited possessions, most precious to the Count was a clock presented to an especially valorous ancestor by an admiring Tartar chief whose army had been repulsed when he tried to storm the castle. It was taken out and shown on exceptional occasions. I only saw it once; and though it must, I suppose, have been a wonder in its time, I found it plain and rather ordinary.

The Count’s dignity had been increased by marriage, after many years of careful thought, to Angela Humiecka, daughter of a famous Woivode. She was high-prowed, tightly caulked against emotion, and, marrying late, had hastily ploughed the billows of the marriage bed in search of sons to carry on the family line. In quick succession she had borne two girls. Then, in my first three years as Fool, she bore two more. None followed. Both parents seemed to withdraw even more into their acclaimed dignity, lest anyone should see the pain of such an affront to the Krasinski name. Three of the daughters were pale and fair like their parents, properly dutiful and placid, expecting no more than they received, which was a distant affection. But Franulka was a throw-back, for she had the black hair and eyes from the portrait of the Krasinski who had defied the Tartar; and she had inherited his fighting spirit.

My life was not exciting. I was one of twenty honorary castle courtiers whose duties were to wait in the morning for the Count’s entrance, to be ready for any service he might require, to play cards with him, to accompany him when visiting or riding, to defend him in case of need – and, since a wooden dagger could neither defend him nor me, I modified it. But my special job was to amuse his guests and so give him honour in their eyes; and, to support me in this, there were the two dwarfs. One was nearing middle age and always wore a Turkish costume; the other, dressed as a Cossack, was even smaller, a graceful and pretty lad of eighteen, and, or so it seemed to me, eager-eyed. Since remuneration would be undignified for a gentleman, I was unpaid, but I received clothes, food, lodging, and an ass to ride; and, when my wit was simple enough for visitors to understand, some coins came my way. The Count was generous with gifts as well, as was the Countess, and so I lived well and salted away enough for any emergency that might arise. By some logic quite beyond me, salaries were given to the physician, the French Madame, the secretary, marshal, butler, commissary, treasurer, equerry, ushers, masters of the wardrobe and chamberlains. There were many others who swelled the castle retinue but they were not often mentioned, for cooks, link-boys, ostlers, valets, nursemaids and servants are necessarily invisible.

You may wonder why, if I had found my place in such a household, I hoarded emergency savings. And that is difficult for me, for I am a flawed man, constantly in fear of discovery, and I do not find it easy to talk openly about such matters except to my confessor. Father Janek had to be told, not least because he began to suspect I’d been a novice priest, and must have sensed my interest in him, for we shared a room for several months. I’d hoped my confession would reveal a similar inclination in him; but unfortunately, for he was a fine man in his thirties, he proved to be one of those priests who can effectively castrate themselves without the loss of balls. But it cleared the air, we became good friends, and he felt able to warn me that the younger dwarf, Dmitri, was a stallion who mounted anything available on two legs or on four; and since I have some standards, I kept away and only made a fool of myself with the young chamberlains who laughed at me – as who does not – but occasionally were kind.

I hasten to say that this was in the early years of my castle life. I was in my twenties when I started as a Fool, and one’s drives are stronger then. As a novice I had spent many hours in the chapel kneeling on the bare stone slabs, attempting to rid myself of desire. But suffering only seemed to increase it, and it was only over the years my baser urges faded. By the time Franulka selected me as playmate, victim and confidant, demanding at the

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