Parrot and Olivier in America, p.10Peter Carey
Was he the spy who had observed me in Guizot's earlier lectures? How could he be? Did he steal his master's silk waistcoat? No, no. He would have swum in it. He whispered in the actress's tiny perfect ear. She bowed her neck to let him kiss her. I had a fresh champagne, perhaps two; in any case I had not finished when my lovers stood to leave. I found myself on my feet, quite steady. I did not think to bid my friends good night. I am not sure that I even meant to leave. I made no definite decision, merely put one foot in front of the other, and by this innocent procedure, following them down whatever lane they turned into, soon enough found myself in a disgusting part of Paris. There was no lamp boy, only darkness. A flint was struck but nothing followed it. I heard the actress laugh once, then a silence, as long as that which follows the last notes of Mozart's Requiem.
"Monsieur Perroquet?" I called.
I was a noble, alone in darkness, held in my place by ten centimeters of stinking mud, and having paid little attention to the details of my chase, I had only the most approximate notion of how to reach the rue Saint-Dominique.
What streets I walked along I cannot say, except I breathed the miasma of the cesspools, the copperas of the factories, the air the Revolution had left for those it claimed to love. The dark was horrid, suffocating, cloacal, dead, but when I finally emerged on a long well-lit boulevard I had reason to wish I had kept myself well hidden. For soon I was at the place de Greve, and all around me, hollow-eyed emaciated children who seemed to hold my embroidered coat responsible for their present condition.
I threw what few coins I still possessed and walked southward, swinging my stick, walking boldly right across the open ground where the guillotine had once stood, and I thought, even in the middle of my fear, Is this why you murdered my grandparents and cousins, so you could have this, so you could gather in your beastly warrens and prisons and spread your vile calumnies and wish me dead while all these years no one has done a damn thing for you, and if you wish to see what has been done, why then, do not shout at me, a Garmont, sworn to protect and care for you with his last breath, but look instead at the new bourgeois houses along l'avenue de Neuilly. For this you spilled your blood and our blood--the bourgeois who turns his back upon the street, who eats your bread and drinks your blood while his fat arse blocks your way.
Oh monumental figures of the Revolution, great figures of our past. Oh mammoth fools, mighty sansculottes, elephantine dupes.
That night I dreamed of M. Perroquet, an annunciating angel fluttering around me like a moth. "Hail full of grace," he said, ascending. I woke in sudden darkness, disgusted by the blasphemy.
IT WAS BAD ENOUGH being a servant to the dreadful Tilbot, paid to blow his nose and pour his wine. But I must then become a spy, required to write up every word of certain conversations which were later delivered to the Comtesse de Garmont, by which I mean Lord Migraine's mummy, who would not rely on Monsieur's recollection of conversations with her son. She told him frankly that his cranium lacked the second bump and he therefore had no interest in her child.
Monsieur then reminded her that his mind had been created by God and all this phrenology was anathema.
"Never mind that Marie-Jean," she said. "I must know what Olivier says."
I know this because I was in the room. I watched Monsieur's brows descend. For a soldier he had a very touchy equilibrium. On the right tray of his scales you had his infatuation with the Comtesse de Garmont. On the left, there was his mad impatience. I have seen him break a man's neck, in an instant, and now would you like a cup of tea, Monsieur? But with Lord Migraine's maman he was like a boy in love, not that he threw pebbles at her window or climbed a ladder like the Sorel fellow, only that he was a fool before her translucent skin, her long swan's neck, the ancient fire still glowing beneath the quartz. I never saw the like before or since, the way they blushed and whispered, traveling in closed coaches, and me up on the box seat in the dark with nothing but a whip to save me from the pistol men in the Bois.
Monsieur told Lord Migraine, "A gentleman who travels cannot be at the mercy of servants."
And me, Parrot, pretending to draw a portrait, wrote this down, thinking all the time--but what compositor would ever set such language?
Monsieur had held me in this trap so many years I had come to accept it as my rightful place. I had food and shelter of a type my da could never have imagined. I handled prints and folios the most cultivated men in Europe wished to own, and there were not a few occasions when I gazed at myself in admiration. A fly on the wall, I thought, might mistake me for Monsieur's junior officer, or his disinherited brother, or his bastard son sired when he was twenty, but then hey-ho, enough of that my lad, and off along the frigging Paris road in the wind and rain, and Chevalier--it amused him to call me Chevalier--Chevalier, do take us to the bishop. Then hell's gate for the bishop. I hope he dies.
Where was I?
In July 1830 the Frogs had once again become maddened by their king and went around the capital smashing anything that reminded them of their own stupidity. As far as I could see, this so-called July Revolution was not my business. I ignored it in favor of visiting some English printer mates at their rooming house on the rue Saint-Honore. I was expecting some ale and beef, but my old friends had come out for the Revolution. They were set upon assembling a body of our countrymen who they reckoned might signalize themselves, as they put it, in the cause of freedom. So there they were--pressmen, compositors, tramping up and down the stairs in such excitement that one of them was bitten by the dog. This was sufficient warning. Saying I would signalize myself immediately, I left them to their madness.
Soon I was obstructed by a fat old bourgeois with a rifle. He advised me to make my route in another direction--une barricade was forming, so he said. That was the first time I ever heard of une barricade. On reaching the Pont Neuf I had some difficulty. There was a fracas with the populace at the Tuileries--soldiers advancing slowly with level bayonets turned the mob away.
During all of this it was still my job to be the secret nurse of the son of the Comtesse de Garmont. He would not have been the only aristocrat to join the mob so I kept my eyes out for him everywhere I went, and I say this only to illustrate my own ignorance of the ways of the noble class. Olivier de Garmont was unhappy with the king, but what I did not understand was that he was, so to speak, on the same team. So no matter what a nutter the king was, Olivier de Garmont was a noble, duty-bound to protect him from the mob.
So on the following dawn, whilst my English printers were storming toward the palace with pikes and tricolor, his mother's own Olivier, without my knowledge, got together with his mate, young Blacqueville, and lined up some national guards before the palace gates.
As it turned out, the mob was not the problem. Instead the two nobles and their men found themselves the object of a violent action from the rear. That is, the fellow they had come to protect came charging at them incognito, a common burglar with all the silver he could carry in his bags. The king's carriages galloped by and Olivier de Garmont wept to see the last of the Bourbons departing, mud smeared like so much shameful shit across the royal escutcheons.
That all this spying should become my business was in no way to my liking. Yet it was more agreeable than smuggling folios and ivory carvings past the customs posts. In the second week my responsibilities were broadened so it was my job to observe the poor pale creature swear a loyalty oath to another king. I knew it was not his wish. He neighed and snorted, but on orders from his parents he complied. I transcribed the oath myself and when it was stamped and sealed by the marquis I was the one who delivered it to the parquet, that is, the law court at Versailles.
For making this oath his own team, the Bourbons, declared he was a rat to swear loyalty to the House of Orleans. As for the new team, they did not like him either. He was from the Bourbon side no matter what he signed and swore. He was therefore called back before the court and told he would have to swear a s
Watching this, I considered it advisable for him to do a bunk. I could have smuggled him to London immediately. I made the offer, but this was much too straightforward for the family of Garmont. So I was sent not to Calais but to the booksellers to buy more important volumes concerning prisons, for goodness' sake.
Thus Olivier de Garmont was being helped to develop an interest in penal servitude. Let me see if I can put it plain--if he was prepared to write a report On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France, it was his patriotic duty to go abroad and do so.
Then it was communicated that the new government would not spend a sou on a Garmont, but if he wished to pay for himself--well, they were happy to have him find out how felons should be best tortured in the world to come.
During this great fuss I was busy with another matter entirely. I mean, Mathilde Christian. It was she who came into my bed in the petite maison, she with the fragrant oil paint still beneath her nails, my gorgeous creamy-skinned, raven-haired, plump-armed, nestling, rutting, smiling creature who spent her days painting in the canvases her master sketched, and her evenings with her pencil and her pen.
ELISABETH VIGEE-LEBRUN once complained about the fate of female painters--Women used to reign, she said, until the Revolution dethroned them. The Revolution dethroned Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun of course, but by the time of this second revolution, my Mathilde was hard at work in the salon of Comtesse X and Marquise Y. Indeed, she had once been called to paint the Comtesse de Polignac, a portrait that turned out so well her master was pleased to sign it himself. This was the turbulent and shining soul who was my lover and my teacher, and when I woke by her side I knew myself, most mornings, a lucky man.
We might sleep in Monsieur's petite maison, which he had built in the garden of a relative in the faubourg Saint-Germain, or we might choose Mathilde's studio in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, it mattered not to me. In the middle of the night I would turn and see her wide dark lips in the blue moonlight and think how many hard roads she had traveled, how many rivers I had swum, sailed, canvas slapping and thwacking in the dark, to arrive at this moment. She had that rare combination of strength and femininity, not like Rosa Bonheur, who had to be issued a certificate to dress in men's clothes, but like herself.
Was it because I had no mother that I so passionately sought her breast or fell asleep with my face nestled between her legs, or was it only that I who had no home was at home with her? In any case we both sat with brush and pen before the so-called quality, and it was her lot to grant the grand ladies the luxury of forgetting their lack of chest or wealth of chin.
For all that, we somehow tricked ourselves into believing we were not their servants, and at night in her studio, while her mother soaked her weary feet, she worked by lamplight on Un tableau de deux figures en pied representant une femme peignant et un ange dechu.
It was partly a self-portrait--herself in her studio but there was the shocking secret in the shadows, the fallen angel--her bare-legged Parrot sleeping in the morning light. This was later judged blasphemous and destroyed but the real outrage was that she had ravished me and that I, and every male who looked upon it, was thereby unmanned. This was contradicted by that truest judge of these situations, my manly instrument itself.
Yet the truth about the painting was much more ordinary, for when we were together in her studio--which we frequently were--we also had her aged mother to care for, and only when the old lady from Marseille, her spine twisted sideways, her veins blue and aching, set off down the stairs for Les Halles did we enjoy the golden pleasures the painting suggested.
All around us the world rose and fell, people went hungry, the days were hard, kings fled, nobles fretted, but we had, until now, occupied a tea-sweet backwater. Mathilde, whose master was a noble of a sort, had arranged that her mother should have a grace-and-favor apartment in the Louvre, no small thing, but once the old woman attempted entrance this grace was denied. So old Mme Christian was our burden, although a burden I was pleased to accept and it was no terrible duty to rub her ugly old feet and knead her little knotted shoulders. She was not quite there but not quite gone, and although she had a tendency to talk to herself, and therefore to reveal her gums, she set off each day to market and returned with the best and cheapest and freshest of everything, laying out her findings on the windowsill where we must inspect each item and then hear the full adventure of its purchase. There was also a flagon of good wine from a merchant with his own vineyard in the Loire which we all, madame most of all perhaps, enjoyed too much.
Thus, by our own lights, we were doing very well.
Very soon after the fall of Charles X, the last Bourbon, and the coronation of the fellow from the House of Orleans, I was ordered to present myself urgently at the petite maison where Monsieur received me, not in the anteroom but in the salon.
Of course I knew this room, right up to its domed ceiling whose amorous scenes had been painted by Mathilde's master. Mathilde herself had lain up on the scaffolding and, although Monsieur did not know this, and I was forbidden to tell, the most personal aspects of the cherubs had been made by her.
The salon, at once so beautiful and commonplace to me, was a most particular paradise. The candles were alight, all thirty of them, held by a chandelier and girandoles of Sevres porcelain arranged in brackets of gilded bronze. These thirty candles were reflected in beautifully crafted mirrors set in lilac-colored panels. With the room arranged, as for a scene in a play, I entered.
There were a pair of gilded chairs placed in comfortable relation to a low table, its surface painted by none other than Proudhon.
"Sit," Monsieur said, tapping his table with the stem of his pipe.
Then I was afraid.
"I want you," he said, "to take young Garmont to America."
I imagined Mathilde, her mother shelling peas, her portrait of her studio, her portrait of the Comtesse de Polignac. I am not leaving my place for anyone, I thought. I have walked down too many roads, slept under too many hedges, lost too many homes. I am almost fifty years of age and if my body is still strong it is also scarred like an old cat.
My refusal came out so fast and rough it startled me.
Monsieur studied me. Then his lips twisted and his eyes opened wide.
"Your floozy," he cried.
I could have killed him.
"Oh, Chevalier." He laughed. "Please."
Please nothing, I thought. I am a free man. I have pleased enough.
"You know, Chevalier," he said, "her master has been working the Bourbon side exclusively. The tide will be against him now. The portrait of the Comtesse de Polignac will do her no good now," he said. And when he said this he looked so happy that I was even more afraid.
"If so," I said, "she will need me even more."
He considered me as if appalled. "She is pretty enough," he admitted.
This from him, always in a lather about the scrawny Comtesse de Garmont.
"You are English," he said at last. "You can't hear how she speaks."
"And how might that be, sir?"
"Like a fishwife, Monsieur le Chevalier. Like a fishwife from Marseille."
I took it.
Monsieur smiled agreeably. He was one of the few men alive who knew my history. He had known me first at twelve years of age and in certain respects he was my intimate, in other ways a stranger. He was a man of amazing strength and extraordinary limitations. As he had spent many years selling off his father's library, he had a considerable reputation as a connoisseur but in truth he had no eye--I could show him the engravings I had done for Jean-Baptiste Staley's Lettres and all he could see was that the ducks were not French ducks.
At this point he rose and I heard him rustling in the bedroom, and when he emerged he had some engravings which he flung across to me.
"Here is what I'll do for you," he said.
"What do you think, Chevalier?"
"Which would you like?"
Both of these works were very poor, but the smaller one had some dexterous crosshatching.
"No, no, no," he cried, snatching it back from me, laying it on the table, holding it flat with his big blunt hand. "Which one?" And he jabbed his thumb at the bigger of the houses which had two stories and perhaps ten windows. Only then did I understand he was up to his old tricks--he was offering me a house.
"It is never cold," he said. "It is like summer continually."
"It is America?"
"The Hudson River."
I was thinking of the other house he had tricked me into leaving. Even now, years later, he would not admit his fault or the hurt he had caused those I'd left behind. Enough. There is no cause to talk about that business.
"Why would I need a house in America?"
"In New York, houses are cheap."
"Which one is cheap?"
"All of them. They are the same price as a cow."
I knew this could not be true. He knew I knew it and was already moving rapidly along. "You could speak English there," he said.
"I can speak French here."
At which, of course, he pursed his ugly lips and rolled his eyes.
"Sit," he ordered, although I was already sitting and he meant, Please stand. "Have a drink with me. You must."
At the cabinet I found Scotch whisky.
"No, the Armagnac. Bring the bottle."
I obeyed him like the lackey I had let myself become and was not even rewarded with a drink. Instead he used the Armagnac bottle, together with its cork, his pipe, and his glass, to explain his plan--I would be a spy and protector of Lord Migraine and his friend. As both young men were presently reluctant to commit to the plan for their own rescue, it was I who must make the preparation for their journey. I would buy their clothes, pack their trunks, and arrange whatever financial instruments they would require. In packing my own trunk I would, on no account, omit the clever invention he would shortly show me.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes