Parrot and Olivier in America, p.13Peter Carey
As you can see, I have sent the servant away and am now writing with my own hand whose graceless stutterings no tutor ever could correct. More money wasted. This Master Larrit is not even who Tilbot thinks he is, I am sure. He has taken advantage of my drugged state to smuggle his paramour and her dreadful mother aboard. What with the banker and his jolly daughters, the impresario and his singer, and the servant's own menagerie a la marseillaise, the moral tone here is very poor, and whatever you have paid in your desire to save me from harm, your panic has once again ensured that you were robbed. I am certain you could not have imagined this confinement, or, if you did, I am sure you will beg God's forgiveness for abandoning your son to such a fate.
THIS CAPTAIN OF THE HAVRE was as hard and scrawny as a piece of rope. He had rheumy squinting eyes, a tobacco-stained mustache, a rum drinker's nose, and absolutely no arse at all. But his fingers were large and white and soft, made for the dark and secret places of a sailor's life. So when Monsieur, who had a great skill in this department, had rolled a quantity of paper currency, the captain swiftly folded himself around the bribe and found himself able to accommodate some passengers whose names had hitherto been absent from his list. That is, although he had lost one chap through tragedy, it now seemed he had gained two more, and much money needed to pass hands due to this change of plan.
How or why this situation had arisen no one bothered to inform me but it appeared that my darling Mathilde and her old maman were standing on the dock, and although my beloved would not so much as look at me, she was confidently waiting for a cabin to be free. All around her, in a great jumble of wrapped and unwrapped, was every single item from her studio. I recognized the bust of Cicero on which the old lady sat, puffing on her pipe. I was in no state to be a reliable witness, but you know the human mind--it will tell you anything in order to be believed. This mind of mine informed me that Mathilde wished to deny our private relationship at the very moment she was publicly claiming it, but once I had her in her cabin, she would soon have the pillow hard between her teeth. This was very credible, and edible as well, but I also knew my tempestuous darling and I did not doubt the weather would be fairer soon.
In any case, Monsieur had promised the two women passage, and now Mathilde would oblige him to keep his word no matter what the booking agent said.
Monsieur waited in the captain's cabin, playing solitaire. Not two feet from his elbow lay Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, drugged as death upon the captain's bunk.
I had some vague apprehension that negotiations were not proceeding simply, but all I could think was that I would not lose my beloved after all, and I could have wept with joy for I was really too old to go through such grief again.
The little captain threw his sausage fingers in the air and I noticed the Marquis de Tilbot once more slip his hand into an inner pocket in his cloak. I watched this dreamily--the silky surface of the cloak remained as still as a mill pond but it was easy to imagine his fingers in the dark, like the legs of some antipodean beast which makes its living squashing bees' knees for its hungry young.
The captain now turned exceeding thoughtful. Perhaps he was reflecting that only he and the mate, a nineteen-year-old boy from Nantucket, were capable of performing the common but indispensable business of steering, and that this was one man short, to put it mildly. I held my breath now, waiting for Monsieur, anticipating the single hand emerging with a golden egg within the palm.
Then, before you could say Jack Robinson, it was done. My life was saved. Mathilde and her mother had bustled on board and, having taken possession of a damned stateroom, had locked the door. Monsieur's carriage was soon rattling beneath the custom's office arch, on its way to Paris and the rue Saint-Dominique. A pig had escaped and was swimming away from the vessel, the mate and I had carried Lord Migraine to his cabin, and I did not complain when I understood I was to share this tiny room with him. I knew not to expect justice on a ship. Mr. Eckerd pleaded to have his pigeons stowed 'tween decks and he and his companion wept and remonstrated that the birds would die if left in the longboat where they had been consigned and in the midst of all this turbulence--a strong north wind was blowing with enough violence to raise a dreadful sea even in the bay--the tow-haired mate assured me that as the sun declined it would abate, and once we had weathered Cape Barfleur we would make a free wind down channel.
Ah, said the Human Mind, let's hope this chap knows what's what.
So I went to sit outside Mathilde's door and put my lips against the brass.
"Answer me, I'm here. I am your Parrot."
I thought I was whispering but who can really say. I caused an awful nuisance in the gangway.
"Talk to me, please. Sacrebleu! Why are you angry with me?"
"If you are to travel with me you must answer me. I will have you put ashore and you will have to walk."
"You are an irritating fool and I have no idea why you would throw away my trousers and why, if you would throw away my trousers, you would come aboard this fucking ship. To hell with you."
"I love you."
"Do you not see how much trouble you have already caused? It is not a good idea to make an enemy of Monsieur. He knows all your sitters and those not even born. M. de Garmont will want a portrait. I will talk to him."
Silence, more silence.
"Puss?" And then it was insufferable. "I hope you die."
By then we were on our way to America and I was not well and I found a bench in the galley beside Mr. Eckerd, who was attempting to dry his pigeons while a champagne bottle rolled to and fro across the floor and I did not trust my head to pick it up. Mr. Eckerd smelled, generally, like freshly plucked poultry. A great crowd had assembled on the pier head to witness our departure, and cheered as we passed, but I could not look at them. We had set out under full sail and I waited with Mr. Eckerd for the calm. Two hours went by and things got worse. Orders were given to reduce the canvas and we came back to a double-reefed mainsail, foresail, and second-sized jib. With the sail even thus diminished, the vessel, at times, almost buried herself. Mr. Eckerd moaned, and then I noticed he was slipping and sliding on the deck holding a second cage of pigeons.
He had told me his plan in confidence--the birds would be released off Rhode Island and fly home to New York with news of the eminent opera singer.
My private thoughts of Mlle Desclee were interrupted by a sickening plunge, as the entire deck was buried under boiling sea which invaded the cabin and surged across my feet, then broke against the locked door behind which, even among the crashing of pigeon cages and gin bottles, I could hear enough to know my beloved was no longer well.
I cursed God, the marquis, Lord Migraine. Once that was done, I vomited across my boots.
MY CHILDHOOD FRIEND had been done to death and in his place was nothing but a pit. I had been drugged and dragged, and left at the mercy of a vomiting copyist, and I might have expected my lungs would seize and--being denied my leeches--blood would burst right through my eyes. I had spent my whole life fearing this, or something like it, but I was a Garmont. No one would see my grief or rage.
Compared to my own cramped malodorous accommodation, the deserted main cabin was a site of healthfulness, smelling of nothing worse than salt and tar. It was here I was seated when I felt the swell preceding the first big wave, that long dreadful quiver running through the timbers of the ship, not stilled or contained by the copper sheathing of its hull but rather amplified so that a deadly vibration ran through every human bone aboard the Havre, and when that shiver had been doused, snuffed, drowned, and the little barque had tumbled off the edge, then I felt the first big wave break and I saw the great wash of beef and brandy erupt from the dreadful Parrot's gorge, and as the entire craft was hurled like a lobster into a kettle, I was very please
In the midst of this tempest the venal Dutch captain fled his post and stood before me, his nose and oilskins dripping, his vinous face awash, a bottle of champagne in his pale drowned hands.
"Your lordship"--he grinned--"something for what ails you." As the vile creature proffered his gift there was such a veritable twist to his body it was as if he had become a plank of his own ship, caught by opposing currents of servility and greed. I was embarrassed to look on him, so boneless and poisonous did he seem. I accepted his unwanted gift. He asked how else he could serve me.
I said that if he had an interest in my comfort he could deal with the retching varlet who had been deposited in my cabin.
"Ha-ha." He laughed. "Very good, sir." His French was poor.
In English I slowly and clearly demanded that the vomiter be dispatched to the hold or the bow or whatever place such persons were normally accommodated.
He saluted me and went away.
The main cabin, I now realized, contained another traveler, a tall elegant fellow with a long nose, a shortish upper lip, and a wry smile to underline it. He exhibited such magnificent ugliness you might assume him to be French but, although we had not been introduced, I already knew him as Mr. Peek, an American.
As for the introduction, it was peculiar. Mr. Peek was pleased to inform me that he knew everything concerning my business, that I was in mourning for my friend, that I was a commissioner sent by my government to investigate the superior prisons of America.
While the sea entered its next stage of violence I joined him on his bench and together we gravely watched the waters overwhelm both bow and stern--great snowy rushes which were still foaming as they entered the cabin where they swept two drowned pigeons and my champagne to the aft before the shock of the next wave brought them sailing back at us. We lifted up our shoes each time the wash came our way. This, for some reason, he thought immensely funny and even I could smile.
Mr. Peek reached down into the waters and retrieved the champagne bottle as it passed. Then he splashed across the ankle-deep waters and found two unbroken glasses, and a moment later I was toasting him, imbibing the tepid waters of Reims.
"Your lordship," said Mr. Peek, when the galley door had slammed, "might I offer some advice and hope it is not ill-taken?"
I assured him of my trust in his civility, but my English was not all I had been led to believe. "Civility," I said a second time.
"You see, it is the question of your servant being sent below."
"Good," I said, although I quickly saw his opinion would not be soothing.
"The Americans will not take it well," he said.
I understood the word take, and thought take money.
"The expulsion of your copyist--the republicans will be against it."
"Ah yes, but the servant is your natural enemy, an Englishman."
"On the other hand you are, your lordship, an aristocrat."
"So you seem to have been informed, sir."
"If I had been told nothing, that much would be evident to me," said Mr. Peek. "You possess a refinement and dignity that could have no other source. But they will not like to see you refuse to share your cabin with your man."
"The Americans, my lord. It will not go down well with them."
"But do they share quarters with their servants? I am sure they do not."
"They do not, but they believed that you did and they liked you for it. Now it would embarrass them to see the man cast out. It would strike a nerve, as we say. It would seem aristocratic to them and they would take it ill."
"Are you sure of this, sir? It seems very strange to me."
"We are to be two months at sea, and I can assure your lordship it is better to be all good fellows."
He filled my glass again, and I thought, I cannot wait to tell Blacqueville this nonsense.
"Sir," I said, "it is my belief the scoundrel drugged me and brought me aboard."
"Indeed," said Mr. Peek, and raised an eyebrow. "Your lordship has suffered much."
"Alas, Mr. Peek. I lost my best friend in all the world."
Mr. Peek cocked his head at me and then, impulsively, poured the contents of his glass into mine. I dared not reject such crude kindness.
"A word of advice, your lordship, from one who admired you from the moment you spoke?"
"But yes, of course."
"Be a good fellow sir. Play the democrat. We will have rough justice for the servant when we step ashore. I am in a position to make a promise I can keep."
He poured back half of my remaining champagne and before we clinked our glasses in a toast, Mr. Peek winked, and having finished his draft looked down his nose at me, as sly and solemn as a magistrate.
"What did we drink to, sir?" I asked.
"To deep dark prisons," said he.
Oh, Blacqueville, you would not believe it. I raised my glass to my American and he said it was as well I had met him for he was a trustee of the board of the new House of Refuge for Delinquent Minors and could introduce me to the governors of Wethersfield and Sing Sing which latter edifice--he was the first but not the last to tell me--had been built by its own prisoners in complete silence.
Of course, I had no more interest in prisons than did my poor scarred parents who would never escape the time of Robespierre. I said I was pleased to find so intelligent a man on board.
He said he was similarly pleased--there were so many of his fellow countrymen among the passengers that it was already clear our voyage would suffer from a want of intellectual tone.
I asked him how so dire a situation had occurred in a nation so resplendent in so many ways.
"The want of intellect? Principally," he said, "it is the inheritance law."
And with this he filled my glass again, this time from the bottle, and the champagne frothed excessively but was not, for that, unwelcome.
"I can still remember," said Mr. Peek, and settled himself in a manner which gave warning of a lengthy disquisition. "I can still remember a time when my country was peopled with rich proprietors who lived on their lands like the English gentry. They cultivated the mind, and followed certain traditions of thought and manners. High morals and distinction of mind then existed among this class of the nation. But all that is gone," he said. "The old estates are being divided. Now a man will mostly own what he has bought himself. As for leisure, there is none."
I thought, What am I condemned to? I asked, "Then how do the wealthy classes take such a state of affairs?"
"Affairs," I said and was once again reminded that I must speak more slowly if I was to be understood. "State of affairs. How do the wealthy classes regard this state of affairs?"
He grimaced so wildly that the whole of his upper lip was reduced to a single pencil line beneath his haughty nose. "They bear it," he said. "For instance, the plutocrat and the lowly worker shake hands in the street. Ha-ha," he cried. "You like that, no? Good morning, good to meet you."
At that moment the captain rushed in like a wet dog.
"Ah Captain," I cried, relieved to see him. "We have a matter to settle."
He looked at me bleakly.
"No, no." My companion restrained me, allowing the captain to continue on his course. He bowed and twisted while walking backward.
"It will pass," my new friend said, meaning what I did not know. "Before we know it we will be in civilization."
I feared that most unlikely.
ONE DAY BLED into the next. I lay in my coffin, assaulted by the screams of ducks and geese being slaughtered upon the deck, the cries of passengers, the push and bustle, the plates and bottles crashing to the floor of the main cabin. So close was my pillow to the dining table that my ears were soon poured full of gravy, the voices, opinions and histories of Mr. Peek and his wife and two daughters, of Mr. Hill, and of Mr. Defenpost, and what they thought of Mr. Eckerd and his actress, and all of this got mi
The captain had finally judged it safe to set more canvas but my paramour and her mother were the only ones--excepting Mr. Eckerd and his pigeons--to brave the deck. I had seated myself by a doorway and Mathilde's skirt brushed my knee. I smelled her. Her jasmine. It was intolerable she would ignore me still. To be so separated from she whose thighs I had seen shining with desire, who had opened herself to me so ardently that I knew the crying tunnel of her mouth, the secret teeth, the tiny tonsil, and my own hard body shivering as she slapped the bed and cried Don't stop, to be separated by no more than the brush of a wing was an agony. My salty lover, transformed, as cold as halibut.
As for the old lady, if she knew what secret wound had opened in her daughter's heart, she dared not say. And what had I ever done but love her offspring and herself? And was I not Mathilde's model in a way that would have made another man's balls shrivel up and drop like rotten plums among the summer grass. For I loved her without limit and therefore would most happily play the vanquished male, drained lover, sucked of his juices, laid out on the sheets and dead of love and loving.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes