Parrot and Olivier in America, p.14Peter Carey
And was she not, aboard the Havre, still the recipient of my largesse--for what reason had Monsieur accommodated her on board at such expense? That she was mine. I loved her to death. I might have held her, screeching like a hard-eyed indignant sea bird, lifted her squirming angry body high above the rail and smashed her down into the green-glass waves. There--she drowns.
She thought she knew me. My awful scars invisible. In any case, she had already found some new protectors, and before too many hours had passed I saw that the elder Miss Peek was teaching her English. This Miss Peek was a tall winsome girl with fine flaxen hair and pale, pale blue eyes, a glass of water a man might drink in a long slow draft. The two of them, dark and light, buxom and lithe, woman and girl, remained at table long after the last plate had broken and the final duck bones been removed, and then, when the lanterns were swinging back and forth, the girl helped the woman with her English lessons. In short the French beauty made herself their pet, and I could not escape her, not even with my pillow pulled across my ears.
Lord Migraine dictated a whining letter to his mother, and then, having no more need of my services, acted as if I was not born. The little bastard occupied our narrow cabin with a lack of modesty that should not have surprised me, given the gross slanders he made against me in his letter to the Comtesse de Garmont. In any case, it meant nothing for him to display his member in full and proud erection every morning, its surprising size not diminishing until he had managed to pee into his pot. I never saw such bad behavior in a boardinghouse.
Being unable to stand the sight of either Mathilde or Migraine I resorted to the poop deck, although I was obliged to move each time the captain changed his mind about his sails. When Mathilde contrived to set up with her oils and brushes by the longboat, I retreated to the cabin. Migraine awaited me, his neat little legs folded, his pretty book in his pretty hand and his shoulders collapsed down from his neck and running to his arms like a ficus tree espaliered to catch the sun.
Back on the deck Mathilde was portraying Miss Peek in the manner of the disgusting past--that is, in the style of Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, who had once made Marie Antoinette look like a healthy piece of fruit. Such shameless flattery was not wasted on this new subject, or her father and the latter had soon gone mad with the lust of ownership.
I went to sleep at night hearing Mathilde telling her punters she would not sell the portrait--a comic English monologue for which she was adored.
I was at table one breakfast when she presented it as a gift to Mr. Peek, and I, alone and bitter with my lumpy porridge, witnessed a new aspect of my darling. I had watched her paint and draw for hours and hours, but I had never thought of how she had managed to find her customers. This had been of as little interest to me as my work with Monsieur was to her. Now I saw how cunningly she offered a sample of her wares. It was handed from one rich American to the next.
She was warm to them, cold to me. I thought I was man enough to take her torture, but I was very wrong indeed.
The first time I found her alone, I caught her between a coil of rope and the cow cabin. It was just on dusk.
She turned, her two balled fists pressed both against each other and her breasts.
"You left me," she said. "You chucked me away like an old rag."
"Mathilde, you threw my trousers out the window."
"Yes. Like an old rag," she repeated, as if she had won her point.
"Then why are you here?"
"I had to leave everything," she said. "My studio, my patrons. Everything!"
And with that she hammered on my chest, and when she was sick of that she slapped me across the face.
"I will not be left," she said.
As she hurried away, her skirt flying, I saw Lord Migraine and Mr. Peek spying from the porthole. To hell with them, I thought. I stayed out on the deck and felt the salt wind on my injured pride and determined that, once we were landed, they could all go to damnation. With this final unwanted exile, I would have paid Monsieur back for my life.
These hard thoughts were interrupted by Lord Migraine knocking on the glass and indicating that I should come inside so that he might dictate one more letter to his mother which, it soon turned out, was not so different from the previous two, e.g., he had lost his best friend and had been prevented from attending the funeral. I--at least in the beginning--wrote exactly what he said, and therefore traced the outlines of his feelings with my hand. In spite of this, it was hard to know, as with all that class of Frenchman, what was going on. With their smooth waxy faces and their extended arms, with the careful lippy shaping of their words, these people always seemed like actors, and even Monsieur himself, a rough old man when required, would adopt this rouge-and-powder style of declamation. Maybe it was sincere enough, and when I changed a word here or there I was acting more in mischief than in malice.
Later that night I lay in my bunk and had no choice but be an audience for the conversation of Mr. Peek and Lord Migraine in the main cabin, which might as well have been inside my head.
PEEK: But sir, is it the custom in your country that you would permit a servant to know your private business?
MIGRAINE: Yes, it would depend upon the servant and the business. Generally speaking, one has nothing to be ashamed of in one's conduct. What is the quality of servants in America? How would you compare them with the French?
This was me they spoke of, a thing with no volition, blown like a seed or feather from the palaces of Paris to the harsh wilds of the earth.
PEEK: Oh generally very poor I would say, but for myself I would hesitate to share my heartfelt feelings with an employee of any nation.
MIGRAINE: We would see it as no different to being dressed by one.
PEEK: Dressed, sir?
MIGRAINE: Is that not your custom?
PEEK: To stand naked? Sir I would not stand naked with my wife.
MIGRAINE: We do not call it naked with a servant.
PEEK: What do you call it?
MIGRAINE: We call it getting dressed.
There was a long pause before Lord Migraine spoke again, and then the subject had its clothes on.
MIGRAINE: Lawyers are then very common with you, I believe you said.
PEEK: Much more so, I think, than in any part of Europe.
MIGRAINE: What is their position in society and their character?
And they were off to the races, as they say, and I was so bored by them I finally dozed, not understanding that I had once again slept through history, for this is as close as damn it to the beginning of Lord Migraine's mania to interrogate Americans. On the following day--that is, about two weeks out of Le Havre--he set me to making a fair copy of his smudgy notes. It was a mistake to trust it to me, for he never had the patience for the proofs.
AS A CHILD I was shortsighted but could always shoot a sparrow on the wing. I could not see it but still I shot it dead. On the first occasion the Havre was becalmed we came upon a floating barrel, and this soon became a shooting target. Of course I won. And who would know me to be a citizen of Myopia whose lands are furred like watercolor washes, whose king is as smudgy as a dancing moth. I had followed the actress from Les Lilas, but when she appeared aboard the Havre, why, I had never seen her in all my life.
But when she punched his chest and smacked his face I understood she must be my servant's lover and therefore, by association, that creature with a glory of black hair, creamy white skin, that generous bosom I had admired so closely, so excessively, that I had followed the pair of them into the lanes.
Like a demented man who loves again the wife he does not recognize, I was fascinated once more, not only by her extraordinary appearance but by the reckless portraits she soon produced of the other passengers--or, should I say rather, the aura she produced as she pursued this activity. What I thought was, This can save me from my awful grief. I will have her. With this, I knew, my dear Blacqueville would have heartily agreed.
The Americans, whatever their level of connoisseurship, which I would not have expected to be elevated, had no doubts as to their ability to judge her work--it was, they declared, of the highest quality. Yet these same judges also proclaimed her attempts at English to be charming, whilst I, who could hear her French, knew she sounded as musical as a barrow wheel.
None of this is to suggest she was unattractive to me, for many is the country girl, around Auteuil particularly, in whose voice and smells the farmyard is everywhere apparent, and no bad thing, for my blood was never more hot than when my ennui was most deadly, when the air was rich with summer hay and the orchard fruit lay among the grass, rich rotten peaches, bees crawling the blossoms, wax melting, honey dripping from the beehive frames.
And if it be (as Plutarch reports, as Montaigne repeats) that in some part of the Indies there are men without mouths who live only by the smell of certain rich odors, then let Olivier be placed among their allies.
This woman, named Mathilde Christian, was adorable, not only in this respect but in the very particular contrast between the rough texture of her voice and the silky smoothness of her skin, and once I had seen her beat the Parrot and slap his face I saw I might further assist her with this punishment.
Next day she set to "do" my new friend Peek, a banker who--proud and decent though he was--I would not even think to label bourgeois. That is, dear Peek lacked so many of the cultural pretensions with which the bourgeois, wishing to ape his betters, always cloaks himself. Of literature and philosophy he proudly declared himself a dunce. When I mentioned Proudhon, and even Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, he did not know who they were. And this, I supposed, was what one should expect of this new democracy which made itself without the benefit of a noble class.
To flatter her subject the she-artist invented a jacket with epaulettes--a court coat, or a misunderstanding of a court coat--a luminous pink with trim of gold, which might have you imagining the subject a noble of the sword. In a nod toward the truth, she gave to poor Peek a startled half-finished expression, as if he had just woken and was frightened to see what he had assumed. Of course one could not know what the artist had intended other than--this was blatant--to have us all believe that Peek was what he was not.
Was this so-called likeness not my nightmare of democracy--the fishwife taken to be a great lady, the banker strutting as a noble lord? Was this not the red-clawed creature I had fled? Was I now rushing to its open arms? To a place where I was instructed to share my cabin with my servant?
Standing in the main cabin, just behind the artist, where I could see the lovely loose hair that had escaped its pins and the luscious white neck and very pretty ears, I reflected that my unease with most of the arts might be not only the product of my myopia but a moral scruple, an unease in beholding that which is not. This painting, if one could accept the amateurish approximations, was a dangerous lie.
As a child I would get an asthma to witness my parents act on the little stage at the Chateau de Barfleur, to see my mother be that which she was not, and on more than one occasion I wept and screeched until she removed her makeup so I should know her for who she really was.
My feelings were the same with Hugo, even Moliere--this great unease with what is not. Then how should I explain my passion to be done in oils? I was hardly persuaded (although I pretended otherwise) by Peek who declared his mucky portrait the best bargain he had ever made. The ability to judge value, he told me, was really the great business of being a farmer, and this was why, he said, he had made such a success of being a banker in America. How dear Blacqueville would have laughed and marveled and puzzled, not only at this notion of the bargain, but at the mercurial world of the Americans who have more stages in their lives than caterpillars.
To make my portrait it was decided that my cabin should be dressed. Whether this lifted my spirits or no, I cannot honestly say, but it permitted me to act a great excitement. My cause was taken up by all the cabin passengers and with their assistance various oriental rugs and silks were produced, and then, with a great deal of jollity, draped. To achieve this set there was no question the servant must be evicted, a course of action applauded by the majority. I was then persuaded to the captain's chair where I was to pose.
For the benefit of the artist I wore my court jacket, ultramarine with gold embroidery. This was not the last time I wore this jacket, but it was certainly the happiest occasion, for although it was most admired by the Americans at sea, it would prove an offense to their democratic sensibilities on land. On this highly unstable matter more anon, but for now it is enough to note that Mr. Peek had a card with a crest and Latin motto which Blacqueville would have agreed was a peculiar affectation for a farmer's youngest son.
I cannot hazard whether the reader has been done himself but for those of you who have never sat, I would liken the experience to the barber's visits to the Chateau de Barfleur where I often fell asleep whilst enjoying the most intimate yet innocent attentions of the comb and scissors.
Doubtless an artist of the male sex would provide a different sensation. Blacqueville told me of being painted by Proudhon and described debates so lively and engaging that the subject quite forgot the business of the day.
It was very tight inside the cabin with the artiste, the space between the narrow bunks no more than between two pews. The painter did not speak or even look at me a great deal but she was all I could think about: the rustling of her skirt, her high forehead corrugated with a frown, her breasts tightly contained in a blouse the long sleeves of which she rolled up before--suddenly--producing her palette. She was, needs be, very close to me. She made a sound not quite like humming. Her voice, when she finally spoke, occupied deeper registers, a velvety arena which doubtless vibrated in her lover's ears.
Past and future were blessedly lost to me. I inquired if everything was to her satisfaction.
Frowning, she declared herself as someone who should, as if by the rules of a guild, never be satisfied, and certainly not with these coarse paints. She did not know how one could paint with them. They deserved to be flung into the ocean, but still she would persist and I was reminded of those characters you see at country fairs who affect to have no interest in selling what they have.
She smelled of jasmine, very light. I told her so. She reached to touch my hair, moving the curl on my forehead a little to one side, and then, still frowning, she dipped the tip of her brush into the different pigments, not just one or another as you might expect, but moving from one to the next, light as a bee gathering pollen on its hind legs, circling rapidly. She looked as if she could not decide what color she required but was a modern sensualist who must have a sip of every one.
I can only guess what happened--the three or four fast strokes making a glaze of blue to admit the free air to play around my hair, the hot satin sheen to my cheek, the deep shadow beneath my brimming eyes wherein she blended brown-red with burnt ocher. I swear I felt the real brush beneath my lids.
What occurred on the canvas was a thing I would not waste my time with. What occurred with my other senses made me drunk. As the hours passed deliciously, the beads of sweat gathered upon her forehead and in that place between her breasts. She worked with an unearthly glitter in her eyes, making small convulsive movements and then abating, pouring herself into long slow undulating strokes.
Out of respect for the puritan strains among my new friends I had left the cabin door ajar and now I found myself regretting my sensitivities. I felt her, as if the very brush itself were making Adam's sinful skin and she, although for the most part silent, and somewhat lowering in her countenance, was very cha
Only when the sun lay low on the horizon did I realize I had not dined all day. Instead I had fed on her smell, my own desire, the brush now stroking so insistently at my stockings that my animal nature could not have been invisible to her eye. The air was suddenly drunk with turpentine, and she unfolded a cloth and laid it across the canvas. She caught my eye and held it.
I asked her price, and if that was a double entente it was for her alone to see.
She laughed suddenly, then held one paint-soiled hand across her mouth. And next, with what intention I did not understand, she gave a small curtsy and produced a folded piece of paper which I was disappointed to discover was an instrument--that is, a draft upon a bank. It was only then, as I looked up to catch the picklish twinkle in her eye, that a thought arrived in such a gust that my ardor was violently extinguished.
Lord help me, I thought, I had been a total fool. In the great haste of leaving Paris I had permitted my parents to arrange the financial instruments. Where were they now? What were they? I had woken on board ship without a single coin.
SOME VENAL CLOCK was hidden in his lordship's vest or pants and now it struck the midnight hour. What made it chime I did not know, but I have seen English gentlemen perform the same. They are in deep mourning in their home estates but put them below the equator and they are dancing the jig like Jews at a wedding, lifting their knees, shaking their hands, rattling bangles they do not have. So it was with Lord Migraine on the boat, shooting guns at floating barrels. The Americans did not make things any calmer. They saw what it meant for the nobleman to win, and so politely ensured him his victory. When, after an eternity, the barrel was splintered flotsam on the sea, he bought them all champagne to celebrate.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes