Parrot and Olivier in America, p.15Peter Carey
Toward me he played the icy master, perhaps not understanding that while I owed Monsieur de Tilbot my life, I had not sold myself in slavery. I was a free man, more American than any of these bankers and merchants who took their cue from Migraine and treated me like scum. The only two passengers I found humane were Mr. Eckerd and his singer. They neither spoke the other's language, so I had much to do in that department.
At first I had some idle hours to play whist with my new friends, but soon it was Jack be nimble Jack be quick. Migraine suddenly shouted he would write an entire book about Americans. He loudly declared them the most interesting creatures he had ever seen. It was difficult to guess what he really thought but he began to interview them one by one as if it was an agricultural occasion and he must check their weight and teeth and breeding and know who the sire and who the dame and all this he recorded in his notebook and it was my great privilege, when he was done, to transcribe his scrawl into the journal and in all cases have a carbon copy which would be sent as safety back to France. I doubt his prying mother ever found anything to make her fear for her baby's safety. Indeed, I wondered if she had the fortitude to read the tedious stuff. Was she even curious enough, I wonder, to endure that very long conversation--some of which later found its way into the famous book--wherein the pious manufacturer of nails asks the French commissioner to imagine France in its natural state: that is, one in which any piece of land is available to whoever is man enough to work it?
"When there is enough for all," the nail maker said, "there is no need for government."
"But what of the poor?"
"No man who will work can be poor."
The great man peed beside my ear in the middle of the night. I did not complain. He preened and postured. I played my part. But when I saw how he had his eye on Mathilde, I thought, I will sit on his chest and stuff his mouth with dirt.
She was a clever little thing, my Tildy. She painted the Peek daughter without anyone paying her very much attention. By the time she was doing Mr. Peek, she had a following. Foremost among her admirers was Lord Migraine, and it was a horror for a man who loves a woman to see this flirtation acted out before his eyes. It did not matter how often I fled or how hard I pulled my pillow across my ears, they were now always in conversation, the pair of them, and when, at last, the dance was done, when he had reluctantly assented to the portrait, when they set up shop inside my own bloody cabin, I was on the rack.
I would leave them alone. I would play cards. But for Christ's sake, they would then insist I attend upon them.
"Garcon," cried he.
At this command I must enter my own cabin and inhale the oil and turpentine, the perfume of our love, our nights, our days. Mathilde stood at the far end of the cabin and affected to wash her brush. I could not look at her.
Lord Migraine twisted his skinny body in his chair and asked me had I packed his bloody purse. Well frig you for a Dutchman, I thought.
"No sir," I said, "no purse sir." And this was true.
"No coins, monsieur? No specie?" He was acting the cool master but he was all atwitter. I twisted the knife, asking him what arrangements he had made with the American banks.
"Arrangements?" His cheeks reddened as he held my murderous gaze. "It was the Comtesse de Garmont who made arrangements. You heard her. She insisted on it."
"I do believe she wished to, yes. I never saw her do it."
I held his gaze and did not tell him it was I, monsieur's secretaire, who had written the letters of introduction to the Bank of New York, and of course I knew exactly where they were.
If I were to search for some instrument among his trunks, I told him, the cabin must be evacuated. They must leave, the pair of them. Or not, I said. I could search another day.
"Now," he demanded.
Mathilde was thus evicted. In being forced to pass me she gave a savage bump with her formerly familiar behind.
I removed the paints and rugs and drapery one by one. It was a pleasure, almost. I closed the door. I sat alone. I breathed the smell of her and found so little solace that I produced his bloody instruments within the hour.
I then was given the task of preparing a bank draft of twenty dollars for Mathilde Christian. When that was done he tipped me a tot and I took it to drink with the Jew and his chanteuse, dividing it, sip by sip, between the three of us. It was at this exchange that Mr. Eckerd, by dint of my slow translation, finally discovered that Miss Desclee was not a singer. He had relied on the recommendation of an associate from Nimes, a draper it seemed, and it was only as I translated their conversation that it became clear that Miss Desclee was a tragedienne.
"Not a singer?"
"No, monsieur," she said gravely, and demonstrated most convincingly that this was so.
Another man might have gone stark raving mad to hear of this mistake, but Eckerd combed his strange hair and thought a moment and, before I had delivered the next three tots, he had decided on an entirely new production, a drama of the Revolution which he swore the people of New York would come to like flies to honey. This story he told me--and I translated to Miss Desclee, who listened gravely, her pale still eyes holding me with an intensity that was doubtless a benefit to her fellow actors on the boards but was completely unnerving on the deck.
I don't know what the story was exactly--you are lucky I have forgot--but it concerned, at that stage, Charlotte Corday and a certain comtesse. Miss Desclee inquired if she might play both characters.
Eckerd announced that this was exactly what the playwright had conceived and that, although the costume changes would be a nightly terror, that was half the charm of it.
Not wishing to misrepresent the case in my translation, I asked Eckerd was he saying the two characters were never on the stage together.
"Never," he cried.
"Not at all."
I let Miss Desclee know this and she bowed her head very gravely and I understood that she was formally considering the offer.
It was only to fill the silence that I asked Mr. Eckerd did he have such a good memory that he carried whole plays in his head.
He looked at me with pity, smiling and supping on his rum so it made his lower lip glisten like a plum. He abandoned his glass to the deck and held up his huge rough hands. It was his brother the rabbi who was the scholar. He himself could remember nothing, he said, but he would certainly write the play to suit the situation and he would have it done in time to release his surviving pigeons with the news.
"How is that possible?"
"It is America," he said. "Believe me."
I considered the grave actress, wondering if she understood exactly what would happen to her.
"It will be in French then?"
"They speak English in America," said Eckerd whose own accent was very thick. "She is from the opera. They do not need to understand a word in order to sing it."
"But she is not from the opera."
"In any case," he said, "I will write it. She will learn it."
"But how can you know this?"
"For me," he declared, "she will learn her lines."
"Monsieur"--the tragedienne spoke at last--"je suis presque certaine d'accepter avec plaisir."
"She will do it," I said, and from that hour they disappeared from public view thus removing from me the only thing that might have distracted me from the rat inside my intestines. I drank instead--too much of course--until I was persuaded I must rush my enemy.
I wrenched open my cabin door. The subject was absent so I did not need to hit him. I saw the court coat draped across the chair, the embroidery glittering offensively in the light of afternoon. As for the canvas, I took possession of both the portrait and its cloth. I did not touch the artist. Returning to the main cabin I observed the great pompous Peek and his scrawny little daughters. Migraine was sitting at a table, sipping wine. He raised a hand at me. I pushed out on the deck toward the stern where I found Eckerd standing and Miss Desclee crying. I jump
I never saw the portrait. It sailed across the breathless water and landed flat upon its back. The cloth rose a moment in the air and then it floated down, making a shadow that would take two weeks to go away. That is, I had made myself a public madman. The result of this insanity was that Migraine had unspoken permission to sit for his portrait with his door locked against me, and I could not bear the thought of them. I knew, with a madman's clarity, exactly what they did, and how they looked while doing it. And in the nights I must sleep amid the fug of the filthy day, oil, turpentine, their vile imaginary congress inside the pig's gut of my dreams.
THE PIGGOTTS' PRINTERS were very emotional supporters of the French Revolution and not even my tender father would shed a tear for Marie Antoinette or any of her ilk, but I was a child when first I heard of it, and so I secretly wept for all those children whose parents were made to bow before the blade. But Lord Migraine--I would have gladly shoved his pinhead through the window and let him see the other side, as the saying used to be.
He sat me in our cabin and coldly dictated to me as if I were a circus dog and he could utter whatever insults he wished to, and if it caused me pain as well, so much the better.
My Dear Little Mother, he said to me and I wrote it down. Dear Little Mother, my earlier letter was handed to a Calais-bound clipper. I imagine it must be in the dear rue Saint-Dominique by now and I see it in your apartment, the Paris sunshine plumbing the honeyed grain of your bureau as you slit it open with that silver knife which Papa was given by the American who also brought the soda water. I have never forgotten that pink bottle we opened when we thought the world might be a happy place.
You will understand, dear Mother, that I was mad with grief when first I wrote and indeed, although I judge it best to be of the party, I still feel that half of my soul has been torn away. So must widows suffer, I imagine. The cruelest pain is not the thrust of grief but the moments of forgetfulness. A thousand times a day one thinks, Ah, I must tell Blacqueville, and then--in that instant--my friend dies once again. I will do my best to undertake the study which Father solicited on my behalf, and I trust I will not disgrace Blacqueville's memory in the eyes of those whose influence you used. It is no small thing to be granted exile without shame. No matter what reservations I may have about the character of the Marquis de Tilbot and your power over him, you may be assured I will write a scrupulous report which will satisfy the new government as to my loyalty and diligence.
For the moment, he said (and I wrote) I have no penitentiaries or panopticans to interrogate and the object of my study is, of necessity, the creatures all around me, not prisoners in shackles but free Americans and I must confess, my little mother, that their country holds my interest for, although we may neither of us wish it so, the future of France will be found in their experiment and when the wave of democracy breaks over our heads, it will be best we know how to bend it to our ends rather than be broken by its weight.
My companions, he said, I wrote, are nothing if not charming but it is already clear that the Americans carry national pride altogether too far. I doubt whether it is possible to draw from them the least truth unfavorable to their country. Most of them boast about it without discernment and with an aggressiveness that is disagreeable to strangers and shows but little intelligence. In general it seems to me that they magnify objects in the way of people who are not accustomed to seeing great things. And these, you understand, are the travelers, the superior classes in this democracy. Reading that last sentence I see it is not quite true. There is an awful Jew with an actress I have heard he contracted through a misunderstanding and the pair of them are forever rehearsing upon the deck. Obviously this is a tragedy, for the Jew looks continually vengeful and the actress in a state of grief. There is also, outside the pale, my appalling English servant who has no redeeming feature except this calligraphy with which empty skill he manages to counterfeit both wit and learning. (You will not believe me when I say his nickname is Parrot.) This is his handiwork you have before your eyes. How strange to think that what lies behind this fine filigree is me, your blotted smudged Olivier whose natural hand belies his noble blood.
He said, I wrote--There are a great number of American girls aboard and if they represent their sisters at home I would say the country generally must lack in gaiety for they have, every one of them, a singular sort of caution that they express from their straight shoulders through their queerly rigid arms.
I thought, you little rabbit's arse.
He said, I wrote--They do not flirt and when they dance one feels the ghosts of Puritans aboard, although I believe they are of the new sect of Unitarians and therefore very modern. There is one other young woman of interest, in no sense a candidate for matrimony dear Mother so please do not raise your lorgnette in that way. She is a Frenchwoman, a portrait painter.
A Frenchwoman, he said slowly. I wrote, who speaks in the rough and gravelly accents of Marseille. She comes aboard with her elderly pipe-smoking mother, a real old dame a la Victor Hugo with a woolen shawl and her chin always busy trying to reach her nose.
The most unexpected thing about her, Mother, he said, said he--Lord Pintle d'Pantedly, Lord Snobsduck--the most unexpected thing, I wrote, is that she has been in the drawing rooms of so many of our friends and I am sure that you have seen at least one of the portraits she has made. I mean the one of our neighbor, Catherine de Castille, I wrote, which the duc had hung in the foyer--am I right in remembering it this way?--so his new wife was the first person his first wife's old friends would see as they entered.
I know you always admired the portrait, Mother, although you thought it still unfinished.
I wrote, This same individual has painted two portraits of me now, the first being stolen by the English servant while in his cups.
I thought, I must not listen. I know the worst but cannot hear it.
In any case, he said, we were compelled to sit again. Shit again, I wrote.
He said, You know how tedious this is, Maman. I remember the stories you told of the boredom of your three sittings and how it might be relieved only by conversation. My little Marseillaise could not, of course, discuss the great matters of our religion, or pull apart the Jansenist tendencies of our beloved Bebe, but you will see how we made out just the same.
In my very ordinary cabin, a room so small, you would not give it to a servant, the most extraordinary events transpired and I will tell you of them.
I thought, You will tell her, little Pintle d'Pantedly. But I will tell her better. We will tell her together--Mother, I wrote, I know you share my revulsion for the philosopher's Confessions, and the last thing any of us wish to read is the general embarrassment of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's failures in the arms of Madame de Warens. My account--which I would never have made were you in the same room or house or even continent--has not the least element of failure about it.
I doubt I will ever send this to you, I wrote, for how can a son tell his dearest sweet most upright mother that he has, with no spoken invitation, removed the most intimate garments of a young woman who has run her sable brush across his very manhood and thus produced what the ancients, I believe, called "pearls of joy."
Dear Mamma, I wrote, I rogered her.
I looked up to find Lord Migraine staring at me. To hell with you, I thought. I laid her on the floor, I wrote, and when the gift was all unwrapped, found a willing partner, a Marseille animal, who refused to be contained by the narrow space between the bunks. What bruises she must have, Maman. She so struggled to take charge of all the business but I would not have it, and she was not sorry either and such was her pleasure and her proximity to the main cabin that she must take the damn cushion in her teeth. I swear she tore it, for there were soon feathers floating in the sunlight.
Lord Migraine cocked his head at me and wai
And all the while, my dear Maman, not two feet away, the Puritans played whist. This is the servant writing to you, Comtesse, mother of Olivier. Your little Migraine is not whom you imagine, I wrote. He is vile. He has stolen my love. He has broken my heart. And I send you this news in that very same hand, that now and in the future, will declare myself your most affectionate son.
Adieu my dear mother. The wind is blowing from the west.
Later I placed blank pages in his envelope and ripped up my madness and its carbon copy and gave them to the air but those words, cruel instruments made by none other than myself, continued to rub like sand against my heart.
YOU WOULD SAY I was the perfect lover for a madwoman, and I confess to an attraction to that shadowed liveliness, those sudden passions, twisting stairs, violent updrafts that can break the wings of eagles in the tumult of a storm. That species never frightened me, although perhaps it should have. Did I drink too deeply from their pools of grief?
Mathilde and I first met when she was dispatched to tend to Monsieur's mural in the petite maison. It was gray and wet as Paris is in December. Here, clad in three pairs of heavy stockings, with a sheepskin rug forever slipping from her shoulders, she attempted to deal with the very poor foreshortening of Cupid's feet, an error not originally her own, although she owned it once she touched it with her brush.
Cupid, of course, was a central motif in many a man's petite maison and the Cupid in question was paying homage to Linnaeus and all the suggestive blossoms and insects the old man had classified and christened, in this case dragonflies, engorged, scandalously red, in a garden planted with a mixture of the fantastic and the exact.
Mathilde had not been pleased to be given this task. Firstly, the error was her master's. Secondly, her great talent was not with line but color. Thirdly--although no one would ever guess this--she felt herself judged. By me! For my own part I assumed she looked down upon me as an oaf and ignoramus.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes