Parrot and Olivier in America, p.16Peter Carey
So she labored--painfully embarrassed to be responsible for this deformed foot. All of womankind, she thought, would be held responsible for her failure to repair it. So she sat glowering at the wall, her cheeks an apple-russet red, her shapely upper lip marked with a faint charcoal smudge.
Monsieur was in Antwerp playing the part of the most aristocratic bookseller ever born, and I had been left with the job of quieting his creditors, always an extremely complicated business and never, ever, something to be rushed at. The amounts were often in dispute and even his signature must not be taken lightly, so I was daily engaged in meetings with bankers and money changers, facilitating the transfer of specie and so on.
In short, I was not the footman Mathilde assumed I was. And how might I have possibly corrected this impression? Please, miss, come look at my engravings?
As an artist I was certainly her inferior, but among the remaining items from the Marquis de Tilbot's library was an etching after Mantegna's Camera degli Sposi which had served as my instructor in the ancient art of foreshortening. Thus I could witness her present struggles with an almost educated eye.
And of course, I found her very beautiful, and the colder she was toward me the more I wished to force her to see exactly who I was. And when she finally understood, why, then I would punish her for her impertinence.
When she arrived on her second day, she found the door unlocked. As she sat upon her chair she saw, as though pinned by Cupid's dart, a very nice pen rendition of the foot as it should be. There was no message and yet the meaning was quite clear. "Here," it said. "Look."
I affected to be very concerned with Monsieur's ledgers.
"Who did this?" she finally demanded.
"An artist I suppose."
She cocked her head, seemed as if she might smile, crumpled my drawing, then placed it very neatly in the center of my desk where, as her footsteps receded, it slowly opened like a flower.
Two hours later the mural was repaired. And then, of course, the point was no longer one of line or perspective but of the light and spirit that came from every corner of everything she ever touched. Even under the most sullen brown there burned a fire you would not tire of watching.
Mathilde brought to her canvases something that her master--who had signed the work himself--could never have approached. She would use a light body to underpin, perhaps a yellow-white as a basis for a fiery red. Or she would lay a green-white beneath a cooler red and glaze it with a strong color. These glazes were, where necessary, partly wiped off or blended with all sorts of colors in adjacent areas. Thus she created that suggestion of mystery which continually engages the eye anew and never tires it.
Six years later, when she painted Olivier de Garmont in our cabin aboard the Havre, what was most notable was not the rapidity of her attack--she had many patrons to collect before she landed--but that while working in great haste, she had produced a lustrous jewel. Lord Migraine's coat and embroidery, his very skin, even the pale blue silk draped behind him, held such luminous vitality that you would, if you were mad and jealous, think she loved her subject with all her heart.
When the work was done his lordship sat in the main cabin, affecting to read or--worse--to write, but it was very clear to me that he was squirming on the hook of his own desire while she, the demon, turned all her energy away from him. Thus the great French lover was cast into the dark. Then, in all her mad perversity, Mathilde selected Mr. Eckerd for her attentions. It did not matter how the Americans were in love with her, and how they clamored to be done, she would do no more than leave her book on the main table so anyone requiring a portrait could enter their address and she would call on them when she was in New York.
Whatever Migraine might have suffered was diminished by his ignorance. I, on the other hand, understood exactly what she thought about him, knew it with that deep intimacy of skin on skin. Mathilde was disgusted with herself. She burned with rage toward the aristocracy, and although it was her lot in life to flatter them, although her safety depended on it, it also made her ill. A portrait once completed she would, without fail, arrive home with an emaciated poet or a prostitute or a child she had found sleeping by the Seine. Maman would feed them, and she would paint them, dancers, odd pairs of women, men who slept in opium dens. In the world of these small canvases no one could be beautiful, and yet each was illuminated by that holy light glowing from beneath their injured skin.
Of course Eckerd said he could never pay her price and this was exactly what she wished. She stretched a tiny canvas and made his big nose bigger and emphasized the way it curved to almost touch his upper lip. She paid loving attention to his strange hair, the gray shadow across the top of his forehead where he had shaved his widow's peek and left a hairline black as boot polish. Yet to think of a hairline is to distort the picture for, by dint of comb and much pomade, Mr. Eckerd made of his hair a kind of rug, terminating in a neat set of twisted tassels on his noble brow. So confident was he, so definite, that he made of his extraordinary appearance a wild and foreign kind of beauty which persuaded you there must exist a city where every man dressed himself in just this way. All the pride of this imaginary metropolis resided in the very direct and fearless eyes.
The sitter seemed not at all astonished to have himself portrayed in this way. Indeed, he sipped his absinthe and affected to show no interest in his audience. But the other passengers were titillated, and as the coastal blur of Connecticut became a grassy green, they made continual sallies off the deck to inspect The Progress of the Jew. At first they were amused, and then they were somehow not. Who can say why? By the time the Havre entered Long Island Sound, they had withdrawn their approval, not simply from the enterprise but from Mathilde herself. They revealed their hearts in their narrow Yankee noses. At dinner on the last night I saw the pink-and-white Peek gaze upon Mathilde as if she were a cardsharp and he was regretting his generous bank draft which, as I knew, would be hidden in a most particular place beneath her skirts.
We entered New York by the back door next morning. Along the eastern shore I was presented with those very houses the Hero of the Vendee had offered to me, saying they cost no more than a cow. I may be mistaken, but there was one with ten windows which seemed to be the same dwelling Monsieur had pressed upon me. I could clearly see two children running across its lawns and I, with an awful guilty secret I will never tell you, felt a sharp pain stabbing like a skewer in my breast.
It was such pretty country--luscious bays cut into the slopes which were covered by lawns, a great variety of ornamental trees growing right down to the water, and so many large houses, which I would later hear called cottages. They looked like big boxes of chocolate, and from the windows the owners at their leisure could admire the brigs, gondolas, and boats of all sizes crossing in every direction.
I was, in the middle of all this beauty, so damnably lonely, and the sight of Mathilde and her mother broke my skewered heart. I stood on deck alone, my cold and lonely nipples scratching against the rough canvas of my shirt.
The Havre berthed at what was called the Cortlandt Street Wharf at the bottom of Manhattan Island, and I prepared to go ashore with nothing but a lifetime of bad judgment and my duffel bag. Edging forward, I kept a weather eye on Migraine and Peek who I did not doubt would do me ill. When the gangplank was lowered, I left Olivier de Garmont to discover the wonder of the financial instruments I had constructed for him like a clever box with hidden tendons, tricky mortises, and a secret lock you might take a week to find.
The American officials and police were lined up waiting in their shed. What they might want from me I could not say but I had a very formal letter of safe conduct with so many seals you might think I robbed them from a prince. I showed these papers to a policeman.
"Bon Jour," said he. He was as cockney as the Bow Bells.
"Hello," said Parrot.
"So," said the cockney American. "You look like a very cheeky chappie."
"That's me your worship."
"My employer is a Frenchman. He's a lord."
"Well is he now?" he said, and returned my documents.
"What now?" I asked. "Aren't you going to write my name down?"
"Get out of here," he said.
And that was that.
Outside, everything was confusion and bustle, hackney cabs and boardinghouse keepers, predators and prey, among them I saw Mathilde, Maman, Mr. Eckerd, and the actress, whose presence was being disputed by a porter whose way they blocked. Mathilde pushed her painting at Mr. Eckerd. He wished to pay. She would not have it. He accepted finally, turning rapidly to hide emotion, while Miss Desclee--clearly having no thought of how famous she would soon become--cast desolate eyes upon the hard stone blocks of Cortlandt Street.
WITH WHOM ELSE but Blacqueville might I have shared my amusement with America? Not the Americans who looked at me at every moment as if to ask, Are you not awestruck by the wonders you behold? Is this not a miracle? Do you not envy this, admire that? It was not until we approached the lower tip of Manhattan Island, when my friends found matters of their own to attend to, that I could no longer be distracted from the painful fact that my pockets contained no single gold coin, nothing but a verbose letter of credit composed in English by the hand of my enemy.
Mr. Peek finally allowed himself to be drawn back into the deserted main cabin where he sat himself in the captain's chair, donned his reading glasses, and peered down his thin nose at my instrument.
"Sit," he said.
If there was a trace of middle-class self-importance in the performance, I was fully cognizant of the friendship that lay behind it. He turned the document so I might read as well as he, running his square-tipped finger beneath the salutation.
"The Bank of New York." He smiled.
Nothing could be more convenient, he told me, for this was his bank, he was its president, and he had his offices a short stroll from the pier at Cortlandt Street.
"So," I said. "It is a simple matter."
But he must read the whole document or he would read nothing, so he went very carefully from page to page--I believe there were five of them--and I waited, comforted by his scrupulousness, warmed by his aid and protection.
"Ah so," said my friend, when he had reached the end and carefully pinned all five pages back together. "What is the devil's name?"
"This servant we have to deal with?"
"They call him Parrot."
"His legal name?"
"Larrit," he said firmly. He removed his spectacles and rubbed his eyes. "Who arranged this instrument?"
"She must be a singular lady."
I would not explain to an American what this noble lady had lost to the disgusting guillotine, nor would he learn that every night she lived the nightmare of her father's murder. She was singular indeed, but it was in no way amusing that she fought to save her son's life even when there was no threat to it. That was her scar. She gained it honorably.
"Did you ever trouble yourself to read what you were signing?"
"I am a lawyer, Mr. Peek."
An expression crossed Mr. Peek's face, brief in its passage, like the shadow cast by a very small bird upon the waters of a pond. Was it impatience or something more insulting? "Alas," he said, "there can be no prison cell for our Mr. Larrit."
"It is your mother's wish. She has made him what we would call a cosignatory with our bank."
"My mother? No."
"Your mother, yes."
If he sought to unman me, he was a fool. "Fortunately," I said, "you and I have met. What chance!"
"Indeed, it is most fortunate," he said, but why was he so occupied in returning his spectacles to their patented case?
"Your bank will recognize me, of course."
"Indeed, my dear fellow. I will take you personally. We can go together. You will travel in my carriage and I will introduce you to my manager."
"This is such good fortune," I said, "for otherwise I would have been given not a penny."
Peek then looked at me directly.
"Sir," he said, with a formality that rather offended me. "Sir, you have become my good friend on this voyage. It has been a great privilege to know you, and I trust we shall deepen our friendship further and that you will visit me and my family in our home. Certainly I will provide you with whatever further introductions you may require. As I said on other occasions, I am acquainted with the director of the House of Refuge, Mr. Hart, and also Mr. Godefroy, a governor of Wethersfield Penitentiary in Connecticut, and I will do everything in my power to help you carry out the task your government has commissioned."
I thanked him.
"But dear Olivier," he said, using my Christian name for the first time, laying his hand on my arm. "Olivier, good friend, my bank simply cannot give you money with one signature. It is against the law."
"Fortunately"--I smiled--"I am a lawyer."
"An American law, sir," he said sternly, and I saw he would no more query its justice than he would admit that the coast of Connecticut was the most shocking monument to avarice one could have ever witnessed, its ancient forests gone, smashed down and carted off for profit.
"We cannot arrest him," said Mr. Peek, as the Havre crashed into the dock and the Dutch captain ran past the porthole, pushing his way through the passengers, shouting in appalling French.
"Easy as pie was the term you used."
"Indeed," said Mr. Peek. "But now you need Mr. Larrit to have his freedom. Without his signature, you cannot eat."
Encountering the Protestant's alien eye, I thought, I have spent my entire life imagining prisons, pits, gallows, rats running across my fallen head. Why should I inspect one if I do not wish it? I will not leave the ship. I will go home immediately. Let them chop off my head if they like. At least I will be in France.
But Peek gave me his arm, and I, like a beast being lead by a Judas goat, did as was customary.
"Come Olivier," said the Staten Island farmer's burly son. "We will find your man. We will make peace with him."
I found the deck crowded with a musty malodorous humanity that had hitherto been kept below. Across their shoulders, behind their sad battered stacked portmanteaus, I made out New York--a great deal of bright yellow sappy wood, a vast pile of bricks, a provincial town in the process of being built or broken. I put my goods into the care of a large black man. If he was a slave or a porter I did not know, only that he put my trunk upon his shoulder and tucked my valise under his arm and, with no regard for the delicacy of the first-class passengers, rammed his way down the gangplank, beckoning me to follow him. When I had, by necessity, mimicked the rude jostling of the nigger, I arrived in a limbo, not quite ashore nor quite on land, a long open-sided warehouse built atop a jetty. I looked for Peek. He was nowhere to be seen. Ahead of me I could see the servant's frightful hair, but by now the black giant had brought me to an official and delivered my baggage to his table.
Having opened each item to facilitate inspection, the porter demanded money.
I explained to him that I had only a letter of credit on the Bank of New York. Although it was clearly a ridiculous thing for me to do and I could imagine my mother rolling her eyes upward to see such behavior from a de Garmont, I showed the document to the damned porter whose huge black face contorted itself to the most frightening effect.
I asked the official to intercede, saying that if he would provide the porter's name, I would return tomorrow and give him the coin.
Anxious that my cosignatory was escaping me, I'm afraid that I rather thrust my letter at the official's face, thus causing unintended offense. He and the slave were then both joined in war against me and I was subjected to all the tyranny that a petty official can bring against his social better. As a consequence I was detained almost an hour while my possessions were care
When my ordeal was over I still had no clinking stuff. I was therefore compelled to carry my own luggage to the place where I saw Peek awaiting me. My progress was maliciously observed by the dull and hostile eyes of a dozen porters, not one of whom could be persuaded to rise from his haunches, not even by Peek himself who chastised the ruffians for their lack of hospitality to a friend of the Revolution.
Mr. Peek had sent his daughters and wife ahead, and when we two were aboard his coach he gave me a bulky envelope saying I could answer later the letter that was within. Understanding this "letter" to be American banknotes, I judged this show of delicacy boded well for the manners of the young democracy.
We were finally compelled to share our ride with my trunk, the top of the coach being fully loaded with the Peek family's souvenirs. Did Marco Polo return with more? We lurched like a camel from the muddy apron out into the cobbled streets.
There is a street called Broadway where we found the Bank of New York which had much the same appearance as the Parthenon, a building where the elevation of the edifice serves only to remind you of its bourgeois intention. Here Peek effected my introduction to the manager, who was every bit as servile as one might require. Promising I would come back with Mr. Larrit, I returned to the coach in search of a suitable residence.
At first we passed only private houses but then came upon commodious shops of every description. I saw no museums or opera houses but was pleased to learn the different ways the Americans could spend their money on their Broadway, in jewelers, and silversmiths, coachmakers, coffeehouses and hotels.
Alas, my Mr. Larrit was already established beneath the portico of Peek's preferred hotel. He did not notice us, so deep was he in conversation with the portraitist. We hesitated long enough to see the old lady step forward and administer a brisk and powerful slap to each of her daughter's cheeks.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes