Parrot and Olivier in America, p.17Peter Carey
The daughter looked one way up Broadway and then the other. After a moment all three of them turned and walked into the inn.
"Well," said Peek, "at least you know where your cosignatory lives."
A little farther along Broadway he delivered me to a boardinghouse run by an Irishwoman who was, nonetheless, thought to be a person of good character. Mr. Peek said his wife and daughters had lived there for six months after their own house had been burned down. Here I was greeted very warmly by the lady and I confess I was not displeased to be under the roof of a fellow religionist. As she showed me to my quarters, she told me that the Catholics have a considerable establishment in New York. I asked her was it a religious country. She said the need for religion was felt more keenly here than anywhere else. Catholics and Protestants alike become fervent if they are not already. This I recorded in my journal, together with certain other observations about the nature of Americans.
That night I dined as the Americans dined, that is, I had a vast amount of ham. There was no wine at all and no one seemed to think there should be.
Next morning I was astounded to see women come to breakfast as if carefully dressed for the whole day. It was the same, my landlady informed me, in all the private houses. One could, with great propriety, go to call on a lady at nine o'clock.
It was not yet eight o'clock when I stepped out to seek my servant. To a Parisian the aspect of Broadway was bizarre. One saw neither dome nor bell tower nor great edifice, with the result that one had the constant impression of being in a suburb. The city appeared to be made all of brick which gave it a most monotonous appearance.
I presented my card at Mr. Larrit's inn and took a seat, a supplicant.
HER CHEEK RAISED and branded with her mother's slap, Mathilde rushed into my arms, a steam engine, her tears as warm as tea. She was my thumbscrew and rack, I needed no reminding, but I was over four weeks bottled, stoppered, closed, and in our fifth-floor room, the industrious river in full view, the ships' rigging canvas slapping at their masts, I sued for peace.
The old Maman affected not to notice our negotiation and was entering deep in argument with herself, placing one bag in one room and dragging it back again, wrestling with the rolled-up canvas, clanking and clattering with those beaten blackened pans she had carried like gold napoleons across the sea. With nod and nudge she made it clear my only job was to hold her sobbing daughter and my heart was brimming, one part rage, one cockalorum, all sloshing and gurgling and spurting through my chambers.
"I think I'll ask them where the market is," she announced, the gorgeous old thing, bless her walnut face, her hammertoes. She closed the door behind her. She turned the key. Already her daughter's hands were dragging at my clothes and her upturned face was filled with cooey dove and tiger rage. Her mouth was washed with tears. I ate her, drank her, boiled her, stroked her till she was like a lovely flapping fish and her hair was drenched and our eyes held and our skins slid off each other and we smelled like farm animals, seaweed, the tanneries upriver.
She lay in my arms, exhausted, slippery, weeping with relief, and after what we had been through, what she had put herself through, it was meet and right that we should cry. We were washed up, our very innards showing like jellyfish upon the sand, and when--at long long last, at twilight--the beloved old lady returned from her exhausting travels in the English language, Mathilde announced she would remain in bed, her dark ringlets flat against her sweating brow.
Maman tipped me a wink. Thumbs-up. Well done. Did any mother ever care so for the welfare of her child?
Mathilde was still abed when we were visited by the landlady who announced we had a French gentleman most eager to meet with Mr. Larrit. She had arrived all in a state about the importance of the visitor, her flinty Scots face quite plump with her excitement, until, that is, she spied my darling.
"What ails her then?"
"My wife is resting."
"Your wife," she said, "has a fever."
The landlady saw Maman smirk. At this she colored brightly and closed the door, although this did not stop her returning later in the evening with a steaming bowl of chicken soup, on which occasion she boldly laid the back of her wrist against Mathilde's forehead.
Only when the door was locked against the possibility of more ministration did Mathilde rise. Then we sat at a little clubfooted table, and she and her mother passed severe judgment on the soup. My beloved's neck was red and blotchy, her forehead glistening very hot. At this point it will be clear to you that she was very sick, but Mathilde was a container of many passions which raged through her veins and dreams like fire following the secret roots of trees, and it was not peculiar for her to be sickened by her passion, then rise next morning with her brow cool and her eyes clear. Even now she drank her soup with healthy appetite. She complained, again, about the grease. Everything seemed normal until she pushed her stool back and collapsed into my arms. I carried her to the bed.
And then, God help us, she was sick.
I smoothed her hair but she shrank back, reared, flailed. Her mother fetched water and a washer but this served like ginger on a racehorse's tail and the old lady could do nothing but withdraw and wait. So it was, less than an hour after we had so passionately declared our living love, that I sat on a bundle of Roman costumes, consumed with the fear that Mathilde was going to die.
And while I had, these thirty-seven days past, raged against her cold deceitful heart, now I could think only of our little nest in the faubourg Saint-Antoine and the happiness we had shared. I wished I had a God to speak to.
All that night we watched over her, all next day as well. I quickly learned to give thanks for whatever greasy soup or stew was delivered on a tray outside the door. It was warm enough to leave our windows open, so we kept the air as fresh as might be possible in a seaport and it was only then, as wind off the river ripped through our small supply of candles and left us sitting in the moonless dark, that I heard the circumstances under which Mathilde had lost her father.
As a young man he had marched the road to Paris, full-lunged, mustached, howling the blood threats of the "Marseillaise." Throats he cut in plenty. He donated his right eye to the Revolution and got nothing back except a dark and dreadful shell of bone. For La Patrie he had given enough.
Later, when Napoleon wanted him, he knew himself excused. He was a veteran. He had a child. He would not go again. If anyone could make him go it was the gendarmerie, but by good chance these were men he had known since they had stolen eggs together, Jean-Marc and Little Julian. He told them he would not go again and they dragged him from his screaming child, his boots making sparks along the cobbles in the middle of the night.
Within a year, he gave La Patrie the drink she craved, his hot garlic soup of blood which froze into the churned-up snow. He bequeathed his daughter a burning rage.
Soon the two women lost their home, first in Nimes, then in Montpellier, then Arles, each situation worse than the one before. Finally they were slaves to an old woman in the village of Claret in Languedoc, dirt floors and walls three feet thick.
"Forgive her, sir," her mother said to me. "She cannot help it. Happiness is always taken from her. It is her curse."
By the third day we could not hide the symptomes, even from ourselves, and we had a great fear of being evicted. That was the day Lord Migraine burst upon us, staring at Mathilde with such a sudden white expression that we clearly saw her disease.
"For God's sake," he shouted at me, "she must have a doctor."
I thought, It is none of your damn business, but I was shamed. He now did what I should have, ran down the stairs three at a time. There was a great deal of shouting in bad English and worse French and then silence for a while. And within a very short time we were presented with Dr. Halleck, a tall stringy fellow with buggy eyes and big ears and a great affection for his tailor. He arrived in the thrall of aristocracy. You could see it in the color of his cheeks, his brig
"You are friends of the count?"
"Oui, c'est exact," I said, as coldly as if it were the doctor who was enamored of my wife.
"You are French," he said.
"I am an Englishman," I said, summoning up a set of vowels that would have graced a bishop's table.
Finally he turned his fastidious attention to my glazed and staring darling, leaning cautiously over her and doing everything he could but touch her with his hands. He lifted his bag onto the patient's bed and from its maw extracted a brown jar which he presented to me. "It is a paste," he said, patting at his gray hair which rose like dandelion seed around his burned bald pate. "You will use it to keep the air out of her sores."
"She has no sores."
But he was already closing his bag.
"What about your account?" I asked the question only to impress my general poshness.
"My compliments," he answered, "to your friend the count."
"Well, what will I say is wrong with her?"
"Smallpox," he said, and ran down the stairs as quickly as he could.
The doctor was an idiot. His advice was free but his paste was so cruel and irritating that we had to tie Mathilde's hands to the bed to keep her from scratching herself. When he returned the second day I was my true and natural self. That is, I advised him I would treat her better myself.
"I will have you thrown out of this house," he said. "Your wife has a contagious disease and is a risk to the public."
I told him he could do that as soon as he pleased but he might begin by talking to the count. He went. I then departed by the servants' stairs, finding my way through the pig yard to Francis Bailey's Barclay Street drugstore, and there I asked the chemist for two bottles of olive oil. To hurry him along I said my wife had smallpox and I needed the oil quickly.
"Take it and go," he said, handing it out and getting away from me. "You need not wait to pay for it."
Thus the maman and I bathed Mathilde's poor body until her calves were glowing and her sainted ribs were shining in the gloom. This done she slept, and stayed asleep for four long hours at the end of which time she woke and declared herself refreshed.
Mathilde remained ill for another week, but never again did she seem so close to death, and from time to time, usually around noon but sometimes in the evening, the French lover would come tapping on our door. I did not trust him for a moment, not even (particularly not) when I learned that it was he who carried our bundled linen downstairs where he forbade it to be touched until he had dropped it into the boiling copper and paddled it himself.
In any case Mathilde showed his lordship no encouragement at all. It was me, mon Perroquet, she thanked for saving her and I held up her maman's little mirror so she could examine the recovery of her skin which would, in a very short time, show no more injury than a single small indentation in the splendid shadow of her nose.
You will say one cannot cure smallpox with olive oil.
In fact, one can. I did.
TO THE MARQUIS DE TILBOT,
Dear Monsieur, You always said I was ill-suited to my occupation and yet you understood my nature well enough, and with this knowledge strung me along from year to year, and I will not say I have not had an interesting life because of it.
To serve you, Monsieur, is one thing, but M. de Garmont knows not my history or abilities. He insults my honor. He entirely lacks your grace and spirit. He has threatened me, and made himself foolish in attempting to seduce my wife. For this last I would not be blamed for murdering him, so this letter is a less painful way, for himself, of sundering the connection.
I did not seek this new country you have exiled me to but, like Port Jackson many years ago, it does present me with a chance and this one I am too old to throw away.
That is to say, I must give my notice.
J. Larrit, Esq.
DETERMINED TO IMMEDIATELY free myself from Garmont, I was urgently in need of employment. I therefore visited printers on both Broadway and Chatham Street but I had no etchings or letters of reference and the best offer I received was from Barnett Bros. who said they would inspect my work if I could provide a sample. I tried but did not please them. I then pretended I was also a compositor and was dismissed inside the hour without the thrashing that was offered in lieu of wages.
Finally I threw myself on the mercy of our hard-faced landlady who led me into a small dark parlor above whose mantel hung a likeness of a pair of pink-cheeked boys.
Here she seated her bony little self and studied Mathilde's instruments one by one. Finally, with her raw red hand, she pushed a single note across her desk to me. This instrument had been drawn by Mr. Hill, the nail manufacturer, in payment for a portrait of his daughter.
"You must raise your wife up from her bed."
"She needs her rest mum."
"So she will need her room all paid for."
"So," she said, "this bill is written on the Bank of Zion on Pearl Street. Take her there. Don't let her accept scrip. She must not take any notes issued by any bank at all."
"No dollar bills?"
"When you have been in New York longer you will understand that there are many dollar bills that are worth no more than twenty cents. For now you must stick to gold and silver. Is her fever gone? Never mind. Say nothing about fever at the bank."
"Mum's the word," said I.
"That's the spirit, Mr. Larrit, you'll be out of debt in no time." And then, to my great surprise, she laid her fingers upon my cheek and I felt a little widow's hand, all filled with busy blood. "Go," she said. "Before they close their doors."
It was a dull gray Monday and the city was already counting its takings, whipping its horses, removing the jewelry from its cases. We set off for Pearl Street but managed to tour the perimeter of City Hall, arriving in Chatham Street where we had the surprise of seeing Mr. Eckerd's Tragedy of the Revolution already advertised.
On board the ship there had been much talk about the healthy breezes on Manhattan. They must have meant the winds blowing from the arses of the New York pigs. Beekman Street stank like a shit heap, worse than the faubourg Saint-Antoine. We headed south, past Theater Alley, into a smudgy charcoal sort of maze in which the high-haunched New York pigs mingled with New York clerks, their collars all turned down and a great deal of vanity showing on their wispy chins. I mean the clerks. Mathilde was soon distressed and very hot, so then I carried her, and this attracted a group of white-eyed black children who guided us to Pearl and Wall and declared themselves insulted when I could not pay their bill.
The banking chamber of the Bank of Zion was supported by the most boastful columns, but if the name had made me think it would be the home of Jewish bankers I was a fool. On coming beneath its rotunda, we beheld a great symbol laid in mosaic on the floor, this being a triangle and a laurel and three stars which later proved to be the sign of American Protestants who believed their voyage had been more than equal to the Israelites'. Around this circle, like a great ice rink in its size and smoothness, were more columns, between which were placed some pale and ugly clerks, one of whom read Mathilde's instrument, once, then twice, then silently retreated from his pen without a beg-your-pardon.
We were left to wait five minutes and were finally interrogated by what the New Yorkers call a baas, a short man in a frock coat and side whiskers who crossed the wide floor beneath the rotunda to ask whose instrument this was. There was then a lot of argy-bargy. A good quarter hour of it.
"The gentleman wishes to load his trousers with a weight of silver?" etc., etc.
"The gentleman does."
This baas then affected to laugh at our peasant ways, and I gave him the great smirking pleasure of observing how we divvied up our loot in three. It was clear it was past their closing time but only after we had shared our loa
We strolled up Broadway and the evening sky was cobalt blue, the lamps yellow, the fires flickering red and orange in their brasiers. When I had lightened my load and tucked Mathilde into bed, I stepped out for a jiffy. I had no other plan than that I would quietly examine this place where the Marquis de Tilbot had exiled us. Perhaps some oysters too. Why not?
I entered into the white-gas stream of Broadway, but could not see the silver North River and the dark East River flowing like mercury in the night, and how could I guess what was occurring, that very hour, in the unlit streets around the Bowery, where there was a murky smoking red-flecked flow of life--not ants but human beings, a living mass of men--roaring south toward me.
I later learned that the city fathers had locked about three hundred pigs inside the Canal Street pound. I had seen a notice in the street, but what were pigs to me? The city would no longer tolerate the swine whom their improvident owners let wander the streets where they relieved themselves in public and fornicated without shame.
The people's pigs had been stolen from them, and as a result there was extreme social agitation around the pound. All the angry owners of the pigs, some armed with hammers, others with crowbars, others with no more than a skinful of John Barleycorn, had been drawn toward this enclosure like filings to a magnet.
So as I innocently wondered about the price of a dozen New York oysters, some hundred pigs were stampeding into genteel Hudson Square and a greater number of men were stumbling, falling, hollering. One wished only to retrieve his own pig and lead him home, another to steal a new pig, but most had no other ambition than to share the joy of the chase.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes