Parrot and Olivier in America, p.18Peter Carey
I heard them coming, I suppose, but I had lived so many years in Paris I thought the roar of voices to be nothing but a boxing match nearby.
On the corner of Broadway along Chambers Street, I saw a strange sight--a French noble whose cloak did not obscure the gold embroidery shining bright as Jesus in the gas. He carried a silver-capped stick in his inky right hand and an untidy pile of papers beneath his left arm.
I had forgotten that Lord Migraine was shortsighted, so when he did not see me I assumed he meant to cut me. Why not? It must be clear by now that I had no intention of being his second signatory. But then I saw he was not cutting me at all. He offered me his hand.
"Which way do you walk?" he asked.
As he was once again attempting English, I was slow to understand him.
"I trust Mrs. Larrit is recovered."
In the course of this very short conversation we had walked a block and so were on the corner of Murray Street when the swine and their fellows arrived on top of us. Murray was dark, but Broadway was lit from the Battery up to the Delphi Theatre, so although I pulled him into a doorway, the bright light caught his fancy coat, and that was jewel enough to halt the whole stampede, or that part of it composed of a hulking Irishman and his Carib friend who immediately demanded that the aristocrat tell them who he was and where he came from.
"I am Mr. Olivier de Garmont," he said, in a haughty style not well matched to his situation. "I am a friend of General Lafayette."
To which the Carib wished to know how it was his head had not been taken off his shoulders many years before.
The little fellow stepped full into the light and, with that largeness of gesture that marks French theatrical speech, declared himself a student of democracy.
Alas, his listeners knew nothing of the French or the theater. They were drunk and probably affronted that he did not have the grace to act afraid.
"Ye little curd o' moon spit," cried the Irishman, and wrapped his arm around the slender neck and dragged him into Murray Street, wrenching him so violently that papers and stick went flying in the dark.
I searched for his stick and found it by its silver knob. By this time the two large men were sending him between them back and forth like a shuttlecock and singing in loud rousing voices:
"Aux armes, citoyens!
Formez vos bataillons!
Qu'un sang impur
Abreuve nos saillons!"
You have just read those words, written in a good hand. Migraine seemed not to understand the deadly intention of the song.
Silver knob or no, his lordship's stick was too light to be a useful weapon. Chance brought me a decent length of lumber, four inches by two inches, I would say. This instrument I brought down upon the Carib's arm.
Lord, what a crack.
Urgently the fellow held his limb against his chest, bestowing upon me, in complete silence, a look of inexorable outrage.
"Kindly bash the bugger, Jim," said he, or words to that effect.
I was a fair height, and I was strong enough, but the Irishman was taller and heavier. I later read that he was a ferry driver famous for his foul mouth and violent possession of disputed wharfs. Soon he would be a millionaire. Now he was about to murder me.
The Irishman had raised his ringed fist.
"Lord Jesus," interrupted the Carib, and sat down suddenly.
"Allez!" cried Lord Migraine. I did not have to turn my head to see the Frenchman's arm. It was extended parallel to the earth and at one end there was a pistol with an eight-inch barrel.
"No," I said, for I did not see how he had time to prime it.
"Allez-vousen," he said.
The Irishman began to laugh, and that was his miscalculation for it produced a flash of flame and he was violently pushed backward on his heels.
"You!" he said, clutching at himself. It was clear he had taken a ball in the shoulder.
"Now," said my surprising ally to our two assailants. "Maintenant rentrez chez vous."
It was clear I had much to learn about Olivier de Garmont.
DESPITE THE HOSTILE NATURE of my financial instruments, I lived very well in my first fortnight in New York, firstly due to the allowance provided by Mr. Peek, secondly by lunching at my boardinghouse, and thirdly by accepting the invitations to dinner that, as my banker friend had predicted, soon lay heavy on my tray.
There was a long treatise on American prisons I was duty bound to write, and I certainly heard many original opinions during those nightly dinners whose guests had been clearly selected to provide me with every statistic I could ever wish to know. Being every day so occupied with notes, I had no time to consider a more flippant treatise: On the Things Americans Put into Their Stomachs. This gastronomic aspect of democracy has been quite overlooked in France, and I would propose to the young hack that he could do worse than devote a volume each to American breakfast, American dinner, and American tea, also a heavy supplement on ham, for it is served in quantity at almost every meal. The publisher might profitably provide an addendum for supper, and also that afternoon feast of cakes and tea, the gouter. No doubt democracy will one day find its own Larousse and we will all be the better for it.
I called frequently on Master Larrit and was irritated to find him not at home to me. However, I was a French commissioner and therefore, without having done a thing to deserve it, I had American gentlemen making servants of themselves at every turn. If news of this did not reach Mr. Parrot, then so be it. I had sent a doctor to his dying wife, but perhaps he had wished her dead and he was annoyed with me for interfering with his plans. He had frozen my assets and doubtless imagined me most upset, but by the second week I cared no more for him than in the general sense that I worked, as I was in conscience bound, to arrest the spread of his wife's disease.
A certain Mr. Robert O'Hara had called on me the second Monday in New York. He clearly felt no obligation to provide any introduction other than last week's Mercantile Advertiser which he indicated I might be gratified to read.
I had so quickly adapted to the new state of egalite that I was far less disturbed than you might imagine. Indeed, the frank eccentricity of this introduction endeared me to the stranger who carried himself with an ease that I had not hitherto seen in even the wealthiest Americans. Ah, thought I, so this is it, a new world one can greet with pleasure.
The Man of the Future was of a middle age, tall, broad, bearded, with a great shock of dark hair which he brushed back off his high forehead in the "romantic" style. He had rather to squeeze himself into his chair but once ensconced he made himself very comfortable indeed, crossing his considerable legs, sipping his tiny tea, all his features displaying his eager anticipation of my response.
We understand, I read, on the front page of the New York newspaper, that the French magistrate M. de Garmont has arrived on the ship Havre, sent here by order of the Minister for the Interior, to examine the various prisons in our country, and make a report on his return to France. To other countries, especially in Europe, a commission has also been sent, as the French government have it in contemplation to improve their penitentiary system and this means obtaining all proper information. In our country, we have no doubt that every facility will be extended to the gentleman who has arrived.
I smiled at my visitor, thinking, This article will make the banks obey me.
Mr. O'Hara modestly inclined his head. He could not know I had no more interest in prisons than did my mother. As for the new government of France, the penal system of America was completely unimportant to them except insomuch as the Minister for the Interior would insist that my report be both long and detailed. In this way I would be punished for taking up his valuable time.
Mr. O'Hara waited calmly while I affected to reread the newspaper, privately wondering what I was supposed to do with him.
Then quite suddenly, as blunt as a gardener, he declared himself my servant.
What could I say
We then discussed the late season and the vivid leaves, and my visitor named for me the red maple, sugar maple, red oak, dogwood, and sumac, whose colors are far more intense than those we are acquainted with in Europe. Seeming to continue on this subject, he produced a letter from a Mrs. Dougdale. Between Mrs. Dougdale's handwriting and my English, I understood only that O'Hara was, in some sense, an ambassador. I imagined she might be his mistress, but then he produced a gift from the writer of the letter, a severe black tract titled Society for the Alleviation of the Miseries of the Public Prisons.
So: She was not his mistress. My heart sank. The joyless Protestant appearance of the tract depressed me. The French commissioner, it seemed, was the object of Mrs. Dougdale's veneration and respect. I was her champion. It was expected that I would be the French translator of the society's publication. I must devour whatever else was written on this unappealing subject.
I inquired where I might find a more suitable office than my boardinghouse?
O'Hara was my servant. He led me to the Athenaeum immediately. We strolled together down Broadway which showed, to my eye, no sign of the two classes which we, in France, are so eager to keep apart. I would have questioned him but he was, quite unlike a Frenchman, without guile or secrets about himself. I was, I confess, disappointed to hear that he was disaffected with his democracy and had been brought low with ennui. He had recovered from this condition, he said, when the British burned down the capital in the summer of 1814, and he was then in such a rage that it was, for at least two years, quite invigorating. His ennui finally reasserting itself, he had sailed for Europe which he found advanced and backward both at once. He was, he said, more than happy to act as my interpreter, as it were, and I should know, he said, that all New York was drunk on the idea that a French nobleman was about to defer to their wisdom.
The Athenaeum reading room he treated as if it were his private business, and so it happened that, on the basis of no more than the write-up in the Mercantile Advertiser and Mr. O'Hara's ill-informed excitement about my achievements, I was made a temporary member and--having received apologies that this could not be made permanent until tomorrow fortnight--I was given the freedom of the house.
How I missed my dear Blacqueville. In Versailles we had wrestled with our destinies, seeking to be great men when our very class was swept away. Misfortune and tragedy we knew already, but which one of us could have guessed it would come to this so quickly, one of us dead, the other kidnapped, transported to a society in the midst of such excitable self-invention that its best library had the heady quality of a drinking club.
I quickly occupied this democratic society at its highest levels, but how confusing this was, and the optimistic observer found himself one moment elevated and the next cast down in pure despair.
No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals, the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation. They had got their hands on a mighty continent from which the least of them could, by dint of some effort, extract unlimited wealth. There being so much to be extracted it scarcely mattered how or if they were governed, because there is no need to argue when there is plenty for all. The energy put into this quest for wealth left little room for anything one might think of as culture, and so marked was this lack that I would always, in speaking of the wealthier families, use the English term middle class and never bourgeoisie. There was, as they were continually pleased to tell me, no aristocracy required.
It is true that I judged harshly in my first few weeks, and yet my need was such that I would rather find their fabled city on the hill. Thus I persisted tirelessly. I will not bore the reader with a list of all the prisons I toured with the mayor and the rotund police commissioner, but let me name the Tombs, the House of Refuge for Delinquent Minors, Bloomingdale Hospital for the Insane, the Deaf and Dumb Asylum on Fifth Avenue, the Bellevue Almshouse and Penitentiary, Blackwell's Island--all these visits normally accompanied by some twenty-five other gentlemen not one of whom spoke French. Delicacy prevents me from listing the dinners, the peculiar menus, the names of the ladies who lived only to marry and, when married, thought only of their husbands.
O'Hara, I thought, had saved my bacon. If there was to be a less than superficial understanding, I trusted it would come from him. I doubted another American could have understood why I was still unable to confront my English servant, lest the fellow imagine I had only paid for his woman's doctor to serve my own advantage. I would meet with Master Larrit, of course, but I was not yet prepared to so crudely place myself at his mercy.
There was--O'Hara said it--no need to sue for peace, but my Irish landlady had taken to placing my account underneath my door.
In my own country I would have been reluctant to accept O'Hara's money. I would have seen him as a rather shallow and perhaps raffish individual, but Peek had retreated to his farm, and without benefit of other advice, isolated by my language, depressed by my false situation, O'Hara appeared as a treasure beyond price.
He arrived at my rooms on the third Monday, that is, the evening of the day on which I had made my first real mark as French commissioner. I had that afternoon produced the first twenty pages of what would become known as The Penitentiary System in the United States, a volume whose famous first words--Society, in our days, is in a state of disquiet, for which there are two causes--presently lay on a severely Calvinist desk at the Athenaeum. I had begun that first sentence almost out of boredom but as I proceeded it seemed to me there really were two causes. And, dreary as they might be at table, the Americans were in a situation to do what the French had never done--experiment with their prisons and their prisoners. I had spent thirteen dinners and luncheons interrogating jailers and philanthropists. I had read Bentham and the Duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt. Even so early, so asymmetrically, I was well equipped to consider the history of incarceration and its purposes. All of New York wished to tell me more.
O'Hara would guide me, I trusted him completely. Yet when the jovial Catholic pranced into my rooms that very evening, it was to announce that we would abandon our worthy dinner in the Bronx. He had taken care of this. Instead we were to go to?
"Is it Five Points?"
"Yes, but better than planned."
He had originally proposed that we visit the iniquitous district in the company of a policeman but now he had a much better scheme which would leave us free to disport ourselves as we saw fit. That is, we would go armed. So saying, he flung back his blue-lined cloak to reveal a delicate rosewood box held in his hand.
He opened the lid sufficiently for me to see two handsome pistols nestled in the red velvet compartments of the chest.
"To show a rascal a pistol is so much nicer than going with policemen, cheaper too, and better company. Now Olivier, my dear, please pay attention, for what I have here is what the English call a bloody wonder."
I have written publicly about the evils of the duel but when O'Hara set the casket before me, when he demonstrated the marvelous intricacy of its Yankee design, I was entranced. Here nestled two long-barreled pistols, and a variety of devices including a dozen pink paper cylinders which were already packed with powder.
Each pistol bore an engraved shield bearing a coat of arms, a mullet encircled by a garter and surmounted by a ducal coronet, although O'Hara, seeing my attention on this point, misunderstood me so much as to insist that I understand the duke was by no means
"You might not like our pompous speeches old chap," said he, "and we are in many respects a damned provincial lot, but you must admit this is a work of genius. This is an American patent."
There was, in the case, a small compartment holding a treasure of small golden cones--capsules fulminantes as I understood the term. These small hats fitted onto a nipple mounted in the breech. This nipple contained a tiny channel which carried the flash to the cartridge. But that was not the end of the ingenuity of the Americans. Each of the pistols had two barrels, two locks, two triggers. When the two upper barrels had discharged, the four barrels were turned on a pivot thus aligning the loaded barrels with the locks.
"Well, it is not the equal of Voltaire," I said, "but it is a lovely thing."
"I am not done, sir."
He instructed me to close my eyes and I did as he requested, also holding my arms out ahead of me when he desired it. I felt the pressure of his hands as they brushed gently across my shoulders and lower back, and then, all at once, a curious sensation without an explanation, a firm saddler's embrace.
Next, a brandy-scented whisper, "Open your eyes."
On obeying I found myself encased in a leather harness into which O'Hara now fitted the patent pistol so it was held hard against my ribs.
"You look handsome," he said.
He stood back to look at me, his leg cocked, his finger held to his lips.
"Very fine," said he, and hurled his cloak from his broad shoulders to reveal an identical contraption. To this he now fitted the second pistol.
"Ten o'clock," he said. "My dear Olivier, I will collect you then."
"All these charades and you abandon me," I joked.
"I will never abandon you," he said.
And I was suddenly very pleased, not only with his friendship but what it represented--the splendid American ingenuity which had, until this moment, been hidden by the rawness of colonial manners. This patent, this unheralded mechanism, was the precise equivalent of what Guizot hints we might discover in the social arrangements of the New World, something dazzling and generally much improved, a method of modern government like this luxurious pink cartridge in which all the explosive forces are kept safely contained, so ordered and original that one could place them next to an apple and simply admire how the colors played against the light.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes