Parrot and Olivier in America, p.19Peter Carey
"Ten o'clock," he cried, taking my cheek between thumb and finger. "Tonight will be your first night in America." He meant, although he did not once mention, Paradise Square, Black-and-Tan cabarets, Curlers Hook. "The art of pleasure," O'Hara cried, crushing me to his chest.
And then he was gone, leaving me with the reminders of tobacco and leather. Could it be in this giddy air that a civilization might take its next substantial step?
I set out to remove what is, I now know, called a holster. What fastening mechanism there was I could not see, although I soon understood that it was high up in the middle of my back. Even with my shaving mirror I was unable to decipher its peculiar construction, and although I twisted, turned, lay upon my bed, and contorted myself like a corseted matron thrusting her backside in the air, although I made myself a vulgar sight, it was without reward.
I had no choice but remain captive for the next three hours.
I sat a short while in my armchair but was pinched and cut. I might have stood and studied had my books not been at the Athenaeum, and at length that was where I thought to go, to continue to ask how the American penitentiary system might have application in France.
On Broadway--my secret hidden by a cloak, grasped tightly all around--I appreciated the benefit of the corset for the female sex, for I do believe, on stepping out into the night, I was never so hopeful in all my life.
I GOT COPPED on account of Lord Migraine's pistol shot, not by the police but by the night watch which is the local name for a pair of butchers in fancy dress. These clowns took possession of the weapon and announced they would put me in the Tombs, by which I understood a cemetery although it was soon revealed to be the type of "advanced" American machine his lordship had been sent to study. It was a windowless sooty dungeon on Centre Street. If there was no King of America, who would build so vile a thing?
When told that the prison got its morbid name from all the poor wretches who hanged themselves inside its walls, I wished never to go inside, but once I had endured the cold cobbles of Centre Street, I was eager for a cell.
The night watch gathered like witches round a brazier and amused themselves by tossing me a fatty sausage from time to time. The smell of grilling meats was torture as they surely intended, but I was not a dog and would not act like one.
Somewhere before dawn an American juggernaut rolled into the street and, as the nearside horse did its business at my feet, a small stooped man descended from the carriage. I had been expecting a magistrate, but his round-shouldered put-upon demeanor suggested a grocer's clerk crushed by the sentence of his dreary occupation.
The night watch became quiet but otherwise left the new man to his job which was to unlock a small door to the right-hand side of the jail entrance. When he was gone inside, the night watch began to break their fire apart and one of them departed to the pump for water. Finally the fastenings of the Tombs jarred and rattled, and an awful door leered open on its hinges. From that dark portal came forth ten prisoners, a very sad and pretty girl among them, and they were led through the smaller door, presumably to stand before the man who had stepped down from the coach.
I expected I would then be included in their company, and I would then explain the simple fact that it was the French lord who had fired the gun and I was nothing but his servant.
Instead I was marched into the prison and left in the charge of a warder, a tall well-made man with a handsome face, dead blue eyes, and a single frown mark, as black as charcoal, right above his nose.
Any gentleman with a good library, even Monsieur, would recognize immediately that I had been brought inside the dark brain of Piranesi who, being denied a career as an architect, used his burin to construct those satanic prisons which are known as carceri.
The warder informed me I had arrived too late for this morning's court sessions and I would do myself no favors by arguing the toss. He brought me deeper inside a high narrow machine. Piranesi's spiked wheels were nowhere to be seen, but who would need them when a prisoner's nostrils were tortured with the vile tarry smell I have since learned to call creosote but I knew pretty well as the smell of death and coffin wood. When I smell wild woodbine I'm once again six years old, standing in a field with my da. One whiff of creosote and I am in the New York Tombs and everything is suffocating hot because the contractor of firewood is a friend of someone who is a friend of someone who is no friend of the poor souls who suffer in this oven whose high glassed skylights are coated with dreary yellow tar.
From this dim dark distant place hung two wind sails, limp, useless. There were galleries of cells, one above the other, stairs at each end and in the middle, between the two sides of each gallery, were bridges, and on these bridges sat guards, variously dozing or reading or talking.
And at the very bottom of this space, directly in front of me as I entered, was the gibbet. If I had not been thoroughly frightened by then, I was now. Although every suicide inside the Tombs was politely hidden from the civilization outside its walls, this gibbet was in sight of every cell. Outside on the street the citizens were innocent and kind, with the luxury of being distressed by copulating pigs. But here the chill of legal murder was in the air I breathed.
The warder was neither cruel nor lacking in civility. As he walked with me up the first flight of stairs I was put in mind of a Devon innkeeper taking a traveler to his rooms. He apologized for the condition a gentleman such as myself should find himself in. He listened sympathetically to my account of the shooting, had no doubt the pistol was not mine, and certainly credited my statement that it had been stolen by the night watch, not for evidence as they had told me but for profit. It was only when he understood that I had been robbed of my few silver dollars that his manner changed, although he gave me to understand that this change of mood was by no means irreversible, and I gave him the address of my boardinghouse where I was sure Mathilde would do what the warder called "the right thing."
Finally he showed me to a small cell where the only source of light was a high embrasure. There was a simple table but no chair, and two beds one on top of the other. On the lower pallet sat a man, not tall or dangling in any way, indeed not like my father in the least, although it was my daddy of whom I was immediately reminded. And what an awful jolt it gave my heart. It was by no means the first time I should be set upon by that particular feeling--my father in some cruel incarceration.
The man looked up and gave an impatient shake of his head before returning to his book. When the door was loudly locked behind me I understood the prisoner's clothes were scattered about the floor of his cell, doubtless due to the absence of those hooks so popular with the suicides. It was dark as charcoal and the air was thick with the smell of coffin wood. There was no place for me to go but to the straw pallet of the upper bunk, and here I climbed and lay, as quiet and afraid as a forest animal that finds itself fallen into the innards of a dark machine, listening to the distant cries and upsets of souls as frightened and angry as itself. Inside the cell, silence lay like something lethal hidden in the hay. Against this threat I steeled myself until, after not so long a time, a feathery voice inquired diffidently as to the nature of my offense.
I looked down from my pallet, but there was not even a shadowed face to address myself to. I told my questioner pretty much what I had told the warder and to this he made no comment.
I thought it good manners to ask about his offense but he ignored the question and began to worry at the subject of his son, a boy of ten, who was being held in another cell on the tier above. As for himself he said he had no concern, for he would shortly be tried and thenceforth hanged on that device that had met me at the prison door.
"And what of your son?"
"Ah." He sighed. "If only something could be done about him. I would give anything."
At this he stood, a big pale solitary fellow, with soft sloping shoulders and fair hair that was ruffled and thin and rather pecked at. I immediately thought the p
"Has your boy no mother?"
He held out his big white hands in such a way that I thought of Durer's engraving of Pontius Pilate. My thoughts flew toward the boy, and I imagined being in his position, frightened, alone, my daddy about to die.
"I will visit him," I cried. "I will not be held for long."
This simple promise had a tremendous consequence. The prisoner's shoulders, so markedly stooped, were now drawn sharply back and he poked his head fiercely forward, his hope-filled eyes suddenly reflecting more light than you would think available in such a hole. A good man, I thought, would offer to adopt the lad. How vile of me to only visit.
"There would be profit in it," he said. "My word there would be."
"It is a great favor you offer, Mac." My heart was wrung to see how he picked up his book--assuredly a Bible--and carried it to that place where the light from the deep embrasure made a lopsided oblong on the floor. As he tilted the open pages I asked him what he read.
"The first and the best," said he. His whole manner, as he hunched over his holy book, was of a poor pecked thing. Yet when I finally understood which part of Genesis he was taken with, I did not know what to do with the knowledge. For the place he went to for his comfort was violent and bloody--those alleged events I had once been forced to illustrate. It was the ghastly story of Abraham. "Take your son," he read from his Bible, "your only son--yes, Isaac, whom you love so much--and go into the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there." He grinned at me.
He closed his book and held it against his chest in some awful imitation of a priest.
"I will pay you plenty," he said.
I thought Abraham a craven fool, his god a Lord or worse.
The condemned man came close and he had a very nasty breath to him, an effluvium like sick, sour milk, the spirit of a dying child. From his moon-bright eyes I saw the truth--he wished a stranger to kill his son.
"Five hundred dollars," said he.
I had no proper word of answer, just a black bag full of air.
"Five hundred, sir. Not paper. No Bank of Zion. There'll be no discount here."
"He was a witness," I cried. "You devil."
"I am a devil," he said, "and a rich devil too."
I slapped at him, but he was swift as a frog.
"Oh, no need to rush," he said, now crouched like a wrestler, hands on his wide knees. "You've got a long night to think about it." He dared to smile, flicked his tongue, and I pulled myself back into the dark, as far as I could with my white nubbly spine hard against the stones. I could feel the mad creature slithering around the cell below, hear his tiny voice reading his damned Bible. I would not spend the night here. I would be murdered in my sleep.
I slipped down from the bunk, and he placed his Bible on the table and stepped back toward the light to give me the clear benefit of his smile.
"You murdered his mother," I said. "And your little boy was the witness."
He shook himself at me like a dog.
"That's why they'll hang you."
He purred, but surely not. In any case, too strange.
"You think I will murder him for money?"
"Oh, I never said murder," said the fellow, throwing up his big white washer maid's hands. "Good heavens. I never said that. You must only contrive to take the little chap away from here. He's a good-looking little fellow. You ask the warders. They never stop talking about him."
He cocked his head and looked at me with one eye, as stupid as a leghorn hen. "Oh there is no need to murder him," said he, "just take him with you when you go." He gave his pale feathered head a little shake.
I could not look at him. He tapped something metal against the bunk.
"I have the money, some of it. The rest I will have brought. They'll turn a blind eye so you can visit the lad--so to speak," he said. "Don't you think?" He insisted, but weakly, as if somehow waking and not knowing where he was.
God might have pitied him but he was vile and I wished to stop forever the bad milk smell of him, and I launched myself at him with my large strong hands around his neck, not guessing at his own strength until he near broke my wrists and got me in a hold around my chest and set to crush the life from me. No sound escaped me. My lungs were filled with dirty milk.
"Take him away from me," he shouted as he killed me. "Take the fool away."
And then he dropped me on the floor and set at me with his fists and all the time he begged to be prevented from murdering me and he wept and struck me repeatedly around the head and neck.
I was unconscious when the warders came to drag me farther down into the darkness of the Piranesi pit.
THEY THREW me in the "crying room," so called because its door was bound with hay and hooper's steel, the lowest level of the Tombs, reserved for Negroes and that one small boy who had been a witness to his mother's death. I plucked and pulled at the hard-bound straw so it fell and floated, requiring only a flint to set the black and leaden air afire.
My beloved Mathilde was asleep in her bed, the sweet haze of moonlight on her hair. I had loved her and hated her and loved her once again, so now I wept for that boardinghouse on Broadway as if it were my childhood home. How many such homes had I invented--inns, church porches, printeries, crofters' cottages, stone beehives built by men in ancient time? I thought of the boy in his nearby cell, of Ganymede in the engraving after Rembrandt, the eagle's talons gripping the peeing baby's arms, and all below the terror of the eternal abyss and, in my mind, black-eyed Rembrandt with his eagle in the studio, dead of death and threaded through with cold cruel wire to make a living likeness, to bear false witness, to hold the dead wings high.
Such a child had I once been, a rabbit rug around my shoulders, tramping behind the Frenchman, down past Mist Tor, Over Tor, Sweet Tor, Yelverton where it began to rain, and all the low gray sky bled into the horizon and folded itself in the direction of my aching feet, me with my cloak, him with his one arm and his face scraped close so the bones of his cheeks shone through his living skin. In drear drizzle rabbit stink we arrived at Roborough Inn where my master spied a diligence waiting in the yard.
Monsieur walked into the yard and became a mute, rolling his eyes, poking in his mouth, raising his eyebrows at me.
"Comprends-tu?" he whispered. And thrust me stumbling forward.
I comprehended he dare not speak the language of our enemies, the French. And also that he wished the diligence to take us into Plymouth and so he steered me, claw on shoulder until he winkled out the coachman sitting in the stables puffing on his pipe.
The Frenchman stamped his feet to express frustration at his own dumb mouth.
To the driver I said, "My da would like you to drive us down to Plymouth."
"I've got them," the driver said, meaning that he had a party come from Plymouth to lunch at the inn.
Monsieur produced a gold coin from his mouth and dried it on my shoulder. The coachman watched him, squinting all the while. He could not have understood the grunts and gestures, but he knew a sov when it was offered.
Very well, he could take us while the gentlemen had their lunch.
I had not known what war might mean until we got to Plymouth. Just past the Guild Hall in Wimple Street I heard the constant bugle calls and the tramp of soldiers, sailors shouting in the alleys of the Pool. Everybody looked as if they would kill everybody else. Poor tattered French prisoners of war shuffled beside our diligence, so close I could have stolen a hat if I had no heart. My giant companion boasted an idiot's smile which he used to persuade the driver to take us right into Sutton Pool where the great battleships pushed their noses into the crowded center of the town. The driver was then under the impression he had honored his contract, but no, he must up to that eminence they call the Hoe. This Hoe was green and hard and naked of all trees and faced the open ocean from which blew a cold hard salty wind.
Very well, but fair is fair. The driver had an important member of the corporation abandoned in the inn, but Monsieur withheld his coin. Leaving the coachman to sulk, he strode to and fro on those windblown gravel paths atop the Hoe, and I was held hard beside him.
"What's he up to?" shouted the driver of the diligence. "What's his game?"
Monsieur was surveying Plymouth, Devonport, Stonehouse, StokeTemples, and those magnificent floating castles which had so recently set his fellow countrymen afire. If he was not a spy, he looked like one. I watched him wipe his watery eyes as he slowly took in the churches, towers, steeples, colonnades, porticoes, terraces, gardens, groves, orchards, meadows, and the green fields cut by estuaries. He fitted his claw around my neck. He shifted his attention to the gibbets on the lower path below the Hoe, on one of which there hung a man or what had been a man. I thought I could smell the gibbet but it was more likely the foul air blowing from the Hulks. I did not know these ships were prisons yet, but would see them later--floating hellholes draped with bedding, clothes, weed and rotting rigging--but this was the odor of the king's prisons. God save him. I will not.
Below the Hoe, leading down toward the ocean, there were a number of gravel paths, all crossing each other, and fitted with many flights of steps and crescent-shaped benches. Along the lower path came a platoon of soldiers and at the very front of the platoon eight more redcoats each one carrying an empty yellow coffin, and between the coffins and the soldiers walked four men in chains, and it suddenly struck me as I watched this horrible sight that the man nearest to the sea and closest to the front was my own father, tall and gangling, dip-shouldered. I had not even the wit to raise my hand but as the party reached that point where they would forever disappear, he turned to look at me.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes