Parrot and Olivier in America, p.2Peter Carey
So loud were my screams that my father rushed from the court in his judicial gown and wig. A robust bride and big-nosed groom came after him and peered at what I'd found. Gustave and Jacques now produced dozens of these parcels and laid them, according to my father's instructions, in a neat line along the side of the building. When they were all formed up, my father gave orders that they should be destroyed, which I naturally assumed was because they were filled with horrid ants.
Odile, drawn by my screams, came out to see. So did Bebe. This was a considerable crowd to be in such a place. But then my mother drove through the open gates in The Tormentor--which is what we called her swaying carriage--and in a moment she had descended and was in the thick of it, against my father's wishes.
"No, Henriette-Lucie, you must not." Those were his words, exactly.
My mother snatched the crumbling paper from my father's hand. "My pigeons!" she cried.
I did not understand, not for a second, but I had found the very explanation of my life.
My mother held her handkerchief across her mouth. It seemed she might be vomiting. She was blind to me, half dead with noble shame. She would not be attended to by servants, only by the aristocratic Bebe who now escorted her to the chateau. No one noticed me, and I remained behind while my father ordered his bride and groom back into the court. I stayed to watch the cremation of the pigeons, but even so I did not understand that each parcel contained a victim of the Revolution.
Inhabiting the wainscoting, as it were, I easily rescued a single fragile sheet of paper and, careful of it as if it were a lovely moth, carried it away into the woods to read.
THE HORRIBLE AUSTRIAN stared at me as I fled toward the oratory whose door I hammered at until the latch jumped free. I threw myself before the altar, blood pouring from my nose. Would God not protect me from that hideous thing I carried crushed inside my hand?
Then my Bebe kneeled beside me. He took my hand as if to comfort me, then forced it open. Firmly he held my wrist, gently he brushed the fragments from my palm.
"What is this my child?"
It was a drawing from the old newspaper that had wrapped a pigeon.
It showed a machine, an awful blade, a set of tracks, a rope, a human head severed from its body. It was the king's head. I knew his noble face. A hand held the head separate from the butchered neck of whence the blood did spurt and flow. An ornate typography declared: QUE LE ROI SOIT DAMNE.
Bebe offered his rumpled handkerchief. It was not the complete and total inadequacy of this that frightened me but that he, my own Bebe, should look at his Olivier with eyes so dull and tired.
"This happened?" I demanded.
He held out his big hands in resignation. This was terrifying but worse than that, far worse--he shrugged.
"It is horrid." I cried as bats cry, flying through the dreadful dark.
Below me was a great abyss, no floors, no walls, and my mind was awash with the monstrous terrors of decapitation. The king's head was a perfect living head that might smile and speak, and its eyes were perfect eyes, and the hair was dressed as a king's hair should be dressed, and everything about him was so fine and good except for this vile machine, these flying drops of blood, this filthy squirt and gush.
"Is this why my mother cries? Does she know this?" I meant was this what she saw when she lay with the damp sheet across her eyes?
"Yes, my darling, alas."
"Then who made this dreadful thing, Bebe? Who would imagine such a horrid sight?"
"It is thought to be kinder," said Bebe.
"It was Napoleon who did this? This is why we hate him?"
"No, this is the father of Napoleon."
I did not understand what he could mean--a father.
"Bebe, who killed so many pigeons?"
"The peasants put the birds on trial for stealing seeds. They found them guilty and then they wrung their necks."
"But we don't have pigeons, Bebe. The loft is empty. We have never had pigeons."
"Your grandfather kept pigeons. The peasants felt oppressed by them it seems, to have them eat the planted seeds."
Can you imagine such a flood of horror washing over so young a child? But so it was, at six years of age, I had my first lesson in the Terror which had been the flavor of my mother's milk. My parents had been thrown into Porte Libre prison where every day one of their fellow nobles was called "to the office" and was never seen again. In these months my father's hair turned white, my beautiful mother was broken in that year of 1793, when the sansculottes came up the road from Paris.
My family had been at table, Bebe told me, as he "got the boy outside," out past the forge, beneath the linden trees. They had been at dinner, my mother and father and grandfather, when the gardener had come hurrying inside and stood before them with a pair of secateurs in his gloved hands.
"Citizen Barfleur," he said to my mother's father, "outside are some citizens from Paris asking for you." Even allowing for the fact that it would have been against the revolutionary law for him to use the respectful form of you, it was a very unusual way for my grandfather to be addressed by a servant.
"Did no one strike them for their impudence?" I asked.
As we walked in the fields beside the river, the air was sweet with new-mown hay. There was a stench of drunken peaches in the orchards--why not?--each fallen fruit attended by its circus troupe of bees and gnats and wasps climbing and falling from the pulp. In the midst of this bright maggoty celebration I had now found the secret, as old and musty as a walnut locked inside a woody shell.
"Why did my father not strike them?"
My grandfather had been Armand-Jean-Louis de Clarel de Barfleur. His name was the name of his town, his river, his long noble line unbroken to the Normans, and beyond that to Clovis, and beyond Clovis to Childeric, king of the Salian Franks, massing with his warriors in the forests of Toxandria, and who was he to let his life be taken by some drunken sansculottes?
"It is difficult to explain," my Bebe said.
Indeed. It was beyond belief. There were only two men from Paris, as far as I could gather. My family had been as timid as the pigeons, I thought. They had let their necks be wrung.
"Was it to this that they took my grandpapa?" I asked.
"Where, my child?"
"Yes, that thing."
As we walked down through the Bottom Hundred the secret quail rose from the grass. I was outraged by my family, and very fierce in my judgment of my father particularly, that he had not drawn a sword and slaughtered his tormentors.
My lungs were clogged, my heart was disturbed, but my Latin declensions must still be learned. As the day ended, Bebe and I hic-haec-hoc'd our way through the strange pale grass, up to the old mill on whose steps we rested to eat an apple. It was not yet dark, but I could see, through the heavy branches, the golden lights of our home. I understood it then, as for the first time, not as a castle of pride and strength, but as a weak place, a soft thing in the coming night. I saw my grandfather and my father sitting unprotesting in their chairs. I imagined the murderers with their bare bottoms and huge mustaches coming through the gloom along the road from the village, the air dark with stolen wine, the sky alight with burning faggots, oily black smoke curling into the opal sky so that the wispy threads of smoke drew lines on an ancient mirror which should have reflected back heroic scenes--my papa with his sword drawn putting the enemy to flight.
"I would have smote them, Bebe. I would not have been a coward."
The dear old Abbe remained silent while we crossed the village road, while the porter unlocked the heavy gate. Then he waited and watched while the servant retreated to his lodge.
"Bebe, are you angry?"
I was frightened to feel so alone, to see that he who only ever loved me had ceased to do so. It was time for my bath, but I could feel myself transfixed by his dark eyes while moths brushed against my hair and settled on my shirt.
When he spok
My breathing coarsened but he showed no mercy. My arms itched and my legs ached, but I was too afraid to complain while Bebe told me about the man who had sat at the table on that dreadful morning. This was my mother's father, the great Barfleur, who was no more to me than a name. Barfleur had so loved the king, it seemed, that he hectored him and chastised him when his advisers were leading him to ruin. It was Barfleur who dared instruct the king to tax the nobility, make the Jews citizens, let the Protestants worship legally in peace.
"This is courage," said Bebe. "It was the Comte de Barfleur who told the king to cut the extravagances at court. He told him to remember the history of Charles I in England. Do you remember what that was?"
"I forget the year, Bebe. I'm sorry."
"The year does not matter. He told our king, 'You hold your crown, sire, from God alone; but you are not going to deny yourself the satisfaction of believing that you also hold your power due to the voluntary submission of your subjects.'"
"The king," said the Abbe de La Londe, whose voice was echoing around the courtyard so clearly that I was afraid, imagining the blacksmith, the porter, the gardener listening from the shadows of the doors. My dear wise Bebe suddenly seemed the most reckless of men.
"The king was not a bad man," he told me, "but he was surrounded by vain and selfish men and women."
Now my breath turned very rough, most likely because my mother, whose windows were wide open to the summer air, would not hear a word against the king.
"It was Versailles," Bebe said, "that brought down the monarchy, and the court's blindness and foolishness that led us, not only to the guillotine, but to this thief Bonaparte who has made France no better than a pickpocket and a burglar."
"Bebe, should we not go inside?"
"No," said Bebe, "for you have been raised in a most peculiar way, poor child. And now I see you have no idea who you are or who your father is. Did he ever tell you he saved my life?"
"Your father is a brave man. To do battle with the citizens from Paris would have been as foolish as fighting against a swarm of wasps. Did your father run around shrieking at his pain?"
"No Bebe, I suppose not." In my mind I saw my father standing in a field, a cloud of wasps around him.
"That is courage," said Bebe, "that is character. You do not blame the poor ignorant people, my darling. Do you understand me? The court of Versailles brought this down upon us all."
Even then I knew that he did not mean the people were wasps but that is how I pictured it and in my imagination I was no longer the noble with his sword, slaying those who hurt my kind, but a frightened boy, screeching, running through the darkened fields, stung, hurt, throwing himself from the bank and drowning in the Seine.
That night my breathing was so bad neither garlic nor brandy could cure me, but it was not till dawn that they fetched the doctor from his bed.
THE GUILLOTINE NOW cast its diamond light on scenes which had hitherto existed in the domestic shadows.
That is not to say my life was ruined. I swam and hunted and feasted on green plums until my belly ached. I made a friend, Thomas de Blacqueville, who once stayed with us for sixteen days. On my seventh birthday I traveled to Paris and ate mille-feuilles at the house of Mme de Chateaubriand. I am said to have made the company laugh but no one can recall my witticism. I was precocious. I was a genius for the piano. I had a high opinion of myself. By 1812, the year I turned seven, I was accomplished in Latin and Greek.
It was during this very particular summer that the Hero of the Vendee arrived at the Chateau de Barfleur. It was my father's birthday but the visitor brought no gift--or left arm either, the latter presumably sliced away by some horrid machine. His empty white silk sleeve was like a ghost, but what I noticed most of all was my mother.
She had, until the moment of the young visitor's arrival, occupied a chaise in the Gold Room, blinds drawn against the shrill heat, a damp cloth across her face in such a manner that a stranger to the house might assume her dead.
The footman approached my mother. He bent stiffly and spoke in that ridiculous whispering way they learn in Italy but to see how my mother responded, you would think he had shouted in her ear.
She fairly sprang.
If the footman fell over she did not notice for she was--as the servant scurried blushing from the room--bowing to a visitor. That is, my mother, she whose status required her to give no more than a polite curtsy to anyone, bowed deeply to a man whose arm had been chopped off. Later I thought that bowing was surely some private reference, a play, a quote, a joke: Moliere?
The visitor was Marie-Jean de Villiers, ecuyer, Marquis de Tilbot, sometimes known as the Hero of the Vendee, although I seldom heard him called anything but Monsieur. Whether this was the fruit of modesty or pride I do not know. He was big and ruddy as a side of beef, a noble warrior who had led the peasants of Calvados and Orne against the Revolution. If only, my mother later said, there had been one hundred Monsieurs.
In the Gold Room, Tilbot spoke very quietly to my mother. He had brought a "little something," a folio of engravings of exotic species, such as were popular in the lost libraries of the ancien regime. I suppose he planned to sell it to her, but I did not know that then. They both examined the item, sheet by sheet, exclaiming with delight at the bizarre botany of Australia. As to what they said to each other, I heard nothing, but I felt the air shiver and knew this horrid one-armed soldier was about to steal my father's birthday from us.
That dinner was to be a grand affair of fricasseed chickens, and minced partridges, and ember-cooked pies and chickens with truffles, and so it was, but the feast was now laid waste, not by the awful thunderstorm, but by the visitor who talked too much in a way quite clearly intended to hide the truth from a child. When the songs had been sung, Bebe excused himself and I understood he was angry. My father? He became exceedingly formal and his skin took on a shining waxy sheen as if he were a clever copy of himself. My mother twice remarked on the amounts of paperwork awaiting him and complained, as if in sympathy, that no one in Paris thought sufficiently to honor him with a copyist or secretary. Nothing was said of the engravings.
I was an excitable child, now in a distressed condition. When my father spoke, as he was often wont to do, of the young peasants he was marrying off to save their lives, Monsieur smiled directly at my mother. What this meant I did not know, but if I had been my father I would have taken the visitor's empty sleeve and slapped his face with it. I wished it so violently that my lungs rebelled against me and I was taken off to receive my final gift--not the crystallized fruit, but Odile and her leeches, and sheet lightning all that August night.
The next incident I recall was on a morning some months after the departure of M. de Tilbot. I had discovered my mother in her quarters.
"Where is Celeste?" I named her maid.
My mother did not answer. She was filling a traveling trunk with white cockades. She set her head to one side, smiling, just so. I thought, Good grief, what is the matter? Is she happy?
"Maman, what has happened?"
I sat quietly, prickling inside my scarf which I wore to hide the leech marks. My mother, I saw, was playing the part of servant. Finally she locked her trunk and the real servants were called to take it down.
In later years she would always insist that she could not tell me the truth because I was too frail, but when she locked herself in her boudoir with Celeste she only brought me to a higher pitch.
By the time she emerged I had scratched my arms until they bled, but all this discomfort was forgotten when I saw--she had dressed herself in costume, like a pretentious bourgeois in a play.
She dragged me into her apartments where she squeezed m
There then followed a completely unexpected audience with my father. This took place out-of-doors in the midst of all the confusion caused by my mother's imminent departure. He was dressed as a Garmont in the Titian portrait, as a noble of the robe, his gorgeous ancient sword hung at his side occasionally making that small sound like gold coins in a purse. He smelled of talcum powder and raven oil and I apprehended him with a feeling very close to awe. Thus, very formally--Olivier in his skeleton suit, M'sieu l'Comte in all the glory of his rank--we faced each other. It was exceptionally hot and bright although the sky was completely gray.
"Your mother has explained to you?"
"King Louis is returning," my father said, clearly in a state of high emotion. "The comtesse will be a Dame du Palais to the queen. I will sit in the Chamber of Peers. You will one day be the Comte de Garmont. I am going to Paris to greet His Majesty," he said, his eyes glistening. "Your mother refuses to remain at home. She will go in her carriage."
How could I continue breathing? I thought, I will not be left behind.
As always when observed by servants, my tender father embraced me stiffly.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes