Parrot and Olivier in America, p.21Peter Carey
I HAD SLEPT ON RAW LAND, mud, and gravel, suffered bruising hail, been frightened of ghosts and glowworms, crawled in the musty tunnels to Mr. Watkins' hole, but now, sitting at the captain's table after Mr. Potter's murder, this was the worst.
There were waving weeds and rocks beneath us, fish with awful shapes and drooping noses, and the Samarand pushed through them, a creature bigger than a whale with weeping creatures in its belly. The seamen had whitewashed the smoky ceilings of the ward, and that dear homely smell carried the vividness of thatch and lumpy walls and stew given from the goodness of a stranger's heart. But that was all there was of comfort, and the salt air had turned from cold to warm in the passing of a life, an afternoon.
The Frenchman was sweaty and massive as a cattle thief, one of those hard wind-burned valley men who rule their herds with the power of life and death. Also at the table were the captain and the major and the quartermaster, all dressed for the service of the king, the palace, all the empire held in their golden buttons, lions and crowns.
Yet it was the hare-lipped doctor and his meek hen wife, the Binghams, who had suddenly taken possession of the table. Yesterday they had been two small bright-eyed birds, a plump smooth thrush, a long-necked egret, now death had nourished them. The loss of the reverend had diminished everyone, but the Binghams somehow shone. The young wife--luminous in the bleeding blackness of her mourning--now told the captain it was her Christian duty to be a schoolmistress in the dead man's place.
His cold and awful silence could not dull her small brown eyes one whit.
And it was the eyes that marked them both, the Binghams, their hidden wills, their completely unexpected certainty. Remember, I knew that doctor's eyes and never thought them threatening or strange. But now I witnessed how he riveted his attention onto the murderer. I thought, He knows.
And then I thought, They all know. The captain knows. The captain already knows he is a Frenchman. Does the purser know? The major? I thought, They are playing with their stew, waiting for Rio de Janeiro, and then they will arrest him and put him in a ship in chains.
And who, I thought, will love me?
The doctor had strange long thin fingers and now he reached them out to touch Monsieur's sleeve. It was a peculiar action, inquiring, curious. Monsieur placed his spoon slowly on the table and gave full attention to the doctor's stare.
Bingham turned on me. "Your father understands me perfectly. Is not that so?"
"I don't know, sir. I could not say."
Your father now grinned at Dr. Bingham, if that is what you call a naked baring of the teeth. He opened his mouth, he leaned across the table, he pointed inside, he made a moan, as if nakedly mocking his own impersonation of a mute, as if to say I could recite all Shakespeare to you but will not because you are a timid fool.
At the time I could not understand why he should take so ridiculous a risk, but when I was older I knew Marie-Jean de Villiers, ecuyer, Marquis de Tilbot, was one of those fighters who are never happy unless they are in some kind of hazard.
The captain had taken his bribe and kept his silence, but now sighed as if he was being pushed a pound too far. He toyed with his food, the poor gray beef clinging to its twig of bone.
"Come on, old fellow," he said to Monsieur, "give it straight. Now, are you ashore at Rio?"
Monsieur cocked his head at the captain, as if he were a clever dog, but if this was a joke, the captain would not share it. He turned to the major and the quartermaster and announced that he was not inclined to sail without a clergyman but that he doubted the streets of Rio would be packed with Anglicans. I saw he looked to Mrs. Bingham as he spoke. But it was her husband he commanded. "Doctor," he said, pushing his chair back, "a word on deck."
I thought: He will arrest the Frenchman.
Monsieur clearly did not think so. He reached for the brandy bottle and filled his cup. It was I who witnessed the result of the captain's negotiation with Dr. Bingham, and knew that his wife had been granted her wish to be a schoolteacher. I saw Mrs. Bingham marched through that dreadful hatch in the company of ten marines.
It was December. I should have been with my father roasting rabbit or perched up on the bar of some snug little house where I could draw an eagle for a penny. I retreated to the cabin and found the one-armed creature, battle-scarred, shirtless, wound tight as a post office clock. Finger to lips. Hands patting the air. I must shut the door. I must climb up on the bunk. Here, look, a length of timber he must have stolen. He jammed it under the handle of the door. So I was locked inside.
Then that awful smile, that missing tooth.
He reached his long arm to my hammock and dragged down my rabbit rug. From beneath the mattress he took a steel-shanked awl.
He planned to stab the doctor now, so I thought.
He whispered to me, "Rio."
So we would do a bunk. I let him know I understood. I had the stone in my pocket with his portrait on it. It was my only gift, my only wealth, my only thing to give. He took my rabbit-skin rug and held it this way and that, as if I were a bull to fight. Then he was a magician. He sat cross-legged at the head of his bunk, demonstrating how the awl could unstitch a doubled pelt inside which, snug as a wallet, was a sheaf of Piggott's five-pound notes.
"Pour moi," he whispered, and slipped the money down inside his pants. This trick he repeated three more times and when he was done, he took my hand and made me carefully feel the rug. Rabbit skins, as I am sure you know, are crinkly by nature, but now he led me to a place where the pelts were doubled and the crinkly feel must be accounted for by more than rough-cured skin.
"Pour toi," he whispered in my ear. "For you."
He was holding my shoulders and looking at me very fond and I suddenly knew that he was about to run away and leave me.
In anguish, I produced my treasure and thrust it in his hand.
He accepted it with perfect understanding, so I thought. He held me up and looked at me as if I were a fish he had just caught.
"Very fine," he said. He pursed his lips to make me quiet and then he brought my ear to his mouth. "I come back, comprenez. I return."
I looked into his pale spy's eyes, strangely moist and filled with all the light the porthole would allow.
Two days later I would stand at that same porthole and watch the bumboat as it set off for shore with Monsieur and Dr. Bingham both aboard. They toiled toward Sugar Loaf; then, at a certain point, the sailors raised their oars, and the boat was swept back to the left and the Marquis de Tilbot was gone.
"I come back. I promise." But who could trust his tears?
IT WAS AN AUTUMN MORNING in New York when our peculiar little party gathered to one side of the entrance of the Tombs where--a low pawnshop being conveniently placed opposite the prison doors--the sun had been provided a pathway between the grim warehouses on the eastern side of Centre Street. The pawnshop lay squat and mangy, barred iron teeth unchained and its boy or apprentice was stirring up a disgusting cloud of dust, which drifted into the shadows before settling down again.
The leading actors of our company were Mr. O'Hara (who had been my guide), the banker Mr. Peek (my fellow passenger and friend), the servant's paramour, the paramour's maman, and of course that twenty-five-year-old noble, previously of no reputation even in Versailles, who was now known to all New York as The French Commissioner. That is, myself, Olivier de Garmont.
In addition to those previously mentioned, our siege was abetted by a great number of top-hatted gentlemen--mayors, governors, commissioners whose names I have since forgotten. If you had been passing in your wagon or glancing out your countinghouse window, you might have reasonably assumed you had chanced upon Old Europe Taught a Lesson by Young Democracy.
The commissioner was always--whether on Centre Street, in a Pearl Street oyster house or a horsedrawn omnibus--the honored representative of his great nation. Of this he was continually aware, and I can promise that he, in
So I confess. The awful Jean-Jacques Rousseau could not be more embarrassing. I, my father's son, had slunk away from the mob like a cat in a storm, my clothes torn, my papers scattered, skirting the brothels of Murray Street, past the College of Columbia, back around the block. All the way up Broadway, facing the fierce inquiry of the gaslights, I persisted with my justification--that it was for the glory of our nation that I ran away. I would have crawled into my bed like a weary innocent, had I not been confronted, on my return to the boardinghouse, by O'Hara.
I had kept him waiting half a bottle, far too long.
I was clearly in the wrong, but I did expect a cultivation, particularly from one who so despised his countrymen's lack of manners.
Once in my rooms, he listened to me very calmly as I explained that I had misplaced his pistol. He stroked his handsome beard and nodded, at first. But then he changed dramatically. One could blame the Madeira, possibly, or some hairline flaw in the marble of his character, which, suffering new pressure from a new direction, split the whole asunder.
One moment he was nodding sagely. The next--good heavens--this huge fellow hurled his entire manly body on my sofa, falling like a cow dropped from a window. He yelped. His arm was broke. His tail was docked. He howled as if caught in a trap, and my neighbors were soon thumping on their floors and walls and ceilings. After two hours--the like of which I wish never to endure again--I had quieted him, and persuaded the timid night porter that he had the authority to give my friend a room and place it on my account.
Beholding O'Hara outside the Tombs next morning, with his mustache freshly waxed and his hair a glistening wave of fresh pomade, you would never, not for a second, guess what he had confessed to me. That pistol had never been his to lend. It had been borrowed from a certain Mr. Astor on the understanding that he, O'Hara, would have it polished by a gunsmith he highly recommended. In other words, he was a scoundrel.
But there he was, basking in the sunshine on Centre Street, as upright as a senator. The morning had begun very early and by this time, as he consulted his gold fob watch, Mr. Astor's pistol was retrieved and was the source of no more public shame than a slight bulge disturbing his tightly tailored jacket. So O'Hara had been made whole, as the New York lawyers say, and he was engaging old Peek on that subject about which the people of Manhattan display more learning than any burghers of any other city on this earth, to wit, the price of property in Manhattan.
We were all waiting, of course, for the release of Monsieur Perroquet from imprisonment inside the Tombs. It was an event impossible to conceive in France, for I obtained this justice--and justice it was--with the distribution of dollars, not my own dollars either but those borrowed from Mr. Peek, who had personally arranged that the watchman--disrespectfully called a leather head on account of his helmet--be tipped and the two prison warders be tipped and certain other institutions be given a gift, and you would think this such a truly disgusting matter that it needs be transacted in the dead of night, but no. The beneficiaries had come straight from their homes or counting-houses, the otherwise elegant Mr. Peek carrying a small dot of egg yolk on his dimpled chin. Here they were, the Great and the Good of New York, intent on performing a charitable function.
The two Frenchwomen waited away from the swath of sunshine, nearest to the small door through which Mr. Peek's emissary, a lawyer and comic novelist of some local renown, had disappeared. Although the females were occupied with nothing more than waiting, they exhibited that strange intensity I had observed the night before, when I had lifted my curtain to distract myself from O'Hara's sniveling. I looked down on great Broadway, as quiet and provincial as the rue d'Anjou, and found just two human forms, two women, one in gray, the other in blue, staring directly at my lighted window.
Downstairs the porter confessed he had already barred their way. That sort, he called them. I ordered the women admitted, and escorted to my rooms, where the tough old creature whose cheeks were like a ruined apple fell upon me in oniony gratitude. The young beauty was more removed and steely in her manner. She would not weep or supplicate, and it was in that spirit she now stood before the jail in Centre Street, where, as a bell was striking ten o'clock, the smaller prison door swung in, and from the shadow emerged the comic novelist and his big round balding head.
A moment later M. Perroquet, slightly bowed, seemingly fuddled and confused by the complicated nature of his welcome, stepped into the light.
Then came a great wild female howl that stood my hair up and caught my breath. Mademoiselle charged, blue skirts flying, with such acceleration she almost knocked her hero back inside the prison walls. They stumbled, caught at each other. Reaching down he held her waist, or worse. Reaching up, she grasped his head like a pumpkin she might squash and drew him down to kiss him on his prison mouth. Tsk or not tsk? I did not know what I thought. I had not liked the fellow. I had been forced to wait like a courtier to beg his signature, but then he came to fight by my side in honor bound. Tsk or not tsk? He came toward us, his hand very frankly around his woman's waist. He was tall and springy in his step. He was older than he seemed. Both his left ear and his nose had been remodeled somewhere along the way, in a war perhaps, or in a tavern brawl, and yet it gave the man a peculiar hawkish distinction. He was a servant of the famous Monsieur, with whom he shared a certain hardness. He was wiry. His skin was much used, as if he were a farmer or a botanist adventurer, but there was a clear lucid quality in his frank green eyes which showed a sharp intelligence.
"Thank you," he said to me.
He bowed his head a little, with respect or irony I really could not say. I noticed he was a great deal taller than I had imagined.
I shook his hand, surprised to discover I was so happy to see him free.
"It is Mr. Peek you should thank," I said.
He looked to Peek, whom he knew by sight of course, having traveled with him on the boat. He nodded, rather curtly I thought, but then I noted that his cheek was bruised, so what gratitude did he owe to anyone for his incarceration?
"I cannot leave by myself," he said.
My English was not perfect. I thought: Naturally he wishes to make love to her.
"Of course," I cried. "You have your freedom. It should never have been taken from you."
"Monsieur," he said in that perfect aristocratic French he would mimic to disturb me, "there is an innocent boy in great danger. He has done no wrong. He will be murdered if he is not released."
But what could I do? I was not the American commissioner. I had already pushed diplomacy to its limits with my requests.
"No, monsieur," I said, regretting my smile, which must have made me look foolish and weak. "I have not the power to empty prisons."
"Then I return."
Don't threaten me, I thought, but before anyone could hinder him, he had rushed back into prison and his woman was in a great flood of tears, accusing me of God knows what, her patois was beyond the pale.
Then two women at me. The language. All the pompous officials in great consternation. Two warders, big pale creatures, came out into the light, shrugging their meaty shoulders and holding their palms upward.
O'Hara consulted his watch again. I wondered if it was his property.
The novelist scurried back inside the door of the Tombs, where he was intercepted it seemed, for his very comfortable backside remained on display to the crowd, as if he were a low comic in the rue du Temple. Peek took me firmly by the arm and moved me down the street, deeper into shadow.
"My dear Jesus," said he, a shocking expression from those lips.
The boy prisoner was brought out of the Tombs, although "boy" does nothing to conjure the creature that we observed, a great hulking lad of fifteen with a long chin, a low forehead, and the most awful way of standing as if he were being beaten with a rod. He was a strong fellow, yet his shoulders were rounded, his hands brought so close together he might have been in chains. His eyes and mouth were queerly small, and he stared out at the passing scene as Mr. Perroquet, placing his hand on the creature's shoulder, spoke urgently into his ear.
"This--" said Mr. Peek but he was interrupted by a clerk of the court, who explained to us that the boy's name was Joshua Boulton and he was required as a witness in a trial for murder. The court would be satisfied to give him to the surety of any of these gentlemen if they would feed him until the murderer was hanged.
While Mr. Peek was silently considering this offer, Monsieur Perroquet, his hair blazing in the sun, his hand still on the witness's shoulder, walked him to where the beauty stood. Those who heard them speak could not understand the language, but everyone saw that the woman gave the "boy" some coins and put her lips to his cheek.
As the boy turned, I thought, He is being sent to make his plea. Then he seemed to imagine he had been ordered to talk to the gentlemen outside the pawnshop.
I called, "No, come here."
He started, stared in my direction, made a strange hop, and fled--the most ungainly rush, all crunched shoulders, pigeon toes, ducking, darting in front of a brewery dray, into an alley no wider than a knife. And he was gone, like a cockroach in the narrow dark.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes