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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.22
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.22

           Peter Carey
 

  In response to this, the fragrant Mademoiselle Mathilde Christian kissed me on the cheek. And Mr. Peek proposed a little ride.

  II

  EVEN INSIDE PEEK'S CARRIAGE, among the manly odors of leather and tobacco, the departed beauty remained in my mind's eye just as the light fragrance of her kiss stayed on my skin. Why this was so familiar, I did not know. Was it the drape of her light dress, with its very clear suggestion of the naked form? Or was it the sturdy well-formed calves, the little feet?

  You see already where the "memory" came from--Marianne, the wanton warrior of Delacroix, her pagan breasts bare to the sky, the musket and bayonet in her hand. I had seen her in that bloodthirsty painting at its vernissage. And the runaway devil with a pistol and those piles of broken bodies, which made a mound, a plinth, a pulpit for the Revolution.

  As Peek's carriage macerated the fresh green grass which grew ever hopeful between the cracks of cobbles, the banker placed his hand on my knee and declared himself well pleased that we had released my cosignatory. I was shocked he would think this entire performance had been undertaken for so base a purpose.

  Certainly I could not say a word about Marianne. Nor was it proper for me to express my low opinion of a society in which money was all that might guarantee an innocent man justice.

  This was not the better future I had sought with such faint heart. It was certainly not the system of American law as it had previously been laid out for me like precious silver at our municipal luncheons. Only the single egg spot on the banker's chin gave the clue that all was not as it should be at this interim.

  My thoughts regarding Marianne, touching as they did both politics and philosophy, did not seem appropriate for the occasion. Yet I could not refrain from some observations on the subject of the runaway boy, for there was something vile about the creature's very form, as if his limbs, being bound from birth, had shaped him as criminal. One needed only to glimpse him lurch and slither into that narrow lightless lane to know he would return to the nest of contagion unreformed and further spread the strain of criminality through the veins and arteries of his society.

  Peek listened to this opinion politely, but when I had finished he patted my leg once more.

  "Watch," said he. "He will end up president."

  In other circumstances I would have thought this insolent or mad. However, I beheld his high forehead, his noble nose, his strong chin, and recognized the proud man who told me he would not break the rules of his bank and that he held its laws above all those of common friendship. I had thought him the perfect specimen of Yankee Puritan, and indeed I had recently discovered that he and his family were very strict about the Sabbath, and I had already seen him upset by a neighbor who had used a Sunday to split wood for his wife's oven.

  "This boy was not a criminal," he told me now. "He was an innocent witness, and as such he was in great danger. It is better done like this."

  "He will end up president?"

  "As Americans, we must allow the possibility. He may simply end up rich. My dear Olivier, this is not your ancient France. But if it were, that boy--if he showed similar initiative--might take possession of half the lands along the Loire. If he works hard. There are countless acres of America owned by no one, waiting to be taken. You want our American Avignon, it is empty. It is yours. I give it to you."

  I thought this childish and ignorant. I reminded him I had seen this boy. There had been not one fine thing about him, not even a cheap facsimile of nobility. While one might possibly take Peek and cast him in a play and have him, so long as he spoke only English, play the part of a comte, you could do no such thing with that lumpen child.

  "That boy, Peek," I said, properly eschewing the use of his Christian name, "you cannot hold him up as the seed of a new nation. If he is your exemplar, the experiment is doomed."

  "Experiment," he cried, laughing too violently for my taste. "There is no experiment. We make this transformation every day. It is called rags to riches. Have you never heard of it? Why, I could put him in a house. I have a house for him. I could make that boy a loan. He could work and pay it back."

  "I do not believe you."

  "Well, don't frown so, my dear Olivier. If you do not like this boy, why not your valued servant or his buxom little wife?"

  "I am not sure she is his wife."

  "So much the better," he said, and I caught an odd excitement in those careful gray eyes. As so often, when we detect signs of base passions in those whom we expect to be beyond the siren call, I was discomforted. "There," he said. "I will put her in a house."

  I must have blushed, for he caught himself.

  "Sir," he said, "you misunderstand me. Actuarially, she is superior. She is a better credit risk than her mate."

  I was becoming very weary of this national manner of joking, where the main point, by dint of boastfulness and exaggeration, was to make the visitor appear a fool. And all this in the service of some ignorant notion of American superiority.

  "Why lend to either of them?"

  "Did you not observe her on the ship?"

  I thought, What did he see? What does he know? "She was a dreadful flirt," I said, "as you must know yourself."

  "I thought her very able at her business."

  I suppose I made a face. Certainly I found the whole conversation so disagreeable that I expected he would understand and let it drop. But he was not French.

  "Do you know how many women run boardinghouses in this city?" he persisted. "Let me tell you: one hundred and fifty. I would lend to almost all of them. This girl. She painted you."

  Yes, I thought, and now I was embarrassed. In any case, she never finished anything one could put on the wall at rue Saint-Dominique.

  "I know how much you paid her," he insisted. "I know how much the others paid. Now, do you know how many of her portraits one could commission in this city this afternoon?"

  "If one were a fine painter, hundreds possibly." I thought, Money, money, money.

  "Did I not hear you declare yourself very happy with your likeness?"

  Peek had been born on Staten Island but he was clearly of the Anglo-Saxon race, which, in these matters, likes nothing better than a pile of dead rabbits as the subject of their art. In any case, I could not discuss the art of painting with a farmer.

  Peek was smiling amiably, and one could deny neither the deep power revealed by those gray eyes, nor the amiability of his character and I reminded myself that he was indeed a rich man and a banker. Had I not seen his Doric columns?

  We left the cobblestones. We journeyed through a dismal streetscape of vacant lots and raw timber structures in such disarray that one could not tell if these were new houses being constructed or old ones pulled by dentist's pliers.

  I had not known America would look like this. In my innocence I had hoped to find here a model for the future of France, or at least some sign as to how, if democracy was unstoppable, we might at least safeguard our future with certain principles or institutions.

  Yet all I had learned was that when the mob was allowed to rule, a second mob sprang up beneath them, and the difference between the Americans and French is that the Americans do not need to steal from their fellows when they can roam the countryside in bands, cutting trees and taking wealth. Anyone can claim a site for his chateau, whether he be a night soil man or a portraitist.

  "Look here," Peek cried, and thumped his fist on the roof. His driver brought us to a halt in a forlorn place: the intersection of many tracks and roads, vacant lots, a blacksmith's forge, brambles, a stand of maples.

  "See," he cried. "I could set her up there. She could have a studio."

  Mr. Peek had seemed such a straight stick, but his stick now seemed to be like a dog's or duck's. In thinking this, of course, I was aware of what passions the woman had aroused in my own loins.

  "Perhaps," I said, "it would be more sensible to lend it to her husband."

  "But you said he is not her husband. In any case, you might need to tak
e that man away, no?" I refused to look at him. "But she has a future here. I'll show you another spot," he cried, banging on the roof until we left the desolate sight behind us.

  I believe that was Union Place, which later made Mr. Ruggles such a grand man in New York.

  As we rolled and bucked our way farther up the island, I was at once shocked and relieved to find evidence that the Protestant was not quite as severe as I had feared. I thought, He is going to put his Marianne in a petite maison. It was a joke on Delacroix, at least.

  "Mr. Peek," I said, "my English is poor and sometimes I make a foreigner's mistake. I know you are a banker, monsieur. Am I right in thinking that you are suggesting you will loan money to my servant's mistress in order solely that she buy a house, and you do this--forgive me, I must be plain--with no ulterior motive?"

  He looked at me and roared with laughter, slapping my knee again. I thought he laughed much too loud and slapped too hard. My knee was rather stung.

  "You mean, sir, am I a scoundrel or a fool? I am neither. Now look." He drew a pencil from his pocket and thumped upon the ceiling, and when the coach had stilled he opened a notebook and began to write, speaking as he formed his letters.

  "The business of land in Manhattan," he said, "is mathematical. I am a mathematical man. It is my hobby and my interest, and I do not mean arithmetic. Do you read Mr. Newton's calculus, sir?"

  "I know of it."

  "Well, first the A plus B. Arithmetic. Immigration to America increases thirty thousand persons annually. Seventy percent of these immigrants come through New York."

  "I understand."

  "Then you understand too quickly. The workers stay close to jobs; the people with the money are moving out, here and here, farther from the city. Now can you read what I have written?"

  It was as follows: h(t) = Xitb.

  "The first equation," he said, "expresses the quantity of housing (in logs) as a linear function of the attributes X of housing unit i."

  Blah-blah, I thought. What this means I do not know, except it has a nasty smell of freemasonry--the strange symbols, the mathematics, their use in the service of a prophecy.

  "You could predict the price--Xit--of a Manhattan lot in any given year."

  A farmer spouting calculus. That is what it is like with Americans. The moment you think you understand a man's character, then you are a foreign fool.

  Ph(t) = -dt bT = o

  "It is Greek to me," I joked.

  "Ah, but it is Greek," he said, the autodidact.

  "But no matter what the equation, it makes no sense to lend money to a debtor who will almost certainly default."

  "Ah," said he, "spoken like a banker. Spoken like my good friends who are busy lending money to each other, but your painter will pay me back for a year, for two years, for three years. I will do very well. The moment she defaults why it is back to

  Ph(t) = -dt bT = o

  "The land is worth a fortune. I have a house on Sixteenth Street and then I make money again."

  At which he thumped on the roof once more and we traveled for half a mile, after which he thumped again. We had arrived in a muddy track with a tall thin house beside it, all alone, with its arms and elbows pressed hard against its clapboard sides. From this structure a family was carrying tables and beds and mattresses and loading them on a cart, an operation that had clearly been in progress for some time. The harried man of the house kneeled to pick up a stone which he then hurled, his face contorted with a horrid rage, shattering the front window of the vacated cottage.

  "Get your head down," said Peek quietly.

  I assumed myself a potential object of attack, but then I understood the banker wished to fetch the musket, which--together with an axe--was affixed to the carriage behind my head. In a moment he had set the charge and dropped the ball.

  "Watch," he whispered, and put his barrel out the window.

  He fired.

  I heard a whinny, a curse, and the cart took off down the road.

  "Owning New York property," said the banker, replacing the musket on its shelf, "is a science."

  So I understood this house was his property and he had foreclosed.

  Thus we descended to inspect the site and, while defending his right to resume his own property, I was shocked by Peek's animal spirits. Only then did I understand that his excitement was not caused by the eviction--which had, in any case, already taken place--but the plump pigeon he had shot from the carriage window. And even this I did not understand correctly, for the source of his most un-Protestant pleasure was that he had dropped the pigeon close by the horse and the horse had shied and bolted, thus removing his debtors from the site of their loan. And with this achievement he was as happy as a child. He held the pigeon high for me to see.

  "Not bad," cried he.

  I thought, A little house for Marianne. It was a considerable idea that had escaped the attention of the Revolution.

  III

  SEVERAL DAYS THEREAFTER I returned to my boardinghouse to find Master Perroquet waiting on the stoop. "Sir," said the former prisoner, rising slowly to his feet. "I have decided to remain in your service until you are safely settled."

  "Indeed," I said, thinking it impossible I had heard correctly.

  "I have informed the Marquis de Tilbot."

  It appeared that this strange hard creature was now dismissing me. "That is damned civil of you," I said.

  The green eyes remained steady and unblinking, but could that subterranean expression be a smile?

  "I thought so," he said.

  "Very well," I said, thinking I will not be dismissed by a servant, "you must let me consider your offer."

  "While your lordship is considering," he mimicked my way of speaking, "perhaps he would enjoy signing some papers at the bank."

  "But I hesitate to intrude on your time," I told the rogue, how I wished him still in jail. "When might you be free?"

  "Why," cried he, all beaming good-nature, "at once, immediately."

  What could I do but laugh? He laughed along with me, and perhaps his intention was benevolent for all I knew. It was still a mystery minutes later when the impossible villain and I were seated as equals at the Bank of New York. Here he produced a sheet of arithmetic which explained what he had earned by day and week, indicating Tilbot's customary tip. Was I being served or robbed, I did not know, or even care. I paid him. He signed. I drew an order for Mr. Peek, to repay him all his loan. This too Parrot and Olivier signed together. Who could have imagined such an extraordinary world? I waited for him to declare that he had ordered some change in the financial instruments, but not a word, and how could I possibly ask him. I watched him saunter down Broadway intent on what further fraud I did not know, but I knew I would never see the crook again.

  Yet the following day he was back at my stoop.

  "You continue in my service yet?" I inquired not kindly.

  Mr. Peek, he announced, had invited me to visit him at Peek Farm for luncheon on the following day, a Saturday. "When will we be starting, sir?" he asked.

  We? I stared at his brand-new frock coat and gray waistcoat. Then I saw the invitation contained the directive that I bring my servant and his wife. Peek would send a carriage for us all. My heart sank at the sheer awfulness of it--Olivier de Garmont delivering a woman like a common pimp. Quite clearly Peek had plans for her.

  So I was completely prepared, on the morrow, to find the buxom Mistress Parrot aboard but I was not at all happy to learn that we must also be accompanied by her mother, who would chew raw garlic and parsley while giving her harsh commentary on the passing scene.

  "Broadway, puh!" she cried, as we passed Canal Street. She declared it no better than a cart track in Aubagne.

  I could hardly blame the Americans for the coarseness of a French peasant, and yet all this malodorous egalite depressed me awfully. She wished to converse with me, and I could not stop her. Could monsieur not see where a drunken coachman had argued the best way to get around a bog? Or
cross that stream? And that disputed track--it set off as a detour, then wandered down the hill like a soldier who has lost his wits. He was drunk, monsieur, sozzled, there he is, off into the glen. Mathilde, regardez the wilderness, the fol Americain has built a house.

  "Please, madame, I would prefer that you did not hit my knee."

  And then she was in a huff. It was too grotesque for words, and I certainly had no idea that this would be the most significant day of my life. It was October, and the trees were aflame with passion and all I could think was that the air was filled with molds and fungi that would precipitate a crise.

  It was not hot enough to make my nose bleed, but it was a very rough journey to Peek's farm which was located at what may have become by now--if the New York Commissioners' Street Plan has any real authority--land bordered by East Forty-eighth on the south and East Fifty-sixth Street on the north. Emerging in bad temper from the wilderness, I found a silky driveway, a wooded ravine, a mature orchard, a clear narrow rocky stream running through native grasses. We rattled across a dam wall, came upon a rise from which we enjoyed the grand prospect across the East River to Blackwell's Island. Were my spirits lifted? Not at all. Along the shores of a little cove grew a number of pretty trees in low situations, quite green, very still, and through the leaves the white sand of a beach. I viewed them sourly. When, in a moment, I beheld the Peek mansion I was pleased only because its size reduced the old woman to stunned silence.

  In the grand foyer I renewed my acquaintance with Mrs. Peek and her stringy daughters.

  "So," said my creditor immediately, "we must take the tour."

  This, it appears, is the American custom, to escort one's visitors from room to room like an auctioneer. Even the meanest object will have some story, and the grandest ones a price. I noted that the so-called library held no books, the furniture had been copied from engravings, and, of the six paintings in the thirty-four rooms, three of them had been painted aboard the Havre. And this was the home of one of New York's foremost citizens.

 
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