Parrot and Olivier in America, p.23Peter Carey
The arches into the dining room were trimmed with green and autumn leaves. Entering, one was immediately confronted by a great number of vases, also dressed with autumn leaves. Everything, in short, was very gay.
The native flora was not, however, the room's chief decoration, for that was a friend of the two daughters, Miss Godefroy, a visitor from Connecticut who clearly carried in her veins the triumph of those Vikings who had raided the British Isles so many centuries before and whose miscegenation had produced such startling effects that three hundred years later they had been the subject of those mad maps of hair color bequeathed to my mother by her brother Astolphe.
Seeing Miss Godefroy, my opinion of New York was changed immediately--that a creature like this one should walk the earth, straw-haired, blue-eyed, straight-backed, tall, strong, like a goddess but modest and gracious, perhaps even a little shy.
At the meal she was somehow placed between Mistress Perroquet and her mother while the Peek girls regaled me with what I do not know. I gave these two girls my full attention, noticing only that they both told me that Miss Godefroy was a daughter of Mr. Philip Godefroy who sat on the board of the Wethersfield Prison. What could be more perfect?
There was food. We ate.
There was piano and flute. The Miss Peekses' voices had not improved since the Havre.
After dinner I strolled with the master in his grounds, admiring his pigs and discussing my forthcoming trips to Philadelphia and Albany, so the best part of the afternoon was gone before I found myself walking with Miss Godefroy. How this happened I have no idea. I was delighted, shocked that this impropriety should be so easily permitted, fearful my companion would notice how far we had strayed from the terrace, where I noted Peek in deep conversation with Mistress Perroquet. I could not raise myself to protest.
Around us was the American autumn, in all its drunken wildness, like the colors of a savage or that impossible bird, the antipodean cassowary whose likeness Monsieur had sold to my mother while pretending it was a gift. Beyond the drive were carpets of green moss covered with red leaves. Miss Godefroy and I walked side by side, and now, so far enough from the house that no soul could see us, she spoke to me quietly. In French.
Good Lord. What music, what an endearing way to speak. She was sorry she did not have her Moliere so I could read it to her as it should be read, not in her poor colonial voice.
Was she flirting?
To ask the question is to not understand her.
She took each step as the first one of a dance. She kicked the red leaves and made them rise like birds. By the shoreline I saw Peek in close conversation with both Perroquets. What devilry he planned I could not say, nor could I hope to intercede. I had arrived, quite unexpectedly, in Paradise.
Enclosed by a landscape that no painter could portray, before my eyes lay--or rather shone--magnificent New York. At every moment steamships passed.
THERE WERE NOW four letters to be written. The first, in every sense, must be to the extraordinary Miss Godefroy. I made several drafts, whittling it like a convict with a love token until all the tumult of my heart was hidden in its plain design. In fifty-seven English words I informed the angelic creature that I was planning, as soon as this week, to pay a visit to the prison at Wethersfield, Connecticut, and was hoping I might there have an opportunity to not only interview her father on the subject of the prison he commanded, but continue our conversation of Moliere, whose works I would carry with me in a fine edition.
Next, a short note to my secretary, instructing him to transcribe this to a gilt paste card. To my relief he obeyed.
I then wrote to Miss Godefroy's father, introducing myself as the French commissioner and hoping I might interview him at his soonest convenience.
That done, I drafted a letter to the Quakers in Philadelphia, who expected me on Crooked Billet Wharf this coming Friday. I canceled them forthwith. It was to Mr. Vaux I wrote, asserting (not untruthfully) that I had heard so much in favor of the solitary system at their Eastern Prison, I thought it wiser that I first visit Wethersfield, Auburn, and Sing Sing, whose different systems, all being of the whip side of the aisle, so to speak, would provide a firm basis of comparison with his Eastern Prison. I hoped this change of plan would not discommode him or Mrs. Dougdale and the members of the Society for the Alleviation of the Miseries of the Public Prisons, but it would ensure I would finally come among them as a better-educated man.
Only with Blacqueville might I have been concise: Dear Friend, I am in love.
My mother was not to be confided in, of course--she had never forgotten the case of the Comte de Heudreville, who had returned to Paris with an American wife--and it made no difference that the poor creature was a Catholic or that her watercolors were of considerable delicacy. My mother's concern that I would faire comme Heudreville was so pronounced that seldom a letter passed between us where she did not inquire of the habits of American females. I was accustomed to replying in a manner that might seem, to those not privileged to know the Comtesse de Garmont, unduly frank.
"Dear Maman," I reassured her that Sunday night, "I have been here in New York and am leading the most active agitated life it is possible to imagine. I am overwhelmed by courtesies, burdened by visits, etc., etc. If I can escape the pursuit of my numerous friends, I throw myself on my ideas, set myself problems to solve, and lay the foundations of a great work which ought someday to make my reputation.
"I take my place at table, always served with meats more solid than well prepared, and around which are seated some very pretty persons, occasionally accompanied by some very ugly ones. You asked what is thought to be the great merit of women here. Well, Maman, it is this--to be very fresh-complexioned. Beyond that they have very few--or, rather, they have none at all--of those exterior charms which contribute so powerfully to elegance of figure, and whose noble form so pleases the educated eye.
"I don't know why I speak of their physical qualities, for you did not precisely inquire after them, and they are above all remarkable for their moral virtues. In general they are of very severe principle and irreproachable conduct.
"Evenings I go out into society. I see several American families fairly often, particularly that of Mr. Peek, our banker. He is the richest businessman in New York. I am received with infinite kindness in the Peek family. Mrs. Peek is a charming woman, as attractive as can be and flirtatious as you earlier foresaw. But I do not know and shall never know if her coquetry goes further. I am to go in several days to visit the prison at Sing Sing, which is only a few miles from New York. From there I travel to Wethersfield, Connecticut, and its famous prison, attended as always by M. de Tilbot's man whose legible hand allows you to read this very letter.
"If I went into society with intentions of pleasure or seduction, I could regard as lost the time I pass here. But as my resolutions are entirely opposed to this result, I find only profit in it. In the first place I inevitably learn the English language, for although many women affect to speak French, there are at least twenty with whom I have to speak English.
"I expect to write at greater length when on my way to Mr. Godefroy's prison at Wethersfield."
Of this dissembling I was not at all ashamed. Was it not my mother who engineered my departure from my natural society, and now I was here, was I not still a man? I might be safe from the so-called July Revolution, but I was not safe from love.
I lay in bed, the cool linens against my heated flesh, in the most delicious frame of mind. When my countrymen imagined America, they thought of savages and bears and presidents who would not wear wigs. Who among them could have conjured Miss Godefroy in all her beauty of form and elegance of mind, her wit, her delicacy, her slender ankles amidst those mad red leaves? Such were the unexpected turns of life, that I who had begun this journey in awful mourning, now lived again in the most delightful way.
I went to sleep very happy and in the morning, having been most surprisingly and p
I tipped him generously. Shortly after, he was off inquiring about steamers to Sing Sing where Elam Lynds was--as I had heard a thousand times--using the labor of two hundred convicts to build their own prison. He would be the first step on my way to the Godefroys of Wethersfield.
By evening the servant had purchased our tickets at the slip, and had informed Mme Parrot that he would be away in pursuit of his duties. In all this he was exemplary, and there were no more signs of the rebellion I had glimpsed in his eyes aboard the Havre. He made inquiries about boardinghouses in Sing Sing and the climate in the mountains along the Hudson, ensured we were well provisioned, pasted labels on the trunks, and visited Schermerhorn Row so he would know exactly where we would board Mr. Fulton's famous steamer. I did nothing more myself than attempt, unsuccessfully, three sketches of Miss Godefroy.
Then two things happened in quick succession. First I was visited by Mr. Peek, who exhibited a coldness toward me that I found extremely odd.
Only when he produced my unopened letter to Miss Godefroy did I begin to understand.
"She has departed," he said.
"Exactly as expected," he said severely.
I looked into his gray eyes and saw there a mighty stew and puzzle.
"She has returned to her own home," he said. Then I understood. Peek was a father. He had sat me at lunch between his own two beauties. Had he imagined I would marry one of them? He was insulted on their behalf.
"Very well," said I. "Do you have another address where I might reach Mr. Godefroy?"
"The prison," he said.
I thought, You are an ill-mannered fool if you think you can stop me like this--and as for your dreadful daughters, are you a madman? And yet I must soon begin the work of pacifying him, for he would be an inconvenient enemy.
None of this was pleasant, but then the morning post brought a most desperate letter from Mr. Vaux in Philadelphia, in which he threw himself on my mercy, explaining that a meeting of fifty gentlemen had determined the course of my visit and it would be a distinct embarrassment to the cause of the penitentiary system in general and the Eastern Prison in particular if I was not at the Crooked Billet Wharf on the date I had promised.
So I must go to the damn Quakers. What agony to postpone the pleasure I knew was truly mine. For I had seen her soul, the excitement in her cheeks in which, illuminated by the glow of blood, were revealed the palest, finest, most exquisite markings--not freckles, not even of that genus.
In a great passion I wrote, it seemed, a hundred letters--to Mr. Vaux, the Peek girls, Mr. Peek, Mrs. Peek, O'Hara, Mr. Elam Lynds--but toward the object of my affections... I must be patient.
Very early on the following Thursday morning I was on the pier opposite Schermerhorn Row, where, with the low mist a perfect garment for my mood, Mr. Parrot and I boarded the Raritan and set off in the opposite direction to the one my heart would have me go. That is, we churned our way to New Brunswick, then transferred to what had been advertised as a stage wagon with good awning, a disgusting contraption as it turned out. I was at Bordentown that evening, lovesick, sore, and dirty, and the steamboat Phoenix was already at its wharf, tooting impatiently for us like a bull who wishes admittance to where he should not go. Finally, having spent ten dollars and twenty-six miserable hours, we arrived, soon after nine on a Friday morning, at the Crooked Billet Wharf in Philadelphia.
AS THE PHOENIX approached the dock I saw five severe gentlemen in those ridiculous clerical hats. Dear God, I thought, I hope they are not my reception committee. What dry and juiceless creatures, wrapped like ravens, furled like umbrellas in the low sad mist. Perhaps Miss Godefroy has a wharf at Wethersfield and it would appear the same--an identical honking of the geese, for instance, an awful mooing from the shore--but it would be her geese, her cattle, her home, her mist, each drop of mist with its own aura. This awful hollow loneliness in my bones, this ache would not be there.
To my mother's great distress I had become what is called a deist, but how I now longed for a Catholic household. It was not dogma I sought, but to breathe air made of such subtle emanations that I might not even detect the true source of my own well-being. Now, I thought, I will be incarcerated in Philadelphia with Protestants who have built the kindest prison ever conceived, at a cost--I did not need Peek's equation for this--of two thousand dollars for every felon, at which price the state could equally afford to house them in a handsome riverside cottage with a dozen fat pigs and red leaves arranged in wreaths in vases every way you turn.
What use was this to France, or me? I knew the answer but must still investigate, and after so short a time in the country, I could accurately predict the room of documents, the pale gray ribbon, the bound reports that awaited me onshore, including but not limited to proclamations and minutes of those dreadful American associations. Was it O'Hara or was it Peek who claimed these free associations were the bones of their handsome democracy? Perhaps this is so in the giddy present, but let us wait to see them blossom as instruments of unrest and sedition. I will be gone by then, I thought.
And yet was not my hand playing with the letter to Miss Godefroy, a pristine article when it first left my boardinghouse, since spurned by Peek, defiled by his paternal hand, and now twisted and smudged by the ink-marked fingers of the lovelorn French commissioner? And what if my feelings were returned by Miss Godefroy? How catastrophic to be in love.
Master Parrot stood at my side at the rail. Was it solicitude he seemed to emanate? Had he seen me walk beside Miss Godefroy? Had he observed the color in my cheeks? How diligently he had attended me on this turbulent journey, carried my trunk, secured my seat on the stage, belligerently pursued my comfort in the awful hotel.
The Phoenix met the Crooked Billet Wharf with a loud bang, and the Parrot's hand was on my shoulder. I thought, He knows I am in love.
On the wharf the members of the Society for the Alleviation of the Miseries of the Public Prisons awaited us--Mr. Vaux, Mr. Washington-Smith, Mr. Devlin, Mr. Weatherspoon, and another chap whom I took to be their clerk, a deracinated Frenchman. I took particular note of this M. Duponceau, an old man of light frame, a little belly, a mane of gray hair, mouth ascetic but humorous, eyes clear and very lively. I thought, Did you fall in love, long ago, poor exiled creature?
Behold The Welcome of the French Commissioner to Philadelphia. The Crooked Billet Inn stands behind us. A dog gazes at the sky. There is the usual confusion of meeting and greeting.
For me, there was only the question of how to introduce my traveling companion. "This," I said, "is my secretaire, Mr. Larrit." And I found myself interrogated by that gentleman's frank green eyes. Damn the scoundrel, would he be amused by me? His face was marked with sun and wind and all manner of those rough irregularities that time puts on the bark of trees, but if he was forty or fifty I could not say. And of course it is inevitable among my class that time and time again we will conceive a generous affection for those who will later cut our throats.
In Philadelphia I learned that my boardinghouse had lost its roof the night before but that I should not be in the least concerned. The association's papers had all been saved, and there was now a new house set aside for my use. To this end we were to be conveyed by the queer old Frenchman, and later we would endure the amusements which are the lot of a French commissioner and would include, as time would show, a French play on Napoleon presented by an appalling troupe from New Orleans, a lecture at the historical society, a dinner at the home of Mr. Vaux, and a musical soiree in the home of Mr. Walsh.
We were dispatched by the Quakers with promises of a prompt reunion. Mr. Duponceau then drove us in his own coach, so I was left to silently grapple with the problem of how to get my letter to Miss Godefroy. It was a very considerable concern that she
This problem whirled round and round as the wheels of Duponceau's coach brought us up in the direction of Chestnut Street where we would stay.
Philadelphia had been conceived in the style of an English rural town, one where houses and businesses would be spread far apart and surrounded by gardens and orchards. So thought Mr. Penn and Mr. Penn alone. In the absence of others of a superior class to set the tone, the city's inhabitants, in pursuit of their own profit, crowded by the Delaware River and subdivided and resold their lots as many times as you can fold a piece of paper. Thus, while the grand center of the town is often praised as the birthplace of American democracy, it is only at the waterfront that one views the consequences of majority rule.
It was a pretty cottage--the home of Mr. Vaux's nephew, kindly vacated the previous day after the boardinghouse catastrophe--and so we three went to the parlor, as the main room of a middle-class house is called, while our trunks were stowed and Mr. Duponceau--Frenchman that he was--produced a bottle of Burgundy which he indicated, this being a house of teetotalers, he would open and serve himself when the maid had left us.
Thus three unlikely characters were joined together, and I was pleased to interrogate our guide who was, he confessed, no part of the Quakers or their prisons but someone trotted out, as he picturesquely put it, to speak to those Frenchmen who happened to visit the birthplace of the nation.
We sat on chairs designed by a people who judged it a sin for a man to sit for long. I asked Duponceau where a Frenchman might buy a copy of Moliere in his own language.
This produced such a sharp look that I suddenly feared him to be of that eccentric party of which my mother was a prominent representative--that is, those who still agree with the archbishop of Paris who, in 1667, forbade involvement with Tartuffe on pain of excommunication.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes