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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.24
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.24

           Peter Carey
 

  "Monsieur," I said, "if the name Moliere offends you, I wish I never spoke it."

  "On the contrary," he said, but his manner was not warm. "It fills me with unlimited admiration. Generally," he said, "it is only Germans who defame the great writer. It was August Wilhelm von Schlegel who made a reputation by writing that Moliere was a buffoon, that Racine likewise was of no account, that the French were the most prosaic people of the world, and that there was no poetry in France."

  His speaking voice was light and a little high, and together with his slight frame and lively eyes made one think of a schoolteacher, a priest, an antiquarian. He had that look you see in seminarians, that straight mouth, the bright gray combative eyes, fast as a twinkle, one of those clever little boys rescued from the farm or fishing boat.

  "Wordsworth was as bad," said the peculiar servant.

  "Indeed," said Duponceau.

  A servant quoting literature, a Parrot, Perroquet. A Parrot rather, for in my sence he talks by roat.

  "He went right off the French," the so-called secretaire explained to me.

  "But how would you conceivably know this?" I asked.

  "A light but cruel race, Coleridge called us," interrupted M. Duponceau, and in so doing filled the servant's glass to spilling. There is nothing worse than those public fairs where one's tenants drink too heavily and forget, as the saying is, what side their bread is buttered on.

  "Let me explain my reaction to your query," said M. Duponceau, forcing his Burgundy through his teeth like a merchant and holding his glass--one of those American thimbles--up to the light as if to let his customers see the quality of the color. My God, I thought, he is going to spit.

  "It is very well known to those Quaker gentlemen that I have a library." He swallowed. "Beside my own linguistic interests--Chinese particularly--I most highly value our great French writers. When I was a child in Saint-Martin-de-Re it was the English language I loved, so the seminarians called me l'Anglais, but today nothing affords me more pleasure than to read Moliere and, wherever possible, to dissuade my American friends from attempting any theatrical performance whatsoever."

  I thought, This is the man for me.

  "For those not easily dissuaded, monsieur, I bring them to my table and read to them, aloud, in the only language in which it should be known. If I looked askance just now, it was because they once brought to my house a famous visitor, we need not say his name, of a family as noble as your own, sir," and here he nodded his head and acknowledged that I understood exactly of whom he spoke. "He was brought to me with an inquiry like your own. I lent this noble lord my copy of The Misanthrope and he, reading it while walking in the hills, fell asleep, was woken by a rainstorm, and fled."

  My God, I thought, this is wonderful. What is a little water damage in a case like this? I will get the copy from him. I will read for her.

  "And it was destroyed," he said.

  Was this true?

  Carefully I let him know I had been raised in a great library like his own. Of course this was gross flattery. His own library, by necessity, must be the collection of an exile, put together with great difficulty in thirty years or less. But I wished him to understand that the poorest item in his library would be safe with a Garmont.

  When this got me nowhere I asked him to direct me to a bookseller where I might purchase a good copy of, perhaps, Tartuffe.

  "Well," said he, pursing his lips, "that can be a subject for inquiry."

  So, I thought, he owns an edition of Tartuffe. He will trust me with it. He will. I will ensure it, and just as well, for I have no other scheme than to recite Moliere upon the hills of Wethersfield.

  VI

  ON THE DAY FOLLOWING I was invited to a musical soiree at the home of Mr. Walsh, a very distinguished Philadelphian. They sang well enough, which is to say that neither American men nor women figured in the concert, and all the entertainment was provided by an Italian and some Frenchwomen. The Americans, who are by nature as cold as ice, were throughout tempted to regard the Italian amateur as a lunatic, because he, while singing, gesticulated a great deal and assumed dramatic attitudes. The concert ended in some waltzes and quadrilles.

  At its conclusion I was introduced to the redoubtable Mrs. Dougdale, who could not have been further from the emaciated figure I had imagined. She said she was perfectly convinced that the Negroes were of the same race as us, just as a black cow is of the same race as a white one. The Negro children show as much intelligence as the white ones; often they learn faster. I asked her if the blacks had citizens' rights. She answered, "Yes, in this state, in law, but they cannot present themselves at the poll."

  "Why so?"

  "They would be ill-treated."

  "And what happens to the rule of law in that case?"

  "The law with us is nothing if it is not supported by public opinion."

  So, again--the majority.

  There was not a drop of wine at the soiree, a lack I remarked on to my countryman as we walked through the streets of his occasionally handsome city. M. Duponceau said that the Quakers will touch nothing, but those of the other party are even worse, as they tipple, for the most part, on sweet Canary wine. Sometimes a port or Madeira is offered, although much of that is watered by the boatmen who see it as their right to sample the wares they transport. As there is some ancient enmity by the majority for the better classes, this "tax" is accepted by those who must pay. Old Duponceau, speaking in an eccentric mixture of French and English, confessed himself the loneliest man in Philadelphia, for although he had a cellar of first-rate wines from Medoc, Graves, and Bourgogne, none of his fellows would even feign to enjoy what he offered them.

  I thought perhaps he had no palate, for what decent wine would survive the journey here? I asked what his guests refused.

  "De la Fite."

  "Dear Duponceau." I bowed to him. "I would be honored to be your friend." At which the frock-coated Larrit seconded my vote--a sommelier, no doubt--and all three of us, quite suddenly, in spite of our very separate circumstance of wealth and education, were united by this fondness for Patrie and Terroir and fairly galloped along the streets of Philadelphia, a charming city, very favorable to those who have no carriage, since all the streets are bordered with wide sidewalks, and its sole defect is to be monotonous in its beauty.

  All the edifices are neat, kept up with extreme care, and have all the freshness of new buildings, and M. Duponceau's house, when we reached it, presented its face to the street with a very Quakerish humility. The entire edifice was the work of saws and hammers.

  There were two floors, no evidence of an attic, eight windows to face the unchristened street, and a door placed in the center as if a child had drawn it there.

  And so I entered, imagining I knew the character and standing of our host.

  The hallway was as you would expect, not even a rug to hide its timbers. The walls were gray, the ceiling white, as in a nunnery. Only at its most distant extreme, almost beyond the penumbra of our host's lantern, was there a door to break the monotony of our passage. I followed him into a dark room redolent of some as yet unidentifiable luxury. Here I watched in blank astonishment as my exiled countryman, a little bent, moved from lamp to lamp and, with every lighted wick, revealed more and more of a library which, I now realized, occupied almost one half of the ground floor of this considerable house. Of its two longest walls only one was broken, and here by the single door through which we had entered. On these walls the source of the luxurious aroma was clearly visible--books, more books. At first I thought the smell buff-colored, but it would not be that simple. And oh, the wonderful variety of those smells. Old copies redolent of the ancien regime, the glossier volumes of laboratories and gases, the American editions with floral perfumes, wig powder, candle wax, and all of them radiating glue and calf leather like tuberose on a summer's evening. I noticed a bright red cloth binding with the name of Diderot, but for the most part the spines were tan and beige and umber, each one holding the g
olden name of a philosopher or poet (and there was the great Lavoisier, beheaded in the Revolution) familiar since my birth, and if the entire effect was contradicted by a ladder that had clearly begun its life in the unlettered company of a house painter, then could there be a better counterargument for a democracy where greed might tear the land apart but still the low could climb so high?

  In the center of the room, well curtained from the scrupulously moral street, was a green baize table and around it were placed, as if for the use of studious friends, four well-cushioned chairs. Our host pushed three of these into an untidy group, and here Larrit and I were instructed to sit and await the pleasures of Medoc. While Duponceau descended the stairs I imagined his cellar, like a deep reflection in a pond, a secret mirror of the library with dusty bottles in the place of fragrant books. Having learned that M. Duponceau had begun his life as a poor draper's son who had learned his English from the soldiers stationed in Saint-Martin-de-Re, I was given one of those dazzling visions of America, sufficient to make one abandon one's necessary fears. I sat with my hands in my lap, contemplating the paint-splattered ladder with the kind of ardor more suited to a study of the lives of saints.

  On the high baize table there were two books, positioned in such a way that I could easily read their spines, and it appeared to me that this placement was not accidental. These volumes, at about the level of my eye, had been provided like a book of poetry beside a visitor's bed. The first appeared to be one of those folio editions, so beloved by my mother, of antipodean botany, but it was the second I understood to have been chosen with my interests in mind. Oeuvres de Moliere avec des remarques grammaticales, des avertissements et des observations sur chaque piece, par M. Bret. I took it to my lap. It had its own smells of goatskin and glue--one could imagine the artisans who made it, almost certainly in the service of a noble family--and it was very clear to me, leafing through the heavy paper, that they, who never read a book, had known themselves in the service of the eternal.

  "Ah-hah," our host cried from the door. He had two bottles in his left hand and a third in the right and with this latter treasure the dear bright-eyed madman pointed.

  I thought, Do not shake the bottle, sir.

  "There." He pointed. "There." He shook. "You have your Tartuffe, sir."

  Swiftly I returned M. Moliere to his proper place while Duponceau, drawing corks, decanting, pouring with a splash that had the wine foaming like a bath--not elegant but doubtless efficient in achieving what he later called "a damn good airing"--provided me an account of the volume's publication. I listened with some discomfort, thinking there are wine bores and book bores. I much preferred the former. As to the Tartuffe, what a great fool I would appear if I presented myself at Wethersfield with this monster edition in my pocket.

  "So," said Duponceau, who had finally come to the end of his educational address. "So here is to the great Moliere."

  "To Moliere." I drank.

  "To Moliere," said Larrit, and, standing awkwardly, asked if he also might be permitted to examine the book. In speaking he assumed, in imitation of our host, a light and delicate if misshapen form of French, and I was given cause to wonder how the lines of Tartuffe might sound in the chamber of his parrot's mind. This was but a moment's speculation, and I was not sorry that a book would remove him from the conversation. Democracy brings with it tensions and anxieties I could never have predicted, so many of them, and more varieties than all the butterflies in the Bottom Hundred.

  Duponceau and I chatted or chattered. I bemoaned the palates of the Philadelphians who had called his Medoc cold and sour. Miraculously, it was free of sediment, and rushed into my glass at that perfect stage of life. In a year it would be a dowager with a faded old corsage, but as it entered my mouth it was vigorous and manly, completely composed, its orchestra all present and correct. Oh heavens, that such small things make a man so happy. I revealed to my host my plan to interview each of the forty-two prisoners in the Quaker prison. He told me it was well known that the cost of the famous outer wall was $200,000, a little under a third of the entire cost of the prison.

  We finished a bottle and he decanted another.

  "I have heard it asserted," I said, holding high my glass, admiring its treasure--gorgeous garnet fading, toward the rim, to the color of a brick. "I have heard it asserted," I said--although this was not true--"that in general you have appointed incompetent people to run your undertakings."

  "I have appointed?"

  "Have you not become an American?"

  "Indeed it appears so," sighed M. Duponceau. "And yes, what you have heard is commonly said. Seldom does the choice fall on an able man. All official positions are given for political reasons; the spirits of faction and intrigue grow here as they do under monarchies. Only the master is different."

  Throughout all this the peculiar Larrit said not a word. I thought, He is paid to spy on me. He is reporting to Monsieur who is writing to my mother. Well, let him. He stood at table like an egret, his shoulders hunched, his wine untouched, leafing very slowly through the book. So strange was this behavior, I did not know whether to keep my first opinion or to be upset by his ill manners.

  "You are here to study the Americans," Duponceau said, as he refreshed my glass. "There are nice distinctions that may not yet be obvious to you, although this will be very clear in time, and here is one: Our morality in France is shaped by each man's knowledge that he is shut in a certain sphere from which he does not hope to escape."

  I thought, He makes it sound like a prison.

  "Here," he said, "the road to riches and fortune is open to everybody, no matter from where they start."

  I thought, Why must everyone tap my knee?

  "So there is a restlessness of spirit and a greed for wealth which it would be hard for you to understand."

  I thought, Miss Godefroy. Restlessness of spirit.

  "Yes, you must appreciate that everybody in America wants to grow rich and rise in the world, and there is no one who does not believe in his power to succeed. From that there springs a wearisome social activity, ever-changing intrigues, continual excitement, and an uncontrolled desire of each to outdo the others."

  "But in all this frenzy," said I, "what becomes of equality?"

  "Equality exists only in the marketplace," answered M. Duponceau.

  "Good grief," cried Larrit.

  He was now kneeling on the floor, peering closely at the book.

  Duponceau appeared distressed. I quickly changed the subject, asking where I might buy a pocket book or duodecimo of Tartuffe.

  "I doubt they translate him," said he, "although they should, for there is a great deal in Tartuffe that you would recognize in Philadelphia."

  "I will read it in the language it was born in."

  "Then you must write to France."

  "I have no time."

  Duponceau cocked his head. I could not tell whether I had offended his notions of Art and Time or if he could somehow look into my soul and see Miss Godefroy.

  "Very well," he said at last. "You must send your man to New York. You may be lucky."

  I thought, Good heavens, I cannot send him to New York. Who could guess what Peek is up to with his painter wife? And yet look at him, I thought. He was kneeling on the floor. He was sighing, and exclaiming. Now he stood. With the rare volume in both hands, he turned toward us. I thought, His hair looks mad. I will send him to New York.

  "I did this," he cried.

  He stood there: Brother Egret at the lectern, the book held wide in his big hands, his eyes alight, and on his face the most alarming smile.

  "This work is mine."

  VII

  IT IS A RELATIVELY EASY MATTER to estimate a person's intelligence just by looking at him, or so I had thought until my interrogation of John Larrit in the library of M. Duponceau.

  To see him there, his eyes bright as a boy's, the heavy folio edition held reverently in his weathered leathern hands, was to doubt one's own judgment.


  "I did this," he said.

  Removing the folio promptly from his charge, I held it to the light. I had assumed he had spilled his wine but I found no color on the paper except some tiny bits of shirts and petticoats, which had survived the grinding of the pulp.

  "Nonsense," I said, irritated to have been unnecessarily alarmed.

  He stared at me. "It is not possible."

  Duponceau arrived to gaze, not at his own treasure, but at the servant. "What is not possible?"

  "These here are my engravings," said the Parrot. "Mine own."

  Gentle as a surgeon, M. Duponceau carried his book to his lectern. Here we could all three examine it, as the proud proprietor turned the pages. I read: Sauvages des environs de la riviere Nepean. 1. Jedat; 2. Tara; 3. Nemare.

  "Where is the Nepean River?" I asked Larrit.

  "In New South Wales," he replied.

  "So they are fancies, these faces?"

  Outrage came storming to conquer his astonishment. "They are drawn from life," he said, and I saw M. Duponceau reach up, for he was a good head shorter, and place a hand between his shoulder blades.

  Said he, "What was your crime, poor fellow?"

  Good Lord, I thought, I have shared a cabin with a convict.

  Duponceau turned a page to reveal a page of botanical drawings very like the ones my mother so enjoyed.

  "Then how did you reach Botany Bay, Mr. Larrit?"

  "By ship of course."

  "How old?"

  "I was a boy, sir."

  I could not believe I was party to such a conversation. I thought of the teeming criminal poor, millions of them, breeding in lanes, crowding in slums.

  "You picked a pocket?" suggested our host, his voice marked by the greatest delicacy.

  John Larrit shook his head and wiped his eye with the back of his wrist.

 
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