Parrot and Olivier in America, p.25Peter Carey
"Your father was transported?"
"Oh I wish he had been, sir. A certain gentleman transported me, so to speak. That's all."
That's all, I thought. What vile business am I hearing?
"What was this gentleman's name?" I asked. I had never liked my mother's botanical drawings. Those strange seed pods with lips like women's parts.
"It would mean nothing to you, sir. You would not know him. He was a forger, sir. You would not know a forger."
I thought, he never called me sir like this. I have become the procureur-general in this case, and he is guilty.
"A forger would be hanged."
"He was never apprehended sir," said the prisoner. "I went on the ship an innocent boy, but I was found with forged notes."
"In short, Mr. Larrit, you are a convict."
"You were transported to a penal colony. How old are you?"
"I don't know, sir."
"I decided to forget. It would make me too angry to have lost so many years. I thought I will not count the days, and so I didn't."
"Is that possible?"
"It was possible for me sir. Off the boat they first put me to be servant for Major Grose who was temporarily in charge of the colony. Mrs. Grose had wanted a maid, but there were no maids so she made me wear a dress."
I thought, What story can this be?
"How long were you made to wear female attire?"
"More than a year, I think."
"Was it one year or two? Surely you noticed the seasons."
"It was cold and then it was hot. I suppose they might be seasons. But then they got a new forger sent to them. He was a Sussex man named Page. You mentioned hanging, sir, not on your life. They made him an architect, although that was never his trade. I was sent to work with him. We taught each other, so to speak."
"And you don't know how old you were?"
"Perhaps I was thirteen."
"An architect at thirteen." I laughed. I thought it preposterous. "And by fourteen you were an artist, capable of producing this?"
"Perhaps eighteen, sir. There were many journeys. We were sent to find a way through the Blue Mountains, and that was where those drawings are from."
"You were an explorer too?"
"We failed at that, sir."
"Most likely. Perhaps twenty."
I turned to the title page where I saw the authorship attributed to none other than the Marquis de Tilbot, whom I had always known as the author of those very botanical engravings which had cast their gloomy shadow on my childhood.
"You, sir"--I now spoke to Larrit, and I was very angry--"you, sir, are a scoundrel and a liar."
"I am not," he said, stepping back to lift his glass from the baize table and, standing with one insolent hand upon his hip, he drank it in a single gulp.
"You are a vassal to the Marquis de Tilbot."
"It would seem so, wouldn't it?"
"Then is he not the author of this work?"
"I believe the words are his, sir, but I could not say for sure. It is only the engravings I can speak for."
"Then you speak falsely, for they are his."
"A one-armed engraver?"
"Please be careful, Mr. Larrit, lest you forget your perilous situation."
"They are mine, sir. They were to be a gift to the Empress Josephine, or so I was told by him."
"The Marquis de Tilbot told you? Perhaps you shared a cell with him?"
"As I said, I was never imprisoned."
"But you were confined in a penal colony."
The rascal poured himself a spanking big glass of Chateau de la Fite, and when he turned his eyes had changed, and they were narrow and nasty above his hatchet bones.
"Please listen to me, your lordship," said he. "If there is a scoundrel in this story it is that fellow named Monsieur, although in fact he saved my neck, and ruined my life, and rescued me again and I am, as a result of all these horrors which you could never understand, indebted to him. I had hoped to hide his name from you, but more shame to me, I failed. It was the Marquis de Tilbot who passed forged money. It was he who abandoned me, abandoned me to a penal colony where I survived, sir, and saw human meat whipped off a living back. Do you know what the currency was in Australia?"
"The pound? The Spanish dollar?"
"Rum, sir. That was what it was. That was the place I was left in, and the place I tried to make myself an artist, and the place where the so-called marquis returned to find me when I was a man. Hello, said he. I don't know how he knew me. I promised I would fetch you, he said.
"Clearly this was a lie, except he recognized somehow the boy inside the man. I might not have known the old man neither, but for his awful arm and the fact he produced a keepsake I had given him, his likeness incised into a stone. This touched my heart in the most disquieting way, for I had given it to him for just this reason, that one day he would return and say, There you are.
"It was beyond the bounds of expectation that he would sail to Sydney to find me after all this time. But he was a spy, I must believe, and as a spy he had a dozen plans, not one of which was told to me. He and I had labored through the bush like drunk schoolgirls collecting wildflowers, for he would take the seeds to Josephine at Malmaison, for what reason I cannot say. She was not empress by then. I don't know where the plates have ended up, although I know he sold the proofs without me ever benefiting. If there was to be a folio, he never told me, and if you saw me looking queer when I found the book, it was the shock of finding myself robbed. This book contains what I saw and tried to render. Perhaps he wrote the words. I doubt it. The only part he played was to instruct me on a way to draw a map of Australia. Here, sir. He can take credit for that, although, you see, it does not suit him to do so, for he has turned me into Captain Larrit.
Carte de l'Australie entiere, Capt. John Larrit, 1804
"I was not a captain, ever in my life, and I drew this fancy to his instructions. The Delta of Australia was his invention, I know because he changed the name so many times and caused me endless trouble. If there is a sea where he says there is, no one has found it yet."
"Why would he do such a thing?"
"Oh, sir, surely you know him."
"Indeed I do, and have done all my life."
"And what is his business do you think?"
"He is a noble gentleman."
"He is a spy. But the map was not real spying. It was a counterfeit. It would please Napoleon, don't you think, to imagine all those fertile lands unoccupied? Why, we might have transported a million French felons to colonize the land."
"Yet he rescued you, you said."
"In his opinion."
"And you left Botany Bay with him. Did he rescue you or not?"
"Like the Americans rescue their slaves from floods, so they will not run away. He bought me somehow. I was employed to record what took his fancy. We sailed to New Guinea and New Caledonia, and when the last ship came for us he said I could come home."
"He rescued you."
"He deceived me, as good as kidnapping. I had a wife by then, a house, a baby. In Botany Bay."
"And where are they now?"
"How would I know?" he cried, his face now contorted, the tears flowing in great quantity. He retreated into the shadows and I stood with Duponceau, mortified on his account.
"How long ago was this, dear chap?" said Duponceau.
"He said I would remain a piss-poor engraver if I stayed in Sydney. I was a guttersnipe. I had seen nothing of what could be done. He said I should take a year in Paris and I would see things that would make an artist of me."
"And you went."
"You know I did."
"So you were made an artist."
He laughed scornfully. I saw his hands hanging from his arms, alarming balls of fist. "I was made useful," he said, more quietly.
"What do you want now?" our host inquir
I saw how my servant gazed at Duponceau while he considered the question, and you could imagine that all his life and travels were being weighed and evaluated and considered.
"To be still," he said, and smiled.
Duponceau nodded, and ran his hand through his long unruly hair. "Stasis," said he.
John Larrit did not seem to understand the word. "Not the road," he said. "Not the sea," and I thought, He could be fifty, and I understood he told the truth and would have wept except I had no right.
I WAS THE ONE who should have been the French commissioner, I thought, following my duck-legged aristo through the wicket gate of the Eastern State Penitentiary, passing between clipped privet hedges into a central chamber from which seven long passages radiated like spokes on a Catherine wheel. On either side of every spoke was a long row of low cell doors.
Twice he touched me on the arm as if in tenderness.
Everywhere about us was silence, although sometimes the thick walls gave a muffled clue to the living nightmares they contained, the distant thuck of a weaver's shuttle, the ching of a hammer striking steel. Behind every one of those numbered double doors--first oak, then steel--was a human soul, a mind in its bone cage, the center of its solar system, burning with regret and rage, condemned to silent solitary labor world without end.
This spoked device was a machine of reform, it had been explained to the commissioner in the lifeless garden. We were shown a black hood and invited to try it on. How bloody kind. This hood is the crown given to every prisoner at the wicket gate. He enters blind. He does not see the garden. He shuffles along the penitential corridor to his cell, alone, in terror, not knowing if his next step will be to a deadly fall, if he is alone on earth or surrounded by others in a castle ten miles long.
This Eastern State Penitentiary is the work of the Quakers of Pennsylvania who would not tear a man apart or pour molten lead into his intestines as was done by the bastard kings of old. Instead they work direct upon the soul.
I listened to Olivier de Garmont question the cost of construction. I was John Larrit, clown and secretaire who had already lived too long, who carried paper and carbon paper.
The first poor devil we visited was seated at his loom and never ceased his endless shuff and thump the entire time he spoke. He offered a grimace and a shrug and reminded me of one I loved. He told us he had always liked to dance--a joke--he shuffled his feet before his loom. And as his lordship's servants must once have collected moths and butterflies, I collected this conversation for his important book to be titled On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France.
Mesdames, Messieurs, voila. The very thing. Les conversations pittoresques.
"The prisoner had been there five years," I wrote, "and is to remain five more. He has been convicted as a receiver of stolen goods but, even after his long imprisonment, denies his guilt."
"Add this," his lordship demanded. "Each cell is aired by a ventilator, and contains a fosse d'aisance whose construction makes it perfectly odorless. One must have seen all the cells of the Philadelphia prison and have passed entire days in them, to form an exact idea of their cleanness and the purity of the air one breathes in them." Oh, lucky man.
Of my own accord I wrote, "He has a Bible, a slate, and a pencil. His razor, plate, can, and basin hang upon the wall. His bedstead turns up against the wall, which leaves more space for him to work in. He labors, sleeps and wakes, counts the seasons as they change, and grows old."
We moved to the next cell whose lonely inmate had smuggled in a cat or rabbit of which there was no sign except its dreadful smell.
The French commissioner's report was as follows: "The inmate knows how to read and write, he was condemned for murder. He says that his health, without being bad, is poorer than it was outside the prison. He strongly denies having committed the crime which was the cause of his condemnation; otherwise he confesses readily that he was a drunkard, turbulent and irreligious. But today, he adds, his soul is changed; he finds a sort of pleasure in the solitude, and is tormented only by the desire to see his family again and give his children a moral and Christian education, something he had never considered."
What pigwash, I thought, writing it down, correcting my employer's English. Democracies and monarchies, it does not matter--the world is filled with poor men tortured by the state. The rich make an endless supply of them, and when the Americans won their independence the king must find a new place to put his prisoners. So--Australia was invented by the British, that whole dry carcass, its withered dugs offered to our criminal lips. Now that, sir, is a place of penance.
In Philadelphia I wrote with my right hand but wandered in my mind, a mighty garden wild with weeds. I thought little Olivier is doubtless a clever man but has no idea what powers this sad bootmaker has locked within him. His lordship has, as they say, no fucking clue. In Sydney he would quickly become the proprietor of a stinking tannery. A drunkard, yes, who wasn't? Turbulent, yes. And irreligious, but a man with all life and hope ahead of him.
The previous night I had told tender Olivier about the flogging, but I said that only to ease the humiliation of my tears. It was a lie. I never saw a man flogged, thank Jesus, only a piece of human flesh glistening with black flies at the barracks gate.
I should never have left those shores, that's the truth.
I was tricked onto that ship. Worse, I permitted myself to be tricked because I understood myself to be a poor little boy, betrayed, abandoned, a victim of an awful fate. I always had it in my head that I must get home where I belonged.
I was a fool to cry at Duponceau's, but I was a much bigger fool to leave Port Jackson. I had a wife, a child, a home, but for all that I did not understand it was my home. She, my wife, would not call it home either. All around us everyone was the same--soldiers, convicts, even captains with their holds stock-full of rum. Home did not mean here. That was elsewhere. When will we be in our real home at last, we asked each other. We manured the earth, she and I, and grew cabbage, and roasted the tails of kangaroo, and held each other through the entire night, breathing that perfume that lies on the skin of young boys and girls. We swam at night, bare as God made us. We gathered oysters from the rocks and shucked their living juices down our cruel and eager throats. We laughed and farted. We had fevers and were well. We were at home, while waiting to go home, while missing home. We looked up at that cobalt sky, and out at the ultramarine seas, not seeing their beauty but only the cold empty distance between us and home. And so we made our lives, pining all the while.
In this way a self-pitying boy grew to be an artist blessed to see what had not been seen in all of London. When I saw Duponceau's folio, I understood what treasure I had thrown away. I had been more talented, more decent. I had been a better man in New South Wales.
That was why I cried, but who knows why I cried? Her name was Aoibheann. I thought she was Eevan until we signed the papers. She was soft and Irish, fair-skinned, hair like my own, an angel with her swollen lips, her sturdy legs. It was really love and really marriage and even though the two of us built the house--she at one end of the saw as we cut the sandstone blocks--I did not consider it a real home, no matter the blisters on our hands.
The first day in the Eastern State Penitentiary I assisted the French commissioner interview four prisoners. I can think of no more disturbing labor, such a soup of gullibility and lies, horror and aristocratic imbecility. At day's end we were outside the crenellated walls and I inquired of my employer if he had some curiosity to taste the arrack, as this was the drink the prisoners had been destroyed by, every one.
"Indeed," said he.
We turned into a low sort of inn where we were given a flask of arrack and a water jug and two glasses.
Said he at last, "I have a question."
Said I, "It is better we speak English here."
"Would you undertake a journey for me? To New York?"
"You don't mind then?" he said. I could not tell what changed his eyes, whether it was the awful stink of arrack or one of those peculiar niceties which seem to trouble the noble mind. "I would have you find me a good edition of a French play. It seems you might know books."
"Tell me what you want and how much you wish to spend."
It was such a simple thing to say I could not understand why he was so long about it. On and on he went. "You will see your wife?" he asked finally.
I thought, Frig me. What's this? "With your permission."
"She is a good woman?" he asked.
I thought, Why is he looking like that? His eyes down his long thin nose, those two red marks on each pale cheek. We finished our drinks and set off back to our lodgings. I thought, I will kill any man who hurts her name or body.
ARRACK TASTES like mothballs, castor oil, coffin wood, eats your throat and burns your brain, but--speaking of the Indian variety, delivered to Port Jackson on the Amity from Bombay--it has a more-ish quality that cannot be denied. Indeed, when Colonel Paterson allowed the captain of the Amity to sell his stuff, the entire colony became insane and I was hidden in the ceiling by his wife.
Of the American variety I have no right to talk--from what living plant or creature it has been fermented and distilled I do not know--but I will relate its effect on Lord Comte Nez Pointu, who seemed sober as a Quaker when we returned to our lodgings from the pub.
After not too many minutes he was pacing back and forth above my head, and then he was up and down the stairs like old Mrs. Hobbs attending to her dying master.
So--clippedy-cloppedy. Pillow held across the Parrot head.
Then it began to rain and I was imagining that bleak Crooked Billet dock in tomorrow morning's darkness, and the passengers on the Phoenix huddled like wet poultry beneath the awning. The rain lashed my bedroom windows, pebbles by the fistful so it seemed. My bed had been made to fit a dwarf. Where was my beloved in the lonely foreign rain?
Comte Nez Pointu paced above my head. I could have killed the builder who had set the floor joists at four-foot centers. On the basis of no more than the creaks and groans I could have drawn you the whole, in plan and elevation, and was severely critical of all America for doing something I would never undertake in New South Wales.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes