Parrot and Olivier in America, p.26Peter Carey
The rain increased. I slept. I was woken as the front door slammed then blessed silence reigned.
I awoke to find a phantom with a lantern, dripping water on my face.
"Christ, what gives?"
He held up a new bottle of arrack, swinging it above me like a pendulum. This was an aspect of the noble Garmont I did not wish to see.
"What is the hour?"
"Not late," he said, but was made a liar by the church bell. I dressed and joined him in the kitchen where every chair was a punishment, the bones of my arse already saying sorry to the oak.
"Now John," says he.
John? I was never called John except by a magistrate.
He poured two spilling glasses, and drank without expression.
"I think John," said he, "you may understand the importance of your task tomorrow." His cheeks and lips were cherry red in the charcoal of the night. "You know who the book is for?"
For God's sake let me sleep.
I had seen the girl in public, drinking in every word he said. She was alive, alight, haughty to me but wet for him, one of those luminous maidens you see beyond the glass, bone china, do not touch. He did not need a book to court her. He could have thrown her on her back and done her in the rain.
I sipped in silence.
"How extremely interesting," he said, "to learn of your association with the Marquis de Tilbot. I have known him all my life, but I have no idea either of his character or general occupation. Perhaps you will one day tell me what type of man he is?"
I thought, Be very bloody careful, my Parrot.
I allowed a little arrack to wet my lips. It was foul, a dirty brew, and the rain pelted at the window and I could hear a slow drip in the hall. The roof was leaking but it was not mine. My own property I lost on account of Monsieur. He said he would buy me another house. He said this first in 1814, then again in 1830. A house costs as much as a cow, he told me. And what of a wife and child? Could he replace these too?
I have dreamed of murdering him, driving a screwdriver through his eye. Carrying my own coffin, always, in the end.
"One last drink," I said, and swallowed what remained. I stood.
"And you are content," the Comte Nez Pointu asked, "in your life?"
His brown eyes caught the light of his lantern, his chin dimpled, his brow furrowed. Did he really imagine I would trust him with my heart?
"Good night, sir. Thank you for the drink."
Five hours later I boarded the Phoenix in the dark. By then the wind had fallen and the dark houses along the Delaware were all crisp and straight and new against the fresh-washed sky. Who would guess their groans and cries?
The main deck of the Phoenix was today enclosed on all sides, stacked with casks and sacks like a Shanghai godown. I ascended to the hurricane deck. Up here you could see the engine churning, the connecting rod, caged in a strong and lofty frame, thrusting and turning like a bull. Here I came across two young fellows, no more than twenty, both dressed to the nines in waistcoats and tall top hats, busy with the task of strangling pigeons which they removed one by one from a wire cage before adding a new limp body to the pile between them on the deck. The other passengers being congregated below, the boys were undisturbed in their grim task.
I stood awhile and watched them and remembered the Jew aboard the Havre. I thought, I must get money.
The boys were busy but careful with their work, yet as their quick glances soon made clear, they wished to explain themselves. Clearly, I thought, they are on their way to market. They were both tall and lanky, fair-haired, red-cheeked, with low foreheads and high noses. In spite of which you might also call them handsome. They had been Dutch or German once, but now they were Americans.
"Off to Franklin Street?" I asked.
"Tell him," said one.
"You tell him," said the other.
They were on their way to the state of Georgia where they had bought two lots of land, which had recently been the territory of Creek Indians. Thanks to President Jackson these were now offered to settlers in a lottery. Or was it thanks to Jefferson the Creeks would leave the land? In any case--not being natives of Georgia they could not enter the lottery but they had got two lots from an agent, one of forty acres in Cass County which was said to be pretty rich in gold, and cost twenty dollars, and the other lot in Paulding County was two hundred acres, and they had a picture of a house they would build upon it and plenty of money to buy slaves and stock.
The taller one was named Dirk. He said he would have six children. He said there was no better place on earth than the you-knighted states, and he knew that because his ancestors had been poor men until now.
This did nothing to explain the pigeons, whose warm carcasses continued to pile up in the salty air, their poor black eyes containing no hope of the hereafter. I asked what they were up to with the birds.
Dirk said they had made a killing.
If he meant to make a joke, his face did not show it. He explained they had made damn near one thousand dollars and asked me to guess how they had done it.
I looked at their light bright eyes, their wet lower lips, their long raw hands, and could not imagine how, not for the life of me.
"You tell him," said Dirk.
"Very well," said the other, who turned out to be Peter and the son of Peter who had a dairy farm near the North River in New York until he sold it and now relaxed at a pub on the river at the place where the packet ships came in from England with news of the London stock exchange. It was their pa who saw that if they could get the London market prices from New York to Philadelphia faster than a horse, why, you could do very well indeed for what was in the London newspapers was, to all intents, the future, and if you knew the future you could be made a rich man with your winnings on the stock exchange. And to this end he had given his sons sufficient to rent fifty carrier pigeons from a gent residing in that City of Brotherly Love.
And that had been their business for three months, and they had made the thousand dollars they wished to have, and now they were off, but the gent who rented them the pigeons had refused to take them back on account of some clever cancellation clause (which was a great old birkin for no one wrote a thing). This bastard rentier was, at this moment, in his cabin, and they were eager to watch his face when he came to see their cancellation clause, now piling on the deck.
They said I should wait and see the show, but I did not have the taste for it. They had made me feel too old for pigeons or cotton or anything but being a servant to a waxwork effigy.
I reached the boardinghouse at dusk and found Mathilde and her mother gone.
WHEN DEALING WITH SERVANTS, abandon all your normal nuance, irony, humor. Play no word games, nor make assumptions. Say exactly what service you require and then repeat it once and only once. In this way you will discover your servants are more intelligent than you supposed.
Whether he was aware of his habit or not, my father gave that advice, in pretty much those words, every quarter day, and he continued to do so in his letters to me in America, an eccentricity perhaps, but no less valuable for that. Certainly I followed his precepts in dealing with my convict forger. In the case of his visit to New York, I specified the book I wished him to buy and the date of his return.
When he did not return on the Monday, his absence engendered considerable weather in my mind; first a fear that I had propelled him into a cruel domestic trauma; second a rage that he had not obeyed me. These two feelings may appear contradictory, but a hammer and a nail can make them all the one.
Beside all this, a circumstance had changed, which we will come to in just a moment. As a result, I had made arrangements to depart Philadelphia on the Tuesday, traveling to New Haven aboard the Zeus, Captain Elihu Cammer. Until my fellow missed the Phoenix on the Monday this would have been easily done. The following morning, there were only two hours between the daily arrival of the Phoenix and the weekly departure of the Zeus, although
Still, I was a young man in love, impatient, sleepless. I could not pace in my house awaiting news. I would be down on the dock when the Phoenix was due to arrive. And if this meant I must pack my servant's trunk, then my father would never know I had kneeled before it. In any case, I had less curiosity about his possessions than the contents of a rat's nest. There was a great deal of strange paper which I had no time to read--maps, engravings of one sort or another. It was my own trunk that presented the greater upset. Who would have thought silk stockings were difficult to contain, a court jacket so resistant to lying flat. Naturally I made a hash of it, but I was now prepared for the dash to the New Haven steamboat, if Mr. Parrot should present himself again.
Duponceau kindly arranged a Negro to transport my trunks and myself to the Crooked Billet Wharf with clear instruction he was not to leave my side. His name was "James" which seemed immensely comic because he was black as coal, but it was clearly no joke to him and he looked me in the eye as if he were a senator.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Duponceau," said he. "I will not leave the gentleman's side."
This James was the proud owner of a coarse tweed suit, patched and darned about its knees and cuffs. He had very short trousers, two odd gloves, and a low-crowned, broad-brimmed hat which he lifted at the slightest excuse. Once at the Crooked Billet, however, he clearly indicated that he would not unload as he had been ordered, but would instead remain on his box seat. He paused to lean forward and spit a bright yellow stream of tobacco, an action immediately mimicked by his horse's arse. He would safeguard my boxes, sir, as he had promised.
I had a mind to put him in his place but I heard a foghorn and understood the Phoenix might be early. Therefore, in company with a fishwife and a press of burghers, I strolled out on the jetty and peered into the mist and coal smoke, which had democratically arranged its factions in stripes of brown and white, the whole illuminated most tremulously. From this spectral effluence appeared the Phoenix, looming high, klaxon loud. On the starboard side, as it drifted silently toward the dock, stood what might have been the emblem of America: frock-coated, very tall and straight, with a high stovepipe hat tilted back from his high forehead. I thought this is the worst vision of democracy--illiterate, hard as wood, overdressed, uncultured, with that physiognomy I had earlier observed in the portrait of the awful Andrew Jackson--a face divided proudly in three equal parts: hairline to eyebrows, eyebrows to nose, lips to chin. In other words, the face of one who will never give any weight to the wisdom of his betters. To see the visage of their president is to understand that the farmer and the mechanic are the lords of the New World. Public opinion is their opinion; the public will is their will. This was on no account what I hoped to find.
The specter raised a hand in salute and I realized it was my own servant. You can say this was due to myopia. I would say it was on account of fancy dress, the American habit of changing oneself from one thing to another which seems to be the national occupation, for they did not come all this way, as one of them said to me, "to stay the way I were." The air was perfumed by salt and industry. The rogue raised his other hand and in it I made out a thin oblong brown package which must certainly be Tartuffe. This was what I had waited for, what had kept me awake, and in a very few minutes he and I were side by side like partners, following behind James and his cart toward the Hitheren Wharf, where the Zeus was coaling.
When we were finally above the wharf I looked hard at John Larrit to see if he was damaged by his journey. Certainly his dress suggested he had become insolent, but seeing him at close quarters I relaxed sufficiently to wonder at the domestic situation he had found his wife in. I did not chastise him for his lateness.
"I have heard from Miss Godefroy's father," I said to him, rather to my own surprise.
He smiled at me. "Hey-ho," said he.
"The letter came not two hours after you departed. Written on his own account without encouragement."
"Everyone wants to meet the governor."
"Commissioner," I said. "And you have the book?"
He patted the side pocket of his frock coat. I could rehearse it on the voyage. I would know it word-perfect before we were as far as Exeter.
"And all was well with your wife?"
"Of course," he said, rather tersely.
We were by now descending a clay cutting to where the Zeus lay moored in a stench of mist and fish and coal.
The incorrigible James loaded our trunks together, side by side on his massive back. I thought, Should I tip him? Could he possibly be a slave?
"They did not have the Cartouche," the Parrot said.
"The bookstore had no Cartouche."
"Tartuffe." I smiled with difficulty, aware that he would sometimes, as the English say, pull my leg.
"It is no matter," said he. "Your lordship can relax."
"He had a great stock in English translation, but I would not touch them."
"Oh dear," I said, staring at James who awaited me, clearly in expectation of his reward.
"Your lordship need not worry," John Larrit said, finally removing that dreadful hat. Said he, "I found you a lovely edition of Moliere."
James held out his hand.
"Bon voyage," said he.
Parrot looked at me tenderly as I shook the black man's dusty hand.
"You asked for Cartouche?" I demanded. "Or Tartuffe?"
"Tartuffe, Tartuffe, of course Tartuffe. If the joke don't suit you, never mind. It is more a matter of what I have."
He produced the parcel and it was coal-black James, still waiting, who produced a little penknife, cut the string and collected the paper.
Only then, as he shook the Parrot's hand, did I begin to realize what I was looking at.
"See," said the member of the parrot family, "it's a lovely edition."
To all this James paid close attention, as if to a game of shuttlecock.
"It is not verse," I cried. "Not verse."
"It is Moliere." He shrugged, complacent, half educated in spite of how he mimicked me, not even clever enough to be afraid.
"It is not even a play. Did you not read it?"
"Your lordship, look at the pages," he said. "Please. It is a treasure."
And then I saw, of course, he had bought me a pretty picture book. But how could I recite a picture book? It was no use to me at all. Every shopkeeper knows that the L'Impromptu de Versailles is not even a proper play. The characters have no lines. They admit it themselves. They spend their time worrying that they have no performance for the king. It is all about how Moliere will retaliate against his critics, but it ends with the king excusing them the command. There is no verse. There is no play. I knew my face was coloring. I was a beet.
"Dear sir," said Mr. Larrit, forger, thief, murderer for all I knew. I reached for the whore's purse of a book, a flimflam filigree woven around the great name of Moliere, and I thought of the Englishman's alleged pictures of savages and eucalypts. I wrenched the book free of him and made as if to cast it in the coal pit.
"It is a nonsense," I cried, looking with dismay as the volume, against my wish, rose from my hand like a partridge frightened by beaters before dropping, stone dead, into the Delaware River.
My servant uttered a cry, raw and raucous as a gull. He cast his hat and coat aside and jumped. There was an awful splash. He disappeared.
I thought, Dear God, he's killed himself. I was the French commissioner. I could not be tainted.
But the colliers were clapping and the great hawking bird rose, spitting, snorting, coughing, holding the book on high, dripping wet, his eyes rimmed red as a kitten's.
He would not look at me, not even when James and I pulled him up onto the dock. It was the Negro to whom he entrusted my Moliere.
"Here," said he. "Protect it."
And who was he to say protect it, but I gave James a silv
THAT TUESDAY MORNING Captain Cammer's steamboat Zeus, carrying sufficient fuel to feed her boilers all the way to New Haven, departed the Crooked Billet Wharf. No matter its name, it proceeded out into the bay like a floating stack of firewood.
The picture was less dire belowdecks where I followed my servant's dripping path into a large public cabin with curtained windows in the style of a Broadway oyster house. Along the bulkheads on each side were banks of settees that would later be converted into berths. Aft of this cabin was the violent engine compartment, and aft of that two smaller cabins, one of which I engaged for my drowned Englishman who continued to hold his Versailles Impromptu away from him (like a pudding on a tray as the purser commented). For myself I took the deluxe cabin, not on account of its size, which was not so considerable, but for the big windows that stretched across the square transom stern.
Here, in this compartment perfectly constructed for the contemplation of the American sublime, was placed the inevitable machine, that awful monument to democratic restlessness--a rocking chair.
Oh Blacqueville, I wish you were here to see these Americans. They are the most turbulent, unpeaceful, least-contented people, far worse than Italians and Greeks. Clearly there is nothing less suited to meditation than democracy. You will never find, as in aristocracies, one class that sits back in its own comfort and another that will not stir itself because it despairs of ever improving its status. In America, everyone is in a state of agitation: some to attain power, others to grab wealth, and when they cannot move, they rock. They dig canals, they tear along the rivers in a rage of machinery, the engines pumping like sawyers in a pit, the shores denuded of their ancient trees. Napoleon restored the fortunes of France by plunder, and a similar economic principle is here being enacted, the mower splintering the scythe, the smokestack eating up the wind. And there will be acres more of it to pillage if Old Hickory has his way.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes