Parrot and Olivier in America, p.27Peter Carey
It is strange, in New York and Philadelphia, to see the feverish enthusiasm which accompanies Americans' pursuit of prosperity and the way they are ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route to achieve it.
I have it from Duponceau that the restless Benjamin Franklin--who supposedly taught himself five languages, invented bifocal glasses and the lightning rod--is responsible for the awful rocking chair. I had that particular horror removed from the deluxe cabin and replaced with a comfortable wing-backed reading chair which would not rock no matter how heavily I sat in it. Having arranged all the papers on my bed, I spread my leather case upon my lap and there, setting all physical excitements aside, prepared to enjoy my memory of she toward whom the churning wheels propelled me.
I first took up the very gracious letter from Mr. Godefroy. He wished, he said, to draw me to the other side of Sing Sing so I could witness the authentic Auburn style of penitentiary without the distraction of Mr. Elam Lynds and his busy lash. This last comment I understood exactly. He was opposing the threatened cruelty of the Auburn system but was also against the Quakers. He hoped, I read--and this was perhaps the sixth time my eyes had crossed his sentence--that I would be a guest in his own home and make the acquaintance of those members of my family as yet unknown to you.
Dear heavens. Dear Miss Godefroy. She had spoken of me.
The door flung open, banging brass on brass. And there was Mr. Stasis himself, his hair standing high, wearing a comical yellow nightshirt that did not protect one from his bony knees and big raw feet.
"I'm very sorry," he declared.
Well, thought I, as I appraised the apparition, a kind of Holy Rooster.
"I am extremely sorry," he said. "I wished only to serve."
Serve what? I thought. Dear Lord, look at him.
"I had no clue you wished Moliere in bloody verse. You did not say so. Sir. You never did."
"I said Tartuffe. Dear fellow."
"And Tartuffe you would have had, but there was not a bloody crumb of him. The old Yankee said he had no call for Tartuffe. I did not believe him until he showed me he had almost nothing in the language. It was English floor to ceiling, books of the very worst kind. How to do this. How to do that. And Bibles. And arguments about the soul. Shelves of them, and not a word you'd take some pleasure in."
"You should dry your clothes."
"I don't give a fart about my clothes. I care about your bloody book."
"Mr. Larrit, you will go away and be very quiet."
"I am set to save your book," he said, more quietly, searching in his pockets to no avail.
"If you must, please do it then."
"Wait sir. I will convince you yet."
"This Impromptu is your man."
Did the idiot think I would take Miss Godefroy walking so I could act out for her a great man's failure?
"No, no, let it rest poor fellow."
"Ah, but I have discovered sawdust," he said, and was gone, leaving me with a mystery I had little inclination to investigate.
The book, being ancient and handsomely bound in calfskin, was clearly a fetish. He revered the objet, mistaking it for what it contained, an embarrassing misunderstanding such as the Negro James had suffered when he took that gentleman's black hat and placed it on his own grizzled head. Thinking himself elevated, he became comic. So it was with the agitated Mr. Stasis and his Versailles Impromptu.
At the same time I was touched by his remorse. It was the first sign he had ever given that he truly wished to serve me, and it suggested a happier prospect for the days and weeks when we would collate the pages of my interviews, transcribe them, and begin the first rough ordering of the French commissioner's report. I returned to my study of the character of Mr. Lynds who had placed a cutthroat razor in a murderer's hands and ordered the felon to shave him before the assembled prisoners.
The Great Bird of the Antipodes had returned, dressed once more in a gray waistcoat although without his hat or shoes.
"There is no staining," he announced.
"Your pages will be saved. They are ready to be ironed."
And off he went, barefooted, and I felt him running along the centerboard of the ship.
By the time he returned, the last of the sunset lay on the waters of Long Island Sound and I had lit my lantern and tried a taste of ginger wine. He stood at the cabin door, dressed in his frock coat and wearing shoes. In his hand he held the edition I had been so very disappointed by.
He stood before me, opening its pages one by one, and--had he been my butler and had the pages been, say, shirts--I would have been impressed with the rescue he had undertaken.
"You see sir," said he. "It is a beauty."
"You are a clever fellow."
He took my compliment solemnly. "I know paper, sir," he said, squatting down beside my chair. I had not the tiniest interest in that rare failure of Moliere's, and yet I looked at what he showed me for as an objet one must admit it was a well-made one, the calf covers being gilt tooled with a flower in each corner and a triple fillet.
"What chance to find this in America," he said, peering as I expected, at the engraving, a depiction of five actors on a stage.
"It is Holland paper," I observed.
He smiled at me, so sweetly I hardly knew the man. "Indeed," said he. "The engraver is Gravelot, but perhaps you also saw the crest."
Americans were always drawing my attention to escutcheons. So I looked with condescension, I suppose, and was slow to understand that I was looking at the Bourbon coat of arms.
"You see sir."
"I do," I admitted, but hid my true astonishment, for this book was from the library of a Bourbon king.
"His Majesty liked it no better than you do," he said, now having his turn to be amused by me.
"How much did I pay for this?"
"Two dollars, but it does not suit your purpose."
"My purpose is my own private business."
"You forget, sir, you told me your purpose. You wished to read the lines to Miss Godefroy."
"I cannot read her lines from this you puppy."
"Of course you can."
"Do not be impudent."
"Of course, you know how to do your own business."
"You think otherwise? Then show me how I would court her. What do you suggest?"
"Well, you tell the story."
"The story of the play? It is nothing."
"No, how you sent your stupid English servant to buy Tartuffe. He is an ignoramus." He raised an eyebrow and waited.
"The servant has no culture as you would expect. He returns with this ridiculous play. He has paid two dollars, more than it is worth. But then you discover it is from the library of your cousin the king."
"Not my cousin."
"Relation, no relation--it matters not a fig. You think, Has the rascal stolen it from the king? And do you know, my dear sweet American lady--you will whisper--Moliere and his troupe in the play, the actors are characters, have been asked to perform for this very king. The one who rightly owns the book. Louis Quatorze."
"Your French is awful."
"In fact it is better than your own."
"You will not tutoyer me! Tell me, clown, how can I recite this to Miss Godefroy?"
"You tell her how I performed it for you. You say, Miss Godefroy, dear," and the rascal jumped three feet sideways. "You see. This is how I do the different parts."
"Now here is Mrs. Moliere." He jumped a foot the other way. "Where is everyone?" he cried.
"I am playing all the parts," he said, and jumped again. "Moliere is first onstage. He is calling for the actors--he shouts, Where is everyone?"
"Coming." The Parrot jumped.
"Not here." The Parrot jumped again.
"What's the matter
"You see," he said, "it is very athletic. You should do something that displays your calves."
"This is not at all romantic," I said. "I am a French aristocrat. She does not want me to be a clown."
"No, but it is funny, sir. You must admit that. You are smiling."
"You want me to be a figure of fun."
"She knows you are an aristocrat. What do you plan to do with her? She liked you. She will laugh. She will fall down laughing. Then you do the rest," he said, drinking the dreadful ginger wine in a single gulp.
"It will take five hours to perform."
"It is a short play."
"Ah." He raised a finger, and there was something very lively in those opaline eyes. "Now your lordship is boasting."
Just as I admitted that his company had become enjoyable, something clouded his expression.
"Is your wife well?" I asked.
"Fit as a scrub bull," said he, a curious expression.
"The old lady?"
"You were very comic, Mr. Larrit. Where did you learn to read?"
"I learned from my father very young. He was a compositor."
"I have it on good authority," I remarked, "that the compositor's genius is to recognize the letters without understanding a single word."
"And who is your authority, my lord?"
"The Comte d'Auvergne, I believe."
"It is not true."
He stood for a moment, looking out into the dark, and I realized I had spoiled what had been a very pleasant mood indeed.
"Perhaps you will settle in America," I offered.
He held his hand close against the lantern to show me--what? That he had no wedding band? That his eyes were mirrors? That I should see some awful secret written on his leathern liver-spotted skin?
CLEARLY I DID NOT LACK curiosity about my fellowmen, but my intuitions and sympathies were limited by the circumstances of my birth. A person like my servant was a foreign land, so although I might very sincerely wish to imagine him, how might I begin?
This question became more pressing when, after a dinner of fatty goose, Master Larrit carried a bottle of brandy to my room and made it clear that he and I should shoot the breeze.
"If only there were a chair for you."
He shoved the papers to one side and sat himself on the edge of my bed. Then, holding up a forefinger in the manner of a low clown at a village fete, he produced a heavy tumbler from one pocket, holding it high between us while he poured a considerable amount. Continuing in the same broad style, he produced a second glass, and then generously rewarded himself with what was clearly cognac.
The first act done, he tossed the bottle on the bed.
I thanked him.
But what next?
It was evident we must converse--he was set on it, he demanded it--but he clearly had no notion of how this game was played in society. So we were left toasting each other, with no commentary except that provided by the rude engine as it moaned and groaned and sent its endless revolutions industrielles to agitate our feet.
Still rather in the manner of an entertainer, he folded his ankle and rested it on his knee and one was left wondering what canary he would next produce.
"So," he said at last, "it is courting you go?"
As so often, I did not understand him immediately, but then I was all the more shocked by the personal nature of his inquiry. I had revealed far too much to him already, and thus I now rushed from his impertinent particular to the safety of the general. I asked him what his impressions were of American women.
He smiled and said he was a married man.
"They walk alone a good deal," I encouraged.
"Oh yes," he said, "you will come upon them everywhere, or with their young fellows. Courting," he said, grinning broadly so that I was almost certain he was imagining me with Miss Godefroy at Peek's farm.
"They enjoy a great deal of freedom," I said. "As married women they abandon it."
"Ah, do they now?" said he. "I would not know."
"On the contrary," I said. "You are a married man, as you just observed. And you were married once before, you said. You had a child." If this was cruel, it was no more than the cruelty of the bit we place in a stallion's mouth. It did its work.
"Aye," he said, and rubbed at his turbulent hair.
In fact I did not wish to punish him but rather to ask, Who are you? With my own kind I would never have made so artless an entree, but to him I said, "There is a great deal to you, John Larrit."
He considered me. "It is a wonder how many lives a man can hold within his skin," he said at last. "I never expected to be quit of any of them. I never expected there would be a change, do you understand me? I have been a cork in the ocean, sir." He smiled again, and I thought what a hell it must be to have no expectation of yourself, nothing but this endless, rootless freedom in which the bonds of family and responsibility could be so easily brushed aside.
"It was your father who was transported. The forger."
"You do not listen," he said fiercely. "My father was a good man. He was funny and kind and full of birds as we used to say. He was my home. I thought the paths I walked with him would be my life. The birds and trees and weather of a particular place. I have never deliberately quit on anyone."
"And where was that particular place?"
"In England." He would reveal no more to me than that. "I was transported by misadventure," he said. "You should understand. Your voyage to America was pretty much the same I think. In my case they made a convict child of me, and I seemed doomed never to leave my exile. As it turned out, it would be in exile I would find my consolation."
I assumed he meant his wife and child, but no.
"I could make art, you see. After a fashion."
"You made illustrations," I said, remembering the book in Duponceau's library. He looked at me sharply. "I admit they were rough," he said, at last. "I was looked up to, but only for the lack of men who could do it any better. My master could not draw a chicken. My only decent teacher was a book of engravings owned by Mrs. Paterson, but it was not fine. I could have done better. I knew I could do better."
"Do you think there may be, in any case, a problem with art in a democracy?"
"Democracy? Jesus. Excuse me, sir. You cannot call a jail a democracy. It was a dictatorship, a cruel one too. They did not transport a man for showing at the Royal Academy."
His glass was empty, but he filled mine first. The lantern had begun to sway.
"Very well," I said, speaking as to an equal, "but did you not observe the paintings on the walls of Philadelphia? They made me think that the taste for ideal beauty--and the pleasure of seeing it depicted--can never be as intense or widespread among a democratic as compared to an aristocratic people."
"So you look at art, then?" he asked, and for a nasty moment I thought he was sneering at me. "You own a canvas or two yourself, I suppose?"
"I was privileged to be born in a house of art."
"Great painters, sir. Hanging everywhere you looked."
"Indeed," I said, and wondered if this weight of wealth and culture pained him.
"Turner's father was a barber," he said suddenly. "A plain old barber with a wart on his nose."
"An English painter."
"Where did that thought come from?" I asked, amused by the wart as much as anything.
He tapped his forehead with his glass.
"You are correct, it is a privilege. I had a house in Woollahra," he offered, rolling his tongue around the savage name. "At nighttime people came to be painted. As a result of Mrs. Paterson's book I had too much attachment to chiaroscuro effects, but I was popular enough."
I was embarrassed by the enormity of his misunderstanding. He stared at me, then drained the glass and hel
"With brandy," he said, "there is always one last drop."
Warily, I raised my glass.
"And you," he said to me directly. "Who are you?"
I thought, Here it is.
"You sir, had one life, all of a piece, not a bobbing cork. Just the same, it aches in certain weathers, as if you were born with a shattered bone and had it healed."
I did not know what he meant. I thought, How does he know this?
"Anyway," he said, "the damned Marquis de Tilbot came to fetch me."
"In Sydney. He had not seen me since I was a boy. That's right, a boy. He walks into the government architect's office and says, 'Ah, there you are,' as if he had seen me yesterday. 'I promised I would return,' said he, and I was pleased! Can you imagine. I was pleased. He was a big posh Frenchman with his sunburned skull now growing through his hair. He flattered my work. He needed me, he reckoned. I must come with him to botanize for the Empress Josephine--or she who had been empress. Can you imagine saying that to me? Just that word, sir. Empress."
"What year was this then?"
"I was a fool. I thought I was being elevated. But I always believed I would return. I promised her."
I would have cross-examined him, but he sighed and reached across the bed where I had placed my papers. He then took up a single sheet which he laid on my tray and, taking a crayon, began to draw, frowning and showing his teeth. He occasionally wet his thumb in brandy and smudged at what he drew. He looked up, cocked a brow, returned to it. I wondered if I was being honored with a portrait. I thought, He will not flatter me.
"Soon I will turn in," I said.
"You understand," he said, "that she is what they call a genius."
"She?" I laughed.
"She, Mathilde." He looked up and held my eye again in that clear alarming way. "The one who made your hanging johnny hard."
I must never drink with him again, I thought. In the darkness I could hear the surf breaking on the American shore.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes