Parrot and Olivier in America, p.28Peter Carey
"She paints only the light," he said fiercely. "There is nothing else for her." He held up the sheet of paper. It was a woman's face, but not Mathilde at all.
"This is all I can do," he said. "I have no ability no matter how I work."
I was, in spite of everything, impressed, not only with the portrait--a girl of twenty with a great deal of curling unkempt hair--but in the urgency and agony he brought to its execution. It was not art in the educated sense of the word, for it was really too disturbing--the whole, in its rush and incompleteness.
I thought, This represents the mother of his child. Her lip is swollen. She has been crying.
I understood that he was offering it to me, but as I reached to accept the gift, he snarled suddenly, showing the whole pink line of upper gum. His canines all exposed, he balled the portrait in his fist and threw it out into the night.
Later I heard him making an awful clatter in his cabin.
WHEN WE FINALLY crested the hill which had provided the last obstacle to my heart's desire, I understood, from the calm authority of the estate before me--its aesthetic balance, the good order of its fences, the clean white clusters of its barn and stables, its gardeners' cottages--and from the clearly expressed democratic idealism of the house, the nature of Miss Godefroy's inheritance.
My companion, until now rather sullen beneath his blanket, offered comment.
"My," said he. "You've fallen on your feet."
Thus as always--just as one's sympathies were most engaged by him.
It was now November in Connecticut, and the savage splendor of the autumn had burned away. The soft maples were bare. Only a few apple trees held out green. An overcast sky gave a lovely gray flatness to a pond.
Approaching along the smooth pink road that swept so sweetly through the sward, it seemed I had finally stumbled on what New York and Philadelphia had refused to show, that secret center of the new nation, that part that answered to its highest possibility. The Doric columns of the mansion seemed well earned for being so clearly thought, the statement of an aspiration, both noble and democratic. And I was not unamused, in the midst of this, to reflect that it had been a pretty ankle that had led me on, a generous bosom that brought me sweeping down this road, trotting toward the orchard, around the pond, to the long rolling sward across which a young woman ran and jumped, a fine athletic movement, as if it were not only the architecture but the body itself that spoke to the ancient Greek ideal. Her, in fact. Herself.
Old Farm, as it was modestly known, was such a delightful expression of America that I missed dear Blacqueville with whom I might have dissected and reassembled its significance and who, even when lighthearted, would have had a great deal more to offer than English sarcasm.
Of the fellow I was about to meet I knew only what Duponceau had told me. Mr. Philip Godefroy was of a southern family famously split among themselves on the subject of their own extraction, one party determined it was French, the opposition convinced they were Swedish Godfrids. Thus, they seemed to me pretty representative of all Americans, in that their connections with the past were of so little substance that they could be shaped and described almost any way they liked. Mrs. Godefroy I understood to be an Englishwoman, perhaps of noble family. Duponceau had not been sure, but was certain that neither husband nor wife--both being busily involved in perfecting and improving what they saw around them--attached the least importance to crests or escutcheons. They were both restlessly opposed to slavery and in favor of universal suffrage. Mr. Godefroy had attended Yale College and graduated a doctor, but had never practiced medicine having conceived a very definite theory about society and its relationship with nature, an idea made concrete by the porch, on which subject he would later occupy me in many hours of inquiry and conjecture. So although a porch might seem a small enough thing to you, in Godefroy's scheme it was at once a physical structure, a delineation of vast space and also a metaphor. The importance of the porch was such that not only the rich should have the luxury of enjoying nature but also the common man. In fact, he saw it as a kind of social engine, one which, when properly designed, would help a mechanic or farmer or laborer become more virtuous and educated.
It would be beneath a grander Grecian version of this humble appendage where I would meet my very erudite and handsome host, and also feel my cheeks warmed by the presence of she whom I affected to be unaware of.
She was taller than I had remembered, and although she had just returned from chasing with her dog and had a twig in her hair and a scratch on her cheek, she was far more pretty than I had dared remember.
Amelia--I do believe I never heard her Christian name mentioned by the Peeks--easily negotiated those social rapids created by Mr. Larrit's ambivalent position--neither upstairs nor downstairs and sarcastic in between. She had a boy carry his duffel and billeted him in one of the bedrooms on the second floor which, in the American fashion, were tucked in two low-ceilinged stories behind the soaring reception rooms that distinguished the face of the house.
I did not thank her. I did not say a word to her. Instead, I furiously interrogated her father about the uses of the lash in Wethersfield. The dog licked my hand. I did not feel him. It required all my host's grace and humor to rescue me from myself, placing me in the care of his elderly manservant who, so Mrs. Godefroy said fondly, laying her hand on the old man's shoulder, had begun heating water for my bath the moment he spied the dust of my coach "back at Taylor's Flat."
He had not been the only one working so assiduously for my arrival, for when I reached the room I found not only the steaming bath but also, on my bedside table, a copy of Tartuffe. I thought, She loves me. I kissed the pillow like a fool, inhaled the familial, familiar dust and wax. She will be mine, you are too far away to stop me.
DEAR LITTLE MOTHER, I hope by now you have all my letters from Philadelphia, and my account of the history of the servant you engaged for me. On this matter, I have a great deal to say, but as the days go by I become less certain of what that is, and as we have arrived at Wethersfield, Connecticut, I am hoping to have a vacation from his company.
We are at the house of Mr. Philip Godefroy, a member of the Wethersfield Prison Board, which was the reason for my seeking him out, although this now seems to be the least of his accomplishments. He is the most naturally distinguished man I have met in America. He is well versed in all the political questions which interest his country and possesses the most precise understanding of the judiciary institutions of the United States.
I now spend all my time with him in conversations from which I have everything to gain. As soon as I am alone I write down what he has said. I have not yet met a single other person from whom I have drawn nearly so much. There are at his house three charming women, his wife and his daughters, Amelia and Catherine. Catherine is barely ten, but Amelia is closer to my own age and would give me terrible distractions if I had not, once and for all, made up my mind to have none. The two girls both have that white and rose complexion, occasionally to be found in Englishwomen but quite unknown in France. I have not yet seen in the United States such a velvet softness. It is impossible to describe. But why talk so long about her? Were I to continue you would think me in love, and the truth is I am not. In any case, I expect to be here another three or four days and by then I do not doubt she will have sung for me and, as on those other occasions, made my considerable willpower quite unnecessary.
I was, while in Philadelphia, entertained by a very wealthy and prominent family, all in such style you would never think yourself at the end of the earth. But the music. These people are, without contradiction, the most unhappily organized in matters of harmony. What the young ladies who regale me with this musique miaulante affect most are its difficult passages. You must think I speak of this subject with a sort of indignation, and that is so, but you must understand it is not simply the displeasure caused by detestable music but the feeling of moral violence to
This evening or the next Mr. Godefroy is to take me to the town of Wethersfield where I will attend a meeting of the citizens to elect their local officials. As this is in the State of Connecticut I do wonder if they will sing their state song, of which I now provide for you, dear comtesse, a small sample:
Yankee Doodle went to town,
A-riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni.
IN THE MORNING the mansion was colonized by children as numerous as rabbits, their boots slamming like horses' hooves along the hallways. Everywhere I turned there was a Godefroy cousin or a Godefroy neighbor, even some scholars from the local school where the teacher had just broke her leg, they said, so her pupils had walked six miles to Miss Godefroy to have their lessons. I would prefer to be away from children, always. When, later, I chanced upon one melancholy boy throwing stones against the outhouse, I felt a pain like a corkscrew to my heart.
He has grown up without me.
Full well I know the anguish of the soul that knows not me.
MISS GODEFROY POURED TEA for Olivier. She was like a willy-wagtail, I thought, lifting up her feathers and singing, bless her. A bird in the hand, bush too, her eyes alight, her laughter everywhere. Come let us adore him, Olivier de Garmont, the same cove who would die without his Tartuffe, who would destroy his Impromptu, who could not sleep for thinking of Miss Godefroy. Might not such a love-fuddled soul see a tiny chance to further things?
Well sir, no sir. I never saw a fellow go about his courting in such a wrongheaded way. He took one sip of milky tea, then marched off the porch in the company of the father.
"Well, Mr. Larrit," Miss Godefroy said to me, her pretty face revealing no particular sign of anything. "I have work to do." She also left the stage and soon I heard her fussing with the cook, ordering a donkey and cart be provided for the onion maidens, taking the abandoned children in control and setting them on their bottoms in the great reception room where she got them singing their times tables, all these things and more being done not all at once but over a period of time, at the end of which I heard a sad cello which I knew must be her own. I never listened to so heartrending a cry. Not even a Church of England organ could make you feel such misery.
I stepped off the porch and wandered round the back of the mansion where I smoked a pipe too bitter for much pleasure. I saw the splendid cattle. I noted the black alluvial soil which was devoted to the industry of onions. I beheld the so-called onion maidens laboring in Mr. Godefroy's river flats. It was soon made clear to me that these were worldly women, very sure of their attractions. In any case, I was required in the library.
The two gentlemen were already awaiting me, facing each other from their leather club chairs. They gave no sign of hearing the plaintive cello.
Godefroy was as good-looking as an admiral. He had one of those voices you can hear across a running brook, but he had a nice set of wrinkles around his eyes and he looked straight at a man, this man, and shook his hand, not limply or (like poor Duponceau) too firmly. Was that his daughter fiddling her poor heart out?
"Here," said he. "Sit here."
I had been provided a walnut table and straight-backed chair.
"I was in correspondence with Judge Welles," my lovesick master began, and I set about my dreary dictation and wondered where exactly the cello was situated. I placed it in the open doorway between the hallway and the dining room.
"Ah, yes, Welles," said Godefroy, frowning at the double doors. "You will enjoy him."
"Mr. Welles has written that it is possible that a prison with five hundred inmates could make a profitable return to the state. This would be an attractive proposition to my government."
The cello stopped. Then recommenced. There had been a creaking floorboard. From this and other evidence, I reckoned the musician had crept as close as the grandfather clock. It was a wild imagining: Miss Godefroy performing from outside the pale.
"We will look at the judge's arithmetic," said her father. "I do not recall a remarkable profit, but you must understand that at Wethersfield these things are looked at in relation to our onion crop."
My master responded with an awful frown, all nose and brow, poor fellow.
"In Connecticut," Mr. Godefroy said, "you will witness things you could not imagine in old Europe."
Hear, hear, I thought. My master inclined his head, but when he looked up again he held me with his gaze and his cheeks were burning red.
Was it embarrassment drove Godefroy to snatch the onion from the windowsill? In any case, he was swift as a rat in the moonlight, opening his silver penknife, making two quick cuts, and removing from the onion's heart a good single slice, about a quarter-inch thick. This he held up between thumb and forefinger before the window.
"Is it not beautiful in the sunshine?"
How awful, cried the cello.
"Indeed," said Olivier.
"You will think it a peculiar lens through which to view the world."
"It is singular."
"It is the robes of saints, do you see it? No? It is cool and watery-white edged with bishop's purple. And look, Mr. Garmont, at that fiery nub of spring green at its center."
Mr. Garmont stood, perhaps to be better convinced of its majesty.
"Now," cried Godefroy, "look further at the industry this humble fellow fathers."
Outside the window I could see the onion maidens everywhere, their thighs and ankles, their straw bonnets bright against the dark black soil, the cello dark and urgent in its longing. Surely someone must say something.
Olivier squinted out the window, blind as a bat.
I cried loudly, "Ah, your onion maidens."
"A pretty sight, no?" inquired his host.
"Indeed," said my employer, squinting more.
"I refer to the bonnets of course." Godefroy laughed. "And let me tell you about them. They came into existence because President Madison had desired that we turn ourselves into a nation of manufacturers."
The music stopped. There was a clatter with some bounce in it. I imagined a bow being thrown down the hallway. The host's story was then recited in a great sarcastic silence.
"This request," said Mr. Godefroy, "was heard by a nineteen-year-old girl in Wethersfield. She looked at the spear grass which was growing around, free for her, requiring no capital. She harvested the grass. Then she boiled it, bleached it, moistened, fumigated and dried it to make it suitable for braiding. Then she made what are called Leghorn-style bonnets."
"Might this be something that can be profitably undertaken by prisoners?"
"By prisoners? Oh no sir. What a waste. Her name is Sophia Cunningham and she is now a wealthy manufacturer. She has a patent for her invention. Can you imagine such a thing in France? She has changed her position in life entirely."
At this point the cello resumed in dire complaint.
"Excuse me," said Godefroy, returning to his feet. "You shall see Wethersfield this evening."
He left the room and as he did so the cello stopped. Olivier looked at me, his cheeks flushed, his neck red, and bestowed upon me--a wicked grin.
Godefroy returned and took his seat and I spent a long boring afternoon recording how the town meetings of Connecticut were conducted, on what their laws were based, how elections were held, to what degree the federal government affected their affairs, and how the completely uneducated majority in town meetings were stopped from tyrannizing our host.
WE HAD AN EARLY TEA. Not a thing to drink but Adam's ale, which turned out to be water. Little Catherine asked the noble how did he li
To me she said, "It must be extraordinary to be his friend."
After which she revealed that I, John Larrit, was expected to attend a town meeting with the Godefroys that evening. This was her father's wish for me. I thought, I want a drink. I thought, Who is he to give me orders? I was sour as a lemon tree when we came outside to find our carriages but then, in the twilight, I spied the courting count about to hop up into Mr. Godefroy's slick two-seater. Enough, thought I, go to her. I knocked him so hard with my shoulder he nearly fell upon his arse.
He gathered himself and dusted down his bright blue frock coat and patted at his ruff. I could have punched his pointy nose.
"Hello!" He cocked his head at me. "What is it old chap?"
"Look to, mate, look to. You were stepping in the wrong carriage." I meant he should sit in her carriage.
"You are an idiot," said he.
I was a what? I pushed him in the chest. He staggered back two steps.
Godefroy descended from his gig and came toward me with his arm held out as if I were a horse in need of shooting. He got my collar and I shook him off, and all the time my eyes stayed on my so-called master.
All those weeping, prattling messages to New York and back. For Christ's sake, sir, get in the carriage. I was ready to give my notice.
"Now see here, Mr. Larrit," began Godefroy, and I thought I would knee his onions for him.
"No," cried Olivier. "He has had bad news."
I thought, Godefroy has bad news? But then I understood it was me he was talking of. I thought, No I bloody haven't.
"Is that not so?" he insisted, and held my eye.
I thought, Is he saying I am dismissed?
"That is true, John, is it not?"
"Yes sir, it is."
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes