Parrot and Olivier in America, p.29Peter Carey
Thus, my rage was explained and excused as simply as a case of measles, and everything continued as it had before. That is, Olivier de Garmont entered the racing coach of Mr. Philip Godefroy, and I was put in with Miss Godefroy. What use was she to me? There were several snotty little scholars and her sister packed in as well, bringing with them a damp musty smell, a natural product of their occupation.
Miss Godefroy said, "I am sorry about your news."
"Thank you, miss."
"Is it terribly bad?"
She sighed and sat with her hands clasped in her lap, and as the carriage set off I caught her perfume, very light, like an orange grove at evening, and there was no bad news but I set myself imagining that I must really have bad news and I thought only of Mathilde, and how I would die if I lost her. I was a fool to leave her side to serve the aristocracy. I read Tom Paine by candlelight, but for eighteen hours a day I was a vassal.
I would go home to Mathilde, I thought, as the carriage rocked me gently against Miss Godefroy and I could, through no fault of my own, feel the pressure of her upper leg or worse. I would turn in my notice. Olivier's courting was no concern of mine. When we arrived at the meeting hall I could have walked away into the night, but I followed them inside, still in the service of the lord.
It had been my life's achievement to make myself into someone who could work no useful trade at all, to be secretary to a French noble, a messenger, not even a servant, not even a clerk, not anything you could describe, not an artist--although I might have been--a pimp for art perhaps.
These bilious thoughts bred amid the smell of leaf mold and autumn smoke. All around us lanterns bobbed, like a gathering of giant glowworms emerging from the streets and flooding from the windows of the meeting hall, a church in fact, with its great white steeple shining in the night.
This was the kind of society the Dit'sum printers had envisaged, a kind of dream, and this was the country built on that dream, what Gunner and Weasel and Chooka and Chanker had discussed in the dusk at Piggott's printery. Yet we had never thought to see a church involved. Indeed, you could search all of England and never see the like. It was all wood, and carpentry, and perfect miter joints, and doweling plugs instead of nails and what was not painted pure white was plain waxed timber and the whole of its lower floor--for it had an upper--had its pews all divided up like a series of cages, each with a door. I was inclined to think of a chicken house, except it was not like this at all, and all the town--there must have been a thousand citizens--pushed in and sat in their places and there was a great certainty--a clarity, a plainness--which spoke well of them in spite of the religious aspect.
There was no stained glass, just clear panes, as if you might be expected to look out and witness the saints kneeling on the lawn beside the baker or the library.
There was no pew named Parrot. I abandoned Miss Godefroy to her friends, aunts, children on her lap. They asked me to be with them but I was better by myself. I had grown up hard and solitary beneath the stars, that was our conceit, mine and my da's, that we were not people who hid the wonder of the universe with ceilings, like a cloth across a cage.
At this moment I witnessed the arrival of Olivier de Garmont in the church. He was not higher than Godefroy's shoulder but he seemed to give off a certain light. Doubtless the blue jacket surrounded by so much black and gray. His bright white ruff, but something else, a glowing skin, an elegance of manner--aristocratic! call it that!--he bowed and moved as if he were a visitation, a most glorious apparition, being taken in, moved from one hand to the next, to the center of their hive, and I was jealous of them, their bonneted wives, their church, I hated it.
And thus I sat, the sole occupant of the pew, and listened as their selectmen reported to them, and as they all--and it did seem like all--had something to say about the collection of a tax, or the new assessment for the school, and the question of those who must make their payment in kind. I never heard such boring tripe in all my life.
It was moved that the ground be broken in spring.
It was moved that the tax be raised in advance.
It was moved that the government road should stop at the township border.
Every time I thought it was the end, there was more, and the people of Wethersfield were never in a rush so even when the old boy stood up to explain how the town could patent the onion, and even when they explained to him the onion was the work of God and therefore not included in the patents, and even when he explained that these onions had their distinctive nature on account of his father and uncle who had "bred them up like lambs," no one moved to throttle him.
As was common, my seat had been made by someone who disapproved of sitting and by the time Godefroy stood and introduced the French commissioner, there was no feeling in my bum.
But Olivier, Lord Migraine. He was aglow, his cheeks red, wreathed in smiles. He wiped the corner of his eye. He declared, good grief, he had come home. It was the greatest evening of his life. And when he left they made a space and he came down toward me in all his glory like a bride.
BY THE TIME of our arrival in Connecticut, the once detestable Parrot could have no other name than Friend. He was certainly imperfect, as friends must always be, often very irritating, but he had aligned himself against the mob, suffered both jail and Philadelphia, ministered to my pain, and made me laugh. When, on the carriageway of Old Farm, he pushed me violently, in full view of our hosts, I knew myself the object of a strange and savage love.
My noble blood urged me tell him, All is well dear old fellow, I have caught her eye, she has brushed my hand, and yet every single action I performed was calculated to hide from him the truth.
He was my most unusual friend, but he had first been the marquis's man, and he could not possibly have occupied this post so long without honestly delivering what was asked of him. As was clear on the first night I saw him in Versailles, he was a specialized creation. Under the marquis's influence he had become convict, maid, architect, cartographer and botanist, although never anything but what the marquis wanted. He may have been an ultra-royalist spy. He had been Monsieur's clerk and secretaire. He had, this very year in Paris, packed his trunk with carbon paper, and who knows what other materiel d'espionnage. He had been dispatched to America to protect me, yes, but also the Garmont name, a task that involved, more than anything, alerting my mother to affairs of the heart.
As I hope I have made clear, my mother was a religious woman, an ultra-royalist and an aristocrat, but in certain matters she could be as shockingly direct as a peasant. She would never ask her servant, Is Olivier enjoying himself, but rather Is she a Protestant? and Ont-ils baise?
In my letters I could make the most exquisite American woman appear repulsive to her eyes, but I could not expect M. Perroquet to dissemble on my behalf.
I had already been careless and indiscreet, but until we arrived at the top of the hill and looked down across Old Farm, and I beheld the great acres and gentle hills spread before us, and the arm and elbow of the Connecticut River embracing the onion fields, the deep alluvial soil, the fat red Friesians at pasture, only then--well before the town meeting--did I realize how seriously my courtship might be taken. This was not Versailles. It was not a question of crossing the boulevard de la Reine in search of les plaisirs anglais.
Thus I had entered Old Farm with that prickling feeling in my neck, such a frisson as when walking tipsy along the high walls of the Seine at night. When I heard the cello I knew I could easily fall and break my neck.
In brushing this young woman's hot hand I was flirting with something that was unimaginable, and if I had fallen in love with America generally, then I was both engaged and disturbed by the daring and beauty of Amelia Godefroy. I found myself almost numb with desire and terror. At any serious level, such a liaison would be unthinkable, but there was no other level from which to choose.
To arrange to meet and talk together in private would, in Fr
In short, I had no one to deceive but my own servant who would still be sleeping at the hour appointed.
The morning was cool, and the ghostly cattle walked in a blanket of mist which lay across Amelia Godefroy's own small herb garden and wrapped itself around her pastel cloak. Her raw woolen bonnet revealed a perfect oval face with very definite brows. Her nose, she might forgive me saying, was somewhat pink, but that was as befitted the climate, and it was a very nicely shaped nose sitting attentively above a perfectly swollen upper lip. She had been cutting thyme as I approached, but now she set her basket on the stile.
For a moment neither of us said anything, and in that extraordinarily familiar silence, a dove cooed. She laughed frankly, then was embarrassed and drew on her gloves.
"Perhaps I can show you my father's landscaping. It is best I call it that, or else you might not notice that anything had been done. My father," she said, not caring to hide the mischief in her eyes, "wishes to prove that man can be civilized without geometry. He has a thesis"--how I adored that lip--"but it is much more pleasant to walk through the landscape than listen to its explanation."
Soon the pair of us were plunging into the Godefroys' neglected grasses which were, in all their autumnal collapse, an extraordinary contrast to his barbered trees. These last he had gathered in two elegant platoons of perhaps twenty each, standing at attention in a field of late-mown grass. The design allowed low-lying reddish shrubs to exist in a territory between the wild and the cultivated, and these were arranged with borders which sometimes pushed their way like a coastline into the lawn and at other times into wild grass. In this same mood the master had embraced the natural forests, added water features, paths, and carriage roads, all in a way that would blend in with the natural beauty. Even the gardeners' cottages seemed to grow out of the natural surroundings. In my mind I saw my mother's eyes, as they might, in appalled triumphant secret, seek mine across a dinner table.
Miss Godefroy had led me to the tamped yellow path along the river. "Tell me where you live," she asked. The path was so narrow we must be careful not to bump each other and we were as careful and careless as you might expect. "I have never been to France. I cannot imagine what it must be like."
"We live very much in the past, I fear." I spoke not quite sincerely, for I affected to mock my country, a bad habit for a French commissioner, but one learned on the job. And yet I spoke truly for we French had not yet cleared a way forward from the past. We were stuck in the slough between what had been and what might be possible, and whatever avenue we sought was mired with mud and blood and the horrors of misrule. We fiddled here. We fiddled there. And all the while the great lava flow of democracy came inexorably toward us.
"I was thinking last night of your fields," she said softly, "and how they have surely been farmed for centuries, so there must be--am I right?--a certain softness to the contours, even the hedges and ditches."
When last night had she thought this? Lying in her bed? My ditches?
We pushed on along the river, heedless of where we might arrive. Yes, I thought, she imagines our fields very well. "Your town meeting rather shook me to my bones," I said. "I am still reverberating."
I thought, I should not have said reverberating. I might as well say I dreamed about her all night long.
I felt myself blushing, which of course only made it worse. "What exactly are we discussing, Miss Godefroy?"
"Democracy in America," she said. "You were interrogating me."
"Very well." I smiled. "Does the government never subdue your town? Do they not think this association dangerous?"
"There is always danger everywhere." She smiled.
I said, "But your town meeting is an old practice? You have never clashed with the central government?"
"Our fathers founded the town before the state. There were Wethersfield town meetings before there was a United States."
"Then I have a question. It may be impertinent."
"Oh please do be impertinent." She laid a hand again upon my arm. "No one is ever impertinent in Wethersfield."
"Was it a town meeting that tried and convicted your witches?" This was what Blacqueville would have called a blurter. I said it only because it had been much on my mind. "I am sorry. I have been ill-mannered."
"On the contrary," she said kindly. "I have been too light and frivolous. Those women were murdered by a theocracy. There was no democracy involved. It was a terror, but not an American terror."
If she had been briefly cool, then she was cool no longer. Her eyes were bright and liquid. I thought, Good heavens, here she is.
She said, "Who could not be moved by the fate of your dear grandfather?"
Not for the first time was I taken aback by the lucky boldness with which these American girls could steer their thoughts through the reefs of lively conversation.
"Of course," she said, "we are not grand or cultivated. We must seem very provincial to you."
I thought, What does she feel?
"A little provincialism is very much to be desired," I said, then saw her blush. "In France," I insisted, "we have suffered from centralism: the Revolution, Bonaparte, you see."
"You will have what you desire," she said, and abruptly turned. Good God what did she mean? I watched her slender back as she led me along the river. Beside us a cormorant, blue sky mirrored in its glistening back. Here: a fir tree. She ducked low, and I followed into a dark and spiky little wood, my heart racing very hard. We emerged in a considerable field, its extent being some thirty acres, curtained by forest, no human being in sight. I held out my hand to her and she took it quite definitely and together we walked toward the center of the field. I was on the other side of the earth, invisible to that fierce eye.
I thought, Might I live here? In this town?
"But what of envy?" I asked her. "If the majority is to rule, what of its desire to level?"
She listened, but only to that part of a conversation that cannot be detected by the ear, and she heard me very well indeed and when I opened my arms she came slowly to me, her chin lifted, her eyes narrowed. Her lip.
Who would not envy me? I thought. Dear Lord, I thought, as I breathed the mad warm air directly from her nose.
THE DARK HORSE was lurking on the stairs. Good Jesus, did servant ever suffer such surprise? I pretended not to see him but I don't know why I bothered. He had no shame.
Bonjour, called he as he retired.
Bon-bloody-jour indeed. It was not long past dawn and his stockings were wet up to the knees.
"Bonjour," said I and returned to my plain white room and sat upon the bed.
He with his dachshund eyes, I thought. A stallion after all.
I would have happily waited for his orders and it was only the fear of missing breakfast that drew me eventually down the stairs, and then--in the library--blow me down if it was not the sneaky French commissioner, and sitting in my place was the lovely Miss Godefroy, her white muslin alive with sun, ready with her quill to take dictation or, should I say, my job.
I laughed. I smiled, but I knew not what I thought: You dog, for one part. But also: She should be careful with that ink.
I asked my employer would he be needing me this morning.
"No," he said.
"What shall I do?"
At the midday meal I once more inquired would his lordship be needing me. He answered no.
In the afternoon I observed him return to the library in the company of Miss Godefroy. This time her father sat attendance. Had negotiations begun already? Who can imagine what was said?
At the evening meal, I asked would sir need me on the morrow.
But tomorrow was the Sabbath. Christ, it turned out to be an awful thing. The lady of the house had been, until this morning, distinguished by her relentless busyness, but now all that was extinguished and when she sat at table I had a chance to see her, in the flesh, as the saying is. Even in the unforgiving light which streamed through the eastern windows, it was clear that Mrs. Godefroy had once been a raving beauty. But something had frightened or disappointed her, or perhaps the rigors of being a God-botherer had turned her bottom into stone.
His lordship, on the other hand, was very perky and I observed how adoringly Miss Godefroy looked at him. She had snagged an aristocrat, and she was pleased about it. He was talking on and on, as always, leaning forward, cocking his head, mispronouncing every English word he knew. Miss Godefroy thought him perfect. Did the Indians have a religion, he wished to know, or was it what they would call a cult?
The mother then replied. "I am afraid the French commissioner will find us heavy and stupid."
"On the contrary, madame." He smiled, showing off his noble manners.
"This is our day of rest," said Mrs. Godefroy bluntly. "A very different day, I am certain, from what you have in your own country."
She meant he was a Mick and she would burn him if she could.
"I shall do very well, madame," my master answered, smiling at each and every one of us in turn. "I like work better than Sunday amusements."
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes