Parrot and Olivier in America, p.3Peter Carey
"Good man," said he, and swung himself upon his stallion to whose proud body he had restored scabbards, halyards, saddlecloths, all the signs of ancient rank. He galloped away with no more reliable news than that which is always blown along the Paris road, no more educated than the opinions of men with burning faggots in the night. I thought, They will guillotine my papa and then I will kill them in their swarms, God forgive me. Yet I was also very proud to see him leave with no other company to protect him. He set off to Paris where, as everybody now knows, the Russian prisoners and wounded Frenchmen were carried through the gates in carts. Some, half dead, fell beneath the wheels which they stained with blood. Conscripts, called up from the interior, crossed the capital in long files to join the army. In Paris all was still turmoil. That very night, my father would hear artillery trains passing along the outer boulevards. No one could know if the explosions meant victory or defeat.
"From the towers of Notre-Dame you could see the heads of the Russian columns appearing, like the first undulations of a tidal wave on the beach." So wrote Chateaubriand and it is likely true, or most of it.
Paris was in the process of being invaded or liberated, and the cannons split the trees in the Bois.
At the Chateau de Barfleur my mother was brave and frightened, calculating and careless. She had dressed as a bourgeois, as I said before, but then she called for the coach which declared her an aristocrat without apology. She embraced me and whispered I must stay safe with Bebe, but then she was in the kitchen personally packing a hamper, ignoring the cook and maids, whose sulky offers of cold meats and fruit she firmly refused. And this was how I knew I would go to Paris: I saw her choose a series of small and sweet surprises for her only son--crystallized fruits, rose-scented Turkish delight, caprices de noix, those Perigord walnuts, glazed in sugar and coated with bitter cocoa.
I rushed to Bebe and demanded that he come to Paris. I thought, I will be the Comte de Garmont now. I thought, Why will he not obey me?
I ran and clambered into my mother's great Tormentor, leaving Odile and the other servants to follow, crammed like pickled turnips in the coach behind. It was an ordinary day, gray and overcast, very quiet as we escaped our exile. I thought, We are like the cicadas who live so many years entombed beneath the earth.
Then the coach wheels rolled across the courtyard stones and my mother rose up singing and I with her, leaving behind our yellowed skins, our sad bedclothes for the laundry maids.
MY MOTHER'S CARRIAGE was like its patron--heroically resistant to change. That is, no modern suspension could fit it.
I would, on any other occasion, have begged to travel with Odile in the second coach.
"Vive le roi," my mother whispered when we were finally alone, without our audience of spies.
I kissed her wet cheeks.
"Vive le roi, Maman," I cried, trembling at what might lie ahead.
She held me to her little bosom. Her broach pressed against my cheek and hurt me, but everything the breathless bleeding sleepless Olivier had wished for seemed as if it might now really come to pass. The days of glory were returned. Everything smelled of jasmine and leather, but I did not forget the horrid cartoon of Louis XVI's spurting head, nor was I blind to my mother's disguise. Whether we were returning to our friends or enemies, I was not sure, nor would I ask the question in any forthright way. These unspoken anxieties may very well have contaminated our return but such was my mother's experience of life that she knew the value of distraction--had not the aristocrats in the prison of Porte Libre staged Racine and played whist? Neither of these activities being suitable for this occasion, she had placed a hamper between us in the coach.
The peasants were plowing their fields and the air was rich with dung and dirt. My mother's memory of the weather was completely different, but I distinctly remember that the first hawthorns were in bloom, while inside The Tormentor's ancient painted carapace we supped on sugar flowers, so delicate and lovely, each one wrapped in pale blue paper, as grand and gorgeous as a noble of the robe.
"All gone," she would cry.
But then my newly playful mother would produce one more pretty blue skirt, and untwist it to reveal a white rosebud which would dissolve like nectar on my tongue.
"Will I see the king, Maman?"
"But of course."
"What will I say to him, Maman?"
"Olivier. Look. What can this be?"
And what she had produced now, from her basket, was a familiar object from my father's desk, where it had long stood in company with sundry botanical and sentimental curios. Here, on what I could confidently announce was the most exciting day of my life, this pink glass flask with its tear-shaped bottom and its bound cork stopper, might have been a magic balm for one of Cervantes' wounded knights, and if Maman had told me it was filled with frankincense or myrrh I would have had no reason to doubt her, except for the embossed letters MADE IN NEW YORK.
It was, as my mother told me later, on a calmer, less ecstatic day, a gift to my father from the American who claimed to have invented electricity. It was soda water.
My mother gave not a fig for the American who had not even known to wear a wig to the Chateau de Barfleur, and yet she unwound the copper wire from around the cork with a certain reverence and when she placed it in my hand I understood I was to keep it as a relic. I folded the wire and tucked it into the pocket of my skeleton suit. My mother then removed the cork. The soda water produced none of the percussive force of champagne, but its own distinctive effect, something rounder and softer, rather like, if I may say so without disrespecting his beloved memory, dear Bebe farting in his sleep.
We were rocketed toward Paris, lifted upward, shaken sideways by the beastly Polignac springs, but in the midst of this turmoil my mother carefully filled one goblet and I witnessed my first soda bubbles, never guessing the gas had been gathered from the top of dirty brewery yeast, seeing only an ascension of my own spirit, fragile orbs of crystal rising in the golden light.
My mother and I drank and laughed and shrieked. Bubbles burst inside my nose, behind my eyes. We were, I swear it, drunk.
And then we were very sober, and I have a clear dark recollection of our arrival at the banks of the Oise where we found my father waiting for us, I suppose by prearrangement, although I had not been told of it. There were battles still being fought, apparently, and this is why we approached Paris by this route. I was not in the least surprised to see my papa looking so handsome and noble on his horse, his sword at his side and the great plumes of black smoke rising from the street behind him. As we approached him, my mother hurried the empty bottle back inside her hamper but my father barely had time to speak before he wheeled his horse around, shouted to our driver, and so escorted us toward our house on the rue Saint-Dominique.
Above our heads sat the coachman and our blacksmith, the latter with a musket across his lap and the former with his whip cracking the road lest anyone approach. The sun set along golden boulevards as we veered away from the Cossacks, whom we feared, and cantered beside the Austrians, whom we trusted, although both, together with the Prussians, were our saviors come to destroy the tyrant the Revolution had brought forth.
As we crossed the Seine the sun was at the horizon and the ancient river flowed beneath our path like mercury, carrying the bodies of our own French sons and fathers like so many sawn-up logs. You would think the enormity of this sight, all this blood paid to remove Napoleon, would disgust me, squash my child's happiness like a stinking rose petal in the street, but you see, my noble father was ahead, the blacksmith above, and as we arrived on the Left Bank I was in fact a thoughtless disgusting little thing, a general returning in glory from the wars.
Vive le roi, I thought. Vive la France. I kissed my mother's cheek and squeezed her little hand. The house of Garmont was restored.
ABANDONING THE BLACKENED SILVER of the Seine, emerging from behind the solemn sooty shadow of the ministries, we found the rue
"No, no," my mother cried when the light of Gustave's lantern revealed a high thin town house with its eyes gone blind. My mother had been born in this street. She knew each house by family name. "There, Blacksmith, there," she cried. "Onwards."
At that moment there appeared, on the penumbra of the wavering light, some towering phantom, as tall as a house, pressing down toward the carriage, bleeding black against the charcoal sky.
"Maman," I shrieked.
"What is it?" she demanded, her voice rising to a pitch quite equal to my own.
I was literally dumb with terror, all the hairs on my neck and head bristling. I could do no more than point.
"Oh." She saw, then slapped my leg. "It is the Blacquevilles' wisteria."
If it was the Blacquevilles' wisteria it was also a living thing, abused, attacked, wounded, hacked, pulled away from the house so it teetered in a mass above our heads. This was the house of my friend Thomas. I felt sick to see how it had been punished, as the pigeons had been punished, as it was said the printers of rue Saint-Severin had held a trial and hanged their masters' cats.
"Maman, where is Thomas?"
But she shrugged off my hand.
Our iron picket gates were now opened to us by our blacksmith, who, it seemed, could think of nothing but the gold fleurs-de-lys which had been melted down for bullets. I heard the grind of steel on steel, the heavy hinges swinging, and my heart was beating like the devil, my blood sluicing through my arteries and veins. Then--another fright--the high front door opened and I beheld a pair of deep dark staring eyes. Standing hard against my mother I slowly understood that the eyes belonged to one of ours and she--that is, the chatelaine--was refusing to admit her mistress.
"Don't fret," my mother reprimanded me, but she was the one who was fretting. I could feel the heat of her body. In a moment she would enter the grand dining room, where she planned to welcome the king himself amidst a sea of lilies.
Imagine my confusion when I discovered, by the light of twenty candles in that same room, a large black gelding, eighteen hands high, shitting on the parquet floor.
Among the manure and straw, I beheld a broken vase and silverware, damask curtains in a pile--small damage if you consider what was happening across the Seine, but horrid violence just the same. A shudder passed through my bowels.
Behind the horse, the servants were still assembling with their candles and my mother was on show once again and I, her son who had imbibed her terrors in the womb, knew she could not possibly endure this public trial. For instance, what would she call them? I made a horrid smell. The Comtesse de Garmont squeezed my hand once, briefly, and then she laughed, not desperately at all, rather girlishly in fact, as if the awful sight was a very droll amusement.
"Come," my mother said, but I dared not move. My mother touched me lightly on the head and then, having addressed her servants from the chilly distance of her majesty, gracefully ascended the curling marble stairs. Thus was I abandoned to the violence of the room.
I thanked the chatelaine for greeting us. She answered me appropriately. She explained that the horse was there because the stables had been burned down and that Hobbes thought him certain to be stolen by the Cossacks. She made me understand my nose was bleeding.
Six strange servants escorted me to bed.
Then Odile arrived carrying a large rose-tinted Ch'ien-lung goldfish bowl. This contained my leeches. She set it on an English giltwood stand and removed the muslin cloth from around its neck. These vieilles amies had always been in her charge and she was constantly ready, at whatever hour her bell rang, to scoop out the starving parasites with an instrument I have seen nowhere since--an English tea strainer strapped with leather shoelaces to a wooden spoon. Odile was slow and heavy-limbed but extraordinarily dexterous and, when required, she would select a single creature and hold it between thumb and forefinger and then, when the doctor had departed, she would--without fail--fix one to her nose and through the kindness of her heart, to lessen my distress, roll her eyes at me as it wagged its vile body in the air.
Thus for our first two days in Paris I was declared an invalid, and although I complained bitterly it was not so bad. The Blacquevilles had not returned from Normandy. I watched for them from my window and saw, if not my tall young Thomas, then many other visitors arriving by coach and foot, carrying their baskets or parcels or portmanteaus or simply holding the trains of their dresses high. I could also see my mother's coach, in no way hidden but standing on call, with its team in harness all day long. People of the most surprising type stood in the street to stare at this, and when one urchin rushed through the gate it was not to slash the horse's tendons but to tenderly place a white daisy in the harness before the poler's ear. So did my blood spill over, my lungs rip and roar, the louder for witnessing the guildsmen and market women arrive at our gates with gifts of furniture and mirrors and other items "taken into safekeeping" during the Revolution.
As my father had refused to join the nobles' flight into exile, the house, no matter what spiteful damage it had suffered, had always remained his property, and the items now returned had been, even by the laws of the Directory and Empire, quite frankly stolen.
I lay in bed and Odile brought me chamomile relentlessly. If this calmed me I do not know. My mother visited me often but was always in a rush to see a returning friend, sometimes carrying a broth, sometimes no more than her glad and nervous heart. I had never seen her eyes so bright, and these visits, ever so brief, filled me with happiness, and gave birth to a very clear expectation of what my life might now become.
And I was not disappointed. For when I rose from my sickbed she brought me a new sailor suit. As for her own dress, she had moved from black to white, from age to youth. She had raised her hair. She descended those wide marble stairs dressed in white lawn from head to toe, pleated beyond perfection, her long floating sleeves held with flocks of white silk ribbons. She was an angel, a noble princess, with a long and lovely neck, her artful curls twisting down each cheek, her white bonnet decked with live bouquets, which may have had the rather prosaic purpose of disguising the odors of the street.
The servants, crowded like geese inside the entrance, applauded.
This shocked the comtesse clearly. She stopped on the third-to-last step and her entire forehead erupted in a frown of disapproval while her dark eyes shone in undiluted triumph. In this style she ran the gauntlet of her audience and I behind her, still clutching my letter to the Abbe de La Londe. Through the gates I beheld a crowd of men of all sorts wearing white cockades, and women too, some very rough. My mother, not knowing whether to acknowledge them or no, wrapped her shoulders with a shawl of fleur-de-lys, and this simple action raised another cry.
"Vive le roi," they cried.
"In, in," my mother hissed.
I jumped into the dreaded Polignac monster and she followed quickly after me. "Vive le roi," she whispered in my ear, brushing my cheek with the fresh blooms in her hat. "Vive le roi, my treasure." And so we rolled along the rue Saint-Dominique to the rue de Rivoli where we called on Mme de Chateaubriand. M. de Chateaubriand was not at home but many other aristocrats were gathered around the dining table which was stacked high with papers bound with bright green printer's cord. Even as we entered these cords were cut and the pamphlets divided between la Marquise de La Tour du Pin and Mme de Duras and Mme Dulauloy and many ot
Louis XVIII later said that Of Bonaparte and the Bourbons was worth a whole regiment to him. It never did occur to Chateaubriand that he had been mercilessly flattered, but in that he is no worse than every other writer ever born.
Dear Little Bebe, I wish you a good day. I am going to tell you something. I am to have a new suit for His Majesty's visit. The statue on the place Vendome has just been knocked down and they have put in its place a white flag with fleurs-de-lys on it.
Goodbye, little Bebe, I kiss you with all my heart. My friend Thomas is now here with all his sisters. He asks after you and demands you come to join us very soon.
THE GATES WERE REPAIRED and painted. There were new curtains, cream and silver, luminous by candlelight, which had been sewn and hung in just two days, one of them a Sunday. Our horses were lodged with the young nephew of the duc de Berry, who was a neighbor, and the entire rue Saint-Dominique echoed with hammer blows as our stables were rebuilt by a group of Marseillais who ate so gluttonously that a cook was engaged to deal with their unreasonable demands. Every day the king was expected in Paris. Every day he was delayed until, finally, my sleep was quite destroyed by nervous expectation.
"Why does the king not come to Paris?" I asked.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes