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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.30
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.30

           Peter Carey
 

  At this I found it necessary to kick his shin.

  "Just so," said he, understanding me perfectly, biting his lip in the most thoughtful manner. "Everybody to church."

  "Some go to church, but most to chapel. I am not quite sure Wethersfield has anything in the French style," said Mrs. Godefroy.

  Miss Godefroy was blushing, furious, staring at her plate.

  "I am a Christian." His lordship smiled, applying a Catholic amount of butter to his Protestant bread. "I can join all Christians, no matter of what denomination, as brethren in their devotions."

  "Indeed," said Mrs. Godefroy. "Then I would say your doctrine is rather broad."

  The family, quite clearly, had scuffled at these crossroads more than once before and now Miss Godefroy, very bright of face, addressed her mother. "Of course you will worship at Mr. Farrar's?"

  "And you will come with us?" the mother asked.

  I understood nothing except there were preachers named Poole and Farrar and they were on opposing teams.

  "I will go to hear Mr. Poole," the daughter said. "And if the gentleman," she added, with a slight bow across the table to Olivier de Garmont who sat showing his clean teeth to one and all, "will keep me company, I shall be most happy to show him the way."

  "Mr. Poole is a worthy divine. I have said so before."

  "Oh dear," said Mr. Godefroy, looking from wife to daughter as a mood descended on him like a Dartmoor mist.

  "Yes dear Mr. Godefroy," said his wife. "Mr. Poole is a grander man in the pulpit than Mr. Farrar. But alas he is almost Unitarian."

  "That is, a reasoning being," said Mr. Godefroy, smiling.

  I did not get the joke, but I was chuckling sociably when Mrs. Godefroy swooped on me, "And you, Mr. Larrit, where to?"

  "With my apologies," said I. "An atheist."

  The French commissioner frowned at me. Miss Godefroy bowed her head but I could see the edge of her bright eyes as they looked up from under her brow. Perhaps she was amused but her mother seemed likely to never look my way again. I was upset to have been rude to the lady of the house, although she could not damage me as severely as my employer who would not tell me what my future held.

  After breakfast I stood alone on the great porch and observed streams of worshippers move across the landscape to their different destinations like ants before a deluge. Two hours later I saw them all return. Then it was the dinner hour. Then afternoon service. Then teatime. Then evening service. Then supper. Then Mr. Godefroy read a Bible chapter, Lord knows which one.

  So what was my future?

  Not a word.

  That night was cold and the blanket thin. When it was finally Monday I went eagerly to my desk, only to find it already occupied by Miss Godefroy.

  "Good morning, Mr. Larrit," cried she.

  "Am I required?" I asked my employer.

  "No," said he.

  I inquired was there anything else he wished to tell me. He said that there was not. Goddamn them. I needed paid employment.

  I returned to my room, reflecting on the general thoughtlessness of aristocrats. They never imagine a man has a life of his own. When they are done with him, then it is over, and when they want him, then he must come back again. So it had been with the Marquis de Tilbot who had walked into the architect's office like he had been away twelve minutes not as many years. "Come up-country," he said. "You are a clever chap; it will make your name."

  Well, who does not want to have a name? "But I have a family," I said.

  "And you will return to them with money in your pocket, royal ribbons on your coat."

  And what did I know of him that would make me trust his word? Nothing. He could eat a trout alive. He was a spy. For a frightened boy to believe him was one thing, but what about a man?

  Eight months later, having suffered dysentery, tropical ulcers, and a continual anxiety about my wife and child, having bashed my way through the worst of Queensland and New Guinea, I arrived in what was then Porte de Bergamote where I fully trusted I would get a berth on a Sydney clipper, but there had never been a ship for Sydney in Porte de Bergamote, not then or ever, and Monsieur was loudly astonished that I would imagine there ever could be at a time of war.

  But voila! We could both get a berth to Marseille.

  "As you know," he said, "your engravings were commissioned by the Empress Josephine, and she insists you call on her at home."

  As a result of this and other lies, I began to have foolish ideas about what would happen to me in France. I wrote to my dear wife. I have no copy of my letter but fear it was filled with too much empress and insufficient heart. In any case this stupid act had her take the boy to Melbourne with that famous liar, Ted Spence.

  The composition of that two-page letter was the most stupid thing I ever did, and all my life, as now at Wethersfield, this memory made me grimace and cry out.

  I went downstairs again and demanded, "Are you dismissing me?"

  He was in the library reciting opinions, his head back, his eyes half closed.

  "No, no," Miss Godefroy said. I did not think this was her business. She was not married to him yet.

  "I have an important job for you," said his lordship, still reclining.

  "What is it?"

  "I will tell you later," said he, and I thought, He has no more clue than a blind pig. He will send me up-country perhaps, and what of my own life, and my own happiness?

  I walked into Wethersfield that afternoon wishing only to get the burn of arrack in my throat. The town was dry, I was told three times, and just as I was getting in a mighty rage about Jesus Christ and all his ministers, I entered a likely doorway and found a landlord mixing sherry cobblers. Blow the man down.

  After I had tried a cobbler, he made me what they call a cocktail after which my natural temper came hurtling back. The landlord then begged I try his pick-me-up. Having obliged him, I was ready to ask him the role of religion in a town where they burned people who did not know their catechism.

  To this he responded with a doleful kind of hymn, sung in a deep bass voice--Damnation! Oh, damnation--and this provoked a croaking laugh from an individual who now began drowsily rocking herself in a dark corner.

  "Not salvation," said she who may have been his wife. "Damnation, damnation," and off they set, the pair of them like Christmas carolers.

  I finished my pick-me-up and I thanked the pair of them for improving my idea of Connecticut. Then I set off to discover the whereabouts of Old Farm. I was most fortunate there was a moon to light my way home, or perhaps it might have been better if I lost my way, for on ascending the stairs I went into my master's room and shook him violently awake.

  II

  I OPENED MY EYES the following morning and beheld Olivier de Garmont--his silk gown, his surprisingly athletic legs--standing at my bedroom door. The light was bright as all the Christian faiths and his nightgown was like a dirty rag.

  "How do you feel, Master Larrit?"

  "I am ill."

  "I would expect you are."

  "What have I done?" Oh dear God, I think I tried to murder him. Why then would he smile? His phiz looks like he has been dining in a coal scuttle.

  "I said, Mr. Parrot, that you must take a vacation, and for some reason that made you very angry. You had a cocktail, so you said."

  I had not known what a vacation was, but I recalled my boiling rage at him, and what sort of poor character he thought I had. "You offered me money."

  "Of course. You were demanding money."

  "I must be employed, sir. I wish to work."

  "I said I would not dismiss you but you must go away and I will pay you."

  "That's it!"

  "You recall what next you did?"

  "You accused me of blackmailing you."

  "No, I said I would pay you even while you traveled to New York. It is a vacation. Vacation is an old English word, I do believe."

  "You thought I was a spy. You wanted me to go where I could not witness your hanky-panky
. You thought I wanted money."

  "You did want money. Do you remember what you did?"

  Following his eyes, I surveyed my room. "You have been at my trunk."

  "No, sir, you have been at your trunk."

  The lid was open. There was a mess of paper, all my papers, and black flakes everywhere, like Dit'sum on that awful day, the sky full of nightjars and alive with burning currency. Here around the bright white Christian room were my carbon papers, all destroyed. What nightmare had I woken into?

  "Please sir, what have I done?"

  My master came and sat upon my bed and peered down his thin straight nose at me. It was not hard to imagine him in a court of law. "It turned out you had not been writing to my mother. Nor sending her my copies."

  "I can't do everything."

  "Indeed. Thank heavens."

  "I need my job."

  "And you have your job, John Larrit. Now perhaps you should fetch some soap and water and we will discuss your vacation. It is a word you deserve to know."

  He touched my head. I wish he hadn't. He departed and left me to confront the disarray. I had done battle with the Devil and his dark and glistening scales lay all around. It is possible that I had tried to stuff an aristocrat with carbon paper but I never dared to ask.

  III

  THAT WEEK THE CAPTAIN of the Zeus blew up his boiler and burned his first-class passengers and killed a horse innocently engaged in towing a barge along the western bank. It was therefore announced I would leave for my vacation by stagecoach. I was honored to be invited by Mr. Godefroy to be his guest aboard his one-horse chaise.

  "Trot up!" cried Godefroy.

  And we were bloody off, racing for the crest of the ridge. What a view: the waving noble and his adopted Godefroys, all those black loamy acres of Old Farm, soft drizzle showing on the feathered mountains, sixteen shades of gray and pale, while below, from north to south, the rain marked the surface of the stream like shoals of white bait rising in a boil.

  I did not doubt we would see an orangerie down there before too long.

  We sped down onto the flats, through Dartmoor drizzle to mist to stinging rain. I was dressed as I wished Mathilde to see me--in my waistcoat and top hat and spivvy gray frock coat--although, studying the driver's wardrobe, I discovered I was underdressed.

  Godefroy was fifty-five years old and a saint of his church but he was also what they call a hotspur, pushing his horse through the needling water with his teeth gleaming and his eyes bright, wrapped up like a coachman proper with that snug and cozy perfume of the oilskin all around him.

  Having been abandoned at the inn, I was turning in damp resignation in the direction of my own pneumonia when I heard a thwack and felt a thwap across my head and shoulders. It was his oilskin coat.

  "Bon voyage!" he cried, and I could not even thank him for the gift, for he was already up the road, standing in his shirtsleeves, giddyup. If he would do this for an atheist, I reckoned he could manage a Catholic for a son.

  I therefore set out with my spirits high, enjoying the blissful prospect of my forthcoming conjugation and the subtle pleasures of the scene. It took a little while for me to understand that, though I might be dry from throat to ankle, I would be very cold. For hours interminable, for days finally, I sat atop a heavy coach, always rocking on its leather thoroughbraces, swaying around the curves, lurching over the hills, passing with perilous tilt the heavy, slow-moving, canvas-covered freight wagons, never arriving before sunset at our inn, and then cold to the marrow of my bones.

  The inns were flea-bitten, the beds were hard, and the owners of the stagecoach service, like the landlords, were set to avoid all unnecessary costs. As we approached each tollgate the driver blasted his cornet trumpet. This was a signal to another coach, owned by the same company waiting on the other side of the barrier. It was also a sign to us passengers that we must soon get our bags down, and sometimes there was a wheelbarrow to assist us but mostly there was not, and then we must carry our belongings through the toll, paying our three cents, and board a new carriage on the other side. I thought fondly of the Zeus.

  On a Sunday evening I arrived at Manhattanville and discovered the coach would go no farther till the morrow. To hell with it. I purchased a fat lamp from a tinker and set off on foot. God knows what sort of muck was in my lantern, it gave off the powerful stink of tannery or what are called the noxious trades and I suppose I was drenched in it by the time I arrived at the place where last I saw Mathilde.

  On being sent to New York from Philadelphia, not so long ago, I had found her absconded from the boardinghouse and I was caused considerable distress until I located her, and then I felt far worse. God save me. She had gone and bought a house, feme sole status or some such nonsense, which meant she was not married and could do what she pleased, including contracting to buy a dwelling house in the jungle--they called it Sixteenth Street although it was nothing but a rutted track. The house was timber, what they call clapboard. It shook at every step, and that was bad, but this was worse--she had no money except what she had made hawking portraits on the boat.

  In spite of this Mr. Peek had sold her a house, and if you don't believe it, then I did not either, but we must. For Peek had played Shylock with her, himself lending her the capital and loading her to breaking point with every type of extra fee, compulsory insurance, brokerage, advance payments on taxes I am still sure that he invented. This was why I could not lose my job--my wages stood between her and debtors' prison, not to say foreclosure. And through all this time, of course, I loved her, and yearned for her, and my bad-smelling lamp gave off just sufficient light to guide my way toward her bed. Sometime after the bells rang ten, I forded the muddy little stream and stood where my beloved had bought her house.

  Sir, it was not there. It had been. Now it was not. Except one crooked chimney stack. And a heap of half-burned wood. I waved my lantern like a fool and found a corner of scorched silk I thought I recognized, a cooking pot the old lady had transported. The night air smelled of wet ash and my noxious lamp. I found a wooden cross stuck in the earth, just two feet tall, most likely a cat or dog but awful just the same.

  I was gutted as any trout, gray liver lying in the ash.

  And there I stood, a stinking grieving factory illuminated--chiaroscuro--when I saw another lamp in whose penumbra I could make out two pairs of unlaced boots. It was a very young couple, almost children.

  "Where is she?" I demanded.

  The girl took the lantern from the boy and held it up to me. "Where is who?" she demanded.

  "The Frenchwoman."

  "Are you Mr. OK?"

  "Perroquet?"

  "Mr. OK?"

  "Yes."

  "She said not to tell it to no one else."

  "Good," I said. She was alive. "Very good."

  "How do we know it's you?"

  "I will speak to you in French." I was mad and desperate. I knew this made no sense. I thought I would have to give them money. But they retreated to parley and when they returned the girl said, "Go on."

  "Ne me faites pas perdre mon temps," I said.

  They gave me the address of the Broadway boardinghouse but by the time I got there the landlady had sold to someone else. The night man was new and did not like my smell and if I had not woken the maid I might have suffered more losses than a man can bear.

  So, God knows what hour, but off into the night once more. My lantern ran dry and I abandoned it downwind from the Collect. From there I was at the mercy of the clouds and finally, by misadventure, fell into what I later learned was Bestevaar Kill or Manetta Water, and I cursed and lurched along its bank nearly to the North River where, by sheer chance, the stream ran along the side of the house to which I had been directed. Dear Jesus thank you whoever you are--a small dairy farm with its name carved in the gate.

  Fearing I would be savaged by the dogs I could hear flinging themselves against their chains, I followed a moon-pale driveway with high grass in its middle until, having
barked my shins and poked my eye, I got myself up to the porch.

  "Mathilde?"

  "Who is it?" It was a man.

  "John Larrit."

  "What do you want?" Yes, I thought, here I am again, in the middle of the night, and who will love me now?

  "Mathilde."

  When the door began to open I already hated who was on the other side of it. I kicked it but it was held hard by its chain.

  "Eckerd?"

  "No one of that name."

  In the lantern light I saw the Jew from the Havre, his wild and foreign beauty, the smell of his pomade, the gray shadow across the top of his forehead.

  He saw me, of course he did. He rolled up his lip beneath his nose, as if my smell had caused offense.

  "I am here to see my wife."

  He opened reluctantly, as if he did not remember me. But there, on the stair behind him, holding a candle and wrapping herself in her blue shawl, stood the woman I had come to see.

  "Oh my dear, Parrot," she cried, and ran to me, kissing all of my face and eyebrows and complaining about my smell while in danger of sucking my very eyes inside her mouth, my soul, oh how I had missed her, and her combustibles, her turpentine and linseed oil, and all the time I could feel this queer soft tapping on my shoulder blade, not her.

  "Dear Monsieur Perroquet," said Mr. Eckerd. "Most welcome to our house."

  IV

  TILDY SMELLED OF SLEEP. What was happening in this house I did not know, but I took good note of the Jew's very fancy gown, a silk peacock embroidered in gold from neck to hem and the whole less well secured than I would have liked. We passed down a wide central corridor, decorated like a post office, by which I mean, busy with packages and portmanteaus and all the signs of recent arrival or imminent departure. Nothing was secured or settled except--where you would expect a hat stand--there was a large fresh-smelling portrait of Eckerd in this very gown. He was posed seated in a cane chair, legs apart, leaning back. She had put him next to a sloping attic window stolen from our home in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, but out the window was another country, a broken wilderness, fallen trunks, splintered yellow roots, a part of a man's leg. No one would buy a work like this. It was foolishness extreme to do such charitable labor when you have lost your house to fire.

 
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