Parrot and Olivier in America, p.33Peter Carey
"Dear heavens," I said, wondering how Peter had been saved but never asking.
"I will see them all in Hell," said he. I supposed his brother must be dead.
"So you are back in the pigeon business."
He looked at me directly, and I wondered if his eyes were bulging more than a month before. He was mad or sad or frightened, which I could not tell.
"I was ignorant," he said. "Now I have been studying up on the savages. I wish I had known this before, but they are not all the same."
"There are different tribes I've heard."
"Quite so." He nodded his head. "The government of Texas will give you what they call a parcel, about one hundred thousand acres, so they say. One hundred thousand acres and no trouble."
"That seems an awful lot."
"It's a different country," he explained. "There are tribes there who are peaceable. Not all, but some. The agent says this is much easier doing than the Creeks."
"I have heard there are some very wild tribes in the Texan country," I said.
"Yes," said he. "I'm not a fool."
And he then pushed at me a piece of folded paper on which he had made three columns: friendly, hostile, harmless.
I was an Englishman, the servant of a Frenchman. I knew nothing of these matters but there are very few men who are harmless when asked to give away their ancient lands.
I asked him would he not rather have a good business in New York.
"No," he said, "for I hate pigeons more than you could ever know."
"Well I don't know what else there is available," he said. "I do pretty good out of pigeons, but it is no work for a man."
"Oh you could do a lot better than pigeons," I said, not really having an idea but thinking, Parrot, you are in America, you too must do something with your life.
"What?" said Peter, suddenly alert and holding my eye very hard.
"Oh, I couldn't say."
"You have a plan," he cried. "I see it."
"You have a plan. It's clear."
He now began to pay attention to my awful drawing.
"You cannot keep it from me," he cried grabbing so violently it tore in two. "Why, it is terrible," he said, and returned a half of it as if in confirmation.
He was not incorrect, but I had drunk four glasses of rum and curdled milk, and my life, generally speaking, seemed to stand on very shaky ground and I would not have trusted his opinion of a dollar bill.
"You tore my drawing," I said.
He tried to laugh.
"You mutt," I said, and thereupon I leaned across the table, and with a style more powerful than graceful, I brought my fist to the attention of that wet and baleful organism on the right side of his beak.
TO FORM WORDS with my own hand is to reveal myself to the world as a disgusting kind of cripple who must, in dragging his limb across the paper, arouse both pity and disgust. It must always be a shock to receive a letter from Olivier de Garmont, a young noble whose hand might be reasonably expected to be blessed with elegance and beauty as a right of birth. Imagine the recipient as he innocently slits an envelope and is made privy to the esteemed noble in a state of calligraphic dishabille.
Amelia Godefroy's hand, in contrast, was a very fine and graceful instrument, and I had imagined she would replace Mr. Parrot as my secretaire, and then all three of us would be most content. Indeed, when her father whipped his buggy up the hill, when the servant cried out a great halloo as if he was at hunt, no one was happier than Amelia. She showed it too.
For the next two days we worked very peacefully together, occupying the library with all the calm content of a married couple. I laid out, in French, what I understood of the American justice system and thought myself blessed to have my misunderstandings corrected before they were committed to the page.
She was a very cultured young woman, but being American she was also very practical and no one should have been astonished that a portion of the administration of the farm already resided in her hands. That she might not, at the same time as possessing all her graces and virtues, be familiar with the arts of letters or diplomacy, can hardly be thought surprising in the circumstances, and yet it took me a day or so to understand that she, in all her very sweet Christian enthusiasm, had seriously underestimated the amount of labor required as secretaire. I rather think she had seen the service as similar to that she might render an elderly aunt who--her once-blue eyes now clouded, her knuckles knotted and woody--wished to write to her sister about last Sunday's sermon, a good deed I had been moved to see her perform.
But I was ridiculously happy to give dictation, to show off the workings of my mind, and, like a bower bird building a mound to entice his mate, to construct, as only a Frenchman really can, the most lovely artful sentences, rippling threads of argument that dazzle even while they lock themselves in place. This sounds a mite grandiose or mad, but did I not hear her sigh? I certainly saw her bosom rise when the subject was no other than the degree to which the towns of America protected themselves from central interference.
She permitted me to dictate the case of Missouri, where the citoyens elected a goat to the Senate, so little did they respect the role of government. This they sent to Washington where Andrew Jackson had it served for dinner. Later I understood this was not true. I deleted the paragraph but one cannot remove the memory of my wicked pleasure, to display myself and see the quiver of response.
I was the peacock of Wethersfield and very pleased to be far from France.
As the days wore on, and as my beloved moved from the breakfast room to the library with less alacrity, and as I understood the occupation was duller than she had anticipated, I saw it would be necessary to fetch my servant back from Babylon. To this end I dispatched one letter and then others, all addressed to him c/o the New York Post Office where he had promised to inquire each day.
I then tactfully professed a weariness with that which I now referred to as the opus horribilis and in so doing gained a great reward on earth--the opportunity to explore Wethersfield, although this turned out to be more concerned with mechanical matters than I might have expected.
Our first call was a visit to the new corn-husking machinery Mr. Godefroy had purchased just the year before. We stood in drizzling rain, watching the monster fed, and there was no shortage of neighbors and workers to explain, again and again, the wonders of the mechanism. The sole voice of dissent, and the most complicated and eloquent one, was Amelia Godefroy, who provided a perfect example of that poignancy, that surprising melancholy, that unexpected nostalgia to which Americans are so vulnerable. Their past is so brief and yet they are conscious of an ideal world, a perfect nature disappearing before their eyes, sentiments one would more reasonably expect in an aristocratic rather than a democratic society.
So, Miss Godefroy, on the subject of the corn shucker, her arms folded inside her oilskin coat, the rain running down her lovely cheeks: "Before this excellent invention which my dear papa is so excited by, the corn was hauled in good weather to the barn, and then in wintertime the young people went from farm to farm in the evenings making a party out of the husking. The person who husked a red ear earned the right to kiss his or her sweetheart. This was a way of making work pleasant. It has been replaced by what you see before you now--this solitary worker husking corn in a cold December field."
The red ear. How could I not love her?
I now formally released her from the chore of her dictation and, as is obvious from this appalling page, took on the task myself, trusting that the Parrot would eventually rewrite it, but then why am I now speaking in German?
When Amelia asked why I was using this ugly language and not my own exquisite French, I immediately asked her did she read German? As I had intuited, she did not. I said it was an occasional exercise for me to write in German, to keep myself fluent, but really what I needed to discuss was this business of Amelia and what to do about
Amelia is not only wealthy, she is a hundred times more splendid and desirable than any other woman I have ever met.
What has been occupying my mind is the subject of marriage. I had thought I could avoid it, even while I flirted with it, but now it appears more certain and more serious, I find myself in the position of the coy bride. Let me explain in confidence: Lieb mich erklaren im Vertrauen.
As a result of her father's reformist enthusiasm for the porch he had caused to be built some five cottages, positioning each one where the aspect was thought to be particularly improving. And there the little houses waited, above the lake, gazing down upon the wonders of the river--whose secret ripples and hidden shoals were instructive as metaphors within the glory of the Protestant God--waiting to reform the characters of those who never seemed to come.
Perhaps Godefroy had imagined well-behaved prisoners ending their term at Wethersfield, and perhaps there would have been, had he not suffered conservative enemies on the prison board. In any case, these romantic cabins were all empty and it was Amelia's great pleasure to escort me into them, one by one, and do a turn of the rather cobwebby room while pretending we had just arrived to be reformed.
I had imagined I would be able to write what followed but even in this German language, even with no other reader but myself, I am too shy. I cannot, even inside this seashell, confess what urges she wished us to be reformed of.
PETER VON GUNSTEREN lent me his handkerchief to stanch the blood of combat. Two rums later he was confessing he had a girl whom he was required to marry in Philadelphia, and it would be a favor to him if I would deal with the New York end of the business which involved not much more than sitting in a tavern all day long. The only strict requirement was that I should never be late for the English papers.
I told him I would think about it and stepped out into the hustle of Greenwich Street, enjoying that bracing, head-clearing feeling that only a fight can properly give you.
Having nothing much to do except make a third inquiry about my mail at the post office, I wandered, using my freedom to consider who I was and how I might be better. I headed along King Street, away from the waterfront where it was very cold and beastly, and the poor Irish girls, clad only in silk and gooseflesh, had their complexions turned the color of a plover's egg. Soon I was down on Chambers Street, with the wind hard against my back and pushing me toward the post office. Here, under the rotunda, my sparring partner waited on me, a long-armed beetle-browed clerk dressed for his chilblained life behind his counter. He wore three woolly jumpers, and mittens like my own Mathilde.
"Nothing for Larrit," said he at once.
This was all as previously, and I don't know why this occasion would be any different, except I suddenly had a vision of his lordship's handwriting. Lord God, what a frightful sight it was!
So I returned to Mr. Woolly Jumper and asked him was there a letter for a man named Carrit.
"You always ask for Larrit," said he.
"Now I'm asking Carrit."
With great reluctance he returned to those pigeonholes to which he had affixed so many labels and handwritten instructions that he had made of his simple job a puzzle no one else on earth would ever solve. He came back empty-handed.
"Then Jarrit?" I inquired. "Or Garrit."
He stared over my shoulder so indignantly you might imagine he saw a phantom queue behind me.
"Garrit is it now? With a G?"
"Try that first."
Soon I heard him give a sort of bark. Then he threw a number of envelopes across the countertop.
"Smudged," said he, as if I did it.
"And blotted," said I.
"They arrive like this," he said.
"I do not doubt it."
And for a moment the pair of us were joined by our severe judgment of the calligraphy. Our alliance was brief, for he would not permit me to read them at the counter, or in the cozy little corner where the ladies got their mail, so it was out in windy old Chambers Street that I learned my services were urgently required back in Wethersfield. My first response was to feel an immense relief. Far removed from conjugal relations, I would be spared this awful unmanned feeling that comes from having no useful purpose on the earth. This was not a long-lasting satisfaction. Indeed, by the time I had got myself to the wine merchant's on Pearl Street (where I went to order the Montrachet he wished me to shake up on the coach), I saw my trip to Wethersfield as no more a serious solution than a job in a pigeon loft.
The pigeons might occupy my days I supposed. I might save enough money to have a shop. But how could Parrot end his days behind the counter of a shop?
I squatted on a stoop on Broadway reading old Garmont's awful smudgy scrawl, not without affection, for he, in being so distant from my prickly presence, seemed to have forgotten exactly who I was. Thus he not only gave me the expected orders regarding wine and banking but confessed his personal feelings toward both his hosts and their nation. He loved beyond reason. Of course he judged them very fiercely for the blot of slavery on their luminous constitution, but how fine it was, he wrote in the very next sentence, what enormous pleasure there was in walking down a good paved street in Massachusetts knowing no one was planning to chop off his head.
This he spoiled by adding: I don't know, dear fellow, if you can imagine it.
Well that is a question I will answer for him before this account is over. But on that day, I walked the cold street imagining only myself, thinking of pigeons and making money, wondering what it would be to spend my life writing stock market prices on paper and banding them around the legs of birds. When hats were blown past me I did not chase them. I pushed into the face of the wind and, with my ears freezing and my forehead numb--for I had no hat of my own--I arrived back by the river with its lumbering carts and horse shit and poor cold girls and sailors drunk before lunch and at the Bull Inn I asked permission of the Irishman to inspect Peter's pigeon loft.
Having seen us fight, the landlord knew us to be friends and indicated the window from which I could reach the ladder to the loft.
Squatting in this disturbed air, with the wings hitting the back of my head and my nose pinched up against what the New Yorkers call a shitstorm--an accurate description--I recalled Dirk and his brother wringing necks as if they had no souls. I had been brought up with a better idea of myself than this.
I washed my hands and face in the Hudson River and then I set off once again on one of those walks where the greatest part of your aim is to convince strangers--touts, thieves, barrow men--that you are a busy chap on an errand of great importance. Thus I was a fraud and the only true thing I knew was that I would not return to a house where I had no pride or purpose. By evening time, my very shins exhausted by the day, I came back down Chambers Street and then down Broadway, turned into Park Row, and found myself confronting what I secretly had known I must--a great banner on which was painted in great heroic style, Marianne and the charging bourgeoisie. Dark had fallen now and the banner was illuminated by violent roaring faggots arranged along the top of the high steps. In this light was revealed the work of some ash-faced Bible basher who had painted across Marianne's naked bosom in a style so artless as to be an assault on anyone who has ever touched a breast or brush:
THE DRAMA OF
THE REVOLUTION IN FRANCE
ITS CHILDREN IN AMERICA
There I was hailed by the impresario. He stood above me and below his sign, his scimitar lips casting a frightening shadow on his features until the moment of a smile revealed a more perfect sweetness than one could hope to find in a mother's kiss. His mustache was waxed. His glistening rug of hair shone in the yellow flares.
Eckerd was a salesman. He was an American. He came dow
"So there he is at last," said he, "the father of the play, the midwife too," he said. "You were there that awful day. Only you know," he said, "in all the world, what we have done. I am so pleased. No one knows but you. Please come. There are special seats and, afterward, all sorts of surprises. This play," he said, examining me closely with his gleaming foreign eye, "will change your life."
LARRIT, I HARDLY KNOW how to address you from this distance. Indeed, having just begun my chapter how democracy affects relations between master and servant, the matter is of some concern. I do wish you will soon return to attend to its legible transcription, and then you will find yourself more in agreement with me than with anyone else in Wethersfield.
I cannot think what has become of you and confess I wake several times each night, alarmed by the powers I have entrusted to you, not least your stewardship of my New York bank. Perhaps it will amuse you--although I hope not--to see your master dangling on this particular hook. And yet there is no other person on this I should trust more than yourself, and no matter what early difficulties we knew, I have never been unmindful of the long and faithful service you gave M. de Tilbot. Surely you would expect that I know a great deal about your service to him in the years after his properties were forfeited. I have been many times reminded of the scrupulous and honorable way you attended to the breaking up of his father's folios, and with what discretion and commercial judgment. That a noble lord should be reduced to surviving as a bookseller was too much for him to bear, and you, I know, undertook this liquidation on his behalf and left the most particular accounting of the transactions. This the Marquis de Tilbot was keen to impress on me when he offered your services. Do not think I accepted his gift ignorantly or lightly.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes