Parrot and Olivier in America, p.34Peter Carey
Perhaps you have not felt your value is apparent to me. Believe me, you have proved yourself to me time and time again, not only when you stood by my side against the mob but even when I least appreciated it. Your purchase of the Versailles Impromptu was one such incident and I have successfully copied your comic enactment, together with a string of commentary that pretty much follows the path that you indicated.
All this makes your failure to return a source of concern, for trusting your integrity, being needful of your assistance, I hardly know what to think except that harm has come to you. Are you ill?
I have completed these chapters in readiness for your return:
* INFLUENCE OF DEMOCRACY ON WAGES
* HOW THE GIRL CAN BE SEEN BENEATH THE FEATURES OF THE WIFE
* EDUCATION OF GIRLS IN THE UNITED STATES
* HOW THE EQUALITY OF SOCIAL CONDITIONS HELPS TO MAINTAIN GOOD MORALS IN AMERICA
* SOME REFLECTIONS ON AMERICAN MANNERS
Thus some thirty pages are already here. For the present they lie atop the tall black spines of Mr. Godefroy's Virgil, and I am reminded by the flickering of the fire--the same warm light that brushes Miss Godefroy's cheeks as she turns the page of her novel--of the double nature of the fire.
Monsieur, I wish to say to you that you have been, and I hope will continue to be, of immense service, and as the long days progress and I labor on this book, I feel we are both, you and I, partners in a matter that represents your own cause as well.
I will write for you, whenever you ask for it, the most useful letter imaginable, one that would have the presidents of America wish to have you as their trusted confidant and friend, and once your service to me is at an end--well, I wonder if this is what you will require. Consider this, as you chart your course, for I doubt there is a better letter for you than the one I plan to write.
Dear Larrit, I have been traveling out from Wethersfield on more than one occasion, having traversed the most primitive wilds, with no sign of any human soul. Last week I came upon one of those poor settler's cabins where one's first thought is to pity them the plainness of their existence, the lack of cultured society, or any of the comforts that even the peasants of Orne might take for granted. But here, as one such fellow pointed out to me, it is the opposite of France where land is beyond price. Here land is taken freely, and it is only the labor of the family that is bought dearly, but what one finally comes to understand is that one is talking to the lord of the manor, and if one's eyes can see the dense wild forest as his domain, one sees oneself much as I might see myself at the Chateau de Barfleur. This, monsieur, may be a life you would consider, and if that were so I would assist you in every way. The cost to you would be somewhere in the region of forty chapters of transcription.
It was in the midst of this profound solitude, some miles beyond this settler's cabin, that I thought of the July Revolution. I cannot say with what violence the memories of the twenty-ninth of that month took possession of my spirit. The cries and smoke of combat, the sound of cannon, the rolling of musketry, the still more terrible tolling of the tocsin--the entire day with its enflamed atmosphere seemed suddenly to rise out of the past and place itself as a living tableau before me. There was a sudden illumination. When, raising my head, I glanced around, the apparition had already disappeared. But never had the silence of the forest seemed colder, its shades more deep, or its solitude so complete.
As you and I walk these American streets it is perhaps best you are aware of the present state of Europe which my father writes "seems to be that of a volcano ready to explode." Coincidentally the administration of justice in France is moving to curtail my eighteen-month leave of absence, and here I sit before the fire at Old Farm, the fire crackling merrily and Miss Godefroy, as I write, laying down her novel on her lap and smiling at me and at her mother, who has revealed herself to be not so bad a soul, glancing from one to the other of us before returning to her crochet hook with something close to contentment. I do not suggest Paradise--she and Amelia have, this very night at dinner, suffered a loud and distressing disagreement on whether Christmas was a pagan feast or no. This I am sure is a question of little interest to a declared atheist, except that the Godefroy family has ordered me to issue an invitation to you and your family to visit at that time of year.
My immediate thought was that this was one of those American misunderstandings. For would you not agree with me that in aristocracies masters and servants share no natural similarities and although wealth, education, opinions, and rights keep them a great distance apart on the scale of human beings, the passing of time winds up nevertheless tying them closely together, so much so that they would both agree they should not share a table at Christmas though they know each other better than any other pair at that table. Long-shared memories keep them together and, despite their differences, they have grown alike.
Here in Wethersfield, where I am as unexpectedly content as I have ever been, we would find our ideas questioned at every moment. They believe that aristocrats will mingle with the common mass, while I despair of seeing the end of that noble class. My dear Miss Godefroy believes that the European will one day mingle with the Negro. To me this is a wishful delusion and nothing one observes can possibly support it.
For all that, will you, dear sir, be so kind as to attend Old Farm at Christmas? It will require no second reading to understand your services are required by the master of us both, I mean the book.
Also, if you please, two cases of that Montrachet and whatever gold coin you think safe to travel with.
Olivier de Garmont
WHEN ECKERD SAID his play would change my life, I expected he would somehow shatter it. Still, I followed him.
It is said in Paris that Americans do not like the theater, that they go to church instead and never drink. The truth was found on Chatham Row where, inside Eckerd's Elysium, I found a theater like a wedding cake and the gods more Greek than Christian. That is, as Eckerd led me to my seat, a lady's stocking floated down, as gentle as the seed of a dandelion. I mean, the audience was mixed, and had bought their tickets for different reasons, some as simple as thumping their boots and singing "Yankee Doodle" whenever they got bored. There was a gross of bankers and their families but also a good sprinkling of those wispy-bearded New York clerks and their girls and mechanics and British sailors ashore and a party of blond Germans staring at the curtain so they would avoid whatever wickedness was being presently enacted above their heads.
The Elysium was red velvet like a knocking shop, a kind of maze through which the great Eckerd guided me, touching my elbow like a tiller on a shallow run. He was so circumspect, so delicate. From his fingers I felt a dreadful sort of pity, as if I must be kindly killed.
"Sir," said he, "your good bride."
I was a stupid man. I felt an awful dread. I clambered over merchants' knees and stood on their wives' squeezed-up little toes--poor peas in pods too small for them. Mathilde took my arm. She was warm against my side, her soft breast against my arm.
I thought, Clearly it is Eckerd who is coughing up the money. I said, "Young Olivier has been writing to me."
She plucked a pigeon feather from the shoulder of my coat and examined it closely. Did she see I was a pigeon not a cheeky parrot, a lackey who carries messages bound to his scabby skinny legs?
Mathilde asked me did my master wish me to go back to Wethersfield.
I said, "Where is the money coming from?"
But the curtain rose, and she was saved.
The backdrop showed an idiot's idea of France from a bad engraving. Never mind, it did not matter. Miss Desclee was beautiful, unrecognizable beneath her powdered wig. Her English was a treasure, an entire language learned in something like eight weeks. She was an aristocrat from somewhere on the Mississippi, or so I guess, for she sounded like the captain of the Zeus, who was Natchez born and bred.
The play yawned ahead, eternity.
Miss Desclee had a fine and noble house painted twenty feet tall. This I examined closely. In certain aspects I thought it the Empress Josephine's Malmaison, even to the gum trees out the back.
There was a scene with a great herd of actors all calling for Miss Desclee to be guillotined. The audience was surprisingly upset. This would have puzzled my father's friends but it was the human factor I was later told.
Miss Desclee sang. It suited her.
The lover sang. It did not suit him half so well.
But all in all, Eckerd knew his Americans, and he delivered his hero and heroine in front of a backdrop which faithfully represented the city of New York. Here both hero and heroine declared Revolution won.
I thought it awful. But the audience went wild, as Peter von Gunsteren would say, throwing fruit and nuts.
I rose. A firm white hand was laid upon my knee. I thought, She loves me. Then I understood I was being instructed to stay seated for reasons stated thus: CODA: THE FREE BIRDS OF AMERICA.
Darkness fell. There was a flute, I think. A figure materialized, so slowly it seemed like one of those pictures that appear behind the eyelids when they close. It was the actor who had played the part of lover. The lights dimmed and brightened, and there stood, in the same bright green garments as the lover, our very own poor twisted charcoal Watkins, like a tree blossoming after fire.
"Good God," I cried. "What's this?"
It was our sensitive friend exhibited in his monstrosity. He stood, alone, uncomforted, a paintbrush in his hand. Some lout laughed, and then the audience took refuge in a certain hush of horror.
But he was not Tiny Ted the midget or the lady with three legs. He was Algernon Watkins, an artist of the first degree, and as the idiot audience shouted its amazement or upset, I bawled out my rage against it all.
He was a great artist, not a clown.
Mathilde whispered that Watkins represented the troubles of the Revolution and the promise of America. If so, it was in no way clear. Watkins sold his engravings in the foyer. I thought, He is not a circus dog.
The commerce was very brisk and occupied the best part of half an hour. Afterward, we were led up beyond the balconies, past the ropes and pulleys where we were escorted into the small apartment Eckerd had built beneath the roof.
I will come to this apartment presently. It was a minor miracle, and was later famous in a murder and divorce. But at the time I set upon the owner angrily, for I had seen Watkins sell an engraving for fifty cents. The unlikely connoisseur was a gentleman with gray-striped pants and long frock coat. He folded the precious print in four and slipped it inside his shirt.
"It was unbearable," I said to Eckerd.
"I am not an artist," he said, and I refrained from saying that was evident in every aspect of the play. It was grotesque to attach poor Watkins like a tail.
"I am not an artist, but I look after my friends," he said.
So he had not given a damn for his play. I suppose I had known that when I saw him make it up. He had chopped and sawed and nailed it, like a man making a tannery on a riverbank, adding Watkins to the script as if he were an outhouse or a shed.
Eckerd questioned me until he understood exactly what my objection was. He was very civil. He poured me a glass of bright red sparkling wine.
"So," said he, placing the glass in my hand. "You disapprove of what I do. But what would you do for Mr. Watkins? Or for your wife?"
Of course I had no answer.
He smiled, raising his glass. "The stage is clear for you. Please go ahead."
When I turned my attention to Mrs. Watkins, I understood she had been shaking her head at me these last minutes past. I looked to Watkins and saw his furrowed features twisted on themselves, the pink scar showing his upset. It was Mathilde who came to my rescue, who took my hand, who owned me with a kiss upon my rough-shaven cheek.
"What a shame it is," said she, "that you must go away."
Let me explain more carefully where it was we were.
BEING INSIDE Eckerd's secret apartment was like being inside a whisky barrel, or beneath the ceiling of a barrel-vaulted church, or taking shelter under a tight-clad boat turned upside down against the storm, a kind of ark.
It was very high, above all the scenery and ropes and pulleys, and very dry, just beneath the roof.
The ark had room for just one animal, a cat. It was what they call the Egyptian breed, gray in color with very cool blue eyes. Max, his name was, more like a monkey than a cat, with a comic monkey turn that had him leaping from a cupboard and landing on his master's head. This was a good joke when it was not your head being landed on, but I was soon extremely put out by his manners in respect of chamber pots or lack thereof.
There was no facility for washing, cooking, or other personal matters, and although the whole was draped and hung with rugs and fabrics such as an artist might use to create a scene, and although there was also a long low settee where you might pay a poor girl to be an odalisque, there were also a number of straw pallets arranged on the floor, and these suggested a church at a time of war or flooding. On one of these Mrs. Watkins now sat, a blanket wrapped around her lap, making a cushion for her husband's tortured head. I quickly sensed that my six companions were parties to a plan from which I had been excluded.
At first I was relieved, but then I was very bloody irritated to understand they had been selling art when they might have benefited from my experience in the world. They did not know a bloody thing--not even Mathilde--about the services I had performed for the Marquis de Tilbot. Can you imagine them selling Watkins' birds for fifty cents?
When I saw that oaf tuck the engraving into his woolly underpants....
In any case: a room like a boat. Straw mattresses. Rugs. Odalisques and so on. Then--all along the gentle golden walls, stacked in some cases, pinned in others--a great number of works of art including those paintings Mathilde had removed from the Greenwich Street farmhouse, from under my nose, from above my arse. Now here they were, with Watkins' engravings to keep them company. Also to be noted very bloody bene was the Egyptian cat who sprayed first one canvas and then another while no one bothered to tell him to mind his manners. I was exceedingly annoyed to see artists party to this pissing.
I bathed my tongue in sparkling wine until my organs cooled. Most politely and carefully I asked my Good Companions--did they think it spoke well for their character that they were prepared to sell Watkins' engravings for fifty cents?
Eckerd would not take the bait.
Nor could I argue with Mathilde.
So I turned to Mrs. Watkins who was busy stroking the short soft hair on her husband's head.
I asked her what that engraving had cost her, the one they sold for half a dollar.
"Me? Dearie me, not a penny."
"But was it not a warbler?"
"Yes it was, dearie."
"Then did you not invest a great deal of courage on the banks of the Missouri River?" I knew of what I spoke, for her doting husband had lectured me at length. I knew the cost of that engraving--the horrid ulcer that still grew down to her living bone.
Mathilde said they all valued art. They thought of nothing else.
"Then why," I asked, "does Watkins have his plates here to be corroded by the cat?"
If a sigh is a reply, he answered me.
On a low bench in a corner by the door there were more plates, higgledy-piggledy, not even protected by a sheet of paper. I took the uppermost one which happened to portray, by chance, a spoonbill parrot.
"Return that sir."
"Why? Do you not know me?"
She tried to take the plate. I would not permit it.
Watkins raised his head and screeched as I carefully wrapped his copper plate.
Mathilde shook her head.
Eckerd asked me what it was that I intended.
I said he must accept that the theater is each night washed into the sea, it sinks, it drowns, so even the great Burbage is forgotten. But we can pull down an entire country and chop up the king's heart and fry it with the kidneys, and still the paintings will survive.
Watkins said I should read the parable of the talents.
I said he could wipe his bottom with his Bible.
A great number of words followed and it was only when we quietened down that I understood my friends were--on the basis of some secret understanding--to sleep the night on these pallets on the floor. What could I do but lie down also with the copper plate safe beneath my head? And there we all stayed, grubs in blankets, not knowing what we would become. In the night a huge wind blew through the theater below us. I heard it moan, and something crashed. Then it was inside the walls. Then Mathilde came onto my mattress and clamped herself around me like a padlock. I held her and felt her breath beneath my chin.
NO CHAMBER POTS that I could find, although I had been up and searching often in the night. I was ready to use the wine bottle when I heard a tread upon the stairs.
Thank the suffering Jesus, I thought. Someone was fiddling with a chain. Stuff me with little green apples. There was Eckerd--I had thought him sleeping behind my back but now he was in front of me. Someone had been stuffing carbon paper down his mouth.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes