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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.35
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.35

           Peter Carey
 

  "It is done," he said.

  "Give me the damn pot."

  "What pot?"

  "I am about to burst."

  "In the drawer," he said, and I saw smuts of carbon on his glittering gold coat. He had no explanation, only newspapers beneath his arm.

  "Show me the drawer," I cried in the midst of a general resurrection of the bodies on the floor. "Give me the pot."

  This was delivered from behind my back, a tin bucket in the hand of Mrs. Watkins. It seems the custom was to step out on the landing, but as no one instructed me I did my business as modestly as the circumstances permitted.

  When I had time to pay attention to the others I found them in deep contemplation of the New York Sentinel. Naturally I assumed it was a write-up of the play. This misunderstanding was strengthened by Watkins' agitation which suggested that his engravings had a bad reception. Eckerd and Miss Desclee looked rosy in comparison. They perched on the settee and Mathilde leaned over them, frowning as she always did when called to interpret long stretches of the English language. Meanwhile Maman looked from face to face to read what effect the news was having.

  FIRE AT MURDER HOUSE

  It Was Rapid and Caused Consternation for a Time

  Property of Mr. Eckerd

  Much Loss Averted

  The house at 565 Greenwich Street which was made notorious in living memory by the hideous Muldoon murders was last night burnt to the ground in a conflagration so fierce it was, for a time, expected to destroy an inn on the other side of Greenwich Street, which is, at this point, some 25 feet wide. The Bull Inn, a great favorite with captains of the London packets, was saved thanks to the enthusiasm of its patrons. The timber yard of Mr. Fachetti lost its fence, and a small quantity of cedar was consumed.

  The owner of 565 Greenwich Street, returning home from Eckerd's Elysium, of which he is the well-known public promoter, soon became a highly visible and valiant member of the bucket brigade and showed himself, in his desperate efforts to protect his property, quite careless of the gold tuxedo which many of us have seen beneath the footlights.

  The cause of Mr. Eckerd's clear distress was, it was soon known, not only the loss of his recently acquired dwelling but a collection of letters from many European artists and musicians. Also missing was a historic tiara, once the property of his grandmother. Neighbors joined Mr. Eckerd in sifting through the hot ashes, where, not without numerous burns, some of which were judged severe, a certain quantity of melted gold was recovered. Although this metal will, of course, bring a not insubstantial price as specie, its value is expected to be only a fraction of the melted treasure.

  Mr. Eckerd appeared too distressed to discuss this loss, but Mr. Peek of Turtle Bay, a director of the Hand in Hand Insurance, confirmed the tiara was insured by his company. He would not disclose the value of the lost item but did disclose to the Sentinel that Mr. Eckerd had recently, at his own insistence, placed many other pieces of jewelry in the vault of the Bank of New York.

  "This might have been so much worse," Mr. Peek said. Mr. Eckerd was a very fine example to the public, he added, for he had recognized that insurance of property, while wise, could never return a beloved object. At a time when the building was still smoldering, it was still hoped that the tiara's five diamonds would be recovered and that these, together with the price of the recovered gold, would go some small way to covering the loss.

  The story continued, but by now my companions had lost patience and, having been somehow launched into a fantastic frame of mind, set about pouring whiskey and making toasts in such a raucous style it would be easy to imagine oneself aboard a pirate ship.

  To Mathilde I said the following: "But this is the same Peek who said he would not insure you."

  "That's him," said she who sometimes called herself my wife. "And he did not insure me either." She laughed again, and her old mother poured herself a dram and lifted it high and Mr. Watkins, who seemed to have been mostly afraid that someone would be burned, took his whiskey in a teacup.

  "You have burned down your house," I said to her.

  She replied by flinging her arms around me and setting her whiskey lips upon my own. "Not mine, my Parrot."

  "Was there a tiara?" I asked Eckerd.

  His answer was to reach into his cloak and produce some melted gold, but he could not stop smirking at his cleverness.

  "And this is what you had to keep secret from me?" I said to them. "I suppose you have paste jewelry in the bank? There was never a valuable tiara. You melted some gold. You burned down the house. You are scoundrels, all of you."

  "We are artists," said Mathilde. "We have a right to live."

  You have no idea how beautiful she was and how her eyes glowed, but I did not like her at this moment, and this was not exactly a moral point. I understood her to be saying, she and Watkins were artists and I was not. This might be true, but it stabbed me in the heart.

  Watkins avoided my eye.

  Eckerd, however, did not wish to flee my gaze. He floated in it, basking.

  "And when Peek sees you two together? Your game will be up."

  "He never has," said Eckerd. "He never will."

  Of course this was why Eckerd used the front door while the rest of us used the back. I had been tricked, insulted, weighed beside them and found lacking.

  "So then, this is Art."

  "Art in America," said Mathilde.

  "Well damn you all," I cried, and the old maman sat down as if pushed.

  "No one here knows quality," said Watkins. "No one will pay us what we're worth."

  "Would you rather have the lords and nobles back? What is Democracy for? Not so we can rob each other. Or cheat." I said cheat and felt the teeth in it, the cleat, the cut, the eat. I thought my lover cheated me, my wife. "You are no better than Lord Pintle d'Pantedly. He thinks the common man is stupid. He thinks there can be no art in a democracy."

  But Mathilde would not be doused by me. She flung her arm around the room. "This is art," she cried. "We made this."

  "But your argument is just the same as Garmont's. He says you cannot make art, he is wrong. You say no one can recognize art and you are also wrong."

  We snarled at each other like a pair of dogs.

  What were the roots of my rage, I hardly knew. I had failed to use my own talents as my companions had. They thought they were my betters and I feared they might be right. They were arrogant. They were wrong. They thought that they alone could see. They had promoted themselves to be aristocrats of the senses. In this role they felt entitled to steal whatever gold they wished from public coffers.

  "Fifty cents," I cried, and picked up the printing plate that I had kept safe throughout the night. "Here's two dollars." I threw the coins onto the mattress, where Mrs. Watkins snaffled them. No one moved toward me.

  I further wrapped the printing plate, two more sheets for good measure, tied it up with string, and dropped it in my duffel bag which Mathilde, to her credit, had moved out of the house before she burned it down.

  Next I kicked off the top of the wicker basket in which Mathilde kept her supplies. She had never seen me act like this before. I threw out the jars I found inside, and then removed that little sack of wax paper twists which she, being always careful with her money, wrapped around her leftover paints. These I took possession of, and a brush or two as well.

  "I was not born to be a thief," I said to her, "and neither were you. If you burn down another house I will come back here and burn down your bloody theater." I repeated this in French and Mlle Desclee began to cry.

  Good, I thought, let them bawl.

  I lifted my duffel to my shoulder.

  Mathilde cried, "Don't!" but failed to specify. She had an awful fear of the police, so perhaps that was it, but when I left the theater I had no more dealings with authority than to make one last visit to the post office before I left New York.

  No sooner had I appeared beneath his grand rotunda than my old friend with the wool jumpers hailed m
e.

  "Ha," said he, and was soon referring to the labels on his holes, and then held out a long thin article, not exactly an envelope but a letter folded and contained the way the nobles do in France.

  It was addressed in a hand I recognized. If Monsieur was writing letters I feared the guillotines were being taken down and scrubbed and oiled.

  Lettre de la comtesse de Garmont

  a l'attention du domestique de l'honorable

  Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Garmont, actuellement a New York

  "Du domestique," said my woolly friend, without much care to the niceties of language. "I have been thinking this must be you."

  "It is, mate. Yes."

  He leaned so close to me I could smell his onion sandwich.

  "It is in French," I said.

  "All of it?" As if he had not already steamed it open.

  "It is."

  "You won't be reading that too quickly," he said. "Why don't you take it over there where the ladies get their mail? There's no one to complain of you this early."

  M. Perroquet, I read, I write to you at the behest of the Comtesse de Garmont, who, being prey to all the natural feelings of her sex and having in addition become advised, whether directly or indirectly I do not know, that her beloved son is set on making a marriage in no way advantageous to that noble and ancient house, begs you to use whatever tools you have in your possession to have her son returned to her.

  Being acquainted with that gentleman's strong character from birth, and expecting that he will not confess his American attachment, I have no doubt he has placed himself in a situation where the good counsel of his peers can never reach him. Thus she who gave him his life now invests her hopes in you, fully understanding that his salvation should probably be undertaken in the same forceful manner whereby he was put aboard the Havre.

  However, as he is presently, she understands, many miles from a port, and being himself most clearly in that unbalanced state of mind he may call "in love," she has asked you to communicate to him that his tutor and confessor the Abbe de La Londe is presently dying. She hopes this will shock him out of his bewitchment. In the moment of greatest shock she would have you encourage him to take a coach to whatever port is nearest in order that he should speed to the old man's side. Yet I am conscience-bound to tell you that the abbe passed away last week.

  Perroquet, what you are to do with this request is for you alone to decide. I would not encourage you to any criminal acts which, being undertaken on American soil, might be far more dangerous than any of my actions at Le Havre.

  If you do receive this letter you might let me know c/o the one in Brussels where I may spend the winter. I have a copy of the Baillard which makes me very happy. The morocco is not of the quality of the treasured item we let go, but the prints are exceptionally fine, there being a greater density in the blacks as a reward for patience.

  Tilbot

  Olivier

  I

  IT WAS A CONSIDERABLE SURPRISE, in the middle of a gloomy afternoon, at a time when I was nodding before the fire, to see Mr. Larrit looming, not as I sentimentally remembered him but as he really was: weathered cheeks, coarse hair, frank eyes, and that careless habit he had of leaving a few long hairs unshaved around his Adam's apple. He had not brought the Montrachet and, like a servant in an American inn, made no apology except to assure me it would be here by and by.

  When he had settled his "things" (in truth no more than the usual bumpy duffel bag), he returned to the library and, without taking the trouble to close the door, announced he had a proposition to put to me.

  Of course servants do not, in the normal order of things, put propositions to their masters, and yet it was not his use of this word that alarmed me, but the very clear direct expression in his eyes. To put it coarsely, he looked like he had something "on me."

  "A penny for your thoughts, John Larrit."

  For answer he patted my arm.

  Perhaps this behavior had been encouraged by my friendly letters, or was simply the unfortunate consequence of his spending time among Americans. In any case, I answered coldly. "You may put to me your proposition."

  He said he understood I required a great deal of labor from his hand and he would honestly perform it, writing for as many hours a day as I could reasonably expect.

  Reasonably? I thought. Un moment, dear Blacqueville.

  "No, no," said he although I had not spoken. No, he promised to rise early and labor late, but he would require a horse and three hours of every afternoon to be given to his own endeavors.

  I asked him what endeavors and he answered that his proposition was to leave the house when the family sat down to lunch and return in time for supper. I thought, Would not even an American democrat be offended by this presumption? He said he would rise at four each morning and, being absent for the hours he had decided, work until nine at night. He invited me to do the arithmetic although there was no need for he had already done the calculation. It was a bargain for me.

  "Indeed," I said.

  He could not have been deaf to my tone, but he stared at me directly and I thought, He has something "on me" certainly.

  I had confessed everything. If he had forgotten what I told him in my madness on the steamer, I had reminded him in writing. Of course the scoundrel imagines he can stare at me like that and then demand to be provided with a horse for some endeavor he will not name.

  "Wait," he cried, seeing the expression on my face. "This is all to your advantage." He then explained that the horse would allow him to spend more of his time laboring in the library and a great deal less along the road to Wethersfield.

  His time? This was a very modern concept he had learned. I was far too angry to ask him what business he might have in Wethersfield. I said I would talk to Mr. Godefroy about the horse.

  But he had already spoken to Miss Godefroy and she, without consulting his master as she might have, had been very happy to oblige him. In a democracy, it seemed, one could not go against a servant's will.

  Thereafter John Larrit performed his duties as he had invented them for himself.

  Sometime later, a week or so perhaps, it was reported that Mr. Godefroy's black mare had been seen in the shed adjoining Mrs. Dover's boardinghouse, and so poor Godefroy had a very urgent need to establish that the horse was not there on account of any business of his own, nor was he in unseemly congress with Mrs. Dover whose reputation, it was widely agreed, was not beyond reproach. Godefroy was very cool with me when giving me this news and I was very sorry to be the cause of upset for the man with whom I wished, one day, to form a close association. He left it to me to reprimand my servant, who naturally swore that he had no relationship with Mrs. Dover except to rent the shed from her, and he undertook to ensure that the shed door was always closed in future.

  My good Amelia chanced upon this conversation which another of her sex might have thought judicious to leave alone, but as in other controversial matters, such as Christmas and her opinion of the educational qualifications of President Jackson, she surprised me. Taking up her usual chair by the library fireplace, she reached for her English novel and rested it upon her knee as if it were a Bible upon which she would make John Larrit swear.

  "How was your time in Wethersfield?" she asked my man.

  "Very good thanks miss."

  "I suppose it was on a private matter that you ventured forth?"

  "Yes miss."

  "But you looked after our Molly."

  "Next time I will have a feed bag for her."

  "She has a stable, I heard."

  "A shed. I rented it, miss."

  "Did you meet the landlady at all?"

  "A moment."

  "They say she is handsome."

  "Yes, very."

  "It would not be the first time she gave a stranger shelter."

  "Will that be all sir?" he asked me, coloring.

  "Yes," I said. "Please leave us."

  When he had gone Amelia said, "He looks at you
in such a cheeky way, don't you think? What have you just given him permission for?"

  I said I had given no permission, and if anyone had been permissive it was she who gave him the horse.

  She put aside her book and stood as if to leave. "My father thinks Larrit has smuggled his wife to Wethersfield."

  And then, the minx, she kissed me, and held my hands, high, so they would almost touch her breasts.

  Said she, "It must be very nice to have a wife," referring frankly to those pleasures which she had hitherto invited but denied.

  "Indeed," I said, for what else could I say? She had such a bright engaged intelligence, and such beauty, that one would think her, in France, to be an aristocrat, a woman like Mme de Stael, although not burdened with her flirtatious reputation. Here in Wethersfield, she could also be seen carrying feed for her chickens, not playing the farm girl but running a considerable business of her own. She would not marry a man who did not love her and a man who loved her could only make that clear by his proposal. There was no question in my mind that I must, sooner rather than later, overcome my sense of duty to my mother. I must eliminate all those ancient lines that led me to this point, sever that root to the Clarels and Barfleurs, everything by which I secured my place on earth, my hope for glory. And yet of course my past in France was not secure at all, nor could my future be when, even now, my own kind was once again regarded an enemy of the state. If this mortal danger was a privilege of rank, why should I not cast it from me?

  Was not the American democracy preferable? Was not the French turmoil the result only of its inevitable path toward democracy, a treacherous confluence where the river of nobility met the ocean of equality? Was it not better to inhabit the future than the past? And if the future appeared half-made and raw, was it not also peacefully free of politics and parties? In America there was nothing like our schisms, our ancient blood-drenched hatreds. I could discover no discord here more serious than the manufacturing states bickering with the agrarian about a tariff.

  Life in rural Wethersfield was never without amusement. For instance, I soon discovered why the horse was kept in Mrs. Dover's shed. Larrit had become engaged in a business with the printer Mr. Cloverdale who housed his presses in the lane behind the widow. Soon it was clear to everyone that Mr. Godefroy had no relationship with Mrs. Dover. But then the entire village was alarmed to learn that my servant was demanding Cloverdale order in paper of an unheard of and expensive kind. No one had seen this paper, let alone felt its weight, but its price so offended something in Cloverdale's Protestant soul that he must take his anxieties to a town meeting (of which it was judged better that I be left in ignorance). Here at the meeting house there appeared many citizens who apparently feared a counterfeit was to be committed, a type of fraud such as had become common recently.

 
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