Parrot and Olivier in America, p.36Peter Carey
No one came to me as they should have. As a result my servant was called before the village in the middle of the afternoon. There he was asked what he wished this expensive paper for.
He laughed at them outright, asking them what did they imagine he would do?
They did not like to say.
Thus, in the same church in which I had been so moved by the marvels of democracy, the servant publicly quizzed the printer who was soon revealed to be not very much of a printer at all, and the town was shocked to hear the questions he could not answer, and alarmed to learn these failures would have disqualified him from his trade in London or even Hartford. As for the expensive paper, the servant had already fetched it himself from Boston and used it before the printer's very nose.
He who is sometimes called the Parrot then left the meeting and returned with a colored etching of a bird he was not prepared to name, allowing only that it had been seen in the lands of Texas, and although it was commonly agreed to be very like a spoonbill parrot, its colorings were another matter, being carmine at its head and sulfur blue at its tail, and as luminous as a phoenix or some beauty in a myth. The exhibition of this etching in the meeting house produced a silence of such length and intensity that even the most prayerful would swear it had been never equaled in the long religious past. I am sorry to have missed it, this proof that God had blessed America with such a wonder. The bird itself must have seemed a miracle, a breathless holy sight, and it is for this reason, perhaps, that Wethersfield soon found itself without a printer and there was no newspaper until after Independence Day.
At this period I was engaged in writing the difficult chapters about the American judicial system, no simple matter for a French lawyer. I was daily perturbed by my servant whom I found continually staring at me, as if there were something he could tell me if he wished, but need not if he did not wish. Many is the time I found him with his lips already parted, before he seemed to change his mind.
This came to a head on an afternoon turned suddenly dark with a snowstorm, and the rest of the family out-of-doors dealing with this unexpected circumstance.
I looked up from my chores and found again that clear direct stare.
"Yes, sir," said I, and laid my notes down. I thought, I will give the chap his notice. I am sick of him.
"Sir," said he, and rose.
I thought, Good grief, the impudence.
"What is it that you wish to say? You may say it. Be done with it and go."
"The abbe has passed away."
I slapped the rascal's face for such a filthy lie.
IN ARISTOCRATIC NATIONS, it is not unusual to find, in the service of the great lords, servants of noble and energetic character who do not feel the status they suffer, who obey their master's will with no fear of arousing his anger.
In these circumstances it would be unthinkable for the one to strike the other.
In a democracy, however, both parties know that the servant may at any moment become the master and that he has the ambition to do so; the servant is, therefore, in both parties' understandings, no different from the master. But even this unstable promise of equality will not serve as an excuse for striking Larrit as I did.
Indeed, one does not require the intelligence of Machiavelli to recognize it as unwise to invite combat with an Englishman of his type, orphaned, abandoned, therefore forced to inhabit close quarters with the most depraved type of creature, a servant through necessity although having the misfortune to imagine himself called to higher things, who must become, inevitably, a resentful character and whose body, in the singular case of the man before me, will carry the clear marks not only of the wind and sun but the barroom brawl and perhaps--unseen--the lash. Even his distinctive nose, quite handsome in its way, may not have been the one his parents gave him. In short, John Larrit was the sort of narrow-eyed and haughty character on whose account one might wisely cross the road.
I had seen his eyes blaze, most memorably aboard the Havre, where I twice had reason to fear he would kill me in my bunk, but now I observed--after a first highlight of anger--not hostility or belligerence but an awful sort of hurt. Silently, stolidly, he considered me, and I could actually see him thinking, of what, I could not say, but the thoughts themselves were as unarguable as clouds crossing a pale green sky, drifting, changing form, blocking out the sun from time to time. Before this uncanny spectacle I stood, a master, yes, but also a child, waiting to be taught the consequence of my savagery.
"You loved him then," he said at last.
"Who told you this?"
"You sir. You could not have made your point more forcefully."
So, he shamed me. I apologized to him from my heart.
"Well, sir," said he, "a man must do something when his father dies. If he does not, he will feel the pain forever."
"He was not my father."
"But there is no doubt he was worthy of the blow."
I thought, What is this to him? Was it a trick of light that his eyes appeared so moist? "Who gave you this bad news?" I demanded.
"It comes from France"--and he gave full pause before admitting that which I might not have known myself--"from your mother."
My mother, I thought. My mother. My mother who loved me so intensely, who could never hold me very long but could never let me go, my mother whom I pinched because I could not share her with the world.
I said, "Does it not seem strange that my mother should confide this awful news to you? Has she ever noticed you? Why would she not tell me?"
"In any case, her request was of a slightly different nature."
"How different? What exactly do you mean?"
But he was like a horse, shaking his head at the approach of the bridle. "To reveal that is to break a bond."
"But you and I--do we not have a bond?"
He touched his reddened cheek, waiting a discreet moment before glancing at his fingertips. "Call a spade a spade," he said. "She wants you home."
"And I should sail to France to stand by a grave? It makes no sense. My mother would never give this news as an enticement to return. If my old confessor was dying, that would be something else, but I would not cross the world to lay my hand against a stone."
"There you are then. That's it."
"What? You mean he is yet alive?"
"Your parent might have preferred I suggested that."
"Damn these riddles," I cried, but he had his sense of honor and it made him stand excessive straight. "Do you intend now to raise my confessor from the earth?"
"On my honor, he has passed away."
I thought, God save me from the scrupulousness of servants. She wants me home, of course. I thought, She would say anything that served her ends. She has heard I have been sporting. But how could she have heard?
"Were you sent along to spy on me?" I demanded.
His eyes hardened.
"Not you? Then who has been reporting to her?"
This question would never be answered satisfactorily, although for several years I suspected Mr. Peek whose daughters I had unintentionally insulted. He had been recently in France and having, as he was pleased to tell me, "gotten myself about," may have been the source. But this really made no sense for my mother would never have received an American of his type. Most likely, I had betrayed myself with my dissembling letters. My mother knew my heart was easily touched. She knew me judgmental but also passionate, my senses readily excited. If I had only had the wit to admire an American woman or two, if I had admitted a single intellect, a melodious voice or two, she may not have so clearly understood the love that I was hiding. As the Parrot coarsely observed when describing her intuition, "Your mother sniffed the fillies in the air."
In any case, the Comtesse de Garmont had somehow perceived her son's matrimonial intentions. As a result the game had reached a dangerous stage and I was delivered, quite unprepared, to that place above the cataract where li
Finding myself suffering considerable emotions I turned to stack the fire which had, as always at Old Farm, been neglected by the servants. The great logs being almost exhausted and the kindling in poor supply, I had excuse to make a considerable task of it but finally I must reveal my own eyes to my servant. He had folded his hands in front of his apron and I observed the crescents of red and yellow paint beneath his fingernails. Being irritated by these marks of absence, I set to get him back on track, to now take the dictation he had so much avoided.
"Now?" he inquired.
"Now," I ordered.
But even as I spoke, my mind was in another place. This tactic of the comtesse had forced me to confront myself. I loved Amelia Godefroy with all my heart. I would die rather than be parted from her--but she would be destroyed by noble France. I had been, so many evenings, drunk on the possibility of America, but was I in love with America or Amelia? In this--dear wild wonderful girl--she did not help me. For while I might wax rhapsodic about the simple direct democracy of a town meeting, it was Amelia who took furious issue with President Jackson and his treatment of the Indians. It was she who, affecting not to disturb my concentration, slipped papers beneath my library door. Had I answered these written pleas I would have had my nation prevent Jackson's scheme to have all previous treaties with the Indians denied. I would also have departed for South Carolina that very morning. There I would learn what it was to spend all one's life, from first breath to last, in chains.
Was this what I wished to marry?
How could you not love the woman who wrote these lines? But if I married her, I would join the Union in every sense. Then would not Jackson's crimes be mine as well?
In my own conversations with my beloved, all was turbulence, one moment tender kisses and the next the president was a tyrant and the next he was a brave and honest man who would remove the people's gold from the First United States Bank where it was being used to oppose the people's will.
My heart and mind were in turmoil, yet I could not cease my labor. I ignored the bell to lunch and my secretaire, although clearly agitated, did not demand his afternoon in Wethersfield. It was suppertime, and both our stomachs in chorus, when I bade him set the quill aside.
He begged permission to light a pipe--a new habit--and when he had his long legs backed hard against the fire, he announced that he must now travel to New York and could not be sure of his return.
I could not lose him now.
The job of work I had begun in America had its roots in the flinty soil of penal servitude. Had that not been my public intention, to come to Wethersfield to study the administration of the prison? But once here the prison seemed a minor task and what was growing in Connecticut was a second undertaking, and no matter what its author's lacks, his foreign ignorances, his inevitable confusions, I had reason to believe my study of America would stand for many years to come. It would act as map and compass to my countrymen as they negotiated the violent onset of democracy. What business was more important than this? Not Mr. Parrot's, certainly.
As to the engraving he showed me, I never saw so gaudy a thing and I was reminded of the painting of Thomas Cole--a tedious man--whose autumn landscape had already brought an alarming garishness to Mr. Godefroy's foyer. The colors of the American autumn are, in all their splendor, the most magical thing you ever saw, but they are of a very raw and independent nature, wild beasts in their way, creatures who will not permit themselves to be made tame in art. Indoors they are rude and gaudy--one wishes they had left their accordion and muddy boots outside--and that was the vulgar nature of this singular engraving that poor John Larrit, who had already suffered very much in his long life, now staked all his store on. It was nothing much more than a circus bird but he stood before me full of hope, like a boy in a fairy story, off to make his fortune in the world.
I had grown very fond of him and was exceedingly sad to witness his conceit.
"YOU HAVE LOST YOUR WIFE," Amelia said, flicking snow into my face. "It is weeks ago he left and you have been in mourning ever since."
"He is my servant, not my wife," I said, although of course I understood the joke. Also it was very true--he had ended up a very useful chap.
"Only a servant?" she said. "Then that's easily fixed. We'll get a new one."
She stooped to pick a small gray rock from the white crisp blanket at our feet.
"Your lordship's rock," said she, smiling to reveal that charming slender shadow between her two top teeth. Why was this apparent defect so entrancing?
"Shall I warm it for you, sir?" she asked, and proceeded to blow on the rock and hold it under her arm and I thought that tiny gap was really the master stroke in all her face, although how this absence could create such a sense of character, of liveliness, of blessed mischief was beyond my understanding. She was a Rembrandt not a Hals.
We had come to the long ridge of Gibson's Hill, named for a settler of living memory, and all of Old Farm was spread before me like a gift I might unwrap if so I chose, the snow-dusted onion fields, the cow pastures and woods, the idealistic cabins with their porches and, beyond these steep white roofs, the crooked elbow of the Connecticut River beside which I had wandered, in ignorance and love, not daring hope this day be granted me.
My darling was clad in sturdy tall boots and a long native bearskin coat, but on her head she wore the bright red bonnet she had adopted when the locals were still hunting deer. This framed a face that, in all its Greek perfection, recalled the Hygeia which stood on my father's desk, its secret life hidden behind her pale pink mouth which, applied with winter oil against the cold, glistened like those lips which made Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun such a favorite with Marie Antoinette.
"He has gone on to other things," she said. "You should be happy."
How could one not be content with this extraordinary beauty, this grand sweep of life and all the centuries that might be lived within the landscape now considered?
"Your Larrit," she said, "he will make a fortune, you will see."
"If I am sad it is not because I have lost a servant."
"Dear Olly," she said. "Don't be ashamed to miss him. I have observed the pair of you together. It is really rather sweet. You are a very noble noble, dear."
My beloved annoyed me, I admit it. Yet so it is between couples of the deepest and most enduring affections.
"He is my servant," I said. "The person I grieve for is my confessor."
Then, all at once, the rock was a rock, and all frivolity was cast off in the snow, and she had taken hold of both my hands and was insisting I acknowledge the grief I had hidden from her all that time.
Why I should keep this secret from she who would console me, I cannot exactly know, except I had spent the weeks in a state of chronic loneliness that was oftentimes unbearable. When I smelled the sweet Virginia tobacco on Mr. Godefroy's coat, I was reminded, not of American things, not of the nullifiers of South Carolina and the sin of slavery, but of Bebe whose bristly cheek had so often brushed against mine, a caress made more intense by its almost painful roughness on my pale child's skin. How the strong must love the weak, I thought, that he cared for me like a squawking sparrow in a nest. He ran that I must learn to follow, swam that I might not drown.
He was gone, his body in the soil of France, leaving the world entire a foreign place.
Side by side we tramped the ten miles to Wethersfield, and thence another three miles to see a small red schoolhouse where my beloved sometimes came to teach the farmers' children. Amelia had been, from our first encounter, a believer in the principle of education in democracy. On this point we argued freely, with curiosity and humor, but I could never see, and would never see, not if I lived to be one hundred, what use she found in the English novels she made these rural children read. For what can a society learn from Jane Austen except that it is a very nice thing to become married? To my s
The road from the school led up a considerable hill where a great amount of snow had accumulated, calf-high in places. I was more than a little excited by her splendid strength, her pink cheeks, her shining smile, the dear comic faces she made when the snow, on occasion, fell inside her boots.
There was a place below the crest where the downhill coaches pulled politely aside so as not to spoil the momentum of the uphill traffic laboring the last quarter mile to the crest. On a shelf of dark rock we caught our breath and contemplated that plain white sheet on which a glorious history might be writ, perhaps by those very two who stood there now, young, childless, their futures still unimagined.
She said, "It is not good for you, to be cooped up in this way."
"Oh, I am happy enough."
"You are very sad, my dearest, as you just confessed."
"That will pass," I said, wondering if that miracle might not have been achieved already.
"You have no one of your own kind to talk to."
"I have you."
In response she surprised me, as she had done on other occasions, briefly--mischievously--brushing, as if by accident, that item of anatomy which proved me not her kind. And having done that, the imp set off walking up the hill. I followed her in some confusion, knowing that I must amend my chapter on the manners of Americans.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes