Parrot and Olivier in America, p.37Peter Carey
"You are a devil," I said, kissing her.
"I might become an angel, in God's eyes."
And thus continued our conversation on the subject of matrimony. It was always present, and never quite declared. Yet when she said angel I pictured, as she intended, Amelia Godefroy dressed in white before an altar. Thus our language was functional enough.
Hand in hand, we walked downhill, with the smoke of Old Farm rising from behind a stand of poplar. We spoke not of devils or angels but about Bebe and my peculiar childhood and she persuaded me to once again describe for her the Seine, the orchard, the Bottom Hundred, my mother's house in the rue Saint-Dominique.
In attempting to conjure all this I was constantly aware of the weakness of my powers of observation, and yet I caused her to see something, see it vividly, and I was moved and comforted by her excitement.
She said, "One day I will walk through the Bottom Hundred with you."
"It is a world away."
"Then we will travel worlds away together," she said. "And I will spend years and years seeing everything you have seen, with your eyes, my eyes too. I will walk across the Pont-Neuf, sit at a cafe in the rue du Temple, hear your mother tell me how you were when you were a child. I cannot imagine how it will be, but very old, and very cultured."
"Oh my darling, you would not wish that."
"But I would. Why should we not live in France?"
Here, at this moment when I might have been most considerably alarmed, I was overjoyed. My heart beat fast. I embraced her, held her slender graceful form inside the furry feathers of her coat, pressed myself shamelessly against her. "Do you propose to me, my wench?"
"A hundred times already," she said, and inside the cave of her mouth it was very warm and soft.
"But I am the one who must propose to you. Or is that one more custom you Americans have abandoned?"
"It is a fine custom," she said, and what a smile, what a mixture of delicacy and mischief, some hint of Caravaggio in her Bacchus cheeks.
"But should I not ask your father?"
"Indeed," she said. "But you must ask my permission to ask his."
And so it was agreed, and all my grief smothered by this, this joy that she and I could think of nothing better than to walk in the woods by the Seine and together we would botanize and I would show her all the algae, lichens, fungi, mosses and ferns Bebe had had me classify, not because they were most beautiful or rare but because Linnaeus' plant taxonomy was based solely on the number and arrangement of the reproductive organs.
The dear tender priest chose for my attention those parts of God's creation with no obvious sex organs, the class Cryptogamia, the only "plants," as I was to learn years later, "with a hidden marriage." It was not any sense of propriety that kept me from relating this to Amelia, but rather the fast rush of our conversation, for now a certain door had been opened between us, and she confessed that she nightly dreamed of France, of its soft green grasses, the gentle landscape made by centuries of cultivation.
"In my sleep everyone is speaking French," she said.
It was then, before we reached the long curving drive into Old Farm, that I imagined my mother as she heard my beloved's way of speaking. I saw the glitter in her eye, the slight lift of her upper lip. As we opened the wide gate to the property, I pinched my mother's arm and watched her outraged eyes.
EARLY ON THE FOLLOWING MORNING, complaining that his office fireplace was choking him, Mr. Godefroy brought his trays and folders into the library.
Godefroy was a big man and of athletic frame, and although you would never think him anything less than cultured, there was a comic aspect to his occupation of a desk--his big legs squashed in underneath that walnut octagon. Physically, he was better suited to leading his men in raising a barn or pulling down a bull.
Among the chores pressing him that day I can recall a letter to his friend Biddle at the First Bank of the United States, new proofs of a treatise on workers' housing, the latest shot in a sometimes contentious exchange with the manufacturer of the corn shucker, and the response he must make to a commissioner's inquiry into the justice of various punishments meted out at Wethersfield Prison. This last item appeared in no way ominous, and in truth I paid it very little attention. I was hard at work on the bigger subject of America, and if my present chapter owed something to my host, it was not something I had discussed with him. "Among the small number of men who are engaged in literary works in the United States, the majority are English, if not in origin then in style. Thus they transplant into the democracy ideas and literary uses which are current in the aristocratic nation they take as their model." I was, even as I wrote, aware of the scratching of his quill as he endeavored to persuade the manufacturer, by dint of both argument and illustration, of the change he wished made.
In other words, there was a great deal going on in that charming room with its merry fireplace and the deep-silled windows with their views of the late-February snow, but not so much that I could not sense him gazing at me constantly. I was, without this help, acutely aware that I would soon have to speak to him.
He had shown, during every moment of my visit, the most agreeable and cultivated manner, but I never forgot that he was a passionate Republican and could never have imagined this French noble might become his son.
"Do you have a French expression for cabin fever?" he inquired at last.
I could, of course, supply several, not only in French but in German too.
"We should take a trip," said he. "We should get away."
I wished to go nowhere, to do nothing but finish my chapter and see my beloved. I was, at that moment, in the best place on earth. "Indeed," I said. "We must."
"Six more weeks and there will be dogwood blooming in Atlanta," he said. "We might be there to greet it. You will find a different America down there, I promise you." He had by then turned and was standing over me, smiling down. For a dreadful moment I thought he intended to read my manuscript. I sprinkled a cloud of sawdust on the pages.
"That sounds an excellent idea," I said.
"Well, frankly, I am pleased to hear it," he said, "for you cannot stay in Wethersfield and know what is happening on the Mississippi or understand the passions in South Carolina where, at this very moment, there are otherwise intelligent men gone mad and marching in the streets, declaring they will fight to separate from the Union."
At that moment my dear beautiful beloved entered.
"What say you to this?" he asked her, holding out a drawing but I observed his eyes joining her to me, and saw her warm smile in return.
Blood rushed to my cheeks.
My darling made some comment about the corn shucker I did not exactly understand but which clearly concerned the utility of her father's emendation. Watching this picture, the seated father with the high forehead, the eyes turned up toward the thoughtful girl, her handsome features softly illuminated by the field of snow, I thought of her meeting with my mother. It should have frightened me, but it amused me to imagine Amelia Godefroy politely passing the cogwheel of a corn shucker to the Comtesse de Garmont.
Amelia crossed the rug and stood beside my desk, resting her hand upon my shoulder.
"So what do you say?" she asked.
"Say?" I asked, alarmed that there would now be some frank conversation performed in some violently efficient American way. I was not ready, not at all.
"To my father's invitation."
She looked deep into my eyes and I saw what she had done. She was conspiring to send me away with her father, to keep us locked together in a carriage until the matter of our marriage was raised and settled once and for all. Of course there would be democratic opposition to my nobility, but how could Amelia's loving determination not excite my pulse and predict the strength of our union?
Nor was I unaware of the enormous benefit this travel would have for my greater work which, no matter how much I wished to stay here at Wethersfield, could not possibly be completed wit
These travels of mine are, by this time, generally well known, being a considerable part of Morals and Manners in Democracies. This present narration, therefore, will not repeat my existing accounts of the explosion aboard the Comet behind the barrier islands, our meetings with the Creeks in Georgia, or the astonishing discovery of President Andrew Jackson sitting quite alone in his rather plain salon.
As for Mr. Godefroy's great appetites for life, they have no place in either book, although it is a caution to any foreigner taking the pulse of this nation, that I would never have guessed at the depth of his character if I had known him only in the Protestant propriety of Wethersfield. Once we were in the free and open air of New York State, he whom I hoped to be my father bloomed spectacularly and did not once cease to astonish me all the way to Virginia, where it proved necessary for him to fight a duel in which he behaved with extraordinary courage and dignity. When his poor henpecked opponent, having missed his shot, awaited his death, Godefroy fired into the air.
Whether that individual's honor could be said to have been restored, I would judge quite unlikely, but what is certain is that the book I labored on so long would never have been written without Philip Godefroy. And if I must here record lighter, more personal matters, let it be said that Godefroy was on good terms with those on all sides of the great questions. We dined with Mr. Biddle of the First Bank of the United States before calling on Andrew Jackson who was set on destroying all the bankers' power. We enjoyed the hospitality of Mr. Calhoun and the great good humor of the diminutive Van Buren.
Through all this very long and sometimes arduous journey, during which we were often delayed by the most appalling roads and had not much better fortune when we took to sea and river, I wrote constantly to Amelia and she to me. These letters, being both passionate and intelligent, made me all the more certain of the correctness of our course.
WE WERE IN SOUTH CAROLINA by the time the subject could be approached but even then there were impediments which I would ask you, like Godefroy and myself, to tolerate a while longer.
I forget the name of our hotel except it was considered the best place in Charleston. Godefroy had written to secure our lodging while we were still in Georgia.
What he wrote I do not know, but clearly an impression had been made, for although we arrived late at night we were greeted with much bowing and scraping and a boy was sent to the chef with an order to keep the fires alive. The landlord then held us under close engagement--I presumed to cover any likely delay in the kitchen--so by the time we were seated at table we knew he had purchased the cellar of the late Thomas Jefferson and had himself driven all the way to Monticello to collect his loot, sleeping beneath his carriage on return as he feared he would be robbed of his treasure by bandits or oenophiles or worse.
Who knows how much he paid for his fifty cases? More, certainly, than he could afford, for we had been but a moment in the dining room--a place of extraordinary pretension--when he was looming over us ready to discuss his carte de vin. He was a confusing man to consider, a meaty military-looking fellow with the manner of a bully but at the same time unctuous, a character echoed in the decoration of the dining room, a high-ceilinged hall with a gallery from which were hung the flags of all the nations. Against this manly bluster were opposed a great number of floral displays too strongly perfumed for their situation.
He presented us each with his wine list explaining, ha-ha, that it would have been a deal longer if my countryman Lafayette had not had such pleasure from it. I thought him tedious.
Godefroy raised an apologetic eyebrow as the man happily recounted how the late president had died impoverished, and he had managed to get a great bargain from the estate.
"The prices, monsieur," the landlord said to me, "will gratify you I am sure."
Grave robbing to one side, the list saddened me, for it was not what you would expect in the cellar of a head of state. There was a Bergasse, a wine mixed together in some cellar in Marseille which was labeled claret in the English manner, also some Blanquette de Limoux, a great deal of Minervois and Languedoc. Only a Beaune Greves Vigne de l'Enfant Jesus seemed to rise above the ordinary.
Godefroy declared I must choose, but I declined, saying I was a stranger in his land.
"You are practically family," he said, with what degree of calculation I do not know. I fancy we both blushed.
I judged the moment had arrived.
"Monsieur le commissaire, permets-moi de me presenter." This, at that very instant, came from our neighbor who was dining by himself.
I thought, Who dares to speak to me in this familiar tone?
I regarded the milky well-fed form and prissy little beard which I was told belonged to the French consul to Louisiana. If he was a diplomat he was also a boor for he had discovered my business when there was no decent way he could have done so. He ignored the most important man in my life and tutoyered me, inquiring of my family, my friends and relatives when he could not possibly be of our circle. In return, I paid him some empty compliment about the city of New Orleans and returned my full attention to he who I intended to make my father-in-law.
"Excuse me gentlemen."
Godefroy ignored him and filled my glass. I drank too quickly. Godefroy poured again.
"Monsieur le commissaire," our neighbor insisted, "do you wish to have an idea of the public administration of New Orleans?" Only then did I understand that he too had been drinking Jefferson's cellar and was already well invested in a Barsac. He was, as the English say, two sheets to the wind.
"Examine the streets of New Orleans, monsieur--what holes, what lack of order and alignment. Yet ask me, what is its revenue?" His eyes were awash with some strange emotion, as if daring me to snub him.
"What is its revenue?" said Godefroy pleasantly.
"The revenue sir is one million dollars. But into what hands it passes, God only knows."
There was a Negro servant standing close by, his tall slender back reflected in the mirror with the flowers. Who knows what goes on in a Negro's head?
"Read the names of those who compose boards and councils of Louisiana--obscure people, lawyers of the third order, village intriguers."
I looked to the citizen of Wethersfield and saw his color rising.
"It is the lower classes," said the ridiculous consul, "who have the majority in the electoral colleges. They choose from their own kind. They eliminate one position to ruin a man and create another to give a living to a friend."
At this Godefroy rose from his seat, "To democracy," he said firmly, and raised his glass.
The consul rose unsteadily and brushed some substance from his waistcoat. "Democracy." He raised his glass, but we neither of us saw him drink.
Godefroy remained standing, glowering down at the consul.
"I apologize," the consul said at last, but a Frenchman would have been insulted by the tone. "My opinion is obviously mistaken."
"Indeed sir," said Godefroy gravely. "Indeed it is."
Now the consul raised his Barsac, leaving a sweet viscous shine about his plump red lips. "There is one merit of the American system that one must not deny," he said.
"One?" asked Godefroy who had remained standing.
The consul did not know enough, I thought, to be afraid.
He plunged on. "Without force as it is without skill."
"Le systeme democratique, naturellement. It is as without plans as it is without energy, as incapable of harm as it is incapable of good. It is powerless and passive. It lets society marcher tout seul without trying to direct it. Well, in the present state of affairs, it is perfect, no? In order to prosper? America does not need either leadership or deep-laid plans or great efforts, but liberty and still more liberty. The reason for this is that no one yet has any interest in abusing liberty. But wait, monsieur. It may take a century but le fou viendra."
Did Godefroy understand the final
I ordered the Greves Vigne de l'Enfant Jesus, wondering if the cork would be pulled before the duel.
"Je te presente mis excuses, M. le Commissionnaire."
We ignored the consul and there was a very tense period when he remained beside us, swaying slightly. Our restraint was finally rewarded by a loud theatrical sigh and the sight, reflected in some dozen gold-framed mirrors, of his most unsteady departure from the room.
United as we were by outrage, neither of us said a word until the Beaune was poured. It might be expected that the first mouthful would make me yearn for France and all its refinements and yet, was I not already intoxicated by Jefferson's Bergasse?
When, in excitement and affection, we had toasted each other one more time, I remarked to Godefroy that there had been periods in France when one would never dare make such a speech for fear of imprisonment or even death, and that in all the wretched consul's ignorance and sarcasm he made the strongest argument for democracy I had ever heard.
"To liberty," I cried. "To America. To beauty. To the future."
I was drunk, of course, but I spoke in veritas. How moved I was to see my sentiments so welcomed. Amelia's father leaned across the table--a large table, but he was a large man--and took my hand and locked it fast.
"At the end of the day," he said, "you either love a man or you do not."
Not knowing what to say, I attempted to raise my glass, but he did not wish to be interrupted.
"When you talk of America like that, can I take it that you would reside here?"
"Who would wish to live in the past?" I answered.
"Am I correct in assuming it is in Wethersfield that you would dwell?"
My heart was beating very hard. I was perhaps too much aware of the Negro waiter at my side.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes