Parrot and Olivier in America, p.38Peter Carey
I replied to Godefroy that I wished to live very close to him and his family.
He said, "But I am assuming you will one day marry."
"Exactly," I cried.
He smiled. I thought, I have done it now, but had not allowed for his being American. One must speak directly. "Sir, may I ask for your daughter's hand in marriage?"
He raised his glass, his eyes glistening. "You cannot imagine," said he, "how happy I am. I will tell you the truth, dear Olivier, I thought you planned to take her away from us and I really thought that I would die."
Somewhere about this point the consomme was inserted into the scene.
"No," I said, "she is a flower of America. I don't believe France would bring her happiness."
"It is you who will bring her happiness," he said. "Is it not the strangest thing, that my daughter would become a French aristocrat?"
If the consul to Louisiana had been present he would, doubtless, have taken issue with this particular point, but the honorable gentleman was snoring in the parlor beneath the stairs.
"I could never have imagined," Godefroy continued, his voice thick with feeling, "that after all the long sad journeys of my family, it would end up thus." And he then related to me the most extraordinary story--his father had been a bootmaker and his wife's family been driven from her home in Scotland.
He held my hand and would not release me.
The night before last I was so happy as to dream of you, embracing you with such intense and rapturous affection that I awoke. Now in a waking state of equal happiness I am rushing toward you with open arms. We sleep but little, and our bones are very sore, but apart from your dear father's insistence that we travel the extra distance to Albany, where he feels the July Fourth parade will make a real American of me, there is no delay, and we expect to come careening down into Old Farm on July eighth at the very latest.
Your father informs me that the meaning of Amelia is industrious which I do not doubt is true but I have a second name with which to christen you and I will say it in your ear when once again I hold you in my arms.
Your husband in his dreams,
DEAR SIR, I did the service you requested. I can now report that his lordship is aware that the Abbe de La Londe has died and that his mother wishes him to return to France. However, he continues in his present situation where he is satisfied with the library and its window which contains almost eight hundred acres with onions and dairy and a pretty part of the Connecticut River.
On parting we wished each other well, as the saying is.
You made no inquiry of my health but let me tell you just the same. I am well. Having departed Wethersfield, yours truly is now engaged in labor quite different from that which you intended me to perform and for that reason I am sending to M. Olivier de Garmont all the financial instruments you entrusted me with. The accounts are complete and all in order, although the bank should be communicated with in terms of the signatories. You are perhaps aware that his lordship has abandoned lawyering and has convinced himself he is a famous author. There are those at Wethersfield capable of rendering all secretarial services. Of other services it is not my place to comment.
Sir, you said it was for me to decide what I would tell his lordship and now I would like to allow myself the same privilege in respect of your good self. Sir, there is no use for me in service in New York. It is not that the Americans do not have servants but I would imagine there are very few masters with your elevated requirements. So here--you know me pretty well--I have a business proposition. Do not burn this. What follows will both amuse and benefit you. If I know you at all--and who could anticipate you better?--you have opened the accompanying tin box and discovered there engravings of a quality to astonish you. You nod your noble head. You agree I do not exaggerate.
Sir, when I reflect how many miles I traveled on your behalf and how often my job was to deliver some priceless item from your late father's library and to receive for it a few sous, a pittance, all because history had left you with ashes for inheritance, there may be some pleasure to be obtained in the thought that you might profit handsomely from the sale of these beautiful colored etchings by a Mr. Algernon Watkins. These are the equal of any ancient book you ever mourned.
As I write to you my business partners and I have, as yet, only five of the engravings for The Birds of America. What you hold now are the pulls but still you may judge the quality. We have priced them here at $2 for each print and $10 for each number, a complete volume of one hundred prints is subscribed in New York at the following prices:
Loose prints $189
Half bound $225
Full bound $234
These prices are all established by me with my knowledge of the European trade and your needs concerning it. I am told the British sovereign is $5 but of the currencies of Europe I may be not so well informed.
Mr. Watkins and his associate Mr. Eckerd have both aided me in writing up a prospectus for the work which, as you will have already seen, is printed on Whatman Turkey. Nota bene: The watermark of each sheet contains the date. Mr. Eckerd, who is known until now in the business of jewelry and theatrical production, has found it "not challenging" to obtain orders in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and that in a space of time extremely brief. I offer you some names which may mean nothing to you but accept my guarantee that these are big cheeses: American Philosophical Society, Massachusetts Historical Society, Yale College, etc.
What do you say? The price is so friendly that you could add a twenty percent icing for your efforts. You know the likely buyers better than anyone on earth, and I refer not only to France but all of Britain, from Westminster as far as His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch of Dalkeith House, who I recall cheated us awfully over that folio of Durer which I delivered for you one pleasant sunny day.
Sir, birds such as these have not been seen in Europe on air or paper. The value of novelty will be clearer to you than to myself, although I will never forget tramping the viper-infested jungles of Queensland in search of exotic flora which I drew for the amusement of the Empress Josephine, as she had once been.
After so many years your servant, to write like this! Sir, the world is topsy-turvy, I do admit. Do not take it as an issue of presumption of equality but rather understand that we, each of us, have an appreciation of the engraver's art, and the pair of us, in our different stations, know what it is to be far from home without shelter or sustenance. In these circumstances we have aided each other on more than one occasion. Sir, I have secured a house which is, by the by, the mirror image of the establishment you once told me I could buy for the price of a cow. I will not haggle with you about the Herefords but am very pleased we have room for Watkins, our engraver, and his French wife. We employ three American colorists who are sometimes assisted by my wife (who mostly continues, at my insistence, to be engaged in her own distinctive canvases, which you shall see when the market for the engravings is established). We look out on the river as you promised me, but I am sure you never dreamed we would create for you such opportunities, first for the greatest aesthetic pleasure, second to satisfy that enlightened passion for the engraver's art, third that you, in your old age, will have the means to keep table fitting to your station.
What do you say?
Let me quote from our prospectus: "To those of you who have not seen any portion of the author's collection of original drawings it may be proper to state, that their superiority consists in the accuracy as to proportion and outline, and the variety and truth of the attitudes and positions of the figures, resulting from the peculiar means discovered and employed by the author, and his attentive examination of the objects portrayed."
Sir, you know every educated man in Europe will want these.
But let me put it to you man-to-man so you will see. I had no sooner secured this grand house at Pleasant Creek when Mr. and Mrs. Watkins arrived from Manhatt
His lordship Garmont was always of the very loud and firm opinion that nothing of worth could be made in this new country, and I hope I never disgraced myself by arguing against him. But you are in Paris, sir, looking at our engravings, and if there were a Charles X still on the throne, I know you would be straight out to chat to M. Petain at the Royal Chateau of Saint-Cloud.
Sir there is wampum to be made, and plenty of it, for which we can all thank the bounty of nature but there is a greater richness still and that is the hours you will spend--for I do know you sir--in silent perusal in your library. There is an added advantage to the purchase of this work and that is, should there be a spill or other misadventure with the Chambertin, the artist vouches himself ready to supply a new engraving, to you if no one else, at no charge at all.
I expect the mails are slow to reach you and it may be, when your eyes finally fall upon my words, that many months have passed since I wrote them. Therefore could I ask you, sir, if you agree with my assessment of the commercial aspects of this publication, that you communicate at your earliest convenience. I have persuaded my partners to invest a great deal of their very hard-won capital in this scheme and there is hardly a day goes by when one of them does not, on the advice of some idiot dealer or collector of stuffed butterflies, come to believe that my plan cannot work as I have promised. The Americans have all manner of opinions as to what the French will buy, one fool swearing that it is impossible to sell a print of any bird in Paris and that ants and caterpillars are all the go. From London they have more information, but no better in quality, and so you can imagine what great utility there would be in a letter of encouragement from your noble name. It seems to me, looking at the quality of Watkins' work, not at all mad to fancy that our mothers--yours and mine, high and base--gave birth so that at this point in the history of the universe a great work of art should be placed in the grand institutions of France and America and Britain, and in many other places besides--I know you have noble connections in Austria, for instance.
I do remember, as a child aboard the Samarand, being very frightened that I would be abandoned by yourself--I gave you your portrait on a stone which you were nice enough to make a keepsake--and today I can admit to feeling something of the same, and although I am not fearful as a child and the item I place in your hand is worth the attention of a king, we must each recognize the need for our continued profitable relationship.
HOW WOULD ONE expect the victors to celebrate the anniversary of the Glorious Fourth, that impossible date when the tides of history surged and, having finally receded, revealed crowns and broken scepters amid the flotsam on the flat sand. Here the new words, until now unimagined (I am the future and shall serve thee) shining in the wet dawn light.
After that tumult, that burst sac, that spilled blood, with that price paid and the impossible attained, would you not, on the yearly feast, assemble your brave soldiers and their sons and would not each wife and mother, with golden threads and scissors, bind those epaulettes and braid, not to the torn and bloodied remnants of battle but to cloth entirely new, the honorable costume of a great nation?
The Glorious Fourth.
Behind the banners we will expect the new philosophers, the new statesmen, the composers of genius who may have been blinded in combat or even deafened by cannon roar but who can still, in the ceaseless ringing silence of peace, compose the triumphal and the pastoral and thus make hymns for the shining malodorous people who now march from awful serfdom to the light of day.
"It will make you American," Godefroy said.
What peace was I offered in those words. And I refer not only to dear Amelia, her hair the color of spun gold, but also the silver cornfields of Connecticut.
Independence Day would be my baptism, and my marriage would somehow be my christening, but it was hard to conceive the Glorious Fourth on the inglorious third, which we spent on a long slow mucky ride to Albany, mud to the axles and bullocks commandeered from an old Dutchman who did not mind renting us his oxen because plowing, he said, was useless in the mud, and he would rather rescue us than destroy his fields. He said--nay, everybody said--it was most unusual weather for July but having traveled a good deal by now and having suffered a typhoon and hail the size of eggs, I would say that all American weather is unusual.
We arrived in Albany in filthy darkness, nothing to eat but eggs and the inevitable toast. Attempting to complete my diary before bed, I managed to spill my ink across the carpet. Doubtless this damaged item will be valued at one thousand dollars by the morning.
At daybreak I was awakened by artillery explosion, a horrid sound for a Frenchman of my age. Forgetting my accident the night before I left dark blue footprints from my bed to the window where I understood Independence Day had now commenced. I flung aside the lace curtains and found the day was glorious indeed, the sun bright, the sky blue. Those wedding cake buildings had been washed clean and the small square outside the boardinghouse was a brilliant shining green. Every house, every window, was decorated with the stars and stripes.
Huzzah! I cried, wishing my new wife at my side.
The conversations about the ink were astonishingly civil. No one would accept a sou. Then my future father waited for me at the table with the bright eyes of an uncle, one of those imaginary chaps who arrive with splendid surprises on your birthday.
"Eat, eat," he cried.
It was a short while after dawn but there was already a crowd trampling the grass on the square, eager, I thought, to find a good position for the parade. I was slow in understanding that this was the parade and these were the dignitaries. And what were they doing, do you imagine? Why, they were deciding who had precedence in the parade.
How extraordinary, I thought. "Is not your precedence set?"
"It will be soon," said Godefroy.
"But this is not the first Independence Day."
"Oh no," said he, "but the precedence is different every year."
If I had been myself I would have laughed, but I was the guest of a great nation. I ordered a chop as was suggested, but had little time to eat it as Godefroy's friends Mr. Azariah Flagg and the lieutenant governor arrived and I was required to join them as a dignitary in the procession.
"But I am a foreigner," I said. "I have no right to march with the citizens."
"You are one with us," they cried.
I was most excited, I confessed, and what a very peculiar and blessed feeling it was to stand safely inside the Revolution, so to speak, to be on the unquestioned side of good.
The great day was in no way what I had anticipated as we toiled here through the mud. The gold thread was nowhere in evidence. There was nothing grander than a small militia escort, that is, quite rightly, the national guard of a country in which the military spirit is absolutely unknown.
And yet I did not laugh at this lack of martial splendor, and not merely from good manners or my own private commitment to America, but because there was such a spirit of gravi
Good Lord, I thought, my mother would die. But in this world my mother did not live.
It was completely original, without precedent. First came the fire department, all nine companies of men. At the front were twelve of the straightest and strongest. They carried on their shoulders, like pallbearers, and just as solemnly, a miniature fire engine which was at once the most magnificent toy and also the Virgin Mary being carried through a village on Assumption Day.
Next came the association of printers carrying a carmine silk banner with letters in gold font worthy of a prophecy.
Next was the Albany Typographical Society which boasted a float as big as an opera stage and on it a printing press and a bust of Franklin, whom I mentioned in connection with his rocking chair.
Dear Blacqueville, you were a dreadful giggler. How comic, you would have thought, to see this solemn participation of the industries and trades. There was no king or parliament, no nobles of the sword or robe, instead an Association of Butchers and an Association of Apprentices, and you must allow that these emblems are very natural to a people who owe their prosperity to commerce and industry.
Mechanics' Benefit Society. Carpenters' Architectural and Benevolent Association. Some fifty societies with their various badges, banners and implements of art.
"How splendid!" I declared, ashamed of my own insincerity, poleaxed, in spite of my wiser self, by the absence of splendor, imperium, gloire. Where one might naturally expect imperial guards there were red-faced Carmelites, about fifty, in snow-white frocks tied at the neck and wrist with green ribbon.
The foreign visitor was looking for the past and there it was, before my very nose--Godefroy and the comptroller, their eyes shining as they saluted an old American flag, bullet-torn, a brave survivor of the War of Independence. It flew from a wagon occupied by four ancient soldiers who fought with Washington. I am told they are honored and preserved like holy relics, so why does no one think to darn their trousers? Such was the confusion of my response to Independence Day, my feelings flying back and forth like blackbirds trapped inside a church. Here the dust and dirt, here the gold. There the beggars, here the lords, here the merchants giving change. Who are you, Olivier de Garmont, to drive them from the temple?
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes