Parrot and Olivier in America, p.39Peter Carey
Oh for a bicycle of gold to race you up and down the streets, for in my privileged position, much of the parade was hidden from my view. So let me escort you on foot to a Methodist church which had the appearance of a drill hall in a Catholic country. Here a magistrate, who in America performs functions analogous to the procureur du Roi, read the Declaration of Independence.
Here then. A truly fine spectacle. A profound silence reigned. Thus the magistrate's voice became the voice of the Congress as it reviewed the injustices and the tyranny of England with great warmth and dignity. You could hear and feel the murmur of indignation and anger circulate about the auditorium. When the magistrate proclaimed the justice of the cause and expressed the founders' resolution to either succumb or free America, it seemed that an electric current made all our hearts vibrate.
Here one could feel, to one's very bones, the return of an entire people to the moment of their birth. In this union of the present generation with that which is no longer, and sharing for the moment all its generous passion, there was something deeply felt and truly great.
Oh that it had stopped there.
Alas, a lawyer next stepped up to deliver a harangue, and thus the great day turned to farce as The Great Bore of Albany was obliged to mention every single country in the history of the world. Thus he evoked everything boastful, uncertain, uncultured, and boorish that might mark the ascent of the majority. If he had an idea--and I suppose we must admit he did--it was that all countries are coming back or will return to liberty. How could I not compare this fool with the great Guizot. How might I not, against my own emotional resistance, recall the wit and learning of Paris, and when the speaker--in order to impress the crowd with the greatness of America--referred to me, the French commissioner, as some sort of proof of his nation's prestige, I was as ashamed of myself as I was revolted by his presumption.
I had come to Albany as a convert to an altar of liberty, yearning for my perfect union with its great historic soul. I had believed it might be possible to live my life completely careless of how democracy might harm me. I aspired to become one of the rivulets--nay, streams--that make the river of the people roar, to lend my gifts and privileges to the highest idea of civilization the world had ever seen. When I had stood at Godefroy's side and heard the Declaration read, my heart had raced, hair raised on my neck.
But then the awful lawyer. I had entered the church a convert. I emerged as the son of the Comtesse de Garmont.
It is not always wise to tell the truth, but now I will tell it--I was not at all moved to see the float with national banners of France, Belgium, Poland and Columbia. I did not like the silly platform with its working press and a boy in leather apron handing out the Declaration of Independence.
It is a painful thing to think that which you do not wish to think. Thus: a float with a Clymer printing press over which soared an eagle and in its beak a scroll, with the motto verite sans peur--truth without fear.
What pride they showed, those members of the New York Association of Morning and Evening Journals. And what made those men so righteous? Why, it must be all the coarse insults, the small vilifications, the impudent calumnies which fill their papers every day.
On the right was the Goddess of Liberty, supporting the American flag, on the left a full-sized figure of a slave, bound in chains, who having burst the shackles from one arm was reaching toward the printing press for emancipation.
But only reach! For how many years?
I had become a corrupted actor, a kind of cad. I placed my hand at Godefroy's back and shouted that the scene was charming. My breath was very difficult. Amelia awaited me. These people, I reminded myself, are the heroes of the world. They have not yet finished what they will achieve. And I am with them, of their number, aroused to feel their shoulders touch my own. What makes a democracy bearable? I asked myself, wondering if I had sufficient ink left in my bottle for my evening's work.
BEING TOO IMPATIENT to wait for the maid and very eager to abandon Albany, I bathed in cold water and was refreshed. Alas it was some hours before Godefroy emerged and I saw he was in no hurry to reach Wethersfield. On the contrary, he had already planned a diversion that would take us to a waterfall.
It was only then I finally grasped what the attentive reader will have understood already--that this elder of the Puritan community did not like to be at home. He would prefer to spend his days sharing wine or ale with councillors and aldermen in as many towns as there were along the Hudson, all down the Mississippi to the sea. Why, even here in Albany, it seemed there was much that could occupy us for the remainder of the week. The governor's room, the golden corridor, the senate staircase, the senate chamber, the assembly chamber, the court of appeals room, the new state library with 150,000 volumes and the Clinton papers--the Clinton papers, sir! He had already arranged for me to handle a sword once belonging to General Washington!
In explaining why I must rush to Wethersfield, I painted myself, not incorrectly, as the lovesick fool. This flattered his paternal vanity to such an extent that he must hide his pleasure behind his table napkin.
"You would depart without inspecting the Museum of Military Records and Relics?"
"Sir, it contains eight hundred battle flags of state regiments, with several ensigns captured from the enemy."
"Sir, there is no battle flag can compete with your daughter's charms."
"You will not be kept from her too long," he said, "for we can take the steamer down to the town of Hudson. Tomorrow we will see one of the great wonders of the world, then home. We will have some bad roads, but nothing worse than you have had en route."
"We can take the steamer?"
"Indeed," he cried.
"Might we not have saved ourselves a lot of mud to come here in that way?"
"If we had wished. Of course."
"Then pray, why not?"
"Because," replied Philip Godefroy. "You are an American now, and you must take the rough with the smooth."
I did an excellent job of disguising my feelings. Sometimes I think it is the sole talent of the aristocracy.
Much later I came to understand that we had traveled by land so that my future father-in-law could avoid passing Sing Sing prison. The steamer to Albany would have berthed there, and the French commissioner would have been compelled to make an inspection of that fabled place of incarceration. As to why Philip Godefroy wished to prevent this meeting, it is now well known that the governor of Sing Sing sat on the commission to investigate Wethersfield Prison, and that the results of this investigation were the cause of Mr. Godefroy's fall from grace.
The steamer was raucous, filled with mechanics and other celebrants of the national day, all in their cups by noon. I recorded the scenery--the pleasant residences and villas on the riverbank, the early signs of unregulated greed and devastation. This was to be my new country, and I observed it was profitable all the way to Hudson.
Once landed, I took to my bed, pleading a stomach ailment, although the disturbed organ was in fact the heart. All night I dreamed I was still on the steamer, pressed in by mechanics and their wives who were roasting a cow on the deck. I got in a great rage with them for this stupidity, swinging an oar about my head and striking them so hard they flew into the river, which they possessed like a great mass of poisoned fish floating on their backs.
In the morning we went by coach to Kaaterskill Falls, a journey which gave Godefroy a new excuse to praise Thomas Cole, the same one who had bored me at the Godefroy table and whose Autumn on the Hudson contaminated the natural simplicity of the Godefroy home.
On the subject of the falls, I am told Mr. Cole has written volumes. I have only a steep climb, a scramble, the wild prospect of dense dark laurel pines slashed by brilliant birch and, through this screen, the stream--olive-green water, soft as velvet. There was a hawk or eagle circling at one stage. The sky was blue, the rising breeze crisp for the time of year. We crossed a small wooden bridge
Both Godefroy and the trail insisted that I continue, across a landscape of flat rocks, blueberry bushes, and dwarfish pitch pine.
And there were the Kaaterskill Falls: a great sheet, plunging to the depths, immediately provoking thoughts of suicide. My host would not dream of stopping. What choice did I have? I would not be a coward before this man. My chest was tight. My throat closed. Great Phobos, my blood spills across your altar stone.
Kaaterskill is from the Dutch word kaater, which means lynx. The first pitch is two hundred feet. Then the creature gathers itself for a new leap: Its living blood surges across fifty flat feet, plummets for another hundred, jumps about from shelf to shelf. God save me, why had I come here? Godefroy and I lay side by side.
"What fun," he cried.
It was fun enough for anybody, but then the father of my bride insisted we should get ourselves behind the falls, all the while crying to me that in summer it was usually "not like this," when of course it was exactly like this, or worse than like this, for now the wind rose so violently it almost blew me to my death. We crept out across a bridge of rock and then, already soaking wet and shivering, stood in a place unimaginable in waking life, behind the falls, our faces assaulted by a choking spray.
"Now you are American," he cried into my ear.
There was no air in America, only this great suffocating mass which would wash me clear away. I pressed my mouth against the rock behind me, and so could almost breathe. But still there reigned, in this dark heart, a terrifying and foreign obscurity. I cannot describe the awfulness of the murk or the horror of the sharp steely ray of light that then appeared, giving no comfort but rather an idea of the vast chaos which surrounded me.
So great a fear. No explanation. This terror accompanied me beyond the darkness of the falls. Godefroy escorted me safely across the little bridge, but even then, inhabiting an ink-black cloud of melancholy, I could not speak. So it would continue all through dinner and all that night when I was tangled in my bedclothes with the Albany parade. The mass of America would suffocate me.
Then again: My poor Bebe was dead.
Then again: I was certain a civil war was about to start in France, bringing with it many perils for the very ones who were dearest to me. Was it their deaths I suffered beneath the falls of Kaaterskill?
And at the same time, through all this horror, I loved Amelia and in the inky night, like one cast out and damned, I sought her generous breast while her white gown wrapped itself around my neck.
UNLESS WE HAD PLANNED to fish for trout in every stream from Kaaterskill to Wethersfield, I doubt we could have devised a less sensible way to get back home. There were hills so steep we had to walk behind one another, narrow roads where two coaches could not pass, pinches so tight it might take an hour's maneuvering to get the muddy carriage around a corner.
I had not been well since the awful parade. Since my public crisis under Kaaterskill Falls I had become much worse. I wished I could sleep but as I could not talk and sleep then sleep was not permitted. I did what I could to hide the full horror from the father of my future bride. We agreed that I had suffered a "strange fit" at Kaaterskill, although it was not really strange to me. The rising of the temperature of my thin-walled vessels, the pressure in my heart, the great giddy circular confusions, the rasping of the bronchia--these were my old companions.
The roads were filled with choking dust. The carriage was hot and airless. But still I must not fail the test for son-in-law. Vigorously I admired the rivers, the mountains, the new pastures of Great Barrington, the civility of the inn at New Marlborough, each of which I tried to love.
Perhaps it would have been enough to love Amelia, and then her father, and then the land itself, and so on. Yet I felt myself honor-bound to take all this wilderness and ignorance into my heart and embrace it, trusting that it would show, in time, not the coarseness and vulgarity of the Glorious Fourth but something new and fine and worthy of the Declaration. For had not these same woods given birth to the intense spirituality of the Puritans and was that not, already, more noble than the enrichissez-vous of the July Monarchy?
But how many parades could I truly bear to witness without being sick?
And how could I live without my France?
How would I learn to breathe in this awful heat?
I had inherited those wandering choirs of blood which rose singing from my neck and cheeks, congregations of heat that I had seen destroy my mother's cream and silk complexion and send the servants clattering up and down the stairs.
I wondered out loud whether I might not be in need of bleeding.
And this is the thing with Americans, for it was no sooner said than Godefroy had his stockings and his shoes off, the coach was stopped, and he was wading into the bulrushes beside a pond. There he stood, laughing, his splendid white scarf trailing in the water, pointing out a viper fleeing, as if from Good itself.
Then he was returning to the coach with some six leeches latched onto his sturdy calves and these, with great skill--for he had studied the science of medicine at Yale--he removed without tearing his flesh, and--with the leeches still alive and happy--placed two on each side of my nose, and the last two on my forehead.
Thus the dear, dear fellow brought me peace, and as we traveled the last half day to Wethersfield I dreamily recalled Odile with that curious scoop she had made to catch the leeches. How she had loved to cast the engorged creatures into the fire. "Go, demons. Burn in hell!"
As we came out of Wethersfield, along the long river road by Old Farm, Godefroy gently removed the vieilles amies and threw them out into the summer air, and I felt myself safe, in loving company, quite equal to the challenges ahead.
The coach made its final climb to Chapel Hill where we found the great gift of America lay spread before us. We paused while Godefroy climbed out the window and stood on the box beside the coachman where he took the reins himself and cried a great halloo, and then we descended, galloping at a fearful pace. I did not attempt to convince myself that I loved that tree, that gate, that arm of river. I no longer placed these new affections on the scales, comparing them to those I might once have felt in approaching the Chateau de Barfleur.
The hydraulics of my system had been adjusted. I could now believe that my affection for this place would not lead to the dismantlement of the Chateau de Barfleur as the Marquis de Tilbot had lost his family seat which vanished from the earth like a carcass set upon by ants.
We raced toward the Godefroy home and left behind us a great orange plume of dust like a feather in the cap of a chevalier. In the summer dusk I spied a figure in a long white dress walking through the fields from the direction of the river.
"Amelia," I cried.
The coach halted. My future father was already there to help me down. He steadied me, a hand on each shoulder.
"Hold on," he demanded. Then, wetting his kerchief like a nurse, he removed some flecks of blood the leeches had left upon my cheeks.
"Go to, sir!" he cried. And I could not keep from laughing as I set off through the garden, into the orchard, beside the onion maidens who laid down their hoes. The wide grass meadow was like a racetrack and I sprinted toward my beloved, who, without abandoning her flowers, and while holding her skirts from the unclean pasture, called my name. How sweet it sounded in her voice, her lovely lilting American intonation.
And thus we met--in the middle of a great arena--with the onion maidens all applauding and laughing and my family of Godefroys hooraying from beside the carriage.
And here she was, her hand in mine, this astonishing bright-eyed Viking beauty with her arms filled with those snowy-white hydrangeas which grew wild beside the river.
Her eyes filled
I thought, God, she has seen the confusion of my treacherous French heart.
"Olivier," she cried, and her mouth was red with blood.
I was Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, and my nose was bleeding, my heart was burst, a great red stain of crisis presented itself, as public as my shirt.
THERE WAS SOMETHING awful about the blood which had soaked my linen shirt, spread across the flowers, smeared my beloved's mouth. There was no way to make light of it or do anything other than endure the profound embarrassment throughout the Godefroys' wineless evening meal.
Of the matter of the betrothal, not a word was said and I did not judge their reticence improper. Instead I observed how the very definite passions of Amelia's family were diverted, transmuted into a great blooming excitement about matters completely unrelated. The topic was not material. It might have been corn huskers or grasshoppers, but what was closest at hand, what was forever churning over in every room in all the land, was President Jackson's threat to remove the government's deposits from the First Bank of the United States and distribute them among a number of smaller banks. He wanted to do this, he claimed, because the money was the people's and the First Bank of the United States used its wealth to act against the people's government.
On this issue a very angry Mrs. Godefroy and her daughter opposed each other with a violence I had not previously witnessed at their table. Godefroy attempted to tell his stories of the road, but the women's dispute was so intense that all he could do was cut the boiled beef very fine and chew it slowly.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes