Parrot and Olivier in America, p.4Peter Carey
"He is not only king of Paris, Master de Garmont. He is king of all the French."
"Then he is the king of murderers!" I cried, and was dispatched to my room where Odile was ordered to prevent me writing letters to Thomas. I doubtless made an appalling noise. Who knows, I might have gone on all day had I not been witness, in seeking a sight of Thomas, to a conversation in the garden beneath my window. That is, I heard, very clearly, the duc de Blacqueville tell my father that the prefet had left for Boulogne to greet His Majesty.
"Then tomorrow?" my father asked.
"Or the next," said M. de Blacqueville.
Vive le roi, I thought, with great relief. He will be here soon.
The Blacqueville wisteria was reattached to its ancient stone and we were permitted to play in the Luxembourg Gardens. A new wave of visitors arrived with articles that could be used to make our house to fit a king, among them a splendid Sevres service with views of Paris sent by the wife of a newly appointed Gentleman of the Chamber. This meant my father would soon be made a peer, Odile said.
Vive le roi, thought Olivier, and if his lungs hung like rags on the bony rack of his little chest, he remained a strong and willful boy. Vive, vive, vive, I thought, inflating myself with the intoxicating smell of lemons that had been used to clean the brass. I was a lunatic child staring wide-eyed, unprotected, at the moon which--at that very moment--must be shining on the waving plumes of the shakos, the splendid black royal carriage splattered with hard hot sprays of mud. In my imagination, I urged on the sweating horses through the night, past the flares and faggots of the King's good honest people. I prayed for him. Oh do not fear, my king.
I was still engaged in this journey, driving away his enemies, twisting in my sheets, when Odile returned from her evening off. My pulse was racing, and I myself was very hot, but not so hot as Odile, and I will tell you how I knew: When she leaned to kiss my forehead I could feel her blushing down her chest.
"What has happened, Odile?"
"The king has been detained again."
"No, do not tease me."
"This time it is the flour dealers of Amiens."
"But flour dealers, Odile? Do not the flour dealers want his head?"
"No, no, my small master." She placed her hot hands on my cheek. "It is the millers' ancient privilege."
"Millers," I thought. How preposterous.
Good Odile stroked my forehead until I slept and when I woke she had gone, although I soon understood that she was sobbing in her room. The daughter of a peasant, I thought, but she is no different from Blacqueville or myself. Neither of us can bear to wait another day.
At breakfast she did not wish to be bothered with me, so I pulled at her broad fingertips until she slapped my leg.
I said I would tell my mother.
"Tell who you like," she said. "It can't be worse than this." She said she was to be sent back to the Chateau de Barfleur that very day.
"Oh poor Odile," I cried, "you will never see His Majesty."
Odile's small round nose was red with her own misery, and yet she smiled and shook her head. I thought, It is not so bad for her as it would be for me.
"Little Olivier," she said, "your silly Odile has fallen in love."
I thought, It is the king, of course.
"Who will look after me, Odile?"
"Oh," she cried, "you poor little creature."
I was briefly puzzled to hear her speak this way. Yet it was not uncommon that her generous affections would lead her to forget her place.
Shortly before lunch I observed, with some alarm, a swarm of the strange Paris servants piling various items of my clothing, willy-nilly, upon the billiard table. Having at first taken exception to their appalling method, it took me a moment to see, among the tangle, the Ch'ien-lung bowl. Then I finally understood why she, a servant, had called me a pauvre petite creature. I was to be sent away with her.
When my mother confirmed these fears, I threw up on my shoes and declared myself too sick to travel. In any case, why must I be banished because a servant had misbehaved?
"You must study your Latin," my mother said formally, and again many hours later, by which time I lay exhausted on my bed. It had been a horrid, horrid day. The leeches had finally fallen off and been cast into the flames. "Bebe is waiting for you at home, my darling."
"Maman, you know I cannot possibly leave before the king arrives. Bebe must come here."
"Olivier, the Abbe de La Londe will not come to Paris."
"I cannot travel, Maman. I simply can't. I will study my Latin with Blacqueville. He will teach me Greek as well."
"Young man, you are a Garmont not a sparrow. You cannot sing the same song all day."
"It will be much better for everyone if I remain."
And so on.
The very next morning, having been permitted a tearful farewell with Thomas, I was carried to my tumbrel, a quilt wrapped around my poor thin legs. How dare they, I thought. How dare my own parents treat me so stupidly.
I was of noble blood. It was my right to stay but instead I was sent into exile, the horses plodding through mud and drenching rain, through melancholy, to melancholy, as the poet has said.
The servant steadied the Ch'ien-lung bowl on the seat between us and it was then that she confessed--we were being sent away to safety because she had fallen for a splendid Austrian guard and my mother would not have it.
I thought, What has this to do with me?
"You will have the abbe anyway," she said, lighting her little clay pipe and filling the carriage with her dusty smoke.
It is not Odile who is to blame, I thought. It is Bebe.
"Bebe is afraid," I said. "He is afraid Bonaparte will put him to the sword." I had never said such a vile thing in all my life and I waited to be shamed for it, but Odile shifted the Ch'ien-lung onto her lap and clutched it to her stomach as if it were her child.
"Everyone should be afraid," she said. "They are not afraid enough poor creatures."
"You are a poor creature, too, Odile."
And at that she began to laugh. "Aye," she said. "Look at us."
We entered the gates of the Chateau de Barfleur at that time of day when--so dreary, so predictable--no lights were lit and the dark beached mass of chateau bled into the gloom. How I dreaded it, the very air of my home, the dusty smell like that of a reliquary built to house the thigh bone of a tortured saint. I would be the only person of my age.
In the great courtyard we were greeted by Gustave the blacksmith, whom I had imagined to be in Paris, and by Bebe who, to my private shame, was so kind and affectionate toward me. He announced that we were, immediately, to make a bivouac in the unwalled pavilion my father had built beside the pond. We would sleep there and study there. We would botanize.
So Odile was left to take her leeches and grief into the chateau which, with so many of the servants in Paris, must have been a very lonely place indeed. Although, I thought, perhaps they like it, perhaps they have secret balls and grand dinners where they wear my parents' clothes and drink the best of our cellar and perform plays and juggling tricks when Bebe has gone to bed.
Let them dance, I thought, poor creatures.
But of course there were no dancing parties in the chateau. Or they were not visible. From the pavilion we could see only a single lighted candle in a window below the eaves, a very lonely flame compared to the rushing sparks from Bebe's splendid fire. The rain soon stopped. The sky cleared. We ate grilled rabbit below the great eternal wonder of the stars.
If you had observed Olivier's greasy face in starlight, you might have supposed he had been cured of his bleeding, vomiting, gasping upset. Yet this was a very willful constant child and he did not, not for a moment, forget his king. So while you see young Olivier admire the reflection of the moon in the pond, you must not doubt that he was, even as he turned to smile at the Abbe de La Londe, picturing the royal coach, the spinning wheel hubs decorated with painted suns, the spokes like shining rays ending in
THE RUDIMENTARY COMFORTS of our first night suggested only a brief diversion. Who would have expected we would live there all that summer and that our bivouac, of necessity, would assume an established character, with Turkey rugs and armchairs and my grandfather's campaign bed, an antique brass construction held together with verdigrised butterfly nuts and wire cross bracing.
A refectory table was discovered in the old pigeon loft, and when this was scrubbed and waxed it was where we spent our mornings, classifying the previous day's botanizing according to Linnaeus.
We had a wide low roof over our heads and if, from time to time, the rain blew in from the river, the summer was warm and our rugs were easily resuscitated in that gorgeous dry air, ripe with the perfumes of hawthorn blossom and grass and manure and fresh rich hay. Black honeybees and bumblebees danced around me as I studied. More than once we had speckled wood butterflies basking on our table, and once the sexton's cow awoke me with a dreadful bellow in my ear.
M. le Blacksmith constructed an Indian's fireplace, that is, a babracot, and the servants split firewood and the English cook finally consented to grill the game as Bebe ordered.
My mother wrote a letter every day. I looked forward to her pale blue tutoiements with a simple joy one would never feel in approaching her quite formal person. One broke the sealing wax with a dreamy sort of pleasure such as an eagle might feel lazily gliding on a warm delicious current. It was as if the windows had opened in my mother's life and the air was filled with cyan dragonflies. Today it is my sweetest memory of Henriette-Lucie, the jasmine escaping from its paper shell.
These love letters were delivered by means of the postal system my father had designed as an improvement on that arrangement the emperor so famously devised. In our corner of Normandy there was no household, be it as low as a charcoal burner's, where a letter would not arrive as quickly as it did at the chateau. It was as a result of my father's particular system that we were blessed to have Marie-Claude, the sexton, deliver our mail directly to the pavilion. He had no horse, nor did he require one, for we were less than a kilometer from the village and every morning--provided there had been no death in the night--he would amble, long-armed and poke-necked, as if demanding that the peculiar world explain itself. He would stumble through the dew-wet pasture to that place where he would be pleased to withhold my mail while he inspected the botanical samples spread across our table.
I was infuriated by the sexton but also nourished in all my dreams and expectations by what he brought me, that is, my mother in all her blindness and bubbling intoxication.
From inside the sexton's pocket, she sang to me like a captive bird: Lovely boy she called me, and brave boy and good boy too: the king had not yet dined at the rue Saint-Dominique but she and my father had been to the Tuileries. This visit, she wrote, meant that the king had not forgotten the service given by her family nor by the valiant Barfleur who had died for Louis XVI, and she was confident that, for this reason alone, my father might reasonably expect to be made a pair de France and sit in the Chamber of Peers.
My father wrote less often and, far from calling me a boy, seemed to have forgotten I was not a man. His tone was both sophisticated and familiar--wry, ironic, fed by a disenchantment that I could not have named. The taste of his letters stayed with me, producing in me a profound unease. For instance:
I shall never forget the impression Louis XVIII made when he came out to receive us; we saw an enormous mass emerge from the king's study, shuffling and waddling; this mass was topped by a fine and noble head but the expression of the features was entirely theatrical; the king came forward with his hand over his heart, his eyes raised to heaven. He said a few perfectly well-judged words to us, delivered in the most sentimental manner. It was clear from this that he had rehearsed his performance. We retired from his presence with gratitude for the special kindness that he showed us, and with the conviction that as a king he would make a most excellent actor.
This less-than-respectful tone makes no sense until you know what was omitted from my parents' loving letters. My father did not say that he found himself severely disadvantaged for not having fled the Revolution. He did not point out that the emigres were also now returned. The king, of course, was of their party. I did not understand that my father's loyalty was neither celebrated nor valued, and he had been finally granted what the English call the leftovers--not a seat in the Chamber of Peers but the prefecture of the department of Maine-e-Loire. This was an insult, but he was a Garmont and so he set out for his new residence.
My mother would have none of it. She remained in Paris.
Autumn came and the servants packed away my campaign bed, the specimen table, the Turkey rugs, all the contents of the pavilion except my bear rug which I would not relinquish. Bebe and I withdrew to the chateau where we were appalled to find that the preposterous architect and his assistant had expanded their territories. The Blue Room had proven insufficient for their needs and now they occupied the library where they had taken up the incense habit. Bebe and I retreated to the second floor and here we also took our meals and I developed what was thought to be a sleeping sickness.
Bebe wished to get the boy outside but all those useful extending legs and springing arms, those Olivier-in-the-box explosions, saved me. It was not until the ice had melted on the bain that I ventured out, my bear rug still wrapped around my shoulders.
And it was on a late March morning in 1815 that my parents returned from Paris and I came rushing to them, dripping wet with the waters of the bain, me and Bebe, wet and dry, bear and man, hand in hand, in such a hurry that we were both almost crushed beneath a screeching gun carriage drawn by a company of soldiers up the Paris road.
My mother burst out from her box.
"Hoorah," I cried. She did not hear me. She shook her feathers, and rushed toward the chateau leaving the servants to unload the coaches. The servants, like their feverish mistress, carelessly abandoned precious items where they fell. For instance, here--a grand ball gown lying on the architect's spilled earth like pink hydrangea blooms.
I saw my mother fly past the gallery windows, unwinding like a muslin curtain, a white train floating above the stairs, spiraling around the former pigeon loft. Soon I saw her draw her apartment blinds, although not her window sash. Everyone in the courtyard could hear their mistress weeping. I was ashamed for her. Bebe took my hand to calm me but I tugged free and rushed inside, more like my mother than I knew, wet and white and naked, my childish sex exposed, the bearskin trailing behind me and dragging fallen hats and ribbons in its train. I tripped on the stairs and hurt my leg running toward this dreadful howl of wind bursting from the same dear pipes that had sung "A Troubadour of Bearn." I entered the blood-rich cavity of sound, and discovered my maman on her chaise, her face all raw and wet as if flayed by grief.
"Bonaparte is back," she said. "It's over."
"Over?" I was terrified. "Over!" I yanked the bearskin once again, brought down something with a crash. I heard the rattle of the deadly blade in its grooved oaken track. I fled out down the stairs, sprinted naked along the gallery to my father's office, where I found him behind the great leather-topped desk which was piled high with papers accumulated in his absence.
"Ah, Master de Garmont," he said, as if we had been separated for only a few minutes. "There you are." He said nothing of my undress or bloody leg. He laid his hand on my head and looked at me but I knew he was blind, that he could know nothing but my mother's shocking distress which was carried to us even here, so many stairs and walls away.
He had in his hand the soda-water flask my mother and I had drunk from now so long ago and he was turning this object over and over and peering into it. He was a great man but he could no longer help us.
Squatting beside her, shivering, girlish in my lace, I saw the great oily stillness of our neglected leeches in their prison, unneeded and forgotten, starved to scum, their sucking stilled, all my glory dreams turned broth and black corruption.
YOU MIGHT THINK, who is this, and I might say, this is God and what are you to do? Or I might say, a bird! Or I could tell you, madame, monsieur, sir, madam, how this name was given to me--I was christened Parrot because my hair was colored carrot, because my skin was burned to feathers, and when I tumbled down into the whaler, the coxswain yelled, Here's a parrot, captain. So it seems you have your answer, but you don't.
I had been named Parrot as a child, when my skin was still pale and tender as a maiden's breast, and I was still Parrot in 1793, when Olivier de Bah-bah Garmont was not even a twinkle in his father's eye.
To belabor the point, sir, I was and am distinctly senior to that unborn child.
In 1793 the French were chopping off each other's heads and I was already twelve years of age and my endodermis naturalus had become scrubbed and hardened by the wind and mists of Dartmoor, from whose vastness my da and I never strayed too far. I had tramped behind my darling da down muddy lanes and I was still called Parrot when he, Jack Larrit, carried me on his shoulder through Northgate at Totnes. My daddy loved his Parrot. He would sit me on the bar of the Kingsbridge Inn, to let the punters hear what wonders came from my amazing mouth: Man is born free and is everywhere in chains.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes