Parrot and Olivier in America, p.40Peter Carey
When this field of battle--that is, the very pure and proper table, eight feet by four--had been cleared and scrubbed by the two sisters, my beloved and I were permitted to retire, first to the porch and then along the gravel paths that began as a formal grid at the poplars before twisting themselves among the strangely artless topiary and thence stretching into the wilderness and along the Connecticut River which held its dark and bleeding shadows to itself.
My arm lay across her light and level shoulder. My ribs knew the aching softness of her breast. There was nothing except our feet upon the path to break the warm and luscious quiet.
"How exactly have I offended your mother?"
"Well of course you know."
"Your lips, you silly."
We could now hear the distinct sound of a smaller rill or stream entering the large. "Then here, I repeat my crime."
"No, my sweetest, this is private. It was the public aspect that was criminal."
"I will be her son-in-law. She knows that. She had your father's letter?"
I turned her chin to me and this time it was she who kissed me, her mouth so soft and labial, so engulfing.
She smiled and laid her nose against my own. "Perhaps your kiss was too Catholic for her taste."
"She is in a fret I will become a Catholic. For her it is much worse than turning French."
"But a Catholic is a Christian," I argued, more than a little disingenuously. "Can that be so terrible to her?"
"Nay sir, worse. Besides, she knows only the Irish who are beyond salvation."
"No, really. Tell me. It was the nose."
"I don't suppose it helped your case, poor nose."
Here, just at the river's bend, there was an oak log which Godefroy had ordered adzed to make a self-improving bench. We sat.
"In Catholic countries," I said, "we are far more proper than Mrs. Godefroy knows. My own mother would look at the habits of American women and find them scandalous. This walking out, for instance."
"Oh"--she sighed--"we are so provincial. I wish it were not so."
"I wish it only as it is."
There followed a long and private moment, very lovely, only interrupted by the antic stuff of nature, a leaping fish or diving bird, either one would sound the same to me.
"In truth, I would prefer to be Catholic," she said.
She said this so lightly, I could not help but snort, an ugly noise I now suppose.
"Why do you laugh?" Her generous smile did not disguise the hurt and I rushed like a fireman to undo the damage, explaining that it was always shocking for a Frenchman to see Americans treat the questions of doctrine, which we in Europe had disputed so bloodily, as so light a matter. I proclaimed myself no longer a Catholic, although I carried with me, like old moss, Catholic tastes, sensibilities, and certain of our ancient prejudices.
"But it will be essential, will it not?" she asked. "If we are to marry I must become a Catholic."
This was a matter I would rather not discuss on the banks of the Connecticut River, and instead I persuaded my beloved onto the fresh-scythed grass where I spread out her hair and kissed her clear blue Viking eyes.
Said she, "I cannot wait to see your home."
I covered her eyes and felt the lashes tremble like moths' wings in my mouth.
"We could not stroll like this in French society," I said.
"But we will be a married pair. You forget the difference."
"Yes," I said, and laid my hand against that place. She brought her own warm hand to rest upon mine awhile until, languidly, she lifted it to meet her lips.
"In that little chapel," she said, nuzzling what Blacqueville always called la snuff box, that small well between the thumb and forefinger. Naturally I was slow to understand she meant we would be married at the Chateau de Barfleur.
"Where your poor Bebe prayed," she said, and ran her lips along my thumb.
I did not answer. There was nothing I could say.
"You are thinking about Bebe?"
I was thinking like a lawyer with an argument to win. "But should an American marry in France?"
She looked at me sharply, drawing her hands to hold her arms. "Why should I not? I will be a Catholic."
"No darling, I mean myself. I will be American. I pledge myself to you entire."
She laughed. "Dear Olivier, what did my daddy do to you? Did he bathe you in the waters of Natchez?"
"He compelled me to drink the awful wine of Thomas Jefferson."
"No my sweet dear beautiful man. Look at your lovely nose and those perfect lips. Look at your eyes. I can see the moon in them."
"I am not a woman. You must not admire me like one."
"No, you are a de Garmont."
I did not correct her or admit, even to myself, the jarring note. She should not, of course, have used the de.
"You are a noble count, my darling, and you are a huge curiosity to all the onion maidens, who are astonished you do not have two heads and beat your servants."
"There are no nobles in America." I said this meaning: I shall be one no longer; it is impossible.
Clearly she was not attending to the argument. "Yes," she said, "I cannot wait to see my mother's face when she thinks it through."
"What through my pet?"
"That I will be a Frenchwoman. What will she do when this dawns upon her?"
"You will be a Frenchwoman because you are my wife, as I will be an American because I am your husband. When your mother sees me by your side in Wethersfield she will not think you French."
"But we will not be married in Wethersfield."
"Why on earth not?"
"Because we are to be married in France."
"You said so."
"I swear not."
"My darling, do you not think I love you with all my soul? How could I demand you marry in Wethersfield? I would not cut you off from all you are. You are a de Garmont. Would I be the knife that severed the cord to the mother of your life?"
"You do not say the de."
"Dear, do I embarrass you?"
"Don't be silly."
"Yes, I embarrass you."
"That is why you will not take me home to France."
Of course the first part was not true, but alas the second was. I could die of love inside her sweet white arms, but I could not present her at the rue Saint-Dominique. We would be made more miserable than poor Heudreville who drowned himself like a peasant in his well.
"We will be Americans together."
"Please do not say that, Olivier. You are not American. As for me, I am a creature just being formed. I am not anything except provincial."
"Why does anyone think this a bad thing?"
"So you agree! I am provincial."
"Better a life among provincials than to be victims to the centralists. My darling, do not pout. This will be the great civilization of the world. France will never do what America has already done."
"You do not believe that."
"Believe? I insist."
"You insist I am a provincial and you will not take me to France."
"Yes," I said, exasperated.
"Then good night sir," she cried, and ran off into the dark.
WHY IS IT that a strong and happy man can be so easily laid so low that he cannot find escape even in the pages of a beloved book, where instead of the expected comfort he feels only the cruelty of the guillotine, the demonic pounding of the printing press?
I loved her so.
I did not love her country. It excited and repulsed me, but I would live there. I would die there. I would see only what was good. I would do good. I would make my name in America. I would make myself into America. I would write the first great book describing the great experiment.
Except I could not. Because she would not have me.
Downstairs I came upon her father
"Do you have a brandy?" I asked him.
"For God's sake, man. You must stop this. Please go to bed."
Had we been companions traveling, I should have insisted on the drink. Instead I obeyed like a child and thrashed like a beached shark on the littoral of sleep, and when at last the moon lifted the tides, I drifted out and then was washed back to discover a human body lying all along mine own. My head was lifted as an invalid is given soup. And then what strength boiled in my blood. For I was fed, not by the huge cold silver of an heirloom spoon but by my fiancee's living lips, which now sought to suck, bite, rip, devour me like a pain saucisson and just as I rose to embrace my wild good fortune, she slipped away. The door closed shut.
You might think me happy.
SOMETIME LATER I heard footsteps downstairs. I thought, Amelia. Without aid of a candle, with no guide other than a banister, I made my way. Doubtless my legs were as ridiculous as Godefroy's. I did not care. I discovered the light of a candle visible beneath the library door.
Here I found, not Amelia, but her father, seated at the chess table with a whiskey bottle and a single glass.
"You look absurd," he said. "Sit down immediately."
I understood my tent peg was showing and I obeyed without protest. He fetched a second glass and filled it.
"I will not make her miserable." He stared balefully, his eyes wet and swollen, his gray hair standing at peculiar angles. "I am her father," he said. "I will not."
The whiskey was coarse but I took comfort from the burn.
"I apologize," I said. "I mean nothing but the best for her."
He filled my glass another inch. "I made you promise not to take her away from me. You are a good man, Garmont. How I admired you for that sacrifice."
So he saw I had my good points. He was not against me.
"You know I love your daughter."
"That I do."
"I am prepared to give up my past for her, my country, everything."
"You are an extraordinary man. I will be proud to call you my son."
"Then sir, it is as I said to you in Charleston. It is not my noble character that makes me say this, but it is nonetheless a fact: We cannot be married in France."
"You do not understand. I have withdrawn my objection. She shall marry where she pleases."
"Mr. Godefroy. It will not work."
"No, no, she will turn Catholic. Her mother must get used to it. There, that's it. It is done."
"It is not a question of religion sir."
"Then what is it a question of?" he cried. "Not me, certainly. There is no impediment. I will sail to France tomorrow if she so directs it."
"French society has none of your vigor, your love of innovation. It is looking backward while it marches to its doom."
"What are you saying?"
"I have no intention of being insolent."
"Slap my face, man. I do not care. I have been wrong."
"They will not be able to grasp Amelia's originality."
"My mother, my father, the family. Their lives are circumscribed."
"Circumscribed?" he asked, looking at me directly across his glass and then placing it, extremely carefully, on the table.
"Should I be more blunt?"
"You mean they are snobs?"
"They have a way of living."
"You may think them so."
"Well, to hell with them sir. Did they never meet Ben Franklin, sir?"
"Indeed. But we must marry here. In Wethersfield."
"And to my daughter you will say, You are not good enough for France. What of Lafayette? He never said we were not good enough for him. He was a noble, sir, in case you forget."
"And I would say you are twice as good as all of them."
To a stranger this conversation might be thought to be proceeding badly, but I had reason to hope for a favorable result, for Godefroy, no matter what his passion, was a man who liked an argument, and if he sometimes began in confusion he would finally fit the whole together.
However, it was at this point, when the pieces lay in confusion between us, that Amelia entered the room, not in her gown but fully dressed, with her hair drawn up and held in combs in a way that emphasized the handsome severity of her jaw.
"I heard you."
I thought, She looks rather like her mother.
"Amelia," her father said, half standing. His tone was suddenly quite mild. "You promised not to do this. How long have you been listening?"
"Long enough to break my heart."
Then Godefroy was fully on his feet and following his daughter from the room. I heard them on the stairs, his bare feet, her leather soles. A door slammed. Then began the striding to and fro above my head, I drank my whiskey and poured another. I was still in the chair when the sun's first rays struck Old Farm, so harsh that I turned my back on the spectacle, arranging my chair to more directly face the bourbon.
It was around this time that Godefroy returned.
"I am so sorry, old chap," he said. He was dressed to do business for the day and I understood my situation from this as much as anything he said.
"I will pack my things immediately," I offered.
"There is a good inn at New Britain," he said. "I will take you there."
Dear God, the Americans are brutal. I was dispatched like a wounded doe, killed with a fast hard cracking of the neck.
THE MARQUIS DE TILBOT was turned into a peddler, and it suited him to be the representative of Watkins' birds, perhaps not quite as much as spying, but it fitted his character far more comfortably than cadging invitations to the chateaux of his old friends. As to whether he understood the artistic worth of what he was selling, I was never exactly sure for it is very hard to resist the notion that a man who praises you has a good brain connected to his eye.
My dear M. Perroquet, he wrote to me, this is all fine work, indeed the best I ever saw, and the Devil take the Duke of York for saying otherwise. If John Larrit & Co. can continue this excellent production, your name will go farther than we might have ever thought. My father would wake from the dead to think of our association, but this is a mighty enterprise and I have managed, on the strength of my widely trusted opinion and the evidence supplied by the recent birds of Delaware, to procure forty-three new subscriptions, a number I am still astonished to see before me on the page.
Hereafter, I think, you could increase the price as much as twenty percent and if you agree to this I will increase my percentage also but by a smaller amount, perhaps seven. Be assured this shall result in no diminution of appetite among the future subscribers. Should such a thing occur, which it will not, then I would take it upon myself to make up your loss. You know my word.
I am still in Bruges and have taken an additional five subscriptions for the second volume, being completely successful in every approach except for a certain banker I am sure you must remember as his wife had a high opinion of you in the past. I am positive you cannot have written to her, so I am puzzled as to what has caused this female to so turn against our enterprise. She now wishes her husband's subscription canceled. She told me that what folios she has received are so very bad that she could not think of providing them houseroom. I took this news as if wounded, but later enjoyed a glass of genever and allowed myself the luxury of imagining what past deviltry of your own had caused this.
Herr de Kok, burgher of Bruges, was shown up to my apartments but half an hour ago, so for a short while my quill has been dry. With all the peculiar character of his nation he set very directly to business: that is, he subscribed. So please, M. Perroquet, please find him a handsome clean copy, well colored--twenty numbers with the sheet of title, page of contents and subscriber's name--in a good portfolio with silver paper for the whole. Pack it as you did the re
I thank you, by the by, for the portrait of your house on the handsome river. It was much admired by the Comtesse d'Angerbaud de Texerau who, in unison with her daughters, deemed it of the period, whatever that might mean. I took great pleasure in asking them if they remembered you, my servant.
What, the awful one? they shrieked.
In America, I said, this is his house.
What fun! They were quite beside themselves with the most exhilarating mixture of wonder and outrage, and the younger daughter would not be quiet about the perfection of the bridge across the stream and demanded to know who was your architect.
All three of them were very taken with Mr. Watkins' White-headed Eagle with Eggs, which I unpacked in their presence and I do believe we may have three subscriptions here although the business will not be pleasant. The comtesse cannot buy a ticket to the Comedie-Francaise without haggling like a peasant. I thought it best to withhold from view that work which is to me most fascinating. You know what I mean--that small hand-colored engraving of your exceptionally handsome wife who, as much by her pose--the hand resting, just so, upon her stomach--as by certain subtle changes in her figure, gives every indication that you are to be, at your considerable age, a father. I have understood this engraving, I hope correctly, as a personal memento, a gift in celebration of our unusual friendship. Tell me I am correct? I am completely confident of this assumption, for who would buy a portrait of a woman enceinte I do not know.
It is my hope that you are able to quietly accept this unfortunate development, but perhaps in America, as you earlier reported, everyone will live forever, so if you should consider to remain there you will see your child from womb to altar. The eyes of the children of old fathers have a sad gray quality which I have observed on more than one continent. Perhaps it is not that they inherit an old man's wisdom, but that they are born knowing they must soon say farewell to him who gave them life. I have no children of my own and have not regretted it a single day. In any case there would be nothing to pass on to them except this awful title which has caused me no end of trouble all my life.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes