Parrot and Olivier in America, p.41Peter Carey
You, M. Perroquet, now appear to be in a markedly different situation. I will not insult you by suggesting you will be rich, but I advise you to emulate the wasp as you plan for this child--is it not true that wasps paralyze a spider or other insect for the young to feed on? Then, although the parent has long gone, the child of the wasp grows up in plenty. If I am wrong then never mind. It is a good principle anyway. Watkins must surely know.
In any case, your wife is extraordinarily handsome and there is a way she stands, with her shoulders back, the wind lightly lifting her hair, that encourages me to think she will bring forth your American children in the best possible humor, with strength and vigor. I am thinking of Watkins' notes to his engraving of that nesting eagle.
The attachment of the parents to the young is very great, when the latter are yet of a small size.... But as the young advance, and, after being able to take wing and provide for themselves, are not disposed to fly off, the old birds turn them out, and beat them away from them. Here, some advice from an old man, or older--for I am almost eighty years of age and have lived hand-to-mouth for sixty of them. Have no more children.
But you are a devil, far too subtle and secret for one of your position, and I expect you will go on living as you wish or as chance will wish for you.
Taking into account your note of the present unreliability of the American currency, I am shipping the specie, insuring it as you have required.
WE BOUGHT OUR FARM out along the Bloomingdale Road, although when I say farm I do not mean anything like Hoagland's but rather a collection of gorges and wooded hills on the banks of the Hudson River some three miles south of Harlem Heights. In addition to the ancient wonder of the Hudson we had one very serviceable stream which we were told was called Ratskill but which we renamed Pleasant Creek, which indeed it was.
It was here, in the haze of a summer afternoon, where the eye found itself sunk into humid jungly greens, that Mathilde was once more endeavoring to prepare a canvas from whose heart would glow the light that was everywhere around us. She was in the upstairs studio with a velvet curtain hung to keep dust away from the colorists--three girls who were busy with their birds in the same long room. The correct preparation of a canvas was a continual bane to my extraordinary darling, and I had lived with her through the days of chalk, half chalk, oil, even graphite. This was sometimes an agony to us both, although I was generally, as they say of husbands, good.
On this particular day she was at it with a pumice stone, abrading a surface she had earlier sized with glove paring. After this there would be more lead white, then the never-ending pumice, and who knew if this would ever hold the light of this Indian summer afternoon? The light of this country was its greatest joy and burden.
Looking up from her furious attack on the glove parings, she spied a man proceeding toward Harlem along the dusty road. Immediately she stamped her foot three times on the floor, for she, who had once acted so rashly, was now in constant anxiety lest she be paid a little visit by insurance agents and their spies.
I came out my front door like the lord of the manor, which I was, even if our grand estate was all ravines and jungle, yellow clay, not a beast upon the place except a cart horse by the name of Biff. What came toward us was no insurance agent. Indeed, the creature was proceeding more in the manner of a beetle with a ball of dung, although this latter item turned out to be a very large trunk such as gentlemen are used to taking on their voyages.
I was very slow to understand the traveler was my Lord Migraine, his red face covered by clay dust, attempting to convey a burden which had already long defeated him. He shifted it from his left shoulder to his right, onto his back, now placed it down and rolled it with his hands, picked it up again and rested it on the rail of our little bridge.
I ran out to help him like the greatest lackey ever born, but when I arrived in front of him I was too embarrassed to say a word. I got his trunk onto my back, and without a single word of greeting, or any inquiry as to how he had got himself into such a state, I led him to our house.
I did not need to be an Oxford don to see his marriage prospects had gone up in flames, and of course my heart went out to the poor coot. Yet that common bodily organ is as complicated as a spinning jenny, and when he appeared before me in this way, with all his braid torn, and his bare skin showing through his hose, there was, God forgive me, a certain sinful joy in it. Of course I am not a heartless bastard. I was not gratified to glimpse his pain, but I suppose I was as full of myself as the next fellow, and I was just a little pleased that the posh shine had been knocked off him. In that moment, in the middle of a steamy afternoon, it seemed as if he had come to be with us, to be like us, to share our fortune. That made me happy. I should be thoroughly ashamed.
I seated him on our one good chair at table and Mathilde gave him tea and bread and butter and he ate three slices which was all we had. Maman already had a drum of water boiling (so she could scald and pluck an unlucky Canadian goose, shot while flying miles up in the sky), and this I commandeered and carried down beside the house and filled our tub and then brought it to a nice temperature with a little bit of Hudson. To this pretty spot I did then escort the poor human and he still uttered no sound other than a small cry as the water touched his feet which had broken blisters as rough and raw as orange peels.
There was a great pleasure in caring for him, and I was not alone in feeling it. Mrs. Watkins took the wagonette up to Harlem, to the inn, hoping to find good wine for her countryman, and Mathilde was already in his trunk, searching for clean items to replace those he had arrived in.
"He has no servant," she later whispered, so I knew what a mess his trunk must be and that he had been sent away from Wethersfield with no assistance in his packing.
I washed his hair and found it filled with grit and gravel and twigs, and so dirty it took three goes to have a lather rising, but when it was done I toweled his brainy noggin and his hair rose light and curly as an angel in a church.
"I thank you, Master Larrit," he said.
"You are welcome," I replied, although I did think a Mister would have gone down better on this particular occasion. I had a great and childish passion to tell him, I will look after you, to say, This is my own house, this is my own dear wife, this is my successful enterprise. Here you can stay safely and write whatever book you like.
He said, "I would be obliged if you could find a bed for me."
Mathilde's maman had heated her black iron and pressed him a shirt and there were now cleanish stockings and trousers available and so when he was decent I escorted him inside and up my stairs. You see, I thought, I have so many rooms. He must be gob-smacked.
"Just wait one moment," I said, and I left him standing in the upstairs hall while I asked two of the pretty little colorists if they would mind to share a bed that night, and of course they were happy to give up their mattress to a French noble. I came out and found the hallway empty. Then I heard his shoes fall and understood he had lain down in our room.
A moment later my former master was sound asleep. By the time I had brought Mathilde to see the sight, he was gently snoring. We stood together, she and I, my arm around her shoulder, the pair of us smiling like fools, as if he were our child. My dear father and his friends would have risen from their graves if they could have known, but Mathilde and I were proud and happy for him to rest awhile in such a large and handsome room--big windows open to the breezes from the Hudson and the walls holding aspects of the river, oil studies all of them, my darling's continual grappling with the fleeting colors of dawn and sunset, the clear clear light of noon, and the warm whiskey haze of this very afternoon.
Mathilde and I had shared many mattresses but this was our first bed, purchased from a family traveling north upon the road. Who had slept in it I was careful not to ask, but it was a bargain and very beautiful--ornate cast iron with a brass sun at its head and four moons, one at every post.
Mathilde's work in M. Proudhon's studio had left her with no single reason to be sentimental about the aristocracy of France, but when I saw her eyes I knew she was moved by this most impossible of friendships, perhaps the only example of its type the world had ever seen.
A PART FROM WATKINS, who had been out of temper since the punter in Bruges refused to give his folio houseroom, we were very satisfied to hear his lordship snore, and we thereafter ate our shad soup very quietly and, like a household of aunts who have nursed a beloved nephew through a fever, tiptoed up and down the stairs in a state of general happiness. And of course it was Mathilde and I who shared a pallet on the floor.
In the night I threw a quilt across our visitor.
At dawn he was still sleeping, so soundly in fact that I suddenly feared I might be unable to evict him. On this subject I must say a word or two because--sir, madam--I treasured that bed and the room it occupied. There was not a morning when Parrot Larrit did not wake and see the river from those two big windows and understand what a miracle his life had been. There was my beloved wife, her stomach blooming, her lovely little nose above the sheet like some very pretty and exquis animal safe in her burrow, knowing there was not a soul on earth would harm her. And here were her small canvases arranged on the right-hand wall like a hand of patience. So although I was honor-bound to offer every care and comfort to young Migraine, I had no plans that he would lie in my bed a second night.
Thus it was, very early, at an hour when I would normally have enjoyed a cup of tea and watched the cormorants glide like deadly fish beneath the surface of the Hudson, I set out to make a bed. Even as I laid out the planks of yellow pine on top of the trestles, I was well aware that I had promised this same timber to Watkins for his shelves.
I had only just measured off the bearers, had not even lifted up a saw, when Watkins appeared beside me in his flannel gown, his bare toes curling upward, his bright blue eyes ignited by the heat of my offense.
He was a great artist, as he knew himself, far greater than Cole or even Church. He was formally superior to all of them. He had a better sense of rhythm. His placement was so keen, his studies so fastidious. I have known him to require Mrs. Watkins to shoot sixty-four of one species to get the perfect specimen.
Yet he could forget, as he forgot now, that there were others in the world, and having wrestled all of fate and circumstance to reach his new position, he would not stand aside for anyone, although there were many he would be well advised to consider, not least Cloverdale, his engraver, who had produced fifty-five of our first sixty plates, and also the colorists and artists, let me list them now before they disappear into the endless night: Bessie Coady painted flowers, foliage, and insects for thirty-five of the prints; "Pretty" Cudlipp colored more than fifty; Mathilde at least forty. I myself colored prints beyond number, not counting all those tiny gifts I made him so carelessly, like #150, the Red-eyed Vireo to which I added an extra twig and spider webbing.
All of this Watkins was pleased to forget, and he would never, not even at the height of his fame, thank a soul except himself. Sometimes this led him to actions both puzzling and amusing. For instance, he had carefully arranged three fire-insurance plaques along his studio wall. I suppose he saw them as some strange proof of ownership. Certainly he refused to see that they incriminated him, as either an arsonist or a coward, depending on your point of view. These mementos should have been chopped up for kindling but when Mr. Eckerd, who owned forty-two percent of our corporation, was appointed to make this request on our behalf, Watkins flew into a rage and would not speak to him.
I did not require this genius to tell me that yellow pine was a poor material to make a bed. He did so just the same, hopping from one foot to the other, thus appearing like one of his own creations, the poor sad wisps of hair like grass in a rocky place, the colors of skin so thick, embossed in raging scarlet and vermilion. I was reminded of the backsides of monkeys in a state of passion.
Poor Watkins' abnormalities had been branded on him by Lord Devon's fire, but he had always, I believe, been marked for this greatness. When I first saw him, inside his lethal priest's hole, I thought of him as a silkworm. But now I would say he was more like a spider and it would not matter how many times you tore his paper or stole his pencil, he would find new paper, charcoal, watercolor, pastel, chalk, egg white, clay. He would start off again. It was his nature.
I often thought, I pity you, but although his appearance invited our compassion he lived far beyond its reach. He was a genius and a tyrant and would thank no one. He would work slowly when there was a rush and be a storm of activity when there was no reason. He was cosseted, like a robin's egg in cotton wool. Thank God he had a wife who loved him, who protected him from the world--and us from him.
At length he went away to find his porridge and I was thereafter lost inside my labors for an hour or so and I was finishing my second mortise when I heard my bedroom window slam shut above my head.
Oh dearie me, I must have woke our guest.
I went to discover his lordship standing at his washstand writing in his book. I had expected, on account of the window, to find him out of temper, but all I saw was the deep, deep injury about his eyes. Perhaps it was simply shame, but it was a look I had never seen in him before.
He told me he had slept well.
I told him I was constructing a new bed and would have it for him by that night.
"Oh," said he, "I am quite happy here."
Well, do me sideways, of course he was! I considered him standing in the middle of my lovely room, the northern wall holding the river light in canvas squares, not finished works but lively studies, the point of each being to see what the ground beneath the paint would do. There were far too many to describe, but here is one--the light of evening like a sheet of copper. Lying beneath, submerged like a bed of luminous sand, is a magic ground, the engine of the light. Just as I looked out the window at the dawn light on the Hudson I could gaze on the works of my beloved and know her sweet ambition was to imitate the color of the very air.
This was my place, my palace, not his.
"Je suis tout a fait heureux ici, merci," he said to me. Mathilde would later make a joke of it and say to me, when she refused to share her wine, "No thank you, I am perfectly happy as I am."
I returned to my yellow pine, and I was now just as annoyed as Watkins was, to find myself forced to use the oak--which had been saved to make new runners for our press--for the legs. I was a fool, I thought. I was a lackey, I knew, and yet none of us could doubt the poor fellow's human injury, and we ministered to him as well as we could. Maman darned his torn stockings and laundered his linen. Mrs. Watkins, who was nervous of the wild coaches in the city, took the wagonette to Pearl Street to see if she could unearth better wine than Harlem offered. Then, in the afternoon, she offered to take him to a spot where he could shoot some game and I saw them go off together, the noble very jaunty in his walk, carrying Mrs. Watkins' precious weapon as if it were his right, surely not understanding she was the shootist our entire enterprise depended on.
Later in the afternoon when it was very hot and I was admitting to myself I had turned our pine shelves into an ugly misshapen thing, Mathilde interrupted me. About the bed she passed no comment, saying only that our two hunters had come upon a group of deer, and his lordship, somehow imagining he would be arrested as a poacher, would not raise the gun.
Then had the plucky Mrs. Watkins snatched the weapon from him and shot the creature through the heart. For having thus secured our dinner she was berated, in her first language which sounded to her much crueler than her second--she heard that she was a foolish woman and would face the magistrate for her crime, and on and on.
Abandoning my sorry carpentry, I caught the poor sore horse and put him back into the wagonette and then Mrs. Watkins and I set off toge
Our house was not normally a place of high emotion, and the day had been exhausting, and yet the smell of roasting venison seemed to improve all of us, not least Watkins who, sitting on one of our two chairs, was very busy with the nose bag, as they used to say at home.
As for himself, he clearly took notice of the variety of boxes and crates we assembled at our table, but when he was invited to take a chair he did not protest.
Apart from that, he was gracious in every way. He took possession of his captain's chair and engaged with every one of us, not least the printer and the colorist who boarded with us. They, for their part, were charmed by him, his interest and knowledge of their country often surpassing their own. My own response was perhaps more complicated for I heard the same tone he had used in Philadelphia to ask a prisoner, "Do you think the yard annexed to your cell is necessary for your health?"
Indeed, you will read a very different account of the dinner in his own book, for in the so-called appendix there are five pages titled "An Account of Settlers at Harlem." (I have taken care not to repeat any of those very original observations, they are his alone and shall not be poached by me.)
When he had finished eating, he rose and proposed a toast to all of us, in both French and English, very charmingly using words like stonkered which produced much merriment. He spoke beautifully, with a grace as distinctive as the minuet. Standing in his carefully darned stockings he specifically noted the quality of cooking which was superior to anything he had tasted in any home for the previous year, although in fact the meal was very simple, there being, besides the venison, a salad of wild greens and last year's potatoes. He spoke most enthusiastically about the construction of the house and its picturesque position, and if he could not bring himself to praise the wine, he made the effort to tell us how it reminded him of a journey to the Loire and the most delightful little village which must be no more than a mile from the place where the grapes were grown.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes