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Parrot and olivier in am.., p.8
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       Parrot and Olivier in America, p.8

           Peter Carey
 

  "Good grief."

  "Oh yes, Mr. Piggott, in chimneys."

  "Chimneys sir?" said Piggott. "I have a lovely brandy. Let me fetch it now."

  The fireplace was set and ready as it always was, and it was certainly the talk of chimneys that drew Lord Devon to inspect it. Piggott hovered at his back, a fat white presence which his lordship seemed at first put out by, but then--

  "Ah yes, sir." He beamed. "A brandy would do the trick."

  Piggott bobbed his head and winked his eye and tapped his nose and soon I heard him on the stairway, an unexpected direction for the brandy bottle.

  His lordship nodded amiably at Mrs. Piggott. She tucked her curls inside her hat as if she might, in doing this, make herself more English.

  "Printer's devil," he said to me. "Fetch back your master. Have him bring the brandy now."

  I used the door through which Piggott had departed and immediately found him on the staircase which now revealed itself to be a clever hiding place. The first three steps were steps indeed, but Piggott had now lifted them like a hatch and inside was revealed the one-armed Frenchman who had reappeared last night at dinner.

  Said I, to no one, "He wants his brandy, sir."

  The man with one arm pushed Piggott violently. And as the stair returned to its rightful place, Piggott took me by my neck and turned me back the other way and forced me through a door and down the stone steps into the cellar. Finding what he came for, he pushed me very cruelly up the stairs and I barked my shins and cut my hands upon the stone.

  On my return I found Lord Devon kneeling before the fireplace. Behind him, Mrs. Piggott wrung her hands and silently beseeched her husband please to save her, from what I did not know.

  "Do you mind?" his lordship asked politely, encouraging the little flame he had begun with his flint and tinder.

  "Oh no sir, please sir," cried Piggott in alarm.

  "No sir?" queried his lordship who now, as his flame took hold, seemed in a very jolly frame of mind. "Please sir, no sir, is it?"

  "It's a summer's day sir."

  "Oh I do like getting warm," Lord Devon said, as the kindling--which had lived a lifetime in the house--fairly leaped to its own destruction.

  His lordship stood, brushing down his stockinged knees.

  "Now," he said. "That drink you promised."

  Piggott, you will remember, was a big man with a big head and he was, even when malicious, slow as a cow in his manners. By now, however, both Piggotts were in a state they no longer could disguise. Mrs. Piggott left for the scullery; Mr. Piggott ran after her. They returned by different doors, each holding a different-shaped glass.

  "Here's a riddle," said Lord Devon, considering the choice. "Bless me if I won't have them both." He clasped his hands behind his back where the fire was crackling fiercely, exploding in the way of dry pine logs, showering tiny grenades into the room.

  Piggott filled the glasses with clearly trembling hands.

  "Thirsty weather," said his lordship, raising both in a toast. He sipped. He giggled. Then, in sheer delight at his own wickedness, he threw the brandy on the fire which now leaped at him, licking with its yellow tongue, leaving a glowing bite upon his wig which Piggott, in his panic, attempted to pat out.

  For this he was poked right in the belly.

  Lord Devon removed his burning wig, astonishing me with the hard bony brightness he revealed. He patted out the damage, keeping his eye on me as if I had some news to give. But it was only the genius forger Watkins I was thinking of and I would not betray him now.

  It was hot inside the dining room and no one would move away from the fire. To admit the heat, I saw, would be to confess to something worse. Lord Devon rested his gloved hand on my shoulder and carelessly jabbed his stick into the fire. The stick was handsome black oak with a silver top to it, but he used it like a common poker, jabbing it and banging it, until it was charred and glowing on the tip which he showed to the Piggotts with no nice meaning I was sure.

  "Your stick is burning."

  "So is your hearth, sir." And with this he gave a good hard jab into the heart of the fire and Piggott watched dumbly as the burning logs were knocked onto his dining room floor and the charred walking stick was stabbed again and again into the hearth as if it were a spear to kill a dragon.

  "You see, Piggott," his lordship said. He was having a great old time, careless of the choking smoke, the soot on both his face and hands. As for his silver stick, he now reversed it so he could use it like a navvy's crowbar.

  "You see," he said, and--completely indifferent to the heat and burning wood, thrust in his hand like a farmer at a calving and drew into the light a fistful of smoldering currency--not assignats.

  The dreadful Lord Devon, who was later paid a bung by Mr. Pitt for services to king and country, held up his treasure--pale white notes carrying the promise of the Stockton and Cleveland Bank to hand over five pounds of gold for each and every one.

  Behind my back I heard a noise, and turned to see both Piggotts on the floor, poor devils, him kneeling, her curled up in a ball, her stockings showing.

  VIII

  AS A LIZARD drops its tail to save its life, so must the Parrot sacrifice his sleeve to escape Lord Devon's grip. Out the door I fled into the inky evening, not a living soul in sight except the house martins scything across the sky. I stumbled coughing, spitting, down the dark side of the mansion, flushing a quail from beneath the pussy willow. The bird was much more wily than the boy, for while I was heading straight for Watkins' secret hole, she pretended a broken wing and hobbled and fluttered toward the river, intending to lead me away from her nest.

  I had reached the stinging nettles, just before the door, when the designated wicket keeper caught me.

  Mr. Benjamin dropped on me like a spider, wrapping his huge hands around my chest, binding me to him, so close I could smell the inside of his nose.

  "Got you," he cried.

  The Parrot slid right through his nasty knot, surrendering the remainder of his shirt. I feinted toward the house, cut back toward the river, crashed through the pussy willow where Mr. Poole was waiting for me.

  "Got you."

  He had fair hair and blue eyes and a red blush to his cheeks like a toy soldier. He was slight but as hard and stitched together as the leather casing of a ball, and though I kicked and spat and scratched at him, there was no escape from the bony shackle around my wrist.

  "I'll break your frigging arm," he said.

  "Where is he?" That was Lord Devon, hollering from the steps.

  "Here sir," called Poole, dragging me brutally, skidding me on my knees, a half-skun hare.

  "Not him, you fool!" Lord Devon had a captive of his own--Mrs. Piggott--tripping and stumbling after him. "Not him, not him!"

  "Who sir?"

  "Try to remember," cried Lord Devon. "Lord Jesus save me, whom did we come to get?"

  "Piggott sir? Where is he?"

  "I do not know," his lordship cried, advancing with his still-burning stick. Poole jerked me backward and away. The red-waistcoated dervish continued closing and was only halted by an awful bang. Deus ex machina, as they say. And what a machina--a hot wash of light bathed his lordship's upturned face and there, for all to see, his cold gleaming rage was caught and held by a writhing rope of fire running along the ridgeline of the house.

  "Shit," cried the member of the House of Lords, and I had time to be astonished he would speak like that.

  The printers came running down their stairs, tumbling into the evening, walking backward, faces illuminated, necks craned, their gazes on the smoking humpback ridge. The first line of flame had died, but what was left behind were three conflagrations, flames bursting from three beds of tiles.

  Mr. Benjamin clipped me across the ears. The show continued--exploding squibs now bloomed like wildflowers in the gloom. These also whacked my eardrum, five times, as hard as anvils. Then came bursts of fire, broken tiles erupting from hips and valleys and places not in my view.


  The sky was now a cloudless shade of green and as Benjamin dragged me from the hail of heavy tiles, I feared for Mr. Watkins' life. Poor Watkins--he had dreaded fire above all things, and now there were at least eight separate fires all erupting from his roof. Then--from where I do not know--a great flock of bats burst forth, and in among the bats, at first almost indistinguishable from them, a thousand sheets of paper tipped with Pentecostal tongues. It was as if Piggott's brain had exploded through its bony casing and all its greed and argumentative confusion, its secrets and whispers and smugglers' boats, had burst in smithereens and scattered through the darkening air, landing like stinging wasps upon our arms and faces, and through all of this my captor was transfixed, as if he had seen the assumption of the Virgin Mary in the Devon sky.

  All nature was disturbed. The nightjars, who would have normally stayed quiet till dark, came diving and flapping around their territories, swooping down above Lord Devon's smoking wig. In flight they made a soft coohwick and a dreadful hand-clapping with their panicked wings. The printers were equally disturbed, shouting, running to the stream with buckets.

  I politely asked to be let go.

  Poole knew not what to do. He watched Lord Devon who, like someone drunk or dreaming, stared at the men carrying water into the house.

  Then came a great soft thump like a chaff bag thrown out of a loft.

  "Good God," cried Poole.

  On the ground beside the steps I saw the broken body of a man. It was Piggott. When Benjamin dragged me to his side I saw the printer's big white carcass twisted like a doll, his eyes wide open, the most horrific look of triumph on his face. This expression was not diminished one iota by the wailing of his wife to whom he spoke impatiently. "Marie, il n'y a plus aucune preuve ici. Tout est brule."

  Lord Devon quickly decided Mrs. Piggott was worth not a damn to him. He set her free to moan.

  "Fool," he cried to Piggott, as burning five-pound notes fell to the dark ground like cherry blossom. "Fool, it is raining evidence." Then: "Let the house burn," he ordered the printers, but they were Jacobins and they hated him and all his kind.

  Understanding his position, Devon rushed to his carriage, from which he produced a heavy tangle of chain and threw it hard against the ground.

  "That's one lesson for you," he shouted at the men.

  He disappeared for a moment and emerged waving two pistols. "And here's another." One of these pistols was quickly taken by Benjamin while Devon confronted the bucket brigade with the other.

  "What's that you say?" he cried. "What's that?"

  He struck Bunter on the shoulder and, by dint of a great deal of barrel-poking, "persuaded" the bucket brigade to stand in line while he walked up and down, reviewing them like grenadiers.

  Not once taking his eyes off his captives, he ordered Benjamin to pass Poole his pistol so the latter's hands were free to fetter these good men's ankles with the chain.

  While Devon snatched evidence from the sky, my flame-licked father smiled at me. He shrugged, dear man, dear father.

  "Come," called Devon to Poole. "You can help as well. You're not a bloody nursemaid."

  "But I have the boy," said Poole.

  "Yes, yes, yes," cried Devon.

  My daddy was tossing his head at me, as if he had a flea in his ear.

  "I have the boy, sir," said Poole.

  "Devil," Lord Devon said, "I will blow your brains out if you move."

  "Yes sir," I said.

  Chooka tossed his head. He meant that I should flee.

  "Run," my father cried.

  Devon swung around. But now Poole shrieked. He pointed, and who--even Lord Devon--could not follow his gaze? A fiery angel had appeared upon the roof, its hair ablaze and streaming upward, fire right down its spine. It ran along the ridge and flew into the air, smashing into an old oak through whose ancient branches it crashed nosily before passing out of sight. Three others followed, forgers rising like hatchlings in the night, their cries beyond the edge of nightmare.

  "Run," my father cried. "Parrot, run."

  I heard the shot go past my ear and Devon screaming. I ran like a rabbit, through the smoke and haze, through the gloom, through the field of broken wheels. The men were cheering me, a pistol roared. I ran, shirtless, into the open woods, through the broken bracken, into dark, so many years ago.

  Olivier

  I

  "IT'S OVER," cried my mother, rushing along the hallways of the Chateau de Barfleur in 1814. "It is finished. It is done."

  And yet, madame, monsieur, it was not over, not in the least. Or, if it was over, it was only for as long as it took Napoleon to be defeated at Waterloo. One hundred days later he was finished, packed off to exile, and Louis XVIII returned as planned. My mother could dash off to Paris any day she wished.

  Vive la Roi, you might suppose. How happy we Garmonts must be.

  To which I answer, not at all. First, my father was treated unfairly. Once the monarchy was restored he should have been a power in the land, but he had failed to flee from the revolution so he was not of the party of emigres who returned beside the king.

  Who loses, and who wins; who's in, who's out?

  My father was made a prefect of a department in the provinces. He accepted this insult with good grace, although his own wife would not leave Paris to share his bed.

  You might reckon my mother in heaven to live so near the king, but no--she now judged him too weak and modern. In the house she had once planned to receive His Majesty she now formed a salon for ultraroyalist priests who feared democracy would be the death of religion.

  My father did not argue against her, except to mention to me, en passant, that His Majesty felt the merest wisps of democracy as a physical assault on his royal person.

  As for my own beliefs, they were changing. Thomas and I decided we had finished with the Holy Catholic Church. We became deists. If my mother had prayed a little less she may have noticed. Instead she observed that Thomas and I were "good scholars with our books." Indeed we were--a sixteen-year-old boy could see that France was a house of cards. The king died. Another king was crowned. You would think these changes calamitous, but it seemed to us that all the kings had a natural inclination to wish things to be as they had been before the revolution. Louise XVIII was more placatory. Charles X was most pigheaded. He did not understand that if he removed more rights from the people the edifice would collapse.

  Blacqueville and I grew up aboard this teetering structure built between the old and new. Years and years went by in this same unstable state. By the time I arrived at the law courts in Versailles I was ten centimeters taller, but the monarch and his ministers were still intent on turning back the clock.

  I was now twenty-six years old, a salaried lawyer. I had imagined I would be fairly good at my new profession, but I had deceived myself. Public speaking was a horror to me. I groped for words and cut my arguments too short. Beside me were men who reasoned ill and spoke well. The exception my constant friend Thomas, with whom I shared a small gray house on the rue d'Anjou.

  In Normandy, Thomas had taught me the art of racquets, rescued me from the chestnut tree in which I had wedged myself, and introduced me to his extraordinary cousin, Louise. Now, all these years later in Versailles he was again my tutor, and I do not mean he coached me in matters of oratory, or English wives or the d'Aumont sisters but, rather, set the example of a noble who every day refused to be trapped inside his history. Thus it was history itself that became our subject, our enemy, our ambition. Together we hammered at its pages, windows, doors. And why? Because Blacqueville's family was as ancient as mine. Because, in our home districts we were surrounded by men whose names appear in the roll of Norman conquerors. Because it was impossible that we become nonentities.

  Yet the curtain had fallen on gore and glory, and we found ourselves in a theater where we were revealed as poor pale creatures, blinking in the artless light. Monstrosities and giants no longer walked the bloody streets. Malesherbe
s, Diderot, Rousseau. The great men were dead. Danton even, Robespierre. Do not take my word. Look at the works of our painters--the people were dwarfed by nature. As for the novels, the characters were blown like fallen leaves, without volition, not worth reading. Worse, we were overshadowed by our own family trees. I was a Garmont, but a lowly judge advocate. My colleagues saw that I was slight and myopic. They could not imagine the secret life of my body or my mind. I was thought reticent, even cold, but I was ablaze with violent contradiction.

  Blacqueville and I were stallions bred for racing, now condemned to pull a cart of night soil.

  But what would we do in this present age? What sort of nobles might society still permit? Would we stamp on wasps' nests? Would we drown swimming against the tide of history? Would we break open the door we could not yet locate, and enter the salons of a glorious time as yet unborn? Or would we spend our lives between the thighs of actresses?

  Dear Blacqueville was the more handsome but at heart we were no different. I said we read like schoolboys? We read like warriors. We attacked all ten volumes of Adolphe Thiers' Histoire de la Revolution francaise. We deemed ourselves liberal modern men but we were nobles still. So we felt a violent hatred of the author who blamed the aristocrats for the sins of the Revolution.

  That was our paradox, our impossible position.

  For while the king's advisers tried to push back against the Revolution and the bourgeoisie tried to push forward, we occupied a category of our own, trusted neither by our own side nor the other, living in a constant state of contradiction and confusion, unable to imagine what our futures held.

  It was in this thirst and fury that we were drawn to the lectures of a certain Protestant from Nimes named Guizot. It was this severe man, with a black stock around his neck like a clergyman, who forced us to understand that democracy could not be turned back.

 
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