Parrot and Olivier in America, p.9Peter Carey
Thus Blacqueville and I attended a great many of these lectures, side by side with citizens of all descriptions, very few of them with friends at court. We were diligent and earnest. We made notes. We had no idea of the dangerous nature of the game that we were playing.
ADREARY MONDAY in Versailles. Our servant having been dismissed on an embarrassing matter, and Blacqueville having taken the coach to Paris, I returned to an empty house where I immediately began to change my clothes so that I might go into society. And then, when I was in my shirtsleeves--what was the point of this?--I crawled into my bed.
It was in this depressed condition I was awakened by a footman bearing an invitation from the Marquis de Tilbot. The reader will recall Monsieur for no other reason than that he had his arm hacked off. My own recollection was pretty much the same, except I had not liked him as a child when he was first my mother's friend. This evening, it seemed, Monsieur was visiting Versailles and in urgent need of company.
Monsieur was, as they say, eccentric. In England, where the aristocrats lounge in the House of Lords like farmers exhausted by the hunt, he may not have appeared so alarming, but in my France, his France, we insist on the uniform, and he could not be bothered to accommodate us. As if to underscore the point, he now provoked me with a timeworn servant of an unsettling democratic grammar, a liveliness in the eyes, a broadness of speech, an open curiosity which would certainly have excluded him from my mother's household. Monsieur had spent many nights sleeping next to peasants in the hedgerows of the Vendee, so perhaps this fellow amused him.
When I accepted the invitation--my own handwriting was appalling, no match for the calligraphy of the invitation--I expected the evening would conclude with Tilbot trying to sell me a folio of etchings or some Sevres supposedly rescued from the ashes of the Revolution.
Clearly it was boredom that got me from my bed, but the invitation was also a welcome escape from the company of bourgeois lawyers. I will be disliked or even killed for saying this, but it is only with nobles, those of my own blood, that I have ever felt completely at home, even an extreme conservative like Tilbot.
It was early summer, the most asthmatic time of the year. I strolled toward the Hotel Juste through the Saint-Louis quarter. Closed mansions. Neglected gardens. No matter the seasons, Versailles was, generally speaking, stone dead. Of the two hundred hotels that had thrived before the Revolution, there were perhaps fifty doing any sort of trade at all. If Monsieur had expected the Hotel Juste to be as it had been in the years of Louis XVI, he would be correct only to the extent that it had no water closet. Certainly he would no longer find a mixed crowd, comtes side by side with opera singers, or eager dancers who had just performed a gala for the king. All dead. All gone. At the Juste I came upon an attendant who, like a common actor cast to play a duke, gave no more service than waving a gloved hand toward the staircase. Such was the state of servants since the Revolution. They consented to serve but were ashamed to obey. They had begun to treat their masters as the unjust usurpers of their rights.
I set off up the staircase whose walls revealed the flaking common paint which had once affected to be marble. How sad to live in the shadows of the dead.
I knocked and discovered, to my pleasant surprise, apartments very like the Autumn Room of the Chateau de Barfleur.
Monsieur welcomed me from a strange position, his single arm resting along the mantel which, being Carrara marble, was a monument to the taste and glory of Louis XVI.
"Complete?" he asked, not me, another. For me, his visitor, the great man betrayed no speck of interest.
"Don't move," this other said.
And there I beheld the awful footman or factotum. Reclining on a canopied chaise.
Dear God, I thought, now here's a comic turn, for he was affecting to make a charcoal portrait of his posing master, who would not turn his head toward me. If dogs stood up and walked I could not have been more discombobulated.
"Perroquet," I heard Monsieur call him.
So he keeps company with a parrot. Of course.
The creature, who had previously spoken in the most higgledy-piggledy patois, now answered in tones identical to his master. "Just one moment," said he. I thought, Dare he mock him thus? Does his master tolerate it? But what were these eccentricities to me?
Monsieur posed with his body arranged so that his amputation was cleverly denied. The glowing fire reflected in the fluted columns, and danced like wraiths across brocade and upholstery--laurel leaves, bell-flowers, shepherds and shepherdesses. The scene had the warmth and glory of that earlier time--four arched openings separated by carved pilasters, walls covered with tapestry and brocade--and yet there, on the periphery of the canvas, was this fraudulent parrot. Velazquez, I thought, with no one to share my wit. Monkey, dwarf, parrot.
I snuffed my candle and set it on the mantel.
"I had imagined you would be taller," my host said at last.
I had imagined he would have more teeth. He had grown older, balder, with his mouth set in a peculiar sarcastic mold.
"You have the Barfleur family markings," he continued, alluding to the tiny wounds where leeches had bitten me so recently. The familiarity this sentence presumed might have been offensive and yet it was offered with a strange and unexpected tenderness. What to make of this ruined warrior.
The missing arm indicated his misfortune, but his eyes showed you he was, even at the age of seventy, a man still dedicated to excitements and danger. When his royalist war against the Revolution failed he had become like a stream that enters an underworld of lakes and tunnels, from which secret life it will emerge where no geographer could predict. Where this stream had traveled during the reign of Napoleon, I did not know, although the peculiar relationship with this servant suggested something very subterranean indeed.
"Ah," said Monsieur, "you've already met M. Perroquet."
Monsieur, seeing with what hesitation I took the servant's proffered hand, made a comic face. I wondered was he drunk.
He joined me on the settee and although I was supported with all the strength and grace of the royal workshops, my host occupied his territory less neatly. He was broad of shoulder and chest. Like an American, he wore no wig and this, paradoxically, served to magnify his leathery head--ten inches from ear to ear, at least, a fringe of curly red-brown hair around his pate. He smiled at me. Those teeth were awful.
"Mr. Parrot," Monsieur said, nodding to the creature who had once more set to sketching, "is a man of many parts, not one of which will you find in Linnaeus. A gentleman who travels cannot be at the mercy of servants."
I thought, What is this leathery creature?
I was angry. Yet now--as I saw the dishes begin their majestic procession through the doors--I understood he wished to do me a signal honor. We were to start with the melon and follow with the eels and carp, and the larded rabbit on the spit. To this end we sat at table.
"So," said Monsieur, "you've been at Guizot's lectures."
I thought, The servant must be told to leave the room.
"Six times you attended," said Monsieur. "Blacqueville, ten times."
The Parrot caught my eye a moment but returned to drawing.
"It is not the Parrot you should worry about," Monsieur observed. "He is the only one you should trust."
"And you, sir?" I asked with all the distance our language so thoughtfully makes possible. "In what way should I trust you?"
For answer he produced a small chapbook from beneath his napkin. I thought, He wants to sell me something. Then I understood it was only a cloth-bound order book. From this he now read the following, pausing for effect, raising his eyes like an actor at the Comedie-Francaise.
"'The Middle Ages,'" he began, "'were the heroic age of France, the age of poetry and romance, the true realm of fancy, when fancy was stronger than we may think possible in the lives of men.'"
It was Guizot. That is, he was quoting evidence. The hair on my arms rose inside my shirt.
"'On the other hand, gentlemen, the hatred that the Middle Ages have aroused is even easier to explain.'"
Three weeks before, I had transcribed these very lines at a lecture. It was now clear to me, and to my bowels, that someone had observed the very movement of my pencil.
"'The common people were so unhappy during that period of their existence, they emerged so damaged and with so much effort from the condition into which it plunged them, that a deep instinct makes its memory agonizing.... The French Revolution, gentlemen, is no more than a defining explosion of hatred against the ideas, the manners, and the laws which were bequeathed to us by the Middle Ages.'"
In the time of Bonaparte the secret service had bred like peasants, and there were many who detested the regime but took the pay. Might M. de Tilbot, I wondered, have become one of that sorry caste? He had lost his lands in the Revolution. What income might he have? Was he spying for the court?
"You imagine I agree?" I demanded.
Monsieur lifted his wine the better to examine it against the candlelight. "You, Olivier de Garmont, are in a very bad position."
"You will tell my mother, that is what you mean?"
"Your mother is a more supple and subtle creature than you could ever imagine."
"I am sure you know her well, sir."
He stared hard, and then his features softened. "You are a Garmont," he said quietly. "The liberals see you and have no doubt you are a spy. The monarchists see you and know you for a traitor. You are in danger."
"I will be out of favor?"
"For God's sake"--he pushed away his Pauillac lamb--"your mother knows what danger is. If she wishes to save you it is because she has lost so many."
I thought, Do not dare to tell me who my mother is; she has saved my life so often I have almost died of it.
"How did Chateaubriand save himself in the middle of the Terror?"
"You wish me to flee to America like Chateaubriand?" I said while thinking, She is calling the doctor for me once again.
"My dear Olivier, he did not flee. He went to write a book!"
Indeed, I thought. What vulgar hysterical sentences, what over-blown chrysanthemums he put in the nation's vase. I could smell them now like the wreaths left too long inside a church.
Monsieur took my wine and poured half into his own glass, and there I saw, in my untidy passion, the great dark wave of it, the bloody grapey drunken demos which would wash us all away, and I took my own crystal goblet and downed the portion he had left me, imbibing in one long surging undulating swallow that brought my host to his feet, the bottle in his hand. It was because he was smiling that I downed this second glass.
"There," cried the impossible creature, my mother's noble friend. "We understand each other now."
WHEN BLACQUEVILLE walked into a room, eyes followed, not only the eyes of the men who doubtless envied him, but of the women with so many of whom he had been intimate. To see him pass between the tables of Les Lilas on the rue du Temple was to witness a minor wonder, this modest man emanating a golden light, although the light, of course, came from those delicate lamps, each one in the shape of a tulip, each whispering the secrets of the burning gas.
There was no question of being incognito when one was Blacqueville, not at Les Lilas or at the Sorbonne. So although I had not planned to attend Guizot's next lecture, I set off to Paris to prevent my friend from attracting the notice of spies. It was ridiculous that I should leave so early on the morrow, but no surprise to anyone who knew my character.
By the middle of the morning I found myself striding through the streets of the Latin Quarter, still in a state of considerable confusion, with nothing to occupy me until the night.
Inevitably I visited the rue Saint-Dominique where I was astonished to find my father at breakfast with my mother, a rare event, and all around them on the long bright table, a number of books which they, although aware of my arrival, seemed loath to tear themselves away from.
It was not extraordinary that my father would read a book in this intense manner, with quill and paper at his side, but that my mother should be so occupied was suspicious. The comtesse's mind was normally much occupied with theology so the laws she contemplated were those of God, and those she judged to be better studied upon her knees. So when I apprehended that they were now united in this charade and that this must be somehow related to their parental affections toward me, I was moved exceedingly. Of course I expected, soon enough, to be warned off Guizot and his democratic lectures, but I embraced my parents passionately, knowing myself to be their love and treasure.
I asked them what they were so fascinated with. My mother replied she had discovered that the Americans had invented prisons which would reform the people they contained.
So, I thought: America. I did not laugh, although this enthusiasm for prison reform was in violent--even comic--opposition to the views of her ultra-royalist friends who understood prison as a place to keep felons until they should be punished, whether by execution or hard labor. Yet I was very touched to hear my noble mother exclaim at the ingenuity of the Americans, who had, she declared, in one of those strokes of genius which mark their extraordinary character--turned the matter upside down.
"Someone should do this," she said. "This is an extraordinary idea. Montalivet should set up a commission," she told my father. "He won't deny you."
"Certainly someone must go there," my father said, looking thoughtfully at me.
His poor dear face showed all his love for me. I turned to my mother and saw from the crepe skin on her cheek that she was already hearing the thundering clocks of history which she knew were about to strike their awful bells.
On the pretext of finding me some spending money for the day, my father soon led me into his office and shut the door.
I expected he would be explicit about his plan to get me to America, and I dreaded the exchange for I would not be a coward no matter how much I wished to please him. But now he had me alone he began to whisper, briefing me hurriedly on the dire situation of the government which had pressed so hard upon the king that he was prepared to sign the ordinances now laid before him. That is, His Majesty was about to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies and reduce the already tiny electorate to almost nothing. In other words, he would kill what small democracy he had not already sliced away. This would cause a public uprising, and in the ensuing chaos every Garmont and Barfleur would be at risk.
I immediately declared that I would stay with my parents at the rue Saint-Dominique and thereby protect them both, but my father passionately begged that I take no public position, that I act with extreme caution and present myself at Versailles and wait for word from him. I listened quietly, thinking only that I must speak with Blacqueville.
My father was of no importance to this government, but his absence from the palace would be a political act, and so he soon departed and I joined my mother who spoke, bravely and brightly, about the curious sect of Quakers in America. I watched her silently, thinking only how the Revolution had drowned her beauty in a lake of fear.
In the early evening I bathed and was preparing to leave the house when my eye fell upon some dreary botanical engravings--or so I had always thought them--that had previously adorned the hallways at the Chateau de Barfleur. In the past I knew only that they were a gift from Monsieur and that they meant one thing to my mother and something quite different to my father. One can imagine why a child might develop the habit of avoiding them. But now my eyes had chanced to alight, not on the leaves of Eucalyptus globulus, as it is still called, but on the neat label that proclaimed it so. This was the very same hand which had composed the invitation to the Hotel Juste, not that of Monsieur but of his awful Parrot. If it had been a different day, perhaps this would have burned into my brain forever. But when you see what follows you will forgive me for forgetting it.
It was late. I was now rushed to the Sorbonne in my mother's coach whose unsuitable royalist decorations ensured that
"Ah," he cried out loud, "very nice to have met you again."
And he set off back the way he had come. A few minutes later we were reunited at Les Lilas. Here we were shown to a banquette that was, as they say in this sort of place, "the bower," which the owner reserved for Blacqueville and his friends and which I would never think to occupy without him. Here I related what I had heard from my father, that the extreme conservatives had pushed the king to sign the ordinances and that we were being spied on, that our situation was, as they say in London, very tight.
You might think there was a great deal to discuss, but we quickly agreed we were honor-bound to defend the king however wrongheaded we thought his actions. What an awful day. We wished it had not come. We therefore amused ourselves as the circumstances demanded: That is, we drank champagne. The bower was shortly full, and Blacqueville was occupied with a very pretty young Bourbon princess whom I will not name but who was soon the occasion of my friend bidding me good night. We agreed we would both present ourselves at the Versailles law courts on the morrow.
It was then, as my eyes followed the graceful couple's passage through the golden light, that I saw Monsieur's servant sitting not two tables away. So it is: We have never seen a person in our life and then they are everywhere we go. Although, let me confess, it was his companion who first took my eye, an actress with a glory of black hair, creamy white skin, and a generous bosom. I heard her laugh, a kind of throaty call, and I was doing my damnedest to catch her eye when the identity of her companion forced itself upon me. M. Perroquet was changed, not physically, but by his situation, and his green eyes were bold and alight and his nose now seemed hawkish, wild, exhibiting a dreadful kind of confidence, attractive yet repellent at the same time.
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey / Actions & Adventure / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes