Master of Fate

⚜9⚜

In that next moment, I saw the boy standing on the crest of the hill. He was flailing his arms overhead as if in them he held the colors of a regiment he tried desperately to signal in the heat of battle. “M. Verlaine! M. Verlaine!” he shouted and now I heard him. And now Paul heard him too. He looked-up with furrows deepening across his brow. “Something’s happened,” he said, adding, “again.”

“M. Verlaine! M. Verlaine!” the boy kept shouting.

“Give him some relief, would you?” Paul urged me.

I laughed and waved to the boy who’s arms fell to his side. And he began to bob like a rabbit down the gentle slop toward us.

“What now, what now?” Paul said, in reaching for the canteen. I shrugged and turned away. I always felt anxious when I couldn’t provide an honest answer. I needed a distraction and the fields opposite the clefts were the perfect excuse. The fields there were engaged in my latest experiment, shortened furrows with shallow dips haphazardly arranged.

“They were cumbersome to till,” Paul said, in following my gaze.

“You’re reminding me,” I said as a remark.

He smiled in recollecting the reasons why I’d never forget. It was the first time I’d used my plow, the one I designed based on those of a Mr. Anderson from Scotland. “M. Verlaine’s a Scottsman now,” he teased me, using their crude tongue. “Went and got ‘imself the bastard plow! What? The French ain’t good enough for ya?”

“If only amusement lasted longer,” was my response to him. “As I recall it didn’t even last the day. By nightfall they broke into my barn and destroyed the said plow. Hence the furrows being haphazardly arranged.”

“Aw-Adrien, come-on, you know how it is. All they saw in that plow was ruin.”

“Ruin? A single man plowing more than an acre a day and all they can see is ruin?”

“Adrien be reasonable, you’re talking with a horse. But who owns horses? And if the ground’s rocky, what then? It’ll be back to oxen and several men or boys to follow. You know as well as I they wouldn’t eat from those fields, no matter what I tell them. You’re always talking about my reputation but it can’t do you any good? After all the good you’ve done me. When it comes to custom as a doctor, I’m just a pretender without the paper. No evidence from me can assure them that iron doesn’t poison the soil, not when the forests are theirs for foraging and wood.” He held-up the palm of his hand to silence me before I could open my mouth to speak. “Even the Americans believed it, you said so yourself.”

“Yes but, when they saw how others ate from those fields they gave-up their silly notions. These are details Paul, once implemented it all gets worked-out. Trial and error, eh?”

He gave it a few moments thought. “It was poor timing,” he said, “with what’s happening in Versailles. How about we give them back the commons, just until . . .”

“No!”

“Wait! Hear me out first. I’m not talking forever, just until this business in Versailles is done. Ours can be different you know, with these new decrees we can let-them cross plow where they will. We can let them plant . . .”

“You forget these decrees have yet to be sanctioned by the king. I’ll not give them something just to take it away again.”

“It would buy some added protection.”

“Temporarily, until they come to resent us which is far more outlasting. I know, I know, it’s never a good time for change. And, as you know, I have little patience for those who can’t see beyond what is.”

“I’m well aware of that,” he responded as if there was no way he could not have known it and, I suppose as my steward there wasn’t. He took the brunt of every complaint and that summer I cut down the forest was the worst for complaining. It’s when the grievances were being collected in preparation for the Estates General. People were speaking-out freely with years of pent-up anger and frustration. I was anxious for a solution which always meant more food, which meant more fields. I looked immediately to the forest, rich soil promises a quick rotation. And I could use the wood at my furnaces. Metallurgy was something my grandfather invested in and thankfully so, otherwise I too would have been selling-off land. “I knew they’d lament the forest, even as we cut it down,” I told him, just to reassure him that I wasn’t delusional. “But it wasn’t bad timing.”

“How do you mean?”

“Depends on the overall objective. When the snow kept falling, I distributed the wood to tenants instead. Warmth kept them alive, not food. But you know how it is, it takes a new generation to see the good that has been done.”

Just then the boy approached us and I could see that it was Matthais. He was the boy reserved for errands because he could run the fastest. I felt a bit of relief. It could be any news, I thought as I watched his thighs cut a path through the tall grain. Instead of bouncing back into place, the grain laid heavily to one side, swollen from summer’s heat and winter’s bounty. This told me that this year, if all went well, we’d have a bounty. There would be no shortage of seed.

Matthais came to stand right before me and hunched-over to catch his breath.

“What is it?” Paul asked. “Mme Verlaine?”

“No monsieur,” the boy responded, handing me a long, white letter. “Just came for you, monsieur, express post from Paris.”

“Paris?” Paul and I repeated in unison.

“Émilie?” Paul whispered, frowning in concern.

One look at the red wax seal told me it wasn’t from my sister. The crest of her House de la Ménétra was flanked by mallards not goats. And it didn’t have “Cur Non” inscribed across its shield. I shook my head no.

“Who then?” he asked.

“If you will let me read it, I will tell you.”

I broke the seal and unfolded the letter. To satisfy him, I skimmed to the bottom of the second page and was thrown for a moment. It was signed by the Marquis de Lafayette but, the marquis I knew was General de la Fayette. I told him who it was from and went-on to read the letter, discovering that this was one-in-the-same man who was, once again, general, of our new national army.

“What does he want?” Paul asked.

I had to read the letter twice in order to fully comprehend the “honor” with which I was being bestowed. Based on the fraternal bonds men-in-arms form in battle, he was calling upon my services. We are men joined once again, my brother, in the greatest of causes. Oh Sweet Liberty! he wrote, using the american expression. Had God seen-fit to grant me a brother, my brother, he would surely have been you! he wrote in his flowery, la Fayette manner. I couldn’t remember when I heard from him last but, I knew it wasn’t in France, it was in America before he returned. I wasn’t even aware that he knew I was back in France. I was beginning to regret leading comrades to believe that . . . liberty was the only woman to drive me from France.

“He asks that I come to Paris with all haste. France will have a new national army.”

“We have an army, we have the French!”

“The French are being disbanded.”

“Roederer’s letter mentioned nothing of this.”

“Lafayette does say that many of his recruits are re-enlists.”

“Recruits? Volunteers? I guess delegates no longer believe in calm being restored once the harvest is complete.”

“No. It seems there is more to their plans than we were led to believe.”

“Why? What else does he say?”

“Oh, he’d hardly such things in a letter easily intercepted. But delegates clearly have exceeded their mandates. I helped to conflate the grievances, I don’t recall any mention of an attack upon the authority of our king. The Estates General wasn’t meant as an opportunity to take from a king what duty requires of him. We are not America, no matter how much General Lafayette may imagine it. France has customs and traditions. The changes we speak of now take generations to overcome. Did I tell you, when I was in Strasbourg I heard whisperings of a republic? I didn’t give it too much thought, these are our times. But then I attended with Lucien a meeting at his club. The rhetoric I heard there was full of hatred and revenge. These men claim to speak for everyone else! Why, they are far too rich and educated to understand the struggles of common men. And far too resentful to speak on behalf of the aristocracy. They’ve started a new publication, and send representatives out to towns and villages.” I got out the letter to read from it directly, These days any unschooled ninny fancies himself an orator, I have yet to know a man who is not emboldened by new-found glory. He perches himself upon a tabletop in the colonades of the Palais Royal, to spew upon the masses a rhetoric full of contempt and vengeance. The Palais Royal has become the maypole of Paris, everyone gathers there, enlightened and unenlightened alike. The Orleans always were liberal regarding who they permit under their roofs. The king has sent his cousin the duke to England, just to keep him from trouble. I don’t have to tell you what will happen if the king veto’s the decrees as everyone seems to expect, and it is his right to do. It will be worse for you in the provinces. Last month, when Paris took the Bastille, the left bank prisons were also stormed. Many mutinous guards I myself imprisoned were set-free. They only joined-in with the rabble as I knew they would, I never could rely on them. They sway in all directions, it is the way of the bourgeoisie, they won’t act against anyone unless it’s one in whom they’ve been nursing a grudge. And it’s not fraternity that keeps them from acting, it’s indifference. This is my army, fickle ninnies who run at the slightest show of resistance. They know nothing of martial tradition, it’s not in their blood. I’m calling-upon men of honor and military experience, in the name of beloved France and sacred liberty! For not ten miles from Paris, sits the nation’s glory.

“And this is the Guard to keep Paris in order? Every week in the paper I read of bread riots in Paris. They always end with someone swinging from a lamppost. I hope both the Assembly and king have another means of protection.”

“Lafayette writes that the King has recalled his Flanders.”

“Flanders! Mercenaries? They have no care for our cause, what if they are meant to dismiss the Assembly?”

“God-save the King then, I’m not worried about the Assembly. The National Guard is the people’s army, anyone can see that. And we’ve all seen what they are capable of.”

“The marquis wouldn’t let that happen.”

I laughed a little. It always was amusing to me how popular Lafayette was. When he returned to France, it was as if the sun were returning to the heavens. There was a time, however, when la Fayette was personae non gratae for going to America. He was despised by the court for defying his king. He risked a promising career, for America promised him nothing, not even a position. He left behind a young, pregnant, adoring wife from a well-connected family at court. His father-in-law the duke went around saying he hoped his son-in-law never came back. La Fayette was young though, only nineteen. He had such an energy for adventure, you could see it in him. He’d walk around the campfire telling stories of his youth with so much animation, he reminded me of the natives. When Washington made la Fayette general, every young noble man in dream of military recognition went to America. It’s the effect of years of peace, for tradition must be carried-on. This made it so that the King officially declared war. By the time la Fayette returned to France, he was a war hero, Cornwallis surrendered to him! His legend was every noble man’s dream and for Lafayette even better, for he wore the proud face of English defeat. It was expected that the loss of America would finally curb the tide of English dominance that began in 1119 with the Battle of Bremule! Every time someone discovered that I’d been in America for their war, they wanted to know if I’d actually met him, if I actually fought alongside him in the famed battles of Brandywine where he received his war wound, and Yorktown where the English surrendered. “This is beyond the capabilities of any one man, Paul. It’s not like war where you know who the enemy is. Allegiances change here in a single moment, as we have daily proof.”

“What does the marquis expect you to do about it? I mean, Paris doesn’t have a monopoly on chaos.”

I thought carefully for a moment. I wanted to give Paul an honest answer. He’d be left here to manage alone, he deserved to know the truth. I fought alongside Lafayette, I knew his prideful nature but it came not from vanity but rather, he was his family’s last hope in rebuilding the family name. This was something his mother well-knew. She was the one who took him as a young boy from the province of Auvergne to Paris to reclaim the family’s inheritance, before they ended-up just another impoverished, provincial, noble family. At one time, the de La Fayettes were well-known and martially respected. All this I knew from his own mouth, he loved telling his men these stories around the fire. And they loved hearing them. These stories were so foreign from life in America, they took the men’s minds off battle. This easy exchange between an officer and his men was how Lafayette gained their respect. And given the American loathing for aristocratic institutions, it was quite a feat that they took orders from a marquis. There was one march, from Valley Forge in winter through, at times, four feet of snow, when the men carried-on despite it being a doomed mission. We were going for Canada through indian territory, it’s how I was captured. That he could keep willful americans engaged in such a hopeless mission is telling of his skillful amibition. Thankfully Lafayette’s idol was Washington for it held his ambition in-check. He worshipped the american general like the father he never had. He took Washington’s side in a cabal against him so that the Canadian expedition was canceled. Had la Fayette led that expedition, Lafayette would never have become a war hero. I knew Lafayette to be a lover of romantic liberty, the kind heroes are made of. I thought of Hannibal from my readings. No other general held his ground so successfully in hostile country against superior forces. He never once had a single mutiny, so the facts state. It is also a fact that, for one of martial tradition, mutiny is an officer’s greatest defeat. Lafayette experienced mutiny in Brandywine when he couldn’t halt the retreat. It was how he gained his war-wound, ironically. This story went around Parisian salons with humor when Lafayette was still persona non grata. But when he came back a war hero, he dined in every fashionable dinning salon, at dinners held in his honor. He was speaking at every convention. He’d show his battle wound while speaking of nothing but hallowed liberty. I knew all this from what Paul read to us from the papers. Because I met the man I knew that, for him, liberty was in being a successful general at age thirty-two. “An officer is only as successful as the loyalty of his troops,” I answered Paul. “All soldiers want for men they can trust.”

Paul’s eyes hardened in resolve of managing alone. Above everything else, Paul was loyal. “Will you go straight away?” he asked.

I caught his eyes and saw the fleeting fear. “Will I?” I said and he forced himself to smile.

I glanced over at the boy who stood-by waiting, thankfully in complete ignorance. The last thing I needed were rumors of an absentee lord sending ripples of unrest throughout village and beyond. “You can go now Matthais,” I said him but, he hesitated. “What is it? You have something more?”

“He’s waitin,” the boy said to me, in answer.

“Who?” I asked him, completely dumbfounded.

“The messenger, monsieur. Got orders to return wit ya reply.”

I frowned at this sure sign of urgency. “Make sure he’s rested Matthais, and well-fed. He’ll have my answer when I’m ready.”

With that the boy ran off while we two watched in silence, and while I was deciding. I didn’t want to go to Paris, I’d never been. Never had a desire to. I felt certain I would be of more use here, so much relied upon the harvest. Surely Lafayette had plenty of men of character he could call-on. If I went to Paris, there would be no one to insist on the protection I could expect for my possessions. Paul was merely my steward. I wasn’t fool enough to believe any loyalty to him for being a doctor, extended beyond the envy of my possessions. It was as Paul said, Paris didn’t have a monopoly on chaos. And yet, by some residual thought I believed I had not the right to refuse him. It took Paul to explain this to me, indirectly.

“Adrien,” he said, “you can’t not go, your being here hardly guarantees us protection. They stole M. Perine’s grain in Pont-a-Mousson after hanging him from the rafters, there was little he could do about it. If word gets out, which you know it will, these messengers are always talking in taverns, that you didn’t go upon the request of the marquis! The Hero of Two Worlds, commander of our new national army! Well, we’re without any kind of hope. At least take some time to think about it.”

“Oh, so now you want me to go-off to war?” I said, smiling so that he knew it was a joke before turning to go.

“Hey, where are you going?” he called-out to me.

“For a walk, and don’t wait up for me. And say nothing to maman!”