Master of Fate (II) 6
Dining rooms of the nobility were steeped in french elegance. The Eleusinian Mysteries covered Yves’s ceiling and walls. They were the scenes I liked best, those of Demeter and her daughter Persephone, goddesses of agriculture. Gold silk covered two large windows and the mantel was carved from Giallo Ghibli which is a rare yellow stone, two seas and two oceans away. “The East India Company,” Yves said with a smile when he noticed that I noticed it. “Navy makes a village of the globe,” he added, as if the phrase were often spoken. Two chandeliers of cut crystals, colored with sparkles though only half-lit hung over the table. “Venice,” he casually remarked as he led us past them, to the far end of the table. A table long without leaves. Raunch refinements came slowly to the eye. The table had crude lines and harsh angles, like what you’d expect in the colonies. Martinique or Saint-Domingue weren’t known for ornate furnishings, unless you counted mixing varieties. The rug was not Savonnerie, it was simple gold-woven cloth, similar to what natives used in their villages.
He stopped at my mother’s chair and pushed it in for her like a proper gentleman, the whole time my mother smiling from ear to ear. Then he took his own seat at the head of the table. From there, he proceeded to tell us of the King’s initial attempts to align with our Lumières. “It began at Choisy,” he stated, “early in His Majesty’s reign. He ordered a box installed on the gates so he that he might hear for himself from his people. His councilors snickered, as the story goes, and told him to go ahead. “In the ancient French tradition,” it was pronounced, that once again french subjects could speak to their king. “And I will listen,” was, I believe, his promise. It was only a few weeks before he ordered it removed, for all the vile and filth it held regarding the Queen and her ladies. Who will you entrust with our goodwill? The people will bite the hand that feeds them.”
My response was that the common good had little for the people. “It’s hard to blame them for their resentment,” I stated. His face fell. Then he stood to serve the stew, lifting the lid and crying-out, “What’s this! It’s supposed to be a white stew!”
This flustered the old, stoic maître-d Andre who stood in the corner. He rushed over to look into the pot, as if he would disagree with his lord and master.
“There are carrots in this stew! It’s white by tradition!” Yves cried-out. Visibly upset. “Must even my cook be possessed with a desire for change!”
“Well, it smells wonderful, monsieur,” my mother prompted, in the motherly fashion that includes a women’s perfect timing. This prompted Yves to serve the stew that was wonderful, despite the carrots.
“I do apologize,” he said more calmly once seated, and after tearing his bread. Something about bread always calms people. “I have no excuse for my behavior. Would you know, ever since the fourth of August I find my own self unbearable. We are loosing ground in the Assembly, but it was already too late when we discovered the liberal’s practice. They wait until only a quorum is present to put forth their agenda.”
As I listened to Yves, I felt in a dream. He was sitting in the half-light with his face half-lit, I couldn’t tell when he was being serious. I didn’t know him well enough yet. Even so the scene he described was one I could easily imagine. A tit-for-tat disguised by well-enought by benevolence and charity. One after one well-festooned dandy approached the rostrum to rattle off the ancient privileges he willingly forewent, to the applause of the galleys. “These were all nobles too long without a voice,” Yves explained. “Each one left the rostrum having outdone the last until there was nothing left to give. We spent weeks in sessions as attempts were made to revoke what had already been done. But enough of France, Adrien, let me for one night forget of it. S’il nous plaît, tell me of America. All I really know of it is what I’ve heard from Lafayette. He talks of little else, he’s always with the Americans. The Former Minister Mr. Jefferson and that businessman Mr. Morris. I want to hear truly. Now, when was it again that you left?”
He chuckled, in the half-light. “Voltaire and Rousseau died, is this why you left?”
I paused a moment. I never told anyone my true reason for leaving. There was no point in it, it only also hurt my pride. “No,” I answered. “I was seeking adventure.”
“And? Did you find it?”
“Only youth would look for adventure in war.”
“America is saying they won’t even replace the minister, can you imagine? This is how they repay us for helping them gain their sweet liberty. Stabbed like a Judas. America is popular, they are leading the way. Their presence here makes a statement regarding France’s new government. How the tides have turned! America provides our France with credibility. America? One year old and still arguing over articles. France has survived centuries.” He sighed and continued. “Other ministers are threatening to leave. I expect any day for our enemies to pounce. And God-blessed America will be first to our colonies. It is the laissez-faire way, at the expense of honor. The treaty wasn’t even dry before England regained favored shipping status.” He jumped up suddenly startling me and my mother. He shook his finger walking over to the tall curio where he opened a drawer and fumbled about. “I don’t suppose you ever made Mr. Franklin’s acquaintance?”
“No,” I answered. “I was in America when he was in France.”
“Ah yes, you are right. Well he really does wear a beaver hat. It goes well with his brown, simple suit.”
I looked at his half-lit face but I couldn’t tell if he was being genuine. “And yet,” he continued, “all of Paris was enamored with this, this,” he paused a moment in search of a word, “this apostle of liberty. The virtues of simplicity couldn’t be better presented by Rousseau himself. Ah-ha! Look here, here it is,” he said, holding-up a silver medallion. “I bought this at the chậteau, struck to comemorate his visit.”
I held the medallion up to the light and saw there Franklin’s likeness, along with a Latin inscription: Eripuit cœlo fulmen, sceptrumque tyrannis. Snatch away the rule of tyrants. “You bought this at the chậteau?” I asked him, a bit bewildered. The king of France was Europe’s last absolute ruler. All the others were condemned as tyrants, save for England.
“I did monsieur, I knew it would go down in the annals of history,” he responded.
I handed the medallion over to my mother. “Yves, Mr. Franklin is an accomplished man, despite what he’s wearing.
“His inventions are copies, why else he hasn’t patented them?”
“Perhaps your position as appellate advocate makes you aware of evidence I’m unaware of. Until then I would argue that inventions are by nature a culmination of work. I went to Scotland as a boy, with my brothers and our tutor. We met Mr. Small.” He looked at me questionably. “Inventor of the changeable plow,” I reminded him. “I’ll never forget the way his face lit-up when he described for us his plans for that plow. Now, another furrow is made on the return journey. I based my own plow on his designs. On what he helped me to imagine.”
“Come join me in the salon,” he said in rising. “I want to hear more of this America.”
As soon as I was seated in the salon, a footman approached me carrying a wooden box. He held it out for me to admire it’s delicately mother-of-pearl inlaid lid that, he made a production of when flipping it open. It was a clever design. Smaller boxes inside held a variety of tobacs, and a strong aromatic scent. Yves leaned over to point one out. It was the moistest and darkest of them all. “If I may,” he said with a wink. “Tell me what you think of it. I made some investments in Louisiane years ago, with a Mr. Chenet who claims to still be perfecting it. I suspect this is a ploy, to stall in reimbursing me my investment. I think it’s quite fine already, especially when you blend it with either the Cavendish or the sweeter American-Orinoco. But try it first alone, so I can get your opinion. I’ll give you one of these,” he said, holding-up a green glass of Chartreuse. I wasn’t sure what he meant by it. I’d smoked tobacco with the natives, it could take you places. Many silent minutes passed by in lighting our pipes and puffing out smoke. Smoking with another man has the same affect as sharing bread. It erases distinctions. Smoke blurs things. “What is it about damn monks and spirits?” he asked, rhetorically. He held up his green glass saying, “What monks have perfected!”
“What else are they to do?” my mother asked. “Hidden away from the world as they are, who knows what goes on in their monasteries.”
“They do as they please,” I answered.
“And what of the Americans?” Yves asked me. “They are curious creatures.”
I puffed out a few rings, watching them expand while thinking of what I could tell him that he would appreciate. Americans have a simple way about them, indolence is the only hinderance to pursuits of happiness. Indolence had become the French nobility’s privilege. “They love their land with an extraordinary passion,” I finally told him. It was something any man could appreciate, especially a patriot. “Nothing else can explain England’s defeat.”
“According to Lafayette, he’s responsible for it,” Yves balked. “America has France to thank for their independence. How is it that he now comes to call upon you so singularly?”
“I’m not certain it’s singularly. Every officer wants for men he can trust. It was by a chain of coincidences that I came to Lafayette’s attention. It began when Rochambeau needed an interpreter and I happened to be standing by and was able to assist. I remained by his side until his aide-de-camp returned. None other than Count Fersen,” I added with respects to my mother, assuring her he was just as handsome as the papers described him. “Not long after some sketches of mine were noticed. I kept them pinned to the wall above my bunk as reminders of home. These were mentioned to Lafayette who was known to have a fondness for Metz. He claims it’s where his ‘plight for liberty began in earnest,’” I quoted him, before going on to tell him how I was ordered to meet him. And as I was brought to him, he was attempting to convince new prisoner to cooperate. It was assumed that, since Lafayette was French and the prisoners were natives, he could convince them to do as they were told. Things quickly escalated. It is true, French passion runs through the natives. They have this in common.
I stepped forward and spoke to them in their mother tongue. Thus convincing them to cooperate. When one native asked me for my coat, I knew this was to test my honor. My tutor told me plenty of his stories. I handed him my coat over to him and he gave forth his trust. I never knew what became of him. “A misguided trust in the French,” I concluded.
Yves scoffed. “Misguided! My dear man, they took happily to our bribing.”
“Perhaps, but the Americans did not. When we disembarked in Boston, we were immediately known for French, our path was parted. We were often refused at taverns and inns. Just by entering we could silence them.”
“Give me more of Lafayette. We have much relying on him.”
“Well, because of my drawings and my ability of the native’s tongue, I was put on task with Washington’s mapmaker, Mr. Erskine of New Jersey. I never could truly capture the beauty of America. Its beauty lies in its variety from shore to mountain. As we approached Fort Stanwix we were captured. Oneida country. Mr. Erskine escaped but I didn’t.”
“Living among savages, how was it?”
“I would not have survived the war if not for being their prisoner, this I can say for certain. I’m a poor opponent against one in whom I harbor no grudge. I never felt the prisoner. It was more like I was their guest. It was nothing like the stock piling of prisoners in the hulls of galleys we do here in the civilized world. Did you know, the natives have a concoction that cures scurvy? A poultice of some kind.”
“I’d have to see it to believe it, you’re speaking to a sailor.”
“When they do their planting, they always consider the strengths and weaknesses of the varieties. Three Sister planting they call it. Take for example corn, beans, and squash. Corn is the eldest sister, she provides support. Youngest sister beans climb her, bringing air’s goodness to the ground. Everyone thrives by rich soil. Middle sister squash’s big leaves shade the soil keeping it moist longer. And her leaves are prickly to ward off predators.”
“They are savages, Adrien, the way they dress. Their multitude of gods. They eat American children.”
“They do love children,” I humorously admitted. “When they find them alone they believe them gifts from the gods and so, bring them home to cherish them. But stories that they eat them are tales told by Americans living on the frontiers who are parents of missing children and imagining the worst. We do the same back home with the woodcutters.”
“Come, come,” Yves said. “America can’t be all the land of milk and honey. There must be a worst part of it?”
I thought for a moment. “The crossing,” I responded.
He cocked an eye and laughed out loud, once again startling my mother. “You’d never make a sailor!”
We listened to him tell us his grandfather’s stories. “Do you know what my grandfather said was the darnedest part of being a sailor? Can you guess? No you cannot so I will tell you. He said it was that the best part was also the hardest — leaving home for the unknown.”
“I wonder where one finds the courage,” my mother responded with genuine wonder.
“My grandfather was not so courageous. He could return home if he chose to. Should fate allow it. But what I want to know is, what is so miserable about being onboard a ship?”
“You must be joking?” I responded. “Conditions are dismal at best, save for perhaps the captain. Every day is exactly the same. Day after day of nothing but sky and water. You cannot imagine the joy I felt after weeks when there appeared through a lifting fog a boat off our bow. ‘You gonna run aground if you don’t change course. The shoals!’” I repeated with my Yankee English which always prompted laughter. “What a magnificent harbor,” I told them. “Every where you looked you saw potential, from Boston to New York.”
“New York?” Yves questioned.
“Yes, because Philadelphia fell to the English. The Battle of Brandywine,” I prompted. He must have heard of it in listening to Lafayette’s stories. It was where Lafayette received his noble war wound and Yves already told us how Lafayette loved showing it off, even in front of the ladies. He spoke with some resentment of Lafayette’s popularity. But Brandywine meant nothing to him which meant, he wasn’t listening when Lafayette was speaking. “Please, continue.”
“Brandywine was before I met him,” I told him. “When he led the secret mission to regain Canada for the French, Mr. Erskine and I went along as a tag-along to his army for protection while we scouted out the west. Their plan was to use the native’s trust to create another front for the English. What happened was, we were captured and I didn’t see Lafayette again until Yorktown.”
“When you saw him in battle . . ,” he prompted me.
I thought of all the energy Lafayette brought to his every endeavor. He was lit with a fire that ran deeper than his praising professions of liberty. Liberty was a dream but, military excellence was tradition. “The majority of his men were little more than farmers. Certainly not seasoned soldiers.”
“Like our National Guardsmen, untrained and undisciplined. What do they know of martial tradition? It means nothing to them, it’s not something one learns in school, it comes from heritage. From years of ingrained custom and tradition. The Marquis de Ségur was not so far off. And yet, he was ridiculed for it. The state of our army is dismal at best, all our officers have left. It’s frightening to think of who’s rising to their positions. Much depends on Lafayette.”
“Once the leaves began to turn, American soldiers just left, there was little that could be done about it. They simply went back to their fields to bring in the harvest.” I paused. “When we came to a colonial border, it took hours of convincing before they’d cross it, and not all did. They simply went home. So, when you ask me what he was like in battle I assume you mean his skill at command as general. The fact is that, despite being a noble and despite being French, his men never abandoned him. There were so many things stacked against the Americans. Ammunition was inferior and less in number as was powder until M. Du Point came over and showed them how to do it. He had this great little operation in Delaware, along the Brandywine river. These men suffered the most basic of rations, and marched in feet of snow, many barefoot. It’s not just a tale to make moccasins popular. Few soldiers were armed with more than pick-axes, until France supplied weapons. It took some time before American manufacturers were established. The first native village we came to on our march by lakes of fingers, Lafayette paid from his own pocket to clothe and feed his men. For his compassion, he was given the benefit of the doubt. That he supported Washington in a cabal against him, by his American generals to have him relieved of command, either endeared him or made him more suspicious. But around the campfire his men came to know him. By his stories of growing-up in France as a rich noble.”
“I know he admires Washington, the whole world knows it. He had the audacity to threaten France’s support in their war if Washington did not remain commander. He’s the father Lafayette never had, he named his son after him. The President is the boy’s Godfather. George Washington is quite the popular name in France.”
“Lafayette is a different man here in France I gather, I’ll find out tomorrow when I see him. What I remember most about him is his devotion. His loyalty to Washington cost him what I knew he imagined was his chance to finally prove himself. I marched with him for weeks, he dreamed of a successful mission. He wanted to return to France in honor, as well as a hero. But as soon as Washington retained command, he canceled the mission. He said it was a fool’s errand, if the mission was to be free from England. France’s navy would be diverted. Not once did Lafayette ever utter a word against him. And he wouldn’t tolerate it from among his men. Such devotion is universally admirable, it’s the truest essence of liberty to honor what one chooses. He honored his belief in Washington.”
“And returned to France a war hero nonetheless. His popularity serves him but it’s difficult to stay popular in France for long these days. This is my fear, the people are fickle. How did you find the Americans?”
“They are clean, it’s part of their Puritan ritual. As is being industrious. This is a good thing when starting from scratch. The first thing they must do is clear the land of trees, so many, many trees with deep roots. These they use to build their abodes, log looking homes hardly trimmed. The first near the road declares itself an inn. This brings the post and registration on a map soon follows. Living in such conditions in isolation, well, just look at what monks accomplish. And in America, one can always run away further west.”
“I wonder what you think of Paris?” Yves laughed.
“We came here directly, I’ve seen little of it. I’m impressed with its size.”
“Lyons and Marseilles come the closest but truly, there is no city like Paris. I’m taking you on a tour of it myself tomorrow.”
My mother cried-out happily like a school girl clapping her hands.
“I’m afraid I can’t join you, I expect Lafayette to call tomorrow.”
“He can wait a day can’t he?” my mother responded.
“It is why we’ve come, maman.”
“We can postpone until the day after,” Yves suggested but I insisted that they go without me.
“We will have to delight ourselves,” my mother said to him.
“A little of certain delights goes a long way,” was my response to her.
Yves startled us both in slapping his knee with his outburst of laughter. “What a likeness! Your daughter and your sister despises the city. She has a fondness for Brittany though that warms my soul. How fortunate I’ve been in having chosen her over those who my parents had hopes for. What I would have suffered! She helped me to realize my duty to my House de la Ménétra. Her innovations have erased years of neglect, she can’t go anywhere in Brittany without being noticed, or the Vendée.” He chuckled. “I could travel from Nantes to Challans and no one would know me from Adam. Fortunately for me, I read many novels in my youth. I was resolved to a union of mutual affection, nothing less could induce me to marriage. I’d practically given-up until I met her. Very well then, Adrien, we will go without you tomorrow.”