A French Volunteer of the War of Independence/Chapter 1
A FRENCH VOLUNTEER
WAR OF INDEPENDENCE.
I derive my family title from the noble old castle in which my father and mother lived.
The chateau possessed battlements, solid walls, towers black with age, and of undoubted historic interest,—but it was not a cheerful residence all the same.
My father was lord of the small town of Pontgibaud, and a good number of parishes round, and united in his own person all the feudal rights of lay and clerical patronage,—for he nominated the curés of most of the neighbouring villages. The Comte and Comtesse de Chaliers lived amongst their vassals, who were all dependent on their bounty. No one in the district knew anything about the rights of man, but all did know, and practise, the duties of gratitude and respect. It is a fact that whenever my mother went out, the women and children fell on their knees, and called for heaven's blessing on their lady, and the men, even the oldest, took off their caps when they saw their master and mistress coming, and set the church bells ringing. What harm was there in this interchange of protection on one side, and love on the other? Were they not like children honouring their father and mother?
The huge, old castle overlooked the town, and the fertile valley watered by the Sioule, which stretches far away to the peaks of the Monts d'Or, but like all the valleys in Auvergne, though the view looked so pleasant and peaceful when the elements were at rest, it would sometimes assume in one night a quite different aspect; like the gaves of the Pyrenees, our brooks swell into torrents after a single storm, and the floods render the country not only dreary but dangerous.
Custom makes as many victims as imprudence, and the natives of the country really run more risk than travellers, because they are less cautious and more daring. One of our neighbours, a friend of my parents, Comte de Mont——, returning home one night on horseback, missed the ford, which he thought he knew well, and was drowned in the Sioule, which was then in flood. The news of this accident was announced to my mother in too sudden a manner, and gave her a shock from which she never recovered.
With the exception of some trifling incidents, which might have happened to anybody, I can remember nothing that occurred, that deserves to be recounted, from the time that I was weaned till I was ten years old. I had, however, somewhat of the same character which Plutarch remarked in Alcibiades.
I was brought up almost entirely by my maternal grandmother, la Présidente de Salaberry. One day at dinner, she said to me,
"My boy, will you have some spinach?"
"I don't like spinach," I replied.
"At your age you ought to like everything, my boy. You will have some spinach."
"I will not eat it."
"You will eat it;" and down came my plate with the spinach on it.
My own recollection of the event is hazy, but it appears that I took the plate, and threw the spinach into my grandmother's face,—much to her grief and astonishment, and that of everybody else who was present. She said, "Go to your own room," and I went.
My grandmother,—a very quiet, pious, and respectable old lady,—was far more troubled by the occurrence than I was, for I could only see that it was wrong to try and make me eat spinach when I had said that I didn't like it. The dear old lady put it all down to God's will and the irresponsibility of childhood, and said to her old servant,
"Lepage, go to my grandchild, and tell him to come and beg my pardon; and here is a louis that you may give him from me."
The old servant had no doubt whatever as to the success of his mission, since he had a free pardon and a louis to offer the rebel. He delivered his message, and wound up by saying:
"Come, monsieur le chevalier! Here is a louis that your good grandmamma charged me to give you; so come and beg her pardon, and eat your spinach like a good boy."
The louis met with the same fate as the plate, for I threw it in the old man's face.
"Does my grandmother think," I cried, "that I can be bribed into making an apology?"
I suppose I was very proud of this reply, for I often used to think of it afterwards, and do still sometimes, though now I estimate it at what it is worth. As for the little domestic drama, it probably finished like all others of the same kind; the little chevalier made an apology, ate his spinach, and was pardoned by his grandmother,—but I have disliked spinach from that day to this.
But this picture of my youth is only a page from universal history;—an event which might, or does, occur to everybody of the same age and condition.
In 1773 I laid aside the toga praetexta, and put on the toga virile,—or, in other words, I attained my sixteenth year.
Here the storms of life began to beat upon me, for, almost from the beginning, my life has been adventurous. The narration of all that I have suffered, seen, done, and noticed, from Pierre-en-Cize to New York, from Boston to Coblentz, by sea or f by land, in both hemispheres, will not be without interest and profit to my friend the reader, whoever he may be, or whatever his age. Fortune set me adrift in a rudderless boat, but I managed to steer it somehow, and am now safe in port, and not dissatisfied on the whole with my long voyage. My bad luck did not astonish me greatly, or my good luck either for that matter; from whence I conclude, that whoever reads me will be more surprised than I either was, or am. My trials began when I was sixteen years old, and I defy M. Azais to classify them in his system of compensations.
I must here state that my father had two brothers-in-law, who were excellent uncles to me, and, with the best intentions in the world, did me all the harm they could, but as their intentions were good, I suppose they will not have to answer to God for their misdeeds. The one was the President de Salaberry, and the other Baron d'A——, who, having become a widower, took for his second wife Madame P——, a widow with a grown-up daughter. Madame P——, now my aunt, married her daughter to my elder brother, and I suppose I interfered with her projects and calculations, but at any rate she certainly was not kindly disposed towards me, and by dint of curtain lectures at last persuaded her easy-going, credulous husband, my uncle, to share in her dislike of me. My brother, and my young sister-in-law, had something to do with the schemes of my aunt (her mother, and his mother-in-law), for I have some idea,—in fact I am almost certain,—that her cordial dislike to me was the effect of her maternal tenderness. I was only a "cadet of Auvergne," and my brother was the elder, and by the simple application of one of the four rules of arithmetic,—subtraction,—it appeared evident to her, that if I were out of the way, her daughter would be,—in the event of anything happening to my brother,—sole heiress to the estate, undiminished by the payment of my portion. The prospect seemed tempting: I will not say that it was fair and honourable conduct, but it was not her fault that the end did not crown the work, as will be seen.
After the death of my mother, my father did not revisit Paris, but lived in his old castle, and hoarded up the revenues of his vast domains. I passed, I believe, two or three years at Juilly, under the more or less affectionate care of my uncle, the second husband of a second wife. I picked up some learning,—very much against my will,—under the reverend fathers of the Oratory, but, when I left them, I was not precisely what would be termed a good scholar. If I had shown an inclination to learn anything, it was certainly not Greek or Latin, nor had I much cultivated the flowers of rhetoric.
I then went to college, but resided in my uncle's house, and he was supposed to watch over me. As a matter of fact no one troubled his head about me. To the outside world I appeared to be in the bosom of my own family, and under the watchful eyes of affectionate relatives, but in reality I was left to my own devices, and at sixteen was under no control whatever.
At this critical period of my existence, no one had said what they wanted me to be, nor had I been consulted on the subject. For my own part I neither knew, nor cared. I was sixteen years old, was in Paris, and my own master. I was youthful, vigorous, warm-hearted, inquisitive, and inexperienced, and was fated, like everyone else, to acquire experience at my own expense. With no friends, and no one to guide me, it would have been a miracle indeed if idleness and want of occupation had not led me into mischief. But the watchful eyes of persons who bore me no good-will followed my every movement. They did not have to wait long to detect me in some act of thoughtlessness, quickly followed by other and graver ones, and my aunt made it her constant care to spitefully exaggerate all my faults and depict them as crimes to my uncle, and through him to my father, who was a hundred leagues away from the capital.
It was made to appear that all the laws of nature and the divine order of things had been upset, because a blundering, stupid school-boy of sixteen had committed a few trifling excesses. Of course, I had had recourse to the money-lenders. They are ready enough to come to the aid of any extravagant young man, but I had saved them that trouble by going to them. The whole extent of my vice was, that I was acquainted with some young women of easy morals, and had made some debts, which, as I was allowed no pocket-money, and was not a coiner, was hardly a matter for surprise. What they said, or what they did, or what charges my aunt brought against me, I know not, but it is certain that my father was led to regard me as a monster of iniquity, and not only to give his consent, but even to order, that a family council should be called to delib erate on my case. I might have confessed that I had done neither more nor less than a young blockhead of sixteen, left to himself in Paris, might be expected to do, and they must have acknowledged that I was innocent of something Uke seven-eighths of the capital sins, but my aunt had so mixed up the true with the false, and the false with the probable, that my poor old father did not doubt for an instant but that I was capable of every crime, winding up—since I had not commenced with it—by parricide. I am not overstating the case, absurd as it may sound.
Unhappily for me, all the fathers in Auvergne were just then in a state of fright,—an epidemic of terror had seized them all. There are weak minded people in castles as well as in huts, and fools are to be found in aristocratic drawing-rooms as well as in the sixth floor garrets of city houses. About this time, it was said that many young children had disappeared, and this, coupled with the report that the Dauphin was suffering from some strange malady, led many of the good citizens of Paris to believe that the Prince had been ordered blood baths, and that all the young innocents who were lost had gone to fill his tub,—which caused a good many wooden-headed, wooden-shoed mothers to hide their offspring, as they did in the time of Herod.
At this time also, a rumour was current in Auvergne that young Comte de M had tried to poison his father in a dish of eggs and tripe. Whether there was any foundation for this terrible charge, I cannot say, but it is a fact that all the fathers in Auvergne took the matter seriously. Terror reigned under the domestic roof, and there was not a son who was not suspected of parricidal intentions, and all the heads of families talked of living without eating at all, for fear of this fatal dish of eggs and tripe. Though only sixteen years old, I also came under this terrible imputation, and when, at the request or order of my father, the family council met, it was with no friendly feeling towards me. Without being heard in my own defence,—for the verdict was intended to be an agreeable surprise to me, I suppose,—I was accused, tried, and condemned by all my relatives, with one exception,—that of my cousin german, the Marquis de M——, an officer in the First Regiment of Cavalry. And it cannot be said either that this family meeting was like that of la fausse Agnes. There was my uncle, the maitre des comptes, my uncle the President de Salaberry, the Marquis de R——, brigadier-general in the King's army, and my wise and respectable cousin M. Th——, captain in the guards. I do not remember what other notabilities were present, except my belle tante, wheezing up and down the corridor, and my father, emptying the vials of his paternal wrath, and presiding over the proceedings. My cousin the Marquis de M——, a young soldier accustomed to courts-martial, and knowing how to proportion the punishment to the offence, was the only one who refused to lightly consign to imprisonment,—perhaps for life,—a lad of sixteen. I will, however, do my other relatives the justice to acknowledge that they were sorry afterwards: this they have all since proved to me,—all save my aunt, who has never spoken to me, and whom I have never asked. May God judge her.
It is nevertheless true that, thanks to my kind relations, not one of whom would willingly have done a wrong or an injustice to any person, the following royal order was issued against me.
"1st February, 1775.
"The Chevalier de Pontgibaud, being of a fierce and violent character, and refusing to do work of any kind, is to be taken to Saint Lazare, at the expense of his father."
But in the margin of the royal order,—which I have seen in the register preserved in the archives,—is written, "Transferred to Pierre-en-Cize, 19th February, 1775." It is clear also, from the date, that the lettre de cachet must have been signed "La Vrillière," for his successor, M. de Malesherbes, would certainly have refused to put his name to it.
Where were human justice, a father's wisdom, the voice of nature, and the ties of blood? And yet I can honestly aver that my relatives, who all belonged to a high rank of society, were the best meaning people in the world,—all gentleness, and kindness,—though, perhaps, I should add, except towards me, and except on that occasion. That was the sad effect of prejudice. If you have respectable, well to-do people for your judges, they may be mistaken like anyone else; and their judgments are severe, and not always just.Accordingly you see that, on the sole charge of having,—at sixteen,—"a fierce and violent character, and refusing to do any kind of work," I found myself on the 19th February, 1775, on the road from Paris to Lyon, or, more strictly speaking, on the road to Pierre-en-Cize. The child had by his side his nurse,—I mean a gendarme,—and before him the pleasant prospect of remaining locked up for the remainder of his life.
- See note A, p. 271, as to the actual words employed in the original.
- Pierre Hyacinthe Azais, b. 1766, d. 1845. The author of a stupid, and now forgotten book, entitled The Compensations of Destiny, which effectually destroyed what little celebrity the author had ever enjoyed.
- The writer has made a mistake here. It was Louis XV, not the Dauphin, who was supposed to bathe in the blood of children. The rumour was current in 1750, or twenty-four years earlier than the date here given, and led to riots which were suppressed with some loss of life, and the ringleaders were hanged "on gibbets 40 feet high." See Dareste's History of France, Vol. vi, p. 416.
- An allusion to a once well-known comedy by Destouches, acted at the Comédie Française in 1759.
- De Malesherbes never issued an order unless good cause was shown, and released many of the persons who had been imprisoned by his predecessors. He had, at the date given, been Minister for the last three months, but being busily engaged in putting to rights the State finances, was probably unable to look after other affairs. The Due de la Vrillière allowed his mistress to do quite an extensive business in lettres de cachet, and she would sell a blank form (which the purchaser could fill in according to taste) for 50 louis.