Lafayette for Young Americans - Rupert Holland

The Little Marquis of France

In the mountains of Auvergne in Southern France, in what was for many centuries called the province of Auvergne, but what is now known as the department of Haute-Loire, or Upper Loire, stands a great fortified castle, the Chateau of Chavaniac. For six hundred years it has stood there, part fortress and part manor-house and farm, a huge structure, built piecemeal through centuries, with many towers and battlements and thick stone walls long overgrown with moss. Before it lies the valley of the Allier and the great rugged mountains of Auvergne. Love of freedom is deeply rooted in the country round it, for the people of Auvergne have always been an independent, proud and fearless race.

In this old Chateau of Chavaniac there was born on September 6, 1757, the Marquis de Lafayette. He was baptized the next day, with all the ceremonies befitting a baby of such high rank, and the register of the little parish church in the neighboring village records the baptism as that of "the very noble and very powerful gentleman Monseigneur Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert Dumotier de Lafayette, the lawful son of the very noble and very powerful gentleman Monseigneur Michel-Louis-Christophle-Roch-Gilbert Dumotier, Marquis de Lafayette, Baron de Vissac, Seigneur de Saint-Romain and other places, and of the very noble and very powerful lady Madame Marie-Louise-Julie Delareviere."

A good many names for a small boy to carry, but his family was very old, and it was the custom of France to give many family names to each child. He was called Gilbert Motier for short, however, though he was actually born with the title and rank of Marquis, for his father had been killed in battle six weeks before the little heir to Chavaniac was born.

The family name of Motier could be traced back to before the year 1000. Then one of the family came into possession of a farm called the Villa Faya, and he lengthened his name to Motier of La Fayette. And as other properties came to belong to the family the men added new names and titles until in 1757 the heir to the old chateau had not only a long string of names but was also a marquis and baron and seigneur by right of his birth. There were few families in Auvergne of older lineage than the house of Lafayette.

The little heir's father, Michel-Louis, Marquis de Lafayette, had been killed while leading a charge at the head of his regiment of French Grenadiers in the battle of Hastenbeck, one of the battles of what was known as the Seven Years' War in Europe, which took place at about the same time as the French and Indian War in America. Although only twenty-four years old Michel-Louis de Lafayette was already a colonel and a knight of the order of Saint Louis and had shown himself a true descendant of the old fighting stock of Auvergne nobles. Now the small baby boy, the new Marquis, succeeded to his father's titles as well as to the castle and several other even older manor-houses, for the most part in ruins, that were perched high up in the mountains.

For all its blue blood, however, the family were what is known as "land poor." The little Marquis owned large farms in the mountains, but the crops were not very abundant and most of the money that had come in from them for some time had been needed to provide for the fighting men. Fortunately the boy's mother and grandmother and aunts, who all lived at Chavaniac, were strong and sturdy people, willing to live the simple, healthy, frugal life of their neighbors in the province and so save as much of the family fortune as they could for the time when the heir should make his bow at court.

Without brothers or sisters and with few playmates, spending his time out-of-doors in the woods and fields of Chavaniac, the young Lafayette had a rather solitary childhood and grew up awkward and shy. He was a lean, long-limbed fellow with a hook nose, reddish hair, and a very bashful manner. But his eyes were bright and very intelligent; whenever anything really caught his attention he quickly became intensely interested in it, and he was devoted to all the birds and beasts of the country round about his home.

Some of these beasts, however, were dangerous; there was a great gray wolf that the farmers said had been breaking into sheepfolds and doing great damage. The boy of eight years old heard the story and set out, sword in hand, to hunt and slay the wolf. There is no account of his ever coming up with that particular monster, but the peasants of the neighborhood liked to tell all visitors this story as proof of the courage of their young Marquis.

But the family had no intention of keeping the head of their house in this far-off province of France. He must learn to conduct himself as a polished gentleman and courtier, he must go to Paris and prepare himself to take the place at the royal court that belonged to a son of his long, distinguished line. His family had rich and powerful relations, who were quite ready to help the boy, and so, when he was eleven years old, he left the quiet castle of Chavaniac and went to a school for young noblemen, the College du Plessis at Paris.

Lafayette's mother's uncle, taking a liking to the boy, had him enrolled as a cadet in one of the famous regiments of France, "The Black Musketeers," and this gave the boy a proud position at school, and many a day he took some of his new friends to see the Musketeers drill and learn something of the Manual of Arms. The company of other boys, both at the College du Plessis in Paris and then at the Academy at Versailles, as well as the interest he took in his gallant Black Musketeers, made Lafayette less shy and awkward than he had been at Chavaniac, though he was still much more reserved and thoughtful than most boys of his age. He learned to write his own language well, and his compositions in school showed the practical common sense of his country bringing-up. He wrote a paper on the horse, and the chief point he brought out in it was that if you try to make a horse do too many things well he is sure to get restless and throw you, a bit of wisdom he had doubtless learned in Auvergne.

The boy Marquis was at school in Paris when, in 1770, his devoted mother and the rich granduncle who had had him appointed a cadet of the Musketeers both died. The little Lafayette was now very much alone, his grandmother in the distant castle in the mountains was his nearest relation, and, though only a boy of thirteen, he had to decide important questions for himself. But the granduncle had been very fond of the lad, and in his will he left Lafayette all his fortune and estates. The fortune was very large, and as a result the boy Marquis, instead of being only a poor young country nobleman from Auvergne, became a very rich and important person.

Immediately the proud and luxury-loving society of the French court took a great interest in Gilbert Motier de Lafayette. Every father and mother who had a daughter they wished to marry turned their attention to the boy. And Lafayette, who, like most boys of his age, paid little attention to girls, was beset with all sorts of invitations to parties and balls.

In Europe in those days marriages were arranged by parents with little regard to the wishes of their children. Sometimes babies of noble families were betrothed to each other while they were still in the cradle. It was all a question of social standing and of money. So Lafayette's guardians put their heads together and looked around for the most suitable girl for him to marry.

The guardians chose the second daughter of the Duke d'Ayen, Mademoiselle Marie-Adrienne-Francoise de Noailles, a girl twelve years old. The Duke was pleased with the proposal; the Marquis de Lafayette would make a most desirable husband for his daughter. But the little girl's mother had strong ideas of her own. When the Duke told her of the husband selected for Marie-Adrienne she objected.

"It is too great a risk to run for Adrienne," she said. "The Marquis de Lafayette is very young, very rich, and very wilful. He seems to be a good boy, so far as his standing at school and his conduct in society are concerned; but with no one to guide him, no one to look after his fortune and hold him back from extravagance and foolishness, without a near relative, and with his character as yet unformed and uncertain, our daughter's marriage to him is out of the question, and I will not agree to it."

Both the Duke and the Duchess were strong-willed; Adrienne's father insisted on the match and her mother opposed it more and more positively. At last they actually quarreled and almost separated over this question of the marriage of two children, neither of whom had been consulted in regard to their own feelings. At last, however, the Duke suggested a compromise; the marriage should not take place for two years, Adrienne should not leave her mother for three years, and in the meantime the Duke would look after the education of the boy and see that he became a suitable husband for their daughter.

This suited the Duchess better. "If the boy is brought up in our home where I can see and study him," she said, "I will agree. Then, having taken all precautions, and having no negligence wherewith to reproach ourselves, we need do nothing but peacefully submit to the will of God, who knows best what is fitting for us."

The shy boy came to the Duke's house and met the little girl. Adrienne was very attractive, sweet-natured, pretty, and delightful company. Before the two knew the plans that had been made concerning them they grew to like each other very much, became splendid companions, and were glad when they learned that they were to marry some day. As for Adrienne's mother, the more she saw of the boy the better she liked him; she took him into her house and heart as if he were her own son, trying to make up to him for the loss of his own mother. The Duke kept his agreement. He saw that Lafayette was properly educated at the Academy at Versailles where young noblemen were taught military duties and that in proper time he obtained his commission as an officer in the royal regiment of the Black Musketeers.

Then, on April 11, 1774, Lafayette and Adrienne were married. The groom was sixteen years old and the bride fourteen, but those were quite proper ages for marriage among the French nobility For a year the young husband and wife lived at the great house of the Duke d'Ayen in Paris, still under the watchful eye of the careful Duchess, and then they took a house for themselves in the capital, going occasionally to the old castle of Chavaniae in Auvergne.

The boy Marquis never regretted his marriage to Adrienne. Through all the adventures of his later life his love for her was strong and enduring. And she was as fine and noble and generous a woman as Lafayette was a brave, heroic man.

Rich, a marquis in his own right, married to a daughter of one of the greatest houses of France, Lafayette had the entrance to the highest circles at court, to the innermost circle in fact, that of the young King Louis XVI. and his Queen Marie Antoinette. And never was there a gayer court to be found; the youthful King and his beautiful wife and all their friends seemed to live for pleasure only; they were gorgeous butterflies who flitted about the beautiful gardens of the Palace at Versailles and basked in continual sunshine.

But the, boy of seventeen, son of a line of rugged Auvergne fighters, men of independent natures,' did not take readily to the unceasing show and luxury of court. Balls and dramas, rustic dances and dinners and suppers, all the extravagant entertainments that the clever mind of the young Queen could devise, followed in endless succession. True it was that some of the courtiers had the fashion of talking a good deal about the rights of man and human liberty, but that was simply a fashion in a country where only the nobles had liberty and the talk of such things only furnished polite conversation in drawing-rooms. To Lafayette, however, liberty meant more than that; young though he was, he had seen enough of the world to wish that there might be less suffering among the poor and more liberality among the wealthy. The constant stream of pleasures at Versailles often gave him food for thought, and though he was very fond of the King and Queen and their youthful court, he had less and less regard for the older nobles, who appeared to him as vain and stiff and foolish as so many strutting peacocks.

Sometimes, however, for all his thoughtfulness, he joined whole-heartedly in the revels the Queen devised. On one midsummer night Marie Antoinette gave a fete at Versailles, and Lafayette led the revels. The Queen had declared that she meant to have a fete champetre  in the gardens that should be different from anything the court of France had ever seen. All her guests should appear either as goblins or as nymphs. They should not be required to dance the quadrille or any other stately measure, but would be free to play any jokes that came into their heads. As Marie Antoinette outlined these plans to him Lafayette shook his head in doubt.

"What will the lords in waiting say to this?" he asked, "and your Majesty's own ladies?"

The pretty Queen laughed and shrugged her shoulders. "Who cares?" she answered. "As long as Louis is King I shall do what pleases me."

Then a new idea occurred to her and she clapped her hands with delight. "I shall go to Louis," she said, "and have him issue a royal order commanding every one who comes to the fete to dress as a goblin or a nymph. He will do it for me, I know."

King Louis was too fond of his wife to deny her anything, so he issued the order she wanted, much though he feared that it might affront the older courtiers. And the courtiers were affronted and horrified. The Royal Chamberlain and the Queen's Mistress of the Robes went to the King in his workshop, for Louis was always busy with clocks and locks and keys, and told him that such a performance as was planned would make the court of France appear ridiculous.

Louis listened to them patiently, and when they had left he sent for Marie Antoinette and her friends. They described how absurd the courtiers would look as nymphs and goblins and the King laughed till he cried. Then he dismissed the whole matter and went back to the tools on his work-table.

So Marie Antoinette had her party, and the gardens of Versailles saw the strange spectacle of tall, stiff goblins wearing elaborate powdered wigs and jeweled swords, and stout wood-nymphs with bare arms and shoulders and glittering with gems. The Queen's friends, a crowd of hobgoblins, swooped down upon the stately Mistress of the Robes and carried her off to a summer-house on the edge of the woods, where they kept her a prisoner while they sang her the latest ballads of the Paris streets. The court was shocked and indignant, and the next day there was such a buzzing of angry bees about the head of the King that he had to lecture the Queen and her friends and forbid any more such revels.

As the older courtiers regained their influence over Louis the young Lafayette went less and less often to Versailles. He was too independent by nature to bow the knee to the powdered and painted lords and ladies who controlled the court. Instead of seeking their society he spent more and more time with his regiment of Musketeers. But this did not satisfy his father-in-law, the Duke d'Ayen, who was eager for Lafayette to shine in the sun of royal favor. So the Duke went to the young Count de Segur, Lafayette's close friend and cousin, and begged him to try and stir the Marquis to greater ambition.

The Count, who knew Lafayette well, had to laugh at the words of the Duke d'Ayen. "Indifferent! Indolent! Faith, my dear marshal, you do not yet know our Lafayette! I should say he has altogether too much enthusiasm. Why, it was only yesterday that he almost insisted on my fighting a duel with him because I did not agree with him in a matter of which I knew nothing, and of which he thought I should know everything. He is anything but indifferent and indolent, I can assure you!"

Pleased with this information, and feeling that he had much misunderstood his son-in-law, the Duke made plans to have Lafayette attached to the suite of one of the princes of France, and picked out the Count of Provence, the scapegrace brother of Louis XVI. This Prince was only two years older than Lafayette, and famous for his overbearing manners. As a result, when the Duke told his son-in-law of the interview he had arranged for him with the Count of Provence, Lafayette at once determined that nothing should make him accept service with so arrogant a fellow.

Having decided that he wanted no favors from that particular Prince, Lafayette set about to make his decision clear. His opportunity soon came. The King and Queen gave a masked ball at court, and the youthful Marquis was one of their guests. With his mask concealing his face he went up to the King's brother, the Count of Provence, and began to talk about liberty and equality and the rights of man, saying a great deal that he probably did not believe in his desire to make the Count angry.

The plan succeeded beautifully. The Count tried to answer, but every time he opened his mouth Lafayette said more violent things and made more eloquent pleas for democracy. At last the young Prince could stand the tirade no longer. "Sir," said he, lifting his mask and staring at his talkative companion, "I shall remember this interview."

"Sir," answered the young Marquis, also lifting his mask and bowing gracefully, "memory is the wisdom of fools."

It was a rash remark to make to a royal prince, but it had the effect that Lafayette desired. With an angry gesture the Count of Provence turned on his heel and made it clear to every one about him that the Marquis was in disgrace. In later days the Count showed that he had remembered Lafayette's words to him.

News of what the Marquis had said quickly flew through the court and speedily reached the ears of the Duke d'Ayen. He was horrified; his son-in-law had not only insulted the Prince and so lost his chance of becoming a gentleman of his suite, but had also made himself a laughing-stock. The Duke lectured the boy, and told him that he was throwing away all his chances for worldly advancement. But Lafayette answered that he cared nothing for princely favor and meant to follow the dictates of his own nature.

So the Duke, finally despairing of doing anything with so independent a fellow, had him ordered to join his regiment, and Lafayette left Paris to seek his fortune elsewhere. Already, although he was only seventeen, the boy Marquis had shown that he was a true son of Auvergne, not a parasite of the King's court, as were most of his friends, but an independent, liberty-loving man.