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He wrote to a favourite sister, telling her about it, and she lost no time in conveying the news to his parents. This was in 1775. Then the trouble began.
Inasmuch as he was over thirty years of age at this time, it may be thought that he might have been left to choose a wife for himself. But a young officer of rank in France, under the Old Regime, was not so free in these matters as he would be nowadays. Marriage was much more than a personal affair. It was even more than a family affair. People of rank did not so much marry as "make alliances"--or rather, submit to having them made for them. It was quite a regular thing for a marriage to be arranged by the families of two young people who had never even seen each other. An example of that kind will appear presently.
The idea that the Comte de Laperouse, one of the smartest officers in the French King's navy, should marry out of his rank and station, shocked his relatives and friends as much as it would have done if he had been detected picking pockets. He could not, without grave risk of social and professional ruin, marry until he had obtained the consent of his father, and--so naval regulations required--of his official superiors. Both were firmly refused. Monsieur de Ternay, who commanded on the Ile-de-France station, shook his wise head, and told the lover "that his love fit would pass, and that people did not console themselves for being poor with the fact that they were married." (This M. de Ternay, it may be noted, had commanded a French squadron in Canada in 1762, and James Cook was a junior officer on the British squadron which blockaded him in St. John's Harbour. He managed to slip out one night, much to the disgust of Colville, the British Admiral, who commented scathingly on his "shameful flight.")
The father of Laperouse poured out his forbidding warnings in a long letter. Listen to the "tut-tut" of the old gentleman at Albi:--
"You make me tremble, my son. How can you face with coolness the consequences of a marriage which would bring you into disgrace with the Minister and would lose you the assistance of powerful friends? You would forfeit the sympathies of your colleagues and would sacrifice the fruit of your work during twenty years. In disgracing yourself you would humiliate your family and your parents. You would prepare for yourself nothing but remorse; you would sacrifice your fortune and position to a frivolous fancy for beauty and to pretended charms which perhaps exist only in your own imagination. Neither honour nor probity compels you to meet ill-considered engagements that you may have made with that person or with her parents. Do they or you know that you are not free, that you are under my authority?" He went on to draw a picture of the embarrassments that would follow such a marriage, and then there is a passage revealing the cash-basis aspect of the old gentleman's objection: "You say that there are forty officers in the Marine who have contracted marriages similar to that which you propose to make. You have better models to follow, and in any case what was lacking on the side of birth, in these instances, was compensated by fortune. Without that balance they would not have had the baseness and imprudence to marry thus." Poor Eleonore had no compensating balance of that kind in her favour. She was only beautiful, charming and sweet-natured. Therefore, "tut-tut, my son!"
In the course of the next few months Laperouse covered himself with glory by his services on the AMAZON, the ASTREE, and the SCEPTRE, and he hoped that these exploits would incline his father to accede to his ardent wish. But no; the old gentleman was as hard as a rock. He "tut-tutted" with as much vigour as ever. The lovers had to wait.
Then his mother, full of love for her son and of pride in his achievements, took a hand, and tried to arrange a more suitable match for him. An old friend of the family, Madame de Vesian had a marriageable daughter. She was rich and beautiful, and her lineage was noble. She had never seen Laperouse, and he had never seen her, but that was an insignificant detail in France under the old Regime. If the parents on each side thought the marriage suitable, that was enough. The wishes of the younger people concerned were, it is true, consulted before the betrothal, but it was often a consultation merely in form, and under pressure. We should think that way of making marriages most unsatisfactory; but then, a French family of position in the old days would have thought our freer system very shocking and loose. It is largely a matter of usage; and that the old plan, which seems so faulty to us, produced very many happy and lasting unions, there is much delightful French family history to prove.
Laperouse had now been many months away from Ile-de-France and the bright eyes of Eleonore. He was extremely fond of his mother, and anxious to meet her wishes. Moreover, he held Madame de Vesian in high esteem, and wrote that he "had always admired her, and felt sure that her daughter resembled her." These influences swayed him, and he gave way; but, being frank and honest by disposition, insisted that no secret should be made of his affair of the heart with the lady across the sea. He wrote to Madame de Vesian a candid letter, in which he said:--
"Being extremely sensitive, I should be the most unfortunate of men if I were not beloved by my wife, if I had not her complete confidence, if her life amongst her friends and children did not render her perfectly happy. I desire one day to regard you as a mother, and to-day I open my heart to you as my best friend. I authorise my mother to relate to you my old love affair. My heart has always been a romance (MON COEUR A TOUJOURS ETE UN ROMAN); and the more I sacrificed prudence to those whom I loved the happier I was. But I cannot forget the respect that I owe to my parents and to their wishes. I hope that in a little while I shall be free. If then I have a favourable reply from you, and if I can make your daughter happy and my character is approved, I shall fly to Albi and embrace you a thousand times. I shall not distinguish you from my mother and my sisters."
He also wrote to Monsieur de Vesian, begging him not to interfere with the free inclinations of his daughter, and to remember that "in order to be happy there must be no repugnance to conquer. I have, however," he added, "an affair to terminate which does not permit me to dispose of myself entirely. My mother will tell you the details. I hope to be free in six weeks or two months. My happiness will then be inexpressible if I obtain your consent and that of Madame de Vesian, with the certainty of not having opposed the wishes of Mademoiselle, your daughter."
"I hope to be free"--did he "hope"? That was his polite way of putting the matter. Or he may have believed that he had conquered his love for Eleonore Broudou, and that she, as a French girl who understood his obligations to his family, would--perhaps after making a few handkerchiefs damp with her tears--acquiesce.
So the negotiations went on, and at length, in May, 1783, the de Vesian family accepted Laperouse as the fiance of their daughter. "My project is to live with my family and yours," he wrote. "I hope that my wife will love my mother and my sisters, as I feel that I shall love you and yours. Any other manner of existence is frightful to me, and I have sufficient knowledge of the world and of myself to know that I can only be happy in living thus."
But in the very month that he wrote contracting himself--that is precisely the word--to marry the girl he had never seen, Eleonore, the girl whom he had seen, whom he had loved, and whom he still loved in his heart, came to Paris with her parents. Laperouse saw her again. He told her what had occurred. Of course she wept; what girl would not? She said, between her sobs, that if it was to be all over between them she would go into a convent. She could never marry anyone else.
"Mon histoire est un roman," and here beginneth the new chapter of this real love story. Why, we wonder, has not some novelist discovered these Laperouse letters and founded a tale upon them? Is it not a better story even told in bare outline in these few pages, than nine-tenths of the concoctions of the novelists, which are sold in thousands? Think of the wooing of these two delightful people, the beautiful girl and the gallant sailor, in the ocean isle, with its tropical perfumes and colours, its superb mountain and valley scenery, bathed in eternal sunshine by day and kissed by cool ocean breezes by night--the isle of Paul and Virginia, the isle which to Alexandre Dumas was the Paradise of the World, an enchanted oasis of the ocean, "all carpeted with greenery and refreshed with cooling streams, where, no matter what the season, you may gently sink asleep beneath the shade of palms and jamrosades, soothed by the babbling of a crystal spring."
Think of how he must have entertained and thrilled her with accounts of his adventures: of storms, of fights with the terrible English, of the chasing of corsairs and the battering of the fleets of Indian princes. Think of her open-eyed wonder, and of the awakening of love in her heart; and then of her dread, lest after all, despite his consoling words and soft assurances, he, the Comte, the officer, should be forbidden to marry her, the maiden who had only her youth, her beauty, and her character, but no rank, no fortune, to win favour from the proud people who did not know her. The author is at all events certain of this: that if the letters had seen the light before old Alexandre Dumas died, he would have pounced upon them with glee, and would have written around them a romance that all the world would have rejoiced to read.
But while we think of what the novelists have missed, we are neglecting the real story, the crisis of which we have now reached.
Seeing Eleonore again, his sensitive heart deeply moved by her sorrow, Laperouse took a manly resolution. He would marry her despite all obstacles. He had promised her at her home in Ile-de-France. He would keep his promise. He would not spoil her beautiful young life even for his family.
But there was the contract concerning Mademoiselle de Vesian. What of that? Clearly Laperouse was in a fix. Well, a man who has been over twenty-five years at sea has been in a fix many times, and learns that a bold face and tact are good allies. Remembering the nature of his situation, it will be agreed that the letter he wrote to his mother, announcing his resolve, was a model of good taste and fine feeling:
"I have seen Eleonore, and I have not been able to resist the remorse by which I am devoured. My excessive attachment to you had made me violate all that which is most sacred among men. I forgot the vows of my heart, the cries of my conscience. I was in Paris for twenty days, and, faithful to my promise to you, I did not go to see her. But I received a letter from her. She made no reproach against me, but the most profound sentiment of sadness was expressed in it. At the instant of reading it the veil fell from my eyes. My situation filled me with horror. I am no better in my own eyes than a perjurer, unworthy of Mademoiselle de Vesian, to whom I brought a heart devoured by remorse and by a passion that nothing could extinguish. I was equally unworthy of Mademoiselle Broudou, and wished to leave her. My only excuse, my dear mother, is the extreme desire I have always had to please you. It is for you alone, and for my father, that I wished to marry. Desiring to live with you for the remainder of my life, I consented to your finding me a wife with whom I could abide. The choice of Mademoiselle de Vesian had overwhelmed me, because her mother is a woman for whom I have a true attachment; and Heaven is my witness to-day that I should have preferred her daughter to the most brilliant match in the universe. It is only four days since I wrote to her on the
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