T HE château of Chavaniac was in the province of Auvergne, in the south part of France. It was a lofty castle, with towers and narrow windows from which cannon once frowned down upon besieging foes. There was a deep moat around it, with a bridge which was drawn up in time of war, so that no man, on horseback or on foot, could pass in at the gate without permission of the guard.
Château de Chavaniac, Lafayette's Birthplace
Low hills, crowned with vineyards, stood near the castle, and beyond the hills stretched mountains whose peaks seemed to pierce the sky. In all France there was not a more charming spot than Chavaniac; and among all the nobles of the court there was no braver man than its master, the Marquis de Lafayette.
Sometimes the king left the pleasures of his palace to spend a day at this castle; and whenever the young marquis and his beautiful bride went to Paris, they were treated with the greatest respect.
One day, the drawbridge was let down over the moat, and the gallant marquis rode away to the war in Germany. After taking part in several engagements, he was shot through the heart in a skirmish at Minden. His comrades buried him on the field. The drums were muffled, the band played a funeral dirge, and three rounds of musketry announced that the hero's body had been lowered into the grave.
When swift couriers carried the news of his death to Chavaniac, the sorrow of his family and friends was most grievous to see. The castle was like a tomb; the rooms were darkened; and the servants, clad in black, went about on tiptoe, scarcely daring to whisper to one another.
In the midst of this mourning, on September 6, 1757, the only son of the dead marquis was born.
The little orphan was carried to the chapel and christened Marie Jean Paul Roche Yves Gilbert Motier de Lafayette. That seemed a very long name, indeed, for the tiny baby lying so quietly in the good priest's arms; but it was the custom in France to remember distinguished ancestors at a christening, and there were so many of these that the loving mother really thought the name should be longer than it was. She said that his everyday name should be Gilbert.
When Gilbert was old enough, she walked with him instead of leaving him to the care of servants. Sometimes they climbed a high hill to see the sun set over the towers of the château. Then she told him how the de Lafayettes, long before Columbus discovered America, had driven the Arabs from France, and how they had helped to banish the English kings from France, and how his own father had died for the glory of France.
Sometimes, as they walked through the halls of the castle, she showed him the coats-of-mail which his ancestors had worn, and she told him about the swords and banners and other trophies which the de Lafayettes had won in battle.
"I would not have you less brave than they, my son," she would say.
The boy longed for the time to come when he might show his mother how very brave he was. He grew tall and strong, and carried himself like a prince. He wanted to be worthy of his great ancestors.
The year he was eight, there was much excitement about a wolf which prowled in the forest, killing the sheep in the pastures and frightening the peasants nearly out of their wits. Gilbert made this wolf the object of all his walks. He would persuade his mother to sit in some shady spot while he should go a little way into the forest.
"I will return in an instant, dear mamma," he always said; and, lest he might alarm her, he walked quite slowly until a turn in the road hid him from view. Then he marched quickly into the dark wood.
He did this for many days, seeing only frisking squirrels and harmless rabbits. But one morning, as he sped along a narrow path, his eyes wide open and his ears alert to catch every sound, he heard a cracking in the underbrush.
The wolf was coming! He was sure of it. His mind was made up in an instant. He would spring forward quicker than lightning, and blind it with his coat, while with his arms he would choke it to death.
"It will struggle hard," he thought. "Its feet will scratch me; but I shall not mind, and, when all is over, I shall drag it to the feet of mamma, and she will know, and the peasants will know, that I can rid the country of these pests."
He stood listening. His breath came fast. Again he heard the breaking of the bushes. "I ought first to surprise the beast by coming up on it quickly," he whispered.
He tore off his coat, and held it firmly as he hurried on. Soon he saw the shaggy hide, and the great eyes shining through the thicket. He leaped forward with outstretched coat, and—what do you think?—he clasped in his arms a calf that had strayed from the barnyard!
It was a rude shock to the boy. He returned to his mother, who was already alarmed at his absence, and confessed that he had tried to kill the wolf but had found only a calf.
"Ah, you were brave, my son," she said; "I am quite sure that you would have ended the days of that terrible wolf had he but given you the chance."