Fiction • Naomi J. Williams
The body politic, like the human body, begins to die at the moment of its birth, and carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.
It is the afternoon of August 26, 1785, and Jean-Honoré-Robert de Paul, chevalier de Lamanon, has just returned to the Boussole, exhilarated and exhausted after a successful ascent of the Peak of Tenerife. Lamanon has two years, three months, and fifteen days left to live. He does not know this, of course. He has no inkling of what is to come: an uncharted cove in Samoa, an ill-conceived watering party, the misunderstanding over beads, stones overpowering muskets. Right now it is just three weeks into the voyage. The Boussole and her sister ship, the Astrolabe, are lying at anchor in the port of Tenerife. In two days the expedition will set sail across the Atlantic, away from the Old World and toward they know not what for certain. It is, after all, a voyage of exploration. At the moment, however, Lamanon’s chief concern is the safe retrieval of his supplies and equipment, which two crewmen are hauling up the side with altogether too much dispatch. The same two men just brought him up in the bosun’s chair, and if their cheerful mishandling of his person is any indication—
“Do be careful,” Lamanon cries. “There’s a Fortin barometer there, a gift from M. Lavoisier himself! Not to mention—” and then he goes on to mention the tripod and theodolite and glass sample bottles and his notebooks—oh, the loss to science if they should be dropped in the sea!
The crewmen do not know who M. Lavoisier is or why his barometer is so special, but they have safely delivered such objects before, to say nothing of frightened livestock and sick passengers, or water barrels and carronades that might kill a man if mishandled. “Your things, Chevalier,” they say with exaggerated flourish, placing everything on the deck.
Lamanon takes no notice of their flippancy. He likes to be called Chevalier; the tone with which it is said does not much signify. He is thirty-two, but looks ten years older. He has the longest official title of anyone on the expedition: Naturalist, Physicist, Geologist, and Meteorologist. “Four scientists for the price of one,” he is wont to say, unaware that the comment does not endear him to his shipmates.
He walks with labored steps toward the companionway. Every part of him aches with the effort of yesterday’s climb and subsequent descent. He can look across to the island and see the mountain that required so much of him. It looks so near, so gently sloped, so brown and barren. In fact, it was none of these things. He would like to tell someone about it—about the surprising ruggedness of the trail, the blue lizard he spotted halfway up, and the clusters of violets and daisies he found at the summit, right next to a patch of snow. And most of all, the important scientific tasks he was able to carry out on the excursion. “I was just there!” he says aloud, pointing at the peak. But no one is looking his way; they are all busy with shipboard duties. No matter. He will have ample time to record all of his observations tomorrow. Right now he wants nothing more than to retire to his cabin and indulge in some reflective and self-satisfied languor.
This is not to be, however, for here is the captain, Jean-François de Galaup de La Pérouse, greeting him and informing him that a boat will be leaving the Boussole at five o’clock, bearing letters for France. There will be no further opportunity to send letters before they set sail, the captain adds; in fact, it may be three months before they can send letters again. If M. de Lamanon has any letters to write, the time to do so is now.
Lamanon is displeased; this does not suit him at all. Not that he is not eager to depart. He cannot wait to see a place and a people untouched by Europeans and their pernicious influence. Tenerife, for all it has been a diverting and profitable port of call, is just another outpost of Spain, its native people and culture and innocence erased. But. Writing a good letter takes time, and naturally, he has several to complete (“If M. de Lamanon has any letters to write”? What an idea—so typical of the low regard in which the expedition’s scientists are held!). They are not leaving till the day after tomorrow. Why is this afternoon the last opportunity to send letters?
“Because I say so,” La Pérouse tells Lamanon. La Pérouse is not only captain of the Boussole; he is commander of the expedition. He is well-known in the Royale for being a genial and unflappable man, but then, he has not had to sail before with a delegation of scientists. Both La Pérouse and Lamanon love to eat; both men are, in consequence, somewhat overweight. Otherwise they have little in common.
“Because I say so.” A most peremptory and unsatisfactory reply, but this appears to be one of the many prerogatives of command. After three weeks at sea, Lamanon is learning that his preferences count for very little. He might not mind this so much if he could feel that logic and good sense prevailed on board. They do not. But there is nothing to be done, so he shrugs and makes his way down the companionway. He winces with every step, shins aching. Ducking his head to enter his room, he curses the poor light and bends over the slab of wood that passes for his worktable. He assembles inkstand, paper, candle, sealing wax, and seal; they vie for space with each other and with the specimen jars, notebooks, and rocks that clutter the surface. Then there is Lamanon himself, not a small person (though he will steadily lose weight during the time left to him), with hands and elbows that must perforce be placed somewhere among these objects.
One of the items he must clear from the table is a small bag of white beans. Ah, yes, he thinks. He must not forget the beans. The beans are an achievement. In fact, his first letter ought to be the one that accompanies this bag back to France. The thought rallies him, and he picks up his quill to begin. Easily nettled, but almost as easily cheered. That is our Lamanon.
The letter is for the Minister of the Navy, the bewigged and bemedaled Maréchal de Castries. Lamanon writes to beg a favor of the minister, but it is the sort of favor calculated to impress more than impose. He asks the minister to send a bag of white beans, enclosed herewith, to his hometown of Salon-de-Provence. He reminds the minister that he, Lamanon, had been mayor of Salon-de-Provence before the expedition. (He does not mention that he had been so unsuited to the post that there was almost no complaint when he announced he was leaving after only four months in office.) Beans, he goes on to explain, are vital to the well-being of the peasants of lower Provence. The peasants satisfy their hunger with bean salads, which they carry with them into the fields. The beans not only strengthen them for their labors, but counteract the inebriating effects of the strong local wine, which they also tend to carry about with them.
In recent years, however, the bean crops of Provence have fallen prey to an infestation of rust, a problem he attributes to the “dry fog” of the summer of 1783. (This persistent haze, caused by a volcanic eruption in Iceland, had so darkened the daytime sky that for a few days Lamanon had been able to look at the sun through a telescope without a filtering lens. He does not clutter his letter with this detail, of course, but he does linger for a moment with the memory, feeling a kind of astronomical nostalgia for that strange time.) At any rate, the fog and the resulting rust have rendered Provençal beans scarce and expensive. And no, he writes, anticipating a suggestion, potatoes are not a good substitute. Potatoes are bland. The peasants are not fond of potatoes. Potatoes do not go well with the local wine. “But I have had the good fortune to discover an excellent white bean in Tenerife,” Lamanon writes. “With the introduction of this variety, it is hoped we may revive the cultivation of beans in southern France.”
The ringing of the ship’s bell reminds Lamanon that the afternoon is waning, although exactly how far gone it is he cannot tell. He is not yet used to naval timekeeping, to counting how many times the bell is struck or to listening for the helmsman’s call. It amazes him, the way the common seamen can sleep through any bell except the one that announces their watch or summons them to dinner. His own pocket watch stopped working within days of leaving Brest, and he has not been sure of the time since. Now, wondering if it is two o’clock or three, or God forbid, four, he hurries through the rest of his missive, describing briefly—too briefly—his just-completed trip to the peak. He concludes by assuring the minister of everyone’s health and happiness. “We are as one big family,” he writes, then, remembering the captain’s “Because I say so,” adds: “M. de La Pérouse is like our father.” He likes this sentiment, and will repeat it in each of the letters that follow. He signs off in his usual fashion—“Chever de Lamanon”—and reaches for a fresh sheet of paper.
Poor Lamanon! He does not know that the Maréchal de Castries, Minister of the Navy, will regard this letter with bemusement. Why, he will wonder, has La Pérouse’s naturalist written such a long letter to him, a letter that sounds like a report to—to—well, he hardly knows. To someone else. The provincial intendant, perhaps, or even the Académie des sciences. What is all this about a “dry fog”? The maréchal will not remember any such fog, although he should. Gray and malodorous and leaving a trail of fine ash in its wake, it had greatly aggravated his sensitive lungs through that unusually warm summer. He was too occupied with matters of state to notice the long twilight that was July that year or how much more he was coughing—so much that it disturbed not only his sleep but also his wife’s and his mistress’s. What he will remember is meeting Lamanon, once, right before the expedition left, and how very loquacious the naturalist was. At the time, the maréchal had attributed it to a younger man’s natural excitement about being introduced to important people in Versailles. Now he will suspect that Lamanon is one of those people who will talk (or write) forever if you let them. The maréchal will especially puzzle over this passage on the culinary habits of Provençal peasants. What is it to him, Minister of the Navy, if peasants turn up their noses at potatoes, or need beans with which to balance their liberal consumption of wine? And this claim Lamanon makes, that the wine, thus paired, does not cause drunkenness: it is preposterous.
The maréchal does not know that Lamanon loves beans, that he has always loved beans. Lamanon’s mother, who implored him not to leave on the expedition and whose heart will break when she hears about the uncharted cove and the troublesome beads, can attest to this. Her Robert loves beans. He does not care that it is peasant food. Even as a child, he was a great favorite with their cook, as he preferred the simple bean dishes she made for her own family to the more complicated dishes she prepared for the Lamanons. There was also their gardener, Jerôme, whom the young Lamanon liked to follow about the property. Jerôme knew a great deal about plants and insects and rocks and weather, and many afternoons he would take Master Robert along when he went to meet his own brothers and cousins out in the fields or orchards. The farmhands could always be counted on to share a bean salad in the shade of the olive grove, and they also thought it good fun to ply the future chevalier with wine. The maréchal does not know any of this, of course. Indeed, Lamanon’s mother does not know all of this either.
And what of these beans from Tenerife? They are, simply put, the best beans Lamanon has ever tasted. Fat and meaty, they keep their shape when cooked and provide just a hint of resistance when bitten into. Redolent of butter and chestnuts, they are so flavorful they scarcely need any seasoning. After eating them one night at an inn in the port city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Lamanon pestered the innkeeper, and then the innkeeper’s wife, and then the man at the market, until he was standing on a hillside verdant with vining legumes, persuading himself that the climate at that altitude was comparable to the climate in Provence, and then persuading the farmer he was with to part with a sack of beans for planting. This sack he is now preparing to send to the Maréchal de Castries.
The maréchal is busy. He is trying to reform the French Navy during a time of shrinking resources and escalating court intrigue, and he does not have time for Lamanon and his beans. He will pass the letter and the sack to an underling who is the idle son of the duke of somewhere, who in turn will pass the letter and beans to someone else, less noble and less lazy, but preoccupied with other tasks that have been shuffled off onto him. By the time the beans reach Salon-de-Provence, many months will have passed. It will be past planting season for beans. The man in the mayor’s office who opens the sack will wrinkle his nose at the ammoniac smell that wafts out. He will inform the mayor that a sack of moldy beans, sent by M. de Lamanon from Tenerife, by way of the naval office in Versailles, has arrived. “What shall I do with it, sir?” he will ask.
“Get rid of it,” the mayor will say. “I can smell it from here.”
The mayor’s name is Auguste de Paul de Lamanon. He is tall like his younger brother Robert, but thin where Robert tends to fat, and bald where Robert tends to hair. The arrival of the moldy beans will vex him extremely. He does not share his brother’s alarm over the state of Provençal bean production, so he will not understand why Robert has seen fit to send the beans at all. But seeing as he has, why on earth has he not sent them directly to Salon-de-Provence by way of Marseilles? Several months earlier, a letter from Robert arrived for their mother, a letter that apparently contained some seeds, seeds that their mother and Jerôme have planted against a south-facing stone wall outside of the kitchen. Something small and green is now struggling there; Auguste does not know what it is. His mother weeps every time she looks at them. If Robert could manage to send a letter directly to their mother, why has he sent these beans through the Navy Office? Oh, it is so typical of Robert, Auguste will think. Good intentions and no sense. Like his four months in this very office, talking to whomever would listen but doing nothing, then fleeing—well, not fleeing, exactly, that is hardly fair, but departing—at the first sign of something better. This despite their widowed mother’s tearful entreaties to stay in France. Robert’s departure does not grieve only their mother. It means that Auguste will have to remain in Salon-de-Provence to comfort their mother; that he will feel honor-bound to finish out his brother’s term as mayor; and that he will give up any notion he had of venturing into the wider world again. Most of the time Auguste does not mind. But sometimes he remembers his resentment. This will be one of those times.
Meanwhile, back on the Boussole, on that warm August afternoon, Lamanon is writing a second letter, this one to the Marquis de Condorcet, the famous mathematician, philosopher, and soon-to-be revolutionary leader, who is, moreover, Permanent Secretary to the Académie des sciences. Condorcet was the first to recommend Lamanon for the expedition, though it must be acknowledged that Lamanon asked him for the recommendation, and that Condorcet agreed to the request with some reluctance. It is not that Condorcet dislikes Lamanon; on the contrary, he is fond of the younger man and believes him to be a gifted scientist. But appreciating the abilities of a fellow savant is different from believing that same man to be suited to life at sea. Who among us does not have the odd friend whose virtues we admire, but whom we do not wish to impose on others? Lamanon is that friend. He has no idea when he is giving offense and too little regard for authority. A few years ago, for instance, he began an argument with Buffon over the origin of fossils. Surely it was enough to publish his controversial ideas in the Journal de physique—that is what journals are for, after all. But what was he thinking, showing up at the salon of Mme Necker right afterward, knowing Buffon would be there, then making straight for the old man and asking, “My dear Comte, what did you make of my new piece in the Journal?”
Madame Necker, pale, powdered, and dressed in ivory, had turned to Condorcet and said, “Has your friend come simply to provoke my most distinguished guest into losing his temper?”
“No, Madame,” Condorcet replied. “He suffers only from an excess of enthusiasm.”
Condorcet remembered this, and other instances like it, when Lamanon asked him to put his name forward for the La Pérouse expedition. But put him forward he did, because it is difficult to refuse a man who has eaten so much at one’s table. Then it irked him—irked him exceedingly—to discover that Lamanon had also solicited a recommendation from the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, friend of Benjamin Franklin and president of the Académie. It suggested, uncomfortably, that for all his apparent lack of social acumen, Lamanon had somehow sensed the halfheartedness of his friend’s support. But worse, much worse, it suggested that Condorcet’s influence in these matters might not be as great as he imagined it to be.
Perhaps this explains why Lamanon’s letters will receive such scant attention from Condorcet when they arrive. Not only this letter from Tenerife, but the others—one from Santa Catarina Island in three months’ time and another, much longer, written two years hence, from Macao—will elicit a slight frown, an impatient perusal, then consignment to a large pile of documents that the mathematician intends, one day soon, to go through with more care.
Condorcet’s wife, Sophie, a beautiful and intelligent woman whose love for him will amaze him until the day he dies, will ask, “What news from the great expedition, Nicolas?”
Condorcet will reply, “Oh, it is all barometric readings and magnetic intensities mixed up with Lamanon’s bombast.”
“Just the thing to be read at the next meeting of the Académie.”
Condorcet will snort. “I would not dream of denying Lamanon that pleasure when he returns,” he will say. And so Lamanon’s letters and reports will remain on Condorcet’s desk, read but not shared, and there they will remain until the revolution upends everything, even scientists and their piles of paper.
This is all most unfortunate, as Condorcet’s neglect will forever diminish Lamanon’s scientific legacy, a subject to which we will return later. It is also too bad because Lamanon would be shocked to learn there might be cause for reserve between them. On the contrary, it pleases him to imagine Condorcet reading his letter. He can see the great mathematician’s distinctive dark eyebrows relaxing with delight when he sees who the letter is from, then contracting again with serious intent as he unfolds the pages and begins to read. Lamanon smiles as he leans over to conclude the letter: “We are like a big family on board, with M. de La Pérouse as our father,” he repeats. Then he folds the letter and affixes his seal to the back—he loves this part, the smell of the molten wax and then its satisfying displacement under the weight of the seal—and moves on to write a very similar letter to the Comte de Buffon. Yes, the same Buffon he provoked, first, with his disputatious paleontological mémoire, and then with his bad manners at Mme Necker’s. But Lamanon does not worry if the comte is still displeased, if, indeed, he ever noticed the comte’s displeasure at all; nor does he wonder if his letter will be welcome. He has an irrepressible faith in his own value as a scientist. And it is not always misplaced. Let us be clear about that. Lamanon will never know it, of course, but Buffon, still writing in his late seventies, will, in his monumental Histoire naturelle, refer to findings reported in this very letter from Tenerife.
As to the findings themselves, Condorcet is right that they have mostly to do with barometric readings and magnetic intensities (the question of bombast being, perhaps, a matter of opinion). For Lamanon does not write to Condorcet and Buffon about beans. No. To these stalwarts of the French Enlightenment he writes about the previous day’s ascent of the Peak of Tenerife. He and twelve other members of the expedition made the trip. It was the eve of the feast of Saint Louis, and they drank to the king’s health when they reached the top. “The highest elevation at which the feast day has ever been celebrated,” he writes. He goes on to say that he and his friend, the Abbé Mongez, the expedition’s chaplain and assistant naturalist, then settled down to serious scientific endeavor, collecting rocks, measuring air pressure with one barometer, then another, taking compass readings, noting the degree of magnetic inclination, counting their own pulses, and sniffing ammonia to see if it retained its strength at altitude. He is particularly pleased to report a new, barometrically derived measurement for the peak’s height: 1,950 toises. He hopes this will be useful, as there has been little agreement on this subject among visitors to the island.
He does not mention that eleven of his colleagues left the peak as soon as they had toasted the king, bothered by the sulfurous fumes that swirled about the mountaintop. Or that at one point he sniffed the ammonia to keep from passing out. Nor does he mention that barometric determinations of altitude are notoriously unreliable. Presumably his correspondents know the method’s limitations and do not need to be reminded. He also does not write about how he and Mongez tried—and failed—to calculate the height of the mountain trigonometrically, a calculation that could have verified the barometric result. It was a discouraging setback. They had the views they needed—every landmark clear—and had just begun to set up the surveying equipment, when the hired guides refused to remain any longer on the mountain. Their mules were out of food and water, they said, and no amount of money would induce them to stay. So Lamanon and Mongez were obliged to pack up their tools and descend. (It was the rapidity of this descent, the two scientists struggling to keep up with the guides, that contributed to the aching shins noted earlier.)
The marquis and the comte will not hear about these troubles. Nor will they learn about Lamanon’s altercation with M. de La Pérouse right before the outing. How was Lamanon to know that the expedition would not cover the cost? He was taken aback when La Pérouse informed him of this, especially as it was one half-hour before the climbing party was scheduled to depart. Everything was in readiness—climbers assembled, guides present, mules packed with scientific equipment, supplies, water, wine, bread, bean salad. A line from Candide sprang to Lamanon’s mind at La Pérouse’s announcement: “My friend,” he wanted to say, quoting Pangloss, “this is not right at all. You go against the universal reason, and your timing is very bad!” But he saw the commander’s round, unliterary face, blotchy with impatience, and thought better of it. “Sir, we were about to leave,” he said instead.
“I am sorry for that,” La Pérouse said, though he did not look very sorry. “If only you had informed me of your plans in advance, M. de Lamanon.”
Lamanon sniffed. “I understood this to be a voyage of scientific exploration.”
La Pérouse raised his eyebrows and asked what part of their scientific mission required six guides, twenty-five mules, and enough food and supplies for twenty people. “This could come to a hundred louis,” he said, and when Lamanon began to justify the expense (which, truth to tell, was somewhat more than that estimate), La Pérouse said, with quiet adamancy, “M. de Lamanon, this island has been colonized for centuries, its every part mapped and explored. This excursion is an indulgence. You may not charge it to the king’s expense.”
Lamanon shrugged. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll sell my own account of the trip when we return to France, and reimburse myself from the proceeds.”
At this, the other members of the climbing party, who had been staring at the ground or up at the sky during this uncomfortable exchange, came suddenly to attention, breaths held. It was customary, and at times a contractual obligation, for members of such expeditions to delay publishing their own accounts of a voyage until after the commander had published his “official” account, a process that could take years. Lamanon’s retort was very like a direct challenge to the commander.
La Pérouse was not one to bristle over fine points of publishing protocol, however. He burst out laughing. “You won’t be the first author ruined by a book,” he said.
Thus forced to pay for the outing himself, Lamanon waved away two of the guides and half the mules. The rigors and delights of the ascent soon put the unpleasantness with the captain out of Lamanon’s mind, although he was reminded of it later, when the guides insisted on leaving. The discomforts of the return trip did not afford Lamanon enough mental freedom to reflect that he was the one who had summarily dismissed the very mules carrying the extra food and water. As he and Mongez huffed their way down the mountain, he blamed La Pérouse for their misery. “My dear Mongez,” he said at one point, “I could wish for a commander more sympathetic to the needs of scientists.” Mongez panted back in reply, and they proceeded in silence, for it had grown hot and their water flasks were empty.
But in this, as in everything, Lamanon was not vexed for long. By the time he is back in his cabin on the Boussole, caught up in the demands of scientific correspondence, he has all but forgotten the dressing-down he received of M. de La Pérouse, a dressing-down that would have mortified any other member of the expedition. He is immune to mortification, our Lamanon. He is happy to make his report and repeat the sentiment about the expedition being a happy family with La Pérouse as their head. He does not know that at this very moment, the “father” in question is scrawling a note to his own friend, the Comte de Fleurieu, complaining about Lamanon. “As ignorant as a Capuchin!” La Pérouse writes. He regrets very much that one of their astronomers has been laid so low by seasickness that he is being sent home from Tenerife. “Oh, that it were Lamanon instead!” he says.
Poor, unloved Lamanon. La Pérouse’s frustration with him is understandable, but can we blame Lamanon for going through with his costly trip to the peak? Indulgent it may have been, but it was also a kind of test for the more difficult work ahead, and addressed many questions: What equipment does he need for excursions off the ship? How quickly can he pack? Do his knees hold up under the rigors of walking long distances over difficult terrain? Can he accurately detect the oscillations of a compass needle? How about the inclinations, declinations, and other “–ations” he is charged with recording? Can he take proper readings from a barometer? And most important: Which of the two barometers in his possession works better?
The matter of the barometers is not simply an academic question for Lamanon. His future reputation may stand or fall by his barometrical work on the expedition. Over the years, a number of scientists, including Newton and Laplace, have hypothesized the existence of atmospheric or barometric “tides” that respond to the same gravitational forces that create our oceanic tides. The Académie des sciences has asked Lamanon to help settle this question by noting variations in barometric pressure over the course of twenty-four–hour periods. This work is best done at the equator, where the amplitude of any such variations, should they exist, is believed to be greatest. At Tenerife, the expedition is still 28° north of and a one-month sail from the equator. But Lamanon does not want to fail in the execution of his duties for lack of practice, and during the climb to the peak, he consulted his barometers as often as possible.
Nor does he wish to fail for having used the wrong barometer. He has two, as we have noted, and has been taking readings from them every day since leaving Brest. To his great frustration, there is no agreement between them, ever, when they are at sea. An unhappy suspicion has formed in his mind that his English barometer, purchased by the expedition’s agent in London, is superior to the piece by Fortin that M. Lavoisier, the famous chemist, went to some pains to obtain for him. Lamanon knows he should rely on whichever barometer works best at sea, for it is extremely unlikely that they will be anywhere near land when they cross the line. He knows that the English barometer, made by Nairne, is similar to one used by Captain Cook, and that if it served Cook, it ought to serve him. But he has a prejudice in favor of Lavoisier’s barometer, a prejudice that is entirely romantic.
He had gone in person to Lavoisier’s residence to pick up the barometer. It was early May, about three months before the expedition left, and raining very hard. Lavoisier was not at home, but Mme Lavoisier allowed him to wait in the laboratory while she herself sat nearby, quietly working at her own table. She wore a simple white dress, and her facial features were more pleasing than beautiful, but this effect of serenity was challenged by a mane of wildly curly hair that bounced with every movement she made and framed her head like an unruly helmet. Longer strands of hair fell over her shoulders and down her back, and Lamanon saw that she was actually sitting on the longest locks. Could she not feel that as she leaned over her work, he wondered, the pull at her scalp of hair pinned beneath her buttocks? But then the great chemist himself strode in, and before he noticed Lamanon, before his wife could warn him they had a visitor, he said, “Marie-Anne, come out in the garden with me. I want to see you soaked with rain.” Well. It was impossible to remain serious after that. The three of them gathered around the carrying case of the barometer and took it in turns to laugh while they examined the instrument—first Mme Lavoisier, turning away to hide her mirth, then her husband, and finally Lamanon, all struck by the hilarity of the long, mercury-filled glass tube, snug in its velvet-lined cavity.
Lamanon has not stopped thinking of the Lavoisiers since. He dreams of them sometimes, of himself with them, of the three of them together, of the effect of rain on that white dress and the outrageous curls. But they are not just the subject of a lonely scientist’s fantasies. Antoine and Marie-Anne Lavoisier held out for Lamanon the prospect of something he had not even known he was missing till that day in May—not so much marriage between equals, although that did seem true of them, or even marriage based on love, although that was obviously the case as well, but the happy union of science and humanity within an individual, and the joy that was possible when one person, so self-integrated, encountered another such person.
So he is loathe to abandon the barometer that has for him such pleasurable associations. Yet now that he has taken both barometers to the peak and back, the verdict is clear. Lavoisier’s barometer is fine for work on land, but will never do at sea. He is sorry, but also glad that he has been able to make such good use of the barometer at Tenerife. He feels he has discharged a debt of gratitude to the barometer, to its maker, to the generous chemist who procured it for him, and to the chemist’s wife who blushed and laughed when she saw it. It can now be left safely and without obligation in its case, where it will remain until they land someplace where an observatory can be established. Lamanon would like to write to the Lavoisiers now, to tell them how well the barometer performed in Tenerife, to remind them of that afternoon in May. But there is no time. The ship’s bell has rung at least twice since he began. He has time for just one short letter, and it will be to his mother.
What if, some two years, three months, and fifteen days after this afternoon of letter-writing, instead of joining the men who leave the ships to collect water and stretch their legs at an unknown cove in Samoa, Lamanon were to remain safely aboard the Boussole? And what if, instead of foundering in a storm off the Solomon Islands the following spring, the Boussole, at least, were to make it back to France?
Two surmises come to mind: first, regarding Lamanon’s scientific legacy, and second, suggesting a different sort of ending for him. As to his legacy, indeed: all that messing about with barometers and compasses during the voyage will yield two discoveries that properly belong to him. As it turns out, the suppositions of Newton and Laplace and the others were correct: there are atmospheric tides. And Lamanon, working round the clock with the English barometer every time the expedition crosses the equator (this will happen three times), will be the first to observe its twelve-hour cycles. Then there are his meticulous compass readings, which will lead to another discovery, this one establishing a correlation between magnetic intensity and latitude (intensity increasing with latitude, as one moves away from the equator and toward the poles). He will write up his findings with great care and send them to Condorcet, and we have already followed their fate there.
But now, imagine Lamanon’s triumphant return to France. The Académie des sciences will invite him to join their august body, of course. He will readily accept, and there will be ample time, before the National Convention abolishes all of the academies, for Lamanon to make several personal appearances to discuss his part in the great La Pérouse voyage. There will be time too, amid the social and political upheaval, to see to the formal publication of his own journals and letters. Will he do so ahead of La Pérouse, without the approval of the Ministry of the Navy, as he had threatened to do at Tenerife? Probably. The revolutionary mood that greets him on his return will encourage the antiauthoritarian streak already apparent in him. Indeed, when his friend Mongez remonstrates with him about this, and asks if Lamanon does not owe La Pérouse some consideration in this matter, Lamanon will retort with a quote from Rousseau: “My dear Mongez,” he will say, “the family is the most ancient of societies, and the only one that is natural. But even there the children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation.” The book will not be the financial success Lamanon hopes; but then, books rarely are. His scientific legacy, however, will be secure. Because the first publication on barometric tides will not now be authored by some Englishman called Horsburgh in 1805. Nor will it be the great Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, a man with more than enough distinctions already, who first publishes the law of magnetic intensity and latitudes. It will be Lamanon, publishing in 1789 or ’90 or ’91. It will be Lamanon, no longer the unfortunate naturalist from the La Pérouse expedition killed by natives in Samoa.
Which brings us to our second surmise: a different death. Consider what happens to Lamanon’s associates. Buffon will have died of natural causes in 1788, at the advanced age of eighty, thereby missing alike the thrills and perils of revolution. By 1790, Mme Necker and her husband will flee to their native Switzerland. The Maréchal de Castries, recipient of Lamanon’s beans, his wigs and medals grown suspect, will join them shortly thereafter. The rest remain in Paris, caught up in the grand project of rebuilding society. But one by one they too will fall under suspicion. The Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Lamanon supporter and president of the Académie, will be assassinated in Gisors in September of 1792. A year and a half later, it will be Condorcet, on the run from a trumped-up charge of treason but arrested in Clamart, those distinctive eyebrows giving him away. He will be found dead in his prison cell two days later, his body and the cause of death subsequently lost to a mass grave. And then it will be Lavoisier himself, tried, convicted, and guillotined on May 8, 1794—nine years after Lamanon’s visit to pick up the barometer.
What is Lamanon to do with this future? It is tempting to imagine him asking Lavoisier’s widow to marry him. But quite apart from the likelihood that she will refuse him (for she will remember that rainy afternoon only as an occasion when her poor Antoine embarrassed her in front of a guest whose name and purpose she cannot recall), there is the greater likelihood that Lamanon himself will end up branded an enemy of the republic. He might return to Salon-de-Provence to flee the unrest, but he will not be safe there. His brother Auguste will be arrested in 1793 and languish in prison for over a year before finally being released. Robert, with his closer association with the likes of Condorcet and Lavoisier, is likely to fare worse. Which leaves us to meditate on a question: Which is worse—violent death at the hands of natives whose language and anger you do not understand, or violent death at the hands of fellow citizens whose language and anger you thought you shared?
Lamanon’s letter to his mother is brief and affectionate. He tells her that he is healthy, that he has friends, that his work is going well. That he thinks of her often, that he will write again from South America, that he will come home to her. He repeats that he and his shipmates are one big family, that M. de La Pérouse is like their father. She will like that. She has felt, since the death of her husband ten years earlier, that her younger child has lost his bearings. He has reverted to his boyhood ways, wandering about collecting things; only now he wanders so very far and for so very long. It will cheer her to know there is a father figure on board, someone whose responsibility it is to steer her son homeward.
Lamanon decides to send her some of the white beans. “Have Jerôme plant them against the south-facing wall in the potager,” he writes. “They are delicious. Think of me when you eat them.” He signs the letter “Robert,” opens the sack meant for the new mayor by way of the Minister of the Navy, and counts out twenty beans. They make a dry, scattering sound as he drops them onto the paper.
His letters complete, he makes his way back up on deck (going up not nearly as painful as coming down) and delivers them—and the beans—to the officer in charge. Then he goes to the rail and gazes south through his spyglass. He is looking for the Tropic of Cancer. Some of the seamen, put off by his airs and amused by his gullibility, have told him the tropic is visible through a glass from here. “Like a green line straight across the sea, sir,” they tell him. “It’s a sight a scientific gentleman such as yourself ought not miss.” La Pérouse witnesses this from the quarterdeck and is tempted to disabuse him of the notion. He does not like to see his chief naturalist made a fool of. But he is still resentful about Lamanon’s insolence over the excursion to the peak, so he leaves him be.
Let us do the same. Let us leave him here, at the point of greatest optimism about the future, before the forces of history overwhelm him. Let us leave him be, as he looks out at the Atlantic for some sign of the tropic and feels himself to be the most fortunate of men. He is exactly where he wishes to be in life. How many men can say that, even once in their lives? He looks for the green line of the tropic, and he thinks about the countryside near his home in France. How verdant the rows of healthy bean vines! How marvelous the possibilities of science wed to humanity!
Naomi J. Williams received an M.A. in creative writing from the University of California, Davis. Her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, The Gettysburg Review, ZYZZYVA, and The Colorado Review, and she is the recipient of a 2009 Pushcart Prize. “Lamanon at Sea” is part of a collection of linked short stories about the La Pérouse expedition. She lives in Davis, California.
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