CAPTAIN PETER DE LA FONTAINE
Convicted of Forgery
THE following short sketch of this artful and daring foreigner would furnish incident for a novel or a romance.
De la Fontaine was born of noble parents in France, received a military education, and served at the siege of Phillipsburgh, under the Duke of Berwick.
The campaign being ended, he went to Paris, where a gentleman invited him to spend some time at his country seat, when he fell in love with his daughter, who wished to marry him; but the father interposing, she eloped with her lover, and they lived a considerable time, as married people, at Rouen.
On their return to Paris the young lady lodged in a convent; but De la Fontaine appearing in public, some officers of justice, seeing him in a coffee-house, told him they had the king's warrant for apprehending him: on which he wounded two of them with his sword; notwithstanding which he was seized, and lodged in prison.
On this he wrote to the young lady, telling her he was obliged to go into the country on urgent business, but would soon return; and, having made an interest with the daughter of the keeper of the prison, she let him out occasionally, to visit his mistress.
Being brought to trial for running away with an heiress, he would have been capitally convicted, agreeable to the laws of France, but that the young lady voluntarily swore that she went off with him by her own consent. Soon after his acquittal she was seized with the pains of labour, and died in child-bed.
After this De la Fontaine went again into the army, and behaved so bravely at the battle near Kale, that the Duke of Berwick rewarded his courage with the commission of lieutenant of grenadiers.
A young lady of Stratzburgh, who had fallen in love with De la Fontaine, at Paris, before his former connexion, now obtained a pass from the Marshal de Belleisle, and, being introduced to the Duke of Berwick, told him she wished to see De la Fontaine; and the duke, judging of the cause, ordered her to be conducted to him.
On the following day she went to the duke, dressed in men's clothes, and, begging to enter as a volunteer in the same regiment with De la Fontaine, she was indulged for the novelty of the humour. She went through the regular duties of a soldier, and reposed in the same tent with her paramour; but, in the winter following the campaign, she died of small-pox, leaving a part of her fortune to her lover.
The Duke of Berwick being killed at the siege of Phillipsburgh, De la Fontaine made the tour of Europe; but, returning to Paris, he fought a duel with an officer, who being dangerously wounded, our hero repaired to Brest, and embarked as lieutenant of marines on board a vessel bound for Martinico.
The ship, being taken by a Turkish corsair, was carried into Constantinople, where De la Fontaine was confined in a dungeon, and had only bread and water for his sustenance. While in this situation he was visited by another prisoner, who had more liberty than himself, and who advised him, as the French consul was then absent, to apply to a Scotch nobleman then in the city, who was distinguished for his humane and generous feelings.
De la Fontaine, having procured pen, ink, and paper, with a tinder-box to strike a light (all by the friendship of his fellow- prisoner), sent a letter to the nobleman, who had no sooner read it than he hurried to the cells, to visit the unfortunate prisoner.
Having promised his interest to procure his enlargement, he went to the grand vizier, and pleaded his cause so effectually, that De la Fontaine was released, and went immediately to thank the vizier, who wished him happy, and presented him with a sum of money.
Hence our adventurer sailed to Amsterdam, where, having a criminal connexion with a lady, who became pregnant, he embarked for the Dutch settlement of Curaçao; but, finding the place unhealthy, he obtained the governor's permission to go to Surinam, and continued above five years on that island.
While in this place the governor invited him to a ball, where one of the company was a widow lady of rank, of whom he determined, if possible, to make a conquest; nor did he long fail of an opportunity, for, dining with her at the governor's house, they soon became very intimately acquainted.
The consequence of their sociability was a residence as husband and wife; and four children were the fruits of the connexion, three of whom died; but the other, a boy, was educated by the governor of the island.
Other officers having addressed the same lady, De la Fontaine was occasionally involved in difficulties on her account.
One of these officers having traduced him in his absence, our hero, on meeting him, bid him draw his sword; but the other refused, on which De la Fontaine struck him with his cane, and cut off one of his ears.
On this our adventurer was seized, and tried by a court- martial, but acquitted; and the officer degraded, on account of the provocation he had given; and from this time De la Fontaine was treated with unusual marks of civility.
He still lived on the best terms with the lady, and their affection appeared to be reciprocal.
The governor bestowed on him a considerable tract of land, which he cultivated to great advantage; but the malice of his enemies was so restless, that they prevailed on one of his negro servants to mix a dose of poison in his food.
Unsuspicious of any villainy, he swallowed the poison, the consequence of which was, that he languished several months: and the lady, affected by his situation, gave way to melancholy, which brought on a consumption, that deprived her of life.
After her death De la Fontaine obtained the governor's permission to return to Europe, and lived for some time in a splendid manner at Amsterdam; but at length determined to embark for England.
Having arrived in London, he took elegant lodgings, lived in the style of a gentleman, and made several gay connexions.
Among his acquaintance was Zannier, a Venetian, who had been obliged to quit his own country on account of his irregularities. This man possessed such an artful address, that De la Fontaine made him at all times welcome to his table, and admitted him to a considerable share of his confidence.
Zannier soon improved this advantage; for, contriving a scheme with an attorney and bailiff, he pretended to have been arrested for three hundred pounds, and prevailed on his new friends to bail him, on the assurance that he had a good estate in Ireland, and would pay the money before the return of the writ; but, when the term arrived, our hero was compelled to discharge the debt, as Zannier did not appear.
Hitherto De la Fontaine had been in London without making any connexion with the ladies; but, there being a procession of freemasons at that time, he dressed himself in the most superb taste, and his chariot being the most elegant of any in the procession, he was particularly noticed by the spectators.
Among the rest, the daughter of an alderman had her curiosity so much excited, that she caused inquiry to be made who he was; and on the following day sent him a letter, intimating that she should be at a ball at Richmond, where he might have an opportunity of dancing with her.
Our hero did not hesitate to comply; and, when the ball was ended, he received an invitation to dine with the young lady on the following day, at her father's house. He attended accordingly; but the father, having learnt his character, insisted that she should decline his visits, which put an end to all his hopes from that quarter.
The circumstances of our hero being greatly reduced, he resolved, if possible, to repair them by marriage, and was soon afterwards wedded to a widow of considerable fortune; but his taste for extravagance rendered this fortune unequal to his support; nor was his conduct to his wife by any means generous.
Soon after his marriage he was at the lord mayor's ball, where he made the acquaintance with the wife of a tradesman, which ended in a criminal connexion.
The parties frequently met at taverns and bagnios; and De la Fontaine having written to the lady, appointing her to meet him at a tavern, the letter fell into the hands of her husband, who communicated the contents to her brother, and the letter was sealed up, and delivered according to its address.
The brothers agreed to go to the tavern, where they told the waiter to show any lady to them who might inquire for De la Fontaine.
In a short time the lady came, and was astonished to be introduced to her brother and husband: but the latter was so affected, that he promised a full remission of all that was passed, on her promise of future fidelity. These generous terms she rejected with contempt, and immediately left the room.
De la Fontaine, being acquainted with this circumstance, was impressed with a sense of the husband's generous behavior, and advised the lady to return to her duty. At first she insulted him for his advice, but at length thought proper to comply with it.
Our hero now saw his own conduct in an unfavourable light; on which he went into the country with his wife for some time, to avoid his old associates, and then returned to London, determined to abandon his former course of life.
Unfortunately, however, he had not long formed this resolution, when Zannier went to him, begging his forgiveness for obliging him to pay the debt. De la Fontaine too easily complied with his request, and once more considered him as a friend.
Zannier and De la Fontaine, going to a tavern, met with a woman whom the latter had formerly known, and a man who was dressed in black. While De la Fontaine was conversing with the woman, the stranger (who afterwards appeared to be a Fleet parson) read the marriage-ceremony from a book which he held in his hand; and the next week De la Fontaine was apprehended on a charge of bigamy, and committed for trial at the Old Bailey.
The villain Zannier visiting him in Newgate, De la Fontaine was so enraged at his perfidy, that he beat him through the press- yard with a broomstick with such severity, that the turnkey was obliged to interpose to prevent murder.
In revenge of this, Zannier swore that De la Fontaine had been guilty of forgery, in imitating the handwriting of a gentleman named Parry: in consequence of which De la Fontaine was brought to his trial, and capitally convicted, though a gentleman swore that the writing resembled that of Zannier, and there was too much reason to believe that his hand committed the forgery.
Yet the jury found De la Fontaine guilty; the Court sentenced him to death, and the day was appointed for his execution. He was, however, respited, and this was from time to time continued, during five years, then he was pardoned on condition of transportation.
In September, 1752, with many other convicts, he was shipped to the English colony of Virginia, in America.
The villainy of Zannier, and the consequence of dissipation in the life of De la Fontaine, are the circumstances proper for remark on this occasion. The man who, like the former, could abuse the confidence of a trusting friend, is unworthy of all pity, and deserving only of general de testation.
It is to be lamented that the forgery could not have been fixed on Zannier, in which case he would probably have met with the due reward of his villainy. With regard to De la Fontaine, we see that a life of dissipation ends only in disgrace, if not in absolute destruction. The fate of this man should teach us that the plain path of virtue and religion can alone be the high road to happiness.