There is something to be said for teaching everything to somebody, as compared with the modern notion of teaching nothing, and the same sort of nothing, to everybody. — G. K. Chesterton

Story of the French Revolution - Alice Birkhead




The Cardinal and the Necklace

King Louis XV had designed to make a worthy present to Du Barry, the favorite who dazzled him by her beauty. He wanted her to wear round her white neck jewels that would proclaim his generosity. Hither and thither the royal jewelers hurried to collect the priceless diamonds that would be of a luster to satisfy the Well-Beloved. Messengers were dispatched by them wherever there seemed likelihood of a stone being found that could be added to a string of marvels. "There was excitement in the judengasse  of every capital in Europe," and merchants proffered the best in their collection.

The jewelers earned by their efforts some part, at least, of the colossal sum they demanded from the lavish King. Two millions of livres—80,000—was the price to which he readily assented. Some would starve to pay for this in the obscurer portions of the kingdom, but Du Barry must have some mark of real devotion. A palace and its treasures was little enough. Louis XV would have the earth plundered before he denied himself the pleasure of out-doing the Sun-King, his royal predecessor.

But this King, too, was mortal—did not live to see the necklace completed. It had ruined the court jewelers, who had pledged their credit to buy gems. They were in sore straits because they had made something too magnificent for customers less free with their gifts than the fifteenth Louis.

The Queen, surely, was enamored of all beautiful, rare ornaments. If Marie Antoinette fancied the necklace, the King would buy it. There was a ray of hope in the hearts of the diamond-merchants when they visited Versailles to seek an audience. They found the King willing to make the purchase, but the Queen was strangely lacking in appreciation. She refused the gift, refused it steadfastly though she took a costly present, the palace of Saint-Cloud.

Then an adventuress saw in this vexatious gaud an opportunity of gaining a vast fortune. Dame de Lamotte had been poor long enough. Report said that she had been rescued from abject beggary by a great lady, who listened to her story that she was descended from the kingly line of Valois.

Married to an idle husband, the unfortunate descendant of Henri Quatre looked about her for an easy mode of living. She went to see Cardinal de Rohan, the Grand Almoner of France, and claimed from him a small pension. She went again and began to understand the Cardinal's real character. He was vain and credulous; he was longing to win the proud Queen's favor.

De Rohan had lately returned from the Austrian Court, where he lived a riotous life as the ambassador of France. Maria Theresa disliked him, and her daughter seems to have followed her example. It was not the Austrian Queen who raised the object of her hate to the position of Grand Almoner. Even when de Rohan became the Bishop of Strasburg, he made no appeal to her reverence. She did not admit to her fetes the red-hatted, handsome man of middle age, whose hair had whitened prematurely, but whose mind was strangely young.

Some said that de Rohan loved the Queen and that she treated him with scorn. Others were of opinion that love of self guided him and the wish to rise to greater eminence by winning the Queen's favor. Madame de Lamotte made a tool of the nature she understood so quickly. She was tired of the shifting scenes of poverty and established herself in Paris, where she attracted a certain number of the foolish and unscrupulous. She was very ill-satisfied with her tiny state pension, but she fared sumptuously and entertained with profusion. Into the Cardinal's ears she dropped hints that his infatuation was returned by Marie Antoinette. She would correspond with him if he wrote secretly and used a clever go-between.

De Rohan was elated by the news. He had striven arduously to win the Queen's forgiveness for his follies. Now he began to build a castle in the air, and wrote as a lover, while Lamotte meanwhile was preparing a subtle scheme of deceit to entangle him.

The Queen replied, apparently, to the Cardinal's letters. He received notes signed by her name and written on the coroneted blue paper she used for private correspondence. A quicker brain might have suspected forgery, but de Rohan was ready to believe that what he wished would come to pass.

The Queen, it appeared, would like to entrust the Cardinal with a most delicate mission. She longed for the diamond necklace she had refused, and instructed him to open negotiations for its private purchase. The jewelers were delighted to make terms and rid themselves of the "white elephant" that bade fair to be their undoing. De Rohan was persuaded to believe that the unlucky stones would prove most fortunate to him. Cagliostro, an impostor, but a man of extraordinary powers, was regularly consulted by the Cardinal at Strasburg. He professed to have discovered the art of making both gold and diamonds. His patron wore a ring which he explained that the new scientist had made in his presence out of nothing!

There was a solemn ceremony to decide the question of the necklace. Finally, Cagliostro announced that it would raise the Queen to a lofty pinnacle of queenly state and would also reveal the true devotion of de Rohan. No doubt Madame de Lamotte foretold this result; she knew the magician and then dwelt very near the house where he reveled in Oriental luxury.

Lamotte's husband found a poor girl sufficiently resembling Marie Antoinette to be taken for her by a stranger, and a meeting was arranged in the Park of Versailles. This d'Oliva was trained to imitate the Queen's speech, and dressed very elegantly in a white robe that gave her an air of royalty. She was placed in a grove in the Park of Versailles when the summer twilight had descended. Marie Antoinette was well known to have a habit of roaming about at night either quite alone or with only a friend as her attendant.

The trembling Cardinal met a tall and gracious figure in the shadow of an arbor. He received a portrait and a rose and a few words that intoxicated him by their hint of a secret understanding. On the strength of this interview he paid a large installment of the money for the necklace to Lamotte who did not, however, send it to the jewelers, though she obtained the jewels and instructed her husband to sell them separately, in London and in Paris. Then she was rich enough to realize an old plan of returning to the scenes of her former poverty with an appearance of great splendor. Her dresses were conveyed from Paris in great wagons, and the richness of her jeweled counterpanes became a fable to the country-folk she tried to dazzle.

Meantime the jewelers became anxious as they could not obtain any payment for the diamond necklace. They petitioned the Queen, at last, and were told that she had had nothing to do with the transaction. After a conclave with the King, Marie Antoinette sent for the unhappy Cardinal.

De Rohan was on his way to chapel, attired in the full dignity of his pontifical robes, for it was the Day of the Assumption. The summons startled him, and in the Queen's presence he began to understand that he had been duped by Madame de Lamotte and that this proud and angry woman had never deigned to grant him an interview at Versailles. He left the royal presence almost stunned by his discovery and was arrested publicly before he could recover from bewilderment. He had only time to send a messenger to destroy his papers.

Madame de Lamotte was dining with a fashionable party when the news came that de Rohan had been taken to the prison. The arrest of a Grand Almoner of France in his vestments startled the whole company. It had such an effect on one guest that she rushed from the room, with a face turned deadly pale, and drove at once to Paris. Lamotte refused to leave the country, vowing that she knew nothing of the necklace, but she was in a hurry to destroy her documents and spent the night burning the papers in a sandal-wood bureau, including hundreds of letters from the deluded prisoner. She was still at work in a dense atmosphere of burning wax and paper at four o'clock in the morning, when she was discovered and lodged in the state prison of the Bastille.

Cagliostro did not escape, nor his wife, nor d'Oliva, nor yet the man who had forged the letters. Paris was wild with excitement and the Queen's name on every tongue. All the noble and powerful family of de Rohan were against her. They declared that she had at least coveted the diamonds and had been guilty of arbitrary injustice when she ordered the Cardinal to be arrested. They moved heaven and earth to get the Church dignitary out of prison, and became so alarming in their righteous wrath that the King tried to rid himself of all responsibility and gave the business of the trial into the hands of the Parlement of Paris.

The trial was public, so the court was crowded. The de Rohan family assembled, clad in garments of deep mourning, to stand within the hall through which the judge and advocates must pass. Popular feeling against Marie Antoinette rose higher and betrayed itself in the loud satisfaction that greeted the Cardinal's acquittal. It was not that they sympathized with de Rohan, the silly dupe of an adventuress. "Unloved he and worthy of no love; but important since the Queen and Court were his enemies."

That was the real reason for the hurrahing crowd met to welcome the miserable Grand Almoner when he issued from the Bastille again on the last day of May, 1786. Proud Marie Antoinette saw in the verdict an insult to herself. She wept bitterly at the public rejoicing, and was little consoled by the punishment Lamotte received, despite her eloquent speech in her own defense. She was sentenced to receive a public whipping, was branded with the letter V for voleuse  (thief), and should have been imprisoned for her life, but so furious was the storm of indignation against royalty, so threatening the attitude of Paris, that Louis XVI was obliged to connive at the escape of his wife's fair enemy.

D'Oliva was set free after the trial, since she had been duped with the Cardinal. The Comte de Lamotte most wisely fled to England, and de Rohan himself passed into exile. The Cardinal lived quietly on the Rhine with austerity and a certain mature dignity. He was a source of much comfort to emigrants before he died, but he had wrought evil to Marie Antoinette which she never forgave him.

Libels assailed the Queen, many of them grossly exaggerated and untruthful. All her past levity was revived, and that free habit of wandering alone by night which had placed her name in jeopardy. Her escapades with D'Artois, the King's madcap brother, lost nothing in the telling. There were rumors that "Tartuffe"  and his wife supplied these malicious stories. They had never ceased to think evil of the Queen since the birth of the Dauphin destroyed their son's hope of the succession.

"The Austrian" was blamed for the schemes of her mother, Maria Theresa. There was no doubt that Austria would have liked to gain help from the French, and that letters came to the Court, insisting that Marie Antoinette should use her well-known influence with her husband. So the clever mother helped to bring about her daughter's ultimate destruction. She had made this marriage to forward the aggrandizement of her empire. Maria Theresa was too far away to know that smothered discontent was rife among her daughter's subjects.

The Queen's fair fame was tarnished. She was mocked and derided, and treated with the same want of respect and coarse insulting epithets that had greeted the King after he was crowned. But she played her part brilliantly, showing neither fear nor indignation. She was now the King's adviser, and all changes in the State were discussed in her boudoir with Mme de Polignac and her favorites. She saw Calonne depart, threatened by an angry mob, who sought on one occasion to drag him from his carriage. She knew that he had been bold enough to declare the Exchequer empty. A special head-dress had been worn at Court to satirize the poverty of the nation. It was not in the best of taste, but the great ladies wore it, punning wittily on the fact that it lacked the crown, the essential part of a "bonnet," as the Treasury lacked treasure.

Yet the Queen would not recall Necker, the minister in whom the people trusted. She appointed Lomenie de Brienne, the Abbe, because she thought he would be loyal to her. When he hastily left office, France went mad with joy, burning him in effigy to the music of shovel and tongs, and welcoming the hundred couriers from Versailles who rode out to give news to the provinces.

The Queen's portrait had to be taken from the Salon because it met with insult. They called her Madame Deficit, and declared she was betraying France to Austria. All respect for the monarchy was gone now. Men wore portraits of General Lafayette on their waist-coats, and called upon such gallant spirits to aid them in the recall of Necker to the Ministry and the meeting of the one representative assembly of the nation, the States-General.