It is frequently a misfortune to have very brilliant men in charge of affairs. They expect too much of ordinary men. — Thucydides

Story of Modern France - Helene Guerber




The Queen's Necklace

The most thrilling event in the court life of this period was the affair of the Diamond Necklace (1784), which you must hear in detail, as it had a fatal influence later on. King Louis XV. had ordered from the court jeweler a $450,000 necklace of diamonds for Madame du Barry; but as he died before it was ready, the half-finished necklace remained on the jeweler's hands. Having spent large sums to get and match the stones, this man felt that he would be ruined if he could not dispose of the completed necklace, so he now offered it to Marie Antoinette. But, having two children,—a daughter and son,—she was inclined to be more serious and saving than she had been. As she would not do anything more than to praise his wares, the jeweler next applied to the king, who, devoted as he was, immediately offered to present the wonderful necklace to his wife.

But Marie Antoinette now restrained her husband, saying she had jewels enough, and that the money would be far better employed in adding a ship or two to his navy, which sensible advice Louis XVI. gladly took. The jeweler now went from court to court, hawking his necklace, but finding no one with money enough to spare to buy so costly a bauble. In his despair he finally returned to the French queen, it is said, and fell at her feet, beseeching her with tears to buy his wares, and thus save him from ruin! This theatrical scene greatly annoyed Marie Antoinette, who, deeming the man crazy, sent him away as soon as possible.

There was then at court a French nobleman, Cardinal de Rohan, who was anxious to regain the queen's favor, which he had forfeited by a wicked life and by wanton slanders he had spread regarding her. Still, the royal couple were too kind-hearted to resent anything very long, so after a few years' banishment, the cardinal was allowed to return to court, where a fashionable astrologer (Cagliostro) had, it seems, predicted that all would go as the cardinal wished. In some obscure position at Versailles, at that time, there was also an adventuress named Madame de la Motte. This woman wanted money badly, and often thought how lucky she would be if she could only get hold of the wonderful diamond necklace. Being as clever as unprincipled, she soon hit upon a plan to secure it.

Madame de la Motte and the astrologer persuaded the cardinal that the queen was anxious to have the diamonds, and would be most grateful to any one who would arrange so that she could purchase them without telling the king. Nobody now knows whether the cardinal was the dupe of these two clever schemers, or whether he was a third party in their dishonest plans. However that may be, Cardinal de Rohan soon went to the jeweler, and declared that the queen wished him to buy the necklace in her name, promising that the full price should be paid within a year and a half by installments.

This was welcome news for the despairing jeweler; still, he was too shrewd to give up his necklace until he had the queen's written promise. Cardinal de Rohan, therefore, undertook to get it, and actually came back a few days later with a paper signed "Marie Antoinette de France." Now, both merchant and cardinal should have known that it was only the children  of French kings who added "de France" to their signatures, yet both men overlooked this forgery, and necklace and paper changed hands.

Meantime, Cardinal de Rohan had been deluded by Madame de la Motte into believing that the queen herself had stolen down into the garden one moonlight night, and had allowed him to kiss her hand. But in reality it was a young actress who had come there, after being coached to personate the queen. The cardinal, of course, expected to deliver the necklace to Marie Antoinette in person, but Madame de la Motte, disguised as a royal footman, took charge of it, reporting that the queen was too ill to see him. Then the adventuress carried the precious necklace off to her own room, where her husband pried the diamonds out of their settings, and secretly sent them to England to be sold.

While these rascals were living in luxury on the proceeds of their theft, the queen continued no more gracious to the cardinal than before, and never appeared in public wearing the necklace. Then, too, the payments were not forthcoming as promised. The jeweler waited impatiently, and one day—being summoned to court by the queen, who wished to buy a wedding present for one of her maids—he ventured to beg her for money, saying he had already written, but had received no reply. Although the queen had received the letter he mentioned, she had thrown it into the fire, thinking the man was crazy, a belief which was strengthened by this strange request for money. Finding himself dismissed without pay, the desperate jeweler now went straight to the king, although it was Sunday morning, and poured out the whole story. Louis XVI. immediately sent for the queen, and then for Cardinal de Rohan, who had just been celebrating mass in the Versailles chapel.

The cardinal at once appeared in the king's study, but when questioned, stammered and contradicted himself so sorely, looking so embarrassed, that Louis kindly bade him go into the next room, and write what he had to say, since he could not speak plainly. There the cardinal wrote an even lamer statement, but before beginning it, he scribbled a note which he handed to one of his servants. According to the instructions thus given, this servant hastened home and burned all the papers contained in a red portfolio. These papers were not only the correspondence in regard to the diamond necklace, but also many proofs of the wicked life the cardinal had hitherto led, which he did not wish any one to see.

On reading the cardinal's written statement, accusing the queen of having a secret understanding with him, the king became so angry that he ordered Rohan's arrest; vowing that he should be tried immediately. But as the cardinal was a priest, the clergy were indignant that he should be arrested in canonical garb; and as he was related to many of the nobles, they, too, were furious to think that one of their number should be treated like a common wrongdoer. Both of these influential classes, therefore, set to work to influence the Parliament so that no unfavorable sentence should be pronounced.

The trial took place; king, queen, and everybody was present. It was proved at the end of six months that the diamonds had passed into the hands of the De la Mottes, and that the paper signed by "Marie Antoinette de France" was a mere forgery. The Parliament was glad to defy the king by finding the cardinal not guilty; but it sentenced Madame de la Motte to be whipped and branded as a thief, and then shut up in prison. The astrologer was banished, the cardinal was sent away from court, and the queen was really acquitted of all knowledge of the affair.

But the wretched De la Motte woman soon made her escape to England, where she began to write pamphlets about the Queen's Necklace, claiming that she and the poor cardinal had been made scapegoats for Marie Antoinette's sins! These pamphlets were scattered far and wide, smuggled into France, and read everywhere, in spite of the king's attempts to suppress them. Now, many people are ready, to believe anything that is printed, and most people say that a wife who makes debts and hides the fact from her husband is dishonest. Poor Marie Antoinette, therefore, was generally considered not only cowardly because she allowed some one else to bear the punishment of her sins, but also wanting in honor and decency, and terribly extravagant, since she purchased high-priced ornaments when her people were starving!

Many of the old court ladies, who disliked her because she made thoughtless fun of their grand manners when she was a merry girl, had always spoken ill of her, declaring she was nothing but a "foreigner," and generally calling her "the Austrian." Now the people in general exclaimed that it was no wonder there was a deficit in the nation's finances, when the queen was extravagant enough to purchase $450,000 worth of diamonds at once; and they dubbed her "Madam Deficit." In fact, such was Marie Antoinette's unpopularity after this affair, that the king no longer dared let her visit Paris, for fear lest she should be insulted in his capital!

[Illustration] from The Story of Modern France by Helene Guerber
MARIE ANTOINETTE AND HER CHILDREN, ABOUT 1787.


Meantime, Louis XVI: continued to relieve the public misery to some small extent by private charities. He chided those who spent money to refurnish his rooms, remarking sadly, "I could have supported thirty families for a year with that sum!." During the cold winters he sent many loads of wood to the poor, and once with innocent pride pointed out his train of sledges to the courtiers when they gleefully exhibited their elegant pleasure vehicles.