Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

The Diamond Necklace

Paris, that city of sensations, was shaken to its centre by tidings of a new and startling event. The Cardinal de Rohan, grand almoner of France, at mass-time, and when dressed in his pontifical robes, had been suddenly arrested in the palace of Versailles and taken to the Bastille. Why? No one knew; though many had their opinions and beliefs. Rumors of some mysterious and disgraceful secret beneath this arrest, a mystery in which the honor of Marie Antoinette, the queen of France, was involved, had got afloat, and were whispered from end to end of the city, in which "the Austrian," as the queen was contemptuously designated, was by no means a favorite.

The truth gradually came out,—the story of a disgraceful and extraordinary intrigue, of which the prince cardinal was a victim rather than an accessory, and of which the queen was utterly ignorant, though the odium of the transaction clung to her until her death. When, eight years afterwards, she was borne through a raging mob to the guillotine, insulting references to this affair of the diamond necklace were among the terms of opprobrium heaped upon her by the dregs of the Parisian populace.

What was this disgraceful business? It is partly revealed in the graphic account of an interview with the king which preceded the arrest of the prince cardinal. On the 15th of August, 1785, Louis XVI. sent for M. de Rohan to his cabinet. He entered smilingly, not dreaming of the thunderbolt that was about to burst upon his head. He found there the king and queen, the former with indignant countenance, the latter grave and severe in expression.

"Cardinal," broke out the king, in an abrupt tone, "you bought some diamonds of Boehmer?"

"Yes, sir," rejoined the cardinal, disturbed by the stern severity of the king's looks and tone.

"What have you done with them?"

"I thought they had been sent to the queen."

"Who gave you the commission to buy them?"

"A lady, the Countess de La Motte Valois," answered the cardinal, growing more uneasy. "She gave me a letter from the queen; I thought I was obliging her Majesty."

The queen sharply interrupted him. She was no friend of the cardinal; he had maligned her years before, when her husband was but dauphin of France. Now was the opportunity to repay him for those malevolent letters.

"How, sir," she broke out severely; "how could you think—you to whom I have never spoken for eight years—that I should choose you for conducting such a negotiation, and by the medium of such a woman?"

"I was mistaken, I perceive," said the cardinal, humbly. "The desire I felt to please your Majesty misled me. Here is the letter which I was told was from you."

He drew a letter from his pocket and handed it to the king. Louis took it, and cast his eyes over the signature. He looked up indignantly.

"How could a prince of your house and my grand almoner suppose that the queen would sign, 'Marie Antoinette of France?'" he sternly demanded. "Queens do not sign their names at such length. It is not even the queen's writing. And what is the meaning of all these doings with jewellers, and these notes shown to bankers?"

By this time the cardinal was so agitated that he was obliged to rest himself against the table for support.

"Sir," he said, in a broken voice, "I am too much overcome to be able to reply. What you say overwhelms me with surprise."

"Walk into the room, cardinal," said the king, with more kindness of tone. "You may write your explanation of these occurrences."

The cardinal attempted to do so, but his written statement failed to make clear the mystery. In the end an officer of the king's body-guard was called in, and an order given him to convey Cardinal de Rohan to the Bastille. He had barely time to give secret directions to his grand vicar to burn all his papers, before he was carried off to that frightful fortress, the scene of so much injustice, haunted by so many woes.

The papers of De Rohan probably needed purging by fire, for the order to burn them indicates that they contained evidence derogatory to his position as a dignitary of the church. The prince cardinal was a vain and profligate man, full of vicious inclinations, and credulous to a degree that had made him the victim of the unscrupulous schemer, Madame de La Motte Valois, a woman as adroit and unscrupulous as she was daring. Of low birth, brought up by charity, married to a ruined nobleman, she had ended her career by duping and ruining Cardinal de Rohan, a man whose character exposed him to the machinations of an adventuress so skilful, bold, and alluring as La Motte Valois.

So much for preliminary. Let us take up the story at its beginning. The diamond necklace was an exceedingly handsome and highly valuable piece of jewelry, containing about five hundred diamonds, and held at a price equal to about four hundred thousand dollars of modern money. It had been made by Boehmer, a jeweller of Paris, about the year 1774, and was intended for Madame Dubarry, the favorite of Louis XV. But before the necklace was finished Louis had died, and a new king had come to the throne. With Louis XVI. virtue entered that profligate court, and Madame Dubarry was excluded from its precincts. As for the necklace, it remained without a purchaser. It was too costly for a subject, and was not craved by the queen. The jeweller had not failed to offer it to Marie Antoinette, but found her disinclined to buy. The American Revolution was going on, France was involved in the war, and money was needed for other purposes than diamond necklaces.

Marie Antoinette


"That is the price of two frigates," said the king, on hearing of the estimated value of the famous trinket.

"We want ships, and not diamonds," said the queen, and ended the audience with the jeweller.

A few months afterwards, M. Boehmer openly declared that he had found a purchaser for the necklace. It had gone to Constantinople, he said, for the adornment of the favorite sultana.

"This was a real pleasure to the queen," says Madame Campan. "She, however, expressed some astonishment that a necklace made for the adornment of French women should be worn in the seraglio, and, thereupon, she talked to me a long time about the total change which took place in the tastes and desires of women in the period between twenty and thirty years of age. She told me that when she was ten years younger she loved diamonds madly, but that she had no longer any taste for anything but private society, the country, the work and the attentions required by the education of her children. From that moment until the fatal crisis there was nothing more said about the necklace."

The necklace had not been sold. It remained in the jeweller's hands until nearly ten years had passed. Then the vicious De La Motte laid an adroit plan for getting it into her possession, through the aid of the Cardinal de Rohan, who had come to admire her. She was a hanger-on of the court, and began her work by persuading the cardinal that the queen regarded him with favor. The credulous dupe was completely infatuated with the idea. One night, in August, 1784, he was given a brief interview in the groves around Versailles with a woman whom he supposed to be the queen, but who was really a girl resembling her, and taught by La Motte to play this part.

Filled with the idea that the queen loved him, the duped cardinal was ready for any folly. De La Motte played her next card by persuading him that the queen had a secret desire to possess this wonderful necklace, but had not the necessary money at that time. She would, however, sign an agreement to purchase it if the cardinal would become her security. De Rohan eagerly assented. This secret understanding seemed but another proof of the queen's predilection for him. An agreement was produced, signed with the queen's name, to which the cardinal added his own, and on February 1, 1785, the jeweller surrendered the necklace to De Rohan, receiving this agreement as his security. The cardinal carried the costly prize to Versailles, where he was told the queen would send for it. It was given by him to La Motte, who was commissioned to deliver it to her royal patroness. In a few days afterwards this lady's husband disappeared from Paris, and the diamond necklace with him.

The whole affair had been a trick. All the messages from the queen had been false ones, the written documents being prepared by a seeming valet, who was skilful in the imitation of handwriting. Throughout the whole business the cardinal had been readily deceived, infatuation closing his eyes to truth.

Such was the first act in the drama. The second opened when the jeweller began to press for payment. M. de La Motte sold some of the diamonds in England, and transmitted the money to his wife, who is said to have quieted the jeweller for a time by paying him some instalments on the price. But he quickly grew impatient and suspicious that all was not right, and went to court, where he earnestly inquired if the necklace had been delivered to the queen. For a time she could not understand what he meant. The diamond necklace? What diamond necklace? What did this mean? The Cardinal de Rohan her security for payment!—it was all false, all base, some dark intrigue behind it all.

Burning with indignation, she sent for Abbé de Vermond and Baron de Breteuil, the minister of the king's household, and told them of the affair. It was a shameful business, they said. They hated the cardinal, and did not spare him. The queen, growing momentarily more angry, at length decided to reveal the whole transaction to the king, and roused in his mind an indignation equal to her own. The result we have already seen. De Rohan and La Motte were consigned to the Bastille. M. de La Motte was in England, and thus out of reach of justice. Another celebrated individual who was concerned in the affair, and had aided in duping the cardinal, the famous, or infamous, Count Cagliostro, was also consigned to the Bastille for his share in the dark and deep intrigue.

The trial came on, as the closing act in this mysterious drama, in which all Paris had now become intensely interested. The cardinal had renounced all the privileges of his rank and condition, and accepted the jurisdiction of Parliament,—perhaps counting on the open enmity between that body and the court.

The trial revealed a disgraceful business, in which a high dignitary of the church had permitted himself to be completely gulled by a shameless woman and the equally shameless Cagliostro, and into which not only the name but even the virtue of the queen had been dragged. Public opinion became intense. The hostility to the queen which had long smouldered now openly declared itself. "It was for her and by her orders that the necklace was bought," said the respectable Parisians. Those who were not respectable said much worse things. The queen was being made a victim of these shameless and criminal adventurers.

The trial went on, political feeling being openly displayed in it. The great houses of Condé and Rohan took sides with the cardinal. Their representatives might be seen, dressed in mourning, interviewing the magistrates on their way to the tribunal, pleading with them on behalf of their relative. The magistrates needed little persuasion. The Parliament of Paris had long been at sword's point with the crown; now was its time for revenge; political prejudice blinded the members to the pure questions of law and justice; the cardinal was acquitted.

Cagliostro was similarly acquitted. He had conducted his own case, and with a skill that deceived the magistrates and the public alike. Madame de La Motte alone was convicted. She was sentenced to be whipped, branded on each shoulder with the letter V (for voleuse, "thief"), and to be imprisoned for life. Her husband, who was in England, was sentenced in his absence to the galleys for life. A minor participant in this business, the girl who had personated the queen, escaped unpunished.

So ended this disgraceful affair. The queen was greatly cast down by the result. "Condole with me," she said, in a broken voice, to Madame Campan; "the intriguer who wanted to ruin me, or procure money by using my name and forging my signature, has just been fully acquitted." But it was due, she declared, to bribery on the part of some and to political passion on that of others, with an audacity towards authority which such people loved to display. The king entered as she was speaking.

"You find the queen in great affliction," he said to Madame Campan; "she has much reason to be. But what then? They would not see in this business anything save a prince of the Church and the Prince of Rohan, whereas it is only the case of a man in want of money, and a mere trick for raising cash, wherein the cardinal has been swindled in his turn. Nothing is easier to understand, and it needs no Alexander to cut this Gordian knot."

Cardinal Rohan was exiled to his abbey of Chaise-Dieu, guilty in the king's opinion, a dupe in the judgment of history, evidently a credulous profligate who had mistaken his vocation. The queen was the true victim of the whole affair. It doubled the hostility of the people to her, and had its share in that final sentence which brought her head to the block.