VII. THE NIGHT OF GEMS--The "Affairs" Of The Queen's Necklace
Under the stars of a tepid, scented night of August of 1784, Prince Louis de Rohan, Cardinal of Strasbourg, Grand Almoner of France, made his way with quickened pulses through the Park of Versailles to a momentous assignation in the Grove of Venus.
This illustrious member of an illustrious House, that derived from both the royal lines of Valois and Bourbon, was a man in the prime of life, of a fine height, still retaining something of the willowy slenderness that had been his in youth, and of a gentle, almost womanly beauty of countenance.
In a grey cloak and a round, grey hat with gold cords, followed closely by two shadowy attendant figures, he stepped briskly amain, eager to open those gates across the path of his ambition, locked against him hitherto by the very hands from which he now went to receive the key.
He deserves your sympathy, this elegant Cardinal-Prince, who had been the victim of the malice and schemings of the relentless Austrian Empress since the days when he represented the King of France at the Court of Vienna.
The state he had kept there had been more than royal and royal in the dazzling French manner, which was perturbing to a woman of Marie Therese's solid German notions. His hunting-parties, his supper-parties, the fetes he gave upon every occasion, the worldly inventiveness, the sumptuousness and reckless extravagance that made each of these affairs seem like a supplement to "The Arabian Nights' Entertainments," the sybaritic luxury of his surroundings, the incredible prodigality of his expenditure, all served profoundly to scandalize and embitter the Empress.
That a priest in gay, secular clothes should hunt the stag on horseback filled her with horror at his levity; that he should flirt discreetly with the noble ladies of Vienna made her despair of his morals; whilst his personal elegance and irresistible charm were proofs to her of a profligacy that perverted the Court over which she ruled.
She laboured for the extinction of his pernicious brilliance, and intrigued for his recall. She made no attempt to conceal her hostility, nor did she love him any the better because he met her frigid haughtiness with an ironical urbanity that seemed ever to put her in the wrong. And then one day he permitted his wit to be bitingly imprudent.
"Marie Therese," he wrote to D'Aiguillon, "holds in one hand a handkerchief to receive her tears for the misfortunes of oppressed Poland, and in the other a sword to continue its partition."
To say that in this witticism lay one of the causes of the French Revolution may seem at first glance an outrageous overstatement. Yet it is certain that, but for that imprudent phrase, the need would never have arisen that sent Rohan across the Park of Versailles on that August night to an assignation that in the sequel was to place a terrible weapon in the hands of the Revolutionary party.
D'Aiguillon had published the gibe. It had reached the ears of Marie Antoinette, and from her it had travelled back to her mother in Vienna. It aroused in the Empress a resentment and a bitterness that did not rest until the splendid Cardinal-Prince was recalled from his embassy. It did not rest even then. By the ridicule to which the gibe exposed her—and if you know Marie Therese at all, you can imagine what that meant—it provoked a hostility that was indefatigably to labour against him.
The Cardinal was ambitious, he had confidence in his talents and in the driving force of his mighty family, and he looked to become another Richelieu or Mazarin, the first Minister of the Crown, the empurpled ruler of France, the guiding power behind the throne. All this he looked confidently to achieve; all this he might have achieved but for the obstacle that Marie Therese's resentment flung across his path. The Empress saw to it that, through the person of her daughter, her hatred should pursue him even into France.
Obedient ever to the iron will of her mother, sharing her mother's resentment, Marie Antoinette exerted all her influence to thwart this Cardinal whom her mother had taught her to regard as a dangerous, unprincipled man.
On his return from Vienna bearing letters from Marie Therese to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the Cardinal found himself coldly received by the dull King, and discouraged from remaining at Court, whilst the Queen refused to grant him so much as the audience necessary for the delivery of these letters, desiring him to forward them instead.
The chagrined Cardinal had no illusions. He beheld here the hand of Marie Therese controlling Marie Antoinette, and, through Marie Antoinette, the King himself. Worse followed. He who had dreamt himself another Richelieu could only with difficulty obtain the promised position of Grand Almoner of France, and this solely as a result of the powerful and insistent influence exerted by his family.
He perceived that if he was to succeed at all he must begin by softening the rigorous attitude which the Queen maintained towards him. To that end he addressed himself. But three successive letters he wrote to the Queen remained unanswered. Through other channels persistently he begged for an audience that he might come in person to express his regrets for the offending indiscretion. But the Queen remained unmoved, ruled ever by the Austrian Empress, who through her daughter sought to guide the affairs of France.
Rohan was reduced to despair, and then in an evil hour his path was crossed by Jeanne de la Motte de Valois, who enjoyed the reputation of secretly possessing the friendship of the Queen, exerting a sort of back-stair influence, and who lived on that reputation.
As a drowning man clutches at a straw, so the Cardinal-Prince Louis de Rohan, Grand Almoner of France, Landgrave of Alsace, Commander of the Order of the Holy Ghost, clutched at this faiseuse d'affaires to help him in his desperate need.
Jeanne de la Motte de Valois—perhaps the most astounding adventuress that ever lived by her wits and her beauty—had begun life by begging her bread in the streets. She laid claim to left-handed descent from the royal line of Valois, and, her claim supported by the Marchioness Boulainvilliers, who had befriended her, she had obtained from the Crown a small pension, and had married the unscrupulous Marc Antoine de la Motte, a young soldier in the Burgundy regiment of the Gendarmerie.
Later, in the autumn of 1786, her protectress presented her to Cardinal de Rohan. His Eminence, interested in the lady's extraordinary history, in her remarkable beauty, vivacity, and wit, received the De la Mottes at his sumptuous chateau at Saverne, near Strasbourg, heard her story in greater detail, promised his protection, and as an earnest of his kindly intentions obtained for her husband a captain's commission in the Dragoons.
Thereafter you see the De la Mottes in Paris and at Versailles, hustled from lodging to lodging for failure to pay what they owe; and finally installed in a house in the Rue Neuve Saint-Gilles. There they kept a sort of state, spending lavishly, now the money borrowed from the Cardinal, or upon the Cardinal's security; now the proceeds of pawned goods that had been bought on credit, and of other swindles practised upon those who were impressed by the lady's name and lineage and the patronage of the great Cardinal which she enjoyed.
To live on your wits is no easy matter. It demands infinite address, coolness, daring, and resource qualities which Madame de la Motte possessed in the highest degree, so that, harassed and pressed by creditors, she yet contrived to evade their attacks and to present a calm and, therefore, confidence-inspiring front to the world.
The truth of Madame de la Motte de Valois's reputation for influence at Court was never doubted. There was nothing in the character of Marie Antoinette to occasion such doubts. Indiscreet in many things, Her Majesty was most notoriously so in her attachments, as witness her intimacy with Madame de Polignac and the Princesse de Lambelle. And the public voice had magnified—as it will—those indiscretions until it had torn her character into shreds.
The fame of the Countess Jeanne de Valois—as Madame de la Motte now styled herself—increasing, she was employed as an intermediary by place-seekers and people with suits to prefer, who gratefully purchased her promises to interest herself on their behalf at Court.
And then into her web of intrigue blundered the Cardinal de Rohan, who, as he confessed, "was completely blinded by his immense desire to regain the good graces of the Queen." She aroused fresh hope in his despairing heart by protesting that, as some return for all the favours she had received from him, she would not rest until she had disposed the Queen more favourably towards him.
Later came assurances that the Queen's hostility was melting under her persuasions, and at last she announced that she was authorized by Her Majesty to invite him to submit the justification which so long and so vainly he had sought permission to present.
Rohan, in a vertigo of satisfaction, indited his justification, forwarded it to the Queen by the hand of the Countess, and some days later received a note in the Queen's hand upon blue-edged paper adorned by the lilies of France.
"I rejoice," wrote Marie Antoinette, "to find at last that you were not in fault. I cannot yet grant you the audience you desire, but as soon as the circumstances allow of it I shall let you know. Be discreet."
Upon the advice of the Countess of Valois, His Eminence sent a reply expressive of his deep gratitude and joy.
Thus began a correspondence between Queen and Cardinal which continued regularly for a space of three months, growing gradually more confidential and intimate. As time passed his solicitations of an audience became more pressing, until at last the Queen wrote announcing that, actuated by esteem and affection for him who had so long been kept in banishment, she herself desired the meeting. But it must be secret. An open audience would still be premature; he had numerous enemies at Court, who, thus forewarned, might so exert themselves against him as yet to ruin all.
To receive such a letter from a beautiful woman, and that woman a queen whose glories her inaccessibility had magnified a thousandfold in his imagination, must have all but turned the Cardinal's head. The secrecy of the correspondence, culminating in a clandestine meeting, seemed to establish between them an intimacy impossible under other circumstances.
Into the warp of his ambition was now woven another, tenderly romantic, though infinitely respectful, feeling.
You realize, I hope, the frame of mind in which the Cardinal-Prince took his way through that luminous, fragrant summer night towards the Grove of Venus. He went to lay the cornerstone of the proud edifice of his ambitions. To him it was a night of nights—a night of gems, he pronounced it, looking up into the jewelled vault of heaven. And in that phrase he was singularly prophetic.
By an avenue of boxwood and yoke-elm he entered into an open glade, in the middle of which there was a circle where the intended statue of Venus was never placed. But if the cold marble effigy of a goddess were absent, the warm, living figure of a queen stood, all in shimmering white amid the gloom, awaiting him.
Rohan checked a moment, his breath arrested, his pulses quickened. Then he sped forward, and, flinging off his wide-brimmed hat, he prostrated himself to kiss the hem of her white cambric gown. Something—a rose that she let fall—brushed lightly past his cheek. Reverently he recovered it, accounting it a tangible symbol of her favour, and he looked up into the proud, lovely face—which, although but dimly discernible, was yet unmistakable to him protesting his gratitude and devotion. He perceived that she was trembling, and caught the quiver in the voice that answered him.
"You may hope that the past will be forgiven."
And then, before he could drink more deeply of this cup of delight, came rapid steps to interrupt them. A slender man, in whom the Cardinal seemed to recognize the Queen's valet Desclaux, thrust through the curtains of foliage into the grove.
"Quick, madame!" he exclaimed in agitation. "Madame la Comtesse and Mademoiselle d'Artois are approaching!"
The Queen was whirled away, and the Cardinal discreetly effaced himself, his happiness tempered by chagrin at the interruption.
When, on the morrow, the Countess of Valois brought him a blue-bordered note with Her Majesty's wishes that he should patiently await a propitious season for his public restoration to royal favour, he resigned himself with the most complete and satisfied submission. Had he not the memory of her voice and the rose she had given him? Soon afterwards came a blue-bordered note in which Marie Antoinette advised him to withdraw to his Bishopric of Strasbourg until she should judge that the desired season of his reinstatement had arrived.
Obediently Rohan withdrew.
It was in the following December that the Countess of Valois's good offices at Court were solicited by a new client, and that she first beheld the famous diamond necklace.
It had been made by the Court jewellers of the Rue Vendome—Bohmer and Bassenge—and intended for the Countess du Barry. On the assembling of its component gems Bohmer had laboured for five years and travelled all over Europe, with the result that he had achieved not so much a necklace as a blazing scarf of diamonds of a splendour outrivalling any jewel that the world had ever seen.
Unfortunately, Bohmer was too long over the task. Louis XV died inopportunely, and the firm found itself with a necklace worth two million livres on its hands.
Hopes were founded upon Marie Antoinette's reputed extravagance. But the price appalled her, while Louis XVI met the importunities of the jeweller with the reply that the country needed a ship of war more urgently than a necklace.
Thereafter Bohmer offered it in various Courts of Europe, but always without success. Things were becoming awkward. The firm had borrowed heavily to pay for the stones, and anxiety seems to have driven Bohmer to the verge of desperation. Again he offered the necklace to the King, announcing himself ready to make terms, and to accept payment in instalments; but again it was refused.
Bohmer now became that pest to society, the man with a grievance that he must be venting everywhere. On one occasion he so far forgot himself as to intrude upon the Queen as she was walking in the gardens of the Trianon. Flinging himself upon his knees before her, he protested with sobs that he was in despair, and that unless she purchased the necklace he would go and drown himself. His tears left her unmoved to anything but scorn.
"Get up, Bohmer!" she bade him. "I don't like such scenes. I have refused the necklace, and I don't want to hear of it again. Instead of drowning yourself, break it up and sell the diamonds separately."
He did neither one nor the other, but continued to air his grievance; and among those who heard him was one Laporte, an impecunious visitor at the house of the Countess of Valois.
Bohmer had said that he would pay a thousand louis to any one who found him a purchaser for the necklace. That was enough to stir the needy Laporte. He mentioned the matter to the Countess, and enlisted her interest. Then he told Bohmer of her great influence with the Queen, and brought the jeweller to visit her with the necklace.
Dazzled by the fire of those gems, the Countess nevertheless protested—but in an arch manner calculated to convince Bohmer of the contrary—that she had no power to influence Her Majesty. Yet yielding with apparent reluctance to his importunities, she, nevertheless, ended by promising to see what could be done.
On January 3d the Cardinal came back from Strasbourg. Correspondence with the Queen, through Madame de Valois, had continued during his absence, and now, within a few days of his return, an opportunity was to be afforded him of proving his readiness to serve Her Majesty, and of placing her under a profound obligation to him.
The Countess brought him a letter from Marie Antoinette, in which the Queen expressed her desire to acquire the necklace, but added that, being without the requisite funds at the moment, it would be necessary to settle the terms and arrange the instalments, which should be paid at intervals of three months. For this she required an intermediary who in himself would be a sufficient guarantee to the Bohmers, and she ended by inviting His Eminence to act on her behalf.
That invitation the Cardinal, who had been waiting ever since the meeting in the Grove of Venus for an opportunity of proving himself, accepted with alacrity.
And so, on January 24th, the Countess drives up to the Grand Balcon, the jewellers' shop in the Rue Vendome. Her dark eyes sparkle, the lovely, piquant face is wreathed in smiles.
"Messieurs," she greets the anxious partners, "I think I can promise you that the necklace will very shortly be sold."
The jewellers gasp in the immensity of the hope her words arouse.
"The purchase," she goes on to inform them, "will be effected by a very great nobleman."
Bassenge bursts into voluble gratitude. She cuts it short.
"That nobleman is the Cardinal-Prince Louis de Rohan. It is with him that you will arrange the affair, and I advise you," she adds in a confidential tone, "to take every precaution, especially in the matter of the terms of payment that may be proposed to you. That is all, I think, messieurs. You will, of course, bear in mind that it is no concern of mine, and that I do not so much as want my name mentioned in connection with it."
"Perfectly, madame," splutters Bohmer, who is perspiring, although the air is cold—"perfectly! We understand, and we are profoundly grateful. If—" His hands fumble nervously at a case. "If you would deign, madame, to accept this trifle as an earnest of our indebtedness, we—"
There is a tinge of haughtiness in her manner as she interrupts him.
"You do not appear to understand, Bohmer, that the matter does not at all concern me. I have done nothing," she insists; then, melting into smiles, "My only desire," she adds, "was to be of service to you."
And upon that she departs, leaving them profoundly impressed by her graciousness and still more by her refusal to accept a valuable jewel.
On the morrow the great nobleman she had heralded, the Cardinal himself, alighted at the Grand Balcon, coming, on the Queen's behalf, to see the necklace and settle the terms. By the end of the week the bargain was concluded. The price was fixed at 1,600,000 livres, which the Queen was to pay in four instalments extending over two years, the first falling due on the following August 1st.
These terms the Cardinal embodied in a note which he forwarded to Madame de la Motte, that they might be ratified by the Queen.
The Countess returned the note to him next day.
"Her Majesty is pleased and grateful," she announced, "and she approves of all that you have done. But she does not wish to sign anything."
On that point, however, the Cardinal was insistent. The magnitude of the transaction demanded it, and he positively refused to move further without Her Majesty's signature.
The Countess departed to return again on the last day of the month with the document completed as the Cardinal required, bearing now the signature "Marie Antoinette de France," and the terms marked "approved" in the Queen's hand.
"The Queen," Madame de la Motte informed him, "is making this purchase secretly, without the King's knowledge, and she particularly begs that this note shall not leave Your Eminence's hands. Do not, therefore, allow any one to see it."
Rohan gave the required promise, but, not conceiving that the Bohmers were included in it, he showed them the note and the Queen's signature when they came to wait upon him with the necklace on the morrow.
In the dusk of evening a closed carriage drew up at the door of Madame de la Motte Valois's lodging on the Place Dauphine at Versailles. Rohan alighted, and went upstairs with a casket under his arm.
Madame awaited him in a white-panelled, indifferently lighted room, to which there was an alcove with glass doors.
"You have brought the necklace?"
"It is here," he replied, tapping the box with his gloved hand.
"Her Majesty is expecting it to-night. Her messenger should arrive at any moment. She will be pleased with Your Eminence."
"That is all that I can desire," he answered gravely; and sat down in answer to her invitation, the precious casket on his knees.
Waiting thus, they talked desultorily for some moments. At last came steps upon the stairs.
"Quick! The alcove!" she exclaimed. "You must not be seen by Her Majesty's messenger."
Rohan, with ready understanding, a miracle of discretion, effaced himself into the alcove, through the glass doors of which he could see what passed.
The door was opened by madame's maid with the announcement:
"From the Queen."
A tall, slender young man in black, the Queen's attendant of that other night of gems—the night of the Grove of Venus—stepped quickly into the room, bowed like a courtier to Madame de la Motte, and presented a note.
Madame broke the seal, then begged the messenger to withdraw for a moment. When he had gone, she turned to the Cardinal, who stood in the doorway of the alcove.
"That is Desclaux, Her Majesty's valet," she said; and held out to him the note, which requested the delivery of the necklace to the bearer.
A moment later the messenger was reintroduced to receive the casket from the hands of Madame de la Motte. Within five minutes the Cardinal was in his carriage again, driving happily back to Paris with his dreams of a queen's gratitude and confidence.
Two days later, meeting Bohmer at Versailles, the Cardinal suggested to him that he should offer his thanks to the Queen for having purchased the necklace.
Bohmer sought an opportunity for this in vain. None offered. It was also in vain that he waited to hear that the Queen had worn the necklace. But he does not appear to have been anxious on that score. Moreover, the Queen's abstention was credibly explained by Madame de la Motte to Laporte with the statement that Her Majesty did not wish to wear the necklace until it was paid for.
With the same explanation she answered the Cardinal's inquiries in the following July, when he returned from a three months' sojourn in Strasbourg.
And she took the opportunity to represent to him that one of the reasons why the Queen could not yet consider the necklace quite her own was that she found the price too high.
"Indeed, she may be constrained to return it, after all, unless the Bohmers are prepared to be reasonable."
If His Eminence was a little dismayed by this, at least any nascent uneasiness was quieted. He consented to see the jewellers in the matter, and on July 10th—three weeks before the first instalment was due—he presented himself at the Grand Balcon to convey the Queen's wishes to the Bohmers.
Bohmer scarcely troubled to prevent disgust from showing on his keen, swarthy countenance. Had not his client been a queen and her intermediary a cardinal, he would, no doubt, have afforded it full expression.
"The price agreed upon was already greatly below the value of the necklace," he grumbled. "I should never have accepted it but for the difficulties under which we have been placed by the purchase of the stones—the money we owe and the interest we are forced to pay. A further reduction is impossible."
The handsome Cardinal was suave, courtly, regretful, but firm. Since that was the case, there would be no alternative but to return the necklace.
Bohmer took fright. The annulment of the sale would bring him face to face with ruin. Reluctantly, feeling that he was being imposed upon, he reduced the price by two hundred thousand livres, and even consented to write the Queen the following letter, whose epistolary grace suggests the Cardinal's dictation:
MADAME,—We are happy to hazard the thought that our submission with zeal and respect to the last arrangement proposed constitutes a proof of our devotion and obedience to the orders of Your Majesty. And we have genuine satisfaction in thinking that the most beautiful set of diamonds in existence will serve to adorn the greatest and best of queens.
Now it happened that Bohmer was about to deliver personally to the Queen some jewels with which the King was presenting her on the occasion of the baptism of his nephew. He availed himself of that opportunity, two days later, personally to hand his letter to Her Majesty. But chance brought the Comptroller-General into the room before she had opened it, and as a result the jeweller departed while the letter was, still unread.
Afterwards, in the presence of Madame de Campan, who relates the matter in her memoirs, the Queen opened the note, pored over it a while, and then, perhaps with vivid memories of Bohmer's threat of suicide:
"Listen to what that madman Bohmer writes to me," she said, and read the lines aloud. "You guessed the riddles in the 'Mercure' this morning. I wonder could you guess me this one."
And, with a half-contemptuous shrug, she held the sheet in the flame of one of the tapers that stood alight on the table for the purpose of sealing letters.
"That man exists for my torment," she continued. "He has always some mad notion in his head, and must always be visiting it upon me. When next you see him, pray convince him how little I care for diamonds."
And there the matter was dismissed.
Days passed, and then a week before the instalment of 350,000 livres was due, the Cardinal received a visit from Madame de la Motte on the Queen's behalf.
"Her Majesty," madame announced, "seems embarrassed about the instalment. She does not wish to trouble you by writing about it. But I have thought of a way by which you could render yourself agreeable to her and, at the same time, set her mind at rest. Could you not raise a loan for the amount?"
Had not the Cardinal himself dictated to Bohmer a letter which Bohmer himself had delivered to the Queen, he must inevitably have suspected by now that all was not as it should be. But, satisfied as he was by that circumstance, he addressed himself to the matter which Madame de la Motte proposed. But, although Rohan was extraordinarily wealthy, he had ever been correspondingly lavish.
Moreover, to complicate matters, there had been the bankruptcy of his nephew, the Prince de Guimenee, whose debts had amounted to some three million livres. Characteristically, and for the sake of the family honour, Rohan had taken the whole of this burden upon his own shoulders. Hence his resources were in a crippled condition, and it was beyond his power to advance so considerable a sum at such short notice. Nor did he succeed in obtaining a loan within the little time at his disposal.
His anxieties on this score were increased by a letter from the Queen which Madame de la Motte brought him on July 30th, in which Her Majesty wrote that the first instalment could not be paid until October 1st; but that on that date a payment of seven hundred thousand livres—half of the revised price—would unfailingly be made. Together with this letter, Madame de la Motte handed him thirty thousand livres, interest on the instalment due, with which to pacify the jewellers.
But the jewellers were not so easily to be pacified. Bohmer, at the end of his patience, definitely refused to grant the postponement or to receive the thirty thousand livres other than as on account of the instalment due.
The Cardinal departed in vexation. Something must be done at once, or his secret relations with the Queen would be disclosed, thus precipitating a catastrophe and a scandal. He summoned Madame de la Motte, flung her into a panic with his news and sent her away to see what she could do. What she actually did would have surprised him. Realizing that a crisis had been reached calling for bold measures, she sent for Bassenge, the milder of the two partners. He came to the Rue Neuve Saint-Gilles, protesting that he was being abused.
"Abused?" quoth she, taking him up on the word. "Abused, do you say?" She laughed sharply. "Say duped, my friend; for that is what has happened to you. You are the victim of a swindle."
Bassenge turned white; his prominent eyes bulged in his rather pasty face.
"What are you saying, madame?" His voice was husky.
"The Queen's signature on the note in the Cardinal's possession is a forgery."
"A forgery! The Queen's signature? Oh, mon Dieu!" He stared at her, and his knees began to tremble. "How do you know, madame?"
"I have seen it," she answered.
His nerveless limbs succumbing under him, he sank without ceremony to a chair that was opportunely near him. With the same lack of ceremony, mechanically, in a dazed manner, he mopped the sweat that stood in beads on his brow, then raised his wig and mopped his head.
"There is no need to waste emotion," said she composedly. "The Cardinal de Rohan is very rich. You must look to him. He will pay you."
Hope and doubt were blended in the question.
"What else?" she asked. "Can you conceive that he will permit such a scandal to burst about his name and the name of the Queen?"
Bassenge saw light. The rights and wrongs of the case, and who might be the guilty parties, were matters of very secondary importance. What mattered was that the firm should recover the 14,000,000 livres for which the necklace had been sold; and Bassenge was quick to attach full value to the words of Madame de la Motte.
Unfortunately for everybody concerned, including the jewellers themselves, Bohmer's mind was less supple. Panic-stricken by Bassenge's report, he was all for the direct method. There was no persuading him to proceed cautiously, and to begin by visiting the Cardinal. He tore away to Versailles at once, intent upon seeing the Queen. But the Queen, as we know, had had enough of Bohmer. He had to content himself with pouring his mixture of intercessions and demands into the ears of Madame de Campan.
"You have been swindled, Bohmer," said the Queen's lady promptly. "Her Majesty never received the necklace."
Bohmer would not be convinced. Disbelieving, and goaded to fury, he returned to Bassenge.
Bassenge, however, though perturbed, retained his calm. The Cardinal, he insisted, was their security, and it was impossible to doubt that the Cardinal would fulfil his obligations at all costs, rather than be overwhelmed by a scandal.
And this, no doubt, is what would have happened but for that hasty visit of Bohmer's to Versailles. It ruined everything. As a result of it, Bohmer was summoned to wait instantly upon the Queen in the mater of some paste buckles.
The Queen received the jeweller in private, and her greeting proved that the paste buckles were a mere pretext. She demanded to know the meaning of his words to Madame de Campan.
Bohmer could not rid himself of the notion that he was being trifled with. Had he not written and himself delivered to the Queen a letter in which he thanked her for purchasing the necklace, and had not that letter remained unanswered—a silent admission that the necklace was in her hands? In his exasperation he became insolent.
"The meaning, madame? The meaning is that I require payment for my necklace, that the patience of my creditors is exhausted, and that unless you order the money to be paid, I am a ruined man!"
Marie Antoinette considered him in cold, imperious anger.
"Are you daring to suggest that your necklace is in my possession?"
Bohmer was white to the lips, his hands worked nervously.
"Does Your Majesty deny it?"
"You are insolent!" she exclaimed. "You will be good enough to answer questions, not to ask them. Answer me, then. Do you suggest that I have your necklace?"
But a desperate man is not easily intimidated.
"No, madame; I affirm it! It was the Countess of Valois who—"
"Who is the Countess of Valois?"
That sudden question, sharply uttered, was a sword of doubt through the heart of Bohmer's confidence. He stared wide-eyed a moment at the indignant lady before him, then collected himself, and made as plain a tale as he could of the circumstances under which he had parted with the necklace Madame de la Motte's intervention, the mediation of the Cardinal de Rohan with Her Majesty's signed approval of the terms, and the delivery of the necklace to His Eminence for transmission to the Queen.
Marie Antoinette listened in increasing horror and anger. A flush crept into her pale cheeks.
"You will prepare and send me a written statement of what you have just told me," she said. "You have leave to go."
That interview took place on August 9th. The 15th was the Feast of the Assumption, and also the name-day of the Queen, therefore a gala day at Court, bringing a concourse of nobility to Versailles. Mass was to be celebrated in the royal chapel at ten o'clock, and the celebrant, as by custom established for the occasion, was the Grand Almoner of France, the Cardinal de Rohan.
But at ten o'clock a meeting was being held in the King's cabinet, composed of the King and Queen, the Baron de Breteuil, and the Keeper of the Seals, Miromesnil. They were met, as they believed, to decide upon a course of action in the matter of a diamond necklace. In reality, these puppets in the hands of destiny were helping to decide the fate of the French monarchy.
The King, fat, heavy, and phlegmatic, sat in a gilded chair by an ormolu-encrusted writing-table. His bovine eyes were troubled. Two wrinkles of vexation puckered the flesh above his great nose. Beside, and slightly behind him, stood the Queen, white and imperious, whilst facing them stood Monsieur de Breteuil, reading aloud the statement which Bohmer had drawn up.
When he had done, there was a moment's utter silence. Then the King spoke, his voice almost plaintive.
"What is to be done, then? But what is to be done?"
It was the Queen who answered him, harshly and angrily.
"When the Roman purple and a princely title are but masks to cover a swindler, there is only one thing to be done. This swindler must be exposed and punished."
"But," the King faltered, "we have not heard the Cardinal."
"Can you think that Bohmer, that any man, would dare to lie upon such a matter?"
"But consider, madame, the Cardinal's rank and family," calmly interposed the prudent Miromesnil; "consider the stir, the scandal that must ensue if this matter is made public."
But the obedient daughter of Marie Therese, hating Rohan at her mother's bidding and for her mother's sake, was impatient of any such wise considerations.
"What shall the scandal signify to us?" she demanded. The King looked at Breteuil.
"And you, Baron? What is your view?"
Breteuil, Rohan's mortal enemy, raised his shoulders and flipped the document.
"In the face of this, Sire, it seems to me that the only course is to arrest the Cardinal."
"You believe, then—" began the King, and checked, leaving the sentence unfinished.
But Breteuil had understood.
"I know that the Cardinal must be pressed for money," he said. "Ever prodigal in his expenditure, he is further saddled with the debts of the Prince de Guimenee."
"And you can believe," the King cried, "that a Prince of the House of Rohan, however pressed for money, could—Oh, it is unimaginable!"
"Yet has he not stolen my name?" the Queen cut in. "Is he not proven a common, stupid forger?"
"We have not heard him," the King reminded her gently.
"And His Eminence might be able to explain," ventured Miromesnil. "It were certainly prudent to give him the opportunity."
Slowly the King nodded his great, powdered head. "Go and find him. Bring him at once!" he bade Breteuil; and Breteuil bowed and departed.
Very soon he returned, and he held the door whilst the handsome Cardinal, little dreaming what lay before him, serene and calm, a commanding figure in his cassock of scarlet watered silk, rustled forward into the royal presence, and so came face to face with the Queen for the first time since that romantic night a year ago in the Grove of Venus.
Abruptly the King launched his thunderbolt.
"Cousin," he asked, "what purchase is this of a diamond necklace that you are said to have made in the Queen's name?"
King and Cardinal looked into each other's eyes, the King's narrowing, the Cardinal's dilating, the King leaning forward in his chair, elbows on the table, the Cardinal standing tense and suddenly rigid.
Slowly the colour ebbed from Rohan's face, leaving it deathly pale. His eyes sought the Queen, and found her contemptuous glance, her curling lip. Then at last his handsome head sank a little forward.
"Sire," he said unsteadily, "I see that I have been duped. But I have duped nobody."
"You have no reason to be troubled, then. You need but to explain."
Explain! That was precisely what he could not do. Besides, what was the nature of the explanation demanded of him? Whilst he stood stricken there, it was the Queen who solved this question.
"If, indeed, you have been duped," she said scornfully, her colour high, her eyes like points of steel, "you have been self-duped. But even then it is beyond belief that self-deception could have urged you to the lengths of passing yourself off as my intermediary—you, who should know yourself to be the last man in France I should employ, you to whom I have not spoken once in eight years." Tears of anger glistened in her eyes; her voice shrilled up. "And yet, since you have not denied it, since you put forward this pitiful plea that you have been duped, we must believe the unbelievable."
Thus at a blow she shattered the fond hopes he had been cherishing ever since the night of gems—of gems, forsooth!—in the Grove of Venus; thus she laid his ambition in ruins about him, and left the man himself half stunned.
Observing his disorder, the ponderous but kindly monarch rose.
"Come, my cousin," he said more gently, "collect yourself. Sit down here and write what you may have to say in answer."
And with that he passed into the library beyond, accompanied by the Queen and the two Ministers.
Alone, Rohan staggered forward and sank nervelessly into the chair. He took up a pen, pondered a moment, and began to write. But he did not yet see clear. He could not yet grasp the extent to which he had been deceived, could not yet believe that those treasured notes from Marie Antoinette were forgeries, that it was not the Queen who had met him in the Grove of Venus and given him the rose whose faded petals kept those letters company in a portfolio of red morocco. But at least it was clear to him that, for the sake of honour—the Queen's honour—he must assume it so; and in that assumption he now penned his statement.
When it was completed, himself he bore it to the King in the library.
Louis read it with frowning brows; then passed it to the Queen.
"Have you the necklace now?" he asked Rohan.
"Sir, I left it in the hands of this woman Valois."
"Where is this woman?"
"I do not know, Sire."
"And the letter of authority bearing the Queen's signature, which the jewellers say you presented to them—where is that?"
"I have it, Sire. I will place it before you. It is only now that I realize that it is a forgery."
"Only now!" exclaimed the Queen in scorn.
"Her Majesty's name has been compromised," said the King sternly. "It must be cleared. As King and as husband my duty is clear. Your Eminence must submit to arrest."
Rohan fell back a step in stupefaction. For disgrace and dismissal he was prepared, but not for this.
"Arrest?" he whispered. "Ah, wait, Sire. The publicity! The scandal! Think of that! As for the necklace, I will pay for it myself, and so pay for my credulous folly. I beseech you, Sire, to let the matter end here. I implore it for my own sake, for the sake of the Prince de Soubise and the name of Rohan, which would be smirched unjustly and to no good purpose."
He spoke with warmth and force; and, without adding more, yet conveyed an impression that much more could be said for the course he urged.
The King hesitated, considering. Noting this, the prudent, far-seeing Miromesnil ventured to develop the arguments at which Rohan had hinted, laying stress upon the desirability of avoiding scandal.
Louis was nodding, convinced, when Marie Antoinette, unable longer to contain her rancour, broke into opposition of those prudent measures.
"This hideous affair must be disclosed," she insisted. "It is due to me that it should publicly be set right. The Cardinal shall tell the world how he came to suppose that, not having spoken to him for eight years, I could have wished to make use of his services in the purchase of this necklace."
She was in tears, and her weak, easily swayed husband accounted her justified in her demand. And so, to the great consternation of all the world, Prince Louis de Rohan was arrested like a common thief.
A foolish, indiscreet, short-sighted woman had allowed her rancour to override all other considerations—careless of consequences, careless of injustice so that her resentment, glutted by her hatred of the Cardinal, should be gratified. The ungenerous act was terribly to recoil upon her. In tears and blood was she to expiate her lack of charity; very soon she was to reap its bitter fruits.
Saint-Just, a very prominent counsellor of the Parliament, one of the most advanced apostles of the new ideas that were to find full fruition in the Revolution, expressed the popular feeling in the matter.
"Great and joyful affair! A cardinal and a queen implicated in a forgery and a swindle! Filth on the crosier and the sceptre! What a triumph for the ideas of liberty!"
At the trial that followed before Parliament, Madame de la Motte, a man named Reteaux de Villette—who had forged the Queen's hand and impersonated Desclaux and a Mademoiselle d'Oliva—who had used her striking resemblance to Marie Antoinette to impersonate the Queen in the Grove of Venus were found guilty and sentenced. But the necklace was not recovered. It had been broken up, and some of the diamonds were already sold; others were being sold in London by Captain de la Motte, who had gone thither for the purpose, and who prudently remained there.
The Cardinal was acquitted, amid intense public joy and acclamation, which must have been gall and wormwood to the Queen. His powerful family, the clergy of France, and the very people, with whom he had ever been popular, had all laboured strenuously to vindicate him. And thus it befell that the one man the Queen had aimed at crushing was the only person connected with the affair who came out of it unhurt. The Queen's animus against the Cardinal aroused against her the animus of his friends of all classes. Appalling libels of her were circulated throughout Europe. It was thought and argued that she was more deeply implicated in the swindle than had transpired, that Madame de la Motte was a scapegoat, that the Queen should have stood her trial with the others, and that she was saved only by the royalty that hedged her.
Conceive what a weapon this placed in the hands of the men of the new ideas of liberty—men who were bent on proving the corruption of a system they sought to destroy!
Marie Antoinette should have foreseen something of this. She might have done so had not her hatred blinded her, had she been less intent upon seizing the opportunity at all costs to make Rohan pay for his barbed witticism upon her mother. She might have been spared much had she but spared Rohan when the chance was hers. As it was, the malevolent echoes of the affair and of Saint-Just's exultation were never out of her ears. They followed her to her trial eight years later before the revolutionary tribunal. They followed her to the very scaffold, of which they had undoubtedly supplied a plank.