XLI

The diamond necklace.

In my sketch of Joseph Balsamo, alias the Count Alessandro de Cagliostro, I referred to the affair of the diamond necklace, known in French history as the Collier de la Reine, or Queen’s necklace, from the manner in which the name and reputation of Marie Antoinette, the consort of Louis XVI, became entangled in it. I shall now give a brief account of this celebrated imposition⁠—perhaps the boldest and shrewdest ever known, and almost wholly the work of a woman.

On the Quai de la Ferraille, not far from the Pont Neuf, stood the establishment, part shop, part manufactory, of Messrs. Boehmer & Bassange, the most celebrated jewelers of their day. After triumphs which had given them worldwide fame during the reign of Louis XV, and made them fabulously rich, they determined, with the advent of Louis XVI, to eclipse all their former efforts and crown the professional glory of their lives. Their correspondents in every chief jewel market of the world were summoned to aid their enterprise, and in the course of some two or three years they succeeded in collecting the finest and most remarkable diamonds that could be procured in the whole world of commerce.

The next idea was to combine all these superb fragments in one grand ornament to grace the form of beauty. A necklace was the article fixed upon, and the best experience and most delicate taste that Europe could boast were expended on the design. Each and every diamond was specially set and faced in such manner as to reveal its excellence to the utmost advantage, and all were arranged together in the style best calculated to harmonize their united effect. Form, shape, and the minutest shades of color were studied, and the result, after many attempts and many failures, and the anxious labor of many months, was the most exquisite triumph that the genius of the lapidary and the goldsmith could conceive.

The whole necklace consisted of three triple rows of diamonds, or nine rows in all, containing eight hundred faultless gems. The triple rows fell away from each in the most graceful and flexible curves over each side of the breast and each shoulder of the wearer, the curves starting from the throat, whence a magnificent pendant, depending from a single knot of diamonds, each as large as a hazelnut, hung down half way upon the bosom in the design of a cross and crown, surrounded by the lilies of the royal house⁠—the lilies themselves dangling on stems which were strung with smaller jewels. Rich clusters and festoons spread from the loop over each shoulder, and the central loop on the back of the neck was joined in a pattern of emblematic magnificence corresponding with that in front.

It was in 1782 that this grand work was finally completed, and the happy owners gloated with delight over a monument of skill as matchless in its way as the Pyramids themselves. But, alas! the necklace might as well have been constructed of the common boulders piled in those same pyramids as of the finest jewels of the mine, for all the good it seemed destined to bring the poor jewelers, beyond the rapture of beholding it and calling it theirs.

The necklace was worth 1,500,000 francs, equivalent to more than $300,000 in gold, as money then went, or nearly $500,000 in gold, nowadays. Rather too large a sum to keep locked up in a casket, the reader will confess! And then it seems that Messrs. Boehmer & Bassange had not entirely paid for it yet. They had ten creditors on the diamonds in different countries, and an immense capital still locked up in their other jewelry.

Of course, then, after their first delight had subsided, they were most anxious to sell an article that had to be constantly and painfully watched, and that might so easily disappear. How many a nimble-fingered and stouthearted rogue would not, in those days, have imperiled a dozen lives to clutch that blazing handful of dross, convertible into an Elysium of pomp and pleasure! It would hardly have been a safe noonday plaything in moral Gotham, let alone the dissolute Paris of eighty years ago!

The first thought, of course, that kindled in the breasts of Boehmer and Bassange was, that the only proper resting-place for their matchless bauble was the snowy neck of the Queen Marie Antoinette, then the admired and beloved of all! Her peerless beauty alone could live in the glow of such supernal splendor, and the French throne was the only one in Christendom that could sustain such glittering weight. Moreover, the Queen had already once been a good customer to the court jewelers, for in 1774 she bought four diamonds of them for $75,000.

Louis XV would not have hesitated to fling it on the shoulders of the Du Barry, and Louis XVI, in spite of his odd notions upon economy and just administration, easily listened to the delicate insinuations of his court-jewelers; and, one fine morning, laid the necklace in its casket on the table of his Queen. Her Majesty, for a moment, yielded to the promptings of feminine weakness, and danced and laughed with the glee of an overjoyed child in the new sunshine of those burning, sparkling, dazzling gems. Once and once only she placed it on her neck and breast, and probably the world has never before or since seen such a countenance in such a setting. It was almost the head of an angel shining in the glory of the spheres. But a better thought prevailed, and quickly removing it, she, with a wave of her beautiful hand, declined the gift and besought the King to apply the sum to any other purpose that would be useful or honorable to France, whose finances were sadly straitened. “We want ships of war more than we do necklaces,” said she. The King was really delighted at this act of the Queen’s, and the incident soon becoming widely known, gave the latter immense popularity for at least twenty-four hours after it occurred. In fact, the amount was really applied to the construction of a grand line-of-battle ship called the Suffren, after the great Admiral of that name.

Boehmer, who seems to have been the business manager of the jeweler firm, found his necklace as troublesome as the cobbler did the elephant he won in a raffle, and tried so perseveringly to induce the Queen to buy it, that he became a real torment. She seems to have thought him a little cracked on the subject; and one day, when he obtained a private audience, he besought her either to buy the necklace or to let him go and drown himself in the Seine. Out of all patience, the Queen intimated that he would have been wiser to secure a customer to begin with; that she would not buy; that if he chose to throw himself into the Seine it would be entirely on his own responsibility; and that as for the necklace, he had better pick it to pieces and sell it. The poor German (for Boehmer was a native of Saxony) departed in deep distress, but accepted neither his own suggestion nor the Queen’s.

For some months after this, the court jewelers busied themselves in peddling their necklace about among the courts of Europe. But none of these concerns found it convenient just then to pay out three hundred and sixty thousand dollars for a concatenation of eight hundred diamonds; and still the sparkling elephant remained on the jewelers’ hands.

Time passed on. Madame Campan, one of the Queen’s confidential ladies, happened to meet Boehmer one day, and the necklace was alluded to.

“What is the state of affairs about the necklace,” asked the lady.

“Highly satisfactory,” replied Boehmer, whose serenity of countenance Madame Campan had already remarked. “I have sold it to the Sultan at Constantinople, for his favorite Sultana.”

This the lady thought rather curious, but she was glad the thing was disposed of, and said no more.

Time passed on again. In the beginning of August 1785, Boehmer took the trouble to call on Madame Campan at her country-house, somewhat to her surprise.

“Has the Queen given you no message for me?” he inquired.

“No!” said the lady; “What message should she give?”

“An answer to my note,” said the jeweler.

Madame remembered a note which the Queen had received from Boehmer a little while before, along with some ornaments sent by his hands to her as a present from the King. It congratulated her on having the finest diamonds in Europe, and hoped she would remember him. The Queen could make nothing of it, and destroyed it. Madame Campan therefore replied,

“There is no answer, the Queen burned the note. She does not even understand what you meant by writing that note.”

This statement very quickly elicited from the now startled German a story which astounded the lady. He said the Queen owed him the first installment of the money for the diamond necklace; that she had bought it after all; that the story about the Sultana was a lie told by her directions to hide the fact; since the Queen meant to pay by installments, and did not wish the purchase known. And Boehmer said, she had employed the Cardinal de Rohan to buy the necklace for her, and it had been delivered to him for her, and by him to her.

Now the Queen, as Madame Campan knew very well, had always strongly disliked this Cardinal; he had even been kept from attending at Court in consequence, and she had not so much as spoken to him for years. And so Madame Campan told Boehmer, and further she told him he had been imposed upon.

“No,” said the man of sparklers decisively, “It is you who are deceived. She is decidedly friendly to the cardinal. I have myself the documents with her own signature authorizing the transaction, for I have had to let the bankers see them in order to get a little time on my own payments.”

Here was a monstrous mystification for the lady of honor, who told Boehmer to instantly go and see his official superior, the chief of the king’s household. She herself being very soon afterwards summoned to the Queen’s presence, the affair came up, and she told the Queen all she knew about it. Marie Antoinette was profoundly distressed by the evident existence of a great scandal and swindle, with which she was plainly to be mixed up through the forged signatures to the documents which Boehmer had been relying on.

Now for the Cardinal.

Louis de Rohan, a scion of the great house of Rohan, one of the proudest of France, was descended of the blood royal of Brittany; was a handsome, proud, dissolute, foolish, credulous, unprincipled noble, now almost fifty years old, a thorough rake, of large revenues, but deeply in debt. He was Peer of France, Archbishop of Strasburg, Grand Almoner of France, Commander of the Order of the Holy Ghost, Commendator of the benefice of St. Wast d’Arras, said to be the mostwealthy in Europe, and a Cardinal. He had been ambassador at Vienna a little after Marie Antoinette was married to the Dauphin, and while there had taken advantage of his official station to do a tremendous quantity of smuggling. He had also further and most deeply offended the Empress Maria Theresa, by outrageous debaucheries, by gross irreligion, and above all by a rather flat but in effect stingingly satirical description of her conduct about the partition of Poland. This she never forgave him, neither did her daughter Marie Antoinette; and accordingly, when he presented himself at Paris soon after she became Queen, he received a curt repulse, and an intimation that he had better go to⁠—Strasburg.

Now in those days a sentence of exclusion from Court was to a French noble but just this side of a banishment to Tophet; and de Rohan was just silly enough to feel this infliction most intensely. He went however, and from that time onward, for year after year, lived the life of a persevering Adam thrust out of his paradise, hanging about the gate and trying all possible ways to sneak in again. Once, for instance, he had induced the porter at the palace of the Trianon to let him get inside the grounds during an illumination, and was recognized by the glow of his cardinal’s red stockings from under his cloak. But he was only laughed at for his pains; the porter was turned off, and the poor silly miserable cardinal remained “out in the cold,” breaking his heart over his exclusion from the most tedious mess of conventionalities that ever was contrived⁠—except those of the court of Spain.

About 1783, this great fool fell in with an equally great knave, who must be spoken of here, where he begins to converge along with the rest, towards the explosion of the necklace swindle. This was Cagliostro, who at that time came to Strasburg and created a tremendous excitement with his fascinating Countess, his Egyptian masonry, his Spagiric Food (a kind of Brandreth’s pill of the period,) which he fed out to poor sick people, his elixir of life, and other humbugs.

The Cardinal sent an intimation that he would like to see the quack. The quack, whose impudence was far greater than the Cardinal’s pride, sent back this sublime reply: “If he is sick let him come to me, and I will cure him. If he is well, he does not need to see me, nor I him.”

This piece of impudence made the fool of a cardinal more eager than ever. After some more affected shyness, Cagliostro allowed himself to be seen. He was just the man to captivate the Cardinal, and they were quickly intimate personal friends, practising transmutation, alchemy, masonry, and still more particularly conducting a great many experiments on the Cardinal’s remarkably fine stock of Tokay wine. Whatever poor de Rohan had to do, he consulted Cagliostro about it, and when the latter went to Switzerland, his dupe maintained a constant communication with him in cipher.

Lastly is to be mentioned Jeanne de St. Remi, Countess de Lamotte de Valois de France, the chief scoundrel, if the term may be used of a woman⁠—of the necklace affair. She seems to have been really a descendant of the royal house of Valois, to which Francis I belonged; through an illegitimate son of Henry II created Count de St. Remi. The family had run down and become poor and rascally, one of Jeanne’s immediate ancestors having practiced counterfeiting for a living. She herself had been protected by a certain kind hearted Countess de Boulainvilliers; was receiving a small pension from the Court of about $325 a year; had married a certain tall soldier named Lamotte; had come to Paris, and was living in poverty in a garret, hovering about as it were for a chance to better her circumstances. She was a quick-witted, bright-eyed, brazen-faced hussy, not beautiful, but with lively pretty ways, and indeed somewhat fascinating.

Her protectress, the countess de Boulainvilliers, was now dead; while she was alive Jeanne had once visited her at de Rohan’s palace of Saverne, and had thus scraped a slight acquaintance with the gay Cardinal, which she resumed during her abode at Paris.

Everybody at Paris knew about the Diamond Necklace, and about de Rohan’s desire to get into court favor. This sharp-witted female swindler now came in among the elements I have thus far been describing, to frame necklace, jeweller, cardinal, queen, and swindler, all together into her plot, just as the keystone drops into an arch and locks it up tight.

No mortal knows where ideas come from. Suddenly a conception is in the mind, whence, or how, we do not know, any more than we know Life. The devil himself might have furnished that which now popped into the cunning, wicked mind of this adventuress. This is what she saw all at once:

Boehmer is crazy to sell his necklace. De Rohan is crazy after the Queen’s favor. I am crazy after money. Now if I can make De Rohan think that the Queen wants the necklace, and will become his friend in return for his helping her to it; if I can make him think I am her agent to him, then I can steal the diamonds in their transit.

A wonderfully cunning and hardy scheme! And most wonderful was the cool, keen promptitude with which it was executed.

The countess began to hint to the cardinal that she was fast getting into the Queen’s good graces, by virtue of being a capital gossip and storyteller; and that she had frequent private audiences. Soon she added intimations that the Queen was far from being really so displeased with the cardinal, as he supposed. At this the old fool bit instantly, and showed the keenest emotions of hope and delight. On a further suggestion, he presently drew up a letter or memoir humbly and plaintively stating his case, which the countess undertook to put into the Queen’s hands. It was the first of over two hundred notes from him, notes of abasement, beseeching argument, expostulation, and so on, all entrusted to Jeanne. She burnt them, I suppose.

In order to make her dupe sure that she told the truth about her access to the Queen, Jeanne more than once made him go and watch her enter a side gate into the grounds of the Trianon palace, to which she had somehow obtained a key; and after waiting he saw her come out again, sometimes under the escort of a man, who was, she said one Desclos, a confidential valet of the Queen. This was Villette de Rétaux, a “pal” of Jeanne’s and of her husband Lamotte, who had, by the way, become a low-class gambler and swindler by occupation.

Next Jeanne talked about the Queen’s charities; and on one occasion, told how much the amiable Marie Antoinette longed to expend certain sums for benevolent purposes if she only had them⁠—but she was out of funds, and the King was so close about money!

The poor cardinal bit again⁠—“If the Queen would only allow him the honor to furnish the little amount!”

The countess evidently hadn’t thought of that. She reflected⁠—hesitated. The cardinal urged. She consented⁠—it was not much⁠—and was so kind as to carry the cash herself. At their next meeting she reported that the Queen was delighted, telling a very nice story about it. The cardinal would only be too happy to do so again. And sure enough he did, and quite a number of times too; contributing in all to the funds of the countess in this manner, about $25,000.

Well: after a time the cardinal is at Strasburg, when he receives a note from the countess that brings him back again as quick as post-horses can carry him. It says that there is something very important, very secret, very delicate, that the queen wants his help about. He is overflowing with zeal. What is it? Only let him know⁠—his life, his purse, his soul, are at the service of his liege lady.

His purse is all that is needed. With infinite shyness and circumspection, the countess gradually, half unwillingly, lets him find out that it is the diamond necklace that the Queen wants. By diabolical ingenuities of talk she leads de Rohan to the full conviction that if he secures the Queen that necklace, he will thenceforward bask in all the sunshine of court favor that she can show or control.

And at proper times sundry notes from the Queen are bestowed upon the enraptured noodle. These are written in imitation of the Queen’s handwriting, by that Villette de Rétaux who personated the Queen’s valet, and who was an expert at counterfeiting.

A last and sublime summit of impudent pretension is reached by a secret interview which the Queen, says the countess, desires to grant to her beloved servant the cardinal. This suggestion was rendered practicable by one of those mere coincidences which are found though rarely in history, and which are too improbable to put into a novel⁠—the casual discovery of a young woman of loose character who looked much like the Queen. Whether her name was d’Essigny or Gay d’Oliva, is uncertain; she is usually called by the latter. She was hired and taught; and with immense precautions, this ostrich of a cardinal was one night introduced into the gardens of the Trianon, and shown a little nook among the thickets where a stately female in the similitude of the Queen received him with soft spoken words of kindly greeting, allowed him to kneel and kiss a fair and shapely hand, and showed no particular timidity of any kind. Yet the interview had scarcely more than begun before steps were heard. “Someone is coming,” exclaimed the lady, “it is Monsieur and Madame d’Artois⁠—Wemust part. There”⁠—she gave him a red rose⁠—“You know what that means! Farewell!” And away they went⁠—Mademoiselle d’Oliva to report to her employers, and the cardinal, in a seventh heaven of ineffable tomfoolery, to his hotel.

But the interview, and the lovely little notes that came sometimes, “fixed” the necklace business! And if further encouragement had been needed, Cagliostro gave it. For the cardinal now consulted him about the future of the affair, having indeed kept him fully informed about it for a long time, as he did of all matters of interest. So the quack set up his tabernacles of mummery in a parlor of the cardinal’s hotel, and conducted an Egyptian Invocation there all night long in solitude and pomp; and in the morning he decreed (in substance) “go ahead.” And the cardinal did so. Boehmer and Bassange were only too happy to bargain with the great and wealthy church and state dignitary. A memorandum of terms and time of payment was drawn up, and was submitted to the Queen. That is, swindling Jeanne carried it off, and brought it back, with an entry made by Villette de Rétaux in the margin, thus: “Bon, bon⁠—Approuvé, Marie Antoinette de France.” That is, “Good, good⁠—I approve. Marie Antoinette de France.” The payment was to be by installments, at six months, and quarterly afterwards; the Queen to furnish the money to the cardinal, while he remained ostensibly holden to the jewellers, she thus keeping out of sight.

So the jewels were handed over to the cardinal de Rohan; he took them one evening in great state to the lodgings of the countess, where with all imaginable formality there came a knock at the door, and when it was open a tall valet entered who said solemnly “On the part of the Queen!” De Rohan knew it was the Queen’s confidential valet, for he saw with his own eyes that it was the same man who had escorted the countess from the side gate at the Trianon! And so it was; to wit, Villette de Rétaux, who, calmly receiving the fifteen hundred thousand franc treasure, marched but as solemnly as he had come in.

As that counterfeiting rascal goes out of the door, the diamond necklace itself disappears from our knowledge. The swindle was consummated, but there is no whisper of the disposition of the spoils. Villette, and Jeanne’s husband Lamotte, went to London and Amsterdam, and had some money there; but seemingly no more than the previous pillages upon the cardinal might have supplied; nor did the countess’ subsequent expenditures show that she had any of the proceeds.

But that is not the last of the rest of the parties to the affair, by any means. Between this scene and the time when the anxious Boehmer, having a little bill to meet, beset Madame Campan about his letter and the money the Queen was to pay him, there intervened six months. During that time countess Jeanne was smoothing as well as she could, with endless lies and contrivances, the troubles of the perplexed cardinal, who “couldn’t seem to see” that he was much better off in spite of his loyal performance of his part of the bargain.

But this application by Boehmer, and the enormous swindle which it was instantly evident had been perpetrated on somebody or other, of course waked up a commotion at once. The Baron de Breteuil, a deadly enemy of de Rohan, got hold of it all, and in his overpowering eagerness to ruin his foe, quickly rendered the matter so public that it was out of the question to hush it up. It seems probable that Jeanne de Lamotte expected that the business would be kept quiet for the sake of the Queen, and that thus any very severe or public punishments would be avoided and perhaps no inquiries made. It is clear that this would have been the best plan, but de Breteuil’s officiousness prevented it, and there was nothing for it but legal measures. De Rohan was arrested and put in the Bastile, having barely been able to send a message in German to his hotel to a trusty secretary, who instantly destroyed all the papers relating to the affair. Jeanne was also imprisoned, and Miss Gay d’Oliva and Villette de Rétaux, being caught at Brussels and Amsterdam, were in like manner secured. As for Cagliostro, he was also imprisoned, some accounts saying that he ostentatiously gave himself up for trial.

This was a public trial before the Parliament of Paris, with much form.

The result was that the cardinal, appearing to be only fool, not knave, was acquitted. Gay d’Oliva appeared to have known nothing except that she was to play a part, and she had been told that the Queen wanted her to do so, so she was let go. Villette was banished for life. Lamotte, the countess’ husband, had escaped to England, and was condemned to the galleys in his absence, which didn’t hurt him much. Cagliostro was acquitted. But Jeanne was sentenced to be whipped, branded on the shoulder with the letter V for Voleuse (thief), and banished.

This sentence was executed in full, but with great difficulty; for the woman turned perfectly furious on the public scaffold, flew at the hangman like a tiger, bit pieces out of his hands, shrieked, cursed, rolled on the floor, kicked, squirmed and jumped, until they held her by brute force, tore down her dress, and the red hot iron going aside as she struggled, plunged full into her snowy white breast, planting there indelibly the horrible black V, while she yelled like a fiend under the torment of the smoking brand. She fled away to England, lived there some time in dissolute courses, and is said to have died in consequence of falling out of a window when drunk, or as another account states, of being flung out by the companions of her orgy, whom she had stung to fury by her frightful scolding. Before her death she put forth one or two memoirs⁠—false, scandalous things.

The unfortunate Queen never entirely escaped some shadow of disrepute from the necklace business. For to the very last, both on the trial and afterwards, Jeanne de Lamotte impudently stuck to it that at least the Queen had known about the trick played on the Cardinal at the Trianon, and had in fact been hidden close by and saw and laughed heartily at the whole interview. So sore and morbid was the condition of the public mind in France in those days, when symptoms of the coming Revolution were breaking out one very side, that this odious story found many and willing believers.