Precious Stones


11. A Famous Necklace

That the human neck is a suitable pillar to hang ornaments upon is so obvious a fact that it must have presented itself to the most rudimentary savage; and that it did thus occur to the early human mind we have abundant evidence. The prehistoric graves of Europe give up a greater quantity of necklaces to the antiquarian searcher than almost any other article, with the exception of implements of war. These necklaces are differently composed of beads of glass and of amber, colored pebbles and small gold plaques, while the white teeth of various animals and sea-shells seem to have been as general favorites with the prehistoric as with the contemporary savage.

It is not our intention to give an account of the many types of necklaces which have found favor in the eyes of humanity. To do so would be quite beyond the scope of these stories. We propose on the contrary to select but one--one especially notable amid the necklaces of the past. We may mention that the first diamond necklace ever known in Europe was one composed of rough stones which was given by Charles VII. of France to Agnes Sorel. The fair lady's soft neck was so irritated by the sharp corners of the necklace that she said it was her pillory (carcan), hence the term carcanet which means a diamond necklace. The term fell into disuse about the time of the Revolution, and the proper name in France for a string of diamonds at that period was rivière. Nowadays they have restored the carcanet and kept the rivière as well, both terms being in common use.

Of all the necklaces in all countries and all times, incomparably the most famous was that one with which Marie Antoinette's name was so unhappily associated. This trinket is still disputed about even in our own times. It has a literature of its own and it is emphatically The Necklace of History. We will endeavor to make clear its singular career and ultimate fate.

In 1772, Louis XV. in the full tide of his infatuation for the worthless Madame Dubarry determined to make her a present that should be unique. It was to be a diamond necklace the like of which had never been seen before and which was to cost two millions of livres. Accordingly in the November of the same year he gave the order to his jewelers, Messrs. Böhmer & Bassenge, who set about the job with glee. But it took both time and money to get together such a lot of diamonds. Of time there seemed enough, for the king was healthy and not old, and as for money friends were ready to supply it in ample store upon such fair security as the beauty and influence of Madame Dubarry. But Fate in the guise of small-pox intervened and upset all these calculations. In May, 1774, Louis XV. died and Louis XVI. reigned in his stead. By this time the necklace was complete, and what it was in its completeness let the pen of Carlyle tell us:

"A row of seventeen glorious diamonds as large almost as filberts encircle not too tightly the neck a first time. Looser gracefully fastened thrice to these a three-wreathed festoon and pendants enough (simple pear-shaped multiple star-shaped or clustering amorphous) encirle it, enwreathe it a second time. Loosest of all, softly flowing round from behind in priceless catenary rush down two broad threefold rows, seem to knot themselves round a very queen of diamonds on the bosom, then rush on again separated as if there were length in plenty. The very tassels of them were a fortune for some men. And now lastly two other inexpressible threefold rows also with their tassels will when the necklace is on and clasped unite themselves behind into a doubly inexpressible sixfold row, and so stream down together or asunder over the hind neck--we may fancy like a lambent zodiacal or Aurora Borealis fire."

Such being the doubly inexpressible description of this marvelous jewel we are not surprised that an awful difficulty should now arise to confound the luckless jewelers.

Who would buy it?

Not the young queen Marie Antoinette, who when offered it answered that being on the eve of war with England they needed frigates more than diamonds. Besides she had just bought, and not yet been able to pay for, two expensive diamond ear-rings.

This disappointed jeweler traveled all through Europe offering his trinket to the different queens and princesses, but none were rich enough to tie four hundred thousand dollars in a glittering string around their necks, so he returned to Paris with bankruptcy staring him in the face.

"THE NECKLACE OF HISTORY." (Less than one fourth the natural size. By permission of Mr. Henry Vizetelly.)

In 1781, when Marie Antoinette's first son was born, the jeweler very nearly succeeded in selling it to Louis XVI., who wanted to make his wife a fine present upon so auspicious an occasion. The Queen, however, refused to touch the jewel when the king handed it to her as she lay in bed, and being very weak and ill, so that the least thing excited her dangerously, the doctor forbade mention to be made of this truly fatal necklace. The little dauphin, happily for himself, died while still a royal baby in his father's palace, and was succeeded by another boy less fortunate in his destiny. The luckless jeweler, who became almost a monomaniac on the subject of selling his necklace to Marie Antoinette, used always to attend with the glittering jewel at each happy event, so that the witty courtiers used to say whenever he appeared at Versailles:

"Oh! here's Böhmer. There must be another baby born!"

One day after about ten years of fruitless solicitation he threw himself at the Queen's feet and declared that utter ruin was come upon him through the necklace, that he would drown himself if she did not buy it, and that his death would be upon her head. Her Majesty, much incensed, replied that she had not ordered the necklace and was therefore not bound to buy it, and ended by commanding him to leave her presence and never more let her hear about the jewel again. She thought the matter was finally ended. Poor Marie Antoinette! She was destined to be haunted through life by those terrible diamonds and to be asked about them at her trial and to be taunted with the theft of them by the mocking crowds who surrounded her scaffold. Such being the state of the case in 1784, we shall leave the Queen and the jeweler to follow the fortunes of two other persons who were made famous and infamous by the necklace.

The first was Louis de Rohan, cardinal grand-almoner of France and a prince in his own right. This person had been ambassador at Vienna where he had ridiculed Maria Theresa, Marie Antoinette's mother, and afterward a courtier at Versailles where he had criticised the Dauphiness, Marie Antoinette herself. By these double deeds he was cordially detested by the Queen who, like young people generally, was extreme in her likes and dislikes and vehement in the expression of her sentiments. Since the accession of Louis XVI. the cardinal had been in disgrace, and as royal favor is as the breath of life to the nostrils of a courtier, he was morbidly anxious to re-establish himself in the Queen's good graces. So much for the cardinal.

The fourth and by far the most important character is yet to appear on the stage. This is the Countess de la Motte. This individual was of the vampire type of idle good-for-nothings, who lived at the French court, and whose rapacity eventually caused such havoc in the most exalted circles. Madame de la Motte pretended to royal descent through a natural son of Henry II. Accordingly she added de Valois to her name, that being the family name of the reigning house which immediately preceded the Bourbons. She had been a roadside beggar when a child, but her great plausibility of manner, which later on became so fatal, had won for her the good graces of a lady about court who befriended her and had her educated. She grew up, was married to the Count de la Motte, and henceforward used all her talents to push the fortunes of her family. A small pension only excited her appetite for more. She made the acquaintance of the Cardinal de Rohan. The cardinal, a man of about fifty years of age, seems to have been perfectly infatuated with the countess who, though not beautiful, was witty and very taking in her manners.

At length Madame de la Motte began to throw out hints about her acquaintance with the Queen and to suggest that she might be the means of restoring the cardinal to the royal favor. The cardinal believed implicitly in her intimacy with Marie Antoinette and built high hopes upon it, and not only the cardinal but many others likewise believed in it, and besought the adventuress's favor at the hands of Her Majesty. This may appear strange, seeing that the Queen and countess never exchanged a word in their lives; but at court where nothing is ever known exactly, but all things are possible, it is not easy to learn the precise facts about anything. An adventuress in the days of Madame de Maintenon is said to have made her fortune by walking through that lady's open door into the empty drawing-room and appearing for a few moments at the balcony. The courtiers saw her there, immediately concluded that she must be in favor with the unacknowledged wife of Louis XIV., and flocked about her with presents and flattery, hoping in return to profit by her influence.

By an equally simple device Madame de la Motte obtained the reputation of intimacy and influence with Marie Antoinette. She made the acquaintance of the gate-keeper of the Trianon and was frequently seen stealing away with ostentatious secrecy from the favorite haunt of the Queen. It was enough. People believed in her favor, and she was a great woman.

Then she took another step. She confided to the Cardinal de Rohan that the Queen longed for the diamond necklace, but had not the money to buy it, and feared to ask the King for it. Here was a chance for a courtier in disgrace. The cardinal, acting upon the hint, offered to conduct the negotiation about the necklace and to lend the Queen some of the money for its purchase. The Queen apparently accepted his offer, and wrote to him little gilt-edged missives mysteriously worded and of loving import. The cardinal was exalted with joy. To be not only redeemed from disgrace, but to be in possession of the haughty Queen's affections was beyond his wildest hopes or aspirations.

Still acting upon the suggestions of the countess the cardinal bought the necklace, and, for the satisfaction of the jewelers, drew up a promissory note, which was intended to be submitted to Her Majesty and was in fact returned, approved and signed, Marie Antoinette de France. This letter came through the hands of Madame de la Motte in the same mysterious fashion in which the correspondence had hitherto been conducted. The cardinal thereupon brought the necklace to Madame de la Motte's house at Versailles, delivered it over to the supposed lackeys of the Queen, and went away rejoicing. Madame herself was feasted sumptuously by the grateful jewelers, who were profuse in their thanks for her aid. They even pressed her to accept a diamond ornament as a slight token of their gratitude! Madame de la Motte dining with her dupes, graciously receiving their thanks and magnanimously declining their presents, was certainly a spectacle for gods and men.

The cardinal, not content with his billets-deaux from the Queen, was to be further gratified by a midnight interview with Her Majesty in the gardens of the Trianon. A lady dressed in the simple shepherdess costume affected by Marie Antoinette did indeed meet him in a dark-shadowed alley of the garden, and as he was ecstatically pressing the hem of her garment to his lips she did present to him a rose which he clasped to his breast in speechless rapture. The lady of this scene and the Queen of the cardinal's fancy was a common girl off the streets, who bore a striking resemblance to Marie Antoinette. She was dressed up by the clever countess and was told to act according to certain instructions, but strange as it may seem she did not in the least suspect who it was she was representing--so skillfully was it all arranged by the astute Madame de la Motte who never let one tool know what another was doing for fear of spoiling her web of iniquity. The cardinal was totally ignorant of the imposture, and this although he knew the Queen well; but the night was dark and Madame de la Motte executed a sudden surprise by means of her husband, so that the pair were separated before the superstitious Queen had occasion to use her voice, the sound of which might have aroused the suspicions of even the blinded cardinal.

In possession of four hundred thousand dollars worth of diamonds, Madame de la Motte's next difficulty was to sell them. This appeared to be impossible in Paris, for when she commissioned her friend Villette to sell a dozen or so, he was at once arrested as a suspicious person, and anxious inquiries were made as to whether there had been any diamond robbery of late. But no--there had been nothing of the kind. Nobody complained of having been robbed; court jewelers and cardinal were still in the happy anticipation of coming favors. The man Villette was the writer of the Queen's letters to the cardinal, he was also the lackey who had taken charge of the necklace for the writer of those letters. He was a very useful friend to Madame de la Motte until at last he turned king's evidence and explained the whole fraud.

The Count de la Motte next proceeded to London and there sold several hundreds of diamonds. Some stones he disposed of to Mr. Eliason the dealer who in after years it will be remembered had the Blue diamond in his possession. Upon the proceeds of these sales the la Mottes lived in Oriental splendor both in Paris and at their country seat at Bar-sur-Aube. This was in the spring of 1785, and until the first installment, due in July, became payable they seemed to live on absolutely oblivious of the danger ahead. "Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad," is the classic proverb which must be resorted to in this case. On no other supposition can their remaining in Paris be explained. Madame used diamonds for her pocket money and tendered them for everything she wanted, exchanging one for a couple of pots of pomade.

The first payment not having been made, and the Queen having never addressed the cardinal in public nor ever worn the necklace, both prelate and jeweler began to be surprised. The latter wrote to the Queen an humble but mysterious letter expressive of his willingness to await Her Majesty's convenience if she could not pay up punctually. Marie Antoinette read the letter, but not understanding it, twisted it up into a taper and lighted it at her candle. She then bade Madame Campan find out what "madman Böhmer" wanted. Madame Campan saw the jeweler, heard his explanation, told him the Queen never had had the necklace at all, and that it was some dreadful mistake, and then in the greatest distress besought her royal mistress to inquire carefully into the story, as she greatly feared some scandal was being effected in the Queen's name.

Hearing a rumor of trouble Madame de la Motte visited the jewelers, warned them to be on their guard (as she feared they were being imposed upon!) and then inexplicably remained in Paris, instead of escaping beyond the reach of the Bastile. The cardinal heard the rumor also; he was disturbed, but relied though with dawning doubt upon these letters from the Queen signed Marie Antoinette de France.

The fifteenth of August was and is a great day in all Catholic countries. It is the feast of the Assumption, an occasion upon which prelates don their most splendid robes and appear in all their dignity. During the reign of Louis XVI. it was an especially honored day, being besides a religious festival also the name day of the Queen. On this day in 1785 at Versailles, Cardinal de Rohan in his purple and scarlet vestments was suddenly placed under arrest, and thus humiliated was conducted from the King's cabinet through the crowd of amazed courtiers who thronged the Oeil de Boeuf into the guard-room. The scene in the King's cabinet had been brief. The cardinal, summoned to the royal presence, found Louis, Marie Antoinette, and the first Minister of State awaiting him, all in evident agitation.

"You have lately bought a diamond necklace," said the King abruptly. "What have you done with it?"

The cardinal glanced imploringly at the Queen who turned upon him eyes blazing with anger.

"Sire, I have been deceived," cried the cardinal, becoming suddenly pale, "I will pay for the necklace myself."

More angry questions from the King, more faltering confused answers from the cardinal, and meanwhile the stern implacable face of the incensed Queen turned towards him. The door opens, a captain of the guard enters: "In the King's name follow me!" says the officer, and grand-almoner of France, the cardinal-prince of Rohan is led off under arrest.

Thus far the action of every one concerned is comprehensible enough, but after this it becomes so extraordinary that it is no wonder if the enemies of the Queen pretended there was a dark mystery behind which had yet to be revealed. The unrelenting hatred of Marie Antoinette, which made her demand the cardinal's head in vengeance for his audacity in aiming at her affections, seems to have blinded her to every other consideration but that of ruining her enemy. Madame de la Motte was, it is true, arrested and thrown into the Bastile, but so bent were the royal party upon destroying the cardinal that they held out hopes of acquittal to the adventuress herself if she would accuse the cardinal. Nay, more, they offered to pay for the hateful jewel if Böhmer would give damaging evidence against the cardinal. Having thus completely put themselves in the wrong the case came on for trial before a bench of judges, who seem to have acted with perfect uprightness and impartiality. And this, too, when public feeling was running very high in Paris and the Reign of Terror only five years off.

All the perpetrators of the crime, except Madame de la Motte, confessed to their share in it; so the whole series of gigantic cheats and trickeries was exposed. The forger confessed to his forgery, and the girl confessed to the scene she had acted in the gardens of the Trianon. At length the cardinal had to admit to himself that the woman la Motte, who had bewitched his senses to the detriment of his fair fame, had also cheated his purse to an almost fabulous extent and had involved him in the crime of high treason which in days of more absolute power would undoubtedly have cost him his head. The cardinal was acquitted of the capital crime, but was condemned to lose his post of grand-almoner, to retire into the country during the King's pleasure, and to beg their Majesties' most humble pardon--a sufficiently severe sentence one would suppose for having been made a fool of by a designing woman. Marie Antoinette heard of the cardinal's "acquittal," as she called it, with a burst of tearful rage which transpires through her letters to her sisters at the time. She laments in them the pass to which the world had come when she could do nothing but weep over her wrongs and was powerless to avenge them.

The rest of those concerned were variously dealt with. The Count de la Motte was condemned to the galleys for life, but he had already escaped to London, so the sentence did not much matter in his case. The forger Villette was banished. In his case the decree of the court was carried out in the old-fashioned way: he was led to the prison gate with a halter round his neck, where the executioner gave him a loaf of bread and a kick and bade him begone forever. The sentence on Madame de la Motte was sufficiently rigorous. She was to be whipped at the cart's tail, branded, and then imprisoned for life. The whipping was but slightly administered, but a large V (voleuse-thief) was marked with a red-hot iron on her shoulder: a fact which caused the jocose to say that she was marked with her own royal initial, V standing for Valois as well as for voleuse.

After a couple of years in prison the authorities connived at her escape, in pursuance it was believed of orders from Versailles. Marie Antoinette's unpopularity was, if possible, increased by the affair of the necklace, and the cardinal became a hero for a short time until others more conspicuous arose to overshadow him. Even yet, however, the unhappy necklace continued to work for evil towards the Queen. Safe in England Madame de la Motte wrote her Memoirs, which are nothing but a mass of libels and a tissue of falsehood all directed against the Queen. For private political purposes it suited the Duke of Orleans to spread them as much as possible, for the great aim of his life was to discredit the Queen.

Madame de la Motte died miserably in London from the effects of a jump from a second story window which she took to escape from bailiffs who were arresting her for debt. All the money she obtained from the diamond necklace was not able to save her from want and misery. She was only thirty-four years old at the time of her death. The Count de la Motte lived on into the reign of Charles X. and begging to the last also died in want. The Cardinal de Rohan became an émigré after his brief hour of Parisian popularity and died in exile. The jewelers became bankrupt and the firm sank into oblivion.

And Marie Antoinette?

Ah well, she had nothing to say to the direful necklace. She never probably so much as touched it with a finger-tip during the whole course of her life, but she was taxed with its theft on her way to the scaffold, and a generation ago her memory was again loaded with the crime by M. Louis Blanc. Marie Antoinette has had every possible and impossible crime cast upon her by writers who sought in her person to degrade the idea of a monarchy, but slowly history is removing this dirt from the garment of her reputation. She was silly and headstrong in her youth and did harm by her thoughtlessness, but she was neither so silly nor so headstrong as many of the queens, her predecessors, nor did she do one tithe of the mischief that some of them attempted. She chanced, however, upon troublous times, and therefore everything she did was reckoned a crime, as also many things which she did not do, such as the stealing of the Diamond Necklace.