9. Comtesse de la Motte
Oct 05, 2021 by Mr. Allen
I could hardly sleep for thinking about stolen diamonds and the Comtesse de la Motte flying out her window, smacking the pavement below. My days and nights weren’t right yet anyway, so it didn’t take much to keep me tossing and turning. I thought I heard that piano playing again, just ever so faintly, fading in and out among the night noises. But maybe I just heard the notes in my head.
Dawn was gray and rainy. I padded into the kitchen in robe and socks and caught Aunt Mill looking frantic, cig hanging at the side of her mouth, scribbling out my math problems for the day.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about that Comtesse de la Motte lady last night.”
She nodded, gulped down her coffee, handed me the page of problems. “Running late. Here’s a little geometry review. See you tonight.” She dashed away. The door slammed.
Like before, there were ten problems, only I had to identify the angle made by two lines, whether they were acute or obtuse, whether they were more than 90 degrees or less than 60 or 180 degrees and so on. It was multiple choice and each correct answer was assigned a number, which, when you added them up, gave you one of the numbers for the combination on the little safe. It occurred to me that I could just add up all the different answers and try them in different orders till one of them opened the safe. I was in the process of doing that (even though it would have been simpler just to do the problems) when my cell phone rang. I jumped. Who even knew I had a cell phone?
“Daisy. Mill. I forgot to tell you about the books. I set them out on the table there. Thought you might enjoy them. I’m at the metro entrance. Have a fun day.”
She clicked off. I looked up. On the end of the table were three books on the Comtesse de la Motte, the “Affair of the Necklace” and the French Revolution. I spent the rest of the morning reading, curled up in one of Aunt Mill’s green chairs. It was pretty wild stuff and pretty confusing, with about ten million names and dates and nobody really quite sure what happened.
Apparently, this Comtesse Jeanne Valois de la Motte, (which is just part of her name cause they had ridiculously long names back then) was a poor, forgotten descendant of some long-dead French king and spent her childhood running around barefoot, begging for food. When the then current king, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, heard about the barefoot comtesse, they felt bad for her and sent her and her sisters some money. Probably a bad idea, since once Jeanne got a little money she just wanted more. She was quite good-looking and had at least three, um, toad boyfriends when she grew up. One was her husband, who was some kind of policeman, the other was a sinister dude named Rétaux de Villette, who was kind of the opposite of a policeman, and the last was this Cardinal Rohan guy.
Cardinal Rohan was like the richest man in France at the time and not, um, very religious really, so he had a lot of girlfriends and Jeanne de la Motte was one of them. It all sounds a little like one of Clymene’s high school dramas or something, but apparently when Cardinal Rohan and Marie Antoinette were younger they got into some kind of snit because the Cardinal insulted Marie Antoinette’s mother, telling everyone Marie Antoinette’s mother wore army boots or something.
This was before Louis XVI was king and Marie Antoinette was queen. Another Louis was king, Louis XV (stay with me here), and he had a girlfriend named Madame du Barry. Madame du Barry was, apparently, quite the looker, and Louis XV really liked her, but for various complicated reasons she could never be the queen. So Louis XV wanted to buy her something really nice and he asked these two jeweler guys, Mr. Boehmer and Mr. Bassange, to make Madame du Barry a necklace fit for a queen, and spare no expense doing it. Mr. Boehmer and Mr. Bassange wanted to please the king so even more people would come to their jewelry store, so they set to work and bought up every monster diamond they could find, borrowing wheel-barrels of money to do so, going up to their eyebrows in hock, creating a truly amazing necklace. But just before they were going to give the necklace to Louis XV to give to Madame du Barry, Louis XV died.
Madame du Barry was politely asked to beat it from Versailles, and Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette became king and queen. Mr. Boehmer and Mr. Bassange now had this huge expensive necklace and no buyer, so they went to Louix XVI and asked if he might like to buy it for Marie Antoinette. Marie Antoinette said, basically, that she didn’t want a necklace that was made for her husband’s uncle’s hooker, end of discussion.
Into all this swims the beautiful and sneaky Jeanne de la Motte, who is circling around Versailles, trying to talk to Marie Antoinette to weasel more money out of her. But Marie Antoinette learns that Jeanne has three boyfriends, one of whom is Marie Antoinette’s high school enemy, Cardinal Rohan, so Marie Antoinette is like so done giving handouts to Jeanne.
Jeanne doesn’t give up though. She does the math. She knows that Mr. B and B, the jewelers, are desperate to sell the necklace and that, really, only a king or queen could afford the stupid thing. She also knows that, now that Marie Antoinette is queen, smarmy Cardinal Rohan is desperate to make up with her because Marie Antoinette is in a real position to do Rohan some dirt. Desperation, Jeanne knows, is not to be wasted.
Even though the queen won’t speak to her, Jeanne tells the Cardinal they’ve become secret best buddies. (No Facebook back then, so no way to check.) Jeanne also tells the Cardinal that Marie Antoinette really loves the necklace, dreams about it, salivates over it, is so obsessed with it she can’t sleep, but she doesn’t want the starving French people to think she’s just a greedy, spoiled Austrian twit. Before long, Cardinal Rohan gets it into his little pea brain (or maybe de la Motte just suggested) that if he secretly bought the necklace for the queen, she would forgive him for the army boots crack. After all, all you need to do to make a woman happy is buy her something shiny, right? Jeanne even tells the Cardinal that the queen is secretly hot for him and that if he helps Marie Antoinette get the necklace Marie Antoinette will do anything for him—help him get big government contracts, get the job as pope, whatever.
Not only does Jeanne tell Cardinal Rohan all this but she gets her boyfriend Rétaux de Villette, who, among his other skills, is a good forger, to write fake notes from Marie Antoinette to the Cardinal. The notes confirm all the lies Jeanne tells. In one, the queen writes Cardinal Rohan that if he buys the necklace for her she will pay him back, secretly, in installments, so he won’t even be out any money. The Cardinal writes back saying he’s willing to do so but he wants to talk it all over with the queen, in person. Of course Jeanne is delivering all these notes back and forth from the Cardinal to the queen, so she knows exactly what’s up. Marie Antoinette, however, has no idea any of this is going on.
Now Jeanne, or Rétaux or maybe Jeanne’s husband the bad cop, finds some slightly dim, out-of-work actress, named Nicole le Guay d’Oliva, who looks just like Marie Antoinette and has even played her on the stage. In true “Mission Impossible” fashion, they set up a secret midnight meeting in the garden of Versailles where Rohan and the fake queen meet, talk, make up, and even make kissy-face. Unreal as it seems, the Cardinal then goes to Mr. B and B and says he’ll buy the necklace and pay them in installments, but only if they keep the whole thing secret. They agree. Why wouldn’t they? They have unpaid diamond merchants sending gorillas after them and, after all, this is a Cardinal we’re talking about, a very rich Cardinal, and if you can’t trust a Cardinal to pay on installments, who can you trust?
Boehmer and Bassange deliver the necklace to Cardinal Rohan and Rohan gives it to Contesse Jeanne to secretly deliver to the queen. And that’s the last anyone sees of the necklace. Rohan never hears back from Marie Antoinette, not even a thank you card, and he can’t seem to contact Jeanne, so he sends a note directly to the queen asking her if she likes her little present. The queen has no idea what he’s talking about and doesn’t even bother to write back, since we’re talking about the guy who insulted her mother here. Rohan writers her again, then again, and she finally tells him to buzz off. He gets miffed and tells Mr. B and B to get the rest of their money from the greedy, spoiled Austrian twit.
Suffice it to say, the whole thing blows up. Public scandal, media frenzy, celebrity trial, the works. Comtesse Jeanne gets thrown in the Saltpêtriere Prison but somehow escapes to London, dressed as a boy. Cardinal Rohan lawyers up and walks away, everybody believing he’s just a big, fat, innocent idiot. The queen, who had nothing to do with any of it, gets the worst. No prison time of course, cause she’s a queen, but everyone comes away believing that she’s just a greedy, spoiled, Austrian twit who just had to have this monster diamond necklace, no matter that half of Paris is starving, let them eat cake.