Unlikely Allies, page 6
With Pâris-Duverney gone, Beaumarchais’s worst fears were realized: La Blache refused to pay the 15,000 livres that his uncle had promised to Beaumarchais from the settlement of their business. La Blache claimed that the document with Pâris-Duverney’s signature was forged and that Beaumarchais had extorted money from his wife’s uncle. In fact, he went even further and alleged that Beaumarchais now owed his uncle’s estate nearly 140,000 livres (more than $1 million today). Infuriated, Beaumarchais sued him for the debt, and the comte retaliated by spreading wild stories to discredit Beaumarchais before the judges. La Blache alleged that “this vulgar person” had been disowned by his family “for theft and vice” and that Beaumarchais lived on the street before he married. He even accused Beaumarchais of murdering both of his wives. This was the beginning of Beaumarchais’s problems with the law. He would later remark that La Blache was “the father of all my sorrows.”
Despite the comte’s lies, the trial court determined that the signature of Pâris-Duverney was legitimate and ordered the Comte de La Blache to pay Beaumarchais 15,000 livres, but the comte appealed the decision. Judge Advocate Goëzman was appointed to hear the appeal in 1773. Through a mutual friend Beaumarchais learned that the judge’s wife could arrange an interview with Judge Goëzman to hear Beaumarchais’s claim. Madame Goëzman bluntly admitted that “It would be impossible to live decently with what we get, but we know the art of plucking the fowl without making it cry out.” If a party with a just and honest cause needed her husband’s help, it would not offend her “delicacy to receive a present.” The judge’s wife demanded 2,400 livres (about $18,000 today) to set up a meeting. Beaumarchais borrowed the money to pay her fee, and spent barely fifteen minutes with the judge. Unfortunately, La Blache paid an even larger bribe, and the judge ultimately found in favor of the comte. The Paris Parlement, which functioned as a court of appeal, upheld the judgment against Beaumarchais. The Parlement ordered Beaumarchais to pay the comte 56,000 livres (about $430,000 today) plus interest and legal costs.
To make matters worse, Beaumarchais was already in jail for a separate incident in which he had insulted the Duc de Chaulnes with whose mistress Beaumarchais had an ill-timed affair. Beaumarchais had been allowed to leave the Paris jail at For-l’Evêque only long enough to have his appeal heard by the Paris Parlement. The quarrel with the Duc de Chaulnes made Beaumarchais an even less sympathetic figure in the eyes of the Court of Versailles. Beaumarchais was ruined. He had no way to satisfy the judgment against him. La Blache seized his home and furnishings at the rue de Condé and evicted Beaumarchais, his aged father, and two sisters. The family was forced to move back into his father’s small house on the rue Saint-Denis, at the sign of the clock, where Beaumarchais had begun life. In three tumultuous years he had lost everything he had earned since he first appeared at Versailles two decades earlier. He would have been better off if he had remained a watchmaker. After the court’s judgment against Beaumarchais, Madame Goëzman discreetly returned to Beaumarchais his bribe less 15 louis (360 livres or about $2,800 today) that she insisted she had paid to the judge’s secretary to arrange the interview. Beaumarchais wrote her demanding she return the 15 louis: “The injustice should not be subsidized by the one who is suffering so cruelly.”
In September 1773, Beaumarchais responded to Judge Goëzman’s allegation with his most effective weapon: his prose. In a series of witty pamphlets he titled “Memorials,” he blended caustic humor with a froth of rhetoric. Beaumarchais brilliantly skewered the judge, his wife, and associates. In the process he also laid bare the corruption of the French courts. The “Memorials” were an instant sensation, and Beaumarchais became a popular hero. On the street, Parisians joked that “The Parliament of Louis XV will fall for fifteen Louis,” the amount of Beaumarchais’s alleged bribe. Not only in France, but throughout Europe, people were talking about Beaumarchais’s bold indictment of the French justice system. Even Voltaire exclaimed after reading Beaumarchais’s pamphlet that “nothing has ever made a deeper impression on me.”
But popular acclaim for Beaumarchais only enraged his detractors. Judge Goëzman, probably at the urging of Beaumarchais’s enemies, accused Beaumarchais of attempted bribery. Beaumarchais countered that he had not offered a bribe; the judge’s wife had demanded one. Now both Beaumarchais and the judge were charged with bribery.
After a bitter legal battle, during which Beaumarchais was released from jail, both Beaumarchais and Judge Goëzman were ultimately convicted of bribery and stripped of their official positions, titles, and state pensions. In effect, Beaumarchais was declared a nonperson. His controversial “Memorials” were burned in public by the state executioner, and he was warned not to make any public statements about the verdict or face corporal punishment. His punishment only served to magnify his popularity, but the more people rallied to him, the more he was perceived as a threat to the state. At the urging of the king’s mistress, Madame du Barry, the government forbade performances of his newly revised comedy, The Barber of Seville. Though Beaumarchais felt vindicated in the court of public opinion, his friend Antoine de Sartine, chief of the Paris police, privately cautioned him that “It is not enough to be reprimanded, it is also necessary to be modest.” Sartine advised Beaumarchais that he must leave Paris before the police were ordered to arrest him again for threatening the public order. Within seventy-two hours Beaumarchais fled north to Flanders under cover of night.
IN DEBT, indicted for bribery, convicted of fraud, publicly reprimanded, and barred from his title, pension, and offices, Beaumarchais desperately searched for a way to rehabilitate himself. Only Louis XV had the authority to restore Beaumarchais’s legal status, but it seemed unlikely that the king would pardon a subject who had caused him so much trouble and offended so many courtiers and officials. Most of the courtiers who surrounded Louis XV had little use for this upstart and were, no doubt, glad to be rid of him. They were glad to see that Beaumarchais had finally gotten his just desserts.
Another man in Beaumarchais’s position might have quietly disappeared from the scene, but Beaumarchais was not like other men. He was not shy about asking for the king’s forgiveness. He felt he had nothing to lose. He wrote to the man whose access to the king was unequaled—Louis XV’s valet, Jean-Benjamin de La Borde, whom he knew from his time at Versailles—and asked him to intercede on his behalf. La Borde spoke to the king. Remarkably, despite Beaumarchais’s offenses, Louis was still fond of the precocious young man who had revolutionized timekeeping and tutored his daughters, though not enough to meet with Beaumarchais in any public place.
La Borde invited Beaumarchais to a secret meeting in March, 1774, at Versailles. The king did not want anyone to know that Beaumarchais was coming to the palace. Beaumarchais was directed to the marble court in the south wing. There he could slip unnoticed through an open window near La Borde’s apartment on the ground floor. He was ushered into one of the king’s wardrobe rooms and down a flight of stairs to a maze of damp basement rooms lit only by candlelight where the king’s vestments were stored. They would not be seen or heard here as their voices echoed off the stone walls.
La Borde offered Beaumarchais a chance to redeem himself in the service of his sovereign. He told Beaumarchais that Louis XV was being blackmailed by a vicious pamphleteer, Charles Théveneau de Morande, the publisher of a popular rag in London filled with titillating gossip about the indiscretions at the French court. Morande was threatening to publish a pamphlet called “The Secret Memoirs of a Prostitute.” He had sent a copy to the king’s current mistress, Madame du Barry, thus leaving no doubt that she was the target of his attack. Louis would not allow Madame du Barry to be publicly humiliated by Morande, but his attempts to silence Morande had failed. Perhaps Beaumarchais, who had been such an effective advocate in his own defense, might be able to persuade Morande to abandon this project. If Beaumarchais could stop the publication, the king would restore Beaumarchais’s rights and privileges. At a subsequent meeting in the kin
Beaumarchais eagerly embraced the opportunity to impress the monarch. The romance of a secret mission on behalf of the king was irresistible to him. He left immediately for London, chartering a private boat to cross the channel from Flanders. Once in London he settled into a modest flat off High Holborn on Ploone Street under an assumed name—the Chevalier de Ronac. No one was supposed to know that the disgraced Beaumarchais was working for the king, but it did not require much imagination to recognize that “Ronac” was a simple anagram for his family name, Caron. Beaumarchais proved to be an able and charming negotiator, and he readily befriended Morande, who was happy to sell his work for the right price. Beaumarchais purchased all the copies of Morande’s work. Under a darkening sky, he carted them by carriage to a spot near St. Pancras, where there was a deserted kiln once used to make lime. There he burned every copy of the offending text, the billowing smoke signaling that his mission was accomplished.
IN MAY 1774, Beaumarchais returned to France, confident that Louis XV would restore his title and civil rights and repay him the 12,000 livres (roughly $92,000 today) Beaumarchais had spent on his mission. But the king, stricken with smallpox, died just days after Beaumarchais arrived. Now Louis’s twenty-year-old grandson, Louis XVI, ascended to the throne, determined to rid the court of his grandfather’s flatterers and schemers. As one of Louis XV’s secret agents, Beaumarchais was no longer welcome at Versailles. Beaumarchais’s mission to safeguard Madame du Barry’s reputation was hardly appreciated by the young king, who referred to his grandfather’s mistress disdainfully as “the du Barry”—as if he were describing a social disease. Beaumarchais faced a deadline to appeal his criminal sentence, but the king refused to see him. If the king did not intervene on his behalf quickly, he would be thrown into prison.
A month later Beaumarchais wrote to Police Chief Sartine that an Italian named “Guillaume Angelucci” was preparing to publish “an outrageous libel” that would embarrass France and Spain and threatened to sabotage their alliance. Sartine recommended to Louis XVI that he appoint Beaumarchais as an intermediary to negotiate with Angelucci. Neither Sartine nor the king suspected that Beaumarchais had invented Angelucci and fabricated the libel himself. Having created a problem for the king, Beaumarchais agreed to negotiate with his fictional character for the destruction of this imaginary manuscript in exchange for the restoration of his civil rights and the dismissal of his prison sentence. Beaumarchais could justify this deception to himself as a way of compelling Louis XVI to honor his grandfather’s promise to him.
Beaumarchais proceeded to London to meet with the imaginary Angelucci. He reported that he encountered numerous obstacles to stopping Angelucci’s libel and was forced to pay about 30,000 livres (about $230,000 today) for 4,000 copies of the manuscript, which he claimed to destroy. To add drama to the story, Beaumarchais wrote that the scoundrel had fled England to the Continent with the intention of publishing his libel there. Beaumarchais chased his mythical villain across Holland through Germany to Vienna. Traveling by coach through Prussia in hot pursuit of his phantom, Beaumarchais went so far as to slash his face and chest with a razor to fake an attempt on his life by robbers.
When the crusading Beaumarchais reached Vienna, he rashly requested a private audience with Empress Maria Theresa, mother of the French queen, Marie Antoinette. Meeting the world’s most powerful woman in her impressive country palace at Schönbrunn, he could not resist boasting to the empress about his romantic adventures chasing Angelucci. By now his story had become so embroidered that it aroused the empress’s suspicions. She asked the Austrian chancellor, Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz, to investigate. Finding that some of Beaumarchais’s facts were contradicted by his coachman, he ordered Beaumarchais arrested for fraud. Eventually, Marie Antoinette had to intervene to secure Beaumarchais’s release.
Beaumarchais returned to France in disgrace. Whether anyone still believed his story about Angelucci is unclear, but Louis XVI had concluded that Beaumarchais was a “mad man,” and the Court of Versailles regarded Beaumarchais as a clown. All his efforts to regain his stature had only gone to prove that he was a masterful and disingenuous schemer who could not be trusted. Once again, the king refused to restore Beaumarchais’s title and status. He remained shut out of Versailles, but he did manage to have the king compensate him for the expenses he undertook in his pursuit of the imaginary Angelucci. This money allowed him to pay off the liens on his house on the rue de Condé.
Over the next months, Beaumarchais wrote to the king repeatedly pleading his case. He was answered with silence. Refusing to admit his own deceit, Beaumarchais complained that he had traveled over 1,800 leagues and stopped the publication of two libels for the king with no compensation. “To do this I have allowed my own affairs to go to rack and ruin. I have been tricked, robbed, assaulted, imprisoned, and my health is impaired.” If only the king were satisfied with his services, “I shall be the most contented person in the world.” Beaumarchais began to despair that he would ever overcome his legal disabilities.
IN APRIL 1775, Beaumarchais was invited to Versailles to meet with the foreign minister—the Comte de Vergennes—and others. Once again, a French king was being blackmailed. But this time it was real—and more than the reputation of the king’s mistress was at stake.
Louis XVI had finally learned that his grandfather had had a secret network of spies working against France’s nominal ally—and Marie Antoinette’s homeland—Austria. To Louis XVI the network—le secret du roi—was symptomatic of the duplicity in which Louis XV indulged. Louis XVI ordered Vergennes, himself a conspirator in the Secret, to dismantle the organization, retire the spies, and destroy their correspondence immediately. Vergennes patiently explained to the young monarch that while most of the spies could be retired, there was the “special problem” of the Chevalier d’Eon, which was likely to require more delicacy.
The chevalier’s prominence and mercurial temperament made him difficult to control. Although d’Eon was no longer minister plenipotentiary in London, he continued to receive a pension from the French government. D’Eon was once again threatening to publish some of Louis XV’s secret correspondence, which would reveal that the French king had planned to invade London. The publication of these documents would risk war between England and France, and Louis XVI was not prepared to defend his country against the British. D’Eon was demanding a lump sum of 12,000 livres (about $90,000 today) from the king, and he wanted the government to pay off the staggering debts he had accumulated during his brief tenure as minister plenipotentiary under Louis XV. The chevalier owed about 320,000 livres (almost $2.5 million) mostly for the cost of entertaining and for his lavish gifts.
Louis XVI thought d’Eon’s demands were “impertinent and ridiculous.” Vergennes called d’Eon’s letter “a new monument to madness from such a unique mind,” but he knew that d’Eon was too dangerous to ignore. Vergennes suggested to the king that they send Beaumarchais to persuade d’Eon to surrender his correspondence. Initially, Beaumarchais must have seemed like an odd choice to Louis XVI. Beaumarchais was not known for his discretion, honesty, or reliability. True, he had succeeded in preventing Morande’s blackmail, but Morande was a seedy swindler, while d’Eon was an elite officer and diplomat—a gentleman known for being a snob. Beaumarchais had offended many aristocrats like d’Eon, who would not have considered him their equal. Beaumarchais had a reputation as an adventurer, a troublemaker, and a fraud, who was recently convicted of forging documents and indicted for bribing a judge. Surely, the king could find someone more trustworthy to send on a mission of this sensitivity, and with so much hanging in the balance.
It is puzzling that Vergennes would have recommended Beaumarchais under any circumstances. Vergennes must have thought that Beaumarchais had some unique quality that could persuade d’Eon, yet d’Eon had never met Beaumarchais. It may be that Vergennes hoped
Whether Beaumarchais understood or agreed with Vergennes’s calculations would make no difference. He did not have much choice in deciding if he wanted to go. If he remained in France, he faced the likelihood of further criminal prosecution for his role in the La Blache affair, as well as his mounting debts. If he succeeded in obtaining the correspondence, the French king would restore his title and office. Thus, Beaumarchais gratefully accepted the secret mission to persuade the tempestuous and puzzling Chevalier d’Eon to surrender Louis XV’s secret correspondence. It was his last chance to prove his worth to Louis XVI and to rescue himself and his family from ruin.