The Man Who Was to Have Assassinated Napoleon
A FEW years ago a commonplace attempt at burglary in the house of a certain Marquise d’Orvault led to the arrest of a young workman named Schumacher, and his trial. French justice seems to take pleasure in all kinds of discursive inquiries, leading often to very curious discoveries and very unexpected results. It was proved upon this trial that the prisoner was own brother to the marquise, who had been well known in early life as Madame de la Bruyère, a bright star in the demi - monde. Her title, however, was not assumed, but had been lawfully obtained by marriage with a very old gentleman in 1856, in consideration of an annuity which he enjoyed for about ten years, without holding, or ever having held, to the personage who bore his name any other relations whatever.
It came out, also, on the trial, that Marquis d’Orvault was the hereditary title of a man better known as De Maubreuil, an adventurer who figured constantly before the public during the latter years of the First Empire and in the Restoration. He was the man compromised by the loss of the Queen of Westphalia’s diamonds; the man who boxed the ears of Talleyrand in public, and who, above all, was chief agent in the supposed attempt to assassinate Napoleon and the King of Rome, —a crime of which the emperor bitterly accused the Bourbons and the allied sovereigns in his will at St. Helena. That such an atrocity was really contemplated by the government of the Restoration is an item of modern historical belief, and it may be curious to see how far it is confirmed by official documents.
De Maubreuil was really born of a high family in Brittany, and inherited his title of Marquis d’Orvault about the same time that Napoleon became emperor. The persistent attempts of the imperial parvenu to form an aristocracy and to attract into his court all men who bore distinguished names brought D’Orvault into notice as a man of rank and fashion. In 1806 he became a member of the imperial household, and received a military commission.
In 1808, when he was twenty-seven, he was sent on an important secret mission to Napoleon’s troublesome and foolish brother, King Jerome, who took him into his confidence and good graces. They, however, became rivals in love, and D’Orvault, after two years’ residence at the court of Westphalia, betook himself to Spain, where, as captain of a regiment of German horse, he won the cross of the Legion of Honor.
After this success he began to tire of war, and sought an opportunity to recruit his fortunes. He had excellent appointments as commissary and paymaster, and, in spite of a large deficit in his accounts, stood so well with the emperor that he was promised the very lucrative and responsible post of commissary-general for the army in Germany.
This promise was withdrawn, however, through the influence of a high functionary in the war office, and De Maubreuil became a bitter enemy to Napoleon and the administration. Misfortunes were fast crowding round the imperial throne. De Maubreuil appeared to take delight in the reverses of the grand army, and in the downfall of his former master. During the occupation of Paris he was always to be seen doing the honors of the public sights to English and Prussian officers. It is said that he one day rode along the boulevards in full evening dress, with his cross of the Legion of Honor tied to his horse’s tail.
Such anti-Napoleonic demonstrations attracted the notice of the temporary government that was paving the way for the Restoration. De Maubreuil was officially sent by Talleyrand’s chief secretary, Laborde, to have a secret interview with the Emperor Alexander at his head-quarters at the Hôtel St. Florentin.
There can be no doubt that the Russian emperor gave him a commission; the question is, What was it? The official orders he received are silent on the nature of his secret service, but it is surely incredible that it should have been what he affirmed, — an order to assassinate Napoleon on his way to Elba. Such an atrocity was contrary to the whole character of Louis XVIII., and is still more incredible when we call to mind the disposition of Alexander, and the sentiments of admiration and regard he always entertained for Napoleon.
The minister of police, Count d’Anglès; the minister of war, General Dupont; the officer who regulated the official disposition of post-horses, Bourrienne; the Russian minister, Baron Sackem; and the Prussian minister, Baron de Brockenhausen, all gave him documents describing his mission as a secret one, and ordering all persons under their influence or authority to coöperate with him.
Can we believe that the Emperor Alexander, and King Frederic William, Talleyrand, Dupont, an old officer of the empire (though an unsuccessful soldier), but above all Bourrieune, who was for years Napoleon’s private secretary, would have given their open sanction to such treachery and such a crime? Yet De Maubreuil always declared that this was his commission, and that he accepted it only in order to become the protector of him whom he was pledged to destroy.
He at least made use of the means placed at his disposal to seize the trunks and valuables of the Queen of Westphalia. Some persons have thought this was his only mission, but subsequent events seem to prove that the Emperor Alexander could not have been aware that this was a duty with which he had been charged. At any rate, when the baggage he had seized was sent to Paris, it was found, on being opened by the authorities, by no means to correspond with Queen Catherine’s inventory. De Maubreuil, with his accustomed effrontery, attributed the deficiency to two of his enemies.
The Queen of Westphalia, one of the loveliest princesses of that day, did not give up her claims to her property. Her representatives at Paris began an action against De Maubreuil; and the Emperor of Russia, on whose safe conduct she was traveling, made himself a party to the suit, and was very angry at her molestation.
The court before which De Maubreuil was arraigned declared itself incompetent, and he was ordered to be tried by a court-martial. At length, through his friends’ influence, March 18, 1815, De Maubreuil was set at liberty. It was high time, for two days later Napoleon entered the Tuileries. On the 28th De Maubreuil was re-arrested at St. Germain by the agents of the emperor. On the 30th he was brought before another court martial. This court, however, declared itself incompetent, to the great indignation of Napoleon, who immediately ordered him to be re-indicted in the criminal court for an attempt at assassination. Before his trial could come on, De Maubreuil, by the aid of a young officer of the king’s musketeers, made his escape from prison.
He reached Ghent, where King Louis XVIII. refused to see him. At Liège he broke his leg, and feigned to commit suicide. Finally he escaped from Antwerp, where he was detained prisoner for some reason, and reached Paris almost as soon as the court after the battle of Waterloo.
Two years later he was again arrested in the matter of the Queen of Westphalia’s jewelry; but the same officer of musketeers who had aided his escape from the power of Napoleon made so eloquent an appeal to the Chambers on his behalf, dwelling especially on the fact that twenty-two members of his family had suffered death for their loyalty, that the worst part of the charge was dropped, and De Maubreuil was arraigned only for breach of trust. He made his escape to England before trial; but was condemned by default to five years’ imprisonment, ten years’ suspension from civil rights, and five hundred francs’ fine, for having, under pretext of a secret mission, taken possession of and lost gold and diamonds belonging to the Queen of Westphalia, to the amount of almost two hundred and eighty-four thousand francs. A few days after, divers employed to search the Seine found the lost property, carefully sealed and boxed up, at the bottom of the river. It had evidently not been under water any length of time.
De Maubreuil, meantime, established himself in London, where he wrote a memorial to be presented to the European Congress then sitting at Aix-laChapelle. There are no copies of this document in existence, for it was afterwards suppressed with extraordinary care. It was called “ A Petition addressed to the Congress at Aix-la-Chapelle, by Marie Armand de Guerry de Maubreuil, Marquis d’Orvault, concerning the order to assassinate Napoleon and his son, given by Russia, Prussia, and the Bourbons.” The sensation this document caused among the representatives of the Holy Alliance sitting at Aix-la-Chapelle may be imagined. The English representative recommended the powers implicated to bring him to trial. “ I ’d have given him two millions to hold his tongue! ” Nesselrode is reported to have said. “ My master,” said the Prussian ambassador, “ would have had him shot! ”
Four years passed after De Maubreuil’s sentence had expired, when, on the evening of January 21, 1827, Paris was astir with a story that that morning, when the court and royal family were Celebrating in the Cathedral of St. Denis the anniversary of the death of Louis XVI., De Maubreuil, who had been forgotten by the world for at least ten years, had slapped Talleyrand, Prince de Benvenuto, publicly in the face after the conclusion of the ceremonies. Men said the ex-Bishop of Autun had had an admirable opportunity afforded him to act upon his own saying, that “ A statesman who receives a kick in the back ought never to show the indignity in his face.” His cheek grew a little red from the slight blow, but otherwise he maintained his self-possession.
De Maubreuil, who was arrested on the spot, was greatly satisfied with his achievement, and sent his own statement the next morning to the public papers. “ I struck him,” he said, “ to force him to give me explanations he refuses me, and to avenge the honor of my family, which he has impugned. In the proceedings that I hope may follow this assault, I trust France will decide between him who planned and ordered the assassination of Napoleon and his son and him who took it upon himself not to execute an order which would have been the most infamous violation of a treaty known among civilized mankind.”
On his trial, De Maubreuil’s defense was very nearly as follows : “ The prosecutor for the crown has told you I am a man fallen from the rank to which his birth and education gave him claim. Why am I fallen? Because it pleased Talleyrand to send for me on the evening of April 2, 1814. He told me that I had deserved the confidence of the government of the Restoration. He threw his glamour over me for a moment. I was ambitious then. He promised me a dukedom, a pension of one hundred thousand francs, and the rank of lieutenant-general. I fell into his snare. I accepted his infamous commission. Every one concerned knew the secret service I was to execute. I was to kill Napoleon and his son. The order was explicit. I engaged to undertake it. Then it was I fell. Let Angles, the most bitter of my foes, appear and contradict me! I could lead him to the very sofa upon which he sat when he gave me my instructions.”
In spite of his defense, which was earnest as well as eloquent, De Maubreuil was condemned to five years’ imprisonment and ten years’ surveillance. On hearing his sentence he bowed to his judges, and said calmly, “It is what I expected
Other indictments against him were quashed, and this was the last time he appeared before any legal tribunal. At the end of his five years’ imprisonment (most of which he passed in a maison de santé), De Maubreuil went to Brittany. In 1843 he came back to Paris, and lived there on some small remains of his once ample fortune. After the establishment of the Second Empire he received a small pension from the secretservice fund. He was constantly to be found at the Café de la Régence, the great resort of chess-players, and at another literary institution. He is said to have dropped his title, to have been bland and gallant to the fair sex, but to have had always the air of a broken and unhappy man.
One morning in 1856, when he was nearly eighty, he left off coming to the Régence to play chess, and never returned to his old haunts any more. That day the public papers announced his marriage. The use he had made of his old title was most discreditable. He had bartered it away for an annuity, and he lived ten years comfortably upon his bargain. He married Mademoiselle Schumacher, alias Madame de la Bruyère, who settled a certain sum on him for life, on condition that she might call herself the Marquise d’Orvault.
From that day forward the husband she had purchased never crossed the threshold of her splendid apartment in the Rue Royale. He lodged in small rooms, up several flights of stairs, in another part of Paris, and rarely went from home. He was comfortably lodged, fed, clothed, and waited on. He died when nearly ninety, about twenty years ago. He had a splendid funeral, with all his honors as a marquis.
The invitations enumerated his titles, and were sent “ de la part de la Marquise d'Orvault, sa veuve.”