The Count van Horn by Washington Irving
During the minority of Louis XV., while the Duke of Orleans was Regent of France, a young Flemish nobleman, the Count Antoine Joseph Van Horn, made his sudden appearance in Paris, and by his character, conduct, and the subsequent disasters in which he became involved, created a great sensation in the high circles of the proud aristocracy. He was about twenty-two years of age, tall, finely formed, with a pale, romantic countenance, and eyes of remarkable brilliancy and wildness.
He was of one of the most ancient and highly-esteemed families of European nobility, being of the line of the Princes of Horn and Overique, sovereign Counts of Hautekerke, and hereditary Grand Veneurs of the empire.
The family took its name from the little town and seigneurie of Horn, in Brabant; and was known as early as the eleventh century among the little dynasties of the Netherlands, and since that time by a long line of illustrious generations. At the peace of Utrecht, when the Netherlands passed under subjection to Austria, the house of Van Horn came under the domination of the emperor. At the time we treat of, two of the branches of this ancient house were extinct; the third and only surviving branch was represented by the reigning prince, Maximilian Emanuel Van Horn, twenty-four years of age, who resided in honorable and courtly style on his hereditary domains at Baussigny, in the Netherlands, and his brother, the Count Antoine Joseph, who is the subject of this memoir.
The ancient house of Van Horn, by the intermarriage of its various branches with the noble families of the continent, had become widely connected and interwoven with the high aristocracy of Europe. The Count Antoine, therefore, could claim relationship to many of the proudest names in Paris. In fact, he was grandson, by the mother’s side, of the Prince de Ligne, and even might boast of affinity to the Regent (the Duke of Orleans) himself. There were circumstances, however, connected with his sudden appearance in Paris, and his previous story, that placed him in what is termed “a false position;” a word of baleful significance in the fashionable vocabulary of France.
The young count had been a captain in the service of Austria, but had been cashiered for irregular conduct, and for disrespect to Prince Louis of Baden, commander-in-chief. To check him in his wild career, and bring him to sober reflection, his brother the prince caused him to be arrested and sent to the old castle of Van Wert, in the domains of Horn. This was the same castle in which, in former times, John Van Horn, Stadtholder of Gueldres, had imprisoned his father; a circumstance which has furnished Rembrandt with the subject of an admirable painting. The governor of the castle was one Van Wert, grandson of the famous John Van Wert, the hero of many a popular song and legend. It was the intention of the prince that his brother should be held in honorable durance, for his object was to sober and improve, not to punish and afflict him. Van Wert, however, was a stern, harsh man of violent passions. He treated the youth in a manner that prisoners and offenders were treated in the strong-holds of the robber counts of Germany in old times; confined him in a dungeon and inflicted on him such hardships and indignities that the irritable temperament of the young count was roused to continual fury, which ended in insanity. For six months was the unfortunate youth kept in this horrible state, without his brother the prince being informed of his melancholy condition or of the cruel treatment to which he was subjected. At length, one day, in a paroxysm of frenzy, the count knocked down two of his gaolers with a beetle, escaped from the castle of Van Wert, and eluded all pursuit; and after roving about in a state of distraction, made his way to Baussigny and appeared like a sceptre before his brother.
The prince was shocked at his wretched, emaciated appearance and his lamentable state of mental alienation. He received him with the most compassionate tenderness; lodged him in his own room, appointed three servants to attend and watch over him day and night, and endeavored by the most soothing and affectionate assiduity to atone for the past act of rigor with which he reproached himself. When he learned, however, the manner in which his unfortunate brother had been treated in confinement, and the course of brutalities that had led to his mental malady, he was roused to indignation. His first step was to cashier Van Wert from his command. That violent man set the prince at defiance, and attempted to maintain himself in his government and his castle by instigating the peasants, for several leagues round, to revolt. His insurrection might have been formidable against the power of a petty prince; but he was put under the ban of the empire and seized as a state prisoner. The memory of his grandfather, the oft-sung John Van Wert, alone saved him from a gibbet; but he was imprisoned in the strong tower of Horn-op-Zee. There he remained until he was eighty-two years of age, savage, violent, and unconquered to the last; for we are told that he never ceased fighting and thumping as long as he could close a fist or wield a cudgel.
In the mean time a course of kind and gentle treatment and wholesome regimen, and, above all, the tender and affectionate assiduity of his brother, the prince, produced the most salutary effects upon Count Antoine. He gradually recovered his reason; but a degree of violence seemed always lurking at the bottom of his character, and he required to be treated with the greatest caution and mildness, for the least contradiction exasperated him.
In this state of mental convalescence, he began to find the supervision and restraints of brotherly affection insupportable; so he left the Netherlands furtively, and repaired to Paris, whither, in fact, it is said he was called by motives of interest, to make arrangements concerning a valuable estate which he inherited from his relative, the Princess d’Epinay.
On his arrival in Paris, he called upon the Marquis of Crqui, and other of the high nobility with whom he was connected. He was received with great courtesy; but, as he brought no letters from his elder brother, the prince, and as various circumstances of his previous history had transpired, they did not receive him into their families, nor introduce him to their ladies. Still they fted him in bachelor style, gave him gay and elegant suppers at their separate apartments, and took him to their boxes at the theatres. He was often noticed, too, at the doors of the most fashionable churches, taking his stand among the young men of fashion; and at such times, his tall, elegant figure, his pale but handsome countenance, and his flashing eyes, distinguished him from among the crowd; and the ladies declared that it was almost impossible to support his ardent gaze.
The Count did not afflict himself much at his limited circulation in the fastidious circles of the high aristocracy. He relished society of a wilder and less ceremonious cast; and meeting with loose companions to his taste, soon ran into all the excesses of the capital, in that most licentious period. It is said that, in the course of his wild career, he had an intrigue with a lady of quality, a favorite of the Regent; that he was surprised by that prince in one of his interviews; that sharp words passed between them; and that the jealousy and vengeance thus awakened, ended only with his life.
About this time, the famous Mississippi scheme of Law was at its height, or rather it began to threaten that disastrous catastrophe which convulsed the whole financial world. Every effort was making to keep the bubble inflated. The vagrant population of France was swept off from the streets at night, and conveyed to Havre de Grace, to be shipped to the projected colonies; even laboring people and mechanics were thus crimped and spirited away. As Count Antoine was in the habit of sallying forth at night, in disguise, in pursuit of his pleasures, he came near being carried off by a gang of crimps; it seemed, in fact, as if they had been lying in wait for him, as he had experienced very rough treatment at their hands. Complaint was made of his case by his relation, the Marquis de Crqui, who took much interest in the youth; but the Marquis received mysterious intimations not to interfere in the matter, but to advise the Count to quit Paris immediately; “If he lingers, he is lost!” This has been cited as a proof that vengeance was dogging at the heels of the unfortunate youth, and only watching for an opportunity to destroy him.
Such opportunity occurred but too soon. Among the loose companions with whom the Count had become intimate, were two who lodged in the same hotel with him. One was a youth only twenty years of age, who passed himself off as the Chevalier d’Etampes, but whose real name was Lestang, the prodigal son of a Flemish banker. The other, named Laurent de Mille, a Piedmontese, was a cashiered captain, and at the time an esquire in the service of the dissolute Princess de Carignan, who kept gambling-tables in her palace. It is probable that gambling propensities had driven these young men together, and that their losses had brought them to desperate measures: certain it is, that all Paris was suddenly astounded by a murder which they were said to have committed. What made the crime more startling, was, that it seemed connected with the great Mississippi scheme, at that time the fruitful source of all kinds of panics and agitations. A Jew, a stock-broker, who dealt largely in shares of the bank of Law, founded on the Mississippi scheme, was the victim. The story of his death is variously related. The darkest account states, that the Jew was decoyed by these young men into an obscure tavern, under pretext of negotiating with him for bank shares to the amount of one hundred thousand crowns, which he had with him in his pocket-book. Lestang kept watch upon the stairs. The Count and De Mille entered with the Jew into a chamber. In a little while there were heard cries and struggles from within. A waiter passing by the room, looked in, and seeing the Jew weltering in his blood, shut the door again, double-locked it, and alarmed the house. Lestang rushed downstairs, made his way to the hotel, secured his most portable effects, and fled the country. The Count and De Mille endeavored to escape by the window, but were both taken, and conducted to prison.
A circumstance which occurs in this part of the Count’s story, seems to point him out as a fated man. His mother, and his brother, the Prince Van Horn, had received intelligence some time before at Baussigny, of the dissolute life the Count was leading at Paris, and of his losses at play. They despatched a gentleman of the prince’s household to Paris, to pay the debts of the Count, and persuade him to return to Flanders; or, if he should refuse, to obtain an order from the Regent for him to quit the capital. Unfortunately the gentleman did not arrive at Paris until the day after the murder.
The news of the Count’s arrest and imprisonment on a charge of murder, caused a violent sensation among the high aristocracy. All those connected with him, who had treated him hitherto with indifference, found their dignity deeply involved in the question of his guilt or innocence. A general convocation was held at the hotel of the Marquis de Crqui, of all the relatives and allies of the house of Horn. It was an assemblage of the most proud and aristocratic personages of Paris. Inquiries were made into the circumstances of the affair. It was ascertained, beyond a doubt, that the Jew was dead, and that he had been killed by several stabs of a poniard. In escaping by the window, it was said that the Count had fallen, and been immediately taken; but that De Mille had fled through the streets, pursued by the populace, and had been arrested at some distance from the scene of the murder; that the Count had declared himself innocent of the death of the Jew, and that he had risked his own life in endeavoring to protect him; but that De Mille, on being brought back to the tavern, confessed to a plot to murder the broker, and rob him of his pocket-book, and inculpated the Count in the crime.
Another version of the story was, that the Count Van Horn had deposited with the broker, bank shares to the amount of eighty-eight thousand livres; that he had sought him in this tavern, which was one of his resorts, and had demanded the shares; that the Jew had denied the deposit; that a quarrel had ensued, in the course of which the Jew struck the Count in the face; that the latter, transported with rage, had snatched up a knife from a table, and wounded the Jew in the shoulder; and that thereupon De Mille, who was present, and who had likewise been defrauded by the broker, fell on him, and despatched him with blows of a poniard, and seized upon his pocket-book; that he had offered to divide the contents of the latter with the Count, pro rata, of what the usurer had defrauded them; that the latter had refused the proposition with disdain, and that, at a noise of persons approaching, both had attempted to escape from the premises, but had been taken.
Regard the story in any way they might, appearances were terribly against the Count, and the noble assemblage was in great consternation. What was to be done to ward off so foul a disgrace and to save their illustrious escutcheons from this murderous stain of blood? Their first attempt was to prevent the affair from going to trial, and their relative from being dragged before a criminal tribunal, on so horrible and degrading a charge. They applied, therefore, to the Regent, to intervene his power; to treat the Count as having acted under an access of his mental malady; and to shut him up in a madhouse. The Regent was deaf to their solicitations. He replied, coldly, that if the Count was a madman, one could not get rid too quickly of madmen who were furious in their insanity. The crime was too public and atrocious to be hushed up or slurred over; justice must take its course.
Seeing there was no avoiding the humiliating scene of a public trial, the noble relatives of the Count endeavored to predispose the minds of the magistrates before whom he was to be arraigned. They accordingly made urgent and eloquent representations of the high descent, and noble and powerful connexions of the Count; set forth the circumstances of his early history; his mental malady; the nervous irritability to which he was subject, and his extreme sensitiveness to insult or contradiction. By these means they sought to prepare the judges to interpret every thing in favor of the Count, and, even if it should prove that he had inflicted the mortal blow on the usurer, to attribute it to access of insanity, provoked by insult.
To give full effect to these representations, the noble conclave determined to bring upon the judges the dazzling rays of the whole assembled aristocracy. Accordingly, on the day that the trial took place, the relations of the Count, to the number of fifty-seven persons, of both sexes, and of the highest rank, repaired in a body to the Palace of Justice, and took their stations in a long corridor which led to the court-room. Here, as the judges entered, they had to pass in review this array of lofty and noble personages, who saluted them mournfully and significantly, as they passed. Any one conversant with the stately pride and jealous dignity of the French noblesse of that day, may imagine the extreme state of sensitiveness that produced this self-abasement. It was confidently presumed, however, by the noble suppliants, that having once brought themselves to this measure, their influence over the tribunal would be irresistible. There was one lady present, however, Madame de Beauffremont, who was affected with the Scottish gift of second sight, and related such dismal and sinister apparitions as passing before her eyes, that many of her female companions were filled with doleful presentiments.
Unfortunately for the Count, there was another interest at work, more powerful even than the high aristocracy. The all-potent Abb Dubois, the grand favorite and bosom counsellor of the Regent, was deeply interested in the scheme of Law, and the prosperity of his bank, and of course in the security of the stock-brokers. Indeed, the Regent himself is said to have dipped deep in the Mississippi scheme. Dubois and Law, therefore, exerted their influence to the utmost to have the tragic affair pushed to the extremity of the law, and the murder of the broker punished in the most signal and appalling manner. Certain it is, the trial was neither long nor intricate. The Count and his fellow prisoner were equally inculpated in the crime; and both were condemned to a death the most horrible and ignominious–to be broken alive on the wheel!
As soon as the sentence of the court was made public, all the nobility, in any degree related to the house of Van Horn, went into mourning. Another grand aristocratical assemblage was held, and a petition to the Regent, on behalf of the Count, was drawn out and left with the Marquis de Crqui for signature. This petition set forth the previous insanity of the Count, and showed that it was a hereditary malady of his family. It stated various circumstances in mitigation of his offence, and implored that his sentence might be commuted to perpetual imprisonment.
Upward of fifty names of the highest nobility, beginning with the Prince de Ligne, and including cardinals, archbishops, dukes, marquises, etc., together with ladies of equal rank, were signed to this petition. By one of the caprices of human pride and vanity, it became an object of ambition to get enrolled among the illustrious suppliants; a kind of testimonial of noble blood, to prove relationship to a murderer! The Marquis de Crqui was absolutely besieged by applicants to sign, and had to refer their claims to this singular honor, to the Prince de Ligne, the grandfather of the Count. Many who were excluded, were highly incensed, and numerous feuds took place. Nay, the affronts thus given to the morbid pride of some aristocratical families, passed from generation to generation; for, fifty years afterward, the Duchess of Mazarin complained of a slight which her father had received from the Marquis de Crqui; which proved to be something connected with the signature of this petition. This important document being completed, the illustrious body of petitioners, male and female, on Saturday evening, the eve of Palm Sunday, repaired to the Palais Royal, the residence of the Regent, and were ushered, with great ceremony but profound silence, into his hall of council. They had appointed four of their number as deputies, to present the petition, viz.: the Cardinal de Rohan, the Duke de Havr, the Prince de Ligne, and the Marquis de Crqui. After a little while, the deputies were summoned to the cabinet of the Regent. They entered, leaving the assembled petitioners in a state of the greatest anxiety. As time slowly wore away, and the evening advanced, the gloom of the company increased. Several of the ladies prayed devoutly; the good Princess of Armagnac told her beads.
The petition was received by the Regent with a most unpropitious aspect. “In asking the pardon of the criminal,” said he, “you display more zeal for the house of Van Horn, than for the service of the king.” The noble deputies enforced the petition by every argument in their power. They supplicated the Regent to consider that the infamous punishment in question would reach not merely the person of the condemned, not merely the house of Van Horn, but also the genealogies of princely and illustrious families, in whose armorial bearings might be found quarterings of this dishonored name.
“Gentlemen,” replied the Regent, “it appears to me the disgrace consists in the crime, rather than in the punishment.”
The Prince de Ligne spoke with warmth: “I have in my genealogical standard,” said he, “four escutcheons of Van Horn, and of course have four ancestors of that house. I must have them erased and effaced, and there would be so many blank spaces, like holes, in my heraldic ensigns. There is not a sovereign family which would not suffer, through the rigor of your Royal Highness; nay, all the world knows, that in the thirty-two quarterings of Madame, your mother, there is an escutcheon of Van Horn.”
“Very well,” replied the Regent, “I will share the disgrace with you, gentlemen.”
Seeing that a pardon could not be obtained, the Cardinal de Rohan and the Marquis de Crqui left the cabinet; but the Prince de Ligne and the Duke de Havr remained behind. The honor of their houses, more than the life of the unhappy Count, was the great object of their solicitude. They now endeavored to obtain a minor grace. They represented that in the Netherlands, and in Germany, there was an important difference in the public mind as to the mode of inflicting the punishment of death upon persons of quality. That decapitation had no influence on the fortunes of the family of the executed, but that the punishment of the wheel was such an infamy, that the uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters of the criminal, and his whole family, for three succeeding generations, were excluded from all noble chapters, princely abbeys, sovereign bishoprics, and even Teutonic commanderies of the Order of Malta. They showed how this would operate immediately upon the fortunes of a sister of the Count, who was on the point of being received as a canoness into one of the noble chapters.
While this scene was going on in the cabinet of the Regent, the illustrious assemblage of petitioners remained in the hall of council, in the most gloomy state of suspense. The re-entrance from the cabinet of the Cardinal de Rohan and the Marquis de Crqui, with pale, downcast countenances, had struck a chill into every heart. Still they lingered until near midnight, to learn the result of the after application. At length the cabinet conference was at an end. The Regent came forth, and saluted the high personages of the assemblage in a courtly manner. One old lady of quality, Madame de Guyon, whom he had known in his infancy, he kissed on the cheek, calling her his “good aunt.” He made a most ceremonious salutation to the stately Marchioness de Crqui, telling her he was charmed to see her at the Palais Royal; “a compliment very ill-timed,” said the Marchioness, “considering the circumstance which brought me there.” He then conducted the ladies to the door of the second saloon, and there dismissed them, with the most ceremonious politeness.
The application of the Prince de Ligne and the Duke de Havr, for a change of the mode of punishment, had, after much difficulty, been successful. The Regent had promised solemnly to send a letter of commutation to the attorney-general on Holy Monday, the 25th of March, at five o’clock in the morning. According to the same promise, a scaffold would be arranged in the cloister of the Conciergerie, or prison, where the Count would be beheaded on the same morning, immediately after having received absolution. This mitigation of the form of punishment gave but little consolation to the great body of petitioners, who had been anxious for the pardon of the youth: it was looked upon as all-important, however, by the Prince de Ligne, who, as has been before observed,–was exquisitely alive to the dignity of his family.
The Bishop of Bayeux and the Marquis de Crqui visited the unfortunate youth in prison. He had just received the communion in the chapel of the Conciergerie, and was kneeling before the altar, listening to a mass for the dead, which was performed at his request. He protested his innocence of any intention to murder the Jew, but did not deign to allude to the accusation of robbery. He made the bishop and the Marquis promise to see his brother the prince, and inform him of this his dying asseveration.
Two other of his relations, the Prince Rebecq-Montmorency and the Marshal Van Isenghien, visited him secretly, and offered him poison, as a means of evading the disgrace of a public execution. On his refusing to take it, they left him with high indignation. “Miserable man!” said they, “you are fit only to perish by the hand of the executioner!”
The Marquis de Crqui sought the executioner of Paris, to bespeak an easy and decent death–for the unfortunate youth. “Do not make him suffer,” said he; “uncover no part of him but the neck; and have his body placed in a coffin, before you deliver it to his family.” The executioner promised all that was requested, but declined a rouleau of a hundred louis-d’ors which the Marquis would have put into his hand. “I am paid by the king for fulfilling my office,” said he; and added that he had already refused a like sum, offered by another relation of the Marquis.
The Marquis de Crqui returned home in a state of deep affliction. There he found a letter from the Duke de St. Simon, the familiar friend of the Regent, repeating the promise of that prince, that the punishment of the wheel should be commuted to decapitation.
“Imagine,” says the Marchioness de Crqui, who in her memoirs gives a detailed account of this affair, “imagine what we experienced, and what was our astonishment, our grief, and indignation, when, on Tuesday, the 26th of March, an hour after midday, word was brought us that the Count Van Horn had been exposed on the wheel, in the Place de Grve, since half-past six in the morning, on the same scaffold with the Piedmontese de Mille, and that he had been tortured previous to execution!”
One more scene of aristocratic pride closed this tragic story. The Marquis de Crqui, on receiving this astounding news, immediately arrayed himself in the uniform of a general officer, with his cordon of nobility on the coat. He ordered six valets to attend him in grand livery, and two of his carriages, each with six horses, to be brought forth. In this sumptuous state, he set off for the Place de Grve, where he had been preceded by the Princes de Ligne, de Rohan, de Croy, and the Duke de Havr.
The Count Van Horn was already dead, and it was believed that the executioner had had the charity to give him the coup de grace, or “death-blow,” at eight o’clock in the morning. At five o’clock in the evening, when the Judge Commissary left his post at the Hotel de Ville, these noblemen, with their own hands, aided to detach the mutilated remains of their relation; the Marquis de Crequi placed them in one of his carriages, and bore them off to his hotel, to receive the last sad obsequies.
The conduct of the Regent in this affair excited general indignation. His needless severity was attributed by some to vindictive jealousy; by others to the persevering machinations of Law. The house of Van Horn, and the high nobility of Flanders and Germany, considered themselves flagrantly outraged: many schemes of vengeance were talked of, and a hatred engendered against the Regent, that followed him through life, and was wreaked with bitterness upon his memory after his death.
The following letter is said to have been written to the Regent by the Prince Van Horn, to whom the former had adjudged the confiscated effects of the Count:
“I do not complain, Sir, of the death of my brother, but I complain that your Royal Highness has violated in his person the rights of the kingdom, the nobility, and the nation. I thank you for the confiscation of his effects; but I should think myself as much disgraced as he, should I accept any favor at your hands. I hope that God and the King may render to you as strict justice as you have rendered to my unfortunate brother.”