Saint-Germain the Deathless
By Andrew Lang
Among the best brief masterpieces of fiction are Lytton’s The Haunters and the Haunted, and Thackeray’s Notch on the Axe in Roundabout Papers. Both deal with a mysterious being who passes through the ages, rich, powerful, always behind the scenes, coming no man knows whence, and dying, or pretending to die, obscurely— you never find authentic evidence of his disease. In other later times, at other courts, such an one reappears and runs the same course of luxury, marvel, and hidden potency.
Lytton returned to and elaborated his idea in the Margrave of A Strange Story, who has no “soul,” and prolongs his physical and intellectual life by means of an elixir. Margrave is not bad, but he is inferior to the hero, less elaborately designed, of The Haunters and the Haunted. Thackeray’s tale is written in a tone of mock mysticism, but he confesses that he likes his own story, in which the strange hero through all his many lives or reappearances, and through all the countless loves on which he fatuously plumes himself, retains a slight German-Jewish accent.
It appears to me that the historic original of these romantic characters is no other than the mysterious Comte de Saint-Germain— not, of course, the contemporary and normal French soldier and minister, of 1707-1778, who bore the same name. I have found the name, with dim allusions, in the unpublished letters and MSS. of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, and have not always been certain whether the reference was to the man of action or to the man of mystery. On the secret of the latter, the deathless one, I have no new light to throw, and only speak of him for a single reason. Aristotle assures us, in his Poetics, that the best-known myths dramatized on the Athenian stage were known to very few of the Athenian audience. It is not impossible that the story of Saint-Germain, though it seems as familiar as the myth of Oedipus or Thyestes, may, after all, not be vividly present to the memory of every reader. The omniscient Larousse, of the Dictionnaire Universel, certainly did not know one very accessible fact about Saint-Germain, nor have I seen it mentioned in other versions of his legend. We read, in Larousse, “Saint-Germain is not heard of in France before 1750, when he established himself in Paris. No adventure had called attention to his existence; it was only known that he had moved about Europe, lived in Italy, Holland, and in England, and had borne the names of Marquis de Monteferrat, and of Comte de Bellamye, which he used at Venice.”
Lascelles Wraxall, again, in Remarkable Adventures (1863), says:
“Whatever truth there may be in Saint-Germain’s travels in England and the East Indies, it is indubitable that, for from 1745 to 1755, he was a man of high position in Vienna,” while in Paris he does not appear, according to Wraxall, till 1757, having been brought from Germany by the Marechal de Belle-Isle, whose “old boots,” says Macallester the spy, Prince Charles freely damned, “because they were always stuffed with projects.” Now we hear of Saint-Germain, by that name, as resident, not in Vienna, but in London, at the very moment when Prince Charles, evading Cumberland, who lay with his army at Stone, in Staffordshire, marched to Derby. Horace Walpole writes to Mann in Florence (December 9, 1745):
“We begin to take up people . . . the other day they seized an odd man who goes by the name of Count Saint-Germain. He has been here these two years, and will not tell who he is, or whence, but professes that he does not go by his right name. He sings, plays on the violin wonderfully, composes, is mad, and not very sensible. He is called an Italian, a Spaniard, a Pole; a somebody that married a great fortune in Mexico, and ran away with her jewels to Constantinople; a priest, a fiddler, a vast nobleman. The Prince of Wales has had unsatiated curiosity about him, but in vain. However, nothing has been made out against him; he is released, and, what convinces me he is not a gentleman, stays here, and talks of his being taken up for a spy.”
Here is our earliest authentic note on Saint-Germain; a note omitted by his French students. He was in London from 1743 to 1745, under a name not his own, but that which he later bore at the Court of France. From the allusion to his jewels (those of a deserted Mexican bride), it appears that he was already as rich in these treasures as he was afterwards, when his French acquaintances marveled at them. (As to his being “mad,” Walpole may refer to Saint-Germain’s way of talking as if he had lived in remote ages, and known famous people of the past).
Having caught this daylight glimpse of Saint-Germain in Walpole, having learned that in December, 1745, he was arrested and examined as a possible Jacobite agent, we naturally expect to find our contemporary official documents about his examination by the Government. Scores of such records exist, containing the questions put to, and the answers given by, suspected persons. But we vainly hunt through the Newcastle MSS., and the State Papers, Domestic, in the Record Office, for a trace of the examination of Saint-Germain. I am not aware that he was anywhere left his trail in official documents; he lives in more or less legendary memoirs, alone.
At what precise date Saint-Germain became an intimate of Louis XV., the Duc de Choiseul, Madame de Pompadour, and the Marechal de Belle-Isle, one cannot ascertain. The writers of memoirs are the vaguest of mortals about dates; only one discerns that Saint-Germain was much about the French Court, and high in the favor of the King, having rooms at Chambord, during the Seven Years’ War, and just before the time of the peace negotiations of 1762-1763. The art of compiling false or forged memoirs of that period was widely practiced; but the memoirs of Madame du Hausset, who speaks of Saint-Germain, are authentic. She was the widow of a poor man of noble family, and was one of two femmes de chambre of Madame de Pompadour. Her manuscript was written, she explains, by aid of a brief diary which she kept during her term of service. One day M. Senac de Meilhan found Madame de Pompadour’s brother, M. de Marigny, about to burn a packet of papers. “It is the journal,” he said, “of a femme de chambre of my sister, a good, kind woman.” De Meilhan asked for the manuscript, which he later gave to Mr. Crawford, one of the Kilwinning family, in Ayrshire, who later helped in the escape of Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette to Varennes, where they were captured. With the journal of Madame du Hausset were several letters to Marigny on points of historical anecdote.
One of these gives Madame de Vieux-Maison as the author of a roman a clef, Secret Memoirs of the Court of Persia, which contains an early reference to the Man in the Iron Mask (died 1703). The letter-writer avers that D’Argenson, the famous minister of Louis XV., said that the Man in the Iron Mask was really a person fort peu de chose, ‘of very little account,’ and that the Regent d’Orleans was of the same opinion. This corroborates my theory, that the Mask was merely the valet of a Huguenot conspirator, Roux de Marsilly, captured in England, and imprisoned because he was supposed to know some terrible secret—which he knew nothing about. See The Valet’s Tragedy, Longmans, 1903.
Crawford published the manuscript of Madame du Hausset, which he was given by de Meilhan, and the memoirs are thus from an authentic source. The author says that Louis XV. was always kind to her, but spoke little to her, whereas Madame de Pompadour remarked, “The King and I trust you so much that we treat you like a cat or a dog, and talk freely before you.”
As to Saint-Germain, Madame du Hausset writes: “A man who was as amazing as a witch came often to see Madame de Pompadour. This was the Comte de Saint-Germain, who wished to make people believe that he had lived for several centuries. One day Madame said to him, while at her toilet, “What sort of man was Francis I., a king whom I could have loved?” “A good sort of fellow,” said Saint-Germain;
“too fiery—I could have given him a useful piece of advice, but he would not have listened.” He then described, in very general terms, the beauty of Mary Stuart and La Reine Margot. “You seem to have seen them all,” said Madame de Pompadour, laughing. “Sometimes,” said Saint-Germain, “I amuse myself, not by making people believe, but by letting them believe, that I have lived from time immemorial.” “But you do not tell us your age, and you give yourself out as very old. Madame de Gergy, who was wife of the French ambassador at Venice fifty years ago, I think, says that she knew you there, and that you are not changed in the least.” “It is true, Madame, that I knew Madame de Gergy long ago.” “But according to her story you must now be over a century old.” “It may be so, but I admit that even more possibly the respected lady is in her dotage.”
At this time Saint-Germain, says Madame du Hausset, looked about fifty, was neither thin nor stout, seemed clever, and dressed simply, as a rule, but in good taste. Say that the date was 1760, Saint-Germain looked fifty; but he had looked the same age, according to Madame de Gergy, at Venice, fifty years earlier, in 1710. We see how pleasantly he left Madame de Pompadour in doubt on that point.
He pretended to have the secret of removing flaws from diamonds. The King showed him a stone valued at 6,000 francs—without a flaw it would have been worth 10,000. Saint-Germain said that he could remove the flaw in a month, and in a month he brought back the diamond—flawless. The King sent it, without any comment, to his jeweler, who gave 9,600 francs for the stone, but the King returned the money, and kept the gem as a curiosity. Probably it was not the original stone, but another cut in the same fashion, Saint-Germain sacrificing 3,000 or 4,000 francs to his practical joke.
He also said that he could increase the size of pearls, which he could have proved very easily—in the same manner. He would not oblige Madame de Pompadour by giving the King an elixir of life: “I should be mad if I gave the King a drug.” There seems to be a reference to this desire of Madame de Pompadour in an unlikely place, a letter of Pickle the Spy to Mr. Vaughan (1754)! This conversation Madame du Hausset wrote down on the day of its occurrence.
Both Louis XV. and Madame de Pompadour treated Saint-Germain as a person of consequence. “He is a quack, for he says he has an elixir,” said Dr. Quesnay, with medical skepticism. “Moreover, our master, the King, is obstinate; he sometimes speaks of Saint-Germain as a person of illustrious birth.”
The age was skeptical, unscientific, and, by reaction, credulous. The philosophes, Hume, Voltaire, and others, were exposing, like an ingenious American gentleman, “the mistakes of Moses.” The Earl of Marischal told Hume that life had been chemically produced in a laboratory, so what becomes of Creation? Prince Charles, hidden in a convent, was being tutored by Mlle. Luci in the sensational philosophy of Locke, “nothing in the intellect which does not come through the senses”—a queer theme for a man of the sword to study. But, thirty years earlier, the Regent d’Orleans had made crystal-gazing fashionable, and stories of ghosts and second-sight in the highest circles were popular. Mesmer had not yet appeared, to give a fresh start to the old savage practice of hypnotism; Cagliostro was not yet on the scene with his free-masonry of the ancient Egyptian school. But people were already in extremes of doubt and of belief; there might be something in the elixir of life and in the philosopher’s stone; it might be possible to make precious stones chemically, and Saint-Germain, who seemed to be over a century old at least, might have all these secrets.
Whence came his wealth in precious stones, people asked, unless from some mysterious knowledge, or some equally mysterious and illustrious birth?
He showed Madame de Pompadour a little box full of rubies, topazes, and diamonds. Madame de Pompadour called Madame du Hausset to look at them; she was dazzled, but skeptical, and made a sign to show that she thought them paste. The Count then exhibited a superb ruby, tossing aside contemptuously a cross covered with gems. “That is not so contemptible,” said Madame du Hausset, hanging it round her neck. The Count begged her to keep the jewel; she refused, and Madame de Pompadour backed her refusal. But Saint-Germain insisted, and Madame de Pompadour, thinking that the cross might be worth forty louis, made a sign to Madame du Hausset that she accept. She did, and the jewel was valued at 1,500 francs— which hardly proves that the other large jewels were genuine, though Von Gleichen believed they were, and thought the Count’s cabinet of old masters very valuable.
The fingers, the watch, the snuffbox, the shoe-buckles, the garter studs, the solitaires of the Count, on high days, all burned with diamonds and rubies, which were estimated, one day, at 200,000 francs. His wealth did not come from cards or swindling—no such charges are ever hinted at; he did not sell elixirs, nor prophecies, nor initiations. His habits do not seem to have been extravagant. One might regard him as a clever eccentric person, the unacknowledged child, perhaps, of some noble, who had put his capital mainly into precious stones. But Louis XV. treated him as a serious personage, and probably knew, or thought he knew, the secret of his birth. People held that he was a bastard of a king of Portugal, says Madame du Hausset. Perhaps the most ingenious and plausible theory of the birth of Saint-Germain makes him the natural son, not of a king of Portugal, but of a queen of Spain. The evidence is not evidence, but a series of surmises. Saint-Germain, on this theory, ‘wrop his buth up in a mistry’ (like that of Charles James Fitzjames de la Pluche), out of regard for the character of his royal mamma. I believe this about as much as I believe that a certain Rev. Mr. Douglas, an obstreperous Covenanting minister, was a descendant of the captive Mary Stuart. However, Saint-Germain is said, like Kaspar Hauser, to have murmured of dim memories of his infancy, of diversions on magnificent terraces, and of palaces glowing beneath an azure sky. This is reported by Von Gleichen, who knew him very well, but thought him rather a quack. Possibly he meant to convey the idea that he was Moses, and that he had dwelt in the palaces of the Ramessids. The grave of the prophet was never known, and Saint-Germain may have insinuated that he began a new avatar in a cleft of Mount Pisgah; he was capable of it.
However, a less wild surmise avers that, in 1763, the secrets of his birth and the source of his opulence were known in Holland. The authority is the Memoirs of Grosley (1813). Grosley was an archaeologist of Troyes; he had traveled in Italy, and written an account of his travels; he also visited Holland and England, and later, from a Dutchman, he picked up his information about Saint-Germain. Grosley was a Fellow of our Royal Society, and I greatly revere the authority of a F.R.S. His later years were occupied in the compilation of his Memoirs, including an account of what he did and heard in Holland, and he died in 1785. According to Grosley’s account of what the Dutchman knew, Saint-Germain was the son of a princess who fled (obviously from Spain) to Bayonne, and of a Portuguese Jew dwelling in Bordeaux.
What fairy and fugitive princess can this be, whom not in vain the ardent Hebrew wooed? She was, she must have been, as Grosley saw, the heroine of Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. The unhappy Charles II. of Spain, a kind of “mammet” (as the English called the Richard II. who appeared up in Islay, having escaped from Pomfret Castle), had for his first wife a daughter of Henrietta, the favorite sister of our Charles II. This childless bride, after some ghostly years of matrimony, after being exorcised in disgusting circumstances, died in February, 1689. In May, 1690 a new bride, Marie de Neuborg, was brought to the grisly side of the crowned mammet of Spain. She, too, failed to prevent the wars of the Spanish Succession by giving an heir to the Crown of Spain. Scandalous chronicles aver that Marie was chosen as Queen of Spain for the levity of her character, and that the Crown was expected, as in the Pictish monarchy, to descend on the female side; the father of the prince might be anybody. What was needed was simply a son of the QUEEN of Spain. She had, while Queen, no son, as far as is ascertained, but she had a favorite, a Count Andanero, whom she made minister of finance. “He was not a born Count,” he was a financier, this favorite of the Queen of Spain. That lady did go to live in Bayonne in 1706, six years after the death of Charles II., her husband. The hypothesis is, then, that Saint-Germain was the son of this ex-Queen of Spain, and of the financial Count, Andanero, a man, “not born in the sphere of Counts,” and easily transformed by tradition into a Jewish banker of Bordeaux. The Duc de Choiseul, who disliked the intimacy of Louis XV. and of the Court with Saint-Germain, said that the Count was “the son of a Portuguese Jew, WHO DECEIVES THE COURT. It is strange that the King is so often allowed to be almost alone with this man, though, when he goes out, he is surrounded by guards, as if he feared assassins everywhere.” This anecdote is from the Memoirs of Gleichen, who had seen a great deal of the world. He died in 1807.
It seems a fair inference that the Duc de Choiseul knew what the Dutch bankers knew, the story of the Count’s being a child of a princess retired to Bayonne—namely, the ex-Queen of Spain—and of a Portuguese-Hebrew financier. De Choiseul was ready to accept the Jewish father, but thought that, in the matter of the royal mother, Saint-Germain “deceived the Court.”
A queen of Spain might have carried off any quantity of the diamonds of Brazil. The presents of diamonds from her almost idiotic lord must have been among the few comforts of her situation in a Court overridden by etiquette. The reader of Madame d’Aulnoy’s contemporary account of the Court of Spain knows what a dreadful dungeon it was. Again, if born at Bayonne about 1706, the Count would naturally seem to be about fifty in 1760. The purity with which he spoke German, and his familiarity with German princely Courts—where I do not remember that Barry Lyndon ever met him—are easily accounted for if he had a royal German to his mother. But, alas! if he was the son of a Hebrew financier, Portuguese or Alsatian (as some said), he was likely, whoever his mother may have been, to know German, and to be fond of precious stones. That Oriental taste notoriously abides in the hearts of the Chosen People. I make little doubt but that Saint-Germain was a German, whether by the mother’s side, and of princely blood, or quite the reverse.
Grosley mixes Saint-Germain up with a lady as mysterious as himself, who also lived in Holland, on wealth of an unknown source, and Grosley inclines to think that the Count found his way into a French prison, where he was treated with extraordinary respect.
Von Gleichen, on the other hand, shows the Count making love to a daughter of Madame Lambert, and lodging in the house of the mother. Here Von Gleichen met the man of mystery and became rather intimate with him. Von Gleichen deemed him very much older than he looked, but did not believe in his elixir.
In any case, he was not a cardsharper, a swindler, a professional medium, or a spy. He passed many evenings almost alone with Louis XV., who, where men were concerned, liked them to be of good family (about ladies he was much less exclusive). The Count had a grand manner; he treated some great personages in a cavalier way, as if he were at least their equal. On the whole, if not really the son of a princess, he probably persuaded Louis XV. that he did come of that blue blood, and the King would have every access to authentic information. Horace Walpole’s reasons for thinking Saint-Germain “not a gentleman” scarcely seem convincing.
The Duc de Choiseul did not like the fashionable Saint-Germain. He thought him a humbug, even when the doings of the deathless one were perfectly harmless. As far as is known, his recipe for health consisted in drinking a horrible mixture called “senna tea”—which was administered to small boys when I was a small boy—and in not drinking anything at his meals. Many people still observe this regimen, in the interest, it is said, of their figures. Saint-Germain used to come to the house of de Choiseul, but one day, when Von Gleichen was present, the minister lost his temper with his wife. He observed that she took no wine at dinner, and told her that she had learned that habit of abstinence from Saint-Germain; that HE might do as he pleased, “but you, madame, whose health is precious to me, I forbid to imitate the regimen of such a dubious character.” Gleichen, who tells the anecdote, says that he was present when de Choiseul thus lost his temper with his wife. The dislike of de Choiseul had a mournful effect on the career of Saint-Germain.
In discussing the strange story of the Chevalier d’Eon, one has seen that Louis XV amused himself by carrying on a secret scheme of fantastic diplomacy through subordinate agents, behind the backs and without the knowledge of his responsible ministers. The Duc de Choiseul, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, was excluded, it seems, from all knowledge of these double intrigues, and the Marechal de Belle-Isle, Minister of War, was obviously kept in the dark, as was Madame de Pompadour. Now it is stated by Von Gleichen that the Marechal de Belle-Isle, from the War Office, started a NEW secret diplomacy behind the back of de Choiseul, at the Foreign Office. The King and Madame de Pompadour (who was not initiated into the general scheme of the King’s secret) were both acquainted with what de Choiseul was not to know—namely, Belle-Isle’s plan for secretly making peace through the mediation, or management, at all events, of Holland. All this must have been prior to the death of the Marechal de Belle-Isle in 1761; and probably de Broglie, who managed the regular old secret policy of Louis XV., knew nothing about this new clandestine adventure; at all events, the late Duc de Broglie says nothing about it in his book The King’s Secret.
The story, as given by Von Gleichen, goes on to say that Saint-Germain offered to conduct the intrigue at the Hague. As Louis XV. certainly allowed that maidenly captain of dragoons, d’Eon, to manage his hidden policy in London, it is not at all improbable that he really intrusted this fresh cabal in Holland to Saint-Germain, whom he admitted to great intimacy. To The Hague went Saint-Germain, diamonds, rubies, senna tea, and all, and began to diplomatize with the Dutch. But the regular French minister at The Hague, d’Affry, found out what was going on behind his back—found it out either because he was sharper than other ambassadors, or because a personage so extraordinary as Saint-Germain was certain to be very closely watched, or because the Dutch did not take to the Undying One, and told d’Affry what he was doing. D’Affry wrote to de Choiseul. An immortal but dubious personage, he said, was treating in the interests of France, for peace, which it was d’Affry’s business to do if the thing was to be done at all. Choiseul replied in a rage by the same courier. Saint-Germain, he said, must be extradited, bound hand and foot, and sent to the Bastille. Choiseul thought that he might practice his regimen and drink his senna tea, to the advantage of public affairs, within those venerable walls. Then the angry minister went to the King, told him what orders he had given, and said that, of course, in a case of this kind it was superfluous to inquire as to the royal pleasure. Louis XV. was caught; so was the Marechal de Belle-Isle. They blushed and were silent.
It must be remembered that this report of a private incident could only come to the narrator, Von Gleichen, from de Choiseul, with whom he professes to have been intimate. The King and the Marechal de Belle-Isle would not tell the story of their own discomfiture. It is not very likely that de Choiseul himself would blab. However, the anecdote avers that the King and the Minister for War thought it best to say nothing, and the demand for Saint-Germain’s extradition was presented at The Hague. But the Dutch were not fond of giving up political offenders. They let Saint-Germain have a hint; he slipped over to London, and a London paper published a kind of veiled interview with him in June 1760.
His name, we read, when announced after his death, will astonish the world more than all the marvels of his life. He has been in England already (1743-17–?); he is a great unknown. Nobody can accuse him of anything dishonest or dishonorable. When he was here before we were all mad about music, and so he enchanted us with his violin. But Italy knows him as an expert in the plastic arts, and Germany admires in him a master in chemical science. In France, where he was supposed to possess the secret of the transmutation of metals, the police for two years sought and failed to find any normal source of his opulence. A lady of forty-five once swallowed a whole bottle of his elixir. Nobody recognized her, for she had become a girl of sixteen without observing the transformation!
Saint-Germain is said to have remained in London but for a short period. Horace Walpole does not speak of him again, which is odd, but probably the Count did not again go into society. Our information, mainly from Von Gleichen, becomes very misty, a thing of surmises, really worthless. The Count is credited with a great part in the palace conspiracies of St. Petersburg; he lived at Berlin, and, under the name of Tzarogy, at the Court of the Margrave of Anspach. Then he went, they say, to Italy, and then north to the Landgrave Charles of Hesse, who dabbled in alchemy. Here he is said to have died about 1780-85, leaving his papers to the Landgrave but all is very vague after he disappeared from Paris in 1760. When next I meet Saint-Germain he is again at Paris, again mysteriously rich, again he rather disappears than dies, he calls himself Major Fraser, and the date is in the last years of Louis Philippe. My authority may be caviled at; it is that of the late ingenious Mr. Van Damme, who describes Major Fraser in a book on the characters of the Second Empire. He does not seem to have heard of Saint-Germain, whom he does not mention.
Major Fraser, “in spite of his English (sic) name, was decidedly not English, though he spoke the language.” He was (like Saint-Germain) “one of the best dressed men of the period. . . . He lived alone, and never alluded to his parentage. He was always flush of money, though the sources of his income were a mystery to everyone.” The French police vainly sought to detect the origin of Saint-Germain’s supplies, opening his letters at the post-office. Major Fraser’s knowledge of every civilized country at every period was marvelous, though he had very few books. “His memory was something prodigious. . . . Strange to say, he used often to hint that his was no mere book knowledge. “Of course, it is perfectly ridiculous,” he remarked, with a strange smile, “but every now and then I feel as if this did not come to me from reading, but from personal experience. At times I become almost convinced that I lived with Nero, that I knew Dante personally, and so forth.” At the major’s death not a letter was found giving a clue to his antecedents, and no money was discovered. DID he die? As in the case of Saint-Germain, no date is given. The author had an idea that the major was “an illegitimate son of some exalted person” of the period of Charles IV. and Ferdinand VII. of Spain.
The author does not mention Saint-Germain, and may never have heard of him. If his account of Major Fraser is not mere romance, in that warrior we have the undying friend of Louis XV. and Madame de Pompadour. He had drunk at Medmenham with Jack Wilkes; as Riccio he had sung duets with the fairest of unhappy queens; he had extracted from Blanche de Bechamel the secret of Goby de Mouchy. As Pinto, he told much of his secret history to Mr. Thackeray, who says: “I am rather sorry to lose him after three little bits of Roundabout Papers.”
Did Saint-Germain really die in a palace of Prince Charles of Hesse about 1780-85? Did he, on the other hand, escape from the French prison where Grosley thought he saw him, during the French Revolution? Was he known to Lord Lytton about 1860? Was he then Major Fraser? Is he the mysterious Muscovite adviser of the Dalai Lama? Who knows? He is a will-o’-the-wisp of the memoir-writers of the eighteenth century. Whenever you think you have a chance of finding him in good authentic State papers, he gives you the slip; and if his existence were not vouched for by Horace Walpole, I should incline to deem him as Betsy Prig thought of Mrs. Harris.