Leon de Tinseau, “A Beautiful Nihilist” (fiction, 1892)


From the French of Leon de Tinseau; V.E.T., Chateau Bange, Bordeaux.

In 187-, somewhat before the tragic death of the least Czar, one of the most notable men of the Russian Empire was Prince Michael ——-, whose family name, an illustrious one, reasons of the highest importance forbid our giving. During a visit to France after the war, while at one of the receptions of the Princesse Lise, he met that superb daughter of General de Contremont, whom the Parisian world, springing to life again from its ashes, knew already as “la belle Madeleine,” a girl as poor as she was lovely. Michel was subjugated in spite of his forty years, his avowed intentions of celibacy, and the case with which, for fifteen seasons, he had resisted the attacks of all the maidens and young widows of the Russian aristocracy. All their efforts produced as little effect as though they had opened fire on an ironclad with bouquets of lilies and roses; but now, he surrendered at a glance.

“Mother,” said Madeleine one evening to the window of the hero of Gravelotte,” will you be satisfied if I become a princess?”

“Not completely, for you are beautiful enough to be a queen.”

And as a fact, I do not remember ever having met so completely perfect a type of human beauty, I see her yet, adorable creature, a certain night at the opera, a few weeks after her marriage. There were in the orchestra fifty spectators who were, or had been, more or less desperately in love with her. You can imagine how they listened to the music. Mireille could have been given instead of the Huguenots, without one of them perceiving the substitution. That was, and. will be, probably the most memorable evening of Madeleine’s youth. She felt revenged, as it were, upon a sex who inspired her only with rancor. Among those men who now would have impoverished themselves for her smiles, not one but formerly would have found her too poor to become his life companion.

Alone in the vast stage box with her husband, proud, scarcely smiling, but in reality vibrating in every nerve with the excitement of triumph, sparkling with admiration as her diamonds sparkled in the light, she was a living superlative, for she could say to herself: “I see here twenty-five women who are beautiful, but it is I who am the most beautiful.”

That evening an American woman, wealthy in the millions but not pretty, exclaimed in her loge: “I do not ask to be like the Princess Michel—that would be expecting too much—but only to own her teeth. I would give my hotel of the Champs-Elyses with all its contents, even to my jewel casket. “With such teeth as those one does not need to be pretty. One smiles or one yawns, according to circumstances, and the world at is one’s feet.”

“That is to say, at the feet of your teeth,” added an old diplomat, “ and I greatly fear that the Princess is destined to yawn more than to smile. His Excellency, her husband, looks anything but amusing or easy to manage. More than once in her life la belle Madeleine will regret Paris.

The Prince, truly, was not easy to manage, not even at first, and several I years after his marriage still less tractable, as the Princess learned to her cost. To the coquetry of his wife he owed his becoming jealous as a tiger, and to the favor of the Czar he owed his post of Minister of the Police. It must be acknowledged that these two qualifications are not calculated to make a man amicable. Nevertheless, he found means to utilise his public functions in the service of his private jealousy. It is thus, in France: A young attaché of the ministry sends a cuirassier armed to the teeth, and even higher, to notice the favor two seats at the hippodrome.

It was not cuirassiers that Prince Michel employed, though he had any number at his disposition. He found it more simple to choose, among the most expert of his detectives, the coachman who drove his wife, and the door-keeper of his hotel. Then, to make matters quite sure, he had his department where all suspected letters were opened and investigated. At first, the unfortunate minister had read by dozens passionate declarations addressed to his wife, in every note of the scale of love. Then these letters became somewhat less frequent, not that the Princess grew less seductive, but the lovers become suspicious that all was not as it should be. Those who had confided to his Majesty’s postal service their hopes and fears, had almost always seen bad luck follow their every step thereafter under the most unexpected forms and in unaccountable ways. It was said the victims were enough to make one believed the Princess had “the evil eye,” or the Prince had eyes too good.

Let it be well understood that the replies to these letters passed also under inspection, and His Excellency was thus convinced that he was the husband of a desperate coquette, but nothing worse, which gave him but slight satisfaction. It is a relief for one who hears the cry of fire in his house to learn that a badly swept chimney is the only difficulty. The poor Prince had no time, however, to play chimney-sweep, for preserving the life of his Czar from the Nihilists gave him quite as much anxiety as the Princess and her adorers. Judge, therefore, of his stupefaction when he read, one day, the following letter in a handwriting he knew but too well, although, it was signed by a single initial only:

“It appears that the Emperor will leave for Warsaw sooner than was thought. Be ready, therefore, to start on the first intimation, for who knows when we shall again find such an occasion. I have not hidden from you the difficulties of the undertaking; in consequence, make your arrangements to succeed at once and without hesitation. You will present yourself at my home as a friend of my family, travelling in Russia for pleasure. Go to see your mother before leaving: she will give you some sort of commission for me that will serve you as an introduction, if needful.”

The unhappy prince fell his brain reel on finishing this horrible reading. This conspiracy that he was combatting day and night by irons, prison and exile; this war, without pity, of a whole army of monsters against one man, was found sheltering at his own fireside. It was his own wife, his beautiful Madeleine, who said to the assassin: “It is the hour, be ready!”

Of what use to struggle longer? What fatality armed against his unfortunate sovereign even a woman from another country? That woman had everything for her own—youth, beauty, luxury, admiration. She a Nihilist! Why? What wrongs had she to avenge? What drove her, even her, to commit such a crime, at the risk of bruising her lovely form on a dungeon-bed of straw, of a cord to gall that ivory throat, of Siberian snows to freeze her little feet, white even as they?

“Ah!” thought the unfortunate man, “I have not known how to make her happy! I have shown jealousy too often. She hates me, and her hatred has found this refinement of torture, sublime in its impossible horror!”

What must he done? He thought of killing his wife, himself after, letting the public believe it was some love trouble—his wife faithless—for the loyal subject preferred even that dishonor to the other. Then he longed to throw himself at the Emperor’s knees and tell him all, after which he would disappear forever with the guilty woman. A sense of duty alone prevented this course. He held the thread of a plot; he must unravel it, and for that it sufficed to let the letter go to its destination. The assassin would then deliver up himself. Already the Minister had the name of this man—Nicholson, some Englishman, or American, perhaps, expert in the use of dynamite, or simply a Russian student having taken a false name. The letter was sent, and that evening the prince and princess, in their box, listened to un opera—he pale, consumed with fever, aged many years since morning: she more charming and more surrounded than ever.

“Are you ill, Michel”” said Madeleine, smiling at her husband in the carriage which bore them home.

“Why do you say that?” said he in a strangely sombre tone.

“Why? Because you have not been jealous once this evening! “

At the end of a week the Minister of Police said to his wife, without seeming to attach the slightest consequence to his remark:

“It is Thursday that the Czar leaves St. Petersburg?”

“Really,” said she, scarcely affected by what she heard; the newspapers give another date.”

He replied, deceiving with design, the accomplice of Nicholson, for he had his plan: “Yes, they wish to frustrate those who may have guilty projects.”

Then he spoke of other matters, while forced to admire the strength of character of the despicable creature. The same day he knew his ruse had succeeded for the telegraph company communicated to him this dispatch, addressed by the princess to Nicholson; “It is for Thursday. Be punctual.”

Of course Thursday passed by without either the Czar or his Minister having left the Capital. Madeleine became suddenly very anxious on learning of this pretended change. On the morrow, in the afternoon, a personage, richly attired and ornamented with a large button-hole rosette presented himself at the palace of Prince Michel.

“What do you wish, sir?” asked, with a very low bow, the doorkeeper loaned by section 5.

“To pay my respects to the princess, and give her a message from her mother. I am Dr. Nicholson.”

“Very well, sir,” said the man; “you are expected, but my lady, the princess, is paying a visit to a friend, and left orders that we conduct you to her. In five minutes the carriage will be ready.”

Nicholson had barely time to admire several fine paintings, which decorated the reception room, and he was a connoisseur, before he was asked to get into a coupe, which the man who had received him entered also, and sat down beside him without even asking permission.

“Strange custom,” thought Nicholson “he might have gone outside with the driver.”

It is needless to say that a quarter of an hour later the supposed doctor was in the best, which means the strongest, prison of St. Petersburg, and that if he were expected there, it was not by the princess.

In a dreary sort of office, lined on all sides with armed policemen, a person unknown to him, but who was the prince himself, questioned poor Nicholson with a roughness of manner to which he was unaccustomed.

“This is infamous!” said he, indignantly. “I arrived from Paris this morning only. I have not said three words to any one, and, when I present myself at the hotel of the princess, I am picked up and carried off like a thief!”

“You know the princess,” coldly questioned the Minister.

“Do I know her? Why, almost from her birth! Here is a letter from her mother, the widow of a great general; besides, I am an American citizen, and I protest——”

“Search this man thoroughly,” interrupted the high functionary without seeming to have heard, “and with all precaution.”

Nothing suspicious was found upon Nicholson save a very pretty little box carefully enveloped.

An engineer from the Torpedo School, attached to the Ministry for such occasions, opened the box with all the caution and precautions prescribed by science. The greater number of those present wee more or less uneasy, expecting some terrible explosion. Nothing abnormal occurred, but the engineer had a singular smile when he held out the open box to the prince, who, after a hasty glance, hurried it into his pocket, then addressing Nicholson, he said: “So you are——”

“An American dentist, sir, and much pressed for time. I wish to return to Paris as soon as possible. My patients need me.”

Five minutes after, Nicholson was once I more in the coupe, having this time as his companion the prince, who overwhelmed him with apologies.

“But,” said the husband of “la belle Madeleine,” “ how is it that I never noticed anything?”

“If your Excellency had perceived the least thing,” proudly replied the American, “the Nicholson Artificial Teeth would be unworthy of their reputation.”

“Then the teeth of the princess are——-”

“All false, Prince. When very young, Mademoiselle do Contremont was thrown from her horse, and shattered her jaw. I then made for her one of the finest sets of teeth that ever left my office. Everything, however, wears out in time, and I came, during your absence, to adjust for her a new set.”

The details of this adventure have never before been made public. It has nevertheless, been remarked that the prince appears less in love. O, human heart!

Geelong Advertiser no. 14,047 (March 5, 1892): 2.