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Anna Jane Vardill

Annals of Public Justice

Count Orloff’s Divorce

O, so! always the can in the hand!—Tap Coroni!—My master pays for all!”—These exclamations, uttered by a shrill voice, interrupted continually the studies and the revels of two clerks in the service of M. Braillardet, the most learned and successful advocate in Paris. They proceeded from a magpie whose cage hung at the bedchamber-window of an adjoining house occupied by a sçavant of extraordinary fame, a member of the Academy, and an occasional practitioner of physic. These three pretensions united made the Docteur Grostete no very amicable neighbour to the Advocate Braillardet, who heartily abhorred both philosophy and physic. His two young pupils partook of their instructor’s prejudices, especially when the impertinent starling interposed observations not always convenient. They meditated revenge, and had practised sundry small jeux d’esprit without either removing or amending their tormentor’s household-spy, whose mistress was the fair young wife of the philosopher. In the evening of a day devoted to a glorious display of science in the Academy, M. Grostete was suddenly arrested, and conveyed to the bureau of the lieutenant of police, who received him with all the mysterious dignity of a secret examination. The first question was,

“Where is your wife?”

“Mons. Sartine,” returned the philosopher—“that is a point I cannot answer—I know nothing—there is nothing certain—Where she was when I came forth is not in the same tense as your query.”

“I am answered,” said the lieutenant of police;—“this equivocation is a proof by inference. Sir, I demand to know who you are!”

“Really, M. Lieutenant, this is no credit to your omniscience. Sir, every body knows me—I am the Sieur Grostete, lecturer of the Academy, professor of moral and natural philosophy, and—”

“You are,” interposed the minister, “a spy and an alien—your wife is an ex-princess—are you not ashamed to practise in this manner the monstrous dictates of your state-policy?”

“State-policy,” answered Grostete, nothing daunted, “is, as you say, connected with the domestic discipline fixed by every husband in his own house. Every man is an unit in the great sum, a brick in the building; and I have done my part in establishing good government in my own citadel: for I have lodged my soi-disant wife in the Conciergerie.”

“We are not now to learn Count Orloff’s notions of government,” retorted Sartine, “and we shall see how far they may be safely practised in his most Christian Majesty’s dominions. The Princess Sophia has appealed to us for protection, and we know also what is due to an exile, a persecuted wife, and a branch of the Imperial family.”

The philosophic husband made a pause, during which his face acquired a curious resemblance to his countryman’s cork model of the Glaciers.—“A branch of the imperial family!—Monsieur, I grant it—We all belong to the sovereign and unsubduable race of Adam—but if being duly and decently sequestered is exile and persecution, then his most Christian Majesty must provide for my wife himself.”

“He intends it, Monsieur Grostete, since you are pleased with that name: and I require you to consider yourself in my custody till we hear farther.”

The physician was lodged in prison without waiting for the interposition of his friends, who had indeed so many doubts of his sanity, that none offered to appear. He prevailed on the Exempt who attended him to take a billet to his wife, bitterly deploring the tyranny of the French police, and demanding her instant appearance to rescue him from an unmerited accusation. The reply was brought in a few hours, not to him, but to the Lieutenant Sartine, who used his official privilege in breaking the seal; and having ordered Grostete into his presence, caused it to be read aloud to him. It was couched in these terms:[1]

“Your highness has thought proper to assume the authority of a husband, without deigning to recollect that I have the privileges of a wife to insist upon your protection and respect.

“From my cradle, as you well know, I was destined to high fortunes. Presumptive heiress to the throne of Russia, my only crime appears to have been, the hatred of her who sat upon it. Can I not appeal to facts, if your highness’s memory is no less precarious than your faith? To the boat prepared to sink with me—to the poison invented for my beverage—to the firebrands secreted in your houses—Less fortunate than the princes of my family, I am destined to perish obscurely, and among menials.

“Sir, your own hand is my evidence. You dare not look on the writing enclosed in this without confessing your dark purpose against an aggrieved princess, though still your faithful wife,

Sophia, Princess of Mecklenberg.”

The scroll enclosed contained few, but mysterious, words—

“I. Shall I marry or shall I kill. —II. I will marry—I will kill.— III. Marry and kill in a new way.— IV. Neither marry nor kill yet.—V. Kill or be killed.”

Our sçavant interrupted the minister’s reading in a transport of ire, “Felons and ideots!—have you dared to devastate the plot of my new tragedy?—a plot constructed according to our new academical rules?”

“That evasion shall not serve you, M. Orloff,” answered Sartine: “your august spouse did well to send this written testimony of your guilty meditations—this holograph of a plot. And she is not less entitled to my official help because she is a native of another country, and condemned to surrender her hereditary right in it after the cruel death of her brother.”

“The woman has drunk of Tiberius Cavallo’s exhilarating gas!” ejaculated the husband. “Her brother was a mason in Berne, and her father’s effigy is among the sundry figures in the cathedral representing the trades of the city. I appeal to any sçavant—ay, to the president of our Academy himself—to decide if there is not the figure of a fat baker kneading dough in the fifteenth niche of the cathedral, carved in wood—The wood itself was bought of her grandfather.”

“Prince,” interposed Braillardet, presenting himself before the accused in the pomp of his official robe, “it does not become the ci-devant favorite of a great princess to use such subterfuges. All Europe knows you married the Lady Sophia to please your sovereign; and she made your very obedience a pretext to dismiss you. Greater men have fallen, and become exiles. From the days of Belisarius, it has been the lot of generals and statesmen to receive ingratitude, but you have done more than any, for you have encumbered yourself with a wife.”

“Cumbered myself!” reiterated the Doctor, in a fury—“I am cumbered with ill neighbours, who hate one because they ruin the living, and I only end them. M. Braillardet, this would not have happened if you did not envy me the honour of putting your clients safe out of your reach.”

“Your highness altogether mistakes me,” replied the Advocate, bowing; “I meant to say, you have deserved the eternal gratitude of your empress by marrying for her benefit. As to the disguise her policy has obliged you to take, it is no offence to the state or to me. A bad physician rids the state of superfluous members, and the law of ill humours. When a man applies to medicine, his law-suit is nearly ended.”

“But,” added the Lieutenant of Police, “your highness needs a good advocate if your wife establishes her charge of attempted assassination. I appeal, M. Braillardet, to your experience in the law—Need I desire more circumstantial evidence? We have all heard how Prince Orloff’s bride was decoyed into a boat only two days after her marriage; and when it split by his contrivance, he swam himself to the shore. He avows that he still keeps the boat, has prepared a stock of poisons, and wears about his person a provision for the act of an incendiary.”

“Sartine!” interrupted Grostete, “thou hast taken the syrup of scolopendra to make thee wiser, and it has made thee mad. What have I to do with the she emperor of Russia: or the fifteenth cousin of her grand-aunt Ann? What know I of Sophia of Mecklenberg, or the coxcomb-ruffian Orloff?— Attempt assassination?—I have no boat but one I devised for a cold bath—no poison but the drugs of Professor Menadous; and no firebrands except those thy demoniacal clerks inserted into the curls of my peruke to explode while I lectured—but I took care to avoid the candles.”

“A confession! a confession!” echoed the minister and the lawyer, adding, “Wilt thou now deny who thy wife is, and what thou art thyself?”

“I will neither confess nor deny any thing,” said the philosophic physician —“for there is no man certain what he is. But thus much I will say for my wife—that she hath been divorced by the Chevalier De Morges, wedded again to an opera-maker, and again, as she saith, to an operator on wood called a carpenter. If she be a princess, she is not my wife, for I married Sophie Boisleduc, a laundress in St. Madelaine’s, and if I am her husband, she hath also three others.”

De Sartine laughed at this description of a woman who had alarmed the court of Russia by her pretensions: Braillardet, however, chose to avail himself of the opportunity to shew his eloquence, and revenge himself on his neighbour.—On the day of trial, half Paris poured itself into the court, and poor Grostete, without much surprise, saw himself confronted, on his wife’s part, by one of the ablest lawyers at the French bar.

“I take leave,” said the pleader for Sophia, “to state, messieurs, what we are going to examine. Here is a suit instituted by a noble lady against her husband for malice and false imprisonment, not without strong symptoms of conspiracy against her life. He defends himself by asserting, that she is, or has been, the wife of four husbands, and he cites three here to prove it. We have heard the oaths of the Chevalier De Morges, the ballet-master Castanet, and the operative dealer in wood. Messieurs, what is all this to the purpose? First, what is the relation of marriage?—A convention to torment both parties, and therefore more advantageously changed than kept; and if it is a convention to benefit them, it cannot be repeated too often. This is the rule of our most enlightened philosophy; but if you tell me it is unlawful to violate this institution, where is the measure of the punishment?—The Indians allot a fire, the Hottentots a rod, the Abyssinians a needle, and the Hollanders a cask. Which of these is the justest punishment, for it seems no nation has quite agreed with its neighbour?—Besides, may not these four husbands be mistaken?—Has nobody else fair hair, large eyes, and a rich complexion? Messieurs, there is no proof that they have sworn the truth; and even if they think they swore truly, that is no argument of the facts. I, for my part, am ready to swear, that my client has dark eyebrows, black eyes, and no complexion at all; and I defy any man present to prove that he thinks as I do, which is a manifestation how opinions may differ. Further, I tell my client’s husband, that he has made no charge whatever against his wife. He says, she is an impostor, and deceives the public. That is false, for the public are not deceived when they judge for themselves. He says she is not the Princess of Mechlenberg, because she is the daughter of a baker, the discarded property of a dancing-master, the associate of a dealer in wooden tools. I will prove from Homer, and Thucydides, not to mention our own immortal Encyclopedia, that princesses have baked in kitchens, danced among slaves, and helped even to hew wood and draw water in better days than these. But these things offend modern nations:—Messieurs, if they are not offended, where is the offence?—If manners are not the question, and morals are out of the question, there is no question at all.”

At this point of his oration, an assistant of the court whispered something into Braillardet’s ear which suspended his eloquence; but after a minute’s pause, he renewed it amidst the loud acclamations of the audience.

“Messieurs, you have yet heard only the pleadings of a minor rhetorician. Let me offer in behalf of my aggrieved and oppressed client, the apology prepared for her by our apostle of reason and philosophy. Hear his own prophetic words, and blame her, if you can, for realizing them.

“In these days there will appear in France a very extraordinary person from the banks of a lake. He will tell us we are all knaves and villains, yet he will come to live among us. He will say all the people where he was born were virtuous, yet he will not stay among them. He will publish that there is no virtue so great as among savages, yet he knows nothing about them; and advises us to go without clothes, though he accepts laced ones himself when he can get them. This philosopher says romances corrupt morals, and he begins by writing one himself, in which he shews a lady so well taught by a philosopher, that she thanks him even for making himself ridiculous. She shall marry an atheist, and be bold enough to introduce her lover to her husband, who, when this wise lover has proved that a man ought always to kill himself when he has lost his mistress, shall convince him it is not worth his while. They shall sail together in a boat by themselves, and the philosopher shall call it philosophy and virtue to think of drowning her and himself. The lady shall have a few trees and a rivulet near her villa, and shall call it Elysium: she shall sup and dance among her harvest-people, and cut hemp with them till the philosopher longs to cut hemp all the days of his life. She shall sit on her death-bed praising herself for all kinds of virtues; and while she decks herself like a coquet, dies like a saint.”[2]

“This is the philosopher we have all praised even to worship, and he worships himself because having shewn us all the vice imaginable, he talks of nothing but virtue. Shall we, the disciples of this man, wonder at the fruits of his doctrine! Is it wonderful that we have found women ready to outrage decency, and call it a matter of mere opinion—and men very well pleased to prove that circumstances justify any thing! I take the matter as it stands according to our own prophet’s system. My client is accused of nothing—it is all philosophy and virtue on her part; but she humbly hopes what is so sublime will not be thought less admirable in a baker’s daughter. Surely we who are so well convinced that there is no real distinction among men, no respect due to rank, no value in royalty, will be glad to find that this illustrious pupil of our philosophy is one of the most vulgar; her husband a poor quack, and her other husband (I beg pardon for using that insignificant name) an useful labourer on wood. This enlightened and benevolent woman, having collected all the money and jewels she could beg or borrow among the good people of Paris, has eloped. leaving us to consider whether we chuse to honour her most as Sophia of Mecklenberg, or as the wife of four honest husbands.”

This declaration astounded the court, but it was true. The impostor had taken good care to decamp with her plunder; and the chevalier, the baker, the ballet-master, and the quack, were left to congratulate each other on their release. While the honest people of Paris comforted themselves for having been thus egregiously duped, by laughing at the trouble she had given two counsellors and a minister of state.


  1. Soon after the death of Iwan, Prince of Mecklenburgh-Strelitz, a young person, supposed to be his sister Sophia, was married by the policy of the Empress Catharine to her favorite Orloff. She disappeared almost immediately after. 
  2. Voltaire’s Prophecy concerning Rousseau, published in 1761. 

The European Magazine, Vol. 78, November 1820, pp. 389-392