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The Object at Hand

A bejeweled box from a sorely beset emperor leads to a Yankee dentist, and how he rescued the beautiful empress Eugénie from a Paris mob

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The dentist had a pass the British Embassy had once made out for the use of a British doctor and his patient. He dug it out, informed the empress that she was now the patient and explained that he would pose as her brother. Dr. Crane would be her doctor and Madame Lebreton her nurse.

In Evans' enclosed landau the party set out the next morning. At the city gates, a guard appeared at the left-hand carriage door to take a look inside. Foreseeing this, Evans had placed Eugénie in the left rear corner, well back from the window and safe from any perfunctory glance. He then effectively blocked the window by leaning out to answer the guard's questions.

Gerald Carson, in his The Dentist and the Empress, tells a fine, old-fashioned adventure story of their 100-mile journey. Evans' trip with the empress through a countryside swinging violently toward revolution sometimes seems to spring straight from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Carson describes the dentist bluffing and bribing officials and coping with the foibles of a not entirely sensible grande dame cooped up in mortal danger and vast discomfort. Once, seeing a policeman picking on a townsman, Eugénie rose from her carriage seat, loudly declared herself to be the empress and ordered the cop to stop. The villagers stared at her. But Evans quickly gestured that she was insane-tapping the side of his head with a forefinger-and they turned away with a laugh and a shrug.

In Deauville, he and Dr. Crane hunted for secret transport to England. They found a 60-foot cutter named Gazelle, and quietly introduced themselves to the owner, Sir John Burgoyne, probably a remote relation of "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, the British general who surrendered at Saratoga in 1777. This Sir John was dubious about smuggling the empress across the Channel, but his wife was for it. At dawn Gazelle slipped out of the harbor with the two French ladies hidden below, bound on a storm-tossed voyage to safety.

Back in France, the war turned into the siege of Paris, with le rat sauce madère on many a menu and, briefly and bloodily, government in the revolutionary hands of the Paris Commune. A peace treaty, devastating to France, was signed in May 1871. Then the ex-emperor was able to join his wife and son in England where he sickened and died following an operation for bladder stones.

Carrying the last hopes of a Bonapartist restoration, the young prince got a British military education and wangled his way into the Zulu War, raging in South Africa in 1879. Prince Louis-Napoleon was deemed "too plucky and go ahead." But young British officers liked him and chuckled when he claimed he'd prefer to be killed by an assegai than a bullet because "it would show we were at close quarters."

Lou-Lou got his wish. Off on a scouting detail, he and his escort were ambushed by 40 Zulus. The prince's horse broke away as he was trying to mount up. He was dragged 100 yards but turned toward his attackers, revolver blazing. Pierced 18 times by spears, his body was so mangled that Dr. Evans had to identify it by checking the boy's dental work. Heartbroken Eugénie felt her life had ended, but she lived on and on, a tragic widow and bereaved mother, surviving World War I. She died, barely remembered, in 1920 at age 94.

Her dashing dentist became a Paris fixture. He acquired a mistress, the beautiful Méry Laurent, an actress and artist's model, often for the Impressionist Edouard Manet. She was fetchingly endowed and faithful after her fashion. Leaving Evans would be a wicked thing, she declared, so she must content herself with deceiving him.

Handsome Tom apparently knew of the deceits. Both he and Agnes Evans simply accepted their situations as part of the good life. Warmed by Méry's companionship, Evans befriended artists and began collecting paintings as well as jewelry.

Evans did not charge important clients for fillings. Instead, he grew rich by using their inside information to buy and sell real estate in the fashionable heart of Paris. The gifts that he accepted-he couldn't say no-added up to a treasure trove. By the end of his life he was worth more than $4 million.


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