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Anna Jane Vardill

Annals of Public Justice

The Austrian Assassin

It was reserved for this age to produce advocates for assassination ready to pronounce it one of the noblest and boldest resources of great minds only, swayed by the strongest passions; forgetting how generally the most vile passions are the strongest, and how easily this resource is within the reach of the least elevated mind. Let us see one example of the thousand which must be found to convince us with what uncertainty we judge of those motives by which sophists would pretend to determine the guilt of an assassin.

The wavering ambition, the enthusiasm, and the fanciful sensibility of the Emperor Joseph II. are not forgotten, and the favourites of his councils were often men whose recommendation was a tincture of similar peculiarities. There was one person, to whom, if German etiquette had been flexible, he would have given public entrance to his cabinet; but rigid prejudices and custom compelled him to be content with private patronage. Whence this man came is very doubtful, though some remarkable instances of courage and fidelity which he had shewn during Joseph’s quarrel with his Belgian subjects, were supposed to have been his first passports to favour. If he was a native of Flanders, the acuteness of his eye, his sharp lean features, and slender person, were no evidences of his birthplace, and his accent was observed to have something Italian in it. Joseph meditated bold and singular changes in German jurisprudence, and was supposed to carry on a private correspondence with those literary men, who, if they did not absolutely change the tide of public opinion, availed themselves of it to rise on the surface. Otto, though he only acted as the emperor’s page ostensibly, held some secret share in this correspondence, and was believed to have a watch-word by which he passed the sentinels of the palace in his secret visits. Nor did he always go alone. He was watched, and a spy appointed by the chancellor of the chamber of Wetzlar traced him to a spot which instigated all his employer’s curiosity. The chancellor was noted for his strict adherence to old principles, and his resistance to the new code of laws by which Joseph hoped to substitute long imprisonment for death as the punishment of capital crimes. He was not ill-pleased to detect in his sovereign some error which might render his legislation unpopular by disgracing the source. He wrapped himself in his darkest apparel, and creeping under the shadow of a high wall, followed a man he believed to be Otto and another person from the private gate of the palace to the meanest suburb of Vienna. They ascended the remains of a terrace, knocked at a door hidden by shrubs, and were admitted by an unseen porter without light or words. But the chancellor remarked, that these muffled persons had taken a loose stone from a niche beside the door, and spread some branches of the brambles over the vacant spot. He had courage and sagacity. He pushed his hand through this aperture, drew back a bolt, and saw the door open. Beyond his hopes, all within was perfectly dark and silent. Covering his person and half his face, he trod with suppressed breath, conscious that an echoing pavement was under his feet, till the light which he saw gleaming through a crevice before him, guided his steps to what seemed a staircase, so narrow that it scarcely admitted him. But he followed its windings, till he found himself in a balcony surrounded with the open tracery of ancient carved work, and suspended over a lighted room large enough to contain twenty people. A man in a close grey cloak stood on a kind of rostrum addressing six persons in a Latin oration which strangely perplexed the curious chancellor. It seemed as if he was persuading his disciples to choose what element they would wish to predominate in their natures, and to excite it by an outward application. There were glasses filled with earth and water, braziers with hot coals, and small bags of earth and bladders full of gas, which the professor gravely fastened on his pupils, protesting that they would be substitutes for meat and drink. Our chancellor knew all the whims of Rosicrucian cabalists; he had heard some of the pretensions of more modern illuminati, but had never conceived the possibility of supporting his plump person by such simple means. He listened with profound attention; and after some ceremonies which he could not understand, the orator left his rostrum, drew back a silk curtain, and discovered a sleeping woman veiled. When a few mysterious signals and mutterings had passed, the sleeper spoke but in such strange, wild, and affecting strains of poetry, as to fix the audience in what appeared delighted attention. When her voice ceased, the cabalist dropped her gauze veil and the silk curtain over her: and resumed his place in the rostrum. “You have seen,” he said, “the success of my science. Without any consciousness on her part, I have unlocked and unveiled her spirit, which speaks, as you have heard, in the language of poetry—that is, in the words inspired by such enchanting images as the soul enjoys when detached from the body. Your Majesty cannot doubt the truth of the experiment on a maiden of rank too high for imposture, of character too pure to be suspected of willing connivance. Therefore I selected her as a worthy subject for this night’s important purpose, and shall convey her back while in this profound sleep to her father’s house, from whence, as we all know, she could not have been thus brought without the influence of my natural magic, by which I can either close or open the mind, animate or stupify the body.”

The chancellor listened indeed as if he too had been deadened by this magic, for he had beheld his only daughter thus made the spectacle and tool of a madman or a cheat! While he stood aghast, four of the audience withdrew, and the operator with his two muffled pupils remained together. “I have now,” he added, “to shew you the farthest extent of my science. The magnetic powers lodged in a diamond are such as to increase the brilliance of the gem when it approaches any animal or vegetable frame in which its own peculiar gas prevails—The ring on your Majesty’s hand will exemplify this, if laid near the fume of this brazier.”

The emperor deposited his ring, as he was desired, on the edge of the charcoal-furnace, which the cabalist pushed back into a receptacle probably prepared to confine the pestiferous air. But the chancellor also saw, that by an ingenious leger-de-main the imperial ring was dropped into the ashes, and a counterfeit jewel placed on the brazier’s edge, when the crafty cabalist exposed it again to the emperor. He and his companion praised the increased lustre and size of his diamond; and having heard a few more mysterious descants on the chemical relation of the precious stone to the carbonic vapour, departed with his preceptor.

Little as the chancellor cared for the dreams of a sect only suspected to exist, and much as he had always despised the secret vigils of its novices, he was determined to bear away with him some token of his master’s credulity and the Illuminé’s craft, which might suffice to give him power over both, and revenge the outrage practised on his child. The hall of this mysterious academy was now vacant, and lighted only by the dying coals in the brazier. He fixed his feet in the fretted cornice of the balcony, and soon reaching the floor, possessed himself of the emperor’s ring, climbed again into his hiding-place, and waited a few instants to discover if any one seemed likely to return. The possibility of being locked into this strange house of cabalism, and the uncertain fate of his daughter, made him eager to escape. He crept down the stairs which had led him to his discovery, and more intent on the future than the present, passed too hastily through the postern without remembering the loose stone he had left on the threshold. He stumbled, and had not time to hide his face, before two men started from behind the trees near him. “Ah, Sire!” said a well-known voice—“the Chancellor”—Joseph deigned no answer, and walked slowly away, followed by his page, till they disappeared among the windings of the suburb.

In the morning, the chancellor was found assassinated among those windings. There was a deep, but not sorrowful, sensation excited by his death. He had been the enemy of changes in the austere code of German law; his notions were arbitrary and unphilosophical; his judgments on many public occasions had been offensive to the people. His adversaries ascribed his fate to the powerful impulse of retaliation in some sufferer bold enough to avenge his own cause, and execute summary justice; or to the nobler spirit of general patriotism, seeking to rid the state of an obnoxious member. Both these suppositions were favoured by the new spirit which had begun its reign in morals and poiitics. The chamber of Wetzlar examined the affair with the slightness of men more ready to propitiate the philosophers of Germany than to provoke their late chancellor’s fate theinselves. One or two of his friends endeavoured to interest the aulic council in this event, as a matter connected with intrigues of state, but the sovereign’s coldness repelled them. Joseph was in a dilemma very painful and dangerous to a prince of romantic feelings and high honour. He believed his page had sacrificed the chancellor to a hasty zeal for his reputation, which must have sunk under the details an angry father and prejudiced politician might have given of the midnight scene. But he dismissed Otto from his court, shewing by his silence that he suspected the crime he felt disposed to pardon, yet dared not defend. And many young philosophers, had they known the secret, would have been more apt to pity Otto for serving a timid and ungrateful master, than to blame him for an act which they would have thought sanctified by the motive.

The emperor died a few months after, expressing on his death-bed to his few attendants the little reason he had found to trust the friendship, the gratitude, or the honesty of men. Whether any secret remembrance of Otto preyed on him, or whether he felt the suspicion of poison which many of his court afterwards avowed, will never now be ascertained: but it revived the subject of assassination in the public mind, and the advocates of justice without law imagined they saw a fit retribution for the unpunished death of the chancellor.

One cold February morning an Austrian traveller, walking hastily from his inn about six o’clock, saw two men standing in a church yard with a sack at their feet. The dimness of the hour, and the unfrequency of such visitors in such a place, made the traveller fix his eyes on them with an earnestness which probably induced them to separate; and the tallest, taking up the sack, walked hastily down the nearest street. The Austrian followed him at the same pace, till the bearer of the sack threw it down, turned into a dark lane, and vanished. Our traveller had some doubts whether he might safely take the forsaken prize, considering his own situation as a stranger without wittnesses: but the house before which he stood was a noted silversmith’s, and he knocked for admission. The master was roused, the traveller’s story told, and the sack opened. It contained an immense quantity of shreds or fragments of silver, such as work men make in completing their business. “Sir,” said the silversmith, “these remnants are mine, as certain private marks inform me; and the discovery you have so honestly begun must be completed. Only three men in my employ can be suspected of this robbery. One is entrusted with the solid metal; the second delivers their portions to my artisans, and receives them back after their hours of labour; the third has the collected fragments in his custody. You shall take your station in a window opposite my house, with two officers of justice, and inform them when the man you recognise appears.”—Ignace, the traveller, agreed to this, and was conducted to his place with such feelings as must visit every humane and honest man who encounters such fearful hazard of another’s safety. The work men passed into their employer’s house in succession, and Ignace, trembling and faltering, pointed out the youngest. He was the silversmith’s favourite nephew, and his tears, when taxed with his offence, moved his uncle to lenity. He required him to name his accomplice, and the boy very unwillingly confessed his acquaintance with an Austrian Jew, whose place of abode was unknown to him. A Jew is easily pronounced a seducer and trafficker in guilt. Both the silversmith and the traveller joined with no loss of time in searching every resort of the proscribed race, and many unfortunate Israelites were rigorously examined; but the boy’s tempter was not found, and Ignace returned to his own city to celebrate his adventure.—But there were many in Vienna who knew how exactly the published description of the Austrian Jew agreed with the physiognomy and figure of the Juggler who had beguiled the deceased emperor of his ring, and mocked him by an exhibition of his female accomplice, the chancellor’s unworthy daughter.

The person who paid most attention to this history was one of the members of the judicial chamber of Wetzlar—one of the few who had been unwilling to acquit Otto when charged with the chancellor’s assassination. He sent for Ignace, questioned him precisely, and determined to visit Vienna himself as a minister and discoverer of justice. It was not necessary or prudent to travel with his customary equipage. He went on horseback with only one confidential servant, calling himself Lobenstein and took lodgings in a mean part of the suburbs.

Lobenstein began as well as he could to perform the part of a speculating alchymist. He bought old essays, enquired for teachers of the new philosophy, and was recommended to a professor far advanced in the most hidden departments. The student pretended great zeal and faith in animal magnetism, and in that still more mysterious art by which some moderns profess to entrance and convey the soul. He heard all the jargon of sympathies and spiritual communication, always manifesting perfect faith, and urging his teacher to exhibit some specimens. Several pieces of gold and promises of more induced the cabalist to promise him a full initiation into his Eleusinian mysteries. Lobenstein went at midnight to his house, which had a secret entrance, and many winding stair-cases of frequent use. The novice was ushered into a hall where five or six other students were assembled; and their oracle, mounting his rostrum, gave them his favourite discourse on the mysteries of nature, frightfully mingled with the fervid romances of Swedenborg, and the audacious schemes of modern chemistry. To finish its effect, a silk curtain and a veil of silver tissue were raised to discover what had once been a form of perfect beauty, and was not yet quite faded. The magnetizing ceremony was performed, and the actress delivered a long rhapsody of prophetic and poetic phrases, with her eyes fixed and her limbs composed in admirable counterfeit of sleep. Lobenstein took care to be the last who left the room of lectures, leaning on his preceptor’s arm. As they passed out of the private postern, a man muffled in a long cloak met and fixed his eyes upon them. “Ah! the Chancellor!” said the cabalist, and instantly retreated behind the door; but the officers of justice were prepared to rush upon him. They burst into the house, searched all its recesses, and even uprooted its pavements, but the magician and his accomplice were gone. No probable place in the city escaped their enquiry; and after a fruitless disturbance, the magistrates and their agents seemed exhausted.

But Lobenstein’s stratagem had succeeded. By placing near the suspected door a police officer properly attired, and with a strong personal resemblance to the deceased chancellor, he had surprised the cabalist into an exclamation which betrayed his knowledge of that unfortunate man. The officer thus singularly distinguished by a likeness to the chancellor, had also a similar kind of shrewdness and penetration. He applied himself diligently to discover other avenues into this mysterious house, and came at length to inform Lobenstein that he had discovered one at a spot never suspected. “You must go,” said he, “on horseback, but not on the horse you usually ride, nor in the same dress, along the road which leads to the summer-palace. You will meet, near the large cluster of larches, a lady sitting on the bank and reading. It will not be possible for you to see her till the narrowness of the road has brought your horse’s feet close to  , because she will be very adroitly concealed by a curve and a few shrubs on the bank. She will be terribly alarmed, and either bruised by the horse’s tread, or hurt in attempting to rise out of its way. You must go with her if she seems to expect it, and whatever you see or hear in the house she will carry you to, act as if you apprehended nothing, and, above all, as if you expected no one to join you there.” Lobenstein hardly knew whether to acquiesce in this expedient, or to doubt his informer’s fidelity. However, his curiosity and courage prevailed, and he set forth on his knight-errantry to discover and arrest his friend’s assassin. All happened as the police officer predicted. A woman of very graceful appearance waylaid him, as if accidentally; and he, assuming airs of credulous and romantic gallantry, attended her to her home. But he was sufficiently well versed in the geography of Vienna, to know that he had returned by a circuitous road to the suburb in which the necromancer’s unholy house was lodged. He was surprised at the elegant simplicity of the supper-room, at the dignified manners of its mistress, and the propriety of all he saw. After detaining him half an hour by agreeable expressions of gratitude and hospitality, she introduced him to Count Mi - - - - her husband, as a partaker in the obligation his courteous attentions had created. At this name, which he had often heard in fashionable and political circles, Lobenstein looked at the wearer with surprise. His inquisitive glance was no less earnestly returned, but the salutation which followed was perfectly unconstrained and polite. Supper was superbly served, and another hour or two passed in literary conversation. Madame would not permit her guest to depart, and her husband seconded her offer of an abode for the night with a grace which their disguised visitor would have been almost unable to refuse, even if his secret purpose had not required his stay. But when he closed the door of the bed-chamber assigned him, though its hangings were of dove-coloured satin and its carpet of flowered velvet, some terrible thoughts of robbery and assassination seized him, and were not dispersed by the entrance, not of his friend, the friendly police-officer, but of the count himself. The judge of the chamber of Wetzlar heartily wished his zeal for justice had been less rash, and started up in his bed with ghastly eyes, but a desperate intention. “My good lord,” said the count, smiling, “let us understand each other. I am quite aware of your honourable eagerness to unravel certain mysteries, which are known to none better than myself. You know my station in the Imperial Court—I have never been ignorant of yours, and I require no oath in addition to that which binds you as a member of a high judicial court, to fidelity in all things that concern the state. Expecting some adventure, I perceive you are still dressed in readiness: Follow me—and forgive me for concerting with your faithful police-officer and a lady’s maid a little romantic incident to bring you to my house, without the formal invitation which your assumed name made impossible for me to hazard.”

The judge, strangely affected and surprized, could only follow his guide in silence. The count conducted him through a saloon furnished with rich sofas, paintings full of Guido and Titian’s softest representations of beauty, and exquisite statues almost breathing in their loveliness, to a library or room of simpler and sterner character, filled entirely with columns of books. The count led his companion round, and pointed to their titles, which announced every author of political or philosophical romance from the days of Mahomet to those of Spinosa, Voltaire, and Hobbes. The next door opened into a most sumptuous banqueting-room, lighted as if for a feast of princes; and a few steps beyond, the count unlocked the door of what seemed a small boudoir, in which were several open caskets filled with ladies’ trinkets, and two or three sets of gold and silver dressing plate, elegantly packed as if ready for gifts. A long covered passage led the astonished judge into a hall which he remembered to be the place of the midnight lectures given by the cabalist. And the count completed his amazement by taking up the garment of the lecturer, which lay in a corner, and throwing it over himself. He stood silent, unable to express his confusion of ideas, and the count laughed heartily. “My loyal and learned friend, you have seen the whole secret of that tremendous cabalism which is now an engine of state-affairs. Did you expect to find this place really contrived for the invention of aurum potabile or elixir vitae?—No, my dear lord:—those who enter it imagine they shall be initiated into some powerful and unknown society, but the only secret power is that which their curiosity or vanity supplies. For vapourish Englishmen, who must have bugbears, we have the wonders of the Gnostics and the dreams of their own Lilly and Dr. Dee clothed in modern jargon. For Frenchmen, whose theatrical existence is governed by spectacles, who know no greater men than Vestris and Voltaire, we keep that library of useless books, into which we usher them with great mystery, as into the temple of the illuminati; and, by studying their ambition, discover their secrets. You expected, perhaps, to see iron wheels, phosphoric flames, and all the phantasmagoria of imposture: but we conjure up no demons except those that follow the surfeit of our suppers, and need no surer machinery than those trinkets which you saw prepared as bribes for the vain women who imagine themselves initiated among a secret sect of omnipotent philosophers.

“My lord, it was no reproach to the chamber of Wetzlar that they misjudged the fate of their chancellor. How much eloquence was wasted to prove that he provoked his death, and that the assassin rather deserved fame that punishment! How little could those young philosophers, who believe all actions justified by their motive, judge either of the motive or the fact!—The chancellor was not murdered, nor did any one compass his death.—He fell dead in apoplexy at the house of a friend to whom he went to communicate the scene in the alchymist’s academy; and that friend, secretly purposing to ruin the emperor’s favourite Otto, placed the body with a sash twisted round the neck in such a place as to fix suspicion on him. The Austrian Jew, who amused the emperor by his pretended alchymy, fell into the hands of our police by offering himself to me as the agent of a society, devised only to detect such impostors by seeming their confederates. If ancient sages had, as it is pretended, the pyramids of Egypt to conceal their secret chambers, we politicians have the still broader pyramid of human folly to conceal ours.”


The European Magazine, Vol. 77, March 1820 pp. 201-206