Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Pretend Archduke

I have heard this evening a strange wild romantic story from Mr. Bankes,* almost too improbable for a novel, and yet the leading facts seem established beyond a doubt.

A stranger, with one attendant only (I think), arrived some years ago at the house of a man of the name of Contessini, then British Consul at Jaffa, who
was obliged, on seeing some passports and papers, to bestow a bed and a dinner. The latter was bad enough, but the stranger gave the servants of the consul a gratuity three or four times as large as any they had ever received before.

Old Contessini, according to the custom of the East, took this fee from his servants; being an honest man, and being impressed with a strong idea that the liberality of the stranger bespoke a person of consequence, he very much improved his fare on the second day. On the third, the stranger began to open a little; he asked Contessini whether he was not consul for Austria as well as England, and received a reply in the affirmative.

'Well,' says he, ' you need not hoist the Austrian flag, but I will confide to you a secret of the greatest importance, under the seal of the most inviolable secrecy. I am travelling in the strictest -incog., but I am the Archduke John, the brother of the Emperor of Austria.'

The poor consul was overwhelmed with confusion: he got up from the dinner-table at which they were sitting, insisting upon serving behind the chair of his illustrious guest, who had great difficulty in. persuading him, partly by the force of arguments drawn from the necessity of concealment from the servants and partly by that of his arms, to resume his chair.

In this state things remained some days: the old consul was delighted to see that the archduke took great notice of his son, a fine lad. One day the boy, coming into the stranger's room, found him occupied in taking some things out of a trunk in which were fine uniform embroidered most richly and covered with stars and orders. The boy told his father of the fine things he had beheld, and, not being under any promise of secrecy, repeated his story to every person he met.

Suspicions began to be excited as to the rank of the stranger; the old consul looked mysterious, and began to whisper his secret.

This made the residence of Jaffa very unpleasant to the prince: he talked of prosecuting his journey through the Holy Land, and asked Contessini whether there was any person in Jaffa from whom he could procure money.

'I fear,' replied the old man, 'there may not be a sum sufficient to supply the occasions of your Imperial Highness; but if such a sum (naming something about 100L) is sufficient, I can easily find it.' The money was produced: the archduke gave his note, disguised himself as a monk, and proceeded on his journey to Nazareth, where there was a. large convent; and Contessini, after much importunity, obtained leave to acquaint the prior by letter of the real name and rank of the stranger.

He took up his abode for some time in the convent: every respect was shown to him; the prior kept the secret for some time; but much curiosity and many suspicions were excited by the uncommon liberality of the stranger. He evinced this chiefly by giving at the mass, which lie attended with the most exemplary regularity, a contribution for the wants of the convent, which, though it was nearly ten times as much as they were in the habit of receiving from the most liberal of their contributors, was in fact very small.

By this and various other means he so established his character without betraying his rank, that the prior made not the funds of the convent on his word only, and on promise of obtaining various immunities and advantages for the convent from the Emperor of Austria. He returned to his old friend the consul at Jaffa: expressed a wish to fit out a vessel to convey him to the coast of Italy, for the purpose of performing a pilgrimage to Loretto.

The attendant or cameriere suggested to the consul that he was mad not to try to take advantage of the partiality which the archduke expressed for his son to try to obtain for him a situation in his household. The permission was given for young Contessini to attend the archduke, and many very vague promises of future protection were made.

In return for this the consul could do no less than take upon himself all the trouble of the purchase of the vessel, and of course he made himself responsible for all the expenses. He was also persuaded by the cameriere to embark several bales of cotton, which the young man, his son, "would sell to great advantage.

One of the next adventures of this great personage was at one of the Turkish ports. He was lodged in the house of the Austrian consul, to whom he carried a letter from old Contessini declaring his rank, but still with injunctions of the greatest secrecy.

A few days after his arrival the Turkish fleet, with the Captain Pasha (the third man in the empire) on board, anchored in the port. The consul with great difficulty obtained from his guest permission to declare his rank to this great personage ; an invitation ensued to visit the fleet; every royal honour and observance were paid; and very large presents of jewels, &c., offered, and of course accepted, by the prince.

He then went (I forget where) to another Eastern convent, where he was received with still greater distinction by the archbishop. Here, however, his career seemed very near a close; the notes or bills had all been protested, and a rumour of the fraud spread very soon after his arrival.

He was the first to tell the story to the old archbishop, to inveigh against the tricks of swindlers, and at the ingenuity of one who, having discovered him to be travelling incog. & the East, had ventured to personate him; then. followed a dozen stories of exactly similar personations, &c., but he ended in stating that, though loaded with passports, letters of credit, &c., from the emperor, which were all in his vessel, he should be very averse to appearing publicly in his own character.

He said his journey, or rather his pilgrimage, had been undertaken from motives of religion only, very much against the consent of the emperor, who would be still more incensed when he discovered the fraud which had ensued from the circumstance of his travelling incog.

It became, therefore, his duty to guard his secret more strictly than ever. Upon this pretence he once more obtained a large sum to enable him to perform his
pilgrimage to Loretto, and once more he resumed his travels.

When he reached the Continent he professed himself surprised to find the emperor more incensed than ever: the cameriere was dismissed, and young Contessini, who was enthusiastically devoted to him, was persuaded that the life of his illustrious master depended upon his secrecy. After various adventures, hair-breadth escapes, daring frauds, &c., he reached Hamburgh.

There he contrived by various forgeries to raise a sum of money, on credit, to charter a vessel for America. This was wrecked somewhere on the British coast. The adventurer and his faithful Contessini arrived in London.

The latter, from whom Mr. Bankes had the whole detail, described with the most beautiful simplicity, in his bad Italian, the effect produced in his mind by all
that he saw, and especially by the grande bellissimo superbo hotel where they were lodged, and which, with some difficulty, he at last explained to be the Saracen's Head.

Among its various merits, he did not enumerate that of its being a peaceful abode. Englishmen were not so easily to be taken in as consuls, pashas, and
archbishops in the East. The various frauds and forgeries of the adventurer were soon brought to light, and the bellissimo hotel full of officers of justice' in pursuit of him.

However, he contrived once more to escape them by getting out of a garret window upon the roofs of the neighbouring houses. Such was the extraordinary simplicity and credulity of his faithful attendant that even at this moment, after all that he had witnessed, he described himself as perfectly convinced that his master was going straight to St. James's, meaning at last to avow his rank and resume his native splendour. Judge, then, what must have been his dismay when he found himself safely lodged with the archduke in Newgate.

From the extreme ignorance of the narrator it was impossible, Mr. Bankes said, to gain a clear idea of this part of his adventures. By some means they got out of Newgate, and very soon after were sent to a lock-up house.

Here the story of the impostor closes, not, as might be expected, by his obtaining the due reward of all his iniquities, but by his seducing the wife of the keeper of the lock-up house, carrying off with her every valuable in the house, and contriving to elude every pursuit.

Poor Contessini was now left alone to stand his trial, and Mr. Bankes said nothing could be more curious than his admiration, his simple gratitude for his extraordinary good fortune in having been taken before the most upright, the most humane, the greatest of judges, the only one man in the whole world who would not have hanged him because he had been imposed upon by a rascal, never having
had any share in the transactions which made him amenable to justice. A subscription was collected to enable this poor creature to return to his own country, which he did not reach without having been once more wrecked.

When Mr, Bankes was at Jaffa, he heard repeatedly of the adventurer, who had imposed himself upon so many persons, and raised large sums of money, as the Archduke John. He was one day questioning the British Consul on the subject, who, from common report, related many of the leading particulars, especially the reception by the Captain Pasha. He added, 'As you seem very curious, if you wish it, I will send for the son of my predecessor Contessini, who for some time followed the fortunes of this adventurer.' He came.


Mr. Bankes was so pleased with his extraordinary story, and with his mode of relating it, that he took the man as his servant, though he had little else to recommend him.**



Editor's notes
* William Bankes, .Esq., of Corfe Castle, and Kingston Hall, Dorsetshire
** Mr. Bankes's story is substantially confirmed by Sir William Gell, who says in his Memoirs, ' We had. been told that one of the Austrian archdukes was passing through Greece at this time, and that he was now (1804) at Modon, giving out that he had quitted Vienna on account of some disagreement with the Austrian imperial family, and was travelling incog. . . .
' A few mouths after, we heard of an unpleasant accident which happened quite unexpectedly to his Imperial Highness. After he had resided some time at the house of the poor consul, a Polish nobleman, Prince Sapieha, landed at Modon. As he was well acquainted with the Austrian imperial family, he flew to the house of the consul, as soon as he heard the archduke was there. He entered hastily tile room where the consul and his guest "were dining, eagerly enquiring for his friend the archduke. The consul, distressed at the arrival of a person whom he doubted not was despatched from the court to reclaim the wandering prince, and hoping that the messenger was not personally acquainted with his imperial guest, thought it better to hesitate, and gave no answer till Prince Sapieha demanded with more eagerness to be shown to the room of the archduke. During this time, the adventurer said not a word, and the consul was at length induced to confess that his Imperial Highness was present. Of course Prince Sapielia needed no further explanation, left the room, and soon quitted Modon, not without having had the charity to advise the owner of the house where he lodged to inform the Austrian consul that he was ruining himself for an impostor. The adventurer was not, however, routed by the unfortunate visit of the prince, for he succeeded in persuading the consul, who was alarmed, and began to expostulate, that he knew Sapieha well, but was so disgusted at the impertinence of his abrupt entrance during dinner, instead of sending in due form to know when his company would be agreeable, that he did not condescend to acknowledge him.'

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