In the following reminiscences will frequently be mentioned a lady who played a great part in the annals of the police from 1848 to 1866. We will call her "Wanda von Chabert." Born in Galicia of German parents, and carefully brought up in every way, when only sixteen she married, from love, a rich and handsome officer of noble birth. The young couple, however, lived beyond their means, and when the husband died suddenly, two years after they were married, she was left anything but well off.
As Wanda had grown accustomed to luxury and amusement, a quiet life in her parents' house did not suit her any longer. Even while she was still in mourning for her husband, she allowed a Hungarian magnate to make love to her. She went off with him at a venture, and continued the same extravagant life which she had led when her husband was alive, of her own volition. At the end of two years, however, her lover left her in a town in North Italy, almost without means. She was thinking of going on the stage, when chance provided her with another resource, which enabled her to reassert her position in society. She became a secret police agent, and soon was one of their most valuable members. In addition to the proverbial charm and wit of a Polish woman, she also possessed high linguistic attainments, and spoke Polish, Russian, French, German, English, and Italian, with almost equal fluency and correctness. Then she had that encyclopedic polish which impresses people much more than the most profound learning of the specialist, She was very attractive in appearance, and she knew how to set off her good looks by all the arts of dress and coquetry.
In addition to this, she was a woman of the world in the widest sense of the term; pleasure-loving, faithless, unstable, and therefore never in any danger of really losing her heart, and consequently her head. She used to change the place of her abode, according to what she had to do. Sometimes she lived in Paris among the Polish emigrants, in order to find out what they were doing, and maintained intimate relations with the Tuileries and the Palais Royal at the same time; sometimes she went to London for a short time, or hurried off to Italy to watch the Hungarian exiles, only to reappear suddenly in Switzerland, or at one of the fashionable German watering-places.
In revolutionary circles, she was looked upon as an active member of the great League of Freedom, and diplomatists regarded her as an influential friend of Napoleon III.
She knew everyone, but especially those men whose names were to be met with every day in the journals, and she counted Victor Emmanuel, Rouher, Gladstone, and Gortschakoff among her friends as well as Mazzini, Kossuth, Garibaldi, Mieroslawsky, and Bakunin.
In the spring of 185- she was at Vevey on the lovely lake of Geneva, and went into raptures when talking to an old German diplomatist about the beauties of nature, and about Calame, Stifter, and Turgenev, whose "Diary of a Hunter," had just become fashionable. One day a man appeared at the table d'hote, who excited unusual attention, and hers especially, so that there was nothing strange in her asking the proprietor of the hotel what his name was. She was told that he was a wealthy Brazilian, and that his name was Don Escovedo.
Whether it was an accident, or whether he responded to the interest which the young woman felt for him, at any rate she constantly met him whereever she went, whether taking a walk, or on the lake or looking at the newspapers in the reading-room. At last she was obliged to confess to herself that he was the handsomest man she had ever seen. Tall slim, and yet muscular, the young, beardless Brazilian had a head which any woman might envy, features not only beautiful and noble, but also extremely delicate, dark eyes which possessed a wonderful charm, and thick, auburn, curly hair, which completed the attractiveness and the strangeness of his appearance.
They soon became acquainted, through a Prussian officer whom the Brazilian had asked for an introduction to the beautiful Polish lady--for Frau von Chabert was taken for one in Vevey. She, cold and designing as she was, blushed slightly when he stood before her for the first time; and when he gave her his arm, he could feel her hand tremble slightly on it. The same evening they went out riding together, the next he was lying at her feet, and on the third she was his. For four weeks the lovely Wanda and the Brazilian lived together as if they had been in Paradise, but he could not deceive her searching eyes any longer.
Her sharp and practiced eye had already discovered in him that indefinable something which makes a man appear a suspicious character. Any other woman would have been pained and horrified at such a discovery, but she found the strange consolation in it that her handsome adorer promised also to become a very interesting object for pursuit, and so she began systematically to watch the man who lay unsuspectingly at her feet.
She soon found out that he was no conspirator; but she asked herself in vain whether she was to look for a common swindler, an impudent adventurer, or perhaps even a criminal in him. The day that she had foreseen soon came; the Brazilian's banker "unaccountably" had omitted to send him any money, and so he borrowed some of her. "So he is a male courtesan," she said to herself. The handsome man soon required money again, and she lent it to him again. Then at last he left suddenly and nobody knew where he had gone to; only this much, that he had left Vevey as the companion of an old but wealthy Wallachian lady. So this time clever Wanda was duped.
A year afterward she met the Brazilian unexpectedly at Lucca, with an insipid-looking, light-haired, thin Englishwoman on his arm. Wanda stood still and looked at him steadily, but he glanced at her quite indifferently; he did not choose to know her again.
The next morning, however, his valet brought her a letter from him, which contained the amount of his debt in Italian hundred-lire notes, accompanied by a very cool excuse. Wanda was satisfied, but she wished to find out who the lady was, in whose company she constantly saw Don Escovedo.
An Austrian count, who had a loud and silly laugh, said:
"Who has saddled you with that yarn? The lady is Lady Nitingsdale, and his name is Romanesco."
"Yes, he is a rich Boyar from Moldavia, where he has extensive estates."
Romanesco ran a faro bank in his apartments, and certainly cheated, for he nearly always won; it was not long, therefore, before other people in good society at Lucca shared Madame von Chabert's suspicions, and, consequently, Romanesco thought it advisable to vanish as suddenly from Lucca as Escovedo had done from Vevey, and without leaving any more traces behind him.
Some time afterward, Madame von Chabert was on the Island of Heligoland, for the sea-bathing; and one day she saw Escovedo-Romanesco sitting opposite to her at the table d'hote, in very animated conversation with a Russian lady; only his hair had turned black since she had seen him last. Evidently his light hair had become too compromising for him.
"The sea-water seems to have a very remarkable effect upon your hair," Wanda said to him spitefully, in a whisper.
"Do you think so?" he replied, condescendingly.
"I fancy that at one time your hair was fair."
"You are mistaking me for somebody else," the Brazilian replied, quietly.
"I am not."
"For whom do you take me, pray?" he said with an insolent smile.
"For Don Escovedo."
"I am Count Dembizki from Valkynia," the former Brazilian said with a bow; "perhaps you would like to see my passport."
And he had the impudence to show her his false passport.
A year afterward Wanda met Count Dembizki in Baden, near Vienna. His hair was still black, but he had a magnificent, full, black beard; he had become a Greek prince, and his name was Anastasio Maurokordatos. She met him once in one of the side walks in the park, where he could not avoid her. "If it goes on like this," she called out to him in a mocking voice, "the next time I see you, you will be king, of some negro tribe or other."
That time, however, the Brazilian did not deny his identity; on the contrary, he surrendered at discretion, and implored her not to betray him. As she was not revengeful she pardoned him, after enjoying his terror for a time, and promised him that she would hold her tongue, as long as he did nothing contrary to the laws.
"First of all, I must beg you not to gamble."
"You have only to command; and we do not know each other in the future"
"I must certainly insist on that," she said maliciously.
The "Exotic Prince" had, however, made a conquest of the charming daughter of a wealthy Austrian count, and had cut out an excellent young officer, who was wooing her. The latter, in his despair, began to make love to Frau von Chabert, and at last told her he loved her. But she only laughed at him.
"You are very cruel," he stammered in confusion.
"I? What are you thinking about?" Wanda replied, still smiling; "all I mean is that you have directed your love to the wrong address, for Countess--"
"Do not speak of her; she is engaged to another man."
"As long as I choose to permit it," she said; "but what will you do if I bring her back to your arms? Will you still call me cruel?"
"Can you do this?" the young officer asked, in great excitement.
"Well, supposing I can do it, what shall I be then?"
"An angel, whom I shall thank on my knees."
A few days later, the rivals met at a coffee-house; the Greek prince began to lie and boast, and the Austrian officer gave him the lie direct. In consequence, it was arranged that they should fight a duel with pistols next morning in a wood close to Baden. But as the officer was leaving the house with his seconds the next morning, a Police Commissary came up to him and begged him not to trouble himself any further about the matter, but another time to be more careful before accepting a challenge.
"What does it mean?" the officer asked, in some surprise.
"It means that this Maurokordatos is a dangerous swindler and adventurer, whom we have just taken into custody."
"He is not a prince?"
"No; a circus rider."
An hour later, the officer received a letter from the charming Countess, in which she humbly begged for pardon. The happy lover set off to go and see her immediately, but on the way a sudden thought struck him, and so he turned back in order to thank beautiful Wanda, as he had promised, on his knees.