Truth is stranger than fiction—to some people, but I am measurably familiar with it.
—Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.
Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar.
The air was balmy and delicious, the sunshine radiant; it was a charming excursion. In the course of it we came to a town whose odd name was famous all over the world a quarter of a century ago—Wagga-Wagga. This was because the Tichborne Claimant had kept a butcher-shop there. It was out of the midst of his humble collection of sausages and tripe that he soared up into the zenith of notoriety and hung there in the wastes of space a time, with the telescopes of all nations leveled at him in unappeasable curiosity—curiosity as to which of the two long-missing persons he was: Arthur Orton, the mislaid roustabout of Wapping, or Sir Roger Tichborne, the lost heir of a name and estates as old as English history. We all know now, but not a dozen people knew then; and the dozen kept the mystery to themselves and allowed the most intricate and fascinating and marvelous real-life romance that has ever been played upon the world's stage to unfold itself serenely, act by act, in a British court by the long and laborious processes of judicial development.
When we recall the details of that great romance we marvel to see what daring chances truth may freely take in constructing a tale, as compared with the poor little conservative risks permitted to fiction. The fiction-artist could achieve no success with the materials of this splendid Tichborne romance.
He would have to drop out the chief characters; the public would say such people are impossible. He would have to drop out a number of the most picturesque incidents; the public would say such things could never happen. And yet the chief characters did exist, and the incidents did happen.
It cost the Tichborne estates $400,000 to unmask the Claimant and drive him out; and even after the exposure multitudes of Englishmen still believed in him. It cost the British Government another $400,000 to convict him of perjury; and after the conviction the same old multitudes still believed in him; and among these believers were many educated and intelligent men; and some of them had personally known the real Sir Roger. The Claimant was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment. When he got out of prison he went to New York and kept a whisky saloon in the Bowery for a time, then disappeared from view.
He always claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne until death called for him. This was but a few months ago—not very much short of a generation since he left Wagga-Wagga to go and possess himself of his estates. On his death-bed he yielded up his secret, and confessed in writing that he was only Arthur Orton of Wapping, able seaman and butcher—that and nothing more. But it is scarcely to be doubted that there are people whom even his dying confession will not convince. The old habit of assimilating incredibilities must have made strong food a necessity in their case; a weaker article would probably disagree with them.
I was in London when the Claimant stood his trial for perjury. I attended one of his showy evenings in the sumptuous quarters provided for him from the purses of his adherents and well-wishers. He was in evening dress, and I thought him a rather fine and stately creature. There were about twenty-five gentlemen present; educated men, men moving in good society, none of them commonplace; some of them were men of distinction, none of them were obscurities. They were his cordial friends and admirers. It was "Sir Roger," always "Sir Roger," on all hands; no one withheld the title, all turned it from the tongue with unction, and as if it tasted good.
For many years I had had a mystery in stock. Melbourne, and only Melbourne, could unriddle it for me. In 1873 I arrived in London with my wife and young child, and presently received a note from Naples signed by a name not familiar to me. It was not Bascom, and it was not Henry; but I will call it Henry Bascom for convenience's sake. This note, of about six lines, was written on a strip of white paper whose end-edges were ragged. I came to be familiar with those strips in later years. Their size and pattern were always the same. Their contents were usually to the same effect: would I and mine come to the writer's country-place in England on such and such a date, by such and such a train, and stay twelve days and depart by such and such a train at the end of the specified time? A carriage would meet us at the station.
These invitations were always for a long time ahead; if we were in Europe, three months ahead; if we were in America, six to twelve months ahead. They always named the exact date and train for the beginning and also for the end of the visit.
This first note invited us for a date three months in the future. It asked us to arrive by the 4.10 p.m. train from London, August 6th. The carriage would be waiting. The carriage would take us away seven days later-train specified. And there were these words: "Speak to Tom Hughes."
I showed the note to the author of "Tom Brown at Rugby," and he said: "Accept, and be thankful."
He described Mr. Bascom as being a man of genius, a man of fine attainments, a choice man in every way, a rare and beautiful character. He said that Bascom Hall was a particularly fine example of the stately manorial mansion of Elizabeth's days, and that it was a house worth going a long way to see—like Knowle; that Mr. B. was of a social disposition; liked the company of agreeable people, and always had samples of the sort coming and going.
We paid the visit. We paid others, in later years—the last one in 1879. Soon after that Mr. Bascom started on a voyage around the world in a steam yacht—a long and leisurely trip, for he was making collections, in all lands, of birds, butterflies, and such things.
The day that President Garfield was shot by the assassin Guiteau, we were at a little watering place on Long Island Sound; and in the mail matter of that day came a letter with the Melbourne post-mark on it. It was for my wife, but I recognized Mr. Bascom's handwriting on the envelope, and opened it. It was the usual note—as to paucity of lines—and was written on the customary strip of paper; but there was nothing usual about the contents. The note informed my wife that if it would be any assuagement of her grief to know that her husband's lecture-tour in Australia was a satisfactory venture from the beginning to the end, he, the writer, could testify that such was the case; also, that her husband's untimely death had been mourned by all classes, as she would already know by the press telegrams, long before the reception of this note; that the funeral was attended by the officials of the colonial and city governments; and that while he, the writer, her friend and mine, had not reached Melbourne in time to see the body, he had at least had the sad privilege of acting as one of the pall-bearers. Signed, "Henry Bascom."
My first thought was, why didn't he have the coffin opened? He would have seen that the corpse was an imposter, and he could have gone right ahead and dried up the most of those tears, and comforted those sorrowing governments, and sold the remains and sent me the money.
I did nothing about the matter. I had set the law after living lecture doubles of mine a couple of times in America, and the law had not been able to catch them; others in my trade had tried to catch their impostor-doubles and had failed. Then where was the use in harrying a ghost? None—and so I did not disturb it. I had a curiosity to know about that man's lecture-tour and last moments, but that could wait. When I should see Mr. Bascom he would tell me all about it. But he passed from life, and I never saw him again.. My curiosity faded away.
However, when I found that I was going to Australia it revived. And naturally: for if the people should say that I was a dull, poor thing compared to what I was before I died, it would have a bad effect on business. Well, to my surprise the Sydney journalists had never heard of that impostor! I pressed them, but they were firm—they had never heard of him, and didn't believe in him.
I could not understand it; still, I thought it would all come right in Melbourne. The government would remember; and the other mourners. At the supper of the Institute of Journalists I should find out all about the matter. But no—it turned out that they had never heard of it.
So my mystery was a mystery still. It was a great disappointment. I believed it would never be cleared up—in this life—so I dropped it out of my mind.
But at last! just when I was least expecting it——
However, this is not the place for the rest of it; I shall come to the
matter again, in a far-distant chapter.