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
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
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
I showed the note to the author of "Tom Brown at Rugby," and be 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
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.