Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen

Sir Benjamin The “Baron”

It was with considerable delight that I read the other day an article “sticking up” very bravely for Harrison Ainsworth, and Dick Turpin, and the Ride to York, and the Tower of London, and all that world of brave things. I was pleased, because a man likes to have his opinions confirmed by high authority; and I have always had a very tender feeling for Harrison Ainsworth, recollecting how he made my ten-years’-old blood run cold by his description of the Subterranean Temple of the Demon in the “Lancashire Witches.” And it was of Harrison Ainsworth that I was chiefly thinking when I once observed that, though the Victorians did not always write well, they always wrote with a relish.

Things happened in those old Victorian story-books. There were lonely inns in which travellers were apt to be murdered. And these travellers were not always what they seemed. The names they gave were not always their own names. The apparent merchant sometimes turned out to be something very different. Sometimes they shuddered as they dismounted from their coaches. Sometimes they wrote vehemently as soon as they entered; sometimes they consigned papers to the fire and watched these papers burn to the last ember. Now and then the (apparently) faithful attendant of the Mysterious Stranger was not what he seemed. There were cases in which the traveller was seen one moment in the inn yard, and then had vanished in the twinkling of an eye, and had vanished for ever. Perhaps years afterwards a skeleton was discovered, buried deeply not far from the inn yard; and wife or sister, grown old and sick with vain waiting, came and gazed doubtfully with dim eyes upon the relics — and wondered.

There! Can you imagine what would happen if one submitted the above as an outline or sketch of a possible plot to our really modern writers, the veritable Georgians? I don’t think that they would be cross, or snap your head off, or wonder audibly what theatre put on transpontine melodrama in these days, or say it was interesting to find that Sue still found readers. There would be nothing violent of this kind; only the slight movement of a weary brow, before the conversation flowed back to its proper channel of “complexes” and skin-disease. Because you see, the Georgian novelist knows that the stuff of which we have been talking is not Life, has no relation to Life, and in a word, doesn’t happen. Exactly. And it all happened on the twenty-fifth of November, 1809, at Perleberg, a small Prussian town between Berlin and Hamburg. A coach and four drew up at the White Swan, and a tall, handsomely dressed man, wrapped up in a fur cloak lined with purple velvet, got down. He said he was in a hurry and wanted his lunch at once, and so, accompanied by his secretary and his servant, he entered the White Swan. It was noon when he arrived, and when he had finished his lunch he began to ask questions. Were there many soldiers stationed at Perleberg; who was in command? Captain Klitzing, of the Brandenburg Cuirassiers. Very good; where did he live? The stranger got the captain’s address, and ordered his horses to be put in at once. He did not seem to notice two Jew dealers who came into the inn as he was lunching. He went to Captain Klitzing’s house and found the captain with so bad a cold that he could hardly speak. The stranger said that he was Baron de Koch, that he was a merchant, and that he was now on a business journey to Hamburg. But, he added, trembling, he had seen something at the White Swan that frightened him, something that made him fear for his life; finally, that he would be grateful if Captain Klitzing would give him a guard during the few hours that he was at Perleberg. Captain Klitzing laughed at the request for a guard, whereon the stranger’s nerves got worse and worse. So the Captain said he should have two of his cuirassiers, and as the Baron trembled with cold — or terror — he was given a cup of hot tea, and he drank it gratefully, his hands shaking so that some of the tea was spilt. Then he put on the fur cloak with the velvet lining and went back to the White Swan. He ordered the horses to be taken out of the carriage, and sat down with a pile of papers about him, and began to write at top speed.

Seven o’clock in the evening. The Baron finished writing, burnt some documents, and once more ordered the horses to be put in. The soldiers were told that they could go, and as some of the witnesses declared, the Baron strolled into the inn kitchen and hung about there among the stablemen and postboys. It was said that some of these fellows must have seen him drawing out a full, fat purse and dangling a handsome watch in an absentminded sort of way. In the street a dim oil lamp hung up high in the air, and a stableman with a horn lantern was helping the postboy to harness the horses. The Baron stood there in the street, watching the horses being put in. On the steps of the inn, the Baron’s secretary, having paid the bill, was talking to the landlord. Everything was ready. The postillion was standing with his hand on the saddle, waiting for the word to mount and away . . . when it suddenly became evident that the Baron had vanished.

And the mystery was never solved; it remains a mystery to this day. No time was lost on that dark and bitter night of November 25, 1809. The White Swan was searched, the posting-house was searched in vain; there was no trace of the traveller in the stables, in the outhouses, or in the street. The secretary sent a messenger to Captain Klitzing; no news of the Baron there, since his afternoon call. Then more ransacking of all the houses of the quarter, everybody joining in — except the two Jew tradesmen, who got into their carriage and resumed their journey. People remarked that they were the only persons present who took no interest in the quest for the lost Baron. Captain Klitzing remembered that his visitor appeared to be in mortal terror, to anticipate some dreadful fate. The Captain had laughed at the time; but now he began to wonder. He sent some of his men to seize the vanished stranger’s travelling carriage; he gave orders that the Baron’s secretary and his servant should be detained at an inn at the other end of the town; soldiers are posted at the White Swan; the civil magistracy is dragged out of bed to lend its aid, and the civil magistracy beats up Perleberg all through the night; and finds nothing. Meanwhile, the active Klitzing examines the Baron’s secretary, and makes some strange discoveries. To begin with; the secretary confessed that though he had been known as Fisher, he was really Krouse. And as for the “Baron de Koch, merchant,” he wasn’t a baron, and he wasn’t a merchant. He was Sir Benjamin Bathurst, late English Ambassador Extraordinary to Vienna. His mission to Vienna had failed, and he was making his way to England, via Hamburg. He had with him papers supposed to be of the highest importance. His false name, his lack of ambassadorial state were due to his desire to avoid the attentions of the French soldiers, who were then patrolling all Germany. Fisher, or Krouse, had been for some time a courier at the British Embassy at Vienna. The servant’s name was Nicolaus Hilbert. Captain Klitzing left Perleberg, as he said, for a short journey of the utmost consequence. In reality, he consulted his military superior, who told him all about Sir Benjamin, the enormous importance of his mission, and the fury of Napoleon over the part which England had tried to play. But it was not known till later that before Sir Benjamin Bathurst left Vienna the Prussian Government had warned him: to keep a sharp look-out on Krouse.

And after? Very little of consequence. The two Jew dealers were tracked to their abode. They were well-known people with the best of characters. The dubious Krouse and the servant pass out of the story. A week after the disappearance of Bathurst, his trousers were found in a thicket by two poor women gathering sticks. That thicket had been searched before without result. There were two bullet holes in one leg; but experts declared that the trousers had been held up, empty, to be fired at. In one pocket there was a letter, written, no doubt, at the White Swan. It was from Sir Benjamin to his wife. He told her of his fears. He was afraid, he said, that he would never see her or England any more. He added that if he were murdered it would be the doing of d’Entraigues, then the agent of Russia; a secret man, d’Entraigues, who had served all nations, and betrayed them all. And nothing more was ever known certainly. It was rumoured that Sir Benjamin was alive and a prisoner at Magdeburg, in French hands. Mrs. Bathurst — perhaps a wife, perhaps a widow — resolved to follow up this clue. Nothing came of her journey, save this: that she found that her intention of making it was known in Paris before it was suspected in London. She returned to London, and there the secret man, d’Entraigues, called on her. He said that her husband was dead, that the Governor of Magdeburg had been his gaoler till, on the order of Napoleon, the prisoner had been “put out of the Emperor’s way.” And d’Entraigues promised to tell Mrs. Bathurst the whole story. But soon afterwards he was assassinated by a dismissed servant, who immediately committed suicide. People said that at last the secret man had paid the penalty of knowing too much. Years later, in 1852, Mrs. Thistlethwayte, Sir Benjamin Bathurst’s sister, was told that a skeleton had been found buried under a stable in Perleberg. The skull had been fractured by a blow of a hatchet; there were circumstances which linked the former owner of the house with Sir Benjamin’s visit to Perleberg; this man, named Mertens, had been a servant at the White Swan. But Mrs. Thistlethwayte looked closely at the skull, and said that she was sure, from the shape, that it could not be her brother’s.

But she may have been mistaken.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38