I am wondering as I look through my book of “Characters” whether the number of queer people in the world has actually diminished in the last hundred years, or whether they are simply neglected, suffered to go about dressing oddly, behaving oddly, talking oddly, and dying oddly, without the tribute of more than a brief paragraph in the newspapers. On the whole, I am inclined to think this latter the true explanation of the case. For, as I remember, I once tried to draw a pale outline of a truly remarkable character who lived in our day; say some fourteen or fifteen years ago. In those days I was connected with a daily paper, and in the routine of the office I was sent down one fine day to Reigate, to make enquiries about a certain Mr. Campo Tosto, who had lived near that town, and had left his wealth — wealth of a curious kind — in a somewhat curious manner. At Reigate, I found that Mr. Campo Tosto’s house was about four miles away, and that it was situated in a hamlet called Burnt Green. I began to be entertained. Decidedly, there was to be something odd about this tale. Here was the late Campo Tosto living at Burnt Green; which was to all intents and purposes a translation of his name into English. Very good; elated, I hired a trap at Reigate, and we drove on our way. I asked the driver if he knew anything about Campo Tosto, deceased. Not much; he was a queer old gentleman; he didn’t like people about his grounds, and sometimes he would shoot at trespassers.
“Shoot!” said I. “Shoot at them with a gun!”
“Yes, with a gun now and then; but mostly with a bow and arrows!”
Now there were two oddities mentioned in the paragraph on which my enquiries were based. The wealth of Campo Tosto consisted almost wholly in antiquities and objects of art. The late fifteenth century had been the queer old gentleman’s favourite period; and his collection contained all sorts of pieces of that age: pictures, chests, spike candlesticks, statues; valued, I believe, at two thousand pounds or thereabouts. And all this property he had left to a man who, with his wife, had looked after him for some time. This man had been a farm labourer, and his name was Turk; an odd sort of name for an English labourer. We drew near the residence of the late Campo Tosto; a house removed a little way from the road on a slight hillside; a place rather pretentious in a small way without being in the least interesting; about fifty or sixty years old, I suppose. And just then we ran into Mr. Turk, the happy heir of mediæval art. He seemed worried. Men with cameras and long sticks buzzed about him. They wanted him to be photographed in the interests of the public, but he denied them, and did so with considerable irritation. I jumped out of the trap, and put my business before him. He stood still for a moment; and that was enough. Four cameras clicked at once, as Mr. Turk firmly declined to have anything to do with me. Turk declared that he would tell me nothing, show me nothing. “This is the only thing I’ll do for you,” he said. “Give me that paper,” I gave him my paper, open at the “leader page.” He deliberately turned it upside down, and read out nine or ten lines of inverted type with the greatest ease, and with absolute correctness.
“You see,” said Turk, cunningly, “I used to be a farm labourer, but of late I’ve had a lot to do with fuller’s earth.”
He was evidently convinced that he had furnished me with a complete and lucid explanation of his singular feat; a matter which is no feat at all to those engaged in the technical side of newspaper production, but not an accomplishment of the ordinary man.
I walked beside him on the path leading to his hall door. I was endeavouring to wheedle and persuade; without the faintest result. Now and again, he would stop to emphasise his denial with a blow of his fist on his open palm; and again the cameras went click, click. Finally, we got to the hall door, which was half glass. I had just caught a glimpse of a huddle of strange things within; Madonnas dim and rich, in curious frames of carven gold, great brass candlesticks that had stood before Flemish altars and had heard the holy mutter of the Mass, carved chests with linen-fold panels, saints in oak, grey with age — when Mrs. Turk appeared, terrible as an army with banners. Not even the men of the cameras could abide her onset. We all fled, as sheep before the wolf.
And then I went home and set down everything, just as it had happened. But it never got into print. People in authority at the newspaper office sidled into my room and looked at me quietly, keenly. They took counsel together over the matter. I think it was lucky that my engagements for the next few weeks were of an entirely ordinary kind, for if I had lit on anything remotely resembling the wonder world that had been disclosed to me at Burnt Green, I feel sure that I should have had an interview with a specialist; a specialist in the affairs of the mind.
The moral is obvious. We do not hear of “Characters” now, because men are not suffered to write about them. They have become incredible, owing, as I believe, to a certain grossness and thickening of the power of apprehension. I have known many characters myself: there was the case of the lady, a member of a wandering company of entertainers, whose sentimental and pathetic ballad usually touched all hearts at the seaside. One afternoon she perceived to her amazement and indignation that the ballad was not going at all well. She heard some gasps of horrified wonder, then chuckles, then open mirth. Furious, and rightly so, for she was a most delightful and accomplished singer, she turned to leave the stage, and, turning, she saw the cause of this altered reception. On the floor, against the backcloth depicting a happy valley, bowered in roses, there crawled on his stomach another member of the company. One eye was upturned, and it was bloodshot. Between his teeth he held a gigantic carving knife. Years afterwards, this same gentleman caused some little commotion in Holborn, between two and three in the morning. He was reposing on his back in a horse-trough, calling loudly for his solicitor, declining to move till his legal adviser should attend. And the resident in a southern suburb who demanded in a formal and serious letter that his next door neighbour should chain up the bees in his hive, “because your bee has stung my baby’s bottom”— he deserved fame, but the age denies it him.
It was otherwise of old. “Characters” were once a literary genre; and I have often wondered as to those who compiled these chronicles of odd and whimsical lives. There is a certain style which was evidently considered appropriate to the matter; for the manner of these biographies never varies. The stranger the tale, the more stolid, flat and insipid does the chronicler become. I feel sure that every word is true; no liar could write with such dulness. Take the case of Betty Bolaine, born at Canterbury, in the year 1723. She was of “a covetous turn.” She smiled on many suitors for the sake of the presents they gave her.
“At an assembly at Canterbury, when large hoop-petticoats were universally worn, the ladies, complaining of the inconvenience of the fashion, agreed to lay aside their hoops for awhile. Miss Bolaine objected to this proposal, fearing her saving contrivances would make her laughed at. However, her objections were overcome by her companions, and instead of a cane hoop she exhibited a straw one stitched with pack-thread and red tape and covered by an old dirty apron of her father’s.”
Miss Bolaine found a man after her own heart, a Mr. Box, with whom she set up house-keeping on the most economical principles.
“With this man she could eat a mouldy crust, with frowsy or stinking meat, sometimes picked up in the road, and cooked on cabbage stalks, burnt with turf, which was constantly stolen from the commons by night. These, with dried furze bushes, and dead stalks from their garden, constantly supplied fuel all the year round. . . . At this time, she was sometimes seen in a jacket crimped round her waist, and made of bed furniture, having monkeys, macaws and frogs depicted in needlework. . . . Her upper bonnet (for she wore two) consisted of thirty-six pieces of black stuff, curiously joined together; the under one was an old chip hat she once found on a dunghill in a garden, and which she was remembered to have worn nineteen years at least. Over this covering sometimes she would throw pieces of gauze, silk brocade, and tiffany, to make herself fine, as she thought . . . in this manner did she call every Sunday evening on the Dean of Canterbury, stumping through the hall and up the great staircase into the drawing-room.”
There is something stupendous about this bundle of unsavoury rags calling on the Dean of Canterbury; and Miss Bolaine’s will was also picturesque. A dozen or so of people had endured her and bribed her for long years; and she left the whole of her fortune of £20,000 to a Prebendary of Canterbury, whose acquaintance she had just made.
The miser was a great favourite with the depicter of “Characters,” as the friends of Mr. Boffin and of Silas Wegg will remember, but he had other strings to his bow. There was the Reverend George Harvest, “a lover of good eating almost to gluttony, extremely negligent in his dress, and a believer in ghosts, goblins, and fairies”: there was the great painter, George Morland, who went through the ways of Marylebone, carrying a pig which he matched against every dog he met; there was Thomas Topham who could roll up a large pewter dish with his fingers; the Cock Lane Ghost; and the Fasting Woman of Tutbury — for Mrs. Nickleby, it seems, was wrong in alluding to this Character as the Thirsty Woman.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58