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El impostor inverosímil Tom Castro

A short story ("The implausible impostor Tom Castro") by this Argentine, based on real events. You can read the original here.

I provide this name because until 1850, this was the name by which he was known in the streets and houses of Talcahuano, Santiago, Chile, and Valparaíso. And it would be fair for him to reassume this name when he returned to these lands even if such a return were mere fantasy, a Saturday pastime.* On the Wapping birth register, with an entry dated June 7, 1834, his name is Arthur Orton. We know that he was the son of a butcher; that his childhood endured the insipid misery commonly incident to the lower boroughs of London; and that he felt the call of the sea. This is hardly unheard of: fleeing to the sea comprises the traditional English rupture with parental authority, the initiation into the heroic. Geography recommends it, as do the Scriptures (Psalm 107): They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.  

Orton fled his deplorable, pink-tainted suburb in a boat on the sea and contemplated, with habitual disillusion, the Southern Cross; he deserted at the port of Valparaíso. He was a man of placid idiocy. Logically, he could (and should) have died of hunger; but his confused joviality, his permanent smile, and his infinite meekness earned him the favor of a certain family Castro, whose name he adopted. There are no traces of this South American episode; but his gratitude did not wane. It is presumed that in 1861 he reappeared in Australia, still with the name Tom Castro. In Sydney he met a certain Bogle, a negro servant. Without being handsome, Bogle was possessed of a relaxed and monumental aura, the work-of-engineering solidity typical of a negro male who has become older, heavier, and more authoritative. He had a second quality which some handbooks of ethnography have denied his race: notions of genius. We shall see evidence of this later. In short, he was a restrained and decent man, with his ancient African appetites very well adjusted for the use and abuse of Calvinism. Apart from the visits of God (which we will describe later), he was absolutely normal, without any other irregularity apart from a modest and long-standing fear that would delay his step as he entered an alleyway or side street, suspicious as he was of the East, the West, the South, and the North, and of the violent vehicle which would put an end to his days.                          

One evening at dusk in a closed-off street corner in Sydney, Orton saw him in the midst of negotiating his imaginary death. At length he offered him his arm and, in mutual astonishment, the two of them crossed the harmless street. Since this twilight moment now long gone, a protectorate was established: that of the insecure and monumental negro over the obese crackpot from Wapping. In September 1865, both of them read a desperate announcement in a local newspaper.          

The idealized dead man

In the last days of April 1854 (as Orton was provoking an effusion of Chilean hospitality as wide as its patios), the steamer Mermaid, proceeding from Rio de Janeiro en route to Liverpool, was shipwrecked in the waters of the Atlantic. Among those who perished was Roger Charles Tichborne, an English military officer raised in France, the eldest son of one of the most important Catholic families of England. It seems implausible, but the death of this Gallicized young man with the finest of Parisian accents – which awakened the incomparable rancor that can only be caused by French intelligentsia, French wit, and French pedantry – was a transcendental event in the destiny of Orton, who had never laid eyes on Tichborne. Roger's horrified mother, Lady Tichborne, refused to believe in his death and began to publish desperate announcements in the newspapers of widest circulation. One of these announcements fell into the soft, funerary hands of the negro Bogle, who conceived of a brilliant plan.    

The virtues of disparity

Tichborne was a svelte gentleman with an air of vexation about him; he had sharp features, an olive complexion, straight black hair, lively eyes, and was almost irritating in his verbal precision. Orton, on the other hand, was an incontinent boor with a vast belly, features of stunning indefiniteness, a complexion bordering on the freckly, brown curly hair, and sleepy eyes; he was also a vague, almost absent conversationalist. Bogle decided that Orton ought to embark on the first steamer to Europe and satisfy the hope of Lady Tichborne by declaring to be her son.  

The project was one of foolish ingeniousness. I will take a simple example: if an impostor in 1914 had pretended to pass for the Emperor of Germany, the first thing he would have fabricated would have been the waxed mustaches, the limp arm, the authoritarian brow, the downcast mood, the illustrious and highly-decorated breast, and the Prussian shako. Bogle was more subtle: he would have presented a glabrous Kaiser, oblivious to military attributes and honorable eagles, with his left arm in a state of unquestionable health. We do not require the metaphor; we know that a flabby, squishy Tichborne appeared, with the amiable grin of an imbecile, brown hair, and an incorrigible ignorance of the French language.  

Bogle knew that a perfect facsimile of the much-desired Roger Charles Tichborne was impossible to obtain. He also knew that all similarities achieved would do nothing more than reveal certain inevitable differences. Therefore he renounced any likeness whatsoever. He intuited that the enormous ineptitude of the impostorship would be conceivable proof that it was not a matter of fraud, that the simplest aspects of certainty would never be discovered by such flagrant means. One should also not forget the all-powerful alliance with time: fourteen years in the Southern hemisphere in a life left to chance can surely change a man.  

And there was another basic reason: Lady Tichborne's repeated and foolish announcements demonstrated her plain conviction that Roger had not died; they also indicated her desire to identify him anew.    

The encounter 

The ever-obliging Tom Castro wrote to Lady Tichborne. To establish his identity he submitted the irrefutable proof of the two beauty marks on his left nipple and that episode from his childhood, so traumatizing yet at the same time so memorable, in which he was assaulted by a swarm of bees. The note was brief and, much in keeping with Tom Castro and Bogle, free of orthographic scruples. In the impressive solitude of a Paris hotel the lady read and re-read the letter with the happiest of tears; and a few days later, she came upon the memories which her son had evoked.     

On the 16th of January, 1867, Roger Charles Tichborne announced his presence at this hotel. He was preceded by his respectable servant, Ebenezer Bogle. The winter day was full of sun; the fatigued eyes of Lady Tichborne were veiled in tears. The negro opened the windows wide. The light created a mask: the mother recognized her prodigal son and embraced him. Now that she had him for real, she could dispense with the newspaper and the letters he used to send her from Brazil; those were merely the adored reflections which had nourished her solitude for fourteen gloomy years. She gave them back to him with pride: not a single one was missing.      

Bogle smiled with the utmost discretion: here was where Roger's placid ghost had been documented. 

Ad majorem Dei gloriam

This illustrious acknowledgement – which seemed to obey the tradition of classic tragedies – ought to have crowned this story, leaving three assured, or at least probable happinesses: that of the loyal mother, that of the apocryphal and indulgent son, and that of the accomplice as compensation for the providential apotheosis of his diligence. Destiny (the name we apply to the incessant and infinite operation of countless intermingled causes) did not settle matters as such. Lady Tichborne died in 1870 and her relatives took up a case against Arthur Orton for the usurpation of a civil estate. Bereft of tears and solitude, but not of greed, they never believed in the blubbery, almost illiterate prodigal son who reemerged in so untimely a fashion from Australia.

Orton counted on the support of his innumerable creditors who had determined that he was in fact Tichborne, so that he would be able to pay them. He likewise counted on the friendship of the family attorney, Edward Hopkins, and that of the antiques dealer Francis J. Baigent. This was, nevertheless, not enough: Bogle thought that in order to win the battle it was paramount that they gain the strong backing of popular opinion. He needed a top hat and a decent umbrella and went seeking inspiration in the decorous streets of London. It was twilight; Bogle wandered about until a moon the color of honey was duplicated in the rectangular water of the public fountains. God visited him. Bogle hailed a cab and had him drive to the apartment of Baigent, the antiques dealer. Baigent sent a long letter to The Times proclaiming that the supposed Tichborne was a shameless impostor. It was signed by Father Goudron of the Society of Jesus. Other, equally Papist denunciations ensued. The effect was immediate: the good people could not but guess that Sir Roger was the target of an abominable Jesuit plot.

The cab         

The trial lasted one hundred ninety days. About a hundred witnesses pledged on their faith that the accused was Tichborne, among them four companions-in-arms from the 6th regiment of the dragoons. His partisans did not stop repeating that he was not an impostor, and if he had been, he had made sure to be a copy of the childhood portraits of his model. Moreover, Lady Tichborne had recognized him and it was clear that a mother could not be mistaken. Everything was going well, or more or less well, until an old flame of Orton's appeared before the tribunal to testify. Bogle did not display a flicker of emotion at this treacherous manoeuvre on the part of the "relatives"; he took an umbrella, hailed a cab again, and went off to plead for a third illumination in the decorous streets of London. We will never know whether he found it: shortly before arriving at Primrose Hill, he was met by that terrible vehicle which had been pursuing him all those years. Bogle saw it coming, let out a scream, but did not manage to save himself. He was violently hurled against the stones; the nag's traffic-driven hooves cracked open his skull.         

The specter

Tom Castro was the ghost of Tichborne, if a poor ghost inhabited by the genius of Bogle. When they informed him that Bogle was dead, he was crushed. He continued to lie, but with little enthusiasm and ludicrous contradictions. It was easy to foresee the end.  

On February 27, 1874, Arthur Orton, alias Tom Castro, was sentenced to fourteen years of hard labor. He made himself well-liked in jail; such was his purpose. His exemplary behavior took four years off his sentence. When its hospitality – that of the prison – finally let him go, he passed through the hamlets and centers of the United Kingdom, giving small talks in which he declared his innocence or affirmed his guilt. His modesty and desire to please were so engrained that, on many evenings, he would begin by defending himself and conclude with a confession, ever at the whims of the public.  

He died on April 2, 1898.


* I employ this metaphor to remind the reader that these infamous biographies appeared in the Saturday supplement of the evening paper.

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