THE IMPLAUSIBLE IMPOSTER
Presented as Pastiche
By Kristy Wilcox
Based on the story by Jorge Louis Borges
TOM CASTRO, THE IMPLAUSIBLE IMPOSTER
(in order of appearance)
An Army Doctor (retd)
A Consulting Detective
MR EBENEEZER BOGLE
A Negro of Free-Status
The Claimant of Sir Roger Tichborne’s name
LADY THERESA ARUNDELL TICHBORNE
The Sister-in-Law of Sir Roger
The Mother of Sir Roger
Scene opens on a living room, cosy and warm looking with an inviting fire to the right. A wing-backed armchair with a precarious pile of newspapers each side faces the front of the stage with a small sofa to its right, facing the fire. WATSON is sat on the sofa, reading through a pile of letters, whilst HOLMES sits at a card table towards the front of the stage, peering into a microscope and making notes on a scrap of paper. The whole layout takes up little more than half the stage, with the left side being in darkness.
WATSON: Now here’s an extraordinary one, Holmes (He angles the letter towards the light a little more)
HOLMES (without looking up from his microscope): You say that four and five times a day, dear boy. Everything is extraordinary to you.
WATSON: That’s only because there is no such thing as ordinary.
HOLMES (lifts his head and stares at a grinning WATSON for a long moment, before laughing himself): You have me there, Watson. Well done. Very well then, what does it say?
WATSON: It’s actually a companion piece to a letter which I opened yesterday. That one was from Lady Theresa Arundell Tichborne, asking for your help in disproving the identity of a certain Sir Roger Tichborne.
HOLMES (leans back, claps a hand over his forehead): Do not say, Watson, that this other letter is from a member of the party wishing to prove Tichborne’s identity?
WATSON: You know of the case?
HOLMES: How could I not? (waves a hand at the precarious stacks of newspaper which appear to support his wing-backed chair from both sides) Prodigal son returns after over a decade missing, manages to convince a grief-struck Lady Tichborne that he is her long lost child, in spite of being three times the size of the departed Roger Tichborne and unable to speak French, his mother’s tongue. (turns back to microscope) He’s got some bottle, I’ll allow.
WATSON: It’s unlike you to follow the more lurid cases.
HOLMES: It is exceedingly difficult to avoid this one. Every paper bears witness to the most expensive trial in history, the countless witnesses and ridiculous sums of money involved. Who is today’s missive from?
WATSON (reads from letter): A Mr Ebeneezer Bogle. And, whilst he isn’t ‘from these parts’, and that is a direct quote, he has heard of your somewhat miraculous success in assisting others with their cases.
HOLMES (looks a little mollified): What else has he heard then?
WATSON: I have no idea, old boy. He is merely asking if you could meet with him tomorrow afternoon if at all possible. There is a small set of tearooms a few minute’s brisk stroll from the courthouse and he will be waiting there at four, if convenient.
HOLMES: And if not convenient also, I shouldn’t wonder. And your opinion, Watson?
WATSON: I think he’s an imposter.
HOLMES: Well, we shall meet Mr Bogle tomorrow. (He suddenly jumps up and goes to the pile of papers next to his chair) I saw something on Friday about this… where is it? Ah-ha! Here. (He sits in the wing back chair with the unearthed newspaper and reads aloud) And it was noted that the Claimant himself spends a very great deal of time in consultation with Mr Ebeneezer Bogle, a Negro of free-status. Mr Bogle is an African, Watson. I cannot imagine the impertinences being done to his person in the current climate.
WATSON: We will discover that tomorrow, shall we not?
HOLMES: At least we won’t have to travel to Australia. (He looks most relieved)
Teashop interior to the left of the stage, table by the window set for afternoon tea. Not fancy but civilised. BOGLE is a tall, rangy black man of middle years. His clothes are neat and he appears oblivious of the café and clientele around him. When he speaks, his accent bears only the faintest trace of Australian. There are no other people on stage yet. HOLMES and WATSON enter from the left and cross to where BOGLE is sitting.
HOLMES: Mr Bogle, I presume. I’m Sherlock Holmes, and this is my friend, Dr Watson.
BOGLE: You came! (He gets to his feet with a beaming smile and holds out a hand to HOLMES) Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr Holmes, I have heard a very great deal about you.
HOLMES: Your name has been in the papers a time or two.
BOGLE turns and shakes WATSON’s hand too.
BOGLE: Dr Watson, it’s a pleasure. Please, take a seat and do not bear those vapid rags more than a passing thought.
HOLMES: How can we help you, Mr Bogle?
BOGLE: As you no doubt know, my dear friend Roger Tichborne is having his very identity questioned, right at this moment, and I would do anything to help him settle the question of his birth once and for all.
HOLMES: Yes, I saw that. There are a number of fascinating things about this case. (HOLMES looks up as a waitress appears at WATSON’s beckoning) Thank you, Watson. I will have tea, please.
WATSON (to waitress): He will also have a buttered scone, as shall I, but I would like coffee to drink please. Mr Bogle?
BOGLE: Just tea, thank you.
HOLMES: I thought Australians preferred coffee, in the American way.
BOGLE: It gives me the shakes. Tea with a little milk is what I grew up drinking. So, Mr Holmes. Your reputation precedes you, therefore I will not bore you with a recitation of events as you have no doubt gleaned most of it from the papers, yes?
HOLMES: I do not tend to trust the newspapers entirely. They leave so much out and are known for obfuscating the truth. Maybe you’d like to tell me how you met the man you call Roger Tichborne?
The stage lights dim and a single street light flickers on to the right. It stands on a kerb on a corner of a crossroads. The other side of the street is not seen. BOGLE stands and moves from the left side of the stage to stand under the lamp, leaving HOLMES and WATSON in being served tea and buttered scones in the darkened teashop.
BOGLE looks around nervously, checking each direction repeatedly. He takes a single step off the kerb, then jumps back and looks around again. From stage right comes CASTRO. He is much shorter than BOGLE, fat and white, with floppy brown hair and isn’t dressed particularly well. He pauses upon seeing BOGLE and watches for a moment. Then, with the air of someone about to bestow a great favour, he approaches.
CASTRO: Are you dancing?
BOGLE (startles): What?
CASTRO: That little hop and skip, back and forth. Looks like a dance to me.
BOGLE: I, uh. No. It’s just – this is a road.
(There is a pause as both men look up and down the empty street)
CASTRO: It is.
BOGLE: And I need to cross it.
CASTRO: Right. (nods slowly)
BOGLE nods as well.
CASTRO: Well, go on then.
BOGLE: I, um… Can’t. I might get run over.
CASTRO looks up and down the empty street again.
CASTRO: It’s clear from here to the harbour.
BOGLE: So you say, but it only takes one carriage.
CASTRO sighs and then loops his arm through a startled BOGLE’s
CASTRO: Come on. One step down, and over we go.
They reach the other side and BOGLE is almost comically relieved.
BOGLE: Thank you, my dear fellow. You are a gentleman.
CASTRO: I wouldn’t go that far. I’m a butcher, actually. (He holds out his hand) Tom Castro.
BOGLE: Ebeneezer Bogle, at your service. (He shakes the offered hand) I was actually on my way for a drop to drink. Would you care to join me?
Stage darkens as the gas lamp dims and goes out. BOGLE returns to the teashop and the lights come back up as he sits, revealing WATSON eating the last piece of his scone and licking the crumbs from his fingers.
WATSON: How gallant of him, to help you across the road.
BOGLE: I confess, Dr Watson, I know my demise will be at the hands – or rather the wheels – of a carriage, and I have known that all my life. But Sir Roger didn’t even blink when I told him. He simply helped me across the road and joined me for a small jug of ale. We have been fast friends ever since.
HOLMES: And this was how long ago?
BOGLE: Some nine or ten years.
HOLMES: A solid friendship then. (He glances at WATSON) Good friendships are hard to come by and all the more precious for it.
BOGLE: He is a good man. He may not be the brightest, but he has a good heart, a kind heart.
HOLMES: This I do not doubt. (Steeples fingers and thinks for a few moments) So the first thing we need to address is the factors which make the Tichborne family believe he is an impostor.
BOGLE: Of course.
HOLMES removes a small notebook from his pocket and flips open the page, much in the manner of a police constable. WATSON looks surprised, BOGLE looks approving.
HOLMES: First, we have the matter of – please excuse me, Mr Bogle, but I will refer to your unfortunate friend as the Claimant, as that is what the papers are calling him, because I cannot use the appellation Roger Tichborne until I myself am convinced of his identity. (He waits for BOGLE to nod) So, the matter of the Claimant’s inability to speak his birth language, French. How would you explain that?
BOGLE: During his journey from South America to Australia, Sir Roger was shipwrecked.
HOLMES: Yes, I know of the loss of the Mermaid, all hands presumed dead. (He flicks back and forth through the notebook).
BOGLE: I believe that Sir Roger spent too long in the water. Sometimes, his actions are a little slow, his thinking a little, well, subdued. (He pours the last of the tea into his cup) It is a terrible thing for a friend to say, but he isn’t as bright as he quite obviously once was. And even his current grasp of English is a little poor.
WATSON: Well, it is known that near drownings can indeed affect the mind. If the body is deprived of air for a period, it can cause some considerable damage to the brain.
HOLMES: Enough to forget one’s mother tongue?
WATSON: I have seen head injuries, in war time, so severe that the patient has forgotten how to even walk.
HOLMES: Good point, Watson, thank you. (He makes a note on the page) And you, Mr Bogle, how did it come about that you discovered the Claimant to be Sir Roger Tichborne? You were living in Sydney Australia, were you not?
BOGLE: That is correct, Mr Holmes. He was working as a butcher, a trade he fell into upon arrival after his rescuing. But he had some few small effects about his person – a pipe, for example, with the initials RCT engraved on it.
HOLMES: Interesting. (Holmes writes again in the notebook and WATSON appears to be struggling not to read over HOLMES’ shoulder) He could have received it as a gift.
BOGLE: Indeed, sir, he did. From his younger brother who died a few short years ago.
HOLMES: But he gave his name as Tom Castro. How did you then discover he wasn’t whom he claimed to be?
BOGLE: Sir Roger’s eyes aren’t the best, you see, and I adopted the habit of reading the newspaper to him most afternoons. We would work our way through the main articles, then have a quick look through the advertisements in the back. People put the strangest of notices in there.
HOLMES: So I believe.
The lights dim in the teashop again and rise on the other side of the stage to reveal a shabby room with basic furniture. CASTRO is in a threadbare easy chair and there is a newspaper spread out over the table, a chipped cup and saucer next to it and a softly glowing oil lamp. CASTRO is eating something out of a bowl, with no manners. BOGLE gets up, leaving Holmes and Watson in the darkened teashop and seats himself at the table, spreading the newspaper flat with careful hands)
BOGLE: Listen to this.
CASTRO: Is it funny?
BOGLE: I wouldn’t class it as funny, but I think you’re going to find it interesting.
CASTRO: Why’s that then?
BOGLE: Because it starts with the words ‘a handsome reward.’
CASTRO: I’m all ears. (He puts his bowl on the floor and focuses on BOGLE) Go on, what’s the reward for and what do we have to do to get it?
BOGLE is scanning the paper, murmuring under his breath, then he suddenly grins.
BOGLE: It is for information about Roger Charles Tichborne who went missing at sea, presumed landed in Melbourne, Australia in the spring of 1854.
CASTRO’s face falls and he looks down, as if avoiding BOGLE’s gaze.
CASTRO: Oh really.
BOGLE: Yes, really. Apparently he is the son of Sir James Tichborne and heir to all his estates.
CASTRO: That’s nice for him.
BOGLE: And that he was shipwrecked some eleven years ago. (He looks at CASTRO with narrowed eyes)
CASTRO: What a coincidence. (He belches)
BOGLE: It says here that anyone with information should attend The Missing Friends’ office, Bridge Street.
CASTRO: That’s assuming anyone has any information after so many years.
BOGLE: I wonder why he’s down here instead of living the life of Riley back home.
CASTRO: Maybe he’s hiding from something.
Stage darkens again as the oil lamp dims. BOGLE returns to the teashop and the lights come back up as he sits. HOLMES is studying his notebook and WATSON has given up all pretence of trying to be subtle and is openly reading over HOLMES’ shoulder.
HOLMES: So you think he was hiding from something? From what?
BOGLE: He is reticent to talk about it, as it concerns a curse which many people would scoff at. But when I eventually teased the truth from him, I went straight away to speak with Mr Cubitt of the Missing Friends’ office and, as the whole of England now knows, we ended up here. For a few brief years, Lady Tichborne and her son were reunited, but now she is gone, the rest of the family want to oust him from his rightful place.
Stage darkens, lights come up right to reveal the street set up at dusk, except the lamp is cleaner and brighter and there is a small child playing with hoop in the street. HOLMES and WATSON are strolling together and they pause at the kerbside.
WATSON: You don’t believe him, do you?
HOLMES: I am almost convinced that he believes himself.
WATSON: Honestly, Holmes? How could you know someone for ten years and not know one of the greatest parts of them?
HOLMES smiles and shakes his head, then loops his arm through WATSON’s.
HOLMES: The Tichborne curse actually exists, you know. It’s been around for about six hundred years, so it’s not entirely in the realms of fantasy that they would have heard of it in Australia. If the Claimant is using that as his excuse not to have returned, we are dealing with a rather clever individual.
WATSON: You’ve read the reports on the trial, Holmes, and clever is not the word I would use to describe him.
HOLMES: I didn’t mean Castro, dear boy. Now, let us see if Mrs Hudson has any supper for us. That scone whetted my appetite quite nicely.
The following day, back inside the cosy sitting room of HOLMES and WATSON. They are drinking tea by the fire, HOLMES in the chair, WATSON on the sofa. A doorbell sounds off stage. HOLMES glances at the clock on the mantelpiece.
HOLMES: Would you take a wager, old boy, on that being the author of the other letter we received earlier this week?
WATSON: No, because you probably sent her a telegram inviting her over. (Crosses his arms)
HOLMES: Less brandy for you before bed, Watson. Mornings appear to disagree terribly with you these days.
WATSON: Maybe if you kept the violin playing to a minimum during the wee small hours of the morning, I might be a little more convivial at breakfast.
HOLMES: I was thinking.
WATSON huffs, then there is a sharp rap stage left and an attractive woman of middle years walks on. She is well dressed in muted greys but not ostentatiously, and carries herself elegantly. Both men immediately stand up. HOLMES bows.
HOLMES: Good morning. Lady Tichborne, I presume?
THERESA: In theory, at least until this beastly mess is sorted one way or another. Mr Holmes?
HOLMES: At your service, madam. And this is my good friend Dr Watson.
WATSON: A pleasure. (He bows briefly and indicates the sofa) Please, take a seat. May I get you some tea?
THERESA: I am fine, thank you, Dr Watson. (She sits) Thank you for your telegram, Mr Holmes.
WATSON raises a pointed eyebrow at HOLMES who blithely ignores him.
HOLMES: You are most welcome. I am glad you were able call by at such short notice.
THERESA: This terrible business has kept us all in London for far longer than anyone could have ever anticipated. This makes a pleasant change from sitting in the gallery, watching the pantomime unfold.
HOLMES: Pantomime? Sure that is a touch harsh for the proceedings of a court of law?
THERESA: Have you been down there, Mr Holmes? It is nothing more than a room full of monkeys in powdered wigs. How anyone could ever imagine that corpulent oaf to be a Tichborne is comical. They all must have taken leave of their senses.
HOLMES: But didn’t Lady Tichborne herself recognise her own son? And if she was fooled, how are these mere men supposed to be able to tell the difference between brass and gold?
THERESA: My mother-in-law, Lord rest her, was quite elderly when this man turned up claiming to be her son. Add to that the fact we had lost my dear husband Alfred only a few months before the first letter arrived from Australia, and you can see how the poor woman would have been grasping at any straw available to believe that she still had one of her sons alive. She only lived three more years after that fateful meeting.
HOLMES: I see. Watson?
WATSON: You are the widow of Sir Alfred Tichborne?
THERESA: I am. My son, Henry, is the twelfth Baronet.
WATSON: And you see no physical similarity between the Claimant and your late husband?
THERESA: None whatsoever. Honestly, they couldn’t be more different if they’d tried.
WATSON: Did your husband resemble his father?
THERESA: I never met his father, as he died shortly before Alfred and I met, but by all accounts, they were very alike. There are paintings of the Baronets and there is a striking similarity between them all.
WATSON: Hmm. (He rises and paces to the window and back, obviously thinking hard). And has the family physician not examined him?
THERESA: He has.
Both HOLMES and WATSON wait for a moment for THERESA to elaborate, but she looks down at her hands instead.
HOLMES: Is there some… irregularity in the Claimant’s physique?
THERESA (with a heavy sigh): The physician says Castro has a very unusual birth defect that Sir Roger also shared, but aside from that, there is nothing else outstanding. And he is a new man who took over when the previous doctor retired. He never actually clapped eyes on Sir Roger Tichborne, so how could he possibly know just going from some scribbled notes in an old journal? (She throws up her hands in frustration) Forgive me my outburst, gentlemen, but this entire thing smacks of farce and blunder.
HOLMES: I would tend to agree with you, madam. However, maybe we should look at some facts first?
THERESA: I was told you were a methodical man, Mr Holmes (approvingly). What would you like to know?
HOLMES: When did you first meet the Claimant?
Stage lights dim on the right, and rise on the left, to reveal a very different sitting room, with a grand stone fireplace, a huge gilt framed painting of a previous Baronet above it. There are two or three elegant high backed chairs and a plush rug before the hearth. Seated in one chair is LADY TICHBORNE, a woman of advanced years who is dressed in muted colours, and in another is CASTRO, his bulk encased in fine clothes which strain at the seams and are spotted with food. Next to him sits BOGLE, as inscrutable and elegant as always. There is the sound of a door opening and closing with some force, and THERESA sweeps onto the stage.
THERESA: Mother Tichborne, how lovely to have you home. (She crosses the room and kisses LADY TICHBORNE on the cheek. She all but ignores the two men) I hope your journey was a pleasant one?
LADY TICHBORNE: It was as good as can be expected in January, my dear.
THERESA: I expect you’re glad to be home. Have you had breakfast yet?
LADY TICHBORNE: I have, yes. (She waves a hand towards the two men, a girlish smile on her face) I am so glad you are here, as I cannot wait a moment longer to introduce you to your brother-in-law.
THERESA looks sideways at them and she barely represses a shudder. BOGLE smiles almost shyly as CASTRO beams at her.
LADY TICHBORNE: Roger, mon amour, please, come here and greet your dear sister-in-law, Theresa, who I know is dying to meet you.
CASTRO heaves himself to his feet and crosses to stand before THERESA. He affects a clumsy half bow and holds out a hand.
CASTRO: Delighted to meet you.
THERESA takes his hand gingerly and gives it a brief shake.
CASTRO: I have to say this is a pleasure. (He beams at her) I’d like you to meet my dear friend Mr Ebeneezer Bogle.
THERESA visibly starts are being introduced in such a manner. She looks at BOGLE and manages to summon up a small smile.
THERESA: And are you also Australian, sir?
BOGLE steps forward and bows genteely. THERESA’s frosty demeanour noticeably softens at BOGLE’s polished manners.
BOGLE: Not by birth, madam, but I lived there some dozen years or so. (He steps to one side and indicated the sofa) Would you like to sit?
THERESA: Thank you, Mr Bogle. (She does so)
CASTRO: This is all jolly good. I was a happy man returning to my mother but to have gained a sister and a nephew too is icing on the cake, what?
BOGLE looks from CASTRO to THERESA’s pained expression, and smiles.
Stage lights dim on the left and rise on the right as THERESA returns to the sitting room. She sits back on the sofa and folds her hands in her lap.
HOLMES: And you were convinced from that moment that the man was a fake?
THERESA: Of course! He has no manners, no breeding, not a jot of French. His friend Mr Bogle appears to be of far better stock than my supposed brother-in-law, and Mr Bogle is an African!
HOLMES: Yes, we’ve met. Quite an interesting fellow, actually.
THERESA: Mr Bogle does most of that man’s talking for him and maintains that his mind was damaged in the shipwreck. I am not convinced there was a mind in there to begin with.
HOLMES and WATSON barely manage to conceal their smiles as the lights fade.
Lights rise partially on the left of the stage to reveal a gas lamp on a street corner. BOGLE stands there, peering into the darkness, umbrella over one arm, hat firmly on head, looking every inch a Victorian gentleman. He looks left and right, takes a step off the kerb and back up again, and looks around once more. Eventually, he takes a deep breath, steps off the kerb and walks into the darkness on the other side of the stage. At this point, there is a great clatter of horses’ hooves, the jingling of bits and harness and a rough voice cries a warning. A moment later, BOGLE screams. Then there is silence.
Two large wooden doors stand ajar at the top of a set of three stone steps, a column at either side. Above the door are carved words which read Court of Pleas. CASTRO stumbles out of them, eyes down and looking ineffably sad, propelled by two gentlemen dressed black capes and caps. They escort him down the steps none too gently and off stage, where we hear the sound of horses and a carriage. A few moments later HOLMES and WATSON step out from between the doors and pause at the top of the steps.
WATSON: I never expected it to come to a head that fast.
HOLMES: It was inevitable, Watson. Without his friend, Mr Castro was lost.
WATSON: I have to say, I have rarely seen a man so grief struck in public before. He may have been an imposter, but I really felt for the fellow when he got the news Bogle was dead. (He pats his pockets, finds his cigarette case and puts it back again. Before he can speak though, THERESA comes out and stops upon seeing them.)
THERESA: Dr Watson, Mr Holmes! Oh, such a wonderful result, isn’t it?
HOLMES: It is only what you expected.
THERESA: It is, it is. Quite the trump card to play, finding an old flame of that scoundrel’s. A butcher from Wapping! It would be quite ignominious if it weren’t so preposterous.
HOLMES: Quite. It seemed you were vouchsafed the ideal result after all. You will be returning to Hampshire then, Lady Tichborne?
THERESA: Just as soon as we can vacate our rooms, yes. I cannot wait to put the stench of London behind me, and lay the ghost of my poor, dear brother-in-law to rest.
WATSON: There is already talk of Castro filing an appeal, you know.
THERESA looks at him in horror and HOLMES has to hide a smirk.
THERESA: I will hear nothing of the sort, sir. Good day to you both.
THERESA flounces off down the steps and exits stage left. HOLMES and WATSON follow more slowly, descending the steps and pausing to the right. WATSON sighs.
WATSON: Fourteen years is quite a stretch for someone like Castro.
HOLMES: He will be fine, Watson, believe me. He is the type of ingratiating character who makes friends wherever he goes. I see him serving no more than two thirds of that sentence.
WATSON: I am inclined to believe you, I admit. You know who I feel most sorry for in all this though? Bogle.
HOLMES: And why is that, dear boy?
WATSON: I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. He was just a likeable fellow. We’ll never know if he really did believe Castro was Tichborne, but he was a good enough friend to the chap to convince everyone else that he believed in him.
HOLMES: He was a Calvinist.
WATSON: And what bearing does that have on the case?
HOLMES: Predestination, Watson. Bogle believed everything was already set out by God and, as such, everything he did was God’s work, so he could do nothing wrong, including those things that furthered the cause of the trial.
WATSON: That’s stretching the premise a little thin.
HOLMES: Well. Calvin was a lawyer, remember. He could make most things believable.
WATSON: And Bogle?
HOLMES smiles, gazing out over the audience.
HOLMES: I believe in Bogle there was a very great intellect, sorely underrated and therefore, under estimated. Had he survived? (He shrugs again, in a wistful manner) I wouldn’t have put money on the outcome being the same.
Word count: 2901