'The Wind blows out; the Bubble dies;
The Spring entombed in Autumn lies;
The Dew dries up; the Star is shot;
The Flight is past; and Man forgot.'
Thomas Charles Druce, a dealer in second hand furniture at the Baker Street Bazaar, died of heart failure at the age of 71 and was laid to rest in the family vault in Highgate Cemetery in 1864.
Thirty two years later, Anna Maria Druce; the widow of Druce's son Walter, astounded the rest of the family with an extravagant claim. Her father-in-law's coffin in Highgate was empty she insisted, containing nothing more than lead weights. Furthermore, she avowed that Thomas Charles Druce had never really existed. His persona she said, had been created by William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott, 5th Duke of Portland, a noted recluse of great wealth and eccentricity
The 5th Duke's inherited fortune had enabled him to indulge his curious idiosyncrasies and fuelled his aversion to physical contact with other people. Visitors were banned from Welbeck Abbey; the family seat in Nottinghamshire, and servants were ordered to ignore him on penalty of instant dismissal. He in turn conveyed messages to them through letter boxes in the doors to his rooms. Even the Duke's physician was barred entry and diagnosed any ailment from outside the door.
Under Bentinck-Scott's supervision, the Abbey was systematically stripped of its furniture and treasures, leaving it largely unused, and each empty room painted pink. A lavatory basin was then installed in the centre of each garish chamber. At the same time, hundreds of workmen were employed with the excavation of an underground home beneath the house. Fifteen miles of tunnels were dug which housed libraries; a billiard room large enough for twelve full size tables and an enormous subterranean ballroom large enough to take two thousand dancers - all of which remained unused. When in London, the Duke always travelled in a closed carriage; maintained a shuttered box at the Opera and kept the curtains permanently drawn at the windows of his substantial town house in Cavendish Square.
Anna Maria claimed that the 5th Duke had tired of this self enforced seclusion and invented an alter ego in the shape of Thomas Druce who enable him to experience the simple life of a tradesman. Anna Maria further claimed that a tunnel had been dug from the house in Cavendish Square to Druce's furniture shop at the bazaar, which enabled the Duke to swap personality whenever he pleased without discovery. Her son G.H. Druce continued with her allegations after Anna Maria's death and gathered evidence towards the case, making a claim on the Duke's estate in 1907. The matter came to trial in the same year and the presiding Judge decided there was only one way to settle the case, and ordered an immediate exhumation.
Did the coffin contain a corpse or was it filled with lead as alleged? Did Druce exist or was he merely the 'Mr. Hyde' to William John Cavendish-Scott, the fifth duke of Portland's "Dr. Jekyll"?
The conundrum is solved in Episode V of The Sexton's Tales.
'THE DUKE & THE DEALER'.