Magazine article The Spectator

How to Ruin a Good Story

Magazine article The Spectator

How to Ruin a Good Story

Article excerpt

THE DISAPPEARING DUKE by Tom Freeman-Keel and Andrew Crofts Seek Publishing, Craven Arms, Shropshire, Tel: 01588 673731, £9.99, pp. 311, ISBN 0952691221

Buried within the pages of this book there lies an extraordinary story worth the telling, the bald facts of which require none of the elaboration to which they are here subjected.

In 1896 a certain Anna Maria Druce, of 68 Baker Street in London, petitioned the home secretary to have her late husband's coffin opened, on the grounds that his funeral in 1864 had been a purposeful sham devoted to ceremonial disposal of an empty box. Mr Druce had not died at all; he had simply wanted to revert to his other identity as the 5th Duke of Portland, of Welbeck Abbey near Worksop. The duke had grown tired of leading a double life and needed to kill off 'Mr Druce', the alias he had assumed when running the Baker Street Bazaar, so that he could concentrate his formidable, if fanciful, energies on important construction work at Welbeck which required his continuous presence. Ergo, Mrs Druce was really a widowed duchess, and her son the rightful 6th Duke of Portland, heir to uncountable millions in cash.

The claim was not dismissed out of hand, because there were bizarre circumstances which lent it a degree of plausibility. Both Thomas Druce and His Grace of Portland were unusual men with a number of shared characteristics. They were each secretive and suspicious, desired anonymity and travelled in closed carriages with the blinds drawn, had a passion for building underground, suffered from a skin complaint which erupted in large warts on the nose, were antisocial, blunt, gruff, humourless, literal, and frightened of being greeted or acknowledged.

Nowadays one might spot signs of autism, but then such behaviour was attributed to no more than deranged eccentricity.

Indeed, the duke was well-known to fall just short of certifiable lunacy. He was entirely friendless, occupying a remote corner room in his vast palace with a letter-box in the door so that he need never be seen by anyone delivering mail. He ate one chicken a day, half at lunch and half at dinner, alone in his room. If he were ill, no medical man was allowed to feel the ducal pulse; he would shout his symptoms through the door, the doctor shouting his diagnosis back in reply.

Servants were instructed that, should perchance they encounter him walking in his park, they should pay no more attention than they would to a tree. When he travelled to London, nobody saw him leave or arrive, his carriage being loaded on to the train at Worksop with himself in it. There was, in truth, nobody in the country better placed to lead a double life, for there were few who could swear what he looked like. …

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