Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Caraboo

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681385Devonshire Characters and Strange Events — CarabooSabine Baring-Gould


ON Thursday evening, 3 April, 1817, the overseer of the parish of Almondsbury, in Gloucestershire, called at Knole Park, the residence of Samuel Worall, Esq., to inform him that a young female had entered a cottage in the village, and had made signs to express her desire to sleep there; but not understanding her language, the good folk of the cottage communicated with the overseer, and he, as perplexed as the cottagers, went for counsel to the magistrate. Mr. Worall ordered that she should be brought to Knole, and presently the overseer returned with a slim damsel, dressed poorly but quaintly, with a sort of turban about her head, not precisely beautiful, but with very intelligent speaking eyes.

Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Worall could make heads or tails of what she said. He had a Greek valet who knew or could recognize most of the languages spoken in the Levant, but he also was at fault; he could not catch a single word of her speech that was familiar to him. By signs she was questioned as to whether she had any papers, and she produced from her pocket a bad sixpence and a few halfpence. Under her arm she carried a small bundle containing some necessaries, and a piece of soap wound up in a bit of linen. Her dress consisted of a black stuff gown with a muslin frill round her neck, a black cotton shawl twisted about her head, and a red and black shawl thrown over her shoulders, leather shoes, and black worsted stockings.

The general impression produced from her person and manners was favourable. Her head was small, her eyes black, hair also black; the forehead was low, nose short, in complexion a brunette. The cheeks were faintly tinged with red. The mouth was rather wide, teeth pearly white, lips large and full, the underlip slightly projecting. The chin small and round. Her height was 5 ft. 2 in. Her hands were clean and small and well cared for. Obviously they had not been accustomed to labour. She wore no ear-rings, but the marks of having worn them remained. Her age appeared to be twenty-five.

After consultation, it was thought advisable to send her to the village inn; and as Mrs. Worall was interested in her, she sent her own maid and the footman to attend the stranger to the public-house, it being late in the evening, and to request the landlady to give her a private room and a comfortable bed.

The young woman seemed to be greatly fatigued and walked with difficulty. When shown the room in which she was to sleep, she prepared to lie down on the mat upon the floor; whereupon the landlady put her own little girl into the bed, so as to explain its purport to her guest. The stranger then undressed and went to bed.

Next morning Mrs. Worall went to the inn at seven o'clock and found her sitting dejectedly by the fire. The clergyman of the parish had brought some books of travel and illustrated geographies to show her, so that she might give some clue as to whence she came. She manifested pleasure at the pictures of China and the Chinese.



Mrs. Worall now took her to Knole, where by signs, pointing to herself and uttering the word Caraboo, she explained to her hostess that this was her name. At dinner she declined all animal food, and took nothing to drink but water, showing marked disgust at beer, cyder, and meat.

Next day she was conveyed to Bristol and examined before the mayor and magistrates, but nothing was made out concerning her, and she was consigned to St. Peter's Hospital for Vagrants.

There she remained till the ensuing Monday—three days—refusing food of every description. On that day Mrs. Worall went into Bristol and visited her at the hospital. The friendless situation of the foreign lady had in the interim become public, and several gentlemen had called upon her, bringing with them foreigners of their acquaintance, in the hope of discovering who she was. Caraboo expressed lively delight at seeing Mrs. Worall again, and that lady, deeply touched, removed her from the hospital to the office of Mr. Worall, in Bristol, where she remained for ten days under the care of the housekeeper.

Daily efforts were made to discover her language and country, but without effect. At last a Portuguese of the name of Manuel Eynesso, who happened to be in Bristol, had an interview, and he professed that he was able to interpret what she said. The tale he revealed was that she was a person of consequence in her own country, and had been decoyed from an island in the East Indies, brought to England against her wishes, and then deserted. He further added that her language was not a pure dialect, but was a mixture of several tongues spoken in Sumatra. On this Mrs. Worall removed Caraboo to Knole, and from 3 April to 6 June her hostess, the whole family, and the domestics treated her with the utmost consideration and regard.

Among the visitors at Knole was a gentleman who had made many voyages in the East Indies, and he took a lively interest in the girl, and conversed with her, partly by word of mouth and partly—when at fault for words—by signs.

It must have been an interesting sight, the travelled gentleman interrogating Caraboo and taking notes of her reply, with an admiring circle around of the family and visitors, wondering at his linguistic acquirements and facility of speech in Oriental tongues. This traveller committed to writing the following particulars obtained from Caraboo.

She was daughter of a person of high rank, of Chinese origin, by a Mandin, or Malay woman, who was killed in war between the Boogoos (cannibals) and the Mandins (Malays). Whilst walking in her garden at Javasu attended by three sammen (women), she was seized by pirates commanded by a man named Cheeming, bound hand and foot, her mouth covered, and carried off. She herself in her struggles wounded two of Chee-ming's men with her creese; one of these died, the other recovered by the assistance of justee (surgeon). After eleven days she was sold to the captain of a brig called the Tappa-Boo. A month later she arrived at a port, presumably Batavia, remained there two days, and then started for England, which was reached in eleven weeks. In consequence of ill-usage by the crew, she made her escape to shore. She had had a dress of silk embroidered and interwoven with gold, but she had been induced to exchange this with a woman in a cottage whose doors were painted green, but the situation of which she could not describe. The garments she now wore were those she had received from the cottager.

After wandering over the country for six weeks, she had arrived at Almondsbury. She spoke of her mother's teeth as artificially blackened (i.e. by chewing betelnut); her face and arms were painted, and she wore a jewel in her nose, and a gold chain from it was attached to her left temple. Her father had three more wives, and he was usually borne upon the shoulders of macra-toos (common men) in a palanquin.

She described the dress she wore at home. Seven peacock's feathers adorned the right side of her cap or turban. Upon being furnished with calico, she made herself a dress in the style she had been accustomed to. It was short in the skirt, the sleeves wide and long enough to reach to the ground. A broad embroidered band passed round her waist, and the fringe of the skirt, of the sleeves and the bosom, was embroidered. She wore no stockings, and was furnished with sandals of Roman fashion. She sometimes twisted her hair and rolled it up at the top of her head and fastened it with a skewer.

During the ten weeks she resided at Knole and in Bristol, she was never heard to pronounce a word or syllable that at all resembled a European tongue. Mrs. Worall's housekeeper, who slept with her, never heard on any occasion any other language, any tone of voice other than those she had employed when she first entered the house.

She was equally constant in her choice of food, and showed great nicety as to her diet. She dressed everything herself, preferring rice to anything else, did not care for bread, rejected meat, and drank only water or tea. She refused a pigeon, which she called a rampue that had been dressed by the cook; but when given a bird that was alive, she pulled off the head, poured the blood into the earth and covered it up, then cooked the bird herself and ate it. This was the only animal food she could be induced to touch, except fish, which she treated in the same manner.

On every Tuesday she fasted rigidly, on which day she contrived to ascend to the roof of the house, frequently at the imminent peril of her life. Ablutions she was particularly fond of; she regularly knelt by the pond in Knole Park and washed her face and hands in it.

After three weeks' residence at Knole, she was one morning missing. But she returned in the evening with a bundle of clothes, her shoes and hands dirty. Then she fell seriously ill.

On Saturday, 6 June, she again took flight. She had not taken with her a pin or needle or ribbon but what had been given to her. She bent her way to Bath, and on the following Sunday, Mrs. Worall received information of the place to which her protégée had flown. She determined to reclaim her, and started for Bath, which she reached on Sunday afternoon.

Here she found the Princess of Javasu, as she was called, at the pinnacle of her glory, in the drawingroom of a lady of the haut ton, one fair lady kneeling at her feet and taking her hand, and another imploring to be allowed the honour of a kiss.

Dr. Wilkinson, of Bath, was completely bewildered when he visited her, and wrote to the Bath Chronicle a glowing account of Caraboo, in full belief that she was all she pretended to be. "Nothing has yet transpired to authorize the slightest suspicion of Caraboo, nor has such ever been entertained except by those whose souls feel not the spirit of benevolence, and wish to convert into ridicule that amiable disposition in others."

Dr. Wilkinson resolved on going to London to consult the Foreign Office, and to obtain funds for the present relief of the Princess, and her restoration to her native land.

Mrs. Worall left Bath, taking Caraboo with her. But the wide circulation of the story led to her detection.

On the following Monday, a Mrs. Neale called on a Mr. Mortimer, and urged him to go to Knole and tell Mrs. Worall that she knew the girl very well, for she had lodged in her house in the suburbs of Bristol. At the same time a youth arrived from Westbury, a wheel-wright's son, who had met her upon her first expedition to Almondsbury, and remembered seeing her at a public-house by the roadside, where a gentleman, feeling compassion for her weariness, had taken her in and treated her to beefsteak and hot rum and water.

Mrs. Worall was much disconcerted, but wisely said nothing to her guest of what she had heard, and took Caraboo next day in her carriage to Bristol under the plea that she was going to have Mr. Bird, the artist, complete the portrait of the princess on which he was engaged, and desired a final sitting. But instead of driving to Mr. Bird's studio, the princess was conveyed to the house of Mr. Mortimer, where she was shown into a room by herself, whilst Mrs. Worall had an interview with Mrs. Neale elsewhere. This lady was attended by her daughter, and their story both surprised and confounded the kind magistrate's wife. After a protracted discussion, she returned to Caraboo, and told her plainly that she was convinced that she was an impostor. When Caraboo heard that Mrs. Neale had denounced her, she burst into tears and her fortitude gave way. She made a few feeble attempts to keep up the deception, but finally made a full confession.

Her name was Mary Baker. She was born at Witheridge in Devonshire in 1791, and had received no education, being of a wild disposition and impatient of study. At the age of eight she was employed spinning wool during the winter, and in summer she drove her father's horses, weeded the corn, etc. At the age of sixteen her father and mother procured a situation for her at a farmhouse with a Mr. Moon, at Brushford, near Witheridge. She remained there two years as nurse and general help, but left because paid only tenpence a week, and she demanded that her wage should be raised to a shilling, which Mr. Moon refused.

Her father and mother were highly incensed at her leaving, and treated her so ill that she ran away from home and went to Exeter, where she knew no one, but had a written character from her former mistress. She was engaged by a shoemaker named Brooke at the wage of £8 per annum. But she remained in this situation only two months. She spent her wage on fine clothes, especially a white gown, and went home in it. Her father was angry at seeing her dressed in white like a lady, and peremptorily ordered her to take the gown off. She refused and left, returned to Exeter, and went about begging. She wandered to Taunton and thence to Bristol, begging from house to house. From Bristol she made her way to London, where she fell ill with fever, and was taken into St. Giles's Hospital. There she enlisted the pity and sympathy of a dissenting preacher, who, when she was well enough to leave, recommended her to a Mrs. Matthews, 1 Clapham Road Place, and with her she tarried for three years. Mrs. Matthews was very kind to her, and taught her to read; but she was a strict woman, and of the straitest sect of Calvinists. One day Mary heard that there was to be a Jews' wedding in the synagogue near by, and she asked leave to be allowed to witness it. Her mistress refused, but Mary was resolved not to be debarred the spectacle, so she persuaded a servant in a neighbouring house to write a letter to Mrs. Matthews, as if from a friend of hers, to say that she was hourly expecting her confinement and was short of domestics: would Mrs. Matthews lend her the aid of Mary Baker for a while? Mrs. Matthews could not refuse the favour and sent Mary out of the house, and Mary went to the synagogue and saw what was to be seen there.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Matthews had sent to inquire how her dear friend was getting through with her troubles, and expressed a hope that Mary had been of assistance in the house. To her unbounded surprise, she learned that the good lady was not in particular trouble just then, and that she really did not comprehend what Mrs. Matthews meant about Mary's assistance. When Mary returned to the house, having seen the breaking of the goblet and heard some psalm singing, she found that a storm was lowering. Her mistress had sent for the dissenting minister to give it hot and strong to the naughty girl. To escape this harangue Mary ran away, wandered about the streets, and seeing a Magdalen Reformatory, applied at the door for admission. "What! so young and so depraved!" was the exclamation with which she was received. She was admitted and remained in the institution some time, and was confirmed by the Bishop of London. Then it was discovered that she had all along not been qualified for admission, and was expelled.

She then exchanged her female garments for a boy's suit at a Jew's pawnshop, and started to walk back to Devonshire, begging her way. On Salisbury Plain she fell in with highwaymen, who offered to take her into their company if she could fire a pistol. A pistol was put into her hand, but when she pulled the trigger and it was discharged, she screamed and threw the weapon down. Thereupon the highwaymen turned her off, as a white-livered poltroon unfit for their service. She made her way back to Witheridge to her father, and then went into service at Crediton to a tanner, but left her place at the end of three months, unable further to endure the tedium. Then she passed through a succession of services, never staying in any situation longer than three months, and found her way back to London. There, according to her account, she married a foreign gentleman at a Roman Catholic chapel, where the priest officiated to tie the knot. She accompanied her husband to Brighton and thence to Dover, where he gave her the slip, and she had not seen him or heard from him since. She returned to London, was eventually confined, and placed her child in the Foundling Institution; then took a situation not far off and visited the child once a week till it died. After a while she again appeared at Witheridge, but her reception was so far from cordial that she left it and associated with gipsies, travelling about with them, telling fortunes.

It was now, according to her account, that the idea entered her head of playing the part of a distinguished stranger from the East, and when she quitted the gipsies, she assumed that part—with what success we have seen.

Mrs. Worall sent into Devon to ascertain what amount of truth was in this story. It turned out that her father was named Willcocks, and was a cobbler at Witheridge, and badly off. He confirmed Mary's tale as far as he knew it. She had had an illness when young, and had been odd, restless, and flighty ever since; especially in spring and autumn did she become

Drawn and Engraved by N. Branwhite

most impatient and uncontrollable. He denied that he had treated her cruelly, but he had taken the stick to her occasionally, as she was specially aggravating by throwing up every situation obtained for her after staying in it for but a short while.

Finally Mrs. Worall got her embarked on board a vessel, the Robert and Anne, at Bristol, Captain Richardson, under her mother's maiden name of Burgess, for the United States, in the hopes that she might be able to find a situation in Philadelphia.

The reason why she was entered in her mother's name was to prevent her from being overwhelmed by the visits and attentions of the curious. As it was, the Earl of Cork and the Marquess of Salisbury obtained interviews, got the girl to tell her story, speak her lingo, and doubtless did not leave without having put gold into her palm.

She was certainly a remarkable character, with astounding self-possession. Once or twice the housekeeper at Knole would rouse her by some startling cry or call when she was asleep, but even then she never passed out of her assumed character.

At Bath, the lady who had received her into her house proposed that a collection should be made to defray her expenses in returning home to Javasu. Bank-notes were thrown on the table, and some fell off on the floor. Caraboo looked on with stolid indifference. If she picked one up she replaced it on the table without glancing at the note to see how much it was worth; in fact, she acted as if she did not understand that bank-notes were other than valueless scraps of paper.

She was, moreover, insensible to flattery. A young gentleman seated himself by her one day and said, "I think that you are the loveliest creature I ever set eyes on!" She remained quite unmoved, not a flutter of colour was in her cheek.

The Greek valet mistrusted her at first, but after a while was completely won over to believe that she was a genuine Oriental princess. She was entirely free from vicious propensities beyond that of feigning to be what she was not. She never purloined anything; never showed any token of wantonness. Vanity and the love of hoaxing people were her prevailing passions; there was nothing worse behind.

So over the blue sea she passed to the West, and what became of her there, whether there she gulled the Americans into believing her to be an English countess or marchioness, is unknown.

Of one thing we may be pretty certain, that the gentleman who had visited the Far East, and who pretended to understand her language and thereby drew out her history, never again dared to show his face at Knole.

The authority for this story is: "A narrative of a Singular Imposition practiced ... by a young woman of the name of Mary Willcocks alias Baker, . . . alias Caraboo, Princess of Javasu." Published by Gutch, of Bristol, in 1817. This contains two portraits, one by E. Bird, R.A., the other a full-length sketch of her in her costume as a princess.