the place of crows
(A stage adaptation of The Implausible Impostor: Tom Castro, by J L Borges)
by Linda Nicklin
January 2015 The place of crows
by Linda Nicklin
Arthur Orton also known as Tom Castro and Roger Titchborne
Anthony Bogle. Closest friend and supporter of Arthur’s claim
John, friend and supporter of Arthur
1st man in black lawyer
2nd man in black news reporter
Guilford MP and supporter
Tom local landlord and fundraiser
Newspaper boy 1
Newspaper boy 2 THE PLACE OF CROWS
WOODLAND, MORNING 14th MARCH 1868
A man is standing in a wooded area. He leans against a tree trunk and looks up into the treetops. The light is dappled and moves so that it looks as if it is filtering through branches that are swaying in the wind. He speaks with an accent that is hard to place; it may be cockney or Australian and possibly have some South American tones. It is not an English upper class accent. There is a sound of crows. He sighs and looks at the audience
ARTHUR: (sadly) I am beset by crows. They haunt me (pauses). They have bedeviled me, my whole life
(The crow sound is louder and more menacing. He looks up again and shrinks into his coat)
ARTHUR: They have persecuted me from here, to the ends of the earth. (Pause) Aye and then back again. (Pause, thoughtfully) But I fear that they have done for me, this time.
He looks up into the treetops again. Off stage a loud gunshot is heard. The crows screech and there is a powerful sound of flapping wings as the crows move on. Seconds later there is an urgent call of hello off stage, Arthur moves off stage towards the voice.
THE INTERIOR OF A HOTEL ROOM, LATER 14th MARCH 1868
ARTHUR is hurriedly packing his clothes into a trunk placed at the foot of the bed. A second man JOHN is helping to take things out of the chest of drawers and places them on the bed ready for packing. The sky through the window is dark and promises a storm. Treetops can be seen moving to and fro through the window. JOHN is a small wiry man, bouncy with undirected energy.
ARTHUR: Dead you say? When did she die?
JOHN: The day before yesterday. We heard this morning
ARTHUR: That poor dear lady, she was a mother to me, an angel
JOHN: Quite so, but her children are not, and we must fly before they find you.
ARTHUR: Aye… (He rushes to put the last clothes in the trunk, then picks up a bag and puts the clothes on the bed into the bag) What time is it?
JOHN: Two, we really must go
(The sound of horses pulling up outside the hotel, people are shouting. There is the sound of hurried footsteps coming toward the room. There is a gentle knock on the bedroom door) Enter ANDREW BOGLE a first generation freed slave from Jamaica. He is tall, well built gentle man; he has a stately posture and has graying hair. ARTHUR and ANTHONY greet each other urgently but warmly.
ANDREW: (to Arthur) Hello my old friend. (Shaking hands with John) Hello John. We must be quick! They are downstairs. I saw them arrive as I was talking to the landlord. He is keen that you settle your accounts before you go.
(Arthur and John look at each other and then continue to fasten the cases)
ARTHUR: Of course (he picks up his bag and makes for the door) as soon as we are…
(The door bursts open and the tree tops can be seen to move in response through the window. Two men dressed in black burst into the room. The first man in is a lawyer and is serving court papers. The second is a news reporter from the Pall Mall Gazette, lead supporters of the case against Arthur. Andrew and John move to stand beside Arthur)
1st MAN IN BLACK: Arthur Orton, or Tom Castro I have here…
ARTHUR: (interrupts indignantly) You will address me as Sir… Sir Roger Titchborne
1st MAN IN BLACK: I have here court papers (he reads) On the sad and untimely demise of Lady Henriette, Dowager of Titchborne her descendants demand that you are to surrender all properties and claims against the estate and to cease your claim to be the heir, Roger Titchborne
ARTHUR: (interrupts) Never, never. I insist that I am Roger Titchborne, as recognised by my dear… (He corrects himself) dear, late mother. (More gently, he turns and enquires of his friends.) What kind of mother would spend years searching for a lost son, only to claim an impostor as her own, and harm her other children? Her heart knew that I was her lost son!
(His friends are moved by his words. To the increasingly irritated men in black, more sternly)
You are denigrating a mother whose love knew no bounds. Despite what she was told by others, she knew that I was still alive. (Preaching) I was her prodigal son. She never stopped loving me and when I returned to ask for her forgiveness and mercy, she took me in with open arms. (Calms down) Despite this, her children, my unchristian family, would rather see me beggared. Their jealousy will bankrupt us all!
1st MAN IN BLACK: but sir (holding out papers)
ARTHUR: (Arthur is on a roll) She searched the globe and found me in Australia sir, in the outback. I had fallen on hard times…
1st MAN IN BLACK: Ridiculous! That was Tom Castro
ARTHUR: It is a hard and desolate place, the kind of place where men change their names to hide from the world. It would have done me no good to be titled in Australia, in fact quite the opposite. I needed to be lost. Those other names that you mentioned were mine for a while, along with many others… I left them there, where they belonged.
I am sure that other men will have used of them after me. The truth is that I was and always have been Sir Roger Tichborne and I only ask for what’s rightly mine.
1st MAN IN BLACK: What you have sir, is a family in Wapping and a trail of debts that circle the world.
ARTHUR: (indignant) Not I!
ANDREW: (steps forward) I can vouch for him; I have known him since he was a young man.
2nd MAN IN BLACK: (draws a notepaper and pen out of his pocket and steps forward to speak to Andrew) I believe that you were a servant of the late sir Edward Doughty?
ANDREW: yes I was
2nd MAN IN BLACK: Is it right that the Tichborne estate stopped paying you an allowance?
ANDREW: They did, but…
2nd MAN IN BLACK: (notes it in his book, interrupts) and would you say that this is your revenge?
ANDREW: (with dignity) I would not!
2nd MAN IN BLACK: yet you support a man who is a butcher’s son in his attempt to steal the title from the rightful Titchborne heir?
ANDREW:I know this man to be Sir Roger Tichborne. I also know you to be married to a member of that same family. There is no surprise that your paper campaigns against him
1st MAN IN BLACK: (exasperated) Sir Roger is dead! He went down with the ship, called Bella. She sank on the way to Jamaica
ARTHUR: He did not. For I am standing here in front of you (angry) you are looking at him
1st MAN IN BLACK: (angrily) Sir Roger was slight and frail; you are two stone heavier than he
ARTHUR: I put on weight (with a flourish of the hand), people do.
1st MAN IN BLACK: He grew up in France, and so he spoke French. Do you?
ARTHUR: (English accent) mais oui. Understand, I lost many of my finer faculties and some memories during the horrors of being shipwrecked. I am lucky to be alive.
1st and 2nd men in black snort
2nd MAN IN BLACK: He had a tattoo (stepping forward)
ARTHUR: I don’t know anything about a tattoo. It is a trap! Gentlemen do not have tattoos; butchers sons and cabin boys do. I do not have one! Enough of this! (He snatches the paper from the 1st man in blacks hand) I am done with this… this posturing. I will win this game. No imposter would dare to take you on. I am taking you on because I am telling the truth. I claim the title. Now just watch me win!
(2nd man in black makes notes)
1st MAN IN BLACK: Just one more thing (he waits for attention from the others) The Titchborne family request that you stay away from the funeral. You are not to attend. Do you understand?
Distressed, Arthur collapses against his friends, they guide him to the bed.
ARTHUR: Oh god, that’s so cruel. Am I to be prevented from attending my own mother’s funeral? (Pause) The cruelty of my own family! I can’t believe that they would do this to me.
Andrew finds a cloth and fans Arthur’s face. John steps forward
JOHN: Enough, enough (he ushers them towards the door) you have done your worst now leave Sir Roger to grieve for his mother. Go! You will not pick at the bones of this man a moment longer. (They resist) Go! (Louder)
The two men in black are bundled out of the room. John closes the door and rests on it for a moment then turns to the others
JOHN: Arthur in gods name why did you take the letter!
THE HUSTINGS EVENING MARCH 1869
The trial has been underway for almost a year. Arthur is travelling the country to fundraising events to help to cover his court costs. This is a first floor hotel room with a balcony located through almost closed French windows at the back of the stage. The sky is dark but you can see the glow of streetlights in the square outside. The room is well furnished. Coats and hats are hung on a stand by a door at the side of the room and there is a black leather valise on the floor below the coats. The sound of Arthur speaking from the balcony and the roar of the crowd can be heard in the background. He is making a rabble-rousing speech to his supporters. John, Andrew and Guilford Onslow MP (a leading supporter) are sat listening to the speech in the comfort of the room. Andrew Bogle’s hair is whiter. There is a glass frame on the table with three stuffed crows mid-air jousting inside. There is a selection of newspapers by the chairs)
JOHN: He’s on good form tonight, Guilford
GUILFORD: Yes, he is. It’s a pity we couldn’t get more people into the hall this afternoon; (sound of cheering outside). We could have sold double the tickets if we had the space. We should get a good collection though.
JOHN: He has a way with them; he speaks to their hearts. They see the common man in him and he makes them believe that they are just as good as the rich man in his castle.
GUILFORD: Yes, like lady luck has smiled on them all (he gets up and helps himself to a glass of wine from a table)
ANDREW: He is their champion. (Joins GUILFORD at the table, pours a glass of wine) He is fighting the upper classes on behalf of the common man. His claim to be a Tichborne is shining a light on the conceit of the rich.
JOHN: Underneath the ermine, they are nothing!
GUILFORD: Ah but they are fighting back, defending their right to privilege. They believe that he and the working classes cannot be allowed to win. The recent Reform Act took the power to govern from the lords and gave it to the lower house. They are still smarting and now they’re after his blood.
ANDREW: Then they have bitten off more than they can chew!
JOHN: He doesn’t have to fight very hard. They make such fools of themselves without his help. (Picks up a newspaper) In court today, Bidulph said that he could point to several gentry who would not pass muster as English gentlemen.
ANDREW: (Returns to chair and picks up another newspaper) Yes, he said (reads) that he knew English gentlemen who were so illiterate in conversation that you would take them as pig trader.
The men laugh, Guilford gets up and pulls the balcony door further ajar; Arthur’s words can be heard more clearly
ARTHUR: The great lawyers of the land have tried (louder) and failed, to prove that I am not Roger Titchborne. (He emphasizes each phrase for effect) My own mother, members of my family, men that I served alongside in the army, my servants and many more have correctly identified me as Roger Titchborne.
Cheers from the crowd
Lawyers, the newspapers, the Jesuits, the judiciary, and most of all the upper classes have fought me both inside the law courts and out.
Boos from the crowd
They changed the law to make it harder for me to raise the money to fight them.
Boos from the crowd
They have slandered me, combed the globe for stories to discredit me.
Boos from the crowd
And when all else fails they make jokes about my girth… and you never see a fat lawyer do you…
Laughter from the crowd
I am here tonight to tell you, no, to thank you sincerely, for it is good honest, hardworking people like yourselves across the length and breadth of the country, that I have to thank with all of my heart. For without your generous donations, without your support and without your backing I would not be standing here…
Cheers from the crowd
ARTHUR: Now go, my friends and spread the word. And know that I Roger Titchborne will always be forever in your debt. Thank you.
(Loud applause and cheers. Arthur enters from the balcony, sees Guilford and nods to him. Andrew gets up and pours a drink for Arthur. Arthur shrugs off his coat and hangs it up, then takes the wine from Andrew. He is obviously energized by public speaking and needs to relax. He paces across the room and then sees the crows in the display box and is visibly shocked. Andrew takes his arm and moves him away from the crows)
ANDREW: (Gently) Come Arthur, they are just dead birds. We are a long way from Wagga Wagga. We are in England now, not the outback.
ARTHUR: (Quietly to Andrew) I know, but do you ever wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t stopped in that place of crows. If we had kept moving on? I should have stayed at sea. There are no crows there.
ANDREW: We chose to seek your fortune this way, now take a drink of your wine and take a few moments to calm down. Public speaking takes it out of you. I can feel you shaking.
Arthur takes a drink and then sits down with the other men. They smile and Arthur raises his glass to them.
ARTHUR: Ah good evening, Guilford. It’s good to see you. How was it in court today? What is the word in the papers?
GUILFORD: well as ever there is little talk of anything else. Even though they moved the hearing to a larger courtroom there is still such a battle for seats. I swear we could fill the Royal Albert Hall, gods and all. The court is quite the place to be seen.
JOHN: Yes, people complain of the newspapers talking of nothing else. Whilst at the same time they buy the very same papers so that they can debate the latest developments with friends. If they are not up to date with the latest twists and turns of events, then they are excluded from the conversation and quite out of date.
GUILFORD: There’s been nothing quite like it. There are rumours that the Titchborne estates are close to bankruptcy.
ANTHONY: It’s a monster, that’s for sure.
ARTHUR: Thank god for my supporters. Despite the gossip, the rumour mongering and the lies in the papers, they still turn out to support me. They dig deep and subscribe to our fighting fund with their hard earned money. They are remarkable and I am forever in their debt.
JOHN: They come out to support you in defiance of what’s in the papers, Arthur. They love you, for how you fight the fight.
ANTHONY: The way you stand your ground and argue for your name
ARTHUR: (wearily) Yes Anthony, but how much longer can it go on? It’s almost a year now. They have combed Australia and South America for witnesses, grilled everyone I ever knew and many more that I never met. What more can they throw at me?
GUILFORD: But your name? Isn’t it worth it?
ARTHUR: Ah what’s in a name, my friend? If I were a woman I would change my name and people would celebrate. If I were a young woman in trouble I would move on, call myself married and take the married title and people would assume I was a respectable widow. If I were fleeing persecution from a foreign land I would change my name to hide, and modify it to fit in to my new country.
ANTHONY: You would indeed. Many of our royalty have a family name and a different title. In truth the queen does not call herself Saxe-Coburg even though that was Prince Albert’s surname.
ARTHUR: And at the other end of the scale people who want to leave their past behind, to muddy the water of past crimes, simply change their name.
Arthur stands up and paces the room, still animated; the seated men glance at each other
ANTHONY: Abroad, men will hide inside another man’s name. Even though they may never have met him they will borrow it. Because you can sin in another man’s name and get away with it. You can destroy his character, his good reputation or even his life from inside the protection of his name. And then, when you have no further use for it, you can just slough it off and steal another.
Arthur picks up a newspaper and glances at the headlines, then throws it down on the pile of old newspapers.
ARTHUR: And in more (said with sarcasm) civilised places, (pause) you can get away with anything if you have a name with privilege attached, or enough money to not need to care about your reputation. You can devastate a country like Ireland, destroyed by famine. You can feed on poverty and degradation, while you picnic in your park. You can buy justice…
GUILFORD: Careful, careful Arthur
ARTHUR: and if you go too far, they simply send you off, to build a life in the new worlds of the Americas or some such far off place, until the fuss has died down.
ANTHONY: For the upper class it means power and influence over generations, or even over centuries. (Pauses) For the middle classes it is like sand cupped in your hand, ever in danger of slipping between your fingers. Good reputation and disgrace, in an ever-turning sand timer
JOHN: And for the working class it is a label that pins you down. Forever know your place, poor man. It is your prison cell. Expect no more. Never dare to hope.
GUILFORD: (recites from memory)
How comes it that ye toil and sweat
And bear the oppressor’s rod
For cruel man who dare to change
The equal laws of God?
How come that man with tyrant heart
Is caused to rule another,
To rob, oppress and, leech-like, suck
The life’s blood of a brother?
The three men applaud him, and cheer. The sombre mood is broken and they walk over to take another class of wine from the table. There is knock at the door and a man TOM walks in. He is one of the local public house landlords. He is the organiser of the local claimant supporters group and has been collecting donations. He carries a bag of coins and has an evening newspaper under his arm. He places the money on the table and the newspaper over one of the chair arms. Arthur leaves the group and goes over to shake his hand.
ARTHUR: Hello, Tom. Thank you so much. We had an excellent turn out, didn’t we?
TOM: Yes, sir, we had a good night. They travelled in from all the neighbouring towns and villages to see you.
ARTHUR: And I hope that they stop off for a drink before they travel home again.
TOM: Me too
ARTHUR: So how much did I raise today?
(Tom looks at him for a moment)
After your expenses are deducted off course
TOM: I have counted one hundred and fifty pounds six shilling and eleven pence into the bag. A good nights work
ARTHUR: Thank you Tom, one of our best nights. Now will you stay for a drink?
TOM shakes his head and moves towards the door
TOM: No Thank you sir. I mean to do good business of my own tonight
Exit Tom. The four men look at the bag of money approvingly. John takes in and puts it in the bag by the door.
GUILFORD: (holding up his glass) cheers everyone. Here’s to better days
The others hold up glasses
ALL: To better days
They turn and start to wander towards the balcony. There is a loud bang as the door is thrown open. The coat stand is knocked over. Hats roll across the floor. A PORTERand four men in black coats and hats burst into the room. Two are POLICE OFFICERS in uniform and capes, one is a LAWYER, who is there to make sure that the arrest is made correctly and the fourth is the previous NEWS REPORTER. There is much flapping of capes and hats. The hotel porter follows close behind, looking flustered. Arthur and the three men by the window spin around in shock and alarm.
ARTHUR: What the devil?
PORTER: I’m sorry sir; I had to show them up to
1st POLICE OFFICER: (Interrupts loudly) Arthur Orton, also known as Tom Castro I am arresting you
ARTHUR: I am Sir Roger Titchb…
LAWYER: (interrupts loudly) Indeed you are not! Arrest him! (Shouts at police officers) Arrest him at once
Porter slips out of the room.
Reporter takes notes of the conversation and wanders around the room noting details like the wine glasses. He uses his pencil to lift some of the newspapers on the floor to see the title and tutts in disapproval. He taps his pencil on the newest paper that was placed on the chair arm by Tom the publican
ARTHUR: I am Sir Roger…
LAWYER: your claim was denied in court this afternoon
ARTHUR: but why did?
LAWYER: Judge Bovil stopped the hearing and has demanded that you be arrested for perjury. (Shouts at police officer) do it man!
GUILFORD: Good Lord. On no account say anything
The two police officers step forward, grab hold of Arthur and try to bundle him out of the room. He walks out with dignity. The lawyer follows close behind. The reporter stays for a moment, noting down the expressions of the remaining three men then walks out calmly.
John and Guilford burst into action grab their coats, hats and bags and rush out of the room. Andrew stands for a moment, visibly upset. He picks up the evening newspaper sees the headlines and drops back into a chair
ANDREW: (Quietly) Oh Arthur
Outside the horse and carriage can be heard pulling away, the sound of the hoof prints morphs into the sound of flapping bird wings.
IN A COURT WAITING ROOM
Anthony and Andrew are waiting for another day of the perjury trial to begin. The trial has been running for almost a year and it is in the final stages. The judge has been summing up for a number of days. It is clear to both men that the end of the trial is almost here. Anthony has aged. There is a table and two chairs, but they have pulled the chairs to the front of the table so that they can be closer. There is a high window and people can be heard walking on the street outside. Arthur is bigger in size and is hot. He is putting on a brave face for Anthony.
ARTHUR: don’t worry old friend we’ve been through bigger scrapes than this
ANTHONY: (leans forward, he is having trouble with the hearing in his left ear) Sorry, Arthur, I don’t mean to seem worried
ARTHUR: Try not to, it doesn’t help. We’ve fought a magnificent fight. Kenealy has been our champion, a lion of a man, and he couldn’t have done better.
ANTHONY: No he couldn’t, but I fear that he is roaring in the face of a thousand years of English history.
ANDREW: I know, the English lord’s vision is fixed on five hundred years in the past and five hundred years to come (he gestures side to side to indicate the length of history)
ANTHONY: And the eyes of the poor are fixed on the next meal
ARTHUR: (sadly) and so many don’t even make that.
ANTHONY: We have challenged that thousand years of comfort, plenty, power and entitlement, (he nods to emphasise words) and all the layers of privilege dispensed beneath them.
ARTHUR: We shone a light on it, Anthony. They scuttled away like centipedes seeking darkness under a rock that they thought was the sky. We proved them to be as greedy, feckless and stupid.
ANTHONY: With just the profound belief in their own superiority to distinguish them from the rest of us
ARTHUR: They have twisted the rules, broken the countries flimsy scraps of trust in them, lost respect and become a laughing stock
ANTHONY: Yes they are a laughing stock, but a powerful one. I fear that their revenge will be like a tornado. They will pluck you up and tear you limb from limb
ARTHUR: Fear not my dearest… longest… friend (he reaches over and touches his arm thoughtfully) I do believe that under all the storm and lightning there is nothing
ANTHONY: Are you to live in the eye of the storm Arthur, while the rest of us watch from the edges, praying that you are still alive?
ARTHUR: I think it may be so. We have started a movement, a political one. It challenges everything that they stand for… Oh I know we didn’t mean to, but here we are none the less. (He stands up and looks at the window for a moment and then turns round to speak to Anthony) and it matters not a jot who I really am.
ANTHONY: I know (sadly)
ARTHUR: This is no longer about who I am, Arthur Orton, Tom Castro or Roger Titchborne. I am the man who dared to challenge them.
ANTHONY: and they are using their power and influence now. I can feel it, here in my bones (he hugs himself) and they will break us.
ARTHUR: I think that we shall know my fate soon enough, let’s not dwell…
ANTHONY: (interrupts) I dreamed last night that I saw you stepping through the prison gates, and I was not there to greet you. You we’re alone, Arthur
ARTHUR: did I step out as Arthur or Sir Roger?
The door opens and an usher speaks to Arthur
USHER: Mr Keneely needs you sir
Arthur and Anthony stand, they shake hands then after a seconds pause embrace. Arthur slaps Anthony on the back heartily and then stops and rests his palm on Anthony’s back for a moment
ARTHUR: Don’t worry Anthony our journey is not over
ANTHONY: (quietly) May you live long Arthur, long and well…
Arthur leaves the room with the usher and after a moment Anthony leaves too.
ANTHONY’S DRAWING ROOM
Anthony’s drawing room, it is sparely furnished and not well lit. He is sat in an armchair there is a stack of newspapers by his side. There is a window and half glass door with sky light above, shafts of light are streaming in through the windows and casting bars onto the floor. He is quietly waiting for something. He is still; as if he is holding his breathe. Outside a newspaper boy can be heard shouting
NEWSPAPER BOY: Pall Mall Gazette! Pall Mall Gazette! Shocking end to the Titchborne trials! Claimant jailed for 14 years! Get your newspaper here…
2nd NEWSPAPER BOY: Kenealy struck off by the law society. Get your paper here…
Anthony, gasps in shock, gets up, picks up his coat and rushes out of the door. His shadow passes the window. There is a sound of horses. Arthur shouts in alarm above the sound of an accident. A horse and carriage have knocked him down. Horses scream. People shout in alarm, over the shouts of the crowd and unseen voice is heard.
UNSEEN MAN: Cover him with something, for god’s sake. The man is dead. Move on, please!
Shadows of people clustered together walk past the window. The light flickers and the sounds of their heels become the sound of flapping wings.