VENTRILOQUISM was so little known in England in the earlier half of the last century that when Valentine Vox, a decent Suffolk youth, acquired the art for the sole purpose of amusing himself, he caused many mysterious disturbances in his native town. Some houses got the reputation of being haunted, others were searched for burglars or murderers who existed only in Valentine’s imagination; a marriage ceremony was interrupted because “I forbid the banns!” was heard somewhere in the church, though the person who pronounced the words was never discovered; and an important political meeting was by voices unknown turned into a wildly riotous demonstration which had to be suppressed by the military.
Valentine’s mother learned enough about her son’s pranks to fear the penalties which would result should the authorities learn the name of the mischief-maker; so she consulted her Uncle John, to whom Valentine made an honest confession, with so many practical illustrations of his powers that the old man almost laughed himself into apoplexy. Nevertheless, the boy would not be safe in a village so small and leisurely that everybody had time and inclination to be a spy on everybody else who might be suspected of anything; so the old man sent Valentine up to London to an old and wealthy bachelor friend, Mr. Grimwood Goodman, who would be sure to take good care of him.
Valentine went to London by coach; and on the way he practised his mysterious art so skilfully and continuously that he set many of his fellow-passengers by the ears and reduced the driver, a veteran whip, so near to imbecility that the coach reached the city many hours behind time. Mr. Goodman, who had been awaiting Valentine’s arrival, was so excited by the delay and had a countenance so kind and trustworthy that Valentine made a confidant of him and detailed many of the incidents with which he had enlivened the journey. Goodman, who had little to do but amuse himself, was so delighted that he begged for more mischief of the same kind, and that at once; so Valentine soon created a great variety of amusing disorders in the inn at which the coach stopped; the waiter was driven wild by orders that came from every part of the coffee-room at once, and enraged the patrons by serving foods and drinks that had not been ordered; rogues exchanged rude language in the chimney, directly over the glowing fire, and when broomsticks and pistols did not eject them, the police were called in only to set themselves and everybody else by le ears while Good-man and Valentine stole gently away.
Goodman, who was a merry-hearted .tan without an ounce of guile in him, began to cast about in is mini for pastures new where greater antics might be played by his new acquaintance’s art; after some pondering he suggested that his guest and he should make an early visit to the House of Commons; and Valentine, although not entirely destitute of the Briton’s inborn awe of the power that makes his country’s laws, was yet as reckless and willing as any other irrepressible boy. ‘The result was a day of excitement such as the Commons had not known since Cromwell’s Roundheads had dissolved it by force of arms; every member who rose to speak was interrupted with remarks which were disowned by the persons to whom they were traced; the Speaker himself was flouted; the air was filled with shouts, catcalls, trombone toots, jew’s-harp solos and other unparliamentary noises, until Mr. Goodman was only saved from death by ecstatic hysteria through an adjournment of the House.
The old gentleman’s delight in his new friend was so evident that it became the cause of his undoing. His heirs apparent, who were his brother Walter and his nephew Horace, grew jealous of Valentine; for they believed that their relative would probably leave his fortune to the youth who had so quickly been adopted into his affection. One day Goodman failed to keep an engagement he had made for a trip to Gravesend; Valentine was unable to find him, although he sought him for days; the Goodman relatives declared themselves ignorant of his whereabouts or of any reason why he should have disappeared, except perhaps that of late years he had sometimes been a little queer and flighty. They also professed a high regard for Valentine, who was escorted about London by young Horace Goodman, apparently with the hope that he too might get into trouble and disappear; but Valentine was too clean of heart to care for the dissipations to which Horace introduced him; so he found diversion in practising ventriloquism behind the scenes at the theaters and in other popular resorts to which Horace led him.
The disappearance of Mr. Goodman was not Valentine’s only cause for perperxity and regret. Soon after coming to London he had save. from drowning an old and apparently wealthy man, with his daughter, a girl whose eyes seemed to Valentine like are and whose face was as exquisitely sensitive as it was beautiful. Father and daughter were grateful in the extreme and begged that their rescuer would call on them; but in the excitement caused by the incident Valentine somehow lost the card given him by the father, and could not recall the name or address. Yet the girl’s countenance and its charming expression remained so distinct in his memory that his longing to ,see her again grew more earnest day by day. He was too healthy and of too active a temperament to fall into moroseness, and too decent to seek forgetfulness in the excesses to which London invited young men; so almost his only relief came from practising ventriloquism in places where people might be most startled. At the British Museum he made some staid persons very sure that they had been addressed by the stone bust of Memnon; others were so positive that an excited Irishman was shouting for help from the coffin of an Egyptian mummy that several of the Museum’s attendants forced up the lid and discoverednothing. He dazed a lecturer on phrenology, as well as the lecturer’s audience, by eliciting spirited remonstrances from a skull which had been displayed as that of a murderer; he turned an Equal Rights meeting into a pandemonium by projecting disturbing voices into all parts of the house; and in like manner he shamed into silence and dispersal an enthusiastic conference of the Anti-Legal-Marriage Association. He was similarly active and mystifying at the Victualers’ Fancy Fair, a masquerade at Vauxhall, and a noted exhibition of waxworks.
Meanwhile his suspicion that Mr. Goodman’s relatives knew of that gentleman’s whereabouts ripened into conviction; and he finally succeeded in getting from one of them the admission that his poor old friend had been committed to an asylum, under the legal formalities in vogue at the time, as an insane person. Valentine imparted this information to his Uncle John, who hastened to London, intent on securing Goodman’s release.
Almost at the same time, through an odd chain of incidents which in themselves were ordinary, the young man recovered the card of the man whom, with his daughter, he had saved from drowning. Hurrying to the house he found the girl, Miss Louise Raven, as charming as his memory and fancy had painted her. Her gratitude and that of her father were even more effusive than on the day of the accident; their hospitality was as great as their wealth, which seemed almost boundless. Valentine soon fell in love and quickly learned that his sentiment was reciprocated.
But his new attachment did not lessen the earnestness of his search for his friend, who within a few days was happily found, sane, in company with a Mr. Whitely, equally sane, yet held, like Mr. Goodman, in an imprisonment shamefully vile and brutal. In the course of an attempt at rescue instituted by Valentine, Mr. Whitely escaped, accompanied Valentine and his uncle to London and gave such information regarding the asylum methods that the manager released Goodman to avert serious trouble from himself.
Ordinarily this successful result would have put an end to all mysteries in the affair; but in this case it was the cause of more. It was impossible that the several acquaintances of Valentine and his uncle should not meet one another, sooner or later; for the young man’s love-making had progressed so well that Louise had been persuaded to name the wedding-day, and Mr. Raven had settled a large sum of money on the couple and provided a handsome home for them. Whitely, like Good-man, had been committed to the asylum by fraud and force, although with careful regard for legal requirements; his enemy was a man who had beguiled his wife away from him and also taken his children; his fortune, too, had been made way with, apparently by the same villain. After fifteen years of confinement, liberty was dear to Whitely for its own sake; but it was far dearer because it gave him the hope that he might now find his son and daughter; his wife, whom he loved in spite of her fault, he could only hope was dead.
Raven was not a gentleman; his wealth was due to his business ability as a pawnbroker, whose principal customers were of the spendthrift aristocratic class; but Valentine and his uncle accepted him for what he undoubtedly wasa man having a sincere and unbounded gratitude to Valentine, and a loving, reverent parent to Louise. One day Raven accidentally came face to face with Whitely, and was at once recognized by him as the man who had robbed him of wife, children, fortune and liberty. No plea in palliation was possible; Raven was compelled to admit the enormity of his villainy; Valentine now understood, for the first time, why Raven had once exacted from him a promise that, despite anything that might occur at any future time, he would remain true to Louise. He did not need to be reminded of this promise, for nothing could lessen his loving regard for the girl; but Louise herself, who had learned for the first time of the blot on Raven’s character, was so unhappy as to desire that the wedding might be postponed indefinitelya desire against which Valentine protested.
Whitely attempted legal action against Raven, but time and death had apparently removed all the necessary witnesses. Raven offered restitution, so far as it could be expressed in money, but Whitely spurned all offers that were not accompanied by the assurance that his children should be restored to him. Raven professed entire ignorance of the children and their whereabouts; their mother had died soon after leaving her rightful husband; what disposition she had made of her little ones he did not know.
One day an insolent yet pampered man-servant of Raven’s disappeared; and on the same day Raven acted as if every cloud had been lifted from his own sky. But the man suddenly reappeared and disdosed that Raven not only knew all about Whitely’s children, but had brought them up as his own; the boy had been reared in Wales and taught to regard his sister as a cousin, while the girl was no other than Valentine’s affianced bride, Louise!
These revelations, naturally, did not prevent the marriage of Valentine and Louise on the day appointed or their happiness afterward. Mr. Goodman died prematurely, his health having been undermined by brutal treatment in the asylum; he heaped coals of fire on the head of his inhuman brother by making him his sole heir; but this brother, whose uneasy con-science had already enfeebled his mind, quickly dissipated the money in speculation and then committed suicide. Raven died soon after the wedding; his crimes could not be forgotten by anyone who knew of them, yet he was remembered with the respect due to even a villain who has cherished steadfastly one honest, unselfish, noble affection, like Raven’s love for Louise.
Valentine cared no longer for such diversions as the practise of ventriloquism could offer, yet he was compelled to exercise his amusing gift from time to time; for Louise thought it the most wonderful and fascinating accomplishment of the most wonderful and fascinating man in the world.