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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 83

The Delsarte Peerage

The Delsarte Peerage.

The most extraordinary case which has occurred in my experience as a solicitor is that of the Delsarte Peerage.

The Rev. Chas. Delsarte was a clergyman in the West of England. He was related to the noble family of Delsarte. His wife developed a strange and invincible fascination for the stage. She left her husband, and became an actress; a false glamour being given to her position by the use of her noble name with the prefix "Honourable Mrs.," to which she was not strictly entitled.

Forty years afterwards, when her meteor-like career had been forgotten, the peerage fell vacant, under circumstances which made it devolve on the descendants of her husband. Young Mr. Delsarte was summoned from New Zealand, and his claim, as grandson of the Rev. Chas. Delsarte, appeared to be satisfactorily established. It should be added that his grandfather had married again, after the death of the actress, and this grandson traced down from the second marriage.

We were acting as attorneys for the family, and imagined we had everything settled when we were startled by an unexpected difficulty. An opposition which we had despised sprung upon us—the statement that Mrs. Delsarte, the actress, had a son, born after she left her husband.

A matter like this must be cleared up positively and definitely ere we could get the House of Lords to receive young Mr. Delsarte as the Earl.

I ascertained, without a doubt, that Mrs. Delsarte had a son after leaving her husband. This took me to Edinburgh, where I spent the best part of a day rummaging the musty old playbills of the Theatre Royal, with regard to Mrs. Delsarte's appearances at a particular season. I found she played Juliet, Isabella, the Grecian Daughter, Belvidera, and other parts. A white satin bill, with blue letters and fringe, was preserved, announcing her benefit. What an exhumation!

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I discovered that she had been living under the protection of a wealthy gentleman named M'Pherson, after she left home. Was he alive?

A long and tedious course of inquiry showed that he was. He lived at Galbraith House, Ross-shire. I cannot describe the feelings with which I undertook the disagreeable task of going to interview that venerable gentleman. It must be done.

Behold me then, on a calm summer's night, seated in the drawingroom at Galbraith House. The servant has gone for Mr. M.'Pherson. I have leisure to contemplate the room, luxuriously furnished. It is warmly lighted by silver candelabra, on the circular table. There is an oil painting of a handsome, dark-haired young man, with side whiskers. Opposite hangs an enlarged photograph of the same man, aged, with silver white hair. Yes, it is the same—Mr. M'Pherson. On the table was a large gilt-bound Bible open, with a pair of spectacles upon the page. I glanced at the type, and just caught the words, "Remember not against me the sins of my youth," when the door creaked, and in walked the original of the portraits.

Never did I face a more unpleasant situation. I introduced myself to the mild, aged, and infirm man, whose eyes were peculiarly lustrous. He looked surprised, for, of course, I had sent my card. Evidently he had not the slightest notion of the business that brought me there.

I broached it with excusable nervousness and deprecation when we were both seated.

He bowed forward in his arm chair, and then looked up, resting his head on one hand. There was a painful silence for fully five minutes. He looked annoyed, and was on the point of making an angry exclamation, but became calm.

"This is not fair—not fair," he said.

I urged the desperate importance of the case. The Tichborne affair came into my mind, and I mentioned it as an instance of injustice which might be done.

"Yes," he said, "you are right."

Then, in calm, low tones, throughout that summer evening, he told me the whole history, and I listened as one entranced, for the circumstances were so strange. He had a son, and the mother was Mrs. Delsarte. He married another lady, and had a family, of whom three daughters survived. But he secretly maintained his natural son for fourteen years, without making known his relationship. Then he sent the boy to sea, and lost sight of him for ten years. All at once the young man appeared before him at Galbraith House, having tracked him out. The family happened to be away in Paris. His son, after a pitiful scene, generously left, and refused all pecuniary assistance. Since then he had never heard of him.

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Now I had to search out the son, which task gave me three months of anxious work. It looked a blank impossibility, and the volumes of Lloyd's register gave me infinitely more trouble than the playbills of the Edinburgh theatre. We tracked him at last, just for a glimpse of his life, under the name of James Forrester, and pieced him together with another sailor who in after years had been known as James Delsarte. The ramification of inquiries made by us at seaports can only be faintly imagined. The most experienced private detectives failed to solve the mystery as to whether Delsarte was alive or dead.

We kept a standing advertisement in the newspapers, and this at length brought the very man to our ofiice—a plain, honest, weather-worn sailor, middle-aged, and single. He had become quite a German in ways and language, and his blonde hair and beard made him look very Teutonic. A steamer to which he was attached—the Europa—chanced to make a voyage from Riga to London, with oats, and the captain showed him a copy of the London Daily Telegraph, saying it was odd that a person of his unusual name should be wanted.

The next scene of the drama is before a committee of the House of Lords. It afforded vivid contrasts. Delsarte attended, and likewise his aged father, but it was impossible to repair the bond of union between the pair, or indeed, I should say, to create it. The father had been cut to the heart with the exposure, a Nemesis tearing up the secrets of the grave. He was accompanied by his youngest and only unmarried daughter, who stared at Delsarte as if he were a magnet. The poor fellow was the image of his mother's portrait—a miniature which I gave him, and which he wore always, hung round his neck beneath the pilot coat. The genuine Delsarte, the claimant, was a decent young man, a sort of faint copy of the fine looking sailor, who was a model of physique, the other being decidedly puny.

The sailor was still the same simple, honest, straightforward creature, only anxious to get away to his ship, and he had some "flame" in Riga, Fraulein Martha Buffinschein, whose carte-de visite he confided to me in return for the miniature. She was indeed, a Madonna, very pale, with light golden hair, rather objectionably cropped over the forehead, and a yard of rope down the back, while her nose had a slight piquant up-tilt, and her lower lip came just invitingly over the upper, with a demure sort of kiss-me-quick pout. But then poor James told me he had not the ghost of a show.

Where on earth am I digressing to? We proved that James was born twenty-three months after the separation of the Rev. Mr. and Mrs. Delsarte. I don't know what ultimately became of him. The claimant got the peerage. James obstinately refused any reward.