XXXIX

The Princess Cariboo; or, The Queen Of The Isles.

Bristol was, in 1812, the second commercial city of Great Britain, having in particular an extensive East India trade. Among its inhabitants were merchants, reckoned remarkably shrewd, and many of them very wealthy; and quite a number of aristocratic families, who were looked up to with the abject toad-eating kind of civility that follows “the nobility.” On the whole, Bristol was a very fashionable, rich, cultivated, and intelligent place⁠—considering.

One fine evening in the winter of 1812⁠–⁠13, the White Lion hotel, a leading inn at Bristol, was thrown into a wonderful flutter by the announcement that a very beautiful and fabulously wealthy lady, the Princess Cariboo, had just arrived by ship from an oriental port. Her agent, a swarthy and wizened little Asiatic, who spoke imperfect English, gave this information, and ordered the most sumptuous suite of rooms in the house. Of course, there was great activity in all manner of preparations; and the mysterious character of this lovely but highborn stranger caused a wonderful flutter of excitement, which grew and grew until the fair stranger at length deigned to arrive. She came at about ten o’clock, in great state, and with two or three coaches packed with servants and luggage⁠—the former of singularly dingy complexion and fantastic vestments, and the latter of the most curious forms and material imaginable. The eager anticipations of hosts and guests alike were not only fully justified but even exceeded by the rare beauty of the unknown, the oriental style and magnificence of her attire and that of her attendants, and the enormous bulk of her baggage⁠—a circumstance that has no less weight at an English inn than anywhere else. The stranger, too, was most liberal with her fees to the servants, which were always in gold.

It was quickly discovered that her ladyship spoke not one word of English, and even her agent⁠—a dark, wild, queer little fellow⁠—got along with it but indifferently, preferring all his requests in very “broken China” indeed. The landlord thought it a splendid opportunity to create a long bill, and got up rooms and a dinner in flaring style, with wax candles, a mob of waiters, ringing of bells, and immense ceremony. But the lady, like a real princess, while well enough pleased and very gracious, took all this as a matter of course, and preferred her own cook, a flat-faced, pug-nosed, yellow-breeched and almond-eyed Oriental, with a pigtail dangling from his scalp, which was shaved clean, excepting at the back of the head. This gentleman ran about in the kitchen-yard with queer little brass utensils, wherein he concocted sundry diabolical preparations⁠—as they seemed to the English servants to be⁠—of herbs, rice, curry powder, etc., etc., for the repast of his mistress. For the next three or four days, the White Lion was in a state bordering upon frenzy, at the singular deportment of the “Princess” and her numerous attendants. The former arrayed herself in the most astonishing combinations of apparel that had ever been seen by the good gossips of Bristol, and the latter indulged in gymnastic antics and vocal chantings that almost deafened the neighborhood. There was a peculiar nasal ballad in which they were fond of indulging, that commenced about midnight and kept up until well nigh morning, that drove the neighbors almost beside themselves. It sounded like a concert by a committee of infuriated cats, and wound up with protracted whining notes, commencing in a whimper, and then with a sudden jerk, bursting into a loud, monotonous howl. Yet, withal, these attendants, who slept on mats, in the rooms adjacent to that of their mistress, and fed upon the preparations of her own cuisine, were, in the main, very civil and inoffensive, and seemed to look upon the Princess with the utmost awe. The “agent,” or “secretary,” or “prime-minister,” or whatever he might be called, was very mysterious as to the objects, purposes, history, and antecedents of her Highness, and the quidnuncs were in despair until, one morning, the Bristol Mirror, then a leading paper, came out with a flaring announcement, expressing the pleasure it felt in acquainting the public with the fact, that a very eminent and interesting foreign personage had arrived from her home in the remotest East to proffer His Majesty, George III, the unobstructed commerce and friendship of her realm, which was as remarkable for its untold wealth as for its marvelous beauty. The lady was described as a befitting representative of the loveliness and opulence of this new Golconda and Ophir in one, since her matchless wealth and munificence were approached only by her ravishing personal charms. The other papers took up the topic, and were even more extravagant. Felix Farley’s Journal gave a long narrative of her wanderings and extraordinary adventures in the uttermost East, as gleaned, of course, from her garrulous agent. The island of her chief residence was described as being of vast extent and fertility, immensely rich and populous, and possessing many rare and beautiful arts unknown to the nations of Europe. The princess had become desperately enamored of a certain young Englishman of high rank, who had been shipwrecked on her coast, but had afterward escaped, and as she learned, safely reached a port in China, and thence departed for Europe. The Princess had hereupon set out upon her journeyings over the world in search of him. In order to facilitate her enterprise, and softened by the deep affection she felt for the son of Albion, she had determined to break through the usages of her country, and form an alliance with that of her beloved.

Such were the statements everywhere put in circulation; and when the Longbows of the place got full hold of it, Gulliver, Peter Wilkins, and Sinbad the Sailor were completely eclipsed. Diamonds as big as hen’s eggs, and pearls the size of hazelnuts, were said to be the commonest buttons and ornaments the Princess wore, and her silks and shawls were set beyond all price.

The announcement of this romantic and mysterious history, this boundless wealth, this interesting mission from majesty to majesty in person and the reality which everyone could see of so much grace and beauty, supplied all that was wanting to set the upper-tendom of the place in a blaze. It was hardly etiquette for a royal visitor to receive much company before having been presented at Court; but as this princely lady came from a point so far outside of the pale of Christendom, and all its formalities, it was deemed not out of place, to show her befitting attentions; and the ice once broken, there was no arresting the flood. The aristocracy of Bristol vied with each other in seeing who should be first and most extravagant in their demonstrations. The street in front of the “White Lion” was day after day blocked up, with elegant equipages, and her reception-rooms thronged with “fair women and brave men.” Milliners and mantuamakers pressed upon the lovely and mysterious Princess Cariboo the most exquisite hats, dresses, and laces, just to acquaint her with the fashionable style and solicit her distinguished patronage; dry-goodsmen sent her rare patterns of their costliest and richest stuffs, perfumers their most exquisite toilet-cases, filled with odors sweet; jewellers, their most superb sets of gems; and florists and visitors nearly suffocated her with the scarcest and most delicate exotics. Pictures, sketches, and engravings, oil-paintings, and portraits on ivory of her rapturous admirers, poured in from all sides, and her own fine form and features were reproduced by a score of artists. Daily she was fêted, and nightly serenaded, until the Princess Cariboo became the furore of the United Kingdom. Magnificent entertainments were given her in private mansions; and at length, to cap the climax, Mr. Worrall, the Recorder of Bristol, managed, by his influence, to bring about for her a grand municipal reception in the town-hall, and people from far and near thronged to it in thousands.

In the meantime the papers were gravely trying to make out whether the Cariboo country meant some remote portion of Japan, or the Island of Borneo, or some comparatively unfamiliar archipelago in the remotest East, and the Mirror was publishing type expressly cut for the purpose of representing the characters of the language in which the Princess spoke and wrote. They were certainly very uncouth, and pretended sages, who knew very well that there was no one to contradict them, declared that they were “ancient Coptic!”

Upon reading the sequel of the story, one is irresistibly reminded of the ancient Roman inscription discovered by one of Dickens’ characters, which some irreverent rogue subsequently declared to be nothing more nor less than “Bil Stumps His Mark.”

All this went on for about a fortnight, until the whole town and a good deal of the surrounding country had made complete fools of themselves, and only the “naughty little boys” in the streets held out against the prevailing mania, probably because they were not admitted to the sport. Their salutations took the form of an inharmonious thoroughfare-ballad, the chorus of which terminated with:

“Boo! hoo! hoo!
And who’s the Princess Cariboo?”

yelled out at the top of their voices.

At length one day, the luggage of her Highness was embarked upon a small vessel to be taken round by water to London, while she announced, through her “agent,” her intention to reach the capital by post-coaching.

Of course, the most superb traveling-carriages and teams were placed at her disposal; but, courteously declining all these offers, she set out in the nighttime with a hired establishment, attended by her retinue.

Days and weeks rolled on, and yet no announcement came of the arrival of her Highness at London or at any of the intervening cities after the first two or three towns eastward of Bristol. Inquiry began to be made, and, after long and patient but unavailing search, it became apparent to diverse and sundry dignitaries in the old town that somebody had been very particularly “sold.”

The landlord at the “White Lion” who had accepted the agent’s order for £1,000 on a Calcutta firm in London; poor Mr. Worrall, who had been Master of Ceremonies at the town hall affair, and had spent large sums of money; and the tradespeople and others who sent their finest goods, all felt that they had “heard something drop.” The Princess Cariboo had disappeared as mysteriously as she came.

For years, the people of Bristol were unmercifully ridiculed throughout the entire Kingdom on account of this affair, and burlesque songs and plays immortalized its incidents for successive seasons.

One of these insisted that the Princess was no other than an actress of more notoriety than note, humbly born in the immediate vicinity of the old city, where she practiced this gigantic hoax, and that she had been assisted in it by a set of dissolute young noblemen and actors, who furnished the money she had spent, got up the oriental dresses, published the fibs, and fomented the excitement. At all events, the net profit to her and her confederates in the affair must have been some £10,000.

Within a few months, and since the first publication of the above paragraphs, the English newspapers have recorded the death of the “Princess Cariboo,” who it appears afterward married in her own rank in life and spent a considerable number of years of usefulness in the leech trade⁠—an occupation not without a metaphorical likeness to her early and more ambitious exploit.