The Ventriloquist (1868)

Compiled by Steven Connor as part of The Dumbstruck Archive, a continuing, online supplement to Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

About this time there came to our school a little boy, whose parents having very lately settled in the village, we knew nothing of, except that it was whispered that one of the maid-servants had told in the neighbourhood, that he had been sent away from three other schools. He appeared, how-ever, very quiet and good-humoured, and in regard to his lessons was attentive, and succeeded as well as any of us, so that nobody attended to the unfavourable reports of his former life, and all went on peaceably for some time. But at length our school-master began to be highly displeased at certain practical jokes, of which he could by no means discover the author, though his suspicions rested chiefly between two new-comers.

One day the housemaid complained that her broom had been thrown out of the window; another, that the handle had been daubed with pitch. Pack-threads were tied to the knocker of the door, and the servants were disturbed by constant rapping from an invisible hand, when the master was out. The footboy was on the point of going into the church one Sunday with a paper tail pinned to his coat ; and next morning the old fat cook came into the school-room, with a bitter complaint of having the night before plumped down upon an egg, which was in the very middle of her bed. This piece of news produced such an universal fit of laughter amongst the boys, as put poor old Betty into a sad rage, and drew on us a severe rebuke from our master, who assured the cook that if she could point out the culprit, he should be made an example of immediately, as well as all his accomplices; and in saying this he looked round at us with one of his severest glances, and 1 was shocked to find that his eye rested for a moment on me, probably because I had been one of the loudest laughers at Betty's disaster.

Some days passed without any further disturbances of this nature, but on Saturday morning, the same old woman, on going down to the kitchen, found the cat with her three kittens lying very comfortably in her best cap, which had been put in place of the basket, in which she herself had settled them the day before. At this sight her anger knew no bounds, and she vowed vengeance against us all; but by the time she reached the school-room door, recollecting the mirth that had been that had been occasioned by the adventure of the egg, and fearing lest the present misfortune should produce a similar effect, she called the schoolmaster into the passage, and there related to him her new mortification, declaring that she must leave the house, where she had passed sixteen years, if this continued.

The master on his return questioned and cross-questioned us all, but no one appeared guilty; and though he showed strong suspicions of the boy last arrived, yet as his answers were as clear as the others, he could not accuse him particularly. After this fruitless examination he again renewed his threats, and recommended that whoever had adopted this species of diversion should change it for another, as he or they must sooner or later be discovered.

The next morning as soon as we met our good old friend, he cried out, "So, my lads, I find you have got a witty gentleman amongst you; but whoever he is, I can tell him he may one of these days repent of his tricks, like the Ventriloquist at Marseilles." We all pressed round the old man, entreating that he would tell us who this was, and what happened to him; to which he replied, that it was exactly what he intended to do that very day; and asked if any of us knew what a ventriloquist was? We looked at each other, not well understanding the question, and he continued: "I perceive that none of you have ever heard of a ventriloquist, which is a man who possesses the power of throwing his voice to a distant part. For example, if I was a ventriloquist, I could make my voice appear to come out of the mouth of puss, so that you would think puss told stories instead of me. I have in my travels seen more than one person who posssessed this faculty, which always occasions much surprise at first, and is generally exhibited at fairs, or such places, for money." Daniel smiled at seeing our looks of astonishment, and continued as follows:

The ventriloquist I have mentioned to you was travelling in the south of France when I was there, and being a comical fellow, amused himself very much with the inhabitants of the villages where he stopped. At a town near Marseilles, where he remained some weeks, he played a number of tricks on rich and poor. I cannot recollect half the stories I heard of him, but I will tell you what I do remember.

One day as he was walking in one of the streets, .he saw a funeral procession pass, and joining the crowd, he determined to try the effects of his art on this occasion: so getting as near the coffin as he could, in a moment of silence, the men who carried it heard a melancholy voice cry out, 'I am not dead!-pray, don't bury me - I am not dead!' They immediately stopped, and set down the corpse. All the priests gathered round, and those who carried the coffin told what had happened. While they were hesitating what to do, the voice was heard again: 'Pray, open the coffin- I am not dead - indeed I am not!' The relations of the deceased then proceeded in great haste to open the coffin and a young brother of his showed extreme joy on the occasion; but when it was opened their disappointment was excessive, as it was evident to all the by-standers that the man was really dead..

The coffin was closed up and the procession went forward (the ventriloquist going with the rest), till. at length they reached the church, when the voice was heard louder and stronger than before, crying out:

'Why will you bury me, when I am not dead ? Call a physician, and he will prove to you that I am not dead.' The coffin was again opened, and the young brother ran for a physician.

Happening to pass by at this moment, I inquired what was the matter, and (never having before met with one of these ventriloquists) I was completely imposed on by appearances, and the anxiety of the young brother made me take such an interest in the affair, that I waited to see the result of the doctor's examination. He found the coffin open. And on the first glance of the body, declared it was impossible to make any mistake on the subject as there was not the slightest room for doubt. This, however did not satisfy the affectionate youth, who insisted on a stricter examination, in which the physician satisfied him, and then inquiring into the particulars of this strange story he guessed what was the cause of the disturbance, and declaring it as his opinion that there was a ventriloquist in the crowd, explained the meaning of that word, to the great astonishment of his hearers. The coffin was now closed up, the poor young man silently looking on, with his lately flushed cheeks now as pale as the corpse itself, and the burial went forward without farther interruption, nobody suspecting who had been the cause of all this trouble. But if the ventriloquist had been a good-natured man, the consequences of this day's diversion would have been a severe punishment to him, and would have cured him of ever giving pain to others again; for the unfortunate young man whose hopes had been raised and depressed so suddenly, was taken ill with a nervous fever next day, and after languishing a few weeks, was at length buried by the side of the brother he had loved so well.

A short time after this, as the ventriloquist was taking a walk in tile country, he passed by a farm-house, where he saw hanging up at the door a large pig which had been killed the day before. It immediately occurred to him that this might afford him some amusement; so going into the house he complained of being much fatigued, and asked leave to sit down and rest himself. There was no one at home but an old woman, who received him very civilly, offered him some fruit, and said he was welcome to stay there as long as he pleased.

While he was considering how he should terrify her by a specimen of his art, a man came in, who announced himself as the butcher that had been sent by her sons to buy the pig, and said that they would follow him in half an hour; that in the mean time he would examine the quality of the meat, so as to conclude the bargain as soon as they arrived, for that he was in a great hurry, and had brought money with him to pay, if they agreed about the price.

The old woman seemed much pleased at this news, and throwing by her distaff, went with him to the place where the pig was hanging up, the mischievous ventriloquist taking care to accompany them. The butcher, after examining the pig with great attention, seemed to be very well pleased with it, and asked how long it had been killed; to which (after a moment's consideration) the old woman replied, 'About sixteen hours;' but the words were scarcely out of her mouth, when the pig said, , Don't believe her - I was not killed at all - I died of the measles! ' Both the butcher and the old woman started back with terror, but she was so anxious to sell her pig, that she soon recovered from her surprise, and went to look behind the door, to see if anyone was hid there, saying that she knew some one of her neighbours was joking with her.

'At any rate; said she, 'you see what they say is not true, for the pig is as fine a pig as ever was killed: The butcher agreed in what she said, but desired to have the pig laid on the table, that he might examine it further, and see how much he could offer for it; and while they were busy removing the object of their attention, the ventriloquist returned to his seat by the table, and appeared very busy removing his hat and gloves to make room for it. The pig being settled on the table to their satisfaction, and the butcher seeing nothing to diminish his good opinion, they began to talk about the price, and after some bargaining, at length agreed on the sum to be paid, if the weight. proved to be what the old woman asserted. But the pig then said in a distinct voice, 'Don't pay that sum - I am not worth half so much, for my inside is good for nothing!' - You may imagine how terrified they both were, for the words evidently came from the mouth of the pig, and there was no place near it for anyone to hide in. The poor old woman burst into tears, and said that certainly her pig was bewitched; and the butcher said that if he was obliged to shut up his shop, he would buy no meat that talked: and so saying he walked out of the house, accompanied by the ventriloquist, who pretended to be much alarmed also.

In this manner he went about tormenting the country people, and often doing serious mischief, without being discovered. But he avoided playing any more tricks in the city, where the affair of the funeral had made a great noise; until one day having occasion to go about his passport to the police-office, where a great many people were assembled, he could not withstand the temptation of diverting himself a little at their expense.

Round the room where they attended were long boxes at the height of benches, which served both to keep papers in, and to sit upon. These were all occupied before he came in, and several persons were obliged to stand as well as he, so that he was not observed in the crowd, and getting close to one of these benches, two persons who were sitting near him heard a voice under them saying, ' Pray stand up and let me out - I have been here these two hours, and I am almost suffocated.' They jumped up immediately, and attempted to raise the cover of the bench, but it was locked; and the chief of the police (who had the key in his pocket) was much surprised at seeing two persons who were strangers to him endeavouring to force open his box. However, on being informed of the circumstance, he consented to gratify their curiosity, which was much disappointed at finding nothing within, but a parcel of yellow parchments, and an old leather cap.

The ventriloquist had by this time removed to another part of the room, nearer to the desk of the men in office, and the crowd being now much diminished, he expected to be dismissed in a few minutes. But he could not refrain from giving another specimen of his art before his departure, especially as he intended to stay only three days longer in that city.

All of a sudden, in a moment of profound silence, a voice was heard to cry out, 'You opened the wrong chest - I am here; pray let me out directly, or you will have my death to answer for!' - This time the words were heard by many, and among others, by two of the clerks, who immediately informed their chief what was said.

The chief declared that the last time he had opened that chest it was filled with books, and that it was so long ago, he really did not know the key: however, he gave a large bunch to one of his assistants, and desired him to try them all.

While this was doing, the voice continued to exclaim, 'Oh! do make haste, or I shall never get out alive!' and the tone grew fainter and fainter.

The whole room was in such confusion, that nobody had time to reflect on the matter, when after trying four or five rusty keys, they at last came to one which with some difficulty unlocked the chest; and great was the astonishment of those who crowded round, to find it so filled with musty papers, and old account books, that a mouse could scarcely have found room to lodge in it.

Some of the company now expressed a suspicion of the truth, and a traveller of distinction, who was waiting to have his passport signed, mentioned having once met with a person who exhibited this curious talent for money, expressing at the same time a great desire to converse with a person who possessed such an extraordinary power.

The ventriloquist feeling his vanity flattered by the manner in which the stranger expressed himself, and not recollecting at that moment the bad consequences which might result from his being known, stepped forward, and introduced himself as the person who had occasioned so much astonishment, for which he was rewarded by an invitation to dine with the great man, and went off in high spirits.

Now it happened, unfortunately for him, that among the persons present when he declared himself was one of the sons of the old woman whom he had prevented from selling her pig. This man felt great indignation on discovering the author of their misfortune, and when he recollected from what was said, that it was merely for a momentary amusement that he had done them so great an injury, he determined to find some means of being revenged. He returned home immediately, and communicated the plan he had formed to his brother, and also to some of their neighbours, who joined heartily in his project and offered him all the assistance in their power.

Two days after, as the ventriloquist was walking along a lane not far from the high road he heard a man cry out. ' There's the villain who bewitched Jeanneton's pig!' The recollection of that adventure made him laugh, but in a few minutes his laughing was put an end to by four men who jumped into the road, and dragging him into a field, hurried him towards a house at some distance, which on coming near he recollected to be that of the old woman. As soon as they reached it three of them tied his hands behind him, while one ran into the house for the instrument of chastisement, which was a large whip with a pig's tail fastened to the end of it. With this he beat him so severely, that the ventriloquist roared out for mercy; offering over and over again to pay the full value of the pig, but to no purpose; his enemies were so exasperated, that they thought of nothing but punishing him; and the neighbours, who ran out to see what was the matter, showed no wish to deliver him out of their hands, but stood looking on as if he had been a wild beast.

At this moment I happened to pass by, with three of the inhabitants of the town, and stopping to inquire the cause of so strange a scene, heard the story I have related it to you. Though no one could deny that he deserved his punishment, yet we pitied him so much, that we could not help interfering, and at last persuaded the farmers to accept the value of their pig, and set their prisoner at liberty. We walked back to the town with him, and one of my companions, who was much older than the others, said a great deal to him in a very friendly manner, respecting the imprudence of his conduct, of which he seemed very sensible, while suffering under the pain of the blows he had received ; for we had not arrived till after he had been well beaten.

Next day he left the town, for he was now so well known, that it was dangerous for him to stay any longer, and we expected to hear no more about him; but some months after, on going to Marseilles; we heard by accident that he had just been turned out of that city, after having been in prison for several weeks. The cause was this:

Having observed near a public walk outside the city walls, some holes with gratings which looked like the windows of a subterranean dungeon, he could not withstand the temptation of imposing on a great number of people who were collected there one evening. All of a sudden their gaiety was interrupted by the sound of hollow groans and dismal lamentations, appearing to proceed from one of these openings in the wall, where nobody had ever before suspected a habitation for anything but rats and reptiles. Some of the company approached and asked, 'Who was there?' to which a faint hollow voice replied, that he had been ten years imprisoned in those subterranean vaults for a crime of which he was not guilty, and that till now he had never discovered that chamber of his dungeon.

This increased the curiosity of the hearers, and in reply to their further inquiries, the supposed prisoner related a romantic story, which interested everybody. Next day the public walk was more crowded, and the same story was told with additional circumstances of distress, till it became the common subject of discourse in every part of the town, and the silly young man was delighted with the bustle he had occasioned, and the various conjectures that he heard wherever he went.

At length the story reached the ears of the chief magistrate, who, without apprizing anyone of his intentions, joined the crowd at the grated hole on the following day. The ventriloquist was at his post, and observing the particular interest with which a venerable old gentleman questioned the supposed captive, exerted himself to make the story more melancholy than ever, and added circumstances which accused the justice of the magistrates.

At the usual hour on the next evening, the same scene was renewed, but it had not continued long, when a number of policemen stepped forward, and arrested everybody that was within a certain distance of the gate, and hurried them off to the town hall, where they were strictly guarded, while by the orders of the chief magistrate the iron bars were removed, and the surrounding multitude invited to convince themselves that the supposed dungeon was only an ancient sewer of the town, and never could have been used as a place of confinement.

In the mean time, the persons arrested underwent a strict examination, and as they were all able to give a good account of themselves, being natives of the town and neighbourhood, the unlucky ventriloquist was soon discovered, and condemned to pay a heavy fine.

As he had a great distance to send for this money, he was obliged to remain several weeks in prison, and as soon as it arrived was turned out of the town as a disturber of the public peace. I never heard more of him, but have no doubt, if he had not sense enough to correct himself, he must have met with some serious misfortune at last; for those who find pleasure in tormenting others are sure to suffer for it in the end.

This story made a great impression on all the little boys, and it was easy for us to distinguish for whom it was intended. When we retired to our oak-tree, it was the subject of much talk among us, and though we could not help thinking some parts of it very droll, yet we all agreed that nobody could love such an ill-natured man. The new boy said less than any of the rest, but on some one asking whether he did not think the ventriloquist very ill-natured, said, 'Yes; but for all that, I should like very much to know how to be a ventriloquist.'

'The Ventriloquist', in Stories of Old Daniel for the Amusement of Young Persons, first published 1808, 14th edn (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1868), pp. 150-65.