There is another Cavendish, more famous than John William, but just as mysterious as the fifth Duke of Portland. This Cavendish died in 1810. His fortune, inherited from his uncle, was fabulous and his mystery remains impenetrable. He was the greatest scholar of his time, the first to have calculated with precision the density of the terrestrial globe. In fundamental discoveries, he also formulated the composition of water and precisely gave that of air. He is doubtless the discoverer of electricity, but he refused to publish the rest of his capital discoveries on energies. It is safe to say that all modern Science comes from Henry Cavendish, who was born in Nice in 1731…
However, this ancestor of the underground Duke does not seem to have belonged to the human species. Of maladive timidity, he had no contact with any living being, except for the members and correspondents of scholarly societies. For ordinary relations with his fellow-men, he communicated only by signs or by written messages. One day, he is shown through the window a couple making love inside a bedroom in the building opposite. He asks to be told what it is that these people could possibly be doing. Another day when he is served lamb shanks, he asks very seriously how many legs this race of animal has. At the end of his life, he gives the day and time of his death, right to the minute.
When he enters into agony, one of the rare persons assisting him asks him if he wants any help from religion. He asks what that means and what a priest is…
Henry Cavendish does not wear a mask; but his face and his whole life is his mask. A mask which, like his descendant, he never accepts to remove.
Are such strange destinies still those of human beings? Those who hide themselves like this behind the Cavendish mask, are they something other than human beings?
The story of the fifth Duke of Portland holds two other mysteries. John William Cavendish of Portland had a younger brother and never did two brothers resemble each other less than these two: John William was, according to the little that we know of him, a very ugly man and his brother George Rentinck was endowed with all the seductions of the Earth. A dandy full of wit, who had Prime Minister Disraeli’s ear, his existence is a perpetual round of sporting and amorous exploits.
Women with the reputation for being the most inaccessible in High Society succumb, his jockeys win all of the big prizes and he himself excels in all physical exercises. One day in Autumn 1848, when a local lord of the manor had invited him to stay for two days, he asks his groom to precede him in the cabriolet which is waiting in the courtyard of Welbeck Castle. In his usual fashion, he intends walking the ten kilometres to work up an appetite. As he hasn’t arrived at ten o’clock at night, they go to look for him… He is found standing, leaning against a wooden fence, seeming to be looking at the great prairie beneath the moonlight. He is dead. The mystery of this death has never been elucidated…
He was probably assassinated by his brother John William, although there is no proof of it.
Before separating that evening, the two brothers had a violent argument. Apparently over a question of money… The official version is that George died from a cardiac spasm, which would be rather astonishing for a sportsman like him.
Remorse for having killed, voluntarily or not, his brother and also his physical disgrace seem to have encouraged John William to seek the obscurity of the tomb well before his death.
It seems that the fifth Duke of Portland had a really horrible physical appearance. There is hesitation on whether it was leprosy or a cancer of the face… Which explains the mask. However, the mask is the cause of another complication in this story…
At his death, a lady came to claim his fabulous inheritance which would normally have gone to one of his distant cousins. She was the widow of the owner of a London bazar. And here is how she justified her pretensions before the tribunal, for the case was heard and was one of the longest and the most talked about of the XIXth Century. She assured with great vehemence that in reality, John William Cavendish, Fifth Duke of Portland, came every day to London, in his closed berline with the curtains drawn, to transform himself into a certain Charles Druce, who held a bazar in Baker Street. Charles Druce was now buried but his widow affirmed before the Court that the coffin was empty and that in reality Cavendish and the little London shopkeeper were one and the same person. Assisted by a clever lawyer and several witnesses, she did not cease to demand from 1898 onwards the opening of coffin number 13160 in Highgate Cemetery, which, according to her, contained only a piece of lead removed, she said, from the roof of one of the Cavendish residences, Colcomb House…
This case lasted fifty years. For half a century, the English newspapers gave an account of the evolution of the case. After the widow’s death, then that of her son, one of his descendants, a modest carpenter, living in Australia, sets the case off again. Lacking money to pay the lawyers, he creates a “Society with shares for the restitution of the inheritance of the Duke of Portland”. A whole crowd of small subscribers rush to enter it, which creates a strong movement in favour of the carpenter in public opinion. Soon, no-one in the kingdom has any doubt that the Duke and the shopkeeper would end up being one and the same Portland and that there would be people everywhere blessed by this good fortune. A second hearing opens, documents of the first importance are stolen from a witness in the street, one day during a fog, and the newpapers relay subscribers’ and public opinion to demand that the coffin be finally opened. On an icy-cold morning in 1907, the heavy stone which seals Charles Druce’s tomb is finally lifted…
When the undertaker raises the shroud, a horribly decomposed face appears. Which does not prevent one of the witnesses, representing the public ministry, to recognize the shopkeeper’s cadaver. From then on, the cause is finished and our carpenter returns to Australia crying over the dream which evaporated in the London fog.
A lot of people said that there had been substitution of the body and it must be admitted that the mystery of the life and death of the troglodyte Duke has never really been elucidated.
The other Cavendish, the scholar, is just as mysterious as his nephew. Only one engraving represents him dressed in a worn, floating overcoat, a wide-brimmed hat which hides part of his face, and deformed trousers. This Cavendish, the founder of Chemistry and Physics, is truly the creator of modern Science. Curiously, he kept secret a certain number of his discoveries after having succeeded in isolating hydrogen and finding the synthesis of water. At the same time, he pursues the first decisive works on electricity. A laboratory, founded in 1870, shortly before an important part of his researches are found, bears his name. This laboratory was the birthplace of atomic physics.
Cavendish remains, however, a human enigma and, according to the rare people who approached him, he appeared to be totally different in nature to common mortals. Even while alive, his celebrity was immense. However, almost no-one saw him. He lived as a recluse, detached from all human contingencies, showing fear whenever one of his fellow humans approached him, dissimulating as best he could his physical appearance. In his descendant, these characteristics are even more exaggerated and it is difficult to conceive a man more foreign to the human condition than his nephew John William. The term “mutant” takes on all of its sense here, like Gaspar Hauser, for example, who was also a creature who was perfectly unclassable.