It should not be supposed that Benj. H. Nute vanished from history after his ordeal, as recounted in A Narrative Of The Shipwreck, Captivity And Sufferings Of Horace Holden And Benj. H. Nute; Who Were Cast Away In The American Ship Mentor, On The Pelew Islands, In The Year 1832; And For Two Years Afterwards Were Subjected To Unheard Of Sufferings Among The Barbarous Inhabitants Of Lord North’s Island by Henry Holden (1836). We know, from that book, that Nute never reconciled himself to the fashion of going without clothes, that he was intrepid, that, among the barbarous savages, he went by the name of Rollo, and that he was concealed for some time under some mats at the Tahboo, a place of public resort. Henry Holden tells us nothing more about his companion, and if it were not for the indefatigable research skills of Eben. J. Hunt, that would be that. But now, in a magisterial piece of literary-historical detective work, Mr Hunt has followed the traces of Benj. H. Nute through evidence scattered in all sorts of unlikely source materials.
Hunt’s first inkling that Benj. H. Nute had an afterlife beyond his maroonment came by happy accident, when, skim-reading a forgotten 1854 novella by Mrs Lascelles Spivack entitled The Mats Of The Tahboo, he stumbled upon this passage:
I ran away from the colony of giant walruses as fast as I could, towards the Tahboo, intending to hide under one of the mats. Imagine my surprise to find a man without clothes already concealed there. “Ssshh!” he hissed, “My name is Rollo and I am intrepid. I don’t suppose you have with you any clothing with which I could cover my shameful nakedness?”
The narrator hands Rollo some kind of velveteen tunic, and scampers away towards further adventures.
Hunt’s second inkling that Benj. H. Nute had an afterlife beyond his maroonment came by happy accident, when, skim-reading a forgotten 1862 chapbook by Ogden Spray entitled Character Sketches Of Intrepid Men Named Rollo, he stumbled upon this passage:
It would be remiss of me not to include in this exciting chapbook at least a passing mention of the mysterious figure named Rollo who, reluctantly without clothing, hid under a mat in the public resort known as the Tahboo. Like the other personages whose deeds and adventures I have chronicled in these pages, his abiding characteristic was his intrepidity.
Hunt’s third inkling that Benj. H. Nute had an afterlife beyond his maroonment came by happy accident, when, skim-reading a forgotten 1867 Bildungsroman by Kenilworth Blavatsky entitled The Invention Of Greaseproof Paper, he stumbled upon this passage:
As soon as I had invented greaseproof paper, I embarked upon a sea voyage, enlisting as a harpoonist on the HMS Tahboo. Well do I remember how, one night, as we narrowly averted a lethal collision with an iceberg, I found a stowaway hiding under a mat. His name was Rollo, and despite the Arctic cold, he was entirely without clothing. I dragged him from under the mat and tossed him overboard. The last I saw of him, he was clinging to the iceberg. He struck me as a very intrepid fellow, and I had no doubt that he would find a way out of the pickle I had put him in.
And it seems he did, for Hunt’s fourth inkling that Benj. H. Nute had an afterlife beyond his maroonment came by happy accident, when, skim-reading a forgotten 1875 children’s primer by Constance Pulp entitled Ipsy-Dipsy And The Ploppy Pigs, he stumbled upon this passage:
See Ipsy-Dipsy raise the flag of Empire over the swamp. See the swamp bubble and froth. See Ipsy-Dipsy quail in fear.
Ipsy-Dipsy drops the flag. Ipsy-Dipsy runs. Run, Ipsy-Dipsy, run!
Ipsy-Dipsy hides under the Tahboo mat. Ipsy-Dipsy hears grunting. Is it the Ploppy Pigs? No. It is grunting Rollo. Rollo grunts. Rollo is intrepid. Rollo has no clothes on. Ipsy-Dipsy smacks Rollo on the head and runs away. Ipsy-Dipsy hides under a different Tahboo mat.
At this point, the trail seemed to run cold. Benj. H. Nute did indeed seem to vanish from the record, all the more tantalisingly, since a new fact – his grunting – had emerged. But Hunt did not give up the pursuit, and was eventually rewarded with a fifth inkling, from a modern source, a so-called “weblog” run by the Swiss sage Alain De Botton. Skim-reading it on his iBotton, Hunt stumbled upon this passage:
What had seemed like passion from afar was revealed at closer range to be unusual devastation. She was shaking with sorrowful disbelief, he was cradling her in his arms, stroking her short blonde hair, in which a hairclip in the shape of a tulip had been fastened. Repeatedly, they would look into each other’s eyes. He, Rollo, intrepid and naked, who only recently had been forced to hide under a mat in the public resort of Tahboo, and she, Rolloette, his soul-mate!
Five inklings would have been enough for a weedy milksop researcher, but Eben. J. Hunt is tough and uncompromising, and he was not satisfied until he had a further dozen inklings under his belt, gleaned from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. Only then did he set to work in earnest on the book which, as I have already said, is magisterial. The more Hunt looked for Benj. H. Nute, the more he found, including, to his astonishment and joy, several passages where Nute went by his own name, where he wore a dashing suit of the finest linen, where he was uncharacteristically trepid and where, rather than hiding under a mat in Tahboo, he hung one from a line strung between two trees in the Tahboo and beat it savagely with a carpet-beater.
What we have, gathered in this work which I shall once again call magisterial, are glimpses of a man who, once marooned among barbarous islanders, survived to leave his mark on almost two hundred years of history. He continues to haunt us, if we will let him.