Mystery of the Marsh

J.F. Smith’s Mystery of the Marsh — Fourth Instalment

The adage ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ is universally attributed to Edward Bulwer-Lytton, for a line in his five-act play Richelieu; or the Conspiracy (1839):

beneath the rule of men entirely great, the pen is mightier than the sword

— for which the play became best known.

However, the saying was actually coined by our very own author, John Frederick Smith, Esq., for his burletta, or brief comic opera, The Court of Old Fritz — the most successful play he wrote — which opened at London’s Olympic Theatre in November, 1838. According to Frank Keys, Bulwer-Lytton (scoundrel!) appropriated it (Peeps into the Past, 1919).

William Farren (1786–1861), perhaps the greatest London actor of the day, featured:

Farren’s personating the two distinct characters of Frederick the Great, and Voltaire, was intended to be the great hit in the piece.

The Court Magazine and Monthly Critic (1838, vol 13, 632)

Incidentally, the play was later performed in New York in 1840 (Preston, Opera: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825–60) and Adelaide SA in 1841.

We have already seen Smith’s facility with the grand statement, and there are many more fine instances yet to enjoy — one or two in this fortnight’s instalment.


English nobleman in the days of the Regency — There are two sides to every medal — The best, but not a very good one, shown first

We must now invite our readers to follow us to other scenes, and be introduced to quite a different class of characters than those they have already made acquaintance with.

Allworth House, the town residence of the ancient family whose name it bore, was situated in one of the old-fashioned squares at the west end of London. It would be thought extremely antiquated at the present day; but the aristocracy had not then abandoned the stately but cumbrous houses of their forefathers for the somewhat fantastic abodes of Belgravia and Pimlico — localities just springing into notice. To the author’s taste, the old mansions were much superior to the new ones, both in extent, architecture and convenience. But let that pass. It is a serious thing to abandon the family homestead for a new one; the echoes of an old house are rich with the melodies of the past; those of the modern one jar on the ear like discords in music. This may be fancy; possibly it is, for the memories of age are filled with fancies.

The London season was over, society out of town, and yet the huge, overgrown metropolis did not, except in a few fashionable streets and squares, seem to be aware of its misfortune. One met quite as many intelligent faces in the streets as ever; fewer carriages, perhaps, although the absent ones were scarcely missed.

Lords, ladies, aristocrats and fashionable idlers, who consume much and produce nothing, form neither the backbone nor sinews of a great city. There is more strength in looms and anvils than in a hundred coronets. They have had their day, and the world is beginning to see it.

‘The first quadrille at Almack’s’ — The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1892) (cropped). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As one of the élite or creme de la creme, as they term themselves, Lord Viscount Allworth was too distinguished a personage to be supposed to be in town after society had withdrawn the light of its somewhat insipid countenance. Grave and important motives — of course, not public ones; he would have scoffed at these — kept him in London; but the convenance of caste was strictly observed. The shutters and blinds of the family mansion were closed; the principal entrance, under the grand portico, kept locked; the few servants that remained used the area steps, to the intense disgust of his lordship’s valet, an exceedingly fine gentleman, who was, however, too well paid to air his offended dignity beyond the precincts of the butler’s room.

As for his master, he had the key of a private door at the back of the house, and came and went as he pleased.

Although he had passed his grand climacteric by one or two years, Viscount Allworth looked upon himself as a young man; and as far as retaining the follies and vices of youth could make him so, he certainly was exceedingly young. Nature had gifted him with a fine person, which art — ingenious even in the days of the regency — had done its best to preserve; for if his morals were a little loose, his dress was unexceptionable. Stultz built his coats; his wigs were modelled by Truefit on those of that sweet young prince who, at the age of sixty, set the fashions.

Thrice had the nation paid the debts of the royal spendthrift. The first time almost without a murmur; the second, it grumbled a great deal, and the third time, spoke its mind so plainly that the experiment has never been tried since.

Royal highnesses at the present day have to pay their own debts, which many simple-minded persons consider only just and reasonable. The world certainly is progressing; very slowly, of course, like a great lazy thing as it is.

Lord Allworth had an only son, who, as is the custom in England, took his father’s second title, and was generally known as Lord Bury; a young fellow who had been two years in the Guards, during which brief space of time he had contrived not only to spend his allowance, but contracted debts to the amount of ten thousand pounds. As most of these debts were what the world considers debts of honour, money had to be raised to meet them. Had they been owing to mere tradesmen, we question if either father or son would have given himself very great concern respecting them. Tradesmen can always wait, but debts contracted on the turf, or at the gaming-table, must be paid, under pain of social ostracism — that moral death where society is concerned.

Lord Bury had been wrongly educated, but neither Eton nor Christ Church had quite spoiled him. His follies had been more of the head than of the heart. He was intensely proud; but it is only justice to add that his name had never hitherto been coupled with any dishonourable transaction. With foolish ones — many. To be sure, he was just one-and-twenty; at thirty, the probabilities are, he would know better.

His step-mother — for the viscount had been twice married — hated him. She, too, had an only son by her first husband, a wealthy city merchant. As children, the two boys could not agree. The little lord never would consent to call Clarence Marsham brother; but always spoke of him as Lady Allworth’s son or as the boy from the city, which was very annoying to her ladyship, who complained frequently to the viscount on the subject, but without producing any more serious effect than a laughing remonstrance to his heir. The fact was, his lordship did not choose to interfere. He had been cruelly disappointed on his marriage. The simple, single-minded widow, who never once hinted at a settlement, had, he discovered, conveyed the whole of her fortune to trustees. He could not touch a shilling of it.

It was not till the peer hinted at a separation that the lady consented to pay her contingent of expenses towards housekeeping. She knew that her position in fashionable society depended upon her continuing to rest under her husband’s roof; and thus they contrived to live on for years, till their sons were old enough to be sent to a public school.

Lord Bury selected Eton; Clarence Marsham, Rugby.

At Oxford they were entered at different colleges — in the army, chose different regiments. The feeling of hostility still continued, though kept within such bounds as the usages of society demand.

As we stated before, money had to be raised. Like an inexperienced youth, Lord Bury left the arrangement to his father, who, as a matter of course, deceived him.

The viscount had just completed an elaborate toilet, for although supposed to be out of town, he dressed for himself. He was expecting a visit from his son; an explanation had become inevitable. He anticipated a scene, but felt perfectly prepared to meet it.

‘Bury appears in a great rage,’ he murmured, as he read for at least the sixth time a note demanding an interview. ‘He does not understand these little family arrangements, so I suppose I must excuse his rage. Rage,’ he repeated, and a smile flitted for an instant over his well made up features, ‘rage is not the weapon with which to contend with me.’

‘Well, my dear boy,’ he said, in a half-caressing, careless tone when the young nobleman entered the dressing-room. ‘What is it? Love or debt?’

‘Neither, my lord,’ replied the visitor, at the same time pointing to the door for the valet, who had announced him, to retire. ‘It is,’ he added, gravely, ‘a question which seriously affects the honor of our name.’

‘A duel?’ inquired his father, languidly.

‘When I consented to cut off the entail of Chellston,’ continued the former, without heeding the interruption, ‘it was clearly understood between us that the estate was not to be sold, but a sum of thirty thousand pounds raised to meet our mutual requirements. Am I not correct in my statement?’

‘I dare say you are, Bury,’ answered his lordship, languidly; ‘but really I cannot charge my memory with these details. Be kind enough to teach me the essence. Thank you, You were about to observe –‘

‘That, contrary to our agreement, the estate has been sold.’

‘Unavoidably, my dear boy! Unavoidably! Those dreadful lawyers were so pressing, tradesmen would not wait — threatened to seize my horses and carriages. Quite dreadful! What could I do? The honor of the family –‘

‘Had we not better leave honor out of the question?’ interrupted his son, bitterly.

‘As you please,’ said the viscount, calmly. ‘I really do not see what it has to do with it.’

‘The estate brought eighty thousand pounds — little more than half its value.’

‘Yes, I think so. You know I have no head for figures. Never had.’

‘What has become of the money, my lord?’

‘Gone,’ replied the father, coolly.

‘Gone! Infamous!’

‘No scene, Bury, if you please. You know I can’t stand that, or carry on a conversation in the issimo style, as Horace Walpole said. By the by, you do not know him; too young. I did. The best talker I ever met. Do take example from me. You know when I paid your debts at Oxford I made no reproaches.’

‘Twelve hundred pounds, my lord.’

‘Do take example by me,’ continued the speaker, without heeding him, ‘and keep your temper. I never lose mine; it is so useless. I repeat: the money is gone, through no fault of mine. I cannot be held accountable for the impatience of vulgar tradesmen. When the estate was sold I directed the solicitors to pay off the debts. They have done so. Really, there is nothing more to be said about it.’

‘Gone! all?’

‘All,’ repeated the father.

‘Upon your honour?’ said Lord Bury, looking the viscount full in the face.

‘All, once more,’ repeated the latter, ‘except a trifling sum reserved for my private necessities. You would never be so indelicate as to object to that,’ he added, in a tone of affectionate reproach.

The trifling sum alluded to amounted to no less than twenty thousand pounds.

Lord Bury paced up and down the dressing-room for several minutes in moody silence. Evidently he felt deeply wounded in his pride as well as interests. His parent saw it, and with that tact peculiar to high bred, unprincipled men of the world, commenced trying to soothe him.

‘You know, my dear boy,’ he began, in that low, half voice which insensibly makes its way with all but very resolute-minded persons, ‘you must feel that I have been one of the best of fathers, never thwarted you when you were a child; laughed at all your follies; indulged you in every caprice; and some of them,’ he added, ‘were rather expensive ones. Am I not speaking truth?’

‘Unfortunately, yes.’

‘Don’t be ungrateful, Bury,’ continued his lordship. ‘Ingratitude is a great crime. A generous mind disdains it. Goodness only knows what your boyish escapades cost me. I loved you too well, and had too much delicacy to keep a vulgar tradesman-like account against my own son.’

The brows of the young man so shamelessly plundered began slowly to unbend. The speaker saw his advantage, and continued.

‘Besides,’ he added, ‘I have not been so unmindful of your interests as you imagine. I have a magnificent marriage in view for you.

‘I feel no inclination to marry,’ observed the young man, sullenly.

‘Of course not,’ replied the peer. ‘No sensible fellow ever has. But it is one of the unpleasant necessities of our rank. On your death the title and estates, provided you left no heir, would devolve on Sir George Meredith.’

‘He has no son.’

‘Fortunately not,’ said the viscount, ‘but he has a daughter, who is already rich — who will inherit his estates.’

‘My cousin Clara,’ exclaimed Lord Bury. I never thought of her.’

‘Of course you did not!’ exclaimed the old roué. ‘The merit of the combination is wholly mine. Who do you suppose purchased Chellston?’

‘I have not yet heard.’

‘Sir George Meredith,’ added his father, emphatically. ‘Now do you see the beauty of my combination?’

‘Clara is good-looking, certainly,’ observed the son, musingly. ‘I remember that, although I saw her only once last season in the park; but not my style of beauty. I shall never love her.’

‘No necessity, my dear boy. I am not so unreasonable as to expect you to force your inclinations. The objection, my dear boy, is irrelevant; quite. She is rich, which, like charity, covers a multitude of defects.’

‘I will think of it,’ said the son. ‘I suppose the sacrifice must be made some day.’

‘Of course it must,’ replied his parent. Marriage is something like a cold bath — rather disagreeable to contemplate at first, but in reality it is nothing. One plunge, and it is over.’

A pretty lesson from a parent to a son.

Lord Bury turned aside his head to conceal the expression of disgust which, despite his command of countenance, he felt to be stealing over it, and yet his lordship was not what in these days would be considered a good young man. The wonder was that under such tutelage he had not become worse.

‘I will think of it,’ he repeated. ‘But respecting Chellston –‘

‘Not another word my dear boy,’ interrupted the viscount. ‘I cannot listen to it. Positively it is bad taste. We are both victims of our simplicity.’

‘Your simplicity, father,’ repeated the young man, ironically.

Well it is rather remarkable I confess,’ observed the roué, with a faint smile. ‘I had too much confidence in human nature. The lawyers deceived me. Can’t be helped now. The thing is done, and there is nothing more to be said about it.’

His son quitted the dressing-room without another word.

‘So that affair is off my mind,’ muttered the speaker, with a quiet chuckle. Had no idea he would have proved so restive. I always knew him to be proud. But these quixotic notions of honour — where could he have got them?’

Where indeed? Certainly not from his father.

‘If Clarence manages his affair with Kate as well,’ continued his lordship, musingly, ‘my troubles will be pretty well over. He must succeed, unless he is a bungler. She is alone at Allworth Park, without a friend to advise or assist her. The fellow is vulgar — deucedly vulgar; but, then, he is not bad looking. She will accept him.

‘Of course I shall be very angry when I first hear of the marriage; pretend to be very unforgiving, till his mother pays me the percentage agreed upon on her fortune. Had that been in my hands, instead of her aunt’s, I should have thought twice before I winked at the affair.’

The last part of the viscount’s monologue — ‘the percentage agreed upon’ — will give our readers the measure of Lady Allworth’s morality. Of her husband’s it is unnecessary to speak. He has already spoken for himself.

Joseph Nash, Stafford House central hall and principal staircase (1850). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In a luxuriously furnished boudoir situated in one of the wings of the extensive mansion, the viscountess was seated. Despite forty years which she confessed to and four or five she concealed, the world still considered her an exceedingly fine woman. At the period of her marriage she must have been very handsome — not beautiful — her features were too imperious, her figure too statuesque for that. As our readers already are aware, his lordship had wedded her for her fortune. Disappointed in obtaining possession of it, he still found her a most useful ally, provided the advantages offered were mutual; otherwise it was an armed neutrality between them.

Her ladyship had one or two passions — love of rank, a general characteristic of the parvenu; love of money, because it is power, and better still — for it was the one redeeming trait in her selfish nature — an intense love for her son Clarence; whom she had done her best to spoil. The one great purpose of her life was to insure his making a brilliant alliance. To accomplish this she had given her worthless husband bonds to a considerable amount, payable only in the event of her son’s marriage with Lady Kate Kepple, the orphan ward and niece of the viscount. The helpless girl — she was scarcely fifteen, and ignorant of the world as the half-fledged bird before quitting the parent nest, had been left at Allworth Park with no other protection than a mercenary governess devoted to her employers. The few servants who remained were also in their pay. Fortunately for the youthful heiress, she had one true friend, a sharp-witted girl, the daughter of her mother’s nurse, a most respectable woman, now married and settled in London.

With this object in view, Clarence had obtained leave of absence from his regiment and hastened down to Allworth Park under pretence of shooting, but in reality with the hope of obtaining a noble and wealthy bride. Having no delicacy and few scruples he was prepared to carry out his purpose by any means, persuasion or violence, it scarcely mattered which.

‘By this time,’ thought the scheming mother, ‘he must have succeeded. Clarence is handsome, and no novice, I suspect, where women are concerned. Kate is very young, but of legal age to contract a marriage. I ascertained that point before I gave the bonds. She cannot do better. I must affect, of course, to be exceedingly angry to preserve my own reputation free from suspicion. The only person I fear is Lady Montague, her aunt, and joint guardian with my husband. She is proud as Lucifer and dislikes me. Never asks me to her assemblies — a family dinner occasionally, nothing more. There will be some trouble at first — but her very pride will help us through it. She will never endure the scandal of legal proceedings. Yes, yes! tact and time; all will turn out well, provided he has secured the girl.’

That her son had already secured the prize her ladyship did not permit herself to doubt. Hitherto all her plans in life had proved successful. She had made what the world considered a great match, outwitted her husband in the settlement of her fortune, fought her way bravely into society; her self-confidence, therefore, did not seem unreasonable.

There was, however, one weak spot in her coat of mail, but for which she would have been invulnerable. This, however, she rarely permitted herself to think upon; so many years had elapsed that she felt assured that the past would never rise to confront her.

She was wrong there; the past may be forgotten, but it can never be annihilated; it is attached to us like our shadow, not always seen, but ever with us; bury it in the grave, and it will sometimes rise again.

The reveries of Lady Allworth were broken by a familiar rap at the door of the boudoir, and the next instant her son, his face muffled in a silk handkerchief, entered the room. With an exclamation of joy, his mother rose to meet him.

‘Welcome, my dear boy,’ she said. ‘Of course, you have succeeded, or I should not see you again so soon. Where is your bride. Poor child,  afraid, I suppose, to meet me. I shall not prove very unforgiving,’ she added, with a smile.

Clarence shook his head.

‘I do not understand you,’ continued the speaker. ‘You cannot have failed? Everything had been arranged so favourably. Why do you keep your face muffled? The precaution was all very well in the streets, but perfectly unnecessary in the house.’

Her son slowly dropped the handkerchief. His mother gave a faint scream. A deeply red seam appeared upon his face, extending from the forehead, athwart the nose, down the left cheek even to the chin.

‘Who has done this?’ she exclaimed.

‘I do not know,’ he replied.

‘Where is Kate?’


‘Fool!’ said the mother, greatly excited.

‘Listen to me,’ added the disappointed wooer, ‘before you condemn me. When I first spoke to her of marriage she started like a frightened fawn — pretended not to believe me sincere. I soon undeceived her on that point. Madame Joulair, the governess, tried to calm her, pointed out the wisdom of the match, soothed her, till as I thought, she consented. You know how I detest a scene, so I agreed to give her a day for reflection. In the morning she was gone.’

‘Fool!’ repeated the countess — ‘Fool, as well as coward!’

‘Not such a fool or coward as you suppose,’ replied the young man. ‘In the morning, I discovered that Kate, accompanied by that cunning creature, Martha, had quitted the Hall, both dressed in boy’s clothes, and started at once in pursuit. The second day I came up with them within a few miles of London. They were in a sort of covered cart.’


‘I and my groom insisted on their returning.’

‘And the result?’

‘You see it,’ said her son, pointing to the scar upon his face. For several minutes neither of the speakers exchanged another word. The viscountess was the first to break silence. She had reflected, and her resolution was taken.

‘Your step-father,’ she observed, ‘must see the commander-in-chief and procure an extension of your leave of absence.’

‘That will easily be granted.’

‘And for the ruffian who –‘

You may leave him to me,’ interrupted Clarence Marsham, with a look of hate.’

‘As for Kate,’ added his mother, I shall take that affair into my own hands.’

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

Some Annotations

The viscount’s line ‘You know I can’t stand that, or carry on a conversation in the issimo style, as Horace Walpole said’ is a detail of passing significance for the provenance of the copy. By the ‘issimo style’ Walpole meant, after the ‘absolute superlative’ suffix in Italian, a style full of superlatives — purple prose, let’s say. Smith uses exactly the same reference elsewhere. In Woman’s Love; or Like and Unlike (London Journal, 1869) his narrator has:

Although not yet four o’clock, the city was already deserted, not only by its “merchant princes,” as the newspaper writers, when indulging in what Horace Walpole so pleasantly terms the issimo style,” love to designate it […]

  • convenance: conventional propriety
  • ‘grand climacteric’: Originally an astrological belief, the idea that a person undergoes significant changes in body, fortune etc., in multiples of seven years, and is therefore more susceptible to fatality that particular year or ‘climacteric’. The belief can be traced back to Plato. The ‘grand climacteric’ occurs in the sixty-third year of life. So the viscount is at least sixty-three years old (presumably sixty-four or five).
  • ‘sweet young prince’ / ‘royal spendthrift’: King George IV, who reigned from 1820–30. Antiquarian and historian Thomas Wright (1810–77) uses the expression ‘royal spendthrift’ in his book History of the Reigns of George IV and William IV (1836; full-text available on Google Books). Smith draws the other expression ironically, of course, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.
  • ‘entail’: In its noun form, ‘a restriction especially of lands by limiting the inheritance to the owner’s lineal descendants or to a particular class thereof’ (Merriam-Webster).

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