Mystery of the Marsh

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

Journalist, publisher and bon vivant Henry Vizetelly (1820–1894) dines out on some wonderful anecdotes about J.F. Smith. In one he recounts the author’s move to Cassell’s Family Magazine. This was a new publication of John Cassell’s (1817–1865), who would found the international publishing group Cassell’s.

Cassell lured Smith away from the editor of the London Journal, George Stiff, with an extra £5 or so on top of the £10 Stiff was paying him per instalment — Vizetelly puns unkindly on the editor’s name when describing him as a ‘cadaverous-looking character’. Anyway, Smith and Cassell kept their little arrangement top-secret for a time, while Smith continued to write for the Journal.

The story goes that Smith happened to be midway through a story for Stiff when he decided to ditch him. So in order to bring his story to an abrupt close, he placed all the main characters on board a Mississippi steamboat and blew it up. He handed in his copy and walked down the stairs, out the door, and off up the street to his new job.

According to Vizetelly, Stiff was ‘thunderstruck’ when he realized what Smith had done, but brought in a new writer to revive the characters and continue the serial.

I should add that Vizetelly was not one of those raconteurs who allow the truth to get in the way. In his book The London Journal, 184583: Periodicals, Production and Gender (Routledge, 2004), Andrew King abruptly grounds us after the explosion, tracing some fatal inconsistencies, such as the fact that the characters in the serial hadn’t left their English village by the time Smith left the London Journal.

A quick point of interest about Vizetelly, one quite telling about the sensibilities of the late-Victorian era. He was convicted twice, in 1888 and 1889, for purveying obscene material: two-shilling English translations of works by Émile Zola.


Scene in a lawyer’s office — The old custom of legal hazing — Return of our hero and his friend, Goliah, to the country — The arrest and its consequences

Although Lincoln’s Inn Fields still retain their ancient name, there is nothing rural in their appearance, if we except the garden in the centre, which is the exact size of the base of the great pyramid of Egypt. In this garden stood the scaffold on which the patriot Lord William Russell laid down his life for the liberties of his country in the reign of that bigot, James II. It is recorded that when the nation had risen almost to a man to welcome his son-in-law, William of Orange, and drive the tyrant from his throne, the bewildered monarch addressed himself to the Duke of Bedford, the father of his victim, for aid and counsel.

‘I am too old to afford you either,’ replied the aged peer, with great dignity. ‘I once had a son,’ he added,’ who might have given both, but his voice was silenced.’

Only for a time. It still speaks to his fellow-countrymen from a blood-stained grave.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields was one of the numerous places appointed for the exercise of the English archers, and continued to be used for that purpose as long as the tough yew bow remained the national weapon. On the introduction of gunpowder and artillery, it fell into disuse, and the locality was put to other purposes. Gradually it became transformed into a square by rows of massive buildings — courts of law on one side, Surgeon’s Hall and stately looking houses on the other. The nobility, judges, and upper class, for whom these mansions were originally built, have long since migrated to more fashionable quarters, and they are now inhabited chiefly by lawyers and professional men, architects and physicians.

View of the entrance to Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Duke Street, Westminster, London. Watercolour by John Crowther, 1883. Public Domain. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

William and his companion had paced more than once round the square without discovering the residence of the uncle of the former, a disappointment easily to be accounted for with persons unacquainted with the peculiarities of the locality. The addresses of the occupants generally refer to the numbers of their chambers, and not to those of the houses in which they are situated.

As a last resource our hero addressed himself to a gentleman who descended one of the flights of stone steps for information, at the same time showing him the card.

The gentleman read it.

‘There it is,’ he said, pointing to the building he had just issued from. First floor, right-hand side of the landing.’

After thanking him the two friends mounted and soon discovered a stout oaken door with a brass plate, on which was inscribed: ‘Richard Whiston, Attorney at Law.’ This said plate, had they been more familiar with the usages of the profession, would have told them that the gentleman whose name it bore was an old-fashioned practitioner. The first floor indicated that he was a prosperous one; rents, at the period we are writing of, being exceedingly high in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and first floors let only on lease.

When the young men entered the office the clerks — there were eight of them — saw from their attire that they were from the country and — they are and always have been, we suspect, a mischief-loving race — determined to have some fun with them. To William’s inquiry whether their master was within, they made no reply, but continued writing or reading as if unconscious of his presence.

‘Be they dumb, Willie?’ inquired Goliah.

‘I think not.’

‘Why doan they speak to ’ee then?’

William Whiston shrugged his shoulders, to intimate that he had not the slightest idea.

‘By gorry!’ added his companion, ‘but I’ll make ’em, or know a reason why.’

Goliah walked up to the desk of one of the clerks — a young fellow about two or three-and-twenty — and stared him full in the face, to the great amusement of the other scribes.

‘Well,’ said the speaker, ‘the critter be alive at any rate. Be thee deaf?’

The young man shook his head.

‘Dumb, then?’

The sign was repeated.

‘If ’ee don’t speak I’ll make thee.’

The gesture, which was anything but an amicable one, accompanying the words, produced a certain effect. The clerk scribbled a few words upon a piece of paper and handed it to the speaker, who, with the assistance of William, contrived to read the following doggerel verse:

Who questions here must pay our fee,
Six and eightpence is the cost;
Kept whate’er the answer be,
Whether the suit be won or lost.

In the author’s young days six shillings and eightpence was the fee invariably demanded in every lawyer’s office before answering any legal question. Clerks, in the absence of their principal, frequently abused this custom by practising a system of hazing and extortion upon rustic clients. It has, however, long since been abolished.

A broad grin stole over the countenance of Goliah as the meaning of the verse became plain to him.

‘And what for should we pay thee six shillin’ and eightpence?’ he demanded. ‘Why, I seed a better looking monkey at Chelmsford Fair for threepence, and it war dear at that.’

This was answered by a general shout of laughter from the clerks, who enjoyed the joke against their comrade exceedingly. He had the reputation of being not only the greatest dandy, but was the ringleader in most of the practical jokes practised in the office. Stung by the retort, he sprang from the desk, struck what in those days, doubtless, was considered a scientific attitude, then rushed upon the speaker with a benevolent intention of demolishing him.

‘He is only jesting,’ whispered our hero to his friend.

‘All the better for he,’ was the reply.

Thanks to William’s assertion of its being all in jest, the assailant succeeded in planting one square blow in Goliah’s chest. Despite the young giant’s respect for the judgment of his companion, he felt there could be no joke in that; the next instant saw the offender stretched helpless as an infant across his knees, enduring a chastisement usually reserved for very juvenile offenders.

The cries of the victim, the shouts and laughter of his comrades, brought Mr. Prim, who, in the absence of his principal, managed the office, from an inner room. He was a staid, parchment-skinned looking personage, and having been trained under the sharp, methodical rule of Lawyer Whiston, naturally felt a horror at anything like confusion or disorder amongst his subordinates.

‘In the name of common sense, gentlemen!’ he exclaimed — ‘if there is such a thing left amongst you — what is the meaning of this disturbance?’

There was no reply; the clerks had sneaked back to their desks.

The eyes of the general manager fell upon Goliah and his prisoner. It would be difficult to describe the look of profound astonishment which crept over his saturnine countenance. Although not as striking as the Laocoon, the group appeared nearly as complicated. The legs and arms of the sufferer were in the air. A groan escaped from him, not so much of pain as of mortification, each time that the broad palm of Goliah fell upon the lower part of his back.

‘Dear me! Mr. Fribble,’ he asked, ‘is that really you?’

‘Oh! sir, will you permit this?’

‘Certainly not,’ replied the gentleman.

Calling up a dignified look — Mr. Prim prided himself very much upon his looks — he walked up to Goliah and demanded what he was doing with his clerk.

‘Can’t thee see?’ was the reply, accompanied by an additional whack and the groan which followed it.

‘Hem! Yes, the evidence upon that point does appear sufficiently clear. And pray, sir, what brings you here?’

‘Cum’d wi’ my friend Willie to see his uncle, Lawyer Whiston,’ was the reply. ‘We know he do live here — seed his name on the door. What be this chap here for?’ added the speaker, pointing to the clerk still stretched athwart his knees. ‘To make fools of honest folk, I s’pose.’

‘O dear, no — nothing of the kind,’ replied Mr. Prim, who was not a bad-hearted man, and wished to get his subordinate out of a ridiculous scrape. ‘He is here to be instructed in law.’

‘Ah! but thee aint ’structioned him in the right place,’ observed the rustic, with rather a comical expression on his broad, honest face. ‘So I gived un a lesson in civility, and I don’t think he will forget it,’ he added, complacently.

‘I should say not,’ said the managing clerk, emphatically.

‘Let him go,’ whispered our hero to his friend, who released the offender instantly.

No sooner did Mr. Fribble find himself at liberty than he caught up his hat, and without waiting even to change his coat, rushed out of the office, pursued by the half-suppressed titters of his brother clerks, who secretly perhaps were not ill-pleased at his mortification.

‘And so you are the nephew of Mr. Whiston?’ observed Mr. Prim.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘From Deerhurst?’

‘From Deerhurst.’

‘Does Mr. Whiston expect you in London?’

‘I am certain that he does not.’

‘This comes o’ having aught to do wi’ lawyers,’ observed Goliah, impatiently, for he did not at all approve of his friend being interrogated so closely. ‘Thank goodness!’ he added, ‘we never had one in our family. That disgrace has been spared us. Does he think we ha’ larned to lie since we set foot in his office?’

‘Hush!’ whispered William.

At these not very complimentary remarks Mr. Prim opened his eyes exceeding wide. They were something new to him. A smile gradually stole over his parchment-coloured visage. He began to understand the speaker.

‘We are obliged to be cautious in London,’ he observed.

‘So I should think.’

‘What I was about to say was this,’ continued the managing clerk. ‘You had better not take any notice to Mr. Whiston of this little affair in the outer office. Anything like a disturbance angers him exceedingly. It might cost the young men their situations; and, after all, it was only a jest.’

‘It be a rum place to jest in,’ muttered Goliah.

The promise was given, and Mr. Prim felt satisfied that it would be kept.

Further conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Whiston, a thin, angular man dressed in the professional costume of the day — white cravat tied in an enormous bow, black coat, and tightly-fitting pants encased in well-polished Hessian boots. After staring for an instant at his nephew from beneath his gray, bushy eyebrows, as if to make certain of his identity, he held out his hand, exclaiming at the same time in a not very cordial tone:

‘What brings you to London, William?’

Our hero colored to the temples. It was the first time in his life he had to accuse himself of an act of folly, and yet somehow he did not regret it.

‘I fear, uncle,’ he began, ‘you will think that I have acted very foolishly.’

‘Most likely; boys generally do,’ replied the lawyer. ‘What is it? Be brief. My time is precious.’

William related, in as few words as possible, the adventure of the proceeding night, the attack of the tramps on the two boys in the barn, and how his friend and himself had yielded to their entreaties and driven them to London without the knowledge of Farmer Hurst.

‘Foolish indeed!’ said the man of law. ‘Peter will naturally believe that his horse has been stolen. The affair might be worse but not much. Prim,’ he added, give my nephew a guinea, and send one of the clerks with him to pay his bill at the tavern. I have something far more important to occupy my time just now.’

The speaker seated himself at his desk, and commenced writing rapidly.

‘Don’t thee take it, Willie,’ exclaimed Goliah, indignantly. ‘I ha’ gotten father’s watch,’ — this was in an undertone. ‘We beant beggars,’ he added aloud, ‘and he sha’n’t treat us like beggars. We ha’ done naught wrong. Pretty cowards we should ha’ been to ha’ left two poor gals to the mercy of such a varmint! Let us go!’

At the word girls Mr. Whiston pricked up his ears.

‘Stay!’ he exclaimed. ‘Shut the door, Prim, and don’t suffer them to leave the room till I give the word. Seize them both! Hold them fast!’

The managing clerk placed his back against the door.

‘Lord! Lord!’ muttered the rustic to himself. ‘What fools these Londoners be! He hold us? That’s a good un!’

‘William,’ said his uncle, starting from his seat, ‘perhaps I have been a little hasty. So much to think of. Do tell that young savage to be still.’

‘Savage?’ repeated his nephew. ‘He is the best, the truest friend I ever had.’

‘Well! well, perhaps he is. What is that he said about two girls? You spoke of boys. Do not deceive me. I am your uncle as well as guardian, and have a right to your confidence.’

‘I had no intention of deceiving you, sir,’ replied our hero. ‘You cut me short before I could freely explain. The boys, for such they appeared, proved to be girls flying from some danger. The danger was a real one,’ he added. ‘That I know; for we were attacked within a few miles of London by a young officer and his servant. We escaped them. But for the brave heart and strong arm of the young savage, as you called him, it might have terminated differently.’

The lawyer wrung the speaker cordially by the hand, laughed heartily, patted him on the shoulder, then went through a somewhat similar ceremony with his companion, to the intense astonishment of the latter, who began to suspect the old gentleman was going mad.

The managing clerk entertained a similar suspicion. Never before had he witnessed such want of dignity on the part of his principal.

‘William,’ continued his relative, after seating himself once more, ‘you must have thought my conduct rather strange.’

‘I confess it surprises me, sir.’

‘Ah, yes! never mind that. I alluded to my reception of you. I was afraid something discreditable had taken place. Glad to find myself deceived. Forgive the suspicion. I am now perfectly satisfied that you acted rightly — very rightly. Still it is both my advice and wish that you return without any delay to Deerhurst. You know what a weak-minded creature Peter Hurst is; how completely his wife rules him. She has not blinded me to her projects, although I have hitherto seemed to ignore them. It is impossible for me to leave London at this juncture, or I would accompany you, but I will follow in a day or two.’

‘The old gentleman be in his right senses after all,’ thought Goliah, who had listened attentively to his words.

Caricature of William Ballantine, Vanity Fair, 5 Mar 1870. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

‘Do you consent, William?’

‘Most willingly, sir,’ answered the nephew; ‘in fact it was our determination. To procure the means, we called here.’

The wealthy lawyer ordered his carriage and escorted his visitors first to the tavern where he paid their bill, and then out of town till they were on the high road to Essex. On parting he placed five guineas in the hands of each.

‘Do thee understand it, Willie?’ said his companion, suddenly, after they had driven a mile or two by themselves.

Our hero shook his head.

‘Nor I,’ added the speaker; but I do think these be real good,’ he said, chinking the coin in his hand.

This was uttered more in a tone of doubt than positive assertion. Goliah could not understand such liberality; it was the first time in his life he had ever possessed such a sum.

‘No doubt of it,’ replied his friend. Uncle Whiston is rich — very rich, and can well afford it. Not that I think the less of his kindness on that account.’

Evening had commenced closing in when the two runaways drove into the long straggling village of Deerhurst. Both felt considerable amusement at the curious glances with which those whom they met regarded them; children quitted their mud-pies and marbles to rush into the houses and call their mothers and sisters to the door, where they stood staring at them with that vacant expression so peculiar to the bucolic mind.

‘There be summat up,’ observed Goliah; ‘the darned fools. They ha’ seed us often enough afore.’

‘Something for them to gossip about,’ replied William. ‘My uncle has never been so foolish as to make any fuss after Benoni’s explanation.’

‘Never thought much o’ Benoni’s ’splanations. They do allays confuse me. We shall learn what it all means in time, I s’pose.’

The words were scarcely uttered than a hand was laid on the rein of the mare and the speakers ordered to descend.

It was the village constable, backed by two assistants, who gave it.

‘And what are we to descend for?’ demanded our hero.

‘Warrant against you,’ replied the man.

‘Against me? On what charge?’

‘Stealing Brown Bess and waggon. The uncle swore it out afore Squire Tyrrel agin both on ye, and yer can’t deny it, seeing as we ha’ cotched yer with them.’

‘But we have brought them back,’ observed William.

‘What differs does that make?’ replied the constable, doggedly.

It required all our hero’s influence over his companion to induce him to submit quietly to the arrest. Goliah was for resisting, declaring that he could not only thrash his would-be captor but half-a-dozen like him. This was no vain boast, as our hero knew; but he resisted the temptation, and finally his friend and partner in the scrape consented to accompany him to the house of the village functionary, and remain there for the night, there being no other place of detention in Deerhurst.

‘I never thought my uncle could have acted so meanly,’ observed William.

‘It be his wife’s doing,’ said Goliah; ‘Benoni’s ’splanations haint been very clear.’

The youth made no reply. A painful feeling crept over him — a doubt of Benoni’s sincerity.

Like most rustics in office, Baker, the village constable, had a very high opinion of his own importance. He had anticipated resistance; hence the assistants he had provided to secure the arrest of two culprits. Surprised, and not a little pleased, at their quietly surrendering themselves, his ruffled dignity became soothed and his conduct friendly, and whilst his wife was preparing tea, the prisoners extracted from him the following information:

‘I was wi’ Squire Tyrrel on justice bizziness,’ he observed, ‘when Peggy Hurst brought her husband to the Hall to swear out warrants ginst ye. Peter did not seem to have much heart in it; but, then, every one knows that the gray mare is the best horse in that stable. Seems he war more mad ’gainst Goliah than Willie.’

‘I told ’ee so,’ whispered the former. ‘Catch me at the farm agin.’

‘But did not Benoni explain?’

‘He told farmer thee had driven off wi’ two gals, dressed up as boys. That is what riled thee aunt so.’

‘And the other prisoners?’ added William.

‘What prisoners?’

‘The two we left securely bound in the barn; two rascals from the Bittern’s Marsh, who would have ill-treated the poor runaways. There was a third tramp with them, a brave fellow, who did his best to defend them.’

‘Benoni said naught about them.’

A second time Goliah broke into a hearty laugh, and muttered half aloud the words, ‘Dom him!’ but instantly checked himself when he saw how deeply his friend’s feelings were hurt. There was a wonderful amount of delicacy in the simple, truthful nature of our honest rustic — a gem, uncut, unpolished, and without setting, but still a gem.

William Hurst perceived all this. The unfavourable opinion his companion had formed of Benoni — the self-control not to pain him by expressing it which he exercised — did not escape him.

Friendship, in some respects, is even more sensitive than love. The wounds inflicted upon it are equally painful, probably because there is less passion in it. Friendship precedes love; entwines itself with the young heart’s first purest sensibilities. Its ties may be strained, lacerated; but once broken, can rarely again be healed. They may be welded together, perhaps, although an ugly scar in the form of doubt still remains.

At present neither the scar nor the doubt existed in the heart of our hero. The confidence was still there; but, like a peach which has been too freely handled, the bloom was partly gone.

When Farmer Hurst heard of his nephew’s arrest he began to experience a sort of vague uneasiness, which ended in a conviction that he had acted wrongly. Although not much given to indulge in feelings of any kind, he was not without them. William was his dead sister’s son. He rather liked the boy, and mentally asked himself if he had acted wisely.

Kindly, he knew that he had not.

His scheming wife did not feel quite at her ease. The success of her plan to humble our hero, and break off his intimacy with Goliah, alarmed her. The mare, too, was back again safe in the stable. No penitential letter from William, asking pardon and praying for release, arrived, as she expected; and she, too, half regretted the step that had been taken; but having a temper which, like most women of her class, she prided herself upon, she felt bound not to give way.

‘Peggy,’ said the farmer, after they had discussed the matter over at supper, ‘don’t you think the lesson has been carried far enough?’

‘Not yet, Peter,’ was the reply. ‘He must be brought up to a sense of his folly — promise to give up all intercourse with Goliah Gob. Then we will see.’

‘Willie won’t do either, mother,’ observed Susan, whose eyes were red with weeping; ‘and I should despise him if he did. Goliah is a true, honest lad, not a bit like that sneaking Benoni, who never said one single word before Squire Tyrrel in defence of his absent friends.’

‘Hold your foolish tongue, Susan, and don’t meddle with things you are too young to understand.’

‘I am not so sure of that, mother,’ continued the girl, seriously. ‘The proof that William had no intention of stealing the horse and waggon is that he has brought them back.’

The farmer began to look exceedingly puzzled.

‘You will only be made ridiculous by bringing such a wicked charge. Mrs. Gob has sent for a lawyer from Chelmsford. Willie, no doubt, has written to his guardian in London, or some of his friends have for him. I know why you hate Goliah,’ added the speaker. ‘I am sure you have no reason. He thinks as little of me as I do of him, and that’s all about it.

Although the supposition that her cousin had written to his relative in London appeared perfectly gratuitous on the part of the speaker, it caused Mrs. Hurst considerable uneasiness. She had seen so little of the old bachelor that such a possibility had not entered into her calculations. Had she known of their meeting in town it would have been positive terror.

‘Hadn’t we better –‘ said her husband.

‘Hold your tongue, Peter!’ exclaimed his wife, interrupting him.

‘The boy’s pride must be brought down. That I am determined on, at any cost.’

This was accompanied by a glance at her daughter, who noticed it only by a quiet smile.

‘I suppose you know best,’ said the farmer.

‘Of course I do,’ was the reply.

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest


Vizetelly’s work Glances Back Through Seventy Years (NY, 1891) can be read in full online (digital facsimile) at the Internet Archive.

Henry Vizetelly, Facts about Port and Madeira, with Notices of the Wines Vintaged around Lisbon, and the Wines of Tenerife (London, 1880). Digital facsimile.

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