Mystery of the Marsh

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

Anecdotal evidence suggests that John Frederick Smith was partial to a drop, and indeed his only extant portrait, reprinted here a few weeks back, attests to the possibility. Apparently, he came to the office once a week, sequestered himself in his room with the previous week’s instalment, a bottle of port, and his pipe and cigars. He wrote the new chapter, emerged, drew his pay, left and stayed away until the next week’s copy was due (Frank Jay, Peeps into the Past, 1919).

After the great man’s death, an acquaintance recalled that he worked ‘with the devil ever at his elbow’, an expression that conveys a frenzied pace. On one occasion, however, his pen froze, and he was struck with an attack of writer’s block.

As the tale continues, the said ‘devil’ assumes the form of a so-called printer’s devil, an apprentice whose job it was to run errands, mix ink and fetch type:

It was as if the sun had stood still. Still more was the boy amazed when this readiest of writers began to nibble his stodgy quill, gaze abstractedly at the grimy ceiling, take dreamy pulls at the port-wine, and, in fact, give every symptom of mental bankruptcy. When at length his ideas began again to flow, he gave them oral expression; but they were then totally unfit for publication.

The devil by a laugh reminded the author of his presence.

Turning upon him fiercely, Smith demanded, ‘Boy! Your name — quick!’

‘George Markham, sir.’

Never a word responded Smith, but, frowning portentously, at once resumed his fierce scribbling. The devil trembled lest suspension should follow naming. His mind was set at rest, however, when, in devouring the next installment of Mr. Smith’s novel, he found that his own name — George Markham — had been given to a new character in the tale. Thus did this lofty genius fling fame and immortality to the devil.

‘J.F. McR.’, ‘Letter to the Editor’, The Speaker, 1890.


CHAPTER SIX

An Eccentric Maiden Lady’s Consultation with her Lawyer — An Interview which Explains a Great Deal to our Readers — Scene in the Court of a Country Magistrate

Like the slides of a magic lantern, the scene is about to change again.

As we stated in the preceding chapter, Lawyer Whiston had been absent when our hero and his friend made their appearance at his office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He had been summoned at an unusually early hour to attend one of his best clients, Lady Montague, a maiden lady of great wealth and rather eccentric habits. She cared little for society, and yet was accustomed to receive largely. Her visitors were exceedingly fashionable, if she were not. Talent of every kind, provided it was accompanied by perfect respectability, found ready access to her receptions. Her ladyship had one weakness — we scarcely ever knew a woman who had not — a nervous dread of scandal. The convenances of society were to her like the laws of the Medes and Persians — things too sacred to be tampered with. She could have endured any serious misfortune bravely, but the faintest approach to ridicule upset her equanimity.

When the lawyer reached Montague House he found his client seated in a comfortable easy-chair by the drawing-room fire; the elderly waiting-woman who received him — all Lady Montague’s servants were elderly — silently placed a chair and then withdrew to a proper distance.

‘Not ill, my lady?’ he observed. ‘Not seriously ill?’

‘Something worse than that,’ was the reply.

‘Impossible!’

‘It ought to be,’ said his client; ‘but, unfortunately, it is true. Those wretched Allworths! That it should be my fate to be connected with such equivocal persons! Nothing like them on my side of the family! What do you imagine has occurred?’

‘It is an unsafe thing,’ observed her visitor, ‘for men of my profession to indulge in imagination. We can only deal with facts.’

‘Facts, Whiston?’ repeated her ladyship. Well, you shall. have them — facts sufficient to set your head whirling in surprise, as it has done mine with imaginations. That young ruffian, Clarence Marsham, has been down to Allworth Park, and endeavoured to terrify my niece, Lady Kate, a mere child as you are aware, into a clandestine marriage.’

‘Can this be true?’ ejaculated her visitor.

‘True,’ repeated Lady Montague with dignity. ‘The wretch even threatened to employ force. Do you imagine,’ she added, ‘that I would quit my bed at this unnatural hour and send for you to indulge in this unseemly jest?’

‘Certainly not. Still report may have been exaggerated –‘

‘I have it from her own lips,’ interrupted her ladyship impatiently. ‘She arrived here this morning — I can scarcely tell you how. It is really too dreadful! What will the world say? What will it think?’

Caricature of Mary Augusta Coventry, Lady Holland. Vanity Fair, 2 Feb 1884. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The speaker appeared so completely unnerved that her legal adviser began to feel seriously alarmed; he dreaded the worst.

‘Of course you will protect her?’ he observed.

The words, although he did not intend to imply a doubt, restored Lady Montague to herself.

‘Protect her!’ she repeated, starting to her feet. ‘Aye, to the last guinea of my fortune, through every court of justice in the kingdom. If necessary, by appealing to the king himself. Why else,’ she added, ‘did I send for you?’

‘My dear lady, be calm, I entreat you,’ said Mr. Whiston. ‘Trust to me, and everything will go well. Upon application to the chancellor he will doubtless name you guardian of your niece’s person, as you already are of her fortune; that is quite safe; I can vouch for that. Your niece has only to make an affidavit embodying the charge –‘

‘That is what I wish to avoid; everything would be made public then.’

The brow of the man of law became clouded.

‘Lady Montague,’ he said, ‘there ought to be no reservation between clients and their legal advisers. If I am really to serve you in this distressing affair, there must be perfect confidence.’

‘Yes, I feel you are right,’ answered the aristocratic old maid, ‘yet scarcely can find courage to confess the abominable facts. Lady Kate and the faithful girl who planned her flight and accompanied her did not quit Allworth till after — I really cannot proceed.’

‘Till after what?’ demanded Mr. Whiston, struck by a terrible suspicion. ‘This is no time for false delicacy,’ he added seriously.

‘Till after disguising themselves in male attire,’ gasped her ladyship.

‘Is that all?’ said the lawyer, greatly relieved.

‘All!’ exclaimed Lady Montague. ‘What worse did the man expect to hear? And he does not even appear shocked when I tell that my niece, Lady Kate Kepple, the last descendant of one of the best families in the kingdom, tramped along the roads nearly all night, dressed in boy’s clothes, slept under a haystack — afterwards in a wretched barn — and would have been forced back by that young villain Clarence and his servant, had not two brave youths protected and brought them safely to London.’

‘Highly distressing,’ observed her adviser. ‘Still, it might have been worse.’

His client regarded him incredulously.’

‘I have heard of ladies of high rank and most undoubted respectability,’ added the speaker, ‘appearing in male attire at a balmasque.’

‘A very different affair,’ replied his client. ‘I once went to one dressed as a shepherdess — of course it was in my young days — but I don’t think I have quite forgiven myself for the folly yet.’

‘It will scarcely be remembered against you,’ said the gentleman, with a smile. ‘I must now hasten to my office and make a rough draft of the application to the chancellor, and then return to receive the statement of your niece. About what hour may I venture to call?’

‘At four, I trust, she may be sufficiently recovered to receive you,’ answered Lady Montague, her dread of scandal somewhat relieved by his assurances; ‘and if the dreadful circumstances I named to you can be suppressed –‘

‘I promise that they shall be touched upon as lightly as possible.’

‘And the newspapers?’

‘His lordship will probably grant a hearing in his private room, where no reporters are ever admitted. I will instruct council to ask it.’

‘Spare not for expense,’ said her ladyship as the speaker was about to quit the dressing-room.

The lawyer smiled. Probably he thought the caution unnecessary.

‘Money is nothing,’ added the speaker. ‘Slander and ridicule are what I dread. They would kill me.’

‘Be under no uneasiness. Money can do a great deal.’

Lady Montague retired again to her couch, but in a much more tranquil state of mind than when she quitted it.

Our readers can now understand the lawyer’s sudden cordiality to his nephew after hearing his adventures, and the promise he had made him of running down to Deerhurst.

Those who most praise country life, rave of rural simplicity, the absence of hatred, envy, and all uncharitableness, have, we fear, passed but a brief time in villages. This is a sad truth, disguise it as we may, and applies to Deerhurst as well as to other places we could name.

And yet there were many, especially among the softer sex, who blamed Farmer Hurst’s proceedings against his nephew.

‘It be all his wife’s doin’s,’ observed one.

‘If ever Peter does a mean thing, she puts him up to it,’ said another.

This proposition was generally assented to; in short, the popular feeling amongst the female inhabitants of the place was decidedly unfavourable to Mrs. Hurst. With the men it was more equally divided, for whilst those who lived nearest to the Bittern’s Marsh, and suffered most from the loss of horses and cattle, sided with the uncle, many of the young villagers took part for Willie. Probably they did not exercise much judgment in their choice. It was simply a matter of feeling. They did it because they liked him. He was a good hand at cricket, and ever ready to do a kind act to any of his companions.

No wonder there was considerable excitement in the community, which became still more apparent when, on the following morning, our hero and Goliah were marched through the long, straggling street up to the Hall, the residence for centuries of the Tyrrel family, whose present head, familiarly known as the Squire, had long been a country magistrate — not a very able one, perhaps, but strictly impartial, unless where his prejudice against poaching came into play. Then, we fear, he did sometimes strain the law, but not on the side of mercy. There was quite a shout from the young men when a tall powerful woman darted from the crowd, and threw her arms round the neck of Goliah.

It was his mother.

‘Don’t thee be scared,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘I ha’ hired a lawyer for thee.’

‘Where be him? I don’t see him.’

‘Up at squire’s,’ replied his parent. ‘I drove to Chelmsford myself, and brought him  back to Deerhurst with me. And that is why I aint been to see thee at constable’s,’ she added.

Her son, who felt rather hurt at her not having put in an appearance, as the lawyer’s term it, kissed her affectionately.

The Hall — as the Tyrrel Mansion was generally designated — a fine Elizabethan pile — stood in a well-wooded park, a few rods from the outskirts of the village. One very large apartment on the ground floor had long been set apart by its owner as a justice room. At the eastern end, on a dais of three steps, stood an arm-chair for his worship, with a table in front of it, and a stool for the butler, who acted as clerk. The place was crowded.

‘Don’t be cast down,’ said a bustling looking personage — Mr. Vickers the Chelmsford lawyer. ‘Charge ridiculous. You have brought back the mare and waggon. No evidence to sustain it, must be dismissed.’

Goliah nudged his friend and laughed.

‘But I did not want it to be dismissed,’ observed William, ‘without a full investigation. It would leave a stain upon my character.’

‘I am not concerned in your case,’ replied Mr. Vickers, sharply. ‘Goliah Gob is my client.’

‘Then thee beant for mine!’ exclaimed the latter, angrily. ‘Willie and I be one. If he goes to jail,’ he added, ‘I go wi’ im.’

Here Mrs. Gob whispered something to the lawyer, who instantly changed his tone, and turning to her son, whispered something that surprised him.

‘There he be!’ exclaimed Goliah, as Peter Hurst, accompanied by his wife and daughter, all three looking exceedingly uncomfortable, entered the justice room. ‘Farmer do look like a pig led by the ear; don’t know which way to turn.’

‘Yes,’ added Mrs. Gob, ‘and all the folks in Deerhurst do know who is driving him.’

At this there was a general laugh. The two ladies regarded each other defiantly.

Susan felt herself painfully situated by the public contempt thus openly expressed at the conduct of her parents, and resolved that she, at least, would do nothing to merit a share in it. Walking up to the table, near which the prisoners were standing, she shook hands cordially with each of them.

‘Susan!’ exclaimed her mother, ‘come here directly.’

Her daughter either did not hear the summons or refused to obey it.

‘You don’t believe, William,’ she said, ‘that I had a hand in this?’

‘Certain you had not,’ replied her cousin.

‘I have written to your uncle in London,’ she whispered. ‘Do you think he will be very angry with me?’

‘Why should he?’ was the reply. ‘But will it reach him in time?’

‘Think it will,’ she answered, in the same undertone. ‘I sent it by a sure hand.’

‘Benoni?’

An expression of contempt passed over the face of the girl as she replied to his question.

‘I dared not trust him; he is not the friend you think him.’

‘Susan! Susan!’ repeated Mrs. Hurst, in a tone more peremptory than before.

This time the summons was obeyed.

William felt a sad sinking of the heart. As for Goliah, he was delighted. In the first place, Susan had shaken hands with him, a thing she had never done before; in the next, his own opinion of Benoni had been confirmed.

‘Don’t thee be grieved, Willie,’ he said, when he saw the effect produced upon our hero by the openly avowed suspicion of Benoni’s treachery, ‘there be a true friend left.’

A considerable time had elapsed and still the justice had not made his appearance. He was too great a personage to be hurried. In the first place, he, like all county magistrates, held his appointment from the crown; and in the second, the office was an unpaid one. Of course he felt justified in acting just as he pleased.

Possibly yesterday’s dinner had disagreed with him. He might have taken too much wine, or not got through with the morning papers.

At last, however, a dim recollection that he had something to do officially dawned upon his mind; and after the butler had twice given him a respectful hint to that effect, Squire Tyrrel quitted his library for the seat of judgment. The warrant on which the arrest had been made was placed before him.

‘A Rustic Judge’. Caricature of Lord Justice Williams (cropped). Vanity Fair, 2 March 1899. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

‘Ah, yes, I recollect. Peter Hurst? Why is not the man here? Does he suppose that I will allow the time of the public to be wasted?’

Here the butler and clerk whispered to his worship that the prosecutor was already in court.

‘Ha! So you are here at last,’ continued Squire Tyrrel. ‘Very improper conduct, to keep the court waiting.’

‘Why, we have been waiting for your honor these two hours,’ observed the farmer, mildly.

‘Silence, sir! No insolence! I see — warrant for stealing a bay mare and waggon against William Whiston and Goliah Gob.’

Here Mr. Vickers thought it time to interfere.

‘If your worship will permit me,’ he said, ‘I wish most respectfully to observe that both the mare and waggon have been brought back. No theft could have been intended.’

‘Who the devil are you, sir?’

‘Solicitor for the prisoners.’

‘Brought back, have they? Then I suppose the charge is withdrawn?’

Here Peter Hurst, urged on by his wife, advanced towards the table.

Our hero was the first to reply.

‘I must beg,’ he said, ‘that the charge is not withdrawn. Under very peculiar circumstances at an early hour yesterday morning, I borrowed my uncle’s horse and waggon, drove to London in it, and returned in the afternoon. So much I freely acknowledge; as for the stealing, I most indignantly repudiate the charge. My friend here, who is included in it, acted entirely at my request.’

The language, manner, and appearance of the prisoner evidently produced a favourable impression upon the magistrate.

‘Well, farmer,’ he said, turning to Peter Hurst, ‘what have you got to say? Recollect, he is your nephew.’

‘I know that,’ was the reply; ‘and I am sure I wish him no harm, if Willie will only promise to behave for the future, not give himself airs, and give up certain low acquaintances.’

‘I have no low acquaintances, and you know it, uncle,’ interrupted William. ‘The friend you would deprive me of is honest, manly, true, and far more worthy of respect than you have proved yourself. I should be worthy of scorn and contempt were I to give any such promise.’

Again Peggy Hurst whispered something to her husband, who said reluctantly:

‘Then the case must proceed.’

The squire, who saw his advice disregarded, felt annoyed. Had it been taken, it would have terminated what he foresaw might prove a troublesome case.

‘Who is that woman?’ he demanded.

‘My wife,’ answered the farmer, somewhat ruefully.

‘Very well. Let her stand at the lower end of the court-room. If I catch her prompting you again, I shall commit her for contempt.’

As the constable pointed out a place as far as possible from her husband to Mrs. Hurst, she bit her lips to keep down her rising passion.

There was a loud laugh at her mortification.

‘Silence!’ said the squire.

‘Three cheers for our honest magistrate!’ cried a voice.

They were given with a hearty good will, but this time the great man did not appear to heed the interruption.

‘Your worship,’ said Mr. Vickers, advancing a second time towards the table, ‘I respectfully ask you to adjourn the case for two days. We expect an important witness from London; and are ready to give bail for Goliah Gob.’

‘And Willie?’ shouted the latter.

‘And Willie, too, syne thee wishit it,’ said his mother.

The probabilities are that the offer would have been accepted. The farmer offered no opposition, and his wife began to feel sick of law, when the noise of a carriage driving up to the door of the Hall interrupted the proceedings. Susan, who had been greatly interested in the affair, ran to the door, but quickly returned and waved her hand to her cousin.

‘He is come,’ she said.

‘Who be come?’ inquired Goliah.

‘My uncle, from London.’

‘What! More lawyers?’ replied the farmer. ‘My brain be puzzled enough wi’ one. What will it be wi’ two?’


Annotation

‘syne thee wishit it’: Dialect, ‘since’.

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