Mystery of the Marsh

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

Part of this instalment outlines the troubled history of Bunce, the courageous tramp who risked his life to defend the two girls in the Red Barn. His childhood memories begin in one of about a dozen martello towers in Essex, which prompts the illustration this week, a scene with Martello Tower No. 1 at Brightlingsea Harbour and the mouth of the River Colne, borrowed from the Journal of the Essex Field Club (1887).

Over half the 140 Martello towers in Britain were built in the southeast as fortifications during the Napoleonic War between 1805 and 1808; though it turned out they weren’t required for that purpose.

A typical South East Martello would be about 45 ft (13.7m) in diameter at base and up to 40ft (12m) tall. The masonry walls were built of brick and rendered with lime mortar externally, and were up to 13ft thick.

Their name originates from the Torra di Mortella, on which they were modelled, the remains of which stand at Punta Mortella (Myrtle Point), Corsica.

A Martello Tower at Sandycove in County Dublin, Ireland is the world’s most famous, the site of the James Joyce Tower and Museum. Joyce’s friend Oliver St. John Gogarty rented the tower, where Joyce stayed for six days in 1904, between September 9 and 14.

In Ulysses, Joyce’s fictional alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, lives there with a medical student, a character modelled on Gogarty and immortalised in the novel’s opening words, in a scene set in the tower: ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan […]’ 


Mr. Bunce concludes the sketch of his past life — Return home of Lawyer Whiston — The poor tramp finds a fulcrum at last, but without knowing it

‘My home,’ resumed the narrator, ‘was an old martello tower, abandoned by the government after the French war. I had few companions, and those few were distasteful to me. Even at this distant period I cannot recall without a shudder the recollection of the miserable long winter nights. No one to love me, no human sympathy, nothing to occupy my brooding brain but the dull, dry lessons of the old schoolmaster. He never smiled upon me; in fact, I never saw him smile upon any one, not even on his own son.’

‘Poor Bunce!’ ejaculated his hearer.

‘As hope died within me I felt a something which I have often thought must have been akin to death, gradually stealing over me; it was worse than indifference — torpor, apathy. To rouse myself I plunged into the only amusements of the place, fishing and shooting, and at the age of twelve became an expert sportsman; penetrated in pursuit of game the wildest recesses of the marsh. Often did I return home tired and half famished, my feet bleeding from the sharp brambles, wet through with the stagnant waters of the pools I waded or swam through, but never with an empty game-bag. If solitude disintegrates the brain, it leaves certain portions of it harder and brighter than ever. I became sharp-witted — curious I had always been — and my intercourse with the smugglers, whom about this time I began to assist, made me daring. Gradually I was led towards the abyss of crime, and should have plunged doubtless into it had not circumstances rather than innate strength of character preserved me.’

‘Crime,’ repeated William, slowly.

‘Nothing very serious, observed the former, with a smile; ‘beyond a few plundered hen-roosts and the slaughter of a few gobblers, I have nothing serious upon my conscience.’

His hearer looked as if he felt considerably relieved.

‘I quickly discovered,’ said Bunce, ‘that Blackmore’s occupation of schoolmaster was merely a blind to hide his real occupation — that of agent to the nobleman who owned the Bittern’s Marsh. I never learnt his name. You cannot form the slightest idea of the extensive operations the contrabandists carry on; nearly all the eastern counties are supplied by them with French wines and brandy. London is no stranger to the trade. Blackmore kept the accounts, received the rents, and a share of the profits set apart for the proprietor of the Marsh.’

‘Can such a state of things exist,’ exclaimed our hero — ‘here in sober, well-governed England?’

‘When you reach my age,’ replied the tramp, ‘you will have discovered that the surface and undercurrents of life flow in opposite directions.

‘One day the schoolmaster told me he was about to quit his abode in the martello tower. Made an independence, I suppose. He could or would not give me any information respecting my parents. A small sum he stated had been placed in his hands when he first took charge of me, but it had long since been exhausted. He advised me to join the band of smugglers. I refused; I had already seen too much of them.’

‘Thank Heaven you did not.’

‘He next proposed that I should enter as a boy on board one of the king’s ships. I caught at the chance eagerly; it was relief from the monotony of existence — release from the swamp, its vile companionships, the stifling atmosphere which stunted the little that remained of moral nature in me. I accepted, and a few days saw me on board the Peerless, where I served for twelve years, as the certificate I gave your uncle proves, with credit.’

His hearer began to breathe more freely; he had trembled at the trials and temptations of his new friend.

‘I forgot to state,’ added the speaker, ‘that the old woman who kept ship for my guardian — I presume I must call him so –before I quitted my home gave me a packet of papers, charging me never to part with them. It consisted of half burnt letters, several old accounts — evidently having reference to myself — and an old pocket-book. The rest is soon told.

‘Three months since the Peerless was paid off, I had grown tired of a sailor’s life, so I sold my kit, bought the rags in which you first beheld me, and started to re-visit the Bittern’s Marsh in the desperate hope of obtaining some clue to my friends and family, if I had any. You know the rest.’

‘It is a strange as well as a sad story,’ observed William Whiston. ‘Few could have resisted such trials and temptations as you have done.’

‘One circumstance alone I have kept from you, at the request and advice of your uncle. It is a secret.’

‘Then I will neither ask nor seek to pry into it,’ said the hearer, emphatically.

Our readers have not forgotten the papers which Martha had concealed behind one of the beams of the little chamber, when Pike and Bilk attempted to break open the door. Possibly the lawyer had discovered a use for them.

‘What I have just told you,’ observed the wanderer, ‘I had previously imparted to Mr. Whiston. Whether the interest he appears to take in me is to prove a momentary or a lasting one, I cannot say. If the former, the loss of your friendship will not be the least of my regrets.’

‘No fear of that,’ replied the youth. ‘My uncle is one of those men, who rarely let their hearts run away with their heads. He must have excellent reasons for acting as he has by you. His liberality I expected; his confidence surprises as much as it pleases me.’

Notwithstanding the want of worldly knowledge which the speaker had displayed in driving to London with the fair fugitives, he could exercise a considerable amount of caution for one of his years — never giving the slightest hint to Bunce that the schoolmaster Blackmore was the father of his false friend Benoni.

It was getting late towards evening when Lawyer Whiston returned home. His countenance appeared somewhat anxious and careworn, but a smile chased aside the expression when he saw his nephew and the wanderer seated in friendly conversation.

Both rose upon his entrance.

‘Keep your seats, boys — keep your seats,’ he said, pleasantly. ‘I am no friend of ceremony — unless in court,’ he added. ‘How have you passed your time?’

‘I have been deeply interested,’ replied William; ‘my friend has been relating the history of his eventful life.’

‘All?’ said his relative,.

‘All, sir, except the circumstance you wished him to conceal.’

The uncle nodded approvingly.

‘Quite right, William; quite right. Not that I mistrust your truthfulness. I have proved it. It is your inexperience and knowledge of the world I doubt. Youth is unguarded. A look, an unguarded word, will sometimes reveal a secret. Now I prefer to keep mine to myself. As long as I do so I am its master. Once revealed, it would become mine.

‘You forget,’ observed his nephew, with a smile, ‘that Bunce already knows it.’

‘No, he does not,’ replied the lawyer, laughingly; ‘he has not the slightest suspicion of it. You are both of you keen-witted. Two young heads, putting this and that together, might divine more than I wish you to know till the time comes. Then there shall be no concealment. By the by,’ he added, ‘you have not quitted the house?’

‘I thought you told me not to do so, sir.’

‘I am answered,’ said his relative, complacently.

The speaker appeared in excellent humour; informed his hearers that he had not only carried his point in an important case before the Lord Chancellor, but carried it exactly in the form he wished the decision to be made. The young men congratulated him, without, attaching any importance to the fact, which did not concern them. If they felt pleased, it was because the speaker appeared so.

It is not to be supposed that two such very astute personages as Viscount and Lady Allworth would remain passive under the equivocal circumstances in which they found themselves placed. They had connived at a most unworthy action, the mere suspicion of which would materially affect their position in the fashionable world, which is not so utterly heartless as many suppose. Heaven knows that it allows itself latitude enough, still there are lines of demarkation distinctly drawn. One step beyond them, and social disgrace follows. The attempt to force a girl of Lady Kate’s tender years into an unequal marriage was just one of these steps.

In the old world, as in the new, money will do a great deal. English judges we believe to be incorruptible. Political influences may have their weight; social ones predispose; but money is powerless. The ‘accursed thirst for gold’ has not yet obtained the power of dictating decisions to the judicial bench. God forbid that it ever should.

If the judges are unapproachable, it is not always the case with the officers and secretaries attached to their several courts. From one of these channels Lord Allworth acquired the certainty that the guardianship of Lady Kate Kepple’s person had been placed in the hands of Lady Montague. All attempts to recover his legal authority he knew to be hopeless; but his reputation, he thought, might still be guarded.

‘We must see Lady Montague at once,’ he said to his wife, ‘and disown all share in the attempt of Clarence. Of course, she will not believe us; but, then, she has a nervous dread of scandal or notoriety of all kinds, and may affect to do so.’

‘I cannot endure the thought of her triumph over me,’ replied her ladyship. ‘The insolence of her tone and manner. She never liked me.’

‘You could scarcely expect that she should do so,’ observed her husband with provoking calmness. ‘She is the last representative of one of the oldest names in the peerage — her reputation unblemished.

‘Oh, that I could detect a spot in it!’ exclaimed the viscountess.

‘But you can’t,’ replied the peer. ‘Why then indulge in useless wishes? Juliana,’ he added, ‘when we consented to this mad project of yours to assist your son to acquire a certain distinction by marriage with my ward, I expected we should meet with difficulties; unpleasant considerations; but I did not anticipate on your part this vulgar weakness. All weakness is vulgar,’ he added.

‘What am I to do?’

‘Ah! now you are getting reasonable. Should Lady Montague appear very indignant at the conduct of Clarence, who acted, it appears, like a commonplace ruffian, your indignation must exceed hers. Declare, as I shall do, your determination to banish him from your home and heart. The last,’ added the speaker, reflectively, ‘may be unnecessary. She scarcely gives you credit for having such a thing. He must quit the Guards.’

‘Never!’ exclaimed her ladyship, passionately. ‘You forget the trouble, intrigues, and expense I had to obtain his commission.’

‘No, I do not; but I tell you there is no other resource. Bury, when he hears of the affair, will certainly post him.’

‘No doubt,’ said his wife, bitterly. ‘He is your son.’

‘And, you might add, a young man of exquisite taste,’ observed his lordship. ‘You have a natural talent for intrigue, Juliana; in fact a very pretty talent; but you cannot repair a check. I must do so for you.’

‘And will you, for my sake?’

‘O, dear, no,’ interrupted the husband. ‘If I take a hand in the game it will be for my own. There is no false sentiment about me.’

‘Nor sentiment of any kind,’ observed her ladyship, bitterly.

‘Fortunately for you,’ replied her husband, cynically; ‘for sentiment is weakness. You know how I detest a scene. My nerves won’t stand it. You will either follow my direction — place the direction of the affair in my hands — or in the morning I start for Paris.’


Of course,’ replied his lordship, sarcastically. ‘Paris is a most expensive city. I know that you dislike it. ‘Besides,’ he added, ‘I would not deprive Clarence of so able an adviser as his mother.’

A considerable pause ensued. There was a great mental struggle. Lady Allworth saw that the only means of saving her son from public disgrace and preserving her own position in society was to adhere to the counsel of her husband; without him she could do nothing. Experience had proved to her that he was as clever as unprincipled.

‘It shall be as you wish,’ she said.

The viscount rang the bell and ordered his carriage.

‘My dear Mr. Whiston,’ said Lady Montague, when that gentleman placed in her hands the decree by which the chancellor consigned the person of Lady Kate Kepple to her exclusive guardianship, ‘you have managed this terrible affair admirably.’

The lawyer bowed profoundly.

‘I have read all the morning papers,’ added the speaker. ‘What I most dreaded — the scandal — has been avoided, Not a hint, not a word.

‘For once the press has been muzzled,’ observed the man of law, with considerable satisfaction. ‘A hint, despite my precautions, had crept out, sufficient to find a paragraph upon, nothing more, or the expense would have been –‘

‘Never mind the expense,’ interrupted her ladyship. ‘We can stand that.’

‘True. Your niece’s fortune is large.’

‘Not a shilling of it must be withdrawn for such a purpose,’ said the aunt. ‘I ought to have been more upon my guard, knowing as I did the doubtful character of the Allworths. We will regulate that.’

Kate kissed her hand.

‘What is the matter, my love? You look dissatisfied.’

‘Not dissatisfied,’ replied the fair girl, ‘but I am fearful that those who protected Martha and myself will think us very ungrateful; we quitted them without a word. I should so like to see –‘

‘Not to be thought of, my love,’ exclaimed Lady Montague, in a tone of decision. ‘It might render all our precautions useless; but, of course, they shall be handsomely recompensed.’

Lawyer Whiston saw with surprise the tears which started in the eyes of the niece. More than once, when he had time to think over the conversation, the recollection of them set him musing.

‘Your ladyship’s wishes,’ he said, ‘can be easily carried out. I have ascertained the names of the two youths who drove your ward to London, and probably shall discover the third one, who really risked his life in a contest with the ruffians in the Red Barn. He is wretchedly poor,’ he added, ‘judging from your niece’s and Martha’s description of him. Something, I think, ought to be done for him.’

‘Very right and proper, Mr. Whiston,’ observed Lady Montague. ‘Act as you think best. I am certain you will be careful. I give you carte blanche.’

‘I should so like to see the gifts you purchase for them,’ said Kate. ‘I should be certain then of my wishes being carried out.’

‘Child!’ exclaimed her aunt, fondly, ‘can you not trust to the taste of our excellent friend here? But be it as you please. Mr. Whiston,’ she added, ‘you will be kind enough to send the presents you will purchase to Montague House. Lady Kate Kepple desires to see them.’

It would be curious to say what odd and improbable fancies met in the brains of the lawyer as he drove to Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

In the course of the day the groom of the chambers brought the cards of Viscount and Lady Allworth to his mistress, whose countenance changed as she read the names aloud.

‘You will not see them — for pity’s sake do not see them!’ exclaimed her niece, greatly agitated.

Her aunt reflected for several instants.

‘Since a meeting is inevitable,’ she said, at last, ‘as well now as at a future period. At home, Kate,’ she added, ‘you have nothing to fear; there are at least a dozen servants in the house, sufficient to protect us, should protection be needed; but I do not think it will. You are in London — not in a lone country house like Allworth Park. Remember the dignity of your sex — call up your pride. Let not those wretches see how they have made you suffer.’

When the two hypocrites entered the reception-room at Montague House, his lordship, with his usual courtly grace, advanced to pay his respects to his aged kinswoman. They were but coldly received.

Not so his wife. She had a different part to play. Rushing towards the poor girl who had so nearly fallen a victim to her deep-laid schemes, she threw her arms around her, kissed her with well-acted affection, exclaiming at the same time:

‘My sweet child, what have you not endured from that mad boy’s impetuous love? Who could have suspected such a headstrong passion in one so young, so manly as I thought him? But he is punished — punished in his hopeless love — the just anger of my lord, the grief of his mother. We have cast him off,’ she added, with a flood of tears, ‘forbidden him the house, refused even to see him.’

Considering that the young ruffian was at the very time comfortably lounging on a sofa and smoking under her own roof, the conscience of the speaker must have been exceedingly elastic.

‘You have acted with discretion,’ observed Lady Montague, with freezing dignity.

O, how the word ‘discretion,’ which was strongly emphasized, rankled in the heart of the manœuvering woman.

‘Could we do less,’ said the viscount, as calm and unruffled as if the discussion turned upon some trivial, everyday occurrence, ‘to mark our abhorrence of my step-son’s conduct? I have even insisted on his leaving the Guards and quitting England for a time till the affair blows over. Should he and Bury meet, I tremble for the consequences,’ he added.

‘My poor boy,’ sighed the viscountess, wringing her hands. ‘His only crime — not that I excuse it — is love.’

Kate shuddered, and her aunt smiled disdainfully.

‘What more can we do?’

‘Nothing,’ replied Lady Montague, coldly. ‘In fact, I scarcely anticipated that you would do so much.’

‘You never did me justice,’ observed his lordship, in the tone of a man who felt deeply hurt.

‘We can discuss that point some other time,’ answered the aunt.

‘Right!’ exclaimed both the visitors. ‘Our present task must be to stifle everything like scandal. It would be too dreadful!’

They were astonished when they saw how little effect the word scandal produced. It had been their great reliance.

‘There will be no scandal,’ remarked the aunt, ‘unless you circulate it.’

‘Oh, Lady Montague!’

‘I do not think you will, for your own sakes,’ continued the former speaker. ‘The chancellor kindly heard the application in his private chambers.’

‘Chancellor! Application!’ ejaculated Lord Allworth, as if it was the first time he had heard of any such proceedings.

‘Yes. I am now sole guardian of my niece’s person as well as fortune.’

‘Is this fair — is it even just, towards me?’ said Lord Allworth, in a tone of offended dignity. ‘On the slightest hint that such was your wish, I would have joined in the application to his lordship. What will the world think?’

‘I am not answerable for that,’ replied Lady Montague. ‘My first duty was to protect this dear child. If in doing so I have wronged you, I regret it deeply. Prove it to me, and I will do all in my power to atone.’

‘Time will do that.’

‘To time we had better leave it, then. I need not remind you, kinsman, that I am no longer young, Such discussions agitate me.’

‘I understand you, and will take my leave,’ said his lordship. ‘I may have been a gay man — a dissipated one, I do not deny it. But the world has never yet accused me of dishonour. Think calmly over my conduct in this lamentable affair. Anger and prejudice are bad counsellors. Promise me that you will do so, and I have no fear of the result.’

‘I do promise you,’ replied his kinswoman, with a little less coldness in her look and voice, ‘and I shall rejoice to find you blameless.’

With an air of injured innocence the visitors took their leave.

‘Hypocrites!’ whispered Lady Montague, as she embraced her niece.

‘Dupe!’ thought the viscountess, as she stepped into her carriage.

Her husband made no remark. He was reflecting on the interview.

The presents destined for their protectors proved to be two costly gold watches. Lady Kate Kepple examined them very closely, and insisted on making them up into two small packets herself; but her aunt directed them. But her niece had forgotten all but their Christians names.

Mr. Whiston, into whose care they were given, promised they should reach their destination quickly. They were left by a confidential agent at his own door.

When William opened his, a small slip of paper fell from the outer case. On it two words were written — ‘From Kate.’

O, how it set his young heart dreaming!

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

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