Mystery of the Marsh

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

Picture a May Day festival on an English village green, complete with Morris dancers and maypole, the main setting for this instalment. May Day is a tradition widespread in the Northern Hemisphere, celebrating fertility and the return of Spring. There are indeterminate roots in the pagan Roman Floralia, dedicated to the goddess Flora, in which participants danced and wore floral wreaths.

The popularity of the festival was intermittent across the centuries. Some argue that the British May Day tradition in its present form was a reinvention of the Victorians, who formalized and cleansed it of risqué pagan elements.

Despite the fact that they were, in reality, the usual celebrants, adolescents were excluded from direct participation in such sentimentalized representations. It would seem that even the image of teenagers of both sexes gathering flowers in the woods on a spring morning might have been considered immoral (as the practice itself certainly was considered; maying’s potential as an opportunity for youthful sexual adventures was one reason why the festivals had nearly been suppressed early in the century.)

Louise Lippincott, Lawrence Alma Tadema: Spring (1990)

In 1881 John Ruskin (1819–1900), the uber-influential writer, art critic, and social reformer, inaugurated a new style of May Festival at Whitelands College in London, which was emulated throughout England. He borrowed from European festivals, with their Queen of May and weaving together of ribbons that hung down from the top of the maypole. Students elected, in Ruskin’s words, the ‘nicest and likablest’ among them to be May Queen — someone ‘full of pure and uncontending natural worth’ (The Companion).

Ruskin, by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1885. Public Domain. Source: LIFE Photo Archive; Wikimedia Commons

It is tempting to see in Smith’s use of the festival, below, an emphatic nod to Ruskin, given the wholesome nature of his own heroes and heroines, and his constant promotion of values inherent in a rural way of life. In particular, his passage on the adverse effects of aspects of contemporary change — ‘an unnatural system of forcing’ — upon youth and courtship, is redolent of Ruskin’s polemic against nineteenth-century industrial capitalism.


The May-Day Festival — An Old-Fashioned Country Squire and his Guests — Arrival of an Unexpected Visitor

Sir George Meredith felt extremely gratified by his purchase of Chellston; not that he cared much about the revenue derived from it, being already sufficiently rich, but it rounded his estate and increased his interests in the county. He could now turn the elections. The world said that he wanted a peerage; they were mistaken; he had twice refused it. Probably his having no son had something to do with it.

On his rare visits to London the fashionable world in which his ancient name and large fortune entitled him to move, pronounced him a little coarse; not in mind, for he was manly, upright, and honest. But, then, he shocked their conventionalities, not by any positive vulgarisms — he was too much of a gentleman for that — but by doing things in his own way. For instance, when he gave a dinner-party, he would invite any of his neighbors from the country who happened to be in town. Frock-coats might occasionally be seen at them, and even top-boots.

Our readers, probably, will wonder why a man so perfectly indifferent to the usage of the world — he never neglected its proprieties — should have been so generally welcomed. The reason will appear sufficiently plain when we inform them that he had an only daughter — the greatest heiress in the eastern counties.

Clara Meredith was not strictly beautiful; some did not consider her even pretty. She possessed a fine figure, black, curly hair, eyes of the same color that sparkled with wit and humour. Sometimes there appeared a slight touch of sarcasm in her conversation. It was not very pronounced, but it made her enemies. The only thing society really admired in her was her horsemanship. Trained by her father to the hunting-field, she had become a matchless rider. Her first appearance in the Park created quite a sensation. Clara had been presented at court; passed one season in London, which she pronounced a bore, and then returned joyously to her home, vowing never again to quit it. Her father and friends laughed at her, predicting that she would one day change her resolution. The saucy girl shook her head and merely answered:

‘We shall see.’

Possibly she felt piqued. Not by her want of success at balls, routs, and flower shows; but she did think it strange that her cousin, Lord Bury, had not been introduced to her. It was negligent on his part, to say the least of it. They had never met since they were both children; but his lordship had seen her in the Park, and pronounced her not his style of girl — an opinion he kept strictly to himself, and only imparted it to his father when that scheming nobleman ‘hinted’ at a marriage between them. As our readers may recollect, his lordship scouted the idea.

Chellston lay heavy on his heart. Not so much for the value of the place as its associations. His boyhood had been passed there. At Chellston he had experienced a mother’s love, rode his first pony, fired his first shot upon its lands. Having an idle week upon his hands, Lord Bury made up his mind to revisit the still fondly-remembered spot. It was his last chance of doing so, for the London season was about to commence. The first of May was near at hand.

‘It will be the more galling,’ he thought. ‘I must visit with those I do not care to meet — wear a smiling face. The world must not suspect how shamelessly I have been duped. The honor of our name must be preserved.’

Chellston, really, is a very pretty village, situated a few miles from Scole, on the borders of Norfolk. In the centre an extensive green, dotted on the skirts with comfortable-looking farmhouses; it had also a church, school, and, what is rarely now to be met with in once merry England, a lofty May-pole, the pride of the inhabitants, who were entitled, by long-established custom, to cut down the tallest tree once in ten years growing on the adjacent common. Some said a charter existed to that effect. Be that as it may, in our time the lord of the manor had never disputed the right.

Poets love to dwell on the resemblance between human life and the seasons of the year. Youth and May are both the springtime of the future. First they put forth delicate, sensitive leaves, which shrink alike from the cold embrace of winter and too sudden contact with the summer’s sultry breath.

The world has lost much of its freshness. Since the race of life became so keenly contested from an unnatural system of forcing, the human plant loses in perfume more than it gains in strength; and even that is fictitious. The mere boy springs like a young gladiator from the school-room into the arena; advances by antagonism; the warning cry, ‘Woe to the conquered,’ excites instead of restraining him. His courage may be high, but it is pitted against the craft of age; his impulses pure, till the cynical lessons of experience force him to change his weapons, and the battle is renewed upon more equal ground.

The result is generally unfortunate. Youth has no latent forces to rely upon.

Even in that sex whose domain is beauty, whose influence has civilised the world, whose smile adds lustre to the poet’s wreath and the soldier’s laurel, without whose presence home becomes an empty word, the change has been equally great. What we complain of is, there are more women and fewer girls — girls in the artless, loving, lovable sense of the word. Courtship has lost much of its charm since Cupid’s shafts have been aimed at the pocket rather than the heart.

Toilet, too, has become an important enemy to matrimony.

Oh! for the days when simple muslin was an institution as sacred to girlhood as satins and velvets to matron dignity and honoured age; when a bright-coloured ribbon, more or less, a rose in the hair, made all the difference between morning and evening dress; when dainty feet, instead of being confined in instruments of torture, which cripple them, were cased in tiny slippers; when girls could dance and —

Patience, reader! Patience! These murmurings are but the echoes of an old man’s dreams, drawn from his recollections of a world that has passed away.

On the first of May not only the population of Chellston but most of the neighbouring villages were on foot at an early hour. Great preparations had been made; the May-pole duly garlanded; a rustic throne of turf and spring flowers erected for the mimic queen — an uncommonly pretty, modest girl, the daughter of John Burr, organist of the village church.

Seats also had been prepared for Sir George Meredith, his family and friends. As lord of the manor, he held it almost a religious duty to attend the May-Day games, distribute prizes to the morris dancers, and keep order by his presence.

Just as the baronet was about to proceed to the green, accompanied by his daughter and guests, a carriage drove up to the door of the mansion, and a servant announced Lord Bury. The eyes of Clara and her father met; those of the former had a rather saucy expression in them.

‘At last,’ said the old gentleman, ‘it is time that he renewed his acquaintance with us. I thought the loss of Chellston,’ he added, in a whisper, ‘would bring him down.’

‘Come to look over the estate and its incumbrances,’ answered the young lady, warily. ‘I wonder what he is like?’ The question was asked mentally.

‘If I thought that, I’d –‘

What her father would have done, most probably will never be known, for his words were cut short by the appearance of his nephew, whom he received with just that fitting amount of cordiality due to a relative and a visitor — nothing more. Sir George was not without tact.

‘Allow me to introduce you to my friends. The Nevilles, mother and two daughters;  Lord Wiltshire and his sisters, our worthy rector and his wife — ought to have named them first; Captain Waterpark — but, of course, you are acquainted with him, seeing that you are both in the army; Count Villa Benson, and others, are on the lawn; and last,’ he added, ‘your saucy cousin Clara.’

His daughter courtesied demurely.

‘You mean mischief, Clara,’ whispered her friend, Rose Neville, to the heiress. I can read it in your eyes.’

‘Perhaps,’ was the reply.

Lord Bury received the introductions with well-bred ease, but rather coldly — but, then, it must be remembered that he was in the Guards; shook hands with the Nevilles and Wiltshire — they were of the best families in the county; elevated his eyebrows slightly at the supposition that he and Captain Waterpark were already acquainted, being both in the army. The speaker ought to have known that the Guards had a club-house of their own and rarely fraternised with the line. Having done all he considered necessary, he turned his attention to Clara. His first attempts at conversation were anything but successful.

‘I should scarcely have known you, cousin,’ he said, in that soft, low tone with which a true gentleman invariably addresses those of the opposite sex. ‘You are so grown.’

‘I have had nothing else to do,’ answered the young lady, very quietly. ‘You, too, are changed — almost a man — so different from the little boy in red morocco shoes and black velvet jacket that used to go birds’ nesting with me! Do you recollect falling from the willow-tree? How you floundered in the pond till the farmer’s son pulled you out with a hay-rake, and how you cried over the loss of one of your pretty red shoes?’

The gravity with which the speaker had commenced her reply appeared to give way to the remembrance of the scene, and she laughed heartily.

‘Is the girl an idiot, or merely trying to make me appear ridiculous?’ thought her cousin, as he bowed to conceal his annoyance at the scarcely suppressed smile on the countenances of the guests which the description had called up.

‘I have frequently thought,’ added the heiress, ‘how much I should like to have a sketch of the scene; it would make such an interesting picture. The old towers in the distance, your lordship floundering like a Newfoundland dog — a very young one, of course, for old ones swim beautifully; the farmer’s boy with the hay-rake, and poor I, screaming like a frightened goose at the edge of the pond. O, it would be delicious.’

‘What does Clara mean by red shoes, Newfoundland dogs, and pond?’ muttered Sir George Meredith to himself, ‘I must put a stop to this folly.’

Perhaps he had better let it alone.

Whether the new owner of Chellston entertained similar ideas to Viscount Allworth on the subject of a marriage of their children, we cannot venture to decide; certainly he had never hinted at such a project. He loved his daughter too well, and felt too proud of her to offer her hand to anyone.

Lord Bury no longer asked himself if his cousin were an idiot. He had seen too much of the world not to detect her real character at once. She was piqued, and had taken her own way of showing it; Clara had passed a season in London. His lordship must have known it, yet he had never once called or proffered the slightest attention, although they were such near relatives.

The young guardsman was as generous as he was proud, and he reflected on his conduct, scarcely blamed her; still he felt mortified, and determined to meet her with her own weapons. As they were neither of them in love, the combat promised to be an amusing one.

‘My friends tell me,’ he observed, ‘that I possess some talent with the pencil. I will do my best to carry out your idea, on one condition.’

That I stand and scream on the edge of the pond?’ asked Clara archly.

‘That you accept it when it is finished,’ added her cousin, gracefully; ‘not that it will be worthy of you, but recollections go for something.’

‘Can’t wait any longer,’ exclaimed the baronet, looking at his watch. ‘The tenants and villagers will  think I am dead or laid up with a fit of the gout. Egbert, give your cousin your arm. May Day is a sort of family festival. Never mind your travelling dress; your valet will arrange your things long before you return.’

This was the first intimation that he expected his nephew to take up his residence at the Hall.

‘Mrs. Neville, accept my escort, The rector will take charge of his wife, and the rest of our young friends pair off as they please. Hey for the green.’

The arrangements were made just as the speaker suggested. Everyone felt satisfied, with the exception perhaps of Clara. She had fenced well — made the first hit — but felt that the second one counted against her.

Sarcasm is a dangerous game for girls to play at; they get the worst of it, especially if the weapons of their antagonists are polished ones.

‘An Old English Custom Dancing Round the Maypole on the Village Green’, engraving, c. 1896, from The Graphic newspaper (cropped). Robert Walker Macbeth (1848-1910).

When Sir George Meredith and his friends appeared upon the green the rustic crowd set up a loud shout of welcome, and a chorus of young girls sang the following madrigal, set to music by the old organist in honor of the day:

Come, gentle May,
Spring for thy sweet breath is sighing;
Fading away,
The cold storms of winter are dying;
And maidens fair
Are seeking their woodland bowers,
To deck their hair
With wreaths of thy beautiful flowers.

During the execution of the music, Phœbe Burr, the daughter of the composer, and elected queen of the day, quitted her father’s cottage and walked with modest gracefulness towards the rustic seat prepared for her reception. She was dressed simply in white; not an ornament of any kind except a wreath of maythorn, which contrasted admirably with her dark flowing hair and sparkling black eyes. We question if coquetry itself could have devised a more striking costume. The crowd stared at first, for hitherto the maidens chosen to preside over the rural festival had been accustomed to attire themselves in all the finery they could beg or borrow from the ladies’ maids of the neighbouring gentry.

The change was a great innovation, but it took.

‘She is very beautiful, is she not?’ observed Clara to her cousin.

‘Dangerously so,’ replied his lordship, abstractedly.

The young lady repeated the word, archly.

‘Not to me,’ continued  the young guardsman; ‘for I have long since schooled my heart to offer no homage to beauty which honor could not accept.’

‘Ah! yes, I understand; birth, wealth, and all those troublesome kind of things,’ said his cousin. ‘To some minds they are indispensable.’

‘Birth, certainly,’ said her cousin, ‘as far as it guarantees careful training and high principles; but no farther. As for wealth,’ he added, ‘I can afford to, dispense with that, although I have lost Chellston –‘

‘It was a cruel trick Lord Allworth played you.’

‘Not a word more upon that subject, I entreat you,’ interrupted her companion, hastily. ‘I have made no complaint; shall make none. The honour of my father is sacred to me as my own, and has never been questioned by me.’

Clara Meredith regarded him earnestly, and read in his open countenance the perfect sincerity of his words. They had the true ring in them.

‘Have I misjudged him?’ she asked herself. ‘They described him to me in London as a mere moth of pleasure, an empty-headed coxcomb, a thing without heart or brains. Now I begin to find that he has both.’

This little mental soliloquy has let our readers into one secret — that the heiress had been exceedingly curious respecting the character of her cousin, and received her impressions from those the least likely to judge him fairly. Of course the allusion to Chellston and Lord Allworth was dropped.

‘At any rate,’ she added, ‘he is not effeminate.’ This had been one of the charges brought against his lordship.

As soon as Phœbe Burr had taken her seat the maidens chosen to attend upon her during the day advanced with a prettily decorated basket filled with small bouquets of the May flower. It was the privilege of the queen to present them to the lord of the manor and his guests.

As the girls presented their gifts, they sang a species of invocation, in which only female voices joined:

Bright Queen of the May Day, young Queen of an hour,
Whose throne is the greensward; whose sceptre a flower;
Come forth in thy beauty and reign in thy bower.
We have rifled the green woods as rifles the bee,
We have stripped of its blossoms the white hawthorne tree;
And are come with the sweet spoils in homage to thee.

When the mimic queen presented Clara with her floral tribute the heiress kissed her upon the cheek. They were about the same age; had been playmates in childhood; and the young lady still retained an affectionate attachment for her simple friend.

‘Cousin,’ she whispered in the ear of her companion, ‘you could afford me a very great pleasure.’

‘To hear is to obey,’ replied his lordship. ‘Tell me how.’

‘Commence the sports by dancing with the May Day Queen.’

‘Will that be fitting?’

‘Fitting!’ repeated the wilful girl. ‘My father always did so till age and the gout compelled him to give up the privilege. True, he was not in the Guards.’

This last observation, we fear, had a touch of her old sarcasm.

‘It cannot be out of place,’ replied her cousin, ‘to follow the example of Sir George Meredith, although I am in the Guards.’

Clara felt the reproof, and coloured to the temples.

‘Present me to her sylvan majesty,’ he added.

The invitation was given, and frankly accepted. Phœbe was no coquette, and felt pleased with her partner, who treated her with as much deference as he would have shown to a duchess. His lordship not having visited the neighbourhood since he was a child in red morocco shoes, scarcely a person out of his own set recognised him. There were many surmises that followed, naturally. By the peasantry and young farmers he was set down to be one of their own class, to which error the simplicity of his plain travelling dress not a little contributed.

The dance being ended, Lord Bury led the mimic queen back to her rustic throne, thanked her for the honor she had conferred, and returned to the side of his cousin.

Scarcely had he withdrawn from the group, when a tall young fellow, familiarly known by the name of Ned Burcham, or the Squire, broke through the circle. Although possessed of some property, and of a respectable family, he held an anomalous position in the neighbourhood, being as the Neville girls said, neither fish nor fowl — in other words, he was not recognised in society. The exclusion was a just one, his manners and mind being equally coarse.

Still he was not without his admirers amongst the lower orders, who made way for him.

‘Why, Phœbe, girl,’ he exclaimed, ‘you look deucedly pretty, but you ought to have waited. You might have known that I intended to stand up in the first round with you, and not have given your hand to that puppy. But come! It is not too late.’

He held out his hand. The May Queen saw that he had been drinking, and shrank back timidly.

‘Thank you, squire,’ she answered, hesitatingly, ‘but I do not intend to dance again. I have so much to do; the prizes to distribute, and –‘

‘Nonsense!’ interrupted the uncouth suitor, seizing her not very gently by the band. ‘I know better than that. We shall be waited for.’

Phœbe uttered a faint scream, and there were a few cries of ‘Shame!’

‘Bury,’ said the heiress, her face flushing with indignation at the insult to her former playmate, ‘see if that drunken fellow, Burcham, is not trying to drag the May Queen from her seat.’

To relinquish the arm of his cousin, dart back to the spot he had so lately quitted, and hurl the ruffian sprawling upon the grass, was with his lordship the work of an instant.

Squire Ned rose to his feet, and stood glaring on his antagonist with a look of mingled rage and astonishment that anyone should presume to interfere with his amusements.

‘Who are you?’ he growled, at last.

‘A man. Perhaps you will inform me how things like you designate themselves,’ was the reply.

‘I? O, I am gentleman.’

‘A what? A gentleman!’ repeated his lordship, in a tone of contempt more cutting than anger, more galling than passion. ‘Pooh! you are not even the outline of one. You do not know the meaning of the word. Not one of these honest rustics who witnessed your ruffianly conduct but possesses a better claim to the title than you can show.’

‘At any rate, I can fight,’ observed the infuriated bully, stung to the quick by the retort. At the same instant he rushed upon his antagonist with the intention, as he proclaimed aloud, of giving the young puppy a lesson. Ned Burcham could not have selected a more intractable scholar. Eton had trained his lordship, Oxford given him his degree in more sciences than one, and the Guards — whatever their folly and shortcomings — failed to make him effeminate. Thrice did the village tyrant measure his length upon the sward beneath his well-planted blows. It was the general opinion of the crowd that Squire Ned had found his match at last.

In justice to my fellow-countrymen I cannot avoid making one observation. Englishmen have been accused of showing undue subserviency to rank and wealth — in fact, to celebrity of every kind — and with some reason, perhaps; but this much I can fearlessly assert for them — true manliness and courage will always excite their admiration.

The third time Squire Ned went down a hearty cheer was given for the young stranger.

The contest was about to be renewed, when a young farmer, his eyes flashing with passion, arrived upon the scene. He was powerfully built, and if not remarkably handsome, had an open, manly countenance.

‘Thanks,’ he said, grasping the hand of Lord Bury warmly. ‘If ever you require a friend, call upon Tom Randal. You must leave this bully to me.’

‘O, dear, no!’ replied the guardsman, ‘I have not half done with him yet. He will stand considerably more pounding yet.’

‘I tell you, it’s my right.’

‘Can’t see it,’ was the cool rejoinder.

‘I repeat that it is. I am the accepted lover of Phœbe Burr. And now the murder is out.’

The mother, father, and two maiden aunts of the speaker, wealthy farmers, lifted up their hands in speechless astonishment. His sister only smiled; probably she was in his confidence.

‘Well,’ said his lordship, after reflecting for an instant, ‘that certainly does make a difference, and I at once withdraw my claim. On my honour, I do it reluctantly.’

The contest, however, was not destined to be renewed.

The baronet and the gentlemen of his party had now reached the scene of contention. Several of the latter, as well as their host, were magistrates, and Lord Wiltshire a deputy lieutenant of the county.

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

Notes and Further Reading

‘measure his length upon the sward’: ‘Sward’ is a literary term for an expanse of short grass. Thus the phrase means to knock him down.

‘the murder is out’: said when something is suddenly revealed or explained. A similar expression is ‘murder will out’, as in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale (c. 1386): ‘Mordre wol out that se we day by day’ (OED). 

Louise Lippincott, Lawrence Alma Tadema: Spring (1990). Available online (pdf) at Getty Publications Virtual Library.

The Companion, available online from The Guild of St. George, a charitable education trust founded by John Ruskin in 1871. For the quotations see, for example, numbers 8 (2008) and 11 (2011).

Spence, Margaret E., ”The Guild of St George: Ruskin’s attempt to translate his ideas into practice” (1957), Bulletin of the John Ryland’s Library.  Available online at escholar, University of Manchester Library.

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