Mystery of the Marsh

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

Smith lingers over May Day while introducing a new source of conflict. The early twenty-first century reader may wince at the themes of gender and morality so firmly foregrounded. In our era we have the advent of LGBT rights, and concurrent with them, the destabilization, at least, of traditional gender identifications; such that perhaps the only truly defining characteristic remains the (optional) ability of a woman to bear offspring.

Women’s rights and equality, moreover, have been hard fought for and to an extent achieved, and we have come to expect the equivalent participation of women across the gamut of human endeavour, from politics and world leadership to sport. At the same time, the advance of a particular set of human rights collides with others and frictions arise with traditional religious ideas.

From the modern perspective, the Victorian ethos is beheld as the epitome of repression against which the progressive West measures its freedom of thought and existential identity. Though John Ruskin himself has been the butt of many jokes, there are few better spokespeople for the ideology of a culture that fundamentally prefigures our own.

His lecture ‘Of Queens’ Gardens’, published as one half of Sesame and Lilies (1865), outlines his ideals of femininity, defining the woman’s sphere as passive in relation to the man’s, and in the private domain of the home. At the same time, he ‘urges women to abandon trivial feminine pursuits in order to act as a moral force in countering the ills of society’ (Norton Anthology of English Literature).

Here are some quotations from Ruskin’s lecture, referring to the ‘place’ (the home) and ‘power’ of women, which echo in the instalment to follow:

We are foolish … in speaking of the ‘superiority’ of one sex to the other, as if they could be compared in similar things. Each has what the other has not: each completes the other and is completed by the other: they are nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give …

The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender …

But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle, — and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims and their places …

This is the true nature of home — it is the place of Peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division … And wherever a true wife comes, this home is always round her.

Of Queens’ Gardens (p. 20 ff.)


CHAPTER TEN

The May Day Sports Interrupted — The Bully and the Gentleman — A Manly Lover — A Poor Girl’s Resolution

‘What is the meaning of this disgraceful scene?’ demanded the baronet, walking in the midst of the crowd, composed mostly of his old and new tenants. ‘Nephew, will you explain?’

‘Better, ask some one else, uncle,’ replied the guardsman, laughingly. ‘You forget that I am a particeps criminis in the affair.’

This was the first intimation of the relation between their landlord and the unknown gentleman.

The bully began to feel cowed.

‘I need not ask,’ added Sir George, ‘since I see Mr. Burcham present. It is time these public outrages were put a stop to.’

‘High time,’ said the rector.

‘Leave him to me,’ exclaimed the lover of the pretty May Queen, ‘and I will answer for it he will not be in a hurry to recommence.’

‘And what have you to do with it?’ inquired the baronet mildly, for the speaker was rather a favorite with the old gentleman from his sporting accomplishments.

‘That is what I should like to know,’ muttered Farmer Randal.

‘Sir George,’ replied the young man, respectfully, ‘Phœbe is my betrothed wife. I love her very dearly, and she loves me. It is my right to defend her. Don’t cry, Phœbe,’ he added, ‘there is nothing to be ashamed of in an honest affection, although it is rather tough to be forced to speak of such things. When that thing, who calls himself a gentleman, tried to force her to dance with him — no modest girl could do so — your nephew stood forward like a man to protect her. God bless him! If ever he wants a true heart and a tolerably strong arm to defend him, he knows where to find them.’

The glowing countenance of the speaker, his untaught natural eloquence, and manly avowal of his love produced a favorable effect upon his hearers.

‘I was at a distant part of the green,’ continued Tom Randal, ‘when the row commenced. Burcham — Squire, as he calls himself — had already received some punishment. I claimed the right to finish him, which my lord here — I recollect him now — reluctantly consented to. It was my right to defend her, and I would have pounded the rascal to a jelly, if your honour and your friends had not interfered; but I only put off paying my debts: the first time we meet I intend to take a receipt in full.’

‘Very proper,’ said the baronet. ‘How very natural, I meant to say,’ he added, correcting himself; ‘but unfortunately, it would be illegal. Mr. Burcham you had better retire.’

‘I shall do nothing of the kind,’ replied the cowardly ruffian, sullenly. Conscious that in the presence of so many magistrates, no further contest would be permitted, he resolved to brave it out. ‘This is May Day, and though you are lord of the manor, the green is free to all.’

‘Who conduct themselves respectably,’ observed Sir George; ‘but vagrants, disorderly characters, and disturbers of the peace, I am fully authorised to remove. I shall commit you.’

‘I can give bail,’ observed Burcham with a sneer.

‘Or place you in the stocks,’ added Sir George, thoroughly roused.

At this there was a general shout of laughter.

‘And any magistrate present, I feel certain, will sign the warrant. Call the constables.’

As the bully said, he could easily have found bail, and lawyers to defend him, for he had plenty of money; but the stocks! Nothing could ever efface the ridicule of such an exposition. With an oath of future vengeance he broke through the crowd, and ran with the fleetness of a hound till he had cleared the village green. There was a general hiss on his flight.

During the rest of the day the sports were languidly carried out. Tom Randal never for an instant quitted the side of Phœbe. Vainly did his father call to him, his mother and sisters beckoned to him; summons and signs were alike unheeded. He knew his place, and stuck to it.

For several years the young farmer, who with Lord Bury had fairly divided the honours of the day, had been an object of speculation amongst those of his own class, who had daughters to dispose of in marriage. Mothers, of course, condoled with Mrs. Randal on her son’s having been so easily entrapped; the girls pouted and tossed their heads indignantly.

‘Phœbe Burr indeed!’ observed one.

‘Hasn’t an acre of land in the parish!’

‘Nor in any other parish,’ added a third. ‘The old organist can’t have saved much.’

The last observation, unfortunately, was strictly true, the old man’s salary being only forty pounds a year, and for that he had to train the choir, as well as attend two weekly services.

‘Tom was always a soft-hearted fool,’ said one of his sisters, spitefully. She was not only jealous of her brother, but detested the object of his choice.

‘Hold thee tongue, Bess!’ exclaimed her father, angrily. Not that he did not feel quite as much displeased at his son’s choice as the rest of the family, or had not come to a conclusion to break it off; but the old man was quite shrewd enough to perceive that abusing Phœbe was not the way to do it. ‘Thee was always envious of the gal because she has a prettier face than thine. It be only calf-love,’ he added, ‘and will die off of itself, if let alone.’

We question if the speaker felt much confidence in his own prediction. Still he was resolved to give the boy a chance. If Tom listened to reason, well and good; if not, then he would see.

If it were possible to tempt us to bet, we rather think we should feel inclined to back the son. How frequently have we seen prudent resolutions made, and fail from lack of temper in carrying them out. We suspect it will prove so with the farmer.

How frequently can one coarse mind destroy the enjoyment of many. To the May Day Queen her ephemeral dignity had proved anything but a source of pleasure; her name had been made the theme of village gossip, the sport of every tongue — and we know how charitable they are, especially in rustic communities. As soon as Sir George and his guests returned to the Hall, poor Phœbe retired to her father’s cottage. Her lover accompanied her. It had been by her own repeated requests that Tom had abstained from paying her any marked attentions, and kept at a distance from her mimic court. Not that he felt ashamed of his choice; on the contrary, he felt proud of it, and proved the depth as well as manlinesss of his attachment by proclaiming it openly to the world.

Queen of the May, 1875. Julia Margaret Cameron (British, 1815-1879). Albumen print from wet collodion negative. Public Domain. Source: Internet Archive (Cleveland Museum of Art)

With tender, truthful words, such as dwell on memory’s page long after they are uttered, he sought to soothe her delicacy and wounded pride, till he had the satisfaction of seeing something like a smile on her pale face. The shades of evening had fallen when he rose to depart. At the request of her lover, Phœbe consented to accompany him as far as the garden gate. Perhaps he thought to steal a kiss; if so, who shall blame him?

On reaching the limit of the enclosure the lovers paused; neither of them liked to say the word ‘good-night,’ and yet each felt that it was time to speak it.

‘I fear, Tom,’ said the fair girl, breaking their mutual silence, ‘that I can never be your wife.’

‘You will! You must!’ exclaimed the young farmer, impetuously.’What would life be without you?’

‘You forget that you have a father,’ the maiden hesitatingly replied; ‘and that without his consent I never will be yours.’

‘Phœbe! Phœbe!’ ejaculated her lover, imploringly.

‘I will bring discord into no family,’ continued the former; ‘happiness would fail to follow it. Remember how angry your father looked; how repeatedly he called you when you proclaimed the right to protect me.’

‘You do not know how well he loves me,’ replied her suitor, trustfully. ‘ He will fret and fume and rage at first — for I cannot conceal from myself that he has other views respecting me — but when he finds my happiness is really at stake, he will yield at last.’

‘Never!’ exclaimed a harsh voice near them.

The next instant Farmer Randal broke through the hedge, where he had been a concealed listener to their conversation.

‘I did not think, father,’ observed Tom, greatly hurt, ‘that you would play the spy upon me.’

‘Aye, thee father; and thee will find that his heart baint half so soft as thee do think. Leave that artful minx, and come home with me.’

The countenance of his son flushed, and then became pale. He had never disobeyed a command of his parent yet.

‘I will follow you in a few minutes,’ he replied. ‘I cannot accompany you now.’

‘Come home, I say,’ repeated the angry man.

‘For Heaven’s sake! go with him,’ whispered the terrified girl.

‘I will not!’ said her lover, firmly. ‘I am glad the discovery has been made, although it has not occurred in the manner I could have wished. I love her, father. You must have some memories in your heart to tell you what a first love means. You know that I am industrious. I will work harder than ever to please you. We are both young — willing to wait, if you exact the sacrifice; but one thing is certain: if Phœbe consents, she shall be my wife.’

‘Wife?’ repeated the old man, scornfully. ‘Why she hasn’t a penny! Knowing what a soft-hearted fool thee art, her mother has trained the artful hussy to catch thee.’

In his wrath the speaker would have struck his son a blow; but Tom caught his wrist in an iron grasp, and held it firmly till his father’s eyes quailed beneath his reproachful gaze.

‘Do not disgrace my manhood by an outrage it would be sacrilege to resent by a blow that must separate us for ever,’ replied his son, disengaging his wrist.

‘Thee has driven me half mad!’ was the reply.

Phœbe felt that it was time to interfere. The slanderous accusation against the mother she so dearly loved had aroused her indignation, and she confronted the speaker with eyes lit up by scorn at the outrage.

‘Mr. Randal,’ she said, ‘it is quite true that Tom and I love each other dearly — very dearly; equally true that I am poor. I do not deny it, Poorer, perhaps, than you suspect. But it is a wicked falsehood to accuse my mother of plotting to entrap your son.’

‘Maybe I was wrong there,’ growled the farmer.

‘You have a right to object to our marriage. I also have the right, to respect myself. Never will I consent to become the wife of your son till his father asks me.’

The old man gave a low, chuckling laugh.

‘Phœbe!’ exclaimed her lover, greatly agitated.

‘I have said it, and you know that I can keep my word, And now, Tom,’ she added, blushingly, ‘take the kiss you asked for — in this world probably the last; for rest assured of this, the lips you have once pressed shall never be pressed by another.’

The kiss was given and received. The lovers lingered over that parting embrace as if their heartstrings were twined together. Phœbe was the first to recover from the conflicting emotions which agitated both, and tearing herself from the arms of the young farmer, tottered rather than walked into her father’s humble cottage.

The poor fellow stood gazing after her, the image of mute despair.

‘Come home, Tom,’ said the old man, mildly, for he, too, felt touched by the sorrow of his son. ‘She be a good gal, after all,’ he added.

‘God forgive you, father; you have broken my heart,’ murmured the poor fellow.

The next instant he bounded over the hedge and disappeared. The farmer tried to follow him, thinking to soothe him with soft promises of future indulgence, but soon gave up the chase for want of breath.

‘Ah, well,’ he muttered, as he sank panting on one of the benches prepared for the May Day visitors — ‘I beant as spry as I once wor. Ugh! Tom can outrun me. Then what a grip he has! I am glad I didn’t strike him — not that he would have hit back again; too manly for that.

‘It be all calf love,’ he continued, ‘felt it once myself. Father wouldn’t hear of it, so I sulked for three days; refused my food; but, then, I milked the cows in the barn, and that kept me up like. I wonder if the boy will think of that. He will be back in three days, or four at the furthermost, and then I’ll buy him the colt that he took a fancy to. That will make it all right.’

Here we must anticipate the progress of events and inform our readers that not only did the four days but as many weeks, nay, months, elapse before Farmer Randal received the least intelligence of his son.

Although Sir George Meredith, on hospitable cares intent, did his best to entertain his guests, the dinner somehow passed heavily. He told his best stories, and scarcely elicited a smile. His daughter too, appeared dull and dispirited; her cousin calm as usual, as might have been expected, for his lordship rarely indulged in sentiment. Being in the Guards, of course he had a horror of gushing.

The rector and his lady were the first to move; the worthy man had his sermon to write.

‘Hang the sermon!’ exclaimed his host. Struck by the impropriety of the expression, he instantly added: ‘I don’t mean that; excellent things in their way. I thought to make a night of it. Preach one of your old ones; that about the Pelagians. Like to hear it again; never understood it.’

‘Nor any one else,’ the speaker might have added.

The suggestion was artfully made, but failed in its intended effect, although the subject was a favorite one with the learned churchman, who looked upon the denial of original sin with orthodox horror. Possibly the last observation of the baronet — that he never understood, the sermon — had something to do with the reverend gentleman’s refusal to remain.

The Nevilles went next — that is to say, all but Rose. She and Clara Meredith had long been intimate friends. They compared observations, criticised men creatures together, and had no secrets from each other. Girls are something like boys in one respect — they must have a confidant till they win a lover, and then their confessions become more guarded; not that friendship has grown cold — it has only become discreet.

Older readers can easily understand why Rose Neville remained at the Hall for a few days.

Captain Waterpark and Lord Wiltshire and the rest of the guests soon followed. And the owner of the Hall began to feel in an irritable humor.

‘Well, Bury,’ he observed, ‘I suppose you find yourself considerably bored by your visit. Had you written to inform me of’ your intention, I would have asked some of your set down to meet you.’

‘Not at all necessary, my dear uncle,’ replied his lordship. ‘So far from feeling bored, I have been highly amused. Fond of studying character.’

‘Pretty specimen, that fellow Burcham,’ said the baronet. ‘Glad you thrashed him. Would have done it myself had I been ten years younger. Believe I can do it now. Great mind to try it.’

‘Oh, papa! papa!’ exclaimed Clara.

‘Don’t look frightened, pet,’ said her father. ‘I am not going to make myself so ridiculous as that.

His nephew felt delighted to hear there is a limit; if rather a wide one, to the eccentricities of his relative.

‘Mr. Burcham in society?’ he asked.

‘No,’ answered Sir George pettishly; ‘admitted to the hunt; a mere outsider. Can’t avoid that; he owns the best cover in the country.’

‘But not to the county balls,’ observed Rose Neville.

‘Or at any house where there are ladies in the family,’ added Clara.

‘I see; a native of the debatable land,’ said her cousin.

The ladies retired; they had their own little confidences to make and compare notes on the events of the day.

Albert Anker (1831 — 1910). Still Life with two glasses of red wine, a bottle of wine, a corkscrew and a plate of biscuits on a tray. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

‘You have made out anything but a pleasant time,’ observed the uncle to his nephew; ‘do better, I trust, tomorrow. Touch the bell — thank you.’

The summons was answered by the butler, whom his master ordered to bring up a bottle of choice Burgundy.

‘No such wine to be had in the market now,’ observed the old gentleman, complacently eyeing the sparkling nectar. ‘Don’t often produce it. Stock getting low. We will finish it together.’

‘One glass, with pleasure,’ replied Lord Bury, ‘and then good night. I have a drawing to make for my cousin in the morning.’

‘O, nonsense! Put it off.’

‘Impossible; I have given a promise.’

The glass was taken, and his lordship withdrew to his own room.

‘Milksop!’ growled his relative, distastefully. ‘Not a headache in a hogshead of the wine. No, he is not,’ he added, as kindlier thoughts and recollections stole over him; ‘and hang me if I don’t call out the first man who utters a word against him; could not have done it better myself in my best days; perhaps not quite so well.’

This was rather a remarkable admission for the speaker to make, who, like most old men, prided himself on what he had been.

‘How well he has behaved,’ he continued, pursuing his reflections, ‘to that old scamp, his father. It was a cruel trick he played him. The loss of Chellston must have galled him. Wish I had not bought it now. Not that I suspected foul play till the lawyer told me all about it in confidence. If the boy is not a fool, the estate may be his again. But mum — must not breathe that thought, even to myself. Clara would never forgive me. I wonder if she likes the fellow.’

The baronet pursued his reflections till the Burgundy was exhausted, and then, with the assistance of his valet and the butler, retired to bed, to awake in the morning with all the premonitory symptoms of a violent attack of gout.

The fit proved an unusually severe one. Whilst it lasted Clara and Rose were his constant attendants. At the end of ten days the violence of the attack had considerably abated, and the patient, who had been anything but patient, insisted, on the twelfth, that his daughter and her friend should take a canter to recover the roses they had lost.

Their first visit was to the cottage of the old organist. They found poor Phœbe greatly changed. Her eyes had lost their lustre; the innocent mirth which once sparkled in them was gone; and the two dark circles which grief had drawn around them showed too plainly the effects of sorrow. As they noticed the change the indignation of her visitors at the cruelty of Farmer Randal became roused, and the heiress then and there made a vow not to rest till she had brought the old man to his senses.

‘You are very kind,’ said the ex-May Queen, ‘and I feel so grateful. I am sure Tom would. I am quite hopeless. When his father told me that I had ensnared his son by arts and wiles, I bore it patiently; but when he accused my dear, good mother of plotting with me to entrap him, I felt so angry and unforgiving that I declared I would never be his son’s wife unless his father came to our cottage to ask me.’

‘Very proper,’ exclaimed Rose Neville.

‘The farmer is a slandering, wicked, unreasonable monster. I see I must take him into my own hands. Entrap, indeed! As if any modest girl would lay herself out to entrap any man. How little does he know our sex,’ she added.

Hem! We are not quite certain that we can honestly endorse the last observation, but we believe the speaker was sincere in making it.

‘Have you heard from Tom?’ asked the young lady.

‘No,’ replied the poor girl, yielding to her tears. ‘I know that everything is at an end between us; still he might have written or sent a message that he was safe, just in a friendly way. Dear, dear, I shall never see him again.’

‘You shall!’ exclaimed Clara Meredith, pained by the sorrow of her former playmate. ‘More, you shall be his wife, and I will give you your wedding dress. I have not the slightest idea how I shall bring it about. You know I never yet set my mind on anything that I did not, accomplish. Don’t fret; make haste to recover your good looks; that is a duty every girl owes herself. Tom must not find you changed when he comes back.’

The two visitors quitted the cottage to resume their ride, leaving hope and consolation behind them.

‘O, if he should soon return. I only want to know that he is safe.’

Probably she thought so. The heart dissembles even to itself.

It was not without design, or rather the hope of meeting the old man, that the fair equestrians returned to the Hall by way of the Randal farm. They were not disappointed, but came upon the occupant walking moodily along the shady land connecting it with the high road.

The ladies checked their horses.

Some are born with tact, others never can acquire it. The first lead gently and almost imperceptibly to the point they seek; the latter jump at it, and frequently miss it.

‘Well, farmer,’ said the heiress, as her father’s richest tenant stood bareheaded before her, ‘how is the good dame?’

‘Not very well, my lady; trouble has come upon us. Tom has run away.’

‘Sorry to hear it. I thought he was such a good son.’

‘He beant a bad one,’ replied the father, quickly; ‘he be only a fool; gone off because I would not listen to his marrying Burr the organist’s daughter. I ha’ been to Ipswich, Yarmouth, and even as far as Norwich, to find him, but can’t hear naught of him. I fear he’s gone and listed.’

‘I regret to hear it,’ repeated Clara, with difficulty repressing her satisfaction, for she began to read the speaker rightly; ‘but you have some consolation.’

‘Have I, my lady?’

‘Two excellent daughters.’

‘Yes, to be sure; the gals are well enough!’

‘Bess, I hear, is to marry young Watson.’

‘Some talk on it, my lady.’

‘So that if Tom should get shot, drowned at sea, or never come back, there will be no danger of the farm going out of the family. To be sure,’ she added, carelessly, ‘it will not be a Randal. Good-day.’

‘I fear, Clara,’ observed her friend, after they had resumed their ride, ‘that our sex are naturally inclined to be a little cruel. Did you notice how the old man winced when you alluded to the possibility of his son’s being shot or drowned?’

‘I did notice it replied the heiress; ‘but I thought of Phœbe, and conscience told me I was right. The farmer has a hard nature. It is only by constantly hammering one can produce the least impression.’

I must be cruel only to be kind.

‘I have resolved,’ added the speaker, ‘to see my old playmate happy with her lover, who really deserves her, and begin to think I perceive the way.’

‘It will not be a Randal,’ repeated the farmer, several times to himself. The words had stung him deeply. ‘It shan’t be a Watson, anyway. I’ll shut my gals up fust — make nuns of ’em. I ha’ heard that nuns don’t marry. Tom be a bad boy, though I wouldn’t own to it, to cross his old father. Why, I always let him have his own way.’

The speaker should have added, when it happened to be his own as well. Clara Meredith was right. Some men have hard natures and require a deal of hammering.


Notes and Further Reading

I’ll keep good the promise made by one of my 1883 newspaper sources:

In tomorrow’s issue a synopsis will be given of that portion of The Mystery of the Marsh which has already been published, in order that new readers may be enabled to take up the following chapters with a knowledge of what has preceded.

Perhaps not tomorrow as such, but before the next instalment, anyway.

‘on hospitable cares intent’: Generic misquotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost, ‘on hospitable thoughts intent’ (5.332). Sir Walter Scott (Redgauntlet, Ch. 11, 1824) and Anthony Trollope’s brother Tom Trollope (A Summer in Brittany, 1840) also use the misquoted phrase.

‘the Pelagians’: Followers of Pelagius (c. 354 — post-418), a monk and theologian, probably born in Britain, who espoused a belief in the freedom of human will, especially concerning the question of spiritual salvation, as opposed to inherent dependency upon Adam’s original sin.

‘native of the debatable land’: Originally a specific politico-geographical reference, as in Walter Scott’s Introduction to Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802 — 03): “At this time [mid-16th C], also, the Debateable Land, a tract of country, situated betwixt the Esk and Sarke, claimed by both kingdoms, was divided by royal commissioners, appointed by the two crowns.” By the nineteenth century, the term had been extended to apply to other, comparable regions. (See Claire Lamont and Michael Rossington, Romanticism’s Debatable Lands [Macmillan, 2007]).

Hence Burcham, while considered persona non grata and not invited to respectable affairs, has no problem posting bail, and though ‘a mere outsider’, owns ‘the best cover in the country’ and must therefore be admitted to the hunt.

I must be cruel only to be kind: Italics added to the quotation from Hamlet, Act 3, scene 4, 173-9, which is differentiated typographically in the newspaper copies.

Holly Furneaux, ‘Victorian Sexualities’, online at the British Library website.

John Ruskin, ‘Of Queens’ Gardens‘, Ballantyne Press (1902). Beautiful digital facsimile available free online at Internet Archive (see above link).

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