Mystery of the Marsh

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

This chapter presents insights into the motivations and machinations in play at the ‘higher end’ of society. A far cry from Mrs. Hurst’s scheme to have William and Goliah banged up for the ‘theft’ of the horse and wagon, motivated partially by her rivalry with Mrs. Gob over her excellent butter.

Nevertheless, the differences appear to be more in terms of their degrees of subtlety and complexity rather than in essence. Smith presents the moral attributes of the characters in a system of defined binary oppositions, which work at times to undercut each other in the same character. Someone who wears a ‘black hat’ in the first instance may be shown subsequently to have redeeming qualities to some extent. (Cinema quite commonly applies similar techniques.)

It seems on cue to turn, as we do in the present chapter, to a deeper context of meaning for his play of morality and human nobility. The scene in the regimental headquarters of the Royal Life Guards and Horse Guards (also known as The Blues) serves to diminish the importance of the social hierarchy per se, with this proximity to royalty and empire.

These are the two most senior regiments of the Royal Household Cavalry, dating to the restoration of Charles II in 1660. They boasted an illustrious record of service at home and abroad in any number of theatres of war over the subsequent centuries, including Waterloo.

In the Victorian era, the British Empire had become one upon which ‘the sun never set’. A certain mode of history — ‘Whig historiography’ — assumed popularity, one that viewed this position of world leadership as a logical and inevitable development, a march towards global enlightenment based on the principles enshrined in British governance.

Lord Macaulay’s (1800–1859) five-volume History of England (1848) is considered the archetype of Whig history. But guess in whose history we can discern shades? Correct: in John Frederick Smith’s own volume of the nine-volume Cassell’s lIlustrated History of England (1874):

The slow building of a constitution which finds no parallel in the world is the most distinctive, as it is the largest feature in English history … If we do not profit in heart and head by the experience which the ages have gathered for us — if we do not grow, as they would have us, not only in wisdom but in humility, in moderation, in humanity — we have to blame, not these unerring teachers, but ourselves.

Preface to Volume 1

The Celtic queen Boadicea leading the British revolt against the Romans, 60/61 CE. Frontispiece to Cassell’s Illustrated History of England Vol. 1 (cropped).


CHAPTER ELEVEN

Clara Meredith Does not Feel Quite Satisfied with Herself — The Sketch — Return of her Cousin to London

Clara was seated in the library, thinking over the events of the last few days, and taking herself to task for her conduct to her cousin. To be sure, his neglecting to make her acquaintance in London — her first season, too — was unkind, to say the least of it; but had she the right to resent it, and turn him into ridicule on his arrival in the country? After turning the circumstances over in her mind she came to the conclusion that she had not. It was undignified, to say the least of it; and she felt dissatisfied with herself, and all the more so that he had endured her sarcasm with such polished good humour.

That her cousin was ultra-fashionable, and not a little fastidious, she did not doubt; but that he merited the title some of her dear friends in London had given him of a “cynical, heartless man,” she could not believe. Had he not danced with the May Queen at her request; defended her from the insulting familiarity of Burcham? Shaken hands with Tom Randal as he reluctantly yielded to his right to protect his rustic sweetheart?

What better proofs of manhood could he have given?

‘Clara,’ said his lordship, as he entered the library, ‘I am come to fulfil my promise. I told you when I made it that I was not much of an artist; but I have done my best.’

He placed the sketch in her hand.

The young lady coloured slightly as she received it. She had secretly hoped he had forgotten it; but Bury was a man of his word. Despite the seriousness of her late thoughts she could not help laughing gaily as she contemplated the drawing. It was really exceedingly well done for an amateur, and he had carried out her description to the letter. There stood the old mansion in the distance; Clara, in a short frock and blue sash, screaming on the bank of the pond; his lordship floundering in the water. One of the famous red morocco shoes floating on the surface, and a goose swimming after it.

The last, by-the-by, was an introduction of the artist’s own, intended, probably, as a slight epigram on the playful malice which had recalled the incidents.

‘I am glad,’ observed Clara, recovering her seriousness, ‘that you have recollected your promise, and yet it scarcely amounted to one. But why represent me twice?’

‘I scarcely understand you, cousin.’

His cousin pointed to the goose sailing after the shoe. His lordship smiled.

‘I am ever so much obliged to you,’ resumed the fair girl, after a pause. Is it really mine?’

‘Undoubtedly, since you have honored me by accepting it. Shall the drawing find a place in your album, or be sent as a contribution to the next fancy fair?’

‘Neither one nor the other,’ answered his cousin, with a show of feeling at which she felt provoked with herself. ‘I can dispose of it in a far more fitting way. And yet it is a almost a pity,’ she added, as she crushed the sketch in her little hand, dropped it into the fire, stood watching it until it was consumed, and then, with a quiet courtesy, quitted the room.

Lord Bury stood for some little time gazing after her in silence. Possibly the problem was becoming interesting to him.

‘Pshaw!’ he muttered, as he took up a newspaper to while away the time till luncheon. ‘Why should I feel surprised? Good blood will tell.’

Had he said good principles, the observation, we suspect, would have been more germane to the matter, as our friend, Shakespeare, says.

Three days after the interview in the library, which neither of the cousins thought fit to allude to again, Lord Bury, who had just received his letters, informed Sir George that he was obliged to start the following morning, on particular business, for London.

‘Nothing unpleasant, I trust. Can I be of any use?’

‘Exceedingly unpleasant, uncle, for it concerns the honor of one who ought to be very dear to me. Unfortunately,’ he added, ‘you cannot be of the slightest assistance to me.’

‘That scamp of a father, I suppose,’ thought his host, who had noticed the word “ought.” ‘He is always getting himself into some infernal scrape or another. Older, too, than I am.’

Of course he kept these reflections to himself.

‘Possibly I may be able to renew my visit,’ said his lordship, ‘in the shooting season. That is, if I have not worn out my welcome.’

‘We are homespun, Egbert,’ observed his relative, ‘and can stand a vast amount of wear and tear. Come when you will, always glad to see you, Make it a promise, and I will keep the home cover for you. Make it your home if you like.

‘That is,’ he added, noticing the blush upon his daughter’s cheek, ‘as long as I live, Of course I cannot answer for my successor.’

‘That would be unreasonable, Sir George,’ observed the nephew, who had noticed the blush and the correction of the speaker’s offer. ‘Thanks, I will not abuse your hospitality.’

The next day Lord Bury started for London.

‘Well, Sparks,’ said his lordship, when the sergeant-major entered the room the morning after his arrival at headquarters, to report on the condition of his company, ‘anything important?’

‘Not very,’ answered the old soldier. ‘There has been a fine young fellow here from the country, who wants to enlist, but won’t engage in any company but yours. Such a chest! Stands six feet two; straight as a pike-staff. Knows the points of a horse as well as the regimental vet, himself. Hope we shan’t lose him.’

‘But why in my company?’ demanded Lord Bury.

‘Heard that you were a kind officer, most likely.’

‘No flattery, Sparks. Did the young fellow you were speaking of give his name?’

‘Tom Randal, my lord.’

‘Find him; bring him to me instantly,’ exclaimed the officer, greatly interested. ‘You said truly, he is a fine fellow — a man every inch of him.’

In a few minutes the lover of the pretty Phœbe entered the luxuriously-furnished room of the officer, who frankly held out his hand to him.

Although the countenance of the new recruit flushed with a momentary satisfaction, he did not accept it.

‘You forget,’ he observed, ‘that I am about to become a private soldier.’

‘No, I do not,’ replied his lordship; ’till you are enlisted, you are a free man, and a prince might shake hands with you. Once in the ranks,’ he added, ‘it would be different; but that will be neither your fault nor mine.’

The hand was again extended, and this time cordially shaken. The sergeant discreetly withdrew. He thought it best to leave the officer and his rustic friend together.

Tom Randal, after the quarrel with his father, had made the best of his way to London on foot; for he had very little money, and proceeded at once to the barracks of the Guards. Our readers know the rest. Vainly did his aristocratic friend try to argue him out of his intention to enlist, pointing out the difficulty of obtaining his discharge when once he had taken the fatal shilling.

‘The colonel,’ he added, is a good man — a kind man — but will never consent to let a fine young fellow like you leave the regiment when once engaged in it,’ and advised him to take a few days to consider of it.

‘Not an hour, my lord,’ replied the lover of Phœbe. ‘I have lost the only girl I can ever love, and all through my father’s prejudice, pride, and obstinacy. It has cost him his son,’ he added. ‘He shall find I can be as resolute as he is. My mind is made up.’

Trooper of the Royal Horse Guards, 1828. (Created 1847) Public Domain. Source: Wikipedia

Lord Bury sent for Sergeant Sparks, and Tom Randal quitted the room, duly enlisted into his majesty’s first regiment of Life Guards.

The poor fellow, we suspect, had inherited some of the old farmer’s temper; if so, the army was, perhaps, the best school to work it out of him.

The expiration of his leave of absence was not the only motive which brought his lordship to London. He could easily have obtained a prolongation of it. He had received a letter from one of his most intimate friends, informing him of certain ugly rumours that were whispered in society of an attempt to force his cousin, Lady Kate Kepple, into an unequal marriage with Clarence Marsham, and that Lord Allworth’s name was unpleasantly mixed up with the transaction. ‘Of course,’ added the writer, ‘I do not vouch for the correctness of these reports; but as they are levelled at the honor of your family, I felt it my duty to inform you of them. All I really know is that the chancellor has deprived your father of the guardianship of Lady Kate’s person, and that his step-son has sold out of the army. The last two facts I affirm on my knowledge. There the duty of friendship ends. It is for you to act as you think best.’

On his way to town, the young guardsman had perused the letter at least a dozen times, and each reading added to his mortification. As we before observed, he was both proud and honorable, weak in some things and extremely sensitive; but, then, we are not drawing a perfect character; absolute perfection, we fear, would be just a little insipid.

His first visit was to Montague House. There, at least, he expected to learn the truth. Its owner, with whom he was a favorite, received him nervously. Our readers have not forgotten her intense dread of scandal, and the feeling increased tenfold when he had explained the object of his visit.

‘It it possible!’ she exclaimed, ‘that, despite my precautions, the unfortunate story has leaked out?’

‘It is true, then?’

‘I cannot deny it.’

Lord Bury rose to take his leave.’

‘Egbert! Egbert! cannot the affair be hushed up?’

‘Impossible!’ was the reply. ‘At present it is only whispered; in a week’s time it will be a common topic of conversation in half the drawing-rooms in London. It is my duty,’ he added, firmly, ‘to see that your conduct and Kate’s should be unquestioned.’

Again he moved towards the door.

‘Stay,’ said her ladyship, lowering her voice to a whisper. ‘You do not know all.’

‘For Heaven’s sake, let me hear it, aunt!’

‘Kate escaped from Allworth Park in boy’s clothes; walked all one night in them, and slept the next in a barn.’

‘Is that the worst?’

‘What could be worse?’ replied the aristocratic old maid, blushing deeply as the veiled meaning of his question dawned upon her mind. ‘Is not Kate living — slowly recovering her health and spirits?’

A terrible suspicion passed from the heart of Lord Bury. He knew the speaker too well to doubt her word for an instant. A third time he was about to depart.

‘Stay,’ said Lady Montague, ‘Do tell me where you are going.’

‘To see my father,’ answered her visitor, gloomily. ‘I have a hard task before me, but will not shrink from it.’

This time he succeeded in quitting the room.

‘Poor Egbert!’ sighed Lady Montague, as he disappeared. ‘He is very much to be pitied. Why did my sister marry Allworth? I told her he was a roue, repeated all the evil reports I ever heard of him, warned her every way; but it was of no use — seemed to increase her infatuation. If she had accepted some plain country gentleman, or even a bishop’s son I should not so much have minded, although, of course, it would have been a misalliance. But no, she would have a peer. Poor girl; she paid dearly enough for her folly. And yet,’ she added, thoughtfully, ‘I do not think it was all ambition. At the worst,’ continued her ladyship, ‘Kate and I can return to Montague Castle, live like nuns, and when we die, leave our fortunes to found a hospital for old maids.’

However improbable, the project certainly was not an impossible one, although somehow we have an idea that Lady Kate will feel but little disposed to join in it.

Viscount Allworth never believed it would be possible to keep the disgraceful escapade of his stepson from the knowledge of society — he knew the world too well for that — so he prudently resolved to make his own share in the transaction appear as harmless as possible. What he most feared was the indignation of his own son, who had lately shown a spirit which startled him.

‘Bury behaved exceedingly well in the Chellston affair,’ he muttered to himself, as he turned the incidents over in his scheming brain. ‘Must keep friends with him if possible.’

Having traced a line of conduct for himself, Lord Allworth was not the man to be easily moved to depart from it; and the less so, that for the first time for years he found himself — thanks to the Chellston trickery — tolerably at ease in his pecuniary affairs; hence the firmness with which he insisted on Clarence Marcham’s retirement from the army.

‘Absurd!’ exclaimed his wife, when he informed her of his determination. ‘A mere boyish folly; the world soon forgets such things.’

‘In some persons, perhaps, but not in others,’ remarked the husband, gravely. ‘You made no objection when I stated my intention to Lady Montague.’

‘Because I did not believe you to be serious. In fact I never know when you. are serious. I considered it merely a sop thrown to the old Cerberus.’

His lordship appeared greatly shocked.

‘I wish, Lady Allworth,’ he observed, but without losing his temper, ‘that you would be a little more refined in your expressions. I am aware that the defects of early education and associations are hard to overcome. Still it may be done. You will oblige greatly by striving to recollect this the next time you speak of my first wife’s sister, a woman of high birth, large fortune, and spotless reputation.’

There was a momentary lull in the stormy conversation. The viscountess bit her lips to avoid giving expression to her rage at his provoking coolness.

‘The husband — and we feel there are but too many like him in the world — enjoyed his wife’s mortification exceedingly.

‘I perceive what you are driving at,’ observed the angry woman. ‘You require money?’

‘No.’

The lady gazed at him with astonishment. It was the first time in her married life she had received such an answer to a similar question.

‘Money,’ continued the speaker, ‘is an excellent thing in its way. I can’t imagine how some people contrive to exist without it; but it is not everything. Listen to me — my conduct is not so unkind as you suspect. You are far from being a fool, Lady Allworth. I know that you can control your temper on some occasions, and act with prudence.’

The wife could scarcely repress a smile; she recollected how cleverly she had contrived to outwit him in the settlement of her fortune.

‘I have seen the commander-in-chief,’ added the speaker; ‘the affair has got wind through the rascally lawyers. I suspect Clarence is in bad odor at the Horse Guards — very bad. His royal highness is decidedly of opinion that he ought to sell out; and you know what such an opinion from such a quarter means. The price of his commission I am told, will barely pay his debts.’

‘Debts!’ gasped the astonished mother; ‘why, his allowance has been most liberal!’

‘Not feeling the slightest interest in the subject,’ said his lordship, ‘I made no inquiry as to their amount. You perceive the step is inevitable. Clarence had better return to France; living is cheap there; great resort for half-pay people. But he must decide quickly; in three days he will be arrested.’

It is quite true that Viscountess Allworth loved her son, but, then, she loved herself a great deal more, and did not care to impoverish herself to pay off his liabilities. He must do that, she thought, by a wealthy marriage. So far from having abandoned the project, she clung to it more tenaciously than ever. Two days afterwards the unmanly scapegrace landed in France.

We scarcely need to remind our readers that these last arrangements were made during Lord Bury’s visit to the country.


Notes and References

‘as our friend, Shakespeare, says’: ‘The phrase would be more germane to the matter if we could carry cannon by our sides’ (Hamlet, V, 2).

‘[to take] the fatal shilling’: sign up as a soldier, ‘from the former practice of giving a shilling to a recruit when he enlisted’, wordhistories.net

Macaulay, Thomas Babington, Baron, 1800-1859, History of England from the Accession of James the Second (1901). Digital facsimile available at the Internet Archive. Link opens Vol. 1.

Smith, John Frederick, Cassell’s Illustrated History of England (1874). Beautifully illustrated digital facsimile available at the Internet Archive. Link opens Vol. 1.

While all nine volumes of Cassell’s Illustrated History are sometimes attributed to Smith, Andrew King and John Plunkett reveal that he actually only wrote the first. Subsequently Cassell ‘realized that Smith was less concerned with facts than narrative drive’ and handed the rest of the work over to William Howitt (1792–1879) (King and Plunkett, Victorian Print Media, OUP, 2005, p. 415).

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