Mystery of the Marsh

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

Almost a century and a half has passed since Smith launched his penny blood, so it is natural that a mere aside by the narrator can set off a question mark that repays investigation. In considering the theory of literature, the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur describes how a text moves from the world of human experience, through a state of representation and back again. In defining this mimetic process, he places significance upon the role of the reader, because “It is by way of reading that literature returns to life, that is, to the practical and affective field of existence.”

This is the same for any poem or fiction, but the idea seems to ring particularly true in a case like this, where Smith’s novel has lain dormant in a sense, like a sunken ship. The reader feels to some degree at sea, becomes aware of a lack of particular background schema here and there, due to their separation from the author’s life-world, such as was encoded in the text.

George “Beau” Brummell, watercolor by Richard Dighton (1805)

So, for example, Smith characterises the son of Benoni’s new employer as dressing appropriately for his drudging work in the legal office, but after hours transforming into a clothes-horse and butterfly, in attire of which “even Beau Brummell  — the D’Orsay of the day” might have approved. These are “beaux” or “dandies,” men extravagantly attentive to dress and fashion, a determining trait to which further characteristics tend to adhere, until the individual assumes proportions of influence, grandeur and, inevitably, caricature. Smith lends the moral taint of the dandy to Roland Brit, to contrast the upstanding firm into which William Whiston is to pass. The narrator’s digression into the meaning of Goliah Gob’s pet word “frimicating” echoes the theme.

The “fop” is the historical predecessor to both, and epitomizes a perceived risible and foolish aspect of an excessive devotion to livery; originally and for some centuries, the word meant any kind of fool at all. Though the pejorative sense may adhere in one way or another, the beau and dandy can become a figure of influence, occupying the highest echelons — consider the dandy George IV, Prince of Wales and Prince Regent, far from the least.

It was thanks to having attracted the attention of the prince that George ‘Beau’ Brummell rose to prominence, setting fashions, holding society in thrall as he strutted among the upper crust, about the salons, parks, clubs and gambling rooms. Some facility with wit is prerequisite to maintaining the position, in order to command fear. When someone offered Brummell a lift to Lady Jersey’s ball, he declined with

 But pray, how are you to go? You surely would not like to get up behind; no that would not be right, and yet it will scarcely do for me to be seen in the same carriage with you.

Wharton and Wharton

Fittingly, the Beau’s decline into misery was initiated by an ill-measured remark he made when dining with the Prince Regent and feeling like some more wine: “Wales, ring the bell!” The prince rang, but said to the servant who answered, “Order Mr. Brummell’s carriage.”

The French amateur painter Alfred Count D’Orsay cannot strictly speaking be claimed to have inherited Brummell’s “descending mantle,” Grace and Philip Wharton consider (Wits and Beaux of Society, 1890) “for he had other and higher tastes than mere dress“. So perhaps that is a fine point of differentiation between beau and dandy.

Alfred, Count D’Orsay, by Sir George Hayter (1839)

With his winning tongue, his daring and skill at arms, the irresistably handsome lady-killer, broad-shouldered and slim-waisted, witty, pretty good rider to hounds, irreproachably gotten-up, debonair Count D’Orsay shone in  the Park and dining room. Together with the ultra-glamorous Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington — his mother-in-law and recognised lover — the two ruled from her brilliant London salon, which attracted the likes of Disraeli, Dickens and Hans Christian Anderson. Even Lord Byron, whom the pair befriended, admired  D’Orsay’s writing.

His imitators were so avid and so numerous that an antagonist was once dissuaded from issuing him a challenge to a duel when it was pointed out that if D’Orsay fought him, everyone else would be wanting to do likewise. D’Orsay commented:

It’s lucky I’m a Frenchman and don’t suffer from the dumps. If I cut my throat, tomorrow there’d be three hundred suicides in London, and for a time at any rate the race of dandies would disappear.


In his heyday, tailors paid him to wear their creations, and even inserted banknotes into the pockets. On one occasion when the custom was overlooked, D’Orsay had his valet return the garment with his complaint that ‘the lining of the pockets had been forgotten’.

D’Orsay like Brummell underwent an ignominious descent, fleeing London from creditors, whom to pay was beneath his dignity, to die bankrupt and broken in Paris a few years later.


Goliah Gob Arrives Safely in London — Visits to our Hero — The Letter — Benoni Enters the Office of Brit and Son — Whose Practice is in a Different Line from Richard Winston’s

Lawyer Whiston had gone to his chambers in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where Bunce was now regularly employed, at a fair salary, as one of the regular clerks, Up to the present date the conduct of the poor tramp had proved exemplary. He not only wrote a good band, but showed himself quick and intelligent, but, what was better still, grateful. He had a fulcrum at last. His employer felt some thing more than satisfied with him.

Law clerks in England are divided into two classes — articled and unarticled. The first are expected to become full-fledged attorneys in something less than three years, and must posses considerable means, for the process of hatching them is an expensive one. The stamp on their articles costs one hundred pounds; next, the premium to the firm, frequently amounting to a much larger sum. A few of the less fortunate scribes contrive to get admitted by hard work, attending closely to the interests of their employers, who, after years of service, make them a present of their indentures; rarely, however, before they have earned them. We have observed it as rather a singular fact, that men so admitted rarely rise to any great eminence in their profession; probably because the opportunity arrives too late. Whatever the motives of his generosity — and gratitude, we suspect, was not the only one — Richard Whiston, after a few weeks’ trial of his capabilities and conduct, gave Bunce his articles and paid all the expenses, taking his acknowledgement for the same. He also allowed him a moderate salary.

Even his nephew felt surprised at this liberality, but he felt no jealousy; on the contrary, he rejoiced in the good, fortune of the friendless adventurer.

‘I suppose, nephew,’ observed the lawyer, as they sat conversing over the breakfast table, ‘you are somewhat puzzled by my conduct to your friend, Bunce.’

‘Exceedingly, sir,’ replied the youth; ‘but not more puzzled than glad. He will prove himself worthy of it.’

‘I hope so.’

‘And I feel certain of it.’

‘It is a speculation,’ observed his relative, thoughtfully. ‘I wish to attach him to me, and to know where to place my hand upon him at any moment.’

‘A speculation!’ replied our hero, more and more mystified.

‘Yes; but not a moneyed one. And now let us speak of your prospects. I have changed my mind respecting you — that is, if you agree to my proposal. Instead of giving you a stool in my office, I wish you to go to college. You possess fair abilities, and if I have read you rightly, are not without ambition. You shall have the chance I threw away.’

‘My dear, kind uncle!’ exclaimed William. ‘Could I have made a choice, it is the very one I would have selected; but the expense — the –‘

‘You need not trouble your head about that,’ interrupted Richard Whiston, with a smile. ‘Of course,’ he prudently added, ‘I shall expect you to make it as light as possible. You may. attain a scholarship.’

‘I will do my best,’ observed the nephew.

‘Not for the money value, but for the distinction,’ added the old gentleman. ‘The fact is I felt so confident you would accede to my views that I have already entered your name on the books of St. John’s College, Cambridge. No thanks; your conduct will be the best acknowledgement you can make me. I trust to that.’

‘And it shall not disappoint you,’ thought William Whiston, as the speaker left to go to his office. ‘Kind, generous man! I should be a wretch indeed to prove unworthy of his bounty.’

Our hero was reflecting on the above conversation, and the unexpected change in his prospects when his friend, Goliah, came bouncing into the room. There was a red spot on his brow, and the youth saw that something had occurred to make him angry.

‘Dear old fellow!’ he exclaimed, shaking him warmly by the hand. ‘I was just wishing for some one to congratulate me. I feel so happy to see you.’

‘I believe that,’ answered the rustic, ‘for I knowed Lonnon could, not change ’ee; but that old fellow in the hall, when I told him I was come to see thee, said he would inquire if ’ee wor at ome, and threatened to ’noance me. Gorry, I would ha loiked to see ’m try it.’

Our hero could scarcely repress a smile.

‘What be thee a grinning at?’ demanded Goliah.

‘Only at a slight mistake. Nothing of any consequence,’ replied his friend; ‘The footman meant to be civil. Of course, he knew that I would see you. By announcing you, he merely intended to say that he would let me know you were here. London ways,’ he added, ‘are not like our simple, homely ways in the country. So you must forgive him.’

‘No more they be, the frimicating fools.’

“Frimicating” is an expressive word, and ought to be admitted into our best dictionaries. It means conceited, artificial. In the eastern counties of England it is in general use.

After delivering his load of hay, Goliah had rushed off to Soho Square without waiting for breakfast. Of course he had to refresh the inner man. While doing so, William had ample time to read his cousin’s letter.

‘Kind, affectionate girl!’ he said as his visitor, whose appetite was satisfied at last, dropped his knife and fork by the side of his plate; ‘but I think she alarms herself unnecessarily. Benoni can do me no injury. Besides, why should he?’

‘Can’t tell; sartin he be no friend. I wish thee had seen the look he gave thee when thee turned thee back on him at Deerhurst.’

‘As to her mother’s meeting him at the back of the orchard, it must have been for the love of gossip.’

‘Aye! aye!’ observed Goliah. ‘Peggy Hurst be mortal curious, for sure. Still I beant quite satisfied in my mind. London be a queer sort of a place.’

‘There is no Bittern’s Marsh in it,’ remarked William.

‘Maybe there are worse things,’ replied his friend. ‘Come home wi’ me,’ he added, coaxingly; ‘thee needn’t go to thee uncle’s. Mother and I ha’ talked it all over. There be a hearty welcome for thee at the farm. Do come, Willie. It beant home without thee.’

‘Dear, true friend,’ said the youth, affected not only by the generous offer, but the touching simplicity of the words in which it was made. ‘I feel all your kindness, but let us talk the matter over calmly. I am not to remain in London.’

‘The Lord be praised for that!’ ejaculated his hearer. ‘I am going to Cambridge,’ continued the youth. ‘My uncle wishes it, and I most ardently desire it.’

‘And what be thee a goin’ there for?’

‘To complete my education.’

‘Edication!’ repeated the rustic. ‘Why, thee do know twice, or, for the matter of that, three times as much as I do. Thee wor allays first in school.’

The speaker could not be accused justly of exaggerating his friend’s attainments.

‘You must not flatter me, Goliah,’ said his friend, with a slight touch of humour.

‘No. I won’t, Willie, I won’t.’

‘I cannot go against my uncle’s and my own interests. That would be folly as well as ingratitude.’

‘Are thee to be a parson, then?’

‘No. A barrister.’

Had the speaker declared his intention of changing himself into a hippopotamus it would have conveyed the same amount of information to his rustic friend, who observed that anything was better than being a lawyer.

The speakers passed the greater part of the day together. William bought a very pretty ring for his cousin, in answer to her letter, and quite won the heart of his companion, by encouraging him in his courtship of Susan.

‘You must speak boldly,’ he observed; — there was little fear of her admirer overdoing it. ‘You can’t expect a modest, sensible girl should throw herself into your arms unasked.’

‘Gorry! wouldn’t I catch her!’ ejaculated the rustic.

To crown his satisfaction, William Whiston rode all the way through the city in Goliah’s waggon, and only parted from him when he had seen him safely on the high road to Deerhurst; and on that same evening Benoni arrived in London.

The offices of Brit and Son, to whom, to use a mercantile phrase, he had been consigned, were situated in the Old Jury nearly two miles distant from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, so that for the present there appeared but little chance of the former friends meeting. Neither of them wished it.

Our hero, because, it would recall painful recollections of former intimacy, and feelings which, reason as we may, will exert an influence over us; Benoni, from that lingering sense of shame which shows the heart not to be all corrupt.

The Old Jury is a very different locality from the place where Richard Whiston’s offices were situated. It is a dull, gloomy street, almost in the heart of London, where every foot of ground is, figuratively speaking, worth its weight in gold; in other words, rents are enormously high, and the gains of those who occupy the offices or houses proportionately large to enable the tenant to pay them.

The practice of Brit and Son was in some respects a peculiar one. They were solicitors to several religious societies, and treasurers to more than one wealthy charity. Criminal suits they rarely undertook, unless in the interests of their clients. The world considered them highly respectable, and so they were as far as outward appearances were concerned. What they really were will be seen as our tale progresses.

Joshua Brit dressed to his reputation; in fact dress was a part of it; — a plain suit of black, cambric ruffles, white cravat, no collar, and powdered hair, which somewhat toned down the restless activity of his small dark eyes. His son copied his father pretty closely,  allowing for the difference in their age — copied him in the office, and in business hours; but once released from the drudgery of the office, the grub became a butterfly. Even Beau Brummel — the D’Orsay of the day — might have pronounced his attire passable. He had been named Roland, after one of the most popular preachers of the day.

Such were the persons who received Benoni when the latter was introduced into their private room to present his credentials.

‘Well acquainted with London?’ inquired the old gentleman, after a few preliminary remarks.

‘The first time, sir, I have been here. My father advised me to be upon my guard; said it was a dangerous place for young men.’

Brit junior gave a faint smile.

‘I trust,’ added the speaker, ‘I shall not be led astray.’

‘With the Lord’s help,’ piously ejaculated the head of the firm.

‘Certainly, sir — with the Lord’s help. We cannot stand alone.’

This, in a youth of eighteen, was perhaps just a little overdone.

Roland Brit looked at him a second time, but there was no smile upon his visage. On the contrary, he regarded the speaker curiously.’

I am happy to find,’ observed his father, ‘that my old acquaintance, Blackmore, has instilled such excellent principles in his son. We shall get on very well, no doubt. We undertake no questionable cases. Good morning. The managing clerk has instructions to appoint you to a desk, and will set you to work at once.’

Benoni bowed and withdrew.

‘What do you think of our new clerk?’ said Brit senior, turning to his son as soon as they were alone.

‘Humbug,’ replied the young man.

The old gentleman looked rather surprised. The mild cant of the youth had produced rather a favourable impression upon him; and yet, having practised it so long himself, he ought to have judged it at its exact value.

‘Have you not condemned him too hastily?’ he asked.

‘Humbug,’ repeated Roland Brit, still more emphatically. ‘Can’t say at present whether dangerous or not. Possibly he may prove useful. But I shall keep an eye upon him.’

Here the conversation ended, and here we must leave the Old Jury firm, principals and clerk, for some time, whilst we return to the country — to green trees and graceful hedge-rows, enameled flowers — nature’s gems upon earth’s bosom. She requires no other.

Lady Montague, after presenting her niece at the first drawing-room, and giving one brilliant ball to introduce her to society, had quitted London to pay a long promised visit to Sir George Meredith and his daughter. The girls were cousins, and already inclined to like each other. In retiring thus early in the season from observation, the polite old maid had a double purpose in view. In the first place, she wished the rumours, which were growing fainter every day, to die entirely out — be buried in the tomb of a hundred other forgotten scandals. Next she desired to secure to Lady Kate, in the event of her own death, a trustworthy guardian and protector in the person of the baronet.

In the course of a few weeks the liking had ripened into a warm attachment for each other. Unreserved confidence already existed between them. When we say unreserved, it is just possible there might be one little secret reserved on either side. If so, it was only natural. They had never yet acknowledged it even to themselves, and probably were unconscious of it.

Sir George and his daughter, who at first had missed the society of Lord Bury more than they cared to confess, began to get reconciled to it. Lady Montague was an admirable hand at piquet — the only game the baronet really cared about; and they sat down to it every evening.

As for the fair cousins, we might as well attempt to describe the grateful gyrations of the swallow, or count the vibrations on the painted wings of the butterfly, as give a list of their occupations, in which the claims of charity had no small share. They walked and rode together, amused themselves in the garden, for both dearly loved flowers; visited the schools, and once or twice, by Clara’s persuasion — much to Lady Montague’s dismay — Kate allowed herself to be tempted into the hunting field; but when the dear old maid found that most of the daughters of the country families did the same, she contented with herself with observing that things were different in her young days.

In the evenings the cousins had music and singing. Of course they had their little innocent plots; they would scarcely have been girls had it been otherwise. Amongst others, the one, half formed by Clara, in the interests of Phœbe and Tom was not lost sight of.

The time had almost arrived to commence the execution.

‘What a delightful thing it must be to have a father!’ observed Lady Kate Kepple, with a sigh, as she and her cousin stood watching the bees in their glass hives in the flower garden. ‘If I did not love you so much how I should envy you.’

Clara silently kissed her.

‘Some one to watch and care for our happiness, who is ever preparing some little graceful surprise expressive of affection. How old are you, coz?’

‘I shall be nineteen in two months. Why do you ask?’

‘Nothing serious. A little curiosity, perhaps.’

Clara Meredith regarded her for an instant, then broke into a merry laugh.

‘You dear little hypocrite!’ she exclaimed. ‘I see it all. Papa has been consulting you respecting a birthday present for me.’

‘I promised not to tell,’ observed her cousin, artlessly.

‘And kept your promise as papa, I suspect, intended it should be kept. How else could you advise both?’

‘Sir George has seen such a love of a bracelet at Rundel and Bridge’s,’ said Kate.

‘I have more than a dozen already, and rarely wear one of them,’ replied her friend.

‘And a diamond and opal cross,’ added the former. ‘I like opals.’

‘And I prefer pearls; but as I have two sets already, they would be useless,’ observed Clara. ‘What I wish for is a farm.’

‘A farm!’ repeated her cousin, greatly surprised.

‘Yes, a farm of three hundred acres of land, more or less, as I heard the steward say, to have and to hold, dispose of the rents as I please — buy feathers with them if it takes my fancy, or pug dogs.’

‘Your father will doubtless buy you one,’ said Lady Kate, looking very much puzzled, for she knew the speaker to be anything but mercenary.

The laughing girl shook her head.

‘That would not answer,’ she exclaimed. ‘What I want is the Home Farm — the one,’ she added, seeing that Kate did not quite understand her — ‘that Farmer Randal is the tenant of. His lease expires, I know, in six months.’

There was no further mystification possible. The purpose of the speaker became clear, and the girls laughed and chatted over their plot to promote the happiness of the rustic lovers.

It would have been difficult to find an elderly gentleman more surprised than Sir George Meredith when Lady Kate Kepple informed him of his daughter’s wishes respecting the Home Farm. The suggestion might have puzzled a wiser head than his.

‘The Home Farm!’ he ejaculated. ‘What can she want the Home Farm for?’

‘Possibly for pin money,’ answered the fair girl, laughing.

The baronet repeated the words mechanically.

‘You have no idea how expensive they are,’ continued the former. ‘No lady can make a presentable toilet without them. They serve so many purposes. Keep things in their place. Sometimes,’ she added, archly, ‘they serve to attach them together.’

Still the gentleman looked mystified.

‘My dear uncle, how obtuse you are! Can’t you see that if the Home Farm were Clara’s, she could let it to whom she pleased — Farmer Randal, his son Tom, or the pretty Phœbe?’

Sir George Meredith indulged in a hearty laugh. He comprehended the plot at once.

‘She shall have it !’ he exclaimed. ‘What a fool I was to suspect my child of a selfish thought! Let it to whom she pleases? Make ducks and drakes of the rent, if she likes. Spend it in white mice and pug dogs. So this is the birthday present Clara wished for?’

Lady Kate nodded her head in the affirmative.

‘She shall have the bracelet, too,’ added the speaker. ‘Gad! I feel so delighted with the girl’s ingenuity that I could find it in my heart to purchase half Rundel and Bridge’s stock, if she desired it.’

‘My dear uncle, you must not be too extravagant. The bracelet and opal cross will be quite sufficient.’

‘That girl,’ thought the old gentleman, as his niece quitted the room, ‘has a clear head for business. The cross! Humph! I ought to have thought of that. Cost another thousand! Phsaw! what signifies money? The only use I can see in it is to make those around us happy. Rather expensive though.’

Would that more possessors of the golden gifts of fortune shared the speaker’s opinion!

The transfer of the farm had been duly made, and a few days afterwards, as the two cousins were taking their morning ride, they encountered old Randal, looking exceedingly dejected and miserable. The absence of his son had told upon him. The farmer had been up to London, taking a hundred pounds with him to purchase Tom’s discharge; but the colonel of the regiment had refused his consent. Lord Bury advised him, but who prompted his lordship we must leave our readers to guess.

Tom also had declared that he would never quit the service unless to marry Phœbe.

No wonder his father felt down-hearted and miserable. On seeing the young ladies approach, he doffed his hat, as usual, to them.

‘Good morning, Mr. Randal,’ said Clara. ‘Sorry to see you looking so unwell.’

‘Worry, Miss. It be all worry,’ replied the farmer. ‘That boy o’ mine is a killin’ on me. Would you believe it? He has gone and ’listed.’

The young ladies expressed by their looks a proper amount of surprise.

‘Tried to buy him off,’ continued the speaker, ‘but Tom wouldn’t leave, and the officer refused to let him go. But I don’t wonder at that. They won’t catch a recruit like my Tom every day. Hard lines for me, beant it, my lady? I am in great trouble.’

‘I am not that,’ observed Clara Meredith. ‘I thought something quite dreadful would occur. Some persons are so very obstinate.’

‘Ain’t they?’ replied old Randal, not suspecting for an instant that the word obstinate had been intended to apply to himself.

‘I be goin’, to the Hall,’ he added, ‘to see Sir George about a new lease of the Home Farm, and ask him to speak a good word for me to some of his great friends in London. I must have Tom back.’

The cousins continued their ride.

Great was the astonishment of the farmer when, on his arrival at the Hall, Sir George Meredith informed him that he had given the Home Farm to his daughter, Clara, and that any application for a new lease must be made to her.

‘You will find her very reasonable, I expect,’ he added. ‘I have no longer any control over it.’

‘Well,’ said the old man, upon whose obtuse mind a faint glimmering of light was beginning to dawn. ‘I and mine have been upon the land more nor a hundred years. The land is good land. Can’t deny that. But, then, I allays paid my rent regularly — voted on the right side. I think you ought to have renewed my lease while it was in your power.’

The baronet winced. It went rather against the grain to plot against his old tenant.

‘My daughter, no doubt, will consider these claims,’ he observed.

‘Maybe she will, and maybe she wont,’ remarked the farmer.

‘Anything else I can do for you?’

‘Thank ’ee, Sir George. My boy, Tom, is ’listed.’

‘So I have heard.’

‘If your honour would only speak a good word to the big guns in London, maybe they might let him off.’

‘I will write this very day,’ replied the old gentleman; ‘do everything in my power. But don’t you think,’ he added, ‘it would be wiser, to let your son have his own way?’

‘And marry the organist’s daughter?’ exclaimed the visitor, greatly exasperated. ‘Never! Never! I see it all. Thee be agi’n me too. But I won’t give way. Let the farm go. My young lady may lease it to Phœbe, if she likes. I shall have land enough of my own left to live upon.’

‘Very glad to hear it, Mr. Randal,’ remarked the gentleman. ‘I always thought you were a prudent person. I will not forget the letter I promised. Good morning.’

His visitor caught up his hat and quitted the room, muttering as he did so:

‘Gentle and simple, they be all ag’in me; but I beant beaten yet.’ We fear not.

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

Notes, References, Further Reading

Frimicating: has an entry in Joseph Wright’s English dialect dictionary, being the complete vocabulary of all dialect words still in use, or known to have been in use during the last two hundred years (1900):

Old Jury: Alternate form of “Old Jewry, a street running from the north side of the POULTRY to GRESHAM STREET, so called as being in the Middle Ages the Jews’ quarter of the city” Wheatley, London Past and Present (1891).

William Jesse, The Life of George Brummell, commonly called Beau Brummell (1884). Available free at Google Books.

Grace and Philip Wharton, The Wits and Beaux of Society, 2 vols. (1890). Available free at Project Gutenberg.

William Teignmouth Shore, D’Orsay; or, The complete dandy (1911). Available free at Project Gutenbeg.

Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. 3 (1988).


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