Mystery of the Marsh

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

What a presumption of Burcham’s that Lady Kate’s cousin Clara Meredith will drop everything and marry him because an inheritance of five thousand a year hinges on it! He doesn’t need Mr. Brit to tell him there will be possibly much more for him when her father dies, issues of marriage and inheritance dictating the distribution of property. The situation reflects something of the dominion that the “unfair sex” held over women to a large extent in the Victorian era, much depending on class. Generally speaking, a wife had no separate legal existence from her husband, who had power over her property, estates, any earnings she might have, custody of children, and her body. It was not until 1891 that a court of law overturned a man’s right to keep his wife at home under lock and key (Perkin).

A private system of law, however, enabling upper-class Englishwomen to hold separate estates and income, made them perhaps the most liberated wives in the world.

In this respect, Clara is not atypical of a woman from the untitled gentry. Raised in protective families,

They were not reared as shrinking violets; almost without exception they were brought up in the country, outdoor life being considered more important than other forms of education. But these half-educated, horse-loving girls often married young and became great hostesses in London. They were considered among the most politically minded women in Europe. They learned from their elders, but had their own views and expected to air them. (Perkin 101)

It was a pivotal time, with moves to guarantee the financial protection of women in the upper and middle classes a thin end of the wedge for emancipation of women throughout society.

“The Young Bride” 1875, Mary Cassatt. Source: wikiart.org

Tied up in the conniving around the issue of Clara’s inheritance, we are introduced to a stereotyped caricature of a Jewish man, a money-lender brought in furtively by Burcham’s lawyer, Roland Brit.

The figure strikes us as unfunny and at least in poor taste, reflecting echoes of systemic anti-semitism. It is a serious issue even in the present day, with  the theatrical representation of characters such as Shylock and Fagin encountering criticism.

‘The Merchant of Venice’ perpetuates vile stereotypes of Jews. So why do we still produce it? […] It is time to say “never again” to this historical aberration. Every time it is produced, the play introduces new audiences to vile medieval tropes of Jew-hatred that we should have long ago left behind.

Steve Frank, Washington Post

It’s not just this latest hook-nosed rendition of Oliver! that offends — it’s wrong to revive it at all … Fagin was written in the 19th century but his character is rooted in the middle ages and it is regressive to revive this musical. I have no problems with presenting “bad Jews”, but let them be fleshed-out characters, not stereotypes.

Julia Pascal, The Guardian, Australian edition


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Still in the Country — The Unexpected Inheritance — A Proposal of Marriage Rejected, and the Vow of Vengeance

Still in the country! Yes, dear reader, and we can’t get out of it just at present without leaving a blot in our history, which, in your interest as well as our own, we have not the slightest intention of doing. So, for a brief spell, you must be content to hear more of rural walks, flowers, rustic friends and acquaintances. For several months Lady Kate and her Cousin Clara pursued the even tenor of their lives. The latter had all but forgotten the terrible trial she had been subjected to at Allworth Park — her perilous journey and the incidents connected with it — all but one: the gallant youth who had protected her. Sometimes she saw him in her dreams. She could not be blamed for that. No girl can help her dreams, we all know.

The family party at the Hall were seated at the breakfast table on a delicious morning in autumn, when the owner rather startled his daughter and visitors by suddenly exclaiming:

‘Zounds! How unexpected!’ as he dropped the newspaper he had been reading.

‘What is unexpected, papa?’ inquired Clara.

‘Lady Burcham is dead,’ replied the baronet. ‘Apoplexy! Always thought it would end that way. Great feeder. Would not take exercise. Never could coax her into the hunting-field.’

‘I have never frequented the hunting field,’ observed Lady Montague, gravely.

‘Hem,’ coughed Sir George. ‘Very different person. She was exceedingly stout, you are gracefully thin, and are several years younger,’ he added.

‘Five or six, at the least,’ said her ladyship, somewhat reassured by his last observation. ‘She was rich, I believe.’

‘Not one of our great county fortunes,’ remarked the host, ‘ but handsomely well off. The estate is worth eight thousand a year at the very least. I suppose her scamp of a nephew will come in for it. As her heir-at-law, I shall be expected to attend the funeral. Great bore:’

‘Perhaps she has left you a legacy,’ observed Lady Kate.

‘Don’t want it,’ answered the old gentleman, sharply. ‘Enough money of my own already; more would be a plague to me.’

‘Oh! Oh!’ exclaimed the cousins, laughingly; ‘money a plague! Only consider the good one can do with it.’

‘Not,’ added Clara, looking suddenly serious, ‘that it can ever compensate for the loss of those we love. If it could I should hate it.’

Her father marked the tears ready to start at the thought so unexpectedly conjured up, and silently kissed them away.

That same evening’s post brought a letter to the baronet from the solicitors of the deceased lady, informing him of her death and inviting him to attend the funeral at Burcham House that day week. The letter was signed ‘Brit and Son.’

Funerals sometimes have their comic as well as serious aspect, especially when the dead have left no grateful hearts to mourn for them — no recollection of charities unostentatiously performed, no memories of sympathies with the living, no offspring’s tears to fall upon the coffin. These are tokens which no number of distant expectant heirs, no pomp of heraldry or luxuries of woe, can replace. Without them the velvet pall and emblazoned escutcheon are merely empty, idle mockeries.

Such was the aspect which the great hall of Burcham House displayed on the day of the late owner’s funeral. Cousins, nephews, and yet more distant relatives had gathered from the neighbouring counties to listen to her will. No one except the solicitors had the slightest idea of its contents, and as the lady had been exceedingly capricious whilst living, even those relatives who had most offended her were not without hopes.

Such was the scene when Sir George Meredith arrived at the Hall, where he was received by the steward and lawyers. Brit, whose visage was of the exact professional length befitting the occasion, was the most serious one in the room.

As for Burcham, who had borrowed money of his aunt, vexed, annoyed, and disgusted her in various ways, he scarcely hoped to be remembered in the disposition of her property, and witnessed the arrival of the heir-at-law with a smile of indifference. As he frequently boasted to his. friends, he would die game anyhow.

When the testament was opened, its contents surprised every one. The testatrix bequeathed her estates to her nephew, Master Burcham, and Clara Meredith, jointly, share and share alike, provided they contracted matrimony within the space of two years from the old lady’s death; and in the event of the above-mentioned marriage not taking place, the estates to be sold and the funds distributed to such charities as her valued friend and sole executor, Joshua Brit, senior of the firm of Brit and Son, Old Jury, London, should name for that purpose.

There was a general murmur of disappointment when the lawyer concluded the reading of the will.

Sir George Meredith felt greatly surprised, but in no way disappointed at the disposition of the deceased lady’s property. Burcham regarded him with a triumphant air. It never entered into his coarse imagination that any girl would reject five thousand a year, even if it had the trifling incumbrance of a husband attached to it.

‘Once my wife,’ he muttered to himself, ‘I will pay Clara and her father off old scores. There is a long debt standing between us.’

He had not forgotten the threat of the stocks; it rankled deeply in his memory.

As the baronet was about entering his carriage to return home, the executor advanced obsequiously and inquired if he had any instructions to leave with him.

‘No,’ replied the old gentleman in a tone of surprise. ‘What can I have to say in the affair? It does not rest with me.’

The next instant he drove away.

‘It will never be a match,’ muttered the lawyer. ‘They despise him. What are five thousand a year to Sir George Meredith and his daughter? The charities will come in for the property. What a vast amount of good it will do, especially as I have the management of the revenues.’

From that hour the length of the old schemer’s visage gradually decreased.

‘I say, old fellow,’ said Burcham, after the mourners — all more or less disappointed — had taken their leave, ‘don’t you think the old girl made a foolish will’? I ought to have been left sole heir. Not that I suppose it much signifies,’ he added.

‘Probably not,’ answered the executor. ‘My late respected client was a most conscientious woman, and the estate being hers before her marriage concluded she had a right to dispose of it as she pleased,. You forget she was a Meredith.’

‘No I don’t, curse her.’

‘Oh, Mr. Burcham!’ exclaimed the lawyer, greatly shocked, or pretending to be so. He was a great stickler for the proprieties.

‘Well, you need not repeat it,’ replied the co-heir. ‘But it is very provoking to be compelled to marry a girl I don’t care a straw for.’

‘With five thousand a year,’ added Mr. Brit; ‘and heaven knows how much more when her father dies.’

‘It may turn out for the best, after all,’ observed the former speaker, musingly. ‘Anyway, I am in for the matrimonial noose. How soon ought I to propose?’

‘Not before a month, at the very earliest,’ was the reply; ‘it would not look well.’ ‘

I have a month’s fling before me, at any rate,’ exclaimed the roue. ‘ I say, old fellow, you could not let me have a couple of hundred pounds, could you?’

‘It is against the articles of the firm to lend money,’ was the cautious answer, ‘or I should be happy to oblige you. Others are less scrupulous; and with your prospects there ought not to be any difficulty, especially as the sum is a trifling one.’

‘Try Moses again,’ said Burcham. ‘But he is such an unreasonable rascal. I suppose I may refer him to you?’

‘Yes, certainly; but if you take my advice you will have nothing to do with him.’

‘Ah, I forgot he’s a neighbour of yours. You know him?’

‘Slightly,’ replied the lawyer, repressing a smile.

A blush of indignation rose on the countenance of Clara Meredith when the baronet informed her of the conditions of Lady Burcham’s will.

‘How intensely absurd!’ she exclaimed. ‘I would rather die than marry him. Of course, papa, you told him so?’ she added.

‘No.’

‘No!’ repeated the indignant girl.

‘The rejection must come from you,’ continued Sir George. ‘I have no right to decide for you.’

‘And I must really go through the form of listening to him?’

‘I fear so.’

‘And give him a civil answer?’

‘It is the custom of such occasions.’

‘Why, papa, you speak as coolly as if you thought it possible I should accept him, and I think it very unkind of you.’

Her father drew towards her and kissed her.

‘You must not be so impetuous, pet,’ he said,’ and jump at such rash conclusions. You ought to know that I would rather see you in your coffin than the wife of Burcham, or of any man,’ he added, ‘whom you could not respect as well as love. I fear, Clara, you are a little capricious.’

‘How can you be so unjust, papa.’

‘You have refused Wiltshire?’

‘Yes, papa.’

‘And Sir John Radcliff?’

‘Oh, he is so insipid.’

And the speaker was about to enumerate several others of her rejected admirers, when his daughter sprang upon his lap and threw her arms about his neck, exclaiming as she did so:

‘How sly you have been, papa! I did not think you had noticed their attentions. Why, are you in such a hurry to get rid of your saucy girl?’

‘No,’ replied the baronet fondly. ‘It is that before I die I wish to see you the wife of some good and honorable man, who will insure your happiness. I care not how poor he is, provided his character is unblemished and you love him, You have carte blanche in your choice. I know,’ he added, ‘that you will never abuse it by giving your hand to any one who is not in the true sense of the word a gentleman.’

Involuntarily the thoughts of the speaker reverted to his nephew, Lord Bury, who appeared to him to be just the husband he would have selected for his daughter, but as unfortunately there did not appear the slightest chance of such an attachment, he tried to dismiss the subject from his mind.

Clara felt but too glad to escape from the room, and so the conversation terminated. Possibly she feared to be further questioned, or, what is still more probable, began to understand her own heart.

When Lawyer Brit declared that he never lent money, those who knew him well — and there were a few such’ persons in the world — would have construed his declaration in an exactly opposite sense. The fact was that he did lend money, and to a very large extent, but not in his own name. He was far too cautious for that. Like other successful rogues, he had learnt during his long practice the value of the word reputation –that is to say, its commercial value. Besides this, he had other reasons: His connection with certain important charities, whose well-meaning, but easily duped directors were exceedingly sensitive on such subjects. The concerns were prosperous. It not only provided them with fat salaries, but enabled them to provide for younger sons and dependants by secretaryships,  inspectorships, auditors, and other profitable employments.

Many of the public charities in England are, no doubt, admirably administered. Some — suppose we say, tolerably. Others are as much a business as the dealings in dry goods, tobaccos, teas or sugars.

Lawyer Brit employed therefore an agent in his pecuniary transactions — the same Mr. Moses to whom Burcham alluded on the executor’s refusal to advance him the two hundred pounds. The said Moses was one of the most abused persons in London, and yet it was extraordinary how many respectable persons had transactions with him. The smooth-faced principal in his schemes of usury —  the man who found the money, and profited so largely by them — was the first to condemn him. Whenever Moses made his appearance at the lawyer’s offices the latter would make difficulties about seeing him, wring his hands, look virtuously indignant, and wonder how his respectable clients could entangle themselves by dealings with such a disreputable person. This little by-play he enacted for the benefit of his clerks, who would be sure to repeat it. It deceived most of them; not all, perhaps. Benoni already began to have an inkling as to the true character of his employer. The lessons of the old schoolmaster had not been thrown away upon his son. Benoni was a close, though a silent, observer.

On his return to London the head of this prosperous firm had a long interview with his son, Roland, in his private room. Even to him it was limited. True his new clerk had inspired him with a favourable opinion, but Mr. Brit acted only on certainties. The youth had not compromised himself yet.

‘Well, Roland,’ said his parent, ‘ have you calculated the amount of Burcham’s securities — the exact value of  his remaining interest in the property?’

‘About four thousand pounds, sir.’

‘Under the hammer?’

‘Of course,’ replied the son. ‘We make no allowance for fancy values,’

‘Right; very right, my boy,’ observed his senior. ‘Sentiment is only another name for weakness in all business transactions. Is Moses informed that I wish to see him?’

‘He will call at one, sir.’

‘Very good. Contrive to be in the clerks’ office when he arrives. Make the usual difficulties. Moses will understand it. It might be as well to have some slight altercation with him, Nothing serious, of course,’

Roland Brit smiled at what he considered unnecessary precautions. The young spider knew all the capabilities of the paternal web — its elastic strength, powers of retaining the foolish insect once entangled in its meshes; but he had not the experience of the old one.

Mr. Brit had rather a foolish habit for a person in his position of talking to himself when alone. He was aware of this, and standing orders had been given than none of the clerks should enter his private room without first knocking at outward doors, of which there were two — one of oak, the other of green baize.

‘Everything appears safe,’ muttered the lawyer, as he closed them both after his son, and had thrown himself into an easy-chair. ‘Burcham’s property — Burcham’s estate — will stand another thousand, although I did not calculate on paying so much for it. Nor will I,’ he added, ’till I get him completely in my power. I must risk something for the charities. Last year’s subscription fell short. Not much — not much,’ he repeated, reflectively. ‘Still a wise man should not neglect the first signs of danger. Lady Burcham’s bequest will place them beyond danger, I can only secure it for them. The world thinks I am overpaid for my services. It little knows the anxieties I endure, and all in the cause of charity.’

If, as an old proverb asserts, that charity begins at home, the subtle schemer had some reason perhaps for his conclusions.

The author has taken his readers thus far into his confidence in order to prepare them for the plan the lawyer had concocted for the ruin of Mr. Burcham, who, in his dealings with the respectable Moses, had not, as yet, committed an act to place his liberty at his mercy. He was a coarse brutal bully, as well as a fool; but nothing more.

It never entered Mr. Brit’s calculations that Clara Meredith would reject the fortune and the husband. Could he have been assured of that he would not have taken so much trouble. Rich as he was, he felt that he could not have refused it, no matter what the conditions.

Hearing his son’s voice in dispute the lawyer broke off the train of reflection as he hastened into the clerks’ office, where he found his son, as he expected, having warm words with the Jew moneylender.

‘My father will not see you,’ said Roland, as his father, as he entered from his private room.

‘Pisiness is pisiness,’ answered the Israelite, who perfectly understood the part he was to act. ‘One of his clients has –‘

‘Mr. Moses,’ said the head of the firm, interrupting him, ‘this is really intolerable. I have already informed you more than once that when you have any affairs in which my clients are interested, it would be more agreeable to communicate by letter.’

‘It is pressing.’

‘I cannot help that.’

‘Ferry vell; den I will ruin your client  — send him to prison for debt — sell him up, and all because he has a bad lawyer.’

Mr. Brit looked exceedingly distressed. ‘If the case is really so urgent –‘

‘I tells you it is urgent,’ interrupted the money-lender. ‘The writs are out, I have got judgment against him.’

‘Against whom?’

‘Your client — Mr. Burcham.’

‘Improvident young man,’ sighed the lawyer. ‘After all my friendly warnings, too. I suppose I must see you.’

‘It vill be better.’

‘Step this way,’ said the head of the firm. ‘What a scandal for an office like mine.’

Like two actors satisfied with their exertions, the speakers entered the private room together and closed the doors care. fully after them. Once alone, they regarded each other in the face, shook hands, and indulged in a quiet chuckle.

‘Peautiful!’ exclaimed the visitor.

‘Not so loud, Mr. Moses,’ replied the lawyer. ‘It really was exceedingly well acted.’

‘It is too bad,’ observed Roland Brit, as the speakers disappeared, ‘that my father, who abhors all such practices, should be exposed to this annoyance.’

All the clerks, as in duty and prudence bound, expressed great sympathy with this natural indignation. All but Benoni; he was reflecting upon it.

The sum of one thousand pounds was duly advanced by the accommodating Mr. Moses to dupe Burcham, but not till after a number of letters from the latter, filled with false statements sufficient at any time to establish a charge of fraud, had passed between them.

‘I don’t quite understand the affair,’ observed the ostensible money-lender, at the conclusion of the transaction. ‘You bid me not to set a detective to watch him.’

‘Not for your life,’ ejaculated the lawyer. ‘Make no movement without my orders.’

‘I vill not; but I forsee it vill pring troubles.’

Mr. Brit regarded him earnestly. It was the first time he had ever heard a word of remonstrance from his lips.

‘If you are dissatisfied,’ he remarked, sternly.

Moses resumed his former subservient manner.

‘Not at all, not at all, mine good Mr. Brit, If I feels just a little uneasy, it was on your accounts, not mine own.’

‘Very well, sir, I will understand it so.’

Notwithstanding his assertion to the contrary, Mr. Moses did not feel satisfied with the transaction — not on account of its immorality — he was above such vulgar scruples; all he doubted was its safety.

After enjoying a month’s dissipation in London, Burcham returned to the country to propose to Clara Meredith. Never for an instant from the first reading of the will had he entertained a doubt of her accepting him. Five thousand a year, he concluded rarely went begging. Great, therefore, was his astonishment, to say

nothing of his mortification, when the young lady, after listening with exemplary patience to his rough style of wooing, civilly, but decidedly, rejected him.

‘You can’t mean it!’ he said. ‘It will ruin me.’

‘I am not responsible for that.’

‘And the five thousand a year?’

‘I do not require it; and the condition renders it impossible I should accept it,’ added the firm-hearted girl.

‘O, nonsense! You only say this to tease me.’

‘Believe me, I have no such wish,’ replied Clara, who began to feel tired as well as disgusted at the interview. ‘You do not know me, Mr. Burcham.’

‘Nor you me,’ explained the disappointed suitor, scowling fearfully. ‘It is a plot to ruin me, rob me of my inheritance, and drive me from the county. I will be revenged; I will thwart your hopes and prospects at every turn! I could not rest in my grave unless I had obtained satisfaction for this cruel, heartless insult!’

Although not in the least terrified by his menaces, Clara Meredith rang the bell, and her father entered the room, accompanied by Lady Kate. The coward and bully — for none else would insult a woman — sullenly withdrew.


Reference and Further Reading

  • Joan Perkin, Women and Marriage in Nineteenth Century England (Routledge, 1989)
  • Todd M. Endelman, The Jews of Britain, 1656 – 2000 (U of California P, 2002)

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