Mystery of the Marsh

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

The scene shifts to Paris, where Smith can draw upon his youthful experience of bohemian life in the Latin Quarter.  A character in our upper echelon has gone there to take care of some … unfinished business — of the serious kind. Here we meet a new brand of character, a detective by the name of Monsieur Vezin. Although, while in the process of introducing him Smith alludes to Poe (1809–49), this Vezin is hardly the stature of the brilliant Le Chevalier Auguste Dupin — the world’s first fictional detective — of The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter. One has only to look at his coarse, mercenary nature and how he snaps up such a mundane mission. Dupin would never lower himself.

In saying so, I don’t mean to detract from Smith. On the contrary, his subtle realistic approach compares favourably with Poe’s spectacle and artifice, as entertaining as these are in their own right. (An escaped orangutan did it?!)

Smith’s seemingly gratuitous reference to Poe is complicated, but worth a few minutes trying to untangle. The historical Duchess de Berry (Maria Carolina Ferdinanda Luise; 1798–1870) is famous for her intrigue against Louis Philippe I, King of France, in whose place she aimed to ‘restore’ her son Henri as the legitimate descendant of the overthrown Bourbon dynasty.  In an incident well-known in the history of cryptography, she sent an encrypted letter to a group of anti-monarchists in Paris, advising them she had arrived in order to mount the insurrection. Unfortunately, she forgot to supply them with the cipher-key (the key explaining which ciphers in the message correspond to which letters of the alphabet).

It was the great politician and orator, the lawyer Pierre-Antoine Berryer, who reputedly worked out the key — definitely not a detective named Vezin. Poe used the idea in his story The Gold-bug, where the plot turns on deciphering an encoded message just as Berryer did. On the other hand, this particular letter of the Duchess’ doesn’t seem to have been ‘compromising’ as such. Perhaps Smith mixes in a vague allusion to Poe’s ‘purloined letter’, since its disclosure ‘would bring in question the honor of a personage of most exalted station’ (Poe, PL).

Later in the chapter, out of the blue, Smith makes further reference to the absence of a figurative ‘key’, this time in the form of a Latin quotation: ‘nil nisi clavis [deest]’ (‘nothing is wanting but the key’), an arcane Masonic catechism. Does he mean to imply, more broadly, that there exists a missing master-key to some overarching mystery? Shades of Umberto Eco. Is it for the reader, or yet for the author himself to uncover?

And we notice the echoing of names and identities. ‘Marsham’ has become ‘Marsh’, recalling the eponymous Bittern’s Marsh. We have ‘Lord Bury’, the alluded ‘Duchess of Berry’ and ‘Berryer’. Don’t tell me something is going to be found buried in the marsh?

Yet the substance of the story unfolds in a straightforward, naturalistic fashion, without a defined, singular, impelling mystery. It is as though the entry of the Poe-esque character, Vezin, acts as a stimulus for ideas that are more characteristic of the Dupin-style of detective fiction, the precursor to the twentieth-century mystery genre. Many incidents in Smith’s novel have a ‘mystery’ or unknown quantity attached to them, waiting to be revealed: boys who turn out to be girls; dark plots; characters with obscure histories in the marsh; and those who have disappeared back into the Bittern’s Marsh …

Naturally enough, the contemporary reader cannot expect it to conform to a modern mystery. But nevertheless, the conventions of the genre may skew one’s expectations.


A Glance at Paris — The Avenger on the Track — Students’ Orgie — Preliminaries of a Duel

When Lord Bury started for France it was with the full intention of calling Clarence Marsham to account for his unmanly conduct to Lady Kate.

Our traveller’s first halting-place was Paris. It was not his lordship’s first visit to the gay metropolis of our Gallic neighbors. He had been there twice before; seen something of its dissipations, without plunging over head and ears into them. Escaped from the fire, in fact, with only a few feathers singed.

Faithful to the object of his journey, knowing the character and habits of the man he sought, he frequented once more the scenes he had formerly visited. They failed, however, to attract him. His mind had acquired a more manly tone.

Paris, Grands Boulevards 1860. Etching

It is astonishing how soon a naturally healthy appetite sickens of the sugared dainties of our youth.

Not having discovered Clarence Marsham where he thought he would be found, Lord Bury addressed himself first to the English embassy; next to the prefecture of the police. Neither of them could afford the information be required. No passport in the name of Marsham had been viséd at either place.

Travelling with a Secretary of State’s passport, which the English Government grants only to the favourite few, his lordship had been received with great civility by the authorities, who really felt anxious to oblige him.

As he was leaving the prefecture — it was his third visit — a little old man, who had very much the air of a retired grocer or small shopkeeper, addressed him, and after a profusion of bows, such as Frenchmen alone know how to make, blandly inquired if he could be of any service.

‘I fear not,’ was the reply. ‘I have already had two interviews with the minister of police, who assures me that everything has been done that could be done.’

‘Officially?’ inquired the old man.

‘Of course.’ The querist smiled sarcastically. There was an expression of something very like contempt in his small, twinkling grey eyes at the obtuseness of the Englishman that roused the anger of the latter, who asked himself if the Frenchman had played with or been mocking him. Monsieur Vezin noticed this, and hastened to dissipate it.

‘No, no, my lord,’ he said, eagerly. ‘The prefect of the police can have no interest in deceiving you. What I meant was simply this: Official investigations are not always the most satisfactory. They have so much to attend to.’

The traveller naturally felt surprised at finding his thoughts so accurately interpreted, and eyed the speaker more closely.

‘You know me?’ he observed.

The detective smiled.

‘I know everyone who comes to Paris in his own name and with a legitimate passport,’ he replied. ‘And those who do not, I know where to find them.’

‘Who are you, sir?’

‘I am Vezin.’

I know not whether it tells in their favour or not as a people, but the French have long been celebrated for the marvellous astuteness of their police. It is a speciality, and they are proud of it. And yet, singular contradiction, the humblest tradesman or mechanic would consider himself insulted by being taken for a member of it. Hint to a Frenchman of the middle classes that his morals are loose, he will only laugh at you. Accuse him of untruthfulness, he merely shrugs his shoulders. Call him a spy, and he is ready to fight you.

Lord Bury was no stranger to the name of the detective. It was of European reputation, although he had not yet made the famous stroke by which he discovered the compromising letter of the Duchess de Berry, which the American poet, Poe, has made such a clever use of.

‘It is not the means I should prefer,’ he thought, but Clarence Marsham has left me no other.’

Turning to the old man, he added, aloud:

‘I think, Monsieur, that you can be of use to me.’

Vezin bowed.

‘This is no place for confidence,’ continued the speaker. ‘Follow me to my hotel, where we can converse more freely.’

‘With pleasure, my lord.’

Once seated at the Bristol — the then fashionable hotel — his lordship described his anxiety to discover the whereabouts of Clarence Marsham, but not his motives; in this he was wrong. A detective is something like a confessor — he should be trusted with everything or nothing. The young Englishman ought to have understood this — perhaps he did — but his pride revolted at the thought of painting one so nearly connected with him in his true colours.

Monsieur Vezin looked puzzled — just sufficiently to justify his asking a few questions.

‘Very clear,’ he said;  ‘in fact, perfectly lucid; still in certain cases we require an excess of light. Has the Englishman — I wish to put it as delicately as possible, done anything to render him amenable to the laws?’

‘His offence is a social one,’ was the evasive answer.

‘And you are in Paris to call him to an account?’ continued the former. ‘You need not reply. I can read the intention in your flashing eyes. I have nothing to do with that. If Mr. Clarence Marsham is in Paris I pledge my reputation to discover his retreat — but it will cost both time and money.’

‘You shall have no cause to complain,’ observed Lord Bury, haughtily. ‘Find his address, that is all I ask. You may leave the rest to me.’

Monsieur Vezin thought so too.

Three days after the above conversation the detective made his appearance at the Hotel Bristol again;  his employer saw by his eyes that he had been successful.

‘Well?’ he exclaimed eagerly.

‘I am on the track my lord.’

‘Pshaw! Only on the track?’

‘That is something,’ observed Monsieur Vezin, quietly; ‘a pledge that I shall run him to earth, as your fox-hunting countrymen say. There is but one difficulty. He has a Secretary of State’s passport,’ he added, significantly, ‘in the name of Marsh.’

‘My father must have procured it for him,’ thought Lord Bury, bitterly.

‘That there may be no errors,’ continued his visitor, ‘I have called to consult with you before I proceed any further.’

‘Not for the world!’ exclaimed his lordship, eagerly. ‘Leave him to me.’

‘He has signed a false name.’

‘With no political or fraudulent intentions. I can answer for that.’

‘Still it is a serious offence by the laws of France. I ought to arrest him.’

‘Come, come, Monsieur Vezin,’ said the Englishman, forcing a smile. ‘You are, I am convinced, too gallant a gentleman’ — the word gentleman stuck in his throat — ‘not to appreciate the difficulty in which such a step would place me; my honour and courage might be suspected — the world would suppose that I feared to meet him.’

‘It is possible,’ observed the Frenchman, musingly.

‘Of course it is,’ said his employer. ‘Let us see if duty or sentiment cannot hit upon a compromise.’

A compromise was hit upon. Needless to say, it took a tangible shape, and the following agreement made: At an early hour the following morning, Monsieur Vezin was to accompany Lord Bury and two of his English friends, to point out the house in the students’ quarters where Clarence Marsham had taken up his abode. If he accepted the duel, well, the police would wink at its taking place. If he refused, they were at once to arrest him.

‘I shall be sure to hit him,’ thought his lordship, as he quitted his hotel in search of a second.

The detective muttered something very similar as he walked towards the prefecture of police; to be sure, the words were somewhat different.

‘He means mischief. I can see it in his eyes,’ he said. ‘Bah! What is it to me if one English dog shoots another? — a troublesome affair off my mind, even if I am well paid for it.’

‘The Latin Quarter of Paris has a type apart from the rest of  the pleasure-loving city. It is the centre of Bohemian life in all its varieties. Students, grisettes, dealers in books, old coins, bric-a-brac, antique furniture, costumes and armor, indispensable accessories of the painter’s studio, locate themselves chiefly in the street of the Ancient Comedy, where the once celebrated Cafe Procope still. opens wide its doors. The brilliant galaxy, Balzac, Lamartine, dear old Béranger, Victor Hugo, have long since disappeared from the busy stage of Parisian life.

Student life in the Latin Quarter has changed but little. Its amusements, occupations, habits, vices, and, let us add, virtues, are still pretty much the same as when the author shared it some fifty years ago. A little study, great extravagance, loyal generosity to a comrade in distress, a rude sense of honor where their own sex are concerned, a general disregard of it towards the weaker and more helpless one.

Street in Latin Quarter, 1862, photograph, Charles Marville. Source:

The houses occupied by the students are exceedingly numerous. The steady ones board; the pleasure-seeking merely lodge in them. Each set of rooms is a separate fortress; their occupants band in strict alliance for self-defence.

In the middle ages, the members of the university braved the crown — frequently gave laws to it. At the present day they brave only the police, unless a revolution happens to be upon the tapis; then something like their old spirit returns to them.

In the street of the Ancient Comedy stands a large hotel which, for nearly a century, has been a favorite abode with the semi-Bohemian race we have just described. On the first floor of the building, Clarence Marsham — or rather Clarence Marsh, as his passport designated him — had engaged one of the most roomy and best apartments. Compared with his neighboring lodgers, his surroundings might be termed luxurious; still they were a sad falling off from the regimental club and the splendors of Allworth House. The youthful profligate did not, however, regret the change very much. In Paris he had found what he deemed compensation in the alluring pleasures of the French metropolis.

Although his mother had reduced his allowance by one half, Clarence Marsham appeared a veritable Crœsus to his new acquaintances, who ate his suppers, drank his wines, and occasionally borrowed a few francs from him. Not that he was by any means a generous lender; it was a tax he had to pay, and he paid it grudgingly.

Our roué, who was fast gliding into the habits and manners of his new associates, had invited some half dozen of them to a late breakfast in his rooms. Amongst others were Duhammel, the son of a rich notary; Alfred Oufroy, of an old Norman family; Alphonse Dubarry; St. Ange, brother to the great advocate, — all of them giddy, pleasure loving youths, but extremely sensitive on the one great point of French honor — courage.

As for morals, in the strict sense of the word, we fear they scoffed at them.

From Scenes de la vie de boheme (1850), Henri Murger, illustr. Maurice Berty.

From La Vie de Boheme (1850), Henri Murger, illustr. Maurice Berty.

The revel was at its height — continued from the orgies of the preceding night — orgies which we cannot take upon ourselves to describe, even if we had the inclination. Glasses were drained, plans for fresh dissipations laid out, and vows of eternal friendship — false as dicers’ oaths — exchanged.

One instant, bursts of equivocal jest; the next, the half-drunken madcaps broke into one of their student songs — honoured traditions in the Latin Quarter. Their fathers and grandfathers most probably, had sung them under similar circumstances, with the same noisy accompaniments of jingling glasses and rattling of forks and knives.

Brother students, we are met for mirth and delight,
And joy the bright goblet of Bacchus shall fill;
For though woman, dear women, be absent to-night,
The spell of her beauty is over us still.
‘Twas wisely decreed by our masters of old,
To refuse them degrees, ‘spite entreaties and sighs;
For once in our halls they would rule uncontrolled,
And govern each class by the light of their eyes.
Then think not in Bacchus alone we delight,
And seek but the cup of the wine-god to fill:
For though woman, dear woman, be absent to-night,
The spell of her beauty is over us still.

The cheers which followed the song and chorus had barely subsided when Monsieur Bellot, the proprietor of the hotel, entered the room. His appearance was hailed by the revellers with bursts of laughter and applause. Clarence insisted on his drinking a glass of champagne in honor of his guests. The Frenchman bowed, swallowed the wine, then gravely informed the host that three gentlemen were in the ante-room who insisted on seeing him.

The young Englishman looked disconcerted. The recollection of the false passport, and his assumed name, suggested suspicions of the police.

‘Who are they?’ he demanded after a pause. ‘Frenchmen?’

‘No,’ replied Mons. Bellot, ‘Englishmen. I can swear to that. But their cards,’ he added, at the same time, ‘will doubtless inform you of the purport of their visit.’

The roué read the names of three officers of Lord Bury’s regiment. His enemy had found him.

‘Yes, certainly!’ exclaimed the latter, enforcing a laugh to conceal his embarrassment. ‘They are old friends, show them in.’

The students noticed with surprise that the three Englishmen, when they entered the room, instead of rushing to their host, embracing him, and indulging in a succession of gyrations which it would puzzle a mathematician to describe, bowed stiffly, and the eldest one, advancing towards Clarence, requested the favour of a private conversation with him.

‘A duel,’ whispered Oufroy.

Duhammel thought it looked very like one.

‘How odd these islanders are,’ added a third student. ‘Three seconds to carry one message. But, nil nisi clavis, we have not the key of the enigma yet.’

‘You may speak before these gentlemen,’ exclaimed Marsham, in a tone of bravado, trusting that his guests would stand by him.

‘Tiens!’ said one of them. ‘The insular appears civilised.’

Considering that barely four years had elapsed since the battle of Waterloo had been fought, this was rather a handsome admission for a Frenchman to make.

‘My Lord Bury,’ said the second, ‘feeling deeply insulted in his honour and personal dignity by the conduct of Mr. Marsh’– he gave him his assumed name — ‘towards a lady whose name it would be indelicate to mention, demands immediate satisfaction for the outrage.’

Although Clarence was not particularly brave, he was far from being, in the ordinary acceptation of the word, a coward. He knew that his lordship was a dead shot, and began to reflect whether some means might not be found to avoid the meeting. What made the affair more difficult was the Englishman had delivered his message in excellent French.

‘Mon Dieu!’ whispered Oufroy in his ear. ‘What are you hesitating about?’

‘Looking for his lost courage,’ suggested another of the students.

Clarence turned towards them, his mind being made up at last.

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘you are, I believe, all of you, my excellent good friends.’

To this there succeeded a dead silence His guests were waiting.

‘I am placed in a position of extreme delicacy,’ added the speaker, ‘and solicit your advice, pledging myself, of course, to act on it.’

At this there was a faint murmur of approval.

‘The gentleman who has challenged me is so nearly related to me that I hesitate about accepting the provocation.’

‘Is he a brother?’ asked Duhammel, the oldest of the Frenchmen present.

‘No. His father is the husband of my mother.’

An ironical smile — in fact, it amounted almost to a sneer — curled the lips of the students, who unanimously assured the speaker that so slight a degree of relationship presented no obstacle to his accepting the duel.

‘Curse them!’ muttered Clarence to himself. ‘I am in for it.’ Speaking aloud he added: ‘Thanks, gentlemen; you have relieved my mind of a painful doubt. Perhaps you will arrange the time and place of meeting with my adversary?’

‘It must be instantly,’ observed Captain Seymour, the name of the messenger. ‘His lordship is waiting in the Alley of the Luxembourg, hard by.’

‘Is the offence so deadly?’ asked Duhammel.

‘Most deadly,’ was the reply. Walking close to Clarence, he whispered in his ear: ‘Choose at once ‘between the satisfaction demanded or being arrested, dragged through the streets of Paris, for travelling under a false name and passport.’

‘And can you reconcile to yourselves turning informers?’

‘Under ordinary circumstances, certainly not; but by violating the laws of honor you have placed yourself beyond the pale of society. The police are already in the hotel, ready to arrest you. The exposure once made, his friends cannot permit Lord Bury to meet you.’

‘And shall I fall?’

‘You need not trouble yourself for any after results,’ observed Captain Seymour, dryly.

‘Should I be the victor?’ added Clarence.

‘In that case,’ remarked the former, ‘neither my brother officers nor myself will feel called upon .to denounce you.’

Cornered at every point, the cowardly insulter of Lady Kate resolved to take the desperate chance. Walking to the table he tossed off in succession two or three glasses of wine; then, turning to his student friends, exclaimed, in an almost joyous tone:

‘I am ready.’

The former had already supplied themselves with both swords and pistols, that the principal might have the choice of weapons on the ground.

‘And now, gentlemen, where to?’ inquired Duhammel.

‘To the garden of the Luxembourg,’ answered Captain Seymour, gravely.

A few minutes later the speakers passed by the Odeon, where a bal masque had been held the preceding night. Several of the students who had attended it recognised Clarence and his friends as they passed them.

Death and dissipation jostled each other on the street. They are old acquaintances, and a familiar nod was all that seemed necessary.

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

Notes, References, Further Reading

orangutan: To counterbalance my glib comment, see Sydney Lévy, ‘Why an Ourang-Outang? Thinking and Computing with Poe‘, at Épistémocritique: Littérature et savoirs.

orgie: Fr. orgy

grisette: ‘1. A young French working-class woman; 2. A young woman combining part-time prostitution with some other occupation.’ Merriam-Webster.

upon the tapis: from Fr. ‘sur le tapis’ = ‘on the carpet’; in the context, ‘on the table-cloth’, or ‘under consideration’, as in the English idiom ‘on the table’.

Crœsus: King of Lydia, 560–547 BCE, whose riches came from gold in the sands of the River Pactolus, where King Midas washed his hands.

false as dicers’ oaths: ‘Such an act / That blurs the grace and blush of modesty, / Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose / From the fair forehead of an innocent love / And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows / As false as dicers’ oaths: O, such a deed […]’ (Hamlet iii.4). That is, as untrustworthy as a dicer’s vow to quit gambling.

[Louis de Loménie], R.M. Walsh, trans. ‘Berryer’ in Sketches of Conspicuous Living Characters of France (1841). Available free at Internet Archive.

Henri Murger, La Vie de Boheme (1850). Available free at Internet Archive.

Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841), ‘The Purloined Letter’ (PL) (1844), ‘The Gold-bug’ (1843).

William F. Friedman, ‘Edgar Allan Poe, Cryptographer’ in L.J. Budd and E.H. Cady eds.,  On Poe (1993).

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