Mystery of the Marsh

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

Prior to the two Australian newspaper series we’re using to reconstruct The Mystery of the Marsh, the novel appeared serialized in the New York Ledger during the period December 1882 — March 1883. You may recall that Smith moved from Europe to the United States in 1870, residing there until his death in 1890. According to Montague Summers, the author of A Gothic Bibliography (1941; 1964), by that time Smith’s fortune was ‘wasted’, owing to his ‘too ample charities and generosity’, and he died ‘in obscurity, if not indeed in actual want.’

During that period, Smith wrote original stories for the New York Ledger, a so-called ‘six-cent weekly’ offering diverse family entertainment, but catering mostly for a female readership, with an emphasis on romantic fiction (‘Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls’; Stanford U).

In considering provenance, as tempting as it is to suggest that Mystery of the Marsh was first published in the New York Ledger, Summers cautions that in America Smith ‘republished many of his old tales and wrote some new romances the titles of which it is baffling to trace.’ The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many stories published in London were given no explicit byline, but rather advertised as ‘By the author of such-and-such.’ It would seem a fool’s errand to go wading through a morass of digitized newspapers in search of a serialized text whose author was unstated and title unsure.

The copy referenced in the New York Ledger is itself  hard to access. Earhart and Jewell explain how

While the works of major writers and periodicals are being digitized, there is limited funding for others. For example, scholars have no electronic or even microfilm access to the New York Ledger, the newspaper where Fanny Fern, among the most famous women writers in the nineteenth century, published her weekly columns from 1856 to 1872.

The American Literature Scholar in the Digital Age, (U of Michigan P, 2011)

There is little if any doubt, however, that the work is Smith’s own, given its style, catalogue attributions, and details of reference, some of which I’ve mentioned in previous notes. It seems to me that, in one sense, while we cannot know exactly when the work first appeared, such a limitation adds a certain interest to the work, being a function of the channels and technologies of the text’s transmission.

More on technicalities in a later post. For the time being, let us leave them behind and turn to the pleasure of the text. In this week’s chapter, the Paris duel and its aftermath; and some dubious characters find themselves ensnared. This instalment’s featured image shows a daytime view of one of the ‘alleys’ of the Luxembourg where the duel is fought.


Result of the Duel — The Victor and his Friends Make Good their Retreat to London — Lord Bury Once More in the Country — Plot and Counterplot

On reaching the alley of the Luxembourg — the one skirted by the dead wall in which Marshal Ney was shot for his fidelity to the first Napoleon, and truth compels us to add, undoubted treason to Louis the Eighteenth — the late revellers, their eyes still sparkling under the influence of the wine cup, advanced with a confident if not cheerful air, followed by the three Englishman, whose demeanor appeared far more serious.

Allée au jardin du Luxembourg, Vincent van Gogh, 1886

At a distance, but out of sight, Monsieur Vezin, with several agents of police, were on their track. The clever detective had received not only his reward, but instructions. If Lord Bury fell, he was to take no steps against the liberty of his antagonist. If Clarence succumbed, he was not to use the information he had obtained or arrest him. The only circumstances under which the last step would be taken — his refusal to fight — did not seem likely to occur; he was already on the ground.

Although little more than boys in years, the students were men of the world as far as the punctilios of the duel are concerned. They had secured the services of a surgeon on their way to the Luxembourg, measured the ground with mathematical exactness, and placed the pistol in the hands of their principal.

It had been agreed that the combatants should fire together.

The fall of the handkerchief was followed by the instantaneous discharge of the weapons. Lord Bury still stood erect, although the ball of Clarence had slightly grazed his temple. Marsham lay senseless on the ground, bleeding from a severe wound in his throat.

The surgeon approached, looked in his face, and shook his head gravely. Despite the semi-Bohemian life he led, he was a man of honor. Turning to the English group, he said:

‘You had better retire, gentlemen, and provide for your safety. The result threatens to be serious, and the government of the day sets its face against duelling.’

Captain Seymour had taken the precaution of keeping the carriage waiting at the gate of the Luxembourg. In less than an hour Bury and his friends had quitted Paris and were on their way to the nearest frontier town in Belgium.

Monsieur Vezin took care they were not too closely followed.

Meanwhile Marsham had been taken back to his hotel, and further surgical assistance sent for.

* * *

Tact is one of those qualities which some men are born with; few things are more difficult to acquire. Experience can only partially supply its absence. It lacks the smoothness, the ready spontaneity of the former; then it sometimes blunders, which tact carefully avoids.

‘Here, you girls,’ exclaimed Sir George Meredith, handing the “Morning Post” — the fashionable journal of the day — to his daughter as they sat at luncheon, ‘see if you can solve this riddle. I can make nothing of it.’

Clara addressed herself to the paragraph in the “Morning Post,” and had not proceeded far before a deadly paleness overspread her countenance, and she fell, half-fainting, from her chair.

With the assistance of Lady Kate and Rose Neville, who were staying at the Hall, the housekeeper and female servants conveyed the deeply agitated girl to her own room. A groom was dispatched to the nearest physician by her half distracted parent, who at intervals stood puzzling his brains as to the cause of the sudden attack. Slowly the perception dawned upon his mind that something in the “Post” had occasioned it

Snatching up the paper, he perused the paragraph a second time. For the benefit of our readers we shall transcribe it :

‘Paris. — Duel in High Life. — On the l8th instant a hostile meeting took place in the garden of the Luxembourg, between Captain Lord B—, of the Guards, and Lieutenant M—-, whose late retirement from the service caused considerable comment in fashionable circles. Both the combatants wore wounded; his lordship in the temple; his antagonist far more seriously in the throat. His life, we hear, is despaired of.’

What renders the affair still more distressing is the fact of the father of Lord B— being married to the mother of the gentleman whose life is despaired of.

‘B stands for Bury,’ muttered the baronet, after reading the paragraph a second and third time. ‘He would never be such a fool as to call Marsham to account, and yet M— designates the rascal clearly enough.’

‘But why should Clara faint on reading the news?’ he added.

Glancing his eyes once more over the journal, he detected a paragraph which had escaped his attention:

‘Lord Bury, we are happy to hear, has arrived safely from Paris, and is now staying with his regiment at Knightsbridge.’

And a little lower down he read:

‘Viscount and Viscountess Allworth left town last night for the continent. The state of Mr. M— is considered hopeless.’

‘Served the rascal right, if it is really the man I suspect,’ said Sir George, by way of comment. ‘But I have no time to think of him. My mind is occupied with Clara. What could her fainting mean?’

The speaker paced the apartment for several minutes. A smile at last appeared upon his honest countenance.’ An idea had struck him — one that, we shrewdly suspect, has already occurred to our readers.

‘If it should be so,’ he muttered, ‘I have a great mind to write and remind him of his promised visit. But first for the “Morning Post.”‘

Carefully marking the two last bits of gossip, he directed the housekeeper to convey the paper to Lady Kate Kepple.

‘A clever girl that,’ he thought. ‘She will know what I mean. Girls understand each other.’

Two hours elapsed before his niece made her appearance. She entered the room with a smiling face that boded favourable intelligence of the patient.

‘Clara is much better!’ she exclaimed. ‘Quite recovered from her fainting fit. The heat of the weather. Nothing serious.’

‘No doubt’ of it,’ replied the baronet. ‘I felt it myself. Dreadfully warm.’

The morning had been a frosty one. The speakers looked in each other’s face, and laughed. A sense of the ridiculous had struck them both.

‘Sir George,’ observed the young lady, regarding him archly, ‘are you aware that you are a very deceitful, treacherous old gentleman?’

‘Treacherous and deceitful!’ exclaimed her relative. ‘What can you mean?’

‘Exactly what I said,’ answered Kate; ‘and you know it. But we will not discuss the question. It can do no good. If I had a secret,’ she added, ‘I should be very careful how I gave you a clue to it.’

‘All girls have their secret,’ observed the father of Clara, playfully, ‘and I feel certain that you are no exception to the rule, for you have a heart.’

Lady Kate coloured to the temples.

‘So you may just as well confess it,’ added the speaker.

‘When I have,’ she answered laughingly, as she quitted the room, ‘I will come to you for advice; but not till then.’

The worthy baronet felt particularly well satisfied with himself. He had acted most diplomatically; conveyed the information he wished to his daughter without permitting his suspicions as to the cause of her illness to appear.

That same day he wrote to his nephew, alluded frankly to the reports he had read, and asked him candidly how much truth he was to attribute to them. He concluded the letter by reminding him of his promised visit to the country.

That will do,’ he said, after reading  it  twice; ‘must not appear too pressing. Clara would never forgive me. I wish she were well married.’

‘Just the thing,’ thought his lordship, on perusing the invitation. ‘A few weeks rest will be welcome to me. I wonder if Clara knew of her father’s writing. Don’t be conceited, Bury,’ he added, smiling to himself;  ‘even if she does know of it, it means nothing. What more natural? It must be awfully dull in the country.’

Ten days later he was on his way to Norfolk, but not alone. Tom Randal accompanied him in the character of his valet.

It is the privilege of every officer in the army to take one man from his regiment to act as a servant, not that the young guardsman had the slightest intention of entrusting his person to the care of the rustic lover of the pretty Phoebe, who, excited by the hope of meeting his sweetheart again, and, if possible, shaking her resolution, forgot all about his determination of wearing no other livery than that of his country.

‘Tom,’ said his captain, when everything was settled; ‘we travel in mufti.’

Mufti, in military parlance, means plain clothes.

‘Sorry to disappoint you,’ continued the speaker, ‘but you can wear your uniform only on Sundays; weekdays you will have to dress in –‘

‘Your Lordship’s livery,’ interrupted the farmer’s son, in a tone of wounded pride.

The officer fixed his eyes keenly upon him.

‘You deserve that I should say yes, for doubting me,’ he replied. ‘Do you think I could humiliate you? I had no other means of obtaining your temporary leave of absence, or I would have tried it. Take that card, Tom, to my tailor. He will supply you with plain clothes that will not disgrace your father’s son — and on Sundays you may break the hearts of half the village girls by wearing your uniform — and a deuced fine fellow you look in it.’

‘Phœbe,’ he added, ‘will scarcely be able to resist it.’

Needless to say, poor Tom Randal was profuse in his gratitude. At the appointed time they started on their journey.

 * * *

Like a solitary spider in its web, Mr. Brit, senior, sat alone in his chambers. The clerks had quitted at the usual hour, but their employer remained under pretence of having important papers to look through; but in reality to hold a meeting with his agent and confederate, the money lender.

Benoni, who, whilst seeming attentive only to his duties, had eyes and ears for everything that transpired, was not deceived by their ruse. He had already acquired one piece of practical knowledge in his new profession — that the last thing a lawyer gives is his reason for any act. He prefers putting forth the pretence. Instead of returning as his fellow clerks did, to his lodgings, he resolved to remain in the neighbourhood of the Old Jury and watch the proceedings of his employer.

To this degrading action he was impelled by a double motive  — curiosity and fear. The allurements of London had already proved too much for him; he had yielded to their blandishments and plunged, without making any real resistance, into a career of vice. As is usual in such cases, the first false step forced on a second. To supply the means of extravagance, the unfortunate youth had appropriated a check, left by a country client in settlement of an account; and even that was not the worst — he had endorsed it with his employer’s name.

No wonder the possible consequence of this rash act haunted him. He saw but one way of escaping from it — discovering something so damaging to the reputation of the pious Mr. Brit that might in turn place that gentleman in his power.

It was a terrible game of see-saw Benoni was playing. At one end of the balance stood the hangman with his rope; at the other, even if he succeeded, shame and exposure.

The odds were desperately in favor of the elder rogue.

Benoni had concealed himself in a dark, narrow passage, bordered by dirty, gloomy-looking houses. At night the passage was a solitude; few except the hungry and destitute invaded it — or the criminal.

After standing two hours upon the watch, a prey to his remorseful fears, the concealed spy saw the old money lender, Moses, glide like a shadow from his own den to that of the respectable Mr. Brit.

‘Something,’ he thought, ‘but not sufficient. If I could but overhear their conversation.’

Whilst he stood puzzling his fevered brain to contrive the means, two men, who, from the bottom of the passage, had been watching his proceedings, crept stealthily towards him. They were meanly dressed, their faces partially hid by high shirt collars, then just coming into vogue, and long woollen wrappers twisted loosely round their necks.

No echoing footfall gave warning of their approach. A cloak was thrown suddenly over the head of the spy, who felt himself dragged still farther into the passage, then down a short flight of steps, leading, as he rightly conjectured, to the basement of one of the houses.

The prisoner, who had never been remarkable for courage, believing himself to have fallen into the hands of justice, fainted.

On recovering his senses he found himself seated in an arm chair, his arms bound, and the cloak still over his face. Certain animals, we are told, when closely pressed by the hunter, will pretend to be dead. Benoni was not much of a naturalist, but he had read the Greek fable, and, although restored to consciousness, made up his mind to act the insensible.

He was rewarded by hearing the following conversation between his captors:

‘I tell you,’ said the tallest of the two, ‘it is useless to trust him. He has not the courage of a hare. Can’t you see what a miserable cur he is?’

‘But he is cunning,’ replied a thin, squeaking voice, which the listener thought he recognised.

‘What security will his cunning give for his fidelity?’

‘None; but I have a better than that — his neck.’

The tall man repeated the words.

‘Yes,’ continued the former speaker. ‘He has committed a breach of trust; forged old Brit’s name to a check; no great amount, but sufficient to hang him. The warrant is out.’

Benoni with difficulty suppressed a groan.

‘On his return to his lodgings he will be arrested.’

At this revelation the prisoner experienced a fresh access of terror. His limbs trembled in every joint, and, yet faithful to the part he was acting, he gave no signs of consciousness till the cloak had been removed and a glass of cold water dashed in his face, when he opened first one eye, then the other, and stared languidly round the room.

‘Ah, Wickwar,’ he said, In a faint tone, ‘is that you?’

‘In person,’ chuckled the man.

‘Always playing some practical joke.’

‘You will find it no joke,’ observed the squeaking voice, dryly.

Benoni recognised in its answer the confidential clerk of Mr. Moses, the money-lender, and experienced an unpleasant choking sensation at his throat.

‘Look you,’ continued the speaker. ‘I don’t know that I am much better than you are — only a little more prudent. My employer has no hold on me. Yours has upon you. I have engaged myself to serve this gentleman, who has fallen into the hands of our masters, who are great rogues, but exceedingly clever ones. I am bound to carry out my promise. Now, if you could undertake to guide him to a place of safety, perhaps — mind, I only say perhaps — I might connive at your escaping with him. Do you know of such a place?’

‘I do!’ exclaimed Benoni, eagerly. ‘A retreat where the staunchest bloodhounds of the law would not attempt to penetrate.’

‘Is it far from London?’

‘Thirty miles.’

‘By land or water?’

‘Much the same either way,’ was the reply. ‘But by water would be safest. What day is it?’


‘Then I am certain I could perform my promise,’ observed Benoni. ‘There will be boats in the river laden with wild fowl, game and spirits. Four hours’ sharp rowing will land us safely in the Bittern’s Marsh.’

After a few whispered words between the two men the proposal was agreed to.

‘Listen to me,’ said the eldest. ‘Guide me safely to the place you name, and you will not only secure your own safety, but a handsome reward. Attempt to betray me, and I will  blow your brains out. I will not be taken alive.’

To prove this threat was not an idle one, he drew from his pocket a pair of pistols.

The three speakers quitted the basement together.

At the entrance of the passage Wickwar gave a low whistle, and presently a dingy looking cab was seen driving along the Old Jury. Benoni and the tall man entered it, when it immediately drove off. The money-order clerk stood watching it as it disappeared.

‘The fools!’ he muttered to himself. ‘Bully and coward — they are well matched.’

Waiting till the rattle of the wheels ceased to be heard, the schemer crossed rapidly to the other side of the streets and began groping his way in the dark up the stairs leading to the chamber of the respectable Mr. Brit.

It was no part of that gentleman’s policy — all lawyer’s are gentlemen by act of Parliament — to drive the fugitive, who was no other than their dupe Burcham, out of the country, but to frighten him into some place of concealment where he could communicate neither with friends nor receive advice. The transactions with his dupe through his agent, Moses, had been most profitable, and promised to be more so, but he well knew they could not bear the light. It was with this view the scene we have described had been enacted.

Needless to add that Wickwar was in the plot.

‘Capital, my dear fellow, capital!’ said the lawyer, in a tone of satisfaction, when the last-named personage entered the chambers. ‘Could not have done it better myself.’

‘Peautiful!’ exclaimed the Jew. You think he will be quite safe?’

‘As in the grave,’ answered the clerk, confidently. ‘Few,’ he added, have ever escaped from the Bittern’s Marsh.’

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

Notes and References

he had read the Greek fable: Seems to be Aesop’s fable of the cat and the mice.

Mufti, in military parlance, means plain clothes: See Hobson-Jobson: a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive by Sir Henry Yule et al (London: Murray, 1903). Jump to page on Internet Archive.

Luxembourg Gardens and Latin Quarter locations:

Montague Summers. A Gothic Bibliography. NY: Russell & Russell, 1964 (1941). Jump to page on Internet Archive.

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