Mystery of the Marsh

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

In the previous chapter, Clara expresses her relief when William turns out to be a gentleman, as is borne out by the credentials printed on his card and his reputation as a scholar, which has become a matter of public knowledge. Lady Kate hadn’t doubted it, perhaps thanks to her greater sensitivity to him and his actions, or because her noble breeding better equips her to judge.

The theme of interpreting gentleman-like virtues and qualities continues in the present chapter, incorporating a theme of etiquette. To be a Victorian gentleman, it would appear, requires an innate, transcendent trait of nobility, but as well, the ability to negotiate a finely-tuned symbolic system of ritual and convention, in order to be able to present oneself as a gentleman.

On the other hand, Goliah seems to possess at least two innate virtues of the gentleman: honesty and bravery. Place him in a situation requiring a modicum of gentlemanly savoir faire, however, and he can’t measure up. He expresses himself with childlike spontaneity and needs a poke in the ribs to keep quiet. When Bunce insists that Goliah is a gentleman, that “It is the heart that gives the title. The rest is the mere gilding of the surface,” it is in a tone of kindly rhetoric. Goliah is clearly as yet a primitive if well-intended ‘unsuspecting rustic’ and comic relief, competent at only the most basic ropes.

‘Love Will Triumph’ (1900). Charles Haigh-Wood. Source: artnet.com

But how should a gentleman behave in Lady Montague’s mansion on a social call? She is a stickler for the protocols. Why was the meeting in the park necessary in the first place? Did Lady Kate not repay his services with a gift? — which ought to be sufficient in the language of etiquette. Kate’s reply demonstrates her own finesse at interpreting and balancing symbolic actions and their meanings.

There are actions which the most costly gifts cannot repay, but which a few kind words may amply recompense. Besides, she added, ‘Mr. Winston is a gentleman.’

When a servant takes William’s card and ushers him to the morning-room, he is pitiably afflicted with confusion and doubt. Smith-narrator worries about what William will do with his hat, “that terrible test to young men”. Perhaps he should read something like that most useful guide,The Spirit of Etiquette; Or Politeness Exemplified, by Lady de S****** (London, 1837):

On paying a morning call, keep your hat in your hand unless at the house of an intimate friend. If you leave it in the hall, it appears as though you intended staying; and unless you are very intimate with the party, it is a liberty.

Or perhaps he has. A slew of such books appeared in the Victorian era, a more accessible variation on the previous “courtesy” genre, which had enjoyed currency since the Renaissance. Addressed to an aristocratic audience, courtesy books discoursed on manners as an expression of moral ideals (Curtin 411). The publication of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774) marked a turning point, attending to more pragmatic, outward, imitable issues, toward the ends of self-interest:

Observe the shining part of every man of fashion, who is liked and esteemed; attend to and imitate that particular accomplishment for which you hear him chiefly celebrated and distinguished; then collect those various parts and make yourself a Mosaic of the whole.

Henceforth the discussion of manners was disassociated from high culture and disdained by distinguished authors. In the pattern set by Chesterfield for his son, etiquette books addressed themselves to the upwardly mobile members of the burgeoning middle class. Those who had become financially successful now looked to rub shoulders with those of “le suprême bon ton,” to advance socially and hide their humble origins by assuming the manners of the aristocracy.

Chesterfield writes on the implications of what a gentleman wears:

Your dress (as insignificant a thing as dress is in itself) is now become an object worthy of some attention; for, I confess, I cannot help forming some opinion of a man’s sense and character from his dress; and I believe most people do as well as myself. Any affectation whatsoever in dress implies, in my mind, a flaw in the understanding.

We may note in this light the understated taste with which William dresses — which is entirely appropriate, as Lord Bury tacitly discries, “to a mere morning call”.

In the era of the industrial revolution and the advent of what Karl Marx termed commodity fetishism, extravagant garments no longer proclaim rank and status. Rather, co-opting a new cosmopolitan aesthetic, clothes become a protective shield against invasion, a mechanism of codes and signs and a process of discernment.

Details of workmanship now show how “gentle” a man or woman is. The fastening of buttons on a coat, the quality of fabric counts, when the fabric itself is subdued in color or hue. Boot leather becomes another sign. The tying of cravats becomes an intricate business; how they are tied reveals whether a man has “stuffing” or not, what is tied is nondescript material.

As watches become simpler in appearance, the materials used in their making are the mark of the owner’s social standing. It was, in all these details, a matter of subtly marking yourself; anyone who proclaims himself a gent obviously isn’t.

(Sennett, 165)

It is more than just lavender gloves as things-in-themselves. An emerging bourgeois self is dislocated from its tranquil sources in the family and in the country and exposed to a mechanism of intrusive forces and gazes that seek to determine it — just as we see Kate’s family array itself as her protective shield in determining to its satisfaction what William is.

Deep anxieties underpin these new social processes, such as Lady Montague embodies, seemingly risibly characterised with her phobia of social exposure. Why so humiliating for the scandalous details surrounding Lady Kate and Clarence Marsham to come out? Perhaps because codes that define the male, in terms of how he matches up against a positive model of the gentleman (and not a “coxcomb” or a “scoundrel”), are the same that determine the lady against a relatively negatively valorised model of the “loose woman”. Hence, the spontaneity that Kate exhibits — even in abruptly stopping the carriage, blocking the orderly flow of traffic — may be perceived as a disturbing, hysterical trait:

[W]hen a society proposes to its members that regularity and purity of feeling are the price for having a self, hysteria becomes the logical, perhaps the only means of rebellion.

(Sennett, 182)


CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Lawyer Whiston Makes a New Acquaintance — A Glance at the Past — Plans for the Future

However excellent in theory the law of England may be, like most human institutions, it presents many singular anomalies. In practice its professors are divided into two distinct branches, or bodies. First in rank are the barristers who alone possess the right of pleading in the superior courts. They are generally men of university education, and not unfrequently have won its proudest honours.

From them the lord chancellors, vice chancellors and judges are invariably taken.

The second, or inferior class, as they are considered, are the attorneys, or solicitors, whose forensic abilities are confined to the police courts and quarter sessions. They act as wet-nurses to the barristers, collect evidence, and prepare their briefs, which none but a solicitor can present. A client, no matter how intelligent and capable, may not draw up his own brief, or statement of his case. No barrister would receive it; it would be considered against the usages of the courts.

Solicitors divide their practice into several branches, some of them exceedingly lucrative; the conveyance of real estate, which in England is beset with difficulties, being one of them. Divorce cases and criminal defence are two others, to say nothing of offences against the excise laws, poaching, and civil suits generally. They have to prepare all the evidence, and although they may not open their lips in the superior courts, may frequently be seen seated by the side of the privileged barrister, prompting or coaching him.

The wealthiest and probably most respected members of this branch of the legal profession are the family solicitors to the nobility, landed aristocracy, and great mercantile firms. In the first two instances they have the management of the estates and of honourable men; are consulted on all occasions, looked upon in the light of a friend.

In this class of solicitors the uncle of our hero held a distinguished position. His clients were not numerous, but they were wealthy, and of high social standing. To such a man the means of obtaining information were sore and varied. Lately he had spent considerable time in piecing together the fragments of half-burnt letters, which Bunce had given him, and the result was that he began to feel considerable interest in the antecedents of Viscountess Allworth. Amongst other bits of information he discovered that her first husband, Gervais Marsham, had a brother, a wealthy merchant in the city, who bore a high character for integrity and honourable dealing.

As a general rule, if there is any little speck of dirt, flaw of reputation, or circumstance that we particularly wish to conceal, relatives are the first to disclose it, especially if the unfortunate tainted wether of the flock happens to be placed in a more enviable position regarding rank and fortune than the rest. Richard Whiston was far too close an observer of human nature, both as a lawyer and a man, for this peculiarity to have escaped him, and he set about turning it to advantage in his own quiet ways. It was an easy matter to obtain an introduction to the merchant, to whom he made himself so agreeable that invitations were soon exchanged.

On the occasion of his first visit he contrived to be just ten minutes too late for dinner — not long enough to disturb the equanimity of his host, or, what was of more consequence, that of his maiden sister, Miss Penelope Marsham, who presided over her brother’s bachelor establishment.

‘Not a word, my dear sir, said the city man, cutting short his apologies. ‘A dozen turns, more or less, of the spit will not hurt the haunch, and turtle can’t spoil. Will you take my sister in?’

Their new acquaintance gave his arm to the lady, and the small but select party proceeded to the dining-room.

The dinner proved an excellent one — a little heavy, perhaps; but that was to be expected in the city, yet not uncomfortably so. It was not till the dessert made its appearance that the wily lawyer alluded to the cause of his delay.

‘Consultation,’ he said, ‘with a noble client in rather an intricate affair between two ladies of the fashionable world — Lady Montague and Viscountess Allworth. Ladies — pardon the remark. Miss Marsham — are at times disposed to be a little prolix.’ Turning to her brother, he added, as he eyed the bronze beading on the rim of his glass. ‘This is exquisite Burgundy.’

‘Imported it myself,’ observed his host.

At the name of the viscountess Miss Penelope gave one of those scarcely perceptible little shrugs, which sometimes convey a vast amount of meaning.

‘Are you concerned in any legal affairs for Lady Allworth?’ she asked.

‘Oh, dear, no! not in the slightest degree. My client is opposed to her. A question of guardianship —’

‘Your client,’ remarked the spinster, ‘had better be upon her guard.’

‘Pen,’ interrupted her, brother, ‘our friend, I suspect, has had quite enough professional business for one day. Had we not better change the subject?’ A frown accompanied the observation.

The lady looked displeased, but took the hint, although it lost her an occasion for airing her resentment.

Richard Whiston appeared perfectly unconscious of this little piece of by-play, but came at once to the conclusion that the sister was the one likely to afford the information he sought.

With some men — and they are not the worst of their kind — there is nothing like good dinners to cement intimacy. They even assist friendship. The wealthy merchant was a bon vivant, and the lawyer’s cook an artist of peculiar merit. Visits were frequently exchanged; gradually they became intimate. Like an experienced general, Mr. Whiston attacked the weakest side of the fortress; directed all his inquiries to Miss Penelope, and soon succeeded in drawing from her much curious information respecting the antecedents of the crafty viscountess, whom she hated — bitterly — intensely — only as a woman can hate.

Her brother, Walter Marsham, it appeared, had been left a widower, with only one son, a boy six years of age. It was an awkward position for a young man immersed in affairs. Too fond of his child to commit him to the care of strangers, he engaged a lady, who came, highly recommended, to take charge of his household and superintend the education of his infant heir.

The next fact extracted from the garrulous old maid was that, six months after the arrival of the governess, the boy was drowned; the body never found.

‘A sad misfortune,’ observed the lawyer, in a sympathetic tone.

‘A terrible one,’ added the narrator. ‘But for his loss, poor Walter would never have become the dupe of that artful woman. He married her within a year.’

‘I can comprehend your feelings,’ said Mr. Whiston, ‘especially if the antecedents of the Lady —’

‘She had no antecedents,’ interrupted Miss Penelope Marsham. ‘No one knows anything about her. As my brother, Gervais, said, when he heard of it, she came into the family like a doubtful bill, without any endorsement. We city people have our pride. Neither my brother nor myself ever noticed her.’

‘And your sister-in-law is now Viscountess Allworth?’

‘No mistake about that,’ observed Penelope, just a little spitefully. ‘His lordship married her for her money. Walter left her everything — but he did not get it, after all. The schemer was too cunning for him.’

It took at least half a dozen dinners and quite as many calls to draw out the information which we have thus briefly condensed for the satisfaction of our readers.

After carefully weighing all these circumstances, the astute lawyer at last made up his mind that the time had arrived for him to act, and the morning after the arrival of Goliah in town he sent for Bunce to come to his private room at the office, having given strict orders to the managing clerk that they were not to be disturbed under any pretence.

‘Are you satisfied,’ he asked, as soon as they were seated, ‘with the manner in which I have treated you?’

‘Satisfied!’ repeated the ex-tramp. ‘Ah, sir, I am most grateful. Your confidence has been most generous. With nothing but my simple word to support my assertions, you have placed a confidence in me almost against reason to expect. I would give my life to serve you.’

‘I believe you,’ observed the gentleman with a smile. ‘In the service I am about to ask of you fortunately there is no such risk to be encountered. And yet,’ he added, ‘it is not without some danger.’

‘Try me,’ said the young man, eagerly.

‘You are well acquainted, I believe, with the Bittern’s Marsh?’

‘Every track is familiar to me. Regular roads — that is to say, roads worthy of the name — there are none. Reckless and unprincipled as the inhabitants are, at war with justice and the world, it would not answer their purpose to have any.’

‘Reflect well before you answer my question,’ said Mr. Whiston, ‘and let not gratitude sway your judgment. Do you think it would be possible for you to visit that den of outcasts without much risk of detection? I would not you should endanger your life to serve me — added to which, the sacrifice would defeat my project.’

A pause of several instants ensued in the conversation, during which the grateful fellow coolly but rapidly turned over in his mind all the difficulties of the task.

‘I was a mere boy,’ he replied at last, ‘when I quitted the Marsh, and am so changed in person that the fear of recognition is not great. Possible, but not probable; nothing more. The real danger lies in the suspicion with which the steps of every stranger are watched — unless, indeed, in the shooting season, when the hope of gain renders them less cautious. The majority of the inhabitants are smugglers; vessels laden with brandy and silks frequently land their cargoes from the left bank of the Thames. They come from Dinant in Brittany. Could I land from one of these, pass for one of the crew, I should have little doubts of the result.’

‘Can you speak the language of those smugglers?’ inquired his benefactor.

‘It was familiar to me as my mother tongue when a boy, sir. The captains and mates of the barks generally lodged with the old man who said he had kept me from charity.’

‘Your idea is an excellent one,’ observed the lawyer, ‘and a vast improvement on my original plan, for in Dinant you can render me an equally important service. In what character do you think of going?’

‘As a sailor.’

‘You shall be well provided with money,’ said his employer.

‘Not too much, sir,’ answered Bunce, with a smile.

‘And when will you be ready to start?’

‘In two days.’

‘In two days be it then,’ said Mr. Whiston; but recollect, you are to run no unnecessary risks. Greatly as I value the success of the enterprise, it may be too dearly purchased.’

The above conversation took place on the morning of the day when our hero and Goliah encountered Lady Kate and Miss Meredith in the park. With his usual frankness, Willie informed his uncle of the meeting and exchange of cards, and concluded by asking him if it would not be the correct thing to call.

‘Evidently,’ was the reply.

‘I have so often puzzled my brain, sir, wondering if we should ever meet again. Was it not a lucky accident? How fortunate that you advised us to drive in the park.’

We cannot assert it, but are rather inclined to suspect that the lawyer foresaw the great probability of Lady Kate’s meeting with her protector.

The next day the visit was duly made. Goliah, however, did not accompany his friend. Richard Whiston so particularly required his opinion on the capabilities of a farm he was about to purchase in the neighbourhood of London, that the unsuspecting rustic could not refuse to go with him.

Decidedly the uncle of our hero ought to have been a diplomat. He was born with a vast amount of natural tact.

The heart of the youth beat violently as he alighted at the stately mansion of Lady Montague, and when the groom of the chamber ushered him into the morning-room, saying that he would take his card to the young lady, his confusion increased to so pitiable a degree that he almost regretted the step he had taken.

‘Why render my regrets indelible?’ murmured he to himself. ‘What can Lady Kate Kepple ever be to me? The disparity is too great.’

By this time, we suspect Willie already began to have a faint suspicion of the feelings which were gradually entwining themselves with his existence — haunting his dreams, absorbing his waking thoughts. The romance of the first meeting with the fair girl he had so gallantly protected, made a powerful impression, on his imagination — that beneficent or dangerous quality which, for good or ill. as we employ it, controls the greater part of man’s existence; so subtle are its operations that brain and heart are enthralled before we feel conscious of the process which youth, especially in its firsts love, rarely perceives. The man — and the observation we are about to add applies equally to woman — who can analyse its effects, count and estimate the strength of every link as it is added to the chain, may entertain a caprice, but he is not in love.

‘The Patient Competitors’ (1892). Charles Haigh-Wood. Source: The Athenaeum

When her niece and Clara informed Lady Montague of the meeting in the park, that exceedingly correct personage appeared slightly annoyed. We say slightly, for the dread of scandal had died out, nearly two years having elapsed since the adventure which so troubled her at the time.

‘I thought,’ she observed gravely, ‘that you had already acknowledged his services by the gift you forwarded to him?’

‘Gift!’ repeated Lady Kate, warmly. ‘There are actions which the most costly gifts cannot repay, but which a few kind words may amply recompense. Besides, she added, ‘Mr. Winston is a gentleman.’

‘Mr. Whiston!’ repeated the aunt, in surprise.

Her niece silently handed her our hero’s card.

‘Mr. William Whiston, Trin. Col., Cam.,’ said her ladyship, reading it aloud. ‘Well, it certainly does look as if he might be a gentleman.’

She passed the card to Lord Bury, who was present, and whose frequent and prolonged visits to the country, intimate association with two sensible, right-minded girls, who placed principle before fashion, and what they felt to be right before the conventionalities of the world, had shaken a vast amount of nonsense out of his lordship’s disposition, and the operation had greatly improved him; he had always been strictly honourable. If a certain residuum of pride still remained, it was pride without meanness, based on true manhood and honour.

‘I do not see, Lady Montague,’ he observed, ‘how my cousin could have acted otherwise — it would have been ungrateful. A call does not necessarily lead to intimacy. I think you ought to receive him.’

‘You, too!’ exclaimed the spinster, half-reproachfully. ‘Well, I suppose I must.’

‘I and Clara,’ he added, ‘will, if you wish it, both be present; it may relieve Kate from some embarrassment.’

‘Thanks!’ exclaimed the latter, ‘for I should feel dreadfully embarrassed at receiving him alone.’

‘Not to be thought of, my love!’ exclaimed the aunt.

In consequence of this arrangement, all of the speakers were present when our hero was shown into the morning reception room at Montague House.

The young guardsman eyed him as critically as he would have done a colt which he had serious thoughts of introducing into his own stables. On the important points of dress, person and appearance nothing could be more satisfactory. Plain morning suit; not a trinket visible; pale lavender gloves; his hat — that terrible test to young men, who so rarely know what to do with it — in his hand, it being a mere morning call.

‘Well,’ thought his lordship, ‘he certainly does look like a gentleman.’

Lady Kate, having first introduced him by name to her relatives, began to falter forth her thanks for the protection to had afforded her.

‘Pray do not allude to it.’ said Willie, perceiving her embarrassment. ‘A hundred such services would be amply repaid by the simplest expression of thanks. ‘It is I,’ he added, raising his eyes timidly to her blushing countenance, ‘who ought to feel grateful for the pleasure it has afforded me by this introduction.’

‘Not bad,’ whispered Lady Montague to Clara; ‘he certainly is a gentleman.’

‘I told you so, aunt,’ was the reply.

‘Allow me to express my own and Lady Montague’s feelings,’ said Lord Bury, extending his hand to their visitor, ‘for your conduct on an occasion which I will not further allude to, although it can never be forgotten. May I ask,’ he added, by way of changing the subject, ‘if you are related to the Whistons of Northumberland? I have occasionally met several  members of that family.’

‘Not in the slightest degree, that I am aware of,’ answered our hero, unhesitatingly. ‘The only relative of standing I possess is my uncle and guardian, Richard Whiston, the eminent solicitor of Lincoln’s Inn Field, to whose bounty I am indebted for my university education — to whose affection for me more than I can ever repay.’

‘He is a noble fellow,’ thought his lordship, ‘No pinchbeck about him.

‘I am perfectly aware of your uncle’s respectability and high standing in his profession,’ observed the stately old maid. ‘For many years,’ she added, ‘he has had the management of my affairs.’

‘Whiston’s nephew,’ she mentally added. ‘Of course I can rely on his discretion.’ Speaking aloud, she added:

‘I receive every Wednesday. Mine is not a very brilliant circle but you will meet some celebrities worth knowing, should you favour me with your presence.’

As the speaker did not add the word ‘occasionally,’ Clara and Kate considered it a sure sign that the invitation had been cordially given .

More visitors being announced, Willie took his leave.

‘What tact,’ observed Lord Bury. ‘Not being acquainted with the fresh arrivals, it might have looked as if he sought an introduction. I think I shall like the fellow,’ he added.

Considering the source from whence it came, this was high praise.

‘I already like him very much,’ observed Clara Meredith.

‘Of course. He has such remarkably fine eyes,’ said his lordship.

Kate remained silent.


Notes and References

pinchbeck: Alloy of copper and zinc used to imitate gold in jewelry; hence ‘something counterfeit or spurious’ (Merriam-Webster)

Lady de S******. The Spirit of Etiquette; Or Politeness Exemplified, (London, 1837). Available free at Google Books (jump to cover).

Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman (1774). Good edition available free at Adelaide Univ. ebooks (jump to file).

See also, James Pitt, Instructions in Etiquette, intended for the use of schools and young persons (1840). Available free at Google Books (jump to cover).

Michael Curtin, “A Question of Manners: Status and Gender in Etiquette and Courtesy,” Journal of Modern History, 57.3 (1985).

Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (NY: Penguin, 1986)

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