Mystery of the Marsh

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

Philosophical Victorian John Stuart Mill considered his era an “age of transition.” Certain critical transitions, such as those we touched upon in the previous instalment, were visited by the industrial revolution.

British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner’s (1920-33) idea of liminality is worthy of a mention in the context. It refers to a “betwixt and between” mode of being, “a limbo of statuslessness” that is integral to a ritualistic process of accession — a rite of passage leading to a structured, approved mode of social status.

Enter Smith’s “Bitterns’ Marsh”, a disorientating space, cast as historically and socially indeterminate, if tending towards pre-historical and pre-civilized poles. The marsh borders both London and its rural neighbours, a component part of neither country nor city. Here we cross over an invisible line, into a mysterious, mystical zone inhabited by outsiders, a place of immorality, criminality, and suspect economies; smugglers and fugitives from the law; a place of dark superstition. It is a liminal zone, with no roads apart from foot-tracks through treacherous peat bogs — a regular Slough of Despond.

The flora and fauna are ancient and bordering on extinction: giant oaks that perhaps — how may one know? — shielded the Druids from the advance of the Romans based at Colchester (in anticipation, perhaps, of the ‘Druid of Colchester,’ whose remains from 40–60 AD rested undiscovered till 1996?). In Smith’s day, you may have been lucky enough to observe the endangered great auks and grey woodpeckers “worth ten pounds each to the collector.” The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) was hunted out in the mid-19th century.

Great Auk. Extracted from C.B. Beach, ed., New Student’s Reference Work (Chicago: Compton, 1914). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Bechstein’s guide Chamber Birds (1848) refers to the “grey woodpecker” only by way of a single-page running header, above content pertaining to its 57th entry, the “Green Woodpecker”, Picus viridus, with no further entries until the 58th specimen, the “Great Spotted Woodpecker”, Picus major; so I suspect that running header to be a misprint.

The location of the Essex Marshes presents a portal to the Continent. A transient bark lies anchored off the banks of the marsh, enabling the fictional entrance and exit from the scene, of characters possessing such opposing sets of traits they almost seem to pursue trajectories of charged particles. On the one hand, a greedy landed bully and cheat makes off to France; on the other, a youth of exemplary courage and bravery — despite  his wretched origins in the Marsh — returns in disguise as a Breton sailor, to undertake a perilous but virtuous mission.

According to Turner, “liminal personae” or “threshold people” like these

… elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locate states and positions in cultural space. Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial. As such, their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols in the many societies that ritualize social and cultural transitions.

The Ritual Process, 95

On the historical scale, martello towers erected in the vicinity of the Nore sandbank at the mouth of the Thames, to prevent Napoleon Bonaparte from blockading and choking London, memorialize national anxieties. The towers became inhabited by “lawless outcasts” who “flocked” to the region like the bitterns themselves.

Terms defining the Marsh, this “wild tract of land”, suggest the ritual transition encoded in the story, as progress towards an enlightened and civilized future, from a past with ancient murky roots. These are broad, accessible dimensions that resonate with a mass audience and exemplify J.F. Smith’s appeal as a grand popular storyteller and polymath.

Mouth of the Thames, showing the Nore sandbank and Essex banks. Source: A Vision of Britain Through Time.


A Slight Description of the Bitterns’ Marsh — Burcham’s Escape to Dinant, where he Meets with an Associate Worthy of Him — The Mutual Understanding and a Compact

Many of our readers no doubt consider it high time they should be made acquainted with the topography of the Bittern’s Marsh, to which lone spot Squire Burcham had been so cleverly inveigled. Moses, the money lender, and his sleeping partner, Lawyer Brit, were cunning in their generation, troubled with few scruples, and these limited to personal considerations for their own safety. Their client, or, as they facetiously termed him, their pigeon, was only half-plucked, his estate involved to little more than a third of its value. The interest — highly usurious — formed no inconsiderable portion of the money advanced. It is the curse of avarice that the thirst of gain destroys the sense of prudence. Vice and dissipation share in the weakness, and thus folly and craft play into each other’s hands. The human spiders rejoiced at first at their success. Soon it appeared insignificant; they thirsted for the whole estate.

Their dupe, without entertaining any very clear perception of their design, had hitherto resisted every attempt of Brit to obtain the receivership of his property, which still remained in the hands of the old family steward. This was embarrassing, and the conspiracy came to a standstill till an act of positive fraud, committed by their victim, revived their hopes.

On the death of his aunt, Squire Burcham found himself dreadfully pressed for money. Creditors were impatient; miscalled debts of honor had to be paid, and what was stronger still with him, vicious habits to be indulged in. In his philosophy of life it never entered into his calculations that Clara Meredith would reject him, or her father forego the opportunity of consolidating his political interests in the country by uniting the estates. Under these convictions he wrote a letter to the money-lender — who made difficulties respecting further advances — in which he stated that the lady had accepted him, and the marriage delayed only till a fitting time from the death of his aunt had elapsed.

This was something, but not sufficient to answer the purposes of the crafty firm, and the supplies asked for were again refused.

In an evil hour for himself he forged a letter from Clara, in which she was made to accept his offer, and placed the document in the hands of Moses.

The cash was advanced.

Experience teaches us that in the affairs of life one entanglement generally leads to another. Moses very soon intimated his knowledge of the crime that had been committed, and as the price of his forbearance demanded that the estate should be placed in his hands. The eyes of his dupe at last were opened, and the condition refused with that dogged obstinacy which neither threats nor danger could shake. Lawyer Brit, who, as our readers are aware, was the real head of the firm of usurers, found himself placed in a difficult position. He could not appear in the affair himself, and the reputation of his partner was so bad that he hesitated to place him in the witness-box. True, he could destroy the reputation of the squire, but it would be at the risk of certain ugly truths creeping out.

In this dilemma he thought of The Bitterns’ Marsh. Blackmore and he were old acquaintances, and he was not unfamiliar with the affairs of Viscountess Allworth. In fact, he regarded her as one of his most profitable clients.

We have already shown the ruse by which the half-plucked pigeon had been drawn into the toils and taken, with Benoni to act the spy upon his proceedings, to the Bitterns’ Marsh.

Bittern advancing through water amongst reeds. Coloured woodcut, 1921. Source: British Museum

A bittern advancing through water amongst reeds. Colour woodcut print. Allen William Seaby (1882-1914). Source: British Museum

Now, then, to fulfil our promise, and give our readers something like a description of the Bitterns’ Marsh.

This wild tract of land — for even to the hour of writing no attempt worthy of the name has been made to reclaim it — runs for several miles along the Essex coast parallel with the river Thames till it reaches the Nore, where the river is not only sufficiently wide but deep enough for vessels of large size to lie at anchor and blockade the port of London. To prevent such a catastrophe England, during her wars with the first Napoleon, caused to be constructed a number of martello towers along the banks. They were circular buildings of considerable strength, and in the then state of artillery capable of offering a stout resistance to any invading force. Deep wells within the walls supplied the inhabitants with water, and the ground floors consisting entirely of vaults for storing ammunition and provisions. Windows there were none, properly speaking, but merely loop-holes for the guns, and to admit light and air. The only mode of entrance or egress to or from these towers was a strong iron postern, some ten or twelve feet from the ground. In fact, the entire buildings were fire-proof. On the termination of the war they were suffered to fall into decay, government having no further use for them — a fate from which only a few of the larger ones escaped, and these were seized upon by the lawless outcasts who gradually came flocking into the Marsh.

During the shooting season they received sportsmen, who, attracted by the enormous quantity of wild fowl and fish, ventured into the district to procure supplies for the London markets. Smuggling, however, as we stated in an earlier number, constituted the chief resource of the inhabitants.

Fringe of the Marshes. Extracted from Rivers of Great Britain: The Thames, from Source to Sea (Cassell & Co., 1891).

Fringe of the Marshes. Extracted from Rivers of Great Britain: The Thames, from Source to Sea (Cassell & Co., 1891).

Extending some eight or ten miles inland lay the dreary, solitary marsh, intersected by pools of stagnant water, as well as by several living streams abounding in trout. There were no regular roads — foot-tracks, nothing more; even these were dangerous from the treacherous patches of bog and peat, which doubtless concealed the bodies of many a plundered victim enticed by curiosity or the love of adventure into the dreary maze.

The author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, we suspect, must have taken his description of the Slough of Despond from such a place. In his early years he had been a travelling tinker, and possibly might have visited it.

To all but the sportsman or the naturalist, the Bitterns’ Marsh presents a scene of savage desolation. The latter will find it rich in specimens of birds and insects, which, if not extinct are now extremely rare. The grey woodpecker and great auk, who are worth ten pounds each to the collector, may still be found there, but only in the wildest recesses, where are giant oaks, beneath whose gloomy branches the Druids possibly found shelter, when driven by the advance of the Romans from the neighbouring station of Colchester, one of their principal seats.

Of course there are sparse patches of land rudely cultivated, and here and there something like a garden may be seen. The only manufactures of the inhabitants are guns, fishing-rods, and coarse attempts at cloth, woven by the women, of unbleached wool and the hair of goats; the men, however, disdain this latter occupation. Some vague traditions of religion may still be found amongst these wretched people, but schools and chapels they have not. And yet they live within less than a day’s journey from the richest city in the world, in a country boastful of its civilisation, proud of its universities and wealthy establishments.

Hadleigh Castle near the Nore (1832), cropped. John Constable and David Lucas. Source: Tate.

Such an abode and such surroundings soon began to tell upon the hitherto stubborn resolution of Squire Burcham. Entire loneliness, facilities for drink, no moral principles to sustain him, began to do their work. He felt himself gradually breaking down, and he resolved to fly. Having still some money left, he watched his opportunity, which soon presented itself. A bark from Dinant — a town on the north coast of France, about twelve miles from the port of St. Malo — lay anchored off the banks of the Bitterns’ Marsh. It was manned by Bretons, a hardy, half-savage race, yet not without some redeeming qualities. The prisoner — for such he actually was — had too much prudence to betray the slightest curiosity respecting this foreign vessel or the picturesque-looking crew which commanded it. Benoni, who suffered quite as much from ennui as the poor dupe he was employed to watch, had to propose a walk to the banks twice before the latter carelessly assented.

‘He cannot hold out much longer,’ said the master, as he watched them from his dreary abode. ‘The fool has no mental resources; hates books, as if there were anything else in the world, worth caring for. He must soon give way, and then for my share of the spoil.’

‘Not so soon as you expect, master!’ exclaimed a shrill, querulous voice behind him.

Blackmore turned hastily round, and recognised in the speaker the aged woman who had so long kept house for him. During his temporary residence at Deerhurst he had not taken her with him. He required some one to take charge of his home in the Marsh. Her presence there he knew would be sufficient protection, seeing that the inhabitants stood in considerable awe of her, not for her strength, for she was weak as a child, and could only support her tottering steps by means of a staff, which, whenever she stopped to speak to anyone, she clasped with both her long bony hands. Many winters must have passed over her head, but although her hair was white as snow, her cold blue eyes appeared bright and clear. At times, too, they were lit with a strange intelligence.

‘Ah, Nance, is that you?’ said her master. ‘Why, you came upon me like a noiseless shadow.’

‘The shadows of your evil deeds,’ observed the woman, ‘like the heavy mists which rise sullenly and unceasingly from the stagnant waters of the Marsh. I see them gathering round you. The end is drawing near.’

Her hearer laughed quietly, as he regarded her with an air of mingled surprise and amusement.

‘You forget, Nance,’ he said, ‘that it was I who taught you how to act the character you have so successfully assumed — half sibyl and half sorceress. That it was I who showed you the properties of the plants which calm the raging fever, lull the distracting pains of the burning rheumatism, still the chattering ague fit, and so establish an influence over the superstitious dwellers of the Marsh.

‘Would you turn the lessons I imparted against your instructor?’ he added.

‘I owe you no gratitude,’ replied the woman, sadly. ‘It was to serve your own purposes you trained me, You owed me some compensation for driving from my side the only being who cared for me.’

‘I did not force him to leave,’ said the schoolmaster, gloomily. ‘Perhaps it was unwise. I should have kept him here under my own eyes.’

‘To train him like yourself!’ ejaculated the woman, scornfully. ‘Such were your first intentions. To make him a cold, heartless, selfish being, without love or human sympathy. But you failed. Benoni proved the more apt pupil of the two. Besides,’ continued the speaker, in a less excited tone — ‘besides, when you quitted the swamp to become schoolmaster of Deerhurst, it was necessary to arm the feeble hands that guarded your home with a weapon the lawless wretches round it would respect. You have returned to that home as the serpent returns to its den, doubtless to restore its half-exhausted venom.’

‘Let us not quarrel,’ observed Theophilus Blackmore. ‘Words are a sign of weakness.’

‘I know that you prefer actions,’ answered Nancy, sarcastically.

‘Did I not conceal and protect you?’

‘Because it served your purpose. I owe you no gratitude for that,’ said the former speaker, sullenly. ‘The debt is cancelled.’

‘Not yet,’ thought the schoolmaster, as he walked from the tower, taking the direction Benoni and Squire Burcham had pursued, for his mind began to misgive him concerning the intentions of the latter, and he felt anxious to keep an eye upon him. ‘These last affairs concluded, and I will take a receipt in full. I will. no longer be fooled by empty promises. The lease of the Bittern’s Marsh is worth but little to me. Lady Allworth must come to a settlement with me, or —’

What the alternative might be he did not even mutter to himself.

‘It was unwise in me to speak as I did to him,’ said Nancy, half aloud; but when the heart is full the tongue at times forgets discretion. I had been thinking all the night of my poor boy. Last night I dreamt of him. I wonder if he still lives?’

She seated herself at the foot of a gigantic boulder which some extraordinary convulsion of nature had torn from earth’s rocky entrails, and cast within a few yards of the spot where the martello tower stood. Moss-grown and partially covered with lichen, the huge stone might have served as a Druid altar when that mystic race fled before the advance of the conquering Romans.

‘Why — why is this?’ murmured the aged woman, unconscious of the tears that were trickling down her wrinkled cheeks. ‘It is not often that I permit myself to think of him. The feeling softens me. And yet today memory is continually conjuring up his image. I see him an infant as when Blackmore brought him senseless to this den, and placed him in my arms. I thought it a trouble, and felt angry till his little hands, as he recovered, clasped themselves around my neck. Then what a change came over me. A new sensation seemed born within my heart, and soon — very soon — I learned to love him.’

Lost in these and similar reflections, Nancy became gradually so absorbed that she noticed not the approach of a young man in the garb of a Breton sailor — boots of untanned leather, short breeches — which might have been taken for a kilt, they were so widely cut — a red sash around the waist, and a jacket with double rows of buttons; a broad-brimmed hat drawn over his swarthy brows, with the usual accompaniment of a flower stuck in the brim, completed the costume of the stranger, whose appearance could scarcely be considered prepossessing, so dark were his features, and darker still the straight, long masses of hair which partially shaded them. As he neared the spot his steps became somewhat quicker, and his eye glanced rapidly round the scene till they rested on the form seated, or, rather, crouching at the foot of the boulder; then he paused as if to consider. If so, his mind was rapidly made up. and he resumed his walk till be stood within six or seven feet of the object of his curiosity.

The woman, however, did not seem to notice him.

‘Good mother,’ he said at last, speaking in the Breton tongue.

There was no reply.

At last he repeated the words in English; but not till he had looked carefully around him.

At the second sound of his voice Nancy started to her feet, and stood for more than a minute gazing upon him in silence.

‘I am the fool of my own fancies,’ she muttered at last. ‘The echo buried in my old heart is no longer a truthful one.’

‘What would you?’ she said at last, in a tone of disappointment.

‘I hurt my arm,’ replied the sailor, ‘on board the cutter, which you can see at anchor yonder in the bay. Not a wound; merely a sprain. But it is a painful one. One of your neighbours, who came to assist in removing the cargo, told me to apply to you; boasted of your skill in herbs and roots, and so I made my way here. Do your best for me,’ he added, ‘and you shall have no reason to complain of the reward.’

‘I will do my best for you without fee or recompense. You have paid me already.’

‘I do not understand you, good mother,’ said the young man. ‘I have given you nothing yet.’

‘Paid me by a memory,’ added Nance, ‘and that is sufficient. Let me see your arm.’

‘Are we alone, Mother?’

‘God is with us,’ answered the woman, surprised, but not alarmed at the question. ‘I am poor; you would gain little by plundering me. Were you to murder me,’ she added, ‘the lawless inhabitants of the Bitterns’ Marsh would terribly avenge me.’

‘They love you, then?’

‘Not so,’ said the woman, coldly; ‘but I am of use to them; besides which they fear me.’

‘Surely you have done them no evil,’ observed the sailor.

‘I have done them naught but good,’ was the reply.

‘Then why should they fear you?’

‘Because they do not understand what good means. My skill in fevers, setting broken bones, in dressing wounds, my knowledge of herbs and plants appears to them something unholy — they cannot understand it; hence their dread of me. Some call me a witch — a few feel grateful; but not many. Come, show me your arm.’

The man removed his jacket, which he placed upon the ground, and then commenced slowly to roll up the sleeve of his shirt. His hands — like his visage — appeared to be almost black, sunburnt and stained; but the arms showed white, almost as white as a woman’s.

A cry of surprise burst from the lips of Nance.

‘It is you who are the sorcerer,’ she observed.

‘Look me full in the face, good mother,’ said the pretended patient, in a low, earnest tone, ‘and suppress all outward signs of joy or fear, whilst I explain this seeming riddle. Can you be firm?’ he added.

‘Try me.’

‘My face, hair, and hands are dyed.’

‘That I have already discovered.’

‘My skin, as you perceive, is fair — fair as the infant’s you received many years since, and bestowed upon him a mother’s love.’

A half-suppressed cry of joy broke from the lips of his hearer.

‘Once more I ask you to be firm,’ continued the speaker. ‘There — grasp my arm, that, if curious eyes are watching our proceedings, it may seem you are examining my injury. And now,’ he said, satisfied that his instructions were understood, and would be followed, ‘look in my face and see if you cannot recognise some features of the boy you so befriended.’

‘Bunce!’ exclaimed Nance, eagerly.

‘Yes, that was the name old Blackmore gave me.’

For several minutes the agitation of the woman, who had acted like a second mother to him, was so intense that she could only gasp out a word or two at intervals.

‘I — I knew that, if you lived, you would one day return to seek your old nurse. My heart is so full — but joy will not kill me. I should grow calm could I but once embrace you — feel that my joy was real.’

‘My second mother!’ exclaimed Bunce; ‘for you have acted like one to me.’

‘You must not,’ interrupted Nance, hastily. ‘Do not attempt it. An eye we cannot perceive may be at this moment watching us. You know not half the cunning of our enemy. There, I am stronger now.’

‘At least I may take your hand,’ observed the pretended sailor. ‘You can pretend to be examining my arm; the hurt is not a severe one.’

Nance grasped the hand extended to her, and began to examine the injury. As she did so, the tears rolled down her withered cheeks. The arm appeared slightly inflamed from the elbow to the wrist.

‘I did it myself, good mother,’ said the speaker, ‘as an excuse for seeking you.’

‘The world has taught you a sad lesson,’ sighed the aged woman.

‘Suffering has,’ replied, the young man. ‘Dry your tears, and listen to me. Yonder I perceive Blackmore and his son; they are coming towards the tower. Collect yourself. We must contrive some way to meet again, for I have much to ask.’

‘Do you mind a little pain?’ asked Nance.

‘Try, my mother.’

‘I will retire to my den to procure you a lotion and a box of salve. The first will cool the heated blood; the second, produce the appearance of violent inflammation and increased pain. Use it only when you want an excuse to return here. The old man and Benoni will be sure to question you, for guilt is always suspicious. Mind that you answer only in the Breton tongue; and mind you banter with me on the price of my nostrum, for you must pay me,’ she added with a faint smile. ‘Am I understood?’

‘Clearly — clearly,’ answered Bunce.

The woman caught up the staff which, in her agitation, she had let fall, and walked steadily towards the martello tower.

When the schoolmaster and Benoni reached the spot where the sailor remained standing, calmly awaiting them, they eyed him, not exactly with suspicion, but curiosity; they appeared excited. Something had evidently occurred to annoy them both.

‘What seek you here?’ demanded the old man, sharply.

Bunce shook his head, as if he did not comprehend the question.

The question was repeated in the Breton tongue.

‘I have injured my arm,’ was the reply, ‘and the wise woman, to whom the captain sent me, has gone to prepare me a salve.’

‘Humph,’ ejaculated Blackmore. ‘But you will have to pay her. The wise woman, as you call her, knows the value of her drugs and simples.’

‘So I suppose,’ observed the patient, in a sullen tone, as if the prospect of payment was not an agreeable one.

‘Father!’ exclaimed Benoni, impatiently, ‘why waste time in prating with this fool? You forget that 1 must start with the news of Burcham’s escape at once, and you have your letter to write. Won’t Brit and Moses be furious!’

‘Let them,’ replied his patent. ‘I do not fear them; they are more in my power than I in theirs. Not another word. Here comes Nance with her drugs.’

The woman soon joined them, with a bottle wrapped in paper and a box of salve in her hand.

‘Wash your arm with the liquid,’ she said, ‘and apply the salve only occasionally; but before I part with them, you must pay me.’

A haggling ensued over the price, during which Nance and her patient acted their parts capitally; finally, they referred it to Blackmore, who fixed it at a crown, which the pretended seaman paid sullenly.

‘Too little,’ muttered Nance, ‘too little.’

‘As much as your nostrums are worth,’ said Benoni, laughingly.

‘How do you know what they are worth?’ demanded the woman, sharply; ‘wait till you have tried them.’

‘It will be a long time first,’ observed the former. ‘Your cooking is bad enough; still I can put up with that, but it will be a long time before I venture on your simples. Come father,’ he added, we have other matters more pressing than idle gossip to think of.’

‘The young serpent is wise,’ thought Nance, as father and son walked towards their abode. ‘He feels that I hate him. I have been often tempted — but, no, no,’ she added, ‘unless in self-defence, or to save my poor boy — their lives are safe.’

‘Should danger threaten him,’ she added, ‘let them beware.’

With slow steps and a thoughtful brow she retraced her way to the tower.

Although burning with impatience to obtain a second interview with the weird woman who, from his earliest recollection, had taken so singular an interest in his fate, Bunce restrained himself till the second day from visiting her at her dwelling. This time his arm was swarthy as the rest of his body, much swollen and inflamed. He had used the unguent Nance had given him.

Blackmore had not the slightest suspicion of any secret understanding between them. Still he thought it best to witness their meeting, and tore himself away from his beloved Horace to see and hear what passed.

Benoni had not yet returned from London.

‘Your skill has failed,’ observed the old man, with a smile. ‘The arm appears much worse.’

‘I expected it,’ replied Nance. ‘He has more crowns in his purse. I saw them when he paid me; and I intend to have them,’ she added.

‘Eager for gain as ever,’ said her master. ‘Attend to your patient; he begins to with suspicion. His faith in your nostrum is failing.’

‘This will revive it stronger than ever,’ answered the former, as she poured a portion of the cooling lotion on his arm.

‘How does it feel now?’ she added addressing her patient.

‘Better — much easier,’ replied Bunce; ‘but you see how it is swollen, and at night the pains are dreadful. I can scarcely bear them.’

‘The injury is more deeply seated than I thought,’ observed Nance. ‘I must prepare another salve.’

‘Will it take long, good mother?’

‘Nearly an hour. Why do you ask?’

‘Because the day is warm and I am tired with my walk. May I not rest awhile within your dwelling?’

‘Not for an instant,’ replied the woman, sharply. ‘The master and I receive no stranger beneath our roof. You can repose beneath the shadow of the boulder,’ she added, pointing to the huge rock where they had met previously when he made himself known to her.

So well was the scene acted that Blackmore did not think it worth his while to listen to their further conversation, but returned to his favorite author; and with a warning glance to her patient to act prudently, Nance slowly hobbled after him.

When she returned with her medicaments, she whispered as she gave them — for age is naturally cautious:

‘There is a packet beneath my ragged mantle; contrive to take it from me and conceal it under your jacket, but do not read the contents till you are safe on board your vessel, which sails tomorrow.’

‘How know you that?’

‘My means of information are certain. Now pay me,’ she added, ‘and speak the last sad word, farewell.’

Poor Bunce felt deeply affected. He had not met with much kindness in his checkered path through life. The devotion and long-enduring love of the woman touched him.

‘Alas!’ he said, ‘should we never meet again you will never know how grateful I feel for all your kindness to your poor boy; and I may not even thank you —’

‘Not another word,’ interrupted Nance; ‘your enemy and mine — not that Blackmore is your greatest one — must not see a tear upon my withered cheek. It might set him thinking, and his thoughts are dangerous. We shall meet again,’ she added, ‘for God is just, and he owes us both that recompense. Now, then, the money, and depart.’

The wanderer, in whom, from infancy, the weird woman had taken so strong an interest, had already possessed himself of the packet, Placing several crowns in her hand, he started for the bark.

‘God bless him,’ murmured Nance. ‘We will right him yet.’

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest

Notes, References, Further Reading

  • cunning in their generation / drawn into the toils: Interesting old expressions, slightly elusive. The first may possibly resonate Luke 16:8 (“And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light”) with a substitution of “cunning” for “wisdom”. The consensus on the Biblical expression seems to be along the lines that the “children of this world” are wise(r) or (more) shrewd regarding the world around them, that is, wiser about “their own kind” (see various versions and interpretations at Biblehub). At the same time, “cunning in their generation” suggests that those in question are relatively more cunning than their peers. The expression “drawn into the toils” seems relatively self-explanatory as well, in the sense of “co-opted” or “conscripted”, with a recurrent usage being “drawn into the toils of error”.
  • simples: No, not that one. Rather: “simple: 2a: a medicinal plant; b: a vegetable drug having only one ingredient” (Merriam-Webster).

Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (NY: Cornell UP, 1969).

  • On industrial revolution etc., see William Ralph Inge, “The Victorian Age,” Rede Lecture, Cambridge UP, 1922.
  • On liminality, see Sarah Gilead, “Liminality, Anti-Liminality and the Victorian Novel”, ELH, 53.1 (Spring 1986), 183-97.
  • On the Essex Marshes, see Herbert Winckworth Tompkins, Marsh-Country Rambles (London: Chatto & Windus, 1904). Available free at Internet Archive. Jump to title page.
  • Fringe of the Marshes (illustr.): N.A., Rivers of Great Britain: The Thames, from Source to Sea (Cassell & Co., 1891). Available free at Project Gutenberg. Jump to beginning.


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