There is an idiosyncratic slide, moving from the omniscient narrator’s opening reflection on the parable of the “wise and foolish builders,” to Theophilus (Theo) Blackmore’s own seemingly spontaneous reflection on “Sand! sand!” in his meeting with Viscountess Allworth. It is almost as though the narrator informs as much as observes the character’s consciousness.
To date, Smith’s allusions have been mostly historical or classic-literary, as in this episode’s playful gesture where he invokes the Hippogriff — a beast from Greek myth familiar to Harry Potter fans — in dramatizing a simple scene break, and thereby transporting the reader from London to Dinant, in France, at a speed faster than thought.
It might be interesting, then, to consider the builders’ parable for a moment — especially given its “originary” significance to the Christian institution. The parable appears in Mathew 7:24-27 and Luke 6:46-49, attributing to Christ’s words the power to raise mankind above the chaos of the world. According to Saint John Chrysostom (c.340 – 407), in Christ’s telling of the parable:
By “rain” here, and “floods,” and “winds,” He is expressing metaphorically the calamities and afflictions that befall men; such as false accusations, plots, bereavements, deaths, loss of friends, vexations from strangers, all the ills in our life that any one could mention. “But to none of these,” says He, “does such a soul give way; and the cause is, it is founded on the rock.”
He [Christ] calls the steadfastness of His doctrine a rock; because in truth His commands are stronger than any rock, setting one above all the waves of human affairs. For he who keeps these things strictly, will not have the advantage of men only when they are vexing him, but even of the very devils plotting against him.”
Homily 24 on Mathew
The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles addresses his work to a listener who goes by the name of Theophilus, held traditionally to be a companion of Saul/Paul. Christian scholars have variously supposed this Theophilus to have been a Jewish high priest, a Roman official, or simply, as his name suggests, one “loved by God.”
Luke’s explicit aim is to assure Theophilus of the truth “of the things he had been taught” (Luke 1:3-4); for example, of the resurrection and the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Smith’s character Theophilus is notable for his morbid bookishness and is, it emerges, increasingly morally compromised. Is he nonetheless redeemable?
According to Christian standards, of course he is; by the logic of Smith’s own narrative, this remains to be seen. I wonder whether an extreme sacrifice may be necessary.
Remarkably, the magic whisper our Theo receives from the narrator is like an inspirational summoning to ethics. Yet he plans to collaborate with the viscountess in some dastardly plot, evidently one intended to ensnare the lovely Lady Kate in a loveless marriage with her morally bankrupt loser of a son, the disgraced Royal Horse Guard, Clarence Marsham, currently residing in Dinant.
The narrator himself refers the metaphor of building on the rock not to faith in Christ as such, but instead to a concept of “the rock of integrity,” suggestive of a more agnostic view, which may be more indicative, we feel, of Smith’s own. Viscountess Allworth’s riposte at Theo’s implicit censure goes a step further, and is worthy of a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche:
‘My house is erected on indomitable will, cemented by past success — guarantees against the future,’ observed his visitor, sneeringly.
Clearly not the approved perspective, as reasonable as it may seem to us postmoderns.
The theme is developed as well at a tangent, the opposition of “superstructure” to “base”; which is equivalent to that of “superficial appeal” as opposed to “being solidly grounded” — such as in Christ or in some form of integrity (a Christian view being that the latter needs to be grounded in the former).
This secondary version of the parable is in the form “all that glitters is not gold” — or after Shakespeare, all that “glisters”. Living our life in pursuit of superficial attractions would be analogous to building upon the sand. The viscountess is such a person, and we now become privy to the tenuous underpinnings of her privileged status, and their further manifestation in the character of her son.
Her attraction to the glitter of social position, at the expense of integrity, generates the villainous momentum that placed Kate and her maid-servant at such dire peril in the novel’s opening scenes in the red barn at Deerhurst and is still at work hatching further dark schemes.
A House Built on Sand — Very Showy but not Secure — News of Clarence Marsham and Squire Burcham — They Meet at Dinant, in France
We are warned by an authority older than modern civilisation not to build our house upon sand. How many stately edifices have been swept away from being erected on no better foundation. The world witnesses it daily, and yet the supposed wiseacres of the earth are continually falling into the same fatal error, looking to the superstructure rather than the base. The rock of integrity, on which alone a solid mansion can be reared, appears to them so hard to dig — the process is too slow.
From the glimpses already given of the character of Viscountess Allworth, our readers already, doubtless, have divined, that she has been one of the unwise builders alluded to. In the eyes of the world her position appeared a most enviable one. Born in obscurity and poverty, she had become rich and titled by the exercise of talents bestowed for far different purposes. Not that we despise wealth; on the contrary, we consider it a blessing, when honestly acquired and nobly used; but for mere rank — the thing that men are born to — we feel a profound indifference. Like the cap and bells, it merely serves to make folly appear more ridiculous, and adds not one iota to the consideration justly due to the really great and virtuous.
Her ladyship felt greatly annoyed. She had just received a note from a person whom she had not met for years, and trusted never to meet again; and yet they had never lost sight of each other.
The note was a very laconic one: ‘I must see you.’ It had no signature, but the address of the writer was given, an obscure street in the Strand.
‘What can he want?’ she murmured to herself. ‘Money?’ No, to do l him justice, he has never been unreasonable on that score. There can be no real cause for alarm, for, although my plans are laid, no overt action has been taken to put them in execution.’
After a few minutes’ reflection she continued: ‘I dare not refuse. A false alarm, or, more likely still, some scholarly crotchet he wants my influence to gratify. Would he were dead,’ she added, deliberately. ‘I could breathe freely then. The grave is the only safe confidant.’
Of course, it would never do for the fashionable Lady Allworth to be seen in her own equipage driving down one of the narrow, obscure lanes of the Strand, even if it did bear the aristocratic name of Cecil-street. A century previous and royalty might have been seen there without exciting surprise; but times have changed. Mansions formerly the abode of nobles have either been pulled down or converted into lodging-houses, and those not of the highest class.
After attiring herself in a very plain dress and wearing a thick veil her ladyship quitted Allworth House unattended, and walked as far as the quadrant in Regent-street. There she took a cab, and directed the man to drive to No. 13 Cecil-street.
It was so short a distance that the driver at once set her down for a stranger in the metropolis, and mentally resolved to charge her half a crown.
On reaching the house Lady Allworth felt greatly annoyed that the smallest coin in her purse was a half sovereign. The man eyed it greedily.
‘Can’t do it, Miss,’ he said. He always said ‘Miss’ to his female fares; fancied they liked it. ‘Yours was the first off the stand this mornin’. Large family; wife sick; very poor, but honest, that a well-known fact. If you like to trust me with the half skiv’ (slang word for half a sovereign) ‘I can melt it at the Fox and Geese and bring you back your change ker-rectly, Miss, in five minutes.’
Of course her ladyship was not deceived, but she pretended to be so. Anything appeared preferable to waiting on the street and risking the chance of a discovery.
‘Yes, I dare say,’ she replied. ‘Very dreadful, no doubt. ‘I am not rich, but can feel for honest poverty. You may keep the half-sovereign, and may it do you all the good I wish.’
‘God bless you, Miss!’ exclaimed the driver, jumping on the box of his vehicle with an alacrity surprising for his years and starting his worn horse at a rapid pace.
Lady Allworth stood watching him till he and his cab disappeared by turning into the Strand. Then, with a sigh of relief, she rang the bell of a respectable-looking house near her. It was answered by a slatternly-looking maid-of-all-work.
Lady Allworth asked if the person whose address she had was in.
‘Yes, mam,’ said the maid. ‘Jest step into the parlor. ‘Missis is gone up to the gentleman’s room to see what he wants for dinner; down in a minute — do take a cheer.’
The visitor, who felt tired as well as agitated, silently accepted one.
‘Come to git your fortin told?’ added the speaker.
‘Fortune told!’ repeated the lady, greatly surprised. ‘No. Why do you ask such a ridiculous question?’
‘Beg pardin, mam, didn’t know; thought you might. I and the missus made up our minds the gentleman wor sothing o’ that sort when we seed the books he brought with him; such odd-lookin’ letters. No Christian ever printed them.’
‘Perhaps you cannot read,’ observed the visitor, with a half-suppressed smile.’
The maid-of-all-work tossed her head, curl papers and all — for she only took them down in the afternoon — indignantly, as if she had received some personal affront.
‘Indeed, mam, but I can read. ‘I wor edicated at St. Pancrass, and wor called the best scholard in the school.’
Considering the lamentable state of the school system for the poor in England of the time, there appeared nothing very improbable in the assertion.
The landlady now made her appearance, and inquired if she were the person whom her new lodger expected.
‘He is quite ready to receive you. This way, if you please. Will show you upstairs myself. His daughter, I presume?’
The question was put forth as a feeler, but failed to elicit a reply.
Second class furnished apartments, as their as their owners ambitiously term them, in the days of the regency, were sad uncomfortable affairs. The same crimson, moreen curtains, probably twice dipped, bordered with black cotton velvet; the half dozen regulation chairs, one facetiously called an easy one, and a ricketty table, generally comprised the entire furniture. In the more pretentious ones a couple of engravings — the death of Wolfe or the Battle of Trafalgar — might occasionally be found. Where such was the case, they added considerably to the price. Lodging-house keepers make money out of everything. The style has somewhat improved at the present day. Not in comfort — O! dear, no — but in show. As Shakespeare says, the world is still deceived by ornament.
On the first floor, into such a room as we have described, the visitor was shown. Its occupant was a well-dressed man, with a white beard — an unusual appendage in those days. He was seated in the easy-chair. A pile of books, most probably Greek classics, which had so excited the curiosity of the maid-of-all-work, were on the table beside him.
It was our readers’ old acquaintance, Theophilus Blackmore, the tenant of the martello tower and school-master of Deerhurst.
‘Take a chair, Zelinda,’ he said, without rising from his seat. ‘I will not trouble you to wait.’ This was addressed to the landlady, who disappeared with a dissatisfied air.
Lady Allworth was about to close the door after her, when the speaker added:
‘Leave it open. It faces the staircase: She cannot return to listen without our being aware of it. Now turn your chair and face me. I will watch the door.’
It was not till these instructions had been carried out that the viscountess raised her veil. The old man gazed upon her countenance long and earnestly.
‘Time has little changed “you,’ he observed. ‘You are still the same resolute being whose courage and strong will excited my admiration in the past. Well, Zelinda,’ he continued, ‘you have, succeeded in the objects of your ambition — wealth and rank. How the dead would laugh in their graves could they see to what heights you have climbed! You are rich and a peeress.’
‘Not so wealthy as you suppose. Clarence has been a sad drain upon me.’
‘You love your son, then?’
‘The question was an unnecessary one,’ said the questioner. ‘You would not be human if you did not. It is the weakness of maternity. The she wolf will fight for her young.’
‘Thank you, Theo!’ ejaculated the lady.
‘You know I rarely compliment,’ was the reply. ‘You still adhere to your project of this marriage?’
‘More tenaciously than ever,’ answered Lady Allworth, harshly. ‘My poor boy dares not return to England, or show his face in society if he did, till it is accomplished. Not so much for the girl’s fortune — that, although an important motive, might be got over — as on account of an unsuccessful attempt to — ‘
‘Yes! yes!’ interrupted her hearer. ‘I have heard all about the affair. It was foolishly contrived and badly managed. Clarence has not his mother’s brains.’
‘I thought you never complimented.’
‘Truth is no compliment,’ observed the schoolmaster. ‘The fact is, your son is a reckless idiot.’
‘Was it to tell me this,’ exclaimed her ladyship, her countenance flushed with mortification j and anger, ‘that you quitted your retreat, left your beloved books, and sought this interview? Your son — you see I am aware you have one,’ she added sarcastically — ‘is, doubtless, perfection?’
‘Benoni might be wiser,’ answered the old man, evasively, ‘but he is no fool, and has few scruples, as yourself. But we will not speak of him.’
‘As you please,’ said his strangely assorted confederate — for such they evidently were — in a tone of the utmost indifference. ‘But you have not yet informed me of the motive of your visit to London.’
‘I am uneasy in my mind.’
‘Some Greek root puzzled you?’ asked the lady, alluding to his favourite studies.
The scholar smiled.
‘Ah, Zelinda,’ he said, ‘if you had only been content to share my labours; but it is useless to regret that now.’
‘Perfectly!’ ejaculated her ladyship. ‘Well, then, we will confine our conversation to the present and the future,’ observed Theophilus Blackmore, with a sigh. ‘You are fixed in your purpose of effecting this marriage?’
‘I have carried out your instructions,’ continued the former, ‘but you were wrong to have transmitted them through Brit. I doubt that man. It was still more unwise to assist him in his scheme for plundering Burcham, who has escaped from the Bitterns’ Marsh.’
‘Where can he have fled to?’
‘To France — to Dinant, Brittany.’
‘There must have been treachery!’ ejaculated his hearer.
‘Not on my part,’ answered the tenant of the tower. ‘Everything is prepared as you desired. The loopholes have been newly barred. The place is provisioned for a month, water unfailing. It would stand a siege. As for the wild inhabitants of the swamp, my influence over them since I obtained the lease is unbounded.’
‘In half the time you name,’ exclaimed the viscountess, in a tone of confidence, ‘Lady Kate will be the wife of Clarence. Pride — the dread of the world’s scandal — will overcome her childish repugnance, and my son’s position be secured.’
‘Sand! sand!’ murmured the ex-schoolmaster, half aloud.
‘What were you saying?’
‘Nothing; a mere allusion to the volume whose contents we have both of us, I fear, too long ignored. It warns us against building on such foundations as you have trusted to,’ he added, thoughtfully.
‘My house is erected on indomitable will, cemented by past success — guarantees against the future,’ observed his visitor, sneeringly. ‘But enough of this. We fully understand and can rely upon each other.’
‘Yes; I have no other choice,’ was the reply. ‘You always did as you pleased with me. I have been as plastic as potter’s clay in your hands; send or bring your victim when you will, all things shall be in readiness.’
‘It may be weeks and even months, first,’ said her ladyship. ‘The stake is a vast one, and must be cautiously played for.’
And placing a roll of bank notes upon the table, the speaker lowered her veil and rose to depart, and had reached the head of the stairs, when something important seemed to strike her. She retraced her steps, and fixing her eyes searchingly upon those of her confederate, pronounced in an undertone, the name of ‘Nance?’
‘Dead, years since,’ answered the old man, calmly. ‘Ague and the marsh fever played into your hands. I thought you were aware of it.’
A smile of intense satisfaction broke over the countenance of the scheming woman as she slowly descended the staircase.
It was not till Theophilus Blackmore heard the street door open and shut that he raised the notes from the table, and began to count them. They amounted to £200.
‘Books?’ he muttered, in a tone of satisfaction — ‘mere books! They are the only friends left me, and I cannot have too many of them. But even they are not always to be relied upon. How I should like to examine the precious manuscript of Josephus in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, and collate it with my own copy. The best critics pronounce the disputed passage an interpolation. Who knows? Possibly I might be able to bring new light upon the subject.
‘This affair of Zelinda’s once concluded, I shall be enabled to indulge in the dream of tranquil study my soul so longs to realise. But, will she keep her promise?’ he added, to himself.
For several instants the aged bookworm appeared lost in profound reflection.
‘She dares not play me false!’ he exclaimed at last. ‘She is in my power, and I can crush her like some worm beneath my feet !’
With this reflection we take our leave of the schemers for a time.
Many of our readers have, doubtless, heard of the hippogriff — that fabulous monster, half horse and half griffin, which owed its existence to the fertile imagination of the Greeks, who named it the Centaur. The middle ages changed the form of its first conception. Poets and romance writers are the only persons who have ever seen it but, then, poets and romancists, like the Scottish highlanders, sometimes see strange things. The gift of double sight is not always to be relied upon. Amongst the extraordinary powers attributed to the hippogriff, a speed far outstripping steam — in short, every known means of locomotion — was, perhaps, the most remarkable. The flight of the eagle was as the creeping of the snail in comparison. Thought alone could outstrip it.
We are about to invite the readers of the “Evening News” to take a ride with us on the back of one of these monsters. They need not be alarmed; the seat is easy, the motions pleasant enough. Even as we write its wings are spread, the journey accomplished, and we are safely landed at the little town of Dinant, in the ancient province of Brittany, in France.
It was to this obscure place that Clarence Marsham had retreated after recovering from his wound, to exist, as he termed it, on the reduced allowance his mother prudently made him. But few of his countrymen had hitherto found their way there. Its inhabitants are a reserved, unsocial race, particularly shy of strangers. The little community of Englishmen were compelled, in self-defence, to associate together. The cafe, billiards, botany and fishing occupied most of their time; the rest of it, we fear, was spent in idleness and debauchery. This condition of things has greatly changed since we first visited Dinant; the English form quite an important colony, taking, as the Scotch say, the crown o’ the causeway, from their wealth and numbers. We say wealth, by comparison, the native inhabitants, including the nobility, being as poor as they were proud; the Reign of Terror and the iron hand of Napoleon had completely crushed them for their adherence to the Bourbons and the ancient faith.
The return of Louis XVIII somewhat alleviated their misery.
Such was the state of society in this obscure corner of France when Clarence Marsham took up his abode there. The change from the Guards, the excitement of the mess-table, the turf and his club, had a most depressing effect upon him, but not a salutary one, and he soon began to experience what our Gallic neigbours describe as the English malady — the spleen. They, too, suffer from the same disease. True, they call it ennui — a much prettier name.
In the state of what he was pleased to call his mind, the young roue naturally felt relieved by the appearance of Burcham, whom he had met occasionally in London, and rather patronised. The meeting proved agreeable to both, and they soon contracted a species of friendship— intimacy probably would be the better word, for it is almost a profanation to employ the first.
Honour is much more chary of confidence than vice; it bestows it slowly, but, then, it is generally lasting. Vice, on the contrary, is capricious in its intimacies, contracting and breaking them heedlessly. The similarity of their position drew them yet more closely together, till at last, over a bowl of punch, each made a clean breast of it to the other.
‘Ah,’ hiccoughed Clarence, ‘my position is bad enough, but yours is worse — forger!’
‘Pshaw!’ interrupted Burcham; ‘a ridiculous letter. It had no commercial value, at any rate. I am safe here, and can fight Moses and Co. at a distance. My steward, Banks, holds the estate; they can’t get it from me. He served my father, and will stick to me like the old house-dog. Brit, the family lawyer, warned me against that rascally Jew; but I was a fool, wanted money, and refused to listen to him.’
‘The way with most of us, I suppose,’ remarked his companion, philosophically. ‘What do you intend to do?’
‘Compromise,’ was the reply. ‘Get the letter out of the claws of that vulture of Israel. Willing to act squarely — do anything but give up the lands, I should never get an acre back again.’
‘Not unlikely,’ remarked Clarence, with drunken gravity. After a pause he added: ‘Settle your affair as soon as you can, and I have something to propose to you.’
‘What is it?’
‘Settle your affair first, I tell you.’
‘Some turf speculation, I suppose; mine have been most unlucky. I have lost all faith in them,’ said the squire, despondingly. ‘Lost three thousand on the Eclipse race. The ring is too strong for outsiders,’ he added.’
‘I won on it!’ exclaimed Marsham, with a grin of satisfaction; ‘only a brace of fifties, though; funds were low; dared not venture more; was in the Guards at the time. In the Guards we are always expected to pay up. But the affair I hinted at has nothing to do with racing; there is a woman in it.’
‘A rich one?’
‘That of course.’
‘Ah!’ ejaculated the squire, ‘like my own case; for good or evil, they are generally mixed up in our affairs. Fatality, I suppose.’
As time dragged its weary length along, the speakers became more and more confidential with each other. They took long walks together, discussed their plans, which were so far matured that they waited only till the signal from England should be given to put them in execution. Having few mental resources, the conspirators generally spent their evenings at the principal cafe in Dinant, where the inhabitants and the little colony met, as it were, on neutral ground. It was awfully slow work, as Clarence declared, but better than the painful reflection of their own thoughts.
As their countrymen were generally poor, they gathered round Clarence and the squire, in the hope of gathering a few francs at pool, and laughed at their jokes as parasites laugh at the stale jests of their patrons. The gains of these unfortunates could not have been very large; the rich rogues played an excellent game.
Amongst other frequenters of the cafe were two Englishmen who attracted the attention of the exiles. One was a fellow about forty years of age, who called himself Captain Brandle. There was no such name in the army list, and yet few men ventured to question him or his decisions on billiards; his bullying airs, and a certain fierce rolling of his eyes, cowed them, and he obtained credit cheaply for courage; it was considered dangerous to tackle him.
The second, a young man, who wore the dress of a fisherman, appeared remarkably quiet and unassuming in his manners. He drank little, and only occasionally took a hand at pool. His quiet, unobtrusive manners excited the curiosity of the two conspirators — not that they apprehended any danger from his presence in Dinant; there appeared nothing suspicious about him, except his name — Smith — the most ill-used and unjustly abused one in the world — that is to say, the English world.
A pool of billiards was being played at the cafe, in which Captain Brandle and the bearer of the long vilified name of Smith, we suspect it was only borrowed, took a part. Clarence Marsham and his friend were standing near the table, merely looking on.
‘That was a foul stroke!’ exclaimed the young man, ‘and ought not to count!’
The spectators looked aghast at the speaker; the captain, who had made it, having impressed them with an awful opinion of his courage by his constant braggadocio. The impostor (for true courage rarely or ever boasts) glared at him ferociously, twisted his moustache, stamped angrily upon the ground, and called him a liar.
‘We will soon see,’ observed his accuser calmly, ‘which of us merits that appellation. I repeat, the stroke was a foul one, and appeal to these gentlemen,’ he added, turning to Clarence and the squire; ‘they must have seen it.’
The two gentlemen declared they had not seen the stroke made; something had distracted their attention at the moment it was made.
The accuser bowed somewhat sarcastically.
‘Of course I cannot dispute your word.’ he said. ‘I thought you had; but find I must settle the point with the bully without the assistance of your evidence.’
‘Bully!’ repeated the captain, who appeared thunderstruck at his presumption.
‘And coward,’ coolly added his accuser.
The quarrel was becoming interesting. All present expected to see the speaker, who had so rashly provoked the hostility of the fire-eater, annihilated on the spot. Instead of springing on his victim like a roused tiger, as they anticipated, he mastered his rage and advancing towards the speaker, asked him if he were tired of his life.
‘Not quite yet, for I have never disgraced it,’ was the reply.
One or two of the spectators began to smile.
Possibly the redoubtable captain did not like the cool, steady gaze which encountered his. As a last effort to redeem his reputation he exclaimed:
‘This must be settled elsewhere. For a less insult I have spitted two such cockerels before breakfast.’
‘Did you. eat them afterwards?’ inquired his opponent, with the utmost seriousness.
‘Turn him out of the café!’ shouted the disconcerted bully. ‘ I cannot answer for my rage ; something dreadful will occur — murder done — or — ‘
‘Petty larceny committed,’ added the speaker, turning to the crowd. The first time I saw this cheat and rascal,’ he continued, ‘was in the felon’s dock at Bow-street. I thought I knew him when I arrived at Dinant. Although he has got himself up exceedingly well for the part he has been playing, I am now convinced that he is the same miserable scamp.’
‘You shall hear from me in the morning,’ repeated the pretended captain. ‘If I remain, rage and indignation at his insolent assertions will choke me. ‘
‘This,’ said the young Englishman, giving him a kick, ‘to remind you of your promise.’
The kick was repeated. The exposed scamp fairly took to his heels, and escaped across the square.
‘A resolute fellow,’ whispered Clarence to the squire; ‘might be useful in our own affair.’
His confederate nodded assent, and it was agreed to invite him to supper.
Thus it was that the quiet, unpretending young man made the acquaintance of his fellow countrymen.
This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest
rascally Jew: Please see my brief consideration of historical anti-Semitism in Chapter 14. In no instance does Smith himself express anti-semitic attitudes, apart from attributing them to characters whom he valorizes negatively.
ricketty: Alt. spelling “rickety”
the world is still deceived by ornament: Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, 3.2: “The world is still deceived with ornament” (Bassanio).
crown o’ the causeway: The middle of the street. Fine Dictionary.
Eclipse race: Horse race established at Sandown Park, 1886, named after a famous 18th century racehorse. Now known as the “Coral-Eclipse.” Contemporary newspaper results of the inaugural race here.
Categories: Mystery of the Marsh