Mystery of the Marsh

J.F. Smith’s Mystery of the Marsh — Twenty-second Instalment

We find a slight mix-up in the text this week, but one that involves a significant issue of plot and theme. It is where the young Lord Bury appears about to take Lady Montague’s side against William, in her confrontation with the two girls. Lady Kate draws up her slight, ‘scarcely fifteen’-year-old figure in a heroic stance and denies that Bury possesses any authority over her, or any right to judge her.

Pre-prepared, Cousin Clara follows up with a disclosure that completely neutralizes him:

‘Especially … as in the event of her cousin’s death, unmarried, Lord Bury becomes heir to her estates.’

Lord Bury promptly takes the point: that he may be perceived as having an interest in whether or not Kate marries at all, let alone to William, whom he considers her — and their — social inferior.

Even at first glance, Clara’s comment seems illogical: Lord Bury is himself her cousin (as is Clara both his and her cousin, by the way). Obviously, if he dies, he cannot become heir to her estates. Clearly the statement should read:

‘Especially … as in the event of his cousin’s death, unmarried, Lord Bury becomes heir to her estates.’

Put simply, if Kate dies unmarried, Bury will become her heir. Keep in mind that Kate is an orphan. She is already wealthy, having inherited her fortune from the Kepple family line.

How might it stand that Clara and Kate are cousins? Sir George Meredith’s wife is not mentioned; we we assume her to be deceased (Ch. 4). Might it be that she is Kate’s late mother and the viscount’s late sister? Probably not, since in that case, Sir George would have been heir — and her surname is Kepple. 

The reader is able to sketch out the family tree from various given bits of information, such as:

  • Kate is Viscount Allworth’s ‘orphan ward and niece’ (Ch. 4), and ‘the last descendant of one of the best families in the kingdom’ (Ch. 6)
  • Lady Montague is Kate’s aunt and joint guardian (Ch. 4), presumably Kepple’s sister
  • Sir George is Lord Bury’s uncle (Ch. 10)
  • Clara (daughter of Sir George Meredith the baronet) and Kate are cousins; as are Lord Bury and Kate; and Lord Bury and Clara

We may infer that, probably:

  • Viscount Allworth (Lord Bury’s father) had two sisters, who are both deceased.
  • One of them married Kepple (Kate’s father).
  • The other married Sir George Meredith (Clara’s father)

This makes Kate Kepple, Clara Meredith and Lord Bury (Egbert) all first-cousins.

All these cousins …

In the Victorian era, marriages between first-cousins were by no means uncommon, particularly among the nobility, as a mechanism for shoring up wealth, alongside various intangible assets — hallmarks of class. Keeping it all in the family, so to speak. At the top of the pyramid, Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert, were first-cousins.

Wedding of Queen Victoria and Albert, Prince Consort, 1840

In 1875, Charles Darwin had his son George devise some ingenious studies to estimate the incidence of first-cousin marriage across class. He arrived at the results:

    • 4.5% of marriages in the aristocracy were with first cousins (or about one out of twenty)
    • 3.5% in the landed gentry and upper-middle classes
    • 2.25% among the rural population
    • 1.15% among all classes in London

(Kuper 722)

Why were the Darwins so interested in the topic? Because Charles Darwin was himself married to his first-cousin, and his research into the processes of natural selection had caused him to become concerned about the possibly deleterious health effects of such close unions. Further compounding the issue for the Darwins was their complex intermarital connection with the famous Wedgewood family, whose dynastic pottery business was reinforced by a tradition of endogamy.

First-cousin inter-marriages between Darwin and Wedgeworth families (Kuper 729)

The Rothschild banking dynasty further attests to the competitive advantage secured by the tradition. Between 1824 and 1877, as part of a planned strategy to consolidate the partnership of the five fraternal branches of the bank, thirty of the thirty-six patrilineal descendants of the founder of the House of Rothschild married first-cousins. Seventy-eight percent of marriages were “with a father’s brother’s daughter or a father’s brother’s son’s daughter”. The practice terminated when “the institution of joint-stock companies changed the banking environment” (Kuper 728):

Cousin marriage and sister exchange reinforced new social, political, and economic networks that came to the fore in Victorian England, and which provided the country with a new elite.

(Kuper 731)

Incidentally, Darwin revised what were his initial concerns about the severity of health effects. Genetists in the present day believe that the risk of birth defects or infant mortality is approximately doubled, which is not considered to be significantly high. Relevant attitudes changed, however, particularly those pertaining to the conception of incest, and the incidence of first-cousin marriage diminished, falling, by the 1930s, to a rate of 1 in 6,000.

The complexity of relations in Smith’s Mystery of the Marsh appears beyond doubt to be informed by the late nineteenth-century controversy surrounding first-cousin marriage. Indeed, part of the ‘mystery’ lies in piecing together the family relationships between key characters, within contextual themes of class structure, dynastic continuity, and the importance of inheritance to the independence of women.

Hence, we may note variations on the theme, such as:

  1. Lord Bury’s nascent romantic interest in his cousin Clara, who is the present heir to the country estate of Chellston, to which he himself had been heir, until his father Viscount Allworth sold it to Sir George Marsham, her father. Both the viscount and Sir George mention the possibility that a marriage between Bury and Clara would enable him to regain the estate.
  2. Goliah’s previous concern that William may have been interested in his cousin Susan, which is varied so as to distinguish the issue in terms of social class
  3. The Allworths’ plot to foist their son Clarence Marsham onto Kate. He is her first cousin by marriage only, but not by blood, being the issue of Viscountess Allworth’s earlier marriage. (Her shadowy past, however, is sure to contain some uncomfortable surprises.)
  4. Kate’s being fourteen years of age makes Clarence’s attempted physical assault on his step-cousin particularly nasty, and perhaps relevant to changing historical conceptions of the child.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

A Love Confidence — Lady Kate Relates her Experience to her Cousin Clara — The Vow of Mutual Assistance — Lady Montague and Lord Bury Attempt to put a Spoke in Cupid’s Wheels

Lady Kate was far too ingenuous a person to keep the fact of her engagement to our hero a secret from those who, by kindness and affection, possessed a right to her confidence. Her Cousin Clara, as was only natural, was the first to whom she imparted it. The warm-hearted girl did not betray an extraordinary amount of surprise when she heard it. The last six or eight months had considerably modified her views of life, society, and what the world calls happiness; still she could not help looking a little grave at the intelligence, and for several instants remained silent.

‘You disapprove of my conduct?’ whispered the blushing girl.

‘I have no right to do so.’

‘Yes, but you have,’ replied her cousin. ‘The right which sisterly affection gives. I never intended to come to an explanation, and I feel certain he did not with me; and yet, somehow, I shall never understand exactly how it happened. The secret of his love broke forth despite of him.’

‘And you?’

‘I would have died rather than have confessed it unasked, although I have loved him almost from the hour we first met; but he looked.so wretched, so hopeless, spoke so pitifully, that I found myself in his arms without knowing how I came there.’

‘That unfortunate duet,’ thought.Clara. ‘I foresaw it all. What will Bury say?’

‘Do speak to me,’ sobbed her cousin, ‘if only to tell me how weak I have been.’

Miss Meredith felt touched; possibly she had her own little secret in some sly corner of her heart.

‘No, Kate, darling,’ she replied, throwing her arms around her neck and kissing her. ‘With the same feelings — had I been placed in a similar position — I should have acted just as you have done. Have you informed Lady Montague?’

‘Not yet,’ was the reply. ‘I suppose I ought to have confessed it to her first; but it seemed so much easier to come to you. I thought you would help me.’

‘Thought I would help you!’ repeated Clara, in a slight accent of reproof.

‘Knew you would. I am still so confused that I scarcely know how to express myself,’ added the pretty culprit. ‘I did not mean to be ungrateful.’

And the eyes of the speaker filled with tears.

‘I am sure you did not,’ observed her cousin. ‘I did not even suspect it; but friendship is sometimes jealous of its rights. You must tell her at once. She will be angry at first, no doubt — very angry — and scold.  It is the privilege of aunts to scold; but it will not last long, especially when she sees how wretched it makes you.’

‘It is not my dear, kind guardian’s displeasure that I most dread,’ answered Kate. ‘I knew her warmth of heart too well to fear it greatly. It is Bury that I fear. You know how Lady Montague is guided by his opinions. His pride of birth — dread of the world’s censure — will incline them against me.’

‘Not against you, dearest.’

‘Against William, then; it is the same thing.’

‘How she must love him!’ thought Clara, struck by the simplicity of the avowal.

‘It is there,’ added the speaker, ‘that I require your assistance.’

‘Why, what influence can I exercise over him?’ exclaimed her cousin.

‘You best can answer that question,’ observed Kate. ‘Forgive me,’ she continued, struck by the sudden paleness which overspread the countenance of her confidant. I fancied — that is, I believed — that he loved you.’

Miss Meredith tried to force a smile.

‘Because you love me, darling,’ she replied. ‘You must not imagine that every one sees me with your partial eyes. Egbert never uttered a word of love to me; his conduct has been most kind; a brother’s regard for a sister — nothing more.’

‘Then he is more blind than I –‘

‘Hush!’ whispered Clara, as she bent over the head reclining upon her shoulder, and kissed it softly.

Was it to conceal a tear?

Lady Kate respected the delicacy of her cousin too much to allude to it again.

Before seeking the dressing-room of their venerable but somewhat weak relative, Clara contrived to have a brief conversation with her father, in which she explained the difficulties of her cousin’s position, and begged him to use his influence with Lord Bury to soften his opposition to the engagement.

‘Why, what can I do?’ demanded the baronet, half testily, half playfully.

‘Reason with him, papa.’

‘And a great deal of use that would be,’ continued the former. ‘He is as obstinate in his opinions as a year-old pointer, and harder to break. When once he has taken one up, he thinks it a point of honour to adhere to it.’

His daughter sighed. She felt that it was but too true.

‘Honour!’ repeated the speaker, musingly. Then he paused, and a smile stole over his good-natured countenance.

‘After all, perhaps,’ he said, ‘it is just possible that I may be of some service to Kate — a sensible girl. I cannot see anything so very preposterous in her choice. I like Whiston. He has acted honourably, and I should not think — not that I would choose it — the alliance a disgrace. We are not in the peerage, Clara,’ he added, ‘but we might have been. Refused it twice. The Merediths can count quarterings with the Montagues and the Allworths.’

‘Never mind our quarterings. I have them all by heart. The point is to help Kate.’

‘If Bury becomes very obstinate and makes a strong fight,’ said Sir George, ‘put the following question to him. It may not convert, but I think it will silence him.’

He whispered the rest in her ear.

‘Does be know that?’

‘No!’ exclaimed.her father. ‘If he did, I should entertain a very different opinion of him.’

It would be superfluous to describe the manner or repeat the words in which Lady Kate informed her aunt of her engagement. As Clara Meredith predicted, the storm proved a violent one, yet strange to say, her wrath fell chiefly on our hero.

‘The villain!’ she exclaimed, as soon as she had recovered sufficiently from her surprise to speak. ‘So artless and unassuming as he seemed! I have been terribly deceived. But there is no trusting to men. The best of them are crocodiles, or something worse, You must break it off. Mind, I say must. Then perhaps I may forgive you. The young man will threaten scandal, no doubt, or require money,’ added her ladyship. ‘I will provide that. I must pay for my folly in receiving him here.’

‘Money!’ repeated Kate, her niece, indignantly. ‘Do not insult him, aunt.’

‘Indeed, you wrong him,’ observed Clara.

‘You, too, in the plot?’ said Lady Montague, despairingly. ‘But I might have expected as much. No use, Clara. I am rock — adamant — this time. It cannot be. It shall not be. Nature and heraldry are alike opposed to it.’

The last argument appeared to the speaker unanswerable, but the true friend of the lovers was not so easily silenced. Throwing her arms around the neck of her angry relative, who did not very much resist her caress, she continued:

‘I cannot see the force of your objections. Nature is to blame more than poor, dear Kate. Why has it given us hearts to love? Sense — not that girls always use it — to admire true worth and manhood. Recollect how nobly William protected her, when yet a mere boy, from the machinations of that villain, Clarence, She can’t help loving him.’

The old lady wrung her hands despairingly.

‘That dreadful scandal will be revived again,’ she murmured to herself.

‘As for her heraldry,’ added the fair advocate, ‘I really cannot see what that has to do with the affair.’

Here the aunt felt herself on firm ground.

‘Are you not aware, Miss Meredith,’ she demanded solemnly, ‘that the crest of the Kepples is an eagle?’

‘Perfectly, aunt, I have seen it on her carriage a hundred times.’

‘And that the crest of this young man, if he has such a thing, is probably a goose, a sparrow, or some such ignoble bird, possible a sucking pig,’ she added, in a tone of lofty indignation, which was completely thrown away upon her hearer, who could not repress a smile.’

Strong resentments are seldom very lasting with the aged. They dislike, too, seeing those they love made wretched. The tears of Kate, the wistful, imploring, though mute expression in her eyes, produced a greater effect on her aristocratic relative than even the eloquence of Clara. She was distressed, but not subdued; prejudice was still too strong.

It was at this critical point in the interview with her nieces that Lady Montague gained an ally by the appearance of Lord Bury, who entered the dressing-room unannounced, as their near relationship permitted him.

From the agitation of Kate and the pale countenance of her aunt, he guessed what had transpired. Most heartily did he wish the absence of both his cousins. He knew that his opinion would be asked, but although perfectly ready to express it, he disliked giving pain to any one.

‘Egbert! Egbert!’ cried the old lady, in a tone of almost helpless perplexity, ‘there has been such a scene, and I want your advice.’

The young nobleman bowed gravely.

To the astonishment of both aunt and nephew, and the delight of Clara, Kate drew up her slender form with queen-like dignity. Her eyes were still red with weeping, but her voice never for an instant faltered, as she observed:

‘When I am aware of his lordship’s right to interfere between us, aunt, I may perhaps be induced to listen to his opinions, but till then must decline to be swayed by them. He does not understand me, and should not presume to judge me.’

‘Especially,’ added Clara, ‘as in the event of her cousin’s death, unmarried, Lord Bury becomes heir to her estates.’

With a respectful curtsey to Lady Montague, and a cold, distant bow to her nephew, the speakers quitted the apartment.

‘Well!’ ejaculated the old lady, in a tone of bewilderment.

His lordship appeared greatly surprised at the intelligence, which was perfectly new to him, and struck him painfully.

‘Were you aware of this?’ he demanded of Lady Montague.

‘Of course I was,’ said his aunt. ‘The settlement was made at the time of my sister’s marriage. I am a trustee to it, or some such troublesome thing. Sir George Meredith and your father are the others. I wonder Allworth never told you.’

‘It would have been more strange if he had. The viscount kept the knowledge to himself as something that might one day be useful.’

With a look of bitter reproach, which on the present occasion his relative certainty did not merit, her nephew rushed from the dressing-room.

‘What does it all mean?’ exclaimed her ladyship, as she sank back in her luxuriously cushioned easy-chair. ‘What can the settlement of Kate’s fortune have to do with her absurd engagement? I shall never understand it.’

Of course the speaker, in the simple uprightness of her nature, could not comprehend it; never suspected that the motives of her nephew in opposing what the world would consider a most unequal match would be misjudged. Worldly interests, to do her justice, had not the slightest share in her own objections.

‘You acted admirably, Kate,’ whispered Miss Meredith, when they had regained the privacy of their own boudoir. ‘It was noble — grand.’

‘Do not praise,’ faltered the now trembling girl. ‘I wonder at my own courage. I could have endured the blame Bury cast upon my conduct meekly, but not the scorn he heaped upon William. It was that which roused me. ‘

‘How did you hear of the settlement of my fortune?’ she added.

‘My father told me in confidence,’ answered Clara, ‘to help you in your trials. But you must not betray the secret. Do you think Egbert knew of it?’

Kate reflected several instants before making a reply.

‘No, a hundred times no!’ she exclaimed. ‘He is too honourable, too high-minded for that. Had he known or even suspected the fact it would have fettered his tongue in silence, whilst his opinions remained the same,’ she added, with a sigh.

A look of intense satisfaction beamed on the countenance of Clara on hearing this generous vindication of Lord Bury’s delicacy and high principles from lips so truthful.

‘Ah! Kate,’ she sighed, ‘men rarely do us justice. We are better than they give us credit for.’

The groom of the chambers entered the boudoir with a card on which Lord Bury had hastily written a request for an interview.

‘Better have it out at once,’ observed her cousin, to whom she had handed it as if for advice. ‘We are in the right, darling, and right gives strength. Tell his lordship,’ she added, ‘Lady Kate will join him in the drawing-room directly.’

The domestic retired with the message.

‘One effort more, darling,’ continued the speaker, ‘and I think we shall have discomfited the enemy’s first attack. Others will doubtless follow, but we shall be prepared for them. Why, that is well; try this essence. You look calmer now. I think we may venture to descend.’

‘You will go with me?’ said Kate, clinging to her arm.

‘Allies to the death!’ answered Clara Meredith, with apparent gaiety. We say apparent, because her own heart felt anything but at ease.

‘I requested this interview,’ said Lord Bury, coldly but kindly, ‘to assure Lady Kate Kepple that I can no longer take an active part in opposition to her wishes.’

His cousin held out her hand. The speaker touched it slightly.

‘The opinion I have formed,’ he continued, ‘unfortunately remains unchanged; but honour and self-respect must henceforth prevent my giving utterance to it. Had I been made acquainted with certain family arrangements sooner, a great pain would have been spared me. I should not have been misjudged.’

‘Not a word for me,’ thought Miss Meredith, with something very like a sigh, which she instantly suppressed.

‘Spoken like yourself, Egbert,’ answered his cousin. ‘I know how loyally you will keep your promise. But why not call me Kate? It sounds far more kind.’

To this his lordship only bowed.

‘As for the settlement you alluded to,’ he added, ‘had I only known –‘

‘Not a word!’ exclaimed the agitated girl, interrupting him. ‘The honour and delicacy of Lord Bury need no vindication here. Clara and I are both convinced of that. I felt as much surprise as you did when I heard it.’

‘I stand higher in your opinion than I hoped,’ observed his lordship.

‘But not higher than you deserve, does he, Clara? Promise me one thing; it will make me happy, or nearly so. Do not call me Lady Kate again. Let it be Kate and Egbert as it used to be.’

‘It shall be as you request.’

‘And you will come to see us just the same as if this dark shadow had never passed between us? Say yes, dear cousin Egbert.’

‘Of course he will say it,’ observed Clara Meredith, almost gayly — ‘or I shall suspect the chivalry of the Allworths has died out. We are neither of us blessed with brothers to take care of and protect us. Bury is the nearest of our kith and kin; we have almost a sister’s claim on him; besides who so fit and qualified?’

Few young fellows, we suspect, could have resisted so flattering an appeal from such lips. Certainly his lordship did not. Seating himself between the two cousins he kissed a hand of each.

‘It shall be as you desire,’ he replied, ‘since you do me the honor to desire it. And from this hour all unpleasant subjects shall be tabooed between us.’

The agreement was faithfully kept, and whether his lordship’s opinions and prejudices remained unchanged, or time gradually modified them, he never again alluded to them.

On the morning on which the interview we have just described took place, Lawyer Whiston felt somewhat surprised by a visit from Goliah Gob. The honest fellow did not much like running the gauntlet of the clerks’ office, and generally called, when he came to London, at the house in Soho Square. The quick eye of the man of law detected at a glance that the visitor was somewhat excited.

‘Sit down,’ he said; ‘just ten minutes before I go to court. Anything the matter? But first let me tell you, Willie is quite well. Letter last night. Can only spare ten minutes.’

‘Thank goodness for that, it be more than I durst expect; for misfortunes allays come double, as folks says.’

‘Why, what is the matter, Goliah?’

‘Peter Hurst is dying, and he do want to see thee very bad. Something about his daughter, something about Willie, and something about myself.’

‘Yourself!’

‘Yes, Peter has been quite kind and sensible loike of late. Now, his wife can’t bear I, and watches Susan and I as a cat does young sparrows. So thee must spare more nor ten minutes, and come wi’ me to Deerhurst.’

‘Is he so bad, then?’

‘Three doctors wi’ him,’ answered the visitor. ‘And that sly fellow, Benoni, brings him physics from the Bittern’s Marsh.’

These last words decided him. Lawyer Whiston put off his engagements in court, gave certain instructions to his confidential clerk, and in little over an hour was on his way to Deerhurst, driven by Goliah Gob, whose easy-going team were astonished at the hints of their young master that he was in a hurry to get home.

This edition © 2019 Furin Chime, Michael Guest


References and Further Reading

Anderson, Nancy Fix. ‘Cousin Marriage in Victorian England’. Journal of Family History, 1986.

Bittles, A.H. ‘Background and outcomes of the first-cousin marriage controversy in Great Britain’. International Journal of Epidemiology, 2009, 38: 1453-1458.

*Kuper, Adam. ‘Changing the subject — about cousin marriage, among other things’ (Huxley Lecture, 14 Dec. 2007; Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2008, 14: 717-735.

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