Mystery of the Marsh

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

Viscount Allworth is in a lather over the prospect of being uncovered for forging his son Lord Bury’s signature. Fuelling his gambling and extravagant lifestyle, cash moneys obtained from the ‘Chellston affair’ (see Chapters 4, 10, 11 and 17) only served to blow his debts out into further spirals. Incorrigible; though we can’t fail to detect the author’s underlying affection for the old roué, despite his narrator’s high moral tone.

‘Mean, despicable forgery,’ repeated the son; ‘and the penalty —’

The speaker could not bring himself to complete the sentence, but sank back into a chair, covering his face with his hands.

Lord Allworth changed his tactics at once. He saw that the time for cajolery had passed.

‘Death!’ he said. ‘Rather an unpleasant ending to a tolerably pleasant existence — not that the hangman’s hand shall ever touch me. I can guard against that. Positively, it would be too ridiculous!’

The death penalty was abolished in 1832 for forgery, except for the forging of wills and particular powers of attorney, for which it was abolished in 1837. The viscount’s perceived need to guard against the prospect of hanging, and his subsequent reactions, suggest that it is still operative at the time our narrative unfolds.

On Bury’s exit, the viscount turns immediately to musing on the possibility of having him committed for insanity — echoing Peggy Hurst’s thoughts on how she might be able to address her husband’s unfavourable will.

The theme of criminal forgery foregrounded in the present chapter, involving issues of documentary verification and falsification, links to the more general motifs of identity, self-representation and misrepresentation, with their moral connotations. At the outset, the disguised girls in the red barn anticipate the theme. William’s quest to ‘forge’ (in the positive sense of ‘establish’ or ‘found’) an upstanding identity in the context of the class system, is a further important variation.

Plots involving crimes of forgery appeared commonly in Victorian fiction and newspaper reportage. These two genres of writing inform each other greatly in respect to forgery — bearing in mind that fiction itself is intrinsically falsification. Works of fiction often appropriated  famous and spectacular cases of forgery, and narrators sometimes referred to real cases in  passing, as Smith’s does here. Reciprocally, journalists used techniques borrowed from fictional writing in sensationalizing cases of forgery, towards the end of gratifying the reading public’s increasingly avid interest in the topic.

The fact that many fictional authors worked, or had worked, as journalists, facilitated the generic interaction. Preeminently, Charles Dickens was an accomplished news reporter and editor before embarking on his literary career. Abel Magwitch of Great Expectations uses the name of famous real-life forger Thomas Provis as an alias (‘Provis’), who was similarly sentenced to transportation, and bears other resemblances.

In David Copperfield, Uriah Heep is modelled on a friend of Dickens’, the writer Thomas Powell (1809-87), a convicted forger and fraud, who moved to America to escape prosecution. Mr. Merdle in Little Dorrit was inspired by John Sadleir (1835-56), financier, politician, forger and suicide.

Likewise, several other forgers gained massive public notoriety. Henry Fauntleroy (1784-1824), a London banker, who misappropriated and squandered a quarter of a million, was hanged for forging powers of attorney. He appears in works by Hawthorne, Thackeray, Collins, and Bulwer-Lytton. Bulwer-Lytton based his novel Lucretia; or Children of the Night (1846; rev. 1853) on another notorious forger, a good friend of Blake and Lamb, the painter and poisoner, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847), whom Oscar Wilde features in ‘Pen, Pencil, and Poison,’ in his collection of essays, Intentions (1885).

Thackeray gained mileage from other real-life forgers, including Sadleir; Powell; William Dodd (1729-77), man of letters, priest and forger; and Liberal Member of Parliament for Lambeth, socialite William Roupell (1831-1909), who forged wills and was alleged to have bribed his way to election. Trollope patterned his character Melmotte on Sadleir, in The Way We Live Now (1874-5).

Smith’s extensive interrelated themes of identity, with their existential implications, hint at the fascination and anxiety that the Victorian readership must have experienced regarding the crime of forgery and its representation in sensational news and fiction. The forger applies fiction in a strike at the heart of a reality that is emerging in step with a developing global market.

The Railway Juggernaut of 1845, Charles L. Graves, Mr. Punch’s History of Modern England, Vol. 1, 1841-57, (Project Gutenberg EBook)

Driven by developments in technology, the new economy is based on speculation and stocks and bonds instead of tangible property. Wealth is up for grabs. Constructing oneself in the socio-financial-legal context requires radical psychological adjustments, leaps of faith, and the ability to prove who one is. From here it’s a mere paradigm shift to us in our postmodern world, replete with ‘Wag the Dog’-like media manipulation, and the impact of things like identity-theft, digital currency and fake news.


CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

The Reading of the Will — The Widow Unpleasantly Surprised — Scene in a Lawyer’s Office — An Honourable Peer, who has a Predilection for Swimming in Dirty Water, Gets a Little out of his Depth

The widow and her daughter had been inmates of the house in Soho Square three days, when the former hinted to her host the propriety of proving her late husband’s will.

‘Yes! certainly, Mrs. Hurst highly necessary; we will drive to my office in Lincoln’s Inn Fields at noon.’

‘I thought it had to be proved at Doctors’ Commons,’ observed Peggy.

‘Indisputably correct, my dear madam; but it must first be read, and a copy made,’ replied the gentleman. ‘You would wish to have a copy, would you not?’

‘Certainly!’ replied Mrs. Hurst, emphatically.

Lawyers, as a rule, rarely provoke a scene, unless in the interests of their clients. Even then it is rather doubtful policy. Judges dislike it. Juries dislike it;  and in the solemn propriety of the probate office, where everything wears a funereal hue — the very clerks looking like mutes — it would be regarded with peculiar horror. Added to all this, Mr. Winston was actuated by a benevolent view. He saw that Susan was really ill. The poor girl grieved greatly for her father’s death. In support, he wished to spare her the pain of witnessing the first outbreaks of her mother’s wrath by placing her beyond their reach.

He rang the bell and ordered the carriage.

‘Come, child,’ said the widow; ‘we have but time to dress.’

Her daughter rose to obey her.

‘Pardon me,’ interrupted their host; ‘but Susan is looking really ill and her presence will be quite unnecessary. Minors, even when interested in legal proceedings, can only act through  their guardians. Will it not be better for her to take a walk in the square, or a short ride with my housekeeper? Either would do her good; but perhaps, he added in a tone of indifference, ‘she is one of the witnesses?’

‘Nothing of the kind!’ said Peggy, sharply. ‘Squire Tyrrell drew the will; his clerk and butler witnessed it.  As you say, she is looking puny. I wonder how I keep myself up; but Providence sustains me. Don’t you  believe in Providence, Mr. Whiston?

‘In the present instance, decidedly,’ replied the latter.

‘Well then, perhaps she had better not accompany us. But mind, Susan, you do not stir a step  from the house without Mrs. Page.’

This was the name of the housekeeper.

‘I won’t, mother,’ answered the poor girl, languidly.

We wonder if lawyers ever do feel a pang at the part they are sometimes compelled to act. Certainly Mr. Whiston did not in the present instance. During the ride to his office he made himself very agreeable, ventured on a decorous joke or two, gave the widow, on their arrival, his arm up the stairs, showed her into his private room, and saw her comfortably seated in his own easy-chair.

‘She may bluster there as much as she pleases,’ he thought. His nerves were strung for the encounter; neither screaming nor fainting could have shaken them.

‘So,’ said Peggy, looking round her, ‘this is a lawyer’s office? Not a bit like what I expected to see.’

‘So I presume, madam. Many respectable and intelligent persons entertain an unreasoning prejudice against us; but we will proceed to business. You have the will with you?’

The widow drew it from her capacious pocket, spread her handkerchief, a sign that she intended to shed a few tears if she could, and remarked, as she placed the paper in his hands, that ‘poor, dear Peter had been an excellent husband.’

‘No doubt, my dear madam, no doubt.’

‘So affectionate!’

‘Ah, we all have our good qualities –‘

‘Placed such trust in me!’

‘And weaknesses,’ added the lawyer.

The last observation did not sound as complimentary as the preceding ones had done, and she regarded him earnestly whilst the speaker rapidly read over the commencement of the will.

‘Dear me!’ ejaculated Mr. Whiston, in a tone of surprise, more or less genuine, ‘this is singular! very singular!’

‘What is singular?’ demanded the widow.

‘The dates of the testaments do not agree.’

‘Testaments!’ gasped Peggy. ‘Testaments!’

‘Yes; the one you have just given me —  and one your late husband placed in my hands an hour or two before he died.’

‘The old wretch!’ muttered the affectionate woman.

The lawyer commenced reading the one alluded to. We shall pass over the preliminaries. They are the same in all wills, we believe. Out of his half of the farm, Peter bequeathed an annuity of eighty pounds a year, a  pretty little cottage and garden which he had purchased in the village, and two hundred pounds out of a sum standing in his own name in the bank at Colchester. The rest of his property he left to his daughter, whom he consigned to the sole guardianship of his executor, Richard Whiston, Attorney at Law, Lincoln Inn Fields, London.

In a concluding paragraph he asked pardon of his nephew for the wicked, groundless charge he had been induced to bring against him.

The blow, all the more terrible from being unexpected, fell upon the ears of Peggy Hurst like a thunderstroke. She had schemed, cajoled, nose-led and driven her husband for so many years that a possibility of a revolt never struck her. At first she felt inclined to scream; but recollecting that it could do no possible good, by a violent effort restrained herself.

‘Give me back my will!’ she exclaimed at last.

Mr. Whiston quietly handed it to her without a word.

‘And do you really mean to tell me you will prove that abominable, false, unjust testament?’

‘Undoubtedly.’

‘Very well; I shall oppose it. This is the real will, the only one my fool of a husband ever made with my consent. He was an idiot,’ added the speaker.’

‘A little weak in judgment, I confess,’ observed the lawyer, with a smile.

‘And yet you made that abominably wicked will at the request of a man out of his senses. I can prove that he never had any sense, and I will prove it.’

‘Not unlikely,’ answered Mr. Whiston. ‘Not that I can see how it would better your position if you did prove it. All your late husband’s property, in that case, would go absolutely to his daughter.’

Peggy Hurst looked unutterable things, words being too weak to express her indignation.

‘Susan,’ no doubt, ‘would show you every consideration. She is an excellent young person,’ continued the speaker. ‘Allow me, also, to inform you that I did not prepare the will, neither did I suggest it. I did not even suspect its existence. It was made by that excellent lawyer and upright magistrate, Frank Smithers, town clerk of Colchester.’

It must be confessed that the patience of the widow was being sorely tried.

‘Very well, sir,’ she said, thrusting the first testament into her pocket. ‘This is my will,’ and I intend to stand by it. There are other lawyers, I hope.’

‘Plenty of them.’

‘And some honest ones.’

‘I trust so,’ said the gentleman, calmly. He had made up his mind not to lose his temper by any amount of provocation, and he adhered to his resolution.

With heart and temper at boiling heat over her supposed wrongs, Peggy Hurst made her way to the office of Brit and Son. She had heard Benoni frequently speak of them as shrewd, practical men, Heaven knows they were practical enough. As to their sharpness we do not feel quite so certain. True sharpness, to our old fashioned way of thinking, consists in honesty. It is the only thing that eventually pays. Brit and Son were cunning; nothing more.

The interview did not prove a satisfactory one. Before these very astute gentlemen would give an opinion, or even listen to her statement, they demanded a fee of five guineas. Custom of the profession; invariable rule of the firm; so many clients to attend to; time was money to them.

‘So I should think,’ said the widow, as she reluctantly handed them the money, and proceeded to give a tolerably clear  statement of her case.

‘Hem! Yes, quite plain,’ said the respectable-looking, well-dressed head of the firm. ‘Remedy? Of course you have a remedy in Chancery. His lordship will doubtless order a trial to test the validity of the will at common law. A verdict in your favour there must be followed by proceedings in the probate court. Should defendants appeal, as the doubtless will –‘

Here Brit, junior, nodded assent.

‘It could be argued before the Privy Council.’

No wonder that Peggy’s head began to swim. A much stronger one might have felt confused at the prospect set before her. Still her mind remained clear on one important point.

‘And what would it all cost?’ she demanded.

‘Impossible to say, my dear madam,’ replied the head of the firm. ‘Brit and Son never give estimates. Most unusual with the respectable part of the profession. A thousand pounds might be sufficient to commence the suit with. I think we might venture to undertake it with that.’

This was addressed to his son, who, with a broad grin upon his face, answered that he thought they could.

Patience, like every other virtue, has its limits; and the widow, who had never been abundantly supplied with that: estimable quality, completely lost the little that remained to her. Starting to her feet, she commenced a string of expletives not usually indulged in in a lawyer’s office, however frequently they may be felt. ‘Rogues’ and ‘thieves ‘were the mildest of her expressions.

‘Give me back my five guineas!’ she exclaimed, half mad with passion. Half mad, did we say? Any intelligent jury would have considered it prima facie evidence of positive insanity. For who ever heard of a lawyer returning a fee he had once pocketed?

Without the slightest appearance either of anger or surprise upon his placid features, Brit, senior, rang the bell.

‘See this female,’ he said to the clerk who answered it, ‘out of the office. And, mind, she is never to be admitted again. Most violent person; no delicacy; uses improper language.’

Decidedly it was destined to prove an unlucky day for Peggy Hurst. The most galling offence of all was that her husband had outwitted her. The cipher, as he had been usually considered, had made himself a unit, and a strong one.

No blow rankles so deeply as one inflicted by a dead man’s hand. Women rarely inflict one. They are too gentle and forgiving. The worst of them do little more than scratch.

The treatment she had received from the firm of Brit and Son, to say nothing of the loss of five guineas, was certainly very provoking. Still she might have got over that, but a still more mortifying disappointment was in store for her.

Having made up her mind to return to Deerhurst, and consider there what was best to be done, she drove to Soho Square, but her daughter was no longer there, and neither threats, entreaties, nor even the offer of a guinea, could induce the housekeeper to name the place of her retreat.

South Corner of Soho Square and Sutton Street, Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1792-1864)

Maddened by this last defeat, the widow rushed to Bow-street. Mr. Whiston who expected some such movement, kept himself in readiness, and very soon presented himself before the magistrate, who very properly had refused to issue a warrant,

‘All alike!’ she muttered; ‘all alike!’ when she saw the two gentlemen shake hands.

Mr. Whiston produced the will, which his worship glanced over.

‘No jurisdiction,’ he said. ‘Must be decided in Chancery. Call the next case.’

That same evening Peggy Hurst returned to the country, a sadder, wiser, but we fear,
not a much better woman, She required a very different lesson to break her stubborn will.

Convince a woman ʼgainst her will
She’s of the same opinion still.

We have slightly altered the quotation.

Many men credited with wit and sense, like young geese, develop at an early age a singular propensity for swimming in very dirty puddles. This abnormal taste becomes all the more remarkable when it is recollected that most of them have nice clean water running close at hand, or if not at hand, easily procurable with a little self-control and patient industry.

Unfortunately for his family, Viscount Allworth turned out one of these human goslings. Whilst a mere boy, he inherited a large patrimony, noble estates, and a vast amount of ready cash. How nice and spotless he might have kept his plumage — we mean his reputation. The pure running stream close at hand, flowing, as it were, under his nose, and yet he would plunge into the puddles. A little dust upon the spotless ermine of his young manhood would have been looked over — he was human, and it was to be expected — but not the filthy mud of foul, dishonourable practices.

Dirt, we suspect, must be something like the magnet. It attracts certain bodies, and repulses others.

It is not always wise, when those who are dear to us, or in whom we feel an interest, commit equivocal and dishonourable actions, to condone them; and yet perhaps it is only natural. The opinions of our fellow-men, which all of us are more or less swayed by, the honour of the name we bear, the ties of affection, incline us to judge leniently and show mercy. We can understand the last plea, but not the preceding ones, for beyond the opinion of the world, the honour of a name, we place personal honour. The former may be mere pinchbeck, the latter is pure gold.

The sacrifice which Lord Bury had made to save his father from disgrace in the affair of the Chellston property tempted that noble gosling to wade still further into the mud. The ready money so dishonestly obtained had been wasted; as a matter of course, in the usual round of extravagance, folly, and dissipation. His lordship’s bonds and post-obits had long been a drug in the money-market; one signature alone could give them value — his son’s. In an evil hour he was weak enough to forge it.

‘Oh! oh!’ some of our critics will exclaim, ‘this is a little too strong! A peer of England commit forgery!’

There is, we believe, still living, a member of the House of Lords who dares not take his seat in that assembly. He drove his father — one of our great Law luminaries — from his high position by trafficking with his patronage. Compelled to retire to France to avoid his creditors, this worthless scamp next proceeded to forge three bills of exchange upon his brother. The first two were paid; the third resisted, and exposure followed; end the man is now one of the hereditary judges and legislators of the land. True, he dares not take his seat. Bad as the institution undoubtedly is, the House of Lords could not stand that. He is still a miserable exile, we believe.

As the time of payment of the second year’s interest drew near, the aged roue began to feel exceedingly uncomfortable. He had contrived to pay the first. He was without money. An appeal to his wife he knew would be useless — her ladyship had quite sufficient to do in meeting the expenditure necessary for the carrying on of her own nefarious schemes. As a, last resource he resolved to appeal to his son. The interview proved a most painful one — falsehood and degradation on one side, disgust and indignation on the other. For some time the young nobleman proved inexorable.

‘My dear boy,’ urged the viscount, ‘how can you speak so unnaturally? Only a paltry twenty thousand pounds! Your name or mine, what could it signify? I am sure I should not have said such harsh things had you takes a similar liberty with me.’

‘It was a forgery, father,’ was the stern reply.

‘No ugly, indelicate words, Egbert,’ observed the old. sinner. ‘You know how nervous l am. They shock my sensibilities.’

‘Mean, despicable forgery,’ repeated the son; ‘and the penalty —’

The speaker could not bring himself to complete the sentence, but sank back into a chair, covering his face with his hands.

Lord Allworth changed his tactics at once. He saw that the time for cajolery had passed.

‘Death!’ he said. ‘Rather an unpleasant ending to a tolerably pleasant existence — not that the hangman’s hand shall ever touch me. I can guard against that. Positively, it would be too ridiculous!’

Lord Bury started to his feet.

‘Three of our ancestors — I think it was three — you can correct me if I am wrong,’ continued the speaker, ‘were beheaded for high treason; but the axe brought no dishonour on their descendant; whilst the rope — the vulgar, filthy rope —’

‘You shall be saved, my lord,’ interrupted his son, coldly.

‘Ah, Bury,’ ejaculated the old hypocrite, ‘I knew you would never see your affectionate old father hang.’

Here a sigh of relief escaped him.

‘I once thought,’ observed the son, ‘that no greater disgrace could befall me than having such a parent. I was deceived. You have convinced me there is a depth of infamy beyond — his death upon the scaffold.’

‘Never! Egbert, never!’ said Lord Allworth, trying to call up a look of dignity. ‘I am quite prepared to —’

‘Spare your acting,’ said the young man. ‘You have not the courage to be a suicide. You forget how well you have taught me to know you. Who holds these notes?’

The forger gave the name of a well-known banker in the Strand, and the young nobleman took his leave without even a parting salute or word.

Lord Allworth reflected for several instants in silence.

‘Egbert is very absurd — becoming unbearable,’ he muttered, half aloud. ‘What ideas? He never had them from me. They amount almost to mania.’

The word mania threw him into another train of thought.

‘I wonder if a jury would pronounce him insane?’ be added. ‘Hem! worth thinking of; but not till these infernal notes are taken up and destroyed. Bad world; getting more selfish, every day.’

Three hours afterwards his lordship might have been seen taking his usual drive in the park, kissing his little white hand to his female friends, or talking in an exceedingly juvenile strain with his male ones.

Lord Bury passed a miserable night. It was not the loss of the money that affected him; he had mad up his mind to pay it. It was the disgrace, the infamous system of extortion to which he saw himself exposed. ‘Where will it end?’ he asked himself .

The following morning be called upon the firm who had discounted the notes. Ostensibly it carried on the business of banks, and enjoyed a fair reputation in the city, where it was quietly understood that other matters did not come amiss to it. With an air of nonchalance anything but genuine, for his heart felt very heavy, his lordship asked to see the notes, observing that he had quite forgotten the dates.

The senior partner produced them The interest would be due in ten days.

His lordship made a memorandum in his notebook.

‘I shall take them up,’ he observed. ‘It is not wise to leave this sort of thing unsettled; affairs get confused. I suppose I may pay them at any time?’

‘Certainly,’ said the senior partner. ‘And if at any future time your lordship should require accommodation –‘

‘Thank you! Thank you!’ interrupted the visitor, hurriedly. Poor fellow! he almost forced a laugh. ‘We shall see; it is very possible.’

Three days afterwards their visitor returned, strong in the hope of averting a foul disgrace from the name he was so proud of. He had raised the money to redeem the forgeries.

The partners looked blank, Very sorry to disappoint his lordship. They had taken a share in the new French loan, been pressed — in short, compelled to part with them.

‘And who holds them now?’ demanded Lord Bury, with difficulty suppressing his emotion.

‘Impossible to say — probably still: on the market, the securities being so unexceptionable,’ replied a member of the firm.’

‘Or in the Bank of England,’ added the junior. ‘Such bills are frequently accepted as collaterals.’

With a throb of agony at his heart the wretched son arose from his seat, staggered rather than walked to his carriage, rode home and shut himself in chambers for the rest of the day.

The blow was a heavy one, and placed him in a terrible position. The Bank of England never rediscounted any securities’ placed in their hands, neither had it ever been known to condone a forgery. No matter how large the amount, they submitted to the loss rather than forego the pleasure of hanging the criminal.

‘Oh!’ he muttered, ‘in what a dilemma am I likely to be placed! Should the discovery be made, I must either give evidence to condemn my own father or perjure myself.’

‘Yes, that — even that,’ he added passionately, ‘rather than sully the honor of our name!’

Did it ever strike his lordship that, behind the tinsel brightness of the phantom he worshipped, there was a nobler, purer object of adoration?

We fear not. At least not at the time.

Here we must conclude our present chapter, leaving the viscount to his senile race of folly, his wife to her schemes against the happiness of Lady Kate, and our hero to his hard studies at the university, consuming the midnight oil till his features grew thin, his face pale with the sickly hue of thought.

But the prize was worthy of the struggle — the crowning hope of manhood — a true-hearted woman’s love. Fame has no nobler gift.


Notes, References, Further Reading

  • Convince a woman …: from Samuel Butler, Hudibras (1664). Smith refers to the usually misquoted: “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still”: he “slightly alter[s]” it to refer to women rather than men. Actually, the original goes: “He that complies against his will is of the same opinion still.” As George and Boller point out, it is illogical for someone convinced out of an opinion to keep it still (and indeed, convinced against their will); but not to be forced to comply, while maintaining one’s opinion. (See John George and Paul Boller, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes and Misleading Attributions [OUP, 1990]).
  • post-obit: ‘a bond given by a borrower, payable after the death of a specified person, esp one given to a moneylender by an expectant heir promising to repay when his interest falls into possession’ (thefreedictionary.com).

Briefel, Aviva. “Forgery and Imitation.” Victorian Network Volume 8 (2008 Winter).

*Ellis, Paul. Forgers and Fiction: How Forgery Developed the Novel, 1846-79. Thesis, University College London. 2004. UMI U602586.  Available free online here.

Finn, M. and Lobban, M, et al. (eds.). Legitimacy and Illegitimacy in Nineteenth-Century Law, Literature and History. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Graves, Charles L. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Mr. Punch’s History of Modern England, Vol. I (of 4) — 1841 -1857.

Malta, Sara. Forgery in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture: Fictions of Finance from Dickens to Wilde. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

O’Gorman, Francis (ed.). Victorian Literature and Finance. OUP, 2007. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

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