Mystery of the Marsh

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

Smith places the novel in the Regency era, forty to fifty years earlier than when he wrote it. In this chapter the narrator mentions that the prince regent (1762-1830) was sixty years old when he had the imitation Chinese pagoda built in St. James Park. It was built in 1814 to commemorate victories over Napoleon.

Thomas Smith, a contemporary, records the event:

Monday, August I, 1814, being remarkable as the anniversary of the glorious victory of the Nile, and by a singular coincidence, the centenary of the accession of the House of Brunswick to the throne of these realms, was selected as the day for a grand national Jubilee, to celebrate, by public rejoicing, the return of the blessings of peace …

Despite our own author’s jaded recollection, the event was a spectacle of mammoth proportions: “on a scale of magnificence surpassing all that had heretofore been seen in this country.” We might emphasize that, in order to counteract, if momentarily, the almost universal ridicule and condemnation with which the prince regent Prince of Wales / George IV met, both during his own time and in subsequent history, and which he doubtless earned. It is clear from this record that, in its day, the jubilee elicited mass public approval.

The Jubilee celebrations, showing Chinese pagoda, 1816. Source: British Library.

In 1714, George Louis of the House of Brunswick-Lüneburg, from which the House of Hanover sprang in 1635, inherited his mother’s claim to the British throne — to which Thomas Smith alludes. We defer to Ida Macalpine and Richard Hunter’s convincing hypothesis, which they formed as late as 1968, based on contemporary accounts of George III’s urine being of the colour purple, in accepting that his insanity was probably due to a disorder of the blood, Variegate Porphyria. His disease was likely due to an inherited gene carried by the Hanoverians.

As a result of his father’s insanity, the Prince of Wales was appointed ruler of Britain in the capacity of Prince Regent. This period of Regency lasted for ten years from 1810 until 1820, when George III finally succumbed and the regent ascended to the throne as King George IV. In 1830 he died and was succeeded by his brother, King William IV.

George IV’s reign as regent and king was extravagant and wasteful. His increasing drunkenness,  gluttony, laziness, selfishness and ill-nature overshadowed and overwhelmed his better qualities. At the same time, monumental hijinks were in progress amongst the beau monde in particular, due partially to it being a post-war period,  and due as well to George’s own over-indulgence and flamboyance.

J.F. Smith enjoys once more taking a swipe at that “sweet young prince who, at the age of sixty, set the fashions” (Chapter 4). The regent is a such an oft-assailed straw target, however, as to render such barbs positively tame.

Times obituaries criticised him vociferously, denouncing his carnal and gastronomical appetites as “little higher than that of animal indulgence.” They berated him for his “indifference to the feelings of others” and “unbounded prodigality”; and declared that

There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased King.

George IV was endless fodder for caricaturists, most notably George Cruikshank (1792-1878), known as the “modern Hogarth.” His “Merry Making on the Regent’s Birthday” depicts George IV at his revels, drunken and dancing, while stamping underfoot a rejected petition to aid poor children.

Merry Making on the Regent’s Birthday, 1812. George Cruikshank.

Outside, his subjects are lamenting and being hanged on Tyburn hill. One is saying: “If Rich rogues like poor ones were for to Hang, it would thin the land such numbers would Swing upon Tyburn Tree.” On the left, a servant holds a scroll with the King’s agenda for the day, including his menus with entries like “Breakfast: 2 to be hung at Newgate; Dinner: Love and lumps of fat.”

At the time of the jubilee, J.F. Smith (1803?-90) was between eight and eleven years old. The Regency years were thus a memorable and formative period for him — as well as for the country. It was during this time that he worked in his father’s Norwich theatre troupe, and perhaps travelled to Russia (see Third Instalment).

For Smith, George IV is an index of a general feeling of antipathy towards the beau monde. Viscount Allworth is the most distinct fossil of the Regency:

Lords, ladies, aristocrats and fashionable idlers, who consume much and produce nothing, form neither the backbone nor sinews of a great city. There is more strength in looms and anvils than in a hundred coronets. They have had their day, and the world is beginning to see it.

Mystery of the Marsh, Chapter 4

The Chinese pagoda is a pithy emblem as well. George IV reinvigorated an earlier craze for Chinoiserie, drawn to its florid, rococo style. Hence Lady Montague’s fashionable Chinese tent: a perfect backdrop for the partaking of afternoon tea — a nineteenth century vogue. Like George IV himself, the pagoda was a casualty of excess:

… at a later period of the evening, an unfortunate accident happened which threw a damp over the whole proceedings at this point, the fire-works having set fire to the pagoda; two of the men employed were so seriously injured that they expired on the following day; and before the fire could be got under, five stories of the pagoda were consumed.

Thomas Smith

At the same time, the period mise en scène is attractively exotic in its indulgence and extravagance. The historical gap functions well to allow for some play of living memory. A certain ambiguity combines a combination of embarrassed identification with the censure of a conservative public that considers itself more sophisticated, more “adult.”

Recall Mike Myers’ Austin Powers films, which have a similar historical gap between the time of the film and the period depicted — between the 1960s and late 90s, early 2000s. They satirize the 60s for their childish self-indulgence and egotism. At the same time, they provoke nostalgia and defensiveness about bygone, now castigated ideologies, such as “free love,” while implicitly caricaturing the contemporary, overrun not so much with fembots and lasers, as with a ubiquitous and sterile corporate mentality.


CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Far-seeing Schemes, in which the Character does not See Quite Far Enough Lord Bury Finds a True Friend ‘Rus In Urbe’ Glimpse of Fashionable Country Life Two Girls

Amongst other belongings with which fortune had favored her, Lady Montague possessed a charming country house, not far from Wanstead, on the high road to Essex. To this retreat, when the last days of the season were becoming too warm for residence in London, she generally withdrew, with her guests, to enjoy the pleasures of the countryside nowhere more beautiful or varied, perhaps, than in England.

Belmont had only one drawback attached to it. The rooms were lofty and airy; the lawn verdant; level, fit to be trod by the dainty feet of beauty; but the road to it was abominable down the Strand, along, Cheapside, through Hounsditch in short the most unpleasant quarters of the overgrown city. To obviate this inconvenience, her ladyship on opera nights or, when invited to balls and assemblies frequently came to town in her own barge, rowed by her own servants, wearing her livery. This barge usually remained stationed at Westminster Bridge till her return to the Lodge. Sometimes Lady Montague decided on passing the night in town, where, no matter how long her absence, she constantly kept up her establishment.

All these arrangements had been carefully noted by the unscrupulous woman who was plotting the aggrandisement of a worthless son, and the misery of Kate. Lady Allworth was playing not only a hazardous game, but for high stakes; the affair, whether a failure or a success, would be certain to create a great sensation in the fashionable world. This consideration, however, had no weight with her, for nature had not made her ladyship at all sensitive. In her early career she had confronted far more serious risks, and stood prepared to brave them again.

No wonder that she felt confident, for, up to the present period, every scheme had succeeded with her.

The Greeks had an excellent proverb: ‘Tempt not the gods too far.’ The Latins also had a wise saying: Non bis in idem — ‘Not twice on the same thing’ — an advice no prudent person would care to neglect.

The mistress of Belmont had a large Chinese tent erected upon the lawn. It was the fashion in those days; that sweet young prince, the regent — he was only sixty — first introduced the style of thing by building a pagoda in St. James’s Park, to commemorate his victories of war over the French. We thought that Wellington, Anglesea, Crawford and Hill had something to do with them, but must have been mistaken.

A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion (1792), James Gillray. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Princes never lie!

This monstrosity — we are still alluding to the pagoda — was removed many years since to Kew Gardens, where it still remains half hidden by trees. There let it rot and be forgotten.

Miss Meredith and Lady Kate had risen early to take a morning walk through the shady lanes close to the villa, to fill their baskets with wild flowers, which — fit work for such dainty fingers — they were now scattering over the breakfast-table under the tent, laughing and babbling together in the merry confidence of girlhood, when the former, chancing to look up, recognised her father and Lord Bury walking together in the grove, and engaged apparently, in earnest conversation, the former evidently very much excited.

‘What could it all mean?’ she asked herself, as she silently pointed them out to her companion.

‘Yes,’ said her cousin, ‘I see them. Sir George seems very animated, and Egbert unusually depressed. What can they be talking about? I wish we were two little birds,’ she continued, ‘and could fly from tree to tree after them, and listen to all they are saying.’

‘That would be scarcely fair,’ observed Clara, smiling at the conceit.

‘Not for us,’ said Kate, ‘but for the birds perfectly fair. They would be sure to keep the secret, if there is one, and I think there must be.’

Her cousin made no reply.

‘I wonder what Egbert has been so sad about. For the last few days scarcely a word. Have you any idea?’ added the speaker, archly.

‘I think I have,’ was the reply, given with a certain degree of hesitation.

‘A secret?’

‘Not from you, Kate. From something I heard last night at the reception of the duchess, I am inclined to think — almost to fear — that our cousin —’

Here the hesitation of the speaker visibly increased.

‘I will spare your blushes, Clara,’ exclaimed her friend, joyously. ‘I read it all — Bury, has proposed. I knew he would do so — read it all along. Give me a kiss, dear,’ she added; ‘ that will tell the rest.’

‘Nothing of the kind, sweet, foolish girl,’ said Miss Meredith, hastily; ‘but you shall have the kiss, just the same. Egbert has no thought of me.’

Men do not engross all the heroism in the world. Women more than share it. Not a sigh escaped the speaker, although we fear that riches treasure a young girl possesses, her heart, was no longer in her own keeping. We say fear, because it would scarcely be the correct thing for the author to know it till a declaration had been duly made.

The two girls were not the only members of the family who had noticed the change which had taken place in the manner of Lord Bury. Something seemed to haunt him. He would start at times as if from some absorbing reverie, and ask what those around him had been saying; and unless answered on the instant he became irritable — but only to those of his own sex. To women he was invariably as courteous, deferential and considerate as ever; never permitting any of his brusque sallies to startle them.

There were many noble qualities and much true manhood in the fellow, after all. Pity there was so much nonsense; but clay will stick. A few more buffets, we are inclined to think, will bring him to his senses, and make our readers like him at last.

‘What is this, Egbert?’ demanded the baronet, kindly, when he encountered his nephew in his morning’s walk. ‘There is a rumour that you are about to sell out of the Guards.’

To this there was no reply.

‘I know, of course, that it is only a rumour, and a most absurd one,’ added the speaker. ‘Society hatches a hundred daily. I know that you like the service — [best school to break in young fellows and softies. Why should you sell out? It can’t be that you require money.’

The last observation sounded just a little like a note of interrogation.

‘It is not that,’ answered his lordship.

‘I could have sworn it,’ observed the uncle. ‘Most preposterous supposition. Why should you require money when half a dozen purses — not badly filled ones — would be open to you upon the
slightest hint?’

‘Where did you hear the report?” inquired the former.

‘At the duchess’s last night, Clara, I am afraid, heard it, too. What a squeeze! Scarcely got over it yet. Old Lady Beauchamp told me. She is one of the greatest gossips in London; and yet, to do her justice, she would scarcely lie. Must have some authority for asserting it. By the by,’ added the baronet, ‘her grandson, I believe, is in your regiment?’

‘In my own company. First lieutenant, and a good fellow.’

‘It must have been from him she heard it,’ observed his uncle.’

‘Most likely. I told him so.’

Sir George Meredith opened his eyes very wide. He began to feel angry.

‘Egbert,’ he said, ‘you would provoke a saint, What do you mean? You say that it is not money that you require. What is it, then ?’

‘A friend,’ answered the young man, sadly. ‘A true friend. A man of heart as well as honour.’

His relative was so struck by the sad tone of his reply that his anger sank as suddenly as it had risen. Something like a squall at sea when some slight turn of the vessel takes the wind out of the sails.

‘Well, my dear boy,’ he said, ‘for fault of a better, perhaps you will accept me. I say nothing about my heart — you must judge of that; but this I can and will say, that old George Meredith never did a dishonourable action yet; if he did, it must have been in his sleep.’

‘Thank you,’ said the nephew grasping the hand extended to him, cordially. ‘The difficulty is that neither to you nor to any man living can I give more than a partial confidence. Beyond that my lips are sealed.’

‘I will take your word for what you do tell me, and rely upon your honour for what you do not,’ observed Sir George. ‘We each of us know what we trust to.’

‘Some fresh trick of that old rogue, his father,’ thought the speaker.

Thus encouraged, Lord Bury proceeded to unbosom himself.

‘There are bills out against me for twenty thousand pounds,’ he said.

His uncle uttered something like a low whistle.

‘Boys will be boys,’ he observed, after pause. ‘At your age I was not remarkably prudent myself. Nothing like that amount, though. Why don’t you, pay them?’

His nephew made no reply.

‘If it is the money you require, Egbert,’ continued the baronet, ‘speak out at once. Both my friendship and purse can stand that tug — may be a tougher one. Pay it, my boy, pay it; and, don’t let us see any more long faces.’

‘My dear, generous uncle,’ exclaimed the young man, deeply moved, ‘when I told you it was not money that I required I spoke the truth. I have it lying at my banker’s these five days. Here lies the difficulty: the firm who discounted the bills no longer hold them.’

‘What difference does that make? You can pay them just the same.’

‘The firm which discounted them refuse to inform me of the name of the purchaser.’

‘That is singular,’ remarked the baronet.

‘Who bought them, they told me, as a permanent investment,’ added his nephew.

‘Permanent nonsense!’ exclaimed the uncle, a little impatiently. ‘How can they convert bills which you have a perfect right to take up at any time into a permanent investment? The idea is most absurd, ridiculous, impracticable. You must compel them to give them up. Commence an action.’

A long pause ensued. The speaker as yet had not the slightest suspicion of
the terrible facts of the case.

‘I dare not,’ replied Lord Bury, with desperate calmness. ‘I have every reason to believe the bills are deposited in the Bank of England, which has probably advanced money upon them. If so, they are joint holders, and you know how inexorable the directors are.’

A sudden light broke upon his kind-hearted relative.

‘And the signatures?’ he whispered, in an involuntarily hushed tone.

‘You must ask me no question on that subject, exclaimed the unhappy son. ‘It is there that I invoke your reliance upon my honor. I am tongue-tied, bound in a chain of iron — worse, of fire. It is eating into both heart and brain.’

‘Forgeries!’ mentally concluded Sir George Meredith. ‘And if legal proceedings are adopted, the poor boy must either acknowledge them on oath, or condemn his worthless father. What a gulf to have fallen into.’

‘The advice. I gave,’ he observed, speaking very deliberately, ‘was perhaps a little inconsiderate. Legal proceedings, on reflection, would not be advisable. What can I do? You have the dates of the bills?’

‘Yes.’

‘Pay the amount into the Bank of England,’ confided his uncle. ‘I will accompany you. Having a large account there, I stand pretty well with the directors. State that it is to pay certain acceptances of yours; give the dates; and leave the rest to chance. If the worst comes to the worst, he continued, you have only to retire to the continent till the affair is settled without your appearing in it.’

‘I had thought of that,’ said the nephew, dreamily.

‘Mind, Egbert — no selling out!’ exclaimed the old man suddenly. ‘Won’t hear of it. It might give rise to unpleasant surmises, the world is so infernally good natured. Besides, what would the girls do? They like to have a cousin in the Guards — dashing escort to drawing-rooms and the opera. I, too, confess to a slight weakness that way. Aunt Montague would faint at the thought of such a thing.’

‘I would not willingly quit the service,’ observed the nephew, somewhat relieved, ‘but if any sudden emergency should arise, and no time to apply for leave of absence —’

‘Go without it then,’ said the baronet. ‘The authorities at the Horse Guards are tolerably reasonable, especially with their own men. A duel, a runaway marriage, a hundred things will be guessed at sooner than the truth.’

‘l shall never marry,’ observed Lord Bury, with a sigh.

For some reason we cannot explain, this declaration provoked an inconsiderable amount of irritation in his usually even-tempered relative.

‘And pray, sir, may I ask you why you should not marry?’ he demanded. ‘Do you suppose yourself such a phoenix that a son and heir can be born to you from your ashes? Not marry, indeed! Why, a man is but half a man without a wife.’

‘You forget the dishonour which threatens my name,’ said Egbert. ‘Can I — dare I ask any girl to risk the sharing of it?’

‘That, I suppose, is what you call sentiment,’ replied Sir George Meredith, with a grim smile. ‘Nonsense! Trash bred by vanity out of a disordered imagination! Been reading Mademoiselle de Scudery’s writings lately? They sickened me when I was a boy and almost as romantic as yourself; but a wife cured me of that. Lord Bury,’ he added, speaking more seriously, ‘no man can be really really dishonoured except by his own act.’

Most of the readers, we believe, will cry Amen to that doctrine, or the lessons of common sense it has for years been teaching are thrown away.

It is a great blessing to possess a friend — one who will neither pander to our folly or turn a cold shoulder in the hour of misfortune; who, without exaggerating our merits, if we possess any, will judge our failings kindly?

There are such men in the world, we presume, but they are rare — exceedingly rare. Gems of the purest water invariably are so.

When the party met at breakfast Clara and Kate observed, with pleasure, that their cousin had cast off an inconsiderable amount of the gloom and care which for days had oppressed him. The practical view taken by Sir George of his difficulties had greatly relieved his mind, and once or twice he positively laughed cheerfully.

‘That is right, Egbert,’ said his aunt. ‘You are beginning to look like yourself again. For the week past you have been as dull as a mute at a funeral. Not that I much, wonder at it.’

Her nephew regarded her earnestly.

‘It must be a most unpleasant affair. Fortunately girls,’ she added, ‘have nothing to do with such things.’

The baronet and the young guardsman exchanged glances.

‘What affair do you allude to?’ inquired the former, at the same time draining his cup of chocolate to conceal his surprise.

‘O, you know. I just read it in the papers. It is no secret.’

The mystification seemed to increase.

‘Since the peace,’ continued their hostess, ‘I thought we had done with reviews, parades, and all such disagreeable things, taking the most eligible of our young men away from their natural duties. But you look surprised. Have you not seen the Post? Francoise —’

Her ladyship’s maitre d’hotel passed the journal to Lord Bury, who, having read the paragraph, handed it to Sir George Meredith.

After reading it, both gentlemen appeared much more at their ease.

‘It is really too bad,’ added the aunt. ‘On Friday, too, the last night of the opera season, and Catalini’s farewell! We shall have to go without you.’

‘I don’t think Sturton ever thought about the opera, ‘observed Egbert; ‘never saw him there.’

‘The monster!’ ejaculated Lady Montague. Clara Meredith and Kate looked very much as if they were of the same opinion. ‘He really ought to be remonstrated with.’

‘It would be perfectly useless,’ observed the young guardsman. ‘He is a magnificent soldier. Wellington thinks everything of him — a severe disciplinarian — and just a little of the martinet.’

‘What is that? Something very disagreeable?’ inquired Kate.

Her cousin smiled.

‘Of course it is,’ said Clara, ‘or it would not be Lord Sturton.’

Two pairs of pretty pouting lips swelled like young rosebuds, as the inquiry and remark were made.

The rest of the day passed very pleasantly — strolling in the woods, or short trips on the miniature lake in the centre of the grounds. Lord Bury had been at Eton and pulled a good oar to one of the girls.

We need not say which; it was the happiest day she had ever known. His manner was growing tender; poor fellow, he could not avoid it. He had experienced a great sorrow, and met with sympathy. No wonder his heart was touched. We all have our weak points.

Portrait (1890), George Elgar Hicks

In one of our earlier chapters we stated that Clara Meredith was not beautiful, and were very truthful; but her features, if not strictly regular, were undoubtedly pleasing. She had fine eyes, a profusion of dark hair, glossy as the raven’s wing, and a form the most fastidious sculptor could scarcely have found fault with.

Kate, like an affectionate cousin and discreet friend, dropped occasionally behind them, under pretence of gathering wild flowers, or seeing to the lunch basket, which Susan carried after them. The good, simple girl had become something more than an attendant — the friend of the fair cousins. The services of Martha were transferred to their aunt, not from caprice, but by her own choice, Lady Montague having frequently expressed a desire to avail herself of them.

During the last row on the lake their escort rather astonished the girls by breaking into a strain of song — once very popular in England and not unsuited to the occasion, although for ocean he had only a small piece of still water not more than five acres in extent, which it was almost absurd to call ‘the lake,’ and for foaming crests, the gentle ripples upon its surface:

Over the sea our barque we guide,
And gaily stem its foaming crest,
The sailor woos his ocean bride,
And sinks ’mid storms and dreams to rest;
Whilst the soft winds sing his lullaby.

Clara Meredith made no remark on the fine, manly voice and natural taste of the singer; Kate was delighted.

‘Why, Egbert, she exclaimed, ‘I never knew that you were a musician before!’

‘Scarcely,’ he replied, with a smile.

‘It is very unkind to conceal your accomplishments from us — hiding your accomplishments under a bushel.’

‘They are so few, and such modest ones,’ said the guardsman, in a similar tone of raillery, ‘that I dare let them peep out only occasionally. My wife,’ he added ‘may discover the rest of them, if ever I am fortunate enough to find any girl to take pity on me.’

Clara blushed deeply.

‘He must have proposed,’ thought Kate, joyfully, ‘or he would never have made that speech;’ and the conviction afforded her intense satisfaction.

She was right.

Lord Bury had proposed — succumbed to the charm of mind, the high principles, and fine, innate modesty of her cousin — the fairest garment Eve from Eden brought.

That same night the lover returned to his regiment.

We must pass over the kisses and congratulations of Kate when her cousin confessed to her what had passed. The account did not seem very clear. She could scarcely understand how it occurred — girls never can; all she knew about it was that she felt very, very happy.

Sir George showed more surprise than he really felt when Clara, like a dutiful girl, informed him of the engagement. He had long since perceived the attachment of his nephew to his daughter, wondered and felt a little irritable that he had not declared himself; but that was all over now. The conversation of the morning had removed what he considered the fastidious scruples of Egbert — not that he altogether blamed them; they showed a high, if exaggerated, sense of what the world calls honour.

The affair was at once imparted to Lady Montague, who highly approved of the match, but sighed when she thought of Kate.

‘If the young man,’ she thought, alluding mentally to our hero, ‘would only make himself lord chancellor, or something of that kind, the girls could be married at the same time, which would be a very great weight off my mind. Poor, dear Kate! She sometimes looks very miserable; it wrings my heart to see her; but it is not my fault. The consent of Lord Allworth must be obtained if she marries before five-and-twenty.’

‘Make himself lord chancellor!’ Poor, simple Lady Montague! Her ideas were not very practical. She little knew the cost of such a prize, dear at the cheapest — years of toil, broken health, success both in the senate and at the bar, political intrigues and the desertions of friends as well as principles. Even after these sacrifices have been made the prize is not always gained.


Notes and References

  • Lord Sturton: This doesn’t seem to be William Stourton, 18th Baron Stourton (or Sturton).

Ashton, John. Social England Under the Regency, 2 vols. London: Ward and Downey, 1890. Available free at gutenberg.com. Jump to location.

Smith, Thomas. Historical Recollections of Hyde Park (1836). Freely available at Internet Archive. Jump to page.

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